Category Archives: Writing

Quote of the day

Image by Andrew Lih

“Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloody-minded. Argue with the world. And never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things—childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves—that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers.”

Salman Rushdie

Making your vision apparent

Promotional still of Mia Farrow

Last week’s post featuring Lin Carter‘s observation about H.P. Lovecraft got me to thinking about Rosemary’s Baby.

Carter found it fascinating that Lovecraft, a thorough materialist, could enthrall the world with his terrifying tales of “evil and fallen gods.” Carter’s take was that Lovecraft utilized his firm grasp of science and materialist outlook to craft stories made believable with concrete details and methodical precision.

Ira Levin, the author of Rosemary’s Baby and Veronica’s Room, used an approach similar to Lovecraft’s. Like HPL, Levin was an atheist, yet his horror tales make supernatural evil seem frighteningly real, even palpable. In both the novel and Roman Polanski’s excellent screen adaptation, Rosemary’s Baby draws you in with odd but apparently mundane details. The realtor who helps Rosemary and her husband Guy find an apartment is missing fingers. When Rosemary and Guy move a dresser from the wall, they realize it hides a secret room — but it’s only an empty closet.

Nothing to see there, right?

As the truth about these seemingly innocent details slowly comes out, you’re fascinated by the inescapable conclusion that there’s something sinister going on, and it’s impossible to turn away. Like Rosemary, you’re in this thing now and there’s no turning back.

So why are confirmed materialists such as Lovecraft and Levin drawn to supernatural subjects? And what enables them to be so convincing?

Both men knew that writing depends on exaggeration and metaphor. I like the way Flannery O’Connor put it: “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

Of course, O’Connor was a traditional Catholic who aimed to make readers perceive supernatural evil by vividly presenting earthly evil.

Lovecraft on verisimilitude

Lovecraft

“My own rule is that a story cannot produce terror unless it is devised with the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax.” H.P. Lovecraft, in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith

“Lovecraft was, as the cliché has it, a living bundle of contradictions. A rationalist, an absolute materialist, without a trace of superstition or a flicker of interest in religious matters, he based his entire life work on the supernatural, on evil and fallen gods and sinister magic and hierarchies of transmundane demonic intelligences. It is perhaps because of his complete atheism that he was able to make his malign and imaginary Great Old Ones so convincingly real to his readers. Uninvolved with supernaturalism himself, he could be coldly objective –and he calculated with exquisite finesse the means of rendering his hellish pantheon both credible and terrifying.” — Lin Carter, from “Farewell to the Dreamlands”

White Horses and Writing

White Horses

So I’m on the back porch, chasing down the muse. Pen and pad in hand, I’m absorbed in my latest wip, when the wind suddenly rises through swaying trees. An updraft lifts a swarm of whirling maple seeds, and they come toward me like the helicopters in Apocalypse Now.

Nothing to fear. Just a “Fresh Breeze” on the Beaufort Scale.

Admiral Beaufort’s guide enabled British sailors to estimate wind speed from the sight, sound, and feel of the wind, but it’s also useful on land. A “Calm” wind with a speed of 0-1 is “like a mirror” at sea, while on land, “smoke rises vertically.” But if the sea shows “moderate waves with many white horses,” or if “small trees sway” on land, then it’s a “Fresh Breeze,” and the wind speed will be 19-24 miles per hour or 17-21 knots.

What makes the Beaufort Scale useful is that, like good writing, it uses sensory impressions to convey ideas. Cognitive scientists will tell you that abstractions are rooted in bodily sensations, but it’s still a challenge to present ideas in an engaging and entertaining way.

Horace Walpole, in a famous essay on his supernatural novel The Castle of Otranto, wrote:

“It was an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former, all was imagination and improbability: in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success. Invention has not been wanting; but the great resources of fancy have been dammed up, by a strict adherence to common life.”

The goal is to make the fantastic and improbable palpable and realistic. It’s not easy, but that’s the heart of the craft of writing, something you never really master, as Ernest Hemingway once observed. Of course, as the Stoics taught, life itself is a never-ending learning experience.

Quote of the day

Stories

“Stories are among the most intimate and personal things we have. Stories touch the imagination and are deeply implanted in one’s psyche and consciousness. Without stories there can be no culture. Without stories there can be no imagination. Without an imagination there is no vitality to human existence. Without that vitality humans are mere robots to be programmed, pacified, and subjugated into parasitic consumers.”

Paul Krause

Breaking rules

Early in his acting career, Arnold Schwarzenegger established a reputation for being both ambitious and easy to get along with. But he once famously clashed with James Cameron on the set of The Terminator about what would become the most famous line in a groundbreaking movie.

Arnold suggested his killer android character would say “I will be back,” arguing that a machine would not use a contraction. Cameron, who was renowned for his meticulousness, held his ground, finally demanding that Arnold stick to the script. As Arnold recalled, Cameron told him, “I don’t correct your acting, so don’t correct my writing.” Arnold did as he was told, and in the above video, he confesses that Cameron made the right call.

Kudos to Arnold for admitting his mistake.

But the real point is how you can be technically right but artistically wrong. Submissions editors see manuscripts all the time that click on all the technical points, such as tension, characterization, and a good premise, but fail to engage the reader.

The showdown between Arnold and Cameron illustrates that sometimes the logical way isn’t always best. A story develops its own internal logic and dynamic, and it takes years of practice to recognize that fact. James Cameron knew what he was doing.

Another way to put it is that you have to master the rules before you’re good enough to break them. Then you can wield them flexibly and effectively.

Quote of the day

Photo source: Pip R. Lagenta from Creative Commons

“There is no nobler chore in the universe than holding up the mirror of reality and turning it slightly, so we have a new and different perception of the commonplace, the everyday, the ‘normal’, the obvious. People are reflected in the glass. The fantasy situation into which you thrust them is the mirror itself. And what we are shown should illuminate and alter our perception of the world around us.”

Harlan Ellison

Words – just words

Words just words

One of my coping mechanisms when stuck on a manuscript is to read outstanding posts on writing I’ve saved over the years. This morning, I revisited this advice from K.M. Weiland:

One of the best rules of thumb for showing instead of telling is to never name an emotion. Love, hate, happiness, sadness, frustration, grief—they all might be easily recognizable emotions. They might even all be emotions that will immediately get a point across to a reader. But by themselves the words lack the ability to make a reader feel what we are trying to convey.

This insight shook the mental cobwebs that had been holding me back. Weiland’s right — the most stirring and uplifting prose succeeds obliquely, rousing the reader to silent awe or trembling fear. A few examples:

“Some nights in the midst of this loneliness I swung among the scattered stars at the end of the thin thread of faith alone.”Wendell Berry

“The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.”Flannery O’Connor

“I sat up straight and as I did so something inside my head moved like the weights on a doll’s eyes and it hit me inside in back of my eyeballs. My legs felt warm and wet and my shoes were wet and warm inside. I knew that I was hit and leaned over and put my hand on my knee. My knee wasn’t there.”Ernest Hemingway

Not only do these examples evoke intense reactions, they do so indirectly. As Weiland advises, the best writing shows rather than tells. Emily Dickinson was on the same track when she proposed that we tell the truth, but tell it slant.

I believe these passages soar for us because they appeal to more than just our logical selves. The neocortex, that is, the rational brain, processes language, but it connects to other parts of the brain as well. The limbic system interprets facts as emotions, and triggers the reptilian brain, which in turn shoots reactions to the body. So if you read Stephen King alone at midnight, you start peeking outside the window and maybe sweat a little. That’s the three parts working together. And we love it.

Good writing, then, achieves unity of mind and body, a sorely needed experience in an age that fractures and alienates.

Quote of the day

“Ideas come to you with tattered clothes and runny noses, but if you clean them up and present them to the right people, they’ll get adopted.”

Vernon Grant — Rock Hill, South Carolina artist who designed Snap! Crackle! and Pop! for Kellogg’s.

Just like story ideas … rough drafts need a lot of tough love before they can be published.