Saturday, September 29, 2012

How To Risk Amish Wrath

There's one sure thing about religion and that is that whatever you believe someone else believes to the contrary. Even if you say reason is reasonable use to reason about deity in an interfaith dialog, someone else may respond by setting fires and killing people.

This presents the writer with a problem of avoiding the giving of offense when s/he writes about religion. I'm happy to state that no Amish Fatwa has been issued pursuant to blogging about the Strategic Amish Reserve. My head rests easily on my pillow knowing that no Amish fanatic with a name like Yoder or Miller will try to behead me.

One strategy for avoiding offense is to refer to deity in the only vaguest, non-sectarian terms. This is what US media did in the early 1960s and this offended my mother whose religion was neither vague nor non-sectarian.

Another strategy is to avoid any religious motif whatsoever. This is the easiest approach and it's  worked well to a large extent. However, it has limitations.

I must confess that crime stories are a guilty pleasure. Or stories that revolve around prior bad acts and their consequences. The detective story is in one sense a puzzle story where the reader is to ascertain whodunnit or how to prove whodunnit, but in another sense the detective story is a depiction of a cosmic imbalance of justice that requires the detective's sleuthing to restore to balance.

Humans do bad things to each other and life goes on (except for murder victims). The badness of a bad act depends upon the malice of the perpetrator, the act itself, and the pain of the victim. And bad acts range from mere annoyance to soul-destroying injuries. There is a lot of this going on in the world and there are a lot of interesting stories that can be built around bad acts. Not all of these stories need to be about mass murderers.

I recently saw a movie that hinged upon an inciting incident of rude words spoken to and then coffee being thrown on a girl. A boy (one of the regulars at the coffee shop where she works) comes to her aid and he treats her kindly. As the story progresses a mystery begins to emerge as to why he's doing all the kind things.

The girl had been bullied as a schoolchild. He had joined in and now he is doing these things to atone for his prior bad acts. The climax of the story occurs when the boy discloses this. The girl is furious and despite his sincere apology and the penance he has paid her. The story then turns on her reluctance to forgive him. Her resistance to forgive is justified. Few injuries hurt as much as those inflicted in childhood by classmates.

None of the this rises above the level of misdemeanor, but the girl's pain is real and her grievances are real in the story. The story works better because the hurts are small enough to be personalized. The reader can more easily identify.

Forgiving the boy is the key to the girl's future happiness. At this point, a Christian propaganda movie would start hitting the audience over the head with the Savior's parable of the two debtors. Happily, that is not necessary, because the way the story works out is just one person offering his apologies and one person accepting them.

That's what any society needs and that's what each person needs to know.

In another movie--a black comedy--the girl marries an abusive, violent man and she causes a hunting accident. And then she marries another man who turns out to be a heroin addict and she overdoses him. And then she marries another who is a wife-beater and she buries him alive. And this goes on and on through six different husbands... the last of which is a poisoner who's trying to kill her. In each case, the viewer can appreciate her motivation and may even think her actions justified.

Anyone who's survived the honeymoon can understand the temptation to do in one's spouse. This made the movie work. I kept watching mainly to find out the next spouse's flaw and the next spouse's cause of death. It was interesting to watch the girl change as the weight of her crimes grew heavier and heavier. After she's faked her own suicide on the eve of her seventh marriage she appears to be literally bloodthirsty.

And then in the last scene they pulled the rug out from under me.

Murder is not one of those things where you can apologize and people say OK. The person who might accept your apology is DEAD. Society takes a dim view on murder. The weight of guilt--not subjective guilt, but objective guilt--associated with murder is more than a human can bear. How can you end a movie about a serial murderess that the viewer sympathizes with and give it a satisfactory ending?

I was shocked when I learned that her 7th husband is the second person of the Christian Trinity. If you're not familiar with Catholic nuns, you won't know they "marry" Christ. And when Priyanka Chopra says she'll drink his blood, she refers to the Catholic notion of transubstantiation wherein wine becomes Christ's blood, and bread becomes Christ's flesh. (It only seemed that I used "literally" incorrectly.) As a nun she'll do more good for society than rotting in prison. And nobody gets off "scott-free" because her sins are paid for by Christ on the cross.

Nobody in their right mind would ever confuse this movie with a Christian tract. Yet it shows in a very sly, perhaps unintentional, manner the essence of the Christian doctrine of forgiveness.

That's the best way to put religion into a story.

Don't preach. Just show how parts of the religion work.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Taxonomy of ArtPrize Venues

If you don't know what ArtPrize is, you're not from Grand Rapids, MI or you've been in a cave for a few years. You can read the details here. Last year I blogged about ArtPrize for the first time. I noted patterns in the ArtPrize entrants and presented A Taxonomy of ArtPrize Entries.

This year I noticed my prior taxonomy held up so well that I couldn't think of anything useful to add to it. I think you may someday see a rise of ArtPrize Hacks, but that's another story.

Instead, I noticed something about venues and how they differ. Some venues are absolutely amazing and others are less so.

Crowded and Possibly Overrated
There are venues at ArtPrize that are just a pain to deal with. My first impression of ArtPrize this year was the guard at the Fredrick Meijer Gardens telling me that photography was not permitted. OK, I won't vote for anyone at this venue. Besides, there wasn't one entry that I would have voted for, too. Pity.

I also made the mistake of going through the Grand Rapids Art Museum on the Saturday afternoon of ArtPrize. Big mistake. It had two monumental pencil sketches that looked cool, but not so cool that I want to brave the crowds for them. And besides, didn't we do monumental pencil sketches in earlier years?

Someday I'll blog about why Rich People Are Stupid. But that's for another day.

I walked into Brann's on Leonard and looked around. There was some kid's project where he'd glued Tootsie Roll Pop labels to a bit of poster board in a pleasing pattern. That's nice. "Anything else here?" I asked the manager. "No."

A lot of downtown watering holes have a few items they put up and I'm glad they do, but I wish some of them would take it more seriously. It irritated me when venues weren't open when everyone else was, or had closed early.

It's really nice when a venue has arrows directing people to the art. If they do a good job of making non-customers like me feel comfortable and welcome, I'll be more likely to come back as a customer the next time I'm hungry or thirsty.

Last year Coit Elementary school had this marvelous 3-story high painting that I mentioned. Sadly, Coit Elementary has only two entrants.

If you're an "art expert" you'll say the old museum, Site:Lab is a great venue. OK. It's confusing, because it's hard to know where the detritus of the old museum ends and where the art begins. The site is across the street from a big church with a lot of art in it, too. By some odd coincidence there was an entry that from a distance appeared to be a church bulletin board.

Diamonds In The Rough
There are several churches that host a number of entries like City View and Monroe Community. They are pleasant spaces and have a surprising mix of good pieces, message pieces and refrigerator art. These venues generally lie beyond walking distance from downtown.

The best exemplar of this type of venue is Baker Tent Rental. The best part of Baker Tent is their "didn't get into ArtPrize" reception this Saturday that showcases artists who didn't make the ArtPrize cut. They plan to serve snacks to starving artists!

Lemons Into Lemonade
The recession has caused some large commercial office spaces to remain unrented and unfinished. One such is High Five. They've taken a huge open space on the fifth floor of an office building and filled it with art. They have benches set up in front of art that are made of boards resting on cinder blocks. They have large windows that allow people to see some of the huge installations in adjacent parking garage stairwells. Finally, they have a wonderful dynamic light sculpture using LEDs suspended from CAT5 Ethernet cables. The best part of this installation are the recliners that let me put up my weary feet. Good show guys.

In addition to having tough economic times High Five has a tough location. It's hard to find and easy to miss. So, they put up helpful signs leading to the elevator in the parking garage and hired a pleasant girl to welcome & direct visitors.

By all means get downtown and see ArtPrize.

Friday, September 14, 2012

What just happened? That just happened

#26     Alternate slow scenes and fast scenes.

A few years back the second Indiana Jones movie came out. He's in China and he gets shot at and he takes poison and he gets the antidote and he escapes on a plane and the plane is about to crash and he jumps out and he slides down the mountainside and and and...

I'm exhausted.

The story's first act had a relentless pace. In the words of my favorite Bluegrass band, "That just happened!" Because the first act was a dervish of spinning action the audience could not process what was transpiring.

Given the choice between two stories I'll take the one with too much action over the one with not-enough action. But this needs balance, too. Something has to happen in a story, or I'm going to toss it against the wall. I don't care if he is William Faulkner, he'd better do something in the story or I'm tossing it and it'll take an act of congress to get me to look at anything else by that author.

So, the writer must navigate between the Scylla of nonstop action and the Charybdis of inaction. In a fast-moving scene, there's no opportunity to explain the meaning of what is happening. In a slow-moving scene, nothing much is happening. So, it makes sense for the writer to alternate fast and slow scenes to introduce cool happenings and then to explain them.

If you are prone to wax rhapsodic with beautiful words, do so in your slow scenes between fast ones. The slow scenes let you woo the reader with chocolate and flowers, candlelight and soft music. Then use fast scenes to consummate the relationship with the reader. Then enjoy a cigarette and an afterglow in each others arms.

Too much of one and you bore the reader. Too much of the other and you wear her out. And she'll probably complain of a headache next time you want to sell her a story.

I've got to be careful here, because I don't want to give the impression that I think slow scenes are boring. They may not be exciting, but they can be incredibly interesting. If your story introduces some really wild ideas, slow scenes are where you want to play those cards. If your story includes the secret of life, the universe, and everything, let the reader savor it in a slow scene. (And I suppose that if you want to HIDE a little bit of foreshadowing, add it to some of the dust thrown up in a fast scene.)
When you see a guy exult when he shoots the charging water buffalo and then catch a bullet in his brain, the reasons for his intense happiness and the reasons for his wife's murderous act are much more interesting than the gunplay. Likewise, when you see the waiters tie butcher knives to a chair and pretend it's a bull fight, the anticipation of "this won't end well" is as satisfying as the actual unfolding of manslaughter.

Slow scenes and fast scenes are two sides of a coin. The slow scenes should establish the context of what happens and afterwards explain what happens, and the fast scenes is where something happens.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

How Much For A Rabbit In A Hat?

The always delightful Sarah Hoyt started a post with "It is a cliche, tired and worn, that one has to remind new writers that magic must have a price."

My knee is quick to jerk about any statement that's so broadly unqualified. Surely, there must be some exception, some time when magic does not have a price. Maybe the price varies depending upon how you define price. And it depends upon how you define magic.

Let's suppose you define magic along the lines of many Grimm's fairy tales. For instance, you can get these magic powers if you sell your soul to the devil. (If you do, hire Daniel Webster, my Whig hero to defend you.) Another example of this sort of magic is one where you can do magical tasks, but each time you do someone drowns a kitten. This is a common approach in some stories including magic. Let's call this Aladdin-style magic.

One thing I have noticed about Aladdin-style magic is that it depends upon a mortal making some deal with some angel, demon, devil, or deity to get that supernatural being to do stuff. Hence the price of Aladdin-style magic is a matter of bartering with the supernatural being.

It also requires some cleverness on the part of the magic-user to prevent the supernatural being from becoming annoyed and squashing your hero like a bug.

Then I started to think more broadly and I found reasons to think that magic might not have a price. But I realized I was thinking of a different sort of magic. Something more procedural in nature like Harry Potter. Or better, think of the magic in Rick Cook's Wizardry novels. One needn't have any special powers, just the knowledge and intelligence to master certain abstruse studies. Let's call this Alchemical-style magic.

I happen to be a technologist of no small skill. I strongly identify with Rick Cook's fiction. Anyone who has ever engaged in software development can appreciate the magical aspect of using science and technology to do things mere mortals cannot. Most technical wizards can find similarities between what they do and Alchemical-style magic.

If I run a perl script, there's a few electrons that move around differently, some ones and zeroes change, and the electric bill is some quantum higher, but all told, that's too cheap to account for. If you want to make the case for magic that doesn't pay a price, then start with Alchemical-style magic and liken it to running software. And ignore the magical-utility bill.

But if you persist in saying that ALL magic has a price and you think the price is much more significant than a mere magical-utility bill, then consider again the technological world. The expense of custom-made software is my time and what's rare is my expertise. Sadly, while others were fitting themselves for high elected office (smoking dope and cheating on tests) I was studying mathematics and computer science. Tuition was expensive then and it's much worse now.

Presumably, the wizard's apprentice has some college tuition debts that must be paid.

My daughter drew a large tick on the back of her last bill from Sally Mae, and that image COULD fit nicely into a wizard's apprentice tale.

If I ended now, I suppose Sarah was right that all magic has a price. But it depends upon how you set up your world's rules of magic. And if you're dealing with Alchemical-magic, the price varies with one's skill set. Perhaps a very highly skilled mage can perform much more powerful magical tasks with much less effort than a low-skill mage. That fits with the technology analogue.

Today I can perform feats of computation on the little phone in my pocket that would melt NASA's lunar lander's flight computers. Moreover, I routinely use algorithms that are much more efficient than those available to me 20 years ago. Greater skill gives the technology user the ability to more at less expense. Moreover, that little phone I'm carrying around replaces my tape recorder, my walkman, my video camera, my still camera, my calculator, my daily planner, and my calculator. But it won't play Angry Birds. I won't let it. Technology has enabled radical deflation of the price of high-end goods.

One would expect that if all magic has a price, the creative author could figure out ways for the price to go way down. It really is up to you. You can do anything you want when setting up how your story's magic works, except be half-baked about it. Think through how magic works as a system itself without regard to the needs of your story.

Always make the story fit your world-building, never make your world-building fit your story.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Lights, Camera, Action!

#24 Action scenes require short declarative sentences.
#25    Short sentences move faster.

Do you remember the Kung Fu TV show from the '70s? David Carradine would walk into town, have a brief fight with someone objecting to his hippie-like appearance. Then the show would settle down to someone unpleasant hurling anti-Asian racist epithets. (David Carradine appeared to be about as Asian as Charlie Chan.) Then in the last few minutes there would be this huge fight scene where the unpleasant guy and a dozen accomplices would each receive the Boot To The Head.

These action scenes were in slow motion so you could see the boot traverse each millimeter on its trajectory on its way to the bad guy's head. The American viewing public having little experience with Kung Fu (or Ti Kwan Leap for that matter) appreciated the novelty. That was then.

Don't do that now.

Writing isn't film making and prose has its own pacing. Long sentences filled with rich tapestries of description while the POV character engages in introspection, or even omphaloskepsis are the literary version of super-slow motion. You might get away with slow-mo fight scenes in the 1970s, but you can't do it today. (And who knows what omphaloskepsis is?)

Just as long sentences and long words and complicated, well-formed thoughts tend to slow the pace of a written work, the opposite tends to speed it up.

Fragments convey emotion.

Here's an example from a story in Finding Time:

Maketa’s Nubian guard moved toward Nell as Benaiah drew his own sword. Makeda sprang forward as Nell leapt to her feet. She wheeled on the Nubian, drew her stunner, and cut him down. He convulsed and fell in a heap, his sword clattering to the floor.

Nell spun around and aimed at Benaiah, sword out, rushing forward and trying to pull Solomon behind him. All she would need do is stun them both, and grab the notebook to end this charade.

She heard a scuffle on her right. Nestor lay pinned beneath Dinah who straddled him in an unladylike fashion. To their right, Makeda had grabbed Sid by the collar and held a thin, jeweled dagger to his jugular. That complicated things.

Jack had his stunner out and aimed at Makeda, waiting for Nell’s nod to fire.

An earlier Writers Mantras #19 said "Vary your sentence structure." Here, I think I varied it too much. This is a case where two mantras are in tension. You have to balance the mantras against each other. In this case, I concatenated subject-verb-object clauses with simple conjunctions while keeping them independent clauses. Had I kept them separate 3-word sentences the scene would move faster.

You'll also note a lack of any graceful transition between one sentence and the next. Each sentence is jammed up against his neighbor.

If you want to break laws of grammar, do it in action scenes.

Your Point Of View character's internal thought life and her reflections on the meaning of life don't belong in an action scene. If you have to write about a character's navel-gazing either do it before the action scene or (if s/he survives) after it.

In an action scene be direct and to the point without distractions, sidelines or corollaries.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Inception by Andrew Beery

Inception, the Catherine Kimbridge Chronicles #1 by Andrew Beery is the first of a series of novels, and if the next two novels in the series contain as much big story material, it will be a marvel.

This novel is the sort of "transgressive" work you'll only find in a $0.99 Amazon book, because it does not pay the Hollywood Stupid tax. For one thing, religion users are neither villains nor irritants. The hero's side kick (at least for a little while) is a scientist and a chaplain. And he's married and not contemplating an affair with the female protagonist. What's with that? Doesn't it say, "thou shalt commit adultery," someplace?

Nevertheless, there's not much Bible thumping going on and the book sails clear of sectarian shoals. There's about as much religion as you'll find in a Bollywood movie.

The hero starts the book by dying (and she dies at least twice in this novel), but she saves the life of a powerful alien in a self-sacrificial way. And this makes the alien grateful enough to spend the next 50 years rebuilding her body from scratch and recompiling all of her memories. And adding some nanotech upgrades.

Given these super-powers, the hero doesn't do a whole lot with them. And while the alien is rebuilding her body, Earth government changes so she's transferred from the US Air Force to some kinda world government space command. Sadly, I think the author has never actually served in the armed forces, but he tries to get military courtesy right (with limited success). A bit less Star Trek watching is indicated.

No, a LOT less Star Trek is indicated.

The beginning of the book has some really cool REAL science kinds of gadgets and gizmos. Some of the technology described is current bleeding edge stuff I could recognize. After the aliens give humanity advanced technology, not so much. I can imagine the nanotechnology and the quantum mechanics stuff working that way, and that's probably why I liked the book so much.

Some of the time lines seemed off to me. It seemed that humanity had some incredibly short deadlines to ramp up production of whole fleets of starships. And to integrate alien technology into their weaponry.

Everything works out for the most part, but it just seemed too rushed. I hope the author will learn to pace himself more in the future. Of course, someone else might gripe that it'd go too slow, so your mileage may vary.

I liked the fact that the human race was good. Maybe too good to be realistic, but the hero in the story and her branch of the military and earth government seemed to all be people of good intent pursuing a good target: the salvation of the human race. In a couple of instances, the hero's altruism and kindness results in a big win for humanity that gives them the edge they need to face the next, harder hurdle.

The scale of harder and harder tasks with bigger and bigger challenges reminded me of both the Lensmen series and also the Perry Rodan series. If you liked those space operas, you'll like this, too. All told, I'll give this novel 5 stars and I hope to see more like it.

Do I think this book is Human Wave SF? Yes, it is good Human Wave SF writing.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

And Then A Miracle Occurs...

In every story your protagonists (and antagonists) will face problems that need to be solved. How it gets solved matters to the storyteller.

For instance, the antagonist may have on his desk a big red button marked, "Destroy The Earth" that sits alongside another big green button marked, "Release Imprisoned Protagonist." Boy is it embarrassing when he gets those two mixed up. What's most embarrassing to the storyteller is that the reader doesn't find out until AFTER the antagonist pushes the wrong button that the he is red-green color blind.

The problem for the antagonist is knowing which button to push. The problem for the storyteller is justifying to the reader why the antagonist would have such a stupid set of buttons on his desk.

In olden days, an actor playing the role of a god (deus) would be lowered by a crane (machina) onto the stage whereupon he would tie up all the loose threads of the story. This storytelling device has a name Deus Ex Machina. If you're going to do this, you have to have the crane tested beforehand. Its gears cannot squeak and the wires holding the actor aloft need to be hidden.

In olden days, revising a story was a Big Deal. You'd have to slaughter a new sheep for a fresh piece of parchment then recopy the scroll. Or if you used a typewriter, adding pages in the early parts of the story threw off your page numbers.

Nowadays, not so much.

I was reading this post just now wherein J.M. Van Horn complains about a specific instance of a badly executed Deus Ex Machina. I'm a bit sympathetic toward the unnamed writer whose clumsiness justifiably earned Mr. Van Horn's wrath. We all find ourselves written into a corner from time to time and wonder how to get out. You get out with a word processor that adds foreshadowing scenes earlier in the narrative.

As I commented there, it is not hard to insert a few scenes to introduce the Deus Ex Machina. If you're going to say, "and then a nuclear war started" in the 3rd act, you'd better foreshadow it or you'll earn MY wrath as a 3rd act fail. Adding that foreshadowing isn't particularly hard to do. Just write a couple scenes to introduce the character, then insert them into early chapters.

The foreshadowing scenes can be used to heighten tension. Consider Agatha Christie’s “Nemesis.” Miss Marple faces a deadly confrontation with the murderer at the end of the story. Since Marple is a little old lady in her pajamas, she can hardly use ninja kung fu to protect herself. She is a cozy detective. She cannot be an action hero (unlike Sherlock Holmes). She needs a hard-boiled detective to lend her some muscle to subdue the murderer.

Easy. Add a private-eye with a gun who steps out of the shadows.

If Christie introduces the private-eye right there at the end, it constitutes a clumsy Deux Ex Machina fail. But she didn't. She introduced the private investigators--two of them--in the first act. At the beginning of any mystery, there's always going to be a bunch of suspicious looking characters the reader is looking at and wondering whodunit. So, Christie adds two more. Perfect.

Now, it gets better. Instead of just providing a pair of hot gats and hard fists, Christie makes these private investigators right proper red herrings. After introducing these two women Christie shows these two stay close to one another and seem always to be conspiring about something. ("Are they lesbians?" the reader wonders. Or vengeful school chums of the murdered girl?) Moreover, these two suspicious looking characters are following Miss Marple.

This is what I like best about fiction, showing the reader something that has two equally plausible explanations: Private Eyes and Murder Suspects can do the same things for completely different reasons. Only you the writer keep one of those explanations carefully hidden or unexpected. FEMALE private eyes? That's man's work! Nobody would expect FEMALE private eyes!

Note that Christie has turned a potential clunk in the 3rd act into a delightful surprise. How much work did it take to write? Not much. Just a few scenes here and there. With a word processor, you don't have to worry about parchment or retyping pages.

This is where the writer's creativity manifests itself. Christie could have put Sam Spade or Mike Hammer on the bus at the outset of the tale to provide hard fists and a hot gat, but she added  girls with guns. Everybody likes girls with guns. And everyone likes more red herrings at the outset of a whodunnit.

When you see an obvious Deus Ex Machina in a story, I believe it is a lack of storytelling skill or bad (nonexistent) editing. Just revise the earlier chapters to foreshadow the appearance of the unexpected character who solves a big problem in the 3rd act. Shame on the editor who doesn't insist upon this.

When Christie did it, she used two female private investigators. Your story may work completely differently. Your SF novel may require an alien who beams in at the last minute with a BFG-9000 and an intergalactic arrest warrant. OK, just remember that he doesn't have to be introduced to the reader as a galactic crime-fighter. He can be introduced to the reader as an annoying clerk who is insistent that the TPS report go out with its cover sheet. Or maybe an insistent process server the protagonist has been avoiding.

And maybe the BFG-9000-weilding alien has some completely different agenda, but its appearance gives the protagonist what she needs to gain the upper hand with the antagonist. This is where your creativity has a chance to shine. Go for it!

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Apple Said, "To the Fairest"

#23    Conflict is always more interesting than harmony.

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." -- Leo Tolstoy

I strive to treat everyone around me with respect and consideration. I want all my friends and acquaintances to be blessed and happy. I hope everyone feels the same for me. In the words of Rodney King, "can't we all just get along?" I seek the righteous way and try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. The Savior taught, "Blessed are the peacemakers." I seek this blessing: in my life, my family, my work and my community.

In my writing, not so much.

Try to live your life the opposite from how you write. The desire for harmony is a habit of thought that good people have to overcome if they are to write. Yes, you have to work to become evil, but you don't have to work to hard. That's human nature for you. The writer should become his characters' personal Satan when composing a work of fiction.

Are all your characters happy and living at peace and in harmony with all around them? BORING. When Tolstoy said happy families are all alike, it doesn't take a rocket surgeon to figure out those all-alike families are BORING. Then Tolstoy went on to write about an unhappy family. For one thing, the unhappiness will be unique and the uniqueness, the NOVELTY will make the NOVEL more interesting.

Your job as writer is to lob the apple of discord into the festivities. What sort of conflict do you need? It depends upon your characters. It's a cheap stunt, but you can make one of your characters insane and that insanity prompt him/her to start stabbing people. It's more interesting to take two sane, compassionate, competent, well-educated characters and give them contradictory premises to act out to their logical conclusions.

Perhaps the kind, and godly man wants to save a soul from eternal damnation. Thus he subjects the "heretic" girl to unspeakable tortures in hopes of her repentance and salvation from harsher pains of Hell. Give reasonable characters some basic notions that are alien to the reader. I can't see going to war with someone who disagrees with me about the Transubstantiation of the elements of the eucharist, but it has happened in history. (Persecuting users of the vi text editor? Perfectly understanding, because Emacs rules!)

In a world of scarce goods, conflict often arises from competition for them. Perhaps you have two handsome, dashing, loving brothers who agree about everything, including their high regard for the girl next door. Ah, the girl next door changes everything. You, the writer, must make sure the girl doesn't have a twin sister and you must make sure they do not agree about which brother should get the girl. (OK, in the last chapter when your Deus Ex Machina shows up, make HIM point out the girl's twin sister separated at birth who has just arrived from Brazil.)

In life I find that more conflict is caused by misunderstanding than by bad intent. I well recall noting with pride aloud at some handicrafts my children had made, saying, "We have a crafty family." My daughter, a recipient of this praise, responded with justified heat, "We are not a crappy family." It took a moment to convince her I'd said, "crafty," and not "crappy," but things were tense for a while there.

Shakespeare was the master of creating misunderstanding that he used to great dramatic effect. Juliet takes a sleeping drug, but Romeo thinks she's dead and kills himself whereupon moments later she awakes, learns of his death by misunderstanding and then kills herself in turn.

In my story, From Greenland's Icy Mountains, four World War 2 pilots are rescued from certain death by a pair of time travelers named Sid & Nell. However, they couldn't stage the rescue from some futuristic hideout, so they fabricate a bogus Nazi radio shack filled with museum-quality reproductions. It works fine until the pilots see the swastikas and pull their service pistols.

I can't remember who said it, but every story should take place in hell until the last chapter when it ends in paradise. Show no mercy on your characters, set them on each others' throats. Dog fighting and bear baiting are illegal, but there is no such law against writing fiction.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Wing to Great Deeds

#22 In every scene, every character should want something.

Contentment is a pleasing state of existence. If you can be content with what you have, you can be happy without any of life's unnecessary distractions. You can pass serenely along untroubled by the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eye, or the pride of life. Can't you just feel the tension flowing out of your body as you contemplate such an existence?

Just lie back and relax, because YOU'RE BORING. IF YOU WERE IN MY NOVEL I'D PUT A BULLET IN YOUR BRAIN BECAUSE YOU'RE HALF DEAD AND DON'T KNOW IT. In an episode of the X-Files, the guy gets Aladdin's Lamp and wishes for "world peace" he goes out of his office and discovers the world is empty.  Peace is better in real life and worse in fiction.

Discontent is something that makes characters interesting. Let's suppose you've got a detective who's perfect in every way, a British Lord, rich, handsome, athletic, and smart. I think Dorothy Sayers was designing the fellow she wished she could marry when she devised Lord Peter Wimsey. Trouble with someone with all those advantages is that he can be a terrible bore. Give him an itch he cannot scratch, like a hankering for Harriet Vane--who doesn't hanker back.

All the Marvel superheroes have something wrong that makes them discontented, like Tony Stark has his heart ailment. When you design a character for your fiction, you can put in something like to fall back on. 

My depiction of Mycroft Holmes relies upon the fact that Mycroft has secrets that he wants to keep from his younger brother, Sherlock. That introduces tension in any scene where the two brothers are together. When Sherlock is absent, Mycroft is still haunted by the expectations of those around him to be "as good a detective" when that's the last thing he wants.

When we narrow our consideration to a single scene, there are the particulars of that scene to take into account. Suppose a body's been found in the library. Somebody wants to be told what to do. Somebody is going to want to minimize damage to his reputation. Somebody is going to want to solve the legal problems attending its discovery. Somebody is going to want to preserve the scene. And somebody is going to want to know how it got there!

The universal appeal of mysteries stems in part from the fact that for every detective who wants to nab a murderer, there's a murderer who wants to get away with it. These contradictory desires are the fuel that powers these stories.

When you write a scene, ask yourself: who's in this scene and what does s/he want?

In my anthology Finding Time, I have a scene where the parties in attendance at supper are time travelers Sid & Nell and ancients King Solomon and Queen Makeda (also known as the Queen of Sheba). Sid & Nell want to get a bit of treasure. Solomon wants to have sex with Makeda. Makeda wants to prove she is as good a ruler as Solomon. Put them in a room together and these desires will pull each of the players along paths that may make the characters uncomfortable, but interesting nonetheless.
"Love and desire are the spirit's wings to great deeds" Goethe

Monday, September 3, 2012

Speak Carefully Near A Pregnant Woman

I hope everyone has enjoyed their Labor Day holiday as much as I have. Every year for the last two decades I've gone camping Up North with the same circle of friends. In the intervening years all of our children have grown up. This year one of our friends' daughters was there and she is with child. She's due near Thanksgiving. We had a delightful time and tonight my wife disclosed a worry she'd had: that someone would say something that she could construe negatively. Happily, no one had and everyone was happy.

My wife, who understands these things better than I, pointed out that some times people are more inclined to react negatively than other times.

Now is such a time. This country is being seized with a peculiar form of quadrennial madness. Those worst afflicted have been reacting to "dog-whistles." A dog-whistle is a device that creates an ultrasonic signal that humans cannot hear, but that dogs can. This is a metaphor for racist code-speak that only certain sensitive induhviduals can hear. E.g. If I say, "things look darkest before the dawn," the metaphorical reference to diurnal illumination variation can be construed as dog-whistle-racist.

No, that's a metaphorical reference. As Sigmund Freud once said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

While promoting my anthology, Finding Time, I used this quote: "My friend was raised by savages in the Americas who do not believe evil exists."

In my story, a time traveler from 2370 named Schlomo Davidson is introducing his companion, a time traveler from 2280 named Nell Playfair, to a Victorian street preacher. Schlomo says this as a dig at Nell's society, the Terran Empire of which he thoroughly disapproves.

Yet, this remark has been misconstrued on at least two occasions. Nobody's gotten mad or yelled at me. Yet. But I'm a little anxious to make things clear:

1) I am not referring to American indigenous people (i.e. Indians). American Indians were well aware of evil having been victimized by atrocities perpetrated by the Federal Government such as the Trail of Tears or Wounded Knee Massacre. The savages in 2280 Ann Arbor, are not Indians.

2) I am not referring to Democrats. They have demonstrated an acute awareness of evil and one has gone so far as to define sin as "Being out of alignment with my values." I'm confident neither the GOP nor the Democrats will survive to the year 2280. Go Whigs!
But suppose if I weren't some lonely Whig scribbling away in obscurity, but instead I were of those madmen who seek to rule by gaining elected office? Who knows what would be construed of my words?

I've said elsewhere that what our words are not judged by what we intend, but by how they are received. Yet, when you hear words construed in the most tortuous ways to mean things no sane politician would ever intend, can you characterize it as anything other than madness or dishonesty? Ergo, let me amend that a little. 
Our words are not judged by what we intend, but by how SANE, HONEST PEOPLE receive them.

Those more worthy than I: