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).

Free Indirect Style (a la James Wood)

In his book How Fiction Works, James Wood states “omniscience is almost impossible.” The point of this post isn’t to argue with Wood, but rather to understand his point of view on point of view. I’m drafting my first novel and am curious how writers such as James Joyce, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf, to paraphrase Wood, bend the narrative around a character.

“Omniscience,” Wood writes, “becomes a kind of secret sharing.” He calls the term “free indirect style,” which is also known as close third person POV.

Here’s an example from How Fiction Works: “He looked at his wife. Yes, she was tiresomely unhappy again, almost sick. What the hell should he say?” According to Wood, the above is an example of free indirect speech or style, because the husband’s internal speech or thought is free of “he wondered” or “he thought” or other authorial tags. The effect is the character appears to own the words.

According to Wood, free indirect style:

  • Is the most powerful when hardly visible or audible
  • Allows words to belong to both the character and the author
  • Empowers readers to see through the character’s eyes and language and also through the author’s eyes and language
  • Bridges the gap between author and character, while drawing attention to the gap’s distance

Here’s another example Wood uses: “Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears.” According to Wood, the word “stupid” is what makes this sentence written in free indirect style. The author wouldn’t likely call his or her character stupid. If the author wrote this sentence in first person, the sentence would be longer and would’ve lost “the complicated presence of the author.” Free indirect style allows the word “stupid” to belong to the author and the character, enabling readers to “inhabit omniscience and partiality at once.”

This is heady stuff. Yet I feel compelled to try free indirect style as I write my second novel draft.

Third Person POV, a Camera, an Intermediary

I’ve been reading about third person narrative theory while drafting my novel. I’ve found this article to be helpful, because it explains the differences between the author, narrator, protagonist, and viewpoint character. The author must slip into the narrator’s skin and also that of the viewpoint character (and the protagonist or multiple viewpoint characters…but I’ll save that discussion for another time).

How does a writer treat the narrator? More often than not creative writing teachers will recommend treating the narrator like a movie camera that can hear and record the thoughts and feelings of the viewpoint character. A camera is a great analogy, because everyone knows cameras don’t have feelings. Thus, a camera will help aspiring authors resist the urge to interject their thoughts and opinions onto the text, avoiding authorial intrusion.

How do you control the camera? Great question (and the purpose of today’s post). This article gives a great explanation and example, “Movie scenes often begin with an establishing shot, one which shows the viewer the bigger picture, as it were, before honing-in on the specific location where the action is about to take place.” Writers can start broad and explain the scene, but once they slip inside the viewpoint character’s head they can’t come out until the scene finishes. They can never return to the narrator’s neutral voice until the next scene or chapter. I believe authors should vary how early they slip into their characters’ heads for each scene and chapter. Sometimes they should do so immediately, while other times they should take their time to set the scene. Doing so will add texture to their work.

Haikuinator

Last semester, I took a course titled Content in Form & Fiction at Rosemont College with the ever so brilliant Carmen Machado. We explored various forms in fiction, including found texts, artifacts, experimental novels, novels in verse, novels in stories, hyperlink texts, online games, and other story telling forms. With the help of Adam Louie, I created a fake mobile app as my final project.

You can check it out here.

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

Uncreative Writing?

In my last post, I commented on the mash-up of what appears to be constituting our current literary tradition. And to make matters more interesting, I just got a new book in the mail…so this morning I jumped into Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing — a text on the reinvention of writing in the digital age. It’s FASCINATING. Forgive my Friday brain (for I got so little sleep last night) if I oversimplify things (and fear not, I’ll return to this book again, I’m sure) but the text proposes that patchwriting, “a way of weaving together various shards of other people’s words into a tonally cohesive whole,” is the new creative writing.

He argues that plagiarism is now an acceptable option for writers. He encourages undergrads in his class at Penn to utilize techniques such as collage, plagiarism, sampling, repurposing papers, etc. to create projects that turn out to be original works, wrought with self expression.

Goldsmith says, “The act of choosing and reframing tells us just as much about ourselves as our story about our mother’s cancer operation.”

I’ve only gotten through the introduction so far, but my mind is blown. Stay tuned for more on this, for I think Goldsmith has some valid (although controversial) points and isn’t a voice I can (or want to) ignore…

Form for Form’s Sake?

During the fall semester, I took a course on 21st century literature. So what makes a contemporary novel? Good question. Granted it is too early to really tell, but most of the novels we read seem to drastically depart from traditional plots to embrace short story and novel hybrids. Meaning the story telling has become fragmented. I read books like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and Justin Torres’s We the Animals, which beg the question – Is this text even a novel?

Plus, many writers are experimenting with digital technology as a way to tell a story. I’m referring to works like Matthew Derby’s The Silent History and Geoff Ryman’s Two Five Three.

I think technology has inspired (or…well…increased) the fragmentation in literature, as well as rewired our brains. In the essay Fragmentary: Writing in a Digital Age, Guy Patrick Cunningham writes:

Fragmentary writing is (or at least feels) like the one avant-garde literary approach that best fits our particular moment. It’s not that it’s the only form of writing that matters of course, just that it captures the tension between ‘digital’ and ‘analog’ reading better than anything else out there. And that tension, in many ways, is the defining feature of the contemporary reading experience…

What’s more, according to Lockean memory theory, our identity relies upon a sequence of linked memories, which has been altered by the continual access to mobile apps and other tech:

Memory often works piecemeal — after all, people don’t really remember an entire experience, instead they hold on to particular images, emotions, or impressions…their fragmentary nature therefore reflects the fragmentary nature of memory, and of the human mind.

Cunningham is specifically referring to works by Samuel Beckett here, but I think his comments apply to many texts in the 21st century, too. At least the books that I have read. So the fragmentation of and stringing together of stories is at least one way contemporary writers are re-inventing or reusing literary forms to fit into the digital age. Do you know any others? Feel free to comment.

More to come on this subject…