Friday, November 25, 2016

My Favorite Book, Part 4

Plenty of historians pooh-pooh Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, complaining, among other things, it’s one-sided.
Two things about that.
First of all, Brown’s stated intention was to present the history of westward expansion from the perspective of the Indian tribes, which he did.
Second, it’s not as if the histories scholars had given us until that time were in any sense balanced. In fact, virtually no historian gave a fig about the Indian side of things until Brigham Madsen started researching and writing about it back in the 1950s. And very few followed suit until Brown’s book popularized the approach.
All that aside, Brown’s book opened the eyes of many Americans when it was released back in 1970. It certainly opened mine when I read it a year or two later while in college. (I wore out the mass-market paperback I bought back then and years ago upgraded to a trade paperback edition.) It was—and is—fascinating reading. Engaging, certainly, and informative. Even entertaining, though not in the traditional sense.
If you haven’t read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee do so. It’s still in print and readily available all these years later.
And don’t worry if you find it not exactly balanced—there are shelves full of history books that upset the scales in the other direction.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 34: Descriptions, Details, and Depictions.

Be descriptive. Use adjectives. Depict people and places in great detail. Be specific. Writers hear those instructions all the time. We covered character descriptions a few “Lies” back, and this edition continues the theme. “Descriptive writing” is not necessarily bad advice, but a common mistake inexperienced writers make is listening too well and overdoing it as a result.
From time to time I am asked to judge writing contests. Some entries suffer from a malady I call adjective cancer. In prose suffering this condition, few nouns escape without carrying an adjective and some are burdened with compound adjectives.
Here’s an excerpt from a story that demonstrates the diagnosis:

The six-foot-two guide knelt in the rear of the fourteen-foot dark green canoe, his well-developed body rippling under his soggy white t-shirt while he worked the paddle. He shivered in the early morning air, the icy rain numbed his face, and water dripped off the bill of his blue UCLA cap. The neoprene gloves kept his hands from freezing.

I changed things up a bit to protect the patient’s identity, but not enough to treat the disease or relieve the symptoms. That’s what it reads like. Really. For page after page.
Now, I have no formal training in creative writing. Fact is, I’ve never taken a class in the subject. It’s altogether possible, then, that I am up in the (dark and dreary) night. But the kind of writing I prefer uses adjectives sparingly and allows the reader to participate in painting the picture. Abuse of adjectives not only excludes readers from imagining the scene, it bogs down the story.
Strunk and White say it best in The Elements of Style: “Write with nouns and verbs.” I’ll buy that. Give me spare, clean writing without a lot of adjectives every time (he said, using adjectives).
Don’t even ask me about adverbs.

Friday, November 4, 2016

A pair to draw to.

There’s a long list of pairs who displayed a certain chemistry on the silver screen. Bogie and Bacall. Hope and Crosby. Bert and Ernie. Brad and Angelina. Andy Griffith and Don Knotts. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Woody and Buzz Lightyear. Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance. Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.
But for my money, the most enjoyable acting duo has to be Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Without them, I think Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid would be just another ordinary, everyday Western. But their rib-tickling repartee and witty quibbling made the characters come alive. They were likable, engaging, and altogether enjoyable. I suspect screenwriter William Goldman got a big kick out of seeing those two bring his words to life on the big screen.
I still watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid from time to time, and it’s as good today as it was back in 1969 when the world was a whole different place.
Newman and Redford did it again in The Sting—an altogether different kind of movie and every bit as remarkable. Too bad they didn’t make more movies together. As a pair, they can’t be beat.
Then again, there’s always Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call….