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Think Like a Librarian: Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk

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.

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Haunted is a collection of short horror stories tied together by one story that threads together the others.  I do not recommend this collection for anyone who isn’t already a horror fan.  If a reader has any concerns about gore or offensive material, then I wouldn’t recommend this.  This is a much more challenging book than Fight Club, and liking Fight Club isn’t a good predictor on whether a reader would like Haunted.

The general idea is that a patron of literature has offered a small group of amateur writers the chance to get away from it all in order for each of them to write their masterpiece; however, no one will know where they’ve gone and they won’t have any contact with the outside world.

The writers who become involved with this effort are not, shall we say, on the up-and-up, and look forward for the chance to disappear for three months, even more than they look forward for the chance to write without being disturbed.

Which is just as well, because disturbed is what they get.

This collection contains Palahniuk’s infamous short story “Guts,” which is supposed to have made several people faint with how repulsive the story is.  The story is one of the finest examples of gross-out horror that could ever be envisioned, not even barring Stephen King’s work, but I believe the real cause of the fainting is that the story starts off by telling the reader to hold their breath!

Terrible things happen, and I have to warn you not to look for a happy ending.

To put it mildly.

In addition, don’t expect the supernatural.  Palahniuk finds enough horror within the human species to satisfy without turning to something outside it.

I would recommend this book for older teens and up, people with strong stomachs only.  The book is darkly funny, and is really the most vicious of satires rather than horror–but it almost requires an understanding of how horror works in order for the satire to work.  Reading this book will make things like Saw and Hostel look like lightweights; it may also introduce darkly cynical horror-movie buffs to the enchantments of satire as a literary art.

Incidentally, the cover on some of the print versions glows in the dark 🙂

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Pacing, Part 8: The Cask of Amontillado

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

It’s a big jump, going from “The Quick Brown Fox” to Edgar Allen Poe, but I think we’re ready.

Take a moment to look at the story, here.  Whatever you do, don’t stop to read it.  Bah!  Just skim through it.  We’re just going to look at form and not content for now.

Take a look at:

  • How long the story is (you can always copy/paste the story into a word processor document and count the words, if you like).
  • How long the paragraphs are (ditto).
  • The pattern of long vs. short paragraphs (long-short-long-short, or long-long-long-short-short short, etc.).
  • Where the long paragraphs are (in the beginning? in the middle? in several places?) vs. where the short paragraphs are.
  • What are the paragraph patterns at the beginning and the end of the story.
  • Do long paragraphs contain long sentences, short sentences, or a mix?
  • Are the dialogue sentences longer or shorter than the descriptive ones, in general?
  • Of the two characters, who has the longer dialogue sentences?
  • Of the two characters, who has the more complex sentences (that is, the sentences with the more phrases in them)?
  • Who has the longer words?

As a rule of thumb:

  • The average length of a word in English is 5 letters.
  • The average length of a sentence in English is 15-20 words.
  • A line of printed text is about 10-15 words in a book.
  • A medium sort of paragraph in fiction is about 3-5 lines, or 30 to 75 words.
  • A medium-length short story is about 3,000 to 6,000 words.

Imagine that very short paragraphs of 10 words or less are yellow, short pararaphs of less than 3 full lines are green, medium paragraphs of 3-5 full lines are blue, longish paragraphs of 5-7 full lines are purple, and very long paragraphs are red.

What are the main colors used in this story?  Would the pattern be mixed or consistent?  What is the longest stretch of one single color?

If you’d like, now you can stop to read the story.

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Pacing, Part 7: The Quick Brown Fox

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

We’ve just looked at words.  Now let’s look at phrases.

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

Our phrases here are:

  • The quick brown fox
  • jumped
  • over
  • the lazy dog

or however you want to slice that.  Up to you.

The speedy umber vixen hurdles the apathetic pooch.

This is a different version of the first sentence, using different words but the same phrases.  The units are the same; they’re attached the same way.  It’s colored a little bit differently than the first sentence, sure, but it means essentially the same thing.

The speedy umber vixen, the farm’s femme fatale, hurdles the apathetic pooch with a grace that justifies her pillage.

This is a different version of the first sentence, using different words and different phrases.  The units are not the same.

  • The speedy umber vixen
  • the farm’s femme fatale
  • hurdles
  • the apathetic pooch
  • with
  • a grace
  • that
  • justifies
  • her pillage

Again, you can slice this up as you like.  Not only are the words generally longer or more Frenchified, there are more of them in total, in bigger structure.

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

You can’t communicate the same content–that the fox is the heroine of this story, admired by the narrator, despite the loss of the eggs–with the original words or the original way the phrases were structured within the sentence.  It doesn’t mean the same thing.

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.  She stole a dozen eggs over the last week.  Nobody could catch her.  Nobody bothered to try.

It’s not to say that short words and short, straightforward sentences can’t make for decent writing.  It’s just that the content changes, depending on the materials you choose, and how you choose to stick them together.

The speedy umber vixen, the farm’s femme fatale, leapt her skinny ass over the apathetic dog, praying that this time she wouldn’t get caught, not with four kits back waiting for her at home.

The easiest way to think of pacing at this level is that the form reflects the content; however, it’s not always straightforward.  If that was the only consideration, then the sentence above would have to be short, even shorter than the original sentence–it’s a short, smooth jump that the fox is making.

But there are other considerations.   More on that later.

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Writer Resources: On Robin Williams’ Comedy

(public domain photo)

The video “How Robin Williams Makes Us Smile” is from a solid YouTube series by Ryan Hollinger on movies, games, etc., and I particularly like the creator’s perspective on horror.

This video explains just what the title says: how Robin Williams makes us smile.  Hint:  he’s honest about his emotions.

As I was watching this, I realized that I’m not a “pantser” writer, but an improv writer.  I set up the word processor and let the characters do improv.

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Pacing, Part 6: Dog

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

All right, let’s get out a thesaurus and look up dog.

pup, puppy, bitch, cur, doggy, hound, mongrel, mutt, pooch, stray, tyke, bowwow, fido, flea bag, man’s best friend, tail-wagger

As well as a list of dog breeds.

Affenpinscher, Afghan hound, Afghan shepherd, Aidi, Airdale terrier, Akbash, Akita…

Each of those words has a character of its own.  It not only denotes something (that is, to serve as the word “for” something) but connotes, or implies, some other things.  A cur is not man’s best friend, for example, even though both denote some king of dog.

In addition, each of these words has, to go back to the woodworking metaphor, a particular sound that it makes, a particular face that it makes you make, when you say it.  A currrrrrrr literally makes you make an angrier, growlier face than straaaaaay, which almost makes your face smile.  (Check a mirror.)

The words also have lengths: cur, stray, man’s best friend.

Your word choice here is the base level of material with which you build your story.  You can treat the word sincerely, ironically, or with other tones–you can call a beautifully groomed Pomeranian a cur, for example.

How do you know what words to choose?  We’ll get to that…

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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.

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.

 

 

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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