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Author Topic: Exposing Myself  (Read 21828 times)

Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #25 on: March 21, 2007, 01:17:17 AM
But you're assuming all readers skim in the same places. They don't.

The idea that stories should start with action has nothing to do with reader tolerance; it's a convention of the genre -- a convention that does not exist in mainstream fiction.

There's also a condensation here of narrative as exposition, versus scene, I think. Narrative is not necessarily exposition.

The beginning of "Magic Beginners," if I recall correctly, is not in scene.



JaredAxelrod

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Reply #26 on: March 21, 2007, 03:13:31 PM
Narrative is not necessarily exposition.

I couldn't agree more.

However, I would like to point you to Elmore Leonard's second rule of writing, where he calmy points out that it is best to place your prologue (which is basically what we're talking about here) elsewhere than the beginning of the book.  Leonard is an extremely successful author of mainstream fiction--and some really good cowboy stories--so I think we can trust his opinion here.  I feel that starting with "action," or at the very least, excitiment, is something that exists in ALL ficition, genre or not.  That's why they call it a "hook." 

Just look at the first sentenceof NY Times Paperback Bestseller list, a non-genre title, THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER, by Kim Edwards: The snow started to fall several hours before her labor began.  Starting, not even with names, but with an event.  Starting without a prologue isn't a genre trope; it's good writing.
« Last Edit: March 21, 2007, 03:50:26 PM by JaredAxelrod »



Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #27 on: March 21, 2007, 06:36:30 PM
Well, no, I don't trust his opinion as being a final word; I don't trust anyone's opinion as being a final word. 

A hook can exist in many different ways. It may be advisable for a writer, particularly a new one, to start hir novel with a hook and then do backfill, but I reject the idea that it's a necessity. People get away with all kinds of things, and the conventions of modern, usually mimetic fiction are symptomatic of our time and place.

I'm taking a class with a Pulitzer Prize winner right now, and she should be as good a source on what's acceptable in literary fiction as anyone, and I suspect the word hook would make her shudder in her shoes. To her, hooks are crass. Fiction is art.

And while it's easy to dismiss her perspective in this forum, I think it's unwise to do so - as a decorated, groundbreaking, well-known author, she certainly has not only the chops but the credentials to back up the fact that she can find a large, and extremely appreciative audience.

There really aren't any hard and fast rules here.



JaredAxelrod

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Reply #28 on: March 21, 2007, 07:14:40 PM
I'm taking a class with a Pulitzer Prize winner right now, and she should be as good a source on what's acceptable in literary fiction as anyone, and I suspect the word hook would make her shudder in her shoes. To her, hooks are crass. Fiction is art.

And while it's easy to dismiss her perspective in this forum, I think it's unwise to do so - as a decorated, groundbreaking, well-known author, she certainly has not only the chops but the credentials to back up the fact that she can find a large, and extremely appreciative audience.

As I am always open to other perspectives, I would like to read this author's books and see how they begin.  I'll freely admit to having read more "crass" fiction than Pulitzer Prize winners, though a quick check shows that the few that I have read do not start with prologues. 

Granted, this list only contains Micheal Chabon, Ernest Hemmingway, and Toni Morrison, so what do I know?  Ms. Morrison in particular is the most crass here, what with Beloved starting en medias res, and we all know that is a convention that does not exist in mainstream fiction.   ;)

Kidding aside, I would like to read the work of your instructor.  I do not want to dismiss her perspective, but I feel I can't accept it until I see it myself.
« Last Edit: March 21, 2007, 07:22:55 PM by JaredAxelrod »



ClintMemo

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Reply #29 on: March 21, 2007, 07:23:04 PM
I ran across today and thought I'd pass it on, since it seemed at least close to the topic.
George Orwell's Five Rules for Effective Writing.
http://www.pickthebrain.com/blog/george-orwells-5-rules-for-effective-writing/

Interestingly, rule 6 (the bonus rule) is "Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous." which sort of sounds like an out.   The first rule of writing fiction may also be the first rule of writing code - "The best solution is the one that works."  I suspect that most of the other rules are in opposition.  :P

Life is a multiple choice test. Unfortunately, the answers are not provided.  You have to go and find them before picking the best one.


Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #30 on: March 21, 2007, 07:39:38 PM
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"The best solution is the one that works." 


That's more or less what I was trying to say, via using an example of someone for whom the technique works, at least with some audiences.



ClintMemo

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Reply #31 on: March 22, 2007, 05:33:36 PM
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"The best solution is the one that works"

I think Tsun Tzu said that originally (though the context was likely to have been different. :P )

Someone else posted the Kurt Vonnegut version.  (lol - the spell checker knew how to spell "Vonnegut" but I didn't)

http://www.americanstate.org/vonnegut.html
He has 8 rules.  I like #4.
"4. Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action."

Life is a multiple choice test. Unfortunately, the answers are not provided.  You have to go and find them before picking the best one.


BlairHippo

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Reply #32 on: March 23, 2007, 06:27:02 PM
I don't know if this is in any Famous Persons' List of Rules (and my thanks to the people who posted the Vonnegut and Orwell lists -- handy, those), but my big unbreakable rule is this:

Don't bore me.

Grab my attention.  Keep it.  Give me a reason to read the next sentence, the next page, the next chapter.  Make me interested in what happens next.  Pull that off, and I'll read you.  Fail, and I'll go do something else; I have literally dozens of other things to choose from.

That is, I think, why people are generally opposed to starting a novel with exposition.  As a general rule, history lessons are boring.  Characters are interesting.  Start with characters.

Now if you're such a kick-ass writer that even your history lessons are scintillating, then by all means go ahead and start there.  But are you certain your prose kicks that much ass?



Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #33 on: March 23, 2007, 08:36:19 PM
Yeah.

I think "Don't Bore Me" is the #1 rule in most genre fic.

The problem being that people have very different levels of bored. 90% of fight scenes numb me with boredom, for whatever reason. Star Wars & LOTR bore me, so I wander off.

"Don't Bore Me" is not, generally, the driving force in lit work, I'm finding. Or at least, it doesn't seem to be the driving force in the way people talk about it.



BlairHippo

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Reply #34 on: March 23, 2007, 08:44:03 PM
"Don't Bore Me" is not, generally, the driving force in lit work, I'm finding. Or at least, it doesn't seem to be the driving force in the way people talk about it.

I don't read much "literary" fiction, but I'd be surprised if it wasn't a fundamental truth there, too.  It's just a matter of the audience having different standards of what's boring -- different taste regarding what captures and holds their interest.

Or are adjectives like "cliched," "tedious," and "mind-numbing" considered high praise in literary circles these days?   ;)



Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #35 on: March 23, 2007, 08:51:50 PM
No, I see what you mean. No one wants to be bored. It just doesn't seem to be the first thing you think about, in those circles, if you know what I mean.

I feel like in genre "Are you bored?" is at the forefront of most discussions. I think in literary circles, it's, oh, question 6 or 7, after "How beautiful is the language?" and "Do I gain a deep understanding of the character?" and some others.

As a writer, and as a critiquer, I would say that one of my primary concerns when I'm looking at the work is to think about the audience. That's not the way that most lit workshops I've been in tend to consider fiction. It's not that the audience won't ultimately be important; it's just not the perspective that seems to be at the forefront.

My very limited experience working with academic journals versus commercial jounrals that publish literature (say, 580 Split @ Mills in Oakland versus Esquire Magazine) suggests to me that the latter seem to be more interested in getting and keeping attention, and in considering the audience.



BlairHippo

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Reply #36 on: March 23, 2007, 09:13:20 PM
No, I see what you mean. No one wants to be bored. It just doesn't seem to be the first thing you think about, in those circles, if you know what I mean.

I wonder if it's because the question isn't relevant, or because it's so fundamental that nobody thinks to ask it.  (And that's not a rhetorical question; not traveling in those circles myself, I honestly have no idea.)

I feel like in genre "Are you bored?" is at the forefront of most discussions. I think in literary circles, it's, oh, question 6 or 7, after "How beautiful is the language?" and "Do I gain a deep understanding of the character?" and some others.

But, see, if I squint my eyes a little, I can spot "Are you bored?" lying under each of those.

"Your use of language was utilitarian and uninspired; it bored me."

"I never got more than a surface impression of your characters; I found them too shallow to be interesting."

(Of course, I suppose a response of "Your use of language was fresh, inventive, and utterly repulsive to my sense of aesthetics" kinda squashes my hypothesis, don't it.  Eh, but then again, I'm not arguing boredom is the only sin, am I; just that it's the key concern underlying a lot of rules of thumb like "Don't open with exposition" and something you're well-advised to avoid in general.  So I'm not sure what my exact hypothesis here is anyway.  Yet I will keep right on going.  Hooray for the internets!)

As a writer, and as a critiquer, I would say that one of my primary concerns when I'm looking at the work is to think about the audience. That's not the way that most lit workshops I've been in tend to consider fiction. It's not that the audience won't ultimately be important; it's just not the perspective that seems to be at the forefront.

My very limited experience working with academic journals versus commercial jounrals that publish literature (say, 580 Split @ Mills in Oakland versus Esquire Magazine) suggests to me that the latter seem to be more interested in getting and keeping attention, and in considering the audience.

I would argue that both are considering the audience, they're just considering different audiences.  The latter wants broader appeal, the former is gunning for readers with more refined sensibilities.  Would 580 Split really be inclined to publish something its readers would find dead dull?  Or do they publish work they think their readers will find captivating even if Esquire's readers would be bored senseless by it?

(Again, not rhetorical; I'm asking.)



Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #37 on: March 23, 2007, 09:51:29 PM
Okay. Hmm.

You expect to like the fiction you read on some level, yes?

I'm not totally sure that all lit people expect to like the fiction they read -- particularly publishers of academic journals.

It's... more like fiction is medicine. You read what's good for you, damn it. And if you get bored and stop, that's because you're WEAK, damn you, weak!

...But that's not quite the right way of putting it, because my impression is just that "did you enjoy this?" isn't the question on the table.

It's like, I don't know, going to a class in a discipline outside your own, to learn something you need to know for work. "Was it a good class?" is going to involve things like how did you learn, what did you learn, etc. etc. "Was it fun?" is a casual question that might get asked. But when you're trying to assess the goodness of the class in general, "Was it fun?" isn't the salient question.

It's a slight shift in perspective and priority (which I am probably exaggerating or misrepresenting in an attempt to get my point across through metaphor).



Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #38 on: March 23, 2007, 10:03:49 PM
"And if you get bored and stop, that's because you're WEAK, damn you, weak!"

Fisking myself.

It also has to do with what boredom means in different contexts, which may be what you were trying to get at, Pete.

These are of course overlapping categories and gross generalizations, brought out for the purpose of making a point, for whatever it's worth -- possibly nothing at all. :)

Experimental writers (I call myself one) tend to emphasize intellectual engagement. If a piece is interesting to me for some intellectual reason -- for instance, Robert Sawyer's _Hominid_ series, or Samuel Johnson's _Rasselas: Prince of Abyssinia_ -- I can read past the craft issues. I sort of giggle at Sawyer's "I added a funny hat, voila, it's a character" issues, or his "and now watch me exposit through dialogue! Surely you won't notice, Bob!" -- and meanwhile, I read those three books in like three days, and then wrote him a fan letter, because I loved the anthropology so much.

Literary writers, esp. the ones in the midst of an MFA program, tend to get off on craft execution a LOT. A story that surprises us -- fuck yeah. That's like teh awesomest thing ever. We tend not to be reading immersively (because we're in the middle of overanalyzing everything to death -- and yes, I'm spoofing us a bit here) and so we're watching the story's bones. So, the kinds of things that are enjoyable qua enjoyable are probably going to make us roll our eyes, because we are overexposed to narrative trickery and can spot a trick whe we see one. On the other hand, a tedious but well-executed passage is appealing on the bones-level.

Literary readers... eh, I'm over-immersed in MFA culture, so skip that one.

Genre readers, on the other hand, will often talk about boredom and enjoyment in the way that, well, our culture uses the terms. It's enjoyable because it's immersive and exciting and fast-paced and fun. It's boring because one isn't interested in what the text is doing, and I have usually found most genre-readers and -writers to use this in the sense of what the text is doing as a text, not what the text is doing on a meta-interpretational level.

It's that last point, I think, that I was trying to make. If it's clear at all. And if I  haven't wandered.



SFEley

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Reply #39 on: March 23, 2007, 10:25:04 PM
Cool discussion.  I personally don't want to stick my neck out by suggesting that any set of priorities is fundamentally any more important than any other, or that any reason to read is better than any other reason. 

I have only a partial, albeit increasing, understanding of what my own priorities are -- both for my pleasure reading and for Escape Pod.  The two are not 100% congruent, by the way, although there's certainly lots of overlap.  I doubt that anyone here could completely explain what they enjoy and why, even to themselves. 

But I will stick my neck out far enough to suggest that the best literature is the best because it succeeds at many things at once.  It can be exciting and beautiful and reveal the human spirit and commercially viable and interesting to academics and challenge the reader in deep ways.  It can all cross over.  Vonnegut, for instance, is pretty well-accepted in both SF and literary circles and succeeds at many of the above.  So does Margaret Atwood, even if her blatant rejection of the SF tag annoys many in the community.

And for what it's worth, although it isn't genre, I don't think it's sticking my neck out at all to say that To Kill a Mockingbird is the best book I have ever read, for all of the above reasons.

ESCAPE POD - The Science Fiction Podcast Magazine


Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #40 on: March 23, 2007, 10:40:32 PM
I sort of agree with that. It's good when books do all the aforementioned things, certainly.

But I get a bit uncomfortable with ranking. Is _Tequila Mockingbird_ better than _Candide_, for instance? Is that really a meaningful question?

EDIT: to be clear, I'm using _To Kill a_ as being an example of a well-rounded book, and _Candide_ as an example of an intellectually-driven book which relies on the reader's academic engagement to gloss past craft issues. Of the two, I personally like _Candide_ better. In contrast, though, I like _Salt Roads_ (which I'd characterize as a well-rounded book) better than _Candide_, so I'm not arguing that academic-only books are better, just saying that I don't think well-rounded necessarily trumps limited emphasis.
« Last Edit: March 23, 2007, 10:55:39 PM by palimpsest »



Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #41 on: March 23, 2007, 10:52:15 PM
Quote
Would 580 Split really be inclined to publish something its readers would find dead dull?  Or do they publish work they think their readers will find captivating even if Esquire's readers would be bored senseless by it?

Just noticed I glossed over this.

A lot of lit journals have extremely, extremely small readerships. 580 Split as a non-paying magazine which I'd never heard of before I went to Mills... well, the circ # doesn't seem to be in my copy of Writer's Market (I can't find the listing, if it has one), but I imagine it's very small.

Further, because its funding probably mostly comes from the University rather than from subscriptions, I'm not sure that increasing readership is its number one priority. (I slushed a bit for the magazine, but I did not attend any business meetings. I may be mischaracterizing 580 Split. I don't mean to impugn it.)

So, rather than trying to put together a magazine that will attract a broad, or at least dedicated, readership -- i.e. thinking about the readers' responses to the work -- my sense is that most literary magazines that are tied to academic institutions are more interested in putting "the best" stories together, to create a work of art that is the best that it can be.

That piece of art might attract an audience, if the audience is particularly sensitive or if the zeigeist is right, but that's a happy result of, say, planetary alignment. It is not by marketing design. And if it does not attract an audience -- well, it might just be theat there are an insufficient number of people around hwo appreciate true art, or at least who have the money to spend on the litarry magazine and also apprecaite true art.

This is a different attitude from Greg Bear's, "Get their beer money," and it's what I mean when I say that audience is more at the forefront of genre discussions than of literary workshops. The lit workshops are interested in getting the art right, and then maybe people will like it, and maybe they won't. The genre workshops and writers groups that I've been part of have tended to be more focused on "how do I take this thing I want to do and balance it with what the audience will like."

I mean, it's a game. All magazines balance art with business; all writers balance art with audience. But where one's priorities lie affects how much sway one gives one factor over the other.



SFEley

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Reply #42 on: March 23, 2007, 10:58:36 PM
But I get a bit uncomfortable with ranking. Is _Tequila Mockingbird_ better than _Candide_, for instance? Is that really a meaningful question?

To me it is, because I haven't read Candide.  >8->  I'm not going to claim universal truths, but I'm fine ranking things in my own opinion.

And in that opinion, To Kill a Mockingbird tops the scale.  I also think that Atticus Finch is a paragon for how to be a father.

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Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #43 on: March 23, 2007, 11:01:08 PM
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I'm not going to claim universal truths, but I'm fine ranking things in my own opinion.

Oh, sure!

I just thought you were using TKaM as an example of the set of well-rounded books, as part of an argument that well-rounded books are generally the best thing (which is a fine argument, but trips my "what is universalism?" kvetch). Sorry if I misread.



SFEley

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Reply #44 on: March 23, 2007, 11:30:33 PM
I just thought you were using TKaM as an example of the set of well-rounded books, as part of an argument that well-rounded books are generally the best thing (which is a fine argument, but trips my "what is universalism?" kvetch). Sorry if I misread.

Well, I was ambiguous in my intention.  I actually do think that well-rounded books are generally the best, and I think it's defensible in the sense that if a book is truly well-rounded, you'll get more people from more perspectives to agree that it's a great book.  I don't equate that with fundamental truth, and I wouldn't be stricken down by exceptions, but I think it's a reasonable heuristic by every criterion I can think of, and it stands up very favorably against its inverse (that books that succeed on many levels are bad.)  >8->

Oh...  And come to think of it, is To Kill a Mockingbird another example of a story that starts with a bigass lump of exposition?  Okay, the very first sentence is action, but after that it's all exposition and analysis for the rest of the chapter:

Quote
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem's fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn't have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.

When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.

I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew Jackson. If General Jackson hadn't run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch would never have paddled up the Alabama, and where would we be if he hadn't? We were far too old to settle an argument with a fist-fight, so we consulted Atticus. Our father said we were both right.

Being Southerners, it was a source of shame to some members of the family that we had no recorded ancestors on either side of the Battle of Hastings... 

...And so on, with the complete family history for a few pages.

Opinions?  Is this opening with exposition, or is it character development?  I could see it both ways.  What it isn't, except for the foreshadowing in paragraph two, is plot.

Anyone find it boring?

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Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #45 on: March 23, 2007, 11:44:28 PM
I'd call that exposition. It interests me.



Roney

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Reply #46 on: March 24, 2007, 10:19:15 PM
I like Salt Roads (which I'd characterize as a well-rounded book) better than Candide, so I'm not arguing that academic-only* books are better

* My emphasis.

I (politely) (at least I intend so) disagree that Candide is academic-only.  I got a lot out of it as an interested teenage civilian, thanks to a recommendation from my Da.  Some of the jokes that made it accessible at the time are still funny.

Narrative is not necessarily exposition.

A very good point.  I think we're in danger of falling into one of those arguments where everyone actually agrees with each other but we don't realize it because we use the same terms to mean different things.  I get the feeling that some people are using "exposition" to mean "boring infodump".  (Correct me if I'm misconstruing you.)  Without wanting to start another grammar pedantry thread, that would be genuinely begging the question.

My opinion is that there's only so far that "show don't tell" can go, and that sometimes you have to tell.  This is not a bad thing.  Telling is what words is for.  And it can work from the very first sentence: I love stories that draw me into them by slowly conjuring a world that I want to know more about.



Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #47 on: March 25, 2007, 02:56:12 AM
I'm defining exposition as that space in the text which has the primary purpose of relaying information. Often, this means stopping the action (whether that action was taking place in narrative or scene).



JaredAxelrod

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Reply #48 on: May 02, 2007, 05:59:27 PM
What it isn't, except for the foreshadowing in paragraph two, is plot.

I'd argue that paragraph 3 is also foreshadowing, if for no other reason than it paint Atticus Finch as a wise, understanding man much before we get indroduced to him proper.  It's almost subliminal.

So, there.  One and a half paragraphs of foreshadowing, one paragraph of character development, and one sentence about family history to provide a sense of place.  The exposition is one sentence, done as a line of throwaway family history. 

The lesson from Harper Lee?  If you're putting your exposition in the beginning, limit it to one sentence snuggled into an ancedote.



Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #49 on: May 02, 2007, 06:28:05 PM
Foreshadowing is not exposition? I'd say it is.