Can Elegant Prose and Genre Fiction Coexist?

What is the goal of a writer?  First and formost to tell a good story.  A great story if possible.  Yet it goes way beyond that – even the worst dullard can excite an audience if the events he describes have an emotional connection to the listener.  So what is it that makes one novel stand out from another?  What is it that gets a reader’s motor humming and keeps them turning the page?  Well written prose.

I’ve been a fan of classic literature since I was a child.  I got hooked on ‘Classic Illustrated Comics’ from the time I started to read and eventually went on to read these same stories as novels.  One thing you can say about the greats like Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jane Austen, Daniel Defoe, J.R.R. Tolkien, Harper Lee, George Orwell, Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Allen Poe and others is that aside from delighting with great stories, they could also turn a phrase with a level of class and elegance that is way beyone the capabilities of many genre fiction writers today.  Although I don’t consider myself a genre fiction writer, I lump myself into that group of authors struggling to zap life into my prose – much like Dr. Frankenstein trying to give life to his creation.
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It may be the very nature of genre fiction that holds so many back.  Genre fiction inherently deals with a series of events.  A writer may find himself stringing together  sentence after sentence with ‘and then’ ‘after that’ ‘later’ ‘when’ and ‘at five o’clock(s)’ without ever scratching the surface of the human condition or digging deep into the depth of characters or motivations.  I have read much of this style of writing and while the best of it may entertain, very little of it makes me think.

This is my current challenge.

I am in the process of writing a novel based on my experiences during high school.  Wouldn’t it seem fake to wax philisophical in the middle of gym class?  What possible reason could a writer have to haul out the type of vocabulary that might spice up a novel if the genre only calls for teenage lingo?
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This is not to say that one is better than the other.  Genre fiction vs.  Literary fiction.  In my opinion the best writing out there finds a balance between action and elegance.  I have read a mountain of Robert B. Parker and Stephen King.  I’d hazard a guess that most people would agree that their merit lies in telling a great story, plotting and character developement.  Is their prose weak?  No.  It’s very workable, modern, at times lyrical and on the odd occasion slick.  But it’s not the work of the masters.

Writers who I consider to be genius are Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, Yann Martel, James Carlos Blake, Alice Walker, Charles Frazier, Paulo Coehlo, Anne Rice, David Morrell, Khaled Hosseini, Laura Esquivel – there are others.  Within the genre fiction world I feel that Dean Koontz is a very under-rated author as he always finds a balance between a good story and flowing, elegant prose.
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So this is the twists and turns my brain are taking these days.
Add to that another untried concept.  My previous writing has been planned.  I use ‘Free Mind’ to chart the flow of my story and then drop these descriptions into my word document.  I usually plan out chapters and know where my story is going.  This time I am winging it.  I’ve done that for short stories – my collection ‘Mexican Mutts, Tequila Pups and Chili Dogs’ was written this way but none of those stories went beyond 20,000 words.  This time I have no plan except that which is coming together in my head.

As an added challenge, I am writing the first draft ‘free hand’ – in other words, no computer.  And yet another great challenge / obstacle, I am writing the first draft on public transportation on my way to and from work.  Time contraints demand that I take advantage of my wasted time.  This actually has worked out very well.  Especially if the bus or subway isn’t too busy.  I can get three chapters done per week this way.

So all in all I have been learning a lot about the craft, have been asking a lot of questions and hopefully will find the answers before I am ready to publish this new novel.  I expect to do a lot of ‘Waxing Philosophical’ during the editing process.  I need to address the deeper issues that lie under the surface of the high school experience.  With any luck, that will spawn something elegant and memorable.

David Gordon Burke
Find my books here. 

 

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It’s all About the Story – What I learned from Netflix

There are stories all around us.  TV, movies, theatre, comic books, graphic novels, Ebooks, Print, Hardcover, fan-fiction, poetry, non-fiction, jokes, legends, stories told through song, through art – the list goes on and on.  Each episode of your favorite TV series is a story within itself, sometimes stand-alone and sometimes part of a larger arc within a 24 episode seasonal arc or even an arc that lasts for season after season.

What makes these stories either succeed or fail?

My last post was about the contract with the reader.  (which we can extend to contract with the viewer, listener etc.)  We either walk away satisfied or we don’t.  That is not to say that every story that fulfills the terms of the contract will be liked by everyone.  I have heard all kinds of reasons why readers don’t like something they have read.  Some legitimate reasons and others – from way out in left field.

One thing to keep in mind – some books are like junk food.  It was designed to be tasty and maybe fill you up for a short time.  And that’s great.  Instant gratification without too much cerebral pressure.  Escape.  Everyone needs an escape now and then.

So why would something as simple as escapist entertainment fail?

Between transcribing my latest novel (and working … always trying to keep a buck coming in) I’ve been giving this a lot of thought.  And I’ve been watching a lot of TV, specifically NETFLIX series.  Since I live in Mexico I have missed a lot of shows and I have been catching up.

So here’s my list of series that FAILED in some way or another and didn’t life up to the promise / contract with the reader.  As a writer I think there is a lot to be learned from the successes and failure here.  After all, there’s a good chance that some of the people that watched these shows might end up with one of my books on their kindle.  I’d hate to let them down the way these shows have.

  1.  Dexter.
    Just an amazing show that totally dropped the ball in the last season.  I don’t know if the writers just didn’t get their own show but I as a viewer was ready to see Dexter WIN WIN WIN big in the end, to finally have the love of his life, to kill the last bad guy and to hang up his kill kit and plastic sheets for good.  And then walk off into the sunset … giving us one last ‘What if’ thought and a sly wink over his shoulder to indicate … Hey, I’m a retired serial killer but if anyone messes with me and mine ?????
    Instead they gave us Dexter the loser.  No one I have talked to was satisfied with that ending.
    dexter
  2. Prison Break
    Not a thing wrong with this series – Interesting and engaging from beginning to end.  The unique problem was that the concept had an extreme limited shelf life.  They break out of prison.  Then what?  Hunt them down.  Put them back in prison.  Then they break out again.  Now they have to break into some high tech fortress.  Ok, it was all interesting and well acted but they bit off WAY more than they could chew and it became far fetched.  Thank god they got out when they did.
    prison
  3. Glee
    Here’s one the writers didn’t expect.  Their main lead character actor dies of a drug overdose at the height of the show’s popularity.  That pretty much put an end to this excellent show about a High School Show Choir.  But where were they planning to take the show?  With or without Cory Monteith’s death, the show had limited possibilities.  The right move was to slowly bring in new singers to the club each year, graduate off the older cast but follow their budding show biz careers.  Sadly, once the female lead hits New York and Broadway the show all but gives up on the original premise and become the Rachel Berry show.  Which while still entertaining, isn’t the agreement we had from the beginning.  Also, the death of the main male lead left the on again off again romance between the principal characters unresolved.  A death knell for the Young Adult demographic.  glee
  4. Lie to me
    This one struck me a particularly obvious.  They laid out a huge premise about the micro expressions we all make to express disgust, shame, guilt, fear, honesty etc. and how this FBI consultant could read our expressions blah, blah, blah.  I never really bought into the premise but I went along for the ride anyway.  It was a well scripted show with good actors.  Then, around episode 15 or so of the first season they started to steer away from the technological element of this ‘face reading’ process.  By about the second season they have abandoned the premise completely and it was just the main character as a Super Sleuth.  Nothing to back up his hunches … we just had to believe he had the gift.  A major let down.
    lie
    There are a lot more show that over the years haven’t lived up to their promise or have bit off more than they can chew.
    Don’t get me started on movies.  The Force Awakens anyone?

    Have a good day.  Keep true to your vision and keep that contract with the reader alive.  After all, who are you writing for if not the reader?

    David Gordon Burke
    Find my books here!

The Writer’s Achilles Heel

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I am going to go out on a limb here.  This is strictly my personal opinion but it may be of some use to some other writer(s).
The three areas where most Indie writers blow it as far as presenting polished prose that doesn’t reek of AMATEUR, in my not so humble opinion are:

1.  Point of View – For some reason first person rules in Indie.  Worse yet, the trend of writing in first person present tense.  Yeah, it’s trendy, everyone is doing it but unless you are an old master, it stinks of novice writer.  Now some might say, “what’s wrong with first person?  A lot of great novels are written in first person.”  And I’d say there is nothing wrong with it as long as it is appropriate for the story.  Some styles and genres, particularly detecitve novels SCREAM to be written in first person.  And that’s great.  But then I would refer you to the old expression ‘ONE TRICK PONY.’  A writer has to be versatile.  If the vast majority of INDIE is written in first person (and I’m not sure it is … I’m just stating what I have seen which is an overwhelming preference for that POV) then I’d suggest that a good writer should try to write in third person at least some of the time.

2.  Exposition – Getting that oh so important back story into the narrative without info dumping and other haphazard, clunky methods.  This is exceptionally complicated if a writer conforms to the ‘Media Res’ concept and / or if he insists on opening with an Inciting Incident.  I’m not a big fan of either style of writing for the simple fact that a. it’s again super trendy and b. my stories just tend to want to be told in a straight line.

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3.  Present vs. Past – This is the one I have struggled with most in my writing.  How does one describe / contrast the action of the moment with the constant in the scene.

Example:  The Mount Everest stood tall in the distance.   Doesn’t putting that sentence into the past imply that Mount Everest is no longer standing? Was there a terrorist attack?  Did I not get the memo? (not a great example but you get my point)

In my novel LOBO I jumped back and forth a bit too much for my l liking.  I described a lot of scenes that were traditional, customary celebrations in Mexico and those I described in present tense.  Then when the action and narrative started, I’d switch to the past.

This isn’t WRONG per se but there is a better way to do it.  The trick I have determined after thinking about it for over two years and trying to figure out how to handle this is to NOT contrast the present.  Think about it as if the action happened in the past and the mountains WERE a background to the action in that moment.  In other words, you have to totally change your perspective, change it up and stick to the past tense almost exclusively.  If you cannot make that sentence work in the past tense, it probably shouldn’t be there and you have to find another way to get that info into the story without emphasizing the ‘CONSTANT’ element of whatever you are describing.

Sounds complicated.  And again, it is the author’s choice.  Many good novels jump back and forth.  Monterrey is a 3 hour drive from the border of Texas with at Nuevo Laredo and it always will be.  But if you want your story and your sentences to jibe, to agree and to be consistent, you’d do well to try to keep it all in one verb tense.

It was a three hour drive to Nuevo Laredo.  Juan bought a family size bottle of Carta Blanca which he balanced on the seat of the old pick-up.  Whenever he hit a long stretch of highway and could see there were no cars coming in the opposite lane, he took a chug from the bottle.

Now isn’t that a lot better than a paragraph or sentence that might start;
It is a three hour drive to Nuevo Laredo.  Juan bought a family size bottle of Carta Blanca which he balanced on the seat of the old pick-up. ???

In closing, let me mention again that this is a personal preference and opinion so take it or leave it.  My goal is to overcome these weaknesses in my own writing.  So far I have leant a bit too heavily on first person.  My memoir and my short story collection were both 100% First person.  My novel LOBO was a mix of third person narrative with first person interview sections and my latest WIP is first person.  The novel I have planned for later in 2016 HAS TO be 100% third person and 100% past tense and I absolutely HAVE TO get the back-story in there in as elegant and subtle manner as possible.  That’s my goal.

Speaking of my novel LOBO (which despite its obvious flaws is still my favorite of my fiction so far) I just got a new review.
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4 Stars
Killer Instinct and Loyalty!
Fights to the death! Destruction! Love and Loyalty. Lobo is a powerful story about a dog that does whatever it takes to get back to his family. A family that needs him. One of my favorite quotes in the book is that “maybe people just aren’t capable of understanding the love our pets have for us.” The love and loyalty and the extent that a dog will go to in order to save, protect and be with his family is unexplainable, but true. The family has endured pain and loss, and it makes for an enjoyable and interesting story. Lobo is a hero, and a great story that’s main character is a German Shepard!
This review was featured on Amy’s Bookshelf Reviews – Thank god I have a few supporters out there.  Thanks so much for the postive review.  Postive reviews like this keep me going and remind me that while I am hyper-critical of my own writing, there are still a few people out there that are enjoying my books.

 

 

The Indie Author Book Marketer – How I gave up the dream of being a Bestselling Author and Found Happiness

The last two months have been brutal for book sales.  The Christmas rush came and went without affecting my bottom line at all.  So what is one to do?

The obvious answer is to conform.  Follow the trends.  Write what is expected.  Figure out what your target market is reading and give them more of the same.  In other words, stop writing what you write and write what you believe the market will buy.  Tailor your product to the wants of the reader.  (in case you don’t hear it …. add tone of sarcasm to previous paragraph)

The sad truth is that every time I get an idea for a new story, I realize that it doesn’t fit within any one genre.  It’s not just one thing.  I could make it fit just one thing but then it wouldn’t be the same story.  I’d have to hyper-emphasized one aspect of the story and delete or downplay other aspects to be able to list the book under ‘Romance’ or ‘Young Adult’ or whatever other genre would be most appropriate.  Do I really want to do that?  Will the story suffer?  Will it be as interesting?  Sacrifice story for Genre?

There is the rub.  The world of INDIE is dominated by Genre fiction.  And I realize that I don’t really write that kind of novel.

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My goal as a writer isn’t to write the next ‘Twilight’ (or especially 50 Shades … blech!)  It is to write something that sticks with the reader long after they have turned the last page.  I don’t know if I have even come close to reaching that goal with my previous works but I figure it is a worthwhile goal and I’m not about to give up.

I’m sure there are a number of other Indie writers in the same situation.  And if you factor in the frustration of seeing other novels doing much better than your own work, it’s enough to make you hang up the quill for life and take up playing the didgeridoo for tips in some bus station entrance.
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And who hasn’t been in this situation?  You surf around Amazon and find a book that’s similar to one of yours.  The cover is just god awful, looks like it was done by the writer’s grandkids using Microsoft Paint.  You click the ‘Look Inside’ feature and the writing itself is beyond unforgivable.  (I chanced upon a book the other day with a Grammatical error in the title / a lost dog book called “Loosing Billy” – what is LOOSING?)  And it’s doing WAY better than your book.  In the middle thousands for sales vs. your book that has been hovering around the MILLION mark for months.

Factor in the phenomenal number of people who are content to read the same old thing time and again – this is what psychologists clinically refer to as “Crazy Making.”  I ask you, how many ‘Vampires in Love’ books could you possibly read, one after another?  Not to mention the prediliction fiction.  Amazing the depths to which some writers have sunk.  So what is a writer to do?

I say just give up.  Don’t give up writing.  Just give up the idea that it is going to sell.  The moment a writer begins to write for the money, the moment he begins to write to get on that bestseller list on Amazon is the moment he begins to churn out derivative fluff.  And I’ll be damned if I’ll go that route.

That’s not to say that if you get an idea and it falls into a genre that there is anything wrong with writing it.  No problem.  But I’d rather suffer a Columbian necktie than kill off one of my stories just because it doesn’t fit into the expectations of today’s reading public.

And they are a fickle bunch.  You might just spend six months to a year polishing your great Vampire romance novel just to find that the genre has finally suffered a great and overdue ‘Stake through its dangling participle heart’ death and now you can’t give away one of your books.  Meanwhile, the stuff you were writing previously has hit and you have fallen out of favor because you don’t have anything new to offer.

So just give up on the money and the fame and the recognition and the Amazon bestseller standing.  Just write.  And be happy.

David Gordon Burke
Find my books here.

 

The Writer’s Contract with the Reader

It has been said that every story has already been told.
‘Nothing is new under the sun.” So goes a Latin proverb.  There are only a limited number of basic myths and archetype stories told over and over.  At least that is the theory.  And I have to admit that a lot of my work falls into the realm of ´Refried.´ Meaning, I am telling stories that are a mix of things that have already been done.

You could say that my novel ´Lobo´ is a 50%/50% blend of ´Lassie´ and the Mexican film ´Amores Perros.´ I’m alright with that.  So where is the line in the sand that determines if a new story is new or is it just a tired old Trope?

I direct you to the new Star Wars movie.  This is not my idea of satisfying story telling.  It is a mish mash of old Star Wars tropes that leaves most intelligent views cold.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about with that term, go to this page.
http://tvtropes.org/

Judging by the reaction to the new Star Wars film, I’d say the snake has turned and is eating its own tail.
I won’t go on and on about the Star Wars film.  Others have done that for me.
The Force Awakens Sucks on Youtube

So what is my point?  There is a contract between the writer and the reader.  The writer promises to give the reader a satisfying journey over the space of a few hundred pages in which all will be revealed and resolved in a satisfying manner.  (The same could be said about the movie experience)

This is where sucess or failure lies.  There are hundreds of elements that go into writing a good story but if you fail to give the reader a satisfying experience … fail to provide anything more than a series of typical and tired reworkings of previously used plot devices, your chances for recognition or success are very limited.  And let’s remember that you are not just competing with the written word.  You are competing with every story out there from Network television, Netflix, DVD, Comic Books etc.  Anywhere a story can be found.  Why should the reader dedicate hours reading your story if he can get the same semi-satisfaction from an episode of CSI Miami or Friends?

And let’s face it – he has already paid his $10 for a Netflix subscription.  You are asking for his confidence, time AND some of his hard earned cash.

Although dated, I recommend reading ‘Writing Popular Fiction’ by Dean Koontz.  Mr. Koontz is a master of Genre fiction.  I’ve been a fan since I  read his novel ‘Watchers.’

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My point is that you may fall into the trap of writing a stale plot full of tired tropes or you may give it a new, unexpected twist.  It depends on your creativity in part but it also has to do with how well you know the genre you are writing.  Mr.  Koontz’ ‘How to’ book describes the most popular genres (keeping in mind it was written years ago so in some cases it is somewhat dated) and talks about the twists and tropes typically utilized for each.  To be forwarned is to be prepared.  If you can think of a different and original way to tell an old story, your reader will appreciate your work.

If not, you’re just trying to blast yet another bigger and better Death Star out of the sky.

David Gordon Burke
Find my novels here.