Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Finding Inspiration on Twitter

A fun, Thanksgiving-themed hashtag showed up on Twitter tonight: #LiteraryTurducken. The concept is to take the titles of three different literary works and combine them into a single title. ("Turducken" is the turkey-chicken-duck combination that John Madden always talked about on Thanksgiving football games.) This leads to some bizarre, quite clever combinations: Charlie and the Chocolate War and Peace; The Unbearable Lightness of Being Gone with the Wind in the Willows; Tender is the Midsummer Night's Arabian Dream.

I came up with a few of my own that I'm fairly proud of: The Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Restaurant on the Edge of the Invisible Cities; The Book Thief's Guide to the Life of Pi; Harry Potter and the Giver of Mice and Men; etc.

After I had exhausted the novel combinations that I could think of, my mind ran, as it usually does, to Star Trek, which led me to combining three episode titles into this: The Savage Curtain on the Edge of All Our Yesterdays.

That's probably the best #LiteraryTurducken I can come up with, but it might be more than that. I have to say, that sounds like a line from a poem I would like to read, maybe even one I would like to write. Who knows if I'll make time to write it, but the potential is there. And the inspiration for it came from "wasting time" playing around on Twitter.

Monday, October 3, 2011

In Which an Author Gives Me His Chair

No, this isn't some high-handed metaphor (not yet, at least). Tonight, I went to a reading by Michael Martone, author of a bunch of books, including these:

The reading was in Bracken Library at Ball State University, and I got there kind of late, so the room was already standing-room-only. Actually, that's unusual by itself. Seating generally isn't a problem at events like this. Since all of the seats were filled, I took a spot against the wall, planning to stand and watch the reading from there. I was pretty close to the front and had a good view of the podium--not a bad vantage point at all. 

After I had been standing there for a few minutes, this man--
This is Michael Martone, if you didn't know.

--stood up and told me I could have his seat. Now, I had already sat in on a class Martone visited earlier in the day, so I knew what he looked like. Still, it took a second for me to register what was happening: The most important guy in the room--literally the reason everyone was there--was offering me his chair. It's not like he was getting up to read right at that moment, either. He sat down on the floor for around 10 minutes before it was time for him to read. 

I half expected him to take off his bow tie (yes, he was wearing a genuine bow tie, which are cool, while we're on the subject) and start washing everyone's feet with it. You have to admit, the guy looks at least a little bit like middle-aged Jesus. 

Since I'm a visual learner, I often don't get a lot out of readings, but Martone's personality and repartee made him memorable, even if I don't remember all of his stories (I use that term loosely) all that well. It didn't hurt that he's an Indiana writer and the crowd was primarily made up of Hoosiers, either. 

And I got a story out of it myself, too. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Taking Notes and Novel Reading

"I think someone said something about that somewhere in this book. No, I don't remember who, or when, or what page it's on. But I'm sure it's in there. Trust me, Prof."

Ever since I started college, and now, as I'm halfway through grad school, I have hated conversations like the one above. I have a somewhat obsessive attachment to my memory (from my high school Bible Quizzing days, but that's another story), and besides that, those kinds of conversations just don't make me sound like the budding brilliant intellectual I need my professors to know I am. That's not all grad school is about, of course, but it is part of it.

If you can't back up a statement with evidence, you might as well not even make it.

In order to save face and sound smart, I've developed a system for taking notes while I'm reading a novel that works pretty well for me.

A screenshot of my notes
from Hari Kunzru's The Impressionist.

While I'm reading a book, I have my computer open in front of me, and whenever I come across something I want to note (introduction of characters, important place names, themes, recurring images, etc.), I write a short entry like the ones you see in a screenshot. At the beginning of each line, I write the page number and a brief note about whatever I want to remember. I separate different notes from the same page with semicolons, because I like semicolons.

I don't write as many notes as I did when I started using this system, and I've gotten better at making them as short as possible the more I've done it. I started learning what kinds of triggers I needed to jog my memory, and then writing down only those keywords in my notes. The longer the notes you write, and the more of them you take down, the longer it takes to get through a book, and the higher your chances of not finishing the book on time and of going insane.

I use the Mac Pages program (instead of MS Word) because of its search function (Pages > Edit > Find > Show Search) that allows me to type in a word and see a list of every entry in the document where that word shows up (shown in the screenshot above). Clicking on an individual result takes you to that exact spot in the document. It's quite useful for finding/remembering patterns and motifs. I haven't found an equivalent function in Word. If I'm missing it, someone let me know, please.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ordinary Horror in Don't Come Back from the Moon

I have a theory about horror: bizarre things done in a bizarre way aren’t horrific because they are too strange to be relatable, and ordinary things done in an ordinary way aren’t horrific because they’re, well, ordinary. Real horror comes when you combine the extremes. Bizarre things done as if they’re ordinary. Ordinary things done in bizarre ways.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course (there are to any rule), but I think it holds up pretty well. I recently encountered an excellent illustration of my theory in a source where I was not expecting to find it: Dean Bakopoulos’s novel-in-stories Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon.

The premise sounds almost whimsical. In a depressed suburb of Detroit, Maple Rock, fathers tell their families they are going to the moon, and then disappear soon afterward. For these men, though, their trip to the moon is not some grand adventure. In fact, the mystery of their disappearance remains unsolved throughout much of the book; Bakopoulos’s slow, gradual, almost methodical exploration of the lives of the families the absent fathers left behind is as horrific as it is commonplace.

Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon focuses on Michael, Nick, and Tom, three young men forced into becoming men of the house long before they are mature enough to accept that responsibility. Indeed, as Bakopoulos narrates their misadventures, it becomes hard to envision them ever truly growing up.

For a while, I thought Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon was going to be “just another” story about boys becoming men despite the failures of their parents and communities. But there’s much more to it than that.

(If you’ve stumbled upon this post without reading the book first, I’m posting a SPOILER WARNING here.)

As Bakopoulos’s novel progressed, I realized that it was going to end where it began, with a generation of fathers (the sons of the fathers who vanished in the first story) also disappearing. And all of the pedestrian, unremarkable events in between (teenagers drinking, a priest losing his vocation, falling in love, working at a suburban mall) are the developments that will lead those boys to consider abandoning their own wives and children as they grow older.

In Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon’s eponymous beginning story, the fathers’ bizarre disappearance seems mysterious and unexplainable. By the time you reach the final story, “Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon (Reprise),” the phenomenon of absent fathers feels not merely ordinary, but inescapable. That graceful movement from bizarre otherness to ordinary recognition makes this one of the more disquieting books I have read. 

Monday, September 5, 2011

Vignette Novels: Mrs. Bridge and Sold

This week for #amlinking, we read Mrs. Bridge, Evan S. Connell's 1959 novel about India Bridge, a character he doesn't like or care about all that much, and the developments in her family over a period of several years. Instead of using the traditional chapter/scene format, Connell writes this novel as a series of vignettes (most are 1-2 pages, while the longest is around 5 pages long).

While I didn't care for the condescending stance Connell takes toward Mrs. Bridge--instead of feeling compassion for a woman whose world is crumbling around her, I felt prompted to point and laugh at her passive inability to take control of her life--the structure was fairly interesting. The main advantage an author can gain from using vignettes (or very short scenes) instead of longer scenes is that it forces the author to have a specific purpose for each section (usually just one purpose, though sometimes more), and to figure out how to express that purpose with as little extraneous detail as possible. Obviously, this can save an author from getting lost in a scene that meanders for a long time but doesn't really go anywhere.

A recent novel that uses a similar format is Sold, by Patricia McCormick, which tells the story of a young Nepalese girl, Lakshmi, who is sold into sexual slavery. Sold is told entirely from Lakshmi's first-person narrator point of view, whereas Mrs. Bridge employs an omniscient third-person narrator. McCormick uses this point of view to increase the pathos of the story--as readers, we can figure what is happening to Lakshmi long before she does--as well as to elliptically "look away" from some of the most painful moments in the story. (Since Sold was marketed as a young-adult novel, this strategy proves invaluable to keeping the story from becoming too graphic for its targeted audience.) Additionally, it gives a human, personal voice to what could otherwise become another "tragedy of poverty" story.

Another advantage of the brief scene format is that it allows the author to cover a long time frame in a minimum of pages. Mrs. Bridge covers the entire span of a life in fewer than 250 pages. This format can also give an author greater license to jump around and skip the boring/non essential parts and only focus on the highlights of the story with a minimum of scene-setting and exposition.

One drawback of vignette novels is that, because the story starts and stops so often, it can be difficult to keep readers motivated to continue reading; having to continually jump into one scene after another can be exhausting. This is similar to the problem "novels-in-short-stories" face, except that a single vignette often does not have a complete, self-contained story arc that a short story does.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Fireworks Factory Plot

Itchy and Scratchy, the subjects of an embedded cartoon series on The Simpsons, are basically Tom & Jerry’s ultraviolent cousins. In the episode “The Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie Show,” Itchy and Scratchy’s ratings have been dwindling, so to resuscitate the show, they add a new character, Poochie, who is kind of like Goofy if Goofy had a surfboard, wore shades, and smoked weed.

In Poochie’s introductory episode, which you can watch here (sketchy YouTube version), Itchy and Scratchy are driving to a fireworks factory, where all kinds of explosive mayhem will surely ensue. Before they reach the factory, however, they meet their new friend Poochy, who introduces himself with a catchy rap song. At this point, the show cuts away from the cartoon to show Millhouse (and this part was cut out of the clip above), who voices the audience’s collective frustration, shouting, “When are they going to get to the fireworks factory?”

That is, the audience (of characters on The Simpsons) has come to expect a certain level of violence from Itchy and Scratchy, and the sign for the fireworks factory has whetted their appetites. Instead of delivering the payoff the audience expects, though, the cartoon is waylaid (or derailed) by the interpolation of Poochie.
This episode led to the concept of what I (and others) have called the “Fireworks Factory" plot, wherein the story is set up for an audience to expect a certain kind of payoff or resolution, but which is either absent or significantly delayed because the story goes in a different direction.
Is a writer’s job always to give readers exactly what they’re expecting? No. There can be good and valuable reasons for playing with an audience’s expectations. That isn’t quite what I’m talking about here, however. In a Fireworks Factory plot, all the story elements have been pointing toward a necessary and significant catharsis, which is then not delivered. Instead, the story goes off in an unforeseen direction that pushes aside the very scene readers have been eagerly waiting for.

Here are a few examples of Fireworks Factory plots:

Pretties, by Scott Westerfeld
Around 2/3 of the way through this YA science-fiction novel, the protagonist, Tally Youngblood, is on a journey to reunite with her friends, who have been absent for the entire novel. On the way, she is waylaid and ends up hanging out with a bunch of characters who are basically Ewoks. She stays with them for a rather long time.

Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo
There are probably several in this 1200+ page novel, but I’ll highlight two. Early in the book, there is a lengthy description of the Battle of Waterloo. It goes on for close to a hundred pages, the last two pages of which are relevant to the plot of Les Mis­. Later, during the climax of the story, when Jean Valjean is carrying the wounded Marius through the sewer, Hugo breaks off to give you an unbelievably detailed history of the Paris sewer system. Seriously, it goes on longer than the Waterloo part does.

The Tree of Life
This film, directed by Terrence Malick, seems to be a simple drama about a family dealing with tragedy. Around half an hour into the movie, Malick breaks away from the family story to depict the creation and history of the universe. I think it’s a brilliant move (it mirrors God’s responses to Job in the Biblical story of Job in order to show the turmoil the mother character experiences), but I have heard that a lot of people left the theater at this point, screaming, “When are they getting back to the family?” They do get back to the family, although it does take a while.

Golden Sun: Dark Dawn
In this RPG video game for the Nintendo DS, the story kicks off with the heroes accidentally damaging a flying contraption and then setting off on a quest for a part they need to repair it. At the end of the game, they still have not fixed the darned flying machine. I’m not making this up. You go through half the game trying to find the part to fix it, and then once you finally find it, you never get to fix the thing.

The time-travel season of Lost

Again, having a Fireworks Factory sequence in a story isn’t automatically a bad thing. But it will disrupt the rhythm of the plots--might be want you're going for--and can potentially turn off readers--almost certainly not what you're going for--so if you’re going to do it, the payoff that results from the side-trip really needs to be worth it.