Showing posts with label constrained writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label constrained writing. Show all posts

27 March 2020

Our New Normal



    ***    I don't remember exactly when I met Kristin Kisska. She's one of those people I happily see every year at Malice Domestic, someone who loves mysteries as much as I do. Getting together at Malice with friends like Kristin is like attending a big family reunion. So I was delighted to start doing things with her outside of Malice, including being in two anthologies together, FIFTY SHADES OF CABERNET in 2017 and DEADLY SOUTHERN CHARM in 2019, and having the occasional lunch in this little town we found that's halfway between our homes in Virginia. Kristin writes suspense, has had several short stories published, and is also working on a novel. I'm thrilled to welcome her as a new member of our SleuthSayers family. She'll be blogging with us every three weeks. Take it away, Kristin!
                                                                                                            ~ Barb Goffman


Thank you for the kind introduction, Barb. I'm thrilled to join the SleuthSayers' ranks.

I didn't set out to make our upside-down world my debut post topic. But as I stared at the draft of my original post, all my writerly brain could process was the haunting image of Italians serenading each other in unison from their balconies.

Isolated. Empathetic. Vulnerable.

A fraction of a heartbeat later, the source of their angst was no longer confined to their charming corner of Earth. No one needs me to rehash how our new reality escalated to the point of flipping our world on its axis. New terms have invaded our day-to-day vernacular: exponential growth, social distancing, quarantine, self-isolation, flattening the curve, triage, and pandemic. Do you feel as if we're living a dystopian thriller yet?

As a crime fiction author, I've always craved extended stretches of uninterrupted hours to draft whatever my muse inspires. The darker the scene, the better. With restaurants, bars, schools,  gyms, sporting and cultural events, closing, the world as we know it ground to a halt. Now that I seemingly have endless batches of time, I can't concentrate for more than a few minutes. My muse has apparently self-isolated away from me as I obsess over following COVID-19's lightening fast, stealth invasion.

Apparently, I'm not alone.

Most of us can agree, Plan A is to finish that gosh darned novel (novella? short story?). But no writer needs to add personal guilt on top of the world's crazy. People have varying levels of distress from losing control. While so much of this global health crisis is out of our control, if you and your family are safe, healthy and stocked with food and necessities to hunker down for the time being, then join me, take a break from the news, and let's together take back control of what we can influence. We can tee-up our writerly careers for the post-virus world, or at least until your muse decides to inspire you again (if she is visiting you at the moment, congrats! Go forth with Plan A and write).

For the rest of us still in shock, here are a few suggestions for a productive Plan B:

Journal. We are collectively experiencing a global crisis. Record your thoughts--the good, the bad, and yes, even the ugly--while you are hyper-aware of these events. How frequently are you oscillating between the highs and lows? What surprises are you noticing in the news and your social media feeds? Are you experiencing conflicting emotions? What methods are you using to cope? These notes will be both therapeutic now and could make for a compelling and relatable character sketch for later.

Spring Clean. By now, your home's walls have squeezed ever closer, and you may even have a household of "work colleagues" where once there was silence. Fling open those windows and let in some fresh spring air. While you're at it, deep clean your writer's cave. And by deep clean, I mean dust off (sanitize?) and organize both your paper and digital work space. Don't forget to spruce up your author website with updated books, bios, and check all your links. Oh, and be sure to back. up. your. files.

Connect. We've all experienced the constant stream of news updates, social media memes, and reactions ranging from denial to panic. Take a break from that madness to connect with other writers and readers. Also, if you are active on Twitter (a.k.a. the watercooler for authors), check out the shiny new hashtag, #WritersInQuarantine, which is where many are now meeting every Friday evening.

Learn. What is your window of concentration?  Half an hour? Before you binge the umpteenth comedy on Netflix, watch a Ted Ed video on http://ed.ted.com/. A link to a list of hundreds of topics on their playlist can be found here. An hour? Demo a free Massive Open Online Course (a.k.a. MOOC). Pro tip--search the word *forensic* on Coursera.com and you'll find dozens of lectures that might re-pique your passion for solving crimes.

Book promotions. For the love of all things noir, please pause any scheduled push-posts, especially on Twitter.  Hitting the right tone is critical, and right now, the audience is anxious on many levels. Best case scenario, any book promo post that feels robotic will be ignored as noise, but more likely you'll risk being muted or unfollowed.  Now is the time to engage organically– emotionally– with individuals across your platform.  I can't stress enough, connect at a human level, not with a sales agenda. If, and only if, it makes sense in the greater conversation, drop a link to your work.

That said, be ready to hop on unique marketing opportunities as they arise, such as this book blogger submission call (see Tweet to the left) for debut mystery authors. Interested? contact Stephanie directly on Twitter @bookfrolic or by email (stephanie <at> bookfrolic.com). Her offer is still available.

Separately, Author Stephanie Storey (@sgstorey) Tweeted that she is also offering to interview authors (all genres, including mystery and crime fiction) who've had to cancel new release events due to coronavirus. You can message her through the contact page on her website, StephanieStorey.com/contact.

Pay it forward. The world is stuck at home and craving entertainment as a distraction. During these strange times, take the cue from the A-list museums, opera houses, Broadway, and even some of our bigger-named bands, and drop one of your ebooks (or some other digital content) for free.  Be *that* artist. Your readers will be grateful and remember how you offered them an easy escape from these daily stresses. Have you already gifted the world with a free ebook? Thank you! Drop a link in the comments below for other SleuthSayer blog readers to find and enjoy your work.

Keep up with publishing news.  It may have been overshadowed by the global crisis this month, but not all publishing productivity has stopped. Don't get me wrong, many people are worrying-from-home like a lot of us. But just this past week, some literary agents have Tweeted asking authors for more queries and announcing that they've signed new clients. Acquisition editors publicized that they are offering book contracts. BookEnds Literary Agency's president and founder, Jessica Faust gave her behind-the-scenes insights into How Publishing is Operating in the Time of Corona in her blog post here. Also, be sure to follow Publisher's Marketplace for all the deal news.

Read. Whether you are executing Plan A or Plan B, keep reading.  Support our crime fiction sisters and brothers and venture out to experience other genres. Read local authors, indie authors, and traditional best sellers. Tackle your To Be Read pile--yes, the towering one on your nightstand--with gusto. Go ahead and add new titles to your list. But be sure to leave a review of the books you read on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and link to your social media pages.

Hopefully soon, we'll all stop singing the Coronavirus Blues, and our world will revert back to something more recognizable. Until that glorious day, what is your go-to Plan B?



PS – Let's be social:

26 February 2013

Constrained Writing


by Dale C. Andrews
[C]onstrained writing designates a form of literary production in which the writer submits his or her text to specific formal (and to a lesser extent also thematic) constraints. On the one hand, such constraints function as boundaries that explicitly limit the possible realizations of a text in some respects. On the other hand, those constraints are not primarily intended as strict limitations but rather as creative stimuli for the artistic process; they reduce the endless possibilities—the common, rather naive association of literature with boundless freedom and complete originality—and thus contribute to a stronger focus on the mechanisms on which genuine literature should be based: formal control and a maximal artistic concentration within an appropriate frame of constraints.
Constrained Writing, Creative Writing,
© De Geest and Goric,
PoetryToday 31:1 (Spring 2010)

    Although we may not consciously be aware of it, everyone who writes as a vocation or an avocation does so subject to constraints.  Most fundamental are the constraints imposed by language, accepted style, and grammar.  We all learn certain rules and are taught to adhere to them.  We are expected to know when to use “which” and when to use “that.”   If we vary the rules in a given instance, it is supposed to be only with foreknowledge of the rule and with a good reason for varying it, such as to avoid contextual awkwardness.  (Remember Winston Churchill’s famous observation that “ending a sentence in a preposition is something up with which I shall not put?”)

    The types of constrained writing referenced in the above quote, however, go further.  Beyond the universal constraints, which apply to us all, authors also may find themselves subject to genre, or thematic constraints.  As the article referenced above notes, such is the case with romance novels, which tend to follow a fairly established formula.  So, too, the “fair play” mystery, which is expected to rigorously adhere to the rule that all clues must be fairly presented to the reader in advance of the solution. And, as discussed in previous columns, anyone writing pastiches – stories in which another author’s character is used – practices even a higher degree of constrained writing, attempting to capture the characters, the style, and the approach of the original author.

    So, like all limiting principles, constrained writing is a spectrum.  At its outer limits are writing forms that go beyond the generally applicable constraints involved in fashioning a work that is consistent with the norms of the reading public and instead impose more artificial constraints devised by the author.  An excellent example of this is the book Green Eggs and Ham, written by Dr. Seuss.  The book was written on a dare from publisher Bennett Cerf that Seuss could not write a bestseller using only 50 words.  Obviously the good doctor prevailed and, one would hope, collected. 

     Other literary constraints are used often by mystery writers (myself included), as devices to hide clues.  These include anagrams, in which the letters of a word are phrase can be re-arranged into a different word or phrase, and the acrostic, a favorite of Lewis Carroll, in which the first letter of successive lines of text, usually a poem, can be read vertically to reveal a hidden message.  Another device is to restrict a portion of the text to only certain letters – an Ellery Queen mystery (nameless here; no spoilers!) does this in a message that is drafted in its entirety without utilizing one rather popular letter. As a general rule, particularly when the device is used to hide a clue, the goal is to apply the constraint in a manner in which it is undetected, at least initially, by the reader.  The constrained prose or poem should read as though it was freely drafted, in other words, as though it was written without the constraint. 

    The self-imposed constraints discussed above are fun for the mystery writer.  They allow the writer to stretch his or her wings, and can provide means to hide the obvious; they challenge the writer’s skill to pull off the ruse.  But as I said, constrained writing is a spectrum.  Let’s take a deep breath and then explore what lies several turns down the trail.

    Several months ago a friend gave me a book, Never Again by author and poet Doug Nufer, that takes constrained writing to an extreme.  Mr Nufer’s task?  He has written a novel that, in just over 200 pages, never uses the same word twice.  To fully comprehend what a Sisyphusian writing task this must have been, contemplate the first sentence in the book:
                When the racetrack closed forever I had to get a job.  
There goes “when,” “the,” “I,” “had,” “to,” “get,” and “a” all before breaking free of  the second line of the novel.

    The story that unfolds recounts the exploits of a gambler who, like the constrained author, has vowed to never do, or say, anything that he has said or done before.  The book is clearly a tour de force. But, unlike the more manageable constraints discussed above, this is hardly one that the author can pull off without the ruse becoming self-evident.  And suffice it to say that this also is a book that requires focused attention by the reader and should not be undertaken by a mind already mellowed by a few drinks! 

    The Nufer book reminded me of another example of extreme constrained writing that I encountered years ago, Gadsby by Ernest Vincent Wright.  This 1939 novel of over 50,000 words tells the story of a down-on-its luck town that is reinvigorated thanks to the help of the novel’s hero, John Gadsby.  The story, now in the public domain,  is a lipogram:  it is told without using any word containing a banned letter, here, the most prevalent letter in the English language – “e”. Wright’s mechanical technique in writing the novel is explained in the introduction as follows:
The entire manuscript of this story was written with the E type-bar of the typewriter tied down; thus making it impossible for that letter to be printed. This was done so that none of that vowel might slip in, accidentally; and many did try to do so!   
    The burden of the technique, while broodingly present in the construction of any single sentence, presented overarching narrative problems as well.  Again, the words of the author from his introduction:
In writing such a story, -- purposely avoiding all words containing the vowel E, there are a great many difficulties. The greatest of these is met in the past tense of verbs, almost all of which end with “—ed.” Therefore substitutes must be found; and they are very few. This will cause, at times, a somewhat monotonous use of such words as “said;” for neither “replied,” “answered” nor “asked” can  be used. Another difficulty comes with the elimination of the common couplet “of course,” and its very common connective, “consequently;” which will’ unavoidably cause “bumpy spots.” The numerals also cause plenty of trouble, for none between six and thirty are available. When introducing young ladies into the story, this is a real barrier; for what young woman wants to have it known that she is over thirty? And this restriction on numbers, of course taboos all mention of dates.
Many abbreviations also must be avoided; the most common of all, “Mr.” and “Mrs.” being particularly troublesome; for those words, if read aloud, plainly indicate the E in their orthography.
As the vowel E is used more than five times oftener than any other letter, this story was written, not through any attempt to attain literary merit, but due to a somewhat balky nature, caused by hearing it so constantly claimed that “it can’t be done; for you cannot say anything at all without using E, and make smooth continuity, with perfectly grammatical construction—” so ‘twas said.
    If the labors of Mr. Wright were not enough to shame those of us who at times profess writers’ block as an excuse to avoid lesser tasks, it should be borne in mind that there is also a French equivalent to Gadsby – La Disparation by Georges Perec, which also was written without using the letter “e,” and which was subsequently translated into English in 1995 as A Void.  The translator, Gilbert Adair, accomplished the translation also without using that banished letter.  Marvel at the feat of the author, but stand in awe of the constraints borne by the translator!

    As Wright noted, with severe literary constraints writing style invariably suffers.  That is not to say, however, that pathos cannot be found in all of this.  Think of the sad plight of that which has been left behind in constrained writing – the letters, or words, or phrases that are shunned, exiled from the story through no intrinsic fault of their own.  Think of the poor little “e’s.”  Mr. Wright, in his constrained zeal, did not ignore their sad plight.
People, as a rule, will not stop to realize what a task such an attempt actually is. As I wrote along, in long-hand at first, a whole army of little E’s gathered around my desk, all eagerly expecting to be called upon. But gradually as they saw me writing on and on, without even noticing them, they grew uneasy; and, with excited whisperings amongst themselves, began hopping up and riding on my pen, looking down constantly for a chance to drop off into some word; for all the world like sea-birds perched, watching for a passing fish! But when they saw that I had covered 138 pages of typewriter size paper, they slid off onto the floor, walking sadly away, arm in arm . . . .