Thursday, March 6, 2014

Sometimes They Just Want "Jingle Bells"

"I wish I could figure out what I'm doing wrong! What do they want?" My friend, who takes business writing assignments from an online clearinghouse, had just been venting over a couple clients who (though they'd accepted and paid her) had rated her product as "poor" or merely "average." My friend, a well-published writer, as well as a former magazine editor, was understandably beside herself. She has never accepted anything less than excellence from herself--and, in fact, the website had given these same assignments their highest rating.

I tried to reassure her. It's always easier to see no problem when it isn't your own writing that seems to be under attack. "I don't think you're doing anything wrong," I told her. "They're your customers, and they have the prerogative of being unreasonable."

I pointed out she was working from a very short posting that offered only the barest of instructions, and she'd had no opportunity to ask questions for clarification. I also suggested her clients had possibly given scant attention to their evaluations. Some of what I was saying may have helped a bit, but as we left the restaurant after our weekly writing critique, my friend still seemed woebegone and frustrated.

It didn't occur to me at the time, but another obstacle she's up against is that her clients aren't "word people." They aren't other writers, editors, or agents. They are all simply "writing consumers," from other industries. Their ideas of what constitutes good writing may differ wildly from reality.

Nonetheless, the more I mulled this over as I drove home, the more I saw parallels with conventional writing submissions. Sometimes I don't even recognize my own submission, from comments I've gotten back from editors or agents, and I wonder what on earth they were actually reading.

It reminded me of Lucy in the Charlie Brown Christmas special. She is listening to Schroeder play the piano, and she asks him to play "Jingle Bells." Schroeder offers a beautiful rendition, and Lucy snaps, "That's not 'Jingle Bells.' Play 'Jingle Bells!'"

Schroeder plays another version, equally lovely, and then another. Lucy meanwhile gets more and more perturbed. "Play 'Jingle Bells!'" she orders.

Finally, Schroeder hunches over the keyboard and pecks out the melody with two fingers...plink, plink, plink. Lucy's face melts into a dreamy smile. "That's it--that's 'Jingle Bells.'"

Sometimes, it occurs to me, it doesn't matter that our writing is graceful, punchy, or gripping. If it doesn't meet whatever that editor's, agent's, or reader's expectations are, we're not going to get a contract--or even keep them with us past the first paragraph. It doesn't mean our writing is no good--it's just that sometimes, they just want "Jingle Bells."

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Buckle Your Seatbelts

I collect vintage children’s series books—like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. I may have started there, anyway. But eventually, I moved on from Nancy, Frank and Joe, Trixie Belden and Judy Bolton. Back to the thirties, the twenties, and a hundred years back to 1914. Back to Ruth Fielding, the Motor Maids, and the Flying Machine Boys. The Outdoor Girls and the Moving Picture Chums.

It’s not exactly a popular hobby in the 21st century.

I’d always been a bit reluctant to pick up the genuinely old series—afraid, I guess, they’d be as musty to read as they are to smell. What exactly did I expect? Stilted language, I suppose. Outdated gender roles and ethnic stereotyping. Heavy-handed moralizing.

Finally, other collectors recommended a few very old series, and I decided to give them a try. What I found was surprising. Certainly, an old-fashioned writing style. Some occasional stereotyping. Definite moral values, though not as preachy as I’d anticipated. But, far and beyond these expected qualities, I discovered a startling vitality on those yellowing pages—youthfulness as fresh today as when they were first written. There was real humor here, and heart-thumping action and suspense.

What I found, time and again, were stories that took off running from the very first page. The discovery of an old, hand-drawn map, stuck beneath the cover of an antique book. A sinister stranger, eavesdropping in a café. A sudden storm. Kidnapers. The dam breaks. An eerie figure looms in the mist.

Something happens right away—something startling, exciting, gripping. But the problems for our hero—or heroine—aren’t easily resolved. They get worse, as obstacles and dangers pile up with barely a moment to breathe, apart from a bit of comic relief.

At times, the sheer quantity of incredible disasters that befall these characters is mind-boggling. The Moving Picture Girls, for instance, tend to move from one crisis to the next with barely a breather. A violent storm comes up. Their ship begins to sink. One of the actors is washed overboard. They are rescued and resume their trip by train. The train is robbed. Someone is taken captive. A rival company sends a spy to steal the company’s film. They arrive at their destination and begin filming. Indians unhappy with the location of the filming threaten the company. A horse runs off with one of our characters. She is rescued, but a “controlled” blaze, set for purposes of the film, goes out of control, trapping our actors in the middle of a prairie fire. This may be a bit of an exaggeration—but not by much. And always our intrepid cameraman manages to keep on filming, so later the resulting footage can be used to create a popular and prize-winning movie.

Corny? Yes, some of these scenes are hysterically, though undoubtedly unintentionally, funny. But often, the characters also display genuine laugh-out-loud wit. I’ve been surprised by how well the humor translates for a modern reader.

It’s easy for me to see why young readers from decades long past gobbled these stories up. Many of the books I find have been read nearly to death. It makes me smile to think about some kid reading in bed when he’s supposed to be getting a good night’s sleep before school the next morning.

How many kids still do this? I’m afraid not as many as there used to be, before TV, the internet, and cell phones. But an action-packed story—whether for kids or adults—still has that ability to grab readers by the collar and drag them along on a wild ride. Consider Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket—both, not coincidentally, having been translated into successful movies.

I tend to forget how important a compelling plot is—one in which things actually happen (and keep happening).  But unrelenting action and unanswered questions can energize a story like nothing else. Both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas took inspiration from the old-time movie serials with their cliffhanger endings, in creating blockbuster movie franchises.

I love to develop characters and setting. But my musty old books connect me with the real power of story.