The Fantastic in Fiction – Originally Published September 23, 2011
The PodPeople Blogspot © Cheryl Anne Gardner, All Rights Reserved
Depart too far from the norm of human experience and you bore the reader, who will no longer care what happens to your characters once they have stepped through a dozen dimensions of time and are consorting with twelve-sided green monsters somewhere in interstellar space. The true artist, who knows how to deal with elusive material, is more likely to work his tricks right in your living room, where the reality of familiar things lends strangeness to whatever he may conjure up. — Philip Van Doren
I love the Literary Fantastic in fiction. Yes, even to the extent of Tolkien’s hobbits, Adam’s lunacy of space travel, Kafka’s human insect, and Carroll’s Wonderland, but much of the Fantastic that I am particularly attracted to is of the sort where human psychology goes very wrong, where the familiar becomes strange, where the world we live in somehow animates itself and turns upon us.I have always been attracted to the Gothic and the Dark Romantic literary subgenres. Many of my mentors wrote with a Dark Romantic’s heavy hand: Poe, Lovecraft, Bataille, Kafka, Marquez, Ungar, even Shakespeare’s tragedies … the list could go on an on. Much of what strikes me about this style is the macabre and supernatural feel the stories have to them without necessarily being bona fide “horror” stories, which include supernatural creatures. In many of their works, the macabre and supernatural aspects of the story are firmly “grounded” in the human psyche. Man is the monster, and the natural world is the essence of supernatural. Write fiction with that logic and you cannot go wrong.
These authors have taken the vile aberrations of humanity and transformed them, some into allegory, some simply into a deeper look at the human psyche. Nevertheless, what all of these writers have in common is their ability to make the elusive not only tangible but relatable. These authors have been able to combine perfectly the ordinary and the extraordinary in such a way that we don’t question it. Fiction readers don’t necessarily want a state of the union, a “this is how things are” view of the world. They want to feel the world through the characters. They want character perception, perception that is uniquely different than their own, and for that to happen, an author needs to provide detail which is fluid yet fully grounded in reality, is passionately associative and wildly dissociative, is sketchy yet vivid, and all the while, is plausible without a doubt.
Yes, it is possible for an author to take great leaps of faith with credibility “if” they stay rooted in humanity. Kafka’s main character in The Metamorphosis awoke one morning and found he was a bug. Literally implausible but psychologically frightening because emotionally, it can happen. Another example is that the mirror is said to have two faces. How often do we struggle with our own reflection, and so Alice’s looking glass portal becomes very very real, and the philosophical conundrums she is presented with transcend the fantasy world. This type of transcendence is potent. So much so that we can sympathize with Dr. Jekyll’s struggle with his alter ego, Mr. Hyde.
So, even straight literary fiction can benefit from the principles of the Literary Fantastic. When we struggle with psychological, moral, and philosophical issues, we often find ourselves at odds with what is real or what we have naively perceived to be real. Nevertheless, we are innately capable of analysing our own “dream” logic. When the world itself becomes dark and foreboding, when our fears manifest themselves, our personal perceptions of the world are often challenged, even negated. This is the realm of the fiction author. The realm where, with a little bit of prowess and a lot of finesse, the objective details can be manipulated and the truth can be exposed. This is the realm of the author who knows, as Clive Barker so eloquently put it, how to “tap the vein” no matter what genre you choose to write in.
Perception – Originally Published August 4, 2011
The Pod People © Cheryl Anne Gardner, All Rights Reserved
Art is not a mirror to reflect the world but a hammer with which to shape it. — Vladimir Mayakovsky
It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and, as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it. — Anais Nin
I think these two quotes go hand in hand. Our world is our perception of it. In order to change the world, we must first hammer away at perception. Quite a daunting task if you ask me, since everyone’s perception of the world is slightly different. So, how can an artist approach an obstacle of this magnitude? Well, we can use the familiar to our advantage. We can decisively attack those perceptions which have become so familiar and so widely accepted that they have become dogma. True that there is no new story, but simply by changing the perception of it, we create it anew. Our modus operandi might be a hammer and chisel, or a paintbrush, or a whisper, but however we choose to manipulate the truth through fiction, it’s our perception of the truth that hopefully will affect change. Then again, art requires a bit of an intuitive approach, so, not everyone will see the truth even if we bludgeon them with a hammer.
Eroticism – Originally Published July 21, 2011
The PopPeople © Cheryl Anne Gardner, All Rights Reserved
Eroticism opens the way to Death. Death opens the way to denial of our individual lives. Without doing violence to our inner selves, are we able to bear the negation that carries us to the farthest bounds of possibility. – Georges Bataille
That quote is from the book “Eroticism, Death and Sensuality” by Georges Bataille, a writer whose philosophical essays on Death and Sensuality in art and literature provide for a clarity never before achieved by any other writer, in my opinion, with regard to the duality of violence and tenderness ever-present in the human spirit. Bataille also wrote:
The taboo is there in order to be violated. This proposition is not the wager it looks like at first but an accurate statement of an inevitable connection between conflicting emotions. When a negative emotion has the upper hand, we must obey the taboo. When a positive emotion is in the ascendant, we violate it. Such a violation will not deny or suppress the contrary emotion, but justify it and arouse it. […] Concern over a rule is sometimes at its most acute when that rule is being broken, for it is harder to limit a disturbance already begun.
Those of us who write sex are familiar with this theory. Those of us who write sex as a metaphor thoroughly understand the implications, and those of us who write taboo have grasped hold of its subtle subconscious nuances and cast ourselves straight into the abyss.
My own novella “The Thin Wall”, while not graphic in its imagery, the sexual proclivities of the characters and the implications of said proclivities might be a bit disturbing for readers of a certain disposition. Nevertheless, as I have said in many posts regarding the issue of censorship, the implications were necessary. The metaphor was necessary. After all, the story is an exploration in self-abuse as it relates to the issue of co-dependence. However, I am a tried and true romantic, so for those who don’t mind taking a walk in the dark, you will be rewarded with an HEA. I just can’t write a romantic story without it, and yes, the thematic treatment of the subject matter might be a bit dark for most, but, self-awareness doesn’t generally come without a twilight struggle. An author should never be afraid to obliterate the boundaries in order to express the oftentimes ugly epiphanies that come with such a struggle.
That said, of late, I have been experimenting with flash fiction, and I have found that the form allows for much more experimentation when it comes to fringe subject matter. I mean, some of this stuff is best taken in small doses, for instance my abortion eating cannibal story “Doll Heads”, or the body-image fixated “Margaritas and Razor Blades – After Five Porno for Skeptics”, or even the sexual motivation for homicide in my most recent piece “The Shadow Factory”. I want to exploit the experience as much as I can in a story; I want to deliver the dark and the disturbing, but I want to do it without bludgeoning the reader. Less is better, I’ve found. And by less, I mean less words, not less intense, so that the experience is still bludgeoning but brief. I’ve even started writing hard-core erotica — under a pseudonym, obviously — which has been published and well received. No, I am not going to link to it because that would defeat the purpose of the pseudonym, right? Anyway, the point I am trying to make here is that we can step into the dark very purposefully as did Artaud, Bataille, and deSade, and many others for that matter. Sure, anything we write has the potential to offend someone, but that doesn’t mean we, as artists, shouldn’t endeavor to “go there.”
Author Identity – Originally Published June 30, 2011
The PodPeople. © Cheryl Anne Gardner, All Rights Reserved
“One cannot hide his identity under cover of the third person narrative, nor establish his identity solely through the use of the first person singular.” – Henry Miller
Many quotes strike to the core of an author, but none so deeply for me as this one. Let’s take a step back to the Vitruvian Narrator for a moment. When I am writing fiction, I never consciously choose my narrative voice. When the stories come to me, they usually come to me in the voice that is meant to tell the story. Since I write novellas — by the literary definition of the term — and since those novellas are an emotional, psychological, and philosophical portrait of a particular character, I oftentimes use the first person singular. I like the intimacy. However, in the case of The Thin Wall, I struggled with the level of intimacy – for eighteen months and two editions to be exact. It seems a simple thing, to just choose, but all artists know that the choice of colour, or depth perception, is not an easy one, nor is it a choice to be taken lightly.
I finally came to realise, in the throes of late night agony, that my main character and narrator, Laleana, the woman suffering in the thrall of love; Laleana, the co-dependent; Laleana the delusional middle-aged woman, was not a reliable narrator. I came to realise that she was far too emotional to narrate the story. Now, epiphanies are great and all that, but through that epiphany, I had pitched myself into a new dilemma. I knew I didn’t want a third person omniscient narrator because I wanted to retain a certain level of intimacy, a confessional level of intimacy, for that was what the story demanded of me. Therefore, what was the answer? Well, humans have the unique gift of duality, and so the choice — the only choice I had really — became clear. In the end, I decided to have Laleana, the prim and proper librarian, narrate the story for the most part, using third person limited, as I felt that this was the only way I could show the duality of her being, could illuminate her secret internal struggle – her intimate struggle with her own shadow. Yes, it seems a bit psychotic, to look outside ourselves as if we are an alien entity, but in fact, we do that all the time, for it is the only true path to self-awareness. Carl Jung talked extensively about the shadow, and this type of narrative depth is very effective. Even Ellis allowed Patrick Bateman to step outside of himself for one chapter in American Psycho; hell, Fight Club is written entirely from the shadow perspective, and isn’t our own inner voice The Dweller on the Threshold of a sorts and respectfully analogous to Jung’s shadow. Although in these examples the principles of Jung’s shadow have been reversed, the shadow-self being the benevolent in these cases and not the one to be overthrown. I thought so, and so I decided who better to narrate my story — the supressed inner voice of reason.
Facts in Fiction – Originally Published June 16, 2011
The PodPeople © Cheryl Anne Gardner, All Rights Reserved
“Believe me, I grow daily more convinced that the atmosphere is an inexhaustible source of countless beauties. It is up to we artists to learn, hour by hour, to penetrate it…to understand about Distance, to know the Air and space, which is never still, but always vibrating and wiggling. The tiniest oscillation is, in itself, a motive for art – it is a new beauty: fluttering, creaking, disjointed, and buoyant.” — Mario De Sa-Carneiro
That quote is from the short story titled Wings by Mario De Sa-Carneiro found in The Great Shadow collection put out by Dedalus Classics. De Sa-Carneiro’s writing is so tantalizingly beautiful, one can get lost it, and I think it mirrors Miller’s comment from last week regarding an artist’s ability to get beneath the facts. Sometimes, I find that the facts clutter my writing, especially when I am writing historical fictions. We want the facts in order to give the story a sense of authenticity, but as artists, I think we have to be mindful of the innately cumbersome and didactic qualities they posses. Yes, facts ground a story in reality, but it’s easy to overdo it at the expense of emotional depth. We must constantly ask ourselves if the facts are relevant to the story — what do they mean to the story – and that requires the artist to dig deep beneath those facts, to not only make the facts known, but to imbue the fiction with their mysteries.
Since I began writing flash fiction, my ideas about facts have become somewhat blurred. I found myself initially struggling to find a place for them. 500 or fewer words isn’t a whole lot of space to work with, and I found myself having to rethink what the facts really mean to a story and how they can be conveyed without literal inclusion. That was a hard, tall, drink of ice-cold water, but in this case, the answer lies with metaphor, or rather, what words can one use to allude to the facts without ever really presenting the actual facts to the reader. I mean, shit, the facts are the point. I don’t write a story unless I have some thesis I am arguing or some statement I am making in the abstract. That’s just how I write. A story is never just a story for me, and fact and conjecture are a huge part of the storytelling, for me anyway, so I had to find a way to “write in” the facts on a more subliminal level. I think I am making headway in my struggle. I have a few published this month that focus on some very chaotic moral and political hot topics. I do like to stay relevant as much as possible, but the bottom line here is, the facts themselves are often integral to the story, but they don’t always have to be expressed at face value.
On Word Count and The Work – Originally Published June 9, 2011
The PodPeople © Cheryl Anne Gardner, All Rights Reserved
“I thought that a man, to be a writer, must do at least five thousand words a day. I thought he must say everything all at once — in one book — and collapse afterwords. I didn’t know a thing about writing. I was scared shitless. But I was determined to wipe Horatio Alger out of the North American consciousness. I suppose it was the worst book any man has ever written. It was a colossal tome and faulty from start to finish. But it was my first book, and I was in love with it. […] I didn’t dare to think of anything but the “facts.” To get beneath the facts I would have had to be an artist, and one doesn’t become an artist overnight.” — Henry Miller on The Tropic of Capricorn.
That quote is from the book “Henry Miller on Writing.” A very good friend of mine, and fellow author, sent this down to me, and even though I am only a few chapters in, there is a lot that can be gleaned from it. No, it is not one of those notorious style guides, and no, it isn’t one of those how to write for the market books either. It’s simply the very objective thoughts of man as he took a moment to reflect back on his journey, the journey that made him a great artist. I think any artist whose passions are driven by the word will find a kindred spirit on the page. It’s full of all of the joy and all of the futility of being a writer, written in Henry Miller’s very blunt and often times crass style. Well worth the read for Indies and pretty much any artist, writer or not. Miller is a self-styled and self-taught talent. I don’t always care for his subject matter, but his genius is without question, and his lessons are those of the “hard way” variety. We can all take value from them.
There has been much debate over the last week or two — heated debate — about daily word count. Some writers are just very prolific and enjoy working on a schedule. They write every day, and they feel productive when doing it and lazy when they don’t. Other writers simply can’t write to a schedule, or the writing schedule is muddled up with other things such as contemplation and research and outlines and . . . living a life even. Your writing schedule in no way defines you as a writer nor does it indicate whether or not you will be a successful one. Writing isn’t just about the literal act of putting words to paper. That’s just too narrow a view for so creative an endeavor.
If you write non-fiction or historical fiction, research is a huge part of the writing process, and the writing tends to come in the form of extensive note taking. In Fiction, you can make up a lot of shit. Fiction allows for that, of course, but making shit up will only get you so far. A little time and effort in the research department goes a long way to suspending disbelief in the reader. Sadly, I have read way too many self-published books where it was obvious the writer didn’t do enough or, in some cases, didn’t do any at all.
It takes me a long time to write a book, with or without research. The words have to be just right because my inner poet tells me so, or rather, screams it until my eardrums bleed, so I have days when I seem to be cranking out the words, and I have days of note taking and outlining and out-to-see-the-world time, which is also very important. I also have a family, other hobbies, and a full time non-writing career, so writing gets squeezed in where I can, when I can, but I never force the issue. If I don’t feel like writing because I can’t get my head in the game, then I don’t write. The words will be shit, and I can’t deal with that. I can and do work on multiple writing projects at the same time to avoid such editorial burnout, sometimes it’s a blog post, sometimes it’s a journal entry, and sometimes it’s flash fiction. I do try to write one flash fiction piece a day during the workweek, 500 words or fewer, but sometimes that doesn’t pan out either, and again, I don’t force it. There is a huge difference between procrastination and your muse taking a smoke break. Unless you are a deadline junkie and can create under that kind of pressure, then it is best not to force the words. I’ve seen forced words, and they stink like an editor’s rotted lunch sack. If I had to force five thousand words a day, I often wonder what kind of words they would be? Probably a lengthy dissertation on my own impending suicide, no doubt. Writers write. No Shit! Can’t argue with that, but so do people in insane asylums, in feces, on the wall. They do it all day, every day, and it’s not like the psych review board is announcing Pulitzers every week, month, or year.
If you want to be a writer, you are going to have to write, but don’t let anyone else tell you how to do it — except when it comes to grammar. Every writer has to get Zen with their own process. Find one that suits you and your writing will come easier. Adopt your own philosophy. Think for yourself. Being creative is not about strapping yourself into some arbitrary schedule designed by the latest productivity guru. It’s about finding your own creative identity and crafting your writing life around it. When you got a good fit, you’ll know it.
The Darker Subject Matter and Censorship – Originally Published June 2, 2011
The PodPeople © Cheryl Anne Gardner, All Rights Reserved
“If the brush strokes I have used disturb and distress you, then your redemption is nigh, and I have accomplished what I have set out to achieve. But if you find the truth they depict offensive, if they provoke you to curse their author…then, wretched reader, you have recognised your own self and you will never change your ways.” —The Marquis deSade
I have spoken before on various other forums regarding censorship in art. My own work deals almost exclusively with cognitive dissonance and our deeper and darker thoughts. Often the imagery I choose to use is disturbing to some. Many people who have read my novellas know that I am not afraid of the dark. I don’t go there too often or too deeply, or at least, I haven’t in the past, but since I became obsessed with flash fiction, I have found myself staying in shadows much longer than before. Recently, my flash fiction piece titled Beware of Dog was accepted over at The Carnage Conservatory — a new flash fiction horror ezine who is currently looking for your darkest work. I do try to stay away from overly descriptive gore, but that’s not really a self-censorship issue as much as it is a style issue. I find subtly can often be more frightening. So instead of a long dissertation on deSade’s very poignant quote, I’ll leave today’s thoughts with yet another question: Sometimes, a truth about life finds its way into the work, be it intentionally, subconsciously, or otherwise, and perhaps this truth might be something rather disturbing. Should you alter the story to make it more acceptable? And if you endeavour to soften the edges, will the truth you seek to expose lose its virility or its purpose? In other words, should an artist self-censor their work, alter their choice of imagery, symbolism, and metaphor to make a story more palatable for a wider audience? Will it lose its truth should we leave its symbolic nature open for interpretation or non-interpretation? Is the story really telling a truth about the human condition, and shouldn’t we, as artists striving for truth, endeavour to lay bare that truth which might be construed as beautiful and poetic in one person’s eyes and yet offensive in another’s?
Religious Painters like Bosch certainly believed in the truth, and I do too; however, when you are running the submission rejection gauntlet, the question of self-censorship has the tendency to slam into you like a car crash. I doubt my story Beware of Dog would have gotten accepted at very many places. I am glad it found a home, but that isn’t always going to be the case. At the moment, I have one very dark story about a serial killer who was abused as a child by the grade school’s head nurse, who happened to be a transvestite. I explore a lot of very dark territory in a very small amount of words. I love the story, but I doubt I will be able to place it because of the subject matter. I know one thing though: I do so love the story, and whether it gets placed or not is irrelevant because I won’t rewrite a thing. I don’t always mind rewriting as long as it’s for the good of the story. In Beware of Dog, I originally ended it at meeting the mailman at the gate. Carnage felt it needed one more punch in the end, and so I added the last couple of sentences. Minor editorial rewriting to me is not censorship. Had they asked me to take out all reference to her having sex with her lunatic husband, then I would have had to decline.
Dialogue – Originally Published May 26, 2011
The PodPeople © Cheryl Anne Gardner, All Rights Reserved
For some writers, dialogue is one of those literary tar pits. We all know that characters must speak in order for them to become real, that is, of course, providing that they are not disabled in some way that would prevent them from speaking. Having a character speak is much more complicated than putting something in quotes and following it up with the word: said. Yes, we could throw in a thousand adverbs to indicate the mood of the conversation, the tone and attitude of the speakers, and we can even change that said to something else like shouted or whimpered … but that really won’t fix the problems most writers have with dialogue, and oftentimes, those easy tricks actually end up making the dialogue worse. So then what? Well, every writer needs to be a good listener and a little bit psychologist/sociologist. Why? Because we have to listen and understand, not only what people say, but also what they aren’t saying. That isn’t always the same thing.
When I was a kid, I used to love contemplating humanity through art. I could stare at a painting for hours, creating in my mind all the various conversations the subjects of the painting could be having with each other. The painting above by Bingham, for example, is titled “Fur Traders on the Missouri” and it dates to 1845. In reality, we don’t even need to know they are fur traders; we don’t need to know it’s the Missouri River, and we don’t need to know that it’s 1845. We can imagine the day, the river, the solitude … how quiet it must be. We get all that from the description. But when you look at the two men, they are full of expression, not only in their faces, but in their body language as well. We might imagine that the man in the hat is the trader and that the young man might be his apprentice. The apprentice is rapt, having slung himself forward in a completely relaxed and attentive posture, as if the older man has been enthralling him with a tall tale from his youth. On the other hand, it might be a father and his devoted son. We can get all that from the action in the scene. Good dialogue encompasses the entire scene: the words and the action. There are always bits of action interspersed throughout the dialogue, gestures being made or not made, words being said and not said. Of course, too much detail, again, will stifle the flow of the dialogue and too little will render the conversation emotionless, so it all takes a bit of practice to get those beats right. We see and feel people when they speak to us, we don’t just hear them, and in this case, showing us the emotion is better than telling us what the characters are feeling. We have to let the reader experience the characters emotionally, intellectually, and physically.
There are no hard and fast rules for dialogue other than a writer should be honest and true to the characters. Everything else really depends on the effect you are trying to create. Keep your dialogue poignant, use it to further your story and open up your characters. Pages of idle chitchat are boring. Show the readers just enough detail to make the scene feel realistic; don’t over define the action or emotions. Keep your beats in time with the ebb and flow of the conversation, every conversation has its mood. Don’t clutter your dialogue with conversational verbs or adverbs. Using is “said” is perfectly fine, and if the reader can determine the person speaking, then the dialogue tag is unnecessary and ends up being just something to trip over, ruining the flow. Be careful with this though. In first person narratives, a dialogue tag is important, especially if you combine one character’s speech in the same paragraph with the first person narrator’s thoughts. Be sure to punctuate your dialogue tags properly, as well. If you don’t know how, learn how, and do it right quick.
Now, I write novellas and flash fiction, in which the characters are generally struggling with deep emotional issues. Cognitive Dissonance is always present in my stories, so I keep the dialogue strictly to those scenes where I want to reveal something about how the characters relate to each other or how they feel about themselves and the world they are often forced to inhabit. Sometimes I have a character articulate what they are feeling, and sometimes I don’t say anything at all, using just body language instead — a beat. Sometimes — rarely — I use an adverb if it works, and sometimes I just use said or nothing at all. My characters also tend to be very crass when they are with each other but not in their work-a-day lives. I make sure my dialogue reflects that duality.
I have a few things I like to keep in mind when writing dialogue: Are the words your characters use — their language and their emotions — true to them? How often do you interrupt your dialogue, and does it fit the mood of the scene? Are your descriptive beats mundane like lighting a cigarette, looking out the window, or eating something, and do your characters do those things too often? And lastly, do your descriptive beats expose your character? Yes, we want that. Actually, dialogue is all about exposing the characters and exposing how they relate to each other. Let them be who they are and steer clear of clichés.
I was listening to a comedy show while washing dishes the other night, and in one line of dialogue I got all I needed to know about the speaker and the two other characters she was speaking to, without even seeing them. It went like this: “I get paid for what I do, and not in animal pelts like you two butt-fuckers.” That tells us a great deal about who she is and her perception of the other two people in the room. Then after watching the scene, I got all the body language and silent reflection I needed from the other two characters, who said nothing in the scene at all. That’s good stuff.
The Vitruvian Narrator – Originally Published May 19, 2011
The PodPeople © Cheryl Anne Gardner, All Rights Reserved
“Sometimes in conversation the sound of our own voice distracts us and misleads us into making assertions that in no way express our true opinions.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
This week I wanted to talk about narrative modes and narrative techniques, particularly Point of View.
When you look closely at DaVinci’s Vitruvian man, we can see that it is the image of one man and many different and alternative views of that same man. In narrative fiction, a story is often comprised of many different views, or rather, what I like to call angles of vision, if you will. Within those various angles of vision lies the interpretation of your story. Ever ask a couple of friends to retell an event they all witnessed? You’d be surprised how different the story is each time. Simply defined, this as what we call point of view — person, technique, and perception — and the combination you choose to use will dramatically affect your so story, so choose wisely, you have a lot of options. Your story can be interpreted through the eyes of just one character or many, and in some cases, the interpretive narrator might not even be a character in the story at all — and doesn’t have to be.
I have heard many a rotten dictate when it comes to handling POV, specifically, who should and should not narrate a story and what they can and cannot do within that narrative mode. I hope that my essay today might dispel some of those outdated myths.
First off, literary point of view is comprised of three aspects:
- The Narrative POV: First Person, Second Person, or Third Person.
- The Narrative Technique or Voice: objective, subjective, stream of consciousness, dramatic, direct/indirect internal monologue, and/or omniscience, whether it be limited or not, etc., and
- Perception: The person(s) whose perspective is being captured within the narration and whether or not said person(s) is/are actually a character in the story.
The Subjective and The Objective – Originally Published May 12, 2011
The PodPeople Blogspot © Cheryl Anne Gardner, All Rights Reserved
Between subjective and objective there is no vital difference. Everything is illusive and more or less transparent. There are no solid facts to get hold of. Thus, in writing, even if my distortions and deformations be deliberate, they are not necessarily less near to the truth of things. The truth is in no way disturbed by the violent perturbations of the spirit. – Henry Miller
Subjective: Existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought.
Objective: Of or pertaining to something that can be known, or to something that is an object or a part of an object; existing independent of thought or an observer as part of reality.
Today’s quote by Miller intrigued me, as I think it is the perfect definition of art, whether that be a painting, or a story, or a poem, or a piece of music. The reality that each of us creates in our fiction is a perfect blend of the subjective and the objective, fantasy and reality. A story may have certain facts that ground it in reality, certain truths, but the characters’ interpretations of those truths may be distorted and deformed, thus rendering the objective illusive and transparent. That does not mean that they are any less the truth. Sometimes in a story, I think those distortions actually push us more towards the truth than the facts can. I often discuss this theory with other writers with respect to descriptive details.The book cover from Roland Topor’s The Tenant, which I received in the mail the other day, is an exercise in subjective vs. objective details. As far as the story, the writing is brilliant, and it beautifully manipulates the truth through the subjective and the objective. In this bit of narrative exposition, our protagonist is about to move away forever from the room that had been his home for many years:
“Even now he no longer really felt at home in this room. The uncertainty of his situation had intruded on his last days here. […] He had given up such concerns as cleaning and dusting, filing his papers, or even making his bed. The result had not been a wild state of disorder – his passions were too few to cause that – but an atmosphere of vacancy, of sudden cancelled departure.”
The Objective details ground us in the room: the bed, the papers, the dust. But the Subjective details, which are more prevalent, tell us what the room really looks like to our protagonist, and not only do we know what the room looks like, but we understand the character’s state of mind in that moment. We can see and feel the connection between the room and the man, and thus, we can know the man. So when deciding how much detail to add, one needs to focus on emotional intent and remember: The devil is in the details, and the truth lies in the subjective ones. If we hyper-focus on objective details, our characters become caricatures, one-dimensional beings against that scenic backdrop. The story of life, fiction or not, is about relating to the world around us. How a character relates to his/her world is the essence of a story. As a reader, I don’t necessarily want to know what the characters see; I want to know what they feel, or rather, how they feel about the world they inhabit. Why? Because I want to know if they feel like me. Simple as that. I want to relate in some way with the characters, and I can only do that through their subjective view of the world they live in.
Most of you know I have been devoted to strictly writing flash fiction of late, and let me say that writing in the short form like this has really tightened up the writing, I think. Flash fiction is an exercise in subjective detail, especially when you are writing in the abstract. In this case, every detail counts, metaphorically speaking. In my flash piece titled Persian Cat, published at Dustbin April 10, 2001, illustrates how I like to use subjective detail as metaphor:
You were on a New York subway train in the middle of the night…
It stank of sweat and urine, scattered newspapers stuck to the floor as a field of lilies in fuchsia flew past us off in the periphery. You could hear Pan skipping along the roof of the rail car, his hooves trot trot trotting as they tinned and plinked off the steel, idle dreams flitting away in the whirlwind of jolly notes from his flute. He played that song for a near-sighted girl, spilt milk dripping down her leg as she needfully explored the barren landscape that was her own flesh. She smiled at you — I smiled at you — and you, in the flickering fluorescent light, smiled back.
Every single detail I used was a metaphor for the past and present state of the two characters’ romantic relationship with each other: the filthy vile state of the train; the beautiful lilies flying past them in the distance; the nearsighted girl; Pan and his melody of hope; even the spilt milk. I didn’t need to come right out and tell the reader a single thing about their relationship; it’s all in what the girl sees, and more importantly, how she sees it, or rather, how she sees herself in relation to her current predicament. Even in the long form, this approach can be used to the writer’s advantage. It creates mood and an abstract level of intimacy that can affect a reader on a much more subliminal level than any objective detail ever could. I also found that the use of the Second Person Narrative POV just further intensified the intimacy I wanted to create. Here, the reader is not just a simple voyeur. Of course, this is all just one person’s artistic opinion, and for this story, it worked.
Grammar and Style – Originally Published April 28, 2011
The PodPeople Blogspot © Cheryl Anne Gardner, All Rights Reserved
Writing isn’t about words; it’s about sentences. Sentences are made up of two parts: vocabulary and grammar. The Words = The Idea, and Grammar = The Tone, The Mood, and The Inflection, or rather, the grammatical choices you make directly affect how the idea moves through the words.
Now, you can call me a grammar Nazi if you want to. I don’t mind or care. I’ve made my own share of mistakes over the years and have gotten slammed for them. I still trip over my words sometimes, but I am not going to take a lackadaisical attitude towards grammar and say it doesn’t matter because grammatically and structurally sound writing makes the writing virtually invisible to the reader, as it should be. Again, I am not talking about style here. Style is subjective. Grammar is not. I love the language, and I respect it, as well. It can take a bit of manipulation, but when it comes to clear and concise thoughts, you need to follow some rules. Personally, I don’t care about an extra period or not, or an extra space or not, when using an ellipsis. Both are acceptable. As a Reader and a Writer, I do care about the difference between a hyphen and a proper em-dash because the two are not interchangeable and it makes the read confusing when you mix them up. Most reviewers/readers expect authors to take care with word usage, punctuation, and spelling. If you practice lazy writing, then the reader/reviewer has the right to feel as if you don’t respect them, more so if they paid good money for your work. Now, I am not talking British versus American English either. I have mixed the two deliberately with little complaint. I am not talking about adverbs, or first person/third person head hopping shit, or present, past, future, and infinite tense nonsense. Those are stylistic choices, not language issues. Push the boundaries at will here; you’d just better know what you are doing before you decide on anarchy. Some reviewers out there don’t appreciate anarchy, and some don’t even know what anarchy means. Yes, that was a shot at those fly-by one-line Amazon reviewers who can’t spell.
I also realize that our language is ever changing — the lesser/fewer debate rages on — but the way to express clear and concise thoughts has not. Verb tense and placement, dependent and independent clauses and their placement, the use of participle phrases, and all the wonderful bits of punctuation at our disposal help us say what we mean in a universally understood manner. Language is a glorious thing, and you can get as simple and/or as complex as you want. Even so, there is a little something we call Basic English, and with that comes a few basic rules. Learn them, love them, and live them.
As for style, I’ve spoken at length about the so-called style-guides and the mainstream writing conventions/fashions of the time. Writing should not, and in many cases, cannot always be confined to traditional structure. In this case, writers and critics can take the style guides too literally. I have seen stories suffer due to hack and slash editing based upon misconceptions and misunderstood principles, many of which were gleaned from the latest and greatest Writing for Dummy books. Maybe the confusion lies simply in the definition of the word guide. Guide and Rule are two completely different animals, and in the case of writing tutorials, they are often used interchangeably, so the confusion is understandable.
Grammar has rules. The art of writing is a wondrously different beast, well beyond the basic physics of the see-spot-run sentence construction. The only rule is concise thought, and grammar takes care of that. You have to know proper grammar. Everything else is open to manipulation. Strong writing has a strong foundation. Grammar is that foundation. Great writing goes beyond just being well written. Great writing is beautifully written. Great writing is where the author has been able to combine grammar and style. Grammar works from a set of logical principles; style is where the basic mechanics are put aside for more poetic and experimental construction, where the focus is on the underlying theoretic principles of literature and not just the physics of a story. Every author would be wise to understand both and the distinction between the two.
And not all literature has to fit traditional convention. I think Kafka would agree with me on that one. Standardization destroys original thinking and thus destroys art. So how seriously you take style guides and the conventions of the day really depends on what you are writing. How seriously you take grammar depends on how seriously you want to be read.
On Violence – Originally Published March 31, 2011
The PodPeople Blogspot © Cheryl Anne Gardner, All Rights Reserved
Francis Bacon is one of my favourite artists, and even though this quote from his journal applies to painting, we as writers can glean a good deal of inspiration from its overall meaning:
“To me, they mystery of painting is how can appearance be made. I know it can be illustrated, I know it can be photographed. But how can this thing be made so that you catch the mystery of appearance within the mystery of the making? Van Gogh speaks of the need to make changes in reality, which become lies that are truer than the literal truth. This is the only possible way the painter can bring back the intensity of reality … He has to reinvent realism … to wash realism back into the nervous system by his invention … We nearly always live through screens—a screened existence. And sometimes I think, when people say my work looks violent, that perhaps I have from time to time been able to clear away one or two of those veils or screens.”
Viktor Shlovsky comments further on this technique when he asserted that:
“The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important. The essential purpose of art is to overcome the deadening effects of habit by representing familiar things in unfamiliar ways. Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things.”
I agree. I agreed then when I originally posted this quote, and after two years, I thought I might like to circle back around it again. My own writing has been thought of as violent. The Kissing Room and Logos particularly so, but I don’t really like the term violent. Sure in both books there is a great deal of physical brutality; I am not opposed to murder and mayhem for the sake of making a point, but physical violence is only one component of a larger idea. Our characters are meant to struggle; that’s what people want to read, but not every struggle is physically violent. Not every struggle is about force and action. Much literary fiction is based on an existential struggle, which is more internal than external: more changeable, flighty, fleeting, transient, threatening and tending to fluctuate — sharply. That is how we often portray an emotional struggle, and struggles of that lot are most engaging to a reader. Those are the struggles that hit at the core of what it is to be human — volatile versus violent.
Subtlety is not my thing. In Kissing Room and Logos my characters tend to externalize their struggles in the form of cruelty and aggression towards others. That’s what worked for those two particular stories. In Thin Wall andAntiquity, my characters tend to internalize by expressing themselves intellectually, often without shame. Sometimes my characters like to get all abusive and stabby, and other times, they tend to favor introspection. I like to dig in and really feel the psychological rage. Physical violence, or force and action, if you will, isn’t always necessary to do that. But alas, that is a question of semantics and a discussion for another day because I think I am treading into the “write in scenes” territory.
So, how violent should you get in your story? Well, it depends on the story, or more precisely, it depends on the characters in the story. Should an artist get extreme or should an artist censor their work, alter their choice of imagery, symbolism, and metaphor to make a story more palatable for a wider audience? Will the story lose its truth should we leave its symbolic nature open for interpretation or non-interpretation? Is the story really telling a truth about the human condition, and should we, as artists striving for truth, endeavor to lay bare that truth which might be construed as beautiful and poetic in one person’s eyes and yet offensive in another’s? Do you need to be violent if volatile will work equally as well? Or should you strike a balance between the two?
I’ve asked this question before. Would Ellis’ American Psycho have had the same impact had he chose volatility over violence? Bateman was quite introspective on occasion, but his addiction to externalizing his inner conflict was what made him a killer and not just a man with a mental illness. Ellis’ character was capable of handling that sort of physical force, and the story just wouldn’t have had the impact it did without it, in my opinion. For me, the truth is the art, and the truth an artist seeks to portray directly affects how the scenes are written and what language and depth of emotion the writer chooses to use, not to mention which boundaries can be pushed, crossed, or even obliterated. My own work primarily deals with love, romance, sex, death, and societal dogma, on the surface, but ultimately my stories are of the redemption variety — every single one of them. We all know that sometimes redemption is a physical journey and sometimes it isn’t. Laleana in Thin Wall was an academic and an introspective thinker, violence happened to her, as it did for grief stricken Merle in Kissing Room. Joliette in Antiquity was an extremely physical being, climbing mountains, digging holes in the earth. She subjected her body to the torturous forces of nature in order to seek the enlightenment she was denying herself by refusing to look inward, and in Logos, Selena is immortal. Whether someone died or not was ultimately her decision. She had taken all the abuses heaped upon her soul, and, under the guise of duty, had turned around to wield her hurt with a vengeance. She was strong enough physically and mentally from a lifetime of pain to carry the history of violence on her back. So in that story, I could get away with a whole lot more of both volatility and violence. It made her weakness for love stand out all that much more.
Ultimately, you, the author, will have to make the decision. You’ll hear the old cliché: sex and violence sells, but in truth, when it’s gratuitous and poorly executed, it doesn’t. In the end, writing is all about making choices. You can censor yourself and your characters, but then that wouldn’t really be making a choice, now would it?
On Starting Late as a Woman Writer – Originally Published February 10, 2011
The PodPeople Blogspot © Cheryl Anne Gardner, All Rights Reserved
I was reading an article in the Guardian last week by Amanda Craig, which spoke very candidly to women writers with respect to the subject of age, particularly; at what age did the writers she most revered publish their breakthrough book. She responded:
“Time and again, I found that they all hit their late 40s or mid-50s before this happened. The exception seemed to be gay women. The reason why was easy to guess: if you have children, your career tends to be eclipsed for a good decade-and-a-half.”
I agree and disagree with this, and I am sure my thoughts here will piss a few writers off.First, I don’t necessarily think children are always to blame for the late start of a woman’s writing career, or rather, the writing career getting serious late in life. I am a childless woman, by choice, and even though I didn’t lose a decade to child rearing, I lost a decade to life. I mean let’s be real here, at eighteen to twenty-couple of years old, I didn’t have the life experience to really write anything substantial. Most of my chicken scratchings at that time were all about sex and anarchy. I hadn’t put in the time yet; the years of adult struggles were ahead of me. I hadn’t been affected yet by the psychological, sociological, and political strife adults must come to grips with. At twenty-something, it was all pining, experimentation, and pissed off damn-the-man-partying-on-the-road-to-self discovery-dear-Penthouse type nonsense. The who I was would change radically many times over in the course of that decade and a half. I was learning to live, and I was learning to understand the world I inhabited on a much less superficial level than I had as a child. I couldn’t write what I write the way I write it now if I had tried to do it back then, which I did, and it sucked like a sloppy sewer sump pump. All my writing then was immature, because I was immature, I didn’t have the skills, and child rearing had nothing to do with it. I thought I was a woman at twenty years old, but I was wrong. I might have been a woman physically, but I was still a naive child, and that didn’t change until I was in my late thirties when could look back on all the mistakes I made with some analytical perspective — when I could also look at the creative process with some analytical perspective.I think that’s what makes a mature writer: Time In, and by that, I mean time invested in obtaining said analytical perspective. Sometimes raising a family is part of that, and sometimes it’s a career, or sometimes its time spent finding your spiritual center. Serious literature comes with serious contemplation, and I don’t think that has anything to do with whether or not you are a man or a woman, or whether or not you are gay, or whether or not you have children. Yet this is where the publishing industry fails mature writers. Amanda Craig states in her article:
“Unless and until we get to the lofty eminence of our eighties and are once again deemed as interesting as Diana Athill, middle age is a period of about 30 years in which somehow, despite having a lifetime of experience to draw upon, we are somehow not worth reading.”
Ms. Craig says, “On the whole, good and great fiction is not written by beautiful people who feel successful. It’s written by the person who is most overlooked, all their life, and who understands things about the human condition which is very different from that of the experience of the 25-year-old part-time model.”
So, are there young writers who fit Ms. Craig’s bill of goods? I am sure there are, but that sort of critical thinking and objectivity is a rarity when it comes to young writers writing serious literary fiction. I’ve read a bit over the years, so I know. It’s not about the technical aspects of writing, it’s about the minutia of living that makes good and great fiction.When I was young, I wrote some hot, sexy, trashy stuff all civil disobedience and shit, and my friends were mildly amused, but today, I write pretty much the same trashy civil disobedience, but it’s written from a place of objectivity, maturity, and experience. I am not saying it’s any good, I am just saying it’s very different.
On Outlining – Originally Published January 27, 2011
The PodPeople Blogspot © Cheryl Anne Gardner, All Rights Reserved
If you know what you are going to write when you’re writing a poem, it’s going to be average. — Derek Walcott
I want to talk about plotting this week, as in: How much plotting do we actually do? I am thinking about the conscious proactive stuff, and do you think over plotting can make a story average at best, contrived at worse?
Some writers live for the outline, and I can see where that would be extremely helpful especially if you are writing an epic say like Lord of the Rings or even Stephen King’s The Stand, which is one of my all time favourite books, BTW. When writing that sort of novel, you’ve got a lot of time and space to keep straight, not to mention all those characters to keep track of. However, some writers just don’t work that way. To over analyse the story like that would put unnecessary constraints on the process and would limit the freedom of movement that stream of consciousness writing normally has.
I am kind of in the middle of the road here. I never consciously say, “This should happen next, and this is the result I want.” The process for me is more fluid in an emotionally subterranean way.
My stories just come to me, and they are usually influenced by some sort of catalyst: a news article, something I overheard, something I witnessed that got me hot under the collar. So there is always an underlying intent present at the onset — intent meaning more the underlying theme, not a particular point I am trying to make because a story will be interpreted differently by different readers, so foisting ones authorial opinion is never a wise idea. Anyway, that intent, or whatever it is, comes to me in the form of scenes — daydreamed mostly — which I make sure I write down as sloppily and as soon as I can. Yes, I keep notebooks and post it notes at hand no matter where I am. After I have collected a few scenes, a story begins to develop in my mind. I can now get myself intimately acquainted with the characters that have made themselves known to me. In this case, I do some brief outlining as in where they were born, where they went to school, how old are they, what they look like, how they dress, and have they had any trauma to contend with, etc. Some of that will be written into the story, but much of it is simply for my own reference. I do the same with story location. I research my locales, download pictures to post on my desktop, study the culture and the history of a place … but again, much of that is just background noise because in my stories, the characters interact more with each other than with the world they inhabit. Much of my research is used only for scene setting and a bit of mood to ground the story in a time and/or place for the reader, and even then, it’s all open to debate. I don’t necessarily like to lock a story into any particular place or time. In Kissing Room the entire story takes place inside a local pub, and I did that so the reader could experience the confinement the main character felt. It would be a cheap movie to make: one location, no waiting.
But I digress. After I have a bunch of scenes, usually 10-13 or so, I re-read them through and give them titles, as these will more or less later become individual chapters. At this point, I start moving them around in an effort to develop a reasonably coherent story arc, and yes, it has been known to happen, much to my chagrin at the time, that the scene I chose for my first chapter won’t be the right one when I get to the editing/revision stages. That, however, is a struggle for a different day much later down the road. After I get everything roughly organized into a first draft, I start what I call the filling in and filling out part of the writing: adding the background scenery, the descriptive content, the mood and movement, and all the transitional stuff that will get me from one scene to the next. I write novellas, so I tend to write very lean in the first few drafts. I find adding easier than cutting, so I don’t get obsessed with word count. The right words matter more to me since I use so few of them.
I normally do three rough drafts, and then I back away from the manuscript for at least 3-6 months. Sin-eater — now titled And Death Dreamt Us All — sat for over a year, and even now, I find myself still re-arranging things, so I don’t know how well an outline would really work for me when it comes to plotting one of my stories. I think a formal outline, while it might offer comfort for other writers, would only make me feel boxed in.