Dr. Doyle's Editorial and Critique Services

thoughts on reading, writing, and editing

Summer Daze

I haven’t been around here as much as I should have been this month, for which I blame late-summer lethargy.  By way of amends, here’s a nifty research site:  a page with links to digitized medieval manuscript collections on-line.  When I think about how much I would have loved a resource like this back in my grad student days . . . I envy the scholars of today, who have all this technology at their fingertips.

Also:  a web site dedicated to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, with photos and contemporary accounts and price lists for things like food and lodging and various attractions.  (A double room with bath was $10/day at the Palmer House Hotel; or you could make do with the YMCA for $1/day if you were doing the Fair on the cheap.)

And just for giggles:  The Periodic Table of Storytelling.

Yet Another Reason Why Young Writers Grow Up Paranoid

A South Carolina high-schooler got hauled in by the police for questioning because “when [he] was given an assignment by his teacher to create a Facebook-type status report telling something interesting about himself, he allegedly wrote ‘I killed my neighbor’s pet dinosaur. I bought the gun to take care of the business.'”

Which would, in point of fact, make a great short story opening – it’s got the story problem right there up front, plus a good dose of implicit worldbuilding, and it’s also got a distinctive narrative voice. And it’s clearly fiction; I don’t think that the police and school officials in South Carolina believe – well, I certainly hope that they don’t believe – that the kid’s neighbor, or anybody else in town for that matter, actually owns a pet dinosaur.

(I dunno. Maybe they think that “dinosaur” is some kind of special troubled-teen code word for “golden retriever” or something.)

Always, when I read one of these stories, I think back on the stuff I was writing, back in my larval-writer high-school days, and I thank God that a) the times were different then, and while they were more uptight in a lot of ways, they were also more relaxed in ways we’re only now beginning to appreciate, and b) I was a “good girl”, which is to say I was an A student with no social life, and therefore got cut a lot more slack for minor eccentricities and crosswise encounters with the system, and c) I already knew better than to put anything into the hands of the educational authorities that wasn’t bland and non-threatening and well-behaved.

These days, I’m not sure even being a “good girl” would save me.

The Inverse of Robert Burns

The Scots poet Robert Burns wrote, famously, of being able to look at oneself as an outside observer:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae
mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion…

For writers seeking to create believable and well-rounded characters, however, another important question to ask is, how does a character see him-or-herself? 

This question has more than one side to it.  The more obvious side, perhaps, deals with a character’s secret self-doubts and hidden shames:  the heroic leader who is inwardly convinced that he’s making a bombastic fool of himself every time he has to make an inspirational speech; the charitable volunteer who secretly hates the good works they do out of a sense of duty.

On beyond that, however, is another question:  what is the character’s heroic self-image?  That is, when they’re thinking of themselves in the best possible light, the one that they’d want to have shining on them in their most flattering biography, what do they see?  This is especially helpful when creating good antagonists (since as I’ve probably said before, very few people actually think of themselves as deliberate, conscious villains.)  The rapacious industrial robber baron may see himself as a captain of industry, risking his personal fortune on daring projects that will add to the wealth of the nation and an increase in the public weal; the usurper of the throne may see himself or herself as the only person bold enough to take decisive action before the current ruler drives the whole country off a cliff (and in some versions of the story, he or she might actually be right, and not be a villain at all.)  And the world is  chock-full of CEOs, generals, heads of state, and more petty tinpot bosses than you could shake a stick at, who look at themselves in the mirror every morning and see, not a heartless jerk and a menace to society, but the man (or woman) who can make the hard but necessary decisions.

If there’s a danger to this two-pronged approach to creating well-rounded and believable antagonists, it’s that you may well end up with an antagonist who’s sufficiently well-rounded and believable that some of your readers will end up liking them.  Please don’t consider this a failure on your part; be flattered, instead.

After all, in the real world, even bad guys have friends.  So if your fictional baddie garners a friend or two among your readers, then you’ve come just that little bit closer to creating an effective secondary reality in your story.

Peeve of the Day

Today’s peeve, for those of you who are collecting the whole set (also for those of you who aren’t; I’m not particular) is orbs.

Not the literal ones that are carrying out material functions, such as being part of some monarch’s regalia, and not the non-material ones that are nevertheless actual visual artifacts that can occur in flash photography.

No, I’m rendered peevish by the sort of romantic over-writing in which characters never have blue or green or hazel eyes – instead, they’re graced with sapphire or emerald or topaz orbs.    Pity the poor character with brown eyes, who has to deal with chocolate orbs instead.

(It is probably fortunate, both for the characters and for the reader, that this particular school of over-writing tends to bestow evocatively-colored orbs only upon the sympathetic characters.)

If You’re Going to be in Bradford, Vermont, This Evening…

… then you might consider also being here, between 6  and 8 PM.

Star Cat Books is hosting a reading and signing by authors Miranda Neville and Skylar Dorset, accompanied by an English cream tea (scones! clotted cream! jam!)

It’s where I’m going to be, at any rate.  (Scones!  Clotted cream! Jam!  And of course, books.)

Summer Daze

‘Tis the season for muggy, oppressive weather, the kind that saps the energy and destroys the initiative . . . not the best kind of weather in which to be doing revisions, but still, revisions must be done.

A few of the things that get taken care of in revision, at least by me:

Turning a suitable number of semicolons into either periods or commas, as appropriate.  I am, as I’ve admitted here before, one of those writers with a tendency to love semicolons not wisely, but too well, and getting rid of at least one in three isn’t going to hurt the story and will probably improve it.

Double-checking the continuity, in order to make sure that characters don’t refer to things other characters have told them before they’ve actually been told, and similar stuff.  When you’re the bead-stringing, rather than the linear, sort of writer, this is a matter of particular concern.

Getting rid of any zero-draft filler material and placeholders that may have lingered in the text even through subsequent iterations.  A tertiary character may have been referred to as [NameOfCharacter] while the plotline was still being spun out, for example, and now that he’s been promoted to Bob the Delivery Guy it’s a good idea to make certain that all the instances of square brackets have been cleaned up.

Generally smoothing out any sentences that are still too bumpy for my liking, and fixing up anything else that doesn’t feel quite right.

All I can say is, it’s a good thing that I like doing revisions.  I’d hate to be doing something that I didn’t like, here in the hazy humid days of summer.


Another Handy Tool

If you’re a Scrivener user, and like to play around with the Name Generator tool, here’s a web page with a bunch of importable name files compiled by the owner from various sources.

It’s the Little Things

It’s a generally-accepted truism that what makes for good, effective description is a combination of careful observation and a keen eye for the telling details.

What isn’t said so often is that you have to be careful which telling details you pick to use, and when you decide to use them.  Your readers have years of training in the grammar of fiction, both popular and literary.  They know quite well that some details have an extra job to do, and some of those jobs are hallowed by tradition.

For example:  In the real world, anybody can have a cough.  But in the world of fiction, things are different.  If the coughing character is lucky, all that a cough will do is alert somebody to his or her presence when that presence ought to remain unknown.  Characters in long or arc-based fictional formats have no such good fortune, however; for them, a cough almost always foreshadows a lingering and probably fatal illness within the next few chapters or episodes.

Similarly, people in the real world have occasional disagreements and even sharp words with their nearest and dearest without having the entire relationship fall apart as a result.  In fiction, even a mild exchange of the “I thought you had the car keys!” variety tends to become the harbinger of breakups to come.  (This may be why the obligatory “this is a happy family” scene that precedes so many disasters in film and television tends to be so sappily anodyne – anything else would be over-interpreted by the audience.)

A full catalog of all the possible traditional telling details would take more time and space than I have here.  All I can say is, keep an eye on what you’re showing the reader, and make certain you’re not accidentally foreshadowing things that aren’t going to happen.

A Bit of Amusement

Over at The Toast:  Every Irish Novel Ever.

It’s a hoot.  Even the comments are hilarious.  (Which is a rarity, and a thing to be celebrated when it occurs, given that the comments section of most web pages could serve as an argument for the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity.)

It reminds me of my younger son’s summation of his course in The Modern Irish Novel (which would have been more accurately titled Irish Novels Not Written by James Joyce):  “Life in twentieth-century Ireland sucked.”

When you’re done, go on to read the pages for, variously, Every French, Russian, and Canadian Novel Ever.

A Useful Tool

Someday, you’re going to be writing a story where you really, honestly need to know the time of sunrise, sunset, or twilight on a particular day in a particular place.

Maybe you’re writing historical fiction, and need to know whether your characters are going to have enough light left in the day to do whatever it is you want them to do.

Maybe you’re writing fantasy or horror, and need to know when your creepy-crawlies can emerge from their coffins or lairs or shadowy pits and go forth to rule the night.

If so, then the U.S. Naval Observatory has a web page for you.

The web page speaks of “civil twilight,” defined as:

the limit at which twilight illumination is sufficient, under good weather conditions, for terrestrial objects to be clearly distinguished; at the beginning of morning civil twilight, or end of evening civil twilight, the horizon is clearly defined and the brightest stars are visible under good atmospheric conditions in the absence of moonlight or other illumination. In the morning before the beginning of civil twilight and in the evening after the end of civil twilight, artificial illumination is normally required to carry on ordinary outdoor activities.

This is the kind of twilight you’ll probably be concerned with.  There are two other, more specialized, twilights – nautical twilight is when “the illumination level is such that the horizon is still visible even on a Moonless night, allowing mariners to take reliable star sights for navigational purposes” and astronomical twilight is when “the center of the Sun is geometrically 18 degrees below the horizon.”  But unless your protagonist is a navigator or an astronomer – in which case you’ve got more research ahead of you than a quick web page check is going to handle — you probably won’t need either of those.

In the meantime, think good thoughts about the U. S. Navy, figuring these things out so writers don’t have to.

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