Sunday, June 30, 2013

Little Did I Suspect

This isn't as much a deep or profound observation on writing as much as an annoyed gripe about a pet peeve.

I'm amidst of reading some military SF and the narrative is first-person. I just read these words: "I would get an answer to that question, but not until years later."

First, let me tell you how good it feels for the writer to tip his hand like this. It is like exulting in one's godhood.

Second, it tells the reader too much. Sure the narrator is in space armor on an alien world with lots of hostile forces arrayed agains him. We fully expect him to go into battle and face insuperable odds. And we fully expect him to have to face and conquer his inner fears. Most likely, things that should work will break, and expected allies will betray him. All at the worst times imaginable.

But we know this guy is going to survive for years to come. Moreover, he'll survive in a manner that he'll be in a position to know the answer to his question. He's immortal. Though he may be wounded, he won't be killed. Though he may be captured, he'll escape with his mind intact. And we know the timetable for resolution of the matter is years in the future.

The writer is tipping his hand on what's coming and the reader need never fear for the narrator's safety.

I think this damages the relationship between reader and writer. OK, if we know our hero is going to make it, cut to the chase and take us to something we don't know. This isn't fair of me, because the reader ultimately wants to know HOW the hero wins the day. But I think this is a poor transaction on the writer's part. S/He gets an ego-boost. The reader gets an quantum of reduced suspense.

It's my opinion that the reader should get maximal suspense as most story questions are answered after a chapter or two except for The Big Story Question being raised in the opening pages and answered in the novel's climax. Something like the "little did I suspect" passage throws this pattern into a cocked hat. Is it a major infraction? Probably not.

It is just a pet peeve

Saturday, June 29, 2013

I Am Outraged

I'd like to propose a little thought-experiment. Einstein and the boys a century ago would imaging things like passenger trains hurtling at one another at thousands of miles per second to work out the details of Relativity.

So, I want you to suppose you are one of the folks on Storage Wars bidding on abandoned storage lockers. In the first locker you and your frienemy bid each other up because you both see a box for a rare collectible Star Wars toy. One of you wins, but pays through the nose for it. The next locker you see a similar box for a similar item of value and that locker sells at a premium, too. At the end of the day, a locker goes up for auction, and inside is a priceless 1935 Duesenberg convertible. You and your frienemy each check your pockets and find you've spent all your money. The locker then goes for a song as you look on helplessly. When you inspect your locker, you find the box is empty.

Your actions are reasonable because storage lockers containing priceless objects d'art are as rare these days as KKK lynchings.

Great crimes should be suffered with great outrage and small crimes should only warrant small outrage.

Yet, we've seen a reversal of this in our society. Decades-old thought-crimes are spun into "the worst form of racism." Morning-after regrets can occasion accusations of rape. And so on.

This lack of perspective comes about because a lynching is so rare these days. Society has advanced morally. No civilized person thinks it's OK to demean a person for the color of his skin. No civilized person thinks the victim of rape "was asking for it." No civilized person thinks that being a girl is inferior to being a boy.

Why is even the barest hint of transgression in these areas met with such fury? There is only a finite amount of outrage that a person or a society can muster. Why do we spend it so foolishly?

It could be that the activists don't really believe their own rhetoric about having won and they overcompensate to deny their insecurities.

More likely it's the rice bowl.

Suppose I held Aladdin's Lamp with infinite wishes and used the first one to end racism. What would this do to the people crying the loudest about racism? If I used the second wish to end poverty, think of the social workers who'd be tossed out of work.

The righteous work of the activist is to find the largest social problem in his/her area of interest and solve it. Then move on to the second-largest, and so on. But nobody is enslaving blacks, or lynching them, or segregating schools, or red-lining mortgages, or using the n-word. Now we have claims of subliminal racism.

At some point, the activist should admit victory. But admitting victory hurts fundraising.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Curtail Your God-Envy

You may not believe in God and I'm not going to try to dissuade you, but you realize that others believe in God. Christian dogma characterizes deity with three omni-words: Omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. Deity can do anything; deity is everywhere; deity knows everything.

When I was a tender lad I would daydream about these omnis and of them I figured omniscient was the best. If you know everything, you can compensate for not having the others. (I think humans commonly fantasize about deity and all religious conflict is between competing fantasies.)

There's a problem with omniscience I did not recognize as a youth: My brain ain't big enough.

When you're a tender lad and everything's new you think your mind is Limitless (great movie by the way). After you acquire a few college degrees you realize the old noggin can't hold everything. So, despite my God-envy, I just don't have the hardware capacity for the job.

Christian dogma says that man is made in the image of God.

MY dogma says that the writer performs in the image of the Creator.

The writer knows what he's thinking about when he sets the valise down on the train platform. S/He does not know Hemingway's lost manuscripts are in the valise. S/he knows why the girl waits outside the train station for a passenger who never comes. And s/he knows the boy kept her picture tucked into the edge of the jet's artificial horizon. The writer knows the last thing he did was touch that picture when he crashed in Pakistan. The writer knows that years later the other boy will never learn what his wife is thinking when she looks wistfully to the west.

Did you get all that? I left out some connective tissue in that last paragraph. Omniscience can be hard to follow. That paragraph had only a finite number of words. Each word bears a finite semantic content. Its length is limited by your attention span and my ability to articulate.

So, the takes his exhaustive knowledge of the story, then chooses the parts that will fit in a novel. The poor writer does not realize s/he's doing this and s/he chooses poorly. I advise you think of all the sensa impinging upon your body right now. A lot of that never makes it to your consciousness. Like the temperature of your left heel right now. Your mind filters out the unimportant sensa and you are aware of what's left, like I'm aware of the words on the screen right now.

(When someone advises the writer to "show, don't tell" that is an exhortation to write words that depict sensa to the reader for the reader to interpret. Interpretation should be left to the reader.)

To solve these problems the reader needs to define a Point Of View (POV). Most commonly, this means you decide upon a POV character whose sensa, perceptions, and some interpretation are presented to the reader. The best way to think of a POV character is as a lens through which the story is projected to the reader. God or some other omniscient being may be chosen as the POV character.

This brings to mind another problem of omniscience. Omniscience causes trouble for storytelling. In a whodunnit, the omniscient storyteller knows it was Mrs. White with a Rope in the Library who committed murder most foul on page one. The omniscient storyteller is just holding out on you as s/he/it strings you along for the next 250 pages.

That's why you want to think very carefully about what you the writer knows about the story, and what you want the reader to know about the story. In each scene you need to choose someone in that scene who can present the narrative to the reader. Sometimes perspective is in-your-face obvious like Rashomon or Arrested Development season 4. Often it is less so.

This is a decision you need to make when you're writing your story.

A rookie mistake is to start a scene in the POV of one character, and then in that same scene disclose to the reader things that the POV character cannot know.

One of the coolest things I noticed when I started writing was a trick I saw Ernest Hemingway do. In "The Killers" he tells the story from the POV of Nick Adams. Toward the middle of the story, the narrative shifts to events that happened in another room.

For a moment, I thought, "Hemingway freakin' committed POV drift!" Then I read a little more and Hemingway explains that the cook was in the other room and the cook related the events he'd witnessed at that time to Nick Adams. Then I thought, that's awesome.

I know some writers tell the whole story from a single POV character. I think those are the best writers. Others will stick with one POV character in a chapter and change only at chapter breaks. Or even scenes within a chapter. I generally growl at my friends in writers group when they move from one POV character to another POV character without some clear line of demarcation in the prose.

I had a lot of fun once writing a first-person POV character who I kill off in the second-to-the-last chapter. The last chapter consists of his ghost floating to the enemy starship's bridge moments before he witnesses it blow up and he's joined by a lot more ghosts. It's a gimmick, and if you think you want to try something like that, have fun.

You know your story and you should think of what your POV character can directly experience in the story. This argues against making your space opera hero the Galactic Emperor, or an Admiral of a giant space fleet (and it generally feeds into that avoid superlatives and Mary Sue's  thing). Instead, a guy whose job is to swab the decks may have the better view of the action. Emperors and Admirals tend to do nothing but sit in meetings and read reports. Yeah, that'd make for riveting action.

If you've got a space marine, you'd better get him cross-trained in sensors or something, because you owe it to your readers to let them know what's going on. And if he's in mushroom mode (kept in the dark and fed horse dung) that'll be less interesting than those meetings & reports in the last paragraph.

So, take a look at your story from 10,000 feet, and pick through the most interesting events therein. How can you plausibly put one character at the center of all those events. Then ask yourself, can I tell this story from that character's POV? Curtail your God-envy.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

You Are Not Safe

I had a friend who got high in Democrat circles. He was the kind of guy who actually owned a copy of Speaker of the House Jim Wright's book. The one he fraudulently published in a money laundering scheme
. My friend knew I was Conservative in some issues and Libertarian in others. I think this is what gave him the feeling he could make remarks that were disrespectful of gay people. My response was a lifted eyebrow, because that was the sort of thing Democrats always accuse Republicans of. He'd be crucified if he made such remarks publicly today.

For the record, I am a libertarian who believes Government should be small enough so that what goes between your legs is of no interest to it. Government should also be color blind and indifferent to whether you have boy parts or girl parts.

In recent days I've watched on with detachment at the sound and fury directed at people with good Democrat credentials. They are being mau-maued for remarks that have been spun into thought-crime. I'm not a fan of Paula Deen and I have never heard her utter a racist remark, yet I have heard accusations that she has done so in the past and that she botched her apology. Did she campaign for the white half of Barack Obama?

There is no statute of limitations on thought-crime and I have heard her called the worst kind of racist.

This should be good news for those fellas in white hoods with a penchant for carrying torches and lynching.

Then there's the flap I just learned about at the SFWA. I don't haunt those precincts very much and so I'm not the best guy to assess guilt. It turns out two old guys, Barry Malzberg and Mike Resnick, said some things that could be spun into anti-feminism.

Apparently, they wrote in the SFWA newsletters referring to females as "ladies" and their fetching appearance was noted in complimentary terms. This was spun into thought-crime most foul.

This should be good news to those fellas who make girls wear burqas and practice female genital mutilation.

For the record, when I use a word it means exactly what I want it to mean, nothing more and nothing less. If you are a lady, you are a superior woman. Just as a gentleman is a superior man. I find humorless scolds abhorrent without regard to sex, creed or color.

The frightening thing about this story is that the perpetrators were Liberals in good standing who merely reflected the values of Democrats in the 1960s. A generation and a half of multicultural political correctness has turned large swaths of the academy into cultural Stalinists.

What I found most appealing about the liberalism of the 1960s was its tolerance and acceptance of diversity. But today it seems the only diversity that can be tolerated is the kind that uses rainbow logos to tell religious people to shut up.

Anything can be interpreted maliciously by someone intent upon using the politics of personal destruction. Moreover, when charges of racism or sexism are trivialized as we've seen recently, our society has no moral outrage left over for the fellas in white hoods, etc.

Will you tolerate mau-mauing?
First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Catholic.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Why I hate The IT Crowd

I am a persecuted minority. I've been mistreated all my life because of this minority status and I won't tolerate being grossly misrepresented.

I am a geek. I can identify Star Trek episodes by name. My second foreign language was FORTRAN. A day spent coding without any human interaction is a happy day indeed. I collected DC comics when I was too young to know any better, and Marvel comics when I hit college. Mr. Spock adorned my college dorm room wall. I spent a summer in Middle Earth and Narnia. I've watched every episode of The Guild.I make more money than any Liberal Arts major flipping hamburgers then I spend it all on computers. My geek score is higher than yours.

But I am not stupid. Stupid people flunk out of STEM courses (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). When stupid people claim to be geeks, they are posers.

Then there are comedy writers. Comedy writers are the smartest writers, because you can't be stupid and write funny. However, all humans confront the sin of sloth. Lazy writers can always get a laugh by making someone act stupidly. The non-stupid characters in the scene can exploit that stupidity, and the audience will identify. Cue laugh track.

My daughter loved Big Bang Theory and slowly I began to watch it. Since I have a DVR and it is shown repeatedly on TNT I've had a chance to watch most of the episodes. I find it hilarious 90% of the time. "Big Bang Theory" follows a pair of roommates who are post-docs at a big university. One is a theoretical physicist and the other an experimental physicist. Both are scary-smart with low social skills. I knew a lot of guys like that in grad school. (Physicists are smart cookies, but not as smart as Mathematicians. So, the guys I palled around with in grad school were smarter.)

I'll forgive the writers of Big Bang Theory for this slip-up. These scary-smart individuals pal around with scary-smart friends: a stereotypical Jew and a stereotypical (as in India) Indian.

To complete the sit-com with single guys archetype, there's a smoking hot chick. Smoking hot blondes have a reputation for not having to bother about thinking. And generally, smoking hot blondes find rich dumb guys with fast cars who buy them things. This keeps them so busy they don't notice scary-smart geeks next door.

Nevertheless, Penny pals around with four geeks and provides a Watson to four Sherlocks in the room to receive explanations (and keep non-experts in the story).

Did I mention that scary-smart individuals are often socially awkward? Some of the people who know the most about the cosmos and the smallest infinitesimal quanta of the universe are hopelessly inept at social situations.

We stay home practicing Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock when all the popular kids go to the Prom.

Juxtapose social awkwardness with a smoking hot blonde and there is a rich vein of comedy. When Sheldon is condescending toward Penny he's not being condescending because she's a girl or blonde, but merely a normal human. Sheldon is like Luke Wilson in Idiocracy, but with all the IQs shifted way over. And Penny gives it back when Sheldon acts childish and/or socially inept.

I'll own childishness and I'll own social awkwardness, but I won't own stupidity.

That's why I hate "The IT Crowd." I saw the pilot and thought it brilliant. (Pretend I said "brilliant" with a British accent.)  I loved to see a somewhat dullard boss who is an attractive woman interacting with socially awkward guys and finding advantages to exploit with a certain low cunning.

I looked forward to seeing more of the formula that I thought worked so well in Big Bang Theory.

Then I watched the second episode of IT Crowd. They abandoned the social awkwardness and went for making the geeks act stupidly. Did I mention that geeks aren't stupid? Having committed that unforgivable sin, I realized the writers of IT Crowd had no idea what they were writing about.

So, I turned that off and watched Astropia instead. Anybody here know Icelandic?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

I Go To Learn

Writers' Groups have certain protocols that the fledgling writer may not know. Years back I finished my first novel and went trundling off to a local writers group that met at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art. (I always thought the third word of UICA should be "contemptible" since I was generally unimpressed with the various objects d'art being produced there. I hope it has gotten better in the interim.) The UICA had the good sense to kick out the writers a couple years back.

Nevertheless, I've learned a great deal from attending that and other writers groups and I'd like to share some of that here.

A local writers group needs a table and chairs and a public venue. If you're looking for one near you, ask around bookstores and public libraries. You'll most probably find a circle of like-minded people.

Each of them has swallowed minnows in order to listen to you read with baited breath.

Or not.

Most likely not. Too many people have only one thing in mind at a writers group: "I have to pretend I'm interested until it's my turn to read." That's wrong.

  • You go to a writers group to learn. 
  • You don't want to have your ego stroked. 
  • You don't want to establish yourself as the alpha writer. 
  • You don't want to discourage a bad writer from inflicting his turgid prose upon the world. 
  • You go to learn.

Suppose you write Science Fiction techno-thrillers. You should listen to the romances and the poetry of others to gauge what works and what does not. Not so you can start writing in another genre or mode, but to learn what makes words work. Even if all you learn is, "I should not do that."

And when it is your turn to read, you want to maximize your learning opportunity. Did you bring 20 pages? That's too much. People have limited attention spans. After 3 to 5 pages, minds wander. You want people listening to your deathless prose not plotting to kill you.

Are you really, really good at Oral Interpretation? Tone it down. When your book is in some publisher's slush pile you won't be there to pronounce all the syl-AB-les with the right em-PHA-sis. Your dramatic pauses and artful intonations won't help you. And even if you are lousy at Oral Interpretation, don't do it.

I knew a writer who was horrid, and when he read he felt this need to do so in a Swedish accent. I have no idea what he was writing about, all I know is I'd think, "Bork, bork, bork," and remember Muppet Show skits. Happily, he doesn't come to writers group any more.

Don't be that guy. The guy who everyone silently sighs in relief when he doesn't show up.

He read in a cheesy Swedish accent even after people told him it detracted from evaluating his work. He didn't listen. You have to listen. And you have to act on what you hear. Even if that action is independently verifying the truth/falseness of it. If you don't listen, you can't learn.

And if you don't want to learn you have no business being in a writers group.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Another Ghost Story

You may recall my tale of Grandma's haunted house from a while ago.

I have an update.

I was walking into the grocery store near my house and at that moment walking out was my cousin Jerry. This was surprising since I never see him anywhere except at family get-togethers, much less at the grocery. I had written the earlier blog post mere hours before and I told him what I'd written. (He was one of the cousins telling me the house was haunted.)

He smiled and said, "It wasn't just Grandma."


Turns out that he and his twin brother, Larry, were sleeping over at Grandma's house and they were in the back bedroom. After they went to bed, Larry saw something out the window. He got scared. And then both of them saw something spooky. After a few minutes their terror got the better of them and they went running and crying out to get help from Grandma.

They told their tale of spectral visitation and after a few minutes, Grandma asked casually...

"Where's Mary?"

Though the boys had made a huge racket and gotten Grandma out of bed, Aunt Mary had not come out to see what was up. And when they went to search for her, she wasn't in her bedroom, either.

A bit more looking and she came in from the outside, holding a flashlight and a stick on which was affixed a doll's head. That was what she had been waving outside the window for my cousins' benefit.

I guess between Grandma and Aunt Mary they must have had quite a cousin-scaring operation gong on.

Pity I wasn't a lighter sleeper and didn't have more sleepovers there.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

(Can You?) Steal This Book

An evergreen debate concerns the piracy of artistic expression and What Should Be Done about it. You might think that copying is theft. I don't.

It is my opinion that Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a bane on society, and when I let my imagination roam, it can destroy civilization. DRM only seems reasonable, that if a work of art is valuable, then that value should be preserved by restricting access to it to paying customers. But art is not a commodity like bread.

The hungry man who cannot feed his children may steal a loaf of bread to feed them, but when he does so he takes it from the baker who needs the money to buy shoes for his children. And so on. Theft of tangible goods victimizes the person from whom the item is stolen. When Moses brought down from the mount the tablets of the Law everyone understood "Thou Shalt Not Steal" in these terms.

Economics is the dismal science of scarcity and how people cope with scarcity. Scarce goods command higher prices and common goods do not. Laws against copying protect and maintain scarcity.

If you copy my work, you don't take bread from my mouth. You will just reduce the scarcity of my work in this world. I had my work before you made a copy, and I have just as much of it afterwards. That's different from a loaf of bread.

Now, don't get the wrong idea. I believe in private property and I believe Intellectual Property law is--in principle--legitimate. Though Moses did not carry copyright law down from the mount, those fellas in powdered wigs who wrote "We the people" included Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution that we know as the Copyright Clause wherein Congress is empowered to:
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.
This is no emanation of any penumbra, but black-letter law. The principle is as legit as the US Constitution, which I regard as more legitimate than any President, Congress, or Court that it establishes.

You may be confused. I said that copying is not stealing, but I asserted the legitimacy of copyright law. There is no contradiction if you remember that the moral law can differ from the civil law. I remember driving home from college and agonizing over the 55mph speed limit. (I was altogether too earnest as a youth.) When someone asked my philosophy teacher why he had a radar detector in his car, he mentioned this distinction.

If you drive 56mph, you should manfully pay the ticket like Socrates drank the hemlock. That is the way of civil disobedience: do what's right and don't cry if John Law catches you and takes you to court.

Is file sharing a victimless crime? Almost. You are disrupting artificially created scarcity. Is it wrong to artificially create scarcity? Yes. Is file sharing both illegal and unconstitutional? Probably.

Today the purchaser of an ebook or song spent his money to become an owner, not a licensee. Owners of books or records lend them to friends and sell them at flea markets. But publishing companies call that theft, they have devised DRM schemes, and have lobbied Congress to pass laws to help them make cultural artifacts like these one-use-disposable. Is this wrong? Yes.

One sign that the GOP is just as corrupt as the Democrats is its continued support of legislative schemes to take rights from consumers, despite Hollywood's monolithic support of the Democrat party.

I think this is a situation where the morality that inheres within nature (right and wrong) is inconsistent with the civil law of the United States (legal and illegal). If you make illegal copies of my work, I'm not going to squawk about it, provided it's the right thing to do.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sesquipedalian loquaciousness

An acquaintance asked a rhetorical question, "At the risk of sounding like a pretentious sesquipedalian, if you have $5 words, why not use them? You ought to be getting your money's worth."

This inspired some thoughts about big words--words that are 1.5 feet in length or longer. (Sesqui = 1.5. Pedalian = relating to feet.)

I think that it depends upon what you got for your $5. The first consideration when contemplating long word use should be introspection: Don't be a Dogberry. In Much Ado, Shakespeare's Dogberry is an ass, because he uses words whose meanings he does not understand.

So, you've heard the word "loquaciousness" and you think it's a good fit for your writing. But are you really sure you know what it means? If you have to run to the dictionary, stop. You don't know it well enough to use it.

Some times much speaking is not loquaciousness and do you know when that is? The word must fit better than a square peg in a square hole. It must be right.

If you've read the word in only one place, don't use it. If you've never encountered it in conversation, don't use it. Sesquipedalian loquaciousness must be reserved to that subset of your vernacular on which you stand most firmly.

I regard words as semantic legos that one strings together to express thoughts in sentences and paragraphs. Most times the simple retangular bricks do the trick. This argues for the predominance of homely words. You can get the most semantic bang for the vernacular buck with homely words.

Yet some ideas, like "holomorphic vector bundles on stein manifolds" require the jargon of the specialist. Other words my lawyer friends tell me are "terms of art" wherein specialists say things that seem on their face to mean one thing, but in the peculiar context they were used they shall mean another. If you don't know this, don't use this.

Finally, let's turn our attention from the writer and what s/he knows to the reader and what s/he knows. If your reader is online and only a few clicks away from a google search, that's an entirely different thing than if your reader is OFFline and at least a few klicks (as in kilometers) from the nearest dictionary.

The writer may tease the reader, but should not annoy the reader. Or make the reader feel stupid.

Really, really smart and important people have no idea what sesquipedalian means. And only people with some kind of weird word fetish can get as far as "something about 1.5 foot." (This is why you want your kids to study Latin in school.) If you seriously expect your reader to know a long word, it had better be with the awareness that you--the writer--are crazy, and they--your readers--are normal.

I am a hopeless pedant and I thank you all for tolerating me.

The writer should build the majority of his prose around homely words that everyone understands. And when s/he puts in a less-common word, context should provide effective clues as to its meaning.

Take vernacular, a word that drove me to the dictionary when I was younger. The phrase "that subset of your vernacular" can clue the careful reader that something with a subset is also a set. We're talking about words, so it's a set of words. And I said, "your vernacular" which means it's something you possess. So, vernacular is the set of words you use.

After peppering this note with all these foot-and-a-half-long words, I hope I haven't made a Dogberry of myself.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

I Want Proof

One of my non-writing projects of late is the maintenance and rental management of my Grandma's house. I've been lamenting why it has kept me from writing. But I figure you deserve to read a ghost story about the place.

That's right, my Grandma's House was haunted.
And I have proof.

Let's backtrack. My uncle Herb was the oldest and he had several sons that were near my age. If you talk to them to this day they'll swear the place is haunted and that they experienced strange goings-on when they would have a sleep-over there.

I stayed overnight at Grandma's house once or twice and I slept on the living room couch, but I must have been a sound sleeper because I never noticed anything.

However, my cousins said that they would be there and would hear pictures rattling on the walls. And one said that one night a picture came flying right off the wall!

I would normally dismiss their stories, except for the fact that I found proof.

Grandma's house is laid out with a core of central rooms and a large, L-shaped, three-season, enclosed front porch that was added on in the '50s. This results in redundant windows in the front bedroom--Grandma's room, and in the living room that all open onto the front porch.

You can see it in the first picture, but the second picture was taken before it was built. The Living Room window can be seen on the left.

Grandma kept two old davenports on the porch and they were the ideal place for a bored kid to hide from adults and read Science Fiction on a Sunday afternoon.

I know, because I was that bored kid. I still associate H. P. Lovecraft with the field near the swamp where the fog rolls in.

I never made too much of it at the time, but years later I remembered and put two and two together.

Back then I never quite understood why Grandma ran monofilament fishing string out her bedroom window, along the porch near the ceiling, and then into the living room window.

Now I wish I had some of that fishing line as proof the house really was haunted.

Not by ghosts, mind you, but by a trickster Grandma who loved to stir people up just to see what would happen.

I can imagine her crouched by her bedroom window tugging on that fishing line, and listening to hear the picture attached to the other end rattle and waiting for one of us kids to react.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Honor Thy Father And Mother

Christianity shares the moral foundation of Judaism in that it asserts unconditional, perpetually binding obligations upon all mankind: the Ten Commandments. Whether you believe in these things or not, it makes sense to understand what they say, how they reflect human nature, and their relationship to culture.

American society routinely disrespects parents. I've known several professed, devout Christians who have no problem talking about how legalistic their parents were and dysfunctional their families were. I've seen Christian preachers get all Freudian about their childhood wounds rooted in a father's absence or a mother's over-protectiveness.

Had these same people said, "sh*t" or "f*ck," they'd be immediately castigated as sinners. But they slide through slanders of their parents without problem. This makes me think American Christendom regards the 5th Commandment as just a mere suggestion.

Conversely,when I see a Bollywood movie wherein the parents arrange a protagonist's marriage to the "wrong" partner, I shake my head in disbelief at the conflict. Americans are culturally programmed to feel no obligation to honor their parents' wishes in matters of the heart. Any American Evangelical would just shrug and walk away, while thinking herself more righteous than the Hindu who honors her parents.

(A common misconception is that one performs the Ten Commandments to get something nice. A better view is that one performs these obligations because they shape one's character in a beneficial way. In the Bollywood movie, dealing with the disappointment of parental opposition to a potential lover and honoring parental wishes certainly appears to build character. It certainly makes the story more interesting.)

In particular, I think it is interesting when someone honors parents who are not honorable characters. We're all human and we all make mistakes. Parents are certainly make their share of mistakes and some parents are downright evil. What does it say of a child who nevertheless honors that parent? I think it is wrong to excuse evil, but nobody requires a child be an accuser (except totalitarians).

In these cases, I feel much more sympathy toward the character, because my mind revolts at the injustice. It is not fair that the boy or the girl should be denied happiness just to honor the parents' demands.

The first objective of the novelist should be creating sympathy toward the protagonist. Americans like underdog stories. Most commonly the underdog is the poor kid who suffers at the hands of the mean girls. Or the sports team with a disgraced coach composed of a motley crew who faces off against an all-star team. But I think the adult child honoring a dishonorable parent is an even more sympathetic figure.

Who among us hasn't at one time or another said to our parents, "That's not fair."

The writer just needs to create a situation where it really is not fair to evoke the reader's sympathies. Be careful here, some of your readers are like me. I said, "That's not fair," when I was just being a jerk and I didn't know any better. The situation has to be undeniably not-fair.

You can work in a twist, too. Perhaps your protagonist is a scion of a very rich family who says, "If you marry that girl from the wrong side of the tracks, you are disinherited." The twist is to test the kid and the love-interest to see if their love is bigger than money. Just try not to be obvious about it.

Of all the Bible stories, I like the story of Joseph best, because he doesn't become bitter despite being mistreated by his brothers, falsely accused, tossed into jail, and suffering his fellow-prisoner's broken promise.

Here's a fellow who's better than I could ever be because he keeps on doing his best while suffering serial reversals. And when he has a chance at payback with his parents dead and his brothers at his mercy, he points out their evil toward him was part of a larger purpose that saved many lives.

That, dear writer, is what you must do. Feel free to be your own Old Testament deity.

Make your protagonist suffer every possible misfortune or injustice. The greater the heroism in scene N, the greater the unfairness for it in scene N+1. (This is the only thing what prevents Horatio Hornblower from becoming a Marty Stu.) Your story arc should drag  your protagonist through Purgatory. Honoring dishonorable parents is a great way to make your readers sympathize with your protagonist.

Bonus points if your protagonist can win Paradise in the denouement.

Those more worthy than I: