Now that I’ve graduated Law School, I’m excited to return to blogging regularly. I’m starting the summer with this address Neil Gaiman gave to a class of graduating artists. Everyone who ever produces art, or hopes to produce art, should read it. I loved it. Congrats to all graduates.
The Aldo Leopold essays I posted last week were so popular that I decided to post another one from the same book. ‘This excerpt, taken from the same section of “The Sand County Almanac” is titled “Odyssey,” and describes his conservation ethic in a different, thought provoking manner. The writing, as you probably noticed last week, is superb. Click after the break to read–it’s only about 1000 words, and it’s worth it.
I’ve been too busy to post anything worth posting for a while, but I think the following essays are certainly worth it. For a law school class, I just finished a re-read of Aldo Leopold’s classic “A Sand County Almanac.” Published in 1949, Leopold was able to put into words his view of conservation, a view that has been gaining steam (albeit with little substantive change in our land use practices). I have chosen two essays that really resonated with me, called “Thinking Like a Mountain” and “Escudilla”. They appear in this order, back to back, in the middle of A Sand County Almanac and do an amazing job of capturing some of the fundamental problems with how we interact with nature. Without further ado:
In a long belated post, I’m continuing my tour of novels that have won both the Hugo and the Nebula award, continued from here and here. Since I last posted, I’ve finished two books on this list and started a third. I finished The Windup Girl, and not long after that I read both Paladin of Souls and The Curse of Chalion, the book before it in its series. I’ve now started Doomsday Book. Reviews follow:
Just wanted to pass on this cool article, which is a quasi-book review of Eric Basso’s “Decompositions: Essays on Art and Literature” … It is a pretty cool discussion of how Fiction can, and perhaps should operate, and how Speculative Fiction (the weirder the better, perhaps) can ultimately help to do this. Have a great Friday and Weekend, everybody.
So, last Sunday morning, I was cruising up and down I-57 around dawn (long story) and listening to various albums on my i-pod. There, buried between Counting Crows, Neil Young’s Harvest, and the Black Seeds, the first lines of one of the best musicals came pouring out of my (admittedly) outdated speakers:
“My mind is clearer now.. At last / All too well / I can see / Where we all / soon will be. / If you strip away / the myth / from the man /you will see / where we all / soon will be.”
(I know, I know, I skipped the overture. Let me say, it’s splendid. But the lyrics… well, they’re nonexistent) This line, of course, is the first line of the first song of Jesus Christ Superstar, a song which is titled “Heaven on Their Minds.” The version I listened to (I think) was from the 1970 album, where Judas is sung by Murray Head, Jesus is sung by Ian Gillan (lead singer of Deep Purple), and Mary Magdalane is sung by Yvonne Elliman (On review, Wikipedia confirms). For my favorite version of “Heaven on Their Minds” see Carl Anderson’s version above from the movie.
As I’ve mentioned on here before, my flash fiction short story “The Farthest Coast” has been accepted at Daily Science Fiction, and via both the DSF website and the Science fiction blog SFSignal, the date has been announced as Tuesday, October 11. The story will be emailed to their entire readership (those that have subscribed to their mailing list) on that day. If you are into science fiction and fantasy (as you should be) then it’s a great new up and coming magazine that publishes a story every week day through e-mail, and you should subscribe. I’ve subscribed, and I get a decent to great short story in my mail box daily. If I’m busy, I won’t lie, I’ll delete it and move on, but I’ve enjoyed many of their stories.
If you don’t feel like subscribing, but want to read my story, they post the stories on their website one week after publication, which would be October 18 in my case. Don’t worry, I’ll remind you. (But you should subscribe- DSF has a great concept that I really think can help bring about change in the publishing industry, so all support will be welcome)
So, being a wanna be writer and all, I think’s important that I take some of the space on this blog to talk about the art of writing as far as my inexperienced little pea brain can handle it.
But what to talk about first?
Looking back to the stuff I wrote while travelling (ugh), in college (Meh), and in high school (I burned it afterward after struggling through the re-read), what is the biggest change I can see that has taken my writing to (my perception only, I guess) a higher level?
Well, for one, I write better. Plain and simple. I stopped being a was/were guy, and started using active verbs that gave a visual of what the subject was doing. In the past, my sentences would lie around on the couch, watching infomercials, too lazy to get up and feed themselves. They didn’t do anything. Here’s an example from a story called It was fun (see? even the title?) that wasn’t bad on a reread, but wasn’t particularly good:
The ship was deserted, or almost. There was a girl in one of the storage rooms, near the front, that hadn’t been found yet. Her name was Kate or Kaylie or something like that. A pretty young girl. She was the one moving, rolling over from her back to her side on the folded up carpet she was using as a bed. Her eyes were closed, and Evelyn wondered if she was sleeping.
Jesu Christo. That’s a lot of was’s. Now, you say, what’s the problem with was’s? I mean, it is the most basic verb, telling the most basic concept. It’s common. My answer: Was is fine. Two was’s is acceptable. More than that, you’ve got a problem. Was is like water. If you need one, fine. Take a sip. Even down another glass if you’re still thirsty. But, afterwards, you start to think about what else that drink could do. It could be a drink (or a sentence) alone, or it could be a drink (or a sentence) with something more. With taste, with flair, with personality. And after we all have drunk enough of these other beverages, we’re a little tired of water. We need something more. Suddenly, water (or was) isn’t enough anymore. We expect more.
That, in a weird, somewhat bad analogy, is why you can’t overuse the “to be” verbs. They technically do the job, but they don’t bring anything more to the table. If you are writing a legal brief or something that is supposed to be direct, “to be” verbs do the job perfectly. But writers aren’t trying to be precise. We are trying to entertain, to tell an engaging story, and to provide depth to our characters and our worlds. “Was” does not do that.
I like to think I’ve learned my lesson. Where my sentences used to laze about on the couch, now they are rollerblading and doing yoga. They’re doing work. Here is an excerpt from a novella I’m working on called “What Happened to Us on Tamkuhl” (upcoming in serialized form on this blog, beginning Monday, Aug. 29):
The strange liquid stained all the walls yellow and fluorescent in bright splotches, though I found no more skeletons or messages. I found nothing, in fact, until I pushed open the door to the last room. It was a simple storage room, with some old machinery stacked in a corner and a table against the opposite wall. Across the room from me, the wall held a door and two windows, and I realized that I stood in the farthest rear of the building, facing the back exit. The fluorescence covered the walls, but it dimmed under the eye of horizontal sunlight that filtered into the room. I was about to leave the room to meet up with the squad when something caught my eyes.
From my count, two was’s and neither weakened the paragraph. Every sentence helped to paint a picture, which they must do, because, above all, we’re story tellers. We need to create images and feelings in the minds of the readers, on top of getting information across. “Was” only gets information across. Often, losing was is an easy fix. The sentence “The boy was painting in majestic colors” can be switched from the present participle (I think) to the past tense with little effort: “The boy painted in majestic colors.” Others are less easy: “The girl was tired” must also be changed, but how to change it? Well, that’s the fun. Getting yourself out of the “to be” verbs forces you to write with description, to paint the scene for the reader in a way that shows the girl is tired, rather than simply stating so.
And that, on a basic level, is the first part of not wasting sentences: Make sure that they say something, and show, don’t tell! Next time on Writing about Writing: The wasted sentences, part 2: instilling theme.
I mentioned this before on Facebook, but my short story The Farthest Coast has been picked up by the e-zine Daily Science Fiction. It’s short, dealing predominantly with the theme of defining a good life. If any of you have read my post A turn of a phrase, discussing how writers input meaning into innocuous phrases, this story is an example of me doing the same thing. Based on my own estimations of production schedules at DSF, I think the story should come out in October. DSF e-mails a SF story to its many readers every Monday through Friday, and then posts the story on their website. You should definitely subscribe–many of the stories have been very good, and though the e-zine is young, it’s solid pay rates ensure it is putting out top notch stories. I’m adding it to the blogroll, and I’ll let you know the exact date the story will be published.
So, after writing the last post, I went to find my copy of the The Left Hand of Darkness. Unfortunately, I found it in my brother’s hands. He’s been reading it for two days, and he has the better claim to the book than my week stale one. (Curse you Dance with Dragons, and your 800,000 words.) So, I have to pick a new one of these books to read while I wait for him to finish LHoD. In case you missed yesterday’s post, I am going to read all the books that won both the Hugo and Nebula award for best novel. But how to go about choosing my next novel? I don’t have any on hand, and my library is spamming me with reminders about my fines. (Yes, Erie County Library, I know I haven’t returned Forever War. I can’t find it. I will though, as long as I don’t have to answer 5 e-mails a day about it.) With the library out of the picture, my only options are to buy and borrow. And, given my obsession with my shiny new kindle, I think I’m going to buy. But which one? The deciding factor, I’ve decided, is this: Whichever one is cheapest on Kindle. If there is a tie, I’ll buy the older one. That’s the rule. (Yes, I know this is stupid, and that I may be committing myself to an $11 purchase of a book it took literally $1 to produce, if that. And that I can get some of the older books used in paperback for a third of the price. But whatever. Kindle!)