Friday, February 19, 2016

To Kill a Writing Prompt

Horton Foote

Reaper Report. Thriller Guy can’t let Harper Lee’s death go by without mentioning that To Kill a Mockingbird was a great book and a great movie. But you knew that. TG recommends reading the screenplay for the movie by the masterful Horton Foote.

Thriller Guy’s pal Larry has a good blog entry over at TheNon-Fiction Novelist about writing prompts. Writing prompts are the little exercises that writing teachers hand out to writing students to get their pumps primed, or something. The idea is, I guess, if you get someone writing anything, just writing, they will then leap into their own work with a sense of purpose and vigor. Bullshit. What a waste of writing time. No real writers do this, trust me. Real writers, fiction or nonfiction, write to earn money, either today or tomorrow, and no one ever made money writing someone else’s idea so they could then be in the mood to work on their own idea. TG is aware there are those of you out there who will now send me yet another of those mewling comments about how you write for “ideas” and for the sheer love of writing, etc. etc. And just because there are those who need a further explanation -- this doesn’t mean that when you’re writing your novel you’re writing with the sole goal of making big money, that a publisher is going to immediately pick it up and buy it (those days are long gone). What writing for money means is that you should write it with enough thought and care to produce a work that a publisher or reader will pay for the pleasure of publishing or reading.

So stop writing little exercises where writing teachers, how-to-write books or websites give you a subject and a time limit and tell you it’s going to be fun. Writing isn’t fun. Just get to work.

But TG would like to suggest that reading the right, or wrong thing before writing can certainly influence one’s writing style, for better or worse. So a few minutes of reading can be very valuable.

TG writes in many different styles. When writing time travel novels one “trick” is to hint at the cadences and styles of the period one is writing in. This is what pal Larry calls writing in “old.” As opposed to, say, writing in Spanish. TG’s alter ego, Allen Appel, gets this process moving by reading letters, newspapers and even novels written in the period in which his novel is set. Even five minutes of this is enough to channel your writing brain into, again, the cadences of the period. You don’t want to copy anything other than the sound and the rhythm.

An extreme example of this recently came Appel’s way. Several years ago he decided to challenge himself by learning how to write a novella rather than a full-length novel. The subject would be the most unlikely he could come up with. The winner? Chickens. Could he write a novella or novellas in several different styles about chickens? Stories that would work as stories and not jokes or simple pastiche? The result was The Christmas Chicken, The Flock, and The Maltese Chicken. (All three novellas are available for Kindle here.)

The Christmas Chicken was recorded by the incomparable Brad Wills and is available on Recently Brad decided to record The Flock, which meant that Appel was going to have to go back and re-edit that novella to make sure it was in good shape for recording. At the same time, he has been working on his memoir (a shorter version of which can be read at the blogsite http://mylifeinthebigredband). The memoir is written in, well, memoir style, whatever that is. In this case sort of breezy and humorous. The Flock is written in the style of H. P. Lovecraft, and the two are decidedly different. Here are examples, the first paragraph of each piece.

“So in that summer that was not summer, for the cold never left the land, I went to a deep woods known as Wolfsbane, far from cities and towns, to an odd community that lived with whatever strange Gods they worshipped, wanting to be left alone, the lot of them, and the world was happy for it to be so. They called the Hunter, as others have called before, and I came. But it was not wolves who were the bane of these people, though at the time I did not know that, no, not wolves, not Canis Lupus, creatures who ran the cold woods and howled into the deep dark night, though they be fearsome creatures themselves, but others, far more mysterious, and more terrible. It was these that compelled the people of Wolfsbane to summon the Hunter. And if I knew then what I know now, I would not have responded to that summons. But that is Life, is it not? To never know? Yes, Life. And Death.”

My Life in the Big Red Band.  It was one week into the first summer of band practice when I
first had my ass kicked. I don’t mean that in the general sense of the term, like being beat up in a fight. I mean having another person literally kick me in the ass. Getting beat up in a fight would be a good way to begin a memoir, but this is nothing like that. Pain, loss, abuse are all perfectly good stories to reveal a life shaped by adversity. God knows enough true stories have begun with a belt, a fist, or a wire hanger smacking a child in the face. But this is anything but that. In fact, it’s the opposite of a life forged by adversity, more a life shaped by mostly good fortune. Where’s the drama in that, you might ask? I don’t know, I guess we’ll just have to find out.”

As you can see, the two styles are radically different. Moving from one to the other was going to screw up the cadence of both of them. What to do? In this case, it was to take the time to stop and read a lot of whatever one I was going to be working on, to expunge the style of the other. I was lucky here, in that I had a sample of the exact style I needed to continue in the style I needed. My own style. So that’s TG’s first piece of advice, and it’s a simple one: Screw the stupid prompts, read your own work before you begin writing your own work. This is what you should be doing anyway: when you begin work you start by editing the work you did the day before. Then when you start in on new stuff, you’re already in your own cadence. TG knows some smarty-pants out there is going to write in and say he/she doesn’t need to do this because he/she always writes in his own style, blah blah blah, but TG contends that in most cases, anyone who sits down to write will have already read something that someone else has already written beforehand. Often it’s the newspaper or even emails, either of which will channel your brain into someone else’s style. Expunge it!

But what if you’re at the beginning of a new piece, so you don’t have your own work to read and mimic? TG suggests spending a few minutes every day before you begin writing reading in whatever style you’re writing in, just to get your writing brain in the proper gear. With The Flock, that meant reading a Lovecraft story every day before working. With the memoir Appel read memoirs in “his” style, My Father’s Eyes, by Mary Bonina, Liars Club by Mary Carr, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson were just a few that he enjoyed before starting his writing day. All were extremely helpful in getting him into the proper brain groove.

So stop with the stupid writing prompts. Grow up and write your own ideas. Unless someone is paying you to write theirs. But read before you write. Your own work if you’ve got it, or those of other writers you think are working in a style that is close to what you are trying to do. Above all…

Sit down, shut up, get to work.