Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Playing with Another Person's Preciousssss


When fans get up to putting together their own unauthorized high-quality movie, what do you say?

hunt for gollum image

On the one hand, it's too cool to believe. On the other hand, letting it happen uncontested might lead to a plague of really bad things, such as, oh, Russet Noon, the unauthorized off-off-off-Broadway musical based upon the unauthorized screen adaptation of the unauthorized homage novel...

It burnsss, my precioussssss!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Liars, Agency, and the Passive Voice

The passive voice -- and the related issue of fuzzy agency -- has some interesting features regarding its effect on the reader. But first, let me make sure to define my terms.

When grammarians say "passive voice", they are generally referring to a sentence in which the subject of the sentence is the object of the action of the verb.

I was hit by the ball John threw.

On the other hand, there is another class of sentences where causation is just plain fuzzy. The agent is missing.

The cup broke.

In some languages, that's just the way the verb "broke" works -- or worse, the agent himself can be held to be the victim of the broken cup. The sentence "I broke the cup", when translated properly to Spanish and literally back, returns as "The cup broke itself at me"!

In English, the agentless sentence "the cup broke" is acceptable, but problematic. When spoken by a person who was there, without further context, that sentence implies that the speaker is intentionally dropping information about the "agent", the person who broke the cup. The omission is likely to be a passive lie.

In addition, that type of switch can flag an active lie. Active liars have a tendency to disassociate from the part of the story that they invented, so that things just happened, rather than being done or directly experienced by the liar.

On the other hand, when the speaker was not personally there, there is no such implication in a sentence exhibiting lack of agency. When I say that the gas main broke downtown, or that a bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, there is no reason to infer that I was the one that broke teh main or dropped the bomb. This lack of agency is common in historical writing, especially where the identity of the actual agent is not clear from the record. One does not know, for example, whether it was Ronald Reagan personally or one of his staffers who came up with the Solomon's solution in the following anecdote -

In February of 1982 a Christian protester named Mitch Snyder began a fast to protest the naming of a nuclear submarine "Corpus Christi" - Latin for "Body of Christ". Of course, the name was chosen by following the pattern of naming submarines after U.S. seaports, not as an affront to any particular religion; the U.S. Department of the Navy refused to change the name for over 40 days and 40 nights. Snyder was becoming weaker all the time. Eventually, the word came down from the office of President Reagan - the name of the submarine had been changed. It was now, "City of Corpus Christi".

Some fiction writers object to the use of this fuzzy agency in narrative summary, since it reminds them of what liars do. My suggestion for other writers is to be careful about your method of switching focus, so as not to trigger this association. If you are keeping tight focus on a particular person's POV when you are writing your scenes, then make sure to present your summaries from that same POV, as modified by the time and space element involved. If the POV character knew the agency of the act, then include that information, but only if it doesn't overcomplicate getting your reader from scene A to scene B. Definitely do not include information in narrative summary that your POV character couldn't have known across the time and place of the summary.

On the other hand, if you are writing primarily in an omniscient style, just be consistent in your practice.

Hat tip for advancing the subject, Tricia of NTSFW.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Keeping Them Straight

I've been trying to figure out how certain authors can introduce loads of characters and have the reader keep them all straight, while other authors produce characters that all run together, despite having different names and backgrounds. I have managed to come up with a few guidelines for discussion.

1) People can hold only 3-4 facts at a time in their head. So one strategy is to introduce your characters in small constellations.

In Prom Dates from Hell, Rosemary Clement-Moore introduces six people, the "Jocks and Jennifers", together as a unit, with one queen Jennifer and two sidekick Jennifers. They are defined by their relation to the group, and only later do they receive more differentiation.

On the other hand, in Hell Week, Clement-Moore introduces several (7?) sorority rush characters at the same time, naturally all female, and there's never enough face time to get them all descrambled. (This can work on the movie screen, since you can give visual tags and nobody cares what the actual name of the Die Hard terrorist in cowboy boots is.)

2) Give your characters tags, especially constellation tags.

A tag can be a relationship, a hobby, a visual cue, a consistent metaphor... literally anything that allows the reader to track the character. Thus, the three Jennifers in PDFH were Jennifer "Major" (Queen Bee), Jennifer "Minor" (sycophant) and Jennifer "Thespia" (actress). Jennifer Major is introduced in action in the first few pages, leading the female Jocks and Jennifers. Thespia is introduced -- where else? -- at stage practice. And so on.

The tag can initially be based upon the constellation that you used to introduce the character, especially where there are "natural" tags in that group. A small family has one father, one mother and one or two children, and no one will have trouble keeping them straight if the children are at all different in temperament or gender. A work group has a boss, perhaps a "kid" or "new guy", perhaps one character with some other special attribute (secretary, bruiser, the lone girl). A schoolroom has a teacher, principal, bright student, class clown...

Are these cliches? More like archetypes. Calling the concept of "father" a cliche is like saying the rules of physics or biology are cliche. Use the known psychology of the reader, to make life easier on the reader. It's your job.

3) Introduce important characters in characteristic action -- action related to their tags.

In Cold Fire, book 3 of her Circle Opens quartet, Tamora Pierce introduces twin characters one at a time, the first in a skating scene, the second cooking. She then goes on in the next scene to introduce the fire-fighting hero-antagonist of the book, giving him a major scene to himself as he rescues two children from a burning building.

On the other hand, the family of the twins is introduced as a group (father/mother/other kids/servants) by their relationships to the established characters.

4) Reserve each tag to that one character.

If your tag for one similar character is "actress", then you can never ever ever allow another similar character to be seen acting. If your tag is "choppy hair" then that had better not be a common style, and you had better not mess with that hairstyle until your reader is so familiar with the character that the reader would recognize the character blindfolded and dipped in butter sauce.

5) Reintroduce the character with the same tag in a similar context.

Whenever the character reappears, float that tag either explicitly or implicitly. Don't hesitate to parade the tag, but you can be subtle as time goes on. You don't have to say "bruiser", you can show him muscling open a coke machine. You don't have to have the whole constellation there, just at least one other person from it, or an object that will evoke it.

6) Reintroduce the character with the same tag in a different context.

If you can successfully put the individual character in a different context, and the reader can track his identity, then you have successfully created a character that is differentiated in the reader's mind.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Passive Voice Education


Many notes are posted around the Internet about the passive voice, half of them about how the passive voice should always be avoided, and the other half about how the first half should be taught exactly what "passive voice" means.

In the 1970's, educators were convinced that they should use a philosophy -- one hesitates to say "methodology" -- called "natural language instruction". These educators congratulated themselves on their sophistication, but many failures occurred as a result of those teaching methods. Students who did not take foreign language instruction were trained improperly, if at all, in the subject of grammar. There followed a corresponding increase in lack of knowledge about the passive voice, and about other grammatical concepts.

Nevertheless, many of the omitted grammatical terms and concepts are admittedly overcomplicated and beyond the needs of typical Americans. As with psychological terms, words having to do with the simpler grammatical concepts are stretched to uses beyond their actual denotations, to cover conditions that may have different technical terms but a similar "flavor". This extension of concepts beyond their defined bounds is found useful by many people.

With this convenient extension, the necessity of learning terms such as "mediopassive" and "stative", which are useless to the majority of people, is avoided.

POP QUIZ - how many of those sentences are technically "Passive voice"? Show your work in the comments!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Stephen King and Unnecessary Words

Debra L Schubert's recently posted (here and here) about Stephen King's On Writing, an interesting book to struggle with, and one from which I have already posted a short excerpt over on White Flow

Here's one of the key ideas she pulled out:

7) Eliminate ALL unnecessary words. Seriously, all of them. This is different than "Kill your darlings" (which SK did NOT pen, btw). This refers more to the excess words we writers place in sentences because we're so darn smart, lazy and enamored with description.

This idea is very dangerous if you misunderstand it. Sure, eliminate words that don't do anything. Pay close attention to intensifiers like "very" and "excessively", which often weaken the construction of the sentence they are in. Pay attention to meaningless verbal tics, to avoid... like... extra STUFF... that... like... slows down the STORY.

On the other hand, look at popular authors like George R.R. Martin and J.K. Rowling -- and, ahem, Stephen King -- and tell me, please tell me, that there are no words that an editor could cut if she wanted to...? Tell me that every single word and paragraph is there in service to the story...?

It just ain't so. Words do not merely impart meaning. They also add to cadence, to flow, to the sound of the sentence in our mental ears, to meter, to flavor. So-called extra words can be useful to calm the pacing during a reaction scene, or to give a sensation of floating to the reader.


Words are exceedingly delicious. Make your sentences tempting, not just "sufficient".

Hat tip Spy Scribbler.

Oh, King also made a dubious differentiation between plot and story. Which, I believe, is a factor in why his novels are so long.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Is the term "Appendage Furloughing" pulling your leg?

Satirist Joe Queenan on the Wall Street Journal Online reports that the world is following President Obama in abandoning the fierce rhetoric of the Bush era in favor of kinder, gentler terminology.

Yet, if the intention of the Obama administration is to tone down the confrontational rhetoric being used by our enemies, the effort is already reaping results. This week, in a pronounced shift from its usual theatrical style, the Taliban announced that it will no longer refer to its favorite method of murder as "beheadings," but will henceforth employ the expression "cephalic attrition"...

Read the whole thing here.

When an offer is not enough

It's important to realize, and then to remember, that there are a lot of factors to the business of writing and publishing.

Agent Janet Reid points out that even having a (small) offer in hand might not make it worth an agent's time to take you on.

Just about any agent blog will tell you that the agent has to truly love your work before he/she will commit to taking you on as a client. An agent is committing to a relationship based upon your future career; the first sale is just the beginning of the relationship.

Nerd Boys Don't Sparkle in the Sunshine...

A while back I noticed a link on Stacy Whitman's Grimoire to a video by John Green called "How to Make Boys Like You"

Here's the Youtube video -

Have to admit he's dead on with the stuff about Warcraft and being yourself.

Although I do believe that "being yourself" works for some values of "yourself".

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

And there was much rejoicing!!!

Realms of Fantasy Lives!!!!

Apparently Warren Lapine (Tir Na Nog Press) has purchased the [insert a dozen superlative adjectives then delete them] magazine from Summit and plans to revive it, editors and all!

Here's the month-old news on SFScope, Locus, and realmsoffantasymag.com

Locus also points to this comprehensive Q&A posted over on Slushmaster.

Hat tip, Gerald Warfield!

Beginnings and Hooks

Okay, so sometimes I come across a new blog I love and have to run back through entry after entry of great stuff. Tara Maya writes about different ways of beginning your novels - Relay versus Marathon.

This is a great way of looking at "story" in the novel form. Clearly, your initial hook does not have to be the driver of the whole plot. It can be. For example, in Naomi Novik's first Temeraire book, His Majesty's Dragon (HMD), the story begins with the capture of a French ship, and discovery of the dragon egg which will hatch into Temeraire. This is the seminal event in the major arc of the book. It is also the moment when the main character's status quo ante (prior life) is destroyed. This is the Marathon method.

On the other hand, in C.C. Finlay's The Patriot Witch (PW), the story begins with a lesser hook - the main character, Proctor Brown, is a farmer and a minuteman, and is hoping to court the daughter of a loyalist businessman. The first chapter consists of Brown attempting to press his suit, while the historical and alter-historical elements of the American revolution put themselves in place to interfere with Brown's hopes and plans. He wants this marriage badly, and is dropped into dramatic situations that require him to make tough decisions. Shortly, he turns to having worse problems, then worse again. This is the Relay method.

Of course, it could be argued as well that HMD is an episodic novel rather than a single arc, with new mini-goals for the captain-and-dragon team popping up every fifty pages, and so it could be looked at as a different kind of marathon. But the major question of the novel HMD is not "how will the dragon beat X" where X is whatever plot issue is in front of Laurence and Temeraire, but "how will Laurence (and Temeraire) find a place to fit in?".

The key here, to making the Relay work, is to make sure that your initial hook is closely related to your overall arc. This could be thematically, or um, plotfully, if that could stand for the word I don't have.

Basically, make sure that the initial hook contains elements that are equivalent or analogous to similar elements in the full book. In the case of PW, the initial hook for Proctor Brown contains the exact elements (colonist versus loyalist, hidden magic) and at least one of the same antagonists (Major Pitcairn and his men). Thus, if the reader buys into the initial hook, they will happily transfer to the new hook when the story becomes larger.

Human Strangeness, Antwerp Style

Linked from Tara Maya's Tales, comes this YouTube moment of Perfect Human Strangeness in Antwerp's (Belgium) Central Station. I'd really like to see one of these things live, although I'd probably end up dancing along, one way or another...

On seeing these, I always wonder how many regular people joined in. The camera work seems to show it happening, but due to the complicated choreography it doesn't seem likely that true "instant joiners" could have stayed in sync with the rest.

I sure would like to believe they did, though. That's part of the joy of the thing.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Revenge of the Dreaded Spaghetti Weevil

Via Terry's Place, for your April 1 enjoyment, a Panorama documentary from 1957 about the Swiss Spaghetti harvest:

Actually, 1957 was a good year for the crop, due to the low incidence of spaghetti weevils.