Tag Archives: novels

Lessons from “Silver Linings Playbook”

Writers tend to watch movies with an eye toward story. I often think the ultimate test of a movie’s quality is whether it would make a decent novel. By that standard, Silver Linings Playbook (adapted from a novel) scores a touchdown—an apt analogy given the main character’s father is an obsessive Philadelphia Eagles fan.

The best novels create daunting challenges for the main character and this movie does that from the start. Pat Solitano, played by Bradley Cooper, is released from an eight-month, court-ordered stay in a psychiatric facility as the movie begins. He suffers from bipolar disorder and lovesickness as he is obsessed with getting back together with his ex-wife, Nikki, who has obtained a restraining order against him. As if that’s not enough, his father, played by Robert DeNiro, has just been laid off from his job and is pursuing a new career as a bookie to finance a new restaurant. And the father shows signs of obsessive compulsive disorder.

Adapted from a 2008 novel by Matthew Quick, Silver Linings Playbook is at times absurdly funny and at other times dark and uncomfortable for the viewer. In his hopeless quest to reunite with his wife, Pat accepts a dinner invitation from his best friend, knowing his friend’s wife is still in contact with his ex-wife. There he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who also suffers from bipolar disorder, and they bond over a conversation about the prescription drugs they’ve been given. Their relationship develops when Pat  asks Tiffany to deliver a letter to his ex-wife, and Tiffany agrees, on the condition that she can train Pat to be her dance partner in a local competition.

From there, Pat and Tiffany ride a roller coaster of highs and lows as the viewer hangs on, all the time rooting for them to fall in love. I won’t spoil it be describing the rest of the plot.

Unlike the manufactured story lines that come out of Hollywood these days, the humor and darkness in this movie comes from a real place. It is a place that features the realities of modern life: lost jobs and pensions, family tensions, and mental disorders, and, love and redemption, too. It also features real complications, not clichés. And the acting is first-rate. In addition to Cooper, Lawrence and DeNiro, Jacki Weaver is brilliant as Pat’s mom, Dolores.

This movie was a sleeper, but I am glad it’s been recognized with several Academy Award nominations. If you’re a writer, see this movie. You won’t be disappointed.

Do you view movies in terms of whether they would make a good novel?

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NaNo Update #2

November 15 marks the halfway point in the annual National Novel Writers Month competition. The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, beginning on November 1. As of November 15, I was at 27,500 words. This should be cause for celebration, but I’m worried about not having enough “story” left to get to the magic 50,000 number.

I’m getting helpful advice, though. One of the great benefits of “doing NaNo” is the opportunity it provides to network and brainstorm with other writers from your region. At a recent writing session the other night at a coffee shop in Hartford, CT, I shared my dilemma with my NaNo compatriots. Our Municipal Liaison, aka Fearless Leader, made a couple of good suggestions: add a dream sequence or another murder. My brother gave me the same counsel on the dream sequence. I’m not a big fan of dream sequences. They take the reader out of the story and can often confuse or disorient the reader. But, hey, this is NaNo. This is the time to try something unconventional. If it doesn’t work, I can always cut it later. The second murder idea intrigued me. I did this in last year’s NaNo entry and it added a layer of intrigue to my story.

Other suggestions from my colleagues included adding another character and a new story line and writing out of sequence, which I did last year to great effect. These are all sound ideas, but this is where my cautionary light goes on. When considering things like new characters or story lines, the writer must be careful not to merely pile on extra character or stories just for the sake of stretching out the word count. These enhancements only work if they flow organically from the core story. For example, if a writer is contemplating adding a murder, it cannot be a gratuitous killing of a minor character, which will have little effect on the story arc and serve only to distract the reader. And the writer must also select the right character to kill off. In any case, the act must flow naturally and logically from the prior events of the story. The writer must also consider how the solving of the murder plays into the resolution of the story.

One could argue these are questions for the revision phase of the process. The great thing about NaNo, though, is that for 30 days, writers can write with reckless abandon if they choose. Or not.

 

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Book Review: “Telegraph Avenue,” by Michael Chabon

Like the mixed-race, polyglot neighborhood where it is set, Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue is a tasty, multi-layered, hearty stew that bubbles and boils and ultimately simmers, but never overflows its huge pot. Or, to draw on the 1970s jazz, funk and R&B that provides one of the backdrops to this meaty novel, Telegraph Avenue is hot and cool at the same time, syncopated beats flowing into free form and back.

Telegraph Avenue is the dividing line between a gritty section of Oakland and the edge of the University of California, Berkeley, campus. The novel centers on business partners and musicians Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, who operate a used record store called Brokeland Records in a former barbershop on Telegraph Avenue. Barely scraping by, their record store is threatened by a mega-mall development that former NFL football star Gibson “G Bad” Goode wants to build nearby, which will include movie theaters, restaurants, and a used vinyl store with a huge collection that will put Brokeland Records out of business.

That’s not the only threat facing Archy and Nat. Archy’s wife, Gwen Shanks, is 36 months pregnant and catches her husband cheating on her. Gwen and Nat’s wife, Aviva Roth-Jaffe, operate a midwife business that is in danger of losing its hospital privileges after a birth goes wrong and Gwen is berated by a racist doctor. To make matters worse, Archy’s absentee father, Luther Stallings, a former blaxploitaton film star in the 1970s, is back on the scene to blackmail his old friend, a mortician and powerful Oakland City Councilman named Chandler Flowers, over the murder of a Black Panther. Flowers is the key to the development deal.

Archy’s problems are compounded when a son he has never acknowledged, Titus, shows up and 14-year–old Julius, Nat’s gay son, falls in love with him.

Several themes run through the various plot strands. The frayed relationships between fathers and sons is one theme. Archy has no love for his dad, Luther, who abandoned him, and Titus, in turn, resents Archy. Archy dreads becoming a dad. As Chabon explains, “Fathering imposed an obligation that was more than your money, your body, or your time, a presence neither physical nor measurable by clocks, open-ended, eternal, and invisible, like the commitment of gravity to the stars.”

References to the 1970s, from soul music to movies, abound as Chabon riffs on the nostalgia theme. A dealer in memorabilia, early in the book, reflects that these nostalgic items “were worth only what you would pay for them; what small piece of everything you had ever lost that, you might come to believe, they would restore to you. Their value was indexed only to the sense of personal completeness, perfection of the soul, that would flood you when, at last, you filled the last gap on your checklist.”

The novel is ultimately a story of redemption and forgiveness. Chabon is one of the most gifted writers of our time and his talents are on full display. Though his over-the-top prose at times is a distraction from the story, Chabon’s writing is so precise and vivid that this minor fault is easily overlooked.

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The Elements of Style: A Timeless Classic

An essential part of any writer’s toolkit, whether writing fiction or non-fiction, is Strunk & White’s thin classic, The Elements of Style. Or as they would prefer to put it, Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style is an essential part of a writer’s toolkit.

Packed with tips on the rules of usage and grammar (“place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause”), the 85-page book also contains chapters on the principles of composition and an approach to style.

The section on composition makes 11 points:

  • Choose a suitable design and hold to it.
  • Make the paragraph the unit of composition.
  • Use the active voice.
  • Put statements in positive form.
  • Use definite, specific, concrete language.
  • Omit needless words.
  • Avoid a succession of loose sentences.
  • Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form.
  • Keep related words together.
  • In summaries, keep to one tense.
  • Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

That’s it. A writer could scour blogs and textbooks looking for the most useful tips on composition and Strunk & White nailed them with 11 simple tips.

There is an explanation for each of these points. For example:

Use definite, specific, concrete language. “If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on one point, it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare—are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures.”

And there is this one:

Put statements in positive form. “Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.”

And,

Use the active voice. “The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard.

The last section, An Approach to Style, offers these tips (with brief explanations on each:

  • Place yourself in the background.
  • Write in a way that comes naturally.
  • Work from a suitable design.
  • Write with nouns and verbs.
  • Revise and rewrite.
  • Do not overwrite.
  • Do not overstate.
  • Avoid the use of qualifiers.
  • Do not affect a breezy manner.
  • Use orthodox spelling.
  • Do not explain too much.
  • Do not construct awkward adverbs.
  • Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.
  • Avoid fancy words.
  • Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.
  • Be clear.
  • Do not inject opinion.
  • Use figures of speech sparingly.
  • Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity.
  • Prefer the standard to the offbeat.

There is so much more to The Elements of Style. It is an essential companion for any writer.

What is your favorite book on grammar and style?

 

 

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The Ladder to Perfection

In my most recent post, I discussed the revision process and why it is hard, but necessary. This got me thinking about my approach in reviewing first drafts, and how each round of reviews builds on what’s already been done.

First drafts are messy. The writing is clumsy. The characters’ motivations may not have been fully developed. There are gaps or inconsistencies in the plot.

When I come back to a first draft I’ve written, I invariably find I’ve done too much telling and not enough showing. It’s the cardinal sin of writing. Let’s say there is a scene where a star athlete meets a young woman in the bar. He’s interested; she’s not. There’s some give-and-take dialogue. Next thing you know, there’s one of those transition paragraphs: He somehow managed to get her phone number and within a couple of weeks, they were sleeping together. I would never write it that way. Why? The reader feels cheated. How exactly did this star athlete turn around this woman’s attitude? We don’t know. We only know what the author “told” us.

The first part of that scene is based on a scene I’m currently working on. I wrote the dialogue for the encounter between the athlete and the young woman. It was fairly pedestrian stuff. Now I need to go back and add texture and a layer of tension. She doesn’t like him at first. There’s some verbal jousting. Perhaps there’s a well-timed interruption by his friend. What is driving him? What about her? What motivation might she have to want to go out with this guy, who she doesn’t really like when they first meet? So my challenge is to start with the dialogue. Sharpen it. Challenge the characters to go deeper than the typical bar scene encounter. Focus on what’s going on in their heads and how that translates into authentic dialogue. How can the setting enhance the scene? Maybe it is loud in the bar and he leans in close to her, creating an unexpected intimacy which she likes.

When I think about the rounds of revisions, I envision a ladder:

  • First rung. The writer gets the basic gist of the scene on paper, but there’s too much telling.
  • Second rung. The writer focuses on showing, through dialogue, pacing, setting, narrative. The more description the better.
  • Third rung. The writer delves deeper into the character’s motivations—which hold the key to any scene in a novel.
  • Fourth rung. The scene is really coming together. The writer can focus on things like foreshadowing. Should he add a siren in the distance? A sudden fight that breaks out?
  • Reaching the top rung: The view from up here is awesome. All of the elements of the scene are working together to create a cohesive whole.

It could take several rewrites to get to that top rung. The important thing is the writer cannot be satisfied with one or two rounds of revisions. The writer must continually ask: how can I make this scene better? Keep challenging yourself. Climb that ladder to the top.

How many revisions do you need to reach the top rung?

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Word Counts for Revisions?

Writers know all about word counts. It’s drilled into us—1,000 words a day. Write for three hours, four hours. Achieve that daily word count. Writers get that. The only way to finish the first draft of a novel is to place the old “butt in chair” and write. The daily habit. Do what it takes to churn out a draft of 80,000 to 100,000 words in less than six months.

Simple enough, right? Okay, but what happens when the writer gets to the revision process? What’s the word count when revising a first draft? What is a writer’s daily production goal? What’s the benchmark? If a writer’s goal in producing a first draft is 1,000 words per day, shouldn’t our goal in revising a first draft be to review at least triple or quadruple that number? After all, we’ve already put all those words on the page. This may seem logical, but the hard part has only begun.

I’ve spent the last two weeks revising the first chapter of my work-in-progress. Heck, I’ve spend the last week on the first page of my draft. I’ve completely rewritten the opening scene twice now and it’s still not where I want it to be. There’s a valuable lesson here. When it comes to the revision process, there are no word counts. There are no benchmarks. The key is this: do whatever it takes. The opening line, page, and chapter must sing, or, better yet, must belt it out like an opera singer.

Once a writer gets the opening chapter right, the rest falls into place. It makes revising the entire work a whole lot easier. Well, not always. Sometimes the rest of the draft is just as much work.

So this begs the question: if there are no word counts for the revision process, how does the writer ensure the whole project doesn’t fall way off track? There may be no word counts, but discipline still counts. Revising is not fun—certainly not as much fun as writing. Ever spend an hour struggling to come up with just the right word or the right sentence? Your brain generates cliché after cliché. You know what you need to say. You just can’t conjure up the right word to say it.

It’s different when writing a first draft. If the wording isn’t perfect, move onto the next scene. You can fix it later. The revision process is when the later comes due. A writer can’t merely move on, unless he wants to go back and revise again and again. No, the writer has to get it right, word by word, page by page.

This is one of those posts where I can’t summon up a simple bullet point list, but I’ll give it a try:

  • Revisions are hard.
  • Revisions require supreme patience.
  • There is no word count.
  • It’s not fun, but
  • A writer must do it every day, just like writing.

And that is the hardest part: returning to the work-in-progress each day, knowing it’s far from perfect. The satisfaction of molding that imperfect first draft into a work of art must drive the writer forward. That is the only benchmark.

Do you set goals for the revision process? What sort of metrics do you use, if any?

 

 

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It’s Never Too Late to Revise

I was ready to push the button on my first novel, Small Change. The manuscript was set to go. Seven rounds of line edits and outside critiques were done. And yet, there was a nagging doubt. Two scenes bothered me. I rationalized that they were “good enough.” They weren’t great by any means, but they got the job done.

I received my cover art from my graphic designer, but I couldn’t move forward. I had to revise those two scenes. I read them again (for the umpteenth time) and I couldn’t stand it. I knew if I didn’t fix these two scenes, the book would suffer.

Let me share some background. The two scenes in question were crucial to the story. It was a turning point from the end of the main character’s adolescence to the rest of the story, which centered on the children of the two families in the book as adults. The two glaring problems with the scenes were simple: the scenes consisted of all telling and no showing, and they had a “wrapping up” quality to them, with no emotional depth or tension.

Though it was late in the game (nearly five years after I started this book), I had to scrap both chapters and do a complete rewrite. The first scene centered on the moment the main character, John Sykowski, met his future wife, Madeline McInerney. Here is the original scene:

SC Chapter 26_original

It described what happened but it didn’t get the job done. I needed to take the reader on John’s first date with “Maddy.” I needed to show the reader why they were attracted to one another. John was a stoic, not prone to showing his feelings. Maddy was the opposite. She was smarty, mouthy and knew John’s strengths and weaknesses. And she saw his basic goodness. Okay, so I had a date scene, but it needed a focal point. It couldn’t be the dinner conversation during the date—too pedestrian. I came up with the concept of a jukebox. Maddy would take John to a dive bar with a juke box and they would each pick out a song. Their selections and their reactions said a lot about themselves. Here’s the revised scene:

SC Chapter 22_Revised

The next chapter was the last one in part one of the book. It would be the last time the two families gathered for their annual summer vacation at the lake before significant changes would take place. Here’s the original scene:

SC Chapter 27_original

Not bad, but it lacked tension and foreshadowing. I decided to eschew the birthday party at the beach. The scene instead focused on John driving his younger sister, Mary, to the airport for a trip to the West Coast after she had spent only a day at the beach with her family. This would foreshadow her withdrawal from the family. Here’s the revised scene:

SC Chapter 23_Revised

There is a major risk in making revisions that late in the process. When I make wholesale revisions, I like to let them marinate, like a good steak. I would put the scene aside for a few days or even a week, tweaking and massaging it. In this case, there wasn’t time. I was committed to uploading the manuscript to the Kindle. I read the revised scenes twice and then it was time to publish. I didn’t even have time to show the scenes to any outside critics.

I knew in my heart the two revised scenes improved that section of the book immeasurably, and the feedback I received from other readers validated that opinion.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend making wholesale revisions that late in the game, but you have to trust your instincts. If you’re not happy (or your editor is not happy), it’s never too late to revise.

Do you ever find yourself making late revisions as you are about to submit your work?

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