Month: February 2018

Think Like a Librarian: My Favorite Thing is Monsters, by Emil Ferris

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is another graphic novel.  (I checked a stack of best-of graphic novels all out at once, so there were a bunch.)  What you’re looking at here is older teens and up.  The main character is a middle-schooler, but I would definitely read the graphic novel before handing it off.  Some middle-school kids will do fine with it; it’s told at a middle-school level, but covers some extremely overwhelming topics.  If you need to cover some extremely overwhelming topics with your kids at that age…this might help.  Death, same-sex sexual attraction, attempted rape disguised as “bullying,” prostitution, murder, and loving someone who makes big mistakes are all covered.

The main character is a (human) girl who sees herself as a werewolf.  She is artistically inclined, and the graphic novel, created by an adult, is presented as her handiwork.  The “panels” in the graphic novel are free flowing, free associative doodles done in pen and ink.  People can be drawn beautifully, mockingly, photorealistically, etc., based on the main character’s emotions at the time.

The story ranges from before World War II, to concentration camps in WWII, to the late Sixties, as the main character attempts to solve the murder of a neighbor, the “blue” woman on the cover.

The art in this is loose and improvisational, yet masterful; the writing is a masterpiece on a level with Art Spiegelman’s Maus.  I’m not exactly going out on a limb to say that this volume is one of the masterpieces of Western fiction, graphic novel or otherwise.

It can be a challenging read, but mostly because it’s literally just heavy.  A second volume is planned to come out in the second half of 2018.

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Pacing, Part 5: Pacing for Engineers

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

Dear engineer types,

I am a poet type.  So I’m borrowing the metaphor from my spouse, who works in IT and does woodworking.

Let’s agree to look at pacing as a woodworking project.  We start with our raw materials, which are words.  What kind of words are they?  Words are like the type of wood you’re using.  Short blunt words are like pine, reliable and cheap.  Sesquipedalian verbiage is like a veneer of mahogany, thin and fragile, but it definitely classes up a project.

Let’s say phrase length is like the thickness of the wood, and sentence length is its length and width.  Let’s say punctuation is how you attach your pieces of wood together–commas, periods, semicolons, dashes.  Without punctuation it is impossible to sort out any kind of clarity in a sentence paragraph scene story

Paragraph length is, let’s say, how you put the pattern of joints together.  Are your joints heavy and reinforced, like a set of bunkbeds for a pair of eight-year-old twin boys, or are they delicately balanced, like a Louis XIV table,

with its thin and spindly legs?

Point being, you have to consider both the materials that you’re working with and who is eventually going to be using them and for what, right?  You have to pick the right wood, the right pieces of wood, the right methods of attaching them, the right design, etc.

At every level, your choices must fit the project.

That’s what pacing is.  You learn pacing when you stop banging together whatever wood is cheapest with whatever nails you have on hand and going, “Why is my table so cheap and unprofessional looking?”

Welcome to Intermediate Writing!

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Pacing, Part 4: The Building Blocks of Pacing

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

I’ll get to pacing for engineers in a bit.  First the different building blocks of pacing:

  • Word length.
  • Length of phrases (as marked by breaths or punctuation).
  • Sentence length.
  • Paragraph length.
  • Beat length (the length of each individual sub-conflict within a scene).
  • Scene length.
  • Section length (as marked by a white space).
  • Chapter length.
  • “Part” length.
  • Story length.

Each “level” of pacing has its own implications and use.  It’s often the pattern of how the different lengths are mixed that’s important–long long long gives a different “feel” to the work than long medium short short, for example.  (Sorry, engineer types, I’ll get to that for you in a bit.)

The content of what you put into each level is important, too, because pacing is how we link form and content.

And there are other things that I’m not mentioning here that are also levels of pacing, because pacing knows no limit to the complexity with which you can slice it, as far as I’ve been able to tell.  But we’re not going to talk about that now.

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Writer Resources: Rowan Atkinson on Comedy.

Rowan Atkinson of Mr. Bean and Blackadder fame did a comedy/documentary series called Funny Business or Laughing Matters in 1992.  The first episode, on physical comedy, is available online.

Not only is this a great lesson on physical comedy, but on breaking down and distorting character–and why.

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Pacing, Part 3: Pacing for Poets

I’m going to give two explanations of what pacing is, one for poet-types and one for engineer-types.  This is an arbitrary split, and you’ll probably need both perspectives at some point.

For poets:

Pacing is how you start sneaking poetry into fiction, without the heightened sense of language that might tip your hand to the reader that you’re being poetic.

Buffalo Bill ’s
defunct
               who used to
               ride a watersmooth-silver
                                                                  stallion
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
                                                                                                     Jesus
he was a handsome man
                                                  and what i want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death

If you look at any given poem by e.e. cummings, for example, you can see that on every level, the poet makes choices such that the form of the poem–almost literally the appearance of the words on the page–reflects the content of the poem.

In fiction, this is called pacing.  In commercial fiction, you break fewer “rules” than you would here, but the spirit is the same.

Although it led the way to the twenty-first century, Moscow maintained the Victorian habit of traveling on iron wheels.  Kievsky Station, which was near the foreign ghetto and Brezhnev’s own apartment, pointed to the Ukraine. Belorussia Station, a short walk from the Kremlin, was where Stalin boarded the Czar’s train from Potsdam and, afterward, where Khrushchev and then Brezhnev boarded their special trains for Eastern Europe to inspect their satellites or to launch détente.  Rizhsky Station took you to the Baltic states.  Kursky Station suggested suntanned vacations on the Black Sea.  From the small Sabelovsky and Paveletsky stations no one worthwhile traveled–only commuters or hordes of farmers as dusty as potatoes.  Most impressive by far were Leningrad, Yaroslavl and Kazan station, the three giants of Komsomol Square, and the strangest of these was Kazan Station, whose Tartar tower capped a gateway that might take you thousands of kilometers to the deserts of Afghanistan, to the siding of a Ural prison camp, or all the way across two continents to the shore of the Pacific.

At 6 a.m. inside Kazan Station, entire Turkman families lay head to feet on benches.  Babies with felt skullcaps nestled on soft bundles. Soldiers leaned slackly against the wall in a sleep to tangibly deep that the heroic mosaics of the ceiling overhead could have been their communal dream.  Bronze fixtures glowed dully.  At the one refreshment stand open, a girl in a rabbit-skin coat confided in Pasha Pavlovich.

This is from Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith, set in about 1981, the year it was published.  In other words, after the widespread use of the airplane.  The main character is a blunt detective type–and could be expected not to use the Oxford comma.

The first paragraph, all about where the trains go, is longer than the second, which is about people.  The first paragraph reflects how the POV character, the detective, is supposed to see Communist Russia; the second reflects how he sees the world around him when he’s not being monitored.  This is mainly effected by the pacing of the respective paragraphs.  More on that in a bit.

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Think Like A Librarian: Mockingbird Graphic Novels, by Chelsea Cain

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

The Mockingbird graphic novels, #1 and #2, written by Chelsea Cain and illustrated by Kate Niemczyk, are a short series of superhero comics in the Marvel universe (the same as the movies, but with a character that hasn’t appeared in any of the movies yet).  Anyone who has seen the first Avengers movie with probably have enough knowledge of how the Marvel universe works well enough to follow along.

Writer Chelsea Cain is best known for her serial killer/suspense novels in the Archie Sheridan/Gretchen Lowell series, beginning with Heartsick.  

Most of graphic novels in the main Marvel and DC universes are played in all seriousness, not for laughs.  There are some exceptions; one of the more recent characters who consistently gets played for laughs is Deadpool, but comic characters tend to be overwhelmed by the Batmans, Supermans, Professor Xs, Magnetos, and so on.

The comic characters also tend to be idiots; it’s pretty easy to squeeze a laugh out of Deadpool that way.

As portrayed in these two graphic novels, Mocking bird is a comic, yet still brilliant, character.  She faces off, in the first collection, against a hospital bureaucracy that’s almost more puissant than the actual villains she faces as a superhero.  In the second collection, she’s up against powerful forces again, but between her and victory stand two conventions and a cruise ship, including lots of adorable corgis.

My recommendations here are for people who want some light, humerous reading in a graphic novel format.  I would caution that this is a series that fits in the greater Marvel universe, so you’re just going to have to let some of the references fly by.  I don’t recommend this series for most teens, not because of the subject matter or language (which is more hinted at than shown), but because of the faster, quippier level of humor.  However, if a reader can keep up with Deadpool graphic novels (which can be quite witty and satirical), I’d give it a try.

The character is a bit Mary-Sue-ish:  good things happen for her and she is extremely irreverent toward the men in her life, but nothing happens without complications, reactions, or challenges.

would some readers that the humor here treats very lightly of some very serious issues, including a rape that happens before the events of the story.

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Pacing, Part 2: Form and Content

At some point, the beginning writer starts to notice that different stories are different from each other.  They don’t all seem to follow the same rules.  For a while (and I’ve seen this a lot), the writer tries to stretch “their” system of writing to fit the basics to cover all possible variations.  This is where you start hearing people say that the monomyth (Joseph Campbell) covers every possible plot, it just has variations.

But the fact is, the Joseph Campbell monomyth was never meant to cover every possible story–it’s just a story that he noticed cropping up in most cultures.  It’s a common story, but it’s not the only possible one.

If you’ve ever wondered why almost every Hollywood movie seems the same these days, it’s because the Joseph Campbell monomyth plot template has been used to whip writers into shape for so long that it’s hard for a screenwriter not to use it.

In other words, the content of a story takes on the form of whatever is used to tell the story.  If a Joseph Campbell monomyth plot is imposed on a story, then that story resembles all other Joseph Campbell stories.

It’s a good story, very sound, very popular–but it’s not the only way of fitting form and content together.

So if the monomyth isn’t the only possible story out there (and I know some of you are going to be saying, “But…she hasn’t proven that it isn’t!”), how do you build a story?

I propose that we start with the smallest aspects first–bottom up rather than top down.

With pacing.

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Pacing, Part 1: Welcome to Intermediate Writing!

When writers first start out, what they’re mainly aware of, writing-wise, is conflict.  This is when you sit down and start writing a scene and go, “This is two people fighting about something, how exciting!”  Let’s call that Level 0.

Beginning writers have started to be inundated with English classes; they often have a set of rules and guidelines that they have to follow (in order to pass the class).  They have learned that the vague mush of conflict can be split into categories:  character, setting, plot, grammar/punctuation/clarity, repetitiveness, style, mood, atmosphere.

Intermediate writers are starting to break off from the early categories and rules.  (If I’ve ever told you that every writer has to break at least one rule in order to become a good writer, you’re moving into this category.  It’s a gradual process.)  They have a decent grasp on the basics.  They are starting to think about things like tension, depth/opinion/voice, pacing, and condensing repetitive things instead of removing them.

Advanced writers are starting to mess with their readers, and they’re starting to put the pieces back together, so that character = voice = style = plot = mood = everything else.  Genre, and screwing with genre, is a big deal here.

And master writers don’t give a damn about anything but screwing with the reader.

The issues that I’ve been running across lately are people moving from beginning writer to intermediate writer–and having no idea that there’s anything between “beginning” and “master.”

Why am I not getting published?  Why am I not getting published in the top magazines in my genre?  Why is XYZ shitty writer getting published and paid millions of dollars and not me?

That’s the kind of complaint/attitude I’m seeing.  It comes from 90% of all writing advice being focused on beginners–because that’s where 90% of all writers are at, and where 90% of all writers drop out.  (I have no exact stats on that!)

The writers saying these things are decent at the basics for the most part, and may shine at one or two of them.  But they don’t really have a clue that there’s more to learn.

Next time:  what pacing is, and why it can do a world of good for an intermediate writer.

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Simple Epic Fantasy Plots, Part 4: Imposter Syndrome

If epic fantasy is often about coming of age…

  • In order to do/get the thing, the character has to pretend to be someone they’re not.
  • Sometimes that character isn’t willing to do so, and gets beaten down until they must fulfill that role.
  • Either they discover they’re not really faking it, OR they discover that no, it was just the hubris talking, and they were always a fake.
  • Often this type of story ends in a train wreck, especially if it’s a multi-volume series.  The end-end might turn out okay, but individual volumes can be a moral or literal bloodbath.

This would be things like the Mistborn series, the Farseer series, pretty much everything by KJ Parker (he almost always goes for the hubris path).  It all depends on whether you stay humble or get arrogant, and for how long.

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Simple Epic Fantasy Plots, Part 3: The Ambition

Okay, grimdark seems to love this plot like I love butter.

  • The thing must be accomplished at all costs, because reasons.
  • Hahahaha, reason.
  • Using methods the character never would have considered at the outset (and they considered more than a few things), the thing is accomplished!
  • And now they don’t want it, because the cost was too high.
  • But DAMN if it didn’t get accomplished.

I really, really love this type of story.  Mark Lawrence’s Prince of ThornsThe Lies of Locke Lamora, the Kingkiller Chronicles (so far).  Fullmetal Alchemist.  Even Frankenstein does this.

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