I have focused a lot recently on the aspects of storytelling like subtext and narrative– the elements which are not committed directly to the page, but are nevertheless understood. There are, to me, the most vital elements, for they transcend the story itself. For the most part, this is a positive thing. Generally, we plan for these things, what we want a story to be, what we want it to say – but there is another side to it.

Just as much can be said by what is not there as what is, and how what is there is treated. I have poked at the notion of “write what you knowbefore, and this is basically why. We are, obviously, limited in the experiences we have. They are ours, they shape us. But we are not limited to them.

Allow me to speak more plainly: if you are the average white person, and you make no effort to include experiences aside from those of an average white person in your writing, it will really show. Maybe not to me, I am a fairly middle of the road white dude, demographically speaking, and for those of us in that ‘majority’ or whatever, it is very easy to gloss over it. After all, it speaks to us, it is relateable to us.

sarahAnd, frankly, that’s a problem. It’s a problem in publishing. I don’t think the majority of editors and agents primarily accept books from straight, white people (mostly men). I think they read it, relate to it more than the book by the queer person of color, sign off on it and move on. But it comes back to effort. Did you ever read something you really can’t relate to? It is just so alien to your own experience that it makes you uncomfortable? That’s what we do when we make no effort to include other voices.

There are those who decry this as ‘diversity for diversities sake’. I reject that notion. For one thing, we are richer as a culture with more diversity, even in small increments. And we are going to need all that we can get over the next four years. And secondly, hell, just look at it economically. All it does it open more readers to you, and how is that a bad thing? And if you lose readers who refuse to read you because you make an effort for diversity, well, do you really care?

But there is an inherent danger in just jamming characters in there, and that is again linked to our experiences. We have these narratives in our culture about different races, genders, religions, etc. Please, please, please, stop falling into these. There are any number to pick from, but the Trinity Syndrome/Hyper-competent female sidekick is probably the most common (via this must-read article):

magician4

I have covered Leia before, but holy shit when you look at it like that. That’s not even all of them. And you could name ten other ways characters of a certain demographic are consistently handled before you take your next breath. Put some effort in and treat these characters differently. Stop pigeonholing them into the same tired roles. Does it take effort? Yeah, it does. But what in writing doesn’t? But it’s worth it. Maybe it doesn’t make you millions, or get greenlit as a Hollywood blockbuster, but I promise you it is worth it to the person who reads it and has seen nothing but the characters they can relate to marginalized in every work of fiction.

DESR

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Obligatory Horror Post

There is a lot of discussion about horror right now – it is October, after all, so I suppose it to be appropriate. Oddly, though, much of it centers around why we read or watch it, should we, etc. Do crime fiction writers deal with this? Because it seems every genre these days has a persecution complex – YA, Romance, SciFi, grow some skin already. But I digress.

I’d like to avoid those issues, though, because they are subjective and immaterial. Horror is not my personal favorite, because all to often it is cheap, and depends on shock more than it does on actual art and talent (before horror fans and authors start piling on me, this can be applied to most genres, I am not picking on you). Follow the clichés and pump the stories out like machines, and they sell a bunch around Halloween.

But, of course, there is another side to it, the side with talent and artistry. What makes something horrific, scary, or creepy?

I’ve written a lot recently on subtlety, irony, and narrative within a story, and this is really just another facet of that gem. Because horror, at its core, is playing to our emotions, fear in particular. But is it enough to just scare someone? Sure, if that’s all your going for. That’s why there are so many jump-scares and gore splatters in horror movies. It makes you jump, or feel revulsion, but then it passes. Horror – to me – should be about more than that.

There is a movie called Synecdoche, New York, and it is not a horror film at all, but go and watch it right now because it is amazing. The thing this movie does, though, is it grips you and tears you apart in a million ways. The thing about it, though, is Charlie Kaufman, who wrote and directed it, said he started out to write an existential horror. And with no blood and bodies and monsters, it is that, because it addresses other emotions than fear – yet, those emotions are ones we fear of themselves.frankenstein

Which is the more relatable fear? The monsters under our bed – which we all know to be imaginary – or feeling lost, trapped, alone, helpless, and/or sad? None of those feelings are imagined, and we have all felt them, at least to some extent. The great horror writers use this to their advantage. I have used Poe as an example a lot lately, so we’ll let him rest, even though he certainly does this.

Stephen King is a master of this. Why are so many of his books so deeply haunting and terrifying? Because they are also frequently sad as hell. It amplifies the effect of the actual fear. Carrie isn’t a scary story because she has blood dumped on her, or burns the gym down. It’s because we know Carrie. Because no matter what the quote says, we don’t fear fear itself.

Perhaps my favorite example of this is a work that probably isn’t horror at all, but because of this effect, it’s subject is universally associated with horror: Frankenstein. Why is Frankenstein’s monster always treated as a monster, a subject for Halloween decorations? Because the book Frankenstein is one of the most emotionally powerful books ever written. It takes us through every single emotion, but it bookends the feeling of despair in an incredibly powerful way.

It begins with the creators desperate search for his creation, and he has despaired of hope – of finding him, of doing anything else in life. But then we get to know the creation, the monster, the unlovable figure with a very human heart. We know his hopes, his joys, and finally his despair at the sure knowledge he will never belong. We empathize with his despair at the end more than we did with his creator’s at the beginning, because we know who the guilt belongs to. And we are horrified, because guilt belongs to man, not the monster.

Yet- the monster’s face adorns Halloween decorations.

Anyone can jump around a corner and scare someone, or tell a story about the man with the hook for a hand who roams the streets to this very day, or create a shower of gore. But if you want to keep someone up at night, use emotions other than fear, and make people fear them.

DESR

Time Enough at Last

If you want a good laugh and also to be depressed, tell someone you are a writer. There are only about five responses people give to this revelation, the most obnoxious being “Oh yeah? I’m going to write a novel one day, when I have time.” I used to reply to this with a polite chuckle, now my response are words to effect of “bullshit“. This gives them a lovely shocked look on their face, and affords me time to explain to them why it’s the stupidest statement this side of  “I am voting for Trump.”

You see, despite the plurality of writing clichés and platitudes, one holds true above all others: Writers write. There is a whole ton of other stuff you have to do it if you want to be a prolific writer, or a published writer, but if you want to write, well, buddy, there is only one thing you have to do.

That statement annoys me on so many levels. For one thing, it implies that I have nothing better to do with my time. First off, I have a million time-consuming, expensive hobbies I already don’t have time or money for, and they get pushed farther to the side to make room for writing. I love tabletop games. I play one, mainly, now, occasionally, and the miniatures are pre-painted. I used to have Warhammer armies, and paint them, and play two or three games a week. Hell, I used to read books just for the fun of it! Now reading turns into blog fodder. Oh, yeah, and I have a day job, because no one is throwing seven-figure book deals and Hollywood blockbuster contracts my way. You don’t have time to write? Yeah, me either pal. Make time.

And another thing – what, exactly, is your idea for the Great American Novel? You don’t have one? Do you have any clue what goes into writing a novel? I think the average fantasy goes something like this:

You sit down at your desk, elegantly cluttered with reference pages and an assortment of classy pens. A gentle breeze rustles the spring air outside your open window. You gracefully sip your tea before stretching your fingers, and begin typing at a furious pace, crafting your masterpiece.

read.gif

Post-apocalyptic tragedy, or a career in writing?

Not how it works in the real world. In the real world, you get home from that day job, hungry and a tired and the last goddamn thing you want to do is think, but you are a writer, goddammit, so you turn on the oven to throw something you (no, you don’t know what yet, idiot), and sit down in your far-too-messy living room/office/spare bedroom at your far-too cluttered desk and try to ignore the unfolded laundry threatening to envelop your couch, like a blob monster in a B list horror movie. You open your manuscript and wonder who hacked into your Dropbox and wrote this steaming pile of horseshit, and then remember oh yeah it was me at 11:30pm last night so whatever and you press on anyway, but now you’re thinking about fucking blob monsters and has there been any good fiction about blob monsters lately and no I am writing about spaceships right now, stay on task, jesus. So you manage to write and write and write and wow this is actually good and I am making really good progress five hundered words what the hell, I’ve been at this for hours. OK a little more and then shit I forgot to put anything in the oven.

 

Out of the sheer mercy of my heart, I will not address outlining or editing.

I will, however, tell you that your Great American Novel actually sucks and will be rejected until your soul is nothing but ash and you are positive no one ever loved, if in fact love ever existed. You know those stories about Famous Author being rejected by FIVE publishing houses? You will be rejected by that many in a day. But sure, take your time. Whenever you get around to it. The rest of us will be over here, busting our asses, trying to be better writers, trying to catch that break, and we will be tired and stressed and occasionally sober. But we will be writers.

DESR

Narrative v Narration

I think it is safe to say that anyone reading this blog has a healthy appreciation for the beauty of language, and words. Both the glory of words, and the drawback, is they are simple used to represent concepts – they are not things in and of themselves. For example, what comes to mind with the word shambles?  Likely “a state of total disorder”. But it comes from the Latin scamellum, for bench, which became a word for stall which lead to Shambles being a butcher’s slaughterhouse, or meat market, which quite naturally lead to the way we use it today in reference to our kids rooms being messy (not as a scene of great carnage).

Words change. The concepts they represent change. But the beauty of a thing is not in its permanence. The same is true of books, of stories, as a whole – they represent concepts and ideas. Conversely from words themselves, though, the very fact that they represent deeper ideas increases their longevity.

Because any jackass can simply recount events. They can even arrange it into a three-act structure and tell a story out of it. Doing that takes time and effort, to be sure, and might even contain some pretty words, but it will be entirely forgettable if it doesn’t express a deeper idea.

A great example of this is Fight Club. Everyone knows exactly two things about Fight Club:

  1. The first two rules of Fight Club
  2. The twist at the end

beatBut that is not why people remember Fight Club (it is Brad Pitt’s abs in the movie). Because Fight Club, for being bokers, violent, having memorable lines and the all-time best twist, is memorable because of the ideas it represents. It’s about finding your identity, while also trying to find your place in the world and accept what you can and cannot change. All of that, painted with the brushstrokes of bull-headed masculinity – which, incidentally, is part of the concept and why it works.

I’ve been rambling about Poe a lot lately , mostly because I am reading through his works again, and because he is brilliant at things like this (Confession: Poe is the only author I enjoy MORE after writing in earnest). Perhaps – picking one story to embody this is a nightmarish chore – but perhaps the story that embodies this best is the Tell-Tale Heart. Because here, we have to parse it in twain: Narration v Narrative (roll credits). Put simply:

Narration: dude commits murder and is consumed with guilt.

Narrative: We’re really just deluding ourselves, aren’t we?

It’s a straightforward story – narration – isn’t it? First person, linear, with the plot to kill the old man, his execution, and the guilt consuming him to the point of confessing to the crime. All the while, our narrator is telling us how sane his:

Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded –with what caution –with what foresight –with what dissimulation I went to work!

All the while, we read it thinking this dude is nuts, because a madman is the one who kills methodically, without apparent provocation. Certainly we – I – am incapable of such madness, because we are sane!

Aren’t we?

Are we?

The narrator is sure of his own sanity, even as his own actions belie him. The first-person narrative (which should only be used for this reason, seriously stop writing everything in first-person) makes this all the more jarring, because we interpret it as our own thoughts. And who hasn’t reassured themselves that I am sane, look at how sane I am being right now (you guys do this too, right?).

Thus- the narration becomes the narrative. Our eye turns from the story and the very obvious madness before us, and asks, in the space of a couple thousand words, are we really who we think we are? The story, the question, then haunts us, just as the beating of the heart haunted the narrator.

If you outline, you likely write down the beats of a story – the essential narrative plot points. But do you write down what your story is, what it represents when distilled down? Macbeth said it best:

…a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

That is what is to be avoided – there is enough forgettable entries into literature. If you can represent ideas and concepts in a way that is deeper and stronger than your narration, you will end up with a better, more memorable work – one which signifies something.

-DESR

And Then What?

I’ve written before about the importance of making your audience ask ‘what next’, but let’s play with that for a little bit. There are a lot of stories out there – more and more, it seems – that only answer that question. Sometimes they play with the structure of it, or offer some crazy twist, but in the end, all they do is answer that question. Make no mistake- it is a question you want your readers to ask, but your story should do more than that. In short, your narrative should not just be narration.

Think of telling someone about your day – I got up, and then I got dressed, and then I had some breakfast, and then I got in the car, and zzzzzzzzz. Bo-ring, right? Do you see the problem phrase? “And then” – if all you’re doing is saying “and then”, you’re telling a boring story.

So let’s assume you have build anticipation for that which is to come – so what next? Two simple words to replace “and then”: but and therefore. (for the record, I know I am far from the first to realize this, or point it out, but holy hell, it makes all the difference). Apply those two words to the simplest of anecdotes – it’s instantly more interesting: I got up, but I really didn’t want to, therefore I hit my snooze button like it owed me money, but I had to write that blog post on narrative structure therefore I dragged my sorry and slightly hungover ass out of bed.

See the difference?

But you obviously can’t just say but every other sentence – it has to be woven into the overall structure. Maybe you’re an plotter; maybe not, but either way this should be on your mind. Think of the beats in Fellowship of the Ring, after the fellowship sets out:

  • They try going over the mountains
  • but there is too much snow
  • therefore they have to go through the mines
  • but goblins have killed the dwarves
  • therefore they have to fight their way through
  • but the Balrog is too much
  • therefore Gandalf sacrifices himself

And there we reach a turn of the story, when they reach Lothlórien. Notice what this structure does: not only does it build anticipation for the beats to come, it shifts the focus from the Fellowship to their obstacles. The story begins to be more than simple narration. and then they went through the mines and then they fought goblins etc, makes it just about the heroes and makes them unrelatable, because they always overcome. But, because of all the buts, there is always the possibility of failure.

Writing Prompt: Write a story about this picture.

Writing Prompt: this picture

 

But you can’t just shove obstacles and consequences in the path of your story – you sort of have to handle that well. There are a million ways to go about this, of course, and you should do what works for you, with your style, but I invite you to think of cuts in movies for a moment. A director chooses what you see, and how you see it. You have the same control the lens in the mind of the reader – and used properly, it can be even more impactful than the audio/visual a movie provides.

How so? Because a movie only has access to those to senses – you can engage all of them within your reader. Scent, for example, is the sense most closely tied to memories. Ever get the barest whiff of something, and suddenly, you’re transported to a moment in time? That is what you can do for your readers. But that’s not news, is it? Of course you can describe anything – but we want to do more than just narrate it.

So choose carefully what your reader sees, hears, smells, feels, tastes. Don’t shove it in their face, either. That’s just narrating. Give them the whiff of sent, the whisper barely heard and invite their imagination to fill in the rest from their own experiences and sensations – that is what will put them in the environment. All of that frames your story, gives it context and depth – so choose what to focus on, and how long it is lingered upon.

Do that (and a few other things) and you take your reader from simply reading a story to being a part of it.

DESR

 

Ten Thousand Forks

Perhaps no word in the English language is so abused as poor irony (‘like’ is up there). It’s the rallying cry of hipsters who drink PBR and wear T-shirts ‘ironically’. And little needs to be said about that song, which contains nothing which is actually ironic, which, if intended, makes it actually ironic. So it is either brilliant or dumb. In any case, irony has suffered much.

And not only has its true meaning been diluted, its actual use has. We take irony- even as defined – to be brief, pithy and generally humorous in some way. But, my dear readers, but, irony is so, so much more than that. It is a great tool in writing, and is not particularly complicated to wield. All you have to do is understand what irony is, and what its intent is. To the first, we turn to the dictionary:

the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.

Italics mine in there. Note that is not just for humor. And we thus establish it is using the opposite to get your point across- which is where intent comes in. But that is the 1 definition. Mark this:

a literary technique, originally used in Greek tragedy, by which the full significance of a character’s words or actions are clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character.

So it is not even novel to use irony in writing- in fact, it is ancient. So how do we use it in our story? There are, of course, myriad examples in literature, but perhaps none better – or, at least, more apparent – than in The Cask of Amontillado, by Edgar Allen Poe. If you haven’t read it, do so now. It’s available for free in a few places, and is a quick read. I’ll wait.

Read it yet? Good. Let’s continue. The best place to start is with the very obvious ironies: Fortunato is easily apparent- he is far from fortunate, at least within the bounds of our story, but in other areas of life is successful. His demise- unsuspected, and likely unwarranted (more on that in a second), is as unfortunate as can be.

cask.jpgHe wears a hat with bells – in Victorian times, bells were put on bodies being buried (or even atop their graves) to prevent burial of people who weren’t actually dead and were just in a coma. Fortunato’s hat, however, provides him no such favors, jingling away, the only one to hear being his murdered.

So there are myriad obvious (Fortunato is implored to turn back; his health is showed concern for; the Mason joke)- yet effective ironies in the story. This is, of course, the easiest use of it – and there is nothing wrong with doing so. It fulfills the definitions above, telling your reader something  by using opposites to make the point.

But the story, in its entirety, is one of irony. We begin with

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but
when he ventured upon insult..

Yet we never know what the insult is- or if there even was one. Based on my experience, anyone who is willing to plot a years-long revenge is also the type of person who will take insult at almost anything (but I know very few murderers; I may be mistaken). And even if Fortunato did insult the narrator, does it justify his end? There is no way it could. So while the narrator is often called unreliable in this story, I don’t know that that is the best way of putting it. No, he is the opposite of moral sense- any of us (GG’ers will disagree) deem murder wrong and criminal. But to the narrator, it is his duty and morally right and justified. There is an overarching irony to the fact that the tale is from his point of view, and one that is unblinking in his assertion that he did the right thing.

This does something interesting to us – think of a book or movie that follows the ‘good guys’ through a murder investigation. The one that leaps to my mind is Se7en (UGH that name), which is a fantastic film. But throughout it, we are repulsed by the nature and crimes of John Doe. And even though we recognize that he firmly believes he is right, we never sympathize with him.

The narrator in this story, though- we never sympathize with him either, but we are more and more repulsed by him because it is told to us in a sympathetic tone. It is the irony of the story that drives home our feelings about his actions. Imagine it as a conventional crime story- the body is discovered, there is an investigation, it is revealed at the end that he was tricked and lead to his death. Bad enough, right? But by spending the whole time in the mind of the killer, and him proclaiming not his innocence, but that he is in fact just, there is a different feeling. It’s not a shock, not a jump scare or dramatic reveal, but a growing sense, knowing what is coming and being forced to watch it. It is the irony that draws you in and forces you to be a voyeur to an act you despise – and thus the reader shares in the irony.

DESR

In Praise of Subtlety

Do any of you have that word that you use all the damn time, but can still never spell correctly? And you usually go so far astray that autocorrect looks at it, looks at you, back at the word, and kind of walks away with a defeated shrug, muttering to itself?

‘Subtlety’ is that way for me. And I use that word a lot because it is a word, like irony (more on that later), which is having its meaning eroded. Not in the same way, of course- people use irony to mean all manner of things which are not, in fact, ironic. No, subtlety is simply being lost.

rain

Pretty, POTC, but not very subtle

 

 

“Show, don’t tell” is an all-to-frequently repeated adage of writing, usually accompanied by some quasi-poetic, insufferably pretentious statement like “don’t tell me it’s raining; make me feel the raindrops (this post might be insufferably pretentious, I realize). It’s not wrong, but it is over-repeated, to be sure. While there are a whole bunch of authors who go out of their way to make sure you feel raindrops, it gets shoved in our faces a lot that it is f**king raining – rain which does not connect to any greater purpose.

 

How so? I talked about it earlier – the gut-punch moments of trauma, for example. It propels the plot, sure, it makes the reader feel something, but is it in service of anything greater?

Personally, I deplore writing a word that only means one thing. And so much of literature these days is just that- one thing, a story, it goes from point A to point B, and along the way some shit happened. I loved, I laughed, I cried, I forgot about the story two weeks later.

Perhaps the preeminent example of this is The Raven, by Edgar Allen Poe. In it, Poe doesn’t really try terribly hard to make you care about Lenore, but by the time the door is open – a mere four verses in – we feel apprehension as well:

here I opened wide the door;—

            Darkness there and nothing more.

We, of course, know what is coming, but subtly apprehension is built. What’s more, we know what’s coming- in fact, if there is one thing every person knows about Poe, it is that the word nevermore appears in this poem. But let’s talk about that word; or, rather, half of it- more.

raven

By Adam Flynn

 

The word more closes every verse in the poem, which may not seem terrible subtle, but note that the simple repetition takes the narrator through the gamut of emotion. At first, it cheers our narrator, but drives him madder and madder at the repeated answer. But to us, the repetition is not maddening – it serves another purpose. It keeps a steady beat throughout the story, so that we anticipate that word coming, building to it.

 

But not the subtle shift in tone – the second verse closes with evermore – he is haunted by her. Then five verses of merely this and nothing more – the interruption, at those points, is inconsequential, and those words convey that nothing changes, for us or the narrator. But then the rest of the verses close with nevermore, with no variation. I think of this poem like the drumbeat that builds tension- slow at first, beating faster and faster and setting out hearts pounding and adrenal glands into a frenzy. Movies use it all the time – Poe writes it. So that beat starts neutral, and beats faster and faster as we anticipate it more, until the crescendo:

And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
            Shall be lifted—nevermore!

 

Because this time- it’s not the Raven speaking, it’s the narrator. Every subtle layering throughout has led to this – the ultimate resignation of the narrator, and thus, ourselves.

Each use of more serves something larger- not just to convey the feelings, to make us feel, to tell us it is raining, but to set up, build to, a conclusion.

One of my favorite insults of all time is an old British one, that, presumably, has fallen out of use, but goes “what are you for?” which is to say, “what is your purpose?” Ask that of your words- what are they for, what is their purpose? How does it serve, not just the scene, not just the plot, but the entirety of the story and its ultimate payoff?

DESR