Summer 2012

17 March 2013 - The Latest Formula

For many aspiring writers, the holy grail is The Formula For Writing Great Stories. Some writers don't believe in formulas - a great story is a great story - but others, from novices to veterans, are convinced that there is some basic structure that great stories have, and that the secret of writing a successful story is to use the formula. This is probably delusion - or at least, the last clause of the previous sentence is probably delusion: the world is full of unsuccessful remakes of successful originals. Still...

The latest formula is from BBC bigwig John Yorke, who has just written a book about his five-ingredient recipe for screenplays. He outlined his recipe in the Guardian, and he outlines a screenplay skeleton consisting of: a protagonist, an antagonist, desire, an inciting incident, the journey, the crisis, the climax, and the resolution, which the writer puts together.

Yorke's formula is a variant of Joseph Campbell's Hero of a Thousand Faces, which George Lucas credited with leading him in creating his commercially successful cinematic collage. The usual response to such formulaic proposals is to hunt for counter-examples, of which it is not hard to find several, but the real problem for aspiring writers is that there are a lot of screenplays that follow these formulas and yet were duds. Apparently, one needs something else, as well.

Maybe if I read enough secrets-of-writing books...

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23 November 2012 - If God were a Poet

Science in the hands of schoolteachers who do not grasp the wonder of the subject has turned generations to search for something with ... well, not answers, for the ideologies competing with science have no real answers - only delusions ... but with poetry laymen do not see in science. There are only so many messages the human Unconscious is willing to hear, wrote Charles Fair (in perhaps the most serious of all books on "pseudoscience"), and even if we don't believe the message we are willing to spend hours reading about ghosts, vampires, and aliens.

"We have recourse to magic and belief in the supernatural when what exists isn’t what we want," writes Michael Dirda in his essay on Gothic novels. According to many surveys, approximately half the nation believe that the creatures in these novels exist. Which brings us to C. S. Lewis, not a great novelist (his greatest novel is a comic book adaptation of that most unreliable and mad Gospel of St. John), and a more visceral than intellectual theologian. Indeed, his greatest service to culture probably was encouraging Ronald Tolkien to write perhaps the greatest idealistic novel of the Twentieth century. But a sideways glance at Lewis's Screwtape Letters raises the question of what Lewis actually believed.

It's not just the question of whether Lewis believed that demons exist - it's also whether he believed that Screwtape's statements should be taken seriously as (possibly dishonest) diabolic advice. The difficulty is that Screwtape and the Chronicles of Narnia are not exactly compatible, and Narnia does seem have been written from within an ideological straitjacket - and a rather conventional one at that.

On November 22, a memoral stone for Clives Staples Lewis was placed at Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey, right by the memorials to the two great pillars of the English language, William Shakespeare and William Tyndale. And perhaps, like many poets, his writing reflected the situation at hand. As for what he really believed, we know far more about Lewis than of Shakespeare ...

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8 November 2012 - Bram Stoker's Birthday

Abraham Stoker, business manager of Henry Irving's Lyceum Theatre and, during his free time, short story and novel writer, was born on November 8, 1847, nearly two years before Edgar Allan Poe's death. Unlike Poe, Stoker's stories were unambiguous: there really was a white worm in the depths of Great Britain, and more to the point, there really was a Transalvanian count seeking to relocate to London.

Dracula was the ultimate example of that stock character of Gothic novels, the Bad Baron who abducted fair maidens for his own sinister purposes. Bad Barons range from J. Sheridan Le Fanu's Silas Ruthyn of Uncle Silas to Jane Austen's more ambiguous General Tilney of Northanger Abbey to William Gilbert's (and Arthur Sullivan's) Sir Despard Murgatroyd of Ruddigore in his parody The Witch's Curse.

On November 8, Google celebrates the greatest of the Bad Barons and his creator.

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15 September 2012 - Simon Schama on the Essay

Simon Schama found Dickens’ abundance and Orwell’s asperity equally inspiring. As a teenager, Schama loved
... the dancing riot of Dickens’ sentences; their bounding exuberance; the overstuffed abundance of names, places, happenings, the operatic manipulation of emotion, that made him seem to me if not the best then the heartiest writer of English prose there ever had been. I loved the frantic pulse of his writing, its tumbling energy, as swarming with creatures as the scamper of vermin through Miss Havisham’s bridal cake.
But "... at 16 or 17 I was reconciled enough to Orwell to open ... Some Thoughts on the Common Toad," which struck him as "one of the most perfect things I have ever read, nearly a prose poem, exquisitely observed, a tour de force of cunning, ringing with exactly measured rhythms." Yes, we all know about Orwell's fondness of sounds, especially of Anglo-Saxon - as opposed to Greco-Latin-Norman - sounds.

"Essay writing and reading," writes Scham, "is our resistance to the pygmy-fication of the language animal; our shrinkage into the brand, the sound bite, the business platitude; the solipsistic tweet."

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24 August 2012 - Where English came From

The British started noticing something ... familiar ... about Sanskrit in the Seventeenth century, but it wasn't until the end of the Eighteenth that Sir William Jones proposed that Sanskrit and Greek had a common ancestor. Jones wasn't alone, for that was the same era that one of the major pre-Darwinian evolutionists, James Burnett, segued from a theory of the origin of language to a theory of the origin of creatures that speak languages. Nowadays, we live in the shadow of Noam Chomsky's theory that we are all born with a hard-wired Universal Grammar, from which all human languages are derived. (This might explain our difficulties with alleged porpoise or elephant languages: not sharing the underlying grammar, we cannot make much sense of each other. This also suggests that any "universal translator" is likely to be problematic.)

BBC has posted three developments:
  • A team in New Zealand proposes that the family of languages that English belongs to, the Indo-European languages, are perhaps as old as 9,000 years. Note that either the reporter or some of his sources were confused: unlike an organism, a language does not have a particular predecessor, and words and linguistic constructs can flit, virus-like, from language to language, much to the irritation of the French Academy.
  • A team in Britain presents a system for dating the age of words - and projecting their longevity. Considering that the oldest known work in English begins with Hwæt! we Gar-Dena / in gear-dagum / þeod-cyninga / þrym gefrunon ..., obviously some words morph in time.
  • And the latest in the Chomsky wars is a European team that suggests that there may be no hard-wired Universal Grammar -- although the jury is still out on whether the mechanisms for constructing and learning languages are hard-wired.

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15 August 2012 - Harry Harrison

Science Fiction writer Harry Harrison was a repeat guest of the University of South Florida's Humanities Institute, when he spoke on panels on science fiction today. The son of Henry Leo Dempsey and Ria H. Kirjassoff, his father decided that his name should be Harry Harrison, so of course he went on to write science fiction (occasionally under the pseudonyms Felix Boyd, Leslie Charteris, and Hank Dempsey).

He is best known for Make Room! Make Room!, which became the basis for the movie Soylent Green, but he was also known for his parodies, including the Stainless Steel Rat.

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1 August 2012 - Gore Vidal

Now that he is safely dead, if not quite buried, the New York Times has decided that Gore Vidal was a Prolific, Elegant, Acerbic Writer. Well, that too, even if the Old Gray Lady reached for her smelling salts in 1948 when Vidal published a coming of age tale featuring an adolescent homosexual relationship called The City and the Pillar. In those days, the Old Gray Lady was able to sink a young writer's career, and she did her best on Vidal, who was reduced to writing TV scripts and essays. But he later returned to writing novels - even if he said that the novel is dead (a common refrain among novelists).

A leading figure in the bombastic wing of the Loony Left, Vidal held to the ancient tradition of extraverted writers by conducting public feuds with other extraverted writers, frequently on political issues. Things will not be quieter in his absence, but the noise will be less intelligent.

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28 July 2012 - William Yeats and Magic

At a recent science fiction and fantasy conference, a panel of scientists (yes, real university professors in hard sciences) were talking about the prospects for time travel and stardrive in the next century or so. I was boorish enough to suggest that time travel and stardrive were literary devices. I was chastised for my closemindedness and lack of expertise (I am a mere mathematician, not a physicist). But, no matter what those physicists claimed, time travel and star drive are literary devices.

Magic (and both time travel and star drive are magic) is part of the human condition; it is part of our culture, and evolutionary biologists see it in our genes, and so we tell stories about it. As part of our psychic toolbox, it is part of us, so desiring to be in sympathy with nature, we want magic to be part of nature, too. A confusion between desire and reality is a manifestation of what philosophers call the mind projection fallacy, and when it starts affecting finances (investing in lottery tickets to prepare for one's retirement) or public policy (ignoring climate change because God will rescue us), the results can be disastrous.

William Yeats evidently suffered from this confusion. Yeats is best known as a poet deeply immersed in his Irish heritage, but he was also a collector of Irish fairy tales, and there is a lot of magic (and magical thinking) in Irish culture. As described in an article Lapham's Quarterly, W.B. Yeats, Magus, Yeats got interested in the Spiritualist movement, but not as part of the Irish condition (Ireland was still living under the British yoke), but also as part of physical reality ...

Yeats ultimately got caught by the charisma of one of the great colorful characters of Nineteenth century Spiritualism, Madame Blavatsky, whose conjuring performances were among the best of that or any era. While Lapham's asks why Yeats was taken in, the real question is why Yeats was more interested in "psychic experiments" than in, say, Madame Blavatsky's show as a cultural phenomenon. Perhaps Yeats himself simply lost perspective; like a fan who lives with fictional characters so long that the fan thinks that they physically exist, Yeats may have become so committed to his elves and water-horses that began to imagine that one day, in some undisturbed forest, he might actually encounter one.

Considering the number of people who believe that aliens walk among us, abducting us and manipulating the Pentagon, while the CIA uses technology obtained from Area 51 to read our thoughts, Yeats was not alone ...

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22 July 2012 - Alexander Cockburn

Alexander Cockburn, one of the curmudgeons of the Left, has died at age 71. He was one of those writers who write -- John Nichols writes that he met his deadlines even as a two-year battle with cancer progressed toward its final stages. He wrote for the Village Voice and later The Nation, and he co-founded Counter-Punch. He was combative -- an early critic of Hillary Clinton and a grumpy climate change skeptic, he got into literary fights with noted roosters like Alan Dershowitz and Christopher Hitchens.

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20 July 2012 - Do It Yourself

BBC puts it this way: Penguin Books moves into self-publishing. But the real story is that Pearson, the media octopus that owns Penguin, has decided that there is money in self-publishing. Of course, many authors think that almost all publishing these days is self-publishing, and it sometimes seems that publishers are foisting more and more (high-profile) marketing on their mid-list authors. (Those that they haven't simply dumped.) But Pearson's move is a sign that the people interested in the bottom line are taking self-publishing seriously.

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19 July 2012 - Tellers of Tales

Homo sapiens is a teller of tales. There does not seem to be any such thing as a human society that does not have stories flitting through the air, winding through the streets, creeping in dark corners, forming an invisible mesh that we call "culture". We sometimes imagine a lone genius writing the product of his own mind and pen, and sending it out for the edification of the world, but the truth is that the stories that last -- these being perhaps the stories that are truly great -- are handed from merchant to shaman to innkeeper to seaman, tweaked, abridged or embellished, cleaned up or roughed up, by each pair of hands that gets it before it arrives on the desk of some scribe ready to fix it in amber. But when we hear these tales, it is not just the scribe speaking to us: it is also the seamen, innkeepers, shamans, merchants, and other bearers of tales that shaped it on its journey.

The vast collections of ancient tales, many of indeterminate provenance, illuminate our childhood and form our culture. That's not a surprising juxtaposition because societies teach the next generation, and stories are likely carriers of cultures. So when we look at such a collection, we are looking at the collective work of many people, mostly anonymous, but like ourselves. One great collection is the Nursery and Household Tales of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and the New Yorker uses the occasion of yet another translation to look at the Lure of the Fairy Tale

At least Grimms' tales is a somewhat well-defined collection of well-defined stories. The Tales of a Thousand and One Nights is like a quantum effect: no one is quite sure what stories belong in the collection, or what those stories actually are. The publication of a selection - with analysis - compiled by, ahem, a non-Arabic speaker (but how many of these stories were originally in Arabic?) led the Times Literary Supplement to consider The magic of the Nights.

And one thing for authors to consider. Whatever else one can say about these stories, they are incredibly successful. There is something about them that appeals to the human psyche. If you want to know what kinds of stories people like, such collections are a good place to begin.

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14 July 2012 - Fashion and Grammar

Is "Much was said, and much was ate, and all went well" good grammar? Since Jane Austen wrote it, it must have been good at the time. But grammar has fashions like everything else, and a successful writer must obey contemporary fashion in grammar.

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8 June 2012 - The End of the Queen's English?

A language is supposed to be a medium of communication. A language is also supposed to be a medium of creative self-expression and cultural innovation. The tension between these two missions surfaced in the apparent demise of the Queen's English Society (where "Good English Matters"); see lamentation by Spiked editor Brendan O'Neill.

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6 June 2012 - Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury, who blazed a trail from science fiction (actually science fantasy) into the "literary world" has died at age 91. He started writing in the 1930s, eventually writing a thousand words a day. Two of his short stories were typed on coin-operated typewriters that demanded a dime every half hour: "You'd type like hell," the L. A. Times quoted him saying, "I spent $9.80 and in nine days I had 'Fahrenheit 451.' " The L. A. Times quoted Gregory Benford saying, "[Bradbury] anchored everything in relationships. Most science fiction doesn't."

Along with T. S. Eliot, Ron Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis, Ray Bradbury was one of the conservative literary giants of the Twentieth Century. Skeptical of technological change, he once said, "I'm not a futurist. People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it." Bradbury died on June 5, leaving over 380 works.


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