Saturday, May 31, 2008

Don’t ask me where I got it.

First, an explanation: this post was supposed to be about originality and style, but when writing it, I realized that while style is an important factor relating to originality, it should get its own post (next time, as a matter of fact.) Another thought that came to me while trying to write this was that giving tips on how to be original would not only be difficult but strange. I mean, it would be ironic if I could say, “If you want to be original, then you have to do this, this, and this...” because then you’d be following a formula. Though that does sound like a good idea for a story: My Formula for Being Original. Duly noted.

Let’s face it – being original gets harder with every day that goes by. Everything has been done and then redone, is currently being done yet again, and after that’s over, we can be sure there’ll be some more redoing. That’s not so dreadful, or dreadful at all, actually. It’s simply part of the creative cycle of ideas that we take part in - I happen to be planning on redoing a few things myself. Originality isn’t necessarily creating something totally new out of nothing. It can be a different combination of elements; it can be using new or different influences; it can be a new interpretation of a preexisting story.

However, just because something is new or different doesn’t make it good. Ideas take time to develop and perfect; there’s no need to rush. Try the shiny thing out, see how it works. Maybe you’re on to something, but maybe you’re not. If you’re not, put it aside. Who knows? Maybe later it will turn into something else. That’s one of the best things about writing: the worst that can happen is the pages will get dusty lying on the shelf. (Although in my case the dust is metaphorical. I have a folder on my desktop labeled Frozen, where all my half-baked ideas are stored.)

Experimentation is wonderful; challenging yourself to try the somewhat unusual or the virtually impossible will improve your writing. The idea is not to make being original your top priority. In fact, I wouldn’t make it a conscious priority at all. It’s as bad as saying, “I must create something magnificent!” Focus on the creation now and save the adjectives for later. After all, there isn’t some literary or cinematic race – at least none that I know of. And while being the first to do something has cachet, it often happens that the last person not only does it better, but is also the better remembered.

Friday, May 30, 2008

White Lies

a lie is a lie
for whatever reason told
in stripes or in plaid

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Fun with Numbers

About 6 months ago, on November 19th, 2007, I officially commenced blogging. Since then, I’ve written 65 haikus (not counting the 9 of Haiku Jill), 14 Wednesday (nonsense) posts, and 14 Saturday (writing) posts. Which reminds me – a brief recap of the writing posts (since the last recap):

Beginnings
Middles
Endings
Genre
Description
Figurative Language
Subject Matter

If I count my “blog year” from November 19th of last year until November 19th this year, that means I have at least 49 more haikus to write, 12 more Wednesday posts, and 12 more Saturday posts, which makes me committed to a grand total of 73 posts during the next 6 months.

But really, no pressure.

Also, for those of you who missed my post about it, I’ve been writing for The View from Here, an online literary magazine that you are cordially invited to check out. Savor the wit and wisdom of Mike, Paul, Kathleen, and Naomi. My contribution at the View is still only in the single digits. In fact, you could count it on the fingers of 1 hand and still have 2 fingers left to spare, which is my preciously roundabout way of saying I’ve posted 3 times:

Replacing “Writer”
I’m trying to sleep here.
An Audience Full of Surprises

Homework: Add up every number mentioned in this post. If the total comes out even, write a 4 line poem. If the total comes out odd, write a 3 line poem (haiku optional). You may use any rhyming scheme you prefer, or none at all, in fact, since I’m perfectly flexible on the subject of rhyme.

About the homework: You all know I’m not being serious, right?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Elephant

dignified creature
enormous gray and thick-skinned
you never forget

Friday, May 23, 2008

Forgetfulness

This was not written
at the last minute, oh no!
I swear it wasn't.

Lying
Okay, so I lied.
But just the tiniest bit.
I didn't mean to.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Adapting Shakespeare, Part I

The Concept: name of Shakespeare’s play + Anagram Server = bad movie idea
Previous Anagram Adaptation Victims: Robert Browning, Lord Byron, John Keats

The Play: The Taming of the Shrew
Original Genre: Comedy
The Incredibly Brief Summary of Original: Padua, 1590s. The wealthy Senior Baptista has a tiny problem. He has two daughters: Bianca, the younger one, is a shining angel of adorable meek and maidenly virtue, and Katherina, is the shrew in the title. Times being what they are, the cuddly Bianca can only get married if her older sister gets married first. Since Kate is a man-hater ready to throw a mean backhand or a piece of furniture at anyone who gives her a funny look, Bianca is in terrible danger of ending up an old maid.

Or is she? Handsome young Lucentio gazes upon her by chance and, with the keen perception of a man wounded by Cupid’s arrow, realizes the only way he’ll get to marry Bianca is if he finds a husband for the shrewish Kate. But where could he find such a magnificent specimen of a man? Enter Petruchio – the loud, the bullying, and the astonishingly fun. Lucentio says, “I can get you a wife with a fabulous dowry.” Petruchio says, “lead on.” Lucentio warns, “she has a rotten temper.” Petruchio, scoffing, says, “lead on.”

Petruchio woos, Kate scorns. Petruchio jests, Kate insults. Petruchio outwits, Kate is surprised. Despite some loud protesting on Kate’s part, they get married. After a few days of exhausting travel to Petruchio’s estate in Verona, some sleepless nights and foodless days, Petruchio gets Kate to be more cooperative. From shrew she goes to being a saucy wench, and a kind of affectionate banter develops between the couple. A few weeks later, they return to Padua for the wedding of (yes, you guessed it) Lucentio and Bianca. Everyone is clamoring to see whether Kate has been tamed.

Not only does Kate prove tamed, she proves Bianca to be quite the disobedient little wench: When the men make a bet to see whose wife will come when called for no reason (you know, because they’re men and can indulge in that kind of thing), Kate has to drag an unwilling Bianca to her husband Lucentio. She then gives her a stern lecture on proper wifely subordination, which you can read as expressing the crude misogyny of the time or a subversive bit of irony. Either way, Petruchio kisses Kate affectionately and we can only assume their marital life will be blissful. The end.

Title: Mow the Feathers’ Thing
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Plot Summary: Set in the 1950s, a tale of sparkling wit, true love, and lawnmowers. Peter Rook and Lou Cent are the best landscape designers around. For a couple hundred dollars they’ll take your sorry backyard and make it look like a corner of Versailles. Or so it says in their ad. Truth be told, Pete and Lou don’t know the difference between a daisy and a daffodil, but they can mow the lawn real nice. Trouble starts when Lou falls for Bianca Feathers, daughter of Bob Feathers – as in Bob “Fertilizer” Feathers, owner of the Feathers Fertilizer formula that really can make your sorry backyard look like a corner of Versailles. Not only that, Bob has another daughter: while Bianca wants nothing more than a husband who will let her shop for a living, Kate has the nerve to be a lawyer. Honestly, these modern women have no shame, or so Pete says. A law school dropout, things get complicated when Pete tries to pass himself off as a real lawyer and Kate spies a phony. Will the clever Pete talk himself out of trouble and into a love affair with the sharp-witted Kate? Will Lou come up with the right money-making scheme to tempt Bianca into matrimony? Will Pete and Lou be forced to mow lawns forever?

Title: Negate Hems Forthwith
Genre: Screwball Comedy
Plot Summary: Set in the 1930s, a tale of sparkling wit, true love, and typewriters. Kate and Bianca aren’t only sisters, they’re sister stenographers working side by side, making their way through a world of memos and dictations. One fine day Bianca meets Luke, a hapless businessman who couldn’t form a coherent sentence if he had a DIY kit. Though Kate disapproves, Bianca is smitten and does her best to make Luke sound smart with his boss, Pete, who talks faster than anyone could type and insults faster than anyone could stand. That is, until he meets Kate, who shows him a thing or two about business – and pleasure! The battle of wit and will is on – who will come out victorious? (Why is it a screwball comedy? Because there will be slapstick. Which is probably more appropriate for the adaptation with the lawnmowers, but I figure that would be the obvious thing – and why be obvious when there’s that other road diverging into a wood that’s supposed to be more fun or something?)

Stuck in Development:

Weathermen Host Fight – On one beautiful day every year, weathermen around the world gather to celebrate meteorology in all its glory. There is feasting, frolicking, and of course – the fight. And that’s as far as I got. Beats me how it ties in with the original plot. It’s a shame because the name was promising.

Featherweights Month - An animated feature for grownups and children alike, which follows the lives of four cats: Petey, Louis, Bebe, and Katie. Again, that’s as far as I got. Really, how can you top the first two? Even animated cats and their comical antics couldn’t pull it off.

Rightmost Heathen Few – I just had no clue what to do with this one. Another promising title gone to waste...

Monday, May 19, 2008

Writer's Block

a blank page, a pen
Silence. *tumbleweed rolls by*
where is that damn muse?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

What the hell do I know?

“Write what you know” is probably the most common piece of writing advice in circulation. Sadly, this is often interpreted as “write only about things that happen in your backyard.” Writing isn’t only stringing words together into a story; it’s projecting the reader into another time, place, and point of view, and making them experience it as real. That takes a lot of work, even when writing about something you know as well as your backyard. Which is why it’s easier to stay in your backyard and never venture elsewhere. Don’t get me wrong. Writing about your personal experiences is as valid as any other subject. It’s your choice, but the world is wide, the universe is wider, and there’s no law that says you have to stay put. (By the way, which post was it where I said I wasn’t going to use extended metaphors to make a point? Obviously, I’ve forgotten...)

Do your homework. Write what you know means you have to know the subject well and to write it well, you have to do some research, usually a lot. But your writing will be better for it. Ideally, you should have comprehensive knowledge of your subject, but the depth of your knowledge should be gauged according to the impact of each element on the narrative. Facts (dates, events, customs, laws, etc.) should always be verified. Mistakes do happen, but make sure they’re minor. A minor mistake can be ignored or forgiven, but big ones can ruin a story.

Find an expert. Or at least someone who knows the subject well enough to give you some pointers – what books to read or other people you can talk to. One hour of conversation with a knowledgeable person can save you hours of fruitless research.

Specific settings. Even if the time and place aren’t particularly important to your story, it still influences the way your characters think, speak, and behave, as well as the way the plot can develop. You’ve probably read criticism such as: “That could never have happened in New York City because everyone knows there’s a strict law...” or “They don’t talk or act like British colonists...” or “The feminist attitude of the heroine is anachronistic and therefore unbelievable...”

Occupational hazards. A character’s job is also usually worth some research. That’s not to say that if you have a character who’s a surgeon, you need to know anatomy, but it might be useful knowing what their daily routine is like.

Generic conventions. A genre’s conventions can define a character, place, or time without your having to crack so much as a pamphlet. But these are only archetypes in a template setting. Ultimately, you’ll still need to research the genre in order to give more than a formulaic rendition.

The genre loophole. Despite what I just said, there are certain cases where a genre makes research unnecessary simply because it’s beside the point. In certain cases of Sci-Fi, for example, you don’t need to explain how a spaceship would actually fly, how a teleporter operates in order for a story to work, because the actual mechanics are beside the point. People are simply supposed to assume in advance that these futuristic items could work, or that aliens are out there, or that time travel is possible. In Children of Men, the operating assumption is that humanity has lost the ability to reproduce. It doesn’t matter whether or not this is possible or likely – it’s merely the backdrop for larger existential issues.

The other genre loophole. In the case of Fantasy novels, what with all the magic and alternate realities, you can do whatever you want from the color of the sky to the language of the characters. But though Fantasy frees you from the restraint of realism and historical accuracy, it forces you to explain many things for the benefit of the reader which, in other cases, you might not have had to explain.

So much for the concrete. As for handling the abstract: love, death, depression, happiness, existence, etc. Given that we’re talking about abstracts, what can I say other than try to look at it from as many angles as possible? You don’t have to write about all of it. Actually, it would be pretty much impossible to write everything about an abstract subject. The point is not to have a narrow perspective. I’m always surprised when I read other interpretations and opinions; even when they coincide with mine, they often highlight things which didn’t occur to me.

Next time on Technical Saturday... Originality and Style.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Finding the Right Word

glimmering gleaming
glowing beaming radiant
shimmering shiny

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Ballad of Haiku Jill

a lady there was
and they called her Jill Jane Jones
as it sounded fine

born in sunny June
but icy as December
beautiful as snow

couldn't love or laugh
couldn't cry, hate, or scowl
couldn't sing or dance

dawn until the dusk
did her work without complaint
didn't ask a thing

ever by herself
evening and morning too
ever in silence

Fate spoke out one day:
form seventeen syllables
from thoughts in your mind

give them room to breathe
give them sushine, Jill Jane Jones
give them all but rhyme

haikus you'll call them
Haiku Jill is who you'll be
heaven bless you, dear

I think you can guess
if she listened to Fate's words
it's in the title...

Friday, May 9, 2008

Pink

flamingos grapefruit
girly stuff usually
piglets bubblegum

Barbie
cool blonde cool smile
an impossible figure
world domination

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Adapting Shaw

Previous Adaptation Victims: Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Mary Shelley, Oscar Wilde.

The Concept: I couldn’t resist.
The Play: Pygmalion
The Playwright Whose Disdain I Deserve: George Bernard Shaw
Original Plot Summary: (The Extremely Short Version.) London, 1910s. Eliza Doolittle is a common flower girl with bad manners and a worse accent. Henry Higgins is an expert phonetician with bad manners and a flawless accent. On a bet with the kindly Col. Pickering, Higgins teaches Eliza to speak beautifully like a real English lady, and passes her off as a duchess at an embassy ball (which isn’t staged in the actual play because it costs too much money). Though Higgins perfects Eliza’s accent, Mrs. Pearce, the housekeeper, along with some help from the Colonel, perfect her behavior, as Higgins happens to be an insensitive bully. Along the way, a well-meaning but inept young gentleman named Freddy becomes besotted with Eliza. Meanwhile, Eliza acts as an unofficial assistant to Higgins and develops a kind of affection for the big brute.

After the bet is won, Higgins admits to being bored by the whole thing, prompting Eliza to lose her temper and storm out. She goes to stay with Higgins’ mother, who agrees with her about Higgins’ unfeeling behavior. Higgins follows Eliza and after a good deal of arguing, is impressed by her spirit (bullies love opposition). When she leaves to go to her father’s wedding, Higgins asks her to run some errands while she’s out. As the play closes, it’s uncertain whether she’ll return. (Unless you read Shaw’s lengthy epilogue, which he added since directors kept insisting on creating a more traditional romantic ending.)

New Title: Pygmalion’s Lens
Genre: Drama
New Plot Summary: New York City, the present. Henry Lion is a photographer nicknamed “Professor” due to his ability to quote literature, history, etc., on the spot. Eliza Little is a young assistant who works in his studio, running around and doing errands, regarded as invisible by almost everyone there. Eliza is a real beauty, hidden by diminutive stature, shabby clothes, bad hairstyling, and unassertive manners. She’s dirt poor and ignorant; although she did gain a vocabulary from reading fashion magazines, she’s never read any actual books. One night, the Professor comes to the studio very late and sees Eliza messing around, trying on different wigs and posing – making fun of the models’ attitudes. In an instant, he sees her potential and molds her into a fashion model.

Within months, Eliza becomes Fashion’s It-Girl. The bigger she gets, the less control the Professor has over her, much to his annoyance. (He’s gay, so there’s no actual romantic involvement between them.) Eliza, meanwhile, develops a small relationship with Freddy, a male model, who’s sweet, funny, and absolutely lovesick for her, but not the brightest of light bulbs. This is another source of annoyance for the Professor, who claims Eliza is only involved with Freddy because he’s pretty and non-threatening. Eliza counters that one bully was enough for her, and she doesn’t want to date one as well. Eventually, they come to an understanding, even though Eliza refuses to promise that she won’t do something stupid like marry Freddy.

Cinematography Suggestions: I can’t think of anything specific like black and white (although that could be effective). At any rate, it should look sophisticated – glossy even.

Sample Scenes:
[After the Professor sees Eliza clowning around in the studio on her own.]
“What’s your name?”
“Eliza. Little.”
“Very fitting. You’re too tiny for the runway. We’ll call you Little Liz. That should catch on.”

[During Eliza’s first photo session with the Professor. (The day after he “discovers” her in the studio.)]
“Ever heard of Fred Astaire?”
“Sure I have. I’m not that ignorant.”
“Ever see him dance?”
“Yeah. He’s wonderful.”
“Like he’s walking on air, right?”
“Uh huh.”
“Does he look like he’s working?”
“No, he looks like he’s having the time of his life.”
“Right. And he worked like a dog to make sure that’s what it looked like. Can you fathom what I’m getting at, Miss Little?”
“That I should imitate his work ethic?”
“Ah, I see you have basic listening comprehension. That makes me almost giddy. Would you please sit over there and not move until I tell you?”

[The Professor walks in on Eliza clowning around with Freddy on a break during a photo shoot]
Professor: What is this, rehearsals for a musical comedy?
Freddy: Sorry, Professor. We were only having some fun.
Professor: Stop it. You’re supposed to look sullen and bored.

[Eliza and the Professor get into an argument over Freddy]
“You’re still an ignorant girl from Brooklyn who can’t tell the difference between real and synthetic.”
“And you’re still a pompous phony from Manhattan who loves the sound of his own voice.”
“Who taught you everything you know!”
“Not everything!”
“Everything except breathing in and out! And even there I had to give you pointers!”
“Take it easy, Frankenstein!”
“What a keen observation, my precious little monster. Someone might suspect you read a book once.”
“It’s too bad the only book you’ve never read is The Idiot’s Guide to Compassion.”
“I’ve never heard of that one. Did Freddy write it?”
“Scorn all you want, Professor, but he’s a sweet human being and I can marry him if I want to and there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing.”

Special Notes: I doubt Shaw would have approved.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Brown

chocolate pecans
earth wood coffee grizzly bears
said chocolate, right?

Evil Genius
you thought this would be
about chocolate, but HA!
it isn't! fooled ya!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Figuratively Speaking

Bill: Don’t mix your metaphors.
Margot: I’ll mix what I like!
- All About Eve

Today, as a continuation to the last post on Description, a few words on figurative language.

Metaphors, similes, symbols, synecdoche...s, and so on - are tools like any other. They have their advantages and disadvantages. Chief advantage: they add meaning and flavor. Chief disadvantage: used inappropriately or in excess, they can do more damage than a bad plot or poorly drawn characters combined. In general, figurative language should be gauged according to tone, situation, and character. Even if the narration is third-person and you can adopt a more poetic tone than the average character, you still have to examine how the figures affect the narrative.

Subtle differences. Metaphors, similes, etc., are essentially an image conjured up in order to explain something else. They express a wide range of emotions and ideas, so make sure the figure conveys the right connotations: “like a moth to a flame” is not the same as “like a lamb to the slaughter.” “Like a fly hovering over rotting meat” is not the same as “like a shark circling its victim.”

How inappropriate. In Stagecoach, Hatfield describes Mrs. Mallory as an angel in the jungle. Given the western frontier setting, it would have been more appropriate to call her an angel in the wilderness or the desert. It’s not a big deal – I may be the only person in existence who rolled their eyes at that one – but that’s the kind of thing you should try to avoid. Or, for another example, a poor fisherman from a small town without much education probably won’t say things like, “The lives of men shatter like waves upon the rocks.” But he might very well say, “All a man can do is try to stay afloat.”

The Pathetic Fallacy. Or, when nature is not only humanized, but seems directly involved with the character’s state of mind. For example, let’s say a character is heartbroken – so the weather will be either torrential downpours of rain or beautiful sunshine. Usually, the character also has something to say about the state of the weather in relation to his or herself, e.g., “I cried and the skies cried with me.” Or “I cried, but the skies were blithely sunny, unaware of my sorrow.” Some people claim that kind of effect is wonderful, while others claim that it’s cheap sentimentality. Those who regard it as cheap sentimentality also argue that it’s a very narcissistic point of view, which may work nicely if used for characterization, as in first-person narration or dialogue. If, however, a third-person narrator uses it, you may meet with some hostility or rolling of the eyes. As always, it’s up to you.

Cliché alert. Rosy lips, pearly teeth, eyes that twinkle like stars – pretty nice, aren’t they? Unfortunately, they and many others are considered to be tacky, worn-out clichés. This was already true in Shakespeare’s time and we’re already 400 years later. (There’s nothing we can do, with every day that goes by it gets harder and harder to be original.) So my advice is, if you’re using some kind of figure, try to make it more specific, either culturally or in terms of the story itself. Instead of “Her lips were the color of a red rose”: Her lips were like Valentine roses; The color of her lips reminded me of the roses I used to grow; Her lips were like Acrylic #647 Basic Red, which I loved using; Her lips were as red as a 1950s pin-up. Don’t misunderstand me - not everything has to be so specific – but when every figure is generic or clichéd, it gives people the impression that you don’t have much imagination. (Again, however, if you’re using it as a characterization technique, it’s a different story.)

Next time on Technical Saturday... Subject Matter.

Friday, May 2, 2008

White

blank paper cotton
polar bears regular sheep
swans snow ice milk light

Blank Paper
infinite choices
possibilities questions
I am NOT freaked out