Weird Phrases That Work

Heyooooo! It’s Writing Wednesday!

I’ve just finished reading a book on the history of the horror genre (in literature) which made me want to read some more horror fiction right away, so I’ve started on the Penguin Classics edition of two of Thomas Ligotti’s short story collections combined: Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe.

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Awesome cover, right?

There’s one story called “Alice’s Last Adventure” about an elderly, ex-children’s author named Alice who starts experiencing “curiouser and curiouser” things. She has a tradition of reading to the local children from one of her famous books at the town library every year. Just before recounting the events of her latest reading, she says “Children have made me nervous ever since I stopped being one of them. Perhaps this is why I never had any of my own — adopted any, that is — for the doctors told me long ago that I’m about as fertile as the seas of the moon.” I had to go back and read it again. The phrase “as fertile as the seas of the moon” caught me completely off guard and I cracked up. It got me thinking about other odd turns of phrase that have stunned me while reading due to being gorgeous, profound, hilarious, eerie, or a combination of those things. Whenever I come across one of these gems, I turn my brain inside out trying to come up with something equally weird-but-perfect. Then I fail. THEN, I mess my brain up again trying to figure out how these writers even came up with something like that in the first place.

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One phrase that I constantly go back to is “trampled calmly” from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This phrase is used to describe what Richard Enfield (kin to our reader-proxy, Mr. Utterson) sees on his way home one morning at 3AM. Enfield witnesses a man (whom we come to learn is Mr. Hyde) encounter a young girl in the street. Enfield says the man “trampled calmly over the child’s body and left her screaming on the ground.” For me, the word “trample” evokes images of animal stampedes and crazed people at Walmart on Black Friday. It’s a word I never associate with calm. The first time I read those words, I thought, “you can’t be calm and trample someone… can you?” But what we’re meant to take from the word trample isn’t the frantic aspect often associated with the word, but the brutality of the action. That, combined with the fact that it was done “calmly” — in other words, deliberately and without remorse — is meant to illustrate how evil this dude is.

Another beauty that blew me away when I first read it can be found in the story “The Outing” by James Baldwin in his magnificent collection Going to Meet the Man. (If you haven’t read this collection, do it IMMEDIATELY. Especially the title story.) The outing is a religious one on a boat full of church members. It’s part recreational, part spiritual, as they hold a service on the boat. The moment of beauty comes during the service.

And the Holy Ghost touched him and he cried again, bending nearly double, while his feet beat ageless, dreadful signals on the floor, while his arms moved in the air like wings and his face, distorted, no longer his own face nor the face of a young man, but timeless, anguished, grim with ecstasy, turned blindly towards heaven. Yes, Lord, they cried, yes!

Did you spot the golden phrase? If you answered “grim with ecstasy,” congratulations! You’ve won nothing, but thanks for playing.

“Grim” and “ecstasy” are another pair of words you probably wouldn’t put next to one another if given the choice. But in this context, it totally works! The phrase is almost Gothic, especially within the larger framework of the scene. The service taking place in the story is, I believe, a Pentecostal service. There tends to be a lot of energy and emotions flowing openly at these services. People holler, they cry, sometimes they writhe and their bodies contort because they’ve apparently become a vessel for the Holy Spirit. James Baldwin was the step-son of a Pentecostal preacher and therefore grew up attending such services (and even leading them during his brief period of conversion to the faith). Thus, he was able to recreate it, infusing it with that unique mixture of awe and peculiarity which familiarity and distance provide.

Why do “grim” and “ecstasy” work so well together here? The members of the church in this story are fervent believers. In the above passage, the Holy Ghost, the spirit of God Himself, touches one of them. This is a moment where I imagine emotions run so high, they become almost unbearable. In this case, we’re shown a euphoria so extreme, it’s almost painful. The word preceding¬† “grim with ecstasy” is “anguished”. Can you imagine that? Baldwin may have based that combination of words on memories of past church members, or he may simply have used them because of how striking they are together. Either way, I love it.

What’s the most surprising set of words you’ve ever read?

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Happy Wednesday!

Pantsers & Plotters

Hey hey hey — it’s Writing Wednesday!

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Apparently there are two big categories of writers: “pantsers” and “plotters” (or “planners”). Until this year, I’d never heard those terms before, so I’ve been living in one category my whole life without realizing it. I… am a “pantser.”

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“Pantsers” are writers who “fly by the seat of their pants” or write without using an outline. I’ve never outlined something before writing it. If a teacher assigned me an essay and an outline, I’d write the essay, then tailor the outline to fit what I wrote.

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I begin with characters. Once I’ve gotten to know them, I think about what situation I’d most like to see them react to. Then I sit down and watch it unfold. This isn’t to say that I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen over the course of the story. Wherever there are categories, there are people who don’t fit into them without gray-area caveats. I tend to have big scenes planned out in my head, and sometimes an ending that I’m working toward. But I like to be surprised by how we get from one scene to the next. When you and the characters both have your hands on the steering wheel, there’s room for them to react in ways you didn’t expect. If what happens in the story catches you off guard organically, there’s a good chance your readers will be surprised, too.

But just because every single piece isn’t planned out doesn’t mean you aren’t in control of the story. I nudge the flow of the narrative in the direction I ultimately want it to go, but I don’t force anything. Generally, you can tell when an author’s stuck their hand in and shoved characters into place inside a shoehorned event because what’s happening doesn’t make sense when you think about what you’ve come to know about each character. However, you also run the risk as a “pantser” of losing control of the story, which means you might end up with a totally different story than the one you intended to tell. In a bad way. (Stories that veer off and become completely different stories is actually one of the reading pet peeves I mentioned in an earlier post.) How do you avoid losing control? By staying connected to what you’re writing. There are several ways to do this: making notes, listening to music that puts you in mind of your story’s mood, thinking about how characters would react to things that are happening to you, etc. I stay connected by working through the next bit of the story in my head — specifically, how to begin the next section, which usually sets me on course right away.

Outlining makes me feel constrained. While I know logically that I can always change an outline, I’d probably end up changing it so many times that it wouldn’t even make sense to have one. I think a bit of pantsing and a bit of planning over the course of either type of writer’s process can be helpful but, in the end, you have to work in the way that’s best for you.

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Are you a “pantser” or a “planner”?

 

How to be more responsible with money, even though you kind of suck at it.

Hi, y’all.

So… summer is drawing to a close.

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Um, I mean…

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Anyway, summer is typically a season when people go on holiday, do all the things, and spend more money because sustained sunlight (especially in a place where the sun is like an estranged relative)

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makes people so happy that they begin to feel like the glass is half-full ALL the time. “Money is for spending! Let’s do all the things, ALL THE THINGGGSSS!!!”

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There are also those people who aren’t super into summer (because hayfever, and bugs, and it’s too hot out, and bleeaarrrghhh), but who spend too much sometimes anyway because they are emotional shoppers, and spending money makes them feel better in the moment.

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If the intro wasn’t a big enough hint, I fall into the latter category. When I’m bummed, I buy books (yes, with an “s”), fancy food, and expensive tickets to luxury cinemas (b/c once you’ve been in a comfy armchair with an ottoman, eating good food, drinking booze, and covered with a cashmere blanket in a cinema, it’s just disappointing experiencing a movie any other way) among other things. However, there is hope even if you are like me. There are small ways a-plenty that you can save money every day!

Cook!

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You don’t have to eat out all the time. You don’t even have to eat out half the time. I usually do, because my stove is basically a set of 4 hot plates. And I can never be precise when heating ANYTHING b/c all the numbers were rubbed off long before I got here. That aside, groceries are generally cheaper and better for you than restaurant food. Save a few bucks by cooking something simple and delicious at home. That is… if you can.

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Home theatre!

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Invite some friends over, snuggle up with your fuzzy roommates, or just have some “Me” time in front of your laptop with a movie. If you’ve been to the cinema in the last five years, you’ve noticed how spensive it’s gotten. It costs me more than the price of two paperback books to see a film at my favorite cinema. Isn’t that crazy?! Do y’all remember dollar theatres? Or the regular theatres that didn’t ask for the deed to your house as payment to see a movie you already knew you were gonna wish you’d never seen anyway?

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Well you can relive those glory days by using Netflix or Hulu, renting from iTunes, or for next level money-saving, just watch a movie you already own. Keep that ¬£18 tucked safely away. When the day comes that you don’t have quite enough to cover your phone bill, you can whip out that money from the secret money hole behind that painting on your wall and pat yourself on the back for thinking ahead.

Study up!

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Wait! Before you submit all fifty of those credit card applications, look at them closely, side by side, and figure out which one is actually right for you. Maybe there are a few contenders that look good, but only two out of five will accept your application either because you’re a student with next to no credit history, or because your credit is horrendous.

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Whatever the case, there are places you can go. Internet places. Like Credit Card Insider, which has credit card reviews, and a page full of information on everything from what makes up your credit score alllllllll the way back to how credit cards even work. There are also old favorites like Credit Karma, which offers free credit scores. What I’m getting at here is that there are resources available to help you stay on top of things. Give ’em a try.

Make a budget!

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I know, I know — you like to live on the edge.

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But it really doesn’t hurt to be prepared. In fact, it can only help to know how much you’re spending every month on certain things. Rent, utilities, and holiday transportation are all examples of things you know the cost of before you spend the money. Food, clothing, and fun activities can be tricky, since you never know when you’re going to happen upon that can’t-miss sale or be invited out to a new restaurant by a friend. But for those unknowns, you can designate monthly allowances for “incidentals” and “entertainment,” etc. The more you’re able to plan ahead, the slimmer the chance you’ll have to sell everything you own to make rent next month.

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Some things just…shouldn’t be sold.

Hope this was helpful to at least one other rain-maker out there, and that you’re eventually able to swim in all the money you save.

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There’ll be a new Writing Wednesday post up this week. Until then, happy Monday, y’all!

 

Darkness, Villainy, and Zeitgeist

Hey there, y’all. It’s — you guessed it — Writing Wednesday!

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Today’s WW is actually inspired by my recent trip to the cinema to see Suicide Squad, but this isn’t a movie review (if you’d like to read one here, let me know). I just wanted to bring up one aspect of the film that made me think. **Though this isn’t a review, there may be some things in here that you’d consider spoilery, so feel free to split if you’d rather avoid that.** The trailers leading up to the release of Suicide Squad painted the picture of a dark, violent, irreverent film full of bad people who love doing bad things, or who’ve never even considered the concept of bad vs good as it applies to them (as is generally the case with the most impactful villains). These villains are not like that. Maybe the only one of the gang who gets close is Harley Quinn, but even she succumbs to the cheesiness eventually.

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In the trailer, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) says she wants to create a task force using the “most dangerous people on the planet,” the “worst of the worst”– “bad people” who “could do some good.” The thing is, these so-called “worst of the worst”… aren’t. The Suicide Squad is made up of 2nd and 3rd tier villains. In fact, Amanda Waller turns out to be worse than any of them and she’s considered a “good” guy (at least in the political sense). Villains that might actually fall under the “worst of the worst” heading — like, say, the Joker — 1) don’t allow themselves to be caught by government entities, and 2) are far too selfish and volatile to be part of a task force or group of any kind. The worst of the worst have absolutely nothing to lose, therefore the threat of death means nothing to them. People with nothing to lose can’t be controlled.

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You need someone you can lord something over. And these people, most of them, have things — people — they care about, which causes them to stay in line (for the most part). Harley has the Joker; Deadshot has his daughter; El Diablo, arguably the most powerful member of the group, had someones, but doesn’t anymore, which is why he has to be forced into action as a member of the Squad. They all want their freedom, which hasn’t exactly been promised by Waller, but their cooperation ensures that they get to live. There’s also the possibility of having time shaved off their prison sentences.

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By the film’s climax, the squad has formed a bond (one you might argue wasn’t exactly earned, but eh…) and actually act in the best interests of one another, with one character calling the rest their friends before striking the finishing blow against the movie’s ultra-villain. Which leads me to my point. These villains act more like heroes than any villains I’ve ever seen, and I wondered if the movie I thought I was going to see based on the trailer became the movie I ended up seeing because of the current social/political climate. Terror groups are a major concern; weird politicians who talk out of their asses and promote division within the nations they represent are enjoying a heyday (not exactly new, but the degree of extremity is nonetheless frightening); the people meant to protect citizens are allowing their unfounded fears to overtake logic again and again, leading to unnecessary violence and death; anger, discrimination, and confusion have all come to a head — this is the world we live in.

So when we go to the movies to escape our daily lives, watching a group of baddies terrorize a city and enjoy every minute of it regardless of the destruction they cause and the lives they destroy might take viewers to a place they aren’t prepared to go mentally or emotionally. Maybe the filmmakers humanized the Suicide Squad to the point of barftastic cheesiness as a way to provide relief. Like, “Look! You don’t really have to be scared of these people!”

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Superman’s comic book tenure began during wartime, a light in the darkness for the American people meant to inspire hope and optimism. Marvel movies are coming out back to back, with Captain America in particular enjoying a resurgence in popularity. And the movies that we used to see about Batman (and even the Superman movie that came out before Batman v. Superman) were more insular in their concerns. Batman fought against his own enemies, enemies who threatened Gotham, not the world. Superman caused insane amounts of destruction in Metropolis without batting an eyelash because his main deal was stopping Zod no matter the cost. But now, in Batman v. Superman and Captain America: Civil War, we’re seeing concern from heroes about how their actions affect the citizens of the world. I believe this, just like Suicide Squad‘s lack of real darkness in its villains, has at least a little to do with what’s happening now.

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Zeitgeist plays a role in novels, too, and novels are like museums — their length and (typically) distance from the time period they’re reacting to give us the space to examine those periods in history and explore how we feel about them. I’ve been trying to think of a novel I’ve read that was a direct response to what was happening at the time it was written, but I can’t come up with many off the top of my head.

Can you?

Happy Wednesday!

Writing Wednesday: First Novels

Hi there, ho there! Welcome back to Writing Wednesday.

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Yes, that’s how books make me feel.

I’ve been thinking about first novels and how rare it is that an author’s first is the novel people remember or hold up as their best, or even one of their best. Rummaging through my book collection and brain, I made a mental list of the authors of my favorite books and then tried to remember what their first novels were, and…

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Yeah…kinda hard. I just finished reading Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman’s first (solo) novel. Putting that story beside his most recent work is almost like looking at the work of two different authors. Of course Neverwhere has certain elements that you can’t not recognize as Gaimanisms — like his penchant for dry humor, magic, and strangeness — but on the whole it’s quite different from, say, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, or the stories in his collection Trigger Warning in that his confidence and comfort in his role as a teller of stories is powerfully evident now (which makes a lotta sense). In his later works, everything flows. He’s not working as hard anymore to draw you in because it’s unnecessary; you fall in gladly. At least, I do. It’s like slipping into a warm bath. Neverwhere is still a noted work, but not the novel I usually hear referenced when people talk about Gaiman. American Gods, his third novel, is the one I’ve heard people cite most often as their favorite. After that, it’s either Stardust or Coraline. But never Neverwhere.

This is pretty common. An author’s debut intrigues readers enough to make them want more. As their career progresses, their writing gets stronger, they come into their own and start churning out their best work. (Just as an aside, this is one of my favorite things about writing as a career: unlike being a professional athlete or a neurosurgeon, age typically makes you a better writer.)

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However, there are a few anomalous authors whose first novels are frequently brought up as favorites or one of their best. Two examples I (eventually) thought of are Donna Tartt, whose first novel was The Secret History, and Stephen King, whose first novel was Carrie. What’s great about these two in my opinion is that each author exists at the opposite end of the writing spectrum. The first has an established pattern of publishing a novel approximately once a decade (she’s published short stories and non-fiction stuff in between), while the latter is regularly counted among the most prolific authors writing today. The Secret History and Carrie are both beloved by fans of these authors. The film adaptation of Carrie probably had a hand in maintaining people’s love for that story, but it’s far from a forgotten debut left to gather dust on bookshelves.

Some debuts are brilliant, but completely eclipsed by the success of later novels, like Brett Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero (which I wrote a bit about here). This is a novel I would never read again — it was that intense for me — but I would recommend that everyone (who can handle it) read it. Of course American Psycho is what you immediately think of when you hear the name Brett Easton Ellis — the friends I mentioned Less Than Zero to after I read it hadn’t even heard of it — in fact, all of his other books mostly fell through the cracks for me until I made a point of looking them all up and reading a few. Makes me wonder just how many amazing novels I’ve overlooked. Then again, there’s so much out there to read that we can probably all forgive ourselves for missing the memo on some of them.

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What are some of your favorite first novels? What’s the worst you’ve ever read?

Happy Wednesday!