Tag Archives: writing

Review 159: Alphabet Juice

Alphabet Juice by Roy Blount Jr.

When I was last home for Christmas, my mother pretty much shoved this book into my hands and said, “You have to read this.” And far be it from me to ignore my mother’s advice, except possibly that little tidbit about being trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse and about to die of asphyxiation in deep space. I kinda spaced out on that one. Probably wasn’t important….

Anyway, Mom was right. Like nearly everyone else in my family, I am a lover of language. I read voraciously (as you well know), I’ve dabbled in writing – songs, stories and poems – and I make a living teaching non-speakers the joys of being English speakers. I grew up in a literate household, with a mother who used to teach me Latin roots whenever I asked “What does this mean?” My words are the way I express my thoughts and the way I understand the world, and as such they are as precious jewels – to be cherished and admired, used with elegance and style, and not wasted on fripperies and tacky indulgence.

He's much funnier than he looks. Really.

Roy Blount Jr is a kindred spirit indeed. He’s a humorist, the author of about two dozen books and a regular panelist on one of my favorite radio shows – Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me…. He talks with a slow southern drawl and never seems to hurry. This is the kind of person who savors his language and treasures his words. He’s not only interested in the meanings of words, or the sounds, but in the very feel of them. And if you’re the kind of person who never thought about how words feel when you say them, this book might do you some good.

Think of a word. Any word. How about doldrums? It’s a great word, a “sonicky” word, to use the term that Blount coins in this book to mean “a word whose sound doesn’t imitate the concept it represents (like boom or poof), but rather evokes the essence of the word.” Say that word out loud – doldrums. Doldrummmmsss…. If you were asked to come up with a word that describes a seemingly endless, unchanging environment, you could do worse than this one. It’s got flat vowels, heavy and pendulous, that practically sit in the bottom of your mouth, defying your tongue’s attempt to shift them. Then it ends in a flat hum that becomes a thin and lifeless hiss. Doldrums.

It is clear that Blount takes great pleasure in the sounds of words and the feelings of words as phonemes slide, crash and bump together, but he’s also interested in the etymology of words. He looks into the origins of some of the most innocuous words in the language – and some of the most useful – and looks at how they descend from the same ancient Proto-Indo-European roots. Take the P.I.E. room pag- which has given us such a diverse crop of words as pagan, compact, pole, pace and pageant. All this from a little word that meant, roughly, “to fasten.” The words that we speak have taken a long and wild journey to get into our minds and our mouths. Some were ported directly from Latin, others took a longer route. But every word that you speak has great history behind it.

There is no other name that this man could have. Not a coincidence, I'm sure.

Finally, of course, there is meaning. Without meaning, words are just sounds and aggregations of letters. One of the big questions that Blount hits over and over again is whether words mean something for a reason or if they’ve just been arbitrarily assigned to ideas and things. There are those who hold to that idea – that a word like “go” is no better or worse suited to its job than iku or jít or aller (Japanese, Czech and French, respectively). There’s something to that, I suppose – after all, if one sound really were perfectly suited to a concept, why would other languages bother to use so many variations? Or, y’know, exist? You would think that eventually the speakers of other languages would hear “Go” and think, “That’s IT! That’s the word!” If that were the case, it would probably have put me out of a job.

So there probably is some element of arbitrariness in language, but Blount isn’t very convinced by that idea. He says that there are so many words – such as doldrums or go, which fit their ideas so very, very well – how could such an appropriate set of sounds have just been arbitrarily given to these ideas? Words like scribble, itch, wrest, pool – words whose sounds and meanings match so very well, how could they be arbitrary?

The most likely answer, of course, is that language defines how you understand the world. As an English speaker Blount has inextricably connected these words and ideas in his head, and to suggest that, say, berceuse is perfectly suited to describe a soft song sung to children to get them to sleep would be asking an English speaker to put aside a whole lot of the associations he or she had made about lullaby.

This isn’t an academic book, though, so don’t worry about that. Blount has made a career out of entertaining with his words, and he doesn’t put that aside just because he’s doing language analysis. He brings up common words, unusual words, thought-provoking and laugh-inducing topics, all arranged – of course – alphabetically. You can jump backwards and forwards through the book, following the cross-references, and still enjoy it to its fullest. In fact, Blount recommends that you do so.

Genius!

Language is our way of making the world make sense, no matter what language it is. For those of us who are native English speakers, we look at the world through a complex and sometimes baffling language. It’s hard to learn (and hard to teach), sometimes frustrating to deal with and occasionally incapable of doing what we need it to do. But it’s part of our cultural heritage – our cultural DNA, if you will – and deserves appreciation. So take a gander at this book – read it, savor it, enjoy it, and then look at your language afresh. You’ll be glad you did.

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“English is an outrageous tangle of those derivations and other multifarious linguistic influences, from Yiddish to Shoshone, which has grown up around a gnarly core of chewy, clangorous yawps derived from ancestors who painted themselves blue to frighten their enemies.”
– Roy Blount, Jr., Alphabet Juice
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Roy Blount, Jr. on Wikipedia
Roy Blount, Jr.’s website
Alphabet Juice on Amazon.com

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Lost in the Stacks 12: The Year In Review

A very small sample from this year...

Well, 2011 was an interesting year. I got an iPad, with all that that implies, I started writing again, I completed NaNoWriMo, work got a bit more difficult and challenging, and DC Comics rebooted their universe again. All of that had an impact on how I read and what I read, and not all of it was good.

In this year in review podcast, I’ll talk about what went well in 2011 and what could have gone better. What I enjoyed and what I struggled with, just like everyone else in the world. On balance, I think 2011 went well for me – I hope it did well for you too. And if it didn’t, well… there’s always 2012.

At least, assuming the Mayans were wrong.

Happy New Year!

(Technorati claim – T3BBTZPCZ37P )

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Lost in the Stacks 11: The Lessons of NaNoWriMo

This is my pen - THE CREATOR OF WORLDS.

As you may know, I’m doing National Novel Writing Month this year – though it’s nearly over by now. The goal of this activity is to write 50,000 words in the thirty days of November. It’s not easy, and sometimes it’s downright frustrating, but it reveals a lot about being a writer that can help you on your way to joining the ranks of authors that you love to read. The main thing you learn is that being a writer means doing actual work. It’s not backbreaking (unless you have a crappy office chair), but it can be just as frustrating and difficult, or as fulfilling and exciting as any other kind of work out there. Chances are that you’ll go from one to the other from day to day.

In this episode, I talk about what I’ve learned from writing every day for six months, and how it really has helped me appreciate what the professionals had to go through in order to become pros. Whether I will one day be a professional or not isn’t really something I’m thinking about right now, but it’s certainly been fun finding out….

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Lost in the Stacks 4: Writers and Readers

With the debut of HBO’s “A Game of Thrones” miniseries and a new article in The New Yorker, the strange story of George R. R. Martin and his fans has been on my mind. So, in this episode of Lost in the Stacks, we examine the weird, often dangerously codependent relationship between the Writer and the Readers.

What does the writer owe to his or her readers, if anything? What can the readers honestly expect of their writer? What promises, implicit or explicit, have been made, and what happens when they’re broken?

Join me for an interesting conversation, and let me know what you think!

George R. R. Martin’s homepage
Finish the Book, George
Is Winter Coming?

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Filed under analysis, criticism, ethics, fans, fiction, George R. R. Martin, Lost in the Stacks, morality, reading, writing

Lost in the Stacks 3: Women in Fiction

This week, Scott Adams handed the internet a firebomb and then complained when it went off. In a blog post (deleted from his blog, but kindly reprinted here), he compared women asking for equal pay to children asking for candy. It roused the ire of the ‘net’s feminist population – rightly so – but his reaction of, “You’re just not smart enough to get it” was the icing on the cake.

Yes, ma'am....

But some good did come out of it – I started thinking about female characters in fiction. What difficulties do writers have in creating female characters, and why? How can we go about making sure that more writers do a better job at writing women?

It was an interesting topic to talk about, and I’m sure I made some mistakes or omitted some important details somewhere. After all, from my testiculated point of view, I’m bound to overlook something, so give the show a listen, drop me a comment and let me know!

Some links of interest:

Comics Alliance – ‘Dilbert’ Creator Scott Adams Compares Women Asking for Equal Pay to Children Demanding Candy
Feministe – Scott Adams’ alleged response to criticism
OverthinkingIt.com – The Female Character Flowchart
OverthinkingIt.com – Why Strong Female Characters are Bad for Women
Feminist Frequency – The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies
The Bechdel Test Movie List

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Filed under analysis, fantasy, fiction, gender roles, Lost in the Stacks, science fiction, Scott Adams, women, writing

Review 106: Eats, Shoots & Leaves


Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

This is how I know I’m a real English teacher – I have a shelf dedicated to books just about English. The history of English, the uses and misuses of English, and even the history of the alphabet we use. This is something I never expected to have in my personal library, that’s for sure.

So has my brain. (photo by Nathan Harrison)

But that’s all to be expected; I’m an English teacher, and people like me are supposed to read books like this. It’s professional development, or something. The weird thing about this book, a book dedicated to punctuation, of all things, is that it was popular with people who weren’t English teachers. Everyone was shocked by how well it sold, the author included. A book written as kind of a primal stickler scream somehow struck a chord with the general reading population. Perhaps there is some hope for our species after all….

The reason it sold well, of course, is that it’s well-written and entertaining to read. Far too many books about language are written by dusty intellectual Linguists who exude smugness with their impenetrable jargon and are completely inaccessible to the general public. I have those books on my shelves as well, and nothing this side of a double shot of NyQuil is as good at getting me off into slumberland. Ms. Truss, however, writes like one of us. She’s an ordinary person who loves her language and who just snaps every time she sees a sign like, “Apple’s – $1”. I share her pain.

Can't use white-out on neon, can you? (photo by James McNally)

The book is a well-mixed combination of history, usage and style. The tiny marks that make the written English word behave the way it does have come to us along a remarkable number of paths. In the last millennium or so, marks have been added, changed and removed over time as necessity dictated. One of her fears (and the impetus to write this book) is that we may be changing English to a new form that requires less of that rigid, form-fixing punctuation.

Or people just haven’t bothered to learn.

As she notes throughout the book, punctuation is one of those things that few people ever really get to learn. Our English teachers give it a once-over in elementary school, and then we never get a review of it, so we spend most of our lives just throwing around commas and apostrophes and hoping we get it right. More often than not, we don’t. And we’re afraid to ask anyone, lest we look like ignorant yobs.

But to master punctuation means more than just being a pedant and a nerd. Heavens, no. Mastering punctuation means controlling your language, which is controlling your thoughts. The vast difference between a sentence like, “The convict said the judge is mad” and “The convict, said the judge, is mad” should be enough by itself to illustrate how important proper punctuation is. In a language like English, so dependent on rhythm, timing and stress, punctuation is the substitute for our voice. It tells us when to speed up and slow down, which points need to be stressed and given special attention, and which points (like this one) can be safely disregarded, if one so chooses.

Only one member, mind you.... (photo by Lobstar28)

It would be very easy for Ms. Truss’ obvious frustration with the misuse of punctuation to overwhelm her and poison the book. Admittedly, she does at one point put together a kit for those who would be punctuation guerrillas and risk prison to set the world straight, but by and large she stops short at advocating actual lawlessness.

Ms. Truss understands that punctuation abuse isn’t something that people do intentionally – it’s largely a matter of ignorance, and she wants to help. What’s more, she’s funny. For example:

In the family of punctuation, where the full stop is daddy and the comma is mummy, and the semicolon quietly practises the piano with crossed hands, the exclamation mark is the big attention-deficit brother who gets over-excited and breaks things and laughs too loudly.

Every section in the book has sharp and clever humor, a description of something as simple as a comma made in such a way that you find yourself laughing out loud on the train.

Of course, whenever you get into this topic, you run the risk of finding yourself forced to one side or the other of the “proscriptive” versus “descriptive” debate. You know, the people who want to tell everyone else how to use language versus the people who want the speakers to decide for themselves how it is used. The latter smacks of classical democracy, and as both an English Professional and a person with a healthy distrust of The People, I’m hesitant to sign up for it. I like rules in language. I like having a common set of guidelines we can turn to in order to make sure we’re all getting the meaning that the speaker or writer is trying to convey.

WHAT? The fabulous fur's WHAT?? (photo by Trevor Coultart)

Unfortunately, for people like Truss or myself, it’s all too easy to cross that line from being the person who appreciates a bit of order to that person who writes letters to the editor because some headline writer used a colon where a semicolon would do. And I’ve seen internet flame wars go wild over this pro- or de- divide. People who could politely disagree with each other about Sarah Palin’s international policy experience will find themselves screaming bloody murder over whether or not you should put two spaces after a period.

What has to be remembered is this: there are rules to language, like it or not. Those rules, however, change, and no single one of us has any power to impel or obstruct that change. The best we can do is to make sure we are writing with clarity and precision so that our intended audience understands our thoughts with the least amount of effort on their part. Regardless of what you think of the rules, if the reader has to stop and ask herself, “Wait, what did he say?” then you have failed. So learn the rules. Once you’ve learned them, you’re free to do what you wish, but make sure you have them down cold.

So, if you’ve always wanted to know about how to use a semicolon, or you’re not sure if your commas are in the right place, or if you’ve ever driven someone to madness by dropping an apostrophe into a possessive “its” – and you know who you are – then this book is the one you need. Enjoy.

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“Using the apostrophe correctly is a mere negative proof: it tells the world you are not a thicko.”
Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots and Leaves

Lynne Truss on Wikipedia
Eats, Shoots & Leaves on Wikipedia
Eats, Shoots & Leaves on Amazon.com
Lynne Truss’ homepage

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Filed under humor, language, Lynne Truss, nonfiction, punctuation

Review 85: On Writing


On Writing by Stephen King

When I was in college, I sent a letter to Stephen King. It was the first letter I’d ever sent to an author – to any famous person, as far as I can recall – and I did my best to not sound completely fannish in it. I told him that I really liked his work, especially The Stand, and how I looked forward to seeing how other books came out, The Dark Tower series in particular. As far as I can remember, I kept my head. I was cool.

But I also did what I reckon many people do when they write to their favorite authors – I told him that I enjoyed writing as well, and I hoped I could be an author someday. In retrospect, I imagine King gets a lot of these letters, and after I’d sent it, I figured that was my stupid fanboy move. I knew what I wanted to happen next – I’d get a call from Stephen King who says, “You know, judging from the well-written letter you sent me, I would like to see an example of your fiction,” and so I’d send him the short story I was working on and he’d write back and say, “You’re BRILLIANT! I’m going to devote my remaining days to seeing that you become a writer of greatness! Stick with me, kid, and the world is your oyster!”

The advantage I have over other people with overactive imaginations is that I know when mine is bullshitting me. Honestly, I figured I’d never hear from him at all.

On that point, at least, I was wrong.

A few weeks later, I got a letter from none other than Stephen King himself! Included was a card, on which he thanked me for my kind words about his work, as well as a couple of photocopies of articles he had done about writing. I figure he had a whole stack of these, ready to send to every prospective writer out there, but it meant a lot to me that he had taken the time. The articles talked about how he wrote, and the advice he always gave to budding writers.

I figure he must have gotten a lot of letters like mine, because he eventually wrote this book. In it is nearly everything he knows about how to write well. I figure that he hoped people would stop asking when he published it, though I doubt people did. Those who want to be writers – and you can ask any published writer about this – believe that there’s a Secret to getting published. That there’s some special club of writers and agents and publishers who all know each other and in order to get in you have to go to live with John Scalzi and become his personal cat waxer for a year.

But it ain’t so. What those who are already in publishing will tell you is that the best way to get a story published is to write a great story. Do that, and your chances of success are much improved.

How, then, do you write a great story? All King can tell us – all any writer can tell us – is how he does it.

The first of the book is his Curriculum Vitae, in which he tells us about how he became a writer. It’s not a particularly surprising story, really. He gives us his memories of writing as a child, from knock-offs of horror comics to original works of horror and fantasy. The stories he tells, the memories that he relays to us show that he was interested in writing all his life, and the desire to write – no, the need to write – was something that has always been with him.

It follows him through his days as a neophyte novelist, breaking into the big time with the sale of Carrie, and how the personal and financial success he gained from that propelled him to write more and better. And, of course, there were the Dark Days. The drugs and the alcohol, the books he can’t remember writing and the days he can’t remember drinking through. He’s sober now, of course, but this is a warning – one of many peppered throughout the book: beware the Writers’ Traps. The illusion that you must be a drunk, a la Hemingway, to be a good writer, is one. He fell for it and, fortunately for us, he climbed his way out again.

Much like any trade, skill in writing is built by experience, and having the faith that you have something worth saying to the world. But even just having something to say and an unshakable faith won’t make you a good writer, so the second part of the book is a bit more practical: how do you make a story? Well, much like any trade, you need your tools. You need your grammar and structure and vocabulary so that you can present your ideas in a comprehensible form. You need your metaphor and simile, so that you’re not being too obvious in what you want to say. You need your symbolism, description and characterization, foreshadowing and nuance and dialog. But what you need the most is practice, patience and faith.

He walks through the steps of composition, character creation, and coming up with the essential through-line of your story. He gives us his own pet peeves as a writer (he hates adverbs passionately and says that the passive voice is to be avoided at all cost) and exhorts us to read as many different writers as we can. He gives us the benefit of his years of experience and the things he has learned, and says to us, “Now you try.”

King sets a very challenging bar, though – 2,000 words a day, every day, no exceptions. Well, for people just getting started he’s willing to be a little lenient: 1,500 words a day and you can have Sundays off. And you have to take it seriously, as you would any true craft. King recommends that you establish a Writing Space, ideally somewhere where you can close the door. Lose the distractions and take care of the reasons not to write.

And, as the fine folks at Nike would say, just do it.

Of course, if you’re new at this, most of what you write will be crap. In fact, even if you’re not new, the odds are that your first draft will be a mess. But if you have something to say, and you know what that is, then the story will shine through. You can polish it, revise, tweak and massage it until it’s something that you’re willing to let the rest of the world see.

It’s hard work, that’s for sure. At no point does King say that being a writer will be easy. He says that it’s sometimes thrilling, scary, exquisite, weird, toilsome, difficult, Sisyphean even. But never, ever easy. And there’s no guarantee that you’ll end up where he is. In fact, the odds are that you won’t be able to make a living as a writer. It’s certainly not impossible, of course – many men and women make that bar every year. But to write consistently at that level requires even more practice, patience and faith.

In the end, King is one writer who has most certainly made it big. He avoided destroying himself, and survived an accident that should have destroyed him, and he’s still writing. And if you get nothing else from this book, perhaps it is this lesson: a writer writes. No matter what, no matter why, a writer writes because that is what a writer must do to survive. If you’re willing to do that, if you have stories that you need to tell, then you might be a writer. It’s a scary thing to do, but who knows scary better than Stephen King? Take a read through this book, open up a fresh Word file, and get to work.

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“What follows is everything I know about how to write good fiction. I’ll be as brief as possible, because your time is valuable and so is mine, and we both understand that the hours we spend talking about writing is time we don’t spend actually doing it. I’ll be as encouraging as possible, because it’s my nature and because I love this job. I want you to love it, too. But if you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well – settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on.”
– Stephen King, On Writing
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Stephen King on Wikipedia
On Writing on Wikipedia
On Writing on Amazon.com
Stephen King’s website

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Review 84: Story



Story by Robert McKee

Why are there so many bad movies out there? I mean seriously – you and I both know that of all the films that are released every year, we probably get only one or two that are actually good. There’s some that are good enough to spend an afternoon watching, maybe enjoyable enough that we’ll want to watch it again on DVD later. But so many are just… bad.

It is my own fault, I think, for seeing Transformers 2. I have no one to blame but myself.

The really scary thing is that, in the summer of Transformers 2 and G.I. Joe, these were the best stories they had available. Seriously. If they had a better movie to make, one that would get a bigger audience and thereby bring in more money, don’t you think they would have made it? The only reason you put a piece of misery like TF2 together is because you have no better options available.

Why, then, should this be so? What happened to the great scripts of long ago? You know, back in my day, when we had good movies, dammit, and we didn’t need all this fancy See-Gee-Eye to fill up screen time. When we could go home quoting movie lines and we had characters that inspired us and stories that shaped our lives?

Well, it’s probably important to note that even in the Good Old Days, the good stories were still grossly outnumbered by the mediocre and bad ones, and there’s a very good reason for that: writing is hard.

If you take nothing else away from this book, you will remember that – writing a good story is work, and if you’re not willing to do the work that it takes, then you’re not going to write a good story. Oh, you might luck out and write a story that’s good enough, and there might be enough truly bad stuff out there that someone will be willing to publish or produce your “good enough” story. But that won’t make people like it, watch it, read it or care about it. If you want your work to have real resonance, to have an effect on people long after they’ve put it down or walked out of the theater, then you have to be willing to do more than just type a couple thousand words every day. You have to know your story from the inside out, know the characters better than they know themselves, and have a clear vision of what it is you want to say.

A good story, McKee believes, is the writer telling us “Life is like this.” And if it’s a good story, well-told, then we’ll believe him.

And that’s the reason for the title of this book – STORY. Everything serves the story, McKee says, including you. But if you know how the story works, and how to make the story serve your own ends, then you can create a piece that will live on in memory.

This book is not an instruction manual, and the things that McKee talks about are not rules or even guidelines. They are principles of storytelling, guiding ideas that underpin every good story ever told, and the lack of which are what leads to mediocre or even bad storytelling. If you follow these principles, McKee believes, keep them in your mind and be willing to work with them, then you’ll be able to produce work that will sell.

One of the examples that gets used throughout the book is the idea of the Gap. People who want something, you see, will usually do the minimum required to get that thing. So if I want to get into my friend’s home, I won’t bring my lockpicks and jimmy open the door. I’ll probably just knock on it and ask to be let in. If that happens, then I get what I expected to get, and that scene should therefore be cut from the manuscript.

What if, however, I knock on the door and my friend refuses to let me in? There is the Gap, a difference between what I expected to happen and what actually happened. Now I have to react to that, and his reaction to my reaction will drive the scene on. By asking yourself what the character expects, and then asking, “Okay – what’s the opposite of that,” you can drive the story along, make it interesting, and provide your characters with more to do than just knock on doors.

He also talks about the Controlling Idea of a story – what is the meaning of your story? It could be something like, “Love brings people together through adversity,” or “Those who use others lead meaningless lives,” or “The best life is one where challenges are overcome.” It is the spine of your story, the idea that holds everything together. By knowing what your story is really about, you can make sure that every scene, every chapter serves that end.

From the big ideas of characterization, symbolism and the Controlling Idea, McKee moves to structure and the true nuts and bolts of screenwriting – the beat/scene/sequence/act structure that governs a film and determines how the overall structure works. He looks at different movies and analyzes how the story is structured, both in regards to the main plot and any sub-plots (which are really good for propping up a slower second act), points out different ways to introduce the Inciting Incident of your story, where the climaxes and turning points might go, and how to get there and keep your audience interested.

There’s so much in the book, it really is like a handbook of story-writing. While it’s geared towards screenwriters, the principles of storytelling can apply to any medium. He does talk a little bit about other media as well, mainly in the section on adaptation. If you’re a playwright or a novelist, there’s lessons in this book that you can definitely use, while ignoring the exhortations not to try and put stage and camera directions into your screenplay.

I’ve had an on-again, off-again love of writing since I was a kid. There have been times when I wrote non-stop, putting out stories left and right. Not necessarily good ones, mind you, but writing nonetheless. And then there have been periods – like now, for example – where there are no stories that burn to be told. I miss it, honestly, but reading this book kind of stoked the flames a little. I got to thinking about old stories that I could revise, and a couple of ideas that I had consigned to the filing cabinet of my brain proved to be good guinea pigs for some of McKee’s principles.

Does that mean I’m on my way to literary superstardom? Not without a whole lot of hard work it doesn’t. Much like with Stephen King’s On Writing, one of the biggest lessons you get from this book is that creating a story of any quality requires hard, consistent work, and lots of it. McKee gives some good tips on the kind of writing process you should use to shorten the writing time – making more efficient use of your time and creativity, essentially – but at no time does he claim that making a good story is easy. What he does do, though, is make you believe that the hard work is worth doing.

As much as I would like to heap praise on McKee, though, there was something that stuck in my brain like a splinter when I read this. It’s a little thing, it’s a very nerdy thing, but it’s a thing nonetheless.

At various points in the book, in order to illustrate one principle of storytelling or another, McKee uses the scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Vader reveals that he is Luke’s father. McKee is right in that it’s an excellent example of a perfect storytelling moment. At that instant, we re-think everything we’ve seen before with regards to Luke and Vader. We understand that Yoda and Obi-Wan weren’t necessarily worried that Luke needed training just to be a good Force user – they were worried that he’d turn out like his father. Everything we thought we knew about those characters had to be re-evaluated, and in terms of simple storytelling, it was a brilliant moment.

Take the Gap principle I talked about earlier. There’s Luke, at Vader’s mercy. Luke expects that Vader is going to kill him, but what happens? He says, “I am your father.” And then what does Vader expect? He certainly doesn’t expect Luke to throw himself off the antenna, choosing death over giving in to the Dark Side. The viewer doesn’t have any idea what to expect either, and that’s what makes for a great movie moment.

The trouble is, I don’t think McKee has actually watched that movie in a very long time. He gets lines wrong (“You can’t kill me, Luke. I’m your father”) and gets entire sequences of events wrong – he has Vader reveal his paternity to Luke, who then attacks him, forcing Vader to cut off his son’s hand. Vader offers to let Luke rule by his side, in response to which Luke hurls himself to what he imagines is his death. And every time McKee brings up Star Wars as an example, I found myself wanting to scream, “Did you even see the movie? Or at least look up the script??” I mean, I know the book was published in 1997, but if he’s big in Hollywood, he should at least be able to get his hands on one precious copy. Or go to Blockbuster and rent the damn movie.

Anyway, that was my one little gripe with McKee, and it did make me wonder what else he might have gotten wrong in his details. I mean, his reading of the scene worked, and wouldn’t have been any different if he had gotten it right, but still – it’s a pretty big mistake to make. I can only hope that he managed to fix it in later editions.

That much aside, the principles he puts forward are sound, and it’s the kind of book that you want to keep close at hand while you’re putting your story together. If you find yourself hitting a wall, just start browsing through the book again and something will come to you. Whether you’re a writer of screenplays, stage plays, novels or short stories, this is a book you really should read. It’ll help you see what you’re doing in a whole new light.

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“Story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence.”
– Robert McKee, Story
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Robert McKee on Wikipedia
Robert McKee’s homepage
Story on Amazon.com

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Review 52: Maps and Legends


Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

In this book, Michael Chabon has done something very interesting – he has uplifted me and humbled me at the same time. It’s a weird feeling, that combination, probably because I’m reviewing a book about literary criticism and the telling of stories, which put me in a kind of meta-reviewer mindset. Reading this book not only forced me to think about myself as a reader, but as a reviewer of and writer about books.

Let’s do the first part and then I’ll get to the second.

The beginning and ending of this collection of essays focuses on something very important regard the telling of stories: the idea that reading is entertainment. Reading a book or a short story, Chabon maintains, should be, first and foremost, fun. It should be a good way to rest your mind and give it a break from the rigors and stresses of daily life. Movies, music, juggling – those are all labeled entertainment and are generally accepted as being fun, so why not books?

With me as a reader, Chabon was certainly preaching to the choir. I’ve always regarded reading as fun, and if I have time to spend with a book, then it’s time well spent. But even I, the reader looking for a good time, have fallen prey to the idea that reading a book should Mean Something. I mean, look back on these reviews for a moment. How many times have I dug deep to find some kind of moral or philosophical “lesson” in a book that was probably written with nothing more in mind than to pass a few pleasant hours on an airplane? Far too often, and more often than not it was born of a desire to make the review a little longer than, “I liked this book and you will too.”

Many readers have this secret shame that we’re reading for fun. This drives us to pick up books that we wouldn’t normally read – and in my case here I’m thinking about pretty much anything written by a Russian in the 19th and 20th centuries – in order to pick up some kind of intellectual cachet. We wander around the bookstore, dawdling before the “literature” section in the hopes that someone will see us there instead of in the science fiction/fantasy ghetto, which is where we really want to be. Chabon suggests that it is this ghettoization of books that contributes to such book snobbery and, if he had his way, he would see it gone. Every bookshop would be one section – Books.

The title of his book, Maps and Legends evokes this feeling. Maps, you see, serve two purposes. They chronicle where you have already been, showing you the roads you took and the things you saw. But, and possibly more importantly, they show you where you haven’t been yet. Who among you has never sat down and looked at a map and thought, I wonder what’s there? Even a map of the town in which you live can be oddly alluring. I lived in Kyoto for nearly nine years, and yet I could still look at a map and wonder where I should go next.

Books, Chabon maintains, should have the same quality. When I go into a modern bookstore, I head straight for the ports I know. I don’t explore distant shores or unknown islands. I’m provincial, a homebody of the literary sort. Perhaps if there were a store where the map was different, the layout unfamiliar, I might discover new worlds that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.

So this is where the uplift comes – Chabon inspires me to be a better reader. To not only read more, but to read better. To not gloss over the details in order to enjoy the book, but to actively search for them. To stare at some part of a story and wonder, What is that? Have I been there before?

Where he humbles me is simply in his writing. For the purposes of this book, he and I are in the same field – talking about books and writing and how they affect us. And Chabon is much, much better at it than I am. His writing is a pleasure to read – not in that frenetic, sensory overload Tom Wolfe kind of way, but more in the same way one would enjoy a really good meal. You want to pause and roll the words around in your head for a moment before you move on. He digresses and wanders and then comes back again, just when you were wondering where he was going with all this.

In the essays to be found in this book, he looks at the immortal allure of Sherlock Holmes, the bleak horror of The Road, and the unfortunate lack of anything worthwhile for children to read. He talks of golems and death and imaginary homelands for speakers of dying languages, and makes it all compelling and enthralling. I want to write like Chabon when I grow up.

If there’s higher praise, I don’t know it.

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“The brain is an organ of entertainment, sensitive at any depth, and over a wide spectrum. But we have learned to mistrust and despise our human aptitude for being entertained, and in that sense we get the entertainment we deserve.”
– Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends
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Michael Chabon on Wikipedia
Maps and Legends on Wikipedia
Maps and Legends at Amazon.com

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