Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Then, And Then

Sadly, today my Uncampaign Mismanager and I decided to throw in the towel on our attempts to buy the open Illinois Senate seat from almost-ex-Governor Blagojevich. I so wanted to be Senator and dedicate my mighty clout to repealing the sales tax on chocolate, and we were only $27,999.68 short of the half mil we figured it would cost us. But what are ya gonna do. We knew we were racing the clock to satisfy the Guv's wild greed, and we lost to some other guy with quicker cash. Oh, well. Looks like I'm destined to be an editor, after all.

So, with my short and doomed campaign behind us, and with the refunds nearly complete to those who so cheerfully donated their Monopoly money, poker chips, and Chuck E. Cheez tokens to Our Noble Cause, I will bury my disappointment in work.

We'll start with a quick peek at the word then, followed by a caution about rules.

Technically, the word then is not a conjunction. It can be used
  • as an adverb (to clarify the time at which a verb occurs, as in, "Blagojevich extorted payola, got caught, and then was forced to resign.")
  • as a noun (to refer to a specific time, as in, "Since then, Blagojevich has resorted to taking bribes from his family members to get a haircut.")
  • or as an adjective ( as in, "the then Governor Blagojevich remained unaware of how permanent the damage to his reputation would be.")
Sometimes, we see writers skip conjunctions when using then before a final verb in a series.

She stopped, dropped, then rolled.

And I must admit, even though this sort of thing will always jump off the page for me, I sometimes let it slide. Emphasis on sometimes. What that means is that in the vast majority of cases, I will insert the conjunction for clarity and rhythm.

So, I was thinking about Alicia's posts on compound predicates with missing conjunctions, and it made me think of the rash of manuscripts lately with faulty then constructions in just about every other paragraph. And I thought I would post this reminder that then is not a conjuction, but there's a bigger point to be made about both Alicia's and my posts.

In responding to Alicia's post, several of you raised examples of highly regarded authors who occasionally drop the conjunctions in compound predicates. I'm sure you can all find examples of authors who use then as an adverb without a conjunction, too. They're out there. I know it, and Alicia knows it, and you all know it, too.

So here's the thing. We say, here's the general rule. And we're right. And you say, but so-and-so breaks it. And you're right. But it's not enough to know the rule, and know that it can be broken. We have to also understand the effect to be created by breaking the rule in different circumstances or in different ways.

Because that's where precision lies. When a word is used with forethought and deliberation in an unexpected way, when a faulty construction is left to lie on the page like a painted whore, when a rule is quietly broken or forcefully shattered, then is a precise effect being caused upon the reader.

When you chain predicate verbs without a conjunction, you can create an impression of speed, or chaos, or actions that build in sequence to a pinnacle. The effect may vary from usage to usage, because this sort of thing is case specific. When you insert a then into such a chain, you might gain control over the sequence of events without sacrificing the effect of the dropped conjunction. So there are times when these things work, and I believe Alicia also recognized valid exceptions to the rules.

What we've been seeing lately, though, is a conjunction dropped for no apparent reason. There is no sense of a meticulous author controlling her prose by artfully breaking a rule. There is, instead, a sense of abandon. And not in a good way. It's not being done here and there for precise effects, but four or five times per page, almost like a nervous stutter in the written speech. The overall impression is one of sloppiness and disrespect for the language.

The next time you notice a published work breaking a rule, I want you to do two things. First, take a moment to congratulate yourself for recognizing the breach. You've worked hard to gain the knowledge and sharp eye that allowed you to do so, and that's a good thing.

Second, I want you to step back from the page for a moment. Appraise it as neutrally as possible. Ask yourself, why is the rule being broken here? Why here and not there? What effect is being created? Try rearranging the words to "fix" the prose, and see how the effect changes. Take the time to figure it out. It will be worth it in the end.


Monday, December 29, 2008

Less is more. Rinse and repeat.

Re: doubling predicates without and and other cute prose tricks: If it's effective, it's good. I think it isn't necessary most of the time, and the writer needs to consider whether it's necessary here-- because if there's a grammatical break and the editor deems it unnecessary, there it goes. Out, out, damned break!

Less is more. "When it is absolutely necessary" is the amount any "clever" formation should be used-- only when it adds far, far more than breaking grammar detracts.

I don't think it NEVER works. But I do think the more a writer uses such formations, the less effect it has (beyond annoying). In fact, if you want such a formation to have an actual effect, you should never use it except the two or three times in a book it works. Maybe more than two or three times... as I said, it can be effective in conveying fast, simultaneous action. But if a writer uses it whenever there are two actions, then the reader will have no way of knowing that this moment is different, that these are simultaneous, not sequential or causal, actions.

Sometimes, I think, writers fall in love with certain constructions and forget why they exist, and use them as if they are in fact the standard.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Alas, If Only I'd Known Then How Dreadful Things Would Become!

Thank you to everyone who voted in our poll and commented on my question about whether to send out rejections right before Christmas or wait until January. I took your advice, and we sent out a very large number of rejection letters on Monday. Yes, I cringed at the timing, and I suspect some of the recipients did, too. But at least we can all move on now. (In case you're wondering, that leaves a bit more than 50 manuscripts on my desk, a much more manageable number.)

I had nine holiday parties in six days, three of which were at my home -- an open house for 60, a buffet supper for 45, and a formal dinner for 13. With the schedule like that, I knew I would have very little time for work this week, and that even when I would have the time, I would not have the energy. At a blistering migraine into the mix, and you'll see why after Monday's blitz of rejection letters, I accomplished almost nothing for the rest of the week.

I did, however, do a little reading.

"Yet as vast as my dreams might be, I'd no notion then of how far and fast we'd rise, John Churchill and I -- nor how far we'd tumble, too, like angels cast down from heaven itself."
-- Duchess, a Novel of Sarah Churchill, by Susan Holloway Scott, Page 122

I started this novel with high hopes, and at first, it was every bit as good as I wanted it to be. Restoration England was a fascinating place, and I was already somewhat familiar with what the story of how John and Sarah Churchill rose to prominence and eventually became the first Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. But after the premise of the book was established -- the arrival of 13-year-old Sarah Jennings to the court of Charles II, her connection to the household of the Duchess of York, her budding friendship with the young Anne, who would eventually become the last Stuart monarch -- I began to notice a little tic in the prose.

"By the time John returned home in October of 1678 and fetched me back to London, a new madness had seized the country, and our lives together would begin a course from which there'd be no return."
-- page 124

It's a well written book, really. And perhaps we must make some allowances for the fact that I read too damned much. I'm jaded. More than that, I'm perhaps too sensitive to little flourishes like this.

"My role was both to oblige the Princess in every way, and to keep my silence for my own politics and personal opinions were concerned. Alas, as my life would show, I was by nature far better suited to the one than the other."
-- page 158

I can't read one of these without hearing a musical crescendo. You remember those old TV shows, usually soap operas and other melodramas, that used this device? A character would make some terrible pronouncement, and then the orchestra would blare: Duhn-da-DUH! It was meant to heighten suspense, but it was heavy-handed enough that it quickly became material for comics.

"James was crowned the new King, free at last to rule as he pleased, and life for all of us would never again be the same."
-- page 176

It's perhaps unfair of me to draw a comparison between this book and TV shtick. Really, it's a well-written book. But I can't help noticing the number of chapters that end with this little rhetorical flourish. I didn't even have to look very hard to find all the examples I'm using in this post. They're not at the end of every chapter or scene. In fact, they're not even in the majority, and most of the scenes have well-crafted endings. That makes it a bigger shame, really. A beautiful book has been marred by a few lesser sentences, and it would've been so easy to edit these out.

"We had gambled, yes, but we had won. Surely luck -- grand, glorious, wicked luck -- was now tucked deep in my pocket, and I meant to do everything in my power to keep it there. But luck, I learned, had notions of its own."
-- page 227

You hear the crescendo? The writer is building us up for some great fall. By the time I had gotten halfway into the book, I was beginning to wonder if the book would rewrite history and have the Duke of Marlborough executed for high treason. But I know something of this man's story. I knew before I bought this book that he died of old age and was mourned as a great hero.

"It seemed to me my sister's life had become no more than a sorry testament to the unfortunate choices she’d made; I’d no notion then that our fates would cross one last time."
-- page 253

Of course, the author is not rewriting history, but trying to layer some additional tension into the story. I think it was unnecessary. This is a story built on political scandal, revolution, war, and the kind of intrigue and jockeying for position that could only happen in the court of a monarch. People plot. People take great risks. People escape from captivity in the dead of night one step ahead of the executioner's blade. There is so much drama inherent in the story that these little predictions of doom are a bit of overkill. Much better to let the plot and conflict carry the weight of the drama.

Perhaps this would bother me less if she had used this technique less frequently. Or perhaps I'm too picky. In any case, when you're trying to find an emotional note to close a chapter or scene, let me suggest that you stick to something established by the scene itself. Think of it this way: Emotion borrowed from the future will have to be paid back with interest. Are you willing to pay that price?


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

New trends in prose I'm going to edit out...

Yeah, yeah, I know. It's "my voice". But any idiosyncrasy is going to lose all claim to power the story or to reflect the character (or author) voice, if it is used constantly as if it's standard English. Less is more, for cripes' sake. LESS IS MORE!!!

So if you're doubling predicates (without an AND) every paragraph or so, do not be surprised when your grumpy editor edits almost all of them back to standard English. Is this some new trend? I'm seeing it all the time in submissions and contest entries (almost never, nota bene, in published fiction). Here's an example I'm making up:

He reached out, touched her.

Oh, another-- these never come as singlets. They are usually throughout the whole chapter, regardless of POV character (that is, we can't blame the character voice).

Gilead climbed, clambered up the wall.

And yet another:

Her head ached, reeled with pain.

You know, this is actually one of those times you can use a participle! (Theresa said memorably that three things can happen when you use participles, and two of them are bad-- well, here's the good one.)

Her head ached, reeling with pain.

Well, I don't know if a head can reel, but that is actually part of the problem with this doubling of predicate. You have two predicates. Do they actually both use the same subject? Sometimes the sloppiness of this construction means that the first predicate is actually an action of the subject, but the second predicate applies apparently to some missing subject that I guess the reader is supposed to supply, like:

His hand itched to smack the kid, welled up with anger.

Well, the hand didn't well up with anger, so is it the kid welling up? The "he" that owns the hand? Predicates and subjects need to match. If you disagree with that, please find another language to write in.

(Oh, sure, you can occasionally, for some effect you can identify, break the rules. But if you do it all the time, it's you establishing a new rule, not breaking the rules. And if you want to define a rule -and abide by it-- wherein you have doubled predicates with one subject that connects directly with only one of those predicates, well, go ahead. Elucidate. Explain your logic, when the rule applies and when it doesn't, and give examples. If you don't want to do that, don't expect me or the reader to do your work for you.)

Another problem is that the practice leads to redundancy.

Gilead climbed, clambered up the wall.

I see this one a lot, where the writer apparently can't decide between two synonyms and so uses them both. (The former trend, fortunately lost in the mists of time, was to put a slash mark between them: Gilead climbed/clambered up the wall.)

Sin boldly. Choose. Climbed, clambered-- which fits better here? CHOOSE. You are in charge.

There's a great way to handle sentences where one person commits two actions, and yes, it uses two predicates. It also uses a handy little word, sometimes called a "conjunction" because it conjoins two like things (for example, actions). Conjunctions are useful because they not only show that two things are related, but HOW they are related (so "but" shows they are related by contrast or conflict). So:

He reached out and touched her.

Does that sound trite? Yes? Well, maybe it IS trite. Maybe it's too trite to write. Maybe you should make that sentence do more than repeat a long-distance commercial, huh? If you make a grammatical sentence and it says nothing of import, it's not going to suddenly become meaningful because you make it an ungrammatical sentence. Concentrate on saying something that matters.

Something to keep in mind is that editors get everything amplified. What seems to you to be a trendy or clever opening is, by the time you send it to us, rather hackneyed-- twenty other writers have already thought of that and sent it to us. So your clever opening-- oh, like the hero and heroine colliding in the corridor, my favorite clever opening that I've only seen 10K times-- isn't going to seem too clever. And how unique and true will your story seem, if it's opened in a way that opens so many other stories?

I digress. What I meant was-- if the editor has seen your "voice" thingy so much it's become annoying and has its own unflattering moniker and yahoogroups list, maybe it's not the best representation of your voice, and maybe this aspect of your voice is not actually so representative of your uniqueness.

Does that mean you should never break the rules, never listen to your inner rhythms, never try to replicate the character's voice? Of course not. It just means that you shouldn't choose one transgressive technique and use it over and over and over again. Your voice is more than one lapse in grammar, one used, moreover, by a lot of other writers-- and, uh, one that your editor is likely to "fix" anyway.

What are other "transgressive" but common techniques? I think one is the breaking up of perfectly nice sentences into one sentence and a series of fragments, like:
He knew. Knew her. Her perfume. Her perfidy. (Hmm. I like that ... perfume, perfidy. I like it a lot better in one sentence. :)

Again, I don't mean that you should never break rules of grammar and syntax. But there's not power in breaking the rule if you ALWAYS break the rules. We're likely to assume that you just don't know the rules.


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Quote tag verbing

I'm not one of those who hates quote tags or restricts them to "he said." I like verbs that tell what the quote IS: asked, remarked, commented, observed, shouted, whispered-- verbs that are "say" words (that is, they specifically refer to speech) but are giving the extra info you might get if you were there and could see the facial expression and hear the tone. I also have no problem with adverbs that modify (she said softly) or contradict (he yelled lovingly) the quote verb, as long as it works and isn't redundant (not so fond of "he murmured softly," though I'm sure I've written that :).

So I'm hardly a puritan when it comes to quote tags. But of course, I do draw the line. Now I want you all to think about what you find acceptable and what you find objectionable as a tag for dialogue. (Assume that, for purposes of rhythm and/or speaker identification, you need a quote tag, and an action tag might be too much, distracting from the speech, etc.)

So here are some tag verbs I've seen recently, and maybe you can pick out the ones that annoy you and the ones that don't, and if you have a rationale, let us know. :) Now before or after these is a line of speech, like:
"I don't know what you're talking about," she said.
That is, these are TAGS. They are to be connected (like she said above) with a comma before or after the speech. They are not sentences on their own. Okay? And the speech line presumably has something to do with the chosen tag, like "You can't divide by zero," he instructed.

he growled
she smiled
she laughed
he grunted
she hissed
she whispered
he ground out
he grated (what is it with "gr" words? Reminds me of the Crazy English guy who pointed out that most English words that begin with "sn" have to do with the nose)
she attempted
she blurted
he added
he teased
he taunted
she explained
he instructed
he snorted
she sneered
he exclaimed
she lectured
she interrogated
he insisted
he rasped
she muttered

Thoughts? Other tags you like or hate?

Monday, December 22, 2008

"Must" past tense

Previous post... what is the past tense of "must"? "Had to?" (That is what one source says, though I suspect that is an Americanism.) "Must have"? The sentence I had was complicated because it was in the negative (She must not have expected him/she must not expect him), and so it complicated the verb. Anyway, here is an interesting discussion of this issue-- is "must" its own past tense? It's a bit archaic, maybe, but "must" has been the past tense of "must," and one respondent in that discussion points out that modals (the little verb-words that add a condition to a verb, like could or should) often do dual duty, with present or past tense determined by context or some other indication (like "five years ago"). Interesting, anyway. The respondent mentions that the OED makes a distinction for "indirect speech" (like "He told her that he must go"). I think a character's internal thoughts might count as indirect speech, where there's actually a certain existential confusion of past and present. (Notice how we debate whether a thought should be in present or past tense-- same issue.)

Telepathy, interpretation, and POV shifts

First let me say that there is no rule you have to stay in one character viewpoint or that deep POV is the only or even most desirable choice. In fact, I suspect that some form of multiple (but controlled) POV will be "the" POV of the 21st century, as omniscent was the dominant POV of the 19th C and single POV of the 20th C.

AND what POV you feel most comfortable writing is the one you usually should be writing-- you should learn to do it as well as you can, but what sort of plot and characterization you choose probably derives from the same personality and preference that determine what POV approach you prefer. That is, don't battle your nature-- just do what you do really well, and do it for the sake of giving the reader the best experience possible.

But... I think whether you are using multiple or single POV, if you're using personal POV (not omniscient), at any given moment you are in someone's POV. For however long, you are putting the reader in that person's body and mind, right? And you don't want to inadvertently eject the reader from that person, right?

Sometimes as I read a passage, I feel ejected, like suddenly I'm not in Tom's mind, I'm in Joan's mind, or dangling helplessly in between. When I go back and read to figure out why, it's often actually a deep POV issue, where the writer has Tom interpreting something from the way Joan speaks or behaves... but because there's no "Tom thought" in there, it sounds like JOAN.

Okay, let me backtrack. While Tom cannot know what Joan is thinking, he can definitely interpret. This is not weird for the reader, as of course, the reader also cannot read minds but can interpret body language, tone of voice, facial expression, etc. But of course, Tom might or might not be good at this. He might be really empathic and intuitive and see a twitch of her lips and know she's lying, or he could be the clueless type who thinks he knows what that lip-twitch means ("Oh, she's going to sneeze!") but is wrong. But... the important thing is that if it's significant, if you want the READER to interpret also, the POV character has to notice and narrate it.

So let's try a scenario. Tom knocks on Joan's door, and she opens it.

Tom took a deep breath and knocked on her door. He heard a faint voice inside -- "Coming, coming," and braced himself.

She flung open the door. "Yes, can I--" Then she faltered. She wasn't expecting him.

Now when you're in deep POV, you might report his thought, his interpretation of her faltering, straight, without "he thought" or "he realized" (though really, neither of those are likely to bother the reader, so don't feel you have to get rid of them anymore than you'd avoid "he saw" or "he heard"). It is a rendition of his judgment about what her faltering means.

Trouble is, that line "She wasn't expecting him" is exactly what you might write about her reaction if you were in her POV-- in her mind. So the reader might hesitate and wonder if we're now in her POV. Hesitation, re-reading-- those are not what you want, as they mean you confused the reader and slowed down the narrative flow.

So how can you do this-- show the interpretation-- without the reader confusion? I'm going to suggest a couple things, but you might have other ways of handling this.

First, try going with a new paragraph. We associate what's in a quote paragraph with the speaker (the action, for example), although that's not a rule or anything... just if you are trying to un-confuse, that's a way to do it:

Tom took a deep breath and knocked on her door. He heard a faint voice inside -- "Coming, coming," and braced himself.

She flung open the door. "Yes, can I--" Then she faltered.

She wasn't expecting him.

Notice that her actions (flinging, faltering) are still there with the speech-- that's all "her".

But the next line might be more obviously his thought if it's in a new paragraph, do you think? Now I'm not fond of a lot of one-line paragraphs. I just got a submission where almost every paragraph, stretched out over an 8 1/2 inch page, was just a line or maybe two, and it "sounded" sing-songy and childish. If you love short paragraphs (shorter than 4 sentences, say), just remember that some readers will "hear" that as childish (children's books have short paragraphs for a reason). (I use "sound" and "hear" there because there are a lot of readers-- I'm one-- who actually hear the passage as they read, and thus will notice if a paragraph ends too soon or if a sentence has too many syllables... I know it's weird, kind of synesthesia, but do be aware that this is a fairly sizeable proportion of readers, and they actually might refuse to read books that "sound wrong". So it pays to think of the rhythm and sound of your prose as you write and revise. Who else has that "sound" response to reading?)

So you don't want to have a lot of short paragraphs, but having one shorter graph in the midst of longer ones serves to emphasize the importance.

Another idea is to use her name, or if you've established that Tom thinks of her as "Joanie" or "Mrs. Lewis," using that name will make clear this line is in his mind:

Joanie wasn't expecting him.

Also consider a term that replaces the name or the pronoun and is his-- "Mom wasn't expecting him," for example. Or "That little brat wasn't expecting him." (She wouldn't think of herself that way. :) But you don't want to get artificial-- it's got to be in his voice or it won't work.

Another thought-- look at the verb there.

She wasn't expecting him.

"Wasn't" doesn't sound like interpretation, actually. Well, of course, we do "interpret" in categorical ways, but if you want to make clear it's him interpreting, not absolute reality, consider fuzzing up the verb a bit. For example:

She must not have been expecting him.

"Must not" isn't straight reality or even pretending to be- it's obviously interpretation. If you don't like that complicated tense there (have been expecting), maybe: She must not expect him? (Have we left past tense there? I don't think so-- "must" is its own past tense, I think.) She must not have expected him?

And it's moments like these you realize why "he realized" is actually a useful device that shouldn't be discarded even in deep POV, because it signals to the reader that it's his thought, his interpretation, and not his observation, her thought, or absolute reality.

He realized that she had not been expecting him.

She had not been expecting him, he realized.

Now... another complication. What if he's interpreting wrong? What if she was expecting him, and her faltering was because, I don't know, she's in love with him and is trying not to blurt it out? Or she sees him and realizes that he's the crazed stalker she's been fearing? Or she sees that he's got spinach in his teeth?

How would you -- in his POV -- signal that this is his interpretation, but it's wrong (or limited)? Or would you just let his interpretation stand for the moment, as that is his reality at the moment?


Friday, December 19, 2008

For future...

Just making note to remind me for future blog-- explore common theme. Undercover, mistaken identity, disguise, amnesia-- all identity issues. Scarlet Pimpernel, Oedipus, etc.

I Need Your Opinions on This

There's a poll up in the sidebar about holiday rejections, and I really would like to know what you all think of this. We're in desk-clearing mode, but something in me cringes at the thought of sending out rejections during Christmas week. Is it better to do it then and get it over with, or wait until January and contribute to the plague of January winter blues?

(If you're on a feed reader, you have to click over to the actual blog to vote.)


Sequencing again

Just doing some sentence editing, and came across one where the sequence sounded okay but wasn't:

I'm going to teach this guy a lesson, gullible fool that he is.

The reader will get the meaning--- the guy is the gullible fool-- but because modifiers are usually placed against the word they modify, there'll be maybe an instant of confusion. This is actually amplified because "gullible fool that he is" is an appositive -- something that tells more about a noun-- and the word it's placed by (lesson) is indeed a noun. So it's actually a bit more confusing than if the appositive was against a verb or preposition (the reader then would automatically cast back for the nearest noun).

So recasting is made possible by the near-infinite flexibility offered by English syntax:
I'm going to teach a lesson to this guy, gullible fool that he is.

That is not quite as colloquial as "teach this guy a lesson", but perfectly fluent, as it's just reversing the order of the objects ("this guy" is the indirect object-- to whom-- and "a lesson" is the direct object -- what). That puts the noun modified (guy) next to the modifier then.

I know this is picky, and I know that readers can figure out most sentences. After all, we speak English, and seldom have the chance to edit our spoken sentence order. So our listeners have to have learned how to pick the meaning out of imperfect sentences.

But one of the comforts of READING rather than listening is that we can relax with a good author's prose and know that we won't have to work to understand the meaning. The author really ought to be doing the hard work of honing the sentence and making sure it says precisely what it's supposed to mean.

In fact, one of the weird attributes of a good editor is the ability to override that automatic mental fixing of imperfect sentences and stop and recognize that there's something wrong. I think writers should override that useful skill, if only while they're writing and revising.

So as you revise, read your sentences as if you're a fluent but clueless alien, who doesn't have decades of experience parsing conversation. Make the sentence say exactly what you mean it to say.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Names and roles

I am still-- always-- thinking about what we call our characters. Talk about picky. I was just reading a book where characters are referred to by their names, by their roles, and often by some physical trait. For example:

A woman is called Fidelia (I'm making this up for the usual reasons) on first reference.

Then next time, she is called "the ad executive" or "Peter's wife".

Then she's called "the brunette."

I actually came across a reference to her as "the brunette ad executive."

I remember my friend Lynn Kerstan remarking that such a passage made it feel like there was a big crowd in the room, though there are actually only two characters (Fidelia and Peter, the blond airline pilot husband :).

Anyway, take a glance at your own story, and tell me how you handle this. Do you always refer to a character by name, and then pronoun (and what do you do if there's more than one "he"?), and if you do replace the name with a noun, what do you consider acceptable and not?

I was just writing a passage where I was referring to a male character by his last name (Petrus). Now this scene is being told from the POV of another character, Lakoff. Petrus has come to Lakoff's city and office for a business meeting. So I had Lakoff think of his as "Petrus" and then "the visitor," and I stopped and thought... should I do this? Is it clear enough that the visitor is Petrus? Is there a good reason not to use his name?

Oddly, I think I find sort of generic terms like "the other man" or "the visitor" or "his guest" as acceptable, while personal terms (like those that tell much at all about this person, especially his hair color) make me squirm-- they seem amateurish somehow.

Okay, here's my justification, lame though it might be, for "the other man, et al" being acceptable substitutes. Those are all in relationship to the POV character. That is, Lakoff is a man, so "the other man" refers to, uh, the other man. Lakoff is the host, so the other man is "the visitor" and "his guest". This seems okay to me even if Lakoff himself would not necessarily think those terms-- after all, we don't think entirely in words, and "the other"ness of someone else is something so primal that we probably think it without language, and we writers use those terms (because we do communicate entirely with words) to replicate the feeling that the other is, well, the other.

But I'm not sure. I just feel that the generic terms are acceptable sometimes (not often, and never, I'd suspect, if the POV character KNOWS this person well), and "the blonde ad executive" conversely seems like a neon sign of amateurishness. What do you all think?


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Grammar question (I know MY answer :)

Okay, heard this on the news:

The governor is concerned with (whom or who) will be appointed to take her place.

Whom or who?

And what's your rationale?


What works works... but what works?

Jennifer asked a good question:
Another submission-related question re: short stories.

Does the italicized prefatory bit in Brokeback Mountain (where Ennis is shown AFTER the events of the story) work there only because it's Annie Proulx? Or could an unknown author submitting to lit fiction journals get away with a similar device?

(Yes, I have a story with two similar paras--similar, in that the POV character is depicted after the events of the story. It's not traditional prologue in the sense of telling what came before.)

Jennifer, there are no rules, of course, except to be good. :) Also genre matters a lot. Proulx was writing in the literary fiction genre, AND short story. And of course she was already well-known, which does indeed mean she could get away with more... but it could mean she is well-known because she's good, and editors trust her to get it right.

But if it works, it works. I don't mean to be difficult. :) But that's it. We can list all sorts of things that don't work, and then some really good writer makes it work. (In fact, some really good writers, I think, deliberately CHOOSE what editors just said doesn't work... just for fun. "I heard you say that we should never start a book with the protagonist on an airplane thinking about where she's going. Ha, ha, I just did that, and it's so good!")

All we can say is usually these whatevers don't work, and we can even usually explain why. (Showing Ennis after the events would deprive the reader of the suspense, etc. Does the film start that way too? I forget.) But Proulx had a reason, I'm sure. Suspense wasn't her main aim with the opening. So does it work, do you think? What echo does it set off that is picked up in the end of the story?

I guess that it's a great idea to go with what is organic, what works with the story, but that takes a good author. We have encountered a lot of authors that choose something because it's trendy, because they've seen other books do it, because some bestseller did it-- but often it doesn't work for the story. (If it works, then I don't grumble as loud. :) There was an annoying trend of starting Ch 1 with a free-floating line of dialogue, and for a couple years, I saw ms after ms that started with a line of dialogue-- not because that was how this story should open, but just because it was trendy. And you don't have to see too many bad examples before you start thinking that starting with dialogue is generally ill-advised, and, uh, making ill-advised generalizations thereof. "Do NOT EVER EVER EVER start a book with dialogue! Ever! You hear me? I better stomp my foot too!"

But there'll be some story that really OUGHT to start with dialogue, or an author clever enough to play with that and make it work. And I hope I'd be able to recognize the rightness then. But that doesn't mean it was a good technique for all those other stories, or that it's as likely to produce a good opening as starting just before something happens, or starting with a pan-shot of the setting (both of which are more reliably successful opening gambits).

As usual... the truth is, what works works. But it will work because it's right for this story, and that takes more magic or skill or calculation than most authors are using, to tell you the truth. Avoid the generic is the best advice-- be ruthless with your own work and your own talent, analyze, figure out what works, and never settle for what worked (or especially, what didn't work!) for other stories. There are techniques that are commonly used because they often work (say, the hero taking form in an archetype role), but even those that usually work might not work in your story because it's different, because you have a different story logic, because you're aiming at a specific tone or pacing. And your job is to realize all this. :)

I know it doesn't help that so often editors and agents mention something cool or not so cool, something that readers of this sort of book like or don't like. However, these edicts can be helpful if you can just experiment, if you're flexible and also have a good grasp of your own story and characters. For example, I remember a couple years ago some editor mentioned that women readers really like "makeover scenes" where the ugly-duckling heroine gets the swan treatment (think of the reality shows this desire has generated :). Now personally I can't imagine much more tedious than a scene of the heroine getting her hair and nails done, but I do understand the underlying thematic purpose. It's not the mechanics of the scene that resonate for the reader-- that's just a way to make the process concrete. What is the underlying dynamic here? It's about transformation-- not so much "If I transform, he will love me," but "If he loves me, I will be transformed." Or maybe, "This surface transformation will give me the confidence to be myself, as long as I never forget that I am more than my surface."
(Or, in the "divorce-revenge" subgenre, it might be more like "Through transformation, I will find the link between my old uncool self and my new cool self, and boy, will he be sorry he discarded me!")

Once I thought through the underlying thematic purpose, I had a better sense of why some makeover scenes work and some just don't. It's not the makeover scene... but what is underneath. And if the manifesting scene doesn't actually reflect that underneath truth, the scene isn't going to work.

Trouble is, the author who knows her heroine enough to know that, for instance, the makeover MUST be interrupted and left incomplete... that's a different sort of author than the one who thinks, "Makeover scenes are trendy, so I'm going to put one in." The first author, the author who has the makeover scene develop a certain way because that's what's needed for this character, is an author who is going to impress editors.

The second type of author, the one who inserts a makeover scene because it's trendy, is the author that will make us groan and say, "I never ever want to see another makeover scene!"

So it's not the technique or scene or tactic that is right or wrong. It's the author's connection with her own story and characters.


Monday, December 15, 2008

Thought for the Day

We wouldn't have to keep asking people to check the submission guidelines if, you know, people actually checked the submission guidelines.

Bonus Extra Thought for the Day:

It's not enough to check them. You must actually follow them. Please don't send query letters explaining that you know the project doesn't fit our guidelines, but you think we should look at it anyway. We won't.

who had to take a turn at the generic submissions inbox weeding through proposals for cookbooks, self-help books, sweet romances, erotic romances aimed at male readership, epic fantasies, and too many more unsuitable projects to mention, any of which might be a brilliant book, and none of which we publish.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Nota bene

If you are going to diss someone you work with in publishing, do it on the phone to a friend. And assume the friend is going to pass it on. Maybe the friend won't, but just assume he/she will. If you have been smart enough to do your dissing on the phone, you can always deny it.

But if you posted it on your Facebook, in your Livejournal, or on your blog, or sent it in email even to a trusted friend, or posted it on a theoretically private list, you won't be able to deny it when dissee gets a forward.

I know that none of you do this... so good! You're smarter than many writers out there who ought to be aware of the damage they're doing to their careers.

Nothing is private on the internet.
Alicia who was just reading comments on someone else's blog... eek.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Audience and innovation

Nancy said:
but the important thing is to know your audience, even if that means you want to create one.>>

I think that is important. Some audiences will allow any unexpectedness as long as they get this one thing (whatever it is) fulfilled-- usually the basic genre expectation (that the murdered will be found out, that the couple will find love, etc). Other audiences are happy when even that expectation is violated, as long as structurally this is whatever they like to read.

I've often thought that genre readers-- because they read more and KNOW the genre expectations-- are going to be less likely to forgive than, say, bestseller-only readers who come into their reading without much experience and expectation. So my sister who reads a lot of mysteries was very unhappy with a big huge bestseller mystery/thriller where the culprit was revealed to be someone who was not a character in the story before that. (I mean, the murderer was a new character, introduced only when he was revealed as the murderer.) Now I suspect that the author wanted to show how random murder can be, how the most careful policing can't account for the crazy murderer, how sometimes things don't make sense. So that would be a valid reason for deciding to violate the norms, right? But presumably genre readers LIKE the genre norms, and maybe need some tradeoff here-- something better about this book that makes up for this, or the result of the violation is so good, it's worth it.

I think that that story actually violated the central norm of mysteries, that murder will out, but also that thought and investigation, not accident, can restore justice. That's a world-view, actually, a belief in the primacy of reason (at least in fiction) that would lead away from an ending that happened more or less by accident. That, of course, makes it all the more provocative when you violate that and say, "Sometimes reason doesn't find the truth!"

That is, I think that we need to respect that genre expectations are usually based in serious thought/feeling approaches, actual principles, not just stodginess. If I read romance because I want to have my belief in love reaffirmed, then I'm probably less likely to be open to a book that SEEMS like a romance but is actually cynical about love. (However, a story that is cynical about love and THEN ends with love being affirmed-- now that will get me every time. :) Also notice that most genre readers might have no problem with a mainstream book that violates genre expectations.

So how do you get around that pre-existing worldview? A couple thoughts:

1) Aim for a genre audience but be judicious about what you're changing. I remember a great workshop by Jennifer Greene and Emily Richards, two romance writers who have always pushed the envelope, where they suggested identifying the major norms of your genre, and realize that if you change too many all at once, you'll probably alienate a lot of readers. For example, if you're going to set this in a dystopia and have the plot concerned with some arcane alien politics, you might decide that it would be too much to make the protagonist unsympathetic besides. If you want to violate the majority of the genre norms, think about whether you really want to write in that genre. No one is making you, after all. :)

2) Aim for a non-genre audience. Genre storytelling structures (the mystery plot, etc.) are remarkably durable-- they are a very good way to tell many stories that are NOT within genre expectations. Think of The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night, and The Name of the Rose. Both of these are self-consciously modeled on the genre stories about Sherlock Holmes, but they are both aimed at a different audience than a genre one. Both were mainstream successes.

3) Take the genre storytelling structure into another genre. There are a couple genre structures that are really portable-- mystery and romance. These show up all the time as plots in other genres. Mysteries, for example, are quite common as external plots in romance, and I keep trying to say that, say, Shards of Honor (nominally sf) is a quite traditional captive/captor romance, or that that first Amelia Peabody mystery was a great romance but only a mediocre mystery. (I am SO annoying!) But since the "destination genre" readers aren't likely to have the same expectations as the "originating genre" readers, you can probably violate expectations without antagonizing readers. For example, in a novel that is marketed as a science fiction novel where, say, the space ship's captain is murdered, an ambivalent ending to the mystery will probably be well accepted.

4) Write such a great story in such a great way that everyone will forgive anything. Just remember that central expectation and keep that in some way (like a mystery novel without a crime might not go over well). Laura Kinsale specializes romances with less sympathetic characters and emotionally problematic conflicts, but her characterization and prose makes up for the dislocating aspects. The Western genre has been revitalized by several authors who have generally kept the sweeping epic setting but have complicated the characters (occasionally even making the "hero" a woman).

Other thoughts? I think thinking of the =structures- rather than genres can really help. That is, take the mystery or thriller or horror structure into that big category called "General Fiction" or even "Literary Fiction," and see if that gives you freedom to innovate. :)

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Murphy's comment is worth highlighting, and I'm going to copy just a bit, but go and read it-- it's the first comment in my just previous post.

Before I ever commit to testing these boundaries though, I’m given to wonder: How accepting is a reader likely to be, when a mainstream fiction writer breaks from traditional form? I mean, personally I feel that any art form - be it (paintings, movies or books) that invites an individual to explore themselves - their meaning and overall place in the creation of their own history, is to be admired – but like Kaufman’s work....how well would it be received? Sure, you will have an audience but, is it the right audience? Who are you actually writing for? More importantly, what is the voice that you want the world to hear? If it’s your voice, as the narrator, is what you have to impart to the reader, more important than the words your characters may have to speak for themselves? ...In the end would the truth of your fiction be better received this way? - It is certainly something to think about.

So let's say that you want to use popular fiction tropes and stories-- you love the thriller plot, or you read a lot of mysteries, or you can't write without a romance-- but you also want to innovate-- you want an unhappy ending, or you want the murderer to be someone you didn't introduce earlier, or....

First, if you are considering innovating with your current story, how? What convention are you spinning away from, and why?

Then do you think there's a way to make this acceptable? To reach readers, you have to get by editors (who can be more wedded to convention than readers are!). So... what works, to innovate without rejection?

Alicia (who actually did get all the grading done, only to find that several of the grades had turned into negatives... gotta love technology)

Monday, December 8, 2008

Synecdoche thoughts part 2

(Part 1 here)

Now this willingness of Kaufman (the filmmaker) to bore and annoy audiences to get the point across reminded me, as so much does, of Edgar Allan Poe's unreliable narrators. (I wrote my MA thesis on this, so once I did understand it! No longer, alas.) Poe deliberately (I think) sacrificed his own credibility as an author – and as a man-- to create a creepy experience for the reader, that of identifying with murderers and maniacs. (You know, now that I think of it, Nabokov does the same thing in Lolita, only it's a child molester we're supposed to identify with—and Nabokov explicitly uses Poe as an inspiration, most notably his poem Annabel Lee.)

Poe supposedly chose (it's not entirely clear that he made this appointment or if Griswold just took charge after Poe's death) as a literary executor and biographer the notoriously nasty Rufus Griswold, who had been something of a rival for magazine editor jobs. You probably didn't realize what a vicious business editing can be. :) Anyway, Griswold created a portrait of Poe as a drunk, an incompetent writer and an abusive husband, a misconception that Poe's friends tried in vain to remedy. But they found it difficult to restore the reputation of the man who had pretty much invented the horror genre, not to mention written so many stories about horrible husbands. So Poe destroyed his own credibility by first writing stories with first-person narration by murderous men, and second, by choosing a biographer who took such glee in trashing him. But in a way, this caused the stories to be that much more experientially horrific.

(By the way, I see in Griswold's bio something that I should have put in my thesis, which was about some of the stories where Poe's narrator buries his wife/fiancee alive—Berenice, Ligeia, Morella. Talk about life imitating art. Griswold had left his first wife and children behind while he went to make his fortune in magazine editing— no wonder he was so bitter!—and so talk about projection... he was something of a negligent husband himself, sounds like. Anyway, his wife died in childbirth soon after that, and he wasn't there, but returned to "kiss her dead lips". A month after the death, he entered her tomb—really, this is SO like a Poe story!—and stayed by her presumably decaying body until his friends found him there—30 hours later. Poe's stories were written in the decade previous, so he wasn't basing them on Griswold's guilty grief. But as if previewing Griswold, Berenice starts with a Latin epigraph that translates to: "My companion said I might find some alleviation of my misery in visiting the grave of my beloved." Cue Twilight Zone music.)

So... well, there's a concept (devised by literary critic Stanley Fish) called the Self-consuming artifact, which has become well-known enough to have its own abbreviation: SCA. Fish uses this term to refer to artwork (mostly books) which transfer the reader's attention from the text, from what is on the page, to the effect it actually provokes, and that the work succeeds most "when it fails, when it points away from itself to something its form cannot capture." That is, the effect on the reader is paramount. In reading this work, the reader experiences something that is beyond the simple form of the story, some combination, I think, of author intent, reader response, and... magic.

The "self-consuming" part doesn't exactly mean what I want it to mean—that the author willingly sacrifices his/her own credibility or authority as the reader reads the story. True to the New Critics dictum of the "text is the text" (which I do agree with, I just don't think it's sufficient), the SCA theory seems to focus more on the "artifact" (the story) than the artist (the author), that is, the story consumes itself in the telling or reading. (William Gibson actually created a book that was supposed to consume itself —the ink was supposed to burn away when exposed to sunlight, and the electronic version was supposed to eat itself as it was read – and only on a Mac, talk about a self-consuming artifact... that's always been my experience with anything connected with Steve Jobs. No, no, Mac fans, I don't mean it's a bad machine that eats itself, but rather that Jobs's and Apple's focus on design and trendiness has doomed the products to mere cult status, which is, of course, exactly the experience they want, I guess!)

Fish, anyway, said that the reader learns of the futility of looking for truth in art by experiencing the art. But as in the liar's paradox ("I am telling you a lie now"), of course the very act of that realization means that you have indeed found truth in art, the truth that you can't find truth in art... and stop thinking of that right now, or you'll give yourself a headache! (He also sort of suggested that self-consuming ended with the Age of Reason began—18th C—because reason depends on the assumption that you can, in fact, determine the truth.) (BTW, I was talking to the husband about this, and he said, "Well, then there's quantum mechanics—" and I ran out of the room. Talk about headaches....)

Well, I do think you can find truth in art, and not just the truth of the futility thereof. So I find myself appreciating the technique (self-consumption), but not the conclusion. I'm sure it's fashionable and ironic to proclaim there is no truth, but anyone who writes or paints or sculpts believes there is some truth, and it can be captured (and is) in art. Else why bother? That "there is no truth" is what got us into this economic mess, a maze of mirrors called "derivatives," which bears an intriguing resemblance to Synecdoche's mirror structure (the actor playing the author and another actor playing that actor, etc.). If there is no anchor in some reality, well, everything's just a Vegas-style roulette game, right? I guess we saw that this last couple months on Wall Street, anyway. And there's no need for the rest of us to be so jaded—it's would be a good way to work ourselves into a creative block. (Why try, if there's no truth?)

But, as I said, the notion of self-consumption is quite useful. So I'm going to invent my own term, Authorial Negation (or Negation of Author—maybe we should vote on that :), meaning that the author of the work willingly and deliberately subverts his/her own authority by doing something that is destructive (of the author in some way) but helps to create for the reader an experience that is deeper, richer, fuller, something-er, than the story events alone would create. That is, the process of reading this particular work leads to an experience which is, to use a much-used phrase, greater than the sum of the work's parts. And the additional ingredient, whatever it is, is added by the author... and in adding that whatever, the author is sacrificing some essential element of authorship, whether it's reputation, credit ("Anonymous"), acclaim, control, pride of prose quality, voice, control of character, efficiency, orderliness, permanence, narrative logic, whatever the author would ordinarily take pride in and claim authority for. (See how I sacrificed my pride of prose by ending those both on a preposition?)

Let's look back at Poe—he subverted his own credibility by giving authority for the story over to these unreliable narrators, who lied and told bald untruths and didn't even try to make sense of what was happening, and often hiding the coolest and most thrilling events (like Morella's husband strangling her without ever admitting it).
Or Gibson, with his self-consuming book—what does he sacrifice? Permanence, surely. Maybe royalties—I mean, if I paid good money for a book that self-destructed, I'd take the fragments back to the bookstore and demand a refund. (Come to think of it, I have bought some paperbacks that have fallen to pieces, the spine breaking after one reading... I bet the author didn't actually choose that self-consumption.)

And what do they achieve, or allow the reader to achieve?
Poe's sacrifice lets the reader have the vicarious experience of getting away with murder, and maybe also the interactivity of solving the mystery of what's going on (because Poe doesn't solve it for us).
Gibson's sacrifice gives the reader an experience of the ephemerality of life (this poem is about his father's death) and of art, too, and also of the inability (cf. Synecdoche) of making a life into a poem.

And Charlie Kaufman, by sacrificing his skill at pacing and his knowledge of how film works, has created an experience that leads viewers to know something in their bones—life is not art, cannot be art, shouldn't be art. The risk is, of course, that the viewer will (as did everyone in the theater when I saw it!) walk on grumbling about how boring the film was, and maybe he should have cast Jim Carrey in this film too.
A big gamble, no doubt about it. The author is giving up some essential aspect of authorship in order to give over to the reader an opportunity to experience something new, even take ownership by creating her own meaning while perhaps scorning the author's ability.

Now about how this relates to fiction....
Just a few thoughts here. Readers now expect a more interactive experience, and to create it, fictionwriters are changing traditional approaches to narrative and prose. The element with most interest to me is, of course, is point of view. The tighter, closer the point of view, the more the author cedes of control over voice. That is, the author voice gives way to the character voice, which takes over the narration of the scene. What this does is give the reader not just a sense of what happens but an experience of what it's like to be this person—but at the cost of the perfectly grammatical sentences, the lush poetic prose, the omniscient panoramic viewpoint. Sometimes the narrator has an ugly voice; sometimes he sounds sullen and unpleasant and does a pretty lousy job of telling the story. Sometimes he even disses your favorite Dickens book:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two haemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They are nice and all -- I'm not saying that -- but they are also touchy as hell. Besides, I'm not going to tell you my whole goddamn autobiography or anything. I'll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.
(That's JD Salinger channeling Holden Caulfield.)

Letting the character voice dominate is a great surrender for authors who have spent years honing their voice. Yes, characters can have their own rough poetry, but if it's their voice, it's not yours, is it? You are giving something of yourself up, aren't you? And why? Because you think the reader will get more out of the story.
That's an authorial negation, I think, letting the reader hear and feel the character's narration rather than yours.
What's another "authorial negation" for the sake of greater truth-in-fiction?

Sequencing and selection of event are certainly part of the authorial arsenal. The author can coax all sorts of response from the reader that way—suspense, amusement, emotion. You know all that. You carefully assemble your scenes into just the right sequence to propel the character journey, to arc the emotion, to build the suspense.... But sometimes the traditional mode of transit isn't going to get the reader to the destination, maybe because it's too predictable, or because you want to highlight ambiguity, or--

For example, Synecdoche's emotion climax (which would usually happen near the end) is out of the traditional sequence. After years of searching, Caden finds his daughter, but she is dying. (Oh, in another amplication of the "life as art" dynamic, she has become a work of art herself, and is dying from it—the tattoos all over her body are killing her.) She has been deceived about him by her mother, and believes that he abandoned her in order to go with his lover "Eric". She says she can't forgive him unless he confesses, and, weeping, he "confesses" to this false story (again, notice the echo of the life as art dynamic). She weeps too, but says that she can't forgive him after all, and then dies. It's a very powerful moment (in fact, the only true emotion, I thought, in the whole film—by design, probably), but instead of happening at the end, so we could stumble to the exit, disquieted and sorrowful, it comes near midpoint, and we endure almost another hour of the tedium of all those actors "acting" out much lesser moments in Caden's life.

So Kaufman used a less traditional and actually less effective sequence. Why? Not because he doesn't know how to pace his film. (In his earlier film Adaptation, Nic Cage having to call his mother to tell her about his brother's death was similarly emotional, and happened just as you'd expect at the end.) He was subverting his own ability there. Why?

I'm not sure, but I know there's a reason. I think it might be to provide a contrast between Caden's real real life—what he doesn't want to turn into art—and his supposed "memoir play". He has to strain for emotion in the play—he doesn't actually seem much more interested than we are—but as his daughter dies, we see the difference between sorrow and depression, between, I guess, life and art (only maybe it's art and life... mirror, mirror).

I've seen this before in Patrick O'Brian's great sea-adventure stories. He's a much more charming writer than Kaufman, well, than anyone, and so I never quarreled with his odd narrative choices, like setting a battle scene not up on the deck with the Marines but down in the sick bay with the ship's surgeon. But now I suspect that the experience created was an approximation of war—that is, the unpredictability of it, the "they also serve who stand and wait" aspect of it. Waiting anxiously belowdecks with the ship's surgeon, unable to know how the battle was going, who among my favorite characters was in trouble, deprived me of the adrenaline rush of a battle scene... and the pleasure of vicarious war. It was, perhaps, a more honest portrayal of war—the fear, the dread, the impending loss—than a battle scene might have been.

Another authorial imperative that you might forgo is the satisfactory ending. How pleasurable it is to wrap it all up, to make everything fit, to answer all the questions the plot has posed—to give your characters the ending they deserve. But closure might not be the experience you want the reader to have. Maybe (replicating life :), the ending is unsettled, uncertain, unpredicted—not because you as the author don't know what you're doing, don't know what organic or holistic ending is called for here, but –

Of course, you and I know that, just as Charlie Kaufman had control over how Synecdoche developed, the author has some control over the reader's experience—yes, even while surrendering control. The act of surrendering control, after all, is in itself showing a certain control—and I suspect, just as Kaufman knew what experience he wanted the reader to have, we have some control in choosing what authorial prerogative we'll forego and what we'll surrender, and what we'll keep to ourselves.

Maybe that's all part of the mirror-mirror effect, an infinity of images, of possibilities, of replications.
But... but there is truth in art. Whenever we're surprised, whenever we are settled, whenever we are moved by a work of art, there is some truth there that perhaps can't be captured any other way. Take that, Stanley Fish.

Oh, must quote Keats here—he was talking, I'm sure, about that Romantic inspiration, that creative frenzy, that mystic connection. But I've always thought (since I have never imagined Shakespeare as a romantic :) that in fact, negative capability (at least as regards S) has more to do with the ability to let go of this authorial imperative and let the story unfold and the characters change. Shakespeare was the one, after all, who kept turning villains into compelling characters, so they were never just evil, and heroes were never just good.

Anyway, here is Keats, and then a snatch of one of his odes:
I had not a dispute but a disquisition, with Dilke on various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason-Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration. (John Keats, 1817)
She dwells with Beauty - Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.


Synecdoche thoughts part 1

I saw Synecdoche (film by Charlie Kaufman) this weekend, and want to talk about something it brought up in my head. So spoiler alert, only this is not like a murder mystery—it's not likely I'll say anything that will actually spoil the film, as it's not all that comprehensible anyway. :) However, if you don't want to know what little I understood of the movie, stop now.

Okay, so this film with a title no one can pronounce (sin-neck-duck-key) or define (the device of using a part of a thing to represent the whole thing, like "wheels" to represent "a car"). It's about a writer, so hey! Yay! After all those films about cops and strippers, finally! Films about REAL people like us! Anyway, Caden Cotard is a playwright. (The Cotard Syndrome is worth reading about—the delusion that you don't actually exist.) When the film opens, he is directing to great acclaim a performance of Death of a Salesman, and I think that is significant, as it bookends the "play" trope—that is, here it is, fifty years after the play was written, and audiences are still loving it. (Keep that thought, as his own play lasts for fifty years... that is, it takes fifty years to "write", and it never gets performed.)

So then his wife leaves him and he gets a Genius Grant (a fair trade, given his wife is not really all that appealing :), and he decides to use the money to fund a new project, a play that replicates life. And then it gets sort of weird as Caden starts hiring actors to BE him and the others in his life, and that lasts a REEEEEEALLLL long time. But it's sort of interesting, in a tedious way. I mean, the idea is interesting, even if the actual scenes are pretty boring. (The film is worth seeing... just don't feel bad if there are long stretches you have to concentrate to follow).

What does it all mean? Well, I don't pretend to understand film, but at least it sparked a few thoughts for me.
1) Art isn't life. Art can imitate life (and vice versa), but art can't be life, or even replicate life. Caden spends decades trying to make a play that is like life, and guess what? It's boring and interminable. Life is about living. Art is about selection, conflict, focus. Life is diffuse. Art is concise. This is shown with the contrast of Death of a Salesman (two concentrated hours) and Caden's unnamed masterpiece-manque. Death of a Salesman focuses on a few significant moments, and has lived for 50 years. Caden's M-M has no focus, and outlives most of its actors.

2) Audience makes meaning. Death of a Salesman is performed in the first few minutes of the film, to great reviews and audience rapture. And it's been performed thousands of time, but everytime is new. Caden's version has very young actors performing the older parts, and as he comments, the contrast makes the audience think about mortality—that is, the audience is a maker of meaning, a part of the process.
In Caden's own play, there is no audience, just the creator and the performers... and there is no meaning. At one point, one of the actors points out they've been rehearsing for 17 years and never performed, but Caden's narcissism is such that he doesn't need an audience. The meaning for him is just that... well, I think that he's important and his life is important. This is ratified by all these people who are spending their lives replicating his life. But they are not the audience. There is no audience. So there is no meaning.

3) Art is about selection. Generally it's created in retrospect, in reflection (there are some poetry and rap jams, not to mention jazz and comedy improvs, of course, but usually the improvisers have been preparing all their lives). Revision means you can shift events and words for greater effect. Effect—effect on the audience, of course. In fact, the initial creation might be all about the artist, but revision is all about the audience, about making this make sense for the audience. Caden's M-M never gets to the revision stage, the "audience-effect" stage-- it's all created on the fly, and revised only as life requires (like a character dies or an actor quits).

4) Art is also about permanence. In drama and music, which rely so much on the performer, that means repetition. That is, part of the power of Death of a Salesman is that certain elements cannot be changed without it ceasing to be Death of a Salesman. Caden can cast it with young actors; Arthur Miller can present it in China in Chinese. The setting can be, I don't know, a space station in 2090. But something essential must remain, Willy's salesman persona, the line about attention, the theme of family disappointment. Caden's life-art has no permanence, because it has no ending—it's constantly changing as he changes his understanding of what's going on in his life.

Ars longus, vita brevis. Arthur Miller is gone, but Death of a Salesman remains with us. But when Syndecdoche ends, Caden is still alive, wandering in the derelict precincts of his set, deserted by all his actors and presumably his muse too. His life lasted longer than his art, which I guess suggests it wasn't really art at all... just his narcissism?

Well, okay, I'll think of other "art is" items. But now I'm going to just free-associate rather than try to be organize, or I'll never finish this!

The film is intriguing to me because, like the actor who gets drunk to play the drunk, Kaufman is willing to be boring in order to show how life isn't art.

Theatrical Bookends (motif here):
Death of a Salesman and Caden's Masterpiece-manque (MM)—

Hmm. Well, as I've said, Death is very contained, though actually non-linear—that is, there are those flashbacks that break the chronology. MM is tediously linear, moving only forward in time, though there are sudden jumps forward—suddenly the play has been in progress (or at least rehearsal) for 17 years, for example.

The most famous line in Death is "Attention must be paid!" That is, Willy's important, and someone should notice. His wife speaks this.

In Synecdoche (that is, Kaufman's film, not Caden's play), the actor/stalker who has been playing Caden jumps off a roof to his death (replicating more successfully Caden's suicide attempt). At the actor's funeral, Caden suddenly says, "No one is an extra. They're all leads in their own story." Then, when this event is subsumed into the play, instead of Caden, the minister says this as part of a (nutso) funeral eulogy. Not sure why it's changed from Caden. But I notice that in Death, the corresponding line is spoken by Willy's wife, that is, not by the protagonist Willy. Maybe Caden understood that distance was needed for that sort of pronouncement, but since he's so much lesser a playwright than Arthur Miller, he gives the central realization not to a major character, but to a walk-on, never seen before or again. That weakens the importance of the realization by making it extraneous to plot events—that is, the minister just announces this, and since we don't know him, we don't know what has led to this understanding. (With Willy's wife, we know all that has led to this, her love of Willy, her disillusionment, her identification with him, her vicarious humiliation....)

So by assigning it to a walk-on, Caden is diminishing the power of this, and this is deliberate, at least on Kaufman's part. With Caden, I think it's interesting—this wilderness of mirrors. The actor playing him committed suicide. He is both playwright and character. Both he and Kaufman decide to take his own understanding and give it to the minister.

Well, I think with Caden it could be a desire to distance himself from his own guilt—that is, if he hadn't unsuccessfully attempted suicide, the actor wouldn't have been led to replicate that. And Kaufman certainly wants to pose that question. But he could also be doing what I suggested in a recent post—put the Big Realization in the mouth of a non-credible character, and since the minister has a breakdown during the eulogy and starts cussing, he's pretty non-credible. :)

Funeral too—that is, Willy commits suicide, like the actor/stalker. Willy has been thinking of his own funeral for a long time, hoping it will be well-attended. In fact, one of the saddest moments in Death is when Willy predicts that many will pay their respects when he dies—he's looking forward to his funeral because death will provide the validation life hasn't. (And of course, no one comes to his funeral.) The actor's funeral is actually fairly well-attended, but the truth is, he is important to no one (I can't even remember his name :). He is, no matter what Caden says, an extra, a marginalized character whose importance is just in his role, and who is quickly replaced. He isn't the lead in his own life, because he has chosen to be an extra in someone else's play. So Willy actually has more of a life, more of a reality. He is living his own life, however sad, and his funeral is his own.

So, anyway, Death of a Salesman and Caden's MM are bookends of this film and are meant to thematically resonate and echo, and I'm sure the rest of you can find more resonances!

Off to bed—more thoughts later, including how this all connects to fiction-writing.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Gee, can it possibly be time to grade final papers? Must be, because Alicia is procrastinating with multiple blog posts!

Actually, this is mostly a reminder to me. I might have mentioned that I'm in a poetry study group. We meet every Wednesday to read and discuss good poems, though Marlys did bring a poem by the World's Worst Poet (no, really, he has been so acknowledged!).

Anyway, I want to note the poems we read in the week, just because. Last week it snowed so we did Winter poems, so here is the list:
It Was Beginning Winter (what a lovely term), by Theodore Roethke

, by Wilfred Owen (anti-war poem, and we need those now!)

Remembrance, by Emily Bronte

The Night Is Darkening Round Me, again by E. Bronte

The Snow-storm
, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sonnet 73 (the "bared ruin'd choir" one) by William Shakespeare

Poem 258 (There's a certain slant of light) by Emily Dickinson

Looking for a Sunset Bird in Winter by Robert Frost (Nice, but I brought it because I was trying to defy expectations that I'd bring Stopping by Woods :)

An Old Man's Winter Night by Robert Frost (ditto as above, but monster final tercet)

Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden (great show, final painful tell in last couplet, which is where it belongs)

Emotional exposition

Film-going adventures... Saw Australia, which was created, conceived, cast, portrayed, written, etc., all by Aussies, and so why does it seem so utterly like a not-great but very expensive 60s-era Western? I mean, really, if it weren't for the accents and the Japanese bombers arriving at the end, I would have thought I was not in the Outback in 1941, but rather in the desert sets of outer Hollywood pretending to be 1890 Arizona. :) Every cliche we love in Westerns is right there, including a totally Eastwoodlike intro of the hero by narrowed eyes (though Hugh Jackman shows far more beefcake than Clint ever did, but then, whoa, seriously better beefcake—is that a body double, or has Wolverine been working out?) devolving into a barroom brawl that spills out into the unpaved street. (Now to be fair, some of these scenes are fun, and there's a beautiful child in a major role, and Bryan Brown! Back again! He was the most fun actor in Thorn Birds, pace all Richard Chamberlain fans. And so cool here! But it was in a Lee Marvin role—just can't get away from the Western influences. :)

Oh, yeah, the "noble savage" in this film is Aboriginal, not Native American, but he still imparts the nobly (not savage) wise Big Emotional Revelation to the clueless (but very buff) hero. What's the revelation? Oh, I forget. It was something about how Hugh was a coward, because he'd been hurt before and was now afraid to love. I think we've heard that before. In fact, we probably SAID that before. The Aboriginal friend pronounces this wisdom in a nobly pontifical way, and Hugh immediately accepts the wisdom and runs off back to his true love (abandoning, apparently, the wise best friend).

This "emotional exposition" scene shows a lack of confidence in the story! And this is something to watch out for in our own books. If we've done our job setting up and developing the character journey, and if we've created scenes that show the emotion, no one should ever have to state out loud the emotional revelation. The character should figure it out for himself because of the events of the story, and especially the event right before realization. (Realization... not revelation, see!) If you're near the end of the book, and you have so little confidence in your emotional arc and character journey and character that you think you need to bring in someone else to lecture out the big truth, then instead of writing that scene, you should be revising your macro-structure. Something's gone wrong in the big story elements, and it can't be fixed by a lecture, however wise. (Australia didn't need this, btw. All it needed was some catalytic event to make Hugh choose to go back to Nicole and the adorable child. That's why I said that it shows a lack of confidence.)

In fact, I tell romance writers—if in the last scene, the romantic couple have to SAY "I love you," you've failed. The reader should know this from how they've changed, how they've grown, and how they've sacrificed for each other. (The characters of course can speak their love – people do, after all—but I'd say first write the scene without those words, as if those words aren't in the language, as if love can only be shown and described without love words. THEN you'll have a great emotionally resonant resolution scene, and you can put in the Three Little Words afterwards. :)

So... no emotional exposition lectures, okay? Make your story do the work. And then if you want the words spoken out, well... try something more fun than a Noble Oppressed Minority wiseguy intoning the wisdom. For example:

1) Put the revelation in the mouth of a discredited character. Hey, if it's the truth, it's the truth, right? Play with that by using the least credible character as the transmitter of wisdom. (I'm envisioning Steve Buschemi or Rob Schneider here.) It will be unexpected, and also force the main character to evaluate the merits of the revelation rather than just to accept Received Wisdom from a beloved and all-knowing thus perfectly credible character.

2) Try a character who is saying this not from some benevolent motive but to further her own agenda. Again, this will add a layer of uncertainty and conflict, making the protagonist have to work at it. Think of Ilsa in Casablanca: "You're a coward, Rick!" She's trying to get the letters of transit from him, not further his emotional journey. Her own motive is suspect—and both of them know it.

3) Something else the World's Greatest Script (Casablanca, I mean) does right is that Ilsa says this but immediately takes it back. This accomplishes a lot—it gets the Revelation spoken, it shows that Ilsa is scared of her own insight, it shows that she's not so stupid that she continues alienating the guy with the letters of transit, and most importantly, it forces Rick to act not with anger but with compassion... where if what she said stood, he'd be defensive and unmoving. Oh, it also shows something about her character, that she really does still love him.

But see, all of the above are making the Revelation not a resolution but a conflict. Should I believe Rob Schneider? Is Ilsa just trying to shame me into giving her what she wants? Do I love her more than my pride? Can I risk loving her especially now I know how far she'll go to protect her husband? All these will lead not to a static scene where something is imparted from on high, but an active scene where the character has to do more than accept the obvious—he has to create his own realization, take his own next step on the journey.

You know, it always comes down to Show, Don't Tell, doesn't it?

That is, if you've got a message to impart, write a bumper sticker. If you're going to create a story, make something happen and cause something else to happen, and let your characters' changes play out in the scenes.


Prison and poetry

I'm beginning to think I'm not made for blogging. I am working on a long, detailed, difficult post about Synecdoche (the Charlie Kaufman film), and you know, long and blog aren't really meant for each other. But I am not good at pithy. I did see this article, however, and it warmed my heart (on this very cold Midwest morning):
Shakespeare in prison

It's about some Indiana inmates who are reading and performing Shakespeare. The videos are being shown to "youths at risk". One inmate, life-sentenced for a murder, is performing in Romeo and Juliet:

Newton, 32, said reading and studying Shakespeare has already taught him a lot.

"I kind of direct the sail in my life," he said. "I get to determine what my life means, what I do with it, how I feel about it. I'm in control."

This reminded me of course of the Lovelace poem, which I read recently again in my poetry study group:

Stone walls do not a prison make,

Nor iron bars a cage;

Minds innocent and quiet take

That for an hermitage;

If I have freedom in my love,

And in my soul am free,

Angels alone that soar above

Enjoy such liberty.

Richard Lovelace 1618 - 1657

Liberty in art?
Alicia (back to long post revision)

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Tales From the Slush Pile

A few weeks back, the number of submissions in my inbox climbed above my previous record high. That's a situation that makes me want to hide under the blankets. I try to keep the number of pending manuscripts as low as possible, and try though I do, it never seems to be completely under control.

Aggravating my blanket-diving urges is the fact that two of them have been hanging around for a while. I need a chunk of time to do them justice, and every time I block out a couple of hours for one or the other, something catches on fire. And whoa, damn, do I look good in a big ol' fire hat. Apparently.

I did read through a few dozen or so over the weekend. Most of those were partials, and most were rejected. A few things did jump out at me while I was reading, and we haven't done a slush list in a while, so here we go.

1. Why is everyone in Romancelandia suddenly naming their heroines Tory? I sure hope this doesn't lead to heroes named Whig.

2. Here's a plot that's been done to death: Female friends go to a house party famous for its decadence and orgies. Costumes and masks are required. Heroine, still smarting over a failed relationship, is determined to have revenge sex/a pointless fling, and jumps on the first guy who presents an erection. Hijinks ensue. Take off the masks and -- gasp! -- it's her ex. (Just once I'd like the heroine to recognize the guy by his penis, and play some prank on him.) (Because, really, they don't all look alike.) (Not that I would know from experience, cuz I'm so pure and all. Hi, mom!)

3. The overall quality of our submissions are on the rise. We're rejecting fewer and fewer manuscripts at the initial query stage. This is good because it gives us more good material to choose from, but it also creates more reading for the acquisitions staff.

4. Narrative summary is not the writer's friend, especially not in the first ten pages. Start with a scene, please. (How many times have I said that?)

5. If you put the url for your website on your query, and it's not an auto-reject, I will probably take a look at your website. Maybe that's not a smart move for someone who has to bang out a lot of work in a short period of time, but I'm terminally curious. I like to see how you brand yourself and how up-to-date the site is. And, yes, I also check to see who else has published you. This is a mostly self-indulgent exercise because I've never yet rejected someone because of something on their websites. But there have been a couple of times that a really sharp website has tipped me from a maybe to a please send more. And yes, that did happen this weekend.

6. Please buy Alicia's book and learn everything you can about point of view. Even experienced authors are making routine mistakes that dilute their narratives. Example:

He watched the coffee slosh to the rim of his mug.


The coffee sloshed to the rim of his mug.

In the first example, we're observing the character as he observes the coffee. In the second, we're observing the coffee from within the character's point of view. Little things can mean a lot.

7. We need more good historicals. But especially, we need historicals with freshness and energy. Feel free to spread the word and flood my inbox.

8. Do we think werewolves are over yet? Every time I think some sub-sub-niche in paranormals are about to slack off, along comes a manuscript that is so inventive and fun that I know it will reinvigorate this audience. Vampires feel a bit tapped out, but even there, it's not over yet. I'm starting to think that paranormals might be the new historicals -- they may wax and wane, but they'll probably never die out. Even so, I rejected an awful lot of werewolf stories this weekend because they were a bit too familiar. (Woman is targeted by bad pack leader because of her soopa-doopa secret werewolf pheremones. Shock! Werewolves are really, really real! Hero fights bad pack leader and wins alpha status and the girl. The End.) But seriously, these stories are still pretty hot, even if they're starting to develop their own set of cliches.

9. If you're going to give them paranormal powers, how about using those powers in ways that are more than merely incidental? I mean, if they can fly for pete's sake, can it be something more than just another method of transportation? Can it be, you know, important somehow? To the plot? I don't know, like maybe they can't escape the bad guy because he pours salt on their wings. Or maybe they have sex in mid-air and nearly plummet to their deaths at a crucial moment. Or something. Magic powers are cool and fun, and they're generally under-leveraged.