Tag: style

The Spark of Life

There is something at the heart of every good story that makes it come alive. The flame in the lantern, the soul in the body, the crystal in an agate. A good story is like a child to its author–he made its existence possible, and to an extent he can predict what it will do, but it always goes to places he didn’t think it would go. It turns up in the kitchen, having drunk half a bottle of chocolate syrup, and then just grins at him. That’s the spark of life in a story; that taking off to an unexpected place is what makes a story come alive. Without the spark, it is only a collection of minerals arranged in a fine structure, with no faceted crystalline heart to make it lovely.

A good story is a beast. The author must approach it carefully, stalking with muffled feet and fistfuls of courage. It could leap up at any moment and bolt away, or do a jig, or spring for his throat. Some stories will consent to be tamed and go where the author leads. Others are bold and prefer to gallop this way and that as they please. Sometimes the author knows a story is too big for him, but he goes hunting it anyway. Other times he writes it because it seems easy, a tiny little thing–but the little things are always deceptively hard to catch.

Some stories don’t come into the world as beasts. They need to be coaxed to life by the author, who has just seen them as the faint and faded paintings that adorn the walls of ancient caves. At times life will come into the paintings of its own accord. They will begin to move and blink and step off the wall. The characters in the stories will look out at their authors and smile mysterious smiles. “We have hearts,” they’ll say, and the author, enchanted, must follow.

But at times the life doesn’t come. The author must find a way to put in the spark of life himself, not by singing into full bloom the seed that was already there, but by bringing it in from some outside source. This is very hard. There are many stories which are like a lantern, ornately carved by a fine craftsman, but which has no flame inside. A lantern, like a story, has a purpose, and without its flame that purpose will never come to fruition. How many stories have we all read which were like that lantern, with no life of their own and nothing to imprint themselves on our minds?

Still, there are certain things that the hunter after sparks may look for. These things bring the spark of life to a story: the enchanted air of the Perilous Realm, that breath of Faerie which comes out of the stories that touch on our deepest desires; the life and longings of another human being, unfolding before our eyes; the music of our deepest dreams, echoing from within the structure of the tale; the zest of relationships exuberantly lived on the page, as right and wrong unfold themselves in the lives of others. And there are many other things that bring life, but these are numerous and shadowy, defined only within the heart of each person who seeks solace in a story.

It is a powerful magic, to coax the life into a story. But if that is not done, if the author is weak or the story was never anything more than a bit of pigment smeared across a wall, then its only fate will be to fade off into the fog of unreality.

~ Jared

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Musings on Writing

Lately, I have been considering in depth my place as a writer, what I want to write, the mark I want to leave on literature, the direction I want to take my storytelling–my “writing identity.” This is occasioned by the fact that my methods, aims, and storytelling interests have changed significantly in the past year or so, but my conception of who I am as a writer hasn’t changed with them. Before I was writing out of an intent to get published and be famous (in fact, my goal was to be published by the time I was 20. Look how that’s turned out!); I wrote very quickly and without much thought; my stories tended to be concerned with “big things” like saving the world and whatnot. My style tended to be abrupt and action-focused (though I do think I’ve usually had a fairly decent balance of description and interior exposition in my stories). But all those things are different now. I write because I enjoy it; because it’s good for me; out of the pure joy of creation; because sub-creation is a way of worship. Many of the ways in which writing is good for me I’ve outlined in my last writing-related post, and I’ll add here that it helps me to maintain a calm emotional center. I always get a little unhinged if I don’t write often enough. My writing process itself has slowed down considerably, as I’m generally inclined now to take frequent breaks and think about each sentence and paragraph, take time before and after a writing session to contemplate the scene I’m working on, take breaks of days or more in the middle of chapters to allow my subconscious to work on a difficult plot problem.The subject matter of my stories has become “smaller,” and I’m much more inclined now to write character-driven stories with strictly localized consequences. My style has become (I think) much deeper and more poetic, and I take much more time now to produce vibrant descriptions–but on the other hand, I also try, especially in my short fiction, to master the power of the unsaid, and imply just as much as I write explicitly.

 

At any rate, all that meant I needed to rethink a little bit, and the thought process and its implications seem worth sharing. It really didn’t take me long to come to a conclusion, and that conclusion was born out of this realization, which I’ll quote from my Facebook page, where I originally posted it.

It was fantasy and adventure stories that sowed the seeds of wonder and joy in my childhood, nourished and kept them alive during my dismal teen years, and, with the water of the writings of Tolkien, Lewis, and Chesterton, brought them forth to grow and blossom as I became an adult.

I want to add my own contributions, even if they’re very small, to that pool of wonder.

Those fantasy and adventure stories were mostly written for children or young adults. And ever since my childhood, whenever I have longed for a story, to escape this world and enter another, to go on an adventure, my mind always went back to that kind of story: to the children’s sci-fi/fantasy adventure and/or slice-of-life tale. The epitome of that style is what I most want to write, deep down in my soul, and generally what I most want to read. The merits of children’s spec-fic are many, and I won’t go into them all here. But in my opinion that genre is one of the best. It’s surprising, really, that I didn’t come to this realization of what I most want to write sooner. But at any rate, that’s where my heart is, and now my mind has caught up to it.

 

There’s a reason I said “adventure and/or slice-of-life tale.” That’s because I think a slice-of-life element is crucial to creating a story that a person can really lose himself in. The best children’s spec-fic stories, Harry Potter, for example, almost always have some slice-of-life element. Getting to see the daily lives and achievements of the characters makes them seem so much more real and human. And beyond that, I think there is an important philosophical reason to show the small and mundane, and that is that normal life, simple and mundane things, regular emotions and institutions, are really extremely important, romantic, exciting, adventurous. This is illustrated in a simple and profound fashion by Christ in the Parable of the Mustard Seed:

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches. Matthew 13:31-32 (NKJV)

and also in a more complex fashion by G.K. Chesterton (one of my favorite writers, and one who has had a huge influence on my life) in many of his works, especially Orthodoxy. Whether or no a person happens to take the words of Christ to be authoritative, I don’t think anyone can deny that great things very often start from seemingly small and insignificant seeds. And I will take it a step further and say that the great things that start from small seeds often go in disguise as very mundane and normal things, when really they are quite fantastic. And the heart of slice-of-life is those things. One of the strengths of children’s literature in general is a tendency to have a stronger slice-of-life element, and that is something I want very much to carry through in my writing.

 

This view of the world which has sprung up in me in the past couple of years is integral to the shift in my writing. And that’s because, as I finally realized in the past few days, the way that someone tells a story is inextricably linked to the way that person sees the world! This is another realization that it seems I should’ve had much sooner. I suppose it was so obvious it went right over my head. The way that I process and think through stories, the way that I relate them and tell them, the aspects of story that I dwell on, the words I use to describe things–all of it is affected by a change in worldview. And perhaps this is why we like some authors more than others, and feel a subconscious connection to them; because the way they see the world is more in line with our way. At any rate, I see the world differently now; I see the importance of the small and mundane; I see the value in planting a spark of wonder in a person’s mind, itself something seemingly small, but with great consequences; and my writing has changed. 

 

How have personal growth and new realizations shaped your writing?

~ Jared

On the Use of Long Words

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about precision and conciseness in my writing. “What will be the best word to convey that meaning in as little space as possible?” Rather than using multiple vague words to describe something, I’d rather use one or two very precise words. But what does this mean for my style? It means I am now developing a tendency for using long, and/or somewhat obscure words that not everyone is familiar with. While making my writing more concise and (I think) more beautiful, this also has the effect of making it harder to understand and connect to for many people.

 

What I’ve been wondering is: should I care if my writing is harder to understand and connect to? I want to use the English language to its fullest potential, which, to me, means using long and elaborate words in order to precisely describe specific sensations and images. The trick is learning to do that without coming off as stuffy or overly remote. But then, it strikes me as sad that using long words even carries connotations of stuffiness and remoteness. When did speaking beautifully become scorned? When did people start to regard those with an excellent command of the vernacular with suspicion, as distant academics? It’s a bit bothersome. I suppose I shall have to count on being earnest and truthful to countermand the potentially stuffy first impression that my long words may give to my work.

 

At any rate, that’s just how I feel for my own writing. In general, there seems to be two chief stances on this issue: there is the group which believes a writer ought to use plain language, no flowery descriptions, no long words, only things spoken in day-to-day life; and then there is the group which strives for artistic writing, detailed stuff, words so beautiful they almost overshadow the meaning of the text as a whole. It strikes me that both groups are wrong, and it would be better to return to an older standard of looking at things, wherein both the plain meaning of the text and its artistic beauty were emphasized equally.

 

Because, you know, anti-modernism and all that.

 

Which writing style do you tend to prefer in your works, if you write…?

 

~ Jared

Style

Watching my writing style change over the years has been interesting. It’s sort of like growing up, because you just don’t notice it much until you look back over what you used to write and compare it to what you’re writing now. For a long time I felt like my style was immature and nearly non-existent, which it was. But it’s growing! Lately I’ve noticed it coming much more into its own. I’m not going to waste your time with goofy age metaphors, but suffice to say that it of course still has a very long way to go and I don’t feel that it’s grown-up yet.

Anyway, it’s just something I’ve been noticing… my style used to be fairly informal, but dark and melodramatic. It’s switched around to be generally more formal (and perhaps vaguely British, blame J.K. Rowling for that…), a little bit whimsical, and overall kind of “soft.” By soft I mean that it is not “gritty” or “hard-edged” even though it sometimes goes into dark things. My style has reached a point where characters rarely die and tragic emotions, while still there, are not waved on flags for everyone to see. It’s hard to describe, but I suppose my style has become more fairy tale like.

Of course now I’m writing something that shifts back into my older style a little. More dramatic (although that’s mostly because I’m trying to write it in a more poetical style) and darker, with little whimsy or obvious magic. I’m not sure it’s going very well, and honestly I wish my style hadn’t shifted to become so formal. It’s harder to write, although I’ve been told I’m pretty good at it.

Anyway, it’s interesting how my style has changed as I’ve grown older and more mature… interesting also to see how the styles of my friends have changed as they’ve done the same… how has your style changed?