Tag Archives: style

Variations on a theme

By now many of you have seen the Marble Machine, a contraption built by a Swedish musician to play a complex tune with the turn of a crank. If not, take a listen/look here:

 

Less known is that the group Wintergatan, of whom the musician/inventor is the leader, has also created a live cover of the same song. The machine itself isn’t durable or reliable enough to be included in their concerts, but the song itself is famous, and many fans come to concerts just for the one song. Here’s their live version at a music festival:

But wait, they’re not done yet! Evidently a lot of fans have requested the sheet music for the tune so they can play it themselves. Happy to please, the group has provided the sheet music, a tutorial, and a live performance of the piano version of this same tune:

When I saw they were producing a third version of the song I admit I didn’t expect much. I mean really, who needs three versions of the same song? And yet the change of instrumentation, a change of tempo, and a little variation of the theme and it’s practically a new song with a much different mood.

So, what does this have to do with writing?

Popular wisdom holds that there aren’t really any new stories any more, just retellings of the same original stories. We’ve certainly seen it in the recent trend of resetting fairy tales in modern or other settings. We’ve seen it in the Seven Samurai / Magnificent Seven (Yul Brenner) / Magnificent Seven (Denzel Washington) variations on the same story. We’ve seen it in The Hidden Fortress / Star Wars IV / Eragon / Star Wars VII sequence of variations.

So if it’s true that there are no new stories, what is a writer to do? Well, keep the bones of the story and “re-orchestrate” the rest. Just like the second version of Marble Machine took the various instruments within the machine and “re-cast” them to live musicians, sometimes with several musicians covering a single part from the original, a writer can take the more flexible components of the story and rework them or hand them over to new characters.

Or, like in the third variation, we can keep much of the story intact, right down to one person doing it all, but change the mood entirely.

When Wintergatan set out to create their live version they undoubtedly took the original piece apart, piece by piece, and examined what they could differently with that piece. Some of it was obvious: take the bass line and give it to a real bass player, and then let him expand on what was written in the rather limited original. Some of it was less obvious: the machine sounds are part of the actual music, so what do we do with them? They imitated some of them (the “cranking” sound given to the snare drum), while discarding others (no one was dropping marbles on the stage). In other cases they used several musicians to cover a single instrument, such as the two vibraphone players and keyboardist to make the “xylophone” sound.

Similarly, when creating the piano version, they looked at the entire piece and looked for what they could do without. Clearly any other instruments were out, and they made no attempt at all to imitate any of the machine sounds. Instead they pared the song down to its basics, and then tweaked it to play better to the unique capabilities and timbre of the piano. They didn’t try to fight the fact that the same chords on the piano sound more soulful; the embraced it and adjusted the tempo to match.

So whether we’re deliberately setting out to rework a known story or simply trying to avoid being insufficiently original, we can apply the same approach: break it down to its essentials. What can we do with it that’s not been done before? How can we adapt core elements of the story to our own unique interests and strengths? How can we turn a common component completely on its head? How can we surprise the reader?

But last of all, don’t let any story become “automatic”. Just as the Marble Machine still required some musical interaction from the operator, we should never let our stories become entirely mechanical. If we find ourselves getting into that trap it’s time to put on the brakes and demonstrate our artistry, even within the confines of the framework we’ve given ourselves.

For writing, like music, is an art. We are artists. Just like my college music history professor could play the same Beethoven Sonata as Arthur Rubenstein and have them sound uniquely different, we each bring our own artistic distinctness to our writing. That is what makes art Art, and not just the mechanical reproduction of sounds, words, pigments, movements, or whatever it may be.

The Marble Machine is, in itself, a work of art. And yet there is a reason why many composers still use real orchestras instead of the increasingly authentic-sounding synthesizer/sampler keyboards of today. Variation is still the essence of art.

 

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

What is Your Value Proposition?

When some friends and I started our own business six years ago we sat down and took a look at our competition and how we would be able to stack up against them in several areas, such as price, selection, service, etc. We decided that we could beat our competition in several areas, and made plans to do so.

Six years later the only competitor left in town is a national chain that can beat us on advertising dollars and selection. But we beat them in every other category, and we continue to focus on that. We can’t be everything to everyone, but we can be the best where we can. And that’s enough to keep us doing well while others have failed.

Writers have a value proposition, too. Some are able to pull off amazing twists that leave readers stunned. Others are able to create characters we fall in love with. Some can create a setting that intrigues and fires the imagination. Still others are able to craft a plot that grabs the reader and won’t let go. Many are able to combine several of these strengths (and others), and that’s usually what makes them good enough to gain an audience.

But few–if any–writers can be good at everything. Most are able to polish up a few areas to stand out, but in many other areas writers are merely adequate. And that’s okay; so long as those areas are strong enough they don’t draw negative attention to themselves, they don’t necessarily need to be outstanding.

Still, it’s our strengths that define us as writers, and our specific package of strengths that constitute our “value proposition”, or style. Some elements are instinctive, acquired from our life-experience and the works of other writers that stick with us. Others are developed over time through conscious effort.

The point is, however, that we can decide for ourselves what type of writer we want to be. We can choose the value proposition we offer to readers. The key, however, regardless of whether we pursue a specific set of strengths or let it find us, is to be aware of what our value proposition is, and then consistently provide it in work after work. Not that you want to feel “mass produced”; you can wrap your core value proposition in original and unique concepts to both hit the right notes and keep your work fresh.

Can you imagine a Brandon Sanderson without any magic system at all? Or George R. R. Martin without the relentless introduction and extermination of characters? Or Stephanie Meyers without supernatural elements? A writer might be able to leave out one or perhaps two signature elements and still satisfy their readers, but leave out too many and you risk losing them–such as with J. K. Rowling’s under-impressive “The Casual Vacancy”.

Whatever your value proposition maybe, it’s important as a writer to know what it is. If you don’t know why your readers are following you it can be difficult to keep them coming back. So while you’re working with your peer readers or writing group, don’t just find out what doesn’t work or needs to be fixed. Take time to find out what others find most interesting and compelling in your work. Learn what your value proposition is so that you can continue to develop it, improve it, and continue to meet expectations.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

3 Tweaks that Keep Details Interesting

Over the last six months or so, I’ve learned a few new things about writing scenes. Today, specifically I’m going to share some techniques that can tweak your scene here and there to make it more interesting and to keep it from going stale. They are: expand, deepen, and create motion.

First, you should know that one of David Farland’s writing tips led me to come up with the contents of today’s post. This is just like a little hypothesis of mine that has developed over the last few months.
Continue reading 3 Tweaks that Keep Details Interesting

September C. Fawkes

About September C. Fawkes

Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. People may say she needs to get a social life. It'd be easier if her fictional one wasn't so interesting.

Fawkes wrote her first story on a whim during a school break when she was seven. Crayon-drawn, poorly spelled, and edited so that it contained huge, fat, blacked-out lines, the story (about chickens seeking water) changed her life. Growing up, she had a very active imagination; one of her best friends accused her of playing Barbies wrong when she turned Ken into a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde mad scientist love interest. Her passion for stories led to her playing "pretend" longer than is socially acceptable. It was partially a symptom of never wanting to become an adult. Luckily she never did. She became a writer instead.

Fawkes has a soft spot for fantasy and science fiction, but she explores and reads anything well crafted. She has a passion for dissecting stories and likes to learn from a variety of genres, so you may find her discussing classics in one blog post animated shows in anotherTry not to be afraid of either. (And do be sensitive to the fact she never did reach adulthood.)


September C. Fawkes graduated with an English degree with honors from Dixie State University, where she was the managing editor of The Southern Quill literary journal and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. She was also able to complete an internship in which she wrote promotional pieces for events held in Southern Utah, like the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo, and she participated in a creative open mic night, met some lovely people in a writers’ group, and worked as a tutor at the Writing Center. Her college experience, although demanding, was rewarding.
She liked it enough to consider getting her M.F.A., and she got accepted into a couple of programs, but decided to pass on it.

Since then, she has had the opportunity to work as an assistant for the New York Times bestselling author David Farland, while (rarely now) critiquing novels or proofreading promotional pieces on the side, and she even had the chance to meet J.K. Rowling in New York City, but mostly she hides out in her room, applies her butt to her chair, and writes. Other than that she reads fiction and books about writing fiction.

She has had poems, short fiction, and nonfiction published.  Her main writing project right now is a young adult fantasy novel she plans to publish traditionally.

Some of her favorite things include, but are not limited to, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Les Miserables, The X-Files, The Office, Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, rock concerts, Creed, ballet, pugs, cherry blossoms, Ethel M. Chocolates, and anything yellow.

Play to your strengths

I once had a boss who told us once that he was tired of all the self-help and workshops designed to help you overcome your weaknesses. In his opinion focusing on your weaknesses would at best make you less bad in an area you probably didn’t use in your job anyway. But by playing to your strengths you were able to bring your unique abilities to bear and be much more productive.

I’m still not sure I agree with him entirely (and I note he still was happy to point out my weaknesses on my annual reviews), but he does make a point worth considering. While writers can and should work at shoring up any glaring weaknesses in our writing, we should also be finding our strengths and playing to those.

Think about it. Consider your favorite works. Is every author equally good at everything? Some are really good at action. Some stand out for their characters. Others create amazing worlds that make you want to immerse yourself. It’s not their weaknesses we focus on, or they wouldn’t be our favorite authors. It must be their strengths that keep us coming back.

One of my favorite writers is really good at set up plot twists in such a way that, while all the pieces are there, you seldom can put them all together and figure out what is going to happen until it happens–or just before it happens, which that author claims is the “sweet spot” of plot twists. The reader can still feel proud of themselves for seeing it coming, but not too far ahead to where the twist is no longer exciting when it comes.

I have another favorite who is only adequate at plot twists. I usually see them coming, but not entirely, and they’re still satisfying when they come. But where he excels is in creating interesting characters and having them interact with one another in fun and fascinating ways.

Yet another showed incredible insight into humanity and what makes people tick. Unfortunately that same author’s style evolved over time to where I feel as though he no longer plays to his strengths–at least not the strengths I most enjoyed.

So, while I’m not advocating we ignore our weaknesses, I do think it would be helpful to consider our strengths and focus more on them rather than worry about compensating for our weaknesses. No one writer can master everything–even if they could it would likely take their entire lives to do so–and not every reader values every skill equally anyway. Shore up your strengths at least to where they no longer call attention to themselves, but also work on your strengths until they do.

 

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Slow down…follow-up

As promised a few weeks ago, I sat down with a book I had read and analyzed the text in more detail. What I found was surprising, at least to me.

The book I examined was “The Lies of Locke Lamora”, by Scott Lynch. While the story itself left me ambivalent, I admire Lynch’s style, especially his description (as I have mentioned before). Sitting down to look at the text to analyze instead of consume revealed a few things that surprised me.

Dialogue tags? What Dialogue tags!  I began with a section of dialogue. I’ve heard many times to avoid adverbs in your dialogue tags, such as “Don’t tell me you’re going right back there!” he said exasperatedly. Well, not only does Lynch keep adverbs to a minimum, he doesn’t use “said” or “asked” and other dialogue tags as much as I thought. What he often does is include a character’s dialogue and their actions in the same paragraph:

 “Oh. You have a magic boy. Why didn’t you say so?” The priest scratched his forehead beneath the white silk blindfold that covered his eyes. “Magnificent. I’ll plant him in the groun and grow a vine to an enchanted land beyond the crowds.”

Not a “said” to be seen. And, as I’ve often heard, dialogue tags really are largely invisible. Our minds register them just enough to render meaning, but we don’t really consciously notice when they were used or not used.

You can repeat names more often than you might think. Another thing I noticed while examining this passage of dialogue is that the author used each character’s name or position in nearly every paragraph in which they were speaking or acting. Even though it was a dialogue between just two characters, he felt it necessary to make sure we knew who was talking or acting in every paragraph. Since I hadn’t noticed it when I read the book the first time, I was surprised. I’ve become increasingly aware of using words too often, so I thought I would have picked up on that. But I didn’t.

 “Have I got a deal for you!” the Thiefmaker began, perhaps inauspiciously.

“Another deal like Calo and Galdo, maybe?” said the Eyeless Priest. “I’ve still got my hands full training those giggling idiots out of every bad habit they picked up from you and replacing them with the bad habits I need.”

“Now Chains.” The Thiefmaker shrugged. “I told you they were ****-flinging little monkeys when we made the deal, and it was good enough for you at the—“

“Or maybe another deal like Sabetha?” The priest’s richer, deeper voice chased the Thiefmaker’s objection right back down his throat. “I’m sure you recall charging me everything by my dead mother’s kneecaps for her. I should’ve paid you in copper and watched you spring a rupture trying to haul it all away.”

“Ahhhhhh, but she was special, and this boy, he’s special, too,” said the Thiefmaker. “Everything you asked me to look for after I sold you Calo and Galdo. Everything you liked so much about Sabetha! He’s Camorri, but a mongrel. Therin and Vadran blood with neither dominant. He’s got larceny in his heart, sure as the sea’s full of fish ****. And I can even let you have him at a…discount.”

The Eyeless Priest spent a long moment mulling this. “You’ll pardon me,” he finally said, “if the suggestion that the miniscule black turnip you call a heart is suddenly overflowing with generosity toward me leaves me wanting to arm myself and put my back against a wall.”

The Thiefmaker tried to let a vaguely sincere expression scurry onto his face, where it froze in evident discomfort. His shrug was theatrically casual. “There are, ah, problems with the boy, yes. But the problems are unique to his situation in my care. Were he under yours, I’m sure they would, ahhhh, vanish.”

Now, go back and read that again, looking for dialogue tags and repetition of names. I would likely not have written the tags that way, based on the advice I’ve seen, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.

Description is not so evil after all. I’ve been told not to get too bogged down in description or exposition, but to focus on action. Yet following the dialogue is a section that is nearly all description or exposition. Of the fifteen chapters in the section, eight are description or exposition. One paragraph focuses on characterization. Only five paragraphs—one third of the section—contain action; the characters either speak or do something. Two thirds of the section are telling you about some aspect of the world in which this takes place.

Jumping around can be effective. We’re often told to write your scene from beginning to end and avoid flashbacks. The first chapter of this book breaks both those pieces of advice. The first chapter, a prologue (also a no-no, supposedly), runs 38 pages and changes scene nine times. Sometimes it’s breaking back and forth between a single scene and flashbacks (the dialogue between The Eyeless Priest and The Thiefmaker runs for most of the chapter). Sometimes it’s leaps in time. But on average Lynch breaks the scene every four pages. Chronology is all over the place.

And yet it works. It’s what allows Lynch to give us sections with two-thirds exposition/description without us going to sleep. It’s how he acquaints us with the characters and something of a plot while also immersing us in his setting. It runs contrary to what we often hear, but it works.

So I would have to say I found value in stepping back and dissecting at least parts of a book I’ve already read to look at the author’s technique and style. I could go deeper into the section than I did—and I should. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what is there. I would say I am still largely at the “big picture” level of analysis. I have yet to pick apart individual paragraphs or sentences. But hopefully you can see, even at a high level, how analysis can be informative without sucking up a lot of time. The analysis I just discussed took me maybe ten minutes.

If there is a writer or a book you find particularly engrossing or well-written, why not take a few minutes, sit down with a pencil, start somewhere, and start looking at the text by itself. You might be surprised at what you find.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Slow down, you move too fast

I can’t remember where, but I once heard someone recommend choosing a writer you admire and picking up a cheap copy of one of their books in paperback so you can sit down with a pen(cil) and carefully analyze their work.

I’ve yet to do this.writing-br

I have no idea why. My day job is an analyst. People actually pay me to sit down with stuff, study it closely, and come up with recommendations for improvement. You’d think this would be a no-brainer for me.

Recently, however, I finished a book by a writer who spends a great deal of time teaching others how to write. I didn’t take time to analyze him, either, but I did find myself paying attention to his style on occasion.

Photo by thebrooklinelibrary on Flickr
Photo by thebrooklinelibrary on Flickr

For example, he regularly coaches writers to avoid dialogue tags–you know, adverbs to describe how someone says something. Like, “Never mind that, you idiot!” he said impatiently. (underlined for emphasis.) And yet I caught him on several occasions using dialogue tags. So clearly there are times when they are okay.

I’ve also noticed I’ve picked up a bias somewhere that lengthy sections of description are a no-no. As a result my work tends to be light on description. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I noticed that this author includes a great deal of description, sometimes several paragraphs in a row or more.

So clearly it’s time I followed the advice to study a writer’s style in more detail. I’m setting myself a goal to do that within the next month, and then I’ll report on it here.

But in the mean time, has anyone else done this? Care to share your experience? Was it helpful? Was it difficult? Do you feel it was worth the time? Drop a comment!

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Learning to Write by Reading

by Brenda Bensch

reading

I don’t know about you, but I’m still reeling from the outpouring of information at the LTUE three-day conference held Feb. 14-26, 2013 (Light, the Universe and Everything, for any who are unfamiliar with it).  I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to thank at least a handful of the participants by sharing my take on what they offered.

An excellent panel on “How to Read to Learn Writing,” consisting of Adam Meyers, Laryssa Waldrom, Emily Sorensen, Christopher Loke, and Tyler Whitesides, reminded me of several points I’d like to share with my students, my blog readers, and all the LTUE participants who just couldn’t make it to every session all three days.  Among other excellent ideas, they proposed the following to improve your own writing:

1.  Don’t read only “your” genre, but expose yourself to other genres.  Specifically go to the originals” of specific genres, and the really old masters like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Ovid, etc.
2.  Read what you’ve already read.
a.  The first time, read as a fan, to find out “what happens.”
b.  The second read through, notice how the author made you feel what you felt.
c.  On the third read, figure out why the author made you feel that way.

3.  Read to examine POV (Point of View).  How is the story told through that POV? Could you replicate such a stance?  If you’re not sure, figure out how you could do the same thing.

4.  Don’t “just” read: rewrite.  Rewrite scenes from “good” books, attempting to copy the style, tone, rhythm, etc., into a scene from your life and/or book.

5.  Read everything you can lay hands on within your sub-genre.  Figure out the “rules” for that type of writing.

6.  Analyze something in a popular genre.  “Rewrite” it into a different genre.  Vampires in one book might become faeries, farmers, skeletons, pirates, horses, or giants in another.

7.  Go to a library or book store and read the first sentence (or even the first paragraph) in many, many, many books, all at once.  What did you learn?

8.  Most importantly, Live in order to write.  Expand your horizons by doing.  Expand by being.  Go to an art show.  A ballet.  A symphony.  An improvisation troupe performance.  Go sky diving.  Brush up your French, Spanish, Latin, whatever.  Hit that bucket list and do five things from it in a week.  ENJOY feeling alive by expanding.

Why are you just sitting there?  Go read something!

BIO: Brenda Bensch, M.A., is a teacher of multiple decades teaching in Utah’s university, college, high school and community ed. classrooms (English, fiction and non-fiction writing, drama, humanities, etc.)  Brenda writes YA fantasy, adult historical, articles, essays, poetry, adaptations, plays and screen plays. She invites you to “Ask The Teacher” at http://BenschWensch.wordpress.com

Brenda Bensch

BenschWensch@yahoo.com

or on The ABC Writers Guild at

www.benschwensch.wordpress.com

About Bonnie Gwyn Johnson

Bonnie Gwyn wrote her first book, about a talking grandfather clock, when she was six – and hasn’t stopped writing since. In fact, she can’t “not write,” and she wouldn’t have it any other way. She hasn’t missed a day of writing in her journal for the past four years!

As a winner in this year’s National Novel Writing Month challenge, Bonnie produced her latest dystopian novel, "Escaping Safety," and is now working on its sequel. She is also close to completing a fantasy romance series, "The Legends of Elldamorae," whose characters have captured her heart and can’t wait to have their stories revealed.

Bonnie’s mantra is, “I write because I believe every story deserves to be told.”

You can learn more about Bonnie, and read her inspirational blog posts, on Where Legends Begin at http://www.bonniegwyn.blogspot.com/

Bonnie Gwyn handles all guest bloggers on this website. Contact her if you would like to volunteer your time to share writing advice for The Authors' Think Tank.