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Writing For The Blogosphere

Posted by acdtest on August 28, 2003

Writing For The Blogosphere

t’s now been almost a year-and-a-half since I first started writing for the blogosphere, and my experience during that time has confirmed my first thoughts on writing for this new medium. Weblogs are, of course, different things to different people, and range from those given over to the chronicling of the merely quotidian personal to weblogs devoted to writings on matters of universal concern and importance. As with all creative efforts, most weblogs are poorly done and not worth a second look, and only a very few will reward daily visits.

Some time ago, I wrote a short piece largely agreeing with weblogger and journalism professor Brendan O’Neill who wrote in part:

The other grating thing about the Blogosphere is the lack of quality writing. […] …most of the Blogosphere consists of bad, bad writing – not just clumsy sentences and never-ending paragraphs, but also spelling mistakes.

The passage of time since then has not changed my agreement with that assessment.

And what, by far, have I found to be the most egregious fault of serious-minded writing in the blogosphere generally?

Lack of discipline. Or, as Mr. O’Neill put it:

Then there are the over-long posts — 2000 words, when 400 words would have been fine. As Voltaire once wrote: “The best way to be boring is to leave nothing out.” Blogging everything that comes into your head is a recipe for revealing nothing of substance about yourself or your views.

Quite right. There’s simply no excuse or justification for a lack of discipline of that sort; unless, of course, one’s an academic where the rule — nay, the imperative — is never let 1000 words do when you can manage 10,000.

There’s precious little appropriate to the weblog format (the print equivalent of which would be the daily or weekly newspaper column) that requires more than 1000 words or so to express more than adequately if one really knows what one is talking about; 1500 words at the outside, but typically that many only when one’s post includes a necessary quoting of others’ text(s), or the inclusion of cast lists and credits, or other such pertinent technical data. A post longer than that and one’s either an inept writer, doesn’t know what one wants to say, doesn’t know how to say what one wants to say, simply loves the sound of one’s own voice, or any combination of two or more of the foregoing. I can’t begin to list the weblogs I no longer read due this single fault alone (well, actually I can, but will here refrain from doing so).

It’s a sobering thought, or should be, that one of the most justifiably lauded and influential writers among American journalists, H. L. Mencken, first made his mark on American letters largely by column-length pieces that averaged some 800 words or so (no, I haven’t word-counted his pieces; I’m taking that word-count figure from other sources). If Mencken required only some 800 words per piece to get his points across and make his mark as a writer, less gifted writers (which I can say without fear of serious contradiction would include all who write for the blogosphere) can be permitted 1000-1500, rarely more. Any more is little more than gross self-indulgence which one ought to feel nothing but shame for inflicting on an innocent public.

And with that, I’ll step down from my soapbox — but not before leaving my fellow webloggers with two final sobering thoughts: The 1953 seminal article by James Watson and Francis Crick in the science journal Nature describing in detail the just-discovered structure of DNA and how that structure was derived was 900 words in length, and Lincoln’s dedicatory address at Gettysburg, all of 267.

If that doesn’t sober y’all up, nothing will.

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Posted in Internet & Web, Writing | Comments Off on Writing For The Blogosphere

Writing In Prose Fiction

Posted by acdtest on July 15, 2003

Writing In Prose Fiction

eblogger Michael Blowhard has some well-informed and intriguing thoughts on the importance of the writing in a work of prose fiction.

How important is the word-to-word, sentence-by-sentence writing — I always think of it as “writin'” — in a work of prose fiction?

I know all too well that the professor-and-critic-approved line is that for a work of true literature, the writin’ is everything. Sigh. Lord, am I aware of this. I dispute it, though. I don’t see — given the massive amount of evidence to the contrary — how the case can even begin to be made. There are a lot of powerful novels whose writin’ is indifferent, and tons of books whose writin’ is first-class that have no life at all.

Interesting observation that last, and one thoroughly dependent on just what one means by “the writing,” or, as Michael puts it, “the writin'”. I confess I’m unable to get a secure handle on just what Michael means by his use of the term, but he seems to be saying that, in a curious way beyond my ability to comprehend, the writing can somehow be disconnected from the other elements that go to make a work of prose fiction as his “There are a lot of powerful novels whose writin’ is indifferent, and tons of books whose writin’ is first-class that have no life at all” appears to suggest. In fact, both those cases are something of a contradiction in terms, and quite impossible.

There are two fundamental elements that go to make a work of prose fiction, both of which are sine qua non. First, and foremost of course, is the story. No story, no work of prose fiction. Lousy story, lousy work of prose fiction. Nothing will save a work of prose fiction that’s absent a first-rate story. Second, is human characters (whether they take actual human form or not) through whom the story is played out.

At bottom, that’s pretty much the whole deal. It would seem all the other elements that go to make a work of prose fiction — character development, narrative structure, pacing, plotting, “color” (i.e., excitation of sensations of time and place), and tone (e.g., lyrical, dramatic, epical, confessional, etc.) — are simply details of construction.

But then, as we all by now should know, in the details is where God and the Devil reside, and those details, all of them, are entirely dependent on, and inseparable from…the writing. If the writing, “word-to-word, sentence-by-sentence,” is, say, notable for its genuine poetic expressiveness but in some way fails to serve at least adequately the story and the characters as well as all the details of construction above enumerated — which is to say, fails its sole raison d’Ítre — then, its genuine poetic expressiveness notwithstanding, it’s bad prose fiction writing.

Lolita is a great and powerful novel not because Nabokov writes beautiful-sounding, evocative, even poetic prose “word-to-word, sentence-by-sentence” (which indeed he does), but because he’s got a great story to tell, great human characters through whom the story is played out, and because word-to-word, and sentence-by-sentence his writing unselfconsciously serves supremely well the story, the characters, and all the details that go to make a work of prose fiction, the resulting gestalt making this particular instance a great and powerful novel as it could hardly otherwise do.

Another example of a great and powerful novel is Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The story is undeniably great, and the characters undeniably intriguing, but the writing appears perfectly straightforward, almost ordinary if quietly elegant, and it seems there’s nothing special about it involved at all — until, that is, one reaches novel’s end and realizes with a jolt of amazement that in less than 200 pages Fitzgerald has managed through that writing to create a menagerie of characters and an entire created world that are so full and rich and real that it’s impossible to see how it all could have been limned in less than a four-inch-thick-War-and-Peace-length volume.

One helluva gestalt, that.

On the other hand, the writing in the novels of my acquaintance of John Updike, beautiful and beautifully crafted as it all is “word-to-word, sentence-by-sentence,” fails in some way (different ways in different novels, if I remember correctly) to fulfill the imperative of its raison d’Ítre, and in consequence the novels, in my not-so-humble opinion, fail as well, beautiful though the writing qua writing may be.

Truly great prose fiction writing — the sort noted above in the cases of Nabokov and Fitzgerald — is a kind of magic, and the gestalt that emerges as its consequence, though expected, ultimately a mystery. The one thing that can be stated with certainty about truly great writing in a work of prose fiction, however, is that, like a first-rate story and human characters, it’s an element sine qua non.

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What’s It All About, Alfie?

Posted by acdtest on July 14, 2003

What’s It All About, Alfie?

eblogger Aaron Haspel writes:

It is to obsessed lunatics that we owe the greater part of the world’s permanent literature. For most of history authors not only didn’t make money from their work, but often risked their lives by publishing it. Although it is impossible to assess a counterfactual, I see no evidence that this seriously impoverished literature. To take an obvious instance, Russian literature flowered under conditions so harsh as to be nearly unfathomable. Thomas Gray may believe in “mute inglorious Miltons,” but I don’t. Neither does Ludwig von Mises, who essentially exempts art, or art worth having, from economic calculation.

Quite right. In the rarefied domain of so-called literary fiction especially, the question of economics is a non-question, and pretty much a non-consideration. Oh, sure, wannabe writers of all sorts of fiction fantasize extravagantly and often about six-figure advances; glowing reviews from the literati (which reviews the wannabe is forever mentally composing); multiple appearances on big-time TV venues; and chauffeured book tours complete with plush hotels, champagne lunches, and the adoration of the masses, all of which will conspire to bring truckloads of filthy lucre to the deserving author who, like all authors of litrachure, earns his living, cardigan-clad and pipe in mouth, in the cozy comfort of his very own book-lined writing room, crackling fire going in the natural stone fireplace of his woodsy retreat high in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

In other words, a wannabe author fantasy that even in pale part will become the real-life experience of but a vanishingly-small few.

So, is that any reason to attempt to dissuade anyone from having a go at it even in the esoteric domain of trade book literary fiction? Not a bit of it. No writer of literary fiction, or writer of any sort of fiction for that matter, decides to write based on expectations of economic return and dreams of the writerly life (an exception to prove the rule follows momentarily). He writes because he’s in some way compelled to, either by his gift (very rare), his imagined gift (very common), or his simple need to just “get it down on paper” for whatever internal emotional reason(s), and whatever the it. What’s to warn against?

True, time was not too long ago that the publishing biz was, for the novice writer, a forbidding and daunting mystery. No longer. Today, a novice has at his disposal any number of reference and self-help books and periodicals, a few of them actually even worthwhile, that can give him all the skinny he needs to get a fair sense of the treacherous waters into which he’s about to plunge, as well as provide him well-proven rules and techniques for their reasonably safe if not guaranteed successful navigation.

In short, any fairly diligent wannabe writer of fiction who wants to make a go of it today pretty much knows from the get-go the dangers and vagaries of the treacherous waters that lie before him, although he won’t really understand the full implications of their perils until he actually jumps in, and starts swimming in earnest.

About that exception I above mentioned: Some years ago I sat down to write a so-called “cozy” mystery novel, and did so in cold blood, so to speak and no pun intended. I had no inner compulsion to write a work of fiction, and knew for an almost certainty I lacked any gift for it, which is why I chose to write a formula genre work. Craft alone, I thought (wrongly, as it turned out), might there be sufficient. And I made the attempt strictly in prospect of making a modest but not paltry dollar return for my labors. My reasons for making that attempt (which, pardon me, I do not mean to share as they’re neither germane to the instant purpose, nor any of your business) were actually quite practical, and at the time, and under certain then prevailing conditions, made good economic sense as attempting freelance article work or embarking on a work of non-fiction (both of which would more properly have been suitable to any small gift I might possess) would have required time and money expenditures I was unwilling to make or risk.

My case, however, is the exception, as I said, and a rare one at that. Few — very few — can manage to be as cold-blooded as was I in the face of such a typically ego-freighted matter. Most interestingly, however, cold-blooded and practical as my attempt was, I found myself not in the least immune to the wannabe fantasies above enumerated, which insinuated themselves almost against my will, and in spite of my fairly solid knowledge of just how the publishing biz works.

‘Tis surpassing strange and marvelous, the workings of the human psyche.

Indeed it is.

So, is there a moral of sorts to all this, the rare exception notwithstanding?

There is. In the matter of the writing of works of fiction, it’s about impulse, Stupid, never economics.

Prospective well-meaning Cassandras take note.

Posted in Print Publishing, Writing | Comments Off on What’s It All About, Alfie?

End Of The Properly-working Dog

Posted by acdtest on April 8, 2002

The End of the Properly-working Dog

ome years ago I said to myself, “Self,” I said, “you really ought to sit down and write a novel. No, not the Great American kind. Something a bit more modest. A nice little murder mystery, perhaps. Shouldn’t be too difficult, and pretty much everyone likes to read a good murder mystery, right? Of course right.”

And so I sat down and wrote a nice little murder mystery. A neat by-the-formula-connect-the-dots genre number more manufactured than written, the genre I chose called in the biz a “cozy”. Piece of cake, actually, even though I’d never so much as read a murder mystery before. Not all the way through, anyhow. Not even a Christie. That might be evidence of a streak of snobbishness in me, but I tend to think not. It’s simply that each time I attempted to read, say, a Christie (that master of the so-called puzzle mystery or whodunit, and the fons et origo of the cozy), I had the identity of the murderer, and why he (or she, or they) dunit, by page fifty. I mean, what was the point of reading further?

So, now I have this nice little murder mystery written, and the next thing to do is sell it. This, it turns out, is not a piece of cake. No more direct-to-the-publisher with your precious manuscript, its pages still damp with your blood, sweat and tears. No more a reading by a qualified editor or editorial assistant to determine its suitability for publication. The major houses don’t have the necessary staff for that anymore. They now depend on agents to perform that function for them, and won’t even look at a fiction manuscript by an unknown author not submitted by a bona fide agent. It’s the publishing house’s almost-guarantee the manuscript is, at minimum, of publishable quality and worth at least a look. Ninety-nine percent of fiction manuscripts submitted to agents for consideration aren’t, as dismaying and disheartening a bit of news as that might be for starry-eyed wannabes.

And what primarily determines whether a fiction manuscript is of publishable quality? Strange to relate, not the quality of the writing. That’s some way down on the list of essential requirements. At the top of that list is how well the manuscript will sell when made into a book. If an agent determines a fiction manuscript has high potential in that regard it’s ipso facto publishable. If not, not, even were the quality of its prose and construction such that it might have been written by a latter-day Joyce.

Is something wrong with this picture?

Just about everything, as a matter of fact. It’s classic tail-wagging-the-dog, but it’s what today overridingly controls the acquisition and market practices of the major publishing houses. You might be tempted to ask if things were ever any different. And the answer would be, indeed they were. During the era stretching from the turn of the 20th century up to the early 1940s, the era that saw the emergence of the great American publishing houses — Knopf, Random House, Scribner’s (begun in an earlier era, but whose zenith period as a book publisher began during this era), Simon & Schuster, etc., — things were very different indeed. Those houses were founded and run by men who first and foremost loved books. Great books especially. Books whose most salient characteristic was the stellar quality of their writing. And these men held as their primary role the sale of those books to as many people as possible because they were great books. Which is not to say they were against making a healthy profit on those sales, or that they were any less ruthless and conniving than their most crass commercial brethren. But it was their love of books rather than profit that turned them into publishers instead of purveyors of you-name-the-product, the manufacture and sales of which would have brought them far more filthy lucre with far less trouble than they could ever earn by making and selling books.

This is a properly-working dog, and these men not only did good, but made a great deal of money doing good.

So, what happened? Why is the dog now working ass backwards, and what made it work that way?

The facile answer is corporate greed, and while that answer may be facile, it has much to recommend it as the answer that most pointedly, and most accurately, answers the question. The men who founded those great American publishing houses are of course all gone now, their houses purchased and run by huge, multi-national corporate entities, and with them has gone the dedication to the Great Book — that is, the Great Book as understood in that era of great books. Great Book today means any book that sells, or has the potential to sell, at least 50,000 copies in hardcover, and the threshold number for admission into that exalted category is fast rising.

So, what chance, then, my nice little murder mystery given numbers appropriately scaled down for its niche (genre) market? Not much as it turned out, and three agents tried peddling it, two of them first-rate, seasoned veterans. And what was the remark most heard against it by publishers? Too literary(!), by which I suspect they meant no sex, car chases, shootouts, or things blowing up.

Uh-huh. I get it. I understand perfectly.

In a pig’s eye I do.

You may download an ad hoc eBook (Free) of the “nice little murder mystery” (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader (Free), or Acrobat eBook Reader (Free) to read).

Posted in Print Publishing, Writing | Comments Off on End Of The Properly-working Dog