Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Darkness and light

Stories are strange concoctions, where disparate ingredients are combined to make a satisfying brew. There are opposing forces: good and evil; pleasure and pain; light and dark. In the balance which is essential to a fine tale, one must be careful not to go to extremes.

A story which is too serious tends to be too heavy. That which is too light tends toward frivolity. An enjoyable work will juxtapose the two, carefully weighing one against the other until all is in equilibrium.

Characters must have moments of joy, in order to appreciate the loss when they are suffering. If all is misery, there is nothing to fight for. Such an existence is subsistence and nothing more.

Readers hope the best for the characters they love. They will watch that person descend into darkness, but wish fervently they be not consumed. As events conspire to drive a character to madness, the literary spectator cheers them on to overcome and retain their mental faculties.

Moments of levity inevitably sharpen the eventual times of despair. If you like that person, you will laugh with them and weep for them. And the more contact you have, the deeper your enjoyment will be.

Even the individuals that are not likable can be understood. And thus, it behooves the author not to drown their reader with too much emotional turmoil. You must keep the pressure up, without crushing the enthusiasm.  For it is through excitement and enticement that a reader can be happily drawn into a literary trap. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Making it real

Reality can be a stumbling-block to many an artistic endeavor. It tends to ground the many flights of fancy the mind is keen to take us on. It limits the spectrum with which we paint such breath-taking landscapes as our imagination provides.  But the real compels like the unreal cannot.

Writing is an exercise of the mind, and ideas flow best when unrestricted. However, these pleasures are for but a season. Fantastic notions, while exhilarating for a time, soon reveal their lack of substance and thus subside.

Conversely, a work that is entirely realistic will fail to inspire, merely reminding one of their dreary existence. It is once more in the balance between the arcane and the mundane that true literary bliss can be found. That which is fanciful is too light, and that which is practicable too heavy. The latter will crush your enthusiasm, while the former will carry you away.

Certain elements of an unreal story can impart a sense of reality to the work. If the characters are real people with genuine feelings, then the reader will see them as natural even in an exotic world. But this suspension of disbelief is such a fragile thing, and can easily be dispelled by the slightest transgression in the portrayal.

A tale is most compelling when people forget they are reading and immerse themselves in the world you have so lovingly fashioned. To achieve such a state requires believable characters, conceivable actions, measurable results and pleasurable outcomes. There is a balance to all things natural. Your audience should never descry a zipper on the monster’s back.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

What do you remember?

Repetition is a necessary evil in writing. To mention something once is to ensure that it will be forgotten. Twice gives an echo of the first, but is not usually sufficient for recall. However, to repeat it several times is to run the risk of being redundant.

There is a balance to all things, and the elements of a story must constantly be balanced. Add too much to one side, and the thing will topple over. The progression of a tale is akin to walking a tightrope: don’t lose your balance.

Names must be repeated to be remembered. However, the character’s name need not be plastered on every line they speak. As you build a character in the telling of your story, certain characteristics can be used to identify which person is speaking: hair color, gender, age, etc. If you have two people with the same physical attribute, you must work even harder to make it clear which one you are referring to.

Also, certain details in a story must be repeated to be remembered. A character’s vocation, relations, and deviations are just a few of the things that will be lost amidst your prose without reminders of their importance. To know someone, they must be familiar to you. We come to know individuals over time, through repeated contact.

Subtlety is key, so the repetition needs to be embedded seamlessly into the narrative. Readers do not need to have details shouted at them for such things to be remembered. A friendly reminder every now and then will go a long way toward establishing familiarity without redundancy.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Writing what you like

The term "genre" is a fancy way of denoting a type of art. Concerning literature, this would mean a kind of story: drama, action, horror, mystery, romance, fantasy, etc. No two humans are exactly the same, but unlike snowflakes, we do not melt on contact with a solid surface.

They say you should write what you know, but I take it one step further: write what you like. If you don't have experience with the subject matter, your interest will lead you to research it. Or at least you will write with a gusto that is intoxicating to the reader. There are many types of stories that I like to read, and sometimes even the styles I am not familiar with can be inspiring.

It is from the internal wellspring that we pour the words onto a page. There is a delight in the creative process which gives us the energy to carry a tale to completion. Often a great deal of perseverance is required, so it is essential to have a liking for that which you are laboring to make.

The best genre is the one you enjoy most. It is possible to construct a story through much struggle against disinterest. But this creation will likely be tainted by your own malaise. Rather, there is that tale which excites one to write feverishly and end a session in a contented exhaustion.

No genre is superior to another. That is why readers all over the world have enjoyed a variety of styles over hundreds of years. What draws them is the enthusiasm of the author. It is the life's blood of a creative mind... and it is infectious.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Critical observations

I hate criticism: it is just too critical for my tastes. You spend a great deal of time making something, only to have it torn apart before your very eyes. You gather up the pieces, and try to stick them back together with an abundance of adhesive. But it is never the same again...

People obsess over what they don't like, sometimes entirely neglecting to mention what they do. It is hard for me to take such criticism seriously. In my entire life, there have been very few things I can honestly say have no redeeming value. I have never been able to say this about a movie, much less a work of literature.

Now, I am not trying to justify bad writing and poor composition. If there is a problem, then it should be mentioned.... once you focus on the things the writer did right. After all, a critique expounds on the qualities of a work, not on all the gaps in between.

And the positive aspects should always come first. If I tell someone they have fly-away hair, a greasy complexion, spindly arms and knobby knees; they will not really want to hear that I think they have a great personality. And when the negative rears its ugly head, it should never be in the form of an insult. Human beings have fragile egos which, just like hearts, must be handled with care.

You should appreciate people for who they are; and their work deserves the same. Once this is done, then it is up to the writer to be able to handle the criticism. Everyone wants to have that rough draft which is perfect: the words drip like honey from the page; there are no grammatical errors; cats and dogs live together in peace and harmony... But that is the goal, not the starting point.

And as for the hypercritical, a writer must develop a tough skin. These things will never change, so you must change your reactions to them. Consider the criticism: is it correct? Is this a real problem or a matter of taste? If two or more people, who do not know each other, mention the same thing; then you should look into it. For the goal is to reach the destination... the cats and dogs will thank you.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The gem cutter's guide to editing

Diamonds start out as rough stones. They must be cut and fashioned to be truly valuable. Editing is like gem cutting: a delicate process by which undesirable material is removed and what remains is polished in order to render a product of real artistic beauty.

Of course, both of these processes require a bit of cutting. Just as gemstones start out as something less desirable, a rough draft must often be shortened through the use of strategic cuts in order to become a viable piece of literature. The genius in editing is to know where to make cuts, what parts are necessary, and how to smooth everything out so the story can be presented in the best possible fashion.

The mind wanders when one is writing. The scene that seemed pertinent is actually peripheral, and perhaps even a distraction from the story being told. It is paramount in editing to be honest with yourself concerning what you want and what you need.

Focus is essential, like the jeweler carefully studying the gem he is cutting. He cannot leave the one piece jutting out, yet there is always the fear that he will cut too much or wind up with a handful of shards. But that is why he works with great care, eschewing both recklessness and frustration.

Editing is a delicate matter, but essential to the fashioning of a satisfying product. Cuts can be painful, but the advantages far exceed any minor inconvenience that is experienced. Slowly and delicately, each page becomes a shining facet of the whole. Once the cutting, grinding and polishing is finished, you hold in your hands a precious gem.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Feeling fear

Fear is among the most intense of emotions. It affects the individual on a primal level. We fear that which will harm us: either on the outside or within. And it is one of the strongest motivators there is.

To invoke fear is to reach into a person's depths. In a story, this is accomplished in many ways, but the focus is really on building a mood. As the tension heightens, the reader becomes wary and will jump at their own shadow. Any sense of safety is stripped away, and the world becomes a dangerous place indeed.

In life, calm gives way to anxiety quite easily. Peace turns to peril as we hear about horrible things happening. The natural tendency is to worry about one's own state. The uncertainty bodes ill...

The goal in writing about such things is to amplify the fear, and thus build the intensity. Readers feel secure in their detachment, at first. However, when the literary landscape starts to shift, their confidence is shaken. They are immersed in a world where everything can harm you and no one is safe.

All genres deal with fear to one extent or another: the killer on the loose; the dangers of the battlefield; strange eldritch powers; malevolent alien entities; the lover scorned. Whether the threat is real or imagined, physical or psychological, the character must face it or be overwhelmed. And the reader empathizes, facing a crisis of their own: whether to fight their fear or fly into a safe, warm place within.

Much of the enjoyment of a story comes in witnessing a person being challenged. Will they overcome this trial or succumb to its fury? There is hope for victory and fear of failure. If the situation is dire, and the risk is great, there is a genuine sense of terror and a dawning realization that one's best efforts may not be enough.