Saturday, May 29, 2010

Hello, Diction, My Old Friend

Hello, diction, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision
That was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

It's always great to crib from Simon and Garfunkel, isn't it?

So, Susan and Matt's comments in the last post got my brain churning on one of my favourite topics, and one which I think we don't always pay enough attention to as writers. And it's not that it's sneaky, or forgotten... but maybe just that it's so obvious we don't stop to give it a lot of thought.


This is what we do, isn't it? As writers we pick words, and word choice is central to the expression of our stories and intentions. Yet how often do we really talk about it? We surely jabber enough about POV and tense and prologues and flashbacks and voice... and yet what is voice but a careful selection of words to create a particular sound and effect?

We dream something, and yet we hold these silent words in the silence of the act of writing. They rattle inside our head, sounds waiting to escape, or perhaps merely the great meanings beyond sound, vibrating on some frequency we can apprehend and yet never hear.

So, we have to pick the right words. We have to pick entertaining words, powerful words. Unique words, at least in their proper combination. I think many of us often fall back on what's easy, however. It's only natural. This is the challenge of word choice. We have a scene in mind, we're inside it, seeing it... and now we need to translate it into words so that this vision can be shared. The easy words come first. Familiar words, the ones we've heard in the same context. Certain words are simply expected... the reader's brain expects it and the writer's brain provides it. Basic meaning is created and consumed. But only so much, only a little. A deeper understanding, a new undesrtanding that peels back layers and allows you to see something newly, freshly, brightly... this isn't always possible with those overly familiar words.

When you're excited, your heart... pounds, of course. But this is a cliche, it tells us very little. The character, the experience, is no different than any other that has ever occurred, its individuality lost in the endless repetitions of that phrase.

So how about a brief investigation of diction? I'm gonna use a bit of Cormac McCarthy's prose for demonstration. Now, there are lots of other interesting things about his writing, like his odd rhythms and his use (or lack) of punctuation, that people will like or dislike. But his word choice is something that really fascinates me, because he rarely accepts the overly familiar unless the overly familiar is perfectly right. Here's the opening line of Suttree:

Dear friend now in the dusty clockless hours of the town when the streets lie black and steaming in the wake of the watertrucks and now when the drunk and the homeless have washed up in the lee of walls in alleys or abandoned lots and cats go forth highshouldered and lean in the grim perimeters about, now in these sootblacked brick or cobbled corridors where lightwire shadows make a gothic harp of cellar doors no soul shall walk save you.

This is a single long sentence, and yet look at the word choices, at how strange and vibrant they are. Look at the "dusty clockless hours", for example. "Dusty" is an odd word to describe "hours" and yet it's evocative, while at the same time serving a dual purpose of reflecting that meaning onto the streets, as well. It provides both an abstract description and a literal one, applying to both the ephemeral hours and the physical street. And "clockless"? I think the word that most writers, even good ones, would reach for here would be "timeless". And yet "clockless" is newer, its sharp sound providing much more punch. It offers many of the meanings of timeless, and yet it also reflects again, using that interesting duality, on the nature of the town itself. These words reach beyond themselves, touching the story around them, moving beyond familiar lands to form new boundaries.

And then you have the combined words, like "watertrucks" and "lightwire". The last, in particular, is vivid, with the "wire" part bringing in the idea of a lit filament, the electric shock of an unshielded light.

Then we have the drunks in the "lee" of alley walls, a subtler and much more fluid way to suggest shelter than to simply say "shelter".

And the "highshouldered" cats, so odd and yet so right. You can picture those pointed shoulder blades jutting out as the cats slink along... slink along in the "grim perimeters about". Such a strange selection here, too, and yet evocative. The texture of "grim" against the sense of danger implied in "perimeters", the idea of conflict, of war, of areas being patrolled. And that grimness is only enhanced by the descriptives, the "sootblacked brick" and "cobbled corridors". Grim, dirty, hard.

And then we have perhaps the oddest choice of all, the "gothic harp" of cellar doors. Image, or metaphor, or allusion, or merely a capturing of mood? All of the above? It's vivid and different, the sense of the gothic perhaps summarizing all that has come before, providing a final definition for the grim perimeter of sootblacked streets and highshouldered cats.

So, what do you think? What sort of things do you think about when you're trying to find the right words? And who are some of your favourite writers who use words in a really interesting manner?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The World in Miniature: How to Become a Warlord

by Bryan Russell

How to Become a Warlord

The government was taking all the money and so Mamud Aboto thought he would do something about it. He became a warlord.

It was not so hard. Revolution was very popular. It was easy to get guns, and there were young men everywhere sitting around. There was no work, no food. Hungry men, Mamud found, were quite motivated.

Mamud called it the People’s Liberation Front for Freedom, or the PLFFF. He blamed everything on the government and said they were going to take it all back for the people. Money! Land! Jobs!

The government was in the City. Politicians were all rich. Industry was always owned by foreigners, and there was no intelligentsia. The only way to make a lot of money was in public office. Which was not right, not by Mamud’s thinking.

Soldiers guarded the City. There were checkpoints. The PLFFF grew, they raided the checkpoints but a lot of people got shot. Luckily there were more hungry boys and men. The guns were light. Anyone could shoot them.

There wasn’t much food. International relief was great, but it was always delivered to the City, and all the politicians took it. The hungry people in the country stayed hungry. But that was good for the PLFFF, Mamud thought. More hungry boys!

There were rivals, though. Mamud was upset at first. The United People for Independence Movement (UPIM) and the Freedom Fighters for the People (FFP) and the Independent Liberators Front (ILF). Some people said they should get together and take down the government but, what, was Mamud going to share the spoils? How would that work?

They each had their own areas, all the liberators. They declared their autonomy and Mamud shouted to everyone that this is what he had always wanted. Independence! Freedom! He felt very successful. Extra guns for everyone. There were little border battles for territory. More people died. The guns were light. Anyone could shoot them.

But the boys started coming to Mamud. “President Chief,” they said. “We are hungry. There is no food.”

Mamud did not like this drought, all the dust. He tried to spit, but there was not much moisture. “Go north,” he said. “Get some food there.”

“UPIM is there, President Chief. If we go there it will be lots of fighting because they do not want us to take food from there.”

Mamud drank some beer.

“We are hungry, President Chief.”

“You have guns, don’t you?” Mamud said, waving his hands dismissively.

The boys nodded and went out to take whatever they could. The City was guarded. The territories of the other liberation movements were guarded. The local villages were not. This was much easier for everyone. The boys shot people and took whatever they wanted. Food, beer. Everyone got drunk and killed some more. And there were women now, too, and so the boys were happy, and so was Mamud.

The problem, though, was that the people were poor. They didn’t have much, and the PLFFF took everything. The other liberation movements were doing the same thing. Soon there was nothing left in the countryside.

Mamud called up the other warlords and said they must do something. They all went to the City and started the peace process. The government invited them in and made them governors of their respected territories. They all applied for grants to the World Bank. Ah, the peace process! Democracy! Rebuilding! The money poured in and it all went to the politicians and the warlords.

Mamud was very happy. Indeed, he was very rich. Certainly the World Bank had much more money than a bunch of starving villagers.

Monday, May 24, 2010

I and You and Me and We

Ah, Fellow Sophisticates, we have come to it at last, diving into the nitty and the gritty of dystopia. First up is Yevgeny Zamyatin's brilliant WE, an odd and wonderful book, a book which we were pleasantly surprised with. Our expectations can play a role in how we perceive a book and they can shape our experience of it. If you expect something to be great and it's merely good... good can be disappointing. But for WE I had a bit of fear. I was looking forward to this book, but at the same time sort of feared it. I feared... dryness. I feared a cold and bitter satire, a diatribe against Communism or totalitarianism. I feared something didactic and preachy. And part of my love for this book stems from how it is so unlike these expectations.

WE is full of life. It's a voice novel, a novel propelled by its style and personality as much as by its plot. The novel, the voice, bursts with life. Intelligent and logical at times, and yet emotive, fluid, tumbling and rolling and falling back upon itself and then washing out again. A piece, here, from the opening of the novel:

"As I write this, I feel something: my cheeks are burning. Integrating the grand equation of the universe: yes. Taming a wild zigzag along a tangent, toward the asymptote, into a straight line: yes. You see, the line of the One State - it is a straight line. A great, divine, precise, wise, straight line - the wisest of lines."

and then...

"As I write this: I feel my cheeks burn. I suppose this resembles what a woman experiences when she first hears a new pulse within her - the pulse of a tiny, unseeing, mini-being. This text is me; and simultaneously not me. And it will feed for many months on my sap, my blood, and then, in anguish, it will be ripped from self and placed at the foot of the One State.

But I am ready and willing, just as every one - or almost every one of us. I am ready."

And here we have the novel laid out for us, in a sense. The character's rationanlity, his logic, his sense of the unity of the One State. And yet already within it is the seed of change, of discontent, the "almost every one of us". For the One State is totalitarian, a world of homogenized sterility, a world of concrete and glass. Indeed, the buildings are made of transparent glass, the homes they live in broadcasting their lives to the world. What is their to hide when the whole world is organized and everyone runs on a monotonous schedule? Only an hour here and there for free time, often for sex. It's the only time the shades come down in a home, when people are having sex. Romance is buying a ticket for somebody and taking it to an office where the sexual rendezvous will be approved or not... and an appointment allotted.

The city is sterile. Indeed, the rest of the world is kept beyond the Green Wall that surrounds the city. Forests, jungles, wildlife... and the last free humans. Yet there are those within the city, the "almost" from the "almost every one of us", who still value freedom, who hunger for novelty, for a path that it is not known and scheduled beforehand. They are in touch with the outside world, and want to bring a little anarchy into the order of the One State.

D-503, our hero (for everyone here is a number, a designation), is building the Integral, a spaceship which will transport the ways of the One State into space. A blazing line, a straight line... and yet into the unknown. D-503 wants to record his thoughts and experiences as the Integral approaches completion, and yet he finds his words lead him to strange places.

"... the pulse of a tiny, unseeing, mini-being."

People in the One State do not raise their own children, and yet the opening foreshadows this conflict: parenthood, desire, the need for an autonomous love. D-503here writes a little predestination of his own, and yet it operates as a metaphor as much as an act of foreshadowing. His words are his child, and they are a new life within him. The act of writing itself, of recording, of seeking and claiming and understanding, is an act of exploration, of anarchy and awakening.

Love, of course, is hard to contain within walls and schedules. Life resists boundaries, always pushing, pushing, pushing, as with the living world against the Green Wall. D-503's act of introspection and exploration leads him into conflict, both externally and internally. This is the conflict of the state, of the individual against society, against repression. It is the I and the We.

It is not a perfect novel, certainly. Some of the cultural propaganda lacks subtlety, the facelessness of society too entrenched. And D-503 swings too often between extremes, between the mind-washed pursuit of rationality and conformity and the impassioned awakening to love and need and the newness of experience.

And yet it is a success, a welding of a philosophical framework to a human voice, a voice alive in the prose. It is a balance of the grim, dystopic future against the human experience of one man, the whims of life against the encroachment of conformity and death.

"Do you believe that you will die? yes, people are mortal and if I am a person, then, of course... But that's not what I mean. I know that you know this. I am asking: has it ever happened that you have believed in your own death, believed in it totally, believed in it, not with your mind, but with your body, feeling that one day the fingers that are holding this very page will be yellow, icy...?

No: of course, you don't believe in it - and that is why, up to now, you haven't jumped from the tenth floor into the street, that is why up to now you have been eating, turning pages, shaving, smiling, writing..."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The World in Miniature: The Deafening Silence

by Matthew Rush
The Quintessentially Questionable Query Experiment

The Deafening Silence

The man looked as beautiful as a pharaoh lying on the bed. His hair was long; salt and pepper black and grey. How could he have brushed it after lying there for days?

The white sheets and shining steel rails surrounding him were pure and clean and clinical; adulterating the sense of heightened emotion, of rank and stinking fear.

The image was broken by his protruding feet and ankles. Toenails yellow, fungal, crumbling into dust and mold and nothing. The nurses said they rubbed his skin with lotion but the cracked trenches in his soles spoke of sicker times and mental illness. The futility of life was a religion in that tiny room.

The machines lingered at the edges of it, watching. Their knobs and screens and cables and printed circuit boards longed for an electrical release. They did not care or consider human suffering but longed to make a difference in the efficiency of the greater machinations of the system. When they beeped and whirred and whined and whooshed they were a part of something beyond themselves. They had no consciousness with which to be aware of such desires and yet still they yearned in deafening silence.

We'd asked them to remove him from the respirator yesterday but the night had passed in vigil and still he breathed and shuddered. The rising falling of his chest and irregular twitching of his limbs and facial muscles was strange but not entirely unexpected. It was the yawning and forced blinking of the cavities around his eyes which disturbed us most. These were the signs of a man alive and made acceptance of the truth difficult.

I'd never seen a dead man yawn before and it shook me to a place that I could not comprehend. My stomach had been tight and fluttery for days but now, this night, my legs grew weak and it was hard to stand and keep from shivering.

The hours stretched on as he refused to cease to be. The staff came in from time to time to check but they were driven out by the pressurized wall of breathless air. We choked and grimaced and coughed and clenched our fists and anuses. Hope had left us long ago but there was a certain determination not to be bested by the angel.

It was weeks before I saw the official document but this is what it said:

He died of:

Central Respiratory Failure

due to (or as a consequence of):

Anoxic Brain Injury (10-20-2008)

due to (or as a consequence of):

Cardiac Arrest, ventricular fibrilation (10-20-2008)

due to (or as a consequence of):

Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy.

What this really meant, the attending physician had told us, was the he died of a pickled heart. Pickled by the poison in which he’d sought to drown his anguish.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Dystopia Month!


Yes, this post is about shame.

Book shame. I'll admit it. There's some books I haven't read. Books I should've read. I know, I know. Slacker.

But I tell myself it's common! Everyone steals Cable, right? I mean, everyone has books missing on their Should've Read list, right? Right?

And the worst ones are the ones that really surprise you. People that know you and the kind of books you read, the kind of people who are always utterly flabbergasted when you admit, no, I haven't read X! Or Y either!

Book shame.

For me, the two worst are 1984 and A Brave New World. I have not read them.

I hang my head. Yes, I, who has escaped two literature degrees, who has 32 years of classics and sci-fi and fantasy... I have not read the two great dystopic novels. My name is Ink, and I am a slacker.

But this shall not last! This is Dystopia Month here on the blog! I'm gonna read 'em and blog about the experience, about the sudden release from Shame. Say three hail mary's and take a deep breath.

And the neat thing is there are actually three great dystopic novels of the 20th Century! Name the third and win a prize! (Okay, there is no prize. This blog is really a sort of mini-dystopia, the kind that gets your hopes up and then shatters them. Take that, free-thinking rebels!)

The third one, of couse, is the first of the three, Yevgeny Zamyatin's WE, written in 1921. Ursula K. Le Guin calls it "the best single work of science fiction yet written." So I'm gonna start with that one and then move on to Aldous Huxley's A Brave New World (published in 1932), and then finish with George Orwell's 1984 (published in 1949).

Should be fun, and if anyone wants to read along with me, feel free! Share in the dystopic angst!

But, before I do, a couple questions: If you've read any of these, what are your thoughts on them? And what are your own shameful omissions, the books that everyone who knows you is surprised you haven't read? Come on, confess, you know you'll feel better.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The World in Miniature: The General Who Spoke on the Radio

by Bryan Russell

The General Who Spoke on the Radio

When the President flew out of the country the General said “Why does he ever have to come back?”

The President had friends, though, so something had to be done. The General and his soldiers went to see the friends and shot them dead. In their beds or their mistresses beds, in the streets or in the cafes. Bloody clothes left wet stains that dried in the heat. The General was not a particularly literate man, but his messages were easy to read.

The President decided an extended vacation was in order. Switzerland was nice, he’d heard.

The General took control of the newspaper and the radio station. He liked to hear himself talk, and even more he liked it when everyone else could hear him talk. There were many new rules, and he told the whole country about all of them.

The most important, everyone learned, was that they should not go against the General. He never mentioned this one, but it was clear enough. The General was a jolly man with a big laugh. He liked to visit people. He would go to their house, smile, slap them on the back, ask how things were going. He would laugh and shake hands. And as he left the executioners would slip in behind him.

After awhile he decided it was better to torture everyone first. What might they know? The friends of his enemies were his enemies too.

The torturers set up shop in basements, but it was very hot and there was no air conditioning. They opened the windows to make things nicer. People passing in the street could hear the moans, the screams, the final shots.

The General should have been happy, but he was not. In the Country Next Door there was a new Prime Minister. Everyone loved him. His people had parades. They danced and sang. The Prime Minister only rarely spoke on the radio and he never killed anyone.

The General could not stand this. He ordered his troops ready. He trained them himself, driving around in a jeep. He wore army fatigues. He exhorted them onward. Fight, he yelled, fight!

The General’s troops invaded the Country Next Door, but the Country Next Door responded and counter-attacked and the General’s soldiers all fled. They ran right through the General’s country and kept on going, scattering on the wind.

The Country Next Door had one fatality: a horse pulling a wagon was struck by a fleeing jeep. A doctor tried to help the animal, but there was nothing to be done.

Monday, May 10, 2010

I Missed the YA Train

Yup, this post is about the HOTTEST THING IN THE WORLD RIGHT NOW OMG YA LITERATURE. And also about how I'm totally oblivious about it. Yes! Shocking, I know.

This is strange, in a way. I'm an eclectic and omnivoracious reader. I read a bit of everything. There are three basic exceptions.

1) Romance (though I once read a Harlequin novel out of curiosity! Luckily it takes only 45 minutes!)

2) Westerns (though I like western movies and always think I should read some westerns and plan on it and never do. I have read some literary novels that are sort of westerns, like Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy, but that's really more Cormac McCarthyish than westernish).

3) YA

Yes, I am mostly unread in YA. How did this turn of events come about? I posit three possibly overlapping theories.

1) I am really pretty lame.

2) I simply missed the train. Or maybe I didn't even realize there was a train and merely stole a pickup truck and let out a YEEHAW! and tore off down the street. I think this is pretty likely. I started reading seriously in grade three when my Mom (happy Mother's Day!) forced me to read The Hobbit. LOTR followed, of course. I read a few Hardy Boys. Then Watership Down and the Duncton Wood series (and those mole books are certainly adult, what with the sex, death, and genocides of the faith). And I've read the Prydain Chronicles and the Harry Potter books, both of which sort of start out as middle grade and evolve into YA (in my completely uninformed opinion). The Prydain Chronicles I read when young (Harry Potter as an adult, perhaps my lone adult step back into the YA realm), but after that I simply read adult fantasy, sci-fi, crime, and then classics and literary novels, and then history, science, memoirs, etc. So from about grade five onward I was reading adult books.

I'm not sure I even comprehended the fact that there was a section such as YA. It was beyond the pale (or at least my interest). My parents trusted that I could handle the older stuff. But this leaves me with a sort of experiential gap.

3) My third theory has more to do with my adult self. I could go back and read YA now... and yet I'm not really drawn to, no matter how great some books are supposed to be. Why? My theory has to do with the nature of the stories, the idea that they're often (so I randomly guess!) of the bildungsroman sort. Young people and young people's issues. But I'm not a young person. I'm in my early thirties, and have kids of my own. These kids are young, though, and so I can't really engage these YA issues through them yet (in a decade, perhaps?). They make me curious, naturally enough, about stuff to do with kids. Kids literature and point of view, stories about kids. But not really the teen/YA sort of thing. And for myself, I'm just not engaged in these issues. They're long past for me, nor do I feel I have any real unresolved issues stemming from that period. If I were consciously or subconsciously working over such issues, I'm guessing I might be drawn back into such stories. So, for me, I just feel I'm not engaged right now in the sort of character dynamics that drive the YA novels.

Yet obviously I don't know what I'm talking about! Because YA is hot hot hot right now (Thank you, Harry Twilight and the Philosopher's Eclipse)! And a fair bit of this is driven by adult readers. Sparkly Loving Moms! Dumbledorf Dreaming Dads!

So as a writer and bookseller I'm curious. What draws you to YA literature? As a reader? As a writer? There is great writing there, obviously, as there is in all types of literature. Is that it? You'll look for a good story wherever? Or is there something more, something about the nature of YA itself that draws you in? And what the hell is YA anyway? I read and liked Catcher in the Rye, and yet I have the feeling that if this were publisned now it would not be in the literature section, but rather in the YA section. How has YA changed, and why has it changed? Curious to see what you all think! Lay out my lameness, if you will.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The World in Miniature: Strangers on a Sunday

by T.H. Mafi
from an untitled work in progress

This story has been taken down at the behest of its lovely author. Check out her blog, though, for lots of greatness.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Light Seen in a Prison Cell

Edit: Link fixed!

I recently read this article by Samantha Miller about writers who have gone to prison on account of their writing.

I think about this sometimes. What is it to stand by your work? What is it to write something worth standing by? It is easy, I think, for many of us to forget the importance of words, to forget their power. We love telling stories, we get them published or hope to do so, we think of a career… and yet there’s something more. It is with words we shape the world. A revolution is always spoken and written before it is acted. The words shape the struggle.

The writers mentioned in the article wrote against oppression, wrote in the face of it. The truths they understood were more important. The words were worth the risk, the sacrifice. Perhaps we will not all be in that situation, where our words mean so much.
But it’s important to remember the transformative power of words. These writers were feared for the truth they offered, for the convincingness of their words.

We, too, want to make someone feel, to make someone think. Or perhaps just make someone happy. The power of this is important, the movement from the abstractness of the page to the all too real reader. A connection.

I wonder how many of us would stand by our work in the face of such sacrifice? Prison, confinement, an end of freedom…

Yet it’s strange. I’m drawn to ideas of imprisonment, to stories about this. Perhaps there is something in the act of writing itself that draws a parallel, the sense of solitude and isolation. A writer has to create their own walls. They have to hold themselves inside, to think, to write, to find a story and its proper expression. It is a voluntary imprisonment, of course, and the food and accommodations are better. But there’s something about that idea of solitude, about the box of a prison, that draws me in.

Prison is a crucible. Some sacrifice and accept the risk of imprisonment, while others are imprisoned and find it is this crucible that comes to shape their conscience. I’m currently reading a novel by Chester Himes, The Big Gold Dream. He was a black American writer who grew up poor and in difficult times. In the 20s he was arrested and convicted of armed robbery. In prison he started to write. He had his first story published from there, in 1934. In 1936 he got out after eight years behind bars. And yet he’d found a path. Did the solitude of that cell push him this way?

He wrote. Literary novels. Protest novels about the culture of America, about racism and prejudice. Brutal and burning and probing stories, full of a terrible honesty. He couldn’t stay in America, leaving to live abroad, always searching for a place where he would be treated as a man. And yet he came back in his writing. He wrote crime novels, too, gritty detective novels featuring his detective team of Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, searching through old time Harlem. These books burn a little too, and yet in the light of that fire there is truth and honesty. A world peeled back.

In a cell, perhaps, you can reflect back. On experience, on the world you’ve known. And yet that is really just a way of facing yourself. I’m fascinated with this experience. I have a literary novel I’ve been writing (lost somewhere in the midst of ongoing revisions) about a woman who is kidnapped and placed in a cell.

I think I’m drawn to the sense of containment. A world bound down to its smallest form, its most minimal existence. Trapped with yourself. The story cannot help but operate inside the character, turning their souls inside out for inspection.

And isn’t that what we do? We sit down. We tap the keys. Alone. Alone we turn our souls inside out for inspection.