Tag Archives: writing

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”

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

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.

Writing by hand

write by hand
Image by Colleen O’Dell from Pixabay

We all know it’s a good idea to do something different when you’re stumped on a writing project. When you’re not satisfied with a scene, or just can’t decide what your protagonist should do next, you need to take a walk, chat with a friend, or practice your katas.

But psychologists and neuroscientists suggest an even better strategy is to grab a notepad and ink pen. It seems that the feel and shape of words stimulates your creativity and helps you connect with the narrative you want to capture. As Neil Gaiman once put it, “Writing with a pen is like playing,” and nothing brightens up a manuscript like a sense of playfulness. And this article in Fast Company tells us there’s science to back up what many writers have known for years:

When you write by hand, you write more thoughtfully. Such mindful writing rests the brain, unlocking potential creativity, says neuroscientist Claudia Aguirre. “Recent neuroscientific research has uncovered a distinct neural pathway that is only activated when we physically draw out our letters,” she writes. “And this pathway, etched deep with practice, is linked to our overall success in learning and memory.”

I think there’s something to this. The last time I got stuck in a story, I redeployed to the back porch with pen and pad to chase down my muse. I found her, and we had a very productive writing session, the results of which will be published this Saturday at Idle Ink.

And it’s not just writers who benefit from writing the old-fashioned way. Students who record lectures with a pen relate to the ideas they’re hearing better than those who use laptops, and doctors who take notes by longhand build a better rapport with patients. By slowing down and actively forming words, we stimulate our emotional connection with the stories we’re telling.

Quote of the day

Library
My den.

“People leave their homes to get away from themselves and from their surroundings. I confess that I live only in my surroundings and in myself. I can conceive of no greater pleasure than sitting in my chair at this desk and looking at the walls around me day by day and night after night…”

“I live in a world of imagination, which is set in motion by something suggested by my intimate surroundings rather than by outside influences, which distract me and give me nothing. I find an exquisite joy when I search deeply in the recesses of myself, and if anything original is to come from me, it can only come that way.”

Claude Debussy

So, how about it, folks? Do you recharge your creative juices relaxing at home, among intimate surroundings, or by going out into the world?

Get Out of the Way!

Get out of the way

Many of the submissions Joe Ponepinto has turned down for his literary journal appeared to have everything going for them — tension, good characterization, an interesting premise — yet they just didn’t work. He had to reject stories that hit all the right buttons, but failed to resonate.

Writing as both an editor and author, he tells us what’s wrong with technically sound but lifeless submissions:

In short, the writer is present in every sentence, hunched over the reader’s shoulder, which is why so much in these stories sounds like explanation, like the writer worrying that readers won’t “get it” unless they lay out paragraphs of background info. As Elmore Leonard famously said, it sounds like writing.

How do you create writing that doesn’t sound like writing? Yes, you have to hit all the right buttons, including pacing, characterization, theme, plot points, tension, etc, but you have to do it without the reader seeing you do it. And you can only do that when you don’t think about those technicalities. As Ponepinto puts it, “You have to internalize the conventions of creative writing so that you know them without thinking about them.”

Or, as Ernest Hemingway advised, “Write drunk, edit sober.”

The goal is what the Japanese call zanshin, the state of total awareness made possible by unselfconscious mastery of your craft. There’s only way to get there, and that is to practice the techniques of your craft until they enter your subconscious. In karate class, we had to practice basic skills repeatedly until they became second nature. In a tournament (or, more urgently, a street fight) you cannot win if you obsess over methodology. (How did sensei tell me to block a low punch?)

Martial arts require unconscious mastery and total focus, attributes that are invaluable in every aspect of life, including writing. Here’s what Wannabe Bushcrafter counsels about mastering the sling:

Your mind must be completely clear. Try to not think about anything when slinging. Distracting thoughts absolutely kills accuracy. …

Now here is the hard part! You need to practice, A LOT. You need to practice every single day for hundreds of days. Practice until your arm and back are sore, practice until thick hard calluses form on your release fingers. Practice until your muscles, your eyes and your mind become one. Practice until you are able to consciously purge all thoughts from your mind at a moment’s notice.

For writers, that means we must read a lot and write a lot.

Chasing Down the Muse

Sometimes you just need a change of venue.

I’ve been fairly productive lately, with a number of wips floating around the internet looking for love in the slush piles. This week, I sent a mystery novelette to Mystery Weekly Magazine, and am now working on a literary flash piece.

I don’t plan in advance what I’m going to take on next; I just wait for the Muse to tell me what genre I’m going to work in. Usually it’s sci-fi/fantasy, sometimes it’s crime/mystery, and rarely, literary. Like most writers, I just do what the voices in my head tell me.

But sometimes, even if you’re inspired, you gotta get away from the computer and the Great Distractor that feeds it. So today, I was out on the back porch, armed only with an ink pen and a legal pad. Instead of the crypt-like silence in my loft workspace, the occasional shout of children playing or a bit of bird song would drift through the trees. My wife and I practically live on that secluded back porch in warm weather. In the evenings we sip wine and talk as the sun sets. Later, we’ll read or work puzzles by the glow of the oil lamp. (Me, crosswords; she, Sudoku)

So, fellow writers, do you sometimes need to change writing venues? What’s your favorite getaway?