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.

 

 

Pantser … or not

There are two approaches to writing fiction.  A Pantser writes from the seat of the pants. The writer lets the characters pull the story along. An Outliner (maybe we should say ‘Engineer’) lays out the story … the plot line … then begins writing.  So far, I’ve been a Pantser.

My third novel has a complicated plot, and my pants are hanging around my ankles as I crow-hop through the plot.

Pantsers speak proudly but often vaguely of letting the story write itself, but I’m beginning to understand that it just might be a good idea to have a notion of what’s going to happen.  After all, Aristotle, the first author of a book (well, treatise) on how to write, tells us right up front:  the plot is the most important element of the story.

“Aristotle identifies six aspects, or “parts,” of tragedy: PLOT (mythos), CHARACTER  (ēthos), LANGUAGE (lexis), THOUGHT (dianoia), SPECTACLE (opsis), and MUSICAL  composition (melopoiia).  The most important aspect of tragedy, to which all the others are subordinated, is the plot.” (Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy, Margarlit Finkelberg.)

My friend Karl is the plot whisperer in my writing groups.  He suggested Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks, which makes a book-length project out of suggesting that the structure of modern fiction is always the same.

Brooks has continued the tradition of adding complexity to structure advice.  We have moved from Aristotle’s beginning-middle-end structure through the Middle Ages playwrights (five is the correct number of acts) to Freytag’s Pyramid (exposition—rising action—climax—falling action—denouement) to Brooks, who suggests nine steps.

1 Opening scene
2 A hooking moment (in first 20 pages)
3 A Setup inciting incident (can be the first plot point)
4 First plot point (20-25% through story)
5 First Pinch Point (3/8)
6 Context-shifting Midpoint
7 Second Pinch Point (5/8) middle of part 3
8 Second plot point (75%)
9 Final Resolution

Brooks promises a much shorter development cycle if I am mindful of the steps.    I could use the help.

 

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):

Wearing a Suit and The Oxford Comma

I went to a shiva yesterday for a friend’s mother.  It was in the evening.  A bit uncertain about dress, I wore a conservative suit and a tie.  When I arrived, I realized most of the people were more casually dressed.  A bit embarrassed, I mentioned to a friend that I felt overdressed.  He said, “Don’t worry about it.  You’re never overdressed in a suit.”

And yes, this does relate to writing.  Modern punctuation trends seem to be minimalist to the point that one is occasionally confused (as in “Let’s eat Grandma.”).  My tepid response to this trend has been to drop the series comma before ‘and.’  The editor says No … stick with the Oxford comma (red, white, and blue).  The publisher can always take it out.  But one is never overdressed in the Oxford comma.

 

 

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?

Pitch Conference

Ahh, the pitch conference.  Three minutes to explain your darling child of a novel to a polite but dubious agent.  Three minutes for her to ask probing questions that tear it apart.

I enjoyed most of the Writers Digest pitch conference in St. Paul, Minnesota last Saturday.  The classes were more reminders of ideas we writers should always have in our heads than anything new.  Mystery writer Kristi Belcamino reminded us to “get in late and leave early” so that you give the reader the essence of an action, rather than all the steps (hearing the knock, walking to the door, turning the knob).  Set up a ticking clock. (To know that you have to catch a flight to Istanbul is just information.  To know it’s an hour before takeoff and you’re still in the security line raises the stakes.)  This is stuff most writers know, but I, for one, tend to bury important things in prose, then have to trim.

I had some hope of discovering how a self-published work of fiction finds readers.  For all the good ideas, warnings, and suggestions, there was not much there.

Possibly the best takeaway for me was a session in which first pages of novels were read aloud to six agents, who then indicated when they would stop reading.  One of the pages read was from a talented author in my Wednesday critique group. The agents had comments similar to those the critique group had when its members read that first page.  Heartening to hear that the group is on point.  Also very interesting to hear the agents’ take on what works and what doesn’t.  Good writing is necessary, but not sufficient.

In any case, the experience kicked me into yet another rewrite.

Music, cadence and writing

My son Edward, a composer, sent me a cryptic note:

Great article about two of my favorite things…. music and Vin Scully.

The article is about the Dodgers’ legendary announcer. Professors at USC’s music school studied why Scully’s lines were so memorable, why so many people remember them verbatim. I’ll hope you watch the video embedded in the article and see why those lines work so well.  But, a spoiler: Screenshot 2016-04-04 23.40.10music.

Not surprising, really. A wordless tune is appealing to us in many ways, one of the most important being cadence. Songs lay words over melody and cadence, and a great prose passage pays attention to cadence.

I’ve always thought that great story tellers lean heavily on cadence … we almost hear the music as they speak. A good reason to read one’s work aloud.

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.

Sailing and Editing

cotuit-skiffs-racing

Cotuit skiffs a-racing

At risk of straying into overwrought metaphor, editing is a bit like sailing. My wife’s family is of New England whaling stock. She grew up sailing the flat bottom, gaff-rigged skiffs that evolved from the workboats designed to sail the shallow bays and shoals of Cape Cod. Her grandmother wrote a wonderful story, The Cut of Her Jib, which she took from a journal and letters of her grandfather, a whaling captain, and her grandmother. Have a look.

cover-cut-of-her-jibOkay, back to torturing the metaphor. When I go to my critique groups, I get gusts of wind coming from different directions. They’re like the changing winds that bedevil sailors near the shore. But those contrary breezes, if you read them right, you sail a better line. Same with the critical comments. I’m somewhere just off shore with my third novel, Open Circuit, tacking and backing, trying to maneuver.

After you pull free of the shoals and into the ocean, the wind steadies. You have to trim the sail and determine which line work best. Not unlike the work of editing once the story’s laid out. I’m halfway through the first substantial edit on my second novel, Skins and Bone, realizing I’m in deep water. I better navigate right or I’ll miss the point of the island.

Awright, awright. I think I’ve bludgeoned that metaphor enough.

Back to the editing …

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.