Thursday, October 27, 2011

Horton Hears A How

This is the first time this week I've had a chance to post, thanks in part to Michelle and Scott who have had some things to say this week. But I like to wish everyone a Happy Monday, and I haven't done that yet, so Happy Monday, everyone! It's also my brother's birthday today, so happy birthday to him! He's a great brother and I love him. He's one hundred and eleventy seven.

Scott talked about the focal points that he has been concentrating on in his writing and in my comment on Monday's blog post I talked about how my focus lately has been on surprising the reader. Well, that night, the real Monday night, not the faux Monday I'm pretending today is, I was reading a book about writing, and it happened to be a section on surprises, so I thought it was rather appropriate. Here are some quotes from John R. Trimble's Writing with Style:

"There is no deodorant like success," writes Elizabeth Taylor. We read that and stop in our tracks, smiling with amusement, perhaps even chuckling aloud. What captivates us? The answer is clear: the perfect freshness and whimsical aptness of the image.

Each time we write we have opportunities to delight our reader with arresting phrases like that one....Each of these authors instinctively understands one of the chief secrets of artful writing: you have to keep the reader in a state of near-perpetual surprise. Not suspense, but surprise....[Skilled writers are] constantly feeding our appetite for novelty, be it with a fresh idea, a fresh phrase, or a fresh image....I think you might find it instructive to listen to a few professionals talk about their art. The agreement among them is remarkable. Here, first, is master storyteller Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss):

We throw in as many fresh words as we can get away with. Simple, short sentences don't always work. You have to do tricks with pacing, alternate long sentences with short, to keep it alive and vital. Virtually every page is a cliff-hanger--you've got to force them to turn it.

Next, science fiction writer Ray Bradbury:

Creativity is continual surprise.

There's more to this, and I really didn't do Trimble's writing justice with my ellipses, but I hope you get the point.

The idea of surprising the reader like this is really intriguing me because I discovered the technique by accident. I was in Paris at the time, and I was doing a lot of experimental writing--experimental for me anyway. I wrote this story called "Red Man, Blue Man," and only later did I realize that the thing that propelled that story forward was me constantly trying to surprise the reader. As I see that story, every section is my attempt to keep the reader guessing about what the heck will happen next, but in the context of this weird premise that I said up. So, I have lines like:

The furniture also seemed to have grown accustomed to the men, because their painted thighs--bare except for the bands that kept their phallocrypts in place--no longer left colored smudges on the plush leather chairs.

In that sentence I tried to surprise the reader by starting from the POV of the furniture, by having the word "phallocrypts" casually tucked in there, by not explaining what phallocrypts are, and by going back to a fairly boring details with the plush leather chairs. The next paragraph gets intentionally mundane:

That year, March was a particularly busy month. Municipal Services claimed six city blocks for the construction of a water sanitation plant.

I went that direction to sort of force reality back into the story after the oddness of the first paragraph. Again, I was trying to keep my readers surprised. Most of that story works like that. It's odd and then mundane, odd and then mundane, and I think that's the only thing that makes that story hold together. It's strange to me because, in one sense, it doesn't feel as heartfelt as other stories in my collection feel. (Some of the other ones are deeply personal and that makes me like them in a different way.) At the same time, of all the stories in the collection, I've probably had more people tell me that this one is their favorite. And I have a feeling it's because they were surprised by it. Maybe I'm wrong.

I'm using a similar approach with Cyberlama now and I'm really having a good time with it. I get to use a lot of the mundane details of working in a science lab and throw them together with the Dalai Lama and these people who have lived for a few hundred years. It's a perfect space for me to get odd and then normal and then odd and then normal. That's sort of how I am.

Like what Scott and Michelle have been talking about, this idea of surprise is just what I happen to be fixated on at the moment. The fact that Dr. Seuss agrees with me is pretty cool, though, I must say.

And, even though today is Monday, tomorrow can still be Friday. You're welcome.


  1. Red Man/Blue Man is fabulous because the story's tone of magical tenderness. It's full of nameless and inconsolable longing, which I think you achieve by allowing the reader to wish that the Red and Blue men will find happiness in a world clearly different from their own. Or at least I think that's how it works on one level. The ending is amazin. But now I have to go back and look for the technique you're bragging about.

    This idea of constant surprise is becoming more important to me. I'm worried lately that my stories do all the things a reader expects a story to do, at all the right times, and I am therefore not exercising my imagination hard enough to go beyond the expected framework of a story. I'm clever with language, but I don't have the surprising things with plot and character that you do. My fiction is always much more straightforward than I wish it was, even when I think I'm going completely over the top.

    Happy Monday! Though my calendar says this is Tolsday.

  2. Scott, when I read your work I do feel a sense of surprise. It comes in, for me, when you write these details that make me realize how much more of your created world you are able to see compared to how much of my created world I'm able to see. I'm also surprised by how your stories end.

  3. I try to incorporate clever surprises into my stories. My big challenge is not to rush things. I've had characters go through changes too suddenly, and in revisions have had to spend time trying to build proper motivations in as precursors so the change is more believable in the context of the story.

    In THE MAN IN THE CINDER CLOUDS there is one significant event (i.e. the lump of coal) I thought would be obvious, but I've had several people tell me they didn't see it coming. That surprises me.

  4. Rick, the coal was really cool. It was a surprise to me in the very best sense of the word. I knew that something was coming, but I didn't know what. At the same time it totally fit in with the direction of the story up to that point.

  5. Davin, I love this post! I remember I did a post about the mundane once, and I think it was something about making the mundane surprising. I can't remember. I love sticking two unlikely things together in my stories, and I think that pulls people in. I also like the idea of surprising the reader outside of plot. I think a lot of people might think surprising means plot-only.

  6. I don't know if you've read any Peter Mayle or not, but he has "surprise" in his writing. His turn of phrase (like the quote from Ms. Taylor) takes my breath away. From the mundane to the "surprise", I shake my head and say, "damn, I wish I could think of stuff like that." And sometimes I can, but I'm not that good at it yet. I think it takes a lot of practice.

    And Happy Friday to you.

  7. "It's odd and then mundane, odd and then mundane, and I think that's the only thing that makes that story hold together."

    I disagree with this assessment of the appeal of the Red Man, Blue Man storey Domy. This is one of the stories that has completely stuck with me, and I believe it is the humanistic quality that makes this one of my favorites from the collection.

    Yes, there is something odd, then something mundane. But the story is told with many layers; the oddity of the men, their comfortable companionship, the acceptance of the attorney's. Then things start to change; subte at first, but slowly the ONE thing affects everyone, and then there is no uniqueness.

    Hmm, maybe that is the same as the odd, mundane concept. What I loved about the story was the loss of that uniqueness; how one small change could escalate and affect so many people, without changing the essence of the event itself.

    I work in a county agency, and yeah, sometimes it only takes the change in one employee to affect the entire unit either positively, or negatively. You can get used to anything in a relatively short time; but when that specialness disappears, it can be as devastating to the work environment as it is to the personal life.

    See, this is why I hated english and creative writing classes - I don't want to analyze WHY a story appealed to me; I just want to enjoy it for the meaning it had for me :)

    I'm glad to know other readers found Red Man, Blue Man possibly more appealing than The Burning Girl. The Burning Girl was evocative, but too abstract for my tastes (not that it wasn't very well written . .) LOL; I could go on for hours comparing each story to the next. You've talked me into getting to that book review in the next month :)


  8. I didn't read the comments before I made my response but I realize I didn't address the idea of surprise . .

    Rick: for me, the idea of "surprise" in Man In The Cinder clouds was in the way you managed to insert all the common Santa myths within a totally unique version of the story. I'd be reading along, even knowing where the story needed to go, and then be "surprised" by the appearance of each element. It felt the natural spot for each revelation. Each layer built well into the overall story concept. It wasn't a "shock" or "bomb shell" moment; just an "ah yes, that totally works for me" type surprise.

    Anne: In Who Are You, I think you did an excellent job on the "surprise". Again, a layered story, told in concise segments snapshots that gave a little more depth to the story with each progressive scene. I wasn't "shocked" by the disclosures, but but surprised by the turns the story took, all the way to the end. (I think "shock value" is different than a surprise that the reader can say "yeah it was going that direction, I was just too involved in the story to see it.")

    This is my definition of literary writing; where the story isn't teasing the reader with misconceptions; the story follows a certain train of thought thru the whole telling; it just took the ending for the reader to say, "ahh" and tie it all together.

    I like how you portray the concept of surprise in a story Domey. It seems a natural part of the theme, not something deliberately meant to shock the reader, but just enough mystery to keep reading along to see how it all turns out.

    And now I'll be looking for this theme in my own writing . .


  9. This is such great advice, and a writing tip I'd never heard before. We could all become better writers just by doing this one thing: revising our scenes for surprise. Thank you!

  10. To build on Donna's comment on change in Red Man, Blue Man, the way I see it in that story is that the odd/mundane oscillation is the way change in that story is propagated. Like, if changes spread out through the characters and plot like ripples on the surface of a pond when a stone falls in, then the expressions of oddness are the peaks, and the mundane elements are the troughs.

    Incidentally, when I think about a story in those terms (that is, the way changes spread out), I find it very helpful to think in terms of Scott's unitary "narrative" concept, instead of isolating elements like plot and character. So thanks, Scott, for opening up my thinking about story.

    And thanks to Davin, for Red Man, Blue Man.

  11. In a totally different vein, did you know they are going to make a movie of the life of Dr. Seuss? Johnny Depp is going to portray the good doctor.

  12. Michelle, Yeah, "surprise" is such a vague term, really, and I don't want people to think that I'm talking about a twist ending--although I did rather like the Sixth Sense. I've never been good at writing twist endings that don't make readers mad at me.

    Anne, I guess now I can say Happy Friday back to you and not confuse myself. I've never heard of Mayle, but he writes about France, and given what you say, I must check him out!

    Donna, well, thank you so much for giving me your thoughts on a couple of my stories! I really appreciate it. And, it's true that the contrast in Red Man, Blue Man ends up blurring by the end. There was a progression there that I arrived at as a result of the opposites that I set up in the begin, purely by accident.

  13. Gail, I do hope this is helpful. I was surprised to come across it in my book because it seems like a small thing that maybe only I was interested in.

    Jabez, what you say is starting to make sense to me, thanks to your and Donna's comments. That contrast and oscillation was what gave the story movement, I think, and that ended up being the force that got the story to its end. And I think the oscillations got weaker as the story went on and that made it become more unified maybe.

    Chuck, I didn't know about the movie. I'll need to find out more about it. I don't know much at all about Seuss' life, actually. He seems like a really smart and cool person to me, but maybe I'm wrong!

  14. Everyone,
    Thank you for your comments on this post. They were very educational for me!


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