Let Me Explain This To You…

A funny meme came up on my Facebook page the other day. It depicted a conversation between a doctor and a woman. The doctor informed her that her husband’s status is stable, and that he is currently in the recovery room. The woman replies “Well, I warned him that the floor was wet and he stepped on it anyway”. To this, the doctor responded, “This doesn’t explain the bullet in his skull.” and the woman replied “So, I shot him.”
There is one section of this meme, that is not only unnecessary, but quite frankly condescending and off-putting, to the degree that it actually ruined the joke. Why? because instead of making me laugh, it kind of pissed me off.
Why do we need to see the woman reply “So, I shot him”? The author of that joke should have just left that part out, and trust us to make the connection. But by following it through, it told us “This joke is funny because so and so.” It’s a distraction from the punch line for one, and a slight insult at the reader, which… spoils the fun.
This meme did not make me want to write a post. It simply sharpened a point or two that I wanted to discuss for a while now. I’ve read books on writing, attended workshops, listened to podcasts, and listened to many writers talk about their craft. One thing that really stood out for me, is the varying opinions about how much information should be shared with the reader. It includes aspects like description, dialogue as well as information that is key to the plot.
Everyone warns against the “information dump” and for a good reason. If we wanted that, we could’ve bought an instruction manual or something. But everyone agrees that information should be imparted to the reader, so she would be able to understand what, where, how etc. and follow the story along. The opinions begin to differ at this point. What method best serves this sharing of information? description, narrative voice, dialogue? How much information should be revealed, and at which part of the story? How reliable the information is? All of these are valid questions, and interesting topics, for another post.
The question I’d like to raise here is, how much information is enough? Where do we draw the line, between – giving the reader the needed information to stay engaged and understand what’s going on – and patronizing him with information that he should be able to infer?
There is an aspect that doesn’t necessarily depend on the writer, which is the type of reader. Some readers love the immersion in the environment, the little details – especially when it’s shared via eloquent, beautiful language. There are others, who would like a magic marker that would remove every “unnecessary” bit of description and “stick to the story”. When we write, we will have to live with the fact that some people will not enjoy the style of our writing, or more accurately, won’t enjoy it to the fullest.
There is also the aspect of genre. One might expect to find different level of detail in a romance than what he would find in a thriller. The way information is shared in either one may very well be different, as well as the technique used to share it.
But in all genre – I find – the stories that captivated me, and kept me engaged as a reader, were the ones where some information was held back. The opposite is true as well – stories that fed me too much, made the reading a bit tiresome. I don’t recall a book I slammed shut and refused to read, just based on this aspect, but I can say that parts of books felt more labored, ironically because they did not make my brain fill in some gaps.
Now, as a writer I face a dilemma. Having the reader experience I just described, how much information and which piece of it do I hold back? perhaps “Hold back” is not a 100% accurate. Perhaps the term should be “leave to the reader”. How much space, do I leave to the reader? I want to be generous, and trusting, and leave a good bit of it for the reader’s imagination to fill in. But I also don’t want to lose the reader by withholding important information that she may not be able to fill in – I have to be fair.
I wish there was a mathematical formula, but I’m sad to report that, having read quite a few books that handled this very well (based on my full engagement), I do not have a proven ratio. And that makes perfect sense. There are so many things to consider here. Genre is one. Target audience is another. But there is also the question of when to leave something for the reader? Did I lay enough ground work, to make it logical (within the story’s frame)? I like tidy endings, no loose ends. I’m not a huge fan of “letting the reader choose the ending”, though I do think that even these threads, which we bring to closure at the end of our story, should not be with no room for the reader to experience them the way they feel like.
A tricky set of balancing acts, no doubt. So, what to do?
For me, it seems like the best formula for this type of problem is – give it to someone and ask them to tell you where they might have gotten lost, what did they understand, and how easy was it for them to read? I am guilty of being a prisoner of my own (very likely flawed) logic. Some things seem obvious to me, but were pointed out as unclear by others. Some things I say that draw the reaction “Well, duh…” So, I guess there is only one way to understand whether you shared enough information or too much – ask your potential reader.
Now let me explain this to you.
Just kidding.


Did You Hear The One About Robert Silverberg, Georges St. Pierre And Chris Cornell?

Ogres may be like onions, but so are we, people. You know – Layers. Our lives unfold (at least without the persuasion of Alcohol of other un-inhibitor agents) slowly, as we get to know each other. We introduce ourselves by name, sometimes by country of origin, our profession, family situation, and other generalities. As our connection to each other deepens, more layers may shed, and we talk about elements of our belief system (though, some of it, likely leaks through our behaviors before), opinions on current events, or other topics, which continues to expose the core. Somewhere in this process, we talk about what we like. It’s this kind of conversation that makes some people raise a brow, when I share some of my more serious interests.
“Oh, you write? How interesting. What do you write about?”
“Yeah, what kind of music do you like?”
“Wait, what? M.M.What? is that the cage fighting? Hey, I know Conor McGregor!”

Confused The Big Lebowski GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

At this point, some conversations seem to peter out. I thought about this for a while, and even to my brain, which is engaged in the general love of these three areas of interest, it did feel somewhat random. Literature and music are related as arts, but what about the people punching each other in the face?
Well, I could state the obvious (and I will) – M.M.A stands for Mixed Martial Arts. But this is not satisfactory. While musicians and writers create some “product” through their artistic process, the fighters merely meet inside the cage and try to beat each other, then leave. So, where’s the connection? Where is the deep meaning, that drew me, and kept my otherwise distracted mind engaged?
It started crystalizing, as I left the house for a walk the other day. I was more than a little irritated with the music (if you can call it that) my kids were playing on the computer. I won’t name names, but it was one of the more recent pretty faces, in skimpy clothing, bumping to some catchy, repeating computer-generated groove. I put on my earphones and hit play as soon as I closed the door behind me. Good, old Soundgarden for the rescue.
Bear with me people, I will walk you through my process.
As I listened to the wonderful progression of “Blow up the outside world”, I mused about what makes me like the musicians I do, as opposed to the ones I am not a fan of. And as I waited for a light to turn green, an internal one flash inside my head. It’s the tools of the trade.
Which musicians do I like? I can list many, but the point is – what do they all have in common? Well, the ones at the upper part of my list are musicians who write lyrics, play an instrument (or 5), sing and perform. I am not a huge fan of many “performers”, as in singers with great voices who “just” sing. Don’t get me wrong, I respect a great voice, but this alone does not me, a fan make.

Writes, Plays, Sings, Perform. Rest in peace Chris

This immediately resonated with the writer me. What makes a good story? Surely, it’s more than a good plot. It’s more than a relatable character. More than proper spelling. A good story is made, by using – there it is again – the tools of the trade.
And just like that, I found the connection. A mixed martial artist is another person, who needs to have the tools of his trade in order to perform well.
True. Art is not a competition – as opposed to MMA – but they are all arts. A writer, a musician and a mixed martial artist all present something pleasing by bringing all their capabilities, talents, training and passion to the table. If the musician plays the right chords, but sings out of key, or if the writer tells a plausible story about a flat and boring character, or if the fighter shows up with the skills but is out of shape… we will likely be disappointed with the outcome. But if they connect everything – and it doesn’t have to be perfect – we are almost guaranteed some fun.

Mixed Martial Arts

This was a nice little moment of satisfaction, in being able to identify something that links some of my main interests, logically. But it also started me thinking about the next question – can I use this?
Can I draw from what I’m learning of martial arts, and apply it to another? Can my appreciation to the martial artist inform my writing? Not just as subject matter, but as applicable knowledge?
Well, I begin by asking what does a good MMA fighter need? Skills in striking, wrestling, BJJ (That’s Brazilian Jiu Jitsu! Git yer head outta the gutter). He needs stamina, mental strength, discipline, patience. Practice is a must. I will stop here. I’m sure there’s more, even if the list as it stands is enough to deter anyone from even attempting…

Robert Silverberg

The focus of this exercise is the writing itself. Not the writer (I hope we already agreed there are parallels between the three professionals). So, what can we take from this list of skills, capabilities and habits, in order to help a story work? I’ll start with patience. The reader may not have it, but patience is the ability to act when appropriate, and wait when necessary. It’s in the pacing of the story. We don’t want to spill it all in one hurried stream of consciousness (well, not in a novel I’d say) on the one hand, but we also don’t want to keep the reader waiting for something to happen.
But the story needs to move forward, right? Just like a fighter who wants to win. Here is where some other skills come into play. The first thing that pops to mind is the art of the takedown. Sometimes you want to “floor” the reader. There are ways to do it. One is to sneak up on him with great speed, changing the level of your approach, grabbing him and putting him on his back. Other ways to do it is by using the great striking skill call “fake”. A jab might do the trick too. The idea is to let the story throw your reader slightly off. Not off the story, but a little off guard. A red herring is a tried and tested fake. slowly, teasing action, foreshadowing, is like taking jabs, preparing the ground for a good power shot. This also helps with pacing, so it’s a win-win situation.
What about Jiu Jitsu? There are a few things it could teach us. One of them is the shift of the power balance. If the story has your hero on his back, trying to avoid submitting to the antagonistic forces of the story, there’s a way you can help him turn the tables. The magic is in the steps. Normally, the fighters don’t just trade places. There’s always a struggle, both of force but also – even more so – technique. If you want to escape a dangerous position, and reverse the balance of power, you have to know the steps, and execute them one by one. Sometimes it will work, and sometimes it may fail, as your opponent may (and likely should) be at least as skilled and powerful as you. Let your character learn these skills. In fact, it’s a must if you want a character that develop over time. A white belt will rarely sweep a black belt without proper training and practice. This is also where mental strength comes into play. Your character may not be very strong in the beginning, and even if he doesn’t end as a very strong character, he will need to “toughen up” some, in order to handle the multiple obstacles, you put in his way.
So, there you go. I love music, literature and mixed martial arts. Not only does it make perfect sense, I can even apply lessons I take from one and implement in the other.


The Very Real Story Of Walt Longmire

First of, no. This isn’t becoming a TV review site anytime soon. It’s a matter of coinciding schedule on Netflix. You can read the short post I wrote about The Punisher” here. That was written after a binge. This here post on the other hand was not. Yes, I doubled up on episodes of Longmire (because damn it, I love this show), but I let it last a whole week (trust me, it took a lot for me to hold off). After all, this was the last season, so I thought I’d make it count, in hope that they made it count too.
Well, the short version is – they did.
But we’re not here to take shortcuts. No. We’re here to celebrate one of TV’s most underrated shows.
Like quite a few TV shows I loved, this one was recommended to me by good friends in Georgia (other notable mentions: Justified, Top of the lake, The walking dead among others.). Had I not gotten this recommendation, chances are I’d never watch an episode of Longmire.
I mean, come on. It’s the second decade of this millenium for crying out loud. Who tells a story about Cowboys and Indians? No zombies, no high-tech, no weekly deaths of main characters, no full frontal…. Jeez…. right?
Wrong.
Like many less than flashy productions, Longmire is a proof that a good story could be told and acted, regardless of the year. And yes, there are still cowboys out there, and thankfully a few native Americans.

Every story, absolutely must have these things (a very condensed checklist):

relatable main character:
You can’t get much more relatable than Walt Longmire. A man of the law (automatic good guy), Widowed due to murdered wife (we’re on board) and father to a beautiful, loving and caring daughter, leading a police force of seemingly less than stellar cops. Walt’s as real as they come. He seems to have quite a few of those very human flaws and just enough charm and guts to get us behind him.
Strong antagonist/s:
We had the chief of the reservation police Malachi, and his successor Mathias. Both in constant ends with Walt and his view of police work and interests.
Branch Connally and his father Barlow were a different kind of opposition, as were investigators trying to tie Walt to a murder.
The Irish Mafia came to town, and of course, the one guy who always walked the fine line between legal and charity – Jacob Nighthorse.
Add the different antagonistic forces that came with the sub plots and you have yourself a very strong, forever threatening opponent. Some of whom were truly a mirror of sorts. Keeping Walt on his guard, both as it relates to the threat they posed, as well as to what their similarities told him about himself.
Secondary/Supporting characters:
First and foremost, Walt’s best friend Henry Standing Bear. How do we know he’s his best friend? Well, he answers the two qualities of such person. He tells it like it is. There is no beating around the bush, walking on egg shells type of BS about Henry. When Walt Effs up – Henry is there to tell it to his face. And even though they may disagree or even downright oppose each other, Henry is always there for Walt (and the same is true the other way).
Cady is a character that manages to stay away from cliché. Yes, she stays by her dad after her mom dies and yes, she is that one who always wants to leave “small town USA” and falls in love with the good-looking quarterback (or bull rider). But she is also an intelligent, independent and driven person, who may irritate her old-fashioned dad, but ultimately (and recognized for it by him eventually) she is what Walt evolved into (though we will never actually see it on-screen).
Vic (Philly) is the outsider who wants to understand Walt, admires him and frustrated by him. Her being that stranger is what makes this slow burning, tense love story so effective.
Yes, there are others, but these three are the most important for the story and for the main character.
A believable plot and sub plots (within the rules of the story world):
A small (fictional) county, with “regular folk” and yet a lot seems to happen. Sure, when you say it like that, it may not be believable at all. Especially if you bring in the Irish mob from all the way out in Boston. But all told, every event makes sense. Either via cause and effect or by reasonable explanation.
The intermingling of plots and the relationships between White Americans and Native Americans, as well as the inner working of those societies living side by side (which in itself is a story), make for a very interesting mix of dilemmas and questions. Those drive character change and development in subtle but impactful ways.
The journey:
Oh, how far did we go in six seasons. From the loner drunk, stubborn and – let’s face it – selfish sherif of season 1, to the open-minded, flexible, emotionally engaged and proud father and lover we said goodbye to this season.
Every episode and every season brought Walt closer to that beautiful man we saw in the finale. And no, it wasn’t just a sequence of make a mistake, learn, improve. One of the most beautiful things about this story is that it is very real. It’s a tale of real men. You know, those who make the same mistake more than once (or three times) before they learn. Real men like us. relatable.
And after winning some of his battles and losing more than his fair share, this man learns to overcome his grief, open his heart to another woman, understand his daughter completely and come to terms with his imperfections.
Hey, He even has his own cellphone!
Voice:
Perhaps in TV is easier, because these words are spoken, but think about it. It’s not only the difference between cowboy Walt’s everyday guy English and Henry’s official-talk. It’s also the differences between Henry, Mathias and Malachi. Cause you know… not all injunes are the same. It’s also the way Cady differs from her dad (not to mention Vic from Philly).
And if we want to look at the voice of the story-teller, we can follow the camera and the directing and editing. A really solid work of modern-day Cowboy/Indian world creation.
Longmire is one of my all time favorite shows. I will surely re-watch it.
One point of contention though…
This series did such a phenomenal job in telling a story about a Native Indian society without falling into the trap of making it look like a group of identical individuals on the one hand, or go science fiction on the other. I loved that fact that visions and symbolism played a part in the story.
One thing I wish they kept out. In the last season, Cady helps a native American lady kidnap a kid in order to get him “proper” medication.
I truly believe this was unnecessary. If we credit visions and symbolism (which we should), we really should have not fallen into the trap of western medicine’s superiority over that of native Americans. It felt preachy and uncharacteristic.
But hey, it’s just a little piece of a very big and beautiful puzzle of story telling and TV production.
So long Walt (seems to be a great name for a phenomenal protagonist). See you later.


Mixing Business With Pleasure (Bloodline on Netflix – No Spoilers)

Hello world.
Netflix could be really irritating. There could be six months stretches of nothing new but semi amusing stand up comedies and straight-to-video “blockbusters”, during which I find other things to do with my time. Then, there could be bursts of releases that make it difficult to find the time to handle all that wealth…

Continue reading

Two Faces Of The Same Coin

Welcome back folks,

Hope you’re well on your way to get all your holiday shopping done (cause God knows it ain’t about the holiday anymore…). If you got a minute, I’d like to let you in on a little (not very secretive) secret. Continue reading

Book Report – December 11th 2014

Hello everyone and welcome back.

It slowed down here a notch this week, but that doesn’t mean I was idle. In fact, I was everything but idle.

While I enjoy writing these blog posts, I do have my main project in the works and have been for a while now. To recap, after writing a second draft for my first novel, I decided to use that experience and write the story that begged to be written. I’ve placed Novel #1 on figurative ice and started Novel #2 from scratch. Continue reading

About the size… Does it matter?

Hello everyone, and thank you new followers. I shouldn’t take that for granted of course, so if I haven’t told you lately that I love you, there you go 🙂

As you may have noticed, we’ve been talking about matters of life or death here lately. Continue reading