Penny Arcade and Me

Fair warning, Penny Arcade can be quite crude. It is also often very funny and insightful, and today’s offering hit the nail on the head for me.

My unread inbox doesn’t range in the thousands, probably because Tycho is a public figure, and I am not, but between my personal and professional accounts, I have over 200 unread e-mails.

Two pets currently having medical issues, a house I am slowly trying to retrieve from chaos and pernicious Bermuda Grass, a nephew about to turn 1 (how does it happen that quickly?!), and various other distractions, good and bad… perhaps it is not so surprising that my inboxes overflow.


Autumn in Tennessee

Autumn opened its eyes, smiled, still half asleep, and rolled over.

At least, that is what it felt like.

We had a spell of cool weather, unseasonably, bizarrely cool, but lovely. Right on its edge, I thought I caught the scent of Autumn. There is no smell like it, no smell that quickens my blood that much. It is like the breath of God entering my lungs and enlivening the spirit He once breathed into me.

August, in my hometown, is hot, oppressive, and usually muggy (though we are in a mild drought this time). 30+ years living here, and indeed, further south where it is worse, have not helped me to like summer weather.

There are things I like about summer. The food is great, the greens of the landscape are rich, some of my favorite wildflowers put on a show and there are awesome insects and migratory birds everywhere. The other day I saw a clearwing moth, and just yesterday, I watched two female ruby-throated hummingbirds compete over coral honeysuckle, native salvia and a feeder.  And cicadas. I revel in summer cicada-song! But the heat and humidity wear me down quickly, and I run inside to escape.

The three other seasons, though, make up for the heaviness. For one thing, our seasons are pretty evenly spaced, around 3 months apiece. Spring, instead of being a brief link between winter and summer, is a long stretch of flower successions, greening, warming, and rain. It smells of sap and clean earth and breaks through the grays of winter with sharp, vibrant splashes of yellow, purple and white. Then, as the green begins to show, red, orange and blue mix in with the first colors, like a Fauve painting.

Winter, here, has little in the way of snow or persistent ice (though we always get some) but it is filled with opalescent grays, fawn-browns, and frost. A hillside covered with mostly deciduous trees looks like the speckled flank of a sleeping beast with a long, soft, gray-brown winter coat. It is subtle, and yet beautiful, like the many grays of the limestone sky. And in the morning, as I go to work in the dark, the street-lights set lawns and leaves sparkling with frost. It is as if every surface of the world is covered in glitter, and the smell of frost quickens the cold air.

But autumn. It leaves the rest behind. For some reason, the season of dying is life-giving to me. Sumac is the first to turn, a brilliant scarlet, brighter than flame or blood. The sugar-maples, perhaps the most spectacular, create a spectrum that runs from green, through yellows and oranges and into red, all at the same time. They look like shards of living rainbow. Sweetgums turn dark crimson, purple and black. Each tree species (and sometimes each tree) has its pattern and its method, and we have well over 100 species here. Some non-evergreens even retain their dead leaves to whisper through the winter, shedding them only when the new growth arrives in the spring.

One of my favorite species, eastern red cedar (which is actually a juniper) is an evergreen, though it takes on a winter sheen of dark bronze.

But if it were just about visual wonder, Spring and Autumn would be equally loved by me. They are not.

Spring breaks into winter just when I am weary of the gray. It is welcome and enlivening. But there is something about Autumn air. It blows across my mind, causing the embers there to redden, dusting away the white ash until flames flicker to life. It sparks my creativity, my well-being, my life. The taste we had recently whetted my appetite for that rare wind. I am never satisfied, it is never enough. Even in this place, that has a long autumn, it is too brief.

But for that short time, every year, I seem to touch something beyond myself. Perhaps it really is a time when the boundaries between worlds grows thin. I do not fear fairies, or the dead. What I feel coming near is different from that. It is the Christian song. I feel like I breathe in eternity, that eternity that is already here, present within me, but that I do not fully understand. Not yet. Not yet, but one day. Until that day, I have the contradictions, the mystery, a keyhole through a door.

Autumn, dying and living, curling up to sleep, comfort in fear, but not a vulgar fear as of being afraid. I am not afraid, but my heart is racing. It is so hard to express.  I think C.S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton are right about that desire. The desire I feel that is soothed a little in this world, but never satisfied, the hunger for the excitement of adventure coupled with the comfort of coming home, that contradiction in my soul during Fall, fear and comfort, excitement and peace, thrill and balm.

I think of Bilbo Baggins. That journey at my feet, the road tugging at me, that song in the wind. Maybe that is why Bilbo’s song always brings me tears, good tears, and makes me think of Autumn.

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains of the moon.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.

The Road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

-J. R. R. Tolkien: From Bilbo, in The Hobbit and (the last stanza) Lord of the Rings.

..

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*I’ve been told that this post can easily be taken as disrespectful to other beliefs. If you find it so, I apologize. That was not my intent.


John of Kronstadt: “Everyone will give an answer for himself before God”

jubilare:

Though the little I know of his anti-semitic leanings bother me, this translation of St. John of Kronstadt’s words is close to the heart of Christianity as I understand it. It makes me want to read some of his writings myself.

Originally posted on Dover Beach:

john kronstadt

“Do not lose your temper with those who sin. Do not have a passion for noticing every sin in your neighbor and judging it, as we usually do. Everyone will give an answer for himself before God. Especially, do not look with evil intention on the sins of those older than you, with whom you have no business. But correct your own sins, your own heart.”

– St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, I.6

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That gun is loaded

Would you feel comfortable with someone waving around a gun they do not know is loaded? How do you feel about someone who is not a marksman doing trick shooting?

No, this is not a post about Gun Control or Firearm Safety, it is a post about writing.

No one in their right mind will deny the fact that stories humans tell have patterns. Some of these patterns, over time, become so common that they earn the title of “trope” or “cliché.”  You know some of them by sight, having seen them again and again. New ones appear every so often, Sometimes old ones go out of fashion, and sometimes they return and, for a little while, seem new again. Sometimes “new” tropes and clichés are actually old ones in disguise.

Let me pause a moment to define how I am using these terms:

Trope: a common or overused theme or device

Cliché: something that is so commonly used in books, stories, etc., that it is no longer effective

A trope can be a cliché, but not every trope has to be. “Cliché” is what happens when that loaded trope misfires and a character, scene, or entire story dies to the reader’s interest because of it. I know you know the feeling.

That moment, in a movie, where that thing that always happens, happens and you groan inside. For that moment in the story, if not for the whole of it, the writers have lost you. You are back in reality and rolling your eyes at the choices made in creating the film.

The story lies bleeding. Maybe it’s just a fleshwound. Maybe it is fatal. Either way, it could have been avoided.

So the question becomes: How can we, as writers, practice acceptable trope-safety?

Step 1: Awareness

We are all inundated with tropes. Whether they would arise from our minds independently, or whether we are simply fed them from early childhood, they are in us. Chances are the first thoughts coming out of your head when you sit down to write, are tropes. In order to avoid any unpleasantness later on, you need to learn to recognize them, see them for what they are.

Step 2: Acceptance

I am of the opinion that tropes are neither good nor bad. I know people who struggle to avoid them altogether. The truth is, that is a trope in itself and often creates meaningless mush. Tropes exist, and continue to exist, because they serve purposes, and often serve them well. Fearing them is counter-productive. You will never be able to write anything meaningful by avoiding them completely. If you don’t believe me, spend some time wandering around tvtropes.org*. There is a trope for everything.

*Warning. This website will eat your time like a huge time-eating sarlacc.

Step 3: Education

So we cannot avoid tropes. What, then, should we do with them to prevent accidental story mutilation?

Before a firearm can be either safely used, or safely discarded (whatever your preference) the person who has it must know what it is and think about what they want to do with it. The key is education and thought. Learn to recognize tropes, decide not to fear them, and then be deliberate in how you use them. The difference between effective use of a trope and a trope-turned-cliché can be very slight.

This sounds vague, I know, but I cannot tell anyone how to use tropes because there are so many and I have no idea how any writer, other than myself, wants to use them. I think there are a few strategies, though.

a. Turn the trope a little. Don’t change it entirely, but tweak it (and make sure you know if the tweaked trope is also trope). Think of this like a feint. Your audience gets something just different enough from what they expected to cause them to look at it more closely.

b. Flip it. This one is pretty common, so be careful. It is usually referred to as an inverted trope. Princess saves knight can work quite well, but inverted tropes are tropes, too, and can become cliché or, worse, feel forced.

c. Play it straight. Be very intentional. Know what you are doing, and have a good reason why. It is a little safer to do with with less-common tropes, but sometimes it’s fun to go with the “well-worn.” Just try to avoid doing this by accident because purposeless tropes easily become boring or even annoying.

d. Subvert it. If there is a trope you really don’t like, consider using it to make a point against itself. This is the ultimate bait-and-switch of storytelling. I don’t particularly like this strategy, though it is sometimes very effective. Just be careful not to make war on straw.

e. Leave it. If the story will work just as well if you abandon the trope, or move to a less-expected one, then maybe you should do that. While tropes can be fundamental to plot or character, often times they are just trappings. Trappings can matter a lot, but not all are of equal worth.

f. Beware the implications of your tropes. This isn’t so much a strategy as very good advice. If you write about a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, make sure you don’t miss the problematic undercurrents. Whether you play them straight or subvert them, being unaware of them can undermine whatever story you are trying to tell.

Ultimately, this post is me working through these questions for myself. I value input, and if this post has helped make you more aware of tropes, or helped you see new ways of dealing with them, then I am glad. Many times have I seen a perfectly good story or character fall prey to careless trope-use. If I can see it less in my own work, and less in the work of others, I will be very happy.

Do your part to reduce story mortality!

Practice Trope Safety:

Awareness, Acceptance, and Education.

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I would like to dedicate this to BeKindRewrite. I promised her, long ago, that I would write this post.  She has written many good articles on this kind of thing, too. For starters, check this out: How to Be Original


N. T. Wright: “The line between good and evil does not lie between ‘us’ and ‘them”

jubilare:

This blog is hit or miss for me (though always interesting) but this quote is a definite “hit.”

Originally posted on Dover Beach:

N. T. Wright

“The line between good and evil does not lie between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ between the West and the rest, between Left and Right, between rich and poor. That fateful line runs down the middle of each of us, every human society, every individual. This is not to say that all humans, and all societies, are equally good or bad; far from it. Merely that we are all infected and that all easy attempts to see the problem in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’ are fatally flawed.”
– N. T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture

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The Writer’s Spidey Sense (#WritingWednesdays)

jubilare:

This is part of a series Brenton is posting (and there is a new fantastic one today!) I think that it is clear, in the reading, when a writer has trusted his or her instincts; followed where the story and the characters were leading. I could be wrong, because I am not in the heads of others, but I know the difference in my own writing between what comes and what is written to fill in the gaps, and I think I see the same pattern in others.

Anyway, go forth and read!

Originally posted on A Pilgrim in Narnia:

writing_wednesdaysThis blog is part of a series of Wednesday posts on Writing Resources. See next Wednesday for the value of False Starts in Writing.

In our beat-you-over-the-head technotronic age, CGI is going to be a big feature in any superhero flick. But as much I should complain about the complete over-soak of CGI that makes it look like reject footage from that disastrous film 2012, I have to admit that there are parts I like. In particular, I love how we get to see Peter Parker’s spidey senses in play. There are a few scenes where this plays out–most of them in the 3 minute trailers that give the best of the movie away. But here is one of my favourites, the Times Square scene:

Using cutting-edge technology borrowed from The Matrix, we can imagine how Spider-Man sees the what is coming at him. And what the Webslinger…

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Xena, Arizona Ranger

The other day I was listening to Marty Robbins, as I do now and again (after all, the man’s voice is like gelato, creamy and smooth). Specifically, the song Big Iron. Songs often influence, or interweave with, my writing. This song makes me think of the main protagonist of my WIP, who is a ranger, though not quite like the Rangers of the Old West, idealized or otherwise; not entirely unlike them, either.

The thing is, my ranger-protagonist is a woman. She’s not a gun-slinger, partly because her distance-vision is terrible, but mostly because there aren’t any guns in her world. However, I can definitely see her hunting down an outlaw and taking no prisoners.

So, on impulse, I stopped the music and began to re-sing the song to myself with the ranger being female. Then, when I reached the part about the outlaw, he became a woman, too. The result follows.

“Big Iron,” by Marty Robbins, altered lyrics in red.

To the town of Agua Fria rode a stranger one fine day,
Hardly spoke to folks around her, didn’t have too much to say.
No one dare to ask her business, no one dared to make a slip,
The stranger there among them had a big iron on her hip,
Big iron on her hip.

It was early in the mornin when she rode into the town.
She came ridin from the south side, slowly looking all around.
She’s an outlaw, loose and runnin,” came the whisper from each lip,
“And she’s here to do some business with the big iron on her hip,”
Big iron on her hip.

In this town there lived an outlaw by the name of Texas Red.
Many folks had tried to take her, and that many folks were dead.
She was vicious and a killer, though a girl of twenty-four,
And the notches on her pistol numbered one and nineteen more,
One and nineteen more.

Now the stranger started talkin, made it plain to folks around,
Was an Arizona Ranger, wouldn’t be to long in town.
She came here to take an outlaw back alive, or maybe dead,
And she said it didn’t matter, she was after Texas Red,
After Texas Red.

Wasn’t long before the story was relayed to Texas Red,
But the outlaw didn’t worry, those that tried before were dead.
Twenty folks had tried to take her, twenty folks had made a slip,
Twenty-one would be the Ranger with the big iron on her hip,
Big iron on her hip.

The morning passed so quickly, it was time for them to meet.
It was twenty-past-eleven when they walked out in the street.
Folks were watching from the windows, everybody held their breath,
They new this handsome Ranger was about to meet her death,
About to meet her death.

There was forty feet between ‘em when they stopped to make their play,
And the swiftness of the Ranger is still talked about today.
Texas Red had not cleared leather ‘fore a bullet fairly ripped,
And the Ranger’s aim was deadly with the big iron on her hip,
Big iron on her hip.

It was over in a moment and the folks had gathered ’round.
There, before them, lay the body of the outlaw on the ground.
Oh she might’ve went on livin, but she made one fatal slip,
When she tried to match the Ranger with the big iron on her hip,
Big iron on her hip.

Big iron, big iron,
When she tried to match the Ranger,
With the big iron on her hip.

 

It certainly changes the mental imagery, doesn’t it? Don’t get me wrong, I love the original version of the song, too, and am as happy to sing it as to sing my slight adjustment.  Since doing this, though, I’ve tried flipping the pronouns in other songs, and it nearly always works.

Anyone who reads my blog consistently knows that I consider myself a feminist, and I in no way feel that I have to choose between feminism and loving and respecting men. Feminism, to me, means being considered a whole person, on equal standing with men, who are also whole people.

The culture I live in is riddled with messages that I don’t like. Few stories have interesting (much less powerful) female characters, and alternative feminist narratives sometimes seem to belittle, if not demonize, women who desire traditional female roles. It all makes me want to throw up my hands and shout “stop telling me what I should want and give me some better stories!”

Things are getting better in this regard, but progress seems slow. I will keep playing with songs and writing my own stories that neither limit women to periphery or symbolic roles, nor demonizes them if they make their mark on the world by keeping a home and raising children.


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