Friday, December 14, 2012

Floating Down the Lazy River

And now Henry shows me up on my own blog.

First, I can’t thank Keith here enough for having me on the blog again. Second, If you remember from the last time I was here, I talked about the reason we as writers feel the need to write. In the end, I concluded that it dealt a great deal with connection. Today I’ll be talking about how emotion is key to forming a connection with the reader.

Listen to this song or this one, watching or ignoring the videos as you desire. Don’t just listen, though. Really let yourself open up to the song. If you feel nothing out the other side of the song, that’s fine. I do. And I can only surmise from the popularity and reviews of these songs that I’m not alone.

These are examples of powerful pieces of art that deal with strong, universal emotions. “Hurt” as performed by the man in black, Johnny Cash, is a pitiless self-portrait of reflection and acceptance, of love and loss, of regret. It’s raw emotion bathed in an acid solution of words and electroplated with music. “Over You” is performed by Miranda Lambert and co-written by her husband Blake Shelton. As they say here, the song was written about the loss of Blake’s brother when he was young.

Part of the human condition is working through emotion, and there are few emotions so profound and so sharp as those of loss. The reason the loss hurts so much is because the feeling it’s connected to has left such a big hole. But really, loss is really just one kind of pain and pain is universal. I’d continue with my own words, but I feel that those of Jim Butcher serve far better here:

"We still hadn't learned, though, that growing up is all about getting hurt. And then getting over it. You hurt. You recover. You move on. Odds are pretty good you're just going to get hurt again. But each time, you learn something.
Each time, you come out of it a little stronger, and at some point you realize that there are more flavors of pain than coffee. There's the little empty pain of leaving something behind - graduating, taking the next step forward, walking out of something familiar and safe into the unknown. There's the big, whirling pain of life upending all of your plans and expectations. There's the sharp little pains of failure, and the more obscure aches of successes that didn't give you what you thought they would. There are the vicious, stabbing pains of hopes being torn up. The sweet little pains of finding others, giving them your love, and taking joy in their life they grow and learn. There's the steady pain of empathy that you shrug off so you can stand beside a wounded friend and help them bear their burdens.
And if you're very, very lucky, there are a very few blazing hot little pains you feel when you realized that you are standing in a moment of utter perfection, an instant of triumph, or happiness, or mirth which at the same time cannot possibly last - and yet will remain with you for life.

Everyone is down on pain, because they forget something important about it: Pain is for the living. Only the dead don't feel it.

Pain is a part of life. Sometimes it's a big part, and sometimes it isn't, but either way, it's a part of the big puzzle, the deep music, the great game. Pain does two things: It teaches you, tells you that you're alive. Then it passes away and leaves you changed. It leaves you wiser, sometimes. Sometimes it leaves you stronger. Either way, pain leaves its mark, and everything important that will ever happen to you in life is going to involve it in one degree or another."

It’s not just enough to feel that emotion though. We’re writers. That means we have to make our readers feel that pain. And to feel pain you have to have something invested in the outcome of the story. There’s no best way to get this to happen, though. Pain and all of the emotions it accompanies aren’t part of some technical formula. They start gradually, and you can’t fake them in your story any better than you could truly fake them in life.

As it always is, there is a beginning, a middle, and, inevitably, an end. Here I come full circle to the music from above. Because of the format, those performances don’t have enough time to build that connection in words alone. Yes, the words are central to the building of that emotion and the feelings that the listener feels, but the music is necessary to get you there. If that were a rock track playing behind either of those songs, not only would they feel disjointed because of the disconnect between the vocals and the music, but the visceral pain that those songs evoke would be lost.

We have more time to work on our readers. The oft heard phrase “Write what you know” works well here. It is simpler to take a pain you know, a pain you’ve felt, and put that in words. It may not be easy, but it’s simple. Once you can get that on the page in a way that makes sense and that has your reader absorbed in that experience right alongside your character, it’s a simple thing to use that emotion to manipulate the reader.

And there’s no doubting that is exactly our job as writers. Our goal is to make the beating heart of our reader skip once or twice in surprise, for their eyes to well with tears or the bottom of their stomach to drop out in fear. And maybe, just once or twice, our goal should be for their hearts to soar with joy. Because without pain it’s hard to judge our happiness. But without love, loss is meaningless. If you can find that balance, you will keep your reader coming back every time.

That doesn’t mean you just get to toy with the poor souls though. Denouement is integral part of the story. Just in life as we often look for closer, leaving your reader without any conclusion will make them hate you more surely than a poorly written story. Part of a successful denouement is catharsis, or the purging of emotions. The reader never comes into the story a blank slate and catharsis does not mean that you should let them leave as such, but for every emotion that you made them feel along the way, you should give them an outlet.

You don’t need rainbows and sunshine to satisfy, but the fresh sprout of a flower among the weeds can often engender a connection with the reader more surely than any flowery phrase could ever hope to.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Lazy Mode Engaged

Some friends have been kind enough to volunteer some guest posts while I run some routine maintenance on the blog. This one is an entry from a friend we'll call Salem, inspired by little character killer parodies, and will be the first of many such entries from him. We also should hear from good ole Henry around Friday, though I have no idea what he'll be talking about. Anyway, on with the show...


“Where in the hell are we now?”

Lots of stars.

“Looks like a funky bus.”

So many fucking stars.

“Do buses run in space...?” The other four exchanged a nervous glance with each other and moved with obvious trepidation toward Churs, standing calmly by a small circular window. He stepped aside and they saw for themselves the cold lifeless black.

“I’ve got a bad-”

“Don’t you dare...” Ara hissed at Donut and they all fell into silence for a moment before Aethon moved out of the metal box-like space they were crowded in toward a door shaped opening at the far end.

“We should look around. Find out where, or more importantly, when we are.” With that the reserved assassin disappeared through the door- Not two seconds passed and he poked his head out again. “I found a clue.”

They moved through the doorway and came into a small cockpit, two seats at either side by some complex consoles, and two more set before a semicircular window. Outside they saw the most baffling space phenomenon in the history of the universe.


              "Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of
              trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.  Hoping
              to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships,
              the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the
              small planet of Naboo.

              While the congress of the Republic endlessly debates this
              alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly
              dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and
              justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict....."

In bright, eye shattering, yellow that scrolled away from them until the words became nothing but yellow specks in the distance.

The revelation and the implications stretched out into silence as each of them came to terms with this information in their own way. A slight sniffle was heard at first, a wet sigh and then they turned and saw that the drunken Scotsman was slumped against the wall, his visor down but his armoured shoulders visibly shaking with uncontrollable emotion.

“WE’RE IN THE PREEEEEEQUEEEEEEEEELLLLLLLSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!” He wailed and fell to his knees as around him random junk broke in a torrent of overly dramatic telekinesis.

Donut crouched down beside him and patted him sympathetically on the shoulder as Sal’s gauntleted fists pounded the floor. Ara sat, deflated, in the pilot seat and Rani took the co-pilots while Aethon folded his arms and leaned against the wall, his hooded head hung in apparent depression.

“Wait..” Churs began and leapt from his seat as the lightning bolt of an epiphany struck.

“There is nothing you can say Rani...” Aethon replied with a sigh but the man would not be deterred, he was grinning now.

“We’re *IN* the Prequels!!” He exclaimed with glee, his repetition of the situation elicited another yelp from Norongachi.

“Just-just...don’t..” It was Ara now and although her pale jaw was set against the grim hand fortune had dealt them her crimson eyes betrayed her feelings.

“You do know what this means?” The man’s gaze swept over them and the first inklings of comprehension began to glimmer in their eyes. Aethon was the first, the edge of his lips pulling up into a smirk, and then Ara soon joined them with a manic grin.

“That-that we’re part of the reason virgins cry themselves to sleep at night?” Sal asked getting himself up onto his knees and lifting his visor to look Rani in the eye.

“Gungans, people!” Churs proclaimed triumphantly.

“Gungans...” Sal repeated with disgust and then got to his feet, his hand vanishing into a compartment in his armour and returning with a flask, which he quickly upended into his mouth.

“Gungans...” You could have melted steel with the single word the redhead spoke.

“Set a course for Naboo!” Rani yelled, in full leadership mode. When his request was met with silence he looked around at his comrades and saw them all exchanging glances.

“No one knows how to fly this thing?” He asked to head shakes and shrugs.

“Maybe if I...” Ara began and tentatively took hold of what looked like a steering yoke in front of her. She gripped it and gave it the most subtle of twists and sure enough the ship began to bank slowly left.

“Hey, theres a planet here!” The others moved over to have a gander and there was a planet, right in front of them. In fact it was so close they could make out continents and even the flicker of city lights. They also saw some oddly shaped donuts, dozens of donuts, all in orbit around the world.

“I guess we found Naboo.”

“Now...” Ara said, her fingers flexing upon the steering controls and that manic grin grew a touch more psychotic. “Someone find me the guns...” Before anyone knew what was happening they were thrown unceremoniously to the floor as the ship surged forward toward the Trade Federation blockade.

“I..hate..that..harlot..” Sal groaned from his upside down position against a bulkhead.

Aethon, as balanced and dexterous as he was, had remained upright and let go of the console that had saved him a fall before storming toward their de facto pilot.

Whatever harsh words that would have fallen from his lips were forgotten and all he could scream was “SHIP!”

“I haven’t figured out how to brea-!!” Her sentence was lost to the sound of explosions and collision, the ship spun on the spot and it's woefully ill equipped crew were thrown like rag dolls.

“If..” Ara coughed as smoke and sparks leapt from the consoles before her. “..anyone makes a crack about women drivers I’ll roast them alive...”

“Wouldn’t dream of it..” Rani responded with a shake of his head, pulling himself upright with the aid of a chair.

“Unknown vessel,” A ghostly voice spoke with a flourish of static from a busted console. “Do you require assistance?”

They all looked at each other, all except Donut who was too busy lamenting the state his hair was in, and shared a moment. It was a moment all Star Wars fans wished for- would kill for.

They had just crashed into Obi-Wan Kenobi.