When I posted yesterday’s entry, it occurred to me that I hadn’t updated these pages in more than a year. Not a single word. The entirety of 2020 has come and gone. Between death on a worldwide scale and the crisis that led to an attempted coup of the federal government, there’s been nothing in my own experience that compares. Any successes or setbacks in my own life are shamefully petty in light of what everyone else has endured. Millions are dead. Faith in our leadership has been shattered. My personal inconveniences (and that’s all they are, inconveniences) amount to very little. So I’ll neither share nor complain, and focus on the future instead with hope and determination. The new year can–and will–be better than the last. It’s up to us. We can’t do otherwise.
The events of January 6 have stirred up decades of frustration for me, dating back to when I first started paying attention to such things at age 14. (For the curious, I’m just shy of 63.) I believe in healthy, productive debate between differing points of view. This is where wisdom begins. As a lifelong Democrat (that being my family heritage) I have no issue with the Republican Party, which has produced a great many good and honorable men. My issue and frustration is with conservatives, the ones who hold themselves to be the true custodians of American ideals and values, while blaming liberals for everything that is not. And it galls me to watch the people who stormed the Capital of the United States waving our flag, their faces painted red, white, and blue, as if those sacred symbols were theirs and theirs alone. But the history of our country is undeniable: conservatives have been on the wrong side from the very beginning. 1780s: the liberal Northern states wanted the abolition of slavery to be written directly into the Constitution. The conservative pro-slavery Southern states opposed. They won the day. 1860s: despite the above, the conservative states fired the shot that ignited the Civil War. Even after losing, conservatives passed laws that denied free blacks the same liberties as whites for the next hundred years. 1910s: conservatives opposed the right for women to vote. 1930s: conservatives opposed the New Deal. 1950s: conservatives opposed black children being allowed to attend white schools, while happily fingering their neighbors as pinkos and communists. 1960s: conservatives opposed the civil rights movement and the Great Society. 1970s: conservatives continued to oppose equal rights for women, the LGBTQ community, Roe vs Wade, and laws to protect the environment. The 1980s saw the rise of the arch-conservative Evangelical Right as a political force, that sought to erase the constitutional line between Church and State. 2000s: conservatives opposed the election of our first black president and fought for eight years to bring him down. They failed. 2010s: conservatives opposed marriage equality and supported ongoing LGBTQ discrimination. 2016: conservatives elected a racist sociopath as president, despite decades of evidence proving him to be so. Four years later, they voted for him again. GOP leadership said they could keep him in line. They failed. So here we are in the 2020s, two hundred and forty years after all this began (three hundred and sixty years, in point of fact, when the first blacks were brought to our shores in chains) and nothing is fundamentally different. We pretend it is, and look back on the good old days with fondness and longing. (Conservatives are especially adept at this. “Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten.”) And then January 6 happens, and terrorists waving our flag and colors are heralded as patriots, while the liberals who’ve championed every cause that conservatives have opposed are still painted as un-American with the broadest of brushes. And I’m frustrated, and angry, and very very sad.
Author, podcaster, and charmingly fine fellow Joshua Pantalleresco recorded this interview during our time at the Creative Ink Festival 2019, Vancouver BC, in which we speak of many things–some of them even about writing, but mostly the nerdtastic awesomeness of Silver Age comics. (Yea, DC. Marvel, not so much.) Two chatty geeks having at it. Enjoy!
The single greatest way to reveal character is through dialogue, both spoken and unspoken.
Speech Tag – a way to indicate who spoke (he said, she asked, etc.).
Saidism – an overabundance of speech tags. Steer clear of verbs other than “said” or “ask” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer not being invisible. Be straightforward and simple. A word like said is far less intrusive than grumbled, whimpered, gasped, exclaimed, cautioned, growled, or lied. This is telling, not showing.
Avoid adverbs to modify the verb “said”. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.
Body Beat – Effective dialogue needs descriptive action interspersed throughout. It gives detail and context. If dialogue is the best way to reveal a character (and it truly is), the second best way is the description that accompanies dialogue. This includes the use of silence, as demonstrated through pause or hesitation.
Serviceable, Better, Best:
• “There must be a solution to this problem,” he pondered thoughtfully.
• “There must be a solution to this problem,” he said, lost in thought.
• “There must be a solution to this problem.” He stared at the task at hand though narrowed eyes and stroked his beard. “Nope. I got nothing. We’re screwed.”
Guidelines for Using Speech Tags
• Don’t use speech tags.
• If you must use a tag, keep it simple: stick to said and asked
• Place said or asked after the speaker, not before
• “Does this look infected to you?” asked Stewart. The tag word calls too much attention to itself.
• “Does this look infected to you?” Stewart asked. The tag word here is almost invisible.
Use accents and regional dialects sparingly. Once you start to spell dialogue phonetically and load the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.
Keep exclamation points under control, unless you want your characters screaming all the time.
Characters living in the past need to speak like they’re living in the past. Contemporary turns of phrase will shatter the fourth wall and pull readers out of the story.
Does that mean you have to become an expert in past patterns of speech? No, but you do need to know enough to make your readers think you are. A hint of it will do.
Remember story movement: it’s your characters who drive the plot.
To build a strong, dynamic character–be it hero or villain–start with the core quality that best fits your story’s central problem and layer outward from there. Ask yourself: “Who is this guy?”
In Freudian psychology, the human psyche is divided into three equal but distinct aspects:
• Id – emotional and instinctual desires.
• Superego – rules and intellectual conventions.
• Ego – balance that reconciles id and superego.
There’s that word again. Balance. A finely crafted story or character is all about balance.
All are present in the psychic whole, with some presenting more dramatically than others. (Your mileage may vary.) When each of the three is assigned to a separate character in the same story, it’s collectively known as a “power trio.”
A hero is someone who is willing to sacrifice his own needs on behalf of others. At its very heart, the idea of the hero is connected to self-sacrifice. The connection to something greater than the self.
At the heart of every story is a confrontation with death. The death of the body, the death of a relationship, the death of a dream or goal. It’s the fear of loss. If the hero doesn’t face literal death, then there must be the threat of death or a symbolic death.
What your characters are afraid of is a choice. You choose to be afraid. Or not. FEAR. False Evidence that Appears Real, or Fuck Everything and Run. We have no control over the things that happen to us, but we do choose how we deal with them. We decide what the consequences are going to be. So too with our characters.
The hero must end the story different than what he was when he began it. The hero archetype represents the ego’s search for wholeness. It’s the process of becoming a more complete human being.
In shorter fiction, you don’t have the luxury of exploring your hero’s id, ego, and superego. You may only have room for one. Choose what best serves the needs of the story. Which one is most closely suited to the address the central problem? Or for an interesting reversal, which one is least suited? You might try that one to facilitate–dare I say it– the transformation.
Transformation is a shift in being, the reinvention of the self by the self. It occurs the hero has exhausted every alternative in trying to solve the problem. There is no other way out. It’s the story’s psychological turning point. It’s the climax. Afterwards the mood of the story changes significantly, because the hero now has a different sense of urgency and direction.
In mainstream literature, the transformation of the hero is a personal, inner event. In genre fiction, the transformation can apply to the world as well. The hero becomes an elemental force of change (sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally) and the world itself is remade. This is often referred to as a Traveling Angel story. The hero enters a closed off, stifled, or joyless environment, changes it for the better, then moves on.
Transformation is the reason you’re telling the story.
3. Crises and Challenges
Crisis – a problem you didn’t choose but demands immediate attention. It has to be solved now.
Challenge – a situation you create for yourself because you are excited by the possibility.
Each problem creates a different kind of story. A crisis demands action. The clock is running. This creates enormous tension for the reader and propels the narrative forward. (Try-fail cycle.)
A challenge, however, is a task that a character has freely chosen. He’s not required to accept the challenge but he does so anyway. And because it’s a conscious choice, the relationship with the task is a much more personal expression of who the hero is and what he is committed to.
Some of the best stories combine elements of both crisis and challenge. The character takes on a challenge only to have it grow out of control and become a crisis. Example: Apollo 13, Frankenstein, The Lord of the Rings.
A character who has to overcome both kinds of problems is much more interesting. How he deals with crises and challenges reveals who he really is.
I turned 60 today. I know, right?
I was raised in a very large, multigenerational family of Democrats, in the bluest of Blue states. It’s my heritage; it’s who I am. Despite that, I was often told that I’d naturally become more conservative as I grew older, because that’s what people do. Sixty years on now and I’m still wondering when that day will occur.
Nothing is preordained. We are the authors of our own life stories. We determine our stories will end. Our choices matter. Our beliefs and convictions matter, and should not be so easily discouraged just because people say that’s what happens when time marches on. So here are a few convictions of my own. My blog, my birthday.
I believe the spark of divinity dwells in us all, regardless of politics or worldview. Regardless of identity, ethnic heritage, where they come from, or who they choose to love; monogamous or poly; trans, gender fluid, or cis. Our ultimate goal is to come together–as one people–not divide ourselves farther than we already are. We only have this one planet. It’s not very big, but there’s room for us all.
I believe in and fully support the 2nd Amendment. I also believe there is no earthly reason for the private ownership of assault-grade weaponry, whose sole purpose is to kill as many people as you can, as fast as you can. There is nothing in the Constitution to suggest even remotely that this was the Framers’ intent. Not one word. Anyone who disagrees is invited to point out exactly where it does. Take your time. I’ll wait.
I believe that anyone who discriminates against an ethnicity or culture in the name of national security has lost sight of what it actually means to be an American, or have we learned nothing since the time our Greatest Generation imprisoned 120,000 Japanese-Americans in internment camps simply because they looked–wow–Japanese?
I believe family-values evangelicals did themselves irreparable harm when they elected a president who openly refers to his daughter as a “nice piece of ass”, and boasts about grabbing women’s genitals. How exactly do we justify that to our own daughters? Our sons? Our grandchildren? How do we tell them this is okay? Because clearly it is… Church folk said so.
I believe refusing goods and services to anyone because of their sexual identity is not an exercise of religious freedom. It’s just being a dick, and that’s not okay either.
I believe that patriarchy is wrong on every level. The idea that men are gifted with ultimate authority over home and society simply because they have nads and a penis would be laughable were the results not so toxic and dehumanizing. “The man is the man because he’s the man.” What? How’s that again? And shame on anyone who has taught their daughters that this is just the way it its.
Lastly, to all who get their news from Fox, please stop. You’re embarrassing yourselves.
So no, none of that sounds particularly conservative. I’m still proudly Blue. But maybe I’ll check back in another sixty years just to make sure.
Convention season is coming around again. I can smell it already.
My flash piece “A Child’s First Steps at the End of the World” has been picked up for publication in Quantum Muse. Flash is one of the more difficult story forms to get right, at least it is for me. All of my earlier attempts sounded like really bad haiku. Can white people write good haiku? Can white people sing gospel? The mind reels at the vagaries of the universe…
Just spent the past few hours listening to German death-metal. I’m not sure, but I may have inadvertently summoned the Dark Lord. If the apocalypse comes later today, my bad.
The Writing Experience is approved again for the spring quarter at Tacoma Community College. At first the class ran for six weeks, and afterward I thought “That wasn’t enough time!” I expanded it to eight weeks, adding new material. When it concluded I yowled “OMG! I thought that would NEVER end!” So now I’ve cut it back to six weeks but am keeping the added material. I just need to figure out how to squeeze it all in. Bonus points if my favorite student Dennis enrolls again, because he brings candy.
My new favorite phrase is “What is this fuckery?” It sounds properly Shakespearean.
As always, more to follow…
Probably the clearest, most concise example of “show vs tell” that you’ll ever find. Brilliant in its simplicity. Enjoy!
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
- Emotional Resonance
Often called the B-Plot, but that’s really not true. There’s nothing secondary about it.
Life is run from the emotions outward. You run the risk of losing your audience by working from the intellect only (technique), disconnected from body and spirit. Your world isn’t real because of the plot points that built it. It’s real because it feels real.
There must be a core of strong and genuine emotion resonating at the heart of every story. Without it, the narrative will feel flat and out of balance. Your readers may not know why they feel this way, but they will know it to be true.
Balance – addressing the needs of the body, mind, and spirit (emotional wellbeing) in equal measure. Note that balance doesn’t mean perfect. Out of balance leads to rich characterization.
At any given point in your story, ask yourself “What are my characters feeling right now?” Then convey that through their words, tones of voice, body language, physical action. Do you have to share all of this with your readers 100% of the time? No, but as the writer you need to know how your characters feel because it will color everything that they do.
All that said, badly written fiction can actually succeed because of strong emotional appeal. Examples of this are Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, and anything directed by Steven Spielberg.
- Family Dynamics
The ups and downs of family drama are shortcuts into your characters’ head space. Mom issues. Dad issues. The struggles of the middle child. Example: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!” They’re universal. Use them. The advantage here is you don’t have to explain everything. Your readers already get it.
- Evolving Roles in the Post-Patriarchy
Women aren’t more emotional than men. Men are emotionally stunted.
The manly man (traditionally) doesn’t emote. He’s stoic. He’s a rock. He’s eagle-eyed and level headed. Depicting him as excessively emotional doesn’t ring true. Patriarchy regulates men’s behavior, attitude, personality, even appearance. Men who don’t fit into the mold of traditional masculinity either have to hide their true selves or face ostracism. Men have always had more external freedom than women, but this came at an internal price.
However–today, right now–we’re in a time of transition. The old paradigms are being completely redefined.
What does this mean? As a writer, you have a much greater opportunity to tell stories that weren’t easily accepted in the past. You can explore male characters who defy conventional definitions of masculinity, or female characters who defy conventional definitions of femininity.
An emotionally aware man isn’t a wuss. A strong woman isn’t a bitch.
Men and woman together are equally responsible for bringing about and sustaining a post-patriarchal narrative. The stories you write can be exemplars of this.
- Love Scenes
A love scene is not about sex. A love scene isn’t even about love. It’s about the relationship.
A relationship of love contains affection, trust, respect, honestly, playfulness, commitment, an entire spectrum of feelings that can’t really be defined. All are parts of the relationship. A love scene between two characters demonstrates these qualities.
“I love you” doesn’t always have to be said on the page. It isn’t essential to a love scene because it’s already there–it’s the emotional context of the scene.
A love scene is not always a scene between lovers. Most of the time it isn’t. A love scene is between two people who love each other: parent and child, brothers, sisters, grandparent and grandchild, friend and friend, teacher and student. Romance is but one aspect of love; there are countless others to explore.
- The Hard Throbbing Stuff
David Gerrold: Sex scenes are embarrassing. They’re embarrassing to write. They’re embarrassing to read. And most of all, they’re embarrassing to publish. This is because people will assume you’re writing from experience.
Every time you write a sex scene, you’re telling people not just that you think about sex, you’re also telling them what you think about sex. It is a very public admission of a very private part of your life. And no matter how many times you say “It’s just a story”, the fact remains that you are the person who sat at the keyboard and imagined it.
So don’t force it. Be honest! Don’t feel like you have to include a sex scene just because it sells. If you’re not comfortable writing sex scenes, it will be evident on the page. Your reader will know.
What comes before the scene is important. What comes after is most important. Again, you’re going for emotional resonance.
The effective sex scene is not about sex. It’s about the passion of the moment.
Lots of goings-on this month. Random, and yet not.
I’ve moved nineteen times in my adult life. It’s one of the curses of being born with insatiable wanderlust, I suppose. Nineteen changes of address in eleven different cities, five counties, two states. Packing, cleaning, movers who don’t show up, mountains of boxes to stumble over. And books–may I point out–are goddamn heavy! So we just done it again. Twenty times now, and no longer counting. Packed up the cat and moved to Des Moines, half an hour south of Seattle. And in Washington, the “s” in Des Moines is sounded. Just the second one though, not the first. Des Moinez, with an emphasis on the z. I have no idea why.
My proposal for a fiction writing practicum has been approved by Tacoma Community College’s continuing education program. (Much closer to Des Moines than our old place in Lake Forest Park. That’s a win for the commute!) We will be offering the class in the spring quarter and again this fall, potentially at the Gig Harbor campus, too. I will be teaching as well as writing the curriculum based on the “Out of My Head” posts here. Go Titans.
“Cold Ink” sold to Beneath Ceaseless Skies this week, the seventh of my Clockwork Millennials cycle to be published. This one has lived in my head for a long time–like, a really long time. Thirty-plus years maybe. The narrative trappings and plot points varied over the years but the story itself–the core of it–and the girl at its center, always remained the same. I’m glad to finally send her out into the world.
I’ve been listening to the Pippin soundtrack lately. I always wanted to play Pippin. I still feel like him (there’s that pesky wanderlust again) but the reality of the calendar says I’m just seven years shy of his grandmother’s age. No idea how that happened. Plenty of time for reflection later, though. I just moved and have to unpack all these goddamn heavy books.