Friday, March 30, 2012

More picky picky

Came across this in a student paper and couldn't figure out how this student would come up with this conclusion (Constitution=bad, limits freedom).  I am NOT trying to get political here. I just want to show how sometimes placement affects meaning, and in this case had the sentence meaning the opposite of what she really wanted it to mean:
The framers of the constitution were successful in creating a government that was strong but not too strong so as to limit individual freedom. 

 First time I read it, I thought she was saying that the constitution created this government in order to limit individual freedom. This was the conclusion, and the paper said the opposite, so I figured it was just inartful wording (or punctuation-- let's see), that she meant that the government was not the sort of government that was so strong that it limited individual freedom.
And even said that way, it's too confusing.
But the problem is that "so as to limit individual freedom" should modify "too strong". Trouble is, the adjective is actually "not too strong." And anyway, "so as to limit" could just as easily be a sentence modifier giving the motivation of the constitution framers, indicating that their intent was to limit freedom.

 I'm not saying everyone would read it that way. But I'm a good reader, and it halted me just like that. "Huh? But the whole paper is about how the Constitution -protects- individual freedom!" When good readers are confused, we've done something wrong.

And it's easy to clarify so that there's only one meaning. And I will (and did, for the student). But first I want to look into what went wrong in that sentence. And yes, I know that no one is perfect, and this is just a sentence, and I'm being picky. However, good writers should be conscious of the meaning of their sentences, not just the thought that inspires the sentence. And so, no further ado...

Problem 1:
This is one of those sneaky double negatives that turn out sort of to be positive but indirectly.
not too strong so as to limit individual freedom.
'Not" is a clear negative, but "limit" is a sneaky one.
So does this limit or not? Negative or positive? Who knows what is meant?  Would a strong government limit freedom or not? Not clear.
What is it the writer -wants-? Not limitation but protection. Easier to state it in the positive, and rework the sentence to make it positive.

2. "So as to" is a causal (if clumsy) connector, meaning that whatever follows is presumably caused by whatever precedes. But what precedes isn't an action or noun, but rather an adjective (not too strong), and that confused me. Not too strong WHAT? I think, actually, if it was "not SO strong," I might have gotten the idea, though it was still ugly. "Too" creates a comparative to "strong" so sends that adjective backwards in the sentence, so the forward part "so as to, etc." isn't as clearly connected. Not so strong leads forwards, pointing at the "so as to" part.

3. However, "so as to" is clunky here. What matters? what means?  but not so strong as to limit freedom might be better, or not so strong to cause... Hmm. I'd change that around, actually. More later. Just hate "so as to" with its faux legal tone.

4. Let's try a comma to clearly separate the "not" -- the negative untrue part (we don't actually have that "too strong" government)-- from the actual--
The framers of the constitution were successful in creating a government that was strong, but not too strong so as to limit individual freedom.
Little better. I don't like the "that was strong"-- I never like putting in clauses, esp. relative clauses, when adjectives would do-- creating a strong government.

5. How about thinking positive? I mean, the negative didn't happen. That's the whole point. So why give over half the sentence to something that didn't happen and wasn't meant to happen? Let's try positive:
To protect individual freedom, the framers of the constitution were successful in creating a strong but not too strong government.

Now I might add a "how"-- how did they do that-- at the end there, but at least to my mind, that makes sense.

Who's got another picky sentence that doesn't quite work?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

More picky stuff about pronouns

I was complaining to T about the weirdnesses of the interface in my online classroom, and wrote this (it's in a grumpy email, so don't expect felicitous prose):
If you hit "save," your discussion post disappears, goes off never to be found again. (Really. NO ONE knows how to retrieve them.) 
My fingers slowed and halted, as if they knew before my brain did that something was wrong. And yes, when I went back and re-read, I realized I had a pronoun referent problem! The pronoun "them" is plural and should refer back to a plural noun. But there is none.

This is the sort of picky things we need to notice. It's a very common mistake, easily fixed. Yeah, yeah, the reader will figure out what I mean, but that's no excuse for letting this slide without correction, especially since the correction is so quick.
BUT... I'm not going to replace "them" with the singular counterpart "it." Why not? Well, thanks for asking. "It" is an ugly little word, and can refer to something specific (the post) or something not quite a noun (hitting save, for example-- the process, the disaster, whatever). Or nothing at all, as in "It's raining."

Whenever the pronoun reference isn't immediately clear, I consider what noun would be more clear. And in this case, "them" actually would refer to something not quite there in the previous sentence. "The post" exists, you see, in two incarnations:
1. The post that is typed in.
2. The post that is saved.
Same post, but it's like the child and the man... same person, not the same thing. So I thought here, just to make clear, I'd state the noun. It's efficient and clarifies, while perhaps reinforcing the lostness I want to convey:
If you hit "save," your discussion post disappears, goes off never to be found again. (Really. NO ONE knows how to retrieve a saved post.)

I know, picky picky, but I like to be precise, especially when emailing Theresa, who will notice if I'm not!

(You know, I had that last as a sentence frag-- will blog about that maybe later.)


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Sentence fragment angst

In previous post, I typed this:
I know, picky picky, but I like to be precise. Especially when emailing Theresa, who will notice if I'm not!

But then, remembering that I should model good behavior (yes, yes, that's what I try to do, and stop laughing), I changed it to:
I know, picky picky, but I like to be precise, especially when emailing Theresa, who will notice if I'm not! 

This inner debate (which went on for a while: "But I like the emphasis!" "But what if they think I approve of sentence fragments in general?") made me consider why we go with fragments, and whether we need to have some self-guidelines (NOT rules) or consider each on a case-by-case basis, or just go with what feels right, or....

It's been a really trying morning, debating all this. It's like seeing a teenaged girl in a revealing outfit. "That makes her look like she's just a sexual object!" "Well, you know, she should flaunt it while she has it. Another decade, no one is going to want her belly button showing." Expression or accuracy????

And how much does accuracy matter in an informal setting?

But I was considering what would be a "right" sentence fragment. Are there circumstances and considerations that -- should the sentence come out fragmented, you'd hesitate and then decide to keep it?

Help here-- How about looking at your recent writing and come up with examples of where you went with a fragment, and maybe some where you decided to incorporate the fragment into a sentence or add the words needed to make it a sentence?
 trying to come up with Grand Unified Theory of Sentence Fragments

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

From the comments

Anonymous said...
I am in the process of writing my first novel (a thriller), and many times I wish I had one guide I could review to look up a grammar issue. For example, how do you punctuate something written on a tombstone, or is it: ID or I.D.? I wish there was just one definitive source that I could go to and say, "here's the answer." When an editor, agent, or someone reads my manuscript, I would like to know that it is basically correct and if not, they can point me to page 12 of some style guide and say, "here, it is." So, next time, I'll know. With the advent of self-publishing, I think this will become a bigger issue, and we're going to see novels with significantly different grammar usage. I could imagine each genre creating (likely ad hoc) its own grammar usage customs. I would like to know, what style guide would you recommend for a typical thriller novel?

Anon, here's the short answer: AP.

And now here's the long answer. For most commercial fiction submitted to American publishing houses, you are probably safe with the AP style guide. (AP = Associated Press)  That's the one used by most newspapers and magazines, though some still have their own style guides. (I think the New York Times and the Economist are counted among those with proprietary guides, and if I remember correctly, the Economist has parts of its style guide online.) AP approximates what used to be called "standard English." Standard is meant to indicate correct everyday usage as opposed to formal or academic usage. Think of it as the kind of English typically used by people who are moderately well educated. So, for example, it would limit the usage of colons and semicolons, which are ordinarily viewed as formal. It would also provide some flexibility in the usage of that/which clauses and commas, where formal rules preserve the that/which distinction. There are other points of distinction, but the main idea is that standard English reads as though it is free of grammatical errors without being particularly formal or complex. For most fiction, and for most fiction writers, applying standard rules will get better results than applying formal rules.

Sometimes we also talk about "up" and "down" English. This isn't quite the same as the distinction between standard and formal English. This has more to do with idiom, slang, and the kind of blundering usages that pass for common expressions without being technically correct. Down English allows for quite a lot of expressions that up English would remove. One of my favorite examples of a common down English expressions is, "It's not that big of a deal." Have any of you grammar purists out there ever tried to diagram that beast? I have, several times, with mind-bending results. Yet this expression is commonly accepted as correct in the spoken lexicon, and if a character uttered it in a manuscript, it should probably be allowed to stand. No matter how much it hurts our inner sticklers. ;)  The point is, of course, that characters sometimes botch the language in a way that feels entirely natural for that character. In dialogue and true interior monologue, these usages might be appropriate even if not technically correct.

There are different kinds of style guides. AP is a non-academic style guide, and its rules are meant to appeal to a wide readership. The academic style guides (Chicago/Turabian, MLA, APA, AAA, AMA, ACS, CSE -- the list goes on) all have the same basic goal of providing uniform methodology for research writing in a particular field or fields. So these are aimed at a narrower readership with specific concerns, though there is quite a lot of overlap between them; for example, AAA is basically a set of exceptions to Chicago. Then there are the proprietary style guides generated by particular publishers. Because most of these various guides are academic in nature and/or aimed at a narrower readership, AP will generally serve your fiction interests better than most of these.

That said, there are a lot of fans of Chicago, and several publishing houses that claim to use it. Whether they actually do use it is a different issue. Some houses adopt strict style rules, whether Chicago or proprietary rules or whatever. And some take a more flexible approach, using their style guides as a tool to resolve disagreements or to try to lead authors to better style on some point or other. I can tell you that the style guide I wrote for Red Sage was cheerfully ignored by most of the editors except for when they wanted to argue with me about changing it. And that was mostly okay, as long as they turned in good manuscripts with clean copy that were more or less in keeping with the spirit of the style guide. I had a topnotch team and I trusted them to get it right -- or right enough that our end product would be in the right range.

Then there is the grammar side of things. Grammar and style are not exactly the same thing, though there is overlap. For example, the time signified by the use of the past perfect tense is a grammar issue. But when to allow its use, and when to sort out a timeline to avoid its use -- these are, to some extent, style issues. Good stylists will try to limit the use of past perfect and will revise grammatically correct sentences to eliminate the need for it. But you need to understand the basic grammar before you can even get to the style question, so a good grammar book will also come in handy.

Everyone has their particular favorite grammar books. My special pet is Warriner's Complete Course (the Franklin edition, though other editions can be useful). I like this book, even though it is now about 30 years old, because it is a comprehensive manual of standard English grammar undiluted by a lot of generative grammar principles. (My least favorite generative grammar rule is the one that advises us to place commas where we would pause while speaking. This single piece of advice has done more to lower general literacy than any other trend in English education, imo. Rant, rant.) But if you want something more contemporary, you might look at the Gregg book. A lot of people like that one, with good reason. I use it myself, along with the McGraw-Hill book, which is also very good.

I'm sure our commenters can also recommend their favorite grammars. Commenters, what say you?


Monday, March 26, 2012

Question: Should Writing Be Fun?

 Monday Mulling:

Ought writing to be fun? I go back and forth on that.

Yes, it should be fun! It's not A JOB!!! If it's not fun for you, it won't be fun for the reader!

No, nothing good is easy! You have to work at it and get gratification from a job well done!

I will say what's really annoying are the people who intone, "If it's not fun for you, it won't be fun for the reader," which is a really mean and nasty thing to say.

What do you guys think? Fun or not? What if it's not fun-- can it still be good, imaginative, creative? What if it's fun-- can it still be organized, coherent, readable?

Or is writing fun and editing not?



My one-sentence review of last night's Mad Men

If this season is going to be about the amazing secksiness of Mrs. Draper 2.0, I'm going to be bored out of my mind.


Sunday, March 25, 2012

A bizarre trend

Several times in the last month or so, I've heard discussion of the use of the Chicago Manual of Style to edit novels. Chicago is a very useful, comprehensive style guide, but its purpose has little to do with fiction. Its purpose is to create uniform methodology and typography for research documents ranging from student papers to textbooks. Though some of its rules can certainly be applied to fiction, its purpose is not generally aimed at fiction.

To really understand this, it might help to know something about the process copy editors use to edit fiction manuscripts. For each individual project, they create style sheets. These style sheets contain everything from story details (correct spellings of character names, physical descriptions, etc.) to narrative details (that particular author's comma usage patterns, for example). The style sheet is a reference guide that the copy editor then uses to check consistency throughout the document. Some copy editors turn in their style sheets when they turn in the finished project so that the author and lead editor can see the style rules applied.

A house can create a style sheet or style guide that is meant to apply to all manuscripts generated by the house. This house guide is meant to simplify the copy editing and production process by taking the guesswork out of common style questions, such as when to include periods in certain acronyms. (Ph.D. or PhD?)

So, in the beginning, the University of Chicago press created a style sheet for its typesetters and compositors to help them figure out things like citation notation, and how to use archaic alphabets, and how to set scientific equations and symbols. It was an academic style system for academic works published by an academic press, and it was good. Many people wanted to use this style system because it simplified the process for all of them. The Chicago Manual has been through many revisions over the years and is now in its 15th or 16th edition.

Here's the thing, though. Academic grammar and style conventions are more formal than the everyday sorts of grammar and style rules that most people commonly use. If you understand the different philosophies of grammar and the ways the rules bend and shift to accommodate those different philosophies, then you will know that many writer quarrels stem from these philosophical differences. Most comma rules, in fact, can change depending on which style approach you take. The more formal and academic the document, the more commas it will contain.

I mention commas specifically because this came up on an author list recently. An author was complaining that her different copy editors each used different comma rules, and each insisted that her rule was "grammatically correct" with that sort of lead-pipe blunt force common to those who know how to apply a rule but can't explain why they're doing it. Now, I've worked with a lot of copy editors over the years, and I know that the best among them tend to get a little shrill over their pet rules. But the best among them also know that there are multiple rules sets, each of which can be applied to create a different but equally valid finished product. They can argue outcomes and the logic behind their style choices like the sharpest trial lawyer. And what I heard on that author on that list made me think these were not good copy editors arguing grammar philosophies, but quite a different sort of creature.

This creature is someone who studied hard in school and made good grades. She probably has been praised for her writing. She has the rule book and she knows how to use it, but she's probably never taken an advanced grammar class. She might not know that opposite rules can be equally correct -- that is, for example, that one style guide can require a comma after a single introductory transition word, and another can ban it, and each can be correct. She might not know how to choose which rule to apply or how to apply it, and yet, she can still legitimately consider herself "good at grammar" in the ordinary sense.

I suspect, but cannot prove, that the recent blossoming of direct publishing is leading a lot of these creatures to try to drum up some side income as copy editors. I suspect, but cannot prove, that some of them are out there promoting themselves by saying they are adept in Chicago style. They know that this is often reckoned the most sophisticated and detailed of the academic style guides, and they think it says something about their skills to claim competence in it. And it does say something. It says they're competent in Chicago style.

But here's the question. Do you want Chicago style for your manuscript? Maybe you do, and maybe you don't. What baffles me is the number of people suddenly requesting it. Whenever a novelist says she wants me to edit her work with any particular academic style -- Chicago, APA, MLA, whatever -- my first question is, why? Sometimes they'll give a well-reasoned response, such as the woman who recently told me she used Chicago herself and wanted to be sure her editors could manage it. She was looking for consistency between her approach and that of her content and copy editors. That made sense. But others don't seem to know why they're requesting it. It's become a buzz word, something people talk about because they're hearing about it.

If you want to use Chicago, use Chicago. It's a legitimate choice, albeit a choice that will create a more formal text. And if you're writing genre or commercial fiction, this might not be the best choice for your book, but maybe you want it to sound more formal or academic. But know what you're getting, because it might not be what you want.


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Comedy and cruelty

Does comedy have to be cruel? See what you think.

The art of leaving things not all wrapped up.

I was contemplating how to make a happy ending of this romance novella, and of course, this being a romance novella, the young couple end up together and happy. But what about the other conflicts?

Does a happy ending mean everything is all wrapped up in the ending? That the conflicts presented at the beginning of the story are all resolved happily?

I'm thinking no.  Much of the "contrivance" and "deus ex machina" that annoy us as readers will come from trying to resolve every conflict happily. That is, it's not like a god needs to intervene to make two young people fall in love-- that's the way of nature. But to make a poor person rich? To heal the lame leg? If these are not the main plot-- where the protagonist works the whole book to resolve this conflict or achieve the aim-- then it's going to take an outside event, like the death of a rich aunt or the charity of a miraculous surgeon, to solve that problem.

In fact, having every conflict neatly resolved, especially by miracle, could cast doubt on your entire ending. So what MUST be in the ending? Probably the resolution of the main plot, the genre plot (those are usually the same--- a murder investigation is usually the main plot of a mystery, and a romance is usually the main plot of a romance) should happen. (Satisfactory, not necessarily happy.) But the other conflicts? If they aren't resolved BY the plot, by the action of the main characters, then maybe they shouldn't all be resolved.

For example, I am working on a romance where the young man is poor, and this is a real problem. But the heroine decides she loves him anyway, thus resolving the romantic plot. Now I really think if his aunt dies and leaves him a million pounds, that will render irrelevant the heroine's sacrifice of her plans for a wealthy marriage. So I think I'm just going to leave him poor. Okay, he's a poet, so I'll let some success at least glimmer at the end, but poetic greatness has so seldom meant wealth! So they'll be poor but happy. Works for me. :)

So when you think about your own stories, what do you think must be resolved satisfactorily? What would you leave unresolved?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Scene endings and sub-genres

We've talked before about Jack Bickham's brilliant exploration of scene-ending "answers"-- that is:

Does she get her scene goal?
Yes, but (something unexpected also happens)
No, and furthermore (something even worse than failure happens)
(Notice that "yes, she gets her goal for the scene and that's all" isn't one of the answers... why not?)

So I mentioned this to a student (Lindsey), and she took off running with it, pulling out some of her favorite books in her subgenre and analyzing the ending. She writes romantic comedy/chick lit, and she found that the successful books in that subgenre she examined tended to have most scenes end with "yes, but." Yes, she got her goal, but something unexpected happened!

Lindsey thought this scene ending might especially be useful in a comedy (so "yes," that is, it's light and generally the characters are going to get what they want, but also "but" to disorient the character and create conflict and additional plot events).

I notice that "danger" books, like adventure, suspense, and thriller, might have mostly "no, and furthermore" scene endings as they take the character (and reader) into progressively greater risk and disorientation.

What do you think? "Disorientation" is key to both of those, notice.  Why? To keep the character (and reader) on her toes.

That's something to keep in mind if the book seems static or the pacing is slow. Maybe we have too many scenes ending "yes" or "no," without the additional thrust added by the unpredicted "but/furthermore."

What about your type of book? Do you see anything notable about scene endings?

Off to check scene endings in fave books....

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Between you and me, "between you and I" is annoying

Watching a TV show written by well-paid writers. TWICE tonight characters have said, "Between you and I." (Okay, with ONE it might be just a character who doesn't speak well. But there were two, and they were both attorneys, presumably educated. I think it's the writer, not the characters, who doesn't know how to talk.)

I understand that I'm approaching a very slippery slope, and if I keep getting cranky about things like that, I will pitch over that precipice and slide down to the bottom where I will become one of those who mutters and takes photos of signs with inappropriate apostrophes and posting them on Pinterest with scathing captions.

But really. Did no one on that TV set, esp the expensive writers, hear something off about "between you and I?"

If they'd pay me, I'd check their grammar. Heck, I'd do it for free.

Alicia walking up to the edge and peering over and thinking it doesn't look that steep

Monday, March 19, 2012

Call to action examples

Who says I'm behind??  This comment asked for examples, and it was only 3 months ago. Anyway, Claire is referring to this post:

Clare K. R. Miller said...

I mean, I'm still not sure what the call to action is, but at least I know it's not the same thing that seems like it should be as early in the story as possible. I wouldn't mind some examples of calls to action, if you have them on hand...

Okay, Claire. You were mentioning that the confusion might be between the "inciting incident/event" and the call to action. The inciting incident happens a bit earlier, and might not happen TO the protagonist (it could be just a general event). But the call to action is more often really aimed right at this character-- it's a call not to generalized action, but calling for specific action from this specific person. So:  

Inciting incident: The attack on Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war, leading to universal conscription.

Call to action: Johnny gets the draft letter addressed to him personally. 

More examples:  

Inciting incident: The homicide unit is called to the crime scene to see the dead body.

 Call to action: Detective Miller get a call from the police commissioner, asking to be kept informed.

Inciting incident: There's a notice posted for auditions for the class play. 
 Call to action: Best friend wants to try out but is nervous so begs Callie to come along.

Inciting incident: The doctor points out that the triglycerides are way up.  
Call to action: Mike goes the gym and passes the free-weight room, noticing how buff all the weightlifters are... and then catches sight of himself in the mirror... not buff.

Inciting incident: As predicted by the polls, Sarah wins the mayoral election.  
Call to action: Her first day on the job, the city comptroller confesses that the city is broke and won't make the next payroll unless Sarah finds $30K quick.

So....  The call to action is what specifically provides the incentive for the protagonist to start acting, going to the draft examination, taking a mortgage on her house to pay the city payroll, enrolling in a weight-training class, trying out for a part in the play, whatever the character  must do to get into there and start engaging the conflict and moving the plot. In the original post, I suggest that this be a new action, something he/she hasn't done before-- this isn't just another dead body, not just another day at the office.
Other examples? How about from your own stories?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Past Participial Modifiers

Okay, so we might have discussed present participial phrases here a time or two. (cough 19 cough) Now we'll talk about past participial phrases, which are exactly the same as present participial phrases except they use past participles instead of present participles.

Past participle:

Present participle:

Both forms can be used to conjugate verbs. The present form can be used as a noun (technically, a gerund).  And both can be used as adjectives.

Evaluating the competition, the coach looked worried.
Evaluated for speed, the other team posted record times.

In both examples, the introductory phrases -- adjectives, remember -- modify the nouns they go next to. Because that's what we do with modifiers. We put them next to the words they modify.

Just like a present participial phrase, a past participial phrase can be misplaced:

The other team ate sandwiches, evaluated for speed.

This implies the sandwiches are evaluated for speed. It is a misplaced modifier because it has not been placed next to the word it modifies.

The sandwiches had too much mustard, evaluated for speed.

This is a dangling modifier because it cannot attach to any noun in that sentence. Neither the sandwiches nor the mustard are being evaluated for speed.

And if you think those examples look bizarre and funny, well, they are meant to. But so will every other botched PPP once you learn to spot this kind of error.


Friday, March 16, 2012

Line editing at RU

The brains at Romance University thought it would be fun to show some line editing techniques in my columns. And they're right, this is fun. Volunteers send in their first two pages, and I randomly choose one and put it through the Theresa machine. We'll do this every other month (agent Sara Megibow will do the same in the gap months).

Today's entry was very well written, but there were a couple of edits that won't surprise long-time readers of this blog. You guys know what I do to the bling and the -ing!


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Minor sentence fix-- what would you do?

When I'm working with another writer, I don't have the freedom just to transform sentences I might have with my own writing. Much as I might like to, I can't rewrite the book or paper for them. Rather I need to make changes that will improve clarity without changing their voice or purpose or meaning, and without making the sort of small changes that will require big changes in the paragraphs around this sentence.

Anyway, I came across one sentence today that ended in "into," and no matter where we end up in debates about ending on a preposition, ending on that particular one (it's really two ... in and to) usually makes for an ugly sentence. So right away, I thought about how to get rid of that. Often, I can just delete the preposition and the sentence works fine, like:
That's the state I'm dwelling in.
can become:
That's the state I'm dwelling.
 without any loss of meaning. It's still not a particularly GOOD sentence, but it's serviceable, and maybe it doesn't have to be very good. Anyway, it's an easy fix to a sentence when I have more important issues, like finishing this edit by dinner.

But sometimes mere deletion of the preposition doesn't help much. Here's a sentence that's part of a biography (the syntax is identical, but I changed the details, if you're wondering why on earth anyone would put in a bio that they rented a storage closet ):
By then I had enough money and was able to rent a storage closet to put my bicycles and tools into.

That's the sort of sentence we often write when we're trying to get from point A (here, poverty) to point B (starting a bicycle repair business), just a waystation between departure and destination. And so the sentence is just conveying some information, and doesn't have to be really sparkling (save that for the great success sentences coming up). But even a waystation sentence can be comfortable. (I thought maybe I'd use "comfortable" to go with the waystation metaphor, see. A waystation can be comfortable, but it probably can't be "harmless," which was my first adjective choice.) Let's see how to make this an okay sentence, starting with the ending:

By then I had enough money to rent a storage closet for my bicycles and tools.

What do you think? Not too much in the way of change, but it's concise now, and the cause/effect is clearer when the "and" is replaced with the infinitive "to rent," and the other clutzy infinitive "to put my stuff into" is cleaned up with the nice encompassing "for."

Most important, now this waystation sentence doesn't call much attention to itself. It's not pretty, but it's not clunky. (Or rather, it's not glitzy, but it's not a dive either. Metaphor!) It's just clean and quick for a stop on the way to somewhere more important. 

But there might be better ways to clean up that sentence. What do you suggest? I must say, it's never going to be a great sentence, and it shouldn't be, because it's not expressing any great thought. I just want those types of sentences-- necessary, but not special-- to be precise and concise and quick for the reader. Your suggestions? Anyone have a "waystation sentence" to share?

And is it important to make even the minor sentences precise and concise? Is it a waste of time to focus much attention on those instead of the more important passages that can pay back big returns in reader experience? 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What do you need to start?

Each year around this time, I get together with the same group of writers for a weekend crash session. We hole up in a hotel and plot their next books, one at a time. It's a focused, concentrated experience. Each session is recorded and lasts around three hours, and in that three hours, the basic book will be mapped out. We use giant pads and thick markers to take notes on plot points and characterization, and we stick those notes to the walls like outsized reminder notes. Often, after the original three-hour sessions are done, we revisit a particular book to get more in-depth on a piece of the plot or to try to come up with a stronger twist.

It's an exceptionally good weekend process that has resulted in some exceptionally good books being written. We use the same basic procedure for each writer -- in terms of recording, note-taking, the basic process of Q&A-driven brainstorming -- and yet, each individual session is strongly different. These differences are based in the particular needs of each writer at the early stage of planning a book.

In some ways, Author One is the easiest to get started. She needs a strong structure and clear plot in place in order to begin writing. She writes romantic suspense, and her process begins with the external plot. The character motivation and emotional arcs come later for her -- and we know from experience that she is plenty capable of making those things work in the final draft. But she can't get to that final draft, and she has a hard time even wrangling that first draft, until she knows the basic structural pieces (initiating incident, midpoint lock, villain's m.o., final plot twist, black moment, and the like). She tends to arrive at these sessions armed with research about whatever crime her villain will commit, a setting, and some basic character backstory. So we brainstorm a clean, strong external plot and structure, and she runs with it from there. We do discuss her characters, but we don't flesh them out fully at this stage. We just get a working skeleton in place, and she gives them hearts and brains and fun bits later. She's the one who, if I ask her when they have their first kiss or first sex scene, is likely to shrug and say, "Somewhere around this scene." But I never have to worry that she'll overlook the romance in the final book -- it's just not something she needs to brainstorm in advance.

Author Two has a very different kind of process. She doesn't necessarily need the entire structure in place in order to begin drafting. What she needs is a solid understanding of the start of the book, and some firm pieces for the middle and end. She can always envision several different ways to write the first hundred pages, and she sometimes has to really think through the details on her first scene -- which should be the first scene, what must be established in that scene, and so on. She tends to come into our brainstorming sessions with a good story question in mind based on her pre-work with these early scenes, but much of the rest of the story will still feel wide open. Many of her questions to us start like this: "I know the character takes this particular action. But why would she do this?" Or, "I know this character has to eventually do this action. But how and why?"  And then we figure it out, extrapolating forward into the plot based on what the author knows about the beginning or some shadowy end point. It's a fun process because it can feel so inventive, and much of what I try to do in these sessions is show her how her existing known pieces might relate to each other. Sometimes pointing out a simple pattern or repetition can open a whole new line of discussion that leads to another section of plot being discovered. Because this author is writing a series, her big concern in plotting new books is ensuring that they are consistent with past books. And what she needs to begin is not necessarily a fully plotted book, but a very firmly plotted opening with a strong sense of how that opening will spin across the pages.

Author Three has the loosest process of all three writers. She writes purely character-driven work -- I know it's popular and trendy to claim that you write character-driven stories, but trust me, this is far more rare than the chatter would indicate. She comes into these brainstorming sessions with something akin to snapshots. She can see a character holding something in her hands. She can see another character standing in a particular room. Sometimes these are motion snapshots -- she can see a character engaged in some kind of movement, like buttering toast, and this will lead her to conclude that the toast is significant even if she doesn't know why. Usually, the first hour or so of our brainstorming sessions amounts to us trying to interpret or extrapolate these snapshots -- maybe she's a chef, maybe she runs a B&B, etc. -- and the author rejecting these concepts until she hears one that sticks. Getting to these sticking points can be a challenge, but once we have a handful, the rest of the story begins to fall into place around them. She complains that plotting is difficult for her -- and god knows, this is the curse of the character-driven author -- but we somehow manage to come up with enough plot and structure that she can aim her characters toward certain plot points as she writes them. But for her to begin drafting, she doesn't necessarily need a powerful, rock-solid structure in place. What she needs is a strong understanding of her characters, themes, symbols, and settings, and then the plot springs up from these other aspects as she writes.

So what is it that you need in order to begin drafting? Not everyone needs the same thing, and I think some of us fall into this trap of thinking that there is one best way to write a book, and all other methods are somehow less legitimate or less fruitful. Not true. Here we have three authors with wildly different approaches, and yet all three are making it happen. They know what they need to begin, and they've learned to leave certain other aspects open for discovery during the writing process. So how is it for you? Do you need to know how the book ends before you can begin writing? Do you need to know your subplots? Do you focus more on the emotions or the events? Understand your process, and it might not get any easier, but your faith in its ability to generate results will certainly get deeper and stronger.


Saturday, March 10, 2012

Three or Four acts?

Email question:
I'm wondering what the advantages or disadvantages would be for using a 3 Act Structured plot versus a 4 Act structured plot. Could you please explain a little why a writer would choose one or the other. Thanks.

Well, I don't think a writer chooses-- I think the story chooses. Some stories fall nicely into the "action rising to the climax, then quick resolution" three-act schema, and some fall naturally into the climb to crisis, then long aftermath of the four-act structure.

So I'd say you choose the story, but then you don't have that much choice in the overall structure, because the story has an organic shape that you discover as much as you invent it. 

So what's the difference?  Well, novels tend to be 3-act (or five-act-- that is, the middle can break into three short acts, same basic structure), but there are plenty of 4-act novels.  Films are more often 4-acts, I'm not sure why. It probably has to do with keeping the viewer interested in the middle, make sure they don't leave for popcorn without missing something. :)
Three Acts (I discuss this in depth in this article)
1. Set up, inciting event.
2. External conflict rises, rising action, many demands on main character. Ends on point of no return usually.
3. Crisis, dark moment, climax, resolution. The end.

Notice the "Crisis," the most dramatic moment in the plot, is at the start of the third act to precipitate a fairly expeditious ending. The middle act is usually the longest by far.

Four Acts:
1. Set up, ending on inciting event.
2. Complications arising from the external conflict cause rising conflict, ending (near the middle of the story) in a crisis, where the worst that can happen happens.
3. Protagonist, who has lost all or been defeated in the crisis, starts a long climb back up. Could start again trying for the goal, or replace it with a new goal. (For example, in the first act, the goal could be protecting the leader, and then when the leader is killed in the crisis, the new goal could be getting revenge.)
4. Climax and resolution. 

Notice that in a 4-act structure, the first act is usually set up (like the three act structure).
The second act is the build to the crisis. The crisis (the worst thing that can happen) comes at the very end of the second act, so almost directly in the middle.
The third act is the regrouping, the recovery from the crisis.
The fourth act is the climax-resolution, the working out of the conflict, or the triumph.

What's different is the placement of the crisis.  3-act: about 3/4 through, the very beginning of the end.
4-act: Directly in the middle.

Why?  Well, there are some crises that can't be gotten over in a few scenes.  Think of all the disaster films! They're as much about the recovery from the disaster as the causes of the disaster. 

But it's not just disaster that can form the crisis. I had a book which ended up as four acts -- a romance, Charity Begins at Home.  The first act, the hero and heroine met; the second, they got engaged, and then, suddenly, at the end of the second act, smack dab in the middle, the heroine broke off the betrothal-- the crisis. The third act was the hero trying to get a grip on this, and the fourth was his determined wooing her back. 

Often the protagonists switch places at the crisis, as above, where the heroine was the main driver of the first part of the story, and the hero took over for the second part. I must say, I didn't CHOOSE the four-act structure, but recognizing it led me to emphasize the "breakup" by giving it an entire scene and making it more clearly a crisis for the hero (who thought they were both very happy :). That is, recognizing that the scene in the middle was the Crisis led me to make it BIG, and also not to get frantic because the end of the story had no crisis.

Or look at the Fugitive film. I'd say the protagonist of the first half (or at least the second act) was Tommy Lee Jones, the marshal, and the crisis was when he finally caught the fugitive, only to have him commit suicide (seemingly). The second half, Harrison Ford's quest to find his wife's killer because the driver of the plot.

So... I'd suggest that you go back to your story and think about whether that "worst moment" is going to happen towards the end of the story, with a slower buildup and quicker recovery, or in the middle of the story, so there can be more time to recover. 

You tell me! All I know is, if you try to force a story that is naturally 4-acts into 3 acts, you're going to be frustrated.


Monday, March 5, 2012

Meaningless motivations

It occasionally would happen that we would read a synopsis or pitch with sentences like this:

Martha wants a new career because life as a dental technician isn't all she'd hoped it would be.

Goal: new career
Motivation: Current career is unsatisfying.

So far, so good. But then the problem would come in when this entire goal and motivation failed to translate into action. Not once in the course of the story would Martha do anything to get a new job. Not one action would be taken in furtherance of that goal. She might whine a lot about her current job, but other than annoying the other characters (and probably the reader), her career status would have no bearing on the development of the plot.

In romance, this can appear as a phantom romantic conflict.

Martha finds Pete sexy, but his lifestyle is unstable and even wild.

When I see sentences like this in a synopsis, I immediately start checking for events that prove this statement. Events. Things that happen in real story time. If Pete's an accountant who never misses a day of work and turns in at exactly 10:35 p.m. each night, then the reader might be wondering if Martha is talking about a different Pete. But if he rappels naked down her high-rise office building to get her attention, well, now we might be getting a little wild.

Sometimes, these meaningless motivations are explained with backstory.

Martha resists Pete because he served two years in the Navy straight out of high school and she protested the war in 2002.

Okay, but what does that have to do with the plot? If these other things happened ten or more years before the present day, does it matter now? HOW does it matter now? What EVENTS make this long-ago disparity relevant now, in the current plot?

All of which is to say -- the motivations have to become activated somehow in the real-time plot. Otherwise, they're meaningless.


Sunday, March 4, 2012

A subplot example

A few months ago, I posted about ways to test subplots to be sure they work in the overall context of the story. (That post is here if you want to refresh.) I thought we ought to try working an example of this process. We're going to use Downton Abbey for a couple of examples because, first, I've actually managed to watch it (a claim few shows can make this winter), and second, it is rife with subplots.

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't watched Downtown Abbey, you should still be able to follow the analysis. I will include information about plot and characters in this post, but this means you might run into some spoilers. I don't usually include spoiler alerts with this kind of post because I think spoilers are native to this kind of analysis, but I know several people who haven't watched the entire second season yet, and I know they're trying to wear blinders. So there you go.

Quick DA Summary:
DA is the story of the people who live in an English country house during the early part of the 20th century. This group is headed by Robert Crawley, Earl Grantham, who has an American heiress for a wife, a delightfully sharp-tongued dowager mother, a trio of marriageable daughters, and no sons to inherit the estate. Season one, episode one begins with the heir presumptive (James Crawley) and his son (Patrick Crawley) going down with the Titanic. This creates an inheritance issue. The next male heir is a somewhat tiresome attorney from Manchester who has had little contact with his aristocratic third cousins. This inheritance issue, and the resulting attempts to assimilate the new heir into the family and home, form most of the conflict for the first season and a good bit of the conflict for the second season.

Season One Inheritance Issue:
The question of whether Manchester Matthew will inherit the earldom is entirely resolved by the end of season one. The family cannot break the entail so that a daughter will inherit the property, and the Countess's surprise pregnancy ends in an accidental miscarriage of her change-of-life baby. As I said, most of the first season conflict stems from this issue, but it is resolved by the end of the first season. The second season revolves mainly around the effects of World War I and the daughters' ongoing attempts to find husbands.

Season Two Subplot:
This brings us to one of the strangest subplots I've ever seen, and the analysis on this one is straightforward enough that we can use it as a simple example of subplot analysis. For the duration of the war, the big house is converted to a convalescent home for officers wounded at the front. Just past the midpoint of season two, a heavily scarred burn victim arrives on the scene. Our first introduction to this character comes when Lady Edith, the middle child in every sense of the term, catches him examining personal items in one of the family's remaining rooms.

This gruesome person claims to be Patrick Crawley, presumed dead in the first episode of season one. He claims he was rescued from the Titanic wreckage and taken to New York. He says he now speaks with a Canadian accent (though his accent is more rust belt than Canada, imo) because he had amnesia and forgot he was English and moved to Canada. He convinces Lady Edith that he is actually Patrick, and she spends a good twenty minutes or so trying to convince the rest of the family, too. However, after making inquiries, the Earl discovers that this man is a Canadian who knew the dead heir and probably gained numerous personal details about the family through the course of that friendship.So, the mystery is solved, the imposter slinks off, and Matthew's right of inheritance is no longer under threat.

The Subplot Test:
Okay, this brings us to the subplot test. The first test of a subplot is whether it has an impact on the development of the main plot. In this case, because Matthew's right to inherit was all buttoned up by the end of season one, this late-season-two subplot revisits that issue without changing the outcome. Matthew was the heir in the moments before the imposter's arrival, and he was still the heir after the imposter left. That did not change. So the subplot fails in that respect.

But that is only the first step of the analysis. It's not enough to examine the impact on the plot. We must also examine the impact on theme, character, and other story elements. In this case, there is a scene in which the family gathers in the parlor to discuss the problem. All of them except for Lady Edith are championing Matthew's right to inherit. This marks a distinct change from season one, when the inheritance issue was actually important to the plot and various family members disputed Matthew's rights. This isn't an anchor scene -- the scenes that mark the beginning and end of the subplot -- but it struck me as a potentially important scene. If the purpose of the imposter subplot was to show this change within the family dynamic, it succeeds because of this drawing room scene.

But the analysis doesn't end there. Now we have to go back to the main plot to see if this point is already being made there, and if not, can it be made in a more direct way there. And the thing is, this issue was also resolved in season one. By the end of season one, Matthew and all the other characters have accepted his role. His champions have won, and his detractors have not only surrendered, but changed to his side. Through the early/middle part of season two, every action shows Matthew as not only the heir, but a welcome and pivotal member of the household. So the subplot is unnecessary to demonstrate this change, which is already being accomplished through the main plot.

There is one other aspect we must consider. At this point in the main plot, Matthew has been injured and is in a wheelchair. His ability to father children is in doubt, and this throws the succession into doubt once again. The imposter arrives before Matthew recovers, and in the drawing room scene, Matthew says it might be better if the imposter inherits because at least he can have children. The question, then, is not whether Matthew should inherit, but who should inherit down the line. If Matthew is the heir and impotent, then the inheritance is cloudy. If the imposter is the heir, he could presumably father a line of children.

This is a somewhat shaky question, though, because the imposter is also severely injured and we don't know whether he can fish with that tackle. Even if the equipment works in the functional sense, there is still the possibility that he would be unable to have children. Or that he would have only daughters, which is what started this whole mess in the first place. So I never really bought the notion that the imposter could guarantee a line of sons to follow him -- maybe he would have sons, and maybe he wouldn't. This means that the story choice is not really Matthew + no children versus imposter + sons. It's more like Matthew + no children versus imposter + ordinary inheritance issues. Think how different it would seem if the imposter turned out to have a legitimate son already. Then this generation-skipping transfer issue is even more pronounced, but it would have failed in other respects.

In any case, it's quickly a non-issue because Matthew can walk again and, we assume, the third leg also works again. So the subplot is used (poorly) to raise the tension level in a season two issue (whether Matthew can have children) by re-raising issues that were resolved in season one (whether Matthew should inherit at all). I thought it was clumsy and unnecessary -- an unusual off-note from an otherwise excellent writer. The imposter could be somehow relevant to season three, but really, I don't care to see the imposter again. Do you?

Can you think of other ways the imposter subplot might have been made important to the story? How would you have revised this?


Friday, March 2, 2012

Can you teach voice?

I was asked this question recently. I'm thinking about it. Yes and no. How's that for a definite answer. (My students, btw, frequently assert things like, "I am defiantly glad I moved here!" and "Survivor is defiantly the grandfather of all reality shows." Cough. Spell-check is not always your friend.)

Writing voice is like singing voice. You're born with the potential for a good voice, or not, and you can't be taught to have the potential. But you can be taught to refine and improve the potential voice. And I think that even if you haven't the potential for a good voice, you can certainly be taught to have an adequate voice to suit most writing purposes. You won't end up singing at the Met if you aren't born with the potential (and without insightful teachers along the way!), but without the talent but with the teachers, you can learn enough that you don't embarrass yourself at a group sing-along.

But yes, voice is more than just the rhythmic and near-musical assemblage of words in a pleasing and/or effective pattern. Voice includes worldview, attitude, personality, wisdom, and other personal traits that exist within some of us, and can be brought into our writing to deepen what we have as a voice. This is (to use another musical metaphor) probably what separates (I'm dating myself here, but with Davy Jones's death, they're in my mind) The Monkees (technically polished, even talented) from The Beatles (ditto, but with some extra fillip of meaningfulness and imagination). The Monkees couldn't help but be derivative, and The Beatles couldn't help but be a thing beyond their influences.  Now would you say that the depth and thought and all that is more or less useful than the technical expertise?  Shallow-but-polished vs. insightful-but-a-mess. Well, we know, given that choice, what the buying public usually goes for.

I think "iimagination" is another aspect that takes voice above the merely competent technically.  I've taught former journalists who really want to be novelists, and of course their writing mechanics are admirable (they better be), but often they struggle to create characters and stories that are beyond what they have observed. (Some journalists, often those who struggled in their jobs with the desire to "just make it up," like, say Mark Twain, have great imaginations, but that's not really compatible with the career choice.) They are often less successful as writers than that fabulously imaginative but technically hopeless fantasist. You can hire editors, but you can't hire imaginators.

But, as one who is somewhat imagination-deprived, I can attest that it's indeed possible to go "deeper if not broader" when you don't have much imagination, and still come up with books that are more than just "what anyone could come up with."

Anyway, you can tell voice is something I'm intrigued by, and there! I ended on a preposition! I feel sinful!