Sunday, June 29, 2008

Making a Fashion Statement

by David G. Woolley
An editor I once worked with offered a suggestion that the character Shechem King of Robbers in the Promised Land Series was too Robber-like to be credible. He was cliché. Did he really need to dress in so much black? Black cape? Black sashes? Black robes? He didn't buy the short yes answer so I offered him something a little longer like this:

The inspiration for the character Shechem came, in part, from an actual Robber King by the same name who lived in the caves near Jerusalem though in a different era than Lehi. Dressing him in black wasn't just good drama, it was fashionable history. Archaeologists found this scarf left by an ancient middle eastern grave robber caught in the act of plundering a tomb. For the religiously inclined of the day, it was an unthinkable act of thievery. If the perpetrator were a member of the community he was betraying his own religious beliefs. The gold and silver rings left with the deceased were needed for a wealthy afterlife. But if the theft were committed by an ancient robber who didn't share the same beliefs as the culture on which he preyed, a grave made the perfect target.

Robber. Thief. What's the difference? In your world they're likely the same bad guy. An untrustworthy no good who stole a woman's purse. A bank robber. A con man. Maybe even a Mafioso. They take what isn't theirs and if the justice system does its job, they get what they deserve.

Robbers and thieves were a more differentiated lot in the ancient Old World of Lehi's Jerusalem and their traditions likely influenced the rise of robber bands in the Americas. Take your neighbor living down the street in the one story hand-cut limestone Egyptian-style home of Jerusalem's Lower City. You know his name. Jonah. You shop at the same market and draw water from the same well. You're a blacksmith. He's a stone cutter. Your kids play leap frog together. Its a game that's sure to be around a long time. You have no reason not to trust Jonah, but when you leave your new ax near the trunk of a dead olive tree, Jonah can't resist the temptation. He takes it and becomes what ancient Jerusalemites called a thief.

Here's a description of some differences between thieves and robbers taken directly from the historical novel Pillar of Fire (Chapter 2, page 26)

Thieves were loners, working their craft among their neighbors. They stole bread from the baker, sheep from the farmer and coins from a blind man’s purse. And for their crimes they were to make a sin offering at the temple.

Robbers were ruthless outlaws, burning farms and besieging villages, plundering the trade route, and raining terror down on whole cities from their mountain hideouts. With their oaths, they planted men on government councils and assassinated heads of state. And for their crimes, they were not tried by a judge. Jewish law allowed them to suffer beheading by the first man to catch them.

No wonder Captain Laban called Nephi's older brother, Laman, a robber rather than a thief. He was justifying attempted murder while telling every servant and soldier within the sound of his voice that his house guest was fair game. A fairly Israelite-law-savvy cover for his crime. It was also a not-so-subtle legal order to kill (1 Nephi 3:13).

Ancient robbers belonged to an organized group. A band. In some cases it grew into an entire society with its own cultural identity. Members took an oath of loyalty, paid homage to a priestly order of appointed officials who either developed their own religious doctrine and law or borrowed it from previous bands of robbers. Positions like high priest, king, and prince were not out of place. They understood that intertwining a hierarchical government with the trappings of religious zeal was critical for the long term survival of their way of life.

In one of the most telling documents ever recovered from antiquity, the Robber King Giddianhi, in a letter to Lachoneus, the chief governing officer of a group of ancient Americans, details the secret oaths and ruthless means employed by robbers (see 3 Nephi 1-10).

Ancient robbers were parasitic, robbing society of its wealth by taking advantage of its decaying morality, but not entirely destroying it. Without a host culture they had nothing on which to prey. To protect their identity from the uninitiated they administered oaths of secrecy, planted loyalists on government councils, and bribed judges.

With the growth of a band, robber kings, priests, and princes, like Shechem King of Robbers, added ceremonial clothing, medallions and rings to their vestments to convey their authority. The name Shechem is borrowed from Israelite sacred history. Shechem may have taken his name from the holy site north of Jerusalem where the arc of the covenant and other sacred emblems were kept safe until Solomon's temple was built and they were transported to the capital city.

Robbers mimicked the sacred rites and clothing of their host cultures. Capes, flowing robes, sashes, ornamental belts, and loin clothes were important ritual clothing. All of it black.

So the next time your editor suggests a different fashion statement for one of your characters or maybe the addition of some stylish alternative color selections to their wardrobe, tell him Shechem sent you.

Join author David G. Woolley at his Top of the Morning Blog or his Promised Land Website. He is also a weekly contributor to Rangers at the Far Post blog.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Rhymy-dimey Stuff

by David G. Woolley

Coming next week: the sequel to Little Green Dwarfs. Come back next week when David G. Woolley posts more thoughts on developing your writing voice. Until then, may all your stories be peopled with little green dwarfs.

Join author David G. Woolley at his Top of the Morning Blog or his Promised Land Website. He is also a weekly contributor to Rangers at the Far Post blog.


by David G. Woolley

One of Ben Franklin's many passions was lightning. It wasn't a curiosity. It was a force to be reckoned with, understood. After his famous thunderstorm kite flight in June of 1752 his research led to ideas we still use today when we talk about electricity. Ideas like battery, conductor, condenser, charge, discharge, uncharged, negative, minus, plus, electric shock, and electrician are all Ben Franklin contributions. Electric shock is my favorite. He also understood the dangers of untamed electric force and he figured out a way to protect buildings, sea faring ships, and people. The lightning rod is today a metaphor for inventiveness.

It wasn't long before others built on Franklin's ideas. Edison perfected the incandescent filament and tube we call the light bulb, Graham the telephone and Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind when he beamed down the first electrically illuminated video from the moon.

My mother invented Tutti Fruity home made ice cream. No kidding. Its a creamy blend of cherries, pineapple and strawberries with a rather inventive mix of vanilla and a few other secret ingredients that will not be revealed until the US patent office gets back with word on the application. The dessert has clinically addicted our family for decades.

I was a dangling participle in seventh grade. My English teacher was a good man. Mr. Herman paced during class. I napped. He was a grammarian. I was a daydreamer. His lectures on sentence structure were architectural wonders. My papers were an accident waiting to happen. If he remembers me at all it was for our last conversation of the school year. He advised me to avoid any profession which required the use, manipulation or selection of words, pronouns, adjectives, or any other use of the English language. My mother used to apologize for my poor spelling. We practiced a lot. It never helped. I was too busy dreaming.

Mr. Herman said, "You'll never amount to much in any profession if you can't write properly."

I said, "No worries Mr. Herman. I got dreams."

We were both right.

Invention—that seemingly boundless well of ideas that afflicts the curios, finds solutions for the problem solver, and creates wonder in the artistic expression of the gifted. How do you become one of the curious? How do you join the ranks of the problem solvers and gifted souls whose inventiveness delights and amazes?

Necessity may be the mother of it, but there was no pressing need for Franklin to study lightning, Edison to test thousands of materials until he found the perfect filament or for mom to find a more perfect ice cream. Vanilla would have been a fine dessert. There is something divine within each of us that engenders the need to create. Its an inheritance from heavenly parents and when we feel heaven near we simply can't deny the impulse that prods us to ask, "What if? What are the possibilities? If we can dream it, can't we achieve it?"

If necessity is the mother of invention, then the brain may just be the father. That gray matter just happens to have the processing power of 100 teraflops. That's about 100 trillion calculations per second. How do I know? Take the 100 billion neurons in your brain, factor in the 1000 interconnections each neuron makes with other neurons and add the 200 calculations per second that take place at each of those interfaces and you've got yourself a 100 teraflop super computer that's mobile, compact and guaranteed for the life of the handy dandy carrying case.

A couple of years ago IBM built the first computer with more processing power than the human brain. They call it ASCI Purple. Its computing power is a whopping 360 teraflops. The only problem? Portability. It took over a year to move it from the design center in New Jersey to its home at the New Mexico Los Alamos Laboratory. ASCI Purple weighs 197 tons. The human brain weighs about 3.3 pounds soaking wet. ASCI Purple takes up a mere 8,900 cubic feet (about the size of two basketball courts). The average size of the brain? About 56 cubic inches.

There is one other problem. Despite being bested by more than 200 teraflops, the brain still manages to out-do the bulky upstart in the most important category. ASCI purple hasn't the capacity for invention. It simply can't piece together seemingly unrelated ideas and create something revolutionary. Like, say, a 360 teraflop computer. ASCI purple is a huge time saver. Its not an inventor.

For some still unknown reason the mind dreams, creates, and invents. Science calls it amazing. I call it divine. Its so powerful a machine that it even manages to fill in the gaps when you can't. You thought you told the kids to be home at 10 pm, but you only thought it. You were certain you connected all the electrical wiring in an ingenious new grid to improve efficiency and incorporate dimmers in all the bedrooms. Instead you got a blackout. You think you're losing your mind. No worries. Your brain is just busy doing what it does best. Invention.

Try writing a story. One that you're passionate about. One that's been stewing in your thoughts for months maybe even years. You know the beginning middle and end like you know your way home on a dark and stormy night. What doesn't make it onto the page your mind fills in with colorful imagery, rational thought and delightful pros. You've got the beginnings of a masterpiece. Until, of course, you read it aloud. What you thought was a symphony choired by angles is little more than a dangly jitty with flat notes. Where did all the faulty logic come from? There's some important descriptions missing and who made these terribly unspecific word choices? What you lacked in experience and training your brain filled in with an inventive solution.

The next time you set out to follow your dreams, make sure you take the time to train your brain to get to Oz and back. Franklin put in hours of study. Edison put in hours of testing. My mom went through gallons of cream. You can do it too. Combine your inventiveness with some blood, sweat and tears and you'll be amazed by the quality of what you achieve.

May your dreams and your Tutti Fruity ice cream be a symphony choired by angels.

Editor's Note: For Kerry Blair and me, the last line of this post should have read: May your dreams and your Soy Milk be a symphony choired by angels.
Join author David G. Woolley at his Top of the Morning Blog or his Promised Land Website. He is also a weekly contributor to Rangers at the Far Post blog.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Little Green Dwarfs

by David G. Woolley
* Disclaimer: Management is not responsible for blurring the line between dwarfs and aliens. Also, the use of alcohol in the example below should not be construed as condoning the sale or consumption of spirits. May we suggest soy milk?

"A hundred odd-looking men walked into the room and ordered a drink." Not a terribly poor way to describe what's going on in the picture above. The sentence is grammatically correct. The actions are clear. Maybe you fill a page with sentences like these without giving a second thought to how it affects your voice. The issue, in this case, is vagueness. The characters (a hundred odd-looking men) are woefully abstract. Write something like "a hundred little green three-eyed dwarfs", on the other hand, and you've rendered things more specific. The setting in this run of pros could be any room, but a bar is more clear and certainly more consistent with placing an order for alcohol. When was the last time you wrote something like: A man ordered a drink? It doesn't pack near the punch as say, ordering a fifth of scotch on the rocks. The following solution may be just the right stuff to improve your voice:

"A hundred little green three-eyed dwarfs stepped up to the bar and ordered a bloody mary."

Don't worry about your voice when you're writing. You'll end up forcing things. When you find that your voice is flat turn the vague, the unspecific, the abstract, into more concrete pros. Make your unspecific characters more tangible, what a movie director would likely call giving the extras some life. Choose a precise word for your setting. Make your descriptions not just clear, but precisely clear. It is not simply a matter of poor word choice. Strengthening your voice requires discipline. Shed the lazy attitude of accepting as adequate whatever pros happen to pop into your mind. When you go back to rewrite do the hard work of finding a better solution. And remember: There is always a better solution.

Repetition is not just another culprit that weakens voice. It is the ring leader. Do you write sentences with the same structure all in a row? A run of declarative sentences, ones that all begin with say, I or She or He, are certain to weaken your voice. Maybe you've written one question right after the other. Not only is that repetitive, it can be confusing. Do you give multiple descriptions when a single solution is less repetitive if not more precise? Go ahead and re-read the previous sentence again and notice how writing "if not more precise" tends to muddle your voice. Pick one and stick with it. Writing "do you give multiple descriptions when a single solution is less repetitive," strengthens your voice.

Just for the fun of it, let me rewrite the previous paragraph with a weaker voice. That's right, even non-fiction has a voice. Here goes:

Repetition is not just another culprit that diminishes voice. It is the ring leader. Do you write sentences with the same structure all in a row? Do you write a run of declarative sentences, ones that all begin with I or She or He? Do you write one question right after the other? Not only is that repetitive, it can be confusing if not down right redundant. Do you give multiple descriptions when a single solution is less repetitive if not more precise. Go ahead and re-read the previous sentence again and notice how writing "if not more precise" tends to muddle your voice. Pick one and stick with it.

I couldn't resist throwing in an extra repetition in the paragraph above. Did you catch the "not only is that repetitive, it can be confusing if not down right redundant"? Like I said, pick one and stick with it.

There are other observations that may strengthen your voice when you're rewriting. I'm going to post some of them here in the next few days in a blog I plan to call: "Rhymy-dimey stuff."

Until then, may your voice be specific, may your writing be void of abstraction, and may you never, never, never repeat yourself. And if you've got time, come join me for some uplifting commentary at Top of the Morning where I guarantee you'll enjoy an Irish lift to your day and a lilt in your step.


Join author David G. Woolley at his Top of the Morning Blog or his Promised Land Website. He is also a weekly contributor to Rangers at the Far Post blog.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Don't Jump

by David G. Woolley

Don't jump. Its good advice for people who work in tall buildings. Its also good advice for anyone who would like to write some fiction. Some habits are hard to break including jumping from head to head. If your heroine is feeling an emotion that begs for a line or two of introspection, but you began the scene in the hero's point of view, do something I call RUJ: Resist the Urge to Jump. Use a line of dialogue, settle on some bit of creative action for your non-point-of-view character. Maybe a snippet of description will do the trick, anything that conveys the emotion without jumping. And without explaining the emotion.

You will be richly rewarded for not taking a leap. Initially the only perceptible payoff is less confusion for the reader. But over time you'll notice that your scenes have a much deeper dramatic impact on the reader because you begin to employ internal dialogue that only your point of view character would employ. You begin to think like your character. And then you begin to foreshadow the subtle motivations that prod your character to action.

Even more rewarding than a deeper understanding of your character is the development of what is fawningly referred to as voice. They say you can't develop your ability to achieve a voice for your character. It is said that its a gift, a talent, a genetic endowment from an ancestor of literature prodigy fame. I say fooey. You can develop your voice. The first step is selecting a point of view character and sticking with her through thick and thin to the end of the scene. But then what?

What do you do once you've committed to endure to the end in a single point of view and still your scene lacks a powerful voice? How do you transform a lackluster chapter with a thin voice into a dramatic marvel? Join me Wednesday, June 4th, and I'll share two observations that may help you recognize some sublte tendencies that tend to dampen a strong voice. Its a blog to which I'm applying the working title: Little Green Dwarfs.

Until Wednesday, may your writing be filled with all sorts of twists and turns. And my your hard drive never go belly up.


Join author David G. Woolley at his Top of the Morning Blog or his Promised Land Website