Monthly Archives: August 2013

The “True Grit” Myth

I grew up reading the classics and almost-classics – books whose language and rhythm evoked vivid pictures and strong emotions that lingered long after the reading. Not because I had to, but because I wanted to. Those stories stick in my mind, even though I have since forgotten the title or the author’s name for some of them.
The idea that a story attains power only through “gritty” writing cuts both readers and writers short. There is an entire genre of “sweetness and light” that appeals to readers of all ages simply because we live in a world that is not all sweetness and light and we crave it.  This is not to say that sweetness and light stories lack true grit. Some of the most powerful stories I remember from my childhood have backbone without having the modern definition of “grit.”
By that I mean crude language, profanity, visceral imagery that is too graphic and leaves nothing to the reader’s imagination. Today’s audience has been led to believe that if a novel is not filled with profanity and violence it is not a true depiction of life as we know it, and thus the book lacks “grit.”
This is, in part, due to television and movies which give viewers (i.e. readers) an instantaneous visual on “real life.”  It fails, however, to take into account, the variety of life on this planet and the diversity of lifestyles. I have lived in several different countries and states, taught high school and middle school students in different sized schools and lived in both rural and urban areas.  There are large portions of the U.S. where the perceived view of reality presented by the television and movie industry do not apply.  And yes, I do understand that the intent of such industries is to entertain and “sweetness and light” don’t entertain enough.
Who’s fault is that?  Writers. Writers who settle for the easy and lazy way out because it takes too much effort to craft a piece of literature otherwise. I’ve heard all the arguments from “things were different” to “censorship” given as rationales for using low level language skills.  The bottom line is that using overly graphic writing and/or profanity is simply lazy writing. It means the writer didn’t or couldn’t take the time to think of something better.
It reminds me of that scene from Hook where Peter is arguing with one of the boys and they get into a name calling contest. The youngster is finally reduced to screaming, “man” over and over, while Peter uses his mental thesaurus to blast the kid with descriptive terminology that leaves the rest of the Lost Boys gasping in amazement. Under the guise of being “gritty” writers, we often find ourselves like the youngster screaming “man.”
So how does a writer maintain the sheer beauty of language, evoke vivid imagery, and avoid lazy writing, yet still craft a story with depth? Write about emotions. Write about strong characters in the face of adversity, characters who do not deviate from their convictions no matter the circumstances. This is the heart of the movie Chariots of Fire, a young Scotsman who refused to violate his convictions in spite of the enormous pressure brought to bear on him by his king and country.
Perhaps that is why 21st century writing is so bland. We no longer have role models of conviction. We lack true heroes that value women above their libido, who know the meaning of integrity, and are willing to stand the cost to do what is right.
And that, my friends, is true grit and what creates a memorable story.

The Girl with Stars in Her Eyes

When most people talk about science fiction, they can point to a certain movie or television series as their introduction to the genre.  Not me.  We didn’t always have a working television growing up, and since my college class was the first to use VDT (video display terminals–the precursor to modern desktop computers), let’s just say Star Trek wasn’t my first love in junior high.

I found science fiction through books: lovely pages of black and white type, rich in description, lavish in character, and dripping with adventure and excitement. Better than chocolate for a girl stuck in rural America, whose main reading fare up until then was Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series.

I wish I could remember the first sci fi book I opened. Perhaps it was Ray Bradbury’s R is for Rocket or maybe Julia Sauer’s Fog Magic.  It could have been some other book from some other universe that whisked me away into the limitless world of imagination. Science fiction became my escape from reality and I never looked back.

The earlier writers of sci fi’s Golden Age–Andre Norton’s Beast Master, H. Beam Piper’s Four Day Planet and Lone Star Planet, Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit Will Travel primarily–set the tone for my own writing style.  I read every Tom Corbett adventure I could get my hands on–still re-read them.  For me, these are the marks of a quality story; not the technology, not the fantastical worlds, but stories about people, ordinary people who are living in extraordinary places.

So don’t look for exhaustive details on how technology works, or why a planet is in the mess it’s in, or all the background for a character’s life story in one of my novels. It won’t be there. Like the masters I adore, I drop my characters in the middle of their worlds where things work without explanation (do you know how your computer works or do you just use it?)  Do look for a world and characters that will suck you in like a black hole and never let you go. For that is the charm of sci fi’s golden age books.  Yes, we know more about the universe and how life and technology works.  But if the characters and story are memorable, I’ll return to that world again and again, even though rationally I know Venus doesn’t support life and that man cannot (yet) break the speed of light.

Books are the ultimate time travel and I plan on traveling for a long, long time.

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