Saturday, January 31, 2009

Do You Want to Be a Great Writer?

I have sufficient hubris, as an author with no published tomes, to present writing tips here on my blog. My credentials are extensive but rather eclectic and unconventional. Like many that presume to teach I'm often better at theory than the execution thereof, but at heart I feel that I have had the best teachers that literature has to offer.

While it is essential to work at good writing, to learn the craft, to hone your skills, there are times when you just have to ignore all those writing tips out there in self-help books and blogs like my own. My tips are reflective of my taste in literature and what I consider to be good writing. Other people are writing from their own view, whether it is 'accepted wisdom' or personal taste. Sometimes people lose objectivity and can't tell the difference between the two. Some people even forget the soaring flights of breathtaking prose that attracted them to writing in the first place.

If you want to write just like everybody else then follow all the tips. Trim the fat. Grab up your thesaurus. Make sure you get rid of all those weak and floppy adverbs and all those ellipses before someone sees them and marks you as inferior. Tips are useful. Do read and consider them, but when it comes learning how to be a writer there is really only resource that I can recommend with certainty and that is from the writers you adore. Read what you like, read more of it, branch out and read some classics, and then read them all over again; this time analyzing the language and how it is used. Some writers will seem to adhere to all those writing tips you have read, but many more of them (greats) will be breaking rules all over the place.

Of course it takes experience to know when to break the rules so the other best writing tip I can offer you is: write.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

My Love of Language

My optometrist is an erudite man with diverse interests. Two years ago, the previous time I had reason to call on his services, we discussed in detail the history of the American West, Wyatt Earp, and the mythos of the gunfighter. He was delighted with my knowledge on the topics. Today we covered the movie Defiance, World War II, the Holocaust, philosophy, and I had the occasion to thrill him with the use of the words 'penultimate' and 'ultimate' in reference to the last and second to last of the letters on the eye chart. He simply enjoyed the use of language.

It caused me to pause and think. I have had many reactions to my casual usage of what most people refer to as 'long' words. The majority infer that I'm an egghead. Others are amused and tease me, but I've always assumed that was a way of covering up discomfort. It seems to me that most people are intimidated by the use of words outside their vocabulary because they are afraid that the user of such words will assume them to be stupid by their lack of familiarity. As point of fact I do not consider the use of an extensive vocabulary to be an indicator of much, except maybe a love of words. I happen to love words. When I read I absorb them, which has often led to seriously amusing mangling of pronunciation thus making me feel foolish or lacking in education when speaking to those who are easily able to correct me.

Why do I absorb words and then have the audacity to use them? Our educational system excludes the study of vocabulary once you hit college except as a form of jargon for the different fields. I confess to autodidactism in the learning of language. Use unusual words, however, and in conversation you can be dismissed as a swat, bore, or worse stuck up. I actually don't sit down to read up on new words to use, and in reality my vocabulary is no where near the level of a scholars, but it is the love of language that causes my brain to be attracted to good words like sunflowers follow the sun. They don't have to be long. Formative years in England added a fillip of Britishisms that often bear explaining to my Yank compatriots. I'm equally as likely to resurrect an archaic word as grab hold of a new one and make them fadge together. You can google 'fadge' to get my drift.

While I have been writing this piece I have been eyeballing my Twitter feed. There was a quote retweeted (ah, jargon how I love thee) that opined that Twitter helped people to write better because the 140 character limit forced people to be more concise and clear. Ah, if only that were true - it's equally likely to teach them to abbreviate. And who the heck says that brevity is the true yardstick of good writing? Soon a novel need only be a haiku. A love of words is not to be despised. The diversity of the English language, its veritable smorgasbord of linguistic delights, is what makes it such an incredibly powerful tool for art, wit, and communication.

Clarity is almost always to be sought, but that doesn't mean complexity is to be eschewed in the same breath. Nor is complexity and vocabulary to be mistaken for erudition. I have cast aside, as a waste of time, tomes of merciless labyrinths of grammar and word that overwhelm meaning with the sheer serpentine convolutions of an author hiding their dearth of original thought behind a wall of cornstalks.

In conclusion, I believe that good writing and good vocabulary go hand in hand. Embrace the diversity of your language, and don't be afraid to grab the dictionary or to try out that cool new word you read the other day. It's just like experimenting with spices when you're expanding your culinary repertoire, and I'll continue to delight my optometrist at every opportunity.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Grammar and Spelling: Pernicious Beasts

Grammar is one of the most difficult of concepts for the average writer to master. Even the most fluent of authors, one whose words soar like Condors over the Andes, may fervently need the aid of one, two, three editors. This is because, unlike mathematics, grammar is an art and not a science. While many grammarians and pedants will scrawl many words of rebuke to all the miscreants who abuse grammar daily the fact is that even grammarians have much they cannot agree on.

Consequently the world has been blessed with the spell check and the grammar check in software programs such as Microsoft Word. I'm the first to tell you that I'm a big fan. I'm one of those writers, of which there are many, who has come slow to understanding the uses of grammar. I have read several books on the topic and taken many college courses that have dealt with it on some level or other, but like the concept of God, much of it I have to take on faith and go with my gut, or rely on my Word program.

Lo, and Behold, I am here to tell you not to rely on your Word program. It is no substitute for true knowledge or the sharp red slash of an editor's pen. I have a tendency towards being far too slap dash. I'm always in a hurry. I gulp down food with the same avidity with which I dash out my lines of deathless prose. Many is the time I have happily submitted my words to the light of electronic publication, hit the post button, satisfied by a clean bill of health from my grammar and spell check only to read again later and have my self-satisfied smile torn from my smug lips.

The most common error of a writer relying on the tools built into their writing software program is reliance on the spell check. Spell check cannot read your mind or know your intentions so it's quite common for it not to catch homonyms. There are a number of classes of homonyms from words that sound the same but are spelled differently to ones that are spelled the same and have different definitions, to ones that are similar in sound but not identical and so forth. Many homonyms can render a sentence not only nonsense but often create a humorous effect that you simply don't need such as substituting the word 'waste' for 'waist' in an erotic passage.

Coming back around to grammar the computer is even less of an authority. It can only be an aid, not a substitute for knowledge. Many is the times that my Word document will suggest that I change something when, in fact, I was correct but a little more complex than the software is programmed for. Unless I know grammar rules I cannot choose the right option: change or ignore. At other times the software generated suggestion is not the correct one, but my grammar is still wrong. What do I do? And then it is simply true that as a creative writer I might want to break the rules. For it to be art and not accident I need to know the rule first - and then disregard it as an artistic choice.

In conclusion I'm here to urge you that if you love words and desire to be a writer of any competence that you take to heart the study of words, their meanings and corrects spelling, and in addition attempt to tackle the mysterious art of grammar. You will never be perfect, not even the most erudite and astute among us is, but these are the tools of your craft. If you were a painter you would not eschew the easel, brush, and palette without at least first having excellent knowledge in their use. And then once you have competently crafted your piece submit it to the scrutiny of others because, unlike in painting, spell errors, typos, and bad grammar are pernicious beasts that like to skulk and hide to trip up self-satisfied writers.

Friday, January 23, 2009

My Love/Hate Affair with Research

I came up against the great Research problem yesterday. It doesn't matter if I'm writing fantasy, historical fiction, westerns, or like now science fiction, eventually I always come up against that wall where I know something but not enough, or even that I know nothing at all. That means taking the time, and I rarely have enough of that nowadays, to do a little digging. But even if I groan with frustration at my lack of complete and instant knowledge of everything and anything, in the end I always cave in and do the leg work.

In order to create believable fictional worlds (that are not entirely self-indulgent) it is essential to get the facts right - or at least plausible.

I was having a discussion with a friend just the other day about terrible movies (I was loathing Sweeny Todd because of the Stephen Sodenhiem score, amongst other things) and he started mocking The Lady in the Water. One of his major beefs with the movie was the scene where Paul Giametti spends ten minutes underwater swimming around without needing to breathe. Now this scene really really pisses him off. He was quite vocal, maybe even for ten minutes about how ludicrous this is. Now you need to remember or be aware (if you haven't seen the movie) that the premise of The Lady in the Water is fantasy. She's some otherworld creature that's been stranded and there are monsters trying to get her.

None of this bothers my friend - and it shouldn't. What bothers him is the character of an ordinary human guy swimming around and around not needing to breathe with nary a sound byte of explanation. It broke the believability and took him out of the magic. Ok, potential magic, because we are talking about The Lady in the Water here which has far more flaws than a few logical discrepancies. It broke the rhythm and ripped dear viewer out of the illusion the movie makers were trying to create. By comparison it all became silly. That is what you really don't want to do when you writing fiction.

They say "write what you know" and that's a bit misunderstood at times. Obviously you can't just write what you know experientially in this life or we wouldn't have Jules Verne or J.R.R. Tolkien. Verne never went to the moon and Tolkien probably never met an elf, but in either case these writers went to great lengths to create something believable for their readers. Verne may seem dated now but to his Victorian readers his science seemed magical but perhaps plausible in a world that was rapidly changing faster than it ever had before, and with that he was able to draw them along into imagining the fantasy, strongly enough that people still enjoy reading Verne today. Tolkien went even further. It wasn't just the magic of his words and the consistency of his vision, but the amount of erudition he added to it, from his creation of new languages as a master of linguistics to his knowledge of the folklore of Europe. In the background of his own stories were copious amounts of back-story crafted from his imagination wedded to existing traditions.

Yesterday, for my latest vision, a science fiction story set not to far in the future that asks what happens if we were plunged into a nuclear winter for twenty or so years, had me spending two hours reading about the Coldstream Guards so that I could create a believable character who is a Lt. Colonel in the Coldstream in this grim London landscape that I and my fellow collaborative writers are working on. If I just fudged it, using my limited knowledge of the British military, at least one of my fellow writers (British of course!) would find my stories to be unbelievable. Lord knows how many potential readers I would put off and alienate. I might never use more than ten percent of what I have read about the Coldstream Guards, but the important thing is that I know what my character would or would not do, what rank is reasonable, whether it was likely that Coldstream Guards would have survived as a regiment, etc.

There is no single story I can think of that I have ever written where I haven't had to dip into at least a smidgeon of research. Even for contemporary stories I need to research law, forensics, the cultures of other ethnic groups from my own, or how to site a good well. My most casual story will include me look up medical facts, how a hospital runs, or even how long it takes for a person to die of thirst.

It is all in the details.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Collaborative Fiction: Playing Nice with Others

In collaborative fiction writing, as in life, not everyone is going to be the right 'mix' for your project. That doesn't mean that they're not a good writer or that they are a bad person. It just means that their personal style or their vision of the story is not working with the rest of the team. There are some simple things to do to try to get everyone working on the same page.

First of all: listen. It's essential to give everyone a chance to express their ideas and creative vision. If you're one of the project leaders (we call them Members of the Board at Pan) and this was your idea for a story you might be tempted to come down hard and insist that it's your way or the highway, but if you do you're also likely to be writing your story all alone. Sometimes even the most difficult writer will come up with ideas that improve on the original concept. If you're not open and you don't listen it will never happen. The case, much of the time, is that people are way off base. Say you want to write a hard core survivalist story and they start coming up with some more fantastic ideas like mega-warriors with super-powers that are hyped up versions of Mad Max on steroids. Hear what they have to say, see if there are any parts of it you can use, and then be firm but supportive. The fact is that what got them excited about your story might not be exactly what you had in mind.

The goal is to bring them closer to the concept without stifling their creativity. So in a realistic survivalist story a band of Mad Max types might fit, but tempered down to earth - would that work? Consider the idea before you just out and out dismiss it. With some working it might fit in - or not. But be sure you have listened first and not just playacted at listening. Keep a respectful attitude and a gentle demeanor in your written communications. In writing people can't see your facial expressions or hand gestures. Your respect needs to be OBVIOUS from your word choices and sentence structure. Unfortunate word choices can alienate. Always reread your communications before hitting the send button and NEVER respond in the heat of the moment if things are getting a little hot under the collar.

It's the case in all collaborations where someone with a very differing view of the story is going to decide to walk. That's ok; it happens. When it does you still have to be respectful, and it's ok to let them go. As long as you've done your job of listening, trying to work with their ideas, etc., as a team leader you hopefully avoided any negative conflict and commentary that can spoil the fun of a good collaborative role play writing project. This story might not be the right one for them but, who knows, another time you might find it fun to work together. Try not to burn bridges!

All the above advice can apply to the writer that is having trouble fitting into a story that initially interested them. You might need to be flexible if the story is not exactly what you imagined when you applied to join in, but remember it's ok if not every story is a good fit for you. Just approach every new story as a potential team member. It's not just the vision that you see in your head of the character. It's the sum of the parts, not just the individual parts.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Bitter Sky

Just a quick update on my nuclear winter science fiction collaborative fiction project at Pan Historia: I got the novel underway with title and right now the first new writers are joining up and putting in their ideas for the overall background scenario. I named the piece “The Bitter Sky” and it’s inspired by a line of a Shakespeare sonnet that reads “thou bitter sky” about winter. The graphics are still pretty spare but I stopped being quite as interested in window dressing as I once was and prefer to have the bones of a collaborative story well structured and strong before going for the rest. In this case I consider the bones to be the believable future scenario where two types of survivors clash over limited resources in a world devoid of sun, poisoned by ash and radiation.

I set the story in the United Kingdom because a) the initial cause of the natural disaster was the eruption of a mega volcano in the United States that would have destroyed most of the northern American continent and b) I used to live there and c) it would probably have avoided a nuclear strike in the crazy fallout from the volcano’s eruption. We have a very good writer from England on the new team and he’s been able to give us all invaluable suggestions that make the setting authentic to British culture and how it might have devolved in twenty years of nuclear winter. My memories of Britain are fading, sad to say, so I definitely need the tips and reminders.

So far the writers the story is attracting are some of the very best Pan Historia has to offer, particularly in the scifi genre, and I’m very excited to be working with writers both familiar to me (from 666 West End Avenue, FLESH, and Turnskin) as well as writers I have not had the challenge and honor of working with before. I’m equally excited to be working on an original science fiction story once more. The last time I wrote scifi at Pan Historia was for the much mourned novel Forever is Too Long (I think I got that write) which was created by a wonderful published author who occasionally frequents Pan Historia. It was set on a huge seed ship that had been drifting in space too long and some of the crew are awoken from stasis and cultures are developing within this massive labyrinth. It was very challenging for me, in particular, because I took a character that came out of the head of another writer, a scientist, and I had to make him both convincing and mine.

I might consider posting my fiction from The Bitter Sky on my writing blog once we get going, but for now it’s still in the planning stages.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Nuclear Winter Science Fiction Novel Idea

Driving to New York City on Saturday afternoon I was inspired to start a new scifi story at my community site Pan Historia. The afternoon had grown prematurely dark from clouds that seemed heavy with snow. The forecast had been vague, anything from 1-12 inches depending on where you were, but the sky looked ready to deliver Armageddon. The afternoon light, as we approached the early evening of winter, became sullen and bruised with menace. I have a tendency towards motion sickness when I travel by car, if I’m not the driver, and so I looked out the window at the winter landscape of Connecticut and then New York State.

I imagined that this light would be similar to the light caused by a layer of ash in the sky – nuclear winter – and from there my mind started running over a future scenario where it the Earth suffered from such a nuclear winter for at least a whole generation. Could people survive? How did they survive? I could easily imagine that a small population could manage by using generators and other power sources to grow food in bunkers or underground facilities with artificial lights, but I also tried to imagine if there could be survivors on the surface. Would they live by scavenging, cannibalism, or what?

There was a section of woods on the journey where the trees had largely died and they were strewn around like dominoes tumbled. This is what nuclear winter would do to the woods over time as the trees died and then rotted. The idea caught hold so thoroughly that I spent a couple hours thinking about it. I imagined the Morlock type scavengers gathering wood to burn, as well as the survivors from the bunkers. There would be conflicts. When I returned home to Vermont and was able to again login into Pan Historia I started doing a little research on the science. My technological survivors would, of course, also have to be scavengers as well as act defensively against the dangers of the twilight world I envisioned. Most of the theories of nuclear winter did not suggest the length of time I imagined, at least not for nuclear bomb fallout, so I looked into mega volcanoes, and I could postulate a situation where that might keep up for some time, particularly if there were also nuclear detonations and perhaps fires burning for years, such as would happen at dumps and oil fields, adding to the dust filled atmosphere.

Those survivors that lived outside would be like sick animals, our Morlock types, scrounging for scraps of food. They would suffer from UV poisoning from what light did come because of the damage to the ozone, and of course water would be contaminated. They would be short-lived and reduced to brutal lives. The clash between the two groups could provide a great deal of drama for long-term collaborative story-telling which is my specialty and the specialty of the writers at Pan Historia.

For those of you new to the concept of Pan Historia but interested in collaborative writing, getting in at the beginning of one of our role play collaborative novels is a great way to get started. More experienced members of the community would be more than happy to mentor you, and you wouldn’t have to feel like you were intruding on an established storyline. I’ll be creating my new ‘novel’ just as soon as I have fixed on a good title for it. There has been good interest in the concept so I hope to see a broad range of writers bringing their ideas to the world we create.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Winged Mercury, and Dude, Where's My Internet?

The moral of the story is two-fold: when you head off for the weekend don't forget to tell your mother that you're going; always leave the neighbors with a spare key.

Saturday I was bundled into a car, literally dragged away from the computer when my fingers were smoking with literary inspiration, so that I could make it to New York City in time for a family gathering of some importance. We had planned to go later in the day but there was a blizzard on its way - maybe we could miss it? We didn't but fortunately it wasn't a real blizzard. Unfortunately neither Connecticut nor New York felt like plowing our direction of the highway. There was definitely some careful yet white-knuckled driving for the entire trip but we arrived safe and sound at Grandpa's in the Bronx.

Dinner was extremely pleasant though - leftover chicken soup from last year's Passover (from the freezer) - and roast chicken cut up into scary chunks with a nicely dressed salad and the good company of family members reunited. My family has recently begun to merge with my lady's family and I'm being indoctrinated into a large and warm circle of wonderfully literate and engaging people. We were each shown to our accommodating beds for the night and I sank into mine with great relief after a harrowing drive. I had, briefly, attempted to access the internet with my laptop but there was no open wifi, and no dialup. However a couple days away from the computer is a welcome change I find.

I am also always sound asleep at 4:00 a.m. It's never a time you'll find me restless or in a book. I like my eight hours and I generally sleep like a bear in winter. The cell phone had to ring quite a few times to wake me and even when it did I found myself too late to catch the call. It was my mother in California. This is alarming. Obviously something is wrong - perhaps with my younger sister or my little nephews. I called right back. My mother is so hysterical she doesn't even realize it's me at first. She'd tried to phone me at home but my phone was dead - she'd tried Pan but it was down. Apparently she'd received word, all the way in California, that there was a fire that COULD be my house all the way in Vermont and once she found both my phone and web site offline she was sure I was burning to a crisp.

Amazing how news travels. She was ranting at me with various things she thought I should do to save the cats when she realized I was safe, but my mind was foggy and I was waking everyone else up as I got louder and louder in my confusion. Then it was reminded to me that I could simply phone my local police station and found out the truth of the matter before further panic ensued and we also woke up the octogenarians in the apartment. It turned out that my home and cats were safe, but a neighboring apartment building was, indeed, ablaze. Once I had calmed down my mother relief changed to chagrin because that is when it occurred to me that my community site was hosted on a server in my living room and when the fire department turned off the electricity to the block they shut me down.

The emergency power backup that I have hooked up to the server is designed to shut down the server safely if the power goes off and stays off for a long time. It's also designed not to go back on unless a human being tells it too - in case the situations of power fluctuations, etc., which means that I was now 200 miles away from the button to turn it back on. There was no way I could just turn around and drive back before attending the family function.

In the morning I expected to find dozens of direct messages from my Twitter network to my cell phone, but oddly nary a one. I tried DMing out, but it kept refusing to send them. I feared that either I was technologically a dunce, or that Twitter was down too. I think the real answer is that I am a dunce at times, but the fact remains that if I had a Blackberry or iPhone I would have been connected and able to let people at Pan Historia know what was going on. Finally I had to phone a real person to get the message out.

I managed to put my troubles out of my mind most of Sunday, instead enjoying being cut off from technology and enjoying spending the day in New York City's Museum of Natural History - I hadn't been there in years - and then later to a fancy Italian restaurant with the huge group of family gathered together. The day, however, was not completely unfraught. Frantic calls were made that upset my partner. It seemed that her car was not starting back in Vermont. There was much discussion of the ramifications of this as the car was needed for work on Tuesday as well as our impending journey across the U.S. Visions of exorbitant mechanics fees were the topic of much of the conversation.

It became obvious that we would just have to cut the New York City trip short so we shipped out early this morning, Monday, and headed back to the wilds of Vermont. Or rather it seemed like we had been in the wilds of Outer Mongolia with our lack of ability to get internet, Google the news about the fire, tweet, fix the car, or turn on the server, and now at last we were returning to civilization.

The car started. The server rebooted with the touch of a button. The coffee was made, the dinner was cooked and once again all is well with the world. Now let me Google a bit more about that iPhone contraption…

Oh yeah, and did I mention that Mercury went into retrograde this weekend?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Published Wyatt

The world of publishing is changing day by day. Even though we have yet to reach the point when it will be completely passé and an act of sheer hubris to have a book in print on paper from trees there are still some incredible developments in how we think about being writers. While the majority of people are still buying their books at Amazon (though this now includes e-books) and Barnes and Nobles many writers are experimenting with self-publishing, small houses, and e-books. I'm fairly new to thinking about the world of publishing in any but the conventional sense. The author in my family went the route of all traditional writers - getting the agent, getting the book deal with the traditional publishers, book rights, movie deals, and so forth. That is until the misfortunes of the publishing world started to catch up with them and their last book remained under the bed for years. At some point they seized the opportunity to publish and promote on their own, which then led to a brand new agent and a brand new book deal, movie rights, and the whole circus show started up again. Once again this author, who just wants to write, not being a publisher and marketer, is caught up in the turgid state of the current publishing climate with all the hurdles and handicaps that entails. Of course the check is bigger when it comes, if it comes.

I have always been humble in their face of their success and chilled by their obstacles. I had decided to take up the option of self-publishing in the event I ever finish my book. In the mean time, for the last ten years or more, I have been writing my collaborative fiction with a group of fun writers online at my community site. You know the links if you have been reading this blog at all. My thought this morning was to realize that in my own fashion I have very much been a published author for the last ten years - even if my writing has not appeared in any kind of traditional format. Right now I'm reposting (with small edits) a number of my stories at my fiction blog, publishing them in a new location, as it were, and hoping for a wider audience, but the fact is that I have been publishing them online for years, and have been fortunate to have a small but very loyal following. I don't have royalty checks but I have always considered my writing to be part of what I do to make my collaborative fiction and role play community an attractive place for writers and readers to participate in.

It's a fun and invigorating realization - removing some of my self-esteem issues. That I prefer, for the larger part, to write collaboratively should not be something to hide or denigrate. It's a powerful new form of literary expression and I'm very proud to be part of the early history of such storytelling. Vive le Internet!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

If Music Be the Food of Love, Eat Local

I have a soft spot for love songs, which is a damn good thing considering it's the single most popular theme in popular music. All my love affairs have songs or entire albums dedicated to them - which is probably one of the reasons that I have such a great deal of fondness for the movie High Fidelity with the incomparable John Cusack - who I probably relate to more than any modern actor because of certain similarities in age and aesthetics. In High Fidelity Cusack, after breaking up with his girlfriend, reviews his failed love affairs in terms of the music of his life. He makes a list of his top five breakups.

In a way I could put together my own play list of failed relationships. I'm not even going to share some of the teen angst ones - but I can tell you that I can still feel a catch in my throat and catch the long ago scent of a lost sweetheart from some golden oldies. I am particularly amused, in retrospect, by my choice of You're the One by Paul Simon for a passionate affair I had some time back - primarily because I ignored the lyrics (you're the one, you broke my heart) and I applied it optimistically to the living breathing relationship because she was, you know, the ONE (you are the air inside my chest). I have found the same strange flip flop of emotion from hope to loss in many of my choices - almost as if I anticipated the end at the start.

What surprises me now is that no song or album has spoken to me in my current love. This time love came sneaking in on softly shod feet and wrapped warm arms around me and refuses to let me go. It's not the love of a young idealistic fool anymore and instead there are many songs, many moods, but not one song needs to be sung. I don't find myself moodily attached to a particular refrain because it's expressing my longing to be more complete with my loved one, it's also a good thing she doesn't get jealous when I slip an old lover on the stereo and reminisce some old pain I had.


All you hear these days is how much people hate it: the inconvenience, the mess, the roads, the delays. It's all about how it hinders people from the routine of their daily lives or how dangerous the conditions are to get to work, to get to wherever the hell it is you are in such a rush to get to. Or maybe they do love it - because they can strap their skis or snowboards to their roof racks and drive to the trails, jostle with all the other people doing the same thing.

I plan to soon leave the snow behind. I will only miss it on mornings like this. This morning the snow falls softly, just gentle flakes that have rimed every dark branch with white so that the etched line of the branch itself seems like a shadow of itself. I will miss it for the one thing it does that seems to be so underappreciated now. It makes you stop and listen to the sound of a world muted to a primordial state. It makes you stop and look, really look at your world transformed. Snow is the haiku of nature.

All the chaos, rampant life and growth, outrageous flats or towering crags, have all be reduced to lines and shapes in monochrome and tones of grey. When you gaze across the snowy landscape you realize how many shades of white there are. The air you breathe seems clean for the first time since you were born into this dirty world. There is no distance because the world disappears into the white ice rich sky. Edges are soft and indistinct, and you are quite irrelevant.

It is only the fight against the snow that churns it to mud. Take a snow day instead.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Taking a Cliché and Turning It into a Bowerbird

I started reposting a lot of my collaborative fiction writing over at my new fiction blog Wyatt's Writing (noticed yet that I love alliteration?). It's an interesting process for me because it's about the only way I can get myself to reread my work. I can also see how much I have developed. Naturally I often want to start editing and reworking, but because collaborative fiction stories can be constructed for years and years and new posts are always needed I resist the urge to do more than correct obvious typos. I don't need another distraction from new writing.

What I have reposted so far is only a couple years old at the most - this reminds me I should go back and date them for good OCD archival reasons - and yet I am finding myself mildly chagrinned. To me they seem a little pedestrian and full of clichés or obvious combinations of images. Cliché has always been one of my bugbears when it comes to writing, whether I'm writing for a magazine or whether I'm writing in my collaborative fiction community. Basically my mind collects clichés like a bowerbird collects twigs for the bower. Keeping with this simile if a bowerbird hopes to attract and keep his lady love he needs to make sure that his bower really stands out. On the basic structure of twigs he'll add bright and shiny objects. He is a connoisseur of the unusual in his little domain. I want to be a Great Bowerbird.

One of my tricks lately is when the cliché leaps into my mind a red flag goes up and I stop and consider. For instance in my bower bird simile becomes a useful analogy in the previous paragraph. My first thought had been 'magpie' because, of course, that's the first thought we all have when we think of acquisitiveness. In this instance coming up with an alternative bird created a more startling and original simile which then fed into an analogy which I could use to illuminate my point in a playful way. It might not be the most awe-inspiring example, but it's a good start in thinking about clichés. When I'm writing fiction I might diverge even farther from the original thought, traveling along interesting little pathways to find something a little less trite or common. At the same time it is important not to get too clever and yank your reader right out of the story because of the surprise, shock, or complexity of an image. It's also tempting to pepper your work liberally with similes and metaphors to spice it up, but just like putting too much oregano in marinara sauce less is often more.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Seven Basic Plots and Other Story Tropes

Christopher Booker asserts in his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories that there are (can you guess where I'm going with this yet?) only seven basic plots:

  1. Overcoming the monster
  2. Rags to riches
  3. A journey - the quest
  4. A journey - the voyage and return
  5. Comedies
  6. Tragedies
  7. Rebirth

His rather large tome asserts that all stories can be boiled down to these seven and that they all contain Jungian archetypes. I'm curious how he settled on the number seven.
I'm not sure that I believe that all the stories that ever have been written can be reduced to just seven, but I agree that there are limited plots, and many variations on just a few themes. I'm sure Booker could have picked almost any number and then made a sound argument for it. Looking at his list you can see that the bones of his plots are very spare indeed, which means quite a lot of meat can be added to that bone to make each one look very different from one another, much as one human looks very different from any other while sharing a basic biological blueprint.

Even allowing for the great variation and apparent complexity of most stories we will get quite a short list of plot devices, and then within these plot devices there will always be a set of stock character types as well as a set of recognized tropes. I could, like Booker, spend thirty-for years analyzing all the books and movies I have enjoyed (or not as the case may be) and dissect these for you, but I think everyone understands story tropes. For example the hero and heroine get into a misunderstanding and so much comedy and action ensues: in Mr. & Mrs. Smith from 2005 they are assassins that get sent on the same hit and each thinks the other is out to get them and so they battle each other with guns, knives, and incendiary devices, but they end up back together again in the end, in love stronger than ever. In the 1941 version, one of my favorite Hitchcock movies, a loving couple with decidedly oddball rules of engagement gets into a Battle Royale of loyalties and deceptions until they make up again at the end, more in love than they started. It's the same basic storyline (though the 2005 version is not technically a remake of the 1941 version), but they vary in important details from what the couples do for a living, how they relate to each other, even the genre of the movies themselves.

It's the details that make each one a unique experience, but at the same time our recurring themes are important in our storytelling experience. As a writer you are going to be confronted with telling the same story over and over again (there are only seven or eight or whatever after all) but it's how you tell it - if you avoid the pitfalls of cliché and over-used tropes. Looking at another form of storytelling let's consider briefly the Legend of Zelda franchise for the Nintendo gaming systems. In each episode there are at least some of the same features: the boy hero Link, the princess Zelda, the villain Ganondorf, the Master Sword, the Kingdom of Hyrule, the Triforce, etc. While each adventure seems to be an open-ended exploration of the setting with various dungeons, monsters to defeat, treasures, and side games to divert, the basic storyline is pushed through with a series of recognizable tropes such as can be found in Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. These same recurring themes, or markers, can be found in such successful stories such as the Star Wars movies, or the ancient myths, or tales like King Arthur. These archetypes disguised can be discerned on analysis in many contemporary tales, movie or on the page.

On examination of the best loved stories of all time it is the combination of familiarity and archetypes that help to make a story engaging and universal so that many people can relate. It's the details, the flesh you put on the bone that makes your story unique and fresh. You can never hope to avoid tropes - they are as essential to storytelling as having a beginning, middle, and end (even if you like to mess up the order you tell them in) - but you can make sure that your tropes aren't clichés.