Category Archives: writing

The writer’s friend: the voice you hear while reading silently

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Years ago, I was told that sounding the words out inside my head while reading silently was a very slow way to read. (No, I didn’t move my lips while reading.) Sometimes it’s my voice. Sometimes it’s my approximation of the author’s or the character’s voice. I’ve always found that helpful because it made the material more real. I didn’t tell other people this after hearing how stupid I was to read that way.

Research summarized in an article in “Psychosis,” however, indicates that “the vast majority (82.5 per cent) of contributors said that they did hear an inner voice when reading to themselves.”

Perhaps one’s view of the good or ill of hearing an inner voice while reading depends of your language focus. It is a spoken means of communication that’s sometimes translated onto the page or a written communication that it’s possible to read aloud?

If you write–or if you read a lot of fiction–storytelling might seem first and foremost an oral tradition whether you’re hearing the story told to you in person, on TV or in an audiobook, or whether you’re reading it from the printed page.

Since I have always heard an inner voice speaking the words I read or write, I am very conscious of what each sentence sounds like from one draft or a story to the next. The sound of that printed sentence in the manuscript is either awkward or it isn’t, has a rhythm to it that’s suitable to the story or the character, or it doesn’t.

In Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft: a 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, she writes, “The sound of language is where it all begins. The test of the sentence is, Does it sound right? The basic elements of language are physical: the noise the words make, the sounds and silences that make the rhythms marking their relationships. Both the meaning and the beauty of the writing depend of those sounds and rhythms. This is just as true of prose as it is of poetry, though the sound effects of prose are usually subtle and always irregular.”

Some writers read their material aloud. Others ask a spouse or friend to read it to them. Not a bad idea, though I’ve never found that necessary. The first thing is being able to hear the voice, either your voice “talking the words” to yourself or a gifted narrator saying each line. Once you hear your work, it becomes so much easier to craft.

–Malcolm

Do you remember the ‘concordance’ Amazon used to provide for notable books

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Amazon used to include a so-called concordance that listed words, phrases, and other information deconstructed out of a novel on the book’s sales page. What were Dan Brown’s favorite words? What were Tom Clancy’s favorite phrases?

When I saw those concordances, my first thought was that they sounded very close to author Italo Calvino’s parody of literary deconstruction in his novel If on a winter’s night a traveler. The gist of the parody was that one would be able to enjoy an entire novel by simply reading lists or words and phrases along with other tips uncovered through computer analysis.

As we have seen, computers have been used to read texts to validate whether those texts are within an author’s style or were written by somebody else. I can see the value in that far beyond the anti-plagiarism software used by some universities.  That is, what’s the likelihood that a newly discovered book was written by a great master?

I read Calvino’s book long before Amazon was a gleam in anyone’s eye. So, when I first saw those Amazon concordances, I immediately thought of the parody in the novel. We’re almost there, I thought. We can almost read the concordance and get the same amount of enjoyment out of the book we would have found had we bothered to spend many hours reading it. Maybe this is why Amazon removed the feature: it reduced sales.

This all came to mind this morning when I read “From ‘alibi’ to ‘mauve’: what famous writers’ most used words say about them”  in The Guardian. We learn here that Bradbury’s favorite word was “cinnamon,” that Rowling likes the phase “dead of night,” that Dan Brown uses “full circle,” and that Nabokov used the word “mauve” forty four times.

Now we know what the novel really means.

Computers will tell us amazing things. I don’t really want to know them unless I’m writing satire. (I once proposed using the Amazon concordance to The Da Vinci Code to write bestseller novels with the right stuff in them to get big reviews, loads of money, and movie deals.) I will confess that when I find myself using a word or a pet phrase too many times in a story, that I do a search for the suspected word or phrase to see how often it appears. If I don’t like what I see, I get rid of it.

I don’t think I want to know how often Nabokov used the word “mauve,” much less what a computer or an expert in literary analysis thinks that fact means. I don’t even care if James Patterson uses 160 cliches per 100,000 words or consider it a plot spoiler to hear that Donna Tartt uses “too good to be true” more than somebody in an ivory tower deems appropriate.

When computers and their deconstructionist slaves finish with a novel, the story, I think, gets lost in the shuffle rather like learning that you love your spouse due to sequences of binary reactions in your brain rather than  the fact they listen to what you say and care about you and support even your worst faults.

The Amazon concordance had its amusing feature, telling us the number of words the books gave us per dollar and per ounce. The value of that can’t possibly be underestimated.

Too much information, and to what end?

Malcolm

 

What if our muses are aliens from other worlds?

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“The Muses are the inspirational goddesses of literature, science, and the arts in Greek mythology. They were considered the source of the knowledge embodied in the poetry, lyric songs, and myths that were related orally for centuries in these ancient cultures. They were later adopted by the Romans as a part of their pantheon.” – Wikipedia

museMany of us learned the classical definition of muses in school. We had to memorize their names along with those of all the other Greek and Roman gods, goddesses, heroes, heroines, and ill-defined entities.

When we studied long-dead writers whose books were part of the acceptable canon, we quickly saw that many of their muses weren’t from the pantheon, but were imagined as wispy, ephemeral (real or imagined) women who–when captured by artists–looked like they were dying of consumption or, possibly, syphilis.  I told my professors I didn’t want anyone or anything like that hanging around giving me writing advice. This met with disapproval.

Later, when my muse showed up on a dark and stormy night, she turned out to be a whisky-drinking, spell-casting woman who looked (I’m not making this up) like a hell’s angel biker. She had a “write this or else” kind of attitude. It took us a while to come to an understanding.

But now I’m starting to wonder if all those Greek goddesses, consumptive women, and more modern whisky-drinking muses are illusions or, worse yet, aliens taking their instructions from a fully cloaked mothership in orbit around the earth. I often thought cats got their instructions from a similar source, but that’s another post.

So, here we are, slaving away writing fiction, all the time thinking we’re making it up, using our imaginations, joking about what our muses want and don’t want, &c., when it turns out, we’re drones taking dictation from a race of beings from (possibly) the Klingon Empire who want to hack into our brains and influence our destiny via what we perceive to be home-grown works of art, music, drama, and literature. Sort of like the matrix, but worse.

Is there a way to prove this? Of course not. All attempts at proof will–due to the prime directives of our otherworldly muses–sound like fantasy, science fiction, fairy tales, and insanity. I also notice that whenever I try to sabotage my muse as a way of protesting the mothership scenario, I get writer’s block. The only way I’m getting this post written at all was by drinking my muse under the table. (I’m trying to hurry before she wakes up.)

I’ve tried a variety of witches’ and conjure women’s spells, but they seem (so far) capable of getting rid of haints, demons, and the hexes from bad people. Muses are another kettle of spirits. So far–after a lot of dutiful testing–I’ve learned that they’re susceptible to booze. Here’s what that means. You’ve got to practice learning how to hold more liquor than your muse can hold. When she’s drunk and you’re not yet drunk, you can write, paint and compose without interference. For me, that means keeping a bottle of single malt Scotch and/or a quart jar of moonshine on the desk at all times.

If you want to be your own writer rather than the pawn in somebody’s cosmic game of chess, you might want to consider the benefits of this approach. Sure, you might go broke or die of liver failure, but that’s a small price to pay for the sanctity of your art.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Eulalie and Washerwoman” and “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” novels he wrote while trying to get rid of haints.

Always shake up your readers

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Readers are like a good martini: they need to be shaken and not stirred.

This scares them and/or brings out the best in them–if they survive. If something bothers them, do it a lot. It’s like saying “what can possibly go wrong” to a person who’s superstitious.

Weird combinations of words are one way to do it: God’s beautiful sunset was enhanced by his beautiful mosquitoes.

ironyOr: Her lips were like cherries from sucking blood out of her victims.

He was a good cook, using parsley, sage, rosemary, and time to create all his recipes.

In his book, A Scots Quair, Gibbon describes an old lady at the breakfast table poking at her grapefruit the way a sparrow pecks at dung. (What a nice breakfast time image.)

I like more than plot twists, I like language twists, warping proverbs into hash, making quiches our of cliches, turning good ideas upside down, and saying the very last thing the reader expects. As examples, here are a few proverbs with the shit slapped out of them:

  • Absence makes the heart wander.
  • Actions speak louder than words to those who are listening.
  • A journey of  a single step makes a more boring story than a journey of a thousand miles.
  • All ends begin with good things.
  • A watched pot never boils, especially when you’re smoking it.
  • Beggars can choose to be beggars.
  • Beauty is in the eye of the beholder before cataract surgery.
  • Better never than late.
  • Cleanliness is next to godliness and that explains why the shower is my church.
  • Don’t bite the hand that feeds you unless you don’t like the food.
  • Don’t count your chickens before the enemy opens fire.
  • Don’t book a judge without a cover story.
  • Don’t put off until tomorrow what’s due today.
  • A stitch in time wastes thread.
  • Bob wasn’t the sharpest marble in the box.

Sometimes, your twists become irony as in this well known example from George Orwell’s Burmese Days: “In the evening the wounded boy was taken to a Burmese doctor, who, by applying some poisonous concoction of crushed leaves to his left eye, succeeded in blinding him.”

Or Churchill’s response in this old joke: She:  “If I Were Your Wife I’d Put Poison in Your Tea!” He: “If I Were Your Husband I’d Drink It”

Or plays on words as in a prospective sign in the Leavenworth penitentiary kitchen: “NO UNLEAVENED BREAD.”

And, a sign on the door of a church restroom: No Holy Crap OR a sign in a brothel, “We’re proud to leave you f_cked up.”

Or a statement made by a Jewish mohel during a circumcision: “Let’s cut this bris short, I have an incoming call.”

It’s so easy to say things like “same old, same old” and “same difference” rather than something fresh, new and possibly dangerous like, “I’ve replaced ‘same old’ with ‘everything is new under the sun'” or, at least, “a different sameness.”

If everybody’s saying it, it doesn’t belong in your story–unless you’re twisting it up, using sarcasm, some nasty irony, or mocking somebody like a bird brain. While all this might be fatal for readers, it’s not serious.

–Malcolm

sofcoverIf you want to see this kind of a twisted approach to story telling taken to an extreme, I invite you to read my satirical novel Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire.

 

Review: ‘The Man Without a Shadow’ by Joyce Carol Oates

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The Man Without a ShadowThe Man Without a Shadow by Joyce Carol Oates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After a brief illness destroys Elihu Hoopes’ short-term memory, he becomes frozen in time. Long term, he thinks he’s still the age he was when he became ill. Short term, he lives in the now of 70-second bursts of knowledge about what he’s doing and who he’s with. What he’s doing is living with a relative and coming to the university for testing intended to advance scientific knowledge about memory loss. This knowledge will help everyone but Elihu because he will probably never get any better.

In many ways, this novel reads like nonfiction with short scenes depicting the psychological testing Hoopes undergoes almost daily. As the novel proceeds, we learn more about the brilliant young researcher Margot Sharpe who begins work at the lab while working on her degree. She stays on. She becomes three-dimensional to the reader, but–we might speculate–one-dimensional to herself. And that one dimension appears to be an obsession with her “patient.”

The novel’s short scenes, with Oates’ typical reliance on up-close detail, tend to mimic Hoopes’ periods of contiguous present-day memory. As a person with a continuing existence, other characters (and the reader) know more about his life than he does–except for the past which for him is always yesterday. He sees others aging but is not aware he is aging.

As one reads, one suspects Sharpe’s life is in danger of losing it’s wholeness. She’s becoming famous for her brilliance as a researcher while becoming more single minded in her devotion to Hoopes. She questions not only the ethics of the testing, but also her own ethics wherein her feelings for Hoopes begin to look like a one-sided fantasy which has a history for her but not for him. He seems to have some consciousness of her over time even though she has to introduce herself every time she sees him–even if she leaves the room for a minute.

The opening lines of the novel tell you where all this is going:

“Notes on Amnesia Project ‘E.H.’ (1965-1996).
“She meets him, she falls in love. He forgets her.
“She meets him, she falls in love. He forgets her.
“She meets him, she falls in love. He forgets her.
“At last, she says good-bye to him, thirty-one years after they’ve first met. On his deathbed, he has forgotten her.”

It’s a bumpy ride. Some readers will get lost with the repetition of the testing scenes, while others might find their eyes glazing with the titles of the scholarly papers that arise out of what Sharpe and her colleagues learn. Others will enjoy the exploration of Hoopes’ and Sharpe’s loneliness and how their fragmented lives fit together, and then they don’t, and then fit together, and then they don’t, rather like a jigsaw puzzle in a windstorm.

With diligence, and an ability to live only within the present moment while reading, readers will discover this book has something profound to offer them.

View all my reviews

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of paranormal, magical realism, and contemporary fantasy.

Writing based on the slings and arrows of outrageous childhood

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“I see shame as part of a process of becoming free: to create or, yes, to love. These sometimes have to be fundamental acts of disobedience to one’s upbringing or conditioned view of the world. In other words, one can feel ashamed of what one’s doing while at the same time knowing it’s the correct thing to do. I don’t doubt that, for me, part of the satisfaction in the act of writing is that it violates numerous taboos of my childhood that still weigh heavily on me. In the moment of writing, I can be free of them.”

– Rachel Cusk (“Outline,” “Transit”), in her Interview in BOMB

“One learns one’s mystery at the price of one’s innocence,” Canadian author Robertson Davies said. That is not only true of those cursed to write, but often serves as the reason they write and what they write about.

tabooThe taboos of childhood come in all shapes, sizes, colors and strengths. Some are merely household rules which seem odd, unfair or simply different than the household rules of one’s friends. They twist into the more grotesque shapes of poverty and abuse and every sacred truth that becomes a lie through the epiphanies of growing up. They are the political and social injustices we see through young eyes and the corruptions we feel to the marrow of young bones.

For Rachel Cusk, they are the seeds of the stories we will write, and we can thank our lucky stars that writing is the manner in which we learn to be free of them rather than everything ill begotten from drugs to terrorism. What the psychoanalyst’s couch cannot cure, our fiction finally harvests the strange fruit of those tainted seeds sown long ago.

Unfortunately, one must re-live those slings and arrows to bring them to life in a story. Doing so is like choosing a nightmare over a good night’s sleep. But the process is very cleansing and the weight of the world, or at least one’s past, becomes noticeably lighter and happier once the mystery behind the writer’s life and work is finally understood.

The results need not be heavy, depressing books. They might be mainstream, commercial romances and thrillers. Sometimes they’re page-turning yarns with exciting plots and an unobtrusive message (or no message at all). Yes, they’re also comedies and satires, and even poetry so sweet and dear that no one sees the vinegar within the words. Perhaps they only hint at the taboos they cast out, and that can be a fine thing.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman” that came about through banishing devils that were held close for half a century.

 

Jock Stewart’s Writing Prompts for ‘Dummies’

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My name’s Jock Stewart and I’ve taken over this blog with a guest post for writers who can’t do squat without a writing prompt. Frankly, as a newspaper reporter, I’ve discovered that the best writing prompt in the world comes when the editor says something like, “Hey, Stewart, a dogshit truck tipped over at the corner of Fifth and Main. Write me a front page story without using the word ‘shit’ or making any jokes.”

I know it’s not politically correct to use the word “Dummies.” First, I don’t care. Second, the word adds spunk to the title of this post. Third, I put it in quotes and that means it’s tongue in cheek.

Here are your prompts:

  1. writerpromptsA reporter at a small-town newspaper learns that a dogshit truck tipped over at the corner of Fifth and Main. When he arrives, the truck driver screams, “It’s a Commie plot” before a one-armed man pushes him into a porta-potty that mysteriously slides down hill into the river. When the reporter tells the police what happened, they laugh, and say he’s acting like a fugitive. Possible title: IN A WORLD OF IT
  2. Bob and Monique are kissing on the front porch of Monique’s house after a rather successful date on lovers lane when the porch light goes out. “Oh hell,” shouts Monique, “Daddy’s caught us.” When Bob investigates rather than running like a bat our of hell, he discovers Daddy leaning stone cold dead against the wall in the front hallway with his fingers on the light switch. The police tell Bob he’s a fugitive. Possible title: THE LIGHT THAT FAILED
  3. A man who fell asleep twenty years ago while making out on lover’s lane, wakes up today to discover he’s a father and has five or more kids running around loose acting like he’s a no-account drunk that can’t do any better than sleep his life away in an old Buick on an overgrown road. When he asks, “Who’s your mama,” none of the kids know. Possible title: GETTING LUCKY
  4. A woman who got hit on the head by a baseball from a nearby semi-pro game, gets amnesia and can’t remember the address if the brothel where she believes she was working just a short time ago. The team manager, who claims he can get to first base whenever he wants to, tells the woman she’s not “the type” to be a lady of the evening and is more likely a preacher’s kid. Now she doesn’t know whether to fish or cut bait. Possible title: GET THEE TO A NUNNERY
  5. Two men walk into an abandoned house where absolutely nothing happens. Possible title: BEING AND NOTHINGNESS
  6. An owl and a pussy-Cat go to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat. Even though they have money, honey and a five pound note, they hit an iceberg and while the boat is sinking have a dream about Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio and a nude scene involving a valuable necklace.  When they’re rescued, police force them to eat mince and slices of quince with a runcible spoon while interrogating them about a jewelry store heist. Possible title: HEARTLESS OF THE OCEAN
  7. Vladimir and Estragon go to a train station to kill a man named Godot, but they can’t find him. They decide the whole mess they’ve gotten themselves into is Carl Jung’s fault and so they start waiting for him. After a while a lady who calls herself Mrs. Freud tells them they’re both crazy. They’re so pissed at her, they offer her an exploding cigar. Possible title: SHOULD A GENTLEMEN OFFER A LADY A TIPARILLO?
  8. A guy has a dream that he’s a robot from the future who’s been sent back in time to kill himself before he can kill himself and change a future that couldn’t possible happen if he’s successful. The police waste lots of bullets without hitting anything. His first act is to decide whether it’s live or it’s Memorex. Possible title: INDETERMINATE

Eight is enough, don’t you think?

–Jock Stewart, Special Investigative Reporter