Tuesday, October 30, 2012

On The Reading of Books and Such


This past week I wrote an article for a non-profit organization, the Sequart Research and Literacy Organization. The article will debut on Saturday November 3rd, so be sure to check it out! Either way, I wouldn't let you forget otherwise. Nevertheless, the entire process reminded me how intimidating research can be, so I've decided to give you some pointers today to make the task less daunting.

There are some key things to remember when researching for any piece of writing, fiction or non-fiction.

First of all, researching shouldn't be a chore, it should be fun. So if you find yourself lamenting the drudgery of finding books, watching documentaries, and interviewing strangers, this is an indication that you should switch topics, because writing should be a relaxing process, at least on the research side of things. When I was doing principal research for Spirit of Orn I read two books on the expression of historical and modern paganism, two books on the history of Scandinavia, Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, and a commentary on the greater corpus of Norse Mythology. That didn't include all the Wikipedia references I followed to Yale, Notre Dame, Cambridge, and Harvard hosted portals for tertiary details, as well as the six month course I took on Norwegian, including my own self teaching regimen that I still practice regularly. Researching is hard but very rewarding, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Another thing to remember is that when researching, it's important to take into consideration the authors you are reading to get your information. Generally I did my best to research the history of the authors on Wikipedia  or other databases, to find any preconceived biases that I was working with. For instance, the author of the book I read concerning the modern expressions of paganism used to be Mormon, which is a polytheistic religion, so not only was it a natural progression for this particular author to leave the Church of Mormon and become a pantheist, animist, panentheist, etc, but it was also not surprising that the research and take on Medieval Christianity in the book was highly skewed and uninformed. That would be drawing off of his exposure to anti-Christian polemic during as stint as a Mormon. But what this told me, anyhow, was that his zeal for pursuing spiritual exploits would be sincere, so I read it knowing I could get some meaningful data from it. 

The best place to start in researching is always Wikipedia. But never trust it! That's the key. The trick is to look into the articles for their citations and attempt to find Primary Sources. This is very important to remember. In order to gather good research you need to limit your intake of third hand interpretation, which is scholastic commentary. Second hand, meaning a witness account, is valuable, but first hand, or biographical information is the best. That's why I included Sturluson's Prose Edda in my research, because it's that tiny volume that encompasses the entire corpus of Norse mythology, and was written with the intentions of cultural reclamation, unlike later editions by Saxo Grammaticus, which was written specifically to glorify the Danish people while also shining a polemical light on the heathen heritage of Denmark. All this information is highly pertinent and should be thoroughly considered before taking the pains to research something. 

Ultimately, research can be undertaken by anyone. The key is to do it well and thoughtfully. I have, for instance, a couple thousand pages of 1st century Palestine research material, but I could never write a book about that climate, only because I don't know how I would employ that information in a literary way. The difference between a poorly researched book and a well researched one is the employing of the details that you have soaked up during your studying. For instance, I decided in my book to make the speaking language of Norway Nynorsk, rather thaBokmÃ¥l, because historically the former is an older, more authentic Norwegian language, going as far back as the vikings. I wanted to make a cultural statement by using Nynorsk instead. And people will pick up on that too.

Anyways, that should tide you over. I hope you all enjoyed this as much as I have. See you Thursday!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Finishing the Race

I will always say this, but completing a book is hard.

And I am being serious. Probably one of the most difficult things is trying to complete a work of fiction, because its a challenge to find a good place to rest the action of your plot. Luckily I have some good tips for you to help make the process of finishing anything just a little easier.

The best way I have found to end a book is to take the ending from three separate angles. First, is the Cinematic approach. Movies are very formulaic when it comes to pacing, direction, and plot development. If you've ever read Save the Cat by Blake Synder you'll understand that the first thing you have to do, considering the protagonist, is have him "save the cat" or do something that the audience will find likable, and therefore invest themselves emotionally into the character. If we are dealing with villains and antiheroes, it's the opposite: Kill the cat, or punch the baby, etc. Now this pacing is, by the book, achieved within the first 20 minutes of every film. Older movies from the 50s generally achieved this within the first 30 minutes, which is probably why people complain that older flicks move so slow compared to newer films. Anyways, this buildup of likability, the fall from grace, and the recovery of the hero's honor in the conflict, these elements are key in making any movie successful. Now the reason why I went into all this detail is because books follow similar beats and patterns. Especially at the end. E.M. Forster's novel A Passage to India we see this. In the beginning of the novel, Fielding fights and defends his friendship with Aziz, as a liberal minded, outspoken individual. However as the oppressive atmosphere of colonialism in India drives a wedge between them, the greater narrative closes the book on the two as they attempt to make amends and swear brotherhood. Ultimately they are broken apart when their horses must take separate paths. The theme of Unity at the end of the story is revisited, and is inverted causing for a pessimistic ending against the nature of humanity. Now this is very cinematic. You have a bold narrator giving the premise of the world environment and then ultimately the protagonist saying the same thing at the end to close off the narrative. The primary theme that you as a writer are trying to assert is either inverted or reapplied in affirmation. This is the Cinematic style in a nutshell.

The second way to End a narrative is more subtle and depends on what your story ultimately achieves. The Postmodern ending, which is just what I like to call it, is where the book ends on a theme of rejection of the ultimate premise of the narrative worldview. This differs from the cinematic style in that, the prior style you are affirming or rejecting what you, the writer, desire to affirm or reject. Here it's from a different perspective. This is like the ending of George Orwell's 1984 where the main protagonist Winston Smith ultimately fails to rebel against Big Brother, falling into the treachery of O'Brien, his perceived ally. After being mentally reconditioned, Winston lives out his days loving Big Brother, though it is assumed that he will be executed eventually after he has regained full faith in the System that enslaved him. This spirit of Irony is simple and powerful. Another example of what could have been a Postmodern ending is if Christopher Nolan concluded Dark Knight Rises with Bane breaking Batman's back.

The third and final way to end a book is the simplest. Just end it! As writers I think we have been conditioned by institutions and individuals in our lives to write in ways that are inorganic and unnatural. You don't have to do anything fancy. Sometimes the end just needs to come. Sometimes it's good to feel the strain of an incomplete story. Don't let anyone tell you how to end a book. Period.

Anyways, that's all I have for you guys today. I hope you all enjoyed another lesson. See you all next week!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Passing Through

Hello Friends!

I'm afraid I don't have much for you today. I have been quite busy doing the "domestic things" one needs doing after getting married. I promise a large and sweeping article on Thursday. For now I will give you a poem to sate your thirst:

Do not Mourn me, I am not dead
But alive in some place where ink
is infinite in color.

There the emerald sheen glows
brighter
Than star light. Burns hotter than
stars brighter than any star before it.

The world Changes, symbols
live in the streets below us,
wondering if it's safe.

Metal men, and caped crusaders
hide for life
yet
cannot find it. They fear the modern man.
Men posting signs that things will change
whatever
that means. They can't see in front of their
own faces any more.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Request #2: Dialogue

As before this is a second request I received last week. I was asked to clarify what I meant by creating narrative that relied solely on the dialogue shedding light on the characters. If any of you are familiar with Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, and it's introductory chapters, then you know what I am referring to. I just think that this is a very non-constrictive approach to narrative that really encourages the reader to visualize the actors in the dialogue. But anyways here's an illustration for you:

"Where's Geoffrey? He said he would be here soon..."

"Not sure... You want one?"

"Sorry. Don't Smoke. Jesus, I don't know how you can stand those things."

"What?"

"The way they smell... like burnt ovens and ashtrays."

"You get used to it..."

"I remember what they called you in high school."

"Yeah? What did they call me?"

"It slips my mind... probably Thug."

"Sounds right."

"So, what do you think that we are supposed to be waiting for?"

"A package, or something. It's in the manifest. Right here... Somewhere..."

"And Geoffrey is supposed to bring it?"

"Yeah..."

"Then we kill him?"

"Yeah."

"Bang. Bang. Like a limp fish."

"So how did you get involved in this racket?"'

"Blackmail. The Don has my kids. Said he's going to grind them down into paste if I don't do him a favor real quick."

"And you hope this qualifies as a Favor?"

"Yeah..."

"Do you think he has kids?"

"Who? Geoffrey?"

"Yeah."

"Don't know... Where did that come from? Aren't you paid not to ask that?"

"Guy's got a conscience..."

"Out of sight, out of mind, I say."

"Out of sight. That's what they say."

"What?"

"Don't let them out of your sight. First thing I learned."

"How sweet."

"Yeah... sweet. Shit... I'm out. You got 5 bucks?"

"For what?"

"I need another pack. They cost 4.76. I need enough for tax."

"Sure. Let me know if you see Geoffrey."

"Out of Sight..."

"What?"

"Nothing. It's nothing...."

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Request #1: Shorts

I received a request last week to do a spur-of-the-moment short about a mundane protagonist with nothing to do. I myself decided among the available options to take this challenge to show you, as budding authors, what there is to talk about when dealing with the Jerry Seinfeld of the literary world. Hope you enjoy.

Love.

He sat awake on the bed sheets, feeling the smooth cold of their touch caress his back. There was no work for him to do that day. That would be tomorrow. No, today he slept.

Above him the Sun was rising, taking it's place among the celestial bodies, where God could see him rub one out. Long ago, two weeks ago, he had stapled with his neighbors MitchCo Staple Gun, some heavy sheets above his window frame to keep out the light. To no avail, the Sun poked through with divine finger tips, a single beam firing out towards his bare chest.

The woman had declined to come up stairs. He hoped to see her again.

His luck with women was sparse, few and far between. His mind was a motion detector; finding those straying into his perimeter and pouncing on them with crude jokes about his penis and whatever played on Late Night. His fields of promise had dried up, one by one, a new neighborhood initiative to clean up the town. She was different though, not one of the usual collective.

Susan worked as a cataloger in the city archives; had an eye for detail and principals. He didn't know who Goethe was, or why he was important, but she was important. That was all she talked about the night before. She wasn't bored though. Susan had the passion of a young artist. She had found the grail, an excerpt in a local rare book store: a hidden ending to Faust Part One. It read "Sie ist gefallen," whatever that meant.

Perhaps it was her mind that challenged him. That night she asked him what he did for a living (janitor) and what he had studied in school (dropout). He declined to say after pondering the consequences of lying to her. Susan was different. She was more than different. She was real.

He hoped to fall asleep again. The unfeeling fog of unconsciousness was calling him back again. No one could crush him in his dreams. There he was safe. Safe to sleep, and fall away, again.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Man of Feeling

I have unfortunately never read Henry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling, though it was assigned to me in my  Early Modern Litterature course in college to drawn comparisons between the automatia of the age and the naive protagonist Harley. Man's pursuit to blur the lines of distinction between man and machine in the Early Modern era, a task which extends to this day, has not waned in it's fervor but I still remember the study of Emotion during the course especially as it pertained to the Romanticism unit in the course. That being said, let's discuss emotion, particularly pertaining to literary characters.

Characters, as I have mentioned previously, are people in the literal sense-- thinking, feeling, autonomous, etc.-- and it is rude to curtail their expressive power with our whims and predilections. I think one of the best ways to write authentic emotional expression is to get into contact with raw human emotion. I do this with the news sometimes. CNN always has a story about some poor bastard who gets iced in some hovel somewhere around the world, so I usually start there. Real people do real things, somethings too horrible to imagine. Others can also do great and courageous things as well. Between the two we can glean more about human behavior in the extreme.

Emotive characters generally surprise and inspire us, draw us out, and engage our feelings and emotions. Often they do unexpected things, which we find unsettling. Sex scenes often surprise us in literature in this regard, because we forget that our characters are passionate and lustful just like normal humans. How scandalous you desire to be is up to you, but generally I pull back, not necessarily because I am Christian, but because I feel most humans have an understanding of what goes on under the sheets, so I don't feel compelled to elaborate.

Another exercise that could be helpful is to take exhaustive inventories of your characters. The way to do this is to take a sheet of paper and write on it your character's habits, hobbies, anything really that the character does. This information isn't necessarily going to make it into the story most of the time, but what it does is help to build a picture of the character in your mind. Most of the people we write come to genesis in our minds as 2D cardboard cutouts, and it isn't until the end of the work that we are familiar with the character. This can help sideline that process. Does your character smoke? Does she get her period? Does he drive a pickup truck, or a sedan? These are minute details that don't need to be in the book, but we all know how the little details influence our writing style.

The last and final example is one that is long coming. You can copy other people's characters. Sometimes the most interesting novel is one that features and amalgam of odd characters that meet one another. The chemistry is limitless. What if you wrote a book about two roommates, Darkseid and Superman, but they aren't the actual characters, just two men with their personalities? However implausible, it would make for an interesting narrative. This isn't the most thought provoking example mind you, but it's a start.

I hope you found this lesson enjoyable. Stay tuned for next week where I will start a new project suggested to me by one of my readers. Should be fun. See you then!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Recovering from Seclusion

I apologize for being away a week. These things happen when you get married. I am not sorry.

While in Lake Arrowhead, being supplied a cabin from one of my good writing friends, I had the opportunity to refine my calling and outlook on this current endeavor. Briefly I desire to share this with you. Alas, this means no tutorials today, but I promise they will resume on Thursday.

When I started this blog my intention was rather noble: increase my familiarity to the betterment of my novel that I am currently writing. Likewise I battled the urge of appearing pretentious in my mission. Many blogs are mausoleums, merely mounting to the self aggrandizement of one's menial hobbies and philosophical quips. I want to remain true to this original schematic. Though I may be a fool speaking to the cavernous darkness in vain, a fool of pure conscience I'd rather be.

So I volunteer your aide, your assistance in my journey. If at any moment you want me to deviate from my current course and explore a particular area, I welcome the challenge; otherwise I will continue in my pursuits unabated. This is important to me. I want to be challenged and moved. I ask that you afford me this honor.

On Thursday we will discuss character emotions. Stay tuned!