Category Archives: writing

Shea Serrano’s secret to Popular Writing

Shea Serrano is a popular writer. He has a new book coming out “Movies (and other things)” which will probably do well.

What is his secret?

Shea understands something about writing for a popular audience. Readers don’t want to be beat about the head and body by a one way monologue. That is not the way we think. Nor is it the way we have conversations. Shea writes in a more conversational style. That is his secret.

Before you say “got it”, you should check out this link where Shea talks about how he achieves that conversational style. It requires more preparation and work than you might think.

And it is effective because the style enables Shea to get our attention with popular subjects like movies or sports, and use that attention to make detours into lots of other stuff that we don’t think about very much.

Very cool!

Hitchcock Talks about his MacGurfins

Alfred Hitchcock was a master of the genre of filmaking that we cal “suspense” or “thrillers”. It is a genre that some say is not great art, but instead is just entertainment.

Of course, Hitchcock’s films ARE entertaining. They are some of the most entertaining films ever made. They pull you into a story and keep you focused until the very end. Not only that, but his endings are invariably satisfying. Good triumphs over evil — but it is always a close call.

Hitchcock pulled this off again and again, which implies that he knew what he was going. Put another way, he had a formula that he understood and used.

What was it?  You might expect that he would have been rather secretive about his formula. To the contrary, he was rather open. It all has to do with the supremacy of character and plot over MacGuffin.  He talks about that in some detail in this interview with Fracois Truffaut. Enjoy!

Can You Create Whimsy in Your Writing?

Whimsy is one of those words that has immediate appeal. You find this definition

playfully quaint or fanciful behaviour or humour.

Of course, this behaviour or humour is annoying when one is in crisis. Then one is supposed to be serious. But even then, and perhaps especially then, the human psyche longs for playfulness. So, for example, surgeons joke with nurses as their fingers perform life saving miracles in the operating room. Cool as cucumbers?

But how does one nurture whimsy? My theory is that it comes from how we use language. Our moods follow our words. When we use harsh words, the resultant mood lasts far longer than the roaring soliloquy we deliver at the pub. In contrast, when we use playful words, we start nurturing a more engaging attitude towards life and the various people who inhabit our lives.

It is a bit odd, therefore, that I cannot think of all that many authors who nurtured whimsy as a critical part of their writing style. Many of the great story tellers were and are serious. Even stern. Like Flaubert. Like But there are exceptions. And these exceptions are often not given their due in the annals of literary fame and fortune.

Consider Somerville and Ross.  Here is how they open their story, “Experiences of an Irish R.M.”

A Resident Magistracy in Ireland is not an easy thing to come by nowadays, neither is it a very attractive job; yet on the evening when I first propounded the idea to the young lady who had recently consented to become Mrs. Sinclair Yeates, it seemed glittering with possibilities. There was, on that occasion, a sunset and a string band playing The Gondoliers, and there was also an ingenuous belief in the omnipotence of a godfather of Philippa’s – (Philippa was the young lady) who had once been a member of the government.

BTW, the stories that Somerville and Ross wrote about Yeates et al spilled over into 3 books. The first one appeared in 1889. The third and final book appeared in 1915.

Notice the intersection of the real needs in life (a job) with the more important appetites for life (love). I say intersection rather than collision because there is a softness in the tone of the writing. You can almost hear the writers laughing as they conjure up the story.

Indeed, Somerville and Ross did laugh while they wrote. They were two pees in a pod. Two Anglo Irish women who loved each other’s company at least in part because of their love of the values that they shared. And shared whimsy played a part in binding them together. Thinking that it might be viewed askance that two women would write such books, they used male sounding author pseudonyms. That might have troubled other women, but Somerville and Ross cared not a jot about that. They had more important things on their minds.

Here they are

Image result for Somerville and Ross

The Folio Society edition of this book offers illustrations by the great Paul Cox. I say “great” because Mr. Cox’s illustrations are oozing with whimsy. You catch a bit of that here

Image result for Paul Cox An Irish RM

I rather like Cox’s style. Here is another example

Image result for Paul Cox illustrations

and here

Image result for Paul Cox illustrations

A nice way to start the day, I would say!

How Mark Twain Found the Center of he Universe

There is a trick to creating great narrative. Well, not just one trick. There are lots of them. But one in particular deserves serious thought.

Here i is. Narration only works when the reader believes that the story being told is more interesting than anything else he or she can think of at the moment. It is either better or it is boring.  If i is better, the reader or listener tunes out everything else (cognitive noise) and focuses on the story. And he or she enter the story as if they are living it. If it is not better, the noise grows, and the power of the narrative is lost. Soon the reader is off doing the dishes, watering the flowers or perhaps just snoozing.

So what makes narrative  better than cognitive noise? The narrator has two choices in trying to achieve that special effect. One choice is to impress the reader by how smart, clever, cool, interesting, etc. the narrator is.  If that impression can be sustained, the reader feels privileged to give his or her attention. Like sitting at the feet of the master.

The second choice is making the story itself bettter. The narrator may confess to being  just average, but the story or characters (and preferably both) have something amazing about them. The narrator doesn’t have to try to hard to be amazing, bu he has to be very selective about what happens in the story.

Truly great writers cleverly create both impressions. Let’s think this through in light of some well known writers.

Let’s pick the second narrative style first.  How about Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes? Dr.. Watson narrates, and is just a normal Joe. But his main character is a wizard – the master! How can that not work? Conan Doyle turned this i into a formula, and he couldn’t miss.

And how about  Ian Flemming and James Bond? Bond is so interesting and the plots so wild, that Flemming did not have to work very hard to keep our interest. Again, it became a formula that turned into one of the most successful  film series of all time.

Perhaps one of he greatest at this was Dickens. When you read Dickens, you don’t feel the narrator’s presence, but the characters and the plots are incredible. You get pulled in — even through 500 pages.

How about the first category? I think that Hemingway fits this one pretty well. As you read his prose, you are always reminded in subtle ways that it is being told by someone who lives life on the edge. He was in Paris as a young man. He ran with the bulls. He went on safari. He went to war and covered war stories as a journalist. He fished for the great catches off Cuba.  And you might notice that the narrator — Hemingway sit in — often puts down other characters. Like Robert Cohen in “The Sun Also Rises”. In fact, at the end of the book, Jake Barnes  — Hemingway stand in — is the only character you can really relate to.

The thing about this first narrative style is that the text has to be convincing. That is why Hemingway took such trouble over his writing. He had to eliminate anything that would detract from his focus — and his focus at the end of the day was himself.

And the combo trick? Well, there are not many people who are able to ensnare you both by being an amazing narrator and by grabbing you with  amazing characters. Mark Twain comes to mind.  As a narrator, Twin doesn’t have to persuade you that he is smarter, cooler, etc. than you are. He is just funnier. And his humor opens the door to see his characters in all their glory. Huck Finn, in that sense is not a stand in for Twain (as he has no sense of humor).  But how can you not like him as the story unfolds? Ditto for Jim.

Brilliant And so brilliant that I would say that Twain is the starting point for studying American lit. In that, Hemingway was  right on.

From Wilde to Auden and then Where?

We all nurture certain oppositions in our minds, and one of mine is the oppositions between Oscar Wilde and W.H. Auden

The two men were not contemporaries. We may not think of Wilde as Victorian, but he lived from 1854 to 1900 and that places him squarely  in the late Victorian era. As a  late Victorian, he — among other artists of his day — were struggling to break free of what was perceived as old fashioned Victorian attitudes. Wilde did so on a personal level, and offered his views about social change,  though he did not live to see much social change. That would come later.

Auden was a man of the 20th century, born in 1907, seven years after Wilde’s demise . He lived through the major disasters of the 20th century, though these were not his main literary subject. In a rather infamous manner, he chose to leave England for the United States  in 1939 (just as the disaster of war was looming). His subject was more personal. You might call it a persistent attempt at honesty, despite the difficult circumstances that being honest may cause. Indeed, he seemed to exhibit  those difficulties in his dress and manner

Ellmann thought that Auden consciously wanted to be the opposite of Wilde. Perhaps he saw Wilde as old fashioned — and perhaps even dishonest. While Wilde delighted in mixing with high society, brought out in this alarming Beerbohm caricature

Image result for Oscar Wilde caricature


Auden chose the life of an academic wanderer. Wilde was flamboyant, Auden was rumpled and as he grew older, wrinkled behind a cloud of cigarette smoke.I like this caricature by David Levine

Image result for Auden caricature

Wilde was full of humor. Auden was ironic and diffident, And he thought that artists should not seek more.

So why keep this difference in mind?  Both artists embraced a form of modernity. But the two forms lead us to very different attitudes towards life and society. Wilde’s outlook is essential social., which made his humiliation in court and prison for gross indecency, even more painful. Auden’s outlook is essentially individual. Society may go made from time to time, but that is not the main concern of artists.

And I think we live more in Auden’s shadow, though perhaps, uncomfortably so. Artists are full of rebellion, but without much connection to society. And they tend to be hard to swallow at a cocktail party,  at least until they reach that certain age. Even then, they seem to feel the need to identify themselves as outsiders, usually through an odd article of clothing or by not shaving.

I was reminded of Auden’s style, and how different it is from Wilde, when I stumbled upon a collection of short stories by Auden’s student, Grace Paley. Just for fun, here is David Levine’s caricature of Grace

Image result for Grace Paley caricature

The book is called “Enormous Changes at the Last Moment”. Her story “Wants” starts off this way

I saw my ex-husband on the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library.

“Hello my life,” I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.

He said, What? What life? No life of mine.

I said, O.k. I don’t argue when there’s real disagreement. I got up and went into the library to see how much I owed them.

The librarian said $32 even and you’ve owed it for eighteen years. I didn’t deny anything. Because I don’t understand how time passes. I have had those books. I have often thought of them. The library is only two blocks away.

Notice the existential theme? Reality is out of control and the narrator shows it without complaining about it. It is the norm.  People interact who should know each other, but they are separated. The narrator declares that this is the best that can be done.  And that is the key point of difference. Wilde thought that we can live at a higher level, even if it means embracing dishonesty — a sin (as society understands the word).

Auden is rebellious, but he is not a sinner. And I wonder if the honesty that he asserts is so essential has uplifted us.

Told any Good Stories Recently?

We are all natural story tellers. We learn the skills that we need to tell stories at a very early age. And we use those skills in situations where it feels appropriate to do so. That, btw, is why most of us have difficulty sitting down and writing out a story.  Sitting down and writing out a story is not one of those situations And that can be frustrating if we feel the urge to write.

We can make this much easier for ourselves by understanding why story telling works. By learning what gives stories their value. This video gets into that issue, and is worth a look see. Enjoy!

A Brilliant Lead in by Steve Johnson

One of the great arts of the story teller is to lead the listener or reader into the story. The better the lead in, the deeper the trance that the story casts. Steve Johnson is very good at this, and in his book Wonderland, you get a great example of a lead in. Enjoy!

Roughly forty-three thousand years ago, a young cave bear died in the rolling hills of the northern border of modern-day S.ovenia. A thousand miles away, and a thousand years later, a mammouth died in the forests above the river Blau, near the southern edge of modern-day Germany. Within a few years of the mammoth’s demise, a griffon vulture also perished in the same vicinity. Five thousand years after that, a swan and another mammouth died nearby.

The reader cannot help but wonder, “what will tie these events together?! Aha! Steve has successfully planted a question. Let’s read on.

We know almost nothing about how these different animals met their deaths. They may have been hunted by Neanderthals or modern humans; they may have died of natural causes; they may have been killed by other preditors. Like almost every creature from the Paleolithic era, the stories behind their lives (and deaths) are a mystey to us, lost to the un-reconstructable past. But these different creatures . dispersed across both time and space – did share one remarkable posthumous fate. After their flesh had been consumed by carnivores or bacteria, a bone from each of their skeletons was meticulously crafted by human hands into a flute.

Suspense is suspended for jsut the right amount of time. Then, the great aha! We are not talking about animals at all! We are talking about ancient man and we get this rtaher interesting comment.

Bone flutes are among the most anicent known artifacts of human technological ingenuity.

Becauase we know the data supporting that conclusion, we nod our heads and begin to wonder at the context. Even at this early and primitive stage of our development, we craved music. BTW, way, way before we started writing.

I love it!