On Vocabulary and Fiction

There is a faction in the world of writing that would advise you to avoid words that would be unfamiliar to most readers— that is, big vocabulary words. The argument usually goes something like this: when a reader encounters a word they are not familiar with it makes them stop and realize they are reading something, taking them out of the story. That is, you want the reader to be completely absorbed, forget their reading at all, and not break the “vivid and continuous dream” (John Gardner’s phrase) of the narrative.

There are a few problems with this notion. The first is that particular words carry particular meanings that often simplifying them just won’t accomplish. If I call someone “indolent” that’s different than if I just called them “lazy”. Secondly, often a word will have a meaning that isn’t covered by any other. When I say the sun’s rays were “crepuscular", I would have to get a lot more verbose to describe that effect any other way.

More importantly, big words might be entirely appropriate for a particular character or style. For a character, using erudite words might be a way for her to show off her erudition. For a story written about the upper class in the late 19th century, for example, using words common to that class and time are a way to convey the setting besides mere description. Words are the tools with which prose narrative is created, and certain tools have certain functions. This is where I think most writers should come down on the subject: you use the vocabulary appropriate for what you’re writing.

But finally and most decisively for me, I actually don’t give a fuck about disrupting some reader’s precious “vivid and continuous dream”. For me, part of the joy of reading is the awareness of the prose, awareness of the techniques and tools and conventions being used to convey a particular kind of story, and I don’t mind it—in fact really enjoy it—when, as in many post-modernist works, you have an architecture with the ducts exposed and blueprints laid bare, as it were. I like books that are fully aware of and in possession of the fact that they are book, and not some suppositional “movie” going on in your head. (If I wanted to make movies, I’d be making movies.) Far from taking me out of a story, a well chosen unfamiliar word makes me more absorbed, more aware—by forcing me to think about a word, to look it up or intuit its meaning—of the kind of effect the writer is trying to create by using it.

You might not feel this way, you may prefer your vivid and continuous dream metaphor. That’s fine. There isn’t only one way to enjoy fiction, and there’s definitely more than one way to make it.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Accept NaNoWriMo

Six years ago, I wrote an article about hating National Novel Writing Month, and starting every October since, like clockwork, the hate comments come pouring into that post, as new NaNoWriMo participants stumble upon my article through Google or whatever and feel the need to add their own vitriol to the pile. I even wrote another article where I looked at things in more perspective, said I saw some value in NaNoWriMo, and linked to it at the bottom of the first, but that was almost completely ignored.

So what was my problem? Why would I want to be a hater? My problem wasn't speed-writing. I even praised 24-hour-comic day in my original article, and later mentioned the 3 day novel challenge. With NaNoWriMo, though, I basically felt like the website of the (still new) writing event sent the wrong message; that it encouraged writing as a self-help tool rather than an art form, and worried about its comparisons to running a marathon. Writing fiction, I believed, is something you should do because you love it, not because you see it as a form of therapy or because you have it on some bucket list. Also, I worried about fiction becoming like poetry-- almost only read by people who write it, and thus culturally irrelevant.

The Kill Robot Hitler Show is coming...

My story, "The Kill Robot Hitler Show" will appear in Stupefying Stories, a monthly ebook anthology series, in the first quarter of 2013.

This marks my third fiction publication and the first one I'm actually getting paid for. Huzzah!

The Meaning of Novelty: Convention, Form, Genre and an Existential Crisis

What is a Convention?

Allow me to describe a conception of art based around the twin poles of convention and novelty (which I will resist calling Convention and Novelty, because I am not French). A convention is simply a norm or collection of norms, and all art exists within certain conventions. In the visual arts, applying paint with a brush is a convention of method, and a landscape is a convention of genre, containing its own, respective conventions that can differ from time to time and place to place, as illustrated by the clear differences between traditional East Asian landscape paintings and traditional European ones. (European landscapes tend to be wider than they are high and emphasize the horizon, while East Asian landscapes tend to be higher than they are wide and emphasize scale. Each convention produces a remarkably different effect.) There is no art, or even expression, without conventions of some sort; conventions are the means by which things are expressed, the (sometimes literal, sometimes figurative) vocabulary and grammar we use to convey things. In this sense, conventions are a type of language.

The iPad: Not the Writing Tool I'd Hoped For

I had high hopes. Something as portable and powerful as an iPad could be an amazing writing device, a tool you'd carry around with you all the time anyway, lightning quick to boot, and (almost) always connected to the Internet for instant back-up. Plus, the iPad's lack of multitasking is practically a feature for writers—no more constant alt-tabbing to the web browser to procrastinate. Brilliant. When I found out there were writing programs for it that synchronized directly with Dropbox, the service I use to back up and synchronize my files anyway, I went out and bought one, along with the Apple keyboard dock.

Now the iPad is amazing at a lot of things. For web browsing, watching videos (non-flash of course) and reading comic books it's perfect. There's an app called "Reeder" which has completely changed the way I interact with RSS feeds, allowing me to effectively take Google Reader on the subway. But alas, after trying out the major word processing options, all were missing key features that I'd come to take for granted, making them annoying to use at best.

Lazy Writing Part 1

I am not often one who gets my feminist hackles up, since i think mostly that sort of thing reduces mostly to class differences. One thing I am starting to find truly annoying, though, is the Dumb Bitch Who Doesn't Know What's Good For Her archetype. You know what I'm talking about: something is clipping along in a story things are progressing from Point A to Point C via Point B, when out of the blue because the plot is running too fast the writer figures that he needs to complicate things a bit and add a subplot of some kind and he introduces this character. And god is she annoying. Even though it's mindnumbingly clear to the reader, the writer, and every clued in character in the story what it is that this character should do in the situation they are thrust into, she instead does the exact opposite. Because this activity is in fact insane and is only there to complexify an otherwise extremely linear and predictable story, the writer needs to create a reason for her to do this thing. There are a few stock reasons, all of which generally work in service of some sort of neanderthal view of human nature, but by far the most irritating is the general appeal to hysterical femininity. The audience is in effect being asked to accept that this character is behaving in a completely stupid way contrary to what the protagonist needs her to do because he emotions have short-circuited her ability to think clearly and act sanely.

How and Why Plot Structure Works

You've heard this before:

There is a protagonist who wants something, badly. There are obstacles in the protagonist's way, usually an antagonist working against him/her. After being obstructed again and again, and finally, when all seems lost, the protagonist risks it all to win and succeeds (or perhaps fails).

Most of the books on writing you'll find in your average bookstore talk about the above, rudimentary plot structure. Often, especially in screenwriting books, the structure is divided up into three acts, with the rhythm going something like this: in the first act an inciting incident forces a protagonist to make a decision to pursue the object of desire, culminating in a minor first act climax in which the protagonist meets up against the full force of antagonism for the first time and manages some small success. Then, in a long second act, there are progressive complications as the protagonist tries to overcome successive obstacles, culminating in a second act climax, which often results in all seeming lost. Then, in the third act, the protagonist keeps fighting and risks it all, leading to a story climax in which he/she (usually) triumphs. Finally there is a denouement in which loose threads are wrapped up and things return to equilibrium. In some cases there are more acts, for instance the five act structure typical of Shakespeare, or fewer acts, a one or two act structure in a short story or half-hour television show, but three acts has become the base norm, especially in film.

You've seen/read/experienced this hundreds of times. And because of that, it's easy to dismiss it. It's easy to say, this structure is what leads to the formulaic shallowness typical of Hollywood, and I want no part of it. It's easy to say I'm going to make stories that bear no resemblance to the three act structure and they will blow your freaking mind. And while it's definitely possible to buck structural norms and create something wonderful, there are examples that could be cited (Roberto Bolaño springs to mind), the problem both with this attitude per se and with the way this information is presented in most writing books is that it ignores WHY this structure has become so standard, that is why it works. And even if you want to do something unconventional, it's important to understand why the conventions exist and how they work, to avoid falling into the traps that they are specifically designed to circumnavigate.

National Novel Writing Month Redux

Three years ago, I wrote a post on this site called "Why I Hate National Novel Writing Month and Why You Should Too". Every year since then, as November draws near, that post is inundated with angry comments from NaNoWriMo'ers clamoring about my elitism, egotism, negativity, cynicism, bitterness, pretension, and at least in one case there was an implied comparison between (my impression of) NaNoWriMo'ers and terrorists ("notify Homeland Security!"). Not to mention the various trolls who simply hurled profanities at me, comments which I then deleted. The post has become the single most visited and the many-times-over most commented one on this site. There was even a reporter from an in-flight airline magazine who interviewed me about the subject a couple years back, and asked such insightful questions as "Why do you care? How does NaNoWriMo affect you, anyway?"

So How'd I Do?

About a month ago, I wrote about Michael Moorcock's methods for writing a book in three days. This past weekend, I made the attempt myself, moved from my original date (two weeks from now) to Labor Day weekend for solidarity with the three-day novel-writing contest—though I didn't actually participate in the contest because I didn't want to pay the entry fee and didn't think whatever I wrote would be worthy of the publishing-contract prize anyway.

Right off the bat, I'll admit that I did not succeed in writing what I would consider a whole novel. Someone get a picture of a book and put the word "FAIL" over it for me. First off, I cheated; in preparation for the contest, I wrote a 6,500 word (about 26 page) short story in one day, two weeks ago, and then, as the date loomed, I decided it would be easiest if I used this story as a launching-off point.

A couple things to keep in mind: before two weeks ago, I'd never written more than about 2,000 words of fiction in one day (about 8 pages at 250 words/page), and at the time I had considered that a laudable feat. My growing fascination with writers like Moorcock and Lester Dent has a lot to do with their legendary prolificity. Lester Dent boasted of writing 200,000 words (that's 800 pages) a month for 4 years, though he suffered a nervous breakdown at the end of it. For me, writing 6,500 words in one day felt like winning a marathon. Yet it wasn't close to the 15,000 words a day I had to write to get the relatively modest sum of 45,000 words (180 pages) I'd assigned myself for a short novel in three days. (And which is fewer words than in most of the novels Moorcock claimed to write in 3 days.)

Formula, Fiction and the Work of Michael Moorcock

This is the second in my ongoing Series on the work of Michael Moorcock, which will include a review of his latest book The Best of Michael Moorcock, and finally an interview with the man himself.

Some readers may have been surprised at my admiration for Moorcock's formulas for writing fantasy novels, considering previous statements I've made disparaging formula in fiction. I've been especially critical of the tyranny of the three-act structure in film, because so many films are shoe-horned into it that it becomes predictable and rote.

However, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with formula in fiction per se. No less than William Shakespeare used them quite often, and even the strictest literary fiction will often use structural conventions, such as the "moment of epiphany". It occurs to me that a good comparison can be made between music and fiction here— stories that hew closely to formulas, such as the typical closed-door mystery, can be compared to Blues, where the structure from song to song is almost identical and the interesting stuff is what you do on top of it. Looser, say, would be rock music, with its standard forms like ABACAB but no hard-and-fast chord structures, and then there are any number of other forms with varying degrees of complexity and looseness, from the classical sonata to the most experimental out-jazz. What forms you use depends (obviously) on what kind of music you want to make; for someone like Frank Zappa, the ever more bizarre song structures is what makes the work interesting, while for B.B. King, what he plays and sings over the standard structure is where the magic lies. Which is all to say that formula is only bad if you do it in a boring way.

Michael Moorcock has always shown an obsession with structure and an eagerness to play with it. In his early fantasy writing, he took his lead from Robert E. Howard, who wrote relatively simple stories about heroes fighting monsters in which the innovation lay in making the monsters and settings weird and fascinating. Conan the Barbarian may have been the star of the show, but it was the soul-sucking devil-dog or the tortured, blind elder-demon-thing that kept you reading. To this Moorcock added a hallucinatory, sixties sensibility and moody, unpredictable characters, especially the doomed albino Elric. A decade later he followed the lead of a very different writer, William Burroughs, and created the absurd, plotless book A Cure for Cancer, part of the ever-more-experimental Jerry Cornelious series. Even A Cure for Cancer, though, follows deliberate structural decisions; a note at the beginning describing it as being "in something approximating sonata form." Further, all the Cornelious books (which each take place in a different, parallel universe) have ripples and patterns flowing through them, characters and situations following similar courses or being reinvented in intriguing ways. Likewise, the entire Cornelious series references and is referenced by the rest of Moorcock's work, with, for instance, the first part of the first book (The Final Programme) being essentially a rewrite and update of the first Elric story with elements of the psychedelic (and Philip K. Dickian) short story "The Deep Fix" thrown in for good measure.

Throughout his career Moorcock made a project out of mastering different forms and styles, refusing to stay still or stop experimenting, and in this, he is comparable to Pablo Picasso or David Bowie. In one sense, Moorcock's work can be seen to be a reflection of the entirety of 20th century literature, a map of modernist, post-modernist and pulp sensibilities. In another sense, Moorcock's work is a complete, self-contained universe, a game of mirrors, connections, clues and red herrings. And it's Moorcock's obsession with structure which allows him to create his narrative puzzles, and to blueprint so many different styles and fill them up in new and interesting ways.