Friday, April 4, 2014

No Rhyme or Reason

Writers, and I include myself, fumble and perspire to create the best prose possible. We judge ourselves, unmercifully so. And, what is the commercial outcome? We don't know. It's impossible for us to project. And, that's the truth.

This simple truth was no more apparent to me then this week. Attending a book club of which I've been a member for years where the books are member-chosen it's always interesting to see what selections are agreed upon. This month's book, the core of which I had no quarrel, did cause me pause in that the writing switched numerous times from past to present tense. I have no quarrel with either tense (in fact I've written novels utilizing both) but it drove me to distraction when reading to have to switch from one to the other, back again, and then to switch again.

Yet, while fellow book clubbers had no difficulty appreciating my concern, they were willing to overlook it. As one member said, this was a first time author. What a break. I stayed silent, but thought where was the book editor.

This past week I found a copy of a book on editing by Sol Stein. Admittedly it was an old book. However, editing principles don't change that quickly, if ever. He took to task The Firm, an early novel by John Grisham that achieved remarkable sales. And, one of many movies made from Mr. Grisham's writing endeavors. The point by Editor Stein was that commercial fiction could be successful even if it didn't meet what could be considered "literary" standards of writing quality. One can not begrudge the success of Mr. Grisham, in fact, it should be idolized for, notwithstanding critical judgments, he's made the book buyers of the world ring his cash register. We should all be so fortunate.

Nevertheless, we shouldn't jump to the conclusion that editors, even hardnosed ones, are unnecessary and that any writer will be successful no matter what they write. Do I hear an "alleluia?"

There are many factors to successful writing. Clear prose should be one of them. It's like a well-built automobile: if nothing goes wrong and gets us economically to the intended destination, we don't give it much thought. If the onboard computer malfunctions and leaves us at the side of the road the screams of "why me" can be heard across numerous counties. In writing, concrete prose correctly presented doesn't receive encores. It's taken for granted. Or, is it?

Let's say it ups a writer's chance to obtain reader approval. Reader approval will make for greater sales of the current book and, hopefully, others that follow.

As a native of Ireland, I'm mindful of the Irish author who came to New York, wrote four novels, and achieved no commercial success. After his death, his novels were "discovered" and made his heirs or the publisher a pretty penny. Was he a failure as he thought? Apparently not depending on when the judgment is made. So, does this true to life story inspire? We can hope so, not that I wish any writer to die.

There is no rule that says violation of what is considered to be preferred writing style will condemn that writer to failure or poverty. However, there are many other writers who gain both monetary and public acclaim by being exceptional writers, not by talent alone, but by hard word in learning the craft of writing, nurturing their own instincts, and abiding by the skills gleamed from others. There is no official survey, but I would speculate that those writers who have acquired and polished the skills espoused by well-known and esteemed editors have prospered by all yardsticks of success.

Yes, there will always be exceptions. Isn't it better to shoot for the majority road to success?

If you answer, the truth will be known to you and you need not share, but keep on writing.

Author Donan Berg has published five novels, the latest is Adolph's Gold. It's available at major online book retailers in e-book format and in paperback (374 pages) at . He also is available for flat-fee manuscript critiques and line editing through . Click on the marketplace link for more information. He offers a no obligation consultation. What have you to lose?

Also, he's scheduled to be on blogradio April 14, 2014, at from New York City. Listen in or join the conversation with a call in.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Characterization Should Surpass History

Characterization in fiction commands top attention. That's a given. Considering history in the mix is often overlooked. It should be more than avoiding the faux pas of placing a cellphone in the hands of a Roman soldier. Yes, my example is ludicrous, but it should make the point.

If your character is an every day worker in the contemporary United States, have you considered the work environment? There are cultural influences at work. In recent history, from the 1950s onward, there's been a dramatic shift with the emphasis originally on mechanization and automation that has brought us into a larger digital world. Management has been concerned with better methods, lower costs, higher output; but the workers may be concerned with the loss of individuality in that their contributions have been downgraded, i.e., the worker is more of a cog in a machine than an thinking, problem-solving member of a team.

In fiction there is a striving for conflict. Manager versus worker is a no-brainer. But for the fiction to be credible, there must be a recognition that the concepts of leadership have changed greatly since the 1950s. In the United States, from the beginning of the century to 1950, the leadership philosophy was that "leaders were born, not made." The leaders were charismatic. And fiction writers using this time period, then or now, must reflect that.

In portraying characters, the boss as a character was "king of the mountain" and his word trickled down to the workers in the valley. The boss set the goals and did so unilaterally. The whole scheme to be set out in fiction had to recognize this hierarchical model.

The system, whether ideal or not, seemed to work. The United States with six percent of the world's population, seven percent of the world's land mass, had almost fifty percent of the world's wealth.

Now, since 1950, the workplace has changed dramatically. The complexity of the task, at least in the worker's eye, is such that no one manager can either absorb or innately have enough knowledge to know everything. The worker may be told what to do, but he or she does have the necessary acceptance to believe in the unerring wisdom of the manager.

Fiction has to acknowledge, if not accept, that the whole concept of leadership in the United States has changed. Modern-day managers must act on the basis of getting the sanction and support of subordinates.

If your fiction presents a workplace with a very structure-centered, rule-centered manager, and the time is present day, that may stress the seams of reader credibility. Sure, such workplaces may exist, but if fiction is to present the extreme as the mainstream the necessary suspension of disbelief will be harder to obtain.

What is the fiction writer to do? If he or she portrays an outdated workplace, it's an uphill battle to win the reader. If he or she portrays the workplace as a modern day cooperative venture, the goal to increase tension and conflict is tamped down and bores the reader.

That there has been and will forever be conflict in the workplace between manager and worker can almost be taken as a given. If so, what to do?

If you want to have conflict and a problem arise, envision its ancestry. Look at the relationship between manager and worker. What would be their goals? The manager may be looking a more money. The worker might like more money, but maybe he desires respect for individual contribution. What started the conflict? Was it family? Hatfields and McCoys? Was the self-made manager envious of the college-educated upstart? Perhaps there was discrimination. Any kind will do.

Maybe there is a simple miscommunication or that the manager sees the situation one way and the worker, legitimately, sees it different. Comedy writing is full of these situations.

Fiction must delve deeper. The conflict is not that one person is the boss and the other person is the worker. Be more creative and create multi-dimensional characters. The dynamics of conflict in the workplace invade from all corners of human relationships. Strive to get past the historical framework to hook your reader and then keep your reader engaged with conflict between characters that transcends the original cardboard vision of the workplace.