Saturday, November 28, 2009

What is Truth?

I am currently working on a novel that deals with the meaning of truth through the eyes of science, religion, and two different cultural backgrounds. Frankly, I’m discovering this is not an easy task. I recently read Dan Brown’s latest work, The Lost Symbol, and was quite disturbed at the conclusions he draws about what is true. I wondered whether most of the world shared his views or if people were able to decipher between what is fiction and what is non-fiction. From the public's response and media coverage of Brown’s DaVinci Code a couple of years ago, I’m beginning to think the general public is not that smart.

Since time's beginning, man has argued the issue of what is truth. Just a few weeks ago I started a lively debate with my son about whether or not truth was absolute. He debated that truth is whatever a person thinks it is. I disagreed and, drawing on the scriptures, said, “Truth is truth, has and always will be truth, whether a person understands it or believes it.” This debate continued for a couple of weeks, but without either of us agreeing with the view of the other.

I started researching the topic on the Internet and found quite a heated argument taking place. One asked, “If there were such a thing as absolute truth, how could we know what it is?” Another said, “I don't believe there's one truth. There are a variety of people in the world, so there are a variety of ways of looking at things.” One individual went as far as to say, “People who believe in absolute truth are dangerous.” I laughed at that one. I never thought myself as a dangerous person.

In my research, I discovered more about these different viewpoints, and so I’ll explain them as far as I understand them. First, the correspondence view of truth, or belief of absolute truth, claims that any statement is true if and only if it corresponds to or agrees with factual reality. Thus questions, commands, and exclamations are neither true nor false, because they do not make claims about reality. To further clarify this view, those who believe in absolute truth claim that any clear-cut, declarative statement must be either true or false. It cannot be neither true nor false; nor can it be both true and false. Either the world is round or it is flat.

Those in opposition to truth as an absolute believe in relativism, a view that espouses that truth and morality are relative to a person's situation or standpoint. They deny that any standpoint has the advantage over another and, that since there is no way to prove that something is true, truth has to be whatever the individual or culture deems it to be; it is true only if it works for that particular person or culture. The earth is round, but if another person believes it is flat, then it is both round and flat.

Somewhere between the realms of correspondence and relativism is that of pragmatism, a view that truth should be tested by the practical consequences of belief. Pragmatists are concerned with results rather than with theories and principles. The earth is round because pictures from space verifying that fact exist .

Hmm…is it just me, or is anybody else struggling with the latter concepts? If I believe in absolute truth, then either absolute truth or relativism is true. They can’t both be true. If I believe in relativism, both can be true, if I believe it to be so. And if I'm a pragmatist then someone will have to prove that correspondence or relativism is true before I believe either of them. This brings up some interesting questions.

» Can anything be considered truth?

» Can contradictory ideas explaining two different realities both be true?

» If I believe relativism is false, then is relativism false?

» Where does truth come from? An individual/culture or from some entity with more knowledge and understanding than that of the world? Or does it spring out of nothing? Does it just exist?

» If truth is manifested by an entity with more knowledge and understanding than that of the world, or if it just exists, does mankind have the right to create his own truth?

» If truth is whatever an individual or culture decides it to be then will truth really ever exist?

» Is proof necessary for something to be true?

To me, relativism and pragmatism miss the mark. What do you think?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Once Upon a Three-Act Play Structure

Steven Spielberg has said, "People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don't have a middle or an end anymore. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning." We, who like to write fiction, should pay heed to his message if we want to write compelling stories.

A few years ago, while attending college, I discovered the book called, Interactive Writer's Handbook by Darryl Wimberley, PH.D. and Jon Samsel. The fourth chapter, "Story Dynamics: The Spine Comes to Life," tutors us about the Three-Act Play Structure, and it taught me how to craft fiction. The formula isn't new. It evolved from Horace's five-act plays and has inspired Shakespeare and other playwrights through the ages.

The Three-Act Play Structure’s purpose is simple: to set a spine into the body of a story. We all know the purpose of a spine; it supports the body's musculature and holds us upright. I used to hang a Far Side cartoon on my wall entitled the "Boneless Chicken Ranch" to remind me that my stories needed a spine. In the comic, boneless chickens sprawl haphazardly on the grounds of the farm. The same principal works in our fiction. If we fail to put a story-spine in place, our plot will sprawl throughout the manuscript, bringing us a passel of rejection letters.

Five stages make up the Three-Act Play Structure, helping the author pace dramatic conflict. These stages need to occur at specific times within the story and in specific proportions. The Second Act is longer than the First and Third Acts, and the First and Third Acts are relatively the same size. The ending should somehow connect with the beginning to provide unity. Writers should know how a story will end before they begin so they can repeat a symbol or theme throughout the plot which helps in the unification.

The first stage of the Three-Act Play Structure is the Trigger. This stage occurs within the first eight to ten pages of the manuscript. The trigger jump starts the story, involving characters in immediate conflict and promises more struggles to follow. The trigger does not have to involve the hero. The villain can do the job just as well. But remember, the introduction of conflict must affect the character's head and heart. As the main story changes, so should the inner lives of the players, otherwise the author risks leaving the reader unsatisfied.

The second and third stages of the Three-Act Play Structure are the First and Second Reversals or Plot Points. Many reversals occur throughout a story, but only the first and second Plot Points are mandatory or the story will crumble. The first plot point occurs at about a quarter of the way through the plot in Act One, and the second plot point occurs at about three quarters of the way through the plot at the end of Act Two. These Plot Points take the story and the characters lives in new directions, but the second plot point is where the main character learns something significant about his mettle. The second reversal introduces the third act, leading to the Climax of the story.

The Climax, or fourth stage, is where all action escalates to the main point of the plot. However, the Climax should never answer all of the character’s problems. This allows the final stage, the Catharsis, which the Greeks knew as a type of healing, to tie up lose ends. The Catharsis should be brief. After the climax, readers care very little about what comes after.

The Three-Act Play Structure works, whether writing a novel, a screenplay, or a short story. Remember this structure is a guideline only; a writer doesn't have to be exact, just in the general vicinity, although she needs to use all five stages. More times then not, the authors of my favorite novels have used this formula, and I have committed to mastering all five stages so my novels are of the same caliber. Try restructuring your own work. You'll be surprised how your stories improve.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Pulling Weeds and Working Through the Blisters

I hate pulling weeds. I’d rather be writing. Yet last Thursday those nasty little creatures beckoned to me until I walked trance-like out to the side of the house and began ripping them out with retribution. And they literally beckoned to me; I heard their maniacal titters as I hunched over their spiky heads, for they knew the harder I worked, the faster and more abundantly they’d grow back, especially if I glanced in another direction.

But call me dim-witted; I didn’t wear gloves. Whether it’s the bulkiness of the fabric that blocks my sense of touch, or the lack of fashion, or the drudgery of walking all the way to the garage to retrieve them off the shelf, I just won’t wear them. As a result, twenty minutes into my love fest with these pests, a blister formed on my index finger, a wound that is still quite tender as I type this post.

Why do I put myself through such torture, when I know my salvation (my gloves) is only a few yards away? For one, I love the feel of freshly-turned dirt in my hands. I also get a better grip on the objects of my aggression. After a week or so, the blistered spot eventually becomes hardened, providing me a tougher surface with which to attempt the task again, provided I don’t let too much time pass before my next visit.

However, in the midst of the resulting jagged fingernails and worn skin, all pain is forgotten when I experience the end result: a colorful garden, the fresh smell of overturned earth, thriving plants blooming in their weed-free environment.

"And what is the point of this gardening lesson?" I hear someone ask. My answer: It reminds me of writing.

Often my writing contains an abundance of weeds. Nasty little problems like clashing points of view, passive voice, messy grammar, and flat scenes that fail to advance my plot. They are nuisances, and sometimes they take over before I realize they are even there. Maybe my gloves, the bits and pieces of research, the help of a writer’s group, or the expertise of a dictionary, are available to me, but I am too embarrassed to ask for help or too lazy to get up from my chair, and there is so much research to do that one more fact about Newaygo, Michigan will clog my brain beyond repair.

The inevitable blisters eventually form, like writer’s block or unwanted scenes that have to be thrown out. I realize some of the blisters might have been avoided with a little more preparation, or more motivation, maybe even less pride. Call me crazy, but I, for one, welcome the blisters. They force me to take a different approach or to seek the help of another author, and as I deal with the pain, the blisters toughen me and make me a better writer. Sometimes the ache comes close to breaking me, but, oh, how I love the feel of the keyboard beneath my fingers when I come back after a break. And the best part of working through the pain is how glorious my manuscript turns out when I finally complete my work.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Breathing Life Into Our Readers

Words and the way gifted writers use them have always fascinated me. This fact had everything to do with choosing the name of my blog. An author who crafts a paragraph that makes my mouth salivate, my nostrils flare and my eardrums thump is usually as expert at conjuring up images that I can almost see and long to touch. When I read such poetry, I can hardly sit still until I throw down the book, run to my computer and start hacking away at my keyboard, hoping to create something as magical.

Thus my first suggestion in learning the art of descriptive writing is to READ. I can’t say enough about perusing the works of other authors who have mastered the written word. They will show us, not tell us, how to create fresh sentences and inspire our descriptive juices to flow. I love this opening from Geraldine Brooks’ book, Year of Wonders.:

“I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light. The rumble of the apples tumbling into the cellar bins.”

Equally captivating is this passage from James Alexander Thom’s From Sea to Shining Sea:

“Six thousand Continental soldiers paraded down the long side of the sunny, May-green meadow, in perfect step to the beat of drums. From a distance, with their neat ranks and billowing banners, they looked like a perfect army as they tramped down toward the little hillock on which General Washington stood waiting to review them.”

How do authors like Thom and Brooks construct sentences that invite us to live on their pages? I imagine instinct, or a sixth sense, plays a part in hoisting them to the top of the bestsellers lists. But in attaining any worthy goal, the steps are the same. We must want the reward enough to learn and practice what it takes to acquire the end result. Likewise, if we yearn to write sensational descriptive sentences and then learn and practice several established guidelines, we, too, can produce masterpieces fit for any New York publisher. The following suggestions will help us meet our goals:

1. Include plenty of sensory language to enhance or define the main theme.
--Continental soldiers paraded down the long side of the sunny, May-green meadow...

2. Use details which go beyond the ordinary.
--the tang of its sap still speaking of forest

3. Use words that enable the reader to see what the writer is describing.
--The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light.

4. Use figurative language such as simile, hyperbole, metaphor, symbolism and personification.
--Her hand was as shriveled as a dry leaf; I could eat a million of these; Ben is a snake;

5. Use active verbs and precise modifiers.
--paraded; tramped; rumble; tumbling; neat ranks and billowing banners

6. Organize your details-- Some ways to organize descriptive writing include: time, location, and order of importance. When describing a person, you might begin with what they look like, followed by how that person thinks, feels and acts.

For our writing’s sake, applying descriptive methods to paint word imagery across the pages of all our essays, articles, short stories and novels is vital to our success as a writer. The knack may or may not come naturally to us, but if we will daily practice turning our mundane sentences into vivid, lively passages and master the above proven techniques, our work will breathe life into those who read it.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

USS Peggy: Ready to Launch

I'm a charter member of ANWA, the American Night Writers Association. I was one of five women who met on that inaugural night twenty three years ago in the back room of the Gilbert Public Library, and with our founder, Marsha Ward, shared feelings, hopes, and desires about writing. Through the years I've been newsletter editor, webmaster, conference committee member, chapter president (twice) and designer of the original ANWA logo. I was immersed, so to speak, in the workings and dealings of the group responsible for throwing me a life preserver and helping me reel in my first book from the murky waters of non-completion to contract.

So what happen to my good intentions? My hope of publication? But for the short anecdote in Michele Garvin's By Small and Simple Things, a winning entry in an American Mother writing contest, and a few articles in the Latter-day Sun and The Beehive, I'm still treading the unpublished waters of the writing world (yes, I lost my book contract). I wondered why, after all the miracles I had experienced through the course of writing my novel, I was forced to jump ship and start swimming again.

Choking and gasping for air, I surfaced long enough to send out my manuscript to other LDS publishers. Even my previous editor championed my work, hailed additional publishing houses, and provided new opportunities to be saved. No one bothered.

So I quit writing. I let the waves of divorce and water-logged self-esteem roll over me. I even abandoned my beloved ANWA, while all the talented sisters who had supported me from the beginning, and a shipload of new ones, started publishing, blogging and signing books. I watched with tears in my eyes as the Good Ship ANWA sailed off into the sunset.

Funny thing about self-pity, it fails to build self-esteem. Neither does it heal broken hearts or write books. And not to be trite, but sometimes when a ship's hatch closes, somewhere a portal opens. The powers-that-be often chart courses that take us to entirely different ports than the ones we chart for ourselves. To my surprise, my first novel is breaking headwaters to new adventures. And as I begin other projects, I realize my previous effort was not wasted, but was the springboard to faith in my Heavenly Father's promises and in my own abilities.

Such is my current outlook from the bobbing depths of where I tread today. I can see calmer waters ahead. And though I'm busy filling my cargo hold with the how-tos of blogging, Internet networking, and the myriad ways of publishing in the ever-expanding writing/technology ocean, this post is proof that USS Peggy is, again, underway.