Thursday, January 5, 2012

Nitpickery: Writing and Selling Your Novel by Jack M. Bickham

Hey y'all.  So as you know, I'm a writer, and I work in a bookstore.  It's now a used bookstore, but I still get to "check out" and read books.  I've been trying to read more books that will help me, rather than just history or fiction books.  Those are helpful for writing, but I want to get more into business books and those that will help me get published.

So this book, "Writing and Selling Your Novel" sounds perfect, yes?  You'd think that.  I mean, it is a helpful book in its own right.  However, writing is all about voice: the way your books sounds when it's read out in the mind.  Some people have sarcastic voices, others blunt or fanciful.  While voice is important for fiction, it's even more important for non-fiction.  In non-fiction you're more constrained about what you can write, and the entertainment factor heavily depends on the reader's base interest in your subject matter.  The only major place where a non-fiction writer can show their own independent creativity is in their voice and presentation of the subject at hand.

And that's where Jack Bickham gets me.  I'm all excited to be reading the book, and then I get to paragraph three.  At once I'm pulled out of it, no longer following the writer as he speaks.  Lemme quote it.

"Of course you'll need talent, too.  But 'talent' is a mysterious quality that can emerge only after a professional attitude has been cultivated and fully developed.  To put this another way, 'talent' is what people say you have after you have worked like hell for years to improve yourself."

Um, no.  Bickham's doing a little thing here I've seen in other writers where he changes the meaning of a word and accuses other people of having misunderstood it in the first place.  Honestly though, having read further, I do understand his sentiment.  Basically he's trying to say that you shouldn't just call yourself a writer and then produce five pages every two months.  You have to have a professional attitude about your work.

My problem with this passage is that he's going too far with it.  Talent, yes, is a mysterious thing that is a bit awkward to define.  I personally, as well as most people in general, refer to it as having naturally the qualities that would make you good at a job or trade.  You've met people that are just good at singing or drawing or something, and you wonder how they do it.  This doesn't mean they're perfect or anything, because all babies start out with no knowledge, but it does mean that if they decided to persue a singing (or whatever) career, they'd end up having to work less hard at it than you to produce the same results.

Talent does include a necessary amount of work for success, but at the end of the day, that's not talent.  That's drive.  Talent is capable of existing in people who have no drive.  This is what we call wasted talent: you know they're good and could be great, but they slack.

Yes, nitpickery perhaps, but already Bickham's got me ranting and raving in my head by the third paragraph.  Not good.  I guess he's trying to be abrupt and extreme by coming across strong, but it's really very off-putting if you're someone like me.  Other people will like Bickham's directness, and I would too if he didn't feel the need to be unnecessarily contrary.

Still, there are others who will feel differently than I do about it, willing to see it more from Bickham's perspective.  Really, all Bickham wants is for writers to take what they do more seriously.  That is a good endeavor, and does help the book go on.  Still, I have other grievances with his work, yes, nitpicks, but that's what I do.  I'm only going to mention a few problems I have, because I get too ranty sometimes.

And so I quote again.

"It's only in this century that the distinction between 'what's good' and 'what's popular' began to be drawn by academics and their hoity-toity followers."

How do you know that?  How do you know it's only been going on now?  Snobs have only existed in the past 100 years?  None before then?  Also, how do you know it's the "hoity-toities" that are to blame?  Aren't there lower-class people who have thumbed their noses at "cultural" stuff?  And why would anyone follow an academic?  I follow people I like and trust, not just smart people.  Again, nitpick, but this statement just reeks of oversimplicity.

"...and give up the mystical baloney about 'inspiration' and other stuff that doesn't exist except in the fevered imagination of a few deluded English teachers."

I really want to give Bickham credit.  He feels passionately about writing and does have a lot of good and important things to say.  Yet again this statement trips me up unnecessarily.  All he had to say is to not wait for inspiration and just work until your motor neurons are just used to being creative all the time.  This does happen the more you write.

That doesn't, however, negate the existence of inspiration.  Inspiration is essentially that burning, excited feeling you have within you when you realize you have something to write and can possibly do it.  Or, alternatively, it's the little spark of something you see, hear, and/or feel that gives you an idea of something you want to write.  Sure, inspiration is a floating mystical thing that nobody really understands properly and you have to make disciplined to work in your favor, but it exists.

Probably Bickham is just complaining about it because he's annoyed that people go on and on talking about inspirations and ideas but never put anything down on paper.  I wish he would just say so instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  Sometimes we writers just want to take a break and be all pretentious and talk of such things.  There's nothing wrong with that, as long as we also get work done.

Okay, so my problems with all those other comments is just the unnecessary hatred that comes along with them.  Bickham's sentiments in and of themselves are perfectly acceptable and in fact even necessary to the budding writer.  He just feels the need to go that extra step and really narrow down the meaning of his words, making it easy for the reader to get thrown and off-topic.  Again, he's probably just trying to be extreme, and there are those who will like his more practical perspective.  But at the end of the day, writing is an art.  All arts will retain an aspect of floaty, emotional strangeness that is more or less so depending on the specific artwork.  Art does not exist to be purely practical, and therefore no one can be purely practical and a good artist.

My next complaint will be about the advice Bickham gives.  Let's see...I'll give you two more quotes and my problems with them, then I'll give an overall review of the book.

Okay, so chapter five opens with a really weird story about a caveman named Hrothgar.  Hrothgar is just a nobody caveman that isn't popular or admired.  One day, Hrothgar gets into a battle with a tiger, and after a long battle, the tiger jumps at him.  Hrothgar ducks, and the tiger jumps completely over him and into a river.  So Hrothgar goes back home and tells everyone this story, and they're all really impressed.  Hrothgar likes the attention, so he makes up similar stories, hoping to continually impress his clan.

Of course, eventually this stops working, because obviously no one warrior could have all these adventures.  So Hrothgar starts telling them from the second person perspective.  "Imagine you were a warrior...", etc.

I thought at first that the point of this mini story was going to have to do with believability.  Not so.  Bickham's trying to make the overall point that all writers should want to make the reader see themselves in the story.  While this is true sometimes, trying too hard to have a second person perspective risks being really gimmicky.  It's a choice an author makes depending on what they intend to write.

Bickham continues to explain that a viewpoint must be maintained.  A viewpoint or perspective, however you want to put it, is basically who's telling you the story or whose eyes you are seeing the story through.

Please forgive this brief lesson in elementary writing.  It's necessary to make a point.  I was armed with this information in my head as I read the passage, and it alerted me at once to Bickham's opinion.
1st person writing- "I went down the hallway..."
2nd person writing- "You went down the hallway..."
3rd person writing- "He/she/it went down the hallway..."

Note that third person has two different forms, limited and omniscient.  These terms basically refer to how you reveal new information.  Limited means that you only learn about what one person sees.  For example, if Bob is your viewpoint character, in 3rd person limited the author only writes what Bob can experience.  Bob goes to a party, and he can tell you the sights and sounds.  He cannot, however, tell you what the girls he hits on are thinking.  In omniscient, the author does reveal what the girls are thinking directly.

Limited: "Bob felt so nervous.  He barely managed to say his name to the hot blonde, but she only wrinkled her nose and turned away."
Omniscient: "Bob felt so nervous.  He barely managed to say his name to the hot blonde, but she obviously felt negatively about the possibility of them going out."

Now, knowing this, I read what Bickham had to say.  He had some very good points about 3rd person limited, telling his readers not to switch perspectives or go outside of the experiences of the viewpoint character.  Bickham basically says that 3rd person omniscient is old fashioned and outdated.  While I do appreciate how he hammers down the point of not switching perspectives too much and he does explain viewpoint characters very well, it's silly of him to knock 3rd person omniscient.

As soon as he started knocking it, all I could think of was the stories I liked that had 3rd person omni.  In particular I kept thinking about C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the passage where Lewis explains each of the four childrens' reactions to hearing the name of Aslan.  Yes, I know that was written decades ago, but the fact is, people still read and buy the Chronicles of Narnia books today.  They're still good.  And therefore, so is 3rd person omniscient, which I'm sure I could find in many other good novels.

Yes, people do abuse 3rd person omni, and they should be aware they do so.  But you can't throw the baby out with the bathwater.  He also said, "there is no use in trying to write a modern novel from the viewpoint of the passive observer" (emphasis his).  All I could think of is Perelandra, where Lewis uses himself as the passive storyteller of his friend Ransom's adventures on Venus.

Thing is, art should be liberating, not constraining.  Yes, limiting oneself can produce new skills and strengthen weaknesses, and thus is good at times.  But art in and of itself can be many various things.  You can paint with watercolors, acrylics, food, digital pixels, and even chicken crap.  Art is expression in various different ways, and just because a way is different doesn't mean it's wrong.  Except for the chicken crap.   Saw that in a museum once.  Very wrong.

And then he gets into one of the most bizarre comments I've ever heard.  First he lists a few examples of a "viewpointless" statements.

"-Something crawled across Joe's hand....
- Joe took a drink.  It had almond flavoring....
- Smoke filled the room.  Joe got up....

This is description or narration from no viewpoint.  It's neutral.  The reader doesn't know who he is supposed to be."

And suddenly the story about Hrothgar makes more sense.  Bickham thinks a reader wants to be a character.  In some cases, this is true, but by no means is it all.  Nor should a writer have to plan for a reader to want to be a character.  A lot of the time they don't want to be someone, they merely want to be themselves, perhaps with powers or weapons, inside that universe.

Take Star Trek.   You've got a lot of good characters in that universe, but people don't want to be any of them.  They want to be a cool captain like Kirk, or an ex-Borg like Seven of Nine with her regenerative nanites, or perhaps a Klingon like Worf.   They don't want to be those people exactly, because then they would have to play by the personality rules of Kirk, Seven or Worf.  They want to have their own personalities.

At the end of the day, it's not about creating a cool person, it's about creating a world.  A world with seemingly no limits, where readers can fill in their favorite gaps with their own imaginations.  A world they can build on in their minds, either adding themselves or maybe their own set of characters.  It's one thing to limit oneself, but shame, Bickham, don't limit the reader.

Crap.  I wrote down in my journal some of the stuff Bickham wrote on page 29.  I was going to skip over this for the sake of brevity, but I really want to talk about them.  Characterization is one of my favorite parts of writing, so I feel I have to address some of this.  Here we go.

First, a minor nitpick.  Bickham claims that it is the author that forms plot and not chance.  That no plot is an accident.  While on one level this is true, it sort of diminishes the fact that characters write stories.  I don't remember if I posted it here, but I wrote an essay on facebook once about predestination and free choice existing both at the same time.  It does in writing.

You, the author of a story, are writing out what happens.  However, it is only bad authors that force characters to do things that they would not choose or say things they wouldn't say.  In this sense, it's the characters that make choices for you, deciding which paths are possible and which are not.  Therefore it is an effort of both author and character that writes the plot.

But fine, that's a nitpick.  Let me get to a real issue.

"In the first place, a character is not a real person.  Real people, when rendered with total fidelity on paper, are dull, unconvincing, and vague.  A fiction character must, first of all, be a host of exaggerations.
"Why?  Because one of the hardest things we ask readers to do is to take some symbols on a piece of paper, translate these symbols into words, process the words into meanings, sort out and react to both the denotation and connotation of those words (not to mention deep processing of secondary associations!), then take all this and imagine a human being, then believe the human being actually exists--but in a make-believe world--identify with the person, care about the person, worry about the person and invest time in finding out what happens to that person-- who doesn't really exist anywhere except in the imagination!
"Readers understandibly aren't very good at this."

Bickham, Bickham, Bickham!  Why must you insult readers?  That's highly offensive, and very near to calling non-writer people stupid.  For one thing, anyone who reads is already doing those things, unless they don't connect to your writing for whatever reason.

Note that there are several reasons why a reader might not connect to a writer's story.  Perhaps they feel the author isn't creative enough or his writing is faulty.  Or they have different beliefs than the writer and the story primarily involves these beliefs.  Or maybe they just don't like your genre.  Sometimes people don't like fiction altogether.  Maybe they're just in such a bad mood they can't like anything at the moment.  Or in Bickham's case, I don't connect to his book because he makes too many broad statements.  There are multifarious different ways a reader can be disconnected from a book, none of which have to do with the reader having no intelligence or imagination.   On occasion, it's the author with none.

The thing that bothers me the most about the above statement is that all the things Bickham mentions are just things that everyone does subconsciously when they read.  Sure, some people are better than others at interpreting language, but it is a process every reader does.  Taking "symbols on a piece of paper" and "translat[ing] these into words" is the very simply process of reading.  If you're a reader at all of the language, you can translate our Roman symbols into words.  You do it every day.

As for having any sort of emotions for a character, that depends almost entirely on the writer.  It's the writer's job to get you interested in the character, not the reader's job to muster up emotion for a fictitious person.  This might be difficult for the early writer, but it's still their job and something they have to learn to do.  You can't put the burden of believability on someone else.

Okay, so insulting the reader aside, let's deal with his first statement that complains real people on paper are dull, unconvincing and vague.  I don't know why he says that.  Quite frankly, I crave real people in writing, and when authors present this cartoonish fops to pass as characters, I find it hard to continue reading.  And yet that's just what Bickham asks the budding writer to do.  Later on he makes the statement that because the story is going on in words instead of a visual medium like movies, all characters must be exaggerated to garish proportions.


Okay, okay.  There is a time and a place for having more cartoonish characters.  Those are specific genres or specific roles that are not at all meant to be taken seriously.  However, with the normal character, you don't exaggerate.  You imply.

The reason he claims writing a real person on paper is dull may possibly be that it just takes too much information to explain a full person out.  Writers should be careful not to overload their readers with information about a character, especially not a two page essay on who that person is.  That's why I say imply.  You take the individual characteristics of a person and imply them throughout the story.  Perhaps you have a female cop and want to explain that she has an affinity for fashion, wondering if she is any good at it.  You could imply this by having her job take her to a clothing store, and she takes a second to peruse some racks and wonder if a shirt would look good with a skirt she has at home.  Or you could have her sketching dresses in her spare time.  She could tell a criminal that he should never wear a plaid jacket with pinstripe pants.

The art of writing is not about explaining everything to your reader.  You should not assume your reader is stupid.  In fact, you should assume they are intelligent.  Leave little clues about a person and let the reader come up with their own ideas.  For example, King Theoden in Lord of the Rings makes the statement, "I am old, and fear nothing anymore".  This shows without showing that Theoden is a crusty older person that's gone through a lot, and yet is a completely hardcore guy you don't want to mess with.  Readers see this statement and enjoy Theoden's personality for being so fearless.  The point is to let readers decide on their own how they feel about your character.  Your skill as a writer will be revealed if they feel the same way you do about them.

The ultimate example of implication is Star Trek: The Original Series.  People have their ideas about Star Trek and it's pretentiousness, but the original series was never like that at all.  It's goofy, hilarious, and yes, a tad self-righteous.  At the end of the day it's nowhere near as grand as people see it in their imaginations.  Seriously, watch "The Trouble with Tribbles" or "I, Mudd".  You'll see what I'm talking about.

Back when Star Trek first aired, it had meh ratings and a fight against cancellation ensued at the end of the first and second season (no one bothered for the third).  The saddest part is that the fan mailings and gatherings that supported the continuation of Star Trek were all organized by Trek's creator Gene Roddenberry himself.  When Gene got a bad time slot for the third season, he even gave up on his own creation, leaving it to the writers and producers to figure out what they were going to do.

Only in re-runs did Star Trek come back to life.  It wasn't Gene's doing, or the doings of Paramount (they own Trek) or any of the people associated with the show.  Fans just liked it.  They put meaning into Star Trek that no one had ever intended in the first place.  Roddenberry didn't create the Trekkers, they created themselves.

And that's why we should never assume the reader is stupid.  Their additions, encouragements, and feelings for your characters, even if it's not obvious at first, are what make you a success.  If you let them, your work can even outlive you.

Okay, so let me review his book.  I've gone on and on about how I disagree with several of Bickham's points, but the fact of the matter is, he's very intelligent.  He knows the basic structures of how to write, and he does have things to teach.  There are so many good exercises in his book that it will be helpful to the people that can get over Bickham's negativity.  It's just so sad the guy threw me off early on.  Later in the book he gets much more helpful, and there's a lot of things a person can learn from him.

Another trouble with this book is the words "and selling".  This book has all of four chapters on selling books, and the first three are about editing your story and say practically nothing about actually selling.  The last chapter does not go in depth about actually selling the book.  It states a few vague principles without bothering to discuss strategies or working on sales pitch.  There is no reason to buy this book if your primary concern is selling your novel.

Honestly, Bickham should have catered more towards his artist audience by not putting in his anti-artistic and reader insulting statements.  He also should have not bothered talking about selling at all.  It's clear he has more opinions and advice to give on the actual construction of the novel, so he should have renamed his work to reflect this.  Maybe, "The Writer's Classroom" or something like that.

Now, you might think I'm missing the points that Bickham is trying to make in his contrary statements.  Yes, that's exactly right.  I am missing his points, precisely because he goes out of his way to confront "old fashioned" ideas and say they are wrong.  In reality, they are merely different.  Bickham is so confrontational about it that I am extemely reluctant to view things from his perspective.

For example, J.R.R. Tolkien and his friends wrote stories precisely because they didn't want to read contemporary literature.  They wanted to write something different, something they wanted to read.  They weren't focused so much on modernity that they forgot other eras could write.  And now Tolkien is the father of today's fantasy.  It's Tolkien's influence that resulted in things like Drizzt Do'Urden, Warcraft, and all the plethora of elvish/"historical" fantasy books that are out there today.

The lesson to learn here is that you are a good writer when you write what you want, not what is "modern" or "today".  You should always know the basic principles of writing and do your research, and at the end of the day if you enjoy what you wrote, chances are you have an audience, and they'll like it too.

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