The Mechanics of Writing

Cursive doesn’t mean screaming profanity while writing but when I was learning penmanship I would certainly have been tempted. Granted my entire repertoire of bad language at the time was learned from episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation so it’s not like I would have had a huge selection to work with, but the point stands: I hated cursive when I was learning to write. Now being homeschooled I eventually got out of it – my mother just felt that my trying to learn the art was taking up too much time, both in that I wasn’t learning it in spite of the time we spent on it and that my frustration at my inability to master the skill was impeding my ability to focus on other schoolwork.

So when I learned that Common Core was abolishing the need to teach cursive handwriting I wasn’t terribly surprised. I know I wasn’t the only person who was very frustrated with it as a child and many people certainly can’t write in it as an adult. Imagine my surprise when I heard so many people crying out the abolishment of a “fundamental part of our culture.”

So I thought for funsies I would take a quick look at this more literal side of the art of writing and explain to all those cursive apologists why I think removing this part of penmanship from elementary education is a good idea. There are, as I see it, three questions we have to consider when looking at cursive handwriting and they are thus.

Is cursive handwriting necessary to the purpose of written communication?

I feel that it is not. Writing is for communicating ideas and the extreme variance in an individual’s handwriting is more pronounced in cursive than in block print. Jokes about a doctor’s handwriting show how incomprehensible a stranger’s handwriting can be. Since the purpose of written communication is to clearly convey a message I don’t think cursive handwriting is directly required to meet the function of handwriting and at times it is actually counterproductive. The one exception is when cursive is used in a signature – but more on that in a few paragraphs.

Is cursive handwriting educationally beneficial?

There are studies that indicate that learning to write by hand stimulates the brain in ways that other kinds of learning and communication do not. Well and good but articles like this one are just talking about writing by hand – the kind of writing doesn’t seem to be that important. They even talk about writing in Chinese or just writing out math problems to gain an understanding of concepts, the important thing is associating motion and symbols with ideas regardless of the kind of motions or symbols. Likewise, the benefits apply to people of all ages not just young people but more on that in a second.

There is a side to this that I haven’t heard discussed at all. Handwriting classes often come before other literacy skills and in my personal experience that was a bad thing. You see, I spent all that time learning to write by hand when I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing with all those shapes I was learning to make. My vocabulary was small, I hadn’t read any stories that gave me an appreciation for the written word – I was being expected to master a skill I could see no practical application for! With no understanding of the potential of the English Language teaching me handwriting was akin to handing someone the key to a treasure vault but the key weighed fifty pounds and no one told me what it did. I just couldn’t see the point. Worse, cursive demanded a degree of physical dexterity I did not possess and wouldn’t for a while.

For years I would loathe writing, not because I was bad at it but because I couldn’t perform the physical act of writing without associating it with the incredible frustration trying to master cursive writing had caused me. I actually wrote a couple of short stories before I turned ten – but I did it using a word processor, not pencil and paper. I am not convinced the benefits of learning cursive handwriting outweigh the drawbacks of causing students who lack the early manual dexterity to master cursive writing to associate the act of writing with frustration.

In an ideal world every student would be allowed to master these literacy tasks at their own rate but in the one size fits all world of nationally administered curriculum I think it’s better to remove an obstacle to learning to write and enjoying it than to leave part of the class frustrated with writing for very little educational gain.

Is cursive handwriting artistically important?

Yes. Very much so. You see, I don’t object to cursive handwriting – my problem is who it is taught to. We use cursive as a means of individual expression in the same way we might use tone of voice. Signatures are likewise an expression of our identity, something unique and personal. That’s good, but it’s not something we can reasonably expect from an elementary student – most of them are not at the point where they’re good enough at expressing themselves . Ideally understanding cursive would be something we expect of students come middle school or early high school. It could be taught as part of an introductory course on art, along with teaching on hieroglyphs, calligraphy both Western and Eastern, and illuminated manuscripts.

Students could choose to learn to write cursive as part of the hands on side of the arts program or study other forms of art like sculpture or photography but reading cursive should probably be a mandatory part of the course, much like understanding the composition of a painting is also mandatory in arts courses. Since people of all ages benefit from handwriting there’s no harm done in waiting to teach cursive. Also, middle-high school is where personalities really begin to gel so it’s a good time to begin developing a signature – a mark that really identifies who you are.

I hardly think all this talk is going to end the hand wringing over handwriting, if for no other reason than the fact that my readership is so small. But I would like to say, just one more time, that I don’t have a problem with cursive penmanship – just the way it was traditionally taught. Cursive needs to be looked at as an art form and not a fundamental literacy skill.

Yes, I know many people learned it as such and did just fine but that doesn’t make the method ideal. In a world of top down education removing cursive from the curriculum entirely is probably the best solution we’re going to get until we get tired of the Department of Education and kick Congress out of our local schools. In the meantime, I don’t think cursive is going to die out.

You see, it’s a very beautiful way to write and beautiful things are taken up because they’re beautiful. With YouTube tutorials for everything under the sun people who want to master cursive need look no further than videos like this one and, like all art forms, their cursive will probably develop best if they work out what exactly their handwriting should look like on their own. The rest of us can block print our way through life and express our love of beauty through story, song or whatever other method best suits us. And when it comes to personal expression, isn’t modeling it the best way to teach anyways?

Summer Plans

So as you may know I recently completed my Project Sumter novel trilogy leaving me confronting the summer with a couple of issues.

The first and biggest are the three novels I’ve rough drafted but not edited. I want to sell those at some point but they’re not nearly ready for marketing. So I want to work on that. Plus, while I’ve enjoyed the periodic feedback I get here and I really appreciate all my readers I haven’t really gotten quite the level of feedback I was originally hoping for. That’s mostly my fault, I’m sure, I keep far too busy with other activities to really participate in social media the amount I probably need to in order to get constant feedback from a large readership base.

Plus there are a lot of other projects I hoped to mess around with in the last couple of years but never found the time for because so much of my free time was caught up trying to write and edit, on average, over 3,000 words a week while also planning my own topics. It was a lot to write and probably a lot to read as well. I’d like to finally get around to some of that other stuff I wanted to do and who knows – maybe putting out less will get people to read more of it!

Basically what I’m trying to say is, I’m going to be scaling back on the blog because it hasn’t been turned out quite the way I expected when I started. For the most part the most readers and commentators have turned up on Fridays for the On Writing column – so that’s what’s going to stick around this summer. I’ll write one post a week and put it up on Fridays and focus on making that the best post it can be and I’ll spend the newly acquired free time on editing and marketing my books, working on other projects and planning new stuff. Then, some time in mid or late August, I’ll review where I stand and perhaps start posting fiction again – we’ll see.

In the mean time, this is where we stand so I hope to see you back on Friday when we’ll look at writing from a slightly different angle. As always thanks for reading and I hope to see you then!

Nate

Sound and Story

Sounds can tell a story. Have you ever noticed?

It’s not something you might think much about if you, like me, primarily concern yourself with words on a page. But every so often you come across sound really well used and you realize that just a few quick sounds can tell a story. The cadence in the footsteps of a walking person is different from that of a running person. Research in communication theory has proven that tone of voice carries something like a quarter of the meaning in what we say.

In case you’re not sold yet let’s look at a couple of pieces of music that use simple sounds to tell fascinating stories, then let’s flip it around and brainstorm some ways our stories can put sounds in readers’ minds.

First, listen to the theme from The CW’s The Arrow, starting from the 2:00 mark on. Or you can listen to the whole thing, your call. but we’re mostly discussing what happens from the 2:00 mark to 2:20.

Notice how the score is riddled with punchy, sharp strings followed by a harsh note that starts high and pushes higher in tone, creating the impression of a flight of arrows swooping in while a bowstring is drawn tight in preparation for a second flight.

Or listen to the first thirty seconds of The Flash theme. (Blake Neely is apparently really good at this kind of composition.)

Notice how it opens with the Flash’s leitmotif, a single tone builds and falls rapidly like the Doppler effect of a fast moving race car blowing past us, then follows with hurried notes rushing up and down, reminiscent of traffic whizzing by, before sounding the Flash’s leitmotif once again. Perfectly suited for the subject matter.

Sounds can tell a story all of their own. Simple stories, admittedly, but no less impactful for it. The written word has it’s own techniques for this. Often they’re not as effective unless your work is meant to be read aloud but at the same time there are techniques that will emphasize sound even if it’s not being spoken aloud.

The two most common ones are alliteration, or using multiple words in a row starting with the same sound, and cadence. Alliteration is a tricky technique to try, as it quickly becomes difficult to find words that flow nicely with the meaning you want and all start with the same letter. Also, letters are limited in the sounds they create, being as a letter is a stand-in for a sound the human voice can produce and that’s not actually a whole lot of sounds when you think about it.

On the other hand, you can do some fun things with alliteration. “S” and “TH” sounds create a kind of white noise impression, hard consonants like “C” or “T” create a kind of percussion rhythm that can drive a story at a marching pace.

Cadence is a different thing entirely. William Shakespeare made his name writing in iambic pentameter, a cadence driven kind of verse that creates very flowing phrases. It does this by alternating between light and heavy, or up and down syllables. By focusing on short syllables, particularly one syllable words, one can give the impression of text that runs along lightly and quickly while long vowel sounds slow down the feel of a phrase.

Of course, the actual sounds you use in a story, things like dripping water or howling wind, can contribute a great deal to atmosphere but that’s an entirely different blog post in and of itself.

Sound creates powerful impressions and is a useful tool in telling a story in any medium. Even if all you do is read something out loud to see how easily your story flows, analyzing the sounds you use is a necessary part of getting better at your craft. Pay attention to the sounds you use, even when you’re just writing.

Cool Things: The Conquorer’s Saga

Who’s the master of modern day sci-fi suspense? Well that would probably be Timothy Zahn. Don’t believe me? Didn’t read the Quadrail series? Choo-choo trains in outer space just a bit too far fetched for you? Don’t like the idea of a digitized soul? Then try this series on for size.

As the title implies, the Conquerors’ Saga trilogy consists of three books – Conquerors’ Pride, Conquerors’ Heritage and Conquerors’ Legacy and they can only fairly be looked at as a whole. The basic premise is as familiar as space opera itself – humanity has expanded into the cosmos and winds up leading a multiplanet group of aliens that it has dominated primarily through fecundity and martial prowess. The story opens with a human task force (or group of warships) encountering another task force belonging to a previously unknown starfaring species. Being responsible sorts, the human task force fires up the radio and broadcasts a first contact package intended to establish peaceful communications.

The aliens promptly blow up the human fleet.

This marks the beginning of a war, one where humanity is actually on the losing side for the first time in a long time. The aliens capture a single soldier from the human fleet who must endure imprisonment by the seemingly savage Zhirrzh while his family struggles to recapture him. The first book closes with humanity reeling from the might of the Zhirrzh fleets even as the sole survivor of their first encounter is brought home to his family.

The second book switches things up like no one’s business because suddenly we find ourselves seeing the world through the eyes of the Zhirrzh who was in charge of looking after the alien’s one and only human captive. With his prisoner escaped our new protagonist finds his career plunging  into a downward slide. This is what sets the Conquerors’ Saga apart from most other space operas – it makes a wholehearted attempt to show both sides in a fair and positive light. There’s no moralizing or attempts to brush off differences between species as unbridgeable chasms created by circumstance, there’s just solid characterization and a fair shake given to each side.

That’s not to say these books don’t have problems. Characterization can be weak on some fronts and the end of the story feels very coincidence driven. Some people will say the technology end of things seems a bit weak, based on “old theories” about faster than light travel and such, but since none of those theories have been proven beyond the blackboard I tend to be more forgiving of that kind of thing. The biggest problem as I see it is a failure to develop anything outside of the two warring races – only the Zhirrzh and humans get a good examination even though both races are over hegemonies of other spacefaring races they have conquered.

Still, as a space opera that manages to tell a story with a grand scope, an even balance and a suspenseful tale, the Conquerors’ Saga is pretty good, and well worth your time.

Afterwords

Salvation is an integral part of comic books.

Saving the girl, saving your friends, saving a world or a galaxy or a universe – at some point all of these things became all in a day’s work. It’d be psychotic if it wasn’t so darn entertaining.

Something about the human condition has made us fall in love with the idea of saviors. We look for them, try to be them, a religion about a Savior has seriously influenced the political and social landscape of the last two thousand years in the West and yet, with trillions of lifetimes, billions of words and thousands of years spent on the problem humanity is still incredibly bad at the whole saving people thing.

Humanity is rife with contradictions and among our greatest is the fact that our propensity for evil tends to be greatest when we are trying our hardest to help others. C. S. Lewis said, “Of all tyrannies, the tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

When I first sat down to write Open Circuit nearly eight years ago it was with a very simple idea in mind. I wanted to create a character so repulsed by the world around him that the only way he could see to make it better would be to burn it to the ground and regrow it in his own image. A totalitarian, yes, but one with our best interests at heart. Imagine my surprise when almost every word he spoke boiled out of a festering discontent deep within my own heart. I was unsettled, to say the least.

Yes, I’ve waited all this time, until the very end of these three books, to make a confession to you, the readers who have come all this way with me: The character I am most like in all of Project Sumter is probably Matthew Sykes.

We’re both kind of reclusive, grumpy and given to thinking too much. We feel underappreciated and we worry that we’ll soon be too old to do any good for anyone. We’re frequently told we’re smart but things don’t work out for us so often it feels more like a consolation than a real advantage. And sometimes, if given the opportunity, I would climb in that wheelchair and conquer Chicago just the same as Circuit would.

Except the first thing I would do is put a coffee shop in at that reflective coffee bean thingy in Millenium Park because seriously not having one there is some kind of gross oversight. Then we would get to work restoring the lakefront. But I digress.

The one cardinal difference between me and the character I had created was that I have a savior – His name is Jesus Christ – and this helps me deal with all the things that Circuit can’t. So, long before I put the first word to paper, I knew that Circuit had to face up to his shortcomings at some point. And when he faced them he would have to be saved from them because that’s what real heroes do. They save people, no matter who they are. From there it was just a matter of working out who would do it and how.

The answers to those whos and hows I have already shared with you. I hope you’ve enjoyed them.

From a story that grew out of discontent and general grouchiness, political weirdness and a desire to do something different came something that was very simple and basic but that was none the less very difficult to achieve and satisfying to complete. The Sumter trilogy was by no means a perfect story in concept or execution but I’ve written it pretty much as I set out to and that’s something, a starting point at the very least.

Next week… well, come back next week and I’ll lay out my plans for the summer. Until then.

Writing Men: Dipper Pines

Hey, haven’t done this in a while! If you’re not familiar with this series of posts a summary and links to the others can be found on this page.

Up to speed? Great! Let’s take a look at the principles of writing male characters in application.

Dipper Pines is the male half of the protagonist duloagy of Gravity Falls. (The other protagonist is, of course, Dipper’s twin sister Mabel.) He’s an interesting character for several reasons, not all of which are the scope of this post, but one that we should look at right off the bat is his age. Dipper is twelve, which technically makes him a boy and not a man. Is that relevant?

Not really. As I hope to prove through the course of this examination, Dipper shows all the relevant hallmarks of a well written male character but still behaves as we would expect a twelve year old boy to behave. This suggests that the patterns of thought I’ve put forward as distinctly male in character action are cemented at a very young age. So what are some of the male behaviors Dipper shows and how does he demonstrate them?

Well, let’s just go down the list. The first, most basic aspect of male thought is the easiest to see in Dipper. He’s very objective driven – he wants to know what’s up with Gravity Falls. Why all the weirdness? Who wrote the journal he found? Does it all have some meaning? He gets caught up in these questions very easily and chafes at anything that drags him away from solving them. But the mysteries of Gravity Falls aren’t his only objective – he also has a crush on the local girl Wendy and wants to see his sister be as happy as possible. We can see these objectives clashing from the very beginning but episodes that illustrate the conflicts (and synergies) of these goals particularly well include Irrational Treasure and The Time Traveler’s Pig.

Dipper also has a very simple set of rules he lives by. The two most important are established in Tourist Trapped. First, Dipper looks out for Mabel (when it’s not the reverse, Mabel is very in the moment while Dipper takes the long term view so Dipper needs just as much looking after as his sister). Second, Dipper takes the Journal’s warning to Trust No One very seriously, but amends it somewhat because he does trust Mabel. Every episode has some example of this but they are the most apparent in The Hand That Rocks the Mabel and Gideon Rises.

The compartmentalization in Dipper’s life is much less obvious. We mostly see it with the older characters he knows – Soos and Grunkle Stan, both of whom he leaves out of most of his paranormal activities. Grunkle Stan doesn’t seem to buy into Dipper’s theories about the town and is a bit of an overprotective authoritarian so he winds up outside the “Adventure” box most of the time. Soos is fit for both everyday work and adventures but Dipper can find his help questionable when dealing with personal situations like Wendy or Mabel. But for the most part, Dipper is a man who hasn’t yet worked out where everything goes yet and that may be one of his strengths – he can find out of the box solutions that most other people won’t think of.

Testing, on the other hand, is something Dipper actively avoids. He doesn’t like the hard work Stan throws at him, he doesn’t really want to confront most of his problems (and Robbie in particular) and he doesn’t spend a whole lot of time refining the useful skills he does show. One thing he does do is test out the things he reads in The Journal, but that could be more seen as a desire to confirm what others have told him rather than a particular desire to know his own limits.

Dippers lack of go-getting brinksmanship with his own abilities is probably one of the things that leads others to underestimate him. Dipper’s not a wimp but he doesn’t measure his abilities for the sake of knowing what he can do, either, so when a situation pops up that requires him to do something new he’s often nervous about it. We see this particularly in The Inconveniencing, Double Dipper and Fight Fighters. By the end of the first season, however, Gravity Falls itself has tested him to the point where he knows himself very well and he gains some confidence.

On a side note, Dipper has no solid mentoring figure. Stan’s hands off stance most likely reflects his own lack of confidence in his ability to mentor Dipper – the man’s been to jail after all, and his general lack of ethics and good sense probably makes him a poor role model, even if he’s fun to watch at times. Soos has a solid set of skills but is probably on Dipper’s maturity level himself and frequently looks to Dipper for leadership, so he’s not really a mentor either. The Author also teaches a lot of useful skills via his Journal but isn’t there to help Dipper understand the messages he left behind so he’s not really a mentor either.

Dipper could probably use one – Dipper Vs. Manliness certainly showed that and he would probably have liked someone besides Mabel he could talk to about things but currently Gravity Falls is short in the Good Role Model department. Instead of seeking a mentor Dipper usually goes off by himself, thinks things over and comes up with a plan of action. It may not be a good plan, but it’s a plan.

Finally, Dipper’s life is riddled with Sacrifice. Practically every episode he gives something up for the sake of Mabel, from a chance to impress his crush in the Time Traveler’s Pig to his part time job in The Deep End. While those are the biggest examples he gives up small parts of his dignity, time and desires on a regular basis to keep an eye on Mabel and make sure she’s not getting into trouble.

On the opposite side of things, he frequently gives up his time and skips out on work in The Mystery Shack to try and solve the mysteries of Gravity Falls. In fact, he willingly gives up just about anything to learn about Gravity Falls – except Mabel’s welfare.

So in conclusion we find all the typical male hallmarks in Dipper, making him a well written, well rounded male character in spite of his youth. In fact, it’s his youth that makes his male characteristics so pronounced – where maturity would mean reigning them in at times (because sooner or later Mabel is going to need to look to her own future) and shoring up some weak points (he’ll fail more if he fears testing his limits than he would otherwise) Dipper gives full vent to all his tendencies, good and bad. While Gravity Falls may not be a show for everyone and there’s no denying they do a good job writing they’re characters and Dipper is just one great example of that.

Cool Things: Insufferable

Imagine, just for a moment, that there was a man driven to fight crime. Although he has no special powers he still dons a cape and dark clothing, goes out every night and pummels injustice. In time he takes a grieving boy under his wing and they fight crime together. Sounds familiar, right?

Except this caped crusader isn’t Batman, he’s called Nocturnus. And his crime fighting companion isn’t an orphaned boy who takes the name Robin, it’s Nocturnus’ son and he takes the name Galahad. And he’s not exactly easy to get along with. In fact, Galahad and Nocturnus eventually split ways when Galahad unexpectedly reveals his identity in front of the press and things get ugly. Galahad becomes a grandstanding, glory mongering ingrate more concerned with building his own image than actually fighting the good fight. Nocturnus continues to do things his own way, working on his own once again, until someone finds just the right button to push in order to get the two of them to work together again.

When the urns each man keeps containing ashes of the woman who was wife to one and mother to the other mysteriously explode leaving the message “help me” behind differences will be set aside to find the culprit. While neither man ever seems to indulge the idea that a ghost could be at work they both know there are people out there who wish them harm and both loved the woman who’s remains have been desecrated. So, like it or not, Nocturnus and Galahad are together once again.

Insufferable is a variation on themes for author Mark Waid. He’s looked at what it means to be a hero in many of his previous works, contrasting modern notions of the antihero and the protagonist with the heroic archetypes more common in the early days of comic books. He did this in his DC Elseworld series Kingdom Come and then again in longer form with the twin series Irredeemable and Incorruptible. However, where those books were concerned with notions like accountability, justice vs. revenge and the dangers of power Insufferable is all about humility.

Simply put, Nocturnus has it and Galahad doesn’t.

The fact that neither man has traditional “superpowers” and must rely on his wits and training to solve problems really lets the difference in attitude shine through. While Nocturnus is verging on obsolescence – he’s not as strong or fast as he used to be and he doesn’t get the electronic side of crime fighting at all – he still outperforms his son almost every time because he’s willing to listen, ask for assistance when he needs it and always takes people seriously, be they friends or enemies. Galahad gets technology and uses Twitter to help collect tips but he gets too caught up in himself and his image to stay on top of what’s happening in the real world and he abuses those around him to the point that very few of his staff can stand to help him out when he really needs it.

And this series is funny. Galahad’s the only one in the series that seems to lack a sense of humor, or if he has one it falls so flat as to be effectively invisible, but better yet the comic seems to be aware of it’s own absurdities and revels in them. There’s a piranha tank sequence for crying out loud – you only do those for laughs these days. Most of the humor hangs on the characters themselves, particularly the weird relationship between Nocturnus, Galahad and Meg, Galahad’s assistant and the only person who can tolerate him for any length of time. This well written, character based humor is timeless and will appeal to most everyone, except for all the real Galahads out there, and it’s one of the things that has always set Waid’s writing above most of his peers in the industry.

If you like your comics to be serious, well written examinations of human nature without being self-important handled then Insufferable might be right up your alley. You can read it as part of the subscription portion of Waid’s publishing website, Thrillbent.com, or you can buy it off of that same website. Either one will give you a great story although the comic is formatted for the website reader and the PDF layouts are a bit wonky.

But seriously, layout wonkiness is the one thing against it I can think of. Check this thing out, it’s well worth the price.