Thursday, December 20, 2007

Being Versus Telling

So I just started reading Book II of the Pullman trilogy His Dark Materials, which begins with The Golden Compass. Right away, I stumble over what is one of Pullman's biggest faults. For me personally, it's a huge problem. It's enough to make me fall completely out of his stories, especially when it happens during an important plot scene, which it does often enough in a Pullman tale. (In fact, you could say that the entire plot of the first novel was predicated on this error.)

Basically, Pullman ignores his characters. He creates characters and writes about them from a distance, as if he were merely reciting the text of some play rather than being an actual actor who dons the makeup, dress, and physical demeanor and then speaks and acts as if he were the character.

Here's an example of what I mean: The story begins with a boy searching an old abandoned house from top to bottom for some special notebook that contains a raft of mysterious letters, which, once he finds it, will reveal tons of answers to questions that have dogged the boy for many years. I mean really HUGE questions, like, "Who is/was my father? Why was he so special? What happened to him? Why are my mother and I being chased by dangerous, bad people? Who are they?" And so on. So he finds the tablet and gets away from the bad guys, then by some miracle he ends up in a mysterious paradise where he has literally tons of time to do nothing.

We all know what he will do next, right? He'll do what any other boy, man, girl, woman, or space alien would do. He'll tear open the tablet and read the contents voraciously.

Wrong. He never opens the tablet.

Yes, he's dying to find out what's inside. Yes, he has waited his whole life to find out these answers. But he DOESN'T OPEN THE TABLET! Instead, he meets a mysterious girl and they talk. Then they eat dinner. Then they make plans to go on a trip. Then he says that he really wants to know what's inside the tablet, gee whiz, but instead he'll LEAVE IT BEHIND! It's safe here, he says, so he'll just read it when he comes back. Off they go, tra-la-la!

At this point I say something like "J. F. C.!" I drop the book on the table, and I swear I won't finish it. (I probably will.)

Note to self: If a character "wants" to do something, either let him do it and then find a way to make the plot work around it, or change the precipitating events so that the character no longer has any real knowledge of or opportunity to do that thing, or change the character entirely. But never, NEVER, force a character to do something stupid and obnoxious just because it's expedient for the plot.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Cheers to Pullman of The Golden Compass Fame

My respect for Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass, inched up a bit after reading an interview in which he addresses the controversy surrounding the film.
"So he won't argue back?" [the interviewer asks.] [Pullman answers,] "It's a foolish thing for the teller of a story to answer critics. If you're putting forward an argument, you can argue back and demonstrate why your argument is better than theirs. But if someone doesn't like a story you've written, what are you going to say? 'Well, you should'?"
How incredibly rare is that?! For once an author doesn't say the usual: "I apologize for any offense I might have caused. I respect everyone's point of view, and I'm not trying to say that my ideas are better than anyone elses." Blah, blah, blah.

Congratulations, Mr. Pullman, for having a spine.

On a separate but related note, I did enjoy reading The Golden Compass, more or less. I liked the swift and steady beat of the story, although I felt like it suffered from being a bit too swift in places. I'm told by a writer friend of mine that such a fast pace might be appropriate for a young audience. Could be.

Here's a funny coincidence: I walked out of the bookstore with two books in my hands, Milton's Paradise Lost and Pullman's The Golden Compass. I headed straight to a nearby coffee shop and set about trying to decide which of the two I would read first. Imagine my surprise when I read in the introduction to The Golden Compass that it happens to be Pullman's answer to Paradise Lost. Fate must have guided my hands. (Just kidding.)

Monday, November 26, 2007

Strand 80 Winners

I blogged recently about a contest at the Strand Bookstore in New York City. If you recall, the top 80 books to be named as favorites by customers would be featured at the front of the store, and certain prizes were to be given away.

The results are in:

1. To Kill a Mockingbird
2. Pride and Prejudice
3. Great Gatsby
4. Catcher in the Rye
5. Atlas Shrugged
6. The Fountainhead
7. Lord of the Rings
8. One Hundred Years of Solitude (Marquez)
9. Jane Eyre
10. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
11. Lolita
12. 1984
13. On the Road (Kerouac)
14. Gone With the Wind
15. Anna Karenina
16. Brothers Karamazov
17. Crime and Punishment

To see the rest, go to Strand's website.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Alert: Mcgonagall Has a Fetish for Dragon Hide

I don't agree with everything in this article from the Dallas News, Harry Potter and the Author Who Wouldn't Shut Up, but I agree with the basic intent of it.

Creativity is only half the job of an author; selectivity is the other half.

So you made your choices, Ms. Rowling. They were tough choices. Some of them you may even regret. Now you have to do what all authors do: live with those choices. That's your job. Or, if you just can't endure having all of those morbid darlings locked up inside of you, how about writing another book? I'm sure you'd find a hungry audience.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

World Building

If you are at all familiar with fantasy literature, then you know what it means to be a world builder. Some authors decide to be builders — Tolkien, Piers Anthony, Anne McGaffrey — while others may not — Neil Gaiman, Ann Rice, and J.K. Rowlings. Since all of these authors project a fantastical metaphysics, a strange and unique world, then the term world building must imply something more.

It basically means creating a complete and convincing alternate universe. Notice I didn't say merely alternate reality, but alternate universe. Turning a taxicab driver into a warlock does not an alternate universe make. Instead, try creating Middle Earth, populating it with all sorts of species of men and animals, creating distinct languages for some of them, writing poetry in those languages, writing a history of all the peoples in that world, and so on. If you have ever seen The Silmarillion, you will know that Tolkien took world building to the maximum.

I have enjoyed more than a few alternate universes in my day, but I never expected to create one myself. In fact, at one time I meant not to. It seemed to me that so much indulgence in fantastic details must be motivated by love of fantasy for fantasy's sake. Well, as Bilbo Baggins might tell you, some things don't turn out the way we expect them to. I'm now world building. Here's what happened.

I aim to write a novel that begins during the Spanish Inquisition. However, I don't want to write about the actual Spanish Inquisition. Doing so would require historical writing, which doesn't interest me at all. I simply want the cultural backdrop for my story to be about mixing religion and politics, not to mention race/family and state — in other words, tribalism — in all cultures in all times, and I'd like to do so without spending the next ten years of my life researching details about old, dead Catholics.

Fantasy to the rescue.

So I dream up this fascinating cultural situation for My Hero. Then I begin to figure out what motivates specific characters. I ask myself, "Why did this guy get this responsibility? Where did he come from? Why do these other guys hate him so much? Are they related? What would a guy like him do about it?" And so on. Next thing I know, I'm saying, "This guy came from a marriage of these two important people. Then he and his brother had a falling out. One went this way and became like this, while the other went this other way and became like that." And so on. My alternate world begins to gain history, language, and certain metaphysical properties that distinguish men from men and provide context for motives. As you can see, I'm world building.

The bottom line is: If you want to create a complex plot in a fantastic setting, and you expect to project anything close to verisimilitude, then you're going to have to spend some time creating that universe. A few casual touches here and there isn't going to do it, at least not for my taste.

It's not as if I plan to pull a Tolkien — not even close, as if I even could. There will be no special languages in my world, and no Silmarrilion, but I do expect my story to have depth, else the characters won't.

As an added plus, I'm finding that quite a few plot points arise from exploring these fantastic spaces.

Though I'm not using the following guide myself, here's a sample of just how far some writers will go to create a world, for whatever reason: Fantasy Worldbuilding Questionnaire, created by author Patricia Wrede.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Drizzt and the Forgotten Novel

I told a friend that I was writing a kind of fantasy novel. He said, "Have you read anything by Salvatore?"

"No, I don't think so."

"Really?! Not anything by him?!"

"No," I repeated. How obnoxious! As if one author should know everyone else's favorite authors.

"I can't believe it!" he said. "You have to know about Drizzt du Orden. He spawned, like, everything." He went on from there, touching on just about every aspect of fantasy, from books to RPGs to movies and comics, and... Anyway, I got the impression that there wouldn't be any fantasy at all without this Drizzt character. Tolkien, Le Guin, M.Z. Bradley, et al — none of these even entered the picture.

"Maybe I've heard of Drizzt. Sounds familiar. But no, I don't think I've read Salvatore. Sorry."

"Huh. Interesting." Obviously he had lost hope that I would ever become a worthy successor of his main man Salvatore.

So I searched the web. Turns out my local neighborhood Powell's bookstore has about 10,000 copies of Salvatore's books (slight exaggeration). So I stop by Powell's and pick up the novel that started it all: The Crystal Shard. I thumb through the ragged copy before I buy it. By the end of the first page, I begin to feel myself entering familiar territory. By the middle of the first chapter, I know that I have already read this book, maybe twice.

This happens to me all the time. It seems I lack the ability to remember names of characters, authors, actors, or anyone else. What's more, I have read so many paperbacks, especially during a frenzied period in the 1980s, that I'll probably never remember some of them even if I were to read them all over again.

I suppose I could inform my friend that I've read about Drizzt after all, but I probably won't. I prefer to be underestimated.

And this leads directly to my next post, though on a slightly different subject. Stay tuned...

Monday, October 1, 2007

In a Word: Pencil

Imagine my surprise when I looked up the word pencil in the Online Etymology Dictionary:
c.1386, "an artist's fine brush of camel hair," from O.Fr. pincel "artist's paintbrush" (Fr. pinceau), from L. penicillus "paintbrush, pencil," lit. "little tail," dim. of peniculus "brush," itself a dim. of penis "tail" (see penis).
Think about that the next time you cradle a pencil in your hand.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Visual Thesaurus

If you're a writer, you have to check out this tool. It's mesmerizing, maybe dangerously so.

Just imagine an interactive thesaurus...oh, forget it. I don't want to bother trying to explain. Just click on the link and you'll get a demonstration. (Java must be enabled in your browser.)

I hate thesaurus authors. I'm not one. I find that I have a wide enough vocabulary for most of the stories that I write, partly because I try to write within my own frame of reference as much as possible. But there's always some word that gets only as far as the tip of my tongue and just won't form, thesaurus to the rescue.

I also find that learning new words is more fun in a thesaurus than in a dictionary, because it's topical and not alphabetic and because it links parts of speech better, but this is also what makes a thesaurus so dangerous. An ideal online thesaurus would have a timer that starts ticking as soon as you open it.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Caveman Causation and Plot

I'm amused. I've been studying ancient legends from several cultures, including American Indian and Basque. And by ancient, I mean really ancient, as in barely beyond primitive hunter-gatherer myths.

First off, regarding those sentimentalists who opine about "lost cultures" — you know, the ones who say that "we have lost so much from the past" — to them I say, "What are you smoking?!" And to the honest ones among them I say, "Read these myths; you'll be shocked by just how NOT romantic and wise they are."

Having said that, and without going into a spirited critique of the many shortcomings of these early myths, I'll just note that none of them have a plot, and the reason seems clear. They appear to have no real concept of causation. Extraordinary things just happen randomly. Witness:
In a Tartar poem two heroes named Ak Molot and Bulat engage in mortal combat.... At last when the combat has lasted three years a friend of Ak Molot sees a golden casket hanging by a white thread from the sky and bethinks him that perhaps this casket contains Bulat's soul. So he shot through the white thread with an arrow and down fell the casket. He opened it and in the casket sat ten white birds and one of the birds was Bulat's soul. Bulat wept when he saw that his soul was found in the casket. But one after the other the birds were killed and then Ak Molot easily slew his foe. (The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion By James George Frazer, MacMillan, 1900)
A golden casket just falls from the sky. Okay. How? Why? Caused by whom? No clue offered here.

For the longest time, I could not understand what motivated the characters to act in these early myths. Even when reacting to random phenomena falling from the sky, their actions still didn't seem to add up. But then I finally realized that the characters are treated in almost the same way as these phenomena. It isn't just that I don't understand their value system and therefore cannot see what motivates them — although this must explain some of my confusion. Mainly I just think that the characters have no real, goal-directed purpose at all.

Thus, a "hero" is no hero at all. X happens, and the "hero" responds by going on a random trip. Y happens, and he responds by falling over dead, maybe because of a curse, maybe because he ate a bad mushroom, maybe just because. Finally, Z happens and the "hero" comes back from the dead and avenges his cousin, then dies again. In a relatively "good" myth, he will die the second time because he fails to show gratitude toward the guy who brought him back from the dead. In a mediocre myth, he will die the second time because he stepped on a dirty shell and got sick. In a regular, everyday myth, he will just die again and no explanation will be given.

So, to what end were these stories perpetuated? Got me. Probably entertainment as much as anything. Nights were long, and TV hadn't been invented.

A lot of the stories do have a moral message, but the way the myths work is not to develop a compelling background for the moral message in order to give it more force. Rather, the myths often appear to be random; it could be any tale with any cast of characters. Thus, the messages in them tend to get tacked on like ornaments on a tree, which is to say, they appear as single sentences here and there, often completely out of the blue.

I have this image of a shaman who must teach his tribe certain lessons about life, and he has a limited set of stories to tell — maybe fifteen or twenty major story lines in his repertoire — which he retells over and over again. Each time, he just randomly intrudes on the story and says something like, "And that's when Raven took a holiday, and while he was visiting his grandmother, he killed her because she hadn't kept the house clean." And then he goes back to the story line, which has nothing whatsoever to do, really, with Raven and even less to do with Raven's grandmother.

I have read and studied and loved Homer over the years, especially the Odyssey. Now I appreciate just what an extraordinary development Homer was. I mean extraordinary! No wonder the Basques appear to have fallen in love with Greek myth from the moment they first heard it.

And finally, I will add that I am feeling sympathetic right now with the early shaman's plight. Driving a narrative along a complex chain of purposive action is no mean feat.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

NaNoWriMo November

It's called NaNoWriMo. Have you heard of it? Practitioners call it, "na-no-rye-mo". (And no, the keys on my PC didn't get stuck. That's really what it's called.)

It stands for National Novel Writing Month, and it's a kind of contest or personal challenge.

The idea is simple: write an entire novel in one month. Whoever succeeds receives a badge and a heightened sense of accomplishment, which is a very huge thing to get when most of your writing projects take years to finish—if they ever get finished—and end up as dust collectors anyway, never to be published nor even read by anyone, and forgotten, while you trudge on to the next novel, which will also likely end up as a dust collector.

I don't care who you are, even Howard Roark; that's a depressing scenario.

The novel you write for the contest doesn't have to be good. In fact, it can be awful. You just have to write through to the end. To meet its intended purpose, I suppose you'd have to set forth at least a rudimentary plot and write to it. But the prose can be too wretched to show your dog.

A mere year or two ago, I would have scoffed at NaNoWriMo. Today I appreciate it and would heartily recommend it to some would-be writers I know.

I'm not going to do it, because I'm getting along okay with my current novel, and as depressing as the aforementioned dust-collecting scenario may be, I'm sufficiently determined to keep plowing forward anyway. (My partner calls it stubbornness, among other things.)

Do you know what habit or skill the NaNoWriMo is attempting to inculcate? I do. It's a lesson I've had to learn the hard way. Here's an excerpt from NaNoWriMo's website:

At a dinner reception for a writing conference, [NaNoWriMo's founder] was stopped by a fellow presenter.... "You saved me," she said. It turns out she was a writer who'd published her stories in the New Yorker when she was younger. But as the pressure mounted, she became too self-critical to write. NaNoWriMo had made creating stories fun again, and she was at the conference to talk about a new collection of her work that had just been published.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

New Fantasy SF Blog

The same people who run Writers Write (a blog I follow) started a new blog called Fantasy SF Blog.

Check it out if you like news and gossip on the SF and Fantasy fronts, especially about shows and movies. New posts have been appearing almost every day. On Sep 5, they tipped me off to a new, more graphic trailer for Beowulf, although I must say that I'm almost guaranteed to hate this movie, especially when I hear lines like, "...beyond your imagination." Ugh.

Beowulf deserves better.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Vote for Your Favorite Book

I don't normally promote these kinds of book votes. They pop up so often that participating in them just becomes a chore. But here's one with a couple nice kickbacks: If your favorite books get the most votes, they'll be featured at the front of the Strand Bookstore in NYC, backed by some marketing hype, plus you may win a gift:

GRAND PRIZE: The STRAND 80…all 80 books!
SECOND PRIZE: A private walking tour of literary NYC with five (5) of your friends
THIRD PRIZE: A strand Gift Certificate for $80

Vote for your five favorites here: The Strand Bookstore's 80

Voting ends in a week (September 15).

Friday, August 17, 2007

Technical Writers on Chaucer

From Writers Write:
A professor argues that technical writers are the future of American literature. Utah Valley State College English professor Scott Hatch says that the great American literature of the early 20th century was penned by journalists such as Ernest Hemingway, but in the future it is the technical writers who have the best training to be novelists.
As you may know, I used to be a technical writer. Can't say that I loved it, but it was a good job for me in a couple respects. One, it made me learn to produce words even when I didn't want to. Two, it instilled excellent editing skills. And three, it made me say to myself, "Oh, look. It's a writer looking back at me in the mirror. Hey, that's really what I do for a living! Cool!"

(Four, it also made me much more likely to write things in ordered lists, a habit I'm still trying to break.)

Anyway, I think the professor may have a point, but I would disagree with his reasoning. The main reason, IMNSHO, is that real Literature and Creative Writing programs in most influential American universities were long ago murdered, cremated, and put away in ancient crypts to be treated as frightening relics of "The Old Establishment". These programs have mostly been replaced by so-called Critical (or Gender) Theory with its relativist yet at the same time dogmatic cultural ethos (meaning anything goes as long as it is anti-white, anti-male, and anti-corporation) and its non-existent writing standards.

Though neither Technical Writing nor modern Literature courses have anything to do with literature, at least Technical Writing has the distinction of teaching its graduates to actually write and to think intelligently and productively about what they're reading. How revolutionary.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Once Upon a Time

The time has finally come. The players are set, and today I move my first pawn.

My novel has a rich and interesting back-story, so I have decided to start in the past — pre media res, if you will. For weeks I've been trying to find a way to weave this back-story into the narrative, but finally I've just given up and decided to tell the whole story chronologically. I'll either discover that this was the right move, or I'll find out where my story really wants to begin. Either way, there's no use staring at a blank piece of paper for more weeks on end.

Besides, I'm excited about these earlier events and want to write about them, and as I said in this long post about my progress as a plot writer, my mind seems to want to think about my story this way anyway — that is, visually and by just diving in and exploring the territory, especially the characters.

Though I do have the bones of a plot, I'm planning on letting my characters have the final say about it.

My partner, who has about 17 U.S. patents and has proven himself to be very capable of being creative at will, tells me that this is the process of keeping your target fairly wide in the early stages of being creative. It's still a target that you choose — don't get me wrong about that — but it's wide enough that you actually have a reasonable chance of hitting it as you proceed through all of the unknowns that lie ahead. I think he's right. So far, my attempts to lay down a very specific, step-by-step plot at the outset has felt like a kind of rationalistic exercise for me, because it requires a certain kind of omniscience about a terrain that I haven't yet tread.

Anyway, I'll let you know how it goes.

Expect light blogging for a while — possibly a long while — especially if my story takes flight. Or maybe I should say, if it catches on fire.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Dear J. K. Rowling

Thank you!

Twists and turns, hints and herrings, seven novels long — how on earth did you put it all together?! At a time when the engine of the plot novel seemed to be running low on gas, you filled the tank right back up to the top, and then you filled the spare tank, and then you kept on filling even a couple of extra cans in the boot for good measure.

Sadly, many writers today look down their Snape-ish noses at the plot novel, so it comes as no surprise that a few of them would decry your work. Yet those of us who have ever tried to write a plot know the truth: that none of those slithering cynics could come within a mile of your accomplishment. Yours was an incredibly tough job, yet you not only made it through to the end, but you did so with panache, with Filibuster Fireworks, and best of all, with integrity. You did what you set out to do some seventeen years ago, and you remained true to your own spirit until the end. Makes you a bit like Harry, doesn't it?

You cast spells over our heads while we stood in line for bookstores to open at midnight; we didn't even notice the rain. You enchanted our eyelids to make them stay open as we read through the night. Like mannequins, we laughed and cried and swooned and shuddered, our hearts beat faster and slower, and our temperatures rose and fell at your imperious command.

If story-telling is magical, then you're one of the rarest, most gifted witches in this world, a world full of muggles.

I could quibble. I won't, at least not here, not today. Instead I say:

Congratulations, Miss Rowling! Unfurl the maroon and gold banners. The cup is yours! Not even Krum could have flown such a thrilling game!

Novel Update

I owe it to my readers to provide some kind of status report about my work, since you've been so patient.

I mentioned the hero of my current novel in this recent post. Well, he's still alive and kicking; I haven't given up on him and he hasn't given up on me. To the contrary, we've become pretty good friends over the last few months and I'm reasonably confident that he's going to have his adventure after all.

If only I could tell you more about him. Unfortunately, writing isn't like painting in the sense that I can't offer tantalizing views of my progress the way Bryan Larsen does over at Rational Art. It would be perilous for me to describe the background of my story or even to mention the theme. Doing so would be like trying to bring a pre-term, unborn child out to look at him; you can't really put him back in the womb. (Besides, most pre-term story ideas sound stupid and unconvincing.)

Here's a safe hint: The story is set partly in an imaginary portion of the PNW. The rest is set, well, somewhere far, far away. And my hero? His name is...a secret. (It happens to be thematic.) I will tell you only that he has a very hot disposition. Beyond that, you'll just have to settle for some comments about my progress.

My goal with this novel has always been to learn how to plot, and that is what I'm doing, though not very efficiently nor even very gracefully, which is perfectly fine with me. I expected this story to present all sorts of trouble along the way. After all, one learns by taking on challenges and overcoming them.

I've been patiently probing the plot and the characters, which has started to pay some dividends. In one sense, the story has grown more complex, and in another sense, stayed rather simple. By complex, I mean that I'm beginning to see a web of actions and circumstances that are at times intriguing, mysterious, and—I hope—suspenseful. By simple, I mean that the overall story remains true to my original idea. Even better, the basic action-line of the story remains straightforward much the way the central plot of Lord of the Rings—getting Frodo Baggins from the Shire to Mordor—runs through all three stories despite the many conflicts and subplots along the way.

The situation hasn't always been this good. I've taken several wrong turns, both with the story and with how I approached the novel-writing process. Novels seem to provide endless opportunities to make wrong turns. Sometimes I wonder how anyone ever figured out how to get from "Once upon a time..." to "...happily ever after." If only someone would invent a compass for novelists, but then again, there aren't very many good maps of the terrain, so what good would a compass be?

And that brings me to the final subject of this update: I'm learning how to better avoid some of the details early on, to get out of the way of the story, and to let my muse have his say. Am I going New Agey? No, I'm just dealing with reality, which means: I'm looking for the right mix of planning-with-a-light-touch coupled with the freedom to let my brain do what it does best. This is how I already write my short stories, and I once read an essay by Edgard Allan Poe in which he asserts that most writers need to work the same way when they write novels, else they'll fail. I can attest to the wisdom in his claim.

My brain is highly visual. This makes me good at rendering scenes but not nearly as good at planning them. I have to be careful not to ignite the visual part of my brain, which is my muse, before it's time, else my muse takes over and the planning process gets trumped. So I skirt around the periphery of my story in a kind of phantom dance with my subconscious, first getting a hint of an idea, then checking it against my overall plan, and quickly backing off when the images start to form too clearly in my mind. Right then I have to say to my muse, "Get back behind the starting line; I haven't fired the gun."

I'm sure that after having written several novels, not only will I know better how to stay out of my muse's way, but also my muse will begin to accept some of my direct mental processes in the early stages—or so I hope. Until that time, your continued patience with my progress is much appreciated.

P.S. I just finished another short story. It's something like high fantasy, which I only now realize I haven't written before. (Tolkien is high fantasy; Rowling, Dinesen, Shelley are not.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Only Martians Need a Synopsis for This Book

The inside flap of the jacket on J.K. Rowling's final book bears only the following few words:
We now present the seventh and final installment in the epic tale of Harry Potter.
What a fine compliment to Miss Rowling. No introduction needed.

Monday, July 16, 2007

My Hero

I have discovered a most fascinating byproduct of being a writer, and a romantic one in particular.

I ride bikes with a group of triathletes and Masters athletes two to three times per week, although I only participate for the health benefits, not to compete.

I manage to keep up. To the extent that my body has enough fuel to keep moving, the most critical effort seems to be in my head. Like they say in those old fantasy stories, you've got to believe in your own power otherwise the magic won't happen.

Even so, there are times when I think that I'm going to die. It's usually when the coach has been driving us at, say, 80 - 90% max heart rate for forty minutes and through ten killer sets, then he says that we're going to kick it up a notch to 90 - 100%. "Not to worry," he says, "we only have five more sets to go." That's five more sets. Not one. Not two. But five. Okay, maybe I can handle four more sets out of sheer determination, but god help me on that last set.

But of course, god can't help me, because "he" is just a polyp in someone's imagination. I'm on my own. Well, not exactly. I recently discovered that I have a secret power. It's called My Hero, and he is the protagonist of my current novel.

When I reach that point of imminent death (figuratively speaking), beyond where most others would quit, past the point where I've already spent my own quite substantial reserves of determination and where my body starts to tell me that there's simply nothing left to give, then all I ever have to do is ask myself, "What would My Hero do?" Never fail, like some kind of gift of strength or a magic power, I find a will, not merely to survive and limp through those last few minutes, but to actually speed up and break through at one hundred percent.

My coach watches me. He compliments the way I finish sets. I appreciate his compliments, because they speak well of My Hero.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

2008 Arts Cruise

May I recommend, the 2008 Arts Cruise put on by the illustrious Quent Cordair Art Gallery.

Let's see: You work out first thing in the morning in a gorgeous promenade-like space overlooking the bow of the ship, then you take breakfast and coffee on your private balcony, then you meander over to your first lecture around mid-morning after which you enjoy an extraordinary lunch with friends and fellow art aficionados, then you take in a few more hours of (hopefully fascinating) lectures. After that, you have some time to stroll the decks, swim, have a drink with new acquaintances before you enjoy a lovely evening of social dining followed by entertainment designed specially for the Arts Cruise. Phew! Of course, the ship never sleeps, so if you're a night owl, then you will have even more time to chat over some academic aspects of, say, Rembrandt's "Night Watch" or Beethoven's Seventh.

This cruise isn't as expensive as you might think, considering the travel involved, the food, the venue, and the entertainment. Besides, this is the only way you'd ever get me onto one of those enormous floating barges called cruise ships, since I don't gamble, I'm not one to over-eat, and I grow tired of pool decks and mixed drinks. By filling the travel days attending lectures and the off-times socializing with other fans of art, the trip ought to be great fun.

And now there's even more reason to sign on. Linda Cordair, our host and cruise coordinator, just announced that "the inimitable Robin Field" will be joining the cruise as guest entertainer. Linda goes on to list his impressive acting and singing credentials: "ROBIN FIELD is an award-winning entertainer whose career has spanned six decades. As a singer-pianist his appearances have taken him from cabarets to Carnegie Hall. As an actor he won leading roles Off-Broadway in Your Own Thing, Look Me Up, Speed Gets the Poppys and the revival of Rodgers & Hart's Babes in Arms..." and that's only the beginning. (You can read more about Mr. Field by following the link to Linda's announcement.)

Hope to see you there!

Oh, and I just remembered one of the best reasons to attend the cruise: Bryan Larsen will be lecturing. Now there's a man who deserves to be heard. Bryan could just stand up and offer a few anecdotes about his work life, and I'd be thrilled to hear him speak. Sure he's got loads of talent, but he's also got at least as much chutzpah and determination. I can't wait.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

More Thoughts on Poetry

By the bye, that bumper sticker about poetry that I mentioned the other day got me thinking about the influence of poetry even in today's not-so-romantic world.

I've concluded that while it's obviously not the glory days of poetry, the stuff is unavoidable ne'ertheless.

If it weren't for poetry, we wouldn't have memorable jingles from TV and radio ads, sappy but helpful Hallmark cards, pop music, nursery rhymes, Christmas carols, hopscotch and jump-rope jingles, lovely onomatopoeia inscribed on sentimental paintings, and on and on. Poetry — and perhaps more to the point, poetical prose and music — truly is necessary, for without it — or at the very least, without its influence — language would be limited to utility.

So thank man for poetry!

And while I'm on the subject, let me just extol the wonders of having Objectivist friends. During one of our recent socials, we spent a few minutes revelling in a favorite poem or two. Mind you, these readings were not scripted or planned. Someone just said, "Oh, you've got to hear this poem! It's my all-time favorite!" And then to sit at the feet of someone reading Tennyson tearfully! That's the kind of treatment poetry deserves.

Monday, July 2, 2007

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

I recently watched "Pan's Labyrinth" by Guillermo del Toro, who is a magical realist in the vein of Fuentes and Márquez. I'm glad that I watched this evil movie, because it taught me something.

But first, you should stop reading right now if you mean to watch it. I'm going to give the story away.

I have always felt a visceral anger when a story ends as if the events were just a dream or some variant thereof such as drug trips, a book that someone was reading, or near-death experiences. The reader agrees to accept this fictional "reality", he invests his emotions in it, then the writer says, "Just kidding. None of this actually happened." Now the reader is expected to feel foolish, maybe blush a bit, and wonder if anyone noticed that he was reading a silly fantasy. Not me. I feel anger.

Pan's Labyrinth does not end with such obvious chicanery as waking up from a dream, but it does commit the same sin. And yes, I mean sin. I feel that strongly about it.

Keep in mind that I don't believe in magic, so why should I care whether the events in some fantastic story actually happened or not? Shouldn't I be comforted in my world view when I'm reminded that those silly fairies and fauns are just make-believe (or at least probably make-believe)?

No, and absolutely no!

Consider the kind of narrative trickery found in Pan's Labyrinth:

Right up to the story's end, the innocent Ofelia appeared to have a fighting chance of gaining the upper hand over malevolence. In fact, success was promised to her, so long as she took certain actions. Even at the very end, despite the appearance of Ofelia's death, the viewer suspects that the girl's moral purity will permit her to somehow gain magical power—as promised!—and become triumphant. However, the filmmaker doesn't see the world that way. It's not merely that he needed to apologize for the silliness of the fantasy; in fact, he used the fantasy to emphasize, or heighten, a point that he wished to make about the nature of the world as he sees it. To that end, he made the innocent girl's triumph a trick of the mind.

This is worse than a story about hopeless innocence; this is a story about hopeful innocence, about a hero being promised a reason to battle for success, then having that very reason to hope—not merely the likelihood of success, mind you, but even the meaning of hope itself—snatched away by "reality".

The best we can hope for in this terrible life, Guillermo tells us, is to never wake up from our daydream to discover how bad it really is here before we die. Benevolence reigns only over the childish, make-believe mind; malevolence, everywhere else.

Ironically, this is what the word realism in the term magical realism means. Had the young girl been permitted to actually be a real princess—I mean really be—then benevolence would have won the day—and it never does, at least not according to a postmodern mind.

In the author's own words:
Fantasy is not an escape for Ofelia but it is a dark refuge.

Rot in hell, Guillermo del Toro.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Poetry, Food, and Water

Seen on bumper sticker today:
Poetry is necessary.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Future is in Pocono

So a library in Pocono, Pennsylvania, solicits book reviews from patrons then publishes those reviews in the local paper. Normally these patrons are adults, but this time they chose to solicit reviews from youths who participate in the summer reading program. Not many students took them up on their offer, which is no surprise, considering how recently the students got released from bondage, er, school.

As is happening more and more these days, one of the three published reviews happens to cover The Fountainhead. Not only that, but it does so bravely, smartly, and, I think, accurately.

Here's a sample of the short review:
"Multiple themes of human progression and egotism, combined with Rand's marvelous authorial objectivism, make "The Fountainhead" one of the most controversial and philosophically challenging novels to ever have exposed the human potential as the product of individualism."
I offer a warning to the members of the Religious Right and the Marxist Left (not to mention the Marxist Right and the Religious Left): Take one look at the kind of kid/young adult who would write such a cutting review. Take a look at the letters that these youthful fans of Ayn Rand write to their school papers and the essays they send to the Ayn Rand Institute. Compare these to the incomprehensible drek you routinely get from even your brighter students. Consider the power, clarity, and precision of the minds behind these reviews. Consider them — and worry for your lives, because these are the kids of the future.

You can read the full review, published in the Pocono Record, here: Library youths recommend books on the Titanic, individualism and a kindergartener. (HT: Randex)

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Bradbury: Beware the Evil Factoid

If you've ever heard Ray Bradbury give an interview, you'll know that he's, well, unique and sometimes a bit hard to follow. Call him frenetic, I suppose. So this just in from
Writer's Blog:
Ray Bradbury, who writes every speaking out about Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury now says that his classic novel Fahrenheit 451 isn't about censorship; it's about the dangers of television...
Hmmm, okay.

From the original interview:
"Television gives you the dates of Napoleon, but not who he was," Bradbury says, summarizing TV's content with a single word that he spits out as an epithet: "factoids." He says this while sitting in a room dominated by a gigantic flat-panel television broadcasting the Fox News Channel, muted, factoids crawling across the bottom of the screen.
So the world is perishing from an orgy of...factoids. Alrighty.

If I were an author of a junior high textbook on literature, I wouldn't rush to change my study guides for Fahrenheit 451. Perhaps just adding a chapter on unreliable narrators would do the trick.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Music and Writing

It's strange. I almost always listen to background music while I'm pre-writing and writing — it calms my mind and helps me focus — but I absolutely can't listen to music while I'm editing. Don't know why.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Tips for Heroes, Evil Overlords, and Sidekicks

This list of dos and don'ts for fictional heroes, evil overlords, and sidekicks is worth reading, if only for some good laughs. (The list comes from a writer's workshop called "Viable Paradise", which is hosted by

Here are a few of my favorites:

53. Knowing that creatures with tentacles have a preference for True Loves, I will keep an eye out for them.

32. If the Hero warns me that my girlfriend is a Servant of Evil, I am in a perverse quandary. If I believe him and terminate the relationship, he will turn out to have been dead wrong, and the resulting alienation of affection will drive her to the Dark Side. If I don't believe him, he will turn out to be right, and I will be used as a pawn by my scheming paramour. I guess the only solution is to take my sweetie on a long vacation and not return until after the Heroic Struggle is completed.

33. My fortress will include a holding room for any annoying kids, nerds, would-be love interests and other wannabe-types who follow me there and insist on joining my group. They will be kept in this room until the Evil Overlord is defeated. If there are holodecks available, I will throw the wannabe into it while he/she is asleep and activate the Epic Adventure program.

57. I will not give sloppy, wet kisses to the Hero until I verify that he isn't related to me.

67. When the Evil Overlord says that he was driven to his evil by my radiant beauty, I'll just kill him.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

What I'm Reading

The Knight by Gene Wolfe
If I like nothing else about this story — and I'm sure that I will — I absolutely worship the way the hero, who lives in this world, practically falls into a fantasy story as effortlessly as if he were walking into a forest and getting lost, yet those two, short pages in which it so effortlessly happens remain mesmerizing, exciting, unique, and real. Wolfe makes it look so easy.

Starwater Strains: New Science Fiction Stories by Gene Wolfe
Short stories are about all I can take of science fiction right now, and so far, Wolfe's seem much more literary and rich than anything appearing in Analog.

The Wave in the Mind by Ursula Le Guin
I love almost everything that Ursula Le Guin writes, even when I don't agree with her. She makes prose look easy, the way Ulrich Salchow made figure skating look easy. For this reason, it's a joy to choose one essay to read from this collection right before going to bed each night. She eases my brain into pleasant thoughts the way nursery rhymes, read by a loving mom, calm a child's mind.

The topic of the collection, by the way, is just about everything, from writing to writers to public figures to historical events.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

In a Word: Sobriquet

Wikipedia says, "A sobriquet is a nickname or a fancy name, usually a familiar name given by others as distinct from a pseudonym assumed as a disguise, but a nickname which is familiar enough such that it can be used in place of a real name without the need of explanation. This salient characteristic, that is, of sufficient familiarity, is most easily noted in cases where the sobriquet becomes more familiar than the original name for which it was formed as an alternative. For example, Genghis Khan, who is rarely recognized now by his original name "Temüjin"; and the British Whig party, which acquired its sobriquet from the British Tory Party as an insult."

How is this different from a nickname?

Again, Wikipedia: "A nickname is a short, clever, cute, derogatory, or otherwise substitute name for a person or thing's real name (for example, Bob, Rob, Robby, Robbie, Robi, Bobby, Rab, Bert, Bertie, Butch, Bobbers, Bobert, Beto, Bobadito, and Robban (in Sweden), are all short for Robert). As a concept, it is distinct from both pseudonym and stage name, and also from title (for example, City of Fountains), although there may be overlap in these concepts."

I don't get it. If Bob is a nickname for Robert, then it sounds to me like Bob could also be a sobriquet. Maybe nickname is the genus, and all of the others -- pseudonyms, stage names, sobriquets, etc. -- are all types of nicknames. Except I always thought that nicknames were given to people and not just assumed by them, as in that cliché found in hardboiled fiction of the fat guy named Tiny or the tall guy named Shorty.

Any ideas? Anyone have the OED?

Language can be so messy.

Welcome to the New Acid-Free Paper

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