Tuesday, September 25, 2012

ANTITHESIS: Shakespeare Trick #2 That I Plan to Steal for JIHAD COMIX

The second big trick I'll be stealing from Shakespeare for this year's NaNoWriMo novel JIHAD COMIX is antithesis, the act of exploring opposites by comparing two sharply contrasting ideas. 

The trick is most obvious in short passages like this:

  • "Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more." (Julius Caesar, III, ii)
  • "Beautiful tyrant! fiend angelical! Dove-feather'd raven! wolvish-ravening lamb!" (Romeo and Juliet, III, ii)
  • "To be, or not to be -- that is the question." (Hamlet, III, i)

Now, the Rhetoric Cops will tell you that antithesis is the "juxtaposition or contrast of ideas or words in a balanced or parallel construction." That describes the individual lines I just shared with you, which show antithesis on the small scale. What is also true, and important, is that this trick works on the very large scale. (By the way, I just used the trick there -- did you notice it?)

One of the really jaw-dropping moments for any writer who also happens to be a Shakespeare freak comes when it becomes apparent that this seemingly simple trick of playing with opposites is driving extremely complex structural and thematic decisions.  

An early example is ROMEO AND JULIET: two houses set in opposition, two sets of parents, two lovers, etc. A later, and much more rich, example is ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA: Rome embodies a thematic "world" that stands in opposition to the "world" set out in Egypt by Cleopatra, and Antony must choose between the two. 

One realizes fairly quickly that this "opposites game" is something close to an obsession with Shakespeare, one that becomes more important as a tool as his career progresses. 

For my part, I believe this fixation on opposites is the engine behind what the critics call "negative capability" in Shakespeare's plays. (Academic doubletalk alert!) "Negative capability" just means Shakespeare's ability to get an audience to see a person, an issue, or question from multiple angles. If there is a writer who does this better than Shakespeare, I don't know who it is. And I feel quite certain that antithesis (as well as its cousin, oxymoron) are a big part of how he pulls it off on both the small and the large scale.

Antithesis is one of those writerly tricks (like personification) whose frequency you may not notice in Shakespeare until it's pointed out to you. Once you spot it, though, you are likely to see examples of antithesis in many, many places in Shakespeare. Soon, you won't be able to stop looking for them.

Now it's your fixation. Will obsessing about how you can use antithesis become a form of lunacy -- or will mastering this trick prove to be the sanest thing you've ever done as a writer? 

Have fun.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

PERSONIFICATION: The First of Three Shakespeare Tricks I Will Rip off Shamelessly for NaNoWriMo

When I was about fifteen years old, I caught the Shakespeare bug. (See West Slide Story.)

The bug intensified and became a real obsession in college. When I got out of college, I got a job at a bookstore; the only real significance of the job turned out to be a Riverside Shakespeare that the manager of the bookstore, Rob Dufney, let me have. 

The pages, though completely legible, were cut at a slight angle that made the book "damaged" in some technical sense. It couldn't be sold. Rob had the choice of sending it back to the publisher or giving it to me. After I bugged him about it, he gave it to me.

Thank you, Rob, wherever you are, and I hope it is where you want to be, perhaps a vast used bookstore whose titles you can browse at your leisure, a store you do not have to manage. Through a dozen or so jobs, two marriages, five kids, scores of ghostwriting assignments, a dozen or so published books, and now JIHAD COMIX, my novel for the 2012 NaNoWriMo, that cockeyed Riverside Shakespeare has been my loyal companion, always there to comfort me, challenge me, support me, and offer the relevant insights that only a dear friend can. (I used a trick there, did you see it?)

I could fill every blog post between now and November 30 with tricks that a writer could steal from Shakespeare. Instead, I will limit myself to three. The first is PERSONIFICATION, which is the trick of attributing human motive, quality, ability or action to something that is not a living human being, such as an inanimate object (a book), an abstraction (wisdom), or even the weather (the wind of a storm). 

The Great Literary Book of Tricks (which I just made up) says to search under the needlessly confusing code-word prosopopeia for more on personification. Whatever you call it, this trick shows up so often in Shakespeare that it is easy to overlook what he is doing, or why the line he has come up with works so well. It may be his most common trick, unless metaphor itself counts as a trick.  

If you want to see a master at work, the three lines from THE TEMPEST below, in which Shakespeare makes Prospero use personification, are an opportunity. Notice how Shakespeare wraps one trick (the howling wind as a human singer, a metaphor that employs personification) around another (thunder as the deepest note on an organ, a metaphor that doesn't use personification):

The winds did sing it to me, and the thunder,
That deep and dreadful organ-pipe, pronounced
The name of Prosper: It did bass my trespass. (3.3.97-99)

Of course, it is probably a mistake for any of us to think we can write like this ... but that didn't stop Nabokov (for whom Shakespeare was the great role model) from trying, so I say use the trick and see what happens. That's my plan, anyway.

I'll talk about the other two big tricks I picked up from Shakespeare in future blogs, inshaAllah. Below, a cool video on personification by Abigail Ledman.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

"Innocence of Muslims"

Salaams -- SO, as insane as these fools who make and post insulting videos about the Prophet (pbuh) may be, the violence in Libya makes me ask ...

In Quran, do we read that followers of prophet Nuh or Musa stormed the buildings of the disbel
ievers when their Prophet was insulted? NO.

Was the punishment of these people the responsibility of Prophets Nuh or Musa? Or was it the responsibility of Allah? ALLAH.

Was the example of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) when he returned to Medina to unleash mass punishment upon those who had insulted him and plotted to kill him? NO

So clearly in this case the "Innocence of the Muslims" in Libya and elsewhere is not as expansive as we might wish. 
All too often, when we hear evil talk, in our response we are not following the dictates of our own religion or the examples of our own Prophets, may peace and blessings be upon them all.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Word Count Blues

The more I refine the outline for my novel JIHAD COMIX, the more unlikely it seems to me that it will be done when I hit 50,000 words (inshaAllah) as part or National Novel Writing Month. I'm trying to figure out what to do about this. 

My first instinct was simply to proceed in the order of the scenes presented in the outline and pace myself so that I had some approximation of a readable manuscript on November 30. Now I am wondering whether it would make more sense to attack the most difficult scenes first, jump around a lot, accept that I will have an incomplete manuscript at the end of the month, and fill in the blanks later... 

Pondering it all from a great height.

Perhaps it will become clearer in a dream.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

West Slide Story

If you're just tuning in, I am devoting a blog a day to the influences that drove me to spend five years (and counting) mapping out a novel called JIHAD COMIX, which I hope to complete as part of National Novel Writing Month.

I am working my way up to my obsession with Shakespeare, who probably deserves to be the star of all the blogs, but I'm going to start with Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, who were kind enough to write the great musical WEST SIDE STORY for me. 

This piece introduced me to Shakespeare, because my dear mentors Art and Joanne Blum, founders of the beloved and long-lost San Francisco School of the Arts, made sure we studied (and practiced pieces from) this musical while reading ROMEO AND JULIET in our Shakespeare course. Of course, the musical is an adaptation of the play.

Tony and Maria and the Jets and the Sharks had their world; Romeo and Juliet and the Montagues and the Capulets had their world; the two slid in and out of each other.

That's what I remember about discovering Shakespeare and discovering Bernstein/Sondheim: the their sliding in and out of each other. I remember the joy of spotting the similarities between the two works, the joy of finding their sharp differences; the wonder at the sheer audacity of Bernstein and company ripping off ("stealing," as I would say now) a plot by Shakespeare. Could you DO that? Apparently you could. And anyway, it turned out Shakespeare lifted his plot from Bocaccio ... who lifted it from someone else ... who lifted it from someone else ... 


It was about this time (late 1976) that I started writing very bad plays. I still have most of them, upstairs in a metal file cabinet. They're a secret resource. I never show them to anyone else. If I am in an arrogant or self-absorbed mood, which is an event that those who love me can tell you occurs fairly often, I can take those plays out and read them. And that fixes the problem.

What brought the Bernstein/Shakespeare connection to mind was this quote, which I came across yesterday, and which seems appropriate to NaNoWriMo:

  • “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.” ― Leonard Bernstein

Alhamdulillah! I've now got both! 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


I wish I could claim credit for writing what I'm about to share with you, but I can't. 

What I can claim credit for (so far) is acting on Bre Pettis's THE CULT OF DONE in support of my National Novel Writing Month project JIHAD COMIX. If I can still say that on December 1, 2012, that will be even better.

For me, "acting on THE CULT OF DONE" means getting up early, six days out of seven, to add more countable new words to my outline and deal with new thematic issues by writing yet more countable words. After that's done, I can move on to Things That Aren't the Novel. 

Starting November 1, I plan inshaAllah to take this same DO SOMETHING approach to the task of generating 1667 countable new words a day on this novel's first draft.

I reproduce THE CULT OF DONE here for two reasons. First, because this manifesto, by Bre Pettis, was a real breakthrough for me, and second, because it seems likely, if it is discussed as widely as it deserves to be, to serve some percentage of the 300,000 or so people who are expected to take part in NaNoWriMo this year.

Particularly relevant for our purposes is #3, which is, I believe, a Zen koan is worthy of close consideration by any writer.


Dear Members of the Cult of Done,
I present to you a manifesto of done. This was written in collaboration with Kio Stark in 20 minutes because we only had 20 minutes to get it done.
The Cult of Done Manifesto
  1. There are three states of being. Not knowing, action and completion.
  2. Accept that everything is a draft. It helps to get it done.
  3. There is no editing stage.
  4. Pretending you know what you're doing is almost the same as knowing what you are doing, so just accept that you know what you're doing even if you don't and do it.
  5. Banish procrastination. If you wait more than a week to get an idea done, abandon it.
  6. The point of being done is not to finish but to get other things done.
  7. Once you're done you can throw it away.
  8. Laugh at perfection. It's boring and keeps you from being done.
  9. People without dirty hands are wrong. Doing something makes you right.
  10. Failure counts as done. So do mistakes.
  11. Destruction is a variant of done.
  12. If you have an idea and publish it on the internet, that counts as a ghost of done.
  13. Done is the engine of more.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"The Hero That Was"

I must have read a whole lot of comic books between the years 1966 and 1970, because I keep running into ones that I remember buying and reading. One of them -- Captain America #110, dated January 1969 (but probably in my possession a month earlier) -- struck such a strong chord with me that I bid for it on eBay when I saw it there. It came in yesterday.

Rereading this comic book was a whole Proust kind of deal for me. Not only did I remember and instantly engage with the plot, much of which was lifted for the recent CAPTAIN AMERICA movie, but I also remembered and relived the feel of the cheap paper, the odor of the newsprint, and (what I certainly did not expect) the content of many of the small-print ads, which I must have perused very closely indeed. I met my eight-year-old self as I turned these pages.

I'm doing a lot of plot work this month for my National Novel Writing Month project, JIHAD COMIX, which may end up incorporating a Captain-America-like dream thread through which the hero (coincidentally, a reformed comic book fanatic like myself) fantasizes about events in his "real" life. So yes, this all counts as research.

The winning eBay bid I placed set me back fifteen bucks. Back in December 1968, I paid twelve cents for this issue. I believe I was living in San Francisco at the time. My dad would have left us by then, and my mom, my brother, my sister, and I would have returned from a brief stay at a commune in New Mexico to live in the City with my Aunt Tina.  

Monday, September 10, 2012

My favorite book on plotting

One of the things I promised myself I would do with this blog is acknowledge the books that got me as far as I have gotten with JIHAD COMIX, a novel I've been taking notes on for about five years. That means there has to be at least one post exclusively about Martha Alderson's extraordinary book THE PLOT WHISPERER, which got me back on track about three months ago. I am deeply in this volume's debt, and from what I read at Amazon, I am not the only writer who feels that way.

This has got to be the tenth or twelfth on-line shout-out I've offered this book in various platforms. Any more, and it start to will look like I'm obsessing. I'm not. I'm just profoundly grateful to have found a resource that finally unlocked the door of this piece.

I'll use this post to make three final points about this book, and then I won't bring it up again. There are plenty of other debts to acknowledge as we plunge forward toward the goal of a completed first draft by November 30 as part of National Novel Writing Month. This debt, however, is a big one.

First, I didn't even know what plotting actually was before I ran into this book. I thought I did, but I didn't. That means there's at least a chance you may be mistaken about what it is, too, so this is definitely a reason to buy the book and read it now. (Hint: It involves your protagonist, and you, more deeply than you may imagine.)

Second, if you, like me, are getting ready for NaNoWriMo and you have not yet gotten clear on what the story elements of your novel are supposed to be, this is the book to read and now is definitely the time to read it.

Third, I do not have any arrangement with Ms. Alderson or anyone else to promote this book. I just use it a lot. It is the single best story development resource I've ever come across. If you are a storyteller and you have not yet aligned your tale with the Universal Story that this book shares, I predict that you will come to wish you had. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

"Why are you calling your novel JIHAD COMIX?"

For three reasons. First, because the word "Jihad" has been appropriated by the mainstream US media to mean something far removed from the dimensions the word is supposed to occupy within Islamic practice. If you ask 100 non-Muslims what Jihad means, 95 of them will give an answer that doesn't include the dimension of, say, striving to complete your prayers on time, or striving to complete your fast during Ramadan. Not only that, but the part they offer about violent striving has nothing to do with Islamic rules of war. This warped understanding of Jihad is often the FIRST thing people in America think of when they think of Islam. ("Are you a typical Muslim? I mean, do you believe in killing civilians?" Sigh. No.) 

When we have this kind of systemic and constantly reinforced misunderstanding, I think we are in grave danger of using language as a political weapon against a particular religious minority. Whenever it becomes obvious that the country as a whole is using language that way, it's much better to think of what the mainstream culture is doing to define your religion as a parody of your religion than as the reality. Translation: "If that's what you think Jihad means, you have got to be joking. In fact, let's assume you are joking. Otherwise, this is offensive."

Second, because a lot of people fall into the trap of striving for the wrong thing with the wrong intention. When we do that, and I speak to myself first who needs the advice most, we make a travesty of Islam. Translation: "Your Jihad is on backwards, and you are making God's religion a joke, but the joke is on you."

Third, because I thought it sounded cool.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

In Which I Explain My Youthful Fear of Footnotes

Yesterday I told you how Martin Gardner's THE ANNOTATED ALICE got me thinking about authorial intent, and about the power of commenting on someone else's text. Both of those are big topics in JIHAD COMIX, the novel I have plotted out (kind of) for National Novel Writing Month.

I was about twelve when I encountered Gardner's/Carroll's amazing book.

Since this blog is (for a while) about the important books I ate along the way while building this novel, I should mention, too, something important that happened about four years earlier. My dad began reading Mark Twain's TOM SAWYER to me. Then, seeing how much I loved it, (bless his heart) he challenged me to finish reading it on my own.

I was used to comic books, in part because they were highly visual. This was almost all text, though -- there were only a few illustrations -- and there was a lot of text to deal with. I was navigating my first real novel.

I got the hang of it before too long, in part by imagining what it would sound like if my dad had been reading the text.

Along about page 114, though, Twain threw me a curveball: a footnote!

[* If Mr. Harbison owned a slave named Bull, Tom
would have spoken of him as ‘Harbison’s Bull,’ but a son 
or a dog of that name was ‘Bull Harbison.’] 


I know it sounds very weird indeed, but the truth is that footnote scared me.

Think of it from a child's perspective. I was absorbed in reading a great story, and that footnote took me right out of Tom's world, which I didn't expect. In my mind, I had been sharing this great book with my dad, happily having a private moment with him. Yes, that moment was fantasy-driven, but it was our moment just the same, and the fantasy of him reading to me was how I was making it through TOM SAWYER ... which was, at that point, the Biggest Book I Had Ever Read. I was proud of myself, like a one-year-old showing off to himself and others how easy it is to walk.

Then, all of a sudden, this new and different and wholly unfamiliar voice jumps into the story! Who WAS this person who had intruded on my private moment with my dad and me? Had he been eavesdropping the whole time I was reading? Would he keep listening in on us?

It really gave me the creeps. I almost told my dad about how much it bothered me. Then I decided not to, because the whole thing was just too weird. Then forty-three years passed. And I decided to tell you.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

In Which I Begin Identifying the Main Books and Films I Have Eaten In Order to Create JIHAD COMIX

"It's simple: You just take something and do something to it, and then do something else to it. Keep doing this and pretty soon you've got something." -- Jasper Johns

Welcome. I am now two months (all of September, all of October) away from my commitment to punch out 1667 daily words -- good, bad, or undercooked -- on my embarrassingly over-researched novel JIHAD COMIX. The goal is to finish it in 30 days as part of NATIONAL NOVEL WRITING MONTH. I will be chronicling my efforts here. (The blog posts are a good break from writing.) 

Today I'll begin looking at some of the books and movies this book has been chewing, swallowing, and digesting as it spreads its way along my Plot Planner.  This is a tool from Martha Alderson's wonderful book THE PLOT WHISPERER. I guess I talk and write too much about Alderson's work, but I really can't thank her enough for sharing the tool that actually pointed this long-suffering book of mine in the right direction. Here is my Plot Planner in its current state, thumbtacked to the wall abutting my messy desk:

Anyway. Having acknowledged Alderson, I'll move on to acknowledging Lewis Carroll's ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND, by which I really mean three volumes: that book, its sequel, and the astonishing THE ANNOTATED ALICE, a massive text-and-commentary affair assembled by Martin Gardner that stopped me in my tracks the first time I encountered it in the early Seventies. I must have been about twelve when it began seducing me. 

By that point I had already read both ALICE books out loud to my brother Joreth and sister Cassandra during a cross-country drive from Oregon (where we had just marked my Aunt Tina's passing) to Tennessee (where we believed, wrongly, that there was a commune waiting to welcome us with open arms). My point here is a) that the Carroll books -- obviously -- worked for us as children's literature, and b) that I thought I knew the books pretty well. Yet when I encountered the Gardner book a couple of years later -- an oversized affair that eruditely explained all of Carroll's math references, theological jokes, and so on -- something new opened up. All kinds of lights switched "ON" inside my brain, illuminating adult intent, adult observation, and the process of one voice commenting on, even building a book around, another voice. Who knew such a book was possible? What in the world had Carroll really been up to? What was GARDNER really up to? THE ANNOTATED ALICE was a major early obsession for me.

It also planted a seed about footnotes, which figure prominently in JIHAD COMIX. This was not the first such seed, though. I'll tell you about that first seed tomorrow, InshaAllah.