Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From

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The past couple of posts have been about shorts, namely stories for anthologies. However much you can learn by writing them, though, it’s best to complement your own scribblings with those of a master. At least, a master of the short form. Carver might not write science fiction, might not explore the elven realms of unicorns and magic, but you could probably transpose many of his stories there.

And that’s because Carver focuses on what works with the short form. Powerful characters. Situations loaded with conflict. In media res is the effective guiding principle of these stories, as the reader is brought into each scene well after it’s begun to unfold. We leave well before each scene really ends, leaving us with questions, thoughts, impressions.

Think of your last train ride. Plane flight. Trip in a taxi. You look out the window and see someone walking by. Maybe they’re talking on their phone. Maybe taking a bite out of a donut or spilling coffee on themselves. Their clothes, their attitude, the way their eyes take in the world around them, that is a foundation for you to fill in.

Carver provides endless foundations. Bursts of character and clarity that offer your imagination the opportunity to run wild with the possibilities.

In a world where we can have everything explained to us by the devices in our pockets, Carver’s stories marvel at the unknown, at the mysteries that linger in the shadows. Enjoy them.

Where I’m Calling From can be found just about anywhere. Your local library, for example. If you’d like your own copy, you can find it here on Amazon.

The Experiment Continues

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Editing a piece of work on paper is entertaining. It’s a quest to fill the page with red ink. It’s a lot less fun to re-incorporate all of that ink into your digital document during the editing process. That’s why I’m going to try giving the Surface Book a try, what with its pen option and ability to leverage a tablet form-factor when needed. It’s exactly the kind of selling point that you read and wince, sure that the end result is going to suck it up in some way.

And, reading the plethora of reviews, that’s kind of what happened. There’s been a continuing mess of errors with the product. Blue screens. Lock-ups. Failures to sleep effectively. But the product still averages four out of five stars, and the prospect of using the tablet mode and pen to scribble edits directly onto the digital documents, then pull up those edits alongside Scrivener to type up changes without lugging reams of print copy around?

It’s worth taking a chance on.

Beyond the hardware foibles, the lady and I returned from a week gallivanting around the Big Island of Hawaii. That’s the less flashy one, the spot with the big volcano and the giant telescopes. The 11 of 13 possible climate zones (arctic and sahara were no-shows, unfortunately) and scattering of hip little towns with coffee obsessions made it the chill brother to Oahu and Honolulu. Snorkeling, hiking and driving through rolling hills, and watching the surreal glow of a lava lake and thinking all that burning awesome is literally beneath your feet and you have a solid recipe a vacation.

That’s not to say that Hawaii is for everyone. The sun averse, namely, need not apply. Those in search of reasonable prices, well, you’ll have to dig. If you treat water as something to be suffered for survival, then perhaps its not the place for you. But if you’ve never been, I’ll say that Kona is much more unique than Honolulu, and the sight of those telescopes on top of the world opening at sunset brings miracles of science closer than I’d have thought possible.

Inspiring? Definitely.

Lastly, coconut syrup is the best. That is all.

Atmosphere

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The Unfinished Swan is a little gem of a game from 2012 in which you play the role of a boy chasing after the fleeing, titular swan. That the swan came from one of the boy’s mother’s paintings, and is set on leading you through a series of magical locations is just a set up for one of the most compelling settings I’ve seen before.

The visual artistry in a game, as in a movie, goes a long way towards establishing the tone. It’s the equivalent to the verbs and adjectives used in a novel – if they’re all short and succinct, or long and flowery, we’re going to expect different things from the book. In The Unfinished Swan, you’re wandering through an environment that is often nothing except whiteness. At least, until you illustrate it by casting balls of paint around. In doing so, you give the world life, and, through careful painting, discover more about the boy’s story.

Accompanying all of this is a score and slow pace – there’s little running, shooting of guns, or penalties for ‘dying’ here – that beget wonder. Why is there an all-white labyrinth? Why are there giant, if mostly harmless, sharks swimming in the canals of this empty city? What happened to the king?

You consider these questions, and the game gives you time to mull them over. There’s never an absence of questions, but also never so many that you feel lost or confused. All of the questions, the unique things the boy discovers, all fit within the world created for the game. That cohesiveness keeps the enchantment going. There’s nothing that breaks the spell for you. Even the credits at the end are incorporated into the narrative, so that you’re left with a cozy narrative into which you can vanish for several hours and emerge happier for having experienced it.

A novel has a longer course to chart, and fewer tools (no direct video or audio components), but has the advantage of flexibility. The author can take the reader anywhere. Can start with the character playing basketball and end with a fight to the death with the murderous mole-people of planet Mordican Nine. The miracle is that your readers will go along with such leaps so long as you earn them. Make them fit your story, capture the magic of what you’re writing about, and suit the language to taste.

While I’m not perfect at this, it’s something I watch for on my edits. If the tone of a paragraph, or a setting, or a character’s dialogue doesn’t seem in keeping with the world of the story, it’s tweaked. Or cut. Even particularly clever witticisms, cocktail-party winners, get the ax if they don’t match the narrative.

So next time you’re looking at your work and starting another edit, keep the background in mind. What do you want your reader to feel, how do you want them to explore your world? Anything that detracts from that ideal should be changed, or if it’s necessary to keep, perhaps a revision of your atmosphere is in order. Pull the reader into your universe and don’t give them a reason to leave.

Help Me Follow My Sister into the Land of the Dead

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Ursula Ruiz does something clever with her short story – it’s arranged like a Kickstarter with all the usual elements, cleverly structured to provide the exposition, conflict, and growing horror that something terrible is going to happen.

There’s a risk with inventive formatting of fiction that Ruiz is taking here. For one, there’s a lot of unnecessary expended space and words just to accomplish the feel of the Kickstarter vibe. Names, dates of posts, headings and frequent line breaks make for a jarring read. There’s also the risk that your audience, admittedly a safer bet in a sci fi setting, doesn’t understand the reference you’re making. Last, but probably most important, is that you sacrifice story and plot to suit the format.

It was that point, the plot, that I was wondering about as I read Ruiz’s story. There’s references to places like Bethlehem, but it’s unclear whether it’s the Biblical one or a different town. There’s talk about physically entering the Land of the Dead, something that can apparently be done with a few hundred dollars worth of ingredients and a hefty ticket price on top. Still, we’re talking a world in which relatives can go visit their deceased family. And, apparently, the deceased family can talk back to them through the Internet at will. The character’s sister, whom she is trying to find, communicates via postings on the kickstarter.

That last kind of breaks the story a bit for me – if the sister can communicate, then why wouldn’t she tell Ursula (the protagonist) that she knows what happened to their parents, thus obviating the entire search in the first place?

If you ignore that hole, though, the rest of the story is inventive, quick, and brutal. There’s personality carved into the few paragraphs. Enough so that you feel the sarcastic, disillusioned sister trying to find her sibling and identify with the struggle. The last few messages, increasingly desperate, from someone who must be a family friend, neatly convey the growing horror at an outcome most readers will probably guess. That the mystery can be solved isn’t a problem, here, because again Ruiz succeeds with her characters. And when we’re talking less than ten pages of story, creating realistic, interesting characters is an achievement in and of itself.