Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Your Setting Examples

This one comes to us from Green Knight, a longtime friend of the blog.

For a mile and maybe more Venna followed the sweet, reassuring murmurs of the stream. She walked easily, relying on her staff to give her purchase. Maybe she was a little too trusting. When the straff stuck in the mud, she nearly fell. Jolted awake, Venna looked at the ground suspiciously. It felt different, the ground felt different through the staff in her hand. That level of connectedness was frightening as long as she thought about it and exhilerating once she gave herself to it.

Venna pulled the staff out of the ground and looked around. Where she was sanding,the stream was not exactly impassable, but nearly so, tumbling over rocks in what was not quite a rapid. She had no wish to chance it, and did not feel drawn to it at all.

We've known for a while that GK had some good writing chops, and this example shows a lot of skill. We have a good sense of movement and some clear cause-effect connections. The sentences are clean, too, though they probably won't remain in their current state by the time I'm done with them. *ggg* No surprise there, right?

I have two general concerns with the passage. The first is the way conclusions are used, and the second is in some word choices that are a bit vague. These are interrelated problems. We’re shorthanding details instead of developing them. Sometimes this is the right choice, as when we’re transitioning through less important moments in the plot. Then we would want to stay lean and tight and not get into to much detail.

In other words, the shorthanding technique we see here might work in some cases, but I don’t think it quite works here. This doesn’t read like a transition to me even though the character is moving to a new location. It reads like a character adjusting to a new environment and absorbing new information – at least, it does after the first two sentences. The first sentence is evidently transitional, and the second sentence provides extra information about the nature of the transition time. Those “extra information” sentences between a transition and new scene material can ease the reader from the transition itself into a more active narrative, and here it works pretty well.

Or it would if the material following the second sentence was more scene-like. Instead, as I mentioned, we get a mix of scene details with conclusions and vaguish words. The first one that really jumped out at me was:

 It felt different, the ground felt different through the staff in her hand.

What does that mean, exactly? Different how? I like the rhythm of this sentence a lot, but it states a conclusion without evidence. Is the ground softer, harder, stickier, or something else? In the rush of the moment, her first interpretation might be “different,” but then she might pause to examine what makes it different. Or it might work better to replace the conclusory sentence, even though it’s lyrical. My preference would probably be to follow the conclusion with the evidence in this case, but instead we get another pair of summary statements:

That level of connectedness was frightening as long as she thought about it and exhilerating once she gave herself to it.

As long as she thought about it. What does she think when she thinks about it? Do we know the form of those thoughts? Can we read the cartoon thought bubble over her head and know the words that make up those thoughts? No. We also don’t know what’s involved in giving herself to it, other than a sense of exhilaration. How exactly does she give herself to it?

By the way, when we talk about exposition that masks interior monologue, this is exactly what we’re talking about. We don’t really get her interior monologue. We get exposition that sums up the interior monologue. Different narrative element, with a different impact on the reader, and something I generally edit out of manuscripts. Using true interior monologue will connect the reader to the character in a deeper way, and that’s almost always to be preferred. (Exceptions exist, of course.)

But this post is supposed to be about setting. Do we see the same kind of shorthand in any setting details? Yes. You might be able to spot it yourself if you re-read the paragraphs with this concept in mind. Go ahead. Give it a try. It will be good practice.

Done? Did you pick this piece?

Where she was sanding,the stream was not exactly impassable, but nearly so,

The conclusion is that the stream is almost but not exactly impassable where she is standing. But where is she standing? And what makes it impassable? We get a hint of rocks, but we don’t know how big or sharp they are, or how they’re spaced, or whether they’re slippery or jagged. We get mention of a rapid later, except it’s not a rapid – something which would work very well (describing the thing by its negative) if we had a stronger overall concept of other particulars. That is, if we knew the rocks were sharp and clumped, and that the water foamed and churned around them, and then we learned that despite this it wasn’t quite a rapid, that negative definition would be more effective. (By the way, read the first page of Gone With The Wind if you want a superb – albeit dated, style-wise – example of describing something in the negative. First words: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful…” followed by a long passage about her beautiful and non-beautiful attributes.)

So we’ve looked at three places where the sentences are a bit vague and expository. I think that nailing down those three spots would lead to a more effective passage overall. There might be one or two other slightly soft spots, but I think that changing these three sentences would pull the passage far enough away from exposition that we can leave the rest of it alone. GK, if you want to edit the three places and show it to us again, I’d welcome a second glance at this. Post a revision in the comments or send it to our emailbox.

Theresa

11 comments:

Jami Gold said...

Here's the section that threw me:

When the straff stuck in the mud, she nearly fell. Jolted awake, Venna looked at the ground suspiciously.

The use of the word "awake" right after "fell" made me think at first that she had fallen and been knocked unconscious, only to wake up later. Maybe something like "Jolted back to awareness..." would make it less disjointed.

When I have to reread a sentence to understand the meaning, especially for action, I'm pulled out of the story.

Hope that helps! :)

Thomas Sharkey said...

Is this the new style? 'Guess the right word'.
Your comments fell by the wayside as I thought this was some sort of gag.

When the STRAFF stuck...

Where she was SANDING...

Okay, do I get first prize for spotting the Bloopers!!?

So it was the first draft, what was it Hemingway said about first drafts?

Unlike Jamie, I didn't pull out of the story, I tried, I really did, to understand what the author was striving to tell me.

"Venna suspected something was amiss as the ground beneath her feet felt different."

Thomas Sharkey said...

She parted the undergrowth and stepped through. She looked at him intently, her eyes unwavering. She could not only see his hate. She could sense it. On the other hand, he couldn’t care less about her reputation as a warrior queen. All he wanted to do was to tear out her liver with his bare hands. He leaped towards her, his arms outstretched, teeth bared. So intent was he in his desire to kill her, he didn’t feel the blade as it pierced his flesh.

Comments welcome.

Thomas.

Anonymous said...

What did Hemmingway say about first drafts?

Wes

Edittorrent said...

Don't sweat the typos, Thomas. This is a work in progress, and things like that get fixed along the way.

T

Rachel said...

another great post! The awake thing really jolted me, too, though. I reread thinking she either got knocked out or was sleepwalking. I wasn't sure. So yeah I agree with Jami. Otherwise what a great run through on areas to improve, that I can apply to my own work. Thanks!

green_knight said...

Theresa, thanks for the critique and the nice words. I am, alas, not unfamiliar with the problems you point out (see? I told you I needed to write more slowly), but you're giving me a new angle to look at this. (I shall go away and ponder. And rewrite.)

Jami/Rachel - point about the near-falling taken. The problem I have is to inclue without infodumping - she's in Faerie, and she's definitely walking in a kind of half-trance, which is why she's lacking words for the changes in the ground (an internal boundary) etc.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Nice insight, GK. You've explained a lot to me -- I suspect we'd see that if we had the whole piece in front of us.

Awake got me, too. But so did the change in the rhythm of the different ground. That sentence, the way it's constructed. Because of this, I'm wondering if the change in ground (and lyricism of the narrative language) is something vitally important to the scene.

I like this, though. I like that there's something going on with Venna that makes her find comfort in the sound of the stream. (I do wonder how we go from sweet murmurs to almost rapids -- yes, more physical description, please!) I like that Venna's on a journey and it's not an urgent one nor is it unpleasant (yet. It always gets unpleasant, doesn't it? *sigh*).

Nice piece, GK.

tinlizzie82 said...

Off topic here but I had a question. I recently came across a book (reasonably well reviewed and published by a reputable house) that drove me nuts because the author substituted dashes for quotation marks.

Uhm, excuse me? Although the book did have pretensions to being more, it was basically a mystery/thriller and I was rather surprised that this was allowed to get through the editing process.

What are your thoughts on the apparent trend in *inventive* punctuation and structure that seems to be rising in publishing today? I, for one, can't stand it.

After all, if you think you're Faulkner, chances are you aren't Faulkner and should abide by the rules.

Thomas Sharkey said...

Hi Wes,

Just to remind you, "The first draft of anything is shit"

That was his opinion - not mine, I was half-quoting him.

Everybody has to start somewhere, even the best/worst of us.

So, I read this piece again, slowly.

Showing emotions and feelings is not as easy as it sounds. I found the piece unwieldy. I had to stop and think about the text (not the spelling)wondering what I was supposed to experience through the character.

As for my piece of sh**. Wes, what are your comments, if any?

Thomas.

Thomas Sharkey said...

This is what I believe, in my humble opinion, what the author was saying:

For a mile or more Venna followed the sweet, reassuring murmurs of the stream. She walked easily along the slippery path, relying on her staff to give her purchase. Maybe she was a little too trusting for when the staff stuck in the mud, she almost lost her balance. She looked at the path, her brow slightly furrowed. The ground felt different through the staff. That level of connectedness was frightening as she thought about it, and exhilarating once she gave herself to it.

She pulled the staff out and looked around. From where she was now standing, the stream had become not exactly impassable, but nearly so, tumbling over rocks in almost a rapid. She had no wish to chance crossing it. She did not feel drawn to it at all.

Yes, I know, it could be better, but this is my interpretation.