April 16, 2015

The Power of the Right Word

Recently, a friend on Twitter paid me a high compliment. Here’s what Jon Jones wrote:
Few writers I know of have mastered the art of linguistic precision quite as deftly as @HaikuFictionDJU.

Of course I was extremely flattered by what Jon said. Choosing the right word for the right narrative effect is one of the fundamentals of haiku fiction. The more limited the scale of a story, the more you have to make every word matter. Flash fiction and especially drabbles focus one’s vocabulary intensely. I've had the good fortune to have some success in that field.

But Jon’s comment also caused me to reflect on why “linguistic precision” matters so much to me. How did I get to be this way? I realized that part of the reason stems from my surname.

It can be both a blessing and a curse to have such a unique surname as Uitvlugt. The name comes from two Dutch words meaning literally “out flight,” or more idiomatically, “subterfuge,” or even “excuse.” (“The dog ate my homework” is an uitvlugt.) The story my family tells is that the first person to use the surname was a deserter of the French Foreign Legion around the time of Napoleon. He “fled out” of the FFL to the Netherlands where he hid out under an assumed name. How’s that for a “subterfuge”?

My surname essentially means “pseudonym.” (More on Dutch surnames here...)

Jon helped me realize that I learned at a very early age that behind every word is a story. I’ve been interested etymologies for a long, long time. Jon helped me realize why. While the meanings of words change over time -- sometimes quite significantly -- words carry the weight of their meanings with them.

That’s true in an especially strong way with haiku. When Basho composes a haiku based on a certain season word, he’s very well aware of the centuries of history that lie behind that word in the history of Japanese poetry. Sometimes his poem depends directly on that history. Sometimes he subverts that history. The “hai” in his haiku depends on knowing the history of the words he uses. (More on the cultural significance of kigo in Basho's poetics here.)

This conscious use of words is definitely a feature of traditional haiku I try to carry over into what I call haiku fiction. Being more aware of the stories behind the words we use can add extra levels of meaning to the stories that we write. That’s what I try to do, sometimes on a subconscious level, but when I’m on my game, sometimes more deliberately. Weighty words, the right word at the right time, have more meaning.

Thank you, Jon Jones, for reminding me of that fact and for helping me realize why I do what I do!

April 02, 2015

The Writer's Arena, Redux.

I have the extreme pleasure of regularly serving at one of the judges at the weekly one-on-one writing contest at TheWritersArena.com. Shortly after the site was founded, I also competed. A few weeks ago I was asked to compete again, this time against the formidable Joseph Devon.

Since I’m the sort of person who loves DVD extras, so in that spirit, I thought I’d offer a couple of thoughts on how I wrote my story “Rites of Spring.”

Unlike the first time I competed in The Writer’s Arena, this time I had worked before in the subgenre of the challenge. I had the following 100 word story (drabble) win an online contest:

The Deal
  Leaves rustle.
   “Most unusual.” Northrop touches the knot. “The sap looks like…blood.”
   The bark-covered pustule oozes, coating Northrop’s fingers. He can’t pull them away.
   “Denis, a little help.”
   The sap burns. The knot sucks down his hand to the wrist.
   “Sorry, professor. Had to get a shovel.”
   As Northrop turns, Denis bashes his head in. It takes him the rest of the afternoon to dismember the body and bury it at the base of the tree. He wipes his brow and looks up to the topmost branches.
   “One more and you let my brother go, right?”
   Leaves rustle.

I also have a carnivorous plant story that I am trying to get published. For a millisecond, I contemplated turning in that story. But of course that would be contrary to the spirit of the Arena. I would write something new in the allotted time.

But what? I’m a definite fan of the Carnivorous Plants subgenre. I first fell in love with the trope -- not counting learning about carnivorous plants in nature -- by reading H. G. Wells’s delightful “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid.” In my thinking about what to write, I also had John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids and Warren Fahey’s Fragment in the back of my mind. Also in my personal mix were things like the Tom Baker Doctor Who episode The Seeds of Doom and Alan Moore’s take on Swamp Thing.

As all this suggests, I had the problem of too many ideas! That’s when I hit upon the thought of using a series of quotations. I could incorporate several of these different ways of viewing carnivorous plants into a single story. The goal was to make the Sefer Etz Hayim a kind of botanical Necronomicon.

“Rites of Spring” is an example of haiku fiction in several ways. The title alludes to Stravinsky, and his musical treatment of pagan sacrifices. The quotes from the fictitious book are meant to do more than just set the tone; rather, they provide further information about the behind-the-scenes world of the story. My hope is that, by seeing events both from Stephen’s point of view and from Brit’s, the reader can triangulate a deeper understanding of the story.

Oh, and just for fun, I used the Medieval Alchemist Name Generator tweeted out by the Arena to come up with the name “Zacharias Glass.” I combined a couple of results to do so, but I did use the generator.

I alternated between writing the scenes with Brit and composing the passages from Stephen’s book until I had a complete draft. It took a while to wrestle the story into shape in my longhand draft. Then I typed up and printed out a copy of the story to work on the edits. A surprisingly fun ten days.

I hope that you enjoy the results!