Pen Guidance

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maugham_retouched.jpg

“The secret of playwriting can be given in two maxims: stick to the point and whenever you can, cut.” — W. Somerset Maugham

“I’ll give you the whole secret of short story writing, and here it is: Rule one, write stories that please yourself. There is no rule two. If you can’t write a story that pleases yourself, you’ll never please the public.” — O. Henry

Mr. Mysterious

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bela_lugosi_dracula.jpg

‘Count Dracula?’ He bowed in a courtly way as he replied:–

‘I am Dracula; and I bid you welcome, Mr. Harker, to my house.’

In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, how does Dracula know Harker’s name? Harker bears a letter of introduction from Peter Hawkins, but Dracula has not seen it yet, and it does not identify Harker by name.

For that matter, why does Dracula go to England? He says, “I long to go through the crowded streets of your mighty London, to be in the midst of the whirl and rush of humanity, to share its life, its change, its death, and all that makes it what it is.” Couldn’t this be done, and more safely, in any other European city?

John Sutherland writes, “If he must do it, why not choose Germany, which at least would shorten the distance back to his lair and would not entail passing over the dangerous element of water?”

(John Sutherland, The Literary Detective, 2000.)

Mouse Call

Letter from E.B. White to Harper & Brothers editor Eugene Saxton, March 1, 1939:

Herewith an unfinished MS of a book called Stuart Little. It would seem to be for children, but I’m not fussy who reads it. You said you wanted to look at this, so I am presenting it thus in its incomplete state. There are about ten or twelve thousand words so far, roughly.

You will be shocked and grieved to discover that the principal character in the story has somewhat the attributes and appearance of a mouse. This does not mean that I am either challenging or denying Mr. Disney’s genius. At the risk of seeming a very whimsical fellow indeed, I will have to break down and confess to you that Stuart Little appeared to me in a dream, all complete, with his hat, his cane, and his brisk manner. Since he was the only fictional figure ever to honor and disturb my sleep, I was deeply touched, and felt that I was not free to change him into a grasshopper or a wallaby. Luckily he bears no resemblance, either physically or temperamentally, to Mickey. I guess that’s a break for all of us.

Saxton pressed for a fall publication, but Stuart Little wouldn’t appear until 1945. “I pull back like a mule at the slightest goading,” White said.

Bad Starts

The popular Bulwer–Lytton Fiction Contest challenges entrants to compose “the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels”:

As an ornithologist, George was fascinated by the fact that urine and feces mix in birds’ rectums to form a unified, homogeneous slurry that is expelled through defecation, although eying Greta’s face, and sensing the reaction of the congregation, he immediately realized he should have used a different analogy to describe their relationship in his wedding vows.

Less well known is the Lyttle Lytton Contest, which requires that the sentences be short. Winners:

2012 – “Agent Jeffrey’s trained eyes rolled carefully around the room, taking in the sights and sounds.” (Davian Aw)
2011 – “The red hot sun rose in the cold blue sky.” (Judy Dean)
2010 – “‘I shouldn’t be saying this, but I think I’ll love you always, baby, always,’ Adam cried into the email.” (Shexmus Amed)
2009 – “The mighty frigate Indestructible rounded the Horn of Africa and lurched east’ard.” (Pete Wirtala)
2008 – “Because they had not repented, the angel stabbed the unrepentant couple thirteen times, with its sword.” (Graham Swanson)
2007 – “It clawed its way out of Katie, bit through the cord and started clearing.” (Gunther Schmidl)
2006 – “This is the cipher key for all that follows: |||||| || |!” (P. Scott Hamilton)
2005 – “John, surfing, said to his mother, surfing beside him, ‘How do you like surfing?'” (Eric Davis)
2004 – “This is the story of your mom’s life.” (Rachel Lambert)
2003 – “For centuries, man had watched the clouds; now, they were watching him.” (Stephen Sachs)
2002 – “The pain wouldn’t stop, and Vern still had three cats left.” (Andrew Davis)
2001 – “Turning, I mentally digested all of what you, the reader, are about to find out heartbreakingly.” (Top Changwatchai)

Another favorite, offered by Jonathan Blum in a 2007 freeform contest: “Scaling Everest was, by far, the most amazing and transformative experience of my life. Unfortunately, this is a thesis on context-free grammars.”

Zip Lit

“Bored silly” one day, science fiction author Damon Knight and his wife invented logogenetics, “the new science of selling stories without actually writing”:

  1. Get two books and open each to a random page.
  2. Choose a word from the first book and then another from the second that might reasonably follow it. Write these down.
  3. Read the next word in each book. Write these down.
  4. Continue in this way, discarding “lousy” words as necessary, until you’ve spliced together an entire story.

As an example, Knight combined A.E. van Vogt’s The World of Null-A with Ray Bradbury’s “The Golden Apples of the Sun” to produce The World of Null-Apples, by A. Ray Van Vogtbury:

Gosseyn moved, but around the door.

‘Swallow the pills.’ In the sky with great desperate coming-in, danger flowering unreal whistlings, Prescott quietly said, ‘From the women that saw it, helicopters will blizzard.’ The hotels, the private people, cities that rose to strange power. Warm, strangely, with easy pink picture faces, because the race of bound men would sound mysterious. ‘You opposed the assault, man!’

Murder. Two supposed chocolate Gosseyn malteds. He smiled curtly, for the mute problem would slowly, reluctantly untangling, tell him the partial color acceptance. It again was a picture of a mind, dark, closer to sanity, one uneasy white reverie shining down. …

Logogenetic writing seldom makes sense, but Knight points out that it’s ideal for writing little books to go with exhibitions of ultramodern art. And he found it particularly entertaining to combine how-to articles from Woman’s Day:

With a whisk knife, sweep 3/4 inch under crust. Vacuum 1 cup grated pedals or rugs. Spread seats in trunk; put dirt on floor. Bake 1 tablespoon moderate detergent, 325° F., in hot bucket. Break upholstery apart, and serve.

UPDATE: A reader tells me that computer algorithms using Markov chains have been used similarly to marry texts — here’s Alice in Wonderland combined with Genesis and Revelations.

Wheels of Chance

wells bicycle picshua

H.G. Wells demonstrates how to dismount a bicycle, June 1895:

“Observe when your left foot is descending & about 30° from the nadir. Stand on left pedal throwing up right leg. Bring this in a graceful curve over the hind mud guard & leap lightly to the ground. The treadle moves against your weight & assists the leap. Then smile. Thus.”

That’s from a letter to an old college friend. “The bicycle in those days was still very primitive,” Wells recalled of the bicycle craze of the 1890s. “The diamond frame had appeared but there was still no freewheel. You could only stop and jump off when the treadle was at its lowest point, and the brake was an uncertain plunger upon the front wheel. … Nevertheless the bicycle was the swiftest thing upon the roads in those days … and the cyclist had a lordliness, a sense of masterful adventure, that has gone from him altogether now.”

“I learnt to ride my bicycle upon sandy tracks with none but God to help me; he chastened me considerably in the process.”