Saturday, January 31, 2004

Good Judge of Character?

Here's a fun little quiz for those who think they know their geeks: malevole - Programming Language Inventor or Serial Killer? A series of photos of men who were either inventers of computer programming language or else serial murderers?

I got 8 out of 10. Not bad, the quiz says, but how many bad guesses does it take? And why do some computer programmers have such scary eyes?

Try it.

Friday, January 30, 2004


I think I've been an occasion for distraction.

Someone got to this site by way of a Google search for Google Search: "thumb over" piano technique. Me? Piano technique?

Well, there was Steve, pointing over his shoulder with his thumb, and there was the shopping technique the person rifling Mary's closet learned from the Goodwill, and there was the piano playing in headphones a few days ago.

Whoever was looking to improve piano technique has fallen into the same net I do. When my elementary school teachers would assign 10 or 20 words to look up, I'd look at this word and then that one and then what about that? and oh what was that word again? I hated those assignments, because they took sooooooo loooooonnng.

Now, the Net, and it's not just words. It's images, and science, and astronomy and politics and literature and cartoons and photos and religion and philosophy and . . . . some crazy blogger talking about thumbs, techniques and pianos.

To my "'thumb over' piano technique" reader, if you ever happen to come back, I hope you found what you were really looking for--and that the journey was as fruitful as my elementary school explorations of the dictionary were.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Liturgical Olympics

The new issue of The Onion Dome: Orthodox News with a Twist is up. I've covered plans for Liturgical Olympics in Athens this summer; Marie Moffitt has the lowdown on an American ethnic festival, and Father Vasiliy has found another outrage at a Ukrainian meat market.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Describe a used car

"Yeah, she runs good," Steve said. He stroked the door of the 1971 Volkswagen bus with an expression of pride and longing, as if it were a faithful horse too old to work the ranch.

I opened the driver's door and put my head in, smelling the nostalgic scent of upholstery and motor oil. "Why are you selling it then?"

He pointed with his thumb over his shoulder to the 10-year-old red Toyota truck sitting in the driveway. "I got to maintain my truck."

I looked back at him with the question. He read it, nodded. I got in and put my hands on the steering wheel. It felt strange and familiar, like hearing a favorite song after thirty years. "I used to drive one of these," I told him.

"No shit."

"My dad bought it for me. Brand new. 1971. Man it was cool."

He gave an exaggerated nod, like he was listening to that same old song. He tossed me the keys. "Crank her up, if you want."

I put the key in the ignition, but didn't turn it. I was afraid of losing the mood. I graduated from high school in 1971. My dad gave me money for college, and I spent it on a new bus. He was so mad that I packed my stuff and drove it to San Francisco. I was too late; Haight Ashbury was already full of kids like me, traveling on their daddy's money and without a clue what the blues were all about. Joplin was dead, and so was Hendrix, and the Summer of Love had faded into the Fall of Discontent.

I turned the key, and the engine gave a game little grunt, turned over once and sighed into silence.

Steve looked offended. "I don't know what happened, man. She purred like a kitten last time I cranked her."

"When was that?"

He raised his arm and scratched the back of his head. "Now that you ask, it must have been-- Hell, I don't know when."

"It doesn't matter really. I don't plan to drive it."

"Yeah? What do you want it for?" He sounded like he wanted to know if my intentions were honorable.

"My seventeen-year-old wants it for a prop for a movie he's making." I've already decided to buy it. If it doesn't run, he can't drive it to San Francisco.

Monday, January 26, 2004

Writing exercises

I'm participating in Yahoo! Groups' NovelMentor Writing Warmups. We are doing daily exercises based on the book A Writer's Book of Days by Judy Reeves. Our assignment today was to describe the contents of someone's closet.

It's done in 15 minutes, by the timer, and when the timer stops, I stop.

Aunt Mary's Closet

Aunt Mary’s closet smelled of cedar and mothballs. I pulled the string hanging from the ceiling, and a bulb clicked on, dim and dust-covered and valiantly trying to dispel the shadows.

The closet was neatly arranged, with shoes on the floor, clothes hanging on the rack, and mysterious boxes piled high on the shelf above. After looking through the old lady’s dresses, quickly, the technique I learned at Goodwill, and trying on one shoe – it was way too small for me – I turned to what interested me, the boxes on the shelves.

I went back into her room and brought a chair over. Four hatboxes stacked together held frothy confections like birthday cakes. A locked metal box probably held her financial records; I set it aside for later. A big, flat box that had formerly held a photo album now overflowed with unfiled photos. I tossed it over to the bed.

Inside a wooden box that would have locked but didn’t were an old woman’s keepsakes: a dried rose, a small flat stone, her senior class key, dated 1938, a ribbon, and a bundle of letters tied neatly with a bow. This was my clue.

I took them to her bed and untied the bundle. They felt as old and dry and crinkly as Aunt Mary herself. The handwriting was hard to read—clean and masculine, but in an old style that I wasn’t accustomed to, having spent most of my life reading print on a computer screen.

The last letter was dated 1942, and inside were only a few lines, blurred by tears.

My Bloggerville neighbor Karl writes

If you can't remember where you left your keys, what page numbers you needed to read for tomorrow's class, or whether you left the stove on....just go do your prayer rule.

I guarantee you'll remember it all and much more besides. Worrying about tomorrow's schedule while trying to pray yields even more spectacular memory recovery results.

-- from "Hidden Benefits of an Orthodox Neophyte Prayer Life' by Karl Thienes and quoted on his blogsite St. Stephen's Musings.

Other important things remembered while trying to pray:

The turning point of the next scene.
The letter I should have written months ago.
The phone call I should have made yesterday.
The perfect bit of dialogue for the story I'm working on.
The next item for The Onion Dome.
Something I needed to tell the parishioner who just arrived (this is during church).

And because they're so important, I have to keep them in memory for the rest of the time, so that I won't forget them when it's over.

Of course, I do forget them, as soon as it's over.

I'm glad Karl has the same experience. Well, no, let me rephrase that. I'm glad I'm not the only one who does that. I wish Karl well in overcoming it.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

A Dumb Movie

In a bid to spend some quality time with my teen-aged daughter today, we rented Alex & Emma, a work of romantic fluff by Rob Reiner, noted on the cover as the director of When Harry Met Sally. I'm not a big fan of When Harry Met Sally, but it's enormously better than Alex & Emma.

The whole premise was laughably impossible. A writer lost $50K at the dog tracks and borrowed money from the Cuban Mafia. When he can't pay it back on time, he promises to double the amount and repay it in a month, when he turns in his manuscript for a new book.

He now has 30 days to write a romance from scratch (he has writer's block). At the end of the 30 days, he'll pick up $125k from his publisher. Later on, we learn it's his second novel.

Somebody tell these people how few novelists can get $125K advance on their second book. How few can turn in a first draft and pick up a check the same day. How few can get the Mafia to wait a month on a double-or-nothing bet (this one I don't know about, not having dealings with the Mafia--Cuban or otherwise--myself).

I nodded off during the second-act climax.

It's the other acronym for DVD--"direct-to-video drek."

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Message, metamessage, subtext

Two sources come together for some insights into character, both on the page or screen and maybe even in real life.

Robert McKee draws a distinction between characterization and character. Characterization is the outward manifestation of character, all the physical looks and actions that identify a person. Character is the secret reality that doesn't mesh with characterization.

Subtext is the motivation in a scene that comes from deep within character and that goes against the apparent motivation.

Characterization might be a sunny disposition and cheery manner that hide deep hostility and envy. In the text of a scene, the sunny character may compliment another character's hairstyle. Subtext could be that she thinks the hairstyle looks stupid and wants the other character to fail, or it could be that she thinks it's stupid, but lacks the confidence in her own judgment. It's a motivation to speak that she doesn't reveal to the other character and perhaps not even to herself.

Debra Tannen, a sociolinguist and author of a number of books about conversation styles, draws a distinction between message and metamessage. The message is the direct statement of the words. The metamessage is carried not in the words but in the tone, timing, even the choice to speak rather than not speaking. In conversation, the people who drive you crazy are the ones whose message and metamessage conflict, the ones who say, for example, "I like your hairstyle," when everything about their way of speaking lets you know that the truth is exactly the opposite. You can't respond on either level. If you respond to the message, then you prove yourself oblivious to the more important metamessage. If you respond to the metamessage, the response is, "What did I say?"

In storytelling, whether on paper, stage or screen, all three levels come into play. The message is the words of dialogue. The metamessage is the broader communication, of which the words are only a part. The subtext is not message at all, not meant to be communicated, but it must be communicated to the audience, even if not to the other characters.

But sometimes the borders between metamessage and subtext can be fluid. Think of the question, "Why are you telling me this?" If you ask, then you've become aware of subtext (even if you haven't identified it). An answer to that question moves subtext to metamessage, whether the communicator intends it or not. If you answer the question wrongly, the wrong subtext becomes part of the perceived metamessage, even though the true subtext is still hidden. This is often the source of plot twists in a story like Charade or The Spanish Prisoner that keeps characters and audience guessing where reality lies.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004


I just took a One-Minute Vacation in Jalisco, Mexico. It was fun. I had never been that far into Mexico before, and a couple of guys were playing marimba in the marketplace, with people walking by talking Spanish, and I could almost smell the wares of the food vendors, feel the sweat streaking down my back and see the lacy shadows thrown by the palm trees.

But I don't want to talk about Mexico. I want to talk about earphones.

What a different experience it is hearing things with stereo headphones from hearing them coming from ordinary speakers, whether I'm listening to a recorded book or music, or a mixture of music and texture such as movie or the one-minute vacation.

With headphones, the sounds seem to come from inside my own head. By contrast, I was listening to a CD this evening as I cleared the kitchen for dinner. The speakers were in the other room, and although I could hear well, the sound seemed more distant than the speakers, as if it wasn't quite my sound (again, not ownership but relationship). The music was so outside that I had a hard time focusing on it.

Maybe that's what the rock concert sound techs are aiming for when they turn the volume so high that the audience's ribs vibrate and what the headache-mobile drivers are aiming for when they set their entire vehicles to buzzing. They're trying to bring the music inside.

But even though my bones aren't vibrating as I listen to Avishai Cohen's disc Unity, as I am this evening, The headphones locates the drums in the back of my head, the piano in my right ear, the guitar in my left, with the sax coming in on the left, the trumpet on the right. Listening is as intimate as if all the musicians have gathered in my brain for a musical dream.

By day, I work in a pod of six people, and our desks are side by side in two rows. It's a cubicle alternative, and it's a good arrangement for people who need to work together a lot. But (here's the relevant part) aside from two who have the concentration powers to shut everything out (and who sit in the front two desks (coincidence?), we use headphones to create cubicles. If others are conversing, and I need to focus, out come the headphones and on goes the radio. In fact, I bring out my headphones first thing in the morning, and put them on and take them off all day. We slip into our musical cubicles, and sometimes we have to wave or "Yoo hoo!" or throw a ball of paper to get someone's attention.

The point? I know what I've gained--an experience of the music so intense that it seems a part of me, an auditory privacy, mood manipulation. As much as I appreciate these things, I wonder what I've lost, both by the presence of so much recorded music and by being able to bring it inside myself and myself inside it.

It's like electric light. We don't know how dark the nights can be as long as the stars are hidden by the street lights. Of course, I appreciate the hours added to my day and the additional safety of the well-lighted street. But I can go weeks without seeing the stars, and we've lost much of our sense that the world is a dangerous place, without, possibly, in the long run having lost the danger.

Similarly, before recordings, music would have been something people made, not just listened to. The quality would have been less polished, but people would have appreciate its presence more. There would have been more participation in music, too. Once upon a time, you didn't have to be a pro to sing a song. Now you're distinctly odd if you sing in any venue where anyone else can hear you.

Waiting at a bus stop once, I saw two teen-aged girls coming down the street singing.They stopped after a few bars, giggling and self-conscious and embarrassed at singing in public.

Something lost, something gained. It's easy to appreciate the gain, but the losses are often much harder to know.

The Dog Ate My Homework

It was a long day at work yesterday, and when I got home, my head felt like it was encased in bubble wrap. I sat down at the computer, turned on Eddie Daniels and stumbled from one page to another. I've gotten to some really good stuff that way--Engrish is one and Monday's Death Clock is another. But last night, it was one lame site after another, until I was clicking the "Not-for-me" button faster than the sites could load. Maybe the problem was not with the Internet but with me? Nah. Couldn't be.

"Give us this day our daily profound revelation to blog about--or if not that, then someone else's profound revelation, funny insight or wicked jibe. Oh, and a Mercedes Benz. Amen."

Monday, January 19, 2004

Remembrance of Death

The Internet knows all, sees all, predicts everything.

The Death Clock tells me that my personal day of death is Friday, Oct. 14, 2033. It's an average, of course, not a prediction, but the 29 years it predicts that I have left are reason for a reflective pause.

The saints say that remembrance of death gives a person a taste of what's important in life. If the time I have left is counting down so quickly, then, in theory, every moment will be something to savor and to spend for the ultimate value.

Whether that will get though my thick skull is a different question, but have a look at the death clock.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Memories of long-ago inspiration

When I went to check the lyrics of Desiderata for a game at Ship of Fools, I thought it would be gaggingly sweet, embarrassing. I expected it to be like watching Billy Jack again or reading my high-school poetry--a reminder of how earnestly vapid I was as a teen-ager.

I was surprised to find it not half bad:
Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender,
Be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly, and listen to others --
Even the dull and ignorant, they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons -- they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter,
For always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career --
However humble, it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is.
Many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself.
Especially do not feign affection, neither be cynical about love.
For in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
It is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the council of the years,
Gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune,
But do not distress yourself with imaginings --
Many fears are borne of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe.
No less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore, be at peace with God, whatever you conceive him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life,
Keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
It is still a beautiful world.
Be careful. Strive to be happy.

To whatever extent I incorporated that into my life at the time, it was among the better influences about me in those late 1960s, early 1970s. There's a lot of good advice in it, especially for a teen-ager trying to discover what's right and true and meaningful in life. There's much in it that's consonant with the Orthodox faith I found as an adult.

I would specify more carefully now about God. "Whatever I conceive Him to be," seems to come dangerously close to making Him up as I go along, but for where I was at the time, it was a step closer to the truth.

It was worn out, wrung of its meaning through overuse back then, even before someone made a Top-40 record out of it. But maybe we need to dust it off again for another generation.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

Trademark police

Adobe's lawyers hold a sheaf of papers against a cracking dam in this page listing the "Thou Shalt Nots" of Adobe Photoshop: Adobe Systems Incorporated Terms of Use

My favorite, which sums up the entire page is this one:
Trademarks must never be used as slang terms.
CORRECT: Those who use Adobe? Photoshop? software to manipulate images as a hobby see their work as an art form. [Those "?"s are registered trademark signs, which I don't even know how to make, cross-platform.]
INCORRECT: A photoshopper sees his hobby as an art form.
INCORRECT: My hobby is photoshopping.

To Adobe?, I say, lots of luck. Your product has not only entered the world of commerce; it has entered the world of culture. When we go shopping (may I say "shopping"?) for the top of the line in image-manipulation software, we go to Adobe? Photoshop?, at least partly because when we hear professionals talking shop (is this OK?) about their trade, they say "photoshop" as a verb. People hear that a lot more than they'll read your attorneys' website.

Truthfully, I don't have a lot of sympathy. Duly noted that it annoys you, but if you listen in on my conversation, you may hear the dreaded slang verb.

It captures the essence of the thought better than your alternatives do. (And I don't know how to make the registered trademark sign in conversation either.)

Friday, January 16, 2004


This site, SIMONHOEGSBERG.COM, has a series of 56 faces photographed walking along Edgeware Road, Marble Arch, London.

The limited narrative on the site makes it sound as if the photos were taken at random. Perhaps they were. If so, then the selection shows genius. They are young, old and in between, and their faces express curiosity, weariness (a lot of weariness), pride, suspicion, cluelessness and cool. There is text and subtext in every face.

I'm hanging on to this link. It would be possible to write a story based on each face.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Welcome to!

If you've had a hard day and just need to sit back and laugh, try this collection of English advertising and advisory writing from Japan and around the world.

Today's picture of the day shows this text on the back of someone's jacket:

It's very comfortable and we feel happy put on it. We are sure this wear will become one of the most versatile garmens in your wordrobe

Before you think I'm some kind of xenophobic lout, let me state that these people's English is infinitely superior to my Japanese (or whatever), but you never appreciate how hard English is and how nuanced our everyday usage can be until you see someone miss it by just a smidge. It's also a glimpse (through overly direct translations) into some of the deepest longings of these other languages (such as the pharmacy named "Happy Drug").

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Scene analysis using Story

My next Story exercise (more about the short story I was working on yesterday): doing an in-depth analysis of the scene structure. I found that the story falls into three discrete scenes, focusing on the three levels of antagonism I talked about yesterday.

Ask who drives the scene? Who takes the primary action; who reacts?

Then divide the scenes into beats and analyze the subtext. The subtext is the characters' unspoken desires that are more present and more real than the spoken desires. Summarize the action and dialog and at each point tell what the character is doing. Put it into an -ing form, to get the verb to the forefront and focus on the present action.

I make some discoveries that will add to the texture of the story: first, the characters are traveling someplace by car. I observed that in the first part of the scene, one character is "driving" the scene and driving the car. OK. Then, in the second part of the scene, the other character, my teen-aged protagonist, is driving the scene--why not have her drive the car as well? It makes perfect sense structurally; it makes more more active in the story, even though it's a story about her getting eaten by sharks; and it's funny.

The other thing I noticed was that in their verbal dueling, I found myself using tennis metaphors. I had had the protagonist mention that she played soccer. It fits the character better to have her play tennis, and it fits the feeling of their conversation better.

Both details are inconsequential little things on one level, but it's the inconsequential little things that give color and texture to the narrative.

Now I'm doing the same analysis to the second scene, which has always been the weakest part of the story.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

More applications of Story

Today's great revelation from Robert McKee: The principle of antagonism.

Take a story value, any story value, e.g. Justice. What's its opposite (he calls it the contradictory)? Injustice. Now think, it's possible to have a negative of Justice that's not exactly Injustice: Unfairness. (He calls this the contrary.) So Unfairness might be bureaucratic snafus, red tape, excessive or insufficient regulation; not malicious but problematic. Injustice would be deliberately opposed to justice: a corrupt official or something. Now, says McKee, take Injustice to its extreme, what he calls the negation of the negation, and you've got Tyranny, systemic Injustice from which there is no escape.

He says that to raise a story to the level profundity is to raise the level of antagonism to the negation of negation. Most stories go through the levels in this sequence: contrary, contradictory, negation of negation, but some fine stories are organized in other ways. (He must have expected his readers to be as thick as I am, because he gave 13 examples, and I needed all of them.)

So I've been thinking about this in relation to a short story I wasn't happy with and didn't know quite why. Without going into detail (because if I tell it here, I won't tell the story as a story), I was starting with a very trusting heroine who is betrayed. So my positive value is Trust. The sequence in the three scenes of the story is betrayed expections (contrary), betrayal (contradictory), betrayal by her mother (negation of negation). That was all latent in the draft so far, but now that I understand it, I can tighten the thread running through it, so that the antagonism is stronger, more focused, and (I hope) finally, more effective.

We'll see.

Monday, January 12, 2004

A musical note

Congratulations to Cappella Romana on its $36,000 grant to fund three recordings. One is the Byzantine Divine Liturgy in English, scheduled for release next Christmas. For Christmas 2005 is Divine Liturgy and choral motets by Peter Michaelides. The third is music by Fr. Sergei Glagolev, conducted by Vladimir Morosan, in 2006.

Cappella Romana is an a cappella choral group based in the Pacific Northwest. They perform a variety of Church and Church-inspired music that is truly other-worldly.

I met Fr. Glagolev, though I didn't know it until later, at St. Vladimir's Seminary in New York. My friend and I had traveled there to attend an Orthodox theological conference and hear a noted French theologian talk about women's ministries in the Church.

During our first few minutes at the seminary, we passed a small man with collar-length gray hair, who greeted us with the Paschal greeting, "Christ is risen!" I don't think he walked with a cane, and yet my memory sees him carrying a pilgrim's staff, though I don't think carried that either. His face and his conversation were filled with joy that he always had a group of people surrounding him. I learned later that this was "our" Fr. Glagolev (the sense not of ownership but of relationship, because our church choir sings so much of his music).

So I wait eagerly for Christmas 2006 for Slavic Orthodox music in English.

Saturday, January 10, 2004


I didn't see this movie when it came out, because I thought it was some Invasion of the Body Snatchers freak fest. I'm not sure I would have gotten it at the time.

After reading halfway through Robert McKee's book, the movie makes sense. McKee is actually a character in the movie, and he mentions that fact on his website. (I think that shows well on his sense of humor.)

Adaptation is antiplot, with its time sequence cutting in the primordial soup with three years ago and now; with Charlie Kaufman a more passive protagonist (up until the third act) than Woody Allen. The biggest "rule" (OK, principle) they broke was the viewer's empathy with the characters, and they did that by their inconsistent realities. By setting up a couple of dream sequences earlier in the film, by the time they came to the third act, I kept wondering when Charlie would wake up. He never did.

Presumably, the third act was supposed to have happened, within the context of the film, but everything in the first two acts was supposed to have happened, was pegged to outside events that the audience would know about: The Orchid Thief, The New Yorker, the Brothers Kaufman, the Story Seminary, Robert McKee; the story opens on the Being John Malkovitch set, with John Malkovitch shouting instructions to the cast and crew.

It was only on reflection afterward, the I realized that the whole movie was an elaborate joke, with the third act as the punchline. Charlie Kaufman gets desperate enough to attend a Story Seminar and talks to Robert McKee afterward. McKee advises him that if he writes a good third act, it will make up for all the mistakes in the prior two acts. So he calls his brother and--

The third act they write is exactly what Charlie Kaufman insisted he didn't want his screenplay to be: car chase, drug running, gratuitous sex and a facile resolution to the protagonist's problem.

OK, I guess you had to be there. I wasn't either. I was left scratching my head until I thought, "Oh. It's a joke. Huh. That's funny." Provided that your definition of funny doesn't require actual laughing.

Anyway, the reason I think Robert McKee must have a good sense of humor (unless it's just appreciation for the publicity) is that what McKee inspired (within the story) was this "Hollywood" third act that lacked all sense of reality, especially after the actions that went before. In reality, McKee doesn't say that it takes car chases or drug running to make a good movie. It just takes conflict.

I can see why writing a screenplay about The Orchid Thief would be hard; there probably isn't much conflict in it. Kaufman kept saying he wanted to write about the beauty of flowers.

So the conflict came in Kaufman's autobiographical(?) attempt to adapt the script, which had plenty of conflict, because he had to do something and didn't have the gumption to do much of anything.

Adaptation really is a good joke. Just not the laugh-out-loud kind.

Friday, January 09, 2004

Postcard from Mars

I never thought I'd see the surface of Mars.

I've read about it often enough in the SF dreams of the authors I've admired: Ray Bradbury's rocket-strewn skies in The Martian Chronicles; C.S. Lewis's intelligent and spiritual lifeforms; the explosions seen on the planet before The War of the Worlds; and too many more to count or name.

The dreams are all of a busy place, bustling with men and machines, with native creatures either hostile or friendly, usually more advanced than we are.

And now come back these photos, which someone jokingly said were a hoax, actually taken in Afghanistan. Empty, quiet, lifeless. The only marks on its still surface are the ones left by the landing craft bouncing across the landscape.

And yet it's still the Red Planet. Red in our sky, and red on its own ground--red dirt, red rocks, its own red horizon.

It's like looking into a mystery, and in a way, the emptiness and silence are even more mysterious than if the craft had sent back photos of an eyeball peering back at us.

We go further and further out into the worlds upon worlds, and everywhere we go, we find only ourselves, Rover shooting its own feet with the camera.

I wonder what Ray Bradbury thinks about all this. Does his hair stand on end a little bit, the way mine does?

Thursday, January 08, 2004

About reversals

Robert McKee defines a reversal as a change in value that takes place in a scene, over a sequence (a series of several scenes), during an act, and in the course of the screenplay as a whole. The value could be any pair of opposites that would be important to the character: wealth/poverty, happiness/sadness, harmony/disharmony. Ideally, in every scene, at least the protagonist moves from one value on the pole to one toward the opposite end. In a scene, the protagonist may lose a wallet, moving from wealth to poverty, for example. In the course of the screenplay (because that's what McKee is talking about), the character would have to move from high on the wealth end to irreversibly high on the poverty end, as a millionaire losing his fortune and ending up a brain-damaged addict sleeping under a bridge.

This is interesting to me, because I attended a James N. Frey workshop and found it very useful, but he kept talking about pole-to-pole growth through a scene, and I didn't get it. Now I understand, despite the difference in terminology.

OK, here's story (true as far as I know):
A Russian-American I know told me that his grandfather (great-grandfather?
whatever) had an icon of St. Nicholas in his home. Some burglars came to his home and stole his savings, which were hidden under the saint's care. The grandfather was so angry that he gouged out the eyes in the icon with a knife or something.

The czar's police sentenced him and his family to exile in Siberia.

The man is now a successful software programmer, whose son started attending UC-Berkeley at age 17.

When my friend told me the story, my first impulse was to laugh. Now I know why. The reversals were too big and came too close together in the narrative. Nonetheless, I think it could make a great epic novel or screenplay.

If I were going to tell it, I would begin with a kulak in a prosperous Ukrainian or south Russian village in the late 1800s. The grandfather would be a middle-aged man, and the treasure would be his life savings. But it's not just a rainy-day fund; it's directed at something important--emigration or to get his son a music education or something. The story opens in his home, and he's celebrating with his neighbors that he's just gotten enough money to do whatever it is he wants to do (Wealth).

Inciting Incident: He wakes the next morning to discover that the treasure is missing.(poverty)

After searching the house and shaking down the neighbors, he shakes his fist and yells at God. In a rage, he gouges out the eyes of the icon (whereas he started in community, now he's out of community).

A neighbor who sees this action thinks he is joining the forces fomenting against the Church and the Czar. He reports the action to the authorities. (Neighbor thus goes from friend to betrayer)

The authorities come and do whatever kind of trial would have been appropriate and sentence him to exile in Siberia. (The man goes from being an upstanding citizen to being a criminal.)

The family decides to go with him. (The man goes from being a loner, betrayed on every side, to having a family willing to stand with him; the family goes from a comfortable life to the hardships of Siberia.)

The man works off his sentence and stays in Siberia as a merchant, building an adequate if not thriving business. (Poverty to comparative wealth)

Back in his Ukrainian village, Stalin has unleashed the de-kulakization efforts, collectivized the farms and begun the famine that killed millions. (wealth to poverty)

The man's son gets word of the hardship back in Ukraine. (his station changes from punishment to comparative safety)

What's missing from this little exercise is the climax, in which some aspect of the character's original situation is irreversibly changed. I've been thinking in terms of wealth and poverty, but we all know that immigrants to America have to go through a certain period of poverty, even if they do quite well eventually. I'd have to go back and layer in some aspect of his life that needs to change and then put in the event that changes it.

So that's what reversal is all about.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

My friend Barbara comments
Dear Jan,
I always enjoy "what if's" especially in the Chestertonian sense of the earth having life instead of merely being the objects of scientific laws. I have had various conversations that express exclusivity between literal and abstract, reality and non-reality, fact and fiction. I get into conversations with people who are trying to process the "literal" ghosts that haunt their Christian experience. They play around with thoughts of eliminating anthropomorphic language of God as a way to "mature." Sometimes I think they are trying to escape ther own humanity in order to understand a God who has revealed Himself as being truly human. As a reader of C.S. Lewis, I revelled in his essay "Myth Became Fact" as a way of relating the concrete and the abstract and seeing the whole rather than opposing the parts. It was the same wholeness I was attracted to in the Orthodox view of the Eucharist being both symbol and reality rather than one or the other. What if the earth fell because man fell and will rise when man is redeemed? What if as Thomas a Kempis said, "The higher does not stand without the lower"?

I think the New Pagans are responding to a real failing in post-Enlightenment society, the loss of the numinous. I disagree with the idea of manipulating the numinous, whether by making voodoo dolls or by making a "thing" of human beings, as the embryonic cloning efforts do. One difference is that at least the voodoo practitioner recognizes that he's dealing with something holy. The white-coated technicians see only a pile of dust (albeit arranged in a highly complex form).

Still, even in the realm of manipulating the numinous, the overlap at the borders can be hard to sort. What about antibiotics, using living things to kill disease? What about acupuncture, which formerly had a bad reputation largely because the process is undocumented? To a certain extent, we accept the familiar and distrust the unfamiliar, without thinking through the issues.

But I agree with you that there doesn't need to be enmity between physical and spiritual realities. The physical and spiritual are two poles of the same truth, with the difference that one is on earth, and the other disappears beyond the stars.

The Onion Dome this week

Dare I admit that my piece in this week's Onion Dome is based on reality?

Actually, anyone who reads the Onion Dome, especially anyone who's Orthodox, knows it's all true.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Another one of those funny quizzes


?? Which Of The Greek Gods Are You ??
brought to you by Quizilla

Actually, I would have preferred to be Hyperion, but he wasn't on the list. Apollo was — steadfast and trustworthy, sort of an immortal golden retriever. It wasn't the way I envisioned him. But then, I wouldn't have envisioned the God of the Underworld as seeking the light.

Maybe these folks read Ovid. I didn't. (Hey. Check this out. It's not too late.)

But it's too late tonight.


OK, here's something I learned today, from Robert McKee: Subplots.

Any subplot in a novel must fill one of four roles:

1) To contradict the controlling idea of the central plot and thus enrich the film with irony.

2) To resonate the controlling idea of the central plot and enrich the film with variations on a theme.

3) To hold the audience's attention if the central plot's inciting incident must be delayed.

4) To complicate the central plot.

If it doesn't do one of these things, says McKee, it should be excised from the story.

I knew that my novel in progress was morphing out of control, reminiscent of The Blob (that's the structure that reminds me of the blob, not the plot). I see now that when I sit down to make a final selection of scenes, I'm going to need to combine some subplots and eliminate others. That should bring it down from the 250k word monstrosity it's threatening to become.

It's going to be hard, though, because they all seem essential. But that's the process of distillation that will include all that is truly essential, but nothing extra.

Story is turning out to be a great tool to make that happen.

Monday, January 05, 2004

Greetings on Theophany

Once upon a time, many years ago, when I hadn't chosen a number of the roads I've since chosen, I thought I would write a book about the Orthodox view of the cosmos. As a hiker and backpacker, a lover of solitude and the songs of rivers, I thought the Orthodox view of the cosmos could thread through the polarization over the environment. Maybe it could.

I came to a crossroads and chose to finish my first novel rather than write that book, and after the first novel came the second, and short stories and more learning of the craft, and whatever I had invested in that idea about the Orthodox view of the environment has leached away, like juice from a rusty can.

The Great Blessing of Waters brings this back to me again this year, because it captures the core of that idea. It comes down to the notion that human beings can take a high view of nature, because God takes so high a view of man. If man is a "damned mass," as some medieval theologian is accused of calling him, then there's no room below us for anything of value. If man is truly the apex of creation, then what is below him can be very high indeed.

Here's a passage from the Priest's Prayer at the Great Blessing of the Waters
All the reason-endowed powers tremble before Thee. The sun singeth Thy praises, and the moon glorifieth Thee; the stars, also, stand before Thy presence. The light obeyeth Thee. The deeps shudder with awe before Thee; the water-springs do Thy bidding.

I urge you to go to the text and look at the whole thing. I've left out some of my favorite stuff for the convenience of those who are just checking in. But look at the activity in nature here: The sun sings; the moon glorifies; the stars stand; the deeps shudder and the watersprings do God's bidding. A little further on, it says, "All creation singeth praises unto Thee." Nature is ascribed will, intention, and the power of obedience, gratitude and praise. It's easy enough to dismiss it as "just a metaphor," but I don't think that's true to the essence of the work.

For one thing, the phrase "just a metaphor" is part of the verbal sickness of our age. Because we allow our metaphors to lose their meaning, we have to keep jacking up the shock value of the next metaphor to get anyone's attention. Suddenly, everything has to be about rape or Nazis or the f-word, and even they are gradually drained of their power.

But what if--an effort of the imagination here--what if, it's not a metaphor at all. What if the sun really does sing? the moon really glorifies? the stars stand before God's presence? There's a scene of this in The Silmarillion, in which all the powers of heaven, which are stars and not exactly stars, sing together in music that is music and not music, like the music of the spheres, which was mathematics and yet not mathematics.

Coming back to something that requires less imagination, what if it's not metaphor but symbol--a drawing together of two realities, physical and something beyond physical--I could call it spiritual, but I don't know if the meaning most people think of would capture what I'm trying to say.

Anyway, what if the trees really sing, the crocuses really raise their heads in joy? Would it make a difference in how we walk on the earth? But I don't know that I'm capable of threading the polarized environmental debate, and I don't want to do it here. I only wanted to say, what if . . . .

Sunday, January 04, 2004

Seldom is heard an encouraging word

Wait. That's not the way the song goes, but it's frequently the way a writer's life goes. That's why a writer needs to be bull-headed to the point of stupidity. You don't like my book? Well, that shows what you know.

Which is why it's an unusual feeling to read McKee's Story. I may not have been able to put the concept into words, but when he explains explains dramatic irony--what happens when the character's conscious and unconscious goals are in conflict--he's describing what my novels always try to do. It makes the work hard to pitch--though the terminology will improve the pitch--and it makes it harder to write--though having the issues laid out so clearly will make it possible--but for me it's the only story worth telling. Not the only story worth reading or being told; LOTR has no conflict between conscious and unconscious goals, and it's a great story. But the two-minded person is the character I find interesting enough to tell.

McKee raises important questions. When he points out that the Inciting Incident throws the character's life out of balance, "arousing in him the conscious and/or unconscious desire for that which he feels will restore balance . . . ," I realize that my protagonist's goal has been slightly skewed. The conscious goal can be whatever my character thinks it is, but the unconscious goal must address the Inciting Incident. The insight sent me off in new directions for what my protagonist must deal with, and I think it's the true spine of the story.

Saturday, January 03, 2004

Some good advice for writers

The rabbit blog doesn't seem to be updated very often, and the questions do have a tendency (noted in the text) to go on and on, and yet scrolling down to the answer to the Dec. 1, 2003, question, one finds some really good advice for writers:
1. Use your critics for good, not evil.

He has specific and amusing suggestions for what to do with them: sending some to the grocery story; forcing others to watch Mel Gibson movies for a week; herding some into a bar to get drunk. One new idea here is that one's critics are legion; another is that the writer should round up a few of them and include their in the writing, to give it piquancy and spice.

2. Become sociopathically overconfident.

No explanation needed. He's not talking about how to deal with friends (at least I hope not), but the necessity of being out there in the text.

3. Be more specific.

This is really good. He says, "you won't ever learn to write about sweeping, epic, fantastic feelings if you don't practice with mundane, pathetic, dissatisfied feelings first."

A marketing reference

Here's a quirky listing of U.S. and U.K. agents, along with candid comments and snippets of rejection letters. Everyone Who's Anyone in Trade Publishing. I'm going to put it over on my writing links so that I can find it later.

Friday, January 02, 2004

Memory Eternal

Nona C. died Dec. 31.

It's a simple sentence that closes the book on a life of nearly 80 years. She was half Aleut and grew up in Kodiak, near the island home of St. Herman, a holy man and early Russian missionary to Alaska. Although she lived here in Portlandfor many years, her heart never departed from the ocean breezes and the sharp mountains of her Alaska home--or from St. Herman.

Nona crafted beautiful works with her hands. She made pysanky, Ukrainian-style Easter eggs painted with intricate designs, and she made beaded earrings and bags. She crocheted blankets that she donated to the church to benefit the church's building fund.

I remember her white hair, her thoughtful manner. I don't recall ever seeing her cranky or crusty, though she didn't walk in a cloud of saccharine piety either. When she sat down at coffee hour, people of various ages gathered around her, because her conversation, even if it concerned the past, was rooted in the present. She remembered the American occupation of the Aleutian Islands during World War II, a blot on the history of the American military, and she remembered the internment of the Japanese, in spite of the fact that they had found only one Japanese spy.

Sometimes you know a person, even if not well, and the things you learn can't be put into words, coming not by hearing as much as by seeing. Nona is like that for me. So I revise my original thought: it's not the book that's closed, but a page that turns, because Nona's story goes on.

The Onion Dome Is Up

I forgot to mention this earlier this week, but more satire is posted on The Onion Dome. Click on over.

Thursday, January 01, 2004

Irritating Words

According to an Associated Press story, Lake Superior State University has determined that the following words should be banned:
Metrosexual: An urban male who pays a great deal of attention to appearance.

X: As in “X-Files,” Xtreme, Windows XP and X-Box.

Punked: To dupe, popularized by the MTV show “Punk’d.”

Place Stamp Here: Printed on return envelopes.

Companion animals: Also known as pets.

Bling or Bling-Bling: Flashy jewelry.

LOL: E-mail speak for “laugh out loud.”

Embedded Journalist.

Smoking Gun.

Shock and Awe.

Captured Alive.

Shots Rang Out.

Ripped From the Headlines.

Sweat Like a Pig: The problem is pigs don’t sweat.

In Harm’s Way.

Hand-Crafted Latte.

Sanitary Landfill: Also known as a dump.

I share their annoyance with some: "X" and "LOL" have lost their edge, and "hand-crafted latte" always seemed pretentious.

I would have thought there's a difference between "companion animals" and pets. Companion animals would make sense as a description for working dogs, such as guide dogs for the blind and companion dogs for the deaf and wheelchair-bound. But when I Googled "companion animals," I found that most people just use it as a euphemism for "pets." And since all the companion animals by my definition were dogs anyway, why not just call them working dogs. Good call, Lake Superior State.

It's telling how many of the phrases on the list began as colorful figures of speech: "shots rang out," "in harm's way" and "ripped from the headlines" are the ones most fitting that description. Those were overused because they were such effective metaphors the first time. Down the line, they're not even used carefully, and the life has been wrung from the metaphor, and "shots rang out" gets to be more about a stock phrase than about a bell-like disturbance of gunfire. It's a trap I fall into myself, with "Wake up and smell the coffee" and "Hello?" When I'm writing, I need to watch for other people's metaphors and chop them relentlessly.

There are some other words and phrases I wish would go away: "share" as a synonym for public speaking; the political hyperbole of calling people Nazis and fascists without showing how the specific definition applies; all the variations on "weapons of mass destruction," such as "weapons of mass instruction" and "weapons of mass construction" -- they ceased being cute before they ever started; "whatever floats your boat."

Howver, I think Lake Superior State University has itself engaged in some hyperbole: the press release advocates "banning" the phrase "sweat like a pig" and the others. Isn't that a Draconian violation of First Amendment rights? Wouldn't it make more sense simply to say what they mean--that they want to draw attention to these phrases so that people will be more aware of how worn-out they sound, not to mention getting a little publicity for Lake Superior State?

"Truth in advertising" is another one that it would be nice if we mentioned less but practiced more.

More cliches are at Clich├ę and Cliche Finder.