Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Thematic Rule of Two

Zestful Blog Post #225

I like to use twos in writing.

If you have a work in progress—fiction, that is—most likely you have a theme in there somewhere. Take a little time to think about it and look for ways to develop it. Does love conquer all? If so, throw in more hate and see if you can shake love’s foundations. Or, perhaps, is love meaningless—and noble action the only valuable thing for a human to dedicate himself to? Ramp up the romance and see if the dispassionate seeker can be swayed.

A good technique is to explore more than one theme; then they can carom off each other and build complexity. A tough guy with a drinking problem is a bit of a cliché; what if you have your addicted detective fighting for the right to adopt a five-year-old orphaned beauty queen? Whoa, dude, that is off the wall. It can become a main plot, or a strong subplot. You’ve got a man’s struggle with inner demons, and you’ve got a needy child in limbo. This opens up all kinds of possibilities: family, the circle of life, exploitation, vulnerability, love and sacrifice.

You can jolt some juice into your work in small ways, too. Instead of simply having two characters disagree, have one throw a chair. Or if you already have a fistfight going, make sure somebody ends up with life-changing injuries, instead of just a black eye. Let your characters abandon themselves to their fates—and hey, fate is another theme right there. How do your characters think about it, what do they do to try to beat it, cheat it, or meet it?


[Rocket and capsule, U.S. Project Gemini. Two guys were in there, all the way up and all the way down. Photo by ES.]
  
When you feel stuck, sit back and throw out some possibilities involving twos, or even threes.

Oh, my God, they’re twins! That’s how the alibi got past the D.A.!

Get out now! It’s not just a twister, it’s twisters plural, coming from opposite directions!

Success in love and achievement both! Wow, what could go wrong now?

I betrayed not only you; I betrayed myself as well.

We’ll use not one decoy, but two. It’s foolproof, I tell you!

You see how it works. The rule of two is an easy technique to visit any time your fiction needs a boost. 

Have you used the rule of two in writing fiction? Tell us about it. Or, if you simply have a good recipe for soft, warm cookies, let us know. We’re getting hungry. To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.


If you'd like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Mad Scientist's Guide to Fiction

Zestful Blog Post #224

This post is a meaty excerpt from my article, "Fiction Lab," in the September 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine.

For my 10th birthday, I requested and received a chemistry set. It came with all the cool stuff, but the experiments in the instruction book were feeble. You knew what was supposed to happen; nothing exploded, nothing grew over the top of the test tube. I started to think outside the kit. I took apart Christmas lights to create dollhouse lamps, but achieved only a blown fuse and some smoke. When my mother got hold of a fetal pig for me to dissect, I hooked it up to a dry cell in an attempt to trigger reflex motion. I succeeded in giving myself a shock.

Then a school chum told me he’d learned the recipe for gunpowder. It’s hard to fathom now, but children in the 1960s could and did obtain the raw materials for making explosives. The local pharmacist sold me as much potassium nitrate as I wanted, no questions asked, 15 cents an ounce. From there, life got a lot more interesting. (Surprisingly, I emerged from childhood with my eyesight, hearing, and all fingers and toes intact.)

My young mad-scientist days taught me some basic lessons in creativity. Now, as a writer of fiction, I create different sorts of things—equally incendiary and no less fun.

A mad scientist is passionate about a vision of something new. Perhaps because of that, she might seem somewhat unbalanced (hence mad). She’s eager to try anything to bring about success, and willing to endure sacrifice. A mad scientist’s spirit is indomitable and fearless. Most important of all, she’s ready to pick up after a failure and try a different formula. All qualities, as you’ve probably deduced, that would serve a writer just as well.

When your daily pages are looking stale, or your ideas aren’t flowing as fast, free and fun as you’d like—step into your fiction lab and try these approaches to tap into the mad-scientist spirit. 



Throw out the instructions.

We’re talking about a mad scientist, not an ignorant one. Textbooks serve a purpose—one must learn at least the rudiments of one’s craft before breaking new ground—but they can also become a crutch if we cling to them too tightly.

The poet Ezra Pound encouraged Ernest Hemingway to push beyond his journalism training to write short vignettes for The Little Review. Hemingway hadn’t written much fiction yet, but he penned a few vignettes of just a paragraph or so each, then he wrote more of them. It was bold to produce such short things and call them finished pieces; nobody else at the time was really doing that. But Hemingway wanted to write tight and true, and brought war and bullfighting to life with bluntness and cruel beauty in those brief but powerful portrayals.  Later he interspersed them with short stories to form his first collection, In Our Time, which brought him fame. Those vignettes that blew readers away in 1925 are no less effective today.

In 1980, Jean M. Auel broke new ground with the launch of her Earth’s Children series (The Clan of the Cave Bear, etc.), which endowed her preliterate primitive characters with emotion and powers of thought equivalent to those we associate with modern humans. I don’t know where she got the idea, but it sure wasn’t from any classroom I’ve ever heard of. Readers are still buying those rule-smashing stories today.

The point here is to not be constrained by convention. If you’re moved to try something different but a little voice says, “Wait, that’s not what we learned in the workshop!”—then stop and consider. Sometimes the “No!” and its attendant discomfort are really cues that you need to say, “Yes!”

What lies beyond the textbook is your own vision. To bring it into focus, find some stillness. Unplug from all the online crap and let your mind settle down. Contemplate your writing project, at whatever stage it’s in. Pay attention to any thoughts that come up about it, and write them down, whether they’re ideas about plot, or hunks of story, whatever. Even apparent junk tends to morph into original material if you stay open and give it enough time to move beyond stock advice and become wholly your own.

Stock the shelves with interesting supplies.

Of course, to remain perpetually in creation and experimentation mode, you do have to look beyond your own brain.

Dashiell Hammett read widely, seemingly without rhyme or reason: a Shakespeare play after a book on horology after a history of the Balkans after a memoir of a cowboy. This kind of reading was a sort of fertilizer for his brain. The Maltese Falcon didn’t have a clockmaking cowboy from Albania in it, but it did have tight time frames, wild action and international quarreling.

Consider anything and everything fodder for your fiction. Breakthroughs can happen when you draw information and inspiration from unlikely sources. Court transcripts, for instance, can yield amazing material. If your romance novel is lagging, why not look up the transcripts from some juicy, high-profile divorce cases? You won’t necessarily pluck from them word-for-word, but you could come across details that spark novelty.

Comb through belongings left over from your childhood. Remember what it was like to sneak around the neighborhood pretending to be a secret agent. Call up your most humiliating memory from the baseball diamond or Sunday school.

Learn to see possibilities in films, fiction, cereal boxes, weapons catalogs—anything! Throw things together in ways nobody else has dared to try; juxtapose wildly. Drop poison into a sculptor’s clay. Make a planet grow arms and legs. Impose no restrictions! Tinker to your heart’s content.

. . .

Make another one.

If you quit after one attempt, of course, you wouldn’t be much of a scientist—more like a curious visitor. There is tremendous power in setting to work anew, and seeing the next project through to the end. Make yourself at home in your lab. Construct it to suit your purposes not just for a wayward afternoon, but for countless days of discovery and wonder.

The world looks to artists to leave the general comfort zone, then report back. If you do that with intention and verve, again and again, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll look down at a creation and notice something different, something fabulous.

Your heart will race and your blood will pound and you will raise your fists and shout, “It’s alive!”

[For now, the whole article is available only in the current magazine.]

Did you ever blow anything up? Do you have any suggestions to share on this topic, or what the hell, any other? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [Photo by ES]
If you'd like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Fun Of It

Zestful Blog Post #223

Some years back, in conversation with a flute player, I asked why she played in the local symphony. We didn’t get paid, yet everybody faithfully showed up at rehearsals and concerts. Some players put more effort into it, others less. This flute player was a committed player with excellent skills. I played percussion.

“I just love to play the flute,” she said, smiling, then repeated, “I just love to play the flute!” Fair enough. Then she asked, “Why do you come to symphony?”

No one had ever asked me that before. I said, without any conscious thought, “I come to serve the music.” I think about that from time to time, as I’ve segued into (amazingly) getting paid to play in semiprofessional ensembles. The music must be served; it needs good players to do it.

It used to bug the hell out of me when a particular section mate would shrug off my attempts to help him play his part right or even come in at the right place. “Hey, I do this to have fun,” he would whine. I'd turn away in disgust and think, People buy tickets to come and hear us play, and they expect to hear and see everybody doing their best. (You lazy asshole.) The worst was, this guy had a degree in music and tutored young percussionists.

Fun isn’t whacking the drum carelessly and coming in whenever you guess is right. That is self-indulgence. Fun is keeping track of every measure, then playing the notes exactly as written on the page, with sensitivity, so that your playing melds with everyone else’s playing, as well as with the conductor’s baton, so that the whole becomes much more than the sum of its parts. That’s satisfaction. That’s fun. You’ll feel like smiling while you’re doing it, even silently laughing with pleasure.

The analogy with writing is real. A committed writer shows up on the page and puts it out there. You serve the words, you serve the writing. A quality result is far, far more than the sum of all those sentences and punctuation marks. And there’s everything right with fun! Having fun is the best way to do it: when it works, it’s fun, when it sings, it’s fun, when you’re in the zone, in the flow, it’s fun. A commitment to that kind of fun is sublime.


I might note that anthropologists and linguists believe human song almost certainly preceded language, which squares with the fact that paleolithic flutes predate—by far—the earliest known writing on clay tablets. As music developed, so did speech, writing, and literature. Literary forms got longer and more complex, and the novel emerged, arguably between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. The corresponding musical form, the symphony, also emerged around the end of that period. The Greek word 'symphonia' means agreement or concord of sound.

Part of the gorgeous game of life is being present and making the most of every situation. The percussion section of an orchestra doesn’t always have parts to play, as for instance in most violin concertos. (Cymbals and drums tend to overpower a small solo instrument such as a violin.) So you sit out those pieces. The tradition among professionals is to sit or stand quietly and pay attention to what’s going on, first because it’s respectful, second because it’s pleasant to listen and evaluate what everybody’s doing, and third because you often learn things. And sometimes, fourth, if you’ve moved to a seat in the rehearsal hall well beyond the edge of the stage, you’re asked by the conductor how the balance is, and you can helpfully report that the French horns are slightly obliterating the soloist during the coda.

I remember being appalled seeing a young percussion player listening to pop music on his headphones during a rehearsal featuring a good regional soloist. He ignored what was happening, live, in front of him, as well as the example the rest of us were setting.

You’re supposed to take advantage of the opportunities that come your way, and you’re supposed to understand that something that might not seem like an opportunity just might be one. And that is fun.

What do you think? You are heartily invited to post a comment. Just click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [photo by ES]

If you'd like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in.