Monthly Archives: July 2015
Writers (and publishers) are a fickle lot. We change according to fad, fashion, and the vagaries of a public with bullying tendencies. Pick up a book from classical literature and compare it with the tripe passing as “bestsellers” today and you’ll see what I mean.
That’s not to say that all bestsellers are tripe, nor are all classics timeless. Culture changes and with it what is trending. The one thing that often puzzles me, however, is the rabid arrogance of a segment of authors and publishers who limit the scope of writing.
Take the much maligned “said,” for instance. The controversy over whether or not to use “said” runs the gamut from those who insist on nothing else to those who avoid the word like the plague.
One of the reasons I choose to write in English (beside the fact that it’s my native language—I could as easily write in Spanish), is the variety and beauty of the language. English nouns have multiple synonyms: House, cottage, residence, dwelling, abode, domicile, shack, apartment, cabin, hut, quarters, lodging, etc.
Adjectives are equally delightful: Brilliant: shining, blazing, dazzling, impressive, vivid, luminous, radiant, coruscating, etc.
But where English really shines are its verbs.
Take the simple, understated, and misunderstood verb “to say” or in its past tense form “said.”
Like much of English’s overused and overworked words, said has the tendency to fade into the background, become white noise, the placeholder when writers can’t think of a specific word.
English verbs, like other parts of English, have nuance. The texture and taste of a verb changes with the word, coloring emotions, enriching sensations, adding complexity with one word instead of wasting the reader’s time trying to “show” the same things with 50 different words.
I’m not undermining the need for writers to “show” instead of “tell,” but using vivid verbs instead of said is not “telling.” It is masterful use of a complex and rich language. At what point does the writer use “shouted” instead of “cajoled?” What’s the difference between “scream” and “yell?” There is a subtle difference in the same manner that there are differences between azure and cobalt. A talented writer knows the difference, while an amateur uses them interchangeably for “blue.”
Instead of limiting writers out of fear of “telling,” we ought to be teaching writer to become masters in the art of subtlety.
A rose by any other name might still smell as sweet, but a tree by definition finds its uniqueness in leaf and branch. The names of trees help us build a visual picture that adds to reading enjoyment. Pine evokes a sense of mountain grandeur or the spicy tang associated with winter and Christmas. Oak treats us to steadfastness and the hope of growth from small beginnings.
Trees have always fascinated me and the more varied and different, the better I like them. I prefer the purple of the Japanese maple over the dark green of a mulberry. The orchid-like blossoms of the desert willow hold more fascination than the waxy blooms of the magnolia. Mesquite trees with their feathery fronds, yellow fuzzy blossoms and contrasting dark trunks and yellow green foliage seem otherworldly.
But my all time favorite tree for looking like its from another planet is the ceibo tree of Ecuador. Most folks know the ceibo as the kapok or silk tree due to the frothy silk seedpods. Ceibos are uniquely designed for dry, waterless climates. Deep green trunks and branches provide the necessary photosynthesis for seed production, and the tree’s life cycle creates the seeds before the leaves. Hollow trunks conserve water usage, streamlining the necessary nutrients directly into seed production.
Ceibos have weird, twisted branches, which often end up resembling people—provided you have a bit of imagination. The barren branches have no leaves or relatively few leaves until the end of the cycle. When everything else is putting forth new leaves, the ceibo stands stark and bare.
I did some research on the ceibo trees and discovered something unique to Ecuador. All the pictures of other ceibos showed waxy, red blossoms. Our ceibos never had red leaf-like blooms. Every year I would watch our ceibos transition from barren to small white blooms, to hairy branches with moss-like trailers, then the seedpods. At the end, if we’d had some moisture small leaves would appear, but more often than not, this part of the cycle was skipped. Other ceibos seems to lack the moss—at least I never saw a picture of one outside of Ecuador.
For me, the ceibos were odd—more fitting of plant life on some science fiction world than a native of planet Earth. In the dry and dusty terrain of Manabí province, the ceibos were often the greenest things around. We became accustomed to barren, leafless bushes with vivid purple or red blooms clustered around the knees of the towering ceibos. In an otherwise brown landscape the green trunks of the ceibos stood out, the dandelion silk of the seedpods floating on the wind like snowflakes, the scraggly grey “hair” draped across branches like tattered scarves.
For a science fiction writer like myself, the ceibos became my touchstone between fantasy and reality, a fixed point in time and space where imagination crossed with the real world. I still miss them.
Recently I participated in a little light hearted back and forth banter with a friend of mine over the merits of world building in science fiction versus contemporary. She finds writing in contemporary, aka “real” worlds, much easier than creating something for a science fiction scenario. I’m just the opposite. I find trying to put a story in a “real” world format extremely limiting. Trust me, readers get irate over insignificant little errors about where a store is located or whether or not a certain roadway ever existed in said township. Give me the freedom of an imaginary world any day of the week.
Maybe the reason this is easier for me is I simply have to select a part of the known world that is similar in nature to my imaginary world and voilà, instant geography. Why re-invent science when so much of it is evident around us on a daily basis? If plants and animals can survive in the Arctic, why not on Mars? I don’t have to know why certain conditions exist or explain how a desert can be deadly hot in the day and freezing at night. I don’t have to explain why some cave systems are 55 degrees and others are 80. It exists. It happens. Live with it.
Lots of folks (including some scientists) are dead certain we can never colonize Mars. But have you looked at where people live on our own planet? Some of the most inhospitable places around. Humans are highly adaptable and where there’s a will, we find a way. Bolivians in La Paz breathe such a rarified atmosphere most normal humans find themselves dizzy after only a couple of minutes. Trust me. Been there at the airport. Light-headedness is not fun. Take the scientists at McMurdo Base in Antarctica. Oh wait, that’s not real people living and working in a harsh environment. No, those real people live in the northernmost points of Alaska, Russia, Canada, etc. The cold and harsh climate doesn’t slow them down from raising families and living life to the fullest.
The point is people adapt to any environment if they have a strong enough motivation and reason. We harness incredible energy and find ways to adapt it and use it that could almost be considered “magic.” We have learned to grow food in new and creative ways. We design shelters and habitats to protect in a wide range of harsh climates. A quick search on the Internet shows most of the technology needed to colonize Mars already exists. We just don’t have an incentive to do so yet.
Meanwhile, I’ll continue to draw on earthly environments and experiences to create my imaginary planets. After all, that’s what good writers do: we take our own experiences and the experiences of others and repackage them into worlds that are at once familiar and strange. If we do it right, we often surprise our readers with how comfortable they are in a different place.