Tuesday, September 17, 2019

How to Race in the Rain and Other Lessons

“I loved it when he talked to me like that. Dragging out the drama. Ratcheting up the anticipation. I’ve always found great pleasure in the narrative tease. But then, I’m a dramatist. For me, a good story is all about setting up expectations and delivering on them in an exciting and surprising way.” Page 59

I love it when an author can incorporate writing lessons into the text of their work.  I got two gems with The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein.

The first quote, above, is about structure, not revealing all knowledge too soon or all at once. Something I had to struggle with early on, and which I still try to pay extra attention to. I call it the information dump: an irresistible urge to tell all way too soon. For me, in my first novel, it was the backstory of Pearl, the 103-year-old retired teacher. Her actions were too important to squander away. I had to make myself break her story into smaller sections, space them out in the narrative, gave her the beginning and the end. I made myself be patient. Some readers got it, some didn’t.

Building a firm foundation for the main character is vital. The writer must create a narrative arc of development that plots a path of growth, either positive or negative. It reminds me of one of the first tips I got from a dear Bishop Hill friend, “Your protagonist has to change.” 

Vonnegut tells it this way: Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.* That’s a little extreme for my taste, but it gets the idea across.

The second quote from Stein highlights just such a lesson:

“The true hero is flawed. The true test of a champion is not whether he can triumph, but whether he can overcome obstacles—preferably of his own making—in order to triumph. A hero without a flaw in of no interest to an audience or the universe, which, after all, is based on conflict and opposition, the irresistible force meeting the unmovable object. Which is also why Michael Schumacher, clearly one of the most gifted Formula One drivers of all time, winner of more races, winner of more championships, holder of more pole position than any other driver in Formula One history, is often left off the race fan’s list of favorite champions. He is unlike Ayrton Senna, who often employed the same devious and daring tactics as Schumacher, but did so with a wink and therefore was called charismatic and emotional rather than what they call Schumacher: remote and unapproachable. Schumacher has no flaws. He has the best car, the best-financed team, the best tires, the most skill. Who can rejoice in his wins? The sun rises every day. What is to love? Lock the sun in a box. Force the sun to overcome adversity in order to rise. Then we will cheer!” Page 136

Frankly, this would work for a synopsis for the whole book. Our protagonist, Denny, has misfortune after misfortune rain down upon him in an unceasing downpour, testing his skills, his principles, his very soul … until the very end. We discover the metal of his being. On the last turn of the last lap victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat. The only thing left to wonder about is what happened to Enzo, the dog.

*From Brain Pickings:

#8 on Vonnegut’s list cancels out what I said about pacing. But, in my defense, he was talking about SHORT stories.

Links to other author’s lists of advice can be found here as well.

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