Archive for the ‘Novel’ category

Wonder and Otherness

July 17, 2019

This is a meditation on science fiction, on what it means to me.

First of all, science fiction makes me think of my father. The association is among my fondest memories of him.  He would avidly bring home science fiction magazines:  Analog Science Fiction and Fact, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Galaxy Science Fiction, and If.

analog_6312

I was reading science fiction novels like a twelve-year-old house on fire anyway.  As a reader who was susceptible to the beauty of all kinds of tales, especially tall ones, I developed a keen interest in sci-fi.  Science fiction opened the world up, and not just the world, the universe.  It showed me wonder and otherness,  in different ways than I could imagine as a reasonably bright boy growing up in rural/wild British Columbia.

So my father and I came together there.

When you’re a young reader obsessed with any kind of subject, reading non-stop at every opportunity to the irritation of all around is de rigueur.

From time to time I would get so enthused I would try to write a science-fiction story myself.  I couldn’t understand why the experience of trying to write a story felt so lacklustre and unfulfilling.  Yet there was that urge to write.  Where does that come from?  And what’s it for?

I went back to reading for enjoyment, admiring the prodigious talents of Ursula Le Guin, Robert Silverberg, John Brunner, Clifford Simak, Theodore Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, Brian Aldiss and so many others.

By the time I got to university, the decline but not yet the fall of my science fiction interest rolled on.  I got more interested in non-fiction subjects. And once I got back to enjoyment reading, I preferred to read modern thrillers and detective stories.

And the culture changed too.  The really cool science fiction was on the big screen. A book needed to inspire a movie.

But novels like Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, and dipping a toe (maybe more like a whole leg) in fantasy, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings still stirred me as I entered my twenties.

If-low-resWe are all strangers in a strange land, are we not?  Heinlein’s book described a human named Valentine Michael Smith raised on Mars by Martians.  He must adapt to the culture he finds here on Earth.  In a way it reminds me of the book and movie, The Man Who Fell to Earth, of an extraterrestrial corrupted by the earth-bound existence he drops into.

But in Heinlein’s work, the stranger begins to demonstrate psychic abilities and unusual intelligence, coupled with a childlike naïveté. He understands, believes that “all that groks is God.”

And what is “grok?”  In the 1991 uncut version (released by Heinlein’s widow), ‘grok’ wasn’t explained for much of the book.  It seems to mean an understanding so thorough that the observer becomes a part of the observed.  For the counterculture of the day, a word was welcomed that captured breakdown of the subject-object distinction.  Although “breakdown” implies something falling apart.

The word takes on more the meaning of a coming together of subject and object that can’t always be articulated.

In any case, along with the overwhelming quest story of the Lord of the Rings with its ethical and moral themes, the two books (I read the Rings in the first edition single volume) symbolized the true interest of my mental life more than my course of studies in university about psychology.  As understood by watching rats very closely.

What about otherness?  I just learned a new word for that: Alterity.   (We may not be any further ahead in our understanding, but we have a more intellectually acceptable term.)

An  interesting academic article by Isabella Herman, Boundaries and Otherness in Science Fiction: We Cannot Escape the Human Condition, concludes that “we always were and always will be concerned about the other beyond the known border.”  She looks at four modern dystopian science-fiction films, asserting that science fiction is inherently political. Science fiction is engaged in thought experiments about our current human situations.  Politics necessarily applies.

Although Herman does describe the movie District 9 in terms of alien otherness, which is what I’m most interested in, she restricts her discussion more to the depicted extreme image of the aliens and associated political dimensions in an alternative South Africa.

To be honest, I’m not quite sure what this “otherness” is that I’m trying to get at.  It’s not only about “aliens” but encounters with a mysterious universe while confined in a tiny corner of it.

Writer Gregory Benford says: “Rendering the alien, making the reader experience it, is the crucial contribution of SF.”

alien

In an interesting article (despite its academic jargon) by Carl Malmgren, Self and Other in SF: Alien Encounters , the author mentions two directions for critics of portrayed ideas of alien encounter.  One is that whatever form the alien takes in sci-fi, it can never be really alien (or other).  However such writers as Benford distinguish between “anthropocentric” and “unknowable” aliens: the former consist of “exaggerations of human traits”; the latter, alien at the “most basic level,” partake of an “essential strangeness.”

(The second direction of criticism is about the relationship between the human and the alien.  The article cites the SF writer Stanislaw Lem criticizing the common simplistic portrayal of this relationship as Us vs. Them.)

The core of what attracts me to science fiction is the portrayal of essential strangeness.  It can really only occur through a sense of wonder, rooted in our world here today.  And projected through the kaleidoscope of whatever imagination the writer can bring to bear.

As I prepare the final draft of the science fiction novel I’ve worked on for a long time, I think on these things.

[Home]

Links to articles about sci-fi otherness, and other posts here bearing on science fiction.

There are online a number of articles (often academic criticism) about the notion of otherness in science fiction.  Here are a few:

Science Fiction and Alterity

A New Science Fiction to Understand What is Coming     This one is especially interesting.

The Transcultural Site: Interpersonal Encounters with Otherness in Lessing, Le Guin and Battlestar Galactica

Some of my posts related to science fiction (especially trying to write the darn stuff):

Why Science Fiction?

Hunting For A Science Fiction Story

Subversive Fiction

Advertisements

A Few Notes On Getting Creative With Writing

March 16, 2019

Here are a few notes to myself about creative writing.  Gathered from many places!

—  If you want a creative scene, dialog or description, put two or more disparate elements (characters, scenery, moods) together.  Make them as unlikely and interesting as possible. Beware ridiculousness.  Have it make sense.

— People often belie their names or labels or concepts about themselves.  They’re not quite what they’ve been categorized as.  It’s fun to try to show that.

— Describing one thing vividly can be more effective than describing an entire room.  Or civilization.

— Try to look at the world, and especially your loved ones, with wonder.  And then at yourself.

— Story as change, not just conflict.  Thank you, Ursula Le Guin.

Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things
The honest thief, the tender murderer,
The superstitious atheist, demirep*
That loves and saves her soul in new French books —
We watch while these in equilibrium keep
The giddy line midway: one step aside
They’re classed and done with.
— Robert Browning

* a woman whose chastity is considered doubtful; an adventuress.  I think these are elegant ways to put it.

— But you may be sitting at your computer, or dipping your quill into the inkwell, and yet even with that sneezable amount of writing to do, you’re still feeling a little stuck or fretful.  You lack faith.  Having an inspirational book on writing beside you to browse for a minute or two is good then.

It is the writer’s openness to the ambiguity and uncertainty of any experience (even the experience of determination and certainty) which gives clarity, and thus a kind of certitude, to his writing. — John Bergen

— At the end, our hero is sunk so low in his voyage of revenge — a change of heart is his only possible way forward.

— There are aliens, or at least alien artifacts, in this story. How can one portray the really alien? I haven’t figured that one out yet — or I should say, I haven’t discovered what it might be. Giant ants or robots with laser eyes are so… human.

Springsteen sings like a man intent on opening his heart.  In this way he is an inspiring figure.

— Every character has some kind of armor, perhaps manifested in physical form that the character feels safe inside — a role or symbol or self-presentation that the character relies on, like say a doctor’s white coat or a stripper’s lack of clothes.  This becomes highly limiting.  And then to make it more complicated, occasionally putting the armor on is the right thing to do.

We live immersed in narrative, recounting and reassessing the meaning of our past actions, anticipating the outcome of our future projects, situating ourselves at the intersection of several stories not yet completed.
— Peter Brooks

— The tasks of this second draft I think will be to carefully remove the indistinct and to sharpen turns of the characters and to tighten the chains of causation between them. Make the future world more interesting and strange, yet plausible. Make the story better. Don’t die before it gets published….

— Thwarted needs turn into neediness, even if only on a subliminal or subconscious level.

— Texture of air.

— Emotions can often be more effectively described by showing the restraint of them.

— Each character’s little vanities about themselves or what they do, little prideful things.

— “Kenning.”  A kenning is a different name for a thing — so the sun becomes a day-star.

Clifton Fadiman on a book by Hemingway:
It is written with only one prejudice — a prejudice in favor of the common human being.  But that is a prejudice not easy to arrive at and which only major writers can movingly express.

— Write just enough setting detail to get in the scene with the character.

— It really requires getting in the scene with characters, as if in some battle arena where you, incorporeal, closely observe the goings on without fear of a knife in the ribs. One or two, or more, specific sensual descriptions in the scene can do so much. Being in the scene imaginatively with the characters facilitates that.

— I’ve realized that a lot of what makes satisfactory writing is developing emotional resonances for the characters and for the meaning of the story. I have a long way to go with this.

— I’ve come to understand how obsessed with story I am, just like everyone else in the world as we distract ourselves through film and music and books. Occasionally we discover real meaning through story. For us who want to write creatively, this obsession becomes more conscious, and in its compelling way, comes to capture our thoughts. We want to make stories that can speak in the same way that others have moved us, at the height of the best story-telling.

Being certain about any aspect of our story limits us. Let’s trust that the story lives fully within us, and that something valid wants to be expressed. There’s an experience far more empowering than certainty, and that is a faith in the fundamental truth of our story, a growing belief that it is not necessary to force anything, but rather to inquire into the nature of what we want to express.
— Alan Watt

[Home]

Thinking About Theme in Writing A Novel

October 25, 2018

Quite a few books on the craft of writing advise again and again to formulate the theme for the novel you’re working on.

I always have a tough time with that.  I’ve never been sure with the fiction I’m fighting what “theme” means.

Going back to one of my first inspirations for how to write a novel, which never quite worked for me, the book Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript by Robert Meredith and John Fitzgerald  (1972) says:

“All traditional novels demonstrate that certain people have had certain experiences,  and these experiences comment on life, leaving the reader with some conclusion about the nature of existence that can be factually verified.  This conclusion is the theme of the novel.”

The Delphic nature of theme

Clear?  Not for me.  What does all this abstract vague stuff mean?  “Factually verified?” It’s kind of an amorphous cloud that gives me no hint about how to write and incorporate theme, if indeed it is important.  If I am baffled by what the theme is, how can I allude to it?  I just want to write a story that moves people.

A more recent book, Plot Perfect: Building Unforgettable Stories Scene by Scene, by Paula Munier (2014) bases its entire method on you knowing what the theme is of what you’re writing.  “Chapter One, The Power of Theme.”

She tries to simplify the problem (she seems to recognize that there is one, especially for such as me).

“Theme is simply what your story is really all about.”  (My emphasis.)  She gives the examples of Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games. Their themes are about power.  That is nicely clear.  For what I write though in the novel I’m revising — it doesn’t seem to fall into one easy classification.  (And maybe that’s a problem.  But let’s assume for now that clarity on this may be possible if I can just wake up to it….)

Munier acknowledges that there may be more than one theme.

“Themes speak to the universal; they address the human condition.”

She also advises: “Try writing your first and last lines now, whether you’ve finished your story or not, and make sure they embody your theme.”  This begins the process of embedding the theme in your writing.

At first glance seems like good advice (yet sounds to me now really artificial and bad). And I’m still not sure what my theme really is!

Theme as armature

In the writing craft book Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate,  by Brian McDonald (2010), he uses “armature” to make the concept of theme more accessible.

He describes armature as the internal framework upon which a sculptor supports his work.  In the wider sense, the armature provides the same kind of focus that makes jokes work.

McDonald says he uses jokes as an instructional tool. “Just as all elements of a joke support the punch line, so should every element of your story support its armature.”

That helps a little with my understanding but I’m not completely out of the woods yet.  I’m confused because it would make more sense for McDonald to say the armature supports the elements of your story, rather than the other way around.

And then there’s the advice from a craft book and author I respect, Steven James in his book, Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction (2014) .  (These books always promise you the unforgettable moon.)

“So stop trying to define your theme.  Write a story to tell the truth about human nature or our relationship to eternity and the divine, and your story will say more than any theme statement ever could.”

Okay!  I don’t have to spell out a “theme.”  Yet somehow I’m still not satisfied.

My go-to book for general writing inspiration (and not for its method so much), The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt (2010) says:

“Once we begin to develop a sense of the world of our story, we can begin to inquire into the structure questions…. But as we continue to inquire into the structure questions, and we hold our story loosely, it becomes more specific.”

He is saying when we ask universal questions, which is another way to discuss theme I think (nowhere does Watt talk about that subject directly), over time the framework of a story emerges.  Images reveal themselves to us.

I’m working on the second draft of a novel, in part waiting for beta-readers to finish having their say.  It seems to me, with my very limited experience, that it is difficult to know what the theme of a work is exactly at the start.  The resonance isn’t there until you discover what you’ve written.

At the beginning, trying to come up with meaningful theme statements for this novel, I know now that such ideas were only partial, and a distance removed from any deep feeling of mine.

Revenge and justice

At the beginning of the science fiction novel I’m writing, I thought I could say the themes were about revenge and justice.  A young man suffers the murderous intention of a ruthless ambitious man, and is dispossessed of his family, his wealth and his future.  The story chronicles within the context of a future failing earth his commitment to exacting that revenge, and how that turns out to be insufficient for the meaning of his life.

But it was something else that Alan Watt wrote that I read a while back now that twigged me to a theme I can get my heart around.  After all that.

“Many of us are writing stories of freedom, but struggle to imagine what that might look like for our hero.”

The stars aligned, the moon came over the bow, the seagulls flew over me screeching, and tonight I finally realized what the damn theme of this novel is.  It’s a story about freedom.

[Home]

In the Trenches with the First Draft Revision

May 23, 2018

So I putter away at revising the first draft of the novel, not quite yet doing very much of the real work.  The real work of laboring to put words that make sense in the right places.  One after another, for a long time.

I have to write some new scenes, rewrite others.  I’ve got one subplot kind of figured out.  I’m hoping a more whimsical, trivial one will make itself apparent to me.  I’ve made a few editing changes here and there.

There’s no doubt that writing the first draft had to be an exploration, a struggle to make each event a cause of another so true that a story appears.

I’m starting to have the scary perception that some of what I’ve written is good.  Of course I have no real way to determine how much off the mark that is, but I feel a hint of excitement.

I wrote the first draft one paragraph after another without going back and inspecting what I had wrought and must inevitably adjust.  That was freeing.  I had my scene roadmap, adorned with missing pathways and “Here Be Dragons” that I steered by.  Eventually I passed over some parts of the plan, and added scenes and fresh (occasionally hackneyed without doubt) directions to others.  But most importantly, I didn’t try to rewrite anything, or even edit atrociously awkward sentences.  I was careful not to go back and read them.

Alan Watt’s book The 90-Day Novel really inspired me.  I didn’t follow the schedule of his book at all or even pay much attention to that tired 3-Act Novel act.  (Three Act Structure just means the story has a beginning, a middle and the end.  It doesn’t really amount to a method….)  But words like these were encouraging, perceptive and wise:

“Many of us are writing stories of freedom, but struggle to imagine what that might look like for our hero. …

“Being certain about any aspect of our story limits us.  Let’s trust that the story lives fully within us, and that something valid wants to be expressed.  There’s an experience far more empowering than certainty, and that is a faith in the fundamental truth of our story, a growing belief that it is not necessary to force anything, but rather to inquire into the nature of what we want to express.”

I’m surprised now as I read, that my first draft is often so succinct and descriptive. The characters actually stand out from the background.  You can hear who they are.  There is a story, an interesting one.

The tasks of this second draft I think will be to carefully remove the indistinct and to sharpen turns of the characters and to tighten the chains of causation between them.  Make the future world more interesting and strange, yet plausible.  Make the story better.  Don’t die by the time I manage to publish it….

There is a workable, standing framework to carefully sculpt, without disturbing whatever delicate balance I might have accidentally managed to create.

[Home]

Plodding Through the Sucking Swamp of First Draft Novel Revision

April 27, 2018

OK, it’s not quite as bad as that.  Almost just about, though, sometimes.

I’ve written a lengthy first draft, and since I’m pretty new to this whole cool, impressive novel thing, I’ve dithered about buckling down to revision.  (If you’re curious, it’s a science fiction revenge and redemption novel, with alien contact.)

I did take a number of months hiatus after finishing the first draft.  I found that easy to do.  (I did keep jotting down ideas and advice to myself, so showing some good instincts there, I hope.)

The problem is I have no idea of what good revision means, in an operational sort of way.  This is similar to my problem about writing a story.  I had no idea what a story really is.  I am still not entirely clear.

And my first response to the revision problem was, just as for story, to find and read as many books as possible on the subject.  You’d be surprised at how many there are, although I didn’t buy all of them.

I’ve read quite a few by now.  I can recommend a couple that will end up probably helping me:

Layer Your Novel, by C.S. Lakin, and Rock Your Revisions by Cathy Yardley.

Although I’m definitely getting to grips with revision now, I still plan to read Blueprint Your Bestseller (uh-huh) by Stuart Horwitz which promises a way to “organize and revise any manuscript.”  We’ll see.

One of the big things dragging me down has been perhaps an over-sensitive appreciation of the problem of structure.  How do I see the structure in what I wrote?  How do I make the story big, better?  One starts to get bogged down in the theory.  But I have found some approaches that make sense in starting to get an overview.

Peering Through the Thickets

When I was thinking about starting the novel,  I wrote kind of a scene by scene treatment where I wanted to go, which inevitably in the doing went down unforeseen and different paths.

So my first step, after reading the whole thing once, was to complete a list of all my scenes, along with the necessary scene questions.  This was good advice from Cathy Yardley.

By going through all the scenes, I’ve read the draft a second time.  The second time around, it was as if I was reading it for the first time.  I found so much that I hadn’t caught at all.

For some background, I wrote the first draft without going back and editing anything.  Just get it down and worry about all the rest later.  Sometimes the sequences are disjointed and out of kilter because I was still discovering what the story was.

Most recently I’ve been working on a list of every character in the book, along with penetrating questions about the main ones.  But every character, even the most minor, has a visual, or if not, I make one up.

I worked on characters quite a lot before starting writing, but only after writing the first draft am I able to see possible connections and oppositions between the characters I didn’t before.

I’ve only now really started to get a sense of the characters.  They were thin specters in a haze previously.  This is not to say that they’re somehow completely clear and real in my mind – there’s still much fog wafting about.

Up until now, I’ve put off any line-by-line editing because of my structural concerns and worry about where to best add or delete new scenes (and/or sequels).

But even so today, for the very first time, I did some line editing of the first chapter.  That’s going to be fun, improving and making the words come alive.  (I would like to think.)

It really requires getting in the scene with characters, as if in some battle arena where you, incorporeal, closely observe the goings on without fear of a knife in the ribs.  One or two specific true-to-life descriptions in the scene can do so much, I’ve found, and being imaginatively in the scene with the characters facilitates that.

I’m sure I’ve got much, much more to learn about it.

[Home]

A note about a couple of useful tools in revision – for me anyway.

My favorite thesaurus, online or offline: Power Thesaurus.

This customizable random name generator is my favorite.  Still using it in revision, after forgetting to put in names of minor characters…. Behind the Name .