Tropes are something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, they provide convenient story devices to incite interest or draw people into stories or which can even help to elicit a mood of idea and thus set a scene. On the other hand, they can devolve into dull, meaningless clichés which can shove a viewer out of the story. This brief rant will be about the latter. I considered not numbering this post because (1) it is not the start of a series— though it could easily become a regular post—and (2) I’ll likely lose count of such rants and will have to search old posts to find the next tick. Oh well, the number itself plants an idea in your mind, kind reader, which is really my intent.
The trope I have alluded to in the title is not one of those that approaches the realm of subgenre (e.g. advanced AI seeks to subjugate humanity or jaded couple rediscovers their love for one another) but rather is one of those smaller in-story devices that span all genres. It is over-used, predictable, and end the end, nonsensical.
Scene set: The Go-Back-to-Bed,-Honey:
A parent or temporary child guardian is in the middle something they wish to keep from their young ward(s). This could be putting together a Christmas present or speaking of an illicit affair or, as was the case with the impetus for this post, listening to incriminating tapes that might reveal one’s double life as a Russian spy. (It was the finale of The Americans and it’s far more compelling than I’ve made it seem).
The scene takes place in the dead of night as the character sneaks about downstairs or in the front room. Suddenly, they hear behind them either the patter of a child’s feet or, more startlingly, a voice. They move quickly to conceal their actions and put on a disinterested face.
“What are you going up?” “I couldn’t sleep.” ~Brief exchange concerning guardian’s actions serving to heighten tension and present concern of child’s suspicion. “Go back to bed, honey.” Child shuffles off.
WHY? Let’s forgive for a moment that a scene of this kind plagues virtually every tv show at some point as well as far too many movies and books. Let us pretend that we haven’t seen this series unfold umpteen-bajillion times. We can even pretend that the scene still works, effectively heightening the stress of an already tense moment and causing us to worry about our character’s immediate danger of revealment. Even if we forgive or suspend all of that disbelief, the scene still makes zero damn sense.
If they are to be believed, this child has come to you in the middle of the night not because they heard a noise and came in search of mystery but rather because they could not sleep. There is no resolution in the parent responding that they should go back to bed.
“Oh, right, of course [mom/dad/auntie mae]. I hadn’t considered that. I’ll do that straight away.”
This is sloppy, lazy, terrible writing. The person has tried to find a way to make a scene tense and has (1) chosen a cliche and (2) failed to even resolve the child’s problem.
Dear writers of fictitious guardian seeking to hide something from a child, please stop doing this forever. If you must use this trope, try to do what so few attempt and have the guardian be just a touch less shitty and have them address the child’s insomnia. Not only will it stop shoving us out of the story, it’ll make the whole scene do what it was meant to in the first place. A child in the room for two seconds isn’t tense but trying to comfort said child while covering something up sure is.
A wing-back chair and a side table would make this a perfect book-nook.
Three days ago, did a short writing exercise which I cobbled together from a list of sf story ideas and my own fancy. This was the original “idea”:
1,000 human beings are selected to board a spaceship headed for the stars. The trip is so long that they will die in space, but their descendants will reach a new planet.
to which I added:
Generational Space Travel; one child’s third person perspective as an outcast (500 w)
I wanted to write a child—it turned out to be a she—in the midst of torment coming from her peers. I was reasonably excited with the result that I shared it with my lady. She suggested I keep going with it, so I added to it a general purpose (read: non-genre) writing exercise. Abbreviated, that exercise went:
Synesthesia, according to M.H. Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms, is a description of “one kind of sensation in terms of another; color is attributed to sounds, odor to colors, sound to odors, and so on.” Writers consciously and unconsciously employ this peculiar method to convey the irreducible complexity of life onto the page. Use synesthesia in a short scene—surreptitiously, without drawing too much attention to it—to convey to your reader an important understanding of some ineffable sensory experience. Use “sight, sound, touch, taste, and, especially, smell.” 600 words.
This kind of writing, while not too difficult, does not come naturally to me. It takes a concerted effort for me to attempt at the kind of language which it is said came naturally to Nabokov. However, I liked Eilick (the little girl) and the first hints at her world, so it seemed worth it to try. The result was a lot of fun to write and I’m pretty proud of it. Without further introduction, here is the latter part of what I may continue to fashion into a story.
In a nook recessed far back into the corner of her family’s quarters, Eilick tries to follow her father’s advice about how to shirk off the day. With her legs folded beneath, she faces a small porthole, her eyes lightly closed. She breaths rhythmically, carefully, evenly and tries to—but no, she shouldn’t try—let go of the boys pushing past her on the walkway. This time, she doesn’t notice Jial’s glance. She turns just before the bag strap would have hit her and remains blissfully unaware. She slips out of Jallon’s now playful grasp with ease and he never instigates the others to conjure undirected meanness and spite.
She breathes slower still, heart rate falling with each exhalation.
After she slips out from under all of this weight, she remains still. She imagines nothing at all. The room’s soft corners smells of home but also confinement. The piped in, hundreds of times recycled air is grey turning warmed orange as it ceases to be duct air and becomes the atmosphere of home. She feels through her knees a simple cacophony of Aniars’ movement in vacuum and the neurons of its combined nervous and circulatory systems. The agents of what makes Aniars the living world make meals, smelling like beautiful, long held notes to the hardest worked and toneless chatter to the hardened cynics. They tend flaxen-voiced and siren-throated children alike. They sweep and they experiment and they maintain and they monitor and their collected vibrations make the grey walls blue with sadness, or maybe contentment.
Now swimming in the stilled air, orange as nothing natural Eilick can remember having ever seen, she slides her hands up her thighs slightly and opens her eyes to the porthole. She drinks in flat black stippled with white points and scattered with small reds, yellows, a blue. With eyes adjusted to the blackness behind her thin skin, she feels the lightest brush stroke of taupe behind a particularly dense collection of stars. Mr. Rynnick says this won’t be visible much longer. Eilick follows the streak until it terminates at brushed, riveted steel and she purposefully moves her gaze back to the middle.
The stars sing, their music warm and silken. Despite her day and Jallon and Jial and the collected ensemble of incomprehensible cruelty of her classmates, she smiles. When a single tear beads at her eye, she is happy for it. She blinks slowly, releasing the sentiment to her cheek, and bows her head.
Now back in her own mind, she thanks her father. The day still happened, but now it carries no weight at all. Looking back out the porthole, she reads the history of the Milles in the stars. It is written in pictograms and glyphs and letters and it leads to Aniars today and will one day culminate in a place left deliberately blank in every Mille’s mind.
Have there ever been exactly one thousand of us? she thinks. Not for as long as she can remember. Surely at some point in her years they must have fluctuated back to their launch number, at least for a day, or an hour, or a minute, before another death or birth broke the round number jagged again.
What do the others call themselves? They could think of themselves as Milles too. Or Oliefa or Shen. She knows they wouldn’t need to stick to this format. They could name themselves anything they liked, but she liked to think the Milles were just this similar to their brothers and sisters.
At the portal to their quarters, Eilick hears a rustling and rubs the trail left by her tear from her cheek. She leaps to the door, smiling. “Daddy!”
Toothpaste For Dinner comic: i love it when you talk words
A direct quote from The Times newspaper, talking about a Peter Ustinov documentary and saying that:
“highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector”.
See, AP? That!
For personal reasons I’d prefer to keep to myself, the last month or so has been tough for me. I don’t think anyone besides my girlfriend and couple of my very closest friends realized, and for that I am happy. I am a very open person but I prefer not to bog other down with my problems unless they are (1) directly involved or (2) able to be of some help. I don’t want to give the impression that things have been going poorly overall. That is not at all the case. Though my work is not terribly stimulating, it has lots of advantages, I work with some great people, and it leaves me time to write regularly, which has been making me very happy. I’m still reading voraciously, though I haven’t found time to watch many movies lately, which is always a shame. My friends are great as ever as is my health. I have plenty of things for which to feel fortunate, but alas, there are difficulties which require work.
Enough of that. I’d like to focus briefly on something that has been making me feel good. With a few exceptions (the aforementioned girlfriend and a couple of friends), I haven’t told many people that I have started writing fiction against. That is to say, I haven’t told many people in person. Mostly I’ve stuck to this blog. I did tell my mother because I knew she’d like to hear it, but other than that I didn’t want to be the guy who tells everyone he’s a writer, or that he’s working on this story, see, etc, etc, etc. Sure enough, once I have more finished products to show around, I’ll start promoting, but not before.
The information has still gotten around a bit. A few more friends heard by word of mouth and have been asking me about my progress and, the other night while catching up on the phone, my uncle told me how thrilled—his word, not mine—he was that I had started writing again. He never saw any of the stuff I wrote during my undergraduate years, but that wasn’t going to keep him from being excited. I may have mentioned this uncle in the past. We are brothers on nothing more than the lineage level. In every other way, we are brothers. His daughters call me uncle, which still almost makes me teary, and we somehow look up to one another while acting as the dual backbones of our troublesome extended families. Hearing him express his excitement filled me with great pride and humility and I was more than a little touched.
To all of my not only supportive but also agog friends and family, let me say thank you. I have always found strength in your faith but I would never have expected it to grow so much with time.
On that note, I would like to give a name to the germ of a series I started think about last week, the very same (series of) world(s) that I spent a couple of hours beginning to build last night. That name is the Suzerain, and I would refer you Merriam-Webster’s second definition.
(via A Softer World: 959)
For the past week, I’ve diverted from freely writing fiction of my own choosing in favor of writing exercises. I am far more frightened of the weaknesses of mine as a writer that I do not yet know of than those of which I am aware. One can’t very well look out for something they don’t know exists. Well, one could, but it’s a damn sight more difficult.
Towards this end, I did a very brief web search last Tuesday for writing exercises of some repute and these (HEY, THERE’S A LINK HERE YOU PROBABLY DON’T SEE BECAUSE OF MY STRANGE THEME) have been my focus since. They’ve been more fun to work on than I initially expected, with a few exceptions, which is quite welcome, of course. I thought I would be wrestling in treacle but instead I’ve spent about the same amount of time writing daily. So far, I’ve done the following exercises (abbreviated from the original exercise for simplicity):
This is more of less the order in which I did the exercises and I’m pretty happy with the output from each of them. The deja vu scene is based on a personal traumatic event which I fictionalized. In the Reluctant ‘I’, I tried to avoid writing from the first person POV of someone too shy to speak up. In Home, I attempted to write from the perspective of an alternate version of my own mother. Different house, different kinds, same demons. In Teacher, I tried to make myself a father. Sorta. Finally, in Outrunning the Critic, I tried not to slam my head on the desk.
The last of these five exercises was the most difficult for a couple of reasons. First, it in no way scratched the writing itch. I did not enjoy the process even though I saw the benefit. I was working with the lead male from the story I finished last week and I came to realize I wasn’t terrible fond of him as I flushed out tiny details about his background. He isn’t an unlikable guy, but not really my flavor either. Second, and this one is more telling, it was really hard. As full flushed as he was in my mind while I was working on the story, I struggled to write 100 interesting sentences about the guy. This is of course the exact reason why I ought to have done the exercise because it pointed a light on a weakness, but it was also a bit disheartening.
Until this morning, that is. After a good night’s sleep, I realized a good part of the reason it was hard to write wasn’t to do with my inability to fully realize the man. More so, it was because I was doing the exact opposite of what I prefer to read (and write). I don’t want a list of the details of Jeremiah (his name, I’m tired of the gendered pronoun). I want to watch Jeremiah unfold. I want vagaries about him. In the end, I should be able to write out 500 sentences about what makes him him, but it won’t be much fun.
Now, this evening, I will sit down to write a hopefully more fulfilling exercise. In the next few days, I may read back over a handful of these exercises and post a few. I’d like to do them for at least a bit longer before I start flushing out that germ from last week. I’m not quite sure how I’m going to break that process into chunks. Any suggestions?
Last night, I finished the first draft of my first ever sf short story (turned into a novelette). It is the first piece of fiction I’ve put to paper in four and a half years.
While I’m not ecstatic about how things ended up, I’m really glad to have finished the story, especially given that I had no idea where it was going when I started it. I know I would like the piece a lot more after a thorough edit, but I’m not sure that I really want to do that right now. First of all, I would prefer to keep up the momentum of my writing by starting on another piece, and second, the novelette is not really a form I’m very interested in pursuing right now. I’d much prefer to start outlining the (series of) novel(s) I alluded to last week.
Anyways, I don’t plan to do anything with it. At least not yet. That could certainly change if I some on some realizations about just what it needs.
The story—which is about corporate malfeasance, unethical human testing, and BCIs (brain-computer interfaces)—comes in right now at 13,381 words (this puts it just 1620 words shy of a novella, according to the Nebula guidelines) written over 4 weeks for an average of ~478 words per day (~228 more than my daily minimum). It is a very pessimistic story, which is probably one of the reasons I don’t particularly want to edit it. I love dystopias, which you probably know by now, but I much prefer cautious optimism or ambiguity to outright despair. There is nothing ambiguous in the ending I wrote and the wife of the protagonist ends the story weeping. I don’t really want to flounder trying to leave the couple with some sliver of hope, especially when this little experiment of mine has been going quite well.
I now have to face the next step and I’m not at all sure what that will be. If it’s outlining, I’ll set new daily goals that reflect the difference between planning and writing proper. Or I might look around online for writing exercises to sharpen my skills. I maybe I’ll do a bit of research and try one of those half ideas in the buffer.
As always, more to come.