Tag Archives: writing

Changes in latitudes …

That unshaven bum is me on my back deck at Carolina Beach, armed with notebook, binoculars, and strong coffee. We’re SLOWLY transitioning to the beach, and on our last trip earlier this month, we really lucked up on the weather.

While my wife worked her real estate magic on the phone, I worked on a sword and sorcery story. Though I’ve long relished the works of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and Fritz Leiber, I’ve never before tried my hand at this genre. Of course, this calls for guerrilla-style research, from the history of the locale I’ve picked, to the tropes and traditions of sword and sorcery adventures.

Now that’s my idea of a good time.

And while changing latitudes, I’m changing a few attitudes as well. I’ve always insisted on writing at my desk in crypt-like silence. But I’m learning to adapt and take advantage of writing opportunities as they come along. I wrote in the car on our way down, and, as you can see by the Mona-Lisa-like smile on my face, am getting the hang of composing by the sea shore. The hypnotic rhythm of the crashing waves seems to pull me forward, and I’m pleased with the manuscript. It has magic. It has knives. It has slings. And of course, desperate battles.

To get in the proper spirit the morning I wrote on the deck, I did Isshin-ryu katas for a half hour and then Julie and I took a long walk on the beach. I’ve long believed in the mutually reinforcing interplay of the body and the imagination. I like the way Nietzsche described how walking sparked creativity:

“We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books. It is our habit to think outdoors — walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful.”

Thoughtful indeed. The sea, which has a role in my story, teems with history, wonder, and vivid spectacles of life and death. I think Freddy was on to something.

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”

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.