Thursday, May 28, 2009

Words, words, words

I paraphrased the first line of Neuromancer for a story I'm working on and, when I looked it up to ensure I'd got it right, I got a surprise. I thought it read: "The sky o

vortices in mixing layer from direct numerical...Image via Wikipedia

ver the port..." but it actually is: "The sky above the port..." I was knocked out by that. Using 'above' makes a reader, unknowingly, think about places with roofs. The sky is over everything but a roof is above you. I guess it also makes people think about 2D scenes too - simulations and virtual spaces being one of the subjects of the story. It also made me think how carefully the word was chosen.

I thought more about while reading some Dennis Lehane and Michael Chabon too. Both write very dense texts - if that makes any sense. The words seem thick on the page and the sentences are flooded with details. This is from "Mystic River".

"Sean sat up on the old red bar stool and fingered the inside of the thick black vise, felt the oil and sawdust mixed in there..."

In that fragment what catches my eye is "sat up" which he uses rather than just sat. Sean is being told off by his father and it is reminiscient of parents telling kids to sit up straight. But also there is an echo in it that reminds the reader Sean is still a kid. Sitting up rather than just sitting, sprawling or any other way he could be on the stool. Then for the other elements in the scene both get two qualifiers - "old red" and "thick black".

The effect is more apparent in Michael Chabon who revels in detailed description. This from "House Hunting"

"The profusion of hats on the hatstand - three berets in the colors of sherberts, a tweedy homburg, a new-looking Stetson with a snakeskin band, several billed golf caps..."

Admittedly this is done to a different end in a story about a couple finding their place but there is a lot of detail there. Leaving aside the many different ways it uses to describe headgear, it made me think about how I use words. The story I am working on at the moment is just close to the end of its first draft. I'm going back now and adding in the bits I feel to be missing. Doubtless I'll oversteer but a lot of that will be caught when I turn it over to OWW and get so

Cover of Cover of The Yiddish Policemen's Union

me other eyes on it. There's no doubt though that my prose does look a bit thin in comparison to Lehane and Chabon. Though too much of the fatty adjectival froth and a story can get hard to read. Yeah, that's right. Make yourself feel better by belittling the best-selling authors.

There is a point there, though. The Dennis Lehane book does suffer towards the end because it is so dense and layered and detailed. Sometimes I just wanted him to get on with the story and action rather that launch yet another detour into the history of the Plains and the Flats. Even towards the end when the story was winding up he couldn't stop.

The only story I've read of Michael Chabon's where it really worked well was the Yiddish Policemen's Union which was full of brilliant descriptions rather than just scene dressing. No way to belittle that, just sit at its feet and be impressed.
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Friday, May 15, 2009

A road to nowhere

Maps. I like maps. I'm not sure why. Partly that is an aesthetic response

{{Potd/-- (en)}}Image via Wikipedia

and partly because they are engrossing to pore over. Though that does make me a very bad navigator as I'm more than likely looking at the wrong page when approaching a key junction. If you are planning a trip to the hinterlands then don't take me along if you want to be sure to get there. I'm ballast. A great passenger but as a driver or directioneer? Not so good.

When I'm poring over them I've got one mental eye open for trap streets - fictitious roads and locations put on printed maps to catch out copyright thieves. The reasoning being that anyone making a map for themselves would not reproduce those made-up places.

The story I'm working on at the moment caused me to look more closely at trap streets. I thought they would be pretty rare. Word has it that there are more than 100 in the 2005 edition of the London A-Z. 100! I guess that puts one on pretty much every page to catch people who copy any part of it.

There's been court cases over it so I guess they are real and work too. One of the first such fakes to be put in a reference work was Lillian Mountweazel who appeared in the 1975 edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia.

Despite the claims that there are lots, not many have been found. A few here and there but no comprehensive list. There are even supposed to be phantom churches. Add a few more fake buildings and suddenly you have got a shadow city that exists only in cyberspace. Perhaps it is populated by those fake characters too. Fabulous.

Copyright symbolImage via Wikipedia

It's not quite that fab, though as often the trap streets do not last very long. Perhaps that's why they are so useful. On new developments, mappers give unnamed places a holding name until they get an official title. Hmm. That might work outside London but there can't be that many new streets popping up in the centre of town.

I wonder what would want to exploit, use or live in that parallel metropolis? Vampires? At least they'd be out of the sun all day. How would they get there. How would anyone get there?

Monday, May 11, 2009

This way please

Planning again. Because that's where I am with my current story. I feel like I'm rediscovering how to do this after those few months off though the one constant has been my dithering over whether to just sit down and write or do the planning thing so I know in which dir

Three small ammonite fossils, each approximate...Image via Wikipedia

ection the words should point. The missus keeps saying that I am very quiet at the moment, more so than usual, and that's because I'm processing all the ways the current story can play out.

Re-reading, for the umpteenth time, Stephen King's On Writing I was struck by his belief that a story is a found object. A fossil, he says, that has to be uncovered piece by piece. For him plotting and planning are jackhammers that destroy the fine detail at the expense of the gross structure. Far better, for him, is to set the situation up and then work/write through it. Those are far finer tools that can preserve the eyelashes and scales. An idea of the ending is needed but he has little sense of what he will uncover on the way. Often, he says, he is surprised by how the characters act/react in the situation. I suspect he is being a bit disingenuous and that some of this is down to his vast experience and native talent. For others, such as Tobias Buckell, the same is likely to be true.

For myself I don't find it that easy to just turn it over to Trev and let him drive. Last year I did and it produced some great stuff. Certainly judging by sales and reader reaction I'm doing better but it took time to get in to that mindset. I've got to get it back, if I can, and I think the rest will follow.

Take the story I'm working on right now. Thinking about the setting has got me enthused about it and I know how it will, kind of, fall out. I am split between doing the planning and letting it all flow leaving me in a tricky neither/nor limbo when I do a bit of both. The stories that is producing do not have that breezy feel some of the others have though the story itself is fine. Or so I think.

What Mr S does think about is character. Annie Wilkes, for instance, he first describes as having an "absence of hiatus". No, I don't know either. And that's not something I've been doing a lot of. Partly because this latest story is kind of about me and a lost friend and I know those folks well enough to wing it.

Annie, in a rare depressing moment.Image via Wikipedia

I guess part of my reluctance to hand it to Trev is because I do not want to get in to a situation where whatever success I have is based on a method resistant to understanding, change and improvement. And that brings me to another of Mr King's beliefs; that talent is a finite quantity. Whatever you have, that's all you get. If you don't have it then you'll only ever be a hack. If you have some you can improve via technique but if you are talented then lucky you. I have no idea where I fit on that scale and my lack of confidence makes me eye the hack end more than the other. It's not for me to say. What I have realised is that that perception of talent will not be universal. For every person that likes a story there will be as many, probably more, that are utterly indifferent. As many will hate it as love it. Now there's a recipe for misery if ever I heard one.

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