Friday, March 30, 2007

Letter Perfect

The Letter.
Jean-Honore Fragonard.
oil on canvas, c.1776.
Cincinnati Art Museum.

One of the most charming of the many famous paintings of girls reading letters.

In times when literacy and postal difficulties made long-distance communication difficult, a letter was a magical, significant thing.

Plots turned on a mis-directed, forged, lost or stolen letters. Duels, suicides could result, empires fall.

Not any more.

Opening a novel with the main character reading a letter is cited, along with a dream scene, as one of the main novice no-nos. Stale, over-done and dull.

Up-dating to e-mail makes no difference, as I learned, to my chagrin, a long while ago when my opening made Miss Snark want to leap onto a chair and scream. I fixed that, by the way.

But think about it, beyond stereotype, beyond same-old, letters are just not likely to have the same impact, excitement, or significance to a modern character. Their social resonance has faded. Letters do not carry the same intrinsic, tappable associations they did in the past.

Graffiti, a ransom note, or dermagraphia, on the other hand, may be quite a different thing. Just avoid the 8 and 1/2 by 11.


EA Monroe said...

Ha. I've heard it said that if one wants to make money writing, ransom notes are the way to go.I don't remember who said that, but I have been expecting a ransom note any day now.

EA Monroe said...

PS: Bernita, my all time favorite is, "I know who you are and I saw what you did!"

I've posted a few ransom notes over in the Shadowlands; Before I disappear, I may post a few more... ;-)

Ric said...

The lost art of letter writing. At this point, people don't even have answering machines - cell phones have done away with those as well.

Friday and we're discussing dermagraphia (which I had to look up - I love it when you do that to me)

Misplaced missives, torn notes, ah, I miss those times. Now replaced with "Can you hear me now?"

Bernita said...

Elizabeth, remember Red Chief? Your relative, right?

Post-it notes are more like it, Ric. And body art.
And thank you, you remind me I have to insert an explanation why my MC does NOT have a cell phone.And to do it early.
Sad, isn't it? So much excitement revolved around provacative missives, so many plots turned on those rosetta stones. Usually not on the first page of an MS though.

Anonymous said...

Those plot devices can be deadly at any point. If they're an integral part of the story (like a ransom note in a kidnapping), totally fine, but if it feels like an artifice to get some material in, that can be cringe-inspiring.

Sam said...

And don't start a query letter with a rhetorical question. The one and ONLY time I did so, it was shot down by an agent on his blog as an example of what he HATES.

I was thinking he could have put that in his submission guidelines.
Anyhow, now I know, lol.

Kate Thornton said...

Elizabeth, I love your Maxfield Parrish avatar!

Bernita, letter-writing is such a lost art today that when I recieve a real letter from someone I am bowled over and give it more importance than any phone call or email could possibly excite.

Jaye Wells said...

I agree it's a bad idea in prose. However, you've reminded me how lax I've gotten in this area personally. I used to love writing letters, i.e. pen pals and to friends.

Bernita said...

I know what you mean, Jason, the obvious technique. We don't want to see the furiously, paddling feet.

Nathan Bransford. He mentioned it in his archives.But, Sam, not all agents share his antipathy.

Kate, probably, in the fullness of time, opening an MS with someone reading a letter will become original again.

Bernita said...

I think some intriguing plots could be woven around letters delivered 20 years later, Jaye.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

LOL...are you kidding?? Letters??

You say that in a school setting and all you get is a sea of blank stares. Kids don't even write in cursive, let alone write letters *snort*.

And their printing, for the most part is atrocious!

raine said...

Agree on the Parrish avatar--loved his paintings.

Sad about the letter-openers though (lol). A well-written letter can capture my attention right away. It has become a lost art.
I've got the beginnings of a Victorian ms here somewhere that opens with a letter, darn it. Wouldn't you think it'd be acceptable in period pieces?! Phffft!

Bernita said...

If that's so, Bonnie, one wonders why so many new writers choose to begin their novels with someone reading a letter. Do they think it makes for an exotic opening?

Bernita said...

I was wondering about historicals when I wrote this, Raine, for it would seem compatible and appropriate.
Reading a scroll, for example.

raine said...

I was wondering about historicals when I wrote this, Raine, for it would seem compatible and appropriate.
Reading a scroll, for example.


Bernita said...

I wonder if the cliche claim applies only to contemporaries, or if the writer has to deal with an unconscious anachronism by agents regarding all letter openers.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I think it's because most of the writers we see aren't in that generation that is still in their early twenties.

Those kids talk about IMing, and text messaging.

Bernita said...

I imagine that might get the same response...

Gabriele C. said...

My parents lived in a long distance relationship in post War Germany, and they wrote lots of letters. Those letters still exist. I have not read them yet, they belong to my father, somehow, but I will one day. My grandfather kept a diary which I now have - a treasure trove about the feelings of an officer in Italy who became more and more aware that his side was not only going to lose the war but that the leaders where not worth dying for. And who developed a friendship with a Britain-educated, Latin speaking US officer in a POW camp.

I don't think blogs will ever replace written diaries though I never kept one.

As a writer of historical fiction I have the advantage to be able to still use letters. :)

Bernita said...

Interesting you should say that, Gabriele. My daughter and I were discussing the same thing last night. The public journal and the private reflections.

LadyBronco said...

Oh Bernita...

I am guilty of having my MS open with a dream.


I have been resisting changing it, but it looks like I will now have to cave and do so.

Donnetta Lee said...

The art of letter writing has fallen by the wayside. It's out there lost somewhere with the 45 and 331/3 records. I mourn the passing. Miss Lizzy's letters to me as a young teenager were sometimes all that kept me going. My mother is, to this day, an excellent letter-writer and has several pen pals. She'll be 77 on Monday. It's her way.


cyn said...

it is a lost art. and it is too bad. i'm so happy i have actual love letters from my love. we sent even more emails, but those are lost. =(

i do use a message in the form of a scroll written in calligraphy, red seal and all. and yes, i use dreams as well. so i'm new at this. =)

Scott from Oregon said...

I wonder if a recent popular novel has started with a UTube download and viewing?

More and more on crime TV, writers are using the internet and videos from the net in the weavings of their tales...

Bernita said...

I understand it's a risky opening for beginners, Lady, at least in mysteries and romances.

I'm still in letter contact with an elderly aunt, Donnetta, who wrtes beautifully.

Cyn, it's only the opening that comes under criticism from various agents. There is no banishment of use in other sections of a story.

Would think it a natural progression, Scott, they are, after all, merely up-graded letters and photos (paintings.)
Technical advances may appear in stories as a prime plot pivot when very new or as background when the advance is familiar and in use by a satisfactory segment of the population.
Cars went through the same metamorphosis.So did telegraph and telephone.

JLB said...

Hmm... I don't know, I may have to think about that one. Perhaps it's just bold-faced denial, but I don't want to believe the letter is dead. Written correspondence is still important--perhaps it's just the way that the letter is used which needs a face lift?

Well, I guess I'll have to think on that a while longer before I really know my take on it. I just wanted to swing by and say howdy Bernita - I've been offline. ;)

Have a great weekend,

Bernita said...

Thank you for dropping by, JLB. I gave much the same reaction to your excellent post on artistic voice. I want to think about it.
I don't think letter writing will be replaced entirely by E-pistles.