Fire in the Fields Underneath the Blazing Sun (Theme Music Monday)

I first heard this song in 1988, at age 13, and it fired my imagination like few songs had ever done.  The first verse talks of a people defeated and enslaved, but not broken.  Even as they suffer “for someone else’s selfish gain” they sing songs to their God.  The second is darker, more metaphorical, with its talk of “chambers made for sleeping forever.”  It was not until I was somewhat older than I understood what that meant (“waiting for the train labeled with the golden star” should have clued me in, but I was thirteen).

Though I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t get the historical references (the Jews’ enslavement by the Pharoahs of Egypt and the Holocaust, respectively) at first, the sentiment and imagery struck me to my heart.  This was the universal cry of outrage at human cruelty: “Man hurts man, time and time again, and we drown in the wake of our power. Somebody tell me why?”  But more than that, it was the hope that comes from faith.  Even at thirteen years old I could understand that.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the album, and especially the song, “Lead Me On” jump-started my dream of writing.  Though at thirteen, I was hardly writing prose, I began to compose narratives, imagine characters, and inhabit the themes.  I suppose I would be writing if I had never heard “Lead Me On,” but I think I would be a very different writer, a very different person.

It was while listening to this album that my mind started to imagine Tarafore, the fantasy world of my young imagination.  While many things have changed, the image of a group of warlords rising up to break the world, the conquer, to enslave, stuck with me.  The themes of faith against tyranny, sacrifice against cruelty, hope against domination have informed my writing – my best writing at least.

I believe in this song.  This song is a part of me, a part of who I am.  It’s one of those things that’s helped shape me.

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Art vs. Craft (Writing Theory Thursday)

One of the hardest things in the world to balance as a writer (other than time – that one’s a killer) is the tension between art and craft.

By art I mean authenticity, rawness, real-ness.

By craft I mean skill, polish, and style.

The truth is that they shouldn’t be in tension, shouldn’t be in conflict.  A writer needs both.  Even a writer whose only goal is to entertain his readers needs both skill and a genuine sense of fun, suspense, fear, etc.

For a writer who’s still entertaining thoughts of inspiring, questioning, or broadening the minds of her readers, the two both have to be there.  It’s simply non-negotiable.

It’s also a lot easier said than done.  Regardless of whether that tension “should” exist, it does.  It is very hard to focus on specific tasks and sub-skills (like character voice or sensory input or short sentences) while simultaneously “writing in your own blood” (to paraphrase Nietzsche).

I don’t really have an answer, here.  Looking at my own work, I think it may be a matter of keeping that tension alive, forcing yourself to be honest and vulnerable while you write.  Eventually, if you write enough and identify areas that need improvement, your writing will improve.

Craft requires practice, and focused practice.  And that’s not necessarily easy to do.  It requires us to master our authorial egos, recognize that this particular book or story may not ever shake the foundations of the literary world, honestly assess what we’re doing wrong, and try to do better the next time.

But all this is for naught if we lose our honesty, vulnerability, and conviction along the way.  “What good is it if a man gains the whole world, but loses his soul?” Jesus of Nazareth famously said.  I might add, “What good is it if an author gains technical skill and financial support, but loses his voice?”

Would I Spend Forever Here and Not Be Satisfied? (Theme Music Monday)

It had to come down to this, the song that is not a part of any one book I write, but everything I write, the song that is as fundamental to my imagination as reading C.S. Lewis, watching the first Highlander, or hearing the legends of King Arthur.

Sarah McLachlan’s 1993 U.S. breakthrough song, Possession.

 

I had heard sweet-sounding music.  I had heard dark music (though, frankly, not so real and thoroughly dark as an obsessed and ultimately suicidal stalker).  But I had never heard the two brought together so powerfully.

Although I don’t usually like music videos, I’m glad I saw this song first.  The American video (shown above) conveys the intricate dysfunction of the lyrics.  Close ups of Sarah’s face create an sense of intimacy, a sense of being closer than we actually are, putting us viewers into the shoes of the stalker.  But the film is marred, intentionally distorted, projected over moving sheets and rough walls, then filmed again, producing a surreal face-scape and mindscape.

I was eighteen years old when I first heard this song.  Prior to fall 1993, my musical tastes were mediocre at best, with a few bright spots.  I mostly listened to whatever was on the radio, and gravitated toward the shoddy hard-rock of the era (okay, Metallica has never been shoddy in concert, but they were the exception).  Aside from Peter, Paul, and Mary, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Amy Grant, and Heart, my musical tastes sucked.

Then I saw Possession, and everything changed.  I became enthralled by powerful, complex lyrics, complex but understated musical compositions, and emotionally charged music.  Granted, I still liked hard rock, but Queen and Meat Loaf (okay, nothing understated about him, but still) became more interesting than typical radio songs.

My imagination shifted, and although I was still a dumb kid and an awful writer, a corner had been turned.  VH-1 played it between midnight and 2 am almost every night, so I stayed up late, losing sleep just for the chance to see the video, to hear the song.  I never thought I would be one of those people who says that a song changed their lives, but this one did.  No joke, no kidding.

I’ve seen Sarah McLachlan in concert three times, in 1994 on her Fumbling Toward Ecstasy tour, in 1999 at the Lilith Fair, and in 2011 on her Laws of Illusion tour.  Possession has blown my mind every time.  It still does something to me every time I see the video, every time I even hear the song.

…in the Details (Writing Theory Thursday)

Last Thursday I talked about the important foundations  of writing: plot, characters, premise.  Those are the cake, so to speak.  Today, I’ll talk about the icing, the little details of writing style that make or break it all.  Few people want to eat icing without any cake underneath, but nobody wants to eat a cake that’s covered in stinking, soured, spoiled icing.  And almost everybody loves a good cake with top-notch icing.

Again, I say this as a fellow journeyman, not a master who’s “arrived.”  I haven’t “arrived” in any way in my writing.  But I know just from my own improvement that I am on a good path.  Maybe not the only good path, maybe not your good path.  But a good path.  So I thought I’d share some of the things that have helped me.

God and the devil are in the details, as the saying goes, and writing style is all about details.  Readability is paramount.  Some books are much easier to read, even compared to other books with content of similar difficulty.  It’s almost as if writing styles are user interfaces to the ideas and content within.  Some applications (and some books) have easier, more intuitive user interfaces than others.

I’m working really hard on this one myself.  My instinct is to write long sentences with several clauses, sentences that sort of curl back on themselves and don’t flow directly into each other.  I know this is slows the reader down unnecessarily, so I’ve tried to stop.  But it isn’t always easy to change ingrained habits overnight.

I’ve also learned to stop qualifying my sentences with unnecessary words.  Many times something can be said directly and quickly, without “seems” or “like” or “that.”

But short, fluid sentences aren’t the end-all and be-all of writing style.  Things like character voice are also vital.  Character voice is exactly what it sounds like: each character’s dialogue should “sound” distinctive.  Readers should be able to tell who’s speaking without saying “Angie said” or “Zac said.”  This takes some practice, and it helps if you create characters who are significantly different in interests, education levels, and temperament.

The only caveat is that it’s usually best to avoid writing dialect into speech.  I say usually because sometimes it’s absolutely vital to the story or novel.  If you have to write dialect in, be as respectful as possible.

Let me reiterate just how difficult this can be.  If all the characters come from the same culture (middle-class American, for example), it can be hard to make them sound different.  If they come from different nations and cultures, it can be hard to make them sound authentic.  This can even be a problem with fantasy races … I can’t tell you how many fantasy dwarves I’ve seen who sound like a cross between James Doohan’s Montgomery Scott and Michael Meyers’s angry Scotsman.  But I can tell you that I’ve been to Scotland three times and never heard that accent from a real Scotsman, not even once.

Sensory details are another key aspect of writing style.  When writing fiction, it’s best to frequently include details that will “stimulate” the various senses.  Describing colors, smells, tastes, sounds, textures, and temperatures really helps draw people in.  It’s important to try to hit them all as much as possible, because people have different sensory preferences.

I’d suggest avoiding “sensory dumps” where you drop a heap of sensory information into one paragraph after ignoring them for two or three pages.   I’m prone to doing that myself, and it’s kind of embarrassing to go back and read later.  I mean, really?  Three pages of bare dialogue and then one jumbo economy-size sentence in which I hit every sense I can think of?  Um, no.  I don’t normally rewrite, but sometimes I have to break my own rule.  Ick.

That said, Roger Zelazny peppered his Amber novels  with sensory dumps, but they worked.  He’d hit the senses during a meal, when the narrator was really hungry, and you could practically taste the food.  During the Hellrides or Pattern walks, he’d give so much sensory information I felt I was there.  But  these were in-character sensory dumps.  The characters’ senses were going full-blast, and the text conveyed that.  They’re great books, and I highly recommend them.

But don’t take the word of some nobody blogger like me.  The best thing to do is find a couple of authors that you respect, and go read a few pages from the middle of a story you’ve already read.  That way, you’re not caught up in the story, and you can focus on how they handle character voice, how they handle sensory input, how they write their sentences, etc.

You might also like to read a story and create a plot outline, to see just how one of your favorite authors breaks down story, character and rising action.   I don’t think you should try to be “the next ____.”  You should try to be yourself, as honest as you can be, even if you’re using a pen name.  But for the craft aspect, the skill aspect, it helps to study people who’ve already arrived.

Chasing Furies (Theme Music Monday)

 

Chasing Furies: probably the best band you’ve never heard of. They were together for one year, 1999, and made one album, With Abandon. But what an album it was. Loosely defined as “alternative rock” (whatever that means), their songs ranged from almost-sappy “Wait Forever” to the achingly melancholic “Fair Night’s Longing” to the unsettling, powerful “Writhe for Hearing.”

“Writhe for Hearing” is the song I most wanted to talk about. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it on Youtube. I’ve linked to the lyrics, but we all know the lyrics only tell half the story. If anybody finds this on Youtube, Vimeo, or a similar site, please tell me and I’ll post the link.

The song speaks of the desperation of holding on, of keeping faith (in this case, in someone, the unnamed ‘you’ of the song), even when it seems like madness … and the desire-beyond-words of finding some proof, some body, to tell you that you’re not insane.

“I writhe for hearing lunge for seeing/Someone else that I’m not hoping/I’m not crazy/I’m not joking/I won’t let you go”

The chorus expresses this powerfully, as Sarah MacIntosh’s clear voice races through discordant guitar riffs like Alice through a Wonderland hedge maze.

So how does this fit with my writing?  This is Theme Music Monday, so what’s the theme?

For those who don’t already know, my Red Lands series features six normal people dragged out of our world into the darkness between the worlds.  A seventh, Garrett Maines, finds them and guides them west, into the greater danger of a dead world.  His goal is to break into the Red Lands and defeat their master, to save the life of his ex-girlfriend.

This stranger is going toward darkness, into the depths of madness and sorcery, and he’s taking them with him.  But he’s their only guide, their only way home.

Garrett feels that this quest he’s undertaken is right. He believes it. But he doesn’t know it, not in any objective, measurable way. It’s so far out of the real of the normal, out of what even seemed possible, that he has trouble believing it himself sometimes.

But he has to believe it.  When hope fails, so does everything else. When hope fails, we fall into desperation and despair.  When hope fails, we lose sight of the far-away goal and seek what little comfort or escape is at hand, regardless of the long-term consequences.

If The Red Lands has a ‘message,’ it is this: hope is not only powerful, it is necessary.

Needless to say, Garrett has trouble explaining his mission to anyone else, even if they’ve passed through the darkness and into the dead world, even if they’ve seen the impossible, too. And even when they believe him, they sometimes think he’s crazy. Who risks his life to save his ex-girlfriend, someone he broke up with, someone who broke his heart?

Who does that?

Garrett has to stay strong if he’s going to protect his new friends, get them home, and defeat the master of the Red Lands. Staying strong means facing and overcoming his own doubts. Overcoming his doubts means facing up to the madness of risking his life for someone who broke his heart, someone he has no intention of going back to. And “Writhe for Hearing” embodies that struggle.

Writing Recipe, Part One (Theory Thursday)

Quill Pen and Ink

No, this isn’t a post about how I’m so much cooler than you because I write with a quill pen, or a fountain pen, or a manual typewriter.  I’m using a cheap netbook … about as glamorous as a quill pen was back in 1799.

This is the first of my articles on “writing theory.”  Now, I’m not speaking as somebody who has “made it.”  I haven’t.  I have neither fame and fortune (of which I have none), nor a level of skill that makes me feel I’ve “arrived.”

That said, I’m a much better writer than I was five (or even three) years ago.  I’ve learned a lot, both from writers who have made it, and from “doing” writing (not rewriting, but actual writing.  I’ve written more unique words in the last three years than in the previous thirty, without a doubt).

Unfortunately, rewriting doesn’t count.  It doesn’t make you a better writer, and it often doesn’t even make the piece you’re working on better.  Unless you’re already a skilled and experienced editor, you’re as likely to make it worse as you are to make it better.  Of course you should fix the typos and misspellings, but that’s about as far as it should go as a general rule.  But don’t listen to me, check out Dean Wesley Smith’s Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing.  Smith’s been making a living in this business for almost as long as I’ve been alive, and he’s weathered all kinds of changes.

So here I am, talking about the “Writing Recipe,” not as someone who’s made it, but as someone who’s still struggling on the margins, another indie outsider, like some of you who are reading this.  Maybe sharing our struggles will make us feel more encouraged, more supported, and less alone.

So here we go.  I’ll start with the cake, and deal with the icing next Thursday:

There are so many factors that go into good writing, it’s sometimes hard to keep them straight. First and foremost, you’re telling a story, so you need a good plot and engaging characters.

The characters don’t necessarily have to be likable per se, but they need to be engaging, active, and at least somewhat relatable. Ellie, the protagonist of S.D. Redling’s Flowertown isn’t exactly likable – she’s a mean-spirited stoner, to be honest.  But she’s always engaging, always resisting the corporate suits who run the containment zone (nicknamed Flowertown for the sickly-sweet smell of the decontaminants), even if it’s only in petty, self-destructive ways.  It’s not easy to like her, at least at first, but you certainly can’t ignore her.

The characters need to take action, to do things.  There are few things more frustrating than reading a story where things just happen to the characters.  I want the characters to drive the action.  Sure, a lot of times characters get thrust into ugly situations (The Walking Dead, several of Stephen King’s novels, including my personal favorite, Desperation), but they eventually take initiative and make things happen.  That’s almost a necessity.

Writing characters that take initiative and make things happen is easier said than done.  I’ve struggled with it, and I think I’ve mostly gotten a grip on things.  Sometimes being reactionary can be a sign of stagnation: Benedict had become so set in his role as executioner of dangerous vampires that he’d basically stopped trying to get ahead of his Vampire-Lord brother.  Granted, he’d had 900 years of bloody stalemates with Augustine to make him jaded.  But it didn’t change the fact that he did far too much reacting for his own good.  Overcoming that is part of his story arc.

In The Red Lands, Garrett has a “quest” of sorts from the very beginning.  He’s going west, to face the master of the Red Lands.  At first, he hopes to save his ex-girlfriend’s life, but as the story progresses, he learns that the stakes may be much higher.  The Red Lands was written after Blood for Blood, so I had time to learn from Benedict’s issues, and then take what I’d learned and apply it to Benedict’s next two books.

The plot, of course, has to be engaging.  It also has to move quickly enough to keep the reader going, but not so fast that it seems more like an outline than a story.  I think I’m getting better at that with each story I write, but I’m well aware that I’m not at the level of the real masters of storytelling yet.

It also helps to have some kind of premise in mind when telling the story. After all, every work of fiction will deliver a message of some sort, whether you want it to or not. I think everyone’s better off if you (as the author) consciously control that message rather than leaving it to chance.  I learned that the hard way, and continue to struggle with it.  Being the “one in charge” of your own writing is vitally important, but it’s not nearly as easy as it sounds.

So there it is, my take on the broad strokes of writing.  But as they say, “the devil’s in the details,” so next week, I’ll look at smaller-scale things.  If this was the cake, they’ll be the icing: character voice, readability, sensory details, and so on.

 

Did I Have a Dream? (Theme Music Monday)

I’ve always been inspired by music.   I get a lot of story ideas while listening to music, whether I’m inspired by a lyrical fragment (almost always taken out of context) or the overall shape of the soundscape.  I almost always listen to music when writing.  I make a new playlist for every series and listen to it in my car, which always gets me in the mood to write.

Music been a pretty solid constant in my creative life since before I was even really writing fiction.

Right now what I’m focusing most on is Strange Fire (Book Three of The Red Lands).  As many of you know, The Red Lands spans the worlds, beginning on our Earth, continuing through a nightmarish liminal space (the road between worlds), through a dead world already conquered by the sorcery of the Red Lands’ master, and into the Red Lands themselves, a mad purgatory forged by the will of its master, the Red Knight.

Garrett Maines, the main character, sometimes finds himself doubting his sanity.  He stepped into this nightmare journey willingly, to save the life of the woman who broke his heart, the woman he walked away from.   He has to believe that the nightmare is a reality, and that it is a reality he can overcome.

I’ve got several songs on my Red Lands playlist, but the one that stands out most, the one that sums up everything The Red Lands is about is Nocturne by Rush.  Listen to the song, and you’ll get a feel for the madness, darkness, and hope of The Red Lands.

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