Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

Although I have famously said about ideas, “It’s not where they come from that matters. It’s where they go,” this has inexplicably failed to stem the tide of people asking authors, “Where do your ideas come from?” (I know, I can’t explain it either.) Normally, I would avoid this subject, or simply admit that no one really knows, but…

Ideas come from the oddest places. Sometimes they are not even fully-formed ideas, but simply notions that come to mind and are written down, possibly to be re-examined and combined with other notions that together compile an idea. Case in point: The other morning I woke up and said to my wife, “There are no baristas in Hell.”

Being far too experienced to be fazed by anything I say, particularly first thing in the morning, she simply replied: “That means you can’t get a latte.” Which, as need not be said, is pretty much the definition of Hell in a nutshell.

Interestingly, I took the phrase to mean that baristas (like nurses) are too good to go to Hell. She took it to mean that there’s no way to get a good coffee drink there (although she said she could easily see my point, as baristas are paragons of patience). Both are valid interpretations, and either may be useful someday, whether alone or combined.

I believe there are two conclusions to be drawn here: One, ideas come, often as not, from your subconscious, which explains why no one can answer the question. And two, it is more important where they go, because two people can take the same notion and drag it into two completely directions. This is why Shakespeare was able to steal so many ideas and make them work. This why all of us emulate Shakespeare, at least in this one respect.

Where will this notion go? Will it go anywhere at all? Beats me, all I know is this:

There are no good story ideas in Hell.

Run with it.




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Every once in a while, there’s nothing that will fill the void in your soul besides a good mystery yarn. It doesn’t have to be something they put on Masterpiece Theatre with family secrets going back a generation leading to murder, nor does it have to be a Raymond Chandler triple-cross love triangle. Sometimes, the mystery is real. And the real ones are the best, because you can’t always wrap them up in 80,000 words. Sometimes they go on for years. Some of the best mysteries go on for centuries.

Take my favorite: the Loch Ness Monster. Now I know that the odds of a plesiosaur living in a Scottish lake are minuscule, at best. But that has not kept me from scanning those placid waters like a hawk every time I’ve been there, nor did it make me any less nervous when I took a ride across that dark pond on a foggy day. Scientists and curious amateurs keep bringing more and more sophisticated technology to the problem, but with luck they’ll never prove definitively that the old girl doesn’t exist. And they shouldn’t! (If nothing else, it would hurt the Scottish tourism industry.)

But now it appears that another mystery, of nearly equal vintage, has been solved: the Shakespeare Identity Question. The head archivist at the Folger Library, Dr. Heather Wolfe, claims to have “the smoking gun” that will put the controversy to rest. To this, I have two responses: (1) it won’t, and (2) finally!

Normally, as with Nessie, or Bigfoot, or the Kardashians, we will never be able to get to the truth of the matter, and we’re happier for it. Some things are better left unexplained. But this one, this one I’ve always thought was rather dopey. The best evidence I’ve ever heard for someone else having written Shakespeare was that Shakespeare didn’t write it. Not really a winning argument.* So if this is done at last, so be it. There are many more and better mysteries to be solved.

Like, what is it with those Kar–no, like I said, some things are better left unexplained. And unasked.

*Besides, I explained it right here.

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Baking a Book

Ya know how you read a really good novel, mysteries especially, but not necessarily, and in the end the author takes all those little bits and pieces and threads he’s been leaving lying around, and with a few magic passes he brings them all together into one big, cohesive ball and  you say, “My gosh, he’s been planning that all along! What a genius!” Yeah, well, maybe not so much.

See, the book you read is often not the book the author wrote. Aside from the fact that first drafts are never seen by anyone (unless you’re Shakespeare or Asimov), books don’t have to be written in order. They’re like movies, really; they can be created in any order that suits the creator. (You knew that, right? Movies are almost never shot in sequential scene order.)

Now I suspect that most writers start at the beginning and write through to the end. I do (almost invariably), but it doesn’t mean I don’t have an ending in mind long before most of the book is filled in, or even sketched in. I just don’t write the ending first because I use it as a carrot: Get to the end, and you get to write that scene you’ve been imaging all this time.

But–that doesn’t mean that everything goes swimmingly one to end to the other. Books are written in fits and starts. Even disciplined writers hit snags. And those brilliant plot lines that all come together at the end? They didn’t just magically lie down for the author as he went, rolling like a red carpet to its end. They came to him in bits and pieces, and sometimes he had to go back and change things to fit a new concept, and a lot of the time even the author doesn’t know how the threads will combine until they do. Writing a novel is like baking a cake; you can cover a lot of messy bits with enough frosting.

Great–now I don’t want to write any more. I want dessert.


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…this is a question?

Appropriately enough, on Shakespeare’s birth/death-day (yes, they were the same, how sucky is that?), a new controversy has come to my attention. Not content with questioning whether the man himself actually wrote the plays, now some are questioning if we should keep putting on the plays the way he wrote them.

I’m not talking about abridged versions; these plays are long, and I will be the first to admit that I would have a hard time sitting through an entire one in many cases. No, I’m talking about changing the language–and when I say changing the language, I mean just that: They want to update Shakespeare. You know, because it’s “too hard” to read him or understand him these days.

Well, guess what. It’s Shakespeare! I’ve seen some of the proposed “translations,” and they are, to be charitable, not Shakespeare. The entire reason entire college courses–required college courses–are devoted to the man’s works are because they are overwhelmingly considered the greatest words ever set down in English. So heck, let’s just change them.

The argument is made that Shakespeare is translated into other languages, and does just fine. This may be true, but isn’t the dream of every reader of a translated great work to be able to read it in the original language? If  you love Don Quixote, don’t you want to read it in Spanish?

And this isn’t a question of whether you can read the original language, it’s a question of whether you will bother to try. The plays are written in English, albeit old-fashioned. It takes extra work, but you can understand it if you try. Remember the movement to change the language in Huck Finn because Twain used the n-word? (I wrote about it here.) You can’t change the text simply because society changes. Literature is a window into the past. Taking out the stained glass won’t let you see any more clearly.

And if we’re going to change the plays, well, we’d better change the sonnets, too. Good luck with that.

If you change Shakespeare, who’s next? Milton? Pope? Cervantes? Dorothy Parker? Me? I sure don’t belong in that group, but I pick and choose my words carefully. If you don’t like them, you don’t have to read them, but you sure as heck don’t have the right to translate them into English.


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There seems to be a small storm gathering in SF in the past several days, shocking, yes, I know. The question arises about classics of the genre–not does anyone read them, but are they the best entry into science fiction? In other words, have Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke become more like books that are assigned in high school–read by many but enjoyed by few, because they are considered “mandatory” somehow like reading Romeo and Juliet or The Old Man and the Sea?

Some think if you don’t read the classics, you can’t understand the field. Some are saying that the old stuff is, well, old, and doesn’t reflect what today’s readers know, so you can’t expect them to get into it. And some advocate a third alternative, which is just to let people read what they want to read. SFF is too wide these days to cover all of what is currently being written, let alone delve far into the past.

It’s been pointed out that we are only now coming into this problem in SFF because the genre is relatively young. While SF stories have been around for almost 200 years (and fantasy has been in vogue since we sat around campfires and waited for daylight so we could see the sabertooths (saberteeth?)), it wasn’t until the last century that it truly came into its own. The first Worldcon was only held in 1939.

We simply haven’t had to deal with the phenomenon of dueling “classics” until now. (We will avoid the hideous discussion of how you define a “classic.” Let’s just treat it as we would pornography and move on.*) But even with the greatest of writers, their stories eventually pass away. Even Shakespeare will fall into obscurity someday. We simply have to get used to the fact that it is happening with science fiction.

It isn’t even a new thing. There are a lot of authors out there who were hugely popular in the 1930s and 1940s whom almost no one knows today. I was at a writing retreat with more than a dozen accomplished writers a few years ago, and the question came up: “Who was Lester Dent?” I was the only one who knew the answer, but in the 1930s, Dent (author of the Doc Savage pulps) was enormously popular. He was a “classic” in the sense that Doc Savage was the direct inspiration for many of today’s superheroes (starting with a guy named Superman), but who reads him now? Almost no one. What are you going to do?

Every generation sees its stars, and a few of those become “classics” that people will be reading fifty or a hundred years later. Most won’t. But for a lot of readers, even those few won’t be their entry into the field. There’s too much else going on. It’s only after years of accumulated experience that you learn that even those whose stories may now be considered “quaint,” or even inappropriate for contemporary views, are worth reading.

And that’s okay. Because if you can’t stand the test of time, well, then, you aren’t a classic. That doesn’t mean no one will ever read you. Very little disappears anymore. Your work will simply wait until someone comes along who appreciates you. And then maybe they’ll make a movie out of your forgotten book, and you’ll be popular once more. Maybe you’ll become a classic the second time around.

*As in, you know it when you see it.

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So I’m what other writers would call “a little weird.” Or maybe “a throwback.” Or even, as a certain someone says, “a Luddite.” Why? Because I like to write longhand. You know, with a pen and paper. I’ll wait while you go look up those terms.

The thing is, writing is scary. You are creating a whole world, an entire universe, out of whole cloth. And it doesn’t matter if it’s SF, or fantasy, or romance, or “literature.” (When you read that term, please make little “air quotes” with your fingers. It’s deserved.) What you write has never happened, at least in that way to those people. You’re making it up. And you’re making up their world. The scope of the made-up part varies by genre, from one person and his small circle of acquaintances to one person and his not-so-small galactic empire, but the concept remains. Whatever will, or has, ever happened in this universe is what, and only what, you make up.

Which means that facing a blank screen can be intimidating. That blinking cursor reminds you each and every second that it’s alone up there that you haven’t drawn in one stroke of your universe. It’s the Monday of your six days, and while we know God finally started with, “Let there be light!” we have no idea how long He stood there staring at the empty canvas that was the Void trying to decide what color that light should be. So it is with your own universe (a smaller project, I admit, than His).

I find that a (lined) piece of paper is less intimidating than a computer screen. When I’m stuck, unable to start a new story for the life of me, I invariably will turn, at long last, to my friend the notebook (college-ruled, not Mac) and start scribbling away almost as fast as my thoughts can run. Except when I don’t, but even when I stare at that page for an hour, eventually something comes bubbling to the forefront of my mind, and I write it down. Be it a book blurb, or a conversation, or a piece of flash fiction, it almost never fails–but if I were to try the same thing on my laptop, I’d give up in ten minutes and watch The Big Bang Theory.

Truth is, if I could find a good script-to-type program, I’d get a (computer) tablet I could write on and compose everything longhand. (Yes, I know they are out there, but I’ve not seen what I want yet.) I guess I feel a closer connection to the work that way, and maybe I feel more like the writers of old, Shakespeare, and Poe, and Neil Gaiman.

You know, the weirdos.

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As I said in a recent post, I am leery of believing that Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s “new novel,” was anything she actually wanted published. On the other hand, irrespective of the legitimacy of the book’s commercial origins, it does serve a purpose: It illustrates just how books come to be written.

Without reiterating the entire process, suffice it to say that Ms. Lee worked through several drafts of To Kill a Mockingbird, of which Watchman was one. In fact, it took 2-3 years for her to get it right. And that’s important, because a lot of people don’t know how art comes to be created; they think it simply flows from the writer’s brain through her pen to the page and goes off to the publisher. The problem is that this persuades people who might otherwise try to write a book (or story) that they shouldn’t, because “it won’t be good enough.” The truth is that almost nobody is good enough the first time out. (Asimov claimed he was; Ben Jonson said: “I recollect that the comedians said in honour of Shakespeare that in his writings he never erased a line. Would to God he had erased a thousand.”)

Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, recommends “shitty first drafts”: Just write anything at all, because nobody is ever going to read it but you anyway, so who cares if it’s any good? I’ve tried to apply this advice, but even now (after years of practice) I feel the right side of my brain trying to horn in on the creative process, and I can’t always keep it at bay. I try to limit its influence to those situations where the awkwardness is obvious and easily remedied; even then it interrupts my flow.

But if Go Set a Watchman‘s origin is understood, if the idea that great art is not always–or generally–exalted or even readable at the first go-round, then it will have performed a service. After all, if To Kill a Mockingbird wasn’t good enough the first time, why should anyone else expect better?

Heaven knows writing a coherent novel is frightfully difficult, and writing a publishable one is, if you look strictly at numbers, almost impossible. Why put any more obstacles in your own path? The truth is that a good novel is as much a product of soul as of craft, and the former is the hardest part. The rest? The rest you can edit and revise and re-work to your heart’s content. Because like a movie, it’s all a facade; your reader never sees what’s behind the curtain.

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