Archive for September, 2010

A while back, a friend asked if I write with a specific purpose in mind, “purpose” as in “What is my aim, my point, my theme?”

I wanted to say “no.”  A first draft is about exploration and discovery and I have no idea what the purpose of anything is at that point.  My purpose at the beginning is to get words into the keyboard, up on the screen.  Once they’re up there, I can figure “stuff” out. 

I realized this answer was misleading and making that statement, especially to anyone new to the craft, might lead him or her to think that “meaning” magically seeps into the writing without effort on the part of the writer.  Or that  the writer sits down to write a story in which “Love is Blind” or “War is Hell”  and creates situations with characters to prove his theme.

Most of us aim for middle ground.  We know that to hammer away at theme will lead to a story that is obvious and preachy, but we also know that often stories offered up by writers as puzzles rarely work either.  Readers want to feel they are in good hands, that the writer knows what he’s doing, that if  the reader lets the story unfold, she will learn something, have an aha moment, an emotional response. It’s difficult for readers to count on writers as guides when the writers don’t know where they’re going.

But the choice isn’t about whether the story has purpose, but rather when the writer discovers that purpose.  Purpose becomes apparent in the act of writing.  More often than not, what happens is a story comes from an image, a character trait, a pet peeve and it is in the act of sitting down at the keyboard and wrestling that image or character into certain circumstances that theme emerges. 

There’s no pinpointing when this happens.  On a first draft, a sentence might appear on the screen and the writer thinks, “Oh so this is what this is about!”  Or when reading over the third draft wondering why the story doesn’t quite work, the writer asks, “What the heck does this shit mean?”  Or maybe a possible theme pops out with the last line of the piece. “Ah, now I know why I wrote this.” 

Purpose can be tiny, tiny, especially in flash. It can explore IMPORTANT IDEAS, but in a moment, briefly caught for examination, freezing the climax of a story and revealing only the immediate emotional impact, hinting at what came before. Flash is  that upclose moment the reader is allowed to share.

For longer stories, the need for purpose–not just the stringing of pretty words together–becomes essential. It gives the writer something to explore, think about how he feels about it, and then conveys it to the reader in an effective way.

However, the theme or epiphany that emerges in the first draft is usually not enough.   It must be tended to. Once the writer understands what the theme is, another edit through is necessary to find opportunities to underline and enhance that theme.  This is especially important in the writing of flash where every word counts.  The character’s name, his job, the nature of his problem, the setting, the title, all the details can be used to support the theme as well as  tone, voice, and structure. These elements need not be too overt or too subtle in their connections, but just knowing and thinking about meaning can help a  writer to deepen his work.  

What we write comes from who we are and what we want to say to the world. Sometimes that purpose goes outward toward the big events, the societal worries, but just as often it goes inward to personal insecurities, failings, and successes.  The author aims to give his work universal meaning by creating a world that is engrossing, surprising, and possesses some form of truth.   By questioning her own text, the writer can come to better understand her view of the world and share that view with her readers.

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Gay Degani has published in journals and anthologies including The Best of Every Day Fiction 2008 and TWO (2009).  Nominated for a 2008 Pushcart, her online stories can be read atSmokelong Quarterly, Short Story America, Metazen, Night Train, Paradigm, andEmprise Review, as well as other publications.  Her chapbook of short fiction, Pomegranate, came out in December of 2009. She’s a staff editor at SmokeLong Quarterly, edits EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles, and blogs at Words in Place.

Len Hazell offered an excellent description of the superhero genre, with a nice encapsulation of the history and some of the common character archetypes. However, as a life-long reader (and, more recently, writer) of superhero fiction, I wanted to offer up a slight ,but important distinction concerning the superhero and his or her adventures.

Namely, think of it not so much as a genre but as a set of extremely versatile character tools. There are certain conventions that can apply across the different types, but approaching superheroes as a genre can be unnecessarily limiting. It’s a blurry line I’m drawing, but important.

Simply put, superheroes can be anything you want or need them to be. The archetype is so strong, with roots so deep in human history, that it can be inserted into any other genre that the writer’s heart desires. As long as they are extraordinary beings with a deep (but perhaps ill-fated) concern for their fellow citizenry, they can be used anywhere. A glance across the racks at any comic shop will reveal everything from crime, war, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, horror, romance, or any sub-genre. Flexibility makes the superhero an endearing figure in pop culture (and lack of flexibility can put the kibosh on them just as surely – just ask the poor, forgotten heroes of the Zeppelin Pulps, who died out quite suddenly).

Take, for example, one of the most popular superhero characters to be invented in decades, Wolverine. Throughout the history of his publication, Logan has been the rich son of a plantation owner, a feral boy raised by wolves, miner, ninja, samurai, soldier, elite special forces commando, space pirate, crime fighter, detective, time traveler, civil rights crusader, pilot, father, zombie, and other stuff even I can’t keep up with. He’s been cloned, killed, ripped in half, devolved, resurrected, married, and adapted into horrible movies. Wolverine is a somewhat unique case of a single figure encompassing much of what can be done on a larger scale with the archetypes (as writers, I think any of us would be lucky to create a character like this – see also Robert E. Howard’s Conan, who could be adapted to fit whatever theme the fantasy magazines were running that month – but that’s a whole other article). No matter what his role at any given time, the heroic core of his personality remains.

In some ways, superheroes are perfect for flash fiction – the word immediately sums up some simple universal images and ideas, and if properly used can save a writer quite a bit of exposition. Just don’t let those preconceived notions become an anchor rather than a buoy.

So when sitting down to write a superhero epic, don’t automatically restrict yourself to the traditional masked crime-fighter avenging the death of a loved one, or a lantern-jawed boy scout. A superhero can just as easily be a master of the mystical arts, the king of a fantastic domain, a starship captain, demon, disgraced football player, journalist, priest, child prodigy, musician, or anything else you need. There are archetypes and conventions certainly, but ultimately superheroes are all about breaking the rules, and living in a world where the writer is limited only by their own imagination.

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Alexander Burns will track you down and murder you if you ever write an article with one of those “Pow! Zing!” titles.  He lives in Fort Worth, Texas, and writes because he doesn’t have a basement in which to build robots or time machines, and because he is terrible at math. His work has appeared at Every Day Fiction, A Thousand Faces, 10Flash, The Future Fire, and Big Pulp.

I spotted the book at the Landmark Bookstore at Apex Plaza (Chennai).  An infinitely kittenish Freida Pinto and her “Slumdog Beau” Dev Patel posed on the cover. The headline on the cover screamed “SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE”! The words below in smaller, but eye-catching enough lettering read “by Vikas Swarup.” And after that–and I almost missed it–”previously titled: Q & A!”

Huh? What was that? Q & A?  No wonder I had never heard of the book before it became Slumdog The Making Millions Movie!

Early in my writing life, I had read an article about giving a meaningful title to a story: the longer the story, the more important the title.

This was something we learned in advertising too. When writing copy for press and magazine ads, the headline is what pulls the reader down into the ad. Reader attention-spans are remarkably flighty unless they get the “What’s in it for me” factor straightaway.

But we are talking “books” here. Literary writing, creative writing. How can the same rules apply? Yes, we are talking books and believe me, book readers too go through that “What’s in it for me” moment when they browse bookstores, libraries, or the private collections of friends. Only here, the thought takes a qualitative curve into that road where the sign says “Will it hold my interest/will I enjoy reading it?”

Imagine that you are standing in a store or library glancing at a book with “Q & A” on its cover. Don’t touch the book and flip its pages before the first thought articulates in your brain. Be truthful now, does the title say anything to you? Does it reach out and give you an exciting tickle about what may lie within those pages? Did you get any idea whether it’s a romance, detective/crime fiction, sci-fi, literary or a general knowledge book?  

Now look at the renamed book, albeit after the movie and all the excitement, but the title tells you something, doesn’t it? It screams out a message that there’s an exciting story to read or movie to watch. It’s a mouthful that you can roll about in your tongue and get notions about what lies within. “Slum Dog Millionaire” is  a far cry from the bland “Q & A”which lived a quiet life despite being nominated for the 2005 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize until it was resurrected into the movie “Slum Dog Millionaire!”

I am not implying that the movie owed its success to its name, but an interesting name certainly helps. A good, eye-catching title on a book helps set the book apart from the rest on the shelf, calls out to its potential readers, and leads to a browsing of its pages.

 

Adapted from an earlier post in Writers &Writerisms

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Rumjhum Biswas lives at the edge of the sun-toasted city of Chennai, in a corner where migratory birds cruise the sky above the din of a burgeoning IT hub and an ancient temple dips its toes into a not so ancient mini lake.

Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.   (The Wolfman 1941)

Rarely has any part of the horror genre had a more turbulent and confused history than that of The Werewolf. We shall attempt to partially untangle it here giving some clues as to the natural evolution of this sad and sorry creature and the lore that governs its current incarnations.

 The Modern Generic Traditions

There are only two ways to be infected and become one of these creatures: the bite of an already infected individual or to be a child conceived by one or more infected parents.

 The transformed person becomes animalistic and carnivorous, hunting for and feeding on raw flesh during the hours of darkness. The infected person will physically change in some way at the time of the full moon.

The transformed variant will have no memory of its human life, but will retain subconscious hatreds, but not loves. The transformed person is allergic to silver, wolfsbane/monksfoot, and sometimes hawthorn.

The infected person will not age while infected. The infected person is immune to physical harm while in the transformed state other than that inflict by another of its kind, a weapon made of silver, or from fire, all of which can kill him. Other injuries will heal within twenty-four hours, but will show on the human form during that time. At the moment of death the infected one will resume human form. The Werewolf in the modern tradition manifests itself in three major forms.

  • A large wolf-like quadruped animal. This is the classic “werewolf”
  • An anthropomorphic biped animal appearing as a hybrid human wolf. Since its eponymous appearance in the 1941 film, this form has been termed a “wolfman.”
  • A feral human being. This rarer form is none the less the subject of probably the most famous werewolf story ever, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stephenson (1886).

 The Werewolf Symbolism

The beast is within us all. We suppress it and tame it with the trapping of civilisation, but it still lurks deep in the ancestral subconscious, snarling, ravenous and craving release.

 It has no pity; it has no mercy; it does not care about anything but its own desires and those desires are simple: To be free, to mate, to hunt and to feed.

 The Werewolf is the beast released from the cage of humanity, the human animal, glorious in its savagery. As the noted werewolf scholar Dr. Vijav Alezais states in the 1994 movie Wolf, “[I]t feels good to be a wolf, doesn’t it? Power without guilt.”

 The Origins of the Werewolf

The modern myth grew from four major sources: the Greek, the Germanic, the Hollywood, and the Psychoanalytical.

The Greek

Plato himself, no less, is one of the earliest writers to address the idea of the beast man. His theory of metempsychosis was that on occasion, the spirit of a dead wolf (or other animal) would transmigrate into a living human and dominate him or her, bringing about beast like traits and behaviours. This idea spread and myths began to appear all over the Greek trading world, in simplified forms as an explanation for psychosis and other aberrant syndromes such as hypertrichosis (all-over excessive body hair). This form of infection is largely forgotten in the modern werewolf story.

 The Germanic

The word “werewolf” is Germanic in origin. From the time of the Roman occupation of Gaul up until the eighteenth century, “werewolf” fighters lived in the Germanic forests fighting against one, as they saw it, corrupt regime after another. Wehrwolf, written Hermann Loens and published in 1910, was a romantic treatment of peasant guerrillas in northern Germany during the 17th century in this tradition. Such was the popular appeal in Germany of the Werewolf myth—being roughly equivalent to Robin Hood in England—that the monster Werewolf has always been known as a “Lyken” in Germany.

The idea of monstrous animal men who sweep down and carry death to their enemies, however, became a good propaganda weapon for the Germanic races for hundreds of years and added to the myth which spread fast.

In England in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, there were clans of “Wolfs’ heads” Saxons who fought guerrilla wars against their Norman overloads in the forests of England. In 1944, Hitler is rumoured to have outfitted several troops of “werewolves” to fight back against the D-day invaders until he re-established the Reich. It is a powerful and deep-rooted folktale.

 The Hollywood

For purely economic and political reasons, in 1941, when Universal studios decided to make their werewolf movie, The Wolfman was born. First, America had just entered the war and “werewolf” was a German word, not acceptable to audiences of the time. Second, turning a man into a wolf was beyond the special effects of the time, and Universal want a transformation scene. The translation of the word “werewolf” which is “man wolf” was reversed to wolfman, thus Lon Chaney Jr. got to keep his clothes on and became The Wolfman.

Curt Siodmak was commissioned to write an original screenplay. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) had already been filmed several times and was not a “proper” werewolf story. Although several werewolf stories existed, none were deemed acceptable for a range of reasons. The likely contender was The Werewolf of Paris (1933) by American author Guy Endore until it was realised that this story had already been adapted by Robert Harris in to the 1935 B picture, “Werewolf of London” by Universal starring Henry Hull. Hull’s make up and clothed Wolfman performance was recycled for Chaney and Siodomak borrowed heavily from the earlier script establishing the first Wolfman, which varied from the generic werewolf tradition. The Wolfman is always killed by the one who loves him most.

  •  The Wolfman became and established sub-genre appearing in films such as “The Werewolf of Washington”(1973)
  • “The Howling” (1981) and its innumerable sequels (Though it is worth noting in Gary Bradner’s original novel, The Howling (1977) the werewolves are not wolfmen, but actual wolves)
  • “The Wolfman” (2010) remake

 The Psychoanalytical

 Clinical lycanthropy is a rare psychiatric syndrome that involves a delusion that the affected person can or has transformed into an animal. It is real. Lycanthropes often react badly to the full moon on a subconscious level and this reaction is one of the origins of the term “looney” or “lunatic” (lunar meaning moon) for mentally unstable persons. This condition is probably the source of Plato’s theory and for many of the reports of werewolves or Lykens throughout history.

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Len Hazell is 46 years old from the north east of England, holds a degree in Media, and is majoring in writing for the print and broadcast media.  He has published in various magazines in the UK, fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, and has had several plays produced throughout England.  He is currently working on his own musical adaptation of Arsenic and old Lace which he hope to stage in 2011. Len can be contacted at Bonniefans@hotmail.com. His music is available at http://www.nuzic.net/members/2565

 

Not so long ago, I wrote what I thought one of my better stories. I decided to enter it for a competition and I read it out to my terrestrial writing group to see if they could suggest any tweaks. The tension in the room was tangible before the end of the second paragraph and they were silent for some time after I finished reading. Sometimes, silence is a good thing as your audience has been moved by what they’ve heard and need a moment to compose their thoughts.

It wasn’t that kind of silence. Realising something was up I ran the story through my head.

  • Writing is clean
  • Characters are as rounded as I can achieve in less than six-hundred words
  • Slightly surreal storyline works rather well
  • Subject matter unusual BUT no more unusual than many of my other pieces

Even if I had been deluding myself and the story was awful, the group has been active for more than twenty years and I was quite certain they had the skills to find a way to tell me about any problems with either my writing or with the story itself.

So when the silence persisted and the host left the room to make tea rather than comment, I realised I was experiencing what is—or should be—every fiction writer’s worst nightmare and all because of one, small detail: the main character was a first-time father and they knew that my real-life wife was pregnant.

Instead of hearing my darkly comic whimsy, they heard an embarrassingly personal confession by a young man with issues. They were speechless, not because they didn’t want to pass judgement on my writing, but because they didn’t want to pass judgement on me.

Think about that for a moment.

It is true that inhabiting the mind of an unusual character is one of the lasting pleasures of writing, but writers do not necessarily share the views of the characters they write. Otherwise, every screen-writer in Hollywood and a worrying number of the big-name authors would be locked up tomorrow for the betterment of humanity.

Stories are about conflict, be it emotional, physical, biological or psychological. A superhero needs to have super-villain as a nemesis. The worthy down-trodden peasant needs the oppressive state to tread down on him. Even the trashiest romance will make some attempt to pretend the girl might not get the boy after all.

Moreover, that conflict has to be balanced. There has to be a credible chance that the bad guy might actually win, otherwise, it is just the popular kid turning out to be a bully. You would think differently of Superman if he used the full might of his superpowers against a naughty boy who had done nothing worse than teasing a little redhead girl about her freckles.

In practical terms, it is not possible to write a good story without having a bad thought. The only way to write a believable bad guy is to be the bad guy. You have to think like him, understand his motivations, and recognise that the inhuman acts he is planning are the only logical means to achieve his dastardly goals.

I don’t deny it’s fun, but the effort to maintain the mutually incompatible beliefs of you (the reasonably well-adjusted adult) and your character (the unfeasibly screwed-up psychopath) is non-trivial. It would be doubly difficult if, all the while you were writing, you were worried that you would be judged as the evil character you have created.

Lest you think this phenomenon only applies to the dynamic of good and evil, have you ever tried to write a sex scene? If not, I can thoroughly recommend it as an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.

That said, I have never allowed anyone, not even my wife, to read an early draft of a sex scene. By the time I am ready to be associated with the words I have put on the page, the scene will have been worked, reworked, binned, pulled out of the bin, torn up, rewritten from memory, checked for gratuitous or prurient detail and then, finally, if I still have any thing left, included as a minor part of a larger story line. In fact, by this stage, many of my sex scenes have morphed into something far more subtle where the sexual act is represented symbolically by, for example, the yearning desire of a character washing another character’s feet. That’s a lot of effort to keep my personal thoughts personal.

Yes, I know the characters come from me, and I know their thoughts are coloured by my understanding of the world, but they are not me. The reason I found somebody interesting enough to write a story about is almost certainly not the thing readers notice most about that story (seriously; to date, nobody has ever commented on my actual story motivation for any single piece I have written).

Which brings me back to the embarrassed silence.

As a writer, I like to be invisible. Having lost that invisibility, and with a number of respected friends labouring under the misapprehension that I had a paranoid fear of being devoured alive by my wife’s breasts, I had to make a decision.

It would have been reasonable for me to cringe and blush, to rush home and tear up my story, to never again write anything like it. But, to do that would have been to fail as a writer and, with each increasingly watered down story that followed my failure would have been compounded. Instead, I chose to chalk it up to experience. I gained some valuable insights about people and learned something important.

Oh, and, I entered the story, unedited, to that competition… I had to. It’s a good story.

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Gaius Coffey writes novels deliberately and flash-fiction accidentally, he is passionate about writing and is group host for an internet critique forum. He is busy trying to find a home for his latest novel as he works on the next one. His flash fiction story “Alone, Not Lonely” was shortlisted for this year’s Fish Publications One-page Story competition. His story “Terry and the Eye” was Every Day Fiction’s most read story in March, 2010. Gaius lives in Dublin with his wife and two cats.