Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Perhaps a teaching on how to avoid "had" in events that happened two or three days in the past.
Okay, let me think about this.
First thing I'm going to say is... don't go back. That is, if you don't recount things that happened three days ago, you won't need "had". (Talk about evading the issue...:) That is, "had" as the past-perfect auxiliary verb
But really, I don't like flashbacks as I think they tend to detract from the verisimilitude of the scene. Here they are, having an argument, and she says the "D" word (divorce), and they're both shocked, and ... and then he thinks back to the last time they went to dinner three nights ago, "and she had ordered calimari though he hated even the sight of it, and....", and there goes the immediacy, there goes the sense of being in the moment, and there perhaps goes the characterization (does he just drift off in the middle of an argument? No wonder she's talking divorce!).
It reminds me of a Friends episode re-run I saw the other day, or rather one moment in it, where Joey (the actor) is telling how a mentor had taught him the trick of seeming to ruminate and remember as "smelling your farts." And then there's a flashback to Joey as a character, and he stops in the middle of the scene and tilts his head like he's smelling his fart.
The joke is that flashing back can be rather like, you know, smelling your farts-- it looks sort of significant, but it's not.
Okay, okay, I know I don't persuade anyone who loves flashbacks not to use them (though I defy you all to try that-- go ahead, write the flashback now without thinking, oh, no, I'm smelling my farts!).
So how about a flashback without that annoying "had" everywhere?
Well, I think we should distinguish between just a line or two about something in the past, and a real flashback.
If it's just a line or two-- She raised her hand to show off the time travel wristband she had been awarded at graduation-- then go ahead and use "had" and don't fret it. It's the most expeditious way to set the one event in the past of the story. (And of course, it's also correct, which matters to me. :)
But a flashback is a -scene-, not just a reference to a past event. A flashback takes the reader back to a time before the story present and presents this passage of time as if it's a scene, with setting, action, dialogue. (We should have a discussion of whether there should be introspection/POV in a flashback... also, is the flashback a character flashing back and remembering something, or an independent scene, or... see all these existential questions that arise when you mess with the time continuum???)
So with a real flashback, I'd suggest maybe starting with "had" to mark the descent into the past, but then once you get there, no more had (until maybe the very end of the flashback scene, when you're transitting back to the present of the story). So:
She had been so proud at that graduation. She had proudly worn her blue time-agent uniform, and her parents had beamed when they saw her. When the director called her name, she walked up the aisle to get her diploma, and she stood as still as she could as he strapped on the wristband...
That is, get us into the past scene with "had been", then once we're in the scene, just go with simple past to make it feel like a scene, to make us feel right there experiencing it.
How do you all handle this?
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
More paragraphing thoughts-- Suz
What about when there is one beat of action, then the dialogue. Does the dialogue come on the same line, or is it a new paragraph?
Suz, I think-- what will the reader think? If the reader is going to think that the action and the speech are from different people because of the paragraph break, I think it's important then to put in a quote tag so the reader doesn't even have two seconds of wondering who the heck is saying this.
But personally, I would rewrite it so that someone else has the first line of dialogue at the end of the beat. Many reasons beyond just "so that you don't have Action by Bill and Speech by Bill in adjacent but separate paragraphs which Alicia doesn't like." :)
Another reason is replicating the rhythm of real conversation. If there's a lag, if there's a silence, usually the other person says something, even just "Uh..." to fill the space. Now maybe you're thinking, "But the action is taking just a split second," but it's a paragraph for the reader. It's not going to feel like a split second. So having the other character leap in with some kind of interruption will "feel" right.
And letting the other speak is a way to make this passage more interactive, more of a real conversation, not just "speaker and audience" but two characters interacting, each with his/her own agenda. What the other says, how he/she says it, will reveal something. If she's impatient, drawing his attention back to the subject-- "You were saying?"-- then we know that she wants to know more, that she might even think that he's avoiding the subject. If she says something helpful, like "I can understand how you feel," then we know more about their relationship.
Dialogue is a conversation, and I like it to look, feel, and sound like there are two people here, each with a reason to be conversing, maybe each with a goal, and certainly each with an attitude-- impatient, helpful, deceptive, something.
So if you want a character to insert some action, think about why. Action is a bit of a punctuator to speech. Why would he want to hesitate? What is he about to say or not say that makes him pause if only for an instant? And how is she going to interpret that?
I know some writers will say, "I just want to break up the dialogue with some action, or to anchor the scene in some setting detail." Well, sure, but that's not (if you do it well) what the reader gets. What the reader gets-- if you've made her believe in these characters-- is that the guy was conversing and stopped for a bit, and the reader is going to interpret this as having meaning in some way. Go with that. That's great. Let it happen. Make it happen. That doesn't mean you need a good reason for him to pause! But if you do it right, if you make the pause for action a part of the conversation, if you make the other character react, the reader will come up with a good reason. :) And that's what you want, the reader to get in there and care enough to speculate.
Monday, June 28, 2010
Paragraphing as meaning
1) Dialogue creates paragraphs-- start a new paragraph every time I switch speakers. Now a question is-- do you put the action and dialogue (same character) in the same paragraph? I almost always do:
"It was a terrible storm."
She applied a chain saw to the wind-felled tree.
If "she" said that, I say same paragraph. I think breaking the action from the dialogue will confuse the reader-- so who said that? In most cases, that is.
2) Paragraphs should be unified around something-- like this is all about his suspicions that the high school principal is an alien. If he contemplates the girl he's interested in and wonders what she thinks, usually I think that belongs in another paragraph.
3) A conclusion, a realization, a decision-- this might well deserve a new paragraph for emphasis. The line break and indentation tells the reader to pay attention.
4) Paragraphs are shorter now, but one-sentence paragraphs should be rare in fiction (except with dialogue). Too many one-sentence paragraphs make your prose sound juvenile, and doesn't allow for any development of an idea-- everything becomes a Twitter-style assertion-- no evidence, no analysis, no nuance.
5) I can use paragraphing to tell the reader what goes with what, what connects, what is important.
What else? Do you paragraph by instinct or by craft? How do you decide if a sentence or thought doesn't go in that paragraph?
Thursday, June 24, 2010
Anyway, I was driving and listening to this speech, and I very clearly recall an absolutely terrific line, where Ahern was trying to honor Irish history but also move on into the future by acknowledging the two countries' commonality, and here's what I remember:
"And we must never forget the greatest forced marriage in history: between the English language and the Irish people."
(That is, English was forced upon the Irish, but they made it sing-- Wilde and Swift and Yeats and all those guys.)
Well, you know, I've quoted that line, and attributed it to old Bertie, and recently went looking for the exact quote and the date, and guess what? Here's what he actually said:
"One of the most creative moments in human history was the meeting between the English language and the Irish people."
Huh. Hey, what I remembered was a better line! It sounds like Wilde or Shaw. So, anyway, I'm going to claim it (unless anyone can find another source). :)
So here's what I say:
The greatest forced marriage in history was between the English language and the Irish people.
Passive voice = Passive scene?
Think about that. Prose and action are intertwined-- that is, the action is told in prose, and so they can reflect each other. If there's a "passive" problem in my sentences, maybe the solution isn't fixing the sentences (or whining about how this is my voice and it's an assault on my human dignity to tell me to fix). Maybe I should be looking at the scene and specifically at what I'm requiring of my characters. If there's nothing happening in the scene that requires them to act, the POV character might just hang around and introspect and relate in retrospect what happened and ruminate about it. And the sentences will naturally reflect that lassitude and lack of urgency.
But if instead of making this scene take place in the POV character's head, I make it take place in the campaign headquarters or in the abandoned house or the kitchen. And I can make the character do something. And I bet the sentences will get more active, just because they have more to do when the character has more to do.
After all, Churchill felt the urgency of the situation, the need of the populace for motivation and reassurance, the potential for change. And that feeling empowered his sentences. Maybe for us, the trick is to create a situation that requires power, then feel that in the scene, and transmit it into the sentences. Then maybe we won't have to worry about passive sentences, because we're not being passive, and neither are our characters.
So often prose problems are symptoms of scene problems. :)
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Passive voice-- just some thoughts
I just had a couple thoughts about passive construction. First, I see it often when students are trying to avoid using "I": Wild food is cooked at the annual Wild Food Picnic." But why not go ahead and say, "We cook wild food at the annual Wild Food Picnic." Passive is NOT better than using "I" or "we," as the subject should usually be the one that commits the action, and "we" did the cooking, so "we" should take credit for it. :)
Sometimes, writers assume "is and was" are markers of passive voice. But "is and was" have other roles, most of which have nothing to do with passive voice. For example:
I was once a champion tennis player.
That's a "predicate nominative," where the "was" just links the two nouns (I and tennis player) almost like an equal sign. There is no action (just "being"), so the sentence can't be active or passive.
The dress was red once. Now it is sort of pink.
That's a similar construction, just with an adjective (red) after the verb. That's a "predicate adjective" sentence.
Both of these use is/was to illustrate some aspect of the subject (I, the dress). Again, there's no action, so it can't be passive. It just "is".
"Is and was" can also turn a verb into a progressive verb --I am going (present progressive) rather than I go (present tense); I was going (past progressive) rather than I went (past tense). That's not passive voice, just another way the linking verb can be used (or, to be active! ... another way we can use the linking verb... see how "we" get in there!).
Those aren't passive construction. What is? It's when the ACTOR (the committer of the action) isn't in the subject position but the object position (where the object of the action should be). Or rather, the object (target of action) is in the subject position.
Passive voice is where the object is in the subject position:
Subject is usually what commits the action (the "agent" of the action)
Verb is usually the action
Object is usually what the action is committed on (the "patient or recipient" of the action).
So an active order is:
Paul (subject/agent) hit (verb) the ball (object/patient).
Passive order is:
The ball (object) was hit (verb) by Paul (subject).
The longer the sentence, I find, the more likely we trend into passive. Academic writing also often invites us to get all passive:
PASSIVE — In order to locate this paragraph, the cross reference feature was used.
ACTIVE — In order to locate this paragraph, the researchers used the cross reference feature.
What's wrong with passive construction? Well, for one reason, it allows us to avoid responsibility. "That $10 bill was stolen from your dresser" is sort of idle and guiltless. "I stole that $10 bill from your dresser" accepts responsibility (and even asserts pride, maybe).
Passive voice also leaches vividness and drama out of your sentences, because the subtext is that things just sort of happen. There's no real volition or intention in a passive construction.
"And then the car was just sort of dented."
"And I don't know how it happened, but the milk was spilled all over the floor."
And the famous Richard Nixon "admission of guilt:" "Mistakes were made."
Drama, power, conflict: Those are all in the active voice, and so you should default to active construction for livelier prose. Think about Churchill, trying to rally his country to resist occupation. He didn't use passive construction ("The battle shall be fought on the beaches") when he wanted to empower the British. Notice when he uses active and when he uses passive. (This is masterful manipulation of active/passive, by the way!). The highlighted parts are passive, and see how they are "the others in the past" (the other blue-highlighted line shows an unimaginable future for Britain, also passive), and notice how he will NOT give the Nazis the power (they are relegated to the object position, even though they are the ones subjugating!):
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender , and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
Now Churchill was almost supernatural in his rhetorical command (notice that almost every word there is Anglo-Saxon or old English... very few "Norman" -- Romance language-- word). But when we decide to speak forcefully, we instinctively go into active mode and use strong, basic verbs and clear construction, don't we? Keep that in mind as you write!
However... passive voice is preferable in a few circumstances:
When the "actor" isn't known, or isn't relevant:
1) The general's house was broken into last night. (We don't know who "committed the action.")
2) Her grandfather's ashes were interred last weekend. (We don't care who actually dug the hole and put the box of ashes in there.)
That's pretty limited!
Passive voice is also used (ahem, that's passive-- who is using? The writer!) when the writer doesn't WANT to assign responsibility. (How would you revise that to make it active!!!?) Have you ever gotten a past-due notice from a utility company? The FIRST notice is usually quite polite and passive: "This bill has not been paid." Why? Because they don't want to be rude and alienate you as a customer by accusing you of being a deadbeat! But the THIRD notice isn't so passive: "You have neglected to pay this bill for 90 days!"
I don't think writers should give up any writing tool, and passive voice would never have developed if there wasn't some use for it. Here's a fascinating rhetorical theory: Politeness theory. It posits that the more dangerous the potential consequence of speech, the more careful, lengthy, and passive our speech becomes. During the Spanish Inquisition, or when we get stopped by the highway patrol, we want to make sure that we don't give offense or accept responsibility if the consequence of "speaking freely" means we will get punished. (Watch the wedding scene in The Godfather and see how polite and passive everyone is towards the Don.) Passive voice is a useful tool when you have to be polite!
However, we shouldn't be passive unless we have a good reason to be passive! This is especially important in the narrative of fiction. Don't evade responsibility or let your characters get away with it, and don't dodge away from action (unless, of course, you have a good reason, like to show how passive a character is).
Here's a low-res preview of what our eventual logo will look like. Isn't it lovely? I'm so glad that Alicia and I both liked the same design. It was funny how the elements came together. I suggested STAR as an acronym of our initials. Alicia came up with the idea of a shooting star and quite rightly wanted a feeling of motion in the image. We both love purple so that choice was easy. And our wickedly talented graphic designer found a font that's both publish-y and contemporary. I love it when bits and pieces merge into a greater whole.
I thought I would talk a little about branding today and the graphic branding process because this is something that affects authors, too. If you're building a website or blog, you'll be confronted by decisions that are similar to the ones we've addressed in the last two weeks. In fact, only this week a friend with an established web presence emailed me a mockup of her new business cards with a request for feedback. Even with the foundation established, even with a beautiful website already in place, she still had to think about how her business cards tie into her brand and which graphics and details to include.
So, here is what we were thinking when we came up with our ideas, and here are some ways that ymmv.
Sample conversation that occurred over and over for months:
A: What should we call it?
T: What should we call it?
Occasionally, one of us would email a list of keywords or ideas to the other. And that would lead to a lot more Uhhing and Hmming and an occasional check to see if we could get a domain name for any of the options under consideration. It was very frustrating at the time because it felt as though the perfect name was just beyond our grasp. We had a relatively easy time coming up with a number of other central concepts like the eventual format for the books themselves. (Oddly enough, that format ties in very neatly to the name and logo, but that's a story for another day.)
At one point, we sat at my dining room table with dueling computers -- my laptop set up to mine a thesaurus and rhyming dictionary and other word tools, and hers to search the availability of domain names. I tried living with a couple of our ideas for a few days at a stretch to see if they would grow on me. They never did, so it's probably lucky that we couldn't get the domains.
Some of you might remember a few weeks (months?) ago, there was a brief gigglefest in the comments here about our initials being T&A. That got me thinking. Yes, blame yourselves, Team Comments, for the name STAR Guides. You made me think about our initials.
And as soon as I thought of it, I got a little sizzle inside. You know that feeling when your instinct knows it's right? But I sat on the idea for a couple of days before I sent it to Alicia. I wanted to be sure the sizzle wouldn't fade, and luckily, she liked the idea, too.
With the name STAR, several other things snapped into focus. We knew we would have a star graphic on our logo, a no-brainer, and we easily drifted to the name STAR Guides. Each book in the initial series will focus on a fiction topic, and will be named accordingly: The STAR Guide to Narrative Elements, The STAR Guide to Slush Survival, The STAR Guide to Openings, and so on.
Your pen name might function much the same way. It's your name brand. It should serve as a strong starting point for your other branding efforts -- your website, your blog, your facebook page, and so on. One key difference, of course, is that human names don't usually come with built-in thematic branding potential. Unless you choose a name that's also an English word with strong connotations (Rule, Dare, Tower, Moor, Quick, etc.), you're probably dealing more with mood and tone than with actual meanings. (Crusie, for example, is a name that just sounds like fun.) Or you're in a position where you have to build associations between your name and your brand. (Rockefeller, for example, didn't start off with the connotation of wealth, but built it over time and through circumstances.)
Alicia and I both favor purple, so it was really easy to choose that as our base color. But more than that, it works. Purple is the color of creativity, or so my feng shui expert told me. It's bold enough to stand out on the spines of books on crowded shelves, but not so bold as to be overwhelming. I also think it has a playful edge, but it's playful without being juvenile. I think that's good and suits our purposes. Adults should be able to have fun with their writing yet still remain adults.
We thought at first about doing purple with white, which would clean but not high-contrast. And then we started thinking about cream or a soft yellow, which would still be soft but would give more contrast than plain white. And then our designer came up with the golden highlights, and it was all over. It's bolder than what we originally planned to do, but that design absolutely leaped off the mock sheet. I fell in love at first sight (again with that sizzle, the same feeling I get when reading something really special in the slush pile), and Alicia preferred it, too.
I guess the lesson in this is to choose a color that speaks to you and to your purpose in more than one way, but be open to ways to vary it. If we had stuck to our original intent of doing something soft and clean and lower contrast, we never would have seen this gorgeous star. Big shout out to our designer for coming up with that.
I want to take a minute to talk about why we chose this particular designer to do our logo. I know lots of people who can do graphic design, and so does Alicia. But our designer is the creative director for an ad agency, with loads of experience with branding through images. She's incredibly sensitive to color and layout, and I've never yet seen a design from her for anything that read cluttered or busy, even when there was some detail in the design.
We wanted a design that was clean and strong -- something that would read at a glance even when reduced to the size of a spine logo. Not only did our designer "get" what we were looking for, she came up with dozens of ideas to make our original concepts even better. She thought of things we never would have thought of on our own. She made us look at black and white mockups, something which puzzled me initially but made incredible sense as the process unfolded. All in all, her work ethic and results proved repeatedly that she's the right one for the job. I genuinely believe we got a better logo in the end because we worked with this particular designer.
When you're choosing a graphic designer, look at lots of samples of their work first. Is this someone with a strong design sensibility, common traits that come up over and over again in the work? Do all the designs read feminine or masculine, or do they all use dark colors, or are there other similarities? If so, that might be what you get. All the various cover artists I've worked with over the years have definite design sensibilities -- some are whizzes with fonts, some are adept at complex layouts, some do cool things with shading and fades to control the movement of the viewer's eyes across the images. Learn to see these things, and decide which elements work best for you before you hire your designer.
A word about web design and graphic design: They're not the same thing. Don't assume that someone with mad web skillz can deliver suitable graphics. Maybe they can, and maybe they can't. We're talking about very different skill sets, although there is some overlap in areas like layout and color work. But before you assume you can hire a web designer and get a good graphic designer in the bargain, ask a lot of questions about where the graphics came from. You might be surprised to learn that some professional web designers sub out their important graphics work. They are willing to do basic stuff themselves, but the important things (like logo builds), they leave to the experts.
My mind is much occupied these days with these sorts of business issues, but I think it's worth blogging about them even if they're not as much fun as character and pov and plot.
Saturday, June 19, 2010
Setting as tone reinforcement
Susan is a reporter who thinks she's been handed the assignment of a lifetime, to "shadow" a homicide detective as he investigates a serial murder. But he has a dark past-- he himself was the victim of a serial murderer, who took him captive, kept him alive, and tortured him for days. Susan makes the mistake of asking why Gretchen (the murderer) had shown him "mercy":
"If Gretchen had been feeling charitable, she would have let me die," he said matter-of-factly. "I wanted to die, I was ready to die. If she had put a scalpel in my hand, I would have stabbed myself in the neck and happily bled to death right there in her basement. She didn't do me any favors by not killing me. Gretchen enjoys people's pain. And she just found a way to prolong my pain and her pleasure. Believe me, it was the cruellest thing she could have done to me. If she could have thought of something crueler, she would have done it. Gretchen doesn't show people mercy."
The heat kicked in. There was a rumble, then the slow blow of hot air from a vent that Susan couldn't see. Her mouth felt dry. The kid upstairs was still running. If Susan had lived there, she would have killed that kid by now.
Notice how the setting, which had been presented as boring earlier (nondescript apartment in the city, March in the Northwest, so cool and rainy), is made a little threatening here by the juxtaposition with his "matter-of-fact" assessment of what happened to him, and by the violent connotations of the words describing the action of the furnace -- "kicked in," "rumble," "slow blow." There's also the reporter's sensory reaction-- she can't see the vent (unseen threat) and her mouth goes dry, plausible because of the "heat" but also because of what he has said. And then the kicker, that his talking about this unrepentant sadist makes her thoughts become violent too, that (though she doesn't mean it) she would "kill" this running child in the apartment above. That is, the setting detail isn't just applied onto the emotion/action of the passage, but becomes part of it, manifesting within her a change because of what she's experiencing.
Too often I read passages where the setting is just shoved in there. I get the sense that the writer has ticked off something on a checklist: "Mention the setting. Check." And the result is a kind of interruption of the narrative, really just a moment of exposition, instead of being part of the narrative. And it feels like that. Check. Setting applied.
But if you think of the scene as a unit of conflict and action and emotion, then everything in the scene should be integrated to create at every moment precisely the right experience for the reader. And that's not going to happen with a pro forma "setting application" every few paragraphs. And it's not going to happen with a slapdash and generic description, a "he ran his hand through his hair" sort of cliche. The POV is all-important. What is happening in the scene is affecting how the POV character feels, and that affects what the character perceives and --this is key-- how she presents and describes what she perceives. So Susan above feels the terror and horror of realizing what he went through, and she thinks of the ordinary (the furnace coming on) as startling and threatening, and she uses "punchy" words to describe that threatening feeling.
But most important, the confluence of the action of the scene and the setting leads to a moment of reaction, of change, where she herself is influenced by the violence she's been hearing about, and her thoughts become grim and vengeful, and this is even more striking, because she isn't thinking, "I'd like to kill that evil Gretchen," but rather, "I'd like to kill that innocent child whose crime is running around."
That's good writing, and good scene design. Just another example of how we should always challenge ourselves to go beyond the generic, to get inside the scene and do our best to give the reader the authentic experience of being part of it.
Another in our long-running series on: "Why Details Matter." :)
Friday, June 18, 2010
Context and subtext
To me, the context was obvious-- this was an African-American family, and she was looking back at the 20th century. She referred to her grandmother (few of the students understood "Meema," but if you're from the South, you know it means Grandma), and "channeled" her memory of dancing with her "beautiful yellow sisters" and meeting and passing "her grandfather's white family."
I was amazed at how few students understood that this was an African-American family. There was a reference to Meema's "Indian blanket," and a lot of students went off in that direction (not realizing, probably, that many African-Americans in the southeast had a Native American ancestor). Since the Native American experience in the 20th century was vastly different, that didn't really fit the poem's development, but at least they got the connection of "multi-cultural" and "patchwork quilt" (that is, that the quilt is a metaphor for a multi-cultural family").
Anyway, I was noticing that almost no one got what to me was a clear context-- that of the exploitation of young Black women by older white men (sometimes "slaveowners"), and how that has made so many African-American families mixed race. And the quilt metaphor (patching together disparate pieces to make a piece of folk art-- the quilt is a wonderful metaphor-- forgive me, my beloved grandmother was a quilter, so I'm partial!) is a great symbol for the tendency of the African-American community to make history, heritage, and art from the troubled experience of Blacks in America.
So... almost none of the students got this. Some understood that the speaker was African-American, but often they kind of romanticized, that the Grandpa and Grandma were kind of Romeo and Juliet, ostracized because of their mixed-race love, while the actual experience was more akin to rape. Almost none got the term "yellow," which I know (because I grew up in the south, and have read lots of Toni Morrison and Faulkner and Maya Angelou, means a Black person with at least one white ancestor. Nowadays, of course, "brown" means Hispanic, and "yellow" is a epithet referring to Asians.
I was kind of glad that so few of the students (among them African-Americans) "got" the complicated background, because it is great to think of that awful era so far behind us that kids today don't even know about it. However, there's a beauty in it too, in the transformation of that brutal history into love and art. And that's lost when no one recognizes it anymore. There is, we know, great art in adversity, and when we lose the memory of the troubles, do we lose the art too?
And almost no one noticed the title (ALWAYS notice the title!), "The Century Quilt." Apparently few had quilting grandmothers (a "century quilt" has 100 squares), and of course they didn't live through much of the 20th Century (which ended, really, in 2008, not 2001), from Jim Crow and lynching to the election of the African-American president-- an amazing century.
Finally, this made me think about the importance of context. Without the context (specifically, understanding what "yellow" means in the poem), the students, most of them, couldn't connect this poem with the wonderful and terrible history of American Blacks. The subtext (that great passion and art come from adversity, that you can "patch together" meaning and art) was lost on most of the students.
However, they did make their own subtext. And I think that's something that characterizes art, that every generation makes new subtext, that the work allows for multiple interpretations and new interpretations.
But still I think of this so-modern dilemma, that something so meaningful in the past isn't even recognized now. The world changes so rapidly these days, and so many conflicts that might be awful to experience but create opportunity for good story, are almost immediately superseded by new events. How much have we lost by just not noticing? I can point to the paucity of novels about the Vietnam war compared to the number about World War II, though both were bristling with interesting story potential. Will there be even that many stories about Iraq? No-- I can just about guarantee that, because no one's paying much attention to the war now, while it's actually happening.
But... oh, well, it inspired me sort of at least! My poetry-reading group just did "ballads" and we decided we couldn't understand ballads without experiencing them from the poet's perspective, so we decided to write ballads (because they're easier, natch, than sonnets!). And so I wrote a ballad about a quilt-- "The Ballad of the Wedding Ring Quilt". It's sort of wonderful how easy it is to slip into the ballad rhythm (da Dum da Dum...) and use the tradition to build a story, even with complex emotions.
R U Ready?
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Yes, It's True
Q: OMG, I heard a rumor that you left Red Sage. Is it true?
A: Yes. It's true.
Q. Why. The. Fuck.
A: Many reasons, most prominent being a desire to devote my attention to the launch of STAR Guides Publishing.
Q: Do what now?
A: STAR Guides Publishing. Alicia and I are starting a new company which will publish a series of writing guides. We'll also be hosting online workshops starting September 1. Watch for a schedule of workshops soon! (Don't bother googling STAR Guides. The domain name is ours, but the website isn't live yet, and won't be for a while.)
Q: But you loved working at Red Sage.
A: Sure did.
Q: And they loved you there.
A: I like to think so.
Q: But... *doggie head tilt*
A: I know, right. Change is confusing. And this is a big change, and it was a really, really hard decision to make. I love those authors, and that editing team I painstakingly assembled and trained, and leaving them was incredibly difficult.
For a while there, I thought I might do both. Red Sage's publisher knew about the plan to publish the writing guides, and she didn't object to my doing both. But when I evaluated my schedule, it became clear that something had to go. And when I evaluated my various income streams, the decision was obvious. Not easy, but obvious.
Q: I heard you were going back to being an agent.
A: Nope. Could be fun, but no, I haven't even thought about doing that again.
Q: I heard you were going to work at another house.
A: Alas, no, unless you mean the house Alicia and I are starting. My phone did ring a couple of times last week with expressions of interest, and that was gratifying, but it will take a very specific kind of offer to get me on board at another house. I know what I want, and if I can't do it at someone else's house, then I will make my own house so I can do it there.
Q: Sounds like you have some big plans.
A: Yes, indeed. But for now, we're starting with the STAR Guides and the workshops, and we'll see how things grow from there.
Q: In this economy?
A: Yes, in this economy. I don't see problems here; I see opportunities. Now more than ever, a writer must compete for the best spot on the calendar -- or for any spot at all. You have to turn in your best work every time, and you have to do it knowing that editorial resources are growing ever more scarce. Alicia and I can help authors with that part of the problem.
Q: But I still want you to be my editor.
A: I'm for hire. I've always taken a few select private clients (a very few), but now I have time for more. I've set up a quick little site with more information about that, if you're interested. My private editing calendar is filling fast, which is also gratifying.
Q: What will Red Sage do without you?
A: Dunno, but I hope the company continues to thrive, and I have no reason to believe it won't. I want nothing but success for all those authors. That hasn't changed. And it never will -- there's no bigger fan of my authors than me.
Q: But I submitted something to you there.
A: My desk was 100% submission-free as of last Monday. If you didn't receive a rejection letter, then that means your manuscript was reassigned to another editor. I did everything in my power to see to it that the disruption would be minimal. I hope the steps I took will end up being effective, but it's really out of my hands now.
Q: What about the editing blog?
A: Alicia and I will keep the edittorrent blog going in much the same shape it's always had. That was never part of Red Sage, and it's not affected by my departure. Except, of course, now maybe our readers will understand why I've been intermittently quiet the last few months. I've been wildly busy, and for someone with my workaholic tendencies, that's saying something.
Q: Bet you're not busy now, though.
A: Are you kidding me? Dude, I'm starting a business. In the last week alone, I've had to sort out financing and accounts, start on some legal paperwork, hire a whiz kid graphic designer at an ad agency for logos and other graphics, learn complicated new software, start a website build, plan the workshop schedule, and a thousand other things besides those. Marketing, sales, distribution, all the process work has to be done now. And I've edited two books for private clients. And doused who-knows-how-many rumors.
That said, I have to confess, I have taken a few hours off here and there over the course of the past week. I spent Sunday afternoon knitting in the park for Worldwide Knit in Public Day. I met some friends for lunch one day last week (and what a treat to escape my desk for a meal). This does feel like a more sane pace, and I'm grateful for it. Once all the startup stuff is done, I'll be bewildered by all the time on my hands, but for now, it feels as though I'm exactly as busy as I should be.
And that's a good feeling. Celebrate it with me, won't you?
Friday, June 11, 2010
Writer's Block analysis
For example, I've heard of people who have to write something before they're free to write something else.
I talked to one writer who complained of writer's block, and it turned out she'd just exited from a difficult divorce and couldn't think about much else. I suggested she write an essay (not for publication) about her divorce experience, just to get it down and out of the way. End of writer's block! Once she'd written about what preoccupied her, she had "mental room" to think about her fiction.
I think there was great freedom in the idea that she's writing this for herself, and not for publication-- she didn't have to make it interesting to others!
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
So I'm curious about how you all choose titles for your stories, and what titles have intrigued you in the past and why.
Tuesday, June 8, 2010
She didn't meant this as a tautology. She meant that the narration (point of view) should reflect the viewpoint (the character's understanding and perception).
That is, POV is not just about voice and word choice and proximity (Sam is there to participate in the action of the scene, so Sam's the POV character). POV is about viewpoint, about how this particular person views the world and responds to it and other people. That is, POV means that Sam's narration of this scene (even if not in DEEP POV) is going to be different than anyone else's.
I'd like to take this a step further. You can tell FROM THE NARRATION more about the POV character's character.
There are many aspects of character that affect how this person will narrate POV passages. And if you get to know your character through and through, you probably just FEEL that he would not trust fate and that he likes to find problems to solve. But let me deal with one pretty universal aspect that I think profoundly affects the way a person will experience the world, and especially how he experiences new places and new situations.
That's social class, or more narrowly, outsider status. Now I know this is not something we deal with a lot in the United States, but I think that even now, when just about anyone can go to college and move from the laboring class to the professional class in a few years, class affects just about all of us. And it most specifically affects how we view the world: viewpoint. We aren't anywhere near as class-ridden as the Brits, I know. (I once had breakfast with a lovely couple from Bristol, and I asked how they determined someone's class, and she said matter-of-factly, "Well, I'm lower-middle, not working class, because my father worked in an office, but my husband is from a much posher family. His stepfather is a bishop's son!" I mean, that is gradation the likes of which we don't have... his stepfather is a bishop's son. I guess there's a specific rank for that. :) But it still matters, as anyone who has married out of class can attest. (I once had a workshop attendee say that this was a major source or marital conflict: "I think if you're in a family, you lend money when a relative has lost his job, and don't expect to get paid back. But my husband is straight from the middle class, and he thinks that we should all be self-reliant no matter what.")
Anyway, recently I came across how class might affect POV in a couple non-fiction books about the recent economic crisis. (I'm still trying to understand what happened, and it's really hard, because I can't even balance my checkbook... which I guess makes me one with Merrill-Lynch, huh?) One was a first-person account of a financial "quant" who figured out early that Bernie Madoff was running a Ponzi scheme. The other was a third-person (reportorial) account of the analysts who shorted the subprime mortgage mess, thereby setting themselves in opposition to the "establishment".
Actually, there's a third. Another book is a theoretically objective narration but it's almost entirely told from the perspective of the bankers (which tends to make it difficult to understand, as they seem to have no insight into the problems, which is telling, isn't it?). So to oversimplify:
Book 1: POV of outsider (quants) = skeptical, suspicious, defiant
Book 2: POV of opponents (short-sellers) = triumphant, opportunistic
Book 3: POV of insiders (bankers) = patronizing, cliquish
Now the "status" of the narrators dictates a lot, like the subject they choose and the approach. For example, the "quant" who broke the Madoff scheme presents this as a detective story with himself as the hero, and he plays up his heroism, his military service, the presumed threat to his life and the gun ownership that resulted. Very macho attitude.
But underlying this is the defensiveness that comes from his immigrant family's sense of being an outsider in their own land. I think also that he had that working-class suspicion of management coupled with the small business-owner's suspicion of labor. That is, he suspected just about everyone. He had no illusions about the loyalty or trustworthiness of anyone around him.
This informed his narration-- there was a lot of defensiveness, and one rather sad passage where he mentions proudly that he got to hobnob with the aristos (including, apparently, though he's cagey about this, Prince Charles)-- "But they would have lunch with me, but they never invited me to dinner." The class resentment was clear on every page. But understand, that wasn't just reflected in his attitude and what he chose to select and highlight, but also in the very story and his placement as the detective. Only an outsider could have suspected the man who was above suspicion. So his "viewpoint" of skepticism is as important as his "point of view" as the detective. He took an outsider's viewpoint, one informed not just with skepticism but with downright suspicion.
The short-sellers are also outsiders, but the two of them are really more pranksters. They are suburban guys, comfortable but bored with their middle-class situation. So they don't have any need to prove themselves (Gramps already did that part) or be a moral force. They're just having fun tweaking the system. This is all a game, one which results in amassing a huge fortune for them, but what really counts is they got to exploit the arcane rules and rituals to do it. There's a lot of rather adolescent chortling about how "two guys with an office in Mom's garage" beat the system. In fact, they resemble no one so much as the merry tricksters named Steve (Wozniak and Jobs) who started Apple in a garage. You get the idea that if they hadn't made a few hundred million shorting subprime CDOS, they'd be starting a video-game cheat website, or selling hacked DVDs on eBay-- anything to avoid getting a real job. :)
The insiders' (bankers') point of view is focused on a sort of "who's who, who's up/who's down" narration of events, about upper-class connections (these two went to Yale together, this banker bought that banker's flat, both of these two own Mercedes) and what will seem to most of us pretty trivial, like their titles and their hobbies. But that's viewpoint too, isn't it? I spent the whole book annoyed because I kept thinking, "They have no clue about context! They are clueless about the cause and effect of their actions!" But the bankers aren't really interested in explaining what went wrong (indeed, there's no indication they have any idea), or what it all means. They are, however, really interested in establishing who is superior to whom, and proving that they didn't do anything that everyone else didn't do. That is, while the quant and the shorts are always stressing their non-conformity, the bankers always stress their conformity. It's okay to make a mistake as long as everyone else makes it too.
So when I think of "markers of viewpoint"-- some signal event that shows this person's viewpoint-- here's what I remember:
The quant wants to prove that he's right and the only one in the world who's right, but he wants the world to eventually acknowledge this. So instead of taking the information he's acquired (as the shorts do) and using it to make money, he keeps sending reports to the Feds and the regulators and the media (and getting ignored, but still trying). He wants to be acknowledged as smarter than anyone else. So one event that shows this is his meticulous preparation of a report and presentation of this to the SEC, and his fury and despair when it's ignored.
The shorts, however, have no defensiveness, and they don't have a lot of fear either. So a signal event that shows their viewpoint is when they crash a convention of bankers even though (of course) they haven't paid for admission. They go undercover, eavesdropping to learn more about the business they hope to short. Their approach is lighthearted, almost playful. They don't have a big moral quandary about deceiving people, or a sense (as the quant has) that there's an ethical responsibility to bring the crooks to justice. And they don't care about being recognized as the smartest guys in the room. It's enough to win the game-- they don't need the laurel crowns and gold medals of victory.
This is not a moral situation for the bankers either-- unless the moral of the story is "them that has sure expects to get". These bankers have no shame, shall we say. Maybe you or I would, if we'd screwed up enough to bring the world's economy to its knees, if our mistakes showed that we are really bad at our jobs, if the problems we caused show our ideology to be flawed, well, we might shrink away and decide to work in a homeless shelter as expiation of our guilt. But that's because we can feel guilt. :) These bankers just feel... entitled, to all they have and more. So a signal event that shows that viewpoint is when one bank CEO pretty much runs a century-old bank into the ground, and is forced to merge his company with a more solvent bank. So the CEO of the acquiring bank can't bring himself to fire the guy, appointing him co-president of the new company with another executive. The banker isn't grateful to have a job and avoid jailtime-- he's offended at the idea that he should share "his" title. That sort of unremitting arrogance is infuriating, of course, but it's what makes him successful-- well, rich, anyway. He feels entitled.
So... the viewpoints here lead to very different narrations though the events are similar. The quant's narration has a defensive, meticulous assemblage of evidence, as if he's anticipating resistance and argument. The shorts' narration is quirky, focusing on the humorous aspects of this set of events. The bankers' narration is plodding, without the context that would result from self-reflection, but with lots and lots of name-dropping as if to prove that who you know is more important than what you know.
Whenever you're wondering what point of view means for your story, imagine that this set of events was being narrated by different parties involved-- the antagonist, the outsider, the insider, the trickster. What events would each select? What tone would each take? How much and what sort of detail would each provide? And especially how would each's viewpoint-- the point from which he/she views the events-- affect the point of view?
Have you ever read "same event/different POV" stories? I'm thinking of that clever children's story, the Three Little Pigs told from the wolf's POV.
Ira Glass about how story is about "being wrong"
What Goes Wrong
Saturday, June 5, 2010
Paragraph starts in the synopsis
"But isn't that what a synopsis is?" a writer might ask. "A chronicle of what happens?"
No. A synopsis is a brief presentation of the story. The story is more than the plot. The story includes character, theme, emotion, conflict, change. So maybe we should think more about that as we start a synopsis, and less about what events we're going to summarize.
But just to get really practical here-- one thing I'd suggest that doesn't require a full re-invention of the synopsis is... make use of the first sentence of the paragraph. Often the paragraph starts with an event or character action.
Jack gets a ticket and goes to her concert.
The murderer strikes again, kidnapping a mob accountant and leaving his torn body by the roadside diner.
Trouble is, that can lead to a jagged read, and a seeming reliance on event rather than conflict or emotion.
So think about using the first sentence as a transition from the previous paragraph's action. The transition can be time ("Three days later" or "After that") or cause/effect (reaction rather than action-- When Jack reads that Sally is singing at the local stadium, he knows he has to go) or emotion (Jack has never gotten over Sally's betrayal) or conflict (He still had enough blackmail material to capture Sally's attention). Then have the event or action, and its effects and how it changes the story or emotional arc or character.
That first sentence in the paragraph eases into the new event as a transition from the old, making for a smoother flow. But also an emotion or conflict line there can keep the synopsis focused on the experience of the story and not just the events.
So next time you write or revise a synopsis, try putting something in front of the "event" at the start of a paragraph, transition, emotion, or conflict (or all three). Just try it, and report back!
Tales from the Slush Pile
So here are the trends I'm spotting:
- Elves. We used to see an elf here or there, and we've even published one or two stories with elfin folk, but the preponderance of elves in the slush pile is a bit shocking. Every time I see an elf, I get a vision of Santa's workshop. Not sure that's the vision people want me to have when reading these subs.
- Don't ask an editor to "represent" your book a/k/a know the difference between an agent and an editor.
- Don't sum up your plot resolution with a generic cliche. For example, "The hero saves the day" doesn't tell me anything about how the conflicts are resolved. This is less snarky than inviting me to request the full to find out how it ends, but it's still not the mark of a professional.
- Always, always, always put contact information in everything. Here's a sad story. For some reason, an email submission is coming through garbled. I can't read the routing information or the message itself, and when I press "reply," I get a blank message instead of an auto-filled address. There's no contact information on the partial, and now we can't contact the author.
- If it says "we don't publish this" in the guidelines, and you send it anyway, we will reject it. Even if you apologize very prettily and make a passionate defense of why the story contains the element we don't publish. Sorry. Publisher's rules.
- We're in that cycle in the submissions cycle where almost everything we get comes through personal contacts at conferences. Not as much is arriving through the generic inbox. Same thing happens every year. I think I've already read 30 or 40 subs from RT alone, and they're still arriving. These tend to be higher quality across the board.
That's not too earth-shaking, I know, and you've heard a lot of this before if you've been reading this blog for any amount of time. But there are reasons we have to keep saying these things. Check the guidelines. Actually, don't just check them: follow them.
Friday, June 4, 2010
Over the Top
"Wow, awesome!" not "Huh. That could never happen."
What do you all think? What will work to make an Over the Top event feel right if surprising?
You know, I think placement of the event matters. In the opening few chapters, the reader won't be so disconcerted with OTT events. She doesn't really know this universe (of the book, I mean) so she can't really judge if, you know, the sudden appearance of a spaceship in the school courtyard is impossible. And she doesn't know the characters well, so who knows? Maybe Auntie Beth really is the queen of England. But later in the book, when she knows more about this universe and characters, she might not be so forgiving of incongruous events. She has more ability maybe to judge whether this fits the story and characters.
Okay, let me give some examples of OTT events I've seen in submissions and books and TV shows:
Heroine and hero finally get back together (that's not the OTT :) after a long separation. They're about to go to the courthouse for a marriage license when she's suddenly kidnapped by Colombian drug lords.
This was OTT for me because never before in the story was there any reference to Colombian drug lords, or any reason why they'd kidnap her. They just came out of nowhere.
So what would make it exciting and shocking, but not OTT? Well, I think if she had some connection to Colombian druglords, like she was a Miami reporter who had written articles about the drug trade. Or she was from Colombia. I don't think I'd need a full explanation-- there's no shock if the possibility of this event is previewed explicitly-- just an actual connection set up BEFORE.
Halfway through the story, the teenaged hero gets a visitation from a lawyer, and it turns out he's the heir to a huge fortune from his birth family.
I guess if there was some talk earlier in the book about him being adopted, it wouldn't seem out of the blue. Also, if this event happened earlier in the book, it might seem like a conflict and not so much a resolution of conflict. That is, something early in the book, we automatically assume is a conflict, just because, well, the first chapters usually set up the conflict. So we as readers are trained to think that even a good thing that happens in Chapter 2 is probably going to cause unanticipated problems.
1) Set things up. If you want to have this be a surprise, you still should set it up, maybe just a piece of it (he's adopted) slid in early on. That will keep the surprise (heir to huge fortune) surprising, while also making it believable.
2) Early over-the-topness is more acceptable than late. Late OTTness might seem too much like a deus ex machina, a magical way to hype up the conflict or resolve the plot.
3) Coincidence or OTT that causes rather than resolves conflict will be more fun.
Motif in Query Letters
There are a number of ways to answer that, depending on how narrowly or broadly you wish to make the definition. In the broadest sense, a motif is any recurring element. If your lovers always part at dawn (But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?), you might be using a motif. If you use a commonly recognizable character, such as the hardboiled detective, you might be drawing on a motif built up across multiple literary works.
But for our purposes, we're going to use a narrower definition of motif. Let's agree that just for now, a motif will be any recurring concrete object, circumstance, or convention that takes on symbolic or thematic meanings within the text.
Example of a recurring concrete object:
-- Carriages in Pride and Prejudice are always tied to transformative changes in relations between the main characters. If you see a carriage, you know a relationship is getting ready to flip itself inside out. Jane travels to London to see Bingley, and he changes from doting cavalier to the man who abandoned her. Lizzy travels by carriage to visit Charlotte, and Darcy changes from icy and withdrawn to his own special brand of tormented pursuit. And so on.
Example of a recurring circumstance:
-- Harry Potter flies an awful lot -- broomsticks, hippogriffs, those skeletal dragon things, the flying car, etc., etc., and those flights are usually connected to moments at which he is making a decision to fight, to escape, or otherwise to gain independence and strength.
Example of a recurring convention:
-- In Bridget Jones' Diary (the novel, not the movie), Bridget started every diary entry with her weight, number of drinks consumed, and number of cigarettes smoked, Something like:
February 2. Weight 132. Alcohol units 9. Smokes 4,327.
These entries are directly tied to Bridget's romantic happiness. Unhappy? Numbers go up. Happy? They go down.
Where a symbol can be established in a single occurrence, a motif is built in layers. They crop up again and again at key moments. It's the very repetitive nature of motifs that can make them a useful organizational tool for a query or synopsis.
Mind you, we're not talking about anything other than how to organize your condensed plot summaries. Writers have a hard time writing clear, focused summaries because, let's face it, it's not an easy task. If you can use the motif to create a roadmap, you might make your plot summary more lucid, more condensed, and even more entertaining.
Let's say, for example, that your serial killer villain always places a personal ad describing his victim before he strikes. How many victims are there? How many ads? Write down the ads for those victims, and then write a bullet list of the key events that occur between the ads. You now have a skeletal plot outline, and have only to flesh it out, and might end up with something like:
Detective Sandra Cornelius is called to a grisly murder scene in which a young woman was skinned alive. A personal ad is taped to the wall above the body.
SWF, 23, brunette, rides bike to work, that skin will be my trophy.
The newspaper office provides the original order for the ad, and Sandra begins following the trail of clues. The false address leads her to an abandoned farm miles from town, inhabited only by mice and spiders. But in the mailbox, she finds another ad:
SWF, 27, long blonde hair, loves to dance, those legs will be mine forever.
Sandra returns to the newspaper office, but they have no record of this ad. She begins calling dance studios and making the rounds to see if anyone has noticed suspicious behavior. Again and again, she's frustrated by a lack of evidence, but then the call comes. Another body has been found, and this time the corpse's legs have been removed.
She identifies the source of the second ad as a consumer weekly, and begins scouring all the area papers for more ads in between following other clues. No more ads appear for a week, but then in the Sunday paper, she sees an ad that chills her blood.
SWF, 32, cap of golden curls, wears a star and frequents newspaper offices and dance clubs, you will have no eyes to see me, no mouth to speak my name, and no ears to hear your own screams.
She hears footsteps on the second floor. Her weapons are up there, safely stowed in a drawer. Can she get to them before the killer gets to her? Or should she use a weapon from the first floor -- a fireplace poker, a kitchen knife? As she's deciding, a hood drops over her head from behind, and strong hands twist the fabric until she cannot breathe. The fight is on. But she knows her home better than the killer does, and she is able to back him toward a basement door with a weak latch. She counts the steps until they are right at the threshold, and then she launches them both backward just as she's about to lose consciousness. The fall breaks his grip, and she uses a hammer to knock him out and a clothesline to tie him up.
Now, this is far from a good plot summary. It's too long for a query, and not developed enough for a synopsis -- and it's a shaky plot with no motive, etc. -- but for our purposes, it will serve as a decent illustration. You see how the personal ads are used to act as transitions between the pieces of plot? And you see how they illustrate something meaningful about the story? Using the motif elements as touchstones like this can create a sense of unity and coherence in the plot summary.
It doesn't have to be something that would be offset and italicized like the personal ads. Above we mentioned that carriages are a recurring motif in Pride and Prejudice, and are associated with major change. For those of you familiar with the story, try this exercise:
- List the carriage trips that occur in the book
- Between the carriage trips, list the major events that occur in each location.
- String the ideas together in paragraph form. Whenever you get to a carriage trip, start a new paragraph. (You might have other new paragraphs besides these, but to highlight the motif and let it do its organizing job in the plot summary, make sure it always appears at the start of new paragraphs.)
This isn't a cookie cutter method and it won't work for all stories, not even for all stories with strong motifs. But perhaps it will work on one of yours. Give it a try and see how it goes.