What happens when you leave me alone with a pen

I don’t really have any amazing insights to share with you today, I was too busy writing. So I thought, why not share that with you? Here’ a part of a nice little short story for you, next part coming soon:

 

There are two other robbers besides me, and I am sure that underneath those animal masks, they are just as confused as I am. I suppose all three of us had the same idea at the same time, only that in their case, two people had the one idea. By the coordination of the style of the mask, it is easy to see that they are working together while I came here alone, but the unfailing nature of the human brain groups the threat into one homogeneous group and assume we are all a part of one gang. For the sake of not breaking the spell, our eyes meet and broker a truce.

After a few theatrical nods at one another, the small one, the voice of whom identifies him to be a woman breaks the relative silence.

“No one fucking move!” There is a renewal of the screams and the panicked sobs from all over the bank. “I want you all to shut the fuck up, I don’t want to even have to remember you are here until I decide I want you to do something else, got it?!” Her voice is commanding, but so young that I feel comfortable referring to her in my head as a girl rather than a woman.

She is also very good at this. She lets her voice do the threatening, letting her shotgun rest idly yet menacingly on her shoulder.

The other one, the one built like a refrigerator with arms and legs, comes over to me and looks me in the eye.

“What the fuck?”

“Well, I suppose we all thought this will be a good idea.” I say apologetically, as if I am the only one doing something wrong.

“This is our job, beat it!”

“Can’t really walk out now and tell the cops ‘oh, they threw me out, so I’m as innocent as a baby lamb,’ can I?” He considers this for no more than a nano-second.

“Fine, follow our lead, play your cards right, and you might get… twenty five percent.”

“Twenty five? I’d be doing a third of the work, fuck that shit.” Everyone is looking at our little huddle, still enchanted by being screamed at by the girl, still too afraid to move and displease their new mistress.

“It’s our damn plan!” The voice behind the bear mask is beginning to sound unnerved, like his finger is going to stop asking his brain for permission for anything… trigger related.

“I had a plan too, not my fault you guys had a similar one.”

“Are you in, or do I have to take your gun away?” The bear asks. It’s not so bad, I start thinking. I’m good at following orders, and having someone else in charge always makes it easier to deal with the ethical ramifications of what might come.

“What do I do?”

“Come with me, my daughter is going to watch the front.” He must be so proud.

We walk around the bank’s lobby, my ursine friend shooting his glance in every direction until he locks in on an older lady and grabs her by the arms and pulls her to her feet. She looks well-to-do, tasteful jewelry, a nice lady’s business suit, a fancy leather bag, and even a jacket despite the afternoon heat.

It’s a small town and I recognize her immediately. It’s Mrs. Shaw, my eighth grade science teacher. She seems to be doing well in retirement. I wonder if Poh, as I began to call my new partner in crime, picked her because she was particularly nasty to him when he was her pupil, though he might be too old.

“This one is yours, I’ll be back in a second.” He says as he runs to grab the bank manager, Mr. Schweinhofer. We escort our hostages to the back of the bank, Poh on point and me following at the rear after the hostages, who are trapped between us. At the back is, of course, the vault. I was going to ignore it. It seemed like too much trouble and leaving the lobby with unattended hostages seemed ridiculous. I was going to grab anything and everything in the tills before making good my escape, but Poh and Piglet obviously had a different plan.

I can still hear Piglet shout at the hostages; she seems to have found a particularly annoying hostage to abuse and make an example of, using degradation instead of that Remington she has over her shoulder.

Poh pushs Mr. Schweinhofer against the vault door, which isn’t at all as impressive as they show in the movies. It’s just a big steel door with a few keyholes and some rotary handles. Mr. Schweinhofer looks on the verge of hysteria and Poh slaps him.

“Open it!” He points at the vault with his MAC-10. I feel rather inadequate with my machete and Glock. I look like some confused hillbilly who decided at the last minute that it would be a gun fight and had the presence of mind to go prepared. My own Nixon mask feels more comic than threatening now. Buying it was more of an impulse than a plan. I saw it in a movie, and I suppose anyone can guess which movie I mean.

Mr. Schweinhofer, after some more prompting does open the vault and reveals a small room with several well organized chromed cabinets, supposedly containing Poh and Piglet’s target.

“Okay, you’re up.” Poh gestures me into the room after throwing a duffle bag at me and taking hold of Mrs. Shaw. “Grab everything, don’t worry about those movie clichés about sequential bills and crap.” He winks behind the ursine eyeholes.

I walk in and start shoving money into the bag. The stacks are neat and smell good, but there is alarmingly few of them. It’s a small town and a small bank in a small state in the biggest economic power on the planet. I don’t let that stop me. I mechanically thrust my arms forward, grab the stacks and extract them and deliver them into the brown bag on the floor.

I can hear Mr. Schweinhofer behind me trying to reason with Poh, get him to surrender, though he includes me in this appeal, I still think of me and the two cartoonish animals as two separate entities. I hear another slap and Mr. Schweinhofer falls silent.

When I can’t find anymore stacks in the cabinets, I do a final sweep of the room to make sure I took everything I could and I head back to join Poh. He looks giddy, somehow. The tangibility of the money got him excited.

We take the two ragdoll-like hostages back to the lobby, where Piglet is hunched over a hostage and explaining to him that somehow, this is all the government’s fault, not hers. I agree to some degree, I gave my country my all, the very least they could do is let a few thousand buck come my way.

But no. The government may be lax about a great deal many things, but not about its money. They can’t have people just get up and take money, because then everyone would do it. Outside, a few police cruisers are parked with very serious looking cops aiming slightly less serious looking guns at us. They are small town cops, using hunting rifles and revolvers made in the seventies. Once you’ve had several very angry men with AK 47s aiming at you, ten cops with a beer gut and revolvers no longer seem like the mighty arm of the law, more like a caricature by the New Yorker.

Piglet comes over to us with a gait that makes me doubt once again that she is a girl, but when she speaks there are those fine nuances of a repressed femininity.

“They’ve been parked there for a few minutes. I didn’t want to let on that this was not a part of the plan. What are we going to do, dad?” She sounds lost, close to scared, but deathly defiant to admit that. “Any bright ideas, Tricky Dicky?” I can just tell she is scowling under that mask.

I take Mrs. Shaw to the front door, cutting her off when she starts to say something with a look that says I’m not the bad guy, but I could be. I place her in front of me as we stand against the glass double doors, putting the gun to her head. I am not one hundred percent sure what I am trying to accomplish other than to make it clear we have hostages.

The most authoritative looking cops signals to the others to stand down. He approaches the door with his hands up and yells to Mrs. Shaw to remain calm. I think I almost admire him for that. There’s nothing he could do if I decide to shoot her, nothing she could do either, so why have what could possibly be her last moments spent  thinking no one can help her?

He is almost at the door and I signal to him to stop. I make my assessment of him in practically no time. It’s Crane, the town’s sheriff. He is old, about fifty, and looks like he was a very mean bastard twenty years ago, but years of seeing his little corner in small town Americana turn to drugs, alcoholism and racism that even someone from his generation wouldn’t put up with has worn him down into an almost timid man who tries to please everyone. His grey hair is cut in marine fashion, and his tan uniform is loos around his slowly decaying body. The aviator shades, however, make him look uncaring and in command.

“You in charge?” I try to take a lesson from Bruce Wayne’s book of tricks and mask my voice as best I can.

“Yes, sir. Sheriff Crane. Now, I don’t want anyone in there hurt, you hear? Let’s just make this quick and you surrender, and I’ll see what I could do for you from my end, what do you say?”

“I say fuck you pig.” I aim the gun at him and see him slowly retreat, knowing that this is going to be a long ass Tuesday.

Back in the lobby, Poh and Piglet have been busy. They’ve constructed amateurish barricades and blocked all the entrances except the front door, which I have to admit is pretty clever and badass.

I push Mrs. Shaw onto the floor as gently as I could without it being obvious it was meant to be gentle. She sits Indian style and breaths deeply with her eyes closed. Piglet is throwing random stacks of papers on one of the barricades, which is mostly comprised of chairs, and compresses the precarious construct with her boots.

“Well, if you want to know… There are ten cops out there, at least four of them look like they did an all-nighter and are barely awake, eight of them, including the sheriff, are armed with pistols, mostly revolvers, and two are armed with old looking shotguns. That, at the very least, is the situation at the front. I didn’t see any command vehicle or tactical teams, it actually looks like a bit of a mess out there, very little organization.” Poh and Piglet look over and shrug at each other, possibly surprised by the details of the report, but you learn to notice those things when you are out there in the world. “We are officially under siege.” I add.

The 9 characters you are going to want to write, but shouldn’t

Since people have been telling stories, they have been using certain tricks to get their listeners/readers to grasp what is happening and the essential message of the story. One such trick is the use of certain character kinds.

We’ve all read/watched these characters. Those characters whom we feel we know by getting one little fact about them. I don’t even necessarily mean the famous stock characters of fairy tales or folk stories. Some kinds of character have been so often used that they pretty much played themselves out.

  1. The half-asses tragic hero: They often say that no matter what will be written, Shakespeare did it better. Well, that might just be the case here. There are countless examples of so called tragic heroes who are supposed to incite sympathy with their tragic flaws, but just end up being ridiculous and trying too hard to be liked despite their rotten attitude. I dare you to compare one moody vampire to Hamlet and not laugh at how far apart they are.
  2. The girl no one notice, but is just so darn lovely: Another often used character type, so often used, that actual lovely girls whom no one notices have become rather annoying in real life for being who they really are. This kind of character is often a major character in YA novels, for understandable reasons, but an author can do a little more and put some meat on those fictional bones and give her some personality beside being… lovely.
  3. The architect: No, I am not talking about a person who designs buildings. Everyone, by now, knows the movie cliche created by the Wachowski brothers. It doesn’t even have to be as bad as a person sitting in a chair and telling your readers everything you could find a better way to explain by showing, it’s enough that you push an “exposition” spewing character into your book to cheapen the reading experience. Readers want to find things out slowly, they want to see how an imaginative writer would tackle the challenge of explaining complex things (plot related or otherwise), and having some character come at the right time and say the right thing just ruins that.
  4. A token character: I’m going to make this clear and simple: If the sole purpose of the character is to be black/Asian/homosexual/transsexual/Muslim/etc. for your story to seem more inclusive, than don’t bother. It isn’t respectful, it’s cheapening. Don’t. If you want to show your respect towards any group, don’t make their difference an issue. Having one character around that is supposed to represent an entire segment of the population is reductionist and insulting. I am not by any means saying don’t have a character that is black/Asian/Hispanic/homosexual/transsexual/Muslim/etc. there just to be there. Give them a personality, make them an integral part of the story.
  5. Your friends and loved ones: We are, as writers, obviously inspired by the things that happen to us and the world around us, which includes the people close to us. It may sound like a great thing to do for someone, to immortalize them in a book/short story, but that could cause a few problems. It might distract you from your story as a whole. You’d work so hard to make a nice, wonderful, as true to life as possible representation of your friend/significant other/mother/father/sibling/etc. an that might cause you to neglect the intrinsic realism of the world you created. A further problem might arise from them being displeased by your representation of them. On the other hand, we are all human and might do something like this, I admit I did in my book, but if you do go down this path, try to keep things vague. Capture that friend or loved one with their abstract traits rather putting a literary simulacrum of them in your writing. That will help you maintain a certain detachment.
  6. A cross between Sauron and Bill Lumbergh: Every story needs a villain, and we often want to make sure that our villain is perceived as a villain, which would encourage our readers to root for our hero. Often, writers tend to create forms of ultimate evil as their villains, all in their respective fields; whether it’s the ultimate fantasy villain in Sauron (or his boss Melkor) down to the everyday villain in Bill Lumbergh and everything in between. (Un)Fortunately, people are beyond the concept of ultimate evil. Readers today want to know what makes evil tick. Is there true evil? What makes evil evil? Can evil be redeemed? Is evil born or made? Is evil a good bowler? Readers want to know the answers to these questions. Books and films from the last thirty years have given us increasingly complex villains that are sometimes more likable than the heroes, which is in itself an important point.
  7. Damsels in distress: I’m just going to put it out there, those stopped being relevant in the 1950’s. Women today, besides being a huge readership, know that they are capable of anything. The image of a lady who needs a big, strong man to come and rescue her is a thing of the past. It worked fine in a time when women were subjected to social regulations that deprived them of agency, but today, that is no longer relevant. Even most men would find this image of women dated and dull. There’s only so many times you can save a girl before you just decide to teach her self-defense.
  8. Mr. Randy “Macho Man” Savage: The polar opposite of point 7, the macho man is the epitome of manhood. He is Ron Swanson wrapped in Hulk Hogan and dipped in Chuck Norris. He has hair everywhere. He wrestles bears. He shaves with a cleaver and hunts deer with a flamethrower. He is utterly ridiculous and quite sad. He is a manifestation of someone’s sad nostalgia for a time when Arnold Schwarzenegger spewed out oneliners and flexed pretty much everything for the camera. This outdated vision of masculinity is no longer relevant and should only be integrated into a story as a caricature or a part of a satire. Even if you are trying to write about some hero super-soldier or a gruff gunslinger in the old west, or a centurion battling the barbaric hoards, show him to be a human being rather than some male fantasy of an unattainable masculinity, it would make him much more likable.

I can’t (obviously) force you to implement my advice, but I ask you to think about it. It would enhance the immersion in your story, and thus its quality.

The similarity between losing weight and writing a great novel

I suppose the first thing that comes to mind by the purposed comparison in the title is “nothing”, and on the surface, that is correct. But look deeper, and you will find a few things in common between the two:

First of all, I am trying to do both. No, just kidding. While that is true, that is not really the first point I will be making. My emphasis here is on the word trying. Both of them are long term goals that are hard to accomplish, and, for me, it is sometimes astounding to see how something that hinders progress in one, can hinder it for the other, or vice versa.

Both topic have a plethora of self-help books and little guidelines and even fads. Every now and then some celebrity will come along and write a book about his/her favorite pasta dishes, or some writer or another will believe he/she is revolutionizing the way books are written with his/her secret tips of only writing naked under the full moon or some insane thing or another.

Both things require a lot of motivation to even get started, and just because you did well last week staying away from ice cream does not mean that this week is going to be as good; every day is a new struggle. Even when the larger goal of losing 15 kg (about 33 lbs) can be broken down into smaller weekly goals, there is no guarantee that the every day efforts are going to be up to par. The same goes for writing. Writing your 600 words a day, or weekly plot milestones are very easy to miss if you get distracted, busy, or just feel tapped out.

I know myself that finding excuses is easy, why I deserve to eat that thing, why it’s okay not to exercise today, why my book can wait to tomorrow. Just like with a lot of things, but more so for weight loss and writing than anything, the word “later” is a death-sentence to success.

You can pick up any of the thousands of those self-help books about writing with very well thought through tips on how to get on your backside and write, which often work for about a week before you are back to binge watching whatever’s new on Netflix instead. The same also applies to weight loss. A week of healthy broccoli and fruit smoothies, and then another week of chili chicken wings dipped in something that would make your doctor cry.

But do not worry, there is a solution. Read a self-help book, by all means, but be ready to make the necessary adjustments to whatever advice you got there so it would fit your life and your personality! At the end of the day, everyone needs to find what works for them and where temptation lies that could get in the way of success. As I mentioned in previous posts, I try to make an evening, or even a whole day, out of writing, making some nice snacks, getting a bottle of wine (or several bottles of beer) and really let things flow. I also like to read quotes by my favorite authors, or maybe even just excerpts from my favorite books for inspiration. Another little trick of mine is to find music that, in some way, is relevant to what I am writing, either in the lyrics or the style.

 

My connection between Van Gogh and Hemingway: Images of the (self) tormented artist

Me and my girlfriend have a term we often use, “Hemingwaying”. The term basically means writing while drinking a lot of alcohol. This is, as can be expected, taken from Ernest Hemingway’s credo. I do feel that I get better ideas with those irritating inhibitions at bay. Unfortunately, I suffer from a condition of which I reported when I started this blog, which causes me a great deal of pain and discomfort in the chest and abdomen when I drink alcohol or eat fried food (which often follow alcohol), and yet, I persist in doing it, because I believe it helps me write.

I am not an idiot, I know it is unhealthy and obviously not in my best interest to inflict pain on myself for the sake of writing. So why do I torment myself (or why am I so melodramatic so as to use the word torment to describe what I am doing)? The answer came to me in a rather strange fashion:

I am a HUGE fan of the long-running British sci-fi show Dr. Who (don’t worry, this isn’t a rant about the BBC having cast Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor, I’m actually very excited to see how she does). One episode in the 5th season shows the Doctor and his companion Amy Pond (my favorite companion ever, along with Rory, of course) meeting tormented artist Vincent Van Gogh. The episode show Vincent as a depressed drinker, slightly mad, and having the self-esteem of the average amoeba. I found myself taken with him immediately. His depression and fits of melancholy, his drinking, his feeling of being RIGHTFULLY unappreciated as an artist (may I also at this point congratulate Tony Curran on his outstanding performance as Vincent Van Gogh). And that got me thinking, why do I automatically like him and identify with him?

There have been many who said that true art is born of pain, and indeed some of the greatest artists of all times suffered greatly during their lives, and this, of course, includes writers. This has made a sort of cultural image of artists needing to go through a sort of “rite of passage” of poverty, dejection, alcoholism, loneliness and so on. And we, as artists ourselves, might feel “incomplete” if our journey into writing lacked any of those (not to mention all of them together like the tragic life of Mr. Van Gogh).

I then understood that that is why I Hemingway (as a verb) and drink as I write, only to inevitably feel intense pain later. I create pain for myself to complete this romanticized image of how I believe I should be as an artist, and that makes it ridiculous, unhealthy, and rather counterproductive.

There is nothing wrong with having an image of how we think things should be, in fact, it is natural and everyone has it for something (multiple things, actually, the most common ones are ideas of masculinity or femininity), but we need to be aware that that is all they are. I don’t need to be in pain to write, I don’t need to know how to fix stuff to be a man, I don’t really need to wear glasses to be smart (I need them to see, not be smart). These are just social constructs that have become embedded in our common consciousness and while they could be fun to watch or read about, they don’t have to hold power in the real world!

Putting yourself on A map: Navigating genre

Genre is a scary word for writers, especially those with no background in literary studies. Most writers aspire to do something unique and new, sometimes out of ignorance of someone already have done what they have in mind. It is a frightening thought for an artist to be categorized, closed in a tiny box and analyzed like they were a rock in a geology lab. But just like everyone else, every writer has a favorite genre, fantasy, science-fiction, crime, romance, YA… and when setting out to write, and one cannot avoid but bring one’s influences into one’s work.

The problem starts with surrendering to genre conventions. By reading a lot of fantasy books, you develop a feel for what is expected of you, and what the readership likes to see in their fantastical reading material. After having consumed half a shelf of crime novels, you might as well be a detective with your knowledge of procedural police-work. But is that enough?

Despite what the movie industry seems to think, today’s public is clever, and they expect clever entertainment (more about my frustration with modern-day movie writing can be understood by watching HISHE or Honest Trailers on YouTube… they get it so right… or Cinemasins). How can a writer give his or her readers the cutting edge novel they (unknowingly) want if they restrict themselves to the same things that everyone has done in the past?

Since the 60’s, it’s become incredibly popular to break genre restrictions. For the most part, this so called movement has been dubbed Postmodernism (love me some postmodernism, did my bachelor thesis on it, trying to prove Ozzy Osbourne’s lyrics are postmodern), which just goes to show you that even by trying to break any conventional means of categorization, writers will eventually find themselves categorized as something. This may not have brought down the shackles of antiquated views on literature, but it did show people that genres are nothing more than guidelines. Not even that, in fact. Genres are not there for the writers, they are there for scholars, readers and marketing experts.

A reader needs genre to more or less know what to expect from a book, which will (or will not) encourage them to buy it, a scholar needs genre because without talking about literature and sounding clever about it, they’re out of a job and marketing people need genre to better find an audience for whatever book it is they are selling. We as writers can use genre to help us orient ourselves in what we want to do, but we are not bound to repeat the same thing everyone has done to date.

Don’t be afraid to experiment, mix things together, borrow elements from different genres, you’d be surprised how well things can blend together. Just as examples, I want to mention two blends of genres that work so well that I think they can be great inspiration to anyone who want to experiment a little.

Science-fiction meets western; Firefly. I thought I’d start with the exception here, i.e. something that isn’t a book. If you don’t know the show, I recommend you binge watch it right now, that’s right, stop reading and watch it. It’s a perfect blend of the best element of a desperado-type western in a science-fiction setting full of possibilities and adventure. The protagonists of the show are directly taken from your run-of-the-mill gang of misfit outlaws (former military) in the old west, but instead of a pack of horses, they have a spaceship. They even have a “city-slicker” who joins them and turns out to be useful despite his lack of experience as an outlaw. Putting this group of lovable misfits in space did open endless possibilities for the show, which was, unfortunately, cancelled before its time.

Historical (meta)fiction meets crime; The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. Probably the most successful of Jonasson’s novels, the book combines a story of crime, murders, impossible investigations, tough motorcycle gangs, and a romp through history through the protagonist’s memories. Besides being a great satire and clever commentary on the nature of political conflicts, the story is endlessly hilarious. The ridiculousness of the protagonist’s journey through history continues in present day Sweden as he runs of with a drug dealing motorcycle gang’s millions.

Of course you can say that everything mixes genre to some extent, which is sort of true. The trick is in doing to consciously and for a point. Setting a love story in the 1800s does make it both a romance and a historical novel, but does it have to be? Are you truly using the conventions of both genres to say something unique? Or are you using the fact that people love love stories and are fascinated with the 1800s?

Genres are there, as constructs, for our benefit. We can pick and mix, build something new out of the what we know to present our stories, our views. A genre gives you a certain set of rules of what is expected of you, but you are free to “borrow” a different, new rule to exceed expectations and do something truly unique.

Writing Otherness

I am very sure that somewhere out there, there’s a dissertation by a very bright PhD student in post-colonial literature with exactly that title. But I am not here to make all white, christian men feel bad about what people with their skin color might have done in the past (or are sadly still doing). No, I am here because I want to discuss the challenges of writing outside our own experience.

Of course we almost always write outside our own experience, I doubt Stephen King was ever haunted by anything, or that Rowling attended a school with such disregard for its pupils’ safety. But I am talking about the more immediate lack of experience in the way our chosen characters might see and experience the world. Stephen King’s characters, though faced with extraordinary circumstances, are very regular people who have a world view much like our own (except in the Dark Tower series). I am talking, for instance in my case, about a man trying to write outside his gender.

I am a straight man. I have always been, and will probably always be a straight man. That is how I experience the world. I take things like being attracted to women for granted. Right now, I am writing a novel about a bisexual man and a homosexual man. Both of those things are outside my way of experiencing the world. Luckily for me, they are still men, which means I do have something to rely on when writing these characters, but what about women? OR writing in a different race? Or religion?

All those factors have a powerful impact on how people experience the world, e.g. a christian person never even needs to consider what is on their plate unless they suffer from some kind of allergy, while Jews and Muslims (if they so choose) adhere to a religious code concerning their food (pork, alcohol, shellfish, dairy and meat….). This, even for those Jewish or Muslim persons who choose not to adhere to those rules and eat a bacon pizza on Yom Kippur, effects their experience (feelings of guilt, uncomfortable conversations with religious relatives, etc.) A woman experiences the world differently from men (and I’m not just talking about the whole 10.4% less pay), they emphasis on clothing and appearance is much more dominant among women than with men. The “need” to get up even earlier than men in order to have time to put on makeup, etc. are all parts of the female experience. How can I, as a man who doesn’t care what he looks like as long as he’s not morbidly obese, have any insight into how women experience the world?

Unlike some of my other posts, I am not giving any advice here, I just had a thought and wanted to share it. I find it a conundrum and a challenge to write outside my own experience. The only advice I could possibly give is to be respectful. Try to see when what you’re writing comes from some preconceived notion you might have and maybe as someone from that group you are writing about if that makes sense to them.

With writing about historical periods, another challenge I am currently facing, one can do research, read a lot about the period, include first-hand accounts of things, to get a better understanding on how people thought, but to truly take yourself out of your own shell and try to think not like a man in the middle ages, but as a woman, or a child, or as an African slave in the early days of America, that is a challenge.

 

Intertextuality and showing off

I would like to start off this little post by a very simple explanation about the nature of intertextulaity:

The story goes as follows, a young prince is beset by deep melancholy and the overwhelming suspicion that his father, the former king, died of not-so-natural reasons, and that his uncle, the current king, has risen to the throne by means of deception, and murder! The young prince, instead of confronting his uncle, runs off somewhere and hides, only to face his uncle later, possibly after some encouragement from a few friends, pirates, and maybe a ghost.

Now, I am sure this story sounds familiar to a lot of you. You might even be able to attach a name to our poor prince. For some of you, he might be Hamlet, prince of Denmark, for others, he might be Simba of Pride Rock, for some of you, he might even be called Tomjon (AKA King Verence II of Lancre)…

All of you would be right of course, our prince is, at the same time, all of those, and more, characters at the same time. A lot of writers, directors, animator, playwrights, and whatever have taken up this time tested story and made it their own (there are probably more versions of Hamlet out there than I would care to count), but they all rely on one thing to get them started: Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

If you exclude simple enactments of the play by its name, i.e. Hamlet performed as Hamlet, you are still left with hundreds of books, plays and movies making references to that wonderful Shakespearean play. This implied reference is what is known as intertextuality. One story taking about another story in order to make a new point (if you’re really interested in knowing more, there are oodles and oodles of information and articles about this online and in every decent library, but most of all, read Julia Kristeva’s discussion on it if you want to get the basics(.

In our postmodern world, everyone uses intertextuality to some degree. Everyone, even if only to make some homage to whatever writer/story inspired you to write your piece, eeveryone makes some sort of reference to another story, another text. It can sometimes serve as a shortcut to “plant” certain ideas in the reader’s mind, or for quick characterization, or it could serve to make a point (read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, trust me, you won’t regret it), point it, we all do it. But how much is too much?

One major point of criticism of literature is that it could be very elitist. People feel intimidated by constant references to texts they don’t know, and which are considered “the foundation of civilized society”. A book that constantly references the Iliad and the bible might be considered “high literature”, but I’m rather sure I would let it gather dust on the shelf and keep reading Pratchett and Stephen King.

I suppose that as a writer, I want to be taken seriously, so I want to make sure my readers know the that I read the “big, important books”, but how do I stay clear from the point where I just come off as a trying to show off how well read I am?

These are questions many young writers ask themselves, as they want to have their proverbial cake and eat it too (and also a real cake, because… cake!) I would like to illustrate some “best practices” by giving an example of a writer who, I think, found that perfect balance, Terry Pratchett:

  • First and foremost, good writing speaks for itself! You don’t need references to all those pivotal texts of western civilization if you want to be taken seriously, just write a good book! Building an interesting, insightful, and clever narrative by using clear, engaging language is what going to keep people reading your book, not a reference to some Greek poet every three or four pages.
  • Keep references relevant! You’ve read that 600 page novel from the 19th century and want to show off? Well, go tell your friends about it. Don’t bother referencing it if it doesn’t bring anything to your novel/story other than the warm feeling of future scholars knowing you’ve read Dickens. Take the Pratchett’s novel, Soul Music, for example. It makes references to rock bands, musicians, famous concerts, and even the Blues Brothers, but it’s all relevant to the plot and the point Pratchett is making about the nature of music and its industry.
  • Be subtle! Having all of your characters constantly talk about Shakespeare or the bible might be too forceful. Take the novel Wyrd Sisters, it quite obviously makes references to Hamlet (which is central to the plot as the whole book takes on the topic of theater, in its most Elizabethan sense) but there are far more subtle references to at least 30 other plays and poem from the Elizabethan period which are there to find, but only if you know what to look for.
  • Referencing for the sake of referencing is no referencing at all! (Try saying that three times fast!) Very similarly to what I said about relevance, don’t reference another text without a point. It isn’t enough that the second text is relevant for yours (they’re both about war) but it needs to bring something tot he plate, or better yet, you could shed new light on the old text! I suppose you could take ALL of Pratchett’s repertoire as an example, he is a master of taking a topic, referencing some central cultural text on the topic, and putting it on its head. My favorite example here would be the novel Maskerade, which mocks and salutes the book The Phantom of the Opera at the same time. By making Christine Daae an airhead who literally can’t sing, and the ghost a mentally challenged young man, he sheds new light into the understanding of the world of high arts.
  • Moderation is key! Just because you know 30 books about the topic you’re writing on, doesn’t mean you need to mention all of them. pick one or two central texts, preferably ones your comments on them will have some cultural significance, and go with it.
  • Be authentic! Out of all those points I made, a certain level of authenticity emerges. A forceful intertextuality comes off as worse than showing off, it come off as… forced. It becomes insincere, chasing readers away.