C. Aubrey Hall's Blog
January 22, 2015
Are bad guys becoming extinct?
Are villains on the endangered species list?
Have writers forgotten the meaning of “antagonist?”
Why is it so difficult for neophyte writers these days to invent and design a story antagonist? If the hero is the driving force of the story, then the villain will make all the difference in whether the story is compelling or simply meh.
An antagonist is an opponent. A person or entity standing in determined opposition to whatever the protagonist is trying to accomplish.
It’s. That. Simple.
If a writer, on the other hand, doesn’t know what her protagonist wants, then she won’t get far.
Let’s consider a zombie premise:
Harriet Heroine discovers that her roommate Zoe has been infected and is now a zombie trying to eat her. The apartment–formerly a haven–is now a trap. Harriet has to get out of there–to save herself. Zoe wants to keep her there and eat her.
Two goals in direct opposition. The story will be focused, clear, and easy to follow.
Compare it with this version:
Harriet Heroine is afraid of the recent zombie outbreak near her apartment building. She barricades herself inside her home and stocks up on Twinkies, pretzels, and bottled water.
See the difference? Both versions have similar premises, but one is just a situation. The other has the foundation for a plot and can at least be a viable short story.
Here’s a fantasy premise:
Harvey Hero has inherited an old pendant made of Sacred Stone, the last piece of Sacred Stone known to exist in mortal hands. When his dying grandfather gave the pendant to Harvey, he whispered that Harvey must take the pendant back to the Island of Weir, where their family came from, and claim the treasure hidden there. Viktor Villain–aware that the pendant has the magical power to unlock the treasure chamber–pursues Harvey, intending to capture him, steal the pendant, and reach the treasure first.
But compare it with this:
Harvey Hero has inherited an old pendant made of Sacred Stone, the last piece known to exist in mortal hands. Ever since he started wearing the item, he’s been troubled by strange dreams and feels compelled to journey to the Island of Weir. Viktor Villain has taken possession of the island and has enslaved its inhabitants.
Which version has story potential? In the first version, two characters are vying for a fabulous hoard of treasure. In the second version, the protagonist is moving around without any clear purpose and the antagonist is not in direct opposition.
Another problem that often comes with the nebulous villain is when the antagonist isn’t in the same proximity as the protagonist. How can they be in conflict if they’re on opposite sides of the world?
They must intersect, frequently. They must oppose each other, directly. They must be in conflict, all the time.
Now, perhaps you’re thinking of the Harry Potter series, where Voldemort stays hidden for much of the time. Is Harry in conflict with him? Through Voldemort’s representative, yes.
Hidden villains send minions to do their dirty work of opposing the protagonist. That’s fine. It’s exciting, suspenseful, dangerous, and readable.
The problem falls when no rep shows up. Without conflict, the plot sags, stalls, and crumbles.
January 15, 2015
Do you love proofreading, or do you hate it? Do you force yourself to check over your written copy, or do you attach your manuscript blithely to emailed submissions to editors and press “Send” in the hope/belief that all is well despite neglecting to skim over that story one more time? Are you dyslexic? Are you a poor speller? Are you never sure whether an appositive clause should be closed by a comma? Should you or should you not use the “Oxford comma” and do you even know what that means?
Why don’t we check our copy thoroughly and carefully before we submit it?
The push to meet a deadline can be hanging over our heads like lowering barometric pressure, but that doesn’t excuse any writer from completing the job. And no story is complete until it’s checked for factual, spelling, punctuation, and sense errors.
On the door of my campus office is a saying: ALWAYS PROOFREAD. YOU MIGHT HAVE SOMETHING OUT.
Computers perform many useful, wonderful functions for us but even they can’t catch sense errors or understand the difference between two, to, and too. As humans allow technology to sweep them into faster and faster lives, it’s easy to get in a rush and convince yourself that a quick glance at your computer screen is sufficient to catch everything.
Except it’s not. Scientists are finding out that our brains process information differently from reading paper than a computer screen. That, in turn, affects what details we notice and what we overlook.
Expert proofreaders know that the best way to catch errors is still by reading a paper copy. However, the real world doesn’t always grant us that leisure. For example, for the past two weeks, I have been carefully combing through certain novels in my back list, checking to be sure the OCR scanner doo-dad hasn’t made any peculiar errors. An entire science fiction series from my past endeavors–the TIME TRAP books–will be going up in new electronic versions next week, with more of my older science fiction and fantasy to follow in February. Needless to say, I have been busier than a squirrel storing acorns in trying to catch up, keep up, and stay up.
I’m checking a pdf conversion, line by line, onscreen. I can’t use track changes to edit or correct the errors I find and I can’t print out a paper copy. So I’m doing my best not to let myself be caught up in the rapidity of the story pacing or in the dilemmas faced by the characters. I’m staying emotionally uninvolved, looking for errors the scanner failed to catch or else garbled. Things like “tenor” instead of “terror” or “he” instead of “be.”
Tedious work? Yes. Yet it must be done if my readers are to enjoy the stories with as few distractions as possible. And what can be more distracting than a misspelled word? It’s like trying to conduct a job interview with an applicant that has an enormous red zit glowing on the end of her nose. You can’t help but stare, no matter how hard you try.
Writers work very hard on plot, characterization, viewpoint, pacing, and setting. Perhaps they shouldn’t have to do the proofreading as well. And yet, who better for the job? Who has a bigger stake in presenting a smooth, error-free story under your name than you?
My writing career began long enough ago that I experienced publishing done the “old way” when my manuscripts passed through the hands of editors, copy editors, and proofreaders in addition to my own checking. Now, with reduced editorial staffs, writers must take on more production responsibility in seeing their work brought to print. Or, if writers are self-publishing, they must take sole charge of checking for errors and glitches.
But what happens if you aren’t by nature a meticulous, detail-oriented reader? What if you can’t detach yourself from your story or your characters’ emotional angst in order to look for correct comma placement? And, heaven forbid, what if you simply don’t know what correct comma placement IS?
If you’re shaky on punctuation rules, then it’s time to learn them. Too back-to-school for you? Yet a writer unwilling to learn punctuation is like a carpenter unwilling to measure.
The best guide remains Strunk & White. It’s short, simple, and relatively inexpensive. Or look up punctuation rules online. Information is plentiful.
Besides study, turn on the computer checker for grammar and punctuation errors. It’s not 100% foolproof by any means, but at least it will flag the most egregious mistakes and offer you suggestions for correction. The computer will also search for spelling goofs. Again, it’s not perfect. You can’t rely solely on the computer software to catch everything, and you’ll still have to read over it yourself, but it’s very useful.
You can also hire a proofreader. Universities usually have writing centers that offer tutorials, but you can hire students majoring in English or librarians or teachers at your child’s school in need of extra cash.
If you have trouble from getting caught up in your story so that you can’t objectively examine your copy, then you’ll have to work through the manuscript backwards. This means you read the last page first and work your way through the manuscript to page one.
And if even that approach fails to detach you, then use a ruler and place it beneath a sentence while you read. One line at a time. That is indeed agonizing and slow, but do what’s necessary to deliver a smooth, clean story to your audience. The longer the manuscript, the less likely it will be absolutely perfect, but give it your best effort. Don’t your characters and plot deserve that?
January 9, 2015
Without description, fiction becomes cold and abstract, and readers find it difficult to visualize the setting, characters, or character reactions. Nor can they bond with character emotions if those emotions aren’t described. Such problems create a sense of detachment, which makes it easy for readers to lose interest and drift away from the story.
On the other hand, description slows down story pace. Too much description can sink a story or cause readers to skip passages. If readers skip, they’re likely to miss important information. If they miss that, a few pages later they don’t understand where the story’s going. Once they stop understanding, they lose interest. Unfairly, they may declare that your characters are “stupid” or your story just doesn’t make sense.
Therefore, when dealing with description writers need to focus on three factors: utility, vividness, and position.
Before incorporating a passage of description into your story, ask yourself what purpose is it going to serve. Is it creating a sense of place, showcasing your world building, introducing a new character, or conveying character emotions?
Sense of place:
How easy it would be if writers could just tell readers that the story is taking place in London at 4 p.m. and leave readers to supply the rest.
Screenwriters have an advantage over prose writers in this area because of the camera. Movie or television audiences can see a vista or a house or a neighborhood or a menacing robot looming from the shadows of a poorly lit alley. It’s there on the screen. No need for the writer to expend words and energy depicting it.
However, prose writers must work much harder in conveying sense of place. We don’t want to ramble on and on, because readers will grow tired and skip our lovingly crafted paragraphs. Therefore, we need to put the image across quickly, economically, and effectively.
One of the best ways to do so is through the physical senses of your viewpoint character. Don’t just rely on the visual. Does the setting have a putrid stench? Is the air extremely cold? Are factory pistons pounding away at a deafening sound level? Does the drugged coffee have a bitter taste?
Don’t throw all the sensory impressions at your readers at the same time. For any given setting, determine the most prominent detail you want to convey and focus on that. It should be a logical one in terms of what’s happening in the plot. For example, perhaps you’re writing about a home invasion where the homeowner–your protagonist–pulls a handgun from his nightstand drawer and exchanges gunfire with the individuals who have broken into his house.
In this situation, what would be the dominant impression to describe during the gunfire? That’s right: sound.
Afterward, when the situation is over, what might the dominant impression be? Probably the smell of cordite.
By utilizing a dominant physical sense, you can describe on the fly–briefly and effectively–without employing a long, rambling passage that will slow down the story’s movement.
Painting a word picture requires strong, specific nouns and active verbs. Avoid the flabby qualifiers of adjectives and adverbs.
The big red dog walked slowly along the sidewalk.
How large is big? Does red mean the dog is a burnished color or does the dog have red paint spilled on his coat? Is he moving slowly because he’s fat, or is he limping, or is he frightened, or is he weak, or is he lost and unsure, or is he lazy?
Do you see how vague description conveys very little? No wonder readers grow impatient with it.
A mixed-breed dog roughly the same size as a bull calf and sporting crimson splotches of glistening paint on its head and shoulders roamed along the sidewalk.
Hmm. Is this vivid or confusing? In an effort to be unusual, the writer has jammed too much information together. The images clash and crowd each other. It’s not effective.
An Irish setter–red coat gleaming like a new-minted penny–ambled along the sidewalk.
Here, the writer has used the dominant impression of color to convey the dog’s appearance. The verb “ambled” indicates movement that’s content and unhurried.
However, if the writer really wants to describe a dog that’s been in the paint, let’s try that one again.
The stray dog–its head and shoulders glistening with splotches of red paint–fled down the sidewalk, spattering drops in its wake.
Don’t you expect that animal to pause under some nice old lady’s clothesline and give itself a good shake?
Now, are some of you jumping up and down, eager to remind me that I didn’t mention the dog’s size?
If the size is more important than the spilled paint, then focus on that with dominant impression. Otherwise, let that detail wait.
Where you insert description matters to your story’s dramatic (or comedic) effectiveness.
Remember that description is perceived by readers as slowing down the story action, even if momentarily. Therefore, savvy writers place small passages of description in natural pause points.
For example, a new character enters the room where other–already established–characters are talking. Everyone stops and turns to stare at the newcomer.
This is a natural pause point in the story action. Insert a paragraph of description, thus introducing the new character to readers.
Or, to return to my example of the home invasion. After the shooting is over, there’s a natural pause point as the protagonist emerges cautiously from cover, switches on the bedroom light, and stares at the shambles. The wreck of the room needs to be described to readers. Certainly the character’s emotions need description here.
However, you don’t always want to put a slow passage at a slow spot in the story’s flow.
Sometimes writers deliberately slow down their stories in order to build anticipation for a coming event or to heighten dread toward a threat that’s about to drop.
Let’s say that your protagonist has been coerced into fighting a duel at dawn. He’s not feeling confident. You want readers to worry, to anticipate the danger and action about to explode across the page once the fight starts. But you don’t want to hurry the anticipation because readers enjoy it. Well-built and well-placed anticipation draws out and intensifies story suspense, thus providing readers with more entertainment value.
Sitting in the gondola, listening to the soft chuckle of water beneath the oar, Noel cradled the rapier beneath his cloak and gazed at the narrow buildings rising up from the gray mist of dawn. The cold air stank of fish. Overhead, veins of pink and turquoise faintly marbled the sky, which was lightening from gray to pearl. The clouds were soft. Across the indigo sea, the sun climbed slowly. Its mantle of gold and coral blazed with magnificent radiance. Before it, the sea changed color, becoming turquoise curling with lacy foam. A fleet of galleys floated in silhouette upon the harbor, their sails furled, their masts at rest.
Slow? You bet! That paragraph, taken from my science fiction novel TERMINATION, is static. There’s no action other than from whoever is rowing the boat toward the assignation. Had the passage been placed in one of the story’s pause points, it would be dull reading indeed. Instead, it’s spinning out anticipation of the duel that’s about to take place. The description of a Venetian sunrise has been positioned deliberately to heighten suspense.
The greater the impending danger, the slower you can be in letting your characters approach it.
December 28, 2014
As we move through the final days of this year, some of us may be lurching along in post-holiday stupor while others are still riding the endorphins of shopping-rush. Then there are the well-ordered, organized souls who are balancing checking accounts, writing donation checks, purchasing tax-deductible items, or shopping for new cars while pre-inventory prices are rock bottom.
When it comes to creating fiction, do you consider yourself a lurching, euphoric, or organized writer?
Let’s narrow the topic further by examining how stories reach their conclusions. Some, you see, are written with a dramatically definitive ending. Others simply stop. And yet others fade, leaving readers to flip back through the last two or three pages, checking numbers to see if the last page has been torn out.
Lurching to a stop:
The lurchers of fiction tend to open with some sort of very exciting hook and a rapid plunge into story action. When that event plays out, the story’s momentum slows or even stalls until the writer thinks up another exciting event to happen next. The story jolts forward, only to slow once more, then picks up again. Story action tends to be rough and feels tacked together (which it is). The conclusion may not make a lot of sense dramatically, but it will be exciting and packed with action, usually putting the protagonist into dire danger.
Generally, there’s the effect of a rushed, incomplete finale. Questions raised within the plot may or may not be answered to reader satisfaction. Some are often forgotten or overlooked.
Because the writers of lurching stories tend to be pantsers instead of planners, the general effect of this approach is slap-dash. It may work … somehow, despite itself … but it may not. It’s a reckless way to write, and it runs the risk of leaving readers dissatisfied with how the story is finished.
Euphoria, Hysteria, and Froth!
The story that relies on its writer’s emotions alone focuses on characters more than plot. How the characters feel propels their motivations, complexities, and actions–although they may not do very much more than make tea and think a great deal about problems that are never actually dramatized on the page.
And while some lovely introspective stories have been published–THE NUMBER ONE LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY by Alexander McCall Smith, for example–an inept or inexperienced writer can float, mull, and philosophize her way into a muddle.
Muddled stories tend to end up trapped in corners, with the writer unsure of how to back out. Therefore, they may simply stop with the protagonist waving tearfully to her lover as he catches his train and is borne away from her.
But is this the end? readers then wonder. How does it work out? Are they parting forever? Is she just going to stand there and weep? Will he come back? Is my book defective and missing the last chapter? How does this thing end?
As writers, we can ache for our beleaguered characters. We can grieve for them, worry over them, cry because of them, but we shouldn’t leave readers asking any of the above questions. It’s possible to finish stories plausibly and conclusively, tying up the loose ends and resolving the main plotline, without sacrificing one droplet of emotional potential.
The Organized Climax:
When one’s artistic soul is pulsating in the raw throes of creation, “organized” is an unpleasant, off-putting word. There’s no glamour to the term organized. It possesses no zing, no zip, no bling, and certainly no appeal. It’s mundane and boring–positively nauseatingly dull. It carries the connotations of hard work, discipline, labor, planning, and drudgery. Rest assured, there is no fun to be had from organized anything.
Or so says the imagination.
Yet the imagination is a lazy trickster that is not always truthful.
Bringing your story to a dramatically satisfying, exciting, intense, enthralling, cathartic conclusion takes planning, thought, and hard work. It should never be drudgery, but it’s seldom easy. If we writers do our jobs well, our stories take readers through the agony of near defeat and the relief of a logical, but unexpected reversal. Loose ends are tied up. The questions are answered. Characters get what they deserve–either good or bad. The story is finished. Readers aren’t left hanging. They’re satisfied because the story has taken them on an emotional journey and delivered the full, entertaining experience it promised.
When you sit down to write your next story, know where you want it to end before you write the beginning. Don’t lurch, leap, and contrive your way there. Think the plot events through so that your protagonist takes logical steps from start to finish. Or if your protagonist’s emotions carry her away from the story goal in pursuit of some tangent, take the time to delete that version and put her back on the path you intend her to follow.
Remember, it’s always the writer’s responsibility to wrap up a story dramatically to the reader’s satisfaction.
December 21, 2014
This is just to let you know that my second eye surgery was successful, and I’m on the mend. I’m hoping to resume reading and computer work in another week or so.
Meanwhile, I have once again put up the space tree in my office, one adorned with robots, astronauts, rocket ships, and aliens. If you look at the bottom left corner of this photo, you can see the Dalek ornament. It’s my favorite. I’ve always had a soft spot for Daleks.
Editorial feedback is coming in for my manuscript, THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA. So far, things look positive. I’ll keep you informed of its progress.
Sorry that I can’t share more news with you, much less offer you a better post than this, but my time on the computer is up.
May your holidays be merry and bright, and happy New Year to you all.
December 12, 2014
When I was a fledgling writer, struggling to learn the writing craft, I came across the following advice:
Write what you know.
Like many sage pronouncements from the oracle of wisdom, this one is invaluable and true, but it’s subject to misinterpretation.
I failed to understand it for many years, although I tried hard at first to follow it. Then I realized that I couldn’t experience the events or visit the settings of the fantastical or historical stories I wanted to write about. I decided this saying wasn’t for me.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that the only thing we can truly know is what lies inside our hearts. What we feel. What we care about. What motivates us. What we yearn for.
Those are the things we know and understand. Those are the things we can write about with conviction and honesty … if we’re willing to explore them and share them.
Everything else–the vista across the dusty plains of Sparta, or the battering rush of wind while sky-diving–can be researched through library and online sources, walking around a location, and interviewing experts and survivors.
Therefore, let’s amend the sage piece of writing advice to
Write about what you know emotionally.
Now, does this mean you should only spill your personal experiences? Not at all!
Real life is filled with trivialities and little incidents that don’t necessarily add up to much. Real life isn’t designed to be an escalating drama in quite the same way as writers shape a story. Let us not hobble ourselves by such limitations.
Instead, we can utilize a technique I call Emotional Transference. (Sounds impressive, doesn’t it?)
It’s a simple, three-step process of analysis combined with memory. Firstly, you determine the precise and appropriate emotion needed for any given situation in your plot. Secondly, you draw on your memory of having experienced that particular emotion. Thirdly, you transfer those feelings into your character.
For example, let’s use the situation of a man who has just discovered his wife has been unfaithful to him. We begin by analyzing this character, whom I’ll call John.
How does he feel about his wife prior to this discovery? Does he love her? How much? Has he been happy with her? How long have they been married? Do they have children? Did he adore her from their first meeting, or did it take him time to fall in love?
What type of man is John? Is he hot-tempered, impetuous, impulsive? Or does he rely on reason, keep his cool, and stay laid-back?
Do you see how the answers to all these questions will have an impact on his reaction to the news?
Let’s say that he first met her at a party, where he was sitting shyly in a corner and she was the darling center of attention. She was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. He was drawn to her immediately, so attracted that he left his corner and found the nerve to speak to her. For him, she has been the love of his life. And although it took him a long time and much effort to court her and win her, he has always adored her.
They’ve been married five years and have a three-year-old daughter. John–content with his job and home–has had no inkling that the woman he would do anything for is dissatisfied with her life … or with him. He’s been blind to everything, ignoring the signals she’s given him.
But now, he’s discovered the truth. What will he feel?
A single, overwhelming emotion at first … then a rush of several.
Let’s choose some for him:
Of course, we could simply sum these feelings up in a single word: heartbreak.
We could write, John was heartbroken.
How dull! Readers skim over such statements, with no vicarious sharing of the character’s experience. They won’t care about John, and will shrug off his plight with no more than a twinge of sympathy.
That is not how you enthrall readers.
Instead, we must show John’s heartbreak by describing and showing his emotions. Doing so will make John come alive.
Remember step two of this process? The remembrance of your emotions?
Let’s go back to our list. The first emotion on it is shock.
Sift through your memories to a time and place where you experienced shock.
Not mere surprise dropped on you suddenly, but shock.
Shut your eyes, and conjure up that event. Did you disbelieve what you were being told or witnessing? Did you need the news repeated to you several times? And inside, was your stomach hollow? Did your legs feel weak? Were you dizzy? Did you start sweating? Were you cold? Did you have to sit down?
Did you start crying at some point? Or did you stay locked up, numb and frozen?
Draw on those sensations, and transfer them to John, whose happy world has just shattered.
Will he be boring then? Not at all. Give him emotions that bring him to life and fit his story situation, and readers will remember when they, too, have undergone broken trust and betrayal. Their own awakened emotions will mingle with John’s, and they will care. They will feel that John is vivid and interesting, and they will want to see what John does next.
That is how you write the fiction that you know.
December 10, 2014
Once upon a time, I found writing as much a refuge as a joy. Whenever the world became too much for me, I dived into my story world where I — even if my characters weren’t — felt safe and isolated from whatever was raging around me.
Tonight, as I have finally clawed my way to the keyboard for a few stolen moments of expression, I can’t help but wonder when did it become so hard to preserve my writing time?
It’s always been a challenge. I learned it would be early in my writing career. I discovered that I had to protect my creative time zealously because no one else in the world had any interest in doing so.
Fair enough. We make time for the things we truly want to do.
Even so, writers have to struggle to buffer themselves from distractions, disasters, and dilemmas in order to create their best scenes, chapters, and stories. I have friends who warn their children not to burst into their writing office unless “someone is bleeding.” Some of my family members/friends absolutely refuse to be trained to leave me alone when I’m working. As a result, I either vanish completely or pitch wall-eyed fits of temper.
Again, that’s a normal part of the writing life.
What’s far from fair and normal is when a writer must exhaust herself just to hold the distractions at bay. There is a clamor and a buzz in our world that grows ever more strident. Thoreau’s pond can be found temporarily for a weekend in some lakeside cabin, but otherwise we are expected to be available to distractions and obligations 24/7.
I don’t know about you, but I need a lot of processing time. My writer’s senses are wide open to the world. I’m constantly observing, constantly noticing details, and constantly being intrigued by all sorts of tidbits of information. My reception scoop is large, and I hesitate to narrow it because I never know when I’m going to stumble across something marvelous that will spark an idea.
The downside of this is that I need a chance to sift and sort through what’s coming at me. Yet lately, that processing function never seems to happen. It’s overwhelmed, and I feel as though my writer’s circuits have been fried by the overload.
Presently, thanks to eye surgery last week, I am spending time at home. I can’t drive, can’t read, and am able to work at the computer for limited bursts of time regulated by a kitchen timer. Writing with one eye shut is tiring.
Even relatively painless outpatient surgery is still an assault on one’s body, and recovery time is needed. Yet I was at work the next day, feeling feeble and exhausted yet soldiering on at the day job because things needed doing.
Was I crazy? Yes! I needed to take care of myself, and hang the rest. The fact that it took me so long to acknowledge this is indicative of how much momentum propels me from day to day.
However, thanks to the current situation, I catch glimpses of down time. As I sit, timing how long to wait between eye drops of mysterious stuff in small bottles bearing unpronounceable names, I have only my thoughts for company. And within these fifteen-minute spans, I remember what it was like when I did nothing but float inside my imagination.
It’s taken me almost ten days to slow down, but I’m starting to remember what my writing world once was. Back when I had time to write, to think, to imagine, to dream. When I wasn’t scrambling so hard among so many responsibilities and obligations. Am I whining? Yes, I think I am.
What’s to be done?
First of all, amputate tasks and to-do lists.
However, that’s easier said than done. I have another surgery next week. My plan was to clear the week so that I can truly rest. Yet already I’m scheduled for a marketing meeting via phone. There are backlist e-books to proofread and a mountain of tasks piling up as fast as dirty laundry. I was raised to finish what I start, to get my work DONE. I’m a completer, and it bugs me to have unfinished projects hanging over me.
(That quality is helpful to a novelist because it drives me to finish book manuscripts. Still … some things have to wait. And because the list never ends, stronger solutions have to be found.)
Second of all, create bubbles of calm.
As I push the clamor away a little just to recuperate, I’m taken back to another time and place, a time when I could lop off too many obligations quickly. Maybe I had fewer demands back then or maybe I was more ruthless in slicing off the encroaching tendrils of too much busyness.
At the moment, I want a broadsword, an ax, and a dagger to STAB botherations away. I want a giant in front of me, roaring for peace and quiet with such a terrifying voice that the whole crowd falls silent. I want to duck into Mr. Baggins’s hobbit hole and enjoy a cup of tea without feeling rushed or guilty.
I want to listen to my own thoughts, to see if I can recall the few frail, half-forgotten ideas that keep trying to break to the surface and sunshine yet are trampled too often by the rush, rush, rush of my world.
Is this you, as well?
Then all I can say is, hang on, my writing friends. Hang on and be fierce toward anything or anyone trying to trample you. Don’t sync your emails and don’t feel guilty when you turn off your smartphones for the evening or leave dishes piled in the sink or the checkbook unbalanced.
Think of a moment in your past when you were supremely content and blissfully happy. Close your eyes and conjure up where you were and what you were doing. Experience again that emotion of calm delight in yourself or your world. Bathe in the memory. Give yourself ten minutes to go back to that time and place.
If you can’t remember it or can’t find it, then try again. And again. Eventually it will come to you. It doesn’t have to be a profound experience or an insightful one. It doesn’t have to be fancy.
My memory of being completely happy, peaceful, and satisfied is a vivid one. I was perhaps eleven years old and spending the summer at my grandparents’ cattle ranch in New Mexico. My cousins and I liked to play in the sandy draw some distance behind the house, out in the pasture. The sand was coarse and gravely, but it still made a good site for digging and tunneling.
It was a summer morning. The sky was dark blue and cloudless, and the sun wasn’t yet hot. I was on my stomach, crawling beneath a barbed wire fence to reach the sand. Partway under, I stopped and rolled over on my back to stare at that intensely blue sky. I was barefooted and carefree. I was lying in dirt. I hadn’t a care in the world. No one wanted me to do anything. I could just … be.
It was perhaps my first true awareness of happiness. I don’t think I’ve ever felt it quite that intensely since despite a lifetime of other wonderful experiences.
Yet I still believe that I can find it again, even if I’m not eleven and without a single care. If nothing else, I have the memory. I just have to remember to push the world aside and go there. It’s a place to breathe.
And if I can breathe, then I can find the strength to fend off too many to-do lists so that writing — and dreaming — can enjoy the quiet space they deserve.
November 25, 2014
To all of you who follow my blog, show patience with my musings, and read my fiction … Thank you!
I appreciate each of you so much. May you have a blessed Thanksgiving with your family, friends, and loved ones.
November 22, 2014
In past posts, I’ve moaned about how I’ve largely had to give up used books because so many of them are musty and aggravate my allergies. And yet … sometimes the thrill of discovery is impossible to resist.
After all, I was a reader long before I became a writer. The lure of reading remains strong, and I hope it always will be that way. From time to time, my heart overrides my head and I’m willing to sacrifice breathing for the chance to grab an especially intriguing tome.
Of course, I have some books still residing in my freezer, stories that I long to read but may never get a chance to explore. I have books banished to the garage, books I dragged home much the way I used to bring home stray kittens. Someone ought to love these books. Someone ought to read the magical tales their covers shelter. Someone ought not to forget them or their authors, who labored long by pen or primitive little typewriter to bring these stories to life.
And then, now and again, I stumble across a book collector’s special trove, as I did last weekend. I had never heard of the BUDDY series by Howard R. Garis, but apparently there are 20 titles published between the 1920s and the end of WWII, with a 21st book that came out after the war. Buddy is a cheerful boy that experiences many enthusiastic adventures. Here is a sampling of the titles:
BUDDY ON THE FARM
BUDDY AT RAINBOW LAKE
BUDDY AND HIS FLYING BALLOON
BUDDY AND THE SECRET CAVE
BUDDY IN DRAGON SWAMP
I think these must be at a similar reading level to THE BOBBSEY TWINS series. Garis was also the author of such well-known children’s classics as UNCLE WIGGILY and THE CURLYTOPS.
I stumbled across the BUDDY books at an estate sale. They were being sold individually instead of as a set, so by the time I arrived and fell in love, six were already gone. The collector in me howls in frustration at the loss in value a broken set represents. The reader in me is delighted to have any of them.
Their dust covers and inside illustrations are charming, very much representative of an American era now gone. Notice how all the covers are identical except for the titles. Smart marketing for a small publishing house with an eye on the bottom line. Commission one cover painting and keep using it while also building brand recognition for the series.
I found one of the books particularly interesting. On the back of BUDDY AND THE VICTORY CLUB, copyrighted in 1943, is this statement from the publisher, Cupples and Leon Company:
BOOKS ARE A SYMBOL OF LIBERTY
Books have always been the priceless heritage of a free people. When a new volume has been added to our shelves, it simply means that democracy and all it stands for is still at work.
Take away our books, and we become slaves, unknown and unknowing.
They BURNED the books in that dark land of oppression and cast into the flames not only words of beauty and knowledge, but a symbol of liberty: Man’s right to read the books of his choice.
We must never let that happen here!
Buy War Bonds and Stamps now so that we and our children may continue to enjoy the blessings of freedom, now and forever.
So well expressed, and an important message to remember even today as America’s literacy rate slowly drops a little more each decade. Recent stories such as Markus Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF remind us of how the Nazis sought to limit knowledge and suppress ideas through book burning. Ray Bradbury’s FAHRENHEIT 451 conveys a similar warning in a futuristic scenario.
Last week, I was standing in the checkout line at Sam’s Club. A large dump at the end of the conveyer belt contained the most recent book in the DIARY OF A WIMPY KID series. A little boy of eight or ten years wanted that book so much he could barely stand it. I overheard him negotiating with his parents because the book cost $8 and he only had $6. They wouldn’t let him have the book. Something was mumbled about how he’d already chosen an item in the cart and that was that.
Now I’m sure the adults were trying to teach this kid economics, but when I see a boy this age–in the demographic most at risk for dropping out of reading–denied a book, I have a hard time not butting in. I can’t express how intensely I wanted to step forward and hand the kid the two dollars he wanted.
He trailed away, his head down in dejection. Five minutes later (this was a very slow-moving line), he came back with a new deal on the table. He offered to eliminate the bag of Cheetos that he’d evidently chosen earlier, and that would make up the difference in the cost of the book.
I was so impressed by this child. He wanted to read a book. He figured out a solution, a reasonable one, and he made a logical pitch for it. He was willing to sacrifice junk food for a BOOK.
Did he get it?
Nope. His parents rejected the deal and kept the Cheetos. Score a point for Team Ignorance & Stupidity! In a year or two, this boy won’t care anymore. His interest in reading will have waned and died from lack of support at home. He’ll be lost to video games, probably never to read again for the rest of his life. He’ll be lazy of mind, low of imagination, and ripe for believing biased media sound bytes.
Even if we don’t have Nazis burning books these days, another way to destroy the knowledge and freedom of thought that derive from reading is to trample the desire to read.
Granted, there’s nothing deep or profound about the WIMPY KID series. I doubt there’s much that’s deep or profound about the vintage BUDDY series either. But their value lies in that they’re fun and entertaining. And as you and I know, fun reading can lead to the willingness to tackle more challenging books and insightful ideas.
I also found myself admiring Mr. Garis for the dedication he put in BUDDY AND THE VICTORY CLUB:
“To the boys and girls of the United States of America who, by their hard and unselfish work in collecting scrap, including tin cans, helped the United Nations to Victory.”
He knew his audience, and he respected these young readers enough to acknowledge their effort toward winning the war. Because, after all, everyone matters no matter how small, how young, or how humble.
Meanwhile, I plan to tackle the volume dated 1929 first. They aren’t musty–hurray!
November 20, 2014
In my previous post, I discussed how the appropriate atmosphere can enhance a story and connect readers emotionally to your story.
But mood has another purpose besides contributing to the setting, and that’s in making things harder for your characters.
The best, most effective use of atmosphere is when it’s laced through the story and contributes actively to the plot. A simple example can be drawn from almost any Dean Koontz thriller, where he will use weather to heighten difficulties for his protagonist. Often he will have his characters discussing the story problem or planning a difficult course of action fraught with potential risk while outside a colossal storm is raging. In a Koontz story, it’s never a mild patter of raindrops on the window glass. Instead, it’s nearly gale force, with the wind howling and gusting, torrents of rain pouring down so that visibility is poor, and lightning crashing violently. It makes readers worry about the characters more because solving their story problem is going to be severely hampered by the intense weather.
In the Koontz novel, SERVANTS OF TWILIGHT, the heroine, her child, and her friend are trying to flee the villains in a prolonged chase. They’re traveling on foot cross country in deep snow. The tall drifts and the cold take their toll physically on the protagonist, making readers worry more about whether she can survive and save her child’s life.
Beyond these simple applications of using weather as both a mood-setter and a physical hindrance, a far more subtle example of atmosphere used as pressure can be found in Agatha Christie’s superb novel, AND THEN THERE WERE NONE.
In this story, a group of ten individuals is tricked into spending the weekend on a remote, isolated island accessible only by boat. One by one, the guests are dropped off. They are surprised to find their host is absent. Other than a pair of servants to serve them dinner, they’re alone on the island, unable to leave until the boat returns. The house is a rambling, gloomy place full of awkward passages. The beach is bleak. There’s no phone service or TV, and even electricity is iffy at times, supplied by a generator. Dinner is so-so, and it’s not exactly a hospitable place. Then the guests–none of whom know each other–start to be murdered systematically, one by one. As their fear and mutual distrust grow, the atmosphere of this grim setting adds to the pressure. They’re trapped, with nowhere to go and nowhere to turn. And their desperation contributes to the dark, edgy mood even more.
When you’re creating ambiance, ask yourself if
1) it fits the genre of your story;
2) it’s in contrast to your protagonist’s expectations (for example, the guests in the Christie story arrive happy, expecting to have a fun weekend);
3) it can contribute toward making the story problem harder to solve.
Put it to work for you in crafting a stronger, more compelling story.