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.