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Summerfest 2013: Artisanal Software For Writers

You don’t need great software to be a great writer, but it helps. That’s why I was excited to see Eastgate Systems partner with a number of other indie software developers to offer special deals on software designed for writers.

I haven’t tried most of these titles, but I can vouch for Scrivener. It is expertly designed to help you organize your thoughts. Notes on characters, places, themes, or any other subject live in harmony beside your text, always accessible, never getting in your way. I use it whenever I’m working on any prose longer than a page. Scrivener is well worth the money at full price. At 20% off it is a steal 1.

Typing furiously into Microsoft Word can certainly get the job done, but it’s a blunt instrument. It’s nice to know that there are tools designed by and for authors to help with some of the heavy lifting 2.

  1. To be clear, this is not a paid endorsement.
  2. In the spirit of right tools for the right job, let me also endorse Mars Edit as a blogging tool. It’s much cleaner than writing directly into your browser, and you don’t have to worry about losing a post if the browser crashes.
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In Defense of Jack Kerouac

August 15, 2012 2 comments

“Stay in the flesh. Stay in the limbs and lips and in the belly. Stay in the breast and womb. Stay there, O Soul, where you belong”

— D.H Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, on Walt Whitman

Art and Fandom will always be difficult to separate. Writers and artists tend to be complicated individuals who can appeal to different groups for vastly different reasons. Lasting art tends to be more than a symbol for a single idea, but instead is more like a collage of conflicting impulses. Naturally, some people will gravitate to a particular aspect of a song or movie or book that others may find peripheral. For example, you may enjoy the rustic country-rock of American Beauty while having no interest in living in a VW Microbus and living off nitrous and hash brownies. You may enjoy the depiction of the corruption of the American Dream in The Sopranos while understanding that ending sentences with “Fugetaboutit!” just isn’t funny. 

Art can be pegged to times, places, philosophies, or aesthetics. Just as Johnny Cash’s later recordings will always represent the end of life, and Big Star will always remind you of that year you smoked a ton of pot and almost flunked out of college, for  many of us On The Road will always mark the period where we started dipping our toes outside of the horizon we grew up with. It was a document that said that there were real choices in life, and it’s been a favorite of bored middle class teenagers for over 50 years. 

On The Road has taken on a lot of baggage over the last several generations. There’s a definite sense of juvenile excitement. A rebellious, selfish, angry-young-man quality built in to the very premise of the novel that seems painfully, self consciously earnest at times. There comes a time when you start to worry about problems bigger than where to find the next apple pie and ice cream. Drifting from town to town, family to family, is no way to live a life. Worse than the text, even, are the folks who see this as a guide to life.

We’ve probably all met someone who read On The Road and saw it as a manual for escaping responsibility. Many of us went through that phase ourselves at some point. And much like any philosophy that requires you to live more deeply in some text than in real life, that attitude can be infuriating. So it’s not surprising, or even unfair, that at Katie J.M. Baker takes issue with Kerouac, and his fans. 

“Whenever anyone tells me they ‘adore’ On The Road — which doesn’t happen that often because I don’t hang out with sixteen-year-olds”, she says, ” I can’t help but think she or he isn’t particularly well-read, just eager to come off as adventurous, spontaneous, and/or sexy. ” Fair enough. On The Road has become less a novel than a cultural token expressing a desire for some sort of “freedom”, which can mean whatever the speaker wants it to mean. But that’s not to say we should write Kerouac off. 

Kerouac’s great contribution was not jumping in a car in search of adventure. I’d argue that his great contribution to literature was awe. Along with Allen Ginsburg, Kerouac was instrumental in keeping alive a sense of majesty that went back to William Blake and Walt Whitman. In the context of their studied contemporaries, the Beats stood practically mouth-agape. Baker laughs off the idea of “roman candles”, but maybe today more than ever we could use some wild eyed idealism. Cynicism is reductive. Jack Kerouac may have been a goddamned basket case, but he knew how to record a moment, his thoughts and neurosis and wonder, better than anyone of his generation. Pages and pages of nonsense scrawled in search of the perfect, transcendent collection of lines. It’s not a style that works for everyone. In fact, I don’t know that I’d recommend anyone follow purely in his footsteps. But I can’t help believing that somewhere between the perfectionism of David Foster Wallace and first thought, best thought lies some sort of truth. 

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How Writings Is Like Pizza

I’ve just finished watching cult favorite sci-fi show Firefly. Yes, for the first time. Yes, I realize this means I need to turn in my nerd badge.

Forgive me for blogging about this about a decade after the fact. That’s the Internet equivalent of the dawn of mammals. Just think of it like a trip back in time.

There’s a lot wrong with the show, but there’s also a lot that was really well done. It got me thinking about how long form writing is a lot like pizza. Like a good pizza, a good TV show, or novel, comic book or whatever is built out of three layers. Each layer is important, and each has it’s own function. You can even remove one of the parts of the stack and still have a tasty experiment with whatever’s left, but it won’t really be pizza.

IMG 1992

The crust is the foundation upon which your pizza is built. It props up the other ingredients and gives your pie it’s own unique character. It’s made from simple ingredients, usually just flour, water, salt, and yeast. But even slightly altering those proportions will make for an entirely different experience.

Similarly, a story is built on it’s grand themes. Every Oscar™-bait movie and every cheap romance novel rests on a foundation of ideas. It’s the bottom strata. That’s why the call it subtext. These are usually broad, over arching motifs. Even terrible stories have some kernel of idea at it’s center, whether the author realizes it or not. This reveals the work’s view of issues such as love, family, gender relations, trust, or even north Atlantic cod fisheries. These ideas are baked into the very language (visual or written) of the text.

Resting on the subtext is the plot. This is the general flow of action. Like the sauce on a pizza, it’s meant to lubricate the story. It keeps the characters and dialog from sticking on one spot. Also, like the acidity in a good fresh tomato sauce, the plot provides tension. It keeps us on our toes. A story without plot is like a white pizza. There’s nothing to cut through the fattiness of a bunch of people sitting around talking about nothing.

IMG 1995

Finally, you have the dialog. If you’re someone like David Mamet, the dialog and plot end up melting into each other, like the cheese and sauce of a good NY pie. In the end you just have a molten, goey mass. Each element plays it’s own part, and each is essential.

But that’s only one style. The dialog and plot could each float in a sea of motion. Little islands of characterization in the midst of adventure or intrigue.

There are, of course, more than three possible layers. When writing, you can have offbeat side trips, subplots, red herrings, or deus ex machina. There’s no end to the ways you can personalize your story. As soon as an archetypal story in any given genre is created, writers start finding ways to play around with the formula. They twist expectations. They maybe rearrange ingredients. The basic elements but the proportions can always be tweaked, and you can always throw something weird in there just to say you did. It’s a part of our creative impulse.

I think many of us would be okay with eating pizza every day, provided it was made with care, using quality ingredients. But I know I wouldn’t want to eat the same pizza every day. It’s important to keep it exciting.

Ultimately, like great pizza, a great work of fiction is about balance. All the elements must be applied judiciously to create a whole that is greater than the sum of it’s parts. You may have some dialog that you can’t bear to part with, but if it doesn’t work within your larger plot structure and overall theme, don’t think twice about it. Junk it. A writer’s cutting room floor is often full of his best lines, and the finished product is usually better for it.

What does this have to do with Firefly, you might ask? He wrote passionately about trust and family. He made the stakes seem high for the characters, if not necessarily plausible. The plot was hit or miss. Sometimes it was a tightly wound thriller, while other episodes seemed contrived. And the dialog? More often than not, it was just plain cheesy.

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