Month: November 2010

I Don’t Get John Grisham

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Hack writers are sometimes quite successful, even admired.
But so far as I can see, they are of slight use to humanity.

John Gardener

I don’t get John Grisham. Never have, really. But I also never figured it was worth the effort. He writes crap that sells. (As one critic notes, his second novel, The Firm, “sold a bazillion copies”. Not technically accurate, perhaps, but close enough.) I read a couple of his novels and didn’t see any reason to read more.

But last year (11/09) he released his first collection of stories, Ford County. I read a couple of reviews that seemed favorable. One comment I found particularly interesting in Janet Maslin’s comparison of Ford County to a new story collection by Stephen King. She wrote that Grisham “could accomplish in 40-page virtual synopses what he normally does in 400-page novels. (That review is here.) To me, his novels seem largely like Steven Segal movies: same hero, different title. But I was taught that shorter forms of fiction required the writer to distill language, that is, to cleanse the story of the extraneous, to boil down the words, as it were, to get more from less. That’s what I thought Ms. Maslin was saying Grisham had accomplished here, so I thought this collection was worth a read.

I was wrong.

I should probably just realize that Grisham’s writing doesn’t do anything for me and leave it at that. But what I found as I read the stories was that my mood went from expectant willingness to enter his world, to wondering why I was there, and finally, to feeling like I was fleeced. I can’t really see any advantage to criticizing a wildly successful author. But at the same time, I am pissed off that I read these stories and feel like I need to say something about that.

As for the stories, there are seven in the collection, each running around 40 pages. Too long to be considered short stories, and too short to be novellas. Depending on one’s definition, they might be considered novelettes. Apparently, they started out as ideas for novels but, in Grisham’s words, “they just didn’t make it” (see here and here).And therein lies the first problem with the stories. Unmoored from any stylistic definition, the stories lack the discipline inherent in form. What we end up with is half-baked ideas. Well-written, to a point, but not really complete.

The second problem, which is actually much deeper, is that the stories have no heart. No soul. The way that comes across to me is that after each story I found myself asking, “Why did he bother writing it? Why did he think this is worth reading?” Because the stories aren’t worth reading. And ultimately, that is probably the worst thing I can say about a story.

I realize that it may be too much to ask more of Grisham that an entertaining diversion. But I didn’t even get that satisfaction. If I were to analyze it further, I think I would suggest that he has has set up a number of situations and placed characters in them, rather than the other way around. As a result, we are left with characters he doesn’t seem to care much about, just situations he finds interesting. I think that’s why once each story ends up so unsatisfying. There is no real resolution, or growth, no real character development. Once the situation plays out, he ends the story.

In Blood Drive, for example, he winds up the story useing an old stand-by from Westerns: a bar brawl. Police arrive, characters are hauled off the stage, and now he’s free to wind the story up by summarizing how everyone fared in the aftermath. In Michael’s Room, a defense lawyer who successfully defends a doctor in a malpractice suit is kidnapped by the parents of the plaintiff. The lawyer endures a harrowing experience, including a mock trial in the severely deformed plaintiff’s room. The lawyer is certain his kidnappers mean to kill him. Instead, at the end of the story, he is dropped back off by his car unharmed. His biggest concern is how to explain to his wife that he’s three hours late for dinner.

I don’t know. I think characters – and readers – deserve better. FWIW, here are a few links to what real reviewers thought (the list is online here).

Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in Criticism, 1 comment

Signing Up

Part of the process of becoming a writer these days is signing up. Services abound. Resources are overwhelming. Many are free, unless you count the time you take to search, scan, read, save, post, forward, or archive them. All of them require at least a little time commitment.

I signed up for two things today.

First was a one year subscription to Writers Market. That’s the service that lists writing markets, submission guidelines, etc. My previous attempts at fiction, over 15 years ago, ended just about the time awareness of the internet started spreading. So the guidelines were all in print; either in the Writers Market books or in the backs of the journals and publications. Of course, you could always send a letter and ask for a copy of the guidelines, which I did.

Now, for the price of one of those Writers Digest books you can get a one-year online subscription. You get the listings, and probably even more useful, your own area on the site. You can search markets, save your search results, leave notes and reminders to yourself, track submissions, store manuscripts . . . I don’t mean to sound like a noob, but it’s pretty amazing.

I also don’t mean to pimp WM. I haven’t even used it yet. But just signing up feels like commitment, and with that, opportunity. Markets await. Editors are standing by. And now I have the keys to the secret kingdom of Publishingdom. Publishinghood? Whatever. Of course that’s not the reality. But knowing where to send things is a good step toward submitting them.

Which brings me to my second, and probably far less useful, signing-up of the day. I submitted a story to Glimmer Train. Not only that. I entered it into one of their monthly contests. Chances of winning anything? Zilch. So why pay a little to enter a contest when they would review a standard submission for free? It’s that hope again. That, well ya, but wouldn’t that be cool?

All of which makes me think of gold prospectors. Very few made any money. But the merchants who sold them supplies and, uh, services made fortunes.

Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in General, 1 comment

Inspiration for The Plan

So, as I said in The Plan, I would like to be able to write a novel or two.  Or more. And get them published. As it happens, I came across two items recently that helped me formulate the plan.

The first was an article about using the “Snowflake Method” to writing a novel.  You can read more about it here. The basic idea is that you start general and get specific in a very ordered way.  Start with a one line description of your novel idea; expand it to a paragraph; summary of main characters (their storyline, motivation, goal, conflict, epiphany); expand the plot paragraph; expand the character descriptions, etc. It’s pretty formulaic, but makes a good roadmap.

The second was something I read about Elmore Leonard. I like Westerns (which I have no excuse for), and learned that Leonard started out writing Western stories, so I picked up a copy of Leonards’ Complete Western Stories. The intro to the book has some comments, and in there I read that Leonard wanted to be a writer, liked Westerns (movies), and when he started (in the early-50s), magazines were buying Western stories. His idea was to write Westerns as a way of making money while he learned how to write.

And something about that was an epiphany to me.  The idea that writing might be something to work at rather than be dependent on inspiration.  I mean, I know you have to work at writing to write well. But the less I think about it as art, and the more I think about it as a project, like a puzzle, the easier it is to approach the problem of writing a story: how to create characters a reader might care about enough to find out what happens to them.

There’s something liberating about focussing on a good story instead of amazing writing.  At least, at this stage of my development.

Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in General, 0 comments