Sunday, February 27, 2011

Crossing Into the Main Stream

Wait a minute.  I'm supposed to be writing mainstream fiction, which in its loosest definition means it will match the reading tastes of most people.  Along with literary fiction, mainstream is the kind I prefer to read.  But I've been wondering: do I represent mainstream anything?  Are my reading/viewing/lifestyle preferences like those of most people?  Er, no? 

The people I vote for seldom win.  I subscribe to The Atlantic and Wired magazines and faithfully watch Fareed Zakaria, not exactly mainstream media.  I live in rural West Virginia,  prefer classical music, and don't know  popular actors and musicians.  I don't even find a lot of fiction that I want to read past the first paragraph, though it simply may be that writing is more fun.

So why do I think anything I write would resonate in the main stream?

In general use, mainstream means the main current, where the action is, with the greatest number of readers, viewers, listeners, players, and religious or political followers.   We may easily become part of a mainstream audience, but affecting it is something else.  Imagine a current rushing along with boats of all description, and you trying to get your paper sailboat in there.  It's big and busy.  It's also a fluid place (pardon the obvious), impossible to describe at any point in time.

Tagging a work as "mainstream fiction" announces that it is not written for a special interest audience, such as romance, mystery, western, horror.  The writer hopes it will be acceptable to the reading preferences of most readers.  Most readers of fiction, that is, because more nonfiction is sold than fiction.  The work will never appeal to most people--most people don't read anything.  Wiki.answers claims that 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year. 

Many of us have a love/hate relationship with mainstream culture--we see its importance, maybe dislike it, and would like to guide it along to our tastes and preferences.  Music lovers seem to be most passionate about this.  The following definition of mainstream music from acknowledges shifts in popular taste: 
"Music that's usually on the radio, Top 40 and is well known to the general public. Usually criticized by fans of the previous mainstream generations, and people who prefer bands and/or genres that aren't apart of the mainstream popularity of the time."

Here's another from the urban dictionary:
"The worst music out there. It is usually for people that have low IQ's, are conformist, and are afraid to explore other music out there.
It is always on the radio, Top 40, MTV, and everywhere you go! All of it is crappy music created for people with no idea what good music is."


Even if we don't feel connected to mainstream culture, we probably would like to influence it.  Is that possible?  I think so, if we reach beyond what is natural and comfortable.  Cross over, speak out, meet in the middle, join hands.  Be not afraid.

Genre fiction (romance, mystery, science fiction, etc.) often goes beyond its special interest fans to earn the respect of a broader, mainstream audience.  In those crossovers, readers have a sense of learning something about people and places, the nature of conflict, love, and truth, while enjoying a good story.

The success of crossover works in all art proves there are places where great numbers of us can meet and agree, despite our differences.  Those places should happen more frequently.

For definitions of mainstream and genre fiction, check these sites:

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Character Lineup--A Critical Look

Today I lined up the characters in my new project for a critical look.  I did this by skimming through the narrative and copying and pasting lines of physical description onto a single page.  I didn't include actions and mannerisms--for some reason, they're easier to remember. This exercise was like getting everybody on stage to see how they look together.

It was good to do, because in my fourth month on this first draft, I’m still figuring out the story.  I already had short bios and (OneNote) pages for each character with ideas for their involvements, but I’d found myself repeating descriptions on the one hand and being inconsistent on the other.

The lineup made me notice some things.  A crowded stage.  A few characters who are more interesting than others, and others who are little more than a name.  Descriptions that could be better written. 

When I pasted passages onto the new character page, I included the chapter number where the characters are introduced.  For handy reference, I put the new character page in the same OneNote section where I’m writing the chapters.

This should make success a cinch, right? :)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Does anyone teach this?

Blessed are those who are able to help someone learn without destroying his confidence.  Blessed are those who show new teachers, supervisors and mentors how to do that.

I was not born with a talent for encouraging, and had no formal training in it, not so much as a discussion, though I trained to be a teacher.  I learned a few things on my own, but not before I’d smeared many student papers with red ink.  I still feel bad about that, though I have a dozen excuses, starting with the restrictions of a grading system and my misguided zeal to do a good job by pointing out everything that might be corrected.

I always thought I was good at taking criticism, but maybe because for the most part it has been kindly given.  As for the harshest criticism I received, I decided the teacher just didn’t understand what I was doing.  Then I had a student say something similar to me.  Conclusion:  when the judgment is too negative, some learners survive only by rejecting it.

I believe seeds of better things are present in the poorest work, and that any learner can grow through evaluation kindly and carefully given.  What helps:  emphasizing the good things, whether the learner is a child or a new employee. 

Take the critique process on  Writers of all ages and levels of expertise submit stories and novels there.  Most critiques I’ve read point out what readers judge to be the best features of the work, and offer suggestions for improvement.  But I think people often disappear from the site when the reaction to their writing is not what they expected.  It’s difficult to discover that what you believed in didn’t work for others, and worse for it to be cut to shreds.  Hopefully, disappointed writers regain confidence and return.

Some writers on the critique site advertise themselves as  "a member of the thick skin club.”  We might all like to have bullets bounce off us, but if we’re too thick-skinned, can we absorb advice of any kind?  Does anyone teach how to develop a thick skin and remain sensitive to others?  I can imagine role-playing situations.  That would be cool.

False praise does no good.  There’s a difference between “This is great,” suggesting the child’s drawing is great in the eyes of the world, and “I think this is great.”  That’s why I give a disclaimer in a lot of my critiquing.  Some think a disclaimer is a wimpy way to give a negative opinion.  To me the disclaimer acknowledges that my statements are one opinion—not the judgment of the world. 

Pointing to the best parts of a project gives the learner something to strive for, sometimes a handhold out of a pit of negativity.  Sometimes a good feature is hard to find.  A first grade teacher scans a child’s feeble handwriting and says, “This is your best letter.  Make more like this one.”  Learners at any age can be helped by the same technique.

Unfortunately, supervisors, teachers, parents, and other mentors are often too stressed by their work and lives to be patient and thoughtful with learners, and sometimes they plain don’t know enough to get it right.  Even worse, quite a few are sure they’re right and the learner's reaction is his own problem.

If you are the target of a harsh critic, hopefully someone else will show you the promise in your work.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

OneNote - My Favorite Organizer

Microsoft OneNote organizes my writing, recipes, and personal information in virtual notebooks.  With tabbed sections along the top, a good search function, and a page index to help me find things I've forgotten, it's my favorite tool for assembling notes, developing ideas, and composing.  My writing progress is never steadily forward;  I'm always jumping around to expand or correct a section, check consistency, or remind myself of my intentions. 

In OneNote I've created fiction notebooks with tabs for characters, research, plot, chapters, etc., and pages under each tab.  I can drop pictures, links to other files, drawings, tables and more on a single page, move them around (like on a scrapbook page), copy them to other pages or notebooks, email, and more.  OneNote comes with a personal information notebook that can be password protected--a great place to store passwords!  Templates are available online for all kinds of tasks like wedding planning, house hunting, keeping track of clients, student notes, etc., and I think there's an ap for iPhone.  My version is 2007, not the latest, so there are no doubt new features. 

Each time I open a notebook I’m taken to my most recent page and the line where I worked last.  I love that feature. 

Whatever is placed in OneNote saves automatically, a feature that's good and bad.  It's bad because if I accidently delete something, I have to select "Undo" (Control-Z) right away or it's gone forever.  There's no "reverting," or going back to a previously saved version.  You need backups.

If you have Microsoft Office, you probably have OneNote in your documents folder.  You can also buy an inexpensive stand-alone copy.

Using OneNote is like being surrounded by a large desk with typed reports, books, file folders, 3 x 5 cards and post-its laid out for easy access as you work.  But unlike OneNote, the clutter on the desk is not easily accessible--you fumble through the desktop mess and spend a lot of time looking for what you need.

If you're too young to remember working without digital information, search, and storage, lucky you.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Cleaning a Slop Jar in 1883

Wide Awake by Charles Trowbridge Pratt

Because my new novel-in-progress is set in 1900, I’ve been researching details of daily life in the late 19th century.  I bought two books and read another via Inter-library loan, but the greatest help has been the storage of memories, documents, and special interests on Internet sites. 

One day, thinking a character might have to clean a slop jar (chamber pot), I googled “clean a slop jar” and found a wonderful publication scanned by Google Books.  The name of the publication is Wide Awake by Charles Trowbridge Pratt and the (or "of the") Chautauqua Young Folks’ Reading Union, published in 1883.  The work appears to be a course of study, with stories, poems, and illustrations by authors and artists, plus other sections like science, music, cooking, housekeeping, and business.  Today I downloaded this treasure in PDF format and may post a review of it later, though the PDF file says it’s more than 1,000 pages long.  Here's an excerpt.  No more complaining about cleaning the bathroom!  

"... [plenty of] hot suds for washing the toilet ware and clean dry cloths for wiping should go round with the slop pail every day. Bring the chamber pail now with hot water and a pitcherful of the strong hot soda water I told you of, and wash and scald every article, for you will find they need it. Often the sediment on pitchers and bowls will need sapolio [brand of soap] to remove it, for it almost becomes part of the glaze in time. That neglected slop jar you will take out, and scrub with a broom and suds, not touching it with your hands; then let it stand with scalding soda water in it an hour or two, rinse, drain, and leave it all day in full sunshine.

…But you must know that dirty water leaves a slimy coating on whatever it stands in, wood, china, or tin, which is not rinsed off, and if left in this careless way, your slop jar takes a lining of putrid matter which gives the bad odor to ill-kept chamber ware."

Writing is a good excuse to be distracted by all kinds of interesting stuff. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Character's Name

I hung a heavy name on my main character in Wacky Road--  Sara-Lapis Hughes.  Early readers of the story, which was submitted a chapter a week on, forgot her last name (Hughes) and thought it was “Lapis.”  Later, one critiquer suggested I hyphenate her name, which I did.  Then somebody else thought it was a mistake, meant to be “Lapis-Hughes.”  Others referred to her as “Sara,” and someone said, “What’s with your MC’s name?” (Like, give us a break.)
Their discomfort seemed strange in this era of original and exotic names for real people.  Maybe fictional characters are supposed to have mainstream names.  Characters in mainstream fiction, anyway.
I haven’t changed it, believing that this character’s awkward name is a good choice for an inflexible middle-aged woman who grew up with the nickname “Slappy." 

What I learned:    How easy it is to confuse readers, and the need for consistency and repetition in the early presentation of a character.   

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Desperately Seeking a Good Book

Publishers!  Give me something good to read, please!  Take me where I've never been before--let me see a new way, think a different thought, find something completely unexpected, even disturbing, so I can come back to my life and be glad I was there and maybe glad I didn't have to stay.  Make it fiction, because I love characters, but keep it real.  Make it well-written, because I crave inspiration as well as entertainment.  

Readers and writers!  Do you know/have you written a book that fits this bill?  No horror, paranormal, erotica, or fantasy, please.  There are millions of other readers for those genres.  Add a short blurb to identify it, a link to Amazon or other reviews as possible.  Thank you!