Sunday, November 29, 2009

One Funny Paragraph

I’m re-reading the Iain Pears book, Stone’s Fall, this time with the intent of culling every bit of writerly magic from it which I can find. Pears does many things well, but I’ve been struck by the way he manipulates his paragraphs. This one in particular seemed worth sharing.

To set up this example paragraph, let me tell you that Brock is an aspiring painter down on his luck. He lives in the same boardinghouse as the narrator, a shabby place that smells like overcooked cabbage. We’ve already heard a joke about the fact that it’s situated on Paradise Walk, and we’ve heard one of the poet tenants compose a humorous ode to the unidentifiable gray meat served up by their landlady. This was all in a prior chapter.

The narrator leads into the example paragraph by saying that the painter Brock will make his mark years later during the great war, that the bleakness of those years suited his temperament and vision, but that artistic clarity “eluded him when he lived with us in Chelsea.”

No, he had come up with this project for a gigantic portrait of the crowned heads of Europe, a scheme for which he was so totally unsuited that I did not know whether to wonder at his impudence or at his lack of reality. He wished-he, John Praxiteles Brock-to summon every monarch, from Tsar Nicholas to the Kaiser, from King Edward to the Emperor of Austria, and every last kinglet of Scandinavia and the Balkans, to sit together to be painted by him. Presumably not in the dining room of 17 Paradise Walk, Chelsea.

Every time I read this, I laugh at that final punch line. Three sentences, and the last is a fragment, but it’s structured so well that it could almost be used as a clinic on comedy writing. So let’s do that, shall we?

The first sentence sets up the premise.
“A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar”
“he had come up with this project for a gigantic portrait of the crowned heads of Europe”

I particularly like the use of the word gigantic here. It feels just slightly off-tone. (You’ll have to trust me on that -- in the context of the rest of the passage, the word is exaggerated and cheeky enough to stick out a bit.) Likewise, “crowned heads of Europe” feels casual. Consider how the tone would change by substituting “ruling monarchs of Europe.” Ruling monarchs are more dignified than crowned heads, don’t you think?

Then we get an emotional note from the narrator that sets the tone for the rest of the paragraph. You don’t always find this in comedy writing, and in fact, I generally caution against telling emotions, but I think it’s used to good effect here. “I did not know whether to wonder at his impudence or at his lack of reality.” By confessing to this emotional response, the narrator guides our own response. It’s almost a direct wink at the reader.

Next we get the sense of shocked emphasis implied by the phrase, “He wished-he, John Praxiteles Brock-to summon every monarch.” By contrasting this untitled painter with the long list of monarchs to follow, we get a sense of the outlandishness of the situation. Every new name added to the list serves to contrast the original emphasized name, John Praxiteles Brock. And with each new Tsar and Emperor, we get another layer of emotional emphasis to both the impudence and the unreality.

By the time we’re done with the list, we are also filled with a sort of amused wonder, just as the narrator predicted. And then, after layering on magnificent title after regal name, after building up this carefully detailed impression of magnificence far out of the reach of the ordinary painter, only after all this controlled set-up, he hits us with,
“Presumably not in the dining room of 17 Paradise Walk, Chelsea.”

Beautiful. This single fragment pulls the rug out from under all the magnificent detail in the middle of the paragraph. It’s a reversal of sorts, and much comedy depends on the principle that unexpected reversals are amusing. Stark contrasts are amusing. Exaggeration is amusing. We get all of them in this single short paragraph.

Any comedy writers out there want to take a stab at explaining why this structure works so well?


Saturday, November 28, 2009

Top Ten Reasons the editor doesn't love what your critique group loves

I want to reconstruct my incredibly brilliant post that got lost when the PC crashed. You’ll have to take my word for the brilliance, because this reconstructed one won’t be as brilliant. As you read it, just think, “I bet the original was brilliant.”

Top Ten Reasons Why the Editor Doesn’t Applaud What Your Crit Group Loved:

10) The critique group knows too much-- the context of your story and how much you've improved and what this all means. But the editor knows only what you submit: “This writer never heard about killing her darlings—and she sure has a lot of darlings, all very precious and twee.” Sometimes what we love is actually a bit… self-indulgent. Once I started a mystery set in a critique group, with both the murderer and the victim as members of the group, and each fictional group member was based on a member of my then-critique group, and it was screamingly funny—to us, anyway. Actually, it’s not a bad idea, but I can certainly understand why editors weren’t rolling on the floor when “Sadie” and “Mary” once again debated semicolons and “Laura” went on a diet and the other members kept bringing chocolate to meetings, you know, exactly as happened in my critique group! (It was really funny! My critique group just howled!)

9) The critique group sees things scene by scene, by the editor sees the manuscript as a whole: “Huh? What’s this got to do with the story? Is it an outtake from some other book?” Scenes can be terrific each on their own, but not always fit into the tone or plot of the rest of the book. The crit group might see your story a scene at a time and love each individually… and never read the entire book and so not notice if one scene is out of place.

8) “Nicely written, but (insert trendy plot device) is so last year, or will be next year anyway.” From acceptance to publication is usually a year, so the editor has to scout ahead and imagine what will be appealing to readers not right now, but in 12 months. So you and the critique group might be right, that your wizard is better than Harry Potter… but the editor might be getting up-to-the-minute info from the sales force that wizards’ popularity is dropping off, and will be nil next year.

7) “Good story, but the prose is so rough—I just don’t have time to fix every sentence.” There is a minimal level of prose, and sometimes your critique group might, um, have a lower minimum than the editor does. If the overworked editor has two good stories, and one requires maybe three hours of editing, and the other twelve hours, which would you suggest she take? It’s your job, not hers, to make this story publishable. And editors are editors. We love the English language, grammar and all. When you turn in a manuscript full of errors, it’s kind of like you’re disrespecting our great love. We can’t help but take that personally!

6) Your critique group expects a rough draft, a chapter with crossouts and handwritten additions. The editor expects something else: “I can’t believe she submitted this manuscript in this condition. The paper reeks of smoke; there is a bloodstain, I’m pretty sure, on page 12. Who does she think she is? Stephen King delivers a clean manuscript — if this no-name wants to be a professional, let her get started on acting like one.” You think I’m kidding? I’m not. If the editor has an asthma attack opening your envelope, or goes looking for latex gloves so as not to encounter your bodily fluids, well, let’s just say, no matter how great the story is, it’s probably not going to be read. Print out a new manuscript for each submission. And keep your paper and your printer in a room where no one smokes.

5) “Great idea, well-executed, but, umm, we don’t publish short stories (or horror novels or non-fiction or…).” Your critique group might be right— you are the next Alice Munro. But if the editor doesn’t edit short story anthologies, you can’t count on her taking the manuscript across the hall to the appropriate colleague. I was sort of shocked, when I became an editor, how many submissions I received which had nothing to do with what I could acquire. Do your research, and don’t waste the editor’s time and your postage with the sort of book she doesn’t edit.

4) Your critique group is probably filled with experienced readers who get a kick out of something new and fresh. The editor might too… until she remembers that she’s not the target audience: “Very quirky, very cutting-edge—but our audience would never buy this.” Publishers are only as innovative as their customers. They might be wrong—publishers frequently underestimate the ability of readers to adapt quickly to what might seem experimental—but editors do have to take the attitude of the higher-ups into consideration, and the higher-ups generally think their customers are conservative and change-resistant.

3) Your critique group loves your premise and thinks it’s just the high-concept the publisher is looking for—easy to market, easy to blurb. And the crit group is right. What they don’t realize, however, is that the editor knows more: “We have another book with a similar premise coming out in three months. This is better, but that’s already paid for.” There are no unique ideas, or they’re not unique for long. I remember one editor saying she got – in one week-- three manuscripts using the premise of Jesus being cloned from the blood on the Shroud of Turin, and each of the authors arrived at that premise independently. Only one book got bought, probably the first to hit the desk. You and the critique group might be exactly right, that you came up with this on your own, but so apparently did someone else-- earlier.

2) Your critique group probably loves you no matter what. And heck, you might be a prince in F2F personal relationships. You remember birthdays, and you’re always there with an encouraging word, and they have a history with you, so even if you’re grumpy one day, they’ll forgive you. The editor, however, might think, “In the dictionary, next to the word ‘difficult,’ is a photo of this writer. Depending on the time of day he calls (and he’s called every day since he submitted), he seems to think that I am either his enemy or his therapist. I cannot, cannot, cannot deal with him for the next year. Maybe he’s the next Dean Koontz and I’ll get fired for rejecting him… but so what? No job and no author is worth this increase of stomach acid.” An editor has to do more than acquire a manuscript. She has to edit it and shepherd it through, which means continued contact. How much do you want her to dread that? Think of that before you pick up that phone or hit “send”.
1) Your critique group is right. It’s really that good a book. And seriously, if there was any justice in the world, it would sell at auction and the advance pay for two kids in private college. However: “I love it, but my boss will hate it.” No accounting for tastes. I remember an editor-in-chief refusing a book because the heroine had the name of an ex-girlfriend. The author offered to change the name… no go. Lesson—sometimes it doesn’t make any sense. Great books get rejected all the time, for good reasons and bad. The market is fickle, and so are bosses. And the trouble is, you might never know whether your book was rejected “for cause,” or if it really is as great as your critique group says, and some factor completely beyond your control interferes.

So keep writing, keep critiquing, keep growing, keep trying. And make sure your critique group knows you want absolute honesty, and reward them with openness and gratitude. They might not have the editor’s perspective, but they’ll be the best readers you will ever have, and they can help you hone the manuscript to its best form. Then, well, then luck, timing, all that uncontrollable stuff, will factor in. But you will know you’ve done everything you can!

Future perfect

I came across this sentence and thought it was a good example of future perfect (will have) tense:

By the time I get back, I hope you will have forgiven me.

That is, in some time of the future, the action will have already happened in the past of that future (but still the future of now).

It's sort of like time travel, only without the nausea. :)


Friday, November 27, 2009

More sentences

Now all I'm doing here is presenting sentence sequences and constructions that I think might send the reader off in the wrong direction or make her squint and backtrack, or break your POV logic. This is just to keep conscious in revision of what the reader is going to get, and make sure it's what you want.

Here's one of those dialogue passages that doesn't use "he said," and the lack of that tends to draw readers in more to the dialogue. However, the reader still does need to be sure of who is saying what.

Example, and I am making the characters "he" and "she" so there's no pronoun confusion:

They stopped outside of a massive block of storage containers, and both of them got out of the truck. Oliver glanced over at the office, where a young guard sat bored behind the alarmed windows. It would do.

"I owe you one." Mary handed him the envelope. He stuffed it in his pocket. "I'll use the combination from high school-- you remember that."

"Kurt Cobain's deathday. Yeah. I remember."

"I owe you one" is spoken by Oliver, but as it's immediately followed by "Mary handed him" it sort of sounds like Mary said it. So how about "Oliver took the envelope"? That way his name is the one closest to the dialogue sentence and, also, it's clearly in his POV (you can say "he" if you don't like using the POV character's name)-- he's the one whose actions (taking rather than giving) matter, as we're in his perspective.

Not a big deal. But stay conscious of the reader's experience of your sentences, and know that you can cause the right experience by how you craft the sentences. The last thing you want is to halt your careful pacing by making the reader go back and re-read.


Brought to You by the Letters R and U

This month's "Ask an Editor" column answers a question about some of the distinctions between genre and literary tone and technique.

Go take a look. :)


Thursday, November 26, 2009

Sequence in sentence order

I don't think there's a RIGHT answer to this, but I keep coming across this issue with submissions and usually deciding how to edit based on context and other stuff. But I wonder how you all deal with it, what logic you use.

That is, how do you sequence when you have different types of sentences? Arrgh. I can't find the words. Let's say there are different types of info you can put in this passage or paragraph:

His perception.
Something that happens that causes that perception. (That is, the approaching car turned on his brights.)
The physical reaction to the event (flinching, say).
Emotional reaction to the event.
Thought or conclusion.
His action in response to event (not the immediate flinching, but the flashing his own lights or putting down the visor).

The two that seem the most movable are those first two, the event and the perception of the event. Which comes first? And what does POV have to do with it?

For example, with a deeper POV, his perception is all we get of the event, right? I mean, it's not objectively the car is approaching and the brights come on. Rather he sees the car approaching and the brights on. The perception statement is how we know what is happening.

But what about in a more objective narration, where there is a distinction between what actually happens and what is perceived? Maybe the event is really the big important thing:

And then the space ship imploded, and space debris rushed into the hole where The Pacifica used to be.
Well, that's maybe separate from:
Junie Warren chewed her peanut butter sandwich while watching the news on TV.
Which then would you lead with? Does it depend on whether Junie or the space ship is your focus?

What about when it's all pretty personal and there's a cause/effect:

I panted like a plowhorse.
I climbed the four storeys to my apartment. (If ever we needed an intro participial phrase... but which verb to participlize? Panting, or climbing? Which goes first, the cause (climbing) or the effect?)
Panting like a plowhorse, I climbed the four storeys to my apartment. (Hmm. Do you pant WHILE/simultaneous to climbing? Do we want to show that?)
Climbing the four storeys to my apartment, I panted like a plowhorse.

Or would you think there's a cause and effect here and do it in two sequential clauses, but reversed to show cause then effect:

After I climbed the four storeys to my apartment, I was (past progressive... why?) panting like a plowhorse.

I climbed the four storeys to my apartment, and by the time I reached the top, I was panting like a plowhorse.

Here's a sentence I just came across:

He stopped walking, his attention caught by a ruckus at the entrance.

Just a workman sentence, nothing special. So I'm not saying it can or should be brilliant. But notice this might have something to do with how deep the POV is.

This presumably is the sequence of events from inside him (in his POV):
He's walking.
He sees the ruckus.
It catches his attention.
He stops walking.

But let's be outside, omniscienty, more distant-- observing him rather than being him. What's the sequence from outside him?
He's walking.
He stops walking.
Why? The stop-walking means something has caught his attention.
He is looking at the entrance.
There is a ruckus there.

That is, from the outside, his action is before the perception. But from the inside, his perception is before the action.

Let's have some examples? What determines what sequence you have put a passage or sentence in?

Great link

New archive on Shakespeare's time.
Article about it.

Archive shedding light on Shakespeare's times goes online

Tudor documents show the pulling power of Titus Andronicus, the cost of darning and fears about the plague

* Maev Kennedy
*, Wednesday 25 November 2009 11.21 GMT
A unique archive on the theatre of Shakespeare's times, revealing everything from the price of a ferry ticket across the Thames to the cost of a tumbler's breeches, becomes available free to the world today when the papers of the theatre owner and entrepreneur Philip Henslowe and his actor son-in-law Edward Alleyn go online.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thoughts on pacing-- nothing brilliant

Pacing is really a measure of how frequently important plot events happen in your story, how closely occurring they are. So in a fast pace, these events come more often and closer together than in a leisurely pace.

A few caveats:

1) Plot events that affect pacing are usually external, that is, important things happening in the external plot. This is one reason you’ll often find a fast pace in a plot-driven (non-character-driven) book.

2) Fast is not the only pace. There is “a leisurely pace” and “a measured pace” too, and those are good paces. But this isn’t genre-dependent so much as sub-genre-dependent—that is, within the “crime-novel” genre, the pace of a thriller is usually fast, while the pace of a suspense novel is usually more measured.

3) Why? I think that novels that are meant to inspire particular emotion—that is, horror novels, romance, suspense, and comedy—might need more time BETWEEN events to nurture the emotional response to events. In fact, that emotional response is often just as or more important to the story than the event itself.

Adapting your story to the sub-genre’s conventional pace is probably helpful in selling it.

The most important events for pacing are those turning points we were talking about, because they are the events that chart the path of your plot, and are the ones that determine when and in what direction that path changes. But between those major events are other events, and these are creators of pace too. Generally, the more events you have between turning points, the faster your pace will be. Some other considerations:

1) Placement is important. When you place a pacing event at the end of a scene—right before the scene ends—you are signaling to the reader that it’s important. The short pause—the white space, the change in time and setting—that usually comes with a scene change reinforces the importance and drama by giving the reader a moment to think about it.

2) So the purpose of the end placement might differ depending on the pace, and that might also modify how the event is presented. The goal of this in a fast-paced book is to give the reader incentive to quickly turn the page to find out what happens. That is more likely if the event poses a question, like “Will he survive that fall off the cliff?”

But if you want to create suspense or some other emotion, you might want the reader to linger there in the “old scene,” perhaps even re-read that last paragraph or two and relive the event before moving on. So in that case, the event might end on a some seeming conclusion: “He’s dead.” Or it might end with an emotional revelation or expression: “I can’t fight it anymore. I love you.” Obviously, causing the reader to stop and think and re-read will slow down the pacing… but that’s not a bad thing for emotion novels.

By the way, notice that the ending placement is a signal to the reader that “this is important!” If you want the reader to note the event but move on without really marking it, as often comes up in a mystery, where do you place the event? In the middle of the scene.

3) One feature of suspense-scening (and I don’t just mean in suspense novels, but any novel, including comic novels, where you want the reader to mark an event and respond to it, but without the drama and frenetic need to know—when an event’s repercussions might take place over the next several scenes, or be suspended for a few scenes) is that the event is often deceptively trivial. That is, it might just seem like a secret admirer has left Joanie a romantic gift, but the reader (if not Joanie) might sense that there’s something vaguely threatening in the gift. This can be accomplished by presentation.

First, placing this at the end of a scene tells the reader it’s important. Also, you can vary the language and selection of descriptive detail slightly to hint at something darker, something beyond Joanie’s own puzzled pleasure (one of the flowers in the bouquet is dead, and she notes this and pays it no mind, or she sets the bouquet on a desk under the window where can be seen a gathering of rainclouds, or she runs to get a glass of water to add to the bouquet and the faucet is stuck). The reader will note this and be emotionally affected, but not know exactly why—that creates suspense. (Remember, comic scene structure is very akin to suspense scene structure, because both rely on postponement to create emotion but also the suspension of emotion which will explode later.) This will lead to a more measured pace, as you build up the emotion in the reader over several scenes.

4) In contrast, in fast-paced thrillers and adventure novels, you want to make those scene-ending events unmistakably dramatic, so that the reader has no doubt that This Is Important Right Now. Again, placement at the end will help accomplish this, but that’s not enough. You need perhaps more dramatic language and description around it, maybe even dramatic pronouncements like, “He was the last man she wanted to see,” or “Mark didn’t have any choice. He had to stop that explosion.” This is somewhere detail really matters, so write the scene and the event, then go back and think about whether you want the light translucent or glaring, and if you want him to jam his hands in his pocket or grab that hammer, or if the object is described as smooth or bulky. Your choice of details can actually help the reader know whether to linger here or pelt onward to the next scene.

5) For real drama (a turning point or a cliffhanger), create an event that poses the question and then have a chapter break; that is, place this not just at the end of a scene but at the end of the chapter, so that reader feels that frenetic frustration as the white space at the end of the chapter becomes an obstacle to Finding Out. That is a mark of fast pace—that the reader wants desperately to Find Out.

6) With a fast-paced novel, you do probably want to answer that question or complete that action or show the reaction soon—definitely in the next scene, maybe in the first part of the scene. Why? Well, the point isn’t to frustrate and enmesh the reader, but to keep the reader moving on, so there should be an expectation of another event, another question, another cliffhanger, coming up quickly. So resolving the previous scene’s question makes way for the next one.

Oh, you’re probably noticing an opportunity here—if you want to pull an end run, a reversal, a trick, play with this. Say at end of Chapter 14, someone is arrested for the murder. You can keep the reader reading past this seeming conclusion first by having the arrest happen at the end of the chapter rather than the beginning of the next, that is, the arrest is the question, not the answer. Also you can play with the convention (and signal that This Isn’t It) by suspending (postponing) the actual consequence, by waiting till the start of the new scene not to resolve this (protagonist breathes a sigh of relief) but to plant doubts (protagonist is haunted by the one thread that wasn’t wrapped up). That sets up the dread in the reader that something is wrong, that this isn’t finished… but she’ll have to keep reading to find out.

Okay, those are just some thoughts. Notice I’m not focusing much at all on what the events ought to be, rather more about placement and presentation. That’s because I think those are key to pacing, and fortunately, are easy to manipulate. We are fortunate that we have readers well-trained in “story grammar,” who respond with gratifying swiftness and accuracy to structural cues. So, as always, figure out what works for you when you’re reading—what makes you frantically flip that page, or linger and re-read—and apply that knowledge to your own story. Pacing isn’t really about WHAT happens, but how whatever happens is presented, and while your muse and id and dark inner demons might dictate the what (and many thanks for that!), your conscious mind can be in control of the how.

Let’s think of “deceptively trivial but actually important” events for the measured pace, and maybe some “question-creating events” for the faster pace. Thoughts? Suggestions?


Editing by Machine

Our friend Julie in the comments emailed me to ask my opinion of a particular editing software package. Because my opinion is less than glowing, I won't name the software. It operates much like all the editing software I've seen, and so my comments could apply to several platforms.

First, I must disclose that I'm biased against the notion that content editing can be performed by mechanical analysis. How can any software analyze for strength and consistency of character? For relative emotional impact of premise and climax? For a reader's potential ability to bond with a character? Can a computer identify theme, motif, and symbol? If it works by analyzing text, how can it analyze subtext?

I would never rely upon software for content editing.

But just for kicks, and just to be sure I wasn't prejudiced against something that might work, I downloaded the software and ran one of my manuscripts through the machine. I used a manuscript under contract with my company, one I know inside out and upside down. I chose this because I wanted a clear understanding of the story and narrative so that the sample analysis would be meaningful. (And no, I won't tell you which manuscript it was. The only relevant point is that I am thoroughly acquainted with it.)

Here's what I learned:

1. How many words per sentence.

I did a spot check of its counting, and found one error. The error came in where a number was used in the text. This is not a big deal, I think, but worth mentioning.

Because it presented the counts in the same order that the sentences appear in the manuscript, this function might be useful for showing where the text might be rhythmically monotonous. Where there was a string of four sentences all with six words each, I checked the manuscript again. The sentences were fine -- two standard SVO constructions, one fragment, and one with an introductory prepositional phrase. Rhythm depends upon more than mere word counts, but still I can see where this tool might be useful.

2. Flagging single word repetitions.

Again, in theory this could be a useful tool. In practice, it has its limits. It flagged the character names as overused, and even reported the exact number of usages to eliminate in order to overcome this objection. Strangely, it did not object to pronouns, so I ran a search in the original manuscript and found that pronouns outnumbered character names by a factor of more than ten. I don't know what to make of that. Perhaps the machine doesn't like proper nouns? (Worth noting: I had to use word to count the pronouns. The fancy editing software doesn't let you select which terms are count-worthy.)

The software didn't let me choose its parameters, so it generated some useless data such as the number of contractions in the manuscript. It was unable to distinguish between legitimate usages of the past progressive tense, but lumped all the "was walking" and "were kissing" moments in with all of the simple past conjugations of to be. Likewise, it counted the number of words ending in -ing without distinguishing between progressive tense participles and present participial phrases. None of that is of much value.

3. Identifying overused phrases.

The software claimed to be able to identify overused phrases. This part of the report, however, did little more than flag certain adverbs like when and where and then and after. The author earned a hearty "Good!" in this part of the report, but I'm not sure why. I suppose it doesn't like adverb phrases.

The other part of this section of the report listed several nouns that it claimed were overused. Seemed odd to include these in the part that was supposed to identify repetitive phrases -- phrases do have more than one word in them, after all. In any case, the nouns it flagged as "repetitive phrases" were appropriately used. This part of the report seems to have little value.

4. Dialogue tags.

The machine had no difficulty scanning the document for the word said. It picked up on some synonyms such as muttered, asked, blurted, and shouted, but missed hissed and snarled. (Alicia, make of that what you will!) It did not identify beats. I routinely strip tags during line edits, sometimes converting them to beats and sometimes eliminating them. This function might be useful if you were doing a search and destroy on tags, but there's a built-in option in word that can do that already.

5. Misused words.

I expected this part of the section to identify misused words. Silly me! What it did was flag every word that has a homonym. To/too/two, pearl/purl, and so on. It left it to me to determine if the correct homonym had been chosen.

6. Spelling errors.

This baffled me. We had no spelling errors according to this report. The manuscript is set in an alternate world, complete with made-up nouns, and none of these triggered a spelling error. Word's built-in spellchecker went cuckoo over this same manuscript, but the special editing software blew right past everything. Makes me wonder if I somehow accidentally turned this function off.

And that was it. No pretense at literary analysis, just a simple word-counting program that counts what it thinks is important. You could potentially use this software to locate certain words you want to change, but I don't see why you would spend money for it. Word (and, I suspect, wordperfect and other word processors) already let you do this easily.

Here's how. This varies a little bit depending on which version of the software you're running, but here's the basic process.

Open up the dialogue box for the "replace" function.
In the "find" field, type something you want to flag. (Said, ing, ly, etc.)
In the "replace" field, type the exact same word.
While the cursor is still in the "replace" field, click the "More" button.
Click "Format" and select "font" from the menu.
Select a nice bright font color like red.
Click on "okay," and then "replace all."

Boom. You just flagged your word. Repeat as needed for every word you want to flag. And then, when you're going through your manuscript for that pesky manual content editing, you won't be able to avoid all your present participles or saids or -ly adverbs.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Character or symbol

I'm just going to ask this, because -- natch-- I was reading a novel and thought, "This isn't a character. This is a construct." You ever have that experience? I don't know what the distinction really is, or how you make a real character, or how you know when you've "constructed" one rather than created one or discovered one. But I noticed this and thought I'd bring it up for review.

What it felt like had happened is that the writer started with an idea. "She's a gardening catalogue copywriter!" And what does that mean? It means that she describes things. That she is part of the whole commercial materialistic American machine. That she describes mundane tools with gilded language, that she uses language to sell, and sell out. That there's this motif of gardening/growing/life vs. glossy paper/lies/death. That there's a worthlessness and emptiness of her work, a prostitution.

And that's all true, and of course, I think that the art of characterizing might come from taking what we know of the character and inquiring and extrapolating: "What does it mean that she's...."

So when does this go wrong and create types rather than characters? When does this become "a catalogue copywriter" rather than "Sharon who writes catalogue copy" ? When does she become not a character but a way to satirize or symbolize commercialism or???

You know, this is really hard, creating people and stories.

Somehow this feels like what happens when we start conceiving a story with a premise or theme-- "I'm going to write about how modern college life is so commercialized and anomistic." It so often ends up so didactic and preachy, like the story is actually an allegory meant to prove this point. So the character above becomes just a way to prove some point about people?

How do you know when you've created a construct? I wonder if that's something readers can see but writers can't. (Also, I suspect this is something that lit-fic writers do deliberately sometimes-- to prove a point, or to prove that there is no point. :)

No brilliant thoughts, but have you experienced this in your reading? When do you sense this is a symbol, not a person, and what causes you to feel that?


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Minor editing thing

I just came across this in revising, and thought it was a good example of avoiding a problem. Here it is:

She handed him the snowcone and left him to return to the ballgame.

Minor, minor, minor! But who returned to the ballgame? Did she leave him (allow him, let go of him so he could go to the ballgame), or did she LEAVE him behind (go back to the ballgame herself)?

It's just one of those constructions that confuses, and shouldn't. So I just edited out the "him" which caused the confusion, and voila! It works, and it's clear that she's the one who went back to the ballgame:
She handed him the snowcone and left to return to the ballgame.

This is the sort of dangerous decision editors have to make. I mean, it's not all fun and games, doing a line edit.

But there is a teachable point here (there always is). Writers should be conscious of the misconceptions caused by sentence construction. Stay in contact with your own meaning there, and make sure that the sentence says that and only that. (Ambiguity is great, but not about which character went back to the ballgame. Be ambiguous about emotion, about theme, about values... but not about character motion.:)

I'm wondering if-- this is such a trivial sentence. But I'm wondering if we make the action slightly different...
She grabbed the snowcone from him and left him to return to the ballgame.

Hmm. No, it's still not clear who went back to the ballgame.

Read consciously, and revise to refine meaning. And it's ALL important. Every sentence. Well, really, it is. Every unintentionally ambiguous sentence detracts from the deliberate ambiguity of more important sentences. Your reader needs to trust you-- needs to believe that THIS ambiguity means something and isn't just an accident.

First principles

I'm not planning on commenting much on the whole Harlequin mess (but if you're interested, here's a long blog colloquy/comment with lots of links and Nora Roberts :),

but I had a conversation about this with a friend, and she said, "90% of the time, people's problems can be traced back to a decision/choice they themselves made .. maybe not recently, but at some point they had a choice or made a decision that led to their current quandary." And it's true, and maybe it's something we might think about when we're creating (or rather discovering) our character's conflicts.

But if we do as my friend suggests and go back to the origins of a disaster or conflict, maybe what we'll see is that the start was a decision, choice, or action that went against "the first principle".

What's the "first principle?" Well, to me it's that sort of personal edict of value or morality or behavior that you've chosen as a guide to action and decision. Not everyone has this, and many would have it but would never have articulated it. In organizations, the first principle usually is stated in the mission statement, or is so essential a part of the corporate culture everyone knows it. Usually these are "positive":
Treat stakeholders (employees, stockholders, suppliers, customers) with respect
Be fair
Act with mercy
Be thoughtful and conscious of the implications of actions
Be generous
Know yourself
Be prepared

Let's try some which aren't so wimpy-good but are still action-edicts:
With your shield or on it
You can never be too careful
Never leave a man behind on the battlefield (and how many soldiers have died for this one!)
Don't hang your dirty linen out for all to see (notice this is the opposition to "Be honest")
Don't rock the boat
Never make a scene (how many "ladies" grew up with that as the dominating principle)
Beauty is truth
Always do your best
Always be your best
Always look your best
Don't let the bastards get you down
Don't sweat the small stuff

Some are more practical:
Be the first off the starting block
Avoid the generic (very good first principle for novelists :)
Focus on the bottom line
Winning is the only thing
There is strength in diversity
Concentrate on your strengths

Some are more likely to lead to conflict than others (fictional example supplied)
Expect and reward loyalty (Godfather)
Seek the truth no matter what (Oedipus)
Always think before acting (Hamlet)

Some of these might seem trivial, but we probably all know people who have what we consider trivial principles. "Always look your best" sounds like vanity, but don't we admire those grands dames who manage to wear the right scarf even when they're going to chemotherapy? Think about signal actions like that, and trace them back-- what's the principle that underlies it?

What's the difference between this and a value or strength? Hmm. Well, they're all related, certainly-- principles would be based on values, probably. But I think a principle is a CODE, an edict, not just a feeling or attitude. You'd identify a value as a comparison ("Loyalty is more important than truth to me"). You'd state a principle as an imperative. "Reward loyalty." So the first principle is more aimed at action from the start. Try making a value into a principle statement and see if that helps you imagine more action and conflict.

Anyway, it's useful, I think, to identify a first principle, because you can discover conflict in two ways from that:

1) What happens when you follow your first principle.
2) What happens when you go against your first principle.

A publishing company might, for example, have as a first principle "never forget the reader." Now of course, businesses are trying to make a profit, but that's certainly not the first principle for many companies, or they'd all be seeking new trends constantly rather than sticking to their original business. (In fact, one of the paradoxes of publishing lately has been that companies who have earned steady if small profits for 100 years by focusing mostly on getting books out have started losing money as soon as the focus came to be "maximizing profit". Maybe that's not so paradoxical, or at least, it shouldn't be.)

"Never forget the reader" isn't as immediately and uniformly positive as, say, "Act with love." What's involved in that? Oh, maybe "giving the reader what he/she wants" might mean less challenging books, or a greater reliance on focus groups and market surveys than on the editor's gut in determining types of books to buy. It might mean identifying some little meme readers seem to like and inserting it in book after book (remember the "makeover scene" trend? "Everyone loved the makeover scene in Pretty Woman! Let's put that in all our books!"). But a continued dedication to the reader would lead against an action that puts a lot of energy and work and corporate reputation into making money from making books readers will never read.

Double-edged, definitely. But that's where the conflict is. What do you give up when you concentrate on one principle? That's conflict. You can't innovate much when your first principle commits you to concentrating first and foremost on customer desires. You can't lay off half your employees for better productivity if your first principle is "loyalty". You can't maximize your investment income if "slow and steady wins the race" has been your guiding principle.

So there's conflict to be found in acting within your principle, or rather, in avoiding other possible actions. The older son offers the example of Roland, The Gunslinger in Stephen King's Dark Tower series. Roland is the very model of a principled character, and his principle is "Never give up the fight." This is a long series, so the choices and consequences are spread out over seven books. The first book shows him sticking to his principle of refusing to give up the fight, even when he's forced to choose to let Jake, his surrogate son, fall to his death. (The entire series deals with this theme of sacrificing love for principle and the reverse. King is a classical plotter-- his use, btw, of the gun as a motif is a masterclass in how to embed theme in objects.)

This conflict seems to lead to a more traditional heroic story. Here is the man of principle to whom bad things happen because he sticks to his core value. The husband offers the example of the Matthew Broderick character in Glory, whose properly soldierly dedication to the chain of command and following orders leads to him having to accept racist treatment (he is in charge of the black regiment) from his commanders. He kept trying to follow the rules, and finally he does have a bit of rebellion (when he raids the supply shop to get necessities for his men), he could say it was within the rules (he had been promised the supplies by his commander). He even goes against his own morality to follow orders when he orders the flogging of Trip. The conflict comes from obeying his first principle no matter what, and his journey is towards a more nuanced understanding of his duty and of the complicated politics of the military.

Another protagonist who sticks to his first principle and runs into conflict for it is Oedipus, of course. His first principle is "seek the truth"-- he is the riddle-solver, the one who figures things out, the one who isn't afraid of the truth. And that leads him to discover an unbearable truth, along the way pretty much destroying his family and his kingship.

When the protagonist sticks to the principle, uses that to guide most of his actions (and especially the early actions), the conflict might come fast and hard. After all, what use is a principle if it is easy to stick to, if there are no consequences to holding it? So stories that use this model might have front-loaded conflict (bad things happen pretty quickly).

(Talk about sticking to principles. I'm watching the Colts-Ravens game, and what an example. Now I'm in Indy, and we love our Colts, and Baltimore loves its Ravens-- won a Super Bowl!-- but Baltimore has never forgotten that the Colts owner in the middle of the night a couple decades ago moved the team from there to here. Anyway, this game is in Baltimore, and the announcer and the scoreboard guys do not refer to the "Colts" or the "Indianapolis Colts"-- they say, "The Indianapolis Professional Football Team." The scoreboard says, "Indy," not "Colts". That's principle!)

While I think we see the "sticking to principle" conflict coming more from truly heroic characters, Moby Dick is a good example of how it can easily become monomania. Ahab's intense dedication to the principle of getting revenge and his unwillingness to swerve from that principle leads to destruction, and Melville definitely doesn't present him as heroic.

Now what about #2? What happens when you act AGAINST your first principle?
I guess the first thing is to make sure that the first principle is established in early scenes. You are going to have him violate it pretty quick, so you won't have the luxury of setting it up over the first half of the book as you do with scenario #1. So how can you show that her first principle is to seek the truth or to be loyal or whatever early on, knowing that you're going to show her going against it pretty soon? If you don't set it up as important, as a principle, early on, then her violation of it will have no dramatic weight-- the action will be only a response to exigency, not a real conflict.

But I think it's also important to get the character acting against principle pretty early-- and to motivate that well. For example, one great cultural principle set up in many classical stories is "Be hospitable." It sounds sort of wimpy, but in fact, the Greeks made such big deal about this, even having myths where the vagrant who appears at the doorstep turns out to be a god. So every homeowner knew that he had to offer food and shelter and treat intruders as honored guests-- and in return, the guests had to treat the host with respect.
So this is the cultural backdrop of the great drama of the Iliad, and notice what happens. Paris comes to Menelaus's kingdom (the myths vary as to how this happens) and they should treat each other with the mutual respect required by the principle of hospitality. But here comes the greatest motivation of all-- he falls in love with Menelaus's wife (Aphrodite's doing), and runs off with her, violating the principle and starting a war.

Macbeth is shown in his first scene as a good soldier, brave and triumphant. But soon his wife's appeal to his ambition (and his male insecurity) turns him against the soldierly principle of respect for chain of command and he kills his king and usurps the kingdom.

The initial violation is usually done because of exigency-- some seemingly good reason, some goal that could be reached just by violating ("just this once") this principle. So maybe it's good to set up the principle and set up a conflicting (but understandable) goal. "You can achieve your goal if you just ..." Also, I think that the character might be quickly rewarded for this pragmatic choice, so that there is a postponement of external bad consequences (so you'll have more action in the second half of the book). But an initial reward for doing the pragmatic/unprincipled thing can also put the focus on the internal consequences that come from violating principle, with the costs of this choice coming from within primarily-- the guilt, Lady Macbeth's madness, maybe.

What are some other examples of this (early) violation of principle? So are there some principles that would lend themselves better to violation? Or rather to creating good conflict by violation? "Act with honor," for example?

I notice that the examples I can think of for #1 tend to be heroic, and the ones I can think of for #2 are not really heroic. That is, maybe we understand that heroes might have to violate their principles, but we want it to be a difficult decision in furtherance perhaps to what they realize is a higher principle. ?

Any other examples, like of characters who sacrifice the first principle early for some other goal, and you regard as heroic?

And how does this affect the trajectory of your plot?

And what would you identify as your protagonist's first principle?

Hmm. Thinking of mine... "Be responsible." I know there's a better way to say that, but I mean he thinks he should always do the right thing, that everything relies on his doing the right thing. That makes me think that I need to have him choose the first action (where he pretends to be someone else) because he thinks it's the right thing to do, maybe, that he has to do it to make things work. I realize now that "tell the truth" isn't his principle, it's more "do the right thing." I'm now wondering if I've made it too easy for him just to start pretending he's someone else. I wonder if he would do that right away, or if I need to make sure it's consonant with that first principle, or make it consonant anyway, change the circumstances so that assuming the disguise is the responsible thing to do. I'm a bit afraid of making him too saintly, so I'll have to check out alternate scenarios.


Writing book reviews

Theresa found this site of book reviews of writing craft books from Vision magazine. Yes, there's a review of my POV book there, but that's not why I'm sharing it with you. Well, not entirely. :) I think the reviews are really helpful in choosing among different grammar books and character books and such. Check it out!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Using Your Setting Lists

Earlier this month, when the NaNo-ers were on fire with enthusiasm to generate words, I asked you all to make a setting list and set it aside for later.

It's later now. Get out your list. (What do you mean, you didn't actually make one? It's a three-minute exercise. You can make one now. We'll wait. *whistles Jeopardy*)

Why a Setting List Helps

Remember our core definition of scene? A scene is--
-- Purposeful characters
-- In meaningful motion
-- Against a background

You need all three elements: characters, doing stuff, at a location. When we're in first draft frenzy, we tend to focus a lot on the characters and plot. This is entirely natural. Not a thing wrong with it. These are big picture elements that absolutely must be in place.

But if you start to feel sluggish or stuck, and you're not really sure what to do, a setting list can help break things loose by letting you approach scene construction from the most-overlooked angle. You brainstorm a list of places your characters might run into one another. You don't worry about whether they would ever actually go to this place, or what happens when they're there. You just set the timer for three or four minutes and brainstorm places as fast as you can.

My Exercise List

I made a quick example list, not with any particular book in mind, just pulling names from the ether and making the setting lists. Here is what I came up with in three short minutes.

Bill and Tony -- car wash, Bill's house, Tony's backyard next to the grill, the tavern on the corner, the parking lot where the streetlights are making that puddle of light, the cemetary, the graveside, the tombstone, a fresh grave gaping in the ground, inside a white car, the airport, the bathroom at the airport, the sinks that are always wet with the mirrors over them, why does this bring me back to an image of an open grave,

Bill and Mrs. Bill -- the bedroom, the kitchen, in the garage when the car breaks down, a high school dance with fancy dresses and crepe paper decorations, inside a red car, the place all the kids go parking, Mars, divorce court, inside a white pumpkin carriage with glass windows drawn by white horses, the forest, all these mice everywhere, lots of fairy tale connotations but it feels grim even if it comes out pretty

Carrie and Mary -- fast food joint next to the car wash, parking lot in daylight, parking lot at dark, suspicion, but they're a unit, wear the same uniforms, inside a car for carpool, an old car,

Carrie and Mrs. Bill -- colliding carts in the supermarket, Tony's backyard, parking lots again, lots of arguing when they meet, one of the wheels does that sideways-flippy thing so she can't get away,

Using the List

There are a number of ways to use the list. Some of these are more relevant to revision, and some are an aide to drafting. Perhaps the best use during the revision stage is to help you re-imagine existing scenes. If a scene feels limp or off-key, scan your setting list for other options.

But now, we're working from the assumption that you're in week three of NaNo, you're OMG sick of it all, and your book has taken so many unexpected twists that you're no longer sure what you've written. Now is the time the setting list can revive your flagging creativity.

Scenes That Want Description. Now, Please.

The first thing I want you to do is scan your list for places your brain strayed from a strict list of locations and into details related to those settings. For example, on my sample list, we have,

the forest, all these mice everywhere, lots of fairy tale connotations but it feels grim even if it comes out pretty

Notice how my brain flipped from a simple locale (the forest) to a description of what's in the forest and the possible motif it signaled? This is because some settings on your list will be so potent that the "kids in the basement" (as the creative mind is sometimes called) will immediately start sending up extra messages. It's almost as if on some inner level, your brain is shouting, "This one! This one right here! Holy shit, can you see all these mice!"

Go through your list and underline any place your mind skidded away from list-making and into elaborations. These are the hot spots on your list. Something triggered all that extra creative flow. It might be the setting detail immediately preceding it, or it might be the one before that. Only you will know. But whichever it is, pay attention to it. Something about that location is important to your story.

Recurrent Images = Possible Motifs

Next, look for setting details that are similar, and examine the possible reasons for these recurring details. On my list, we have,

car wash, the parking lot where the streetlights are making that puddle of light, inside a white car, in the garage when the car breaks down, inside a red car, the place all the kids go parking, inside a white pumpkin carriage with glass windows drawn by white horses, fast food joint next to the car wash, parking lot in daylight, parking lot at dark, inside a car for carpool, an old car, parking lots again,

That's an awful lot of noise about cars and parking lots, isn't it? And all of this is generated by a woman who can scarcely tell a sedan from a wagon. There's something significant here about cars. Parking lots. Airports. Even the wheels on shopping carts show up. So maybe it's something to do with motion, with people traveling. Arrivals or departures?

Notice, too, the dark and light images. Day and night, lights shining, the color white -- and dropped into the middle of this grayscale palette, a red car. Why is that particular car red?

Circle all the items on your list that are clustered or recurring. You can use different colors to signify different groupings. Now think about those groupings and ask yourself why these images are recurring, how they're linked, and what relevance they have to your plot and characters. Some of your answers will be obvious, and some might give you a fresh angle to work.

The Hot Zone: Disparate But Connected Images

Next, take a look at,

the bathroom at the airport, the sinks that are always wet with the mirrors over them, why does this bring me back to an image of an open grave

There's something very hot about that set of images. We don't normally look at a sink and think of a grave. So what triggered that connection? Who is standing at the sink? Arriving or departing? Who died?

When disparate elements are so clearly linked, it's worth a bit of your time to ponder how that fits into your story. Take a look for any similar equivalances on your list. This is something deeper than mice in the forest, an image potent enough to demand description right there and then. This, instead, is an image so hot that it immediately sends its tentacles into other scenes or other aspects of the story. This is an image that will prop up a good chunk of your plot, and it's a good idea to examine whether you're letting it reach as far as it can.

So with an image like this, your job is to test its connection to all the other pieces. Let's say our person at the sink is a murderer who has managed to avoid suspicion so far. Let's say he attended the victim's funeral and is now going home, but his guilt is beginning to overwhelm his relief. Let's say everything shaped like a sink will now trigger waves of remorse.

Go through your scenes and identify everything that's hollowed out or gaping like a sink or a grave. Brainstorm a list of other things shaped like this. Think about other objects or shapes that might trigger other emotions -- a dagger was the weapon, red is the color of blood, the murder happened in a pretty white car turned red by violence, and all of these details can work themselves into the plot in other ways. The dagger shape can make him feel cold or bitter. The color white can make him edgy and angry. The color red can shock him.

There's water all over that airport sink, but our murderer will never feel clean again. Can images of water help? We already have a puddle of light in a parking lot. How are these scenes connected? What happens under that streetlight to make the murderer think of water and sinks and open graves? Did he try to wash the pretty white car after he turned it red? Did he wash his clothes or body of the blood?

Do you see how this works? It's basically a brainstorming technique, a way to trigger ideas for scenes, but also a way to explore the connective tissue between what might seem like a random list of nothing.

The Final Question

After you've done all this analysis and have thought your deep thoughts, there's one more thing you can do.

Take your list.
Pick a setting.
Ask, "What happens here?"
And write it.

You might have been stuck before you did the analysis on your list, but now, with all these hot spots identified and explored, chances are you're ready to explore the action that happens against that setting. Have fun with it!

What did you discover about your personal setting list as a result of this exercise?


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sentence fragments redux

Really, I have no problem with the well-placed and effective and infrequent sentence fragment. But as with every grammar exception, I think, it should be the exception, not the rule. The fragment should be used for emphasis of some kind, not as just another variety of sentence. So when I revise or edit, I often re-hook a fragment to the thought-sentence adjacent, or if the fragment is really its own thought, make it into a full sentence. The occasional fragments which add emphasis or punctuation or voice-verisimilitude will have far more effect when they stand out as unusual.

This comes to mind because I'm reading a very good book with very many unnecessary fragments-- an average of one per paragraph. It's non-fiction, so the fragments do not reflect the voice of a mentally unstable or uneducated or broken-spirited character. And the author is an experienced writer, and the publisher a major one (the majorest, prob), and the subject is Shakespeare, so the incessant fragmentation does not fit the situation either. In fact, as generously as I'm reading, I cannot find any reason for a fragment-per-paragraph.

Anyway, this is a good book. In fact, I'm going to get a couple extra copies to give to friends. However, all these fragments have driven me to stop reading and write a blog post.) (Probably the author was not aiming for this result. :)

So here are some examples from a terrific chapter about the issues raised by the variation of endings of Lear between the Quarto and the Folio. (Really, this is fascinating.) But to the fragments, away!

Or do they represent different stages in the evolution of Shakespeare as an artist and thus different versions that are both, in a way, Shakespearian? If it was he who made the change.

Note the assumption by Shapiro that Shakespeare himself would have seen things Shapiro's way: that his original draft was "incoherent" and that he had to make a choice between "the integrity of his character and his plot". That Shakespeare preferred conventional revenge-plot simplification to anything too "dark and existential."

"She's dead as earth," he says in both versions as he sets her body down and calls out for a mirror. One he can hold up to his daughter's lips in a desperate effort to see, "If that her breath will mist or stain the stone/Why then she lives."

Here's a sentence fragment leading to a sentence fragment-- and across a different paragraph than the original sentence whose thought they together complete (that is, they belong in the same paragraph, I think):

*long but coherent sentence, ending with:
...and one of them (the conversations) has remained in my mind.
(New paragraph) Remained because it had an important effect on my thinking back then, and because of the way it can historicize, let's say, the fascinationg trajectory of Greenblatt's own thinking. His thinking about Shakespeare as an author.

Now when I try to plumb the author's intent as he tries to plumb Shakespeare's (and I think neither of us thinks that "author intent" should be controlling, yet here we are), I figure that he wanted to avoid making his sentences too long. But I don't think that's a good reason for fragments. First, in the case of a too-long sentence, the solution is making another sentence, not a fragment. Second, this is an academic book, and long sentences are not verboten in academic prose, goodness knows. Third, the sentences intact would have been long but coherent, as they start with the main clause (almost always the simplest construction for a long sentence, and one that can clarify almost any addition of modifying clauses and phrases).

So that last one -- there's no reason "remained" has to be a fragment. Let's make it a real sentence:
..and one of them (the conversations) has remained in my mind.
(New paragraph) This remained because it had an important effect on my thinking back then, and because of the way it can historicize, let's say, the fascinationg trajectory of Greenblatt's own thinking. His thinking about Shakespeare as an author.

Don't like the repetition? Neither do I. Here's what I'd actually do (also obliterating the dumb repetition of "his thinking" and the split of a thought into two paragraphs).

...One conversation has remained in my mind ever since because it had an important effect on my thinking back then, and because it can historicize, let's say, the fascinationg trajectory of Greenblatt's own thinking about Shakespeare as an author.
(Then I'd start a new paragraph for his discussion of the situation of the conversation and another about the specifics.)

It's a long sentence, and it can be broken up if necessary. (I might break between the "me" effects and the "him" effects-- "And it can historicize..." Yes, you can start a sentence with "and". The "because" is okay in the long sentence, but here it would cause a fragment (And because it can historicize, let's say, the fascinationg trajectory of Greenblatt's own thinking about Shakespeare as an author.FRAGMENT!) "And" is a coordinating conjunction and works with independent clauses (independent clauses can be complete sentences on their own), so "and" wouldn't make that a fragment. But "because" is a subordinating conjunction and creates a dependent clause, and dependent clauses must be hooked to an independent clause to form a full sentence. (I will post again my Clauses schemata if anyone asks.)

The "his thinking" -- I really don't get the author's thinking on this one. This is just an explanation of what thinking he's talking about in the sentence, so why not put it in the sentence?

Here's another where the repetition is unnecessary, and so is the fragmentation:

"She's dead as earth," he says in both versions as he sets her body down and calls out for a mirror to hold up to his daughter's lips in a desperate effort to see, "If that her breath will mist or stain the stone/Why then she lives."

Too long a sentence? Okay, but don't break it at the mirror. (Break, mirror-- I'm so clever. :) Break it between the speech and the action:
"She's dead as earth," he says in both versions. Then he sets her body down and calls out for a mirror to hold up to his daughter's lips in a desperate effort to see, "If that her breath will mist or stain the stone/Why then she lives."

That way each sentence has a coherent and complete thought-- Here is what he says. Here is what he does.

Now as I said, this is a GOOD book. So please don't let this make you not want to buy the book. It's good enough that I'm almost able to ignore the fragments. Almost. (See? I can do fragments!)

Let's look at the others, and I'll say how I'd edit them, were I editing this for Super Major Publisher.

Or do they represent different stages in the evolution of Shakespeare as an artist and thus different versions that are both, in a way, Shakespearian? If it was he who made the change.

This I understand. The fragment IS a conclusion, a caveat, and should be emphasized. However, I think a dash would be more emphatic, as it adds the note of interruption, of undermining. Let's see:
Or do they represent different stages in the evolution of Shakespeare as an artist and thus different versions that are both, in a way, Shakespearian-- if it was he who made the change.

Can't you almost hear the portentous pause there, the slight cackle before the subversive suggestion that this might not be Shakespeare's change at all? (He makes it clear that this IS subversive, even dangerous. :) Yes, there's the problem of the missing question mark, but I like the flatness imposed on the whole sentence by adding that caveat, so I'd want the question mark gone anyway. The "if" is sort of a superior question, overwhelming and undermining the first.

The trouble with a too-easy resort to fragments is that that can keep the author from trying out other constructions that might accomplish more than simple fragmentation. The dash both connects and divides, and that's a terrific effect, and, I think, just right for this thought. If the author has an instinctive "try again" whenever he considered a fragment, he might have found another, more effective construction. Just sayin'. (That's not truly a fragment, btw, though I would like it to be so I come across as more wild and free. It's really an elliptical sentence, as the subject "I" and the auxiliary "am" are implied. But I think that implication makes for a fragment. I mean, most fragments have implied sentence elements missing.)

Finally, here's a paragraph where I think fragmentation works, but I'd actually ADD a sentence fragment, so that-- well, I don't know. It just seems like two fragments makes for a better rhythm. Let's see:
Note the assumption by Shapiro that Shakespeare himself would have seen things Shapiro's way: That the original draft was "incoherent". That Shakespeare had to make a choice between "the integrity of his character and his plot". That he preferred conventional revenge-plot simplification to anything too "dark and existential."

I moved "Shakespeare" to my first fragment and "he" to the second (reversing them) and changed "his" to "the" in the first "that clause" because "he/his" could conceivably refer to "Shapiro/Shapiro's". Also I capped the first "That" after the colon. The general rule is you cap if what follows a colon is a complete sentence. But since there are fragments following, starting the same way, and those "Thats" are capped... well, really, I have three fragments as sentences following the colon, so I'd keep the capitalization coherent. Hey, sin boldly.

Anyway, the fragmentation here emphasizes the three problems the author has with Shapiro's assumptions. The colon (which starts a list) and the parallel structure emphasizes the emphasis, and also make the construction of the paragraph more formal (appropriate for academic publications). So I guess sin not-so-boldly. ;)

So... if you fragment a lot, challenge yourself. (Clearly, you cannot assume an editor is going to fix it for you.)
-First, recognize that this is a fragment. This is really essential. Fragments should be recognized. They can sometimes work, but they shouldn't be there because you can't distinguish a complete sentence from a fragment.

-Second, decide if this is intentional or accidental. If intentional, determine what your intention is. If accidental, well, accidents are meant to be fixed.

-Third, see what you're breaking up here. Is it a thought, a description, an explanation? If it's two thoughts you're breaking, consider if it would be better to have each thought a separate sentence, to give them each the weight of thought. If you're breaking a description or explanation (especially breaking a modifier off from the modified noun), connect it back and try breaking the sentence somewhere else. Modifiers usually belong with the word modified.

-Fourth, check for repetition. Repetition is often useful for clarity and for rhythm, but beware of creating the necessity for repetition merely to create a fragment. When you start a fragment with a repetition of one of the later words in the last sentence, that's a sign that you can probably adjoin it to the complete sentence without the repeated word.

-Fifth, if you want the fragmented thought separate, see if it can easily be made into a complete sentence. Try the legal workarounds (like the dash above). Experiment with different ways of presenting this and choose among them. Don't resort to fragments just because they're easy.
The most annoying fragments in my experience are relative clauses (the most common relative clauses begin with the relative pronouns
who or which, and these are truly the most annoying of fragments). The pronouns that start a relative clause create a dependent clause, but those pronouns can be replaced with other pronouns that create an independent clause (complete sentence), and there's usually no reason not to do that. (Very occasionally, yes, I like to go with who or which for emphasis or to replicate the voice of the character, but again, those aims are not achieved when I often use this form of fragmentation. Less is more. Less is more. Less is more. Talk about repetition. :)
Here you go-- examples.
Which was the reason she'd divorced him.
This (or that) was the reason she'd divorced him. (Still a pronoun, but a demonstrative one, pointing back to the previous sentence, but also giving this sentence its very own subject.)
Who never had a chance to win her back.
He never had a chance to win her back.

Finally, if you think this is a justifiable fragment, one that adds to your meaning in some way and can't be done better in a sentence, do it well. Do it infrequently, so that when you do, the fragmentation stands out and creates some meaning beyond "I don't know what a sentence is." Do it judiciously-- decide where the fragment should begin in order to create the meaning you want. And do it with a thought to rhythm, to sound, and to situation. You might find that a series or pair of fragments gives more power and coherence than just one. (With a pair or series, parallel structure can emphasize the connection.)

Fragmentation is not an excuse for laziness. Rather, fragmenting a sentence, like any breaking of rules, should be done for a purpose, and done well, and create a result that's better than following the rule would create.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Affect and effect, and adding to the confusion

Leona said:
I keep getting pulled out of my story because I'm not sure how to use 'affect' and 'effect'. I had it explained by others who claim to know more than us mere mortals when helping my husband with his homework.

Okay, you know, I used to work on a Grammar Hotline, and yes, there was such a thing, back when the phone was the dominant means of communication. :) It was part of the IUPUI writing center, and when we weren't tutoring students (our real job), we were answering this phone.

And the number one question was "Affect or effect?" (Second was lay/lie.) So you're not alone.

It's complicated because usually it's one way, and then (esp. in psychology) it's the opposite.


Affect is the verb, and effect is the noun, and both refer to having an impact on something.

My lovely song affected my listeners, and caused a poignant effect especially on my mother.

Easy enough, huh? Just remember:

...Except they can both mean something else! In psychology, Affect is a noun that means something like "expression" mixed with "experience". (Anyone who has studied this, please correct me if I've got this wrong.) Someone with "low affect" probably doesn't express or maybe experience emotion the way most of us do, so "Jeffrey Dahmer exhibited low affect when he spoke of his murders."

And "effect" can also be a verb, but it doesn't mean "affect" or "cause an effect" exactly then. It means more to cause or make something happen, so "Dr. King effected a great change in the civil rights of our nation." It's a stronger, more "effective," verb than "affect".

So when affect is used as a verb, and effect is used as a noun, they are just different parts of speech meaning the same thing, to influence or cause an impact (though perhaps a little "softer" than impact).

But when affect is used as a noun, or effect is used as a verb, they are really no longer related to each other-- they are different activities. They are each related to the central meaning of impact, but they're sort of like "My sister's brother-in-law" in relationship; he is not MY brother-in-law.

This means, I guess, that you always have to stop and figure out what part of speech or role the word is playing in the sentence (noun or verb), and then whether you are meaning those related but not exact terms (effect-verb, affect-noun).

This is the BEST example of how the part of speech/sentence role is essential with word choice! Thanks!!

Will foreblog this, just because I find it interesting!

(The grammar hotline, alas, is no more. Funding dried up, but more than that, the web kind of took over. Here is a great link:I was looking up e.g./i.e. (YET AGAIN... some things just won't take up residence in my brain-- thank goodness for Google) and came across this helpful site that lists common usage errors (like auger/augur... okay, some NOT so common ones) and explains when to use each. Here's the page where the reasoning is explained.)


More on Gemma's dark moment

Why is this a "dark" moment? I think it's illustrative to see how this is set up.

Gemma is TOUGH. And she loves her men, and above all doesn't want to cause them harm. (And she knows they're dangerous when they're riled. :)

She doesn't "whine". She doesn't seek support. She doesn't ask for help. She is always in charge. That's her value system. Telling about this is against her own personal code. It's weak.

That's set up ahead of time. So when she is moved to tell this secret, to reveal her vulnerability and what she thinks of as her shame (she knows it's not her fault, but she thinks she was stupid and weak to let it happen), it's a very difficult choice because it goes against what she believes she "ought" to do. She ought to be able to handle this. And she sort of can (her sexuality is profoundly affected by the secrecy, and her relationship with Clay, so it's not unmixed-- and shouldn't be). Her decision to tell is made from love -- trying to reconcile Clay and Jax.

Clay, btw, has a similar journey. We of course think the husband of a rape survivor should act with love and compassion and never scorn her (and we're right). But by his code, or the club's code, which Gemma knows and actually supports, he should reject her now. That is, it's HIS value system, not ours, that makes this "dark", makes this a difficult choice for him. (He too acts with love, fortunately, but the writers quite rightly make this take a bit of time.)

But it's OUR value system (he should act with love) that determines, I think, that this is the right decision, even if it's the 'wrong' one by his own pre-existing value system.

Brilliantly done. But this is important-- we have to set this up. The action has to be painful, difficult, "dark" for this to be a dark moment. What in the run-up, in the whole story and character development BEFORE the dark moment makes this dark for your character?

BTW, there's a very nice setup moment for Jax in this episode. His friend, speaking of Clay, says, "He's your father." (Clay has, apparently, been his stepfather for 20 years, and they do love each other.) Jax says coldly, "My father died on Hwy 580." (His real father.) That is, Jax disavows this relationship (he has good reason, also set up). And so his action in the end of the episode, where he puts his hand on Clay's shoulder, and stays there as Clay covers his hand and holds it, is that much more intense, as it's re-establishing his filial bond.


Sons of Anarchy dark moment

Anybody else watching this? It sounds crazy-- Hamlet in a motorcycle gang-- but it's really good.
The episode before the latest had a great crisis/dark moment. Gemma, the mother, my choice for the best woman anti-hero, saw her husband and son (his stepson) at odds, so much so that Jax, the son, has decided to leave the gang, and Clay (the husband) has voted him out. Very powerful, and well-acted. Okay, so Gemma sees this, and in her desperation to keep them both (she is afraid, btw, that Jax will kill Clay or vice versa, as they have been more and more in conflict during the season), she confesses something that she has kept secret for months, that the bad guys gang-raped her to send Clay "a message". She covered it up and never told her men or the gang because she feared their reaction, especially Clay's-- she thought that his ethos would mean that he had to reject her as she had been "violated".

Anyway, you can find this episode ("Balm") online, and it's On Demand for a lot of cable systems. Watch the ending. (Very nice Patti Griffin song accompanying, explicitly connecting Gemma to the Virgin Mary, for all you other parochial school dropouts.) Gemma, hard and tearless, explains in harsh detail what happened to her. The men are of course blasted. Jax comes to her and takes her hands and kisses them-- a sign of fealty and respect. As he leaves, he puts his hand on Clay's shoulder (understanding Clay's own dilemma here), and Clay covers that hand with his own. Very affecting. Finally Clay reaches over to embrace Gemma. Fade-out.

So her decision coming out of the dark moment is confession-- truth-telling. And it's painful and hard, as it should be. And it transfers the terrible pain to the men she loves most-- and forces Jax back into the group, and Clay to decide between his love and his code. (See how the dark moment decision can actually cause other characters to change too.)

Beautifully done. This is a very good show, and don't let the crazy premise get in your way. There are similarities to Hamlet, but in this, Clay and Jax do love each other in a way, and I hope that they'll end up reconciled and not dead!

More about the dark moment--

Murph, in a really good comment-- the whole comment thread is helpful, so hie thee to it!-- asks if the decision/choice made in the dark moment is a "right or wrong" choice--

Well, right, wrong, I don't want to be judgmental. :) But for this person to resolve the internal issue (fear of whatever, lack of trust, etc), he/she probably needs to choose some course or action which forces the overcoming of that. If he can't trust, he chooses to trust. If she can't commit, she chooses to commit.

The clever part is... when this is exactly what's needed to give the power to resolve the external problem in the climax-- when trusting brings a new ally, say.

Let's think about possible dark moment choices that are "wrong" in the sense that they do violate some common morality. I'm thinking of the woman who is utterly dedicated to honesty, always tells the truth, no matter what the cost-- and then, in the dark moment, decides she had to lie to save someone or protect something important.

p.s. If you're new to this blog, please note that the comments on posts are often more interesting than the posts themselves. :) So if a post subject interests you, always check the comments! The commenters often provide great insight and sharp examples.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Dark moment article

Developing the Dark Moment

Not all books need dark moments, but properly used, this point of crisis can intensify the conflict and at the same time, initiate its resolution.

Think of the dark moment as the time when the protagonist reaches rock bottom. All seems lost. This will usually precede the climax (where the major plot problem is resolved), and thus take place near the beginning of the final part of the book. This is when all the torturing you've done has its greatest effect. But, just as Mommy always tells Tot during the spanking, the torture is meant to build character. The protagonist should experience despair, and then through courage come out of it with redoubled determination and greater wisdom.

The 5 Ds of the Dark Moment:
Dilemma-- the situation has disintegrated around the protagonist, and all seems lost.

Desperation-- the protagonist flails about, considering the most extreme escapes from the dilemma.

Despair-- the protagonist surrenders to despair, certain that there is no way out.

Deconstruction-- in the calm that follows despair, the protagonist begins to analyze the situation, deconstructing needs, values, and options.

Decision-- the protagonist decides what can be discarded, and what's most essential to be kept, and determines a course to achieve that.

The climax is the working out of the decision the protagonist made as a result of the brutal deconstruction forced on him by the dark moment.

So the dark moment is something of an acid test, if you don't mind mixed metaphors. As novelist and writing teacher Jenny Crusie puts it, the dark moment can offer a moral dilemma, one that confronts the protagonist with a threat to the internal identity. It's a time to clarify what sort of "self" the protagonist wants to be. Somehow the darkness forces light on what seemed to be impenetrable conflict.

Marketing something other than your book that might help sell your book.

Here's something that'll get me to buy, really. A website that is NOT about you, not about your book, but about something I'm interested in that might be connected to your book. Give me something for free that I value (that is, not author biography, which I find counter-productive often enough... I really wish I didn't know that Ezra Pound was an anti-semite Mussolini fan).
Photos of Norman castles.
Advice on how to get stains out of the carpet.
A compendium of different methods used for time travel. Well, okay, used in books. Or that could be used for time travel.
Southern dessert recipes.
Irish toasts (original language and translated).
Funny titles for country music songs.

I mean, really, there are websites about everything. And if I'm reading your website about Scottish plaid patterns and you have an excerpt from your Scottish historical novel and a link to Amazon, I might very well buy. After all, I've already gotten something from "meeting" you, if only the knowledge that the Todd (my family) tartan is actually the Gordon tartan, and so I'm related to Lord Byron (a Gordon). So I might repay it by buying your book.

That's the premise of the book The Long Tail, which I bought after reading his free advice on his blog. Give something away, and many recipients will buy something else. (Think of how many CDs and albums you paid for -- before Kazaa, I mean :-- after hearing a song for free on the radio.)

What else has worked for writers?


Alicia being a crank about "self-promotion"

A friend (you know who you are :) and I were just discussing how pervasive this "market your book" trend has become, and how besieged we feel by the barrage of "buy my book" emails and Facebook posts and all that.

I do understand. I mean, it's not like most publishers do much for new authors these days, if they ever did. If you don't market your book yourself, it might not get noticed. And there's so much competition, yada yada. Been there, done that.

But let's talk about the annoying come-ons. After all, it doesn't do an author any good to alienate potential readers. As a reader, what is likely to turn you off, and what is likely then to make you consider buying a book?

What turns me off:
You know what I hate. Facebook. Well, I don't like Facebook much, actually, but what I really hate is this idea of "fan". I keep getting email solicitations from some new author to become her "fan". "Betsy Brilliant wants you to become her fan!" (This alone makes me want to delete my Facebook account-- which I never check, so if you've friended me, nothing personal, but I probably won't ever respond... I don't even remember my password. :)
I know "fan" ia just the term Facebook uses, but it's creepy. I don't even know this person, and I'm supposed to be "her fan"? Like she's the Beatles? It really resonates with that icky "I want to be a celebrity!" vibe that is such a feature of our reality TV era. Hey, if your book is good, I will hear about it--- and THEN maybe I'll be interested... but actually, you're going to need even more than one good book to make me a "fan".

What works with me: Alas, authors have no control over most of this:
Good reviews from reviewers I have reason to trust.
Recommendations from friends.
A free copy mailed to me or delivered right to my hands at a conference, and I know this doesn't SELL a book. But it might sell the next one.
Good back-copy. Hate to say it, but I'm a sucker for this. I'll often buy a book because of the back-copy, even though I know all too well how little connection it might have with the actual book. What can I say. I'm easy.
Excerpts (good prose, well-punctuated :) online, especially at the point of sale (Amazon or, for example, where I can immediately buy the book, or I'll probably forget).
Ease of purchase, like it's right in front of me at the bookstore, or there's a link to a purchase site at the review or excerpt. Also, Amazon's "One-click" has made impulse buying way too easy for me.

What Really Works (and the author does have control over this):
A really terrific book, because I'll talk about it and buy additional copies to give to friends.

So-- what annoys you, and what works for you, when it comes to soliciting you to buy a book?