“Come take [them]!”
King Leonidas of Sparta says this in response to King Xerxes of Persia’s demand that the Greek army lay down their arms before the Battle of Thermopylae. Tens of thousands against 300 and they say, “Come take them!” What were they, out of their minds?
The movie 300 (see it if you haven’t because it’s awesome) is one of the most chest-thumping, testosterone filled films I’ve seen in the last year. Maybe I don’t see many chest-thumpers or maybe it is just that visually stunning (it is). Or maybe it’s the classic story that grabs me in which 300 come-back-victorious-or-on-your-shield Spartans hold off a swarm of Persians at the small pass of Thermopylae so that their armies back home can organize. They buy time now for victory later. And… spoiler here … they all die in the process. It’s brutal. But the dialog is just amazingly chest-thumping. There’s so much testosterone in this film it is overflowing.
What’s fascinating to me is how caught up I was in the characters, the father and son, the two friends who are like brothers (they are all like brothers), the king who willingly sacrifices himself and his warriors for the greater good of his country, and the cripple who wants so bad to be a soldier and betrays them all.
The reviews were mediocre of this film when it came out so I did not see it until recently. Everyone said it was visually spectacular but that the story was weak. I didn’t see that at all. I saw tremendous violence surrounding characters, hard as nails, that I cared for. That’s what story is all about. Characters you care about placed in danger in some way that they have to somehow get out of or through or around – even if they do not survive. Extreme, yes, in this case, but also, compelling.
Live hidden is from Epicurus. He said this because he believed that politics troubled men and didn’t allow them to reach inner peace. If you’re watching the republican primary or have Barak Obama’s campaign on your radar perhaps you’ll agree. It’s like watching a train wreck and not exactly good for serenity now. So Epicurus suggested that everybody should live “Hidden” far from cities, not even considering a political career. I’m not saying everyone should be anti-epicurian on this political career thing but I do wonder how this works in my writing.
Once at a writer’s group (a long time ago in a galaxy far far away) I had the group take parts from a play I was writing that took place in Rome just about the time of Julius Caesar’s death at the hands of Brutus. I know. It doesn’t sound funny at all but I was taking a side-show perspective of a laundromat far down the block from where Marc Antony makes his speech and they were translating it back through the crowd by whispered word of mouth so that the folks in the cheap seats got a garbled message. Anyway, it was comedy. Slapstick. Pratfalls. One of the writers commented to me during the feedback round, “I can’t wait to see what you do with this piece when you give it the deeper meaning I know you’re striving for.”
There was no deeper meaning.
I was just trying to be funny.
Maybe it was the Caesar thing that created high expectations – or the echo of Shakespeare’s words. I don’t know but I nodded and said, “Yes… a deeper meaning.” And of course wondered, did I have to have a deeper meaning and should I just give up and throw the play away before someone got hurt?
I know, if I’m honest, I write fiction based on my values and life experiences – where else can my ideas come from? But these are tempered by the needs of my characters. They are filtered and so they become both mine and theirs. Some represent me and some don’t (or better not – but what if they do?). I set out to tell stories. I don’t usually set out to be engaged in politics. But if I do, the ideas will certainly be welcomed into the fracas.
Did you know that Roman laundries used urine as bleach? It gets the whites whiter. Now what kind of political statement is that? What’s the deeper meaning in pee?
What do you do with your political ideas? Do they work deliberately into your stories or do they… live hidden?
Knossos is a city veiled in myth, mystery and archeological digs. It symbolizes the capital of Crete from long ago and is the site of King Minos’ realm(Mr. Goldfinger himself), and the infamous Labyrinth – designed by the legendary artificer Daedalus (father to Icarus) – and the Minotaur that prowled its corridors – eventually slain by the Athenian hero Theseus. The site of the dig is called Heraklion – which sounds bone-cracking to me – and sits at a port city on the north coast of Crete.
Everywhere you look in ancient Greece you have the hero’s journey repeated again and again and each story seems more colorful than the last. But for Knossos it’s all about the place.
Island, palace, throne room, Labyrinth of stone walls, the smell of decaying flesh pushed away by a breeze from the nearby Mediterranean Sea. The sun hot, making you sweat, the dust thick in the mid-day, the smell of your perspiration a cloak you can not get rid of so you get used to it.
Sights, smells, sounds, textures. They all come together to make place an element in a story. In my novel Open Wounds, some reviewers have said that New York City of the 1930’s and 1940’s is a character in the book, just as alive and breathing as the protagonist, Cid Wymann. One breathes life into the other.
How important is place in your writing?
Do writer’s perspire in your electronic dreams?
The 1963 version of Jason and the Argonauts has an army of skeletons attack Jason and his sturdy argonaut crew. The skeletons area a creation of special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. I saw this movie as a kid and it made my jaw drop open in absolute amazement. They looked real – still better than any CGI effects you can see today. They made the movie come to life. They made the whole hero’s journey work for me even though the lead, Todd Armstrong, was far from charismatic as Jason.
And the hero’s journey is what Jason is all about. Here’s a short-hand version of his life:
Jason is related to Odysseus (the hero of the Odyssey – not a bad lineage), tossed out of his kingdom by his uncle Pelion, is raised by the centaur Chiron, gets helped by Hera (always problematic), becomes the man with one sandal (kind of like the man with no name from a spaghetti western), goes on a quest for the golden fleece (just like Percy Jackson), gathers a band of burly argonauts including Heracles, Theseus, and the poet Orpheus (why is a poet on this adventure?), gets help from Athena (I thought she only helped women?), meets Medea and falls in love with her, plows a field with two fire-breathing bulls (one of which was in heat), sows the field with the teeth of a dragon (these become the skeletons in the movie!), snatches the golden fleece (snatches is a word that needs to get used more), marries Medea, takes his kingdom back from Pelion by tricking Pelion’s daughters into cutting him up into little bits and eating him (talk about issues for therapy) – take a breath from this long run-on sentence – has children of his own then falls in love with another woman (he can’t keep his you-know-what in his loin cloth), has Medea leave him after she in a fit of anger kills off all their own children, and finally ends up alone and lonely and kills himself by dropping off the end of his old ship the Argo. Whew. The hero’s journey.
Things need to happen to your hero/heroine. Whether it’s the journey to the corner drugstore, or the journey inside her head. Hero’s get chased by skeletons, big and small, real and imaginary and like Jason, they conquer or get conquered, grow, learn, or get dashed against the harsh realities of their existence. What is your hero’s journey like?
I can tell you this… mine will have white boned creatures with round shields and scimitars in there somewhere.
Icarus is a cautionary tale. Father Daedalus builds wings of feathers and wax to fly with – warns son, don’t go too close to the sun. Son flies too close and falls to the earth after his wings melt. Usually connected to the term hubris. Also connected to the term Icarus Complex (Psychiatry – A constellation of mental conflicts, the degree of which reflects the imbalance between a person’s desire for success, achievement, or material goods, and the ability to achieve those goals; the greater the gap between the idealized goal and reality, the greater the likelihood of failure.)
Sometimes I feel writers, all of us, are like Icarus, testing out our wings of wax and feathers, flying as close to sun as we can. The difference is our failures (those manuscripts we gave up on, or move on from, or let go of because we realized they just weren’t good enough – I have three of them that sit in my closet staring at me when I open the door and wondering if, when, I will go back to them, please, they say – take me out again!) we learn from and grow stronger from because we tried to see if they would fly. Testing out my work in the market place is the way for me to see if the wings are strong enough this time. If not, perhaps I just need to go back to the workshop and build better wings?
Notice when you’ve built better wings. It will carry you through the times the wings aren’t built good enough, cushion you on the nasty falls.
What does the writer wield? Here’s my equipment inventory for a session on the battlefield of words:
- Pencil (I don’t use one, I just like having them around because you never know when the electricity will go out and pencils will be back in the game)
- Pen (I prefer any pen from Levengers – expensive but worth every penny because, as Steve Martin says in Roxanne, “I need just the right pen…” – especially rollerballs) with refills…
- Computer (iMac 27″ screen especially helpful when comparing two versions of a manuscript or looking at my manuscript late at night in big bold letters, or just not having to use my glasses or squint because I’m too lazy to put them on)
- Comfortable chair (or wooden hardback if I’m feeling especially spartan) with wheels so I can roll back and forth in endless patterns of procrastination – but not too comfortable so that I easily fall asleep.
- Notebook or pad of paper (yellow legal or white – again not necessary to use very often but in case something comes up I always have one handy.)
- Writing software (Word, Scrivener, iA Writer – these are my big three – I use Scrivener now for first drafts of novels then shift over to Word when I’m approaching a third or fourth draft and I use iA Writer on my laptop or iPad when I’m traveling and want to write without thinking about formatting.)
- WiFi connection (a direct connection to the oracle of the internet)
I have other things to distract me like drawing pads, colored pens and art markers, a bulletin board that collects dust, a pile of folders I don’t use but that seems to get higher as the weeks go forward – I don’t know what’s in the pile but it keeps growing. Reference books to the right on the shelf and some underneath the pile of folders (I think).
What are your warrior writer’s tools of the trade?
Phobos is the Greek God of Horror and Fear. Interesting. It’s also the name of one of the moons of Mars. Ph is the sound of F in Greek and there is no letter F. I didn’t know that until a few moments ago. Onward.
As a writer what do I fear? What makes me wake up in a cold sweat, shivering? Here’s my list – writer specific:
- Not getting published.
- Getting published (I know, I know. But sometimes when you get what you ask for its scary. Hey, I’m a neurotic New York Writer. What can I say.).
- Having writer’s block.
- Not having writer’s block. (because I’m thinking… when will I get writer’s block?).
- Getting a bad review (I’ve gotten rid of my Goodreads bookmark from my toolbar. I had worn it out from obsessively checking it. It’s like crack for writers.).
- Red pen marks (this is a hold-over from high school).
- Having to do social marketing (I’m getting over it but only slowly. I’m still not friendly with Twitter but at least we’re acquaintances. And I’m starting to know Facebook on a first name basis.).
- Letting go of the need for publication (if I let it go will it be more likely to occur just like the old tale that says if you want something let it go?).
- Not letting go of the need for publication (if I let it go will it not occur in which case this is a catch 22 and I’m screwed.).
- Losing my electronic manuscript and not having backed it up.
- Sending out emails that get lost in the electronic maelstrom of computer generated life and not knowing that they never reached their destination.
- Having to look for an agent again (don’t have to, it’s just a fear…)
What’s on your list?
Archimedes is taking a bath and he notices the level of the water raises when he steps – in so discovering that the volume of irregular objects could be calculated with precision (Wikipedia, List of Greek Phrases). He was so excited he ran out into the street, naked and dripping, shouting, “I have found it!”
I was never good at math so the volume of water thing is beyond me (though I can do budgets – work budgets, not home ones as my wife will remind me). But there are moments in writing when something clicks in your work and you want to run out of your home, naked, dripping wet, and shout, “I have found it!” or “Eureka!”
After my seventh attempt at writing an ending to Open Wounds I outlined my whole novel on electronic index cards (in Scrivener), noting the characters who were in each chapter, the purpose of each chapter (what needed to happen), and one sentence synopsis. I spread out the cards across my screen and stared at them for three months.
One day I saw it – the ending that had eluded me for so long. And it was right, and good.
I didn’t run out into the street naked as that would have caused a bit of a scene, and it was winter. But I did have on my phiz a huge shit-eating grin for about a week.
– If drooling counts as dripping wet, then I covered all bases.
When you do have your eureka moment, enjoy it. Allow yourself to be. They don’t happen that often and should be savored so they can get you through the long stretches of hard work in between.
Cimmerian is a word straight out of Greek mythology meaning mythical people who inhabited a land of darkness. Considering Robert E. Howard wrote about Conan of Cimmeria that has its own truth to it. I love the Conan stories.
If you’ve never read Howard’s Conan stories do so. They’re dark (figures), pulpy, and filled with ideas and thoughts of the first half of the 20th century. Howard defines pulp story for me. His life was a bit of a mess if you read about him but he knew how to tell a story and his character spawned a few hundred (thousand?) spin-offs and many credit him with beginning the sword and sorcery sub-genre. Me I just liked the old Frazetta posters of Conan. Look for the out of print versions of his stories that are collected, unabridged reprints of his originals from Weird Tales. If you want to write in a genre, read the genre. Hell, for that matter if you want to write, read everything, inside and outside of your genre and put some tools in your writer tool box.
Codswullop: British word for nonsense or untruth as in that was a bunch of codswallup. It’s not Greek but its what caught my eye today for “c” also. I have to put that in a book sometime. It might not be Cimmerian but it will make you say Crom.
All right. All right. I’m stretching today. Stretching.
This was said by King Proetus who wanted to kill Bellerophon when he visited his home because Bellerophon had tried to violate his wife. But it would have been bad manners to kill a guest. So Proetus sends Bellerophon to his father in-law, King Lobates, as a messenger with a sealed letter to deliver. The letter in a folded tablet says, “Pray remove the bearer from this world: he attempted to violate my wife, your daughter.”
So that’s how you do it.
Isn’t that a great idea for a plot? Much harder to do than defriending someone on Facebook but easily more satisfying.
Just how many plots are there to choose from? This is a question that’s been floating around the writing universe for a long long time.
So I looked it up. The oldest source I could find said that there was either 36 or 37 plots, and the book it comes from is a “French book published in 1916 as “The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations” by Georges Polti”.
Maybe we better all take a look. And while you’re at it beware of people asking you to deliver sealed letters in folded tablet form, in case you’ve got a history and it bellerophontic.
That was awkward but I think it worked.
You give it a try. Write a sentence with bellerophontic in it. See how it sounds.
This is my first post on the A-Z challenge and I’ve got my own theme for the month that comes from the book I’m working on now that takes place in 1914 England where Greek and Latin ruled as education in the “classics”. How each of these sayings deals with writers today will be my own stretch. So stop by and see what I come up with.
Api tou heliou metastethi (Stand a little out of my sun.)
So replies Diogenes the Cynic when asked by Alexander the Great if he had any wish he could fulfill. You gotta love that with a rim-shot for punctuation.
Something I recently overheard from a writer at a conference who was published with a big house when asked about the kind of support and publicity campaign she was receiving: “Oh it’s great except they always put me next to the (choose your megastar writer – there are only a few) so I might as well not even be there.”
Me I like being next to the megastars. At Charlottesville, being next to Alma Katsu (The Taker) on a panel meant people on her line (long line) sometimes drifted over to my line when they finished having her sign their book. Hey. You gotta start somewhere. Alma is a very cool writer whom I’ve had the pleasure to meet twice at two different conferences. I can stand in her shadow any day, ’cause one person’s shadow is another person’s sun.
Where is Diogenes when you need him?
I just finished a book I was reading as part of my research for my next book. It has taken me four months to finish it. Non-fiction works that way with me. It was fascinating, small print, footnotes – not my usual fare. But it gave me background that I need. It’s title is The Old Lie, The Great War and the Public School Ethos, by Peter Parker. I bought a used copy since it’s out of print. I’ve got notes written in the margins now, pages dog-eared, flags sticking out its side, and a coffee/tea stain here and there on the cover (or that may have come with the book).
Here’s some Latin that haunts the book and England during WWI:
Dulce et Decorum est,
Pro patria mori
(it is sweet and right to die for your country)
This is what drove English boys to war from the public schools at ages of 17 and 18, to be officers. It’s still doing its work today. The thing is in 1914 England the world was very different from what it is today. Context is everything.
I’ve been in a cave this week – a cave of work, of budgets, of elearning systems, of gamefication explanations and analysis, of wireframes, and harm reduction, of SBIRs NIDAs SSICs and NDRIs. Some days I live in a sea of acronyms and abbreviations. Other days the hull of my ship is made of tinsel. I am tired and not about to catch up on sleep any time soon.
Lying in savasana each day for a few minutes at the end of my yoga practice helps me to settle into myself and rest.
It has been one of those kinds of weeks. But tomorrow is Friday and new movies come out on Friday and even though I don’t go to movies much anymore (I love them but don’t have time for them) Friday has always been a joyous day for me because I can look at the reviews of movies and dream about what I would like to see. That and of course it’s the weekend.
John Carter of Mars comes out in less than a month. I have waited for this movie for almost forty years, since I read the ERB book and was first transported to Mars as a boy. I hope it will be good. I’m taking my son to see it with me.
Three words I found today in my work:
What words have you found in your imagination?
Writers create worlds out of words. It sounds obvious but it isn’t. I didn’t realize the amount of world building that went into a historical novel until I wrote one. If you’d have asked me before I wrote Open Wounds whether I’d ever write a historical novel I’d have told you, you were out of your mind.
I just finished Garth Nix’s Mr. Monday: The Keys to the Kingdom Book 1. My son read it and told me I had to read it too… so I did. And he was right. It’s a good book. What impressed me the most about the book is the world building Nix did. He created a world in which a line of script is alive and letters changed can change life to death and visa versa. Nix’s world has its own logic to it. It makes sense out of Nothing, and Nithlings out of Nothing and Fetchers out of Nothing. It is a book that makes me see a world that I’ve never seen before – one that springs out of Nothing.
World building is not relegated only to Fantasy or Science Fiction, but also historical novels and realistic fiction. Even realistic fiction has to create a believable here and now just as historical fiction has to create a believable then and there.
I’ll give you an example. In the 1930’s-40’s the subways in New York City didn’t have intercom systems in the cars. You knew what stop you were at by the conductor shouting it out from his window and from looking out the window or door yourself. I’m betting on crowded days people missed a lot of stops. It’s a simple detail but it gives time and place and helps to build the world that Cid Wymann lives in.
When world building you create worlds out of words that readers take and surround with atmosphere, beating hearts, and long harsh howls.
I travelled to Phili on Monday.
I took the day off from my job to teach a 1hr distance learning writing workshop to 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th graders at three Pennsylvania High Schools. There were about 40 kids in attendance at the three sites. I taught from the UPENN distance learning center, called MAGPI and it was a very cool thing to do. Each school shows up on a huge TV screen as a small 1 foot by 2 foot rectangle. I teach from the MAGPI studio – a small ten by ten space with three cameras, my laptop and Powerpoint, some notes, and a copy of my book to read from. The MAGPI folks don’t pay me for teaching and I cover my own traveling expenses,but I get to teach classes on writing to young writers and that makes it worth every penny.
Today I talked about first lines of novels and how they start the relationship between reader and writer. I’m into this relationship idea. Readers read and interpret and writers direct the interpretation through the words they write. I know this sounds very basic – like I should have gotten this before -but I didn’t. I just had it in my head that writers wrote and readers read – separate from each other. We’re not. We depend on each other, need each other. We’re symbiotes in a way.
The kids were great and I enjoyed speaking with them. They came up with first sentences for their own to-be-written novels that were terrific. I hope to see one in book form one day. It’s the second time I’ve done a workshop with the MAGPI folks and they’ve invited me back for a third workshop in the spring.
On my way home I stopped at a nearby public library and met Dan, their YA specialist. I gave him a copy of my book for the library. He had a big smile on his face when I gave it to him.
I love libraries.
Writing is painting pictures with words.
That’s all we get.
No facial expressions, no visual cues, no body language, nothing… unless you write it in. Otherwise you leave it to the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks. That’s the way it works. Some writer’s are sparse in description and some are heavy. Some like to control what the reader sees and some like to leave some space for them to see on their own. The writer directs. The reader follows. If the reader doesn’t follow the book gets put down.
It’s an amazing process of collaboration led by the writer. I don’t think I ever realized this before – how collaborative the act is.
Worlds can be brought to life with just the right details. Civilizations can be raised up from the dust or from beneath the ocean’s floor. Think of the images you just pulled up to see those civilizations in your mind’s eye. Each of your images is different depending on your own life experience and how that influences what you see based on the words I chose. Our experience of words is part subjective, colored by our life experience. Now that is cool, if you think about it for just a moment. That’s also why, when a book is made into a movie some people say it is exactly as they saw it from reading the book and others say that it’s not like what they read at all – even though they read the exact same book.
How do you know when you have found truth in painting your picture with words? How do you, as the writer, know you have chosen words that show something authentic, that you have directed effectively enough to tell a good story?
I edited a script for an e-learning system today and was faced very quickly with an example of how this works. Dialog for a character ran like this:
I acknowledge that there are challenges in conducting service placement.
I read the sentence out loud to the writer and saw a look of understanding come over her face as soon as I said the word acknowledge.
“It doesn’t sound right,” she said, shaking her head.
“Then let’s make it sound right for the character,” I replied.
She wrote: I know as a provider that there are going to be challenges in doing my job.
She changed it to sound right – to sound authentic to her. Writing scripts I tell my staff to read them out loud. “You’ll hear authenticity in dialog,” I say. I find it works the same way with narrative.
A full read through of my manuscript, out loud, to myself, is the final step in my revision process. That is my final check on directorial authenticity. It takes me a day or two with breaks for coffee or English Breakfast tea, sometimes toothpicks for my eyes (not in them) and a bunch of pee breaks. My butt is usually sore by the end, as is my throat.
But when I finish – if it’s really finished – if the words paint a picture that is authentic to me – then it’s time for a Guinness and a Partagás underneath a pale sliver of moon.
Three words I typed today:
I laid out a puzzle for myself to solve and solved it in my narrative. A small section but a pivotal one. Funny how plot points come and go.
I just finished my first book of 2012. Last Words by George Carlin is in the can.
It was an incredible sortabiography (his own word), telling his memoir through the story of his creative life as a comic. The second half of the book is a tough read. Carlin had a bad cocaine, alcohol, vicodin habit and only really got sober the last five or so years of his life. What especially fascinates me is his writing about his creative process. He wrote things down to capture them and hone them over and over again until they were perfect. He lived most of his life on the road performing and working, writing and capturing, honing and perfecting.
And he came up with some good shit. He was also highly political but only evolved into that over time. And he was one angry, angry man. His rage fueled many of his pieces and large parts of his performances. It provided focus for his fascinations. It provided incredible articulation. I think he had tremendous insight into the human condition and into how storytellers in particular, manipulate their audiences to follow them down into other realities.
Carlin also specialized in the use and etiology of curses. I learned about curses from Carlin. I knew about them before but he demystified them for me. He introduced them to me as full-bodied words and made me laugh at the ridiculous censorship we place on them. He increased my vocabulary ten-fold even if it was mostly in my mind.
I use the word fuck in my book, Open Wounds. I haven’t counted how many times.
When people ask me if the book is okay for their teen I always tell them it’s a 13 and up read or a 15 and up read because of the language and the violence. Most people don’t mind but some do. I think the word fuck is used sparingly in my book, not because I thought it would get me in trouble if I used it too much, but because it was only needed when it was needed by the characters who used it. I remember watching the movie Platoon the second time – with my grandfather – and squirming in my seat at the number of times the word fuck or some derivation of it (fucker, fucked-up, fucking, motherfucker, fuck-wad, etc…) was used. Almost every other word that came out of every character’s mouth included some version of fuck. The first time I saw the film I didn’t notice the language at all. The second time, with my grandfather beside me, I couldn’t hear anything but it.
I also remember reading a book last year by Cynthia Kadohata called Cracker: The Best Dog in Vietnam that, although I enjoyed, found it strange to read a whole novel about soldiers in Vietnam and not read one curse. I wonder if she consciously chose not to use the word fuck. I remember asking myself how not one soldier in her reality could get through a conversation without saying fuck at least once. It felt like a spice was missing from the narrative – some dark mole sauce.
I had one person, a friend, tell me his daughter, who was a teen, put my book down because she found the word fuck in it. Another, an adult, told me she finished it but was really shocked that the book contained such language.
What would George Carlin say to all this? Well, his now famous list of the seven words you can’t say on television no longer has any relevance. Because any and all of them can be and have been said on cable and HBO for over a decade. He stopped doing the bit after his own first HBO special.
One in which he used material that he had captured on paper, honed through practice and rewriting over and over again, and finally… perfected.