Sunday, September 25, 2016

My Favorite Book, Part 2


Long, long ago in a year that had a nine and a seven in it, I was working at a small television station in Idaho. I was a master control switcher, directed newscasts and interview shows, put together local commercials, dubbed videotapes, and performed various other production tasks. One day a coworker, who worked downstairs and wrote local commercials, left for a job in radio.
“You have a degree in journalism,” the boss said. “You must know how to write. Do you want to write commercials?”
I said yes. But I knew nothing about advertising—how and why it worked, who did it, where, how, or any of that stuff. Learning that stuff seemed like a good idea, so I visited the library and started home-schooling myself.
One of the books I read was From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor, by an irreverent and accomplished New York City advertising agency copywriter (and later agency owner) named Jerry Della Femina.
He made the advertising agency business sound fun—and frustrating, challenging, annoying, and exasperating.
But mostly fun.
The book led me to pursue work as an advertising agency copywriter. I’ve been at it nearly forty years since; now part-time. While not as glamorous as Madison Avenue, working at agencies in Idaho, Nevada, and Utah has been much as Della Femina described it in that influential book I count among my favorites.
Besides all the fun, the job hasn’t involved much heavy lifting and seldom requires breaking a sweat. And, somehow, it led me to wonder—after writing advertising for some twenty years—if maybe I could write a poem.
Now look.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 32: details, details, details.

Many writing instructors encourage, and many writers practice, descriptive writing rife with details. They’ll tell you descriptive details of people and places and things that involve all the senses make stories more interesting and help readers create mental pictures. I’ve heard “critics” in critique groups complain about lack of description of characters in the writing of others, and say that details about characters’ appearance and manner and such will help us “get to know them.”
Maybe. Maybe not.
There’s another approach—one I prefer—that gives lie to that norm. It is summed up admirably by these two simple rules:
“Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.”
“Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.” That rule goes on to advise avoiding such descriptions “unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.”
I put those rules in quotation marks because they’re not mine. They belong to the late, great Elmore Leonard—author of many best-selling novels and winner of numerous literary awards, including the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement from Western Writers of America and induction into the Western Writers Hall of Fame. Leonard’s Western works include Last Stand at Saber River, Hombre, Valdez is Coming, and “Three Ten to Yuma.” He was also a giant in crime fiction, with several prize-winning novels (many that became movies) to his credit.
His sparse, bare-bones style appeals to me. And, beyond avoiding bringing a story to a standstill with detailed descriptions, Leonard’s approach is more involving for readers—it allows us to participate in the story, to create our own mental pictures of people and places and things, rather than have them handed to us.
In his award-winning and best-selling novel All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy—despite his ability to write florid descriptions—provides not a single clue as to the appearance of the book’s main characters, John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins.
We could go on.
The point is, there’s more than one way to write about people, places, and things. So don’t believe everything they tell you—at least not in every detail.
There will be further discussion of this topic—in greater detail—to come.

Monday, September 5, 2016

My Favorite Book, Part 1.

Readers—and writers—are often asked to name their favorite book. The question leaves most of us, it seems, struggling for an answer. Here’s why.
A friend sent me an article a while back in which a writer was asked to write about her favorite book. She concluded that there have been several books that were her favorites at various times of life.
That sounds right to me. And I would add that most of those favorites remain favorites. There are books I read decades ago that I go back to and enjoy all over again. There are others that stick in my memory that I haven’t re-read, but plan to someday. And there are books I enjoyed at the time, but not enough to be my “favorite.”
Back in my high school years, perhaps as early as junior high, I engaged in what we would now call “binge reading” the short novels of John Steinbeck. Of Mice and Men. Cannery Row. Tortilla Flat. The Red Pony. The Pearl. I read those, and others, back then and I have read them over and over since.
Later, I likewise enjoyed his longer books—East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, The Winter of Our Discontent, Travels with Charley…. I have read those and others more than once, and will likely read them again.
Steinbeck is, perhaps, the first writer I read whose way of writing I noticed. Beyond the stories, beyond the characters, I enjoyed the words he chose and the way he assembled those words into phrases and sentences that, despite what they said, were engaging all on their own and a joy to read.
They were then, and they still are.
Given all that, I guess my favorite book is Tortilla Flat. Or The Red Pony. Or something else by John Steinbeck.
Or maybe something else altogether. It all depends.