Writing and Observation
Blog and book reviews of Anthony M. Briggs, Jr., fiction author, frustrated musician, and patent attorney. New post or review every Monday.
I didn’t realize I was one at first. But it hit me a few weeks ago when I was trying to convince my sister’s boyfriend to take a look into a closet to see a giant spider. He wouldn’t budge a step in my direction. “Why not?” I asked. I couldn’t believe the problem was he didn’t trust me – we’re talking about me, here. But he was way past distrust. He hurled accusations at me. “No way! You just want to push me in there with that thing and lock me in!”
Honest truth: the thought never crossed my mind. So I had to get to the bottom of why. Why would this young man say such a thing?
“Well, Tone,” my sister explained. “The first day you met him you did that card trick on him that ends with you slapping him on the back of the head.”
“Oh, surely not on the first day,” I said. And full disclosure, there was no spider, I… well, the point is I wasn’t going to push him in, I had something else in mind.
At any rate, that gives you a bit of background on my ideas of what I’m going to do to my daughter’s little suitors when they have the nerve to come meet me. Yes, I know she’s only two. But preparation is everything.
First, I’ll have a fake newspaper printed and lying on the table. Headline: “Protests Arise as Mass Murderer Released on Parole.” Underneath that, a
picture of me, walking down the courthouse steps with a blank look on my face, squinting in the sun like I haven’t seen it in years, police surrounding me keeping the angry mob with picket signs at bay. Further down in the article, the good ol’ frontal and profile shots of my face, again with a totally blank and unreadable stare.
So the young man comes in. I’ll be sure he sits at the table where the newspaper is lying while he’s waiting for me. When I come in to meet him, blank stare.
“Hi, Dad,” Zora will say.
I’ll nod slowly.
“This is So-and-so.”
“Pleased to meet you, sir,” he’ll say and reach out his hand.
I won’t move. Only keep staring at him.
Zora will laugh a bit and try to make some disarming small talk. “So-and-so is in my English class.”
“That’s right, I am. I actually, uh, like that class, The teacher’s really good.”
Still staring. No expression. Let this nervous, one-sided conversation go on for a bit, then for no reason, twitch my head hard to the right. Then, very subtly begin to show hints of a frown. They’ll still be trying to talk, but now the in an attempted wrap-up phase to get away when I'll suddenly interrupt and speak slowly and deliberately for the first time.
“Where do you live, boy? Who knows you’re here?”
Ah, how fun it will be!
I have an alternate plan worked out in case the kid doesn’t see the newspaper. As soon as he comes in to meet me, I stand up, walk directly to the nearest wall and beat my head against it a few times and growl, face twitching, “Now... I don’t mind goin’ back to jail!” Then look at him like he's a piece of meat.
I have at least a decade and half to come up with and perfect these plans. The joys of fatherhood J
This week here's another excerpt for you from the Lands of Yod. While climbing a hemothic tree, Nick encounters a bug the size of his forearm, called the Southern Firebrat. Enjoy!
- from Nick the Lolt
I’ve been giving this topic some thought lately. When you watch a movie you’re getting a packaged experience. So many elements need to come together in the modern movie to successfully entertain, and a big part of it is the music. The music can be reduced to an unremarkable background noise, or at its worst, a distraction. But at its best, it can make the movie what it is. It can be so integral to that package that without that exact score or songs, the movie wouldn’t be.
So without further pontificating, here are the top five movies where the music made the movie.
5. Tron: Legacy. Two words. Daft Punk. They’ve been called the kings of digital music and man did they defend that title in this movie. Digital, but also with an orchestra, seamlessly mixed and with some hard beats in there, too? They’ve got my vote. One of my favorites was the music in the light-cycle scene. That beat comes in hard with the five orange cycles making the turn. Then it switches just before the first crash – da-da. da-da, da-da… da-da-da-da-da… man just go listen to it. Nailed it. The recognizer scene music was pretty good, too. Digital awe and wonder in musical form.
4. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The deep drums and the clacking sticks. The cello solos by Yo-yo Ma. The sighing strings. Composer Tan Dun brings it all together beautifully throughout the movie, but nowhere more telling than in the final scene. This scene begins with a musical hint that something is amiss on this cloudy morning. As Jen Yu goes through the clouds the music swells into the sound of a tragedy in China, a fall of heroes and a loss forever of potentials of love and life.
3. Aladdin. Two songs stand out in my mind in this movie. But really, it’s on this list for only one of them. The music overall was good, but it was these songs that made it. The first was You ain’t never had a friend like me. That big band sound, the trombones and brass – it was so gaudy and bodacious that it was the perfect introduction for the most rambunctious character of the movie. The character who, other than the music, really made the movie: the Genie. The second song was the bar none best Disney movie song of all time. A Whole New World transitioned with emotional perfection from an untrusting princess tired of lame suitors and confinement in a palace to two young people ready to go out and see it all together. Here was the guy who could show her “unbelievable sights” and fill her with “indescribable feelings” as they soared through an “endless diamond sky.” And he wanted her to see it all, “don’t you dare close your eyes… hold your breath, it gets better.” That song made them a couple and made the movie.
2. Braveheart. I remember when I saw the trailer for this. Mel Gibson yelling about freedom in a Scottish accent with blue paint on his face? Looked pretty silly to me, plus the name sounded corny. Braveheart? Any relation to Bravestar, by chance? Is Mel gonna start yelling “Voice of the Howler Monkey… the Howler Monkey… the Howler Monkey…” And then I saw it. Now it’s one of my top three favorite movies of all time. In every scene the music puts you in the time and in the place. And more importantly, the mood, be it brooding, anxious, heavy-heart, or vengeance. On top of that it keeps a theme going of longing for something, personal or national. The two best pieces were the rush on the fort when Wallace first gets it in his mind that peace isn’t an option. The drums, the tempo steadily increasing, the pitch rising a step at a time up until the fort is taken – nailed it. Then the ending theme. A hero is gone, but his cause is not. He achieved the true definition of heroism: inspiration of a nation. Bittersweet, and with those bagpipes and strings flowing, perfect, Jame Horner at his best.
1. The Natural. I’ve seen plenty of baseball movies, but this one set the standard. Other movies tried to create that feeling of baseball being magical and heroic, normally through cheesy dialogue over cheesier strings. A father and son sitting in an empty stadium and something like, “Son, baseball isn’t just a sport. It’s magical.” Okay. That creates nothing for me. That score in the Natural by Randy Newman, though. This isn't baseball music. What I hear in those melodic, low strings is easy confidence. The confidence of a train pulling a hundred cars with ease. Then suddenly, a great deed. A heroic deed. That two-note rise followed by the long held low note. A display of strength. Then rounding the bases for the the home run. That music was critical to this movie. Not to take anything away from the actors or the writing, but in this package the music made the movie. It made baseball and everything else going on litterally bigger
(Honorable mention: The Little Mermaid, The Lion King. It was very hard to keep the Little Mermaid out of the top five and really it should be there in a draw for number 5. Those songs made that movie for sure.)
Gemree tried her best to respectfully watch her teacher, but her eyes constantly sought ways to sneak past Fifen and glance at Nick. The vine was reaching the quarter point but much like the first round, the silver-haired boy had stopped moving and just stood there with tense shoulders and a serene emptiness on his face.
The crowd was shifting anxiously but this time none disturbed him.
“Nick,” Gemree whispered. Two things happened at once. Fifen jumped and made a small mistake. And Nick blinked. Gemree’s heart beat faster as the two young painters’ eyes met.
- from Nick the Lolt
(From now on, when I write reviews I will include a summary of my expectations going in, as I think that plays a significant factor in my reading experience.)
Expectations: I went into this book as part of my classics study and didn’t have high expectations, and I suppose that is the perfect condition for a reader to be in to be shocked.
Review: I’m no fan of vampires, and if you check my Goodreads ratings and reviews you will rarely see a five. But Dracula by Bram Stoker gets a five from me. Several reasons.
First, I’ve never read multiple viewpoints handled so well as I did in this book. He nailed it. Drove a stake through it. I’ve seen recent books try to jump back and forth between just two viewpoints and not even manage to handle just those tell as well as this. Here, we see the world from Mina, John, Lucy, Dr. Seward, and occasionally, Dr. Van Helsing or a newspaper clip. We get to know them via journal entries and letters. How the story manages to progress jumping from one character’s journal to a letter from another is so perfect you get the feeling the story couldn’t have been told any other way.
Second, and this is big, each character is different and distinct. We see their passions, love, fear, faith and doubts. Strong bonds of friendship and loyalty are formed between them and the story spans enough time and gives them enough circumstances to go through such that those bonds are solidified like iron. And they need to be.
Third, the setup of the characters drives home a point (or two): the way that Dracula kills is horrific. The whole bite the neck and drink blood thing about vampires is so played out that you would think it’s not frightening anymore. Books, manga, and anime today even portray it as some sort of pleasurable experience. Not so in this book. Here, you watch helplessly as innocent characters go through the slow drift towards death that accompanies a gradual loss of blood. Physical symptoms manifest in the day from the dark deed that occurred at night. Fatigue. Sickness. Paleness. You see the efforts to save life through blood transfusions. And the inevitability of the end to come.
Fourth, the moods of the book come across real. Sad, horrific, suspenseful, reflective, it’s all there. You feel you’re a part of a great struggle against evil. What makes it so is the time spent with the characters – and the utter disregard of them by Dracula. He is mysterious, powerful, illusive, and confident. He cares for none and puts the main characters through some serious trauma. I didn’t like Mockingjay very much, but one thing it did right was reflect the trauma that Katniss went through. Her story didn’t end, “and I was happy with Peeta for the rest of my days.” Likewise here. These people go through.
Last, and definitely not least, the writing. Stoker’s descriptions, metaphors, etc., are original and beautiful pieces of writing. This is a quality I’ve seen in all the classics I’ve read. Like in Wuthering Heights and A Tale of Two Cities, there are lines that made me stop and say, “Wow. Okay, I can’t write.”
Those five reasons add up to five stars. The plot was great, the lore was excellent, the villain was a true villain and gave no quarter but went for the jugular (literally) every time. His great power had great limitations and the characters had to do their best to use them to their advantage. Great book.
I saw this on another blog and thought it was a good idea. Every Sunday I will post seven sentences from a book, story or work-in-progress.
This decrepit excuse for a host was shaping up to be my worst one yet.
“Pitiful,” I spoke in a low tone as I focused in on his face.
“What did you say?” Sue yelled. “We might need to–”
A roaring sound of grinding metal from above shook the rocky ledge beneath our feet, causing Sue to wince and press her hands over her ears. White clouds overhead began to swirl apart as a massive, dark shape descended. Wisps of dust and cloud-vapor curled around it and soon it was clearly visible – a gigantic metallic foot, coming straight at us.
- from The First Emotion, a short story in Through Worlds and Hearts.
I've been meaning to finish a follow-up to that last post about the classics, but it's not ready yet. In the meantime, this will be the start of a new series of posts about ideas on writing style and technique.
I listen to various podcasts and read books on writing and frequently hear a piece of advice that I take a slightly different view upon. It relates to the pace of a story, and the advice is this: “if you want to speed up the pace of your story, use shorter sentences; if you want to slow down the pace of your story, use longer sentences.”
I have heard this from many different sources, and the issue I take with it is almost simply semantic. But I believe a distinction can be made between the pace of a story and the tempo of a scene, and that this popular piece of advice actually applies to the tempo, not the pace.
First of all, here’s my underlying definition of pace: the speed at which the reader is traveling through the overarching story. The key point here is that pace deals with how quickly things are happening on the story level. The foundation, or the road over which the reader is traveling through the story, is the clarity of what is happening on the current page and how it relates to the story. And here is where I think pace most clearly differs from tempo.
In any scene the reader has to know why what he or she is reading is important. There has to be an unanswered question being asked or addressed, a conflict being fanned or tension being built. If at any point none of those things are happening, the reader may ask, "Why am I reading this?" If that state lasts longer than one or two sentences, the reader will feel the pace has slowed. The reader will not feel progression through the story, but instead a sort of aimless meander.
During such a lull, shortening sentences will not help. That addresses tempo, which, as explained below, is generally applicable to a scene, not an entire story.
I would define tempo as the feeling of urgency in a scene. Or as a measure of the rate of action in a scene. How fast or slow is an event happening right now? Writing style can affect this aspect of the reader experience, via selecting a mix of short sentences, long sentences and run-on sentences.
When I write stories that don't follow a set pattern, plan or outline, I find pace is often disrupted in between scene changes. I know why I want this scene here, I know important events will happen in it, nevertheless, as I read it in a full pass I can feel the disruption. The reader would not know why this is important. Instead of wondering what is about to happen, the reader could wonder, “Why am I reading this?”
To address this, I view the problem here as two-fold: a matter of clear transition between focal points and of foreshadowing. In the story world, when the reader asks “Why am I reading this?”, the answer of, "I will tell you later" is a legitimate answer – as long as it is not given two times in a row. So either answer the questions that were raised in the last scene or make it clear that the questions will be answered later and there you go – the reader is ready to move on from that scene and is awaiting the answer or arise of the next question.
If I go with asking another question next, before asking I sprinkle in some foreshadowing as to why this new question is important. Try to show what’s at stake. With a clear transition and foreshadowing of the question, the reader will embrace the new question and be absorbed in the scene, thus maintaining the pace.
If the reader is told twice, “I will tell you later,” the pace is dragging. The repetition of raising questions and answering them creates the illusion of pace. The length of time – or more precisely – the amount of words between reps determines the pace.
So in conclusion, I make the argument here that changing sentence length will not help a writer with a pace problem. Figuring out what questions have been asked but unanswered and what new questions need to be put forth can. Resolve the outstanding questions, raise the stakes on the next question. Shorten the amount of words between those questions and answers and the pace will pick up.
I have recently been devouring classics via audio book. Although the pacing and beginnings of most of these stories are not tenable by today's commercial fiction tactics, there are other critical parts that made me realize - okay, this is why this book is considered a classic. This is why I'm reading - or rather listening to this over a hundred years after it was written.
The amount of books being written and published or self-published today probably exceeds collective writer output at any other point in history. But which books written in 2012 will be drawing laughs, tears or stunned gasps by a reader in 2112? Which will even be doing that in 2022? To stand out among this incredible herd of books and survive whatever technological changes remain to be seen will be a supreme feat.
Looking at the classics that I'm reading, I take note of what is it about them that is impacting me so heavily that when I close the book I look at it and say, "Your reputation is well-deserved, my friend." In this post I’ll write about the extraordinary levels of passion some of the characters reach and the artistic ways in which such is portrayed. The number one couple for this effect that I’ve seen so far is Heathcliff and Catherine. Beyond question. I'm not much of a romance or tragedy reader, but those two had lines that made my eyes open and my finger press pause on the audiobook app.
Lite-spoiler alert, for Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte.
When Catherine discovers Isabella has feelings for Heathcliff, she laughs and tells Isabella to give it up. Isabella shoots back something to the effect of "you're a dog in the manger," afraid he will love me or afraid I'll get him, which makes Catherine laugh even more. She tells Isabella drop the idea, Heathcliff is a merciless wolf devoted to Catherine, and whom only Catherine knows how to control. Then, the line. I'm going to write it in a contemporary tone: "Look, Isabella. If he had any interest in you, it would be to marry you for your money and toss you aside like a cleaned off bone. And if I thought he was contemplating such a move, I wouldn't even warn you - I'd actually encourage you to get with him so he could proceed to skin you alive for fun. Understand?"
That line made me pause the record. The fact that Heathcliff really is such a wolf, that Catherine knows it, and knows how obsessed he is with her - in that one line it all became crystal clear. Repeat: "I would push you into his arms if he had a taste for you because I know there is no one else in existence that he wants other than me - unless it’s to chew them apart and spit pieces of them off a cliff." This, she said while happily married to Isabella's brother.
I had never seen such a pair of characters.
The second line that made me stop was from Heathcliff. Just how devoted is this cruel man to Catherine, in his own words? When Catherine dies and Nelly says something like, may she rest in peace in heaven, Heathcliff responds in anguish, “may that never be.” Let her go neither to heaven nor to hell, but let her become a ghost and haunt him, like a victim haunts a murderer. “Haunt me until I die, so I will not remain here without her!”
What type of person says they don't want the person they love to go to heaven? That they would rather be tormented by that person's ghost than be without them? (Yes, I know, ‘they’ is plural, it just flows better.)
I had never seen such a passionate and conflicting character, displaying both fanatical love and intense hate.
These are just a few elements of this classic novel that spoke to me and said, “classic.” I don’t see characters to that degree in novels I read today, but then again, contemporary romance and literature are not my usual selection. Still, such compelling characters shouldn’t be limited to a certain genre. As I continue to read/listen through these classics, I think about how to inform my own writing and blend these high impact elements into genres I enjoy writing, such as YA, fantasy and adventure. For I believe it is a conundrum of elements like this in a perfect storm that produces something worthy of being called a classic, worthy of being read and marveled over a hundred years after the writer is gone.
The next classic I would like to discuss in my next post will be one that has an equally powerful impact, but on the opposite side of the character-plot spectrum. The author of this book gave me moments in which I stopped listening and wondered how dare I call myself a writer? This author is a writer. The man is Charles Dickens. The book…
My car could be called Old Faithful for hanging in there so long, but it's not without issues like the grandpa that it is. I mean, when I got it, having a CD player and no tape deck inside was considered progressive. People were like, "wow, so you really think CD's are going to totally replace tapes?" Yeah. I'm talking BACK in the day.
I used to say so long as it gets from A to B I'll keep driving it. The question now becomes, well, can it get you back to A? In many cases, doubtful. Real doubtful. So now I call it my Inner-City car. I'll drive it anywhere within DC, but no farther. And in most cases, no faster than 45 mph.
So without further ado, here are the top 10 signs to let you know if you, like me, are driving a hoopty. For my car, the hoopty prototype, all 10 apply, but for you, I'd say if anything more than 5 are true (with one exception, noted below), then yes my friend. You too, are driving a hoopty.
1 . Only one setting works for AC/heater.
2. You've set your sound system to play out of only the front, passenger side speaker, since that's the only one that doesn't crackle.
3. You look forward to winter, since that's when a lot of the loose parts freeze into place and your car rattles a bit less.
4. You dread winter, because you know that's when your car is more prone to make those embarrassingly loud and long "Skreeeeee" sounds when you start off.
5. You can't remember the last time you washed the car, and you know it's pointless anyway since washing will only uncover a new layer of dirt, grime and rust.
6. Shotgun blasts. This one stands alone as the exception. If your car is letting out periodic shotgun blasts, you needn't read any further. You're driving a hoopty.
7. When you drive down the street of a quiet neighborhood, everyone turns to look at you from the sound and/or appearance. Some even lean out of their windows to do so.
8. You know for a fact no one will ever try to steal your car, and this knowledge has nothing to do with locks, security systems, or neighborhood.
9. When walking with a group of friends and you arrive at your car first, you sit in the car and act like you're doing something when in reality you're waiting for your friends to be out of earshot before starting your car.
10. You have to tell new passengers not to roll down a certain window or attempt to open a certain door because you know it will result in some messed up state that only you can fix, and that only with considerable effort and finagling.