Montage: For Books!

Montages in movies are a lot of fun.  They spend a tiny amount of time showing us the most interesting parts of training, scientific discovery, and any other thing that needs to happen but would take a lot of time to live through.  Rocky goes from inept to competent in a matter of minutes.  Hiccup discovers the quirks of the man-killing beasts he’s feared all his life over the course of weeks, possibly months— condensed into a handful of quick scenes.  Iron Man builds a suit in his basement through trial and error, without destroying the pacing of an otherwise quick and fun movie.

Can books do this?

It’s a question I’ve had for a while.  Movies are easy to consume because they take little time compared to books, but books and prose are what I want to write.  The techniques that work in movies— the character arcs, the plot twists, the magic systems— usually work in books as well.  But those are story elements, for the most part.  The presentation of those elements, such as slow pans, jump cuts, close-ups, and the like?  Those are restricted to movies.  They have parallels in the book world, of course, but the book world has its own tricks movies can’t match.

So how can we take the idea of a montage and apply it to prose? Continue reading “Montage: For Books!”

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Short Story: Wisdom of the Cloven Hoof

The following is a piece of flash fiction I wrote yesterday for the express purpose of writing it in permanent marker on a hydration backpack.  Thus, the story itself is neither polished nor meant to be very good.  I can’t remember what gave me the idea, but it worked and I’m happy with the result.  I hope you enjoy the story!

There was once a man who set out to test the old proverb “Never feed a camel with a knife.”  He bought a camel.  He bought a knife.  He bought a large brick of smoked Gouda.  He bought a lawn chair, in which he sat as he sliced the Gouda, laid it on the flat of the knife, and offered it to the camel.  The camel did not eat.

The experiment had failed.  The camel had not eaten, the man had not fed it, and the presence of the knife meant nothing whatsoever.  The lawn chair was the only thing that had done what it should.  So the man tried again.

The man offered.  The camel refused.  The cheese and knife began a long-term relationship.  The lawn chair bore it all.  Man and camel began starve.

On the nineteenth day, the man fainted from hunger.  When he awoke, the camel was looking down at him.  He offered the cheese in his hand, and the camel, at least, ate.

So pleased was the man that he did not notice the camel had pilfered the knife while he was senseless, and had cut his wallet from his pocket while he was feeding it, and was now galloping away at speed with his identity and credit cards, and a small fortune in mixed coin.

Moral: Nunquam pascere camelum culto.

Veritas in fabella omnia.

Note: “Nunquam pascere camelum culto” is very bad Latin for “Never feed a camel with a knife.”  The clause “with a knife” is ambiguous, presumably the reason for the above story.  “Veritas in fabella omnia” is also very bad Latin for “Truth in every story”.  It has no relevance to the story— as if the author needed a short sentence to fill up the final remaining blank space on a certain hydration backpack.  Whatever the case, it seems to imply that camel muggings at knifepoint are commonplace.  This translator cannot say for certain without risk of lawsuit by someone who had a terrible day with an ungulate.

Note to the note: These notes were not included on the original hydration backpack transcription.

Creepiness

Creepiness is a science.

Well, it’s a word that describes a feeling to be evoked.  Evoking that feeling is a science.  Some people might be born with this instinctively, inspiring it in everything and everyone he or she (usually he) encounters.  Others have to work for it, but once they can grow a mustache, he or she (again, usually he) has it down pat.

Feeling that a person, object, or place is creepy… well, it’s not something we generally seek in real life, but it’s something we actively seek in fiction.  And while some people manage to do this naturally and successfully in fiction, we mere mortals might need a bit more work to get there.

A fair amount of creepiness is generated by simple word choice, it must be said.  Just like using specific colors in a picture, you can adjust your text for a creepier punch by choosing different words to say what you want to say.  Warm and moist might paint a different picture than humid, for instance.

Similarly, choosing the details you include in your word picture could change the feel of the scene.  Describing the sensory details— and using sensory words to convey those details, rather than more cognitive verbage— could make things more visceral.  Of course, you already know all this.  These are fairly standard techniques for writing horror or just good, vivid storytelling.

A little while ago, however, I started to realize part of creepiness that doesn’t involve word choice or sensory details— in other words, the macro element of the creepy, rather than the micro.  While pretty much any scene can become creepy, it isn’t only a product of micro-editing it into submission.

Let’s look at what makes something creepy.  It’s a term we like to throw around about people in scraggly mustaches and cocked heads, or houses with broken windows and a fence that’s falling down.  Both are curious when you notice them in broad daylight, and they don’t notice you back.  But in a narrow hallway, or encased in shadow, you pick up your pace. Continue reading “Creepiness”

Do You See?

I’m not a great micro-editor.

I write instinctually; sometimes a long sentence feels good, sometimes a short one.  I mess around, but don’t put much thought into it.  When editing, however, I’m not in the moment— I can’t tap into that instinct.  Often I don’t know what makes good writing beyond good grammar and spelling.  Rhythm, tone, flow… it’s kinda lost on me.

My instinct is starting to speak up in strange places, though.  This is bad, I think as I write blog posts.  This feels confusing.  I’m not getting my point across.  Usually it’s the form that bugs me— not this time.  It’s taken a while, but I think I’ve pinpointed that feeling.

Over the past couple weeks, I read through the Query Shark blog archives.  I wanted to learn how to write a good query letter.  The form of a query letter, however, is simple.  The author of the blog spent more time on flow, rhythm, and word choice.  One in three queries had a note offering another version of a sentence, or another word choice, or a revamped paragraph.  She kept asking, “Do you see the difference?”  After reading about 200 queries and revisions, I started to see.

My ideas weren’t confusing— my sentences were clunky. Continue reading “Do You See?”

If You Were Stuck In Quicksand…

A couple weeks ago, the basic training for my school began.

I had gone through this training a year before, but this year I volunteered to work.  I wanted to help people grow and get good things out of the experience.  Someone had trained me who I respected for being firm but kind in the midst of other wild and messy training styles— I wanted to pass that on to the next group of incoming people, or candidates.  I hadn’t exactly enjoyed my time in this training, but I had grown through it.

On the first day, when I heard candidates yelling responses to officers, I immediately felt a pit open up in my stomach.  Why am I here?   Why am I a part of something that obviously causes so much distress?  This isn’t me.

I had volunteered for this, so I would do the work.  Everyone else could yell and be mean.  I’d yell, but only so far as it kept them moving, kept them learning, and got them closer to the point where I didn’t have to yell.  As things went on, I began to realize a couple things.  One, they were only yelling because they were doing the best they could.  They weren’t used to it, and when you yell without planning to it sounds like a scream.  Two, they were distressed, yes, but with so many people around showing them where to go, that didn’t matter.  Even if they tried to make the wrong turn, we could point them in the right direction.  We’d point loudly, but we’d still point.

Three, they were learning.  They were learning fast.  It was like drinking from a fire hose— too much knowledge and protocol to digest all at once.  They got what they could, tried again if they messed it up, and learned to tune out the yelling around them and yell louder.

Wouldn’t it be better, you might ask, to just sit them down, calmly explain all of this, and let them figure it out step by step before throwing them into this mayhem?  Why so much conflict?

A couple days into training, I realized something as I was reading a book.  Especially those first few days, I had mistaken conflict for evil. Continue reading “If You Were Stuck In Quicksand…”

Teacher or Performer?

Here’s a fun fact: there’s a difference between teaching and performing.

I love doing both.  I love helping other people learn stuff that I enjoyed learning.  I also love showing off what I’ve taught myself.  But sometimes, when I’ve learned something really useful and go to teach someone else, it turns into me showing off and them learning nothing.

Because I’m a performer more than I am a teacher.

When I talk to people, it turns into a speech.  When I show someone something, I have to do it perfectly.  I always feel like I have to nail the result, even though learning is a constant struggle.

To a point, teachers are performers.  They have to know what they’re doing.  They have to be able to do everything they’re trying to teach, so that they can lead by example.  Along with that, they have to put a skill into understandable words, break it down into achievable steps, and guide others through the same journey they just completed.  It’s even more complicated than just performing.

But teachers don’t have to be perfect.

The best way to learn is to teach yourself.  A good teacher won’t guide you step-by-step to every conclusion you make— they’ll help you think in a way that allows you to figure out many different things.  It doesn’t matter, then, if the teacher knows every answer or not.  As long as the teacher can point you in the right direction, you can figure it out yourself.

To a point, performers are teachers.  If you watch someone perform successfully time and time again, you can eventually reverse-engineer their method and figure out how to replicate it.  It takes a while.  It isn’t as easy as letting them teach you.  But sometimes, people can’t teach, or just don’t.  So you figure it out yourself. Continue reading “Teacher or Performer?”

My Favorite Author

Today, I didn’t get to meet my favorite author.

Maggie Stiefvater writes some fun books.  She lives a fun life.  She’s inspired and inspiring.  For a long time, ever since I realized she had written a book that wasn’t primarily kissing, I’ve read and enjoyed and sought out her writing wherever I could.  I’ve read a lot of her books.  I’ve learned a lot from her books.  And right now, I’m only talking about her books.  Y’all can research for yourselves what else she gets up to.  She’s multi-talented— nay, she’s dedicated.  To a lot of different things.  All at once.

She’s inspiring, and has been for a long time.  That’s why, when I realized she was coming to NYC on a weekend I was free, I made a plan to go get some books signed.

At first, it sounded like a large commute and small window of fun.  You see, I have obligations.  As a freshman at a service academy, I’m a bit confined as to when I can do things.  This confines what I can do.  But, trekking out into the city for a couple hours to see the Stiefvater seemed like it could work.

Then doors began to open.  I could cut down on the commute.  I could get a little extra time to get over there and get back.  In fact— and here’s the exciting part— I might even get some books signed.  That’s better than just being in the same bookstore.  All this because I got to go home this weekend instead of just traveling from my school.

It was a great weekend.  I got a lot of fun stuff done, listened to a sister’s orchestra concert, made progress in a couple of other projects I’ll break to you later, and in general pushed my life forward a couple more baby steps.  I achieved what I had to do.  When the time came to hit up the bookstore, I was riding a wave of productivity, inspiration, and feel-goodiness.

We show up just before the event is about to start.  The bookstore is crowded.  I’m in my white dress uniform.  We can’t find the checkout line, but eventually we get there and buy a copy of The Raven King.  We get our number for the signing line.

#281. Continue reading “My Favorite Author”

Novel #8

I just finished a novel.  My eighth.

I call it Spoon-Fed Camel.  My progress bar on the right of this blog doesn’t let me update the wordcount anymore, but it is complete at 93,836 words.

It contains no camels, no spoons, and very little food.

A short pitch: When virtual reality magic gets out of control, it sucks two patrons into its chaotic world, forcing them to face and fix parts of it they had never imagined possible.

It’s an adventure story, I think, at its heart.  (I just listened to a bunch of Writing Excuses podcasts that seemed to describe my book pretty well, so I’m calling it adventure.)  Even though the world sucks them in at first, it’s because they chose to be there and chose to have that adventure.  But I also tried (and failed) to put several more layers into the story.  The successful parts were the ones I didn’t expect.

This was a fun story to write.  I always enjoy creating a lot of strange creatures for my characters to meet, and a lot of different environments— think of Star Wars or Star Trek— but this time I took it to a new level.  The virtual reality could become anything it wanted.  I ended up with some pretty interesting stuff to write.  Giant birds, giant snakes, giant monsters made of rock.  Swarms of bugs, swarms of gophers, swarms of pieces of my protagonist.  Rabid zebras, rabid buffalo, rabid cat people.

If it helps, I can list more things in threes. Continue reading “Novel #8”

Your Setting

Surround yourself with things that make you want to write.

This is a lesson I’m learning more and more.  As you learn more about the world, you begin to find a million things that lead you in all directions.  Watching a foreign film makes you want to learn French.  Reading about adventure makes you want to travel the world.  Meeting a champion juggler makes you never want to juggle ever, and that’s that.  All these are great.  If you’re like me, you know that most things are within reach, and with a little work you can achieve them.  Learning French, traveling the world, never juggling— all worthwhile goals.

But do you remember the moment you decided you wanted to write?

If you’re a different kind of artist, or your career lies elsewhere, substitute your dream whenever I say the word “write”.  This applies to anything.

As a kid, I read a lot of Brian Jacques books, and I’ve posted before about how much they mean to me.  Through reading and imagining, I began to dream about writing my own stories.  For the past four years, that’s what I’ve been doing, and I love it.  I love daydreaming about it and pushing toward that goal.

The path has its ups and downs, though, like anything.  You start off shot from a cannon, propelled by your amazing inspiration and genuine love for what you’re doing.  Then, of course, comes the letdown when you actually realize you’ve got a long way ahead of you.  But you pick yourself up and keep moving, and you enjoy the work for a while.  Then you poke your head up and look around, and start comparing yourself to other people, and you wonder what you’re actually doing. Continue reading “Your Setting”

An Aside

My writing self is pretty insufferable right now.

Let’s imagine the conversation between the two of us: my conscious self, studying for classes, having fun, but all the time wishing he could motivate himself to write instead of procrastinating all day— and my writing self, who is doing nothing.

***

Conscious: Bro, get off Facebook and start writing.

Writer: But have you seen this puppy video?

Conscious: It doesn’t matter.  I want to finish this current novel by the end of this month.

Writer: Puppies.

Conscious: What’s going on?  You used to be so powerful.  You used to motivate me to get all my stuff done so we could write for eight hours, then publish a blog post, then write some more.  What happened to us?

[Hello plays softly in the background]

Writer: I don’t know, man.  It’s just…  We’ve drifted away from each other and I’m not sure we can ever get back.

Conscious: Don’t say that.  We’ll make it work. Continue reading “An Aside”