Writing Lessons from Reading: “Letters from Hades” by Jeffrey Thomas

Letters from Hades coverI found Letters from Hades by googling “novels set in hell.” You get a pretty good list that way. The story is presented as the journal of a man condemned to Hell for suicide. The journal itself is another condemned soul who has been formed into the cover of a book with an eye in its center. The eye sees and reacts to the action during the novel, which is just one of the interesting things Thomas brings to the tale.

I enjoyed this novel and I found some writing lessons, positive and negative, in its pages. Let’s get to them.

Use striking images. The novel begins with the line “On my fifth day in Hell, I found a praying mantis.” It’s an ordinary creature in a bizarre location, which grabs your attention. Thomas takes off from here with a description of his environs with sentences like “When the rain was over, the grounds of the university steamed with scarlet pools and there were even squirming, flopping eels and jellyfish in those pools that I realized were actually organs and entrails.” Vivid, eh? Notice how the description is packed with verbs and nouns.

Vividly imagine the setting and use it to support the story’s action. This lesson is an extension of the previous one. Regardless of where the protagonist wanders in this story, the setting is always played up, almost like a character itself. After his arrival in the city of Oblivion, the narrator describes a “…tower that seemed to support the molten sky like a column. Where most of the large skyscrapers had windows, housing either citizens or perhaps the Demonic class of Oblivion, this one had not a single pane, and its flanks were entirely formed of intricately woven black machinery heavily scabbed in corrosion like dried blood. Further, this machine building thrummed, gonged, chattered, whined, rang, chittered, hissed, rumbled, causing its immediate environs to vibrate. Steam billowed out of vents along its great height, curling like specters escaping from a gargantuan funereal obelisk.” This one building represents the oppressive feel of the entire city and the city itself lends its darkness to everything that happens there. You get the feeling that the things that happen there could happen nowhere else.

In a love relationship, try getting lovers from opposite sides. One of the best-known examples of this idea is “Romeo and Juliet,” I suppose. In Letters from Hades, the protagonist and a female demon named Chara fall in love and run away together. The fact that they are from such vastly different sides of the track and that most of the characters around them are against the relationship ratchets up the tension in the novel, so it keeps you turning pages.

In a first-person narrative, let the reader know the protagonist’s name. I wouldn’t call this a hard and fast rule—not that any of these are, of course—it’s just a touch I think enables the reader to connect with the lead character a little more. There’s no need to repeat it over and over—maybe just once or twice. It seems like this would help with verisimilitude, too—the lead is often in conversation—how likely is it nobody would ever say his name?

Avoid a flat narrative; be sure to have a beginning, middle and end, with a climax in there somewhere. The one objection I have to this novel is that there doesn’t seem to be any climax. It goes something like this: 1) Lead gets indoctrinated 2) Lead wanders, meets female demon 3) Lead goes to Oblivion City 4) Lead and demon fall in love 5) Things start to go badly in Oblivion City 6) Lead and demon escape Oblivion City and go elsewhere; the end. While this novel has several interesting points of conflict along the way, there’s never that big moment where everything is on the line, the situation looks hopeless for our hero, but then at the last instant, our hero prevails.

Jeffrey Thomas has written several novels, including Deadstock, which was a finalist for the John W. Campbell award and Monstrocity, a finalist for the Bram Stoker award. Clearly, the guy is no slouch. I learned a lot from reading Letters from Hades and I imagine I’ll be dipping into the J. Thomas canon in the future.

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Getting It Right Enough

Cat says "What absolute twaddle."I recently came upon a section, the first one featuring Tanya—waitress, shaman and romantic interest extraordinaire—as the viewpoint character, that I just couldn’t turn loose. I didn’t want to get wrapped up in making it perfect, but I needed it to be good enough to build more story on top of.

In seemed to me that most of the writers I’d read or heard from said that its best to forge onward, full steam ahead, no matter what. Roz Morris even advises leaving your typos to be corrected later on. Lawrence Block is the only writer I’ve heard that advocates getting it right, or at least as right as possible, the first time around.

I originally started the section with Tanya in her apartment, getting a visit for shamanic services from a timid little man named Mr. Thomas. Mr. Thomas had nothing to do with the story otherwise and was really only there to discover lead character Colin’s inert body in the bathtub, hopefully causing the reader to ask what happens next. The scene dragged on and I kept thinking, “Get to the bathroom already, you sap!” Besides that, I realized that if Mr. Thomas showed up in the story now, I was going to have to clean him up later on.

So I 86’d Mr. Thomas before finishing the section. On to round two.

With Thomas gone, now I could bring in Doc, a character who shows up in the first section, who interests me and who I know is going to figure into the greater scope of the novel. That felt better. I could delve into Doc’s character a bit and build a relationship between him and Tanya that would round out her character, too. I got further into the section, but stopped again before it was done. There was something wrong I couldn’t put my finger on at first, but at last my finger landed… in giant pile of twaddle.

The section was dripping with useless babble. My favorite example is a fairly lengthy description of a sort of river of light. That sounds a little cool, maybe, but then hippos and chimaeras and stuff start to float by in it and it’s just ridiculous. More important, it was completely unnecessary. I went back again, stripped out the twaddle and finished the section with Doc discovering the inert Colin. (Not dead, just inert—let’s be clear here.)

What with all this rewriting, I was fearing that was slipping back into my old habits of perfectionism, but after some reflection I had a little epiphany. I wasn’t worrying about the beauty of the writing or the typos or any of that while I was reworking, and that’s the kind of thing the writers I consulted warn about. Instead, I was solving a story problem, the kind of thing that’s sure to crop up again and again as I cobble together this novel. And I’ve even left the solution a bit clumsy—as I think the writing authorities would say I should—it will need plenty of polish later on.

Now I can move on with the story feeling like I’m building on a solid foundation, because I didn’t get the section just right, I just got it right enough.

Writing Lessons from Reading: “Inferno” and “Escape from Hell” by Niven and Pournelle

It’s a good thing I decided to check out some other novels set in Hell as I started writing Thin Spots, otherwise I might have stuck with the original title, “Escape from Hell,” which is already the name of one of the books I’m taking writing lessons from in this post, a novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

Hey! There’s lesson one already: Check out the genre before you get started, so you don’t repeat exactly what somebody else has done already, in title, content, or some other embarrassing way.

Inferno and its sequel, Escape from Hell, concern the adventures of Allen Carpenter, a writer who falls to his death and, after some time in an urn, finds himself in the Vestibule of Hell. In Inferno, he follows Benito Mussolini (no, I’m not kidding) to Hell’s exit, but instead of leaving, decides to stay and show others the way out. In Escape from Hell, Carpenter learns enough about his own nature to make a try for Heaven, and out of Hell he climbs (up Satan’s hairy old leg, no less).

The Hell described in the book is faithfully based on the one found in Dante’s Inferno. It makes a fascinating setting, from the packed dirt field of the vestibule to the frozen lake at Hell’s very nadir, where Satan sits imprisoned.

And lo! Check out lesson two: A little (or a lot of) creative theft is a wonderful thing, when properly executed. I found the following quote from T. S. Eliot on Keith Sawyer’s blog: “ ‘Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.’ He then goes on to say that good stealing is usually from someone far away in space and time.”

Niven and Pournelle have gotten creative theft right in these novels. Dante is certainly removed in time from them and they’ve managed to put the setting to a different use. Whereas Dante, in his Inferno, is primarily an observer, Carpenter is a questioner; he wants to know who built Hell, why they did, and why anyone deserves eternity there. Carpenter also has the nerve to try rescuing people from Hell, an angle I’m pretty sure Dante never considered.

There was a gap of thirty-three years between the publications of Inferno and Escape from Hell, and it seemed to me that the second book, while still plenty entertaining and populated by the likes of Sylvia Plath, lacked the energy and originality of the first. Maybe that’s just me—I did read them in rapid succession, after all—but it seemed the authors didn’t bring much new to the setting the second time around except some detail about the Forest of Suicides and the addition of exploding souls (the souls of suicide bombers, don’t you know).

Maybe there are a couple of lessons here. Lesson three: Be careful when you revisit something that you bring real freshness to it. Lesson four: Not everything you write has to be the bee’s knees—write it, enjoy writing it and hope others enjoy reading it. If they do, great; if not, it’s no disaster as long as you’ve been primarily writing for your own enjoyment (part of my personal writing philosophy—maybe not so great if you write fiction for a living).

Finally, lesson five: Do your research. The acknowledgements section of Escape from Hell discusses the multiple translations of the Inferno the authors delved into to ensure they had a tight handle on the setting, which, in books like these, is practically one of the characters.

Whatever lessons these novels hold, they’re both entertaining, not dark in tone despite the setting and great examples of how a classic can be reworked in the modern day.

Extra Writing for Lent

I’m a member of the Episcopalian church. For those of you unfamiliar with that, think of it as “Catholic Lite.” Wikipedia can tell you a lot more at its “Episcopal Church” wiki.

As an Episcopalian, and a Christian for that matter, I observe the season of Lent. One source says “In Lent, the church journeys from Ash Wednesday to Easter, from sorrow to joy, from mortality to eternal life.”

So what does this have to do with writing? Bear with me; I’m getting there.

When I was a kid, we used to give up something—usually candy—for Lent. The sacrifice was supposed to remind us of the way Jesus sacrificed everything for the sake of his fellow man. Then, on Easter morning, we’d discover our Easter baskets on the dinner table, loaded with candy to make up for all that abstinence, reminding us of how Jesus’ rising from the dead replaces sorrow with joy. After I grew up (contrary to those who say I haven’t yet), I learned that instead of giving something up for Lent, you can take something on.

For Lent this year, I am committing to finding at least one extra hour a week for writing—if possible, two. Taking this on will mean I’ll have to give something up—likely some sleep or some yoga, so it looks like I’ll be getting into the Lenten spirit pretty well.

I also think it’s a good idea to unify two key parts of my life, creative and spiritual. My hope is that as I write for Lent, I’ll open myself a little more to God’s influence on that pursuit and that, in turn, I’ll be reminded to bring imagination and increased attention to my religious practice. If one, the other, or both happens, I’ll consider myself blessed indeed.

Ty Johnston Interviews Kron Darkbow

Fantasy writer Ty Johnston is touring the blogosphere this month, in part to promote his latest e-book novel, Demon Chains, but also because he loves blog touring. His other fantasy novels include City of Rogues, Bayne’s Climb and Ghosts of the Asylum, all of which are available for the Kindle, the Nook and online atSmashwords. To learn more about Ty and his writing, follow him at his blog tyjohnston.blogspot.com. Below, Ty interviews Kron Darkbow, the main character of most of his fantasy writings.

Ty: Hello, Kron. Been a while since we’ve seen one another.

Kron: Hrrm.

Ty: What’s that supposed to mean?

Kron: It means you are wasting my time, and it means it has not been that long since we have seen one another. You were just proofreading the Demon Chains novel.

Ty: Well, yeah, but I guess I meant it’s been a while since we were … uh … writing together. After all, it’s been a month or so since I finished writing Demon Chains.

Kron: Fine. Be on your way, then.

Ty: But I just got here!

Kron: Which means you can turn right around and leave.

Ty: Why are you being this way? Why so obstinate?

Kron: You created me. You should know.

Ty: Um, well, I realize you probably don’t like me very much.

Kron: True.

Ty: But I guess it’s not because I put you in perilous situations.

Kron: Again, true.

Ty: You probably don’t like me because —

Kron: Because you are wasting my time.

Ty (smirking): Oh, yeah? What else do you have to do? I’m the one who sends you off on your adventures, and since finishing Demon Chains, I’ve yet to send you on another one.

Kron: Just because you are not forcing me to face down demons, cannibals or dark wizards does not mean I do not have other things to do. In fact, I have better things to do than talk with you.

Ty (whining): But I’m your creator!

Kron: You are also a writer, which is a notoriously wasteful way to spend one’s life.

Ty: What do you mean?

Kron: What, exactly, do you do to make the world a better place? Do you go out of your way to help your fellow man? Do you —

Ty: Now hold on a minute! I might spend my days and nights in front of a keyboard, but I try to entertain others with my prose, and from time to time I try to say something important about humanity, the universe, etc.

Kron: Which accomplishes nothing. Words, words and more words.

Ty: There’s nothing wrong with trying to entertain people!

Kron: Except you could be out there saving lives.

Ty: Well, excuse me if I’m not two hundred pounds of solid muscle with a big sword hanging on my back, and trained in the arts of melee from a dozen different nations!

Kron: You forgot about my years of training in alchemy, languages, and all manners of thwarting magic.

Ty: Yeah, you’re a regular Batm —

Kron: Don’t say it!

Ty: Say what?

Kron: You know what! Bruce and I are only distantly related. I am not based upon him.

Ty: I guess. I suppose you also have a little Frank Castle in you, and some Mack Bolan. Maybe even a smidgen of Max Rockatansky.

Kron: I have no idea who those people are.

Ty: That’s what Wikipedia is for. Look it up.

Kron: What?!? Look, I have to go. There are street scum needing beaten up, and monsters that need killing.

Ty: I suppose you’re the man for the job.

Kron: I am.

Ty: Okay, okay. I get the picture.

Kron: The what?

Ty: Nevermind. Maybe you’ll find out some day if I ever send you into the future or into my world.

Kron (grinning, all teeth): That would be interesting.

Ty: How so?

Kron: Because then I could hunt down you.

Ty (gulping): Okay, uh … that’s enough for the day, I think. We’ve taken up enough space on Carson’s blog. Um, Carson, thanks for putting up with our nonsense, and I look forward to any replies to this post.

Kron: You forgot to say goodbye, idiot.

Ty: Okay. Goodbye, idiot.

Kron: Hrrm.

Plotting: New-Fangled Note Cards

It occurred to me as I was writing away on the new beginning to Thin Spots that I still had a lot of holes in the plot. Big ones, like a decent ending. I mean, I had one, but it just kind of lay there, you know?

Also, I’ve been reading Nail Your Novel by Roz Morris, which has some dandy tips of filling in plot crevasses and that inspired me to give the story another look. I haven’t finished NYN yet, but since it goaded me into doing something, it must have something going for it; I’ll let you have my final word when I’m finished reading it. (No doubt you’ll all be waiting breathlessly for that.)

Planning, while it’s fun, is nowhere near as fun as writing is. I keep getting pulled off the planning task by the compulsion to write scenes one after another, to get on with it. The problem is, that’s what I’ve tried before and I’ve always written myself into a dead end that way.

So, how to make planning fun enough to keep me from jumping into the writing work? Buy a new toy, of course. If you’re a nerd like me you buy a new piece of software.

In this case I bought myself a license for SuperNoteCard, which enables you to create stacks of virtual index cards on the PC or Mac. You can create multiple decks, categories, cards, relationships between deck and cards and relationships between relationships. You can color-code and annotate. You can distinguish specific “Factors” in your story, factors being people, places and things that “factor” into your story. You can plan your head off with this thing!

I created all my cards from existing materials and came up with nearly three hundred, counting all the duplicates. That exercise alone was enough to help me see I was building the fiction equivalent of spaghetti code (software code with logic that twists and turns on itself like a pile of spaghetti noodles). Now that I’m able to step back and look at the thing from a higher level, through the cards, I’m better able to trim fat and organize the story. At least that’s the way it appears at the moment.

That’s it from the trenches for now. Here’s a picture of SuperNoteCard in action:

Getting to Know You: Character Sketches

Having started sometime in October, by some other time in December I was twenty thousand words into the first draft of my novel-to-be, Thin Spots (coming eventually to an e-bookstore near you). Pleased as I was about the word count, a couple of things started to bug me. One was a flaw in the plot structure, which maybe I’ll talk about another time.

The other bugging item, which I’ll talk about now, was the characters.

The story’s got characters, all right—good guy, bad guy, love interest, the works—all moving around, doing stuff. Great, right? Except they felt flat, like cardboard cutouts moving around against a watercolor backdrop. Not really knowing what to do, I just kept moving them around, having faith that an answer would bubble up from the kettle of creative process in due time.

Sure enough, due time came around and I realized the problem, or at least part of it, was that I didn’t know the characters. Oh, I knew their names, physical characteristics, motivations and that sort of thing, but I hadn’t sat down with each one of them and let them speak or act as they wanted to. Another way of putting this might be that I hadn’t let their true natures rise out of my unconscious into the daylight.

I started this project with a novel-writing cookbook that advised me to define characters by filling out a list of specifics for each one. Here’s a partial example, for the lead character:

  • Character Type: Lead. Name: Colin Davis. Colin is a short form of “Nicholas” means “victory of the people”…
  • Connection to Lead: Is
  • Story Goal: He wants to get back to his body so he can stay alive, end his torment…
  • Gender: Male
  • Age: 30
  • Appearance: Blonde. Late 20s-early 30s. Average height & build…
  • Height & Body Type: Average American; 5′ 10″. Body type: Just a shade on the stocky side…
  • Hair color: Blonde
  • Eye color: Dark blue, unusually so.
  • Mannerisms: Combs his fingers backwards through his hair when thinking…

You get the idea. It’s all well and good, and it probably helped me start thinking, but not a bit of it gave me a gut feel for what this guy is like. These items are details for building an automaton, not for bringing a character to life.

What to do? I cast my mind back—way back—to a wonderful high-school English teacher who had the class write character sketches, which were just a page or two putting a character in an everyday situation and letting him or her move through it. I’ve been doing that over the past few days and I like what’s happening. The sketches don’t give me all the details of the character’s high school romances, dental work, etc., but they do make me feel as though I’m getting to know them well enough to work with them in a story.

I’ll be sharing these sketches in the next several posts. Here’s the first one. It’s for Doc Lutz, a character I didn’t even know I had until I started working out the plotting problem I mentioned earlier.

Doc Lutz was running late, which wasn’t good, because he was the only one with a key to Pizza Haven. That was only good sense—he was the owner, after all—but it meant the help would be piling up around the back door, bitching, building up a bad attitude that would last all the way until quitting time. Their attitudes were bad enough—he didn’t need to give them any help. He put the pedal to the metal, blasted through the last red light between him and the Magnolia Walk strip mall and arrived in a handy handicapped-only spot with a squeal of brakes.

They were there, all right. Manny, his lead cook, leaning against the graffiti-spattered brick wall with a cigarette dangling from his perpetual frown; Tanya the waitress in her usual form-fitting mini-skirt, hugging a black leather jacket around her against the cold and Colin, the delivery guy, utility player and general waste of space, sitting cross-legged on the ground, scribbling in a notebook as usual.

“Okay, people, spread out, Daddy’s here.”

Tanya spit her gum into an open trash bin. “If you were my daddy, I’d have grown up in foster care.”

“Nice. Merry goddamn Christmas to you, too. Manny, stomp out that butt before you come inside. And wash your hands before you start in the kitchen. How many times I gotta tell you?”

“Hell. I just lit up, Doc. These things are expensive.”

“So, quit. Hey, Shakespeare, you going to finish your masterpiece there and grace us with your presence?”

Colin stayed where he was and chewed his pencil. “Any of you guys know a good word for ‘sticky’?”

“How about ‘fired’? Do anything for you?”

“All right, all right.” Colin slapped his notebook shut and stuffed it into his backpack. “Ready to ride at your command, my captain.”

After he had made sure that Manny’s hands were washed and Tanya knew the specials, Doc went to do the liquor count. Colin Davis, he knew, would take care of himself, scribbling, until there was something he was needed for.

He grunted as he squatted to peer into the liquor cabinets beneath the bar. His weight wasn’t going anywhere but up—an occupational hazard—and his knees weren’t what they used to be. Heedless of the discomfort, he painstakingly counted each bottle, reaching to the back to be sure nobody had hidden a partial there, hoping he’d get lazy and count it as a full bottle. He also spot-checked a few bottles by upending them and watching the liquor cling to the glass or, if they were already open, removing the tops and sniffing the contents, to be sure they hadn’t been watered down. After recording the results of the count on a tally sheet, he went to his office to check the results against the previous day’s sales.

The office was a Spartan affair, consisting of a metal desk, a battered swivel chair—both bought used—and a safe set into the concrete floor. There were filing cabinets, a time clock and a bulletin board. The board contained the only personal items in the space: the first dollar Doc had made at Pizza Haven, sealed in a baggie, and a picture of his daughter, Rosalie, the one good thing to come from a marriage that had broken up many years before.

The liquor count and the sales sheet didn’t match up; the sales figures accounted for less liquor used than did the count, even with a give-or-take of five percent to account for the general inexactitude of the process. This was the third night in a month it had happened. Doc pulled a file and checked the staffing logs for those nights. There were only two employees common to all three nights: Lequoin, a kid he’d hired to bar-back about six weeks back, and Colin Davis, a.k.a. Shakespeare.

Doc scratched his belly and mulled over the matter. It was unlikely Colin was the culprit. He was too young to drink and, anyway, his job was driving, and on a motorcycle at that—not something that lent itself well to sneaking booze. Lequoin, on the other hand, was around the bar a lot, and he was so taciturn and slow-moving anyway that it would be hard to tell if he’d had a couple, unless you got right up in his face and smelled his breath.

“You’re my guy, coonass,” Doc muttered. He pulled up a number on his cell phone and hit dial. In a moment, he heard “Yo, this is Bobby Lequoin. Hit me up at the beep.”

The phone beeped. “Hey, Lequoin, this is Doc over at Pizza Haven. You’re fired. Come get your last check anytime we’re open. Merry goddamn Christmas.”

That’s a helluva cold message if it ain’t him, Doc thought, but he didn’t have any serious doubts. He trusted his instincts in these matters and was seldom wrong. And if he was by some outrageous chance wrong, he knew better than to ever admit it. He pulled an apron from a hook and headed out for the floor, pausing just long enough to look at his daughter’s picture and say a quick prayer for her. It was Christmas, so he was running with a skeleton crew and would have to do some of the heavy lifting himself.

No Time to Waste! Writing for Its Own Sake

The following quote appears on author Tom Vowler’s blog, How to Write a Novel, as something to ponder:

“Write a bad short story and you’ve wasted two weeks; write a bad novel, you’ve wasted two years.”

Tom’s a published novelist, and I’m trying to learn, so I pondered. After I’d pondered a while, I decided that, while this blog is full of useful insights, pithily posed, I disagreed with this particular tidbit.

Specifically, I don’t believe any time spent writing is a waste, if you’re writing for the right reasons, which I am, of course, perfectly qualified to define (pause for snickers from the readership).

If you’re writing primarily to please anyone else, then time spent on unsuccessful–that is, unread–pieces will indeed be wasted. Write for money, write for fame, write so your mom will be proud, write to see your name someplace besides on your checks and you’re dependent on the approval of others to get pleasure out of your writing.

Because you can’t get the approval of others until your writing’s done, all the research, planning and wordsmithing are not done for their own sake, they’re done with the hope of a reward later on. And if you’re chasing a reward from other people, you’re in grave danger of trying to conform to their preferences instead of to your own artistic vision.

If you’re writing for yourself, enjoying the process for its own sake, you’ll never waste your time. I’m working on my first novel and here’s what I’ve found so far:

> Research is fun if you stay open and curious. I read come of the Aeneid, which I’d never bothered with before, as part of my prep for this project and it was great stuff. I renewed my acquaintance with Dante’s Inferno.

> Plotting is just a big game where you take pieces and try to fit them together.  It’s also full of surprises as the story takes shape and you figure out that B has to happen for A, which you thought of before, to make sense.

> Writing is the process of telling yourself a story for your own amusement and personal growth. In Stephen King’s novel, Misery, the hero, who’s a writer, gets through the ordeal by writing his novel to see what happens next. Even if you’ve outlined your novel from stem to stern, it’s going to develop organically and take unexpected twists, and it’s great fun figuring out the adjustments you have to make.

Am I a twisted masochist? Maybe so, but this is my story and I’m sticking to it. Sure, I want my novel to be clever and beautiful, and sure I want it to bring pleasure to untold thousands of readers, but if I focus on those things I’ll squash the pleasure of what I am doing right now.

What I am doing now is crafting the first draft of a novel called Thin Spots (for now), about a guy whose soul ends up in Hell by mistake while he’s in a coma. The whole process, even when it’s hard, is a joy; not a moment have I wasted.

(For Technorati: K3WK6GYZ7REH)

The Fictive Dream versus The Leaf Blower

Today, I’m going to swipe an idea of the late John Gardner’s. I had the pleasure of meeting him once when I was but a callow college lad. He was a fine writing teacher and I’m proud to spread his wisdom in this space.

Mr. Gardner had a notion he call “the fictive dream.” In The Art of Fiction, he writes, “In the writing state—the state of inspiration–the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols.”

If the writer is true to his dream, his words will provide his readers the same experience. They will fall into a sort of dream state in which they are living the story along with the characters. If you’ve ever been engrossed in a work of fiction, you know what I mean.

Now, what if you’re asleep, and you’re having a great dream, and your neighbor starts his freakin’ leaf blower about two feet from your window? You’re jolted out of it, right? The experience is ruined.

Something similar happens when a writer screws up grammar, at least if the reader is aware of the problem, which isn’t always the case, I realize.

I’ve been reading a couple of very talented self-published Kindle authors lately, with genuine enjoyment, but they keep shocking me out of the dream state with their inability to use the verb “lie,” as in “lie down,” correctly.

I’m dreaming along and I run into something like, “He was exhausted after the chase and decided to lay down.”

Aiiee! Leaf blower! It should be “decided to lie down.” A person does not lay down. My dream is interrupted by the error. I’m jolted awake and forced to acknowledge I’m just reading a story. The sense of reality is gone. The writer has defeated his or her purpose. (For the complete poop on this verb, just go to dictionary.com or someplace similar.)

Perfect grammar isn’t always desirable for a writer. In fact, bending or outright breaking the rules can be a great way to achieve effects.

The problem comes about when a writer makes an unintended error out of carelessness or ignorance and it’s egregious enough for the reader to notice.

“To lie” might not really be a problem for much longer. It’s getting increasingly common to mix it up with “to lay.” Many people don’t even notice the error, I’m sure. After a while, we might see a change in usage that makes “I’m going to lay down” perfectly acceptable outside southern Mississippi.

Until then, I hope writers everywhere, especially the self-published ones who rely on their own resources, will proofread carefully and continually upgrade their vocabularies. Keep those readers dreaming, folks–please.

That’s all. I have done lied down the law.

Oh, and let me lay this smackerel of Thin Spots (totally unedited rough draft) on you: smackerel 12-14-11

Keeping the Muse Atop the Monitor: Freedom versus Order

I tend to get obsessive over stuff.

Like writing.

If you were loose enough with your time to read the first post of this blog, you may recall I said stuff like, “I’m treating this as fun, for its own sake” and “I’m taking my time. It gets finished when it gets finished.”

For a while, all was well. I just kicked back in my chair, put my fingers on the old keyboard and told myself the story. Great fun!

But then the gremlins of perfectionism, hurry and ambition started climbing up on top of the monitor with my muse. At first I thought it was just because my muse is pretty cute and they wanted to put the moves on her. Also, no such luck. They were there to drag me down, just like they’ve always been.

“Don’t you dare leave this page until it’s better than Hemmingway! And no, Steinbeck’s not good enough,” said Perfectionism, adjusting his twisted boxers.

Hurry jumped up and down and shouted, “Four hours a week is not enough! You need to be cranking out more words per day or you’ll only have one novel finished before you’re dead! Maybe not even that!”

“This is how you’re going to show ‘em,Carson. Anybody whoever said you were less than 100% fantastic, once this baby hits the best-seller list, boy, are they going to feel small. And that’s what we want, right?” Ambition lit a cigar and blew the smoke in Muse’s face.

Day after day they kept up this nattering until I started to believe it. Poor muse was reduced to sitting next to the keyboard, having been shoved off the monitor altogether. She was miffed, of course, and spent more time sulking than helping my story along.

It’s easy to describe now, but as it was going on, I wasn’t fully aware what was happening. It’s a slippery slope one slides down into the slough of obsession.

Then, fortune smiled. I have the chance to talk to a good friend about the work and how it wasn’t going well, how it was starting to feel like an obligation instead of a lark. She wisely helped me stop talking about it and visualize what was happening. That’s when I really saw the gremlins, along with poor Muse, and realized what was going on.

I realized that my first-novel project is subject to the same tension that informs the rest of my life—the desire for spontaneous freedom versus the desire for rigid order. If the two get out of balance, it’s bad news—too much freedom and nothing gets done; too much order and creativity goes to hell.

So, what’s a wannabe novelist to do? Just three things, I think. First, remain aware of those gremlins and what they’re up to. Second, choose to keep the balance tipped in favor of spontaneity and freedom. Third, make a conscious decision at the start of every writing session to do the first two. That should keep Muse on top of the monitor, where she belongs.

I could work on a clever closing, but it’s late and I’m tired, so I’ll just say I hope this is helpful. How’s that for spontaneity and freedom?