Archive for January, 2011

It’s a Challenge

Writing is a challenge.  Lots of things are challenges.  Life itself is a challenge.

I just received the latest copy of the alumni magazine from the college I attended.  (Never mind how long ago.)  It occurred to me as I looked it over that college was, in a word, easy.  Not easy in the sense that the courses were easy (I had some difficulty with history and German and English grammar), but easy in the sense that college life was easy.  How is that, you wonder?  Someone else paid the bill.  All you had to do was go to class, eat, drink, party if you wished, and study.  Occasionally you had to sweat the exam, but you had the advantage that you knew about it in the first place and you knew when it would take place and all you had to do was study.  Everything was laid out before you.  Your life in college was regimented.  You are there for one purpose, to study and you always knew what you had to do, and it was a simple matter of just doing it.

Then, graduation rears its ugly head.

Life itself is much more of a challenge.  No one is around to tell you what to do and where to go.  You face exams almost every day, you don’t know when or where they will be, and you can’t prepare for them.  How do you prepare for a job interview if you’ve never had to go through one before?  What do you say?  Where do you go?  And no one around to give you the answers.  How do you know what to study without a list of courses or an instructor to tell you what pages to read in the textbook?

Writing is a lot like that.  I’ve read I-don’t-know-how-many articles and books on writing (see my section titled “Recommended Readings” for some of the books).  I’ve been to writing conferences and workshops and retreats where my work has been critiqued and dissected until it’s unrecognizable.  That’s the easy part.  It’s relatively easy to absorb all sorts of instructions and comments and observations about your work and about writing in general, but when you get home, the hard part is putting it all together into a coherent whole.

Like graduating from college (even high school is similar), putting together a novel is tricky.  “Show, don’t tell,” “dialogue should advance the plot,” “the protagonist must change in some material way,” all these are well-known clichés of the writing profession, and they’re important to study and understand, and there are a zillion more.  I’m not trying to minimize them, not at all.  They’re easy to say, easy to study, and they trip lightly on the mind, but they’re damn frustrating to put into place in a novel.  It takes time, precious, steady, everlasting time, and after over ten years of writing, deleting, studying, attending meetings, groups and seminars, I’ve only just now begun to feel as though I have this process mastered.

I like what I’ve written.  When I read through the latest revisions, I’m impressed with some of the narrative.  If that sounds like tooting my own horn or even shameless self-promotion, well make the most of it.  I believe you have to like what you wrote, or what’s the reason for writing it in the first place?  It isn’t easy to get to that point, but the self-satisfaction beats anything else.

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Challenger, Columbia …

In this day and age, as so many Americans are taken to the hospital or the morgue because of gunshot wounds, it’s not supposed to be appropriate to appear vitriolic in print or rhetoric, but with the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster coming up on January 28, I’ve decided to say a few words about it.

It was inappropriate to begin with.  Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from New Hampshire, is the most well-known of the astronauts on the shuttle, though six others, professional astronauts all, also flew–and perished–that day.  McAuliffe was the first in the “Teacher in Space Project,” launched into space to give lessons to children in the US and around the world.  I never understood why they needed to launch a teacher into space when one or more of the regular astronauts could have done the job just as well.  But that’s beside the point.

Primarily, flying in space is dangerous–Challenger and Columbia proved that beyond discussion.  But even before Challenger took off, it was grossly inappropriate, highly dangerous, and almost pompous of NASA to be launching civilians into space.  Riding rockets should be done by those who have a total commitment to the mission and the knowledge and expertise to understand the risks involved.  That doesn’t include civilians hired a year before a mission just to fly into space and beam back lessons, regardless of how high-profile the project is.

Secondarily, putting a civilian on a spaceflight mission is expensive, and the space occupied by McAuliffe could probably have been used to promote the mission of the flight, rather than taking up space by someone simply hired to “give lessons from space.”  I don’t know what lessons she planned to give, and it’s not important.  It seems to me a poor use of scarce resources.

In short, let’s keep the exploration of outer space to those who know what they’re doing, and not use it for promotional purposes.  I realize that McAuliffe’s mission was to excite schoolchildren into wanting to learn more about space and about the subjects she was to teach from space, and, hopefully, get them interested in careers in science.  That’s a fine idea, except that it could be done better here on earth by those trained in secondary education and not by an untrained teacher from orbit.  Spaceflight has not reached the level of safety of, say, riding in a car or a train or even a commercial aircraft.  That is, I believe, the mistake NASA made.  With no loss of life in any shuttle mission before the Challenger launch on January 28, 1986, they figured that launch would go smoothly, too.  It didn’t, and let’s not denigrate the Shuttle Program, or the newest heavy lift vehicles coming down the line by using them so foolishly for something other that what they were designed for until we can be sure and safe about the vehicles and the flight.  Space exploration is too expensive and important to make light of it, and it’s too dangerous to allow politicians to put their pet projects on shuttle flights.

The unknown is out there.  Who will it grab next?

Now I’ve had my say.  What’s yours?

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A Time and a Place for Everything …

I’ve read a lot of articles and books about writing, and most of those have had at least one nugget of useful information for a beginning writer.  But I’ve also read a few articles that have left me shivering.  The most recent example of the latter appeared in the December, 2010, issue of The Writer.  Entitled “Making time to write,” by Cheryl Bolen, it’s a discussion of a number of tips and hints that supposedly would allow a writer to utilize his/her time more effectively, and accomplish more in the limited time we all have to write.  Nothing unrealistic about that.

But a careful reading of the article (and I’ve read it several times) reveals that many, if not most, of the tips are way out in left field, if not off the deep end entirely.  (I promise, no more sports analogies.)  Here’s some of the most bizarre:
     Don’t watch TV.
     Write all the time (when, I find myself wondering, do you revise?)
     Go without eight hours of sleep.
     Is shopping really necessary?
     Buy gifts when you see them and store them at home.
     Learn to say no to volunteerism.
     Don’t stop the flow of writing to do research.
     In fact, don’t even stop writing to look up a fact.  Just keep writing.

The article is not without sage advice, though, and some of the hints Ms. Bolen presents are quite useful, such as: organize your time, your office, your manuscript; use your time wisely; combine trips when you have to go out; take a notebook when you go out, and so forth.  But the overall impression I was left with after reading this article was that of a person who barricades herself in her office at home, sitting in front of a computer for 18 to 20 hours a day (must get less than 8 hours of sleep!) staring groggily at the screen, pecking away at the keyboard until she’s finished those 20 pages she set as a goal for herself.   No TV, remember.

To be honest, I’m appalled.  Appalled and a little concerned.  I watch TV.  Not a lot, mostly the news and an occasional program on PBS.  (PBS is far more informative and entertaining than the ‘vast wasteland’ on the rest of the channels.)  I shop–regularly–and I do try to combine trips, but shopping is an absolute necessity.  How else am I going to get the stuff I need to live on?  I do everything around the house, including the laundry, the cooking, the cleaning, the vacuuming.  I have to or it won’t get done.

I have a life.  Writing to me is a full-time job, certainly, but that doesn’t mean it occupies my entire life.  It is the largest segment of my life by far, of course, and I enjoy the time I spend writing (and researching), but I take time off from writing to do other things.  I don’t get 10 to 20 pages a day, that’s true,  but I’m okay with that.  I attend church regularly and I engage in volunteer activities.  I meet people and walk the mall occasionally.  I visit the library and the bookstore regularly.  I exercise by walking three times a week, and I even play a musical instrument.  Granted, this takes away from time I could spend hacking away at the keyboard, but I insist on it.  I’m not married to my computer and the novel I’m working on will have to cool its heels until I can get back from the grocery store with tonight’s dinner.  I try to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night, and I take a nap in the middle of the day.  If that’s not enough, I read 1 to 2 hours a day.  (I can finish an average novel in a week.) 

Writers are as much a part of the world as anyone else.  Shutting yourself up in a room and writing so intently and incessantly that you cannot even stop for a few seconds to look up a small fact or research an important point is an alarming display of poor time management.  If I may degenerate into cliché: get a life; smell the flowers; take a trip.  Or a nap.  Put yourself into the world.  Don’t worry about the damn manuscript, let it take care of itself.  If you’re writing about the world, you have to be a part of it.  Even those of us who write science fiction have to be aware of the passage of life here on this planet in order to write about an imaginary planet where life is radically different from our own.  It takes care, it takes knowledge, it takes imagination to write.  And that is not obtained by writing only.

Okay, I’ve had my say; surely others will object.  Comments, anyone?

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Redundancies-what, again?

Back on 12/7/2010, I posted an entry about redundancies, and suggested that writers should be careful to check their work to avoid petty redundancies that detract from the message of the work.  Here’s a few more.  Some of these are well-known phrases which have redundancies built into them, some are statements I found in other’s works, and some I wrote myself.  (The first two were taken from news reports about the shootings on 1/8/2011 in Tucson.  They’re very common in news reports on incidents like that.)

     “Senseless act of violence”   All acts of violence are senseless, so the word “senseless” is redundant.
     “Wrong place at the wrong time”   This is a redundancy because the word “wrong” is redundant.  You can’t be at the wrong place at the wrong time.  You’re either at the wrong place at the right time, or the right place at the wrong time.  An even better use of the phrase would be to throw it out and never use it at all.
     “All-time record”  If you hold the record, it is by definition “for all time.”  Until someone else breaks it.
     “Remove all metal objects out of your pockets”   To remove is to take them out anyway.
     “Throughout the course of the week”   Any thing that takes place over the course of a week happens throughout the week.
     “Only one issue left to go”   Oddly, this comes from a well-respected magazine on writing.  My subscription had only one issue left.  The “to go” part is redundant.  (I’ve already renewed, if you’re wondering.)
     “Reserved for the exclusive use of …”   I saw this on a sign reserving an area for construction equipment.  “Reserved” and “exclusive use of” mean the same thing.
     “Small pebbles”   I’ve written that.  So have many others.  But pebbles are by definition “small.”  Small rocks, if you will. 
     “Tears poured from her eyes”  Tears come only from the eyes.  A better way to put it might be, “Tears poured down her cheeks.”
     “Brushing up against the tree”   Better to remove the word “up.”  If you brush against a tree, you brush up against it.

By the way, did you notice I started this post with a redundancy?  “Back on 12/7/2010” contains the redundant word “back.”  Should be, “On 12/7/2010.”  They sneak in like kids in a cookie jar.

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Composing a Story

I read somewhere, and not to long ago either, that every story, no matter how short, should have a plot and a subplot.  At first, I thought this might be difficult for some stories, especially the really short stories that have come to be called “flash fiction,” or sometimes, “short short stories.”  After all, I thought, how do you work a subplot into a story that has less than a thousand words?  Or less than five hundred?  Certainly it can be done, and authors do it all the time.  I have done it in a few of my unpublished stories, but everytime?  I wondered about that.

My first thought was that a subplot could bog down a story unless it was long enough to be able to develop it thoroughly.  In a short story, I thought, especially a really short one, you want the reader’s attention to be focused on the main character, not on a secondary situation which, because of the confining nature of the story, couldn’t be more than a few words, maybe a few hundred.  That’s not much room to develop a real subplot.  What’s a writer to do?

Then I got to listening to music.  Mostly I listen to classical music, occasionally a few oldies from the ’50s or ’60s.  (Beats the hell out of Tammy Wynette.)  I found that composers latched onto this subplot device long ago.  For example, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves’ in 1912, a popular piece, frequently played around Christmas time, though the composer never intended it as a Christmas carol.  The major part of this work is a somewhat free instrumental reworking of the popular English folksong, “Greensleeves,” a tune so old Shakespeare referred to it in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor.  Vaughan William’s work is only about four and a half minutes long, not very long compared to many other orchestral works.  But in the middle of the piece, he throws in a different tune, an English folksong called “Lovely Joan,” as what might be called–taking a cue from fiction–a “subtune.”  Just like a subplot, the tune fits well with the main story.  It enhances the main section and provides a lovely contrast.

Aram Khachaturian used the same philosophy in one of his short works, “Sabre Dance.”  This popular classic is even shorter than Vaughan Williams’, coming in at about two minutes and forty-five seconds.  It’s a rambunctious, turbulent work, filled with a lot of percussion instruments and, as you might expect, a heavy beat.  But in the middle it settles down.  It smooths out, the percussion drops out and the strings (violins, violas, etc.) take over.  Khachaturian used an Armenian folk song here, in the same manner Vaughan Williams used his English folksong, and it, too, provides a welcome contrast to the heavy beat of the rest of the piece.  (I couldn’t find the name of the folksong; anybody familiar with it?)

In short, the concept of an alternative to the main section of a story isn’t limited to writing fiction.  It exists in music, and perhaps in other works as well (painting, architecture, dance?)  It’s an acknowledgement by the composers of these works that a piece doesn’t always consist of just the main section.  Side roads and deviations are important, they define the main character or the main theme and enhance our understanding of him/it.  They help pull us into the piece, and give us a glimpse of him/it we’d never see without it.  I suggest you try it on your next story.

(P.S.  Google “Vaughan Williams” or “Khachaturian” and you’ll find at least one website where you can hear these works.)

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