Saturday, December 1, 2012

Happy endings are all alike

This I can really understand-- The Tyranny of the Happy Ending-- why Dickens outsells Hardy. What do you think? Have we been so addicted to happy endings, we don't want to read books that end unhappily?

Click on that link to see a great graphic-- Olivier as Hamlet. Very clever.


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Point of View interview

How-to Author Series – by Margie Lawson

How to Author Series Features Alicia Rasley
Hello Alicia!  I’m glad you could join us today.

1.  ML:   Here’s a powerful quote from page 13 that speaks to what POV can do for your story. Could you elaborate?
POV can create tension between what the character says and what she means; between her vision and reality; between what is said and what is interpreted.
AR:  To effectively use POV, authors have to believe in the inner life, that we are not transparent beings, that our inside can be different from (and affect) our outside.  If you believe that, then you can have the POV character (for example) say something and then mentally translate it:
"Of course I'd love to babysit little Sadie!" she said, smiling so hard her teeth ached.  She had to get this account, and if it took installing little Sadie in front of a Little Mermaid marathon, she'd do it.
Or she can see something and believe it to be something the reader knows isn't real, like:
It was a lovely lunch, Shirley thought, leaving her customary 10% tip on the table. She rose, then hesitated.  The waitress was so efficient, taking back that cold gazpacho soup and returning with it steaming the way it ought to be.  Just this once, Shirley decided to leave a huge tip. She added a quarter to the pile of dimes by her coffee cup, just hoping that her generosity didn't make the waitress too conceited.
(I used to be a waitress, and 1) gazpacho is supposed to be cold, and 2) a quarter added to 10% isn't going to corrupt the waitress. )
Going into a character's point of view offers readers a terrific experience of being someone else for a little while--- but they never stop being themselves, with their own values and knowledge.  Writers can have fun with that separation between the character and the reader, and that sometimes results in unexpected character development.
2.  ML:  What are some examples of unintentional POV shifts that make you cringe?
AR:  Here's one that is kind of subtle:
Women! Wives, cops, didn't matter. All they did was complain. The lieutenant nodded at the patrolwoman and said, "Thank you for bringing that to my attention, Officer Reilly. You may go."
Judy charged out of his office, slammed the door closed, and stormed down the hall.
This is supposed to be in the lieutenant's POV, but there's a switch, probably inadvertent.  But the reader starts out in the lieutenant's head—we get his thoughts (Women!), so we know we're in his head. Notice that he calls her "the patrolwoman," and "Officer Reilly." We can assume that this is a rather formal relationship.  But then in the next line, we have "Judy" (her name for herself, not his) leaving the office and slamming the door.  Then she goes on down the hall. The lieutenant couldn't see that (she closed the door).
If you were sitting in the lieutenant behind the desk, what would your perspective be?
The officer muttered something under her breath, and turned on her heel. She stormed out, and the door slammed behind her.  He sighed and went back to his paperwork.
That's clearly still in his point of view, right? He sees her leave. He sees the door slam "behind her". He sighs.  That's what you have to do to stay in the character POV—stay in the character!
The kind of inadvertent shifts are the ones that make me cringe, because I can tell the writer didn't mean for that to happen.
3.  ML:  In your chapter on levels of POV, you address how adding some narrative distance can make characters and their emotions more appealing. Could you share an example?
AR:  I wrote a scene where the heroine was humiliated and ostracized because of something she'd done. When I read it over, I realized that her POV made her sound self-pitying—not because she was, just because the reader might interpret it that way because it's just too intimate, too raw, to be in the head of someone suffering like that. So I rewrote the scene from the hero's POV, as he saw this happening.  From his perspective, she was brave and forbearing. We got her pain—he could see she was hurting. But we also got his—he was suffering vicariously for her. 
So that taught me that the reader doesn't need to be inside the character to identify. The cues of body language, vocal expression, and speech patterns can give the reader a sense of the emotion—and bypass that "automatic shutdown" that is our common defense mechanism against too much emotion.
4.  ML: Given that your entire book is about POV and you’re limited to a short answer here, what gems would you like to share about the advantages and disadvantages of the different levels of POV?
AR:  I would just say that different spots in the scene might benefit from dfferent levels of penetration.  It's all about getting that part of the passage in the right level. For example, readers shake their heads when they read a passage where the character is in intense danger, running from the bad guy, and as she pelters down the ramp in the parking garage, hearing him behind her, she's thinking about her father and how aloof he always was and how she never knew if he really loved her—that is, action scenes are usually best done in the action level!  We can't really believe she's in great danger and running hard if she has time and mental space to relive her childhood miseries.
Always consider the reader. The whole point of point of view is to give the reader a particular experience of the story… and that rests on your ability to create a believable experience in the character's viewpoint.
5.  ML:  You recommend the Kay Scarpetta series by Patricia Cornwell. What can writers learn about POV from reading her forensic procedurals?
AR:  The clinical, almost objective description makes truly horrific material (autopsies) bearable, even interesting.  Whenever you're dealing with stuff that might make the reader shut down or close her eyes, whether it's because it's so emotional or so gross, consider that distance imparts tolerance. We can read almost anything if it's presented right.  
6.  ML:  Last question!  How do you recommend writers handle secrets when they are in the POV character’s head?
AR: It all depends on whether you want the reader to know, and how certainly you want her to know. That is, if Mike has a secret and you want the reader to know what the secret is, go ahead and have him think it in some plausible way at an appropriate time. But if all you want is for the reader to suspect that Mike has a secret, but not what it is, think about ways you can hint.  For example, Mike can start to think about The Secret, but then cut himself off and force himself to think about something else. Then the reader will know there's something he's refusing to think about.  Again, it's all about giving the reader the right experience.
I think writers should always be readers first and foremost. We should read a lot and notice things like, oh, "He's got a secret! I just know it! I wonder what it is!" And we should stop them and analyze what the author did to create that impression. We have 3000 years of story in the Western tradition, and all the lessons we need are there. :)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Double doubt in a triple negative

Here's another double negative sentence that could be "yes" or "no"-- why leave the reader in doubt?

So who among you doubts that football isn’t the absolute xenith of sports evolution?

The answer is supposed to be "yes!" You know, yes, we agree football rules. That's what the rest of the article develops. But--

Who among you? indicates that few among you-- so no?

Doubts-- indicates no.

Isn't -- again, no.
And putting it as a question is that false collegiality that makes my teeth hurt. 

I'm no mathematician, but I think three negative numbers multiply to a negative number:
-2 X -2 X -2 = -8, right?

Anyway, let us restate that in some way that is clear if not as clever:

Surely you realize that football is the absolute xenith of sports evolution.


You can't doubt this: football is the absolute xenith of sports evolution.

Or?  How would you revise that so that the meaning is clear and accurate?


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Not to be too smug

But daaaayyyyem, that was a embarrassing thrashing of #9 UNC by the gutsy little Butler Bulldogs. My dh said, "They look like choirboys, but they play like thugs." I'm beginning to think "The Butler Way" means "manhandling, elbowing and kneeing, and running up the score."
I love it. I feel safe only when my team is up by 20 at halftime.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Modern Grammarian

Pretty cold, when I can look at a headline like:

Woman hit by stray bullet doing the dishes


And think, "That's a great dangling participle!"



Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Trouble with Gerunds, and the Use Therein

I was asked by another instructor, "What is your problem with gerunds?"

My problem with gerunds... Well, I'm the first to say that constructions and parts of speech wouldn't exist in the language without a purpose, and writers should never willingly abandon any potential tool in creating meaning. I just did a blog -- absurdly controversial, for sure-- asserting my defense of the use of adverbs in quote tags ("she said defensively"). You'd be amazed at the number of writers who happily assert their fealty to Hemingwayesque terseness and their vow never to let a modifier cross their keyboard. 

However, there's a time and a place, and any word form should be used aptly, to create or deepen meaning. So it would be not only unwise but also perhaps reckless to use an adverb that merely repeated the verb-- she shouted loudly. (She whispered loudly, however, is interesting.)  Words and speech parts have conventional functions, and when they're used "wrongly," the wrongness itself should be for some desired effect, as there has to be a convention to rebel against, thus the rebellion is dependent on both reader and writer understanding (perhaps only intuitively) the convention.

So the convention of having a period only at the end of the sentence sets up for the unexpected pleasure of a staccato phrase like "Worst. Night. Ever." If we always punctuated for "sound" rather than for sense (the period separates one idea from another), then period would happen all over the place, and there'd be no convention to rebel against. (That's what I try to tell those writers who are sure that one-sentence paragraphs are so exciting, you know-- "Not if you do it all the time!")

Anyway. Gerunds. Gerunds, like participles, are verbals, that is, they start with the verb form and change shape to create a new form and function. Now I am coming at this from the writing standpoint, not a linguistic one-- I'm hopeless there-- and as a writer, I do have more use for certain types of words and little use for others. So I get judgmental! And one thing I notice is that almost always, when a writer starts with a gerund or a participle, things go wrong. Just my observation, but once my co-blogger (we're both really harsh on introductory participial phrases, esp in fiction) challenged our readers to pull out a book they like, and pick out a page at random, and count the introductory participial phrases. They reported back, very surprised to find that the books they very much liked might have one of these IPPs, or none, on a page, but that most sentences were either variations of SVO, or a compound SVO, or maybe might have a prepositional phrase before the subject ("Last summer, we enjoyed Chardonnay at every stop in the Alps.") That is, I am not alone in "hearing" a bumptious grunt when a sentence starts that way. Of course, there is a reason for an IPP-- when the main action of the sentence occurs simultaneously with another action-- "Travelling in France, I developed an addiction for white wine and cassoulet." However, the purpose many of our commenters identified for the IPP had nothing to do with simultaneity of action, and everything to do with what had nothing to do with meaning and yet they considered important: Varying the opening of sentences. I tend to think if each sentence means something new, repetition of phrasing won't be a problem, and if it is, sentence combining is probably a more graceful way to vary rhythm. 

So... what has this to do with gerunds. Well, gerunds, like participles, are verbals. They started life as verbs. They are verblike things used as nouns. It is common in English and other languages for words to migrate from one part of speech to another, maybe changing some aspect, maybe not. ("Walk" the verb and "walk" the noun are distinguished only in context.) A gerund usually has the "ing" of a present participle (which can be an adjective or part of a verb-- "I am the attending physician, and I am attending the lecture") but takes on the role of a noun. Now that I think of it, gerunds used later in the sentence (same with participles) don't much bother me. ("I like swimming.") It's when a gerund is used as a subject that sentences often go astray. Why?

Hmm. Well, you know, with participles, Theresa says, "There are three things that can happen with participles, and two of them are bad." A participle can dangle, or be "squinting"-- isn't that a great term? And I'll add that when participles are made of stative verbs like "to be," they are generally unnecessary. ("Being an accountant, I'm good with numbers." Hmm. My being good with numbers is a result of my being an accountant? The two beings happen simultaneously? This connection might not be incorrect, but it's near to meaningless, and certainly doesn't give the vigorous impact I want of my sentences.) I'd also expand the "things that can go wrong with participles" to include another-- when the participle action is not simultaneous to the main action: Running down the stairs, I tied my shoes.

I like to think none of these would happen in our prose. However, I see these all the time, in theoretically edited work like articles in major magazines.

Where was I? Gerunds. Gerunds, like participles, have their birth in verbs. And so the whole point of a gerund, I suppose, is that it retains some of the qualities of a verb while taking on the role of a noun.  Well, like participles, gerunds should probably be connected to action (that is, not a stative verb, so "Knowing" as in the example is already problematic). Why? Well, stative verbs refer to -conditions- and so are not dynamic or "moving."  Stative verbs have an important function in that they express a condition or state. We aren't always inevitably in motion, and the stative verbs let us refer to objects/persons/nouns as having merely condition-- the conditions of being, having, and knowing being the most common. 

But most verbs are dynamic, and in fact we refer to verbs as "action words" because they fulfill a function really no other words can do, to show the motion and change of the nouns. "I ran across the room." How can we say that without the action word "ran" or a synonymous verb like "dashed?"

So anyway, when a gerund leaves verbhood to become a noun, what verbiness does it retain? Why use a verbal rather than a noun?  (Most gerunds have counterpart nouns, after all-- "knowing" has "knowledge." Interesting-- 'understanding" has "AN understanding"-- two different words, as one's a gerund -- no article-- and the other is a noun.) Well, if not the element of action (in a stative verb like "knowing"), the verb element is probably that this requires at least an implied subject (noun or pronoun). This isn't unprecedented. After all, a participle has an implied subject (whoever is doing the participle action), and when that conflicts with the adjacent sentence subject, the participle is said to dangle.

Is there such a thing as a "dangling gerund?" I don't know, but I think if we have a subject of "knowing," there's an implied actor in there-- "the one who has the knowing." That is, "knowledge," as a noun, can exist without someone or something making it happen. A rock is a rock. But "rocking?" there's a hand or a cradle or something in there with it. Knowledge, I'd say, can exist without a knower. That library over there exists even if no one enters it and reads. There are no doubt articles in obscure journals which are never read (I've written a couple of those :), yet that knowledge exists. Nouns exist. They are form. 

But "knowing?" Can that exist without a knower? Or does it maintain that verb quality, that if there's an action or a condition, there must be something experiencing it or causing it? 

So... long way around. I'm looking at that example clause (simplified to a SV -- subject/verb clause-- always a good technique with these complicated sentences, I think): "Knowing.... highlights and underscores." Whose knowing does that? Who has to know for the highlighting and underscoring to happen? If there is "knowing," doesn't there have to be a "knower"? 

The subject of the sentence should be important, I think. It's high-priced sentence real estate. What is doing what? With "knowing," I would be asking, "Who has to know for this to happen?"
Hmm. This all made sense a minute ago. Let's try another gerund with a perfectly good noun counterpart.

Experience (noun) is the best teacher.
Experiencing is the best teacher.

The second one begs for amplification: Who is doing this experiencing?

I know it's not really different from using the noun. But it is. By forcing in the verb aspect, we're inviting the reader to ask, "Who? What?" when we don't do that when we start with an equivalent noun.  
Often we put the implied subject later in the sentence, like.. Experiencing is the only way I learn. or  Knowing history helps journalists highlight and underscore patterns in political behavior.

As I said, I think this is more a problem-- more awkward-- early in the sentence, because the reader hasn't had enough cumulative knowledge of the sentence to make sense of this. Later, when the reader has absorbed the most of the meaning, he'll find it easier to parse the more anomalous elements. Context is all, and the beginning of the sentence establishes the context.

I certainly don't mean to ban any writing tool. I am, after all, the modifier's most stalwart defender. (Take that, EB White!!) And most of my antagonism to gerunds in the subject position is aesthetic (generally, they sound wrong). But I'd also ask, am I nuts here to think that there's an implied subject (or should be) with a gerund, and a subject shouldn't have an implied subject? 

I keep coming back to that notion that sentence order matters a whole lot-- that what's perfectly fine at the end of the sentence might not be as useful at the beginning. 

Does this make any sense? Are there examples in your writing or reading where gerunds as subjects have been more effective than a counterpart noun would have been? I know there are examples. ("Knowing" really is different from "knowledge".) I think that this might be more effective when there's a -process-, again, a more active word, like "Babysitting spoiled rich kids paid my way through college." (Notice that the implied subject is manifested in "my".)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Emotion in The Three Acts

I was just doing a workshop about emotion, and we were talking about how to convey emotion in characters who aren't openly emotional, about making an emotional journey for them in the plot. That is, story emotion isn't just the immediate outburst following an event within a scene, but it can be a book-length exploration and dynamic, changing as the plot changes.

So let's think of the Three Acts of the story, and this is just the simple Aristotelian plot structure:

Act 1: Set up
Act 2: Rising conflict
Act 3: Climax and resolution

When I think of "book-length," I think in terms of "three" like above. How does this journey break into three parts? (My article about the book theme developed through the three parts, as an example of "the three.") So here's an "emotion journey" in three acts:

Act 1: Repression. (Protagonist starts out repressing an emotion like grief.)
Act 2: Suppression. (The rising conflict of the plot forces the protagonist to start feeling that emotion, and pro must actively suppress what previously could just be repressed.)
Act 3: Expression. (Finally, the climactic events in the end-- the crisis, the dark moment, the climax-- lead tha protagonist into accepting the need for that emotion, and expressing it.)

1. Willa had a complex relationship with her father, and the day after they have a big argument, he suddenly dies. Willa represses her grief, "surfacely" or ostensibly because she is involved with something important in the plot (solving a murder, finding a cure for this killer virus, run for election whatever) and grieving will interfere with her goal. But subconsciously, she repressed grief because grieving would reveal and force her to feel the guilt that she might have caused her father's death, or was never a good daughter.
    How to show? Well, start at the funeral. She wears sunglasses ostensibly to hide her red-rimmed eyes, but in fact to hide that they are NOT red-rimmed (she hasn't cried). What else?

2. In pursuit of the goal, she gets right back to work, but every now and again, the "need for grief" arises in some "reminder" about her father, like a friend calls to ask how she's doing, or a sibling calls for a consult on the gravestone, or.... Just repressing isn't enough now. She has to actively suppress the emotion, focusing on work, refusing to answer the phone when sib calls. 
      But there are repercussions to suppression-- she gets blocked in her work. She drinks too much. Her sister is furious with her. The voters think she's cold and the polls show she's going to lose the election.

3. Something forces her into confrontation with the suppressed emotion. (A misdirected letter from Dad arrives a couple weeks late?)  (And of course all the important stuff about her goal-getting external plot is coming to a head here.) She lets herself express the grief, or rather, lets down the suppression barriers, and grieves. Something in this grief, or the catalytic event-- the letter from Dad, whatever-- gives her the key or the will or the motivation to solve that external problem.  Now that she is expressing rather than repressing or suppressing emotion, she can solve that murder or cure that virus or find an emotional connection to voters.

Okay, that's pretty simplistic, but you can see how "emotion" can be turned into a journey over the course of the story, so that the character's experience of emotion develops along with and braided into the plot. What do you think? The journey of course might be a different set of three parts than this (it might be Involuntary Expression, Resistance, Understanding, for example), but RSE is an example of one way to create an emotion journey in the story.

Have you tried showing emotional change in the story acts, and having the change affect the plot? Examples?


Saturday, October 13, 2012

Something in the air

First, I read this HuffPo essay about historical fiction and accuracy online. Then I ran across a debate on Facebook about an historical novel which substituted a fictional character for a somewhat prominent public figure of the time. Now I just received an email from an author questioning just how historically accurate we must be in our fiction. Something in the air right now, people are thinking about this issue.

My take on this issue is somewhat fluid. I answer any questions about historical accuracy on a question-by-question basis. Some details are so important that they must be portrayed in accordance with the historical record, or people will become understandably upset, as they did when a blue-eyed actress was chosen to play Anne Boleyn. Anyone familiar with her story knows that she was famous for her flashing dark eyes, and for these people, choosing a light-eyed actress is something like choosing a brunette to play Farrah Fawcett. It just rings false.

But, by the same measure, as the HuffPo essayist notes, sometimes it's possible to err on the side of historical accuracy. Some things from the past are simply disgusting to modern tastes. We don't want to read about oozing flea bites and halitosis and whatever passed for medicine in the old days. We don't like to think about how they ate old meat dredged in cinnamon and black pepper to disguise the rancid taste. People died from splinters, and the streets were paved with feces. But do we want to fill our books with this stuff? Heck, no, because it's just not entertaining.

Exhibit A: The Libertine, a movie that could have been entertaining, but fell short. Between the "natural" lighting and the insistence on portraying every bit of squalor in London, the film's visuals were so distracting that people found it alienating. That wasn't the only problem with the film, but the selection of which historical details to include, which to leave out, and how to display them was a big set of bad decisions. 

So this is how I evaluate historical information. It has to ring true, it has to appeal to modern readers, and it has to avoid distracting us from more important things. How do you evaluate historical information in novels?


Friday, October 12, 2012

An ongoing discussion

Okay, so, here's the background on this post. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you might have noticed that I'm detail-oriented. (I prefer "detail-oriented" to "OCD about everything inside the four corners," thank you very much.) Some time ago, in response to a post of mine about how to manipulate details within settings, another editor challenged me (privately, and no, I won't tell you which editor) by claiming that none of that kind of detail matters. Only the plot matters. If the plot works, the book works.

This has led to an ongoing, behind the scenes debate about whether a book with a good plot and bad mechanics can still be deemed good. Obviously, I disagree with her position. I believe that plot is just one of many story and narrative elements that must work in order for the book as a whole will work.

And I think I have found the book that will allow me to declare permanent victory in this debate. I'm not going to humiliate the author here, because I'm not into that sort of thing. But here's the short rundown on the good aspects of this book --

-- I cannot fault the plot. If I were editing this book, I would have only one plot note to make, and that has to do with a secret that should be revealed a bit earlier. You know the old saying -- if a conflict can be resolved with an honest conversation, it's not a real conflict. This book has one of those, but it is not the only conflict, so resolving it early would free up the plot to focus on the real conflicts. This is a fairly minor plot note, and fairly routine. The fact that it is the only plot note speaks pretty well of the plot.

-- In fact, the other aspects of the plot are sort of fascinating. The amazon comments that give the book 4 and 5 stars all focus on these aspects of the book, these plot aspects and the mystery angle. It works, and it works well. The book has sold semi-decent numbers, and I suspect it's on the strength of this aspect of the story alone.

Those are the pros. Here are the cons.

-- The pov fluctuates wildly. It took me about 30 pages before I knew who the heroine was, mainly because of the way the pov bounced around secondary characters at the beginning of the book. The character I assumed was the heroine died in the second chapter. Some of the 1 and 2 star reviews on amazon complain about their inability to connect to the characters, and I blame the pov for this. It's hard to cheer for a protagonist you can't even identify, and it's hard to relate to characters who keep bouncing in and out of the text and dying off.

-- Each page contains at least one, and usually several, strikingly difficult and awkward sentences. Nobody line edited this thing, I promise you. It's a mess. Again, the weak amazon reviews sometimes refer to this by talking about how they had to re-read passages to understand them. "Confusing" is a word that comes up over and over again in the bad reviews.

-- There are far, far too many characters, and at least half of them don't matter at all. One amazon reviewer spent a very long paragraph trying to explain the relationships between all these secondary characters, complete with lots of ??? and !!!. It's too much, and it's confusing. (This is aggravated by the fact that so many of these secondaries have pov sequences.)

-- The description was almost comically bad. Several poor reviews note the clumsy handling of setting descriptions and the strange fascination with describing body parts that aren't usually described at all, let alone in such detail and with such frequency.

-- Typos and mechanical errors abound, and the reviewers mock many of them. With good reason. Some of the homonym errors, in particular, are laughably bad. I can guarantee that this book was not edited properly.

-- The pacing was disastrous. I lost count of the number of reviews that said they'd skipped over major chunks of text or had read only dialogue or only the first line of each paragraph. Even some of these complainants mentioned that they enjoyed the plot, but found it took too long to unfold.

-- The major characters were a bit wobbly. Most readers approved of the heroine (once we all knew who she was), and most of them found the villain to be cartoonish and clumsy. I didn't see any criticism of the hero, not even in the good reviews, but I also didn't see any praise for him. He read like a placeholder to me, a character with a clear plot function but not much else. Both the hero and the villain needed revision.

Several of the reviews noted that they had received the book for free but would never download anything else by this author. Several of them noted that they had been unable to finish the book. I could go on, but will spare you. My point is mainly to show that I am not the only one reacting to the book this way. It doesn't take an educated reader to spot the flaws and still see that the plot is good. The bottom line? I win the debate. A good plot cannot save an otherwise bad book. So this is the part where I throw down the mic, yo.


Thursday, October 11, 2012

Multiple adjectives

Help! What's your suggestion here?

The research topic has to allow you to find academic, scholarly, and professional source.

Okay, what I mean is-- academic sources. Scholarly sources. Professional sources. 

I don't mean every source has to be all of those, but rather each source has to be one of those. 

How would you make it clear?


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Horrible thoughts

I'm just going to jot down some thoughts coming out of a discussion over lunch with my son about Stephen King and horror fiction and stuff. Other thoughts or speculations?

1) Horror is not just a genre. Like "romance" and "mystery" and "suspense," it's an emotion that can be generated within a book about something else. Why would we want to have a scene or passage or more of horror in a non-horror-genre book? To deepen the darkness of the book? To heighten the relief of a happy ending? I do think that horror would provide contrast (in the color sense) to the rest of the book, as long as it doesn't overwhelm with darkness.

2) Horror is not about the dreadful event... it's about the dread of the event. As with suspense, the buildup becomes all-important, to create that sense of dread within the character and the reader. Scene design, word choice, pacing-- these must combine. Pacing will slow down, sentences will lengthen, so the scene can lovingly, almost lubriciously, develop the creepy horror-ness. Presentation (the development) will be more important than plot (the event).

3) Horror is created by -knowing-. You have to know what's coming to be horrified by it. (Looking back on a horrible event works too, because you -know- it can happen now.) Notice how in "The Lottery" Shirley Jackson builds the dread by making it clear that everyone in the village knows what's going to happen (even if the reader doesn't). Go ahead, read the story (it's only eight pages), and see how the relatively bright tone in opening paragraph becomes progressively darker as the festive mood gives way to anxiety. The villagers all know what's coming.

4) Horror is inspired by the writer taking access to his/her deepest fears. But the event doesn't have to be all that dramatic. What's important is that either it's a common fear, or the writer describes the feeling well to make the reader "know" it.

Stephen King, I remember, was asked what in his life prepared him to write horror, and he spoke of two very common, nearly universal events. Once, when he was a child, he had an ear infection, and (presumably this was before antibiotics were used routinely) the doctor was going to lance the eardrum to release the pus. The boy (King) knew what was going to happen and that it was going to be terrible, and ran and hid in a closet. And his mother and the doctor had to come and drag him out and perform the procedure. Maybe few of us get our eardrums lanced, but we all got shots (I have to inject myself with medicine, and no matter how often I have done it, every single time there's a moment of horror involved in the breaking of the skin).
(I'm writing from memory here, so tell me if I have the details wrong.)

Then the other incident was watching one of his children run into danger (collision with a snow plow? I forget) while King was too far away to rescue the child, and had to watch in dread (there's that word again).  (Nothing happened, but every parent has memories like this.)

Just take it slow. Read King's horror scenes, or Dean Koontz's, and see how slooooow the scenes develop. You can't shorthand horror. Dread has to build, through gradually darkening events and prose. That takes time and probably several revisions. It's not adventure. It's slow-paced, not fast-paced. There really aren't any shortcuts to horrifying readers.

5) To get in touch with what will horrify, remember your nightmares, and study the most common nightmare types. If you can invent scenes that include some common nightmare element, you'll be making a direct connection to our subconscious, and to the collective unconscious.

For example, one of my recurrent nightmares is seeing a plane on fire in the night sky, and it sails over a ridge, and then I hear an explosion and see a fireburst on the ridge. I suspect most people have a nightmare where (as with King's example above) they know something terrible is about to happen and can't stop it. That would make a great horror scene (especially if at that moment, the character had a friend or loved one taking a flight). 

Another recurrent nightmare I have-- and you probably do too-- is being chased. But with mine, there's an added terror. I run through a shadowy street to get to my own front door. I fall into my house, slam the door closed, stand there panting but relieved. And then, slowly, I become aware that whatever was chasing me is in the house. And I'm locked in with this evil.

Now if that sounds familiar, it's probably because you've seen it in a few horror movies.

6) Horror elements, as a conduit to the subconscious, can trigger strong emotion even in other types of scenes. An example is the famous burlesque scene "Slowly I Turn," which uses the slow, mechanical, and repetitive language of a horror film to comic effect.
(Here's Lucille Ball: Slowly I Turn, Step by Step.)

That horror scene of the chase through a shadowy street? Watch the end of Gone with the Wind. It's a romantic "horror"-- the terror that is "chasing" her is her fear of abandonment, and she gets home, and there is Rhett, and she sighs in relief-- she's home. She's safe. But then the terror is right there with her, in  her own home: Rhett announces he's leaving.

If  you want strong emotion, whether it's comedy or romance, try using the horror tropes in some way.

7) Horror is, at essence, about a fear of loss. Just as Scarlett feared losing love, a horror story character might fear losing control, or losing face, or losing trust, or losing some power. You know what's a great horror story? Flowers for Algernon. In that story, researchers manage to increase the IQ of a white rat (Algernon), and then try the technique on a man of low IQ (Charlie). Rapidly, he becomes a genius, and for the first time feels the great pleasure of learning and inventing and understanding. (And he falls in love.) But then Algernon begins to fade and lose his genius at running mazes. Charlie, witnessing this, realizes that he too will shortly be losing all the intellectual gains he made. This is the horror. He knows what is coming. He dreads the loss. He can't stop it.

That is how we create horror. Establish something of value, and then predict its loss.

What else? What do you think? Help?


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

More sentence stuff

 Nothing deep here. I was just trying to create a handout out for conclusions in literature reviews (and you thought my life was dreary, huh?) and had this lumpen-prol sentence:

While the current research is comprehensive when describing the technical and technological processes involved here, 

Got that far and realized that was going to be a "Dolly Parton sentence"-- top-heavy. And what was coming next was going to be the end, the big conclusion (we need more discussion of XYZ before we proceed). And the big zinger should generally be in a sentence of its own, as it will "sound" more final then. So I went instead with two sentences:

The current research is comprehensive when describing the technical and technological processes involved in digital manipulation. However, before we proceed further into this venture, we should discuss the philosophical issue of how we can determine reality once seeing is no longer believing.

Actually, I think there needs (for rhythm and finality) to be a couple more syllables around "reality". Will fiddle. 

Anyway, this is an example of why, when a sentence becomes long and complex, we should always consider breaking it into two sentences. We might not want to, but there are often good "sound" reasons to make the big point its own sentence.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

More about long sentences

I promised to show you some lovely long sentences and give you some more tips on how to wrangle long sentences. So let's start by looking at this trio of beauties from Jhumpa Lahiri's "Unaccustomed Earth." She tends to write long, languid sentences, and her writing never loses its lucidity. So she's always the first writer I reach for when I'm looking for ways to manage long sentences without mangling the meaning. We'll highlight the clauses this time as we did before -- yellow for subjects, green for the verbs, and blue for direct objects.

 Each time, she kept the printout of his flight information behind a magnet on the door of the refrigerator, and on the days he was scheduled to fly she watched the news, to make sure there hadn't been a plane crash anywhere in the world.

It was a one-sided correspondence; his trips were brief enough so that there was no time for Ruma to write back, and besides, he was not in a position to receive mail on his end.

She'd slept in shabby pensions, practicing a frugality that was foreign to her at this stage of her life, buying nothing but variations of the same postcards her father sent now.

The first thing you should notice is that she always keeps her clauses together. You don't see anything that splits a subject noun apart from its verb, such as --

She each time kept the printout....
She in shabby pensions had slept...

Right away, we can see how dividing those clauses would weaken the sentences. Even with just a few words (six words in each example above), the meaning is a little harder to grasp. Imagine what would happen if those intervening pieces were extremely long --

The car which refused to start on a warm day let alone on a cold day like this snowy January Tuesday that found the elderly lady huddling deep into her old wool coat coughed sluggishly.

(My example. Lahiri would be incapable of such an abomination.) By the time we get to the word "coughed," we have no idea which noun is sick. We've lost track of the subject through all those dependent bits shoved in the middle there. The car is the subject noun, and coughed is the verb that forms the main clause with that subject noun. It's not a fragment. It's just a mess. There are, what, maybe 30 words between the subject noun and its verb? But even if the intervening word soup is brief -- "each time" is only two words in the scrambled bit of Lahiri's sentence above -- the basic sentence will be weaker because the sturdy foundation of subject-verb will have been broken.

So that's our first observation, which we had already started to discuss in the last color-coded post on this topic. Keep the subject nouns and their verbs close together. She does the same thing with the direct objects of the verbs -- they're kept snuggled tight to their verbs. If you break those apart, you also hurt the sentence, like so--

Each time, she kept behind a magnet on the door of the refrigerator the printout of his flight information ,

This isn't a technical error. It's just not as graceful. It's a little harder to read, and the readers will probably have to slow down their reading speeds to absorb the meaning. This isn't usually the effect we want.

So, keep that basic foundational unit of the clause -- subject/verb/direct object -- locked tightly together, and the writing gains clarity. There are a couple of other things we see here that are likely to help, too. Notice, for example, that when she has a piece to create a temporal orientation for the clause, she puts it before the subject:

 Each time, she kept the printout of his flight information behind a magnet on the door of the refrigerator, and on the days he was scheduled to fly she watched the news

The temporal cues help orient the reader toward exactly how the events unfold. This is particularly important in a long sentence like this one, which has two temporal orientations. "Each time" refers to an event that occurs at one span of time, and "on the days" refers to a specific point within that span. The sentence would lose some clarity if those temporal modifiers were moved --

She kept the printout of his flight information behind a magnet on the door of the refrigerator each time, and she watched the news on the days he was scheduled to fly

A subtle difference, perhaps, but one with an evident effect on clarity. There is an exception in the final sentence, which ends with the temporal modifier placed directly next to the verb it modifies:

She'd slept in shabby pensions, practicing a frugality that was foreign to her at this stage of her life, buying nothing but variations of the same postcards her father sent now.

That temporal modifier doesn't describe any part of the sentence other than the part it's right next to. And what is the golden rule of modifiers? Modifiers go next to the words they modify. So we couldn't really move that adverb "now" to any other spot in the sentence without either damaging the meaning or, in the case of "her father now sent," losing some grace.

In most of the sentences, most of the descriptive bits follow the clauses. Alicia and I have observed plenty of times before now that certain forms of dependent pieces just seem to work better when they follow the independent clauses. This is particularly evident with cumulative present participial phrases, such as the pair in that last sentence --

She'd slept in shabby pensions, practicing a frugality that was foreign to her at this stage of her life, buying nothing but variations of the same postcards her father sent now.

The purple-ish words are present participles leading into present participial phrases. This form of phrase is ripe for abuse, and if you've been reading this blog for any stretch of time, you've certainly heard us rant about the numerous problems they can cause. In this case, the first (practicing) is a cumulative modifier that adds meaning to the entire independent clause it follows. So that works, I think -- and in general, these kinds of cumulative modifiers work best at the end of a sentence. Look what happens when we try to reverse that--

Practicing a frugality that was foreign to her at this stage of her life, she'd slept in shabby pensions, buying nothing but variations of the same postcards her father sent now.

It's not dreadful, but now we have a problem with that final phrase ("buying"), which feels misplaced because it actually modifies the first present participial phrase rather than the independent clause. So we would have to move that, too--

Practicing a frugality that was foreign to her at this stage of her life, buying nothing but variations of the same postcards her father sent now, she'd slept in shabby pensions.

And that doesn't work because it throws the postcards and the pensions right next to each other, and that is a little disruptive to the meaning.

Anyway, this all boils down to three tips for long sentences:
1. Keep the clauses together.
2. Put temporal modifiers before the clauses when you have more than one time element to contend with.
3. Back-load the sentences with the other additional material, including cumulative modifiers.

None of these rules are carved on stone tablets, but I think you'll find that they help more often than they hurt.


Friday, September 28, 2012

Prioritizing prepositions

The smell reminded her of her schooldays near Boston back in Amherst when she had worked in the library on the quadrangle in front of the admin building at the circulation desk.
Prepositions are those little words that show some "positioning" in time, space, or idea. Usually they connect two nouns-- with the main noun modified a prepositional phrase with the other noun as an object. Problem is, prepositional phrases, as modifiers, should be adjacent to the modified noun. But what happens, as so often does, when we have a series of prepositional phrases? We end up with monstrosities like the above sentence.

First:, recognize the problem. Learn what constitutes a prepositional phrase: (preposition word) (noun or phrase). Notice that stacking any prepositional phrases in a sentence almost always results in chaos-- why? Because prep phrases have to modify a noun, and the further they get from that noun, the more likely there is to be confusion. Accept that and try to avoid the whole stacking problem. Also notice in revision and resolve to fix.

Second, understand that the object of the preposition is a noun too, usually, and can sprout its own modifying prepositional phrases. So IN the LIBRARY modifies worked (yeah, I know, that's an adverbial function, and I have to think why... the verb is probably "worked in," but I'll come back to that after lunch when I can think).
But "library" has its own modifier:

NEAR the quadrangle

And "quadrangle" has its own modifier-- this is the quadrangle near the admin building.
IN FRONT OF the admin building.

That's sort of clunky, but understandable, until we stick in "at the circulation desk" which modifies not admin building, not quadrangle, but 'library" (where in the library she worked). (Would you put that before or after? She worked at the circ desk in the library, or She worked in the library at the circ desk? Why?)

Third, prioritize. When there are so many prepositional phrases, the reader is going get lost even if they're assembled in the right order. What's important to this moment of the story? She's looking back nostalgically at her schooldays. There's also some smell that reminds her (so she might think about a smell). She might be nostalgic about working in the library, but the positioning of the library on the campus probably isn't that important. So why put it in, if there's no need? Try changing a prep phrase to an adjective word-- "in Amherst" becomes "Amherst schooldays" or "Amherst library." Strip this down to essentials, and if you want to deepen the texture, give more sense of the setting, well, don't draw a map. Talk about the ivy on the stone walls or the dust on the library shelves or something evocative (and, given the sentence opening, something olfactory if possible).

The smell reminded her of her Amherst schooldays when she had worked at the library circulation desk, stamping books and breathing in the ink and dust.

This is a common issue with good writers who know they have to imbed information into each sentence so it adds to the meaning and the texture of the passage. That is, the more accomplished you are, the more likely your first draft will occasionally have one of these preposition-bristling sentences. Here's one modeled structurally on one I just saw in a generally well-edited news magazine:

The firing happened a little more than two weeks after Luigi's mistake of telling his boss to take a flying leap while at work in a meeting with the whole staff in the conference room.

 Have at it. This is actually tougher than it looks. :)

Friday, September 21, 2012

Today at RU

Today at Romance University, I'm looking at an opening that's told in journal form. It's not a favored form these days. What do you think of it?


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Wrangling Long Sentences

We talked recently about this myth that all sentences should be short -- utter nonsense, but the kind of pervasive nonsense that has just enough truth in it to keep it alive. Short sentences are usually (but not always) easy to read. Are they easy to read because of their length, though, or because of other factors?

A basic sentence has either two or three core parts.

The boy jumped.

Subject-verb-direct object.
The boy kicked the ball.

I'm going to color coordinate these elements so that we can see them better when we look at longer sentences.We'll use yellow for subjects, green for verbs, and that pretty robin's egg blue for direct objects. For right now, I want you to notice that these colors are right next to each other. Yellow-green, with nothing in between. Yellow-green-blue, stuck together like glue. These pieces work together to form units, basic units of meaning, that make complete thoughts. The boy and the jumping action go together to make one idea. Remove either piece, and we lose meaning. Ditto for the boy and the kicking action and the ball. These three parts join together to make one unit of meaning.

That joining is important. That joining is what creates meaning. Imperfect joinings, like fragments and run-ons, either break the pieces apart or jam too many pieces together. We talk a lot about the fact that in fiction, fragments and run-ons are permissible to indicate natural dialect, but we always issue a warning: It must still be easy to read. It cannot be awkward. It cannot be confusing.

When we start to add extra meaning to the sentence through the addition of words, phrases, and clauses, we have the same kinds of concerns. Extra pieces, added incorrectly, can be distracting, confusing, and unclear. John Gardner advocates for limiting any such additions to only one piece of the sentence. That is, if we add more words to the subject to add meaning, we should not also add words to the verb and direct object. Choose one piece, elaborate, and leave the rest alone.

This is a pretty good rule of thumb, but it's still open to abuse.

Subject-verb-direct object.
The boy kicked the ball, whooping and hollering with joy.

See that last participial phrase? This phrase adds meaning to only one part of the sentence, as Gardner advocates, but it will still read "off" to most people. Why? Because it develops the subject, but it is next to the direct object -- a misplaced modifier. This is what happens when we color it.

Subject-verb-direct object.
The boy kicked the ball, whooping and hollering with joy.
When we do that, it's pretty easy to see that these pieces belong together but have been split apart. Move the colors together, and the meaning will be more clear and the sentence will be more smooth.

Subject-verb-direct object.
Whooping and hollering with joy, the boy kicked the ball.
This is how you control a long sentence. You keep the subject and verb close together -- yellow and green with nothing between. You keep the subject, verb, and object close together -- yellow, green, and blue, stuck together like glue. And then you make sure that any added pieces are close to the parts they link to.

I have some lovely long sentences I want to share with you, so that you can see this principle in action in more complicated sentences. We'll do that next time.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

The five bad habits of good writers

I did a guest blog in the spring for Jane Perrine on the Five Bad Habits of Good Writers, and thought I'd move it over. I start with the person/writer and end up with the businessperson/writer.
 1. Bad habit: Thinking that you have only one book in you. Many writers start out because they want to tell one particular story, a story that’s been inside them for a long time. They write that story in a white heat, and then… then what? Are they done being a writer now that they’ve written that one book? No. If you have one book in you, you have more than one book in you. In fact, now that you’ve gotten this story down, the story that has preoccupied you for years, you might find that you’re liberated now to invent new stories. And you’ve learned something about your writing process and about the structure of a story that will help you when sheer inspiration fails. (And besides, you can always write a sequel to Book #1. Did the Harry Potter series end after his first year at Hogwarts?)

2. Bad habit: Writing 3-chapter proposals, one after another. It’s tempting, yes, to just move on if an idea doesn’t work or a proposal doesn’t sell. But don’t get into that habit. Serial quitting wreaks havoc with our writing process, makes us feel like impostors instead of real novelists, and leaves us empty-handed when an editor says, “What else you got?” And now, when we can sell our books directly to the reader with indie publishing, it’s great to have a few uncontracted novels to put up for sale. But no one is going to buy a dozen partial books. Try to push past that third chapter and finish at least a sketchy first draft. You’ll probably find you fall in love with the book!

3. Bad habit: Deciding you’re good enough and have nothing to learn. You’re never good enough. You’ve always got more to learn. We all do. The moment you decide you know enough and write well enough, that’s the moment you stop being a writer and become a hack. You don’t want to be a hack, do you? Of course not. So with every book you start, determine what you want to learn, whether it’s how to design an action scene or how to hide clues or how to embed more metaphor into your verbs. And then apply yourself to that lesson. Do research. Experiment. Find models in authors who do that aspect well. This will make the writing process more interesting, and will also help individualize each book. And finally, this will help you stay current with what’s going on in fiction, as you’ll be open to new ideas and new techniques.

4. Bad habit: Making business relationships personal. Your agent is not your mother, and your editor is not your friend. You might think they’re terrific. They might think you’re terrific. But let me brutally frank here. You have to be emotionally able to fire the agent if she stops working for you. You must be ready to stay with a publisher that has fired your favorite editor.  Loyalty is a virtue, but temper that with discretion. Too many writers have thrown their lot in with another industry professional who doesn’t in fact have the writer’s best interest front and center. (Nothing wrong with that—everyone must deal with her own career.) This is not a big problem unless you make the relationship personal, so personal loyalty is expected on one or both sides. I’m speaking as someone who made this error and couldn’t fire an agent who just about tanked my career. (We were best buds! How could I fire her when she was losing all those other clients? Was I going to be a traitor too?) Business relationships are about business. Save your love for your family and friends.

5. Bad habit: Forgetting that this is all about the reader. When we start to write, quite naturally it’s all about us. We have a story to tell or a problem to work out.  Then when we start to submit, it’s going to be all about the agent and editor—we want to craft the query letter and the book to capture the attention of the elite industry professional who can make our publishing dreams come true. That’s all perfectly normal. The danger comes when we forget that the whole purpose of writing novels is to connect with readers. When we do what touches or moves or surprises our reader, we will be fulfilling our mission. This means we have to stop being defensive. If our work doesn’t entertain the readers, we should find out why. Often we can make that connection without losing what we personally love about our story—but we can’t get to that point if we decide the reader doesn’t matter. The reader matters most of all. That’s why we write.
The publishing world is changing radically, and we have to change with it. So next year, I might have five different bad habits to report!

So— can you add to this list? What are bad writing habits you notice in yourself and other writers?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Action sentencing

There's a lot of action that isn't really exciting. So I don't mean explosions or running from the aliens or carefully digging a hole for the rose bush. I mean the getting from one place to another type of action, the necessary and maybe even significant action of the character through the scene.

I'd just suggest not to treat this like "something to rush through." Instead, think of how even this can be made meaningful, adding to the reader's experience of the scene. Couple suggestions, both having to do with the action within time-- how long it takes.

1) If it's an activity that takes awhile, like paying the bills, think of interspersing the discrete actions with introspection. That is, this is a good opportunity to put in some of that introspection you've been holding back on. Break the activity down into five or so distinct actions:

  • She gathers all the supplies-- bills, checkbook, envelopes, stamps. (This will take at least a minute, remember. and now I'm trying to think of the last time I wrote a check... okay. She turns on the computer and waits for it to boot up.)
  • She goes to her bank website and to the "Pay Bills" tab.
  • She checks the first bill-- $1000 for the credit card.
  • She goes back to the account page to check her balance.
  • She pays that bill.
  • She pays another bill.
  • She pays a third bill.
  • She goes back and sees if she has any money left.
  • She closes the computer.

Plenty of time for her to be thinking about how much she hates her job (connection to bill-paying? Slide in early that she notices her paycheck has been deposited). By the end of the billpaying, what's changed? Does she decide to quit the job?
That is-- see if you can make the activity somehow reflective of whatever conundrum she's considering. And if you can, have the combined activity and introspection end in a decision.

2.  If you're having to describe a sequence of actions that don't all add up, still think about how long they combined will take. Let's say that he is leaving his office after work. So he's going to what? Altogether, how much time? If it's just a couple minutes, think about having it be a transition between two scenes (one in office, one wherever he's going), and put it in one paragraph at the start of a new scene. But remember, if nothing significant happens, or he doesn't think something fun, it's probably not worth spending a paragraph on... so put in something significant. He walks out of the office building, and what does he see? What happens? He gets splashed by a cab going by? He sees his boss going into a bar across the street?
Just to keep this coherent, group sequential actions together. Don't mix them in a sentence unless you have reason to mix them.
For example, in sentence one, start:
The clock struck five, and Rory looked up from his work. Quittin' time.
Then move to the action, pack up his briefcase--
He rose, and grabbed his briefcase and jammed in his laptop and the Olsen file.
Then move to the next bit of action.
In the elevator, he closed his eyes and tried to remember what he had planned for the evening. 
Finish the paragraph and the action sequence, but remember your purpose isn't just to get him out of the office building, but....?
The crowd on the ground floor bore him out into the dark street. There, across the street, under a streetlamp, was Meredith. Waiting for him.

So don't settle for pedestrian, and while you're at it, make it understandable for the reader. Watch your sentencing and paragraphing. Those are how you tell the reader what actions and/or thought/realizations/perceptions go together.

Most important, though, don't waste the space. If it's not important, don't narrate it. Just bridge the time:
New scene (Later in his apartment)
If it is important, if something meaningful occurs, show it.

Also, group steps in the same order they occur in life. For example, if he's leaving the office, and he takes his coffee mug to the sink and rinses it, fine to put all that in one sentence:
He took his mug to the sink and rinsed it.
But don't put that discrete "coffee mug" step into the same sentence as packing his briefcase: NOT
He took his coffee mug to the sink. He rinsed it and packed his briefcase.
See the problem there? There must be some pause (like a PERIOD and SPACE) between the sink and his briefcase, because they are two separate actions, not steps within an action. They're separate, involving different movements (washing/packing), different objects (mug/briefcase), and different places (sink, desk). Two sentences.
Always keep that in mind-- the sentencing should replicate in its imperfect way the way the action takes place. What goes together in a sentence should belong together.


Monday, September 10, 2012

Your favorite sentence from a book or article?

I'm lecturing in a class where they're learning sentence patterns, and I thought maybe it would be fun if we all contributed favorite sentences and then figured out in the construction why they're so good. Can you help me with some material? From a book or article you've enjoyed, by someone you consider a good stylist-- can you post a great sentence? Please give the author and title in case the students want to find the book!

I have to post this one because it's from a book many of us will have read, and it's so punchy and to the point yet also sort of doom-ridden.

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
Stephen King, The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger

So-- favorite sentences? (If you have to post two to give the context, that's fine.) Thanks! Some with more complicated construction than the above would be good, because I want them to diagram the sentences.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

TMI Sentences

Accidental Sentencing

New writers tend to regard sentence content as almost accidental, a matter of writing out whatever string of words is dictated by the muse in whatever order the muse comes up with. So often when we first start writing we have a series of sentences which string out and double back in order to get everything in more or less:
Paula tried to be humble. This showed in her voice. She was thanking Harriet for pouring her a drink. The drink was a dacquiri and Harriet poured it into a martini glass. It was the third dacquiri Paula had drunk that evening, and it was having an effect. She was trying to sound humble as she talked to Paula but all the rum was making her feel self-confident. She was after all used to being in command. So she couldn't help but sound like a commander now.

Now you all are looking at that paragraph and thinking, "I would sure edit that, make it more connected, combine some of those short sentences, show what's going on, not just present everything in a timeless mess like that." Yep. New writers seldom edit to that level of purpose, and good writers seldom just write a sentence or paragraph and leave it be. "First thought" is, for good writers, generally not "best thought."

The "Good Writer" Version  
Good writers know that sentences (and paragraphs) are flexible: They can be ever expanded and modified to fit in more information, another detail, a useful caveat, one more mood-setting descriptor. However, this sometimes results in sentences which are like foie-gras geese-- overstuffed and downright unhealthy. 
Then, as Harriet poured rum-powered juice into her martini glass, Paula worked hard to put a humble note into her voice, but the self-confidence inspired by three dacquiris kept threatening to send her into her more accustomed role of commander-in-chief. 
 That's not really all that much more readable than the first version. Yes, it puts it all into one package-sentence, incorporating time markers (then, as) and connective conjunctions (but) to show relationships between ideas. And this version uses the fun trick of infusing action and drama with strong verbs and verbals. Notice how action/verb forms are embedded as modifiers (rum-powered juice, inspired by, more accustomed role). That makes for a more bristling read. There's always more tension in verbs than nouns. (Nouns by definition are static... they are what they are that very moment.)
And all the information in that shapeless paragraph is incorporated into this meaning-laden single sentence. So what's the problem? Well, there's such a thing as "too much information," when good writers  test the tensile capacity of the English sentence by forcing more and more into it. Good writers often replace slackness with 5G force, rendering the sentence explosive with information.  (Hey-- I started with this version of that sentence: Good writers often end up with sentences like this, replacing the slackness with 5G information force, ... want to pick up the force-fed overstuffed metaphor somehow, uh... too complex, and there's a dangling participle-wannabe in there, and.... Point is, when we edit sentences, we don't always end up with great sentences, just not-so-bad sentences. )

The TMI Sentence

TMI sentences are the workaholics of prose, chugging along at the office adding on more tasks long after most others have gone home to eat dinner. Any industrial psychologist will tell you the problem here, or problems: An unwillingness to delegate, and an inability to distinguish the essential from the non-essential. (Boy, I am really mixing metaphors here. You should be glad I edited out the line about "TMI" and the lady in the seat next to me on the bus, talking loudly into her cellphone about her hemorrhoids.)

Some suggestions which might help with all our TMI sentences:
1. There's no reason everything has to go in one sentence. This is especially true in the first paragraph of a book or scene, where good writers often try to accomplish too many tasks. A paragraph of 2-3 sentences can also be consumed in one "bite" but won't cause indigestion. :) I always try to simplify the initial sentence by getting rid of deadwood and ornateness, and then see if what's left is one main thought or two or three.
2. With a long complex sentence which must embed a lot of info, starting with the main clause and stringing the additional stuff after can be more comprehensible. You know, I mentally just edited that: Long complex sentences embedding a lot of info can be made more comprehensible by starting with the main clause and stringing the extra stuff afterwards. :)  
You can make even long complex sentences more comprehensible by starting with the main clause.
or... never mind. You're probably getting the idea that I  never write good sentences the first time. And that editing doesn't transform them into great sentences! 

3. It very much helps to know your purpose. What exactly do we want to convey about this moment in Paula's life, about her relationship with Harriet? Sometimes we get caught up in the mechanics of pronoun reference and modifying clauses and simultaneous action, and forget what it is we want the reader to get. Is this paragraph supposed to tell us that Paula's a secret alcoholic? Or is it supposed to hint at the reason Harriet hates Paula? Or is it supposed to lead into the big moment later in the chapter where Paula writes her resignation letter? What's the point? Is the point actually there in the sentence? 

4. What's essential info? Sometimes it actually helps to break a sentence full of information into a series of declarative info-bytes, and then put it back together. That is, go back to New Writer's "in the moment" syntactic simplicity, only lose all the vapidity. And edit.
Paula is (emotion).
Harriet pours out a dacquiri.
Dacquiris are made with rum.
They don't have a dacquiri glass, so they have to use a martini glass.
Paula says something. (What?)
She tries to make her voice humble.
But she's too used to command. (So what happens?)
Etc. And of course, these are not supposed to end up as disparate sentences. They're just info-bytes that can end up in the sentences after re-writing and editing. It's a matter of outlining so you can organize.

5. Sentence combining is all about coordination and subordination. What goes together and why and how? What's more important than what? How can those relationships be shown using conjunctions and modifiers like "but" and "then" and such? 

6. Most of what we write takes place in time. (That is, this happens, and then that happens, and about the same time, this other thing happened, and finally this big thing happened because of that third thing happening. :) Time marker words like "then" and "now" and "after" and "when" conjoin events but also efficiently organize the process of the paragraph action.

7. Some information might feel important, but is so intrinsic it doesn't have to be said. For example, I ended that last sentence with "for the reader:" ...but also efficiently organize the process of the paragraph action for the reader.  Then I realized that of course this was for the reader. Who else would care about the process of the paragraph? However, many writers leave out essentials thinking they're intrinsic-- better to put in too much and have to take it out later.

8. You can simplify by diminishing. That is, diminish a sentence to a clause, a clause to a participial phrase, a participial phrase to a prepositional phrase, a phrase to a modifier (adjective or adverb). So, frex, 
With a hasty movement, he put on his hat which was red.
can become
He hastily put on his red hat.
Okay, that's too simple, but really, this common writerly fear of modifiers has often resulted in ungainly subject phrases dragging a chain of adjectival relative clauses, and predicate phrases with distant adverbial pseudo-preposition orphans. If you want to modify, use modifying WORDS. Stephen King really won't rebuke you for it, I promise.

9. Can you make it pretty? I mean, workaholics aren't stylish. (Quick edit: started that as, "I mean, the trouble with workaholics is that they always slump around without much style." See, I need editing too... no shame in it. But but but... I can definitely imagine a prose situation where I might want to slow things down and pontificate a bit-- hence "the trouble with workaholics is that..." Just not here.) The difference between a workaholic sentence and a great sentence is often that style, that swing, that just-gosh-darn-enjoyment of words and sentences and prose. (And that "voice" is often what distinguishes the great writers.)
In the end, there should be not a single sentence or thought in your scene that doesn't-- oops. Double negative. Try this:
When you're done, every sentence should sing with your voice. In tune. 
Yes. I mean it. I should be able to isolate any sentence in your scene, read it aloud, and "hear" you. (Okay. Maybe we'll exempt the one-word sentences. Maybe.) I know that's expecting a lot, and that might be a "final revision" task, not a task for the editing pass. But that just goes to show that most of us should be drafting, reworking, editing, and prettying, not necessarily in that order, but eventually.

Your turn.

Your turn! Have at it. I'm going to give that sentence over to you guys for fixing. Rules:
  • It has to be one paragraph, but it doesn't have to be one sentence.
  • Don't add or subtract essential information, but feel free to drop inessential information.
  • While you're at it, please fix the pronoun-referent problem here: as Harriet poured rum-powered juice into her martini glass, Paula....(Whose glass is it? Two women, one "her".)
 Then, as Harriet poured rum-powered juice into her martini glass, Paula worked hard to put a humble note into her voice, but the self-confidence inspired by three dacquiris kept threatening to send her into her more accustomed role of commander-in-chief.
 (Now I'm thinking I better google to find out whether there's a "c" in "dacquiri"-- I keep changing, and I could just LOOK IT UP. EEK! It's DAIQUIRI! You can tell I haven't drunk enough of 'em.)