the mutt

Rushdie Rediscovered

Posted in General, Writing by grx20 on April 29, 2009

Over the last few days I’ve been watching interviews with Salman Rushdie on youtube.
And I’m discovering again, he is quite brilliant and also why he’s so highly esteemed.

This one in particular is really good.

I am bowled over by the depth of his ideas, the sheer magic of his imagination and the edgy things he’s doing in his stories.
His latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence is bristling with some amazing ideas. Each of them is good enough for one novel – Rushdie packs them all into one.

I know what my next book is.

The Gut Stuff

Posted in Writing by grx20 on April 14, 2009

kurt_vonnegutNo, no, no! It’s not the English gut … it’s the German, goot, “gut”.
I’ve got some awesome stuff from Kurt Vonnegut – a lot of interesting writing tips and suggestions, all in his unique, succinct way.

I gave Slaughterhouse Five a shot a couple of years back, but I couldn’t finish it. I suspect it’s a cultural thing. The book is set in a different time, in a different place – both of which really have no relevance to where I come from. To be honest, I didn’t much take to his style back then. Still, he has some very useful advice. One may squint at the sun, wear shades and a hat and curse the glare. But one needs the rays.


Appetizer

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things-reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Second Course … and third and desert too. [This is really long, but worth your time]

Kurt Vonnegut also wrote a wonderful piece, simply titled: How to write with style? It’s easily available online, should you want a printer-friendly version. Please note that the copyright for this rests with International Paper Co.

How to write with style
By Kurt Vonnegut, © 1982 International Paper Co.

Newspaper reporters and technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writings. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in that world reveal a lot about themselves to readers. We call these revelations, accidental and intentional, elements of style.

These revelations tell us as readers what sort of person it is with whom we are spending time. Does the writer sound ignorant or informed, stupid or bright, crooked or honest, humorless or playful–? And on and on.

Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your readers will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an egomaniac or a chowderhead–or worse, they will stop reading you.

The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not. Don’t you yourself like or dislike writers mainly for what they choose to show you or make you think about? Did you ever admire an empty-headed writer for his or her mastery of the language? No.

So your own winning style must begin with ideas in your head.

Find a subject you care about.

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way–although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.

Do not ramble, though.

I won’t ramble on about that.

Keep it simple.

As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound.
_______________________________________________
“Should I act upon the urgings that I feel, or remain passive and thus cease to exist?”
” “To be or not to be?”

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“To be or not to be?” asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long.

Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story “Eveline” is this one: “She was tired.” At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

Have the guts to cut.

It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

Sound like yourself.

The writing style which is most natural to you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. English was the novelist Joseph Conrad’s third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.

In some of the more remote hollows of Appalachia, children still grow up hearing songs and locutions of Elizabethan times. Yes, and many Americans grow up hearing a language other than English, or an English dialect a majority of Americans cannot understand.

All these varieties of speech are beautiful, just as the varieties of butterflies are beautiful. No matter what your first language, you should treasure it all your life. If it happens not to be standard English, and if it shows itself when you write standard English, the result is usually delightful, like a very pretty girl with one eye that is green and one that is blue.

I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.

Say what you mean to say.

I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but I am no more. I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say. My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable–and therefore understood.

And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledy-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing, if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.

Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.

Pity the readers.

They have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school–twelve long years.

So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify–whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.

That is the bad news. The good news is that we Americans are governed under a unique Constitution, which allows us to write whatever we please without fear of punishment. So the most meaningful aspect of our styles, which is what we choose to write about, is utterly unlimited.

For really detailed advice

For a discussion of literary style in a narrower sense, I commend to your attention The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White (Macmillan, 1979). E.B. White is, of course, one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has so far produced.

You should realize, too, that no one would care how well or how badly Mr. White expressed himself, if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say

(Pic courtesy: al.petfield.com)

Character Bombshell

Posted in General, Writing by grx20 on April 9, 2009

Back from a rather hectic, yet fantastic trip to New Delhi and Agra. Spent more time travelling in trains, actually! At some point everybody has recommended a long train journey to someone else. The reasons have always been pretty much the same: disconnect, quiet time to think, see the countryside like you never would – and finally – meet interesting people.

I could list the rather colourful characters I met. People with a history that one would be hard pressed to equal merely by the force of imagination. This post, however, is not about that. This post is about what a person says, suddenly, that completely changes your understanding of her. It sheds new light on everything she has said before, and she will say after. In one second, that character explodes into your heart, never to leave.
mushroom cloud
It’s what I call a character bombshell. When a character says or does something suddenly, drops a nuke that completely transforms your understanding of her.

Old Man. Very old, needs support to make his bed, stand up, open food packets. All of which I gladly provide, not in a condescending way, for I have a grandfather of a similar age and I understand better what’s required of me. I consent, indicating there was never any question of having it any other way, that I would help him get off the train at the right station, and assist with his bag.

He talks about his home, where he worked, his life and so on.

He shares his food with me, insists when I refuse, nods his approval when I relent. Everything’s fine and normal. The usual. The only thing that has made me feel sad for him is that he has lost his wife. He mentions it with dignity, delicately and without maudlin.

The next morning we wait for his station to arrive. I get his bag out and keep it ready. While we wait, he starts talking again. It starts with what he’s already told me – where he worked, his age, his pension etc. And then Bombshell 1: He says, he has two sons. One of them is no more with us, left us when he was just 32. Suddenly, he breaks into a sob, his mouth curls with grief that cannot be gotten over. He tries to recover, and almost does, but another wave washes over him and his hands rush to hide his tear-filled eyes. All of a sudden, it’s no longer small talk. All of a sudden, he’s no longer just another old man in the train who likes to talk.

After a few minutes he recovers. The station is still ten minutes away. We start talking again. He tells me about the revision of his pension  and how his wife asked him not to reconsider his decision to retire although the others in his office suggested he put in a few more years. And then Bombshell 2: My wife has passed away you know – we climbed up to the temple at _________, she fell down the stairs and….

He starts to sob again. His nose is blocked and he draws his breath in gasps. He neither apologises nor attempts to hide the break in the dam he has built to contain emotions. He continues with an inane cliché that only makes my heart sag heavier with sorrow: they say, wife is life, but now … now … what is there to do … I just go on.

The station arrives and I help the old man get off. I wait till his daughter arrives to pick him up. We exchange goodbyes, he thanks me, blesses me – all in a very plain, matter-of-fact way. There was no indication of any bond between us. There was no acknowledgement of the fact that he’d made me privy to a deep and emotional part of his life.

The anecdote is not about my emotions, or his, for that matter. The anecdote is not about what he said, it’s not about the contents. It’s about how he said and when he said it. As a character, the old man and his life are still not exceptional, to be fair. But the two Bombshells he dropped suddenly changed the way I looked at him and his life. I could imagine stronger motivations for some of his beliefs. I could imagine a starker reality he confronted every morning when he awoke. He had flicked on a torch, for just a few seconds, and in that light, I saw him as he saw himself.

The old man dropped the two bombshells suddenly. If it were scripted, I would go as far as to say the author deliberately set me up by talking about inane trivialities prior to the revelation. The old man dropped the bombshell very plainly and without fanfare. Again, if it were scripted, I would say the author eschewed adverbs, adjectives and any need to adorn the statement.

And that’s what made the bombshells what they are. Unexpectedness and starkness.

While I post this anecdote from a writer’s perspective, in doing that I don’t intend to diminish the due respect and gravity it deserves. Character Bombshells (CB) embed characters in your mind like a wedge. A minor character, someone in the background, can storm her way to the main stage with a carefully timed CB. A CB is useful to jolt the reader and force him to reappraise a character. A well planned CB can make a character unforgettable.

If it works in real life, it will work in fiction too.

(If you have come across a Character Bombshell or something similar please do share it with me. Thanks.)