Seven Books To Get To Know Me

The hashtag #7BooksToKnowMe is popular right now. I’ve decided to participate, but as usual, I’ve overthunk things. Rather than, as I’m sure was the original intent of the exercise, just listing seven books I like or that sum up my taste in reading, or, as many people seem to be doing, listing my seven favorite books, I intend to address the prompt as it is written. What seven books would help someone who didn’t know me, get to know me better. That list would be different from my seven favorite books, although their would be some overlap, because the list of my favorite books would include multiple books in the same genre (or even subgenre), while the list of the books to get to know me would be specifically chosen to showcase different aspects of my personality.

I have not included books directly related to the works I’m currently writing. While Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe have dominated my reading list recently, and while I love them both, I am not sure that would make the list once the projects on which I’m working is over.

This list is also a snapshot. Books that would have appeared on this list at other points in my life, like On The Road, The Watchmen, Wuthering Heights, Through the Looking Glass, A Storm of Swords, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch are not on this list. The books on this list might not be if I did this again a year from now, or even tomorrow.

With that preamble out of the way, here are my seven books to know me:

  1. Dune, by Frank Herbert: I first read Dune when I was in the 11th grade at the recommendation of my history teacher, Dr. Stone. I had asked him for a college recommendation, and he agreed, but wanted to meet me during a free period to get to know me outside of the class. He asked me what I liked to read, and when I told him I liked science fiction, he was flabbergasted that I hadn’t read Dune. It was, by far the greatest book recommendation anyone has given me. I read it and immediately loved it. I ended up writing one of my college application essays about it (in those days, there was no common app, and I wrote a total of 13 essays for the 11 schools to which I applied).

    Over the years, Dune has influenced nearly every aspect of my life. The philosophy of the book influenced me greatly at a time when I was figuring out the type of person I wanted to be, but in addition to that, lessons from the book affected other, less-obvious aspects of my life, ranging from the way I played basketball (not responding to a trash-talker unnerves the trash talker in any sport), to the way approached martial arts matches (to many lessons to list individually, but the Fremen made me a better fighter.) I still keep a file of Dune quotes all these years later, and with every re-read, I find more to add.
  2. The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkein: The Hobbit is the book that made me want to be a writer. I ordered in from the Scholastic Book Club in 7th Grade, and, while I was reading it, I thought, “hey, maybe the games I play with my castle Legos are actually stories people would want to read.” It is also a smaller story than The Lord of the Rings. The fate of the world isn’t at stake (at least we don’t yet know it is when we’re reading it). It concerns the fate of one group of dwarves and one particular hobbit. In my own work, I tend toward the small stories rather than the larger ones.

    Tolkien became my favorite writer, and The Lord of the Rings (which Tolkien thought of as one book) would be my desert island book, but if the point of the exercise is to get to know me, then The Hobbit is the one to read.
  3. Shoeless Joe, by WP Kinsella: This is the book that Field of Dreams is based upon. It is, in my opinion, better than the movie, and I love the movie (it’s the only movie which made me cry). The book is about baseball, and about fathers and sons. It reminds me of my father, who gave it to me before he passed. Much of my relationship with my father was based around sports, even when our fandom was a metaphor for other things which we may have been more reluctant to discuss. Sports have played a huge role in my life, and I have my father to thank for that too.
  4. Daniel Deronda, by George Elliot: Speaking of traditions and how they’ve influenced me, this is the book which addresses the traditions in which I was raised most thoroughly and most sympathetically. My reading tastes tend to the classics, but I was always bothered by the way the books–even the ones I loved–addressed Judaism. From Dickens, to Shakespeare, to Pyle, the negative stereotypes and outright slanders present in so much of Western literature always bothered me. There are a few books with sympathetic Jewish characters (Ivanhoe comes to mind), but none offer the depth and perspective of Elliot’s novel, which includes both religious and secular Jews, and addresses each character authentically without ignoring the prejudices which existed in society.
  5. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams: I considered putting Good Omens on this list, as it introduced me to both Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, two of my favorite authors, and two others whose books would be on my list of favorite books, but when I think about–and the fact that I’m rapidly running out of space on this list–I wouldn’t have read Good Omens if I hadn’t read The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. So why not just put Hitchhiker’s Guide on the list? Well, the thought did cross my mind. Adams introduced me to the dry, British wit and humor which has been such an influence on my life. But, he wrote other books too. Choosing a deeper cut in itself reveals an aspect of my personality. Moreover, I am running out of space, and I haven’t mentioned the Romantic poets yet. As this book features Coleridge, it will have to stand in for them as well.
  6. Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut: Kurt Vonnegut is another author who has been hugely influential on both my worldview and my writing. Slaughterhouse 5 was the first Vonnegut I read. I always admired his writing, which is simultaneously literary, speculative, and humorous. Some people say that Terry Pratchett does for fantasy what Douglas Adams did for science fiction. I have sometimes said that I hope my writing will, one day, have a similar relationship with Vonnegut’s.

    If you understand those last two sentences, you are probably my type of person.
  7. The Tao of Gung Fu, by Bruce Lee: My martial arts practice has been a major part of my life. I’ve been practicing since I was 8. I am drawn to the philosophical aspects as much as to martial practice. The Tao of Gung Fu includes Bruce Lee’s best essays about martial arts and Taoism, and should be essential reading for anyone who practices martial arts.

Looking back on this list, I feel like it’s a failure. While the selections do reveal aspects of my personality, I am remiss to have left out Ursula Le Guin, Charles Dickens, Gaiman and Pratchett, Poe, Marlon James, Colum McCann, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and so many others. While it’s an incomplete picture, hopefully it does, indeed, help you know me better.

Now it’s your turn. What are the seven book to get to know you better?

Writers on Writing: New York Comic Con 2022 Edition

This past weekend, I attended New York Comic Con. While I did not have a table this year, which was unfortunate because I have a new book to sell (you can help me make for it by buying it here), I was able to attend the various professional panels aimed at writers. This year’s slate of high-profile writers was particularly strong, especially in the fantasy department were Terry Brooks, Brandon Sanderson, and Diana Gabaldon offered insights into their writing processes and careers. Below, I have collected the advice I found most helpful and interesting from both the top names and from the many other writers who paneled, and loosely organized that advice around a number of themes. I hope you find them as helpful and inspiring as I did.

Writing Process

Me and Brandon Sanderson

If you’re writing process isn’t working, then change your process–Chuck Wendig

When faced with an overwhelming amount of editorial feedback or critique, change something small. Changing something small reminds you that you have power over the piece–Peter V. Brett.

You can write a novel in a year writing 400 words a day. That’s about 1-1/2 double spaced pages–E. Lockhart.

The only feedback you get until you publish is that wordcount number adding up–Diana Gabaldon.

Who do you listen to? A really good editor. Anyone else, I’ll listen to an see if they have anything valuable to say, but you get a lot of feedback from people who don’t know anything. You’ve got to stand up for yourself–Terry Brooks.

The best feedback is from people who already like your work but who want something slightly better– (in my notes, but I didn’t write down who said it).

Take something you love and put it in a different context. I loved Faulkner. I wanted to put the way he dealt with class, the rich and poor, in a new element. Tolkien’s structure seemed like the perfect structure for that rich/poor dynamic–Terry Brooks.

Write out of order to avoid writing block. Move to a different part of the book, either to an exciting part or to an easy part–E. Lockhart.

I usually go through about 10 drafts–Karen McManus.

On writing comics: I write differently if I know the artist, if it’s an artist I’ve worked with before. If I’m workin g with a new artist, I’ll describe more—Jimmy Palmiotti.

Plotting vs Pansting

Terry Brooks giving me some writing advice.

I don’t write in straight lines. I don’t write with an outline either–Diana Gabaldon.

There is no such thing as plotting or pansting. Every writer does both. They are tools. If you don’t use both, you’re not using all the tools available to you as a writer–Brandon Sanderson.

I always start backward. I know the whydoneit and the whodoneit, and then plot backwards–Kara Thomas.

I tend to start with the big idea, but I’m not sure what it means–Karen McManus.

Plotting is like a Jenga tower. If you take one small thing out, the whole tower can collapse–E. Lockhart.

Character Development

The “Titans of Fantasy” panel l-r: Sanderson, Brooks, Gabaldon

We are all people. People make dumb decisions. It’s ok for characters dumb decisions because that’s what real people do. That makes characters feel real–Wesley Chu.

Sanderson’s second rule: flaws are more interesting than characters themselves–Brandon Sanderson.

I did what most writers do. I gave the character a flaw or two–E. Lockhart.

As the character’s power increases, their power becomes more evident–Brandon Sanderson.

I try to include “good” characters who have to deal with mental illness. Most of American media is like if there’s someone with a mental illness in your book, they’re probably the bad guy. We need to change that–Dan Wells.

I consider the antagonist and the villain as two separate characters: The villain is evil. The antagonist prevents the characters from getting what they want, but they should be relatable. We should be able to understand to understand them. Our main character could end up going in that direction. One example is Ms. Marvel. There are villains in that show, but the parents are the main antagonists. Another is Lord of the Rings. Sauron is the villain. He’s pure evil. Gollum is the protagonist, but what decisions got him there? We can see ourselves making those same decisions–Brandon Sanderson.

Villains don’t have to be villains from the start. They just have different agencies—Karen McManus.

Designing Plots

Meeting NYT #1 bestseller Wesley Chu, with whom I discussed writing Martial Arts.

The thing that bugs me most is repeated plot arc. Too many writers write the same plot over and over again. It’s as if, because they were successful with the first one, they just hit the reset button on book 2 (or series 2, or season 2) and write the same thing again–Brandon Sanderson.

The mystery needs to matter to the character, not just to the reader who is trying to figure out the mystery. There have to be character consequences for the reveal–Karen McManus.

Don’t have your conflict shoot your reader’s empathy for your character in the foot–Brandon Sanderson.

All mysteries have a reveal. Not all mysteries have a twist–Kara Thomas.

Point of View

Best Advice I’ve received as a writer panel w/ Chuck Wendig, Naomi Novak, Wesley Chu, Terry Brooks, Peter V. Brett

First person turns on how interesting the voice of the character is–Brandon Sanderson.

If you’re writing a scene, and you know it’s a good scene, and it’s an important scene, but it’s just not working out like it should, change the point of view. You’re probably writing it from the wrong perspective–Diana Gabaldon.

Writing Rules

Mystery/Thriller panel w/E Lockhart, Karen McManus, and Kara Thomas.

You should violate every rule–Terry Brooks.

The value of rules is that they make you look at your writing and analyze it in a technical way–Naomi Novak.

All writing rules are bullshit–Peter V. Brett.

But bullshit fertilizes–Chuck Wendig.

All writing rules amount to “don’t write badly.” They attempt to turn an art into a science–Naomi Novak.

Use writing rules like cooking, not baking. There are rules like ‘don’t dump in the whole package of salt’ and recipes are important when you start, but eventually you don’t have to follow the recipe exactly, unlike baking. You’re going to be tasting, adding more or less flavor according to preference. There is a preferential aspect, a matter of taste–Chuck Wendig.

50 years ago, the rules were different. 50 years from now, they’ll be different too. Trends come and go. What’s commercial comes and goes–Wesley Chu.

Pitching and Finding an Agent

How Not to Succeed in Comics Panel w/ Scott Snyder and Brian Azzerello

Querying sucks–Wesley Chu.

I was at a party once and an agent asked me what my book was about. I [was hesitant to share my book because of all the big authors he represented]. He told me “You don’t refuse books; I refuse books. If you want your book published, you have to put your work out there–Peter V. Brett.

I was trying to write to the market. It wasn’t until I wrote the books I wanted to read as teenager that I was able to sell my work–Karen McManus.

Reading

Joe Illidge at the Comic Book School Editors on pitching and professionalism panel.

Read outside your genre. Find the things that people do well in those other genres you love to read. They have skillsets and ideas we don’t have. Find out what they do and bring that into your own genre–Terry Brooks.

It’s not a matter of genre, it’s a matter of patterns–Diana Gabaldon.

You have to read mindfully and critically–Chuck Wendig.

Everything you read impacts you–Terry Brooks.

One of the things that makes us most worried as writers is that we’re going to copy someone else, and yet we’re an amalgam of all we’ve read and experienced. We need to look at what’s influenced us and tear it down to the emotions and then build it back up into something new–Brandon Sanderson.

General Advice

Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells

When you work with people you like, all of your bad decisions seem good–Brian Azzerello.

Writers need to experiment. Writing the same thing for a long time would be a mistake–Terry Brooks.

Find people who you can tell the truth to, and who will tell the truth to you–Scott Snyder

You’ve got tp challenge yourself. You can’t rest on your laurels–Terry Brooks.

On imposter syndrome: I picture myself reading my book in front of a whole crowd at Yankee Stadium, and 60 thousand people are going “boo!”–Scott Snyder.

Sometimes, the magic works–Terry Brooks.

Influence people in a positive way. Give them an experience in space and time–Terry Brooks.

In the final analysis, your work is your brand– Joe Illidge.

Humorous Comments

How do I title my book? Poorly–Dan Wells.

On giving a 5 minute answer to a lightning round question: Have you seen the size of my books? That was fast for me–Brandon Sanderson.

I enjoy the process of writing. Once it’s done, I couldn’t care less. Except for getting paid. I enjoy that–Terry Brooks.

——-

Final Thoughts

There was so much variety in the advice given at nycc this year. Each of the writers took their own path and some of them disagreed with each other. There is not one way to succeed, there are many. Find the advice that speaks to you and implement it. It is, ultimately, comforting to know that their are so many paths to success.

In Honor of Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie signing a book

Like everyone else, I am shocked and appalled by what happened to Salman Rushdie this past week. Not only is Rushdie one of the greatest living authors, he is also a champion of free speech and a model of principled bravery in the face of real danger. He is also one of my favorite writers.

If you only know Rushdie from his most famous and controversial work, The Satanic Verses, you should check out some of his other work as well. The booker-winning Midnight’s Children is, deservedly, his most highly regarded novel (and probably the right place to start if you are a Rushdie novice), but my favorite is Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which masquerades as a children’s fantasy book, but is actually about the dangers of censorship.

I’ve also learned a lot as a writer from Rushdie, who, in his melding of Eastern and Western traditions, often breaks a lot of so-called “rules” of writing. Here is a blog I wrote about his used of adverbs back in 2021.

Blog post on Rushdie and Adverbs

Please join me in wishing Rushdie a speedy recovery. Get well soon.

Process and Perfection in Matisse’s Red Studio

Last week, I saw the Matisse’s Red Studio exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. The show features the painting after which it is named, but also focusses on the artist’s other works, especially those featured in the Red Studio painting. It is a really good exhibition and I enjoyed it immensely as an art lover. I also learned a lot about Matisse’s creative process, and as I often do when examining another creative’s method, found things I can incorporate into my own writing process.

The MOMA’s gallery cards are exceptional. Instead of just listing the name of the piece, the artist, and the medium like most museum’s do, the labels which accompany the art at the MOMA often include full paragraphs about the work which contextualize the piece and give some insight into both the importance of the work and, when known, the artist’s process or artistic vision.

One can learn a lot by reading the cards. For example, I learned that not only was Matisse a tinkerer, he often left vestiges of the original, or drafting, stages of his work in the final piece when he revised. Take, for example, this painting.

The position of the leg was obviously changed, which can be seen in the extraneous line near the lower half of the extended leg. There is also evidence that Matisse tinkered with the position of the figure’s arm (on the same side of the body), which he attempted to disguise in the shadows.

Here is the same painting with the relevant areas highlighted.

In many of the other paintings, the viewer can see pencil lines, presumably from the sketches he made on the canvass before he started to paint. They are not noticeable at the distance from which one usually photographs a painting, but up close, you can see them clearly. Here is an example:

What struck me most about these pieces was not that Matisse revised so much as part of his process. The world of the writer–and I assume the artist as well–is oversaturated with advice about revising one’s work. Revision is part of the process and it is par for the course. Rather, what stood out to me was that these vestiges remained in the final piece.

Many writers, many artists, many creative people in general, will work on their pieces in a futile pursuit of perfection. I have been guilty of doing so myself, working on a piece right up until the deadline, trying to make it as perfect as possible before submitting it for publication. I make sure to give myself deadlines, to seek out open call with hard deadlines, and rarely self-publish because I often get in my own head about revision.

There is an old saw in the creative world, “Finished, not perfect,” and like most oft-repeated advice it has become cliché and, in doing so, has lost much of its impact. It’s something people say, post about on social media, and hang up on posters in their classroom, and then ignore when it comes to their own practice. Seeing the Matisse pieces on the wall–and reading the gallery cards–is much, much more impactful.

Because, here’s the thing: No one notices the mistakes when looking at the paintings on the wall. Those who did not take the time to read the gallery cards, most likely, did not notice them at all. I certainly did not until I after the labels pointed them out to me. As someone who sees every mistake in everything I write, even–and especially–after its published, there’s a powerful lesson in that.


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Rules, What Rules: Avoid Alliteration, Always?

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.” While I have gotten away from that theme from time-to-time, I try to return to it every now and then as part of my series: Rules: What Rules? which consists of 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.

Previously in this series:

Dialogue Tags

Eliminating Adverbs

The Rule: Avoid Alliteration, Always

The pithy way this rule is usually stated is derived from a 1986 Writers Digest article by Frank L. Visco which took the form of a list of “rules” the author had “learnt” (sic) over the course of his writing career. The article, which has been quoted in numerous places, has been circulated widely, especially in recent years, through meme culture and social media. The statement in question leads off the set of rules, in which the statement of each rule violates the very principle it purports to teach.

While the article is a bit tongue-in-cheek, the rules it professes are, by and large, considered “good” advice by the writing community.

Alliteration, especially when done excessively, is supposed to be distracting. It supposedly takes the reader out of the story and makes them focus on the delivery rather than the content.

And yet…

There is a long tradition of using alliteration in English language literature. In fact, alliteration has been there right from the beginning. Anglo-Saxon epics, such as Beowulf, which is considered by many to be the first foundational text of English literature, is built around an alliterative structure. Seamus Heaney’s landmark verse translation keeps this structure, and his translator’s introduction explains his methods, the anonymous poet’s techniques, and the traditions upon which they both draw better than I ever could.

Shakespeare used alliteration (Love’s Labour Lost, for example), but I’d like to begin our discussion in earnest with a poet from the next generation, Alexander Pope whose poem Sound and Sense is both a poem and an instruction manual for writing poetry. Throughout the sonnet, Pope uses the techniques he wants his reader to learn, most of which have to do with the sound the language make, including alliteration, but also rhythm, meter, assonance, and consonance. These devices are categorized as “sound and sense” devices to this day. In the couplet that gives the poem its title, Pope writes:

‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense:

This couplet states the poem’s argument, which is that the poet–or any writer for that matter–should use their devices in harmony with, or to accentuate the content and/or message, of the piece. Throughout the piece, Pope uses the devices he intends to teach, but does not name them explicitly.

Pope employs alliteration throughout the poem, including in the above-quoted couplet. The leading “S” sound is repeated 3 times in the stanza’s second line, and five times in the next couplet:

Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;

The alliterative sound is not necessarily in consecutive words, which is actually the correct way to write alliteration. As least where poetry is concerned, alliteration is not, as it’s commonly defined the repetition of a sound at the beginning of a word, it’s actually the repetition of that sound on the stressed syllable.

One of my favorite examples comes from Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poem, The Raven:

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

The repeated S sound occurs at the beginning of “silken” and “sad,” but in the middle of “uncertain” and “rustling.” But read the line out loud. Notice how the S sound falls on the stressed syllable, whether it comes at the beginning of the word or not:

AND the SILken, SAD, unCERtain RUStling

If you transpose “silken” and “sad”, the alliteration won’t read as well, first, because of the meter, and secondly, because the alliteration won’t sound as natural.

The reason Poe’s line works so well is that the sound does, indeed, echo the sense. Not only is there an onomatopoeia in the “s” sound, which mimics the curtains rustling in the wind, but the hypnotic use of alliteration combines with the trochaic meter–the opposite of iambic, which is the most common English language meter–highlights the dream-like quality of the encounter (“while I nodded nearly napping”; the nightmarish Raven perched atop the bust of Athena, a symbol of rationality)–to “shush” the reader to that dream state with the repeated, soporific “s” sound.

When I wrote my poem, The Widow’s Walk which was recently published, fittingly, in Love Letters to Poe, I attempted to emulate Poe’s alliterative style. The opening line of the poem reads:

She wends her way around her walk
And round and round she goes.

Scanning the opening line, we get:

she WENDS her WAY aROUND her WALK

The alliterative “w” sound is used on the stressed syllable (although I use iambic rather than trochaic meter in this poem.)

Some might say that alliteration is an antiquated device found mostly in older poems (and poems like mine which pay homage to them), but modern poets use alliteration prominently as well.

In her poem, Fugue, from her new book, Call Us What We Carry, superstar inaugural poet Amanda Gorman writes:

excerpt from “Fugue” by Amanda Gorman

The first line of the excerpt employs alliteration in the same manner as Poe. The D sound is repeated on the stressed syllable. Later in the excerpt, Gorman uses alliteration in a similar manner to an anglo-saxon poet, as she moves the “f” sound around to different places in her lines.

Later in the collection, Gorman highlights alliteration as an essential literary technique, one which defines the poet, and speaks to the power of poetry. In her poem “Memorial”, Gorman writes:

But why alliteration?
Why the pulsing percussion, the string of syllables?
It is the poet who pounds the past back into you.

Thus, arguably the biggest contemporary superstar in poetry (is that even arguable at this point?) uses alliteration in her poetry.

Gorman, Poe, Pope, and the Beowulf poet refuse to avoid alliteration; the rest of us should follow their example.

***

Alliteration works in non-poetic writing as well. One of my favorite examples of alliteration in prose writing comes from Charles Dickens’ description of the storming of the Bastille in A Tale of Two Cities:

Deep ditches, double drawbridge, massive stone walls, eight great towers, cannon, muskets, fire and smoke. Through the fire and through the smoke — in the fire and in the smoke, for the sea cast him up against a cannon, and on the instant he became a cannonier — Defarge of the wine-shop worked like a manful soldier, Two fierce hours.

Deep ditch, single drawbridge, massive stone walls, eight great towers, cannon, muskets, fire and smoke. One drawbridge down! “Work, comrades all, work! Work, Jacques One, Jacques Two, Jacques One Thousand, Jacques Two Thousand, Jacques Five-and-Twenty Thousand; in the name of all the Angels or the Devils — which you prefer — work!”Thus Defarge of the wine-shop, still at his gun, which had long grown hot.

In the first line of each of the two excerpted paragraphs, Dickens uses similar phrases which feature alliteration. In each example, Dickens’ uses the repeated hard “d” sound to represent the thud of the cannons against the walls of The Bastille. Like Poe’s, Dickens’ alliteration is also onomatopoeia, and, therefore, as Pope advises, even in prose, the sound echoes the sense. Moreover, the missing “d” in the second paragraph highlights the fact that one of the two drawbridges has been taken out by the rebels’ cannons. The missing “d” sound highlights the missing drawbridge.

Another more modern example is found in the film V for Vendetta, written by the Wachowskis and directed by James McTeigue. In one of the most popular scenes from the film, V, played by Hugo Weaving, gives a speech in which nearly every word begins with the letter “v,” in tribute to the Alan Moore’s comic which inspired the movie, in which each chapter title is a “v” word (in fact, many of the “v” words used in the speech are taken directly from those chapter titles).

V for Vendetta “V” speech

When I watched the movie in the theater, this speech drew appreciative applause from the audience, who seemed thrilled by the alliteration as the speech built to a crescendo–take that, Frank L. Visco!

Of course V for Vendetta followed a long tradition of comic book alliteration. The great Stan Lee loved alliteration, especially when naming characters: Peter Parker, Sue Storm, Read Richards, Matt Murdock, The Fantastic Four, the list goes on.

I could go on as well, but I think I’ve made my point.

Analysis

So, why is alliteration looked down upon? It seems that it’s because people misinterpreted a joke. Visco, who ironically uses alliteration to criticize its use, was clearly writing tongue-in-cheek. One could even say that the fact he opens with the alliteration “rule” shows he recognizes its power. Meme culture has contributed to the proliferation of Visco’s rules, and, as with so many other things, its has stripped the the original article of its context.

While it is true that alliteration can take a reader out of the story or be distracting if its used poorly, the same could be said for any literary technique. A bad simile or metaphor will take the reader out of the writing just as quickly; poor rhythm in poetry will do the same. Any device can be overused, and the writer must strive use them all judiciously. That is true about alliteration, but it is not unique to alliteration.

The fact is that proper alliteration makes writing memorable, which is why it often used in marketing. It is a signature device of writers ranging from Edgar Allan Poe, to Stan Lee, Charles Dickens, to Amanda Gorman.

Avoid it at your peril.


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Mr Rogers, Sir Thomas Malory, and my Lady Elaine Fairchilde Head-canon.

The Knights of the Round Table were considered the paragons of a certain kind of chivalric virtue throughout the Arthurian legends. While martial prowess was a key component in their reputation, and an important qualification to join the august company, the knights were also supposed to follow a moral code and to conduct themselves in a manner befitting their status as members of King Arthur’s court. Failure to abide by the knights code would bring shame, expulsion, or even death. The greatest of the knights, Sir Lancelot, Sir Tristam, etc are praised just as often for their gallantry, for the chivalry, and for their refusal to unfairly take advantage of others even when doing so would benefit themselves, as they are for their victories in battles or tournaments.

Fred Rogers is considered a paragon of modern virtue. Throughout his life, he championed kindness, understanding, and education in a way few other have. He is nearly universally revered among Americans of a certain generation, and even after his death, he is often quoted, memed, or cited by those who promote the values he has come to represent.

Beyond their status as role models, however, there seems little that connects Sir Lancelot with Mr Rogers beyond the quasi-medieval setting of the Neighborhood of Make-Beleive…or so I thought.

Recently, I’ve been re-reading Le Morte de Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory, which is considered by many to be the authoritative text about the Arthurian legends. Currently, I’m in the middle of the 11th book, which tells the tale of Sir Lancelot. The first 3 chapters of that book tell of how, through deceit and and magic, Dame Brisen fools Lancelot into sleeping with Lady Elaine, King Pelles’ daughter, in order to fulfill the prophecy that the child Lancelot would beget of Elaine would be Sir Galahad, the knight destined to find the Sangreal.

I was not thinking of Mr. Rogers when I read this, even when the phrase “Lady Elaine” appeared, until I came across this passage from chapter 3:

Le Morte de Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory, Book 11, Chapter 3, page 615, Modern Library edition.

The close mention of “lady Elaine” and the phrase “fair child” recalled the character Lady Elaine Fairchilde, the proprietor of the Museum Go Round, and general thorn in the side of King Friday the 13th from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

Did Mr. Rogers have this passage in mind when he named the character? Apparently not. According to the official Mr. Rogers website, Lady Elaine was named after Rogers’ adopted sister, Laney. Still, from now on, in my mind then two will always be connected.

In my own head canon, Lady Elaine, dubbed Fairchilde on account of her famous role in the Arthur Story moves to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe to try and start a new life. Her ill-treatment at the hands of her father, King Pelles, has caused he to mistrust all kings, and her role as a pawn of a patriarchal prophecy has caused her to rebel and actively develop her strong, independent, contrarian personality. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse of how my weird mind works. For more silliness of this nature, follow me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

A Doctor Who Character Analysis Challenge

I write this just hours away from the Doctor Who Flux global premiere. Like many whovians, I eagerly await The Doctor’s return. In preparation, I’ve been watching the Wholloween marathon on BBC America, and, as I writer, I am, once again, amazed at the consistency of The Doctor’s characterization across their many regenerations. This is not a new thought for me. Recently, I presented on two panels about characterization, one which I moderated at Eternal Con, and one online at Inbeon Con, and when asked for an example of strong characterization, I pointed to The Doctor each time.

It doesn’t matter who is playing The Doctor (through we all have our preferences and favorites), The Doctor is always recognizably “The” Doctor. Sure, 9 was darker, 11 was sillier, and so forth, but, at the end of the day, despite the individual quirks of each regeneration, the character is remarkably consistent in most of the ways that matter, and while fans can argue over which version is “their” doctor, few would argue that any incarnation–even the ones whom were not their personal favorite–is not a legitimate, believable version of their favorite Time Lord.

Let’s take a step back and look at what a remarkable achievement that is. Many character descriptions start with the way a character looks. Well, no one is going to mistake Peter Capaldi for David Tennant, much less Jodi Whittaker. Sure their have been other long-running characters who have been played by different actors, but these characters, ranging from Sherlock Holmes to Superman, each have a type, and most of the time certain costume elements which link their various incarnations across the years. Batman is going to look like Batman, as long he’s wearing the signature cowl. And yet, despite changes in physical appearance, age, and even gender, each version of The Doctor has remained, quintessentially, The Doctor.

Thus, there is something else that defines the character. In the 50th anniversary episode, The Doctors say, “Same software, different case.” The case, it seems, it unimportant, at least relatively, based on the analysis in the above paragraph. What is it that comprises that software? Is it quirky way the character moves? The way they speechify? The way they go from clueless to terrifying in the blink of an eye? The way they champion kindness and understanding? Their odd mix of arrogance and vulnerability? Their obsession with Victorian England out of all the places in time and space? These all seem like pieces of the puzzle, but not that which makes The Doctor essentially The Doctor.

That is my challenge to you, the writing community: We recognize The Doctor in all their forms as a masterpiece of characterization. Unlike much of what we’re taught about character description, this characterization has little to do with physical appearance, age, or gender. What are the essential traits that define this character? What makes us believe them–any and all of them–the first time they say, “I am the Doctor”?

Obviously, I have my own opinions on the subject, but I don’t want to cloud your analysis with my thoughts. If there is enough interest, I will write a follow-up to this post with my detailed analysis and response to your comments.

Please leave your response to this challenge in the comments. I look forward to reading and responding to your analysis.

Kusama’s Cosmic Nature and Reading Beyond The Dictionary

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Yayoi Kusama’s Cosmic Nature at the New York Botanical Garden. It was a spectacular art show, at once timeless and original. Her sculptures and installations—unlike many that I have seen—integrated with and enhanced the pleasure of seeing the trees and gardens, and the bright colors, organic colors, and illusions of infinity were perfect for a late summer day spent walking around outside.

And yet, when I think about the name of the show—Cosmic Nature—I can’t help but think about how different it is from that which I normally associate with the word “cosmic.” When I think of the word “cosmic” I think of outer space, of the old Hayden planetarium I used to visit as a kid, and of the feeling of infinite falling I always experienced when the lights went out and the stars came on. I think of great powers, of Thor and Captain Marvel and Adam Warlock, of brightly colored comic book pages by Jack Kirby and Jim Starlin. I don’t think of polka-dotted pumpkins.

Now, please don’t take this a criticism of Kusama, her work, or her title. As mentioned above, I loved the show. It is all part of a larger rhetorical point about the way each person’s experience affects the way they associate with certain words. What point? I’ll get to that in a moment.

I know…I know…

I will. But first…In my time, recently, hanging out with indie comics and horror writers, I’ve encountered a large community whose first association with the word “cosmic” relates to the work of HP Lovecraft. Now, I’ve never, personally been a Lovecraft fan: I prefer my horror gothic to cosmic (and that was before I learned about his racism), but his fans are legion, and, in the circles in which I now travel, it is as likely as not that the word “cosmic” conjures the images of Cthulhu and the Elder Gods as anything else in the mind of the person with whom I’m conversing.

These definitions of “cosmic” all derive from the same source, yet they connote very different things. According to The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the cosmic means either “Of or pertaining to the universe as an ordered system or totality; universal; immense; infinite.” It can also mean, “belonging to the universe as opposed to earth; extraterrestrial,” and “characteristic of the vast scale of the universe or traveling through space.”

Whether it’s the planetarium, Marvel’s power cosmic, Lovecraftian gods, or Kusama’s artwork (in which many pieces address the infinite through her use of mirrors, and where the polka dot motif is supposed to hint at the ways stars and planets are seen from vast distances) each of these uses of “cosmic” fits the dictionary definition. And yet, the mood and tone—the feeling one gets from each of these interpretations is vastly different, and, therefore, the connotation of the word—especially on first reading it in a new or unfamiliar context—is likely to be different for every reader (or viewer) depending on their own, personal experience.

About a month ago, I wrote about reading the dictionary with an eye for etymology. I suggested following Tolkien’s example and diving deep into word origins to find a subtext that gives a richness to your writing and a consistency to your themes. It is a technique that I still believe in, and I practice I intend to explore further. But, as a counterpoint, each artist must be aware that their audience’s experiences and contexts—and therefore their associations with certain words—may be different from their own. We all bring a piece of ourselves to our engagement with art, and there are a myriad of permutations within the cosmic vastness of the human experience.


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Reading the Dictionary With Sauron’s Eye

Lately, I’ve been thinking about warm up exercises. Athletes warm up before competition, musicians warm up before performance, so it stands to reason that writers should warm up before they write.

There are many warm up exercises for writers, ranging from freewriting to Ray Bradbury’s noun exercise (the subject of a previous blog in this space), but today I would like to focus on an exercise recommended by a number of successful writers, which I’ve come to see in a new light recently: reading the dictionary.

I first heard about reading the dictionary during Chris Bohjalian‘s keynote address at the Rutgers Writers Conference a few years ago. Paraphrasing from my notes, Bohjalian recommended browsing the dictionary to find the “good” words, making a list of those words, and then trying to incorporate those words into your writing that day. I read the same advice in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, which is, in my opinion is the best book currently available on the craft of writing. Naturally, I tried incorporating this exercise into my practice, but, admittedly, I was not consistent with it, and it became something I only did sporadically.

That all changed about a month ago when I read an article in the Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth exhibition guide from the Bodleian Library. I had picked up the book when the exhibit traveled to the Morgan Library in New York, and the guide finally made it to the top of my TBR pile this year.

The exhibition guide contains images from the exhibit and biographical information about Tolkien, as one might expect in a coffee-table book from a museum exhibition, but it includes a number of scholarly articles on Tolkien’s life and work as well.

In the article “Fairie: Tolkien’s Perilous Land,” Verlyn Flieger discusses the etymology of the words “fairy/fae” and “forest” as they relate to Tolkien’s use of the terms in both The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings. While I, personally, disagree with some of Flieger’s critique of Tolkien’s treatment of fairy land, I found his discussion of the forest fascinating, not only in relation to Tolkien’s work, but also in its implications for the enchanted forest/woods in fantasy stories generally.

The word “forest” derives, through French, from the Latin word “foris” which means “outside.” The English word “foreign” has the same root. The native English counterpart is “wood” derives from the middle English “wode” which means both “forest” and “mad.” Thus it is not just the freudian symbolism of the shadows and the darkness that make the forest the perfect entry point into the magical realm, but the connotation of the English words “forest” and “wood”–outside/foreign and madness–as well. Tolkien, the consummate linguist surely was aware of these connotations, considering how precise he was in weaving his own magical spell (a word which, as Tolkien reminds us in his non-fiction writings means story in addition to formula for power).

Upon reading the article, I was immediately reminded of Bohjalian’s keynote and the dictionary reading exercise. I have begun to incorporate the exercise into my practice again, except this time I look beyond the words’ definitions, into the etymology section as well. (My Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has a robust etymology section relating to each entry.) While I may never achieve the precision of Tolkien, I hope to incorporate some of the deeper magic connoted by the “good” words into my writing in the future.


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