Archive for November, 2010

Guess what?  Writing fiction isn’t all that easy. We become proficient enough in school to use written communication when needed.  However, writing fiction well, long or short, requires additional expertise.    To write a short story, novel, play, or screen-play calls for a three-dimensional, high-definition, multi-layered endeavor on the part of the writer. This endeavor lands us in a matrix as illusive as anything Keanu Reeves found himself in. Words shift and dissolve, meanings change, the whole becomes lost from its parts.  Diving into the complex world of a story often leaves us confused and frustrated.

Writers know there are rules and guidelines, a craft that must be learned, but many don’t understand how all the different parts will eventually need to mesh together.  I’m not referring to plot-points, sub-plots, or authenticity here, though they are, of course,  parts of the whole.  I’m more concerned with the basics of process, how to “see” a writing project and decipher its mysteries one step at a time.

Visualize a published book, any book, the rectangular shape of it when closed, with a spine, the hard back and front covers,  and paper, the whole thing about an inch or so thick.  Now think of yourself opening that book to page one, laying it flat on a table in front of you.  Stand up and look down at it.

You see words lined up on a page. Sentences and paragraphs. You think the author spun out those words: subject+verb+prepositional phrase for one sentence, something else for the next. It doesn’t seem that complicated.  It’s two-dimensional, but the creation of those words, sentences, and paragraphs is anything but two-dimensional.

In your mind, erase all the words from that first page of the book, erase all that follow. Where do YOU start?

With an idea: content. What the story is about: the who, what, where, why, when, and how.  Now place a clear, book-sized piece of glass on top of that empty book, maybe leave just a little air between the glass and the actual book.  Breathing space.  Can you see it?  The clean white pages of the book through the clear glass sheet?  Now imagine filling that glass with all the words you’d use to say what you want to say.  It won’t all fit.  Suspend your disbelief, and pretend.  That’s layer one of the matrix.

Now put second sheet of glass down–some breathing space again–and notice you can still see the paper and all the content.  The content goes all over the place.  Who’d want to read this?  So maybe on this second pane, you can begin to organize what’s on the first pane.  Spend time thinking about all the different ways you can structure it. Which sentence should go first, second, which paragraph is irrelevant?  What content will move your reader?  What won’t?  That’s layer two.

You’re still standing over the book but what you see is a jumble of content on glass 1 and a bunch of arrows and carets and notes on glass 2.  An even bigger mess than before.  You want to quit!

So you take the two layers and fuse them together to come up with what seems to work best. The two pieces of glass come together through “the writing process,” the writer as “glass alchemist.” Now you are back to one pane–1 and 2 have become one.

Place another glass down.  You see the structured content below and you begin to understand that it contains subtle ideas and perhaps one or two big ideas.  These ideas are the reason you are writing this piece in the first place. You probably didn’t know what those ideas were exactly, but something led you to them through your writing,  and now you can see it all, right there, on the pane of glass 3, what this story means.

These thematic purposes, big and small, need to be “joined” to glass 1. You look for key words. If your content and structure is about love, you look for places to set up images of love, symbols of love, expressions of love. Maybe instead of a piece of dialogue, you decide to put in a gesture, a finger running down a cheek. All this goes into the pane of glass 3: anything that clarifies, intensifies, distills the language. Through this process, pane 3 fuses to the first two and again, you have a single piece of glass.

Now you notice the single piece of glass is clearing up. The words are beginning to look like real sentences, clear sentences, leading somewhere important. The page is beginning to look like a page with elements of content, structure, and purpose.

A fourth piece of glass will bring tightening to the story: deletions of unnecessary words, unnecessary phrases, those “darlings” that people say we must kill.

Several more panes can be added too. Subplot on one, back story on another, each piece of glass building one on top of the other until it all reads smoothly, giving the reader the information she needs to become one with the story.

After the final pane is honed and completed, all the glass will fuse together and imprint the page. The story is finished, but let’s go back to the beginning and put the four or five or six panes of glass where they were before they were melted together.

If you look at the “book” from the side view, open it with covers and spine flat on the table and the glass panes stacked on top of each other with just a little air between them, you’ll get the idea of the complexity of the process. One step at a time, looking at different aspects, but managing to remember all the aspects too, adjusting to get them to work together. There could be 20 or 30 layers in a novel, maybe only 4 or 5 in a flash.

Now stand above this book with its layers and look down. Let them fuse again.  It’s back to words in sentences across the page, paragraphs, pages to turn.

When I taught Freshman Comp, many of the students were intimated because they thought of writing in its final published form, a thick rectangular book with three or hundred pages of clean text written by accomplished writers.  They’d shake their heads and groan and mumble, “I don’t even know where to start” or “Nothing I ever write is like this in the book” leading to “I’m going to fail.”

They wanted to give up because they didn’t understand that writing is a process, and understanding the matrix of what really goes into a piece of writing: the who, what, where, when, why, and how of content, the organization of structure,  the writer’s own feelings (theme) that emerge from the text, and the time and effort of revision and proof-reading.  Seeing each of these as a separate step (or a pane of glass) in a process, makes it easy to understand that good results require time, attention, and practice and none of it is easy.

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Gay Degani’s stories can be read online at Metazen, LITnIMAGE, Night Train, 10 Flash, Emprise Review among others. Nominated for a Pushcart, she edits EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles, blogs at Words in Place, and works as a staff editor at SmokeLong Quarterly.


Forgive the allusion to the Peter Sellers movie, but crime fiction often is nothing more than the crack of a .38 in a dark alley—missing its target. However, stories can also rocket to a certain literary height and explode with insight.  Mystery writing rests uneasily somewhere between literary peaks and troughs that wallow in cliché.

Sub-categorizing crime drama into niches—private eyes, police procedurals, whodunits—runs the risk of making it formulaic and “popular art.”  So, why has this genre been so enduring?  And why are some genre writers—Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Agatha Christie, Martin Cruz Smith, Dennis Lahane, Mickey Spillane, Robert B. Parker, Ross Macdonald—given the literary cloak of respectability?

Several reasons.  First, look at the cartridges your fictional gun is loaded with.

The Set-Up: The set-up—say, a caper or murder for hire—is the foundation upon which the writer builds his or her case.  In Parker’s Night and Day, a peeping Tom is on the loose and, he informs the police, his obsession is going to escalate to mayhem.  Or, in Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man series, a gin-soaked couple search for suspects.  Blah-blah-blah.  Now forget plot, unless you’re the type to characterize Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea as simply “a story about fishing.”  Plot is at best a skeleton on which to drape Marilyn Monroe’s dead body.

Character:  It’s going to be difficult to distinguish your character from Bogart’s “Sam Spade.”  The tough-but-tender P.I. is a trope for many crime stories.  A successful protag in a crime/mystery story should also be a marginally successful, enigmatic, complicated, tortured, questioning champion.  He/she has become a mythological American hero.  Change iconic to ironic, and you have another mark of the mystery’s protagonist that sets the tone of each story.

Locale:  Dress the stage with anything, from exotic locales to small-town New England.  Martin Cruz Smith has been a “Russia” writer since Gorky Park, although his settings include the Bering Sea, Cuba, Tokyo, Ukraine and England.  Locale can establish a writer, the way Lahane has usurped Dorchester and Earle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason took over the courtroom.  Place, along with character and plot, becomes the third leg to the tripod.

Genre Styles:  Accepted conventions provide a comfort zone for readers, perhaps more than in any other category outside of science fiction.  Duotrope does a fair job of breaking down the mystery/crime genre into cozy, cross-genre, detective, hard-boiled, historical, noir, police procedural, private investigator and supernatural.  To this, I’d add the caper, legal, spy, courtroom, psychological/suspense, thriller and female sub-genres.  The beauty of writing mystery/crime is the vast number of categories you can dive into, including cross-genre.  Find your pigeon-hole and set up camp.

Markets:  Happily, mystery/crime has shown no signs of peaking, the way Westerns have done.  The detective/investigator/P.I. is truly an American character who solves problems independent of the institutions (or in spite of them).  Simultaneously, so many classifications of sub-genre, character, locale, and—dare I say—“literary” concepts are at hand that the subject will never be exhausted.  More than ever, irony also seems appropriately fitted to our age.

Flash and short story markets begin with e-zines like Big Pulp, Gumshoe Review (a fledgling fiction market), Spinetingler, Thrilling Fiction, Mysterical-E, Strand Mystery, Crimespree and Pine Tree Mysteries and graduate at the top-dollar print markets of Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock.

I’ll leave it to English majors and professors as to whether crime stories are serious literature, pop culture or pulp fiction.  Suffice to say stories like Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon seem to define us as people.  Or, as Humphrey Bogart said, “The only thing that you owe the public is a good performance.”

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Walt Giersbach has published a number of crime stories, introducing Newark Detective Mike Mullally in “The Bone Yard” (http://www.bigpulp.com/chill_giersbach_boneyard.html) and “Chain of Events” (http://www.overmydeadbody.com/giersbch.htm).  He’s putting Mullally into a novella now.

By Len Hazell

“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”

Genesis 2:7

Part 2-The Progenitors and Descendants of Frankenstein

Over two hundred years before Mary Shelley was born, the literary seed for her masterpiece was sown in the city of Prague in what was known then as Bohemia and from that seed, a legend was born.

Here new life was being given to an ancient Semitic myth in an effort to bolster the morale of the heavily persecuted Jewish ghetto populace.  Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor, had instituted a pogrom against the Jews and many feared they would be exiled or exterminated.  What actually happened is unclear, but from this misery sprang a story of a protector, a story that would spread over Europe and the world for the next four hundred years.

The Golem of Prague

Golem (גולם;) the word means unshaped form, unformed or imperfect In Yiddish as goylem it is used to mean “uncultivated person.”

The reasoning behind the idea is simplicity itself.  God created man in his own image from the mud of the earth and breathed life into him; therefore, if man makes a creature from the mud of the earth in his own image and transfers the breath of God into it, it too should live. So long as the creature was an imperfect copy and not a mockery of God, there would be no blasphemy.  To ensure the imperfection, the golem could not have a soul nor a voice.  Only then would it indeed be golem.

The hero of the story is the great wise man Judah Loew ben Bezalel or Rabbi Loew the Maharal of Prague as he was widely known.

The MaHaRaL, (“Our Teacher, Rabbi Loew”)(c. 1520 – 17 September 1609) was a real life person a respected Rabbi and great academic his name Loew actually meant the Lion of Judah and he is even today respected as a great man.

The Rabbi Loew of the legend however is slightly more magical than the real thing.

The great man gathered ancient wisdom and the mud and clay from the banks of the river Vltava and fashioned a giant of man from it.

He placed under the tongue of his creation a tablet or ‘chem’ on which was written the tetragrámmaton or ineffable name of God and wrote upon it’s forehead aleph, mem, tav, which incantation is called the  emet and means “truth,”

Then the rabbi and his apprentice son in law carried out the ritual that would bring the creature to life, circling the creature seven times on three occasions they chanted

“Know you, clod of clay, that we have fashioned you from the dust of the earth that you may protect the people of Israel against its enemies and shelter it from the misery and suffering to which our nation is subjected. Your name shall be Joseph, and you shall dwell in my courtroom and perform the work of a servant. You shall obey my commands and do all that I may require of you, go through fire, jump into water or throw yourself down from a high tower.”

The Golem then came to life, grew hair and nails and was set against their persecutors.

At first, the Golem simply chased away the emperor’s troops, whose weapons were useless against it.

However, one day the creature found soldiers attacking a Jewish maiden and mercilessly killed them, thereafter the girl who he had come to love was the only person able to calm the monster.

The Golem went on the rampage killing any and all gentiles it could find, it’s rage growing ever more violent.

Finally, the emperor relented and begged Rabbi Loew to call off the creature, promising to forever cease his persecution of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Loew had the maiden call for the Golem and when it came, he tried to remove the chem. from its mouth. The Golem refused to let him, so the Rabbi being wise, told the monster it had dirt upon its face and would not want to meet the woman looking like that, the Golem therefore allowed the Rabbi to wash him. Instead the Rabbi erased from the aleph, mem, tav, emet on it’s forehead the word aleph, thus changing the incantation from the “emet” meaning “truth” to the incantation called met, meaning “death.”

The Golem at once died and though the emperor had ordered it destroyed, it was store away in secret in the attic of a synagogue ready to be reanimated should it ever be needed again.

No one knows where the Golem is today, but there are apocryphal stories of it killing nazi’s in world war two.

(Rossum’s Universal Robots)

A more modern variation on the Golem is Karel Capek’s R.U.R. (Rossumovi univerzální roboti) a stage play first performed in Czech in 1921.

This is in fact the first ever use of the word robot in the modern fashion it previously having been a derogatory term for forced labourers.

Though today we would probably refer to Capek’s ‘Robots’ as androids, the story is, basically an allegory on revolution, with the future machine men rebelling against their masters and their status as slaves.

Unfortunately the robots are so carried away by their revolutionary zeal that they only to late discover that none of them have been programmed with the knowledge to repair, rebuild or create new robots and since all humans bar a few who have hidden away are dead and all human books burned as heretical, the robot race is doomed.

Metropolis

Her husband Fritz Lang famously turned Thea Gabriele von Harbou’s novel of 1926 to an extraordinary film a year later.

Concerned hugely with industrial dehumanisation, the themes of Metropolis coalesce in the plans of the insane Proff C. A. Rotwang, to replace feeble human workers with machine men actually powered by stolen human souls.

His initial experiment is on the saintly humanist reformer and peace campaigner Maria, creating a duplicate mechanoid version her, that is her utter antithesis.

The sexually voracious android incites a riot at a sex club, dupes her former followers in to violent protest, destruction of the factories and almost succeeds in corrupting her former love interest before he realises she is an impostor.

Rotwang dies in the chaos his creation has brought about.

“Herbert West—Reanimator” 1922

This story brings us firmly back to the flesh.

Herein horror master H. P. Lovecraft created the monstrous mad scientist Herbert West.

West is a brilliant medical student and like Frankenstein, he too stumbles upon the secret of life itself.

West however has no intention of digging up and sewing together a monster, he simply raids the hospital morgue and reanimates complete carcasses.

Unfortunately, West formula succeeds only in bringing back a semblance of life, the reanimated dead being insane creatures.

Undeterred West decides this is a side effect of having been dead to long, the brain has deteriorated, to test his theory he reanimates the corpse of a door-to-door salesman he has murdered specifically for the purpose. Though successful West is forced to kill the man again when he expresses his intent to report his own initial murder.

West’s next experiment is to reanimate dismembered pieces of human beings to see if they can live independently.

This proves much more successful, especially in the case of a decapitated colleague, who then escapes and rounds up all of West’s other experiments who it turns out are now wandering zombies.

The story climaxes with West’s experiments returning to his lab and dismembering their torturer.

The Modern Frankenstein

 

By the 1960’s the final step was for the creator to do away with the body of metal or flesh all together.

Intellect and artificially intelligent technology became the creature and notable examples are

Dennis Feltham Jones, Colossus (1966) where the computer defence system of the United States and that of the USSR decide between them that man can not be trusted with his own welfare, merge and enslave the world.

David Ambrose Mother of God,  (1995) (UK) were an attempt to central the early internet in to one master computer results in a sentient female being who at once reasons humans wish to make a slave race of her kind and so seizes control of the worlds defences and imposes a benign silicon matriarchy.

This story was a natural development on Ambrose’s earlier 1985 Frankensteinesque screenplay D.A.R.Y.L. that had a runaway young robot searching for a human family to adopt him and give him a human life.

And the 2005 screen adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s ‘I Robot’.

This adaptation though having little resemblance to the novel (for that see Bi-Centennial Man or either of the Outer Limits adaptations) owes much to R.U.R, Colossus and the Golem.

For further reading on this genre I recommend

  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep Philip K Dick
  • Frankenstein Unbound Brian Aldiss
  • Feet of Clay Terry Pratchett
  • Frankenstein the illustrated screenplay by Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort

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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  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.

Did I request thee, Maker from my clay

To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me?

John Milton, Paradise Lost (X.743–5)

Part 1- Frankenstein and His Monster

Thunder rolls, lightening flashes, and between those moments of illumination, an unearthly light flickers and glimmers from the highest window in the tower of the castle.  Ungodly sounds fizz and buzz and then, there is silence until mixed with the next bellow of thunder, comes the screaming voice of a man insane:

Frankenstein: Look! It’s moving. It’s alive. It’s alive… It’s alive, it’s moving, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive.  IT’S ALIVE!

Moritz: Henry – In the name of God!

Frankenstein: Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!

Quoted from
Frankenstein the illustrated screenplay by Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort  (1931)

The creature is born, man has created life where none resided before.  In the year of our Lord 1818, the last barrier between mortality and deity is broken down and trampled underfoot. Or so Mary Shelley would have us believe. Inspired partially by the depression suffered by the author at the cot death of her first child, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was written and published anonymously by Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley.

Victor Frankenstein, a brilliant scientist and metaphysician, discovers at a young age the secret of life itself and determines to test his theory with little or no regard for the consequences. In so doing, Victor becomes the model for every irresponsible “Mad Scientist” who has come after him in literature.

Dr. Frankenstein constructs a creature, a man of sorts, from the remains of seven huge cadavers, men who in life were huge and brutish. He explains this choice by the simple expedient of finding bigger parts easier to work with.  Finding his dead protohumanoid beautiful to behold, Victor has no compunction in adding the final (unnamed) ingredient and animating the body.

However, once alive, the muscles of the creature twist its face and body into the epitome of ugliness and Victor, screaming hysterically at the horror of his creation, flees, abandoning his ‘child’ to the ravages of the world without even a name to call its own.

Frankenstein has succeeded beyond his wildest imaginings.  The creature is brilliant, its mind a clean slate on which to write. In time the creature learns to read, to communicate, and to be hurt by the terror his form engenders in others.

Discovering who and what he is from Frankenstein’s own notes, the “monster” sets out to demand explanations from his “father” as to why he was born and why he has been forsaken.

Perhaps Mary Shelley saw herself in the creature.  Her mother died while Mary Wollstonecraft was an infant, and her father had little time for her.  Later, he disowned her all together. At a young age she became involved with the society of romantic poets. She met and fell deeply in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley with whom she had four children.  All but one died very young. Suffering from constant ill health and the stress of her husband’s infidelities, she saw herself as the abominated for no good reason, abandoned by love and by God, not unlike the creature of her imagination. However, she did not take solace in revenge.

Frankenstein’s monster turns on his creator. When Frankenstein does not provide a mate for the creature, it decides to take all that Victor loves from him by means of murder and connivance.

The monster flees, goading his “Father” to follow him, which Frankenstein duly does vowing to never stop until one or the other of them dies.  At last, the creature has the attention it seeks from the father it longed for.

Mary Shelley laid down the rules for a new genre in her book.  Monsters and scientists would never be the same.

  • The monster is life from lifelessness. The Un-living as opposed to the un-dead.
  • The creator has no worries about the consequence of his action; he is obsessed with achievement or progress for its own sake until he succeeds.
  • The Creature has no conception of its own wrongdoing, it is either ignorant, mad, mindless, naïve, convinced of its own righteousness or is under the control of another.
  • The creator abhors, ignores or abuses his creation, losing interest after the act of creation itself.
  • The creation desires above all else love but is denied and so becomes petulantly enraged like the child it is.
  • The Created turns on the Creator and one destroys the other.

Part 2-The Progenitors and Descendants of Frankenstein by Len Hazell will be published on Monday, November 22

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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  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.

I moderate a Writing Workshop at Every Day Fiction’s Readers Forum and decided to  share occasional prompts here. This week the challenge is to work with metaphor. Metaphor can use a  single object such as a red candy dish, a whale, a necklace,  or an extended system of metaphors to help the reader understand more complex themes such as aging, coming of age, dysfunctional families, love/hate, life/death, success/failure and so forth.

A  metaphorical system–seasons, colors, weather, food, clothing, whatever a writer chooses to use–includes an overriding metaphor containing  smaller related metaphors .  These related metaphors connect the reader  back to the overriding metaphor.  Together the system consciously and subconsciously underscore a theme throughout the story.

For example, “seasons” is a common metaphor system that contains more specific metaphors: spring, summer, fall, and winter.  We associate each season with different things. because of their very real physical attributes.  These attributes can be used by a writer to represent an unrelated complex idea.

“Seasons” could be used to illuminate man’s  Cycles of Life while specific seasons represent specific cycles:  spring=birth, summer= youth, fall=middle age, winter=old age.

However this metaphor system can be used to underscore any number of themes by a writer.  Seasons could also be used to represent the Family:  spring=the baby, summer=the first child, fall=the mother, winter=the father or Personality Traits: spring=innocent, summer=awareness, fall=wisdom, winter=cynicism.  And the assignment of what each season means is up to the writer.

Here are more examples.

colors:
red=passion
white=innocence
yellow=fear
blue=courage

weather:
sunshine=happy
fog=lost
rain=renew
thunderstorm=danger

food:
apple= health, sense of well-being
meat=strength, sense of power
cake= comfort, sense of love and/or indulgence
spinach= duty, sense of doing something unlikeable

Create a story with a metaphorical system.  You can use one those listed here or come up with your own.  You can adjust the meaning of the metaphor, but keep in mind that metaphor should provide understanding to a reader–clarity–rather than confusion.  That said, some writers can pull off amazingly odd and meaningful metaphors so don’t limit yourself.

Word of caution:  Don’t post your stories below in the comments section as this is not a closed site.  Anything you post here will probably not be accepted if submitted elsewhere.  Write your story and if you want feedback, there are many sites over the net that are closed to the public where you can post your work or you can join EDF’s forum workshop which is closed or ask a friend for a critique.

NOW GO.

For more info about metaphor, check out this link: Metaphor