Saturday, November 29, 2008

Articles, Definitely

Look at this pretty little sentence from Marrying Mozart by Stephanie Cowell.

Carnival time came to Vienna just before Lent, as it did each year, with its glittery masks, wild costumes, extravagant feasts, the parading whores, who revealed as much of their bodies as they dared to by law, the banging of drums, the playing of horns, and much dancing until dawn -- all to frighten winter away.

Long sentences fascinate me, especially long lists like this one, which uses some very interesting organizational techniques to make it easy to read.

Let's start by taking a look at the mechanics. The list portion is composed of seven items. Simplified, they are,
  1. glittery masks
  2. wild costumes
  3. extravagant feasts
  4. parading whores
  5. the banging of drums
  6. the playing of horns
  7. much dancing until dawn
The general rule of thumb is that the human mind can grasp sets of three with relative ease. Once you get more than three, there are ways to manage the organization so that readers don't get lost in the details. But the key is, those details must be managed. You can’t just toss them on the page and expect the reader to catch them.

Here, the author creates two clusters of three items each at the top and bottom of the list. The middle item, the fourth item, separates these two groups of three. So the group of seven is actually broken out into a pattern of three, one, three.

The first group of three is linked by its reliance upon a common possessive pronoun.

its glittery masks, wild costumes, extravagant feasts

Its links all three of these items back to Carnival time, but that’s not a direct link. Consider how the pronoun reference would be confusing if we removed the intervening adverb clause, as it did each year.

Carnival time came to Vienna just before Lent, with its glittery masks, wild costumes, extravagant feasts,

(originally, Carnival time came to Vienna just before Lent, as it did each year, with its glittery masks, wild costumes, extravagant feasts,)

That phrase as it did each year is a cumulative modifier qualifying the time for arrival of Carnival, so the indefinite pronoun it must refer to Carnival time. Not to Vienna, and not to Lent. The it in that adverb clause links Carnival time to the its which the first three list items all rely upon. Carnival time - it - its, all working together like touchstones. Pretty nifty.

After that first clean and easy set of three items, things get even niftier. Items 4, 5, and 6 on the list each start off with their own definite article: the parading whores, the banging, the playing. But item 4 doesn’t form a set with items 5 and 6. It’s transitional, and it separates the first set of three from the final set of three. How do we know this? Two ways. First, the final three list items each follow the same structure: gerund, preposition, object.
banging of drums
playing of horns
dancing until dawn

But notice that with item four, we don’t get parading of whores (gerund, preposition, object). We get parading whores (adjective, noun), which is the same structure as the first three list items (also adjective, noun). Even though the adjective takes the present participial form, and thereby echoes the gerunds in the final three list items, that echo is imperfect. The sounds are similar, but the usages and structures are different.

I love it that she used a definite article for 4, 5, and 6, but dropped it for the adjective much in item 7. That was a master stroke, and that’s what originally made this sentence leap off the page for me. Another writer might have been tempted to use the same articles for 5, 6, and 7, and drop the definite article from 4. But Cowell enhanced the transitional nature of 4 by manipulating the pattern of the articles. Don’t believe me? Try this:

its glittery masks, wild costumes, extravagant feasts, its parading whores, who revealed as much of their bodies as they dared to by law, the banging of drums, the playing of horns, and the dancing until dawn

See the difference? Changing the articles sets those final three items so solidly together that the entire rhythm of the sentence is impacted. They sound isolated.

The second reason we know that item 4 is transitional is that intervening relative clause, who revealed as much of their bodies as they dared to by law. Hello, didn’t we just deal with another intervening clause used as a transition? Yes. Yes, we did. We’re in the hands of a masterful writer, folks. Look at the sentence structure:
  • Main clause
  • Intervening adverb clause used as a transition between the main clause and the list
  • Three list items linked by common possessive pronoun and adjective-noun structure
  • Fourth list item, transitional in nature, which follows the adjective-noun pattern of the first set of three, and which sets up the participle usage in the final set of three and which breaks the list’s reliance on a common article
  • Relative subordinate clause modifying the transitional fourth list item
  • Final set of three list items taking a gerund-prepositional phrase structure.

So gorgeous. This is the kind of sentence that makes my heart go pitterpat. And all because she knew how to use clauses as transitions and how to build a list by breaking it apart. Swoon!


Thursday, November 27, 2008

Stacking events

Watching The Godfather, always a pleasure, and such a healthy family activity for the holiday! :) Something I notice is how action is stacked so that there's not a lot of letup in tension. That's something we can do in fiction too. You don't need to have a separate scene for every event-- you can put two related events in the same scene, especially if you end the scene with one of the events.

The point of no return for this film is actually a sequence of events that cumulatively make it impossible for Michael to go back to his former neutral position. First, as he's marrying the Sicilian girl he has met in exile, his little sister is having her own marital drama-- her husband is beating her, and she calls her big brother Sonny to help. As he is impetuously driving to help her, he is mowed down by gunmen (the abusive husband set this up to get Sonny killed).
Then, in exile, Michael hears about his brother's murder, and is told he must leave the area. As he is preparing to leave, someone puts a bomb in his car, but his new wife has decided to surprise him by driving the car up to meet him. She is killed in the explosion.

All this happens in about 10 minutes of film time, and the power is intensified by the compression. This isn't for every part of the story-- it's more effective when we've already gotten to know the characters and understand the situation, so we aren't confused by the rapid-fire of events... and we can keep up emotionally and anticipate how the events will affect the characters.

So if you have a string of events that feels too attenuated, consider having one lead to the next... but in the same scene for greater force.

Please and Thank You

Some wise old sage -- I forget which one -- said that there are only two real prayers: please and thank you.

But in my experience, there's a third, a hybrid of please and thank you, and it pretty much defines the editing relationship. Or at least, it defines it when the relationship is going well.

When we ask each other for things in the reasonable expectation that those things will actually get done, it's not just a please. It's a please-thank-you.

Can you get these proofs back to me in a week, please-thank-you?

I ask my writers for everything from new scenes to tech advice to cookie recipes. They never let me down. I've become so used to being able to ask the "Brain Trust" (as I've come to think of our email loop) for darn near anything, that the gratitude is built into these requests in advance. I know they'll come through for me. Because they're so consistently wonderful, my requests have evolved into please-thank-yous.

In fact, they frequently blow me away with their responses. If I ask for two peas and half a carrot, I'll get an entire salad bar. Yum!

Dinner is at my house today, but we're only having 11, a small group by my family's standards. The desserts are already made. The side dishes are assembled and awaiting oven time. Most of the prep work is done, and the rest must wait until later. So what do I do on a national holiday while in a lull? I go to my office and check my email, see what's up with the authors and editors and my boss. Not because I have to, not today. But because I want to. Because I know our team is topnotch, because I genuinely like these people, and because they never fail to deliver. And because they make it fun, every step of the way.

I'm a very lucky woman, and believe me, I know it.

So today, my Thanksgiving wish is, "Let's keep on doing what we're doing, please-thank-you."

And I'm grateful in the knowledge that my team will deliver.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Enjambment in fiction

More paragraphing stuff-- well, also about dialogue. And introspection.

There is music in the way we think and talk. Even the non-melodic among us use rhythm and repetition as we assemble our thoughts. And so when you write, the reader will unconsciously resonate with the natural rhythm of human thought/speech... if you make use of the normal "echo" speakers use.

That is, as we speak, we repeat keywords, especially those spoken by the immediately previous speaker. What are keywords? Important words that carry some thematic or emotional meaning. Repeating them reinforces the meaning, and links the adjacent paragraphs together. The ear or the eye catches the repetition and the rhythm it creates, and the effect is doubled-- not just the meaning, but the extra meaning that comes from the connection of the different parts of the passage.

But you have to do it right. The ear, and certainly the eye, don't have much of a memory. A line or two, that's about it. So you want the echo to happen very soon, as in this bit of dialogue from the film Breaking Away (great dialogue in this, btw, and it takes place in my dear friend Deb's town Bloomington, and Jules's alma mater Indiana University, so rent it):

Dave: Dad, I think we ought to give him a refund.
Dad: Refund? Refund?

What's fun is that while the two characters are using the same term, it's clear to the viewer that each has a different definition. For the idealistic Dave, "refund" is the ethical thing you do when you sell someone a defective product. For the businessman Dad, refund is a four-letter word.

So the echo has the effect of enjambment in poetry: linking the lines and providing two separate meanings, and maybe a third when the lines are put together. Here's another example from Breaking Away (I tell you, this has great dialogue!). Note the highlighted words:

Dave: You hear from your folks, Mooch?
Moocher: Yeah, my dad called. He wanted to know if the house was sold. He could use the money something fierce.
Dave: Well, you can come and live with me when it's sold. In Italy, everybody lives together.
Moocher: Since you won that Italian bike, man, you've been acting weird. You're really getting to think you're Italian, aren't you?
Cyril: I wouldn't mind thinking I was someone myself.

Notice in the last two pairs, the version of the word changes-- Italy to Italian, and think to thinking. That allows the resonance and the connection without strait-jacketing the new speaker. (I also think of it as a triumph of the naturalness of syntax. We hear the two variations of the term and link them, even if they don't sound exactly the same.)

Now this works also with introspection. The mention or thought of a keyword sparks the viewpoint character to think of something new:

The governor said, "Please remember that citizens have the right to petition for redress."
Yeah, Joni thought. Right. Redress. That was what this was all about, redress. Nothing to do with revenge.

Notice that the "re" is echoed from "redress" to "revenge".

But these elements have to be sequenced correctly to have that resonace. That is, the lines have to be sequential, not separated by a line or two. Here's a paraphrase of something I read in that (annoying) bestseller that must be doing something right, because I'm still reading it....

The Oxford don said, "I just want you to understand my position. There is no murder no matter what the inspector says. In fact, I think it's clear that this is a miscarriage of justice."

His position. Yeah. I understood his position. His position was insupportable.

The problem is that "position" is in the first of three sentences, and so the resonance is lost. This would be more effective if the paragraph read this way:

The Oxford don said, "There is no murder no matter what the inspector says. In fact, I think it's clear that this is a miscarriage of justice. I just want you to understand my position."

His position. Yeah. I understood his position. His position was insupportable.

That is, if you're going to have an echo, start it in the sentence right before it's repeated. Don't make the reader wait, because the "ear's" memory isn't very long. Revise your paragraph so that the "echo" term is in the last line, or the second to last line?

This is something to listen for in film, and to read for in books. It's part of what makes dialogue and introspection "sound" right. Here's an example from one of my favorite books, an old-fashioned swashbuckler of an omniscient narrative (Checkmate, by Dorothy Dunnett, and I discuss this as dialogue on my website):
"Philippa, no," he said. He stood in an island of space, as isolated as he must have been directing his forces in Guines or in Calais. "You were right to ask, and wrong only in your conjecture. Kate is my friend. That is true. But the songs were for her daughter. And the passion, for ever. That is why we are parting."

The words reached her, without bringing the sense any nearer. He would think her very slow.... "But I am her daughter," Philippa said.

Like some obscure and difficult text, the look in his eyes was too complex to be read at a distance. She said, "You can't mean...?" And then, as he did not speak, answered herself. "No."

Well, here's another, from Susan E. Phillips's Nobody's Baby but Mine, nice link of dialogue to introspection:

She nodded. "And if they find out you weren't satisfied with my services, they'll fire me. Please, Mr. Bonner, I need this job. If they dismiss me, I'll lose my benefits."

"You get benefits?"

If prostitutes didn't get benefits, they certainly should. "They have an excellent dental plan, and I'm scheduled for a root canal."

So if you're wondering how to make your prose more lush, more poetic, try this device. Find the keywords, put them in the position to be echoed, and echo them.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A Telegraphed Pass

In football, sometimes a quarterback's body language will reveal where he intends to throw the ball long before he makes the pass. They call this telegraphing the pass, and smart linebackers can use the quarterback's telegraph to, well, crush some guys.

Similar things happen in scenes all the time.

Example #1
Sally is folding her laundry and musing over her lost love from college. If only he hadn't graduated and then rushed off to Marzipanistan to infiltrate that rogue terrorist cell! And he'd never been heard from again. Sniffle. And today would have been the tenth anniversary of their first date. If only he had lived. Her one twoo wuv. She could be folding his socks right now. Sniffle.

Doorbell rings. Guess who's back from Marzipanistan? College boy! Shock!

Sally is out for drinks with her posse. Appletinis for everyone! Soon, talk turns to how awful their mothers can be. Sally excuses her own mother's occasionally awful behavior by explaining how insecure Mommy is because of childhood events, and how she learned to cope by frequent spa visits and obsessive grooming.

Sally stops by Mommy's house on her way home from the bar. Mommy lays her out for being windblown. Also, how dare Sally wear that frumpy dark blouse after Mommy spent ninety-seven hours in labor with her? Shocking.

Do you see how this works? And it's not very effective, is it. The writer is telegraphing conflict before it erupts, and smart readers everywhere are likely to go linebacker as a result. Why eliminate the dramatic surprise by undercutting it in advance? Writers sometimes say, "But the reader won't understand why this is a surprise/problem/whatever if we don't explain the backstory before the event arrives."

Except, guess what? People like a surprise. And if certain information is necessary to allow the reader to interpret the character's reaction, then that information is best placed in the context of that reaction. Not elsewhere. Readers are smart enough to follow along when a few extra details are braided into the scene, such as:

Sally opened the door and saw a ghost standing on her porch. No, not a ghost. Vincent.

"But you're dead," she said, and then slammed the door closed before he could respond.

Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God. The only man she'd ever really loved -- how was this possible? They'd sent her his wallet, his bloodstained shoes, a sympathy card from the wife of the resistance leader. She'd spent years trying to recover his body from the dictators in charge of Marzipanistan.

Maybe it wasn't him. Maybe it was some guy who just looked like him. Maybe she was imagining things. She was just lonely, that was all, and had been reminiscing about the good times with Vincent because this week would have been the tenth anniversary of their first date.

The man -- not Vincent, it wasn't possible, it was probably just the paperboy -- tapped softly on the door. Tentative. "Sally? Open the door, Sally."

But instead, she leaned her forehead against the cool, sturdy wood, and fought to keep the walls from spinning around her.


By building the right details into the scene as it unfolds, you can safely eliminate any pre-scene set-up and let the scene itself carry the weight of the drama. Use the "set-up" information to build detail into the character reactions -- if that is the information the reader needs to understand the reaction, then that is where it should be contained.

This might seem like a fairly obvious technique, but honestly, we see telegraphed surprises all the time, usually in the early chapters where authors might feel more driven to set up their story mechanics. But really, stop worrying about setting things up. Trust the scenes. Trust the conflicts. And most of all, trust the reader to be able to follow along.


Friday, November 21, 2008

Speaking of....

I'm reading a novel by a bestselling author I usually like, but a quarter of the way in, I'm getting the distinct feeling that he's just, in that inimitable phrase, phoning it in. Why? Okay, it's a sequel, and nothing has happened yet, but I sure have been reminded of everything that happened in the original book... the plot of which is summarized entirely. Repetitively. I'd say so far 2/3rds of the text is the narrator being reminded of (and reporting) something that happened in the previous book. This seems to me a message that I should be reading that first book rather than this, which I hope is not the message the author meant to convey.

But more significant to our purposes is the clumsy transitions between points. The narrator is always inserting (made-up example), "Apropos of (previous paragraph's subject), Pete once told me (some other subject)." And there's also "Speaking of Judy, the high school we went to was torn down last year, and now there's a spanking new art museum in its place." Not to mention "The mention of bowties reminded me that I probably needed to dress for the museum opening tonight."

I suspect the very word "apropos" is a signal that something's gone wrong with the narrative flow here.

Anyhoo, I started wondering what the problem was, and what might help (the whole summary of the previous book, I think, can only be fixed by having something happen in THIS plot, so that when the summary is removed, this is still a novel and not a short story :). Some thoughts:

1) Apropos of, etc., are signs that there is probably too much exposition and it's being shoved into the wrong place. What does the reader actually need to know? And when does the reader need to know it? The reader doesn't need to know about the art museum, probably, in a passage about Judy, but rather when something happens that involves the art museum.

2) That of course supposes that something ought to be happening in real-time. I wonder if the difficulty of inserting the "speaking of" material is related to the lack of real scenes and real character movement through the scenes. So... um. Have scenes.

3) Scenes are, to quote Kate Moore, where someone is somewhere doing something. One of the great dangers of first-person narration is retrospective retelling of events rather than "right-there" scenes which show the narrator moving in real-time through the environment of the scene. It's going to be a whole lot smoother if the narrator gets dressed in his white tie and drives to the art museum and THEN realizes that it's on the site of his high school. I think it will also be more interesting to show him learning this, rather than have it appear suddenly in his knowledge base.

4) "Speaking of" indicates a passage set mostly in the narrator's head. That kind of free association does actually happen inside our heads-- that's where the term "stream of consciousness" comes from, after all. But I can't be the only one who finds SOC rather annoying, especially when it's really streaming and isn't Joycean, that is, meant to sound like a consciousness stream but in truth carefully assembled and edited a few hundred times. Most of us expect some structure in fiction, not the rambling recordings of a typically disorderly mind. So send the narrator to the art museum opening, and if the sight of the site brings back memories of homecoming games and making out with Judy in his GTO in the high school parking lot, that's going to be more credible, as that is how human memory works (linked to place, sound, smell, and so on). Let the character live the story.

5) Exposition is ammunition, as someone or other said. (Robert McKee uses it, but he's quoting an oft-heard epigram, so I don't know where it started.) That is, if it's important that the museum's on the site of the old high school (I'm envisioning Buffy's high school here-- you know, the site has got to be haunted by the unquiet souls of dozens of now-bloodless students), then don't toss away the opportunity to reveal it in an intriguing and plot-moving way.

6) Sometimes, when material is inserted so obviously, the "previous subject," the one that leads to the relevant subject, comes off as artificial, as shoved in there just to lead to whatever the author wants to happen next. So someone is overheard laughing about, I don't know, George Will's bowties, and the entire purpose of that entirely irrelevant passage (why are these so often overheard, anyway? Why not just put some neon font in there with an arrow pointing to "clumsy segue here?") is to get the narrator thinking about dressing for the museum opening. Well, why do you need to get him thinking at all? You need to get him DRESSING. So all he has to do is glance at his watch and realize he has only a half hour to get dressed. No George Will needed, and if you really want to spotlight that white tie, show the narrator unable to tie it, and his wife has to do it for him. That could, you know, show something about their relationship, maybe even slide in a bit of sexual tension, along with letting us know that this is a formal event.

7) These sorts of transitions are just author intrusion, and will interfere with the all-important suspension of disbelief that allows the reader to enter fully into the world of the story. Challenge yourself to select what the reader needs to know and reveal it in a way that develops the story and the character. I can see using these tacked-on transitions in a first draft, but they ought to be a big "TK" (to kum) marker and later replaced with a smoother connector.

8) And don't ever, ever phone it in, even if -- especially if-- you are fortunate enough to be a big enough bestseller that no one ever calls you on it. Let previous accomplishments challenge you to greater accomplishments. Not that every book is going to succeed on every level. But I think good readers can distinguish between an honorable book that just doesn't work and a book where the author doesn't notice or care that it doesn't work.

So. Any transition tips? Do you use particular prose tricks to do this? (For example, in non-fiction, there are all sorts of transitional phrases, like, uh, "for example".) Let's say you need to slide in some important bit of exposition without calling too much attention to it or jarring the reader. How do you do that? Mystery writers have to do this with clues.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

This Is Crap.

NaNo is well underway. How many of you are keeping up with your word counts?

Of course, word counts in and of themselves can be a little deceptive because, let's face it, not all words are created equal. In fact, that premise is built in to the whole freewriting/NaNo mindset. Authors are given tips such as,

If you don't feel like writing a scene, just write, "This is crap," over and over again. Eventually you'll get so sick of writing, "This is crap," that you'll start writing real words. Either way, you can still hit your word goal for the day.

Frankly, that's one piece of advice that worries me. A lot.

I'm no expert on creative psychology, but I've done some reading and two things have jumped out at me.

First, the creative subconscious is almost wholly unable to distinguish facts from lies, sarcasm from literal truth, exaggeration from reality. What you present to the creative subconscious is accepted at face value, without question. (I forget where I learned that. One of those books on flow, I think. Maybe the one by the guy with the Eastern European name, Mikhail something?)

Second, the whole purpose of freewriting is to better open the channel between the conscious and the subconscious part of our mind. You put your fingers on the keyboard, and you keep them moving no matter what, ignoring the urge to edit before the words are even out. This is supposed to help train the deeper part of our creative mind to be more accessible. It widens the spaces in our minds through which information can move from the deep level to the surface.

Do you see where this is going? You open a pathway to that deep creative subconscious, which can't tell truth from fact, and then train it by telling it, "This is crap," over and over again.

Seems a bit dicey to me.

Instead, why not try Natalie Goldberg's focused freewriting technique? Pick a topic related to your book. Any topic will do. Your hero's childhood memories. The villain's favorite foods. The significance of the color red as a thematic element in your plot. Writer's choice. And, as you're writing, if you get stuck, switch to another sheet of paper or another computer file, and write on your target topic. Just keep it moving. Keep the ideas flowing. And keep it focused on the task at hand, which is generating material that might someday turn into a book.

There's another little mind-training trick I picked up from Dorothea Brande's classic book, Becoming a Writer. Choose a time of day at which you will write. And then, no matter what else is going on, when that time arrives, write. No exceptions. It's a bit Pavlovian, but it works. After three weeks of writing at ten p.m. every night without fail, you'll find that it's pretty darned easy to write at ten p.m. in week four. Skip a day, and you'll find that trained pathway is a bit harder to navigate all of a sudden.

I've often wondered if Nora Roberts doesn't rely on a similar dynamic to create her tall stack of new books each year. I read an interview with her once where she said she never takes a day off, because she's afraid that if she does, the tap will turn itself off. (Or words to that effect, anyway.) You know, I always say that if you want to learn methods for success, you should pay attention to what successful people are doing. And you can't get more successful than Nora Roberts.

So, let's hear it -- what are your favorite productivity tricks and rituals? What about superstitions? And how is NaNo going for all of you so far?

eta: Theresa

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Profitability and Economic Collapses

I read a very interesting post over on Romancing the Blog today. Sylvia Day -- a writer I've met a few times and who strikes me as very bright -- was talking about the state of the economy and of book selling in particular. She wondered, in particular, why publishing companies are looking to trim contract obligations (cutting back on advances and options, for example) rather than cutting back on the number of titles offered.

There are two factors to consider. First is the overall profitability of a unique title, which is what Sylvia is considering, if I understand her post correctly. Second is the overall profitability of a publishing company (or line, or imprint, or what have you).

We know that releasing a reduced number of titles might increase the overall sales per title. Notice, I say might, because there are a lot of factors at play here. For example, if I release ten titles per month, and decide to kill one, that doesn't mean that each of the remaining nine will sell 10% more. Some of those sales that might have gone to the killed title will be permanently lost. Some will go to my competitors. And some will go to other titles which my company publishes.

So there might be a small bump in the number of sales per title if we reduce the number of titles released. Will this be enough to compensate for the lost revenues from the killed project? That's really the question, and it's one that is hard to answer.

Factor in a few variables. You lose economies of scale when you print fewer books overall, so the profitability of each remaining title might be undercut by scaling back production. There's a world of difference between paying a buck a book and a buck-fifty when you're analyzing P&Ls.

And which title do you cut? Just pull out the old crystal ball and try to predict which of the ten books slated for a possible cut might be the one that underperforms. Big books carry big risks, and in the current climate, maybe it's wiser to be risk-averse and preserve a stable producer on the midlist. Then again, when big books pay, they pay huge. So maybe it's wiser to gamble on the big book and cut a midlist title. Do you cut the title from the big name author whose sales are sliding, but still generates good numbers, in the hopes that her slide is over? Or the title from the newer author with a growing readership who might produce fewer overall sales, but whose up-front costs are lower? Or the brand new author whose book you simply love, but who is the biggest gamble of all?

The cruel truth is that we're in a climate that defies easy answers. Publishing is an industry with bizarre vagaries and easy-to-make predictions of doom. Anyone who's been around for more than, say, a month has heard about the death of literacy, the death of print, the death of the midlist, death, death, death. "Death" is like some odd insider code word for "change." But in the last month, something has changed. When industry people whisper the word death, they mean actual death. The end of companies. Not just some English major's metaphor for changing conditions.

That said, my house is in order, and I'm feeling pretty darned lucky these days. Sure, sales are down, but so far we're well able to float. So although there is a lot of bad news in general -- and that bad news tends to be really, really bad -- it's not universally terrible.

What a time for me to have to take some leave, huh? I swear, you take a few weeks off, and the whole world changes. The family business is now settled in its new location, and I'm back to work, and even with publishing in a state of hysterical near-collapse, I'd still rather work here than in any other industry.

eta: Theresa

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Back again...

Well, have a few minutes between papers and manuscripts. All day I've been working on writing something to help students understand what a sentence is and what a fragment is, and everything seems confusing and unhelpful. I mean, just about all the characteristics of a sentence can be replicated by a fragment ("A sentence has a clause, subject/verb"-- well, so does "Because I wanted to"... "A sentence states a complete thought"== Oh, yeah? How about "I'm not?" And lots of fragments are complete thoughts plus a word like "which" that diminishes it syntactically)...

The last straw was an otherwise helpful grammar website which defined clause as "A syntactic element that has both a subject and a predicate." Okay, let's move right past that "syntactic element" thing. "Predicate" was hyperlinked to its own definition. Yeah. "Part of a clause." Clause was, of course, hyperlinked to the original definition. Nothing like circularity. Oh, also, apparently a predicate "says something about the subject." (So does an adjective.)

No wonder students have so much trouble recognizing sentences and fragments. (Well, the major reason is, and here's where I get thrown out of the Teachers of English groups, kids don't grow up diagramming sentences. Weird that it's considered useless, when I took advanced grammar in grad school, and what was the main exercise? Sentence diagramming.)

So I decided to make my own schemata for clauses and sentences. And I'll share it with you. :) I'm trying to keep it simple, and trying not to despair ("There's no way to explain this! And they don't care! And anyway, everyone uses fragments all the time now!") and trying not to use complex terms. Just keep in mind, this is for students who don't understand sentences -- that is, not writers who occasionally choose, for effect or emphasis, to use fragments.

If you have suggestions, let me know. I'm going to post this to a couple of my classes later in the week. What has helped you know what a sentence is? How do you deal with all those existential questions? I mean, one of the definitions was that a sentence "states a proposition". Huh? It's like they're only talking about certain types of sentences.

(This had a box around it in Word, but apparently the lines disappeared into the ether. AND there were pretty colors distinguishing the subject and predicate. Sigh.)
A clause is a unit of grammar that has a main subject and a main predicate combination. It is the essential building block of a sentence, expressing something about an object or person (the subject).

The subject is an item in the sentence that either acts:
Paul hit the ball.
Or is acted upon:
• The ball is hit by Paul.
Or just exists in some state of being:
Paul is good at hitting the ball.
The subject is usually a noun (thing-name) or pronoun (he/she/it/they/this/that—replacement for noun), or a combination phrase that centers on a noun or pronoun, but includes modifying words or phrases, like:
The dirty old baseball
The old baseball sailing into right field

The predicate is always a verb or verb phrase which identifies the action of the clause's subject:
• Paul hit the ball.
An important group of predicates identifies a state or condition of the subject. The two most common of these "stative predicates" are is and have.
• Paul has a lot of experience playing baseball.

The predicate phrase can have auxiliary verbs like was and could, which express tense or some other aspect of the action:
• Earlier, Paul was hitting the ball over the fence.

It can also have adverbs which modify the action somewhat.
• Paul hit the ball weakly.

Clauses and sentences:
A clause then combines a subject (the actor or acted-upon, usually earlier in the sentence) and the predicate.

A clause can be either independent (subject-predicate):
Schools should not require the driver's exam.

or dependent (subject-predicate with a diminishment like a dependent conjunction):
Although schools should not require the driver's exam,

Independent clauses can be full sentences on their own, even if they are very short:
• I run.
Dependent clauses, no matter how long, cannot be full sentences on their own.
They must be attached to an independent clause to make a sentence:
• Although schools should not require the driver's exam, students should be encouraged to take the training course.

The best way I've found to learn how sentences work is to diagram sentences. This gives you a graphic and hands-on way to analyze what roles different words and phrases play. Here's a great site with lots of sentence diagramming exercises. Be sure and find the "Enter" button in the middle of the front page to get access to the exercises. Really, this is fun! Trust me!