Friday, February 28, 2014

INKBLOTS--Amazingly stimulating critique and discussion

How to write like a big shot

INKBLOTS—Amitage red and Red Rock for our libation tonight and six gents sitting down to fellowship, discuss literature, read what we’re working on, and do a good bit of laughing for good measure.

As I listen to the perspective and perceptions of my fellow Inkblots I am reminded again of just how important a writing group like this is. I can’t fully describe what I’m hearing and the benefit to my own writing. Moments like this make me wonder how I’ve ever managed to write anything worth reading without these gentlemen—and friends. Sounds a bit sappy maybe, but I’m telling you what is really going on in this room right now...

David (who has been working swing shift for a year and has just rejoined us—welcome back) reads the first chapter of another speculative fiction novel he is working on. The protagonist is trying to work up his nerve to propose to his girlfriend, but is so stressed he is almost physically ill. The protagonist is an assassin. The irony of a man being a trained killer for his day job but who is about to throw up with anxiety about proposing… or did I miss something? She figures out that he’s going to propose to her. The plethora of names when they meet Steven the assassin stalking them is confusing to me. Maybe clarified by larger context. Who are we supposed to care about in this conflict, Steven? But we were inside Bruce’s and Alexis’s head and then they were gone, one killed and the other hauled off in the car. Patrick thought that D used the phrase ‘Big Boy’ too much, and the switching of point of view is confusing. Does D give away what the assassin is doing following the couple by switching perspectives? Alan suggested that the tension could be increased by having the couple get to their favorite high cliff vista and then the struggle comes on the brink of the cliff, more threat, more potential danger, increase the tension. Patrick reminded us of Alfred Hitchcock’s method in one of his old films where it opens with a dude rigging a bomb in the trunk of a car and then it cuts to the young couple driving the car for quite awhile, the viewer going nuts with suspense. Dramatic irony creates this. The reader knowing more than the characters. Increase tension by including other hikers on the trail, the threat of discovery heightened.

Alan is shelving his Irish epic poem and his early church novel—we all protested! These were fascinating. But Alan said the research was too extensive and his time prolonged it so that it was too difficult to write the story while working, being a dentist, day job intrudes again. Alan is using a typewriter, yes, you heard me, a typewriter; you know, the mechanical thing you see in museums. His argument is that he finds the physical process of composing on the computer is so limitless, he finds himself on all kinds of possible rabbit trails that he would not have followed if he was on a typewriting, so he is. This is Cascadia, about David Douglas the botanist who named the Douglas fir and the Cascade Mountains, for all the cascading waterfalls. This is charming regional material, over-looming mountain, Tahoma dominating all the coastal cities, Seattle, etc. Alan is reading from a piece of what is called paper, you know, flat white pulpy stuff harvested from trees, often with lines and little black squiggles, paper and real typed letters from a typewriter. This is not a chapter one, but a preface, setting the stage for the yarn to follow. Alpine setting ... Is this sort of a Pacific Northwest Wind in the Willows, animals with human characteristics? This is a journey tale. Alan is going to use Chinook Jargon but esque so that it can be understood by the English reader. I suggest taking the fantastic description of the preface but integrating into the point of view of a bard ... who is receiving the effects of the environment around them and telling back-story and history to young... listeners. Alan suggest having his raven be the omniscient vantage point for them, he flies, and can give them perspective these little creatures cannot have.

Patrick says he needs to rewrite everything he’s ever written (that’s what I call humility; maybe we would all be better off if we felt like this more often, then again, I would probably never get anything written if I didn’t delude myself into thinking it’s great stuff, ugh). We move from Adam and St-eve. This is a different tack. Non-fiction, The Little Book of Legalism (I suggested, the Idiot’s Guide to Legalism, which doesn’t quite work, because it suggests that getting our minds, wills, and motivations around this intriguing thing called legalism is actually difficult, which it isn’t, if history teaches us anything about the church in every age—my thoughts). Gospel centered story—Christ’s mercy, atoning sacrifice and imputed righteousness--is the only solution, but we revert to legalisms every time. It’s way easier. Patrick nails it. Legalism is not ambitious obedience, but is actually a form of rebellion, perhaps the most ubiquitous form. Legalism is bad enough, but the fight against legalism itself can easily become navel gazing, yet another side door into… legalism. Legalism is self-righteousness, a vice that presents itself as a virtue—a great line, step aside Tim Keller! Legalism is the darkest and deadliest sin, the worst and most sinister of sins. It inoculates the heart against all the cures, true repentance… Patrick, you are on to something here, big time. Something very important. Keep writing. Use your voice to expose this “devil with a smiling cheek” (The Bard).

We moved, naturally, into a discussion of legalism, how earnest Christians who really care about life lived God’s way, a Christian world view, a morally upright culture, about raising our children to live God’s way, a political system reflective of God’s will and way, are in great peril of skirting around grace and the gospel and setting up lists of dos and don’ts for all practical purposes, what our children see—and revolt against. The pendulum can swing to the next generation thinking they can do anything and presume on “grace” to cover it all.

Dougie Mac reads his Vietnam War yarn. If there’s no other benefit to any of us in INKBLOTS it’s the fascinating range of compounded historical research represented and shared in this sitting room right at this moment. Can you show us the detail of his wave at the bus driver more carefully? I missed the nuance that I could feel was almost there but not quite (for me). When he sees the turkey across the road and has a moment of thinking about the war and what might happen to him, could you have him reflect on this slightly more, not too much, but I feel like you might have missed an opportunity there. Your dialogue has become so fluid, I can hear it and feel it. Seriously, D Mac, I am so drawn into this dialogue, colloquial to a fault. Golf not violent enough. Football’s the thing. You do a good job of exposing the transition from the activities of high school, band playing the sousaphone, and war around the corner, M16 in hand, Viet Cong and AK-47s in the jungle on every side. I don’t listen to it don’t mean I don’t listen to it.  Alan felt like when D Mac started bringing God into the dialogue he blew the candle out, lost the authenticity; it stood out as if it was obligatory to include it but was not fitting with the characters as he had developed them. Patrick feels like he missed an opportunity by not including a girl interest, either his buddies accuse him of liking a girl or he admits to going hippie to hook up with a certain girl.

As I listen to the perspective and perceptions of my fellow Inkblots I am reminded again of just how important a writing group like this is. I can’t really fully describe what I’m hearing and the benefit to my own writing. Moments like this make me wonder how I’ve ever managed to write anything worth reading without these gentlemen—and friends. Sounds a bit sappy maybe, but I’m telling you what is really going on in this room right now.

John reads where he left off on a really critical episode in his Russian tale. There is a girl in immediate peril from lecherous soldiers, and just as we are certain she is going to violated, their captain intrudes and defends the woman and stops his men, ordering them to feed her and treat her with respect, not as an animal, or as if they were animals. Is Missy what they would call her? What does cheap vodka smell like? I don’t drink vodka so I’m asking a real question, though it may not be a big deal at all. Her thanking them seemed out of place; I wonder if she would not be still so terrified of these soldiers, now drunk, that she would be speechless. Her breath like a man under a heavy burden does not work so well, I think. Similes need more disconnect to work; try a cornered animal on the hunt, you fill in the type of animal. This is a good escape moment, but I think it needs an increment where the reader wonders if she will get away. First person but you move to third person narration. I’m not sure that works, it breaks the authenticity. How could they be more Russian, what they eat, could it be more Russian, and other cultural connections, singing, drinking songs that are Russian, and dancing a unique Russian way. These soldiers are too generic. Don’t miss the opportunity of creating genuine ethnic distinctions and don’t miss making these men as different from each other, unique characters, maybe one is reluctant to chase the girl and brings up their wives at home, their daughters. The other poo-poos and could care less about his wife or this girl; all he cares about is his urges, while his comrade has some degree of conscience. We learn that his wife is dead, but he has three daughters, one about the age of the girl prisoner. Make it real—desire and restraint, wanting but what about the eye of God.  

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