Archive for the ‘Process’ category

regarding dialog tags

September 25, 2019

From time to time I just can’t keep myself from shrieking into the void about this topic. I think the “rule” that one should only use some form of the word “said” as a dialog tag is ridiculous. It’s a waste of a verb.

I suspect that the notion of this quickly evolved into dogma after Elmore Leonard issued his famous 10 Rules for Writing, one of these being to never use a verb other than “said” to tag dialog. How did the writing world ever get by without this rule?

Quite well, I suspect. (I’ve noted here how Joseph Conrad has his characters “ejaculate” their words.) Some intrepid graduate student might do well to survey the use of dialog tags before and after Leonard’s rule suddenly set such a stupid standard. I suspect that before this rule, there was no reluctance using better verbs than “said.”

Anyway, as I read contemporary literature, my eye is always on alert for rule breakers in this regard. And the more “violations” I see, the more I know that this rule is bogus.

I’m currently reading Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie. It’s a lot of fun. The story involves jinn (genies) who have left their world and entered ours, and the mayhem and countermayhem that goes on is relentless. Rushdie’s writing appears so effortless that it is breathtaking sometimes.

But what I want to point out is a conversation that takes place between a dead philosopher (Ghazali), so dead it’s his dust that is talking, and one of the jinn (Zumurrud). The philosopher is engaging in a bit of sophistry, but Rushdie seems to be taking the opportunity to put the “said” rule in its place:

“Just is,” Zumurrud repeated doubtfully.*
“Yes,” Ghazali confirmed.
“So God is a sort of time traveler,” Zumurrud proposed. “He moves form his kind of time to ours, and by doing so becomes infinitely powerful.”
“If you like,” Ghazali agreed. “Except that he doesn’t become. He still is. You have to be careful how you use your words.”**
“Okay,” Zumurrud said, confused again.
“Think about it,” Ghazali urged him.
“This god, Just-is,” Zumurrud said on a third occasion, after thinking about it, “he doesn’t like being argued with, right?”

*Another of Leonard’s rules is to not modify the dialog tag with an adverb.
**Ha!

something new

August 5, 2019

I began something new over the weekend, but first, some backstory.

Nearer the dawn of civilization, which is to say back in my St. Louis life, I was a member of a small writing group. We met monthly to critique each others’ stories, and though I am sure none of my writing from that period survives, I really thought I had arrived then.

Among the members of the group was the leader’s sister, who professed that she was not a writer (I think her field was the Polish language), but she regularly had a story for us to dig into. One I specifically remember was an interior monologue about a character grieving over a friend who had recently died. The sister announced that she applied the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief when she developed her story, carrying her character through each stage.

I can remember bridling under this, thinking that grief was personal and unique to each individual and didn’t necessarily comply with prescriptive stages. When I eventually wrote my own friend-dying story, I paid no attention to the “official” stages and just wrote from (my) experience. (The story eventually became “Unfinished Business,” and it was published many years later.)

And all of that is the backstory.

I began a new story over the weekend, “North, East, South, and West,” (which you’ll, of course, recognize is a reference from the first chapter of Moby-Dick), but the real new thing I did was begin writing this story from a prescriptive series of stages.

The “plot” of the story involves a man wandering through a forest on a hot August day. But it’s more than that, as you might imagine. And the new thing I am doing is applying the stages of the hero’s journey to his wandering. I’ve never written like this before, from someone else’s script so to speak. Most of my stories have been organic, if I can use that word, and while I might have an ending in mind when I begin, the ending I actually reach is often something completely different.

Not so in this case, or at least not so in the journey to the ending. While my character has many comical mishaps as he moves through the woods (he’s a city boy), his interior monologue (about certain aspects of his life) is where the steps of his hero’s journey take place. I made a list of the steps and then noted what aspects/events in the story would apply to each. (Dropping a couple.)

The story is speeding along. I sat Saturday morning intending to tinker with maybe a first paragraph and rose 1,300 words later. I added another 300 words to that in a second session. I can understand why some writers will develop detailed outlines before they begin.

I’m not sure I’m completely comfortable with this process of writing a story at someone else’s “direction”; even the things I’ve read about the hero’s journey concede that not all heroes hit all of the common points along the way. But for this story, it seems to be working for me.

__________

(In that last paragraph, should the semicolon go inside or outside of the quotation mark?)

how to survive the end of the world

February 15, 2019

Many years ago, on my now-gone blog, Roundrock Journal, I would post occasional videos. Generally these were of scenes or events in my little bit of forest on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks. At the time, WordPress couldn’t take direct importing of videos (or if they could, my knowledge/skills weren’t up to the task), so I would post them on Yahoo Videos and then put a link for them in the blog post. I got good enuf at it that it became almost a weekly thing.

But then Yahoo announced that it was discontinuing that service. We users were given plenty of notice about this so we could download our uploads to save them. I always had my videos on the computer first, so I still had (have) them and just let my account disappear. (I made a few attempts at using YouTube for the same function, but by then my Roundrock Journal days were coming to an end as well.)

Recently, as you probably know, Google announced that it was ending the Google+ service. I have/had a Google+ account, but after a flurry of early use, my motivation flagged (as did apparently the motivation of millions of other users). The last time I was on it was nearly a year ago when my kids all tried to have a video chat using the Hangout function. (It didn’t work very well.) So I wasn’t at all upset to see my Google+ account go away.

But now, of course, I look at all of the other services I use with a nervous tic. I have a Flickr account where I dump notable photos I have taken or snagged. Did I hear something recently about that service being in jeopardy?

More concerning, though, is the thought of my Google Drive going away. (Back in 2009, I wrote about my use of Google Docs, as it was known then, here and here and here.) One ambition I had was to write an entire story, to what I considered a publishable state, entirely on Google Docs/Drive, the advantage of this being that I could use it at work and appear to be, you know, working. That never really happened. But I did and do use Google Drive as a back up. I’ve placed whole novels there to be safely stored, and occasionally, when the spirit moves, I will back up selected stories too. (I also have two other back up media I use. Sporadically.)

But there was one story that existed only on Google Drive. (Story notes actually. Not much in the way of development.) And I began to worry that this service might go the way of those others too. That story (and all of my backups) would then be lost.

So the other day I copied all of the notes for that story onto my computer where it will sit with the others and be backed up by my two other methods. Sporadically.

I need to be more diligent about making back ups. I know this.

omne trium perfectum

January 30, 2019

Like a dog worrying an old sock, I sometimes just can’t let go of an idea. That can be a good thing, of course, or it may be a bad thing, or it may just be an inconsequential thing.

I mentioned in this recent post about what I believed was the genesis of my use of “threes” in my writing. I’m reading a Joseph Conrad novel now — a rippin’ yarn about a sailing crew on a long and dangerous journey that carries some implied and overt lessons about racism, including Conrad’s own perhaps — which makes me think about those “threes” again.*

And it turns out that use of threes is actually commonplace as a rhetorical device. This Wikipedia entry goes into some detail (with the added links) about not only the device in its various forms but examples of it across ages and cultures.

I don’t know if knowing this is humbling or exalting for my ego and writing aspirations. I like to think that I came by it honestly, that I absorbed it by osmosis from reading or that it is part of human hardwiring. But as I’ve said here many times, I don’t really want to know too much about my creative process lest I slay it with consciousness. I suspect that I’m going to be extra aware in the weeks and months ahead, either deliberately choosing to use the device or questioning/doubting when I do so unconsciously and then recognize it later. (And I realize that with these kinds of things, less is generally more. More or less.)

Also, I wonder if this is the reason I am a strong advocate of the Oxford comma.

__________

*This copy of the novel has about forty pages of foreword and analysis about the novel and Conrad’s writing in general, including a reference (maybe even a gibe) to his use of threes.

Also, the title of this post is supposed to be set in italics, and I have used the proper HTML to do that, but it keeps getting dropped.

triplets, triptychs, trinities

December 31, 2018

My high school English teacher had assigned Lord Jim as my reading and term paper project in my senior year. That turned out to be a watershed moment in my (eventual) creative life because it introduced me to Joseph Conrad, whose novels I’ve read throughout the ensuing decades. Some I’ve read more than once. Lord Jim I’ve read thrice. (Maybe more. I wasn’t keeping good records in my callow youth.)

When my reading turned to Philip Roth, and I read some of his nonfiction, he discussed the influence Conrad had on his own writing and teaching. What I specifically remember was his respect for Conrad’s use of threes in a sentence: three examples, three clauses, three points.

I had long noticed by that time that I was commonly using threes in the sentences I wrote, and I was delighted to learn their apparent influence from my extensive reading of Joseph Conrad. Normally I don’t want to know too much about my creative process since I fear familiarity will lead to analysis, which would slay creativity. (Have I really been writing this blog for more than a decade?)

So here is a sentence I recently wrote for a story I’m working on (with the apt title “Three Small Words”*):

“Nonetheless, he wanted to find some moment, some event, some thing in the past that could be blamed and attacked and conquered rather than admit that his father had been mortal all along, was now simply getting old, and had a limited number of days as all men do.”

By my count, there are three incidents of threes in that sentence. I did not do this consciously; it just rose from the murk of my creative subconscious and flowed through my fingers onto the keyboard and then onto the screen.

I realize that it may be one of those darlings you’re supposed to kill, and that my yet happen since I’m only in the first draft stage.

But for the present I’m going to wallow in the perceived influence of Joseph Conrad.

*The three small words in the story are “Don’t tell Mom,” and an argument in the story is conducted with a series of three-word sentences, but the title harkens to some other threes in One-Match Fire including the three notes of the whippoorwill and the words “I love you,” a feeling that permeates that novel in many unspoken ways, so the whippoorwill is given the job of saying it.

whence good ideas?

December 10, 2018

In a past life I wrote a lot of copy for a woman who was publishing a magazine that focused on a lucrative but hitherto underserved market* of big spenders in my town. Her magazine was slick and successful, but her pockets were not deep enuf, and she had to walk away from the venture after two issues. (It was subsequently taken up by other publishers in town, including the local fish wrapper, and continues in various forms to this day.)

I had sustained my writing relationship with her for a while after when she took a job with a propane company, producing newsletters. (This was back in the days of print.) She and I developed a professional friendship that included a few business lunches and chatty phone calls. And one bit of wisdom I gleaned from this was her offhand comment once that the good ideas always come back. Her point was that if an idea keeps presenting itself to you, then it must be good in some way you don’t yet recognize and it is probably worth your pursuit.

And thus is the case with the latest story I’m working on: “Icarus.” A little sleuthing showed me that I had begun this story nearly four years ago, and while I continued to keep notes in the ensuing years and even made an ill-fortuned attempt at writing it (making it a running story, which didn’t have legs), I never achieved the critical mass to really get it underway. (Yeah, I just split an infinitive! Fight me!)

I guess for me, critical mass can be achieved in different ways. Sometimes just the accumulation of notes can be enuf to get me going. In the case of one story, “When We Were Young and Life Was Full in Us,” I had the story in mind but didn’t have some controlling feature I needed. It turned out that what I needed was the correct tone, and once I settled on that (playful innocence), the story flowed. More recently I spoke of my story “MTWTF” (still not found a home, alas) and how once I found the structure for telling the story — the passage of a work week — the story came forth easily.

So it seems with “Icarus.” It’s based on a colleague I knew back in my (dark, dismal) teaching days and a misstep he made. The story is as old as time, or at least as old as men and women have been pursuing relationships, and I saw early enuf how the tale of Icarus flying too close to the sun was apt as a metaphor for the man’s foible. But there was something missing that was keeping me from telling the tale.

Once again, tone to the rescue. I am now trying to tell this man’s (fictionalized, Greek-tragic) story from the point of view of a bemused best friend who tries to help his buddy understand the doom he is pursuing. I’ve made them teachers in an English department so I can toss in some clever words. I think it’s going to work this time.

Of course, half the tale is in the telling.** I know the plot; I can see the end (flames). But getting there is what I have to do. I am lucky to know that kind of tone I’m reaching for, and I think that will guide my word choices, my syntax, the birth of the metaphors, the flow of sentences, the congealing of paragraphs, and all of that.

So, I’m flying forward on what I hope are reliable wings with this story. (And I’m boasting perhaps too confidently, having only amassed a few hundred words so far.)

 

*Weddings

**A saying that I think I came up with on my own (though I am willing to concede that I read it somewhere and don’t recall)

writing is rewriting

November 26, 2018

and I much prefer writing.

I mentioned before that an editor liked a running story (with a hint of leprechaun) that I had submitted and asked for a rewrite, enhancing the (possible) supernatural element of the tale. I’ve been struggling with that task ever since.

I’ve found that actual rewriting — taking a “finished” piece and reworking it — is different from the ongoing rewriting that is part of the normal editing and evolving of a story in progress. The latter is in flux in my mind, and I can wrap my head around its shifting nature. Not so with the former.

I suppose when I consider a story “finished” I lock it down in my little mind. Its words and sentences and order and development are all in their proper places, and any change to that, especially directed from the outside, is a kind of violence to the settled system. Each word had stood in its exact place in the “finished” work, the right flow was achieved, the right order led to the inexorable end. But with a rewrite I have to rip much of that apart and try to piece it all back together, with new, added parts that also need to find their places.

The story deals with a man asking a wish of someone whom he drunkenly thinks can grant it. This happens, but cautionary tales through the ages have warned of the need to be careful and specific in phrasing wishes to supernatural wish granters, and my character learns this lesson.

So I have the basic rewrite cobbled together now. It’s not finished. It needs a lot of love and a fair amount of cosmetics to smooth the clumsy transitions where I forced parts together. But it’s something I can work with. I’ll give it time to gestate and return to it to see what can be done.