Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What Was Your First Clue, Sherlock?

Been reading some Sherlock Holmes...Seems a bit silly, I know, but if you want a crash course on how to craft a short story, in the mystery or crime genre, you could do a lot worse than a bit of reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is one of the many Public Domain books available online, for free or almost free. I enjoy reading classic short stories on my iPod Touch, because I can turn it on at 2am, read for a while, then go back to sleep--all without turning on any lights. (Important if you live on a boat.)
I enjoy browsing the many varieties of Best Short Stories collections, too, because there are seemingly endless ways to package and serve up what amounts to a couple of hundred great stories, over and over again. For example: "Best American Short Stories" (pick a year), or the "Best American Short Stories of the Century." I'd take the best stories culled from one hundred years, over those picked from one lousy year, any day. Unless I had the option of "The Ultimate Collection of American Short Stories" at hand, naturally.
Then there's "Best Short Stories of the Modern Age"--when did that start? The Modern Age. Pretty cool to be reading those on your iPhone.
But the best short stories are the collections you find by accident in old-fashioned bookstores full of both new and old books (not necessarily used but old). Or wandering past the shelves in your neighborhood library. I envy anyone who has not yet read the short stories of Willa Cather, or Edith Wharton, or Henry James, or O'Henry, or Hemingway...What are you waiting for? Pick one out, pull up a chair and dive in.
Short stories are NOT a dying art--places to publish them are dying, but the short story lives on--online in places like AmericanLiterature, and in collections old and new.
Happy reading--hasta pronto!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Must-have Books for Aspiring Writers

People always ask me questions about how to become better writers, and the answer is simple: Write.
I also believe that writers should read as much as they write. I suspect any writer who can't say who their influences are--they either have not read much, or widely, or they love one writer or school of writing and are just copying their style.
Another good rule is: Good in, good out. Read good stuff...Life is too short to spend much time reading junk.
That all having been said, there are a couple of books all writers should read/use. Hopefully you can find these at your favorite bookstore but I've included Amazon links, if not.

These are some of my favorites:
The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron (I once wrote a whole novel (which is becoming a screenplay), using her 3 pages a day process, and I highly recommend it.

My friend (and inspiration) Judy Reeves' A Writers Book of Days which as its subtitle implies, is a friend indeed...

The Little Red Writing Book by my old friend Lonnie Berstein Hewitt will kick start you on those days when you can't face the blank screen/page.

On Writing by Steven King. I love his style and his writing.

The Elements of Style. You can't go wrong reading this and using the rules of Strunk and White.

And the book that started it all for me, in terms of reading about writing, Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones

I also love Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, but I think I've mentioned those before...

A newcomer to this distinguished group of books on writing is The Accidents of Style: Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly by Charles Harrington Elster, who is not just a genius and a good writer, but also quite witty. I haven't read it yet, but I plan to soon, and I'll report back on it.

Tonight is the much-anticipated launch party/reading/event for John O'Melveny Woods swashbuckling pirate yarn, Return to Treasure Island at the wonderful local indie store Book Works in Del Mar. I'm going to get to act out some scenes--with another actor as Long John Silver--so it should be great fun!

Happy reading...and writing...
Hasta pronto!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What Is It About Dog Stories, Anyway?

My mother claims that I learned to read at age 3, so I could read a dog book--probably "Go Dog Go!" which was long a favorite of mine. I may have simply memorized, rather than read the book, but I certainly wanted to. The lure of reading was strong already, as I had two parents and two siblings who could read by then.
But dog stories--that was the real prize...I desperately wanted to be able to read those books whose pictures told me they revolved around my favorite life-forms: dogs. Not many years later, I was given a book called "Brave Tales of Real Dogs" (published in the 1940s, it was already an "old book" by the mid-1960s) and I read and re-read it so often I nearly did memorize that book.
Recently, I was sent a copy of Huck: The Remarkable True Story of How One Lost Puppy Taught (blah-blah-blah, I hate subtitles that take up a whole sentence). Anyway, it's a cute idea, but the book itself was no more than a plumped-up feature article posing as a book, and of course, bound like one. The cover photo will get you--it's a really cute puppy, after all--and the book begins well, and has a heartfelt message, but as a dog book, it was disappointing.
Marley and Me was a good example of what one looks for in a dog story (yes, it was a terrible movie, but let's move on, shall we?). It had warmth, humor, then the inevitable tears, but you were left somehow feeling better about the world. (Huck did leave you with a good feeling but it was short-lived, like the book.)
For writers, the dog story poses a unique challenge, because we have to get inside the head of a non-human creature. Whether we narrate the story from the dog's point of view (I tried this in my short story "Dodger Dog") or try to relate the tale from the master's POV and imply what the dog is thinking and feeling, as in "Marley," we still don't have the familiar props and tricks at our disposal. Sex scenes with our main character are pretty much out--as are drugs, booze, and cigarette smoking (or attempting to quit any of these). We have to show character through action--always a good idea for writers, but one we avoid like the plague, usually choosing to fall back on dialogue and inner monologue.
A few great dog stories I remember from my youth are: Beautiful Joe, which I see is back in print and even re-released (could be a movie in the works), the classics Old Yeller and Sounder and Where the Red Fern Grows (three dog stories that are really about people), The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams, Lad: A Dog, and of course, Lassie Come Home.
For those who love audio stories, check out my friend CM Mayo's fine audio story "written" by the irresistable pug Picadou: The Essential Francisco Sosa or, Picadou's Mexico City, available here from cdbaby.com
Most of the dog stories mentioned, and many many more, are available in your library or bookstore...Bring one home to share with someone younger than you, or simply for your own "guilty pleasure". Happy reading--hasta pronto!

Monday, August 2, 2010

What Makes a Book a Bestseller? 5 Answers.

As predicted, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an excellent read and very, very hard to put down. I finished it Friday, and have been wondering since then, just what makes a bestseller a bestseller.
1. Excitement: Pacing is key, there's no doubt about that...However, if you just write in a lot of end-of-chapter cliff-hangers, with no payoff, then readers will catch on; some would say that Dan Brown is the master what I call the "Meanwhile, back at the ranch..." trick, but after "Angels and Demons" I began to find his writing pretty irritating, for just this reason.

2. Entertainment: To paraphrase the great Lou Stein (Read his Stein on Writing), we writers must never forget we are in the entertainment business. My problem with most post-modern "literary" writing is that it seems steadfastly un-interested in entertaining readers.

3. Characters we can relate to: That doesn't mean that we all think we are Scarlet O'Hara, or Lisbeth Salander (Stieg Larson's "heroine") but that we can relate to some major aspect of her character (or his, in the case of Rhett Butler or Mikhael Blomqvist). Who has not felt they were an outcast in some way--or that they did not fit in? Who does not have one or more "issues" from their past they prefer not to discuss. Hence the popularity of Salander, a girl who we might all pass on the street without more than a disdainful glance. Larson had quite a full life, for one who regrettably died so young--check out his very entertaining website here.

4. Payoff: You gotta deliver! The thing that unites all bestsellers, from the run-of-the-mill to the brilliant is some sort of emotional payoff, a resolution, a wrapping-up of plot lines and stories. Not all good books do this entirely, and certainly crime novels (especially series) often leave a few sub-plot lines dangling and character dilemmas unsolved. But the ride has to have taken us somewhere, not just showed us great scenery.

5. Really good writing: Yeah, sure, you betcha...it's gotta be there, but it's number 5 outta 5 on this list for a reason. Great writing helps, but is not essential--and sometimes gets in the way. One of my favorite writers is Mark Helprin (not to be confused with Mark Halperin), someone who is a prolific writer of gorgeous prose, who has only briefly shown up on any bestseller lists in his lifetime. Winter's Tale is one of my favorite novels of all time--also A Soldier of the Great War. Do read them when you get a chance.
Hasta pronto!