A Birthday Present from Grammar

I got a great birthday card, the front of which said:

Dear people of the World,

I don’t mean to sound slutty,

But please use me whenever you want.

    Sincerely,

    Grammar

A great card on several levels.  The “use me” is so much more economical than most of the explicit things one could think of, and therefore allows for (salacious) imagination, reminding me to be careful in writing to give the reader license to create her own vision of what I describe.

Which leads to the f-word (really?).  I’m just thinking of the so-called dysphemism treadmill, in which a vulgar word becomes more and more acceptable.  Pamela Hobbs, quoted in Wikipedia, notes that usage of the f-word falls into two categories:  non-users and users.  Non-users define the word in its proud Anglo-Saxon context and therefore consider it obscene and rarely use it.  Users, on the other hand, have dissociated the word from sex and make frequent use as an intensifier, noun, adjective, adverb or verb. For them, as Hobbs says, fuck “no more evokes images of sexual intercourse than a ten-year-old’s ‘My mom’ll kill me if she finds out’ evokes images of murder.”

As a writer hoping to interest both users and non-users, my take is very, very abstemious use of the f-word (see, at my core, I’m a non-user, except when irritated).  My rationale is that users usually employ fuck in ways that add no value to the sentence (although sometimes to the meter).  None of that is useful in storytelling unless establishing a character’s unique voice.

So most of the time, I’ll go fuck-less.  Grammar, on the other hand, I shall use and use and gratefully use.

 

 

Writing with Feeling

I read a submission guideline the other day that sliced novelists into ‘beginner’ and ‘experienced’ using the following cleaver:  “you may consider your work for the experienced category if it has been critiqued by people other than friends and family.”

I get it.  Your wife’s going to tell you it’s great.  Family harmony vs. weak characterization … harmony wins, right?

Well, that’s all well and good as a general case.  However, my wife Beverly is not a general case.  She is an educator of many facets … kids, science outreach, young (we’re talking preschool through elementary), old (adult to ancient).  And, in all those facets, writing has been her central organizing idea. Here’s a reminder from her current writing course that rang a bell with me (hehehe):

Pitch-Query-Synopsis

Over the past couple of months, I’ve attended three conferences (one by Internet) that featured pitches or queries.  Friends asked for a summary. The summary grew longer than a blog post, so I made it into a page, here.

The summary covers some of what I learned.  The experience proved that the nexus of art and business is anything but clear, but it helped me understand that querying and pitching are much less about writing quality and much more about business.  The agent’s operative question, at least at first, is not, “Is this person a fine writer?” or “Is this story/character/plot captivating?”  It is, “Will this book sell?”  Nothing at all wrong with that, but it helps me write a better query.  As one presenter said, a good query letter induces the agent to ask for some/all of the manuscript (where that fine writing resides); the query/pitch is a business proposition.

Querying, Rejection, and Rule 9

I just finished going to a pitch conference at The Loft (Minneapolis).  As is usual with these events, there were education sessions, often involving panels of agents.  In one, the agents discussed how many queries they get.  One of the participants allowed as how she gets 4,000 or so annually.  Asked how many projects she took on last year, she said, “Seven.”

I put these data out to make people (well, me) feel better about querying and getting no response.  The agent in question averred that she reads all the queries.  If she gives each one five minutes, she spends 40% of a normal year reading queries.

Technology is disrupting so many modes of communication, and this is surely one.  Gone are the days when a query letter needed to be printed out, folded, slipped into an envelope with a SASE (does anyone even recognize that term anymore?).  Then, if the agent responded, 9×12 envelope, lots of paper, lots of postage.  But now, the barriers to communication have dropped so low that agents are flooded.

Which brings up Rogers’ Rule Nine:  The amount of relevant information in the world has been growing at a fairly regular rate, while

The Damned German

total information has been growing exponentially.  On the savannah, one additional piece of data probably meant the likelihood of eating and not being eaten increased measurably.  There were explosions of relevant information in China and Greece, but still pretty linear.  Gutenberg, the damn German, bent the curve, then Mad Ave, then the computer.  Now, we spend significant life overhead finding the good stuff.

Back in the day, I would have queried a dozen agents (perhaps sequentially).  Now I can query twenty, fifty or one hundred.  And every other query writer out there is doing the same thing.

Guess I’d better get to it.

Long words

My critique groups often lean on me for using bigger words than necessary. Particularly people who read and adore Hemingway. My weak defense is accuracy: I want the reader to get an exact picture. The response is, “in well-written work, sixty percent of the reader’s vision is what the author wrote; forty percent is drawn from the reader’s own experience.” Now with several years and more than several rewrites under my belt, I understand.

So who had the twisted sense of humor to give an exact definition of ‘fear of long words’ as hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia?

John Grisham and Beethoven’s Ninth

John Grisham, thanks for setting me free.

I’m in three writing critique groups.  Twenty or so regulars beethovenand some great writers.  We focus down on plot, character voice, technique.  I occasionally worry about over-analyzing everything I read.  Like in college when I had that course in music that took Beethoven’s Ninth apart note by note.  I still don’t like to listen to it.

So, here I am, worrying about whether it’s okay to name a character who turns out to be minor, whose point of view (pardon me, perspective) I should be in, when I pick up Grisham’s latest, The Whistler.

Damn.  He starts the story pretty much the way my own most recent novel starts, which is boooooring, according to a substantial minority of my readers.  Chapter 10 has a short paragraph in which we see the world through the eyes of three different characters.  A stone no-no.

And, guess what?  It doesn’t matter.  The story moves nicely.  The characters are interesting.  The plot is straightforward, but it has me in the palm of its hand.  I kept turning the page.  Finished at 1:30.  In the a.m.

In the hand of a skilled writer, the rules become plastic.

I know I have to cleave closer to the rules than Grisham, but I’m glad to see that writing rules are guidelines, neither prescriptions nor proscriptions.  Maybe some day, I’ll get out of the straitjacket.

But I doubt I’ll ever be comfortable listening to Beethoven’s Ninth.

Cyberwar

cyberwarNot long ago, a writer friend said, “You’d better get published quickly, or your concept will be part of history.”

He’s right. Back when I got the idea for my first novel, Fatal Score, I thought there would be a future war in cyberspace. I guessed at the time (2011) that it would start with a bang in 2018. I was wrong.
I was wrong because “war” had, in my mind, a definite beginning. Like Richard crossing the Channel in 1066 or Franz Ferdinand being assassinated in Serbia to start World War I.
The foreword to Fatal Scores says that, in the unspecified not far future in which the story takes place, “the world is not dramatically different, but what the media called Cyberwar I has happened. In the wake of fires, floods, power-grid failures and a small nuclear episode, the United States rushed to develop the most secure (and most expensive) data vault in history. They named it, in bureaucratic mumblespeak, the Interagency Communication Channel. The acronym was thus the unpronounceable IACC, which shortly became ‘Yak’ in popular speech.”

Like lots of events in this new world of ours, the whole notion of war is being torqued by technology. It seems as if Cyberwar I has started, perhaps by our attack on Iran’s centrifuges, perhaps earlier. It heated up in the recent election.

One thing almost certain: it will escalate further.

I need an agent.  Double quick.

The Writing Paradigm

Ponderous title, no?

The paradigm of writing has been one of my discoveries, the kind that slaps you upside the head and then laughs at you when you look back over your benighted stumble toward understanding and realize that it was always there, obvious. You were just too dense to see it.

ParadigmWebster’s defines paradigm as “a framework containing the basic assumptions, ways of thinking, and methodology that are commonly accepted by members of a scientific community.” The OED weighs in less ponderously than one might have expected, “A worldview underlying the theories and methodology of a particular scientific subject.”

I should have reflected on the definition. Strike the ‘scientific’ and you realize that paradigms are ubiquitous: everything from religion to sandwich-making at Subway has its paradigm. And, as I realized over time, I was light on the ‘methodology’ part of the writing paradigm.

When I began, I thought writing was made up of story-telling and mechanics. I quickly learned (i.e., was corrected) that what I called story-telling is Voice, a somewhat mystical characteristic. Part in-born talent, part life experience, the experts intoned. Not something one can learn by rote. Asked for more specifics, the experts universally mumble something about it having to do with the wealth on one’s life experience and … read a lot. I kind of get it.

I had a rock-solid control of grammar and vocabulary (or so I thought). English major, you know. I had read a lot. Couldn’t do much to influence that ineffable quality called Voice. So what more did I need?

Well, a lot. I’ll call it Technique, the methodology of writing. It is the part I’m learning from other writers. It’s the not-so-obvious superstructure of the story that allows the reader to follow comfortably, the choice of point of view and tense, the way characters and time sequences are introduced. Thankfully, this is stuff one can learn.

It does make it hard, though, to do a rewrite on one’s magnum opus and realize just how much one has to learn. Always the optimist, I look forward to the next epiphany.

Genre, quantification and precision

I was just trying to remember how to forward my land line. I went to the Xfinity website. Before I found the answer, though, I was presented with a survey about how my experience was. Which got me to thinking …

It seems more and more of our experience is being quantified, presumably to make various commercial activities easier for merchants and service providers. The power of virtually infinite computer power and the Internet have helped us make a giant leap in the way we slice, dice and parse our lives.

There is some evidence that this preference for classification is hard-wired … a survival skill. And that Babylonian who marked out the first pictographic writing probably worked for the then-equivalent of Amazon. Certainly Aristotle carried the notion of divisions and subdivisions of practically everything forward.

Which brings me back to genre. It’s a conundrum for a beginning writer: to get through the genresvery narrow eye of the needle that leads to a published work, you need to know your genre and state it in the first line or two of a query to an agent or a publisher. Trouble is, “genre” is a pretty vague notion, the more so because published authors routinely ignore it.

Not too long ago, as my weekly writers’ group worked through my first novel, Fatal Score, one of the members said, “This novel is a bit literary for a thriller.”

“A bit literary” made me think of Amazon’s review questions. Amazon is now asking a series of classifying questions that would warm the cockles of Aristotle’s heart when one reviews a book. (Example: How would you describe the plot of this book? Predictable/Some Twists/Full of Surprises). Maybe we should go to a more precise, numerical score for genres. Perhaps a ‘literary-ness’ dimension. (This would of course be a vertical scale with Literary on top and Commercial on the bottom.) Then a complexity dimension (much like the fog index) with board books at one end and a modern philosophy text at the other. There could be many others.

I can just see the first line of the query:

Fatal Score (88,900 words; 8.4 action/6.7 character/5.1 tension/6.4 litfic/7.4 complexity) is a thriller about big data, the brutal reality of future medical care, and an ordinary guy who makes an extraordinary discovery.

Yecccch!