The thing about both gardening and writing is that when doing them, one isn’t doing other things, like blogging.
Sue Vincent invited me to contribute a post to her estimable blog, so I wrote this.
A while ago it occurred to me that when humans become extinct, unless aliens arrive on Earth to dig up and appreciate our music, art and writing, it will become meaningless. The animals that survive our presence on this planet will never read our books, sing our songs or admire our creations, even though vines may festoon our sculptures and birds nest among their twining stems.
Culture, I thought, is unique to us. Then, for some reason, I remembered those weird rabbits.
Near the end of Part I of the late Richard Adams’s wonderful book, Watership Down, the band of homeless rabbits comes across a warren whose inhabitants display peculiar behaviours. They practice complicated etiquette, recite poetry and make things they call Shapes by pushing pebbles into burrow walls. It turns out this warren is managed by a nearby farmer. He protects it from predators and delivers…
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We just had a power outage where I live. It lasted fewer than two hours, but what a feeling of powerlessness! Even though we had emergency candles and working flashlights handy, they can’t replace real electric lights, never mind stuff like the furnace, stove and especially the computer! I couldn’t read blog posts! Or even make a cup of tea. Truly sad.
After washing the dishes by candlelight, I actually got bored, something that hardly ever happens. I went for a walk along our street, noticing the long black shadows cast by the rising just-past-full moon, and a weird white glow thrown by headlights of approaching cars on the main road nearby. Street lights drown out these subtleties.
It also occurred to me that most of the world’s classic literature was penned (literally) in poor light, unless writers then worked mainly in daylight. And those same works were often read by the dim glow of candles or the not much brighter one cast by oil lamps.
I couldn’t imagine writing or even reading under those conditions. For one thing, I’m paranoid about setting something on fire with a candle. Stuff was always burning down in pre-electric times, wasn’t it? So I decided to go to bed, but the power came back on before I got there, and here I am now, feeling thankful that I can write this.
I’m reading a novel in which a character’s eyes flash — a lot.
Human eyes in fiction do other amazing things, such as sparkle, glow, smoulder and dance.
Only they can’t. Think about it. “Flash” is a verb meaning to emit short bursts of light. Eyes can’t emit light, only reflect it. The eyes of some animals contain reflective tissue called tapetum lucidum, which is why they appear to shine in the dark — but only in the presence of light sources such as headlights, flashlights or firelight. They don’t shine in pitch darkness. Short bursts of reflected light may be described as flashes, but human eyes can’t do that either.
It’s also impossible for eyes to sparkle or glow, phenomena in which light is created by the thing doing the sparkling or glowing. Eyes do not have internal combustion, even when a character is enraged or ecstatic.
As for dancing, the only eyes that can literally do that are ones on stalks. “Dancing eyes” is a phrase used to describe a situation where someone is smiling or laughing — actions which flex the facial muscles — and moving their eyes around as well, looking from one person to another in a state of happy animation.
Eyes are such important features, both for experiencing the world and expressing emotion, it’s inevitable that writers pay attention to them. And of course the phrases I’ve mentioned, such as eyes that dance or smoulder, are really metaphors. If writers never used metaphors or similes and always stuck to the literal, writing would lose much of its life and colour.
But as with so many other areas of writing, it’s a matter of degree. One incidence of flashing eyes may be fine, but when characters are flashing at each other like a couple of lighthouses, I’m diverted from the narrative. I start counting incidences of flashing eyes. I start reading the prose, not the story.
Many of these eye-related words and phrases are also cliches, and while cliches can be useful shortcuts, using too many of them is a sign of lazy writing.
Going back to the flashing eyes as an example — what is it that I’m trying to show when I use this phrase? Obviously not bursts of light coming from someone’s eyes (unless the character is a robot or someone with supernatural light-emitting powers). If I stop and visualize what my character is doing, I see them sending a quick glance toward another person, often with a facial expression that conveys anger or annoyance. How else can I express this? How about: “A glance like a thrown knife,” or “He darted me a narrow-eyed glance,” or “A look that made me wish for a catcher’s mask and mitt.”
Whatever I choose — simile, metaphor or simple description — I aim for a frictionless reading experience. Word combinations that are too clever are just as distracting as overused cliches. I have to remind myself I’m not trying to score points for originality or cleverness, just keep the reader engaged with the story I’m telling. If I get it right, the reader will subconsciously register my colourful prose without losing the narrative thread. After they finish the book, they’ll say, “That was a great read!” without realizing precisely why. And that will make my eyes light up and dance.
In one of my books of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, (The Tomb and Other Tales, Ballantine edition, 1970) there is a chronological list of HPL’s works, with check marks by the ones I had read. Notably unmarked is “Herbert West, Reanimator,” written in 1921-1922. It was published in a magazine called Home Brew as a series of six horror stories. In his biography of HPL, L. Sprague De Camp refers to them as “perhaps the most forgettable ” of all Lovecraft’s stories. Despite this dismissal, I was delighted finally to run across them in 1998.
While it’s true that Herbert West exemplifies some of HPL’s faults as a writer, notably overuse of adjectives such as “hideous” and a coarseness of plotting, I found the story intriguing. It struck me as an outline for something bigger. The two main characters, Herbert West and the nameless narrator, begged (in my mind at least) to be fleshed out.
Why would anyone want to reanimate corpses? Why would anyone remain a close friend of someone who was always looking for really fresh corpses to reanimate, even to the point of creating them by means of murder?
This is the question about any “mad scientist.” Is he evil or merely mad? Is his friend stupid and credulous or simply loyal?
In the fall of 2000, two years after I read Lovecraft’s story, I began to answer these questions about Herbert West. I ended up several years later with a hefty trilogy. of which I am about to publish the first book, The Friendship of Mortals, as an ebook. By the time I post here again, it should be available on Smashwords.com, technology permitting.