How to Write the Great American Novel:
First: A Summary of Initial Steps
1.First, you should read the dictionary, cover to cover. Build that vocabulary. Without it, you are hamstrung.
2. Live a full life; that way you have something to write about. If you feel you have nothing to write about, write about having nothing to write about. If you feel stupid and talent-less, write about it sincerely.
3. Learn to be brutally honest. Self-deception is boring.
4- Write really short pieces-first no more than a page. It teaches you editing, conciseness, and is great discipline.
5- Write only if you can't stop writing. It must be a need and you must be driven.
6- Learn a discipline or a subject matter, and master it. And then move on to the next subject.
7-Listen to book radio to get a sense of how others write.
Listen to the words, syntax, and choice of words. There will be a quiz.
8- Write things with a beginning, middle and an end.
9- Don't listen to other's telling you that you will fail; ever.
10- Learn to evaluate your own writing. Hint: If it doesn't make your hair stand up then it won't make anyone else's either.
"How To Write The Great American Novel" Chapter Two
1- Above I noted the importance of reading the dictionary-- make that the unabridged dictionary--and get one, if you can, that has an audio component such that you can hear the pronunciation of the words. Words have definition and they also have music. Knowing the music is just as important as knowing the lyrics.
Prose and poetry both benefit if the writer is aware of the many aspects of the word.
But words are made up of letters, and an alphabet. (See several of my poems which illustrate the aspects of letters as the building blocks of words. The "G" seems to wave doesn't it? So notice the shapes of these little sculptures, which is what they are.
Second, words have definitions, definitions which have a history which is dynamic. Read the history of a word; it’s historical to modern uses. There is an entire education is just reading through to the third, fourth or fifth definitions of a given word you encounter in a good dictionary.
The many possible meanings of a word are the writer's depth.
Day dream about the new words. Use them in your head, until you make them yours and then the next step beyond that is to make those letters and words into ideas.
Let's take an example, (always take a big important word, because you then become used to big ideas) although have you ever wondered what "the" means?
Note: back to the word. Let's take Death. What does it mean? Or Happiness? What does it mean? Look these two up in the dictionary. You be surprised at what they mean and have meant in the past.
Let's take happiness. It comes from the word "hap." The root meaning of Happiness is lucky.
Hapless means to be unlucky. See the point?
Now let's play; and introduce an idea.
Humm, "Death sits contemplating suicide." This is interesting idea. Most times all you have for a poem or a book even is the first sentence. Try it on for size and start writing. (My poem "The Death of Me" began just that way with a single sentence and I was dragged kicking and screaming into the poem and its ending surprised me.
Another example. Death said to Happiness--"You are just a lucky fellow, nothing more." Lot's of possibilities here.
You can get a novel out of this. How? Well, let's see. Johnny Death pursues his enemy Happy Jones and Jones has fantastic luck in evading Death all through the book. Happy wakes up from a dream, from a coma, his luck has run out and death makes the claim that no one is happy to the point of avoiding him forever. Is this a comment on life, on history, individual and collective? Maybe. Maybe it is just fun to play around with the definitions of words as a starting point of writing. Humm, that would make a good novel, even mythic. That is how Lilith was born from "Asunder."--from a single sentence.
"How To Write The Great American Novel" Chapter Three
The second point: lead a full life.
Courage in life means courage on paper and having developed character in real life makes for a great novelist. Take chances, don't be afraid to fail and you'll soon develop lots of character.
So what is character and what is courage? See my poem on this: www.poemhunter.com search on Lonnie Hicks.
The basic requirement in terms of living is simple: always ask why and don't take anybody's word for anything unless you have felt in it your DNA. That makes part of what makes a great writer.
Always ask: "Says who?" Have the courage of one's convictions, and note: notions of who's right and wrong are irrelevant to what life is all about. We live in a time when blame is what things are about and left brain logic rules. But there is no creativity there and you need that to be a great writer.
Example: Everything you do creates a path in the brain. The brain becomes wired to responding to the same stimulus in the same way. That is what a habit is. But, if you train the brain to always ask why then you create a new path-way after every experience and this called creativity. Ask why about every damn thing and have the courage to keep that stance even if it irritates people. You are creating a new brain with every "why."
Second, have courage to say "even if I am wrong that is not the point. So I am wrong. You in insisting it is all about right and wrong are a clunk head and not in keeping with the genius of the human species." Think about it this way: some of our ancestors said "we have to leave Africa because the climate is changing." The nay-sayers said "Are you nuts? How do you know what is out there? We could all die. Let's stay put and ask the local god to save us. We must have done something wrong."
No America, no Rome, no Marco Polo, no Greeks because cultural discovery depends upon a willingness to expose oneself to ideas we don't currently hold. The greatness of Rome and Greece was that the Roman empire welcomed all people, left them alone, demanded tribute, but everyone was welcome who didn't make trouble and there was that little matter of slaves, true . But the point in that the Roman empire was built on exposure to other cultures, stealing their ideas, and trade and tribute plus a dash of ruthlessness. Now the point though is that they learned from their exposures. They went from a tribal group in Italy to world power because of it. Alexander the Great had his generals intermarry with the conquered. The mixing gave the Greeks new ways of looking at the world and Greek culture dominated the ancient world. They were the masters of the "why." You should be too.
So live life, give a hug, a smile, have an open mind; don't be a coward. (See my poem on this at www.poemhunter.com.on this.
Now how can you live life to the fullest given the above? Don't need to do much really. You don't have to go on Safari in Africa to have something to write about. You can take the inexpensive route and get started to working on the internal life first.
First, take 25 deep breaths each hour and the brain gets oxygenated and you become a changed person. Deep inhales, deep exhales.
Don't believe it? Try it.
This is called many different things in many different cultures: meditation, primal therapy, relaxation, bio-rhythms etc. But what happens is the same; you grow.
Ok, try it and let me know what happens. But you have to have courage to keep it up and don't get scared if you start to get angry, fearful, cry, laugh etc. It is you becoming the best you. Humm, and don't do it alone you will likely need help and some coaching.
How To Write The Great American Novel" Chapter Four
Now, the next item is learning to write concisely, with a beginning, middle and end. Many of life's stories don't have a beginning, middle or ending and this is what makes story-writing difficult. But we are artists and are not about following life, we seek to lead life. You, reader, can practice writing these one pagers and I invite you to send to me your one-page novels. Doesn't have to be good. See item three above. It is practice. So lets see how a one page novel would go. First, we need an opening line, inspiration, or an idea. We can simply take big ideas from the dictionary and use two of them as starting points for our one page novel. Humm, let's take Love and Devotion. What does the dictionary say they mean? Our novel can center around the differences between the two.
See "Sideline Powdering" on this site to see a poem on this subject. But, what about our novel?
Elina loves me with a burning hot fire and she kisses possessively. Everything about her tells me she is passion, the flaming star and her need to love me is evident, hot and immeasurable. Loryn loves me shyly, with a steady flame that I suspect will last forever. Luckily, these are two ways of loving in the dictionary gives us something to work with. The one page plot is that these two potential mates reveal their two relative values in a situation where my life is at stake.
The one-pager is: I am hanging on a cliff and my passionate love is overwhelmed by the prospect of my falling over that cliff and emotion takes her over. My steady devoted love is free from emotion enough to think and save me.
A possible point here is that Romeo and Juliet loved too passionately and their flame ended in tragedy. Love of this kind may have its costs. Steady devotion has a more level head and the lovers survive to look down the years. That is a one-page novel. Have a narrator contrast two couples. One couple lives and the other dies.
Interesting novel idea huh?
"How To Write The Great American Novel" Chapter Five
Let's do the one pager. But first let's do a quick summary of what we have thus far learned which will enable us to take on this task.
1- We will have started reading the dictionary. You just have to read three pages a day; choose two words to work with and daydream about the meanings you find there. Three words are too many, just two. Why? Because most humans are two-variable thinkers and can only hold two variables in our head--good, evil, up, down etc. That is why triangle love relationships are something most people have trouble with.
A rare person can hold in their head three variables say up, down and sideways. If you can do that it makes you smarter than most. Einstein could do four and this was the basis of the theory of relativity. But since you and I are not Einstein we have to walk before we can run.
Now item two was to work on yourself if you cannot go on Safari or some other great adventure. Internal experience is just as valid as external Safari-going. I suggested breathing and now taking daily health seriously. A good working mind is best for being a great author, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Now you don't need this if you are a politician; its not expected.
Now health: do that walk. do in-place exercises, find out what your body responds to and take supplements to offset the poor water, the poor diet, and the antibiotic-filled meats. Well you get it. If you haven't done step two, go back to step one and only then show up back here. We want everyone to start at the same place for the one-pagers.
How long do you have to do steps one and two before you get back here? Not long. Say a week. You will not be ready to write one-pager, but, it might cement the habits involved.
Ok, let's write something.
Remember; beginning, middle and end.
Three opening lines:
"I lie still. I know I'm dead."
She was blunt: "I don't love you."
"It was the end of the world."
Now each of these opening lines can make a great one page novel. Here's how. People ask me where do the ideas for novels, or poems or essays come from. The three opening lines above came from words in the dictionary; death, love, and world.
Now, let's do one-pager number one.
Opening third of the one-pager:
"I lie still. I know I'm dead."
Am I in a casket, in heaven, on a hospital bed, in a traffic accident, after a place crash, in a coma, dreaming? How about a surprise point: I am an unborn fetus.
You decide; choose one of the above and you can do that in a few paragraphs.
Now I am at the pivot point in the one-pager and have chosen my story path. I am an unborn fetus. Why? I am a sucker for irony. "I am dead, now means, I am unborn. Humm, the situation is I am not dead but getting ready to be born, but was I dead before? If not, why was I an unborn baby thinking about it? Did I have a previous existence?
That is the second third of our one-pager. And now for the big finish. How to create an ending that will be interesting and won't seem hackneyed.
Here's mine. Describe the birth. "I felt myself being pushed down a warm tunnel. I could hear voices and I was worried because I had a tube in my mouth and was having trouble breathing. (Keep the journey going for a paragraph or so.)
The ending: "When my eyes adjusted to the light they gave me to the woman they called my mother. I was startled to realize that I knew her face."
Now this is an ending. It leaves questions and is a surprise and raises a lot of questions on a lot of levels. Welcome to art.
You take the other two above and try your hand. Don't be shy. Failure only occurs if you get chicken and don't try.
Send them along to me and I will give each a two sentence evaluation. I have to get some exercise out of this too, you know. LOL
"How To Write The Great American Novel" Chapter Six
Hope to hear from those of you who haven't tried the one-pager yet.
Now, in writing this one-pager or anything for fun or publication, you have a relationship between several elements.
Here are the ones I keep in mind.
a. The physical space on the page
b. The letters which make up the words
c. The sounds of the words, if you sound them out in your head
d. The writer
e. The reader
f. Time, place and space factors
g. The Take Away
Now what do all of the items above mean? Well, I am not going to tell you--yet. You have to make your first attempt to do the one-pager first. Then I will blab. But not until then.
While waiting for your missive here are a few other random notes to contemplate:
a. The English language has maybe 400,000-750,000 words. (Someone correct me please.) The permutations, in terms of word and meaning combinations, are, for practical purposes, infinite. So the dictionary approach gives you infinite plot lines and relationships. You could practically choose two or three words at random from the dictionary and conceive a plot line from them. (Something to try? Sure why not, especially since you can now do a one-pager around them) This is not even mentioning the differing meanings of these two or three words which add a richness to your writing.
b. Music. Words are sounds. In writing you should either write aloud in your head, or read out loud what you have written at some point. Why? Because, if not, you just have words but no music. You have to train your self to write with music. Music, (the actual sounds of the words) make the lyrics go down better.
Let's do an example of this and some of the other things mentioned above. Let's take the typical editor-sanitized sentence and then apply "the Hicks method of writing greatness" and see if there is anything to what I have been saying. The sentence is: "He walked to the door, put his hand on the door knob and opened the door." How many editors have you heard say: "You walked him to the door but you did not have him open the door and go through the door."
This editorial style is killing, declarative, a verbal ghetto style and one I have a problem with. (My rebellion is exemplified in the last sentence.) If we are to write creatively we must pass through our eighth grade English teacher gauntlet and not make her into a fetishist religion. (Shakespeare invented over 2,500 words in his day that did not exist before--not to mention all the words he contracted) (i.e., invented and pruned) to make the meter and beat count at the end of the sentence. Don't get me wrong. I love Shakespeare--see my Story-Poem "Politics" where I imitate his style because I love that style so. But alas, he is still dead and we must force ourselves to move on.
Now back to our tortured, declarative sentence. Can this sentence be saved? It's virtues are several: it is clear, it has information, it is descriptive, but damn bland and it is what journalists do everyday. We here, are not journalists. We aspire to be artists do we not?
So ok, let's do ER on that sentence.
Well, first there in no music. The sentence is boring. As a novelist, you must learn to understand you have the reader on loan. Blow it with a dull sentence and the fickle reader will bail on you like a humming bird on to the next flower. Mentally at first, but too many of these in a row, and you will find yourself face down on the bedside reading table. (Did these sentences have music?)
Now for some music in our sentence. "He walked to the door, his hand trembling, and opened it onto a too bright light." Now was that better? The sentence has a little more flow to it now, it has some mystery, some emotion, and some context. It is not perfect but it is better to my ear. Yours?
Sentence construction: Life has five, maybe six senses--sight, sound, taste, smell, touch and the sixth sense. Now there are only five topics in all of literature and in all sentences; mind, body, soul, spirit, heart. These are the only topics in all of humanity. (An exaggeration, I admit, but humor me for a while here.)
So of all of these, ideally, could be in every sentence or at least in every other sentence. In our sentence what senses were being used, described, or utilized? You, reader, what do you tend to remember from your experiences in life; the visual, the sounds, the tastes, the smells, touch? We are all different because we sense the world in different combinations and with different intensities of the senses we have. Think of what you remember about an experience, ask a friend who was there what senses they remember from an experience you both shared. These differences give you a different writing style, coupled with the over-arching five (MBSSH) See above.
Now we have the contents of a sentence above. Let's see if me, Mr. Smarty Pants, got all that in my sentence. (And I promise you I wrote that sentence without thinking about MBSSH or SSTST.
Well there is sight, (the door is seen;) sound implied, touch; no smell, no taste. We have body, some mystery, and at least, heart from the big five. Compare to the first sentence. With follow-on sentences you can weave a tapestry and a story which engages our senses and our sensibilities-which, he said, is the point of writing in the first place. This little experiment worked out luckily. Otherwise I would have had to go the blackboard and write out "I will not be overly pedantic" two times.
"How To Write The Great American Novel" Chapter Seven
This Blog will be interrupted today because I have to go out for about an hour to save the world. But here's some things to ponder. Note items a. and b. above. Words on the page.
How to depict loneliness on the page?
This "representational" idea in another example.
Why do poets and authors
never seem to be able
to arrive at the
Here the canvass and the meaning are in sync. This is to remind that the page matters in this way and many others. You should practice with other emotions or ideas of your own, while I am away from this page. Don't cheat. Really try it. I will be watching.
Be back in a little while.
OK, here we go; the world is safe for one more day. Now where were we? The page is where we do our work and one should think of it as a canvass where, words, music, emotions, ideas, spirit come alive and mix to create something that did not exist in that space before. Mull that for a while. Meantime I want to concentrate for a moment on the issue of words.
Words, of course, are our coin in trade; and we have to be aware at all times that each word matters. Each word matters. So we are going to do something with words, involving a novel. So lets take our one-pager and try to make it into a novel. First a novel to be novel, must be new, or original, among many other definitions you will find in that big thick dictionary.
Also, novel in my usage, means all of the MBSSH and SSTST. This is, of course, a complex enterprise, involving all of the senses, some of the great themes in literature, Death, love, God, mankind, womankind etc. that kind of stuff. And, this is expressed in words, and of course, and in characters as they encounter MBSSH and SSTST. This is a more rich, written environment, a more rich emotional journey etc. All this is easy to say and damn difficult to do.
Now finally; write for the ages. Who will read and be interested in my last sentence 400 years from now? Again, easy to say, hard to do, but let's take a quick example here to distinguish fast-food writing from writing for the ages. After all this is all about "Writing the Great American Novel" which will have relevancy years from now.
So let's just take it one sentence at a time. First "fast food" sentencing. "I feel like really depressed today." Not bad; you have some the things above in that sentence. Now what about the ages? "I feel really depressed today like everyone I know on my block. What does "like" in this sentence really mean and everyone on the block creates a much more meaningful context than my individual woes.
See my poem on this page "Feel Like a Simile Sometimes." This is not "smile," this is "Simile" the part of speech. This poem is intended to comment not only on one person's feelings or depression, but upon an age which feels like a Simile, "like" something but not the real thing. The ending is mysterious. Can you figure out what it means? Now the point here is one cannot write only for oneself absent any empathy for others. In the end who cares about your woes but you and yours, unless it is attached to higher meanings, eras, ideas or contexts? The lesson here is avoid the pronoun prison IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII is not relevant if it relates to only you and makes you a pronoun prisoner behind pronoun bars. (The capital "I" does look like prison bars don't they?) See my poem on this; "Pronoun Prisioner."
Homework. See you tomorrow.
"How To Write The Great American Novel" Chapter Eight
Above we said the page is the canvas and smarty pants here gave as an example above describing loneliness as downward sloping words on the page. Now that is great for a poem you say but what about a novel? How do you describe loneliness in a novel using words? Well first see the poem on this site called "The Aquifer." It has short sentences and short lines and plunges down the page. See at www.poemhunter.com (Search on Lonnie Hicks) other examples such as "Love Remains," and Kisses Unrelinquished."
Now for the prose example: "I feel like a simile sometimes," she said. "Like a train that can't locomote, can't get down the tracks, you know;: I feel, you know, dead like the moon, but pretty; I ah, am depressed, sometimes, not all the time, but some of the time."
Well here the language on the page is disjointed, run-on and is in danger of the editor's knife. Fight back. Don't let them stab that canvass! That is how people talk when emotional; not particularly eloquent. But it does raise the question, why can't I write those sentences with a space between the lines, indicating silences. Blank space equals silence and real life has those. But the canvass can't be used that way because it costs more money to publish so artistic intent in quietly smothered the crib. Now don't get me wrong, this is no rant against the needs of an editor or a publisher; rather it is asking why not? And the answer makes sense, but keep to the habit of asking why. Keep that brain athletic.
Now here is a phrase to ponder: "Who told you that you were never to be betrayed or lied to in life?" Now this is interesting unstated proposition that much of literature (and indeed life assumes, perhaps irrationally.) Think about it; God gets betrayed and lied to every day, but we operate as though this should not ever happen to us. So much of literature is based on this irrational premise for character motivation. You can discover other motivational examples extent in literature, (can you say Shakespeare,) that have this unstated premise as a base. These precepts are what we need to examine if we are to remain in print for longer than the impulse buy. You can think of other precepts; we fish cannot see the water around us, and never ask why.
With one part of our heads we know human beings lie and betray (including ourselves) but we act shocked when it happens to us just as though we have lived on another planet from those who lied or betrayed us. When we get over irrational shock we get to more interesting layers of human motivation and can make our characters more interesting. She betrayed him but he forgave her. She betrayed him and he vowed revenge. Now you say, hey people behave this way; some want revenge. True, but is that what writing the great American novel about? Some for sure are about that, but the commonplace is not what we are about here, we want to move the emotional frontiers just a wee bit further down the road. Who says revenge is the normal response? What if the person refused to do that? What then would be the story line; and just maybe, you have in writing that novel another way, opened new doors for your self and your readers.
Now, of course, doing this in a merely contrarian modality will get us no where; that is merely taking the opposite tack of whatever is on the table. No, I mean here really taking non-revenge reactions seriously and explore what those different reactions might be. What could they be? Well indifference, love, forgiveness, deflection, diffusion, displacement etc. Indeed, if you lived in a society where mistresses are ok, or multiple spouses are acceptable, what would your reaction be? In a novel you would have a more interesting character, but more importantly, you have a more interesting writer, who, in writing the character, explores and perhaps expands his or her own boundaries and potentialities. Ok, let's take a rest from the high-fluting and get back down to earth. But the point here is that new ways of being human are as often discovered on the page as in action in the world.
We have covered the words, the senses involved, the canvass etc. Now lets get on to the music. My favorite.
"How To Write The Great American Novel" Chapter Nine
What is meant by music? Best to take an example: "Cobblestones are his tears, his monuments."
What do we have here as an opening line?
First, this is a very powerfully constructed line. "Cobblestones" as a word conjures up visions of colonial times, London streets, old town is various cities etc. Cobblestones are rounded and appear in many areas of the world.
Second, "Cobblestones are his tears..." Cobblestones are not "like" tears. Cobblestones "are" his tears. There is a lot here to examine. Not, cobblestones "were" his tears in the past tense, relegating the action to some past undefined period; but cobblestones are his tears. We have achieved immediacy here; urgency is lent to this phrase. We like that. We also have avoided the metaphor, or simile if you like, because we are making a statement to the reader of immediacy and of essence. Why take metaphor when you can have the real thing? Cobblestones are real, metaphors are not.
This is more powerful statement. No "like." Now who is the mysterious "he" and why are we making the huge statement that cobblestones are his tears? Tears? Tears from what? And the comma? Why are we using a comma here? We are using the comma to get the reader to pause and think about what we just said. Secondly, this sentence has a beginning, middle and end; the comma is our mid-point, our middle. We pause, we take a breath, to allow the reader to think about it and we create a beat in our music, in the emotional journey we have introduced. Six syllables here, six beats, emotion rising; tears, old cities, now we pause.
The last clause is "his monuments." Cobblestones all over the world are really "his" tears, and, moreover, his "monuments." Who is this person? Our reality and perception of cobblestones had been utterly transformed and changed. The things we walk on are someone's tears, indeed someone's monuments. Can't ever see cobblestones the same way again because of a single sentence and we have the huge sense now invoked here of walking upon someone's tears.
All this is powerful stuff for six words. The sentence has a powerful opening, mystery, emotion, music, and a dramatic ending with middle and a beginning. That's what we want.
Second sentence: "I hear ragged air flapping over his garments as he falls--her face before him."
Well we are beginning to see that someone, him perhaps, is falling; and falling fast because the garments are flapping. Not falling as in a faint but probably falling from a great height. My, this is ominous. Her face is before him. There is possibly some love affair involving her. Is he falling alone? Is she falling too? Was he pushed? Is this a suicide?
All this is better portrayed on a canvass. Falling is better evoked thus:
over his garments
as he falls--
her face before him."
The imagery, the emotion, here is becoming clear and the music is sad music. You start to feel something is about to happen.
Third sentence: "She gave him water: clothed him."
Here we see something of the relationship between the mysterious "him" and her. She succored him, helped him. Was he sick, had he been injured? Was she a nurse? Why is he falling?
Fourth sentence: "His gnarled heart sang for her."
My God, his heart is gnarled. What does that mean; shriveled, disfigured, tortured? This is getting darker.
Fifth sentence: "His flight down, swan death down, because of her;"
Well we are at the middle. He is indeed falling "swan death down" implying he jumped. And it was because of her. Why would he do that? She gave him water? What has precipitated this death leap?
Sixth sentence: "the church bells rung for her in his tall tower pedestal."
Note these clauses are getting shorter because this fall is real time, there is not a lot of time left for him in "swan death down." We are told that he rung the church bells for her. Was she getting married and he had to ring the bell and that was too much for him and he decided to take his life because of this? What is this tall tower pedestal? Astute readers are getting ahead of me here guessing that the leaper is Quasimodo from Victor Hugo's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."
Seventh sentence: "How much love is it in downward death to have love's name on your breath?"
Sad, sad sad. Indeed how much love is this? Sadder still is for human kindness and perhaps pity be taken for true unrequited love. (Pardon my irony here, but that is what this piece is about.)
Eighth sentence: "How much love it is for love's one glance be enough your life to forfeit."
Note this is not a question. It is a statement about the nature of Quasimodo's love. One glance.
Ninth sentence to the end of the paragraph:
"Quasimodo breathed his love in earthward flight; before crash his heart surely burst as he called her name-Esmeralda, Esmeralda; he then felt her kiss once more before shattering land. All sufficed for what then came: Cobblestone Tears; Love's Remains." I still tear up when reading this line.
Well, I won't go through all of the exegesis here but "Love's Remains" becomes the image of cobblestones around the world, because they are Quasimodo's tears and his remains. You have to spare a tear for him; and try not to step on the stones.
This is actually a poem of mine called "Love's Remains," down-loadable, along with many others at www.poemhunter.com. and on this site. Search on Lonnie Hicks. There are over 700 items there.
"How To Write The Great American Novel" Chapter Ten
Now we have to ask the question aren't there many different kinds of "music" to be heard in writing? Isn't there such a thing a "voice" or writing style, or even genres of writing types?
Well there certainly is. No one can be an expert in all of the various styles or claim any one style is superior to others. So then how does the novelist decide what music to play in a novel? Well we have a modest example in "Lilith." Lilith is a biblical character so I decided to write the book in what I conceive as biblical prose style; a bit more formal and appropriate for stories that were going to have lot of pronouncements from on high. The bible is still the best selling book in the world and the most goggled as well. There is a reason for that. Its style is remarkable; and in many parts poetic. So I choose to do Lilith that way, of course, adding my own deficiencies to the mix.
But, there are other reasons for writing the book. The secret can now be revealed: The Bible on the mythic level is the great American Novel and its music is the music not only of our culture but in Islam as well, in Judaism, in Christianity too. This is undeniable.
So what am I doing? I have, with "Lilith," tried to write only another chapter in the Great American novel and connect that to the great literary and social dialogues which have dominated our history from biblical days. The Bible is not just a religious document. It, old and new testaments and all the commentaries, are also literary documents. How could I resist messing around in those waters? So I did. And I did so my way with my version of the biblical stories, biblical history and myths.
So what is that music? There are many ideas about the bibles' music, its poetry and origins. I decided that my way of doing that style would be what came up and what came natural to me; that is mid sentence rhyming prose along with the points I have made above about writing. Remember "Lilith" is "historical fiction" and where my novelist rubber meets the road. See what you think about how well I have succeeded.
Now other examples of music and the choice to use what music. My view is that a good piece or sentence must be and sound authentic, even as different characters speak in a given scene in a book. That is a lot of chord changes, if you catch my drift; and it is what makes novel writing difficult and is what makes novel-writers schizoid. You must not only authentically represent on paper ideas different than your own, legitimately, but represent people you don't even like and moreover, have to be able to write their music, most of the time many of them on the same page, or at least, in the same book. This is beginning to sound like a heavy responsibility. Let stop here for a headache break.
American Novel Continued Chapter Eleven
The great themes in American history have antecedents in the bible. They range from the questions around slavery, women's rights, the role of kings, the Golden Rule, equality, freedom, justice, the moral life, and the moral life-style are all in the dialogues in the bible, seen as a work of literature of mythic proportions.
Let's see: Around 1200 BC a remarkable confluence of ideas emerged in both the East and the West where essentially religious and secular ideas underwent enormous change. The religious ideas from Confucianism to Hinduism to Islamic notions could be expressed in the simple maxim "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
Why this occurred is complicated. The genesis came from a change in circumstances among many nations of the world. The old kingly and Pharaoh systems where the Pharaoh was divine and the nation’s fortunes depended upon his ministrations to the God or Gods fell into disbelief from the Mayans to the Egyptians before and after that date.
The populations of the world had grown to such an extent that kings needed to put thousands of soldiers into the field to triumph in war and that meant tribute, plunder, taxes, money and a greater dependence upon citizen soldiers, or slave soldiers. An elite cadre of kings' men with chariots could not stay the field with massed armies of infantry.
This was a massive change in the balance of power during this 1200 BC period where citizens were able to negotiate with kings around taxes, rights, equality, freedom, justice. Before kings did not need these folks since wars were small in terms of resources needed. In other cases, kings could not sustain puppet states and these simply fell down and native populations revolted or filled in the void. This happened to the early Israelites. They were Canaanite vassals ruled over by puppet Canaanite overlords who were in turned ruled by Egypt.
Now these trends affected the Jewish fathers in that as they sought to establish a new religion among the Canaanite pagans in Canaan and start a new society based on equality and freedom and a new single God-Yahweh.
Peculiarly, the native religions initially had to be compromised with in terms of their Gods and the new Hebrew God. Powerful among these was the female Goddess Asherah who Canaanite women were reluctant to give up since Asherah was the patroness of childbirth and of women. The compromise did not last and the Hebrew fathers sought to prohibit her worship ultimately. Note that Asherahs' symbol was a stake or pole or tree and one of her symbols was the serpent as was true in Egypt as well. Notice that, in the garden of Eden, the tree is forbidden and the serpent is portrayed as an evil presence. This all has less to do with Satan in my view, (Satan is seldom mentioned in the Old Testament) but with the attempt to suppress worship of Asherah and a moral judgment upon things Egyptian. But, note for a time, she was seen as the wife or a consort of Yahweh.1
See these Nova videos on this topic:
13 13 13 13 The Bible's Buried Secrets (NOVA PBS) NOVA The Bible's Buried Secrets Part 5 of 6
It took hundreds of years for the new Israelites to overcome worship of the old Gods and accept the new single god. And note further, all through the Old Testament the hostility to Asherah is evident for these reasons and others. But the strain in relation to the rights of women did not go away. It was not until 1972 that the Jewish fathers allowed female Rabbis.
A second point; Thomas Jefferson analyzed the bible taking out all references to miracles and the supernatural and wrote down the ethical and political precepts he found there. The American political structure is based upon political and ethical premises originating in the bible, especially the new testament; and remember this was an enlightenment writer.
The bible in its various permutations give us, then, the priesthood of all believers of Martin Luther; all men are equal before God, where notions of equality and justice come forth as moral precepts in this period.
Paul champions Thecla in the attempts to have her killed for choosing chastity along with Roman women of noble origins in Rome. The female lions in the arena refuse to kill Thecla; indeed protected her. Thecla travels with Paul and baptizes herself since she could not get a male to do it. True or untrue , the mythic life of the equality of women was nurtured and heard and understood by millions in the ancient world.
Jesus in his sermon preaches that the meek and scribes shall inherit the earth and did in fact, scandalously give women prominent roles in his ministry. The equality of all is Andrew Jackson democracy and Jeffersonian democracy which ennobles the militia citizen solider and the plain man.
Lucifer, in the bible, is the protagonist of city-building, wealth, power, cosmetics, alcohol, war and the Tower of Babel. All of the seven sins are not just sins of individual lapses. They represent this battle for human souls in the bible, between God and Lucifer, and is, in fact, a battle between the sinful city and the salt of the earth, the meek and the mild, between the Mammon’s of Wall street and the good people of main street. Now, note here, the bible is stating not what causes good and evil but what life-style is conducive to good versus evil. And, if we read carefully, we are also given an explanation of the origins of human nature. This, too, is rooted in the differing social structures.
City-people, are wage-slaves, actual slaves, and are easily dominated and or led astray. Self-sufficiency, on the land, in small democratic communities, are the basis of the moral life and this is a life that God champions in the Old Testament and in the New Testament as well This view is also present in Islam. This is the view embedded in the US Constitution where the rural versus urban is the axis of much of American politics.
It is no accident that Islamic extremists see technologized America as the Great Satan and themselves as innocents. All of these themes, and more, are present in the bible and under-grid the Great American Experiment in Democracy.
Remember these implicit ideas emanating from the bible were also a factor in the toppling of the Roman empire which was, too, seen as the great Satan state by early Christians.
So all that said, what then are the great themes in American life and by extension in the great American Novel?
1. Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel, (Eerdmans, ISBN 0-8028-2852-3, 2005), is a book by Syro-Palestinian archaeologist and biblical scholar William G. Dever (Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Archeology and Anthropology at the University of Arizona). "Did God Have a Wife?" was intended as a popular work making available to the general public the evidence long known to archaeologists and scholars regarding ancient Israelite religion: namely that the Israelite god (Yahweh) had a consort, that her name was Asherah, and that she was part of the Canaanite pantheon and Lilith is her standin in my novel "The Gospel According to Lilith, and,in the end she is revealed as God's wife to earthlings.
I take Lilith as the wife and consort of God, and the name-sake of the Lilith preceding Eve in the Garden of Eden in my novel of that name. Note, also, that the biblical Solomon's wife is called Lilith as well. My goal in this is to re-introduce major themes and developments in consciousness in the bible and mythic history with Lilith as my protagonist.
"How To Write The Great American Novel" Chapter Twelve
Well I have some emails that challenge my assertion that the bible is the great American novel and demanding my first born as atonement for that transgression. I cannot do that today, but Monday I will try. For now, lets drop a few hints:
1-Who settled America and why?
2-What is the relationship between Jeffersonian democracy and the priesthood of all believers?
3- Who is Thecla?
4- What was the real underlying argument between God and Lucifer-- over not good versus bad but, what lifestyle produced good and bad.
5-Why did God reject Abel's offering and reject Cain’s?
Back at this on Monday. But first a little more on the premises in the Lilitlh book and a small commercial.
Note for Teachers:
(“The Gospel According to Lilith” also has an audio book which utilizes an historical fiction format to attract and hold student interest in the great issues in American literature.
The author, Lonnie Hicks, has written a novel which makes the argument that the bible, seen as an historical and literary work, contains many seminal, antecedent themes found in American literature, and, in American history, society and politics.
Utilizing a cross-disciplinary in approach, the audio book and study guide challenges the student to think differently about the bible and argues that the bible is one of the great pieces of American literature.
The Nova PBS special “The Bible’s Buried Secrets” gives us convincing archeological data to support the idea that the early Israelites were egalitarian, freedom-loving and determined to create a religion and society without domination. The social structures they considered essential to this goal, are embedded were closely emulated, by none other that Thomas Jefferson, who put ideas around the importance of small egalitarian communities directly into his writings.
Notions of equality, justice and freedom are all in the bible and have animated much of western literature down the centuries even as the religious content of the old and new testaments have obscured this point.
However, new archeological evidence, recently unearthed in Israel, indicate that the early writers of the bible were not invaders in Canaan, but were likely Canaanites serfs and slaves, who created a new egalitarian society once their Egyptian overlords collapsed in what is modern day Israel.
The importance of these new discoveries cannot be underestimated.
Our traditional view of the bible must be re-considered in light of these new discoveries as well in the context of the bible as a work of literature.
That is what “The Gospel According to Lilith” achieves. This historical fiction novel, introduces the student to the new bible- the bible as a literary work. With Lilith as a narrator, the student is taken on a journey looking at the bible as a document which produced many themes directly relevant and influential American literature and social history.)
"How To Write The Great American Novel" Chapter Thirteen
So we can see that, indeed, there are similar themes in American History which converge with themes in the bible. The one I would like to concentrate on at this point is the biblical theory of human nature comparing that to the one many attribute to the founding fathers of America. Much has been made of the assertion that the latter created a government which assumed human nature was selfish, apt to pursue over-weaning power and aggressive.
Therefore, so the theory goes, they created a political system with 'checks and balances" to curb the negative tendencies in human nature. The quick retort here is does this theory not apply to the founding fathers themselves, the revolutionary soldiers who fought that war for much higher goals than greed, and power mongering? Obviously not. This is a misreading of the motives and intent of the founding fathers.
It is the cable news version of the founding fathers and what their motives where. They, like the biblical founders, saw human nature as existing in an evolving, contextual milieu with outcomes much influenced by social structures and context. People in small communities will display a much more positive "human nature" that those in say, cities.
Human nature is malleable and subject to heavy influences from the environment. Human nature is adaptable. Both the biblical founders and the American founders had this view.
Moreover, common sense tells us this is true . How did we get wrapped up with the negative view that human nature is fixed, evil and aggrandizing? Well, no space here to go into detail, but the short answer is that historians have given us a pathological version of human history and ignored the eons of human cooperation which has existed over these same periods. We get a chronology of wars, brutality, kings and slavery and greed. But what were the common people doing these periods, or is this, again, the cable news version of history? Most people stuck together, and cooperated with one another to survive--unless thrust or coerced to the front to fight the kings wars. So context matters and who is telling the story of human nature and human events matters too.
Now we come to the literary issue: We want to know what is, in the novel, the author's view of human nature in terms of character, and character development in a given piece? Interesting question, but one that can become very obvious if you are an author writing a novel. What is human nature in our novels? What theory is evident there? Humm, scary isn't it?
Now you can write a novel where by your own hand you depict human nature, through your characters. Are they two-variable cut outs, antagonist and protagonist, good and evil, bad or good etc? This is not only character depiction, it carries with it a notion of human nature. People can be described as good or bad and that is what you write? No, let's not do that. It perpetuates some pretty horrific stereo-types we should as artists, avoid.
Are characters determined by their circumstances, fate-bound, unable to change their circumstances and doomed? This does not ring true , but Greek tragedy has that ring doesn't it, not to mention certain of Shakespeare's works?
As my grandmother used to say: "be clear children, are you raising slaves or freedom fighters", implying you had a choice in molding human nature, if not behavior. In fact, human adaptability is the hallmark of human nature. Here we have a creature that has shown incredible adaptability, settling in every climate, endured every hardship and thrived on this planet; now threatened by the ossification of "institutions" that prevent that very adaptability which has been the hallmark of the species very survival and longevity.
So a writer has a responsibility that a journalist does not have--to show human nature and its potentials not to perpetuate negative theories of human nature, first, which are not true , and even if they were do not forward the progress of the human race if we perpetuate them. And that is what a true artist will seek to do--seek that vision of human beings that is beneficial to the future of human beings.
So, mister smarty pants, you say, what does that character development look like which won't end up with a false rosy picture of human beings and human nature? What will these characters look like? Well, I made my attempt in the Lilith book. God develops; he transforms himself even in the old testament. First, he tries again in the Garden with two versions of genesis; he apologizes to Noah after the flood, lifts restrictions on alcohol and tries to bargain with his creations. Finally he decided to come down to Earth in the form of Christ, in the new testament and try again to make things work. God grows and initiates at least three entirely different convents with his creatures. He adapts. So does Lucifer. So does Lilith. What is emphasized in the novel is transmogrification. The nature of God is malleable--despite his reputation for being rigid. What he is rigid about is the context of living. He rejects Cain’s gift of grain and accepts the gift of Abel because Cain’s gift represents a life-style connecting with cities and settled agriculture which God disfavors preferring a gift of a lamb from Abel which represents the pastoral life. Pastoral life, God argues through much of the old testament and the new testament, is a better, more sustainable life style than the sinful life of the cities, kings and priests. After all the Jesus that sacked the temple, was a country boy and hated what he saw happening in the temple in the city. This rigid stance softens later but all of Christianity in the early church was small town people meeting in each others homes not in grand cathedrals in the cities.
"How To Write The Great American Novel" Chapter Fourteen
Let's have a look at the malleable argument from yesterday in the context of America's founding, the novel, and the bible. What it means, in my view, is that human beings respond to the circumstances they find themselves in and adapt. This first aspect of the malleable idea, in the case of both the bible and American founders, relates to the fact that both groups felt that contexts must be created to guide humans toward positive behavior. This is not to ignore the negative aspects of human behavior. They are to be taken very seriously and placed in a context where they too can be controlled. This is where the checks and balances in the US constitution come in. Humankind, cannot be trusted with power, and absolute power corrupts absolutely; but this too is because of the malleability factor. Jefferson sought to embed the positive context of the citizen farmer, self-sufficient, close to the land in American political institutions. To his mind this was a model he considered sustainable for humankind; he put it into the Constitution in terms of protecting small rural communities. Cites are a context where people give up their wills to kings, bosses, corporations and crooks proving that bad environments can create bad people. Cities, both Jefferson and the biblical fathers thought, create trouble. Whether this is really true or not is, of course, another story.
Archeological evidence now available indicate that the Israelites were Canaanites themselves, who at the collapse of Egyptian puppet Canaanite rulers introduced egalitarianism into Canaanite societies and reformed themselves as a new society with a single God. The animus against cities was aimed at the example of both Egypt and Egypt's puppet Canaanite rulers in Canaan. This was a country side revolutionary movement which rejected what they had seen as the outcome of Egyptian top down, centralized Pharaoh systems and similar systems all over the known world at about 1,200 BC.
Cities have given us, in their thinking, hierarchy, over-weaning power, war, slavery and greed in this view. True cities have given us intellectual growth, progress and even science. But the Jeffersonian and the biblical scholar would say the city is an inherently unsustainable model of humankind. They also have bred the capacity to destroy the planet. A small community, independent, close to the land, is sustainable. Face to face daily relationships is the best model for humankind and and humans existed in these kinds of relationships for millenia. This precept also undergrids, Greek ideas about democracy.
Curiously, models to green the planet and make every house a net grid contributor have this same model in mind.
Good and evil in terms of their generation, therefore, are strongly contextual.
Now next in this malleable story is the factor, obvious to many, is that individuals have the capacity to overcome their contextual contexts. One person in prison overcomes that circumstance and rehabilitates themselves. Some poor kids are defeated by poverty, some overcome the impoverished background and prosper. Some people in evil circumstances, resist and do not succumb.
This is an important point because the capacity of human beings to supersede and transform themselves above their circumstances is also a feature of the malleability model we are here describing and key to biblical and American thinking. Malleability not only means susceptible to being heavily influenced by the circumstances one may find oneself in, it also means the ability to transform oneself beyond that circumstance. This is a crucial point.
This is what is being discussed in the bible, and in American history. Human beings, say in a religious context, can transform themselves and their circumstances through faith, faith in God, faith in Buddha, thought or meditation and human free will. God makes this point over and over again. The ability of the human animal to supersede circumstances both individual and group is the real hallmark of human history.
This is true of both science and religious theory, which we normally think as polar opposites in their views on this. The proposition here is that transformation is the normal state of human kind, indeed all worlds, religious or scientific. The American dream is a dream based on the belief that peasants could land here with nothing and by dent of hard work, God, luck or mayhem against the native dwellers, transform their lives and themselves. Jews, Christians, Islamic and other religious faiths believe exactly the same thing except the medium of transmogrification is faith, inner journeying, or by cognitive means. God in the bible says we have the free will to do so despite the temptations of the devil. So transformation is the key element in human efforts. But how exactly does this work?
Einstein tells us that E-mc2. This is remarkable primarily because it describes both human things, physical things and the nature of the universe we live in. And, Quantum mechanics gives us the exact same view of the transformative nature of the world and the universe at the sub-atomic level. Ok, that was a lot to absorb in one sentence. Let's unpack the ideas here.
First, E=mc2 is saying that energy can be transformed into matter and the process is exponential and ultimately mysterious. Science does not have a clue why this is the case. They believe it because they can manipulate it but no one of them has even actually seen an atom. No Christian has ever claimed to have actually seen God. Folks leaving Africa had never seen Europe did they? So what is the basis for action in these cases? You can fill in the blanks: faith, belief in the ability to transform ones circumstances, dumb luck and boldness. But the important point here is over-looked. Our universe is one where transformations are normal,(we fish don't see this water) and it is miraculous. How is it that a shift of one electron from one orbit to another transforms matter and we get water and hydrogen separated out, two different substances. Now that is mysterious. But there is more; any electron anywhere in our entire universe is in contact with its opposite charged electron no matter where it is in any other part of the universe. The entire universe at the sub-atomic level is in touch with itself at the sub-atomic level.
Welcome to quantum mechanics. This is a remarkable finding, because the transformations taking place in this construct are also talking place within us as humans and, more pointedly, in our human brains which, by definition, are a part of this same universe of transforming electron activity and probably explains why human beings can transform and supersede their circumstances and move from lower brain stem activity and develop, as we have, higher brain functions. In short, this has made possible our moving from our ape origins to the human development path. Embedded in this process is greatest mystery of all--the nature and genesis in the human mind of what we generally call the Idea. No one knows what an idea is but we all have them. We know that the brain and ideas are connected to the entire physical universe and is a major the driver of human activity and in my view, the engine which has allowed for human transformations. You can't get to Europe from Africa if you don't get the idea first.
So here is a conclusion to ponder: science, the bible, the great religions and thought systems say exactly the same thing--humans, both group and individual, can transform themselves and their circumstances by processes some call faith in God, by a natural transformative process the scientists say, by introspection and connection others say.
Therefore, the malleability of human beings is the ability to become what they are not today is at play in both the social and the scientific orders and in the physical world as well. To be clear: there is no conflict between the ideas of the modern scientist and the religious person. Einstein agreed, Darwin agreed, Newton agreed, modern quantum mechanics agrees.
So now we look a little closer at this remarkable constantly transforming world we live in. Matter transforms to energy, solids to gas and back again. We light a fire and view it to be unremarkable that wood can be transformed into gases. We do not see the incredible statement that represents about the world we live in.
Now we want to lay out the steps we have covered. There is first the interconnection of all things in our world, both within our selves and in the physical universe as well. It is no accident that Christ said that we can find God by looking within and undergoing a transformative process or conversion which could be a form of liberation even under Roman rule. That inner divine spark, that capacity to connect to what is not oneself, becomes transformative and is exactly corroborated and agreed to by scientists who work at the sub-atomic level and at the level of black holes in the larger universe.
Transformative processes and capacities begin with the premise of universal connection of all things religious and scientific and, these transformations occur regularly and routinely.
Next we look at the outcomes of these transformations. I am dealing with here the issue of exchanges at the boundaries of these transformative processes. What is meant here is that as man approaches God the bedrock premise is and has to be that humankind has only a very limited capacity to understand what is present at this transformative process boundary. We can be changed by faith, by science, by observation of the natural world, by tinkering in the natural world, but our capacity to understand it is limited as we reach the boundaries of our own ability to absorb transformative changes. This is the argument of the founders of all religions. Humans can only understand so much because they are humans. Scientists say the same thing. We can understand black holes as possible windows onto other universes but we can never know those other universes. We can understand that dark matter and energy make up most of the universe but never be able to step outside and really understand the processes at work.
Why because to take a simple example; we humans are like fish. We swim in water and cannot jump out on land and take a cruise in the RV. We fish maybe can evolve to that point but to expect to be able to do that wily-nilly is absurd. We are fish and barely understand the boundary between our fish world and the thin layer above us which is an air-breathing world above the water we swim in. We can tinker at the boundary between the two worlds but fish are not oxen.
So what is this tinkering in science? The greatest experiment in human history at boundary tinkering is happening at Cern, Switzerland, where scientists are literally shooting protons into the nucleus of atoms at light speed hoping, by measuring the particle fallout, to see if any missing particles can be discerned. Why, because if there are, it means there is another universe they have gone into. There is no question but at the sub-atomic level particles, and electrons pop into and out of existence. The Cern effort is trying to discern where to they pop to; fish sticking a straw up above water to see what the world of air is like.
So what does all of this mumbo-jumbo have to do with literature and novel-writing you say? Well here are the take-away points. To put pen to paper is to participate in the above described transformative process because our ideas in doing so are directly connected to all points in this universe. The imagination is literally taking, through some mysterious process, things which do not or did no exist seconds ago and bringing them in to existence, here and now on paper. This process is taken for granted but it is of stupendous importance. Therefore, the human beings we can imagine on paper are, and can be and have been transforming for everyone living on the planet; take the idea of Freedom for example. A simple idea changed the world. That is the mission of the novelist to describe this transformation process in the characters who populate our minds and our pages.
Thanks for your patience in allowing me to get through this part of the Blog. Now back to the nuts and bolts of writing that novel-tomorrow.
"How To Write The Great American Novel" Chapter Fifteen
So where are we? A little summary here. Transformations and transformative qualities are the hallmark of the universe on the large cosmic level, are the hallmark of the sub-atomic level as well. In fact the only stable element on the periodic table is lead. The rest of the elements can and do constantly loose elections, gain electrons and disappear God knows where. Constant change at the sub-atomic level is also the rule.
Now on the human level we have to start to imagine that the instrument of transformation in human beings is the human brain. Our brain is a neural network with about a trillion cells. It transforms itself, and the connections it makes internally, interacting with external and internal stimuli constantly. And, in doing so, is constantly is changing, is constantly remaking the world we perceive and live in. Now that was a mouthful. Here is the bottom line: our perceptions of the world and the reality we all share is different and that difference is a function of the synaptic connections which we have grown based upon how we have used our individual brains over time.
Therefore, it is true that each of us has the capacity to make and remake, evolve, and change our individual realities to the extent that the human brain is involved. This is not so strange a statement. One day life is hopeless, the next day life is wonderful. How did that happen? Did the world change? No, you interacting with your brain changed. And that is what we are talking about here. That change and transforming capability allows individual "A" to get up new energy, change, and act in the world, while individual "b", without such a change, is still under the covers at home complaining about the state of the world. Brain transformations involving attitudes, ideas, thoughts (and by extension our reality and the realities of others) are so common that we take them for granted.
So how does this daily miracle happen? Is it brain chemistry, is the brain some kind of reality-shifting organ which we don't really understand. Yes, and we don't know much about it. We still in the 21st century don't know what an idea is and where it comes from or even where it goes. We can track activity in the brain but we don't have a clue what the thing is we are tracking.
So now that I have bludgeoned you with my transformation thesis lets novelize. "The latter word "novelize" illustrates my point exactly. I have never written the word "novelize" in my life. I don't know where the idea came from to write that word. I don’t even know what reality "novelize" relates to. But the miracle here is that this invention of a new word, plopping it down into reality here on this page, is communicated between two brains, yours and mine. More, the invention of a new word, say something really big like "equality" can and has changed the world we live it. So it is no small item to discuss here. And it is no small item for a novelist to be concerned with as s/he writes that novel.
Now lets move to the next item on our list (remember that list we started with?) Let me refresh our brains memory (couldn't resist, sorry.)
Here are the ones I keep in mind.
a. The physical space on the page
b. The letters which make up the words
c. The sounds of the words, if you sound them out in your head
d. The writer
e. The reader
f. Time, place and space factors
g. The Take Away
We have covered physical space on the page. See my poem "Key-Board Lover" at poemhunter.com for another example of this point.
We have looked at words carefully with the exegesis of "Love's Remains" above.
We have looked at style issues and the music in a sentence or book, using my book "The Gospel of Lilith" as an example.
We have talked about the writer, you to some extent, and made recommendations on what it takes to sustain writing from health, to head, to heart.
We have just finished looking at historical factors which influence writing the great American novel, noting that our time, in America, is not a blank slate and has a history with a great piece of literature called the bible, which has to be reckoned with.
Now we will move to themes. Of course, the American story has not been a static one. Our mold did not end with biblical themes we have outlined above. American culture grew and changed. What has been the broad outlines of the changes we can identify in American literature? Have they outstripped the ones we have examined emanating from the bible? If there have been unique themes in American literature what has been their genesis and typology? Ah, something for tomorrow.
"How To Write The Great American Novel" Chapter Sixteen
Here we look at item "F" above; the themes in our examination of the American landscape, comparing these themes to those found in the bible have, of course, been impacted in the American example, by time, place and space factors. American history has ameliorated biblical themes and we now turn to have a look at the specific American version of those themes.
First, the United States, in many respects, represents a culmination of themes regarding justice, morality, freedom, equality long extent in the world. This country was, and still is, regarded as the "new world;" a place where there is chance to escape the stultification of countries and places ruled by tyrants, war-lords, murderers and killers. America, from early on, became the place of opportunity, a place where anything was possible, where one could come and get land, grow rich and be whatever you wanted to be.
This is the American myth structure. Now, the context and secret of this American offering was evident from the beginning; this "new world" had as its base, three pillars of what was to be its secrets of success. But first let us do context. Remember context? We need to understand the American context and then we can see how the themes in American history rolled out.
These crucial contextual items include the following:
1- America was born and matured as a frontier society which shaped and molded a rampant individualism on the mythic level. One man could as an individual was, and needed to be, as self-reliant as possible and, in being so, could change the world and create wealth with his/her bare hands on the frontier. This unbounded optimism still exists and was alive and well until George Bush killed it during his Presidency.
But this frontier aspect of the American experience also helped to form the America character. Rants against welfare mothers, Reagan democrats, and public poverty in the face of massive private wealth all attest to the sub-strata view that the individual is responsible for his or her plight and should not be given help of any kind. Rugged individualism for the rich, and massive dependent poverty for the poor. All of this remains in place psychologically even as the frontier closed over a hundred years ago; a view functional in a frontier society, not so in a wage slave society.
2- The pillars of this young American society included four other elements:
a. Isolation from Europe giving the new republic time to mature without getting smothered in its crib by jealous European nations.
b. Cheap labor and massive amounts of land taken from the native American population. Cheap labor was, of course, blacks taken from Africa and immigrants from the continent who cleared the land, farmed it, only to have it taken from them 150 years later by big Agriculture, developers and Washington taxes. The story of America, is in this regard, is the story of cheap labor. After all the nation's capital building itself was built by slaves.
c. Second and third pillars are cheap energy, (oil and coal) and cheap food round out the American pantheon of gifts that any nation needs to prosper. Everything else in American society, is and was built upon these pillars. It is only recently that the cheap energy pillar has fallen away. And right away we see the result. Cheap labor has gone and now lives in India and China. That other cheap energy (coal, gas) now threatens the planet with green house gases. And cheap food is still in place but being genetically altered and stuffed with antibiotics. Cheap, but poisonous food, is a bad idea.
So this is the American context and how does all this play out?
1. The individual is seen to be free, mobile and most came here to get their own plot of land, worship as they pleased and to enjoy the benefits of liberty. But from these noble aims, we can see getting rich easily becomes greed, rampant individualism easily becomes public poverty and an "I have mine, not you go get yours mentality", mobility becomes freedom of the road, not political freedom. We are a republic, not a democracy; and by the way you immigrants, blacks and women are not included in this freedom thing.
All of American history can be seen, (exaggerated of course) as the outs who were excluded at the beginning of the country clamoring to get in. It has taken 200 years and the process is not yet complete.
So the American additions to the biblical themes have been evident. But the basic conversation was set in the bible So looking at Twain, Faulkner, Moby Dick, The Grapes of Wrath--choose your great American writer or work--and you will see these themes and factors at play; a dialogue which under-grids the entire American society and continues to be played out in the daily newspapers. Moby Dick and Thoreau illustrate attitudes toward nature. Twain looks at slavery, "Grapes" talks about that cheap food and how it is produced and the disenfranchisement of people from the land by big argiculture and their transplantations into city-bound wage-slaves. These issues are also discussed in the bible and the early writers of the bible made clear their point of view and that view has been bore out to some extent in American history.
So here you are now getting ready to write that great American novel. Hopefully, you come to the enterprise much better grounded in the conversations that have come before you and with a better understanding of why some writers have been considered seminal or great. The answer is they have pushed that American dialogue further and illuminated some small new aspect of this American story.
Now you may say "that's great. But I just want to do a simple little mystery novel here and get rich. I don't have any of the high-fluting goals in my writing that you allude to."
Yes, how very American.
That is fine. But if you want to write the great American novel, then try to take the above seriously. If not, this Blog will be a book soon, in about a month, in an expanded version--perhaps I can persuade you with more detail in that book. Let me know if you want a pre-copy. I would welcome feed-back to make it a better book than it was a Blog.
Ah, this being Friday I am halting the Blog for the weekend to respond to emails some of you have sent and to take into consideration many of your ideas (thanks for sending them along, by the way-(-www.lonnie.lonniehicks.com)
How To Write The Great American Novel" Chapter Seventeen
Note on editing:
How do you edit? Always edit. Let a piece sit you thought was so great and come back to it a day later. That is when some of the best work can be done.
Here is what I do, (everyone has their own style.)
--I take out all of the "and's" and basically put in semi-colons. "Ands" break up the flow of a sentence.
--I check for the music in a sentence. I like mid-sentence rhyming loose or close and vowel rhyming; this inhances flow.
--I make sure every sentence is worthy of my pen.
--I check tenses and make sure that tenses don't undermine the sentence. For example "he walked to the door and then he opened it."
Take out the "and" and the "then" replace with a period. Secondly make it present tense where possible. "He walks to the door; he opens it." Seemingly small but the action is more immediate in my edited sentence and a little more drama there too. See "Asunder" for dramatic writing. I edited that piece like a movie shot in a single long scene. In fact I think it has just about four sentences before the finish.
A page-turner is "created" art unless the piece falls out of you perfect already. Few of us can do that. All pieces can be improved.
Of course typos, etc and then originality. Have I said something here new, original, could I even invent a concept here and follow its logic. Could I invent a new word or concept of words? Shakespeare did.
For example I did a series of pieces taking words and put "un" in front of them: "The unregained" 'Unlove" Unhappy. Note here that changing a word in this way creates a whole new word-world. Unlove is not the opposite of love. So what then is it? See my several pieces experimenting with the "un" development. I think an entirely new aspect of language may lie there.(Please don't say "uncola" I have heard that joke.)
5/13/10 Note on Music.
Note on Music: Some have asked what is meant by music. Music in a sentence or paragraph may vary but the music I like includes the following example.
"He was his own best friend and now best friend was telling him to move on; telling him to let it all alone."
Now if you can move the action and have music too, that is good. It falls easier on the reader’s ear if you have both elements. But what you say exactly is the music? Answer, it is subtle but it is vowel music.
Let's take a closer look:
1-"Best friend and best friend" is repetition music, just like many lyrics in a song repeat. It has a beat six beats ending in the first friend, "And not best friend" in the second clause." Note six beats in clause one and four beats in clause two. This equals ten beats. Note this is not just the famous 10 beat set, (Shakespeare used it lot) but ten beats matches the breathing cycle of human breathing as one reads, inhaling five, exhaling five. Moreover, it may match the beats of the human heart. A lot here huh?
I promise you I did this sentence spontaneously. Poetic training, training the mind, and hence the writing, to think in beats and music.
Now the second aspect of music in this sentence: "was telling him...." has both the music of repetition of a lyric but also rough rhyming between "friend" and "him." "Telling is repeated in the last clause and the sentence ends with 14 beats and ends with a rough rhyming between "move on" and "all alone."
Now some readers will not hear this music at all. But no matter. The point is that the writer if s/he has the music in him or her does. It is on the page and the reader will find the sentence pleasing, even if he/she does not recognize the music that is there.
That is why so many writers also write poetry. The poetic ear keeps the brain working and imbues prose with another layer of interest.
Of all scenes none is more important, perhaps, that the first scene which is part of the first page, the first paragraph, and the first sentence.
This has to accomplish a lot for the author: catch the reader’s attention, set the tone of the book, its initial impressions to the reader, begin the story in a riveting way and get the reader to paragraph two and perhaps introduce the reader to the main characters in the story.
That is a lot.
The opening line in fact, if an inspired one, can not only start a novel but make the entire novel revolve around that opening line.
Now if we look at the one page novels we did above we see that indeed they can be outlines for entire novels, or the beginning of a novel. Starting is always difficult.
So let's take a real example and then a fictitious one.
"The Gospel According to Lilith" begins with the line:
"Among the heavenly spires, upon the highest balcony, Lord watched Lucifer conduct the Worship of the Universe services for all the heavenly hosts."
Now the intent here was a combination of shock, awe, and to generate curiosity.
"Heavenly spires" asks the question: "Where are we? Are we in heaven? Is this novel going to take place in heaven.? Lords watches, invites the question is this God and then the answer comes: Lucifer is conducting worship services. Now this was Lucifer's role prior to his fall from grace but not many folks are aware.
What has been accomplished with this first sentence? We have set the scene, introduced two of the three main characters of the novel, described a novel scene, heaven itself, and introduced God himself into the story line.
It could be better but sometimes you have to choose, scene-setting or character or story introduction.
"This cannot be." he thought to himself.
We now want to know what cannot be. And the story is off and running at this point. God is speaker and he is angry about something. That something is the heart of the book--the betrayal of God by his wife, and the sequellia of that act is the content of the entire book, set up in the first three sentences; and I make it the seminal act in all of human history--God reacting to this betrayal. The entire book flows from there.
A second opening sentence is the one we used above; "I lie still, I must be dead."
Now this is not a novel and this is a made up sentence. But could it be a novel? What is set up in this sentence? The follow-on one-pager creates a scenario where a new born recognizes his mother as a familiar face from birth.
What novel can we write from this opening and did it accomplish the tasks we identified above: scene, characters, interest, and reader involvement?. A novel could be done from this where the mystery here at birth is never solved and the main character spends the novel trying to figure it all out. He goes to sooth-sayers, mystics, doctors and finally at some point at the museum the face of his mother appears on an Egyptian hieroglyph. There the story takes off into another direction. But the point is a novel can be born from a single sentence.
But as they say the opening sentence or scene is but the first step over the cliff.
Next time: What do I do after those first two incredible chapters?
How to develop characters after we have identified them. They exist but they also interact with other characters. Here is what I do. I often think of my characters as archetypes taken from dictionary definitions. Death, Love, Betrayal. These are already defined for me and I can extract their behaviors and points of view from the very definitions given me by the dictionary. Love for example has over 12 definitions. Which one will I use to describing my character's motivation in the novel?
Secondly characters for me often come from the poetry. I tend to write poetry which are mini-stories with main characters in them. The are portraits of individuals or circumstances-and many of them are taken from stories real people have shared with me.
So over time I have built up a libray of "characters" which I can use in novels and stories. Now I have characters, (real people) outlines, (my poems tend to be one-page novels) motivation and context.
Next of course you need a story and have an idea of how these characters will interact in the story.
I'll not deal with story yet because interactions, for me will dictate the story. I have a rule for my characters, they must be real and authentic. This is achieved since many of my stories are based on real people. But also characters which will hold the reader's interest for 250 pages should not be stereotypes. Of course this is done all the time. Mystery novels, romance novels operate from a formula but we aspire to more don't we? So what to do about characters interacting in our story?
I have one rule--characters must be given genuine not phony points of view. In "Gospel" I take Lucifer's point of view seriously and explore it in the novel as he interacts with God and Lilith. We want to know what his thinking is and was. it makes for more interesting reading and it might uncover heretofore unknown aspects of, in this case the bible.
And that is exactly what happened. I wanted to know what is the real dispute between God and Lucifer all about. I started the dispute with the betrayal but beyond that there was much more, which is explored in the book.
So characters have to come alive on the page by being real actors and real people. "Evil incarnate" is a stereotype.
Writing, Reading and Breathing
If we step back a moment we have three unstated characters in every book, the writer, the reader and the experience of reading the book. This relationship, in order to be satisfying, beyond the normal aspects of story, character etc., has the aspect of being a human experience. Let's not be vague here. Beats and heat-beats have their own rhythms and the normal breathing pattern has about five on the exhale and five in the inhale. The writer, in writing, can break up that pattern. Poetry can do this rather naturally, For suspense and danger we, in life, naturally bate our breath, or hold it. A sentence can encourage the reader to do this by its construction, contributing to the sense of suspense. Short sentences can mean short breathing patterns. But go beyond that and the reader will need to take a breath or pause to catch her/his breath.
A flow of breaths as in a sensuous poem will create a flowing, relaxed breathing pattern with perhaps, deeper breaths being taken. This oxygenates the brain and the reader may feel the mild euphoria this might entail. Similarly shorter breath can create a sense of panting.
All of this an example of how writing can create breathing patterns in the reader and an author must be aware of all this and write to that experience.
Let's take an example: She moved with such easy grace, the flowing was not noticeable because her eyes riveted you in place.
Seven beats to the word grace: the breathing here has been interrupted before the normal ten. Something here is arresting our attention. "Noticeable" ends the ninth beat. Our breathing is now becoming more normal because we held up the breathing pattern with only seven in the first clause. The last clause ending with "place" is ten beats--back to the normal breathing pattern.
The reading of the passage by the reader, creates a breathing pattern that matches what is being said in the passage. Writer and reader are in concert and breathing patterns created by the writing match the content of the passage and any meaning the author seeks to impart.
Pacing is important in all of this from the phrase level, to the sentence level, to the paragraph and the page and chapter. The same principles apply.,
Well, that was pretty flighty. Next time more.
The Curse of Chapter Three
Most writers can do one to three chapters. But what to say after you have said hello? We have captured our readers interest and the pages have been turned. But right about chapter three the beady eyes of the reader are upon you. Do you have a second act?
Much depends upon chapter three. So what do you do? First lets analyse chapter three. Working hard, you have set your scene, introduced your characters, set your story line in motion and now what?
Well, lets explore the possibilities:
1. Go into detail on one of the main characters and others. This introduces something new to the reader and keeps them locked in that chair for a while.
2-Change the time period, back-flashes etc
3-Change the dialogue, from exterior to interior. Jolt the reader.
5- Start what seems like a totally unrelated story.
6- Add some sex. This almost always works.
7- Have a violent scene, for this that like that kind of catharsis.
8- Start telling the story backwards. Create confusion and hopefully interest.
The list is endless and of course, depends upon your characters and your story.
Some people outline an entire book before writing but that can limit you when the time comes to fill in the detail and limits the actions of your characters. You might want to have them have the freedom to be spontaneous beneath your pen.
Now if you have a formula story going this won't be much of a problem, motivation is set: good wins our over evil.
But note here, for example, that this did not and would not have worked out in the "Lilith" book. At the end of the book Lucifer is winning. This was faithful to what actually happens in the bible. That is how the story is told there as well, to God's frustration.
Chapter three therefore, launches the true beginning of the book. Our opening two chapters are merely a literary device. Chapter three is fess up time and demands that we be real in our story. Most readers have one arm lofted above the beside reading table ready to dump you if chapter three fails. No pressure, just wanting you to know.
Next time: Are novelists expert liars and should we be encourging this?
Hint: that is one reason I tend toward writing about real people.
6-11-11 Writing from the Inside Out or the Outside In
Back at this blog again. Today lets look at perspective in writing. Some mean by this who is telling a story and from what perspective.
I do as well but I call it writing from the inside out as much as from the outside in.
A concrete illustration here:
"He was a tall man with a red flannel shirt and broad shoulders, standing by the window, whose grey eyes met my gaze steadily."
This is writtien for the outside describing the man in a mostly descriptive modality. This is many authors, no adverbs please, jack webb, hemingway, newspaper, crime story style.
Now lets see how this scene would play from the inside out.
"He was tall, and broad, too broad for the red flannel shirt he wore, and the eyes were grey scary to me for no real reason, and they stared at me thorugh me around me, engulfed me and then he blinked, a slow deliberate blink which was in itself scary as well."
Now which is better? Better in to word, full is a better word. What is the difference? With example one, the writer is playing the role of the objective observer without feelings or prejudices. For example in the Maltase Falcon, the mystery to me is that it takes an entire movie to discover what Sam Spade motives are in the entire affair; loyalty to a slain partner.
Why did it take an entire movie to make this clear. This is the outside perspective approach. We did not learn something critical about our hero until the story was. The rationale might be that this is fine, it is part of the story. True, But I for one do not want to be taken to ball and then get a dance only at the end.
Inside out has advantages in that we are kept in touch with a real person without losing the descriptive component. We can use that as well.
Secondly, inside-out gives a richness to the scence and more drama. This give each scene a beginning a middle and an end rather that a disjointed series of descriptions from which we may or may not be able to infer meaning.
If the take both protaganist and antagonist and give them flesh and blood, we have better story in my view and far more potential and the capacity for more intimacy, drama, and explosive motivations which cannot be described in a merely descriptive modality.
Some folks call this an "interior" style and their are many examples of this as well. But interior styles can become merely narcisstic vehicles and rather empty character studies in the wrong hands.
No, there is an art to inside-out style which I will explore tomorrow. See also "Writing the Great American Novel-Part Two" on this site.