layer on layer
adds just enough thought
to form, to fortify
layer on layer
layer on layer
adds just enough thought
to form, to fortify
During my vacation last week, I read Hint Fiction, Robert Swartwood’s collection of ficlets. All sorts of authors contributed to it, each writing a particular sort of story: a composition of 25 words, or fewer, which does not simply tell a story but hints at a larger picture.
For example, the very first: Joe Lansdale’s “The Return.”
They buried him deep. Again.
5 words that imply a man or masculine creature, one who apparently died and certainly was buried, who was buried deep the first time but nonetheless was exhumed (or dug his own way out), and who They, once again, buried…for all the good it will do, which may not be much. A brief respite? A century of rest? We don’t know! But we’re left to imagine it.
It’s a strong entry to lead the anthology. That sort of compression, almost a prose poem, takes a lot of thought and the ability to sift the wheat from the chaff.
Unfortunately, for every hint that grabbed me, making me pause to ruminate on the larger picture implied by it, there were four that let me pass on by. Fortunately, in a book of 125 hint-fics, that’s 25 stories that left some impression. The finer specimens make the most of their title, or use allusions to other stories (Penelope, “Not Waving But Drowning,” Shark Week) as a shortcut.
In the interest of moderating my judgment, I tried writing a few; to try and focus my thoughts, these hint fics are summaries of longer books I’ve read somewhat recently, though that’s not necessarily the best method to achieve this sort of iceberg-writing.
Where dreams come true, so do nightmares.
Suffering the rough buffs away our raggedness until we shine.
Curiosity, puzzle-solving, and loving the 1980s enough could make you a billionaire. Bonus girlfriend, if the evil corporation doesn’t kill you first.
They shared what beauty they could find like war rations, to multiplicative effect. Friendship does not destroy death, but it does discourage suicide.
I wouldn’t call Hint Fiction a must-read, and I certainly wouldn’t call it a must-buy. But it’s a fun read, and beneficial to writers who don’t otherwise weigh out their words. Certainly these droplets of story prove that a lot of horror fits in a small space; it’s harder to fit a great deal of glory into that same small space.
The old hands are immensely practical when it comes to the brainstorm. That man sets out his barrels. Everything that falls will be caught, examined, measured, and either retained forever or thrown ruthlessly away. When he is well-prepared, the barrels fill quickly and all within it poured, neatly, tidily, no drops wasted, into a series of jars and pipes and other useful apparatus. He is practiced at plodding steadily onward in dry seasons, making the most of what he has preserved. Some of it is years, decades, threescore-and-ten years old; if time hasn’t dried it up, then the interval has probably rendered it sweet and strong: a sensible spirit, distilled by seasons.
Others wrap up tightly and keep safe beneath an umbrella. They are on a schedule and have no time for any diversion from it. The sensation of hair wet with forms and cold, clinging clothing disgusts them. Only the concepts they desire in their heads will be there, only those they select. Who knows what will happen, if one allows any old idea in one’s head? A mind full of illusions, that’s what, one that needs to be wrung out (or, perhaps, direr means still)!
But we – we like to take our chances.
Come with me!
We dash through (catching a drop here, a drop there), jumping over a puddle that will take us a bit too deep, but not troubling to cover our heads or duck against the downpour.
Clasp my hand, and we will spin about in it.
Laughing, we will look out on those who, like us, know how to enjoy this most delightful of tempests: they splash in a collection of notions. They stomp concepts into a muddy puddle that clings to their boots and hems when, eventually, they go indoors. They lift their faces up to the sky, pleased that images land on their tongue, eager for drips and drops of essence and illusion to fill their mouths like wine.
Watching, we do likewise. Before the cloudburst ends, we cup our hands to receive one shining vision, clutching it carefully to keep.
From Imagination to the Blank Page. A difficult crossing, the waters dangerous. At first sight the distance seems small, yet what a long voyage it is, and how injurious sometimes for the ships that undertake it.
The first injury derives from the highly fragile nature of the merchandise that the ships transport. In the marketplaces of Imagination most of the best things are made of fine glass and diaphanous tiles, and despite all the care in the world, many break on the way, and many break when unloaded on the shore. Moreover, any such injury is irreversible, because it is out of the question for the ship to turn back and take delivery of things equal in quality. There is no chance of finding the same shop that sold them. In the marketplaces of Imagination, the shops are large and luxurious but not long-lasting. Their transactions are short-lived, they dispose of their merchandise quickly and immediately liquidate. It is very rare for a returning ship to find the same exporters with the same goods.
Another injury derives from the capacity of the ships. They leave the harbors of the opulent continents fully loaded, and then, when they reach the open sea, they are forced to throw out a part of the load in order to save the whole. Thus, almost no ship manages to carry intact as many treasures as it took on. The discarded goods are of course those of the least value, but it happens sometimes that the sailors, in their great haste, make mistakes and throw precious things overboard.
And upon reaching the white paper port, additional sacrifices are necessary. The customs officials arrive and inspect a product and consider whether they should allow it to be unloaded; some other product is not permitted ashore; and some goods they admit only in small quantities. A country has its laws. Not all merchandise has free entry, and contraband is strictly forbidden. The importation of wine is restricted, because the continents from which the ships come produce wines and spirits from grapes that grow and mature in more generous temperatures. The customs officials do not want these alcoholic products in the least. They are highly intoxicating. They are not appropriate for all palates. Besides, there is a local company that has the monopoly in wine. It produces a beverage that has the color of wine and the taste of water, and this you can drink the day long without being affected at all. It is an old company. It is held in great esteem, and its stock is always overpriced.
Still, let us be pleased when the ships enter the harbor, even with all these sacrifices. Because, after all, with vigilance and great care, the number of broken or discarded goods can be reduced during the course of the voyage. Also, the laws of the country and the customs regulations, though oppressive in large measure, are not entirely prohibitive, and a good part of the cargo gets unloaded. Furthermore, the customs officials are not infallible: some of the merchandise gets through in mislabeled boxes that say one thing on the outside and contain something else; and, after all, some choice wines are imported for select symposia.
Something else is sad, very sad. That is when certain huge ships go by with coral decorations and ebony masts, with great white and red flags unfurled, full of treasures, ships that do not even approach the harbor either because all of their cargo is forbidden or because the harbor is not deep enough to receive them. So they continue on their way. A favorable wind fills their silk sails, the sun burnishes the glory of their golden prows, and they sail out of sight calmly, majestically, distancing themselves forever from us and our cramped harbor.
Fortunately, these ships are very scarce. During our lifetime we see two or three of them at most. And we forget them quickly. Equal to the radiance of the vision is the swiftness of its passing. And after a few years have gone by, if—as we sit passively gazing at the light or listening to the silence—if someday certain inspiring verses return by chance to our mind’s hearing, we do not recognize them at first and we torment our memory trying to recollect where we heard them before. With great effort the old remembrance is awakened, and we recall that those verses are from the song chanted by the sailors, handsome as the heroes of the Iliad, when the great, the exquisite ships would go by on their way—who knows where.
I have a couple of book reviews in the pipeline, including one for Neil Postman’s Technopoly. Since I am tracking my 2015 reading with GoodReads, I gave it a quick rating there, which exposed me to everyone else’s thoughts on it.
Intriguingly, even the people who hated or disagreed with its premise and/or arguments noted that they were impressed with the writing itself. Some declared that the reason for their 2-star (rather than 1-star) rating; others were disgusted that his prose style was so compelling, as they believed that obscured the weakness of his arguments.
All of which is to say, Neil Postman’s got style. And I wonder how to get it.
Or, well, that’s not quite it. I’ve heard and read enough to know that style is an elusive sort of beast, slippery like a ferret. And despite concerted effort, changing or shifting one’s writing style can be like moving a glacier: undeniable, inexorable, powerful…but slow.
So I wonder: how slow? The other day, I came across this post about copying out the work of excellent writers in order to sharpen one’s skills. It’s a method that promises improvement, but most certainly requires an investment of effort, a healthy measure of intention and attention, a careful ear and eye, and above all, time.
I’m not hoping for an overnight change to my own writing, but I want to put myself in mind of the fact that I am – and my writing is – what I read. What I set before my eyes determines what issues from my mind and out through my mouth or keyboard or pen.
Perhaps I will start with Elements of Eloquence, or with a reread of Strunk and White.
No matter what, it is time to begin.
As Thalia has noted, she and I have worked with Athanatos Christian Ministries for some years in guiding the semi-finalists of their annual novel contest in polishing their submissions.
When it comes to editing any sort of writing project, my kneejerk inclination, which I may or may not follow, is to read it through and take a red pen to any and all mechanical errors and questionable phrasing. This can get fussy, and honestly it’s all but meaningless with regard to the unfolding of the plot – unless there are some particularly egregious misspellings!
But spelling, grammar, and comma usage are a free-and-easy fix compared to more fundamental aspects of a story. Clearing away the haze of poor mechanics reveals the soundness (or deficiency!) of its underlying elements. So writers, bear in mind a couple of basic principles:
Problems are Plot. This took me a very long while to get my head around – first because I wrote self-insertion stories wherein I could ~magically~ do anything and everything (including fly a magic carpet to Venezuela, own a house full of gemstones the size of my fist, and have my grade-school crush fall in love with me: plain ol’ wish fulfillment, nothing more), and later because I crafted characters who I hated to subject to troublesome things. It seemed unkind, creating someone just to afflict him with grief, or her with financial disaster, or both of them with romantic disappointment that could easily be avoided with a little bit of communication.
But characters exist for story, and stories are fueled by problems. This is the essential Rule of Drama. Maybe they’re internal problems, which eventually manifest in a strange or sudden action from the protagonist. Maybe they’re mechanical problems: the car broke down in the middle of nowhere, the plane is falling from the sky, the parachute was replaced by a live alligator. Maybe they’re failures of communication or understanding. Maybe they’re the tension between what is right and what is easy. Maybe there are triplets, not twins. Maybe a man came through the door with a gun in his hand.
Don’t just show me a nondescript fellow carrying on his orderly life in a mediocre fashion. Don’t just give me a flat sequence of happenstances, don’t spend the whole book describing the landscape or characters, don’t bore me with 12 chapters of exposition. Start somewhere, add problems, work to solve the problems, add more problems in the meantime, and end up somewhere else – or as someone else.
This is also an important point. The Catcher in the Rye presents us with a character and adds problems, or something like, but none of them are resolved. The Holden Caulfield at the end is just like the Holden Caulfield at the beginning, except he’s a little bit older. Which might be the idea: here, look at this teenager; behold how lame he is; don’t you just want to not be like him in any way?
It’s a long-winded, time-consuming way to teach a single lesson. But it does follow my other main rule for writers:
Don’t Be Didactic. What does that mean? Well, in an earlier post I noted that “didactic” comes from the Greek word for “teaching,” and thus isn’t bad per se. Teaching is good: but how to do it? Show your work. Don’t tell the reader “Well, that business was just evil” or “James suddenly behaved properly, fancy that” or “Communism doesn’t work.” You have just told the reader about the start of the maze, then dropped him off at the end of the maze, and revealed none of the twists and turns within it. You have held up a solved puzzle, an assembled model, a fully-folded piece of origami, and kept its inner workings to yourself. Will it hold together? How should we know? Can we take your word for it, since you didn’t take us through the process?
Emily pointed out that some examples or excerpts would be helpful, and indeed, I stand convicted of doing the thing while telling storytellers not to do it. The difficulty is that I don’t want to quote sections of Athanatos entries I’ve read, since that’s not in keeping with contest rules or a spirit of charity.
So let me take a step back and note that, as I understand Athanatos, their mission is to find and encourage Christian authors. However, they want stories, first and foremost: well-crafted, well-told, beautiful stories, which will draw in and grip whoever reads them. They need not be explicitly Christian, if that makes sense; in fact, a latent approach might be preferable. Though we’ve gotten a fair few novels featuring one or more of the following tropes, it’s not always most effective to feature an altar call, full Bible verses, a conversion prayer, the appearance of angels, a discussion of various points of doctrine, or a bright shining light with a heavenly voice. There might be occasions where one or another of these, or something like them, can be deployed to good effect; for the most part, such elements only speak to readers already on the inside of the circle.
Stories are journeys, not destinations, so let your characters and your readers travel. Stick your travelers between a frying pan and a fire. When difficult questions arise, don’t just answer them, straight off; let them unfurl into tension between characters who want different things, who believe different things – just like real life. Let there be consequences to choices made, and let those consequences illuminate the nature of the choices instead of baldly stating your estimation of it. Not that every single choice the characters make must be labored over in a welter of philosophizing – in that case, they might not do anything – but maintain personalities that are real enough to conflict with each other, in such a way that resolution of that conflict means something.
The best books have the power to change their readers. Fashioning something with that power requires some heavy lifting and a good deal of internal wrestling (and revision, and revision, and revision). But the end product shines like the sword Zhaligkeer: “You have then the strength of four blades, not just one. There is a tension in the twisting of the braid that is never undone. This tension is what makes the sword leap to the hand and sing in the air. No common blade forged of a rod and flattened can stand against it.”
Do you ever do an image search of a word or phrase just to see the variety of pictures that come up?
I decided over the weekend that I’d like to get back into doing calligraphy projects, and spent part of this evening relearning the typical features of Anglo-Saxon lettering: thorns, yoghs, Ws that resemble nothing so much as the letter P, and all three varieties of S. Since it’s been some 4.5 years since I’ve done much with this script, I couldn’t remember the rules governing the different esses. Was one meant to start words and another to finish them? No matter how I wrote Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg, that double-s looked stupid.
Quite the variety! Granted, there are about 5 sites (3 of them fora) responsible for most of the pictorial diversity, but I was amused nonetheless.
It also makes me go “Hallelujah” because presumably the tattooee verified how the s situation ought to be handled before having it inked into his (her?) flesh.