Seven Second Fiction

I’ve used a word cloud generator while revising a story, usually to make sure that certain problem words are under control (I’m looking at you, “felt” “looked” “was” …) It’s great tool, but then I realized that I could use it to actually make a story-poem (sort of.)

I used a short story I’d written recently for my critique group (we’ve been critiquing each other’s novels, but I think we were all feeling a little “first chapter fatigue” so I ventured into the land of shorter fiction.) I uploaded the full text of the story to Tag Crowd  http://tagcrowd.com/ and then eliminated a few words that were inappropriate for my family friendly blog.

The story is called MUSE, and of course the characters names are evident immediately (Eli, Taylor, Wall, Morris.) The rest of the story is told only through the most used words, requiring a degree of reader participation unprecedented in fiction. A sort of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure.

One thing that’s cool about the word cloud version of the story is the way the human brain sees text in this form–not in a (roughly) linear fashion, as when the words are arranged in the normal way, but as an instant jolt of lexical caffeine.

Okay, I’ll humbly admit that the short story is much better than the word cloud version. But what if you’re in a hurry? It’s the perfect seven-second form of fiction.

tag cloud

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Lexicon, by Max Barry, has turned me into a drug dealer-ish book pusher

Is it totally lame to review a book that’s been out for over a year? Well, I can’t help it. Lexicon has genius plotting and amazing characters, but the thing that makes me sigh with jealousy and admiration is the voice. I loved Max Barry’s prose style in Jennifer Government and Machine Man, but he’s reached new heights of awesome in Lexicon.

I’ve been accused of being a little drug dealer-ish about pushing this book on people, but it’s just so incredible that I can’t help it. It’s helped me lay off the evangelizing of How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, and World War Z by Max Brooks a little, but everyone needs a friendly neighborhood book pusher, right?

I’ve ordered extra copies of all of the above to lend to people so I don’t have to give them my personal copy and risk it not coming back. I need all of the above books close by so if I feel sad or discouraged in any way I can open any of them for a little dose of pure happiness. (Okay, that sounds worryingly druggy…)


Writing as surgery

Everyone has their own novel-writing technique, and mine (at least for my most recent novel, The Decline and Fall of Taran Elember) has remarkable similarities to one of my other favorite things: surgery.

So, Angie’s Special Novel Writing Plan (based on my veterinary surgical training):

  • Surgical Exploratory Phase–rambling first draft, lots of looking around and trying things
  • Regrouping Phase–chat with surgical staff, re-order instruments, ask for suture/sponges/clamps as needed; chill a little while you decide how to approach the problem at hand
  • Evisceration Phase–back to cutting, removing entire organs as necessary, occasionally transplanting
  • Surgical Phase–reconstructing and suturing as needed for structure, character, scene goals, etc.
  • Laser Phase–tightly focused fine edits for voice, personality, etc.
  • Micro-surgery–multiple tedious drafts to eliminate adverbs, passive voice, words I always use but shouldn’t, clichés that have managed to persist…
  • Recovery–the patient is turned over to the ICU staff (critique partners/first readers) so I can scrub out for a while and check on my next patient

 


I learn by teaching, think by writing — My New Latin Motto

 

Roman ruins of Caesarea Maritima in Israel

The Romans, gotta love-’em (photo taken at Caesarea Maritima in Israel)

Docendo disco, scribendo cogito: I learn by teaching, think by writing.

How exactly did the Romans come up with such crazily relevant stuff? As in, the phrase above that perfectly describes my life at this moment: teaching high school to my twice-exceptional son and writing writing writing.

Disclaimer:

As TVTropes (BTW, this is an extremely awesome website for writers plus all the cool kids) says: “Well, nothing can dictate pretentious credibility compared to a Latin motto. It’s supposed to confer prestige, but Latin often gives off that “we’re so much smarter, richer and generally more awesome than you” vibe…”

Okay, maybe. But I do just really like Latin. I’m one of the seven people in the world who wishes Latin had even been an option in high school, as compared to the countless millions who were forced to take it and hated every moment of it.

I’m looking for another Latin quote to describe my life with even greater accuracy–something along the lines of : “runs family business/has too many pets/drives kids around a lot/does not cook or clean house except under duress/recently allowed 12 year-old-son to put various household objects in microwave to see what would happen…”

 

 


Inadvertent Decapitation

GOdzilla-2014-wallpaper

I love it when unusual phrases come up in casual conversation–and I think “Wow! I’m reasonably certain I’ve never said these two words together, ever!”

It’s basically that SIP thing on Amazon: the “statistically improbably phrase”, only in real life. As in, you’re driving home from the new Godzilla movie ****spoiler alert*** and you get into a heated discussion about whether the decapitation we just witnessed was intentional, inadvertent, or just a predictable side effect of having some kind of crazy plasma-fire breathed down one’s throat, to the point where one’s head simply falls off, through no fault of one’s attacker.

Inadvertent decapitation!  

CHALLENGE: use this new phrase at least five times in casual conversation over the next two days. 1) Honey, did you mean to mow off all of the peonies, or was that an inadvertent decapitation? 2) Is it possible to perform an Inadvertent Decapitation in Mortal Kombat, or only the purposeful kind? 

I’ve just started an Evernote list of the my own personal SIPs, and Inadvertent Decapitation is the inaugural item.

Help think of more ways to work Inadvertent Decapitation into realistic, believable conversation!

 


The Power of Flight Delays

Scary fish

At Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle

Anyone who has traveled by air in the past century has heard some form of the following words “Sorry, everyone, there has been a slight delay. We are getting a warning light on the (landing gear indicator/temperature gauge/coffee pot system) and so we are waiting for a mechanic to check it out.”

Followed a little later by: “We are returning to the gate while we fly in the part, but don’t go far as we will hopefully be re-boarding soon.”

And then: “We’re flying in a mechanic, so that will hopefully do it–but if you need to rebook your connecting flight, just talk to the gate agent.” (Everyone runs to get in line.)

Sadness? No, not if you’ve got a great book. Those of us who crave more reading time hunker down for hours–possibly many delicious hours–of full-immersion reading.

Reading for hours at a time without interruption has for me become a huge, rarely experienced luxury. I have to get in as much reading time as I can in smaller snippets–kids and work and projects and writing all demand attention.

But small snippets don’t work for every book. Some novels are difficult to jump in and out of like that, especially long, sprawling stories that require keeping track of lots of characters.

I recently had a reading-intensive trip to Seattle. My flight was delayed by a coffee pot light malfunction* (true story), and so I missed my Minneapolis connection (several times, as I kept re-booking and missing flights.) Finally, I was able to get Minneapolis and then a flight to Seattle, but connecting in Houston. A total of almost eighteen hours to read!

Fortunately, I had the perfect airline-delay books: Connie Willis’s Blackout/All Clear time travel novels. These two books are really one very long story, which I loved–but I’m not sure I would have loved them as much if I’d only read them in short bursts. I think the tension in these novels set in London during the Blitz might have been dissipated for me if I’d been slogging through them in little bits in my regular life.

I’m flying to Baltimore soon. It’s a direct flight, and only two hours, but I can hope that something in the pre-flight checklist is a little off, and maybe I’ll need to rebook and have to connect through LA or maybe Amsterdam.

Hmm…definitely need a good, long novel…

*To be fair, I think the airplane crew was worried about the light indicating other electrical problems. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just about coffee being a mandatory element of flight.

 


Reading Every Book (Ars longa, vita brevis)

My Childhood Library  When I was a child, I wanted to read every book in the library. And I had a plan.

I wasn’t completely delusional. I was only planning to read all of the fiction in the library, and not even all of that. I had no interest in the picture books, and I figured I had read most of what would no be considered middle grade (Judy Blume and Laura Ingalls Wilder, most notably.) My plan involved moving through all of the “Juvenile” section. I didn’t think much beyond that, other than vaguely considering the day that I’d be done with the children’s room and move on to the adult shelves on the main floor of the library.

I even remember trying to decide if I would allow myself to skip books that didn’t look interesting, or if all the books meant all the books. And I don’t remember if Louisa May Alcott was really the first author on the first shelf, but those are the books I always think of being on that shelf. Little Women. Little Men. I know made it at least as far as Lloyd Alexander (The Black Cauldron series.)

It’s unlikely that I really thought this project would work, although I was a very fast reader and I had lots of time on my hands–you can only watch so much Brady Bunch, cable/videos/internet hadn’t been invented yet, and I had few responsibilities of any kind. Plus, I was only about ten, so I had a lifetime to get through the Juvenile section.

But maybe I did. My grasp of reality was definitely more tenuous back then. I know I had some trouble with the concept of fiction versus non-fiction, even well into the time I was starting to read adult science fiction (I remember asking my mother if it Lankar of Callisto by Lin Carter was fiction, specifically if it was possible to find a magical portal in some earthly jungle and wake up on one of the moons of Saturn. She said if I wanted to believe it, then it was possible, which for some reason I thought was an acceptable answer.)

At some point, I abandoned my plan to read all of the books. I read a lot, but I didn’t confine myself to alphabetical by author, and at some time around age twelve I started hitting science fiction and Stephen King pretty hard, so that was it for the juvenile section (which had almost no science fiction.)

I’m having a similar problem now. I fully realize that I won’t read everything; I have finally grasped the magnitude of the situation: number of books in print + number of books published ever year+ actually having responsibilities now. And I don’t want to read everything, anyway. Definitely not the boring ones.

However, now I want to write everything.

I love writing (most of the time.) But it takes a long time, especially to revise and make an okay book into a good book. So I have this anxiety about writing now: There are so many characters, so many stories. So many kinds of stories.

I want to write an amazing space opera like Iain Banks’ Culture novels , and a young adult novel as shocking and perfect as How I Live Now. And a complicated thriller like Reamde. And insanely funny stuff like Hyperbole and a Half. Definitely nonfiction about how I got magically teleported to the moon of Saturn one day while exploring the Amazon Basin.

I know that I won’t write everything. I won’t even write all of the books that I have inside me right now–some, sad to say, don’t deserve to be written, and the competition for my writing time is intense. I’m figuring out what I do write best, and not surprisingly, it’s the kind of stories that I’ve always liked best…but told the way I tell them.

There’s even Latin phrase for this feeling: Ars longa, vita brevis.

So, back to finishing The Decline and Fall of Taran Elember. And then my in progress YA trilogy about the Singularity. And then that one with the AI dragons that I wrote just for fun but I really like…

Art is long, life is short.