Painting With Words

Many years ago when I was a university undergraduate, one of my roommates happened to be an art student.  Living in an apartment littered with paintbrushes, canvasses and other paraphenalia gave me an up-close appreciation of how an artist actually works, that was miles apart from the detached overview of humanity’s long progression through the visual arts that I learned from my art history classes.

One important, foundational idea that I soon recognized as relevant to my creative writing, was that not all of an artist’s subjects require the same approach and tools, but are dependent upon what meaning she is trying to communicate.   Sometimes she uses oils, sometimes acrylics or chalk or charcoal.   A complex subject might require a lot of detail and color, while something simple can be depicted with a few judiciously applied strokes.   The artist’s creative vision, what he intends to convey to the viewer, and how effectively that is achieved, are subject to the style he uses and the tools he implements.

Fiction is like that, too.  Just as all stories are different — some are innately novels, others short stories or novellas, still others screenplays — their successful executions require techniques specifically tailored to their uniquely individual natures.

For example, my novel about Joan of Arc, An Army of Angels, is a vast, sweeping epic filled with color and elaborate detail, a real cast-of-thousands historical novel on the scale of a vintage Cecil B. deMille movie.  The subject required nothing less, so that was the approach I took.  On the other hand, V-Squad, a character-driven vampire adventure set during World War II, is lighter in tone, evocative rather than painstakingly detailed, and much, much shorter.  Given its setting in the recent past and the relative familiarity of that time to the contemporary reader, it wasn’t necessary for me to apply a lot of text toward immersing my audience in that world. 

So, using the visual arts analogy, if An Army of Angels is comparable in size and tone to one of those busy, wall-sized 19th century paintings that you might find in the Louvre or Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art — say, something like this —V-Squad‘s narrative is simpler, more stylized, and employs cleaner lines, like this.

As a novelist, I always try to stretch myself and write something unlike anything I’ve attempted before.  Currently in front of me are six short stories related to and featuring characters from V-Squad.  Their common source notwithstanding, every one is different from both the novel and each other. 

The story I’ve been working on for about four months now consists of a spare narrative that suggests physical context without a reliance on extended description.  There’s very little internal monologue on the part of the protagonist; his psyche and emotional reactions to the world around him are reflected via his experiences and interactions with others, and not the other way around.  If this were visual art, it would be done in charcoal using simple line drawings.

Each of the other stories is equally unique and written according to its individual character.  One is broad farce; another, somber and emotionally moving; yet another, erotic.  And for the first time (which is saying something, given that I’ve been writing on and off for almost fifty years), I’m trying my hand at an out-and-out horror story reminiscent of a tale from The Twilight Zone

As I have found over time, every story worth telling has its own color, tone, and style.  So when I dip into my metaphorical toolbox, I always look forward to learning something new about the writer’s craft.  For me, there’s nothing more rewarding than painting with words.

My Hometown

A few days ago two young women who grew up Kinder, the small town in southwestern Louisiana where I also was born and spent my childhood, decided to create a Facebook page dedicated to former and current citizens’ memories of the place.  As of this writing, more than eight hundred have joined the group and contributed well over two thousand posts, not counting associated comments.  The numbers reflect how beloved Kinder is to those who at one time or another in their lives, called it home. 

Many of the stories which people have told are laugh-out-loud funny.  Some are poignant, others moving or sad.  For those of us who knew that place in a particular time, the experience has been akin to attending a family reunion.  Through our reminiscences we have brought back from the dead parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, and friends.  We have conjured a Kinder that itself has been irrevocably changed by the passage of time.  By the disappearance of the American railroad as a major form of transportation and by the Interstate highway system that in part replaced it.  Speaking only for myself, participation in the Facebook group has been like jumping into a time machine and returning to a town and an era that our younger citizens sadly can scarcely imagine.

For many years I have thought about writing a novel about Kinder as it was in the 1950s and 1960s when I knew it best.  In those days, not all of the roads were paved, few people had air-conditioning, the older folks still spoke French, and kids could roam all over town on their bicycles without fear.  Saturday afternoon double-features at the local movie theater were 15¢ for children under twelve, and teenagers sat in the back rows so they could make out.  The whole town turned out for high school sporting events, football in particular.   No novel, no movie or TV show has ever depicted life in small-town Louisiana as it actually was, and is.

But that’s a book that in all likelihood I’ll never write.   To Kill a Mockingbird initiated the Southern childhood nostalgia literary sub-genre in 1960, and when I read the book soon thereafter at the age of twelve, it already reminded me of Kinder despite the fact that the story took place some thirty years earlier and in a culture that bore only a remote similarity to my hometown.  Over the years other writers have contributed their own memoirs to the genre, in many cases enriching it, though no one has done it better or to greater universal acclaim.   It’s a quirk of mine, I suppose, but in my own writing I try to avoid treading into the territory of a master at the craft and in this particular case believe that I would find myself under a very large shadow indeed.

No matter.  I have my memories and am privileged to share them with some of the very best, salt-of-the-earth people you could ever find anywhere.  Not only is that enough, it’s everything.

UPDATE:  Based on anecdotal evidence, groups like Kinder’s have proliferated across Facebook over the past few weeks.  My old prep school (class of `67), The Academy of the Sacred Heart at Grand Coteau, Louisiana, now has two Facebook groups dedicated to alumnae reminiscences.  I must say, though, that personally the Kinder group remains the most fun, engaging, and emotionally moving.  And yes, it’s still going strong.

Bulwer-Lytton Contest 2011

For fans of really bad writing:  Every year since 1982, the faculty of the Department of English at San Jose State University in California have sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, you might recall, was the author of the 1830 novel Paul Clifford, which gave the world the famous (or infamous) opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night…”

Anyway, the contest challenges writers to come up with a deliberately inept opening sentence of a phony novel in the style of Paul Clifford. The best, i.e. most effective, piece of bad writing earns immortality on the BLFC’s web site. Here are the “winners” and runners-up for 2011.

Blank Spaces Between the Words

Every time I sit down to work on my fiction, I learn something about the craft of writing.  Some years back, a pleasing thought occurred to me in one of those lightbulb-in-the-head moments: that there are blank spaces between the words in prose fiction, gaps that the human mind automatically rushes to fill.  Recently a friend complimented me for something I’d written by exclaiming, “You described it so well that I felt that I was actually there!”  That made me smile, because my more recent writing tends to be somewhat lean.  I pointed out that there really was very little description in what she’d read, but that her mind had seized upon key words to create the images that were not in fact in the text.  Those images that lay in the blank spaces between the words.

So, What Is It?

Every once in a while, I rouse myself to expand my options from the indie scene that I currently inhabit by a return to traditional publishing, so I send off another couple of query letters to literary agents on behalf of V-Squad. So far, no takers. Most haven’t responded at all (something I have no problem with, since I’m aware that that is standard policy when an agent just isn’t interested; I’m also aware of the current turmoil in the publishing industry), but one or two have praised the writing while still declining my queries. I suspect that their hesitance is due to the book’s hard-to-classify nature, a condition that perhaps makes it all the more difficult to pitch to the traditional houses.

It’s easier to talk about what it isn’t than what it is. It isn’t Steampunk. It isn’t Horror. It isn’t Romance. It isn’t High Fantasy, or Sci-Fi. It’s not a Graphic Novel (though it would make a good one). It’s not, strictly speaking, Historical Fiction, since I have taken some liberties with real history, especially in the flashback scenes that go to the heart of the protagonist’s motivations. I suppose that you could make a case for Action-Adventure except that it contains passages of quiet character development that you don’t usually find in that genre. It has elements of Literary Fiction, given that there’s a lot going on beneath the surface, but purists no doubt would dispute that, too.

It just is what it is. Hard to define though it may be, readers apparently like it, and that is gratifying indeed.

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