Sunday, October 31, 2010

Puzzling Observations

Lately I've been assembling jigsaw puzzles, and (like everything else I do) I see some things they can teach us about novel writing.

There is a difference between a 100 piece puzzle (a short story) and a 1000 or 1500 piece puzzle (a novel).  They both need every piece to be put in place to finish them, to "see the big picture," but the larger puzzle, having more pieces, allows for greater subtlety.  Think of each puzzle piece as an action, description, line of dialog, conflict, etc:  a piece of your story.  Each piece is a tiny part of the whole, but none can be omitted without leaving a gaping hole in the completed work.  It would be nice if we could view our novels the same way we can view a puzzle to see what might be missing or how much is left to be done.

I think of putting together a jigsaw puzzle as an exercise in observation and memory.  Memory is handy -- it helps speed the work when we can remember where we saw a certain odd-shaped piece, or one with only half of a shasta daisy on it -- but we can get by without very much of it.  Observation is key, though.

I'm continually struck by the transformation, the ramping-up of my powers of observation as I work on a puzzle.  At first, half of the pieces are not even right-side up (in the context of a novel, they're incomplete ideas).  Soon each is readily classified as sky, and building, and grass, and tree, and... wait -- what is that?  And I don't see anything here that looks like this area by the walkway. Hmmm.  Even working from an image on the box (an outline), not all the pieces are easily identifiable.  Not this early.

As time goes on and I've been culling pieces, making and filling gathering-areas for grass, brush, trees, I begin making finer distinctions.  There are trees against the sky, trees against the wall, trees in shadow.  But then again, there are two walls, and the trees against the brick are lighter than the trees by the stucco.  Later when I'm in the middle of the trees against the brick, I see that the color changes left-to-right, a bit yellowish on one side, a bit more blue and slightly out-of-focus on the other end near the shadow.  Finally I see the boy leaning up against the tree trunk:  I hadn't noticed him in the picture on the box because he's so tiny, and even though he fits on a single puzzle piece I couldn't see him for what he was until he was in place, under his tree.  Observation has level upon level.

Many is the time that I'm looking for a piece of such-and-such a shape with this green and that purple toward one end, when I find out that the green actually changes as we enter this new piece, and the purple changes to pink.  The larger the puzzle, the smaller the pieces and the more difficulties and surprises there are.

As I complete (or nearly complete) sections of the puzzle, they become like scenes in a novel.  It's not always clear where they fit into the whole scheme.  Before I have them properly linked to the body of the puzzle, they may be in the wrong place, or they'll be upside-down.  When the connection is finally made, it's like magic, and instantly hard to imagine it in any other configuration.  A major part of that magic is that the proper place for the "scene" is defined by a dozen or a hundred relationships with the rest of the work -- not the physical interlocking of the pieces, but the lines, shadows, colors, and textures that cross the boundary between the newly added section and the rest, relationships that were not evident until, suddenly, they popped into relief.

Observation, layers of observation.  She drank her coffee.  She chugged her cup of Joe.  She sipped her espresso.  Slurped her Java.  Inhaled her caffeiney-beaney whip.  Yes, one combination is perfect; She sipped her coffee.  But don't forget that the mug was heavy, and she'd wrapped her slim fingers around it to warm them on that windy November morning.  She held it ready between sips, unconsciously concealing her mouth, her elbows on the sticky diner table.  Her eyes stared off, unfocused, her mind elsewhere, but she must have been smiling:  you could tell from the way the edges of her eyes crinkled.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

I live. I wish. I dream. I write.

I live.  I wish.  I dream.  I write.  That means that roughly 75% of the time I am the absolute ruler of my world.  And believe you me, it is my very own world.

Or worlds, actually.  Plural.  Writers are creators, though not all of our creations show up in our writing.  Let me tell you about one of my worlds.

In this world of mine, people really care.  Simple things are simple, and hard things are hard.  Everybody tries.  Everyone is good at something.  Failures are for learning and improving and keeping perspective, not for leaving scars.

The skies are blue, the rivers wide, the earth soft under your bare feet.  Each of the four seasons has its own distinctive beauty.  Even rainy days are good days.

Nothing in this world is quite as beautiful as a full moon lighting up a night walk through a scattering of fresh fallen leaves.  Unless it's the sight of the first crocus poking its head up through an early spring snow.  Or a Canada goose, wings straining to cup the air, coming in for a full-stall landing.  Or a bite of a red-delicious apple.  Or a cloud shot through with the sun.  Or a thousand-thousand other things.

In my world, everyone misunderstands once in a while, so everyone knows what it's like to be misunderstood.  People do noble things because they seem right, without knowing or caring how others will interpret those actions.  They hold doors open for each other, use their turn signals, smile at passers-by, and yield to pedestrians in crosswalks.

Things are what they seem, at least if you look hard enough and deep enough.  Evil exists here, because without evil there's no rallying point for good, and even in my world, good needs to be rallied now and then.  Evil may sometimes attempt to clothe itself in the guise of good, but good has no use for masquerades.

And in my world, the wait-staff are always in a good mood, all dogs are friendly (or at least willing to negotiate), the produce is always first-rate, and children's shoelaces stay tied all by themselves.

Because even in my world, it's the little things, you know?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

English Rules

"Pay attention!" the English teachers say.  Our language has rules -- lots of them.  We must adhere to them at all times lest we invite misunderstanding.

Take adverbs, for instance.  They're simple and consistent modifiers-of-verbs.  If you quickly run to the store, then you're quick about going.  When you carefully drive up the twisting dirt road, you're full of care behind the wheel.  If you barely made it to the library before it closed, you arrived naked.  If you hardly finished your vegetables, you mashed them to bits with a hammer.  More to the point, if you see a used item for sale in hardly used condition, you can count on its having been used (perhaps very) hard.  It's clear that every adverb modifies its verb in the same way every time.  Simple.

Let's move on to something just a bit more complex, shall we?  Word choice is important -- there is always one best word, and you must be sure never to use an incorrect word.  Of course, meanings run on a continuum between the best word and the worst.  You might think there is no single worst word possible for any other, but there is.  It's called the opposite.

We'll use opposites to illustrate the danger of not choosing the best word.  Suppose we want to say that Tom was speedy, fleet, rapid, swift; Tom was fast.  The opposite is that he was motionless, tied-down, secured, static; Tom was fast.  Or for another example, that the CEO's motives were clear, obvious, visible, plain to see; the CEO's motives were transparent.  The opposite is that they were occluded, hidden, concealed, invisible;  the CEO's motives were transparent.  You can clearly see the peril of not choosing the best word.  Those sentences with the opposites in them really stick out like hardly used thumbs, don't they?

English is scarcely simple, even though there's plenty of it; English is devious, cunning, treacherous, crafty -- English is slippery.

And fun too.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Confuscius and Censorship (and Pornography)

Wondering what the link is between censorship and Confucius (and pornography)?  It's the rectification of names.

One of the first and most basic arguments Confucius made was in favor of the rectification of names:  calling a duck a duck.  He said it's impossible for us to live together with any hope of peace and mutual respect if you call something a duck while I call it a milkshake (not his words).  We have to agree on definitions before any real communication can take place.  A dictionary is a good place to seek out mutually agreed-upon definitions.

Peace and mutual respect fall apart when they hit the censorship wall, the division point where one party insists they know what's best for everyone else (to which I always say, "Excuse me, but I'll think for myself.")  There are plenty of examples of book censorship to choose from, but I'm all riled up right now about an art exhibit.

We had an incident last week where there were protests outside a local art museum (in Loveland CO) because of an allegedly pornographic depiction of Jesus Christ with a priest.  The artist intended the piece as a comment on the Catholic Church's problem with sexual abuse of children.  The overwhelming majority of those protesting the artwork had not viewed it.  I had not viewed it, and now no one can -- a crazed woman truck driver took a crowbar to the exhibit.  Fortunately no one was injured.  The protesters scattered on the four winds after the destruction.  Wherever they blew off to, I hope they feel as responsible as I believe they are.

But to get back to Confucius (and pornography); you can't call something pornography without it meeting the definition.  Well, okay, you can, but you shouldn't, if we're going to carry on a conversation.

You can't have pornography without intending to cause sexual arousal.  [From Black's Law Dictionary, 8th edition:  pornography, n. Material (such as writings, photographs, or movies) depicting sexual activity or erotic behavior in a way that is designed to arouse sexual excitement.]  No one reported becoming sexually aroused by the exhibit.  In fact, the protesters appeared uniformly disgusted and angered (by what most of them hadn't actually seen).  I'll give them points for imagination, I guess.  The creator of the artwork neither intended to, nor succeeded in causing arousal.

It was not pornography.

Maybe some of the viewers didn't like it, thought it was disgusting, against their religious beliefs, not quite the right color, discomfiting, poorly executed, etc.  Fine.  But that's not pornographic.  And I'll make up my own mind, thank you very much.

I'm ashamed that the day after the report of the attack appeared in my local paper, the comment section was full of people gushing about how happy they were that this abomination had finally been removed from their sight, expressing smug indignation that it wasn't done earlier, some remarking that they would have liked to have been there to help swing the crowbar.

What did these people bring to their viewing of the exhibit that caused them to react the way they did?  The exhibit was just something to look at -- what they took away from it was up to them.  Are their closely held beliefs built on such a shaky foundation that one single image threatened those beliefs?  Maybe so.  Do they also think that everyone who shares those beliefs needs protection as well?  What about those of us who don't share them?

More to the point, how could the majority who protested without even viewing the exhibit make up their own minds?  They didn't.  They accepted someone else's opinion (who may not have seen the artwork either).

We can't have a conversation about art or books (or anything else) if people are content to act on received opinion alone.  Art and literature are supposed to make people think, but they don't work for those unwilling or unable to do so for themselves.

And even so many years after Confucius, one of the first steps toward peace and mutual respect remains the rectification of names.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

First Things First

Last night at nearly 8pm the front of the house was dark when the doorbell did its dingle-dongle.  I was upstairs, busy at the computer.  It might have been a neighbor (who else would call at a dark house so late in the evening?) so I descended the stairs, turned on the porch lights and opened the door.

A young woman unknown to me was standing on my doorstep with a diamond stud in her nose and a clipboard in her hand.

"No," I said, shaking my head and beginning to close the door that hadn't yet made it more than halfway open.

"But I'm not selling anything --"

"I don't care," I said as politely (and firmly) as possible  The door closed.

I gave her a more than decent interval to get back to the sidewalk, turned out the lights, locked the door, and went back to my computer.

I was being reasonable.  It's election season.  Just as I don't buy things from strangers who show up at my door, I don't discuss politics with them either.

I was saving us both time.

If I hadn't been busy at the computer I would have been busy with something else:  busy playing piano, busy talking with my wife, busy reading, writing, painting, exercising, fixing, breaking, tinkering, thinking....

Do you have "spare time"?

I choose not to.  I'm not all in a rush and hurry, but I've always got something to do.

There are lots of distractions in this world.  I've been [I just ran 3 blocks down the street chasing a bunch of teenagers who had firecrackers and a thing for doorbells -- it's a wild night] stuck in my writing for a while now.  For the last year or more I've been distracted by the need to:
  • write something different enough to sell 
  • write something conventional enough to sell
  • write something to catch an agent's eye
  • get an agent
  • get published
  • hold my first novel in my hands
The thing is I don't need any of those things.  I'm not even one of those people who need to write.  I want to write, though, and that's enough.  I enjoy writing, and so long as that's true and I'm able, that's what I'll do without worrying about whether or not it's publishable or attractive to anyone but myself.  I don't know how or when it happened; my writing took a back-seat to getting published.  And I always told myself I wouldn't do that.

Set your own goals.  Keep them in mind.  Put first things first.