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Copyright © 1995 by J. Neil Schulman. Rights to make copies and print-outs from these files are limited by the license agreement. All other rights reserved.

Power Writing


Chopped Liver Prose

Look, maybe I didn't make this clear.
I hate poetry.
I've always hated poetry.
I don't read poetry
except for mine
cause I'm an egomaniac.

I'm not terrifically
fond of ballet
too.
Call it latent homophobia
if you like
but there's no point
cause I don't like football
either.
So there.

Contempt breeds freedom.
You tell me there are rules.
I don't care.
You tell me there are rhythms.
Fuck the drums.
You tell me the form has to follow the
function and I say
Hey
who the fuck are you,
Frank Fucking Lloyd Wright?
Nothing falls down if I'm wrong.

If this is prose so
be it.
If the lines are wrong
they're wrong.

This is just for me.
And if you're reading it
and taking this seriously
that's your crusade,
not mine.

I'm in it for the chaos.
I'm in it for the map.

I've been a prisoner of form
most of my life
and this is my little
and
significant or not
rebellion.

February 8, 1995


The following article appeared in Out of Step Vol. 2, No. 15, November, 1993.

The Biter's Manifesto

Introduction

Great political changes used to be propelled by great intellectual arguments.

The American Declaration of Independence followed from the writings of John Locke.

The forging of the U.S. Constitution followed from the Federalist Papers authored by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.

The 1917 Russian Revolution followed Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto and the voluminous writings of Lenin.

Lengthy oratory also propelled great changes, from the hours-long Lincoln-Douglas debates, to the tirades of Adolf Hitler.

Nowadays, great political changes are limited to the ideas that can be crammed into eight-seconds on TV or radio news known as the "sound bite."

No longer is the main armament in revolution the broad sword or the broadside: now it is the sound bite or, from now on, the bite.

He who has the most-used bite wins.

To arm ourselves for this war, we must develop a surer and greater bite capability than the enemy.

As patriots, we must all defend the right to keep and bear bites.

We must form a Well-Regulated Militia of Biters.

To that glorious purpose, this Manifesto is dedicated.

Types of Bites

In politics, a bite is a concise assertion that states the conclusion of an argument.

In dramatic television or film, a bite is called a "log-line." It's the one sentence that tells the story.

How You Can Become a Biter:

Write pithily, speak clearly.

What Is The Biters Bible?

The Biters Bible is Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.

What Is the Biters How-To Book?

The best book on biting is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, which tells you to "omit needless words."

Who Are the Biter Gurus?

Some world-class Biters are Æsop, William Shakespeare, Patrick Henry, John Paul Jones, Edmund Burke, Lord Acton, Mark Twain, George Orwell, Calvin Coolidge, Dorothy Parker, W.C. Fields, Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, W.S. Gilbert, Winston Churchill, and the guru of them all, Anonymous.

Why Are Bites Important?

Most people use bites as guiding lights.

Do Bites Have To Rhyme?

No, but if you have the time, make your bites rhyme.

Conclusion

To win the fight, better bite.

Go to Next Chapter.

Return to Table of Contents.









Political Parables

From a computer message on the Paul Revere Network, March 22, 1994. --JNS

Fiction is one of the best tools to convince someone that his point of view needs revision.

The slave, Aesop, made his political points in "harmless" fables.

Jesus, under Roman occupation, taught in parables.

Plato, having had the example of Socrates being made to drink hemlock for speaking straight out, made his political points in a work of fiction called The Republic.

Jonathan Swift, having gotten attacked for his "A Modest Proposal," wrote the fantasy Gulliver's Travels to make his political points.

Eric Blair, who had worked as a British bureaucrat rewriting history, took the pen name George Orwell to denounce it in his fictional Nineteen-eighty-four--perhaps the most influential political work of this century--and previous to that had made a devastating attack on communism in his fable Animal Farm. The adjective "Orwellian" has entered everyday political discourse as a convincing argument in itself against totalitarianism. It couldn't do this if fiction were useless in arguing politics.

The beauty of fiction is that is doesn't merely argue syllogisms, it demonstrates them. It's show-and-tell for grown-ups.

The following article was published in the Los Angeles Times Book Review on December 6, 1981 under the title "The Author's Ego: Rampant on a Field of Friendly Frustrations."

Go to Next Chapter.

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A Reader's Rudeness

I write this at 3 a.m. on a Wednesday, just returned home from a film and later supper with a friend of mine, a woman who is an avid fiction reader and amateur fiction writer. Being near deadline for delivering my second novel to my publisher--with a substantial portion of the book still unwritten--I took the evening off with a measure of guilt, I am writing this essay when I should be working on my book. But I'll catch up before I turn in. I promise.

As it happens, I have a paranoid neurosis shared by other writers. While I'm working on a project, I'm scared silly that some major disaster will befall my apartment, destroying whatever pages I haven't deposited in my bank vault or sent to my agent. Therefore, I tend to make copies rather often, and carry an up-to-date manuscript in my car, wherever I go. This won't assure the survival of my prose under all circumstances of course, but I reason that if an all-out nuclear attack on the Southland wipes out both my apartment and my car, I won't have to explain to my editor why I missed deadline. One way or another.

(Don't ever let a writer get near The Button. Frustration around delivery date might trigger World War III.)

So, when my friend asked how the writing was going, before the movie, and said she was looking forward to a look at the book, I mentioned that I had a manuscript with me, I'd be happy to let her flip through it over dinner.

She expressed interest. I swear by my next advance.

Before we were served, she read the first dozen pages. I sipped my coffee and watched. There are few things I enjoy better than watching somebody read my words. Those writers who give any other reason for writing than that they like being read are either kidding themselves or others--maybe both.

She put the pages down. "You've got a sentence redundancy," she said, then proceeded to read it to me, "and what's more, your opening paragraph is vague."

"The redundancy is for comedic effect," I said, "and the opening isn't vague, it's poetic."

She was about to defend her criticism, when I cut her off. "I'm not interested in hearing your criticism," I said.

"Then why did you give it to me to read?" she asked.

"I thought you might enjoy it."

"You don't care what I have to say about it?"

"These sorts of comments, not in the least."

She proceeded to hand the manuscript across the table to me as if it were a fall-out-contaminated remnant of that nuclear attack.

My friend is neither stupid nor rude. She would never intentionally insult someone, especially a friend. And she was honestly offended when I did not care to hear more of her critique. She thought she was being gracious, doing me a favor, by reading the pages I offered her, and that it was churlish--perhaps indicating some oversensitivity--for me to refuse.

I understand her viewpoint. Before I was a published author, I was an unpublished one. And, before that, I was a reader.

When I was a reader, I spake as a reader, I understood as a reader, I thought as a reader. But when I became a writer, I realized that readers can't tell writers much about their own work they don't already know.

My father is a concert violinist. When he plays a recital, or a concerto, he is paid thousands of dollars for a performance. Yet, when friends ask him to pull out the violin and play something, he will often do it, simply because he enjoys playing for an audience, even a few friends in the living room.

Not once, when he has played an excerpt from the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, have any of his friends ever said, "You took that cadenza a bit fast, don't you think?"

Another acquaintance of mine is a graduate student working in high-energy physics at UC Irvine. Several months ago, he showed me the Tokomak particle accelerator they use there. Did I say to him, "Why the hell don't you guys stick to accelerating particles in a straight line, instead of twisting them around a doughnut?"

I did not.

Another friend of mine has stagemanaged off-off Broadway productions. I've been backstage with her, on several occasions, after the show. Not once has someone from the audience said to her, "The lighting effects in the second act were too dim," and not once has she had to explain why it was supposed to be that way.

Nobody tells an auto mechanic how to change spark plugs, nobody tells a librarian to reorganize the stacks, nobody tells a plumber how to plumb. Then why do I have to put up with readers telling me how to write?

I know, I know. In school, everybody is told to write book reviews. And in a democratic society, everybody's entitled to his or her own opinion, right?

Wrong.

I am not discussing freedom of speech here, I am discussing competency and courtesy. Readers qua readers are not qualified to offer competent opinions to professional writers, just as consumers qua consumers are not qualified to tell producers how to do their jobs. Consequently, it is rude and presumptuous, in an inordinate degree, to expect a professional to be interested in an amateur's opinion--for a writer to be interested in a reader's.

I am not asserting that there was nothing constructive my friend could have offered me, after reading my pages. Part of the writing process is calibrating oneself to one's readers, knowing what they know, understanding what is understandable, observing how their minds work.

If my friend had laughed at a certain point, I would have stopped her to ask what was funny, to make sure it was a joke I had intended. If there was a particular image that made her remember something similar in her own life, I would have been delighted to hear it. If a particular scene brought up a philosophical point, one she wanted to argue, I would have been happy to argue it. This is the sort of information I use to refine my work.

But she never got past the technical details, details that should not have concerned her. If I were a stage magician, and she had been in the audience only to see whether she could see through my tricks, she would have missed the point of the performance. By focusing only on my technique, she failed to reach the substance of the writing offered, and I lost out in receiving the kind of reaction I can actually use.

Perhaps someone will now be tempted to say to me, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." So be it, if that is the metaphor that fits.

But we are the chefs, and it is our kitchen. If our friends don't like our cooking, when we invite them to our table, they should plan to make reservations at someone else's restaurant. There, if they want to criticize the food, the management will be more than happy to listen.

Go to Next Chapter.

Return to Table of Contents.









Novels versus Movies

I've written plenty of words meant to be read off the printed page so I think I shouldn't be accused of being a low browed cretinous yahoo for what I'm about to say.

I enjoy most movies I see better than most novels I read.

Having written both novels and screenplays, I'm willing to argue that a good screenplay is as hard to write as a good novel, and when properly produced, can be even more satisfying to the author.

And, for the most part, I find that I like the work of the people making movies today better than I like the work of the people making novels. I find a generally higher level of craftsmanship in movies today than novels.

It shouldn't be surprising. Movies usually pay better than novels and so producers have their pick of talent. Novelists are either commercial writers who find it's easier to cheat dramatic form in a novel than in a play or screenplay, and haven't therefore mastered the craft of storytelling in play form yet; or pedants who don't care about story anyway, and are more concerned with tiny character portraits in narrow, usually "atmospheric," settings.

The low end of novels is novelizations of movies, TV shows, or even computer games; the low end of movies is low-budget "scream queen" films." I find no reason by comparison to find one medium superior to the other.

Go to Next Chapter.

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Serious Literature:
a Letter to The New York Times

12 July 1987

Letters
The New York Times Book Review
229 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036

Charles Newman's question, "What's Left Out of Literature?" (July 12) raises another question: Why have publishers, critics, and academics decided that the sort of writing Newman describes is our literature?

Newman finds in serious writing today "a sense of diminishing control, loss of individual autonomy and generalized helplessness…the flattest possible characters in the flattest possible landscape rendered in the flattest possible diction."

But what else could Newman find when novels that present characters of individual merit and action--heroes, if you will--are routinely excluded from consideration as serious literature…when a sense of causality in a novel's plot is an unpardonable gaucherie…when an energetic ideological stance will dismiss a novel as a polemic…when a sense of enthusiasm in the narrative voice will have it dismissed as adolescent?

One could easily argue that it is the very worldview of such works of fiction that condemn them to the ghettos of popular fiction, and even if one manages to get reviewed (which is rarely), its value-laden subtext guarantees that our culture guardians will never call it today's "literature."

Unless critics such as Newman are willing to recognize popular fiction as the repository of those values missing from today's "serious literature," then laments such as his strike me as parricides complaining they've been orphaned.

Go to Next Chapter.

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Writing Fiction

From my letter to a writer who asked for some advice. --JNS

In my own fiction writing I concentrate on two things: clarity and drama. If the reader can't read the words easily, follow the sentences easily, follow what's happening easily, track who the characters are and what they're doing--all of which come under "clarity"--then the cost of reading becomes too high and the reader gives up. If the author doesn't give the reader continuous reasons to keep reading, the same thing happens: the reader puts the book down.

Drama means, very simply, the use of suspense to keep the reader reading. Suspense doesn't mean a shooting on every page. It doesn't mean the subject matter has to have spies or involve terrorism. Suspense simply means the author keeps teasing the reader by making the reader ask questions the answers to which become important to the reader.

When I read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged for the first time, I was intimidated by the sheer length of the book--around 1000 pages long. It was the longest book I had ever tried reading at that age--I was 19 at the time. So I picked the book up intending only to read the first few chapters and see if it was something that interested me enough to continue. I only gave it that much chance because it was recommended to me as being a Heinlein kind of book by someone I trusted.

Very early in the first chapter, there's a scene where a woman described as being beautiful is half asleep on a train, listening to a symphony. The symphony is described as sounding triumphant, and she recognizes it as clearly the work of a composer she knows. Then she wakes up and realizes that she's not hearing a symphony, but only someone whistling--a young brakeman. She asks him what he's whistling and he answers that it's the Richard Halley Fifth Concerto. She pauses a moment and informs him that Richard Halley only wrote four concertos--and the brakeman acts as if he's been caught in some sort of lie and quickly finds a reason to be elsewhere.

I read through the next 900 pages for one reason: I wanted to find out why someone would lie about someone having written a piece of music.

That's suspense.

As a technical matter, I feel the first sentence of a book is crucially important to establishing the mood of a book, and if you haven't interested me by the end of the first few pages, you're likely to lose me for good.

I also feel any time the reader has a natural chance to put the book down, there's a danger it won't be picked up again,so I always end each break--especially chapter breaks--with something dramatic; then I try to make the next chapter opening as gripping again as the end of the last chapter--an end hook followed by an opening hook.

All of this is for the reason that reading is hard work, and if the author makes the reader work hard to get the pleasure of reading, the reader will give up and go elsewhere. That's why what we presume is bad writing sells so well. Movie and TV tie-ins make the reader's job easier by presenting the reader with characters and situations which are familiar therefore less work to get into. The reader gets more pleasure for less work and comes back for more.

And candy sells better than spinach, too.

This doesn't mean that you have to give the reader nothing but junk food. But you do have to follow the principle that the tastiest stuff has to come at the beginning and at the end, and all the vegetables have to be buried in the middle and chopped up as small as possible so that the person dining doesn't mind it too much.

The following article was published in the Los Angeles Times Book Review on August 10, 1980.

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There Are Two Sides to Every Review

1. "The writing is heavy-handed."

The author says things explicitly.

2. "The story is melodramatic."

The book is strongly plotted.

3. "The plot is contrived."

The plot is original and intricately logical.

4. "The novel is polemical."

The novel has a discernible theme.

5. "The novel is preachy."

The theme phrases a moral proposition.

6. "The book's intent is didactic."

The plot demonstrates practical consequences of the theme.

7. "The author manipulates characters."

The characters do things that fit into the plot.

8. "The characters are two-dimensional."

The characters are only shown doing things that fit into the plot.

9. "The book is Pollyannish."

The author finds things in life that make it worth living.

10. "The story depends upon coincidence."

Events in the story logically coincide.

11. "The book is a roman à clef."

The characters are so realistically drawn, they can be confused with real people.

12. "The characters are unrealistic."

The characters are shown being heroic, moral and intelligent, while the critic views his own character as cowardly, amoral and stupid.

13. "The author has no feeling for his subject."

The author portrays things differently from what the critic thinks they are.

14. "The characters give speeches."

The characters are capable of expressing a coherent viewpoint.

15. "This character is the author's mouthpiece."

This character makes more sense than the others.

16. "The book is utopian."

The author thinks things can get better.

17. "The book is an exercise in paranoia."

The author thinks things can get worse.

Go to Afterthoughts.

Return to Table of Contents.