Artificial complexity

Life is not simple. Humans are not simple. I can tell you I love to eat, and I do like to cook, but based on my situation, my thoughts on cooking sway all over the spectrum, where sometimes I like to cook if I’m not tired and I don’t have to clean the kitchen afterwards, but if a mess must be made, I rather avoid the aspect of cleaning because I really don’t like to clean up after myself.

Just by explaining my conditions of when I like to cook can I show you how difficult we as people can be, which is harder to convey in writing than you think.

As writers, we shouldn’t have to spend five hundred words to basically state the fact that for the most part, I like to cook. But I still want to show you that my characters are complex because otherwise they don’t seem real. Everything real has a good side and a bad side, just like my bed in the morning.

And as always, I want to show you by example:

I feel curiously unmoved by what I’ve just done, although I wish the afterimages would go away faster-you’re supposed to use a blaster with flash-suppression goggles, but I didn’t have time to grab them. The blaster is a simple weapon, just a small T-gate linked (via another pair of T-gates acting as a valve) to an endpoint orbiting in the photosphere of a supergiant star. (Stross 37)

Here, Stross invented a new type of gun, the typical scifi blaster with atypical working conditions. But what I loved best about this paragraph was that not only is this a powerful weapon, small and easy to conceal, it also has some negatives associated with it. In this instance, when the main character used it, he was blinded, with mild burns all over his skin – the effects of being in contact with a gate linked to the photosphere of a supergiant star.

This seems real to me. Even when I think of a normal gun, I think of a deadly weapon, easy to deal damage, while a struggle to use because it kicks back on your shoulder, recoils enough that you lose sight of your accuracy. Take a look at any video game – I’m thinking of one in particular. Ever noticed how guns have all those attributes besides damage associated with them? They’re complex coding machines!

So in effect, I can take this rule and expand upon it. I can create complexity through opposites. By including positives and negatives about every want, every event, every item, I’m artificially making it complex, making it real.

And this works for just about everything in writing!

Stross, C. Glasshouse. New York, NY: Ace, 2006. Print.

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Realism in words

In school today, I had some news-droppers – students who have a lot going on in their lives and have decided to sneak me a peek of their home lives right before Christmas, “holiday,” break. And it’s kind of depressing.

When you’re a teacher (or a teacher-in-training), you’re privy to all these kids lives, and so many of them have 504s (classroom/instruction accommodations) and so many of them have IEPS (classroom/instruction modifications). And then you realize that there’s stressors on top of that. I’ve had kids with concussions, who’ve lost parents, whose family has been in the hospital. And this doesn’t even begin to cover it.

And yet it hit me today, when we write, I feel like our characters don’t even begin to bridge this sense of realism or complexity. There are some books who come close, but I feel like it’s their plot or conflict, not necessarily their characters. But there’s always the exception.

I feel like Vorrh is better at this than most. When it describes its characters set of problems, I feel like their perspective has a certain realistic weight, and I think this combination of abstract and detailed writing style has helped Catling achieve this effect.  (Also has been one of the slowest, while still interesting, reads for me.)

It was the museum that changed everything and explained the volume of their lies…And there, at the centre, was his grandfather’s sacrificial spear. The one that had been handed down towards him for centuries, its wood impregnated with the sweat and prayers of his family. The one that he had never touched. He had walked into a trove house of all that was significant, all that was cherished – all that was stolen. (Catling 28)

This paragraph made me feel humbled and made me feel equivalent to what the Native Americans felt when we immigrated to this land, like we had stolen something of theirs, and yet being the typical ‘white, privileged’ person, reading this on the other side of the person touring these museums, it made me feel like this was a true statement. Everything in museums was in a sense stolen from these people lives. Put on display for others to gawk and gossip. It was an oddly humbling scene, making me feel somewhat guilty on behalf of others and sorry for the more man whose family has suffered because of it.

I think the best praise I can give Catling is I love and hate him for his style. He’ll have pieces like this that are inspiring, purely revolutionary for the kind of effect and intellectual stimulation it can affect on the reader, and yet I come across passages like this:

It grabbed at his memories and perverted them with elaborate motivations, succulent in their weirdness, making stupidity and pride fuck on the hallowed ground of his genius. (Catling 58)

Which confuse me, and literally mind-“f” me to no end. Seriously. No idea what’s going on in this passage, re-read it multiple times, and I feel like my brains been washed through a dryer on high speed every time I try to read it. Maybe that’s a wanted effect, but seriously…confused. I’d have to treat this like poetry and break it down to understand it.

Overall, I’d like to praise him and encourage everyone to give him a try. I wouldn’t recommend it yet to the average reader (only on page 75), as I’m still confused on why I’m reading it even though it’s a beautiful read. If anyone wants to study style, this would be a good book to pick up.

One last quote for the road!

No planes dared fly over it. Its unpredictable climate, dizzying abnormalities of compass, and impossibilities of landing made it a pilot’s and navigator’s nightmare. All its pathways turned into overgrowth, jungle, and ambush. The tribes that were rumored to live there were barely human-some said the anthropophagi still roamed. Creatures beyond home. Heads growing below their shoulders. Horrors. (Catling 34)

Summary: My impressions of Catling are he’s very exact, detail- and image-oriented. Every chapter/scene break starts the same way, orienting us in perspective. And every piece of information is very exact. There’s not a lot of nit and gritty first person perspectives, and when he does get in the gritty detail, it’s with TMI about sex, death, life, etc.

Catling, B. The Vorrh. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2015. Print.

Simplicity in Opposites

Let’s talk simplicity.

Simple = easy to understand.
–> Easy to understand = engaged reader.
—->Engaged reader = happy customer.

I’m in the middle of reading this story – which I’m doing abnormally slowly, proving that as soon as you’re in school, you get busy – and I read 4 sentences. Perhaps the simplest four I had come across so far in this story. Remember it = her child.

I don’t want to neglect it.

I’m going to neglect it.

I don’t want to hurt it.

I’m going to hurt it. (Cornell 38-39)

Wow. A while back I talked about opposites, how they’re great at forming your character because they establish a difference between wants/actions, and here we see exactly that. She wants something, but she isn’t going to do that. Why? Because she blames her parents.

Heavy.

But, this simplicity – these simple statements that go back and forth between what she wants, what she’s going to do, it really helps set this character up for her greatest fear, her greatest pitfall.

It’s an easy technique other writers can imitate to show this disparity between wants and her future actions/problems.

Cornell, Paul. “The Ghosts of Christmas.” Year’s Best SF 18. Ed. David G. Hartwell. New York, NY: Tor, 2013. 34-54. Print.

“Station Eleven” by Emily Mandel

First of all, I would like to say this was a very lovely book. There are four main characters, two boys and two girls, and the story follows their lives before, during, and after the flu epidemic. It’s not an overwhelmingly violent or gruesome book, hardly touching upon the details of people’s deaths. Instead, it focuses more about the characters’ reactions to the epidemic, how it changed them and their lives, and I really appreciated that about it. My favorite character was Miranda, but I won’t tell you anything else about her, lest I give too much away.

This book definitely has an interesting style and a beautiful voice, which I can attribute to Mandel’s writing style. Let me give you a sneak peek from Jeevan’s point of view:

He reached Allan Gardens Park, more or less the halfway point, and this was where he found himself blinded by an unexpected joy. Arthur died, he told himself, you couldn’t save him, there’s nothing to be happy about. But there was, he was exhilarated, because he’d wondered all his life what his profession should be, and now he was certain, absolutely certain that he wanted to be a paramedic. (Mandel 11)

What a beautiful way to describe a character’s perspective. The first sentence shows what the character feels, joy, and how he felt by it: blinded. This does a good job of setting up his initial feelings, and then obstructing his joy within the next sentence. He reminded himself he just witnessed a death. He shouldn’t be feeling happy and yet he still does. This gives the reader more insight to Jeevan as a character, by not only establishing how happy he is but also showing the reader Jeevan’s past struggles in finding his purpose in life.

By giving his happiness an opposite like death, Mandel deepens the emotion and the paragraph. Opposites can do this because humans aren’t naturally feeling one emotion at once. Usually there are multiple conflicts going on in our life, which is why opposites work so well for a story. They make characters more interesting and life more real. It’s one thing to say I’m happy because I found my true living. It’s another to say I’m happy after I saw somebody died.

I’m not saying go ahead and kill someone every time your character feels happiness. But, try saying I’m happy even though I just broke my computer, or I’m sad even though I just won the lottery…opposites like these can definitely strengthen your characterization.

This is a good lesson on how to create emotion within your character:

1. Explain how (s)he feels it

2. Flush out the emotion – use a complexity or opposite reasoning on why the emotion shouldn’t exist

3. Explain why (s)he feels it

With these three reasons, you’re one step closer to creating a human being!

Mandel, Emily. Station Eleven. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. Print.