Space opera. It’s a real thing.

Space opera is a real subset of science fiction. According to sciencefiction.com, “Space opera is a genre of science fiction literature, and the term can also be applied to movies and TV programs. The genre has almost no relationship to the opera music form, except for the similarity of grand scope and dramatic intensity. Typically, space opera occurs on a galactic scale, has multiple types of spacecraft, from speedy corvettes to battleships capable of destroying planets. There is plenty of action and adventure in space opera.”

Well-known Space operas include Doctor Who, The Foundation series, and the Ancillary Justice series (which I just read and would highly recommend).

A Horror Story That Reminds Me of Me

Have you ever written a story only to realize another writer published something similar? The Great God Pan, published in 1890, is a horror novella that has inspired in me the cathartic déjà vu experience described above. If you’re like me, you’re currently mashing up literary, horror, and fabulism fiction for your debut novel, in which the demigod Dionysus (with the help of other Greek figures) resurrects a cult of followers through moonshine. Ring any bells? No? Maybe it’s just me then.

I recently discovered the novella The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen. In this story, Dr. Raymond wants to devise a way to open the mind of men so all can experience what the world has to offer, but his experiment cripples or kills his patients. There is more to the story, but I won’t spoil it for you (I’d recommend you read it). The text’s premise surprised (and delighted) me. While the two works have similarities, both are unique. All of the other plot elements, the characters, the form, and my prose differentiate my book from Machen’s (plus, I focus on Dionysus and not Pan).

I’m exited my story is akin to a novella Stephen King hailed as one of the best horror tales ever written. I hope he’ll have something comparable to say about my novel.

(Photo via greyfaced)

A Study in Cups and Chairs

Writing is so much more than sitting at your computer, waiting for the words to come. It’s also paying attention to the world around you.

I’ve had a productive writing week, but today I felt dry, used up, and tired. So I put into action advice that I got from Natalie Goldberg’s The True Secret of Writing. I went to a coffee shop, Cups and Chairs, to record what was in front of me without subjectivity or interpretation. For twenty minutes, I wrote in a small red moleskin notebook, recording what I heard, saw, smelled, and tasted.

Here’s just a snippet of what I wrote:

There was a bug on the wall. I turned my head to sip my latte. When I looked again, the bug was gone.

Christmas ornaments hung on the light switches: blue, green, and red balls with glittery accents.

A woman, dressed in all black, delivered a steaming teapot and green mug to a college student sitting on the sofa, fussing with his laptop. The sofa had a linen cover. The walls were painted muted earth tones, grassy greens and brownish-reds. Old pictures, faded and some torn at the edges, of Philadelphia’s monuments hung on the wall. A bullet board hung over a cream and sugar station. Someone had shaped the tacks into a smiley face.

A woman in an Argyle sweater talked on her phone. It took me a few minutes to realize that she had a faint Irish accent. It was only noticeable when she pronounced long vowels like “good day” and “thank you.” After she hung up, she ate soup and crunched on a sliver of crusty bread.

A policeman walked into the cafe. “Did someone call?” he said. His radio was on.

“I did,” the barista said. She was the one dressed in black. “Someone called and said they were from PECO and that we owned them thousands of dollars. They said if we didn’t pay, they’d come turn off our electricity today.”

“Did you pay them?” the policeman said.

“We didn’t,” the barista said. We got their number and said we’d call them back. When we couldn’t reach them, we figured out it was a scam.”

“Did someone come in with a video to tell you it was a joke?” The policeman laughed.

The barista didn’t sound amused, but rather stern. “No sir. Would you like some tea?”

The woman in the Argyle sweater started talking on the phone, and I was cut off from the conversation.

I hope to use this exercise to cultivate specificity in my fiction, which I think is one key to great writing.

cuppainting

What George Saunders Has to Say About Great Short Story Endings…

For a lit class I’m taking this fall, today I read George Saunders’ essay, “The Perfect Gerbil,” which applies Freitag’s Triangle to Donald Barthelme’s brilliant short story “The School” in an attempt to explain why it works. While it can be futile to diagram fiction oh let’s say with a triangle-shaped chart, Saunders’ POV is that rising action is one of the hardest things to do in storytelling…yet Barthelme’s story achieves it and then some.

So let’s see how “The School” does it.

According to Saunders, Barthelme relies on instinct (and confidence) to boldly keep the action rising. In the text, things at the school die in a pattern. (Spoiler alert: This includes orange trees, snakes, gerbils, mice, a puppy, a young person, people’s parents, etc.) As Saunders states, “A story is made of things that fling our little car forward.” And in “The School,” “once we discerned the pattern, Barthelme is going to fling us forward via a series of surprises; each new pattern-element is going to be introduced in a way we don’t expect, or with an embellishment that delights us.”

“The School” does all the above, but, in my opinion, the way it ends is what makes it remarkable. As Saunders states, “Ending is stopping without sucking.” So how does Barthelme get out of this one?

Here’s what he doesn’t do: keep serving up the same dish of death. He pushes past sub-par endings and writes towards the right (or a great) one: he has the school’s students ask the teacher slash narrator what to make of death. Then they ask him to make love to his assistant, Helen, so they can study it. Bless Barthelme for this, because the story morphs into one about love between the narrator and Helen. As Saunders states, this gives the story meaning, for “Suddenly there is death in the room, but also life, and love.” Perhaps just perhaps the narrator notices Helen in a way he hadn’t before. Perhaps they fall in love. The class gets a gerbil. Everyone goes nuts. Everyone is satisfied.

There are no formulas. But maybe there is a lesson: plotting doesn’t hold a candle to bravery and intuition when it comes to good writing; and this lesson is one that I continue to forget and relearn.