Seeing is believing

Here it is one-thirty AM, where I should be in bed, but I can’t go to sleep just yet because I finished this book, and it’s been so long since I’ve read (and read one this good) that I have to talk about it. Even if it means sacrificing my sleep.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood.

I feel like while reading this book, I should feel dirty. A guy in love with an eight-year old child; and then a thirteen-year old feeling in love with a 24-year old. It seems like something you would read in the arrest section of a newspaper, except this story is everything but that. This story is about the love between two people learning to care for each other, no matter their differences and their history, even considering all their eccentricities. And, the only reason I can believe for why it feels so real is because of the history Greenwood has built up between the characters.

While reading, you may become annoyed at the chapters. So direct and pointed, they quickly get at their purpose, which can make things seem choppy at first. But it also reveals much of the characters’ history, traveling an expanse of years, all the way from Wavy’s age of 8 to 21. And even though it changes character perspective a lot, instead of distracting from the story, This reinforces Wavy and Kellen’s love. Being too close to the characters could easily lend the belief that their love is blind, who may not realize what they’re doing is wrong. But, by focusing on outsiders’ perspectives, letting the reader see how many other people can see and believe in their love, I think it helps the reader that much more believe in their love as well.

I think it also helps to have so much of their history in the story. It may slow things down at first, but it quickly picks points out the depth of their love:

  • How Kellen enrolls Wavy in school, even when her parents neglect
  • How Wavy helps Kellen when he falls off his bike on the road
  • How Kellen has patience for Wavy’s pecularities with food, touching, and talking
  • How Kellen defends her from her father’s abuse
  • How Wavy will cook for Kellen, help him with bills at work, win him money at poker since she is so much better at numbers than him

That and it picks out all the quiet moments of love. Love doesn’t always have to be sex, touch, and tension. Sometimes it’s just the moment of lying quietly together in silence. Just having the presence of each other is enough to make you feel at home.

Greenwood, Bryn. All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. Thomas Dunne Books, 2016. Print.

 

Delivering a moment

If you haven’t heard of Moss yet, it’s an online journal found here.

Anyways – I went to APRIL, which had a small convention at the Hugo House, letting small indie presses sell their wares, and Moss was one of companies. Apparently, they just made a new first-time-ever print edition, and me having known about them for a while, and being irresistibly excited by print, I bought a copy.

First story – “Family Life and Sexual Health”

After I finished this story, the first thing that comes to mind is a motif about brothers, siblings. You can tell from reading this story that the main character, Elle, really wanted to be something other than an only child. And this is a great feeling to focus on – I feel like a lot of children/people can relate to this feeling.

And for its one positive to focus on – pacing. This author’s style is similar to mine as of late. At least when I’ve been riding the bus, and writing in between bus stops, I find myself favoring the quick, jumping scenes, ducking in and out of the story, and Texeira has successfully accomplished this.

She writes, What do you mean by and stops.

Elle keeps her eyes on the paper, “Sex?”

A few uncomfortable attempts and she finally figured out the angle at which something could go inside. (4)

A lot of scenes are like this, cutting in and out with dialogue or some concrete imagery, with each scene not being more than a moment, maybe a few minutes at most, before continuing on with the story. I think this makes a short story really successful, delivering only the most crucial details. In this case, Dan’s repeated visits to Elle, always eating pie, always asking for a fork, sharing a timeless moment, is something you would see between siblings, quickly getting the motif across. It makes me wonder if Texeira wanted one.

Guy, Connor and Alex Davis-Lawrence. Family Life and Sexual Health. Seattle: Moss Volume 1, 2015. Print.

Action-Reaction-Reflection

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about this technique, and I found a great example for it within Stross’ Glasshouse, so I thought now would be a good time for a gentle reminder.

ARR: Action-Reaction-Reflection

A technique, or pattern, used to develop a scene, where an action (or event) occurs, the character then reacts, and reflects on either why, how, or what it means. 

“Another drink?” Kay asks. “I’m buying.”

“Yes, please.” A warning bell rings in my head as I sense Blondie heading toward our table. I pretend not to notice, but I can feel a familiar warmth in my stomach, a tension in my back. Ancient reflexes and not a few modern cheat-codes take over and I surreptitiously loosen my sword in its scabbard. I think I know what Blondie wants, and I’m perfectly happy to give it to her. She’s not the only one around here prone to frequent flashes of murderous rage that takes a while to cool. The counselor told me to embrace it and give in, among consenting fellows. It should burn itself out in time. (Stross 5)

Action: Consider the action happening in this scene, when Blondie heads toward their table. Here is a specific event, which is recognizable through motion-type verbs.

Reaction: These are feelings that the character is experiencing, which usually concerns part of the body or types of emotions. Here, the character feels reactions within their stomach and back, reminiscent of excitement and pre-game tension.

Reflection: This is what the character is thinking in terms to what just happened. Here, the character is reflecting on why Blondie is moving, what he’s going to do next, how he feels about it, how others feel. There’s a lot of questions answered here, and this is usually the meat of a scene.

While action is necessary for readers to develop an image of what’s happening, reflection is most important because it help readers identify the reasoning of the story helping them align with the main character’s thoughts, aiding in immersion. Reaction helps a little bit with this, but it’s the mid-way point action and reflection, and helps more with the reader sympathizing with the character.

Each of these is an important step for a scene, and if one is missing, it does create weaker writing. I would know – I’m still struggling to keep plenty of reflection in mine.

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

Chapter Design

As I’ve written before, chapters are designed to encompass a sort of mini story line within the bigger picture of your book, and depending on your story, they can vary in length, perspective, POV…Now because I just finished The Martian Chronicles, I thought this would be a great book to discuss chapter design since each chapter is a stand alone story.

The overall purpose of this book is unknown to me at the moment. I can tell you the book is mainly about Mars and settling the planet, but each chapter shows a different piece of the timeline. And I say timeline because this book really does span the start to the end of the settling of Mars…probably why it’s called The Martian Chronicles – the lifespan of one species of Martians to the next…but I’m getting off topic.

The first chapter sets the scene of the whole book, telling of the origin of the first rocket launch. And then the next chapter goes into the Martian perspective, telling of how the first expedition failed due to murder. I think this chapter was important for the book (even though most other chapters are from the human perspective) because we need to know what makes a Martian…martian. Now we know they’re telepathic, what they look like, how they live. It really sets the scene on Mars.

The next few chapters tell of similar stories. Of humans struggling to settle on Mars, either being killed or killing each other until finally the Martians are gone, wiped out by disease just like how Europeans killed the Native Americans here in North America. And this sets the tone for the rest of the book. I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that although the book was telling the history of the planet within a span of 5 to 10 years, each chapter wasn’t only telling a piece of the timeline but relating to some bigger theme that tends to be a problem on Earth. This is worth noting because all these same people are leaving Earth for these same reasons, and these same problems follow them here as well.

Maybe the book is trying to tell us we’re creating these problems and we’re the source of them. Our problems will always follow us where we go.

This book is a great example of how to tell a story through a generation or time span, which I feel isn’t possible (or difficult to do) unless you span multiple perspectives like Bradbury did. He does a wonderful job writing each story with a new character, giving them their own wants, needs, and conflict, and shows how that story ends within the chapter while expanding the story of Mars in itself.

For example…

Chapter 8: After man was finally safe to settle on Mars, chapter 8 did a sort of summary discussion of how it was only a few men at first who came to settle Mars.

Chapter 9: Gives one man’s story of how he terraformed the planet in order to create a level of oxygen that was more natural for the humans settling on Mars. This is what helped create a more comfortable planet for the people.

Chapter 10: Used summary to show the growth of the population, including those of men and women.

Chapter 11: This chapter I feel like didn’t fit the story as much since it discussed a sort of…timeline cross. It told the story of a human made aware of a Martian and a Martian aware of the human, who were both in different timelines and couldn’t interact with the other besides talk and listen. Nothing similar followed this chapter.

Then there were more men, more women. There was a discussion of spreading religion to the Martians. A show of boys playing in the debris leftover in the Martian cities, before that was cleared. A scene of women on Earth wanting to go to Mars. Of a man creating a house of darkness, witchcraft and such in order to discuss censorship and rebellion against the old Earth orders…

This book alternates between quick summaries of the general population and long scenes with specific characters to emphasize specific events that are critical to the timeline of the settling of Mars.

I think this a good strategy if you are focused more on the plot than a specific character.

Bradbury, Ray. The Martian Chronicles. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1997. Print.

“Old Paint” by Megan Lindholm

When someone says old paint, you think of an old adult stripping wallpaper from the wall with a glue-covered scraper in one hand and a hand full of ’40s reminiscent wallpaper. You don’t think of super futuristic smart cars rebelling against the owners (SPOILER – too late). But maybe that’s just my thoughts. Either way, the title fits, and you won’t figure out why until you read the story.

This was a good read. I really enjoyed it. Partially because it was direct and to the point and partially because it encompassed a large timeline of the family’s life and was squished into a short story, in order to frame the main character – the car. Lindholm did a good job weaving in intermittent characterizations, transitioning over great lengths of time, and using miniature scenes to sketch over what happened rather than dive into each of the events. I think it would be accurate to say, she’s really good at writing summaries.

1) Intermittent characterizations

Most authors spend great lengths describing their characters, and for many authors that can do this, it works. Others like to develop their characters through actions and words, which is what Lindholm primarily does.

“Mom, I think you broke it,” Ben said. “Maybe we shouldn’t touch anything until we can have a mechanic look at it.” Ben was fourteen then, and for some reason, he now believed that if he didn’t know something, Mom didn’t know it either. She just snorted and got out of the car and went around to open the hood the rest of the way. (Lindholm 16)

For example, when she mentioned Ben, she snuck in a single sentence about his character. This was toward the beginning of the story, so this is one of the lengthier examples. The next sentence – Mom opening the hood of the car, showed that his mother knew her way around cars. This is what was to be expected for most of the story for characterization – defining through actions.

2) Transitions

There are two kinds of transitions I want to emphasize in this story – the obvious and the subtle.

Obvious: “On the way home, she kept pushing buttons…” (18)

Subtle: Explaining DVD’s to her son on the drive home, and then…”We had a parking spot at our building that we’d never used before. The first time we pulled up in the car…” (18)

I really enjoyed the fact that she could use her obvious transitions when she was making great leaps in time, but when she was going from one action to the next, she used the next logical step and its description to move smoothly into her next mini-scene.

3) Miniature scenes (aka micro-scene)

What made these work is her dialogue and details. Scenes are made up of descriptive settings, actions, and dialogue, to the extent that the reader should be able to picture the scene that’s occurring, and Lindholm did not only do this within two to three paragraphs but within a few sentences as well. She conveyed a matter of months and more than a million intra-family conflicts in these seriously short descriptions. For example:

[Ben] kept telling Mom how the car would be safer if it could drive itself and how we could get better mileage because it would self-adjust routes to avoid traffic or to take short cuts, and that statistics showed that car-brains actually reacted faster than human brains in dangerous situations. / “Maybe so, but they can only react one way, and human brains can think of a dozen ways to react in a tough situation. So the answer is still no. Not yet. Maybe never.” / Mom scored big points on him the next week when there were dozens of accidents on I-5 that involved driverless cars. (21)

In the first paragraph (3 sentences long – I didn’t include all of it), Lindholm overviews Ben’s need for upgrades, posing his exact argument, which made it feel realistic, and then retorted with the exact dialogue from his mother (2nd paragraph – 2 sentences and 2 fragments). The third paragraph (7 sentences) then went on to outline how she eventually won the fight, which transitioned into a bigger conflict in the story.

Let me review. This micro-scene was successful because it said and showed how Ben was arguing for his wants and how his mother retorted. We didn’t need to see the exact fight, which for families and children may occur a million times per day. We were more concerned with the dialogue of the fight since it was one of the weird, coincidental fights that transitioned into a main complication within the story.

Lindholm does a wonderful job with details, and she uses these to her advantage. While seeming slightly reluctant to write major scenes, she uses her strengths with summaries and micro-scenes to really overcome this and break the standard for writing short stories. She achieves in fitting a major life event, spanning several months, into a good short story. I would definitely recommend this to others if you’re looking on how to fit a large timeline into a few pages.

Lindholm, Megan. “Old Paint.” Year’s Best SF 18. Ed. David G. Hartwell. New York, NY: Tor, 2013. 34-54. Print.