Friday, January 2, 2009

Some Questions Answered

True confession time. I save up the moment when I can read the comments to this blog. They're such a delight to me that they're almost like a chocolate truffle in the house. I know the truffle is there, waiting for me. I know how much I'll enjoy it. And I want to pick the perfect moment for it, using it as a reward after I've slogged through a bunch of tedious paperwork, or as a pick-me-up when something has gone wrong again. I want to be left alone to enjoy the comments, just as I don't want to savor a delicious chocolate while simultaneously talking on the phone, typing emails, scanning my daily task list, and watching for the mail carrier. Some things are just worth savoring. So, thank you all for being like chocolate. :)

Jennifer asks,
On the then as a conjunction thing--does the test of taking the "then" out work? Consider: He looked left, then right. If you take out then, you are left with He looked left, right. Which sounds absurd, even though it doesn't with the then in. So does this example require an and?

That's an excellent test, and I suspect it will help a lot of people to get this detail right. I think the test might not work as well when there are long bits of predicate chained together that might mask the missing conjunction. For example,

She walked up the stairs, turned right down the corridor, then counted to the seventh door.

Compared to,
She walked up the stairs, turned right down the corridor, counted to the seventh door.

Because of the rhythm of this structure, it might slip past unnoticed. That is, I notice it, and many others might notice it, but not everyone will. Or maybe they'll notice, but their ears will respond favorably to the rhythm and decide to leave it in place for style's sake. It's not great style, and the conjunction doesn't undermine the rhythm, but I can see where there's a greater danger in a construction like this one.

Jordan says,
Once I was reading articles on writing around the Internet and I found one from someone who claimed to be knowledgeable claiming that using 'and' as a conjunction implied simultaneity. The example was something about grabbing the phone, calling 911 and getting in the car, and she said this was physically impossible (guess she hadn't heard of cell phones, either). That left 'then' as the only way to connect more than one non-simultaneous verbs in a sentence.

Without reading the article, I can't comment intelligently, but that won't stop me from commenting. ;)

Think gentle thoughts about the writer of that article. She used a faulty example, perhaps, but she was trying to illustrate a difficult point. The conjunction and frequently does imply simultaneous actions. It also can be used in other ways, as you correctly point out. But generally, and describes like items that go together. (Compare to but and or, which conjoin items by distinguishing them from each other.)

Keep in mind, too, that like things can sometimes go together but happen sequentially. There are non-temporal ways to "go together." Think, for example, of someone describing all the actions taken to prepare for a dinner party. The order of completion isn't important. Their togetherness doesn't stem from time, but from another common factor.

The afternoon before the dinner party, I marinated the steaks, baked a pie, cleaned the parlor, set the table, arranged the flowers, and delivered the children to the sitter's house.

The conjunction and is fine there, with or without the adverb then, even though these actions can't possibly occur all at once.

Writing simultaneous actions and sequential actions is a very tricky business. We've touched on this a little in past posts about participial phrases and opening red flags, and probably in other places which I can't find. (Note to Alicia: We really ought to do something about cleaning up our post tags for the sidebar. Yikes!)

The main thing is to avoid glaring errors in simultaneity. Yes, some of us are gifted with the ability to talk and walk at the same time. But when you have two actions which must happen in sequence, don't write them as if they go together in time. This is the big boo-boo. There are other boo-boos, but if you avoid this one, you'll be in decent shape.

Murphy asks,
Man, there has to be some easier way through all this, isn’t there? Don’t you guys have any EASY ancient writing secrets you’d like to impart? Ones that don’t require a lot of hard work and deep examination? A pill, perhaps, that one can take to fix all the glitches while remaining pain free during the tedious process?

Ah, yes, fiction writing does have a long apprenticeship. I suppose I could say something pithy about perseverance -- or try to, anyway, given that I'm not the most concise writer. But I think what I'll do instead is treat this as a serious question and try to offer some pointers.

First, focus on clarity. Plenty of authors get published and sell well despite the lack of prose pyrotechnics. You don't need a vast repertoire of magic tricks and poetical flourishes. But you do need to be lucid.

Second, focus on the drama. Keep your scenes vivid and lively by exploiting the ways in which the characters thwart each other. This doesn't mean there must be constant shouting or stomping of feet. People can be exquisitely polite and still undermine each other with wicked accuracy. They don't even have to be doing it on purpose. Just keep your scenes focused on all the conflicts, small and large, and all the obstacles and unfulfilled desires and subconscious needs, and your scenes will be taut enough to pass scrutiny.

Third, eliminate gaffes. You may need a beta reader to help you with this. Ask them to mark all the places they got confused or distracted. Those are the places where your prose blunders, and those are the places that need your attention during the editing process. You probably won't need to ask for anything more detailed than that from your beta reader, because confusion and distraction result from just about any type of mistake. Used the wrong word? Screwed up your commas? Wrote a long, dull passage about the history of paring knives? The result is most likely either confusion or distraction.

Fourth, build your vocabulary. A good, vivid, precise word choice can enliven a prose passage quicker than just about anything. Also, you can get away with more simple SVO sentences when your verbs aren't always the same old dull things.

If you find yourself overusing some flat verb, you have two options. Change the verb, or use a different action altogether. Let's say, for example, you use the verb pushed three times in two pages. And now you come across it a fourth time, where you say the hero pushed his fingers through his hair. You can change the verb -- he raked, combed, tangled, etc. -- or you can change the action. In this case, ask what the action was meant to imply. Hair-pushing is often used as a show of frustration or temper. What else might the hero do to demonstrate that emotion? I bet you can list a half-dozen examples right off the top of your head. Pick one that is a bit off the beaten path, and use it. (That second solution isn't so much a matter of vocabulary as of understanding human behavior, but I include it because it works to overcome weak word choices.)

Happy New Year!


jaz said...

Thanks as always for such wonderfully thoughtful and helpful responses to the questions.

For what it's worth, your blog is like chocolate for the reader, as well!

Riley Murphy said...

Thanks -these pointers are terrific! I really liked it when you said: ‘Keep your scenes vivid and lively by exploiting the ways in which the characters thwart each other.’ Exploiting, such a great word. Also, when you say: ‘People can be exquisitely polite and still undermine each other with wicked accuracy’? Pairing the words: polite and wicked in that one statement? Draws the reader's attention and makes the message that much more powerful, doesn't it? I liked the idea about changing the verbs, too...but um, after reading Alicia’s blog on the 23th - I am a little hesitant about using any of the verbs that I thought were ‘off the beaten path’. Yup, cause after I finished perusing her list (it was impressively lengthy, too) I realized that the words I love to use - weren’t off the path at all. Nope, they were, in fact, generously strewn upon it - where an editor was likely tripping over them at that very moment.. You see? Just now, I was going to say that I groaned when I read that blog - but, 'groaned' is on the list - so, I’ll just say that I...well, that I –ah, was sweating like a fat kid, being chased by highly skilled athletes, in the blistering Sahara sun...LOL

Edittorrent said...

Well, I'd probably have used some of those verbs too. I have to admit I do use "hiss" sometimes. I can't give it up.

We all need our vices. :)

Anonymous said...

Oh, man! Gentle thoughts? What is this, Sunday school? ;)

I'll try to protect the guilty, but I hunted down the article (she DID allow for cell phones!) and will now "paraphrase" the original advice while thinking gentle, gentle thoughts:

When a character performs a series of actions, don't make them do things that aren't physically possible simultaneously. "And" creates this problem left and right.

[the example she uses does seem a bit more egregious in retrospect]

To fix this, remove the simultaneous "and" then insert the sequential "then."

Sigh. Even with my gentle thoughts, every feeling revolts because of the exact things you've detailed here.

Your advice, as always, is much better and much appreciated!