A Jonah of Portugal: A Few Lines About Camoens

Jonah (in the Bible) is a Hebrew minor prophet. He was called by God to preach in Nineveh, but disobeyed and attempted to escape by sea; in a storm he was thrown overboard as a bringer of bad luck and swallowed by a great fish, only to be saved and finally succeed in his mission

Luís Vaz de Camões (or de Camoens) (c. 1524 – June 10 1580) is the greatest national poet of Portugal. He is best remembered for his epic work Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads), the influence of which is so profound that even today, Portuguese is often called the “language of Camões”. He is also well known as the man whose life was marked with numerous troubles, which seemed to accompany him like seagulls that follow a boat.

camoesMany details concerning the life of the poet remain unknown. The historians learned many facts about his young life from his poems: Camoens was lucky to obtain a good education by having access to exclusive literature of that time, including classical Greek, Roman and Latin works. He used to read a lot in Latin and Italian, and wrote poetry in Spanish.

Now, comes the interesting part: having studied a massive amount of books, Camoens — an incurable romantic and idealist — fell in love with Catherine of Ataíde, lady-in-waiting to the Queen, and also Princess Maria, sister of John III of Portugal. Like many other immature and brave romantics-in-love, the young man had a sharp tongue and, as a sequence, could not find common language with authorities, which resulted in his exile from Lisbon in 1548. Camoens traveled to Ribatejo where he stayed in the company of friends who sheltered and fed him for about six months.

In the fall of 1549, he enlisted in the overseas militia and traveled to Ceuta. During a battle with the Moors, he lost the sight in his right eye. In 1551, a changed man, Camoens eventually returned to Lisbon, living a bohemian lifestyle.

Not for long, though. In 1552, during the religious festival of Corpus Christi, in the Largo do Rossio, he injured a member of the Royal Stables and was imprisoned. His mother pleaded for his release, visiting royal ministers and the Borges family for a pardon. Released, Camoens was ordered to pay 4,000 réis and serve three years in the militia in the Orient.

He departed in 1553 for Goa on board the São Bento, the ship arrived to Goa six months later, and Camoens was immediately imprisoned for debt. He used to call Goa “a stepmother to all honest men”.

At that point in his life, Camoens was made to believe that adventure is the real man’s second name. During his first obligatory service, he took part in a battle along the Malabar Coast. The battle was followed by skirmishes along the trading routes between Egypt and India. The fleet eventually returned to Goa by November 1554. During his time ashore, he continued his writing publicly, as well as writing correspondence for the uneducated men of the fleet.

Camoens

Luís de Camões

Foge-me pouco a pouco a curta vida
(se por caso é verdade que inda vivo);
vai-se-me o breve tempo d’ante os olhos;
choro pelo passado e quando falo,
se me passam os dias passo e passo,
vai-se-me, enfim, a idade e fica a pena.

Little by little it ebbs, this life,
if by any chance I am still alive;
my brief time passes before my eyes.
I mourn the past in whatever I say;
as each day passes, step by step
my youth deserts me—what persists is pain.

At the end of his obligatory service, he was given the position of chief warrant officer in Macau. He was charged with managing the properties of missing and deceased soldiers in the Orient. During this time he worked on his epic poem Os Lusíadas (“The Lusiads”) in a grotto.

CamoensGrotto

Camoens Grotto, Macao

Uh-huh. Once a Jonah always a Jonah! Camoens was accused of misappropriations and had to travel to Goa and respond to the accusations of the tribunal. During his return journey, near the Mekong River along the Cambodian coast, he was shipwrecked, saving his manuscript but losing his Chinese lover, Dinamene. His shipwreck survival in the Mekong Delta was enhanced by the legendary detail that he succeeded in swimming ashore while holding aloft the manuscript of his still-unfinished epic.

In 1570 Camoens finally made it back to Lisbon, where two years later he published Os Lusíadas, for which he was considered one of the most prominent Iberian poets at the time. In recompense for this poem or perhaps for services in the Far East, he was granted a small royal pension (15000 réis) by the young and ill-fated King Sebastian (ruled 1557–1578).

In 1578 he heard of the appalling defeat of the Battle of Alcácer Quibir, where King Sebastian was killed and the Portuguese army destroyed. The Castilian troops were approaching Lisbon when Camoens wrote to the Captain General of Lamego:

“All will see that so dear to me was my country that I was content to die not only in it but with it”.

Camões died in Lisbon in 1580, at the age of 56. The day of his death, 10 June OS, is Portugal’s national day. He is buried near Vasco da Gama in the Jerónimos Monastery in the parish of Belém in Lisbon.

camoens2

Mick Jagger and a Russian Book

mick-Woland

I just learned that when Mick Jagger (of The Rolling Stones) was writing his song “Sympathy for the Devil”, he was inspired by the book which I love more than many other books taken together and find one of the best books ever written in Russian. In one of his 2012 interviews, Jagger stated that his influence for the song came from reading Baudelaire, and even more from the Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita. Jagger got the book as a present from his girlfriend Marianne Faithfull. Back in 2005, Marianne herself confirmed this during an interview for Mojo magazine: «I got Mick to read ‘The Master and Margarita’ and out of that, after discussing it at length with me, he wrote that song».

Master and Margarita, written in the 1930-es, became available to the English-speaking readers only in 1967. The translators, of course, did their best. Still. the book is so thought-provoking and the story world (Moscow of the 1930-ies, the peak of Stalin’s power) is so unique that majority of the readers prefer to return to it again and again to understand and sense it better.

As a Russian speaker by birth, I have the pleasure of enjoying the masterpieces of Russian literature and poetry in originals. Every couple of months, Bulgakov’s books turn up on my table and I never put them back to the shelf until I read everything through to the very end. I am not surprised at all that Mick Jagger was inspired by the book to write a new song. If you have not read The Master and Margarita yet, do so. You will feel like having opened a new door which you used to pass by for years, and now you finally pushed it open.

P.S. Finally, another cute trivia: Ray Manzarek of the legendary band The Doors had for a long time hoped to make a movie picture based on The Master and Margarita, he believed that Mick Jagger would be the best candidate to play Professor Woland in the movie. As far as I know, the movie was never made.

Based on Wikipedia and www.masterandmargarita.eu

Sympathy for the Devil

The Rolling Stones

Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man’s soul to waste

And I was ’round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game

I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the czar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain

I rode a tank
Held a general’s rank
When the blitzkrieg raged
And the bodies stank

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name, oh yeah
Ah, what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game, oh yeah
(Woo woo, woo woo)

I watched with glee
While your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades
For the gods they made
(Woo woo, woo woo)

I shouted out,
“Who killed the Kennedys?”
When after all
It was you and me
(Who who, who who)

Let me please introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
And I laid traps for troubadours
Who get killed before they reached Bombay
(Woo woo, who who)

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah
(Who who)
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game, oh yeah, get down, baby
(Who who, who who)

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah
But what’s confusing you
Is just the nature of my game
(Woo woo, who who)

Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails
Just call me Lucifer
‘Cause I’m in need of some restraint
(Who who, who who)

So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
(Woo woo)
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I’ll lay your soul to waste, mm yeah
(Woo woo, woo woo)

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guessed my name, mm yeah
(Who who)
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game, mm mean it, get down
(Woo woo, woo woo)

Woo, who
Oh yeah, get on down
Oh yeah
Oh yeah!
(Woo woo)

Tell me baby, what’s my name
Tell me honey, can ya guess my name
Tell me baby, what’s my name
I tell you one time, you’re to blame

Oh, who
Woo, woo
Woo, who
Woo, woo
Woo, who, who
Woo, who, who
Oh, yeah

What’s my name
Tell me, baby, what’s my name
Tell me, sweetie, what’s my name…

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Albert Einstein: My Credo

What follows is a repost of Albert Einstein’s speech written in 1932. Wonderful words. Amazing work of thought. A message of a genius to all of us.

Albert-Einstein

The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious.

Albert Einstein. My Credo

[Part I]
“It is a special blessing to belong among those who can and may devote their best energies to the contemplation and exploration of objective and timeless things. How happy and grateful I am for having been granted this blessing, which bestows upon one a large measure of independence from one’s personal fate and from the attitude of one’s contemporaries. Yet this independence must not inure us to the awareness of the duties that constantly bind us to the past, present and future of humankind at large.

Our situation on this earth seems strange. Every one of us appears here, involuntarily and uninvited, for a short stay, without knowing the why and the wherefore. In our daily lives we feel only that man is here for the sake of others, for those whom we love and for many other beings whose fate is connected with our own.

I am often troubled by the thought that my life is based to such a large extent on the work of my fellow human beings, and I am aware of my great indebtedness to them.

I do not believe in free will. Schopenhauer’s words: ‘Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills,’ accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me. This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper.

I have never coveted affluence and luxury and even despise them a good deal. My passion for social justice has often brought me into conflict with people, as has my aversion to any obligation and dependence I did not regard as absolutely necessary.

[Part 2]
I have a high regard for the individual and an insuperable distaste for violence and fanaticism. All these motives have made me a passionate pacifist and antimilitarist. I am against any chauvinism, even in the guise of mere patriotism.

Privileges based on position and property have always seemed to me unjust and pernicious, as does any exaggerated personality cult. I am an adherent of the ideal of democracy, although I know well the weaknesses of the democratic form of government. Social equality and economic protection of the individual have always seemed to me the important communal aims of the state.

Although I am a typical loner in daily life, my consciousness of belonging to the invisible community of those who strive for truth, beauty, and justice keeps me from feeling isolated.

The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as of all serious endeavour in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all there is.”

Einstein signature, 1932

Courtesy of the Albert Einstein Archives, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.

________________________________________

Picture credits:
Courtesy of the Albert Einstein-Archives, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, Call Nr 28-218.00: 1
Hans-Josef Küpper, Cologne: 2, 3

On the Importance of Page One

(3 min. read)

beautiful journalist looks typewriter

Page One challenge

Whenever I happen to read my students’ essays and theses, I seldom need more than a couple of minutes to make an opinion about the quality of their work: evaluation of research always involves the same sequence of steps–

  • read the title to pick out the most significant words (keywords) in it and to learn about the subject of the research paper;
  • study the Contents page, which is supposed to outline the general logic of the research;
  • look through the introduction really quickly, to see how the author identifies the goal, the tasks and the main methodology of the research; and
  • take a quick look at the section called ‘Conclusion’.

If I see some red flags in these parts of the thesis, I open the text at a random page and read a couple of random sentences: this gives me understanding of the author’s level of professionalism, awareness of the ‘rules’ of academic writing, and the amount of effort put into the writing of this thesis. After reading of a few sentences, I can easily say whether the author did a thorough, diligent work of writing or not. Quite often, when the writing style is complex and even unclear, it reveals quite the opposite of professionalism. This is why the best works of science are written in such a language that even an 8-year-old can understand what the talk is about in the research.

Before I started writing fiction, I thought that similar evaluation of fiction manuscript swould be impossible, because fiction writing is such a creative process and it is always absolutely unique. Now, when I have finished a few works of fiction, I realize (and strongly support) the fact that evaluation of a fiction manuscript by editors and agents is also done in a similar way, by means of applying a certain sequence of actions which serve as bench mark measurements to identify the level of the author’s professionalism and talent.

Johannes_Vermeer_The_Geographer

Johannes Vermeer. The Geographer. 1668.

 Every evaluation involves applying some system of measurements to the object of evaluation; even such thing as talent of a master in any form of art can (and should) be measured.

This is what Carly Watters, a literary agent, writes in her blog about reading manuscripts of fiction authors:

“I wish I had time to give writers (and their books) more of a chance but I can tell a lot by one page: sense of dialogue, setting, pace, character, voice, and writing talent–yes, usually all from one page. Five at the most.”

Carly gives us her measurement criteria: sense of dialogue, setting, pace, character, voice and the general impression of the author’s writing style which she calls writing talent. I am very thankful to Carly for sharing this with us. Isn’t it great to know how your first page will be assessed by a professional?

But how can we measure talent? I kept asking myself this question until I have done evaluation of dozens of graduate students’ thesis. The answer is quite simple: the talent of a scientist is measured by the readers’ ability to understand and follow his/her writing.  During life, with lots of reading and learning experiences, every person develops a certain pattern (stereotype) of mental strategies which help us understand each other’s way of thinking. The professionalism (and also the talent) of a scientist is his/her ability to use commonly accepted patterns to explain their unique ideas in a simple and attractive way.  I think the evaluation of a fiction writer’s talent is done similarly: if the narration ‘sounds’ attractive, realistic, exciting and quite simple to digest, the manuscript is good and is worth reading. The very first page will inevitably reveal this.

In her article, Carly Watters suggests a few tips to attract the reader to your manuscript from the very first page:

  • Learn how to balance what readers need to know vs. what you, as the writer, want to tell us;
  • Learn what “start with action” really means;
  • Let us know who has secrets; keep the reader curious;
  • Be wary of information dumps;
  • Introduce characters on a need-to-know basis; and
  • Never assume a reader is going to finish your first page, first chapter, or whole book.

You can look up her explanations about each tip in her article. The bottom line is, every author needs to know these ‘tricks’ and check their whole manuscripts for compliance with the editors criteria, because, in fact, they are not the editors’ whims, but the common, universal patterns of perception of fiction, which form readers’ expectations of our books. This is why her majesty Page One is so important, and this is why I am off to  sit down and check my own Page One for compliance with these requirements– right away!

William_Howen_allchin_Open Book

William T.Howell Allchin. Open Book.

Bye Bye, Blackboard!

(A few thoughts about modern education)

learning1

My group of graduate students called me yesterday to say that they could not attend my class because four of them were having a cold and the rest would be working in the morning hours. In this semester, my class with this group fell on the day when they have no other classes at all (we use to call such days ‘library days’), and of course my students would prefer to spend it taking care of their own affairs.

“All right,” I said, “let us see when we can do it.”

It took us not more than a minute to revise a few options and agree to arrange an online afternoon class instead, in a time convenient for everyone. My students were very thankful to me for understanding, and I was glad to have a chance to use all available Internet resources during my class, because there is so much you can share with your students if you have direct access to the Internet resources right during the discussion!

After the online class, we remained online with one girl for a few minutes to clear up some information regarding her diploma thesis, and that was when she confessed to me that, more often than not, teachers grow quite upset if they find out that their students combine work and study; they rarely agree to change time of their class, to say nothing about giving a class online.

To my regret, Ukrainian system of higher education remains highly conservative and snail-paced. The largest state universities, which traditionally set the pace of all processes in the whole educational system, are the slowest when it comes to having to revise programs of study, curricula or teaching approaches, even when the changes seem obvious and inevitable. They prefer to turn their backs to the newest technologies and look like mammoths of the academic system rather than to make changes and improve the system.

learning2

Still, the changes are coming and they are inevitable. Today, when people around the world have become accustomed to communicating with each other remotely, it is obvious that they expect to have this opportunity everywhere – in the streets, at home, at work and of course during the process of learning. If my students spend their morning time wearing headphones and listening to audiobooks online just to pratice their English, and then roam through the Internet in search of materials for their essays during their subway ride to the university, how on Earth can I make my classes interesting in a classroom equipped only with a blackboard and a piece of chalk?

Soyer, Paul Constant, 1823-1903; Old Man and a Young Girl Learning to Read

We all have to realize and agree with the fact that the time of reading coursebooks has passed. It does not mean that we should stop reading books, no. But we’ve got to adapt to the fact that we need to combine all available ways of information perception — books, the Internet resources, and all possible audio and video based information — to share knowledge with students Why? Because-

learning should be consistent with the requirements of the time.

In the nearest time, all students will interact with others remotely, and teachers who will try to keep their students in classrooms by telling them about the pleasures of silent contemplation of books, are going to fail miserably. Again: why? Becausein the 21st century-

reading books has become an intimate, pleasurable and luxurious, yet time-consuming occupation, which very few can afford.

Alas! This is true. Reading, as well as real-time listening to a highly skilled professional in the quetness of a library or a museum, has become an unaffordable luxury because the most precious thing of the 21st century is time (not money anymore!). If some of us have not realized this yet, they will. Very soon. I am sure.

learning3

One more thing to add to this is a simple fact that in this situation, people’s general attitude to acquiring diplomas (as well as other forms of professional certification) is going to change.

Very soon, pictures like the one you can see below, will become exclusively the property of art. Even today we are more accustomed to seeing kids using electronic devices instead of books, and, however sad it may sound to us, the older generation, the faster means of learning will take over, and this is going to happen in the nearest few years.

learning5 The situation when students had to adapt to the requirements of the educational system will soon change to the exact opposite: the system will have to adapt to the realia of life, and– you know what? I cannot wait for this to happen.

Writing with a Good ‘Flow’

write

How much of rhythm should prose have? It is obvious that achieving a certain rhythm (I would even call it a ‘beat’) is critical in poetry, but in prose… should we care at all?

Dictionaries, which, in fact, are perfect antithesis to poetry, say:

In writingrhythm is defined by punctuation and the stress patterns of words in a sentence. Long sentences sound smoother, while short sentences make your content snappier.

Well, honestly, this definition does not look complete to me. Some significant component is missing here, because this definition speaks only about the mechanics of writing, but says nothing about the author’s talent of creating individual ‘beat’ that makes every sentence sound like this author’s unique, personal accent.

When we describe our most favorite books of fiction, we often say, among other things, that “they are easy and pleasing to read and have a good flow.” Critics usually say that “this is all down to the structure and length of sentences”, as well as to the amount of syllables in each chosen word-combination, and the breaks / pauses which the author puts on certain places. [Richard GilbertBen Smith]

writing that flows

When the authors of prose discuss their work, they like to brag about ‘making it sound nice’,  but unfortunately, with tons of books being published today, readers are becoming less and less interested in having it ‘flow’. And writers in their turn, stop paying attention to the ways they put words together.

Still, some people are used to reading fiction aloud in their heads, I am one of them. This habit makes us look for the desired rhythm in the first place. We would never finish a book which ‘is not good in the sound and rhythm’, and to my mind, it is the sound and rhythm that immeduately gives away a talented author. It is the rhythm that will either keep the readers turning pages, or bore them to a stop.

Let us look at a few examples, I just made a little analysis for this article:

Rhythm and Sound in W.S,Maugham’s Prose

It’s a funny thing about life; if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it.” W.Someset Maugham

.._._._._;._._…_, …_._.

[A] [Y] [A] [A]  [jU]  [E] [E] [A] [E]

Rhythm and sound pattern: [a]-[a]  [e]-[e]  [a]-[e]

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, (pause) no one knows what they are.” W.Someset Maugham

.._ _._.._.; ._..(pause) ._._.._

[E-U] [A] [A]  [O] [O] [A] [A]

Rhythm and sound pattern: [a]-[a]-[o]  [o]-[a]-[a]

Love is only a dirty trick (very short pause) played on us to achieve continuation of the species.” W.Someset Maugham

.._._._(very short pause) _…_…_._

[A] [eO] [Y] [A] [Y] [A] [Y]

Rhythm and sound pattern: [a]-[y]  [a]-[y]  [a]-[y]

In W.Somerset Maugham’s writing, the rhythm is complex, but you can sense the patterns which he follows in every sentence. There is a whole set of such patterns, but the set is unique for every individual writer.

This is what we call ‘авторский почерк’ (author’s unique handwriting or style) in Russian, and I am sure this is true for every piece of literature in every language of the world: the combination of rhythm and sound is the main criterion of every talented author’s unique manner of writing.

Here are a few more examples:

Rhythm and Sound in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Prose

What sane person could live in this world and not be crazy?”

Rhythm and sound pattern: [a]-[o]  [o]  [o]-[a]

When you light a candle, you also cast a shadow.’

Rhythm and sound pattern: [a]-[a]  [a]  [a]-[a]

Morning comes whether you set the alarm or not.’

Rhythm and sound pattern: [a]-[a]  [e]  [a]-[a]

Of course, rhythm is especially important in certain genres of prose, like fantasy, or — if we think deeper — also in mystery, in suspense, in romance, in… ah, everywhere!

Look at Neil Gaiman’s sentences: aren’t they truly poetic?

Rhythm and Sound in Neil Gaiman’s Prose

It is a fool’s prerogative to utter truths that no one else will speak.’

Rhythm and sound pattern: [u]-[o]   [a][u]   [o]-[y]

Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters.’

Rhythm and sound pattern: [a]-[e]   [a][e]   [a][e]   [a]-[e]

‘Sometimes that’s enough to see you safe wherever you go. But mostly, it’s not.’

Rhythm and sound pattern: [a]-[a]   [a]-[o]   [o][o]

Well, every talented author has a unique signature rhythm that keeps her readers turning pages. I think every writer should continuously explore their personal rhythms of writing. It is also very useful to study reader responses to different rhythms, melodies of speech and beats if we want to develop unique ways of writing and become recognizeable by our writing style.

writing-roller-coaster

‘One Man’s Meat…’ (A few words about clichés)

hack5

Every EFL (English as a foreign language) teacher always feels happy to find a new frequently used word or a popular phrase and share it with her students. As I was looking through recent publications about the art of writing this morning, I ran across an article called ‘The List of Clichés You Should Strike Down in Editing‘. The article offers great tips on writing for authors and provides “a non-definitive list of clichés to avoid”.

My first thought on seeing it was: “Oh, it is good to know for my future writing experiences.” But the longer I studied the list, the more interested I became.

“Wait a minute,” I said to myself, “as a foreigner, I didn’t even know that some of these word combinations have a reputation of hackneyed phrases, and probably people in other English speaking countries wouldn’t find them ‘hackneyed’, either.

hackneyed (1)

Then I thought that, as long as these phrases have gained the reputation of being used too often, they are probably well-understood and accepted by thousands of people, which means… that my students need to know them!

Really, what can disgust an editor becomes a desired tidbit for a teacher and her students. Here is the list from the article. Learners of English, enjoy!

Chip off the old block
Loose cannon
Ace up his sleeve
Scared of his own shadow
Add insult to injury
Avoid like the plague
Let the cat out of the bag
Bad to the bone
Cross that bridge when we come to it
Bald-faced liar
Trial by fire
Bark is worse than his bite
Beggars can’t be choosers
Armed to the teeth
Bee in her bonnet
Ugly as sin
Bent out of shape
Bend over backwards
The bigger they are, the harder they fall
Let off some steam
Burning the candle at both ends
Caught red handed
A checkered past
Until the cows come home
Take the bull by the horns
Fit as a fiddle
Chomping/Champing at the bit
Come hell or high water
Cute as a button
No stone unturned
The devil is in the details
All your eggs in one basket
Don’t rock the boat
Down in the dumps
Beat around the bush
Driven up the wall
Keep an ear to the ground
Level the playing field
Barking up the wrong tree
Everything but the kitchen sink
For all intents and purposes
Force to be reckoned with
In the nick of time
It goes without saying
Knock it out of the park
Neither here nor there
Bite the bullet
Nothing to sneeze at
Older than dirt
Open a can of worms
Pleased as punch
Quiet as a mouse
Weed them out
The whole hog
Go the whole nine yards
Work like a dog
Get up on the wrong side of the bed
Yanking your chain
Nip it in the bud
Tough as nails
At the end of the day
When push comes to shove
No use crying over spilt milk
Back to the drawing board
Phone it in

hackneyed

Learning to Outline

book_outlineIn the Soviet time, when I studied at school and later at university, no one ever bothered to teach us any methods of writing. We never did any training in organizing or planning compositions, not to mention such things as structuring book plots or writing marketable outlines. As far as I know, the situation has not changed much since then in the post-Soviet educational establishments, so many of my compatriots, even those with diplomas of journalists (no universities have ever had any programs for fiction writers here) have a good understanding of how to plan, or structure, or organize a text. So, I have been learning to do this from A to Z, previously as an academic books author and now as a beginner in fiction writing.

I really loved to study K.M.Weiland’s book “Structuring Your Novel” and I have her brilliant novel structure scheme on my table all the time:

RESIZED-structuring-your-novel-visual-chart-screenshot My other favorite guide is the 3-Act Structure guide, which is skillfully described by Emma Johnson  and a number of other experts in methodology of writing.

Three-act-structure_1

Yes, I prefer to call it by a boring word methodology, because in fact, it is always a method that turns any action into a skill.

Method is the only tool that can turn a spontaneous action into a skill.

In my culture the learners of this kind would be called “samouchka” (“самоучка”, Rusian: a self-studying person), which means that I often have to develop my own methods of doing things. So I do.

I have developed a convenient scheme of outlining fiction books for potential marketers, based on the existing novel structuring methodologies, which I mentioned above. Below, is my little scheme (or model):

A Novel Outline Model

With [some unusual condition that distinguishes him] [the main character’s name] is looking forward to a [the main character’s primary intention or goal]. Instead he walks into [First Disaster], and [Point of no return].


[The second main character’s name] has been [the 2-nd main character’s condition in the beginning of the book]. But [his/her initial intention/goal] is confounded by [the conflict of the story].


[The main character’s name] becomes involved into [Second Disaster (The Midpoint: the main character’s push to action, his move to different circumstances)], so he/she is seeking [the main character’s new goal]. Instead, he/she discovers [the 2-nd Pinch point event, when the antagonist’s power is reaffirmed], and faces [Third Disaster (an event that provokes the inexorable course towards the Climax].

I have played with the model, trying to create outlines for my books, and it seems to work well! With this structure (plus some time spent on polishing of the outline) I can create outlines a lot faster than just by doing it out of my mind. You are very welcome to try it, and please, tell me if you can think of improvements for this model.

I will greatly appreciate any comments and suggestions. Thank you!

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Verbal Art Made Visible

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I’d like to begin this one with a quote:

“Conflict generates energy and that energy, at its best, reveals a universal truth. In almost every iconic masterpiece you will see this equation at work. Writers would be well served to seek out some of these iconic visual works and examine them closely.” Annie Weatherwax

These words belong to an artist, who found her way to writing fiction by studying masterpieces of visual art- a necessary component of education for every creative person, which so many representatives of the verbal arts world ignore today.

Conflict is a critical condition for plot development in fiction writing. Tension, its inevitable product, helps keep the story dynamics and thus, ensures its ripeness and thoroughness. As Annie Waterwax notes,

“Tension is a primary component in all forms of art, achieved by the conflict between opposing elements. It’s the tension that holds our interest. In a masterpiece, the energy created by that tension reveals a universal truth. And a masterful artist does this without the viewer knowing it. She slips the message into our collective subconscious unnoticed.”

This peculiar talent of knowing how to send ‘the message into our collective subconscious’ is often overlooked by writers as something irrelevant, and the reason why they cannot do it is lack of general aesthetic education. Sadly, fiction writing is rarely mentioned as an art form today (in my opinion, it still is); the widely accepted ‘standards’ of fiction writing focus mainly on genre, plot and structure requirements, while the artistic beauty of writing is just a nice additional bonus, welcomed mainly by publishers, because majority of readers are rather attracted by fast-pace plot development and intrigue than by the way it works to enrich our aesthetic personality. Overwhelming majority of people today prefer visual arts and music to reading, while appreciation for the beauty of writing style and its harmony with genre and structure of the story is regarded as an extravagant whim of the few.

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Still, knowing a lot about art in general helps every writer, because it broadens their imagination and develops their artistic taste. I am glad to see that the most appreciated fiction writers today (irrespectively of the genre they write in) are always people of good aesthetic taste (quite often, they are passionate art lovers). 

Putting it simply, developing a good aesthetic taste is a way to see more beauty around you, and- yes, one needs to learn to see beauty! And beauty is exactly that energy, mentioned above, which reveals universal truths to a person. Without learning about it, an author lacks necessary means of high-quality writing.

Our imagination is born deep inside our mind, in the storage of memory, knowledge and life experiences which we have accumulated during our lives. If we have a good deal of beautiful images, associations and emotional memories stored there, the final products of our imagination have more potential to be beautiful, too. Only an author who has a good taste for visual (musical and other) arts can create really beautiful verbal pictures and deliver them to other people’s minds. I think we should always remember this when we sit down to create our masterpieces in writing.

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Suspense… in Life and in Fiction Writing

 I have been reading about the role of suspense in fiction writing and, as it often happens in the world of writers, I found a number of excellent articles describing features and merits of suspense, but none of them provided a decent definition of the term. Some works characterize suspense as a “sense of anticipation or worry that the author makes the reader feel” (https://prezi.com/wyt6zmamrm9w/elements-of-suspense-in-literature/ or http://elementsoflit.weebly.com/foreshadowing-and-suspense.html), which provides general understanding of the role of suspense, but is a bit misleading because, according to this description, suspense is a human feeling: an emotion, that’s all.

The scheme which I posted above presents suspense in one row with other genres of literature: mystery, horror. It is not the first time that I see attempts to present suspense as a whole separate genre of litreature:

“So, you’ve been working on a new novel… what genre? Historical again?”

“No. Suspense.”

“Ah, I see.”

Maeve Maddox, the author of the article ‘Is Your Novel “Mystery,” “Thriller,” or “Suspense”?’ (https://www.dailywritingtips.com/is-your-novel-mystery-thriller-or-suspense/) calls suspense a separate genre of fiction, with a note that “sometimes the three are presented as separate genres, and sometimes they’re lumped together as Mystery/Suspense, or Suspense/Thriller”. This shows that many authors and critics today have realized that suspense is not necessarily a mystery or horror, it is something different, because its meaning has changed for the reader. The reader sees suspense as a puff of obscurity on her face.

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Suspense is not necessarily a mystery or horror, it is simply a puff of obscurity on your face.

“SUSPENSE: the main character may become aware of danger only gradually. In a mystery, the reader is exposed to the same information as the detective, but in a suspense story, the reader is aware of things unknown to the protagonist. The reader sees the bad guy plant the bomb, and then suffers the suspense of wondering when or if it will explode.” (Maeve Maddox; Please, find the link above)

This description corresponds well with the above scheme and also shows specificities of suspense as a high-grade genre of fiction literature. So I have been wondering: isn’t it a sign signaling to all authors that a new genre has been born and is actively building its way into the list of “traditional” genres of fiction? Can I write in a letter to a literary agent: “My novel is a suspence with some elements of fantasy”, or would it be safer to call my novel a “suspense fantasy”, where the main accent falls on the word “fantasy”?

Can we call suspense a genre of fiction? If yes, how ripe is the genre today? Somehow I have no doubt that suspense will soon form into a separate, widely accepted genre of lirature, because in the 21-st century people who read are seeking for fast-paced, action-packed, yet emotional fiction, and suspense is exactly what they need, because it apeals to the readers’ hearts.

In their reviews of suspense, some authors just leave it without a definition and move right on to discussing the distinguishing qualities of suspense fiction in comparison with other genres. Here is, by the way, a very good analysis by Stephen James, called Six Secrets to Creating and Sustaining Suspense, available on Writers Digest at http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/6-secrets-to-creating-and-sustaining-suspense. In this article, the author looks at four factors necessary for suspense – reader empathy, reader concern, impending danger, and escalating rension – which are regarded as the author’s roadmap to the readers’ hearts. Then, the author suggests six ideas, or tasks, which a writer should set and achieve to create a good suspense effect in a piece of fiction:

  • put characters in jeopardy;
  • include more promises and less action;
  • keep every promise you make;
  • let the characters tell readers their plans;
  • cut down on the violence; and
  • be one step ahead of yur readers.

These tips, along with the detailed explanations provided in the article, must be very valuable for every author, as they set direction for an author’s effort, and still, these are just tools of suspense as a writing method, they are not the laws of a genre… yet.

Stephen James concludes his article with the words-

“No matter what you write, good prose really is all about sharpening the suspense.”

Well, if this statement is true, it does not make suspense a separate genre yet, but it surely makes it even more: a cross-genre requirement, a condition of achieving high quality of writing, a goal to which every author should strive, regardless of the genre they are trying to conquer.

Well, to me, the question is still there: what place does suspense have in contemporary literature? Is it already a separate genre or is it rather a method of writing?

Do you believe that in a couple of years, when more suspense masterpieces have arrived, all book stores will install shelves with a one-word sign “SUSPENSE”?

If you have answers to these questions, please, share. I will appreciate any comments on this. Thank you.

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Today, suspense is a method of writing, which is making its way to become a separate genre of fiction.

 

Corey Williams

writer and director

~ dreams to remember ~

Willie Gordon Suting | poet | writer | freelancer | bibliophile | crooner | fashionista | Shillong,Meghalaya,Northeast India

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