About Writers, reading, writing technique

Firsts: Fists, Flirtations and Befuddlement

This could, I hope, become an ongoing series, but not all written by me. Anyone can take a turn, and it will be more interesting for the variety. It springs from Mimi’s recent suggestion that someone should post  some first paragraphs from novels or short stories.  Discussion, consideration, ratings and arguments could follow after in the comments section. It sounded like fun to me.  As an extra-added attraction, I’m not going to name the author or the book. Of course, some you (or some of you) will know instantly. Others may puzzle. They all come from books I enjoy or admire. Some are rather plain, others audaciously unconventional.

The title of the post is just me goofing around.  After all, a good first paragraphs can knock us on our ass.  It can seduce into opening an unknown door.  It can dazzle and baffle in a way that makes going forward our only choice.

Those are, of course, only three possibilities.

 

1:

to wound the autumnal city.

So howled out the world to give him a name.

The in-dark answered with wind.

All you know I know: careening astronauts and bank clerks glancing at the clock before lunch; actresses cowling at light-ringed mirrors and freight elevator operators grinding a thumbful of grease on a steel handle; student riots; know that dark women in bodegas shook their heads last week because in six months prices have risen outlandishly; how coffee tastes after you’ve held it in your mouth, cold, a whole minute.

(break)

I begin with an unbeginning. Or maybe with an unfinished ending. The confusion of the first three lines could seem to some as mere artsiness for its own sake, just fancy word-flinging, but that’s too easy a dismissal. This massive books creeps in from the mist and the smoke, entering our consciousness like some misshapen beast. During its 800 pages, it will find and lose solid footing in reality a dozen times.  The “All I know, you know” paragraph lays out themes and images that echo throughout the rest of the text. The semantic twists of this obscure list knock us off stride before we even begin, but that is only too appropriate for a novel that will never stop lurching and turning (careening and grinding) all the way through to the

2:

First the colors.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try.

HERE IS A SMALL FACT.  You are going to die.

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.

(break)

Another appealingly unconventional beginning. This was actually a very popular novel a few years ago, which only goes to show that you can begin a novel any way at all and still succeed in engaging the reader’s attention, as long as you know and trust your craft.

3:

Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.

First, picture a forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.

(break)

Such juicy writing!  They say don’t begin with description. This book rarely stops describing things. There’s very little dialogue. The story is told from multiple points of view, but the main character is the one seen here at the beginning—the forest itself. The last sentence could be a motto for the whole novel.

 

4:

See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folk are know for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him. 

(break)

So quiet. So simple. So ominous.  In very few lines, two characters have already been given weight, contour, and personality.  I particularly like the language, which is at once idiosyncratic, arcane and lovely.

 

5:

I had been sick for a long time. When the day came for me to leave the hospital, I barely knew how to walk anymore, could barely remember who I was supposed to be. Make an effort, the doctor said, and in three of four months you’ll be back in the swing of things. I didn’t believe him, but I followed his advice anyway. They had given me up for dead, and now that I had confounded their predictions and mysteriously failed to die, what choice did I have but to live as though a future life were waiting for me?

(break)

I particularly like the notion of failing to die, almost as if something monstrous had happened.  This was a quirky and troubling little novel. I think the opening does a nice job of setting the reader ill at ease.  (Question: Why “were waiting for me” instead of “was waiting for me”? Some foreshadowing that his future life is somehow plural?)

6:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane
I was the smudge of ashen fluff–and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky,
And from the inside, too, I’d duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I’d let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!

(break)

Yes, this a novel—a novel that happens to begin with 99 lines worth of heroic couplets.  The rest of the novel is several hundred pages of commentary by one of the least reliable narrators you will ever meet. The poem itself is marvelous, playful, and heart rending. The commentary is a whacky tale of political intrigue by a madman who uses an academic exercise as an excuse to tell his own (perhaps) delusional tale.

All right. Enough from me.  Can anyone identify the openings? More to the point, how do these work for you? What thoughts do they inspire?

 

Standard
writing technique

On Writing: authors Stanley Fish & Roger Rosenblatt

Take a deep breath: we’re going fathoms down, down . . .

The craft of fiction requires imagination and discipline in equal measure. It is both art and science; its demands on the practitioner gestaltic and quotidian. Gestaltic in that the production of text comprising a unified whole of divers elements such as plot, theme, dialogue, characterization, symbols, motifs, etc. from oneiric visions, fleeting hypnagogic insights, ephemeral reveries and focused bouts of cogitation requires one distinct set of skills. Quotidian in that the fashioning—sentence after cunningly wrought sentence—of the most apt, evocative and concretizing of words that will resonate with the reader and allow him or her to enter (insofar as possible) the fictional dream of story requires quite another talent.

It is this latter part of the craft—the quotidian art of the sentence—that authors Stanley Fish and Roger Rosenblatt teach so well. Their reverence, awe and delight in the sentence qua sentence gladden and uplift this aging author’s heart. I believe you will be charmed as well as you listen to these wizened masters speak.

Note: You may have some difficulty (depending on your computer’s internet service speeds and feeds) with the following link. I assure you any irritation caused by video stutter is well worth fighting through. Two points: (1) Pause the presentation occasionally to allow your system to catch up, and (2) know that the issue—on my computer, anyway—cleared up about halfway through.

Onward!

CLICK HERE: https://charlierose.com/videos/16610

Standard
About Writers

And Now, Ursula K. Le Guin

It looks like my time to blog post has come ’round again. Are Curtis, GD, Mimi, Atthys, Sue and I the only writers in regular rotation here? I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say: We’d love to hear from others! (Perry, Tom, Amber, et. al.) You’ve got a ready-made soapbox and a built-in audience here on Writers Co-op; let us know what’s on your mind these fear-fraught dystopian days, eh?

Truth is, however, that I have nothing urgent to communicate at present. Therefore, I’d like to step aside and let Ursula K. Le Guin take the stage. Here is the speech she gave when accepting the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters a couple of years ago. (After clicking on the url, scroll down and click on the embedded video link three-quarters of the way down the landing page to watch this 85-year-old dynamo in action.) Her speech is a marvel of concision, eloquence, truth and power.

:::applause-applause:::

http://www.oregonlive.com/books/index.ssf/2014/11/ursula_k_le_guin_on_reaction_t.html

Standard
Uncategorized, writing technique

Raise Your Voice… uh, Voices!

screen-shot-2017-01-22-at-05-42-41

I am not a sarcastic person. Sarcasm strikes me as mean — snarky condemnations passive-aggressively issued by arrogant people desperate to feel superior to those they ridicule. Those who are not the target may think it’s witty, but maybe they’re just relieved and smugly enjoying the fact it wasn’t aimed at them. After all, does anyone really deserve such ridicule? I’m inclined to give all* people the benefit of the doubt, and accept their occasionally foolish, irritating, mind-raspingly stupid behavior as an entitlement every human may claim. Even I could claim it if I were ever foolish, irritating, or stupid. None of which, of course, I ever am.

That’s the reason Romero Russo was such a revelation. More than two years ago, Romero started writing a book called Sarcasm Font. My first public view of him was on Inkshares during a marketing contest. After completing the first five chapters of his ambiguously fictional story, he started blogging. People found his writing funny and thoughtful:

screen-shot-2017-01-21-at-20-04-30

 

Here’s the thing. I am him.

 

That’s right. Following an unexpected series of events leading to my brain slurring two words into a word you won’t find in the OED, a fit of whimsy took over. I began writing Sarcasm Font in a voice so unfamiliar to me that I couldn’t even claim author credit. Romero Russo was born. He had a life of his own. He didn’t speak to me; he spoke through me. No doubt other authors have had the same out-of-voice experience. I suspect they would agree: it’s freeing.

Version 2

The elusive Romero Russo (Photo credit: S.T. Ranscht)

 

Like many authors, I’ve written characters who say sarcastic things. Readers have commented that each of my characters has an individual, identifiable voice. But writing and living from inside a character whose voice differs drastically from your own is more like acting. If you allow that person to tell the whole story, the writing experience is more like watching the story than creating it.

When Romero went public on Inkshares, the circle who knew about the two of us was small: two of my sisters and my son. They were kind enough not to share Romero’s secret, but they weren’t shy about letting me know they thought it was kind of creepy that I talked about him as if he were real. He and I shared a Venn diagram overlap of followers, and we followed each other. Why wouldn’t we? We were marketing separate works by separate authors.

But when we started blogging, we were sharing our “selves” with strangers. That’s when it became a hoax. No one questioned it. Why would they? He said things I would never say. It was just so darn much fun to be Romero Russo.

After the 2016 A to Z Blogging Challenge, Romero went silent on WordPress. I was still working on Sarcasm Font, and planned to promote it under his name. I began to question the practicality of that when I wrote the short story behind one of his… um, life events, and entered it in a contest. Entry required a bio and a photo. I had those, no problem. But on the chance — however remote — that it won a cash prize, or was short-listed to be published in the anthology, wouldn’t I want the cash and/or credit to be mine? Yes. Yes I would. I submitted it under my name, and while it didn’t win any cash, it was published in the contest anthology. I got all the credit.

I also gave myself up. Someone — I leave the choice to acknowledge this to him — who follows both Romero and me procured a copy of the anthology and read my story, which I, appropriately though perhaps indiscreetly, called “Sarcasm Font”. He allowed that I might merely have appropriated Romero’s premise, but he also suspected that we might be one and the same, despite the difference in voices. When he asked me directly, I couldn’t bring myself to resort to “alternative facts”. I confessed.

My hope is that others may take some inspiration from this tale. If you haven’t yet written an out-of-voice story, I highly recommend it. It will open your mind to discover voices you didn’t know you had. Ideas that have never occurred to you before will flow. You might find your very own Romero Russo.

screen-shot-2017-01-20-at-01-47-20

 

 

*(Except for one person to whom I gave a chance, but whose consistently reprehensible behavior has depleted my ability to tolerate. I might need Romero to speak for me for the next four years.)

fullsizeoutput_174 S.T. Ranscht lives in San Diego, California. She and Robert P. Beus co-authored ENHANCED, the first book in the young adult Second Earth Trilogy. She is currently submitting their baby to literary agents, determined to find the one who is their perfect match. Her short story, “Cat Artist Catharsis”, earned Honorable Mention in Curtis Bausse’s 2016 Book a Break Short Story Contest, and is available in its anthology, Cat Tales. “Sarcasm Font” appears in the 2016 To Hull and Back Short Story Anthology. Find her online: on WordPress at Space, Time, and Raspberries, Facebook, Twitter @STRanscht and Instagram @stranscht. You can follow ENHANCED on Facebook, Twitter @EnhancedYASyFy, and Instagram @secondearthtrilogy.

Standard
writing technique

Bear Grylls, here we come!*

Screen Shot 2016-10-02 at 1.41.46 AM.png

Hemingway said it succinctly, and seductively: “A writer’s job is to live life, and then to write about it.” How romantic is that? Hard to resist, I admit it.

Judging by the fruits of his labors, it’s easy to think that he meant that advice literally. No! We should reject any such narrow understanding.

Tonight at work, another slow night, I had time to spot-read one of an admired series of detective stories, full of (seemingly) factual description of a locale. It was fun, but it quickly felt like a device, enlivening stretches of conversation. Sitting around in diners necessarily involves a good deal of yakking. The author creates a rhythm (tight shot/wide lens) with abundant attention paid to decor, street scenes, etc. I try to break up discussion also. I use interior monologue in the same way.

Reportage of observations and journalistic-style research is one approach to storytelling. (Isn’t that what Truman Capote did?) I think it works best when it has a strong emotional component. And I grant that recalled sensory information would certainly include terrific stuff that we probably could not concoct, that simply wouldn’t occur to us. I don’t worry about that in my thing. I’m not writing that kind of a story.

I lean on psychology, relationships, motivations, reactions to circumstance, and, most of all, as much as all the rest combined, on what my characters make of it all. I am big, not on what my fools do, but on what they think. I give very little physical description (Hey. A cat is a cat is a cat. It’s his intellect that sets him apart), something I’ve worried about, but not enough to deal with it. In one spot I interrupted, admitted my snub of scene-setting, and banged together a castle from here and there in my history books, and made a joke of it: There! Some description for you. Happy?

Nuts-and-bolts detail can be a welcome, wind-in-your-sails patch in the midst of the struggle that is birthing a captivating fiction. Me, I like my physical to be short and stylish, I save on-and-on for foibles and flaws. That’s the real that I luxuriate in. The loving depiction of the design of a landmark diner in old Quebec doesn’t enthrall me.

What fascinates me is who people are, not what junk they hang on their wall. Psychology, even though I mangle it for comic effect, is my stab at experience-exploitation. I write, not textbook stuff, I write the street-level neuroses that I, sadly, possess in abundance.

You’ve heard of method acting. I do method writing. I inhabit my critters. Some aspect of every one of them mirrors my own unfortunate ways of dealing with the world. I write my own tics and squirms into every damaged soul. That’s my smooth-sailing, territory well known to me, while I try to figure out what comes next. When I can coast a bit, I do, gladly. I buy time with a variety of strategies, while I wait for answers to assemble themselves and tumble onto the page.

Use experience of whatever variety you possess to enrich your down-the-rabbit-hole, to make it so buyable that readers are willing to swallow whatever you throw at them.

______________________________________________

*Bear Grylls is that guy who roams the world, wrestling pythons, eating bugs, Hemingway-esque adventuring on the cheap. (I don’t believe you’ll be dragging a camera crew with you.) Invest in a backpack and a sleeping bag, you’re good to go. Live off the land, for zilch!**

**Grubs are a first-rate source of protein, says my husband. Roasted, delicious. (He spent a couple years as a short-hop pilot on the Ivory Coast.) He’s the one with the extraordinary experiences. But he doesn’t write.

 

Standard
book sales, reading, writing technique

’Tis the Season!

(For the big annual library book sales.) Treasures, absolute treasures, for cheap.

imgres-2.jpg

My house looks like this, only not so neat.

Here in Connecticut we have huge discard sales, town by town, over the course of the summer. I look forward to them all year. The biggies near me are Newtown over the Fourth of July, and Redding, over Labor Day weekend, with smaller ones scattered in between.

First day, you pay double the marked price (usually one-two-three dollars.) Second day, you pay full price. Third day, half price. Fourth day, all you can pack into a carton for five dollars.

You walk into (generally) a school gymnasium and find tables set up by category. General fiction, biography, history, science, mystery, cooking. Fiction is broken up: current (the last decade or two) vintage (popular titles from farther back) and Literature, work that has been deemed for the ages. That’s where I head first.

In literature you’ll find the odd stuff, things you may never see again. In the past I’ve snagged lectures by a president of Harvard on ethics and philosophy, full of ideas for Sly to obsess over. And, a marvelous series, chatty passing-scene, part story/part social commentary, by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (Not the judge.) That’s where I glommed onto Charles Reade, he of the mush plots and to-die-for description. The tattered volumes are a treasure trove of beautifully put comments on the human condition, such as used to be considered a worthy side-line to the plot, learned, often comically high-minded treatments that stuff perfectly into a mouth that I am always looking to furnish with know-it-all material. My guy is a scholarly sort, curious about every corner of life, beguiled, and infuriated, by the strange ways of the humankind.

I find goodies on many a table, but my heart belongs to classics. That’s where the sale organizers put anything of a certain age that they don’t know what else to do with. The sad thing is, over the four decades that I’ve been hitting these events, the selection of classics has shrunk and shrunk. The donated old-holdings have diminished in depth and variety. As the old-time book lovers decease and their musty shelves are donated by unappreciative heirs, the percentage of treacle best-sellers has grown and grown. Get the oddments now, before the glorious caches of vetted greats and screwball-sublime are no more. That tap won’t gush forever, a shame and a pity. I rummage through the oldie-moldies salivating, I swear to God. Any book with an unreadable spine, the odds are good it’s something tremendous.

Forget the writing manuals, those dreadful how-to’s, how to construct a story that will meet the expectations of the popular-fiction readers of today, demanding, according to those write-like-a-pro quick-tips, action-reaction. My library finds are the only school of writing I’ve ever had, and I am confident that the myriad and idiosyncratic voices from years untold have taught me well. I swear by characterization, and description, much despised these days, if you go by the on-line advice.

All this, of course, is not marketing. But a superb product (ideally) precedes a sales pitch. A dose of what has been done a century back opens your eyes to non-current approaches. You could do worse than to shoehorn some of that reflective-style into your thriller, or sci-fi, or whatever. No one of us on here needs to hear this, but to the less sophisticated, I say, take your blinders off. Read widely, outside your genre/comfort zone. The rich pickings at the library sales are the best (and least) money you’ll ever spend, and as fine an education than that from the esteemed Iowa Workshop. Get beyond another (usually tiresome) iteration of the sword-in-the-stone theme. How many civilizations needing to be saved from dark-lord baddies can we take, honestly, before we puke? No, the addition of a third-gender elf does not make it a must-read.

Vampires? I wear a necklace of garlic to the sales to protect me from vampire fiction. On Book Country a few years ago, the vampire-aficionados were wetting their pants over a new twist: a vampire enjoying the immoveable feast of a nursing home. More than a few thought this a stunningly new idea in a genre that’s been pretty well explored. I don’t have a high opinion of the quality of thought on many of the writer sites. That’s why I love this one.

Standard