Thursday, June 28, 2012

Week 27 - Form

1 Jul - 7 Jul:

"I have always been a writer of letters, and of long ones; so, when I first thought of writing a book in the form of letters, I knew that I could do it quickly and easily."  Laurence Housman

If we cast our minds back to highschool, or if you're like me, to wiki, we'll recall the major forms of writing:
  • Narrative
  • Expository
  • Descriptive
  • Persuasive
This isn't what this week is about, though it does focus on the narrative form.

Nor is it about structure, as such, though it might be.   I'm going to refer to what English playwright, Mr Housman, is talking about, though probably not as eloquently.

I started thinking about how form can be applied in fiction, after reading The Art and Craft of the Short Story.  The author, Rick DeMarinis, spoke specifically about the wonderfully varied ways a short story can be told, but he also recognized how form can add flavour to a novel.

Consider this:
My Dear Jude, - I have something to tell you which perhaps you will not be surprised to hear.... Mr Phillotson and I are to be married quite soon....
Wish me joy.  Remember I say you are to, and you mustn't refuse! - Your affectionate cousin, Susanna Florence Mary Bridehead

My Dear Sue, - Of course I wish you joy!  And also of course I will give you away....
I don't see why you sign your letter in such a new and terribly formal way?  Surely you care a bit about me still! - Ever your affectionate, Jude.
And this:
Dr Lecter pressed the switch in his palm and the projector came to life... the images of della Vigna and Judas with his bowels out alternate on the large field of the hanging drop cloth.
"Qui le strascineremo, e per la mesta
selva saranno i nostri corpi appesi,
ciascuno al prun de l'ombra sua molesta."
And this:
"A cringle will make an excellent emergency handle for a suitcase." The Ashley Book of Knots

Who could miss the hidden tension between Jude and Sue through the letters they exchange in Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, or the sinister intelligence of Dr Lecter when he presents artwork in this scene from Hannibal by Thomas Harris, or the wit of E. Annie Proulx as she opens Chapter 13 of the Shipping News with a quote from the Ashley Book of Knots?  And I couldn't even begin to describe the assortment of tools Matthew Reilly uses to tell his stories (photos, diagrams, symbols, lists, emails, captions etc).

These are just afew examples I randomly selected from my bookshelf, but I'm sure we can all think of many more cases where an author has successfully presented a scene using different forms of story-tellingPoetry, journal or diary entries, quotations (real or imaginary), mini-plays, song lyrics, text messagesfairy tales, ancient tablets with inscriptions... the list goes on.

Applying a different form to a story can add a unique dimension that straight narrative lacks.  Inserting different forms into a novel can not only make the reading more interesting, but can be an effective means of presenting information and detail that perhaps dialogue and narrative might struggle with.

To me, form is like trying a different food.  Stir-fried crocodile is just as nutritional as chicken, and a hell of a lot more interesting to talk about, so what not try it?

Exercise 53.  Make up a short, original folk story / fairy tale or traditional ghost story that includes a) a snake, b) a flower, c) an orphan, d) a blind man, e) a magician, or a combination of these.  Rewrite it in modern terms, using modern forms where applicable (emails, texts etc).

Exercise 54.  Write a letter to someone who is no longer in your life and say all the things you wish you had.  (Taken directly from So You Want to Write by Jean Rosier-Jones.)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Week 26 - Middle of the Year Already?

24 Jun - 30 Jun: Keep on Trekking: the view's worth it.

That's me in the red shirt, strolling through the middle of nowhere with a bunch of people, afew I know well, the majority I don't.  We had a purpose, and we had to tackle this terrain on foot to achieve it.

It's a formidable landscape.  It was hot.  The boab trees, or upside-down trees, aren't much good for shade.  The spiky acacias are worse.

It look us some time to reach the top of the plateau, but the view was worth it. 

We could see the crocodile-infested river weave through the brown land to the south.  It looked as innocent as a stream of chocolate milk pouring from a jug, but it is a tough river with extreme tidal influences.  Okay, so the bit about the crocodiles may sound melodramatic, but it's true.  On a separate occasion I saw a wallaby disappear from the water's edge: it was drinking; there was a splash, and then it was gone.

So now we're half way through 2012, and I am far from that place... physically.  Mentally, my attempts to learn the craft of writing my own way, has been a little like that day in the bush.  I remember 'just writing' and how effortless it was.  That was me walking along in anticipation of the majestic view.  The going was a bit rough, but not too taxing.

But now that I've bombarded myself with rules and reasons, and considered the opinions of so many others that sometimes I have difficulty pinpointing my own, I'm starting to think about that big climb that will give me the view. 

For the next six months, I will continue to read the landscape, and I will continue to listen to others on a similar or connected journey, whether they be friends or strangers.  But most of all, I will test my footing along the way, trip over and stand up again, have a rest when I need it, and I will get to the foot of the hill prepared for the upward trek.  The crocodiles won't go away, but with enough height, I know I can see past them.

Exercise 51.  This week I will revisit the writing goals I set in week 1.  I will give myself a pat on the back, for some... with a cattle-prod, for others.

Exercise 52.  Spend the next hour at least, doing something that targets a writing goal.  Keep trekking, the view's worth it.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Week 25 - Rhythm

17 Jun - 23 Jun: What's the best word in the English language?  Read on... (and no, it's not 'perversion').

"...he has come within sight of the word 'perversion', with its dark, complex thrill, beginning with the enigmatic 'p' that can mean anything, then swiftly tumbling via the ruthless 'r' to the vengeful 'v'."  J. M. Coetzee, Boyhood.

Read a word or a sentence or a paragraph out loudHow does it sound?  Is it harsh or soft?  Does it want to be read quickly or slowly?  Does the sound compliment, contrast or clash with the meaning?  If you think like Coetzee, is it enigmatic; does it tumble; is it vengeful?

How to Write an Uncommonly Good Novel suggests chosing words for more than their dictionary meaning.  Here are some insights from author, Deborah Churchman:
1. Long, resonating and full sounds, for example, nose, range, grieve, and m and n sounds, add a heaviness to a sentence and may be appropriate for things that are monotonous, such as crowds, traffic and droning characters.
2. Quick, explosive sounds, such as B, P, T, D and K quicken pace.
3. Soft, breathy sounds, such as F, SH, CH and H are quiet and secretive.  Churchman recommends them for lovers' meetings.
4. Liquid sounds contain long L, R and W sounds.  Broadening vowels can also turn harsh sounds into much softer ones, e.g., catch to caught, bit to bite.  The classic, I love you is liquidity at its best.  And according to Churchman, the best word in the English language (by vote) is liquid smooth cellophane.
5. Onomatopoeia add action, e.g., splash, snap, thud, and can sound like the element being described.  The slithering snake is a familiar example.  Churchman provides a less obvious one from Edgar Allen Poe: "and the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain," is supposed to sound a bit like a curtain moving in the breeze.
6. Sprawling sounds such as long vowels and groups of consonants, such as spring, throng, scribe, take longer to read and tend to slow down the pace.
7. Pitch describes the ups and downs of a sentence.  If the sentence rises at the end, it is stronger and more masculine.  If it falls, it is soft and feminine, and more suited to reflective situations.
8. Alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds) and assonance (repetition of vowel sounds) are great in poetry, but should be applied carefully in prose.  Suzie saw something sinister as she sat sullenly on the sideline, might work well in a comedy, but is distracting, and just plain silly, in a serious piece.
9. Repetition of words and sounds for emphasis is recommended by many.  Three seems to be the magic number here.  Any more and the effect is dampened. 

Courtnery Carpenter includes word choice as one of 7-tools-for-pacing-a-novel in her Writer's Digest article, and provides further advice:
10. Action words are good for drama, suspense and conflict, and strangely enough, action scenes. 
11. Words that sound unpleasant or conjure up unpleasant images may be rushed over by the reader, consequently, quickening the pace.  Carpenter includes in this group words like grunt, hiss and slither.
Okay, so these titbits are about sound, not necessarily rhythm. Stephen King, On Writing, (besides meeting his wife there) credits poetry classes for giving him a greater understanding of rhythm in his own prose. 

John Gardner has a very thorough and academic look at rhythm in the Art of Fiction, and also recommends study in poetry for applying rhythm to writing.  Gardner points out (among other things) that one should be aware of the stressed and unstressed syllables in a sentence, as too many stressed syllables slow a sentence down.

Gardner includes faulty rhythm in his section on 'Common Mistakes', suggesting that too much rhythm is not realistic, and that short, sharp stresses and long,flowing ones should suit the scene. Gardner also includes accidental rhyme as something to look out for.

For those who wish to know the difference between iambic, dactylic, anapestic and amphibrachic metre [meter], Google it or talk to a poet.

Exercise 49.  Read aloud a sentence or paragraph you've writtern yourself.  Place a stressed symbol ( - ) above the long syllables and unstressed symbol ( ˘ ) for short syllables.  Experiment with how reordering a series, or rearranging the sentence or paragraph affects the rhythm, and decide on which suits the story best.  (Adapted from Gardner, The Art of Fiction.)

Exercise 50.  Think of, or consult your dictionary for ten words each that, in your mind, fall into the eleven groups listed above.  Think of how you can apply them to a story, or better yet, apply them.  For the 'distinctive' words (ref Clark), e.g., silouette, dynamite, glisten, try to find their etymologies (origins).  For example, discipline means 'to follow', hence, disciple, (depending on your source, of course.  Darn, did I just accidentally rhyme?).

Next week is Week 26.  I will be half way through the year and wondering what I've learnt, and looking back at my goals from Week 1.  Ah oh....

Friday, June 8, 2012

Week 24 - Clichés and Stereotypes

10 Jun - 16 Jun: Good things come to those who think for themselves.
A rose by any other name, might actually be a heliconia

Adria Haley, editor of the 2012 Novel and Short Story Writer's Market is quite specific about the stereotypes that appear in modern fiction: the anorexic teen, the drunk father, and the cancer victim are just a few.  Describing people just by nationality is a sin of stereotyping, as is assigning a person a specific accent, e.g., the waitress with the Southern drawl.

No problem, we'll just use the old contrasting-characteristics-trick.  Except that the smart prostitute and the gangster who adores his mother have been taken.  (Having said that, there is some value in the contrast concept that I'll look at in the coming weeks.)

This isn't exactly tricky stuff, so I'll conclude with the following reminder to myself:  the only real way to avoid stereotyping characters and situations (and flowers) is to get serious about itReally seriousDig deep, press hard, and listen carefully to how real people think and how they want to act.  Use the interesting bits to make characters, and then throw those characters into situations that make them do surprising things.

Now onto clichés because clichés are fun.  We all know that using them is sheer laziness, but they seem to just roll off the tongue, don't they?  That's why it's important to make a very particular point about seeking them out and removing them, regardless of how cool they are.  And in those instances where we can't come up with an original image, just write it straight, advises Roy Peter Clark.  For a pretty good list of clichés, check out this website: Clichés: Avoid Them Like the Plague.

Haley condemns not only clichéd language, but clichéd plots such as the lovers reunited, or revenge of the abused wife.  When I think about a story or scene, I try to remind myself of Roy Peter Clark's advice: reject first-level creativity. If most other people are likely to present it one way (since the idea itself is unlikely to original), present it a different way.  Educational blogs written by luddites are exempt, by the way.

Exercise 47. Ramble for a page or two with the aim of including as many clichés as you can think of.  Now go back and change the clichés to original thoughts and ideas, or if this proves difficult, say it straight.

Exercise 48.  So how did the fairytale princess and the biker dude turn out?  Rewrite the scene or description from last week.

Week 25 will continue with the word topics as I consider Rhythm.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Week 23 - Concrete and Abstract Language

3 Jun - 9 Jun:  Every Cloud Needs a Silver Lining

Way back in Week 6,  I included an exercise about turning cloudy descriptions of a character (he was a relaxed man) into concrete images (he strolled down the street).

Roy Peter Clark defines the scale of 'solidness of detail' as the ladder of abstraction, and suggests that a writer can use this concept to add depth and meaning to action and description.

At the bottom of the ladder are concrete words: words that deal with real, tangible things.  We can see, hear, touch, smell and taste concrete words, and they place us in a situation.

At the top of the ladder, abstract words are those wishy-washy ideas that people feel or have a certain association with, e.g., death, love, freedom, and happiness.

To grasp the purpose behind and potential impacts the ladder of abstraction has on a story, Clark poses the following questions:  "Can you give me an example?" requires a concrete response; "What does it mean?" will have the writer and reader reaching for the top rungs.

So what do we do with the ladder of abstraction?  This will depend on what we are trying to achieve, I guess.  Do we want our audience to race ahead with images of action, or to think about what it means?  Chances are we want our audience to do a bit of both, in which case, it makes sense to mix the two.  Linking death, say, to a black, rushing river, or childhood to icecream and Christmas presents, give unmistakable meaning to both the concrete and abstract ideas in each case.

So, that's the theory.  Instead of going on about it, or trying to make up inspiring examples of my own, I thought I'd look through my bookcase and see if I could find out how the masters do it.  Here's what I came up with:

Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens:
He had scarcely the power of understanding anything that had passed, until, after a long ramble in the quiet evening air, a burst of tears came to his relief...
They sat, listening, and afraid to speak, for hours. The untasted meal was removed.

The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe:
He didn't realize that there were women who thought about sexual attractiveness the way he thought about the bond market. 
It was a ten-dollar ride each morning, but what was that to the Master of the Universe?
A vague smoky abysmal uneasiness was seeping into Sherman's skull. The Bronx...

The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene:
He felt the security of his age sitting there listening with a glass of gin in his hand and the rain coming down.
...the small hotel room was hot with the conflict between them.

Billy Bud, Herman Melville
It is not artistic heartlessness, but I wish I could but draw in crayons, for this woman was a most touching sight, and crayons, tracing softly melancholy lines, would best depict the mournful image of the dark-damasked Chola widow.

Okay, so that seems straightforward, not to mention effective.  Let's try some exercises.

Exercise 45. You are consumed with a) love, or b) hate.  Write a paragraph describing how you feel by linking these abstract ideas with concrete images.

Exercise 46.  Write half a dozen phrases (or more) that start at one end of the abstraction ladder and ends at the other, or a passage that travels up and then down (or vice versa) the ladder.  (Reference: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark.)

In preparation for next week, anyone reading should have a go at thinking about, or even writing down a short description of, a) a fairytale princess, and b) a member of an outlaw biker gang.