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My Top Ten List of my Favorite Quotes about Reading

top10

I know that reading is powerful and that great literature has made great contributions to society. It’s good to know that I’m not the only one who thinks that way. I’m sure many of you who read this will share in this sentiment. But beyond this, some of the greatest writers ever have had some wonderful things to say abut the contribution of reading in their own lives and in the lives of others.

10 “Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel as if I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escae and the opposite from escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day in making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real.” Nora Ephron

9 “We should read to give our souls a chance to luxuriate.” Henry Miller

8 “Libraries raised me.” Ray Bradbury

7  “By reading the most interesting minds of history, we meditate with our minds and theirs as well. This to me is a miracle.” Kurt Vonnegut

6  “In the highest civilization, the book is still the highest delight.” Ralph Waldo Emmerson

5 “A fondness of reading, properly directed, must be an education in itself.” Jane Austen

4  “When the Day of Judgment dawns, and people, great and small, come marching in to receive their heavenly rewards, the Almighty will gaze upon the mere bookworms, and say to Peter, ‘Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them. They have loved reading’.” Virginia Woolf

3  “You think your pain and heartache are unprecedented in the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me were the very things that connected with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” James Baldwin

2  “For all I know, writing come from a superior devotion to reading.” Eudora Wealty

1  “The one way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy.” Gustav Flaubert

It’s clear that reading great books make you great. I hope these quotes inspired you to read some more. Maybe it inspired you to think of your top ten list of favorite quotes on reading. Post your list in the comment section, or let me know what’s wrong with my list.

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Tolstoy & Art

ivan

There are many theories on art. The one rule of aesthetics that seems to tie them all together is the idea that any work of art is a sure-fire way of putting yourself into the head of the artist. Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy thought that art should not be used as a way of escape, and on this I agree. Art should enable the aesthete to deal with the world, not avoid it. Tolstoy wrote about what really is art and what isn’t in his book What is Art? While he discusses what succeeds as art, as per his vision, and what fails, I tend to allow all that is called art to be art. I make the distinction between fine art and popular art. Fine art makes the aesthete a better person and pop art is the low-hanging fruit of mere escapism.

Tolstoy believed that art, and particularly for him, the novel, should be a vehicle of psychological reform through the conveying of emotions. Sometimes these emotions are beyond mere words and come to us through the storytelling method. The novel was the best way to look at other people that we would see as outsiders, truly learn of their humanity, and extend sympathy to these individuals. By this, we should learn to extend warmth and kindness to people in our lives whom we might not otherwise do so. Tolstoy was a pious man, even though many of his religious viewpoints were far outside the orthodox. He believed that the novel should supplement religion, but not replace it, and a means of learning all about brotherly love, both how to do it and why we should. Tolstoy’s three most celebrated novels are War & Peace, Anna Karenina, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Let’s see how the Russian master achieves his ends in these great works.

War & Peace

There have been many jokes about the tremendous length of War & Peace, and it is long, although not as long as Proust. But it is a cracking good read and I highly recommend it for anyone willing to invest the time it would take to get though it. While there are many layers to it, we will examine one, which many consider the main story. It’s all about Natasha Rostov. She’s young, free-spirited, and given to frivolity and pleasure, but not as a vice as much as exercises of her youth. She’s deeply in love with her fiancé, Andre, although he is remote and unavailable for her. He does truly love Natasha, in his way, and shouldn’t be thought of as the bad guy because he does not fulfill her.

No, the bad guy in this small fold of the story is Anatol. He’s everything wrong with the youth of Russian nobility and as careless as they come. She falls for him, like he’s working charms over her. She is about to run off with him, but is withheld at the very last. Everyone is furious with Natasha. She has shamed her family and ruined any prospects she might ever have of marrying well (it’s a good thing Pierre is silently carrying a torch for her). It would be easy to write her as a character where the reader shares in the scold for her. But Tolstoy makes her so human and completely sympathetic, that we truly feel for her in her plight. We genuinely hope the best for her. And with this, Tolstoy wishes that if we encounter anyone like Natasha in our own lives, we will not dismiss them as they got what they deserved, but that we will feel their pain with them and show them the kindness they warrant simply because they are folks just like us.

Anna Karenina

There is a character type in Russian literature known as the Superfluous Man. They are the idle rich who gamble, chase skirts, and get in the occasional duel. They are recklessly selfish. This title comes from the Turgenev book, Dairy of a Superfluous Man. I have written an article on this and it is available if you click here. Anna Karenina is the story of what happens to the woman who falls in love with the wrong kind of man.

Anna is a married woman, but falls for the dashing Count Vronsky, in every way the Superfluous Man. And true to his type, he leaves her after he gets her pregnant. He doesn’t want babies, just babes. A foil to Vronsky is Anna’s husband, Karenin. He’s stuffy and uptight, worried about convention and appearances. His wife’s affair with Vronsky, complete with child, upsets Karenin more because of the gossip and scandal it would cause than the fact his wife cheated on him. All three of these can be dismissed as pathetic creatures, and Vronsky really is. But we fall back in love with the married couple as they reconcile. In a touching scene, Anna gives birth and falls sick from the delivery. A broken Karenin weeps for his wife and her child. He forgives his enemies and his life is filled with a happiness he had never known. Tolstoy wants us to know that Karenin is not exceptionally bad, but simply the normal mixture of bad and good that occurs in all of us. And once we see him in us, we will see it in others around us and suspend our judgments and our criticisms.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

While War & Peace may be much longer, The Death of Ivan Ilyich plumbs to depths not know in the lengthier work. Ivan Ilyich deals with matters of human existence in the face of death. Ivan is a high court judge who is cynical, vain, and fussy just like Karenin. He is only interested in increasing pleasure, which for him is really avoiding pain, and maintaining the appearances and decorations of the well-to-do and the successful. While hanging new curtains, a symbol of his constant attempts to keep up appearances, he falls and injures himself. He goes to the doctor and finds out he has a fatal disease, although no one can say exactly what it is.

Ivan has a just a few months to live and spends this time on the couch. His family is only concerned with how Ivan’s death with negatively affect their status and financial standing. In time, they resent Ivan for doing them the discourtesy of dying on them (I never said all of Tolstoy’s characters end up sympathetic). Ivan returns his own spite for them, but alone on his deathbed, he has a long spectrum of epiphanies over the shallowness of the life he has led. He grows aware of the subtle beauty of nature and of the kindness of his illiterate servant, which in turn makes him want to be more kind. He still shows his anger toward his family, but only because they continue to avoid the one fact that we will all die. For Ivan (and for Tolstoy), life should be lived in view of death. And since he was a Christian, life should be lived in view of eternity and judgment. The fact that we will all die should constantly be before our minds, and this should inspire great demonstrations of charity and kindness.

When Ivan dies, all his family sees is a man of no emotions who kept to himself, but what the reader sees is a man who feels true pity and love for those surrounding him even though they do not deserve it for not one second. Ivan is a man of true moral courage and is the potential for every man, only if we would but read his story and learn the lesson Tolstoy wanted us to. Tolstoy wished that his books would make us less moralistic and judgmental. This aspect is ignored by most critics, but his works cannot be fully understood without appreciating this vantage point.

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The Struggling, Suffering, Sacrificing Artist: An Analysis of the movies Whiplash and Black Swan

BSWL

Whiplash and Black Swan are both movies about the struggling artist who seeks greatness through sacrifice. In Whiplash it is a drummer named Andrew Neiman, and in Black Swan it is the ballerina Nina Sayers. Andrew is a first-year jazz student at the Shaffer Conservatory in New York, and Nina is a part of the New York City Ballet Company.

Desires & Fears

Both artists desire to become great and well-known, but that is actually too broad and nebulous. What they really want is what is before them. The NYC Ballet just announced they are doing a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. This means new principle dancers. Nina wants to be cast in the lead as the White Swan. But the one cast as the White Swan is traditionally the Black Swan, also, the foil to the White Swan character. Andrew, a drummer, wants to be a part of the Studio Band, the most advanced band on campus.

When we say that Nina desires the role of White Swan and Andrew desires to drum in the Studio Band, we mean much more than a simple want, but a craving and an obsession. The only thing as strong as their desires are their fears. Their fears stem from three places, their parents, their mentors, and the threat of replacement. Nina’s mother, Erica, is a failed dancer and Andrew’s father, Jim, is a failed writer. Both have seen into the world of artistic greatness but for whatever reasons they both fell short. It’s easy to imagine how hard this was for them because they try to protect their children from the same fate. They presume their child will fail like them and try to hold them back in their own ways.

The mentors are just the opposite form the parents. The artistic director for the NYC Ballet is Thomas Leroy and the musical director of the Studio Band is Terence Fletcher. Each of them push their protégés farther than they have even been pushed. This is saying something because each of these young artists push themselves farther than their peers. But by pushing so hard, they may discover what skills they truly possess. Thus, their tutelage is savage and cruel. The challenge for Nina and Andrew is to endure the severity of their mentors and possess the grit to climb on. But each has a rival that makes the threat of being replaced a real danger. For Andrew, it’s the drummer from a lower band he passed up to come to Studio, Ryan, and for Nina it’s the free-spirited dancer, Lily.

Challenges of Body & Mind

There is one terrible fact both artists grasp: they are not ready. In their compulsion to achieve greatness, they realize they need to go beyond their former selves. This takes form as acts of self-destruction. They begin to act uncharacteristically, or even act where some of their more less than desirable attribute move to the fore. Andrew breaks up with his girlfriend because she lacks focus and alienates his family because he would rather be dead and famous, even with a short life and a bad death, than wealthy but someone no one ever talks about. Nina disobeys her mother and goes out to clubs and turns to drinking and drugs and even promiscuity. If the old self is not good enough, then the old self must be destroyed.

This only make sense to the maniac. As you may guess, part of their transformation is a journey into madness. Nina has hallucinations, first of herself and later of Lily. When she sees Lily, it takes the form of fantasy because deep down she knows she needs to be more like Lily. While Nina has the formal precision to dance the White Swan, she lacks the frenetic emotionalism and wild abandon to dance the Black Swan, which is exactly how Lily dances. Nina fantasizes about Lily in order to become like Lily or overcome Lily. These fantastic hallucinations move from erotic to a murder scene that takes place only in her head.

Andrew’s insanity is more subtle. His madness takes the place of falling in line with Fletcher’s abuse. He does fight back against a few of his decisions, but never against his methodology or his cruelness, nor for that matter does anyone else in Studio Band. They have all drunk they Kool-Aide. But his mania is such that while running late for an important gig, he is t-boned by a large truck (does Andrew have whiplash?). He should be in the hospital, but insists on playing. As you can imagine, he is not fit to play and performs horrendously. Fletcher tells him that he is done and Andrew attacks him on the stage. He is kicked out of school and stops playing.

Failure & Success

There is much more that can be said about their slide into insanity, but all of this heads towards the final performances for each, so let’s go there. Still, both are not ready, but just a step away – but what a step it is. Here both fail, the dancer and the drummer.

Nina is cast as the White Swan and is prepared to dance both roles. As the White Swan, Nina is being held up by the Prince. She twitches and he drops her. Backstage at the ballet, Nina has a fight with the former ingénue and stabs her. In truth, she mortally wounded herself, but she doesn’t know this yet. She becomes the Black Swan, complete with feathers and wings, and dances like she had never danced before. After this, she realizes she is wounded and takes the stage one last time as the White Swan for the finale, in which the swan dies. Indeed, the White Swan dies and Nina does as well.

After Andrew attacked Fletcher and got expelled, he reported on Fletcher’s cruelty to the school and Fletcher is fired. Andrew runs across Fletcher in a jazz club and they talk, and in the end, Fletcher invites Andrew to play for a band he has put together. Just as Fletcher’s band takes the stage, he tells Andrew that he knew he had him fired. Fletcher then has the band perform a song for which there was no music for the drum. The band not only had the music, but also had it prepared. It was a tremendous failure of a performance.

Andrew leaves the stage and embraces his father, which in his mid means he is embracing failure. He turns back and sits at the drum kit. Fletcher does not see because he is addressing the audience. Andrew starts playing an aggressive Latin double time swing that introduces one of their songs, Caravan. Fletcher storms over and curses at Andrew, who smashes a cymbal that knocks Fletcher in the chin. He retreats.

The band plays Caravan, which ends with another drum solo. Fletcher nods and even smiles. When a cymbal stand starts to fall over, he sets it back aright. Andrew is playing without fear of failure, but mostly without fear of Fletcher, and Fletcher knows it. During the solo, Fletcher seems satisfies as if all of his effort has paid off and he has finally pushed a student farther than they would have gone on their own and into greatness.

In the end, Andrew kills and Nina dies. But both reached that perfection they stove for all along. And the remaining question is Was it worth it? I’m sure if you asked Andrew, he’d say yes, and even a dying Nina seems to think it was worth it, but remember that this all began with two people who had a desire than ran into the realms of obsession and compulsion. Most people do not reside there. Many of you reading this may like to make it as a novelist. Are you going to succeed without this need and craving? Do you have the grit these two seemed to have? And if you knew beforehand that success would only come through such mean mistreatment and a forfeiture of your sanity, would you still pursue it? These are great questions for any struggling, suffering, sacrificing artist. If you haven’t seen these films, you may want to take a look at them. If nothing else, they are entertaining. It doesn’t even bother you if both go deep. In fact, any movie about a drummer you know it will be cymbalic.

 

 

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The Hardest Thing To Learn In Creative Writing

voice

To be an author, and I mean a good one, takes a lot of hard work and training. The true Creative Writers needs to learn how to develop great characters and wonderful story lines, and how to blend them into a magnificent plot. An author needs to know how to make his people come alive, not only with a genuine and unique personality, but by an individualized speech pattern and vocabulary. And finally, we know how to blend the plot and people in the story with an appealing interaction and effective dialogue. And after all of this, there is still one more thing, and it may be the most difficult thing to get down – the narrative voice.

Voice Is Everywhere

This is how you tell the story, or more to the point, how it sounds. All artists have this distinctiveness about them. That’s why if you’ve studied art, and you should, you can not only distinguish schools, but also artists. In painting, we know what it means to be an Impressionist or a Surrealist, and we know the difference between a Van Gogh and a Renoir and a Monet, or a Picasso or a Brach or Duchamp. In classical music, we know what makes one piece Baroque and another Romantic, and what Bach sounds like as apposed to Vivaldi, or what distinguishes Brahms from Wagner.

It’s the same with great authors. Let’s face it, writers are well read. There is no way around that. And when I say well read, I do not mean in poplit, like Rowling or Brown. I mean the classics, the universally agreed upon greats. The well-read writer will know how Dickens sounds differently from Austen. The great author will recognize the sad music made by the French and the Russians, and how Hugo resonates differently from Tolstoy, Dumas from Chekhov, and Stendhal from Dostoyevsky. The one trained in both reading and writing will fall in love with the Midwestern Minimalism of Hemingway, the New England melancholy of Fitzgerald, and the Southern gothic dread in Faulkner. It’s all there, just like the music lover can distinguish Beethoven from Bartok and the aesthete knows his Rembrandt from his Raphael.

Voice Is Everything

Your voice as an author is what makes your writing sound like your writing and no one else’s. That is the consistent plague of poplit, it has so little individualistic voice to it that it all blends together into one car wreck and train derailment of words and utterances. And now it’s about time I got to the secret for developing a devastating voice as an author. If you’re a Creative Writer, then you are accustomed to disappointments by now. I cannot say this or that makes a voice that is all your own. Was Mozart’s voice determined by using a B-flat in a given piece and not a C-sharp, or a half note here and not a whole note? The long answer is “yes, if” and the short answer is “no, but.”

Everything goes into creating a given author’s voice. It’s our vocabulary and use of vernacular, our word length and sentence length, what punctuation we use or don’t use, and so much more. Our voice is shaped by the times and places where we set our pieces, the themes and subject matter we address, and the overall kind of story we are trying to tell. That is one of the many things that make it so difficult the define voice in so many words, and all the more difficult to teach how to accomplish it. Maybe the best I can do is advise that we as writers be mindful of how everything contributes to voice, either distinctive or bland. With that, be mindful of every choice you make and think of not only how it affects that particular work, but how it contributes to your voice. You may have to edit with just voice in mind like you should for character’s dialogue. I think I have a fair idea of my Creative Writing voice, how I’ve shaped it and where it’s going, but truth be told – voice is something you work on every day you write until that day you write no longer.

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Outline Everything

 outline

I have found that there are two kinds of writers, plotters and pantsers. Plotters outline everything. Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants. They may have some idea of where the story goes, or they may have nothing other than an idea and a character or two. They really wing it. They admit that they don’t know how the story will end.

I’ve heard pantsers say that they can’t outline because it will take away all of the creativity and spontaneity of writing. Of course, this is complete piffle. As a committed plotter, let me assure you that outlining does not take away any of the creativity – in fact, it multiplies it.

Let’s just call it what it is: pantsers don’t know how to outline because they haven’t been taught. And they haven’t been taught how to outline because they haven’t been taught how to write. They haven’t been taught how to write because they never took the time and trouble to learn the discipline of composition.

If I had my way, people who have never studied Creative Writing shouldn’t write or call themselves a writer. You’re not a tuba player simply because you own a tuba or your mommy thinks you’re the best tuba player ever. Like anything else, you have to put in the wrench time. Learning is hard work, regardless of the subject. Creative Writing is something that takes a lifetime to learn and longer to master what you have learned.

Those who have taken multiple Creative Writing classes and have learned the basics know the value of outlining, even the necessity of it. Stories have structure. But more than that, composition is always more of an art than a science. Some people have studied the structure of stories, but still know nothing about who to write a great story.

It’s Not That Bad

An outline for a novel can be done on a Word document or on index cards or on a white markerboard. How you outline and how much you outline is up to you, but please, do something! I truly think that pantsers do some outlining, but maybe they don’t write it all down. I had a pantser tell me once that writing a novel was like playing music, and while I like to read the music on the page to see what notes to play he liked to play jazz. Even jazz musicians read music – it’s called a chart. It has time and tempo, key and chord changes. No one plays notes willy-nilly. Jazz improvisors follow an outline, and in some way, so do pantsers. I’m sure of it.

Instead of music, think of your novel as a university term paper, or more to the point, an advanced degree thesis or even a doctoral dissertation. No one writes a term paper without an outline of some kind. You are writing a creative dissertation and it needs to be organized and based upon some kind of structure. And like all good papers, you build everything around the thesis. The introduction builds to the thesis and the closing wraps things up after the thesis has been proven by the body of the paper. The setting for our story is the introduction and it all leads to the thesis – or in other words, the conflict. All things lead to the climax, the resolution of the conflict, and the denouement takes out of it and into our The End.

The body of our creative thesis is the rising action of our story. Everything that is a part of the rising action needs to help or hinder our hero from achieving or not achieving what he wanted but could not get that set up the conflict. This achieving or not is the conflict. The rising action is the hardest part of the novel to write. We need to know what happens between Once upon a time and They all lived happily ever after. This requires preparation and organization. It requires an outline.

Welcome To The Machine

Stated in the most tedious terms, novel writing is a series of making and correcting mistakes. That’s why writing is re-writing. It may be impossible to come up with a perfect manuscript, but merely one you can live with. Anything that cuts down on the errors should be eagerly pursued. Making an outline for your novel will give you much less to edit out. And there is no better preventative for the dreaded Writer’s Block than the slightly less dreaded novel outline. All of this preparing and organizing tends to fix problems before they begin.

Outlining helps us avoid all of the bad stuff and do all of the good stuff. It gives our novel direction and somewhere to go. We have a definite point A and point B and we know how to get to one from another even if it’s not a straight line. And if we consider the final product, all of the things we like in a really good novel can’t be done by pantsing, but only by plotting. Speaking for myself, my outlines give a better story because it gives me better characters. All of those wonderful sparkles of literary fiction certainly cannot be achieved without an outline, such as portends and symbolism.

I’ve heard people cry against outlining because they cannot be creative or spontaneous if they are following an outline. From my experience, an outline feeds my creativity and is the course of constant surprises. Remember that Creative Writing is almost an organic, living and breathing entity, something that does not so much come out of us but through us from – somewhere. We will still be startled by this we discover as we write, even with an outline, or said better, because of our outline. Some novels are non-chronological. I don’t see how a personal pull this off without some preparation. And on top of that, I don’t always writing chronologically even if the story is. I may skip around, chapter 1 today, 2 tomorrow, and then chapter 5 the next. I could not do that if it was a slave to chapter due to pantsing.

Here’s my secret: I get me ideas for my novels from my dreams – I really do. I write down the basics the following morning and let it sit. I decide what to write and pick two dates, one to begin outlining and another to start writing. I’ll spend six to eighth months preparing and organizing and two to three months drafting. I’ll look through my original notes and set out the road story, then I’ll make a list of potential characters like you see at the beginning of a play. I return to the story and break things into scenes and go back to the characters and flesh them out more. This ping-pong game allows me to develop story alongside my characters. No only do outline give me a cleaner first draft, but a novel where the story and the characters were developed side by side, and I think everything is the better for it.

I hope this advice helps you as it has helped me. And keeping in line with the title of this article, I outlined this post before I did anything else.

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Writing is re-writing

edit

I hate watching movies about writers because there is one thing they always do that is totally wrong. What you commonly see is a writer at a typewriter or laptop, and they write the last sentence, type The End, pet the cat, pour a glass of wine, and celebrate that they are all finished with their novel. Wrong! When you’ve finished your first draft, you have only begun the Creative Writing process.

The End?

I’ve never added The End at the end of a manuscript until I knew it was edited as far as it could be and was ready for my formatting and publishing. Not only should you have other people, called beta-readers, look over your manuscript, but you should be editing your book, too. In fact, most of the changes should come from you. And regarding these beta-readers, your mommy should not be one of them, unless your mother is a professional writer or editor and can scathe you objectively.

And if anyone criticizes your manuscript, don’t take it personally. I must admit that this was a hard one for me, and sometimes still is. The problem is that our writing is so personal to us, that when someone finds fault in what we write, it’s easy to see that as them finding fault with us as a human being. If I’m editing your novel and I say you use far too many adverbs, I’m not saying you are a bad human being (but if you leave them in, then you are!).

It’s so easy to fall in love with your own words and you don’t want to lose a single one of them. The way around this is to read your stuff dispassionately and objectively. The way I do that is when I finish a first draft, I set it aside for a month, maybe six weeks. I’ll work on something else, maybe outlines for future projects, or articles for my blogs. Do something else, and house cleaning doesn’t count. It needs to be something else that has to do with writing. So when you read it again, you’re seeing it cold, or at least as cold as you the author can.

Self-Editing

This is my editing process. You can do whatever you want, but maybe this will give you some ideas. On my first reread, I look for misspelled words and punctuation errors. I’m also on the look out for bigger picture problems, which I’ll mark later and fix after that.

On my next go through, I shape the book. By that, I mean attach imagery and symbolism. I’ll ether have them in mind when I do my first outline or see what comes out in the first draft. I also break up the dialogue with action. Let’s face it, things happen while we talk. On this draft, I’m not actually rewriting anything, just deciding where to insert those things which make the story full.

This edit can take longer than the first draft simply because it is so meticulous. I’ll read a chapter, note what I marked, and let it sit in my head and stew for a while. I’m constantly writing things down in my original notes of my outline. And when I think I have, I fix the chapter. On the next day, I move on to the next chapter.

After this, I let it sit for a few more weeks, possibly a month. This is like letting the dough rise, at least in my mind. On the next rewrite, I focus on characters. I study once more all of my original notes in my character development. I go through the manuscript looking for just one character at a time, starting with the protagonist, then the antagonist. I follow this with all of the other principles and lastly the minor characters.

I look at everything that makes that character as fully developed as possible and as uniquely individualistic as I can get it. Principally this is done my making sure that person has a unique voice in the dialogue. It also goes for all descriptions and actions. I’ll read it three of four more times, sometimes more, because there is always something to fix.

 

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The Opening Scene Of Reservoir Dogs & Character Development

rdogs

Quintin Tarantino’s date film Reservoir Dogs set a new bar in film making and put Tarantino’s name on the marquee. It’s about a botched diamond heist and one of the crooks is an undercover cop. None of the thieves use their real name, but are given names of color, such as Mr. Blue and Mr. White. The only characters whose names we know are boss, Joe Cabot, and his son, “Nice Guy” Eddie. The names of a few thieves pop out in the story, but I’ll stick to the color names.

After seeing it several times, I noticed that the opening scene paints the characters in clear terms. It is worth a study for Creative Writers so they can learn how to draw their characters cleanly and clearly from the start, even if it’s in a scene that really has nothing to do with the actual story, like breakfast a diner before the attempted heist. I’m going to look at each character in this opening scene and show how Tarantino draws in narrow terms that show their personality and temperament. I’m only going to stick to characters that survive the initial shootout with the cops.

  • Joe Cabot – During breakfast, Joe has an old address book that he hasn’t used “in a coon’s age.” He’s trying to remember one name, Toby. His failure to identify this person in the book portends his inability to identify the rat in his house.
  • Nice Guy Eddie – Eddie talks about the song, “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia.” He had heard it recently on the radio. He never realized that the singer was the killer. This shows us that he’s not too bright.
  • Mr. White – Mr. White takes the book from Joe when he gets tired of hearing him drone on and on about Toby. He says he’ll give it back after breakfast, but threatens to keep it. It’s all done in humor, but no one could get away with that unless they were close to the boss. More than anything else, we see his relationship with Joe in this scene.
  • Mr. Orange – Mr. Orange is the undercover cop. He “rats out” Mr. Pink for not leaving a tip. He says less than anyone else, but his persona is writ large by this simple exchange.
  • Mr. Blond – Mr. Blond offers to shoot Mr. White if he doesn’t give the book back to Joe. He ever shots him with a finger gun. Mr. Blond is the most violent and starts all of the shooting in the botched heist. We see his trigger-happy nature even at breakfast.
  • Mr. Pink – Mr. Pink doesn’t believe in tipping. He has very clear rules for how he runs his life, especially when it comes to money. He claims always to be the one acting like a professional. He does this when other people are not living up to what he thinks the rules are for crooks.

This movie does have strong language, even in this breakfast scene. If that matters to you, I suggest you see it on cable where they edit out a lot of the foul language. I personally think profanity only comes from a lazy mind. Tarantino was cutting shortcut by having his characters swear. Still, he made a compelling movie and painted some wonderful pictures in the opening scene of what his characters are like, and then gave them interesting things to do after that.

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Writing Iceberg Stories

iceberg

Ernest Hemingway once gave an interview in which he compared his writing to an iceberg. The words on the page represented the visible part of the iceberg. The part of the iceberg we do not see, which is up to 90% sitting under water, is the rest of the story.

Hemingway is the master of saying it without saying it. That annoys some people, but a few others and I find this the most compelling reading and the most advanced writing.

Hemingway’s Greatest Icebergs

These are just a few examples of what I’m talking about.

  • The Sun Also Rises – A nymphomaniac is in love with an impotent man. Hemingway never tells us he’s impotent, but still makes it clear.
  • A Farewell To Arms – They are not in love, even though they constantly tell each other how in love they are.
  • Hills Like White Elephants – A man tries to convince his girlfriend to have an abortion in a story that doesn’t even use the word “abortion,” or “baby” or “pregnancy.”
  • Ten Indians – Nick’s father lies to him about the unfaithfulness of his girlfriend because she is an Indian.
  • Big Two-Hearted River – This is pretty much all iceberg. It’s a story of a man who goes fishing. It has traditionally been understood as a man home from the war suffering from shell-shock. I mostly agree, but I think the man is still at war. He is wandering the battle front of Italy, but his mind is fishing back in Michigan.

The Best Example Yet

These are not the only examples, but just a few of the clearer ones. And yet, there is one work of Hemingway’s that uses iceberg composition so well, that I thought it should be set aside and discussed with a little more detail. I’m talking about the short story “Indian Camp.”

It’s a story about an eight-year-old Nick Adams who goes with his father, Dr. Adams, and his uncle George to an Indian camp near their fishing cabin in Michigan. Dr. Adams has to help with a difficult delivery of a child. Uncle George goes along because he is the father of the child. Of course, this is never said. This part of the story is submerged beneath the text, but is still a clear understanding. Consider the following facts from the story.

  • George’s boat arrives first.
  • George hands out cigars to others Indians there on the shore.
  • The woman in labor screams when Dr. Adams, Nick, and Uncle George enter her house. It seems she is screaming when she sees George.
  • The woman’s husband lays in a bunk above with a gangrenous wound on the foot (traditionally in literature, a wound beneath the waist is symbolic of impotency).
  • The woman bites George on the arm, and when he later looks at the wound, others Indians smile “reminiscently,” as if to say, “I remember when my wife bit me when she delivered our first child.”
  • After the delivery, the mother looked pale, which is a way of saying the baby is pale-skinned, which indicates a white father.
  • Dr. Adams says he should check out the father, who suffers the worst from “these little affairs.”
  • The husband had cut his throat during the delivery. He had known all along that he was not the father of the child, and now with the delivery his shame will be open.
  • Uncle George stays behind after Dr. Adams and Nick return to their fishing cabin across the lake.

These are all visible parts of the iceberg that tells us about what rests underneath. If you haven’t read it in a while, you may want to do so.

A Challenge To Us Writers

Even if you’re not a fan of Hemingway, if you’re a writer, trying reading some of his work, as well as the industry of other minimalists. Try to write something in a minimalist style, even if it is nothing more than an exercise. The value of minimalism to a writer is that it forces you show and will not allow you to tell. You’re writing not only becomes focused on details, but on those that are the only ones you need.

You may not wish to try your next novel or short story that you wish published in the Hemingway style, but having learned it, you will be a better writer. And who knows, but you might find yourself wishing to go on a fishing trip or see a bullfight. Now go and enjoy those icebergs, just don’t crash into one.

I can’t wait to read your thoughts on this. Please let me know what you think in the Comments section below.

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Job #1 For Creative Writers

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As an author, you may feel as if you have many things you must accomplish when you sit down and write a story. But with all things, we need priorities. There is one thing all Creative Writers must do before they try to do anything else. First and foremost, tell a story. If you are a Creative Writer, you are a story teller first and foremost. This goes for novels and short stories alike. This seems as if it is so obvious it shouldn’t need to be said. But guess what? It does.

Some people get it in their head that their story needs to be about something. And while things like theme could add to a story, it is never more important than the story. I hate it when someone asks a writer what their story is about, and they go to discuss the themes and principles they are trying to get across. No! when someone asks you what your story is about, tell them what it’s about, not what it’s about. I hope that’s clear.

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Show, Don’t Tell

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This is the A-1 capitol axiom of Creative Writing. When I took classes, this was something the professor said over and over to me and all of the other students. This is hard skill to get down, in fact, I’m still working on this one. I probably will be for the rest of my life.

If you are a writer, then you need to show us the action of the narrative. Don’t tell us how it happened. This comes down to using great verbs or weak modifiers, such as adjectives and adverbs. Clear action told with strong verbs makes a story a much better read always than anything else. If you show instead of tell, then you can take two sentences of telling and make into two, three, or four pages of wonderful telling (if not more).

When I was taught, my professor used an example from Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, and I still use today when I teach Creative Writing to someone. It involves Monroe Stahr, the main character and movie mogul, talking to his head writer, a man named Boxley, on how to build a scene.

“Suppose you’re in your office. You’ve been fighting duels all day. You’re exhausted. This is you. A girl comes in. She doesn’t see you. She takes off her gloves. She opens her purse. She dumps it out on the table. You watch her. Now, she has two dimes, a matchbox and a nickel. She leaves the nickel on the table. She puts the two dimes back into her purse. She takes the gloves, they’re black. Puts them into the stove. Lights a match. Suddenly, the telephone rings. She picks it up. She listens. She says, ‘I’ve never owned a pair of black gloves in my life.’ Hangs up. Kneels by the stove. Lights another match. Suddenly, you notice there’s another man in the room watching every move the girl makes.”

Boxley then asks, “What happens?” and Stahr replies, “I don’t know. I was just making pictures.” Notice this is simple action, and it’s riveting. He feels no need to add superfluous describers, such as happily, triumphantly, or eerily. He does use “suddenly” twice, which I wish he wouldn’t, and if I was one of his editors, I would have struck them both. The point is that you and I are like Monroe Stahr, and like what Boxley should be, people who are just making pictures, or telling stories. That is hard enough and there is no need to complicate it with things that should be cut out anyway.

 

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