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.





The Collapse of the American English


03262015-Kingdome_01By Shawn StJean

Perhaps my accompanying photos are a trifle hyperbolic.  Perhaps.  It’s a truism among our global neighbors that Americans (by which I mean U.S. citizens) expect everyone, everywhere, to speak English.  The corollary, of course, is that most refuse to learn other languages, such as Spanish, even when the utility of doing so is abundantly clear.  But a looming problem for our culture in the 21st century seems to be that Americans increasingly decline even to learn English–at least beyond the 3rd or 4th grade level.

This level, supported by weak resources in the slang of the moment, proves sufficient for basic writing and speaking, but does not carry us far into the realm of critical thought and communication.

I choose the word “collapse” for my title, rather than “decline,” because I mean just that–what used to be a language with hundreds of thousands of specific, nuanced and descriptive choices has and continues to converge and impode into fewer and fewer.  With the recession of traditional print media in the face of digital dissemination of what can charitably be called information, even simple affirmations like “Yes,” “certainly,” “definitely,” “acknowledged,” and “no doubt,” in the most extreme example of private text messaging, have all been replaced by a single letter: “K.”

Need this be a bad thing?  After all, what’s more efficient than “K”?  Doesn’t that free us up for more important, or at least more, activity?  Before answering, let’s look at some other casualties in this war for the space in our brains.

Examine the following short list of commonly used expressions, and you’ll realize that either they are purposefully and even defiantly vague, or that one word takes the place of many–indicative of the digital age we live in (compression, homogenization, and subtle loss of nuanced information):

“Do” replaces the verbs/actions “try” “give” “accept” “participate in” “contribute to” “tolerate” “clean.”  As in “I don’t do Christmas.”

“Go” travel/venture/explore/pedal/fly/walk/hike/swim/jog and even “communicate something uncomfortable,” as in “Don’t go there.”

“huge” /big/large/important/significant/influential/knowledgeable/enthusiastic.  “I’m a huge fan.”  In my ear, this sounds ridiculous even on the face of it.  We all speak in meaphors of one degree or another all the time (“collapse” is a minor metaphor when not speaking of a physical structure,) but the above expression equates to saying the gushing adorer is an abnormally large person (or ventilating device.)  One might as well offer to wave oversized palm leaves, ancient-Egyptian style, at the object of worship.

“way” very/much/far/long (“This license is way out of date.” “This sauce has way more garlic than the recipe calls for.”)  This one in particular disturbs me because it deomonstrates we aren’t just discussing slang here.  “Way” has been adopted not just in common speech, but by professional writers.  It has infiltrated the language in a permanent, um, way–ahem–manner.

“You’re all set.”

“It’s all good.”


“it’s all about”

“comes into play”

“deals with”

“back in the day”

Of course, words are invented, repurposed, and recombined all the time.  I must be overracting.  Aren’t these replacing archaic usages?  We’ve got “tweet.”  And “text.”  “Sick,” “diesel.” Oh, and “literally” can apparently now mean just the opposite, “metaphorically”–I mean, does it really matter?

“[   ] is a thing.”  Ah, yes, thing–the one catch-all noun when people grasp for a word and cannot find it, the very expression of inarticulateness, has become an official word to describe a fad, trend, icon, object of buzz or gossip, popular occurrence or consumer good, news item of the day, or week.  We had all those expressions, and they all relied upon small distinctions.  At this stage in human (d)evolution, we needed “thing”?

Okay.  Let’s say I’m right.  So the language is imploding.  What’s at stake here?

Many will not miss the subtleties that have dispersed into ether, I imagine.  Then again, it’s difficult to miss something you never knew you had.  What about the millions of unborn youngsters who will grow up with effective working vocabularies of a mere few thousand words?  Will they write poetry that amounts to more than a colorful tag on a railroad bridge?  Will they read it?  Will they understand the U.S. Constitution, even as they are called increasingly upon to “defend” it?  Will the historical records of the 19th and 20th centuries begin to sound as impenetrable as Shakespearian solilioquies do to us?  And I’m not talking about the kind of missing material in a contraction: to anyone but a fiction-writer or screenwriter, the distinction between “I’ve” and “I have” is not great.  One might use it to distinguish among charaters who are high-born or low-born, for example.  For the rest of us, it’s merely a convenience.

George Orwell warned writers not to compose in cliche’s.  He claimed, essentially, that writing in the pre-digested shorthand phrases of others leads to thinking in the pre-digested shorthand phrases of others.  Other signs that your thinking has been compromised: Do you find yourself regularly Googling information that you could remember with just a bit of effort?  Are you trusting that information (or that from Wikipedia, Mapquest, Siri, or the CBS Evening News) enough to act upon it or pass it on to another human being without double-checking it?  Are you cut-and-pasting that information (either in written or verbal form) without rephrasing it?  My overall point here is there exist vital differences among raw data, information (processed data), and intelligence (interpreted information).  And yet many of us are not bothering to recognize them.  Not because we lack the cognitive ability, but because we lack the critical tools and the will to use them.

A brief [ mostly harmless] experiment should serve here.  Raise your hand if you like music.

That should include most of you, one hopes. If you like music, you have probably in your time looked up some song lyrics.  In the old days, we read them out of LP album covers–which meant the source was the band’s record label, presumably direct from the songwriters themselves, which meant little chance of transmissional error.  Nowadays, we all know where song lyrics get found.  Dozens of websites cater to this need; even Google has gotten directly into the act through their search engine.  Look up a song or two that you know intimately, but the performed and recorded lyrics of which are not 100% crystal-clear by listening. I can guarantee you that, as transcribed onto your website of choice, you will not be long in discovering blatant errors in those lyrics which materially alter their meaning.  Furthermore, and more appallingly to me, you will discover upon cross-checking that most, if not all, of the alternative websites repeat that same error.  Which means, of course, that they are all “borrowing” from each other, and profiting off both you and the songwriters with little regard for the truth.  Now, if the stakes here seem low to you, import your experiment to the television news programs.  Jon Stewart had a running bit on his incarnation of The Daily Show dedicated to proving that not only do major news outlets shamelessly plagiarize from each other, but they do so in unedited cliche’s.  Again, in the old days, we might double-check their intelligence in what used to be called printed newspapers.  Umm.  Except. . .

One of the great virtues of written language is its precision, yet increasingly written English begins to resemble spoken English, even in widely disseminated and professionally published print media.  And spoken English begins to resemble colloquial English.  Don’t think so?  Ask an octogenarian (someone born roughly during the Great Depression, as of 2017) if their parents would use the word “cool” as part of their everyday discourse.  Nowadays, try to find someone who doesn’t.  Not that I think “cool” has done the language any great harm.  As far as I can tell, it was first used in America, in its modern sense, by Emerson in the 1840s–which probably means it dates back even farther and derives from the British.  But this word may prove the exception rather than the rule.  As it is, it conflates a much more typically detailed appraisal of a person, event, or object.  A girl who might once have been variously described as “tolerant,” “forgiving,” “loose,” “free-thinking,” “substance-abusing,” or “not a nag” is now simply “cool.”

Of course, one might argue that simple is better; the fewer moving parts in a machine, the more reliable it is likely to be (read “mousetrap.”)

I doubt the sustainability of that argument.  Another, more insidious example: “fewer” vs. “lesser” (or less).  Almost no one but your English teacher bothers with this one anymore.  Here’s why: who cares if your supermarket checkout line reads (correctly) “fewer than 12 items” or (incorrectly) “less than 12 items”?  Can’t we just dispense with one of these?  Well, we could.  Except one of them refers predominantly to individual items and people, and the other refers objects in bulk or concepts.  That is, “fewer people are finding jobs their college degrees prepared them for.”  NOT “less people.”  Because those people are individuals, not some vague statistic.  There’s less forest, which means fewer trees.  There may be “less opportunity.”  There may be “less rain this year” or even “less cod in these waters.”  But if there are unaccountably “less people,” we had better start looking for them.   And reevaluating the value we place on human life.

I’d like to conclude with a different, and more familiar example; possibly the mostly commonly transmitted text message in English:

Where R U

It (or some variant) is quick, servicible, doesn’t cost much effort to send, or–hypothetically–to answer.  And yet this message has probably caused more misunderstandings and needless arguments than most.  Why?  It’s laden with ambiguity (or even what deconstructors call “undecideability”).  In the absence of voice intonation, facial expression, pronunciation, linguistic context, primary and/or secondary punctuation, and so on, the receiver must interpolate those for herself.  Here’s how that might go, in response:

“None of your damn business.”

“Uh oh, he’s saying I’m late again.”

“Did I promise to be somewhere right now?”

“I’m at Main Street and Vine”

“She really wants to know Who am I with, and What am I doing?”

“I left an hour ago.”

Texts and tweets may count portability and quickness among their virtues, but they certainly cannot include clarity in that list.  Even among intimates, this message is as likely to lead to a dispute as an informative reply.  Another aspect that’s missing, and increasingly missing from written communication especially, is any sense of formality, professionalism, or what used be called politeness.  Now, you may say, “Well, that’s just a text message.”  Sure.  But ask yourself how many e-mails you have received without a greeting, a signature, an identification of the sender or introduction, or even so much as a rudimentary spell-check?  Did you answer them?  If you did, you, as are we all,  are complicit in the process of collapse.  Compare these two e-mails, typical of what I, as a college professor, have received from freshman students:

[2007]  Dear Professor:  I’m sorry I missed class last Tuesday and Thursday as my grandmother died.  I misplaced my copy of the syllabus.  Can you tell me what we did in class so I can make up the work?  Thanks, Kayla

[2017]  I missed class last week would you tell me what I missed

Neither one of these qualifies as polished, professional communication–especially from a writing student–but I think you’ll agree that the former has a few lingering virtues to recommend it, which have gone glimmering in the latter.  In fact, were I to delve deeper into my records of the past, we’d find that the students of the 1990s had bothered to include my actual name; that the excuses were often more inventive and frequently included such touches as offers of doctor’s notes; that a request to meet in office hours was not unheard of upon missing a week’s worth of training; that the student might have actually acquired class notes from  peer before writing; that the student would bother to identify which of the four classes I teach she was enrolled in.

I’m not sure that the degradation of the language–as slow and inevitable as abuse of the atmosphere that has summoned the effects of global warming– will contribute materially to the collapse of the society, the culture, or possibly even our civilization.  But I don’t fancy it helping.  It’s perhaps predictable that as our planet becomes more overpopulated, as more wealth becomes concentrated into fewer hands, and as such factors demand a parallel dynamic of information becoming the province of fewer people (collectors,) the rest of us will not find encouragement to strengthen our language skills beyond the consumer sphere (that is, you and I only need know how communicate well enough to work and buy and perhaps sell a bit.)

As for writing, a culture’s written language is the primary repository of its history.  Without a sense of history, it cannot evolve.

The solution?  Same as it’s always been, and the advice is good not just for writers, but for anyone who wishes to grow their brain and live up to something approaching their potential: READ.  Read anything.  Comic books, advertisements, editorials, romance novels, cereal boxes, movie credits.  Some are better than others, obviously.  Personally, I recommend Hawthorne, Hemingway, and Wharton, along with Carl Sagan for those whose tastes require something a little more contemporary–here was a man who knew a bit about large-scale collapse–but that’s just me.



Weight, Warmth, and Writing: Return of the Analog


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By Shawn Stjean

If only that were true; but the signs are there.  Signs that a few people yearn for a more authentic, true, immediate, and visceral experience, and that the shadows and echoes we’re being served don’t quite satisfy us.  I mean, why struggle through Paradise Lost, Homer’s Odyssey, or The Grapes of Wrath when you can get the Wiki-version, or better yet catch a Simpsons‘ parody?  When was the last time a movie gave you joy?  Follow-up: Good for you.  How much CGI did it have?

Somehow, people still wear faced wristwatches–not because they are in a hurry, but because the object emanates beauty: through design, precision, aesthetic qualities.  They still search the night sky, with their naked eyes.  A few even read, in their best if flawed voices, to their children.

Let’s not forget that both analog and digital are recording technologies–rather than see and hear a live performance (a play, concert, reading, interview, and so on) we get the convenience of having it to experience, not live, but at our leisure.   This usually means, of course, that we’ll be doing it alone rather than among a crowd–or with far fewer people around, at any rate.  I will never forget attending a screening of  Eastwood’s Unforgiven at Red Rocks Amphitheater on a hot July night in Colorado, along with three thousand other people, under an open canopy of stars.  That experience ranks second only to my eleven-year-old self seeing the original Star Wars in the local theater–never has a film received a standing ovation and cheering, in my memory, by an audience of adults, reliving their childhood enthusiasm for right over might.  However, these experiences pale in comparison to getting one’s chest thumped at a Bachman Turner Overdrive or Blue Oyster Cult show in a small club and amusement park, respectively–those were rehearsed and orchestrated, of course–but they sure weren’t Memorex.  They were live, baby.

And I have held pen-and-ink manuscripts more than one-hundred years old in my own hands, at the risk of them falling apart, to study the past, and pass on what I discovered.  I could not be present at the crucifixion of Christ, but I have the Pieta and the New Testament.

I won’t wax nostalgic about analog recording, which is being brought back most recently in the form of 180g vinyl LPs of many popular, classic albums.  Yes, there was tape hiss–hell, there was tape breakage.  Records are delicate, and they scratch.  Film gets exposed, or deteriorates.  Paint chips; sculptures erode; and readings fade into memory.  But you have to realize that digital recordings, even more so, are from the moment of creation MISSING SOMETHING.  The dynamic range is clipped off at the edges, compressed–the warmth goes away, and portability doesn’t come free: we trade away what used to be called “Hi Fidelity”–and fidelity, in its primary definition, means Truth.  It can be experienced authentically as a thump in your chest–but today, what is absent in the sound wave is substituted for/covered up by more power and volume.

This phenomenon is not confined to music and movies (they used to be called “films.”)  Your money has been digitized: what was once a barter of labor or product for something of like value, was substituted for precious metal, later non-precious metal, then paper, and now a bunch of ones and zeroes in a computer database.  It earns interest at perhaps one-quarter of the inflation rate, which means it’s shrinking all the time.  Furthermore, this compression and convenience has resulted in the fact that one man can hold a billion times more money units than his neighbors (this could never happen under a barter system.)  And you can now spend your whole roll from your chair, at places like Amazon.  Your friendships have been digitized: so much so that many of us prefer a text message to a phone conversation, which is a bastardized version of a visit.  Don’t even mention writing letters.  Your very identity is in the process of being digitized–don’t think it isn’t.  You, the sum total of tens of thousands of years of human evolution, can be represented by a bar code.  You’re being tracked and profiled by traffic cameras, GPS chips, your phone, advertisers, and the IRS.  And you are either a one or a zero: dangerous or harmless, a lead or not a lead, worthy of further scrutiny, or not.

Digital means two choices only, no gray:  Black or white.  One or zero.  The TV reception is either there, or it’s not.  You’re wise, or a fool.  Female, or male.  Rich, or poor.  Good, or evil.  Successful, or a bum.  See the limitation?  Analog may mean static, inefficiency, gradual loss, getting old, warped, dirty, wrinkled.  But you’re still there.

When we turn off the television, in our moments of sanity, and insist on HANDWRITING a note and READING a paper book, PAINTING and DRAWING, shooting PICTURES, conversing on the PHONE, we’re doing analog, one step closer to revealing how much we’d prefer to be TALKING, ARGUING, STEERING, WRESTLING ON THE GRASS, THINKING FOR OURSELVES, PLAYING BALL, HAVING SEX, USING INSTRUMENTS or otherwise PERFORMING and LAUGHING (a.k.a. living.)

analog-digital 1We need to hold on to the analog.  It has its ups and downs, literally, but at least there’s more than two choices.

Otherwise, it’s which are you?  Harmless, or dangerous?


Issues For Indie Writers: Complicating the Plot Structure of Your Story / Novel



By Shawn StJean

Shakespeare inherited from the Greek tragedians a 5-part plot structure, which functions to keep the writer on track concerning the overall trajectory of the work, and from getting lost in the details.  English teachers know this structure as Freytag’s Triangle or Pyramid: Act I—Exposition, II-Complication, II—Climax, IV—Catastrophe (Reversal), and V—Denouement (“Unraveling”).  In today’s faster paced, Hollywood-aligned writing environment, the formula is often shortened to the left half of the pyramid, or simply three components: Exposition, Complication, and Climax.  Credits roll.  And although crucial elements can be lost in this truncation (reducing the pyramid to a two dimensional line, as it were), that’s a concern for another time.  More important for the moment, is that in its short form, the Complication (often oversimplified in diagrams as “rising action”) assumes even greater importance—in fact, it can truthfully be called the “guts of the story.”

Even so, not enough modern writers understand the pivotal function of Act II.

Reviewing briefly:

Act I—Exposition.  The best narratives begin “in media res,” (in the midst of things)—at an interesting point in the overall action.  This requires that the audience be briefed, by means of flashbacks or dialogue, on the conflict that brought the characters to this high pass, and quickly introduced to the individual characters themselves.  In a film, this act consumes the initial 30-40 minutes of viewing time.

Act II—Complication.  30-40 more minutes.  Many folks intuit that, here, we’ll “get to know the characters better.”  They’ll make friends and/or develop antagonisms, either against each other, themselves, or the environment (in the case of Hamlet, all of these).  But a complication only deepens plot, by mixing the element of characterization with it, so to speak.  Think of it this way: Things go from bad to worse.  Example: A soldier’s gash on the foot at first causes a mere limp, but left untreated, induces sepsis.  How do the characters react?  How does action lead to reaction?  What ironies and motifs and themes begin to emerge?  Does the narrative take on a tone of inevitability, or are choices still available?

Act III–Climax.  Second hour.  A sad truth about contemporary storytelling, whether oral, filmic, written, or graphic, is that Act II gets short-circuited and far too much attention gets lavished upon the action of climax (recall how much of the finest elements of Tolkien’s work have been jettisoned by Peter Jackson in service of gory spectacle).  People say “it picks up,” as if this equates to “gets better.”  True, this presents a mighty problem for the chronicleer: how to present a high significance of action, and not just a high and unsustainable level.  But the truth is, a finely wrought set of complications will dictate the climax to a large extent, and no artificial resolution should be needed (such as a deus ex machina, aka miracle ending).

As ever, pop culture provides a ready resource for illustration.  As a contained–hopefully visual and entertaining–example of structure and the energizing role of Complication, I’d like to use an unusual text–a performance of the Rolling Stones’ iconic song “Gimme Shelter.”  Lyrics, naturally, form our primary, but not exclusive, focus here.  To simplify matters even further, we need only examine the chorus (a term aptly take from Greek drama,) of the song, which not coincidentally divides itself into three, similar couplets:


1-War, children,

It’s just a shot away.


3-Love, sister,

It’s just a kiss away.

I’ve intentionally left out Act II here, to dramatize its effect later.  Taking the first and third parts, we see the speaker has created a parallel structure, at both the local/grammatical-sentence level, and the overall plot level.  And while technically speaking, it’s hard to say this is “plot,” so much as allegory, it certainly becomes one when we add the aural and visual elements of a performance:


If you’ll invest five minutes watching the video, you’ll see not only a great song performed by its creators, but even its flaw serves a wonderful purpose.  Dividing it roughly into thirds, we initially see Mick Jagger and the boys doing professional, if run-of-the-mill, work—not exactly phoning it in, but doing what’s proven, in a fairly uninspired way.  But what follows changes everything (Act II): an unfamiliar element, Lisa Fischer, for whom the term “back-up singer” would be a gross injustice, descends from the background, takes center stage, and electrifies the performance, raising not only the audience’s interest level, but galvanizing the other band members: Watts’ drums, Richards’ and Woods’ guitars, and Jagger’s vocals.  And now we’re in a position to hear those lyrics Fischer is responsible for:

2-Rape, murder,

They’re just a shot away.

These lines complicate the basic conflict: that we’re all living, in the late 20th/early 21st centuries, under the delicate balance and precarious threat of war—just a simple misstep from Armageddon (recall the Cuban Missile Crisis of ’62.)  But there’s a choice—peace, too, that can be embraced, through an act of love, not fear and hatred.  If we ask ourselves, what structurally ought to come between the black and white, the right and left, we’ve confronted one of the most basic intellectual challenges in life.  It isn’t always as simple as “Grey,” when the choice lies between wrong and right.

Instead, the Stones have chosen another route.  Because “war” is such an abstract, monolithic concept, the 2nd stage of the chorus both amplifies and specifies what it entails: not just bloodless “killing” in defense of ideals, but the vicious and selfish ending of human life–murder–always a by-product of war, as well as the brutal stripping of the precious: land, children, women.  Rape.  These lines give the song flesh and blood, in the same way Fischer’s blood-curdling ability to hit the high notes thrill the spine and appall the senses.  In terms of the performance in the video (enhanced by the camerawork, lighting, and editing) Fischer adds an important female presence, and more than a hint of controlled sexuality, which makes her repetition of the word “rape” very resonant.

To return to Hollywood terms, then, the Complication amplifies the basic conflict, by doubling or tripling it, by raising or personalizing the level of threat, by adding a previously unseen dimension.  In Oedipus Rex, a plague has descended upon the city of Thebes, and a soothsayer reveals the gods have brought it on because a murderer roams free in the city.  The king vows to find and punish the culprit: basic conflict established.  However, we in the audience slowly come to realize, through layered ironies, that the murderer is Oedipus himself.  Thus, a complication can often be expressed through a question:  How can a man administer justice for the community and himself at the same time?  Today’s films, even comedies, as simple as they often are, are no different.  Take Jack Black’s School of Rock, for example.  In Act one, we find a N’er-do-well ejected from his band, his job, and his apartment all in the same day.  Basic conflict.  He falsely assumes the identity of a middle-school substitute music teacher in order to make ends meet.  Thus, complication: How can a man who knows plenty about music, and nothing about teaching, inspire a motley bunch of youngsters to play, appreciate, and love music?

The Complication, if well done, will rise above the Climax in its interest level.  It’s here, after all, that protagonists struggle with the details of their challenges, suffer setback and defeat, and prepare to (potentially) grow, or devolve, in the final act.  When you’ve seen enough Hollywood films, in fact, Climaxes begin to bore you, with their gunfire and car chases, somehow contriving to sell you on the dubious idea that violence always solves complex problems (try Divergent for a recent, disappointing example.)

What does this mean for writers, as a practical issue?  First, Aristotle’s famous remark that “plot is the soul of tragedy” still holds true, especially if you take a generous definition of tragedy: a struggle (often failure, but an occasional success) of human beings to reach their potential.  Western culture’s first critic insisted that events and our responses to them define who we are—we do not shape events.  This may create an uncomfortable view of free will for the modern viewer, but it helps in storytelling immensely.  Ask yourself: how is my protagonist both a representative of, and an amplified example of, humankind?  What trials will represent and dramatize this best?  How will s/he have it worse than the average person?  What bits of key dialogue will support this plot?  Which elements are worth repeating–with variations–to clarify my theme?  Most importantly, what actions will the protagonist(s) take, or fail to take, when adversity arises?


A lot gets lost in those parentheses, but “Rising Action” or Complication provides the real enjoyment of a story or novel.

There Can Be Only One: 2014 Finalists for Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Announced in Five Categories



By Shawn StJean

It starts with as many as 10,000, and ends with only one.  But first, over the course of several months, entrants to Amazon’s annual competition get whittled down to finalists in five categories: General Fiction, Mystery and Thriller, Romance, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, and Young Adult.

Best of all, you the readers get to VOTE on who the grand prize winner will be, based on excerpts, and you can even leave commentary–so even if it’s been a political/rigged/popularity contest to date (speculate as you will, conspiracy theorists)–this time around, it’s a democratic process–overseen by computer, natch–to determine which young novelist earns an Amazon Publishing contract with a $50,000 advance.  As for the others, well, an Amazon Publishing contract with a $15,000 advance doesn’t sound too shabby.

Of course, an advance obviously means Amazon will get Right of First Refusal on anything else the winners create in the future, so one could argue that this is merely a relatively cheap ruse for Amazon to identify and proprietize any young and inexperienced talent left undiscovered on the market.  But far be it from me to propose an argument as subversive as that ;}  No, it’s All Hail Capitalism!

So VOTE away: http://www.amazon.com/b?node=332264011



Book Review: Write the Body–Post Rock Limestone Caryatids by Rachel Creager Ireland


By Shawn StJean

Surely for not the first time in history, modern feminists proposed, forty years ago, that genuine women’s writing follows patterns that would seem alien to male readers: perhaps circular or spiral–or at least non-linear, non-phallic, and non-formulaic (this lack the greatest source of readerly anxiety: a defeat, though not a disappointment, of expectations).

Beginning with its title, one clearly not designed to enhance marketability (what genre is this?  Sci-Fi? Chick-Lit?  Naturalism?,) Ms. Ireland’s debut novel fits the non-pattern.  Although the setting eases us in–human beings living on the eve of the 22nd century, insulated, born into robotic nurseries and raised into cubicles and having contact only through computerized avatars via sanitized social networking and virtual sex, their bodies slowly falling to atrophy while the world outside slowly recovers from the human virus, in remission.  Meanwhile, privileged children are genetically modded and sponsored into Matrix-like docility/productivity as adults. Fans of political allegory and films like Neill Blomcamp’s Elysium or District 9, or anyone who’s ever simply slaved away in the human ice-cube-tray of an office building, should find plenty to satisfy their sense of satire here.

The plot, however, spreads its legs, so to speak: between a wealthy runaway escaping a controlling father to seek a free birth for her child, and a woman who abandons the cubicle life, following the death of her sister and loss of her infant niece to the state “corporocracy,” to go into the wilderness with an attractive, seductive politico-religious zealot.  One of the defamiliarizing aspects of the book is the consistent splitting of our attention back-and-forth, toward an eventual convergence in the great yonic center of our country, the Kansas prairie, the culmination simultaneously the most common and most miraculous of events.  Écriture féminine, indeed.

Male readers, especially, or any conditioned in the mode of phallogocentric writing, should not expect to find chase-and-gunfire narrative lurches and jerks, progressing hurriedly to an all-too-predictable climax.  As one of the protagonists learns in the company of natural childbirthers, patience, and release of control, form much of non-technological existence.

And the writing, at the paragraph and sentence level, frequently bares its beauty in a range from scatological to sublime, though in the least pretentious of ways.  One could read many passages as the journal of a writer who has herself plumbed both the mysteries and fears of homo sapiens childbirth, and the macro-birthing process of Mother Earth. Ireland could become one of the few legitimate woman naturalists–though this is only one of the book’s several modes–a tradition dominated by males in America since the 1870s.  (A scan through her author’s blog, http://veronicasgarden.wordpress.com/, will confirm this.)  “If Maeve were the only human alive, the only tragedy would be human, that is, that Maeve would be the last to witness to such immense beauty; yet this world would go on being beautiful, to itself, for itself, without suffering any loss.  It was somewhat reassuring to Maeve to know that the world was really that big, that her little human sufferings, meaningful as they might be to her, were really a very small part of the whole.”  Norris or Crane or Dreiser–all appreciative of the ironic scope of androcentrism that defines our species among the animal kingdom, would agree.

Buy it on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Post-Rock-Limestone-Caryatids-ebook/dp/B00AWE6B8O/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1366041370&sr=8-1&keywords=post+rock+limestone+caryatids


Co-Tenanting: Poem by Shawn StJean



by Shawn StJean


A horde of half-a-hundred dragonflies, aloft, cuts off my path

across the unmown meadow this morning–

A Virginia species, unknown to me up in the fenced and gated North.

I’ve only ever seen them singly, or in pairs, and avoided the dangerous-looking bodies,

sometimes blue, or green, or yellow, or gray, ominously named “Sewing Needles.”

I don’t know their business, or their defense of it

any more than I know my own today,

whether to work on a poem, change out an old Ford starter,

go to the hospital for multiple stings, or spend the hours

missing beloved friends that miles part me from.


Yet, I don’t slacken or hurry my pace or even close my eyes, swishing the long grass

and dampening my feet and legs through shoes and pants, wading into the buzzing cloud.


It’s not bravery: I’ve been stung, in younger days, by many bees at once.

And learned to fear tramping around hot junkyards without proper care.

A body can only take so much of that punishment.

Many species treat proximity to their hives as an incursion,

not bothering to distinguish who owns from who rents, when we’re all just renting anyway,

and a rusting iron hulk of car returning to earth belongs more to nature than man.


If these fliers follow the rule of most other insects,

much more power they hold, than the Huey Helicopters they resemble in minature.

A few could level the plain of my body, erase the borders, defoliate it as thoroughly as a napalm strike.


No, I go forward because I’ve never yet been harmed by a dragonfly:

Logic and ignorance, or innocence, put together, as simple as a child’s.

In school they classify this as an inductive leap,

In church they pronounce it faith.

Me, after all this time, I still call it trust.

Inside square, engineered buildings you learn all the fancy names for what you were born doing.

Outside, you just do them.


My body and I emerge untouched beyond the border of the meadow, unstung,

without even a touch-and-go landing on the shock of golden hair many bugs find fascinating.

We continue to amble along the landlord’s property, seeking our business,

it carrying me through the trees, over the running creek, along and past the fences,

as if we own the place.  Because, for now, this year, this hour, today,

we really do.