Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Passion, The Storytelling Contract, and Peanut Brittle

A while back I was preparing for a presentation to give at a writing conference and I came across this great book: Conflict, Action and Suspense by William Noble

Even though it didn't have everything in it I needed for my presentation at the time, I found myself reading the whole thing, as Noble had compiled great information (the best helpful hints on pacing I'd ever read) that would apply to the project I'm slogging through right now.

However, the tippy top best thing for me in the book happened in the first pages, the author's introduction. He made a strong point that there exists between a reader and a writer an unspoken but inherent contract. The reader's request is: "Tell me a story." The writer's response is: "Okay. Read on." Then, the contract is in force. If the writer fails to uphold his or her side of the contract, the reader has the right to break his side--the following through on reading it.

Tell me a story. How many times a day do I hear that? Read me a story, mommy. Mommy, will you read me this book? My 2 year old brought me a stack of picture books a couple of months ago. "Mommy! Read me these books! They're my passion!"

I choked a moment, thinking, "You're two. You can't have a passion." And yet, book love might just be genetic.

But what makes me love a book? What is the difference between a book I devour and one I endure (and one I toss aside)?

It's the contract. I think Noble is right. I believe every soul wandering the fiction shelves of Barnes and Noble or the local library is aching to be told a story. We love them. We need them. Something in our humanity deeply needs a story. Why? Uh, how should I know?

What I do know is there are some books I feel passionate about. Many are nonfiction--scriptures, for example, and some inspirational true life stories (Brave Girl Eating and Three Cups of Tea leap to mind just now)--but some are fiction. Books I sank into, books that were pure bliss. Books I couldn't wait to read more and more of. Books I felt sad when they ended. I imagine every avid reader feels this way about some book.

Some are picture books--A is for Annabelle by Tasha Tudor. LOVE it. The Empty Pot by Demi. Gorgeous. Perfectly told story.

Others are novels that make me gush with love just thinking of them off the top of my head, The Friendly Persuasion by Jessamyn West, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I'm pretty sure I spent a year telling everyone I met they had to read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Charlotte's sister Anne Bronte. Now, none of these might be to anyone else's taste, but I just immersed in them.

There are books that are written by true storytellers. Millions of readers love Louis L'Amour for this, and John Grisham and Nicholas Sparks. The story sweeps them away. The genres they write might have a certain formula, and even if that formula might be predictable to some readers, still we want to read them. We want to go on that similar journey again and again. The joy isn't in the destination. Sure, most of the time the guy will get the girl and the ranch, but who cares? The joy is in getting there, reading the words, getting swept into the story.

I love to read Grisham. I love the Bronte sisters. I love Jane Austen. I love Anthony Trollope. These authors told me a story, a story I craved. They kept their half of the bargain.

Now, as a writer, I have to remember what my half is--and keep it. That's why as writers we have to get going on the story--right away. First five pages, first three--the first one if possible. If we don't, then the readers have no obligation to us.

Speaking of cravings, I think I'm addicted to peanut butter. Or peanuts in general. The other day I was in the dollar store and found something that made my eyes pop open with peanutty lust. Just like not all books meet everyone's same cravings, I realize not everyone loves peanuts. But this thing made me inhale softly and close my eyes in delight while I crunched it in the dollar store parking lot, not even waiting for a more discreet location. How could I not have known about the Planters Peanut Bar before now, I ask you? It's like a thin, thin layer of peanut brittle (which is not my cooking forte) topped by a WHOLE LOT of yummy salty peanuts. So super yum. Dang it.

Speaking of craving...I could use one right now. I'm going to have to pass that same dollar store on my way to pick up the next load of chauffeured kids.

Monday, November 15, 2010

My Enormous Gripe about Current Writing Theory (Plus Pie)

So. This is my current tirade:

What the HECK is with all this sudden hatred of adverbs? Come ON! I mean, it's an entire class of parts of speech?

About a year ago I started noticing this rumbling of, "Oh, avoid adverbs!" and "Adverbs, baaaad!" and "Adverbs are unnecessary if you simply choose a strong enough verb."

At first I thought, well, sure. English is the richest language on earth. English has a plethora of verbs, verbs with almost every nuance, verbs for every need. So, why not? I can just try a lot harder and figure out a perfect verb and do away with these pesky adverbs that seem to annoy writer-types. These adverbs, I am told, practically sear the corneas of editors and agents when they appear on the typed page. Any manuscript with an adverb in the first chapter will be summarily tossed into the slush pile.

Puh-lease. Adverbs. They tell us how, they tell us when. They tell us where. They tell us in what manner. We need them in descriptive writing. We need them as readers to conjure up images of what is going on in the story. We need them to give setting to our story's action and to give us a richness of language.

Here's my confession:


Now, I can see if paragraph after paragraph of a story were riddled with -ly adverbs, and the only verbs a writer chose were "walked" and "said" and the like, then it could be annoying. That MS could get a "Go to Slush Pile, Go Directly to Slush Pile, Do not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200 in Royalties" pass. However, a well-chosen adverb is not indicative of an underlying chronic or terminal illness in a writer's style!

I think it must go back to the "moderation in all things" edict. Too much of a good thing, ain't. But I'm simply not prepared to concede that an adverb is a bad thing. Absolutely not! (In fact, imagine how it would be if I'd just put not, and left the "absolutely" off. I'd sound like a Saturday Night Live '90s reject instead.)

There. I feel better now that I've vented all that frustration into the blogosphere.

Other beautiful things that need venting are baked potatoes (which I learned the hard way when I didn't prick enough holes in mine recently and had a big explosion in my oven) and ... yes! Thanksgiving fruit pies! I think this year I am going to make a blueberry pie to take to the annual Griffith pie celebration. Last year I made the mistake of using regular blueberries, when I think wild blueberries would have been much tastier. So, I'll vent that crust (or even do a lattice crust) and give it another go!

I love a lattice top pie.
 Every year the Griffith family celebrates our pilgrim heritage with pies. LOTS of pies. A staggering number of pies. I can't wait. Every year my father calls me and asks for "The Pie Count." This is more than just the number of pies at the Griffith Thanksgiving dinner. It also encompasses the ratio of pies to people. A good year is when there is a ratio greater than 1:1. One year there were 51 pies for 35 people. I think that was a record. Possibly the happiest, most delicious record EVER set in food history. Mmm.

I'm also making a bunch of chocolate cream pies, perhaps a vanilla cream, and my new favorite: a coconut cream. My daughter requested apple, but I might leave that to more capable hands. One year my husband made a tangerine pie. I'm sorry to report it was not a success. He does make a good dark chocolate cream.

Vanilla Cream Heaven
There. Thoughts of food have brought me back down from the ledge. Food has that power over me. Yessss.

Coconut Cream. I can't wait for Thanksgiving!