Sunday, September 23, 2018

Either/or== Must we choose between proper mechanics and creativity?

I'm asking this because this is a question that comes up a lot: "So someone submits a perfectly clean manuscript, every comma in the right place, but it's boring. And someone submits a manuscript with a lot of grammar mistakes, but it's a great story. Which would you take?"

Hmm. That's a toughie. It's especially tough because in my experience, good creativity and good mechanics are NOT mutually exclusive. Far from it. Language is the way we present our stories, and the presentation is important for getting the story right.

To tell you the truth, I seldom see a "great story with terrible mechanics." (I have seen a few perfect manuscripts with boring stories, a few fairly good stories with terrible mechanics... mostly I've see okay stories with okay mechanics, alas.)

First, I guess I'd like to say-- no editor is looking for a perfect manuscript. Editors assume that there will be a few typos, a few infelicitous phrasings, some small format problems. No editor starts hyperventilating at the prospect of working with a writer who is a little less than perfect on every page. Got to justify existence, don't we? Perfect writers don't need editors!

So never worry that the editor is going to read 200 pages and on page 201 discover that misspelling and decide to reject. That won't happen. But what if there are four misspellings on the first page? What should the editor do then? (When encountering a lot of mechanical problems right away, I started sending back the submission without reading further, and saying, politely I hope, "I know you would like another chance to edit so that this is easier for me to consider." Generally, the writers have all thanked me for the chance, though who knows what they're really thinking. :)

One thing I do have to point out is that there really isn't an either/or here. Creativity might be messy at the creation stage, but I know very well there is no need for a good story to be messy at the submission stage. Most good stories go along with at least adequate mechanics, because the writer cares enough about presentation and narration to work hard at things like sentences and paragraphing. Most good writers don't assume that "story" is just "idea," but understand that ideas are developed in scenes which are made up of causally linked passages which are made up of paragraphs and sentences.

A mechanically inept manuscript is, in my experience, more correlated to inept development of the central idea or plot. I might see, in a mess of a manuscript, a good plot idea, or a glimmer of brilliant characterization. But that's usually all there is-- an idea, a glimmer. The execution and development aren't done well, particularly at the scene level. Why, well, interestingly, I think, there is "story grammar" and "scene syntax." Just as in a sentence or paragraph, stories and scenes have relationships that are shown in the structure or design. If the writer doesn't get that this pair of sentences shows a causal relationship:
He lurched forward, his mouth open.
I got out of the way.
Then probably the same writer isn't going to design a scene developing the cause/effect relationship between bigger events, although those events might be terrific.

Have I ever seen a great story with lousy mechanics? Yes, but mostly with my college students. If they come from a storytelling family or culture, often they get the story grammar talent with mother's milk. They've been surrounded by great stories all their lives. But usually this is oral storytelling, and often their ability to write it down is limited. We see this a whole lot with non-native speakers, especially those who left their home culture before high school, so that they aren't "writingly fluent" in their native language either.
We also see this in native speakers who didn't have adequate educational experiences (or who weren't paying attention... the class clown comes to mind-- usually he's a great storyteller.) The issues are usually spelling and punctuation, not sentences-- that is, it's really the -writing- stuff, the letters and punctuation marks which aren't clear in spoken English that cause the problem. Sometimes word choice is lacking too, especially in non-native speakers-- they just don't yet have the vocabulary. But they do have the ability to describe setting and people, to design scenes for maximum drama, to select the telling detail.

I had two students like this in one semester. They both would have gotten an A if I taught speech. As it was, one got an A, the woman who wrote very affectingly about her grandmother being diagnosed with Alzheimers the same week the writer found out she was pregnant, and how that baby ended up helping the grandmother keep her speech long into the illness. She worked closely with me and a tutor to find the mechanical problems that got in the way of the story presentation.

The other was a young man who wrote (this was a kind of emotionally wrenching semester) about getting to the hospital just a few moments after his mother died, so he couldn't say goodbye. The urgency of the journey across town -- wow. Beautifully structured with great suspense. But he didn't have the time to transform this great story into a great paper, and didn't get as good a grade (though I made sure he knew that he had all the right stuff and just needed to go this additional step, and I hope he did in the future).

So I know it's possible to have great story/bad mechanics-- but I have to point out that these were students in freshman composition, each coming out of an oral tradition that rewarded great story design and impressive vocal performance (which they had-- as I said, they both would have gotten As in a speech class). Transferring that to written language is a separate process.

But if you're submitting a written manuscript to a book publisher, well, it's expected that you are as adept at the tools of the craft. Those students might not know so much about punctuation and other elements of written language, but they did know how to use vocal expression and pauses and body language as they told their story. (They weren't so great at first at transferring that to writing, but they really did have the vocal tools for storytelling.) If you choose to write this story, it's kind of expected that you would use the written-language tools adequately.

Now, as I said, minor errors are not the issue here, and I think writers who get upset when I say I want a mechanically adept manuscript might think I mean no typos. But what I mean is-- well, truth is, most of you would be shocked to see a story with dialogue like this:

He said "Joni Im sorry about your cat's.
She said don't worry about it. There probably hiding in the garage"

That's not actually the sort of "messiness" that goes with creativity and great ideas. But that is what we see a lot. And that sort of leaden presentation means the voice is usually leaden too. Voice isn't just about word choice-- it's developed through sentencing and punctuating too.

So... let's say you are like my students, trained by tradition and upbringing and talent to be a great storyteller but not a great practitioner of the written discourse? You know what I'd suggest you do? I'd suggest you dictate your story into your phone recorder, and hire a good secretary or transcriber to type it. (If anyone knows of a speech-to-text app which does a good job, let me know. My "twalking" -- talk-walking- recordings always end up as gibberish as text.)

Many transcribers have been, uh, quietly editing their clients' prose for years, and know how to turn your dictation into an fairly adequate manuscript. (When I worked at the late lamented Grammar Hotline, most of our callers were secretaries who were interested in getting the grammar right, or in proving to their boss they were right, and they usually were.:) If the problem is getting it from oral language to written language, it's probably easier and cheaper to hire someone to make the transfer yourself.

Now that I think of it, the corollary -- the perfect manuscript and boring story-- happens more often. That's because you can hire someone to turn oral language into written language -- same words, after all, and it will still be YOUR story, not the transcriber's. But if you hire someone to design your scenes, deepen the characterization, create a suspenseful tone, structure the events-- it's not really your story, is it? All those things ARE story. (And that is why people hire ghostwriters, I guess.)

Thinking back on perfectpunctators/lousystorytellers... I have seen that too. I used to write Regency novels, a subgenre that attracted a lot of English teachers and librarians (it's set in the time of Austen, see). And when I'd judge a Regency contest, I'd frequently get an entry that was well-written on the basic word level, but lacking in story grammar. They knew how to write a sentence, but couldn't flesh out a character. They knew how to punctuate dialogue, but not how to make it sound authentic. The story would never be insane (that's much more likely with the messy manuscript, and yeah, I've seen that a lot too), but it would be "by the numbers," often using conventional situations (ballroom scenes, mistaken identity) with nothing fresh added.

In a contest, this would often score sort of on the high end of mediocre, but never win. And really, I don't have a quick solution ("hire someone to type it") here. The problem is more global, more personal-- that is, the writer probably doesn't have a great imagination and/or an innate or learned sense of story grammar, and you just can't hire that. (But I do think these would be great transcribers for the oral storytellers out there! :)

So... which of the two (messy but good story, clean but boring story) would be more likely to be published? Hmm. Well, of course, when we pick up a published book, we're seeing an edited version, not the original submission. So there might be plenty of previously-messy books that have been wrestled into rightness by a pair of editors and a proofreader, and we'll never know unless we get the editor drunk. ("You know that writer of mine who made the NYTimes list last week. Boy, you should have seen the manuscript when it came to me. One long sentence, the whole first chapter. I kid you not. You're buying the next round, right?") Notice that this requires a lot of time and energy from the editors and money commitment from the publisher, so a damn good story is required, not just a good story, to elicit that much effort.

But we certainly all read boring but well-written books. They're well-written enough that we don't take them back to the bookstore and demand our money back, or post nasty reviews on Amazon. We don't feel passionate enough about them for that level of response. Meh... we sort of wonder why this book was chosen out of the many the editor must have read that month. (Probably the original book for that slot didn't come in on time, so they needed a book to fill the gap, a book that didn't require much work to make presentable, and this one landed very cleanly on the desk at just the right moment. See why it's a good idea always to send in a clean manuscript? "Doesn't need much editing" is maybe not the fulsome compliment you were hoping for, but there are times when that's exactly what the publisher wants in a book.)

Well, anyway, we should all strive for great story/great mechanics. Figure out our weakness and what to work on to overcome it, but maintain our strengths too.

I'm remembering a query I got from one of those meticulous types, the one that made me really WANT to buy out of pity-- "I always make deadlines. I always deliver a clean manuscript. I have worked as a proofreader for a decade"-- it was sort of sad. Imagine an epitaph: "She always made her deadlines, including this one."

Writing articles

Saturday, September 22, 2018

How to Write a Great Sentence  , The Guardian

Every writer, of school age and older, is in the sentences game. The sentence is our writing commons, the shared ground where all writers walk. A poet writes in sentences, and so does the unsung author who came up with “Items trapped in doors cause delays”. The sentence is the Ur-unit, the core material, the granular element that must be got right or nothing will be right. For James Baldwin, the only goal was “to write a sentence as clean as a bone”.

An Edited Page from Flaubert's manuscript for Madame Bovary

Friday, September 21, 2018

Three Acts: Three "Things' That Can Increase the Coherence of Your Conflict

 Try this exercise if you're afraid your conflict is lagging!

This uses the 3-act Structure to organize your plot events into setup, rising conflict, resolution, and that structure provides propulsion and the progression of events within the story arc. Willy-nilly eventing won't build up the dramatic power that intensifies the emotion.  In fact, effective plotting is all about cause and effect. Events matter because they cause something else to happen and something to change and the characters to feel. The accumulation of events is what propels the reader to read on, and organizing this cause/effect sequence into acts will help you build tension and cause change.

Three Acts:
Act 1 -- Set up conflict.
Act 2 -- Make conflict rise.
Act 3 -- Make conflict explode, and then resolve it.

Try breaking these acts into 3 big events of ascending emotional risk: Examples-
3 times she needed help
3 times he got stuck
3 attempts to deal with the conflict
3 attempts to reach the goal
3 heartbreaks
3 secrets
3 lies
3 failures
3 betrayals
3 times she didn't ask for help

Just try it-- ascending risk, remember!
Then consider: What are the risks he/she is afraid of?
Why is this a risk?
What might this risk cause, and what might be caused by their trying to AVOID the risk?

For example, let's take one that is just full of emotion-- secrets. Three secrets.
Kept or revealed? Or both? Maybe the attempt to keep a secret leads to revelation.
Let's think of ascending risk --
Act 1: This sets up the first secret. She's an FBI agent, and she's sent undercover into a small town. So the first secret is that she's secretly an FBI agent.
There's not a lot of emotional risk in this secret because it's her job. But it sets in motion all the rest of the risks.
What does this cause? It causes her to be placed in this small town to investigate the local bank, and it causes her to have to take on a disguise—she's pretending to be a bank teller.

Act 2: The next secret comes when she meets and is drawn to the son of the bank president. This is just the sort of guy she despised when she was growing up, rich and polished and educated. But she's supposed to investigate his father, and she's supposed to be a bank teller who would be flattered by his intentions, so she has to keep the secret from him about who she is... and the secret from her boss that she's falling in love with one of the "targets".
What does this cause? She's getting deeper entrenched into deception. It's going to be far, far worse now when her secret is revealed. She's also becoming alienated from her job, from her old self, from the FBI, as she's not reporting her contact with Junior. Maybe she's even started lying to her boss, withholding information that could get Junior in trouble.

Act 3: What's the final secret? It's probably her real identity, not just FBI, but her former identity. Maybe she's never told anyone that she grew up as "trailer trash," the daughter of a small-town prostitute or drug dealer. Her final secret is her shame, which has caused her all along to hide her past and her true self, to cut herself off from her old friends and her family, maybe even to make up a more generic and acceptable past.
(The big task would be—and I'm too brain-dead now to come up with an idea!—make the revelation of that secret in the start of Act 3 happen and affect the plot.)

Let's try another "Three Acts, Three Somethings."
Remember the film Casablanca? Rick is a symbol of the United States before Pearl Harbor, isolated, uninvolved, as the world crashes around him.
This is a tightly plotted story, and there are several "3 things", but the one I like to focus on is "Three Times Rick Refuses To Help." (Tip: To determine “ascending risk,” you want to ask after each of the 3 things: What is the risk? What does this cause?)

Act 1: Ugarte asks Rick for 2 things—to hold the letters of transit for the evening (he agrees), and later to help him escape from the police (Rick refuses this time).

What is the risk? There's some emotional risk from refusing to help—a few hours later, he drunkenly refers to it—but he can shrug it off as kind of a cost of doing business—sometimes, to run a successful saloon, you have to sacrifice a friend.

What does this cause? It's very important externally because with Ugarte dead, Rick is now stuck with these letters of transit, and as he says drily, "As long as I have them, I'll never be lonely." (I tell you, this film is SO well-written, because in fact, he is alone, and his loneliness is ended only because he has those damned letters of transit!)

Act 2: The news of his having the letters spreads, and he's approached by Victor Laszlo, a Resistance leader who will be arrested by the Gestapo if he can't get out of Casablanca. When L offers to buy the letters (which will get him and his wife to safety—do NOT ask why! Because, that's why. These are magic letters :), Rick refuses, and when asked why, says bitterly, "Ask your wife."

Much more emotional risk here! In refusing to help, he is acknowledging that the wife (Ilsa) hurt him earlier, and he's using this as a means of revenge. His hard-won isolationist wall is beginning to crumble. Also, weirdly, he's sort of letting himself hope that Laszlo will find out about the earlier affair and cast Ilsa out so that she will come to Rick again.

What does this cause? Well, one effect is, paradoxically, to reconcile Laszlo and Ilsa. She's been keeping the secret of the former affair (she'd thought L was dead), and this actually lets Laszlo understand what happened and gently indicate that he doesn't blame her. (This becomes a huge part of her conflict, actually, as she realizes she still loves both of them.)
For Rick, this causes him to get more and more involved in Ilsa's dire situation and make it that much clearer that he's still in love with her.

Act 3: Ilsa herself comes to him and asks for—no, demands—the letters of transit to save Laszlo so he can continue to fight the Nazis. She is so determined that she pulls a gun on him, and he is so determined to refuse to help her, that he invites her to shoot him. Rather than help her, he will commit suicide! Talk about emotional risk. Helping her would be worse than dying?
(She as always ends up acting with love, putting the gun down and confessing that she still loves him, and he ends up embracing her—this is one of the greatest scenes in the history of film.)
What is the risk? That he will fall in love with her again (as he does), that he will lose all his defenses, that he will be hurt again, that he will lose her. This ALL happens. (That is, sometimes the greatest emotional risk should explode.)

What does this cause? Rick’s refusal causes her to confess her love, and that leads to their tacit decision to use the letters of transit. But here's the amazing thing. Ilsa says to him, "You'll decide what's right? For all of us?" That is, she is telling him that whatever he decides to do, he has to help Laszlo to safety. (She assumes that he will give Laszlo one letter of transit, and she and Rick will escape together some other way. And you know what happens, or if you don't, go watch the film!!!!!)
The real result is Rick's return to the family of man, actually. He accepts responsibility for other people, and joins the war effort. He gives up his isolation and accepts the power of love.

Notice that a powerful place to put 'the thing' is close to the end of the act, so that its repercussions propel into the next act.

So look at your own story, and see if you can identify "Three Things", or invent them, and center each act upon this thing.
1. What is the "thing" in "Three Things" in your story? If you'd like to speculate about what this means, how it relates to a deep internal issue or theme (like Rick's refusal to help is an aspect of his fear of getting too involved again and getting hurt), have at it.

2. Where can you put some manifestation of "this thing" in each act?
For each occurrence, ask:
    a. What is the emotional risk here (and remember to assemble these three in ascending risk)?
    b. What does this thing cause to happen?

3. How can this thing near the end of the story (maybe the dark moment?) cause a great emotional change?

Try that. It might mean a bit of re-arranging or intensifying events you already have.

Any examples?  Questions? Ideas?

Alicia  Writing articles

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Wait! You mean a smaller plate WON'T make me eat fewer calories? Picking and choosing information (we fiction-writers get to do that).

Interesting article here about a researcher in "food psychology" who has several of his studies withdrawn. (This was the result of an injudicious blog post he made where he accidentally mentioned that he was getting his grad students to massage data or something. Blogging is DANGEROUS!)

His studies were widely popularized ("Don't shop hungry, you'll spend more!" Remember that? You know, it's common sense!).

The application to writing is different for academic non-fiction and fiction.
If you are writing up a research report, do not pick and choose data!

But if you are writing fiction, figure out what among an array of details and options will most impress your reader. Be selective. Pick and choose!

With fiction, it's usually good for the creator to have some vision of the end effect-- you know, "I want the readers to be mystified and annoyed when they finish the book." (Have you ever read one of those books where you can't figure out what happens in the end? Or which ends abruptly without resolving the conflicts? I suspect those authors wanted to annoy us. :)
or "My ending is going to show the precariousness of life when you depend too much on other people."

So as story-writers draft or revise their scenes, it can be effective to select details and events and options that will guide the readers towards that end effect. If "precariousness" is important, I might emphasize unpredicted dangers, like broken glass on the floor, or a co-worker going home with a headache and then getting taken to the hospital with meningitis.  None of these details might be all that important to the plot, but they would work subliminally on the readers to create a tone of menace and risk.

Fiction-writers get to make things up, and they also get to pick and choose.
This is probably the only profession that encourages such sins!


Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Starting this up again!

New resolution! I want to blog more about writing and editing. So here I go...

Well, today I got nothing. Bad start!

I have been listening to the John McWhorter podcast Lexicon Valley.  He's got a new episode up about "habitual past" (I used to blog a lot). He points out that we also now use "would" to indicate a past action that recurred habitually- I would blog a lot.

His podcast is always fun. He has a thing for Broadway musicals, so he will have clips from Ethel Merman and Shirley Booth singing some long-forgotten ditty that explicates something about language.

So... any writing questions or topics I can address? I respond well to requests. :)