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.

 

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.

New humorous crime novel – Spitting Image

Now for something a little different and entirely self-promotional. If you like humorous crime / mystery fiction, please take a look at my book Spitting Image  on Amazon. It features, among other things, Miami, Key West, cigars, a Jaguar E-type, cats, more cigars, a goldfish–and of course murder, mystery and mayhem.

Here’s the run-down:

 SOME PEOPLE WON’T GO TO PARADISE UNLESS YOU PAY THEM.

Simone Darling has an empty bank account, a boring boyfriend, and an irrational fear of Miami, capital of vice and crime. No way will she set foot in Florida, not even to visit her mother. But when her mother offers her a quick job for a lot of $$$$, she relents and to travels to Florida, her boyfriend Kevin in tow.

First stop: Miami. All seems normal—until Simone finds a dead man inside her mother’s fridge. A man who could be Kevin’s twin. Too late she realizes she has walked into a trap where Kevin is the bait. And now troubles follow hard and fast, and so do the questions:

Who is after Kevin?

Where can she acquire hard-core weapons?

Has her mother turned into a gangster’s moll?

And are the two handsome FBI agents really what they seem?

Newly armed and dangerous, Simone and Kevin embark on a hilarious adventure from Miami to Key West as they try to outwit a gang of drug smugglers and FBI agents, while trying to rekindle their passion for each other and survive a family reunion marked by murder and mayhem.

If you like it, tell your friends (or write a review). If you don’t, tell me (and I’ll try to make the next one better). Thanks!

You can get it here:  Spitting Image

In praise of nonsense lit

Nonsense literature is not just for kids!  I’m convinced that adults enjoy it as much as, or perhaps even more than, the ankle biters among us. And not only do we enjoy it, but we need it, at least once in a while. Why? Because in its pure state nonsense lit is everything grown-ups are not supposed to be: unexpected, fun, weird, silly, nonsensical, grotesque, non-PC.  It is perhaps the ultimate literary expression of freedom. And the best thing is, you can read into it what you want. You think it’s an allegory that points to the deep-dark heart of the human condition? Then that’s what it is. You think it’s just a rhyme to pass the time? Fine by me.

Though you can get carried away with literary, socio-economic, political, psychological, etc. etc. theories about nonsense lit, I won’t. I’ll take it as it comes, thank you.  And I like it best when it comes in the form of poetry, including nursery rhymes and limericks. (Although Stephen Leacock’s Nonsense Novels are nothing to sniff at—but more of that later.)

One of my favorite nonsense poems is The Owl And The Pussy-Cat by Edward Lear, master of the limerick. The Owl And The Pussy-Cat is not a limerick, of course, but a narrative poem about a romance between—of all things—an owl and a cat who end up happily ever after in wedded bliss. It’s silly, it’s joyful, it’s fantastic (in both senses of the words). What’s not to love?

A lot, apparently. I was idly perusing the Guardian newspaper online one morning, when I came across the rather startling news that Terry Jones of Monty Python fame had been commissioned by the Royal Opera to write a libretto based on The Owl And The Pussy-Cat (yes, really:  Owl & Pussycat).  But here’s the clincher: he dislikes the poem. He thinks it’s, well, nonsense. And what is more, it’s nonsense without meaning. I was so astounded I almost choked on my coffee. Nonsense without meaning? What is the world coming to?

However, I do sympathize: getting a near-opera-length libretto out of the old O & P must be a bit like wringing blood from a stone. Jones apparently solved this conundrum by deciding to write a libretto that is a prequel to the poem (and which, I assume contains only sensible, meaningful material). The likelihood of me seeing and hearing the finished work is slim, given it’s very limited season and venue, but I’m nevertheless agog with curiosity. If anyone gets to see it, I’d love to hear what you thought.

Here’s the poem in all its meaningless glory.  Feel free to read into it what you like.

The Owl and the Pussy-Cat

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
“O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
You are,
You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!”

Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?”
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-Tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
His nose,
His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.

“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

Edward Lear, 1871

David Gaughran

Let's Get Digital

Rosie Amber

Book Reviewer, Avid Reader and Bookworm. Campaigning to link more readers to writers. People do not forget books that touch them or excite them—they recommend them.

John M. Cusick

Write. Represent.

Wudang Academy

Traditional Sanfeng Cultural Heritage

The Logical Place

Tim Harding's writings on rationality, informal logic and skepticism

Nerdy Book Club

A community of readers

The Online Academic

embracing social media & internet services to enhance your career

Violent metaphors

Thoughts from the intersection of science, pseudoscience, and conflict.

Hiking Photography

Beautiful photos of hiking and other outdoor adventures.

Goju Blogger

I am learning Goju-Ryu karate. This is my journey.

M. Louisa Locke

Past and Future Worlds with Humor and Heart

peanut butter on the keyboard

where mommy brains and writing collide

Chris Martin Writes

Sowing seeds for the Kingdom

M.K. Mattias

literature, writing, and life as we think we know it

ellisnelson

children's author

Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

%d bloggers like this: