8

Silence, Be Broken!

So . . . it’s been a while. :) Unintentionally, mind you.

Last November, I was doing what I called NaNotWriMo, meaning that I ignored NaNoWriMo for the first time since 2008, and instead, I decluttered my office. I made it a lot better. It’s still not perfect, but it is orders of magnitude better than it was.

And then toward the end of November some stuff happened. Real-life stuff. Stuff I won’t go into. But it was enough that I didn’t want to blog or write or do much of anything else creative. So I left the office declutterization unfinished, abandoned all my writing projects, and every time I thought I had something to say, here, I’d talk myself out of it with a very old argument. “Dude, this is a writing blog. You should write about, you know . . . writing. And since you aren’t doing that, what’s the point?”

And that is how we end up at May 7th with the first post since November 18th.

But enough about that. I have ranting to get to!


What I was wondering is: am I the only one who, while reading, lets a name that appears to have several, conflicting, legitimate pronunciations throw me out of the story?

I can’t help it. Every time I see the name, I find myself pausing and thinking “Is it Lord High Emperor of Space and Time Potayto Salaad, Potahto Salaad, or Pah-tah-toe Salaad? And is it Salahd, Sah-lah-ahd, or Sah-lah-ahd?”

Yes, this kind of thing really does bother me, and it is literally every time I run across the name while reading. It slows me down and throws me out of the book. If it’s a name like Mary or Frank or Kira or even Binbiniqegabinik, there are very limited ways it could be pronounced. And in the case of that last one, it was made clear in the book what the proper pronunciation is, if I recall correctly.

A friend posted a question on Facebook, asking if she should use ‘Kira,’ ‘Brianna,’ or ‘Brienne’ as a character name. I voted firmly for Kira, because for me, those other two would cause me to read at half speed unless a pronunciation guide were given. Is the ‘i’ in ‘Brianna’ long or short? Is the first ‘a’ like the one in ‘bat’ or the one in ‘father’? We won’t even go into ‘Brienne’ and all the different ways I could find to pronounce it. I would probably have to just mentally call ‘Brienne’ something like ‘Bree’ or reading a sentence would go like this:

Brienne [Bree-en? Bree-en? Bry-en? Bry-en? Is the final ‘e’ pronounced? Gaaah!] and Gemina [Is the ‘g’ hard or soft? Is it ‘{G|J}em-i-na’, or ‘{G|J}e-mee-na’? Gaaah!] leapt into the saddle of Brienne’s [Bree-en’s? Bree-en‘s?] steed Fnaben [Dammit.] . . .

I’m guilty of it, myself, of course. On Second Life, I’m known by the name Sathor Chatnoir. Although ‘Chatnoir’ is fairly simple if you know French pronounciation, apparently ‘Sathor’ gives people fits. To me, it’s obviously Say-thor (where ‘Thor’ is pronounced like the Norse god), but when I heard people pronouncing it (we sometimes abandon typing and actually talk), people were saying it to rhyme with Dan Rather’s last name, or pronouncing the ‘Sa’ as “sah” instead of “say.” I was totally flabberghasted because to me, it’s so obvious. :)

And yeah, I know that it doesn’t matter how a name is pronounced unless there’s some poetry involved (A Elbereth Gilthoniel / silivren penna míriel . . .). I guess all I’m saying is that I like to know. Maybe it has something to do with being raised fairly early in my reading-for-pleasure life on books like The Lord of the Rings where there is an actual pronunciation guide right there in the book to tell you that the “C” in “Celeborn” is hard, or that the second syllable of “Lothlorien” is stressed.

Anyway, it’s probably just me, and this is just a rant, but at least it’s off my chest, now, and I can get back to plotting my novels and novellas. :)


You may notice over on the right of this page three circular graphs showing progress. Those are novels I’m working on co-plotting. They are the first three novels of my MCU Case Files series, and there are a lot of interwoven plots that need to all resolve by the end of Book 3, so that’s mostly what I’m working on. The current figures are only guesses, but I had to point out the cool graphs because cool.

4

NaNotWriMo 2014, Day 7: Treasure!

Last night, I was up fairly late catching up on a podcast and some YouTube channels. When I went up for bed, I kept my self-promise to disposition at least one thing in the office. Since I wasn’t leaving again until the morning, I decided to shuffle some things around that I knew would either be staying in the room or staying in the room until later. Call it “consolidation” of similar items.

I moved all of my old computers into one corner. With the old printer and the old speakers, and stacked old keyboards and mice nearby. Shuffled a bunch of boxes of photos to one place. Stacked back editions of magazines together. Stacked books I’ve read together.

Etc.

Then I came to this box that I knew hadn’t been opened in quite a while, if ever. I think it has been in the room since I moved in, and has had stuff stacked on it since.

Upon opening it, I immediately recognized every item inside. Stuff I haven’t seen since probably 1999 when I moved to Georgia from Alabama.

Without even having to go through each of them laboriously, I knew I had found:

  • A spiral-bound notebook from 1983 containing a travelogue I wrote while on a trip to England and France (graduation gift from my parents). Pictures from that trip. Souvenirs from that trip.
  • A spiral-bound notebook I used to carry around in high school (ca. 1980-1983) and in which I hand-wrote stories in pencil. It has several in there that I had thought long lost. For the good of humanity, they shall remain so. I was amazingly, overwhelmingly, stupendously fond of utilizing really overly dramatic and annoyingly overabundant abverbs and adjectives back then.
  • A spiral-bound notebook containing story notes from a novel I have had in my head since I was about eleven years old, and which eventually became my (unfinished) NaNoWriMo novel for 2008, The Third Prophecy.

    As an aside, judging from the writing, I probably should have been writing the story as a screenplay. I did things very cinematically, starting the story with a wide, exterior establishing shot, then zooming in to a medium distance, and finally into a close-up of the character starting his action. That it took me five pages to get there is a testament to how far I’ve come since then.

  • World maps I drew of my sci-fi/fantasy world(s) from the larger universe surrounding The Third Prophecy. The alphabet I came up with for the language spoken by one of the races on one of those worlds. Notes I wrote for the sounds of that language and several more. A few rudimentary words in said languages. The numbering system used by the race that speaks one of those languages. (Have I mentioned I was a huge Tolkien fan?) Pseudocode for a computer program to create random words for said language. (Somewhere there exists a program I wrote that, given any number, generates the words to say it in this language. Have I mentioned I’m a huge geek?)

But the pièce de résistance was another spiral-bound notebook in which I had done my “first sentence” exercise from 1995 until I got my first Franklin Planner. Archived in this notebook are probably hundreds of first lines of stories that were never intended to be written. Just looking through them reminded me how creative it felt to do that.

But if I start that again, where to put it? My planner? Evernote? Dropbox? Google Docs? Scrivener? Somewhere else? Heh! The same notebook, nearly ten years later?

Anyway, I look forward to going through these old treasures and finding a proper place to put them. Perhaps the recycle bin is best for some of it.

2

NaNotWriMo 2014, Day 4

NaNotWriMo seems a lot easier on the brainpan to try to decipher than my earlier choices for what to call this month.

I’ve kept up with my plan. Every time I go upstairs in my house (where the master suite, including my office, is located), I disposition at least one thing in my office. It has even resulted in me bringing things in from outside the room, but it’s because the things I’m bringing in are part of a set of things that need to be in that room (e.g., writing books). It’s all about the ensemble, see.

Anyway, I can now actually see the top of my desk. As it turns out, there is one under there! And it’s brown! And covered with glass! Hmm. Very dirty glass. I’ll clean it later. It’ll probably get worse again before it gets better (flat surface = a place to put things that are being ‘dispositioned’).

And as far as the other thing goes — the outline — I’ve been making copious notes (in longhand; there’s just something more . . . real, I guess? . . . about making notes by hand instead of typing them). Defining world events and potential conflicts, characters and their flaws, looking for conflicts between and among them. On the way to work this morning, a gaping hole in my world design opened up and let me peer into its abyss. So I have to come up with something to plug that.

Or, alternatively, find a way to fold it into my world in a way that complements what I already have.

But at least that’s progress. I’d rather see those holes now than when my alpha readers get hold of the book and say, “Dude, really? I could drive the Death Star through this hole.”

The vast majority of clutter that’s in my office, by the way, is — get this — old critiques! It’s where I’ve handed out 1500-word segments of my stories to my Tuesday night group (The Forum Writers Group, a.k.a. The Fountain Pen 2.0) and have received back written comments. There are stacks of these going back . . . longer than I’m willing to admit, really.

Although one bonus of that is that I now have the complete text of a novella I somehow managed to completely lose from all my electronic storage. As much as I would very much like to use this as an excuse in support of paper-hoarding, I know that it’s a bad thing.

Really.

The recycle people are not going to know what’s going on at my house for the next three weeks.

I’ve also started looking at comfortable chairs for the room. Ideally, I’d like a nice, leather chair-and-a-half with a small end table and lamp so I can sit in there and read. There’s plenty of room if I get rid of the old computers (plural) and rearrange the room slightly.

But I won’t be getting any of that until the room is done. And rearranged.

And repainted?

Whoa, Nellie! Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. :) The current light sage color that was perfect in 2001 is too pastel for me, now. I think I’d like a dark mocha. Make it more of a man-cave. With, like, six windows. :-/

What goes with dark, hunter green carpet? (Not my choice; the people who sold the house left me dark, hunter green carpet in that one room.)

6

Et Tu, Crustulum?

Fortune

Fortune

A few days ago, I went to a Chinese buffet near my office for lunch. It’s not what I’d call great, but it is fairly good and filling. They have good peanut butter chicken, hot and sour soup, broccoli chicken, garlic and zhà cài (榨菜) green beans, chicken on a stick, and mashed potatoes.

Hey, don’t judge me. Good mashed potatoes are a thing of beauty and one should not look a gift potato in the eyes.

OK, that really took an odd turn.

. . . Where was I?

Oh, right. After I was done, the server brought a fortune cookie. I opened it and got what you see to the right.

Seems like even the cookie is judging me. :)

8

NaNoWriMo 2014?

NaNoWriMo 2014 Participant

NaNoWriMo 2014 Participant

I haven’t talked about NaNoWriMo at all, this year. Each year, since 2008, I’ve participated religiously, writing anywhere from 50,000 to 122,000 words in the space of thirty days.

But this year . . . I don’t know. I’ve already proven to myself six times over that I can do exactly that — write a bunch of words in one month. And that’s great. It is. It means that when I put my mind to it and have a road map to follow, I can produce like crazy. But more importantly, here is what I’ve shown myself.

  • During NaNoWriMo, I write a lot of words, and sometimes I like those words, but — well, take last year, for example. I wrote > 50,000 words during November, sure. But they were throw-away words. All of them. I’ve since re-structured the entire world of that novel and invalidated every single syllable I wrote last year. All the main characters are now different. The “plot” (such as it was) is different. The world is different.
  • Even while writing last year, my heart wasn’t in it. I wrote maybe two chapters worth of actual novel . . . and the other 48,000 words were about the murder victims and the murderer as children, and what led to the crimes. I abandoned my characters shortly after their introduction because, frankly, the story wasn’t at all exciting to me. It bored me so much, I couldn’t even interest myself. (Hence the restructure of the world I mentioned earlier.)
  • I have written almost nothing since last November. And in 2013, I wrote almost nothing after NaNoWriMo 2012. Aside from some flash pieces in January and February — for the Codex Weekend Warrior, another timed writing event — I have worked on some stories I already had in the works and half-heartedly pushed a pencil across paper a few times, making notes about my novel series, trying to excitify it to at least regain my own interest.
  • I’m afraid that what I’ve managed to do is train myself that only November is for writing (with a tiny bit in January and February), but I don’t have to do it any other time. At Viable Paradise in 2012, we were cautioned about that. To avoid tying writing to other habits. One instructor quit smoking and found that he could not write anymore because he had mentally tied writing with the ritual of smoking. Give up one, the other goes, too. He had to start smoking again in order to get back to writing. November, I’m afraid, has become that, for me.

I haven’t even tried to come up with an idea for something to write. People keep asking me, “Hey, what are you working on for NaNoWriMo, this year?” and I’ve been vague and noncommittal about it. I’ve had several glimmers that forced themselves on me while I was driving or in the shower or just dropping off to sleep, but those are the desperation ideas that mean my brain is humoring me by coming up with ideas at times when I can’t do much about them.

And as much as I’d like to blame how busy I am at work — and I am very busy — I can’t. I’ve made time in the past for NaNoWriMo, even if it meant getting up at 5:00 AM or taking long lunches to write. Even if it meant taking time at Thanksgiving away from my family to write. Even if it meant missing things because I knew that if I didn’t, I wouldn’t make my word-count for the day.

But only during November. Come December 1, I go back to my normal habits.

So, the conclusion I’ve come to is that as much fun as I have had in the past doing NaNoWriMo, and as much as I’d love to have that enthusiasm right now, I just don’t. And therefore will be sitting out this year.

I’m hoping that I’ll motivate myself to at least use the month to come up with something of an outline that will help me regain my enthusiasm for this project. I want to love it, again. I want to look forward to writing it.

Also, I don’t really have a comfortable writing space. Work is out, my living room is hard because there’s usually other distractions. My home office is a place that no sane person would want to spend any time in. (Which, by the way, still leaves me out. I’m pretty sure I’m still sane. Probably.) Perhaps I’ll use November to rectify that and turn my home office into a writing retreat. (Anybody got a flame thrower and an industrial grade paper shredder they’d let me borrow?)

You have no idea how much it actually pains me to sit this year out, but I think it’s the right decision. I stopped going to two of my critique groups because I just haven’t written anything, and the constant reminder of that whilst reading other people’s work was, frankly, depressing. I purposefully didn’t go to any conventions or writing seminars or anything of that sort this year, because if I’m not writing, then there’s no need to pretend otherwise. Why spend money needlessly?

It was an attempt to light a fire under my butt to get me writing. Instead, all it did was de-habituate writing even further.

So that banner up there is a lie. It says “NaNoWriMo 2014 Participant.” But I’m not a participant. I’m a spectator, this year.

Good luck, everyone, on your NaNoWriMo endeavors. I hope you all fly past the goal and keep going into the future.

To reiterate, my “goals” (such as they are) for NaNoWriMo are:

  • do some sort of outline for at least the first novel, if not the first few in the series
  • turn my office into a place where a sane person (such as myself) would actually want to spend time, and make it conducive to writing.
0

Lost in Translation, Part 2

I encountered another one of those things that made me take a moment to step back and say, “Wait a second. That doesn’t make any sense.”

If you don’t recall, I talked about one such thing in an earlier post.

This one is much shorter, and came from both an old pulp story I was listening to on a podcast and some old movies I’ve seen. This is one of those, “Did people ever really talk like this?” things.

The scene: Two people are talking. One of them (BOB) is a crook or dishonest in some way. The audience either knows or suspects this. The other (ALICE) is an “investigator” or another crook. Alice is trying to convince Bob to go along with something, whether it’s telling the truth (if Alice is an investigator) or another con (if Alice is a crook).

Alice makes her case.

Bob (reluctantly) agrees to go along with whatever scheme Alice has presented, starts to walk away, then turns and says, his voice dripping with suspicion, “Say . . . this isn’t some kind of trick, is it?” (Sometimes, it’s “trap” instead of “trick.”)

Alice responds, “Of course not,” and possibly follows up with, “Would I do that to you?”

Of course, whether Alice is an investigator or a crook, there is a better than even chance that it is some sort of trick. And the audience is fully aware of it because the audience is very smart.

Unlike Bob.

I mean, seriously, what would make Bob ask Alice that? It’s a nonsense question with no chance of any answer other than “no.” Whether that “no” is a lie or true depends entirely on Alice’s character.

So why ask it?

I finally thought of a reason for film. In print, the reader is able to get into the mind of the character, but the POV character is almost certainly not going to be Bob, but Alice.

I think maybe having Bob ask that question is a lazy attempt by the writers to give the readers / viewers a peek into Bob’s internal monologue that we couldn’t otherwise see. To let us know that Bob isn’t a total stooge. He knows there’s a chance he’s getting himself into more trouble, but the only way for the lazy writer to let us know this is to have him just come out and ask. For him to willingly go along with whatever scheme it is without question would be to show he’s kind of stupid.

That’s all I can think of, anyway. The other alternative — that he’s asking it because he’s an astute observer of people and can tell when they’re lying and is asking it to force Alice’s inevitable reaction to let him know with certainty what her intentions are — isn’t something I think the pulp writers or screenwriters did, unless Bob was the POV character, in which case he’s asking it for devious reasons.

What do you think?


  1. Can you imagine the story if Alice stopped, blinked, and then slumped and said, “Yeah, Bob, it was. But you caught me.”
Books by Moyan_Brenn, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  Moyan_Brenn 

There’s this meme going around where people are encouraged to list the ten books that changed their life.

Well, a friend of mine (Terra LeMay) decided to change it to “ten pieces of fiction” because short stories, novelettes, novellas, flash, drabbles, etc. can also be transformative.

My problem is, I simply can’t limit it to ten. On my list of novels, alone, it comes to thirteen. With five more short stories.

So I decided to just toss out the rules and do it my own way. So here is the quasi-meme, “Ten or More Pieces of Fiction That Changed My Life.” With the life-changingness interpreted rather liberally. And in no certain order.

  • It by Stephen King (1987)

    This was the first book I literally stayed up all night to read (18 straight hours) because I literally could not put the thing down. Literally. It was super-glued to my hand. (OK, not literally.)

    I had never seen the story-telling technique he used in this book where each alternate chapter was set in either the present or twenty-seven years in the past, when all the characters were children. And the chapters were from alternating POVs as well. I learned a lot about that type of story-telling from this book.

  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis (1950)

    I don’t list all seven of The Chronicles of Narnia or count all of them as a unit because it was reading that first one that made me want to live in a fictional world and have the story never, ever end. It was one of three books that lit the spark of writing in me.

    As an aside, I still want to live in Narnia.

  • 1984 by George Orwell (1950)

    I was well into my adult years when I first read this, even though I was already very into dystopias. I was blown away by it. My mother got to gleefully say her “I told you so”s because she kept trying to get me to read it as a teenager, but it was Old™ and therefore Not Worth My Time™

    Irony Alert: take a look at the publication dates on most of these books. I’m just sayin’. :)

    Winston is a very good unreliable narrator, too, which adds a nice touch.

  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)

    Pretty much the same thing. I read it way later in life than I should have, but it’s one of those books I re-read periodically because it’s just so wonderful.

    It makes the list because of how well it holds up for something written so long ago.

  • The Shining by Stephen King (1977)

    This was the very first “adult” book I read. I was in the sixth grade (age 12) and the book had just come out earlier that year. A friend in my class had read it and made it sound deliciously frightening. Up until this time, all the “horror” books I had read purported to be True™ or Based on Actual Events™. (I was heavily into ghost stories and aliens and Bigfoot and the like.)

    I got it from the Eutaw Library because I was pretty sure there was no way my mother would let me buy it if she knew what it was about. Shhh! Don’t tell her. :)

    I still get chills when I think about the scene where the topiary animals are chasing Danny Torrence.

  • The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien (1937)

    What can I say about this book that hasn’t already been said? It got me interested in epic fantasy, fat books with a lot of pages, and conlangs (constructed languages and alphabets). (I guess those things have been said, but I repeated them anyway. Because I’m a rebel!)

  • The Trouble with Jenny’s Ear by Oliver Butterworth (1960)

    This one requires a bit of explanation. I read it in either fifth or sixth grade as part of my teacher’s Individualized Reading program. We would read books from her carefully selected classroom library and then take an oral test on it to prove we’d actually read it. We’d get points based on our knowledge and the reading level of the book. We had to read a certain number of points for each six-week period of the school year.

    While I was reading this book, I was relentlessly harassed by the other boys in the class for reading a girl’s book. But it was good, and I didn’t care, and I finished it and enjoyed it, and got my points. I guess it taught me that just because a book is aimed at a target audience doesn’t mean others won’t or can’t enjoy it, too.

  • Storm Front by Jim Butcher (2000)

    I read a selection of a story I had just started writing in my newly joined critique group. Someone told me that my story and the style I wrote in reminded them of The Dresden Files‘ author Jim Butcher. I’d never heard of him or the series, so I picked up the first book and started reading. It introduced me to the entire genre which I’m now hopelessly in love with: urban fantasy.

    And also, I want to be him when I grow up. That there’s already a him and that he’s younger than me are irrelevant.

  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1973)

    Another book written “for” girls but which I enjoyed immensely. Introduced me to tesseracts and was one of three books that lit the spark of writing in me.

  • The Old Powder Line by Richard Parker (1974)

    Also read as part of my teacher’s Individualized Reading program, I think it was the first book I had read where time travel was a major component of the story, and it dealt with sticky issues like what happens if you go back in time to before you were born.

  • Dixie North by Herbert Burton (1976)

    This one also requires a bit of background. My mother used to be the director of several things (over time) in the Hale County, Alabama education system. Sometimes, this led to her getting book samples. Sometimes, she brought these home to me. Sometimes, I actually read them. This may have been the first piece of fiction I read entirely voluntarily for pleasure. Plus, it was written by an author from Alabama. Who knew that famous writer-type-people could be from Alabama? It’s also one of the books actually aimed at boys, which is probably why I read it in fifth grade, just after it was published.

  • Below the Root by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (1975)

    To this day, this remains one of the pieces of fiction that my mind goes back to, randomly, from time to time. Such a wonderful story set in an imaginative world. Science fiction, probably mostly for girls, but we come back to that whole ‘audience’ thing.

    One of the three books that lit the spark of writing in me.

  • The Demu Trilogy by F. M. Busby (1984)

    Once more, this requires just a small amount of background. I used to make lists of books for Christmas and birthdays that my parents would distribute to people who wanted to get me something I’d actually use. But this one time, my mother just happened to be walking through a book store, saw this book cover with a cool spaceship and alien worlds on the cover and thought, “I’ll bet Gary would like that,” so she got it. I was in college by this point. I read it . . . and it blew my mind. I’ve read it over and over. It’s just so wonderful. It’s an omnibus collection of three novels and two(?) novellas that ‘fill in the gaps’ between the novels. The ideas presented in this book are just . . . my head just . . . I have no words.

And here are the short stories.

  • “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury (Colliers, May 6, 1950)
  • “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury (The Saturday Evening Post, September 23, 1950 as “The World the Children Made”)
  • “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March, 1954)
  • “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin (Astounding Magazine, 1954)
  • “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed” by Ray Bradbury (Thrilling Wonder Stories, 1949, as “The Naming of Names”)

Each of those stories was mind-blowing to me. I read most of them while I was in middle school. They were in my Literature textbook (I believe), and like most kids that age, I read the entire book before school started.

What? You mean most people didn’t do that? What was wrong with them?

Anyway, the stories all stuck with me for years after I read them. I didn’t remember their names or the authors, but was able to find them later by asking a lot of questions online and running across them in anthologies and the like. Now, I’d just Google ’em, but at the time, there was no Google! I know! How did we live?

Anyway, I hope that didn’t bore you too much. If nothing else, it gave me a nice distraction from a frustrating day of debugging code that should work but refuses to. Because it’s clearly sentient and hates me.

9

Lost in Translation

A few years back, I got on a ‘best films of all time’ kick, telling myself that I’d watch the highest-rated films from the silent era up through whatever year it was. I dove into silent films with a vengeance, curious to see Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in their heyday, as well as seminal films such as Nosferatu, Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and The Passion of Joan of Arc. I thoroughly enjoyed them all. (Watch them. Watch them all.)

Because these were DVDs, most of them had commentary tracks. So I’d watch them without the commentary first, then again with commentary. Sometimes multiple times, if there was more than one commentary track. (No, I’m not OCD, why do you ask?)

I forget which silent film I was watching — I only know it was one of the Charlie Chaplin films — when the commentator (Leonard Maltin) remarked on a unique aspect of silent films that had never occurred to me before, and which has forever changed the way I consume them when I do so.

The scene was Chaplin, as the lovable but hapless tramp, waddling down the middle of a railroad track, oblivious to the fact that there is a giant steam locomotive approaching him from behind. The train gets closer . . . and closer . . . and closer . . . and then just as it’s about to hit him, he blithely steps off the tracks, avoiding certain death by mere inches.

He never once reacts to the fact that he has narrowly escaped death. Because he never turned around to see the train. Because . . . it’s a silent film. He couldn’t hear it. Wait. What?

As I watched, I was tense. “There’s a train coming! Get out of the way, you idiot!” And as he stepped off the track, there was a corresponding release of tension. The “Whew!” moment when the hero narrowly escapes whatever peril the world / villain has in store for him. I had bought into the world entirely.

Maltin made me aware of something I had never considered while watching: we, as the audience, accept the fact that these are silent films. Only certain things make noise, even though we don’t hear them, the character does. Dogs barking, someone calling their name, dropped plates shattering on the floor — they “hear” all of this, and react to it.

But the train? He couldn’t hear it, or even feel the vibrations through the tracks. Because in the world of the silent movie, if the character doesn’t react to it, the audience knows that it is truly silent.

Never mind that in the real world, he would have heard the train approaching and leapt to safety long before death was nigh. Steam locomotives were among some of the loudest machines in the environment at the time, and yet he gave no indication that he heard it.

If a passer-by had shouted, “Hey! Look out! There’s a train!” the tramp would have “heard” and reacted. But not a train as it barrels down on him. This is remarkable if you stop to think about it. It’s never explained. You just get it.

Now. What if this were a short story, instead? Or a “talkie” film? It simply wouldn’t work at all, because we wouldn’t buy the premise.


A scene that always bothered me in the first Harry Potter film reminds me of this. There’s a pivotal scene in chapter 10 of the book in which Harry and Ron, already best buds, Seamus, Hermione, and a bunch of other first-years are attending Professor Flitwick’s class, and he is teaching the students the spell for levitation of an object.

“Now, don’t forget that nice wrist movement we’ve been practicing!” squeaked Professor Flitwick, perched on top of his pile of books as usual. “Swish and flick, remember, swish and flick. And saying the magic words properly is very important, too — never forget Wizard Baruffio, who said ‘s’ instead of ‘f’ and found himself on the floor with a buffalo on his chest.”

It was very difficult. Harry and Seamus swished and flicked, but the feather they were supposed to be sending skyward just lay on the desktop. Seamus got so impatient that he prodded it with his wand and set fire to it — Harry had to put it out with his hat.

Ron, at the next table, wasn’t having much more luck.

“Wingardium Leviosa!” he shouted, waving his long arms like a windmill.

“You’re saying it wrong,” Harry heard Hermione snap. “It’s Wing-gar-dium Levi-o-sa, make the ‘gar’ nice and long.”

“You do it, then, if you’re so clever,” Ron snarled.

Hermione rolled up the sleeves of her gown, flicked her wand, and said, “Wingardium Leviosa!”

It all works well on paper, and we, the readers, accept it without much thought. Because we, as readers, can’t actually see the swish and flick of the wand, nor hear Flitwick say the words.1 But then, neither can Ron, Harry, Seamus, or Hermione. We gloss over that fact while reading. It’s just part of the world.

And then the movie came out. And there is Professor Flitwick standing in front of the class, and he clearly says, “Wingaaardium leviooosa!” and equally clearly demonstrates the wand action. We can hear him and see him do so right there, in Technicolor and Dolby Surround.

And yet . . . only Hermione can apparently use her ears and eyes, because none of the other young witches and wizards gets it even close to right. We hear them mangling the pronunciation — Ron manages something like ‘wingardria leviosaaa — and hideously over-exaggerating the subtle swish-flick of the wand.

But we had just seen and heard the correct pronunciation and wand actions as Flitwick demonstrates them moments before on screen. Which Hermione then duplicates in her condescending tone to Ron.

What worked perfectly in the book simply made no sense on the big screen. Something bothered me about it immediately, but I didn’t really close in on what it was until much later when it dawned on me. It’s the same as Chaplin’s silent locomotive.

It would have made more sense if, say, Flitwick had a thick accent of some sort the students weren’t used to hearing, such as Russian.2 But with Flitwick and the students all being some flavor of British, they’d have grown up at least hearing the various accents spoken around them all their lives (on TV, if nothing else), and would get awfully close.3

Which brings up another point. There are languages that have sounds which English does not, and languages without sounds English does have. Would a Japanese witch be simply unable to cast the levitation spell because the ‘w’ doesn’t exist in her language? Would a wizard with an l/w lisp be likewise unable, because he couldn’t properly pronounce “leviosa”? Would he wind up with a wombat on his chest?

But I digress. :)

I find it interesting, is all, how sometimes the medium in which something is presented plays a huge role in whether the thing makes sense to the audience, and how translating it to another medium loses something fundamental.


  1. More importantly, Flitwick never actually speaks the words ‘wingardium leviosa’ in the book. (I checked.) I guess we’re supposed to either believe that the students read the words in their book — and Flitwick inexplicably never teaches them the proper pronunciation — or he did so off-scene.
  2. Rowling does, in fact, do this later, in the character of Bulgarian wizard Viktor Krum, who can’t pronounce Hermione’s name, and whose speech Rowling portrays phonetically, for example, in this question he asks Harry: “I vant to know vot there is between you and Hermy-own-ninny.”
  3. In the same way that, although I was born and raised entirely within the state of Alabama, I heard accents from all over the United States on television all the time, and knew that ‘dawg’ and ‘dwaug’ both meant the same four-legged, barky animal. I had an internal translation table. The same as a British kid would have had for ‘translating’ between a Geordi accent and a Scottish one.

0

Whistle While You Work

Men at work by hugovk, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  hugovk 

In my two experiences with Weekend Warrior — the contest on Codex Writers where participants are given prompts for five weeks and have approximately 54 hours to write a 750-word flash piece inspired by one of the prompts — I’ve received a good bit of very terse feedback, one particular recurring phrase of which I had taken to be a negative, because I honestly had no idea what it meant, but it sounded bad. Weekend Warrior critiques are just a few words, with no space or time for in-depth commentary.

<digression> From a reader’s perspective, it may sound like I’m completely obsessed with Weekend Warrior and with critiques and that I spend all my waking time dwelling on it. I don’t. This blog is about writing, so if something occurs to me that clarifies my writing or reading patterns, I may write about it. But there are many other things that occupy my time, and I have spent no more time dwelling on Weekend Warrior or the critiques therefrom than any of you have spent worrying about whether Kim Kardashian . . . uh, I have nowhere to go after that, because I couldn’t care less. But that’s my point. I go weeks without thinking about it, and then a little whisper in the recesses of my frontal lobe surfaces: “‘Workmanlike language’: what does that even mean?” So bear with me, and please don’t go away with the impression that I’m obsessed. :) Now, back to my blog post, already in progress.</digression>

So, the other day, I saw the same phrase used on some forum . . . and it was quite obviously a compliment. So I asked a friend of mine, Terra LeMay, who recently acquired an agent for her novel and for whom I could not be more excited, “What does ‘workmanlike language’ mean to you?” I explained in what contexts I’d heard it.

Her answer not only surprised me, but has given me quite a bit of insight to my own writing and why I inexplicably don’t like some stories / books that are otherwise well-written.

‘Workmanlike language’ basically means that the words that tell the story don’t stand out. Don’t draw attention to themselves. There are no turns of phrase that make you stop reading and say, “Wow! That was beautiful!” and then read it again and again, with the words rolling off your (figurative or literal) tongue. In other words, to quote William Shakespeare out of context, “The play’s the thing.” (Actually, quoting Shakespeare, here, who is quite well-known for his beautiful, often lyrical and surprising turns of phrase was probably not a good choice. Nevertheless, I’m going to go with it.). The words stay out of the way, letting the story — the millieu, ideas, characters, and events — be the star.

And it dawned on me: this is not a negative remark (although it’s possible some people might have meant it that way): it’s positive, for me.

Because this is what I strive to do. It is also what I look for in the things I read.

My feeling about writing and reading is that if you’re paying attention to the words, you’re not giving enough attention to what they’re saying. My characters don’t enunciate with mellifluous melismatic ease . . . they talk. Or perhaps speak.

Now, I can look back on some very good books that . . . I’ve just been kind of ‘meh’ about. Because, as Gloria Estéfan might say, “the words get in the way.”

I like some of them in spite of the flowery language (and I don’t mean ‘flowery’ as an insult, much in the same way that ‘workmanlike’ is not an insult now that I know what it means) because they have the other elements that I want in equal measure. So I can read a novel or story with flowery, expressive language that draws attention to itself, but as long as the story itself holds my interest, I’m fine. I might even pause over a particularly well-put-together sentence and marvel at it and wish I’d written it.

A recent example is Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, which I read as part of a reading group I belong to. Most everyone else seemed to like it, but it just left me high and dry. They were all talking about the beautiful, poetic language while I was saying, “All the absurd stuff lost me.”1 I was focusing on the story; they were focusing on the language, and the stuff behind the language.

It also dawns on me as I type this blog post that this very issue is probably the problem I have with most poetry. In poetry, the words are key, and the beautiful turn of phrase is the point.

Since we’re already talking about Shakespeare, compare these two side-by-side excerpts from Hamlet, Act III, scene 1, in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are telling Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Ophelia about their encounter with Hamlet:

GUILDENSTERN
Nor do we find him forward to be sounded
But with a crafty madness keeps aloof
When we would bring him on to some confession
Of his true state.
“And he’s not exactly eager to be interrogated. He’s very sly and dances around our questions when we try to get him to talk about how he feels,” Guildenstern said.
GERTRUDE
                    Did he receive you well?
“Did he treat you well when you saw him?” asked Gertrude.

[Note: Text on left is public domain. The modern English explication on the right is taken from the No Fear Shakespeare website and used entirely without permission, but I’m pretty sure it falls under fair use. I merely added the quotes and attribution, like you’d see in dialogue in a novel.]

Shakespeare’s original language is beautiful. It’s in iambic pentameter, it rhymes, and each word is carefully chosen to convey meaning and still remain faithful to the form. The right-hand text is ‘workmanlike prose.’ It’s more like what I would write in a story, and far closer to what I would rather read. The meaning is conveyed, but while I might quote Shakespeare, I will only remember the meaning conveyed by the words on the right.

Of course, certain caveats apply here: Shakespeare was writing a play in a strict form requiring rhyme and meter and a certain flair for a turn of phase. He even made words up when existing ones didn’t suffice. But if I were reading a modern adaptation of Hamlet in the form of a novel, I would expect to see language much more consistent with what’s on the right. Because people actually speak that way. The words and their arrangement don’t obfuscate what is being said. The prose form doesn’t require that normal sentence structure be subverted to fit a rhyme or meter.

So I guess what I’m trying to get around to saying2 is this: each individual writer (and reader) uses language that not only makes them comfortable, but excites them and is appropriate for the work itself.

And for me, that is often “workmanlike language.” :)


  1. The very point at which it lost me was when his wife came to visit him in prison and brought all the household belongings, members of her family, the cat, etc, and spent the entire time talking to everyone but him, as he basically cowered in his crowded cell speaking to no one. I did get that there were a number of metaphors and a lot of symbolism going on, but it was at that point that I just stopped caring and said, ‘This is too far out in Absurdland for me to even see the way home.’
  2. I often have a point, and I sometimes actually get around to making it. :)

0

SkullCosm

SkullCosm

SkullCosm

I frequently have vivid dreams that involve quite elaborate plots that, on occasion, stick with me after awakening. Unfortunately, almost as soon as I start thinking about the day ahead — the minute my eyes open — the wistful vapors of the dream vanish and the ideas are gone.

I also tend to get writing ideas at times when my brain is otherwise disengaged, but my body is doing something habitual. The two main times this happens are when I’m driving and when I’m showering. If it weren’t for driving and showering — in addition to me being a social pariah and being unable to work — I’d have virtually no ideas for writing.

The third time my disengaged brain offers ideas up to me is in those few minutes between when the sleep monster begins to immobilize my body and when I drift off into unconsciousness. The sheets are so nice and soft, the blanket so snug, the pillow supports my head just right . . . and then blam, an idea pops into my head. A really good idea.

For that scene that I can’t seem to finish, or to end the story I’m having trouble with. And my brain whispers to me, “Don’t worry. It’s a great idea. I’ve got this.”

Because my brain is a lying bastard. It never remembers. Never. Oh, it remembers that I had an idea, and that it solved that sticky problem I was having, and that it was a beautiful, shining idea that would set animated animals to singing and dancing around me if I could only . . . remember . . . the actual content of the idea, and not that there was an idea. Of some sort. That was good.

Oh, well.

So I decided that I would keep a notepad next to my bed. One of those big, yellow legal pads, and a pen.

I need to back up for a moment to explain that I have this . . . medical condition called Recurrent Corneal Erosion. You can Google it if you wish, but suffice to say, it means that I have to put ointment in both eyes every night before sleeping or I have a very good chance of tearing the cornea of one or both eyes when I wake up in the morning. I’m not telling you this to squick you out or to elicit medical advice — believe me, if you can think it, it has already been thought by me or suggested by others. The ointment works great, usually about 99% of the time. About once per month or so, I’ll end up tearing a cornea and have to miss a day of work. It’s just . . . a thing that happens, and has been happening for the better part of twenty years. But my telling it serves to explain some of what is about to be related.

The ointment is thick and has the texture of petroleum jelly, and is opaque, so it impairs my vision almost completely. I can distinguish light from dark, and vague shapes. That’s about it.

I kept the notepad by the bed for quite a while. I’d wake up with a dream or an idea, and I’d write as much of it down as I could, but since I can’t actually focus my eyes on anything because of the ointment, my handwriting is . . . sub-optimal.

So I guess you could say it sort of worked. And as I got used to having the notepad next to the bed, I’d retain more dreams and ideas just long enough to jot something down before burrowing back under the covers and getting more sleep.

And then it happened.

I woke up out of a sound sleep. I had had an Idea. Not just an idea, mind you: An Idea. The best, shiniest, most magnificent Idea in the history of Ideas. It would make a fantastic story.

And it was so singular an Idea (to borrow vocabulary from H. P. Lovecraft) that a single word — as from the Oracle at Delphi — would suffice to remind me of the entirety of this beautiful, blossom-like Idea.

Squinting in the general direction of the notepad, brain clamoring for more sleep, I grabbed the pen and scribbled down this singular word that was absolutely sure to bring back the entirety of the Idea to me upon waking.

Smiling the smile of the satisfied, I put down the pen and the pad on my night table, put my head back on the pillow, and slept for several more hours, content in the knowledge that all was saved.

The alarm went off later that morning and I awoke, as usual, remembering that I had had An Idea. That it was a very, very excellent Idea, and that the story that would spring, Athena-like, wholly and beautifully formed from my mind upon seeing the word that appeared on the notepad would practically write itself because it was Just That Good.

I quickly stumbled into the bathroom and using a clean towel and warm water, cleaned the ointment out of my eyes, then hurried back into the bedroom.

I approached the table, giddy with anticipation. I could see that there was a single word on the pad, in crude, blue letters, blocky and spiky, diagonally scrawled across the yellow paper.

I picked it up.

I looked at it.

And thought, “What?”

The word that I wrote that night was this: SkullCosm

Just that. SkullCosm. Three syllables, capitalized exactly like that.

I sat heavily on the bed, wracking my brain. What could it mean? It was clearly some kind of cyberpunk thing, right? A cosm, or ‘world,’ inside a skull, or the mind.

But . . . I don’t read cyberpunk, or even much enjoy it. Much less write it.

Nothing. Not a single thing remained from that fantastic Idea I had but the single word I found scribbled in blue ink, as though written by someone not looking at the paper.

To this day, I have no clue. None. Zero. Zilch. The place in my brain which should be occupied by whatever marvelous Idea that, in a perfect world, would have been recalled in toto by the word SkullCosm has so far remained a void, filled only with the sound of a soul-crushing wind blowing through a desert of pain.

Well, that’s a little melodramatic, but you get my point.

I’ve carried the word around with me for years, now, playing around with it in my head, seeing if the shape of it fit any of the incomplete puzzles in my head. It’s never a good fit. The puzzle from which SkullCosm was left over was obviously constructed using non-Euclidean geometry.

I’ve tried on two occasions to force a story using SkullCosm as the seed word. To no avail. The non-Euclidean edges of the word are too hard to focus on clearly, and they keep causing the rest of the puzzle to warp and collapse.

In a last-ditch attempt to get some use of the word, I sent it to Len Peralta when he was doing his Monster By Mail campaign to raise money after the birth of one of their children. Just to see what an artist accustomed to drawing monsters would do with it.

I think he mistook ‘cosm’ for ‘plasm’ based on the picture I received back, shown above. But I like it, and it captures perfectly my frustration upon knowing that SkullCosm should but ultimately fails to trigger the memory of that perfect, shining story Idea that my brain cruelly forgot.

So if you ever see me mention the word SkullCosm, you’ll now know to what it refers.

  • Calendar

    April 2017
    M T W T F S S
    « Oct    
     12
    3456789
    10111213141516
    17181920212223
    24252627282930