Posted tagged ‘creativity’

The Quest to Write with Meaning

May 22, 2020

In my long quest to write with meaning, always approaching but never quite reaching, I’ve written one science-fiction novel, and now I’m almost ready to start the draft of a second one.

I’m trying to flog the completed sci-fi novel, without success so far, to agents and publishers.  But I can’t wait around, as I am not all that junior, except maybe in ability.  I’ve started the second and again I’m puzzling about theme.

I should say that this second novel situated 20 years or so in the future is well along in terms of character and plot development.  Still I feel the lack of a central cohesion.

(For a sampling of my previous self-imposed torture about what theme means, check out Thinking About Theme in Writing A Novel. I concluded then that the theme had to emerge from the struggle with the writing and it had most to do with freedom.)

Oh, the craft books I consume!  Many of my books on the craft of writing extol the benefit of knowing the theme of the story you are about to embark on.  Although it doesn’t seem to be much of a selling point in a query letter.

Maundering about theme

Theme is what the story is about, what the reader can take home.  It encapsulates the meaning of the story, its reason for being, really.  I feel silly to be so foggy about what should be clear.  The theme could be a statement about love or corruption or goodness or deceit or honesty.  On that kind of abstract level.

But it is not that clear cut to me, what the meaning of the story I’m starting to write will be in the end.  Oh, I can say in a tentative way now that it is about guilt, or freedom, or redemption, but those words are pro forma at this stage, without resonance.  Except, partially, the idea of “freedom” which to me is kind of an ur-theme which other thematic notions resolve to.

At the suggestion of one craft book (The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson), I’ve resorted to diagramming my first stabs at thematic ideas, arranged in small ellipses overlapping at the edges of a large empty ellipse.

This visually-oriented strategy appealed to me: reserve the big ellipse for a statement that feels like something.

In those smaller ellipses I’ve placed words like “anger”, “shame”, “repentance”, “redemption”, “transcendence”, “struggle”.  The big empty ellipse just sits there, aloof.

This brings me to a phone conversation I had with my wife recently, stuck as she is in Shanghai in these Covid times, looking after her dying father in his nineties.

Getting older

We are both older, and sometimes we discuss the end of life, and probable feebleness of some sort eventually.  My wife, as a doctor and given her situation with her father, is occasionally given to stories of what can happen to people which might strike some as morbid.  Although she is actually a woman of considerable positivity.

She told me of one older colleague of her father, a doctor too, who was diagnosed with a terminal illness.  This colleague, she said, decided to spare himself and his relatives the pain of his suffering.  He ended it all by one day walking into the ocean.

I didn’t want the conversation to rest there, so I said, “I’d rather walk out of the ocean.”  There was a moment of silence on the phone line, and then we both laughed.

Off-hand remark though this was, it continues to reverberate for me.  It’s become a strangely deep metaphor on a lot of levels.

I have this image of a man emerging from the ocean buffeted, then released, by the clear salty water, finding his feet as he lurches forward onto the beach.  He is unencumbered, sopping wet, and headed towards he knows not what, but he is free.

Conversely, he emerges from the miasma of our culture and our times, out of the detritus of life mistakes and character flaws, onto a shore of the possible.  Sea gulls dip overhead.

This reminds me how this will to write is unavoidably a spiritual impulse, a religious one, even, in its original meaning re-ligare, to tie together again, to re-connect.

Several of the better books on the craft of writing allude to this.

Alderson in her book writes, “The Universal Story is the story of life.  The energy of the Universal Story flows through three phases: Comfort and Separation. Resistance and Struggle. Transformation and Return.”

John Truby in The Anatomy of Story says simply at the end of that book: “Let me end with one final reveal: you are the never-ending story.”

I sit back and then write my phrase in the waiting empty ellipse.

Walk out of the ocean.

[Home]

Note:  Here is the best short description of theme I just found in an older book from 20 years ago by Philip Gerard, Writing A Book That Makes A Difference:

“What the book is thinking about.”

Later Gerard describes it this way: “It’s the unconscious of the story.”  I like that.

Working On A New Novel — Obsessed with Character

February 13, 2020

“Characterization is a complex and elusive art and cannot be reduced to exact rules or to a comprehensive statement. The more we talk about it, the more we feel has been left out….”
Leon Surmelian, Techniques of Fiction Writing

“Human beings are the religion of the angels….”
— from the movie Cell

Both these quotes speak to the difficulty of discovering and creating characters who come alive for us, both as writer and reader, in a piece of fiction.  The one from a famous text on writing and the other an evocative and ultimately mysterious quote from an otherwise unmemorable film.  They both allude to the imaginative challenge.

I managed to finish writing a science fiction novel last year, and I’ve been submitting it to literary agents and to publishers, so far unsuccessfully.  Although I think it’s good, and I have high hopes for it, you never know.  Maybe it will go nowhere.  It’s tough at the best of times to get published, and with all the technological turmoil….

But in the meantime, I’ve started working on a second novel.  As part of that I’ve been obsessing about how better to develop the characters that will inhabit it.

The now completed science fiction novel was set many hundreds of years in the future on a failing Earth struggling to recover its potential.  This new one is intended to be more of the present day thriller variety, although situated perhaps five years in the future to give myself as much latitude as possible in creating dark situations.

Before I write about the useful advice and books I’ve come across, I want to describe my working theory about imaginative psychology, simplistic as it is.  Maybe it will help provide context for my preoccupation about developing characters.

The discovery model

I have become convinced of the discovery model of fiction writing.  We are creating, making stuff up, this is true, but the best material for that creation is what we discover in the surprising backwaters of ourselves as we write, or what comes illumined to us at the edge of sleep.  For others these riches may come wholly dressed and dancing, but for me they are fragmentary and usually wrapped in fog.  Yet there is something there.

The rest of my pet theory is that there is a deep layer of our being where reside all the archetypes and our collective unconscious in the Jungian sense.  The archetypes are forces, not things.  There too the spiralling currents and tidal streams of our personal shadow slowly move about.  I have no idea, for the most part, about whatever the heck is going on in there.  But I’m sure it’s all homeostatic!

The next layer up, I postulate, is at the subliminal, subconscious level, at the edge of conscious realization.  The level where a whisper comes through out of nowhere about a character’s motivation, or the shape of the plot, or where appears a fleeting image of oranges on a truck.  I’ve found that you have to pay attention to these transitory strays, get them down in a notebook or on the page right now.  It’s a matter of respect for that entire submerged ocean that feeds the subconscious level, that supports you.  If you want more to come, you must not have it avoid you for your negligence.  These morsels won’t always make sense or be useful, but much more often than not they provide sustenance.

And then there’s the mundane, everyday level where I struggle to make sense with words, just as I am doing now.

Helpful books on characterization

I want to mention several books that have provided insight in my quest about characterization.  I may have a “felt sense” or intuition about a character which provides the irritating sand for the pearl I hope for, but often that intuition stays static for quite a while.  I want to learn how to nudge it along.

The first couple of books are off the beaten path of the mainstream industry of providing craft help for would-be writers.  They are Verbalize — Bring Stories to Life and Life to Stories by Damon Suede and Unmasking Arkhelogy by Jennifer Van Bergen.  Interestingly, both authors come out of an acting background.  That gives a different take on characterization which I found valuable.

Verbalize? What’s that about? Of course we’re verbalizing our stories.  But that’s not what Suede is referring to.  He’s using “verbalize” as shorthand for the process of finding (discovering?) the most precise verb to describe the character we’re working on.  I found this very insightful.

Characteristics aren’t character

Characteristics are not character, he points out, despite all the standard list of things you’re supposed to know about your main characters before writing.  (This kind of list I’ve always found sterile and mostly meaningless.)

“Words don’t create characters, emotions do,” says Suede. “… The first step for a writer is to nail down the foundation that aligns and supports all the emotion that makes books worth reading.”

The way to do that, he says, is to understand that the character who makes choices drives the scene and steers the story.  And where do these choices come from, you may ask?

A character is not a face, but a force.  The character’s choices arise from that force, and that can be symbolized as the most fitting and exact verb for that character.  This gives you a lot to play around and experiment with.  Get out the best thesaurus and dictionary you know.  Once you find a ballpark verb, check all the synonyms and even antonyms to zero in on that intuitive character shape you may already sense.

The richness of the English language is your ally.  Your character is all the shades of meanings of the chosen verb.  They embody the activity of your character, with the exceptions and focus you choose.   The energy of this “verbalization” can be elaborated into all the actions which the character takes and which bounce off the other characters.  This is Suede’s counsel.  There is a lot more to the book, and I found it fruitful.

Arkhelogy?

Van Bergen’s book, Unmasking Arkhelogy, is a slightly updated 2011 book originally published as Archetypes for Writers: Using the Power of Your Subconscious. She’s arrived at a terminology for the process of bringing out one’s own character archetypes.  “Arkhelogy” is an example, and it means doing this work investigating archetypes useful for your characters.  She feels it necessary to have her own jargon in order to be clear about what she’s describing.  The reader may only find it puzzling.  The book is also rather chaotically organized.

But despite that, I found her ideas intriguing.

“This approach has little to do with how to ‘create’ characters or plot stories.  Rather, it is more about how to find your character and story archetypes, or even how to have them find you. Underlying this approach is the premise that each person carries within them a given set of character and story archetypes.”

You can see how this fits in with my own biases.  So what is her method?

Elsewhere budding writers are advised to use archetypes such as The Lover, The Hero, The Magician, The Sage, The Ruler, etc., to provide a basis for characters.  Such archetypes are said to be “notably recurrent across the human experience.”  Unfortunately, for me, these give no real clue about developing a specific, interesting character.  They’ve become another form of fixed and simplified stereotypes.

Van Bergen wants to develop a capability of finding character archetypes from our own experience, imagination and subconscious.  In essence we want to discover the secret lives of the characters.

A series of skills

In order to develop the skills needed to do this, she prescribes a set of exercises.  These include among others:

— Establishing character facts for the character.  These are purely factual statements.  They include no judgements or personal opinions about who this character may be.  Try to avoid any adjectives which give our slant on who this person is.  For example: “He comes to the office exactly on time.  He wears a navy suit that is a little too snug.”

— Discerning the character’s “universal drive.”  This is the most basic type of drive such as survival, or the need to love or be loved.  Most other drives collapse into these, Van Bergen says.  She might also include the drive to protect and nurture, the drive for sex, the drive to realize “the Core Self” and very few others.  Interestingly, she doesn’t see freedom as a basic urge, which is a universal drive to me.

— Elucidating discrepancies. A discrepancy is an incongruity or inconsistency in a person’s behavior that reveals something significant about the person.  Example: “He calls her his girlfriend but he makes no effort to visit or spend time with her.”

Van Bergen points out that a goal for us as writers must be to find the things that bother us most.  And understand where they come from.  That’s where the juice is.

There is much more but this gives you the flavour of her approach.  I found it thought provoking, although it remains to be seen how able I am to use it.

The Art of Characterization

Another very good book about characterization is the deservedly popular The Art of Characterization by David Corbett.  I’m giving it short shrift here, but it is mightily worth it if you are interested in this subject.  He writes:

“Just as you must untether your characters from predictability by granting them the freedom to contradict themselves, to grow, to change, so you must grant yourself a similar freedom to play the trickster, shift at will, embrace the unexpected, be free.”

But the best single piece of advice for characterization I’ve found to date is this nugget panned from David Morrell’s Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing, which I will paraphrase:

Determine the conscious goal of a main character and then constantly ask “Why?” until the true answer reveals itself.  This should pull out backstory, history, internal beliefs, future hopes and dreams and fears, and more….

That advice is written on a yellow sticky attached to the side of my computer monitor.

[Home]

Rock Music I Play At 68 – Oct. 20, 2019

October 20, 2019

Now that I’m retired, I play more music and actually listen to it.

We have a 5-CD player that shuffles the CDs and the tracks.  I dig through my collection and find five that I think I’ll want to listen to for awhile.

Then I sit back and listen to the random gifts from the player, and think why I like them.

(This may be an occasional, if I feel like it, series of blog posts.)

This time we have:

1) “Southern Accents” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
2) “House of Ill Fame” by The Trews
3) “Action Pact” by Sloan
4) “The Singles Collection” by The Kinks
5) “The Very Best of the Electric Light Orchestra”

1) Southern Accents

This is a CD that I hadn’t heard much about, and just got recently.  Recorded 1985.

From the first track Rebels on through It Ain’t Nothing to Me to The Best of Everything, to me it’s the sound of a band creating and playing music for themselves, most of all.  That is, there is no second-guessing about what they’re playing.

Southern AccentsIn It Ain’t Nothing to Me I think we find Tom Petty’s operational philosophy.  It’s about “spare me the bullshit.”

He’s not impressed, dazzled, enthused, thrilled, chilled or chuffed by what you say.  “Might mean something to you. It ain’t nothing to me.”  It’s the sound of a necessary self-defence, making his way in the music business.

I like the Best of Everything, the last song of lost love, about a girl he knew so well and whatever happened to her:

“Yeah and it’s over before you know it / it all goes by so fast.”

The best known song on the album of course is Don’t Come Around Here No More.

2) House of Ill Fame

TrewsThis was the first album by the Trews, recorded in 2003.  They were so ambitious, so fired-up, this Canadian rock band.  Some might call them hard rock, I just hear them as an incredibly talented rock quartet.

Not Ready to Go is a favorite.  Nothing too deep in the lyrics, just going-for-it rock ‘n’ roll.  More often than not I’ll start boppin’ around when it comes on.

Likewise with When You Leave and Black Halo, catchy tunes with a lot of energy behind them make me glad the band is still around.  They’ve just released a new album, “Civilianaires.”  I’ve listened to some tracks on YouTube.  More sedate, and mature probably, after 15-16 years.

3) Action Pact

To me, Sloan is the Canadian rock band.  Based in eastern Canada, we don’t hear them as much on the west coast as we should.  They are as tuneful, hard-rocking, melodic and often thoughtful as the Beatles, the Kinks or even Cheap Trick.  One reviewer in 2004 wrote,  “Sloan has written better songs than anything The Rolling Stones have put out in 20 years.”

SloanThe band was only formed in 1991, and to date they’ve put out 12 albums.  With the same personnel!

According to Wikipedia, this 2003 album was a serious effort by the band to break into the US market, which apparently it didn’t do, although it was well-received in Canada.  The band is well-known for vowing to keep Canada as their home base.

Usually all four members share at least some of the writing. On this album the primary drummer’s input was lacking, and some reviewers claim this hurt it.  Others cite the album’s “incredibly tight vocals” and “arena-rocking songs.”

Not necessarily my favorite Sloan album, it’s a pleasure to listen to (as are all the other Sloan albums I’ve accumulated).  The tracks Gimme That, The Rest of My Life, and False Alarm stand out for me.

4) The Singles Collection

The Kinks have to be one of the most versatile sounding bands in rock history.  They moved from covering Little Richard classics and getting Motown influence from Earl Van Dyke’s band, to gritty singles like You Really Got Me to melodic pop songs like Set Me Free.

KinksMy favorites though tend to be the satirical songs like Dedicated Follower of Fashion and A Well Respected Man.  The songs in this collection date from 1964 to 1970.  They of course went on to more success after that period.

They had so many good songs, but my favorite, strangely enough, is Victoria.  When I first heard it, I was attending the University of Victoria, here in British Columbia.  The song is all about Queen Victoria, I guess, but the wonderful rhythm, singing and driving down tree-lined streets in my old red MGA convertible conflated it into the memorable tune it is for me.

The 1960s and 1970s really do seem like a different era and the Kinks exemplify that in many ways.

5) The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra

Jeff Lynne is an underrated (in some quarters) musical genius, and the Electric Light Orchestra has been his vehicle.  Formed in 1970, Lynne became the band leader in 1972, and he and ELO are still making music until the present day.  However, ELO did disband for a time in the eighties.

ELOUntil you listen to a collection like this (on Playlist from the Epic/Legacy label in 2008), you don’t fully realize how many hits ELO have had.  (And add to that Lynne’s participation in the Travelling Wilburys, his solo albums, and all his producing credits.)

Many of the songs on this CD are nostalgic reminders of the seventies and eighties.  There are often classically influenced strings present, and rock ‘n’ roll rings out in every song.  There is often a sense of elegance and musical creativity.  Some of my favorites are Do Ya, Can’t Get It Out of My Head, Mr. Blue Sky, Hold On Tight, and of course Roll Over Beethoven.

If I ever go to an elderly sock hop, this would be the music I’d like to hear….

I always feel better after listening to ELO.

[Home]

An Imaginary Song About Running

June 11, 2019

At 68, I’m in a slightly Dadaist or surrealist frame of mind.

I tried to help a friend with creative fuel for some song lyrics.  As part of that I ended up listing phrases about the subject at hand: running.  Later I had the mischievous thought that the list itself could be lyrical.  I’ve read a lot of song lyrics over the years.  I don’t think it’s so farfetched, compared to some.  So, for an imaginary song about running:

Running wild
Running crazy
Running on fumes
Running for joy
Long run

Run out, something has…
Run for cover
Run a tight ship

Running around
Like a headless chicken
Run amok
Learn to walk before you run

Dry run
Run out of steam
On your mark
Run neck and neck
Pass the baton

Rat race
A run on the bank

Running with scissors
Run DMC

Home run
Run the bases
Run around (Run Around Sue!)

*

Of course, I forget to list as a phrase the title of perhaps the greatest song about running ever, Born to Run: “Strap your hands ‘cross my engines….”

Well, maybe this effort is not so great, but I still like the hint of rhythm at the end.

[Home]

Presentation of Self Using Text Generated by “The Generator Blog”

May 1, 2019

I went back to The Generator Blog linked to in one of my posts, Hunting for A Science Fiction Story, to see if it was still there.  It is, but last updated in 2013.  Which is a shame, but the site still has links to many working and amusing textual and imagistic “generators”.

I thought it would be fun and absurdist to make a post out of the site’s output.  I won’t always put the name of each generator, but you’d be able to figure it out if you took a look at the website.

Let us begin:

Artist’s Statement:  My work explores the relationship between multiculturalism and life as performance. With influences as diverse as Derrida and John Cage, new synergies are manufactured from both mundane and transcendant narratives.

Ever since I was a pre-adolescent I have been fascinated by the unrelenting divergence of the zeitgeist. What starts out as vision soon becomes finessed into a carnival of temptation, leaving only a sense of failing and the dawn of a new reality.

As shimmering derivatives become clarified through frantic and diverse practice, the viewer is left with an insight into the outposts of our existence.

*          *          *
A song dedicated to the song writer in all of us:

Soul Wolves

Verse 1:

Game is in your hands.
He led my mother
The ceiling is invisible
Yeah, I’m gonna take you for a feel good meal

Chorus:

Have you got a fine place to slip to
Let’s go moon some cars
Looking through a broken diamond
Never pawned my watch and chain

Verse 2:

Acid casualty with a repossessed car
Hairy fairies spinning the golden looms
Reap the reward
Who’s gonna answer

Chorus:

Have you got a fine place to slip to
Let’s go moon some cars
Looking through a broken diamond
Never pawned my watch and chain

Bridge:

And I am not a bone
Like a voodoo curse in an old lady’s purse
One by one
The demons just came through the window

Verse 3:

[repeated]
A thousand miles away from home
Dead right
Make notes, burn like broken equipment

Chorus:

Have you got a fine place to slip to
Let’s go moon some cars
Looking through a broken diamond
Never pawned my watch and chain

Have you got a fine place to slip to
Let’s go moon some cars
Looking through a broken diamond
Never pawned my watch and chain

Please, let us go moon some cars.  I like that line.

*          *          *

Anthropomorphic Personification Plot Generator

Truth finds himself stranded in a bird sanctuary in the form of a man. The experience is changing him.

Can he escape before the transformation is irreversible, and will he even want to?

*          *          *

Kung Fu Movie Script – Scene One

SCENE ONE – STUDENT MEETS MASTER

INSIDE MASTER PONG’S ONE-ROOM COTTAGE – EARLY MORNING

Master Pong stands in the center of the room, facing Student. Student stands shyly in the corner near the door.

MASTER
You are the new student. Come closer.

Student walks to master, does a double-take as he notices that master has no elbow.

STUDENT
You cannot see!

MASTER
You think I cannot see.

STUDENT
I cannot imagine living in such darkness.

MASTER
Ah, but fear is the only darkness. Also, you forget, I live in North Vancouver. Now… take your octopus and strike me with it.
Student hesitates.

MASTER
Do as I tell you – strike!
Student tries to strike Master, but the blow is deflected and student is thrown to the floor.

MASTER
Never assume because a man has no elbow that he cannot see. Close your eyes. What do you hear?
Student closes his eyes, pauses with concentration before answering.

STUDENT
I hear English Bay, I hear firecrackers.

MASTER
Do you hear your own nose?

STUDENT
No.

MASTER
Do you hear the balloon which is at your feet?
Student opens his eyes and sees the balloon on the floor.

STUDENT
Old man, how is it that you hear these things?

MASTER
Young man, how is it that you do not?
Student looks pensive.

MASTER
Now, we will commence your battle training. Go to the weapons closet and choose an item.
Student walks to the closet, grabs the cutting board and rejoins master. Master holds a kitchen whisk.

MASTER
Ah ha… you’ve chosen the cutting board. Excellent choice.

They bow and begin to fight. Master easily defeats student several times. Student is thrown to the floor and injures his chin. He rubs it to ease the pain. Master laughs while student has a look of hope.

MASTER
Arise slightly, young frog, and brush the indignity off of your vest.
Student does so.

MASTER
You fought blindly, frog. A geezer nerd could’ve beaten you.

STUDENT
Yes, Master Pong, forgive me.

MASTER
Forgive yourself, you have suffered for it. What is the cause of your anger?

STUDENT
It is anger at Stephen Colbert.

MASTER
Yes, but what is the reason?

STUDENT
For being nasty.

MASTER
Ah. And when did you discover this?

STUDENT
About 1 hour ago when Stephen Colbert and I were attacked by 11 big bullies at Walmart. I was struck first. And Stephen Colbert, out of fear, did nothing to help me.

MASTER
You were only two against 11 larger than yourself. What do you think Stephen Colbert should’ve done?

STUDENT
Fought back and tried to help me.

MASTER
Yes, frog, that would’ve been heroic.

STUDENT
You agree, then, that Stephen Colbert was nasty.

MASTER
The body is nasty when it understands its weakness. The body is remarkable when it understands its strength. The cheetah and the squirrel march together within every man. So to call one man nasty and another remarkable merely serves to indicate the possibilities of their achieving the opposite.

Student looks confused as scene fades to black.

You may now imagine the rest of the movie.

*          *          *

[Home]