Go, Thief! Writing as Collaborative Piracy

 

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“A thief who steals from a thief is pardoned for one hundred years”—Eli Wallach as Calvera (Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai remake soon in theaters near you)

As a grad student taking creative writing classes, I did a lot of workshopping, but received little practical advice.  Most everything learned is earned, not given.  However, the best counsel I got was as an undergraduate toiling away in my Intro to Fiction course: “If you see something you like, steal it” (the professor/novelist who uttered these words will obviously not mind my failing to attribute to him here.)

There’s not much stealing of money by novelists, short-fictioneers, playwrights, and poets going on (we leave that to the publishing houses).  On the other hand, the best and worst of us do steal material pretty liberally from each other.   Some of this is unconscionable laziness, but I think those who take their craft seriously do hold themselves to a few self-imposed rules, which I’d like to codify here by supplementing my old professor’s advice with what I call the “Rule of Three O’s”: “By all means, steal: but try not to steal too often; nor too obnoxiously; nor too obviously.  Penalties exist for each.

  • Too often. No one likes to be labeled an unoriginal hack.  I mean, if you do this daily, you might as well become a television journalist and get paid well.  None of them seems to have recognized that Donald Trump has lifted most of his campaign platform from Adolf Hitler (“Make _______ Great Again,”) but you know that if one did, they’d all be parroting it.  Because there is no honor among thieves: they turn on each other.   Genre writers are in greatest danger of returning to the well too often, killing the golden goose, choose your cliché (a word-level version of this crime).
  • Too obnoxiously. You wouldn’t carjack a Corvette and then drive it around the same county without at least a re-paint, would you?  That’s just not right.  A plot, for example, needs to be sufficiently re-dressed to make it palatable.  Some recognize that the story of Jason Bourne is a retelling of Frankenstein, just as Blade Runner was (and to some extent the Wolverine and Deadpool tales): Scientist manipulates human limitations; scientist gets re-visited over and over by the subject of his experiment (“Why would he come back now?”)  It’s a good story with much psychological depth and breadth, as well as moral/ethical implications, which is why it gets told every five years.  Another version of obnoxious theft is a too-clever playing with familiar phrases.  Some writers get so good at this, they’re dangerous:  “Code of Dishonor,” “Twice Bitten,” “Can’t Stand In Heat.”  Seriously, why would you even crack the cover of a book entitled “For a Few Zombies More?”  Do you expect the writing to improve after that?
  • Too obviously. If last week’s marquee title is The Terminator, and you rush-premiere a B-movie called The Decimator, The De-resonator, or The Decaffeinater, even the trolls on the forums will crucify you (now there’s a story worth retelling,) without even watching it. And you deserve it.

Which leaves us with the question of how to do stealing right.  There are perhaps a hundred ways, so let’s “borrow” a few from the greats:

Allusions. Usually at the word level, these nuggets are on full display for those in your audience who may have read more than three or four books.  When John Steinbeck cribbed his novel’s title, In Dubious Battle, from the proem of John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, it was more than a pretty phrase he admired.  He wanted to signal, perhaps, that workers in contemporary America (the many and weak) were being warred upon by Satanic forces (the few and powerful).  Steinbeck, in fact, grifted several of his titles from Biblical or semi-biblical sources: The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and other writers (Of Mice and Men).

Homages/parodies. In Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks wasn’t trying to get away with piracy, but instead to rely on the audience’s familiarity with both the story and previous remakes from Hollywood.  The result is wonderful: How I did It is the title of the Baron’s journal. The great danger I see, today, is that in a semi-literate culture, exposure to 2nd, 3rd, and farther-removed parodies takes the place of reading the originals, rather than supplementing it.  Children, of course, will claim they can survive on candy; and so it’s no surprise to hear twenty-somethings argue they can distill the important news from The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live.

Shakespeare, yes even he of the cranium enormous, raided the Plot and trappings of Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and probably Othello and Romeo and Juliet from earlier sources. Now, given what he accomplished with them, and the relative scarcity of masterplots, this is forgivable.  How many people recognize that The Terminator is a thematic retelling of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (by attempting to avoid predestined events, one can actually bring them to pass)?  Cameron simply converted prophecy to time-travel (two sides of the same coin).

Update/Remake for a modern audience. Emerson said that every generation had to reinvent its stories (here I’m paraphrasing—at least I’m giving the guy credit!)  Especially the out-of-copyright ones (wink to the publishers and movie studios there.)     I suspect 2016’s Birth of a Nation will not much resemble the original.  You did know that was first made by D.W. Griffiths in 1915, adapted from Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansmen (1905,) didn’t you?  Film and literary critics fascinate themselves with analyzing how remakes tell us much about the culture that produced them, by emphasizing and deemphasizing certain elements of the ur-story.

Recasting from a different perspective. Euripides is perhaps the most prolific of western writers here.  He recast much of Greek mythology from the point-of-view of “the other,” the marginalized characters: Medea, The Trojan Women, The Bacchae.  A very neat and risky trick.  How many Americans do you know that would enjoy a film about how the Russians sacrificed twenty million souls to defeat the Nazis in World War II?  And yeah, that did happen.

Which brings us to pseudo-history. Spielberg’s Amistad, Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, Stone’s JFK, anything by Michael Moore in a more documentary mode, are all masterful narratives.  They are not history, by any serious definition.  BUT, they weren’t meant to be: they ARE meant to raise the spirit of inquiry in the audience, to challenge them to learn more and seek the truth themselves.  Poe did this with his unreliable narrators, but the solutions lay within his stories themselves.  Here, the facts lie outside the story, in other accounts one would have to research.  Sadly, this is all too infrequently done, and the pseudo-history stands as the somewhat-removed Truth.

So writers, don’t worry so much about books getting stolen, in either analog or digital form.  One way or another, it’s all in the public domain, there for the taking–isn’t it?  Put it this way–no one ever promised to pay you, anyway.  Given the choice, you’d rather give it away than keep it to yourself.

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Issues for Indie Authors: Revising The Script, one Strong Verb at a Time

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By Shawn Stjean

Ever catch yourself substituting a wrong word for the right one, on purpose?  Dumbing your language down?  No?

Liar.  (As Emerson once opined, sometimes only one word works.  Like “Damn.”)

The collapse and convergence or shrinking of our language should be apparent to anyone who’s listening and reading: just observe how the word “way” (original meaning: path) has begun to permanently replace at least three other words in modern English: much, far, very.

“It’s way too easy” / “Mine’s way better”

“We go way back”/ “This happens way too often”

“That skirt’s way cool”

These in addition to its now-standard colloquial uses: “There’s no way I’m going there.” [slang for “possibility”]

We, as a literate culture, have somehow managed to lose our way [ahem.]

No, it isn’t just kids.  Watch your own language.  Authors and editors of published books and even what’s left of our newspapers have accepted such sentences as correct for twenty years.  But there’s something not so obvious here, like a complicating infection from an original illness.  And what we do once on purpose–to fit in, to seem up-to-date, for verisimilitude in dialogue, and so on, we repeat out of habit.

It’s all about verbs–weak ones–like the one in this sentence.  Go ahead–I’ll wait while you seek it.

You unearthed the problem, apprehended it, discovered it.   You found it.  Got it.  Yeah, my bad.

The verb IS (infinitive “to be” conjugated further as “was,” “were,” “are,” “being,”) lurking underneath those apostrophes and contractions, stands low as the base of a problematic pyramid, but the issue goes very deep, to the base foundations of illiteracy.  “To be,” as the weakest verb in our language, gets the most use.  It serves slave-duty.  Other third-tier infinitives: “To go” “To do.” “To say.” “To see.”

Next come hundreds of second-tier verbs, and even people who read frequently can get mired at this level, for their entire lives.   “I see what you mean.”  “I get it.” “I said so.”  “I went there.”

Crucial point: I remind my students, ad nauseum, that we don’t just desire better sounding verbs–we require more efficient verbs–ones that do more work.  “Attempt” may work no better than “try,” depending on context.  This advice runs counter to everything they assume–because everybody knows, the longer your essay, and the fancier the vocabulary, the higher the grade, right? (or the more pages in the book, the more money you can charge.)

One-dimensionality needs vigilant guarding against.

Now, among young folks I often like to point to pop culture for my examples, along with occasional pedantic references to Shakespeare and Milton.  Pop music functions well–great, thoughtful artists struggle right alongside horribly mediocre ones. Take:

Rush–the band’s name itself is a multi-signifying verb–though it’s also a noun.  Like the members themselves, the name works hard.  Check them out–and pay attention to the lyrics.

But let’s examine a more current example.  As I attended high school sporting events and practices this summer, I heard much motivational music blaring from loudspeakers:  here’s a YouTube link for the uninitiated, to the The Script’s excellent video for “Hall of Fame”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mk48xRzuNvA

The music video reaches a potential that the song itself does not.  As good and catchy and emotionally stirring as this tune featuring will.i.am is, and as genuinely great as it aspires to be, it ironically relies on some of the weakest language available in English.  And remember, student-athletes hearing it are absorbed in the act, at that very moment, of pushing themselves to become better.

Be students
Be teachers
Be politicians
Be preachers

There’s a certain limited value in the repetition, or parallelism here.   And there’s the musical issue–the stanza requires one-syllable verbs.  HOWEVER, take a look at what just a little more thought can accomplish:

VS.

Be students
Seek teachers
Hear politicians
Heed preachers

The revision emphasizes the process of becoming over the state of being, as every kid jock (not all deaf ballerinas or scrawny boxers) in the grind of rehearsal, workout, or practice knows at a gut level–you have to work hard at it.  And real students–of life–require more than simple classroom attendance, or book learning.  One must venture out and interact with others–listen, try, do, fail, succeed, fail again, try again, work harder.  I’d argue that a great deal of resonance has been added by these revisions: rather than substituting meaning, they multiply it.

Third tier verbs function merely as connectors (“Jack was happy.”)  Second tier [vague and nondescriptive] verbs communicate the basic idea and no more (“I said it,”) and First tier [the best word for the job] verbs ennoble us: make us think, challenge us, inspire us, reward our effort.

Here’s a better verse from the same song:

You can move a mountain
You can break rocks
You can be a master
Don’t wait for luck
Dedicate yourself and you can find yourself

“Way” better.  And it so happens that a one-syllable word like “wait” can be the exact, perfect one.

POST-TEST.  Some might object that pop music makes an easy target.  Fair enough.  For you writers out there, here’s another example of how commercial success does not require anything like the higher standards I’ve described above.  Tune in on that frequency as you read.  Perhaps these opening paragraphs of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo could be improved?

It happened every year, was almost a ritual. And this was his eighty-second birthday. When, as usual, the flower was delivered, he took off the wrapping paper and then picked up the telephone to call Detective Superintendent Morell who, when he retired, had moved to Lake Siljan in Dalarna. They were not only the same age, they had been born on the same day—which was something of an irony under the circumstances. The old policeman was sitting with his coffee, waiting, expecting the call.

“It arrived.”

“What is it this year?”

“I don’t know what kind it is. I’ll have to get someone to tell me what it is. It’s white.”

“No letter, I suppose.”

“Just the flower. The frame is the same kind as last year. One of those do-it-yourself ones.”

“Postmark?”

“Stockholm.”

“Handwriting?”

“Same as always, all in capitals. Upright, neat lettering.”

With that, the subject was exhausted, and not another word was exchanged for almost a minute. The retired policeman leaned back in his kitchen chair and drew on his pipe. He knew he was no longer expected to come up with a pithy comment or any sharp question which would shed a new light on the case. Those days had long since passed, and the exchange between the two men seemed like a ritual attaching to a mystery which no-one else in the whole world had the least interest in unravelling.

The Latin name was Leptospermum (Myrtaceae) rubinette. It was a plant about four inches high with small, heather-like foliage and a white flower with five petals about one inch across. The plant was native to the Australian bush and uplands, where it was to be found among tussocks of grass. There it was called Desert Snow. . .

Now, in America we all seem to believe that one can’t argue with success.  Yet, if this remains the best we professionals can do, I’m a little concerned about the future of the amateurs.  Because let us not forget: reading and writing remain the best activities for promoting critical thinking and growing the human brain.  Students have been taught to write in the passive voice (sentences have no actor in them, as this one.  Who taught the students to do it?,) which solves a few problems (overuse of “I”) but the cure becomes worse than the disease.  It leads to cliche’d and passive thinking.

I have no opinion on the plotting, characterization, attention-getting ability, expositional effectiveness, or any other aspect of Larssen’s work here.  He may well be a genius beyond my ken.  My example only applies to his use of language, which, by the standards described in this article, scores “mediocre” at best.  His characters certainly should be forgiven for their terseness and inarticulateness, designed in by the author as part of a shorthand between intimates.  In fact, in many ways, they speak better than the narrator (who, in two cases, uses “to be” forms three times in one sentence.)  This may sound pompous of me and hopelessly outmoded, but I would never let one of my own students get away with that.

Now lest anyone object that these can’t be improved–that sometimes one must use a lesser word–you are correct.  It’s true.  But, most of the time, it only takes another pass.  And some sweat of the brow.

REVISION:

The plant, native to the Australian bush and uplands, grew [hid, nestled, waited discovery] among tussocks of grass.

Much more efficient–AND the emphasis shifts to the important element under discussion–the plant itself.  But then again, not the best way to get paid by the word, fill up more pages, consume people’s time, or, much like the rare flower of the book, encourage the growth of readers, among stagnant masses.

Perhaps the world does know Larsson’s name–for the moment–and I’m sure he’s made his money.  Will he, or The Script and will.i.am, ever share company with that other famous William, of the 16th century, master of i.am.bic pentameter?  I wonder: After all, no one ever rode into the Hall of Fame on their third- and second-best.

Most sink to the master standard of our time–“Good enough”–or tread water as the Good many were born with.  Only the few rise to Greatness.  Because they’re willing to earn it.  Learn.  Sweat.  Think.  Work harder, smarter, and better.

But hey, as the Most like to say: it is what it is.

Right?

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Traps For Indie Writers: Thematic Ambiguity, or Why Revenge Doesn’t [and Does] Work

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Earlier this year, I wrote about the overlooked importance of plot complication (Act 2 in a 3 or 5 act structure, whether play or novel.)  In Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, the protagonist receives his mission from the ghost of his dead father:  “Revenge [my] foul and most unnatural murder.”  Sounds straightforward enough.  So much so that young Hamlet immediately vows to do it swiftly, and without distraction.  However, the youth (and many readers) overlook the Ghost’s further, vital instruction: that no matter how his son pursues the act, “Taint not thy mind.” Now, invest the time to spin out the implications of “taint.” To paraphrase, Get justice for my murder, with extreme prejudice, yet do not in the process become that which you hate the most.

Most, though not all, of my university students, when this paradoxical pair of charges is brought to their attention, agree: this isn’t Mission Difficult, it’s Mission Impossible.  Take revenge, but remain pure.

One of the more challenging tasks for intermediate writers (which includes pretty much everyone who’s ever published anything–no ever masters writing,) because it takes so much self-discipline, is to communicate thematic meaning through plot, dialogue, symbolism, and other literary elements like motif, without either moralizing through the narrator or using a character as a mouthpiece.  And I think this temptation stems from the very real possibility that readers routinely mistake the intentions of writers.

The idea that Revenge simply isn’t a viable way to obtain justice, while endorsed by most of the literary classics we treasure, remains controversial.  Popular film and television continues to treat the subject on a rolling basis, sometimes with much more depth than manipulative stuff like the masochistic  Death Wish franchise.  And the more complex the writer and audience, the more ambiguous revenge gets.  Just catch some Sopranos reruns.  Because, as human beings, most of us have either done it, or wanted badly to do it.

Television, unlike film, can be dangerous in the messages it sends, because of the continued need to preserve characters for next week and next year.  Tony Soprano does seem to get away with it.  But examine his quality of life.  And. . .watch that final episode carefully, and experience the absolute sense of dread.

Let’s say you got away with it. So you feel great, right?  The world seems sweeter, your life is cleaner, food tastes great.  Hmm.  No–what you did was exchange a cheap sense of justice served for a subtly degraded life.  Because someone hurt you, you hurt back–and now the world is just a bit worse: the trust has eroded like ice caps melting over the course of years.  It’s like the price thieves pay: they must always lock their own doors.  And liars can never trust what people tell them.

Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “A Cask of Amontillado,” a deeper work than the much-anthologized “Tell-Tale Heart,” fools untrained readers into thinking that bad deeds can go unpunished, but a close reading demonstrates that the narrator is uttering a deathbed confession in dire fear for his eternal soul.

The coat-of-arms of the Montresor family is that of a serpent bruising the heel of man, which in turn is crushed under that heel.  The common biblical allusion to Genesis signals what, in modern terms, we might call an endless circle of violence, which can be abstractly represented by the common recycling sign below.

As I teach works that use revenge plots, a minority of students usually don’t agree with the textual evidence–we call this “reading against the grain”–or find that evidence ambiguous.  In other words, a theme that does not seem to accord with basic human truths–such as “Revenge DOES work” always resonates with a few readers.  People who believe that may value personal satisfaction above all else.  This is probably why most fictional revenge plots raise the stakes to life-and-death–so that there’s no mistaking the moral implications of punishing another human being, in pursuit of personal justice.  Even so, ambiguities do persist.  Hamlet may be dead, at the end of Shakespeare’s play, along with his girlfriend, her father and brother, and various members of the royal family and a few friends, BUT the “something rotten in the state” of Denmark has been purged.  We have some reason to believe that Fortinbras will make a better king than any of the Danes, and so the greater good has arguably been served by Hamlet’s quest, if only unwittingly.

On a personal level, however–spiritual remorse of the Poe variety aside–all revenge does is make the world that much more fallen and perverse, which is why the Arthurian mythology stands as antithetical to the medieval “might makes right” ethic–an outmoded code of a vanished epoch.

So, as always, resist the urge to tell, and SHOW revenge not working, if that’s what you believe.  Let your characters suffer for it.  Twist the plot.  Embed the symbology.  Freight the dialogue with irony.

Or, if you believe differently, let them prosper.  And don’t forget to lock your door.

 

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Issues for Indie Authors: The Flexibility of Women Readers

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By Shawn Stjean

I’ve been teaching literature and critical reading/writing at the University level for twenty years, and one thing seems clear to me on the subject of gender: girls are much more open-minded about what they read, view, and listen to, than boys.  This is partially due to necessity: most of the writing, and art in general, in our Western culture is historically androcentric, or “male-centric,” if you will.  And I’m not just talking about non-neutral gender phrasing, disingenuously assuming “he” is the proper universal pronoun.  I’m really thinking of male modes of discourse and storytelling legitimized by default, and women’s marginalized by default, as “chick-lit/flicks,” “melodrama,”  “sensationalism” (or worse.)

One of the more complex and rewarding texts I’ve used repeatedly is Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 masterpiece Apocalypse Now.  Literary and pseudo-historical in a way that anticipates much of the film of the past 30 years, I use it to encapsulate many of the most enduring truths of the American experience of the Vietnam era—though lately I’ve preferred Oliver Stone’s biopic of Le Ly Hayslip, Heaven and Earth (1993.)   But not because anyone can’t hack Coppola’s opus.  The violence, torture, gore, depraved indifference to human life, the appalling ignorance of the invaders to the culture of indigenous peoples—none of these has ever disturbed a female student enough to voice an objection.  Of course, the brilliant narrative, sound, characters, and visual spectacle more than compensate for the discomfort of viewing AN.

In stark contrast, when I assign a modest amount of material by or about women—Chopin’s The Awakening for example, and of course, Heaven and Earth, are both gems—the male students often exhibit ill-concealed contempt, and (at least passively) decline to engage.  This rigid refusal—not inability—of males to adapt to anything resembling a feminine text, seems to come at such an early age in our ultra-competitive, aggressive society, that by the ‘tweens, it can only be reversed through a slow and relentless process of reeducation of the few willing volunteers.

Women readers—or cultural consumers, if we expand to include visual and aural media—can’t afford to overlook the vast bulk of material out there that is ill-designed for them: action movies, sports programs, adolescent sex-comedies for all ages, home-improvement programs, horror, westerns, sci-fi, heavy music of all kinds.  And it should go without saying that not all women enjoy the celebrity showcases, the cooking, dance, and craft shows, and soap operas designed for them.  So what’s left?

My point is that, if a writer—male or female—wishes to reach a wide audience, then rather than follow suit with the dominant culture, it might be wiser to plan and compose with an audience of women in mind, thereby creating a product that women don’t have to adapt to—or at least bend and stretch so far to enjoy, or pretend to.

Some possibilities:

–refuse to use women characters as throwaway items: victims, prostitutes, weak-minded girlfriends, evil harpies.  Conversely, if deciding to use a female lead, consider that there are many types of strong women whose strength is not defined primarily (or exclusively) by sexuality—we have enough Circe types out there!

–envision the interior life of women characters (we often get relevant psychological insights into the minds of men—but what in the world are are the ladies thinking? Even the literary giants have neglected to wonder (consider Hamlet vs. Ophelia)

sex in writing is generally laughable anyway, but rather than spending your time trying to devise the latest euphemism for penis, why not at least try on the woman’s POV?

emotions are not easy to write about, but we all have them.  Many writers shy away, as in life, from revealing any raw feelings or even humanistic values.  I’m not talking about sentimental writing.  There’s a fine line.

–rather than thematically celebrate the triumphs of competition, the forced separation of weak from strong, how about some explorations of the virtues of cooperation and nurturing?

–Not all good writing is linearly organized—not all “reason” is logically-based—not all “reality” is something that can be seen with the eye or touched with the finger—not all lifelike dialogue is sequential or even “about” anything—not every detail has an immediate reason for appearing—not every smile means happiness—not every tear is a reason for shame–not every motivation is conscious—not every whisper of the intuition is born of fear—not every friend will give something back, and yet may still be worth having–not all women characters are “dirty, double-crossing dames” or innocent princesses!

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