Kurt Vonnegut at the Blackboard

[This flashback](http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/voices-in-time/kurt-vonnegut-at-the-blackboard.php?page=all) at Lapham’s Quarterly makes me realize two things: writers often don’t have much to say about writing and I will never understand how people can get anything out of presentations that really don’t say anything. Is it just the brand name? Really? Vonnegut says it and somehow it’s profound?

> But there’s a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it’s that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth in this rise and fall here [indicates blackboard]. The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.

Why I Do What I Do

Early in _The Writing Life_ Annie Dillard tells the story of an aspiring writer coming up to her after a reading and asking if she, too, could become a writer. That she really wanted to. In the moment, Dillard tells us she remembered a similar question once being posed to a painter and that his response was “Do you like the smell of paint?” Her response is “do you like to make sentences?”

The nature of the response is to point out that we too often focus on the role or persona and not on the process or product. Painters paint. Writers write. It’s a stupidly simple assertion, but it reminds us that behind any fame or glamor attached to someone who has done something is the doing itself.

There’s a lot more to be said on this subject. I only come to it this morning because I am working on a photo-essay, an argument by illustration is what I am calling it, for a start-up journal. It’s on the boats, of course — which is nice after taking a hiatus to work on the Project Bamboo scholarly narratives. And what brought me to say out loud “I love what I do” was writing on some photographs I had printed out with a permanent marker, numbering them and also marking topics within the image that I wanted to pursue. I love the feel of it.

Making (Foot)Notes

As I began work on the analysis of the Scholarly Narratives deposited in the Project Bamboo planning wiki, I found I needed the occasional footnote to explain a few items that didn’t really deserve space in the text proper but still deserved to be addressed in some fashion. Such extra-textural information can customarily be contained in notes of some kind, either foot or end.

Fortunately, the variation of [Markdown][md] that I am using, [MultiMarkdown][mmd] by Fletcher Penney, contains note functionality.

All I have to do to embed a note into the text is to add `[^1]` in the body of the text and then at the end of the text add a mate `[^1]:` Followed by the body of the note. Simple, n’est-ce pas? The HTML it creates looks like this:


And later:

  1. [footnote text here]

Note how the MultiMarkdown script generously creates a link to return you to the spot where you were reading in the text proper. Thank you, Mr. Penney.

But all of this, it turns out, opens up a larger can of worms that has been poked at by a number of individuals with sticks that reveals that there really is no terribly good solution to the problem of notes in HTML — this despite the fact that one would think that the very links that saturate HTML texts would do the job.

Well, they do, but not quite in the same way that footnotes do the job. One of the great advantages of footnotes, one that they have over endnotes to my mind and why I have always preferred footnotes, is that the reader doesn’t really leave the space, the cognitive space if you will, within which they are operating. If a number or symbol indicating a note is available is paired with an item that piques the reader’s curiosity, all she has to do is flick her eyes to the bottom of the page. Thanks to a pretty decent spatial memory built into the human brain and to the fact that the note you’ve just read had a particular symbol paired with it, returning to the approximate spot in the text from whence the reader came is usually not so difficult a task that it breaks the reader’s sense of flow. (I do not find that endnotes accomplish this at all, by the way, and I’m sorry that my own discipline has chosen endnotes over footnotes.)

But a web page is not a page except in name. The comparable physical space is really a screen.

The compromise has been for the most part to treat the web page as a page and to place notes at its distant, and sometimes unknown (from the reader’s point of view) bottom. The convention that the Markdown script follows, in giving a link back to where you were in the text, is also a common one. The idea is to achieve via technology what the reader used to do themselves physically. I don’t find the effect to be as smooth and it is likely, at least for this reader, at least half the time to result in me losing track of where I was.

There is a really terrific description of all this by [Paula Petrik][pp] in a post where she also gives some really concrete and practical advice on how to construct notes according to one’s own preferences.

[md]: http://daringfireball.net/projects/markdown/
[mmd]: http://fletcherpenney.net/multimarkdown/
[pp]: http://www.archiva.net/footnote/

The Writing Life

### Bernard Cornwell’s Writing Advice

Bernard Cornwell is the author behind the Sharpe series, which have, like Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring novels set in the same Napoleonic period, achieved a kind of cult status. The Sharpe saga was later turned into a television mini-series by the BBC and aired in the U.S.A. on PBS. What follows is an encapsulated version of his “writing advice” which can be found at his [website][1]:

* Find an agent.
* Get the story right. Do not worry about anything except story. What will get you published? Not style, not research, but story. Kurt Vonnegut once said that every good story begins with a question.
* Once you have your story, you must keep it moving. If I could have my life over again I would rewrite the first third of _The Winter King_ to compress the story, because when I wrote it I was too busy creating a world when I should have been keeping the characters busy. [JL: But some writers mistake busy characters for a story.]
* Want to write a better book? When I wrote _Sharpe’s Eagle_, never having written a book before, I began by disassembling three other books. Two were Hornblowers, and I forget which the third was, but I had enjoyed them all. So I read them again, but this time I made enormous colored charts which showed what was happening paragraph by paragraph through the three books. How much was action? And where was the action in the overall plan of the book? How much dialogue? How much romance? How much flashback? How much background information. Where did the writer place it?
* How much research is needed? Stay focused on the project at hand. Why explore eighteenth century furniture making if the book does not feature furniture? Do as much research as you feel comfortable doing; write the book; and see where the gaps are; then go and research the gaps. Don’t get hung up on research: some folks do nothing but research and never get round to writing the book.
* In the end, you have to write the book. A page a day and you’ve written a book in a year.


### Write a story that is juicy

These days, when I sit down to write, I don’t think about the message I want to convey with a story. I don’t think about what the film is “About”. Instead I try to find a story that gets my juices flowing, then I attempt to discover why my juices are flowing in such a way, and once I do, I try to find a way of conveying that, that once discovered, seems all too obvious.

#### Oliver Taylor’s Scene Analysis

13 May 2006. I’ve come up with a set of questions I ask myself that I use when I need help getting started or getting thru a scene. These questions have been lifted and combined from two sources.

There is an acting technique called Practical Aesthetics, which is most clearly defined in the book A Practical Handbook for the Actor. In it, the job of the actor is defined as,
>Find[ing] a way to live truthfully under the imaginary circumstances of the play. Thus the actor must be able to decide what is going on in the text in simple, actable terms.

A bad actor will look at a scene and say, “This scene requires that I be angry, because at the end I yell at the other character.” A good actor will say, “When I yell at the other character it shows that I’m angry.” How do you act angry? You assume all the traits of an angry person, you grumble, you scour, you put on a mask. That mask is the worst thing you can do as an actor because it gets you further away from the most important thing you do, “Find[ing] a way to live truthfully under the imaginary circumstances of the play.”

Masks of anger, joy, confusion, all distance the actor from anything real that is happening in that moment.

As a writer you are also attempting to create something that feels real, as if the scene unfolds without the slightest effort, sending it’s characters reeling into fits of rage, joy, whatever. Like a bad actor, a bad writer will say, “This scene requires him to be angry, so I’ll have him yell at her.” A good writer will say, “Him yelling at her reveals that he is angry.” The thing to note about this distinction is that you’ve identified what’s important about your job as a writer, instead of focusing on an angry thing for him to do, you’ve shifted the focus to revealing a piece of information. And that’s what writing is all about, revealing information.

The job of a writer is to discover what series of events best illustrates an idea or an emotion. Just like the actor, your job is one of translation, the most difficult part which is that it all comes down to this: you have to write something that a person can do in front of a camera.

Practical Aesthetics states that: “”[A] Physical action is the main building block of an actor’s technique because it is the one thing that you, the actor, can consistently do on-stage.””

Notice any similarities to writing a scene?

#### The checklist

The technique prescribes a checklist for choosing an action. (Descriptions are my own).

1. Must be physically possible to do.
2. Pleading for help, Good. — Attaining the American Dream, Bad.
3. Must be fun to do.
4. You must make a scene interesting, if you’re not interested how can the audience be interested?
5. Must be specific.
6. You must have a clear path to follow, generality is death.
7. The test of the action must be in the other person.
8. By looking at the other person you must know how close you are to completing your action.
9. Must not be an errand.
10. The action must be something that it is possible to fail at.
11. Cannot presuppose an emotional state.
12. Any action requiring you to put yourself in a state before or during a scene will force you to act a lie.
13. Cannot be manipulate.
14. A manipulative action will force you to act in a predetermined way.
15. Must have a cap.
16. You must have an end to work towards.
17. Must be inline with the intentions of the writer.
18. You are part of a whole, not a whole itself.

These descriptions are, of course, inadequate at best. A Practical Handbook for the Actor is cheap, and an invaluable resource. Go buy it.

#### Asking Questions

When Francis Ford Coppola was adapting _The Godfather_ he asked himself a series of questions while reading the book’s scenes and thinking about how to adapt them. He then wrote the answers to these questions in the margins of the book. The idea was that these questions would assist him in finding out what was important, and relevant, about the particular scene in question. His questions are listed below. (For this example I’ll analyze the first few pages of Braveheart.)

##### Synopsis

* We are told that this is going to be a story about a man named William Wallace. This story may not follow accepted history exactly, but “history is written by those who hang heros.”
* Scottish Nobles are fighting England for control of Scotland. William Wallace is 12 years old. His father and older brother are on their way to see a friend (a nobel) who was supposed to meet them after a meeting with the King of England’s men.
They arrive and find all the nobles murdered. William, who has followed them, stumbles into the barn. This event will scar him.
* Imagery & Tone — Specifics that stand out.
* Cobalt mountains beneath a glowering purple sky fringed with pink; a cascading landscape of boulders shrouded in deep green grass; faces purple and contorted by the strangulation hanging, their tongues protruding.
* The beauty of the landscape and the brutality of what is happening within it is a key juxtaposition that should be established quickly.

##### The Core

* William should be established as a headstrong child, doing what he feels is right regardless of what he is told to do, foreshadowing the events to come.
* The World — That does this say about this world?
* Betrayal is a key element of the story. The fact that the Scottish are not more wary of “dirty” fighting means that they doomed to one day learn that lesson the hard way. It is therefore important that it be shown immediately that the Scottish were being betrayed and tricked by the English — and that it works.

##### Pitfalls

* Making the English seem to villainous; the fact is that this was what war was like.
* Shoving too much history down the audience’s throat.
* Lingering too long on the setup, get to the hanging nobles as fast as you can.
* Making the Scottish complete angels.
List every obvious example in detail, this is not place for subtlety.


I’ve combined parts of both these lists and compiled a set of questions I ask myself when writing a scene.

* Synopsis: Short summary.
* Imagery & Tone: Specifics that stand out.
* The Core: What is important?
* Pitfalls: How can you screw this up?
* How does it end: How does the scene end?
* Who is in the scene: Character 1 / Character 2
* Character 1 wants:
* Character 1 can fail by:
* Character 1’s method used:
* Character 2 wants:
* Character 2 can fail by:
* Character 2’s method used:
* Who gets their way:
* Winning method(s):

[1]: http:bernardcornwell.com/chapters/writingadvice.htm