Deep Waters: A Case Study In Adding A Mythic Dimension

 

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When I read Stephen King’s Dark Tower series or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, anytime I read Dune, I get the same vibe as I’m planning to chat with you about in this post…that there’s something ominous and huge going on – a belief system or set of myths or larger than life history affecting events. I dig that tremendously; and I look for it in things I enjoy reading. In fact, when I was growing up, you were either a Luke Skywalker guy or a Han Solo guy – meaning you wanted to be the space cowboy or the brooding, mythic hero. I was a Luke Skywalker guy. The literary take on this is it’s much more interesting in your fiction should you plan to include some sort of belief system if you don’t just recreate the Greek Gods or rip off the American Indians with a ‘Great Spirit’ thing-a-ma-bob.

So I’m going to go deep with this one. Stick with me. I finished an interesting study recently that went way farther that I’d expected. I was googling and flipping through the original materials madly, chasing a huge idea that kept getting bigger. It was like pulling up one of those weeds where the roots keep popping up out of the ground and you finally just cut it when you can’t tell how far it’s really going to go. For me, it started with a random book on my shelf from years ago that had an article about the I Ching in it.

Anyway, another article in that book that caught my attention was about the Kabbala’s  Sefirot. The idea of treating a deity like an engineered contraption, like a set of physics rules you just needed to respect to make jedi-mind-trick things happen tickled both the logic and artsy sides of my brain. So I went deep into the Kabbala – read several books and spent some time reading what its believers found attractive about it. No offense if that’s your thing; but I ultimately found it full of promise and marketing but a big fizzler when you try to pin it down to something useful. It did strike me as fascinating though, the nebulous descriptions of the highest realms of reality – a nameless and unapproachable perfect being so incredibly pregnant with the potential of creation it’s provoked by nothing more than a state of mind. The sefirot idea stuck with me, so I poked into where it came from.

Read the Sefer Yetzirah if you like; but it’s gibberish to me. That was where the sefirot were first described. I bought the Pritzker Edition of The Zohar though, because that’s the big daddy of Kabbala, the place where it really took off. Get far enough into The Zohar; and you’ll get the feeling that nobody’s saying what they really mean and you can stretch and pull to make anything mean what you want it to. Still though, the massive superstructure of the universe having a secret dimension to it, a direct line of sight to a divine machinery, kept things popping. So I went deeper to see what influenced Moses DeLeon (the 13th century Spanish author or the channeler, whichever you dig).

I’ll speed up to make my point, though this took a while to trace. What I found was a pattern of about every two or three hundred years, a very similar theoretical apparatus was showing up in some famous writings. The themes are these:

  • There’s an indescribable, unapproachable entity way up in some higher dimension ready to burst with creative potential
  • This entity is either intelligent or just a principle of the universe, depending on who you’re reading; but it can be influenced either way
  • Since this thing’s perfect, it can’t produce things that aren’t perfect, yet here we are with cancer and weeds and birth defects
  • So this thing has levels beneath it, where things get progressively farther from the top and so are less perfect till you get to us
  • That means there are perfect versions of things somewhere, like flawless templates from which all matter is descended

I had discovered what they call Neo-Platonism. If you already knew that, good for you. I didn’t. It made me think of Object Oriented Programming, because it’s exactly the same idea where you have ‘classes’ defined as templates, then make ‘instances’ of them to tweak for where you use them. Going successively back in time…

  • John Scottus Eriugena (800-877AD) said the entity at the top was God; and He was creating stuff so that He could understand Himself. He said the primary Forms I was talking about above were the patterns of all things located in God’s mind. Eriugena was probably influenced by…
  • Pseudo-Dionysius The Areopagite (late 5th, early 6th century AD) who shared the view of a procession of realms from God but said a rock or a worm was a window upon the entire universe if you only knew how to look at it. He was intrigued by finding his place within that procession and seeing himself inside it, focusing on the sacraments as a way to engage with the apparatus. This guy was probably influenced by…
  • Proclus (412-485AD)  who was head of the Athenian school and thought Plato was divinely inspired. This guy wasn’t Christian, so his view of the thing at the top was more of a nameless ‘One’ you could influence with magic rituals. He was influenced by…
  • Plotinus (205-270AD) who studied Plato religiously. This guy had an inherent distrust of material things because they were a poor image of something higher. He said the supreme dealie-o at the top was a transcendent ball of potentiality, without which nothing could exist. He also said because of its nature of perfection, it couldn’t have a will of its own and couldn’t engage in any activity without becoming imperfect. So he had a procession downwards as well, culminating in matter.
  • The Gnostics were around this same time period, thinking the same sort of thing about matter being wicked and only a pale reflection of the perfect templates up there somewhere.
    • You see how big this is getting, right? 
  • Plato (4th century BC) developed in The Phaedo and in The Republic what’s called his Theory Of Forms . He likened us to people who’ve spent their lives watching shadows on a cave wall, thinking the shadows were what’s real when in fact there’s something making the shadows. Plato extrapolated from this idea that the soul was also a Form, and therefore perfect and unchanging, so..you know…reincarnation. He may very well have been influenced by…
  • Parmenides (5th century BC) who revolted against the sciency philosophers by suggesting there was actually a difference between true, objective reality and the stuff we can see. I’m not sure he started all this though because of…
  • Heraclitus (535 – 475BC) which is where my story ends. I read Remembering Heraclitus by Richard Geldard. Here’s a deep well like you wouldn’t believe. Heraclitus may have written a book and just dropped it off in the famous temple at Ephesus, and soundly changed the world. He described ‘the logos’ as a fiery, invisible rational principle that embedded the universe (like the Force, surrounding us, binding the galaxy together). It’s the wisdom of all of creation. Entirely possible it’s this guy that kicked the whole thing off that led to the same theoretical apparatus inspiring people for millennia.

My point is that this nebulous, vague description of a cosmic apparatus appeals to the logical side of your brain because it sounds like machinery; and you want to figure out how to make it work. It appeals to the creative side of your brain because it leaves so much for you to interpret and add to it. In fact, ,that’s just the way the I Ching appeals as well, presenting itself as reflecting the universe in a little microcosm so you can leverage what it’s up to as it changes.

Since the I Ching has been around in some form for 3,000 years; and the ideas the Kabbala built its palace on for not much less than that, those systems have something to say about how to make your manufactured belief systems resonate with people. Appeal to both the right brain and the left. Show how it could make people’s lives better in some way.

I took a real stab at this myself in Tearing Down The Statues, focusing on the idea that history repeats itself at different scales.

Now you go try and let me know how it turns out for you!

“The cosmos was not made by immortal or mortal beings, but always was, is and will be an eternal fire, arising and subsiding in measure.” -Heraclitus

Torching Literary Groupthink

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You may or may not have heard of Cory Doctorow; but years ago when I first read Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom, something blew my mind. It kind of makes my point, so I thought I’d hit you with it to see what you think.

I grew up reading white physicists writing about white physicists in my science fiction, which made me all kinds of happy because I was into spaceships and slick graphics of hydroponic farms tended by robots and that sort of thing. My view of a successful and breakthrough idea in a sci-fi book or movie would’ve  been just some cool extrapolation of:

  1. Spaceships or living in space
  2. Robots
  3. Plasma-based weapons
  4. Time travel
  5. Post-apocalypse stories

That’s what the pulps built up for us, and it’s what folks are still doing well. I’m glad that’s there, and those fields of science were starting out in the 1930s and 1940s in the first golden age of science fiction. That’s what those types of stories are doing there because it’s what people were thinking and dreaming about. The momentum’s still there, as anyone can see by a tour of Netflix’s Science Fiction offerings or basically any sci-fi movie Hollywood puts out. Go ahead to Netflix or Amazon Prime right now to check me out on this – I’ll wait here.

Back? I could of course make a similar argument for horror and list something like this:

  1. Vampires
  2. Werewolves
  3. Ghosts
  4. Demons and possessions

Just because you make one of these a lesbian or mash these together or make them love each other, that doesn’t make it a breakthrough idea. It’s groupthink no different than just tweaking a fancy spaceship or coming up with yet another way of dropping the world into an apocalypse. Look, I’m no better – I’m just pointing out that much of what we’re consuming for our fantastic literature is stuck in a mold. Don’t get me started on the endless recycling of anything Tolkien strung together.

So what did Cory do right?

In Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom, characters die and are rebooted like a computer. I have no idea if he was first to that idea – he’s just the first place I saw it. Then I saw it elsewhere, maybe something by Charles Stross. It became a trope. A thing people started using in more than one place. Like laser-style weapons did one time. Like robots did once. A new trope! Fantastic. My impression when I started seeing that idea making the rounds years ago was that finally people are laying new tracks. He came from the computer science world, even having started a software company. That was his world, so it was nothing for him to carry those ideas over to his fiction. Yet it was a very different and rich world of computer-based analogies from the standard list of ideas, the toolbox we were all using.

Today, if you scan the latest awesome news in science…the daily nuggets of treasures where people are making world-changing gains, over and over it’s molecular biology or biochemistry work. Not a lot of folks are well versed in that world and putting out hard science or fantastic literature following its analogies and stretching on its ideas. I see that as a rich quarry for us.

You might be writing a myth-style work, but find yourself rehashing the Jesus Chris-style suffering savior motif. If you’re stuck, then read some myth that’s exotic for you – maybe Hindu or Tibetan or Chinese.

You might be writing a horror story and struggle on how to make vampires interesting. How about dropping that entirely and go read something about Norway’s folklore on mares or vardogrs or some creepy tropes from Russian folklore to get something novel.

Let’s all challenge ourselves to put something new in the world. It’s what I want to do.

Smashing Paradigms Like Halloween Pumpkins!

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Art by Juan Pablo Rolda

Let’s talk about being stuck in paradigms and not even knowing it. The reason you should care – if you’re an aspiring writer or somebody interested in the craft of storytelling, then you probably want to break some kind of new ground. At least for me, I like to think I’m an original, coming up with cool stuff that inspires other people. When somebody tells me I wrote something that really made them think or that gave them the shivers…or best of all, that made them want to know more…that’s fireworks to me! So paradigms are cancer. Off with their head – if you know what I mean!

Here’s an example, for the science fiction nerds out there like myself. Maybe it was Star Trek that started this, not sure; but have you noticed when you’re watching basically any show or movie set on a spaceship that the doors swish open and closed automatically? That would require motion sensors and motors. The doors always look like heavy industrial steel. In fact, everything looks like industrial steel and huge! Just huge. But stop and think about it for just a second – space has precious little resources; and every bit of mass you take along with you takes up more energy to move the ship at all. Massive freaking spaceships made of heavy steel with silly, unnecessary things like automatic doors are a bit unlikely. “Hold on, genius”, you might say. “These aren’t science text books. Energy is free in my story. If I want doors to swish shut automatically, maybe I’m thinking about emergency containment!” Blah blah. Maybe – and you have to ask yourself this – maybe you’re just coasting on paradigms Gene Roddenberry set up decades ago.

Why are spaceships always gray metal? Is it because that’s most likely, or because Navy ships have been battleship gray; and that was the paradigm folks like George Lucas just carried on from the trailblazing pulp cover artists of the 1930s? When you’re at the airport, are the planes gray? You can disagree; but my guess is the economics of space travel either in our future or in whatever alternative universe you’re dreaming up, say commercial enterprises will be building ships for space travel. They won’t have to worry about obscuring visibility in ocean environments like the Navy does. I’m saying spaceships probably won’t be battleship gray with all sorts of squiggly machinery and useless lights blinking all over their hulls. Think about it. Isn’t it more likely they’ll be smaller, probably modular vessels with logos and smooth shielded hulls, light on mass and with relatively small hallways and workspaces, maybe capable of linking up into larger structures?

Gravity? Every show you’ll watch has their folks walking around and nothing floating. That means you’re assuming the ship spins or you should at least hand-wave something about ‘gravity generators’ or something. Why not just make it spin? How hard is that?

Don’t get me started on robots. The pulps set the stage for human-looking robotics; and we’re still living with that. We’ll probably get there, no doubt. But what’s the point of all that design if the job you’re giving it is to clean the floor or pilot the ship or load cargo or to repair things? Why make it look human with all the expense and complications and liabilities, to do mundane things like that? Form will follow function, right? That’s actually how the world really works when manufacturing plants have to actually spend money on R&D and machinery and raw materials and labor to make something real. Those slick little Roomba vacuum cleaners are a fantastic example of this. They look nothing like C3PO; but they can suck up dog hair like nobody’s business.

I’m going to end with my least favorite paradigm of all because your argument should build to a climax, shouldn’t it? I mean, this one really…really needs to go. If you’re guilty of it, please stop and question yourself. I purposely avoid the heck out of this one because it’s so tired and lazy and ridiculous by now. Yet it’s hard to stay away from it. I’ve veered very close and hated myself afterwards, like when you eat the whole bag of those little chocolate doughnuts. Stop. Stay away. Go back.

‘The chosen one’. Oh my God, how many times have you heard somebody say this? Look, I understand that to set up a mythology, some sort of over-arching roller coaster you want your characters to get swept up in, this is a handy little trick. Just make the main guy the chosen one; and all sorts of mysterious things can happen. Then you can show all the whiz-bang stuff they can do and didn’t know, so replicate the ‘coming of age’ motif which everybody loves so much. Me too. But isn’t it getting old? We’re pretty sophisticated in our appreciation of narrative structure and themes by now, so isn’t it time to put this one to bed? It almost never makes sense anyway, when you poke on who chose them and why.

Anyway, I should really practice what I’m preaching here. When you agree to move beyond some of these deeply entrenched themes or backdrop devices, it gets challenging. There’s maybe even an argument to be made that things like I’m talking about here are the common vocabulary now, so to change them up too much makes the reader confused or uncomfortable and distracts from what you’re really trying to say. Honestly, if we’ve thought about it that much, then we probably did our due diligence and should have the big, freaking steel doors swish open and closed if we feel like it.

All I’m saying is think about it first.

Kill The Dream Sequence. No, Seriously. Kill It.

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If you haven’t watched Dead Of Summer yet, I don’t really care either way. It’s meh, mostly. Yet I was in a binge this weekend to get caught up and noticed something that was particularly relevant for me right now. I’m writing a horror novel – about 40k words in to a targeted 90k, and so I’m particularly concerned with how to get someone on the edge of their butt, chomping their tongue in anticipation and as nervous as I can make them. While this show is fun, it’s not scary in even the smallest sense, though I think it tries to be. Maybe we should have a look at why it fails to see how I can succeed. It’s what I thought, at least.

Go read reviews from the second Avengers movie. One thing you’ll find is a lot of people annoyed with the weird dream sequences. Should you peruse what the masses had to say overall about Batman Versus Superman, you’ll find similar irritation with dream sequences. Let’s not get into whether you dug those movies, okay? I get how divisive that is right now – it’s been Marvel Versus DC since the seventies, nothing to see here. The point I’m making is about the overuse of this narrative technique and how it practically forces an audience to disengage. In movies, it’s probably an excuse to just show some cool visuals. In execution though, it’s a signal to me I’m good to go get a refill on my Coke Icee. Know what I mean?

Anyway, back to Dead Of Summer. Here’s the marketing blurb:

“Set in 1989, school is out for the summer, and a sun-drenched season of firsts beckons the counselors at Camp Stillwater, a seemingly idyllic Midwestern summer camp, including first loves, first kisses—and first kills. Stillwater’s dark, ancient mythology awakens, and what was supposed to be a summer of fun soon turns into one of unforgettable scares and evil at every turn.”

If you read that, you agree they want to be scary, right? Their narrative structure follows the same style as Lost, involving individual character flashbacks to flesh out each main player. Honestly, that part works for me, though the flashbacks they showed had little to do with decisions characters were making in the storyline. It came off cheaper than it did in Lost for that reason. However – and this is my overall point here – about a gajillion times, we are shown visions of a dark, mysterious man from the 19th century who’s supposedly tied in with the mysterious goings-on at the camp. I mean over and over and over, we see this guy and some blood streaming off something, or eclipses or bugs or murders or whatever…and EVERY SINGLE TIME you know it’s going to be a vision with no consequences. You can’t possibly get scared because even though somebody gets pushed into a grave or dunked underwater or whatever – I can’t even remember because I checked out during so many of those – that they’re just going to wake up and be okay. It’s foreboding but not much more.

Let’s set aside movies like Inception, which broke ground with this concept and the Freddy Krueger films (the good ones, let’s not discuss the Dream Warriors, shall we?) which staked their premises on the dream sequence. The difference with stories like those is they established consequences – you could die in those dreams. How boring would The Matrix have been if you couldn’t die while inside?

I run into this problem of consequences a lot, actually. If you’re a science fiction guy, you might think a lot about the vast distances in space and how slow moving any real-life story would be…months to get anywhere and hours to talk to each other. You might go the road of setting up avatars or virtual reality-style storylines to account for that; but honestly, you’re still looking at ridiculous lag times for the signals. If you hand-wave all of that and just say ‘tachyons’ or ‘entanglement’ to get the science-snobs off your back, you’ll be looking at this problem of consequences just like I am. If your guy is actually laying in a booth in Utah or wherever directing the action, how are there any stakes for him?

Right. So there have to be consequences and some kind of danger that’s entirely relatable. If you watch Game Of Thrones or The Walking Dead enough, you start to think at any moment this freaking show is going to kill off one of your favorite characters. Mercilessly. Back in the nineties, Joe Quesada who was then Editor-In-Chief at Marvel Comics (pre-Disney) established a “dead is dead” rule for killing off characters to restore some kind of drama given the prevalence of resurrections. Fantastic concept, actually, though he drifted wide off the mark over his tenure.

That’s what I wanted to say, guys. Dream sequences and visions are tired and boring and are basically tickets for your audience to disconnect. Don’t do that. Avoid resurrections too, while you’re at it. Kill a major character early on just for giggles, to challenge yourself, and to set the bar for your reader that YOU AREN’T PLAYING AROUND…THIS IS SERIOUS!.

Have fun!

 

Less Whining. More Inspiring.

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I miss Arthur C. Clarke. When I was a kid, I wrote him a letter in pencil on notebook paper, asking him to explain to me what a ‘tesseract’ was, since I’d seen it in A Wrinkle In Time and was lost on what was going on. When my dad found out my desired pen pal lived in Sri Lanka, he told me he’d “look into it”, which of course meant exactly what you think it meant. So my letter went nowhere. Anyway, the reason I loved the guy so much is that his books inspired me. It got me thinking recently when I was trying to recreate that feeling with another book what it was he did right that Larry Niven did so wrong. Basically, what makes a book inspiring?

Rendezvous With Rama is an Arthur Clarke book, and an absolute classic. I won’t go into it because it isn’t the real point here; but the idea is a mysterious spacecraft comes flying in, gets boarded by some intrepid folks, and unfolds in the warmth of our sun internally as the most well-designed engineering marvel you could imagine. A sense of wonder infuses that book that feels like a crackling fire to me. I was thinking about it recently and looked into the sequels. An overwhelming tidal wave of reviews indicate I’d better avoid them  for various reasons. I found it interesting reading through the reviews that so many people appreciated the original for the same reasons I did. It made them either dream of joining those explorers on the spacecraft or of writing something as interesting as Sir Clarke had. Get that part – people like me are inspired by this book because of how it launches our imagination into ways we could engage with its ideas.

In my day job, I study and manipulate what engages people; and the overriding principle is always self-interest. We probably won’t stop to look over the charts on the wall the boss keeps posting unless there are pictures there of my friends up there or something showing me how close I might be to getting a bonus…that sort of thing. Self-interest. With our fiction, we want to relate to the characters in some way:

-For a horror novel or a thriller, you’re probably second-guessing every decision the characters make to decide what you’d do

-For a science fiction book like this one, you’re probably dreaming about how cool it would be to be doing those things

So I had a copy of Larry Niven’s Ringworld for some reason, and took it on a plane to try and recreate that sense of wonder and awe from Clarke’s book. Should have been a slam dunk: a massive ring-shaped partial dyson sphere constructed around an alien world gets explored in all its wonder. How can you screw that up? I’m sorry if you love this book, let’s keep in mind that fiction is subjective; but it’s just awful.

I groaned every time he used ‘tanj’ as fake profanity. There’s no way to tell which character is speaking without labels because everyone from furry warrior-aliens to 200yr old earthlings to multi-headed pacifist-aliens all speak exactly like Larry Niven does…like an old white physicist. They stand around philosophizing about the math behind how dense something must be or how the orbit would be affected…blah blah blah. Oh my God. I put it down multiple times, slugging to finish hoping something would redeem it. No idea how it ended because I just yielded. Whatever. It’s an award winner and always makes the big lists though. Somehow I’m missing it.

So here’s the point: if we’re writing something we really want to make inspiring….something for the ages that will stoke people’s imaginations or really change the way they look at the world (and what wordslinger doesn’t want that?!), then keep things simple and avoid whatever will distract from the feeling you’re trying to engender. In Niven’s case, he spent way too much time trying to make his cardboard lame characters interesting and introducing some ridiculous side-story about breeding luck, when the sales pitch for the book is an incredible sense of wonder and exploration of the Ringworld.

In whatever you’re writing now, or what you expect to write next, think about the feeling you want left behind when the reader is done…boil away everything that doesn’t produce that…and focus.

Einstein And Writer’s Block

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Yes, I’m definitely a nerd. It’s cool, I’m comfortable with that. What it means is I get interested in loads of things where most people might not see the attraction. Equally true,  if you ask me how the Royals are going to do this year, you’re probably going to get a change of subject from me. I’ll be polite; but I have no idea what to say to you when you ask me that. So I was studying Einstein’s Field Equations the other day…

I’m not trying to impress you here, just bear with me. There’s something about Einstein’s life that is of tremendous interest to an aspiring writer, especially one that’s seen the horror of a blank page blinking back and weedy plot points all twisted and ensnared, sudden contradictions that make the original idea nonsense…maybe even the whole premise that felt so much like warm, gooey chocolate sloshing around in your imagination in the beginning, suddenly frozen and hammered by an idle comment somebody made that trashes it entirely.

fieldHere they are: Einstein’s Field Equations defining gravity. Why things fall down.  All the jibber jabber on the left-hand side is just saying that spacetime curves. It doesn’t say why, just that it does. Einstein came up with all that on the left just to make the math work out, not because he was a prophet or anything. But he started with the doohickey on the right…the ‘T’. He knew he’d use that, and the idea that energy is conserved; and then he just started diddling around to see what he could do with it. Let’s say that was his original inspiration, the way a writer might suddenly string two things together to make a story idea. How pregnant with potential and thrilling, right! So what’s ‘T’, then?

Everything on the right-hand side except for the ‘T’ is just a bunch of numbers. If I gave you a calculator and a reference, you’d tell me the number. So forget those. Focus on the ‘T’. The Stress-Energy Tensor. It’s a thing. It was already a thing before he got started, that’s why he knew he’d use it. It describes energy and momentum. The big ah-hah for him, the thing that made General Relativity something you’ve heard of, is that it’s the energy and momentum, the ‘T’, that’s causing spacetime to curve. Great; but here’s what he said about it:

“But it (General Relativity) is similar to a building, one wing of which is made of fine marble but the other wing of which is built of low grade wood. The phenomenological representation of matter is, in fact, only a crude substitute for a representation which would do justice to all known properties of matter.” -from Physics And Reality.

He was bummed about ‘T’. It was crap to him. It didn’t explain any of the other whizz-bang stuff matter does. The guy that shook the world in 1905, starting entire branches of science from his work, and that explained why things fall down in 1916…the guy whose name became a nickname for geniuses, spent 40 years till his death trying to come up with a Grand Unified Theory that would settle this for him. No dice with that. He died frustrated. Sheesh.

I’m writing a horror novel right now; and one thing I struggle with is making the big baddies really scary without making the point of view characters useless. I can’t stand people in fiction that just stare like deer in the headlights and who don’t try something. Anything! The original idea I had for the book though, the thing that made me shiver and consider it worth a year of my life, brought that helplessness with the original spooky image. Okay, great; but if I’m not going to be like Einstein and just stay stuck with the original paradigm, then I’ve got to be willing to grow beyond the original idea. The point is, I can see I’m going to have to capture that first image and the feelings that went with it, but then let things grow to wherever they need to grow. Even if it’s not where I’d thought the narrative was headed.

In my first novel, I had a fantastic image I wanted in there so badly! I could hear Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars as background music. I could see the camera pulling back from the scene. I could see my three main characters, young and scared out of their minds high on a rooftop spire looking down on the horrors they’d come through…freaking beautiful. I lost months trying to figure out how to get those guys into that circumstance. Finally gave up. Wasn’t going to happen. It stopped making sense for it to happen. That’s my point with all this, actually. To recognize when you’re there.

So if it happened to Einstein, it can happen to you, right? Recognize when your idea needs tweaking, and when it needs to be blown up. Be willing to turns things loose. Burn things down when you have to, so something else can grow in its place.

 

What A 19th Century Crazy Guy Taught Me About Writing Spooky Stuff

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I want to talk about Guy De Maupassant; but I’ll come back to that in a minute. Stick with me here.

When someone asks me the scariest thing I’ve ever read, they usually expect me to say something from Stephen King. If they’re literary, they may want to hear Henry James. Whatever. Truthfully, 1984 by George Orwell scares the crap out of me more than anything; and I’m not sure how you could top it.

Especially during an American presidential election season, anybody can relate to that desolate feeling of trying to talk to someone so caught up in their beliefs and convictions that the eyes have glazed over, they’re not listening at all, and confirmation bias squeezes out any facts running contrary to what they want to believe. It’s horrifying how mobs of people can get caught up in the momentum of anything, and how quickly and viciously they’ll turn on dissenters. We should all just take a breath, right? When I read 1984, I think of how likely a world it describes, how people have behaved much like that. I can see how easily we’d slip into such a knot, and how impossible it would be to break from it once you’re inside. Shivers, man. Just shivers. That guy worked magic. It’s why we still quote that book so often.

You may have or heard the short story by Guy De Maupassant called The Necklace where a really poor lady borrows an expensive necklace and loses it, works her butt off and ruins her life trying to pay for a replacement, only to find after years and destroyed health that it was an imitation anyway. Not sure why that story hit the mainstream and gets taught in schools so much when the same author put out so much skull-slamming treasure! He went nuts, probably because of syphilis but kept writing while dipping into his madness.

“Every other time I come home, I see my double. I open my door, and I see him sitting in my armchair.”

Guy said that to his friend, Paul Bourget. It wasn’t fiction, though this exact thing happens in a story of his called He? Guy wound up slitting his own throat unsuccessfully and lived in an asylum for another 19 months. Here’s something he tossed out in a letter to his friend, Dr. Henry Cazalis:

“A saline fermentation has taken place in my brain, and every night my brain runs out through my nose and mouth in a sticky paste. This is imminent death and I am mad…”

Sheesh. Anyway, I consider one of his very short stories one of the most perfect scary pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. In the same manner as why 1984 spooks me so much, it is realistic and possible and shoots jolts of terror in ways you don’t normally see with no real strain on your suspension of disbelief. It could happen to you. That’s the basis of real horror, isn’t it? The story is called “Two Friends“. To read it yourself shouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes. Go ahead, I’m about to spoil it for you.

When my kids were very young, there was one particular July 4th night we were all sleeping; and I was awaken by a very loud CLAP sound downstairs. It sounded like two pieces of ceramic tile smacking together. Thinking something had fallen, but suspicious maybe of a break-in, I went groggily downstairs with my wife hovering at the top of the stairway with the ‘9’ and the ‘1’ already dialed, touching the ‘1’ again just in case she needed it.

I saw a massive spider-web in the dim light on the far wall, too massive to believe. It wasn’t there when we went to bed, right? Anyway, I was deep into the living room downstairs and exposed, gently extending a finger when I realized it wasn’t a web at all…it was the drywall cracking from a bullet hole. Someone outside had fired a gun into my home. Wasn’t that kind of neighborhood. This was the suburbs, for pete’s sake! Lawless teenage vandals, devil worshippers, whatever…I had to bolt for cover just not knowing who or what or where. The silence was maddening thereafter, with the thought of how a slightly different angle of the barrel, and I’d have awaken to a paralyzed or bleeding son or daughter!

The scariest things I’ve read fall into the same kind of chill:

  1. Mundane, maybe even pleasant events jarringly turn a different and terrible direction
  2. I can relate and sympathize with the character thrown into this surprise
  3. None of the decisions the character makes seem out of line with what I’d have done (nothing breaks my fright faster than an author breaking this rule)
  4. There’s a sudden realization that there isn’t a way out

In Two Friends, Maupassant presents two pleasant country guys who just love fishing. Even though there’s a war on in the countryside, they work through a military friend to get out of the village and to the shore of their favorite lake. Prussian troops show up, present the option of revealing the password back into the village or die, then shoot them dead where they stood when they won’t do it.

“The water spurted up, bubbled, swirled round, then grew calm again, with little waves rippling across to break against the bank. There was just a small amount of blood discoloring the surface.”

Guy broke the rules of literature, man! He killed off the point of view characters and shifted focus to people that had just been introduced. There’s a silly joke by the Prussian commander at the end about fish. It’s creepy and cold and absolutely believable. Honestly, the part of the story where the Prussians show up makes me feel exactly like I did tracing my finger on cracked drywall. That was a drunk neighbor barbecuing, by the way.

Anyway, go read more of Maupassant. The scary stories. They’re public domain and awesome. Let me know what you think!

Let The Trolls Speak: Principles Of 21st Century Storytelling

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Every previous generation in human history, it’s been more difficult to move around and certainly more difficult to be exposed to the different stories people tell around the world than it is right now. In fact, you can go back less than a century and see a world where people largely stay where they were born. A guy’s library and his best storytellers were the primary means of being exposed to new stories. There’s been a sea change caused by the internet, electronics, and our own leisure time & mobility. So here you are…knowing stuff. Good for you. Now what does that mean?

I went into my thinking corner about that very question; and I baked up something for you that I believe you’ll like. It’s free – go read it. I also kept it short. Printed, it’d be less than 30 pages. Shouldn’t take you long at all. I stirred in some stories you’ve heard of, and one or two maybe you haven’t.

Would be great to hear from you on what you think. Let me know!

‘Google Translate’ For Dream-Speak: Beginning With Pictures

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I’ll tell you something interesting about how your subconscious works; and I’ll do it without referencing Jung. Maybe. Anyway, there was this girl in my elementary school that I thought was kind of cool and who’d call me every once and a while. She was pretty and one of the popular kids, so I was into that but not because I had any great fascination for her. She often forgot how good a friend I was when we were back in school on Monday anyway, strangely; but we’ll just let that lie there. It’s important to my point here that you get this – I wasn’t in love or like or even considering it until a particular turning point. A dream.

Nothing nasty here. I just had a dream about her one night where we were hanging out on a farm looking at the stars or something when she tried to kiss me. That was all, seriously. I can still describe to you now, however, the incredible attraction she had in that dream…like a mask with the power of all of human myth behind it just hanging over the dreamwork cardboard cutout of this girl. She was everything about girls in that dream, all girls who are fascinating and maddening. From that point on, I had a thing for her I couldn’t understand at all. Weird, yeah? Hold on to that. I’ll come back to it.

A nightmare I had when I was probably thirteen is as clear to me now in my forties as it was the night I dreamed it. The plot is thin; and you probably won’t get what’s spooky about it. I was outside my house bouncing a basketball alone; and it echoed. I remember it echoed. I knew in the dream no one else was home. Yet when I felt someone watching me, I turned around to look up in the second story living room window. The curtains were split open; and a pale old man was grinning widely back at me. The end. I chilled up just now typing that because of the malevolent feeling I had about that guy up there. It wasn’t what happened or that I recognized him or even knew his intentions. It was the mythic power of everything that’s dark and frightening and wicked pasted into a mask hung over the cardboard cutout of a stranger in my living room window. It was the feeling then that is still with me now.

I understand that my subconscious has these basic universal ideas about the feminine mystique and about bad things and a host of other patterns that are incredibly fundamental to how we perceive and filter information. The feeling of adventure and new horizons, for example. What it means to me to be a man. You can imagine others. One thing that happens to me and which I know happens to many other authors is we either have these patterns laid over an image we encounter by happenstance, or we dwell on an image we find striking on its own and overlay the pattern ourselves to make something of it.

In It All Began With A Picture, C. S. Lewis explained that he carried around a picture in his head of a faun carrying parcels in the snow with no idea what it meant for years…till he finally sat down to ask questions about it. I imagine it carried the sense of adventure with it, which is why it stuck around. George Lucas explains in Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplay that he really just wanted to remake Flash Gordon because he was looking to recapture the sense of exploration and adventure from the serials he watched as a kid. Stephen King explains in one of his introductions to Wizard And Glass that he walked out of The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly pondering the unearthly western imagery he’d seen and knowing he needed to recapture the way it made him feel watching it – a journey that gave us the amazing Dark Tower series. What I’m offering you is that images we find interesting are all around us or inside our heads. What we can do as writers is poke and prod on them a little to see why they’re lingering with us…which mythic pattern overlays best on them and makes them most real. They fit like a lock and key when you figure that out.

In my case, I was in a rock gorge in Oman with some friends particularly missing John Wayne movies on a long Navy deployment and making my way through the first three Dune books. The picture of a guy in a torn and dirty uniform slamming open saloon doors and drawing all eyes on him came to my mind all on its own. Everyone in the bar was afraid of him though he was unarmed. I knew him to be a leftover of some war, and that somehow he had people with him. He felt tired to me, and dangerous…desperate. That came with the picture. I held on to that for a long time, till I ultimately sat down to write Tearing Down The Statues and put him in a different setting to answer all my questions about him, and just what those people were frightened of.

See? No Jung. Now go think of an image that’s stuck around in your own head and start asking which pattern did it bring with it to unlock whatever story it’s trying to tell.

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.