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).