Month: February 2015

James Scott Bell’s “Write your novel from the middle”

midpoint(from the perspective of having a completed draft)

The premise is that we can find at the center of a novel’s manuscript a scene that defines what the story is all about. And within that scene there is often a particular moment that brings theme, plot, and character into focus, sometimes as bright and faceted as a diamond.  Bell calls it a “look in the mirror moment.” His examples help explain what he means, and they are convincing.

It is this center moment that, during revision, a writer can rewrite towards or away from, before and after. It is a fulcrum point, the center nougat of the candy. Which is why Bell’s book is of considerable value to a novelist stuck in the throes of a long revision, unable to fix the path from page one to The End.  Bell’s little secret finds the heart, if indeed it’s there. I don’t imagine any author consciously produces a mid-point that represents his entire book. It just happens. Bell uses the term magic.

I was surprised as hell to find the middle moment in my own comparatively unstructured draft. I divided the page count by two and there it was, obvious and lucid – my book’s thematic moment. Not perfect and absolute but pretty damn close. This was inspiring to say the least, as some sort of wizardry affirmation that my book does have a heart. This discovery has been very helpful in the surrounding revisions before and after that point. For this magic trick, I’d buy Mr. Bell a drink if I ever ran into him.

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Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons, by Herbert Warren Wind

hoganWhat’s a golf book doing among the rest of these literary books? Because it has stylized, lofty, quirky writing. It’s the most interesting and entertaining book about how to swing a golf club that I ever read.

Herbert Warren Wind was a sportswriter, of golf primarily. He wrote for Sports Illustrated a while and for The New Yorker for several decades. He lived to nearly 90 and died in 2005. The Hogan book came out in 1957.

It is the most famous golf instruction book ever produced. Many golf books after it are repackaged derivatives. The language is formal and wordy and over-wrought. Half Eisenhower didactic and half Victorian ornate. The info is still there.

Hogan said he actually meant to understate his golf tips and allow the readers to study and learn by implication. The aha! moments would make them better golfers.  The dense eloquence of Wind’s stern and repetitive instructions makes this difficult. But the advice is there, ready to be mined and refined. There are subtleties if one looks for them. The expert drawings by Tony Ravielli help make the book succeed.

Some examples of Wind’s eccentric writing style (based on Hogan’s SME input, of course):

“It may seem that we have gone into unwarranted detail about the elements of the correct grip. This is anything but the case. Too often golfers mistake the generality for the detail.”

“While it is dynamically important for a golfer not to depart from his plane at any time during the second part of his swing, being consciously attentive to it does not help him the way a consciousness of his backswing plane promotes a fine, functional backswing.”

“Interestingly enough, drinking some ginger ale, because of its effect on the kidneys, seems to prevent the hands from feeling too fat and puffy.”

“Consciously trying to control the face of the club at impact is folly. You cannot time such a delicate and devillish thing.”

“Don’t groove your waggles.”

 

 

February Toast (reprise)

Pip pip cheerio and saludos cheers –
Let’s drink to ancient presidents
and torturous valentines,
moving trucks and red red wines –
snowstorms on Sunday, flesh in the tropics,
neighbors we hate, incomplete biopics,
Atlantic-striped ties stained by nicotine,
bluesy friends whacked on Benzedrine,
boys soaked in hormones with guises and roles,
girls cloaked in perfume, spongy dark souls.

Bang one down for month two.
Within its four hazardous weeks
before the lion wheezes and creaks,
all left sane will likely go mad
Locked in cabins, no relief to be had.
We will try free verse with carriage returns
Fading like this – as our memory burns
Laughing hee hee at the wiki watchee
snacks on our knee, worshippin’ tee vee.

Whoop whoop and down the hatch –
Here’s to dinosaurs ever thirsty in museums,
to randy sailors and plump manatees,
to untended graves, the frigid north breeze.

The Joads drink gin on freeway exits,
Elephants stampede an invisible nexus.
The sirens of fate sing a bitter bolero,
while demons dance al contrario;
Between the poles of the morally upright
Lovers speak their clever lies at night.

Blinky winky mix me a stinky –
Another round for tavernous ghosts
Mythical heartthrobs and misguided boasts,
Black leggings over soiled pink lace
Reproduction rehearsals of the human race.

Wise are the beaten the noble the dying,
Into our beers lost chances go sighing,
By our breath and brain we’re fogged,
Our Febby pipe frozen and clogged.

Cold bad luck and electrostatic hugs,
tyrant landlords, someone else’s bugs,
Bad trombone, influenza, and wat’ry stew,
Roll a joint doobie doo,
Get us past this month, please hurry too.

from my book “February Toast,” published in 2014.  

Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster

aspectsThe wisdom and knowledge in Forster’s essays are revealed in direct proportion to the reader’s experience as a novelist.

Published in 1927, it is definitely not a book of quick-reference tenets set in boldface font, like we see in contemporary writing guides. Forster’s aspects are just that: aspects or features employed in famous novels that can be perceived and patiently considered, even modeled, by the growingly astute (and eventually graying) reader-slash-writer.

The range goes from what is story to the necessary ingredients, such as the required vitality of rounded characters and their expression through actions, to the intent of the whole and its weight by design. We get a few instructive gems along the way:

“The king died, and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.

Consider what Forster discusses in the “rhythm” of a novel. Similar to the repeating “dididdy dum” of Beethoven’s Fifth, prose can have a recurring beat (cf. Kerouac and jazz). In masterwork novels, deeper rhythms are also at play and harder to recognize. These are persisting images or actions that play to our cognizance of theme, like symphonic leitmotifs in language. Proust, as shown in an example, does this sort of thing with food and plants and snippets of a sonata, items that are weaved into the overall product as touch-points to something resonant and more centrally important – something artfully made familiar to us.

Forster says there are novels of fantasy and novels of prophecy, and the second is higher in his regard because it addresses universal themes and reaches mythic proportions. His commentary and examples are intriguing, He invites us to read the great books and brings them alive by argument and illustration.

Forster dishes about major novels of his time and some prior to, including Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights with a brooding milieu that is itself the ultimate mythic character; Joyce’s Ulysses (he calls it mud-slinging at traditional novel values); DH Lawrence (gets his high esteem as “prophecy” writing); character Scheherazade (the ideal story presenter using cause and effect plus suspense); George Eliot (grand, but valued more by quantity than artfulness); Melville (immense and grand, and the novel Moby Dick is a whaling yarn sandwiched by poetry).

By book’s end we have taken a survey course on Essentials of a Novel and can re-join Forster’s class and learn more on each annual visit. Provided we re-read carefuly and study in light of our own writing. His afterword contains anxiety about the future of the form, which of course still exists nearly ninety years later. Maybe the ongoing strength and perpetuity of the novel is due to on-going honor paid to many of the aspects described. Forster’s documentation is therefore, among other virtues, heroic.