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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Filler and Hobbyhorses

When I was taking high school physics, my teacher was big on lab reports. Every week we were assigned a lab report which was to range between seven to ten pages. We would turn it in at the beginning of lab, and the instructor would go into his 'office', really a lab storage area, while we worked on the experiment for that week. At the end of lab he would emerge with all the reports graded. We marveled at his ability to get through them so quickly, and wondered about the clinking noises we could hear coming from his secret den.

It didn't take long for one of the best and brightest to come up with an hypothesis. Grades were given by weight, or more technically by mass, since that is what the triple beam balance truly records. (I remember that much.) But how to test the hypothesis?

Filler. One student used the middle pages of his lab report to expound on his summer trip to Disney World. We watched as the teacher carried the reports back, and could barely pay attention while he was in the back room, the occasional clanks of the balance (we supposed) and the squeak of his chair the only sound. When he emerged, we filed up to get our reports, and our hypothesis seemed proved. He got an A. Grades were determined by mass. QED.

A juvenile story, yes. But something I've seen a little bit in some published works of fiction.

Now, I'm not saying that authors are trying to boost their word count by inserting irrelevant material. At least I hope not. But I do believe it is easy for writers to allow their interests and hobbies to override their better judgment causing them to include pages and pages of material that is not pertinent to the story they are telling. Now, if the reader shares this love or interest, he might not even notice. But if he doesn't? He chokes on it as so much sawdust meant to stretch the bread. To him it is filler.

So, what is the latest? I was reading a mystery set in Victorian England, and one of the main characters visited an old war veteran, who just happened to relate to her the entire battle of Trafalgar, and the burial of Admiral Nelson. (Now if I have gotten that wrong, it doesn't matter. I hate history, and it is not pertinent to the story.) But the writer loves history. And people who love history would love that it is incorporated in the novel. Me? I skimmed through and picked up later at the mystery, which was a good one.

But this is not the only instance. I was once given the history of all the Civil War naval battles fought on the Great Lakes while a family yachted across while on vacation. I have also been treated to tour-guide depictions of London, Paris, and San Francisco. If I were passionate about any of those places, I wouldn't have minded. But since I'm not, the excursion was tiring. Now I'm not saying the stories should not have been set there. Interesting characters doing interesting things in interesting places--that makes for good reading. But when the plot is left behind to indulge the writer's interest, and he/she carries me kicking and screaming along with them? That is something I have a problem with.

It's not only places. It can be things and ideas as well. One book I was reading involved a main character taking a plane trip. Just because a character gets on a plane, doesn't mean she has to reflect on the physics of flight--which was obviously of some interest to the writer, but not to me. I'd already taken physics.

So, what can I learn from this? And how can I make sure that similar filler doesn't creep into my dreadful novel? Make sure every inclusion is relevant in some way. If the characters visit any place, it should be part of the plot. If not, make something happen there, or cut it. If scientific concepts are included, it should be part of the plot. If past history is included, it should be integral to the plot.

Speaking of history, back to high school physics... The next week another fellow student, frustrated that his reports were not even being read, inserted one line into his otherwise well-written report. "If he reads this, I'll buy him a beer."

When he retrieved his paper at the end of the class period, scrawled on top next to the "A" was the comment, "Make it a Michelob."

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Great Villains...of the Bible

I was reading a blog this morning, and the writer was encouraging people to think of the ten most memorable villains. Since I hadn't had my coffee yet, I could come up with nothing. So when the thought struck me later, when I was in church, it is not surprising that I came up with villains from the Bible. So here's my list of Bible villains.

Cain. The first murderer ever. Consumed with jealousy when his brother got more attention, and his own sloppy attempts got a reprimand instead, Cain killed own brother, and then professed his own innocence.

Potipher's Wife. A rich woman in Eqypt, she could have almost anything she wanted. What she lusted after was Joseph, a servant of her husband. When he refused, she accused him of rape, sending Joseph to prison. What she couldn't have, she tried to destroy: the epitome of a lying, manipulative shrew.

Saul. He was once a humble man, chosen by God to be king. But when pride got the best of him, and God chose a successor, Saul hunted him down like a man possessed. He tried to kill David to protect what he had, and pass it on to his son.

David. I feel bad calling him a villain, because he wrote some great psalms, and is known as a man after God's own heart. But technically, he is an adulterer, and a murderer. He let one mistake (staying home when he should have been leading a battle), escalate into another (adultery) which escalated into murder to cover up. He is a good example of a good man caught up beyond where he should have been, and then looking desperately for a way to hide it.

Athaliah. She wanted power. The wife of the king, when he died, she killed all of his children, including her own, so she could rule. Nothing was more important to than that being queen.

Jezebel. The wife of a whiny king, Jezebel wielded her own power to get her own way. Known for her heavy make-up and willingness to destroy anyone who disagreed with her or had what she wanted, she was quite a force to be reckoned with.

Haman. Motivated by prejudice, he wanted to destroy all the Jews. When the new queen seemed to be showing him some special attention, he thought he had it made. He built gallows for the one man who didn't show him the respect he thought he deserved.

Herod. He was king, and wanted to remain king. When wise men came, suggesting there was another, he killed all the young boys in the area. Herod was later destoyed and manipulated through flattery.

Judas. Once a trusted apostle, he stole petty cash from the treasury, and betrayed Jesus for 20 pieces of silver. After seeing Jesus arrested (he possibly thought Jesus would escape them, as he had before) he tried to return the money, and eventually killed himself.

Saul of Tarsus. OK, he later became the apostle Paul, but before that he imprisoned and killed Christians, thinking he was doing God a favor. Misplaced religious zeal makes for an interesting motive.

There are a few good ideas for villains here, all from the Good Book. Who says that Christians can't write murder mysteries?

Friday, January 23, 2009

Taking Out the Trash: What makes a good book?

A recent blog post by Nathan Bransford included a survey asking readers whether they considered themselves an above-average writer. It let into a discussion as to why writers tend to trash other writers.

Well, the idea has been rattling around in my head. It's probably the guilt. Many aspiring writers are a bit snarky when it comes to books they don't like. And yes, I've done it too. We study, and work on improving our craft, and get a pretty good idea of what makes for good writing. We study POV, and debate the finer points of grammar, rue the excessive use of adjectives and adverbs, shun cliches and stereotypes, and use 'said' exclusively as our only annotation, when we use one at all. But none of these things will make for a good book.

Technical excellence, at least following the 'rules' in a craft in which many admit there are no rules, will not produce a good book any more than technical excellence in sculpture will produce a great statue. It might produce a perfect likeness, but greatness is reserved for those things that catch someone's eye. In books, it might be the writer who breaks all the 'rules', but does so in the most creative way.

Readers don't care. And that's frustrating to writers, but true. Most don't care about POV, as long as they can follow the story without getting confused. Annotations don't bother them at all. The characters could 'shriek' and 'gurgle', and most wouldn't bat an eye. It is mostly the writers who get all 'drama queen' and dent their walls by throwing books into them. Readers are simply looking for diversion in a great story with interesting characters. And until I write one of those, I voted 'no.' I do not consider myself an above-average writer. At least not yet.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Moving Day

Someone (ahem) has told me to get a real blog. So today is moving day. I hope to move some of my better blog entries here from the old site, and then continue to post my great adventures in writing. Or something like that.