Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Poem: Ode to Han Solo

Poems

Here's my Ode to Han Solo in honor of tonight's midnight showing of
Star Wars III. (And, yes, I know he's not in this one, but I'm a
Gen-Xer, so I'm partial to the originals.)

Has a hairy companion
Aversion to carbonite
Nerf herder, according to some

Smuggler who sometimes gets boarded
Owed Jabba a lot of money
Lady Vader's husband
Officer in the Rebel Alliance

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Monday, May 16, 2005

Book: Echoes of Earth

Books

Echoes of Earth
by Sean Williams and Shane Dix
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There are only two books that I’ve read twice: Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and Echoes of Earth by Sean Williams and Shane Dix. In the case of Wrinkle, I wanted to see if a childhood favorite would hold the same magic after fifteen years-and, yes, it did-but, for Echoes, it was all about the book’s style.

I don’t know which of these guys deserves credit for the great dialog and likeable characters and which one has the knack for creating interesting places, but the combination of the three left scenes from the book floating in my mind long after I had read them. Since I strive for the memorability factor in my own writing, I dissected a scene to discover what made it so lasting for me.

In Chapter 1.1.9, the protagonist, Peter Alander, visits the second of ten enormous alien-built spindles that surround the planet Adrasteia in the Upsilon Aquarius system, over seventy-two light-years from Earth. The chapter opens with a problem; Peter walks through a door in the spindle hub and instantaneously ends up in Spindle 3, thousands of kilometers away. His engram companion, Cleo Sampson, disappears, prompting Peter to panic. (Note: An engram is a copy of a person’s thoughts and personality which can appear as a hologram.)

This opening action plays out through short, crisp dialog between Peter and the Gifts, his guides through this alien technology. Also, we engage in Peter’s deep penetration POV--a stylistic favorite of mine—which gives us the psychological explanation for Peter’s familiarity with the doors to each spindle. They come from doors within his own life. It shows how we as humans are more willing to accept the alien through the familiar.

Once Cleo finds Peter again, he can relax and concentrate on the contents of this spindle and eventually the others. Through his POV we see the fascinating interiors: a planetarium, an art gallery, a library, and a sensory deprivation area. The planetarium shows all the stars of the galaxy. We have a hint from the Gifts that this will be useful later.

The art gallery is seemingly endless and contains wondrous examples of galactic art. We get a close-up of a few of these pieces, such as an orb that transports Peter to a beach (in-mind only) and a dizzying Escher-esque sculpture. This was where the chapter went from detail-deficient to very specific.

In the library, there are actual volumes of books, again perhaps to make Peter comfortable with the alien-ness of the place. The sensory deprivation area seems to be there for Peter to rest, something he has not done for several days at this point.

The end of the chapter shows a humanizing of Peter, an engram himself who chooses to live in an android body. (An example of that same theme of familiarity helping to assimilate the alien?) He asks his companion, Cleo, to stay and be with him while he sleeps. Until now, he has avoided most contact with her because she reminds him of what he is and what he is not.

That was quite a bit for a twelve-page chapter, and that’s why it’s memorable.

Overall, I liked the first part of this book set in Adrasteia better than the second part set in Sol system. Perhaps the concept of a huge floating frame inhabiting the space where most of our planets used to be was just too alien for me. (I probably needed more of the familiar to be comfortable.) The short to moderate-length chapters worked well for my reading style, and not surprisingly I prefer that in my writing style as well.

The biggest complaint I have is with an unsatisfactory resolution to a subplot. It involved Peter’s obsession with the woman that his original loved. Maybe we weren’t to know what happened to her engram--or I just missed the references. But even the second time through, I found myself still wondering about her.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Book: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing a Novel

Books

To start off my new blog, I'll post my required reading journal. The first book is by my current mentor in the Seton Hill WPF Program.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Novel
by Tom Monteleone
Idiot's Guide

I probably reference this book at least twice a week, mostly because I have issues with setting, or my conspicuous lack thereof. Tom says to establish the setting early and let the reader know where she is before you start into the story specifics. You would think that after writing fourteen chapters I would remember this. The problem is, I’m one of these people he refers to in his Style section who ‘prefers the loose look of watercolors’ as opposed to the ‘precise, realistic lines of pen-and-ink.’

You know what he would say to that?

'The key…is balance.’

Balance also happens to be the first sub-heading in the Setting section, so I suppose that shows its importance. Here he gives the perfect recipe for story advancement:

1. Mix your action, dialog, and description of setting. (the ingredients)
2. Remember to use your passages as instruments of pacing. (the 3-speed mixer)
3. Use scene-setting to break up long runs of dialogue or action. (the mixer at work)
4. Work in some creativity to taste. (the secret ingredient)

And, just like anything else I make from a recipe, it never turns out exactly like it’s supposed to. Maybe that’s why the title of Chapter 15 is Another Name for Writing Is Rewriting. Tom reminds you throughout the book that it’s more important to get everything down first, then go over it with the red pen later.

The rewrite is also when he suggests to liven up your language with interesting verbs, master the use of simile and metaphor (like my recipe from above), get rid of the cliches, and pay attention to syntax. Oh, and run the spellcheck.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself and almost forgot about my two favorite chapters; Dialogue and Characters. Since my own work is very character-driven, it’s obvious why I’m also drawn to dialogue. Like Tom says, it’s a good, subtle way to include backstory, set the mood, create tension, show the character’s background, and make each character sound like an individual. This last one is tougher than it sounds.

For one thing, the rhythm and cadence for each character has to be a little different. He suggests that as you keep writing and get to know your characters, you’ll also know how they will respond verbally in certain situations; and, much of this depends upon their schema. In essence, the reader should be able to tell who’s talking in most instances even without the dialogue tag. (Oh, and a thing about that dialogue tag--the best one is still plain old ‘said’, sans adverb.)

Much of a character’s dialogue style will depend upon which archetype he or she most closely resembles. In my own writing, I have a large cast, so sometimes the archetypes overlap. For example, there is one main protagonist and antagonist, but a few others serve to fill those roles throughout the work as well. My skeptic and conscience guy are one in the same, but my emotionalist and her opposite, the rationalist seem content to stay within those limits.

The trick with archetypes, as Tom cautions, is not to make them stereotypes. To avoid this, you can work with a character’s physical appearance, cultural and social influences, psychological background, and previous experiences. Let’s take my military guy, for instance. Yeah, he’s big and muscled, strong as an elephant, and highly trained, but he’s also very happy and carefree, quick to smile and joke. He’s not dark and broody and always thinking of the next big battle. (There’s another guy who’s like that, the scientist.)

Now, as useful as the first part of Tom’s book is, I have to tell you, I can’t wait until I have to reference chapters 18-20. Those are the ones on Marketing, Publicity, and Publishing. Maybe next year.