Lee Martin: the artist must risk failure

Throughout my young writing life, I’ve always been searching for a method to the madness, a system of sorts. Then someone comes along and reminds me what I’m doing all this for. Amazingly, it’s a college professor giving advice unlike any of my own professors! I need to wrap my mind around this now.

Kudos to someone who teaches not for the sake of knowledge itself, but to inspire.

Draft No. 4

Celebrated novelist & memoirist discusses how he became an artist.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few. . . . This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner. Be very very careful about this point.— Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

I’m trying to learn from Lee Martin whenever and however I can, as a writer and teacher. I haven’t yet made it to his celebrated fiction—one of his novels was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—but I’ve read just about all of his nonfiction. His recent collection of linked memoir essays, Such a Life, is on my creative nonfiction favorites page, but it’s also on my private list of touchstone artistic works. Yes, it’s that good.

Such a Life is my personal textbook on how to write stand-alone memoir and personal essays. That’s how I’ve…

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Using Dialogue More Effectively

Too much dialogueSearched for help on the internet again when I ran into trouble with my last story. I had pages and pages of nearly unbroken dialogue, which while tells the story, is kinda flat. Aside from inserting action bits in between, I was wondering how else I could make the dialogue read smoother. i.e. In more direct term, less stunted.

Important: What I want is smoother, more flowing, not more emotive or dramatic. That gets tiresome after a while. The problem with dialogue is when you try to add structure to it. He says “something” in one paragraph, she says “whatever” in the next. Then to break up the monotony and make it seem like there’s some up and downs going on, we rely on describing how she is feeling or how the words come out.

Using an extreme example I found online from TheWriterlyLife

This is bad:

“You broke my heart!” she screamed.
“It’s not my fault!” he growled.
“But you cheated on me!” she wailed.
“I’m sorry — it just happened,” he stammered.

This is better:

“You broke my heart!” she said.
“It’s not my fault!” he said.
“But you cheated on me!”
“I’m sorry — it just happened.”

And as TheWriterlylife explains:

The problem with this passage is that the tags start overshadowing the actual words being spoken. They’re completely unnecessary. They are often crutches in our writing; in reality, the words themselves should suggest the tone with which they are spoken. In fact, using “he said” and “she said” is so familiar to readers that the words blur into the background, retreating so that the main action of dialogue can come to the fore. That’s why it’s best to keep wordy dialogue tags to a minimum and just use “said” for most of your dialogue.

Often you try to describe what she is feeling. This is simply TELLING the reader instead of EXPRESSING it to him. I’m looking through some of my past writing and realised that I’m pretty guilty of it. I’ve read about it before, about how the simple “said” is actually more invisible and thus better than laughed, growled, snarled, chortled. One is a speech, one is an action, putting them side by side tends to draw the attention away from the other.

I’m going to be slightly more mindful of this moving ahead, which includes using the following in dialogue more often

  1. Better use of punctuation. Question, exclamation points and the infamous incomplete sentence like but… have to be used more correctly and to have more impact.
  2. Expressive Words Adopting the use of exclamation words or expressive words more (which I’m having some trouble with) like What the hell, damn you — Admit it, you automatically exclamation pointed the words without even thinking right?
  3. One action per dialogue Trying to let one single action at the start of a mini-conversation drive the emotion and action of 3-4 lines of to-and-fro dialogue.

One book I can recommend where this is used a lot is The Bookcase by Nelson DeMille. There’s a lot of interrogation scenes in it where it’s just 2 people going back and forth for quite a few pages. So basically, he had the same problem as me – crapload of dialogue, but he handled it like a best-selling author would and I didn’t.

Here’s a lengthy chunk from Nelson Demille’s The Book Case

“Good luck.” Every store clerk and waiter in this town wants you to know they’re really a writer, an actor, a musician, or an artist. Just in case you thought they were a clerk or a waiter. I asked Scott, “What time did you get here this morning?”

He replied, “As I told the other policeman, I got here about seven thirty.”

“Right. Why so early?”

“Early?”

“You’re scheduled for eight thirty.”

“Yeah…Mr. Parker asked me to get here early.”

“Why?”

“To stock shelves.”

“The shelves look stocked. When’s the last time you sold a book?”

“I had some paperwork to do.”

“Yeah? Okay, take me through it, Scott. You got here, opened the door—front door?”

“Yeah.” He reminded me, “It’s all in my statement.”

“Good. And what time was that?”

“I opened the door a little before seven thirty.”

“And it was locked?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you know that Mr. Parker was here?”

“No. Well, not at first. I noticed the lights were on in his office up in the loft, so I called up to him.”

“I assume he didn’t answer.”

“No…he…so I thought maybe he was in here—in the stockroom—so I came in here to get to work.”

This basically follows the principles I stated above. Doesn’t look half-bad at all without any crutched expressive words and it’s a very decent chunk. One benefit of this style is how flowing the dialogue goes. In your mind, you don’t really stop to think until the end of the conversation.

To conclude, read the article from MyWriterlyLife, read a few technically-well written books like The Book Case and just be mindful.

P.S: I’m currently reading Bag Of Bones by Stephen King as well, realised the conversation pieces are written pretty much the same way. So remember, let your words do the expressing and flush the telling expressions down the toilet.

P.S: As to what happened to my dialogue in my story as mentioned at the start of the article. After cutting out all the saids, chides, rebukes, angrily and hesitations, I think i shaved off close to 500 words without losing any intent.

Until next time…

Experimenting With Horror

Can you tell it's going to be a scary book?

Can you tell it’s going to be a scary book?

I’ve been experimenting with horror/monster fiction lately as I wander through the vast fields of literary options, seeking to settle myself into a comfortable niche. So far, I kind of like it here in Scaresville, finding its sweet spot between the need for fanciful creations and tried and tested settings a very appealing one.

Without even noticing it, I’ve realised that most of my last few half-written stories in the last few weeks have been steering towards that direction. More importantly, I also come to see that I’m to focus on the story from the get go instead of trying to describe or make up the world.  I can express my fiction beyond the limitations of natural laws, yet have a grounded setting that can be typical without being branded as overly cliche.

It’s just something that the reader has come to accept and expect in this genre, that it is ok for Regular Joe to have a couple of coffee in the morning, run into some weird monsters in the afternoon, and save the world in time to have dinner. Rinse and repeat. In fact, if you take the same story, change up the monster/ghost/murderer, it will usually still work without any need for lengthy explanation.

My Journey towards Horror

I originally wanted to go with fantasy, but my beef with it is that it’s become boxed in to a expected set of creatures and myths. E.g. a clean-shaven dwarf who wields a mean bow, prancing through the forest and enjoys strawberries immediately breaks the mould, and you have to try to justify it, i.e. he was raised by the elves etc. Wide universe, but extremely boxed-in.

Then I tried my hand at Science Fiction. Immediately, I found it unsuitable for the shorter kind of fiction that I like. The best ones need to be grand, need a lot of believable science or nonsense leading up to the big reveal and are generally one trick ponies as I have mentioned in my Michael Crichton article. If you read those that succeed like Philip K. Dick (Minority Report) or H.G. Wells (World of the Worlds), they’re actually thrillers / war stories with a sci-fi setting.

My last attempt was actually peeking into the realm of superhero fiction. Maybe it’s just me again, but I kept facing the same issues as in Sci-Fi, while basing my characters off popular ones, so that people already have a picture in their head when I mention them. A crutch I eventually felt that I did not like.

So yea horror. Smooth going so far, though my problem now is the climax. Just a series of smaller battles leading to the big one ala Godzilla, or hold off the violence and make the violent erupt as a build up to the climax ala King Kong. I’m not going to try Stephen’s King arbitrary-in-your-head sort of horror for now. Just going to go with something physical first to muddy the waters.

Journey Through The Darkness

Journey Through The Darkness

My thoughts about the Genre

The best ones all play tricks in your head. They don’t always need to be unexpected, as long as it’s screwed up enough such that the twist that eventually comes still feels satisfying enough. That’s the sweet spot I mentioned earlier. People already know what to expect, yet you still have the liberty to throw a few bones at them and make them crave for more. Readers who complain about typical plots / writing shouldn’t be reading books on murder and monsters anyway while still complaining about the plot. That’s like complaining about Dwarves are cliche in a fantasy realm.

–  The monster isn’t important, the story is. Like superheroes, people already expect the monster to be just that, a monster. It kills people, they know. A man with a knife, he’s going to kill someone. I’ve tried to make my creatures sound or scary, and tried to make my setting more fascinating. But in the end, at the meat is still going to be the story. Origins is an extremely popular topic that readers love, followed by the typical agendas on why it does what it does. Whether the freaky clowns nose is red and round or green with snot doesn’t really matter beyond the initial visualisation. Oh, and the gimmick that your creature does, makes the story interesting, but doesn’t make the story.

Always start with the mundane. A fascinating monster in a bombastic setting sort of takes away the focus from the appearance of a monster/killer. Stick with the mundane or a concept that can be easily understood to make your creature and the story around it stand out.

For example:

The Midnight Snack. 

Peter walks into the kitchen, looking for a snack. In the dark, he notices the carton of chocolate milk sitting on the counter and his eyes perk up. One of the kids must have left it behind while they were packing for their sleepover. Without so much as a thought, he unscrews its top off and chugs it straight from the carton, wondering where the hell his wife is. She was suppose to be back from her book club at eleven.

In the dark, he fails to notice that the red liquid trickling down his chin.

This milk tastes a bit salty, he thinks to himself, smacking his lips as he wipes the dribble off with a hand. Probably just another one of those new fangled flavours that the kids love. Satisfied now, he walks back up the stairs to prepare for a good night’s sleep.

Halfway up though, his stomach starts to gurgle and churn. Not feeling so good, he sits on the steps and rubs his tummy. Wait what’s that bump? Lifting up his shirt he stares at his flabby skin and the tiny lump thumping vigorously at him from the inside.

If anyone of you noticed, yes I took the same plot from my earlier story and just plonked it here with a different setting. Still sort of works. 

Other great posts about Horror on WordPress

The Two Pillars Of Plot Progression

story-mountain-plotJust read this FANTASTIC article on Writer’s Digest with regards to plot in a story. For the past few days, I’ve been kind of confused about the ebb and flow of a story. There always seems to be a method to it, a certain fixed structure, but why are so many famous authors able to do it in their own ways without being seen as boring or repetitive. Heck, Michael Crichton uses the same thing in ALL his books but they still hit you like a truck when you read them.

It’s also so amusing to me, because i just read and reblogged this article yesterday about Plotter vs Pantser. To me, I always thought the optimal point was somewhere in the middle but closer to the Pantser. Creativity should always be more important than the presentation, after all that’s why you’re a Writer right?

This article nails it on the day, by objectively stating out the two main things you need in a plot, namely the 2 pillars needed for every story. These are your scene separators, and unless you’re writing a seven novel epic, they serve to divide your story into the three essential parts – Introduction, Conflict, Resolution, the arrangement of everything else is arbitrary as long as you hit these two checkpoints!

The First Pillar

The beginning of a novel tells us who the main characters are and introduces the situation at hand (the story world). It sets the tone and the stakes. But the novel does not take off or become “the story” until that first pillar is passed. Think of it as a Doorway of No Return. The feeling must be that your lead character, once
she passes through, cannot go home again until the major problem of the plot is solved.

The Second Pillar

The second pillar is another kind of Doorway of No Return: It makes possible or inevitable the final battle and resolution.

The article gives a lot of examples of this in actual books, so please read it if you want to go into more detail on them. I highly encourage you to read it and maybe subscribe to them. They have a lot of great stuff.

My attitude on writing and plot outlining has changed a lot after reading this. In the past, I believe you should have an point by point outline of how you should proceed before you even start writing. Hey, that’s what most writers guides say right, failing to plan is planning to fail. The first article I’ve read that actually changed this perception somewhat, was some advice from dear Ernest Hemingway. And thanks to him…..

I call bullshit on over plotting now due to 2 main reasons:

(1) As you write and get immersed into your work, you get a TON of “Ah-Ha! This will be awesome!” moments where you bring the story totally off tangent and is miles better than what you wanted to write. I’m up to 7,000 words on a plot outline I randomly generated on Monday, and frankly I ditched the outline and just went balls to the wall on what I felt is best for the story. Taking short time outs to rethink where I wanted to go, but that’s it. it was only after reading this article that I knew why I was able to just keep writing. I hit the milestones, I gave the story a reason to carry on! Something that had frankly been a big issue for me in the last few weeks. Now, I knew what I wanted in the story in the most basic of sense. Not a blow by blow, this must happen then that plot line.

(2) By setting too many checkpoints, you are literally forcing your story along a path, blocking out a lot of potential. Some add these in later as sub-plots or meaningless drivel in their book (because its too good to pass up), but honestly, you’re doing that to make your story better and more readable because your main plot sucks. If your subplot and other ideas are that good to be incorporated, use them, make them part of the whole. Personally I feel a lot of fantasy / superhero and science fiction stories are guilty of this. Just because you have a unique setting shouldn’t stop you from going off tangent, a lot of them are guilty of reading like a point A to point B storyline. Whereas contemporary works tend to be more whimsical and flutter all over the place, but mostly relegated to the side plot or love story inside.

Note of course, if you’re so creative, you can come up with a totally awesome plot just by sitting there and think through your entire story in one sitting, please ignore me. I’m clearly someone who lives for the moment, and get all excited whenever I start writing and my creative juices just start spurting out. 

From now on, just go with the flow

While the article uses a suspension bridge analogy, I prefer to think of writing as driving through a desert. You have certain checkpoints you need to reach to refuel and recharge, and you also want to get out of there sooner or later. But that is ALL YOU NEED. Anything else is an arbitrary limitation. If you found a short cut or a more scenic route, why not just take it!  If nothing else, hey it sure is more fun and enjoyable!

This will be my approach to writing from now on. And I shouldn’t have to replan my plot or story that often anymore. The pillars should be transferrable from one story to another, and by changing the setting and characters, i should be able to write a brand new story by letting the desert sands take me wherever they want.

I might expand on this concept a little in future, in conjunction with my changing thoughts of how characters should be made to fit into a story. Slowly but surely, I feel like I’m learning, not to write, but how to craft. And in this aspect, I’m learning that LESS is more, it’s just how you wrap your head around it.

Have a great day ahead.

Sighhh, I really need to learn to write shorter posts. 

English: A History Lesson

English Family~Of Poverty~

They used to use urine to tan animal skins, so families used to all pee in a pot. And then once it was full it was taken and sold to the tannery…if you had to do this to survive you were “Piss Poor”. But worse than that were the really poor folk who couldn’t even afford to buy a pot… They “didn’t have a pot to piss in” and were the lowest of the low. The next time you are washing your hands and complain because of the water temperature, think about how things used to be.

~Of Marriage~

Most people got married in June (more weddings are planned for June than any other month of the year) because they took their yearly bath in May, And they still smelled pretty good by June.. However, since they were starting to smell, Brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor. Hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting married.

~Of Baths & Babies~

Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it.. Hence the saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the Bath water!”

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Jiro Dreams Of Sushi – What It Means To Be Shokunin

86 year old Jiro wakes up every morning and goes to work. He works not because he has too, but because his craft defines who he is. He wants to improve, to continually improve. He is already the best in the world, the best in the business, yet he wakes up everyday appreciating the basic truth that drives him to work everyday – He has not achieved perfection. In his own words, “All I want to do is make better sushi.”

He is truly one of the few individuals in the world who have reached this higher level of understanding. To rise above narrow thought of competition and find the essence of what drives the individual. You can look at the person running ahead of you, you can look at the person catching up behind you, but you will never have peace, nor reach the pinnacle of your craft, until you learn that you are only really racing with yourself.

That is when you let go of the world around you and let your own ability define who you are. This is where you enter the realm of the shokunin, the realm of true champions.

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