Monday, August 25, 2014

Saw Mother Courage this weekend-- thinking about the author's deliberate alienation of the audience

Bertolt Brecht used the German term Verfremdungseffekt (don't ask me to pronounce it) to define the authorial choice to force a distance between the audience and the character. This is of course antithetical to the more common desire to encourage the audience to identify with the character. This choice to estrange the audience from the character is often accomplished by making her unappealing or her actions incomprehensible. The point is, I think, to force us out of the comfortable companionship of thinking, "She is like me, and therefore good" and into evaluating her more objectively (and perhaps evaluating ourselves  more objectively).

Brecht's most famous expression of the "distancing or alienation effect" is in the title character of his play Mother Courage.  He wrote this while in self-exile from his native Germany during Hitler's reign, and that might give us some idea of why "distancing" or "alienation" might have been a particularly valued goal at that point in history.

What's interesting about this choice is that it discards the enlistment of an audience's most valued ability, empathy, in order to present human action and interaction in a more unsparing fashion. Brecht meant Mother Courage to be a more "true" representation of humanity perhaps than a character shaped to draw the audience's fellow feeling. Techniques that can cause the alienation—well, the most important would be presenting the character's action without justification, and the character's flaws without mitigation.

That was what Brecht was playing with in Mother Courage, alienating the audience from her by using her as a representative of the capitalist and mercenary set. I think he wimped out enough -- making her a mother who loved her children-- that the audience wasn't nearly as appalled by her as he wanted, or maybe we just naturally have fellow feelings with most other humans. In fact, I tend to think that characters who are presented rather starkly in their unappeal end up winning the audience over (Sherlock Holmes, Scarlett O'Hara). I might go so far as to say that characters who are hard to identify with early in the story are often the ones who attain sort of cult status or become cultural icons like Sherlock.

Without the easy empathetic identification, the audience will have to judge the character on her own actions and interactions rather than empathy. I think when it works, the audience ends up really in deeper identification because they have to really think about how and why this character is this way and does these things. It's like you might love a difficult friend more because you actually had to work to love her at all.

I'm wondering if comedy might rely more on distancing—we don't, after all, laugh at ourselves usually, so too close an identification with the comic character might diminish are ability to find those pratfalls funny. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Interesting article about autocorrect's effect (positive) on the conveyance of good grammar

#Nuance ‏Atlantic Monthly: Will autocorrect save the apostrophe, and slow language's evolution?

(Joe Pinsker):
Meanwhile, as the battle rages on, our devices seem likely to nudge us even further in the direction of language preservation. The software company Nuance, which invented the predictive-texting technology known as T9, is developing autocorrect software capable of suggesting more-substantive grammatical changes, like proper verb conjugation. Which means that we could soon be texting like the grammarians our software wants us to be.

 Extra credit for the mention of the culture war between the extremist groups, Kill the Apostrophe and Apostrophe Protection Society.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Sentences: Why a clause? Why a comma? Rules bend for meaning construction

I was writing along for one of the "real jobs" (that is, the ones that pay), and in a response to a submission, wrote a sentence structured like this, "As I said earlier, I grew up near Richmond, and recognized many of the monuments portrayed in the photographs."

Now we all know the rule. To distinguish between the two independent clauses in a compound sentence, we use a comma plus a conjunction (, and). But there aren't two independent clauses. There's a dependent clause: As I said earlier, appropriately followed by a comma. (No, I won't argue the alternative or go into the very few exceptions here. I read too many student papers where there's no distinction between the introductory element and the main clause. Trust me. The reader needs it, and it was only the AP's need to save ink for newspapers that made this at all arguable. If you have read a thousand student sentences like this where there are no commas to distinguish sentence elements you would agree that a comma is usually necessary in complex sentences.
There's a main clause, with the sentence subject and predicate:  I grew up near Richmond

And there is a second predicate with a direct object:  recognized many of the monuments portrayed in the photographs.

The need for the conjunction is clear as we're linking two predicates, and the second predicate (recognized) with the sentence subject (I). But the comma before the "and"-- what's that about? Why did I immediately put that in? Ordinarily I wouldn't. Ordinarily, with one subject and two predicate sentences, I would just use the conjunction. So why did I use the comma? (I could, of course, just have made a mistake, but I don't usually make that kind of mistake -- years of editorial work have trained me in punctuating, though it didn't beat the dash-addiction out of me.) When I do something like that, I go back and try to figure out why I did it. I trust my instinct, but question it too. (Hey! I just did it again-- comma before the conjunction before a second predicate! Why? I think because the second is a contradiction of the first, so I signify that with the comma-- "... here comes something different.")

Anyway, back to the original sentence. (And the point of this is to say that the rules are important because they're based on the logic of sentencing, and when you understand the logic, you can tell when this particular sentence needs a non-rule treatment because it's doing something that is outside that logic.)

The kicker here isn't actually the subject (I) or the double-predicate. It's that introductory element (As I said  earlier).  What exactly did I say earlier?

What I said earlier in the letter was (in response to the setting of the book) that I had grown up near Richmond. I was trying to establish commonality and also present the reality that I was perhaps more able to appreciate an aspect of the book (the photos) than another reader. 

But... what I didn't say earlier was this:
  recognized many of the monuments portrayed in the photographs.
That's new. I said "main clause with predicate 1" before, but not "trailing phrase with predicate 2" before. 

Without the comma, I would be saying that I'd said all that before, and the reader would be looking back to the first paragraph and wondering what had happened to the mention of the recognition.  

The comma says, "What's before me is separate in some meaningful way from what's after me." I don't have to necessarily specify what the difference in meaning is, but the comma is a recognition of that so that the reader doesn't have to wonder. We can trust the reader to sense if not completely consciously understand that there is a distinction between this:
As I said earlier, I grew up near Richmond and recognized many of the monuments portrayed in the photographs. (That is, I said all of this earlier.)
and this:
As I said earlier, I grew up near Richmond, and recognized many of the monuments portrayed in the photographs. (I said only the Richmond part earlier.)

Now I could also have done it the standard compound (two clause) way:
As I said earlier, I grew up near Richmond, and I recognized many of the monuments portrayed in the photographs. (That is, the trailing phrase is now a clause with its own subject.)

That would have been just fine, except three I's in one sentence might seem repetitive, not to mention egotistical. So precision of meaning gave way to reverse-vanity, I guess.

Point is, as usual-- Know the rule. Understand the underlying logic. Intuit exceptions. Second-guess your intuition. Make a conscious ruling. 
Do all that, and I'll even shut up about exceptions to the rule about commas and intro elements... but you have to add, "Explain your rationale" for that one. :)

Punctuation is part of the construction of meaning in a sentence and paragraph.



Monday, June 23, 2014

Back to sentences

We're both still alive! Just distracted. Anyway, I came across a sentence construction that made me long to blog again. Here it is--

Josie, whose experience with the police department had given her a jaundiced view of City Hall, nodded agreement to her friend Bill's admiration about the mayor.

I know, too complex, too wordy, all that. That always happen when I try to riff on an actual sentence to disguise where I got it. (Sure, the Major Author I'm paraphrasing probably isn't following this blog, but once I discussed a poem I'd read -- fortunately not negatively-- and the poet popped up and commented... so I'm spooked. This internet thing sure ruins the secrecy of sniping.)

But what I want to talk about is how we can use sentence construction to amplify or clarify the meaning. The context on the page is that Josie need Bill's help but hasn't broached the subject yet. But the way the above sentence is constructed, with the "conflict" kind of encapsulated in the relative clause (whose experience). The conflict is the point of the sentence, to show that Josie is going against her own beliefs to agree.

One way I (and many readers) mentally distinguish sentence and sentence parts is "positive and negative," or as I actually think of it, "Plus 1 and minus 1."  Basically, is the message sent by this a yes or a no? For example:
Josie, whose experience with the police department had given her a jaundiced view of city government, 
That's negative, in that she is "jaundiced" (cynical) about this.

About this same thing (City Hall, that is, mayor?), Bill is "positive". And Josie is positive also suddenly:
nodded agreement to her friend Bill's admiration about the mayor.

The reader has to get the idea of the conflict, or she'll say, "Huh?" and go back and read to find out if she missed something ("Did I misunderstand what 'jaundiced' means? I'll go look it up").  Here, Josie's shift from negative to positive (about the same subject) in one sentence would usually indicate the need for a "conflict signal," that lets the reader know that the author knows that this is a conflict, that there's been a shift. (Hang on there-- I'm anticipating your objections, and I'll get to at least one, but this book didn't do what could have made this right. Anyway, I want to make this one point first. :)

Another issue is that the negative (her cynicism) is as important as her action-- the juxtaposition makes them both important. The point is  not that she's cynical or that she nods agreement, surely, but that she's cynical and yet she nods agreement. The juxtaposition can be more evident if one element isn't buried in a relative clause. That is, as you revise sentences, think about what the "weight" of each element is. Generally (there are exceptions, as when you want to trick the reader or be ironic), important things are in the main clause. (Putting important things in minor sentence elements can create subtext-- but "subtext" exists because we have "text" first-- we might have to know how to do things conventionally in order to do the unconventional really well, at least those of us who aren't naturally unconventional. :) (BTW, my husband just reminded me of the single greatest recognition I ever got in my whole life -- except the boys telling me that I was the best mother evuh, and I suspect a lot of other mothers got something similar in their Mother's Day cards-- was that at Blacksburg High School, senior year, I was voted "most non-conformist" in the class. You can tell what a repressed class we were, if I ended up being the wild one.)

By far the most common way to signal a conflict is to use the word "but". "But" usually introduces an independent clause, so I'd merge the relative clause with the subject and make that an independent clause, so we'll end up with two independent clauses of the same "weight," thus syntactically the same importance:

Josie's experience with the police department had given her a jaundiced view of City Hall, but she nodded agreement to her friend Bill's admiration about the mayor.

(Consider the different "feel" if we used "so" as the conjunction-- ironic? Grim?)

Now both parts of the sentence are of equal importance, and the juxtaposition (negative/positive) of both creates the joint sentence experience. It will cause the reader to pose the right question, which isn't "How does the dictionary define 'jaundiced'?" It's "What's her purpose in pretending to agree with him about the mayor?" Getting the reader -- with a single sentence-- to ask the right question helps create that "narrative propulsion" that keeps the reader reading (to find the answer).

Readers can be quite sensitive to nuance, and a sentence that doesn't create the experience you want them to have-- yes, a single sentence-- can throw them out of the fictive world. It's often hard to find those "clunker" sentences, but once you put on your reader hat and read like a reader and find them, they're usually easy to fix.

But... exception! Objections! As I said, the book I paraphrased this from didn't supply the context-- this was in fact the first sentence of a scene. But if there had been some context (like that she needed to stay on Bill's good side or get him to give her an introduction to the mayor) set up in the passage above, or the paragraph above, then the original sentence:
Josie, whose experience with the police department had given her a jaundiced view of City Hall, nodded agreement to her friend Bill's admiration about the mayor.

... would have been a lot more understandable (in the right way). It would have been like Josie Smiling Very Hard-- we would probably have understood quickly that this action of nodding was both against her own inclinations (revealed in the relative clause-- see, relegated to secondary "weight" because it is now less important) and in furtherance of the previously identified or intimated goal. If we had a bit of context, we'd know she's "not herself" because she's playing a part, not because the author screwed up the characterization. :)

Context is all, and we don't have to supply enormous buckets of it. But in the absence of context, our sentences should say what we mean, or rather, say what they need to say to give readers the experience we want them to have this very moment. In this case, it might be "asking the right question;" in another, it might be "understanding the context." 

We are the ones in control, and control of prose is based on the sentence level. Lots of writers are quite intuitive and don't need to second-guess themselves... but the rest of us might need to check to make sure we're creating the experience we want the reader to have-- at that very moment, and in accumulation of moments of the story.


Monday, January 13, 2014

Because empathy.

My favorite language writer is John McWhorter, because he has an unabashed appreciation for how language grows and no negativity about it. He also agrees with me (or rather, I agree with him) that the Millennial generation is the NICEST generation ever, kind to each other, instinctively cooperative, and intensely social, so more empathetic than ever. Here he explains why some of the most common language affectations of the group reflect their desire to "soften" confrontation:

Thursday, January 2, 2014


Back to blogging! One new year's resolution is to post more. Anyway, Wes mentioned the anti-hero, and I thought maybe we could talk about anti-heroes, how you would define that kind of protagonist, examples maybe?

In my understanding, the anti-hero is usually someone who isn't heroic in the standard sense because he lacks some of the striking "good" qualities of a hero, while he has the heroic qualities of strength or purpose or something that gives him power. And he uses that power (and perhaps some underhanded "unheroic aspects") to do something good. That is, his character might not be heroic, and his motivation might not be heroic (he might want the right thing for the wrong reasons, like revenge or money), and his methods might not be heroic, but what he achieves is heroic (the results). And for whatever reason (this is tricky to accomplish), the reader identifies with him in some way.
The classsic pairing has been Superman (hero), Batman-Dark Knight (anti-hero). Superman does the right thing for the right reason. Batman does the right thing for the wrong reason. Both use heroic strengths to achieve something good, but Batman also uses bad tactics.
Scarlet O'Hara is an anti-heroine in that she has heroic strengths that help her survive the war but more than that, to help others (her whole family, her beloved's wife that she hated ever) survive the war. She's willing to do anything to save her farm, including marrying her sister's fiance (not heroic, but achieved a good end). She's actually more of an anti-hero than Rhett (who actually realizes that his romantic need to be a hero in the war was pretty stupid).
There was a time that "antihero" was used to refer to "nebbishy guys" like Benjamin in The Graduate, who have no heroic strengths and aren't at all "Bad", but that didn't last, fortunately. They aren't anti-heroes but more like "everymen".
The Byronic hero is generally considered to be artistic and "moody" and obsessed with women. I wouldn't say they're anti-heroes, but what we romance writers would call "the romantic hero"-- heroically tormented emotionally.
But the antihero usually is the one who does the right thing for the wrong reasons (but with some strength or power that would ordinarily be considered heroic). A villain will often do use heroic strengths to do the WRONG thing (though it might be for the "right" reasons like religion or patriotism).

Friday, October 18, 2013

New-old interactive storytelling

I am really interested in how we can change the "shape" of storytelling to take advantage of all the new media. Here's a good example of an update of Pride and Prejudice which uses Twitter and Facebook to develop the story and interactivity.

I once designed (on paper, how retro) a story-in-a-website. It was going to be set in a small town on Lake Michigan (I'm still planning on using this invented town somehow), and this was the town's website. So I'd planned that you could click on, say, the hardware store link and get the story of that family, and click on the pizza parlor link and get a conversation between a boyfriend and girlfriend who were breaking up, and the mayor would have blog, and there would be legal notices and of course the police reports, and...

Well, great idea, but all the story parts I came up with were boring! Now I'm thinking maybe I'll have short stories associated with each link, not sure what now, and they'll all be connected through the website and town. But they'll be pretty traditional short stories.

Anyway, is this something you've thought of? Any fun (and abandoned) ideas we could empathize with?


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Reinventing Your Story: Part 1: Why reinvent?

 Why reinvent?
It used to be that you had one chance to sell a book to any given publisher, agent, or customer. If the book you wrote wasn't the book they wanted, well, you took the battered manuscript out of the SASE envelope, sighed, and went back to Writer's Market to find another possible market. (Anyone else remember those days?)

Once in a great while, an editor would send a "revise and resubmit" letter, and you might get another chance... but usually that wouldn't work out as a sale either. Publishers often had pretty strict guidelines for genre books, and no matter what they said about wanting "fresh voices," they really wanted "more of the same, only better." Or they wanted something quite specific, or what they wanted one year they didn't want the next, and if you didn't hit the bull's-eye on just the right day, you were probably out of luck. (I speak from long experience of just barely missing many sales....)

But things are different now. The market has changed so rapidly, we're all scrambling to catch up. And the publishing industry, always so slow to learn from their mistakes, is at least becoming a bit more wary of wholesale and arbitrary rejection. No one wants to be like one of the nine supposedly smart editors who rejected the first Harry Potter book. They are starting -- some of them-- to look beyond and consider what might sell in the long run-- a wonderful series idea, a great imagined world, a compelling voice. An author with one or more of those might be worth talking to, even if the offered book isn't quite right.

Agents too are realizing that the easy sales they had gotten accustomed to aren't so easy anymore, and that their captive clients are feeling more liberated and expecting something more than just another sale to the same old place and the same old contract. Agents have always talked about longterm partnerships with their clients, and some even meant it-- but now that's getting to be a necessity. Authors have other options now, and agents are having to think of ways to make themselves useful, including helping to manage an independent publishing career. In this case, they also will need to consider more intangible aspects of an author's craft, including the ability to self-promote and use social media. Again, the book might not be "just right," but the author might be.

Finally, even those authors who have decided to forego the traditional route and don't have to hit the mark with publishers and agents still might have to face the most discerning of all critics, the reading public. Readers now are much more likely to choose an AUTHOR rather than a single book. (If they like the book, they want more from the author.) But readers can be capricious, turning away from a book because of a single word in the description, or because the book seems too dark or not dark enough or too derivative or too innovative, or… That's one reason they can be so loyal to authors they like, and why they are often willing to take another chance if the "problem" has been fixed.

Problem is -- authors have to find the readers/publishers/agents who will want these books... and sometimes that will require making major changes in a book with an agenda of getting that longterm relationship.
So the good news is: We're getting more second chances!
The bad news is: We have to take advantage of those second chances!
Let's talk about ways to take an existing book and reinvent it to take that second chance.

Reinventing Your Story: Part 2: Types of Reinventing

2: Types of Reinventing

Let's talk a bit about types of reinvention.
There are three big categories, and we can deal with them each in new topics:

1. Reinvent the book. This happens when something has changed and the book that seemed just great no longer works. For example, my last book was written as a women's fiction, but sold as a mystery. Big surprise! The mystery plot was pretty lame. Why? Because I wrote the main plot to be the heroine's life journey to recover from a divorce. Sure, she had to solve her ex's murder along the way, but the big triumphant climax was her getting over her fear of disappointing or losing her son. Cough. I had to beef up the whole mystery thing, put in clues, motivation, suspects. All that stuff mystery novels usually have.

A friend of mine right now is trying to turn an old manuscript aimed at Harlequin (that is, a "category romance") into a "single-title" romance, which means, at minimum, adding in a subplot or two and deepening the interaction with other characters.
Another friend wrote a young adult novel in third person and the publisher likes it... but wants it in first person.
There are, these days, many reasons we might want to perform major surgery on what is a pretty good book (and complete too).

2. Reinvent the author. We used to just have to change our penname, you know, to let go of the baggage associated with our author name! But now, everyone knows that Jane Romance is really Bill Suspense, so it takes more than a name change.

Why would you need to reinvent yourself as an author? First would be after a long series of rejections if you're unpublished. But even published authors might need to start over after a long dry spell, or when the market for their type of book has dropped out, or if they've somehow screwed something up so that readers have started a boycott, or they were caught up in a scandal, or had some serious health issue that derailed them, and "Amy Author" is no longer a good person to be in the intense new publishing world.

3. Reinvent the career. In some ways, this is the adventure of the new millennium. We're all reinventing our careers, whether we want to or not. All the old verities are discarded, and what used to work to make for a great career might not anymore. And all the street savvy you might have picked up along the way might not do much to help you avoid all the new pitfalls.

Reinventing a career might involve discarding an agent or the entire "legacy publishing industry." It might be about changing genres or learning how to navigate social media or how to do your own negotiations. It might mean going from being just an author to being a business. It might mean finding and fixing a brand.

We'll just talk about reinventing the book now. For the moment, what would you say is your current situation? Anyone need/want to reinvent? Are there other categories?