Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tips for Writers

I’m working with a couple of other mystery writers on our “seminars” for Jackson Hole Writer’s conference, which is from June 24 to 28 in—tada—Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Lise McClendon and I are going to do a day-long workshop on the shape of the novel (ambitious enough?) and I’ve been reading Robert Olin Butler’s From Where You Dream to prepare for it. This book is a series of lectures that have been compiled and edited by Janet Burroway. He’s got my wheels turning and I wanted to bounce a little of this off you, as I greatly respect your opinions. So here goes:

Butler, as you probably know, received a Pulitzer Prize for A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain. He writes nothing but fiction. I believe he thinks writing anything else pollutes his creative process, which was an eye-opener for me right there. He says artists need to be “sensualists,” and artists need to be “ravenous for the sensual experience in their lives.” He also says genre writers aren’t artists—good grief, I thought, that prejudice again? Artists need to dive into that “white-hot,” scary center of their dream world, and overcome the voice in their heads that makes them want to run away from this place. Okay, I can relate to that. We write crime fiction, after all.

We also have to avoid that critical voice that rattles around in our heads. He talks about getting into “The Zone.” This made sense to me, too. In fact, I find writing and exercise take me to the same meditative state. When I’m stuck on my work, it even helps to go for a bike ride. He also says we need to write every day. Okay, check, we try. But here was a new one: we need to avoid reading anything else before sitting down to our work. Not just someone else’s novel—he means any “nonsensual” use of language: the newspaper, the magazine in the loo, CNN, even the cartoons in the New Yorker! Don’t let any conceptual language into your head.

I have to think about that snippet of advice. Can I get to my Zone if I do this? Drat, I love my morning coffee and the paper.

Yearning HAS to be part of a fictional character, and Butler acknowledges that genre writers (also called writers of “entertainment fiction”) get this right. “Artists” are still kind of missing the boat on this. James Joyce said that there is a moment of epiphany in a work of art where “something shines forth in its essence.” Butler says there are two epiphanies, and Joyce’s is the second one. The first is in the beginning of the work, when the “deepest yearning of the main character shines forth.” Yes, this is good to remember.

But then he goes into his attack on “entertainment writing,” which he says employs the ruses of “abstraction, generalization, summary, analysis, and interpretation.” He makes a reference to The Romance Writer’s Phrase Book. I guess you can look up an emotion and find phrases to describe it. Passion=wildly beating hearts, etc. I have to confess, this puts me off a bit, too.

Butler says that nonartists, and he names Stephen King and Jean-Paul Sartre, know the emotional and intellectual effect they want to have on the reader ahead of time, and these genre writers write their books to produce these effects. This is a big no-no. The Artist does not know “what she knows about the world until she creates the object. The writing of a work of art is as much an act of exploration as it is expression, an exploration of images, of moment-to-moment sensual experience.”

Can't there be a combination of learning and creating a story that has an effect? I'm learning a lot as I read Butler’s lectures, but there’s a lot I question. I still believe genre fiction can be art, or—er—excuse me, literary fiction. I’d love to hear some of your thoughts.


Vicki Delany said...

I think Butler sounds like a right prick. He is taking what works for him, or what he thinks works for him, and insisting that everyone else must work the same way. Go head and have your coffee and paper Debby, if that works for you. And as for 'entertainmnet' fiction, if his writing is as bad as his advice, then I bet his fiction is most definatly not entertaining. Probably not even readable.

Debby (Deborah Turrell) Atkinson said...

LOL, your reaction was even stronger than mine. I thought his opinions were pretty stuffy. If I try not to react to his arrogant bubble, he's got some good points. But I haven't seen any of his work on the shelves lately, though Good Scent was excellent. Makes me think, not for the first time, that some of the "literary" folks are too busy with that voice they're trying to get rid of. Just tell a story, dammit!

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