Why Readability Matters

2015 Artwork Why Readability Matters article sketch

A few months ago, I read a couple of really thought-provoking articles (one by Joanna Scott and one by Paul Mason) which argued in favour of fiction that is difficult to read. Long-time readers of this blog will probably already know my views about “difficult” fiction, but I thought that I’d approach the topic slightly differently this time round.

The reason that I am mentioning these articles is because of a part of Scott’s article (which is also referred to in Mason’s article too), where she basically argues that “readability” is a bad thing, especially when taught in writing courses: ‘But despite the fine-arts degree they confer, the credo of “craft” predominates in these programs, especially in the genre of fiction. The goal is to produce a solid, sellable product—a “good read” distinguished by gripping plots, reliable research, and clear, unfussy writing—rather than a work of art.

My response to this quote was simply ‘Well, yes. This is a good thing!’

At the end of the day, if a story is to come alive in a reader’s imagination (which I would argue is the definition of “art”, in the context of writing) then it needs to fascinate that reader. It needs to grip that reader. It needs to be a “good read”.

A good writer needs to make sure that the reader is as close to the story as possible, so that it can take root in his or her imagination as easily and quickly as possible.

Putting lots of needlessly descriptive, needlessly dense and/or needlessly experimental writing in between the reader and the story is like putting an intricately-patterned wooden screen in front of a beautiful painting. The wooden screen may look beautiful, but it’s blocking out something even more beautiful.

The internet is filled with fan art and fan fiction. Every piece of it shows that someone’s story has come alive in someone else’s imagination. It is very telling that most of this fan art and fan fiction is based on things that aren’t designed to be “difficult” to read or watch.

In other words, you’re probably going to find a lot of “Star Trek”, “Sherlock Holmes”, “Doctor Who” and/or “Harry Potter”-based fan works on the internet – but you’re probably not going to find that many James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Richardson or Will Self- based fan works on the internet.

Scott’s article also quotes Virginia Woolf whilst arguing how reading “difficult” fiction allows us to understand ourselves and the world around us: ‘When we read actively, alertly, opening ourselves to unexpected discoveries, we find that great writers have a way of solidifying “the vague ideas that have been tumbling in the misty depths of our minds.” For Woolf, fiction provides an essential kind of knowledge that can only be acquired by careful reading.

From my own personal experience, I haven’t really had many of these moments when reading “difficult” fiction. However, I’ve had more than my fair share of them whilst reading comics, reading genre fiction, listening to punk and heavy metal music, playing computer games, reading online articles and even watching TV shows and Youtube videos.

Or, to quote a Wingnut Dishwashers Union song [NSFW]: “A punk rock song won’t ever change the world/ But I can tell you about a couple that changed me.

In other words, this quality isn’t something that is only ever found cleverly hidden within dusty old novels and modern “literary fiction”. And I think that I know why.

If a story is the kind of great thing that shapes a reader’s worldview and gives them a better way to understand their own feelings and their own thoughts, then it needs to be something that they feel comfortable spending time with. It has to be something that welcomes the audience like an old friend, rather than something that austerely gives them the cold shoulder.

In other words, your story won’t “enlighten” anyone if they don’t read it.

This doesn’t mean that fiction can’t be intelligent, it just means that it needs to be easily accessible. It needs to be written in a way that actually makes people want to read it. It needs to be written in a way that makes them want to read more.

People tend to focus more intensely when they’re enjoying something. If your readers are fascinated by your story, then they’re probably going to be thinking and daydreaming about it for a long time afterwards.

In other words, instead of sternly requiring your readers to *yawn* “study” your story in order to understand it, if you tell a suitably readable story, then your readers are going to want to study it. They’re going to want to think about it, to write fan fiction and to debate it with other readers.

So, yes, don’t make things needlessly difficult for your readers.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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What Can “All Along The Watchtower” Teach Us About Minimalist Storytelling?

2015 Artwork All Along The Watchtower article sketch modified

Even though this is an article about minimalist storytelling, I’m going to have to start by talking about music, TV shows and about the strange ways that my mind works sometimes. There will be a point to this and I’m not just rambling about music and about myself for the sake of it.

A day or so before I wrote this article, I found myself obssessed with listening to a particular song. This is nothing new or spectacular – if I find a song I like, I’ll usually end up listening to it repeatedly until it’s either almost permanently etched into my memory or until it loses all fascination for me.

This time, the song was “All Along The Watchtower“. Surprisingly, the first time that I heard this song was last year when I finally got round to watching the last episode of season three of “Battlestar Galactica“.

Although I’d watched the rest of the season in 2013, I couldn’t afford either of the fourth season DVD boxsets at the time – so, like I often do, I didn’t watch the last episode of the last season I had, since I knew that it would end on a cliffhanger.

Anyway, season three of “Battlestar Galactica” has one of the most stunningky powerful and shocking endings that I’ve ever seen in a TV show. I don’t want to spoil too much, so I won’t go into the detail about it.

But, as you may have guessed, a cover version of “All Along The Watchtower” plays during that particular scene. I was naturally interested in the song for a while, but I only really rediscovered it earlier this year.

It’s one of those songs where almost every version of it is both unique and brilliant. Jimi Hendrix’s version is absolutely sublime and, even though it was recorded in the 1960s, it sounds timelessly modern. Bob Dylan’s original is oddly haunting and yet brilliantly fascinating, since it evokes long dark nights and painted mental images of torchlit medieval buildings [Edit: I’ve just changed the Youtube link for the Bob Dylan version of this song to the latest official video, since the official one when I originally wrote this article is now unlisted for some reason].

The cover by Bear McCreary from “Battlestar Galactica” also obviously reminds me of one of the most emotionally meaningful scenes I’ve ever seen in a TV show.

So, why am I talking about “All Along The Watchtower”?

Well, it’s because the lyrics of the song are a brilliant example of minimalist poetic storytelling.

The song tells a strange story about boredom, nihilism and anticipation. It tells a story about a night which could either be just another meaningless night or it could be the eve of an apocalypse, or even the eve of better times. It contains interesting characters and fascinating locations…. And it does it all in less than two hundred words.

So, how do you tell stories like this?

Well, for starters, you should only include a couple of characters at the most. These characters need to be universal enough to be instantly recognisable, but also unique enough to be memorable.

For example, the two characters in “All Along The Watchtower” are a joker and a thief. Everyone has their own idea of what a joker and a thief look like (eg: a medieval jester and a mysterious handsome man who wears a cloak), they’re fairly generic stock characters. As such, Bob Dylan doesn’t need to describe what these characters look like or even to describe their backstory.

From their names alone, the audience can work out who they are and the lives that they have lived. As such, Bob Dylan has more room to actually tell the story.

However, if you listen to the lyrics of the song, it begins with the joker talking seriously to the thief about how depressing he finds life to be. Not only does the joker not even joke once, but he has the kind of nihilistic attitude that you’d probably expect the thief to have. The thief, on the other hand, is friendly, reassuring and optimistic. This is about the best example of dramatic irony that you’re going to find anywhere.

So, if the characters in your minimalist poem or story have to be stock characters, you also need to make sure that these characters are different enough to be interesting or memorable. You can do this through showing their personalities, or through brief descriptions – but there must be something interesting or unusual about your characters.

Likewise, the majority of Bob Dylan’s song is taken up by dialogue. This is one of the best ways to tell an interesting story in a short space, since you can include both characterisation and descriptions in dialogue. Likewise, overhearing a fragment of a conversation is inherently interesting, because it forces the listener to try to work out what the rest of the conversation will be like. So, dialogue can be a brilliant way to tell a fascinating story using a small number of words.

In addition to this, although most of “All Along The Watchtower” is taken up by dialogue between the joker and the thief, Bob Dylan also manages to create a really atmospheric setting through a just few brief descriptions. Interestingly, Bob Dylan never actually describes the watchtower itself – instead, he describes some of the things that are happening in the location (eg: a cat growling, servants walking through rooms, riders approaching etc…).

By describing actions, rather than the location itself – not only does Bob Dylan keep the story moving at a fast pace but he also forces the audience to use their imaginations to work out what the watchtower itself looks like. After all, if you describe an action, then your audience is going to have to imagine it. But, they’re not just going to imagine it in isolation – they’re also going to have to imagine where it happens too.

So, if you describe actions instead of locations – then your audience will automatically have to think about where those actions happened. As such, you don’t actually have to describe the setting itself.

———-

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Using Poetry As A Mirror

2015 Artwork Poetry Is A Mirror Article sketch

This is a short article about a fairly obvious way to make your poetry sound more meaningful. I should probably point out that this trick won’t actually make your poetry more meaningful, but it will give it the appearance of having a deeper meaning to most of your audience.

I should warn you that this trick can make your poetry sound bad if it’s done too obviously or too often. So, if you’re going to use this, then be subtle about it and use it in moderation.

Anyway, if you listen to a lot of music, then you can probably guess what I’m going to talk about here. I’m sure you’ve probably heard at least one song which seemed to sum up exactly what you were feeling at the moment that you heard it.

With the possible exception of love songs, most songs aren’t really about the specific subjects and exact emotions that the audience is feeling when they listen to them. But, these songs still feel meaningful and relevant. Why?

Simple, they use ambiguous lyrics.

They use lyrics which could almost be about anything. If you want a good example of this, then listen to “In The Shadows” by The Rasmus. I discovered this song by accident at least a couple of years ago and, at the time, it seemed very dramatic and meaningful.

But, taking a more careful look at the lyrics – they don’t really seem to mean that much. They’re just a collection of vaguely dramatic metaphorical phrases that sound like the kind of thing someone might think when they’re in a gloomy, dramatic or introspective mood.

In other words, rather than having a meaning of it’s own, the lyrics of this song are vague and ambiguous enough to hold a mirror up to the audience that they can see their own emotions reflected in.

If you see a vague emotional statement or evocative description that happens to be vaguely similar to what you are feeling, then you’re going to interpret it as being about your current mood or situation. You’ll see part of yourself in that song or poem and it will feel more meaningful as a result. The poet or songwriter hasn’t written about you, but they’ve created something you can see your own reflection in.

So, if you add a couple of vague emotional or metaphorical statements to your poetry, or even leave the meaning of your poem slightly mysterious – then this leaves your audience more room to interpret it in their own personal way. This will make your poem seem more meaningful.

However, as I said earlier, if this is done too obviously or too often then it will ruin your poem. So, be careful.

———-

Sorry for such a short and obvious article, but I hope it was useful 🙂

Poetry: “Nostalgia” and “Everything Builds On Everything Else”

2015 Artwork Poetry Nostalgia and everything builds on everything else

As I mentioned yesterday, one of the problems with scheduling the articles for this blog so far in advance is that occasionally I miss days. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen.

Anyway, I suddenly realised that I somehow accidentally skipped three days’ worth of updates. Today’s post is the second of the quick updates I’ve made to fill the gap (because it didn’t really seem right to just not post anything).

Anyway, for today, here are two “never seen before” poems that I wrote in 2009/ 2010. They certainly aren’t the best poems that I’ve ever written, but I hope that you enjoy them nonetheless 🙂

“Nostalgia”
By C. A. Brown

Dust-covered cassettes, yellowed leaflets
whirr and purr against scratched magnets.

An inert pile of action figures,
Power Rangers, Action Men and Biker Mice.

Midday re-runs, faded and absurd.
With shoulder pads, suits and fancy dresses.

Hip and modern a decade ago,
Sandman and Nirvana win mainstream awards.

Childhood photographs in a shoe box,
show a much more dull and different background.

——–

“Everything Builds On Everything Else”
By C. A. Brown

You see these piles of books,
these strata of old documents,
these mountains of forgotten clothes.

You see my favourite book.
It’s cover a deep chartreuse,
it’s spine cracked.

I first found it at fourteen,
in a bookshop horror section
on the top shelf.

I casually read the blurb,
then stood on tiptoes and replaced it.
It wasn’t really my sort of thing.

Six years later, I sought it out again
the memory stale, but vivid.
The timing was finally right.

You see piles of my old stories,
withered seeds of lost books
picked for value, scavenged
like vultures on carrion.

You see these clothes,
this old T-shirt from 2002
rediscovered. Now my favourite.

These everyday artefacts,
are not junk. They aren’t a waste of space.
Because everything builds on everything else.

—————-

Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Today’s Art (17th May 2015)

Well, today’s painting was originally going to be a background picture for a planned Youtube video that I eventually decided against making. It would have been a recording of my “Tool Duel” poem (I’ll include the text of this poem after this picture), but my attempts at putting on a Texan accent sounded just too terrible for Youtube.

This painting is released under a Creative Commmons BY-NC-ND licence, but the poem after it isn’t.

"Tool Duel" By C. A. Brown

“Tool Duel” By C. A. Brown

And here’s the text of the poem:

“Tool Duel” By C. A. Brown

It happened one starry night,
Billy Bob and Old Joad got into a fight.

“I tell ‘ya”, said Billy Bob
“You’ll need better tools than this to finish the job!”
Joad was shocked. His tools were his pride and joy.
Listen here, Billy Bob! I had these here tools when you were just a boy!“.

Billy Bob laughed and called Joad an old fool.
Old fool, you say? I challenge you to a duel!

Now, Billy Bob and Joad were a liberal sort,
to duel with guns just wasn’t sport.
So, with a grin on his face that bordered on cruel
Joad said, “I’ll whup your ass with these here tools!

Back to back, they stood.
Joad with a chisel, Billy Bob with a plank of wood.

Billy Bob went first and struck a pathetic blow.
Plywood ain’t good wood for fightin’, wooden you know?
Joad dropped his chisel and reached for a hammer
Dangammit, Billy Bob! I’ll slam ‘ya!

Billy Bob replied with something unprintably vile
as he parried Joad’s hammer with a nearby file.
That’s fightin’ talk!” hissed Joad
and once again swung his hammer’s heavy load.

Metal clunked and sparks flew,
Joad’s buddy Clem joined in too.
“Hey! Two on one just ain’t fair!”
Shouted Billy Bob as he clouted Clem with a chair.

Alterted by the commotion, Billy Bob’s old buddy Hank
charged into the work station, flailing a crank.
By accident, he caught old Joad in the spine
That ain’t fair fightin’, ya cowardly swine!

Gripping his back, Joad reached into his overalls
and stabbed Billy Bob with a cleverly-concealed awl.
Clutching his ass, Billy Bob yelled.
“Ah give up! That hurt like hell!”

Now listen up and listen well,
’cause there’s a moral to this story that I tell.
(It’s really nothin’ fancy, just..)
…Awl’s well that ends well.

Two Poems: “The City” And “Last Train”

2015 Artwork The City and Last Train

Unfortunately, I was feeling slightly uninspired when it came to writing today’s poems, so here are two more old poems from 2010 instead.

The first poem here – “The City” – was the first poem in an unpublished collection of narrative poems I wrote in 2010 called “Switchblade Shadows”. Whilst most of this collection had a rather nonsensical and badly-written murder mystery plot, I’m still quite proud of the atmospheric opening poem.

The second poem – “Last Train” – was an attempt at writing a descriptive poem I made in 2010 that was based on a train journey from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth that I took one evening in late 2009s. The original poem didn’t really have a proper title, so I thought that I’d call it “Last Train” (after this song by Ghost Dance).

This is also the last day of poetry week and normal articles will resume tomorrow. All in all, I quite enjoyed poetry week and – despite not feeling as inspired as I hoped I would be, it was still a lot of fun. So, I may well end up posting more poetry on here at some point in the future. I don’t know.

Anyway, enjoy today’s poems 🙂

“The City” By C. A. Brown

Bird’s eye visions from a precarious window
blended into an impressionist wash
by raindrops, running like trains.
Streetlights merge into darkness,
highlights curl and distort.

Somewhere, a bordello closes,
women in overcoats leave clutching
film canister aerosols of mace.
Men in leather jackets look on,
their cigarette ends glowing like
a swarm of fireflies.

On the roofs and spires, crows
gather like the souls of the dead.
A few chimneys breathe out
dragon death rattles of smoke
as church bells clang lifelessly.

A man almost steps into the road,
his trainers almost shredded by
jet-black blurs of type treads.
Neon signs drown out their painted
neighbours with cries of
“Absinthe “XXX”, “Open ‘Til 4”.

Policemen in regimental uniforms bark
orders, the refrain to a drunken
song forgotten by morning.
Rats dodge crystal sculptures of
broken glass in the gutter.

A woman in a tattered hoody
breathes her last breath.

Miles away, inside a dark drawer,
a switchblade clicks open.

——

“Last Train” By C. A.Brown

A town on a hill,
sparkling like Christmas
card pictures, like
1990s videogame gemstones

Held aloft in a rich
dark cupola of trees,
a needle forest
on a leaf-strewn sea.

All these thoughts
come to me
in the split-second
I look out of the window.

———–

Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Four Ways To Fake It As A Poet

2015 Artwork Fake Poetry article sketch

So, you need to write some poetry quickly, but you don’t have a lot of practice or experience. What do you do? Well, I thought that I’d give you a few quick tips that can help you to make something that may just about pass for a poem.

I should probably point out that this article is aimed people who have no interest in writing more than one or two poems to impress someone. If you want to learn how to write poetry properly, then you probably shouldn’t read this article.

But, remember, you might be able to fool a few people into thinking that you’re a poet if you follow the tips in this article – but don’t expect to fool other poets.

Anyway, let’s get started:

1) Don’t rhyme: This is a classic beginners’ mistake and it’s one of the easiest ways to tell that someone hasn’t had that much experience with poetry. I am, of course, talking about trying to make your poem rhyme when it shouldn’t.

Trying to shoehorn a rhyme scheme into your poem when you don’t actually need one will not only annoy your audience, but it will also waste your time too.

Repeat after me. Poetry doesn’t have to rhyme.

Yes, there is quite a lot of well-written rhyming poetry out there. Rhyming can be a great way to both enhance your poem and to give it more rhythm, but it’s a totally optional thing. And, since learning how and when to rhyme properly can take a bit of practice – it’s probably best to save it for later.

If you really must add a rhyme to your poem, then just make sure that only two or four lines of your poem rhyme. But don’t waste too much time thinking of a rhyme.

2) Line breaks: One of the easiest (and cheapest) ways to make something that resembles a poem quickly is to either write a very short story or to write down some random thoughts that you’ve had and then just add some random line breaks to it. This is basically cheating, but it can be a good way to come up with a poem quickly.

Ideally, each line of your poem should be roughly the same length – but it’s ok to make each line a slightly different length.

For example, here’s a very corny old joke: “Did you hear about the mathematician with constipation? He worked it out with a pencil.

Now, if I want to make this old joke look more like a poem, all I have to do is to think of a suitably pretentious title and add some line breaks to it. Like this:

“Blocked Logic” – A poem

Did you hear about
the mathematician
with constipation?

He worked it out
with a pencil.

Just remember to come up with your own ideas for these types of poems. I used a copy of an old joke as an easy example, but you should never copy someone else’s work and call it your own poetry. Not only is it bad form, it’s also very easy to detect. So, don’t do it!

3) Fake haiku: Writing real haiku poems is one of the most challenging things that a poet can do. After all, you have to meticulously count the number of syllables in each line and stick to the “rules” as closely as possible.

However, unless you’re showing your poem to an experienced poet or someone who has read a lot of haiku poems before, then these kinds of poems are extremely easy to fake.

All you need to do is to write three short lines. The first and the second lines should be a description of something and the last line should either be a profound thought, a totally different description or something random.

As long as the middle line is slightly longer than the first and last lines, it will (to the uninformed anyway) look like a haiku. Here’s an example of what I mean:

A leaf drifts,
on a sirocco wind.
Life is short.

Technically speaking, this isn’t a real haiku (since the syllable count is something like 4, 6, 5). But it certainly looks like one…

4) Total randomness: As the name suggests, one of the quickest ways to write fake poetry is to just write a bunch of random words or sentences and arrange them in a way that looks like a poem.

If anyone asks you about it, just tell them that it’s “avant-garde” poetry or that it’s “cut-up” poetry.

Seriously, just let your imagination go wild and come up with something totally random. Like this:

Rising prices,
a perfect ovoid,
palm tree sap,
unleavened pizza,
old raincoats,
lost in cartoons
of Spanish dubloons.

There are infinite nebulae
in my bellybutton fluff.
Lost languages scream
for more whipped cream.

—————-

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂