Sunday, November 27, 2011

Double Messages: Fences With Two Sides

Current philosophy regarding economics tells us that less is more. At a time when consumerism leans toward excess, in an environment of unemployment and, in some cases, hunger, the message at the edge of awareness tells us to cut back, tighten our belts, and hunker down until the economic crisis is past.

I’ve watched how others are dealing with this crisis, the messages sent to users from every quarter, the media blitz of advertising, etc. What I’ve seen leads me to believe that messages have blurred the edges of every realm of our lives.

Check me out and see if I’ way off base here. Are we doomed to live in a world of double messages?

1.     Conserve potable water: We’re urged to use more efficient dishwashers, etc. to utilize the least amount of water for effective purposes. Is that why lawn services, especially those in arid climates and drought stricken zones, have sprinklers systems blasting water into the dry air during the middle of the day? This is the worst possible time to water vegetation—it burns/boils the leaves and stems—and the least effective conservation practice. So, who's conserving?

2.     Keep as much out of the landfills in an effort to reduce future problems with ground water pollution, etc. For this to work, we’re encouraged to reduce/avoid use of disposable products like paper plates and diapers. We're encouraged to recycle more. Question: If we’re supposed to conserve water and can use paper plates to reduce water usage, aren’t we ignoring the landfill problem? And what about all of those defunct, yet fixable, appliances littering the landfill landscape?

3.     Auto manufacturers were ordered to make more efficient vehicles. Many 1970’s models, especially those from Japan, got better fuel mileage than the same models coming out this year. How is that efficient and less polluting? Remember, we’re supposed to support the U.S. manufacturers to help the economy.

These are a few examples of double dipping in the message department. Here’s one just for those active and potential writers out there.

Today’s experts in the publishing business have been emphasizing the use of tighter, more efficient writing. Remove those qualifiers, they say. Eliminate all of those adjectives and adverbs and shorten word count. Some editors frown on those who use more than a fifth grade education level of prose to write a story since it requires the reader to think beyond what’s being read.

When I began the writing course “Building Great Sentences,” I had no idea that what comprised those great sentences were not fewer words, but more words that told an effective story. It does counter popular business regimen.

Prof. Brooks Landon of the Univ. of Iowa reminds students of two millennium of memorable and effective writers who used longer and more complex sentences to tell their stories, build their treatises, and write their poetry. He points out that these complex sentences set the tone that helps create punch, surprise, or poignancy for the extremely short sentences that can follow them.

He uses many examples to prove his points and the course is designed to enlighten the student on how to build, one word at a time, the most effective sentence that not only moves the story forward, but which tells its own story within the overall frame work of the larger tale. He shows how one sentence can, in 40 words, give a complete picture of a character, a setting, the plot’s pivot point, etc.

There is no advocacy of irrelevant or unnecessary verbiage, but rather a use of cumulative sentences which act as mini-scenes, each behaving as a mover and shaker within the story. For the first time in years I’ve fallen in love again with language and its power.

In a time when I’m being told to shrink sentences, cut back, use vocabulary for children to talk to adults, I’ve come to appreciate rebellion and have a solid reason to engage in it, at least in this one area.
I no longer have to consign good language use to that word landfill residing within my desktop. I don't have to conserve more precise language for the sake of one person's belief in lesser grade words. I can get more mileage out of ten well-chosen words than a dozen sentences that circle the drain of contemporary writing practice.
I can control this piece of the double message question with my use of language and its place in the world. I don’t have to follow the path set for me by people who change literary tastes as easily as a butterfly moves to another flower’s nectar.

Ratings and sales don’t have to dictate how I function as a writer in this new digital age, except on the internet. Even that venue may come around to insisting on something mature for audiences. Regardless, I’m in a position where I can dictate my own terms within my portion of the industry, an industry which affords me the opportunity to stretch, express myself, and tell stories that can entertain.
I'm ringing this bull's tail regarding double messages and clearing a path for myself.
Tell me how you see our double message state and how you feel about using language. Short or long, we all have our favorites.

Until later,


Saturday, November 19, 2011

Gems in Hidden Books

Every writer does research. Whether for non-fiction articles, books, or essays or for marketing that new story that’s hot off the keyboard, we delve into some esoteric corners on the off-chance of finding a gem that can be used as the centerpiece of some new project.

In the past year I’ve managed to dive into fascinating subjects with so much potential that I’m without direction as to the best use for the material.

For instance, there the global warming issue from both the environmental and the political viewpoints. Bits and pieces could be used for great articles with slants not expected by the average reader, or articles for children to help them derive an understanding of the issues involved, or as the basis for sci-fi stories extraordinaire.

Which way should I go? It’s not like the subject is going away soon. It’s around to stay and getting more complex each day, with plenty of twists along the way to create plotlines for sci-fi, YA survivalist faire, a murder mystery surrounding a leading scientist who’s discovered how to help halt the progression of the marching ice fields. You see what I mean.

How about those hidden gems that can be used for a character’s profession or hobby? Here’s one that brought me to a point of practicing an almost lost art: knots and splices.

What are they? Mariners and their land-grubbing laborer cousins have practiced tying knots and splicing ropes together for thousands of years. This was and is a practical knowledge that can be used for many purposes. My “Pocket Guide to Knots & Splices” by Des Pawson sits beside my copy of “Leather Braiding” by Bruce Grant.

You might ask why I’d have such disparate volumes on my reference shelf. I’ll tell you. In the first place, I thoroughly enjoy learning new skills. With each new knot or braiding technique practiced and mastered, I will have a concrete example of the craft involved.

Secondly, I can use this knowledge for any number of characters. I can have one of my mystery characters always craft a Turk knot on a gift package. The knot done in leather, for instance, acts as an additional gift for the receiver. This act of thoughtfulness becomes a trademark for that character. Or, I can write a short story about a fencer who’s just begun work with battle swords instead of epees and has to fashion the grip covering on the hilt of his newly acquired broadsword. It can be done in leather or in flat silk cording, as the Samurai once did. The very act of making that decision could make for a turning point for that particular character.

What if I had a character that made art with decorative knots that behaved as the anchoring point of her textile art that sold for thousands of dollars? Everything from Celtic knots to old sailors knots would work well for the story point.

I could do a character that makes bull whips for sale. Those use both leather braiding of a specialty type and special knotting.

Just these three subjects could keep a person busy with ideas for months or more. I often ask myself if there are dull subjects. I figure there are a few, but only because they don’t catch the imagination of the person looking at them. All subjects, I think, can be used for some form of writing, even if it’s only a silly piece of background business in a manuscript. If the writer is clever, that bit of business can become a telling clue or piece of a puzzle for later in the story.

Now that you’ve seen some of the stuff I’m likely to submerge myself into, look at your own preferences. I dare you. Find three of those esoteric subjects in hidden books and see just how many uses to which you can put the information. Then tell me about it. I’m always willing to learn something new.

Until later,


Thursday, November 10, 2011

One More Silver Lining

For the past two weeks I’ve been dealing with pneumonia and its many twists and turns. Antibiotics make me sleepy, among other things, and this time being sleepy didn’t help matters since coughing and shortness of breath were my main symptoms.

I don’t tell you this for sympathy but, rather, to set the stage for what comes next. If you’ve ever had a respiratory infection or pneumonia to any degree, you know that sleeping on the horizontal isn’t going to happen. The lungs won’t allow for it. Throw in a slight sinus infection, and you’ll really not sleep much.
So, there I was, not sleeping in an upright and locked position, cradled on the corner of my bed, back against three pillows, one of which actually did hold my head up and allow me to turn it from side to side.

While I sat there for hours in the darkness, not sleeping but wallowing in that twilight state of antibiotic-drugged drowsiness, my mind was free to run wild, without destination, purpose, or forethought. The hors d'oeuvres of primitive thought kept floating in front of the mind’s eye, offering up delicacies of unlimited scope in the creative sense.
Entire novels rolled by, pulled onward down an ever-lengthening road by a team of amusing characters that were fit to assemble into something miraculous if I could just hold onto them to write down enough during the day to remember them. Unfortunately, such was not the case. They drove away on their wagonload of plotline and interesting twists before I could fully grasp enough details to hang onto the storyline.

Dragged behind that wagon came another book; I called it “The Book of Notions.” This one stuck with me and expanded with each new consideration. A vision flashed across my inner movie screen; a man dressed in period costume—late nineteenth century—carrying  under one arm a large book, bound in black, thin and mysterious. The title, embossed in gold, was “The Book of Notions.” I never saw the man’s face. It didn’t matter. The title stuck in my mind.
Now I had something to hold onto. Substance couldn’t be too far away. Suddenly that great little story that I’d just written for a competition took on a whole new meaning. It was the first of the “Notions” and would anchor all of the rest. There would be between 15 and 20 Notion stories and they would use the same narrator and all would be slightly quirky, sad or amazing, funny or chilling. I could see the entire project; a project I could do over time and look for just the right subjects to fill the book.

The whole project resided within that black binding with gold lettering. I knew where I’d look for the stories. I knew the approach I would take. I knew it would work.
It isn’t often when I come across something like this that has such a feel of rightness to it. I always hang onto those with both hands, and they’re always worthwhile. And it isn’t as if I don’t have enough projects already on my plate. I have five that I’m working on now. This one, though, is one that haunts, but in a good way; a way that forces me to keep it in mind, forces me to keep thinking about what the stories will be. I won’t neglect this one for long between story installments.

Perhaps this is a true example of inspiration. Perhaps it’s only an example of hallucinations and fevered dreams. Either way, I have a long-term project that will hold my interest in easy installments and that’s something worthwhile.
Here’s hoping that all of you are so fortunate to find a silver lining for yourself. Until later,