Sunday, January 3, 2010

Commercial Fiction 101


Consider this a necessary palate cleanser. Fuck the GOP and the Democratic Party. Today I want to talk about commercial fiction, which is not to be mistaken for actual literature.

Those of you who come here to read the actual content (I exclude those who surf in for 30 seconds or less after following image searches to Pottersville or looking for answers to obscene or arcane questions) do so looking for political content. And I've obliged for going on five years. However, aside from the material that I infrequently publish on the Bone Bridge blog, not too many of you know what makes me tick and succeed (or fail) as a writer of fiction. I was a writer before I started this damned thankless business of blogging, I'd say as a hoary old man at a bar in a hackneyed screenplay. I've been writing, or had fancied I'd been writing, novels since 1994 to say nothing of writing and publishing poetry since 1977.

And, since I've grown to loathe internet-based groups, sometimes I feel like I'm writing in a vacuum. Sending out a proposal, to quote the poet Don Marquis' experience with poetry submissions, is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo. Even unmarketable poets share the same humiliating experience as even the most successful novelists (at least when they were unknowns)- Dealing with imperious and close-minded idiots who call themselves literary agents and editors, waiting endlessly for feedback or not getting it at all and being forbidden from questioning their infallible judgment. If you want feedback from agents and editors, you're better off asking for love and mercy from a prostitute.

But every now and then, while holding to my contempt and impatience with listserve and Yahoo writers' groups, I sometimes feel like talking about literature, poetry, the elements of good storytelling but have been restrained by the very political nature of this blog, which is essentially my only focused outlet. Well, other political bloggers write palate cleansing posts. Consider this my first of 2010. And if you happen to be an aspiring writer, so much the better.

Today I want to talk about novels, specifically commercial novels, and what goes into them, what should go into them and what doesn't go into them. Too many of us, especially those of you with no literary talent or pretensions, just assume whatever is published is good. That's no truer than the assumption that a novelist's unpublished status is predicated solely on talent or the lack thereof. If that holds true, then please explain to me The Bridges of Madison County or Meg or anything by Danielle Steele or churned out by romance novel mills like Silhouette or Harlequin.

I can understand the assumption that whatever's out there is the cream of the crop. Anyone who's ever submitted a novel or screenplay for consideration can tell you how difficult it is to even get an eyebrow raised. Your kick-ass, original, out-of-the-box throughline or synopsis, as it turned out, wasn't so great, after all and if you're lucky and really talented, you'll merit a brief rejection letter that actually uses your name instead of "Dear Author" or "Dear Hack Who Just Wasted Five Minutes of my Fucking Life That I'll Never Get Back..."

But while acceptance or conditional acceptance (publishers break contracts every day- it's an unsavory reality of the business) often involves something akin to making a little dog jump through hoops of fire, whatever winds up getting extruded through a publisher's press is usually not what the novelist originally had in mind. Before you know what hit you, your novel about five friends and band mates reuniting after a thirty year hiatus and finding salvation literally along the road got turned into a lesbian space opera and you're left wondering what it was about your original property that impressed them in the first place. Such editors and agents who insist on morphing your vision are, to my mind, no different than the mentally disturbed malcontent who flung red paint on Picasso's Guernica or hammered away at Michaelangelo's Pietà.

Yet sometimes novice writers have it coming to them and deserve to be in that dreaded 98%. All but 2% of authors who submit to agents get rejected for various reasons ranging from an inability to accept new clients to representing another book similar to yours to personal capriciousness to submitting inappropriately (Buy Jeff Herman's annual Guide to Literary Agents or check out your local library's copy of the latest LMP or look it up online) to writing novels and proposals as if wearing boxing gloves.

More often than not, I suspect it's a matter of talent. And one of my pet peeves even regarding published authors and produced screenwriters is the necessary element of

Risk

The fine art of risk-taking in fiction is something that desperately needs an overhaul across both genres.

Once at a writers' convention, a novice novelist tried to press her ms onto Donald Maass, the legendary literary agent. Before he took the ms, he said, "Let me ask you first: What is your protagonist risking?" Her response? "Uh..."

Exactly. Don't bother a studio or literary agent much less a publisher unless your protagonist is risking something. It could be failing a universe or galaxy whose fate is in your character's hands or it could be something relatively picayune or provincial as a raise or promotion. We've seen countless movies in which the fate of the cosmos hung in the balance and virtually any and every action movie places the protagonist's life in jeopardy. But these themes are so abstract and/or so damned overdone that it requires some incredible ingenuity on the part of the novelist or screenwriter to engage us with these risks.

Paddy Chayefsky, one of the best in the business, did it with Marty, even though it involved nothing more than a lonely Bronx butcher taking a last stab at love. You can use secondary characters as risk-multipliers- If the hero dies, others die. This worked very effectively in Die Hard, for instance. It all comes down making the characters sympathetic. You have to give more than a shit about them. Present the world in a way that makes us give a damn about the world as we know it today, which, given the current state of affairs, presents more than usual formidable challenges to the aspiring writer.

Subplotting

Subplotting can't be stressed enough. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a subplot as "A plot subordinate to the main plot of a literary work or film. Also called counterplot, underplot. "

Technically, this is true- The subplot is subordinate to the plot but in a way in which a sergeant is subordinate to a general- Each fulfills a valuable or invaluable function. Essentially, the only difference between plot and subplot is the time you devote to one or the other. But subplots satisfy a variety of purposes if handled correctly. While this is not an all-inclusive list, subplotting can

  • Reveal your protagonist's flaws and inner conflicts (not everyone can be Superman or Jesus of Nazareth)
  • Introduce secondary characters
  • Establish (as mentioned above) what's at stake for your protagonist.
  • Establish backstory
  • Sneak in exposition without resorting to the "dreaded expository lump"
  • Simply giving a greater dimension to the main plot. This can be effectively achieved by keeping the subplot(s) unrelated to the central plot for as long as possible until the two can't help but collide.
  • Establish your plot device, typically toward the end of the story. For instance, in Nathan's Run (Spoiler, even though it's 14 years-old), no one knows why Lyle Pointer wants to kill 12 year-old Nathan Bailey until John Gilstrap tells us about the insurance policy on the boy's life.

    There are many other reasons for subplotting. That's not to say all screenplays require it. Some classics such as Steven Spielberg's early Duel were stripped down its very essential elements, leaving no room whatsoever for subplot or even motivation. Same with Eric Red's The Hitcher. But in the framework of a novel, subplotting can come in handy.

    Exposition

    Some of the most lionized commercial novelists, frankly, suck at this. Part of the reason why Dean Koontz's and Stephen King's novels weigh more than a Fiat and have killed more trees than the 1908 Tunguska meteor impact is because of all the damned exposition in them. I don't need a minute description of the barrel tiles of the roof of a house in SoCal nor do I need to know the protagonist's aunt slapped him for picking his nose in public when he was five.

    Unless you're writing a story that's deliberately stripped of all but the essentials (such as, once again, Duel or The Hitcher), backstory and exposition have their place but it needs to be done more skillfully than we see. There are ways to handle exposition and backstory that isn't tedious, teutonic or outright pedagogical (the late Michael Crichton was one of the worst offenders of this).

    Some ways to handle backstory and exposition:

  • Newspaper and magazine articles.
  • Official documents (A very clever method used by Joseph Garber at the end of Vertical Run was the use of a holograph of an official government document that served as the epilogue)
  • Radio and TV broadcasts.
  • Conversations.
  • Flashbacks, which is still a risky way to do it as it could slow down or derail your plot. Try using flashbacks to lend understanding and insight with what's happening in "real time" (something I was careful to do in American Zen. Whatever was happening in 2008 somehow related to what had happened in 1978 and vice versa.).
  • Or simply show instead of telling.

    Don't be shy about being too subtle with your readers. They're not idiots and your potential readership is largely comprised of those who read 1-2 books or more a week. Everything theoretically being organic, symbiotic and interconnected in a story, character delineation, dialogue and so forth can be used as ancillary methods establishing backstory and exposition. Why does your character have a scar on his neck? Why did she react so strongly to a benign incident?

    But unless your exposition is fabulously, gorgeously and informatively-written (such as in the opening pages of Thomas Harris' Hannibal), don't do it. You're not Thomas Harris and never will be. He's in a league all his own.

    Writer's Block

    Newsflash: There's no such thing.

    For the 1986 Writer's Digest Handbook, Stephen King contributed a 1980 essay entitled "The Third Eye." It changed forever how I wrote and my very attitude about writing. What I'm about to tell you is basically a paraphrasing of what King said since I think he has the final word on the subject and it's notable that this essay was written by a guy who can afford to talk since he's practically on his way to writing more books than the US government.

    But King's assertion is that what we mistake for writer's block is actually a lack of focus or perhaps even laziness. King starts out by saying,
    Some critics have accused me -- and it always comes out sounding like an accusation -- of writing for the movies. It's not true, but I suppose there's some justification for the idea; all of my novels to date have been sold to the movies... So, you're saying, why is this guy talking about movies when he's supposed to be talking about writing? I'll tell you why. I'm talking about movies because the most important thing that film and fiction share is an interest in the image -- the bright picture that glows in the physical eye or in the mind's eye. I'm suggesting that my novels have sold to the movies not because they were written for the movies, but simply because they contain elements of vivid image that appeal to those who make films -- to those for whom it is often more important to see than it is to think.

    Because, as Hannibal Lecter tells us in Silence of the Lambs, one of the most perfect novels ever written, "we covet what we see." And if you covet an unforgettable story, you need to begin with what you see in your mind's eye or King's "third eye." It isn't all about spectacle and plot.

    He suggests a writing exercise: Imagine a rainy day on a city street. What do you see? Do you see the reflection of the brake lights on the rain-slicked streets, the guy's raincoat belling out behind him? What's the headline of that soggy newspaper? At best, using your mind's invisible eye, that cinematic instinct that ought to be an indispensable tool in every novelist's or screenwriter's toolbox, can lead you to discoveries and down tangents that had been hitherto inaccessible to you. Or, at the very least, it could establish mood and setting, which ain't a bad thing, either.

    What does your character look like? How does s/he sound when they talk? What physical defect/characteristic sets them apart from most other characters? Feel free to use real-life examples as templates (we do it more often than you may realize tho it's always wise to get permission first) but try to add something to the table. On the whole, real life people, sad to say, are simply too boring to incorporate into fiction.

    How distinct is their speech patterns/thought processes? If you're relying too heavily on "he said/she said" indicators, that's an infallible indicator in itself that your character delineation lacks.

    It's always a good idea to give your mind a breather and to rely on your mind's eye but don't forget that you have four other senses, as well.

    Denouements

    I've often heard myself saying that there are an infinite variety of ways to begin a novel but only one way to end one. Think of your plot as a sniper bullet: In order to get that round exactly where it needs to be, you need to factor in while still in the nest the various influential phenomena such as temperature, humidity, wind direction and speed, even the very curvature and rotation of the planet earth. Writing a novel is such a journey and as with even high-powered bullets, a plot rarely if ever travels along a purely linear path. In fact, a linear path promises only predictability (Don't forget how jaded editors and agents are. They read mss for a living and have seen it all. It's your job to show them the one thing they haven't.).

    You can write a good ending as some novelists do. You can write a great ending as fewer do. You could write the perfect ending as all too few do. Or... you could write the only ending. Ah, there's the rub. What's the perfect ending? And can the progression of the plot (i.e. the journey of the character(s) and chain of events) justify the denouement and vice versa?

    I've hardly read a novel or seen a movie in my life that didn't leave some room for an alternate ending (in fact, alternate endings, while entertaining and even provocative, demonstrate this failing). Alternate endings on the part of novelists and screenwriters are basically an admission of failure of finding the inevitable and the inevitable is what makes the only possible ending possible. It's the quality that's rarer than unicorns and honest politicians.

    What is it about your ending that doesn't sit right with you? Are there any loose threads, unresolved issues (unless you're leaving the door open for a sequel) that still bug you? Think before you submit.

    This is, obviously, a hardly exhaustive list of do's and don'ts. Entire libraries and publishers' catalogs have been filled with whole books written on the subject. While I've deliberately steered away from stylistic pointers and preaching successful formulae, there are nonetheless basic rules that are being broken and accepted everyday by writers, agents and acquisitions editors. There are, of course, much finer points about effective storytelling that I may or may not go into at a later date but this post covers some of the essentials.

    There's a point in every query/cover letter where the agent/editor expects to hear what novels similar to yours have been successfully published in the past. This in and of itself is a warning flag to avoid formula. As with Hollywood, in the publishing business everyone wants to be the first to do something second. But innovation starts somewhere and, for me, there's no greater satisfaction than telling an agent in all honesty that no novel like mine has ever been published.

    Resist categorization. Resist the lure of jumping on bandwagons. Those who jump on bandwagons are not only too fucking lazy to walk, they're also robbing themselves of a journey that can be at least if not more fascinating and life-affirming as that undertaken by your characters.

  • 11 Comments:

    At January 3, 2010 at 4:26 PM, Blogger KathyG said...

    Dude that's why I'm reding The Bone Bridge it leaves me with mind pictures and I can see the characters so clearly like I can with King's books.

     
    At January 3, 2010 at 4:28 PM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

    Thanks, Kathy. I'll be posting the newest chapters probably later tonight.

     
    At January 3, 2010 at 8:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I am thinking of Bonnie Raitt who almost threw in the towel on hitting the big time just before she did. Cheers.

     
    At January 3, 2010 at 8:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I read an essay by Mario Vargas Llosa dealing with the best seller mentality among today's writers (Dan Brown is about as unreadable a hack as anyone I know of) and how some think it spells the end of serious writing. He doesn't agree and says that the writing and reading of great literature will always continue as long as it has an outlet. Let's hope it alays does.

     
    At January 3, 2010 at 9:58 PM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

    I believe that, too. I mean, as a writer, I have to to keep even a modicum of hope alive. But human nature being what it is, there will always be a potential readership of tens of millions that will always seek and find the best literature available to them.

    The medium may change and maybe dead tree publishing is on the way out and that mp3 audiobooks and Kindle and the like is the wave of the future. But I think that people will always want to be entertained by a good story and perhaps even be edified in the experienced regardless of the technology.

    People had no emotional attachment to cassette tapes because they'd been around for only 20 years or so and DVDs just made a seamless transition to our livingrooms. But paper books... Well, paper books (not scrolls or codexes but books) have been around for 1000 years, about 500 years longer than the movable press. It's the very icon of literacy and for literature. I don't see humankind completely saying goodbye to books. There's nothing like sitting on a comfortable piece of furniture on a lazy Sunday afternoon with an honest-to-God paper book in your hands.

     
    At January 4, 2010 at 8:33 AM, Anonymous Comrade Rutherford said...

    This is great, JP. Damn, I love your writing, too!

    But the whole time I was reading this I was thinking about the Worst Novels Ever Written, the 'LEft Behind' series.

    This series of absolutely awful books is a case study in everything an author must NOT do. These books are being deconstructed and critiqued by Fred Clark over at his blog, Slacktivist. http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/left_behind/index.html

    These books would never have seen the light of day had it not been for their own 'christian' publishers that will publish any pile of crap as long as Jebus' name is invoked somewhere.

    And at one point Fred Clark even points out that being a Christian used to mean striving to do your best at a job as a practice of devotion to your God. Clark points out that the new strain of 'evangelical christian', like Jenkins and LaHaye (authors of the Worst Novels of All Time), to them quality is never an issue, the only thing that counts is how many people you can trick into becoming just like you (an unrepentant asshole). That's why Left Behind doesn't have to be any good, as long as one person drops sanity and reality in order to sign onto their Real True Christianity, it was all worth it.

    The worst part about these novels is how completely the RTC's fervently believe it is a blueprint of the future, even when the opening pages depict the main characters kicking the dying and wounded out of their way (and the EMTs trying to save people's lives) just so they can use their privilege to cut lines and make phone calls.

    JP, it's too bad you can't include a page of endorsements from your blog readers alongside your submissions to agents.

     
    At January 4, 2010 at 10:36 AM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

    Comrade: While it's been tempting to offer testimonials (after all, you'd be my readers), doing so would automatically knock me out of the running. It would be the mark of an amateur since offering testimonials from "friends" and family is something many amateurs do. You're biased in my favor, says the cynical agent mind, therefore you should be automatically discounted. We're supposed to be enthusiastic about our work yet not toot our horn. At the end of the day, you never know what the fuck they want to hear.

    But offering testimonials would probably get me rejected even faster than I already am (American Zen recently got rejected in 10 hours flat. Another asshole actually rejected me on his Blackberry.).

     
    At January 4, 2010 at 11:20 AM, Blogger John said...

    Hi, JP.

    Thanks for mentioning NATHAN'S RUN in Pottersville. (Yes, I'm vain enough to have a Google Alert tied to my name.) This is a terrific blog. I like your style--and your taste in commercial literature.

    It's interesting that you focus on Lyle Pointer's motivation to be chasing Nathan. Truth be told, until late into the first draft, I had no idea why he was doing it. Obviously, I knew there had to be a motivation, but for the longest time, I couldn't come up with anything. The inspiration arrived when a friend told me how he had been skipped over by his wealthy grandfather's will in favor of my friend's two small children. There was something intriguing about the thought of this commonplace suburban family struggling to make ends meet while their school aged children were set to become multimillionaires on their 25th birthdays.

    Plot solutions frequently remain elusive until the last minute when I need them to arrive. It scares me sometimes, but I've come to rely on the miracle of inspiration.

    I think your essay, "Commercial Fiction 101", is spot on. I agree with you 100% on every point--except I think that Thomas Harris took a giant step backward with HANNIBAL. Before that, every word he wrote was brilliant. I might also add THE DAY OF THE JACKAL on the list of perfect books.

    Thanks again for the nod. Happy New Year!

    John Gilstrap
    http://www.johngilstrap.com

     
    At January 4, 2010 at 12:18 PM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

    John:

    Somehow I knew our paths would cross again. You obviously don't remember me under the new moniker but I'm Robert Crawford. We used to chat and correspond with eachother on AOL about 12 years ago when AT ALL COSTS was ready to come out and you were still working on the screenplay for NATHAN'S RUN. Remember the flame wars between me and another screenwriter, Bag Cog? In fact, I still have a Yahoo folder with some of your old emails from the 90's.

    Thanks for the words of encouragement but obviously you haven't taken too close of a look at Pottersville because the usual climate is political and extremely anti-conservative and I seem to recall you being very much a right winger.

    But a love of telling a good story is what united us then and, I would think, still unites us now, something that usually manages to transcend politics or ideology. At least far as the rules of writing go, we both have to follow them or break them only for damned good reason.

     
    At January 9, 2010 at 6:31 PM, Blogger Marisa Birns said...

    Loved this post. Bookmarked it because I want to read it as many times as I need.

    I haven't submitted anything yet out there. Hell, I haven't written a novel yet to submit. But I'm taking baby steps with short fiction. I know, I know. No one wants to read short fiction.

    But this has helped me in my writing. In short fiction, one certainly doesn't have the luxury of many pages so that cuts down on exposition problems!

    Anyway, don't want to blather. Just wanted to let you know that this is one of the more cogent explanatory pieces I've read about writing.

    Thank you.

     
    At January 9, 2010 at 9:11 PM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

    No, problem, Marisa. But it's not true that no one wants to read short fiction. It's just that agents don't want to represent it.

    Doesn't put enough cha ching in their pocket.

     

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