During the past year (2017) I published on this blog two entries about tension and conflict in writing. If you’re a writer at almost any phase of your career, you’ve certainly heard of the dictum—in fact, almost a rule of law—that you have to have tension and/or conflict on every page of your creative writing story. Nothing less will do. It’s a rule I subscribe to, though I’ve also said that one or two pages without tension or conflict probably wouldn’t hurt. But I’ve begun to realize in the past few months that that piece of advice is based on flawed logic, and I would like to correct that error here. Or at least try to.
The reason I say that advice was in error is that I’ve come to realize that there are really two types of tension/conflict, and both are important in writing fiction or creative non-fiction. I’m not talking about the difference between tension on the one hand, and conflict on the other (see my blog entry of 7/16/2017 where I describe the difference), but about two different forms that the combined tension/conflict duo can take. The first form is the general background tension/conflict that pervades a story all the way through (or at least most of the way). This is the kind of tension that simmers away almost unnoticed, that the characters are always certainly aware of, but only if they stop to think about it and acknowledge it. An example might be a story about life in a submarine during World War II. (Or perhaps in a spaceship cruising the galaxy looking for “bad guy” spaceships to destroy with photon torpedoes.) Going down to three or four or five hundred feet below the surface of the ocean in a submarine is bad enough, but with the constant threat of depth charges raining down on the sub just elevates the tension level to a point where everybody is constantly aware of it. It’s in the background, it affects everyday life on board that sub, though the crew may not always be aware of it. Every crew member has his/her duty and carries it out. This is the type of tension that must be present on every page; it’s a constant reminder of the basic plot line of the story. Once the submarine returns to its home port, Pearl Harbor say, and every one relaxes on Waikiki Beach, the background tension is gone, and the story collapses. There’s nothing to hold it together. A story about sailors relaxing on a beach doesn’t hold much interest unless there’s some other background conflict.
But superimposed over that background tension/conflict is the more prominent one. This is a more immediate one. This is the tension of now, the tension of events taking place over and above the background. In that submarine, this might be the tension of a fight between two members of the crew, a fight that boils over from conflict between them that’s been simmering for days or weeks or months, dating back to well before they boarded the sub for their latest tour of duty. Or, it might be the tension of getting ready to fire torpedoes, with the ultimate realization that could bring down those dreaded depth charges and blow their nice warm submarine out of the water. This is the kind of tension/conflict that comes and goes, and isn’t necessarily present on every page. It rises and falls; it ebbs and flows, and an author can’t expect his/her characters to live under this type of stress and strain for a long time. They have to have some respite. But it is essential for the story, it provides a series of events that carry the reader along and allows him or her to see the inner workings of the main characters. It provides a look—maybe not much more than a glimpse—into their minds, into how they handle themselves in difficult situations, into what makes them tick. It gives the reader a look at the real person your character is, not the veneer they show to the world. Tap into this tension, but don’t overdo it—your writing will be better for it.
Over the past several months (late 2017 and early 2018), I’ve sent out several short stories to literary magazines around the country. Some submissions were simply in consideration for publication, while others were to enter contests. I’ve even scanned the submission requirements of other magazines to which I did not submit. (For any one of various reasons, the most common that their submission period is not open right now.) While it’s always good for a short story writer to submit and get published, and while winning a contest looks great on one’s literary resume, I’ve become concerned about the fees that some journals charge for regular submission, or to enter a contest. Most frequently, the fee takes the form of a small charge of three or four dollars which goes to pay the company that runs the submission machine. In most cases, this is Submittable. I haven’t been too concerned about that fee since it’s small enough that most anyone, even a starving literary artist can afford.
But now comes along a different fee animal. A couple of contests I entered recently charged $20 to enter, and I’m thinking about entering another one that charges even more. Keep in mind, these are contests, not general submissions. This puts the fee, while not out of my reach—at least not yet—on the road to the stratosphere, and I have become very concerned about it. Such a fee may or may not be unreachable by others, I don’t know, but it brings about a larger problem.
I’m sure the journals are using the fee to pay costs associated with running a contest, especially to pay the person who judges the entries that made the final cut and picks the winner and perhaps a runner-up and possibly a few honorable mentions. But from the point of view of those of us who are entering such a contest, a different facet of the question arises. If I pay $20 or $30 or more to enter, and I don’t win anything, what have I gotten out of it? The satisfaction of having entered and not won? Not so much. I get no publication, and nothing to put on my resume. (Some magazines give every entrant a year’s subscription to the journal, which is usually two copies. That’s at least a little better.) Many of the contests get hundreds, if not thousands of entries. My chance of winning is small, and that means that my chance of getting something for my money is also small. I’m not sure it’s worth the fee. Two or three dollars, okay. Twenty or thirty, not so much.
Basically what it comes down to is that the journal is using fees to run its magazine. Let’s say they get 500 entries and charge $20 to enter. They’ve made $10,000. If they have several contests through the year, the fees add up. Financially, it may work for them. But from the POV of a writer trying to get published, it doesn’t.
In my literary naivete, I always thought money flowed to the author. That’s been the standard for a long time. Paying to enter a contest with a meager chance to win is a reverse of the standard model. I’m not sure what can be done about it, but it needs attention by persons more knowledgeable about the publishing process than I.
As a science fiction writer, I usually find in necessary to keep up with much of the ground-breaking work that goes on in the fields of astronomy and particle physics and cosmology and all that other astronomical stuff, among others, and in many cases I wind up either reading the work of Stephen Hawking, or at least hearing about the latest research he’s done. He’s in his 70’s now, and has been afflicted with ALS since he was 21. At the time of his diagnosis, he wasn’t expected to live much past 25. But for some unknown reason, he’s lived with the disease for an almost outrageous number of years. I’ve been curious for a long time, how does he do it? Is there a specific reason why he hasn’t succumbed to the disease? Does he have some variant of the disease that lets the afflicted person live a long time? The vast majority of people with ALS (amyotropic lateral sclerosis) die within three to five years. So I looked up a little about ALS to see if there’s something to his longevity.
In the US we call it Lou Gehrig’s Disease after the baseball player who died of it in 1941, but in the UK, they call it motor neurone disease. ALS affects the motor neurons in the brain and the spinal cord which transmit impulses to the voluntary muscles throughout the body. It’s those voluntary muscles that do all the things we want to do, such as telling each finger what letter to press on a computer keyboard. Motor neurons also innervate the diaphragm, which is a part of breathing. That’s why we can take a voluntary deep breath. ALS can kill off the nerves that affect the diaphragm, and that results in breathing difficulty, and can be one of the contributing causes of death. Eventually, ALS begins to affect other neurons other than the motor neurons, and that can also be a cause of death.
But it seems there are various life expectancies within the general diagnosis of ALS. Most with the disease die within three to five years, but about twenty percent live five years after diagnosis, ten percent live ten years, and five percent can live twenty years or more. But Stephen Hawking has lived for almost fifty years with the disease, and, as far as I could tell, no one knows why. It may be that he has had excellent nursing care over the years, though no one really knows whether that’s an important factor in his longevity or not. Maybe it’s due to force of personality; he just refuses to give in to the disease. That seems unlikely, though. It’s doubtful that patients can voluntarily affect the course of the disease. In any event, he’s certainly an outlier; most patients don’t have any chance of living that long at all. He still does research and publishes papers, and has still made important contributions to cosmology. I wish I could do the same, even without the diagnosis.
Here are a few commentaries and observations designed to fill this space with words. These are especially directed toward those of my readers who are writers.
Which of the two constructions do you prefer? 1) I’m ten years older than him. Or: 2) I’m ten years older than he is.
The quote, “A [fill in your work] is never finished, only abandoned,” has been attributed to several writers. The poet Paul Valery is credited with, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” Graham Green said, “It,”—referring to a novel—”is never finished, only abandoned.” The novelist E. M. Forster said, “A work of art is never finished. It is merely abandoned.” I’ve even quoted it myself without giving proper attribution, usually referring to novels, rather than poems. And I’ve come to believe the truth in that quotation (whoever you feel is the real author). I’ve just completed a serious revision of the third installment of my sci-fi novels (it’s called “Warrior,” but hasn’t been published yet). The revisions filled in quite a number of plot holes, and smoothed out some awkward phrasing here and there. Now all that is left is to print out the novel (the first time that novel has been printed) and read it in the “paper” stage (see last week’s blog) and read it out loud. And then make whatever changes I feel are necessary. All of that won’t be a simple matter by any means, but it will insure that the novel will be in a reasonably good state, ready for beta readers or critique groups. Yet, based on my experiences with the first two novels, both of which have gone through that “print/read/out loud” phase, small touch-ups will always be possible at any time. It’s true, the novels are never finished; you can always make changes. I just have to be willing to drop them and let them go. And not obsess over small things.
If you have a character in your writing who is angry, and you need to show intense outrage/passion/displeasure/hatred, and you are writing in the 3rd person point-of-view, which way do you like to express it? By having the angry person be the POV character and present to the reader directly his/her feelings ? Or by having the character be not the POV character and letting him/her—and by extension, the reader—view it from a distance? It can be done either way, of course, but does it seem to fit your style of writing better one way or the other? Generally I stick with the indirect way: presenting the anger of someone directly in their head seems too much like telling, not showing.
In this day and age of climate change when storms are getting more and more powerful, and forest fires burn more and more square miles, I’ve noticed that people caught up in these events tend to use a curious method of comparison to try and describe how they sound or feel. Frequently that comparison is to a “freight train.” Most frequently, this is the object of comparison for tornadoes, but it has also been applied to land/mudslides, and even hurricanes. But I’m curious, do most people really know what a freight train sounds like? I’d almost be willing to bet that most don’t. I’ve heard a few freight trains in my life, and though I’ve never heard a tornado, I really wonder if the two sound alike. Anybody know? In this day of long trains pulled by large-horsepower diesel engines, the sound is more of a growl of low pitch and high. I suppose that back in the 1940’s and 1950’s when large steam engines pulled long trains of coal out of the Appalachian coal fields of Kentucky and West Virginia, and they had to literally pound the rails to get it over the mountains, it could have had a terrible rumbling feel, especially considering the power in the exhaust of the mighty engines and the shaking of the ground if you stood too close. But diesels don’t do that much any more. They seem to glide along; there’s no pounding and no heavy exhaust. I wonder if a tornado or mudslide really sounds like that. Anyone have any idea?
I’m curious. What will writers do without paper?
In our growing environmentally conscious society, the reduction of paper in the workplace has already begun. We’re supposed to reduce the amount of paper we use to help save trees, and by extension, the environment. But books are made of paper. (I don’t count e-books here.) In fact, I’ve never seen a book made of anything else. But speaking as a fledgling writer, and more to the point I’m trying to make here, manuscripts are printed on paper. Revisions are made on paper. The whole process of writing involves paper. And to an horrendous degree.
I know of and have heard of people who routinely print out their works (on paper, of course) during the revision process as a method of seeing the work in a new light. I agree with them. I do it too. Seeing my work, whether short story, poem, or the entire manuscript of a novel, gives me a clearer and more realistic vision of the work as it will appear to the reader (of a real book, not an e-book). I print out every story. In some cases, several times. I also read it aloud, and that helps even further in identifying the difficult points of the writing. Especially the redundancies, the difficult points of narration, the confused logic, the plot holes that need to be filled, the weird phrasing that should be revised, the scientific points that have to be explained in some detail. I—and as I said, others—need that printed version.
Paper is relatively cheap. Trees are cut down every day. But it’s a largely unsustainable concept, the idea of turning trees into a thin, white sheet that will accept ink and pencil lead, and the idea of reducing the amount of paper we use is most certainly environmentally proper. Computers have already forced us into a reduction of paper usage. And in my case, a substantial reduction. Without a computer to produce and keep my novels, short stories and poetry, I’d have to have a large file folder of each revision of a novel. That would be a lot of paper. One novel would take up an entire file cabinet drawer. I can’t imagine doing that.
Yet, still, I need to print out a novel to look at it in a “new light.” What are we going to do if paper goes away? To be really, really honest here, I suspect paper will never go away completely. It will always be with us, but we may wind up with much less of it and it will become much more expensive.
In the universe I created for my characters in my sci-fi novels, I put them on a desert planet without much plant life, except in large hydroponic gardens where they grow their food. Thus, they do not have the large trees or the cotton, or even the cellulose, we use to make paper. But—and this is a big but—they do have plastic sheets to print things on, such as photographs and computer images. They still have to have a format for printing. I cannot conceive of a civilization that doesn’t have some sort of ability to “print” writing and images. Perhaps in the distant future, the concept of “printing” will become obsolete, and computer images—of writing, of pictures, etc.—will be all we will have. But how will writers “print” out a manuscript to get a look at it? They’ll be limited to the computer version. Will that make writing worse in the long run?
During this Christmas season, I listen—along with everybody else—to all the Christmas music that’s played on the radio and at the malls, and as always it brings back memories of all sorts of Christmases past. But this year, for the first time, I’ve begun to hear the music and the words, slightly differently. I’m beginning to recognize the power, or better the penetrance, of the words in our society. Not that I hadn’t recognized it before, it’s just that I didn’t pay that much attention.
For example, take the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” by Clement Clarke Moore. Moore isn’t the first to use the term “St. Nick,” to refer to the jolly old man we now call Santa Claus, but he’s the first to give the names of the reindeer. He’s the first to describe the unique method St. Nick enters the house, and the fact that reindeer can fly. All of that he put down in 1823. That was the first year the poem was published, though at the time his name wasn’t attached to it. (Apparently he didn’t acknowledge authorship until he published the poem a book of poems in 1844.) But those reindeer names, that jolly old man, that unusual method of entry, has penetrated into modern society, especially here in the USA, so fully and so completely, we practically take it for granted, as though it was handed down to us on a silver platter from on high. Yet it was just a poem, written by one person, with probably little regard as to how much influence it would ultimately have. Even today, more than a century later, kids who live in a house without a chimney are afraid they won’t get presents. “How will Santa Claus get in?” they wail. It has made Christmas.
Another example. Take the song, “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town.” That’s the song that contains the famous (almost infamous) words, “He’s makin’ a list, checkin’ it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.” Do you know of any other short line that has penetrated so fully into modern society (along with Moore’s poem, above)? That one part of the song has risen above almost everything else to exert a considerable influence on kids today, especially the little ones. Every kid is scared of being put on the naughty list. It’s become so much a part of today’s Christmas celebration we joke about it all the time. Yet, like Moore’s poem above, it started out simply as a song, almost certainly with little regard to its eventual impact on society. (The song was written by Haven Gillespie and J. Fred Coots in 1934.)
So, if you ever doubt the ability of words to affect people years, even centuries, later, just look at those two examples. There are many more, of course, especially outside of Christmas (The Bible, The Koran, The Declaration of Independence, etc., etc., etc.), but even something as simple as a poem or a song can have meaning and implications well beyond its original intent. It’s almost impossible to deliberately sit down and write something that will have such an effect—I doubt if any of the authors above had any idea their words would be so well-regarded that far in the future. Did Thomas Jefferson think his words “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .” would be so important two centuries later? Hard to say. You just have to do your best.
A few days ago I watched a documentary on PBS entitled “First Man On The Moon,” about Neil Armstrong, the first human to step onto the surface of the moon (and, by extension, the first human to set foot on any heavenly body other than Earth). The main take-away message of the documentary was that Armstrong, of all the astronauts in the US space program at the time, was the best qualified to make the “giant leap” he so famously talked about, from the Apollo landing craft to the moon’s surface. He was chosen precisely because of his skills, training, experience, and most especially, his ability to remain cool in any emergency and to be able to take the right steps to minimize that emergency. Going to the moon could be full of emergencies. There was just no one else like him.
But remembering Armstrong got me to broadening my scope to a larger view, to that of Apollo itself. I went back to basics. What was the Apollo program in the first place? It was the final chapter in President John Kennedy’s program to send a man (in reality, men) to the moon and bring him (them) back home to Earth. It did that, in spades. But why was it conceived in the first place? I have no doubt that President Kennedy wanted some real scientific studies done, but I’m sure he was driven as much by the need to beat the Soviet Union to the moon as by the science, if not more. After all, in the late 1950’s and early 60’s, the Soviets had trumped us in two vitally important scientific events in the race into space: they put up the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, and put the first human in orbit, Yuri Gagarin, in April, 1961. (Gagarin completed only one orbit, though. John Glenn completed three orbits in February, 1962.) The pressure was on to bring the US space program out of second place and make the next step—put a man on the moon. Hence President Kennedy’s challenge in September, 1962.
That’s largely why the US went to the moon. And it’s important in a historical context, certainly. I suspect that in the absence of the pressure from the Soviets, the US probably would never have made it to the moon. Or, would just now be doing so. But so often, I feel, the scientific part of the Apollo program is minimized, dismissed, or even forgotten. We frequently overlook the fact that the astronauts picked up moon samples and left scientific equipment on the moon’s surface. Cynics claim science had nothing to do with it. In fact, the re-entry trajectory of each of the Apollo Command Modules had to be calculated before they ever left Cape Canaveral (later Cape Kennedy) to account for the presence of several hundred kilograms of moon rocks tucked away in the bottom of the module, because the modules were heavier than when they left the Cape. Even Apollo Seventeen, the last of the Apollo missions, carried a trained geologist, Harrison Schmidt (a New Mexican, by the way). If the idea behind sending a man to the moon was entirely political, why would we go to all the trouble to stoop to pick up rocks and carry them back? Why develop a futuristic cart that could carry two space-suited astronauts over the surface of the moon? Wouldn’t we have just had him land, walk around a little, plant a flag, say something politically obtuse, and leave? Clearly, Apollo was a valid scientific enterprise, as much as cancer research or smallpox elimination or the development of a measles vaccine. I’m glad I lived through that. I’m proud I had the privilege to watch on TV as Neil Armstrong took that “giant leap” on the moon. To watch it when it actually happened, even though it was a kind of blurry black-and-white picture.