September 30, 2016

Build Your Own Religion

The last several examples of my childhood writing were from the many Steno notebooks I kept through high school and into college, so let's mix things up and check out some schoolwork.

As mentioned in an earlier entry, I got my first Macintosh during high school, and amazingly, most of the work written on that computer still survives. Yes, for 25 years, I've preserved my documents across computers and operating system upgrades so I can subject you to them today. In order to give you a full understanding of my sacrifice before you express your gratitude, I'll mention that a couple of years ago I realized I was on the verge of losing the ability to open files created in obsolete word processing programs, and I tediously converted them one at a time to a readable format. You're welcome.

Anyway, as mentioned in a different earlier entry, I thought a lot about religion and my lack of it during my teen years, so it's not surprising I took a class in World Religions as a senior. (Another important factor was that one of my favorite teachers taught this elective.) The class gave me an opportunity to submit some creative writing, though I'm not sure how many of the assignments were intended to take the form of stories.

In a previous class, I'd hit upon the idea of writing imagined dialogues with historical figures, and rejecting the usual essay structure earned praise from that teacher, so I milked the format again for a paper entitled "Hinduism Evaluation":

Lisa entered the temple in search of answers. "What is real?" she asked Krishna.

"Brahman is real," responded Krishna.

"But what is Brahman?" Lisa asked.

"Brahman is infinite," said Krishna. "Brahman is sat, chit, and ananda; that is to say being, awareness, and bliss. And Brahman is infinite in all these things."

"So Brahman is everything?"

"No. Brahman is not everything. Anything you can conceive is not Brahman."

"So then what is Brahman?"

Krishna pointed at a stone. "Neti," he said. "Not this. Brahman is not this stone." He pointed at a piece of wood. "Neti." He continued in this manner until Lisa motioned him to stop.

And so on, with Krishna explaining all the principles of Hinduism that I was presumably supposed to demonstrate familiarity with. I remembered none of it, so reading this paper was quite enlightening, as it were.

I don't recall the assignment for a file labeled "Build Your Own Religion". I'll speculate that at the end of the course, we were asked to construct a set of beliefs that a culture might develop. Whatever the expectation, I resorted to the power of fiction again and turned in this story:

One Who Dared To Question

[Note: It must be understood that words such as "spouse", "widow", and "All-Spirit" are merely the best English equivalents of terms which can be only roughly translated.]

In the beginning there was light and dark, sun and moon, earth and water, wind and rain, winter and summer, plants and animals.

There were people. They lived among the trees in huts made of branches and leaves. They drank water from the stream, gathered roots and berries, and hunted deer and rabbit with spears. They made tools from sticks and sharpened stones, cooked meat over open fires, and wore skins to keep warm in cold weather. They spoke to one another in words and drew pictures on stones.

Children were born and grew up in their parents' huts. They were taught the history and culture of the tribe by the widows. They learned from their parents and from the other parents how to gather, hunt, and cook. When children grew into men and women, they chose spouses and moved into huts with their partners. Soon, new children were born. Adults died, and sometimes children did, too. The tribe grew ever larger, and its members thanked the All-Spirit daily for their prosperity.

Owwoo was named for the sound the of the wolves howling at the full moon. She was born fourteen summers ago, at night, during a full moon. Owwoo's birth heralded good fortune for herself and for the tribe: each summertime birth foretold a more successful gathering season, and one born under the full moon was destined to bear many children. Owwoo began bleeding last fall, and her flow, too, coincided with the full moon, like that of her mother. Yes, said the widows to one another, Owwoo would bring times of much fertility to the tribe.

Now that Owwoo's body had changed, she was a woman, and it was time for her to move out of her parents' hut. Today was the day that she had decided to ask her closest friend Kaar to be her spouse. She had played with Kaar since they were very young, and lately they had talked together often about their futures, the tribal customs, and the All-Spirit.

September 16, 2016

Double Revision

After a wonderfully hectic summer filled with great visits to and from family members, I'm happy to be immersed in writing again this month. I'm enjoying having plenty of uninterrupted time to write, and I'm excited about moving forward on projects with some new goals and motivations.

Recently I received some very helpful advice and encouragement about THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, and that's inspired me to embark on yet another revision. The focus of my previous revision was shortening the manuscript, and I cut over 20% while keeping the plot more or less the same. This time, I have suggestions and ideas about improving some parts of the story that aren't as strong as the rest. I'm planning to add new elements and remove others that aren't working, ideally while keeping the length about the same, which I'm sure will require further use of the compactness techniques I relied on last time.

I started off by rereading the manuscript, which I hadn't really looked at in more than a year. As always happens after time away, I saw plenty I wanted to change, but I was heartened by how much of the novel I was happy with. Before the last revision, my reread of the previous draft put me to sleep at points and left me wondering if gremlins had rewritten my sentences for incoherency. It was an enormous relief to not have a repeat of that experience and to confirm I'm actually making the book better with each edit. I was also pleased to notice that some of my thoughts about improving sentences and paragraphs came out of what I learned from the writing and critique in the class I just took.

I'm now on the next step of revision, the planning stage. I've written before (while in the middle of a still earlier, quite lengthy revision) about the value of planning and the danger it can morph into procrastination. I think I'm doing okay at the moment. I'm outlining the changes I want to make and trying to figure out the best options for the story. Some of my notes are lists of pros and cons for different plot directions. Some include comments like "but is it all just too ridiculously melodramatic?" and "this needs to conclude whatever the conclusion turns out to be". It's a process. I'm making good headway, and the plan is gradually coming together.

I don't think I've blogged at all about the writing software Scrivener, which I began using a couple of years ago, I believe when I was preparing for the previous revision. It's a powerful application with a lot of features, and I'm starting to use more of these than I had before, though nowhere near all of them. Maybe later I'll write about my Scrivener techniques, but for now, here's a screenshot from my revision planning:

September 1, 2016

August Reading Recap

I got the pleasant surprise of reading all my remaining anticipated reads of the season last month, even though one wasn't supposed to be released for a couple more weeks, because Oprah picked THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD for her book club. I was also pleased, but not surprised, to find that these anticipated books were all excellent!

ENTER TITLE HERE by Rahul Kanakia: Reshma Kapoor publishes an op-ed about her Silicon Valley high school that catches the notice of a literary agent, who asks if she's thought of writing a novel. Realizing a book deal would look amazing on college applications, Reshma replies to say she's almost finished a young adult novel. In fact, she hasn't started or even imagined writing a book, and she considers fiction a waste of time that could be spent studying, but she'll do anything to gain admission to Stanford. Reshma begins writing her novel, and to keep things simple, she makes herself the protagonist. Since her life of constant studying won't produce a good story, she decides to win friends, find a boyfriend, and undergo a transformation to complete her character arc. None of this goes as smoothly as anticipated, but Reshma is skilled at manipulating people to get ahead. When circumstances at school threaten her chances at Stanford, she incorporates the obstacles into her plot and sets out to overcome them by doing whatever it takes.

Reshma is a fascinating and infuriating character. She recognizes that she's not a nice, good, or kind person, but she doesn't have the self-awareness to realize that she's not always in the right. The shameless way she maneuvers and connives through the world is a propulsive force that kept me reading with gasps and laughter. Reshma's insecurity and anxiety occasionally broke through and allowed me to feel sorry for her, but I appreciated how much Kanakia was willing to make the character despicable.

The meta structure of this novel is a tricky conceit, and I can imagine many ways it might have gone wrong instead of succeeding as cleverly as it does in ENTER TITLE HERE. So much about this book is original and unexpected, and all of it is well-written and compelling. As a bonus, the hardcover looks great, with an eye-catching cover and another hiding beneath the dust jacket. I recommend picking up a copy!

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead is mesmerizing in several ways. The story of Cora's escape from slavery on a Georgia plantation is packed with danger, and the suspense of the plot kept me engrossed. Whitehead draws the reader in with sentences that are perfectly crafted but not showy: "George sawed with his fiddle, the notes swirling up into night like sparks gusted from a fire." Most powerfully, the world of the story blends the harsh reality of pre-Civil War America with invented elements presented with such authority that I frequently double-checked the facts of history.

The novel's core departure is the underground railroad itself, an actual system of trains operating in tunnels hidden beneath the ground. The railroad plays a smaller role in the story than I expected but establishes the concept of the not-quite-real. In each U.S. state that Cora visits on her journey out of slavery, she encounters a different form of oppression. While most of these societal practices and policies didn't literally exist as portrayed, they depict truths about the racism of our nation's past and present.

The nature of the subject matter means this book is not a pleasant or easy read, but I'm glad I spent time within its pages. This is a story that will stay with me.

GHOST TALKERS by Mary Robinette Kowal starts with a clever premise, fully develops a world in which this intriguing idea can exist, and sends great characters on a thrilling, suspenseful adventure through that world. In other words, the novel delivers everything I've come to expect from Kowal's writing.

Ginger is an American medium working with the British Army during World War I as part of the women-run Spirit Corps, a crucial branch of military intelligence. She and the other mediums take reports from soldiers who have just died in battle. It's exhausting, risky work, made more difficult by the army's sexist policies and attitudes. When the spirit program works correctly, ghosts are able to serve their country a final time by providing information about enemy positions that can be sent to the battlefield immediately. Unfortunately, the Germans are starting to figure out how the Spirit Corps operates, and they're doing all they can to sabotage the program. Ginger, her colleagues, and everything they've worked for are in danger unless she can discover the traitor who's passing secrets to the enemy.

Since this is a book about World War I, with an explicit focus on ghosts, there's a lot of death and sadness, and I teared up during the majority of the chapters. The tragedy is balanced out by the gripping mystery and fast-paced adventure, plus well-placed moments of humor and levity, so this ends up being pretty fun for a war story.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Alison Flood reports for The Guardian about an academic's discovery of significant differences between the US and UK versions of David Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS: "Mitchell himself explains the reasons for the discrepancies in an interview quoted in Eve's paper: they occurred because the manuscript of Cloud Atlas sat unedited for around three months in the US, after an editor there left Random House. Meanwhile in the UK, Mitchell and his editor and copy editor worked on the manuscript, but the changes were not passed on to the US." The paper by Martin Paul Eve is long but fascinating.