SKFigler’s Writing Blog

I’ll be posting about fiction writing primarily for readers, which of course includes creators of stories.  Posts will include insights and advice from great and good writers.  Also some bad advice, which I hope I’ll recognize and point out, such as the age-old platitude to “write what you know.” I hope to post once a week, probably on the weekend.  If I miss a blog, I hope you’ll miss it, too.

 

Influence from Great Writers

Nathan Bransford (author, agent, media manager) asked on his blog“Which Writers Most Influence Your Work?” It’s a short blog, but generated a great deal of response.  It’s worth looking at, if you can get past the Mom and Dad and “My second-grade teacher said…” stuff, although my response slinks a bit toward that.  So, here goes:

At Oglethorpe University (in the dark ages half a century ago) my senior English professor said, “Steve, you have a very nice way with words; you just need something to write about.” I took that as an encouraging comment, whether it was meant that way or not. A year later I was in a writing class at The New School (NYC) in which the teacher was so harsh that I gave up writing fiction for decades. Really. So, they were both influential regarding my writing.

Fortunately over the years I grew up, grew thicker skin, and began to write fiction, my first and long neglected writing love.  The writers who have influenced me in style, process, structure, and thought include Ron Carlson, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Philip and Henry Roth, Alice Munro, Hemingway, Toni Morrison, Chandler, Vonnegut, Michael Chabon, E. L. Doctorow, Donald E. Westlake, Bernard Malamud, Melville, and of course Nabokov. Not all at the same time, certainly, but all are behind me kicking my butt generally forward (a self-indulgent fantasy, but not a bad one to have).

Below, I add for my dear readers just how (or why) some of the authors I’ve listed have helped me.

Ron Carlson:  a great teacher and writer of short stories and accessible novels.  He grabs everyday life, wrestles it from the mundane, and makes it meaningful.

William Faulkner:  His more famous works are FAMOUS and worthy, although the style doesn’t fit the modern audience.  Read his earlier works first, which are simpler (Mosquitos and Soldier’s Pay).  Don’t ignore Light in August, a great read, not in the stream-of-consciousness style in which one sentence could run for pages. He does “bad guys” so deeply that you almost root for them.

John Steinbeck is down-to-earth, gritty, and “real.”  Great characters who struggle with right and wrong.  My favorite is Winter of Our Discontent.

Vladimir Nabokov can be hard to read.  (Hey, he’s Russian.)  He’s very internal, not plot driven, actually more personal issue/problem oriented.  Most people know about Lolita, whether they’ve read it or seen the movie.  Many people consider Lolita a book about pedophilia, although the real subject is obsession, which is why I call his work problem oriented.  Amazingly poetic writing given that English is his third language.

Kurt Vonnegut is funny, caustic, incisive, and terse.  I strive for these things.

Donald E. Westlake also writes terrific bad guys.  Read The Ax to see how Westlake goes so deeply into the bad guy that you can understand why he’s bad and maybe start rooting for him (or her).  I became comfortable writing “bad” characters from reading his.  Maybe too comfortable.

Henry Roth shows how to write three-dimensional children who are able to be “smarter than their age” in Call It Sleep.

IMPORTANT NOTE:  You may be wondering where my fiction is (if not necessarily where you can buy it.)  Fair question.  I’ve written four novels and a book of short stories.  I just haven’t published them.  Why?: A)  I love writing stories; sending them out for publication steals time from that;  B) Fear of failure; C) Fear of success; D) All of the above.  But two of the novels will soon be available on Amazon/Create Space and/or BookBaby, affordably priced.  I’d love to know what you think of the novels.

 

 

Best Simile

Literary writing often flows with similes and metaphors.  Also, not so literary writing.  And, of course, poetry.  Here is the best simile I’ve yet encountered, and it comes from the pen of a critic, not a “creative” writer:

“…tombstones cried out of the earth, like teeth around a scream.”

This is from John Leonard upon visiting the Jewish Cemetery in Prague.  (He was writing about Vaclav Havel, a poet and playwright, as well as Czechoslovakia’s last president and the Czech Republic’s first president.)

What is the best simile you’ve ever read, or written?  And what do you think of my assertion that the writing of critics, as critics, is not “creative?”

Who are they?

  • WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?:
  • They count on weakness of resolve in the opposition.
  • They operate with the siege mentality (keep on bombing, no matter the cost, and the opposition will give in).
  • They are contemptuous not only of democratic (progressive; Rooseveltian) policy, but of the opinions of ordinary people.
  • They know best; after all, they’re rich and successful and Democrats work for them.
  • God (according to John Wesley, etc.) has given them wealth and power, therefore, they are right, no question about it.
  • They are America’s royalty, even though America supposedly has no royalty.
  • They allow no doubt (though some of them have it).  It’s a classic case of circular reasoning, reinforced, of course, by each other (which is known in adolescent circles as a “circle jerk.”)
  •  Even when they are in the minority, they act as if (1) they are in the majority, or (2) majority/minority doesn’t matter.
  • They see themselves as granite, even though they may be sinking in quicksand.
  • The very fact that “health reform is Mr. Obama’s signature domestic achievement,” is reason enough to prevent it from happening, even if the majority of Americans want it.
  • They will attack their own from further on the right rather than allow their own members to be soft on anything toward the center of right.

 (Read this again; it’ll make sense.  Sort of stream of ‘un’consciousness; think Snopes thinking in Faulkner.  Or, just let it ride and move on.)

AND SOME OTHER  RELEVANT THOUGHTS:

  • When did American politics become dysfunctional?  (I think somewhere around 1800.)
  • We’ve been fortunate to survive, possibly by the grace of the Great Spirit.
  • Our government, all branches and persuasions of it, has ridden itself into a box canyon.  Like watching one of those old Westerns, we’ll certainly see what happens.  And please clean up around your seat.
  • Ask yourself this question:  Are “Democracy” and “Capitalism” incompatible?  See where it takes you.  (I’m asking you to think, not simply to react as you’re used to.)

 

 

William Faulkner’s War Wisdom

“For six thousand years we labored under the delusion that the only way to stop a war was to get together more regiments and battalions [including, of course, more and more efficient technology of murder] than the enemy could, or vice versa, and hurl them upon each other until one lot was destroyed and, the one having nothing left to fight with, the other could stop fighting.  We were wrong, because yesterday morning, by simply declining to make an attack, one single French regiment stopped us all.”

This passage from William Faulkner’s [with one small bracketed addition] A Fable says  so much so directly (for Faulkner).  A few decades later First Lady Nancy Reagan said it even more succinctly (which is not to say better) with “JUST SAY NO,” although her focus was sex, not war.  Lysistrata combined the two—war and the withholding of sex—to great effect.

Wouldn’t it be truly glorious, efficient, and wise if those who made war happen had to do the fighting, just them, no armies to do the dying for them?  But humanity as a whole, judging by our long record, has been well equipped with brain-power while short-changed on wisdom.

Others have raised the message, too, but I like Faulkner, so I offer his words to you.  Yet, perhaps the most troubling rendition of this message comes from Dalton Trumbo in the form of “Johnny Got His Gun,” a 1939 novel about World War I, made into a 1970 movie.  It’s the story of an American soldier who loses all his limbs and half his brain, so that he has no sight, hearing, speech, yet is alive and thinking, wondering what happened, where he is, who’s there, though the medical staff at the field hospital don’t know of his ability to think, only that his heart still beats.  The opening moments of the film showing generals and politicians and the “glory” of war provide the message behind the credits and a military drum-beat.  Then comes the bomb blast.  Then the army surgeons speculating over Johnny’s delimbed body.

I offer nothing new today, just a reminder from a great writer in our leaders’ latest moment of searching for war.  I love finding gems such as this and feel spurred to pass them along.  A Fable is about World War I, the “war to end all wars,” (a phrase attributed to Woodrow Wilson), was published in 1950, but entered my consciousness just this week.  Lysistrata is a play by Aristophanes first performed in Greece in 411 BCE. which I first encountered in college (Oglethorpe University).  Being young and not yet smart, I was of two minds about the anti-war message (Peloponnesian War) of Lysistrata, actually three.  First (or last), it is a hoot.  More importantly, it spurred my own then uber-masculine urge to fight to defend whatever, while contrarily opening my mind to the peaceful bliss of Canada.  Fortunately, I turned out to be 4-F and have lived out my life in relative peace in this, my nation of war-willing leaders.

Circling back to Faulkner’s opening quotation, the expected price of refusing to engage the enemy in battle is a bullet in the back from one’s own officer, but that’s another story.

Wm. Faulkner home movie – 1949

The Millions does it again, finds and presents something of great interest and value to fiction writers.  In this case it’s a 15-minute gem of William Faulkner (offered in five  3-minute segments, as the technology of the time was so limited) just after he’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949.  These short films show Faulkner in his home town of Oxford, Mississippi, interacting with friends and neighbors and giving a graduation speech to the high school.  It’s scripted to show Faulkner at his interpersonal and philosophic best, which is pretty damned good.  Each brief segment provides memorable stuff.  Enjoy.

Faulkner film-1949

“Unrelateable” Heroes: new coinage, old problem

Are we in a new era of word coinage?  Bill Morris, who publishes on-line at The Millions, thinks so.  He offers “fracking,” “illliquid,” and “repurpose” among other coinages.  In the following excerpt, “relateable” is a new coinage in the context of a story’s main character.  It’s particularly relevant to writers concerned with how readers might respond to an “unsympathetic” (i.e., bad-ass) protagonist.

                                    EXCERPT FROM:

“THE DEBASED ART OF COINING WORDS: A GLOSSARY”

by Bill Morris

“Relateable – A character in a novel or movie who has qualities that readers or viewers can easily recognize, identify with, and embrace. It’s a barometer of our culture’s watery values when the highest praise for a fictional character is that he or she is familiar, unthreatening, and easy to like. It reduces novels and movies to the level of a high school popularity contest, and it goes a long way toward explaining why so few Americans travel to remote, exotic, difficult locales. What ever happened to the glories of the unfamiliar, the discomfiting, and the odious? I’m thinking specifically about John Self, the scabrous, lecherous, loathsome – and hilarious – protagonist of Martin Amis’s best novel, Money [a Suicide Note]. He’s loveable precisely because he’s so…I hate to say it…he’s so gloriously unrelateable.”

        The full article is interesting and funny, not too long, and worth a tumble.