I read another book about writing as part of my DIY MFA. It’s Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands by Michael Chabon. He’s one of the authors I enjoy reading. I’ve only read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay so far. His writing was the third adult book I’ve ever read.
Maps and Legends in an anthology of roughly two dozen essays by Chabon. It’s about his thoughts and how he wrote his works. Throughout a few thesis ideas emerge. I’ll do my best to summarize those points. There’s a lot packed in 274 pages.
Successful writers bring new ideas that fit together well. Examples were the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and the series His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the first to write about the detective with a series to characters giving their takes on event. All in the direction of unraveling the central mystery. Those nested story didn’t explore, distract, or rephrase that said before; they added information. That’s basically the difference between literary and the beginning of genre fiction.
In His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman a few key ideas combine to make a great story. Those plot elements, rules of the world, character traits all have to combine to enhance the story. Just serving as a wall the character faces and changes to overcome isn’t enough. That’s what happens so much in fiction. The cowardly face the obstacles that most challenges them. Feats of courage. Like how Froto has to leave the only home he has ever known. How Sam wants to be a good person so he goes. Every character is designed to be a foil to the things they face. Like Ethan’s struggle in Pines, Book 1 of Wayward Pines by Blake Crouch. His time in the military makes the resistance he faces in the small town that much worse. Or how Harry feels alone until he finds a community in the Wizarding World. I always thought my plots were good enough, but I’m missing a huge part. The resonance achieved by plot elements, character traits, and the rules of the world must play each off the other. I’ve been missing that key consideration so far.
The idea that ghost stories are the beginning of short stories. I would argue that a little bit. Sure they were around in the beginning. But previous stories aren’t always a direct blueprint for what comes after. Hauntings from sight unseen seems an obscure place for short stories to begin with. But isn’t something hanging in your thoughts like that in a literary story? Things lurk in your head from defining moments. Until you deal with them, they hang around haunting you. I agree that ghost stories could be the precursor to literary short stories. That connection could help when I get stuck. Maybe I’ll use it.
Fiction is the bridge between things imagined and things real. Fiction has fictitious parts. It’s in the name after all. But some things connect it with reality. That’s always something. How real the characters feel in fantasy. How some science still works how we think in science fiction. How the sky and the environment is normal in thrillers. But characters are the big things that make something real. Those bits of real are required for the reader to believe that somewhere out in the multi-verse the story is actually possible. In other words, fiction must always be relatable.
Something you’re exposed to serves as inspiration. It doesn’t have to be the most obvious things. If you look hard enough, ruminate hard enough inspiration strikes. Some things work better than others. It’s the writer’s purview to decide what stories to go after. Choosing could very well determine success or failure.
Maps and Legends fills me with hope for the future in writing. There’s a long way to go before I can’t progress further in writing. Writing and reading will never end up on the dust heaps of history. There’s more. Humble roots and inexperience don’t matter. Get your head down and write.
I recently finished reading Swann’s Way, volume one of seven in Remembrances of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time. That volume is 600-something pages. I’m reading a guide at the same time. After each volume, I’m comparing my thoughts with the verdicts delivered by the reading guide. That isn’t exactly the best way to get the most from reading this but as the preparations for reading more literary work. I have my eyes on IQ83 by Haruki Murakami.
That’s a long way away or maybe sooner than I think. Anyway this is a summery/reaction to Swann’s Way and the reading guide the group’s using, Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time: A Reader’s Guide to Remembrance of Things Past by Patrick Alexander. The book is divided into three parts. The Overture, Combray, Swann in Love, and Place-names: The Name.
The Overture is a real bore in my mind. There are a few interesting tidbits in there, but forty pages seems overkill for a waking up sequence. It’s long but effectively primes you for the writing style you’re likely to experience. Brevity is a tad more important later on. It never reaches the expectations of today’s rapid gratification.
Combray is the memories Marcel has of his childhood. It details his experiences of visiting his ailing Aunt Léonie in the summers. There’s a lot there about his childhood desires and experiences. The guide refers to Combray as one of best childhood experiences in a novel of this era. Reading through, I noticed a few things. Marcel is ailing from some mysterious condition which I suspect is just getting colds that are quite severe. That sickness reduces his activity considerably. Still, he’d much rather stick his head into books. Marcel attributes good qualities to people he likes and people he would like to be like down the line. These memories Marcel remembers were triggered by eating something he enjoyed in those summers, lime tea and madeleines.
I like to think Marcel and I would be kindred spirits if we ever met. That makes me feel good, and that’s reason enough, but there’s more. I have Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy, and that enabled me to distance myself from peers. In addition, I loved reading. That love is what got me into writing. Then, I wanted to be like those charismatic people who can entertain an entire room without breaking out in sweat and make people like them. And I remember my past history to a similar extent. I think we’re pretty similar.
Swann in Love was my favorite part of Swann’s Way. According to the guide, it’s the closest that Proust gets to traditional story structure. I agree. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. Swann meets Odette. He doesn’t commit right away. Then, he’s in love with Odette. Swann gets jealous. He asks too many questions and finds difficult answers. In lack of love, he tries with another woman. That’s the plot of Swann in Love.
The beginning of this part was the first time I loved reading this book. It makes me a little sad that the other sections won’t follow the basic plot structure. And a theme of this book is love leads to jealousy. That’s true. Love always comes with some unwelcome jealousy as a bedfellow. That’s especially true if you have abandonment and anxiety issues. Jealousy can make love sweeter by contrast. Working on your self-worth might reduce these issues. Surely possessiveness makes the jealousy worse. That’s a theme in this book that bugs me. Any number of themes bug me, so that’s basically a given with anything I read.
Place-names: The Names wraps up everything. It cross applies the lessons learned in the previous sections of Marcel’s young life in Paris. Then, it echoes the fact much more is going to change.
Each section is like a novel in its own write except the transition sections: Overture and Place-names: The Name. That’s not the way any book is organized these days except memoirs. Because In Search of Lost Time is the very first memoir as far as I know.
That method isn’t acceptable in fiction these days. I know it’s not fair to Marcel Proust, his many fans, and the English literature community to compare a book written something like 120 years ago to stories these days. That comparison is of paramount importance to current writers of fiction trying to learn from Proust. What elements of Remembrance of Things Past can be used to write fiction in the time we live in now? What elements won’t work? For example, putting two storylines in one piece of fiction. They need to smoothly merge from one to the other despite section breaks. Some things can end and be picked up later but never left hanging forever except at the end. Simultaneous story lines are permissible if they’re all pushed together.
That’s one of the most used writing phrases out there. It’s become a cliché. But what does that mean? Banalities frequently stick in my head. There’s a bigger lesson to be learned from simple phrases such as that one.
Writing that reflects first-hand experience feels more real than pure fiction. What’s the cause of that feeling? I ask myself that question a ton. Why do I feel, guilty for example? That’s what meditation is currently for me. Why am I feeling this way? The feeling that something is real or pops off the page. What determines the difference? I need to know to write well.
My experiences seem far removed from the everyday life of most people, hence the moniker, Radical Thinker. That comes from a few personality quirks. I don’t listen to other people unless some avenue of proof is available. Of course, that precludes generally accepted theories like science and any reasonable thought process. Still, external confirmation. That process invites deep thought and learning stuff through observation. Add that to the differences in my emotional landscape discussed here. Adding that to my medical condition gives me different experiences than the average functioning adult. I bridge that gap by observing and using my imagination for the rest. Like going to work. Like dating. Like being in a relationship. Like playing a cello. Like having bipolar depression. Like basically anything within the bounds of reality.
It can’t ever be the real thing. There’s something missing. The most impactful details are remembered. The rest is forgotten. Doing that in a fictional construct is really difficult. Those imaginings aren’t real. They fade away like a dream after you wake up.
I have two examples for you guys. First the song lyrics from Taylor Swift’s autobiographical song Out of the Woods.
That has the quality I was talking about. There’s just enough detail to seem real. It supposedly is. Two details. The camera and where they were. Giving just enough detail is nearly impossible without first-hand experience. The compilation of what should be remembered and what shouldn’t is one way to get the feeling of reality.
I have another example of feeling real. It taps into another method, the relatability of something. It’s from Ella Dawson’s blog, Post Grad Warriors. I’m a fan of her writing, read this for more.
That’s basically what happens to everyone after college. Sometimes you drift away from your college friends. And sometimes you’re bound for life.Sometimes you connect with people that were there in the background. Still, there’s connection. Still, there’s shared experience.
First, there was the music, strobe lights, sweaty people, and the way they danced. That’s more than three senses, but this is an overwhelming place, a nightclub. So three senses make you feel you’re there. More depending on how intense the situation is. Fewer than three if it’s boring like a long sink to the seafloor. Sight first. Sound next if it matters, or smell. Something along those lines.
That’s a change for me, this checklist of senses.
Something else showed up when I wrote a couple of short stories. I actually have relatable personal experiences. They’re all personal emotional experiences. That’s where my extreme emotions come into play. Exploring their root causes is an added tool given to me by mediation.
That started as figuring out how to write creative non-fiction. Read this one, that one, and that other one for more. I used those new skills to write this post for Medium and this other one for BayArt. Writing non-fiction helped this change come about. I’m all about cross-application of knowledge and lessons learned.
That carried over to fiction writing where it could. I’ll write up a short paragraph on the feeling of guilt I felt this morning. Here it is:
Guilt is that nagging feeling, the perpetual elephant stalking you from room to room, everywhere you go. It starts small, like the way big things always start. It seems insignificant at first. Then it grows and grows until it’s an elephant on your chest. It doesn’t have to be an elephant. Most guilt isn’t that severe. It’s a rock in your shoe that doesn’t go away until it’s dealt with. It’s an annoyance that hurts the more it’s in there. There are ways to scrub away the annoyance, the weight hanging around you. All it takes is an apology, but it’s not as easy as saying sorry. You get caught in the doldrums of your anxiety. Is an apology required in this situation? It’s not just you against your guilt. There’s another person involved, the one you wronged.
Are they hurt? Did the mistake bother you more than it should? Does the aggrieved see the wrong as you would, as you do? If not, there’s the pickle. Should you apologize and risk highlighting your mistake, your error. Well if you did, the elephant disappears, the rock vanishes. Then you get to pick up the cards dropped where they may fall. You have to move on and forget the turn in your fortune. What was once peaceful friendship became your torture for a while, but you mustn’t forget it. Those that forget are soon to repeat mistakes anew. Those that conjure the elephant, those that create the stone are always there. Never repeat the mistake, never call guilt forth. Mistakes are human, and we are human after all. But humans can change, and so can we.
There. My example of writing what I know. Guilt as the case is.
I finished reading How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frev. It gave me things to learn I frequently ignore. A few tips redefined a few things like what to explain and what to leave out. The book is about writing dramatic stories, not the literary I frequently write. My literary pieces have a strong dramatic storyline and a deep internal conflict. The lessons learned are invaluable in improving my writing.
The character must be fathomable. Explain their motivations, character attributes, and decision-making process. My writing process directly opposes this requirement. I establish a new thought pattern in my head to match the character I’m writing. That’s only possible because I’ve spent nearly a decade and a half mediating. Acting out physical traits isn’t something my diseased body is capable of. That mental model is as close as I can get. Thinking like your character makes the motivations, character attributes, and decision-making process apparent and self-explanatory. It should be second nature. Stuff that doesn’t feel wrong as that character. Everything except that particular action feels wrong. Putting that on paper isn’t tricky at all, except I never know how much to put down. This book helped a lot. Include everything required to understand the characters.
Each scene should be a story in its own right. The scenes should have all the pieces of a story. A beginning setting up the conflict. A middle of rising tension. Finally a build up to the conclusion. When a book has that it’s difficult to stop reading. A perfect example is Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. It followed that pattern. Each scene was a story in its own right.
There needs to be a connection of causality between scenes. Watch this, the best discussion on causality that appears in a feature film in my opinion. The events must require the events prior to lead up to them. A connects to B, then C. The web of causality must connect from one to the next. Again this is exemplified in Dark Matter. Of course, literary novels frequently forgo that rules. But getting things in line helps to justify those tangents literary is famous for.
Dialogue should also follow the structure of a story. No conflict in dialogue means it can be rewritten or scrapped. Standard conversations we have every day can easily be reduced to one summarizing sentence. We talk about this or that.
Sometimes things go down. You come away reeling and need to spew everything to someone you trust. Those are the sorts of conversations dialogue should be. I noticed that in my first novel. The lunchroom conversations were boring to read but the arguments were impactful. Leaving out the daily dribble of conversation helped my story beyond measure.
Reading How to Write a Damn Good Novel and Dark Matter in a basic requirement for any writer. The theory expressed in the book about writing is exemplified in Dark Matter. Read both and get back to me. Kidding.
I’m reading In Search of Lost Time with a reading group from Book Oblivion. It’s supposed to be a really difficult and punishing read at over 4,000 pages. Sentences are frequently massive and sometimes over 100 words long. The sentences are more convoluted than anything I’ve read. It’s a study in difficult to read writing.
I deeply respect the work of Proust. He has deep insights that aren’t frequently explored to this depth. My tastes just systematically oppose the purposes of this book. I have extensively studied how I remember stuff for years. My memory is highly selective, and changing its focus is extremely difficult in practice. I feel I share a lot of things with Proust as most heavy readers do. Add to the fact my life has basically lent itself to me becoming a writer. And the book is about Proust becoming a writer.
Proust’s masterwork is basically a biography/memoir of his life. That was something special around the time it was written. Today, we have memoirs and things much closer to what Proust is trying to do. I have previously sworn off memoirs. I read Eat, Pray, Love out of my pretentious ideas. I will simply read and like something because a great number of others have liked it. I would rather discover things about life from other sources. Meditation is my preference. I have learned meditation without the aid of a meditation teacher. I learned writing in the same way. Garnering insights from others feels a little like cheating. Insights from the art of meditation has a much bigger impact for me. Those insights don’t fade as easily and give a bigger impact for me. Experiencing a trip around the world isn’t the same as reading about someone doing the same.
That raises the question of why I’m still reading this 4,000-word tome. The length of the sentences fills up my head as few books have. The main reason I like reading is it occupies my head space so thoroughly, I can’t succumb to my anxiety and physical issues. Those long sentences needed a slight switch in the way I read. When reading, the brain assemblies the entire sentence from the words you’ve read so far at periods. Long sentences make this reading process doubly difficult if not more. My first day of reading Proust, a new realization struck through my head. There was a trick to make Proust just one tick more difficult than the average read, instead of the three ticks it had been. Think Shakespeare instead of Beowulf in old English. The easy system of partially reconstituting everything read at semi-colons then it became after each comma. Sometimes this doesn’t work. One example so far. I need to figure a way to un-flip the switch of doing it that way.
Reading something difficult makes reading everything else go faster. Reading speed changes with how much you’ve read and how difficult it was to read. I also want to understand what made this book last beyond its publication generation. And I need to figure out how to be social in the setting of a book club.
At the beginning, I was tempted to read it full blast. If I really tried, I could be done in 14 weeks. The schedule the club is on goes for two and a half years. That’s five percent of each volume a week. I have done independent study before and the results were mixed. Sometimes I’m ahead, and sometimes I’m behind. I decided to read when I got sufficient sleep the night before. That’s another thing that readers of this blog should know. Classics put me to sleep effectively. Without enough sleep, I’ll never get through. I’m five weeks behind and finally got back to reading. I should catch up in 14 days. Not too bad.
I feel so inadequate in the book club. Everyone else has an English degree of some sort or the other. I just have a public school education up to a high school diploma. And two AP English classes along the way that are supposed to be equivalent to college level classes. I am trying to fit in with partial success. I’ll learn from the others and will eventually fit in. I’m learning a lot, and it’s fun.
Sometimes I feel we’re over analyzing the book. Maybe the walking route his family goes on isn’t symbolic. Maybe we’re digging too deep. But another spot in the book made me think it was symbolic. I’m too new to this to really know. I’ll watch and observe. That should help to figure this out.
Sometimes I get annoyed at the overly complicated sentences and the extensive detail to mundane things. I find confusing sentences lazy. But I’m new to this whole writing thing. Maybe those sentences add something I’ve yet to discover. I feel like I’m missing something huge. By the time I finish In Search of Lost Time, I might have this head scratcher figured out.
And I think the book’s theme is time is never lost if you remember what you were doing or learned from the experience.
I came upon a series a few years ago. It’s a series called The Others, written by Anne Bishop. For a long time, I’ve been thinking what about the series makes me coming back, except having purchased the entire series up to now. A lot of things can keep me coming back, but everything from before doesn’t work with this series. The characters aren’t particularly interesting. The world in the book isn’t that different from real life. Nothing is really there from a first glance.
Hopefully, this blog post will help me figure out what’s the appeal of The Others. Written in Red was the first book I’ve read that starts with an introduction that says the history of a fictional world. It basically says alongside humans there was another comparable top predator. Bishop refers to these other people as the Others, Earth Natives, or terra indigene. Well, the Earth Natives control the natural resources and humans make stuff. Everything humans have is basically rented or purchased from the terra indigene. One area in Europe is rightfully under human control without owing the Others anything.
I’ll dissect that idea here. The terra indigene are creatures that take on the form of other top predators they encounter. Most of them have a human and animal form. Some can become smoke. Others shift into the elements. And others can turn into anything at will. This relates to skinwalkers in our world, people of myth that can supposedly take the shape of animals. I equate the Others to Native Americans who have way more power due to their ability to be stronger and just as smart. What happens if the invaders or early explorers found people much more dangerous than themselves? Something very similar to the world of the Others happens.
This dynamic sometimes gets interesting. The clash between the Others and humans is always there in the background, but it isn’t that big in my mind. That dynamic has appeared a few times in other stories. Basically, every vampire and werewolf story is like that. I don’t really like that monster genre. Where the protagonist is a vampire or werewolf.
In the first book, Written in Red the moment that got me in was the nature of the cassandra sangue or blood prophet. Some girls and women have the ability to tell prophecies after they’re cut. That was new to this genre. After cutting, they speak and experience euphoria or hold it in to remember the vision and feel the pain of the cut. That euphoria bugged me for a little bit. I decided that was plain fiction. One such person, Meg is the protagonist of this story.
The combination of those two storylines effectively drives the story forward. Each book delves into a different aspect of those concepts. A series exploring the same facets of something in each book quickly grows repetitive. I haven’t read any adult series, but that makes sense based on the other series I’ve read.
Written in Red was about Meg escaping the compound and finding work with the Others. People like Meg, cassandra sangue were allowed to be held against their will by benevolent caretakers to help them survive their addiction to cutting and the euphoria. Those rules didn’t prohibit cutting the girls to make a profit by selling prophecies/cuts. Basically, the rich wanted that to continue, so they had their lobbyists pressure the government. Meg escaped one of those facilities. Most cassandra sangue weren’t exposed to the outside world so living outside was difficult.
Bishop adds new jargon throughout her books. I found that interesting as a writer. How should I introduce new words through fiction? The learning curve required probably wouldn’t work with how I write, but seeing it for real was something. The first one was A walk on the wild side, basically an intimate liaison between a human and a human form terra indigene.
The storyline was a group of mercenaries went after Meg at the courtyard of the Others. Meg’s visions alerted them to the attack. Premonitions are an effective way to drive stories forward. Each book has them in different lights. In Written in Red, Meg spoke aloud her visions and other people interpreted the few words she spoke. In the second book, Murder of Crows, Meg dreamed her visions first. After cutting, she held in the vision and did everything she needed to do to save the most people. The third book was frustrating. Vision in Silver didn’t show the full prophecies. The bits and pieces we got were impossible to decipher until it actually came true. Right now, I’m reading book four, Marked in Flesh. Meg uses cards to reveal prophecy and other cassandra sangue bolster her abilities.
Murder of Crows is about two drugs, feel good and gone over wolf. Both are the same drug. The Others get feel good, a downer. Humans get gone over wolf, an upper for aggression and courage. Those drugs egged humans on to kill a group of Others that were shifted to Crows, hence the title. A group of people attack the Others’ courtyard like in book #1. Bishop made the similarity between the euphoria cassandra sangue felt and sexual pleasure. The villain drew me in. She was beyond convinced that the Others behaved like humans. A sexy body didn’t affect the others in any way. They didn’t find thin people appetizing, except in rare occasions. Her behavior was strange to them, and that cracked me up. I know I’m strange, hence the moniker radical.
Vision in Silver was about finding a way for cassandra sangue to in live the outside world. The other plot was about the rising friction between the humans and others. Somehow jewels financing the human uprising got into the hands of the Others, and people wanted it back. The Others are more deadly than people can imagine.
Marked in Flesh is the first real attack on the Others. The events leading up to and after the event are chronicled. You can guess what happens when a weaker force underestimates and attacks a stronger and more vicious force. Again, prophecy pushes the story forward.
A few things about the series bug me. The shifter story element seems all too familiar in this genre of urban fantasy. Sometime I should probably read the most successful series in this genre, The Twilight Saga. Haven’t had the pleasure yet, but eventually. The cutting experience is very different from reality in some ways and similar in others. Euphoria doesn’t result, and cutting isn’t as it seems in the book. Cutting is a response to some internal frequently psychological occurrence. A lot of unnecessary details are abundant. I doubt we need to read the characters changing between boots and indoor shoes every time they enter a building. The plethora of characters bugs me. It seems like in every book, a handful of characters just appear. If each character was new, dynamic, and transformative that would be something. The characters, except a few, seem like filler or a different name to use. Those flat characters aren’t even described frequently, externally or internally. Each book assumes you remember quite a lot about the characters, but the books come out months apart. I know a few books down the line, I’ll pull the ejection seat.
Anne Bishop does a few good things. There are a ton of subplots. Something is always going on. The descriptions of the buzzing, tingling, and prickling skin are effective as a divining rod to find the focus of a prophecy. Different characters are used as the point of view for different sections of the book, from chapters to a few lines. Meg’s battle with addiction is interesting, because it doesn’t exist exactly like that in real life. The basis is probably chemical addiction like smoking. I wish that so many Native Americans weren’t wiped out during the settlement of the world. The native people weren’t doing anything wrong, and we needlessly eliminated them in mass numbers. Maybe the world of the Others is how things could’ve been. The aspect of writing simply and getting complex ideas across interests me. Also, the way Bishop manages to put a sinister light on the most basic interactions.