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JPC Allen Writes

Inspiration for Beginning Writers

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Writing Tip — The Deer on a Bicycle

735600As I’ve written here before, I am a huge fan of Patrick F. McManus. His stories, first published in Field & Stream and Outdoor Life, are some of the funniest I’ve ever read. He also wrote a mystery series featuring Sheriff Bo Tully and a book about writing humorous stories, The Deer on a Bicycle.

Mr. McManus’s day job was teaching writing at Eastern Washington University, so not only could he write, he could teach it, too. Even if you don’t write humor, this book is packed with great advice.

I like the framework for the first half of the book. Mr. McManus has an imaginary character named Newton ask questions about writing, such as “Pat, what do you mean by ‘indirection’ in a story?”, “What do you believe is the ultimate in prose style, Pat?’, and “Short humor, Pat, What is it and who cares?”

In the second half of the book, the author selects twelve of his short stories and provides commentary about each one, focusing on structure or characters or some other writing techniques. I find this the most helpful section of the book.

At the very end is a list of humorists Mr. McManus likes. Most of them are classic writers of American humor like Mark Twain and Erma Bomback. Several of them I haven’t read and I am looking forward to sampling their works.

Next time, I’ll write about what I’ve learned from reading The Deer on a Bicycle.

Writing Tip — Evoking Sight

watercolor-2332129_12803I really like the post on Almost an Author using sight in our writing.  You can read my comment on the exercise Mr. Young proposes. It’s extremely useful to remind writers to slow down and truly observe a scene.

Most of us write by sight. What kind of writing you do effects your visual descriptions. Novelists can add more detail than a short story writer, but a short story writer may come up with an extraordinarily vivid description because of the constraints of the form.

One area of sight I want to improve is the use of color in my writing. We are so used to seeing color that we take it for granted unless the color is unusual in some way, especially ugly, pretty, vivid, and so on.

G.K. Chesterton used color very effectively in his writing. I discovered him through his Father Brown short stories. I tried reading them at twenty and didn’t understand them at all. But I did remember his descriptions of landscapes. When I went back to the stories years later, I could appreciate them so much more as well as his skill in writing with color like a painter.

profession-1923499_1280Here are some of my favorite examples from the short story collection The Innocence of Father Brown:

“They awoke before it was daylight; for a large lemon moon was only just setting in the forest of high grass above their heads, and the sky was of a vivid violet-blue, nocturnal but bright. ”           From “The Sins of Prince Saradine”

Describing a duel : “Everything above them was a dome of virgin gold, and, distant as they were, every detail was picked out. They had cast off their coats, but the yellow waistcoat and white hair of Saradine, the red waistcoat and white trousers of Antonelli, glittered in the level light like the colors of the dancing clockwork dolls.”       From “The Sins of Prince Saradine”

“In the cool blue twilight of two steep streets in Camden Town, the shop at the corner, a confectioner’s, glowed like the butt of a cigar. One should rather say, like the butt of a firework, for the light was of many colors and some complexity, broken up by many mirrors and dancing on many gilt and gaily-colored cakes and sweetmeats.”      From “The Invisible Man”

My favorite story by Chesterton is “The Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse” collected in Thirteen Detectives. The plot hinges on the fact that in the late nineteenth century, army uniforms were based on regiment colors, not the terrain where the army was located. The ending is a tremendous paradox, a speciality of Chesterton’s, and I never saw it coming, but once it arrives, it makes perfect sense.

Tomorrow I have a guest post on a friend’s blog, so I will talk more about colors in my own writing next week.

Writing Tip

globe-2150324_1280What I Learned from J.R.R. Tolkien, Part 2

My second lesson from Mr. Tolkien is this: All writers, even nonfiction writers, are in engaged in some kind of world-building.

With any kind of speculative fiction, the world-building is obvious.  But any writer who is introducing readers to an unfamiliar world has to do a type of world-building  for it to seem real to the reader.

Historical fiction uses a world-building different from speculative fiction.  The writer wants the reader to understand a given time period so well that she feels like she knows what it was like to live in that era.  Such well-researched settings enhance the fictious story.

But even nonfiction history books have to explain a vanished past in terms a reader can comprehend and make connnections with.

mail-pouch-tobacco-1310858_1280

My novel is set in the eastern mountains of West Virginia in the present, and I still have to do world-building, or at least, region-building.  So many Americans are unfamliar with a rural lifestyle that I need to explain things like a lack of chain stores or bad phone reception.  I have visited the area and researched the animals and plants so when I need to drop in some description, I can be accurate.  Readers will feel like they are visiting an unique place and people who live in the area won’t find errors.

Nonfiction writers have to do this kind of research and then present it in a way that engages the reader.  A dry listing of facts won’t do it.

So whether you write fiction or nonfiction, realistic or speculative fiction, I think all writers can appreciate the effort Mr. Tolkien put in to make the unreal so amazingly real.

 

Writing Tip

wizard-2021410_1280What I Learned from J.R.R.Tolkien, Part 1

Since I write contemporary, realistic YA fiction, it sounds strange that I learned any thing from a fantasy writer.  But I did and the first lesson is “Know Your Backstory.”

Mr. Tolkien’s meticulous detail to his backstory may be why I could understand Middle-earth so easily.  Most of the backstory wasn’t included in the narrative of his books.  It was created either to help Mr. Tolkien keep his world-building straight or in the hope that future artists might expand on some of his stories.  Readers would know nothing about his extraordinary creativity if his son Christopher Tolkien hadn’t published the backstory after his father’s death.

Not every novel needs a backstory.  I happened to be a writer who writes better whenI know my characters like my closest relatives.  I need to understand their basic personalities, like and dislikes, opinions, mannerismas, and any other personal details.  Then, as I write, I can pull on that knowledge to make the characters come alive.

For example, if I need a character to make a sarcastic comment, I will not use Merritt Lody, who is fifteen and has a sunny, easy-going personality.  He likes to joke but he isn’t sarcastic.

I am working on a mystery novel concerning crimes in the present that are tied to crimes occurring fifty-two and seventy years ago.  Because all the crimes happen in the same county and involve several generations of several families, I needed to create family trees.  I won’t use all the members I have named to fill out the trees, but going into that detail provides me with wonderful opportunities for inspiration to catch fire.

disposal-1846033_1280All the details do not need to appear in my novel and shouldn’t.  As I have read in many places books are not dumps where authors unload the characters’ backstories in great heaps.  I look on my novel as a recipe with the backstory sprinkled in like spices – just enough to add zest to the plot and characters but not so much that the backstory overpowers the main narrative.

As I wrote this post, I realized I learned another lesson from Mr. Tolkien.  I’ll write about that next time.

 

Writing Tip

ring-1671094_1280Favorite Author — J.R.R. Tolkien

I am no fan of fantasy.  I didn’t read much of it as a kid – I was hooked on mysteries – so that may be why I can’t get interested now.  If I pick up a fantasy book thick enough to break my foot, I realize I will have to take notes to remember the world’s regions, languages, and alliances, not to mention each character’s abilities, loyalties, and hatreds.  So I quietly lower the book, making sure my feet are clear, and run away.

But I am a huge fan of The Hobbit and The Silmarillion.  I have a special fondness for The Hobbit.  In seventh grade, I was assigned to read it, and it was one of the few assigned stories I ever enjoyed.  Most of my required reading concerned characters who learned valuable lessons and then watched a loved one die.  The Hobbit has a few deaths, but they seem reasonable since they occur during a battle.  And with all the action and heroics, no one has time for valuable lessons.  I loved it.hobbit-1584058_1280

I read The Lord of the Rings when the movies came out.  The best sections are the ones concerning the hobbits, which Mr. Tolkien said were his favorite to write.  I can tell.  The human characters begin to bore me after a while.  They are all so tall and grave and noble that I begin longing for a human who is short and frivolous, and ignoble.

I have recently become interested in myths and enjoy The Silmarillion because it is myths for a modern audience.  As greatly as Greek and Norse myths have influenced our culture, many of the stories make us scratch our heads because they were not written for us but for the people of their time.  The Silmarillion is accessible and identifiable to modern readers since it was written by a man of the twentieth century.

It’s structure is more like pure storytelling than a novel, and I think Mr. Tolkien writes better in that style.  Whatever the reaons, I return to The Silmarillion again and again.

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