“A Conversation with Ray Bradbury”

tell me a story
“A Conversation with Ray Bradbury”
Post Thursday 21st August 2014

Marvelous words from the heart & mind of Ray Bradbury. A Dreamer. A Reader. A Thinker.   A Librarian. A Writer.

You Become the Authors Who Write the Books. Listen As You Read. You Become Emily Dickinson. You Become Ernest Hemingway. You Become Shakespeare. How Great Would That Feel.

Get Inside of the Words the Author Chose Particularly For Just This Moment In Time. Quite Often Different For Everyone. Learn About Books.

Reading Can Give You A Great Education.

Bradbury Wrote “Fahrenheit 451″  A Book Every Person Needs To Read.

Be the Book. Be the Words. Be Aware. Be Informed.

Do You Know What Fahrenheit 451 Actually Is? Or What the Book Is About? Great Ending. You Don’t See It Coming.

“You Don’t Know What You Are Because You Are In Love.” A Book Can Make You Feel In Love Or Many Other Different Ways.

Books Are Smart & Brilliant & Wise.

A Must To Listen To. If You Love Imagination & Free Thinking You Will Fall In Love With Ray Bradbury. He Is Deeply Divine.

And In My Judgment – Quite Zen. Ommmmmmmm. – Jennifer Kiley

“A Conversation with Ray Bradbury” by Lawrence Bridges

Editor’s Corner 101.37: All Good Things….

shawn mackenzie's editor's corner day monday
Editor’s Corner 101.37
All Good Things….
Written by Shawn MacKenzie
Originally Posted on MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest in 2013

Reposted on ‘the secret keeper’
Monday 3rd February 2014

101.37

All Good Things….

There’s a trick to the ‘graceful exit.’
It begins with the vision to recognize when a job,
a life stage, or a relationship is over — and let it go.
…Ellen Goodman

Scribe smallStories, films, lives – all things come to a close. Sometimes neatly, sometimes not. And so, after nine months, I am bringing the Editor’s Corner to what I hope is a neat and graceful end.

Over the past thirty-seven weeks, we have covered topic both minute and sweeping, and yet, in the end, I find it fitting to return to the beginning. To our words.

I originally wrote the following back in March of this year as a guest piece for Karen Sanderson’s blog. I now amend, update, and present it to you as my parting thoughts. My thanks to Niamh and Plum Tree for this forum, and to all who have traveled with me on this writer’s journey. Enjoy.

P1010342

You Are Your Words

We humans are creatures of custom. It frames our existence and structures our lives. In the course of my daily custom, once I begin to feel the dream-webs lift from my mind, I brew a fresh pot of tea, play with the kittens, and allow my thoughts to mosey along paths both cosmological and mundane, reasoned and stochastic. The other day, I started thinking about words.

Magical, mystical, wickedly creative, oh, the glorious power of words and we who wield them.

“In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was God.”

This is not just a Judeo-Christian notion. The Popol Vuh – Mayan Book of Creation – speaks of how Sovereign Plumed Serpent (who later became Quetzlcoatl) and Heart of Sky came together at the beginning of time:

“…And then came his [Heart of Sky’s] word, he came to Sovereign Plumed Serpent, here in the blackness, in the early dawn…. they joined their words, their thoughts….And then the earth arose because of them, it was simply their word that brought it forth….”

Quetzlcoatl - Vampire Princess

Quetzlcoatl by Vampire Princess

Now this notion (naturally) draws me down a whimsically syllogistic rabbit hole: The Word is divine; the divine create with words. Writers create with words; writers are divine.

Hey, makes sense to me.

Ok, we writers may not be divine, but we do cloak ourselves in Creator’s motley as comfortably as jeans and broadcloth. Mind blowing for gods to shape the universe in the round of a word, yet that’s what we do every day. Out of the chaos of random thought, the void of the blank page, we create whole worlds and the beings who live in them. Earthsea, Darkover, Yoknapatawpha County, OZ and East Egg, Wonderland and Wessex – the list of literary terrae nova are legion. Even places we think we know, like Richard Wright’s Chicago or Edith Wharton’s New York, are, in authorial hands, transformed into alien landscapes ripe for exploration.

Wizard of Earthsea - Torture Device

Wizard of Earthsea by Torture Device

And so we string one word after another, counting our hours from phrase to sentence to paragraph to tome. We weave tales of myth and wonder and supernal genesis. For words are creative. With them we name things and by naming them bring them into being. They are active, breathing life into those named things, making them romp and fly and do handsprings through the treetops. They are descriptive, coloring and shaping the world that it might be recognized and marveled at in all its beauty and strangeness. And that is without even touching upon the mind and heart, the emotional power of words. The power that reaches out across our inherent aloneness and makes people feel and think and remember, even change their lives. For words are lash and cradle, warming spark and unholy conflagration. They heal and nurture, wound and kill.

Complex stuff. God stuff.

Sue Blackwell book sculpture

Sue Blackwell book sculpture

Which brings me to a story. More memoir than fancy (though there are tangential Dragons); just a little something I thought I’d share.

Two years ago, my book, The Dragon Keeper’s Handbook, was making its way into print. In anticipation of this event, my publisher invited me to the Book Expo of America in New York. Sign some ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies), generate book buzz, and spend two days in Gotham with all stripe of book folk – authors, publishers, agents, librarians. Commercialism be damned, for a writer, what could be more delicious?

Not to mention the swag!

A convention neophyte, I was quite unprepared for the booty laid out like Smaug’s hoard, just there for the taking. From simple promotional bookmarks and house totes, to signed copies of the year’s (hopefully) hottest titles, one was limited only by one’s interests, greed, and in the case of acquiring a major author’s John (or Jane) Hancock, no small amount of stamina. Even though I was hobbling about on a broken leg at the time, I returned home with several bags – now weekly filled with groceries – and a far from shabby passel of books. For all that, my favorite BEA keepsake was from the folks at the American Heritage Dictionary of English Language: a modest white 6” x 4” oval magnet, adorned in black Arial with the deceptively simple gnome: You Are Your Words.

URYourWords

Every morning since, I rub the sleep from my eyes and focus on this reminder of how I am defined by the words in my life. They are my tools, my paint and canvas, soil and seeds. I shape them, play with them, with luck make them croon like an armadillo and pirouette on the wings of a damselfly. They represent me to the world, my ideas and dreams. Whether tripping across page or tongue, they have consequences, so I must choose them with care. They are my children sent into the world, and I am responsible for them, in all their beauty or ugliness.

I am my words; my words are me.

As logophile, whimsical scribe, exacting editor, wielder of words.

As a writer.

I give you my word.

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Happy Holidays, my friends.
Write well.

The Last Edition of the Editor’s Corner To Go To the Archives Click On the Highlighted “Editor’s Corner”

Editor’s Corner 101.34 — Brass Tacks in a Box of Paper Clips

shawn mackenzie's editor's corner day monday
Editor’s Corner 101.34 — Brass Tacks in a Box of Paper Clips
Written by Shawn MacKenzie
Originally Posted on MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Reposted on ‘the secret keeper’
Reposted on Monday 13th January 2014

101.34
Brass Tacks in a Box of Paper Clips

Trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle.
― Michelangelo Buonarroti

Scribe smallA 14th-century traveler parks his camel on the banks of the Euphrates. The water is wide and easy and teeming with fish. But what sort? Would our traveler use a line or a net – perhaps his bare hands? How would he cook his catch? Does it matter?

The short answer is, “Yes!”

Euphrates

Euphrates

As storytellers, we laud our ability to build worlds whole and breathe life into pen-and-ink characters. We ask our readers to believe at times the most extraordinary things. For this to work, we have to remember that stranger our tales, the more they must be grounded in something familiar.

I write fantasy. I dance around dragons and unicorns, kitsune and mystical yeti crabs. I explore unknown planets and long-forgotten civilizations. Nothing pleases me more than when people say they believe my Dragons are real, when they can imagine walking through Dragon Country and being surprised and delighted by the scaly habitants. While some of this comes from my personal conviction about Dragons, that alone would fall flat if not backed up by plausible science, history, and cultural anthropology.

River time

In other words, even our most imaginative fictions – especially our most imaginative fictions – must have an intimate relationship with facts. And establishing that relationship demands research.

This is not always easy. Even in the Internet age, when libraries and museums from every corner of the world are literally at our fingertips, getting details about time and place, costume and manner, spot on can be harder than one might think. Right now, I have been pulling my hair trying to solve the question of that 14th-century angler. As an editor of crossword puzzles, I pride myself on being able to research anything, but this has been giving me fits.

r_01_____________________________________________t400

True, I can always go generic. A nice fish grilled over an open fire whets the appetite regardless of species. And, for a while, I was so discouraged about the lack of available information, I seriously thought about going that route. Then, this afternoon (Monday afternoon), I had one of those marvelous “Eureka!” moments that elicited an audible sigh of relief from my near-tonsured pate.

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In the midst of lists of species names (in Latin, of course), cultural and environmental histories, and free-association googling, I came across a wonderful story about the sacred carp of the Euphrates, a barbel fish not only revered but also known to grant wishes! I had discovered an indigenous fish both tasty and full of fanciful possibilities. For my purposes it was perfect.

As helpful as this was to me, carp or bluegill, the point I am trying to make in my round about way, is that you don’t have polar bears chasing Robert Falcon Scott across the Ross Ice Shelf or have your heroine catch a train from Kings Cross to St. Ives. Eros – Anteros, to some – looks down on Piccadilly Circus,

eros

and, as Bohemian as Montmartre is, it’s actually on the Right Bank of the Seine, not the Left. (The stepped hills are a dead giveaway.)

Terrace-of-a-Cafe-on-Montmartre-(La-Guinguette)

Little things in a story’s bigger picture, but the sort of things which give veracity, especially when dealing with actual places, events, and/or people. And veracity makes people believe. The last thing you want is to ruin the spell of your story by a nagging error of fact. It would be as bad as if a Rolex flashed from Chuck Heston’s wrist as he chased Stephen Boyd around the hippodrome.

BEN HUR

So, put in the time, do the research, and double check Wikipedia with an independent source. In the end, even if you have such a superfluity of information that you bury most of it in your personal notes, it will still infuse your prose. It will still matter.

Dissection

Editor’s Corner 101.33 — But What Happens?

shawn mackenzie's editor's corner day monday
Editor’s Corner 101.33
But What Happens?
Originally Posted by Shawn MacKenzie
On MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest 22nd October 2013

View Past Issues at MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest Archive

Reposted on ‘the secret keeper
Monday 6th January 2014

But What Happens?

Story is honorable and trustworthy;
plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.
― Stephen King

Dragon ScribeLast week my writers’ group happened to coincide with Halloween, and whether it was the holiday or the fact that it was unseasonably warm and pouring, our little intrepid band was remarkably light on pages. OK, truthfully, they were nonexistent. Hey, shit happens, right? So we spent a couple of hours talking – always a pleasure with intelligent, creative people – about politics, films, and, of course, the books on our respective nightstands and kindles. I’d just finished reading an extraordinary collection of short stories, “The Witch and Other Stories,” by one of my favorite writers, Anton Chekhov.

chekhov

One of my fellows asked, “What are they about?”

A proper question – the sort of thing we writers have to answer every time we craft a query/cover letter or get button-holed in a conference elevator – but one which often gives me fits. More and more, we seem to live in a literal and literary worlds where something has to happen every page, paragraph, even line. Stillness, reflection, these are strains we seldom allow our turn-pagers. (You can imagine my delight when Alice Munro got the Nobel this year – a testament to the power of stillness.)

Uncle Vanya

Uncle Vanya

I thought for a moment and gleefully – must be my Russian blood – couldn’t come up with an answer. Chekhov and plot have always had a tangential relationship. His plays – The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, The Seagull – are two-hour explorations of life, love, and survival. Disarmingly simple.

The good doctor’s stories are the same, even more so. People come together, move apart, and in between, they survive as best they can. What happens? Life.

In our high-octane world that demands action every five minutes, is that enough? Absolutely.

Macbeth - the whole plot in a handful of witchy lines.

Macbeth – the whole plot in a handful of witchy lines.

Of course some will say that low-action stories are best left to “literary” fiction. And, from a publishing perspective there is some truth to that. After all, a mystery is about solving a crime; a romance is about winning and losing love, and most fantasy books these days are 600 pages of swords, sorcery, and noble quests.

Every agent or publisher will insist you have to be able to sell your story, to distill the plot into 50 words or less. Better yet, into one sentence. But what does that really convey? Moby-Dick is about a guy obsessed with killing the whale that cost him his leg. Right?

moby_dick_book_sculpture_by_wetcanvas-d5v6yll

We all need ‘plot’ but in the end, it is just the skeleton of the work – the connect-the-dots image begging for lines to give it form. In the end it is not the ‘what’ of a telling, it is the ‘how.’ It is not the distance of the journey, it is the people you meet along the way. It is the words.

“Remember,” Ray Bradbury wisely wrote, “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all Plot ever should be. It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic. So, stand aside, forget targets, let the characters, your fingers, body, blood, and heart do.”

badger-footprints

Editor’s Corner 101.31 — Heroes Large – Heroes Small

shawn mackenzie's editor's corner day monday
Editor’s Corner 101.31
Heroes Large – Heroes Small
Originally Posted by Shawn MacKenzie

On MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest 15th October 2013
View Past Issues at MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest Archive

Reposted on ‘the secret keeper
Monday 23rd December 2013

Heroes Large – Heroes Small

No, what he didn’t like about heroes was that they were usually suicidally gloomy when sober and homicidally insane when drunk.
…Terry Pratchett

Scribe smallNo matter how hard we might try – and believe me I do – we cannot avoid protagonists – our literary heroes, male or female.

Truth is, I’m not too keen on heroes, per se. They are essential but really, what can you say? Your hero is your main character, the person whose story you are telling. Simple. They are characters sometimes more acted upon than acting, but always real enough that we cheer when they triumph and shed a tear when they die. We willingly, eagerly invest hours of precious time – oh, how precious our time is these days! – in their lives, following them wherever their journeys lead.

This 3-D imaging is the essence of the writer’s craft; we have explored it before – most recently in the past couple of weeks when I discussed minor characters and villains. (If you want to learn more, read Joseph Campbell’s brilliant The Hero With a Thousand Faces or the more writer-friendly take on it, Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey – you couldn’t ask for better guides along the heroic arc.)

campbell2

Today I want to look at things in a slightly different way. I want to talk about the changing face of our literary heroes.

In the old days of dichromatic storytelling, heroes, like their villainous counterparts, were characters of extremes. They were always virtuous, noble, and brave, intelligent but not cunning (too many sinister connotations to that word), willing to take responsibility for their actions and, if needs be, sacrifice themselves for the greater good. They were aspirational – the sort of people upon whom we pinned all our best hopes, convinced that they could not only bear them, but soar under their weight.

1amwords_hero

Yes, they had their flaws, usually picked from amongst the cardinal sins. Hubris was a big one with the Greeks (Oedipus, Cadmus, just about every major player in the Iliad and Odyssey). Also big in the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh and the Mahabharata. In the latter, the Pandava and the Kaurava are both exceedingly proud, but the Pandava are the heroes because they learn from their weakness and are humbled; the Kaurava remain proud to the end).

mahabharata_vittorio_mezzogiorno_peter_brook_010_jpg_uhei

Love – or its extremes, jealousy and lust – is another common flaw (Lancelot, Orlando); and greed (Bilbo Baggins). For a classic protagonist, what counts is not that they are flawed, but that they learn about themselves, their weaknesses, and triumph despite them. This introspection and growth is as important, if not more so, as the slaying of any rampaging legion of orcs. (No slaying Dragons here!)

These are our neat heroes, the ones who come through with every hair in place and nary a speck of blood on their crisp white shirt (or burnished armor).

Galahad-L

But the modern world is as messy for heroes as it is for villains. Such pristine white hats no longer resonate as they once did.

As with villains, I believe the sea change for protagonists came with Shakespeare. Hamlet, Prospero, Titus Andronicus, Lear, Cleopatra, Isabella, Richard II…. Complicated characters who, while protagonists, are not always aspirational. Shakespeare allowed his main characters to straddle the line between good and evil. They could be cruel and petty, indecisive and vengeful.

titus

Titus Andronicus

They were, to my thinking, among our first literary antiheroes – the predecessors of Heathcliff and Emma Bovary, Holden Caulfield and Lisbeth Salander.

mara-rooney-the-girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

But can we take this too far? In our effort to find relatable, sympathetic protagonists, have we made them too much like ourselves, and in the process, lost something vital? Today, just doing the right thing – standing up against bullies or bigotry, calling 911 for a stranger in trouble – qualifies you for a medal, even sainthood. Our heroes, like ourselves, are diminished. Not that we shouldn’t say “thank you” to every good Samaritan or person of conscience out there – but are they worthy of novel treatment?

Yes, we are all heroes in our own life stories, but fiction – even the most intimate fiction (like the stories of recent Nobelist Alice Munro) – is not life. It is, if not bigger, then certainly more concentrated. Our protagonists have to rise to the challenge, to satisfy that aspect of our natures that craves heroes ten-feet tall.

Protagonists - Gleeson

Protagonists – Gleeson

Some will say that is what genre books are for – fantasy and mystery and horror, that they are the new home to classic protagonists. Within their pages we get reluctant everymen and women thrust into being more than they ever imagined possible. They transform from being “us” to being what we can only dream of being and, as we tag along or the vicarious ride, we get our requisite dose of clean, aspirational heroism.

Can we strike a balance between these classic (genre) heroes and everyday mensch (literary) protagonists? Perhaps. But first we must find that balance in ourselves. And remember that the hallmark of a protagonist is not leaping tall buildings or bringing peace to the Universe. It is seeing change up ahead and choosing to embrace it. It is riding the wings of the Dragon when everyone else demands you thrust a blade through her heart.

Weyrworld - Pern Dragonriders

Weyrworld – Pern Dragonriders

The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of
being an honest coward like everybody else.
…Umberto Eco

Editor’s Corner 101.30 — Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – Loving Our Villains

shawn mackenzie's editor's corner day monday
Editor’s Corner 101.30
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – Loving Our Villains
Originally Posted by Shawn MacKenzie

On MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest 8th October 2013
View Past Issues at MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest Archive

Reposted on ‘the secret keeper
Monday 16th December 2013

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – Loving Our Villains.

You learn eventually that, while there are no villains, there are no heroes either.
And until you make the final discovery that there are only human beings, who are therefore all the more fascinating, you are liable to miss something.
― Paul Gallico

Scribe smallOnce upon a time – at least according to popular culture – the world was a simpler place. There were white hats and black hats and we walked through life with the certain belief that, no matter how grim things got, good would emerge victorious in the end. It is a comfortable worldview, littered with archetypes and stereotypes. We need not look too deep within ourselves to know who merits cheers, who boos.

summer-movie-villains-LR59I20-x-large

Empirically speaking, of course – and taking absolute nutters like Caligula out of the equation – villainy – and heroism – are much more situational qualities. Napoleon or Nelson, Pizarro or Atahualpa, Saladin or Richard I. Each has their supporters and detractors, with the balance tipped by the passage of years and history’s shifting tide. As Ian Fleming – a man who knew a good bad guy when he penned one – wrote, “History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.” [Casino Royal] True-life villains are characters of passion and action, with the sort of laser conviction that makes them heroes in their own minds and those of their minions. (One has only to look at the current American shame, aka the Republican Party, to see this playing out in real time.)

Goneril_and_Regan_from_King_Lear

The best literary villains – nutters still excepted – have always been closer to this real-life model than to two-dimensional mustache-twirling brutes or murderous harridans. Shakespeare’s legion of dark characters (Macbeth, Richard III, Goneril, Tamora, Claudius, et al), Marlowe’s Barabas, Hugo’s Javert and Claude Frollo, Quilp, Moriarty, the list is long and colorful. A complicated age requires complicated characters; modern audiences demand more layered, multifaceted antagonists, people who flirt with the shadows, one foot in light, one in dark.Charles_Buchel_Sir_Herbert_Beerbohm_Tree_as_Shakespeare_s_Shylock moby-dick

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It is from this ambiguity that we get characters who, though considered villains by previous generations, might be now seen as sympathetic, occasionally even heroic. Shylock, Dracula, Captain Nemo, Moby-Dick, even Milton’s Lucifer, each are characters with complicated pasts, complicated motives. Personally, I cheer for them all, cheated, abused, betrayed – human – as they are. Gregory Maguire (“Wicked,” “Confessions of a Ugly Stepsister”) has taken this one step further and made a career out of turning tales on their heads and showing us just how heroic some famous villains are. All depends on who is telling the story.

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(It being the Month of the Dragon, I would be remiss not to at least mention one of the most maligned “villains” of all time: Dragons. Smaug, Fafnir, Smok, Beowulf’s Dragon, all are literary black-hats who, in actuality, are simply guarding their homes and property, avenging past wrongs, in short, defending themselves from those who, by virtue of comely looks and Homo sapien “superiority,” believed they had the right to take what they wanted, when they wanted and where. Dragons are different and what is different is easily feared and vilified.)

smaug-eye-feature

What is the role of an antagonist in an increasingly grey literary landscape? And how do we make them memorable? Your antagonist is the one who drives your story. They compel the protagonist into action, give them someone to rise against and outshine, to save the kingdom or rescue the lost. Without villains, our heroes would just be sitting at home, enjoying their boring lives. Villains make heroes great.

white-witch-and-the-chronicles-of-narnia-the-lion-the-witch-and-the-wardrobe-gallery

To make them memorable, we must write characters we like. Their hearts may be cold as Pluto’s core, but you, the author, have to like them. You want to write villains you’d enjoy inviting over diner (just be sure to lock up any stray firearms and hide the silver). You want people who not only have an interesting take on their world but who, despite their ethical flaws, can also be understood. As much as we might enjoy the occasional larger-than-life monster threatening cosmic devastation, the best antagonists are simply people who, when confronted with crucial choices, opt for the more sinister path. The more heinous a character’s actions, the more they need some spark deep in their background that holds the possibility of being just like us.

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As their creators, we have to recognize this and tread joyfully in their shoes. Then, in inky Stetson or raspberry beret, our antagonists will be memorable and alive.

You can catch up on past posts in the Editor’s Corner Archive. Enjoy.

Editor’s Corner 101.29 — All Characters, Great and Small

shawn mackenzie's editor's corner day monday

Editor’s Corner 101.29
All Characters, Great and Small
Originally Posted by Shawn MacKenzie
On MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest 8th October 2013

View Past Issues at MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest Archive

Reposted on ‘the secret keeper
Monday 9th December 2013

All Characters, Great and Small.

Outside books, we avoid colorful characters.
…Mason Cooley

Scribe smallCharacters drive fiction. As Faulkner said, we create them, then “just run along after them and put down what they say and do.”

Today I thought to talk not about heroes and villains – the archetypes that form the moral (or immoral) heart of a tale – but about the supporting and cameo players who are like diamond chips, reflecting all about them.

More than short stories, novels lend themselves to these flashes of light and color. The scope of a novel, even if not epic, almost demands supernumeraries as flesh upon bones. Think of the multitudes inhabiting Shakespeare, Dickens, Hugo, Austen, and Twain – each so alive you could pick them out in Grand Central Station at rush hour.dickens

“Hamlet”’s gravedigger, the porter in “Macbeth,” Bumble the Beadle, Wilkins Micawber, Mr. and Mrs. Palmer, Azelma Threnardier, Sid Sawyer, Mrs. Loftus – you could populate a kingdom with them and never be bored. (Some might say that Huck Finn was a minor character in Tom Sawyer but so full of life that he just demanded his own story.)

So how is it that, in a line or turn of phrase, the reader knows these characters like a member of their own family? They are not simple place holders. They are blood and sinew imbued with humor, malice, courage and pathos, and each, in their small way, moves the story forward. If there is a trick to this it is in treating them with the same deference we do our heroes and villains. Don’t make them cardboard cutouts or stereotypes. Give them histories, kids, exes, quirks and foibles.

minor characters

Does the reader need to know all this? No, but we do. And when we do, when we see the cabby or the neighbor or the goblin in a teller’s cage at Gringotts clearly, then we can pick one or two of those specifics, bring them to the fore and we’re suddenly dealing with individuals. Remember Mustardseed is not Moth; and Isis and Charmian may both be handmaids but they are not pod people.

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No matter how long such characters are on the page, they will live and breathe. They will get big movie stars clambering to play them on film.

They will be remembered.

This is a work of fiction. All the characters in it, human and otherwise, are imaginary, excepting only certain of the fairy folk, whom it might be unwise to offend by casting doubts on their existence. Or lack thereof.
…Neil Gaiman

Frances and the fairies

Editor’s Corner 101.28 — Lasting Impression of Last Words…

shawn mackenzie's editor's corner day monday
Editor’s Corner 101.28
Lasting Impression of Last Words…
Written by Shawn MacKenzie
Originally Published on MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest
Posted On Tuesday 27th August 2013

Reposted on the secret keeper
Monday 02nd November 2013

Lasting Impression of Last Words…

Scribe smallThings are a little hectic round about the Dragonsnest and at the Editor’s Corner. Month of the Dragon starts today and, well, you can just imagine the flurry of activity. So I thought I would bookend last week’s ramble on openings with one this week on closings.

And there are great ones.

The Wild Swans - Su Blackwell

The Wild Swans – Su Blackwell

Some are meta statements, literary conceits that step out of the tale and remind the reader that they are just that, a reader:

And you say, “Just a moment, I’ve almost finished If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.” …Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler

Some are the simple culmination of the tale’s action – aka they-all-lived-happily-(or not)-ever-after:

Shining fragments of aquarium glass fell like snow around him. And when the long-awaited white fingers of water tapped and lapped on Oscar’s lips, he welcomed them in as he always had, with a scream, like a small boy caught in the sheet-folds of a nightmare. …Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda

Still others offer a philosophical, poetic tying up of loose ends:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
…F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

(For the life of me, I do not know why Francis Ford Coppola chose not to use this in his 1974 screenplay, going for the far less powerful lines of a couple paragraphs earlier.)

And then, some lines do not end at all, but propel the characters – and the reader – into a whole new venture:

The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off.
Joseph Heller, Catch-22

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So, what makes for a good closing line? Unlike your first line, you aren’t looking to create that throat-gripping “Ah-ha!” moment. This is the moment when your characters – and yourself – exeunt from the stage, and you want to leave your reader satisfied. An audience wants – nay, demands – that their hours have been wisely and well. They want to close the book and say, “Ah, yes! Exactly!” then rise to their feet and cheer. That’s not asking much, right?

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There are no rules for penning the perfect close, though I would suggest you don’t force it or try to be coy. Dig deep into your story and let it flow organically. If you know your tale, know your characters, their end will be a natural offshoot of that knowledge. Messy or neat as Sam Spade’s whisky, nine times out of ten, if it comes from that place it will work.

Now, for the sheer joy of it and because I am a sucker for glorious prose, I shall regale you with a select few of my favorite last lines. Enjoy.

I leave this manuscript, I do not know for whom, I no longer know what it is about: stat rosa prinstina nomine, nomine nuda tenemus.
…Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

It’s old light, and there’s not much of it. But it’s enough to see by.
…Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye

Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine.
…Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano

We shall sit with lighter bosoms on the hearth, to see the ashes of our fires turn grey and cold.
…Charles Dickens, Hard Times

But the horses didn’t want it – they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want, they said in their hundred voices, ”No, not yet,” and the sky said, “No, not there.”
…E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
(I love the bittersweet irony of this passage; the loss of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation is enough to break the heart.)

Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is.
…Russell Banks, Continental Drift

“Poor Grendel’s had an accident,” I whisper. “So may you all.”
…John Gardner, Grendel

He was, indeed, so confidently happy that he completely forgot Fran and he did not again yearn over her, for almost two days.
…Sinclair Lewis, Dodsworth

Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.
…Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

This was not judgment day – only morning. Morning: excellent and fair.
…William Styron, Sophie’s Choice

But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.
…John Irving, The World According to Garp

No one watching this woman smear her initials in the steam on her water glass with her first finger, or slip cellophane packets of oyster crackers into her handbag for the sea gulls, could know how her thoughts are thronged by our absence, or know how she does not watch, does not listen, does not wait, does not hope, and always for me and Sylvie.
…Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.
…E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

Whereon the pillars of this earth are founded, toward which the conscience of the world is tending – a wind is rising, and the rivers flow.
…Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again

As Margaret Atwood said, “Are there any questions?” (A Handmaid’s Tale).
No? Then I will simply fade away. For now…

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Editor’s Corner 101.27 — Grand Openings: Make Them an Offer They Can’t Refuse

shawn mackenzie's editor's corner day monday

Editor’s Corner 101.27
Grand Openings: Make Them an Offer They Can’t Refuse.
Written by Shawn MacKenzie
Originally Published on MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest
Posted On Tuesday 20th August 2013

Reposted on the secret keeper
Monday 25th November 2013

Grand Openings: Make Them an Offer They Can’t Refuse.

“The last thing one discovers in composing a work is what to put first.”
…Blaise Pascal. Pensées

Scribe smallBefore you lies a blank page and all you can fill it with is dread! There is a reason for this, of course, beyond fear of failure or success or being exposed as the frauds we secretly suspect we are. A reason driven into us like slivers beneath our fingernails: capture your audience in the first line – first paragraph at the most – or all is lost.

And there is certainly truth in that. When we send our literary progeny out into the world, they land under the bleary eyes of overworked agents, editors, and publishers. If we do not grab their interest at the start, they are not going to bother slogging through the ensuing 300 pages, no matter how profound or beautifully written. That is just the way of the world. So we have to give them cause to sit up, rub their eyes, and say, “Hmmm!”

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How do we manage such a monumental undertaking? It helps to have a grasp of the forms and purposes to which opening lines are put, then you can choose which works best for your tale. There are essentially five – or six, depending on how one merges and melds – options for opening lines.

• The universal truth. From Tolstoy to Rushdie, this can be a very appealing way to start a story. It sets the tone and gives the reader an aphoristic notion of the world their about to explore:

“To be born again,” sang Gibeel Farishta tumbling from the heavens,
first you must die.” (S. Rushdie, Satanic Verses)
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”
(Z.N.Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God ).

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• The factual opening. This comes in a several variations:

1) The simple lone fact that carries the weight of the story, as Isak Dinesen’s opening for Out of Africa, “I had a farm in Africa.” Simple, to the point, and the reader knows what follows will be related to that fact.

2) A simple fact laced with subtle significance. This is often used mysteries (Agatha Christie loved this approach), where a fact can be dropped in at the start only to become clear as the story unfolds. In this category, I would also include such classic openings as Melville’s “Call me Ishmael.” – which invokes a Biblical narrative that at first blush seems out of place in a whale tale, but is absolutely central, and the opening of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Oh so simple, oh so layered.

3) Finally, there is the combined facts: an opening line that takes two fact, not terribly interesting alone, but enticing when put together. In The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers uses this to great effect: “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.” Now that intrigues.

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Carson McCullers

• There is the opening that establishes the narrative voice, as in Catcher in the Rye, Lolita, or most anything by James Joyce:

“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…” (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)

• If setting and atmosphere are central to your telling, an opening can establish mood. While “It was a dark and stormy night…” springs to mind as a clichéd example of this, I prefer something less obvious, like Ford Maddox Ford:

“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” (The Good Soldier)

To me that is one of the greatest opening lines ever written. It not only sets the mood for the entire book, but also hints at volumes about the narrator, John Dowell and his tangled relationship with the Ashburnhams.

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• Finally, a first line can frame your story in time and place. This is the “Once upon a time” approach and tells the reader that what they are about to encounter is, in some way or another, beyond the realm of the familiar:

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
(L.P.Hartley, The Go-Between)

Where a novel demands much of its first line – and consequently, the first line of each chapter that follows – a short story, by virtue of its brevity, demands even more. Most notably, consider letting the reader know whose story you are telling and why they should care. I don’t mean this in a pedantic, cudgel-to-the-head sort of way. Be deft and subtle as your craft allows.

As a rule, do not muddle your opening with exposition – unless your exposition brings tears to Stoic eyes and nightmares to febrile sleep. In this same vein, avoid literary small talk about the weather or the scenery or your protagonist’s designer ensemble. Tenets of modern creative writing suggest that a short story start with a definitive action and following such advice will usually serve you well. Of course, I am not one to be bound by tenets it they do not suit.

In the end, novel or flash fiction, test your opening rigorously. Step outside of yourself. Read your work as if you were a stranger, flipping through a plenitude of volumes in the bookstore. Would you linger, reading page after page until the proprietor insists, “We’re not a lending library!” then check your pockets to see if you have enough cash for your treasure? Or would you yawn and set it aside?

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A final thought: sometimes first lines drop onto the page, ripe and fully formed as Newton’s apple, and sometimes they are as hard to find as hen’s teeth in a haystack. If your opening does not flow from your pen like liquid gold first time off, do not fall into scrivener’s paralysis. As Pascal said, we don’t always know what comes at the beginning until we get to the end. And, while we may not all be able to pen classics like “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” we should never let that stop us from striving to be captivating from first word to last.

Editor’s Corner 101.26 — The Writer’s Voice – Rise Up and Sing!

shawn mackenzie's editor's corner day monday

Editor’s Corner 101.26
The Writer’s Voice – Rise Up and Sing!
Written by Shawn MacKenzie
Originally Published on MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest
Posted On Tuesday 13th August 2013

Reposted on the secret keeper
Monday 18th November 2013

The Writer’s Voice – Rise Up and Sing!

All I have is a voice.
…W.H.Auden

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When I started writing the Editor’s Corner, discussing voice seemed a logical springboard for all posts to come. But I put it off. And off. And, as the weeks went by, I found voice harder and harder to talk about. It was just not the naturally incipient topic I expected it to be.

Now, well along the editor’s path – and lest I paint myself irrevocably into my editor’s corner – the time has come to let voice arise in clarion clarity!

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So, what is voice? Simply put, voice is an author’s distinctive style. It includes everything from vocabulary to syntax, punctuation to rhythm, subject to structure. It is the quality that, sans book cover or title page, tells the savvy bibliophile that they’re perusing Toni Morrison not Isabel Allende, C.S. Lewis not Terry Pratchett. (Just imagine James Joyce penning Wuthering Heights or Carson McCullers Madame Bovary. How very different they would be!)

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On a certain level, every writer, by virtue of setting pen to paper, has a voice. Personally, I think that is akin to saying that every kid who kicks a soccer ball can bend it like Beckham. In this e-book age when everyone and their second-cousin, Sylvester, is in print, the market is awash in a tsunami of cookie-cutter books, with virtually interchangeable characters and plot points and a dearth of unique voices. In short, people are telling stories, but not necessarily telling their stories. Individual voice is lost much the way accents are lost in the press to use stage English.

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Now, some people suggest that voice is a teachable thing. To this end, they often propose an empirical approach, especially for young writers: toss different styles and genres at the page and see what sticks. While experimentation certainly has a place in any artist’s development, I believe in this case, it is, at best, a starting point at the beginning of a long and mysterious journey. But, hey, what do I know?

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For me, voice is less a matter of trial and error and more one of authorial evolution. Word after word, sentence after sentence, we writers make choices based on our background, experience, knowledge, passions, even gender. (Don’t get me started on the role gender plays! If you can’t tell if a writer is male or female, chances are you’re not paying attention.) The cumulative effect of those choices adds up to our voice. Granted, when first embarking on a literary calling, those choices tend to the predictable and inside the box. We follow the rules, perhaps emulate our favorite scribes or the voix du jour on the bestseller lists. This is off-the-rack, at best. It serves well enough while learning our craft, but eventually – hopefully – it is shed for a proper Savile Row voice, tailored to you alone. Don’t expect this to happen over night. It takes time and effort to dig deep inside and find sounds and rhythms uniquely one’s own. You have to listen hard, to find that which resonates with the stories you have to tell.

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Of course, you may be writing in trim morning coat and Ascot, when the current fashion is denim and tees. A collision with the editing/publishing world could be just around the corner. If an editor or publisher wants to rewrite your work so it is just like every other manuscript out there, listen very politely, thank them for their time, and run. Run fast and far. An editor should be helping you strengthen, clarify, and realize your voice, not tamp it into an unrecognizable whisper. (I have this on good authority from the Editor Faërie, and I trust her implicitly.)

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Voice is not about giving others what they want to hear; it’s about making them listen with to what you have to say.

It’s about finding the language of your passion and claiming it against all comers.

Sing out!

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Past Editor’s Corners can be found at the Editor’s Corner Archive.

Dragon Keeper’s Handbook, Dragons for Beginners, Editing, Editor’s Corner, Fiction, Voice, Writing