Brevity

twitter-execution

Silk’s Post #156 — Has there ever, in the long history of the written word, been a more diminishing, devaluing trend than the imposition of the 140-character tweet as the arbitrary standard for social media discourse?

Has written expression been stripped of all its depth and nuance, and reduced in the Twitterverse to simplistic word belches? Slogans. Headlines. Blurts. Clichés. Inanities masquerading as deep thoughts. Rabble rousing provocations. Nyah nyah nyah taunts. (I’m looking at you, Donald Trump).

Anything worth saying requires more than 140 characters, doesn’t it? Is the world’s written expression in danger of being reduced to captions and emoticons? Is the richness and beauty of wordcraft being abandoned by an impatient audience trained to salivate for the next thing instead of the real thing? Is the literary sky falling?

Brevity is the soul of wit has become the watchword of tweeters, bloggers, copywriters, politicians, pundits, comedians, and others who use words as their professional currency since The Bard assigned that line to Polonius in Hamlet. Was Shakespeare wrong, or was he prescient?

As is often the case, Shakespeare’s subtleties tend to get lost when cherry-picked phrases are appropriated to serve a modern purpose. A little context: these ironic lines spoken by the foolish chatterbox Polonius, who thinks himself the smartest guy in the room, couch news of Hamlet’s madness to his parents, the King and Queen, in a gust of unnecessary and self-aggrandizing claptrap which demonstrates the speaker’s inability to take his own advice on brevity:

My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
What day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day and time;

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief. Your noble son is mad …

Yet, no matter how ironically delivered, the truth of the gem hidden in an almost throw-away clause lives on in proverb. And there’s good reason for that.

Brevity is hard to achieve.

Writing short is much harder than writing long. Doing it well – that is to say achieving brevity while conveying meaning, beauty, truth, in short: wit – is the hardest of all.

I have a confession to make. I used to be an advertising copywriter. I don’t mean I did it in between more noble gigs or bouts of unemployment – I did it for decades. It was my career. And if you can separate what I learned from its commercial context, the gem of truth in that experience is that writing great advertising – with its rigid, Twitter-like restrictions on length and format – is hellishly difficult.

Want to know why there’s so much truly horrible, cringe-worthy, throw-your-shoe-at-the-TV advertising? That’s why. It’s hard. Only truly talented writers – people who can understand a human desire, capture a resonant thought, and stir a genuine emotion using a minimum of powerful words and imagery – are capable of creating great ads. And these writers, as even a casual acquaintance with the media makes perfectly clear, are rare.

At the risk of turning from the ridiculous to the sublime, look at poetry as another example of the challenge – and power – of brevity. Who has ever written a haiku? I see a lot of hands going up. Anyone who’s ever taken a creative writing class, or been a bookish teenager in love, has probably written a haiku.

Now the punchline: who has ever written a good haiku? I realize it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between a good haiku and a lame one (which should be a clue in itself). Yes, the exotic format does tend to make all haiku poems seem profound. But they’re not. Many of them are nonsense. (You can probably see by now how I’m working my way back to Twitter.)

I asked at the beginning whether the corrupting influence of tweets – essentially packaged word snacks – are killing our hunger for, and skill at preparing, full-course word meals. Are we dumbing down our communications in a way that risks dumbing down our ability to think, to use our full array of synapses to understand complex ideas and appreciate subtle nuances in written expression?

Scary question.

But maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it. More words don’t necessarily translate into more meaningful words. Maybe the existential challenge still is learning to convey more meaning using less words.

Brevity is the soul of wit – “wit” in Shakespeare’s context meaning intelligence, wisdom, perspective (with appreciation, in dramatic terms, for life as simultaneously both a tragedy and a comedy). In just 26 characters, he nails the writer’s challenge of capturing the “soul” – the essence of the conflict-laden human condition – in the most concentrated, evocative language possible.

It’s an art so difficult to truly master that it remains a rare commodity. I believe it’s a skill that needs to be cultivated and practised by all writers, whether they turn their hand to poetry, essays, short stories, novels, speeches, or, yes, even the modern vernacular of advertising and social media.

Can you write well? Good! Can you write short? If you tweet, that question answers itself.

Now try conveying a page of meaning in a single paragraph. Or a sentence. It’s fantastic mental and creative exercise. It might even turn you into a poet, and help keep the literary sky from falling.

Plotting out plot

Joe’s Post #168

So, when I find something interesting, I like to share it.

Sometimes that’s like, “hey look at this weird growth on my butt, what do you think that is?”

Sometimes it’s something I find on the internet.

So check this out. A new way of looking at plotting. It comes from Oz and Ends by J.L Bell. 

A cool way to look at plotting

A cool way to look at plotting

Now the cool thing I like about this, is it looks at making the hero’s life hell in a whole different way and can be used for pretty much any part of your book. It’s sort of a rinse and repeat for writers.

heros journeySo why did this speak to me? Well, there are a ton of books and articles on how to plot. I’m sure you’ve seen some of them, the most famous being the Hero’s Journey.

But nowhere have I seen something that gets your mind thinking like this one did. It’s basically character meets conflict to create plot.

Now, sure, it doesn’t tell you how to put in backstory or when to introduce important pieces of information vital to the story, but try running that ‘plotting made simple’ template through your story and see what happens.

Or take a look at this from Jody Sparks.

Plotting by Jody Sparks

Plotting by Jody Sparks

 

Also, if you have some free time, check out Robert J Saywer’s latest post. Here. It’s a great read about the craft of world building and writing.

And that’s it from me. No wise words of wisdom from me about how to write, but please check out these other bloggers/writers. They’re awesome.

Joe

Lives of punctuation marks

question-mark

Silk’s Post #155 — If you don’t think deeply about punctuation marks, you’re not alone. They are the ever present but rarely noticed sentinels of the sentence. The grammatical traffic cops of wordsmithery. Like the Beefeater guards at the Queen’s House, they carry out their ancient duties to bring order to the page in silent anonymity. Only when misplaced or otherwise abused do they draw attention to themselves.

So perhaps it’s no wonder that, like the Beefeaters, punctuation marks really don’t change much from year to year. Actually, they don’t even change much from century to century.

Think about this: in the last quarter of 2015 alone, the Oxford English Dictionary admitted 111 new word entries into its lexicon, including cisexism, gramps, locovore and tradeocracy (look ’em up).

Now, when was the last time you heard of anyone adding a new punctuation mark?

Yes, there have been some experimental hybrids, but most of them have failed outside the lab. When released into the real world, they were unable to sustain themselves and had to go on unemployment.

Think of the interrobang, for instance. You’ve never heard of it? Back in 1962, ad man Martin K. Speckter thought it would be useful to splice together a question mark with an exclamation point. Whaaaat?! Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, I’m sure. Especially for advertising copy.

But, although it was incorporated into a few modern type fonts and, during the 1960s, was even included on some Remington and Smith-Corona typewriters (remember typewriters?), the interrobang is essentially homeless today. You might find one sleeping in the back alley of an obscure typeface, but it never really became a member of punctuation mark society.

Although not growing, that exclusive society has a stable population of marks that refuse to die. They may go into semi-retirement from time to time, but they never seem to be declared obsolete.

No, there’s no equivalent to the decommissioning of a word like quagswagging when it comes to punctuation marks. I can’t say I’ll miss quagswagging personally (it means to chatter, babble, talk idly or senselessly), because I’d never heard it before I found it in my search for abandoned words. Perhaps a year from now it will disappear altogether, even from the logophile websites. R.I.P., quagswagging.

My point is that language changes, evolves, responds to new developments in the world, such as globalization, technology and channels for communication. Take texting, for instance. Who had ever heard of SMS language (also known as textese) 15 years ago? As they say, DBEYR – but with the pace of change in lingo, it might be more apt to say Don’t Believe Anything You Can’t Read without a decoder or a teenager by your side.

But while all that’s been going on, punctuation marks seem to have remained exactly the same. Your commas, your question marks, your semicolons.

Wait!

Are there still semicolons? I’m trying to remember the last time I saw one.

Oh, right! It was in a winky smiley 😉

These textual emoticons looked for a while to be the last hope for modernization of the staid old stable of punctuation marks. Wildly creative usage of colons, parentheses, dashes and such, in fanciful combinations, sprang from the thumbs of smartphone users to cover the full spectrum of human emotions. Happiness, sadness, horror, playfulness, skepticism, boredom, and embarrassment.

It was like a punctuation mark party.

The stiff-upper-lip regiment of symbols had finally been freed from the constraints of their grammatical duties. And they went wild *\o/*

But alas, it may have been a short parole from guard duty. As soon as the punctuation marks became the life of the party, about a million techie designers began to churn out character sets of full-colour emoticons to replace them: facial expressions covering every nuance of emotion in every skin tone, clapping hands, devil faces, thumbs up, skulls, cats with hearts for eyes.

They made the lowly, home-made emoticons that were cobbled together from punctuation marks look like kindergarten stick figures 😦

(By the way, you can’t even represent emoticons the old-fashioned way using punctuation marks in a lot of current software – including WordPress; they are subjected to a kind of technological forced-retirement and automatically replaced with graphics.)

How long will it be before punctuation marks are once again relegated to enforcement of literary laws? Doing jobs like halting sentences. Or sentence fragments.

Once again, they’ll have to get their jollies by chastely separating independent clauses. Fastidious writers know that clauses can’t be trusted if left alone together in close proximity; they have a tendency to lose all control and become a run-on sentence.

Do punctuation marks question their lot in life?

Well, it probably does give them pause.

But once in a while (although it must be added that these occasions are becoming rarer), they do get to declare their enthusiasm! Or surprise!

If you’re a writer, I have a request of you: please be kind to punctuation marks. After all, they’re senior citizens, so they deserve some respect.

You’ve probably noticed that some of them don’t get out much anymore. For instance, the semicolon is almost completely restricted to non-fiction these days, especially dry reports, academic papers and legal documents. They used to gambol across the pages of literature back in their glory days, but today they aren’t running with the artsy crowd.

The truth is, most punctuation marks don’t get to have much fun, unless they find themselves a poet, or perhaps an experimental novelist.

And the shameful problem of punctuation mark abuse has proliferated in recent times. Terrible things are being done to dashes, you might have noticed. Commas are often jammed into one overcrowded sentence with wanton disregard for their comfort. At the same time, lonely colons have been seen wandering the page, looking for something to do. Even editors have been charged and convicted of casual cruelty or neglect.

So the next time you’re at the keyboard, give a thought to the lives and livelihoods of punctuation marks. Be supportive. Remember they’re still coming down from that emoticon party and are likely to be a bit sensitive.

Character matters

My go-to philosophers, Calvin and Hobbs

My go-to philosophers, Calvin and Hobbs

Joe’s Post #167 — Trying to get re-inspired to write has been a bit of a challenge.

I’ve been thinking a lot, which is something I do instead of writing, and this time, my thoughts have turned to character.

I want to make my characters real. Alive. Compelling. Full of good and bad.

I got hammered on a few short stories for lack of character depth. Oh, how much easier it would be to have a written story with theme music and linked sites to show the character’s backstory and they challenges they faced.

But, sadly, I’m not a director. Nor a movie maker. I’m a fiction writer and I need to find a way to bring my characters to life better.

So I looked at the novel I’m reading. No help there. It’s Baldacci and while he’s a best-selling writer and a darned good writer of thrillers, his characters are, at best, shallow and under developed.

Then I watched Babakook with my 13 year old. Apart from being terrified, a light bulb went off. This movie shows people in their worst state. It ripped open their ugly inner selves for the world to see.

And that got me thinking.

Is that what makes a good character?

a-game-of-thrones-book-1-of-a-song-of-ice-and-fireOh, lord there’s a lot of advice on this, but for me, it’s someone who’s complex. Queen Cersei from the Game of Thrones is a vicious, vindictive woman who has sex with her brother. A lot.

Yet…

Yet, she loves her children unconditionally.  No matter what kind of monsters they are.

She has a code. Protect the ones she loves at all costs.

Even if she ignores all the bad stuff. Like, ah, tossing other people’s children from towers.

Doesn’t that make her more compelling?

So how do I make mine compelling?

Make them less…. Good?

Hmmm.

So, I grabbed a glass of wine, sat in my favourite chair and began to challenge my character’s goodness. When my main character is drowning in a WW1 shell hole what if there is someone in there with him? Someone drowning too. Make him not alone. Make it not a lonely struggle.

Good. Hmmm. I’m liking this.

Now, he’s the type of guy who would save the other man. He’s the hero type. But what if instead of saving the other man, in his panic, in his fear of drowning, he steps on top of the other man to free himself? He’s 16. He’s shell-shocked. He’s living out his worst fear…

shell shock What if, later, they called him a hero for what he did in that battle, after he got out of that hole? What if he never told anyone what happened?

What if it became his darkest secret?

What if that moment in the shell hole haunts him forever? Defines him?

Hmmmm. I’m getting closer to making him a more compelling character, right?

Still more to do, but oddly enough, I’m more inspired to write about this guy, and that’s never a bad thing.

So now I need to look at the other characters. Maybe find some good in the villain?

*******

Is this how good characters are made? Or are there any other suggestions?

 

 

Unfinished stories

bedwell-hbr-1977

Silk’s Post #154 — If you’re a writer, you have unfinished business. Don’t try to deny it. I can’t believe there’s a writer alive who doesn’t have at least one half-written manuscript stashed in some bottom drawer. I have two of them, frozen in the middle of the story, like the last-viewed frame of a movie put on “pause” and then forgotten.

But that’s not what this post is about. What I’m talking about is all those little mysteries served up for us every day, snatches of real life stories-in-progress we observe and, if we’re writers, we wonder about.

We don’t know what came before. We don’t know what will come after. All we’re left with is this one glimpse, this one clue, and the twin questions that are ever on the minds of story lovers: What’s the backstory? What happens next?

These moments can be inspirational for a writer because there’s a germ of a story in every scenario. Glimpses of life on the street, in an airport, at the mall, in a restaurant, on the beach … all those good “people watching” places. We can’t help following any interesting little drama that comes our way, to see how it plays out. Really, it’s none of our business.

But writers are like spies. We snoop.

Now, sometimes there’s really no story there. Just boring old, everyday, predictable stuff. After all, if life is full of little mysteries, it’s also full of little clichés. But maybe the writer takes away some bit of noteworthy colour – an accent, a gesture, some tension beneath the surface, or perhaps a micro-expression of tenderness – that can be recalled later to add texture to a scene.

But when you do observe a little piece of mystery, it haunts you. I’ll sketch out one of these incidents from my own life to show you what I mean, a scene seen and not forgotten. It happened years ago, but it still sticks in my mind …

The Runaway

It’s a late October Saturday in Bedwell Harbour, Pender Island, and we’re pushing the envelope on the cruising season in our small, unheated wooden sailboat. Only one other vessel, a 36′ Grand Banks trawler, is anchored in the small bay of a marine park that’s usually chock-a-block with boats in the summer.

We’re two diehard cruisers, apparently, sharing this lonely anchorage in the late-afternoon chill of an overcast day.

As an invisible sunset approaches, an eerie pink blush colours the western sky. I wrap myself in a heavy Cowichan sweater against the damp cold and grab my trusty Nikkormat, intent on capturing an arty portrait of the slightly surrealistic seascape. (The now-faded result is above).

What I also capture is a memory of a mysterious incident that has stayed with me for four decades.

Out of the Grand Banks cabin comes a coatless teenage girl, perhaps 14 or 15 years old. Her body language is agitated, her motions more a product of nervous energy than purpose. A late-middle-aged man follows her on deck. Pursues her, really. He’s the right age to be her grandfather. A woman who looks to be his wife sticks her head out of the cabin door to watch, an anxious expression on her face.

The choreography of the deck scenario is a pantomime of entreaty and rejection. I can’t make out their stuttering conversation because they’re downwind of our boat, but the drama unfolding is clear. He puts a hand out to her, tries to engage. She turns her back, shakes her head, steps away. Like a cat climbing further up a tree to avoid her rescuer, the girl stays out of reach. He advances, she retreats, again and again.

There is no reconciliation to be had, and it’s a small boat. The grandfather and grandmother confer, an intense discussion, their heads together. They keep glancing at the girl now standing alone in the cockpit hugging herself in the wind. Finally, he steps inside the cabin, leaving her to calm down.

Does their conversation go like this?

Grandfather: (frustrated) I can’t get through to her, she’s just unreachable. You can’t help someone who refuses to be helped. So what do we do now?

Grandmother: (calming) Let her simmer down, she just needs some alone time. Don’t worry, she won’t stay out there long, it’s freezing. And she can’t go anywhere.

If that’s what they say, they are wrong.

The girl steps onto the Grand Banks’ transom and pulls the boat’s dinghy in on its painter. It’s a small rowboat, the kind that was common 40 years ago. As the wind picks up, she climbs down, unties the dinghy, and fits the oars into the oar locks.

By the time Grandpa and Grandma come bursting out the cabin door, the girl is halfway to the deserted shore. She pulls at the oars with more fury than coordination. Choppy waves splash against the dinghy and the wind flings salt spray over her. She’s still coatless.

As she nears the narrow beach that fringes the steep, forested shore, I look back toward the Grand Banks at a scene of panic, with both grandparents now standing at the rail, yelling at the girl to come back.

She ignores them. She’s deaf to their increasingly urgent cries. When she hits the beach, she awkwardly jumps out of the dinghy, one foot in the cold water, and drags it partway up on the beach. Then, with one look back, she covers the fringe of beach in a few determined steps and plunges into the forest at a narrow trailhead.

Gone, just like that. The dinghy rocks with the waves breaking on the beach, half on shore, half still in the water. Dusk is approaching.

Back on the Grand Banks, the man and woman seem paralyzed with disbelief. They continue to strain against the rail, calling to the girl who disappeared. Then they stop calling and simply stare toward shore. The man retrieves binoculars from the cabin and scans the forest. They can’t follow her. The dinghy was their only way off the boat.

They retreat to the cabin.

Within half an hour, I hear a powerful outboard engine and our boat rocks from a wake. I go back out in the cockpit to see a small Coast Guard search-and-rescue vessel approaching the stern of the Grand Banks and watch the boat-to-boat conversation, full of urgency and gestures, between the rescuers and the grandparents.

The Coast Guard boat pushes off and follows the dinghy’s path to shore, two of the crew minding the boat and one disappearing up the forest path. Dark is falling quickly.

Then we wait. Coast Guard crew, anxious grandparents, and me – the spying neighbour.

Though I think the search seems like a fool’s errand, it would be unthinkable not to try to find the girl. But it’s now almost dark, and the shore is a vast, forested pile-up of bluffs, threaded with trails and not much else. It’s cold out in the cockpit, and there’s nothing to see. Our portable kerosene heater down below has warmed our small cabin and the brass lamps have been lit. But I can’t tear myself away. I’m hooked.

When I finally see the bouncing flashlight beam on the shoreline and the rescuer emerges from the shadow of the forest – with the girl in tow – I’m shocked, but relieved. She wears his oversized jacket. Her head is down.

They climb back into the search-and-rescue boat and take the dinghy in tow. In flashlight glimpses, I see the Coast Guard vessel stop alongside the Grand Banks and hand the dinghy painter to the skipper.

I wait to see the girl climb on board, back to the embrace of her grandparents, contrite perhaps, her tantrum over. I wonder if the incident is destined to become a future family tale that will be embellished and embroidered with years of re-telling. A colourful story that will be repeated by the girl’s grandchildren someday, to laughter and feigned disbelief.

And then, the rescuers – with the rescued girl – roar off into the night.

What?

Why didn’t they return the girl to her grandparents? But wait – are they her grandparents? Where are her parents? Why was she out on the boat? What was she upset about? Where did the rescuers take her?

You can probably think of a dozen more questions.

The next morning, Sunday, I expect the Grand Banks to depart at first light. It’s understandable that they didn’t up-anchor in the night to follow the girl, but now, in the light of day, they have urgent and unfinished business to attend to.

But they don’t leave. They carry on as though nothing at all happened the night before. Just an older couple enjoying a quiet, relaxing, off-season cruise. We leave at noon. Monday is a workday. They’re still anchored there, dinghy floating placidly off the stern.

Grandpa putters with some minor deck chore. Grandma calls him in for lunch.

The End.

Feel let down? I still do. An unfinished mystery story is an irresistible call to any writer – a call to fill in the blanks. We want to turn the page, and when the next page is missing, we feel compelled to write it.

Give in to that urge, and maybe the half-a-book in the bottom drawer will actually get finished one day!