The Pinball Plot

Let’s play a game! A what-if guessing game. What if all your dreams came true in the New Year? What if, instead, your worst nightmares actually happened? What is something you’d never imagine befalling you and what if that very thing occurred?

meditation

“Meditation” by Kah Wai Sin.

I know. I know. The zen-ists find it terribly unfashionable to play such games. Disconnects you from the lush and fertile present moment — that exhilarating continuum of now-right-now. Fine. I exempt the zen-ists, but not the writers, from playing.

Writers must often play at these guessing games in order to construct the authentic arc of a character’s life through story. They must molecularlize the tissues that bridge plot to person, event to emotion. They must knit time with insight, experience with catharsis.

The methods a writer might enlist to accomplish this feat are as limitless as they are unique to the user. Some writers employ complex character maps which catalog the myriad details and events of a character’s life before or “outside” the story. Favorite colors, worst fears, most memorables, etc. From these webs, the writers hope to spider out the juiciest themes which will feed the growing story events. Other writers immerse themselves in a character’s hobbies, jobs, and distractions. Ideally, the various sounds, textures, and flavors of these activities will season the metaphors that, in turn, build the broth of story. After all, as George Eliot notes, “we all of us […] get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act […] on the strength of them.”*

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“Tadpoles” by Mark Robinson.

And still other writers play at simple what-if guessing games. What if this or that happens? What if the character chooses this, but not that? Engage with the what-ifs and the possibilities begin to tadpole in the pond of your imagination. A potentially overwhelming situation for the writer eager to nail down a sturdy plot, but an invigorating fertilizer for the imagination hoping to find the unexpected yet inevitable mysteries!

If we were to back into the past and ask me to guess what if my life unfolded exactly as I envisioned it just then, I would have said (with rambunctious certainty) that I would wind up the wife and devoted partner of my most treasured and beloved best friend. I could see nothing else. I could not imagine any other outcomes. Or maybe, I was too afraid to play with what-ifs.

What if that was not the outcome? What if, instead, tragedy pounced on me and spent the next year and half gnashing the bones of my broken heart between its sharp teeth? What if the most unthinkable thing I could not imagine actually happened?

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“Extra Ball” by Shawn Clover.

Only in looking back can I trace the ricochet rebound boomerang skip wiggle weave jounce journey of my life. Not just recently, but going all the way back. Only while looking back can I see the restrictions fear placed on my imagination.

Conjuring pinball scenarios lends much to a person’s resilience, if not to a writer’s ability to plot surprising and fulfilling stories. Remember that your characters’ lives are not javelins. Dare to be erratic in your outlining. Dare to imagine the unimaginable.

In the midst of my bounce and bang off the rubber band bumpers — reams of unpublished writing, unanswered queries, blanket rejections, and that unexpected heartache as deep as the Grand Canyon — the most unimaginable thing gradually happened: I got published…in my chosen field of children’s writing, no less! And then, I got published again. Aaaand again. By the close of 2016, I will have produced a children’s magazine article, a short story, two science picture books, two middle grade civics/history books, and three mixed discipline books for young readers!

So, you tell me, 2017: what if? What if.

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“Striking a Balance,” in Cobblestone. Ed. Meg Chorlian. May/June 2016.

muse-magazine-february-2016

“Body of Knowledge” in Muse. Ed. Johanna Arnone. February 2016.

Freedom of Speech. Our Basic Freedoms Series. New York: Gareth Stevens, 2017 (forthcoming).

Freedom to Petition. Our Basic Freedoms Series. New York: Gareth Stevens, 2017 (forthcoming).

 The Space Race. Greatest Races Series. New York: Rosen Publishing, 2017 (forthcoming).

The Nuclear Arms Race. Greatest Races Series. New York: Rosen Publishing, 2017 (forthcoming).

Crazy Road Races. Greatest Races Series. New York: Rosen Publishing, 2017 (forthcoming).

 

 

*p 85. Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 1872. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.

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Wild by Cheryl Strayed (with a look at structure)

wild-cheryl-strayedStrayed, Cheryl. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. New York: Vintage Books, 2013. Print.

Genre: memoir (specifically, one of those young-woman-in-crisis-goes-a’-traveling memoirs)

Summary: This book is Eat, Pray, Love meets A Walk in the Woods.

Despite a mostly impoverished, sometimes rough childhood, Cheryl grew up generally loved by everyone but herself. Soon after her mother dies suddenly from aggressive cancer, Cheryl’s life falls apart. She grows estranged from her siblings and stepfather, she cheats repeatedly on her beloved husband, and she slides into a corrosive affair with drugs. A chance purchase in a hardware store leads her to the Pacific Crest Trail, which she decides to hike from summer to fall. Never mind she has zero experience hiking or backpacking. Never mind that her pack weighs more than several NFL linebackers. Never mind that her boots are too small. Never mind she has no knowledge of wilderness survival — hell, she can barely survive everyday life. Cheryl becomes obsessed with the trail and her conviction that it will lead her back to the pure soul she used to be.

Critique: Readers who enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s riveting spiritual-emotional rise from a suicidal life-crisis into a Zen Master Cinderella will derive similar inspiration from Strayed’s memoir. And what Strayed lacks in Bill Bryson’s rib-tickling wit, she makes up for in devil-may-care hubris for the potential dangers of a hike that challenges even the most poised outdoorsmen. And unlike Gilbert or Bryson, the final third of Strayed’s memoir deserves oodles of praise simply because it holds true to its promise. That is, she sticks to the appointed finish line.

Readers will find Strayed’s writing at its best when delving into the grimiest, dirtiest, most loathsome moments of a life gone wrong. She accurately maps out the seemingly innocuous events that contribute to disastrous decisions, but her tender perspective is likely to invoke empathy from the most judgmental cynics.

Writers and writing students will find much to harvest from the cunning structure of the memoir, which follows the “lowercase e” format. Rather than start at some chronological beginning and work a linear path forward, Strayed opens her narrative roughly near the middle, when a minor freak accident — a prank played by the gods — causes her to lose her hiking boots in the middle of nowhere. Strayed ushers the reader a tad forward, giving the overall context of her situation (the fact that she has set out to hike hundreds of miles of high mountain terrain alone, as well as her desired destination) before wrapping backwards into the past, just like the little e.

Strayed is certainly not unique among memoir and travel writers when it comes to deploying the little e thanks, in large part, to all the how-to-nonfiction craft books pointing at John McPhee’s famous little e essay, “Travels in Georgia.” Where Strayed stands out is in her ability to construct the swelling arc of that little e. Like the ancient winds that carved out Moab’s stone bone bridges, Strayed crafts a breathtaking climax whose singular wonderment hinges not on the escalation, but on the inevitable collapse, the inescapable catastrophe.

By the time readers sense the narrative bending back around to the “all is lost” beat of the beginning, they are all but foaming for the descent into disaster. They’re hankering for calamity is practically manic. This is not to say readers are heartless and cruel — far from it. Readers clamor for the this down-dog roller coaster moment because the arc of the little e has provided sufficient evidence to suggest the hapless narrator might just survive the very worst of hiking nightmares. They cannot wait to see the worst bring out the best.

In short, the structure forms an architectural framework for hope.

landscapearchpano

When the Sharks Gather

When the Sharks Gather: How Rituals Can Make Us Better Writers

Before I write, there’s this little thing that I do. Call it a ritual. I do it the same way every time. And according to neuroscience research, my little ritual is actually priming my brain to deliver a focused and confident writing session.

Here’s how it goes…

Everyday at 5:30 a.m., I zombie out of bed. I shuffle through the dark to the kitchen and switch on the electric teapot. I fill the pour-over with coffee and stack it atop my blue pot-bellied mug. As the water heats to life, I head to the living room to turn on the twinkle lights strung up since the holidays. Laptop boots. Notebooks and pens assemble. Coffee trickles into cup.

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“Chocolate” by John Loo. Image CC.

Lastly, I break off a nub of chocolate from the stash in my goody-drawer. I hold this nub lovingly and whisper to it a little prayer of sorts. Seems appropriate. Chocolate is, after all, theobroma, food of the gods. Muse munchums. To this heavenly food I give my thanks for its nourishment and my request to please nourish me now during my creative hijinx. I savor that nub of chocolate. Then I slide into my reclining wingback chair and set off on a two-hour writing jollification!

My writing sessions are intensely focused, fun, and productive.

But is that all really thanks to a superstitious pattern of actions? Francesca Gino and Michael Norton would answer yes. In a way-too short co-authored article in the Scientific American, the researchers explain that ritual work, whether or not they are rational or irrational. And they work even if you don’t believe in the efficacy of rituals.

In the Lab

“Crossed Fingers” by Evan-Amos. Image CC.

Gino and Norton conducted experiments where participants were given a task, but half of them first had to carry out a small, superstitious acts or rituals like crossing their fingers or touching a lucky talisman. The half that engaged in the ritual performed better overall on the task. They gave invested more effort, demonstrated enhanced confidence, and did better on future tasks that did not require a ritual. (Even participants who said before the experiment that they did not believe in rituals or superstitions performed better when they executed a ritualistic or superstitious behavior!)

And the results seem to be consistent around the world and across cultures. Hardly a surprise, considering how many rituals we see globally. Rituals seem to decorate the entire tapestry of human history. In the 1940s, anthropologists observed a ritualistic pattern in an indigenous tribal community in the South Pacific.Whenever the fisherman set out to fish in the calm lagoon, they just hopped into the water and fished. But whenever they set out to fish in the shark infested sea, they always performed a ritual to seek protection from the gods.

Whenever uncertainty or risk run high, we humans need a ritual.

The Royals celebrate after winning the 2015 #WorldSeries.

Royals celebrate their epic 2015 victory! From Arturo Pardavila III. Image CC.

Sports psychologists have seen and studied the ritual phenomenon for a long time. Michael Jordan always wore his North Carolina shorts under his Bulls uniform. Boston Red Sox third basemen Wade Boggs wrote the Hebrew word “chai” (living) in the dirt before each at bat. The entire Kansas City Royals team spritzed on some Victoria’s Secret perfume and listened to the same rap song before each game. Between every serve, Maria Sharipova does this seemingly anal five-count foot shuffle-shuffle-shuffle. The list goes on and on.

And did these athletes enjoy a better performance? Well, I’ll let you Wikipedia the results if you don’t already know.

Gray Matters
The real question is why? Why do rituals have this effect on us?

If you fMRI the brain while someone performs a ritual (praying, meditating, or some other ritualized action), what you will see is a deactivation of the parietal lobe, the area most associated with processing and sensory stimulus. Turning off your parietal lobe is like disconnecting from the world around you. Shutting off “reality.”

The next thing you’ll see is the frontal lobes fully activate. These lobes are involved in our ability to focus and concentrate.

Finally, you’ll also see the amygdala go into hyperdrive. This area of the brain is thought to be the center of our primal emotions: fear, joy, panic, relaxation. A hyperactive amygdala is not necessarily a condition you want to provoke in the body. See Norman Doidge’s new book, The Brain’s Way of Healing, for some pretty disturbing disorders (rife with panic attacks) linked to an inflamed amygdala. But in the case of rituals, the amygdala’s inflammation produces more joyful and relaxed emotions, leaving fear and panic in the backseat.

And with your brain operating in this manner, what you get is that intensely revved up flow state that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified in the brains of the world top athletes, artists, and business leaders. You know this state of mind if you’ve ever gotten so wrapped up in a task that the external world just peeled away and it was impossible to tell if a minute spanned an hour or an hour spanned a millisecond.

Ritual or Habitual?
But herein lies the rub: to get your brain into this altered state, you have to perform a ritual, and not just some rutted habit. On the surface, rituals and habits seem almost identical. They are both sequenced or patterned behaviors that recur in the same way. The difference between rituals and habits boils down to intent. You do a ritual in order to achieve a particular outcome: hit the ball out of the park, sink fifty three-pointers, ace every serve, win the World Series or write one helluva good novel!

If we look back on my morning ablutions, my trek around the house switching on appliances and making the coffee is a habit. I do it the same way because it turned out to be the most efficient system, not because I think it will make me a better writer. Breaking off the chocolate, whispering my little prayer, and savoring the chocolate? That is definitely a ritual because I certainly duplicate that pattern of actions with a desired outcome in mind. Besides being the food of gods, chocolate has also been shown to relax the brain and promote creativity. So it’s basically my vitamin-W (vitamin Write).

sharks-jambigenie

Jambi the Genie from Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

Yes, I know it’s Dumbo’s feather. I don’t technically need it. I already have the ability to go sit down for two hours and knock out a couple thousand words. But diving into a writing project is not that different from plunging into shark infested waters. And if doing a little ritual is going to help me maneuver with poise among a bloodthirsty flock of sharp-toothed torpedoes, well then…mekalekahi-mekahini-ho!

The best part about this research on rituals is that you can truly tailor-make your own ritual. So long as you do it with a desired outcome in mind, it does not matter what actions go into your ritual. Cross your heart. Light a candle. Whisper a chant. Turn in circles three times and bark like a dog. Anything goes!

So what is your ritual (or should I say writual)? What do you do when the sharks begin to circle?

For further reading:

How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation by Andrew Newberg

The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity by Norman Doidge

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

sharks

Get Lost: A Story for Writers Who Haven’t Found Their Way

When a girl goes camping all by herself, as I did this past weekend, she is bound to undergo at least one significant spiritual transformation, or discover at least one profound truth about her inner self.

I will share with you one of the profundities I discovered—maybe the greatest one: I do not own a keychain bottle opener.

Whenever I have gone camping in the past and wanted to open a beer, I grabbed my darling’s keys and k’chih! I drove three hours to Utah, picked my campsite, assembled my lunch, and pulled the beer out of the cooler before I realized I could not open it.

Woman with bottle

Image from beernexus.com.

Never fear! I did not let this minor packing snafu stop me from enjoying that beer! A beer bought specifically to celebrate my first time camping all alone.

Lunch consumed and beer guzzled, I set about to camp. I erected the tent. Chopped firewood. I even managed to attach the propane tank to the cooking stove without blowing anything up! I was so jazzed that I took off the next day for a hike!

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Image my own.

The trail I selected roved up and down through a couple wind- and water-carved canyons. The tops of the canyons were deserts, while their crevices frilled with miniature forests. Because this was a National Park (specifically Canyonlands), the trail was marked at intervals with stacked rock formations, or cairns. I roved, drunk on the sights of red sandstone cliffs topped with white limestone scallops. I was giddy from all my outdoorsy prowess, despite all the horrific scenarios I expected (and imagined in gory detail) would befall me. Punishment for attempting something so daunting all on my own. But there I was, creative problem-solver and fearless explorer, confidently striding through the rugged wilderness, negotiating a strenuous trail. Alone. Independent. Powerful. Unstoppable!

The brief winter afternoon was well spent by the time I about-faced on the trail and started the trek back to my car. I maneuvered the naturally terraced rock steps leading to the bottom of a canyon. I gave a quick glance to the positions of the cairns ahead, and then returned my focus to my feet. I was especially good at tripping in shoes—no doubt because most of my agility training happens barefoot in the Aikido dojo. My feet do not know how to keep me alive with shoes on.

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Image my own.

Eventually, I began to notice all the shattered bits of erosion littering every nook and cranny of the canyon. I was struck by how the cliffs looked so majestic from a distance, but up close were all destruction and crumble. These massive geological castles were actually has beens. Ruins.

That notion resonated deep. I could look so confident, so proficient to my friends, my family, even to strangers who stood at a distance. But if they got too close, they would no doubt see just how broken and crumbled I was. Controlling my small universe and all the people in it was how I had formerly kept everyone at an appropriate distance, away from all my debris. I wanted—needed—to keep it all hidden from view.

Not so for these mountains. Not so for all these crumbling cliffs and ridges. They displayed their messes, their sloped mounds of talus, like the creased and pleated skirts of a ball gown. And why not? What were those talus piles and those shards of rubble under my feet but the steady signs of progress. Change. Transformation.

What had those shards and granules been before they were part of mountains? Some might have been magma. Some might have been pyroclasts, or flying rocks. Some were undoubtedly beach sand, for that is what the Needles of Canyonlands are: ancient, compacted, eroding spires of a beach. And what were those sands before that? Maybe some hard candy the ocean sucked on gummed until it found what was truly sweetest at the core, and thus spat the sugary sands ashore. And now that they were rocks and granules, they would travel who knew where in the world, carried in water, wind, human pocket, or animal dander. No matter where they went, they would inevitably keep turning into something else.

How wonderful be in a constant state of flux. Slow, yes—but continual. Almost imperceptible, yes—but happening nonetheless.

“I am changing!” they shout. “Watch me, if you dare!”

No wonder the mountains and canyons put their metamorphosis on display. Change was remarkable.

I was so titillated in that moment that I almost shouted in chorus with the canyons, cliffs, and mountains: I, too, am changing! I am eroding and growing at the same time! I am thirty five and in therapy (for the first time) dealing with my codependency issues (also for the first time because I never realized I had a problem).

But here I was, a person addicted to other people—addicted to caretaking others while neglecting myself—spending time alone in the wilderness. Caring for myself. Keeping myself warm, fed, and hydrated. Creatively solving my own problems (who needs a bottle opener, anyway)! The realization that my abilities were numerous paired up with the notion that my imperfect body was a gorgeous container for my imperfect, yet beautiful, soul. This epiphany shackled my feet in place, and for a long time all I could do was stand at the bottom of a canyon next to pipsqueak stream, and point my teary face up to the sun.

When I was ready to resume my hike, I could not locate a single cairn in any direction. They were gone.

The instant you realize you are lost, a hot, heavy pressure blankets the back of your neck. You can no longer hear anything outside your own skin. The world sort of tilts. No, not tilts. It transposes in an instant, like a picture you’re editing into Photoshop. One-click flip! What was left becomes right and what was down becomes up.

The inner compass of my body whooshed around and I become a snow globe of directions.

Let’s see. I had been walking north because the sun was on my left. To the west. Right? West is left on a map? But had the sun really been on my left or had it been on my right? I couldn’t really remember. Now it was dead ahead. No matter. I knew that the trailhead where my car was parked was to the…north. No—east! It had to be east. Right? I mean left. I mean…shit!

I tried backtracking—or at least meandering in the direction I was pretty sure was backwards. No bushes, no cascading rock stairways looked at all familiar, memorable, or remarkable.

I fumed. How could I let this happen? How could I, at my age, get lost? And so quickly, too!

Written out, it seems as though I plunged headlong contemplating those shattered rocks for hours, but really, it was no more than a minute or two.

compassBut that was enough time. In fact, that’s all the time it takes to lose your way in your own life. You think you know where you’re headed. You think you see the way all set out and marked. You get cozy. You get distracted. And then the next thing you know, the cairns and waymarkers have vanished. You.are.lost.

Lost. Off track. Misplaced. Displaced. Off course. That summed up the entirety of 2015 for me. I thought I knew where my life was going. I thought I knew a few of the things coming next. Marriage. Honeymoon. Celebration. The holidays. A new year. A new me. The little cairns were all there. All plotted on my calendar, getting ever closer.

And then, I got cozy. I got distracted with a new job that paid little and fed lots to my addiction to others. I over-invested. I let my writing wither. I left my beloved partner to wither, too. And when I finally looked up, everything my life had been was gone. Everything I had had. Had enjoyed. Had expected. Had taken for granted. Had known. Had loved.

Talus. That was all I had left. How fitting that I was now blindly roving between walls of talus.

The thicket of bushes before me abruptly shook hard, all rustle and fuss. I jumped back, all defense and gasp. Three deer, all does, trotted out of that thicket and into a clearing where they could watch me with their glistening black marble eyes. Then, before I would whisper, “Hello,” they bounded away, light as packing peanuts on narrow hooves that thudded heavy has jackhammers. I felt their departure more than I heard it.

For a moment, I stood dumb. Then I giggled.

“Wow!” I confessed to the canyon’s wind-carved ear arches. And to think, I would not have seen those lovely animals had I not wandered off the trail. Had I not gotten lost…

cairnThe irony made me chuckle, but the notion swiftly evolved. What if I was never “off track”? What if my life—any life, for that matter—had but one track it could follow? No matter what forks and branches arose, no matter what choices were made, the way I was going was the way my life needed to go. I could relinquish any regrets for the roads I chose not to travel in the past. Those paths I did not pursue. What were they but ghosts? And I could release any frustration surrounding my current trajectory because to get cantankerous with my present position was to yearn for forks, branches, and options that had not yet come my way. The specters of future roads not yet built.

How much of my life had I spent pining for those ghosts and specters? How much had I been missing in my present reality—what gifts and splendors like those deer—when I yearned for where I was not and where I could not be?

And where else could I be but right here? Right now. And if I was always right here right now, then maybe I was always precisely where I needed to be. Always on track. Always changing. Eroding. Rebuilding. Transforming. Never lost.

I stared at the deer tracks embroidered in the ribbons of sand zippered with a slender stream. The tracks curved over the strange grid of hiking boot tread. Not the tread of my hiking boots, but someone else’s. Many someones! The boot prints traveled several crooked yards, then disappeared where the sand gave way to the rocky carpet of the canyon floor. Also precisely where a cairn sat sun tanning. Not far off was another. Another. And another.

The way.

Had it been there all along? Or had it only appeared when I was ready to see it?

I suspect the answer to either question is yes.

A Series of Fortunate Sounds: Voice

Recently, I had the distinct privilege of receiving a professional critique from a Ms. Fabulous Agent whose expertise and instincts make me salivate! So imagine my effervescence when she said I had a distinct, strong, and interesting Voice! “There is a noticeable personality…a ‘feel’ to this narrator that’s unique and engaging and interesting. …A truly unique narrative voice is always the best thing in the world to shop.”

Sound_Wave_by_vladstudio

This critique came like a surprise bouquet of flowers. I have Voice — that most ethereal and ephemeral of craft tools. The one that thousands of craft books, writing instructors, editors, agents, and other authors will tell you to acquire if you want to make it in the industry. Even the Fabulous Agent went on to say that too often she rejects pieces that lack Voice because they feel “flat,” “generic” or “derivative.”

But Voice is a tricky element to teach. Craft books, writing instructors, editors, agents, other authors tend to pinch their ears between their shoulders when asked to provide step-by-step instructions to develop Voice.

The students in my writing classes implore me: how do we create a unique Voice?

To answer them, I pinch my ears between my shoulders.

Then I try to write something really supportive in the margins: Say this in your own, distinct way — like no one else in the world? 

But I know that’s not good enough — especially if I have A Voice. So, I have rolled up my maps, slung binoculars around my neck, loaded my ruck sack with cans of beans and other provisions, and put on my outback fedora. I have laced up my hiking boots and gone off in search of a better answer.

What follows is neither Kali’s Cup nor the Holy Grail. To wit, it is not a procedural doctrine outlining how authors can craft a unique Voice. It is, however, the beginnings of a close study on Voice and some of its facets. (Warning: things might get a little mathy and I blame the upcoming musical metaphor…)

A Series of Sounds, Rambling Repetitions, and Synchronized Syntax
Snicket_badbeginningLemony Snicket’s Unfortunate Events series is a delight to read quietly or aloud. In fact, these books harbor a definitive, recognizable sound. In short, they have A Voice. From a critical stance, Voice seems to be the product of several craft elements harmoniously combining and interacting. Think of an orchestra, where many instruments come together to play one song. Each instrument contributes a different texture. Each one is responsible for different musical elements. Some carry the rhythm. Others, the melody. At least three different instruments contributing to Snicket’s Voice include sound, repetition, and syntax.

Sound
Sound is perhaps the simplest instrument or element to identify and incorporate. In her book Steering the Craft, fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin argues that all writers train and develop an ‘ear’ for their books and how they sound. The sound of your writing matters to your readers. Most readers, especially young ones, “enjoy the sound of language for its own sake. They wallow in repetitions and luscious word sounds…” (Le Guin 19). Sound can come from literary devices like alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia. Throughout the Unfortunate Event series, the youngest of the Baudelaire orphans, Sunny, is a toddler who speaks more in sounds than actual words. Sunny’s language, or rather her baby-shrieks, is an infinite vault of onomatopoeia. She exclaims things like Gack! Jook! Yeeka! Hux! Gibbo! Poko! and so on. While her sounds are sometimes comically translated by the author speculating about what the sound must have meant, they are first and foremost a delightful use of sound.

The place names in all of the books in the series demonstrate another way in which Snicket employs sound, this time in alliteration that contributes to an overall rhythm. The Austere Academy, The Grim Grotto, The Miserable Mill, The Hostile Hospital; these are just a sample of the alliterative titles stringing the series from one unfortunate event to another. Beyond the titles, Snicket also employs a similar alliterative place-name schema for places the orphans visit in the stories. For example, they sail out on Lachrymose Lake, or take a train through Finite Forest, or go out to play on Briny Beach. Le Guin points out that place names should be given special consideration by the writer because the “echo allusions hidden in them are intensely evocative” (25). The titles of each book in the series and the place names in the stories indicate not only where adventures take place, but also allude to the undoubtedly unhappy circumstances the orphans might encounter in each location.

Repetition
leguin_steeringThe alliteration in Snicket’s place names also leads to the next instrument or element contributing to the story’s symphony: repetition. Le Guin points out that “stories written to be read aloud…use a lot of repetition” (55). The place names repeat simple sounds through the replication of the letters like A-A, B-B, Gr-Gr, and Mi-Mi. However, an author need not stop at the simple repetition of a single sound. There can be the repetition of “words, of phrases, of images; repetition of things said; near-repetition of events; echoes, reflections, variations…all narrators use these devices and skillful use of them is a very great part of the power of prose” (Le Guin 54). Snicket echoes entire phrases in his initial descriptions of characters. To introduce Klaus, Snicket says, “He knew how to tell an alligator from a crocodile. He knew who killed Julius Caesar. And he knew much about the tiny, slimy animals found at Briny Beach” (4). The phrase “He knew” repeats again and again, lending weight to Klaus’s intelligence while simultaneously contributing to the overall rhythm.

In another example, at the beginning of the first book, Snicket plays with repetition by replicating the words “book” and “happy” while echoing the “b” and “hap” sounds. For example, he says:

“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.” (1, my italics)

Happy appears four times in the span of two sentences and Snicket echoes the sound by inserting the word happened into the following sentences. Additionally, “book” appears twice (in close approximation) and the “b” sound arises five times in total. A case could also be made for the linguistic relationship of the letters ‘b’ and ‘p’ and the similar way in which the mouth forms the “buh” and “puh” sounds. Whether the reader vocalizes these sounds, the evidence would indicate that Snicket’s authorial ear picked up on the relationship and thus lyrically replicated it.

Snicket duplicates this device to close the novel, where he repeats and echoes a series of gloomy “un” and droning “n” sounds. The orphans are driven away from all happiness to “an unknown fate with some unknown relative. They didn’t understand it, but like so many unfortunate events in life, just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean it isn’t so” (161-162, my italics and bold). The repeating unknown, understand, and unfortunate stand out on the page when in boldface. The sound of the “un” prefix at the beginning of those words (italicized for emphasis) along with the all the other somber droning ‘n’ sounds (also in italics) toll almost like a dreary bell. And just like the beginning of the book, the repetitions evoke Snicket’s storytelling Voice.

Syntax
Expanding from smaller elements—sounds—to more conglomerate elements—repeating words and entire phrases—we arrive at the larger end of the scale: sentences. While sentences should not vary in their most basic contents—subject, object, and verb—they can vary wildly in their structure and length, or what is also known as syntax. According to Le Guin, “Sentence length has a lot to do with the rhythm of prose” (40). To get an understanding of Snicket’s undeniably lyrical, read-aloud rhythm, I decided to plot the sentence length of what I identified as three important chapters in the first book of the series. To do this I simply counted the number of words in each sentence.

I limited my examination to the opening paragraphs of the selected chapters. I did this because, in terms of establishing rhythm, paragraphs “are architecturally essential, part of the structure and the long rhythmic pattern of the work” (Le Guin 50). And openings are where the author must immediately establish Voice.

Now, this is where things are gonna get a little mathy, and if you’re like me, math is to good times what radiation leaks are to Sunday barbecues. But I digress. To tempt you onward, here’s a delightful image (that doesn’t AT ALL represent how math makes me feel):

math

Here we go: the first paragraph of the first chapter in the first book of the Unfortunate series (The Bad Beginning: Or, Orphans!) contained the following sentence lengths: 18, 23, 17, 38, 13, 8, 69, 16, 25, 17.

Whereas the second chapter tends sustain and support what was established at the start, the third chapter of most books is where adventures kick off and variation can arise. By the third chapter of The Bad Beginning, the Baudelaire orphans have been left with Count Olaf and it is from this point on that conflicts push the story forward to the ultimate climax: whether they live or die. The first paragraph of chapter three contained sentences of these lengths: 15, 32, 27, 39, 25, 19, 29, 26, 46, 38, 25.

The next chapter bearing a significant and pivotal role in the formation of the whole story is the one with the greatest conflict (chapter twelve in this case). This chapter depicts the all-is-lost moment. Violet is to marry the Count, Klaus has exhausted every possible ploy to save her, and poor Sunny is sure to be killed. The orphans are irrevocably doomed. Sentence word counts for this chapter were: 36, 10, 38, 25, 19, 19, 26, 15, 46, 28.

Below is a graph displaying these results (X axis = number of sentences in the paragraph, Y axis = number of words per sentence):

Snicket_soundchart

The first thing to notice is the consistency between the opening paragraphs themselves. Chapters one and twelve both open with 10 sentences; chapter three starts with 11! Other than the chapters that begin with dialogue, the opening paragraphs of the other chapters in the first book share this relative consistency in composition, averaging close to ten sentences at the start.

Besides that, the graph reveals how Snicket’s sentence lengths remain roughly consistent from one chapter to the next. The word counts are not identical line by line, but there are surprising correlations between chapters one and three. Chapter three also underscores the fact that this is where adventure kicks off. So much more is going on, thus it takes more words per sentence.

Chapter twelve starts off with an inverse pattern, but quickly synchronizes to the patterns seen in chapters one and three. All three chapters hit a relative peak in the 7th sentence, a drop-off on sentence 8, followed by one last surge on sentence 9. This graph demonstrates that Lemony Snicket’s Voice is not only recognizable, but also (visibly and audibly) resonant.

There is little likelihood that Lemony Snicket deliberately or methodically tallied his own sentence word counts in order to arrive at the consistency seen above. What is more likely is that he opened his writer’s ear and listened. He attuned himself to all the instruments contributing to and collaborating together in his orchestral arrangement of craft tools. Through plenty of revision, he plucked out anything that jarred with the harmonies. By following Snicket’s example, a developing writer can learn to play the individual craft instruments of sound, repetition, and syntax. Once the instruments are mastered, the writer who combines them into the symphonic Voice of story will stand out as a composer among musicians.