An Analysis of Richard Panek’s “Climbed a Mountain, Saw a Comet, Defined the Far Parameters of the Visible Universe”

Powerful Writing is Powerful Magic

Have you (speaking to the authors in the audience) ever encountered a piece of writing so beautiful, so evocative that it shuts down your internal editor and draws you in? So well written that it’s only after you’re deep in the middle of it you realize the effect it’s having on you and say to yourself, “I’ve got to analyze how s/he did this. This is incredible.”

So it is for me with Richard Panek‘s Climbed a Mountain, Saw a Comet, Defined the Far Parameters of the Visible Universe. I was going through old files on my computer and saw a file listed as “Example 22KB 10/21/1998 9:08:20AM”. No extension, not even a full eight character name (that indicated I probably saved it when there was an 8.3 constraint on file names (ask your grandparents if you don’t know what 8.3 means)).

this is an example of excellent writing, I think

 
I opened the file and read the first line, “this is an example of excellent writing, I think”.

Okay, the me of some twenty years ago liked this piece. Enough to save it for personal posterity.

Sometimes I amaze myself with my presaging ability.

But What Makes It So Good?
A worthy question, that.

For me, it starts with the title, “Climbed a Mountain, Saw a Comet, Defined the Far Parameters of the Visible Universe”. This is a wonderful transition from the sensory into the mythic; Climbed a Mountain, something many people have experienced first-hand or via mass media. In all cases, the familiar. Except that climbing a mountain has mythic connotations in all societies/cultures (with which I’m familiar, anyway). We climb Olympus, Asgard, Kailash, Etna, Hara Berezaiti, Taranaki, … the list is quite long, thus in the first three words the reader is given an invitation.

Saw a Comet, fewer people have first hand experience. Plus we’ve leapt from the earth to the sky, continuing our mythic journey not to mention that comets also have their place in world mythologies.

The final part, Defined the Far Parameters of the Visible Universe, combines the mythic with the sensory. We’re still going into the mythic and we’re going to get there with science, the ultimate in sensory systems because everything is measured, everything is certain, everything is explained.

Now go on to the subtitle: Just another day of the extreme science at Mauna Kea, the most breathtaking observatory in the world. The first part presents the mythic (Mauna Kea) as mundane (Just another day) with “extreme science” as the bridge, the equals sign. Imagine

mundane = mythic

and you have it, except such a concept is confusing to most people so the brain goes into acquisition mode to get rid of the confusion, your brain opens you up to the information presented in the hope that the confusion will disappear. This confusion is continued with the second part, “the most breathtaking observatory in the world”.

Consider the first paragraph, “The dormant volcano of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii rises 13,796 feet above sea level, and then it rises a little bit more: the domes and dishes of the nine telescopes that crowd the several acres at the summit, as if straining for a better view of what’s out there. Individually, even an observatory six or eight stories tall isn’t necessarily impressive, at least not here. Each one may come as a fresh surprise as it ranges into view, a blaze of white against the deep blue of the thin atmosphere or the rich lunar gray of the volcanic soil. But in this queer landscape, where the only scale of comparison is an immense and indifferent sky, it’s in the aggregate that these structures begin to assume gargantuan proportions. Two here, three more up the road, a couple others on a distant ridge: It’s the behemoth-after-behemoth audacity that lends the observatories atop Mauna Kea their lunatic grace. They’re like an elephant graveyard: It must mean something that so many of them are here.”

  • “dormant volcano”, alias a sleeping giant.
  • “Big Island”, nice juxtaposition; volcano and big island.
  • “13,796 feet above sea level”, nice, concrete fact, something our left brains can grasp.
  • “and then it rises a little bit more”, engage the right brain again.
  • “the domes and dishes of the nine telescopes”, back to the left.
  • “crowd”, anthropomorphizing. Nice.
  • “as if straining for a better view of what’s out there”, more anthropomorphizing.

The paragraph continues blending mythic with sensory imagery and validates our confusion with the last line, “It must mean something that so many of them are here.” Panek’s writing has worked hard (albeit beautifully) to get us here, to this point, and now he’s externalizing the question we’ve been building up since we first read the title.

I’ve read through the whole article at least once recently and obviously at least once in the past. What I pick up now I may have felt but not recognized twenty years ago when I put this piece in my “Good Writing Examples” collection.

Slow down. Pay attention.

 
My immediate takeaway?

Slow down. Pay attention.

This piece (to me) gets its power because it mixes lots of sensory (what you see, what you hear, what you feel) details with lots of responses to the experiences described (the height of Mauna Kea, the domes crowding…straining to get a better view. I have no idea if Panek wrote this in one burst or it went through twenty-five rewrites before he handed it in.

I do know that right now, where I am in my writing, to write something like this I would need to slow down (I’ve slowed my typing even now, paying more attention to my intention than just getting the words down), to savor the experience I want to communicate in order to share it more fully, more completely, and that means paying attention to every detail.

Analyzing Loren Eiseley’s “The Dance of the Frogs” as Horror

Real horror is subtle. It seduces.

One of the finest pieces of horror I’ve encountered is Loren Eiseley’s “The Dance of the Frogs“. I doubt Eiseley wrote this intending it to be horror. If he did, I have to find more horror writing by him (consider “The Fifth Planet“. Not quite horror but damn close). It is brilliant.

Horror done well is subtle. Horror can’t wack you over the head. It has to seduce you. It has to sneak up on you, entrap you. Horror, done well, must take you from comfort and peace to helplessness and inevitability.

Horror done well allows you no sure escape. Questions regarding safety, yes, freedom from worry, no. The original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers movie (with the original ending and based on the Jack Finney novel, The Body Snatchers) is an excellent example of horror. Horrific things do not make good horror, horrifying situations make good horror.
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On Writing Science Fiction: The Editors Strike Back

A worthy read for authors regardless of genre

On Writing Science Fiction is about writing science fiction only as a topic, not as a focus. Somewhere in the book is a money-line about the book teaching writing first, fiction writing second and writing science fiction last.

Quite true and accurate! This book is a gem for anyone who wants to write. Don’t worry about the genre aspect, it’s a great study.
Continue reading “On Writing Science Fiction: The Editors Strike Back”

Three Books I Won’t Be Reviewing on Goodreads

Nods to Goodreads' Trike and Allison Hurd. And oh, the learning!

Ever notice there are some people whose opinions matter? Two such people for me are Allison Hurd and Trike on Goodreads.

Why do their opinions matter to me?

 
Nutshell response: I don’t know.

I could figure it out. Things like kindness, graciousness, wit, intelligence, writing skills, comments they’ve made, nature of their responses to other people, things we disagree on and how we disagree, … all sorts of things like that come to mind.

But that’s not what this post is about so let’s move on except to note that Trike and Allison are the impetus for this post.

The Books
I won’t be reviewing Autonomous, Wit’s End or The Fifth Season on Goodreads. I read them pretty much simultaneously.

The Fifth Season I may yet review, I’m not sure. I may yet review them all. Again, I’m not sure. Let me deal with the other two first.

Wit’s End
Karen Joy Fowler’s Wit’s End had such an interesting teaser to me; “What happens when your readers steal your characters?” Okay, that premise wasn’t as interesting to me as the one my lexdyksia created for me; “What happens when your characters steal your readers?”

I mean, just park it at a red light and walk home, right? I’ve got to write me that kind of story someday, where your characters steal your readers, right while they’re sitting comfortably at home, reading and sipping a nice wine. Or listening or reading during some commute? There they are in a crowded train heading into the city and then they’re not.

Enoch walked with God and then was not. – Gen 5:24

 
Talk about an Enoch moment!

I got about one-third through Witt’s End and put it down. Bored, frustrated. I wanted to like it. I wanted to revel in it. I studied under Karen Joy Fowler years ago (I doubt she remembers my writing although she told me I should not rename a story, Cicatrix, even though everybody else in the class said they couldn’t understand the story because they didn’t know what the title meant. She did and thought it was perfect for the story.
Neener neener neener, everybody.
Or she might remember the night I made chili for the entire class. It was a bonding exercise that failed. Everybody liked the chili. One guy even told me he knew why I was making chili for everybody. He appreciated the effort, although he didn’t think anybody else would understand.
I wonder what became of him?
He was correct, by the way. It didn’t work as a bonding exercise. So it goes) and was a good teacher. I still have the exercises she gave us to do and bring them out to brush up from time to time.

Wit’s End read like just about everything I’ve read by Karen Joy Fowler.

I never really liked anything I’ve read by Karen Joy Fowler. Even when I was her student (and enjoyed her as a teacher!) I didn’t understand why people were blown away by her writing. It seemed so Meh!

But I figured I was older now, smarter, wiser, more mature, wouldn’t try any bonding exercises with people who didn’t know what “cicatrix” meant, that kind of thing.

Nope. Her writing still bored me.

But she’s won all those awards! What gives?

 
Autonomous
Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous also had an interesting premise to me. And Annalee Newitz’s background is…Whoa! She’s got some chops! And, reading Autonomous, I totally get that she really has those chops, she’s earned them, she’s knowledgeable, she definitely writes well (so does Karen Joy, for that matter), …

And again, about one-quarter to one-third of the way through, blech, mindfart, brainpoo, somebody wake me up or kill me and put me out of my misery.

But she’s got such chops! And she’s won some awards, too!
(at least I think she has. I’m not going back to look right now. I’m on a roll!)

 

The Fifth Season
I picked up N.K. Jemison’s The Fifth Season because Allison Hurd and Trike liked it. A lot.

And they’re good people.

Whom I love, respect and admire.

And I still do!

Because here’s what I learned…

The exchange that caused revelations
<From Goodreads>
Allison wrote: “Haha! I hope you get to it and love it as much as I do! …”
Well…I didn’t. I had such an adverse reaction to it that based on your intense joy in it, Trike’s review of it and the fact that I have great respect for both of your opinions, I’m concluding that I need to give it another read, this time keeping watch on myself to learn what (if anything still) is causing me such troubles.
I mean, I noted that the writing was quite good (I often put books down because the storycrafting isn’t there or the editor was just getting off a ten-day bender…) so it wasn’t the writing. Often when I have such adverse reactions to books it’s more to do with me than the book. A great opportunity for learning, maturing, evolving, that.
So another go it is!
</From Goodreads>

I tend to read several books simultaneously, going from one to another for lots of reasons. This time I was simultaneously reading two other books I enjoyed; The Western Star and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

So many voices seeking my attention! And they’re all in my head!

 
Meanwhile, and because nothing ever happens in isolation (someday, if you’re really bored, I’ll explain the quantum, behavioral, classical and meta physics of this), Annie Neugebauer’s The Differences Between Commercial and Literary Fiction, Chuck Wendig’s 25 REASONS WHY I STOPPED READING YOUR BOOK and yours truly’s Why I don’t read in my genres any more were in my mind, working their way around, looking for a comfortable place to sit, maybe have a drink or two (I strongly recommend the first two posts. They’re wonderful, entertaining, educational and did I mention wonderful? Mine’s pretty good, too, but I’m still working on that self-promotion thing, so…).

Also topmost in my mind was something my writing coach, Rich Marcello, shared with me about energy levels in stories and scenes, something I’m actively working on in my Ritchie and Phyl series plus some things that have been banging around in my head since I read Jill Nelson’s Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View.

I like stories where the energy levels change(!!!) in a scene, in a chapter, on the page (this only applies to fiction so far that I’ve noticed).

I mean, shabang shaboomie. Revelations like steamrollers smacking the forehead wow.

How come I didn’t like Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible but loved her The Bean Trees? How come I couldn’t get enough of Charles Frazier’s Nightwoods but was less enthusiastic about his Thirteen Moons?

How come this book was great but that book sucked? How come I can’t get enough of this author and would rather have a root canal than read that author? How come some of my Goodreads reviews come down to “Great writing, but I was screaming ‘Will somebody please do something?'”

Because I like changes in energy levels in the stories(!!!) and the longer I have to wait for some kind of energy shift the less I’m going to like the story.

Me and my toolbox
da dat de dah de dat de dah dah
Straighter than your ox
(okay, I’m not Nilsson)

 
This is so important because…
…it’s another tool in my toolbox. I can go back to all those books that I recognized were beautifully written but sucked, pick them up…

…and throw them in the trash forever!

Bwa-ha-ha-ha! (bear with me, folks. I’m drunk with power. I get that way when I figure something out. Especially if it’s something about myself)

It’s all about me!

 

But when isn’t it?

 
I never have to wonder if it’s me or them anymore! I know it’s me! It’s not that I’m stupid or don’t get it or aren’t sophisticated enough to understand the subtleties inherent in their structure,

It’s that they suck!

To me!

But now I know why!

And that means I can fix it!

Especially in my own writing!

Because I don’t want someone to read something of mine and wish they’d opted for a root canal instead!

And now there’s lots more books I can enjoy because I’ll understand why I think they suck and the understanding brings a joy all its own!

Masochist me!

So again, thanks to Allison Hurd and Trike for helping me through this.

PS) I’m having fun learning about callouts. Can you tell?

 

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Writers’ Groups – Critiques

emPHAsis and sylLAbles

(picking up from where I left off in Writers’ Groups – Introduction…)

My core reason for all the socializing that’s part of any writers’ group is to learn, improve, increase.

Learning, improving and increasing comes from critiquing others’ work and having my own work critiqued, and critiquing is a learned skill (my opinion, that).

Critiques are not Reviews
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