Monthly Archives: March 2017

Control-Alt-Swagger

Zeus on a throne

Who took my mouse?

Perhaps you’re aware of the literary/cultural phenomenon called “steampunk” that plays with alternative histories. Steampunk is influenced by Victorian culture and assumes that technologies such as steam power continued to be developed.

It occurred to me that if we took the internet and placed it back in ancient Greece, we might start a “stonepunk” phenomenon. Of course if the internet had existed, then Zeus, being the egomaniac he was, would have been sending out angry tweets about himself all day long.

Actually, all of the Greek gods were egomaniacs. That’s how the Greeks conceived of them. And as egomaniacs, if they’d had the internet, they probably would have all had a blog. That is, I’m not saying that everyone with a blog . . . Anyway, because I can travel through time and space in ways mere mortals cannot, I obtained copies of some of the Olympian blog entries.

Apollo
Twice recently I’ve arrived at Mount Olympus to find all the other gods there, and no one was saying anything. What could I think but that they stopped talking when they saw me coming? I think they were trying to have a meeting without me. What does that mean? I’ve known for centuries that most of them are jealous of me, and if I were on their level, I’d be jealous, too. I wonder if they’re conspiring, if something is happening that I’m not being told about. I wouldn’t put it past any of them, not even my sister, so I’m watching them closely.

Ares
As if we don’t have enough trouble on Mount Olympus, with the stupid squabbles that go on nonstop, the girls have started some nonsense with the Trojans. I can see where this is going, and soon everyone will be involved, choosing sides. If it was up to me, a blazing sword of fury would be the answer to every argument. But Father Zeus doesn’t allow it, and how much does it benefit him to permit this bickering of the whining gods? If I could have my moment, it would all have a solution like red thunder.

Aphrodite
What is it with Athena and Hera and Artemis (like anybody worships her), acting like they’re beautiful, like there’s some kind of contest going on? Yes, sure, they have their particular areas, necessary no doubt, but beauty? Have they never walked by a pool of water and looked down? I think there’s a reason why somebody whose name starts with “A” and ends with “phrodite” is the goddess of beauty, and let’s don’t forget sex. I am the goddess of sex. Try doing without that.

Hephaestus
Every Body keppt telling me I should do this Blog thing, and I keppt saying whatt’s wrong with Fire and a good old Anvill, yah, something you can bang on. Whatt’s wrang with that, huh? Who wantes to look at a commputer when you could be bangging on hot metal, yah! But every Body sed no, Hephy, your the one boy, people wante to Read about whatt your doinng, you need a Blog thing. Allrite, here It is. Here’s whatt Im doing. Imm banging on hot metal. Yah!

Athena
Pardon my sublime and awesome wrath, but I’ve been wanting to say this for a long time. I hate olives. They’re bitter, they’re oily, maybe they’re good enough for humans, who will, frankly, eat dogs on occasion, but Olympian gods should not be eating olives. It’s time for Father Zeus to stop having bowls of those things sitting around. I’ve noticed, in fact, that no one but Hades eats them, and if that isn’t a clear message, then what is? Blast this blue sea, if I eat one more olive, humans are going to end up having to worship cockroaches, because I swear I’ll kill everything else.

Zeus
[Zeus had a temper tantrum on Saturday and threw 157 lightning bolts in one minute. They created a power surge that shut the internet down, so he didn’t post this week.]

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Enough Already

The Guggenheim Museum

A museum. A lake.

Let’s start with some vague, useless advice for writers: Show, don’t tell.

Charles Dickens, at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities, wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light—” Now if he had known enough to take this book to a writing critique group, someone could have said, “Hold it, Charlie, hold on. You’re telling us, dude. Show us how it was the best of times. Did people have big houses? And this age of wisdom thing. Like what? Were they making scientific discoveries, finding new moons?”

Aside from the fact that the phrase “show, don’t tell” is so abstract as to squat dumb in the corner, one of the aspects of writing that writers must frequently deal with (perhaps constantly deal with) is how much detail to give.

If I say, for instance, “The attractive woman sitting at the bar turned and looked at the man who had come in”—that sentence can be sort of interesting with its implications. But what if I say “The woman sitting at the bar, with a silk scarf around her neck, turned and looked at the man who had come in.” Does that detail with the scarf make it more interesting? Or what about “The woman sitting at the bar, wearing a silk scarf, turned and looked at the man, a slight smile crossing her face.” Is it more interesting, or does it not matter?

How much detail is right? Would it be even better to know that the bar stool where she is sitting has a back to it, that the bartender is a bald man with a diamond earring, and that the man who just came in is shaking the water off an umbrella? Do you need to know that the woman is from St. Louis, that she’s 42 years old, and her hair is dark brown? How much is enough?

This week I finished a chapter I’ve been working on for the current novel, and I’m pulling out a couple of examples to illustrate the problem of deciding how much detail to use.

In one part I have a man and woman go into the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. That’s the one designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, where the walkway spirals round and round the open center, so that you can walk from the lobby up about four or five stories. Here are possible details I could have used in describing that: the curve of the walkway around the space, the white painted interior, the vault of the ceiling, the giant glass skylight looking like a huge spider’s web, other people in the museum, the crowding, the ticket desk, the sounds of people talking, the cost of a ticket, particular paintings on the walls.

After the Guggenheim Museum, I had the couple walk about a block into Central Park, where they went up some stairs to look at the reservoir, a large lake surrounded by trees, a fairly surprising sight when you’ve just come off the helter skelter of Fifth Avenue. Here are possible details I might have used for that description: the path, trees on the other shore, standing under similar trees, size of the trees, kind of trees, other people passing by , the weather, the view of buildings on the other side, clouds or birds or planes in the sky, the wide expanse of water, light reflecting off the water.

In both instances, I used the details in italics above, but not the others. Would the writing be better with more details? I don’t know, but I had a reason for limiting them, as I wanted to move the chapter along, to keep a sense of something happening with the characters, so I didn’t want the writing to slow down into long descriptions of New York.

Part of the basis for my decision about detail was the context of how I wanted the writing to move at that point, the feeling I wanted in the scene. It was not necessary for the reader to see the Guggenheim very much, as it was the third museum my characters had been in, but the lake in Central Park was in contrast to what we had just been reading about. I wanted the reader to really see the lake and feel that contrast, so I used more description.

How much detail is enough? There is no answer. It is always a guess.

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Somebody Get That Dog a Bowl of Water!

A dog

Sono un cane parlante

A week ago a friend sent me a link to a site where a writer was talking about his writing process, about how he arrived at the final text through a somewhat random process of discovering things, but definitely not a process based on having a clear plan in mind from the beginning.

Writing random stuff? No plan in mind? Don’t really know where you’re going?

Hey, I have the same writing process!

I wonder if that writer’s process also includes going to kitchen every evening to get dark chocolate. And if so, does his writing process involve stopping in the kitchen to look at the dirty dishes in the sink and think, “Goddamnit. Who’s gonna wash this stuff?”

Because that’s how I write. I mean, you can’t just sit and push on computer keys while you’re writing. Who would do that? You’ve got to walk around some, go look in the mirror to see if you’ve changed in the last few hours, get out the vacuum cleaner and leave it standing in the middle of the living room, as a guarantee that you’re definitely going to vacuum within the next week.

I also think about the plot when I’m writing, things like “What reason does this character have to go to New York?” or “Maybe I’ll add a talking dog, people like dogs,” or “Do I want this book to be about trying to find the light of reason in the existential darkness of life, or about a man who finds a kitty?”

Being the observant writer that I am, I’ve noticed that people really like kitties. Or . . . wait a minute, I could have the kitty meet a talking dog. Hold on while I write that down.

Boy, that next novel is practically going to write itself. Sometimes it’s just a joy to be a writer.

Then there’s all those other times. I’ve mentioned on this blog, just last week, if your memory goes back that far, that I’m revising a novel I finished writing back in 2000. You understand that the word “finished” in that sentence means “wrote a piece of crap”. Which is disappointing, because at the time I didn’t think that, but now I do. So what if at some point in the future I look back at what I’m writing now and think “Oh, my God, why didn’t you just blind yourself before you wrote that?”

That’s a spooky thing about art, of any sort. What if it’s terrible, but while you’re doing it you don’t know that? What if it’s like being insane and everyone knows it but you? “No, I’m fine. Really. Here, did you read my novel?”

I’ll tell you something about the last two books, that is, the one I’m on now, plus the one before (The Invention of Colors). Both of those books at one point had four main characters, two male and two female. Over the course of floundering through both of them for years, like a really drunk mud wrestler, I came to the point with both books of taking the male characters and reducing them down to either background or secondary characters, focusing on the females. In both cases, the novel finally came together and started to make more sense. It wasn’t easy to throw away so much writing that I had worked on so hard for so long, but the books got way better, which did provide some compensation.

Here’s a little brainstorming for the next book. What if the talking dog and the kitty form a musical group? How great does that sound? Then they’ll have a reason to go to New York.

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Filed under How We Create Magic, Writing While Living

Tetra Lives

Aborignal painting

Dreamtime

The world that we call “real”, with its molecules, pine trees, utility bills, and vast expanses of dark matter, is where I spend most of my time. Same as you, probably. Then again, I don’t know where you spend your time. In terms of that world’s ability to put an end to our nonsense and disperse our molecules, it’s certainly real enough.

In some ways, however, that real world happens in our minds, depending on how we process it. Think of someone who is extremely sensitive to sensory stimuli, for instance, who finds soft sounds painful, or someone who has synesthesia, and can see colors with different sounds. Whose world is real—yours or theirs?

I’m advocating the idea, if somewhat abstractly, that what happens inside our minds is real. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve spent time in four worlds. The other three all came from books, one that I was reading, one that I was writing, and one that I was critiquing. I’ve been like a literary Luke Skywalker, leaping from world to world.

The novel I was reading was Ripper by Isabel Allende, who is by far one of my favorite modern writers. The book is set mostly in San Francisco, and it is dense with interesting characters. The novel I’m revising takes place mostly in Atlanta, although I’m starting to expand that out a little, as I’m just now putting a scene in New York City in 1958. Also in the last two weeks I’ve been critiquing a novel for a friend, and that book takes place in Boston for the most part, partly set in the 1930s and partly in our own time.

Thus I’ve moved in and out of various worlds, all of which, at times, were as real in my head as dark matter. Actually, they were a lot more real than dark matter, as I don’t even know that that is, though physicists tell me there really is such a thing.

More real for me was two high school girls going into a warm bagel shop in Brookline, just outside Boston, where a young man was working making bagels. I followed those girls into the shop, picturing them, one tall, one short, I saw them sit down at a table, and I watched the young man come out from the back and catch sight of them.

At other moments, I was in San Francisco with a policeman going to question suspects in a murder case, saw him approach the house of a man who was killed, and I was standing there as he inspected the body, then went to talk to the murdered man’s indifferent wife. I could feel the policeman’s attraction to the widow, as well as his sense that he should treat her like a suspect.

In my own book, during the last two weeks, I watched one of my heroines wake up with a man she spent the night with, and I was there with her (I don’t even blush to say so), when they turned toward one another the next morning and began caressing and kissing. Later in the chapter, I sat with her and looked through her eyes, down at the ground from an airplane window, to see how it felt for her to be on a plane for the first time in her life.

Although most of my time has been here in the world of dark matter and utility bills, I’ve moved between these four worlds every day, so that I might spend the morning thinking about how to format tables in a medical article (my real job world), then at lunch time I would no longer be in Atlanta, but in San Francisco with a woman who gave massages and worked with aromatherapy, sitting with her and her daughter in a cafe. That evening I may have gotten on an airplane to go to Toronto to an art history conference, or else I attended a baseball game in Boston, with a hotdog.

Inside my head, all four of these worlds were real. Moving in and out of such worlds is how I live, and sometimes they are more interesting than the one where my body lives and needs to wash the dishes sitting on the kitchen counter. I wish dark matter would just make those dishes disappear.

I’m sending out a wish to you this week, that you have more than one world worth spending time in.

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