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thoughts on reading, writing, and editing

Besetting Sins

All writers have them – those prose tics they exhibit when the going is either too fast, or too slow, for them to notice the word-by-word; those all-too-easy-to-fall-back-on scenes and tropes that can take the place of carefully-crafted or character-driven plotting*; those personal or political agendas that will take advantage of an unguarded moment to turn sneaky fictional persuasion into open polemic.

One of my own sins is a horror of being too obvious about things.  Taken too far – as will happen, sometimes, despite all efforts to the contrary – this results in a story that lacks clarity because a lot of the necessary connective bits only exist inside my head.

So I’ve had to make a rule for myself:  When in doubt, spell it out.

It’s a useful rule, at least if you’re me, or if that particular writerly sin is one of yours, as well.

Generally speaking, I find that if I have to ask myself, “Self, are you perhaps being a bit over-subtle right here?”  the answer is usually, “Yes.”

Also – as I tell myself from time to time – don’t worry about being too obvious.  It’s actually fairly hard to be too obvious, and if you are being too obvious, trust me, your editor or your beta readers will let you know.

(And if you’re Vladimir Nabokov or James Joyce or Gene Wolfe, then you’re playing a different game altogether and a different set of general rules apply.  Also, you’re probably well beyond needing advice from me on anything, though possibly a good recipe or two might still be useful.) 

*Not that “carefully-crafted” and “character-driven” should be taken as mutually exclusive!

More Than Meets the Eye

It’s time to talk for a minute about description.

A story needs description, as part of the process of enabling readers to re-create the imagined world of the story inside their own head.  In science fiction and fantasy narratives in particular, description does more than just paint a picture of a slice of contemporary consensus reality – it’s part of the world-building, the process by which the writer calls into being a fictional milieu which is not part of contemporary consensus reality at all.

Most journeyman writers can manage telling the reader how things look and sound.  We’re used to filtering our experiences of the world through the senses of sight and hearing, and those details come easily to mind.  But effective description needs to involve all the senses, including smell and touch and taste.  In practical terms:  if your characters are standing out in the snow in the middle of a snowstorm, their feet are going to be cold.  And if they’re in the common-room of a busy tavern, they’re going to be smelling the burning logs on the fire, and the sweat of the patrons, and the scent of whatever good stuff is cooking.

(A quick tip:  If you really want your description to connect with the reader on a straight-to-the-animal-brain level, go for the sense of smell.  The right remembered scent – the fishy, salt-water smell of the wind off the ocean; the crisp, almost spicy smell of birch logs burning in a wood stove; the smell of nervous sweat and recirculated air in the cabin of a jetliner that’s waited for too long on the runway – can carry the reader exactly where you want them to go.)

Bear in mind, though, that lush sensory description can get overdone.  There’s no need to give absolutely everything in your narrative the detailed treatment –save it for things that are important to the story because they advance the plot, illuminate the theme, or reveal character.  Because if everything gets the detailed-description emphasis, then nothing is going to stand out.

He, She, It, Them, and all Their Friends

English pronouns are a mess, and there’s no getting around the fact.

We’re missing a second-person plural in the standard dialect, which hinders translation into and out of languages that have it.  All the possible alternatives – y’all, youse, yez, yinz and so forth – are strongly marked for region, or social class, or both, and using one of them would inject unintended meanings into the text.

We used to have some dual pronouns to go along with the singular and the plural – pronouns for “the two of you” and “the two of us” – but those were gone by the late Anglo-Saxon period.  (We know English used to have them because they turn up in Beowulf, in the passage where Beowulf and Unferth are having their disagreement about what actually went down during Beowulf’s youthful swimming-match with his friend Breca – Unferth says “the-two-of-you did such-and-such” and Beowulf counters with “the-two-of-us did something-else.”  One of the accidental uses of poetry is that it can act to preserve old words and old usages, fixing them in the amber of verse and scansion.)

These days, the lack that’s most keenly felt in the pronoun department is the need for a gender-neutral third-person pronoun.  There’s less and less patience for the old-fashioned “everybody/he” (as in “Everybody took his tray into the dining room”), and not much more for the clunky if more accurate “everybody/he or she” (“Everybody took his or her tray into the dining room”), and the purists aren’t going to throw in the towel anytime soon on the issue of  “everybody/they” (Everybody took their tray into the dining hall.”

There are a number of coined gender-neutral pronouns in circulation these days – ze, zhe, zie, and others – but no one set appears to be gaining an advantage over the rest.  (Though they have given rise to a new etiquette rule for the twenty-first century:  “Call people by the pronoun they prefer, not the one you think that they ought to prefer.”)

My money, though, is still on “they.”  It has historical precedent in its favor, it’s in current colloquial use across a variety of regions and social classes, and using it doesn’t require a commitment on the speaker’s part to any particular social or political agenda.

Why Grown-Up Writers are Still Paranoid

There are a lot of reasons – ours isn’t a job famous for encouraging a sense of security at the best of times – but this sort of thing is one of them.

A middle-school teacher in Maryland has been placed on administrative leave and “taken in for an emergency medical evaluation” based – if the news reports coming out of the town are to be believed – on the fact that he wrote and published a science-fiction book involving a school shooting some 900 years in the future.

Is it a good book?  I don’t know; based on the fact that it appears to be either self-published or published by an exceedingly small press, my guess is probably not.  But dammit, if we’re going to protect art from oppression and restraint, we shouldn’t get to throw in an “only if it’s really good art/the kind of art we approve of/not just mere entertainment” clause.  Just because the Muse does not love all of her lovers equally does not mean that all of her lovers should not be equal under the law.

Is the guy in fact crazy and/or a danger to himself and others?  Again, I don’t know . . . and the people whom I suspect are in the best position to know, to wit the students he interacted with on a daily basis, aren’t in a position to say anything.  Not that anyone would listen to them if they did, unless what they said supported the official line.

(Students know that this is how the world works.  To quote Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky, “You’ve been here six years and you expect things to be fair? My hat, Beetle, you are a blooming idiot!”)

And the fact that the Sheriff of Dorchester County is going around saying things like, “He is currently at a location known to law enforcement and does not currently have the ability to travel anywhere,” without specifying what sort of location it is, and why the writer in question is unable to travel, is – especially if you’re a writer yourself – downright unnerving.

Because it means that if you’re a writer, and at any point get entangled for some reason with the law, or with politics, or with the ever-hungry 24/7 news machine, then anything you have written can and will be held against you.  Even if you made the whole thing up.  Maybe even especially if you made the whole thing up.  People who can do things like that with their brains aren’t normal, after all, and probably shouldn’t be trusted.

Nobody ever promised us that this job would be easy.

They never promised us that it would be safe, either.

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.

 

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