Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Bookmarks - Fast Fiction

Fast Fiction: Creating Fiction in Five MinutesFast Fiction: Creating Fiction in Five Minutes by Roberta Allen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Roberta Allen's Fast Fiction focuses, as one might expect from the title, on writing and refining flash fiction or what she and others call the "short short story." But she does include some information about taking these small nuggets and expanding them into longer stories and even writing novels.

The crux of Allen's method is to write for five minutes at a time, using short prompts to guide the freewriting experience. One could use what she calls a directive, such as "Write a story about a broken promise" or "Write a story about a crime," or the writer could use a picture and one of the questions posed for that picture. An example of the latter is a picture of a house with the question, "Who couldn't wait to leave this house?" The idea is to write whatever comes to mind about the topic until the timer is up without straining to worry about what the inner critic says to stymie the creative process.

As I read, I took some of her advice and modified the process to suit my own goals. I found that the experience of drafting such short works (mine were a little longer) was pretty liberating. I often started with something I thought would lead nowhere only to find an interesting (at least to me) story came out. As of this writing, I have not worked through the revision stage as she suggests, but Ms. Allen really wasn't breaking new ground for me.

So to a degree, I think the process can work. And as I reflect on the book, I think with modifications, the general idea could be used for a number of writing needs, some creative, others not so much. But I do have a serious reservation.

Ms. Allen focuses much of the book on feelings and "energy." Her answer to nearly every question about whether something works or doesn't is that it "feels right." She suggests looking for the lines that have the most energy and working from those in revision. While she talks about her own students work-shopping their exercises, she does not really address the fact that writers are not always good judges of their initial work.

In addition, Ms. Allen ignores the discipline it takes to be a writer, whether a novelist or a writer of flash fiction. I am not saying that feelings are not important, but there are far too many writers working out feelings and writing crap and many who say they are writing, but don't get the right feeling, and so produce next to nothing.

All that said, I think Fast Fiction contains some useful ideas, particularly for those writers who need to try something fresh or would be writers who can't seem to get started. But like most books on writing, one should take what can be of use and ignore the rest.

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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bookmarks -- Come Climb My Hill

I ran across this volume browsing in the library in Royse City. Normally, such a book turns me off, but perhaps my recent reading and commitment to walking has awakened something in me where I could not help but smile with this quaint poem and delightful pictures.Come Climb My Hill is about what you might expect, a call to wander in nature and seek what you may not even know what you need to find. But the poem avoids the polemic and sermonizing about finding God in nature (though it admits the possibility). I love the way it begins, saying to the open reader:

      you have listened
          to the heartbeat of the earth
      you have been invited to --

Along the way, the reader is reminded "only a Master Artist/can create a meadow." Okay, that line is a little hokey, perhaps, but Mr. Abbott manages to show its truth, not by argument or shouting to just look at nature, but by describing the details and delights of simply walking where nothing distracts the eye and ear.

Bette E. Bossen's drawings are more than complementary to Mr. Abbott's verse, but I think an integral part of experience of reading the book. They encourage the reader, like the words, to take forward steps to on a simple, but transformational journey.

The verse and pictures of Come Climb My Hill don't come close to Wordsworth, but they doesn't need to. This little book is an invitation worth accepting.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Bookmarks -- If These Trees Could Talk

If These Trees Could Talk, by Brian W. Smith, is about two boys who are sexually abused and plot together to kill the men who are molesting them. In addition to the victims and the perpetrators, we meet the mother of one of the boys and the teacher who knows something is wrong, but doesn't have the evidence to prove it. Sounds like an engaging story.

And for the most part, it is. If These Trees Could Talk is very interesting, though not really groundbreaking. It doesn't have to be unique to be a good book. Readers will be very interested in the characters and will want to know what happens next. But sadly, this is not as strong a novel as it could have been.

While overall, the story reads fine, it contains too much prose which, for lack of a better word, needs revision. There is needless repetition, sentences that lack life or punch, and lazy description where the author opts to refer to television shows rather than really describe. Those problems are not on every page, but appear frequently enough to put me off. There are also a few moments where the narrator inserts information or sermonizes, pulling the reader right out of the story instead of adding to it.

As I said, the novel is readable and interesting for the most part, and I think that most who finish it will find the twist at the end something to think about. (I'm not sure I care for it, but am willing to admit that my feelings may be a matter of my personal tastes rather than a flaw in the story itself.) Smith is at least trying to tell an important tale here, and he gives us perspectives that we might easily dismiss.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Bookmarks -- Wanderlust: A History of Walking

I loved this book, but I do have to get my one problem I had with it out of the way. Wanderlust, in all that it manages to cover, does not even mention Japanese haibun, a literary form that merges short prose and haiku. Many of these writings came out of long walking tours and travel accounts. Not mentioning Basho's Narrow Road to the Interior seems a crime to me.

That omission aside, I can still say that this is a terrific book, surprising even to me as a walker. From the English walking gardens to Las Vegas' disappearing public space, Solnit manages to weave history, literature, politics with her personal experiences concerning her subject.

Rebecca Solnit shows that walking was more than a mode of transportation "back then," but part of the method of meditation and rumination for many philosophers, writers, and artists; a form of protest; and the way one most intensely experiences the world. She also looks at the politics of walking and argues persuasively that walking has been denigrated for many years, and that much rests on the fight, not only for public space. Near the end of the book, she writes, "The fight for free space -- for wilderness and for public space-- must be accompanied by a fight for free time to spend wandering that space."

But Wanderlust is not a manifesto. It is filled with fascinating stories about the people and places where this history continues to live and be written. And even for me, one who has found great value in the simple walk, Solnit's book has inspired me to make walking not just exercise, but an integral part of life.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

TV Notes -- Thanks for Leaving out the Kissing

For me, nothing gets that TV shark a jumpin' quicker than a drama adding romance after the main narrative has been established. I'm not talking about sexual tension or stories where a romantic relationship is not part of the story. I am inconsolably miffed when a storyline that has never needed or much hinted at romance crosses that line where suddenly something akin to love sparks into a flame that, sadly, does not engulf characters, writers and producers who thought the "relationship" was a good idea. For me, even classic shows like ER and Moonlighting were never the same after the stories became hinged on how events would affect goofy, tossed-together relationships.
Why do these sudden blossoms of love and pollen bother me? First of all, romance radically changes the dynamic which drew me to the program in the first place. I'm not against love stories, but most often these plot devices are intended to "spice up" a show that doesn't need it. If the show needs something to make in more interesting, I say try writing a better show.

Second, it almost always produces something artificial, like teen drama. Watch most shows aimed at teens on Nickelodeon or ABC Family, and you have many characters whose "problems" are not real crises. When mainstream dramas add these liaisons, they also include the same sort of fake issues that make me a little nuts when my kids are watching the shows. It isn't sweet or cute. It is annoying.

As bright and interesting characters are relegated to gooey-eyed simpletons, their dialogue turns downright stupid. Even romantics should be tired of the cliches that get thrust into their speech. Several expensive minutes of air time is choked with uncomfortable filler that does nothing to help the story along.

This is why I want to tip my hat to the writers of "All's Well That Ends," the season finale of USA's In Plain Sight. The well paced and clever show about marshals working for the Federal Witness Protection Program (WITSEC) could easily have ended with Mary Shannon and her partner "finally" hooking up after years of working together and becoming best friends. Instead, writers gave us a thoroughly satisfying, and much more realistic and interesting conclusion.

I feared the romance was coming. After all, Mary and Marshall Mann (her partner) had not only developed a close relationship (made even more significant by Mary's reticence to open up to anyone), but with the return of Mary's long lost father, all the daddy issues were right up there to carry the plot, should that plot be in the hands of lesser writers. And no one knows daddy issues like the wise, intuitive Marshall. 

Further, tension was building because of Marshall's impending marriage. As I sat down to watch the final episode, I fully expected Marshall to leave his bride at the alter, profess his undying love for Mary, and well, you know the horrible rest of the story.

But no! Marshall tells Mary he loves her. However, it is a love that comes from a deep friendship, the sort of love almost never celebrated in our culture, as he tells her that she has got to stand on her own. "When you call, I will always come," he tells her. But it is clear he wants her to care about him enough to not call, so he is free in the new chapter of his life.

In Plain Sight was not a perfect show. It did have its share of formulaic episodes, and
sometimes even I got tired of Mary Shannon's misanthropic musings. However, it did a good job of drawing a unique character who has to navigate some of the same work and family problems all of us have and problems many of us cannot quite understand. Even when I didn't "like" Mary, I was always interested in her. We got to see a character grow without wanting to yell at the screen, "For Pete's sake, grow up!"