Monthly Archives: August 2013

Giving other writers a hand

Some of you may have already come across the wonderfully pithy and inspiring “Hand in Hand” photo gallery put together by the Wofford College Shared Worlds writing workshop this summer (a writing program for teens interested in speculative fiction). It’s a collection of photos of writing advice inscribed on the hands of various professional speculative fiction writers.

The entire gallery is worth checking out. Here are a few of my favorites:

Neil Gaiman

David Drake

Lev Grossman

Joe Haldeman

Karen Tidbeck

Go check out the whole gallery and share your own favorites in the comments.

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The Places that Shape Us

By Jocelyn Nash Carlin

This past week I had the opportunity to revisit many places from my past. My parents, after 32 years, are moving out of the home they raised me in and down-sizing their way into a town home in a retirement community. They live one sate away, and I drove with the whole family out to see the home one more time and to help them pack their three decades of accumulated stuff into boxes to prepare for the movers. My home town looks very much the same if you stay in the neighborhood of my childhood. The houses haven’t changed much – some are in need of repair, others have been well-maintained and updated. Some of the yards are well-kept, others less so. But the same was true during my youth. The only major change is that the trees are taller and there are a few extra cracks in the sidewalks. On the other hand, as I drove further afield, I noticed more and more changes. Old shops ripped down and replaced with new. Once-empty fields now filled to the brim with housing tracts. Bright new storefronts and restaurants. Even my old middle school had been completely demolished and replaced with a new building. The place I grew up in had continued to grow and change without me, as if it had a life of its own. It was more than a little disorienting.

Then, on the way home from our visit, we took a detour to the town my father grew up in, to see the old farmhouse once owned by my paternal grandparents. They’ve been gone for about six years now, and my uncle owns the house. I haven’t been back since he and my father decided to subdivide the old farm and turn it into housing lots. The house looks the same on the outside – the same red brick, surrounded by tall trees. The towering catalpa still casts shade over the driveway with it’s dinner-plate sized leaves, the old root cellar resting a few yards behind it. But the familiar fences and outbuildings of the old farm are long gone. Where once stood an old barn and granary there is now a row of ranch-style stucco-coated homes with SUVs parked in front drives and swing sets and propane grills standing in the back. The old bull-pen has been replaced by a street, and a round-about sits right about where another old shed once resided. The reality of progress has washed away the places of my memories, leaving only ghosts behind.

This nostalgia-filled journey got me thinking about just how much our sense of place informs our writing. I can set a story in a city, or a forest, or a frozen waste, or on a space-faring vessel, but in the back of my mind I see rolling fields and distant mountains – gullies lined with scrub and cottonwood – housing tracts and hay pastures standing side by side. Just how much of that makes its way into my writing? How does it inform the way I conceive the worlds I create?

In his study of the Apache sense of place, Wisdom Sits in Places, anthropologist Keith Basso writes:

“…places are perceived in terms of their outward aspect – as being on their manifest surfaces, the familiar places they are – and unless something happens to dislodge these perceptions they are left, as it were, to their own enduring devices. But then something does happen. Perhaps one spots a freshly fallen tree, or a bit of flaking paint, or a house where none has stood before – any disturbance, large or small, that inscribes the passage of time – and a place presents itself as bearing on prior events. And at the precise moment, when ordinary perceptions begin to loosen their hold, a border has been crossed and the country starts to change. Awareness has shifted its footing, and the character of the place, now transfigured by thoughts of an earlier day, swiftly takes on a new and foreign look.”

I’ve been seeing the places of my past as colored by this new and foreign look all week long. It makes me wonder how that disorientation of past memories colliding with present realities impacted Gimli when he stepped inside the mines of Moria, or how different Green Gables seemed to Anne when she returned from college with a new perspective, or how difficult it must have been for Odysseus to get used to his home after being away for so very long.

The interplay of one’s memories of a place with the alterations left by the passage of time is fertile ground for exploration in our writing. Now that I’ve had a taste of it in my own life it’s definitely something I’ll spend more time thinking about as I write.


Call it Instinct

Most authors don’t think about poetry when they’re writing, but they’re well aware of the flow of words, how the words will sound and the rhythm behind them. A battle scene uses smaller, focused words. A love scene (usually) uses softer, smoother words.

For most people the rhythm of language is instinctive. We use it all the time in conversation, in e-mails, in other forms of writing, but for some reason when we sit down to write we think that we need something different.

We don’t. Think of the last argument you had. Did you stop to think about how to make the words flow? I doubt it. And yet the argument moved without a hitch. If you have an argument between characters it’s going to flow in a similar way, with similar words and emotions.

I doubt that you took time to elucidate the abstract considerations of the debate or describe the color of the walls. Um…no. So in writing an argument, description comes far down the list–unless the argument is about the color of the paint, your characters are not going to notice. Nor will your readers, if the scene is constructed properly.

When I think of a battle, I’m thinking lunge, thrust, crunch, dart. Single syllable words that make the reader move faster through my prose. Short, punchy sentences because the scene is moving fast in my head.

In an emotional scene I don’t necessarily want the words to flow faster–I want to give my readers time to absorb what is happening, to experience it. So I choose words and structure sentences that will create a setting and a mood–far more setting and mood than I would use in the battle scene.

People in a battle are going to be paying more attention to their footing and avoiding that sword than to the color of the sky or the fact that their father is missing. Those are considerations for after the action.

You really don’t want people getting lost in your lyrical prose while a sword is swinging toward your MC’s head. You also don’t want your readers speeding through an emotional goodbye scene.

Pacing, rhythm and flow are mostly about scene logic–they should be instinctive. Just like a conversation, if we choose the correct words and structure we’ll end up with a scene that flows and leads readers through to the next, without drawing attention to the fact that it was carefully constructed to do so.