Wired for Story by Lisa Cron (Quickie Book Review)

This past Thanksgiving holiday I was put out of action by a dodgy knee while my nearest and dearest slithered down the slopes. It was not all bad, because I got the chance to read Wired For Story by Lisa Cron (with nary an interruption—bliss!).  Drawing on neuroscience, Lisa Cron contends that our brains crave story, because story is what helps us survive and thrive. A good story engages our brain in a pleasurable and rewarding way, and therefore we want more of it.

So what makes a story good?

Lots of things, but—surprisingly—none of them have to do with beautiful writing.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t write as well as possible, but beautifully wrought sentences are certainly not required to hook the reader. Just think of some of the bestsellers you have read over the years where the writing is more prosaic than poetic. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code comes to mind, and apparently it’s the same with E L James’ Shades of Gray (I haven’t read it yet), and no doubt with a slew of other bestselling novels. What makes these books irresistible to the reader is not gorgeous writing, but—repeat with me—a good story.

This may come as a shock to anyone going through an MFA program that emphasizes style, often at the expense of story.  But without a good story, beautiful is boring. Just ask the MFA student Cron mentions who was reduced to tears by the mind-numbingly boring books she had to read for her courses. I’m sure most of us have read, or were forced to read, books that didn’t have much to say by way of story, but said it beautifully anyway. Story is what drives the whole thing, and unless you get it right your reader may well end up crying with boredom, no matter how many hours you labored to find the perfect metaphor to describe the exact sensation of a grape bursting in your mouth.

So what is story? Well, it’s not plot. Plot is simply what happens.

Lisa Cron argues that a book can still tell a riveting story without much of a plot (i.e. without much external action).  Story is how what happens affects your protagonist. Everything that happens, every detail you include, must in some way affect the protagonist.  Which brings me to another problem area she identifies: description that does not, in some essential way, pertain to the protagonist’s story.

Think about it: which parts of a novel do you tend to skim over? Exactly. Lengthy descriptions of weather, countryside, interiors, battles, clothes. Descriptions that are there just for the sake of it. Just because a spring meadow is colorful doesn’t mean the reader wants to know about every single flower growing in it—unless the flower relates to the protagonist and has a role in propelling the story. Nor do readers care about arcane architectural flourishes—unless, again, they affect the protagonist’s story (think Harry Potter).

Very few writers (including myself) can resist the temptation to describe. At the very least, we feel obliged to drop in serviceable, though mostly pointless, descriptions, because it’s the “writerly” thing to do. Obviously, since a novel doesn’t take place in empty space (and even there you’d be surrounded by stars and planets), it’s important to know where the action occurs. But a brief nod to the surroundings is usually enough to clue in the reader—unless the environment affects the character and becomes part of the story, as it does in novels like Heart of Darkness, The Name of the Rose, and Harry Potter. 

Wired for Story not only leads you through all the elements that make a story compelling, but also provides convenient check lists at the end of each chapter. It’s almost like having an editor look over your shoulder! This is one of the few writing books worth reading again and again: before, during, and after your writing project. Lisa Cron presents her advice with wit and the wisdom of many years of teaching, agenting, and consulting—which makes her book not only useful, but  also a pleasure to read.

If you are serious about learning or reminding yourself about what makes a good story, do yourself a favor and read her book. You may even end up writing a story,  beautifully.

Check our Lisa Cron’s webpage for more information.

 

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Lost in translation? The tricky business of translating children’s books

This summer my son discovered the Findus and Pettson series by the Swedish writer and illustrator Sven Nordqvist. On the face of it the series is an unlikely hit with kids: the main characters are a lonely old man and his cat—not exactly bestselling children’s fodder, especially not in the age of Disney and Pixar. But bestselling it is: the books have been translated into many languages and have sold over 6 million copies worldwide. Findus and Pettson are superstars in Sweden, very popular in much of Europe, but not well known in America. Why?

Old man Pettson is not magical or super-heroic, or special in any sense. He has no twinkle in his eye. No, he is well over sixty, frumpy and occasionally grumpy, drinks coffee by the gallon, and lives in a farmhouse in the wilds of the Swedish countryside. His neighbors consider him a bit of an oddball, not least because he talks to his cat. (But don’t we all?)

Findus the talking cat is the undisputed star, but not in a cute, Disney-esque sense. Opinionated, stubborn, curious, and not always nice, Findus is the feline equivalent of your elementary school child—and herein lies the attraction for kids. The 5+ crowd can identify almost instantly with Findus, but I suspect that many adults (who would be reading the books to their children) are disinclined to identify with Pettson and his coffee-drinking, hermit-like habits. In an American environment, adults—especially when in charge of a cat/child—are expected to be positive role models, not oddballs! This cultural difference may be one reason why the series has not caught on in America.

However, the other reason may well lie in the translation of the text. One translation is published by Hawthorn Press (UK) as the Findus and Pettson series. However, Carolrhoda Books (USA) published an slightly earlier translation targeted specifically to the American market. This edition is called the Festus and Mercury series, with Mercury being the cat. Why the name change? You may well ask, as did I.

So off I went on an Internet hunt and came across an article by BethAnne Yoxsimer Paulsrud that gives an interesting account of two warring theories of translation being at work here. The American translation “domesticates” the foreign work to make it more accessible to American readers and includes references to Fourth of July fireworks and the Star Spangled Banner anthem—not something likely to be found in Sweden, where the stories are set!  Furthermore, the characters’ names were changed to sound American (however: Festus?). The UK translation, on the other hand, proceeds on the assumption that children are clever enough to appreciate the “foreignness” of a book and don’t require a domesticated version.

In the case of this series, the differences in the two translations are eye opening. Here is an example taken from Paulsrud’s article:

Domesticated Foreign
“Looks great,” said Mercury when they stood the exploding hen in the yard They set up the hen on the ground in the yard and stood looking at it.“It’s fine,” said Findus.“Mmm,” said Pettson proudly.Then they were silent a moment.

And here is another one:

Domesticated Foreign
But the more he thought about it, the more of a challenge it seemed. He looked all around the farmyard and had an idea. Then he led Mercury back to the toolshed. But at the same time he began to wonder how he could arrange a good spooky scene. And the more he thought about it, the more it seemed like fun.So soon he was back in the yard again mumbling to himself and looking up into the air to the right and to the left. Then he said: “We’ll build a ropeway now. You’d better come too, Findus, so you don’t get any firecrackers going off your backside.”“Sss, rubbish,” said Findus, but he went along anyway.

The difference is startling, isn’t it? The “domesticated” translation has none of the quirkiness and detail of the “foreign” one, which is an almost a word-for-word equivalent of the original Swedish text. And while the “foreign” translation may not use elegant prose, it is nevertheless much more lively and challenging.

Now I’m wondering: how many books in translation have we read as children and not appreciated, because they were too “domesticated”? And how many “foreign” ones did we appreciate? And which were more memorable?

As a child I found it thrilling to read about children in faraway places, even if their environment was utterly unfamiliar to me. Girls from Africa, England, Sweden (Pippi Longstocking, anyone?) were part of my imaginative world, and though I probably found it challenging to imagine life in a Tanzanian village, it didn’t prevent me from enjoying reading and puzzling about it. In my view, translations of foreign children’s books should challenge kids to look at the unfamiliar—this is how they develop curiosity about the world they live in, which can only be a good thing.

But let’s get back to the series my son loves so much (and yes, we read the “foreign” translation). As mentioned, the book’s author is also its illustrator, and, thankfully, the pictures need no translating! In fact, the illustrations really make the books stand out. Nordqvist draws images you linger over and savor for their inventive quirks and irrelevant details. The more you look, the more you find. They gives the stories a whole new dimension and ensure that children and adults alike are entertained.

In case anyone is on the quest for interesting and fun children’s books—especially something a little off the beaten path—I highly recommend this series. You can find Findus and Pettson on Amazon.

Of cats and butterflies and the pitfalls of old words

I recently perused a website devoted to plucking deserving old words from the jaws of oblivion (Word Warriors).  You can also nominate a word you like, say why, and other users can give it the thumbs up or down. With some luck, your favorite word will make it onto their word list.

Among their top ten words for 2012 is supercilious, which surprised me, as I didn’t realize it had gone out of fashion. I use it all the time. But perhaps that’s because my choice of vocab. can be somewhat antediluvian (another gem on their list). They also list transmogrify, which has a distinct Harry Potteresque quality, and which, if you’re British or Australian, reminds you of cats (moggie = ordinary, non-pedigree cat).

Speaking of cats, I was delighted to find concatenation on their list. This is a word that is hard to forget once you have read an account of Bertram Wooster conversing with his butler Jeeves, with Wooster grappling, as usual, for the mot juste:

 “And owing to…what’s that something of circumstances you hear people talking about? Cats enter into it, if I remember rightly.”

“Would concatenation be the word for which you are groping?”

(“Jeeves and the Greasy Bird”)

In case you’re wondering, concatenation has nothing to do with cats and everything to do with linking things together, as in a chain of events. Too bad – cats would be infinitely more entertaining.

There are a lot of old-fashioned words that appeal to me. Such as flibbertigibbet. I like it because it’s fun to say and because P. G. Wodehouse used it to describe one of his flighty young female characters (although I can’t for the life of me remember which one, and I’m not about to dive into the Master’s opus—after all, there is a considerable number of volumes to plow through).

For some reason, to me the word flibbertigibbet conjures up an image of colorful butterflies flitting hither and thither. Plus, it is usually applied, often in an indulgent way, to chatty and somewhat scatterbrained young women, so I assumed that the origin of flibbertigibbet was something sweet, even innocent.

Far from it. To my horror, Wikipedia—the Internet’s reigning fount of wisdom—has something quite different to report: one possible origin relates to birds flying by and pecking the remains of executed criminals set out for display on a platform or gallows (a gibbet). Yuck!  And it gets worse. Well, actually, it doesn’t, but it’s just as bad: in naval terminology, a gibbet is

A wooden frame from which dead pirates are hung, often in a metal cage especially fitted for the dead man. This is done as a warning to others who would think of taking up a career in piracy. (see here)

An alternative explanation offered is more benign and refers to the jib sail that may flutter in the wind, depending on how tightly it is rigged. Better, but not great. And nothing at all to do with butterflies.

Whatever its origin, flibbertigibbet has an illustrious lineage: Shakespeare used it in King Lear. Alas, butterflies were far from his mind:

This is the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet. He begins at curfew,

and walks till the first cock. He gives the web and the pin,

squints the eye, and makes the harelip; mildews the white wheat,

and hurts the poor creature of earth.

(Act III, Scene 4)

Flibbertigibbet: a foul fiend? This is definitely a far cry from the contemporary use of the word, which is perhaps not terribly complimentary, but at least a flibbertigibbet is harmless.

But perhaps all these attempts at delving into the supposed etymological roots of the word are misguided, and flibbertigibbet is simply one of those words that attempts to sound like the thing it describes. Think barnyard words like moo, oink, and woof.  This, indeed, is the explanation offered by Evan Morris (whose excellent site The Word Detective I have just discovered):

 “Flibbertigibbet” almost certainly arose as an attempt to duplicate the sound of someone babbling or prattling on in meaningless chatter. 

Yes! Onomatopoeia to the rescue! This is now my preferred explanation, as I am not partial to the idea of birds pecking at a person’s exposed remains . . .  which brings to mind the unfortunate Prometheus of Greek mythology, who had to undergo the indignity of  having his liver pecked out daily by an eagle. Fortunately, his liver was self-regenerating, much like a gecko’s tail, so there’s your silver lining. Such as it is.

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