Imagery With Teeth: Learning To Write For Millenials From Treehugging Haiku Poets

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Call me a dork if you want; but haiku is like a cherry Starburst for me. When you’re in the mood and they’re just right, it’s like a shot of happiness straight to your cortex. My point here is going to be that this poetry form and its old masters have plenty to teach a 21st century wordslinger how to write fiction. Try this one, from Matsuo Basho (1644-1694):

A bee

staggers out

     of the peony.

No picture needed. The word choice is fascinating because the bug isn’t said to just be there; and its little hairs or whatever aren’t described. He says the little guy is staggering in the center of a flower after blasting down a bunch of nectar. If you’re at all like me – and this is one of his famous ones so I’m not alone here – then this image pops right into your head like zooming in with your iPhone. I basically stole this one for a Salt Mystic quote in chapter 5 of Tearing Down The Statues. Here’s another one I stole from (Sylhauna’s gift in chapter 9):

First snow

falling

     on the half-finished bridge

And another (chapter 9 again, referenced in the computronium ruins they sail past):

Summer grass –

All that’s left

     of warriors’ dreams

Give me a minute on this. Hear me out. We’re bombarded by pictures in all our entertainment now and have been for a while. Most of us think in pictures. We absorb information more quickly that way. Interesting images grab us as readers and stick around maybe even after the plot has faded. I read something from a cyberpunk guy (maybe William Gibson, not sure) way back in the nineties that I couldn’t begin to tell you the title or story or even the point of it all. I just remember a line where the narrator described some rain on a lake as ‘furring it over with needles’. The image popped for me and was really an interesting way to describe that. I saw it and liked the way he said that. If you’ll just stop playing around and go read either Viriconium or Light by M. John Harrison, you’ll see what I mean about crazy-cool ways of describing imagery that are uniquely wired to the way our brains work…basically interesting images that are pregnant with stories.

The classic example of an image pregnant with a story is the six word flash fiction (probably) wrongfully attributed to Hemingway:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Ugh, man. That’s heartbreaking. Lean and straight for the jugular! Their baby died and never got to wear the freaking shoes. That’s awful. Usually haiku isn’t trying to rip your heart in pieces like that, but is often saying something more than what you’re looking at. How about this one by Kobayashi Issa (1763 – 1827):

     The old dog

leads the way

     visiting graves.

Dogs are always awesome. I can see a loyal little guy with his tongue hanging out and that fuzzy white fur on his snout, not even knowing this is a sad thing, being in the graveyard. Since he knows the way, he’s been there many times before. That leads my mind off into all sorts of imaginings about the dog’s master, and just which graves he’s going back again and again to visit. I may have to wipe my eyes here – hold on.

If we’re wired for images, if we absorb information more effectively and make it stick more effectively with images, and if a writer can successfully convey an important message through that mechanism – or at least resonate with an important theme, then the work has a shot at immortality in someone’s mind. That’s what this whole gig is all about, right?

Here’s what I get from all this:

  1. Stay lean, avoid a bunch of useless words that don’t add value
  2. Craft a striking image that’s memorable and describe it in a novel way
  3. Consider resonating the image with a theme from the story – make it mean more than the picture itself if you can

If you’re ever stuck for coming up with something, go steal from Basho and Issa. They won’t mind.

Getting Over Free And Rewiring Your Imagination

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Back in the day, pre-internet and when the only way to hit it big was to get signed by a big publishing house, you hounded magazines to sell short stories as much as you could. You got in print. All the names you’d recognize from those days offered that advice; and I sadly admit to listening to my dot matrix printer bweh-bweh-bweh in the corner of my desk while I bent those little metal clips on the manila envelope time and time again patiently sending off stories so I could make a name for myself to finally see the way clear before me. The only cool story I have from those days is a terribly cruel rejection letter from the guy who ran Asimov’s magazine accusing me of stealing the story idea (naming some obscure piece I’d never heard of and saying the other guy did it better). Now that I think about it – there was a guy named Vampire Dan who ran something called The Story Emporium at one point, who said nice things about what I sent him and always said I was ‘close’. He was awesome; but that’s beside my point.

Where I’m going with this is – you sold everything. Nothing was free. Guys like Harlan Ellison were brutal about it, chasing every dime for reprints and mentions and ripoffs. Basic economic common sense says you don’t give your hard work away because it has value. Giving it away means it’s crap and you couldn’t sell it. Right? Hold onto that for a minute.

My brain builds up steam. What I mean by that is my job can be technical; and if I’m not careful, I’ll be exclusively reading science journals and history books, learning statistical programming, building robotic arms, or whatever my left brain decides to chase with precious little stretching of my imagination. It can make my writing a little dodgy and stiff, and the ideas a little plain-Jane and cardboard because I’m not exercising that part that mishears things on purpose, that plugs and unplugs things I see around me to rewire them into something else. Everybody says you’re supposed to write every day; and they’re of course right about that. It matters. Our brains are neuroplastic, meaning you can rewire them yourself just by what you think about. It would be incredibly helpful for a writer to be able to dredge up an inspiring idea to stretch on like taffy any time he needs it. Confidentially, it helps me tremendously at work too because I’m always being presented something people are stuck on. Different ways of thinking break out of that kind of rut.

When I recently started in earnest to build a platform for future book launches, I finally got the light bulb to spark on – that old school thinking about not giving things away for free doesn’t hold true in the internet age. Nothing gets attention on-line like FREE. It’s amazing. Book giveaways are critical because of how you get reviews; and no book sells without reviews. Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads or whatever media you want to talk about, they’re all swamped and crowded with authors pumping books. Nonsense. Sales are about trust; and somebody who’s looking for an author needs to trust them. It is an incredibly intimate relationship between author and reader…a joining of the minds that must be honored and treated as precious. What this all means is it’s not only okay to give your work away for free, it’s important to do so. Setting up a place on Facebook where you can share a piece of flash fiction or a story idea you never intend to build a book around – that gives you a fantastic place for people to get to know your style, to trust you, and also forces you to sit down once a day and do it!

Go see what I mean here and let me know which ones you like best. I’ve come to notice already that people seem to appreciate most the ones with images attached. Give it a shot yourself and see if it doesn’t stretch you to look for slick story ideas around you more often.

The Making Of A Mind-Bender

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Standard warning – this is not a book review! I’m going to analyze how a science fiction author twists a story idea around like a diamond to craft a fascinating mind-bender of a book. Though I’ll likely spoil the crap out of it, we’ll hopefully pick up on best practices for anybody looking to squeeze novelty and freshness out of a concept they might have for a book or story.

“With a hollow booming sound the Third Time Fleet materialized on the windswept plain. Fifty ships of the line, the pride of the empire and every one built in the huge yards of Chronopolis, were suddenly arrayed on the dank savanna as if a small city had sprung abruptly into being in the wilderness”

Because I’ve read it a jillion times and because you should too, I picked for this exercise a 1974 time travel novel by a guy capable of turning your brain into salt water taffy but still leave a smile on your face. Seriously, why are you not reading Barrington Bayley? Go get Knights Of The Limits if you want a sampler pack. The book we’re going to look at is The Fall Of Chronopolis.

The core idea:

There’s an empire that stretches across time instead of space

Time travel has been done to death; and it’s usually stupid and full of holes. Look, you’re probably nowhere near the Doctor Who fan I am – I adore that show in all its forms; but mostly they contradict themselves at will and skim over uncomfortable goofs. Admit that, so we can move on. Here, Bayley has an interesting twist on the galactic empire idea that’s been around since the 1930s. Already a good start. People go back to those 1930s pulps even now. They did a lot of things right; and so did he with this one.

But how to make that work?

Bayley built a theory of how time is structured to try and solve how his core idea could function, how the citizens would travel across the empire and how they’d be ruled. It’s a natural progression once you have an idea, right? Just answer the obvious questions about your idea. He tells us time is like a frothy ocean with our reality and perception of it like stable skim on the surface. Yet under special circumstances, you can go deeper into the potential realities lying below, a horrid and ghostly place where souls can be dissolved into nothingness. Nice – loads of chance for drama and action there.Giant freaking time barriers were set up at the rearward past and forward future like walls around the empire. Specially protected ‘achronal archives’ exist inside buffers which are compared to duplicate archives outside the buffers enabling them to become aware of any disruptions to the timestream…like people or cities disappearing from history. There’s your empire.

Which raises more questions…

There are obvious problems that are going to come up with all of this…you can imagine the debate that went on in his head at this point. Like a courtroom, putting his idea on trial, my guess is he knew right away he needed a way to smooth contradictions, and a way for them to have a conflict of some kind. So his theory of the ocean of time needed to expand a bit. If you can imagine standing ripples on the water, no different from you and I holding a rope at the two ends with me popping up and down quickly so my end goes up when yours goes down…that point between us where the direction switches is called a node. Bayley imagined us existing at a node in time – stable points that move forward one second per second. There are just several of these; and the empire stretches across seven of them. Since they’re all that’s stable though, wrecks in the hinterlands between nodes dissolves all souls onboard into the terrible sea of potentiality. Come on! Once you stretch out an idea like that, of course it’s going to happen in the story! It’s writing itself at this point!

…and implications…

I can also imagine in Bayley’s spitballing session on this idea just trolling over everyday things to bounce his time empire idea across them and see what comes out. Relationships, for example. He imagines a young narcissistic prince who seduces his future self into a romance at node 1. He constructed a religion around how his empire would view the sea of potential, and the special reverence attached to the sacred moment when a Physics lab assistant first discovered the principle which would enable time travel.

Add the conflict and stir…

Once the initial idea is set up, it just needs tension. I imagine Bayley still working his central idea, twisting and turning it to see what war would look inside this framework. Giggling maliciously, I’m sure, he gave us an enemy empire existing in the future beyond a long period of unpopulated nuclear wasteland, begun by dissident time travelers from the empire itself. Cool beans. Conflict was automatic with this one, wasn’t it? Suddenly, the archivists start reporting entire sprawling cities have vanished from history, which no one remembers. The automatic rule of science fiction is to keep pushing the idea – how far can this go? Bayley describes the ultimate goal of a time war as disrupting the founding of your enemy – basically, get behind them and muck it up. It’s really fascinating to read all this…just incredibly innovative.

I’ll wrap it up to leave at least a little mystery to it all. The overall point this time around is the ideas will come from mishearing something around you, from hammering differences into something you see in a movie or book or something somebody tells you, whatever. The job then is to twist it around in the light for:

  1. Your first-pass explanation of how things will work with this idea
  2. Answers to the obvious questions resulting from step 1
  3. Teasing out implications of all that on everyday things
  4. Finding conflict that leverages the idea, not something boring that didn’t need it

That’s my take on it, anyway. You can go read Bayley now.

 

Let’s Pick Apart Great Writing To See Why It Works

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“The most terrifying conclusion Stephen King has ever written” Not my words. The inside jacket says that; and it’s a huge claim.

This is no book review. If you’re planning to read Stephen King’s Revival and spoilers bother you, skip this one. My purpose isn’t to tease you with it or give you enough zap to want to read it. I’m going to dissect this little guy like a Roswell alien to see…when it does work really well…why it works. I could have picked perfect works for this exercise, like Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, Frank Herbert’s Dune, or even King’s 11/22/63. One reason is I read this recently. The other is it isn’t perfect; and in particular breaks down like a clunker at one point. Just like almost everything King puts out, when he’s bad, he stinks. When he’s good, he’s freaking brilliant and outshines almost everybody else putting words together. Let’s see why that is, so we can distill some basic principles that would be of value to someone crafting their own stories. Cool?

The story follows Jamie Morton, a boy growing up in 1960s Maine who first encounters a Methodist minister, Charles Jacobs when Jamie is six and the reverend’s young family moves in. Jacobs apparently heals Jamie’s brother using snake-oil sounding hoo-doo he describes as relating to “secret electricity”, a practice that forms the backbone of the whole book. The reverend’s family is killed in a terrible accident, sending him into a bitter tailspin; and over the decades, fate swings these two together again and again in  occasional intersections. Jamie falls in almost-love, then out; and he gets first hooked on heroin, then cured of it by Jacobs. There’s rock and roll and carnivals and fantastic characters along the way. Things finally culminate with Jacobs bringing Jamie in for his grand experiment: bringing someone back from the dead to finally know where his family has gone…to at last know what happens after you die.

1- The opening is chatty and conversational, though immediately alludes to Jacobs being somehow entangled in horrors.

2- Within a few pages, we’re given a host of mundane details we can relate to like comic books, a kid’s imagination, crappy family gifts, toy army men

Straight away, he’s trying to hook you…to make you interested within a page or two before most of us would put it down.  He invented neither foreshadowing nor characterization; but he excels at getting you inside his people’s heads with slice-of-life details. That’s my point. Read it and see how he uses specifics like the name of a TV show his mom is watching to lend flavor and engagement to what he’s telling you…little details we can relate to. A majority of the reviews for this book gush about how much they enjoyed the first part of this book when he’s doing this. In fact, he almost always does this. I had to put down Under The Dome because he was vomiting details and overdoing this trick.

3- Much like the accident it describes, chapter three hits hard and fast with horrifying descriptions of a brutal car accident

Following a brief opening with more relaxed details like: “Three miles away, a farmer named George Barton – a lifelong bachelor known in town as Lonesome George  – pulled out of his driveway with a potato digger attached to the back of his Ford F-100 pickup.” It goes on to describe him as “a good neighbor, a member of the school board, and a deacon of our church”. Then a paragraph later, there’s a scorpion sting that stuck with me for a couple of months after I finished this book. Seriously, it’s brutal how the accident is described. It was fast and brutal. It drew me in, horrified me, scared the crap out of me because of how likely it could happen with nothing supernatural. Incredibly well written. This was brilliant. If you’re trying to scare a reader, striking quickly like this with graphic brutality on characters we’ve been made to care about and relate to is a genius move. It drove everything else that happened. Just genius.

4- The narrative winds and builds, resonating with the title quite well, leading the reader on to believe these ‘secret electricity’ experiments we keep hearing about are going to bring the family back, just in more of a “Monkey’s Paw” style probably. I was thinking it the whole book.

Except when he at last gets to the end, that’s not really what he does. A really brilliant use of the title and narration to make you think you’ve got one ending coming when you don’t.

5- Jacobs brings back a corpse to ask about the afterlife, to know where his family is. Clunk! We’re shown the monster.

To previous generations, it was expected of a horror writer to show the monster. Read Lovecraft – he was very much into that. Abraham Merritt was an incredibly successful sci-fi writer back in the 1920s and 1930s; and he spent pages in lush detail on his visuals. Understanding preferences in fiction are subjective, I can still confidently tell you the prevailing aesthetic in the 21st century is we’re much more frightened when it’s in our heads and the imagination runs wild. Troll Netflix horror flicks and have a look at how many have grainy, security footage-style or lost footage-style preambles for three fourths of the movie before you finally get to the money shot, which is even then only a glimpse of some lady crawling backwards on the ceiling or whatever. King broke the rule with this one; and he has a habit sometimes of cracking the horrifying dread he’s conjured in us like he did this time by describing the afterlife as a place of torment like something from Dante’s Inferno, with massive basalt columns and wide-eyed people led in chains by ant-things to punishment.

On one hand, I’m impressed that a horror genius like Stephen King has picked the most frightening thing about being a human, not knowing what happens after you die, and built a book around it. That’s the mind of a guy who knows what he’s doing. Point in his column. On the other…’ant things’? When he got to this point, the atmosphere and pacing were incredible, driving the quick page turns and breathless wait for what happens next…excellent wordcraft. It’s just for me, when he showed his answer, I disengaged. It isn’t just me, many of the reviews make similar comments without the details of why they felt that way.

Anyway, that last principle is what made me think writing this article made sense. A quote from Great Gatsby came to mind, which is saying practically the same thing:

“No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart”

 

‘The Messengers’ on Neflix

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So let me ask you a question. Is it really unreasonable and overly nerdist to expect some basic physics be adhered to in my entertainment? Give me just a minute or two here; and I’ll make my case.

I ran nuclear reactors in the Navy, so I get the idea of what they look like, where you can go, and where you can’t. Not that that’s really necessary. When I watched the James Bond flick with Pierce Brosnan, ‘The World Is Not Enough’, I honestly tell you – I shielded my eyes during the reactor scene because it was so stupid. Not kidding – I had to look away. That sort of thing happens to me; and my wife has no patience for it. She says shut up and just enjoy the story.

Anyway, she and I periodically binge watch shows on Netflix together. We’re just about done with a single season deal called, ‘The Messengers’, which was rated 4.5 stars there. I gave a pass on the nonsense about illusory non-functional wings no one can see, this idea that God picks people each generation to run around in circles with intentionally ambiguous information trying to stop the rapture, and the random nature of these sins that mysteriously trigger transformations of regular everyday people into horsemen of the apocalypse. I’m cool, really. Somehow, even in this swamp of suspending disbelief, it was a scene about a mysterious new element that finally disconnected me. When somebody says they’ve got in their hand a material containing, ‘every element known to man, and a new one we’ve never seen before’, maybe that doesn’t bother you. Maybe a picture of the periodic table doesn’t pop up in your head with all those radioactive ones smiling there. I shielded my eyes, man.

So where do you stand on this? Go ahead and watch, ‘The Messengers’ because the people can act and there is a reasonable story, though you’re out of luck for a second season. I doubt you’re like me with the physics thing, so you’ll probably have a fine time.

‘Lady Of Mazes’ by Karl Schroeder

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Just finished Karl Schroeder’s, “Lady Of Mazes”; and it’s entirely possible I’m just not smart enough to have gotten all the good out of it. I love me some big ideas; and this guy kept them coming, no doubt. Ginormous ringworld populated by trillions of people, living in enclosed societies frozen out of certain types of technology (depending on which society you’re living in) by thingies called, ‘tech locks’ because that’s the level and set of values they wanted to have…like Amish in space, but way cooler. Augmented reality on steroids they call, ‘the inscape’, which provides consensual reality – decide what you want to see and filter out the rest. Folks call up simulations of what they should do to see how decisions will turn out. They call up simulations of themselves for others to deal with when they feel like checking out for a while. It goes on and on, man. Highly original and very interesting. Of course, because it’s science fiction, that all had to break up into bits; and I won’t go into all that. It felt a bit like something by Barrington Bayley, if you’ve ever tried something from him. (If you haven’t, go do that now – I’ll wait). But you don’t read Bayley for the snappy dialogue and believable character motivations, you know? Same deal here, at least that was my reality.

My issue is that it read at times, in fact most of the book, like random bits of dialogue and events that were honestly hard for me to follow. I blame my short attention span and impatience with wooden characters. Chapter divisions are there; but I couldn’t make sense of the logic behind them. People are doing all sorts of things; but most of that is just convenient for the conflict that needed to be set up and its resolution rather than a sensible flow of what people would do.

Anyway, the ideas stuck with me, if not the plot or the people. I’ll remember it, so maybe based on that alone, you should give it a shot yourself. Maybe just go in like a buddy of mine used to describe as his way of enjoying certain alt music like REM…think of it as an impressionist painting and don’t expect everything to float your boat and make perfect sense. I’m going to try another one by this same author, first in a series and called, ‘Sun Of Suns’. Will let you know how that one turns out.