Wednesday, December 13, 2006

I See, Therefore I Write


During my formative years (for the inquisitive, midway through the Cretacous) it seems that I developed a skill that is proving useful since I became, o Frabjous Joy, a Writer. I had no idea then that I was nuturing a Writing Skill; it seemed too much like fun to be preparation for anything, much as reading Henry Hay was. You remember Henry, I wrote about him in Sleight of Verb.

It was a Skill that required patience, fitness, and the ability to remain perfectly still and calm while insects crawled over one's bare skin and inside one's clothing. Any resemblance here to a writing critique group is, of course, purely coincidental.

I'm talking about Observation.

I spent an inordinate amount of youth wandering around in The Bush. The Bush covers major portions of my Island home (though indeed rather less major now...), and is home to a variety of animals, birds, snakes, scorpions, spiders, centipedes, hog lice, regular lice, Poisonwood trees, Haulback trees (a species thornier than James Frey's problems), and the occasional Haitian footpath.

I have watched, and trapped, just about everything here. I once sat, at night, in The Bush, long enough and still enough, to watch a raccoon make a meal of crabs that were feeding on discarded watermelons. Neither the crabs, some of which crawled over me, nor the raccoon, realized I was there. I know how long it takes for an Black Widow spider to spin a web tunnel, and the pattern of her weaving. I know that some lizards have transparent heart muscles. Don't ask. I can look at a track and tell you how old it probably is, what made it, and usually its gender.

What has this got to do with Writing?

I realized, soon after I started Writing seriously, that I was paying much more attention to everything; the color of someone's eyes, the smell of wet grass after rain, the sound of a creaking door. And I started to ask myself how would I describe that?

For descriptive writing, though it seems to have fallen upon hard times, is based upon, in the first instance, vivid, crytallized details first seen through the Writer's eye, and then translated to the page. In this way the reader is sensually bombarded in such a way as to produce an emotional response before, or apart from, that produced by the terrible problems with which the author afflicts his characters, otherwise known as The Plot. It is even distinct from any emotional investment which the reader may be manipulated into bestowing upon the characters themselves, otherwise known as Bloody Good Writing.

In fact, Setting may itself be considered a kind of character: one which mimics or counterbalances a scene; or a character's feelings; or even the character themselves, and should be described appropriately. The Vale of Gorgoroth, the planet of Caladan, Hogwarts, Pemberley, Perelandra's Sea.

And the description must not slow down The Story, must contain specific sensory details, and contain very few labelling adjectives; the adjectives must call the object what it is in itself, that bring out the definite qualities and quantities of the object.


So much for the usefulness of Observation to the Writer. We have to first See what we write about.

But in the words of Anne Sexton, "Sometimes the soul takes pictures of things it has wished for but never seen..."

Now that requires quite another Skill.


Another blog for another time.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Haik'd-up Villanelle

Don't ask.

Suggested by a poem by wyzguy over at AW.

A marriage of Haiku and villanelle.

why then, must I write
dredging up, disgorging pain
through the lonely night

when the muse takes flight
and the search for words is vain
why then, must I write

If the muse I fight
and the writing naught but pain
through the lonely night

when the muse gives light
and the words descend like rain
why then, must I write

If the muse grants sight
then not writing would be pain
through the lonely night

whether words descend like rain
or writing be fraught with pain
why then, must I write
through the lonely night

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Thanks for the Meme-ories...


Kelly tagged me. I now have to share five little-known Facts about myself, and then tag five other unfortunate Bloggers.

I will pay her back. It will be a slow and painful punishment, since she knows how shy and retiring I am, and how much I value my anonymity. Come to think of it, Dawno began the whole thing...

Well, here we go.

1. I have broken several bones. The sports-engendered ones are all on the right side of my body: my ankle (high school basketball game) wrist (Karate, green belt test, kumite) ribs and clavicle (American Football, played without pads - we couldn't afford them). I have also broken my left little toe stumbling around at night (twice). It's almost rectangular now. This actually constitutes at least five facts, and maybe I should stop here.

2. I have sold drugs to Sean Connery, Moses Malone, Frank Mills, Arthur Hailey, and Rex Harris, among others. Yes, they were all legitimate prescriptions. No, I won't tell you what they were for, Nosey Parker.

3. I have never seen snow. Well, in movies and pictures, but I have never caught it in the act, so to speak. The coldest it has been down here in my lifetime was the mid-40's F back in 1977. The northern islands had a few small snow flurries, which of course melted as soon as they hit the ground. The Government offices closed, as did all the schools; folks said it was the Judgment of God. As I write this, we're having our first real cold snap of the year. It's in the high 60's outside. Thankfully I work inside.

4. I once went two rounds with then Jr. Middleweight Boxing Champion of the world, Elisha Obed, who taught me how to jab properly, with your whole body weight behind it, and not just a flick of the arm. I was an amateur Welterweight at the time, and Obed's jab hurt me more than the straight rights of the guys I regularly sparred with. I had a cheap mouthguard, and his jab opened a horizontal cut inside my lower lip, about an inch across and a quarter inch wide.

I went home and swished some pure alcohol around in my mouth. After my lip finished exploding, I put a steroidal oral paste on the thing, and it healed in maybe a week, though I still have the scar.

5. CT came clean about the West Wing, so I'll fess up; I loved the too-short-lived Dead Like Me series. It was different. Quirky, with outrageous dialogue and story lines, and funny as Hades. What's not to like about a girl who gets killed by a toilet from the decaying MIR space station, and then becomes a Grim Reaper at 18? And the last scene from the final episode just begs for a resolution...


Who do I inflict with the Meme next?


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Why Write, when you can Worry?

I've mentioned several times in this blog my sincere belief that Writers are all at least a half bubble off plumb (HBOP, for the uninitiated).

Perhaps nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the rituals, procedures, sacrifices and offerings necessary to placate the Muse before we can begin to write. These are the sorts of things that cause relatives and friends to shake their collective heads and make revolving motions with their index fingers near their collective temples.

Sometimes the Muse requires us to don (or doff...) particular articles of clothing. James Joyce wrote in a milkman's uniform, apparently because he thought the light reflected onto the page was brighter thereby. Charles Ludlum, the founder of The Ridiculous Theatrical Company, sometimes wore a wig and an evening gown to write, apparently because he made light of everything. Others dress as if they were going to work in an office, and a few inscribe totally sans habilement.

Some write in the early morning; some, like myself, are night owls (I wrote most of my first novel between 11pm and 3am, when my pc didn't have children or spouse attached to it), and the rest write whenever they can steal a moment or two from Real Life.

Seclusion and quiet is the only setting that will mollify sensitive Muses, as opposed to the more demanding variety that require their writers (e.g. J.K. Rowling) to work in the white noise of a busy cafe.

One of the most important considerations, however, concerns the writer's implements. What one writes with can be a major Muse-seducing tool, as are revision procedures. Hemingway's pencil-sharpening ritual is well-known. Jacqueline Susann typed only on pink paper, in all caps, on a pink IBM Selectric, and revised with an eyebrow pencil; Capote wrote everything out longhand, revised likewise, and required a particular kind of yellow paper for the third draft.

The rituals, procedures, or sacrifices each writer adopts become collectively known as The Process, and tampering with it can lead to Writer's Block (paralysis of the literary glands), Irritable Vowel Syndrome (usually noticed first by friends, relatives, or Pubbers), or worse yet, the production of a stream of unvarnished sentimental unprintable drivel, unfit for human consumption. Whatever this Process is, it is absolutely necessary, be it complex or simple, and if mitigating circumstances interrupt (phones ringing, a nap, or an exceptionally sunny day), writing may even become impossible, unthinkable, or, horror of horrors, too much like Work.

Betsy Lerner, in her excellent The Forest for the Trees, says that writers write for either of two reasons; out of compulsion, or out of a desire to be loved. While this is true as far as it goes (and yes, she does also mention money), neither of these seem to explain the need for Process.

The need for Process, I believe, stems from Worry.

Because no one thinks that writers have a Real Job. At least, it's not the same as working in Real Life, say, as a doctor, lawyer, or industrial thief. People with Real Jobs, like Pubbers, claim to envy writers because writers supposedly don't have to get of their pj's to work or even get out of bed for that matter. Never mind that writers don't make as much as most of the people they know. And isn't it true that a writer has to suffer to be good? When a writer is successful (i.e. makes more money than small countries) the public looks askance, as if they have caught the writer with his hand in the Welfare Fund. Conversely, a writer who fails to be published, or cannot make a living at it, is looked on as a failure cum laude.

And so we Worry. We Worry because our nearest and dearest don't understand our 'hobby'. We Worry that we are complete and utter frauds and that our readers will see through us. Even often-published authors have this Worry. We Worry about getting reviews, we Worry about not getting reviews; we obsess about writers that receive obscene advances and garner Award after Award while we can't get an Agent to look at the outpouring of our souls.

The Process is necessary because it provides structure and rhythm to Worried writers. It announces to the Muse that it is Writing Time, and stimulates the literary gland to flow. Many times the Process is a closely guarded secret, because writers Worry that if readers or Pubbers of family knew what was necessary to get us going, their tongues would cluck sadly in time with their shaking heads and revolving digits.

And we also know the melancholy truth: if we never become famous or rich, our Process will be regarded as merely the expression of a neurosis common to writers; but Dan Brown's Process, if discovered, will be the subject of many creative writing lectures, discussions between budding MFA's, maybe even a dissertation or two.

It won't make any difference, though.

They'll still have to placate their own Muses.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Cindy and the Hung and Pransome Yince

Ok, summer vacation is over.


The word conjures up visions of pumpkin coaches, rodent footmen, and Aarne-Thompson's type 510A, the persecuted heroine.

The story boasts an impressive antiquity, the first variants appearing in China in the Tang Dynasty, and has been retold numerous times. Modern variants range from Disney's classic 1950 animated feature to Archie Campbell's marvellously dyslexic Rindercella (who lived with her sticked wetmother and two sad blisters: she went to the bancy fall, where she met the hung and pransome yince, and lell in fove. At the moke of stridnight, she stan down the rairs and slopped her dripper. So sad; it was a drass glipper...). The glass slipper was apparently a French addition (Charles Perrault, 1697). The French have always been so verre haute couture...

The heroine has been criticized by modern feminists as too submissive and helpless, satisfied to aquiesce to her miserable lot. Only because she has the phenomenal luck to have a Gairy Fodmother, um, Fairy Godmother, and the unlikely double blessing of unearthly beauty, does she manage to end up with the Prince, whom it is assumed she will accept.

But any story that has lasted so long must have some intrinsic appeal, something that moves the heart and satisfies the intellect, and must therefore be altered. So in modern versions, both Cindy and the Prince have been made to undergo character makeovers to suit someone's sensibilities, either the author's, or the author's perception of the public's.

Now I like the story in most variants. Some I like more than others, and I think I have found out why. Yes, you are about to be inflicted with an Opinion.

Let's take a look at three modern takes on the tale:


Ever After
Drew Barrymore as Cindy, Dougray Scott as Charming.

A Cinderella Story
Hilary Duff as Rella, Chad Michael Murray as Hung and Pransome.

The Prince and Me
Julia Styles is Cinders, Luke Mably is Prince of Denmark.

Each of these have a Cinderella who has something other than beauty to commend her to modern sensibilities: Barrymore's c. 1500's Cindy is remarkably well-read, quick-witted, handles both dirk and rapier with aplomb (Though we sadly do not get to see her swordfight with her captor, M. Le Peu, alas), and deserves the Prince, according to Leonardo Da Vinci, that bastard son of a peasant. Meritocracy trumps Autocracy. Whether Leo would have actually voiced such opinions is of course irrelevant to our concerns in such a lighthearted piece, but putting opinions into Da Vinci's mouth which he cannnot be said to have espoused seems to be quite the popular thing nowadays. She also rescues the Prince from gypsies, and herself from captivity. Scott's Prince only overcomes his prejudices after Leo chastises him, but does end up Charming.

In Duff's modern-day portrayal, Cinderella is actually rich but doesn't know it, because her Mugly Other has hidden her father's Will, and Murray's football hero Prince harbors hidden yearnings to be a writer, something I'm sure many football players secretly aspire to. This 'You've Got Mail' version also has Cindy and the Prince text-messaging each other without either knowing the other's real identity, and at the Bancy Fall she drops her cell phone instead of a glass slipper, which are no doubt difficult to find at Payless. Murray's Prince also has to be told off because he refuses at first to acknowledge Cindy when she is revealed; this time by the heroine herself, Leonardo not being available, having assumed room temperature soon after helping his fellow peasant Barrymore in the 1500's.

Also set in today's Cinderella-jaded times, Ms. Styles' rendition presents us with a tightly-focused med school Cinders,with a cute mom and two passable brothers, and who needs no rescue at all, except perhaps from the drudgery of all-work-and-no-play. Turning the tables, this version has the Prince disguise himself as an exchange student, with no nobler ambition than to ask co-eds to flash him, and sow his royal oats; somewhat of a let-down from Dougray Scott, who wanted to start a University. Forced into the obligatory revelation scene by Danish papparazzi, the couple have the obligatory (and transient) argument and break-up scene. The Prince returns to Denmark after the semester is finished, whereupon Cinders' heart smites her up side her head, and she flies there to see him again. The proposal scene is classy, and original. Cinders accepts (of course) but changes her mind later, because her head recovers from the wound given by her heart in time. She returns to med school to finish her dream of working with Doctors Without Borders, a noble ambition, far superior to getting co-eds to flash their boobs. At least Denmark (now King, did we mention?) returns at her commencement, and vows to wait for her.

The three are listed in the order I prefer.

This has nothing to do with the relative acting skills of the Misses Cindys, or even the Hung and Pransome Yinces.

Nor does it have anything to do with the 'feminist' re-telling; all of them have heroines (and Princes) that have been re-written from a more 'feminist' standpoint.

It has to do with whether or not the story delivers what it seems to promise. If you set me up to expect a 'fairy-tale' ending, then you ought to give it me; if you don't, I'll be disappointed, sometimes without even knowing why. If you want to make me cry, give me a tragedy. If you want to make me laugh, give me a comedy. If you want me to die, give me poison; but don't give me every expectation of one and give me another.

Now it may be that the last story in my trio is an attempt by the author/producer/director/whoever to make a statement about the Cinderella story in general, a sort of deconstructive, or revisionist play. If so, then I think it fails for the reason most deconstuctive and revisionist stories fail; the only satisfaction is political, and will satisfy only those, and perhaps not even those, who share the storytellers' political views.

Classic stories, those that have stood the test of time, have survived, I believe, because they touch something in all of us.

And of course I don't mean one cannot tell a story without a political point; the original Cinderella was political; Princes didn't marry commoners in those days. The original story made a point about meritocracy versus autocracy.

I think the last of our stories would have been much more satisfying had, since they decided to turn the tables, turned them all. It didn't go far enough either way. They could have done a nice update on the old story and left it there, or they could have gone whole hog with the Prince's transformation, and have him take up Cindy's Noble Cause. Either would have more satisfying, at least to me.

Monday, July 31, 2006

On Characters


In the middle of a conversation with one of my beta readers about a week ago, I suddenly realized we were talking about my characters as if they were real people.

"What do you think Diane will do when she finds out about Lilleth?" I asked, knowing full well what Diane would do, having dreamed up her reaction some time ago.

"Oh, Diane will slap her silly," Beta said. "Wait; no, Diane isn't like that. She might want to, but she won't, she has too much self-control."

"You think so?" I asked. Beta will be in for a surprise, apparently, as will Lilleth.

And then I asked Beta if she thought it was strange that we were discussing inanimate characters in a novel as if they were real.

"Yeah, it is, sort of," she said, confirming my statement in my last blog that all writers are HBOP, and a goodly portion of readers likewise.

When readers like or hate my characters, I take this as a very high compliment indeed: it means they have formed some kind of relationship with the character, even though that character is a figment of my imagination.

Well, partly.

I construct my characters from people I have known in real life. I never bring them into a story whole, though, because along with a sincere desire to avoid litigation, I want them to fit certain profiles. I will take something from this person, and something from another, maybe a third or fourth, put it all in the oven and see what rises.

Of course this applies only to my protag and the supporting characters, not the villains, which I dredge up from the inner recesses of my own dark and brooding psyche. Next I'll give you a hot stock tip...

Since I write fantasy, I must acknowledge and pay homage to certain cliches, since that is what defines genre to an extent, otherwise I might as well write in the Genre that Takes Itself Much too Seriously to be Enjoyed. Fantasy readers have come to to expect such, so long as it's not overdone, or too obviously imitative.

Take for instance the Raven-Haired Warrior Queen/Huntress. My character Diane is cast squarely within that mold - but she is also Miss Manners, with unexpected vulnerabilities. I like using cliches; the reader, quite reasonably, expects things from such characters, most of which I give them - until I lower the boom, on the character and the reader...

This is part and parcel to me of the sort of thing I talked about in Sleight of Verb: verbal misdirection and manipulation of interest. My writing plan consists of creating characters that are as real as I can make them, in settings likewise, using real people as templates or cooking ingredients (take your pick), inviting or deceiving the reader (again, choose) into a relationship with the characters, and then manipulating the reader's interest and emotions (...) by having terrible things happen to the characters.

Dang, that sounds callous.

So far, it seems to be working, though...

Thursday, July 20, 2006

To Sleep, Perchance to....


I mentioned in my Virgin Blog my perverse desire to drown all my readers in the fictional dreams that I call my writing.

But what are dreams, anyway, and why should a writer care? I suppose I could get technical here, and trot out Merriam-Webster's definition, or even Solomon's (it's verse 3...), but I prefer my own, at least when it comes to writing. I suppose that makes me conceited; but whoever heard of a writer without an ego? Writers are so bloody needy: if you're a writer you know already what I mean. Have you ever watched someone read something you've written, just to see if they gasp, or laugh, or become horrified just at the right moment? It's a disease we all have. But I digress...

I believe Dreams are imagined memories.

This may be why some writers go mad, and why normal people think writers are all at least a half bubble off plumb, and why the normal people are, of course, right.

First of all, the dream has birth in the fertile (or well-fertilized) brain of the writer, who transfers it frantically to paper, or a hard drive, before the dream dies. Something is always lost in the transfer, translation, and recording, another source of authorial angst and neurosis. A reader happens along, reads it, as readers tend to do, and falls in. Now they are caught; they see what the writer saw, hear what the writer heard, smell what the writer smelled. Steven King calls this mental telepathy, thought transferance by use of the written word. The writer dreams the story before writing it, or sometimes while writing it. I can only speak for myself, but when I write most often all I see is the scene before me, not the keyboard.

Now memory is a funny thing, as Henry Hay taught us, and can be manipulated, directed, controlled to a degree. One of the strangest things about it is that false memories and real memories play back in our mind's eye in precisely the same way. This is why I always look upon so-called 'repressed memories' recalled under hypnosis as suspect; is it live, or is it Memorex?

Try it yourself. Close your eyes and think of a real memory, something meaningful, like graduation, or marriage, or your first cup of Starbucks. Now open your eyes and read the next set of instructions; do the same with a scene from one of your favorite books. Be careful. If you're an avid reader blessed with a good imagination, the second exercise may well be the most vivid. Which is why readers are also at least a half bubble off plumb.

John Gardner talks of crafting the fictional dream, a wonderful phrase that I have stolen without remorse, and he maintains that several things are necessary. One is the use of vivid physical details that 'engages us heart and soul; we not only respond to imaginary things - sights, sounds, smells - as though they were real, we respond to fictional problems as though they were real: We sympathize, think, and judge.' Another is continuity. Distractions from the dream are deadly to the story. There are many ways to do this, apparently, far too long to list here, and besides, it would rob you of the untrammelled joy of reading his classic book The Art of Fiction.

But there's something more.

I believe good writing not only creates a cohesive and vivid fictional dream for the reader, but that it also touches something deep within, yearnings inexpressible, groanings that cannot be uttered. This is ( I think) what C.S. Lewis meant when he said that good stories bring to us '...a scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tone we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.' It is at once completely familiar and yet totally other, and when we read it we recognize that we had known it all along, though we do not altogether know what it is.

Stories that have that scent, a whiff, perhaps, of elanor, the golden singing of the Sindarin, the speech of Numenor.

I want to write like that, to have readers see only the dream that I have crafted, to smell, taste, touch, hear the dream...but more, I want to touch that deep, unfathomable as-yet unimagined place...

I have to be at least a full bubble off.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Write what you Know?


The title for today's missive is trotted out as the collective wisdom of Those that Know Things in the writing world. I've seen the phrase repeatedly in writing primers, forums, and blogs. Ok, I said to myself, and sat down to write.

The problem is, I write fantasy. So how do I write what I know when I have to invent a world, and possibly creatures, hitherto unknown, and factually non-existent?

My first reaction was that this was a false trail, a red herring, laid down by devious Pubbers to shrink the slush pile by screening out ignorant writers: I haven't altogether given up the idea, since some Pubbers repeatedly refer to the high percentage of queries that are "crap". One high-profile Pubber has even revealed the use of interesting (but foul-sounding) device, a Crap-o-Meter. One wonders what units of measurement it uses. However, lacking proof, this must remain only a working hypothesis, like European assumptions that George W. Bush is an idjit.

Secondly, I wondered if readers really do want to hear what I know about certain of my relatives. Do they really want to know that Auntie has been styling her hair in the same fashion since the Roosevelt Administration, or that Brother eats peas 'n rice with corn syrup? (Actually, not all that bad...) And if readers do, do I really want to run the risk of Auntie's retaliatory wrath? Will my Internal Editor let me? And how in the chicken gumbo do I make it interesting?

Thirdly, though I realize that the internet has opened up resources to the writer never before seen ( and some better not seen), from blogs in Chaucerian Englyshe, to catalogues of useful ancient stuff, to Pubber Facts and Figures, these help mainly in researching details. A non-fiction or freelance writer, if they run out of Things they Know, can always, you know, learn about something Else; a fantasy writer still has to make stuff up.

So I decided that while this hoary piece of writing wisdom may work for other writers, it did about zippitydooda for me.

So I asked myself, "Self, what kind of book do you want to read?" and I myself answered my Self (follow me now), "I want to read a different kind of fantasy." So I myself sat down and wrote the kind of book that I My Self wanted to read. Others have read it, and so far most of them like it (Pubbers excluded, thus far), so I think I'm on to something. What it is I don't altogether know, but it must have to do with writing stuff I like.

Which brings up the subject of Genre.

For me, choosing to write in my favorite Genre, i.e. what I like, is more liberating than writing What I Know, because I am writing about things I love, or hate, or would love to have, or hate to lose. And as a Fantasy writer, I don't think I am any different from other writers in other Genres; my world has to be just as coherent, my characters just as believable, my details just as precise as those who write Mysteries, or Romances, or Thrillers. Maybe more so, since I may be asking my readers to suspend disbelief in a totally non-factual world.

I left out Literary Fiction, since nobody seems to be able to give a definition for it. ( I made up my own: Books that Take Themselves Much too Seriously to Be Enjoyed). I also left out Mainstream Fiction because that brings up unfortunate mental images of test strips that have to be held mid-stream...

There is something, though, that writers in every Genre have to do, I believe; get the reader to dive into the page and surround himself with the Writer's crafted Dream. I believe that the authentication, or 'proof', or persuasion, that the writer uses toward this end is the use of specific, concrete, vivid details, both in description and characters.

But that's a blog of a different color.

Probably Purple.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Them Ol' Rejection Blues

Another dull and dreary mornin'
e-mail inbox still empty... (Repeat)
No replies, Lord, no replies
Rejection Blues is killin' me.

This writin' business makes you crazy
bloody Muse won't leave me be (Repeat)
lookin' Agents up online
blind from readin' my pc.

Now there is this one thing
almost makes me take to drink
my writing friends' acceptance posts
cause me to wring my hands and think
Oh baby...I won't ever be the same
you broke my heart when you called Agent So-and-So's name.

So many ways to say 'no thank you'
They didn't 'fall in love' with me (Repeat)
and then an 'out-of-office' note
wait till Monday, then we'll see.

I send out query after query
some don't bother to reply (Repeat)
and when they do it's a rejection
so I fold my arms and cry.

I have these ol' Rejection Blues
feel like a squeezed-out lemon rind (Repeat)
e-mail has another message
think I'm 'bout to lose my mind.

(12-bar quick-change blues, with profuse apologies to Robert Johnson.)

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Sleight of Verb


Specifically The Amateur Magician's Handbook, by Henry Hay, Harper & Row, 4th Ed., 1982 ( now, sadly, out of print).

It sat, trembling expectantly, on the bookstore shelf, its red-and-black dust jacket crying "Pick me, pick me!"

So I did. My library now contains many volumes on the ancient and noble Art of Fooling People Badly with the Cunning Use of Tricks (i.e. magic, sleight of hand, legerdemain...), but Hay's marvellous 400 page tome is still my favorite, and in many ways, the best. Of course memory embellishes and romanticizes first loves, on which more later.

His first chapter is called The Magic State of Mind, a perfectly felicitous phrase, and it contains some of the best advice concerning the performance of magic I have ever read. It also, strangely enough, contains some of the best advice on writing I have ever read, though I didn't know it at the time, and neither, probably, did Hay.

What he says is this:

"And how do we go about tempting our audience?"

-Already we know he's on to something, don't we...

"The central secret of conjuring (and of art and literature and politics and economics) is a manipulation of interest. (Not just of attention, as we shall see in a moment).
"What, in turn, is interest? Interest is a sense of being involved in some process, actual or potential."

-Italics here, and in all these quotes, are his. Well, he sure had my full and undivided. Now that I look back on it, Hay should perhaps have considered moonlighting as a political campaign manager, or Fed Chairman. He obviously understands the basics.

-Potential process? Well, will the protagonist find the sword/ring/amulet? Whodunnit? First, readers have to care about what happens to your characters, which is another way of saying 'plot'. Twice during the writing of my first novel (as yet unpublished, as I think I told you before) I tried to kill off, in true Shogun style, my main female character. Two of my beta readers, both female, threatened me instantly with grievous bodily harm. Apart from the blinding flash of revelatory insight, and perspective, into life in general provided by this near-death experience, I realized I had created at least one character with whom those readers had bonded emotionally, and it felt...pretty darn good. I had Fooled them into suspending disbelief in the actual unreality of the character. That's a magical effect.

Hay goes on to say:

"Processes too big, too small, too fast, too confused, or too slow for you to take in can't give any sense of involvement; they aren't interesting. That much is obvious."

-He obviously must have worked as a Literary Agent. What better description of the average slush pile could one want? In one incredibly concise statement he has addressed scope, pace, clarity, and detail. And it's obvious that the above statement isn't obvious to every writer, otherwise the slush pile would be smaller, or the request-for-partials stack bigger.

He next addresses something that isn't quite so obvious:

"Interest is not the same as attention. Attention is a simple response to a stimulus - either to a loud bang or (much more powerful) to a feeling of interest.
"Interest is selective, an expediture of energy by the interested party. You, the performer, can never command it, only invite it."

-In other words, you can lead a horse to water, but if you want him to drink you have to rub his gums with salt. Any poor sod who has been forcibly fed Shakespeare or Jane Austen by-the-numbers and by a check-collecting excuse for a teacher knows that enforced attention is the mother of after-school detention. It's like racing an engine without putting it into gear. For magic this means, among other things, that an effect must have a logical unity or theme, which is why you don't often see mentalists producing or vanishing cards; one effect undermines the other...

If you gain the spectator's (reader's) attention, how do you lose it? Again Hay comes to our aid:

"...this means a trick must hang together; that it must not be scrambled by irrelevant objects, motions, or even surprises."

-Repeat after me: if it doesn't advance the story, cut it out.

"Memory is an internally edited record of interest (not of attention, much less of 'events')."

If we have led the suckers - excuse me, the audience - through a realistic enough process, and then by devious and sneakful means and misdirection produce the effect, impossibilities erupt, followed by the inevitable "How did you do that??" To which I usually answer, "Very well, thank you." Perceiving, they think, a certain process, people tend to follow it through to their own logical conclusion. Successful misdirection helps them to wrongly perceive the process because the mind cannot help but make associations based on past experience. Perception becomes reality, which Hay also tackles.

"Perception, too, originates with the perceiver, not with the object."

Although what the perceiver sees is guided, manipulated, and controlled to a degree by the performer (writer). Wonderfully diabolical, isn't it? The performer controls what the audience shall pay attention to, and what it shall not pay attention to, and the way in which each individual can, or cannot, record a personal memory CD.

"In other words, the magic show takes place ultimately in the spectator's head."

-When I read a really good book, I don't see the words on the page; I see Frodo and Gollum through waves of heat, scrabbling in the dust on the edge of Orodruin's pit. I see Paul Atreides, frozen in fear, droplets of sweat trickling down his face while the hunter-seeker hovers above his bed. Don't you?


"You let the audience perform their own magic, with coaching from you."

The story is everything. It's very difficult for me to sound clever and the story to be great at the same time.

What I learned about writing from Henry Hay, who had no idea he was teaching it to me:

-A writer may command attention, but must invite interest.
-Reader's interest may be manipulated to follow a process.
-The process (plot, story) must all hang together.
-The reader's perception may be controlled and restricted to a degree.
-A writer must gain the reader's attention, invite his interest, direct his perceptions, and win his involvement.

One last word from my old friend:

"Suppose you vanish four or five small oranges, and then catch them from empty air - a modest little trick that you can do before you are half-way through the section on hand magic. If you are any showman at all, ten to one that people will quite honestly remember that you caught half a bushel of grapefruit, and piled them up on the stage."

The literary equivalent of that memory is what writers salivate after.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Tribal Warfare.


When I decided to begin writing, besides the obligatory books on the Art and Craft of writing,I read everything I could about the business end; publishing. The deeper I delved, the more I felt like a missionary about to embark upon the conversion of a different culture. Or like a teenager attempting his first seduction, take your pick.

This is because I discovered that those in the publishing industry belong to a different Tribe, or Species, than Writers. That men and women belong to differing species has been well documented by the noted social anthropologist Dr. John Gray: but I found the same to be true of writers and those of the editing/publishing/agenting ethnicity, hereinafter referred to as The Pub People (after Keyes).

Pub People are readily discernible from Writers by the following general characteristics:

Pubbers are Schedule-driven, helpless without a day-planner: Writers may schedule writing. Or not.

Pubbers have recognizable corporate/professional habilements: Writers ask "Dress up? For what?"

Pubbers are political animals and networkers: A Writer is a loner, and works best alone.

A Pubber belongs to several cliques based on aesthetic and political preferences: Writers may belong to a critique group...

Pubbers never take naps: Writers nap frequently, even mid-typing.

Pubbers generally have a regular salary, and health benefits: Writers on salary? With health benefits? ROFL.

Pubbers can lose their job: Writers are self-employed (or unemployed, which amounts to the same thing).

Further, Pub People have their own secret rituals and language (blurbs, slush piles, not-for-me-isms), engage in small mutual support groups (lunch meetings, production meetings, agent meetings) and even have their own Holy Days (semi-annual sales conferences).

An insular, commercial people, Pubbers will seldom even consider reading the out-pouring of a Writer's soul unless the writer has a platform, (which means will the bloody thing sell) or the writer is a brand name (which means the bloody thing will sell), or they believe the book has legs (which means I hope the bloody thing sells). They obsess over books earning out, or selling through, or slipping.

They have difficulty reading anything not in a particular format, and will ask writers (beg them, really) to submit the out-pourings of their souls in this form and this form only, or they will refuse to read it. They will however, place minor variations on this format in each and every place that publishes their submission requirements; this is nothing less than the hoary Canary Trap, that old stand-by of the CIA, NSA, Mossad, and MI5. In this manner they can determine where most of the writers submitting to them do their research, so they know where to publish their submission requirements next time.

Writers, of course, have our own idiosyncracies and foibles. These characteristics include the (quite reasonable, to our mind) assumption that Pubbers, who read for a living, ought to be able to read in more than just one or two fonts. We (quite rightly) look upon the requests of the Pubbers to 'be professional' in our submissions as a thinly-disguised plea to give them something they are able to read.

Writers also regard the forecasting ability of The Pub People with regards to sales as suspect. How else can anyone explain the reason Nicholas Sparks, J.K. Rowling, Canfield & Hanson, and Stephen King, et al., took so long to be recognized as the commercial goldmines that they are? We suspect also that Pub People are at least as paranoid as Writers, perhaps more so, and are creative minds trapped in business suits, who portray their subjective, irrational, emotional decisions as rooted in sound financial ground. We believe this because there are no soundly established empirical criteria for the outlay of large monetary sums based solely on the perusal of several MSS sheets.

So as a first-time novelist, my job is to attempt to cross the cultural divide - I must learn to speak, and write, Pub. This is the Golden Rule of getting published; They that Haveth the Gold Maketh The Rules. To make things even more frustrating, Pubbers and Writers profess to speak the same language, but many times fail utterly to communicate. Maybe it's a dialect thing. It doesn't help, either, that Pub People have redefined words that were perfectly well understood before (crash, house, spine, skip, jacket, etc.), or that their sensibilities, preferences, and tastes are so different from people who do not happen to live in Valhalla (New York City).

Worse, the Pubbers and Writers desparately need each other; they recall the classic negotiating concept of the handshake where neither party can afford to let go, or both will go bankrupt, starve, or worst of all, never be regarded by one's peers as Having Arrived.

What we need is a formally agreed -upon Pubber/Writer Dictionary.

Unfortunately what will probably happen is that to be published, a Writer will have to beg, plead, or otherwise cajole, a Pubber into printing it (a process known as querying, designed to humble Writers so that they Know Their Place). The Pubber will immediately suspect it has no platform, spindly legs, and believe the bloody thing won't sell. After all, where's the market for it?

Friday, June 02, 2006

Virgin Blog


I finally gave in and started a Blog.

Here is where I'm supposed to craft a little bio for any misguided soul that may wander in, lost in the labyrinthine corridors of the Net...

Alas, I'm much too shy and retiring.

All you'll get is this: I live in the tropical paradise known as the Bahamas, and I sell Drugs for a living, for which profession the Government granted me a licence. I write, but am as yet unpublished, though I am a member of the Greatest Writing Site On The Planet. (The site is still under reconstruction as I write. You can find out why here.) I play the guitar, but am as yet not Eric Clapton, though I have three guitars: Gertrude, Suzy, and Sally.

The rest is classified information, given out on a need-to-know basis. This need is not necessarily yours.

Since I intend to Blog mostly about my writing (though I may inflict you with an Opinion now and then) I'll also say that I write sci-fi/fantasy, and am hot on the trail of a good literary agent whom I can seduce into representing me. Not this one. Good agent, but she doesn't rep sci-fi/fantasy, probably due to some unfortunate congenital mishap, poor thing.

I write speculative fiction, because, as Bradbury says, such books are About Something; they contain Ideas, and are surprisingly relevant. They are not an escape from reality, but are instead a kind of secret door into it, and a fascinating way of describing it. Fantasy writers have always understood Plato's Cave intuitively - our writing is merely an expression of an Idea, a hand-shadow puppet show for our readers, or in the case of science fiction, an inventive and imaginative Idea about how to solve a problem. There are submarines now, Jules, and you saw them first.

Enough philosophical claptrap. I really write because it is so much bloody fun. I write because I will explode if I don't. Indeed I held it in for most of my life, and my formal training is in the physical sciences (with a little Theology thrown in), but in my youth, lo, those many centuries ago, I found Conan languishing on a bookstore shelf. I carried him home and devoured him. Then I found Bradbury, o joy and wonder, and Poe, and Lovecraft, and Maugham, and Tolkien.

And I became a fantasy cannibal. I swallowed books, I inhaled them whole into my maw, and digested them over years. I have read The Lord of the Rings at least once a year since first finding it, and could probably recite whole sections.

Of course this is an addiction, and I freely admit it. But the simply glorious thing is that now I have the chance to write something...addicting... and pass the torch, or infect someone else with the love of reading. If I could write a story all green and growing like Bradbury, with the insight of Maugham, the scope of Tolkien, and the sheer blinding narrative pace of Howard, then I might call myself a Writer.

And if I write well enough, I can drown you in my Dream, take you down and hold you under until you inhale and imbibe it, so that when you come up for air the real world for a moment is the dream, and the world you left the reality -

Well, I can dream, can't I?