For The Love Of The Craft

They say part of writing well is reading well. I try to broaden my scope and cover the classics, but are always important authors who slip through the cracks. My writing focus has been speculative fiction, yet until recently I’ve committed the sin of failing to read the short horror of H. P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft was a major influence of many successful writers, including modern giants Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, and it didn’t take me long to figure out why Lovecraft’s influence has persisted. His prose is like a great fireside ghost story and the strange demons and apparitions are so beautifully developed I can’t help but drink in the weirdness. And while many of the stories fit together—dealing with madness, ancient cults and black magic—each is unique and memorable on its own.

A new writer aping Lovecraft’s style would probably not get published. His prose is fairly ornate, and most of the stories chronicle similar journeys of skeptical men to horrified believers. The characters don’t get much of a chance to live and breathe, and sometimes seem only to pilot the reader through dark places and bizarre situations. What little dialogue there is can seem ridiculous, and the descriptions and exposition border on ‘overdone’, but the flow of his thoughts is prodigal, well considered, and right up my alley.

One of his strongest assets is his ability to describe settings we can feel, and that we remember as though we’ve been there. The house in “The Color Out Of Space” and the strange events that occur within are so crisp in my mind it’s as though I spent an entire novel there, or a weekend. Few writers lend so much personality to a building, and like The Overlook Hotel in The Shining, the places in Lovecraft’s work are at least as central as the characters.

Most of the stories I’ve read so far are quite similar in tone, but rather than feeling redundant, I get the sense that I’m reading an author who has found and truly mastered his voice. And with the strength of that voice, his legacy is likely to last for a long time still. As a writer still honing his own voice, I was glad to see the trickle-down influence of his work in some of my own short stories.

He’s a must-read for anyone who wants to write speculative fiction, and I welcome recommendations of other less popular but seminal authors I might have missed.

Big Bang Theory vs. Kubrick’s “The Shining”

BIG BANG THEORY

The Big Bang Theory is the current, widely-accepted model of the birth of our universe. It was formulated in the early 20th century and refined to the present by progressive theory and experiment. The Big Bang is based on observations of redshifts in distant stars (meaning the stars are getting further from us), background radiation, and other conditions observed in our universe, and the scientific majority agrees that the universe is expanding from its origin as a singularity. The model explains many questions about why our universe is the way it is. Ongoing reiteration and support from the scientific community has made worldwide scientific hegemony of the matter despite that common sense tells us it’s impossible.

The Big Bang Theory is not a scientific fact. It is a theory. It states that our whole universe exploded out of a singularity almost infinitely dense and almost infinitely small. But how can we believe, based on observation (i.e. scientifically), that our whole universe with it’s mind-boggling mass and size can fit into a point smaller than an electron? Common sense and experiential evidence tells us this is ridiculous, but expert testimony and high science support it as true. Counter arguments are generally dismissed by the scientific community and rarely make it to major media. Granted, physical and theoretical experiments have been carried out by “experts” to corroborate this majority opinion, but these experiments cannot prove The Big Bang Theory true in a way that is scientifically valid. The progress of this theory reminds me of the Vatican’s discussions about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. At best The Big Bang Theory is a good speculation which can help further exploration.

Stephen Hawking, Michio Kaku, and other pop scientists in contemporary physics seem to agree, though they might differ on the finer points of the theory. While selling this line on a television program, Hawking went so far as to declare that there is no God, but offered up a cosmology just as miraculous – that the Big Bang just happened. They seem to miss the point that the role of a scientist is to observe and to postulate, not to declare completely unprovable opinions. There is no such thing as holy fiat in science, and it seems to me that these declarations hurt future science because they narrow the aperture with which coming generations will view the universe.

Of course we need scientists to operate at all levels of intelligence, and the smartest will likely be unintelligible to the majority of the world. Specialized science pushes the boundaries of knowledge omni-directionally, expanding our understanding at increasing rates. But because the average person cannot understand quantum physics or super string theory, scientists are forced to dumb down their message, forcing people to accept certain assumptions without question, and this leads away from the spirit of science.

Initiates into scientific mysteries speak their own language, a jargon developed throughout history. The Vatican is likewise initiated into its own specialized explanations of mysteries. The cosmological explanations of the Dark Ages made some sort of sense to people of the time, even if they sound absurd from a secular, contemporary point-of-view. But look past the God question and ask if there are things in religion that improve humanity. Cultivation of morality, relief from personal suffering, and religious experiences are real effects that can be explained with the models put forth by the church. To that end, debating the fate of souls has some relevance, even if is clothed in bizarre cultural symbols. We should assume current theories will seem equally absurd in the future.

It is not my intent to say whether The Big Bang Theory is true or false. Obviously I don’t know. My complaint is the dogmatic approach modern popular science takes. Dogma caused the Dark Ages. If the theory explains the universe in a way you find personally useful, then by all means use the theory. But if you have a hard time believing that the whole universe can be contained in a space of virtually zero volume, then you shouldn’t just accept the theory because specialists in scientific jargon say it’s true.

THE SHINING

In the novel The Shining by Stephen King, a hotel caretaker is haunted by ghosts. These ghosts, who inhabit The Overlook Hotel, possess Jack Torrence, driving him to murder his child Danny. These ghosts have many magical capabilities, including the animation of lions made of shrubbery. Fortunately, Danny has a magical friend Tony to look out for him and keep him safe. The novel left me unsatisfied, and part of this is because I can’t comprehend the scope of the forces at work. There is so much magic happening that as a reader I’m forced to suspend my disbelief throughout. Even if I stay with the story to the end, I understand that nothing real is at stake.

But most people would agree there are no such things as ghosts, no such thing as magical fairies from the future who can tell you where to hide, and no such things as hedges that can bite your face off. Most people today are much too rational for beliefs like this. And this is why the film adaptation of The Shining by Stanley Kubrick is a far superior work of art.

In the film, the antagonism is believable. People understand that the mind is a fragile thing. It is able to bend and warp into psychosis and we understand this because we see it every day in the news. People do go on murderous rampages. Bushes do not attack people. Kubrick eliminated the hedge lions completely and focused the malevolent forces within the psychology of Jack Torrence. Instead of suspending disbelief, the audience is able to fully engage with the descent into madness of an alcoholic with cabin fever and the sympathetic intuitions of his young son.

The film version of The Shining is simply more honest. For most of us, possession by ghosts sounds impossible unless it is explained by way of psychology. The film trumps the novel every time because a) it is perfectly executed, and b) it is based on something society can observe and understand, as opposed to the Big Bang.

Art is about showing truth. Science is about finding truth. Speculation is a good starting point for both, but only as a spring-board to truth. In the end, truth should trump speculation every time. Therefore the winner in this week’s Battle Of Unrelated Things is Kubrick’s The Shining.

Why I Outline

Books about writing come in all shapes and sizes, and I try to read a new one every few months to shed light on the writing process. A few that I’ve read from major authors like Stephen King and Isaac Asimov really shook me up. When I read that these guys didn’t like to outline their novels and preferred to “wing it”, three things struck me: 1) these guys seem to have perfect confidence in their talent for writing; 2) these guys obviously have a huge natural talent for writing; 3) no wonder the end of The Stand was a let down.

It’s a little scary to think that I’m five books into A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin and there’s no guarantee that he won’t lose his way and start a storyline about Mord the Gaoler’s secret teeth. But the reason these successful authors get paid the big bucks is that they’re consistent and they’ve proven they can deliver. Track record means a lot in the publishing industry. Every novel that Stephen King writes is an immediate best-seller, so that says something.

For anything longer than a few chapters, I outline the whole story before writing any prose. It’s important that the whole of the story is reflected in its parts. If a scene doesn’t bolster the spine of the story, it doesn’t belong. I can really get a kick out of digressive or tangential passages, but they must have a point. Having a fully realized idea about the structure of an entire work allows a writer to create only scenes that fit, scenes that meaningfully turn the story on it’s course through the climax. It all has to be meaningful.

George R. R. Martin has said he likes to give his characters freedom as he writes a scene, and to see what the characters want to do. But for anyone like myself trying to catch the attention of editors and publishers, there is no room for undirected action in a book, script, short story, whatever. Every sentence must show the reader something about the characters or move the story forward (which are really the same thing). If a sentence is pretty but doesn’t reveal anything essential to the story, it must go. Recycle it into poetry, which is more forgiving of stagnant, disconnected thoughts.

Unseasoned writers want to impress people with a unique voice, and so they allow themselves flourishes of “style”. But writing that draws attention from the momentum of the story comes off as self-indulgent to any editor who reads hundreds of stories a month. These authors are missing something crucial: If two authors are told to write the same story as plainly as possible, their stories will still be totally different. Their unconscious writing tendencies make up that difference.

People who try hard to be unique miss the fact that social conditioning, genetics, inner experience, and everything else shape the way they view the world. All of this conditioning effects what people notice in the world around them, what they think about when they hear certain sounds, and how they relate external facts to internal experience. And this fundamental uniqueness is something we can’t get rid of, we can only try to hide it with a facade. As the man says, “This race and this country and this life produced me…I shall express myself as I am.” (James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)

I used to think I had a way with words until I started noticing embarrassing turns of phrase in my older writing. These were naive attempts to show my unique style instead of being confident in my own uniqueness and striving for clear language. Now I try to shape my thoughts into clear, distinct little packages. For the most part authors do well when they abolish any conscious attempt at style and tell the most honest version of their story. (My favorite champion of clear language is The Underground Grammarian. It’s dry, but hilarious.)

With this in mind, I lay out the biggest beats of my story first so I know they are solid. I might have scenes in mind already, but I put them aside and figure out the major turning points first. Or, if I’m lucky, the scenes I’ve already come up with are the major turning points of the story. When the structure best represents the story I want to tell, I figure out all the other scenes I need to get from point A to point Z, and rough them out. This saves me way more time than it takes to do. More than half of my writing time is devoted to figuring out the structure and what scenes will fulfill that structure.

Once I have my scenes figured out, there are a handful of questions I ask myself to make sure the scenes have essential dramatic elements.

1) Whose scene is it? Stories are told through character, and the plot develops through action. Knowing the central character for each scene keeps the writer and the story on track.

2) What do the characters in the scene want? Characters should want something, as Kurt Vonnegut said, even if it’s just a glass of water. A character who wants nothing isn’t motivated to take action, and whether we’re reading a book or watching a movie, things need to happen in order to move the story along. Otherwise you might as well be looking at a painting.

3) What is the conflict? Story is told through conflict. Don’t try to outfox me and say, “Not necessarily Eric…” because it just is. The conflict can come in any form, but there must be one. Nobody goes to see a movie about people just sitting around having a good time.

4) What is the turning point of this scene? If a character wants something and there’s a conflict, what happens? Well something has to happen, that’s for sure. My character wants a beer (he’s based on me). If he goes to a bar and buys one and drinks it, that’s not interesting writing even if the beer is really good. If he goes to a bar but the lineup is huge, that’s conflict. Maybe he’s motivated to try something new or clever to get what he wants. So he cuts in line. But he pisses of an MMA fighter. It’s a turning point. Now he’s forced to make a decision based on his wants. Does he apologize and go across the street to that sketchy biker bar? Does he pretend he to be deaf? Does he decide to order him and the fighter a whiskey? Only to find there’s no single malt!

While my conscious mind is working on all these points to make sure I’m telling a coherent story, my unconscious mind is automatically going to fill in the details I haven’t thought of. In this way the conscious and subconscious mind work together like light and shadow to illuminate the story. There is an adage that authors usually write more than they intend to write. Looking at my older writings I definitely see instances where symbolism has crept in unconsciously. I’m usually impressed at the interesting ways these elements add to the whole. If these elements can work their way into a nice, tight story structure, then we’re off to the races.

For anyone who isn’t widely published and completely confident in their writing, I recommend a thorough outlining process and asking these tough questions about each scene. Honest, economical writing is always in fashion.

 

Stephen King’s “The Stand” vs. Ricky Gervais’s Athiesm

I just read The Stand by Stephen King and it impressed me as a well-crafted contemporary novel. Having read almost no Stephen King I had almost no expectations. But hearing the popular opinion that it is his magnum opus, I thought it might shed some light on my own writing.

The Stand is well executed technically. The way he sets the story up is compelling – it starts in the middle of a super-flu epidemic and offers enough dramatic action to carry the introduction of a wide cast of characters. Like a Yahtzee throw, there’s a good chance I’ll want to stick with at least one of these characters. One hundred pages in the story-engines are revved and there’s a lot of machinery in motion. It’s written in a thoughtful voice that isn’t over-sophisticated. It’s easy to read.

Whereas many long books can meander during the second act, Book 2 of The Stand is a great piece of writing. When the immediate viral threat to our heroes dies down, we’re quickly thrust into a survival situation offering food for thought for all tastes. The questions of civilization rise up from ancient history and we think fundamentally about society, politics, law, love, comfort and all the rest we take for granted living in a stable situation.

But here’s where The Stand let me down. [Spoiler alert! If you haven’t read The Stand, which came out in the seventies, and you’re just about to read it now and will be pissed if I spoil something, skip down to “I’m no Objectivist”.] The forces of antagonism through the book reach climax much earlier than our heroes are ready to deal with them. By the time our heroes get to Las Vegas, Flagg’s powers are already on the decline. And although Flagg still has enough evil magic to overpower our guys, the climax is deflated and unsatisfying because as readers we already have a sense that Flagg’s time is drawing to a close. With all the intricate set up in the first 66.6% of the book, I wanted more of a bloodbath at the end, firstly, and a more concrete resolution to the arc of each character. Instead what we get is a sterile explosion, viewed from afar, that kills heroes and villains alike.

I am also unsatisfied with the good/evil dichotomy presented throughout the book. Aristotle’s two-valued logic is faulty and naive. Nothing in life is absolutely good or absolutely evil except perhaps in our own imaginations. Understandably King wants us to feel we’re on the side of the “good”. But do “good” characters go out in search of violent confrontation as these heroes do? Their idea of a preemptive strike against Flagg reminds me of the illegal American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Not a fan.

But the major criticism I have with The Stand is that for all their politicking, civilizing, and good intentions to re-boot, the intrinsic problems of humanity creep back in and our heroes win the day by submission to Divine Providence. And in the end, it will all happen again. All well and good in a religious, “it’s all meant to be,” kind of way, but as a writer and a human, I want my characters to take a more proactive position and I want some kind of change from beginning to end. I believe the phrase is “God helps those who help themselves.” The way to an exciting climax is not to let characters just give up and submit to whatever is coming.

Novels must offer some glimpse into the mind of the artist. But if Stephen King’s message is that in order to win we should lie down and accept what’s coming, I disagree with the thesis of the novel. Then again, if Stephen King didn’t have a theme or point in mind, was in fact telling a meaningless story, then the book is as culturally significant as a Sudoku puzzle. I doubt this is the case.

I’m no Objectivist, but I agree with Ayn Rand that the will to make one’s own destiny is a good ideal, and to eschew mediocrity and complacency is helpful to society. Most of our great geniuses from Buddha to Einstein saw a gap in the world and filled it with their own brand of intellect; they went against convention to rise above.

Objectivism, and the outspoken atheism of people like Ricky Gervais, rub me the wrong way. It rubs me just as wrong as outspoken missionaries trying to spread their version of religion among “heathens”. If atheists tell me not to believe in God, they are not motivating me to think for myself, they are motivating me to think like they do. Outspoken atheism is simply the negative form of religious fanaticism (fascism).

But Atheism does have this positive effect: the message that we shouldn’t wait for heaven after we die, that we shouldn’t wait for God to come down after death to redeem our lives, motivates us to make the most of our waking hours and work hard. Hard work is something I can definitely get behind, and I know hard work is something Ricky Gervais can get behind. Hell, Stephen King writes 2000 words a day so I know he can get behind it too. We should all work hard to shape the lives we want. Obviously. My ideal novel won’t get written by anyone but me.

There is also this facet of the argument: I’d take laughter over horror most days. For that reason I’m declaring Ricky Gervais the winner of this battle-between-two-completely-unrelated-things. Besides, you can likely watch BBC’s The Office in less time than it will take you to read The Stand.

Thanks for reading this piece of tangential writing and I hope you appreciated that despite it’s strange structure, it had a point. Now get back to work.

 

 

Writing Near and Far

The next book on my reading list is The Stand by Stephen King. Most bestselling novels share one impressive self-evident fact – they are very readable. Stephen King, John Grisham and George R. R. Martin are masters of the craft. Somehow I have only ever read one other Stephen King novel. It was The Shining, and I was disappointed. (Here’s why.)

I read bestsellers for the same reason that I watch blockbuster movies. I’ve spent a lot of time on the other side of the fence snubbing my nose at commercially successful filmmakers, writers, etc., while remaining unpublished myself, so I’ve decided to try to undo some of my pretentious conditioning. These people sell books because they are masters at writing in the active voice.

Active/Passive

When two people speak casually they fall into rhythm without having to think about their subject. If one person tells a story, he or she speaks continually, with no pauses to think about the logical ordering of words. This natural dynamic creates a polarity between them: Person A uses short words in sentences easy to understand; Person B listens and gives minimal feedback until a break in the flow occurs, or they think of something and interrupt. Or they pull out their phone.

Likewise, most bestselling authors use short words in sentences easily understandable. Their prose is fluid and well-ordered and we, as readers, follow along quickly, understanding everything that transpires. Because the prose is so direct and active, we lock ourselves into “input” mode, accepting ideas in order without breaking off in distraction at our own tangential thoughts. We absorb the writing because it puts us in a passive, receptive trance.

I read The Associate by John Grisham very quickly. The first few chapters flew by and I went to bed. In the morning I realized I didn’t like the main character and wasn’t intrigued by the plot. Nevertheless, while I read the book I wasn’t thinking about these things, I was simply reading along. The deeper I got into the book the more greedily I read, even as I was rolling my eyes about the story. It was like an addiction, like being addicted to Fruit Loops even though they ruin your mouth for the day. At the end of the book I complained that it offered no food for thought. The reading experience was one of the easiest and most natural of my reading career. That says something.

George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is written in a very plain voice. His prose draws no attention to itself and we’re left with pure story. It took more than 2000 pages for me to realize that A Song of Ice and Fire is the work of a master. The prose is third-person and seems omniscient, but each chapter features a different character, invisibly bringing the reader deeper into each character’s reality by subtly detailing how diverse characters act and react, notice or miss detail in a complex world.

This style of writing is processed immediately, meaning A) it is comprehended at once; and B) it is not mediated by thought.

The Other Side

Another style of writing is at least equally masterful, though you don’t see people reading these books on the subway. Some writers write in a more complicated, elliptical style and effectively ask the reader to think in parallel with the prose. This risks losing the reader to distraction because readers have idiosyncratic mental correspondences, and each reader ends up thinking something slightly different. In this category I include authors like Thomas Pynchon and Jorge Luis Borges, whose stories open into big ideas for the reader to take or leave.

These works can be tough to digest as the reader must make leaps of thinking to understand the ordering of the prose. A book like Gravity’s Rainbow is so dense with ideas and correspondences that every reader ends up with his or her own version of the story. What I get from the book will differ from what you took from it, and that contrast will show us both something about how we perceive the world. I find that interesting.

Borges’ short stories compress such huge ideas into so few pages, each gleams like a diamond. The worlds of Philip K. Dick may seem naively constructed, but the ideas put forward make his work great. The Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson happens through shifting quantum realities where characters spontaneously change names, personalities, etc., and it is only the ideas that carry the story through.

The Synthesis

Balance matters. There’s a correspondence between symmetry with beauty. Use both sides of your brain, and read both types of literature. Then, and only then, consider going outside for some exercise, right after another cup of coffee.

A long while ago I decided would read what I wanted without worrying it might be over my head. It can be frustrating because we feel dumb when we don’t understand. But understanding things is a matter of time and will. When you come across an unfamiliar word, you have the option to look it up in a dictionary. Doing that developed my ability to “stick with” tough books. I’m positive this practice has increased my attention span. Unfortunately I can’t say whether I’ve become smarter, or better at bullshitting because I know more words. Either way, it’s rewarding to finish a difficult book.

I used to write vague screenplays and abstract stories that must have left amorphous impressions on the few people who read them. Now I make efforts to absorb the style of these bestsellers hoping to balance myself out. There is no denying that King and Grisham write clearly and precisely, and that’s admirable. That economy of style is difficult to master, and it’s one of the reasons Ernest Hemingway won a Nobel Prize. Hopefully with this blog motivating me to write clearly, concisely, and regularly, I’ll find some balance, round out my style, and publish in a professional market.

 

“They lived for different futures, but they were each other’s unrecognized halves, and what fascination between them did come to pass was lit up, beyond question, with grace.” – Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day