Thursday, September 29, 2011

Naming Your Characters

I started a writing course at the university this week. Still hoping to learn what is literature versus literary genre. Ideas? Writing style? Doom and gloom?

Hopefully I will learn. I've already learned they use a different jargon. For example, workshop = critique.

My first assignment was a very short (2/3 - 3/4 page single space) story on an assigned prompt. That was a challenge. I always have lots of ideas I want to write about, and it's been many years since I've been told what my topic must be.

I needed a name for the second character -- a name that reflected a certain, not innocence, but goodness. Argh. I finally used my default name of Jane, thinking I'd change it later when inspiration struck. It didn't, so it's printed now with Jane.

How do you choose characters' names? Very tricky, although sometimes inspiration does help.

UPDATE:  Sunday's comic on the same theme:

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Writing, Bacteria, Evolution, and Rules

I wasn't sure which blog to post this article to. It is science, yes, but it is also philosophy, and very little thought was required to turn that philosophy into writing advice. So, writing, philosophy, and science? Sounds like it belongs right here.

How Life Arose on Earth, and How a Singularity Might Bring It Down
September 23, 2011

The origins of life; the process of evolution; the dangers of too rapid growth, but also of stagnation.

Can you see the application to writing?

There is a quote early on, from Sean Carroll. He blogs at Cosmic Variance.

“The purpose of life,” meeting co-organizer and Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll said in his opening remarks, “is to hydrogenate carbon dioxide.”

Well, that's a downer for all of us who want to believe there's something inherently unique and purposeful about humanity. But as a writer, I see that as a call to remember the true purpose of my work: to write stories.

Writers are not marketing machines; we are not  role-models; we are not advocates for this, that, or anything. Of course, these are aspects of our work, but they are tangential, not essential to what we do. Writers tell stories. In non-fiction, writers provide information.

That's it. That is our whole reason to be. To write. Anything else is the proverbial icing on the cake. Don't get so caught up in the add-ons that you lose sight of your true purpose. Just tell stories.

Back to the article. Inorganic reactions become biological reactions.The evolution of life-forms was driven by the spontaneous generation of complexity.

In writing, we start with a few tools. Words. Sentences. Grammar. Themes that determine how we arrange those elements. Then we reach a critical level, and the ideas take over, dictating the words, forcing the patterns into new lines.

Some people say their characters take over the story and they can no longer tell them what to do. Such willfulness is analogous to the emergence of biological reactions in evolution. What these writers are saying is that the story has found its life. It has evolved from connected words to an entity with a need to grow and develop.

Just as there are millions upon millions of life forms in the past, present, and future of our world, so too are there millions of stories. Like life, they rely on a few basic structures, but also like life, the pressures of their environment, the resources they have, the stimuli they perceive will alter and adapt them in to myriad forms.

Nothing new under the sun? Quite correct. It is not new, it is the history of life and of literature to constantly create new permutations, new adaptations. Infinite variety.

The article goes on to discuss how a strain of bacterium discovered they could use the citrate in their agar, rather than depend upon the glucose. This evolutionary adaptation proved repeatable. (I loved the comment, "Sympathetic murmurs of pity for the grad students spread through the FQXi audience." Grad students do all the long, tedious slog-work essential for science) It's not just making stuff up, folks. It's an incredible amount of painstaking, repetitious labor that leads to science. That's why we don't call it science unless it can be proven and repeated. Not at all the same thing as merely wanting it to be true.

In writing, the old patterns work. We are taught how to craft a sentence, how to develop a character, how to 'show-don't-tell.' But if we read, we discover that the greatest writers break the rules and enhance, even throw out the accepted forms. They bring new ways of telling stories into the world. Innovation drives literature as surely as it drives life.

Many, perhaps most innovations will fail. But a few succeed. Don't be afraid to try new styles, new characters. Never let yourself fall into believing that there's a one-and-only way to write. That said, like the bacteria in the experiment, there's a reason why we are taught rules. They work. If you innovate, you may fail. Be warned.

The end of the article discusses how different systems follow similar patterns. Bacteria, cities, humanity: all follow predictable relations. Smaller organisms have faster metabolisms. People in cities walk faster. And short stories require tighter, more urgent pacing.

Complexity theorist. Now there's a job title I'd love to have. "Complexity theorist Raissa D’Souza of U.C. Davis argued in her talk that when you have coupled complex systems, any break in the growth trends tends to be accompanied by wild fluctuations. Modern society is predicated on growth; stability is tantamount to collapse."

I've long wondered why humans in western cultures are so obsessed with growth. The town I live in, a delightful, charming place, is being destroyed by growth. The university is being mutated into a cancer that absorbs and destroys the quality of life for the campus and the town. But it will be a Big University, and that is, alas, all that matters.

Snarking aside, being big is not, by default, better. Books are too often too long. Don't be afraid to cut. Remove whole scenes. The joy of computer-aided writing is that you can copy out the entire novel in a blink, tear it to shreds, rearrange the bits, keep what works, paste that into a new version, and delete the rest.

Do hire an editor. They aren't enamored with your words, only with the finished product. They have the objectivity to see what is extraneous where you can't bear to let anything go. Trust your editor!

The final advice of the article is one all writers hear frequently. Get off the internet.

Time, lots of time, gave us life on earth. Even more sweeps of time gave us our selves. What's a few months to give life to your words?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Links to Think About

Being deeply and happily absorbed in editing, I find it impossible to post. I know -- excuses, excuses. But there are a few things I've read recently that deserve mention.

The blog, Rationally Speaking, by Massimo Pigliucci is one I check daily. Here are three recent posts that are well worth consideration.

First, the final installment of his series on Ethics. The series is an easily accessible introduction to the question of ethics, and how we interpret and devise ethical systems.

Next, his Seven Questions on Skepticism. As I have written before, being skeptical is work. It is not being a toddler snarking "prove it" with clock-like predictability. It is attempting to see around, inside, and outside a question, trying to understand origins and ramifications, and, above all, recognizing that imposing limitations on yourself, on others, or on ideas is a very serious thing to do. It must be done, but we owe it to ourselves and our society to do so with kindness and understanding, not dogmatic decree. Massimo offers some very good suggestions on how believers and nonbelievers can learn to discuss reasonably even if they can't agree.

Today's post also relates to ethics. Are we innately evil or good? Can we create a society that encourages respect and tolerance? An intriguing read.

Also today, NPR's Adam Frank offers a thought provoking look at time. I have often wondered what it would be like to live in the past, when time was a generality, not an absolute. Where I could say, "this afternoon" to a friend, and not be at all disturbed if they showed up right after lunch or right before dinner, because all that span was, indeed, afternoon. No more specific reference point was available. Of course, the church did have time keeping rituals that defined the day more precisely. And I recall reading that in ancient Rome the day was divided according to sunlight, so a day in summer would be broken into longer units than a day in winter. But still, none of these have the urgent and impelling tenseness of "on the dot' modern time keeping mentality. Life was more relaxed. Was it better? What do you think?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Creative Creativity

I admire his creativity, but I hope the future is brighter than this for him -- and for me!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

An Editor's Demonstration

I know how this feels. Okay, not completely rewritten, but it sure felt like that at first glance. Here's to hoping the next draft will have fewer crossings-out!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Literature or Confusion

When did it become necessary for literature to be ambiguous, or to explore the dark corners of the human condition without pity or love or even understanding?

Any of those attributes would offer a sense of completeness to a tale well told.

Far too often I read a modern literary work only to feel the killing 'so what?' as I close the book. What did I learn? What experience, what pleasure, what insight did the author grant? If the answer is, 'none', then I have to wonder why it was written. Did the author not know enough, did they deliberately leave holes and unresolved issues, trying to convince the reader the story is true to life?

Life is filled with ambiguities. That is both its chief joy and chief torment. We can never know why things happen as they do. That is why we so love stories. They, like religion, offer the illusion that something is clear, understood, complete.

I often speculate that I must not be capable of reading literature, but then I read books written before, say, 1960, that are in the canon, or books from other countries, and enjoy them. They are stories -- well crafted, illuminating, but complete. Why this modern obsession with unresolved endings? Is the fault in me, or in the modern stars?

I read a modern book -- Finnish, translated -- both literary and a compelling story. Elegant prose, wonderful sense of mood, thought provoking, sympathetic characters (even the ones I didn't like), and though the ending could be called ambiguous, she dropped enough hints throughout the book I was left with not only a stunning twist at the end, but also a good sense of what the protagonist's future life would be. Troll  by Johanna Sinisalo.

And I have read modern American novels that I've enjoyed. I am deploring a trend, not an absolute.

Fierce debates rage over the relative merits of literature and genre. If Jane Austen was writing today, where would she be classified? Chick Lit? Okay, I'm being snarky, but almost certainly genre, Women's lit. What about Shakespeare, whose works were enjoyed by all classes? When did he become literature instead of popular entertainment?

If one thinks of literature as illuminating the human condition, offering insights into motivation, dissecting the layers of delusion and confusion we wrap ourselves in, I doubt there is a greater modern master than Terry Pratchett. But he is never admitted to the sacred halls of literature because he writes with humor, irony, and affection.

How would you rather learn: through sympathy, humor, and insightful observation; or through long-winded, tedious, willfully obscure pages of unresolved misery?

Let us be very clear. I am generalizing, but a truth remains.

Literature should not be obscure. It should not hold gloom and despair as its highest attributes. If it aspires to illuminate humanity to itself, then it should understand humanity first. And humans, as a whole, are not keen on pretensions. We want to be with those who care about us, and approach us in ways we can understand; hopefully, to help us see more clearly, think more reasonably, and learn to be a bit wiser.

Who was your favorite teacher at school? The pedant who droned, or the one who spoke to you with interest and enthusiasm? From whom did you actually learn?

An earlier version of this was originally posted in my other blog, but the questions still perplex me:

Coffee Shop Danger!

Sorry for the hiatus. Been taking a break, and getting new inspirations. More tomorrow, but this is too good to not post.

I feel guilty at long hours in coffee shops. I have a write-together-but-don't-talk-much group I go to on Wednesday afternoons, and we meet in coffee shops. Fortunately not ones that actually reek of coffee. We are not alone -- there are always tables full of people who do just as this article describes: 

Café owner going to kill laptop-using bastard