Boss Fights

In games, there always seems to be that battle. It’s the one that catches you off guard, the one in which you have to spend hours leveling up or figuring out the right method of attack. Maybe it’s that level you have do over and over again until you get it right.

The nice thing about video games is that once you beat the boss, it doesn’t come back. Well, unless it does, and it’s even harder the second time. But the game always ends… unless it’s one of those games that doesn’t.

So maybe my example here is a little rough, but the point is that we tend to fight our emotions like they’re boss fights. One of my battles is with anger.

I’ve thrown a few phones, been a cabinet slammer, a mess. I try but I don’t always express it healthily, so I always wonder, how the hell do I beat it? There’s supposed to be a top to the hill, you get over it, and you roll back down. There’s always that voice that says, “can’t you just snap out of it?” which then results in an amplification of the rage.

Unfortunately, it’s not something you beat. It’s something you manage, same with all your other feelings. It’s a response. But, crazy enough, we’re allowed to feel. It’s alright to be angry. It’s what you do about that emotion that matters. It’s not fair to others to let it out on others; that’s something my partner told me when I was snapping at him once, and he was right.

So what do I do with it? Managing is much easier in theory. And I struggle with it, alongside plenty of other issues. Everyone carries their boss fights on their back. One thing I do when I’m frustrated is write about angry people, the curmudgeons. It allows me to step out of my own head and think about my emotions from a different perspective. Everything you feel is a tool to help you learn. By teaching my characters a lesson about themselves, a little epiphany moment, I learn a little bit too. Our stories give back to us.


Body Language

I’m sitting here eating ham out of its packaging and thinking about the film I watched the other night. Mt. Hood was out the window, glowing red in dusk, and with my partner’s grandmother I watched Buster Keaton’s 1926 The General.
I have a soft spot for silent film that started with a course German expressionist cinema. I think I was one of a few people in the class who watched Metropolis on the edge of their seat.
Anyway, The General was a hoot, to use one of my favorite colloquialism. Most impressive was perhaps a scene in which a locomotive crashed on a burning bridge and fell into a river. There were no tricks, it was a real train that collapsed on a real bridge, filmed in 1926. They had one take.

As it says underneath the video and on a few other sights, it was one of the most expensive stunts of its time. Wow.
Anyway, I always pay more attention to silent films, and maybe because I need to. Maybe it’s because I can’t skim by on the dialogue and the narrative cueing. So much is told through body language and I think I forgot that sometimes in writing that those physical actions can say a lot. They can enrich the text. They can complicate characters, who may say one thing and then do the other.

There are many ways to enrich the experience of a story. And how lucky we are to have all these angles to tell it from, how every voice is different, and how our slant perspectives build worlds.

Learn Everything

Some of the best fiction writing advice I’ve ever received? Take a poetry course. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky said, “A sentence is like a tune. A memorable sentence gives its emotion a melodic shape. You want to hear it again, say it—in a way, to hum it to yourself. You desire, if only in the sound studio of your imagination, to repeat the physical experience of that sentence. That craving, emotional and intellectual but beginning in the body with a certain gesture of sound, is near the heart of poetry.”

Poetry can transform your prose. In fact, any subject of study can better your writing. Find inspiration in economics, in physics, in psychology, in other languages. I never wanted to pick a major, but I had to, (and my university doesn’t have a creative writing major), so I got into film.

Why? Filmmaking techniques are powerful. they change your perspective on media. I watch films differently, thinking about cuts, and framing, and mise-en-scene and in doing so I study culture. It also has beautiful parallels to writing.

Consider the Kuleshov Effect. An audience was first shown a shot of a bowl of soup. Then a shot of a man’s face. Then a girl in a coffin. His face. A woman on a divan. His face. The audience thought that the man’s expression was different between each shot, but they were actually shown the same image of the man each time.

The audience perceived emotion based off the connections between two visuals. The way we put images on top of each other matters. It’s the basis of Soviet montage theory; meaaning exists between images, in the collision, within editing cuts. It’s easy to think about in poetry. “A continual click of a pen. / The spring in a leg. /The gnaw. The rubbing rows of teeth.” We get the sense of neurosis through the specific images.

When we say something like, “The couple walked by. I crossed my arms.”

We get the meaning in the white space between the sentences. We’ve learned about the narrator through two images put together. How amazing is it that the spaces between our sentences can help us tell our stories? There’s merit to learning how other media function. So no doubt there’s value in learning alternative writing formats. If you write poetry, research some fiction techniques. Fiction writers, practice poetics. Take technical writing. Learn color theory, learn ray tracing, learn price discrimination, learn reality television. Learn everything.

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I’ll Take My Stake Rare, Please

Give me five seconds to sell you. Take this hook and jam it in your mouth, let me reel you out of the water and cook you; let me do it in one sentence because this first sentence is critical to your story’s success. In Clark Blaise’s “How Stories Mean” he says, “More decisions are made on the basis of the first few sentences of a story than on any other part . . . the story seeks its beginning, the story many times is its beginning, amplified.”

My creative writing teacher put it this way, “What’s at stake?” Our first sentence shows us the risk. It reveals what John Barth called the “unstable homeostatic system.” In his essay “Incremental Perturbation: How to Know whether You’ve Got a Plot or Not” he describes this term as a “ground situation: an overtly or latently voltaged state of affairs preexisting the story’s present time . . . [it] is essentially less than stable.” Basically, it’s the trouble. Events before the story takes place which drive the plot, whatever is boiling in the background that will be complicated throughout the story.

So that first sentence expresses the friction, what could be gained, what could be lost. What a load of pressure. Crafting this sentence takes the right combination of spices and marinades, and how long you leave it on the grill (depending on your style and tone.)

Here are a few of my favorite first lines, and little bit on how they look when cut open.

Aimee Bender, “The Rememberer”
“My lover is experiencing reverse evolution.”

This instantly puts us in a type of magical reality, in which the events aren’t allegorical but physically happening. We know the narrator and the subject of the story, and that it’s going to go from big elements to small (reverse evolution.)

Stuart Dybek “Paper Lantern.”
“We were working late on the time machine in the little makeshift lab upstairs.”

The time-machine isn’t quite as literal as reverse evolution in “The Rememberer,” but it sets up a tone of going back into time through memory in the rest of the story. This also an example of a great hook in general.

Raymond Carver “They’re Not Your Husband.”
“Earl Ober was between jobs as a salesman but Doreen, his wife, had gone to work nights as a waitress at a twenty-four hour coffee shop at the edge of town.”

We know the main character’s personality instantly. He’s between jobs so he is out of work, but his attitude and his outlook on the world is like a salesman. “Edge of town” suggests isolation, and likely a shabbier area. Setting indicates situation.

David Quammen “Walking Out.”
“As the train rocked dead at Livingston he saw the man, in a worn khaki shirt with button flaps buttoned, arms crossed. The boy’s hand sprang up by reflex, and his face broke into a smile.”

This is quite possibility my favorite story. It describes the man (the boy’s father) through his clothes and how the flaps of his shirt are actually folded as if they usually aren’t, and his arms crossed suggests fear of socialization. And boy’s reactions “by reflex” and “broke” show how word choice shows his emotional relationship to his father.

Think of how you’re going to cook your first sentence. Consider what’s it’s going to look like when you cut it open to see if it’s done to your liking.

What are some of your favorite first sentences, written by others or ones you’ve written yourself?

An Admission

It’s raining. The kind of rain that suggests curling up in a blanket with a steaming cup of tea, soft music, that perfect book. Instead, I’m going to a football game.

But there’s this mood that comes with rain. It’s a mist that has me thinking about my reading tendencies, and I have a confession to make.

I don’t always finish books. It’s an awful habit I’ve developed recently, and it’s been happening even to the books I love, the ones that I carry around in my backpack just to know they’re there, the ones by my nightstand, the ones that have inspired my own writing. I get about halfway through and I just… don’t go further. My brain stalls out.

It’s begun to affect my writing. I throttle through the first half, I edit, I polish, and I play. But then it crosses over this magic line in the rising action and suddenly the words go downhill before the story arc should. The end is a muddy puddle at the bottom of the hill. It’s always the second half that stumbles in workshop.

I need make it through. I owe it to the authors that I admire. I think of their hard-work to create these amazing worlds and wonder what’s stopping me from being a part of it until the end. I’m at this stubborn roadblock. How do I get it out of my way?

We fall into ruts, we keep letting tires run over us.

What drives you to finish your projects? What keeps you coming back?


Don’t Fall In

We care about the edges. When we approach a hole, the most important thing to know about it is its outline. That way, we don’t fall in. Our eyes use a process called “lateral inhibition.” The cells increase contrast between light and dark, making those edges even darker than they actually are.

I always think it’s interesting to consider how other subjects compare to writing, how different vocabularies can transfer and blend. In this case, maybe we can consider how to focus on the edges in our writing.

One moment, one description, can define a larger part of a character. A part illustrates the whole. And the most important part of the (w)hole is the edge. So when writing details, we must think about what why that small piece of information is so important. What does it bring out, what theme does it bring contrast to?

Another way to think about it, consider the clique “tip of the iceberg.” You tell your reader one thing, but that one thing has all this important information underneath. But you don’t want that one thing to be a random point along the iceberg. No, you picked the tip. And that says you’re paying attention to what you’re writing.. We can look at subtext in this manner. There’s a great lettuce moment in Alice Munro’s “Miles City, Montana” in which the story’s couple discusses lettuce on sandwiches, but the underlying truth is the tension in their stranded relationship. This adds complexity, layers. You’re showing instead of telling. Of course, there’s a lot of problems with phrase “show, don’t tell.” I think we can tell. We just have to tell the right things, tell enough so that we don’t fall in the hole. Or if you’re telling, think of how those images you’re creating can complicate the characters and their situations.

Our eyes are in motion. Small eye movements refresh our view. They stop desensitization. If our eyes never moved, through for example the process of retinal stabilization, images would shrivel into one shade of gray. We don’t want our stories to be uniform. We want them to change perspectives, put stale objects in motion and refresh our view of the world. It can be as simple. Make sure your sentences aren’t all the same length. By varying them, you keep the reader thinking; help them try to define the shape. Make patterns. Break patterns.

In George Saunder’s essay “Rise, Baby, Rise” he discusses Donald Barthelme’s story “The School.” When talking about rising action he says, “Barthelme is going to fling us forward via a series of surprises; each new pattern-element is going to be introduced in a way we don’t expect, or with an embellishment that delights us.”

Surprise. Embellish. Delight.

Respect Your Distance

Always know where you’re standing. Imagine a horizontal line, on one end is what we’ll call the voice of the author. On the other end is the character’s voice. For now, consider author = 3rd person and character =1st person. You (or your voice) can be at either end of the spectrum, or at some point along the line. But for tone, diction, perspective, narration, style, and etc. you have to know which point you start on and where you step. Maybe you dance across the line from one end of the other, but you better know those moves by heart.

This is the basis of Free Indirect Style (a term coined by James Wood in How Fiction Works.) It was the subject of my capstone project for my yearlong creative-writing program at the UO. I’m thinking about it because I’m starting a new story but I can’t get past the first sentence. I’m a nitpicker. Each word matters. Each word comes from a source, and it depends on narration, so where am I? What am I trying to do? Am I inhabiting my character entirely? If so, would she say jogging or jaunting? (Then we must consider Strunk and White: Don’t use complex words when simple words will do.) Say, perhaps, I write in third person, but I step towards my character. For example,

“Ezra thought she had to let go of the baby’s carriage”
“She had to let go of the baby’s carriage.”

In the first sentence, I’m maintaining my authorial status, I’m distant from Ezra. In the second status, I’ve become Ezra. Now, letting go of the carriage feels like a requirement; the importance is placed on “had” and the reader should feel closer and identify better with Ezra. Virginia Woolf used this all the time; James Joyce too. (In our class we studied his use of Free indirect in “The Dead.”) One of my favorite authors, Lydia Davis, is a free indirect master. I used her short story “The Fears of Mrs. Orlando” as my main example for explaining the concept.

We can turn our horizontal line into a graph or a spectrum by adding a vertical axis. It could be the voice of the narrator. Perhaps our author-narrator is another character. Or the first person narrator isn’t the main character. Where can we throw in first person omniscience? What if our vertical line involves the reader, how directly do we tell the story to you?

Of course, thinking too much about this is going to slow you down. I’m so focused on editing on things I haven’t written yet. You need to know the rules, but every once in a while you need to remember to forget them.

(But the more I think about it, would Ezra say “baby carriage” or “stroller”?)