Saturday, January 15, 2011

NO DAMSELS IN DISTRESS, PLEASE!

I've never been a fan of helpless maidens in literature. Andromeda chained to the rocks for Perseus to rescue from the sea serpent is one thing -- after all, her mother, Queen Cassiopeia, inadvertantly brokered that nasty predicament by insulting the gods. No, what I'm referring to are the meek, whiny little gals who play up their ineptness -- whether genuine or feigned -- and allow their (usually love-struck) male protagonists to put themselves in peril in order to rescue them. Book covers, movie posters, old paintings -- the theme has been depicted over and over for countless years: The man standing all staunch with his cutlass or his pistol, the lady sprawled below him, in threadbare tatters, clutching his leg in gratitude -- I'm happy that we seem to be moving away from this.

Although I could indeed cite sundry instances of strong women from the likes of Jane Austen et al, I am basically going to tether myself example-wise to some of my contemporary faves. Xena--Warrior Princess, Bêlit of Conan fame, Ripley of the Alien franchise, Aeryn Sun of Farscape, even -- and maybe especially -- Lornette "Mace" Mason (Angela Bassett) in 1995's Strange Days (feel free to plug in your personal favourite; this is a blog, not a novel!): these are women with depth. Strong yet soft, fierce and yet tender, and above all, self-sufficient gals who sometimes permit a man (or a woman, in Xena's case) to venture behind their granite exteriors; just being acquainted with one of these fictional firebrands makes a person forget about all of the namby-pamby ones.

In my own novel, my two major females exhibit strength in ways that are unrelated but are basic at their cores. Magdelena is the earthbound one, disillusioned with modern culture, unhappy with the avarice and acquisition that so preponderates our current times. She is a warrior in her own right, active in lambasting the celebrity-chasing, covetous, honourless lemmings of our society. Granted, although it may seem that her companion, Miracle, overshadows her because of his more mystical abilities, her strengths have no such augmentation, nor do they require it. As for my other female lead, meet J'nea, the prison trusty on Ergos. A criminal in her youth, the courts marked her for life with the stigma of scarification. Years later, she still remains a pariah to some, even as the aid that she selflessly dispenses to those who ostracise her might find a less endurable character throwing in the towel and becoming bitter and hateful. She is neither, but she does have her quirks. The queen of mood swings, she is a formidable adversary and an even more formidable friend, and she doesn't need a sword, a bow, or a quarterstaff to let you know this. Both of these characters exhibit qualities that I revere in women, albeit in different ways. I suspect that, were I part of their storylines, I would truly want to meet Magdelena, but I would need to meet J'nea.

In essence, I find these types of female characters far more interesting and rewarding to create, to write about, to gradually reveal in my work, than those perpetually in-need-of-saving maidens whose times have hopefully come and gone. And even if we still do find the latter's presence in our literature and our films (because they do, in fact, still exist in reality), I hope that they are contrasted and diminished by the former, that we may see and decide for ourselves which of them proves the most memorable.

TRY THE SIMPLE WAY FIRST...

Of the many writing and literature courses that I slogged through on my tortuous (and sometimes, torturous) path to obtaining my college degree, it was actually a lowly Creative Writing 101 experience that deposited me - rather gruffly, I might add - at the first, major crossroads of my literary odyssey.

The second writing assignment of the semester, our task as students was to scribe a brief piece whose purpose was to evoke pathos from our readers (in this case, our fellow classmates). Eager to shine, that evening I fired up my electric typewriter (remember, the earth had only just cooled in those days, and the PC of the moment was the Commodore 64 - which was not in my budget), and made ready to compose what I hoped would be the standout paper of the class.

I succeeded. I did, in fact, craft the standout example. In the following morning's critique, my professor singled out one paper and read it aloud as the worst example of over-thought, adjective-drowned, scenery-chewed writing that he'd seen in a long time. Mortified - and probably ruddy-faced - I was grateful that he did not reveal the author's name to my peers. He then went on to read several other submissions, the bulk of which were average to above average - with one or two true gems - and through my silent shame I gradually began to glean the tremendous service that his criticism had truly done me. In listening to the classroom give-and-take, I started to see how my story, about a man on death row whose time of execution was mere hours away, was indeed, horrifyingly!, all of the things that my professor had stated. For example, to relate the lonely inmate's breakdown, I had written something really cheesy like: "Salty rivulets trickled from the glistening crescents of his eyes," when I would have done better to put it ridiculously simply, like: "He wept." It was a true revelation! Succinctness can actually say scads more than adjective-ridden prose. Who knew? That day opened my glistening crescen-- I mean, my eyes.

Do I always follow that teaching? Some of my readers might say: "Hah!" Alas, like one of my novel's main characters, Tamek of Vishkor, I am admittedly a bit verbose - not because I've reverted to my old, sinful practises, mind you, but because wordsmithing is fun for me. I like to learn new (and revive very olde) words, and I enjoy introducing them to my readers. On the other hand, my "edits" could always stand to be tightened up a bit. Okay, maybe more than a bit. But, thus far, the laudations have overwhelmed the objections; and I assure you, I am far more polished (and less cheesy) than that bewildered college student of once ago. So, on I go; but please know that I do so with the tether of that Creative Writing experience ever around my literary gullet, to remind me of the dangers of wordly (and wordy) excesses.

VOCABULARY FROM OFF THE BEATEN PATH

Much of what my readers have to say in their feedback of my novel is that I force them to crack their dictionaries a bit more than they're used to. In fact, alongside of "intriguing premise" and "well-developed characters," I usually see "challenging vocabulary" tagged on somewhere within the body of any given critique. And while I concede that it's indeed interruptive to any good narrative to have to pause mid-read in order to investigate a definition, I promise you that I don't purposely set out to frustrate my readers. That wouldn't be good for business. However, I happen to love words, new and old; and whether you opt to skip past a difficult one or look it up is actually not so far out of keeping with the way that we initially went about learning the words that we already know.

As adults, too many of us assume that our vocabulary-building days were satisfied way back at graduation time, and anything left wandering the realm of unexplored words beyond that point is just pointless superfluousness. Not so! Words are really way cool. They're like treasure—like ambrosia to the brain just waiting to be tapped and absorbed and utilised by anyone with the chutzpa to task his intellectual comfort zone beyond mere curricular requirements. The dictionaries are absolutely awash in perfectly good words that rarely get any play in these contemporary times. Why is it that so many of us are content to clutch tightly our little strongboxes of middling vernacular when there are nouns and verbs and adjectives galore just lying around us like gold for the picking?

So, for you adventurous readers, I'm going to list five interesting words that I've used in my novel, words that I don't think are employed nearly enough these days. Choose one or two, look them up, and see if you can't deploy them now and again in your everyday conversation. Then, in the tradition of Johnny Appleseed, maybe we can help to grow our language back to full bloom.

1) callipygian  2) smaragdine 3) perspicacious 4) slattern  5) eidola

THE AUDACITY OF LONG-WINDED WRITERS

Recently, I was corresponding with a colleague about the ever-increasing penchant in our society toward instant gratification. Lightning-fast video and music downloads, on-demand TV, real-time news events, ubiquitous cell phone coverage and IMing, fast food, faster food, midnight releases of hot new products -- you get the drift. In steering the conversation into books, he happened to mention the length and longwindedness of a certain author's (with the initials GV) current opus, and how a bit less detail and description would have made said author's story move along more quickly. Hmmm... I've noticed this a lot in a number of book reviews and forum threads. And here's my question: Why does everything need to move along more quickly?

My argument is as follows: Although one can always be tighter on one's editing, there are novels that are simply not meant to be speed-read (or is that sped-read?). While some books are indeed meant to be breezy, and others, technical or whimsical or ribald or whatever, there is usually a reason (and a target audience?) in mind for the author who pens with elaboration. As for me, my training and interest lie foremost in classic literature -- and very little of that is breezy, let me tell you! And, as I don't see a whole lot of Olde-Tyme literature being written anymore, I thought I'd try my hand at some -- in the guise of an other-worldly adventure. I think it works. Some readers agree. Others just don't get it. But there's nothing wrong with this. That's the beauty of having a few billion books available in the world -- there's inevitably something for everyone. So, I say to all discriminating and/or indecisive readers: If you want to take some quality time with a book and get into its characters, its settings, its sundry convolutions, its non-conformist author, you might try that Verdegast guy. If you're looking to zip through your quota of a few novels a week, you might want to leave my opus, OF STAVES AND SIGMAS, on the pile.

As always, Happy Reading!

AVOIDING THE CLICHÉ IN YOUR WRITING

So you want your writing to be fresh, eh? You'd like to ensnare your readers with an enthralling narrative that contains crisp, vivid descriptions and realistic dialogue? Well, typically I would congratulate you on your ambitious and stalwart intent—if it weren't for the fact that most writers set out with pretty much the same sentiment. Some achieve it to varying degree. Some don't. Yet, it's not always the most highly revered writer who does it best.

Clearly, it would be pretentious of me to attempt to mentor anything regarding your plot or your characterisation. The manner in which you conceive and structure your book's exposition, climax, and dénouement is likewise none of my affair. Those rascally literary devices are forever your critters to wrangle and to herd into some legible and coherent formation. However, when it comes to the technical aspects of the craft, I can quite happily oblige you with a few pointers of experiential say-so. And, since I like to keep my blogs pithy and succinct, I'm going to concentrate on only one of said aspects in particular: the cliché.

Yes—we use them all the time in conversation. We see them in advertising. Popular music is riddled with them. Popular culture banks on them. They're ready-made; they're memorable; they slip off the tongue with nary an effort:
He searched to and fro.
Her mouth ran a mile a minute.
They arrived just in the nick of time.
However, in your book-bound narrative, clichés should probably be as rare as hen's teeth (« see, there's another one!). In fact, the only instance where you might permit a cliché to freely intrude upon your story—and even here I would strive to avoid it—is when it arrives through the mouth of one of your characters. And why, you ask, is this? Well, as I stated above, ordinary people use them frequently (and sometimes ad nauseam) in conversation. And to keep your fictional characterisations real, it seems logical for the occasional cliché to issue from your players' lips. But be careful! While it's no crime to allow your "ordinary" characters to utilise clichés in their dialogue, chances are that if you don't endow each of them with some manner of individualised verbal uniqueness, said characters may go right on remaining "ordinary" in the reader's mind. That's why I personally make a conscious effort to employ clichés as sparingly as possible in my own material. Granted, I may not always succeed in this; but I do know that if I am miserly in how I parcel them out, any given cliché will have little adverse effect on the passage in which it appears.

The good news is that, outside of striking clichés from your work altogether, there are options to them. And actually, as options, some are little more than clever knock-offs that truly aren't so very far removed from the hackneyed clichés themselves. My personal preference is to simply tweak whatever cliché I may have been thinking of, and thus give it a new twist, a novel refashioning, a renewed freshness. For example, in my own novel, OF STAVES AND SIGMAS, by weaving a few genre-specific threads through the following clichés, I added new colour to what would have been timeworn and predictable.

Here, in a passage that finds the practical J'nea chiding the reckless earth-man James Wagner on his plot to escape from a gladiator prison, I refitted a familiar cliché to reflect the mediaeval period:

"Going fist-in-gauntlet with your imprudence is your audacity in thinking that your plan could ever succeed."
Obviously, "fist-in-gauntlet" replaces the more hackneyed "hand in hand," making J'nea's dialogue a bit more flavourful to the reading "ear."

Another example is when the Ergosian Balgor, accompanied by the earthly Wagner, reacts to a setback in their attempt to incite major pandemonium within the prison camp:
He clenched to strike at the wall before him, but retracted in the nick out of better judgement.
Here, by trimming "in the nick of time" to the shorter "in the nick," I was able to give an unexpected freshness to an overused cliché.

Now, to avoid overstaying my welcome, I've only permitted myself space enough here to demonstrate a few ways to skirt literary repetition and redundance. But, by employing these types of tricks, substitutions, and amendments, anyone can spice up his writing, sometimes with very little major revision involved. Just remember that for every old and timeworn phrase there is often a simple and ready means around it or through it. Your book's appeal—indeed, its very readability—may rely on it.

EXPRESSING THE UNSTATED

One of a writer's most difficult tasks is to take a poignant, silent moment between his characters and convert it into description. The interpretting of social cues, of facial expressions, even of the most subtle gesture--these are things that we humans all learn to perceive experientially through personal contact. Remarkably, we interpret and understand them without having to account for just how we interpret and understand them. The writer, however, must deeply ponder this complexity. He must eyeball it, dissect it, look for that elusive nuance that might lend itself to inkful delineation. Some authors are skilled enough in their wordsmithing to do so with a simple phrase. Others succeed by carefully working around the nuance and leaving the poignancy to the reader to interpret. Still others--and too often I find myself trying to battle my way out of this category--will over-describe the moment which, if the author is not careful, can quickly sap the scene of its intended aim. A few, well-handled brush strokes, or a hint of colourful persuasion that leads the eye to the unstated prize, or a flurry of painted and pigmented sign posts--each can work with varied effect.

One of my favourite such instances can be seen cinematically in James Clavell's underrated 1970 film about the Thirty Years' War, The Last Valley. Michael Caine's ruthless but pragmatic "Captain" has his hands full in keeping the residents of a forcefully occupied village from overthrowing his small band of ruffian soldiers. Omar Shariff (as "Vogel") is an on-the-run teacher (as well as both a prisoner and an adversary of the Captain's), thrown by Fate into the mix. Uneasy alliances and hair-trigger tensions abound--soldiers vs. peasants, Catholicism vs. Protestantism, chaos vs. peaceful co-existence. In this particular scene, the villagers have risen up mob-wise in response to the Captain's sacrilegious transplantation of their holy shrine. Vogel speaks out at a critical point, mediating a truce where it seemed that all was lost. As the riot settles and dwindles, as the villagers disperse, the Captain gives Vogel a brief but grateful glance that speaks more than a paragraph. It's the type of gesture that, so wonderfully pregnant in a visual medium, is extremely difficult to describe in words.

It is ever the writer's task to take such visual things and to turn them into something extraordinary on paper. But there are sundry ways to do so, and each method must be tested against the ear and the mind and upon the page for its literary soundness. As a rule, less is indeed usually more, but even such maxims are breakable, often with pleasing results.

PODS AND SELF-PUBLISHING

Late in 2006, as my book went in for its original POD formatting, it was largely the product of a one-man band—namely, yours truly. Try picturing me as one of those scruffy buskers that you occasionally find on a well-travelled city street corner: bass drum slung across his back, cymbals between his knees, squeeze-accordion strapped to his chest, tarnished harmonica racked at lip-level around his neck, maybe an old hat with a maraca affixed to it. Only, instead of a jumble of musical apparatus in tow, now imagine me—still scruffy, mind you—toting an old Epson QX-10, a refurbished Dell Latitude C600, a fistful of 5¼" and 3½" floppies, some well-worn editions of Oxford and Roget's, and a stack of fluttering manuscript papers filled with old-style dot-matrix text, rough perforations, and countless blue pencil edits. After years and years of preparing to write a novel, I had finally written one, the one. And now, with this prodigious achievement under my belt, it was all I could do to endure one more month of re-reads, one more week of detail synchronisation, one more day of grammatical edits, to get the whole megillah into print and out to market.

Don't get me wrong. Each of the above tasks is a necessary and vital operation to any piece of literature that will soon come under the scrutiny of a very discerning reading public. I understood this. And I meticulously reviewed, revised, and rejiggered my text from beginning to end, more times than I wish to recall, to ensure that every possible error was ferreted out and corrected. For a 270,000+ word document, I believe I did amazingly well. But—and I'm not too proud to admit—there were invariably a few clinkers that I missed. Something about an artist being too close to his work, I guess. Sure, a professional editor would have been a better ticket from the start. But a one-man band is usually a one-man band for two possible reasons: A) because of ego issues, and/or B) because a separate drummer, a separate maraca man, and a separate harmonicist simply aren't within his modest budget to recompense. Only someone less subjective than I can tell you whether both of the above apply to me; but I'm only going to admit to the latter. Yes, like most fledgling, undiscovered authors who already work a 40-hour-per-week job in a thankless, unrelated field, I lacked the resources and the literary cred to command conventional publisher advances, competent agency representation, and professional editorial services. So I went the self-publishing route.

Now, despite the sundry advances in the realm of self-publishing—and some of the truly remarkable talent that has begun to float cream-like to the top—the field itself still gets a bad rap from most folks out there in Readerville, U.S.A. Long-known as a venue for literary bush-leaguers and hacks and pretty much any schmuck with an insipid storyline and a few (and only a few) coins to spend, there are some of us who self-publish not only because of limited resources but because we take great pride in personally seeing our project through, beginning to end, with an obvious—and empowering—ability to bar the presumptive and the uninvited who would stick their fingers in our creative pies. And yet, most of the self-published authors with whom I've corresponded over the past few years in a peerful capacity are remarkably closer to their readers, more appreciative of said readers for having taken a chance on an untried writer, and more likely to invite e-mailing and editoral critique and book-chat in general from that same pool of adventure-craving page-eaters. This is a good thing in all ways, because it's aided me personally in finding those pesky errors that my own laborious proofing failed to uncover—the syntax problems, the dropped or superfluous punctuation, the homophonous mix-ups—things that both the casual and the astute reader will often detect better than even the most meticulously focused author. And the beauty of self-publishing in POD format? Text corrections are easily performed and uploaded to the printing file, making all subsequent consumer copies as accurate as possible as quickly as possible. Ain't technology grand? And as for my updated edition, with its tighter edits, its feel-good reformatting, and its spanking-new foreword and afterword? I would confidently—nay, DEFIANTLY—pit it against anything on the market today.