Things Left Unsaid

In a recent post, Alexia G. Leeds brought up the question of writing style, specifically as it applies to the person(s) we are thinking about as our target audience.  Like Leeds, I struggle to find a balance between writing for myself and writing the kind of thing my spouse prefers.  In my case, however, this separation is a wider chasm (my wife generally dislikes speculative fiction), so it’s an easier decision for me: I write what I like, and am pleasantly surprised when she enjoys something I’ve written.

This particular decision meshes well with the seventh of Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips on how to write a short story:

Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

Reading these tips, I think Vonnegut was intentionally vague about who that “one person” had to be. Usually, I think it’s going to be the author, but I don’t think that’s essential. I could write for my wife, or to please an editor, or even focused on God Himself, and it would still work, as long as I’m willing to set aside my own desires while I write. Mostly, however, I find I’m more effective if I write what works for me, and then make allowances for the outside market during the editing process[1].

EH 7018PThough I have an decades of experience working at Vonnegut’s old stomping ground, I find myself more drawn to the works of Hemingway than Vonnegut, and I think Hemingway may be a good model to follow for my writing[2]. Specifically, I like his lean, understated prose. Hemingway always shows his conflicts instead of telling them, and while his characters’ motivations are clear, they remain mostly unwritten.

One of the best examples of this practice is The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.  Macomber’s wife despises her husband, and at the end, when Macomber finally overcomes his cowardice, she knows her hold on him is over.  Hemingway never says for certain whether the wife’s final action is intentional, and we are left to reason from the way the guide Wilson denies it that he knows there was no accident.  It was the words he never used that said the most.

I have heard from other writers that they tend to write huge volumes of text, then pare it down to expose the real story. I myself find, however, that my most recent stories have actually grown in length after being critiqued, because I found that some things left unsaid were not sufficiently clear.  All the same, this style of indirect prose — characters who say things to manipulate others, instead of what they really mean — feels more real to me, and seems to hold the tension in a scene better.

What happens in your writing process?

[1]Given my historical lack of sales, perhaps this method is not the right one.
[2]Assuming you ignore his alcoholism and suicidal tendencies.


La Paninoteca

On Via Industrie, near the Fincantieri shipyard, there was a small paninoteca to which the shipyard employees would often go for lunch. Though the other Americans on site often chose a fancier place to eat, I walked there every day because of its proximity and because its prices met my limited budget.

Bread and Mortadella from "momentaneamente" blog. Not quite the same sandwich, but close.Before I could even open my mouth to place my order, the shopkeeper would often recite from memory what I wanted to eat: “doppio prosciutto e formaggio”. I had learned early to order double meat on my panino[1] if I wanted an American-style sandwich. I only wish I knew how to ask for softer bread.

I will never forget my first day eating at the paninoteca. Even before I entered, the strong smell of grappa wafted through the door. While US businesses, even back then, did not want employees to drink during business hours, these Italian shipyard workers thought nothing of a liquid lunch comprised solely of a shot or two (or more) of hard liquor. It made the shipyard men’s room smell like a bar, and I had to wonder what effect it had on shipyard safety.

Beyond this surprise, however, was the unexpected sight when I first stepped through the door. Adjacent to the far wall stood one of the small round tables so common in European restaurants. There were a pair of shipyard workers seated at the table, the collection of empty shot glasses before them testifying that their lunch break was well underway. Norman Rockwell couldn’t have painted a better scene.

Between the men lay an ashtray, full to overflowing with cigarette butts. Both men were smoking, and as I watched one of them casually lit a fresh cigarette from the one he had just finished before adding the depleted butt to the pile. On the wall above the men hung a sign which read “Vietato Fumare” (smoking prohibited) in bright red letters.

I have since come to believe that Italy is a place where nearly everything is illegal, and few people seem to care. At least they were using the ashtray.


[1] For the benefit of American readers, let me emphasize that the proper word for a sandwich is “panino”.  “Panini”, in Italian, is a plural, and it is not meaningful to order “a panini” any more than you could roll “a dice” or raise “a cattle.”

Ashamed to be Republican

Please excuse this post, which has nothing to do with writing. While doing research for my novel, I occasionally run into something that moves me emotionally, and need to speak out. This is one of those times.

True Confession:  I am a Massachusetts Republican who has lived in upstate New York for more than twenty years. Politically, this would probably make me a Democrat in the other forty-eight states. Still, it’s a label with which I identify, and I take matters personally when Republicans screw up.

This week, college reporter Heba Said reported in the UT Shorthorn about her experiences at the 2014 Republican convention.  By all accounts, it was insulting, and as a Republican, I am ashamed. Okay, I can see where some people might not realize that the term “Islamist” is offensive to other people, but Said also had to deal with overt mistrust from the police and humiliation from people who couldn’t believe anyone who looked “different” could possibly be American.

Asian Americans, have you ever been asked where you are from, and when you say “California”, hear them ask where you’re really from?  Said’s story is your story.

African Americans, have you ever been pulled over for a DWB (driving while black)?  Said’s story is your story.

Evangelical Christians, have you ever had to battle against the public schools to let your children express their constitutionally-guaranteed religious liberties?  Said’s story is your story.

There was a time when the Republican Party of the United States was on the cutting edge of human rights.  Though it began over multiple issues, the US Civil War was soon transformed into a war over slavery, with the North taking the stand that it was morally wrong for some people to be treated as less than fully human because they didn’t look the same. This wasn’t a universally popular stand, and the party suffered politically for taking it.

In the hundred years between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, the GOP let this one slip away, and now we stand as the place where bigots, racists, and vulgar paskudnyaks of all flavors go to find solace. I still think of myself as a social conservative, and I despise big government, so it pains me to even consider voting for a Democrat most of the time — but all too often, the Republican Party leaves me no place else to go.

It’s embarrassing.

Cinder and Cinderella

As a role model for our daughters, Disney’s Cinderella leaves something to be desired.  It’s something I’ve thought for a while, but I was reminded of it this week when Dancing With Fireflies mentioned the need for strong female role models in YA fiction. Apparently, it isn’t much better in juvenile fiction, either.

The Movie

To be fair, Cinderella isn’t all bad. With her kind heart and perseverance, the eponymous lead is miles ahead of the passive female characters in many stories, and the plot, with its heavily female cast, easily passes the Bechdel Test.  When I first saw it in a movie theater at the age of eight, I enjoyed it. As an adult, though, it bothers me. Consider:

  • Cinderella has a goal, but that goal is essentially to find and wed a wealthy man. This may have been acceptable in 1950 when the film was first released, but it lacks something in this century.
  • The prince Cinderella wins as her prize is so two-dimensional he’s a virtual MacGuffin, a rich man with a title who can dance. Yes, there’s a solid foundation for marriage!
  • The only memorable male characters in the whole plot are Jacques and Gus, the mice who provide comic relief through their foolishness. Cinderella patronizes them for the whole film, and when they want to help the other mice provide their heroine with the fancy dress she needs so badly, the other mice shoo them away. “Leave the sewing to the women.  You go get the trimming. And we’ll make a lovely dress for Cinderelly.” Who’s we, anyway?

This may seem like a rather androcentric set of complaints to be making about a film primarily marketed at girls, but consider:  how would you feel about a film for boys where the only female characters are the helpless princess, who needs to be rescued, and a pair of incompetent ditzes?

The Novel

CinderEnter Cinder, the 2012 novel by Marissa Meyer based on this same fairy tale. I loved reading this book when it first came out, and I still do. Meyer’s Linh Cinder is to me the epitome of a well-written strong female lead:

  • as a cyborg, Cinder suffers from discrimination, but still does what’s right, even at significant personal risk.
  • as an ace mechanic, Cinder demonstrates competence in a field that is stereotypically male.
  • Cinder loves her prince not because of his appearance or title, but because she knows him, and knows he’s a genuinely good man.
  • Cinder is motivated not simply by love, but by the desire to save her country — and by extension, the world — from domination by the evil lunar queen.

Along the way, we have three-dimensional secondary characters, both male and female: the cruel stepmother, the greedy stepsister Adri, the naive stepsister Peony, and the mysterious Doctor Erland, each with distinctive personalities and motives. Comic relief is provided through the android Iko, whose penchant for excessive emotion is described as a “programming defect.” And even Iko provides help in ways no one else can.

As Cinder’s story continues in the follow-on novels Scarlet and Cress, we learn that Cinder isn’t merely a good person — she’s also a great leader. She isn’t perfect — Cinder is constantly afraid of becoming just like the people she fears most — but she’s a legitimate action hero, and I think, a good role model.

The Smell of Mathematics

Earlier this month, Jilly of Eight Ladies Writing discussed the use of scent to enhance our descriptive text. I have had mixed success in my own writing with the sense of smell, and while the short story I’m currently writing has smell as a significant motive for several characters, mostly I find that detailed description in general is an afterthought for me, added during the editing process. There is, however, a story in my personal history that highlights the significance of smell.

As I have mentioned previously, my home town had several farms of note, one of which was a dairy farm. As it happens, this particular farm included property directly across the street from our town high school.  The mathematics department, which abutted the street, was particularly close.

wbhsBeing an older building in a small town, the high school didn’t have air conditioning.  In New England, this doesn’t matter much: during school months, its never so hot that you can’t simply open a window to cool off.  The only real problem happened in the spring, when (you guessed it) the dairyman was mucking out his barns.

May is not terribly warm in Massachusetts, but you often have a few days here and there that peak in the seventies (F).  On those particular days, teachers needed to open their windows to cool off their classrooms.  At the same time, the pungent smell of cow manure rose from the dairyman’s property. It was occasionally so strong that it made my eyes water. You might expect, therefore, that I would associate the smell of cow manure with math, and I do.

What you might not expect is the emotional content of that memory.  Math for me has always been easy, and I was blessed with teachers who didn’t force me to waste time doing the homework as long as I learned the material. Occasionally I was given something interesting to do in class (chess on a TRS-80 comes to mind) so I’d stay out of the teacher’s way and let him teach.  Math was fun.

These days, if I’m out hiking with my wife, we may suddenly encounter the smell of cow manure from a nearby farm. “What’s that smell?” she would ask.

“Math,” I’d say, and smile.