One of the courses I attended at the residency last week was on the Craft of Fiction. This is pretty much exactly what it sounds like — a lot of directed reading and discussion on the major aspects of writing — stuff like plot, grammar, world building, character development, and something called “voice”.
Voice was actually the thing we talked about first, and as I briefly mentioned in my post last week, I took a fairly divisive stance on the topic. To be fair, it’s what I’d been taught to do: in the first post-grad class I took (long ago), I was dinged repeatedly on my papers, until the instructor wrote a note in the margin that said “Perfect presentation, zero content. Have an opinion!”
So I wrote my next paper on my proof that Lord Byron desperately wanted someone to come along and turn him into a vampire while he was still young and pretty. I got an A.
Fast forward to the Craft of Fiction class, where I wrote:
Voice may be one of the most examined and least understood aspects of the craft of writing, because at its root it is not a matter of craft at all.
It’s fair to say I was being deliberately provocative, though that doesn’t mean I was doing it to be troll — 90% of the value in anything like that residency comes out of the discussion, not the syllabus. Putting something like that out there was meant to get discussion started, and that’s exactly what it did, with about half of us on one side of the fence, half on the other, and half on the other-other. (Writers are a bit odd when it comes to picking sides. Also math.)
Aside from that, I honestly believe what I said.
… but I don’t know if I’m right, so I figured I’d talk it over some more.
So what’s this “Voice” thing really?
The first problem with talking about Voice in fiction is figuring out or just agreeing what it is you’re actually talking about, because there are at least two common uses for the term.
(Incidentally, the simple fact that you have to spend time just figuring out what you’re talking about when you talk about Voice was the first red flag for me: how can we teach something we can’t even point at with any kind of authority? No one sits around trying to figure out whether something is or is not grammar, for example, but that happens all the time with Voice.)
SO, first off, let’s say voice refers to the way in which a writer “speaks” on paper. By that, I mean their word choice, syntax, sentence structure, and even cadence. (Yes, I know that some of this sounds more like grammar — like I said, voice is a shifty, unreliable term that likes to piggyback on other things — it’s the bluejay of writing.) Now, all of that can be altered by the style/genre of the story you’re writing and any particular tone you adopt to achieve a given affect (the same way you’d sing Empty Tables differently than If I Had $1,000,000), but at the core of any written work there is an essence that remains uniquely that of a particular writer — their voice — and that’s what I’m talking about here. In other words, if you take six books by an author, even if they’re in wildly different settings/genres/whatever, I believe you can ‘solve’ those stories for some lowest common denominator that comprises the author’s unavoidable voice. Maybe that’s not always true — maybe there’s someone out there whose writing is so chameleon-like that there is no commonality from one story to the next — but I’ve never encountered that, and I don’t personally think that’s a bad thing, any more than it’s bad that we can recognize a singer from one song to the next.
Voice also gets used as a shorthand term for the gestalt presentation of a character in the story, since a great deal of that presentation relies on the character’s vocabulary, word choice, or disposition, especially when any of that stuff is different from the author’s defaults. This is one of those bluejay uses of the term, though: it’s really part of character development, and it’s just sloppy to use the term for two different things, so forget this one.
In fact, if you can think of any other uses for the term “voice” that aren’t the way in the writer “speaks” on paper, just forget them for now — they aren’t what I’m talking about.
So now, we have this term — voice — that’s part of writing.
How do we teach it to someone? People ask that a lot.
Well, no: what writers ask is “how do I find my voice?” which sounds a lot like “how do I find myself?” and is just about as easy to teach.
Which doesn’t mean people don’t try. A quick google search digs up all kinds of advice on finding your voice.
Pretend that you’re speaking. Or,
Write as if you’re just talking to a friend.
Which I personally think is ridiculous. Have you ever tried to actually write exactly the way we talk to each other? It’s unreadable.
Really “get into it” and “do” all the voices.
First: direct contradiction to the first two suggestions. Second, if you’re trying to find your voice, don’t do it by copying someone else, even a fictional someone. Third, this is probably really meant to be advice for ‘character voice’.
This contradicts the previous point (again), and is more about what you’re writing than how.
Don’t try to write in a certain style, or use “fancy” words and phrases…
… unless you really talk that way.
Oh… yeah. That’s… really helpful.
The list goes on, but out of all of it, the only suggestion that seems to ring somewhat true to me is:
That, right there, is good advice. You can certainly teach grammar, or the key checklists of world- or character-building, or tricks of plotting, or the things that make a story a story instead of a pointless anecdote — but voice? Voice you improve by writing, the same way (and for the same reason) as singing: because it makes your voice stronger and clearer.
The problem with “keep writing” is that it sounds like “Just do the work, over and over, and eventually your voice will simply… happen.” Anyone who has gone through puberty and been told their body will eventually “sort itself out” will find this advice depressingly familiar.
But it’s true.
Plot, grammar, world building, character development — they’ve all got distinct do’s and don’ts, or detailed sets of rules — criteria by which an author can be objectively judged to have failed: ways they can be wrong. Those rules can be taught, then adopted, then maybe even screwed with as you gain mastery.
Voice, on the other hand, can be weak. Underused. Obscured by your attempt to imitate someone else.
But I don’t think it can’t be wrong.
Certainly, it can be trained, like a muscle, but taught? I don’t know. I suspect not. It’s not style. It’s not technique. It is not a decision to write in first or third person. It’s more primal than that, like your actual voice, or your face.
A few days ago, I wrote about the overuse of the -punk additive in the world of publishing. The cyberpunk label lead (tongue in cheek, initially) to steam-punks/steampunk, which started some kind of not-so-tongue-in-cheek avalanche of “Punk means cool! If our thing is cool, we should add -punk to it to denote our coolness!”
It was (and still is) my opinion that that overuse “dilutes the brand“, which is a shame.
Unexpectedly, the post hit some kind of vein or nerve or alarm gong for people. Some responded with “Yes! THIS!” Some rolled their eyes and muttered “Overthinking it, dude.” Fair enough; that happens.
But the most interesting response was related specifically to steampunk, where several readers and writers of same stepped up and said “Hey! You don’t think there’s rebellion against the status-quo in Steampunk? You’re ignoring all the awesome stories about women rising up out of dismissed second-class status and making a name for themselves.”
And, again, that’s fair; I didn’t ignore those stories, exactly, but they didn’t ping my radar when I wrote my little screed, because I don’t see them as the same thing as “punk rebellion”. I twooted:
Why would I have to be stupid to try such a detangling? Frankly, because I know next to nothing about gender issues in any kind of lit. I’m not really qualified.
But that’s never stopped me before! All I need is a little encouragement.
So, stepping very carefully, I started noodling this over. I felt, and still feel, that punk-the-way-I-defined-it isn’t a very strong presence in steampunk novels. That said, I could see people’s point that there were many, as one reader put it “uppity wummanz unite!” stories in there. Not always: it’s obviously not enough to just have a female protagonist — Boneshaker isn’t about “little person against the Institution”; it’s a classic “hero journeys into Hades to retrieve a loved one” — but it shows up fairly often.
So that’s a curious thing. “Punk nobody against the Establishment” is a big part of cyberpunk, but not-so-much in steampunk, where “Smart Woman rises out of Gender Oppression” is common, instead.
And really, that’s obvious: both are frontloaded into their respective settings. Cyberpunk is a subset of science fiction for a reason: it’s usually near-future — a predictable near-future — in which corporations have become even more monolithic untouchable things than they already are. “Little guy uses tech to rise up” is obvious: tech is one of the arenas in which envision some level of equality, thanks to the early hackers that writers like Gibson heard and read about. Gender issues in a future-us setting aren’t nearly as easy to find, and in my experience they don’t find as much traction with readers (in that kind of story) — we’d like to imagine ourselves having evolved past that, at least, even if we’re stuck in some dystopian future, ground down under a corpocracy.
Which isn’t to say gender inequality issues aren’t relevant and important and a thing worth thinking and talking about: they are. Enter steampunk which, due to its sort of hazy, hand-wavey “era”, pretty much gives us gender bias as an issue by default. It’s a good match.
So, finally, that Venn diagram, rendered with my undeniable Paint skills:
So, in this somewhat obvious breakdown, the difference between the two kinds of stories lie in the character’s motivation, and the big overlap is in the resulting action: rebellion. Simplistic? Sure. Maybe even way off base, but that’s the spot I got to in my couple-three days of thinking about it.
And maybe that opens up the discussion of all ‘-punk’ stories, a little bit. If you solve for the common denominator in all this, you get “Someone representing a significant portion of the population (and someone we can identify with) uses the [tech] of the setting to upset the apple cart in some way. Flavor as appropriate to sub-genre, bake, and serve.”
I can accept that. That’s a reasonable way to (re)define the “-punk” umbrella.
That still doesn’t mean the term isn’t wildly overused, and often laughably inaccurate (see my The City & The City example from the last post). That is still a problem, and it’s really what I was ranting about in the first place.
But if you hand me a book and say “this is steampunk” or “this is dieselpunk”, I’m not going to dismiss it out of hand; I’m going to look (full of hope) for a certain kind of story.
I’ve known about this for a long time, thanks to buying tabletop gaming materials in PDF form, but I was reminded of it again at the MFA residency.
Basically, e-readers are great for reading books from Point A to Point Z, but as soon as you try to use the text in question as a reference document in any way, the whole experience falls apart, because regardless of platform,* they can’t do this:
See what’s happening there? The reader is holding their place in one part of the book, and flipping to some OTHER part of the book to check something, at which point he can flip right back to where he was, because he kept his finger tucked in at that original spot.
You can’t do that on an e-reader, be it your phone, PC, iPad, Kindle, or whatever.* Yes, you can set bookmarks (slow and annoying process on most platforms) and jump to bookmarks (equally slow and annoying process on most platforms), but (a) you’ve cluttered your document up with a bunch of cruft bookmarks you probably don’t need in the long term and (b) making and using bookmarks is pain in the ass on most platforms (I’m especially glaring at you, Kindle).
As I said, I’ve dealt with this for years with gaming PDFs and I just kind of swallowed it, because it was bearable.
I was the only person looking up whatever it is I wanted — I wasn’t trying to keep up with everyone at the table.
I could word-search for my goal, as I was usually on a PC, then word-search back. (Clumsy, but faster than bookmarks I’d never use again.)
At the time (a couple years ago) the tech related to handheld devices really hadn’t gotten to the point where I could see any other options.
But last week I had the problem presented to me in a new situation: I’d picked up the short story collection we were discussing for one of our classes, but in Kindle format rather than yet another book I’d have to lug around. Smart? Not so much: everyone else had hard copies of the text, and as we were usually discussing and comparing two if not three stories simultaneously, it became a huge pain in the ass trying to keep up with the rest of the class in terms of reading specific sections.
In short, I couldn’t mark spots with my finger and flip around.
But really, I should be able to by now. The tech has (in my limited understanding) caught up to the point where solutions to this problem can (and really should) be prototyped, as it’s the primary roadblock to heavy adoption of e-readers in academic settings.
Let’s look at how this could work. Take your basic TOUCH SCREEN ENABLED e-reader screen:
You’re reading along, you get to a point where you need to flip back to some other area in the text, but you don’t want to lose your current place.
So you do this:
That’s my terrible way of indicating that that you’re pressing and holding your thumb to the edge of the screen. Got it? You’ve marked you place in the book with your finger, just like in a hardcopy of the text.
Then you flip backwards through the book by swiping the screen:
Interface designers: Bonus Points if you make more than one page flip by if you swipe harder than normal, so you can spin past a big pile of pages in a hurry. I see this kind of functionality when I’m scrolling through apps on my smartphone, so I know it’s possible.
Now, you’ve flipped back to that other page you wanted. You check whatever it is you wanted to check, then you do this:
(That’s you, swiping your placeholding finger back across the screen.)
And, just like magic (or like every hard copy text in the world) you flip right back to where you started.
Would that not be kind of excellent? I think it would. As a 1.0 version of the functionality, it’s pretty swell.
Still, you could take it further.
For instance, you might need to keep flipping back and forth between two spots (during a class, for instance). Do this:
Which would let you flip back and forth between the two, like this:
Basically just holding your finger down for whichever one your flipping away from.
… or at least that should be what’s happening, because if you have to hold down your thumb on both sides, you’d need someone else to do the swiping, or you’d swipe with your tongue or… something. Best not dwell on it.
Anyway, that’s my take on the easiest way to make e-readers vastly more useful as reference tools. Thoughts?
* – If there is some e-reader or multi-touch device that does this, TELL ME.
I am constantly surprised by water as I drive north from Seattle. The mountains, while queued up in the wrong direction, are familiar enough. The evergreens are a bit shaggier than I’m used to, but I’ll cope.
Water, though: on my face, soaking into my hair, beading on my coat, streaming off the windshield, looming in the ever present clouds, weighing down the air I breathe, and even messing with my view as the miles scroll by. I live in Colorado. I like Colorado. I expect gullies. Washouts. Sere valleys. Open plains.
Instead I get water. Falls. Rivers. Bays. Oceans.
I am not where I’m meant to be. It’s a grim thought, and not the first time I’ve had it.
You might say it’s a bad way to start an MFA residency, and if you did, I’d agree with you.
I’ve come to Washington for what amounts to a trial run with the students and faculty of a Masters in Fine Arts – Creative Writing program: basically an advanced degree in storytelling, if you want it simple. These sorts of things are handled many different ways, depending on the institution, but this particular program follows what’s known as a Limited Residency model, which means that most of each semester takes place online (via forums, email, and the odd Skype call) but always begins with an on-location, high-intensity, face-to-face gathering lasting roughly a week and a half. If you’re interested in the whole program but not completely sure you want to go all-in, taking part in such a residency — just the residency — is a good way to see if you like what’s being offered, and even if you don’t dig it, hopefully you’ll at least have a few sessions during that week and a half that gave you some value.
At least that’s what I’ve heard. I’m experiencing some doubts.
Preemptive buyer’s remorse, really, which tends to happen with me whenever I’ve laid down a fair amount of money for an unknown product. That’s not to say the residency fees are exorbitant — they’re quite fair, from the comparisons I’ve done — but I’m not local to the Pacific Northwest, which means I add on airline tickets, car rentals, and room and board for the lengthy stay, and it starts to seem impossible that I’ll recoup my investment in any satisfying way.
And that’s only the residency. As I drive up Interstate 5, I’m multiplying these expenses by a half dozen semesters, plus tuition for the whole program, and I start to feel kind of crazy.
Actually, crazy would be okay; I start to feel foolish.
What am I doing?
I’ve had a waxing and waning interest in doing an MFA program for quite awhile, for reasons I’ll get into, but it’s never gotten very far without hitting a roadblock in the form of other commitments, my own wariness, and most of all discontent with the programs I’ve investigated.
Yes, you are teaching an art, but whether you like it or not you’re also teaching a trade — or at the very least many of your students are coming to learn a trade, and put up with the art portion of it as part of the deal. — John Scalzi
John nails it. I’d asked around about particularly good MFA programs, got recommendations, checked them out, and saw a disappointing absence of what I chose to think of as Practical Application. Great: you’ve got the “literature” part down, but what about contracts? What about queries? What about ‘How to Act Like a Professional When Dealing With Professionals’?” What about basic self defense?
M.F.A. programs are about the creation and study of literature, and it’s worth reminding people that you don’t need any degree to be a writer. A young writer whose central goal is commercial success should skip graduate school.
That’s a quote from Elise Blackwell, director of the MFA program at the University of South Carolina. And she’s correct: you don’t need an MFA (or any education focused on creative writing) to get things done commercially. I certainly don’t have one, and there are more than a few professional authors who will advisepeopleagainst them.
After all, I can write; I believe that’s established. I’m certainly not the best anyone’s ever read (I’m not even the best I’ve read this week), but I’m nowhere near the worst, and I’d like to think I’m always getting better. I do think what a writer does is art but at the same time, like Scalzi, I believe you reliably produce that art by approaching it like a trade. Work. Work you love, but work nonetheless. (I’m not the hardest worker when it comes to writing, either, but that’s a whole different topic.)
I didn’t pursue a B.A. in Creative Writing because everyone I met in that program seemed obsessed with how to get inspired and how to act inspired (read: act especially weird and artsy), and that seemed pretty pointless. And annoying. I already didn’t having enough time to write everything I had ideas for, and I minored in Theater, so as far as artsy and weird went my ticket was thoroughly punched.
Also, I was afraid (rightly, I think) that writing classes would have the same chilling effect on my output that Lit classes had on my input. Want to know a really great way to keep me from reading a book? Tell me I have to read it; over the course of five years at college, I read exactly one of novels assigned in any of my English Lit classes — I stopped buying the textbooks altogether.
And oh yeah, there’s that: I’m a really bad student. Good teacher. Baaaaaad student.
So… Why Spend Any Thoughts on an MFA, Again?
Despite all the cons, and the fact that I appear to be doing the professional writing thing at least somewhat right, I’ve always felt that somewhere out there might be some kind of… something — a writing program, a co-op, a commune — that would present a challenge that made me push myself.
If you’re getting an MFA in writing, do it to pump the most out of the experience as you possibly can. Go to a place you feel strongly about—a place with writers in the faculty you want to know and learn from. Do it only with the expectation that you hope to get a bit better, that you’re going to focus, that you mean business. — Maureen Johnson
I was prepared to do that, but I couldn’t seem to find the right program. I’d stopped looking.
Yi Shun and her husband stopped in Denver during their cross-country move from New York to Los Angeles. We had brunch, and Kate asked how her MFA program was going. The answer was glowing and energetic (as most everything related to Yi Shun tends to be), and pulled me into the conversation, where I shared my frustration with finding a program that focused on real life more than theory.
“The program’s objective is to produce productive, publishing writers who are prepared for a life of writing.”
I got interested.
I looked at the residency schedule and saw “How to Think Like a Publisher” taught by a twenty-year veteran of a major house; “Copyright and Creative Commons in the Digital Age”; “Exploring the Excuses for Why We Aren’t Writing”; Query and Submission seminars; “Indie Publishing” and “Marketing Your Book” by a guy from Amazon.
All of which lay beside traditional courses like Craft of Fiction, Directed Reading in stuff like Mythology, and (requisite) Workshops for your own work.
I got excited. I applied and was accepted.
Then all I had to do was wait.
Waiting is where the doubts creep in. Waiting is where you start to think “It looks good on the website, but…” Waiting is where you wonder how reading ten short stories and writing five papers in eight days is going to make your next novel any better.
Waiting is where you start to do math while you drive up Interstate 5.
“Just Give It a Chance”
I’ve misread the schedule and arrived just in time for the faculty meeting (wasn’t invited), but two hours late for Orientation (was).
“Seems like everyone knows everyone else,” I comment to another attendee.
She looks around the room. “Pretty much.”
The drive back to my hotel is rain on the windshield and unexpectedly curving roads that hug the bay.
“What am I doing here?”
The morning sessions are all the traditional classes. Craft of Fiction wants a paper by tomorrow. Workshop will start with my submission, since I’m only here for the residency.
“Don’t make yourself responsible for my happiness with this thing,” I tell Yi Shun while we walk along the shore to the beach house she and a few other students have rented. “That’s not going to work out.”
“For me?” she asks.
The experienced author who’s supposed to talk about commercial publishing instead details the independent co-op she founded because “there are no editors with the Big Six that actually do editing anymore.” I amazed by everything my editor has taught me (or the way the cover designer used my input to make something better than I ever imagined, or everything the publicist did for me). Silence is not my natural state. I spend the afternoon biting my tongue. Exhausting.
“You should sign up for the student reading tomorrow night,” says Yi Shun.
“From what?” I ask. And: “I’m not a student.”
“Your book. The part where she flies with the dragon.”
I sputter. Crazy idea.
“Did anyone have another angle on Voice for their paper?”
I look around. “I said Voice isn’t something that can be taught, only found, and doesn’t fit alongside the other stuff you cover in this class.”
The resulting discussion is energetic.
The workshop likes my piece. I take seven pages of notes before the faculty member both blows my mind and sets off several light bulbs with only a few comments.
The afternoon sessions are pretty much the same as yesterday, but I get a chance to (clumsily) tell an author how much one of their earlier books affected me as a young reader.
That night, I read the part where she flies with the dragon. It goes over pretty well.
“You’re really good,” someone tells me later. “What the hell are you doing here?”
I shrug and smile. I’m still working that out.
“I was wrong about the morning sessions being bland and the afternoon being the useful stuff,” I tell Kate on the phone that night. “It’s the other way around.”
“Which of those classes are the ones that go through the rest of the semester?” she asks.
I get my first shot at critiquing someone else’s work — something I’ve always been bad at and guilty about. It goes well. Maybe really well.
The first afternoon session is actual, practical information and advice. I’m almost too surprised to take notes. Almost. They fill four pages.
We’re discussing character development. I wrote my paper about a secondary character instead of a protagonist, because I liked him the better, and another good discussion starts up.
The workshop is a flurry of ideas and insights. I’m learning as much critiquing other people’s stuff as I did when we went over mine.
“I’m really glad you came to the residency,” one of the students tells me during the break. “Even if you’re not staying for the MFA.”
By lunchtime I’m exhausted. I’ve sold or given away all the copies of Hidden Things I’ve brought, and ask the local bookstore if they can get any more.
“… so what the hell are you doing here?”
It’s the fifth time I’ve been asked the question; the second time by one of the TAs for the program.
This time I have an answer, and it makes them smile.
That afternoon, I tell the director of the program I’m really enjoying the residency, but can’t commit to the MFA until I find out what’s going on with my Dad. For him and me, the best case scenario is ‘The cancer isn’t in the bones yet.’
“If the news is bad,” I explain, “my free time is spoken for.”
Text from Mom. Dad’s bone scan is clear. Everything’s clear.
I step outside and I call him to make sure. Neither of us quite believe it.
“I might do this program,” I tell him, walking along the shoreline.
“You should. You sound excited about it.”
I find the director just before lunch.
“Your dad,” he says before I can reach him. “How is he?”
In the middle of the latest workshop critique, while everyone else is talking, I figure out something about the piece we’re going over, and suggest a fix to the author just as we run out of time.
I see the light bulb go off for her, the way it did for me. Feels like giving back. Paying forward.
The guy from Amazon gives a talk that fills up five pages in my notebook.
I start filling out the paperwork with the director.
Outside, the sun’s shining on the bay.
“Doyce is joining the program,” our workshop faculty announces.
The owner of the bookstore brings a stack of my books over that evening, and grouses when they sell out, because there won’t be any signed copies left for the store. I tell her I’ll be back in August. She makes me promise.
We’re all taking notes on how the rest of the semester’s going to go. I have to leave after lunch, so I can make my flight.
I take the ferry instead of the bridge, and watch the water as we cross the bay.
No one inside publishing cares about an MFA. Readers don’t care. Also? They’re expensive.
They improve your skills, though.
Maybe — probably — not on first drafts, when your only job is to cut the block of stone you’ll work with later and entertain yourself. I can’t see that I’d apply most of that stuff there, or that I’d even want to.
But second drafts? Yes. Any and all editing. Yes. Explaining clearly what I mean. Understanding why something’s working, beyond simply knowing that it does. I know it helps, because I watched it happen in the space of nine days.
And, not least of all, taking this thing on scares me. I’m perverse enough to see that as a good thing.
Hidden Things is out today! Here are the latest reviews (that I know of — if you spot one I missed, let me know). Let’s see what people are saying…
Kirkus Reviews, notorious purveyors of the cutting one-liner, gave the book a pretty terrific review, calling it “agreeably creepy” (which makes me smile) and Calliope a “clever, determined, dauntless protagonist.”
Though not exactly a review, the Library Journal gave Hidden Things a great shout-out in their “Hungry for SF” Genre Spotlight.
Reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s dark fantasies and the early books of Stephen King, Doyce Testerman’s fantasy debut Hidden Things (Harper Voyager, Aug.) follows a young woman as she embarks on a surreal cross-country road trip after receiving a phone call from her dead business partner and former lover. This exploration into the supernatural places that lie hidden in the American heartland was a pick of “Books for Dudes” columnist Douglas Lord at the Fourth Annual Librarian Shout & Share program at June’s BookExpo America conference.
My Bookish Ways (really gorgeous website, by the way) put up a very touching review of the ARC. The reviewer says lots of nice things, none of which I’m (quite) shameless enough to repeat verbatim, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go and read it.
Finally, if you just can’t get enough of these reviews (or want to write one of your own), Goodreads provides, with reviews ranging from five-stars down to no-stars-did-not-finish. (Hey, you can’t please everyone.)
My favorite reviews?
The ones that say “I want to know more; when’s the sequel?!”
I grew up thirty miles from the closest town with a movie theater, a venue with one screen and a hundred and three seats, run by the same family that owned the drive-in (one of the only drive-ins still running in South Dakota, now owned by kids I went to high school with). They ran stuff like Goonies and Mannequin and Grease II. I remember the summer Gremlins came out — it was the only film they played at the theater or the drive-in for three months, because it brought in enough people every weekend that the owners never saw any point in ordering something else.
I was only eight when Alien released, so I’d be guessing, but I think it’s safe to say it didn’t feature on the marquee in my home town. Ditto Aliens.
My first encounter with a xenomorph didn’t come until the summer of 1990. I was sub-letting a room in the town where I attended college during fall and spring semesters, paying a hundred twenty bucks a month for full access to a rambling old house, which meant a place to crash, some room in the fridge, and abrupt conversations with my summer housemate, a bronzed college track star who worked the same CNA job I did at the local hospital and told me two or three times a day that my heart rate was too high. I spent Tuesday and Thursday evenings and most of Saturday afternoon practicing T’ai Chi in the park, and the rest of the time I was on my own.
I rented a lot of movies.
One of them was, inevitably, Alien.
I remember my first viewing very clearly. It was Friday night, the start of a weekend where I wasn’t working any shifts at the hospital. My housemate was out of town, the lights in the house were all off, and I padded around the place, trusting my spatial memory to protect my toes (a habit I’ve kept, to my family’s dismay). Alone in a big, rambling, half-familiar house in the center of the simmering crockpot that is Vermillion, South Dakota in the summer, I popped the tape in the VCR, planning (since I’m really not that big of a horror movie fan) to take breaks from the viewing whenever the creepiness got too high.
I think I finished watching it Sunday afternoon. Maybe Monday.
As my housemate was fond of pointing out, my heart rate was too high.
Still, I loved it, immediately moved on to Aliens, and revisited both of them many times in the years the followed. Time passed, and I fell into reciprocal orbits with a number of other gamers at school. Our gather points varied, but one of the constants was the fact that there was usually a movie playing in the background — something that someone actually owned and which we all knew so well it was more of a white noise generator than entertainment. Empire Strikes Back was a favorite, but Aliens was there as well. We could have whole conversations that were nothing but movie quote ping pong.
And god we loved to talk about them.
We’d theorize, argue about canon interpretations of certain scenes, play what-ifs with prequels or sequels (like those would ever happen), and just generally do what members of our tribe are known to do to pass the time.
Obviously, Star Wars talk was huge, of course, but the Alien/Aliens setting — the Weyland-Yutaniverse? That was always rich ground for a good geek argument.
And the reason for it was one of the things that made it one of my favorite sci-fi movie series (still true with the inclusion of Alien3, Alien Resurrection and yes: even AvP) — there was so much of the setting that wasn’t spelled out. Whole swaths of background, history, and politics were sketched in or vaguely implied with a throwaway line here, a stage-dressing spray-painted logo there.
Consider: in Aliens, Ripley gets called on the corporate carpet for the loss of her old ship. Later, she’s sent along to investigate missing transmissions from a Weyland-Yutani colony. But… there are military forces going alone? Weyland-Yutani is important enough the government sends in troops to investigate their colonies? Wow, they must be powerful. Except when push comes to shove, even a lowly sergeant can decide to nuke the place, over the protests of the nearest executive. Is that okay, or only technically okay, and there will be a huge political fallout later? Who’s really got the power in that situation, long term? Who can say?
I’ll tell you who: we could say, and we did. Hours, days… entire semesters would revolve around some debate or another about the flow of political power in a network of colonized worlds we never got to see, the efficiency and mechanical design of caseless projectile weapons, the legality of Hicks’s old shotgun, and a hundred other things, big and small.
To quote one of the “scientists” in Prometheus, we did it because we could. It was a vast, rich, dystopian scifi setting where so much was left open to interpretation. Even when more was added to the ‘canon’ of the setting by later movies and books, all it did was expand the square footage of the space, rather than constrain it.
What a playground.
Could You Get to the Part About Prometheus?
I told Kate this morning that if it weren’t for select portions of the internet kind of… exploding over this movie, it simply wouldn’t have occurred to me to write a post about. I saw it, I enjoyed it, it did what I hoped it would do. Satisfied customer, the end. Heck, given the difficulty with getting my six year old to really invest in a Ridley Scott movie, I probably might have even ended up missing it in theaters and watching it at home.
Kate saw it before me, though, and sent me off last night to see it solo, because “I have questions, and you know the Aliens movies much better.”
So I went, came back, and fielded Kate’s questions. With one exception (Yeah… why were all the ancient star maps pointed where they were? That’s… odd.), I found I had answers readily available.
Kate… didn’t seem entirely satisfied.
But I understand why. In most of those cases, my answers came from the same place all my answers come from when it comes to this collection of movies — me, interpreting what I saw and inferring a hell of a lot from what was implied. I gave Kate answers, but as often as not they were my answers — my personal take on the explanation — rather than a specific line or scene I could point at and say “this is why.”
To me, that makes Prometheus right at home with all the rest of it kin. It’s one of the main reasons I like ’em so much.
I’ll watch pretty much any movie (even if I deeply regret it later, 2012), but my favorites will always be movies (and, come to that, books) that don’t explain it all; that don’t paint in all the numbers and answer all the questions — the ones that make offhand comments that imply worlds’ worth of background that could be interpreted a hundred different ways, and then fail to explain themselves thoroughly. Prometheus does that, leaving me turning over a small mountain of potential ideas and what-ifs, and I like it for that reason.
I also like it for a lot of other reasons (not least because it’s basically Alien, reskinned, and Alien was pretty good), and all the stuff I like lets me overlook the (relatively small) list of things I didn’t.
Should you see it?
I’d say yes. It is (I’ve gathered) a polarizing movie — you’ll probably either love it or hate it, but really, there’s only one way to know, and it’s not by reading someone else’s review.
Death doesn’t exist. It never did, it never will. But we’ve drawn so many pictures of it, so many years, trying to pin it down, comprehend it, we’ve got to thinking of it as an entity, strangely alive and greedy. All it is, however, is a stopped watch, a loss, an end, a darkness. Nothing.
—Something Wicked This Way Comes
As I’ve mentioned, the county library in the small town closest to the farm where I grew up did not have what one would call a particularly robust Science Fiction and Fantasy section. I think it was something like four or five shelves of hardbound collections (Hitchcock Presents featured prominently) and a dimestore-style wire rack where dozens of flimsy, 150 to 175 page paperbacks were crammed in no particular order. The librarians (both part-time organists at their respective churches) didn’t have any particular love of the genre, so the shelves were rarely troubled with new arrivals or current bestsellers; Tolkein was there, of course (two copies of each book, three Hobbits if you counted the one in the children’s section, one Silmarillion), and C.S. Lewis. A row of early Heinlein and Asimov. One Henry Kuttner collection. The wire rack, I remember, boasted pretty much everything Edgar Rice Burroughs ever wrote, but good luck trying to figure out the order they were supposed to be read.
I didn’t need luck. I read everything they had. Usually twice. To me, a proper standalone novel will always be a lean, 175 pages of pocket-sized art, and the 300-600+ pages needed for a ‘proper’ novel today seems… bloated. Decadent. A whopper, when a simple cheeseburger would do you just as well.
Somewhere in the midst of my assault on that wire rack, I pulled out The Illustrated Man. I don’t remember specifically what struck me about those stories (I inexplicably juxtapose that collection with Heinlein’s Assignment in Eternity, which I must have read at roughly the same time), but it lead me to Fahrenheit 451 — the best and perhaps only suggested further reading those librarians ever gave me.
And in the midst of that book, I realized I wanted to write, and why.
Everyone must leave something in the room or left behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.
I never met the man. I wish I had. I would have said thanks.
Most of all, I admire his life; long and full of stories told, libraries championed, and writers inspired.
I want to be clear about something: I was (and am) a pretty poor student of grammar. I mean, yes: I understand it, and more importantly I understand its purpose. By and large I get it right in practice, but that’s as far as it goes; I can’t (for example) glibly define an independent clause, except to say this is one and you should be able to figure out the rest yourself.
Yet somehow, I manage to avoid profound embarrassment when expressing myself via the written word.
Mostly, this can be attributed to the fact that I’ve always been a big reader, and I (generally) read authors who were pretty good at slinging words around, then basically just did things the same way they did (consciously or otherwise). When, years later, I actually took the time to leaf through a copy of The Everyday Writer, the only big surprise was realizing some of these things I did had names.
None of this should be that surprising — observation of peers and mentors is the most primal method of learning in our little tribe of talking monkeys. I manage to dress myself every morning (underwear on the inside and everything), and while I might never make the cover of GQ (because, I presume, their editors have eyes), neither will I get arrested or kicked out of Starbucks. Again, I credit this daily victory not to hours spent memorizing twelve different ways to tie a tie, but a lifetime surrounded by people who look better when fully clothed, and know it.
So, let this be my disclaimer: I am no more an expert on prepositional phrases than I am on men’s hats, nor do I pretend to be. I know enough editors to know that their understanding of Chicago Style is encyclopedic, and that I would not want to do their jobs for any appreciable length of time — I can only assume (based entirely on watching The Devil Wears Prada) the same would be true in sartorial circles.
Put another way: I love my editors, and don’t intend to dismiss or make light of the work they do.
Over the course of the last few days, I’ve found myself caught in conversations about grammar — specifically, punctuation — and how it’s being either used or misused in my own creative work. This hasn’t been Happy Fun Times for me, both because it puts me on the opposite side of the net from people I respect, and because it turns out that I have some pretty strong feelings about the way my words go down on the page. The conversation goes something like this:
“This line should be punctuated like so.”
“That’s inconsistent and potentially confusing. Half of the time, it’s supposed to be punctuated like that, and half the time it’s supposed to be punctuated like this. I’ve settled on one of those ways, and use it in all instances, because I think it’s better and clearer.”
“I myself struggle with that exact thing and LOGICALLY, you’re right in this sitation, but we need to do it as indicated. See the Chicago Manual of Style, here…”
Part of my frustration stems from the slavish way in which something like, say, a style guide is held up as the Final Word in these discussions.
First, if we were talking about a news piece, or an academic paper, or some other kind of work of non-fiction, then fine: that’s all relevant; but we’re not talking about any of those things — we’re talking about a creative work, and when you’re talking about that, you’re talking about something which — often as not — is going to break a rule or two when judged by the same guidelines you follow for your sophomore Biology paper. We don’t go to an art show to see how precisely a painter can reproduce a photograph; we go see someone do new and interesting things with the medium, and maybe open our eyes a little bit. Likewise, I’m not picking up Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to bask in way the author’s footnotes adhere to APA Citation Guidelines.
Second, I think it’s important when talking about a style guide to read the cover before you read the contents. When you do, two words kind of leap out at you:
Let’s talk about Style first.
2a : a distinctive manner of expression (as in writing or speech)
2b : a distinctive manner or custom of behaving or conducting oneself
2c : a particular manner or technique by which something is done, created, or performed
4a : distinctive quality, form, or type of something (a new dress style)
5a : the state of being popular
Something that’s hard for anyone to remember from day to day is the fact that our language — especially our spoken language, but certainly the written form as well — is constantly evolving. I mentioned before that I learned reasonably good habits from the writers that have come before me, but it would be a bad idea to emulate any of those authors exactly, because in the time since they wrote whatever it is I’m reading, the style has changed. What would have perhaps been perfectly legitimate at the time comes off today as stilted, archaic, confusing, contradictory, or (in the case of word choice) even insulting; certainly not the intent of the author, but the world has moved on.
The mutability of the language — of style — is something worth remembering, even if it’s difficult. Otherwise, you end up arguing about the “official” way in which commas and quotation marks need to interact, which is a bit like arguing with your kid about the perfect place to build a sandcastle while ignoring the fact high tide comes up in about three more hours.
The fact is, there is no official way; we’re referencing a style guide, not a rule book, and even if we want to treat it like one, we still need to acknowledge that any manual we pick up is merely one of a dozen of such guides out there, because even people who attach huge importance to such things can’t agree with each other on who’s right.
Partly because the people using the language keep changing it.
Because it’s Style. Mutable. Shifting.
Also? Kind of ridiculous, especially the more seriously you take it.
… but this:
So that’s style. Let’s talk about Guide.
A guide is something or someone who shows the way. If you’re talking about a person, maybe they’re acting as a sort of role model, but let’s just focus on the idea of Inanimate Object as Guide — something that’s pretty much limited to providing directions or advice.
Don’t get me wrong: directions and advice are good things. Newcomers to any activity need a good guide, because they don’t know what they’re doing. There’s a tired trope in fantasy literature where some wizened old man says “Do thou go this way, and do not stray from the path, because you are all idiots and will get in a pile of trouble.” The easiest example of this (for me) involves Gandalf, thirteen dwarves, a hobbit, and Mirkwood — of course, Gandalf is right, and the Company doesn’t listen, and they have a much more difficult time crossing Mirkwood as a result. They don’t know enough to stay out of trouble; Gandalf is right to talk to them like bumbling idiots, because in this context that’s exactly what they are.
But Gandalf wouldn’t say such things to Radagast, would he? Radagast is a peer — it would be insulting. Similarly, though for different reasons, he wouldn’t say it to Strider, because while the Ranger isn’t, strictly speaking, a peer, he’s skilled enough, and Gandalf would (rightly) assume that he knows what he’s doing if he does decide to leave the path.
That’s not to say ol’ Strider is going to have an easy time of it. Maybe he stumbles. Maybe he runs afoul of some spiders. Maybe, crouched around a pale and flickering fire, he finds himself muttering “goddamn but I which I’d stayed on that path,” and spends the next three days backtracking to where everything first went wrong. Fine. Learning experience for Strider — good for him.
That’s what makes Strider a better writer. Ranger. Whatever. The first time he tries, maybe it doesn’t go that well, but he keeps trying his own thing, and eventually he’s fighting off nazgul with an improvised torch.
He’s become a pretty good guide in his own right.
Does he still have doubts, and ask for advice? Sure. But then he makes his own decisions, and eventually, people find themselves following his example, and it’s the Fourth Age, and the world has moved on.
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I stopped using quotation marks to denote dialogue, because fuck quotation marks.”
— not Cormac McCarthy
So that’s my take on Style Guides: not so very immutable as you might believe.
Invaluable, yes. Important, yes.
But, it must be remembered, merely a reflection of their time, and a thing that we need to know when to ignore, if we’re ever going to find our own way.
(Some of you may find the fact that I’m resisting changes to nitpicky stuff like punctuation amusing, in light of the recent posts I’ve made about Bioware and why I think the players should have a voice in the game’s story and ending. Let me assure you that my own journey to publication is a perfect example of the work’s creator taking input from other people and making changes, and leave it at that.)