Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Topical Paragraphing in Action Paragraphs
Mrs. Pontellier was by that time thoroughly awake. She began to cry a little, and wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her peignoir. Blowing out the candle, which her husband had left burning, she slipped her bare feet into a pair of satin mules at the foot of the bed and went out on the porch, where she sat down in the wicker chair and began to rock gently to and fro.
The Awakening, Kate Chopin
In fact, if you want to see lots of really great examples of topical paragraphing, read The Awakening. It's loaded with them.
This particular paragraph comes at the end of a series of paragraphs in which Mr. Pontellier has arrived home late at night after his entire family has gone to sleep. He tries to rouse them in succession, but they resist him. It's inconsiderate, selfish behavior, and it culminates in him essentially browbeating his wife into getting up to check on their son.
So the lead-in topical sentence,
Mrs. Pontellier was by that time thoroughly awake.
reads like description but is actually delivering her final reaction to her husband's actions. And what follows in the paragraph is a series of actions she takes that elaborate on the notion of her being "thoroughly awake" -- an active state, in this context.
She began to cry alittle, and wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her peignoir. Blowing out the candle, which her husband had left burning, she slipped her bare feet into a pair of satin mules at the foot of the bed and went out on the porch, where she sat down in the wicker chair and began to rock gently to and fro.
We had said yesterday that these types of paragraphs often end with transitions into the next paragraph. I suspect, however, that particular aspect of topical paragraphing doesn't always translate to fiction. If the scene is set and events are unfolding naturally, we don't need as many transitions.
In this particular excerpted paragraph, though, we do have a transition. When Edna goes onto the porch and starts rocking, this is a transition from one series of events (her husband's disruptive behavior, all with the goal of waking her up) to the next sequence (her contemplative crying bout in the rocking chair, which sets the stage for her later affair).
Here's another example from the same text.
The children were sent to bed. Some went submissively; others with shrieks and protests as they were dragged away. They had been permitted to sit up till after the ice-cream, which naturally marked the limit of human indulgence.
That one doesn't conclude with a transition, though look at the next paragraph to see the way she links ideas from one paragraph to the next.
The ice-cream was passed around with cake--gold and silver cake arranged on platters in alternate slices; it had been made and frozen during theafternoon back of the kitchen by two black women, under the supervisionof Victor. It was pronounced a great success--excellent if it had only contained a little less vanilla or a little more sugar, if it had been frozen a degree harder, and if the salt might have been kept out of portions of it. Victor was proud of his achievement, and went about recommending it and urging every one to partake of it to excess.
So the ice cream is the notion that moves us from the children to the cake. Notice, too, how the first independent clause (The ice-cream was passed around with cake) serves as a topical sentence for the paragraph. The remainder of the paragraph is about serving the cake.
There's one pitfall in topical paragraphing for action. Have you noticed anything else about the children and cake paragraphs? I'll give you a hint. Consider the chronology of the actions. Go back and look at the paragraphs again and think it through.
This isn't straightforward action narration. She starts with a topic sentence which reads almost like a bullet point summary of the action that follows. This means that the action following the topic sentence is cast into something closer to exposition than true action. She's summarizing the events rather than narrating the action.
In fact, that's probably the third good way to use topical paragraphing: in exposition, to quickly summarize and compress events which are too relevant to skip and too irrelevant to narrate. That makes three ways to use topical paragraphing, then: for description, for action, and for exposition.
Can anyone think of other ways this might be a handy technique? We're going to look at other paragraphing techniques, too, but I want to finish this idea before we move on.
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Paragraphing, Voice, and Topical Paragraphing
Or maybe it’s all three. Such was the case with a question Alicia asked me a month or so ago. “So…what do we think about paragraphing?”
What do we think about paragraphing, indeed.
I probably gave her my best impression of a gog-eyed corpse for about two solid minutes as my mind whirled with the ramifications of her question. Are there general rules for paragraphing in fiction? If so, how do we state them succinctly? Or are we talking about something other than plain rules, something like techniques that can be implemented for particular effects?
Finally, I asked her, “I don’t know. What do we think about paragraphing?”
So we sat there, staring at each other -- this was one of those happy occasions where we were in the same place, hashing it out in person, with a bottle of red on the table between us and the clock ticking into the small hours -- and made a few stabs at pinning our ideas into shape. There were a few ideas that we agreed on right away, such as, for example, changing speakers means changing paragraphs.
But for the most part, this topic felt too slippery to sum up in neat little rules.
I’ve been thinking a lot about paragraphing ever since that night, and I’m not sure we’re any closer to any brilliant set of paragraphing principles. We can take a look at some of the ways paragraphs can be made, and look at the effects of each, but rules? Not so much.
That’s because paragraphing is one of the most essential aspects of voice. How you cluster your ideas, where you place your breaks, what you do with conclusions, how you create transitions -- these are all paragraphing issues, and they are all personal to you.
We’re going to look at some different paragraph types and tricks in upcoming posts, but for right now, let's look at what you were taught in high school about paragraphing as applied to fiction.
What You Were Probably Taught
I've dipped into my collection of grammar and style guides to check their sections on paragraphing, and most of them contain some variation on this idea:
Paragraphs start with a topic sentence which states the theme of the paragraph. After the topic sentence, the paragraph will contain three sentences which explain the topic sentence in more detail. End with a sentence which contains a transition into the topic sentence for the next paragraph.
Well, if you're writing a theme for your high school history class, that might be a good pattern to follow. Does it work for fiction? Hmm.
The first thing I noticed about this -- let's call it topical paragraphing, for want of a better term -- is the number three. Three comes up over and over again in writing. Someday I'm going to really understand the mystical, metaphysical reasons for that, but for now, every time I cross the number three in a rule book, it jumps out at me.
What else do we know about threes? Well, we know that three brushstrokes will set a scene. So what happens when we apply topical paragraphing to a setting description:
The house brooded over us from a high hilltop. (This is a topic sentence. It sets up the theme for everything that follows.) Its colors had been made dull and uncertain by time and weather and the deep shade of the thicket of oaks edging the porches. (Stroke one - gloomy, dull colors.) Those porches were barren of swings and rockers. (Stroke two - uninviting porches.) Its eaves and gables were so deep that the windows appeared to have retreated under them, like eyes under an old man's unkempt eyebrows. (Stroke three - sunken windows.) I gripped Peter's hand as we searched the shadows for the front door. (Transition -- we're shifting out of description and into action, setting up for the next paragraph, which will probably have something to do with approaching that front door. Also, one of the action, hand-holding, caps the theme of uninviting broodiness by showing the narrator's response to it.)
So, description paragraphs are one place that the old standard approach for high school theme-writing might apply. How else could we use topical paragraphs in fiction?
Monday, April 28, 2008
Thoughts in italics?
How do you render thought in the POV character's narration? That is:
Hailey gazed at the swirls and jolts of red that made up the painting and said, "Very, uh, modern. And impressive." (She thought, My kindergartener could have done that with fingerpaint.) But she couldn't say that out loud, not with Jim beaming so proudly.
Now that part in parentheses (I put in the parentheses) -- that's her thought. So would you put it in italics? Would you have a "thought tag" like "she thought" or "she mused"? Would you do italics if you had a quote tag?
A Few Thoughts on Grammar
There's no such thing as a misplaced participial phrase, and I know because I'm a grammar queen.
You must begin every paragraph with a topic sentence. Even dialogue paragraphs need topic sentences. Trust me. I'm a grammar nerd.
I majored in English and I know what's what. You should begin every fourth or fifth sentence with an adverb to vary your sentence structure.
The simple truth is that blanket rules like these rarely apply in blanket form to fiction. (Even if they were true rules, which they are not. Please don't anyone decide to start every fourth sentence with an adverb because of this post.)
Grammar is a complex system of rules that can be loosely broken into two schools of thought.
School One: The Classical Approach
According to this philosophy of grammar, rules exist to create and enhance clarity. We all adhere to these rules because doing so makes communication easier. The rules are the foundation upon which communication is built.
If in school you diagrammed sentences and analyzed the placement and content of phrases and clauses, then you were exposed to classical grammar. If you attended school prior to about 1980, most of your English grammar probably was made up of this approach.
School Two: The Generative Approach
According to generative grammar principles, the constant evolution of spoken English means that our grammar rules are in constant flux. Grammar rules are formed by listening closely to the way people speak and then by finding the principles that form the basis for the speech. In other words, the communication is the foundation upon which the rules are built.
Generative grammar has been with us in some form or another for a long time (see Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway for examples of novels that take more generative approaches -- but keep in mind that generative rules change with time and slang, etc.), but it became a larger part of the classroom zeitgeist starting around the late 1970s. If you were told to put a comma wherever you need to pause for breath in a sentence, you probably learned at least some generative grammar.
So what's a fiction writer to do? Which philosophy should you adopt? The answer is neither, and both, and either, depending on circumstances.
The Third Approach
Have you heard of style guides or style books? These are internal documents created by a publishing house to guide its writers and editors in its proprietary fictive grammar. Fictive grammar is a flexible set of principles which draws on both generative and classical principles to create a platform which varies from house to house and from imprint to imprint. Because style guides are proprietary documents, you probably won't be able to find out the particular platform adopted by a house until your manuscript is under contract.
But there are general guidelines you can follow which will help you when correcting your own manuscripts for grammar.
First, keep in mind that some elements of grammar are less mutable. Verb conjugations, formation of participles, placement of adjectives next to the nouns they modify -- these are all solid rules. Don't break them.
Second, most style guides allow greater flexibility (that is, a more generative approach) in dialogue and in interior monologue. Taking this a step further, if your manuscript is written in a very subjective form of point of view (such as first person or third person stream of consciousness), you have much more flexibility throughout the entire manuscript. Conversely, if your story is told from a more objective point of view, you're better off sticking to more formal English rules.
Third, some things can be learned from reading. Try this experiment. Pull a current novel off your shelves. Scan it for ellipses. Are there any? How frequently do they appear? Are they only used in dialogue or interior monologue? If they appear at the end of a sentence, do they take an end mark? These are just some of the questions a style guide might address for just one of the more slippery areas of fictive grammar.
Fourth, be consistent. If you use a comma to offset an introductory adverbial clause in one sentence, you should do it in all of them. Decide on your own personal rules, and stick to them, but keep in mind that your editor may change these details later so that your manuscript meets house standards.
What's the bottom line? As important as it is for a fiction writer to learn grammar, it's just as important that you remain open to the possibility of another approach. And the next time a "grammar geek" tees off on you over some pet rule or other, ask them to explain their grammary philosophy. You might get a blank stare, or you just might get a fascinating glimpse into the mind of someone who has really thought it all through.
Sunday, April 27, 2008
Redlines Eight: Tension Statements
We all know what conflict is, right? It’s the engine that drives the plot scene by scene. But let’s face it, not every sentence in your book is going to bristle with conflict. Sometimes sentences need to accomplish other missions, such as describing a setting or character, controlling pacing, or performing other less-conflicted tasks.
So how do we keep these sentences from boring readers? By turning them into tension statements.
Tension statements take many forms, but the basic idea is a sentence (or small cluster of sentences) containing elements that are unexpected, unsettling, and/or contrasting. These elements set up subtle tension in readers’ minds and keep them interested while you deal with simple mechanics like setting the scene or providing exposition. Writers from across the fiction spectrum rely on tension statements to hold reader interest.
Let’s look at some examples. We’ll start with the opening lines from “Northanger Abbey” by Jane Austen:
“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard--and he had never been handsome. He had a considerable independence, besides two good livings--and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters. Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution. She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as any body might expect, she still lived on...”
Austen flaunts reader expectations of a gothic heroine’s background, and creates a contrast between that expectation and Catherine’s character. She introduces the heroine by saying she is not a likely heroine--a self-contrasting statement that creates a subtle reader tension by making us wonder, why not? A lesser writer might have accurately written, “Catherine’s family was abundant, happy, healthy, and financially stable.” But Austen unsettles us by taking the expected gothic romance elements (poverty, being locked in attics, being an orphan) and presenting these as desirable expectations. This contrast, this use of unexpected images, although humorous, creates subtle tension for the reader, who becomes instantly engaged.
What’s missing from Austen’s opening lines? Conflict. In fact, we can safely assume that the Morland family gets along well.
A less humorous form of tension statements is in opening lines of “Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier:
“At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman's eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a yardful of roosters in rousing a man to wake. So he came to yet one more day in the hospital ward. He flapped the flies away with his hands and looked across the foot of his bed to an open triple-hung window. Ordinarily he could see to the red road and the oak tree and the low brick wall. And beyond them to a sweep of fields and flat piney woods that stretched to the western horizon. The view was a long one for the flatlands, the hospital having been built on the only swell within eyeshot. But it was too early yet for a vista. The window might as well have been painted grey.
“Had it not been too dim, Inman would have read to pass the time until breakfast, for the book he was reading had the effect of settling his mind. But he had burned up the last of his own candles...”
Look at the opening image: flies landing on a wounded man, their wings loud enough and their feet busy enough to wake him. It's not a soothing image. It's an image that creates tension--not conflict, but tension--through its sheer creepiness. Frazier compares the flies to a “yardful of roosters.” We all know what roosters sound like: loud and strident. And we all know what flies’ wings sound like: not much. Saying that the flies are now like the roosters creates an unexpected contrast between things that are usually unalike, and builds line-by-line tension.
More tension statements follow. Usually Inman can see out the window, but now he can't. The land is flat, but the hospital is on a swell. Reading his book would settle his mind, but he can't read now. The window is open but might as well be painted grey. One tension statement after another. Something is unavailable, something is an irritant, something is different from its usual state. These are all forms of tension statements. We're intrigued and keep reading because even though Inman is merely laying in a bed, there's loads of tension.
Finally, let’s look at Georgette Heyer’s “The Foundling,” which opens with a guide book description of a Duke’s house as the Duke returns from hunting. His house, his servants, and his childhood are explored in the first five pages. Heyer focuses on the Duke’s desire to be left alone, and his household’s conflicting desire to monitor him, a situation that is key to the plot but not very lively despite the obvious conflict. Heyer keeps it interesting by sprinkling in tension statements:
“[T}he butler . . . went in a stately way down the passage to open the door that led into the main hall of the house.
But the Duke again disappointed him, this time by electing to run up the secondary staircase at the end of the passage.”
There are several contrasts here that provide tension:
* the butler’s expectation versus the Duke’s disappointing behavior
* the butler’s stately gait versus the Duke’s running
* the “main” hall versus the “secondary” staircase
Note that Heyer uses the word “passage” in both sentences. She is a very deliberate and controlled writer, and this echo is meant to link the two sentences and heighten the subtle perception that they contrast each other. They are the same, and yet they are different, and therein lies the tension.
Later in the same book, she uses a different type of word-pairing to create tension in a transition between two scenes:
“The rest of the day was spent, as far as he was concerned, in a singularly profitless fashion.”
Which are the related words? “Spent” and “profitless.” When we spend, we expect to gain something in return. But in this case, the expectation was defied -- and subtle tension is created within this simple transitional sentence through nothing more than the deliberate use of two opposing words. Subtle and effective.
Do you get the general idea? This is the kind of thing that gets easier with practice, so here are some more examples. See if you can identify the source of tension in each example.
“If he had to wine, dine and proposition her, at least he wouldn’t be bored.”
- from “Simply Sinful” by Carly Phillips
“Donnalee had suggested that she join a gym to meet men, and she would, Hallie told herself, once she was at her goal weight.”
- from “This Matter of Marriage” by Debbie Macomber
[about New Year’s Eve] “You’re thrown in with people you don’t know and don’t want to be with, but you’re all going to share this intimate event with glee. If it kills you.”
- Laurie Graff, “You Have to Kiss a Lot of Frogs”
“Life will be wonderful. I will wake up every morning with a smile on my face like the perma-smile women in coffee commercials.”
- Sarah Mlynowski, “Milkrun”
[about coffee] “I focus on my beverage, attempting to stir the sweetened foam into the darker liquid below. It refuses to harmonize, clinging in wispy clumps to the wooden stirrer like the cottony clusters of mealy bugs on my sickly philodendron at home.”
- Wendy Markham, “Slightly Single”
This is the eighth in my old column called Redlines. If you've been reading edittorrent for a while, the ideas in this column will be familiar to you. We've talked about tension statements in other contexts before, mainly when we were talking about sentence-level reversals as a first sentence. (Look here for more.)
Redlines One (on paragraph logic faults) can be found here.
Redlines Two (on dialogue sequencing) can be found here.
Redlines Three (on using frames within scenes) can be found here.
Redlines Four (on avoiding the need for "sequel") can be found here.
Redlines Five (on description) can be found here.
Redlines Six (on passive voice) can be found here.
Redlines Seven (on strong verbs) can be found here.
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Multiple, more on
Thanks for the clarification! Now I have to ask, does the multiple pov mean shifting pov during or between scenes? I've always thought any shift within a single scene was headhopping.Well, I calibrate POV by scene, so single-POV means one POV in a scene. Multiple POV means more than one POV in a scene, so as you say, during scenes.
Single-POV in a scene means you can have more than one POV in a book, which is pretty much a necessity in many types of books with more than one protagonist (like romances, family sagas, and most thrillers). But many writers in more narrow-focus stories stay in one POV the whole book. It depends a whole lot on genre and type of book, how big the scope is, and how tight the focus.
Multiple-POV means that in some scenes (not necessarily all), the viewpoint shifts from one character to another (and maybe to another). That's a legitimate evolution of the omniscient POV approach, and more modern and more suited, I suspect, to our fast-paced world and especially younger readers, who are used to having nine browser windows open while texting their three best friends and doing their homework (sort of :).
But there's a danger, especially in less experienced writers (and, I think, writers who don't absorb well from their reading), that the multiple approach, uncontrolled, will devolve into headhopping.
That isn't really a danger for single-POV writers (but it is, I think, for omniscient writers).
What I suggest is decide what you do well, what you do naturally, and go with that, and do it as well as you can. But there's no doubt it's easier if your natural POV approach is single-third, because most editors feel comfortable with that.
It's a bit harder to "sell" multiple-POV, but it's so good for some stories and it comes naturally to a lot of writers. I always counsel multiple-POV writers to stay in one POV as long as it works, and then shift smoothly and clearly to the new POV and stick with that as long as it works.
If it's done smoothly, and it works, editors and readers get the benefit of the juxtaposition of viewpoints without the jarring. :)
POV theory-- approach and apprehension of reality
Thanks, Dave! The book is Power of Point of View, by Alicia Rasley, and it's available at Amazon-- http://www.amazon.com/Power-Point-View-Make-Story/dp/1582975248/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1208986849&sr=8-1
So do you want to hear my totally unscientific theory of how POV approach relates to apprehension of reality? Yes? Well, here goes.
I think which POV approach you naturally take connects to the way you view reality.
For example, omniscient writers tend to think that there is an actual external reality that is knowable, if only by a "god" or "author"-- the omniscient narrative persona.
Single-third-POV writers tend to be agnostic on whether there is a knowable reality, because they are far more interested in the internal reality-- what's going on inside a single character and how that person interprets what is happening around him/her. That is, there may or may not be an external absolute reality, but what really matters is how the individual perceives and interprets.
Multiple- POV writers, the most cinematic of all, believe that if reality is knowable, it's only knowable through a collage of viewpoints, no one of which is completely reliable. Only by juxtaposing different views of an event can the reader get any sense of what really happened.
First-person POV writers doubt the existence of a knowable reality. In fact, they doubt their own narrators. They create narrators who are hiding things and lying and deceiving (else might as well go with third person). They're most interested in how "reality" or "events" can be distorted by the lens of viewpoint.
Notice that the last two require active reader participation to understand the meaning of the story events-- with multiple, the reader has to put all the viewpoints together to arrive at some understanding, and with first-person, the reader has to figure out what's true and what's not in the narrative, and what the lies tell about the narrator and the story.
Now I know that most everyone will be thinking, "Huh. The books I've read don't do that." That just means that the writers aren't sufficiently exploring and exploiting the potential of POV. :) But it's there... really. In my theory, anyway! :)
POV (headhopping vs. multiple)
My question to you is about headhopping, commonly found in romances. Switching from one character's head to the other's can be done fairly well sometimes, but I personally find that device loathsome. As an editor, do you find this pov treatment (that's my nice word for it) viable in any other type of writing?
Actually, in my experience, romance has tended far more lately towards single POV (single per scene-- with two protagonists, most romance novels have to use both in the book). I see very little headhopping except in new authors and the bestselling authors who can get away with that.
But if you're reading bestsellers, you could well be getting more headhopping than you like! They can rely on their facility at storytelling more than their craft. But most romance writers are single-POV advocates, in my experience, as are most romance editors.
And I would probably reject any manuscript that came to me with headhopping, as to me that signifies a lack of control of the narrative and a lack of understanding of the reader's experience. If it was a great story, I'd probably ask the writer to learn about POV and resubmit. (You do sometimes get great stories with headhopping, because often that's a result of a particularly creative writer who is so great with character, she can't settle on any one.) Headhopping is often the sign of a new writer or a young writer, and usually a good new writer just has to have that pointed out and explained, and once she gets it, she can transform her work. But it's very much a transformation of mindset. It's hard, I think, for those who are innate single-POVers to understand that, because it's so natural for us to park in one POV and see everything from inside that character. But it's pretty amazing how quickly former headhoppers change when they understand what POV is, and what shifting means.
By the way, I distinguish between headhopping (uncontrolled shifting of POV) and multiple POV, which is shifting for a purpose, and the POV always in some character's head. That, I suspect, is truly the POV of the 21st Century, as it is more cinematic. (Omniscient was the dominant POV mode of the 19th C, and single-POV of the 20th C, I'd say.) Multiple POV and omniscient are closely related, and single-third and first-person are closely related; that is, each pair use much the same narration techniques and focus.
For a good example of how to do multiple POV in romance (and it makes very good sense in romance, as there are two protagonists, and both are present in most scenes, and both have journeys), read Susan Elizabeth Phillips's novels. Ain't She Sweet is great for that, and so is Nobody's Baby but Mine. She usually has four POV characters (has two romances in most books), and POV is carefully controlled. But she uses multiple POV to show how differently the characters interpret events, and that's a great reason to use multiple POV.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
More about names and pronouns
I suspect the reader will have no trouble distinguishing with a term like this, and will have no objection-- that is, if we're seated solidly and deeply in Joan's POV, the reader will go along no protest with a term that Joan would use to describe (consciously or no) the other person.
That's why, with Dave's example, both clg and I thought of describing Podgorny as "her opponent," because that's what she is right then in Sally's POV-- the opponent. If we were so deep in Sally's POV that we were in her voice as well as viewpoint, that term might be more, um, colorful. But the term would describe the relationship at that moment. If Sally and P would both survive the fight and shake hands and go out for a drink together (okay, five drinks) and share sad tales of fights that didn't work out so well, in the scene where they drunkenly stumble back to the barracks, warbling Sting songs in two-part harmony, it might be "Sally and her new friend," or "Sally and her one-time enemy," or "Sally and her drinking buddy." That is, the descriptor would change because the relationship has changed.
(This reminds me of my sons, who were both home this weekend so they're on my mind. When my younger boy-- and see, there I am, using a descriptor instead of his name-- was born, the older one wasn't yet two, and of course he regarded A as an intruder. Once he started talking, he referred to the baby only as "that other little guy." It wasn't until they actually started having a relationship that he started referring to A by name, and then "my little brother." And I noticed this weekend, now they're both theoretically grown, he refers to A just as "my brother." I pointed this out to A-- "He doesn't call you his little brother anymore," and A said gruffly, "He can always call me that. It's okay with me." :)
Anyway, in deep POV, it seems to me that the descriptor should always be something that reflects how the POV character would think of this Other. (Again, this is not necessarily the exact words, as long as we're not "in voice"-- that is, writing the narrative in the character's own voice.") So if Sally initially doesn't know her opponent's first name, the narration shouldn't refer to her as "Olga." But after their drinking time begins, and Podgorny says, "Oh, hell, call me Olga," the narration could start referring to her as "Olga."
In omniscient POV, probably any descriptor that the reader would associate with that character would work, but not more than a couple for each. The goal is to limit confusion, not spread it, and too many descriptors for each character could get confusing. ("Which one is the redhead again?") I'd also suspect that pairing descriptors could get annoyingly clunky ("the redheaded detective") though Homer used them (cf. Homeric epithet).
What about in multiple POV? Well, in multiple, you're always (or should be always) in someone's POV. You just shift within a scene to another POV as needed. So whatever character's POV you're in at that moment should dictate what descriptor is used, and yeah, that can mean "her opponent" or "the other woman" refer to different people at different times in the scene. I think as long as you are deep in a character's POV -before- that point, the reader will follow no problem.
What do you all think?
Monday, April 21, 2008
Two "she," one scene
"She was about to pivot to face Podgorny squarely again when Podgorny attacked, swinging her right fist in a controlled strike at Sally's left kidney."
Hmm... using Podgorny's name twice shows how hard this is! Is there another way to do it? "She was about to pivot when ..."
That is, go with the motion but figure that the reader will understand why (to face the adversary squarely). But then we lose that sense of action/interaction.... How about starting with Sally, and then "her".... Sally was about to pivot to face her squarely again when Podgorny attacked..."
And then I can see ... "swinging her right fist in a controlled strike at the left kidney."
Not perfect at all, but I think we can figure that P is hitting Sally's kidney, not her own.
This NEVER gets easy! And Dave has the additional challenge that this is an action scene, high action, in fact, where both are moving simultaneously -- so it's not like he can put each's action in a separate paragraph.
Another issue is keeping the action sequential. I might suggest putting P first: "When Podgorny attacked, Sally was about..." But that puts Sally's aborted action (pivoting) after an action it really precedes-- that is, P's attacking is what stops Sally's action, so you want Sally's first.
So here would be my imperfect alternative:
Sally was about to pivot to face her squarely again when Podgorny attacked, swinging her right fist in a controlled strike at the left kidney.
Maybe "to face her opponent?"
But notice a slight POV issue arising with this version... this is Sally's POV, and yet, referring to P as "her" first in the sentence hints that it's P's POV. I think probably if the section starts clearly in Sally's POV, this won't be such a problem, but I did notice, re-reading it, that in Dave's version, I didn't have any doubt that it was Sally's POV, and in the alternative, I had a moment of confusion.
clg suggests identifying characters with alternate descriptors (like my "her opponent" above), and use those instead of the names or pronouns:
I've used that template in my own manuscript, which deals with military men. For example: Jeb Stuart in a scene with Robert E. Lee can be indentified as "Stuart," "Jeb," "Lee's young lieutenant general," "the young man," or "his cavalry leader." I may even employ Stuart's habit of tugging on his long beard when in thought, or his cheerful personality.
I tend to use just a few of these, because a friend of mine, Lynn Kerstan, wrote an article where she excerpted something she'd written as a young writer, where in one scene she referred to one male character as the duke, and the older man, and William, and Dartmer, and the silver-haired man, and finally she realized it sounded like there were 12 people in the room, and there were only the duke and his confidante. So ever since then, I remember that when I use a descriptor rather than a name or pronoun. However, I do use "the other man" and "the younger man," and neutral descriptors like those when necessary. And I'd probably use only one alternate, just to keep confusion at bay.
Anyway, I like the idea of identifying with something associated with that character. After all, we want the dialogue of a character to be recognizably hers, so that we don't need a "Sarah said" with each line. So maybe the same should be done with those minor actions. I think this would be most effective if these were established earlier, so we already know that Jenny has glasses and Sarah doesn't, so when we see "She shoved her glasses up on her nose and glared at the other woman," we know "she" is Jenny, and the other woman must be Sarah.
Ian offers: He's hunting his father's killer, and in a roundabout way makes him responsible for almost every ill that has befallen him:
That's a REAL toughie, because there are actually three "he" possibles in there (the killer could be male or female, but the father is male :). I'd think about taking that "him" into a noun... like "makes that crime responsible..." But I think that might mess up the meaning, that the protagonist is making HIM, a person, responsible. Maybe "makes that man responsible..." except maybe the pro doesn't know for sure the killer is a man.
The last part I'd probably recast... for most ills since the murder. I'd probably look for a replacement for "ills," actually, as it sounds a bit prissy for the situation.
So often what I'd suggest might lose something essential in the meaning. Like...
He wants revenge, as he blames his father's killer for every problem that has occurred since the murder.
Well, that might well lose the meaning!
What do you all think?
Tips for Noun Conversion
One of the things we looked at in last week's post was how relatively difficult it is to shift a noun into a verb or adjective slot. It’s not impossible, of course, but compared to the way verbs mutate with abandon, nouns are a bit trickier.
So here are some ideas on how to verb a noun in ways that won’t undercut your sentence. In this, as in all writing tricks, your number one goal is clarity.
Look For Strong Associations
Nouns as physical objects are frequently associated with particular actions or events that can more easily translate to verb usages. Think about how the noun is used. “Plate,” for example, is a physical object, a flat panel, usually circular, used to serve food. Because the association between the object (the panel) and the activity (serving food) is so strong, we can say, “I plated the roast,” and everyone will know exactly what activity is implied by the verb.
Or will they? Some nouns have multiple strong associations. I think if there’s one thing we learned from trying to verb the noun “finger” in last week’s post, it’s that finger has more than one possible verb usage. This is because the physical object, the noun finger, has strong associations to two separate actions, pointing and touching.
This leads us to our second tip.
One Word: Context
“Plate” as a noun can also mean a thin metal veneer, a thin sheet of metal or glass, home base, and who knows what else. The thin metal veneer definition is crucial for this discussion, because “plate” as a verb is probably more frequently associated with the act of affixing the veneer to the surface it covers: silver over nickel to create silverplate, for example.
This is why context is critical. We don’t normally apply metal coatings to cooked meats, so saying “I plated the roast” makes its meaning known by the direct object roast. If we had said, instead, “I plated the candelabra,” we might understand by the direct object candelabra that we’re not talking about serving dinner but about attaching a veneer.
Let me give you another example. Last week over on my knitting blog, I talked about trying to con my niece and nephews into manning my swift and ballwinder. (For the non-fiber-obsessed among you, a swift is a contraption for holding coiled hanks of yarn,and the ballwinder is a hand-cranked gizmo that converts the hanks into neat flat cakes.) In that context, I wrote this sentence: Why do the work myself when I can Tom Sawyer someone else into doing it?
Tom Sawyer, obviously, is a proper noun. Without the proper context of me a/k/a the lazy and devious auntie and my young relatives a/k/a those about to be conned into doing my work for me, that verbing wouldn’t make as much sense.
A Special Caution for Adjectival Nouns
A press release crossed my desk this morning for a new book called “The Penis Diet.” Penis, of course, is a noun. We can debate someday about whether we should properly consider it, in this usage, an adjective or an adjectival noun. Putting aside that debate for the moment, there’s a caution contained in the phrase.
What does “Penis Diet” mean? Multiple choice question here. Is it:
a) A diet to change the size of penises (such as “The Belly Diet”)
b) A diet of nothing but penises (a la “The Grapefruit Diet”)
c) Abstention from indulgence in penises (similar to “tv diets” or “shopping diets”)
d) A diet for people suffering from penis problems (a la “The Heart Diet”)
e) Something else altogether
Given the potential for confusion, it’s probably not a coincidence that the book in question is also subtitled. And that's the danger in adjectival nouns (or nouns used as adjectives, or multi-word or compound nouns -- take your pick). Some compounds are so inherently obviously in meaning that we grasp them instantly: cabbage patch, rose water, match point. Some, like penis diet, might not be quite as, er, graspable.
Saturday, April 19, 2008
Situation-- two women interacting, talking together in a scene. So "she" could refer to either of the two women. And you're going to have sentences that involve both of them. ("She handed her the two-liter bottle.") So think about what problems this would cause for your narration, and how you'd handle that.
1) First, I'd try to make the names not start with the same letter. Sophisticated readers probably often "read" the shape of the word on the page or screen, rather than seeing the letters. Usually, they'll see that initial capital and associate it with one character another, and then quickly go onto the next word. This subconscious process is impeded when two character names start with the same first letter. So reconsider "Jane and Jackie"... but do it early, before the name becomes bonded to the character. You know how that happens. "But she IS Jane!! I can't make her Eve! I can't!"
2) Who's in viewpoint in this scene, or at this point in the scene? We tend not to think of ourselves as our names, but rather "I," and the equivalent of that in third-person is the personal pronoun he/she. So one way is to make she/her/hers always refer to the woman whose viewpoint we're in. (This only works with tightly controlled POV that stays clearly in one character a long time, preferably the entire scene.) But then you have to refer to the other character by name, even when you're using the possessive case. So "She watched Jackie comb Jackie's hair..." Nahhh. :) Some variation of the POV-character "she," however, seems to be what most of us end up with.
3) Use their names when there's any confusion at all. Clunky, yeah, but clunky is better than unclear. So "Eve watched Jackie comb her hair" works because we're going to assume the "her" refers back to the last name (Jackie). How would you do it if Jackie's a hairdresser and is combing Eve's hair, and Eve can watch it in the mirror? "Eve watched Jackie comb Eve's hair" is TOO clunky.
4) Recast whenever you can't make it work. Try putting one person in a dependent clause and the other in the main clause, maybe: "As Eve watched the process in the mirror, Jackie combed out her hair." Arrrgh. This is always hard. Two sentences might be necessary. Well, so what? Not like you're limited to a certain number of sentences.
Supply some examples of tough sentences with two "she" characters, and let's see what we can do to make them comprehensible and unclunky.
Thursday, April 17, 2008
Don’t Be This Guy
Now, he tries to position himself as a literary writer when he’s ranting in her comment zone. And he posts a link back to his own blog, which I checked just out of curiosity. Turns out, he’s not writing literary novels, but genre novels of a type and style that have a small but dedicated readership. So that’s an automatic strike against him. He either doesn’t even know what he’s writing, or he's being dishonest about where his work fits into the publishing spectrum. (I want to make clear that I have not, nor do I intend to, read this guy’s work. None of this is meant to be a comment on his writing talent, which may or may not exist.)
In any event, his rants betray a deeply flawed understanding of the way people buy books, the way this industry operates. He seems to blame her for the fact that his brilliant masterwork was summarily rejected without comment by dozens of industry professionals. No, not “seems to.” Outright accuses her of interfering with his publishing career. Apparently, her success led directly to his failure. He has theories about how this works, which I will not bother to relate simply because they are all 100% wrong.
One writer’s success never leads to another’s failure. Never. In fact, the reverse is true. One writer’s success can and will lead to enhanced sales for many writers, across genres and platforms. Or, as the brilliant Jenny Crusie says, “A rising tide raises all boats.”
You know how we sometimes lament our inability to accurately predicting a book’s performance in the marketplace? This isn’t because we’re all clueless dolts. This is because books don’t sell according to the same predictable models as other commodities. The rules are different.
When readers like a book, they will go back to find another book just like it. This is the “same but different” phenomenon that leads to hot trends and strong backlist sales. If a reader picks up, say, a terse noir paranormal-thriller hybrid with a strong dystopian setting, and loves the book, he will return to the bookstore for more. “More” will be defined by whichever element the reader appreciated (say, the thriller angle, or the dystopian setting, or the fact that the hero knows martial arts) which cannot be predicted until after the reader has read the book. Or, “more” will be defined as all other books written by the same author. Or, if the publisher or bookseller is able to draw parallels, “more” will be defined as a different book by a different author that may or may not contain obvious parallels to the original book.
Most other products are defined and marketed on the basis of product differentiation. We’re inundated with ads telling us why a particular product is different from all other products in its class. But in publishing, product differentiation doesn’t work. We need to tap into the reader’s desire for “more” in every way we can.
The other side effect of the “same but different” yen is that sometimes a reader driven by the quest for “more” ends up stepping outside the boundaries of their personal definitions of “more.” In other words, you might go into the bookstore looking for another dystopian thriller, and end up buying a cookbook. Or a literary debut. Or a sweeping historical romance. And that original desire for “more” will often be satisfied by these purchases just as if the reader had bought nothing but dystopian thrillers. Because sometimes, what starts out as “more dystopian thrillers” changes into, simply, “more reading material.” This means that a runaway bestseller like Harry Potter or The Da Vinci Code can translate into increased sales for all kinds of books. A rising tide lifts all boats.
So your astonishingly inventive and original masterpiece is not doomed to failure by virtue of its originality. There may be other factors dooming it. (In this case, I suspect this guy’s sheer nastiness comes across in his proposals and makes industry professionals flee.) But originality and literary merit do not prevent a book from making it to the marketplace. They might make it harder to market with “same but different” approaches, and they might have a harder time finding an audience if its natural "more" links have failed to satisfy readers in the past. But we all know that when “more” means simply “more reading material,” almost any book in the bookstore can be sold to almost any reader. Readers read both within and across genres. Anyone who's been paying attention to my reading list on the sidebar will have seen evidence of that.
In fact, given that profits from commercial successes are often used to subsidize small literary efforts, literary writers ought to be delighted every time some commercial novel sells a bazillion copies. Those profits make it possible for publishers to take risks on books unlikely to demonstrate wide commercial appeal.
Here’s a fun fact I stumbled across recently. I can’t personally vouch for its accuracy, but I read from a reliable source that nominees for the NBCC award average sales of 800 copies per title. That’s over the life of the book. That *might* cover the expenses of producing the book. Just barely. If that. So how does a publisher manage to stay afloat after publishing a book that sells only 800 copies? By publishing a book that will sell 800,000 copies.
In other words, this guy, this nasty commenter, so busy deriding my friend for her commercial success, fails to grasp that a) his “literary” book might just sell a few extra copies to browsers who liked my friend’s books enough to return to the bookstore for more, and b) my friend’s success makes it possible for publishers to take risks on inventive books whose sales and critical success might be hard to predict under existing models.
I get a little tired of the constant division between writers of various genres. It’s not just a one-sided problem. It crops up everywhere. Even a recent issue of a literary and publishing review called erotic romance “trashy” in an article praising -- get this -- a set of graphic novels. Is that the level we’ve fallen to? Are we seriously contending now that a graphic novel is somehow less “trashy” than a graphic romance? This is absurd enough to be shocking, I think.
That’s not an invitation for you all to tell me why graphic novels are awesome. I’m sure they are, and more power to anyone writing them. My problem is in all these false distinctions of merit we assign to various slices of a single pie. All the slices have merit, each in its own way. Graphic novels have no more or less inherent value than spy novels, poetry volumes, or any other kind of book. And as soon as we start comparing all these different slices -- if we say that one genre is better or worse than the other -- then we have to do it within the context of the entire publishing pie, which, as we've seen, is absolutely not a zero-sum game.
This is also not an invitation to bash literary writers. The truth is that these folks are at the vanguard of new techniques which we can all adapt and profit by. Commercial writers can respect literary writers for this, and literary writers can respect commercial writers for getting readers into bookstores, and we can somehow find ways to muddle along together without all the sniping. Right?
A rising tide raises all boats. Or, in other words, celebrate the successes of all writers, because they might just make your own success more possible.
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
On Bananas and Banana Peels
Remember the Schoolhouse Rock song about nouns?
Well every person you can know,
And every place that you can go,
And any thing that you can show,
You know they're nouns.
A noun's a special kind of word,
It's any name you ever heard.
I find it quite interesting,
A noun is a person, place or thing.
Our Madlibbish Exercise
List five common nouns. Any common nouns will do. Look around your environment if you need ideas. I’ll choose banana, glass, corkboard, calendar and finger.
Insert each noun into the verb slot in the following sentence.“If you don’t watch out, someone’s going to ___________ you.”
So I get,
If you don’t watch out, someone’s going to banana you.
If you don’t watch out, someone’s going to glass you.
If you don’t watch out, someone’s going to corkboard you.
If you don’t watch out, someone’s going to calendar you.
If you don’t watch out, someone’s going to finger you.
Only one of my five makes sense, and it’s the one where the noun (finger) has such a strong connotation of action (to point) that the action associated with the noun works in the verb slot. “Finger” becomes a synonym for “point.”
What were yours? Did any of them make sense, or were they mostly nonsense? For the ones that made sense, is there a strong link between the object and its usage that makes the verb form easy to comprehend?
English is Noun-Dependent
Some languages are noun-dependent and some are verb-dependent. English is noun-dependent. The sentence structures are built around solid nouns. A noun is a noun is a noun, and though they *can* shift into other parts of speech, it’s not all that common.
Verbs, by comparison, are slipperly little eels. Verbs mutate. One minute they’re active and healthy main verbs in an independent clause. The next, they’ve shifted form and turned into adjectives (past and present participles) or nouns (gerunds and nominalizations).
Another exercise might clarify this. Take your list of five nouns from above and add an -ing to them and insert them into the following sentence:
_________-ing her friend was a good idea.
Bananaing her friend was a good idea.
Glassing her friend was a good idea.
Corkboarding her friend was a good idea.
Calendering her friend was a good idea.
Fingering her friend was a good idea.
That’s what happens when you try to turn a common noun into a verb, and the resulting verb into a gerund. It doesn’t work unless the noun already has a strong enough association with a particular action to be synonymous with a verb for that action.
Or take the same -ing form and try it as a present participle:
_____________-ing very quickly, she prayed she would make it in time.
Bananaing very quickly, she prayed she would make it in time.
Glassing very quickly, she prayed she would make it in time.
Corkboarding very quickly, she prayed she would make it in time.
Calendering very quickly, she prayed she would make it in time.
Fingering very quickly, she prayed she would make it in time.
Look at what happens to “fingering” when we use it in a way that breaks the association to the act of pointing. It stops making sense.
Can we use nouns as simple adjectives, without the participial form but in their native form? Let’s try.
On Saturday, we attended a very __________ party.
On Saturday, we attended a very banana party.
On Saturday, we attended a very glass party.
On Saturday, we attended a very corkboard party.
On Saturday, we attended a very calendar party.
On Saturday, we attended a very finger party.
Nope. Doesn’t work.
But wait, you say. What about this: “We attended a banana party.” It could be a party to celebrate bananas,right? Well, okay, it could be, but that doesn’t convert banana to an adjective in this usage. What it does is convert “banana party” to a compound noun, two nouns which, when used together, mean something different than either noun standing alone.
My point is this. We quibble about things like participle usage and verb choice because verbs are the slippery banana peels in English sentences. One false step, and your sentence skids out of control. Nouns are solid and sturdy -- ever have an argument about nouns that was rooted in grammar rather than in semantics? -- and comparing them like this might help you all understand why I’m such a nut about verbs. Your nouns will almost always function as nouns. Your verbs? Total free-for-all.
Monday, April 14, 2008
1) Judy is undercover and pretending her name is Paula. What name would you use for her under what circumstances?
2) We're in Chapter 4. We the readers know that this guy is named Rich (because there has been a scene in his POV), but the heroine doesn't know him or his name. Again, how would you handle this?
3) Annie is Annie to her friends, Anne to her mother, and Mom to her son. She thinks of herself (when she thinks of herself by name) as her maiden name, Jones. What would you call her in the narrative?
Sunday, April 13, 2008
There's No Such Thing As a Bad Word
Point the First
No word deserves to be permanently excised from a writer's vocabulary.
I don't care if we're talking about an F-bomb or a C-word, a stentorian repetition or a Seussian nonsense word, a fourteen-syllable Latin derivative or a conjugation of to be. All words are good words.
Point the Second
The writer's job is to use the right word.
Mark Twain said it best. "The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." You see, a word can be a good word without being the right word.
Good writing is largely a matter of precision. By placing well-chosen words in a clear and logical order, you are able to communicate -- not just to communicate, but to evoke a response in your reader. You can make them believe in -- not just believe in, but care passionately about constructs of your imagination. You can make them turn the pages of your story not because they plunked down ten bucks at Border's and might as well get their money's worth, but because they would rather lose sleep than wake up in the morning without knowing what happened in the next chapter.
Never forget that your mission is to engage your reader in every word, every line, every paragraph on every page. Be vigilant. Be daring. But whatever you do, don't be dull.
If the core writing is good, I can forgive a writer who tries and fails to do something technically difficult. Much harder to forgive is lazy, sloppy, careless writing. It's always easier to pull a good writer back than to push a weak writer forward.
So that said, let's look at some of the comments to the post on dull verbs.
But...I like "looked!" It's a useful verb! Although I'll admit I'm guilty of overusing it.
That's sort of the point. If you reach for the same verbs over and over again, your prose will start to grow pale. It's possible you might not be fully engaged in the writing process -- that happens even to the best writers. Or perhaps you draft fast, just to get things down on paper, and miss certain key repetitions during revisions. In either case, useful verbs used properly are fine. Useful verbs overused begin to weaken the prose.
I have more of a problem using repetitive nouns. Someone caught me using the word unease twice AND using the word uncertainty, just on one page.
Overused nouns can also create problems, but generally not the same kinds of problems as overused verbs. Did you notice, though, that both your argen-fargen U words are abstract nouns? Do you think that's why they drew the objection? (BTW, thanks for giving me my new favorite swear word. Argen-fargen. Love it, and plan to overuse it thoroughly.)
Whirlochre offers a fantastic rule of thumb.
Use utilitarian words to usher in extraordinary detail.
Yes! Exactly! You want your prose emphasis to go to the detail with the biggest "wow" factor. We talked about this a little in the old Redlines column where I rehashed John Gardner's ideas on how to load a sentence. But your rule of thumb tackles that idea from a different angle, and I thank you for sharing it.
The ever-insightful Green Knight points out that these verb weaknesses often signal other problems:
- she saw this, she noticed that, she observed the other. 'She saw her friend walk down the street' is weak on more fronts than one. If we're inside her POV, we know she's doing the observing, so 'xx walked down the street' is good enough. At which point I realise that those words just aren't working very hard and I can convey much more story in the same amount of space: 'xx stumbled along the gutter' is much better.
Those "telling" verbs do shallow out point of view. If you want to stay in a limited-subjective third person, you're wise to clip them out. Ditto for she thought, she felt, she believed and so on.
Dara shares a technique I use, too.
I find it helpful to do a "find" for certain words and make them red.
Sometimes the numbers can be shocking. Here's a rule of thumb I've learned over time. If you search and replace "ing" with a colored text "ing," the number of replacements less about 20% will be roughly the number of present participles in your text. That 20% comes from words like fingers and wings.
Everyone claims that said as a dialogue tag is "invisible." I disagree. It's a dull, overused verb.
I think both positions are correct: said is invisible, and said is overused. When words are overused, they flatten out and lose any significant impact on the reader. Said has been flattened to such a degree that we can almost see right through it, like overworked pastry dough.
You're better off overusing beats than overusing said. That is, if you have to overuse anything at all.
When I see an excess of "interesting " verbs I see a writer trying too hard.
Yes, this is the opposite side of the coin. Heads, the verbs are dull and the reader isn't engaged in the story. Tails, the reader is noticing the words instead of the story. Either way, the reader isn't entering into the fictional world.
Dave flags the word muttered for us. I have to agree with that one. People don't mutter in life anywhere near as much as characters mutter in novels. And then he quotes one of my own example sentences back at me, complete with the verb look. Woo hoo! He's been paying attention! (sigh)
The problem with look -- actually, there are multiple problems with look, but we'll focus on the one that exists in both my sample sentence and in a couple posed by Southern Writer:
"It looks like rain," Tex said.
Mae didn't look mad.
She gave me a warning look.
It looks like a great place.
In all four examples, the same basic dynamic occurs: the reader is getting a conclusion instead of a description. Tex doesn't talk about clouds rolling in and wind picking up or whatever evidence he sees of approaching rain. And because he doesn't talk about it, we don't experience it with him. We get only his conclusion.
Sometimes it's a useful shorthand to say, "It looks like a great place." But most of the time, you're better off describing the place (remember the rule of three -- three brushstrokes set a scene) and letting the reader draw the conclusion himself. This creates an engaged reader, one who is always looking for "clues" in the text.
Thanks, everyone, for sharing such wonderful tips and insights.
I want to respond to some of the comments to the post on dull verbs, but before we do that, I thought I'd post the next Redlines column. This one tackles the same basic idea from a different angle. After we've looked this one over, we'll come back to some ideas and questions about dull verbs.
Last month, we continued examining subject-verb-object dynamics. This month, we’re going to look at other types of tangled constructions, in particular, sentences that don’t put the strongest verb into the best sentence slot. In other words, we’re going to learn a trick to help you organize sentences for power and impact.
Let’s start with a core idea. As we have already seen, simple sentences contain a main subject, verb, and sometimes an object. But not all sentences are simple -- some are compound, complex, or all dressed up with phrases and clauses. Unfortunately, the more pieces you hang onto the basic subject-verb-object spine, the more likely it is that your sentence will lose focus.
One form of lost focus occurs when you have lots of action words -- verbs of any tense or variation -- competing for attention. Generally, verbs do the heavy lifting in a sentence because they literally tell the reader what is happening, where the action is. But not all verbs are active.
Here’s an example:
He was the kind of man who liked to build model airplanes.
In this case, everything that comes before “who” (the relative pronoun) is the main part of the sentence. Everything that comes after “who” is a subordinate clause. The subject-verb-object slots in the main sentence generally will draw a reader’s attention more than the subordinate idea. This is why we say that ideas of greater importance usually go in the main part of the sentence, and ideas of lesser importance (subordinate ideas, get it?) usually follow the relative pronoun.
The sentence contains three action words: was, liked and build. Of these three, one is very weak (was), one is weak (liked), and one is strong (build).
What’s the difference between a weak and a strong verb? Weak verbs describe states of being, emotional states, preferences, and similar intangibles. Conjugations of the verb “to be” are so weak as to be nearly transparent. The reader’s mind interprets “to be” verbs similar to the equal signs in math equations. “He = the kind of man.” It barely registers, which makes it weak.
Strong verbs, by contrast, are ones that describe an activity or a dynamic state. Strong verbs can be simple enough to include in first grade primers (run, walk) or precise enough to describe distinct shades of activity (waddle, toddle).
In our sample sentence, the weakest verb is the main verb of the main clause. This is a powerful slot in the sentence, and is being filled with a nearly invisible word. So, to maximize impact, remove the weak verb from the strong slot.
He was the kind of man who liked to build model airplanes.
He liked to build model airplanes.
Notice that “who” is nowhere to be found in the second sentence. So the edit completely removes the weak main clause, and lets the formerly subordinate idea claim a more important role. If we wanted, we could take it a step further, by letting the dynamic “build” function as the main verb instead of as an infinitive. Remember, dynamic verbs (build) are stronger than verbs of emotion (liked).
In that case,
He liked to build model airplanes.
He built model airplanes.
There are shades of meaning between these two sentences that might not warrant the change. For example, perhaps the second sentence would be more appropriate if the man’s job was building model airplanes, and the first sentence would apply more to a hobby. So I present this second-level edit of our original sentence mainly as a way of completing the thought, with the caveat that authorial judgment must come into play.
I want to return now to the word “who.” It’s a danger word, a red flag. Along with its cousins (whom, which, that, whose), “who” signals the possibility of a twisted sentence. Writers are generally aware that “that” is a dangerous word. But how do you untangle sentences loaded with danger words? The process is similar to the one we’ve already described -- identify the verbs, measure their relative strength and weakness, and sort them out accordingly.
Let’s practice on a couple examples.
Past relationship failures were the issue that kept her from trusting Lucas.
You see the weak verb, “were,” in a position of power. The other verb is “kept” and it follows one of our red flag words, “that.” If we move “kept” into the power slot, we get:
Past relationship failures kept her from trusting Lucas.
Let’s try one more:
She’d been in a weird limbo for months, a limbo that made her feel as though her life was going nowhere.
Once again, we have a weak verb as the main verb in the main clause -- been. We have a red flag word -- that. But this time, the writer needed to repeat the object (limbo) in order to append the descriptive clause. Why? Most likely, the original sentence contained a dangling modifier. (Think, “She’d been in a weird limbo for months that made her feel as though her life was going nowhere” -- obviously, the months didn’t make her feel anything, but the limbo did.)
A better fix would be to ditch the weak main verb and avoid dangling by putting the temporal reference right up front and out of the way.
For months, a weird limbo made her feel as though her life was going nowhere.
The sharp-eyed among you will note that "as though" also introduces a clause. It's an adverb clause, not a relative pronoun clause, and we'll leave it be for now.
As with any editorial technique, this is not a one-size-fits-all application. Some sentences will function beautifully with a relative pronoun (who, whom, which, that, whose) and would actually suffer otherwise. I leave you with one of my favorite examples of a good one, the first sentence from “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
This is the seventh in the Redlines series.
Redlines One (on paragraph logic faults) can be found here.
Redlines Two (on dialogue sequencing) can be found here.
Redlines Three (on using frames within scenes) can be found here.
Redlines Four (on avoiding the need for "sequel") can be found here.
Redlines Five (on description) can be found here.
Redlines Six (on passive voice) can be found here.
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
And second, while serviceable, they're not as evocative as they could be. A verb like move, for example, conveys a state of motion without implying anything about the quality of that motion. And there are dozens, if not hundreds, of verbs that convey motion plus some other nuance -- fidget, jiggle, twitch, wiggle, writhe, budge, shift, stir, dash, dart, leap, scramble -- really, there are far too many to list.
Before you fuss too much about the overlooked splendors of these plain and sturdy verbs, ask yourself -- do you want readers to think of your prose as serviceable or as evocative?
Without further ado, here's my list. I'm sure there are plenty more besides these, but these are the ones that come to mind now.
came (not in a sexual sense)
had (not in the past perfect)
A special note about looked. I find that far too often, writers reach for "eye cues" to signal action or emotion. She looked away, he looked devastated, she looked into his face for a sign, and so on. Again, these are flat expressions. Lazy, even. I'm to the point where I want to pull out almost every instance of "looked" just to add some pizzazz to the writing.
Saturday, April 5, 2008
I'm seeing some common threads in the revisions that might be worth sharing.
When we say "start in the middle of the action," that doesn't mean "start in the middle of the plot." In fact, by starting in the middle of the plot, you will have to go backwards in time to pick up the scenes from the beginning of the plot, and much of that will end up being cast as backstory. This only aggravates the problem which leads us to advise that you start in the middle of the action. Nobody wants to read a lot of backstory or exposition, especially not in the beginning of a book.
We have very few formatting requirements. Very few. And when an author can't conform to the very few, very simple formatting requirements posted in our submissions guidelines, that makes me worry that they'll disregard our other instructions. (For the record, we don't really care about things like font and line spacing in electronic submissions, but we care very much about the type of file submitted.)
Weak point of view.
At least six times this week, I had to write instructions to authors about fixing scenes where the point of view was almost abstract. These scenes tend to be heavy on dialogue and action, so heavy that we lose track of the point of view character. More than once this week, I've seen scenes where even the author lost track of the point of view character -- in one memorable scene, the point of view character walked offstage, and the rest of the characters continued the action without him.
This is a minor thing, and peculiar to our subgenre, but I'd like to know where this trend comes from: heroines being hung by the wrists so that they are completely suspended. This is not a good start to a sex scene. If you don't believe me, invite your significant other to hoist you into the air by a pair of handcuffs and then see if he gets past first base. Set a stopwatch and time how long your shoulders can handle it. (By the way, this falls generally under the category of "Block Your Scenes." Alicia talked about the importance of this a few posts ago.)
Worth noting: these problems are being encountered in manuscripts good enough to get some editorial attention on revisions. Even the good ones need help!
On Amazon and Booksurge
Ian asked in the comments about our opinions of the Amazon/Booksurge dust-up. It doesn't affect my company directly because we're not a pod printer. We do offset print runs just like the big girls. But, looking at it from another perspective, it affects us greatly because publishing models are breaking down right across the industry, and small presses are unequally effected by all these changes. In some cases, indeed, it seems that the changes are designed to harm small presses.
Richard Curtis does an excellent job of tying things together in his recent blog post. Put this together with Amazon's overseas moves about list prices and discounts, and you'll begin to see the bigger picture. But really, there's a lot more to it than all this. I can't tell you how many hours of my life I've spent trying to think through and around all the angles. In essence, it's a distribution conundrum: how do we get our books into the hands of readers?
And that's a question I think we all must ponder. The times, they are a-changin'.
Friday, April 4, 2008
Flat Stanley (the character) is a little boy who was crushed by a falling bulleting board while he was innocently sleeping. As a result of this dreadful accident, he is now four feet tall and one inch thick. You'd think this would pose a problem, but Flat Stanley gets to have lots of adventures that children of regular thickness don't get to have.
Quick writing exercise -- if you had a character of these dimensions, what would you do with him? Name three things Flat Stanley could do in your book that the other characters could not do.
In the book, Flat Stanley gets to slide under closed doors, and fly in the sky like a kite, and get mailed in an envelope to his vacation destination. Did any of these possibilities occur to you? Kid-lit authors tend to be very adept at taking a single notion and playing it out to extremes. I've always thought Flat Stanley was the perfect example of that. One attribute, flatness, is explored in an imaginative and (dare we say it?) in-depth manner. By the end of the book, you understand completely what effect flatness would have on a person's life.
Flat Stanley's Two Lessons For Adult Writers
Flat Stanley is not what adult readers would call a *cough*cough* well-rounded character. He has a single, central characteristic that governs his activities through the entire story. This is not to say the story is bad. It's excellent, in fact, and the characters are perfect for kid-lit. But adult readers have different expecations of characters.
Nevertheless, in Stanley's flatness are two lessons for us.
First, if you are going to give your character a unique or strong characteristic, you'd better exploit it. (Stanley doesn't look flat and act round.)
Second, exploit it in ways that are unexpected. (Stanley's flatness creates some surprising results.)
I can't tell you how many times I've read manuscripts that drew careful portraits of an important character, but never leveraged those portraits. Lord Sneerlip, we are told, is a villain of power and influence who can destroy entire families with a single cutting glance. Aha, we think gleefully, and settle in to see what kind of damage good old Sneerlip will do. And we read, and we wait. And read and wait some more. But Sneerlip never does anything to prove his power until the very last scene when he kidnaps the heroine and tries to force her to marry him. yawn
A smart writer knows that not only must she exploit the power and influence of Lord Sneerlip, but she must exercise it repeatedly, in unexpected ways, and at the worst possible moments. So if Sneerlip has a grudge against the family of Priscilla Bluestocking, and if Prissy's goal is to get vouchers to Almack's, what should Sneerlip do? (For those of you who don't read Regencies, Almack's was the place for a society debutante to go, and vouchers -- entry tickets -- were tightly controlled.)
The author with little control over the text will probably not let Sneerlip make trouble at all. After all, she reasons, the purpose of the scene at Almack's is to let Prissy Bluestocking meet His Grace, the Duke of Hotstuff, her ultimate hero, who scandalizes all of England by spiking the warm lemonade with vodka. Oh, Hotstuff, you dangerous rogue, you! But Sneerlip isn't necessary in this scene and doesn't appear until the end, when he kidnaps Prissy and forces Hotstuff into the role of rescuer.
A slightly more mindful author will have Sneerlip cancel the Almack's vouchers for Prissy Bluestocking and her entire family. After all, she reasons, if Sneerlip is the villain, and vouchers are the goal, then the villain should interfere with that goal. Right? Well...okay. It's better, but is that really the best we can do?
Of course not. An inventive author, an author who wins the hearts and minds of readers, starts wondering what else a villain of power and influence might do here. She gets creative. She starts thinking about how Sneerlip might screw up a night at Almack's for Prissy. Maybe he schedules a secret night of decadence so that no eligible men are at Almack's that night. Maybe everyone shows up, and Sneerlip cuts Prissy and her family, damaging her standing and marital prospects. Maybe he forces her to dance with him three times -- oh, the scandal! Maybe he feeds her several cups of vodka-spiked lemonade and invites her to declaim on the cultivation of marigolds to a group of bored and disgusted dandies. Really, the possibilities are endless.
And that's exactly the point. The possibilities are endless. Don't settle for simple, trite renditions of a character trait when the liveliness of your plot hinges on your inventiveness. Exploit what you've already set up.
What else might Sneerlip do to interfere with Prissy Bluestocking's success at Almack's? Come on now -- if Flat Stanley can fly like a kite, surely Sneerlip can do something inventive, too!
Thursday, April 3, 2008
Last Month's Poll
Seems I'm not the only book whore around here. Here are the results of last month's poll.
When reading for pleasure, what do you read?
I only read in the genre I write in.
I read whatever interests me, and don't pay attention to genre.
I deliberately mix my genre and other genres as a way of furthering my knowledge base.
I only read outside my genre so I don't contaminate my works-in-progress
I posted this question out of simple curiosity. I read so much romance that it occasionally affects my reading patterns. Even when there are books I want to read (such as some of the newer "big" historicals that are catching so much review press), I feel that I keep fresher if I save my romance reading budget for work. So for my authors's sakes, I tend to avoid reading romance when I'm doing a lot of editing and submissions review. When I'm more focused on the managerial work, I don't worry about that, though. Not sure there's any grand epiphany to all this, except that it seems many of you also read widely but with deliberation.
Side question. What do you do with your books when you've finished reading them? I probably give away 200 books each year, and the piles around my house still keep growing. I've taken to boxing the "keepers" and stashing them in a storage area, but then I can't get to them. Who can remember which box has the Tolstoy, and which the Wodehouse? Not me. Bookcases are lovely and all that, but really, I can only fit so many of them in a room.
So, for the bibliophiles among you ... any suggestions?
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
Antagonists and Antagonism
Protagonists are striving for something. Pro = for.
Antagonists are striving against something. Anti = against.
She only got it half right. As we saw yesterday, the pro in protagonist comes from proto, meaning first. The protagonist is the first actor, the deuteragonist is the second, the tritagonist is the third. And they're all working against the backdrop of a Greek chorus. So that's four classes of humans on the stage (though more than four physical bodies -- if memory serves, a Greek chorus had between a dozen and fifty people).
The protagonist was not originally defined as the character with the goal. It was defined as the character on stage with the chorus all the time. This meant, by extension, that the protagonist's character would be most central to the story. Otherwise, there would be no need to have him on stage all the time. The deuteragonist and tritagonist, with the many roles they fulfilled, could be on or off stage as the scene required. My understanding is that they generally remained on stage and changed their props in full view of the audience.
Where is the antagonist on the stage?
If you've asked this question, you've assumed that the antagonist is a character. And the thing is, maybe the antagonist is a character, and maybe not. Maybe the antagonist is different characters at different times. Maybe the protagonist gets a turn at being the antagonist. Maybe the antagonist is something intangible like the weather, not a character at all.
I think this begins to snap into focus if we stop talking about "the antagonist" and start talking about "antagonism." What is the source of antagonism in a particular story? Are there multiple sources or a single source?
In some stories, the antagonism will be embodied in a single identifiable character: the sheriff wears the white hat, and the outlaw wears the black hat, and good and bad collide over the course of the story until justice prevails and the noose is tied. It's very easy to understand this story model and apply literary definitions to the various component parts. Maybe that's ultimately a source of confusion, though, if we come to think of protagonists as always the "good guys" and antagonists as always the "bad guys."
In some stories, particularly in ensemble stories, the antagonism will be embodied in different characters at different times. Alliances are built and shift and fall. The protagonist gathers different pieces of the puzzle from different sources. Conflict can be very subtle and abstract in these stories -- think of The Big Chill, for example, which is built in layers of interaction between the protagonist (Kevin Kline) and his college friends. We might identify the conflict as Kline's struggle to cling to his nostalgic idealism in the face of what they've all become. The antagonism is released through different characters at different times: Goldblum's bitterness, Tilly's objectivity, Close's earth-mothering all serve to reveal different nuances of the conflict.
In some stories, the antagonism will not originate with a character at all. In Castaway, for example, the classic human versus nature struggle, there is only one character on screen for most of the story. There is no other body, so the antagonism quite literally can never be embodied. Does this mean the Tom Hanks character has no struggles? Of course not. But his struggles originate with something other than another human being. The antagonism is revealed and shaped through rain, coconuts, volleyballs, and so on.
Keep in mind that any of the four classes of people on stage can provide a source of antagonism. The deuteragonist mother may be loving and supportive in one scene, and then cast the protagonist into the wilderness in the next scene. The chorus may sing a character's praises in one scene, and lament his foolishness in the next.
So when we say that conflict is defined as the interaction of the protagonist and the antagonist, we're really talking about notions that came into existence through different channels and, in some ways, are independent story functions. Protagonist originates in character. Antagonist originates in conflict.
When you're doing global, big-picture thinking about your story, think about the source of the antagonism. Have you slotted your characters into "good" and "bad" roles, and missed out on potential ways to twist the conflict? Have you ignored the possibility of antagonism from non-human sources?
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
Deuteragonists and Tritagonists
The Great Inbox Spring Cleaning continues, and I'm averaging revision letters on three novella manuscripts a day. I've just finished reading my last lonely manuscript from 2007 -- I've actually read it twice now, and just have to let it simmer before I contact the author. After this one, everything I read will be from January and February, though I probably have fewer than two dozen manuscripts pending from that time period. So at my current pace, I should be into March manuscripts sometime next week. Just saying, in case any of you are wondering about the status of your submission. (This all assumes that I will be able to remain focused on submissions for the next week or two. That's never a safe assumption.)
Deuteragonists and Tritagonists
It's probably fitting to post this on April Fools' Day, because if you're unfamiliar with these terms, you might just think I'm pulling a prank. I'm not. Google the words if you need evidence.
This ties in to my intermittent mullings on the nature of protagonists. Most of our literary theory evolved from dramatic theory, and most of that came to us from the ancient Greeks, or was at least built on notions that originated with the ancient Greeks.
But their notion of a play was very different from ours. In the beginning, there was a chorus. No actors, no monologues, no spotlights. Just an assortment of people on the stage, singing or chanting in unison, maybe with a bit of dancing or rhythmic motion similar to a marching band or drill team's synchronized movement. The truth is, we're not exactly positive how the chorus behaved. None of us were around to witness one, and scholars debate exactly what a chorus did and how they did it. But we're pretty sure that whatever they did, they did it as a team.
Then one day, somebody got clever and suggested that a solitary person could stand in front of the chorus and dramatize their song. If they sang, "He fell to his knees and wept," then this poor schmoe would fall to his knees and weep. They gave him some lines to speak and even let him interact with the chorus at times. He remained on stage for the duration of the show, as did the chorus.
This fellow was known as the protagonist, from proto- meaning first, and agon meaning gathering: he was the first in the gathering on the stage. He became a central figure in Greek drama, and eventually, a dude named Aeschylus figured out that if you could have one actor in front of the chorus, then why not have two?
This second actor was the deuteragonist. The funny thing about the deuteragonist is that his role depended on the story. He could play one role as did the protagonist and function like a sidekick -- a Robin to the protagonist's Batman, a Watson to his Holmes. Or he could play several roles, switching masks and wigs and props to indicate that now he was the angry father, and now the trembling maid. His role, in either case, was to help the audience better understand the protagonist's actions. You could say he provided a context for the protagonist's acting.
At some point they also added a third actor, the tritagonist. But instead of adding a fourth, fifth, and so on, they stopped with the tritagonist and developed a few theories to support that -- all dramas are triangles composed of three interacting and competing elements; stable alliances are rendered unstable by the introduction of a third party; between parents, a child; between parent and child, a spouse; between lovers, a parent; and so on.
Even though these theories make a lot of practical sense, they neatly overlook the fact that the three actors on stage frequently played multiple roles. So it wasn't really the presence of three human characters that created drama. It was the three levels of character:
- the protagonist, who always had to be on stage,
- the deuteragonist, who functioned like a sidekick -- literally, a second to the protagonist's first -- and was important, but not omnipresent, and could be more than one character
- the tritagonist, who was basically anyone else they need for the story to make sense.
What's missing from that list? The antagonist. I'm just going to float that idea out there for a moment. We'll come back to it eventually.
For now, I want to make a point about the way these characters were constructed. The protagonist was always a fully formed character. The deuteragonist could be either fully formed (when he was the sidekick) or a placeholder (when he had to change roles frequently). The tritagonist was usually a placeholder.
The placeholder characters were signaled by a change in props or masks. A sword and shield signaled a warrior. A mask with horns signaled a bull.
To this day, we use a similar form of character props to cue the audience about placeholder characters. Except, instead of giving the warrior a sword, we give the night desk clerk at the hotel a nervous shuffle in his gait. We give Aunt Flossie an aluminum crochet hook, and we make Uncle Ted a bit deaf. Our "props" are not symbolic (sword = warrior, horns = bull), but emblematic (that is, specific to one character instead of generic of a type of character).
So when our protagonist finds at the crime scene a bright blue aluminum crochet hook, we think, Aunt Flossie was here. Of course, it could be anyone's crochet hook. But because dramatic theory likes things to be neatly tied up, an emblem of a character must always be emblematic of that particular character. If horns indicate a bull, you have to use something other than horns to indicate the devil. If the crochet hook becomes emblematic of Aunt Flossie, than the blood-covered one in chapter seventeen had better belong to her.
It's a neat trick, and it's one that can be used pretty easily for secondary characters. (Get it? deuter = second. We still use the same basic language to talk about drama, except that now we call deuteragonists secondary characters.) But with secondary characters, the reader will want something more than a mere emblem. They'll want the emblem to become fleshed out a bit. There's got to be more to Aunt Flossie than a yarn hobby.
So, do you think it will help you develop your characters if you first decide where they fit on the -agonists scale?