November 18th, 2005


This Day in History, 1755: Cape Ann Earthquake

Exactly 250 years ago today, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in the eastern United States hit off the coast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts, around 30 miles north of Boston. In Boston, hundreds of walls and chimneys collapsed and fell to the ground. John Adams, one of many people who reported on the quake, noted that the tremors lasted for about four minutes. In Pembroke and Scituate chasms opened in the earth and sand reached the surface. Sailors on the sea felt as if the ships were striking land. The earthquake was felt from Lake George, New York to 200 miles east of the cape and from Chesapeake Bay to Montreal and Nova Scotia. It was given an intensity rating of VIII on the Modified Mercalli scale.

In the weeks afterwards, many citizens of Massachusetts continued to see the earthquake as evidence of God's divine wrath. Reverend Thomas Prince of South Church blamed the quake on the prodigious use of Benjamin Franklin's lightning rods, claiming that they interfered with God's usual way of expressing displeasure with people's morals. (At the time, lightning strikes were seen as divine retribution, and the theory went that if God was stopped from using lightning, He would resort to using earthquakes instead.)

Liell, Scott M. "Shaking the Foundation of Faith." (New York Times, Nov. 18, 2005)

Earthquake Hazards Program: Earthquake History of Massachusetts

Earthquake Hazards Program: Largest Earthquake in Massachusetts, Cape Ann, Massachusetts

Robert's Rules of Writing #4: Zip the Lip

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Here's another rule that might be controversial. In fact, I've already run across another writing book that takes the opposite position.

In rule #4, Masello takes a very common position among professional writers. He strongly advises people not to discuss the details of their work out loud. He points out that when writers are interviewed about their current projects, they frequently say something vague, like "It's a novel," and then move onto something else.

The theory here is that if you talk out your book, you'll begin to lose the impetus to write it. All your energy and enthusiasm will dissipate as you explain the plot of the book over and over -- and even worse, you may end up alienating your friends.

I have to admit that I've always believed this piece of advice, until one day I ran across the opposite point of view in the book Crafty Screenwriting: Writing Movies That Get Made by Alex Epstein. Epstein's philosophy is that one should feel free to talk out the plot over and over to anyone you want. His claim is that as you do so, you'll start to get a better handle on the story, and you'll also start to refine it so it gets better and better. In his view, talking out the plot is like doing multiple drafts of the outline, so that eventually you'll have a much better story that you can finally commit to paper.

So where do I stand on this rule? Well, I have to admit that there's another good reason not to talk out one's stories -- the danger of giving something away that you'd rather use. On occasion this isn't too bad -- Lawrence Block once wrote a book based on a plot that Donald Westlake had shared with him. Block couldn't get the plot out of his mind, so he asked Westlake if he could use it, and Westlake, who wasn't as excited about the plot anymore, gave Block his blessing. But I know that I have a few ideas in my head I really want to write one day, and the only other person who is aware of these ideas is my wife. The last thing I want to do is tip my hand.

But I digress. The question is, does talking out the story sap its energy, or allow it to become more refined. And at the moment, I honestly have no idea, as I haven't tried Epstein's method yet -- unless you count bouncing ideas off of the editor of Analog until I find one that sticks.