Review: Story Craft, by John Erickson

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Story Craft: Reflections on Faith, Culture, and Writing by the Author of Hank the Cowdog

Originally read and reviewed in January 2011.

Story Craft: Reflections on Faith, Culture, and Writing by the Author of Hank the Cowdog
by John R. Erickson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Borrowed.

Interesting autobiographical & cultural reflections from someone who has kept himself away from fiction and television since he started writing. He writes both about his theory on why art labeled “Christian” is bad and why “Capitalized Artist” art is also bad. He explains how his books evidence his Christian worldview, even though Christian publishers won’t publish them; his section on complaints he’s gotten from some Christian readers is funny.

He began writing and selling his books with adults as his target audience and the fact that he is now considered a children’s author is completely unintentional. Kids started reading his books, teachers started inviting him into schools, and his books with humor “too subtle for children” are shelved in the library in the children’s section.

He recommends writers diagram sentences, so he’s all right in my book.

Here were my favorite quotes:

On pop-culture fiction and movies

What is the magic in gutter language? It has only been in the last thirty years that novelists and screenwriters have turned the F-word into an all-purpose noun, verb, adjective, and adverb. How did Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare manage to record the human drama without it? How did poor mortals express their feelings of extreme anger and joy? They did it with skill and imagination. They did it with language that was rich in texture, tone, and nuance. There is no great magic in that word or any other expletive. In fact, their use is a symptom of intellectual sloth. Any writer who depends upon one expletive (or even three) to express the full range of human emotions is no better than a composer who uses one finger to peck out a tiresome little melody on the piano.

On writing

As a young writer, I thought that adverbs created emotion: happily, sorrowfully, mournfully, wistfully, and so forth. Those are words that ought to create emotion in the reader, right? But they don’t. The emotion in a piece of writing originates in a mysterious way. If the author feels emotion, those feelings will reach the reader through nouns and verbs and, in fiction, through characters. If the emotion is genuine, the author doesn’t have to pump it up with adverbs. When I see a lot of adverbs on a page, it tells me that the author doesn’t feel what he’s trying to write and is trying desperately to convince me that he does. I don’t like adverbs. There is just something counterfeit about them and most of the time, they insult the intelligence of the reader.

A diagrammed sentence imposes discipline on the author, forcing him to see the parts of speech and how they relate to each other. It sharpens the focus and tells us exactly who did what to whom. (If I taught a writing class, I would encourage students to diagram their sentences.)

Somewhere in this big world, there may be a twelve-year-old who has stories worth telling, but most of us need to spend some time accumulating experience, and maybe wisdom too, from some sort of activity outside of ourselves: building a house, punching cows, baking bread, comforting a sick child, burying loved ones, raising a garden, laughing at dogs, gazing at the stars, keeping a marriage strong. The easy part of writing is the writing. The hard part is finding something to say that is worth a reader’s time.

On inspiration v. discipline

A plumber doesn’t wait for inspiration to lay a water line. A surgeon doesn’t have to be inspired to remove an appendix, and a professional writer doesn’t sit around waiting for the muse to whisper in his ear. He has to make his own inspiration, and that happens when he follows a pattern of disciplined work.