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Experiments in High Impact Narrative - Jerzy, Ralph, Italo, and Graves

Once more, the classics speak to us.

What is one of the primary reasons novels get rejected? The narrative is too passive. It  ultimately falls flat, quiet and dull. Details are insufficient, metaphors lacking, lack of energy obvious, circumstances predictable (see also Narrative Enhancement via Nabokov). So what to do? At WE we believe in learning from great authors whose shoulders we stand on. Therefore, we've developed a means of addressing this issue. We wish you to seek inspiration from the prose extractions below and utilize them for purposes of defeating passivity via emulation. In other words, you will intentionally choose and compose fictional subject matter for your novel that entertains, frightens, or enthralls the reader. And how? By creating a circumstance, place, thing, or event that is unique and curious by virtue of its very nature.

Let's engage in a few writing "prompts." You must prod the imagination and peel the onion. By the way, in the context of your own novel, your task will be much easier if you've chosen an overall setting that lends itself to vibrancy and engagement in the first place. 

From Robert Grave's "Claudius the God"

Graves was a genius at utilizing set and circumstantial details to create verisimilitude in this novel of Romans battling ancient Britons. Note this unusual event and the associated imagery. Also, note the profound and engaging use of "delayed cognition" technique. Read the paragraph carefully. The author intentionally postpones the full explanation of the primary phenomenon we encounter in this scene, thereby creating suspense in the narrative. The reader can't wait for the truth.
    "A British outpost was stationed in the pine copse at the farther end, and as the moon rose these watchful men saw a sight and heard a sound which filled their hearts with the utmost dismay. (Graves doesn't come right out with what this is, but rather introduces a sight and sound "which filled their hearts with dismay." As the reader completes this sentence, a dramatic question, an enigma is created.) A great bird with a long shining bill, a huge grey body and legs fifteen feet long suddenly rose through the mist a javelin's throw away and came stalking towards them, stopping every now and then to boom hoarsely, flap his wings, preen his feathers with his dreadful bill and boom again. The Heron King! They crouched in their bivouacs, terrified, hoping that this apparition would disappear, but it came slowly on and on.

    At last it seemed to notice their camp-fire. It jerked its head angrily and hurried towards them, with outspread wings, booming louder and louder. They sprang up and ran for their lives. The Heron King pursued them through the copse with a fearful chuckling laughter, then turned and slowly promenaded along the edge of the marsh, booming dully at intervals... (Not until the next sentence does the reader learn the true nature of the Heron King.) The Heron King was a French soldier from the great marshes which lie to the west of Marseille, where the shepherds are accustomed to walk on long stilts as a means of striding across soft patches too wide to jump. Posides had rigged this man up in a wicker-work basket... head and bill improvised of stuff-covered lathes and fastened to his head. He knew the habits of herons and imitated the walk with his stilts...
    "
 Graves turns reality on its head. First the monster, then the exposition. Following on the Graves example above, consider using your imagination to invent a rather fantastical circumstance (in the context of your own novel) with the delayed cognition technique. In other words, portray a phenomenon with a surprise true identity, and depict this circumstance through the viewpoint of a character who is surprised or shocked by it, then use your narrator to explain the true nature as Graves did above.


From Jerzy Kosinski's "The Painted Bird":

    "From behind the cemetery appeared a mob of village women with rakes and shovels. It was led by several younger women who shouted and waved their hands …The women held Ludmila down flat against the grass. They sat on her hands and legs and began beating her with the rakes, ripping her skin with their fingernails, tearing out her hair, spitting into her face. Lekh tried to push through, but they barred his way. He tried to fight, but they knocked him down and hit him brutally. He ceased to struggle and several women turned him over on his back and straddled him. Then the women killed Ludmila‘s dog with vicious shovel blows."
Using the example above, write a short vignette that describes a group of human beings engaged in a task both energetic and filled with conflict. Use characters from your own novel. Invent as necessary. As we've said, and will say again, imagination is your best friend. Be aggressive with it.
    "Here and there I saw ax cuts on tree trunks. I remembered that Olga had told me that such cuts were made by peasants trying to cast evil spells on their enemies. Striking the juicy flesh of the tree with an ax, one had to utter the name of a hated person and visualize his face. The cut would then bring disease and death to the enemy. There were many such scars on the trees around me. People here must have had many enemies, and they were quite busy in their efforts to bring them disaster."
Write a second short vignette describing a single visual phenomena of sufficient complexity that will surprise the reader with its unusual nature, and which also makes a statement on the human condition. Be original! This should be something unusual and taken from your novel. If you don't have it, improvise.

From Ralph Ellison's "The Invisible Man":

    "On Eighth Avenue, the market carts were parked hub to hub along the curb, improvised canopies shading the withering fruits and vegetables. I could smell the stench of decaying cabbage. A watermelon huckster stood in the shade beside his truck, holding up a long slice of orange-meated melon, crying his wares with hoarse appeals to nostalgia, memories of childhood, green shade and summer coolness … Stale and wilted flowers, rejected downtown, blazed feverishly on a cart, like glamorous rags festering beneath a futile spray from a punctured fruit juice can. The crowd were boiling figures seen through steaming glass from inside a washing machine …"

From Italo Calvino's "Under The Jaguar Sun"

    "Waiting for evening to fall, we sat in one of the cafes under the arcades of the zocalo, the regular little square that is the heart of every old city of the colony -- green, with short, carefully pruned trees called almendros, though they bear no resemblance to almond trees. The tiny paper flags and the banners that greeted the official candidate did their best to convey a festive air to the zocalo. The proper Oaxaca families strolled under the arcades. American hippies waited for the old woman who supplied them with mescaline. Ragged vendors unfurled colored fabrics on the ground. From another square nearby came the echo of the loudspeakers of a sparsely attended rally of the opposition. Crouched on the ground, heavy women were frying tortillas and greens."
With inspiration from both Ralph Ellison and Italo Calvino, imagine you are a camera sweeping across a big set with many different items included. Describe a place and note colors, movement, sounds and smells. Include bits of things, details of the set, types of people and their activities. Be vibrant with your description. Find something unique about the place you describe, and if you can't do that, find or invent a place wherein a unique or anomalous thing exists.

Big doses of imagination. How many times do we need say it? Living there, you'll be free, if you truly wish to be.

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