Thursday, October 30, 2008
Symposium en garde!
The challenge is on! The gauntlet is cast! I feel like broadening my mind, and I'd like some help.
Donalbain, one of our delightful regular posters, has stated that it's possible for anyone to learn mathematics and science, while writing is something only certain people can learn. I'm of the opinion that mathematics and science are, similarly, things that certain people block on past a certain point, no matter how hard they try, and that feeling it's something anyone can learn suggests an instinctive talent for the subject: I base this on the experience of being taught overly advanced maths from the age of fifteen to sixteen and spending an entire year in bewilderment, even though I had a good teacher and sat next to a helpful friend who did understand it.
Well, that sounds like an experiment waiting to happen.
So, here's what I propose. Donalbain, if willing, or someone else if Donalbain prefers to decline, will present me with a mathematical problem it will take a certain amount of understanding to solve, and explain the theory to me. I'll try to solve it.
Similarly, anybody else who feels they have a communicable skill and wants to play, please make an effort to teach me and anybody else who's reading this, how to do whatever it is you do.
At the same time, I'll give some pointers on how to write a six word short story, and anyone who wants to teach me something will, in exchange, have a go at that.
Let's all try to learn each others' skills.
Rather than concluding that anybody could win this debate, which would be confrontational, hard to measure and kind of silly, let's instead fool around for a while, and then I'll do another post where we can report on the experience of trying to learn a new skill, what difficulties we encountered, how it compared to doing the stuff we actually have skills in, and what we feel we've learned.
So, I'll kick off. Here's the best advice I can offer on how to write a six word short story.
The original six word short story was Hemingway's 'For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.' - a really superb piece of writing. The Wired collection is here. I'll quote some examples to illustrate what makes a six word story work.
The most basic, I'd say: think about when in time the story takes place.
Many of the best ones are written post facto, in a way that tells the whole story by implication. Hemingway's is a good example. Something has happened off-stage, in this case the death of a baby, and presumably to people who either can't bear to think of having another one (otherwise they'd keep the shoes for a later child), or are poor enough to need even the small money a second-hand pair of baby shoes would raise. The baby's birth was anticipated, because the shoes were bought in advance. There is, in fact, a beginning, middle and an end: the anticipation of the birth, the death, the grieving aftermath. All of this can be intuited - but it doesn't have to be present. There are some other examples of this: Brian Herbert's 'Epitaph: He shouldn't have fed it', for instance, has the beginning - the joining of man and scary creature - the middle - he fed it - and the end - it killed and possibly ate him. One of my favourites on this blog comes from Robert: 'Professor - re: zombie incident: You're fired.' The story there is clear: the professor tried to create zombies, there was a terrible incident, and while it's now been sorted out nobody's happy with him. These are stories that comment on a 'story' that's already taken place, not summarising it but showing in the fallout what must have happened.
An alternative method is to use reported speech. In this case, you're not looking back on a story, but hearing from somebody at the turning-point: in effect, you're telling the story in the present tense. Rockne S. O'Bannon, for instance, goes with 'It's behind you! Hurry before it' - and the breaking-off indicates exactly how that sentence ends. Ursula K. LeGuin's 'Easy. Just touch the match to' is another example of the same; so is 'Computer, did we bring batteries? Computer?' by Eileen Gunn. One of mine is 'Let go, I told them nothing.', which is similarly spoken out of the middle of a crisis. In such cases, you need to consider who's being addressed and under what pressing set of circumstances. A variation is Orson Scott Card's 'I saw, darling, but do lie.'; this is a post facto speech as in the examples above, but the question of who's being addressed is key to the story.
There are certain contexts that lend themselves to six-word stories. Hemingway's is written in a format that naturally would be terse, to wit, an advert. This makes it naturalistic in style even though constrained in form. While this isn't compulsory, it's a good technique to consider: think about formats which naturally would be terse. Margaret Atwood's 'Corpse parts missing. Doctor buys yacht.' and 'Starlet sex scandal. Giant squid involved.', and David Brin's 'Dinosaurs return. Want their oil back.', for instance, have the feel of headlines; the result is that the body text - the full story - is implied. One of mine was 'Wanna break up. Ur 2 emotionl.', which is in text-speak. E-mails, epitaphs, memos, slogans, telegrams, notes to self: all are methods worth considering.
'Wanna break up. Ur 2 emotionl.' is an example of another thing to consider, which is the unreliable narrator. In that instance, the irony plays off the fact that anyone who breaks up in a text message is no judge of how emotional is '2 emotionl'. Raising questions about the reliability of the speaker is a good way to expand the story beyond its narrow margins.
There's another way of making the story seem bigger, which is playing off established storylines or common human experiences. Steven Meretzky's 'Dorothy: "Fuck it, I'll stay here."' is an example of the former, though such stories are not my personal favourites, as they seem closer to gags. Margaret Atwood's 'Longed for him. Got him. Shit.' is an example of the latter, a terse summary of a situation felt by many, as is Bruce Sterling's 'It cost too much, staying human.', and my own 'How hard can it be? Oh.' If you can think of universal stories, they can sometimes be quickly summarised.
Consider, too, the rhythm of your piece. Six words has a finite number of possible combinations: a six-word phrase, a five and a one, three twos, two threes, a two and a four, a one, a two and a three ... oh, heck, I'm not the mathematician, but you see what I'm getting at. Rhythm is an important carrier of story. End on a single-word sentence, like 'Longed for him. Got him. Shit.', and you're likely to get an ironic punch; have a complete sentence, and it's likely to feel more contemplative; two threes or three twos will feel punchier than, say, a two and a four. Think about how the rhythmic possibilities could carry the structure of your story.
Think about the emotional tone. Given the constrictions, writers often go for humour - a quick, ironic piece works well with the form. You can, on the other hand, go for outright tragedy if you choose, as with Hemingway, in which case the brevity stops being the soul of wit and becomes a sad, nothing-else-to-say terseness. Either works fine, but the story needs to have some kind of mood if it's going to be interesting.
That's probably enough instruction to be going on with: think about when in time your story is taking place, who's speaking and how, why they're speaking and what's being implied off-stage. Read as many examples as possible and see if you can get a feel for them.
So, you all do that. What shall I do? Come on, hit me.
Friday, October 17, 2008
Kit: Mika, stop messing with my proofs!
Kit: Mika, that's enough. You've tried to chew them, to put pawprints on them, to fight them...
Mika: Someday will win, too!
Kit: If I hand in a set of cat-mauled proofs, I'll look very unprofessional.
Mika: If proof is sound, Mika cannot disprove it. Should let Mika expose your so-called proofs to purr review.
Kit: No, Mika, proofs as in proof reading. I'm trying to proof read my novel and you're getting in the way.
Mika: They is gettin in way of you payin attention to Mika.
Kit: I have a deadline, sweetie. This is what pays for your cat food.
Mika: Is not hungry right now, thanks. Prefer to fite paper.
Kit: Mika, this is awkward of you. Reading proofs is hard work even without you chewing them.
Mika: Nibble novel!
Kit: Good girls don't chew my work.
Mika: Is demonstrably untrue. Mika the Good chews your work. Refute your thesis by counter-evidence. You do not understand concept of proof as well as you think.
Kit: Well, one of us doesn't, clearly.
Mika: And can only be you, for Mika is perfect.
Kit: If you don't leave my work alone, I'm going to have to remove you by physical force.
Mika: Weapon of the censor! Burnin is no argument! Hey, put down at once! At once! Hey!
Kit: Go on, go play in the garden.
Mika: Noble Mika is intellectual martyr. Be advised, good peoples of blog, do not buy book of this mean woman.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Okay, final check
I've going over the proofs of the next novel, and I want to make sure I've got the right names in the acknowledgements for everybody who helped me out on that nitpicking post; you know who you are, I'm sure. So, here's the list:
Naomi, Donalbain, Jane Draycott, Jill Heather Flegg, Ursula L, Jos, Cowboy Diva, Robb, Joolya, Christopher Subich, Hapax, Linda Coleman, Practicallyevil, Wesley Parish, Margaret Yang, Sunlizzard, Lauren, Ecks, Michael Mock, Sheila O'Shea, Alfgifu.
If you're not on that list and should be, or if I've spelled your name wrong or used an internet handle when you'd prefer your actual name or vice versa, please either e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or post your objection on the thread here by the end of the week. This is more or less the last call; after this, I won't be able to do much about it, so please let me know quickly if anything's wrong.
Friday, October 10, 2008
Mikalogue meets exercise
Mika: The wheels on the thingy go round an round, round an round, round an round...
Kit: Hi baby. What are you singing about?
Mika: Ah. Mika has bone to pick with you.
Kit: A real bone? Chicken bones are dangerous, sweetie.
MIka: No, metaforical bone. You should know what those are. You said you riter.
Kit: Yes, I do know, thank you precious. So what's the problem?
Mika: It are this cross-trainer.
Kit: But it's lovely! It means Daddy and I get lots of exercise, and then we have more energy to play with you.
Mika: But you locks Mika out of room when you work out!
Kit: I know, honey. We're sorry to do it. But you keep trying to chase the pedals, and we're worrying about you getting your important head bopped.
Mika: Round an round, round an round! Mika chase! It moves, must jump on it!
Kit: Yes, that's exactly why we lock you out.
Mika: Mika liked what was here before better.
Kit: What, the plant we moved to make room for the machine?
Mika: Yes. Where is it, Mika's toy?
Kit: Out in the garden, dying, I'm afraid, dear. You climbed and chewed it so much it was falling to pieces.
Mika: Chase it! Leaves bounce when Mika hits them! Mika kills moving leaves! Mika the mighty!
Kit: We're sorry to have moved it, but you were shredding it.
Mika: You replace Mika's toy with toy for you that you don't let Mika play with.
Kit: Sigh... I guess you're right, sweetie.
Mika: You disturbs order of universe.
Kit: Well, we're sorry. But we've got lots of other toys for you.
Mika: Everything is toy for Mika!
Kit: Then the universe can't be out of balance, can it? Not if it's all your toy anyway?
Mika: Your sophistries are unsound. Get rid of cross trainer.
Kit: No, honey, we're not going to do that.
Mika: But if you get all muscly and thin, what will Mika knead when is needin cuddles?
Kit: Oh, sweetie. There'll always be cuddles for Mika!
Kit: Of course, honey. Would you like one now?
Mika: No thank you, for Mika sees fly! Flee, fly, for hour of doom is comin after you with big clawy paws! Mika the mighty!
Monday, October 06, 2008
Literary Exquisite Corpse, or, It's Your Problem Now
My friend Claire introduced me to a game recently that I think is well worth sharing: a game we've called It's Your Problem Now, for reasons that will become obvious. It's a game for two to four players, ideally, though you can do it with more.
The rules are simple. Everyone has a piece of paper and a pen. Everyone comes up with the title for a book, then passes the paper along to the player on their left. You look at the title you've been given, then write a blurb for said imaginary book, then pass along again. Next, everyone writes the book's first paragraph or passage, then passes it on; finally, you write the imaginary book's final paragraph. Then you all read aloud.
Unlike traditional Exquisite Corpse, the challenge is to keep things reasonably consistent, while retaining the freedom to throw new things into the mix. There can be an element of mischievous snookering of the next player - coming up with a tricky title is fun, for instance - but it's mostly collaborative. It's also very good for your confidence: it's surprising what you can come up with when there's nothing at stake. As much as anything else, it's an object lesson in how inventive you can be when you relax.
So, for your amusement, I'm presenting the ones that we came up with, in case anyone wants to read them. There are six, so read as many as you like. Following on, shall we play it in the thread? Rules are as follows: everyone has to follow in sequence - so if one person puts up a title, the next person does the blurb, and so on. Let's play!
(Professional disclaimer, in case anyone spots an awkward sentence and decides never to buy one of that stupid Kit Whitfield's books on the strength of it: these passages are, of course, rough, given that they were written at speed.)
C: The Unanswered Garden
K: Lilian Helm was fresh out of college, with a mountain of student debt and her dead father's debts to pay beside, when the offer came: a six-month live-in placement at Michaelmas Hall, restoring the neglected building to its former glory.
At first, the offer seemed too good to be true. But then the dreams started. Who was the white-clad girl who sighed in the darkness? What was the secret of the sunken garden, with its dying roses and mysterious carved love-seat? And what was the truth behind her mysterious employer?
G: Michaelmas Hall, 1792
My dearest Jane,
I doubt that this letter will reach you. It seems impossible that his Grace, whose ministers and messengers keep him so well informed of all mankind's affairs, will neglect to intercept this - particularly as I make no effort to conceal it. But in the event that it does, one day, come into your hands, at least know this - that you were right and I have always loved you.
As for you, your Grace, if I guess right, by the time you read this I will be dead and you will only be beginning to understand how I have deceived you. A lesser man would be concerned about the money; we both know what troubles you - and I promise you, the book is not destroyed, nor shall it be. Ask your servants if they can help you - but unless I miss my guess, the diabolical intellect does not encompass horticulture. I will not say that I remain your 'honourable servant' or any similar such nonsense, for I have been about the worst servant it is possible to be - instead, I will merely conclude by wishing you frustration in life and damnation in death -
C: The scream had come from the garden. Lilian ran towards it, her breath sobbing in her throat. If she could be in time! If she could only be in time!
She was too late. Hector lay on the round lawn, his sightless eyes gazing up at the sky, the book still clutched in his stiffening hand.
He had used it, as she had begged him not to. The curse was lifted. She was safe.
And Hector was lost, for ever.
G: The Crown of Shadows
C: Mary was the love of Jed's life, the only thing that gave his existence meaning. Her death in a freak car accident almost destroyed him. Over her grave, he made her a promise: he woudl get her back, he would see her walk in the sunlight again. Whatever it took.
Even if it meant turning back to the old ways of his father and grandfather, the ways he'd spent a lifetime trying to escape from.
K: 'I don't think I can do this,' Jed said.
'What's the worst that can happen?' Mary laughed. Sunlight glinted as she tossed her blonde hair out of her eyes. She twirled around before him on her skates, graceful as a swallow, then turned back to him, smiling that warm, wide grin that always made his heart skip. 'I'll hold on to you. You'll be fine.'
Jed staggered to his feet. The boots were supposed to clamp his angkles firmly, but he didn't feel secure: no one with feet his size had ankles that skinny, he was sure. He was probably going to fall and break into a million pieces. For a moment he overbalanced, plunging towards the ice, and then Mary caught him firmly, her hands on his. 'That's it,' she said.
Dad would laugh if he could see me now, Jed thought. God, I don't even want to picture what he'd say. 'Okay, I'm up,' he said. 'I'm doing this!'
'Terrific.' Mary grinned again. 'Now all you have to do is move.'
'Ah. That's, um...'
'Come on.' Mary started gliding backwards, her legs scissoring in and out in a smooth rhythm. The movement of her thighs distracted Jed for a moment, and she shook his arms gently. 'Don't look at your feet,' she said. 'It's easier to stay up if you don't look down.'
Jed found himself being pulled forward. Mary wasn't moving fast, but the world seemed to be slipping under his feet. He risked a grin himself, hoping for another laugh from her. 'I think you're going to get me killed,' he said.
Mary laughed, shrugged, as if nothing in the world would ever trouble her. 'Who wants to live for ever?' she said.
G: As suddenly as it had begun, the storm died away. The shape in the doorway, so like Mary, so unlike her, slipped backwards with its dying wasp gait and turned away from him, covering its face as if ashamed. Then it, too, was gone.
'That is why you will always be weak,' said Ebeneezer. Jed noticed that his father was still bleeding from the side of his head. 'To open that door and not see what lies on the other side of it - to not even look...'
Jed twisted the bootlace in his hands. He remembered the chill, the sound of a blade cutting into ice at a short, sharp stop.
'Maybe it's for the best,' he said, and shut the door. 'She was always so graceful...'
K: Anchorite City
G: In the cities of the future, everyone is permanently plugged into their rosary - a tiny collection of beads with enough computer memory to store an entire lifetime with music and subliminal instructions. It's almost like nobody ever listens to anybody else at all.
But when Peter's rosary breaks in a freak accident, he is forced to the margins of society, unsure how to think or feel without the music that everyone around him hears.
There, he discovers the Trappists, who have taken a vow of silence - and they reveal to him the true secret behind the all embracing music of the spheres...
C: In the cavern under the city, there was no music. No sound but the soft rustling of robes as they gathered. Their hoods were pulled forwards, hiding their faces. If one was caught, they would not be able to identify the others.
The leader held out his hand. In it lay something that glittered slightly in the dim light.
'It is time now,' he said.
K: The three of them stood, arm in arm. Rachel rasied her eyes to the top of the ruined tower, adn her hand slipped down, clasped around Peter's in a warm, comforting grip. No one moved to break the silence. Just in this moment, there was nothing they needed to say.
C: When The Clouds Left
K: Sally never saw the problem. Why shouldn't she be friends with Jessie Cloud next door? Sure, Jessie and her family were black in an otherwise white town, but Sally didn't understand why the adults got so worked up about that - or why they wouldn't explain to her what they were so worried about. Funny Jessie and her kind, anxious-eyed parents became a nest for Sally, a place of fun and refuge from the colder world outside. But then one morning Sally woke up to see a moving van pulling down the road and her best friend gone. No explanation, no letters, no reason anyone could tell her. And Sally found herself alone in a tight-lipped community, with a gap in her life - a gap filled with questions she needed answers to.
G: In retrospect, it was obvious - but then, these things always are - 'twenty twenty hindsight', her mother used to say. Context changed everything.
Still, Sally thought, you had to hand it to the universe. It had style.
She had kept that Coke bottle - the old fashioned, thick bottomed kind - that exact same Coke bottle - on her shelf for years. Refused every attempt by her mother to get her to throw it out.
All that time, she had thought it was her last link to her friend, one tiny, tacky thing she could rely on. Would she have kept it if she had known? Of course. If anything, she would have been more likely to keep it.
But she would have felt very differently about it, and that would have mattered.
Context changed everything.
C: After a moment, Jessie reached her hand across the table. And after a moment, Sally took it. They looked at each other in silence.
'What now?' Sally asked at last.
'I don't know,' Jessie said. 'I don't know.'
But she didn't pull her hand away.
G: The Unbearable Likeness of Beings
C: This is the world through Hamburg's eyes. A six-foot dog catcher from Brooklyn, Hamburg drifts through his days, watching incuriously as the life of the city plays itself out in front of his dull brown eyes. 'They're all the same,' Hamburg grunts into his mid-day sandwich. But the time is coming when Hamburg will find that very similarity too much to bear...
K: Dogs, you could tell apart. There were scraggly mutts, stinking to high heaven, with their abandoned whines and broken paws. There were overbred Afghans, their silky coats dreadlocking in the rain, picking their way across pavements they never thought they'd see except through the windows of their owners BMWs. There were short-legged Daschunds trying for dignity and scrabbling off the kerbsides, snarling Poms like lost, vindictive teddy bears, Goldens tarnished with pollution and dust. But that was dogs. People, as far as Hamburg could see, were all the same.
G: Behind him, all the children began to dance, and as they danced, they too, like the dogs, began to rise into the air. And so Hamburg watched as they danced into the transforming light and disappeared. He munched a pretzel, sour with meditation, and turned to the Lord Mayor. 'That,' he said, 'is why you ought to pay your civil servants.' And although many other things would be said in the months and years to come throughout the newly depopulated and canine-free island of Manhattan, in tones of fear, exasperation - or, amongst those who had oftened been irritated by the depradations of small children and dogs in public spaces, tones of mild relief - nothing truer or wiser would be uttered, and nothing more needed to be said.
(Gareth gets the Lord of Misrule Prize for that ending, we reckon.)
K: Legs and the Men I Sing
(This was me winding up my fiance, who had to go next; you see what I mean about snookering. Though as you can see, it didn't phase him a jot.)
G: Anita de Vere is bored with everything - her job in PR, her socialite friends and, most of all, her boring boyfriend Derek.
But a chance reunion with an old friend sends her life in new and interesting directions - to the French Riviera and into the path of an impossibly infuriating and improbably seductive Professor of Ancient Greek.
C: 'Anita!' roared Mr Edwards.
She leapt up from her chair, narrowly missed tripping herself on a computer cable, and dashed into his office. 'What is it?' she asked breathlessly.
He skimmed a piece of paper across the desk at her. 'Look at that! Call that a press release?'
K: Spiros grinned, his tanned body gleaming against the white of the boat, and pushed his glasses back up his nose. 'This is a trip to the temple of Aphrodite,' he said. 'I'm sure you'll like learning about her.'
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