O Pioneers!

You know who had it rough?

Pioneers.

I mean, traveling through strange lands without so much as a highway rest stop; building their own houses out of sticks, mud, and whatever forest parts they could chop to fit; having to live with their entire families in one or two rooms, with no escape from the children – that sounds horrible.

We say, “I’m going out for a beer.” They could only say, “I’m going out to be attacked by a bear.”

But this is a writing-themed blog, so in literary terms, you know who had it rough?

Pioneers.

I’m speaking of all the literary pioneers who wrote books before the age of the word processor. It’s a wonder books were written at all. Up to about the Mark Twain era, they didn’t even have typewriters, and even typewriters seem like some sort of torture device to the modern writer.

Munitions workers count typewriters to be shipped to Europe and dropped from bombers over Nazi Germany.

If I had to write a novel with a pen, it would be the length of a post-it note. That’s when my hand starts cramping. I suppose I could write one post-it note’s worth per day. I can fit about six words on the standard post-it; upwards of three of them are legible.

I guess the literary pioneers had tougher hands than I do. But it’s not just the physical aspect that amazes me. How do you cut and paste on notebook paper? Yeah, you can cross out a word and write a new one overtop, but what happens when you’ve got to move paragraphs around? What happens when you made a continuity mistake five chapters ago and you’ve got to rework all that plot? I think I’d rather build a house out of sticks and mud.

Here’s another thing to think about. Back in the day, many novels appeared as serials in journals. I don’t know the details of this process, but I have a suspicion they wrote the chapters as they went. That is to say, chapters 1-5 were already printed and read while chapter 6 was being written. Imagine writing a novel where you can’t go back and fix the stuff that doesn’t work anymore with the direction you want it to take. You’d have to have a pretty clever mind to make it all mesh without the Delete button.

I’ve been known to have some fun critiquing classic fiction – you know, picking on people who are too dead to defend themselves, because that’s the way I roll.  Beneath those playful jabs is a reverence that inspired me to read all those classics. Can they be wordy and meandering? Yes. For all that, they are still amazing accomplishments. Give me only a pen, paper, and some friends with typesetting equipment and maybe I would become accomplished enough to get mauled by a bear.

I’m not saying my reverence for the literary pioneers will stop me from poking fun at them, but my sarcasm is forged from love. Just ask my kids.

 

 

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If a novel had a baby would it be a short story?

A reader once asked me if I thought short stories were smaller versions of novels with fewer plot turns. It is a good question for writers to consider before transitioning from one form to the other. It’s helpful to remember the form you are writing and what its purpose is.

A short story is as much a mini novel as a chipmunk is a baby squirrel. They are completely different beasts, put on earth for different purposes. When a chipmunk grows into a squirrel, I’ll start writing short stories that are condensed novels.

I define a novel as a set of conflicts, illustrated through a series of plot turns, resolved in such a way as to leave the reader satisfied that some Wisdom was served by the narrative. This Wisdom may be love, justice, retribution, fate, or any other force in human experience that will lay the characters of the story down peaceably to rest.

This is a chipmunk. With any luck, it will grow into a bigger chipmunk and nothing else.

A short story should have one resounding point that will stick with the reader after the story is over. That point is revealed at the end of the story. Everything preceding builds the effect of that revelation.

Since the crux of a short story comes at the end, I often construct them backward. The ending is the kernel of the story, and everything leading up to that is set into place afterward, trailing back to the most natural starting point. Only what is necessary to bring forth the point is built into the story.

Novels demand to be conceived going forward. Even with a general idea of the ending, there will be too many shifting sands there for it to be the foundation. The characters have more say in the direction of a novel. They create the resolution as they travel the narrative, perhaps making the ending quite different than first imagined. Building a novel backward prevents the characters from developing into the people they should grow to be.

Short stories and novels demand different skills. Novels require more devotion to the characters, but they are more forgiving than short stories. A novel can survive a small lull in the narrative; a short story cannot. Each word carries more weight in a short story. A few ill-chosen words, or a few too many words, can quickly derail the narrative.

A squirrel, properly crafted and distinctly its own art form.

Short stories were once more popular than they are now. Their fall might be linked to the decline of literary magazines, but it may also have something to do with writers not appreciating how different the craft is from the art of writing novels.

Some short stories appear to have been aborted novels. Have you read stories that seem to come to a crashing halt, leaving you to wonder, “What was the point of that?” When I encounter one of these stories, I question if the writer set out to write a short novel, waiting to see where the story would take him. It took him nowhere, and he ran out of words.

Storytelling is about coming to a resolution or making a lasting point. The story written as a baby novel does neither. Infant novels labeled short stories are a turnoff. A chipmunk is bound to be a disappointment to his parents if his parents are squirrels.

Do you agree or disagree? Comments are open.

My love-hate relationship with James Fenimore Cooper

I’m not sure what to make of James Fenimore Cooper. Unlike Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose books I loved, despite their flaws, Cooper is an author whose books I wish I could love.

There’s a little boy deep inside to whom Cooper is magic. Growing up in Upstate New York, keenly interested in colonial history and Northeastern Indians, put me right in line for devouring Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. It also made me wish he had done a better job writing them.

Cooper could spin a yarn. He was imaginative, and there is enough drama in his books to keep you turning pages. The problem with Cooper is there are far too many pages to turn. I don’t mind long books. I just don’t like needlessly long books.

Cooper was profligate with the English language. He thought words grew on trees, which is not a good thing for a writer whose stories take place in the forest. Cooper grabbed handfuls of words from the nearest low-hanging branch and tossed them willy-nilly. Adverbs, adjectives, whatever he had in hand; there must be something lying among the twigs they could be used to describe.

The only time he was able to restrain himself from putting in more than his two-cents-worth.

The only time he was able to restrain himself from putting in more than his two-cents-worth.

If you can weave your way through the superfluous words, the other thing that might grab at your ankles is the flawlessness of the hero. No matter where Natty Bumppo points his rifle, he is sure to hit the head of nail. On his off days, he shoots easier things, like deer, Indians, and Frenchmen, who sometimes need to be shot but hardly pad his resume as a marksman.

Natty never brags about his marksmanship. He is famous for not bragging. He repeatedly avoids self-congratulation while talking up of his exploits until his humility becomes annoyingly boastful. Bumppo is a thoughtful, taciturn man who seems always to be talking at somebody. By contrast, Tarzan was exceptional at swinging through trees, but he didn’t waste all your time not bragging about it.

A rare scene in which Natty's mouth is closed.

A rare scene in which Natty’s mouth is closed. (Artist: E. Boyd Smith)

There are a surprising number of upper-class, young women traipsing through Cooper’s wilderness. Natty Bumppo is never tempted by them. Maybe he’s too wise to get tangled up with impulsive women who can’t quell the urge to visit the far side of a border war. More likely, Natty is too pure. Naturally, when a man who has been alone in the forest for ages finds a beautiful woman in his path, it presents a wonderful opportunity to spew his backwoods philosophies at her.

If Natty Bumpo had missed his target once, or at least shut up about how un-noteworthy his “gifts” were, he’d have been a lot more interesting. If he’d entertained one lustful thought, he would have been more believable. In the end, he was just a guy who could get you through the woods, if you didn’t allow yourself to get trapped in a conversation with him.

Having said this, I admit to reading all the Leatherstocking Tales. If lost volumes were discovered, I would read them too. Cooper snared me with his subject matter. His writing frustrates me, but what can I do? There aren’t a bunch of people running around New York during the French and Indian War besides Natty Bumppo.

So here’s to you, James Fenimore Cooper; you may not have done it the best, but you did it the most, and that should be worth something.

 

He blinded me with science: The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne

The Mysterious Island recounts the adventures of six Yankees who escaped a Confederate prison by stealing a hot air balloon.  They ride the winds of a monster storm until the balloon fails and deposits them on a deserted island in the South Pacific. The castaways have nothing but the clothes on their backs to help them survive.

One of the castaways is an engineer. All the others have man-crushes on him because he knows how to make anything out of dirt and gumption.

Another of them is a teenaged boy, who, despite his tender age, knows everything there is to know about exotic fauna and flora, including the various medicinal uses of the latter.

The third Yankee is a sailor, capable of building a pleasure yacht by himself, on a deserted island, in about four months.

The fourth castaway is a journalist. He is exceptional at making himself appear wise, though he is of less practical use than any of the others.

The fifth castaway is the black “companion” of the engineer. He is under no “obligation” to the engineer, and could have gone his own way at any time during his long “devotion” to the engineer.  Guess who does all the cooking on the island.

The final castaway is a dog, who turns out to be marginally more useful than the journalist.

Don't worry for their safety. Jules Verne only kills bad guys.

Don’t worry for their safety. Jules Verne only kills bad guys.

Remarkably, the island contains every natural resource necessary for five men with clothes on their backs to develop a western industrial society. The castaways, who, for reasons associated with the tourist trade, quickly become colonists, busy themselves in the production of steel, textiles, and other assorted necessities and luxury items.

What makes the island mysterious is the presence of an unknown benefactor who aids the colonists whenever they encounter a difficulty requiring too much effort to plot their way through. When pirates attack, a torpedo is placed in the pirate ship’s path by the unknown protector, destroying the threat without having to bother us with an annoying display of military cleverness by the colonists.

I wanted to dislike this novel from the beginning. The characters are flat. There is no conflict between them. They are great guys who always agree on everything, and anything they touch turns to gold. Verne’s obvious  and overabundant  love for his characters means there is no tension caused by worry that any of them will come to serious harm.

Readers more sciencey and less fictiony than I am might enjoy descriptions of the processes by which the colonists manufactured the many fine products used to build their empire. To me, a recipe book for smelting iron does not make a compelling story.

And then there was the time lost deciding upon names for the island’s various features. They really could have done this while I was at work.

In spite of all this, I could not hate this book. I found myself looking forward to revisiting the island. Even though some the colonists’ improvements were far-fetched, I wanted to see what else they were able to develop. The characters themselves were secondary to me. I wanted to watch progress. Jules Verne may not have been much into character development, but he sure was adept at showing off scientific progress. That’s how he got me; apparently, I’m a sucker for progress.

In the end, this collection of brilliant and amiable men faces catastrophe. With their mysterious protector no longer able to bail them out, they do what all clever, resourceful men do to save themselves: they rely on dumb luck.

It was disappointing that the characters did not concoct some ingenious scheme to save themselves, but I didn’t really care about them anyway. I was more concerned about the island itself. This once-primitive, now paradise, land was the true star of the show. Only Jules Verne could make me feel this way about a chunk of volcanic rock.