Tuesday, May 31, 2011


I'm not a fan of non-standard spelling to convey dialect (that's SO 19th Century). It's confusing, and often discriminatory (why spell certain speakers' words phonetically and not others, when English spelling is not phonetic?).

But how then do we convey when a speaker or a POV character have a distinctive way of speaking? Let's say she's Irish, or from Chicago, or he's a 2nd Century Roman warrior?

First, I think, we have to do our research. We have to get enough experience with the rhythm of this speaking culture's sentences and the lingo to convey it accurately. But then, we should cut back (usually). Even without spelling irregularities, "authentic" dialect can put off readers. After all, that Roman warrior spoke Latin. We're already "translating" his speech into English, so we want to give a flavor without choking the reader.

I've been thinking of what constitutes a flavor. First, the rhythm of the sentences can give a flavor of the speaker's culture. There's an old book called English as We Speak It in Ireland which gives examples of sentences only an Irishperson would say:
I went to town yesterday in all of the rain, and if I didn't get a wetting, there's no cottoner in Cork. (That is, he got wet.)
An illigent song he sang, I'll go bail.

The author (PW Joyce) remarks that Irish English uses negation (if I didn't), stock phrases (I'll go bail), and reverse order (putting the object first -- An illigent song he sang) for emphasis. This is not a dialect that honors Struck and White's edict to "use no unnecessary words," or rather, the Irish don't think there are unnecessary words!

Read in the vernacular to pick up the sentence rhythm.  Watch films and TV shows =made= (not just set) in the culture. For historical settings, read books written then (you might have to read in translation, of course) or plays that would have been performed then.

(The British filmmakers, you know, are famous for making everyone else, especially Romans, sound English. Not just speak English, but sound it. All the rich Romans sound like Lord Olivier, and all the poor ones sound Cockney, like the Artful Dodger.)

But also, there are certain words or types of words that can be used without confusing the reader or making the character opaque. Here are some I've thought of, but please add!

Variations of "you". This, far more than "I", for some reason, marks a dialect quite precisely. Any linguist who hears "youse" knows the speaker is from the Great Lakes-Midwest (probably Chicago). "You-uns" is Pennsylvanian.
You all

What others have you heard? When would you use them? What about our Roman warrior, who doesn't speak English, but must be presented as speaking English?

Curses and other angry expletives: Even if the reader doesn't know what the word means, the placement and the context will make it clear that "glupak!" is a curse word.  Spelling can distinguish dialects when you're dealing with English speakers:

Wonder words: These are words that seem to erupt spontaneously, and because they're spontaneous, they're going to give a sense of the character's background. You can do this is the actual language if the character is foreign. Examples:
Mon Dieu!

Other thoughts?


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Administrative Note

I'm extending the sign-up deadline for the Power Proposals workshop until Tuesday, mainly because I foolishly forgot to send around notices to the usual e-mail loops, and so people aren't getting word about it in a timely fashion. I blame the construction at my house, which turned my brain to cheese soup for a good part of April and May. Sorry! Mea culpa! In any case, the class isn't full. In fact, it looks as though it will be quite an intimate group, which is great if you want a lot of feedback on your proposal. As it stands, I'll have ample time to look at everyone's pages and offer comments after we go through the examples and exercises. So if you want to sign up but didn't get word until late, just know that it's not too late. You can still get in.

It looks like we might take off for at least two months and not do any workshops this summer. We will each be busy with personal projects and other commitments, so a hiatus is in order. The blog won't close, though. Just the workshops, and just for the summer.


Saturday, May 28, 2011

Pronoun confusion again

From an actual published article in a major magazine:
"After clashing with S over his partisan journalistic agenda, G quit months later."

Okay, tell me WHOSE partisan agenda? S's or G's?

In fact, when the readers read quickly, they might get whatever meaning makes sense to them, whatever fits the pre-existing opinion created by the previous paragraphs, maybe. For example, I assumed that G quit, so probably S had the agenda. But maybe his boss S had rebuked G for G's agenda, and G quit in order to avoid being fired. That's just as plausible.

The reader is confused, and it's the writer's fault. When there are two people in the sentence who could be the pronoun, the writer simply has to find a way to make clear which. You have to be ruthless to root these out. They're perfectly grammatical sentences that make sense on the surface. But because there are two alternate interpretations, and both make sense, the readers will have to work to figure out which you mean.

Yes, the reader might occasionally benefit from working to understand. But make that because the concept or process of thought is complex, not because your writing is bad. Save the sentence ambiguity for ambiguous thoughts.


Friday, May 27, 2011

From the Bad Advice Files

Someone sent me a link to a blog post about hyphenated compound adjectives in which the rules were completely mangled because the author didn't distinguish between adjectives and adverbs. (I'm not going to link to that original post because my purpose is not to embarrass or harass that author, but to state the correct rule.) This is one of those things that causes a crapton of confusion, so I thought it would make sense to review the rule. (Related posts: how to identify compound adjectives, squinting modifiers)

First, you have to know the difference between an adjective and an adverb.

Adjectives modify nouns in a way that describes an attribute of the noun.

Adverbs modify adjectives, verbs, or other adverbs in a way that describes a relation or degree of time, degree, manner, and similar qualities.


inflated balloon
(inflated is an attribute of the noun balloon, so inflated is an adjective -- technically, a past participle functioning as an adjective)

partially inflated balloon
(partially is a degree of inflated, so partially is an adverb modifying an adjective)

If you were to hyphenate that,
partially-inflated balloon,
you would be wrong.

This is considered an "exception" to the rule regarding hyphenation of compound adjectives, but that's something of a misnomer. This could never be a compound adjective because it's half-adjective, half-adverb. A similar "exception" involves whether to hyphenate a preposition used as an adverb, such as:

Please check out at the check-out counter.

The first "out" is an adverb modifying the verb "check." The second "out" is part of a compound adjective modifying "counter."

One place where the rule is in flux regards the use of comparative or superlative compounds. The old rule is that you never hyphenate a comparative or superlative adverb modifying an adjective. This is probably easiest to see if we stick to good/well, better, best as our example because that will ignore the -ly comparatives and superlatives.

better built car
best dressed woman
well read man
a good, simple dinner
(good is an adjective modifying a noun)
a well prepared dinner (well is an adverb modifying an adjective)
the best cooked dinner (best is a superlative modifying an adjectival past participle)

That's the old rule. Lately, we've seen people hyphenating these usages, but to my eye, it looks strange. Maybe this is because my eye knows the difference between adjectives and adverbs, and my eye knows that you don't hyphenate an adverb to an adjective, but whatever. Rules change.

What are compound adjectives? When two adjectives operate together as a unit to modify a noun. For example,

long-term solution

Solution is the noun. Long and term operate together to create a single unit of meaning. This isn't an arbitrary rule because it can have an impact on meaning. Compare:

The large appliance factory is closing.
The large-appliance factory is closing.

In the first, an appliance factory which is large is closing.
In the second, a factory which makes large appliances is closing.

Okay, so, that probably doesn't un-confuse anybody. As I said, this is not an easy concept to grasp, and even seasoned copy editors sometimes quibble over particulars, especially in the case of squinting modifiers (see link at the top of this post). But I thought it was worth at least trying to un-confuse things. :)


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Summer Reading

First I read the LA Times summer reading guide. Then I read a similar section from the Chicago Tribune. Then I realized there isn't enough xanax in the world to get me through the books in those two guides. Talk about depressing, gloomy offerings. Summer reading should be playful, right? I mean, who wants to spend their beach vacation reading about a child-molesting priest who joins a fringe cult during World War Two and discovers he's infertile? (That is a mash-up of just about every logline I read this morning. Told ya, depressing and gloomy.)

So I guess I have to make my own summer reading guide. Help. Me. What is the most fun and entertaining book you've read this year so far? On a laugh-o-meter between 1 (slight lip movement) and 10 (laughing too hard to keep reading), where does it rate?


Saturday, May 21, 2011

On Punctuation Gimmicks

Here's a good question from the comments. Tinlizzie says,

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.

Well, yes. I'm no fan of bling -- my pet term for punctuation gimmicks that stand out on the page like sequins on a dust rag -- and this kind of punctuation definitely falls into the bling category. (Unless you're writing in French for the French market, in which case, allez-y.) (Past rants on bling: ellipses, colons v. em dashes, hyphens, and Alicia's open discussion of the punctuation in Cold Mountain.)

But your question hints at something else, and maybe it's worth mentioning here. You hint that Faulkner wannabes and other literary types might be able to get away with this, and it's worth examining why this would be the case. If we're all operating with a basic set of punctuation rules, why would litfic writers ignore those rules?

One of the fundamental differences between litfic and its commercial siblings is that litfic expects its readers to be sensitive to the manner of presentation. Things like word choice, diction, punctuation, sentence rhythm, paragraphing, and so on are all manipulated to achieve certain effects. And it's anticipated that the reader will expect these kinds of things in the text, much the same way a murder mystery reader expects a dead body or a romance reader expects a happily-ever-after ending. Litfic readers don't just remain awake to the possibility that form will be manipulated to achieve effects. We delight in it. (Or, at least, I do when I read litfic. And my fellow litfic fans appear to read it much the same way. Extrapolate from there.)

With books on the commercial end of the spectrum, however, it's expected that story will take supreme importance over anything that might distract from story. We routinely cut long passages of thematic description, for example, that would survive the knife in a more literary book. We are ruthless about pruning bling and other distractions so that the reader will never blink while turning the pages. We want them to be so caught up in and breathless with anticipation over the story that they might not hear a ringing phone.

In between these two ends of the spectrum is a middle ground where writers aim to incorporate some of the effect-generating flourishes of the literary crowd with the mass-pleasing story emphasis of the genre crowd. The book you describe might have been hoping for a shot at this middle ground. It's interesting terrain, and there's plenty of room for books to succeed in both commercial and critical terms. Past books of this ilk which we've discussed on this blog include An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears (brilliant manipulation of first person unreliable narrators), Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (footnotes, intrusive narrator), Mr. B Gone by Clive Barker (incredible meta) -- I'm sure there are more, but I'm too lazy to look in the archives to remember what else we might have discussed.

In any case, as Alicia did when she questioned the dialogue punctuation in Cold Mountain, the important thing for all of us is to remain hyper-aware of the effect these kinds of things can have on the narrative. Litfic writers incorporate them because of those effects, and genre fic writers avoid them because of those effects, and middle grounders try to walk the tightrope between those two positions.

But for me, regardless of the type of book, my preference is still to avoid this kind of bling dialogue punctuation because it's a distraction without a purpose. Some find this kind of dialogue (without quotation marks, that is) to read more softly, as if it's incorporated seamlessly into the rest of the narrative. I don't. I take that beginning dash as a speech signal no different from an opening quotation mark. And I find the lack of a close-quote extremely distracting because I will find myself looking for the moment the dialogue ends and some other narrative element begins. There might be signals, such as verb tense shifts or paragraph breaks, but sometimes it's not clear. If I don't consciously stop to find those signals, then I'm likely to read everything as if it's being spoken by a character. Like this:

--But nobody wants to walk to school in the rain. Heavy rain, too, likely to break daffodil stalks. And it would ruin her hair, and she didn't want Jason to see her with a disgusting rain-do.

So the first (present tense, dashed) sentence is dialogue, that's pretty clear. And the last (past tense) sentence is interior monologue, also evident. But is the second fragmented sentence part of the dialogue or part of the character's interior monologue? It could be either. It takes me out of the story, and for me, at least, the dashed dialogue doesn't lull me into blending the dialogue into the narrative. It just confuses me because I no longer know what I'm reading.

All of which is to say, there are rules, and there are ways to break the rules, and there are those of us who will wish you would find other rules to break instead. Not sure that really answers your question, but that's my take on it.


Friday, May 20, 2011

Today at Romance University

I'm talking about art and commerce and the concept of "same but different" that governs genre books. It's a topic that pushes a lot of buttons for writers. Maybe for good reasons.


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

June Workshop - Power Proposals

I keep forgetting to announce this, a fact which I blame on the jackhammers and bulldozers in my front yard. But we're in the end stages of the foundation repairs *happydance* so it's time for me to get back on the ball.

In June, I'll be teaching my workshop on Power Proposals. We'll give you some insight to the submissions process and why it's set up the way it is. Yes, the game is rigged against you, but that doesn't mean you can't win. We'll look at the three parts of a proposal and the purpose of each piece. We'll look at samples and do some exercises to help you with your proposals. Like most of my workshops, it aims for a practical, step-by-step approach to the proposal process which you can apply not just to your current project, but to future projects, too.

Why take this class from me? I've been both an agent and an acquisitions editor. When you send out your proposal, someone like me will be your first reader. Slush jockeys with severe eyestrain and a crushing cases of the jadeds? Yep. The hardest reader to impress is exactly the reader you must impress.

Dates and signup information are in the blog sidebar, top right. I hope to see you there!


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.


Monday, May 9, 2011

Solving a Sentence

Some time ago, we looked at a tricky sentence -- evocative and beautiful, but not perfectly balanced -- and I asked for feedback from all of you on how you might edit it. Or if you would edit it. Here's the sentence again:

But it felt so good to be out in the open land, sunlight pouring on her head and arms, bees buzzing in the anemone, the scent of pine tickling her nostrils.

I have to start by saying, again, that this is a good, evocative sentence, but bits of it nag my eyes when I read it. In the original post, I broke the sentence down, or started to, anyway , which I think I ought to re-post here:

But it felt so good to be out in the open land,
(1) sunlight pouring on her head and arms,
(2) bees buzzing in the anemone,
(3) the scent of pine tickling her nostrils.

If you've been reading this blog for any stretch of time, it probably won't surprise to you learn that my eye first snagged on the present participial phrases. (If you aren't familiar with our long rants against PPPs, I'll just suggest you read this post and this post. And maybe this one, which is long but excellent.) Whenever I see a PPP, my eye immediately searches out the sentence for the noun modified by the PPP. In this case, pouring modified sunlight, buzzing modifies bees, ticking modifies scent. So that's all fine.

But something about that sentence still made me pause, so I went to the next check. What did that list of three modify? Open land. And the series lines up in neat order after open land, so that seemed to work just fine.

And yet, I wasn't satisfied. So, if we can see that everything is in the proper order, the next check has us look at the relationships between the parts. And this is where I started to dither, and it's also where I get to touch on another old rant. You see, all those little words that we think of as mostly invisible -- the conjunctions, the relative pronouns, the prepositions, and the like -- are crucial for creating relationships between the "idea" words in a sentence. We could have a list of idea words:

sports car, zoomed, grocery store

And not know the relationship between the parts. There's a world of difference between,

The sports car zoomed to the grocery store.


The sports car zoomed through the grocery store.

Right? Changing one word, one tiny little preposition, changes the entire meaning of that sentence because it changes the relationship between the parts. When we skip those relationship words (as when we substitute a semicolon for a conjunction), we might still be getting the right words down, but we sacrifice our ability to control the reader's interpretation of the relationship between the parts.

Sometimes the ambiguity is exactly what we want, as in Alicia's favorite semicolon from Auden:

I thought love would last forever; I was wrong.

He could have said,

I thought love would last forever, AND I was wrong.


I thought love would last forever, BUT I was wrong.

Either of those would signal a slightly different shade of meaning, but in this case, the semicolon creates an ambiguity that works strongly for the sentence -- because it could be BUT, it could be AND, or it could even be both or neither. The nature of the relationship between those clauses is ambiguous for a purpose, and the ambiguity actually adds meaning to the poem.

But that's another issue, and frankly, it's a rare semicolon that adds more than it detracts. And this sample sentence is not about semicolons, but about the way we glue pieces together with tiny words. And in this case, I think we need some glue. It's not technically necessary, but it would add clarity and precision. Maybe something like,

But it felt so good to be out in the open land with sunlight pouring on her head and arms, bees buzzing in the anemone, and the scent of pine tickling her nostrils.

Adding two words -- the preposition with and the conjunction and -- converts that series into a prepositional phrase with a compound object. Note, too, that now we can get rid of the comma after land, which was previously used to signal the ellipsis. (Ellipsis = missing word = the preposition with)

Or maybe we want to make it adverbial.

But it felt so good to be out in the open land when the sunlight poured on her head and arms, bees buzzed in the anemone, and the scent of pine tickled her nostrils.

Now we have a compound adverbial clause, and notice that we can again eliminate the comma after land. We also can shift the form of the verbs in the clauses to past participles, which always read a little more easily. Of course, now the clause signals something different about the nature of the relationship between the main clause and the dependent clause. Where before we had a preposition indicating something about the nature of the land, now we have a temporal adverb indicating something about the moment in time spent on the land. It's a different relationship between the parts.

There might be other ways to solve that sentence, too, and shore up the relationship between the parts. Or it might be that the author will choose to leave the relationship ambiguous. Worked for Auden, right? In any case, it's a good sentence, and it's a good example of how to tinker with pieces using those little relationship words.


Thursday, May 5, 2011


Many congrats to Ian Healy, whose superhero novel Mustang Sally is to be published by New Babel Books. Ian, if you're here, share details, like when?


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Muffled Sounds

Last week, I invited you to write up descriptions of sounds inside soundproofed rooms. And then, Murphy's law being what it is, we had a massive tech issue with the blog and people couldn't post their comments. I gave it a few days for the dust to settle, but I think the comments are still a bit unreliable. Nothing I can do about it, though I'm thinking Alicia and I might need to have a powwow about switching to a different blogging platform. Google is terrific for so many things, but if the comments don't work, that's a big, big problem.

Anyway. Let's take a look at the examples from those of you who were able to get something through. This first one is from Joel Q Aaron.

The first floor window gave him a clear shot at the parking lot as soundless cars drove by. He spoke clearly and annunciated without thought. His voice didn’t echo in the small room, but reverberated across the region to car stereos and office radios. He nodded at the producer and special guest mouthing at each other in the hall. With a wave of his hand, they came though the thick door and into the studio as if a paused CD began to play in mid chorus. Office chatter followed. The ding of a microwave. Then the silent movie returned as the door closed.

This is very interesting. We've got a discussion of sound in the beginning, but we don't have any actual sounds. Notice that? He speaks, but we don't know the words he uses. He annunciates -- great verb choice to highlight this contrast between making noise and hearing nothing. "annunciated without thought" -- nice. It isn't until the door opens that we have more concrete representations of sound -- the CD playing mid chorus, the chatter, the ding of a microwave (probably the strongest and most direct representation of sound in the entire example).

This sentence troubles me a little bit:

With a wave of his hand, they came though the thick door and into the studio as if a paused CD began to play in mid chorus.

With is probably not the right preposition to use there. And I think the chained phrases are meant to indicated the time at which something happens, rather than the nature. In that case, it ought to be an adverb clause rather than a pair of prepositional phrases. (Adverbs can describe time more effectively than prepositional phrases can. 'Tis their nature.) Like so:

After he waved his hand, they came though the thick door and into the studio as if a paused CD began to play in mid chorus.

And then the use of "as if" bugs my eyes a bit. What follows "as if" doesn't describe the manner of their coming. It describes the result of the door being opened. These little words, these prepositions and adverbs and conjunctions and so forth, are more than just glue to hold together the bigger words. They signal relationships between the parts, too, and here I think we need a different relationship signal. What "they" do and the resulting sound effects have a different relationship than what is currently written. Maybe something like,

After he waved his hand, they opened the thick studio door to the external sounds as if a paused CD began to play in mid chorus.

Or maybe,

After he waved his hand, they came though the thick door and into the studio along with a noise like a paused CD beginning to play in mid chorus.

We're still not quite there with either of these options, but the relationship between the pieces is a little more clear, which is my point.

Also, I might reverse the order of that final sentence so that we end with that really nice image:

Then as the door closed, the silent movie returned.

Because I think the silent movie concept is more powerful than the image of the door closing. The last spot in a paragraph is a power spot. Use something good there, something evocative or resonant, and your paragraph will automatically read better. We've already got that nice detail, that silent movie, so it's easy enough to rearrange the parts to emphasize it.

Jami, whose original setting example led us down this delightful side road, showed us in the comments how she revised that bit to highlight the quality of the sound:

The odor of sour sweat and smoke clogged the air in the sparse room. She made herself at home, shoving the three utilitarian steel chairs and industrial table toward the back wall so she could approach the mirror unimpeded. The deadened screech of the furniture rearrangement gave evidence of the room’s soundproofing.

"deadened screech" is evocative and interesting, and I have a feeling that in context, it might even have some symbolic resonance. And I know just what that deadened screech sounds like. Don't you agree? That's a good use of language, concise and precise. I'm a little less enthusiastic about "the furniture rearrangement" because that's a little flat and vague. Something more specific might be better. Maybe something like,

The deadened screech of metal legs against concrete gave evidence of the room's soundproofing.

Though, maybe not -- we already have steel in an earlier sentence, and that's more precise than metal, so this has an also-ran flavor in that adjective. So maybe move the adjective, and the article, like so:

She made herself at home, shoving three utilitarian chairs and the industrial table toward the back wall so she could approach the mirror unimpeded. The deadened screech of steel legs against concrete gave evidence of the room’s soundproofing.

There we go. That's better. I would probably cut the adjective sparse from the first sentence, too, just to shift the balance of plain nouns and adjective-noun combos. When too many nouns are paired with adjectives, the prose begins to feel a bit overweighted. I don't think we're at that point here, but I do think cutting "sparse" pulls us back from the territory where we even have to consider it. And now the final paragraph reads thus:

The odor of sour sweat and smoke clogged the air in the room. She made herself at home, shoving three utilitarian chairs and the industrial table toward the back wall so she could approach the mirror unimpeded. The deadened screech of steel legs against concrete gave evidence of the room’s soundproofing.

Sometimes little changes can make a big difference, and to my eyes, this is one of those times. It was a strong paragraph to begin with, and I think the rhythm in the prose is intact, but it's a little tighter and smoother now.

Now Thomas Sharkey shares some observations from a recent hearing test:

A soft sound of silence surrounded me, numbing my senses.
The walls were covered in foam blocks shaped something like the inside of an egg box.
When the assistant spoke the room felt even smaller. Her voice was a flat sound and it had a sort of finality about it.

Thomas, I know just the egg crate foam padding you're describing. I worked at a radio station in college, and the sound studio's walls were lined in that stuff. I don't know what it's called, but I do know it sucked the echoes right out of the air. Finality -- that's a good way to describe the quality of that sound effect. And it's hard to describe the way things sound in that kind of environment. It's almost like being in a house when the power goes out. The slight hum of the electric appliances is gone, and everything is just a little too still and quiet. You almost hear your own voice differently. It's not that your voice changes, but everything around it does.


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Double negative

This is in conversation, and we're not always really clear in conversation. But I thought it was a great example of a double negative. This is the Lakers coach about their loss to the Mavericks last night.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson said, "I'm not so sure Dallas didn't outplay us."

 So.... did the Mavs outplay them or not?  I don't know! I don't even know what he thinks!

Just a reminder that double-negatives ("not/didn't") are generally confusing. Use them if you want a certain ambiguity or resonance (as with Iago's self-definition: "I am nothing if not contrary"). But don't confuse if you don't mean to confuse!

(I'm sure poor Coach Jackson was so perplexed at his #1 team yet again losing the first game at home in a playoff series that he just couldn't get a straight thought out. Plus he's Buddhist, right? So he's been schooled in presenting contradictions as wisdom. :)