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The Daily Prompt on Monday challenged everyone to pick a letter of the alphabet and write a blog entry without it.  I picked the letter between R and T, and even up to now I have needed to re-word a lot!  I think the current writing will not be very long.

In a vain effort to write about an intriguing topic, I want to examine the employ of new grammar in fiction.

I have before tried to write a piece in which the main character was of a third gender – neither male nor female.  The third gender appeared a third of the time in that world, rather than only once in a while, and I had to build a new grammar to account for it.  I needed a new pronoun.  I found it hard to remember to utilize it where needed.

Have you ever changed language to better tell a tale?  How did you find it?

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I’ve been reading the Sookie Stackhouse books, by Charlaine Harris.  A friend leant me the first nine as a box set, so I had plenty of reading to be going on with.

For those who don’t know, Sookie is a human barmaid living in Louisiana.  She has been blessed (cursed?) with the gift of telepathy, and finds it hard to get along with people when she knows what they’re thinking.  A few years ago, after the invention of a synthetic blood called TrueBlood, vampires came “out of the coffin” and announced their existence to the world.  When Sookie meets one, she is delighted to find that she can’t read his mind, and thus begins her adventures in the world of the supernatural.

The books are a fun romp, for the most part – chick lit with vampires as it were.  No heavy thinking required.  Each one is a self-contained adventure, unlike some other series I’ve come across, so it’s possible to stop any time you want.

And yet, there is always some nagging question at the end, something to make you wonder if the explanation will be forthcoming in the next book.  And in the next book, your question is answered, but you’re left with another question.  It’s a brilliant example of teasing the reader just enough to keep them reading.

Having said that, it’s getting a bit frustrating now.  I want closure.  I want to be able to put the series away and say “that was really good, and now I’ll read something completely different for a while”.

So my question is this:  when is enough enough?  When should an author give up on a series?  Is it when they run out of fresh ideas for problems their characters can have?  Is it when the readers get bored and stop buying the books?  Is it when they run out of sensible titles with the word “dead” in them?

What do you think?

Philip Pullman is just about to publish a book called “Grimm Tales for Young and Old” – a collection of Grimm’s Fairy Tales rewritten in more modern language.  From what I can tell from the publicity, the plots and endings are exactly the same, and only the language as been updated.  The question is, is it cheating if you don’t come up with your own storylines?

I’m not talking about modern versions here – for example, Cinder by Marissa Meyer is a sci fi version of Cinderella – but it’s different enough to the original that you want to read it anyway, just to find out what’s going to happen.  (Seriously, it’s a good book – Cinder is a cyborg, people live on the moon, and there are psychic powers.  I couldn’t put it down.  The sequel isn’t out until January, and I’m already chomping at the bit.)

I’m also not talking about people who take myths and legends and twist them to almost unrecognisable perversions of themselves – like Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles, which involves the Tuatha de Daanan and Balor One-Eye, although they are actually aliens and have different names.

There are plenty of other examples of good re-imaginings.

But Mr Pullman’s book does feel, at least from the descriptions, as if there’s nothing new in it.  No reason to read it if you have read the originals.  Maybe not even if you haven’t.  If other people – you or I for example – had tried to publish this book, we would have been laughed at.  He can only do it because he’s already famous.  At least, that’s how it feels.

What do you think?

What is self-reference, and is it good, bad, or indifferent to the vagaries of moral indignation?

Self-reference is when a sentence, idea, or formula refers to itself.  It can happen when a film, novel, etc, talks about itself, such as, for example, when Bastian finds a book called “The Neverending Story” and starts reading it to discover that it is a book about a boy called Bastian who finds a book.

Also Monty Python – The Quest for the Holy Grail contains this line:

“Oh look, it’s the old man from scene 24.”

and many other similar references.

So is it a good thing?  It can definitely be used for comic effect, very effectively.

To give an example of where self-reference has been taken to the extreme (I really hope for comic effect), consider this story, by David Moser, which includes such delights as:

This is the first sentence of this story. This is the second sentence. This is the title of this story, which is also found several times in the story itself. This sentence is questioning the intrinsic value of the first two sentences. This sentence is to inform you, in case you haven’t already realized it, that this is a self-referential story, that is, a story containing sentences that refer to their own structure and function. This is a sentence that provides an ending to the first paragraph.

and

This sentence comments on the awkward nature of the self- referential narrative form while recognizing the strange and playful detachment it affords the writer.

and

This sentence raises a serious objection to the entire class of self-referential sentences that merely comment on their own function or placement within the story e.g., the preceding four sentences), on the grounds that they are monotonously predictable, unforgivably self- indulgent, and merely serve to distract the reader from the real subject of this story, which at this point seems to concern strangulation and incest and who knows what other delightful topics.

I suggest you go and read the full story for a better idea of what the story is about.

On the other hand, when it occurs in more serious work it is harder to do well.  I am probably not alone in finding that too many self-references jolt me out of the fantasy world and back into the one where I am sitting on a sofa reading.

It can work, though.  It’s just difficult.  So difficult that I can’t think of a book I’ve read that did it well.  Does anybody else have any suggestions?

I was thinking about character quirks – the things that make a character unique and interesting.  It occurred to me that there are some pretty obvious examples of those quirks being central to the story line, and also linked to brain damage.

50 First Dates

The main character in this film is a young woman who has been in an accident.  She now has anterograde amnesia, which means that she can’t form new memories.  Every night she goes to sleep and wakes up the next morning thinking it’s the morning of her accident.  It’s a romantic comedy, so as you can imagine the male lead goes to some interesting lengths in order to win her heart!

Memento

This one is anterograde amnesia again.  This time, the amnesia affects not just the story but the presentation of it, with some of the scenes not occurring in chronological order.  My personal favourite is the scene that starts with a chase through a car park.  The voice-over (from the main character) goes something like this:

“I’m running.  Why am I running?  Am I chasing that guy?”

The other man shoots at him.

“No, he’s chasing me!”

Regarding Henry

I haven’t seen this one, but the plot summaries on the interwebs look interesting.  Harrison Ford is a mean, unethical lawyer, who gets shot in the head during a robbery.  He gets retrograde amnesia, meaning he can’t remember anything that happened in his life until that point.

He has to get to know his family all over again, and realises he doesn’t like the person he used to be.  It’s a film about second chances.

Prosopagnosia

Sufferers of prosopagnosia can’t recognise people from their faces, but usually have no problem with other items.  A person suffering from this problem would not be able to tell the difference between their own children, for example, or between their best friend and a spy from a foreign nation.

The film is about a man who witnesses a murder, but can’t identify the murderer because he suffers from the condition.  To make matters worse, he is the key suspect in the murder!

Again, I’ve not seen it, but I wanted to include a film that wasn’t about memory loss, since that seems to be the main way brain damage enters into films.

Thoughts

Most films that involve brain damage seem to focus on memory loss of one kind or another.  Other types of brain damage seem to result in obscure films which I haven’t heard of… although that’s not really saying much, since I’m more of a book person.

What films can you think of to either bolster or destroy my theory?  Are there other types of brain damage which would make a good plot?

If you have made up a new world for your novel, how do they deal with crime and punishment?

The prison service have recently opened a restaurant in Wales, staffed by low-risk convicts.  The restaurant is quite posh, but the convicts are only earning £12 per week.  Not a lot, but is it fair?

They are gaining experience and qualifications out of it; some people pay to gain those.  They have, essentially, free room and board, since they are living at the prison.  And, they are supposed to be being punished.

On the other hand, are they taking jobs from the fine, upstanding, normal folk?  That seems to be the main objection to the scheme.

Anyway, back to the point.

Some cultures go for locking offenders away, some for public whippings, some for execution.  Some go for more financial punishments, or mind control.  Some go for incentives to prevent crime and corruption.  I read a book once where the financial estate of those chosen as leader of the country was blended with the state monies, and they got the same proportion back at the end of their term.  Good incentive to help the country’s economy!

Whatever method is chosen, there are consequences.  If you lock offenders up you need to  pay for their upkeep, and have the risk that they might revolt.  Mind control has moral implications.  Using incentives requires a plan for when they fail.

How well thought through is your legal system?

Or are they?

You know the ones I mean.  Those little throw-away details which don’t actually contribute to the plot.  Like this one, from the article I was talking about yesterday:

The experts assembled by the Hansard Society, in a windowless conference room in an obscure corner of the Parliamentary estate, were divided on this one.

Does it matter that the conference room had no windows?  I can’t think of any reason for it to affect anything that follows.  Likewise it doesn’t really matter that the conference room was in an obscure corner.  What matters is that experts were assembled to discuss the issue, and that they were divided.

Except that the little details contribute to the overall feel of the piece.  We know, from those few words, that the meeting was not the most important that went on that day.  It has the feel of being slightly hidden, slightly shunned by most normal folk.  The idea they were discussing is not taken seriously by parliamentarians.

What little details have you included in your work lately, to build atmosphere, or give background information to your readers?

This past weekend, I have been mostly hitting people.

I was at a training seminar for Shorinji Kempo, the martial art that I do, with people from all over the country. It was good fun, very instructive, and generally worth going to.

Shorinji Kempo has philosophical elements, and unlike some martial arts they are explicitly built into the gradings, from the very first white to yellow belt one. One of the topics is “how to learn Shorinji Kempo”, and we all know that it can be applied to other things too.

So here it is: the eight points of why writing is like Shorinji Kempo.

1. Have goals

I mentioned this a few days ago, in a way which may have sounded like I was denying the need for goals. (I wasn’t, I was explaining why a particular goal wasn’t on my list.) Goals are important. They make you feel like you’re getting somewhere, and they are a good way of making sure you continue to progress.

2. Learn in the correct sequence

You can’t write a novel before coming up with an idea. For some people, you can’t write a novel without planning it out. Learn what the correct sequence is for you, and then do things in that order.

3. Learn the basics

Grammar. Spelling. How to punch correctly. It’s all the same.

A wise man once said “if you have mastered jun zuki then you have mastered Shorinji Kempo”.

4. Learn the principles

If you know where somebody’s balance is weak, you can make them fall over when they grab you, even if you’ve never been taught that specific throw. Likewise, if you know the principles of writing – how to create and dispel tension, how to create a specific atmosphere, how to make people read faster, read slower, or keep reading all night – then you can apply them to new situations, ones in which you’ve never been given specific advice.

5. Repetition, repetition, repetition

Keep writing. It won’t be perfect the first time, so write the scene as many times as it needs to make it perfect. Keep writing. And then write some more.

6. Balance your training

In Kempo this refers to the balance between hard and soft techniques, mental and physical, left and right, strength and compassion.

Don’t neglect anything entirely. Yes, you may be writing a novel, but there’s no reason not to also write short stories, blog entries, poetry, even jokes. Write in the first person, third person, second person, singular and plural. Write in another language if you know one. Each word you write will teach you something, and none of the types of writing are entirely independent.

7. Train to your own physical standard

This one is harder, I’ll admit. There aren’t many physical requirements for writing. You don’t even need fingers to type with these days. So we’ll twist it slightly, to working within our own personal constraints, be that time constraints, health constraints, or simply ability.

Do you only have an hour a week that you can devote to writing? That’s not a problem, it’ll just take you longer to write things.

Do you have chronic fatigue, or Parkinson’s, or ADD? Don’t let that stop you. If you want to write, then write!

8. Never give up.

This one, I hope, is self explanatory. Been rejected? Missed a deadline? Written a very large quantity of rubbish? Keep writing. More importantly, keep sharing your writing with others.

Apparently there are planets orbiting binary star systems.  In the past we’ve found single planets orbiting two stars, but it was thought that more than one planet would see the gravitational forces throwing them either into the stars, out of the system, or into each other.  Kepler-47, in the constellation of Cygnus, has two planets – and one of them is in the habitable zone, where liquid water can exist.

It’s probably a gas giant, but Prof William Welsh, from San Diego State University, said:

“Kepler-47c is not likely to harbour life, but if it had large moons, those would be very interesting worlds.”

Now I’m wondering what a day would be like on one of those moons.  Imagine, you are on a moon, orbiting a planet, orbiting two suns.  What would you see and experience as the day progressed?  Obviously you can’t answer that properly without knowing the lengths of the orbits involved.  My astrophysics is not good enough to figure it out even knowing the orbits.

On the other hand, is it important?  How many books have you read in which the protagonist noticed what phase the moon was in?  (Apart from books about werewolves, they don’t count!)  Unless the fact that there are two suns is central to the plot, why should it matter?  The occasional comment about the suns rising or the planet setting, and that should be enough.

In general, I find that having goals is a Good Thing.  It’s useful to know what you intend to do in a day, in a week, or in a month.  Most people overestimate what they can do in a day, but underestimate what they can achieve in a year.

I’ve been running some experiments and discovered that I can usually write 400-500 words in a day, given my other commitments.  Not all of them are good words, in fact many of them are not, but that’s not the point.  The point is that if I do that, every day, I could have the first draft of a novel written in half a year.  That actually boggles my mind, because I was expecting it to take several years.  Half a year?  That’s a goal I could get behind.

But here’s the thing.

Goals should not take over your life.

When I was away camping last week, I didn’t write anything.  Not one word, for six days.  I know there will be other weeks this year when similar things happen.  So maybe my novel will take a little longer.  And that’s ok, because writing a novel in half a year is not the be-all and end-all of my life.

Some people would say that this means I am not a “proper writer”, or not “passionate enough” or some such.  I laugh in their general direction.  Their mother was a hamster and their father smelled of elderberries.  If they don’t go away I shall taunt them a second time.  Or something.  This post is not written for them.

This post is written for those people who love writing, who want to write, but who also have a life outside, in the real world.  To them I want to say: You Are Not Alone.  Set goals if you want; write when you can; but do not worry if you don’t write every day.

Dragging myself back to the point, writing a novel is too much of a long term goal for me.  Things change, new oportunities come up and steal my time, and I find it difficult to maintain interest if the end of the project is in many months time.  That’s why I have decided not to set the goal of writing a novel in half a year.  Or even writing a novel.

That isn’t to say that I won’t be writing a novel, of course, but writing the novel is not my main goal – writing is.

The Author

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something martial artist who runs two Brownie packs and works full time. She somehow still finds time to write.

Her favourite genres are near-future and alternate world science fiction and fantasy.

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