Friday, January 13, 2017

Unca Mike's Masterclass: Beauty

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I just finished A. S. Byatt's short nonfiction book Peacock and Vine. In it, she expounds on Jane Burden Morris and her place as a muse of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In addition to being one of the best writers around, Byatt is a wonderful researcher. Yet after reading all she could find on this woman whose images have left generations of art historians swooning, she declares, "I do not have any idea at all of what she was really like." How many thousands of words were expended on this woman's beauty! How few on her self.

Which brings us to this lazy habit you have of ladling gallons of gush over a (female, almost inevitably) character's beauty.

I won't go into the many different ways women can be beautiful, though they are myriad. This leads too easily into what my feminist friends would call "objectification." But, even more importantly, it distracts from the business of fiction which is getting at the inner workings of things, whether they be orbital mechanics or the mysteries of the human soul.

As a general rule, when you write about beauty, you are writing about desire. Which is a topic almost as interesting as "beauty" is not.

I have known -- I mean this verb in its non-sexual sense -- beautiful women who were not aware of that fact and women who were distinctly plain yet drew men like moths to their flame. I know a woman who believes her twin sister is the beauty of the family and she the ugly duckling. (And watched men walk right past her to hit on her sister.) I once met a strikingly ugly woman whose absolute unconcern with her appearance took my breath away with, yes, desire. What makes somebody an object of desire is the fierce light of personality shining through the mask of flesh.

So don't tell me a character is beautiful. It leaves me knowing no more than I did before you wrote it. If it is important to your story that I know a woman (or man) is beautiful, tell me why or how.

Thus ends today's sermon. Go thou and sin no more.


Above: Jane as Proserpine. One of many paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She led a pretty scandalous life. It seems to have occurred to pretty much nobody to ask her why.


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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Godless Atheist Christmas Cards!

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It's time again for the year's most anticipated cultural event -- the Godless Atheist Christmas Card Competition! This revered custom began in ancient times when I was struck by the extreme measures many of our friends took to evade the implication of a religious element to the season. Now, once a year, The Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family meets in solemn conclave to determine which single card -- for There Can Only Be One -- will be the Godless Atheist Christmas Card of the Year.

And what a year it was! After solemn argument and dignified hand-waving, the NAANBRPofF was able to narrow the field down to eight cards (pictured above), any one of which was more than worthy of the honor.

Sorted by category, they were:


Active Hostility Toward the Faithful (middle row, right)

A pissed-off penguin with the message "Will Someone Tell the Little Drummer Boy to Knock It Off?" Because nothing says Christmas like complaining about Christmas songs. Added points for the penguin, a creature of the Antarctic, whose association with the season seems to be that it lives as far as it's possible to be from the North Pole where, reputedly, Santa Claus has his workshop.


God Is Missing and Nothing Is In His Place (bottom row, middle)

A tasteful white nutcracker soldier. The association of the nutcracker with Christmas consists entirely of a ballet, set during the Christmas season, in which a young girl comes within an ace of being forcibly married to a rat. The message conveyed by the absolute lack of religious sentiment is breathtakingly amplified by the fact that on the inside of the card is a niche labeled "Money or Gift Card" which is empty. What better way of conveying the anti-Christmas message?


Beauty Arises Only From Nature -- Not From Spirituality (middle row, middle)

This was a controversial card because it comes from an artist friend and features one of his own paintings. My reading of this is that he was giving something particularly personal and meaningful. But the Not at All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family hooted me down. The painting, they said, though beautiful was set in Autumn. The absolute irrelevance even as to season makes it a finalist. But, I said, surely there's something about finding God in Nature --? Shut up, they informed me.


We Have Failed in Our Self-Image (bottom, right)

An image by the immortal Edward Gorey, showing a flapper, obviously pixilated, dancing solo with a streamer of tinsel while friends and/or family look at her with pity and disgust. The bleakness of this sad woman aspiring to be something she cannot is heartbreaking. Nothing could more perfectly summarize the suicidal depression that is the antithesis of the true spirit of Christmas.


Total Non Sequitur (bottom row, left)

This image by the immortal Jason Van Hollander was the cover of F&SF earlier this year for Marc Laidlaw's "The Ghost Penny Post." The argument could be made, I suppose, that an artist getting promptly paid for his work -- as I'm sure F&SF would -- is a Christmas miracle. But nobody made it. So here the card is.


Christmas Is a Product -- All We Value is Things (middle row, left)

A rocket, balloons, a robot Santa -- the bright mishmosh of imagery had this card among the finalists even before it was opened to reveal the robot Santa scowling protectively over a pile of presents. Materialism! cried the Not at All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family. I tried pointing out that this was a corporate card from a publishing house and that they should be excused for resorting to humor in an attempt to avoid offending people. But Blasphemy! they cried and Where's your goddamn Christmas spirit? and all I could do was bow to their superior passion.


Science Is the Only Reality (top row, right)

This beautiful hand-made card from a friend who would not like her name being dragged into this discussion was a personal favorite. It wasn't the wood-print messages evading mentioning the holidays within, the quite lovely marbled paper, or the hand-stitching that won my heart. It was the image: a reproduction of Albert Hoffman's sketch of the structural formula for lysergic acid diethylamide along with a jaunty greetings to a friend and his autograph. And don't give me that 'I saw God' stuff either! I declaimed. But the rest of the panel seemed to think the hand-crafted quality of the card edged it into seasonality. Go figure.


All of these cards were magnificent in their Godlessness and Atheism. But there can only be one winner and that winner was...


Inappropriate Message (top row, left)

Everybody agreed that John and Judith Clute's card, featuring a work of art by Judith Clute herself was both powerful and virtuous. It showed a woman's face with the word WARE hiding her mouth and serving as a gag. The message of women being silenced and turned into product is, alas, perpetually timely, and appropriate to every time and season of the year. Except Christmas. Which is about something else entirely.


You can find Judith Clute's website here.


And I must apologize...

This should have been written and posted on Monday. I regret most sincerely that it was not. I've been writing long and hard this week and it sucked up not only all my time but, more importantly, my mind.

I'll resume my regular thrice-weekly schedule tomorrow.


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Friday, January 6, 2017

Unca Mike's Masterclass: Describing Faces

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One of the things new writers are most avid to learn is how to describe their characters' faces. Unfortunately, the one thing they least want to hear in reply is the simple truth: That it's best not to bother. Three quick details will do: blonde, zaftig, beauty mark near the lips -- Marilyn Monroe. You describe your characters best by describing their actions. The reader will provide the mental image for you.

As an example of the kind of things new writers want to learn how to write, here's a woman's face described by Anita Brookner in Hotel du Lac:

Her large spare face, perhaps a little too sparsely populated by a cluster of rather small features, shone with the ruddy health of an unsuspecting child. Everything about her gleamed. Her light blue eyes, her regular, slightly incurving teeth, her faultless skin, all gave off various kinds of sheen; her blonde hair looked almost dusty in comparison.

This is, you will note, not so much a physical description as a moral judgment. Jennifer, for such is her name, is a vacuous creature, selfish in her appetites (those incurving teeth!), lacking in both maturity and intellect, and attractive only to those who are not paying attention to anything but the surface.

This sort of description, already outdated when the above passage was written, descends from Victorian theories of physiognomy which were disproved long ago. It was retained as a convenient way the author could write about the character's personality indirectly. But it's not true -- we can't read a person's character from their face. How much easier life would be if we could!

It is marginally better to describe a character this way than by straight exposition: "Jennifer was the sort of vacuous woman who..."

But it is best to describe a character in fiction same way we learn it in life -- from their actions.


And on Monday...

The Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family has met in solemn conclave and decided the winner of this year's Godless Atheist Christmas Card Competition! Tune in Monday for not only the winner but the five runners-up (it was one helluva year) as well.


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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Gehenna: Part 3

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Okay. Our collaborative story has a provisional title. This may change as the story evolves; a good title should cut to the quick of the story and we don't yet know what the story's about. But it gives us a handle while we grope forward in the dark.

Here's where the story now stands. First, what we already had (you'll note that I've made minor revisions; this will continue happening throughout):


Gehenna

The city had been frozen in time. The moon hung, a thin disk of ice, as unchanging as the afternoon sun. Birds were motionless specks in the sky. You could climb the smoke billowing from its chimneys halfway up to heaven and there, perhaps, discover an unimaginable nation living on the clouds just an hour's effort above the mundane world.

Gehenna Immaculata stared at the city from the vantage of the topmost branches of the tallest oak in the adjacent forest. She had no history or philosophy or even peasant morality to help her put what she saw in context. She was illiterate.

She only knew what she wanted.

So far, we have a tableau. Now let's move this into the realm of fiction. Last week, I asked what Immaculata wanted and as of when I sat down to write, got no suggestions. So I made her desire as basic as I could:

Which was food.

I also asked where Ms Immaculata came from. Mike Flynn suggested that she had no memory. This seemed to me a good way of pushing her past deeper into the story's future -- and amnesia has been a reliable workhorse in sf and fantasy for generations -- so it is now implicit in all that happens between the end of the next paragraph and whenever it is that Gehenna has to acknowledge it.

Sandy came up with a plausible explanation of where Gehenna came from and what she wanted. It was a good one, too -- good enough for Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and I consider that quite a successful tale. But by the time I read it, I'd already written the next two paragraphs containing an implied back-story.

Why only implied? Three reasons:

1) The beginning of a story should be primarily concerned with drawing the reader  in. Explanations slow things down, so they should be avoided as much as possible.

2) The bruises arouse the readers' curiosity, giving them more reason to continue reading.

3) I have no idea what the back-story is .

Later, we'll come up with something that will serve the story's purpose -- once we learn what that is.

So now we have:

Hunger drove Gehenna down the tree almost as fast as a squirrel, despite her many aches and bruises. Luckily, no bones were broken. So the only disability she suffered was pain -- and pain was hunger's handmaiden.

Note how the last word establishes that this is a medieval and not a modern city.

Next week Gehenna enters the city. The trip there should be glossed over as quickly as possible because it's not as interesting as what the opening promises the city will be. So here's the transition:

From the ground, the city was invisible. But Gehenna had noted that if she lined up a nearby beech with a distant staub, she could follow that line straight to its heart. Not half an hour later she burst free of the forest.

Next week: the city! And here we must deliver the fan service that first paragraph promises. The story demands vivid images of stasis. A drop of water hanging in the air below the spout of a pump? A butterfly frozen above cornflower? A cutpurse eternally sawing away at the string hanging from a citizen's belt?

Your ideas are solicited.  Let's see how brilliant you can be.


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Monday, January 2, 2017

A Transistor Radio in Faerie

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I've been reading Ursula K. Le Guin's new collection of talks and essays, The Wave in the Mind and admiring it immensely -- both for its erudition and for the patient way she explains matters that are perfectly obvious to any professional writer but need to be spelled out to readers who have not encountered them before. It may well be -- and probably is -- her best collection of non-fiction to date.

But it will never have the importance of her 1979 collection The Language of the Night, simply because at the time she was writing its essays, there had been very little masterful writing about modern fantasy. Yes, Tolkien and to a lesser degree Lewis. A few others. But there was a lot of uncharted wilderness at the time.

One of the most influential essays in that collection was "From Elfland to Pougkeepsie," which was chockfull of useful insights to at least one would-be fantasist. Among other things, it tried to establish that what distinguished good fantasy from bad was that it went all the way into the strangeness and otherness of the fantasy world, stating that "the point about Elfland is that you are not at home there. It's not Poughkeepsie. It's different."

She also stated in there somewhere (I can't locate my copy of the book -- if you could see my office, you'd understand -- so I'm working from memory here) that you couldn't have a transistor radio in Elfland without losing all the enchantment.

I was thinking of that statement when, in The Dragons of Babel, I wrote the following scene . Young Will le Fey, a refugee fallen into louche company, is on a train traveling through Babylon on his way to the Tower of Babel:

Esme had grown bored with the passing landscape and was rummaging through Nat’s luggage.  She hauled out a transistor radio and snapped it on.  Music more beautiful than anything Will had ever heard flooded the car.  It sounded like something that might have been sung by the stars just before dawn on the very first morning of the world.  “What is that?” he asked wonderingly.
 Nat Whilk smiled.  “It’s called ‘Take the A Train.’  By Duke Ellington.”

Which technically defies Le Guin's proscription.

I was particularly pleased that with that little tidbit because it epitomized the strangeness of the world I had created. But it was nothing compared to what Rachel Pollack did with Unquenchable Fire and Temporary Agency, the first a novel and the second two novellas that together make up a novel, both of which are set in Poughkeepsie sometime after a mystic revelation in which the shamanic world has made itself manifest.

Pollack's Poughkeepsie is a terrifying place, where parades include high school cheerleaders marching with human blood smeared on their naked breasts, and the man from the power company comes by once a month to read the meter and sacrifice a wren for the continued operation of your wiring. I highly recommend both books to anyone who loves great fantasy.

So right there are three works that violate the letter of Le Guin's essay. But they in no way invalidate it. They are mere contradictions of specific words within the essay. The spirit of "From Elfland to Pougkeepsie"remains inviolate and its insights as wise as ever.

Both "From Elfland to Pougkeepsie" and The Wave in the Mind are highly recommended to anyone interested in learning from one of the great writers of our time.


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Friday, December 30, 2016

A Story: Part 2

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As an experiment, I'm writing a story online, starting with a paragraph I came up with and then incorporating suggestions for what might come next from whoever cares to make them. No idea whether the story will ever be finished.

Here's the original paragraph:

The city had been frozen in time. The moon hung, a thin disk of ice, in the afternoon sun. Birds were motionless specks in the sky. You could climb the smoke billowing from its chimneys halfway up to heaven and there discover an unimaginable nation just an hour's effort above the mundane world.

And here's the continuation, based on yesterday's ideas and suggestions:

Gehenna Immaculata stared at the city from the vantage of the topmost branches of the tallest oak in the adjacent forrest. She had no history or philosophy or even peasant morality to help her put what she saw in context. She was illiterate.

She only knew what she wanted.

So now we have a situation and a protagonist. Next up: motivation and action. What does young Gehenna want? Where has she come from? And what does she do next?

I await your input.


And next week...

I'll be switching this over to a weekly post because I have so many other things to celebrate in my life. But it's beginning to look like an interesting exercise, I think. Let's see how far we can take it.


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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A Story: Part 1

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So. This "crowdsourcing" thing. Is it any good? I have my doubts. But let's not be hasty.

As an experiment, I'm going to post here the opening paragraph to a story that I came up with just now. I solicit your suggestions for what comes next.

So long as what you guys come up with helps move the thing along, I'll post new segments. When it fails to do so, I'll stop.

I have no more idea than you do what the outcome will be.

Here's the first paragraph:

The city had been frozen in time. The moon hung, a thin disk of ice, in the afternoon sun. Birds were motionless specks in the sky. You could climb the smoke billowing from its chimneys halfway up to heaven and there discover an unimaginable nation just an hour's effort above the mundane world.

Got it? Go!

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