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May. 21st, 2010

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Counterstories - Good vs Evil in Real Life

Head cold is getting a little better - but still home from work. (This was a particular 'wet' and vicious one!)

Yesterday I helped my hubby revise his short novel - which is much darker and more realistic than mine, more 'literary' (I hate that term) with the violent history of Europe in the 20th century as a background. It's dark and deep and serious and - cruel. And challenging. I had to read it in smaller installments, because all of it at once is just too much.  (Yeah, maybe it is depressive. But don't get me wrong, it is very, very good - and not cliched at all, as stories like these may far too often be.) Almost makes you lose faith that there may be some good in humans at all.

Which made me think again on how much I want to collect those 'counterstories' I need.


(For some inexplicable reason, the lj-cut still won't work for me, so must do as I did in the entry below: make a heading instead of a cut... Links don't seem to work either. I'm sorry.)


Counterstories = real life stories of people doing good in the face of evil - to counter the idea that humans will always succumb to evil, and evil will always win...


I am not going to launch into a big political/sociological/philosophical lecture here, have no fear. Answer to the big question of The Roots of Evil, delivered to you all in one livejournal post by yours truly - yeah, right. As if.

I want to say a few words about the famous Milgram experiments in social psychology, though. Because I think they do shed some light on one aspect of the problem: why so many otherwise good people are willing to follow evil orders. For those of you who don't know it, here's a link: http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/ucce50/ag-labor/7article/article35.htm 

The chilling results of these experiments show how the majority of ordinary people are all too willing to obey what they perceive as an authority,  even to the point of murder - and even when the coercion to do so is not very strong. The experiments also show how dangerous the 'step by step' path to evil may be. When you are not asked to do the worst right away. Only this minor transgression, this almost harmless little thing. And then this - it's not so much worse from what you've done already, is it?

And so you're caught. The moment you start to feel bad about what you do, you have already done it. You're already guilty. How to handle the guilt? Blame your victims. I'm not bad. They are. They deserve it.

We hate the ones we hurt.

It's depressing to know this is how the majority will react when/if their authorities turn bad. The authority figure points at somebody and says: that one needs annihilation. Then the majority will kill. I have never been tested, so don't know what I would do. Of course I hope I would be in the proud, rebelling minority who refuse to compromise their values and sell out their humanity just to please and be praised by authority, and not be rejected by their in-group.

But I don't know.

We do tell and are told these stories of evil over and over. Both in history and in art. And I'm not saying that's not as it should be (I support my husband's efforts one hundred percent and is overjoyed he's got a serious publisher interested in his work) But I want the counterstories to be also told.

They are perhaps more difficult to tell. There is the fear of coming across as sentimental, unrealistic. Who wants unbelievable heroes  - that's not going to inspire anyone. That's almost perverse.

I want real life examples. Of situations where all the pressure, all the coercion was on doing the wrong thing, the evil thing - and yet someone was able to resist the pressure and do what was right.

The jewel in my own small collection of counterstories* (jewel because it is personal) was one I heard back in the wild days of my youth (insert eye rolling here if you wish) when I was hitch-hiking around Europe with a friend. One day we were picked up on a German autobahn by a young guy, very friendly, but also, as it seemed - totally irresponsible. This was the autobahn, free speed and all - and he was driving in 200 km per hour (and for anyone reading this who is not metric: that's fast!) - with one foot on the dashboard (yes, really) one hand on the steering wheel, the other clutching a bottle of beer (yes, really). And constantly turning around to look at us while talking to us. If those autobahns hadn't been so perfectly straight and easy to drive on, I don't know what would have happened. Or - I know exactly what would have happened. Lucky for us he was a good driver. And probably not drunk.

My friend and I were petrified, wondering why on earth we had allowed ourselves to be picked up by this idiot - we were usually so good at screening out the idiots. We hadn't noticed the beer bottles. And now we were doomed. You just can't ask anyone to stop and let you out on the autobahn. You can't even ask them to slow down - that's dangerous, too. All we could do was yell at him each time he turned around: look ahead, look ahead! He just laughed at us, the scaredy-cats.

So I thought I had him down perfectly. I knew what he was and that was no good.

Until he told us his story.

He was German, but had grown up in South Africa. His father was high up in the administration of a big German company stationed there. This was back in the days of the apartheid regime, and his family were rich whites. He had lived a very protected life, with black servants his family treated well. He loved his black nanny. He never saw the poverty of the black districts - didn't really know there were any. He didn't have a clue. No one told him and politics bored him.

As a resident born in the country, he was required to serve in the army. That didn't bother him. He had fun. Yes, charming and irresponsible young idiot, to a tee. When he was sent on border patrol he was OK with that, too. That's what armies are for, protecting the border, yeah? (Could have been the border of Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique - don't remember anymore.)

One day, his sergeant took his patrol across the border. That made him feel a bit uneasy: this can't be right? We're not supposed to do this? But he said nothing, respecting the authority of the sergeant. As did the rest of the patrol members, cracking jokes about teaching the kaffirs.

Then a small shepherd boy around ten appeared on the path ahead of them, together with his goats. The sergeant lifted his gun and shot the boy dead. The soldiers laughed. Except our young idiot, who spontaneously threw his gun on the ground in front of the sergeant and declared - in a very immature sort of way I'm sure: 'I'm out!'

He was arrested on the spot and court-marshaled. He was convicted as a deserter and put in a military prison for life. Where he was treated like dirt and worse than dirt as a 'kaffir-lover'. His father was finally able to get him out since he was technically a German citizen - on the condition that he left South Africa forever. Where he had lived all his life.

He told us all this without an ounce of regret, except longing for his family and friends back home. Did we believe him? Yes - the tone of his voice, the matter of fact way of telling - no bragging, just explaining, answering our questions. He continued from there telling us about the anti-apartheid organisation he was working for, and the rally he was going to. And we had to eat our own prejudices against him. (Except we still feared for our lives on the autobahn)

Where did he get the strength to desert - and stand by it, all the way into a life-sentence in military prison? What made him an instant hero? Maybe he was able to do what he did because he was loved as a child, had never witnessed abuse and therefore would not be any part of it when he first saw it? Maybe because of his reckless lack of respect for authorities, that turned him into a real danger on the autobahn? Maybe both?

I don't know, I've never met him again. But still an inspiration to me, and the crown in my 'collection'. 

I want to add to my list of counterstories. Would love it if someone read this and had any examples to share - either  historic, or 'personal' like the one above. As inspiration for better heroes in my writing - and inspiration in my personal life as well


(* Included are of course the obvious: people helping Jews on the run all over Nazi-occupied Europe (witness for instance this archive: http://jfr.convio.net/site/PageServer?pagename=abt_newsletter_archives)  Don't mind hearing more of those. The must stunning are the stories about members of the Nazi party who hid Jews - and Wehrmacht officers on the Eastern Front who protected Jews against the locals. Yes, it did happen. Examples of authorities doing the opposite of what one could have expected include the Spanish Inquisitor Alonso de Salazar Frias (1564 -1635) who, when asked to step in against the "witch problem", conducted clear-headed, real investigations, and ended with the conclusion: these witches did not exist until they were spoken and written about (!). He convinced the leaders of the Spanish Inquisition - against the burning-happy believers - to forbid any persecution of "witches" in Spain. So the witch hunt never happened there. And Saladin of course, who showed unexpected mercy to the (evil) crusaders. Have a few other historical examples as well - I might get back to them)

May. 19th, 2010

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Why Can't I Work With a Head Cold?

My head is still very woolen, there's a constant whisper in my closed ears, and they're doing some maintenance work in my building so the water is closed until late evening. So can't make myself any more coffee.

Too bad shape to go to work and cough in the face of my patients. Have to stay at home, just well enough to be out of bed but not well enough to do something boring, like housework. So my first thought was: yay! one whole day, perhaps more than one, where I can write! Because at least I am in better shape than I was this weekend, when I really didn't get anything major done.

Yeah, right.

I've tried. Yesterday I tried for several hours, sat down very seriously in front of my stationary comp - that's sort of my 'serious writer doing serious work' place, read and reread and moved some commas around to pretend I did editing work, and hacked down a few sentences to try and finish that damned chapter with the key scene in it (that no one is supposed to know is the key scene until much later).

Reading those sentences today and thinking: that's the worst piece of ham I've ever seen. I can't write, forget it. Not any good with my patients either. Should find work as a supermarket cahsier or something, that's about all I'm good for. Except I would never be able to give people back their right change.

Sitting now with my laptop and thinking - maybe here where it is more comfortable, not so damn Serious. Sigh.

Is it a good thing to write anyway, no matter how deleteable it all will be, just to keep up this image of myself as a Serious Writer, just to keep up my writing momentum? Or is it better to just cave in, continue to surf the net, write comments, watch old films, snooze ( and lie awake tonight thinking: I will never finish, I can't do anything. Cause I'm very good at  the 'late-night-badtalking-myself.' thing. Yeah.)?

Don't listen to me. I've got a head cold. I'm cranky.

May. 17th, 2010

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How to Write Emotions Rant

This weekend, I was supposed to try and finish the present chapter of my novel. Let's see, that would now be chapter #15. Or 16 - because I might split that long one into two. And still I'm only half done, or maybe not even that.

Sigh.

Instead, I've been procrastinating big time, surfing on my f- list and beyond, reading and writing comments about fanfics: http://zeborahnz.livejournal.com/60354.html and http://heleninwales.livejournal.com/557467.html and villains: http://jongibbs.livejournal.com/96228.html and whatnot....(OK, to be fair on myself, I have also  had a huge head cold, major woolen brain, you know...)

While what I ought to give my attention right now, is my own manuscript. Oh well - I will at least write some writing-related stuff here, that ought to count for something (she says, looking sideways at the cookie-fairy). So here's my

How to Convey Emotions in My Writing Rant

No matter how many fantastic elements I put into my novel, I want my characters to be real people, with realistic emotional reactions to whatever happens to them. So how to write emotions without being sappy or too cliched, without bogging down the narrative or boring the readers with endless repetitions?

Of course, you have the traditional mantra of modern writing: "Show, Don't Tell." Which is often good advice, but it can be overdone, I tell you. Like the advice I came across on a message board for writers I don't remember where: Don't say 'she was angry' say 'she raised her fist and knitted her brow' - or something.

Yeah. OK. Don't tell me you see no problems with this.

First, people don't  usually do these 'bad theatre' type gestures to convey their emotions. When did you last shake your fist in someones face? Or even clench your fist when you didn't intend to punch anyone in the eye? (Well, maybe some cultures do these things more. The Northern European culture I come from definitely doesn't - and from what I can tell, Anglo-Americans don't do it very much either.)

We are normally very good at picking up people's emotions. If someone we're talking to are angry, or sad, or bored, we can usually tell right away - unless the are skilled con artists, or we are too drugged, or distracted, or depressed, or just too damn self-absorbed to notice anything. But usually, we can't describe just exactly what it is that makes us aware of their emotions. Because the overt signs of emotions you normally see in people's bodies and faces are usually very subtle.

Some psychologists have tried to study this. Examine all the hundreds of very tiny muscles that control our facial expressions, and describe how exactly each of them are activated or not by different emotions. Yeah. Thrilling, don't you think? (she said sarcastically) So, an accurate description of emotional expressions would have to look something like this: 'x raised her left eyebrow two fractions of a millmeter, and the second muscle controlling the third right part of her upper lip contracted three fractions of (something)'.

Oooo, the tension builds!

What's more, our process of 'reading' these tiny changes in facial muscle tone are for the most part totally unconscious. We know what we know, but we don't know the heck how we know it! So when we try to explain what we see, we may talk about eyes for instance, in a rather vague way: 'she had a sad look in her eyes', or 'his eyes turned dark'. Or, we may talk about face or body posture or the whole person in broad, general terms: 'she looked downtrodden',  'he seemed very tense'. 

In other words, when we tell each other about the emotions of people we have observed, we usually name the emotion itself, or we use a few, simple metaphors. And everybody understands what we mean.

You see where I'm heading, right? Yes, building up a defence for my use of the simple, common 'emtotion words' in my writing: angry, sad, excited, furious, etc., and/or the simple, common metaphors: dark, heavy etc. These simple adjectives are actually a lot more precise than a whole bunch of more elaborate descriptions you could think of. 'He seemed sad.' 'Her face darkened.' (I once tried 'He turned his dagger eyes towards her.' - but I didn't like that. Thought the metaphor was too cliched, and it looked too contrived and 'clever'. ) Sometimes I may transfer the description of the emotion from the person to the surroundings: 'He felt danger enter the room.' 'The place in front of the stone house was empty and cold. It was not a good place to be.' 

And these things will often be enough, now move on with your narrative, please.

I do use other tools than this, though. I, too, may use a few observations of body posture, skin colour, muscle tone and the like. Say that someones muscles are tensing, their eyes narrowing, their skin paling. But these things are of course very broad and general and may happen for a variety of reasons and emotions. So here, as always, context is the key.

Which points to the more important aspect of  'Show, Don't Tell'. Often, it is not necessary at all to state what kind of emotional state a character is in, because their words and actions will convey it very clearly. Also: if I say that someone is sad or angry, I bloody well have to show that in their words and actions, too! Which is not always as easy as it sounds.

Because this is not only about context. It is as much about characterisation. How will this particular person speak and act whent they are sad or angry? Putting in a few exclamation marks when quoting their speech to suggest anger isn't good enough. Not everybody will yell when they're angry. Some will turn very precise and careful and low key. Some will shut up altogether, and go sit in a corner to fume, until they maybe explode in a single, angry exclamation. Some may ramble incoherently, others may enjoy the battle and be deadly amusing and sarcastic. Others again may try that and fail. Some will be red and yelling and ridiculous, others may turn pale and calm and deadly. And on and on.

I write in limited third perspective, so if it's not the person who's head I'm currently in that feels the emotion, it will be he or she that observes it. This adds another couple of dimensions to the emotion-writing challenge. Because my characters may not always be fully aware of, or understand completely, their own reactions and emotions. I may sometimes choose to convey these to the readers anyway, and perhaps even say outright that the person is confused, or sad and angry without knowing why. Or write their confusion as a series of questions they ask themselves. Etc. Also, their conscious conclusions about the other person's emotional state may be wrong. Sometimes, when you're scared for some reason, you may wrongfully believe it is because the other person is angry at you. While instead it is all about your own phobias and hang-ups.  For instance.

Finally, I try to convey emotions in my writing-style as well. That's not always easy. I know I must not overdo it, because then it might come across as contrived or 'artsy'. But if, for instance, a situation is dangerous and my character is stressed and scared, but trying to take action, I may write in short,  'matter-of fact' sentences. If what happens is supposed to be overwhelming and feels like a lot is going on at once and  'I'm getting desperate here', I may write in longer sentences with a lot of commas with pieces of information between them, or connect those pieces with 'and'.

If that last example was unclear, here's a sample from a fanfic I wrote years ago (never published it anywhere). The situation is about a little squirrel an eight year old boy has smuggled into the house, and he knows he will get hell from his parents if this is found out. Now his visiting friends have found it and let it loose. This spells disaster for the protagonist. Also, a frantic, scared squirrel and a bunch of children inefficiently trying to catch it makes a very confused scene. I tried to convey some of this in the following writing style:

"It runs so fast and turns so quickly and is so small it slips through their hands and through the smallest of openings."

(Whether this was successful or not, I will leave to you who is perhaps reading this to judge.)

And now, proofreading and reposting all of this, I say to myself: no wonder I haven't got any further than half way through my story... The art of writing takes time to master. (But I love it. You hear that, cookie fairy?)


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This Is Why I Am Here, Not On Face Book

-  even though FB is the more popular one: 

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/05/12/business/facebook-privacy.html?ref=personaltech

(And - can someone tell me why the heck the lj-cut don't work in the post above? I can't see that I have any typos in it or antything. Grrr.)

(Edited to add: I have reposted several times. I have rewritten the lj-cut bit several times. Now I have deleted the whole thing, and rewritten it from a different computer. And it still doesn't work. So I've just deleted the whole lj-cut thing, and re-posted it long, with a red headline.

The links don't show up as links either. I honestly think I'm haunted by the computer gnomes...)

May. 14th, 2010

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Domestic Servants in Classical Mystery Stories - A Homage to My Mother


coneycat  has some recent, interesting posts about Agatha Christie and her writing over at her journal. In the post: While Reading and Thinking about Agatha Christie ( coneycat.livejournal.com/1056860.html) she states the following: 

Preserve me from the "lower-class" characters in Christie, particularly the servants. They're not even human. (I once mentioned this to an acquaintance, who argued that the "Oh, ma'am" simpering servant-girl was accurate for the time. Maybe in front of Ma'am she was--I'm sure she didn't want to lose her job--but the characters behave with equal slack-jawed imbecility when there's no one around to pretend to.)

I responded with the rant below, directed at coneycat 's acquaintance. A pretty 'blistering' rant, as coneycat  put it - it morphed into a defense of my mother, and tied itself strangely to the entry below.  So I decided to put it up here, as well, in honour of my mother and because I also want to save it for myself.

"Accurate for the time my ass... My mother was born in 1917, into a poor working class family. She had to leave her home at 14 to earn her living as a house maid. The stories she has told.... of the insufferable, inconsiderate patronising attitudes of her employers, their snobbishness, their idea that since she had to leave school so early she had no intelligence and no sensibilities what so ever.

It marked her forever, she could never forget it. And this was a young girl who, in the seven years of schooling she was able to get, was always at the top of her class. Who had a teacher that gave her private lessons in her home and begged her parents to let her continue school, because she was so bright and had so much promise...

But her parents just couldn't afford it. They had seven children and could barely keep body and soul together. They needed her income. And for an uneducated girl of 14 during the great depression, without any kind of connection - what else was there to do but to go into domestic work?

So yeah, my tolerance for the depiction of domestic servants as mentally retarded or naive, about-to-be-naughty children, is fairly low, I must admit.

But you're right, too late to reform Christie now, and teach her to respect the working classes - so no need to put any energy into raging against her. It's just another reason why I can't be bothered to pick up any Christie books."
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Death and the Real Life

When I want to sound wise, I sometimes say the internet is real life, too. It exists in time and space, and real people are writing there. So there.

But I must admit, when it happens where my body is, it has more impact. Not to mention when it happens to my family.

My mother died last November. She practically starved to death - because her internal systems slowly shut down one by one. She was 92, so not unexpected. But it was hard to watch. She craved food, claimed she was starving (which she did) , and asked with wide, demanding eyes: why don't I get any food? Well, because she couldn't keep anything down. And the condition was nothing that could be fixed with an operation or some nifty medicine. It was Death, basically. That final condition no one can beat.

I had my ankle badly broken at the same time, and could not work. That was a blessing in disguise. I live in a country where you get paid sick leave, so I could spend the days sitting next to her bed with my aching foot up, holding her hand. It took her nearly a month to die, and I could be there for her all the way.

I know I did the right thing. I know there was nothing else I could have done. But the experience of not being able to provide, of just sitting and watching someone you love die while she craves for you to help her - it triggered strong feelings of inadequacy in me on top of the grief. That spilled over into everything, my writing included. Both here and on my novel. Work was hard, too, as my job is in the helping professions.

But it's life, right? That's how it is, the real one. Death comes as the end, and there's nothing you can do but deal with it. Like Jung said (paraphrasing from memory): the important challenges in life cannot be conquered, only endured.

And I am dealing with it. There is nothing to regret. I am writing again. Perhaps not entirely inadequte. Both here and on my novel. Got a whole new chapter finished recently, finally. Been struggling with that for so long  it has some very tricky dialogue  in it - between lots of people, with lots of info. But now  it seems to work. And I am already way into  the next chapter. Perhaps I will get to finish that story after all.

Sep. 20th, 2009

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Adverbs and Point of View

Can't seem to be able to write today either. Still feels my story is the dumbest thing ever. Procrastination blossoms and my mood approaches cellar level....

So, thought I should at least write something in here - that way, I do at least write, right?

Ahem.

In my (probably limited) experience, wannabe readers are frequently told by various experts or "experts" that adverbs are made of evil. Too many adjectives get a lot of flak as well, but adverbs seem to be named the worst enemy of "good writing".

I beg to differ. Of course, that's why I write this.Collapse )

Sep. 19th, 2009

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Infodump, Dialogue and Point of View

Part of the problems I have in my writing right now is the dreaded infodump problem. (There are other problems, too, possibly more serious...)

Of course, one place to dump the info is in the dialogue, which has its own problems (as in the well known: would these people really tell each other these things at this point in the story?) I'm well aware of these problems, struggling with them all the time - but there is one aspect I haven't been quite aware of yet.

What does too much dialogue do to point of view?Collapse )
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Catching up

Haven't written here in a long while. I'm trying to write my story and get it finished some day..... and now I'm stuck again. Introducing a whole bunch of new characters and taking the main characters to entirely different places, the whole atmosphere changes - and I'm stuck. Afraid of losing my drive, motivation, have the temperature drop and -- well, yes, screw it. The whole thing is just dumb anyway, isn't it... ?

Sigh. And then I hear from my significant other that every writer experiences this and don't I know how many times he has been stuck at this place?

Sure. *grumble* As if that helps right now. Because *my* story really sucks!

So yeah.

KInd of astonished to see just how long it is since I wrote anything here. I had so many plans... But I should know from before that it is never wise to state what I will do later, in case I will never get round to it. Which happens all to often says the queen of procrastinations.

So. I won't write anything more about Twilight in here. Didn't even finish the thing - I was never interested enough. And you know - I've been writing. ;)

I did dip one toe in HP fandom again the other day, but it didn't go too well. (One result of that can be seen in the comments on the old Lupin post down here somewhere) No point dredging up old discussions with Snapefans for instance, when they have so moved on. (I don't like Snape. Don't hate, I said don't like. Not the same thing.) Been surfing a little on Sirius-centric fanfic sites and journals instead, that was fun. May do more of that when I need a break from things.

I have debated with myself whether I should create a separate journal for my own fanfic attempts and fandom musings, but I don't know - may take too much time. Will see.

For now I will write a bit of the problems I'm struggling with in my writing, to see if that helps.

Jan. 13th, 2009

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Character Development in Writing

There is an interesting discussion going on in the comments to this entry in Sherwood Smith's (sartorias ) journal. How do writers develop their characters, and what kind of approach do we have to them? It all started out as reactions to various techniques in writer's workshops, one of them being "interview your character".

sartorias  listed the following three possible approaches to characters:

*My characters are fictional dolls. I give them life, I kill them at whim--whatever the story, my editor, my mood dictates, and don't give it a second thought. Because they are not real.

*My characters may or may not be real. I can't even begin to define what "real" is. The only thing I can say for certain is, my characters have never entered my physical space, so I don't pretend that they have.

*My characters are more real to me than the people around me in meatspace. My characters talk to me all the time.

Since this is so very much what I struggle with these days, make my characters come alive on the page, I have posted my answer in that thread behind the cut.

My current aproach to my charactersCollapse )

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