Thursday, September 30, 2010

51st President

A response to the Economist's Schumpeter column: "The old saw about power corrupting has been laboriously confirmed by academic studies of everything from risk-taking to cookie-eating (powerful people are more likely to eat with their mouths open and to scatter crumbs over their faces)."

Sid's aide entered the Oval Office holding an android tablet. Her white blouse covered her too-thin frame, extending halfway down her forearms covering most of her corporate sponsor's tattoo except for the red 'e' at the bottom. It must not be a special day. She looked pointedly at his chin and tapped her own. He combed at the blue fur on the side of his face and then shook his head in wide angles when she shook her head no. "Well, never mind. We know what got me here." Sid picked up another chocolate chip cookie -- the only thing he'd eat now that he got his say -- and threw it in his mouth. "Chocolate chip. My favorite. Om nom-nom-nom." Sid glared at the aide. "You're interrupting lunch."

"Our search engines have completed your daily brief --"

"I'll read it after lunch and my nap, like usual."

"It's important." She looked away, at the carpets, at the walls, meeting his googly eyes seventy-three percent of the time. "Kim Jong-un has led forces across the demilitarized zone."

"Me want cookie."

"There's no time for that." The aide double-tapped the tablet and slid it across Sid's desk. "We must act now. Decisively."

A crumb fell out of Sid's fur, landing on the tablet. He glanced at the list of ten proposed actions -- out of about seventy-two million results. "Me eat cookie." Sid tossed a cookie into the air and it flipped end over end as it arched through the air to land in his unhinged mouth. The top action, most likely of success, was a counterattack deployment of their Marines. "Your search, no imagination." They had all those cloud computers, yet these were the actions they provided him.

"We must do something."

"Om nom-nom-nom. Me eat their armies."

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Writer's Weights: Dialogue Voice Challenge (WW4)

Want to exercise your writing chops? This week's Writer's Weights challenge focuses on dialogue. Answers to the challenge will be posted on Friday. If you use this exercise, post a link in the comments, and I'll update the post with your link. Everyone is welcome to participate.

Good dialogue does a number of things. This week's exercise emphasizes differentiating the dialogue between two characters. The idea is that someone should be able to know exactly who is saying what. This can be done through attributions, however, more importantly and naturally it can be accomplished with the following techniques as well.
  • Accents and or phrasing. Accents can be a way to make a character sound different from other characters and this works well if you have characters from different places. However, it can be difficult to do well and may annoy some readers. However, the more subtle forms of this can be fairly useful. Especially if approached from a dialogue perspective. For example, in different parts of the US people refer to carbonated beverages as pop vs. soda. However, it can go much further whereas we always use language the same, some individuals may say "hi" and other's "how's it going" where they are actually just greeting you and not asking you how it's going.
  • Speaking patterns. Some people are more formal in the way they speak than others and might tend to speak in long sentences vs. someone else taking in shorter sentences. One might be more liable to string ideas together in a certain way. I as a reader won't consciously notice this difference, but subconsciously I may. Similarly, word choice in English allows one to have one person use more latin-root words vs. germanic-root words (Michael Stackpole used this approach in "Once a Hero").
  • Vocabulary. A character who is a mechanic and knows about cars isn't going to say that rubber pipe that attaches to the engine, but will know the correct word to describe that. Additionally, they may have a tendency to focus on a certain set of words that can be used within the writing and vocabulary of their dialogue that will fit well for them.
  • During editing remove the attributions, shuffle the lines and see if you can pick out which lines are said by which characters. Where it isn't clear, revise until it becomes clear.

The Challenge: write a scene of 1000 words or less where the dialogue uses one or more techniques discussed above to differentiate the speakers. The theme for this week is: sand.

This week's Writer's Weights participants:

Friday, September 24, 2010

Wellington's Brood

Image credit: arndbergmann

Marjorie jumped when the knock on the door sounded. She crossed herself before checking through the peep hole that it was the Johnson twins. Marjorie stood in the open jamb so the boys wouldn't think she was inviting them in. Her mother would be upset if she had boys over while she was alone.

"Scared?" asked Bo, the taller of the fraternal twins. Marjorie didn't think he liked her. Always a knife twisting, a one upmanship, to his conversations.

"No." She pressed her hand against the doorframe to hide her shaking. "I'm alone and when I heard the noise, thought I should investigate. You might see a clue I miss." She caught Bo giving his brother a wink.

"A good thought," said Colin. "Where are we looking?"

"The Denner house." Marjorie pointed across the street at a house dark against the Mount Wellington's wooded flanks. "Wait here. I'll get an electric torch."

The wind caught the door and it slammed behind her. She thought she heard Bo make a crack about being afraid of the dark. She'd ignore that. She grabbed two torches from the pantry. The black handle of her mother's ten-inch chef's knife sat in the woodblock. The Damascus Steel would make her feel better, but wasn't worth another of Bo's barbs.

She handed a torch to Colin.

"Why didn't you ask the Denners to join you on this wild goose hunt?"

Marjorie pointed at the slip of paper tacked onto the front of the door. "Foreclosed. Let's look in the backyard." Tall grass rubbed against her jeans.

In the backyard, a tree's branches spread over most of the yard while beneath them, shaded by the leaves, the grasses had died out leaving dirt. The tips of roots peeked through the surface of the ground. Marjorie shone her light on the back of the house, but didn't see any broken windows or dents in the wood. Small clawed footprints crisscrossed the dirt.

"Nothing's here. Just an overactive imagination." Bo kicked a root and a cloud of dirt filled the air to reflect in the torch's beams.

Leaves rustled at the edge of the property where the nature preserve's forests began. The three of them -- quiet, an unspoken agreement -- stepped closer to the rear of the property. Colin's torch stopped on red eyes that reflected in the tall grass. Marjorie bit her lip. Red deformed tumors grew off the creature's head like the nubs of horns. Marjorie screamed.

"It's just a damned Tasmanian Devil," said Bo.

"But --" Marjorie pointed at the blood-smeared mass growing on the head.

"A communicable cancer."

Marjorie held a hand over her mouth.

Bo sneered. "Humans can't catch it. The little runts explain your noises. Colin, let's go. I've got biology homework to finish."

Back on Marjorie's porch, Colin handed Marjorie his torch and brushed his fingertips against the back of her hand. "You sure you don't want us to stay?"

Marjorie swallowed. She did want him to stay, but she knew what her mother would say when she got home. "No. No, I'll be fine."

She locked the door's bolt and closed the windows before sitting in front of the TV. She turned it off, didn't like the way the shadows flickered across the room. She turned on all the lights and then, a crash. She screamed. Dust fell from the door as the house shook. Another crash. The wood in the door jamb splintered and the door swung open. In the doorway stood Mr. Denner. A giant red boil rose like a bubble from the top of his forehead where the hair began to recede. He grabbed for her and she stumbled backwards, slipping against the floor and falling. His hand knocked a painting off the wall. She scrambled up and ran for the kitchen. Breathing hard, she pulled her mother's chef knife from the block. Mr. Denner walked forward, unafraid.

Marjorie waved the knife. Mr. Denner grabbed her shirt. She swung the knife to clip Mr. Denner's forehead. The red boil slid off the edge of the Damascus blade as Mr. Denner's blue eyes cleared. His mouth closed and the froth subsided.

"What... what happened?" Mr. Denner's voice shook.

The boil bubbled on the floor of the kitchen. In the doorway, red eyes from the Tasmanian Devil. She threw the knife at it. Careening as it bounced off the porch. She ran forward slamming the door closed, but it didn't fit tight as something bumped against the far side, trying to get in.

A response to Mary Catelli's "Stupidity in Fiction", where she remarks on the stupidity of characters even when they react in a way that real life people might. (Effectively the limitations of Homo Fictus when compared to Homo Sapiens.) Also based on a communicable brain tumor that affects Tasmanian Devils. And lastly, an entry in my writer's weights challenge. The challenge: write a scene of 1000 words or less where one or more darlings have been excised from the story. Include one of the darlings you removed in an addendum or comment on the piece. The theme for this week is: Damascus steel (feel free to simplify this to a simple knife).

Darlings cut:

  • Marjorie counting heartbeats to show her unease in the opening paragraph.
  • Glimmering of streetlights in the dark windows of the Denner house.
  • Mr. Denner's breath smelling of sun-warmed garbage can filled with roo meat.

Original image: Tasmanian Devil w/ Facial Tumour Image credit: Menna Jones

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Craft analysis: Guy Gavriel Kay's "Lord of Emperors" (CA3)

Welcome to another entry in my ongoing craft analysis series (more about it here). This week, I read Michelle Davidson Argyle's "Cinders" novelette and reached a point where I felt a sense of shivers running down my spine. This is probably one of the most important parts of a story for me. Can it create this sense of shivers. I haven't finished cinders and therefore am not willing to analyze it yet -- I may return to this in a future craft analysis. Instead, I'm going to look at the chariot scene from Guy Gavriel Kay's "Lord of Emperors". I first read this novel more than five years ago, but I still remember this scene and the way it left chills. I walked in shorts and flip-flops through the hills of Wonder Valley on a Christmas morning as the rain fell. The book had left a fever, the rain couldn't quench it.

My analysis may contain spoilers. If you plan on reading this book, I recommend you read the book first (it's the second of a two part series) and then come back to this blog entry.

This scene (or scenes, since we see parts of the scene from several different people's point of view) shows a chariot race and the complex maneuverings used by the charioteers to win the race. There are many little things that add up together to make this scene work for me. (1) The level of danger has been raised in this scene. I'll describe this a little more below. (2) The scene is told from many different character's point of view. This is used both to move characters through their character arcs, reaching an inner revelation of change, and (3) also used to show the artistic ballet of the charioteers. The latter is shown through a retired charioteer who is an expert and one of the most renowned charioteers of his time and when he observes this superlative race, it adds to that feeling by the reader. (4) This scene includes echoes of previous scenes, in particular there is an echo of an older race where two of the charioteers who are now teammates were on opposing teams and now instead of using a tactic to defeat the other each other, they turn it so that works in their favor this time. (5) This scene uses inner monologues to emphasize the unbelievability of everything that is happening in the scene.

The characters in the story emphasize how dangerous driving these chariots can become. However, the physical danger is not just the act that they perform, but also that one of the charioteers has been injured with broken ribs, and a knife wound. As if the prevoius wounds and risk of driving chariots isn't enough, there is a confrontation before the chariot race begins that almost leads to a stabbing, a death. The charioteer's enemy comes to his rescue. However, he takes the opportunity to elbow the charioteer in his wounds, to ensure that he won't be a factor in the race. Also, adding to the stakes, the charioteer's doctor absolves all responsibilities for his patient. He states that he can't accept a patient who won't do what's best for himself (reinforcing that this man is risking his death). Several times in the scene, the injured character wonders if he will stay conscious through the entire race. The stakes are part of what makes this scene a powerful.

The other part is the way that several of the characters, some of these in the audience watching the race, develop further in their character arcs. One of the best examples of this is a character who is best described as a town bully. He is watching the race and moves from being a town bully to someone who sees the art of the chariot races. Previously, he had only rooted for the team of chariots on his side. However, in this race he sees the art and through that art, he changes. A lot of the way this is achieved is through his inner monologue.

In the end, this scene is a culmination of lots of little things that have been set up earlier to allow this scene to work. Additionally, the way the stakes are raised and the way that characters not even directly involved in the action change help to make the scene as well.

Are scenes that make you shiver important to you? What are some scenes that have given you shivers?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Writer's Weights: Kill Your Darlings Challenge (WW3)

Want to exercise your writing chops? This week's Writer's Weights challenge focuses on the editing process. Answers to the challenge will be posted on Friday. If you use this exercise, post a link in the comments, and I'll update the post with your link. Everyone is welcome to participate.

Kill Your Darlings Challenge

William Faulkner supposedly said that one must kill their darlings. The intention and this is that a writer gets attached with a particular turn of phrase, scene, cleverness, joke and doesn't want to drop this from their writing and as a result weakens the overall effort.

A friend of mine who recently finished an MFA, commented about how difficult it was to get his stories past his adviser who required every word and sentence to perform more than one purpose. I like this idea and it is a thought that one can consider during revision. A scene in a novel that is just there to lengthen time and therefore increase suspense, maybe a good scene to consider chopping. However, if that scene does more than that, perhaps provide a reveal that explains why a character works the way the character does that can strengthen the book.

In a smaller arena, the idea of kill your darlings can apply to specific details that exist in your stories. I frequently get told that my stories create vivid imagery, but one thing I learned in poetry is that you can overdo the imagery. Instead of the canvas dripping with caked on paint, a sparse line here or there can create a more powerful response in the viewer.

The challenge: write a scene of 1000 words or less where one or more darlings have been excised from the story. Include one of the darlings you removed in an addendum or comment on the piece. The theme for this week is: Damascus steel (feel free to simplify this to a simple knife).

Further reading:

My favorite article that I found when looking for topics around this isn't exactly on killing your darling. More, it's on the creative process and letting oneself have the freedom to fail. The idea is to not be so precious, that feels like it has a relation to killing your darlings, but isn't entirely the same thing. See Teresa brazen's Podcast with Scott Berkun: Don't Be So Precious. I particularly liked the reference to Buddhist mandalas to describe the fleetingness of art and how one must be prepared to rule in that art and ways. I couldn't find a youtube video I liked of mandalas, but can recommend the Wikipedia article.

Brenda Coulter has a good article (How to Kill Your Darlings Without Remorse) on killing your darlings and particularly provides some specific methods that you can use in the process.

JA Konrath had a brief article on his webpage (it disappeared shortly after it originally played, so it may actually reappear later this week, or may have been removed permanently) that discussed killing your darlings and in particular the benefits of having someone outside the author who can provide a balanced judge of whether that darling should get hung.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Merph's Fog

My #fridayflash and this week's entry in the writer's weights exercise. The challenge: write a scene of 1000 words or less that includes a contagonist. The theme: lightning.

Whitey yipped as the last foggy tendrils drifting over Lake Mallarin burned away in the weak sun. Merph tousled his companion's black-and-white fur. "Yes, time to finish this." He strapped the canvas bag over his back, the powder jars tinkling, and pushed the rowboat into the water. He leapt at the last second to avoid touching the water. The powders might have drifted. He caught Whitey, falling to the wooden seat, and watched as the ripples of the boat expanded across the clear water to shatter the smooth reflection of snow cresting the tips of the three towers, Tre Kronor.

Merph's arms ached. He was old, but had a little life left he reminded himself. He leaned into the oars wishing he hadn't had to knock Nils, the king's captain, into the brackish water when they'd seeded his powders under the moonlight before morning brought fog. Now he had to row back towards the northern island and Mortok's sleeping army. His fingers blistered. Water drip-dropped into the sea. Whitey looked at him as if to say, _Stop pitying yourself, old man._

Merph beached the boat onto the island's coast where Mortok's army held their siege. He'd have one more use for the boat, after he'd visited the commander's tent. Whitey wagged his tail and Merph scruffed the dog's neck.

"No barking," said Merph. "Don't want to wake them up."

One of Mortok's soldiers sprawled across the black and gray stones that poked through the shallow earth here in the north. Glad that the powder-laced fog had done its job, Merph stepped over the guard's extended arm. A camp full of snores. Merph had worked hard to create the powder and smiled as he surveyed its handiwork. He recalled sitting with the King yesterday. The man had wanted to attack with his men. Would have if not for the powder being Merph's. Whitey kept him honest, reminding him that somethings you didn't do. Besides, you couldn't kill quietly. Mortok had too many men.

Mortok's flag flew from his commander's tent just beyond the next tent and Whitey stopped to growl, a soft noise in the back of the dog's throat.

Merph crouched beside the dog. "I've got to do this," he whispered.

A man cried from a tent. His arm slapped against the side as he turned over. Just a soldier's dreams.

When Merph stood, Whitey jumped and caught the corner of Merph's coat in his jaw. "What's gotten into you?" Silence as Merph stared into the dog's eyes. A boot heel echoed and the dog pulled him into a narrow place, full of shadows. The fog should have affected everyone. The soldier stopped, stared between the tents and then about-faced and returned the other direction. Merph blinked and rubbed his eyes. What was Nils doing here? Merph had last seen Nils when the captain had tried to stop Merph from poisoning the sea and Merph had pushed the soldier over Whitey's back to fall into the water. The weight of the man's armor should've drowned him.

Merph pawed through his canvas bag to find a reddish brown powder. He unscrewed the cap sprinkling grains into his palm and then added another white powder. He closed his fist and shouldered the bag.

As Merph rounded the edge of the tent, Nils walked towards him. The captain stopped, placed a hand on his sword, and waited for Merph.

Merph opened his hand, exposing the grains of powder. The captain stopped and lifted his hand off his sword. Merph nodded. "A little wisdom."

The captain stepped forward his hands held out to his sides. "You should not do this. It is wrong."

Merph wondered how quickly Nils could draw his sword. He counted his heartbeats as he sidestepped towards Mortok's tent. "Look around you. An army brought here to create wars. Is that right?"

"Power against power, a tool. Not what you're doing, a knife in the dark."

Whitey pushed against the back of Merph's knees and twisted to sit beside his right foot. "The sun shines on us, no darkness here."

"Only because you ensorcelled them with your sleeping powders."

Merph realized that Nils was trying to delay. Merph held up his hand. "No closer. Should this powder strike the ground, lightning bolts will seek those nearby."

The captain stepped forward.

At least the man was brave, thought Merph. "The bolts will also kill those in the tents --"

"Enough of this," chuckled a man's voice from behind Merph. A wind battered Merph's face. Feathered dander tickled his nose and he sneezed. The grains of powder in his hand disappeared on the winds and he looked up to see two ghostly shapes fly away. The ravens, Huginn and Muninn. "No more treachery."

The captain drew his sword and pulled Merph against him. In the opening of the commander's tent stood a man with one eye clouded white and the other one staring darkly. Merph swallowed. He'd warned the king he couldn't guarantee success. Wasn't his fault when the king's man, Nils, had turned traitor. Merph struggled, but he was an old man and no match for the captain. Whitey barked.

"Take them outside the camp. Kill them." Mortok turned and retreated back into his tent.

The captain cut the straps off the canvas bag and tied Merph's hands behind his back and pushed him through the camp. Merph tried to catch Whitey's eyes. He wanted the dog to knock the man over, scattering the powders in his bag hoping that the confusion would let them escape. But, the dog walked alongside and sniffed the ground.

Outside the camp, Nils pushed Merph away and he fell to the ground. "Flee."

Merph looked at Nils. "Why?"

"Like I said. You don't kill a man with a knife in the dark."

Whitey licked Merph's face. "My powders, they take a long time to mix."

"Good. You can't always get what you want. Now, get away before I change my mind."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Craft Analysis: Cirkus Cirkör's "Wear It like a Crown"

Welcome to another entry in my ongoing craft analysis series (more about it here). This has been a less productive week because my computer decided to enter teenage-dom (add long delays before working, I think a hard drive problem) and for someone who does most of my writing via dictation, it is somewhat distracting to have fifteen to thirty second pauses after very short phrases before I see what I have written.

This week's subject is Cirkus Cirkör's "Wear It like a Crown" a play/modern dance/circus show that I saw in Stockholm last month. Cirkus Cirkör is a Cirque du Soleil style group (I say that having never seen a Cirque du Soleil show). Last year, I showed up thirty minutes before the opening of Inside Out and got second row tickets for almost nothing because the feather headdress that the live band's lead singer wore might obstruct my view a little. During the show, you know how the magicians select someone from the crowd to saw in half, I was that person (okay, they didn't saw me in half but they did levitate me). The show was a life-changing experience that made me realize that I needed to create. As a result, I had high expectations going into this show. However, that's not what this segment is about. It's about craft and I want to talk about sympathetic characters. As usual, this post will contain spoilers; however, the show depends so much on the physical that it is unlikely I'll ruin anything for you.

This show has several characters but I want to concentrate on the Mistress of Mayhem and Marvel of the Century who fall in love and consummate their love with ping-pong ball kisses. What struck me about these two characters is that I cared about their romance and in particular Marvel. He pursued the Mistress and at first she wasn't interested. It was this struggle, this conflict, that was part of what made me sympathize with the characters. However, it was also that Marvel -- using no words -- showed that he was more than a flat stereotype. Some of this also was an emphasis on a flaw in his character. It is this latter that I find interesting because I always struggle around flaws. To me an Indiana Jones style flaw (afraid of snakes) isn't really a flaw. To me a flaw is something that makes a character less sympathetic. It can be an obsession or ambition that results in the character not leading a balanced life.

Marvel's flaw is that he is preoccupied with himself. This is shown efficiently through his theft of the Mistress's "bag of wow". He takes the wow and consumes it, glories in it, and ruins it. It is only when he sees the sadness that he's created in the Mistress that he starts an arc that begins with a desire for her and results in a changed character.

I think what balances the character that takes an action that is deliberately unsympathetic is a struggle for a goal and it's particularly sweet when the character must deal with his flaw to accomplish his goal.

What are your thoughts about unsympathetic flaws and whether they work for characters?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dirty Pits

A response to RJ Clarken's Flashy Fiction post, "Monday Muchtime" and to the economist article on competitive BBQ called, "Smoke and Mirrors."

Mary Sue's mouth watered at the smells of real meat, instead of the vat-grown glop they ate the rest of the year. The company only bothered to ship meat once a year, a good enough reason to celebrate when it arrived. She would stuff herself today. And hopefully all year long if she, and more importantly her beau, pitmaster Butch, smoked the blue-ribboned batch. _Of course, Lady Luck don't always shine on the most deserving. Sometimes you had to make your own luck._

The BBQ Association had chalked white squares in the astroturf, an off-green that clashed with the muted olive glow of the sky through the dome. She walked outside the chalk and passed Ole Man Ribs with his seasoned grill, stained with a layer of smoke with thin veins surrounding dents that pocked the surface. Mary Sue squeezed the release that allowed the nano bots hidden away in her ball cap to fly out. She fluttered an eyelash at Ribs. He may have won the last five years in a row, she could see the meat on its bones, but not this year. The nanos would consume his prize-winning sauce and leave enough byproducts to cut his flavor.

Her work done for the day, Butch better do his part, she walked across the fair for a drink. She leaned against a booth's plasteel pole. "Hey sweetie. I'll have a fruit tea."

Mary Sue stopped amidst the milling crowd on her way back to the pits when she saw the half-dozen boys stuffing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches into their mouths. She remembered what had happened years ago while people, a dark mass to her preoccupied senses, jostled past her. She'd been fourteen at a similar planet fair watching her brother from the stands as he crammed his face full of sandwiches. Her heart skipped a beat, even ten years later, at the way his face had turned blue and his chair tipped over. His hair had flopped like a mop as his body arced through the air. She'd raced to the stage, skinning her knee on its edge, and grasped his still twitching arms. His eyes, frantic, stared at the green Martian dome.

Mary Sue pushed on his chest in a mimicry of the CPR she'd seen in soaps on the holos, but that hadn't helped. It just made him grimace as half-chewed soy stained his lips. Bits of bread and soy butter filled his mouth. Her mother tried to pull the peanut butter crumbs out but it was glued in tight. She remembered the sirens that came from everywhere as the sirens echoed off the dome. Phantom echoes had haunted her for days afterward. Her brother had never been the same. Neither had Mary Sue. She decided she never wanted to have soy butter again. One of her friends told her that was wracked by arachibutyrophobia. She was fine with that.

Mary Sue squeezed through the crowd. She had things to do, important things like recipes for 365 days of meat. She couldn't let herself get stuck in the past.

The judges had already started walking down the line of competitors. She found Butch, he didn't seem to be where she'd left him, standing beside his smoker with a batch of ribs on a plate. They were smothered in a sauce that was more yellowish than the deep molasses typical of Butch's sauces. Mary Sue raised an eyebrow.

"New concoction." Butch placed a quick peck against her cheek and whispered in her ear. "It'll blow them away."

The judge selected a rib, chewing on the meat. He frowned and discarded the bone after one bite. Butch's smile disappeared like a miner trapped outside the dome after dark. She looked at the grill, noticing the bent fractures of Ole Man Rib's gear.

She punched Butch in the shoulder. "What did you do?"

"You said you wanted to win, no matter if we had cheat. Well, I swapped grills with the Ole Man. He's too fat on all that meat to notice these days."

Mary Sue squealed as she ran into the crowd. _Life wasn't fair._

Monday, September 13, 2010

Writers Weights: Archetypes and Contagonists (WW2)

Want to exercise your writing chops? This week's Writers Weights challenge focuses on characterization. Answers to the challenge will be posted on Friday ("credit" is still available if you get it in late). If you use this exercise, post a link in the comments, and I'll update the post with your link. Everyone is welcome!

Contagonist Challenge

I've spent many years as an actor at Renaissance faires and one of my recollections was an improvisation workshop that touched on dramatica theory. When I heard an interview on the topic of writing and archetypes this piqued my curiosity and hence this week's exercise. I don't necessarily advocate dramatica, but the goal of this week's challenge is to increase the participants in your stories.

A contagonist is an archetype like a protagonist, a lead character in the story, or an antagonist, the character opposed to what the protagonist is trying to achieve. The contagonist opposes the protagonist but unlike the antagonist, the contagonist is more interested in deflecting or delaying the protagonist. Contagonists can be in league with the antagonist or they can be even allied with the protagonist but not providing much help for that character.

Examples of contagonists include: Darth Vader from Star Wars, Detective Captain Fache from The Da Vinci Code, and Mal from Inception. Darth Vader is probably the most commonly discussed and several of the further research links described that. Skip to the next paragraph if you're concerned about spoilers and haven't seen Inception. Mal is Cobb's (Leonardo DiCaprio's) wife and she makes a good example of a contagonist because her goal isn't to oppose Cobb's attempt to implant a memory but rather to distract Cobb and trap him inside a dream.

The challenge: write a scene of 1000 words or less that includes a contagonist. The theme: lightning.

Further reading:

Friday, September 10, 2010

Penelope's Final Approach

My #fridayflash and this week's entry in the writer's weights exercise. The challenge: write a scene of 1000 words or less with one or more allusions. The theme: wheel.

The wheel-ship spun through the moon's sphere of influence and began the final approach to Earth. Penelope sat in the smooth upholstered captain's chair that had been relinquished to her when the last of the scientists had died. Her captain's display captured the cratered surface of the moon and Penelope wondered -- for the hundredth time -- how the solar system would look if you could see it with her own eyes instead of through CARL's monitors. Of course, the wheel's spinning around a central needle would've left any view a blur. Noise, black and white dots from an analog signal, interrupted her view before resolving into an old man whose jowls hung from his cheeks.

"This is space control. Do you Roger?"

Penelope muted the audio. She wasn't sure she was ready to return. Born during the seven years of experiments that her parents ran on Calypso, Saturn's moon, everyone she'd known had grown old and died. She knew little about earth except the stories her parents had told her. A lifetime of drifting on the wheel ship.

CARL's cyclopean eye glowed red with an oscillating punctuation to his words. "All I want --"

All they wanted was to guide her in. Penelope knew that. Penelope looked at CARL's aperture, one of many on the ship from where CARL, Cerveau Analytique de Recherche et de Liaison (Analytic Research and Communication Brain), monitored the ship. "I'm scared." She thought of the broadcast show that CARL had intercepted from Earth. An entertainment show with a house full of plate glass windows hanging from the carbon nanotube infrastructure of a space elevator. A dozen contestants on the show had lived under a camera and voted their housemates away. They weren't that different from her living under CARL's eyes.

"A thousand hours."

A tear rolled down Penelope's cheek as the man from space command became more agitated, his mouth jerking as he shouted in her displays. "Can't we go back?" She waited but the eye aperture remained dark. An entire lifetime lived on the wheel-ship traveling to Saturn and through the asteroid belt as the researchers had taken samples on Scylla 155, Charybdis 388, Circe 34, and many other asteroids. "Look at me, a pale girl who's never sunbathed."

"How beautiful you are."

An AI's words. The solar radiation had taken its toll. It left CARL with a weakening mind until now, she was left with her only companion someone who's only words were song titles.

"One more time."

Did she have a choice? Penelope toggled the mute and enabled visuals. "This is Penelope from the wheel-ship Discovery."

The space controller's eyes lit up. "The Discovery?"

"Yes." Penelope completed the final approach plans. Her screen darkened to pinpricks of stars until she refocused it on the station with Earth's blue oceans in the background. She shuddered.

She had time to work out and shower before they'd dock and hoped the weights would cheer her up. As she passed CARL's aperture, he said, "Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me".

Penelope palmed her hand over the glass sphere of the aperture.

"Hot! Hot! Hot!"

Penelope smiled. At least one thing to anticipate. Real conversation.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Craft Analysis: The Sleeper by Roger Zelazney (CA1)

Most recommendations on how to improve your craft include the dictum that writers should read. However, that reading is not all play. The best reading is done with an eye for what works or sparkles in a particular work and then an analysis of the craft the author used to evoke that effect. This series, possibly irregular, will explore a particular aspect of craft in a work (short story, flash, character from a novel or chapter). I don't claim that my analysis will be correct, but I'm going to try to write it as if it is because it'll be more interesting to read. If you disagree, please let me know in the comments or add your own blog entry describing this craft and I'll link to it.

This week's subject is Roger Zelazny's short story "The Sleeper" published in George R. R. Martin's shared world anthology Wildcards. Warning, the discussion below may include spoilers. If you haven't read the story and plan on reading the story, you should stop here.

I am not a huge fan of tension. Part of this may be because I too often read stories where I feel tension is used poorly. One example was a book I read told from multiple viewpoints where each chapter always ended at the height of conflict as it built tension through the chapter and then it switched to a different viewpoint so it never allowed that tension to resolve. Therefore, I wanted to analyze this story which struck me because the tension worked perfectly and although it's a short story is resolve the tension somewhat but still left me wanting to know more about what happens next.

The star of the story is Croyd, a child, who through a virus becomes a superhero whose powers change every time he sleeps (and his naps can take months before he awakes). The story is set up well because although Croyd quickly becomes a thief, it's mostly for the right reasons to try and support his family. And, it's mostly because of the friends he makes. Therefore, it builds sympathy for the character and that is useful in the next stage as the reader begins to see the clues that something is going to go wrong.

Tension begins to build in a scene where Croyd meets with Dr. Tachyon to find a way to end his changes or at least postpone them. The doctor tells him he could use coffee to get him a little extra time to get home. Croyd asks if there isn't anything more powerful, and the doctor tells him there is, but it's dangerous. It's this foreshadowing that begins to create the tension where we have enough of an idea about Croyd that we know he's going to try these amphetamines and the doctor has told us a little bit about the danger that they will create.

The next scenes increase the tension as they show Croyd taking the amphetamines and becoming delusional as he tries to postpone his changes. He becomes more careful in the future, but and this is key, in the last sequence his sister is going get married that weekend and Croyd can't afford to go to sleep because he would sleep weeks or months and miss the wedding.

This is the point where everything starts to go wrong. Croyd finds his skin begins to itch and atyppically has no superpowers. He starts to fall asleep. He's learned some and tries to take a lot of coffee to combat it but the sleepiness is starting too early and the reader knows that it's only going to get worse. During all of this, he starts to have a lot of pain as well related to the itching and begins to take painkillers. When he meets with the doctor again, the doctor tells him that he's hurting himself and should let himself go back to sleep and that ignoring his body could result in his death. Effectively, more and more hurdles are being added to Croyd's goal to see his sister married. And the danger has been dialed up. There is a side plot that appears be added to increase tension by delaying and making obvious how long Croyd is trying to stay awake to make his sister's wedding. During all this, he gets diarrhea which causes complications in him acquiring the disguise that he planned to wear so that he would not ruin his sister's wedding with his inhuman appearance. On the drive over for the finale, he's looking worse and worse but instead of letting his brother drive him home so he can sleep and recover, he pushes it yet further.

The tension in this story is created well through an understanding of Croyd and also you see him successfully begin to counter some of his problems (the amphetamine addiction) and then you see him put in a situation where he needs to take it and then it's amped up to increase the danger. And then, the pacing pulls the scene out to milk it for all that it's worth.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Going Underground (Brangxi Airship Pt. 7)

Part seven (and finale) in the Brangxi serial. A table of contents for the series.

The balloon of the Brangxi's airship loomed over the canted ceiling's of the row houses on Parliament Square. Terrance hid in the shadows and was glad they had moored the airship close to the ground where the Brangxi airmen couldn't see over the nearby buildings. A laborer, coal dust staining his cheeks, passed the alley holding a certificate. It promised an all expense paid vacation to the wilds of the Brangxi home world, even providing raw gold to the man's employer to excuse the winner from work for a month. A month. Bile rose in Terrance's throat as he remembered the men flailing as they fell from the airship.

Terrance leaned out of the alley, pulling at the sleeve of the man's overcoat. The man pulled his arm out of Terrance's grasp.

"You mustn't go," said Terrance.

The man wrinkled the certificate as he backpedaled away from the alley. Terrance attempted to swipe the certificate out of his hands. He felt guilty. All the papers -- even the Manchester Observer -- printed these "sweepstakes" into their papers. He had to help these people. Unthinking, they believed whatever they read.


Terrance had missed the certificate and the man stepped away from him. From the square, a Brangxi airman jogged forward. Terrance shrugged. The laborer would have to learn to think critically without his help. He ran through the alley, hearing the airman's footsteps chasing. He ducked into the next street and slid into a door alcove. The door opened and he fell backwards watching as a woman pushed the door shut again. He stood to look through the window in the door, but she pushed him away and when he opened his mouth, she said, "Shhh. He's passing the doorway now."

Terrance waited. Behind the heavy door, the room was silent except for his breaths.

"Okay, it's clear now."

Terrance looked at her thin lips, pinched. "But --"

"You must go. Before he returns."

Terrance had many questions. A bell tolled from the depths of the townhouse. "Why did you save me?"

She touched the watch -- Chester's watch -- on his wrist. "Now go. They mustn't find you here."

Terrance fled into another alley and thought of Chester's last words to him about a bookstore in Greenwich. He'd been preoccupied, thinking that he could solve the problem with a single story. He could have, if all the editors hadn't become corrupt just as Chester had accused. Terrance turned a corner and crashed into a Brangxi's midsection.

"Welcome," said Xebla. "It was rude of you to leave us."

The crash had knocked the wind out of him and she waited while he recovered his breath. "You said I could escape. Helped me."

She licked her lips. "I changed my mind. I missed you."

Terrance blushed. "But, my people." He backed away watching her arms. He was still too close, she could lunge and catch him.

"Oh that." She flicked her hair to fall over her shoulder. "Rakxi's plan. Not mine."

Terrance didn't trust her words, he believed she feigned her desire. In that moment it clicked. Everything was a subterfuge. Yet, before he could worry about this idea he had to concentrate on Xebla. He was a mouse to her, amusing in his struggles. He had to distract her, and attempt to find a way to escape. Perhaps, the truth would surprise her. "You're afraid, aren't you. Afraid we'll ally with with the Graklii."

Xebla's smile faded.

Footsteps approached from behind her. The new editor at the Manchester Observer. "Look, my prodigal reporter."

Another step gave him enough distance. Terrance sprinted back into the alley, away from them. He heard their footsteps and as he approached another street, two white horses pulling a carriage blocked his way. Terrance rolled under the carriage and grasped one of the beams of the undercarriage to lift himself off the gravel and braced his feet against the struts holding the rear axle. The carriage moved quickly and Xebla's boots dropped further and further behind as the carriage rumbled away.

Dust-ridden, Terrance had made the rest of the way across town on foot and it was late in the day as he arrived at the bookseller in Greenwich. A man, a full head of graying hair that needed a trim, turned over the open sign in the window. Terrance pulled at the door knob, but it was locked. The man pointed at the word 'closed' as the sign swung. Terrance lifted up his hand with the watch on it. A pause and then the man unlocked the door.

"How do you know Chester?"

Terrance looked over shoulders, afraid that the Brangxi had followed him somehow. "Can we talk inside?"

The man led Terrance into a back room where books piled up on the tables and floors. Two narrow chairs stood in a corner and the man handed Terrance a cup of tea. "Your story?"

Terrance told the bookseller how he'd snuck away on the airship and ended up with the Graklii and then tried to return home but was captured and that was when he met Chester. He even told the man about trying to publish his revelations, and how the editor blocked his publication.

"The editor wore a mask?"

Terrance nodded. "Underneath I saw an inhumane creature with no nose."

"They are allies of the Brangxi. Infiltrators of the government and newspapers."

"What do we do?" asked Terrance.

The man stood up and opened a scarred door. "Join us in the resistance." A stairway led down into the ground.

Terrance thought of himself as an observer. Not a doer. Had always believed that his way to fame -- and he wanted fame -- would be through the pen. He thought back over his adventures. He'd survived, he was here. He swallowed. It was time to do something for his country.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Writer's Weights: Allusion Challenge (WW1)

T.S. Bazelli wrote on focused learning and applying this to writing and then she applied it through fifteen exercises, or author aerobics, that she completed. She also had several other writers join her on these weekly challenges. Her author aerobics are currently on hiatus as she works on a serial story. I have decided to embark on my own focused learning while I wait for the author aerobics to resume. You are welcome to join me. Answers to the challenge will be posted on Friday.

Allusion Challenge

I'm starting with an easier, at least for me, exercise assuming that when starting an exercise program it is best to start with some easy weights so you don't overexert yourself and cause an injury. I like using allusion, a lot. However, the more I research this, the more I am uncertain whether this will be an easy exercise.

An allusion refers to another work. An example of an allusion:

One should be careful when crafting allusions so that one does not fly too high by creating an allusion to a character or work unknown by many of the readers or fly too low by creating an allusion that is cliché.

As many people may have realized this refers to Icarus's flight to add depth to the sentence. This used a concept but, allusions may also refer to the character or situation such as referring to a penny-pitching character as a Scrooge. The complexity of allusion is to hit the sweet spot where it refers to another work in a fresh way that lends more to the work that was written.

I tend to use all lot of allusion in my writing, but I tend to use very obscure references that many of my readers may not catch. Allusions can make your writing feel richer; however, there should be a balanced so that not all of them cryptic and serve only to muddy the passages.

The challenge: write a scene of 1000 words or less with one or more allusions. The theme: wheel.

Further reading:

This week's Writer's Weights participants:

Friday, September 3, 2010

NYC Vines (#FridayFlash)

A response to the New Yorker's comic by Tom Cheney with Tarzan swinging from a vine as he approaches Jane standing on the curb in her jungle dress, talking on a cell phone, saying, "Anyways, gotta go -- my ride's here."

Terry hated Mondays. He believed Mondays were cognizant of his travails and he'd tell anyone over a few beers his theory that although we lived in a world of science we still didn't understand everything, and in particular the gods. Couldn't have those beers tonight, though. The God of Monday hated him. Terry supposed the mutual feeling made it fair. Terry was open-minded, willing to let his hate wash away, but not after what Monday had surprised him with today.

Tick tock. The chatter of his thoughts vanished as he looked up from the paperwork to see 4:30 flash on the desktop clock. Late for his son's game. He dropped the paperwork, the pages scattering across his cubicle's desk. Work would wait until tomorrow. Outside the window beyond Lydia's cube, traffic crawled through New York city's arteries. More of Monday's interference. People jammed the sidewalks and Terry wondered if the subways had failed. No. He saw their faces, upturned as if they were looking at him. Pointing.

Terry tapped Lydia's shoulder until she looked up from her computer and removed her noise-canceling headphones.

"What?" she asked.

"Not normal." His words felt slow as if he'd dredged them from an abyss where they'd gone to hide while he'd struggled with his paperwork. Terry should descend the elevator to fight with the crowd outside and not waste time asking questions. "The people?"

"You want to know about the jungle outside. They're looking at the art exhibit." Lydia turned back to her computer raising her headphones.

Terry felt the world was too complex, too many things were unexplainable. Explained only by gods such as Monday. He stayed to dispel this one minor mystery. "Art exhibit?"

"Today's the grand opening. Where have you been? They've covered this in the news all month."

Simone and Klair's "The Vines". Terry realized he'd fallen victim to a typical Monday MO. Take a day going badly and add a twist to shatter any possibility of success. Terry remembered the exhibit was supposed to be downtown, vines hanging from buildings, but he didn't remember where. "Where's the exhibit?"

"Didn't you see it?" Lydia pointed at a green cable hanging outside the window.

Terry had thought it was a cable for the window washers. He swallowed as Lydia's headphones settled back over her ears. It was time to go. Even if he'd fail to make it in time for the game.

The elevator stopped at the sixth floor and two businessmen talked about "The Vines". "Makes you think about the building differently," said one of the men. "That's art in my book."

"Silly," and the other man. "Just makes me think of Tarzan."

That was it, thought Terry. He stuck his arm in the elevator to block it just before the door closed and ran across the floor towards a balcony. He unwrapped the vine from around a pole and loosened the button on his shirt. He kicked off from the building as his voice ululated. "Mmmm-ann-gannn-niiii!" He passed buses, taxis, and pedestrians gawking at him.