Sunday, January 30, 2011


Friction is one of my favorite things.  A world without it would be very different, and mostly boring.  Don't believe me?

For one thing, walking wouldn't exist, since it's friction that allows us to push forward off the ground at each step.  Let's just say that without friction we wouldn't get out much.

And we wouldn't talk to each other either, since it's a form of friction that moves the sensing hairs in our ears that allow us to hear.  There's not much reason for speaking when no one can hear.

So we're talking about a world where everyone stays in one place and nobody speaks.  There are a myriad other problems (if a surface wasn't precisely level then anything placed on it -- including lunch or yourself -- would slide downhill, pencils would leave no mark on paper, you'd be unable to ever scratch an itch...), but these two alone are enough to spell boring for me.

But of course, there's another kind of friction:  the social kind.  While I would be overjoyed to do away with friction in my personal life, I wouldn't want to lose it from my writing.  Well, I don't want it for my writing (which I'd like to be a smooth and easy activity).  I want it for my story.

Most writers call this conflict, but to me the term conflict carries such negative connotations that it turns me off.  I prefer to think of it as friction.  Friction, by its definition in the field of Physics, is "a force that resists the relative motion or tendency to such motion of two bodies or substances in contact."  Substitute for bodies, the word characters, or desires, goals, needs, etc, and you have a definition of friction suitable for writing.

One of the things I especially like about it is that it refers to two bodies/characters/goals in motion.  We never want out stories to stall or stagnate, do we?  We want our conflict to be combined with forward motion that pulls the reader through the story.  With the word friction we get the sense of movement and the reluctance/resistance together.  Friction is motion (which is change) or at least the attempt, along with something/someone fighting back.

Change for our characters, change that's hindered, that's delayed, that's prevented, that's fought and won or lost or both:  that's conflict.

That's friction.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Customizing Your Writing Space

Look at your writing space.  You have a writing space, don't you?  Mine is a shared space, but it's shared only with other activities, not with other people.  The key thing about owning a space like this is that you can make it your own; you can customize it.

There are lots of ways to do this, but in my mind they break down into two areas; you can customize for taste, or for functionality.  Either way you have to guard against the customization becoming an end in itself.

Some people, for instance, are organizers or color-coordinators or alphabetizers or picture-of-the-day types.  When they realize their space could be more (insert their problem here) than it is, they buy storage bins, a bulletin board, new pencils, better calendars, more colors of sticky-notes -- whatever.

I am a tool-maker by nature.  When I find a problem, my first impulse is to make a tool to solve it.  If I buy storage bins, I might have to modify them so they do the job to my satisfaction.  I might be tempted to make a custom bulletin board, because none of the ones commercially available will do the trick, or my own color-coded index cards because I'm too cheap to buy them (and mine are better anyway).

And that's fine, so long as it doesn't become another excuse not to write.  I try (and try and try) to get the tool-maker in me to concentrate on the real goal:  is my real goal to make tools?  No.  Take a step back:  is my goal to solve problems?  No again.  Step back further.  Is my goal to write my story?  Yes, that's it!

We need to solve problems to tell our stories.  We need to get our spelling and grammar correct, and we need to have so many different things, pacing, voice, character, dialog, etc, all work together seamlessly.  Sometimes we make tools (or buy colored markers) to help us solve some of our problems, but the goal has to be to write.  Otherwise we're working on the wrong thing.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Seeing Different

I was just thinking (okay, that goes without saying) -- ever notice how sometimes the sky, when you look at it upside-down, looks like the sky reflected in a puddle?  Complete with ripples from a soft breeze?

Didn't think so.

If you stepped into that upside-down sky, would your foot get wet?  Would you keep sinking in all the way to where the birds flit about?

Sometimes, if we pay close attention, we might see our characters in a way that changes them and ourselves at the same time.  And our characters might have the opportunity to see each other in a new light; it could change their entire world, opening up new possibilities for them and for our novels.

Because even the sky has two sides.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Proust on The Novel

I have begun reading Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past", or as the title has been more recently translated, "In Search of Lost Time".  This is one of those books that lots of people have heard about, and lots of people talk about, but nobody has read.  And half of those nobody's who've read it think it is unreadable and so didn't finish it, while the other half (a tiny half, to be sure) think it is a masterpiece.

It spans six volumes, with over 1.5 million words in all.  I'm only 120 pages into the first volume, but I'm being swept away.  This volume, "Swann's Way", was published in 1913, and despite that being a different world from this, with different expectations of pacing in novels, I was caught-up from the very first page.  The prose, translated beautifully from the original French by Moncrieff and Kilmartin, is smooth and charming and breath-taking.  Yes, the sentences are long and wandering, but it's appropriate:  the book is about time and memory and change.

Some people insist that it's not a novel at all, but something else instead.  Either way, it's a rewarding read.

One paragraph especially jumped out at me when I read it last night with the need for a blog topic lurking in the back of my mind.  The main character -- I need to explain that this is told in what I'd have to call "first person reminiscence", and while it's not autobiography, the MC is undoubtedly some version of the author himself -- is talking about the experience of reading a book on a hot summer day in a room closed up so much to keep the heat out that he has barely enough light to read by.  He is hearing the church bell toll the hours, and he is so absorbed in the book that the time he spends inside it doesn't seem to register in the real world.  It seems only a few seconds from when the clock strikes one hour until the clock strikes the next.  And then he talks about what a novel is.

Paraphrasing:  A novel is crammed with more dramatic events than usually occur in an entire lifetime.  These events are not happening to "real people", but the thing is we can never hope to know any real people other than on their surface.  If we understand any of the joys or misfortunes of another person, it is only because we have constructed within our own minds a sympathetic image of that person and their situation, and it is that image that we're reacting to.  The novelist's ingenuity lies in their ability to distill real people down to these images, cutting away everything that hides the truth, removing every barrier to the reader's emotional connection with the character.  The result is that the reader experiences things in the space of an hour or two that would take years of actual life to get to know.  These experiences, in turn, enable the reader to recognize changes in real-life that happen over too long a span of time to be otherwise noticed.

Of course he uses a page-and-a-half-long paragraph to explain what I've paraphrased, and says it more clearly and with rich detail.  That's what you get from a master like Proust.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


Have you ever noticed how annoying it can be to have to listen to someone who repeats themselves? I sure have.  (I'll do you the favor of not repeating the question here.)  In a class on mass media in high school, I learned about repetition and reinforcement; that's how advertising tries to hammer home its message.  We call this intentional repetition.  I'm talking about the unintended variety.  (Note that I used unintended rather than unintentional to eliminate a verbatim repetition.)  Unintentional repetition is not just annoying: it diverts your attention from the rest of what the person has to say.

We dread (or we should, anyway) unintentional repetition in our writing.  We have to be careful also of purposeful repetition to ensure it doesn't become distracting, but that's another issue.

I recently finished reading Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" -- a fairly massive and very complex book.  It has nearly 800 pages, roughly 400 characters (including a sentient light-bulb), and it-feels-like-200 digressions.  It's packed with esoteric trivia, it changes narrators and voices, and bounces around in time.  The book is hard to follow.

And I noticed a repetition of a distinctive phrase used near both the end and the beginning of the book.  I can't recall what the phrase was, and I was reading in hard copy so I couldn't do a search and find the earlier occurrence, though that would have been a cool party trick on an e-reader.  In a way it's surprising that I'd notice the repetition among all the crazy things flying by me in the book.  But it's not really surprising at all.

That's why we have to be very careful.  Repetition like that is not easy for a writer to catch, and perhaps not for anyone else reading the manuscript multiple times.

We each have to find a way.