I’m taking part in Clarion West’s Write-a-thon starting today, and it goes for 6 weeks. My goal: I’ll be working on a YA novel, and trying to improve my skills in story development. You can see my profile here.

I also want to increase my daily word count, but I can only do that by getting better at knowing where a story is going.

Not to make this all about me, the Write-a-thon is Clarion West’s summer fundraiser. Roping in all these outsider writers makes the event a bit of a self-help experience for writers who are not part of the actual workshop, more fun and interesting than just handing over a donation.

And, in case you don’t know anything about Clarion West, it’s a writing program specifically for writers of science fiction and fantasy.

I’m crossing my fingers that the blog won’t be me talking to myself for the next 6 weeks, so I hope others will drop by and say hi. If you like, give your own thoughts about how you (if you are a writer) conceptualize and build a story from the starting idea. And if you are a reader rather than a writer, maybe you have thoughts on the genre, what you like, and what makes a weak, newly hatched idea gather its strength, spread its wings, and take wing.

Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book (M. R. James, 1895)

A Cambridge academic, Dennistoun, comes to a little French town to study and photograph the old cathedral — its stalls, organ, choir screen, and other treasures. The sacristan, who opens the church and stays with him during the hours that it takes to record and observe everything, is a nervous — very nervous — man:

[He had] a curiously furtive, or rather hunted and oppressed air. He was perpetually half-glancing behind him; the muscles of his back and shoulders seemed to be hunched in a continual nervous contraction, as if he were expecting every moment to find himself in the clutch of an enemy.

A not-unfounded expectation, unfortunately.

Dennistoun, although he hears sounds — “curious noises, muffled footfalls and distant talking voices,” puts these down as merely the “strange noises that trouble a large empty building” and inwardly speculates that the cause of the sacristan’s nervousness may be that he is a henpecked husband.

Finally, Dennistoun’s work is done and the two leave the church. Outside, the sacristan hesitantly broaches the subject of whether Dennistoun would be interested in seeing an old book. As a matter of fact, Dennistoun dreams of finding a rare book, and is curious enough to accompany the old man to his house. To his delight, Dennistoun is shown a wonderful treasure, a collection of very old illuminated manuscript pages taken from different medieval volumes, assembled by a former canon of the cathedral more than 200 years earlier. He buys it at a price that is much less than its value and takes it back to his hotel room, leaving the sacristan a noticeably happier man. Dennistoun, however, as he sits leafing through his newly acquired treasure, begins to feel uncomfortable, as though someone were behind him.

M. R. James is a master of the creepy tale, and, as with all his stories, this one is more rewarding the more you pay attention to the details. Old Canon Alberic, compiler of the scrapbook and ancestor of the current sacristan, has left a note at the end of the book that gives the reader a clue to his downfall:

12 Dec. 1694. It was asked: Shall I find it? Answer: Thou shalt. Shall I become rich? Thou wilt. Shall I live an object of envy? Thou wilt. Shall I die in my bed? Thou wilt.

Another pleasure of a James story is the author’s subtle, dark humor. It must be admitted that most writers of ghost stories find themselves unable to be both frightening and witty: James can do both. As Dennistoun browses the scrapbook, alone in his hotel room, he overflows a bit with gratitude to the man who was the creator of the treasure he has purchased:

“Bless Canon Alberic!” said Dennistoun, who had an inveterate habit of talking to himself. “I wonder where he is now! … Dear me! I wish that landlady would learn to laugh in a more cheering manner. It makes one feel as if there was someone dead in the house.”

The one who was struck with mirth at Dennistoun’s words knows exactly where Canon Alberic is.

The Judge’s House (Bram Stoker, 1890)

University student Malcolm Malcolmson’s examinations are coming up and he needs a quiet place to study. No distractions. A place, he decides, where he knows nobody, so he won’t be tempted to spend any time with friends. He doesn’t even want his friends to know where he is.

A little extreme? Just wait. He buys a train ticket for a town he’s never heard of, three hours away, a sleepy little town called Benchurch. He stays one night in a quiet, respectable little inn and, the next day, looks for a place even more isolated:

There was only one place which took his fancy… in fact, quiet was not the proper word to apply to it — desolation was the only term conveying any suitable idea of its isolation. It was an old, rambling, heavy-built house of the Jacobean style, with heavy gables and windows… surrounded with a high brick wall massively built… His joy was increased when he realized beyond doubt that it was not at present inhabited.

Not by humans, anyway.

The real estate agent is glad to rent it to him. No one else will take it, for there is an “absurd prejudice” against the place.

The landlady of the inn… threw up her hands in amazement when he told her where he was going to settle himself. “Not in the Judge’s House!” she said, and grew pale.

Malcolmson is amused by her concern and by her attempts to talk him out of it. Right about now, is anyone starting to think that this foolish young man deserves whatever he gets?

He takes up residence in the house, fixing his study area in the house’s great dining room. The great number of rats scurrying about in the walls and their little eyes glittering in the holes they’ve chewed in the paneling don’t bother him. He does become annoyed at the enormous, cocky rat that emerges and sits itself down on the seat of an oak chair by the fireplace, “steadily glaring at him with baleful eyes.” He throws his books at the creature to scare it away, and only the final volume has the desired effect:

[The rat] gave a terrified squeak, and turning on his pursuer a look of terrible malevolence, ran up the chair-back and made a great jump to the rope of the alarm bell and ran up it like lightning… He picked up the books one by one, commenting on them as he lifted them. “Conic Sections he does not mind, nor Cycloid Oscillations, nor the Principia, nor Quaternions, nor Thermodynamics. Now for a look at the book that fetched him!” Malcolm took it up and looked at it.

It is the Bible given to him by his mother.

Undeterred, he continues his residence in this nice, secluded study nook. Ooh, he is just asking for it, isn’t he?

You can find the story here. An audio version is here. An illustration by Edward Gorey: here. This story is widely available and easy to find; it’s in many anthologies and Bram Stoker collections.

On the fear-meter, this ranks 8 out of 10. Higher, if your relationship with rats is a little uneasy.

Star Trek added a term to literary lexicon

Redshirt victim

Today — as I realized from Google’s doodle; I didn’t actually have the date marked on my calendar! — is the 46th anniversary of Star Trek. It premiered Sept. 7, 1966. The Christian Science Monitor (here) points out the show’s contribution to civil rights (Martin Luther King, Jr. was a fan and told Nichelle Nichols she was too important to leave the show). The show reputedly also inspired many young people to go into science careers. I’d like to point to one more achievement: it added a term to our literary lexicon.

You know denouement, persona, peripeteia, harmartia, catharsis, and deus ex machina? Star Trek added redshirt — the virtually anonymous character whose sole purpose in the story is to die, as proof that the antagonist is dangerous, so that we can be in suspense over the fate of the characters that really matter.

Once you have a term you have identified a concept. Redshirt is a type of writing failure, similar to deus ex machina. The “god out of the machine” was a way, in ancient Greek drama, of getting characters out of a fix that was so unsolvable that the playwright had to get a god to come down from Olympus to sort things out (the machine was a crane that lowered the actor to the ground). Not the most satisfying conclusion. The term now signifies any kind of improbable contrivance in the plot.

Similarly, the redshirt is the lazy writer’s way of creating suspense and putting the main character through a necessary but brief anguish. When, on Star Trek, viewers could instantly spot the one who was going to die within about, oh, sixty seconds, it became a joke. A writer with a modicum of professional pride doesn’t want readers laughing at a plot development that’s supposed to be tragic. So the fear of creating a redshirt may, in some instances, motivate a writer to try just a little harder and think a little deeper. Or, at least, we hope so.

What Use is a Journal?

When I was a teaching assistant in grad school, my adviser showed me an English 101 journal that he was grading, full of a student’s lovesick descriptions of her boyfriend. I think it was that moment that gave me a horror of journals–pointless, purposeless, desperate filling-up of pages, they seemed.

I didn’t understand what a valuable tool a journal could be for a writer until I read “The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination” by John Livingston Lowes, which traces the origins of the entries in one of Coleridge’s journals.

Both a prodigious reader and the possessor of a mind that was constantly shooting off ideas for poems, essays, sermons, and multi-volume works of scholarship, Coleridge was preparing to write “Hymns to the Sun, the Moon, and the Elements,” and he combed library books about exploration of the Arctic, the Antarctic, and the Pacific Ocean and copied into his journal descriptions of the wondrous permutations of water–fog, glowing seas, growling sea ice, and much more.

The hymns were never written, but one morning a friend told him about a horrific dream he’d had during the night, about a ghost ship. This was the seed for “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”–and during its writing, the journal was plundered for all the fantastic imagery of the sea.

Now that’s a journal.

Beyond the shadow of the ship
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.