Category Archives: Prose

This probably isn’t rocket science to any of you…

Posted on November 9, 2012 by

But since I started reading a lot of e-books, I stopped posting a lot of text fragments. It has taken me this long to figure out that I can highlight the good bit, hit SHARE, choose Twitter, and DM myself the frickin’ text I want without having to retype it.

So here, the successful experiment, from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl:

I am not interested in being set up. I need to be ambushed, caught unawares, like some sort of feral love-jackal.

I chose it because it’s like the humor, and because it reminds me of the state a friend was in some years ago. She’s engaged now, so ha!

As I rebuild this prose-collecting habit, you’ll be seeing more of these. With longer notes. In the meantime, happy weekend.

Exquisite Words, Labor Day Edition

Posted on September 5, 2011 by

From Christopher Beuhlman’s Those Across the River:

I went for a walk. The tree shadows stretched long and fingerlike on the dirt road that led into Whitbrow as the last light of the day spilled from the west. The few houses that lined the road were really little better than shacks, but even they looked worthy of portraiture with that amber glow washing over their pine-board and tin. Sometimes a dog would bark. Sometimes a face would appear and then recede behind the mosquito screen of a window. Once, a bony hand struck a match whose jab of flame then twinned itself on the wick of an oil lamp.

This chapter opening starts with a rather brittle phrase and then relaxes, a bit, but the lack of human contact for this character makes the atmosphere tense even though his activity, walking in the evening, might normally be thought of as relaxing.

Exquisite Words

Posted on August 29, 2011 by

I’ve missed out on a week of Exquisite Wordage, and blogging generally, for a few reasons: my site picked up a little malware, for one thing and had to be vigorously scrubbed. Mostly, though, I’ve been focusing on my current batch of writing students and my own work in progress.

I hope to ease into being chatty again in September. In the meantime, here’s a bit from Richard Rayner’s A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.’s Scandalous Coming of Age:

Throughout this astonishing period, L.A. was the fastest-growing city in the world. In America only San Francisco had ever grown so fast, during the years of the Gold Rush following 1849. But by the 1920s, San Francisco’s boom was long done. New York, Boston and even Chicago had never known an explosion like the one that was happening in L.A. Every working day throughout the 1920s, builders started more than fifty new homes. Each week a new hotel went up. The year 1923 alone saw the construction of 800 office buildings, 400 industrial buildings, 150 schools, 130 warehousees, 700 apartment buildings, and more than 25,000 single dwellings. Property prices doubled, tripled, quadrupled, eventually rising sixfold through the decade. The city began to spread, amoeba-like, in search f its suburbs, although in those days L.A. still meant downtown, thriving with business and residences.

You can almost see this happening in a black and white time-release photo kind of way, can’t you?

Or this, where I quote Rayner quoting Chandler:

In this defeated atmosphere, the expressionless blue of the sky and the unchanging rhythm of perfect days taht followed each other one after the other added to the melancholy. “Outside the bright gardens had a haunted look, as though wild eyes were watching me from behind the bushes, as though the sunshine itself had a mysterious something in the light,” wrote Raymond Chandler.

Shaping dreams

Posted on June 21, 2011 by

First: Clarion Write-a-Thon Word Count: 1,417 out of 20,000. (More info here).

“And I do not play this instrument as well as I should like, but I have always thought that to be my fault, because I would not take the time to practice…” Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Some of my students have accused me, obliquely, of being too picky. “I see lots of books where writers do this,” they say, when they get an MS back from me and in addition to the structural critique I’ve marked twenty eye bookisms, a bunch of passive verb constructions and noted that one of their perfectly good phrases has been around since Shakespeare, and that while it does the job maybe there’s a way that suits their characters better…

They’re right, to some extent. Part of what I do as a teacher is point out the strengths and the flaws in a person’s writing… even when that writing starts to be of publishable quality. I know new writers want to learn what it takes to sell their fiction, of course, but I hope they also want to just plain be better. There’s a lot of room between just barely salable and outstanding. I have yet to stop finding fault, even with my best students, even as I praise ’em to the skies.

Storytelling is engaging readers in a dream. You are taking them from the here and now and enveloping them in another world. The novel as a work of art offers its audiences the chance to be at once themselves and another person, just as dreams do, as fantasies do.

The thing about dreams is that some are shallow. Think of a night when your sleep was easily broken, by the slightest noise. The dreams of light sleep are the ones that most fleeting, that they’re the ones that vanish like vapor when your eyes open.

Such dreams are just fine. You might say they’re just barely publishable. But I think what most of us want, as writers, is to create deep absorption–compelling, vivid, engaging on a visceral, emotional level, and impossible to forget. It’s a lofty goal, but what I hope people are going for in this racket… not immediately, but eventually, if they’re very good and very hardworking and very lucky, is to be life-altering.

There are a couple ways to instill deep dreaming. One is to have a story so suspenseful that the reader simply can’t put it down–we’ve all devoured books whose line-by-line writing is shaky, because we got hooked; we had to know. Stieg Larsen’s The Girl Who books were like this, for me. This cartoon, My Lost Weekend in the Meyer, says the same about the Twilight saga.

So: be suspenseful. Check! The other way to deepen the dream of a given narrative, once the basic story’s working, is to up the quality of the prose. To have undertow within the words themselves, to be compelling, seductive, to beguile and even drown. We each have our own way of pulling this off, and when it happens, it’s a powerful thing. Heck, there are stories where it’s a superpower in its own right: seizing or changing someone’s sleeping world.

So yes, I’m picky… because I think it’s a skill worth developing.

Green means go, yellow means slow

Posted on October 19, 2010 by

I have been trying to give the arachnophobes a break lately, but this (spider-free, just the webs!) is a shot I’ve been stalking awhile and I am quite pleased with it.

Traffic Light and Cobwebs

In more bad news for the web-fearing among you, I have more. Lots more. Barb and I went to Burnaby Lake Sunday and it is a fairyland of dew-spangled cobwebs.

The mail Friday brought a CD from my aunt and uncle, trip pictures from our cruise. I took the opportunity to phone and thank them, and we had a nice catch-up chat. Predictably enough, I raved about the beauty of Vancouver in the autumn–all the things I always blog about this time of year. The migrating birds, the squirrel we saw burying acorns yesterday, the cobwebs, morning fog, the leaf shadows on the pavement… it is a stunningly gorgeous and really variable season.

Saturday I got up to go cafe write and it was maybe an hour before dawn. The sky was all the shades of a Stellar’s Jay: no true black, just a spectrum that ran from soot to a hint of indigo. The Big Dipper hung over the North Shore Mountains and as I watched a gull flew past, coming between me and the stars, its white underbelly stained a soft powder blue by the coming light of dawn.

I stood, watching, and I was thinking very specifically about how I would describe it if I was writing for Snuffy. This, for me, is a useful exercise in constructing prettier sentences than I might otherwise be inclined. (And the ‘boxing the poll’ line, from a few days ago? Was for kelly-yoyoKelly).

Anyone else do this?