I’m sure that fewer than ten among my sea of readers have missed the shocking news that the Pulitzer Prize committee has decided not to award a prize for fiction this year.  This is the first time in thirty-five years that this has happened over the ninety-six years of Pulitzer awards.

Here is a quote from the New York Times article:

… it was the absence of an award for fiction that was perhaps the most shocking result of the committee’s voting. A winning book can be an instant boost to sales and is one of the most closely watched awards in the publishing industry. Finalists in the category included “Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson, “Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell and “The Pale King” by David Foster Wallace, who died in 2008.
Jonathan Galassi, the publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, said he was “shellshocked” by the lack of a winner in fiction.

Are you bothered, irate, or even outraged by this decision?  Or, is this a literary yawn?  Does it, perhaps, gladden you?  I’d like to know your opinion of the Pulitzer decision re: this year’s fiction, and will share with you not only the results, but also will then reveal my own feelings on the subject.  (This may seem like the modus opinioni of politicians:  “Poll first, then take your courageous stand,” though I would not sink to such depths.  Trust me.)  So, please comment with your opinion and reason.  My regular post will appear nearer the weekend.


“Rules of Writing” Redux

The Guardian, a British publication, has a series in which it asks famous (or at least published) authors of fiction to tell what their “rules for writing” are.

[None of them said, “no one-sentence paragraphs” or “keep your sentence’s subject and verb as close as possible,” although my English teacher from way back in 7th grade, the beloved Bessy Potter, had these among her basic rules of writing.  Yeah, I know, there’s a difference between rules of grammar and what The Guardian asked for; I just had to take the opportunity to honor Miss Potter.]

Among the authors who responded were Elmore Leonard, Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer, Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Esther Freud, Neil Gaiman, David Hare, PD James, AL Kennedy, Hilary Mantel, Will Self, Michelle Paull, Michael Morpurgo, Rose Tremain, and Zadie Smith.  If you haven’t heard of some of them, it’s probably because you aren’t up on your British writers.  No harm, no foul.

You probably have heard about and may have read Elmore Leonard, author of many mysteries, several of which have become movies.  In other words he’s very successful, as well as being one of my favorite reads.  Terrific dialog, characters, and plots.  (Sorry, Bessy, about my egregious lack of subject and verb.)  The article lists his “Ten Rules,” most, if not all, of which are good advice, though only the eleventh having the general and perhaps eternal status of what I would call a “rule.”  Though, if having an eleventh rule in a list of ten isn’t breaking some sort of rule, I don’t know what is.

So, here is Elmore Leonard’s 11th Rule of Fiction Writing:  “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”  Now, that’s as close to a real rule as I’ve heard, because if what you write sounds like writing, the reader is too aware of you, the writer.  Write from inside or along side your characters’ mind, not from your own.  For example, try not to give your character, Joe the long-haul truck driver, complex sentences and/or multi-syllabic words unless he’s a Yale graduate or an autodidact or it’s an integral part of the story.  Gee, that sounds a bit like a rule, although it’s meant as a suggestion, which is very different.

Leonard’s “rules” include:  Never begin a book with weather; avoid prologues; only use “said” to attribute dialogue; never modify “said” with an adverb; avoid detailed description of characters, places, and things.  Plus a few other “rules”, the most widely known, I would guess, being to “leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”  (A good trick, if you can do it.)

Considering Leonard’s rules and the very different rules offered by the other writers polled by The Guardian, and the rules of so many other writers, I stand by the declaration made (arrogantly?) in the very first post on this blog/website, which is that There are no rules for writing fiction.  What The Guardian and others call “rules” are merely suggestions for the struggling writer-becoming-author to consider.  If we gathered and totaled these “rules” over the years, we would certainly reach a thousand, and many would contradict each other.  Consider them (those “rules” you run across), yes; necessarily follow them?, no.  Or, you will be weighted down, freighted, thinking about them rather than swimming down deep in your story where you ought to be, even in second and third drafts.  (I think I see Bessy up there on a cloud, scowling.)  Just another suggestion.

As always, I welcome thoughtful disagreement, as well as agreement, which need not be thoughtful.

The Lousy Hero?

We love our protagonists, our hero/heroines.  Why else would we write about them?
Writers often create lead characters that they like, or would like to be like, a good person with problems, someone sympathetic, maybe even adorable, certainly spunky.   But I believe the writer who doggedly creates the good-as-can-be hero/ine path is short-changing his or her work and development as a writer, as well, of course, as the reader.

What about adding serious flaws to your “good” character, give him/her self-caused problems to battle instead of the problems all coming from the dastardliness of others or vagaries of fate?  Battling ourselves is at least as interesting as battling the bad guys ‘n gals.  The problems can be more difficult than bad parents or misleading friends, Martians, Corpo-types, nature-gone-wild, Vampirish Werewolves, the government, the greed of others, etc.

Too often I’ve heard in critique groups, “I just don’t like the main character; why would I want to read about him/her?”  Well, I suppose that’s a legitimate perspective and has some audience out there in reader-land.  But writing a nasty antihero, can help deepen your understanding of character and bring greater dimension to your work.  Norman Mailer in The Spooky Art:  Thoughts on writing says, “…it helps if your character is average lousy but with striking contrasts and excellent elements.”

Badness is a juicy role.  We hate these characters because we love to hate them.   They’re so interesting.  Donald E. Westlake (<i>The Ax</i>, <i>The Hook</i>, and, writing as Richard Stark for the Parker mysteries) loved to use anti-heroes with few, if any, redeeming qualities.  But a large part of Westlake’s genius was in leading us to understand these “bad” guys, even seeing how we, his readers, could become so twisted as to kill the way they did.  Although, the frequency of their killing leads us again to doubt our changing opinion of them.  We as readers are in a rocking boat on a turbulent sea.  Isn’t that a great feeling while safe at home or the beach or (?) reading a book or Kindle/Nook/iPad/smart phone?

How do you feel about bad guy/gal protagonists?  Do they turn you off or intrigue you?  Who’s your favorite?  Have you tried to write one?  I welcome comments and will reply.