Rules, What Rules: Dialogue Tags

In the first post I published on this blog, I bemoaned the reductive nature of writing advice. “If you write like everyone else,” I wrote, “your writing will read like everyone else’s. I have gotten away from that theme over the years, but today I wish to return to it. Over the next few months, I will present a series of blogs that deal with common pieces of writing advice, and then present a famous work by a successful author which breaks those rules. My aim is not to criticize these authors—I enjoy all of them, that is the point. Rather, I present their works as examples of successfully writing, which might cause you to reexamine the writing “rule” critically. I am not advising you to ignore these rules, rather to take control of your own craft, and consider your choices actively. As always, I believe there is more than one path to success, more than one formula for great writing. Consider these posts synecdochally. The specific rule is not the point; it speaks to a general attitude which is prevalent within the contemporary writing community.

In each blog post in this series, I will give a brief summary of the rule, followed by a case study of a successful author, work, or series that breaks that rule. Finally, I will provide some analysis of the rule and the alternative techniques the featured author makes. Since the posts in this series will not necessarily be consecutive blog entries, I will link each piece to previous entries.

The Rule: Invisible Dialogue Tags

One of the more common pieces of writing advice is to try to make your dialogue tags invisible. Write “said” rather than a more descriptive tag such as “exclaimed,” “lamented,” “cried,” etc. Theoretically, the word “said” is invisible; the reader does not notice it because it is so common. Moreover, the content of the dialogue should be sufficient, along with your descriptions of your characters’ actions and facial expressions, to “show” the emotion inherent in the statement. You should not have to “tell” the reader how your character feels.

Case Study: Timothy Zahn

By any measure, Timothy Zahn is a successful science fiction author. His Stars Wars novels created the Extended Universe, and his most famous character, Grand Admiral Thrawn, is one of the few characters to survive Disney’s recent retcon. Zahn also won the Hugo award, the most prestigious award in the science fiction field, long before he started writing his Star Wars books. On a personal note, I have read and enjoyed Zahn’s books since high school. I have probably read more pages by him than any author except for Terry Pratchett.

And yet…

Zahn has achieved this success despite not following the convention of invisible dialogue tags. As you will see from the examples below, he uses descriptive tags regularly, and even—and this so-called rule will be the subject of the next post in this series—the dreaded adverb.

Here is a page from early in his latest book, Greater Good, which is part of the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy. The relevant dialogue tags are highlighted.

Page from thrawn Ascendency, by Timothy Zahn

The dialogue on this page includes “growled” (twice), “countered” and “said stiffly.” Although it does include a few traditional “said” tags as well. It would seem that Zahn does not always use “said,” and he certainly does not use the extent recommended by the “writing experts.”

Perhaps, you may be thinking, that as a best-selling, famous author, Zahn can get away with things that you or I can’t. I thought that might be the case as well, so I took a look at some of his earlier works. As it turns out, the dialogue tags on the above page are fairly typical of his writing.

Consider this page from Heir to the Empire, Zahn’s first Star Wars book:

page from Heir To The Empire, by Timothy Zahn

If anything, the dialogue tags are more varied. Zahn uses “asked,” “reminded him,” “insisted,” “snorted,” and “agreed.”

You can see the same style in the following page, from Zahn’s 1984 novel Spinneret, which features tags like “frowned,” “groweled” (again), “interrupted suddenly,” and “agreed.”

Page from Spinneret

Clearly, Zahn has been using varied dialogue tags throughout his career, and clearly it has not affected his ability to get published or his book sales.

Analysis

Why is Zahn able to write successfully despite flouting the conventions of dialogue tags? I think the answer is pretty simple: He writes great characters and great stories. The fact that he created a lasting, memorable character like Thrawn is way more important to his success than whether or not he follows some minor craft convention, such as sing invisible dialogue tags.

As a community, I think we have become too obsessed with the minutiae of craft, fueled by the cottage industry of writing advice. It is much easier to critique someone’s dialogue tags after a superficial read than to get into the weeds and examine why the storytelling and characterization work or don’t work. I also believe that as a community, we discuss craft on a sentence and technique level to a far greater extent than we discuss basic storytelling and characterization. Like JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, I blame the modernists, but that’s a subject for another blog post.

To this point, I never noticed that Zahn broke convention when I read him in high school. I only began to notice it when I became a “writer” and began to be inundated with advice proclaiming conventional writing rules. It is important to realize that the majority of readers are not writers and do not read with an eye for such things.

Moreover, in doing this analysis, I realized that I tend to notice these breaks in conventions early on in a novel. The first example I chose was page 11 of a 400+ page book. This caused me to think of other unconventional dialogue techniques, such as the decision of certain “literary” writers such as Cormac McCarthy and Junot Diaz not to use quotation marks. Like Zhan’s descriptive dialogue tags, the unconventional use of dialogue trips me up toward the beginning of the novel, but I tend not to notice it as the work goes on.

It is my contentions that, with consistent usage, most styles of writing dialogue become invisible over the course of a longer work.


Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on TwitterInstagram and Facebook.

Comic Book School Flash Fiction Challenge, Step 2 Begins

For the second straight year, I am editing the Comic Book School Flash Fiction Challenge. The challenge just entered step 2 (but it’s not too late to join), and here is the column I posted for this phase of the challenge on the CBS site, which includes my advice for writing Flash Fiction.

I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead—Mark Twain

Writing succinctly is hard. You must say what is essential—and only what is essential, remain laser-focused on what you wish to convey, and avoid digressions. You must drill down to the pure essence of writing, and tell your story in its purest, most distilled form. It is a task that writers like Mark Twain, Blaise Pascal, and Cicero all lament takes time, often more time that writing a longer piece would. For those who are participating in the Comic Book School Flash Fiction challenge, that time is now.

The drafting step of the current challenge begins today on our message boards for Flash Fiction #2, and first drafts are due in fourteen days. Here are three suggestions for how to approach this particular challenge:

1. Consider writing a One-Twist Story:

When writing flash-fiction you don’t have space for complex plots. Eschew all sub-plots, and focus on a single problem in a single dramatic situation. Build suspense around one question, situation, or antagonist. Try to build toward a logical, but unexpected resolution, and hide this resolution from the reader for as long as possible. If you are successful, the reader should be both surprised and satisfied by your story’s conclusion.

The Twilight Zone is the gold standard for this type of writing. Think of the episode, Time Enough At Lastin which Henry Bemis, a bookish man who wants nothing as much as to read finds himself with all the time in the world, surrounded by books. Unfortunately, his glasses are permanently broken. The powerful ending is built on one twist. All of the characterization focuses on Bemis’ love of books and his frustration with a society that won’t let him read. From the opening scene in which Bemis reads David Copperfield at his job, to the scene where Bemis’ wife setting him up for ridicule by first asking him to read poetry to her and then frustrates these attempts and destroys his book, each scene stays laser-focused on the single aspect of Bemis’ characterization that will be important to the resolution. If Bemis had been a character in a novel or a movie, he would need to be characterized more fully, but in the shorter medium, focus is essential.The single twist ending can also be pulled off in comedic form.

In perhaps the most famous episode of The Honeymooners, the 99,000 Dollar Answer,  the seeds that hint at the twist ending are sown throughout the early part of the episode. The writers engage in a classic misdirection framing the story around Ralph Kramden’s appearances on the gameshow, partially to hide those seeds, but there is still only one dramatic situation that leads to a perfect surprise twist ending.

In The Duel, my flash piece for the last anthology, I tried to affect a single twist ending. Reader have told me that were surprised by the ending. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it’s only 500 words. Read it and see if you’re surprised, then read it again and try to isolate the techniques I use to affect the suspense and hide the ending.

2. Consider putting your own spin on a traditional trope or cliché.

One of the hardest aspects of writing flash fiction for writers who are used to longer form writing is the lack of space for worldbuilding and backstory. When writing flash fiction, you must build a believable world quickly. Why not let the reader do some of the work for you? By using a trope with which the reader is already familiar, a writer can rely on that reader to do the world building for them. If you write what appears to be a classic fairy tale, a traditional horror, or noir crime story, half the work is done for you. The reader already knows where they are and what is supposed to happen.

The same can be said when using a seemingly cliched or trope-y character. Certain character types are supposed to act in certain ways: Prince Charming, the tragic hero, the undead monster, etc. Moreover, setting your story within a cliched trope allows you to subvert that trope to affect your twist ending. Consider Neil Gaiman’s masterful short story, Nicholas Was. (If you have not read it yet, read it before the next sentence. It’s only 100 words; I’ll wait) At the end of the story, Gaiman relies on the reader’s familiarity with the Santa Claus myth to affect his twist ending. The last three words of the story—”Ho, ho ho”—carry so much weight because the audience is already familiar with Santa Claus before reading the story. Gaiman has used something cliched and familiar to create something surprising and original.

In “The Duel,” I combine two common tropes, the duel at high noon from spaghetti westerns and the traditional high-fantasy wizard archetype, to create a new and different world. Because readers are generally familiar with the Western movie archetype, I could quickly establish the setting with details like the old-west saloon, the tumbleweed rolling across the road, and the townsfolk shuttering their windows. Because readers are familiar with the wizard archetype, I do not have to explain an elaborate magical system that allows the wizards to shoot magic from their staffs. The tropes have done that work for me. But, because I mash-up two unfamiliar genres, the story still feels fresh and new.

3. Consider using an unconventional or experimental narrative technique.

Because flash fiction is so short, it affords the writer the opportunity to experiment with form and language. An unconventional storytelling method can set your story apart and grab the reader’s attention. Readers will stick with an unconventional technique longer in shorter-form fiction, and this gives the flash fiction writer freedom to try out new things.

In her famous short story, The Birthday Party by Katherine Brush uses multiple point of view shifts—including the dreaded second person—to affect the dramatic distance of the reader to the story. In “The Duel,” I use present-tense narration to create immediacy and build suspense. These techniques work better in short form writing than in long form writing. They make the reader uncomfortable, which has the contradictory affect of hooking them in the short term (hmm, this is new and interesting, I’ll give it a shot) and alienating them in the long term (This is just weird/difficult; I don’t want to put in the work to deal with it).

Flash fiction offers you the opportunity to experiment with unconventional techniques and forms without alienating the reader. Take advantage of that opportunity and be creative. Surprise yourself by writing in an unfamiliar way, and you will be sure to surprise your reader.

The drafting phase is the perfect time to experiment with these unconventional narrative techniques. If you write your draft in, say second person, and you don’t like it, it is easy to revise your narrative perspective in future drafts.

There are, of course, many more ways to approach Flash Fiction—many more than I have space for here—and I encourage you experiment with them all. If, however, you are having trouble getting started with the challenge—or if this is the first time you are attempting to write flash fiction—I hope you find these suggestions helpful.

As always, I look forward to seeing your creations, and I will see you on the message boards for Flash Fiction: Step #2.

How to Participate

Register for the challenge, review the creative prompt, and start brainstorming on the boards.

We hope you will take on the flash fiction challenge. We’ll see you on the boards…and in The Time Inn.

Next Steps

Read the announcement for the 8-Page Challenge and fill out the startup form.

Questions? Contact our editor A.A. Rubin on the Flash Fiction Forum.


This article first appeared on the Comic Book School page. Comic Book School runs the flash fiction challenge.

Coffee With Skullgate

Check out my appearance on Coffee With Skullgate in which Skullgate editor in chief, Chris Van Dyke compares my writing to James Joyce. We also talk about genre, science fiction, comics, and the new Skullgate anthology, Under New Suns, which includes my short story “I am I.”.

On WandaVision and Building Audience Trust

You’ve got to hook your audience from the beginning, is one of the most common pieces of writing advice out there. Your first paragraph, the first 5 minutes of a show or movie, page one of your comics story, that’s all you get before your audience makes a decision about whether or not to continue to engage with your creative project. For the most part, this is true—except when it isn’t.

There are many lists of great first lines in literature, from Charles Dickens, to Ralph Ellison, to William Gibson, and agents, by and large, ask for the first few pages of a novel—and only the first few pages—as part of the standard pitch packet. It’s a tried and true strategy that’s worked from Homer’s epics through the modern Bond movie formula…

…And then there’s WandaVision.

WandaVison began with a two-episode premier that viewers found confusing and slow. Many of my friends—especially those who were not familiar with the source comics—told me that they were “completely lost” after watching that first hour of the Disney+ television program. And yet, they kept watching. Now, the show’s viewership is so large that it’s threatening The Mandalorian as the most popular show on the streaming service, and reaction to the series—and to the slow-burn build—as been overwhelmingly positive.

Why did the audience stay? According to conventional wisdom with which I opened this blog, they should not have. Sure, some die-hard comics readers would have (they always do, even when they don’t like a program if only to have something about-which to complain), but that doesn’t account for the massive general audience.

I believe that the reason everyone stayed is trust. People stuck with the show because they believed in Marvel and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After two-dozen movies, which brought comics characters into the mainstream like never before, the audience was willing to sit through the slow burn of the first few episodes because they trusted that the payoff was going to come. People like my wife, who hadn’t read a comic in over 20 years, liked the Scarlet Witch and wanted to find out what was going on with her, and trusted that, if her story fit into the storytelling universe that they loved, it was bound to be good. They stuck with the show, and they, thus far, have been rewarded.

It would be foolhardy to start a creative universe with a program like WandaVision. Even if it was good, there wouldn’t be enough people who would stick with it if it proved to be difficult to access. It was a smart move to open with a fairly conventional super hero movie like Iron Man. Once trust has been established, however, it frees the creative team to try different storytelling methods.

This concept is not unique to WandaVision. James Joyce’s work, for example follows a similar pattern. Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, while critically acclaimed, are much more conventional than Ulysses (to say nothing of Finnegan’s Wake).

As writers, we should all hope to, eventually, build the kind of trust with our readers that would free us to try different storytelling styles and to pace the action as we see fit. Until then, we should all continue to search for that perfect first line.


Be sure to connect on facebooktwitter, and instagram, and check out the links page to read some of my published work.

On the Useful and the Useless

I’ve often written in this space about the influence that Bruce Lee has had on me, both in my life, and on the way I approach writing. As I think about the reality of the world in which we have lived for the past year, a Bruce Lee quote is, once again, at the forefront of my mind:” Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is essentially your own.” I’ve written about this quote in the past, but recently I’ve been considering it in a new light.

Bruce Lee, famously, discarded much of the classical teaching he had learned about martial arts when he invented his system, Jeet Kune Do. He took concepts and techniques he found to be successful in other styles and synthesized them with his own martial knowledge to create a new system that he felt was superior to any of those from which he drew its various parts.

He also discarded many of the traditional practices associated with these older systems, which included set forms, or kata, and structured drills, which he felt restricted a martial artist’s growth and ability to express themselves fully. Pattens were prisons which shackled the mind to the styles of the old masters, and which hindered an artist’s growth. Students should do their own research, he thought, and critically evaluate the traditional approaches so that they could grow, reach their full potential, and express themselves fully.

I have long valued this critical approach, and, as I wrote in my earlier piece, I hope that my readers will follow my example and evaluate the plethora of writing advice out there—including my own—critically. Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, and make something truly your own.

And yet…

As I evaluate my martial practice during this time of pandemic, I question the wisdom of the second part of that tripartite advice. During the pandemic, I have been unable to attend martial arts classes. Social distancing requirements have kept my school closed for much of the last year, and, even if it were to reopen for some form of modified, in person training, I would, most likely, hesitate longer than most before returning, as I have a number of health issues that put me at a higher risk for Covid 19. As such, I have needed to modify my training. My mook jong (wing chun wooden dummy) and vo-ball have become primary training tools for me to continue my practice, and I have begun taking online classes and participating in video lessons with a range of instructors from various styles.

One of the online classes I have been taking is in sword technique and choreography with Adrian Paul (of Highlander fame. Through his Sword Experience company, Mr. Paul has been teaching via video lesson, and has been offering personalized feedback where once-a-month, patrons can upload videos for him to critique. The instruction, thus far, has been excellent, and the critiques thorough.

One thing I did notice, however, is that Paul is teaching a kata. It is a kata he designed, but it is a kata nonetheless. My Jeet Kune Do-trained brain rebelled against the idea at first. This was an idea which I was supposed to discard. I hadn’t practice kata in many years (since I began studying JKD 10 years ago), and I struggled with learning this new one. Even when I took a martial art that focused more heavily on forms as a youth, patterns were never my strong suit. I was always much better in a “live” drill or sparring.

In the absence of a training partner, however, what other choice was there? Through sending videos of the kata, and receiving critiques about them, I improved my sword work in very real and noticeable ways. I began to feel more comfortable in the system, and, clearly, I was making progress in the art. Now, of course, to become truly proficient, I would need to do partner drills, work in a less structured way, and eventually actually spar or fence with an opponent, but that just isn’t an option right now. Given the circumstances, kata became not only useful, but necessary.

This experience has caused me to think back to the traditional forms against which Lee rebelled. Many of these forms come from styles that were outlawed throughout history, either by the Qing dynasty or by the modern Communist Chinese government. (Many of the Chinese systems use Ming symbolism in their salute/bow, and have historical connections to Ming patriots and rebels), and therefore, they had to be practiced in secret. Students may have had to practice alone for much of the time, apart from their masters, and the forms provided a catalogue of techniques in a way that was easy to remember and systematic to practice. Of course, the forms had to be supplemented by live training when possible, but I imagine that for many, it was not often possible to find a training partner.

Bruce Lee, in America, had the freedom and platform to test his system against martial artists from a variety of schools. During his life, there was no shortage of people who wished to train with him. Many of his students—and their students—have had similar luxuries. And yet, today, in the middle of the pandemic, we find ourselves isolated, training on our own, often without the guidance of a teacher or master. We need our kata. What was discarded has become useful again.

Thus, utility is not a fixed state. Our situation constantly changes as we go through life, and we must decide what is useful to us in each moment. We should be careful of what we outright discard lest we need it at some point in the future.

Rather than discard, we should store—put away for later. We never know when something we discarded might become useful again.

This advice applies not only to martial arts, but to writing as well. From time to time, we should revisit older exercises and techniques, even those we had previously discarded. When we perform our critical analysis, we should consider not only whether we feel an exercise is useful to us in our present situation, but why another teacher or author might have found it useful in the first place. What was their situation, and could we envision a time when we, too, may face a parallel situation. Don’t discard, store. You never know when life will throw you a curveball and you’ll need to dig deep into the files of your mind and dust off some nearly forgotten bit of knowledge.

Be sure to connect on facebooktwitter, and instagram, and check out the links page to read some of my published work.

Ray Bradbury’s Noun Exercise: A Gift for Writers on his Centennial Birthday

Today, marks Ray Bradbury’s 100th birthday, and in his honor, I am going to share one his favorite writing exercises. This exercise, which I learned in the Ray Bradbury and Creative Storytelling class I recently completed with Bradbury biographer Sam Weller, addresses two area with which many authors struggle, writers block and writing titles. I have begun to incorporate it into my own writing practice and it has become one of my favorites as well.

On a blank sheet of paper, list nouns that pop into your head. These should be free-associated nouns that come to you from your subconscious, without thinking too hard. The only restrictions are that, A. the nouns should not be about the same subject (don’t list boat, sail, water, ocean, fish); and B, you must write “the” before each of the nouns (The Sky, The Candle; The Painting; The Chair; The Tree; The Scotch Whisky, The Vampire; etc.). Now, go through the list, choose one, and use it for both the subject—and title—of your story. That’s it. It seems simple, but it works. Here is a picture of one of my lists:

If you look at Bradbury’s catalog of stories, you will find many stories with titles that follow this format, including some of his most famous: The Lake, The Foghorn, The Crowd, The Fire Balloons, etc. It is likely that he used this technique to help him start writing his stories. Even Bradbury’s most famous novel, Fahrenheit 451 began as a story called “The Fireman.” The proof is in the pudding.

I love this technique because it’s so simple, so low pressure, and so effective. On each list I make, there may only be two or three ideas that I will eventually pursue, but by listing so many, there is less pressure to create any individual idea, which it makes it so much easier to start writing. If the idea doesn’t work, there are 20 more on the list from which I can choose. And, as an added bonus, when I do finish a story, the title is already written. I don’t have to think of a title, which is one of my least favorite parts of the writing process.

Ray Bradbury left us so many gifts in the forms of his books and stories, and this “noun exercise” is one more gift for us writers. During this, his centennial celebration, I urge you to try it. Let me know how it works for you.

Be sure to connect on facebooktwitter, and instagram, and check out the links page to read some of my published work.

In Search of the Muse

In ancient times, it was traditional for a poet to begin a work with an invocation of the muse: “Sing to me of the man, muse…” Homer writes in the first line of The Odyssey. The poet, according to this conceit, was merely a conduit for one the divine muses (there were nine ancient muses, each of whom personified a different art), a scribe recording her song on paper. “Start from where you will” (Fagles, trans) Homer continues, reinforcing his passive roll. Over time, the muse became symbolic of inspiration. Writers within the Western tradition continued to invoke the Muse long after the Ancient Greek religion which inspired it went out of fashion. Christian writers, such as Dante and Milton, continued to invoke the muse at the start of their epic poems, and even Shakespeare addresses her on a number of occasions.

Recently, however, the muse has gone out of fashion. Contemporary writers don’t speak much of the muse anymore, except, perhaps, in negative terms. The muse has been trampled beneath the feet of the capitalist gods Hard Work and Consistency. The key to writing, they say, is making a routing and sticking to it, and in their minds (for thoughts like this have no place in their hardened hearts), the muse is dead. She simply doesn’t exist.

The thing is, history proves this line of thinking incorrect. While hard work, dedication, and discipline are important traits for a writer, and while, one may be correct in arguing that a writer—even a talented writer—cannot be successful without it, that does not disprove the existence of inspiration, whether divine or otherwise.

Now, I’m not arguing for the existence of mythological goddesses, but consider the following:

Shirley Jackson wrote The Lottery, one of the most anthologized and taught short stories of the 20th Century, in “only two hours and submitted it to the New Yorker [where it was published] without major revision, according the College Board-approved textbook Literature: A Guide To Reading and Writing.

Ray Bradbury, famously, asserted that he wrote the first draft of his great masterpiece Fahrenheit 451 in nine days. The story has been corroborated in many places, including by Bradbury biographer Sam Weller. He still had to go through the revision and editing process, but the core of the story was created in that fit of inspiration.

William Faulkner took a bit longer than Bradbury to pen one of his most famous novels. It took him six weeks (between the hours of midnight and 4 in the morning. The literary critic Harold Bloom called the book “an authentic instance of the literary sublime.” (As quoted in The Creative Writer’s Notebook).

Thus, it seems that inspiration exists. These writers all wrote other books and stories, but in these particular cases, it seems like the muse was kind to them. Now, before we go any further, let me just reiterate that this in no way negates the needs to work hard, to stay consistent or to find a writing routine. The idea of the muse–of fits of inspiration–does not stand in opposition to hard work. The two are not mutually exclusively. Bradbury was extraordinarily dedicated to his craft. For the majority of his life, he wrote a short story a week, in addition to his novels and screenplays. He, like the rest of us, struggled at times. He had drawers full of incomplete stories in the file cabinets in his basement office. He still worked through his ideas to finish his story a week. Yet, for the time that he was writing his most famous work, whether you want to call it a muse, the stars aligning, or simply having a good week and a half, something was different; something magical was in there air.

The thing is that writers have no idea when the muse is going to grace us with her presence. In his introduction to The Voice From The Edge volume 1, the great science fiction short story writer Harlan Ellison talks about his love for his story “Grail.” He talks about how hard he worked on the story, how he meticulously researched the names of all the demons who appear therein, and how much he loved the final result. Few people, however, remember that story aside from himself, remember the story. On the other hand, “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream,” which is one of the most anthologized science fiction stories of all time, was written in a few hours, and though Ellison felt the story was perfectly competent (he talks about how a writer can achieve a certain level of competence where each story they write is publishable), he felt no particular love for it, but, whether he knew it or not, Ellison was inspired that night when he wrote “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream.”

So if the muse is fickle, if she is unpredictable, if she comes rarely—and only to those who are already grinding—if she if so ineffable that sometimes she comes in secret, sometimes unbeknownst to the writer, why spend 1000 words singing her praises? Perhaps because so much writing advice is focused on sticking with it through the tough times: ignoring the muse is like writing about running by focusing exclusively on the hard hours of roadwork while ignoring the incredible endorphin release known as the runner’s high; perhaps I feel we need some light to give us hope even in this dark time; or maybe this post is an offering to Calliope, an invocation, an invitation to whisper in my ear like she did for Homer, Jackson, Bradbury, Faulkner, Ellison, and all those other writers down through the ages.

Sing to me muse; start where you will…

Writing as Creative Play and The Remnants Anthology Release

I find it very sad that grown ups are not encouraged to play creatively. Most adults, following along with the conventions of contemporary society and do not engage in active, creative play. They rely on the creations of others to escape their dreary, every-day lives by watching television and movies, listening to music, reading books, and perhaps going to an art museum. Very few grownups, write, paint, compose, etc, Even when they do think creatively, it is often done in connection with their jobs, and therefore, they are creating for others—a boss, a company—rather than for themselves. In contrast, children are encouraged to play to draw, to make up stories and songs. Whether they consider themselves to be creative or not does not matter. Most children engage in creative play.

Many of the so-called-weird people who become successful in the arts encourage others to engage in creative activity as well. They claim, that there is a fulfillment one gets from doing art that is directly related to doing something creative for yourself. My favorite formulation of this idea is Kurt Vonnegut’s. Vonnegut, in a number of different places, encouraged his readers (and his listeners when he delivered his message as a speech) to engage in creative activities, even if what they end up producing is bad. One does not need, as Neil Gaiman exhorts his followers to do, make good art, rather, even making bad art is way of making “life bearable,” according to his view. “Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake,” Vonnegut claims.

I wholeheartedly agree, and I believe that the reason for this positive effect is the connection between making art—good or bad—and the creative play in which most people engaged as children. I have often, when speaking of my own writing, compared it to a (slightly) more socially acceptable version of childhood play.

During a recent live reading and discussion about the Remnants anthology from Kyanite Publishing (which was just released today), I extended that metaphor a bit further to explain the different mediums in which I write and connect them to common ways that children play.

When I want to play alone (and as an introverted writer-type, this is the kind of play in which I engage the most), I write short stories or poetry. During this type of play, I am the only one affecting the outcome of the “game.” When I want to play with others, I make comics. In this type of play, I collaborate with others to create. I work with an artist, and sometimes a team comprised of separate pencilers, inkers, colorists, and letterers, to create the final piece. We each have input into the story, and we collaborate to affect the outcome.

The Remnants anthology offered me a new way to play. Remnants is a “shared-world” anthology. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, created by Stephen Coghlan. Each of the authors in the anthology had to write a story which took place within this same, shared, world. Because of my background in comic books, I usually explain a shared world like the Marvel or DC universe. Each comic (or movie if you prefer) must take place within the shared world, but each is also the unique creation of the artists who made it. A Denny O’Neil Batman story is different from an Alan Moore Batman story, but they are both, recognizably Batman stories and therefore must follow the parameters of that universe. You could say the same thing about Kenneth Branagh’s Thor movie compared to Taika Waititi’s.

Similarly, the stories in the Remnants anthology each reflect the styles and talents of the authors who wrote them, yet they all take place within Stephen’s world. Writing for this anthology presented certain restrictions in terms of what I was allowed to do in the story, but it was also freeing in a way as I could just concentrate on writing the story without having to do all the world building associated with writing this type of science fiction story.

To return to my metaphor, writing this story was like go over someone’s house and being allowed to play with their toys. In this case, Stephen built this incredible world, a for a little while, he allowed me—and the other writers whose stories are included in this anthology—to come and play with it. The result’s which you can read in the anthology, are truly remarkable in they way they differ in tone, style, and content while all being true to the shared world.

I hope you consider purchasing a copy of Remnants, and reading my story, “The Forgotten,” (follow any of the hyperlinks throughout this post, including this one), and I really hope that if you endeavor to do something creative this week. Write a poem or story, draw a picture, write a song, even if you feel you’re doing it poorly, the benefits are immeasurable especially during these trying times.

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How To Curse Like a Six-Year Old

Like most six-year-olds, my daughter, Maggie, knows exactly what she can get away with. Curses—“F” and “S” words are off limits, but milder oaths like “heck” are ok. She sometime pushes the boundaries to get a rise out her parents (always with a mischievous grin), but, when it comes down to it, she knows what she is allowed to say and what she isn’t. Maggie also has intuitive ear for language, and being a precocious child, she often imitates the speech patterns of the adults in her life. Recently, she’s invented a new exclamation of shock and surprise, “What in the hecking world?!”

Everybody loves this expression, and those adults who have heard it have laughed in appreciation, posted about it on social media, and even adopted it into our own, everyday speech. It’s provided us with some entertainment during this dark time.

As a father, I laugh along with everybody else, but as a writer, I’ve been thinking a lot about why the phrase works so well. Part of it, undoubtedly is the juxtaposition of the innocent child with the mock-adult behavior, but, I believe, that without realizing it, my daughter has channeled her inner Alexander Pope and struck upon something that makes mild oaths more effective: mimicking the sounds of the stronger language which they replace.

We are taught that “fuck” is a strong oath. It is considered a crass word, banned from network—and even basic cable—television, and it’s inappropriate to say it in certain social situations. It is a word that if you use it too frequently in a story, will cause that piece to come with a warning label, and, likely limit the venues in which you can publish.

There are many common substitutes for “fuck,” but, for now, I’d like to concentrate on two: “hell” and “heck.” Of these, “hell” is considered to be the “stronger” oath. In fact, according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the word “heck” originated as a milder, alliterative euphemism for “hell.” It’s hell without the religious baggage; a curse without the blasphemy. So, technically, on a scale from strong to mild, the would be ranked, “fuck,” “hell,” “heck.” One might say, “fuck” on HBO, “hell” on a network television sitcom, and “heck” on Nickelodeon.

Yet, especially after hearing my daughter’s latest pet phrase, I feel that “heck” is the more effective substitute. Part of it is the fact that, as a made-up word, heck can be used as different parts of speech. Even a six-year-old knows that “what in the helling world” would not work. Hell is a noun and sounds out of place when used as a different part of speech.

I believe, however, that there is more to it than that. Alexander Pope famously wrote that “tis not enough no harshness give offense/ the sound must seem an echo to the sense.” I would argue that the sound must echo the sense even—and especially—when the harshness is intended to give offense.

“Heck” and “Fuck” end with the same end sound, “ck.” Thus, they carry equal weight in speech. The “l” sound at the end of “hell” is a softer sound, and, therefore, does not sound as harsh when spoken out loud. Thus, “heck” imitates “fuck” in both sound and sense, while “hell” mimics “fuck” in sense only. When you say the words out loud, with conviction, the difference is obvious.

This analysis is not exclusive to “heck.” Battlestar Galactica’s Frak” works the same way and is a clever ploy to circumvent the sensors. “Prick” substitutes for “dick” in much the same way.  

As writers, it is incumbent upon us to consider the sound and sense of words. While sound devices are often thought of in the realm of poetry. Those who write prose should consider their effects as well. The above analysis also applies to speculative fiction authors, as these types of word substitutions should be taken into account when creating fictional slang and alternative languages.

Additionally, those of us who are parents and teachers should always listen to the way our children speak carefully. There is much to be learned from the mouths of babes.

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