The Under Ground Writing Project

Making writers right since 2008.

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Writer's Blah

Posted by Ali on January 23, 2013 at 6:30 PM Comments comments (5)

In the past year or so, I've been focused on a lot of things - moving, a new job, non-fiction, revising a novel, etc. etc. What I have been slacking on is drafting brand new stuff, and especially short stories.


Recently, I've been trying to exercise those neglected muscles. My success has been less than overwhelming. I have realized that, thanks to neglect, I have fallen back to my pattern from when I first started playing around with this writing stuff. I figure out an idea I like, jot out the first few pages easily, then stall out. Part of me feels like all the practice, all the years I've spent figuring out how to see a project through to the end, has escaped me. It's like I've forgotten how a story works.


Needless to say, this frustration doesn't lend itself to motivation. Currently, I've got the following stories brewing/stalled:


Duchess of Bathory inspired story: 2.5 pages drafted. Stall = Overthinking the plot. How realistic would it be if the hero does that? Would it fit with the world-building I've developed, or would readers feel like it's a cheat?


Zombie story: 5+ pages drafted. Stall = The ending I want and the beginning I've got feel out of sync. How am I going to match them up? And/or should I abandon one to hold true to the other?


Girl with no face story: 0 pages drafted. Stall = I have a plot/conflict, but is that really the best pay off for the character concept? How do I write it without it feeling cheesy?


Transvestite prince story: 8 ish pages drafted. Stall = Okay, I'm having fun with the characters, but do I really have a conflict/plot here?


I'm working on some solutions to the blahs, and I'll write more about that later, but I'm hoping some of you might have some brilliant ideas on how to get over the sticking point. Also, I'm hoping y'all can give me something beyond, "Just write it out," because, while that is absolutely good advice, I think you guys might have some other, more creative, solutions.

The Improbability of Infinite Progress

Posted by Oliver on August 24, 2012 at 9:30 PM Comments comments (1)

There's a famous thought-puzzle with many forms, the most famous of which is the chicken and the egg problem. (Which came first? Probably the dude. There. Puzzle solved.) My favorite version of it involves sourdough bread, and it goes like this: To be made correctly, every new batch of sourdough bread needs a chunk of the dough from the last batch. Which begs the question, how could the first batch of sourdough bread predate everything? See. A puzzle.


There's a philosophical answer to this puzzle. Philosophy is dumb and needs a schmancy name for everything, and the name for this concept is "the impossibility of infinite regress." Logically speaking, no series of events can stretch infinitely into the past. There must have been a first baker/brilliant marketer who invented bread-gone-sour, because we can logically argue that sourdough bread didn't just bake itself. An baker baked, and sourdough bread resulted. The argument of a natural, spontaneous explosion of sourdough bread is always an option, but it's still an argument that, at some point, sourdough bread wasn't, then it began...


This would appear to be evidence that human minds are hardwired to include structure in comprehending the world. We want to see that things have a comfortable termination, whether it is where those things start, or that they end. Cap'n Hair wrote a good summary of the psychology and necessity of sensible endings in fiction a couple days ago, (discover it here). Go read it. It'll give this one context. From here on I'm going to look at a few endings that I view as successful, concentrating on how they signalled the end had come.


Seven Samurai is a film by Hiro Kurasawa about seven samurai--shocking! It starts (you can't think about endings without thinking about beginnings, so that's what's with all the fucking talk of beginnings when this is about endings--shush!).... Thank you. It starts with a little village having problems with invaders. They require defenders, and can pay the defenders nothing, and samurai tend to be expensive anti-invader systems. Hoping to essentially plead to the charity of samurai, the villagers go to the local...hub of samurai activities is what it appears to be in the movie. Long story short, they discover one samurai who wants to help. He's called Kambei. What Kambei wants from the rest of his life strongly impacts how the movie is shaped from there on out.


Kambei is a weathered samurai, who wants nothing more than to be done with fighting. He doesn't want to help the village because he doesn't want to be in any more battles. Eventually he agrees to help, because he's a good dude--honorable and such--and understands their plight. He is then able to do what the villagers couldn't do by themselves: lend legitimacy to their pleas for help. Kambei begins recruiting other samurai, and soon has two more dudes: Kasushiro, a teenaged rich boy who wants to be a samurai and has ultimately good intentions; and Shichiroji, another weathered campaigner who's an old friend of Kambei's.


Not too far into the movie, Shichiroji and Kambei have a conversation in which they muse that this battle could be the last one, both of them smiling about it, almost happy at the idea that they could soon die in battle and end the fighting. The conversation was significant. Explanation below.


Kambei continues recruiting samurai till he has seven guys, including himself. After Shichiroji, the remaining four samurai are all men in their prime, experienced and ready for a fight and not yet tired of it. These guys, the last four samurai, all have many years' possible service to honor and the movements in the world, and they're wise enough to know what they should do. So the adventure begins.


Over the course of the movie, three particularly relevent things gradually progress. The first is the Kambei, our weathered campaigner, tries to keep the teenage rich boy Kasushiro out of harm's way. Kambei is wiser and more experienced than the headstrong rich boy. Kambei knows best. And Kambei clearly wishes to keep the rich boy away from the long, tiring life of a samurai.


The second relevent thing that happens--important to the movie, though secretly much less important to the point I'm making--is that the seven samurai save the village.


The third relevent occurance is this: Four samurai die. The four who die are all the samurai in their prime who I have not here named. The rich boy, Kasushiro, survives, as do the two old campaigners on their ways out. Kambei, Shichiroji, and Kasushiro survive this story.


The movie ends a little bit after the battle for the village is saved. Why, might one ask, would a movie about saving a village not end precisely when the village is saved? The answer to that, my dearies, is that Seven Samurai is not about a village being saved. Seven Samurai is about seven samurai. The movie ends with a great shot. The three surviving samurai looking up at the graves of the samurai who died. Go find a screen shot of it. It's a good shot.


The samurai standing on the left is Kambei, in the middle is his old campaigning buddy. The hot rod kid is the other. The four swords in the top of the hill are the graves of the other samurai.


Good stories end frequently with enduring images. In Cap'n Hair's example, there's a complex image of heartbreak. The King Arthur legend ends with an image of the dying king sailing across the mysic lake to Avalon. Frankenstein ends with an image of the monster wandering into the wide world. Strong images encapsulating...something. I'm still unsure what.


Seven Samurai, a story about an old soldier who just wants to be done with all the dying, ends with an image of that old soldier looking at the graves of younger men, an old friend at his elbow, and the a kid--new generation eager for the fight--receiving his first taste of reality. Kambei survives. He also gets to watch a young samurai grow. So that's not all bad.

Tying my concept together is somewhat tricky. Some dude once advised not to confuse activity for story, or something to that affect. What one might take away from this treatise, as far as advice goes, is a suggestion for a process. Begin by examining the story you're writing. It is no doubt filled with all kinds of motion and excitment. If you are thoughtful, then it also has at its core somebody who is trying to do something--to gain something, accomplish something--something personal. Everything must have an end--there's philosophy supports it, the improbability of infinite progress--and every enduring story ends when your character either gets or doesn't get his strongest personal desire. Usually, the most elegant stories end when he doesn't get what he wants, but he gets something better.


And then the whole world exploded!

The End

Posted by Jenny Maloney on August 20, 2012 at 9:00 AM Comments comments (3)

      In real life, endings are sad.


My grandmother died in March, on her birthday. She was eighty-four years old.


At her memorial service, presenters tried to illustrate that she lived a full life. And she did. She married a man she loved, who loved her back. She had four kids, seven grandkids, and five great grandkids. She worked a full career. She volunteered. Her life was a journey and she travelled it well.


Which is why it feels so terrible to realize her journey is over. There's always a sense of what-happens-next when you're alive. So once a life is over, there's a feeling of incompletion.


And I don't know about you, but I'm always angry when someone I love is gone. I get mad that there's always one more thing they wanted to do. One more thing they could have done.


When Grandma turned eighty I said it was time to see what eight candles looked like on a birthday cake. Let me tell you, it's bright. And hot. Like a mini-sun. You have to light the candles fast or you have a wax-icing cake on your hands.


Grandma died early in the morning on her eighty-fourth birthday. She should have seen four more candles. But she didn't make it.


There's always one more thing to do.


That's life. And that's how it goes.


Fiction works differently. As angry as I get with life endings, I am disappointed with the lack of an ending in a story. Stories, in my opinion, serve a unique purpose in our lives. I believe they provide significance and a resolution that we so rarely get in real life.


One of the most famous endings in literature - and I'm pretty sure I'm not spoiling anything - is the end of Gone with the Wind. Scarlett, who has finally figured out that Ashley Wilkes is not the man for her, pleads with Rhett Butler to stay. Rhett, after facing the death of his daughter and after endless rejections from his wife, says in response to her impassioned plea: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." And off he goes.


Quite frankly, my dears, I've read that book and I think the ending is spot-on. The clamors and pleadings for a sequel were studiously ignored by Margaret Mitchell, who only completed that one book. The problem with trying to continue Gone with the Wind is that these characters have gone through the most strenuous and troublesome period of their lives. Rhett is broken. Scarlett will never be hungry again. By just continuing along, the significance of those moments is ruined.


There's a reason we remember "I don't give a damn": Because it's important. It's over.


I've found the lack of endings in multiple fantasy series to be troublesome for a similar reason - right now I have no idea what the significant moments are. Sure, George RR Martin kills main characters...but then he continues on and I'm not sure who the main characters are anymore. He could kill everyone he started with and I won't know it's important until I have some kind of end.


Don't go on forever. Help the reader realize what's important.


And now, because I've gone on a somewhat depressing tangent...I give you "Write Like the Wind George RR Martin" to express my thoughts in a more amusing fashion:


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