15 posts categorized "writing lessons"

August 11, 2016

Characterization Handout

Again, here's a handout I use in my fiction/prose narrative classes that I thought might be useful to others.

Feel free to use these guidelines in your workshops, post links back here, and refer people to this post. All I ask is that you attach my name to any print outs, quotes, or references, and give proper credit!

Characterization (“Xtr” = “Character”)

STEP ONE: FIND YOUR XTR’S SPINE

Essential building blocks: these are the things you should know about your character.

  1. Physical appearance as it affects personality and how other Xtrs respond to this Xtr.
  2. Cultural background, especially if this xtr lives in a world with more than one culture.
  3. Family background as it affects personality, limitations, etc.
  4. Upbringing and education as it affects personality, ability, how other Xtrs respond (“education” means a great deal more than school. It can mean training and areas of knowledge and expertise, etc.)
  5. What does this character do? This means job, vocation, calling, passion, as well as the role the xtr fills in his/her community.
  6. What are his/her strengths and how are they shown?
  7. Why does he/she have these particular strengths?
  8. What are his/her flaws and how are they manifested?
  9. Why does he/she have these particular flaws?
  10. What drives him/her? What does he/she want from life?
  11. What does this xtr fear? What are his/her “issues”?

A Xtr’s SPINE is his/her central, operating elements of personality. “Operating” means that they’re important to the story, they work in the story. For example, Neo (from The Matrix) may have had a shoe fetish, but it doesn’t operate in the story, so it’s not part of his spine. When you’re through figuring these things (above) out, you (and your reader) should have no trouble describing your character's SPINE in three or four items. 

e.g.:

  • Neo is a computer genius, he has intuition about the nature of reality, he is obsessive about discovering the truth, he is physically and morally courageous
  • Frodo (from Lord of the Rings) is a comfortable homebody, he loves the Shire with a passion, his only talents are courage and a strong moral compass

STEP TWO: FIND YOUR XTR’S MOTIVE FORCE

  1. A Character is a creature or object that reflects and acts. A Protagonist is a Character whose action drives the action of the whole story (there will be other characters in your story who act, but their action doesn’t drive the story. E.g.: The Oracle in The Matrix tells people important things but it’s Neo who makes the story happen.
  2. In step one you thought about what drove your Xtr, what s/he wanted from life. Which one or combination of these desires is strong enough for a Xtr. to act upon?
  3. Xtrs do not exist in a vacuum, they live in a world. Some of their desires will be fulfilled by their world, and some blocked. It is the blocked desire that, to be fulfilled, requires action. Which of your Xtr’s desires interacts with his/her world in such a way that requires action? This will be his/her MOTIVE FORCE.

MOTIVE FORCE = desire that requires action

e.g.:

  • Neo wants to learn the truth about reality but the matrix keeps reality away. This drives him to seek out Morpheus, take the blue pill and exit the world of the matrix.
  • Frodo wants a quiet life in the Shire. This is threatened by the black riders searching for the ring. His desire to preserve the Shire drives him to set out to destroy the ring.

STEP THREE: REVEAL YOUR XTR IN THE TEXT

You can’t just sit down and tell everything about your xtr and have that operate. Your reader has to know your xtr, but s/he also has to feel and see and intuit your xtr to become really engaged. You can’t give away your xtr, you must reveal your xtr. (i.e. you can’t make your reader passive, you have to entice them to dig a little.) There are several methods of revealing character. Keep an eye out for these as you read. Not all writers use all of these in every story, and often, they are manipulated in interesting ways.

Methods of revealing Xtr:

  1. Exposition: telling about your character

    Snorfle was a strong smark from the forests of Lagoo. His parents had died when he was small and he had raised himself. He was much respected. More than anything, he wanted to avenge his parents’ death.

  2. Description: describing your character physically or otherwise

    Snorfle had three small eyes in the back of his head and a lot of hair around his neck. The females especially loved his slime-green claws and the way they all curved so gracefully to the right. They also loved his beautiful manners over a fresh carcass and the intense way he pounded its skull to jelly.

  3. Action: what your character does in a large and small sense

    Upon learning the name of his parents’ murderer, Snorfle fell into a green funk for three weeks and refused all food – even girl-eyeballs, his favorite. He sat in a corner of his cave and didn’t move, except for whapping his tail against the floor. In the end, he decided to go on a quest to find the murderer and place sharp sticks in every available murderer orifice.

  4. Gestures and mannerisms: the very small actions that distinguish a character

    Snorfle had a habit of picking his snout, putting the results on his tail, and flicking them across the lake into the trees. Or: Snorfle read the notice, skritching his underscales as he read.

  5. Dialogue: a way of establishing voice as well as the character’s modes of interaction with others.

    “Too Small!” Snorfle shouted. “Snorfle don’t eat small humans!”

    “Calm down,” Weedy said. “We can still eat it.”

    “No! I am Snorfle! No small humans! If Snorfle eats small humans then Snorfle won’t have big humans to eat!”

    “I know,” Weedy said, sighing and releasing the human. “You’re a conservationist. You’ve told me. Many times.”

  6. Thoughts: a direct line into the character’s brain

    Snorfle tried to look like he was listening to Weedy, but he only wanted to squeeze her scaly yoohoos. They were so … juicy. She was female, why should he not squeeze them? Oh, yes, because she would hurt him. Better not. Better look like he was listening.

  7. Narrative voice: Only when the story is told by the character – a first person narrator.

    I am Snorfle. Hear my tale! I come from the forest. You do not. Listen to me or die!

December 19, 2015

Revision Processes

Again, I thought this might be useful to some folks, so I'm posting it here.

Many beginning writers don’t revise effectively because they don’t know how. Revision is half of writing however (and half the fun! No, really!) The first or rough draft of a piece is you tapping into your subconscious and allowing it to spill out onto the page with guidance, but without interference, from your conscious mind. Writing doesn’t end there, though.

Once your subconscious has had its first say, it’s time to get your conscious mind involved in manipulating the material at hand. Subsequent revisions are an interplay between your conscious understanding of the craft of fiction, and your subconscious and what it wants to say. The trick is not to let the one or the other have too much control, but to balance the two.

Put another way, revision is “re” “vision”, looking at your work again. Here are some ways to look:

  1. Put the piece away. Yes, don’t look at it for a while. At least two weeks. Don’t think about it. Then, come back with a fresh eye.
  2. Save Drafts!!!!: Give yourself the freedom to experiment with drafts by saving each draft into a different file. That way, if you experiment with something that is disastrous, you still have the previous draft to go back to.
  3. Writing towards the life. The first time you read a piece after taking a break, when it's feeling fresh to you again, mark the places where the story seems to go flat, and also mark the hotspots, the places where things seem to take off, or get exciting, or get your juices flowing. The flat places will need to be cut, or rewritten, or cut, or contracted, or cut, or reconceptualized, or cut. Did I mention that you can cut them? Look at what's left (the hotspots.) If the story isn't finished, or needs development still, then start writing again in the middle of a hotspot and let it take you where it will.
  4. Craft Analyses: Go through your story several times, each time concentrating on a different element of craft. (you don’t need to do all of these, just pick the ones you need the most help on. For example you can: 
      1. do a plot or narrative arc revision by analyzing how the piece establishes conflict, builds tension over a series of events, and then climaxes the tension and resolves the conflict. Or by analyzing how the piece doesn’t do this and why not and what it does instead. You might find that a subplot with a comic character draws reader attention too much away from the central conflict. You delete that subplot, folding the comic character back into the central action. Interestingly enough, that comic character suddenly adds a new and essential scene to the story that resolves other problems you didn’t know how to resolve.
      2. look at which events you chose to tell about and which you chose to dramatize in a scene and ask yourself if you really chose the most dramatic or important scenes to dramatize. You can also look at the structure of the piece here in terms of scene and summary and ask yourself if you’ve chosen the best order in which to place your incidents and flashbacks. (Most pacing issues will be with narrative arc or with scene structure.)
      3. do a characterization revision by looking over all the ways in which you develop character in this piece: description, voice in dialogue, action and gesture, thought. You might find that your antagonist’s character is described at the beginning but pretty much ignored throughout the rest of the piece. This results in her being flat and not at all frightening, which in turn detracts from the tension. You add scenes and gestures to muscle up her characterization and rewrite her dialogue to suggest subtly what her motivations might be.
      4. look at the world and find the things that you left out and fill these in the negative spaces around the scenes, especially sensual elements like smells and sounds, or cultural elements.
      5. look at narrator, p.o.v. and voice and ask yourself how the choices you’ve made affect the piece. You might want to try writing a new draft changing the narrator or changing the pov. It might work or it might not, but you might consider trying it.
      6. look at flow of language and rhythm and rewrite passages that are bumpy or uneven. Or maybe rearrange paragraphs so that the flow of ideas or events becomes more jagged and staccato.
      7. look at pacing and expand sections that are too short or contract sections that are too long; speed up or slow down sections. (Note: only expand short sections if you have more to say there. NEVER add padding. Usually pacing issues are issues of you not having developed the other craft aspects sufficiently—especially structure. So once you've done that, you won't have a pacing problem anymore.)
  5. Off-page: Figure out what you don’t know about your characters, situation, etc. (Why does Jenny distrust men? What was her relationship with her father? If Chris’ grandfather was a miner, did he die of silicosis? Does Chris remember this?) Go “off the page” of the actual story text and write (crappy) backstory, or (crappy) character sketches or (crappy) prologues or epilogues to the actual story or (crappy) scenes that happen “offstage” in your story. Give yourself permission to write crappily and to never look at what you’re writing again. Writing off-page is purely for content, purely to give you a way back in to your story, and to give you more insight into your characters and situation. Once you’ve done all the off-page stuff, go back into your story and rewrite it.
  6. Experiment: Go nuts. Rewrite the whole thing from the point of view of a Martian or a worm on the family compost heap or a fly on the wall. Try adding the word “red” to every sentence. Rewrite it in second person, past perfect, passive voice, questions only, all run-on sentences, with no adjectives, without the verb “to be”, translated into pig Latin. Imagine that every paragraph is a poem and rewrite accordingly, with line breaks. Knock yourself out, but save your previous draft.
  7. Elevator Cut: Sit down and try to write an “elevator speech” description of your story (this is what you are able to tell a stranger in an elevator before s/he gets off. This will be what you can say in about half a minute.) Then go through your story and cut out everything that doesn’t directly feed into your elevator summary. If you find later that you needed it after all, you can put it back in. Cut words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, passages. Cut, cut, cut! Then go back in and sew up the hole your cut left. Make sure that each sentence, each paragraph, transitions smoothly or well into the next.
  8. Complete rewrite: This should be your last draft. Print out the current draft of your story. Sitting with the print out in your lap, completely rewrite the story from beginning to end. Do not permit yourself to cut and paste from the last version. If you want to use a passage, retype it. Try to do this all in one sitting. Don’t allow the draft in your lap to dictate the story to you. By this time, the story should be pretty clear in your head (not on paper.) Only refer to it when you don’t know where you’re going next. This is to smooth out the prose of a later draft that has been through several revisions and might be looking a little like Frankenstein. This also gives your subconscious another crack at inserting details and images. Do this for a later draft.
  9. Editing: Go obsessively through your MS looking for clichés, words, phrases, and lines that aren’t quite. Correct them. Rinse, repeat. Don’t be fooled, though, this is not revision; this is editing. Don’t do this first, do it last. LAST!

November 27, 2015

Claire's Writing Workshop Guidelines

For some reason, I've been having this discussion a lot lately with folks who are teaching and/or participating in writing workshops. I've brought up my own rules for conducting workshops several times, and it occurred to me that it might be useful to someone if I posted these.

For those of you who need qualifications: I have an MFA in fiction writing from SF State, have published some short stories and a short collection of stories, and have run two nonprofit community writing programs. I've participated in about 17 workshops (in my BFA and MFA programs, in adult community writing workshops, and at Clarion West) as a student and conducted about 15 of them as an instructor: as a TA at SF State, as an artist in residence at a high school, and in adult community workshops. 

I developed these guidelines out of my experience being fruitlessly (and endlessly) workshopped as a student, and wanting better for my students. There are plenty of instructors out there who run a good workshop and do it differently from how I do it. But this is what works for me and -- based on apparent impact and student feedback -- for my students.

Feel free to use these guidelines in your workshops, post links back here, and refer people to this post. All I ask is that you attach my name to any print outs, quotes, or references, and give proper credit!

So, without further ado:

---------------------------------------------------

CLAIRE'S WORKSHOP GUIDELINES

 What it is:

Workshopping writing is a process of gathering a group of people to read and discuss a writer’s work. The workshop process is intended to give the writer assistance in completing their piece through:

  • An outside perspective; a reader’s perspective
  • Multiple points of view on their work
  • Dispassionate (though never objective!) analytical assistance

How it works in my class:

  1. Everyone will have one week to read the pieces that they will workshop
  2. While reading, the reader will make notes in the margins (or using “track changes”) about what they are experiencing as they read. Note: boredom, confusion, excitement, pleasure, questions raised by the text, etc.
  3. After reading, the reader will write up an analysis of the piece using the tools we learned in this class.
  4. The reader will bring both the marked up manuscript and the analysis to the workshop class and give them to the writer afterwards.
  5. During the workshop session for that piece, the readers will discuss with one another their analyses of the piece. The participants should feel free to disagree and debate with one another, using concrete examples from the piece.

What to talk about in workshop:

Your written critiques and our workshop sessions will address the issues outlined below. We will be using the craft elements in the lessons (characterization, world-building, conflict, story arc, POV/voice) to talk about the following:

  1. Where is the power, heat, fire, life in the piece coming from?  What makes it feel alive, rather than inert?
  2. What is this piece literally about? What's the story? What did you get and what didn't you get?
  3. What is the writer trying to do with this piece? Is it a meditation on a particular theme?  a raging good story? an experiment with forms? 
  4. What techniques and strategies is the writer using to get at her theme or purpose? Talk about the craft elements of the piece (structure, character, dialogue, action, voice, etc.) 
  5. What are the advantages to the writer's strategy, and how can the disadvantages be avoided? (Please note: this is not an opportunity for you to tell the writer how you would have written the piece or what you would prefer to read or to encourage the writer to change her strategy.  This is a place for you to discuss the disadvantages of the writer’s chosen strategy and help him find ways to turn these into advantages.) 

Rules:

Workshopping is a difficult and unnatural process. Effective workshopping is a skill that must be learned. The process outlined below may seem awkward or counterintuitive to you.  Please trust this process and try it out.

  • No evaluative statements: these are sentences using the phrases I liked, I didn’t like, … was good, … was working, wasn’t working, etc.  Instead, please
    • make observations.  These are sentences that simply state what is there.  So, instead of I liked how you used dialogue to reveal character say You used dialogue to reveal character.  This showed us the characters in speech and action, rather than telling us in exposition, which can be awkward.  Instead of Your sarcastic tone wasn’t working for me say, The tone of the piece was sarcastic.  This can be disadvantageous if it alienates a reader who takes the theme seriously, but if your intention is to distance the reader from the action, this can be an effective tool.
    • ask questions.  Rephrase a criticism into a question about why the thing you didn’t like had to be that way.  Instead of I didn’t like the stop-and-start rhythm of the piece ask Why did you choose to break up the flow of rhythm in the piece? Was this deliberate?
  • No orders: don’t tell the writer what to do in phrases like You should or I suggest that you or Why don’t you try.  You are not here to rewrite the piece for the writer.  Period. You are here to:
    • reflect what you received from your reading back at the writer so that they know what their readers are understanding and what they aren't understanding. So tell them what you got without evaluative framing.
    • reflect what you understand of writing craft back at the writer, so that the writers can distance themselves from their work enough to place their work in the context of the overall discipline. So do this for them: take what you know about the craft, and use it to analyze the work. Remind them of the effect certain tactics tend to have; the advantages and disadvantages.
  • THE WRITER WILL NOT SPEAK. PERIOD. The whole point of writing is to "speak" to an audience that is dislocated from you in space and time. This means you do not get to stand over your audience's shoulder and tell them what they missed. They get it from your writing, or not at all. Thus, in the workshop, writers do not speak. You can ask specific questions at the end, but no explanations!
  • All work will be treated as fiction: which means that even if you are actually writing about yourself in first person, using your own name, we will still treat that character as a character … because it is a character in a story and not actually you. We will also be using the Law of Fictional Plausibility (see world-building handout), which states that if something doesn't feel plausible told in a story, then it doesn't matter whether or not it actually happened in real life.

September 13, 2012

How to Write a Grant Proposal

ETA: After reading a bunch of "How To Write A Grant Proposal" articles online, I realized that the grantwriting landscape for other sectors must be different. So please note that this post is written from the point of view of a grant writer and grants panelist in the nonprofit arts sector specifically. All such grants I've encountered so far have very specific application forms and sets of questions, which is why I didn't include a format for the grant narrative here.

I wrote this post at Hyphen magazine in 2005 after I'd sat on a couple of grantmakers' review panels and seen the horrific mistakes so many people make when they write grant proposals. Then Hyphen switched platforms and the formatting got all screwed up so you can't really read the post anymore. And in the past few years I've wanted to send people to this post because I think there's some good info in here. So I'm reposting (most of) it here, with proper formatting. I'm also adding some new info, so it's not exactly the same post. Oh well.

HOW TO WRITE A GRANT PROPOSAL:

  1. RESEARCH FUNDERS: DATABASES. Find a database of funders/grantmakers and research the ones who make grants in your geographical area and in your field. If you're a complete beginner, go to the Foundation Center's website. They have lots of resources and tips and hold grantwriting seminars all over the U.S. Webinars, too. They also have a database you can use online for a fee (or in one of their locations for free.) Once you've made up a list of funders you need to whittle this list down. Look at specifics, including: what kinds of programs do they fund really; how many grants do they make each year (i.e. do they hand out enough grants to include new orgs?), how large are their grants (i.e.: is it worth your while to write this grant for the amount of money they're giving?), which specific organizations have they funded recently? (i.e.: do they fund organizations like yours?), what is their schedule? (i.e.: if they don't have a deadline, when is the best time for you to submit your grant?), etc. If a funder's guidelines fit you perfectly, but they only give out three grants a year to three orgs which are 10 times your size, then this is not a realistic prospect. Look for the ones who give out lots of grants of different sizes to orgs of different sizes. Look for the ones who specifically are looking for new orgs to fund.
  2. RESEARCH FUNDERS: FUNDERS' WEBSITES: Once you have a more realistic list, go look up each funder's website and read all the information there. Often, their website will give you a lot more to go on, including: their mission, their intentions with specific grant programs, more about whom they've funded in the past, etc. They'll also usually have their actual grant application available for download on their website, which you need to read thoroughly.
  3. FIND OUT WHAT THE FUNDER'S REAL CRITERIA ARE. I cannot emphasize this enough. A lot of grant application questions are worded vaguely. Do not break your brain figuring out what information they want from you. Find it out from them directly (see #4). If your programs do not fit in with their criteria, don't write the proposal. Do not convince yourself that you should try it anyway. There are always more applicants than money and the funders will be deciding among the applicants who clearly fit their criteria. The ones who clearly don't fit their criteria will be the first into the circular file. Which leads us to:
  4. CALL AND TALK TO A PROGRAM OFFICER IN DETAIL. That's what the program officers are there for. They would vastly prefer wasting ten minutes of their day running through your programs with you on the phone and finding out right then that you don't fit in with their criteria, to having to spend a few hours processing and reading your grant application and making the whole panel read it only to discover the same thing. Save yourself and everyone time and work and talk to the program officer first. In detail. On the phone. Don't wimp out and email them. This is an opportunity to get the funders on your side. CALL them.
  5. FIND OUT WHO IS ON THE REVIEW PANEL. Are they the foundation's board members? Are they your peers (people who run similar organizations)? If your program is employing orphaned street kids in Atlantis, and the panel is made up of wealthy New York professionals, then you might have to explain to them the background and implications of your cause, and argue saving street kids over, say, saving whales. But if the panel is people who also work with third world street kids, you don't need to argue the relative value of saving street kids. You will, however, need to make a really good argument for how well your particular program works. Make the argument your audience needs to hear.
  6. GIVE THEM THE INFORMATION THEY WANT. If they want to know how your employing the orphans program fits in with their mission of saving the environment, tell them that employing the orphans who are cutting down trees for fuel will save those trees. Don't tell them that saving the orphans will cut down crime and poverty in Atlantis and bolster the self esteem of a whole generation. They may appreciate this, but they won't fund it. Answer their specific questions thoroughly and convincingly first. Then, if you have space, give them the other strong elements of your argument. But only if you've answered their questions first.
  7. DON'T BULLSHIT. Even the most naive funder will be able to tell bullshit from the real thing after reading a hundred proposals. Applicants who fit their criteria exactly will tell them so in specific language. Applicants who don't tell them so in specific language, clearly don't fit their criteria exactly. If you don't match one of their essential criteria be honest about it and tell them why you don't. They might be willing to overlook it. But if you try to cover with obfuscating language, you will be wasting their time and they won't give you the benefit of the doubt.
  8. BE SPECIFIC. Don't just tell them that you "save the environment by saving the orphans". Tell them exactly how you save the orphans ("We employ them in one of our twenty partner businesses and organizations as paid interns and then train them up to be full staff members") and exactly how this saves the environment ("The main threat to the rainforest in Atlantis is clear cutting by orphans. 90% of the children we work with were formerly engaged in illegal tree cutting. All of them learn a new, sustainable skill which takes them away from environmentally unfriendly practices for life.") Break down the elements of your program for them. Walk them through it, so they get a real, vivid idea of how your program works. The more they understand, the more they will like you.
  9. BE CLEAR. This means employing good writing techniques. Give them an overview, break it down, and then give details. Make sure your argument is clear and all the details are there to support the argument. Don't throw in extraneous shit. Stay on track and on target. Make your sentences short. Don't use lingo or big words. Funders aren't stupid, but they do have a lot of grant proposals to read. The easier yours is to read and understand, the more they will like you. And the reverse is also true. Oh yeah, and get the damn thing proofread before you send it off.
  10. GIVE THEM HARD DATA ON HOW YOUR PROGRAM/S IMPACT YOUR CONSTITUENTS. The best designed program ain't shit if it doesn't have its intended impact. If your grant doesn't show that your program is working then no one will give you money. Anecdotes are great, but evaluations are better. If you're not collecting data, start doing it now! Start evaluating your programs, and then be sure to put in a few sentences about your impact into the grant, whether they ask for it or not. "We train young people in environmentally sustainable job skills" sounds pretty good, but "We train young people in environmentally sustainable job skills. 89% of them are still in environmentally sustainable jobs 10 years later. The rain forest around our target area has recovered by 12% in the last 15 years" sounds very fundable.
  11. TAKE EVERY OPPORTUNITY THEY OFFER. If they offer a workshop on how to write grants for them, go. If they let you send them supplementary materials, get some supplementary materials together. Your goals here are two: 1) to get as clear a picture of their process as possible and 2) to give them as clear a picture of your program as possible. Don't be brief, be complete.
  12. ASK WHY YOU'RE REJECTED. If you get rejected, call them and ask them why. Ask them for notes from the grant review (if these are available to you). Get as much detail as you can from them. Be friendly and get them on your side. There is always next year, and the year after that, and the grantseeker who does his/her homework is the one they like and remember.

CAVEATS: This is about writing organizational grants. Also, keep in mind that every grant panel is different and every funder has a different process. Some of these things just aren't going to apply always. Good luck!

April 27, 2011

Rewriting "Hanna"

SPOILER ALERT. Don't read any of this until you've seen the movie!

I just saw Hanna and I'm both exhilarated and disappointed. The first three quarters of the film are wonderful: fresh and exciting and great filmmaking. Then the last quarter is shit.

The film takes a fairy tale situation and forces it into interaction with an elevated version of "reality." A beautifully filmed, highly selective version of the beauties of everyday life. A girl grows up in the forest, raised by her father, who is a hunter. She reaches a point in her growth where she has to go out into the world and claim her true identity. This is all stuff of fairy tales and myths: a child of mysterious birth who is supernaturally strong and powerful. In a fairy tale she'd be a secret princess, hidden from her father the evil king. In a myth, she'd be a demi-god, child of a god and a human, hidden from the human's evil king father, or something. Her quest is to discover her true identity and claim her power and status. So far, so good.

Along the way, on her quest, she receives help from various characters; in fairy tales they'd be kind humans and figures of power: a good witch, supernatural creatures who make bargains with her, etc. In the fairy tale, people who help her get left behind, never to be heard from again.

In the film, Hanna and her hunter/woodcutter father decide it's time for her to kill the evil king -- in this case, an evil CIA project director named Marissa Wiegler. She goes to the king's castle, kills a fake version of the king, and then escapes the castle into the "real world." Once there, the movie gets really great. The castle is an underground bunker in Morocco, and Hanna wanders through Morrocco and Spain, encountering a bunch of really surprising and beautiful set pieces, including women singing while they launder clothes in a river, and a group of Roma wearing Juicy Couture singing and dancing flamenco. She also hooks up with a quirky and wonderfully written family on vacation in their minibus, and sees what a good, albeit weird, family looks like. She gets her first kiss; not from the Spanish boys we expected, but rather from the English family's young daughter.

But then the fariy tale intrudes again. The evil king turns into a combination of evil witch and big bad wolf. Hanna careens through France and Germany and ends up confronting the baddies in Berlin. And this is where the movie turns to shit. Once she leaves the weird family, things get muddy. And, as my friend Jaime pointed out, once she starts using a computer to research her past, the movie completely falls apart.

This is because, once the English family gets left behind, she reenters the realm of fairy tale, but the filmmaker/s sort of lose their grip on the structure of the fairy tale. She discovers her true identity -- she's a genetically engineered supersoldier, of course. This shouldn't be a problem, because in a "modern" fairy tale, the demi-god/prince/ss would be a genetically engineered supersoldier. There's no such thing as gods or princesses or the supernatural in this story. And that's fine. BUT, the filmmakers -- or maybe just the writers -- let the genetically engineered supersoldier narrative take over the fairy tale, and those are two completely different (and not complementary) narrative structures. So the fairy tale goes to shit, as does the CIA supersoldier program story, because the latter wasn't how the story was set up.

The first half or more of the film is expansive, showing us how big and beautiful the real world is, and hinting at the stakes for this girl in trying to leave her fairy tale and enter reality. But the film narrows, in the latter part, to a simple confrontation between her and Marissa, and Marissa's defeat stops meaning anything broader for Hanna and for the audience members who identify with her as an everyman protagonist. Hanna, as would happen in a fairy tale, leaves all the people who have helped and nurtured her behind, but the baddies, as would happen in a spy tale, follow her and kill or hurt everyone who has helped her. Hanna never looks back, never even wonders what has happened to these people. This is made even more problematic by the revelation that she's been engineered to feel less fear, less pain, and less empathy. There's no redemption or expansion for her.

So I'm gonna try rewriting this to fix it and take this from a film that could have been great, to a film that would have been great. Wanna hear it? Here I go:

In the film Hanna doesn't return to see what happens to the people she left behind. In my version, she does. She turns around and goes back, one by one, to all the people who have helped her, thus retracing her steps back to the world of people and "reality."

We have three fairy tales being referenced here: The three little pigs, Hansel and Gretel, and Little Red Riding Hood. Once she leaves the English family, we're brought into these three, and reminded that she's on a quest through the scary forest of the CIA-ordered spy world. We also have three locations: her grandmother's house, a gingerbread house inhabited by a good gnome, and a fairy tale theme park, which was a really bad choice. But the three locations are important, because she's left four people, or sets of people, behind: the English family, the grandmother, the gnome/contact, and her father. The latter three, being part of the fairy tale world, die. But the English family's fate is left ambiguous. What she has to do is "bury" the dead, and save the family.

In the film she visits her grandmother's house -- where Marissa had invaded and killed her grandmother -- long before the climax, and the scene is completely thrown away. I'd rewrite this so that the grandmother's house is an actual house (the grandmother belongs to the fairy tale world) and not an apartment, and I'd show brief scenes of the grandmother in her house, getting the message from the hunter/father that Hanna is around and probably coming, reviewing the tapes from her daughter, cooking, cleaning, etc. But Hanna doesn't visit her house before the climax.

I'd also get rid of the climax in the playground. Marissa has sent three assassins after Hanna, and this could have been a smart choice: the three little pigs as bad guys going after the protagonist wolf, Hanna. Only ... the three little pigs is all about houses. They each have a house, and they run to each succeeding house until they find the one that will protect them. So the defeat of the evil three pigs has to involve a house, not an open air playground. There are two houses in this part of the movie: the grandmother's apartment and the gingerbread house the gnome/father's contact lives in. They should have put in a third one, maybe a CIA safe house, where Hanna traps the three pigs inside and kills them by blowing up the house. Or something, some inversion of the three pigs story.

In the process of this, her father gets killed, as he does in the film. In the film he distracts the pigs from her and she runs away and he kills the pigs and gets killed by Marissa. Bad choice. What should happen is that he distracts the pigs, she runs away, then he gets killed by the pigs. Hanna hears the gunshot that kills her father, but she doesn't go back in the film. In this one, the gunshot should be the turning point for her, the point where she makes the choice between being the killer/princess/demigod she was made to be, or the real person with a real family that the film keeps hinting she could be.

In my version, she stops, struggles with herself, and goes back to find her father. The pigs catch her there, and she traps them in the house and kills them, then makes some sort of burial/goodbye gesture to him. Then she returns to the gingerbread house where, in the film, the good gnome was tortured and killed for her sake. Marissa, in the guise of Hansel and Gretel's evil witch, should be waiting for her there. Hanna then traps Marissa in the oven; in this case, the only oven in the house is a waffle iron we see the gnome/contact using to make Hanna waffles. Maybe she burns Marissa with the waffle iron, or knocks her over the head with it. Then she makes some sort of settlement with the dead gnome/contact, and leaves without killing Marissa.

Next stop, grandmother's house. Of course, Marissa gets there before she does, and the grandmother is already dead. There, Hanna has a final confrontation with Marissa, kills her with an axe, as the big bad wolf must be killed, and finds her grandmother's body. Possibly, there's a final piece of the puzzle hidden in the grandmother's house, that Marissa tried to destroy by killing the grandmother, but Hanna finds it on the grandmother's body. She then "buries" the grandmother, symbolically.

I think when Hanna sneaks into her grandmother's house, she should hear the tail end of a phone conversation between Marissa and some agents who are holding the English family. In the film, these agents are the three pigs, but in my version there are other agents. Marissa tells them to get all the information they can out of the family and then dispose of them. After dealing with Marissa and the grandmother, Hanna has another struggle: her own personal issues have been dealt with, her demons killed, her questions answered, her family buried. Does she still have a responsibility?

And, of course, the answer is yes, because her quest here is to rejoin reality. So she races back to France to try to save the family, and does so, undramatically. My version of the film ends with them walking into a police station -- not a Hollywood police station, but a police station in a rural French town on a weekday, where nothing is going on and the police are doing whatever rural French police do to while away the time. Another lovely set piece.

And that's how Claire "C's" it.

March 10, 2011

Reading Update: Trigger Happy

Laurie Halse Anderson Speak

What a great book (despite the ending, which wrapped up a little too neatly)! A girl starts high school an outcast because of something she did over the summer: dropped by all of her friends, and incapable of speaking up for herself. It becomes clear [SPOILER], long before she addresses it, that she was raped at a party and feels disempowered and silenced as a result. Anderson does a fantastic job of layering in the symbolic and the subtle, exploring how time and growth can bring a person's power and voice back, and all the various ways in which teenage girls are silenced. I was particularly struck by how she shows girls being punished for speaking up: by their parents, teachers, classmates, and even their friends.

The protag starts out looking passive and victimized, but by the end of the book, you realize that perhaps she's the strongest character of all of these. Her instinct to be silent may be less the instinct of the eternal victim than that of the wounded predator who hides in her den to lick her wounds. When she comes roaring out at the end, it's not at all unexpected or inconsistent.

Also, I finally understand about trigger warnings. Speak was totally triggering me at the beginning, before Anderson started delving into the reasons behind the protag's ostracism. The bullying and ostracism itself was so upsetting to me that I was reading a page or so at a time and then pacing around my house (or the BART station, or wherever) yelling silently in my head at various characters in the book and memories in my head. Angry angry and frustrated. I finally realized I was doing it and managed to settle down and focus on the book -- but only by distancing myself from it somewhat.

My only quibble: the book is written in first person. It kind of (as in, very much) detracts from the power of the protag's silence when she is speaking to us throughout the book. If it had been in third person, particularly if it was sometimes close third and sometimes objective third, the times the protag spoke would have been infinitely more powerful, without the author losing the ability to get inside her head.

Otherwise, strongly recommended for teen girls and boys.

November 24, 2010

Exploratory Phase of Writing

When I teach writing, I'm constantly trying to get my students comfortable with the concept of exploratory writing. This is a part of the generative phase of writing, where you're producing a body of text which will become the subject of the other half of writing: revision.

Exploratory writing is where all your plans have broken down or been fulfilled; you've written whatever parts of the story you intended to write and now have to move forward without plans. Or else, if you're an obsessive outliner, you've tried to fulfill your plans, but the sketchy story you had in your head doesn't work out so well when you try to make rounded characters perform it. Or you're writing an unplanned story entirely, inspired by some sort of trigger or idea, and you're letting it unspool organically. Whatever way, you're in unmapped territory, and you don't know where you're going in the immediate future, and you don't know what will, much less what should, happen now.

This is a moment where you have to just let yourself go. You can't start making new plans. You can do research to make you more comfortable with the situation, but there comes a moment when you have to break off the research and just write. And that writing has to be open and experimental, because, as we just noted, you don't know what has to happen.

What happens for me in this phase is that I wander all over the place. I see a shiny thing, and I hare off in that direction, talk about it for a while, examine it, then eventually lose interest or turn it into something else. I'll see another shiny thing, and run off after that, often in exactly the opposite direction, and do what I need to with that. I let my interest level determine my course. Often an idea will lead me to the logical next idea, but the logical next idea isn't as interesting as the original idea. When I get bored, I stop going in that direction and head off in another one.

The goal of all of this is to hit the fire lode, the vein of liquid heat that consumes your conscious mind and takes you off in the right direction, the direction that will make your story amazing for you to write and for your readers to read. You don't always hit the motherlode. Sometimes you only find, so to speak, placer nuggest of fire, and you have to build your story around small, bright moments, knowing that this is a "good" story, but not a "brilliant" one -- by your own standards, that is. ;)

You can see it in my story "Vacation," where the first part of the story is told in short episodes that explore the new world, and the protagonist's relationship to it. This is all exploratory, and originally included a lot more exploratory stuff: how the women in this new world recreate government, how the media changes, etc. But once I hit the scene on the basketball court where the young boy disappeared, I took off. I knew that this was the direction the story needed to go in, and when I went back and revised, I cut out all the exploratory stuff that didn't contribute either to this part of the world, or do development of the protagonist's capacity to do what she does. I left the first part deliberately sketchy and exploratory, because I felt it set up the somewhat choppy rhythm of the story -- which isn't plot and action-heavy, but rather centers around a moment of transformation which proceeds from mosaic emotional logic rather than a causal chain.

Do this enough and you can see the different phases of writing in another writer's work as well. When I started being able to see this more clearly in the work I was reading, it inspired me to want to hide my tracks better. ;)

I'm going on about this right now because I'm in an exploratory phase right now with da nobble. And I'm not comfortable with it. I've just started year nine of work on da nobble (holy shit!) and thought I had left generative work behind me and was just going to revision. But I've hit a very important chapter that just wasn't working. I've rewritten this chapter twice, and have to rewrite it again now. And I'm having to generate. The research I did got me through an important scene, but now I'm dealing with the aftermath of that scene and I have no idea what happens now. Argh!

Now I just have to let-go-let-it-flow. I hate that shit! It's much easier telling my students to do it than doing it myself. I think part of the problem is that I'm out of practice. But part of it is certainly that I resent having to go back into exploratory on a novel that I've been working on for 8 years and have two finished drafts of. I don't feel starry-eyed and excited and in that fresh phase. I feel jaded and worn out. Committed, but worn out, like eight years into a rocky but loving marriage.

Sigh.

October 15, 2010

Reading Update: Future Feminists of America

Suzy McKee Charnas The Conqueror's Daughter

So I finally finished the Holdfast Chronicles, with Charnas' fourth novel in the series, The Conqueror's Daughter. In this installment, Sorrel, conqueror Alldera's daughter from her rape by either Eykar Bek or Servan d'Layo, is all grown up and still dissatisfied with her perceived abandonment by her blood mother. (Alldera had, of course, in the previous novel, taken all the formerly enslaved free fems and returned to Holdfast, conquering the place and enslaving all the men.) Of course Sorrel's favorite sharemother, Sheel, has also taken off to see what life is like in Holdfast, and stayed.

Sheel much to the anger of the free fems, had sent a pregnant Newfree back to the Riding women of the plains, intending the unborn child to be raised on the plains like Sorrel was. Instead, the child turns out to be a boy, who is rejected by the women, and then rejected by his age cohort as well. Sorrel, feeling a kinship with him, takes over his care and becomes his mother and, fearing for his life as he grows older, takes him back to Holdfast looking for a better life for him. She's also motivated by a desire to see her two mothers again, to resolve her issues, and, of course, by the fact that she can't clone herself the way the Riding Women can.

The book is both satisfying and unsatisfying. Satisfying because Charnas continues to complicate the situation she developed in the first three books, breaking all the certainties the characters so confidently professed in earlier periods, and creating a rich sense of reality in this world. Unsatisfying because a novel -- a fiction -- can only take so much complexity, before it devolves into the chaos of actual reality. Novels aren't supposed to reflect real reality. Novels are a tool to introduce a kind of order to life so that we can understand it. Narrative is an ordering device. If reality is ultimately chaotic and meaningless, our desire and purpose in life as human beings is to wrest order and meaning from it. That's why we write -- and read -- novels.

So novels have to create an illusion of a certain amount of life's chaos and randomness, as well as an illusion of the patterns and flow of life, to convince us that we are looking at a reasonable facsimile of reality. If there's no reality in the fiction, then the fiction has nothing to say about reality.

But this "realism" can go too far. It can cause the novel to lose cohesion and, more importantly, to lose meaning, and then the purpose of the novel is lost. Charnas succumbs to the temptation to mirror the reality of a small community of a few hundred, where everyone knows everyone, and everyone has an important role and voice. She has, simply, too many important and active characters in the novel to keep track of them. The stream forward of the novel isn't strong enough; the novel's energy becomes too dispersed among too many points of view and too many active figures. I realize that this is how things actually work in real life; and Charnas has expressed her disdain for the simplifying action of storytelling very clearly in the deceitful and manipulative character of the storyteller Daya. But it doesn't work in a story; stories have to simplify to have any power. And you can see that principle at work in her previous three novels, all of which had many fewer active characters than The Conqueror's Daughter.

But she does give us a relatively satisfying -- if a bit unrealistic -- climax, and a very satisfying what-happened-to-them roundup of all the major characters. And she had the smarts -- or the talent, Delany says that writers underestimate their talent and overestimate their intelligence -- to make the clone-y Riding Women literally ride off to the West and into legend, in favor of a new, and more just, female/male society.

This is a huge lesson to me, in da nobble, because I have a lot of characters. I've already started cutting out the medium-sized characters, combining supporting characters so that I don't have too many of them, and folding functions performed by supporting characters back into the main characters. The supporting characters need to fill out the world of people, add richness, and perform certain actions that move the story along. But if there are too many of them, they start to detract from all of this. And I'm learning that it's important to lay distinctly different emphasis on main, secondary, and background characters: not to skimp on characterization for lesser characters, but simply to give them less prominence, and less to do, so the reader's head isn't too cluttered with figures to follow the most important movements.

So, all talk of satisfying/unsatisfying aside, this series, the writing and the project overall, is just several cuts above most of what I usually read in terms of writing, thought, intelligence, vision, and ambition. My gratitude goes to the author for attempting -- and mostly achieving -- something more and better, and actually great. And for teaching me more important lessons, both negative and positive.

August 28, 2010

Reading Update: More Feminist Skiffy and Readin' 'Bout Writin'

Suzy McKee Charnas Motherlines

John Gardner On Becoming a Novelist

Motherlines is the second in Charnas' Holdfast Chronicles, about a post-apocalyptic future in which men have blamed the apocalypse on women and keep them in abject slavery. The first was mostly about the men, and was partly written to underline how completely women were rubbed out of the culture (although it was very reminiscent of Ancient Greece and Rome.) The second is entirely about the women who live without men: the Mares and the Fems.

The Mares are horse-riding plains tribes, like American Indians, who were in the past genetically altered to clone themselves "naturally." The Fems are runaway slaves from Holdfast. The protagonist is Alldera, a runaway slave who arrives pregnant and is therefore taken in by the Mares, who want to start a new bloodline, or "motherline," with the child. She doesn't fit in and then wanders over to the Fems, where she finds a less brutal version of the master/slave dynamic of Holdfast being recreated.

Well done so far. I'm looking forward to reading the other two books in the series.

The novel is basically about how Alldera reconciles the two groups in her own mind and also literally.

The Gardner book is, for me right now, writing porn. I find this kind of reading about myself and the work I do or want to do, very wish-fulfilling and satisfying. I'm also learning stuff, but mostly about how to articulate these things for my teaching, not so much about how to write. But Gardner does have some interesting ideas about writer's block that could end up being useful.

June 23, 2009

Creating Writers: MFA Industrial Complex

Via Barb, this article in the New Yorker, by Louis Menand, about the creative writing program.

One thing I've been realizing lately -- as I've been tamping down temptation to apply to a creative writing PhD program, despite my contempt for, even hatred of, creative writing programs -- is what the real purpose of a creative writing workshop is. In the past I've been too caught up in my anger at the workshop's uselessness to notice that the point of the workshop is not what happens in the workshop, but the existence of the workshop in whatever form. The lack of a universal program or vocabulary or set of concepts isn't the point. The existence of the workshop is the point.

Which is all by way of saying that the reason we have workshops is to give apprentice writers the structure to write.

That sounds simple, but it's immensely complex. When I was in my MFA program, I seemed to write enormous amounts (I estimated that in 3.5 years I probably spent about 5000 hours writing.) Being able to -- simply and easily and without thinking or agonizing -- sit down and write appeared natural and effortless. It has now been 3.5 years since I graduated, and the enormous difficulty I've had just sitting down and writing regularly has been ... instructive.

The MFA program is compelling; i.e. it compels you to follow its dictates. You've paid for it, you've applied for it, people are expecting things of you, and you must deliver. It is also immutable: it is what it is and it's up to you to fit yourself to it or get off the pot. So -- in subtle and blatant ways -- you reshape your life around the MFA program. You don't necessarily notice yourself doing this ... particularly if you're a single woman with no children who is changing jobs and apartments (for separate reasons) right around the time she starts school, as I was. But you do it.

You organize so that you have time to do your homework (which is writing). You organize so that you have time to do your reading for class. You organize traveling time to and from classes. And you find, slowly or quickly, ways to structure your working day so that the thought that goes into work doesn't interfere with the thought that goes into reading and writing. In doing so, you organize your world so that you can think about writing, or write, throughout most (or the majority) of your waking hours ... not to mention your sleeping ones.

My living/working situation during my MFA program was a perfect storm for writing. Everything I did after my MFA program was -- unintentionally -- a perfect storm of cluelessness. I took myself out of the Bay Area and away from any friends, support network, or artists community for six months, basically situating myself in a cultural and social desert for a half year, and somehow expected myself to be able to produce. I didn't produce.

When I returned, I moved to the East Bay, where my social and professional network wasn't, thereby ensuring that I wasn't surrounded by the inspiring presence of other people doing creative work. I took on a full-time office job that had nothing to do with arts or creativity, in a sector that had nothing to do with arts or creativity, thereby ensuring that the largest portion of my day was spent thinking about anything but writing, and doing everything but writing. I also, in the name of freeing up more time to write, cut myself off from most of my volunteerism and freelance work in creative and arts organizations, thereby ensuring that I had no easy and natural contact to creative communities, except what I cobbled together, meeting by meeting, through my social life.

My life in the 3 years after graduating from my MFA program was basically the opposite of an MFA program ... and the opposite of a writing life. And I did not write.

The one aspect of my former writing life that I could have slipped easily and unobtrusively into my nonwriting life was a weekly or monthly writing group or workshop. I had many opportunities to join a workshop, and did not: becausse of my contempt for workshops and the writing they produce, because of my need for a long break from group dynamics, after seven solid years of working in creative and cultural collectives and seeing those pitfalls firsthand. I was looking, as I said above, at what happened within a workshop. I wasn't looking at what happens around a workshop.

And what happens around a workshop is very simply that you write around a workshop. It gets you writing. It gets you to write.

MFA programs can't work without workshops because, for people to learn to write, they have to actually be writing and have recent writing to talk about. So the MFA programs have to have a way to ensure that everyone is actually doing constant, steady writing. Otherwise the discussions about writing will be silly and hollow.

But it's more than that. Because, more than anything, you learn about writing in an MFA program because you spend the whole time writing. Enormous amounts, in fact. Even if all your teachers are assholes and idiots, all your classmates are cretins, you'll still learn a lot from doing so much writing (and reading.) And the MFA program has to make sure you're doing that.

So a few conclusions:

  • MFA programs are still the best way we have to make sure that people who want to become writers shut the fuck up, sit down, and spend a couple, three years writing a lot. That means something very important.

  • Creative writing workshops are a great opportunity to do something cool with learning, but they don't have to take that opportunity. Because the classroom opportunity is not the point of the workshop: the outside-the-classroom coercion is the point.

  • If almost all writing -- that is, almost all writers -- come through creative writing programs, that simply means that we've found a really effective, regularized, and reliable way of creating writers. If the workshop seems a ridiculously simple way of conquering American letters, all I have to say is that it so obviously works that we need to stop yammering about it at that level. (And by that I mean that I have to stop yammering about it at that level.)

  • As Barb points out, the discussion around MFA programs loves to ignore the other structures and communities writers develop for themselves. I tend to think, based on nothing but anecdotal, personal evidence, that the writers who continue to write after their MFA programs are over, are the ones who use the MFA program to learn how to set up their lives to facilitate writing. They can do this by recreating the structure of their lives during the MFA, after the MFA. They can do this by connecting with a community in the program and keeping that community together after the program. Or they can do it by using MFA certification to join academia and make The Writing Life their paying job. However they do it, the MFA offers tools to create The Writing Life, which tools then become invisible after the MFA program is over.

    Writers like myself -- who indulged in magical thinking about MFA programs or MFA periods as times when The Writing Just Flowed like manna and ambrosia, and other things that rain from heaven without effort on the part of recipients -- are left gasping for air on the shore, refusing to just jump back into the water a few inches away. That is to say: I am mixing metaphors. That is to say: we stop writing when the MFA is over.

  • I need to get myself a writers group. Stat.

September 02, 2008

Naomi Novik Is The Best Writer Working Today

Hyperbole? Absolutely. And I really mean: one of the best writers. And I know very few of you will agree with me. And I don't care.

I grabbed Victory of Eagles when it first came out and finished it in one day. I am humbled, truly. And  I don't say that easily.

I am not overtaxed with humility, despite the purity of my lack of literary accomplishment ... as anyone who reads this blog with regularity knows. I don't claim--or feel--humility when I read most of the "literary" works most heralded as "genius" by the snob-squawkers. I applaud artistic ambition, the more so when it is at least somewhat achieved. But too many of the most praised novels aren't truly ambitious: achieving their ambitions is little more than a matter of maintaining a less-than-natural style without seams, producing a consistent melancholic mood, completing an emotional arc that produces catharsis without sullying itself with an apparent plotline, and proving the ultimate spiritual beauty and likability of their autobiographic protagonists.

What's lacking among these writers is:

  1. energy: it seems as if lit fic writers are mostly children of older mothers, born from aging ova that lack vitality ... which would also make sense given the fact that they have so much free time on their hands to write worthless stuff: their mothers postponed conception until they had lots of income (yes, I'm joking, bitterly).
  2. the possession of a real pushy story that insists on being told: you'd be shocked--SHOCKED--at the number of idiots in creative writing programs who complain in public among other writers that they "don't know how to finish a story"or "have trouble knowing what happens next" or "can't see very far into the story" when they begin and trust to their ... whatever (muse? talent? god forbid: imagination?) to supply material as they go along. I can think of no more direct way to say "I have no real story to tell." This also explains why their "stories" are all about people exactly like them in situations exactly like theirs: it's not their imaginations supplying them with material, it's their lives.
  3. balance: the ability to make every element of the story serve the story, each in its proper measure, rather than placing undue emphasis on one element (say, "poetic" language) to the detriment of other elements (say, imagination, plot, velocity).

Naomi Novik has all of these in spades. On top of that, she's a great writer because she does the following:

  • Fits her writing tactics and style to the purpose of her writing project
  • Balances the different modes of writing--action, description, exposition, dialogue, internal monologue, image and metaphor--relying on none to the exclusion of any others, and making all vivid, fresh, and fully integrated. This is to say that nothing she does draws attention to itself as writing; it's all there in the service of the story, and you can only see what good writing it is if you pull yourself out of suspension. (Yes, I already mentioned this above, I'm restating it slightly differently here. Get over it.)

  • Employs conciseness, which is neither economy, density, nor understatement, but rather precision (if precision was about providing meat as well as being exact.) Look at this one-paragraph battle scene:

"Signal the attack," Laurence said, and Temeraire roaring plummeted with the rest; the Chevaliers panicked and flung themselves aloft, instinctively. One leapt only to meet Maximus's full weight upon her back, and bellowing dreadfully was driven down, straight down, into the ground again, and with a snapping crack went silent. Maximus staggered off and shook himself, dazed by the impact; she did not move, and her captain crying her name flung himself heedless across the field toward her.

Novik's a bit profligate with the semicolons and stingy with the commas (and somesnob versed in "should-be's" would call her out for excessive adverbiage), but this is a perfect scene otherwise. In one sentence (that should have been punctuated as two) we see the movement of the attackers down, and the defenders up. We see a vivid kill, and you don't need to know that Maximus is a heavyweight to get how the deed is done. You hear the bellowing of the dragon and know that it was her spine that was snapped. You see the whole story of her relationship with her captain in the clause that has him crying her name, and flinging himself after her, heedless (ly?).

I can scarcely think of another writer that wouldn't be betrayed by grandstanding impulse--or sheer, unacknowledged awkwardness--into stopping the action and giving us a brief glimpse inside the head of the bereft enemy captain, or at least having Laurence internally monologuing about what the captain must be feeling. Novik only gives us two more images of him in later pages, one of him being led away from the dragon, weeping, and the other of his hands bound to a stake in the ground. That's all we need for a minor character whose main purpose is to give texture to the corps' exploits in this part of the novel, and create emotional complexity around their very ethically compromised mission.

  • Permits the necessities of plot to drive the action, and the necessities of action to drive the plot. In other words, she doesn't force nifty scenes onto the book, or measure out her structure carefully. What happens is organic, and yet the shape of the whole is harmonious, part flowing into part.
  • Over the course of the series she allows the situation of her characters to become increasingly ethically compromised ... and allows them, increasingly, to see it. This is true to life and false to most fiction: our conscience troubles increase the older we get, though so does our ability to ignore or manage our guilt. Temeraire and Laurence are heroes because they don't merely manage their guilt; they act upon their consciences. In fact, we get a long sequence in Victory of Eagles in which Laurence does simply manage his guilt, and it becomes clear that it is Temeraire's presence in his life that forces him to deal with his conscience and behave heroically. Sure, this is satisfying--heroism is always satisfying--but the way Novik deals with it is above all interesting, and she's willing to risk some of Laurence's stature to make him a more interesting hero.
  • Continues to be a master of characterization. All of the above weave in together, of course, and all contribute strongly to the characterization, which is perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this series. The characters are consistent, but consistent in the way that people are consistent: moods take them, the vagaries of life begin to weigh on them. They behave in ways recognizable to their characters, but over time, the accumulated burden of their experience begins to warp their characters into new shapes, and much of their struggle--as is our own--is to find their way back to the best parts of themselves. Victory of Eagles is, more than anything, about this struggle in the adult Laurence. It is also about the struggle in the adolescent Temeraire to achieve adulthood and take on the mantle of leadership. He is both helped and hindered by Laurence's terrible, and often selfish, conflict in this book.

I believe I've written and talked before about the power that speculative fiction can bring to representations of reality. It's the power of diagonality: not a mirror reflection but a distorted reflection; an image created moving diagonally out of mimetic reality into a world that reflects ours by changing important things. The paradox is that this diagonal reality is only effective if its creator commits to it completely, commits to making the illusion of its separate reality complete.

There is no real relationship in our reality like the captain/dragon relationship in the Temeraire series. It is a marriage, a best-friendship, a lover configuration, a parent/child relationship, a dog/master, ship/captain, actor/manager, warrior/quartermaster relationship. It is this relationship, and not the existence of dragons, that is the biggest difference between Temeraire's world and ours. And yet, the existence of this complex and unique relationship illuminates all of our relationships. It's the sort of friendship we all desperately hope for ... and have no chance of acquiring; there are no people as loyal and strong as dragons, no beings whose friendship can make us more loyal and strong than we humans naturally are.

This potential for the perfect relationship is thrown into a world only slightly better, and more honorable, than our own. (The secondary characters tend to have too much consistency, too little complexity, but that's as it must be.) The perfect relationship is thrown into war and left to make its way through the impossible ethical binds that war, and the world in general, creates. And it is only a perfect relationship that can show us so clearly the way these slings and arrows strain and distort love, loyalty, and responsibility.

Okay, enough writing. Loves it. That's all.

August 31, 2008

Reading Update

Just finished Jonathan Stroud's first Bartimaeus book The Amulet of Samarkand and immediately ran out to buy the other two.

A perfect book of its kind: perfectly structured, with the desired surprising yet well set up and foreshadowed ending. A couple of things that challenged me here: it took a long time--perhaps too long--for the protagonist to become sympathetic. An initial scene in which the protag as a very young child is deliberately terrified by his tutor goes a long way towards making him sympathetic, but his slightly older self is so unlikeable that I start to lose heat for him almost immediately. I was nearly cold by the time he started behaving ... uh ... well? again. I'm not sure this was a bad thing.

The second thing was that Stroud really doesn't seem to like the literary convention that shows the reader certain minor dangers--risks--the protag is running, and then lets the protag off the hook. For example: the protag is sneaking into a building and there are sentries. The narrator points out how observant the sentries are yet, by the skin of his teeth, the protag gets past them without being noticed. Seen it a million times, right?

Stroud doesn't do that. Every risk his characters run pays off in trouble. If there are observant sentries, they will observe the protag and he'll reap consequences sooner or later. Not a single pistol on the mantelpiece doesn't get discharged. This was cool at first: ratcheted up the tension and dealt with that niggling feeling I've always had that authors ran out of inspiration or just couldn't keep the pace up and that's the only reason why their protags got away with so much.

But the fact is, not EVERY risk is going to end badly for the risk taker. If you read stories of real-life crime and spying, the second thing you'll notice (the first is that no real-life stories are well-structured or easy to get your head around) is that people get away with stuff not because they're super smart and competent, but because other people are easy to fool and most mistakes don't get caught. So ultimately, this tactic of Strouds starts to wear.

But overall, the best post-Harry Potter jones-assuager I've read so far. Can't wait to get to the others.

August 27, 2008

Reading Update and Writing Lessons

So I've just completed two really good books. Not great books. Really good books. Both I should have read in 2004.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I bought this when it was all the rage and expected a solid fantasy and didn't get it. At the time, it felt really really slow to me and I got bored about 100 pages in and put it down. Then recently I was reading a blog post that mentioned something interesting about it (have forgotten what) and decided to go back and see if I could get a little further into it.

What a difference! Since I knew what to expect this time the book motored along briskly. It wasn't fast, but it certainly wasn't slow. In fact, the pacing was perfect. I detected notes of Dickens, Thackeray, Tolstoi, and of course, Spenser. Not in the language or in the "themes" (whatever those are), but rather in the structure of portions of the story. That's the kind of literary allusion I can deal with.

Clarke uses a tactic that I'm using in da nobble, which is putting some essential information into the footnotes. And also, letting the spillover from her fertile imagination reside there. It's a fake-out: you think you don't have to read the footnotes but you actually do. But it's also a really effective way of including infodumps, and an even more effective way of including important world-building perspectives that don't fit within the flow of the narrative. If these were intruded, even as is, into the main text the reader would process it differently, but as footnotes, these pieces get reserved--and highlighted--as off-flow text.

The one problem with this is that she didn't set up a conceit that allowed for footnotes. There were a few places in the book where she compared Strange and Norrell's time with "today." But she never clarified what day "today" was or who was writing those thoughts from what perspective. And most of the book read as a novel, not as a history; there was no explanation for how a person could know what these "historical" figures thought or experienced when they were alone. I think this was a weakness, but a minor one.

The book's main weakness SPOILER was that, at the end, the Raven King appeared to be nearly omnipotent, like a neglectful god. This took all of the interest out of the character of the Raven King and also out of what role he was playing in the drama. He was much more interesting as a man with special powers, not as a daddy figure who realized his kids had gotten themselves into a mess and reached out a hand at the end to fix the mess. First of all: deus ex machina = boring. Secondly, the kids got themselves into the mess and it would only be interesting if they got themselves out of it.

The book was powerful because the Raven King remained vague, but popped out clearly in moments making it obvious that he was a man, albeit a very powerful one. The book's power also came from the choices the main characters made. To have the climax drive by one part accident and one part deus ex machina was a shift away from what the book had been saying about humans all along.

Writing lessons:

  • Leave what's vague, vague. Not everything has to be clarified, particularly not the mysteries the characters live by.
  • The mechanics of a character's movement through the events of the plot (i.e. if by choices, deliberate action, or accident) must stay consistent. If the mechanics change simply for the climax/resolution, that's cheating.
  • The climax/resolution must be compressed, sped up, slightly, or else intensified in some way. You can't be in the middle of the climax and not know that this is the climax or, well, you know. Bummer.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

It's almost pointless to compare this to Catherine Valente's Orphan's Tales. They have only one thing in common and that's the nested stories tactic. But done so completely differently. My complaint about Valente is that she didn't give us enough of each nested story to make us (me) care enough about it to come back to it. She gave us almost no characterization so I didn't care about the characters either. Can't make either of those complaints about Mitchell.

Mitchell is brilliant in his ability to shift voice, genre, pacing, structure from story to story. A virtuoso performance. Something to learn from because, while I'm not doing exactly the same thing in da nobble, I am playing with different voices, and different ways of structuring narrative in different contexts.

The big fault here is that the stories don't connect very strongly, so the book doesn't really feel like an integral whole. The "themes" or more likely, inquiries Mitchell is pursuing are so tenuously linked across the different sections that the books can't be said to be about anything in particular. SPOILER Mitchell recognizes this and even hedges his bets by having his composer character--whose masterpiece is the "Cloud Atlas Sextet," a piece with six completely different, but nested themes--explain that the piece (a blueprint for the book's six nested stories) isn't supposed to make direct sense.

Mitchell doesn't signal the reader properly on this one. Part of the purpose of post-structuralist, fragmented prose is that the fragmentation of the text itself signals the reader's mind to depart from the order of ordinary narrative flow. The reader's mind is therefore scrambling for order and making connections between fragments that may or may not exist. The mind is open to diagonal, multilateral, and backwards-flowing links.

Mitchell, on the other hand, gives us too much story here for our minds not to fall in--settle in--with the order of the narrative. So our minds are not primed to make connections, but rather lulled into allowing the author to make the connections for us. If the stories, each broken off at a crucial moment, were left broken off, then, in spite of the clear narrative direction of each, we'd be left casting about for connections. But instead, Mitchell goes back and re-nests the stories on the other side so that each narrative arc is completed. The satisfaction of completing a narrative arc makes it almost impossible to connect the text with another text outside of it, especially when that text is of a different narrative stamp. Every time I try to think about it, my brain slams the door.

If this was his intention then, great, but it's a one-liner: "See? Narrative is coercive. Nyah nyah." If this was not his intention, somebody's gonna have to tell me what was. He gave a virtuoso writing performance, at the expense of the greatness of the novel as a whole. I'll tell you what: for the first half of the read, I was indignant that the jacket said that this was shortlisted for the Man Booker, rather than the winner. For the second half, I increasingly agreed with the jury.

Writing Lesson: If you're telling a story, or pursing an inquiry (and I am, both, in da nobble) then make the connections strong. Be clear with yourself what you're trying to do, and give the reader enough to understand this, too. You can do all this and still give structural food for thought.

Altogether an exciting reading week. Yeah.

July 07, 2008

These Kids Today

The aesthetic of choice these days is the aesthetic of exploratory excess. It sets before the reader a world featured as a swirl of competing energies and stimuli; it searches patterns, connections, instances of psychological complexity. The old gestural muteness won't play in these halls.

To some degree, of course, this is a necessary and healthy compensation—fiction suddenly feels enfranchised again. With a new tolerance for ramified expression come new subjects, new perspectives. The dense fabric of contemporary life—its changed ways of doing things, of interacting—is brought more clearly into view. The evolving cultures of science and technology become available, as do more of the vagaries of our destabilized modes of living. Carver's tamped-down narration, guiding us from streetlamp to barstool to sparsely furnished apartment, could never hope to take in the burgeoning culture of virtual simulation (Powers), the domains of science (Goldstein), the endlessly branching nuances of psychological self-awareness (Antrim, Foster Wallace, Eggers), or indeed, scarcely anything of the noun-deprived and process-worshipping way we now conduct our lives.

What is sacrificed, perhaps, is a certain emotional force. Thrilling and dark and expansive as so many of these new expressions are, they have a hard time generating a strong emotional charge. The language, mental and nuanced—like the prose structure itself—often serves a bemusedly ironic sensibility; life is more spectated than suffered. When tragedy does occur, it is more often than not given a black-comedic inflection—as in works by Wallace, Antrim, Eggers, and their ilk—not because the authors can't do powerful conflict and emotion, necessarily, but because the hyperconscious self-reflexiveness of their style is hard to turn off. The seductive cerebral-ironic style, which allows so much, doesn't seem to permit the shift to a full frontal seriousness.

---Sven Birkerts, "Carver's Last Stand" in the Atlantic Online

July 06, 2008

Book Throwin' Update

Thank Og somebody said it so that I don't have to.

After the seemingly universal lovefest for Valente's Orphan's Tales, and owing to the fact that I got In the Night Garden as a very sweet present from badgerbag, plus the fact that I never finished it because the tenth time I threw the book across the room it got badly injured and I had to take it to the book hospital and leave it there forever and never come back ... well, I didn't have the heart, and by that I mean the balls, to say how much I didn't like (i.e. hated) that book. (sorry, badge! Let's still have dinner and talk about it!)

It wasn't just the overheated, nonsensical "lyricism," which vito_excalibur mentions here. It's the fact that she keeps starting stories and never seems to finish them. Everyone's got a limit for nested stories and she surpassed mine with a vengeance. Because of the cheap language, I didn't care about the first characters in the first place. And layering character after situation, after story, after character on top of them just made me forget them only to be reminded of how much I didn't care about them when they came back.

I get what she was trying to do, but if your reader leaves the room before you do it, can it really be said to be done? (That was the sound of one hand clapped to a forehead.)

Plus, I love that vito_excalibur is quoting "A Reader's Manifesto". Everybody needs to read that whole fucking thing right now. When I read it a few years back, I couldn't believe that Myers had managed to attack every lit writer that I had serious isshooz with: McCarthy, Proulx, Delillo, Auster. Gotta love that.

Plus, this lolcats is hysterical:

Oscarwao

In other news, I devoured J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians and take back everything I thought about how boring Coetzee must be if everyone is always on about how great he is. The deal with him is sheer density of storytelling. Barbarians is a short novel, but he covers a lot of ground simply because he doesn't waste words thinking or meditating out loud. When a character thinks something, Coetzee states that thought in a sentence or two and moves on. Yet, the whole novel gives a very slow, meditative mood. I haven't quite figured out how he does it, but it's a huge writing lesson for me for when I go back in and revise da nobble.

Speaking of which, I have three letters to catch up on today. Off to the races ...

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