Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Why, oh Why?

[Here are my thoughts on Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, for the Progressive Book Club.]

Why, oh why, would anyone dedicate a chapter to made-up genres relevant to nothing?

Snyder stresses the importance of knowing your market and knowing your audience. He recommends approaching strangers within your target demographic to ask what they think of your logline. So why, oh why, does he describe a ridiculous genre of 'Man With a Problem' and crowd Die Hard, Titanic, and Schindler's List under that dubious umbrella? To me, this makes no sense.

Audience aside, Snyder refers to traditional genres: romantic comedy, drama etc., throughout the book, and defines 'genre' as such in his own glossary. So, what, oh what, is the point of chapter two?

Chapter three reveals that a movie needs a hero with a goal. Hmm, okay, nothing startling about that piece of news.

Chapter four discusses structure and uses Miss Congeniality as an example. By now, I'm thinking Mr. Snyder and I are not quite on the same sailing ship, but one of us is obviously at sea.

The visual tools Snyder recommends in chapter five, I found useful. The concept of writing plot points on index cards and arranging them in five acts is by no means original, but I appreciate the practical and visual methods recommended by the author, and I confess, I have tried it.

At around page 121, 64% of the way through the book, Snyder finally caught my attention with the fun advice about the 'Pope in the Pool,' and the 'Double Mumbo Jumbo.' I chuckled at the irony of 'Laying Pipe' and 'Watch out for that Glacier,' and I don't really remember much about the rest of the book.

I give Save the Cat, 5 out of 10. I won't deny I learned something, and it's always worth reading a book if it sends you away with one useful tip, but half of me wishes I had taken the advice of the title and donated my ten bucks to the Snow Leopard Trust.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

It's Hip to be a Square... or is it?

March's lighthouse:
Le Phare de Kermorvan,
Brittany, France.
(Original photo by McPHOTO.)
Are you a round lighthouse, or a square one?*

As I flick through my Novel and Short Story Writer's Market, I can't help but notice the word 'experimental' littered throughout the section on literary magazines.

Okay, now everything I do is experimental, but in the literary sense, if there's one thing I'm not (yet), it's experimental. I'm a traditionalist through and through.

Yes, it's true. I'm a round lighthouse.

In defence of the unoriginal, consider the basic expectations of a reader. The Daily Writing Tips website lists the following:
  • at least one sympathetic character with whom we can identify and root for;
  • a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end;
  • a narrative style that draws us into the fictional dream;
  • language that conforms to standard rules of syntax, meaning, and punctuation;
  • typography that conforms to printed conventions regarding margins, etc.

And what about all those expectations of genre, a word usually preceded by the word 'no' in the section on literary magazines?
  • a romance is expected to contain flowery scenes;
  • a Western is just not a Western without the manly man with the six-shooter;
  • a suspense novel is generally plot driven.
Is there a fine line between meeting the expectations of genre and stereotyping? I think so.

And so, again I ask, are you a round lighthouse, or a square one, or something else altogether? Hexagonal, perhaps?

* For those geometrically sensitive people, are you a cylindrical lighthouse or a cuboid one (or another 3-dimensional shape altogether)?

Friday, March 8, 2013

Christie Power

Friday is International Women's Day. I'm not about to launch into a political discussion, but I will say cheers to the ladies of literature, past, present, and future, and to one in particular who continues to inspire me through the wit and cleverness of her stories.

Dame Agatha Christie doesn't look easy to surprise. That's probably because the Queen of Crime knows all the tricks. How many of these plot devices (sourced from the Christie Mystery website) do you have in your toolbox?

  • Red Herrings. A writer must be fair. Introducing vital information on the last page is just plain mean. But who says you can't mess with a reader's mind a little?

  • The Unlikely Suspect. A murderous child? An unreliable narrator? Agatha Christie was a master of using the values and assumptions of the reader to construct some excellent twists.

  • The Disguise. Does sticking on a fake moustache fool anyone nowadays? Maybe not, but a change of identity - real or metaphorical - is a crafty way of hiding, and eventually revealing secrets.

  • A Closed Setting. The comings and goings of real people in the real world can muddy the character pool, especially in a whodunit. So what do you do? Try sticking the players on a boat, or a train, or in a big house in the country.

  • The Trap. It's not easy to prove guilt. It may not be standard criminal procedure, but contriving a scene is a nifty way to expose a phony.

  • The Illusion. A suspect may fake his or her own death, or employ a distraction, or frame someone else, or discredit a vital witness. Who's telling the truth? And who's telling big, fat porkies?

  • The Alliance. What do we really know about a relationship between two people? Lovers may appear to the world as enemies. Siblings might pretend to be strangers. Two heads can be trickier than one.

  • Final Justice. Obviously, nobody told Agatha Christie that bad people must be caught and sent to prison forever. According to Wikipedia, the murderer escapes in six of Agatha Christie's stories, and dies in several others.

So who's your favourite female author, and what is it about her writing or stories that you admire?