Lance Olsen’s “Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing”

Yeah…well…I’m at a point in my writing career where I know I can write better and am actively looking for something to show me the way.

Sadly, this book wasn’t it. For all the philosophizing and too-long monologues about which authors are unique and why, it pretty much comes down to what I wrote about re The Almanac of the Dead – truly experimental writing is favored by those who want to be experimented upon. The experimental writing examples given in the book don’t seem that experimental to me or are so…experimental(?)…that only an…experimental(?)…person might enjoy them.

Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing taught me many things and mostly about myself.

Learning about one’s self is often the beginning of wisdom. Time will decide if that’s the case here.

One thing I learned is I’ll probably not be an innovative writer as far as Lance Olsen is concerned.

Consider some of his examples of innovative writing:

Shelley Jackson re-conceptualizes the page as human flesh in “The Skin Project”, a 2095-word story published exclusively in tattoos, one word at a time, on the skin of volunteers, while Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv’s “Text Rain” transforms the page into a three-dimensional room you can inhabit-i.e., an interactive installation in which participants lift and play with falling letters that appear to exist all around them. Participants stand or move in front of a large screen, on which they see a projection of themselves in black and white combined with a color animation of the alphabet tumbling through space that seems to land on their heads, arms, outstretched legs. In”The Xenotext Experiment”, Christian Bök (in collaboration with Stuart Kauffman) undertakes what he calls “a literary exercise that explores the aesthetic potential of genetics in the modern milieu” by literalizing William S. Burroughs’ assertion that language is a virus from outer space, Bök encodes a short verse into a sequence of DNA and then implants that sequence into a bacterium to observe its mutations. To put it differently, he uses a primitive bacterium as a writing machine. His wish is to rocket the organic result into outer space some day, thereby sending language back where it came from while creating an ever-changing poem that would outlive, not only the works of Homer, Shakespeare, and Joyce, but earth, the solar system, and the entire galaxy as well.

Not my idea of a good bedtime read, that.

Not my idea of a good any time read, that.

What’s most amusing (to me) is that, when all the “Oh My!”s are out of the way, the writing advice is the same I’ve encountered in far more accessible volumes. There are some gems in here, yes, and that’s the case with any writing text I’ve read.

But on the whole? Far too much effort for far too little reward.

So perhaps that’s my lesson? I know how to write well, simply write well better.
And I am aware what suits me may not suit you, so decide on your own.

StoryCrafting and StoryTelling

“Interesting” is subjective. What doesn’t interest some people may excite others. 🙂

I take part in book review groups – you review mine, I’ll review yours – and I let people know going in I’m a tough reviewer.

The reason I’m a tough reviewer is fairly simple: I review books based on an author’s storycrafting and storytelling skills, not a book or story’s genre.

…good writing is good writing is good writing.

I’ve reviewed romance, poetry, chicklit, adventure, MG, and early readers, along with sf/f/h, and regardless of genre good writing is good writing is good writing.

Likewise, sometimes a writer is incompetent and their work sucks.

Storytelling – does the author have an interesting story to tell? Storycrafting – does the author tell the story in an interesting way?

For me, it comes down to storycrafting and storytelling. Storytelling – does the author have an interesting story to tell? Storycrafting – does the author tell the story in an interesting way?

Someone can have an amazing story to tell and do it poorly, kind of like a college prof who’s expert in their field and boring as heck in the lecture hall. That’s good story to tell told poorly. The prof who isn’t expert in their field and keeps the students interested has craft but no story.

Then there’s Door #3 – The prof who is both expert in their field and keeps the students interested, enthused about the subject and wanting to know more has both crafting and telling down cold. This is where you want to be if you want to be (in my opinion) an author worth reading.

The statement “What’s interesting is subjective” is true to a point. But yell Fire! or Rape! or Gun! and you’ll get people’s attention because some things aren’t subjective. Get someone’s attention first, they’ll decide if what got their attention is interesting enough to keep their attention.

But the key is getting their attention first, and that is done through good to excellent storycrafting and storytelling skills (and if you’re wondering what gives me the right to talk about such things, take a look at my patents and/or read Reading Virtual Minds Volume I: Science and History).

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Great Opening Lines – and Why! (January 2023’s Great Opening Lines)

I wrote in Great Opening Lines – and Why! (Part 3 – Some Great Opening Lines) that I’d share more great opening lines as I found them.

My last entry in this category was October 2022’s Great Opening Lines – and Why! (October 2022’s Great Opening Lines) which covered Linda Koerber’s Coyote’s Road Trip. This entry in the Great Opening Lines – And Why! posts is Lidia Yuknavitch’s‘s The Chronology of Water.
Continue reading “Great Opening Lines – and Why! (January 2023’s Great Opening Lines)”

Writing and Reading Rhythms

Listening to Pitjantjatjara elders’ stories as they escort you through their memories, one is aware of three rhythms working together; the rhythm of the story, the rhythm of their movement, and the rhythm of time passing.

I mention writing and reading rhythms in Toing and Froing Again Parts 2 and 3 and mentioned in other posts readers often tell me my writing pulls them along, that reading my work is effortless because it flows. First reader and critique group comments are often along the lines of “These lines flow so well and are easy to picture.” with criticisms along the lines of “this part broke the flow of the scene for me.”

There’s (hopefully) no effort reading my work because I write to a rhythm which is what readers describe as “flow.” That rhythm depends on the work itself. Some pieces are meant to be read at a quick march, some at a slow waltz, some are jive, some are tango. I work at creating a rhythm that non-consciously catches the reader and propels them through whatever they’re reading.

To do that properly – and this is key – I need to write to a rhythm. My writing rhythm differs from the reading rhythm in beats (in music, per minute. In writing, per line, paragraph, scene, …), not in time signature (in music, 2/3, 3/4, 7/8. In writing, which beats are emphasized. Study the music of James Brown. He mastered playing to the beat). Most writers/authors change time signatures via chapter breaks, scene breaks, page breaks, et cetera. Ever write an action scene and have a character pause at the end? Congrats, you’ve changed the time signature. Does the pause carry a different number of beats than the action sequence? Probably better if you have a complete break.

Writing and reading rhythms differ because I compose more slowly than I play. Two things one learns in music – sight-reading and improvisation – come in writing and usually after lots of practice (for me, anyway).

Sight-reading occurs when I write to an outline; all the pieces are there and I’m adding the flourish, the emotion, essentially turning the outline into a story. Improvisation happens when I have the basic idea and I sit down and write without an outline. The two are the dividing line between pantsers and plotters. Sight-reading is plotting and improvisation is pantsing.

Consider the following from Writing Realistic Hand-to-Hand Combat Scenes

Ellie blocked Earl’s left with her right. She locked his wrist and elbow against her abdomen. Her elbow smashed his ribs. He coughed up blood. A hammerfist to the groin doubled him over. A front knee strike shattered his jaw. He fell and she released his arm. He wasn’t getting up again.

Pay attention to how you read that excerpt and you may notice a change when you hit “He wasn’t getting up again.” I changed the time signature so the reader could catch their breath after an action sequence. I do such things because I want the reader to relate strongly to the character. If the character can relax, I want the reader to do the same.

…the same rhythm can be used when switching from a humor scene to an action scene. Often it’s required for the reader to keep moving through the story.

However, I can’t write at a tango rhythm if I want the reader to move at a jive rhythm. I can slow the jive down but too much and it’s no longer jive, it’s jibberish.

Take another look at the Writing Realistic Hand-to-Hand Combat Scenes excerpt:

  • Ellie blocked… – Strong simple past tense verb two beats in (second word in sentence)
  • She locked… – Ditto
  • Her elbow smashed… – Strong simple past tense verb three beats in
  • A hammerfist to the groin doubled… – Strong simple past tense verb six beats in
  • A front knee strike shattered… – Strong simple past tense verb five beats in
  • He fell and she released… – Ditto
  • He wasn’t getting up… – Weak, past continuous (or past progressive) tense taking up three beats.

Chart this and you get

Have you ever listened to some music and things suddenly get more intense, more lively, perhaps louder, and next there’s a sudden quiet or slowing down or change in the chord structure? That’s what you’re seeing in the chart above, a kind of crescendo in the writing and done with language instead of music. That sudden drop at the end is the diminuendo and due to a change in verb tense, hence authorial voice, and signals an end to the scene therefore a scene break (as written it would be a good cliff-hanger chapter break, too. Always leave ’em wanting more).

Always leave them wanting more. – P.T. Barnum (maybe)

The crossovers between music and writing, writing and photography, dance and writing, … are too numerous to elaborate here. Ask me about them if we’re together in a writing class.

In the meantime, study different disciplines to strengthen your writing. I study photography to learn how to put scenes together. I study acting to learn how to show emotion. I study music to learn how to pace my work. I study artwork to learn how to draw readers’ attention where I want it.

And always practice practice Practice!

Toing and Froing Again, Part 3

This is the final post in this Toing and Froing arc. The genesis of this arc came from my fouling up The Alibi chapter 3 (my current work in progress.

Toing and Froing occurs when the writer/author has their characters move around or do things for no real story purpose; there’s no character development, no character revelation, the atmosphere doesn’t change, no plot elements are furthered or revealed, the movement is irrelevant to any established or impending plot points, the movement is unnecessary to the dialogue, et cetera.

I ended Toing and Froing Again, Part 2 talking about writing and reading rhythms (and I’ll return to those at some point). This post talks about recognizing the problem and coming up with a solution.

The Problem and a Solution
Here’s what I wrote:

The Boston Incident Center’s operations operator routed the call to every city service in a twenty block radius of AirCon’s building. Every mobile in the station went off simultaneously.
Marete came out of his office. “Who’s in the field?”
Senior Ops put a feed on the office’s main. “Looks like some kid’s streaming from his drone.”
Cranston plopped into his seat. “Yeah, I guess this is me.”
Marete pointed to the door. “Take Rhinehold with you.”
Rhinehold, seated next to Cranston’s desk to finish setting up the atricial, spun his chair to face Marete. “What did I do?”
Cranston gathered his notebook and pen. “You wanted fun. You got fun.”
Rhinehold frowned “You don’t use a tablet?”
Cranston paid no attention.
Rhinehold lifted his backpack over his shoulder. “No worries. I have mine.”

What follows would be my comments if the above material came to me in a critique group:

  • The Boston Incident Center’s operations operator routed the call to every city service in a twenty block radius of AirCon’s building. – acceptable but wordy. “operations operator” doesn’t need to be in that sentence. Unless there’s a need for this character to appear in the story again, it doesn’t even count as stage direction and you can get rid of it.
  • Every mobile in the station went off simultaneously. – again acceptable and weak. The chapter opening deals with a police station’s response to a bomb blast. You want the reader caught in the action and moving forward. The characters are pumping adrenaline so the reader should be, too. This sentence has no real action hence no forward momentum as written.
  • Marete came out of his office. – obvious Toing and Froing and necessary as it tells the reader who’s doing what, as in attribution via action. And yet with all that going for it, it’s static. It doesn’t move the reader forward.
  • “Who’s in the field?” – Nice, short dialogue and fitting with the action of the scene, and ditto.
  • Senior Ops put a feed on the office’s main. – Way over the top Toing and Froing. What’s the purpose of this sentence? What does it provide the reader? All it does it take the reader off the main and primary characters by introducing an irrelevant stage direction character. Get rid of it.
  • “Looks like some kid’s streaming from his drone.” – Expected and doesn’t move the reader forward.
  • Cranston plopped into his seat. – You can almost feel the oars moving in their locks as the boat to’s and fro’s, can’t you?
  • “Yeah, I guess this is me.” – ditto.
  • Marete pointed to the door. – ditto and, at this point, who friggen cares?
  • “Take Rhinehold with you.” – static and di-di-di-ditto.
  • Rhinehold, seated next to Cranston’s desk to finish setting up the atricial, spun his chair to face Marete. – does nothing except (literally) place him in the scene.
  • “What did I do?” – I think I was so bored writing at this point I attempted humor.
    I failed.
    PS) Another personal clue to me I’m Toing and Froing is when I attempt to put humor into an otherwise humorless scene or have it come out of the mouths of previously humorless characters.
  • Cranston gathered his notebook and pen. – Pure toing and froing because he gathers them. So what?
  • “You wanted fun. You got fun.” – more botched humor.
  • Rhinehold frowned. – Exactly what I talked about in the Attribution via Action post.
  • “You don’t use a tablet?” – Basically okay as exposition and character development via dialogue, and there’s no real need to bash the reader over the head with it.
  • Cranston paid no attention. – the reader’s not paying attention, why should Cranston?
  • Rhinehold lifted his backpack over his shoulder. – As with Cranston gathering his notebook and pen, so what?
  • “No worries. I have mine.” – Wasted unless it points to something coming later in the story (as in foreshadowing).

At this point remember that criticism without solution is worthless. Anybody can spot problems, not everybody can come up with workable solutions.

Here’s what I came up with as an alternative followed by the reasons this rewrite removes Toing and Froing, strengthens the story, and keeps the reader moving forward (and note, I offer this is better, not brilliant):

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Final thoughts
This kind of critique is what a good critique group will give you. If your critique group isn’t constantly working to improve your writing, find another. Does it need to be this thorough?

I’ll say yes, it does, and also appreciate not a lot of critique groups will go to this level. I also appreciate not everyone wants this level of analysis, and recognize this level of analysis can be devastating if not offered well. I wouldn’t offer this to a newbie unless it’s obvious they can separate themselves from their work and recognize I’m commenting on their work, not them (watch my interview for more on this).

Should you need it or want it, I do offer this level of critique and also writer/author mentoring.