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What’s this blog for?

What’s this blog for?

As online writing moves to other places, why on earth do I still have a blog?

I experience work as constant learning, about what librarians and librarianship are becoming, and also about management and leadership and how people interact with both. I am forever a work in progress. This blog is a place where I capture my observations and learning in a longer form. It’s primarily an archive for myself, but I’m happy to share it with others.

Reading, Paper, and e-readers

Reading, Paper, and e-readers

I’m frustrated by the current state of research that claims that we read better and retain more from paper than from an ereader, and that this is because of the form, that somehow we need the permanency of paper in order to form memories of the plot of a novel. This makes zero sense to me, but I’ve heard this argument enough times at this point. Fortunately Spark did an episode that investigated this, and came to a better conclusion.

If you gave someone a short story and told them to read it in an empty library, you’d probably get a better result than taking someone to an empty carnival and telling them to read a short story there. Not because the empty library is quieter than the empty carnival, or because libraries are just naturally better places for reading. It would be because the person walking into a carnival isn’t prepared and primed for reading while the person walking into the library is. We already know this is true; this is why they tell you not to bring your computer to bed with you to finish up some work, because if you do work in bed on a regular basis, when you go to bed your head will be primed for work rather than sleep.

So I have doubts that these experiments with ereaders and books are telling anyone which form is better for the reading experience per se. It’s only telling us that people are currently primed to think of computers/tablets/screens as things to watch movies on, or play games on, or browse the internet on. Most people are not primed to consider a screen a reading surface.

But some people are. Some people read on screens all the time, for academic work or for fun. For books that don’t and won’t exist in paper, there are audiences who have already made the switch. They must have other cues that prime them for reading from the same screen they use for other tasks. Of course, readers of online books are always sitting in the bookstore as they read. If they don’t like the turn a story takes, I suspect they will back-button out quicker than a paper-book reader will give up on a book they’ve borrowed or purchased. With online novels, there is always a universe of other stories waiting if the current one doesn’t suit.

I would be interested to see studies like this done with more context. How do those who read fiction on a screen all the time fare against people who don’t? As ereaders get into the hands of more and more people and reading ebooks becomes just as common as reading any other kind of book, do the results change? If a person starts reading an ebook and has poorer comprehension results, do those results improve after a month of reading ebooks? A year?

I remember in the late nineties there was some discussion about how to talk about interaction with the internet. Browse won, but I remember someone on the news talking about “looking at the internet,” or “watching the internet.” As someone who was already far beyond “watching” or merely “looking” at digital material, I cringed. You can watch things online, that presenter wasn’t wrong. You do look at stuff on the internet. That guy saw a screen that looked a lot like a tv, and transferred the language and the modes of thinking to it. He was a passive viewer of internet content, and that’s how he framed his experience.

Ipads are not about being looked at, they’re about being interacted with. An ipad in particular is the first device to fit into that strange niche between smartphone and computer, a device driven entirely without a proxy roller ball or mouse or stylus or keyboard. You touch the content and it reacts. It’s an engagement device, not a device to be looked at or watched (though you can look at and watch things on ipads, too). It doesn’t really surprise me that giving a bunch of people ipads or ereaders doesn’t yet prime people to sink into deep contemplative thought. People are still primed to look at how their physical touch is interacting with digital activity.

Likewise, I wonder if anyone’s done any experiments on audiobooks. Read a page, hear a page: is one better than the other? I suspect it’s what you’re used to.

For many years I’ve been painfully aware of the anti-ebook league who are extremely keen to point out how inferior ebooks are. I know there was a similar group who objected to the written word in the first place (“if you don’t need to memorize it, everyone will become a gibbering idiot!”), and then to the printing press (“Bad! Cheap! Sloppy!”). While I still have a too-steady stream of paper books coming into my house, I’m glad books are going digital. To me, the story, the information, the content is the most important thing. Digital text isn’t limited by its font size. It can be read aloud by a screenreader. It can be translated by a braille display. I can twist it, add more notes to it than it contains in the first place. Like Dickens did it, it can be delivered serially. Digital text might mean more text, and to me that’s a plus.

Of Horseless Carriages

Of Horseless Carriages

Tablets are interesting. I suspect they are an invention of a culture that thinks of itself as mobile but actually isn’t; North America is more of a walk-and-sit culture, which wants portable more than it wants truly mobile. But what’s especially interesting about tablets is how hard it is for us to shift away from thinking about them as computers (where  “computer” means a screen that sits in front of a keyboard on a table).

I’ve been experimenting with hooking up a bluetooth keyboard to my ipad. I’ve resisted doing that for the longest time, because I don’t like to fall into the horseless carriage chasm. I don’t want to think about a tablet as a computer; it’s a different beast. It’s not a mini workstation, and I don’t want to turn it into one. But because I’m leaving on holiday next week, and because I’m currently working on a writing-intensive project, I started thinking about how I could use my ipad as a real writing tool.

I think a software keyboard is fine most of the time. When I’m not doing serious writing (upwards of 2k in a sitting), I have no problem using a software keyboard exclusively. But a writing project is a writing project, and for that many words, I’m fastest and most comfortable with a keyboard. So I broke down and worked out how to connect a keyboard to the thing. I took it out for a spin one day, keyboard and ipad packed up in a purse, and set it up in a pub, in a coffee shop, and even on a bus. I absolutely loved it. I loved it more than I expected to. It was great. I’ve got the right apps to make it work, they all sync back up with my computer. It’s like a remote port of my computer; the whole project resides on my laptop, but I can take a comfortable keyboard and just the pieces I’m working on out with me into the world and work on them wherever I happen to be. Scene by scene, nothing else. It’s nice.

As I get closer to turning my ipad into a mini computer, I’m getting more sensitive about the differences between those two, conceptually. I don’t have a keyboard that’s part of an ipad case. My keyboard is a second thing I carry with me. That might seem awkward or odd, or at least less than ideal, I realize. But writing is a singular activity for me, and not one I’m always planning to do when I stick my ipad in my purse. I don’t want my ipad to always be connected to a keyboard; sometimes I just want to read on it. So I’d rather have a separate keyboard and keep the slim ipad case I’ve had since I first bought it. I noticed, when looking up reviews of ipad keyboards, that a separate keyboard is considered a disadvantage. Too much to carry, I guess, and it’s considered a problem that the keyboard doesn’t contain some kind of stand to make the ipad sit up like a proper screen.

That it’s not turning an ipad into a mini laptop.

Horseless carriage: there it is, isn’t it. If you’re going to have a keyboard, your ipad is automatically turning into a workstation. Why do we want an ipad to be a mini laptop? It’s not one. It doesn’t need to be one. A keyboard doesn’t need to turn it into one, either.

I tried working with my ipad up close to the keyboard, like a monitor, as if they were connected; it wasn’t very comfortable. So I moved it. I moved several inches back, where it’s easier to look at. I shifted it over to the left when my food arrived so I could read what I’d done over dinner. And then, finally, after far too long, I realized I could lay my ipad flat on the table, like a pad of paper, and type on my keyboard even though there was no screen in front of me. Because there doesn’t need to be one. I’m working with a device that’s more like a pad of paper than a laptop, and typing with the screen lying flat next to me actually works quite well.

Though I suspect it looks a bit strange to passersby if I’m sitting in a café typing furiously into a keyboard with no screen in front of me. But it feels great. And it made me realize that a keyboard isn’t the bottom half of a laptop. It’s just an input device I’ve come to feel very comfortable with. That’s all.

Novel Outlines

Novel Outlines

I believe this belongs to @digitalinkwell on twitter: a bird’s eye view of a novel. Another outliner! I’m always happy to see someone else’s process.

Mine is entirely digital (though I have been tempted to cover over my walls with post-it notes). Here’s what it looks like:

That’s The whole thing, divided into chapters. I summed up each of the chapters in as few words as possible here for the slimmest bird’s eye view possible.

Here’s what it looks like when you open up a chapter:

Those are scene summaries for each scene in the chapter. I spend most of my time at the scene level rather than the chapter level. I think of chapters are mostly organizational.

And this is what it looks like when you actually start to write the story: the scene summary is on the right hand side, and the pane in the middle is where the actual words go. (This is a shot from before I started.) The software is Scrivener, and I am in love with it. Outlining for the win!

Adventures in Public Domain Reading

Adventures in Public Domain Reading

My acquisition of an iPad resulted in me reading my first ever ebook (Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel) followed promptly by my second (Holly Black’s White Cat). Having learned that I enjoy reading ebooks via ibooks, I discovered the collection of free ebooks available on the platform via project Gutenberg. So, I finally read through a few Arthur Conan Doyle books, some Daniel Defoe, and others. Now, reading books written prior to the 20th century isn’t exactly a novel experience for me. My first degree is in English. I took Renaissance literature, I’ve read Paradise Lost and Pilgrim’s Progress and Canterbury Tales and Pride and Prejudice and all those books you read when you do a degree in English. I discovered my love of Daniel Defoe reading Roxana and Moll Flanders. I know very well how many great books are out there.

But this time around, reading them next to modern books on a hypermodern platform, I’m noticing something odd about them. They seem slightly flat. That seems unfair, why would these books feel flat? I thought maybe it had something to do with current expectations of character building. I thought, maybe vie just become accustomed to reaching a particular level of intimacy with a character that wasn’t the fashion before now. But then unpacking that a bit more, I thought it was actually just what mascarades as the illusion of intimacy with a character.

In a 19th century novel, we are fairly intimately enmeshed in the lives of the protagonist. We follow them everywhere. We know most of everything that they do. But somehow that didn’t feel like enough to me. Following them around, hearing all their conversations, accompanying them to meals, it just doesn’t feel like enough.

So then I started to think about all the current fiction I’ve been reading, and what’s going on in the, that’s so different.

For a start, current novels stick to a structure for more tightly. I read a lot of YA, fantasy and science fiction, and these genres all adhere to a pretty strict narrative structure. A protagonist with a mission, a story with a powerful beginning, lots of action in the middle to hold your attention, enemies that have at least some life breathed into them, a crashing, satisfying conclusion. I can’t read anything written in the last 10 years without being hyperaware of now word processing has shaped it. Easy editing, storage, searching, sharing, the relative ease of writing incredible volume that still hangs together as a complete story arc; I don’t imagine any of this would have been so easy and routine without access to a simple word processor. I think about J.R.R. Tolkien and how there’s just no way the detour with Tom Bombadil would have made it past an editor today. And I know he edited a lot, but I don’t think The Lord Of The Rings would have been quite the same book if J.R.R. Had had access to a MacBook and a copy of Scrivener. For nor, it would have been even longer.

But it isn’t only that. I also realized, reading Conan Doyle and Cassie Clare at roughly the same time, that we have very few stories without a Sixth Sense sort of twist to them. I’m hard pressed to think of a single story vie read in the past 10 years that doesn’t have some kind of ancient twist in the latter middle or end of the story. Not just a twist, see, actually a secret hidden in the past of the character that makes everything they’ve done all along suddenly appear in a different light. It not enough anymore to just have a plot; I also need this huge, revealing understory to cast a pall over everything else. I’m used to getting two stories for every story I read. And somehow this dual story surprise is what makes the characters feel more open to me. We don’t just go through a series of events together, which I think has largely been enough to make a good, immersive novel until relatively recently. I also expect to be let into a whole other internal drama, with secrets, betrayals, alternate identities, and shifts so massive there is no going back.

In Harry Potter, we have the relatively simple story of the boy who is a wizard, off to wizarding school; but of course there is the understory about his dead parents and all of their choices and relationships, all of which is in the past but coexists and underscores the progression of the narrative. Couldn’t we have done without it? Would it have seemed even thinner if it had just been a story about the here and now, like Holmes and Watson? Moriarty isn’t revealed to be Sherlock Holmes’ long lost twin brother, tangled in feelings of rejection and jealousy of his brother’s familial support and ability to avoid turning to the dark side. Nor is Moriarty Holmes’ father.

I think my expectation of this deeper explanation, revealed fairly late into a narrative but hinted at along the way, is what makes stories without them feel thin, more surface. I have no idea really why Sauron is so evil in The Lord of the Rings. He just is. Just like Moriarty. Defoe’s Roxana is a sexy criminal, for no apparent reason other than that is simply who she is. Without the big reveal and subsequent rethinking of the entire sequence of events toward the end of the story, I feel as though there’s a sizable chunk of the story left to the imagination. No wonder everyone questions Watson’s devotion to the confirmed bachelor Holmes; we’re used to the other shoe eventually dropping, and if it doesn’t, we’re left to find it and reveal it ourselves.

I love these stories with the twists in them. They’re extremely satisfying. I’ve just never noticed until now that the twists have the effect of simulating a new level of intimacy with the characters and the story, perhaps because I the reader learn something alongside the protagonist. We become confidants rather than merely storyteller and audience. But I think it is illusion, and a powerful one. Can’t an old school narrative filled with descriptions of actions and decisions tell you just as much about a character as learning an old family secret? By all rights, shouldn’t it tell us more?

Real World Virtuality

Real World Virtuality

I started reading Spook Country last night before bed, the first chapter of which ends with a virtual world/real-world mashup that has the main character standing in front of the Viper Room in LA looking down at a dead River Phoenix on the sidewalk in front of her. Leaving aside a whole other post I could write about the significance of that particular moment to people born around when I was, it made me think about gaming and ubiquitous computing.

I suspect most of what I’m about to say is so passe to most people who think about gaming and the internet, but it was a fun revelation for me, at least.

When I first started talking outloud about ubiquitous computing in the library after the Copenhagen keynote about sentient cities, our chief librarian wilted a little. “We just built this place!” she said. But I think ubiquitous computing is not going to come from the walls at all; I think it’s just going to use the walls to interface with mobile computing.

Okay imagine it: you have VR goggles. You put on your goggles and you see the world around you, but also the game space. You have already entered in the usernames of your friends, who are also playing this game with you. You are synced up to GPS, so your goggles know where you are in relation to your environment. You have chosen a genre or theme, but the game is constructed on the fly by the system based on the environment you’ve chosen, the number of civilians in your view, weather information, and variables drawn from the user profiles of you and your friends.

So say you pick a large field by a river for your game space. Maybe you do a walkthrough it first with your goggles on so that the system can add more detail to the GPS and map data; that data would go into a central repository for geographical information. The system can then generate characters that wander past, hide behind bushes, sit in trees, etc. You and your friends can all see the generated characters because of the goggles, so you can all interact with them simulaneously. The characters might be generated by the game designers, or they might be created by users, like the Spore creature creator, with backstories and voices all supplied by fans, vetted by the designers. You and your friends can be costumed by the system; when you look down at your own (bare) hands, they might be wearing chain mail gloves and be carrying a sword.

Or say you pick a city block as your game space; the system connects to google map data, and then also takes in information about all the people around you, and uses them as part of the game. It could turn the city in a futuristic place, with flying cars and impossibly tall buildings. Running around the city, chasing aliens, avoiding civilians, being a big ole’ gaming geek in full view of the public. Awesome.

So now: the virtual library could come with a pair of goggles and a good series of fast databases.

That would be pretty cool. Just sayin’.

Poetry vs. Rationality and the Internet

Poetry vs. Rationality and the Internet

April is poetry month, so the local morning radio show had a poet on to read some of her poetry. I’m not going to mention any names, but the poems and the discussion of them annoyed me so much that I had to shout at my radio and then get out of bed to rant about it here.

First thing on tap on the radio program this morning: the presumption that real poetry, real art, comes from some sort of unconscious muse, not from any rational purpose or thought. Why is it that we believe (somehow) that beauty can’t be rational, or rationally created? Fractals are beautiful and are incredibly rational, after all. Aren’t the best forms and most beautiful shapes in the world mathematically perfect? I’m tired of the idea that somehow the real writer is buried inside you, underneath everything you’ve learned to be and say in an ordered society, and that if you just step back and unburthen yourself in some kind of “uncivilized” and “pure” way you’ll find true art spewing forth. Art is craft as much as anything else is, it’s a skill you learn and have to hone. Most honest writers will tell you this. Those who suggest otherwise remind me of anxious 19th century Englishmen getting taken in by the savage nobility of E. Pauline Johnson and mourning their own tamed inner beasts. If you’re writing for your own joy and self-expression, please, don’t let me stop you, but if (like the poet on the radio this morning) you intend to make your living at it, ie, you expect me to give you money and read what you’re written, you damn well better have thought of something valuable to say to me. This is an argument I’ve had with my artist sister for years; you have my attention now: say something! Say something interesting! Tell me a story, tell me a moral, tell me to do something for the good of humanity or make me feel sorry for something, provoke me, but dear god please make me think. And don’t say something trite. Cripes.

Paraphrasal from the radio: “Yeah, when I first wrote that it just dropped out onto the screen and I was like, omg, what’s going on here? But then after a bit I realized that it’s genius.” NO ITS NOT. IT’S VERBAL SELF-STIMULATION. IT’S JUST SOME VERY LAME WORD ASSOCIATION GAMES. But thanks for playing.

The second poem had this as a basic thrust: nature is pure and good, and non-competitive, and gentle, and wonderful, and we’re part of nature, so this whole digital communication thing is just unnatural. And cold. And too fast. And inhuman. We should remember who we really are, pure beings made of moonlight and sea water.

You know what else is human-created, fabricated, not springing directly from sunshine and sea salt? Language. GOD FORBID language take on new forms, and woe betide the day when difficult concepts become digital visuals, because that would be a real departure from our TRUE SELVES and would only CUT US OFF from our SAVAGE, ARTISTIC, NATURAL, GENTLE and WONDERFUL inner artists. Bleh. Poetry needs a big smack in the face from postcolonialism if you ask me.

In honour of poetry month, however, I give you my favourite poem by Dorothy Livesay, and the sexiest poem in the history of the world, The Cinnamon Peeler by Michael Ondaatje. Now there’s some art for you.

Winnie-the-Pooh Fanfiction

Winnie-the-Pooh Fanfiction

I’m not entirely sure how to spin this story. Disney is replacing Christopher Robin with a girl. I mean, on one hand, I’m a big fan of taking elements of popular culture and throwing them in the blender. I like the idea that fictional worlds are open; we can always wander into Wonderland and tinker with it, recreate it, set a new story in it. I like the idea that once a fictional world and fictional characters are released into the wild they become, on some level, the property of all of us; once we take them into our lives we create them in our imaginations, and the residue of them is left of us all to use. Fictional worlds and fictional people are like digital documents in that they can be endlessly replicated by each individual user. We make a copy, we don’t steal the original widget. So partially, reading this story about Winnie-the-Pooh, I think it’s sort of interesting that someone is very seriously stepping into his world again and see how he would respond to a little girl. (A ‘tomboy’, no less, whatever that’s supposed to mean these days.)

But on the other hand, this is Disney. This is less about stepping back into the 100 acre wood to reimagine it and more about wringing some more cash out of a classic.

“Pooh appears to be a robust brand that can handle expansion.”

Reducing Pooh to its market value makes my blood turn cold. But it makes me wonder: why replace Christopher Robin? What would a tomboy bring to this new audience that Christopher Robin couldn’t? He wasn’t a particularly masculine little boy, after all. He was a gentle little soul, not particularly exclusionary. Obviously this is less about being creative and more about repackaging something that sells to see if it will sell more. But the entire process rests on an interesting point; companies hate it when fans take possession of a character or universe and produce new stories featuring it, and often push forward the ‘integrity’ argument (something Anne Rice clings to). Interesting how corporate-driven fanfiction, which is what this Tomboy-girl thing is for Winnie-the-Pooh, is just fine to them.

So for now, Christopher Robin is out in the 100 acre wood, all on his own:

And so Christopher Robin began to run, first one way and then the next, looking for a tree or steam or path he knew, so he could find his way to his friends. He called out to them — “Pooh! Piglet! Tigger! Rabbit! Owl! — but none answered, or if they did Christopher Robin did not hear them. From time to time, however, it seemed to Christopher Robin that he could hear them, just over a small rise, all his friend’s voices, and a new voice he did not know. But when he ran that way he found nothing, just more trees and more leaves.

It was in a small pile of leaves that Christopher Robin finally lay, covering himself with their little brittle hands to ward off the chill of the night in the Hundred Acre Wood. “It’s a simple thing, really,” he said, bravely. “I’ve been looking for all my friends, and they have been looking for me! If I stay in one place, they will find me. And then we will go to Pooh’s, where I will be warm and have something nice to eat.”

And so Christopher Robin lay down in the leaves and went to sleep, shivering only a little, trusting in the love of his friends to find him and bring him home.

On Muses: The Process of Learning by Writing

On Muses: The Process of Learning by Writing

It amazes me what you can learn by starting to write something. While I’m trying to very hard to plot carefully, and I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about big plot elements and moving things around and being as clear as I can be with myself about everyone’s motives, still the discovery method rears its random head when I actually sit down to write.

I’m not a fan of the concept of the muse. My characters are my own, I invented them, they can’t do or say anything that I don’t imagine them saying (at least, so far, since I have not spawned any fanfiction universes). I get a bit bored when people talk as if their characters lead different lives outside of the writing, or are talking to them personally, or need to be cajoled or prodded into action, so on and so forth. And yet.

I find that I learn so much about a character once I start actually writing them. I can plan them out all I want, but writing seems like actually becoming them, or thinking like them, really getting into their psyche in a way that isn’t as precise in the planning stages. Because once I start writing a character I sometimes get completely new vibes off them. Rather than attributing this to a muse, or to some disembodied version of the character who knows me and can chat with me (I don’t know how people manage this; if my character knows I exist, the plot falls apart because then they know they’re fictional, and it’s a paradox, and argh), I’m attributing it to learning from writing.

I have two examples of this. I have a character who is bisexual. I have always known this about him, and there has never been a moment where I have strayed from that early conviction about his character. But one of the things I never wanted to write about was him telling his parents. I didn’t want to write a coming out story, it’s not the focus of this plot, and just the idea of that conversation made me tired. I just felt there would be drama and there’s enough drama in the book without that sort of thing. I’d rather have his parents die off before he felt any need to mention it. His parents are so committed to a very traditional way of life, I just didn’t see them ever accepting anything so non-traditional.

But then I started writing his dad. Nothing terribly dramatic, just a brief but serious conversation which has already been edited out. But in writing a simple bit of dialogue I just got that this bisexuality revelation wouldn’t break him or throw him into a frenzy. It just wouldn’t, he would just be happy that everyone was healthy and alive and at peace with the world, nothing else would matter. It was just startlingly clear to me. And what a shock, after all my planning told me not to broach this subject between these characters. Now, I haven’t tried this trick with his mom yet. But his dad at least would be on his side in a heartbeat. I’m not even sure they’ll have this conversation. I’m not sure his parents will ever know. But I learned something important about this character I just would not have known until I got inside his head by writing him.

The other thing I’ve been doing, here and there, is writing short scenes in first person present tense. I have such a love/hate relationship with it. In general I don’t like the first person OR the present tense. I feel like if you’re going to go first person present tense you have to write very conversationally, because it’s got to be 100% dialogue. Even when it’s not dialogue, first person is your character talking, even in her/his head. And generally speaking people don’t talk description. People don’t sit there and muse about things with adverbs and adjectives. They think conversationally, actions and people. So if I’m going to write first person present tense, I’m going to do it like a monologue.

But I’ve been writing short scenes to answer my own questions. Things happen in the story and I ask myself, how new is this or that? What’s so-and-so’s experience with X or Y? And these questions spawn these little monologues in the first person, between one character and another. (Not me. No no not ever to me! It’s my question but I guess I put it in the mouth of a character he would feel comfortable with, comfortable telling, and work from there.)

It’s weird to go from writing third person past tense to first person present. Suddenly you have this voice to deal with and that’s really quite interesting. I guess it’s like writing extended dialogue, but I find myself really learning about a character by doing this. What words would he use? How would he structure this story that he’s telling? Is he entirely factual? Does he go back and add his later interpretations of things, and does he recognize that he’s doing that? Does he gloss over things? And I guess the odd part about it is that I don’t seem to consciously ask those questions. I just try it, and do it. Learning as I go.

It’s amazing, really, how much you know about a story that never shows up in the story itself.

I’m not going to say I work with muses. But I can see where the idea comes from.

Cliches Scorned

Cliches Scorned

18,701 / 100,000

Today I looked at a variety of pages cataloguing the typical cliches of the fantasy genre (which, somewhat inexplicibly, I find myself writing). These included The Grand List of Fantasy CLiches and The Not So Grand Cliche List. These are amusing, but also instructive, of course.

I am of two minds about the cliche. I realize, on one hand, that the idea is to avoid cliches at all costs, because if you’re using them your story isn’t terribly original. But on the other hand, cliches are cliches for a reason; they do something useful, they stir something in us (if well executed, of course). I’m interested in cliches, I’ll be honest. There’s nothing like a retelling of a powerful fairy tale, there’s nothing like that sense of satisfation when a story ends just the way you felt it should, and nothing quite so annoying as when a character does the exact opposite of where you felt she was going (ahem, Little Women). It seems to me that cliches, on the bright side, are that feeling; cliches scorned, that’s the real mistake.

I’m inspired by cliches, to be perfectly honest. I love to write stories that are based on something so well-worn you think there’s nothing salvagable in them. I learned long ago that it’s no the cliche that’s boring, it’s relying on it to take you all the way home that doesn’t work.

Maybe this is the difference between people who want to be surprised by a book and those who want to see the process. I don’t really care about how a book ends; I’m more interested in seeing how we get there. Likewise, I don’t care if a storyline is cliched. I just want to know if it works, if it’s satisfying. There are only so many stories, isn’t that true? We’re all writing the same story, metaphorically speaking. But only we can put ourselves in ours. So they’re all bound to be different in a million little ways.

Amazon Reviews

Amazon Reviews

A one star review of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, as posted on

I bought these books to have something nice to read to my grandkids. I had to stop, however, because the books are nothing more than advertisements for “Turkish Delight,” a candy popular in the U.K. The whole point of buying books for my grandkids was to give them a break from advertising, and here (throughout) are ads for this “Turkish Delight”! How much money is this Mr. Lewis getting from the Cadbury’s chocolate company anyway? This man must be laughing to the bank.

Too funny. Just like how the New Testament is full of advertisements for those “30 pieces of silver” Cadbury is trying to sell us. Good times.

Amusing one star amazon reviews for famous books collected here.

Progress Notes

Progress Notes

As I’ve mentioned previously, I am taking up writing again. Writing is an all-consuming activity in my experience, and I’m not sure how real writers keep up with their lives while cranking out novels. I’m moving pretty slowly on mine, which is probably a good speed for someone as impatient as me. Having other things to do forces me to look at what I’ve done and not skimp on each part. Savour every little scene as it’s before me, that’s the ticket.

At any rate: I want to record my progress.

13,463 / 100,000

My goal today was to get about halfway through chapter three, but all I did was add 1000 words to chapter two. Yes, those 13,000 odd words represents two chapters and exactly three days of otherworld time. I’m concerned about overly-lengthy chapters, but I guess that should be the last thing I worry about. I’m hoping for no more than 100,000 words. Possibly that’s undershooting this thing, who knows.

It’s funny, my friend June mentioned that it must be easier to take stuff out rather than put it in, and that made me realize that the exact opposite is true for me. I can always expand on something. Taking anything out is pure torture. I’ve been writing this thing much the way you would paint a picture; put the bones out first, and then go over and over it with different colours until it looks about the way you want it to. At this point I can’t really re-read what I’ve written without adding another layer.

I’m taking some management advice on this one: only get it to 80%. If you’re only working to produce something that’s 80% perfect, then there’s room for that 20% to come from others without causing pain and personal damage in the process. We’ll see how that goes.

I’d just like to note that there is exactly no relationship between writing and being a librarian. I know that seems odd, but really. No relationship there at all.

Picking up the Pen (again)

Picking up the Pen (again)

This post has nothing to do with librarianship. I started keeping a blog in 2001, and while my life has always had one dominant theme or another, I’ve never had a subject-specific blog. Since librarianship is my bread and butter these days, that’s covered most of what I’ve been posting about lately.

But this is a slight diversion. I’m working on a manuscript at the moment, so I’m going to use this space to talk a bit about that as well. The process of writing is strange, sometimes enlightening, but sometimes completely crazy, and I think getting a bit meta about the process will help to keep me sane.

The story of the manuscript: I started writing this thing at the recommendation of a wise reader. I used to write a quite a lot in amateur online writing communities, and I really really enjoyed it. I like writing, what can I say. So when I started to get significant feedback from professionals in the publication industry telling me to stop writing for the web and start something I could actually publish, I took them very seriously and started working on it. I looked at the expectations of publishers, took stock of what sort of thing got published these days, and reformatted some of my ideas to fit. I did a lot world building, a lot of character sketches, and then I started writing.

I did every single thing wrong. I thought I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t. I didn’t plan enough. I didn’t pay enough attention to the thing as a whole. I wrote one version, got some feedback, and then did a serious revision. Then I sat on it for a few months, returned to it, did another serious revision, and vowed to write one more chapter of a conclusion and that would be it. I had taken all the advice I’d gotten. I had fixed the things that bothered me, and fixed the things that bothered others. I had added characters just to kill them, added drama, cut characters, revised some basic assumptions. It was all done. And then I started my library school co-op and dropped it altogether.

I really thought I was done with writing at that point. I just couldn’t take the nitpicky tedium of it by then. I had other fish to fry. When I was writing, I really wanted to be a writer. The librarian thing might work as a fallback, but I wanted to be a writer, at least in the short term. But once I got really into librarianship that seriously changed. Librarianship is the only profession I’ve ever felt really passionate about, and once I realized I actually wanted to be good at my job and change the world in my own little way (rather than just get a steady pay cheque), my writerly dreams fell by the wayside.

So now I’m 4 months deep into my new job, I’m learning a lot and enjoying myself, and suddenly I’m feeling the pull of this manuscript again. Or, at least, the idea of it. It’s not the idea of being a writer that interests me, or even the idea of publishing. I don’t want to change my profession, I don’t want to quit if the writing thing works out. It’s this story, these characters, and the simple fact that I still really enjoy writing that’s bringing me back to it.

I never returned to the original files of my last revision. They’re zipped up and on my hard drive, but I haven’t even opened them. When the ideas, the scenes, and the characters came back to me, I decided to simply catalogue them. What were the elements of this story that I really liked? What were the events that I wanted to write about? What were the pieces of it that made me return to thinking about this story? I picked up a nifty piece of software called Idea Knot. It lets you jot down ideas and then organize them into categories (single ideas can fit into multiple categories, if you like, it’s pretty flexible). So I just wrote down everything I liked and the things I wanted to see. I re-imagined the characters, I interrogated and challenged the decisions I made the first time. I developed new answers to old problems. I discarded characters that weren’t fundamental to the plot. I massively revised the geography, added art and religion, reconceptualized the order of events. And as the list of elements grew, I started filing them into some kind of chapter order. I made notes about elements of the story that should be clear in each chapter. I talked to some writers I know about my concerns, about constructing good characters and the pitfalls of some of my plot elements. I turned a heavily event-driven story into a heavily character-driven narrative. I found a committed beta reader (thank you Caitlin) who had already sat through versions one and two and would be a soundboard for some of the crazy directions I thought the story might take. I pasted my emails to her into my collection of notes, ideas, and character sketches. And eventually I had a fairly detailed outline for a mostly (but not entirely) different story.

Now I am (slowly, carefully, hesitatingly) starting to write again. I have a solid framework for the first three chapters, and I’m going to write them. And then I’m going to look back over my three chapters, consider my plan of attack, and look at getting a solid framework for the next three chapter that will work well with what I’ve already done. Small steps!

The last time I sat down to write I could hammer through a 6000 words like it was nothing and then just keep going the next day. This time I think I’ve gone so far in the other direction that I’m almost organizing myself into some kind of creative straightjacket. The first day I sat down I ended up with about 600 words and couldn’t believe how slowly it was coming. It wasn’t painful, it was actually just as enjoyable as before, but I was so aware of how much I want this story to really work that I’m so much more careful word by word. I’m not clinging to a darling sentences anymore; I’m less sensitive to criticism and more committed to the story itself than to the individual words. By the time I was done that first night I had 1500 words and forwarded them all on to my beta reader. We discussed it, I did some expanding and editing, and now I have 3115 words. At one time I had 96,000 heavily-revised words; it’s amazing how proud I am of this 3115.

But I’m writing this story because I want to write this story, that’s it. I’m not going to look at what’s publishable or what audiences tend to like this time around. I don’t care. Now that I’m gainfully employed (and loving my job), I’m not doing this because I’m trying to change my life, or make a name for myself, or embark on a new profession. I’m going to write this story because I want to, and I’m going to write it the way I think it should be written. If someone wants to see it after that, I have no objection. But I ain’t quitting my day job either way. But it’s wonderful to be wrapped up in a story again. It’s pure delight. And as my beta reader points out, my delight seems to be shaping up into a better story.

Feeling Sorry for Celia

Feeling Sorry for Celia

Have purchased this book for a young friend of mine about to celebrate a birthday, and I will now have to go buy her another copy because I started reading it and I can’t part with it. No, I will not part with it.

If my young friend likes it half as much as I do, I will be outrageously pleased.

Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister
I picked up Wicked near the beginning of the fall term, so this review is substantially late. I’m not sure where I heard about it; it’s always difficult to remember the preconceptions I had about a book prior to actually reading it. But I heard about it somewhere and was intrigued, though I was never a rabid Oz fan.

In sum, Wicked is a retelling of The Wizard of Oz, but from the point of view of the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West, whom the author, Gregory Maguire names Elphaba. The story begins with Elphaba’s birth, which is shrouded in hints of evil, blood-thirstiness, and the conjunction of faith and witchcraft. But as the story of her life progresses, Elphaba becomes less and less potentially evil and more and more astute critic of the world around her. In the end, she appears to be one of the few truly good people in Oz.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say about it after I finished. I was in a dismal mood that day, I remember that, and somehow the end of it seemed unsatisfying and strange to me. Strange and not strange, since it ended exactly they way it had to. (We’ve all seen the movie at least, even if we haven’t read the books.) This is an elaborate and well-thought-out interpretation of that technicolour story, one that invokes and fights against the ethos of the film at every turn. The echo of that scary, green-skinned lady in the movie (“I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!”) haunts the story in a very deliberate and teasing way.

I love fanfiction. I love the idea of it, I love the interaction of the audience with the author’s world. I love the boldness of a reader taking a story and turning it into their own, and I love that the actual details of a universe, complicated as they are to create from nothing, do not, in the end, define any story. Everyone can write essentially the same story with the same characters over and over and have it turn out entirely different every time. In fact, I would say there is a closer relationship between many different stories written by one author than there is between one story written by many authors. As it turns out, it’s what’s behind the story, the words themselves, the metaphors and ideas that makes the thing what it is, not the details, not the names of the characters or even the plot.

So I was more than ready to accept Wicked. And I loved what Maguire did with the Wicked Witch of the West. He says that he did not actually intend to make Elphaba so sympathetic, she just ended up that way. Possibly that’s what makes her such a strong character. And I suppose this is more of a character sketch than a story. Which sounds like a criticism, but it’s not really. We know the story already, we’re not reading this book to find out about the story. We’re reading it to have the wicked witch’s motivations revealed to us. There’s a moment in this book where the film takes over, where you can’t help but see Judy Garland pop up in front of you. Most of the book is a long lead up to the events of the film, and as a reader you feel a bit nervous when the familiar plot and imagery takes over. Suddenly you are reminded that this is a story with a strict timeline, and that you know the sad fate of this green-skinned woman you’ve come to love.

I loved the politics of this book, the complexity Maguire added to an essentially simplistic world. (Not having read them, I can’t speak for the books, which may or may not be simplistic, but it seems clear that Wicked is in fact fanfiction for the film, not the books.) The Wicked Witch of the West is a radical socialist in a fascist world. This might have been heavy-handed if he weren’t writing it in L. Frank Baum’s universe, but, like rap music, Maguire is lifting a riff of discourse when he samples Oz, and everything he adds on top of it works.

The question of racism is central to the book, but it covers some uncommon forms of racism. Elphaba, the green-skinned girl; the talking animals whose civil rights are being slowly eroded until they are entirely gone; the reddish peasants in the muddy borderlands who are considered less than human; the Munchkins marked by their shortness and considered unmarriageable by the snooty Glinda. All dominated by a ruthless and mysterious wizard who arrived from some distant place and demands complete devotion. Again, all this focus on how exteriors don’t make the person might be over the top if it weren’t speaking directly to the film. We do think the wicked witch is evil primarily because of her sickly green skin and the tone of her voice. We do think the talking animals and the tiny Munchkins are funny. Speaking directly to the discourse we were all participants of, the deconstruction works.

I read Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister last night. Maguire set his re-telling of Cinderella in Haarlem at the height of the tulip craze in the Netherlands. Generally I avoid historical fiction because I spent too long studying history, and when I catch a detail that’s out of place I can’t ever quite forgive the author for it. It pushes me out of my suspension of disbelief, never to return. But Maguire clearly did his homework. Key elements of Dutch history emerge in this book; the Flemish artists and their domestic subjects, the impact of the Reformation on daily life, the streetscape of an early modern town, medical practices and the spectre of witchcraft, the importance of dowries and the complex relationship of women to their families, and so forth. While the research is clearly there, it’s relegated to the background and doesn’t interfere with the narrative. This book is exactly like the sort of person I would date; this books is like a woman who is so extremely smart and so well-read that she doesn’t feel any need to prove it to you.

Reading a number of books by one author often leads you to an understanding of the author’s own obessions; with Gregory Maguire, we are constantly considering the significance and consequence of beauty and the lack of it, with a variety of conclusions. Elphaba in Wicked is green-skinned and plain and fights against the idea that this marks her as evil; Glinda, the beautiful witch, looks the part of goodness but fails to live up to expectations. Iris, the narrator of Confessions, is undeniably ugly. One of the most striking moments in the book describes the moment when Iris first sees a portrait of herself that she has been posing for for weeks; the artist didn’t want her to see it, but the artist’s apprentice innocently shows her. She sees it as mockery, as an accusation of her ugliness. The artist and the artist’s apprentice both point out that it is not her, it’s only a version of the composition of her face, without that which makes her her behind it. And the exact same thing is true when the artist paints a parallel portrait of the most beautiful girl in the world, Clara (Cinderella). These musings on beauty and ugliness are compelling, and in this book we are left with the moral that they are both elements of the same human quality, that both are neither evidence of God’s mistakes nor of God’s grace, and that both are a gift and a curse. Neither beauty nor ugliness can ruin or elevate, and neither define a person. But there is a sneaking undertone throughout the story that beauty is in fact a destructive, almost diabolical force; when the artist captures the stunningly beautiful Clara on canvas in what is inevitably his best work, he is ruined by the knowledge that he can never do better than this. Clara’s mother fears that Clara, who will always be preceded in life by this perfect portrait, will never be more beautiful and thus will always be a disappointment. Throughout the book, Iris is looking for an evil imp that her mother says is tailing the family; at points in the story, I felt sure that the imp was actually Clara’s beauty. But in the end, the one with the shard of evil inside her is Iris, not Clara.

In both Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Gregory Maguire fits a complicated and believable backstory behind a well-known tale, and then takes great relish in retelling all the familiar details (including flying monkeys and pumpkin carriages) with the echo of his construction behind them. They are stories, but also commentary, cultural criticism, and philosophy.

Up next for me: Mirror, Mirror and Lost.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Since I finished library school, I’ve had this hankering to read fantasy fiction. Not just fantasy, but high fantasy. I want to read something where an entire universe has been created by the author, where people may not even be human and have weird and wonderful abilities. I wanted magic as high up as magic goes. While I listened to my teachers tell me that genre is not a “lesser” form of reading and is nothing to be ashamed of, still deep in my gut I feel a little embarrassed about it. I have a degree in English. For years I refused to read anything that wasn’t Canadian literary fiction (because who else is going to read nothing but Canadian literary fiction?). I have become something of a literary snob.

Except for these strange forays into out and out fantasy fiction, the kind with ugly covers that sit by the romance novels at the library. These are the ones that don’t even come out in hardcover half the time. The kind of books my sister looks at and says, “I don’t like stories about talking animals.” Those are the ones I want.

I am really trying to get over this snobbery about fantasy fiction. Having taken a stab at writing it, I understand that it’s no more or less difficult to write than literary fiction, and much of it is as well-written (or better) and filled with excellently drawn characters. Fantasy fiction stories stick closer to the general rules of writing, including complex plot mapping and so forth. There have been a few (famous) literary fiction books I have started and put down again because I found the style of writing sloppy, repetitive (in that ooo look what a pretty sentence that was! way), and tedious. I have the upmost respect for the fantasy fiction writers I know personally, so I don’t know what the chip on my shoulder is all about.

My sister gave me Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell for Christmas. I’ve talked about this book before, but I’ve never really reviewed it properly. I needed it to sit in me for a while and trickle through my brain.

Honestly, this book is such a work of art. I’ve never read anything remotely like it. Susanna Clarke wrote the book as if it were a 19th century novel, and this actually doesn’t get tired. She not only uses the turns of phrase but also shies away from the sorts of topics that a 19th century novelist would shy away from; there is no overt sexuality in the book, and romance is all implied rather than explicit. I often felt that I was getting a very particular view on these characters, and missing out on other things, but I felt that that was just as it should be, given the nature of the narrative voice. And as a good 19th century novel would do, the narrative voice is granted character status in its own right. Rather than becoming distracting, the style and structure of the book makes you feel closer to the action rather than distanced from it. The long, roundabout, loping narrative style, not particularly episodic but not following a strict line to a single climax either, also feels right at home in the 19th century setting. But of course since it’s also set in England and involves magic, it’s been compared to Harry Potter. Just like how Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones are like, OMG the same book.

What I really like best about a good bit of fantasy fiction in when the author manages to weave the magic in so that it becomes something you just accept, like horse-drawn carriages in a historical novel. Strange and Norrell introduces you to the concept of magic as if it’s the concept of philosophy or history, or some odd form of metaphysics no one particularly cares about. For a good portion of the book the real cause of conflict isn’t magic or some otherworld or anything else, it’s just the stubborn nature of academics and the danger of having too much information in the hands of a single person. For a good portion fo this book I felt that it was really story for a librarian, all about access to information and the danger of withholding it. There is even a cautionary tale in there about withholding information that the experts deem “bad” or “wrong”.

But what sticks with me most about the book is the weird commonplaceness of the magic. The cruelest magic, I think, is the kind is that meshes your world with another, but only allows some people to see it. The eeriest parts of this book are when a complete innocent mentions seeing something so critical to the main characters, the answer to everything they need to know, but has no idea that anything magical has gone on at all. The danger of this innocent meandering between one dagerous world and another, always on the brink of enchantment or destruction; just the inching possibility of real damage is such a powerful narrative tool. It could get boring. It could get tired, sitting there all the time with this possibility but less dramatic action. When you can imagine worse than it is, that’s not great for a book. But somehow this book manages to avoid that pitfall.

And who would have thought that the auditory could have such an impact in text? This book has recurring sounds that just send chills down your spine when you “hear” them. A good book, fantasy or not, lets codes a sight, a sound, or a word so completely that when they casually introduce them throughout the story the reader is instantly flooded with the coded sensation; relief, fear, or anticipation.

In thinking about about Strange and Norrell, it seems to me that where the book really soars is in its horror elements. I never thought I was one to go for horror elements, but this book impressed me.



I saw Monster two weeks ago and I’m still reeling from it. It bothers me on some level that I can’t easily sponge off.

First off, I’m not saying it’s a bad movie or I’m sorry I saw it or they should have done something different. It’s a great movie. Charlize Theron did an amazing job and deserves every accolade she gets for it. That said, Monster really hits me where it hurts. I realize it’s a true story, but the film leaves me with a feeling that it’s not the world we can blame for the murders of those men, but the love of a not-so-good woman.

The film opens with Lee preparing to kill herself under the bridge by the highway. She’s got nothing, nowhere to go; the world has completely screwed her over. Her father was a bastard, her siblings tossed her out after she gave up her life to save them, men are jerks and no one gave a shit about what happened to her. But she would have just killed herself had it not been for the introduction of a hapless young lesbian.

The film implies that no man has ever shown any potential in Lee’s eyes. That Selby is the first person to…what, call her beautiful? Talk with her as if she’s a human being? Selby is kind to her at first. Is this the first kindness in Lee’s life? Here we have a critical moment in Lee’s life where she goes from wanting to die to wanting to give everything’s she’s got to Selby. Why? What makes an ostensibly straight highway blow job girl hand it all over to a lesbian? In the film, Selby is a kind of aid worker, the first person to take an interest in Lee’s life and give her some sense of hope and worth.

So now Lee is hooking with a purpose; she’s going to get money and spend time with Selby. She has something to look forward to. And then some asshole knocks her out, ties her up and rapes her.

She could have just died right then. The day before she wanted to die; now she wants to live so desperately that she finds the strength to beat off her attacker and shoot him until he dies. So we love Selby in this moment, because it’s her who gives Lee the desire to fight back. The love of a bad woman has some advantages.

And Selby really is a bad woman. (Note the emphasis.) She doesn’t want to work, she wants someone to take care of her. She doesn’t want to face her father, so she expects Lee to give her an option other than going home. So she accepts that Lee is a hooker and then expects Lee to keep at it in order to keep Selby in beer and acid-wash jeans.

What was more disturbing about the qualities of a typical witch in the 16th century witchcraze was their close approximation to the ideal woman; a woman nurtures and feeds babies, a witch nurtures and feeds demon-babies. Worship is good; worship of the wrong entity is evil. The same “natural” feelings directed at the wrong object means trouble, and that’s the feeling I get from Monster as well.

Selby is a traditional woman. She wants to be taken care of by someone with an established “career”, so to speak. The excuse in the film for her not working is her cast, but she seems otherwise completely helpless. She wants to be seen as helpless because it keeps her from having to do anything. She’s the wife who sits at home eating bons bons while her husband is off slaving away in a cubicle. Didn’t we strike down this stereotype at some point? Angel in the house? The double-edged sword of glorified womanhood? In real life, “Selby” worked as a motel maid to help support herself and Lee. In the film, her manipulation is demonstrated by letting the character fall into the position of ultimately traditional womanhood; the husband is the breadwinner, and Lee is Selby’s husband.

If the two things a woman is typically able to pull off is saint or whore, Lee is trying the forbidden tack of looking outside her gender options altogether. That, of course, is the point when everything goes to hell. Lee is acting as man, doing whatever he has to to support his woman. Since being a woman (ie, sexual object for men) for years didn’t turn out so well, why not try something different? This isn’t about breaking the molds, it’s about trying on someone else’s. Of course, Lee’s attempts at being a man are monstrous and horrific. She lives outside the law, megalomaniacal and drunk on power. If a Selby is powerless in such a false way, Lee the man has the power to dole out life and death, also falsely. Selby is manipulative and unfair as the supported wife; she may provide for Lee’s basic needs, but she has no sense of decency or justice. There is nothing right about these lovers; they are inverted, their desires are going the wrong way and result in crimes punishable by death.

When the credits of this film started to roll and I was wiping the tears off my face, Em turns to me and says, “Don’t worry. I won’t let you turn into a serial killer.” That made me laugh, but also got to the heart of what disturbed me most about this film; it feels like a condemnation of something more than a cruel world or a bad lover. Somewhere in there it felt like someone was (probably unintentionally) pointing at finger at love between women. Unnatural combinations and their horrific results. Only the tremendous power of lesbian love could push a woman to these lengths, it vaguely implies. This is an old idea and I feel like it got replayed in Monster.

Good film though. No, seriously.

Writing Updates

Writing Updates

Am editing madly. I gave my sister my first three chapters, but I’m not sure she’ll get around to them. And if she does get around to them, I know it’s not really her thing. So I’m not sure why I did that. Just because I can, I guess. And if nothing else she does want to know what the hell I’m doing, so there’s that.

Meanwhile, I’ve been stalled on the edit of chapter 8. I got through the first 7 chapters pretty quickly and I’m fairly happy with where they’re at. Chapters 1,3, and 7 in particular needed total rewriting. I’m pretty happy with 7 at the moment, but it’s fresh and you know what that means.

So then we had some family drama and that distracted me from the chapter 8 edit, which is probably just what I wanted. The problem I’m finding (I don’t know how everyone else feels about it, I’m sure they find other problems) is that I was too keen to get to a the climax moment in the book, which in my mind was in the middle of the story. I ended up skipping over a lot of time, or just wasting my energy on having my characters sort of lounge around and make it feel as if time is passing, rather than just writing what’s going on.

Chapter one starts at the beginning of August. my original thought was that by the middle of the book I should be at December. My only real goal from August to December was to set up a few relationships, give us a general feeling of the place where we are, and that sort of thing. My ‘place’ is a school, of course, which is a pisser because I don’t really want to write about a school. That is really obvious in the first draft.

Well, I fixed these problems up to chapter 7. We have real classroom interaction happening in chapter 7. It’s not just a rush forward into something else, I’m actually lingering on things now.

So chapter 8. O dear darling chapter 8. It was experimental when I wrote it, and it’s an experiment that failed. I was trying to give a sense of time passing, to have my main character sort of look back over the last month of his life and think, “wow, I got used to a lot of new things,” rather than have him experience all those new things. Mostly because I hate writing about things that are new to a character. I love the mundane, the new and exotic just gets up my nose.

Anyway so I decided to break chapter 8 into two, so now it will be chapter 8 and 9, which pushes the draft up to 17 chapters. The new chapter 8 consists of a series of vingettes centred on various fears. My main character is experiencing his new world and keeps finding things that freak him out or gross him out (things that look like ghosts but aren’t, and he’s terrified of ghosts, the idea of dissecting human bodies, and so forth).

I can’t remember what I meant to put into the second half. I still haven’t moved anything over from the original chapter, it’s all new stuff.

Now, I have to go to a meeting in the morning so I must go to bed. I’ve been exhausted all day, what am I doing up at 1:30am?

C.S. Lewis on Love among Boys

C.S. Lewis on Love among Boys

I cannot give pederasty anything like the first place among the evils at the Coll. There is much hypocrisy on this theme. People commonly talk as if every other evil were more tolerable than this. But why? Because those of us who do not share the vice feel for it a certain nausea, as we do, say, for necrophily? I think that of very little relevance to moral judgement. Because it produces permanent perversion? But there is very little evidence that it does. The Bloods [powerful boys at school] would have preferred girls to boys if they could have come by them; when at a later age, girls were obtainable, they probably took them.

If those of us who have known a school like Wyvern dared to speak the truth, we should have to say that pederasty, however great an evil it itself, was, in that time and place, the only foothold or cranny left for certain good things.

It was the only counterpoise to the social struggle; the one oasis (though green only with weeds and moist only with foetid water) in the burning desert of competitive ambition.

It softens the picture. A perversion was the only chink left through which something spontaneous and uncalculating could creep in. Plato was right after all. Eros, turned upside down, blackened, distorted, and filthy, still bore traces of his divinity.

–C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy

Learning how to Write

Learning how to Write

Rhonna sent me some books. She is a goddess of all things literary. I am reading these books. I am get much out of these books.

Really what I want to do is sit down and talk to her about this, but she is busy and offline, so I will sit here on a little soap box and bore you with thoughts on writing.

Jerome Stern says,

“Dialogue is not just quotation. It is grimaces, pauses, adjustments of blouse buttons, doodles on a napkin, and crossings of legs. When people communicate, they communicate with their faces, their bodies, their timing, and the objects around them. Make this a full conversation. Not just the words part.

How wise. And so right, of course. I was thinking about this in terms of my own writing.

I have been historically very bad with dialogue, and I know it. In my past (10 years ago) I wrote dialogue that wasn’t incorrect, per se, but just didn’t feel right. So when I started up again recently, I decided to just go very very easy on the dialogue. I use it very sparingly now, and cut it out where possible.

But I was thinking about this comment, about the fact that it’s not just about what’s in quotation marks, and I realized that I had done something sort of odd. Well, odd for me, I think. Without realizing.

Lately, I’ve done dialogue parts, that simply HAVE to be dialogue parts, and I notice that when things get more dramatic, and scary, and really delicate, I sometimes start to drop away everything but the dialogue. So like, I’ll start with one sentence of dialogue, and then a paragraph of thoughts or fiddling or whatever, and then another line of dialogue. Very very spaced out, as if it takes forever. But in some scenes, where the place is set, and the characters are, you know, quite far along in the development, so that we know what they’re thinking even without me saying so…I kind of let them drift off.

Like. I have one set of dialogue that takes place at the very very end of a story, where there’s been all this behind the eyes things that no one ever says, with this whole dance of ‘everything is totally normal and we have no trust problems here’, and suddenly at the end, one of the characters asks the ‘elephant in the middle of the room’ question. And the scene has been going on for some time, it’s on, like, page 5 or 6 of it. And I just stop describing. Suddenly it’s just all words, I don’t even interject with who’s speaking, though it’s pretty clear who is, thankfully. Like, you’ve been waiting to hear these words from those mouths for 18 chapters and now here it is.

It’s like…

There comes a point where I, as the third person narrator, just stepped back to let these characters express what they’ve been thinking about and muddling over the whole time, and there’s this stillness abou that. As if, and I guess this is the point, in a conversation like this, there is nothing else that’s important, nothing else significant. The body, the physical world just kind of disappears for a moment and this sort of…quiet conversation is all there is.

I know you can’t do this a lot. Like. Probably best to do it almost never. But I really like the end of that story. I think it’s quite effective, particularly since I am so heavily descriptive most of the time.

Well, I guess I could add lots of description in there. Maybe it would be improved by that. But there’s something about the zeroing in, the quietness of it, that I really like. It gives that last bit of dialogue this incredible weight, I think. Kind of hanging in the middle of nowhere kind of weight. But also a kind of lightness, like the slightest move might make it float away, or shatter, or disintegrate.


What I love best about rules for writing is how sometimes breaking them is the fun part.