Saturday, January 26, 2013

First Person uncertainty

Recently a writer said that the good thing about first person was that you get to tell the truth. And I-- never one to let a categorical statement stand categorically-- riposted that it all depends, as it's the character's understanding of the truth, which might or might not be true.

I came across an example of this in Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth, which is in first-person. The issue here isn't whether the POV character is deliberately or subconsciously distorting the truth, but one of certainty-- she doesn't know to a certainty:
My sight lines weren't good, but I thought his hands were shaking.

That is, she's confessing that she doesn't really know because of "the sight lines", but she's reporting what she thinks she sees. Of course, two considerations here:
First, the narrator WANTS his hands to be shaking, that is, that he's evincing nervousness at being close to her. (She wants to think he's attracted to her.) So her perception might be less than accurate, just because she wants it to be so.
Second, one step removed-- the author put this in there. If there was no relevance, if it didn't matter, then the author wouldn't have bothered. We as readers generally assume that whatever is narrated has some importance, whether or not that's the fact. And the author knows we'll think this is important, and so decides whether or not to include this based on whether or not  he/she thinks it's worth getting the reader excited about these shaking hands.

So let's assume McEwan chose to put this in there because it had some (albeit perhaps slight) meaning. What are we to make of it? Is it actually true (the character's hands really are shaking)? Or is what he wants us to get is that the young lady watching wants him to be nervous, thereby showing us that she really does like him (despite her recent rejection of him)?
That is, is the "importance" the event (hands shaking) or the POV's perception (her thinking that his hands are shaking)?  The fun of this is, of course, that we don't need to determine that at this point in the narrative. We can wait to find out if he's really that affected by being near her, or if she's just hoping that he is.

Now think about how differently that simple observation would be rendered in the more common form of third-person. There would be no doubt, because ordinary third-person narrates what's happening.
His hands were shaking.

We wouldn't need the line about the sight lines, because this would be a narration of the action of the scene, not the narration from her perspective about what she's thinking as the scene plays out. In ordinary third-person, we are given no reason to doubt the truth of the narration. Clearly this is the POV of choice if you just want the reader focusing on what's happening, if you don't want them wasting time doubting or speculating. His hands were shaking. Nuff said.

But what about Deep Third POV, which is cognitively much more akin to first-person, in that narration is completely through the perspective of a character (though with third person pronouns -- he/she)?
In that case, the perspective-limiting observation (sight lines) and the doubt would probably be preserved.
Serena's sight lines weren't good, but she thought his hands were shaking.

A deep third narration is no more certain than a first-person narration-- both are colored and perhaps distorted by the limitations, desires, and biases of the POV character.

So, short work of it:
If you don't want the reader speculating, common third is your best choice. This would be more useful in plot-driven books, where the characters' inner workings and doubts aren't that important.
If you want the reader speculating and doubting if the character POV is transparent and accurate, use first-person or deep third. That is more appropriate for character-driven books.

Examples? I'd love to start collecting some examples.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Mixed emotions

Sometimes (often!) emotion can be mixed-- we hate what we love, we crave what will kill us, etc. I would suggest that we might want to generally stick to more pure emotion or all our characters will end up like Hamlet ("On the other hand...."), but at some especially intense moments, we might want to present the complexity of our characters' emotions. (This might be particularly dramatic in the Dark Moment, when the motivations, emotions, and conflicts collide.)
Here's a lovely example of mixed emotion:
I don't really have any wisdom, but perhaps you can find some good examples in your favorite emotion books of powerfully mixed emotion. All I can assess is that in these intense, complex moments, you might try juxtaposing the two emotions in the same sentence to show the conflict and overlap.
From that Poison and Wine song, and notice that the conjunction isn't "but" but "and"-- so the juxtaposition shows the conflict, but the "and" indicates the reality that both are existing in the same person and the same moment:
I don't love you, and I always will.
Syntax (sentence construction) is the perfect way to illustrate complexity-- everything in a sentence belongs together, so any contradiction will be heightened.
How about a short passage of mixed emotion done well? Here's one I like which shows the complexity of the adult child's resentment of the parents:
The contents of the boxes (plates and bowls, cutlery, serving dishes, pans and pots, a few extras that David insisted on, including a set of bowls for the children with famous sports figures on them—they’re sports fiends, the grandchildren) have been purchased so that Noelle, Amram, and their four boys can eat in their house. Noelle won’t eat off nonkosher dishes, even if those dishes belong to her parents. Especially, Marilyn sometimes thinks, if those dishes belong to her parents.
The World Without You by Joshua Henkin
The complexity is shown in the juxtaposition of those last two lines, and the opposition/pairing of "even if/especially if". The similar order of those two last elements highlight the changes (even if to especially if). 
Other examples? What works to show the layering, the mixing, the conflict?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Is the Internet the Death of the Novel?

I found this article by Toby Litt really provocative, addressing some of the worries I have about how the rapid advance of new technology could spell the end of our old medium. It's mostly a lament, but it did spark thoughts about what sort of form "story" can take in the future. It doesn't HAVE to be in the shape of a novel. After all, The Odyssey was an epic poem, the dominant form of storytelling for many centuries, and while the form isn't used much anymore, stories still get told.

Anyway, what do you think? How can stories take on the methods of the Internet, or would it be better for novels to go on and provide a respite from the insistence of email and Facebook and all that?

Is the death of the novel coming? Will with it die the more contemplative forms of story?


Saturday, January 19, 2013

There's Subtle, and There's Obscure

The more sophisticated the writing and plotting, the less obvious the exposition. But that doesn't mean there's no exposition, only that it's done subtly and carefully through the characters in a way that is consistent with the way they think, speak, and interact.

An example of subtle exposition is in the movie Lincoln, which by narrowing the focus to a couple weeks before Lincoln's second inauguration, presents an unfamiliar take on a very familiar subject. That means that there has to be exposition (there's a lot we don't know), but it has to be rendered carefully (we think we know a lot, and we'll notice any "lecturing" or "As you know, Alphonse" explanations). So what the writer and director did was to portray Lincoln as someone who likes to hear and tell stories. (This happened to be true to the historical character, but is universal enough a trait that it could have been invented without penalty.) From the start, Lincoln is shown telling stories about people he knew, people he represented in court cases. So when in the middle of a folksy story, there's a nugget of actual information, it goes down easy. It "sounds" in character.

Oppositional characters-- the opposite of attentive listeners-- are used to evoke-- paradoxically, through their opposition to the telling-- more information. At one point, a fellow Republican exclaims, "Not another story! I can't stand to hear another of your stories!" which just provokes Lincoln to grin and tell another.

At one point, Lincoln provides his own opposition. There's a particularly knotty bit of explanation needed, because we all know about the Emancipation Proclamation, and I'm sure I'm not the only viewer who was thinking, "Why wasn't that enough?" Whenever readers are going to have questions, then it's a good idea to consider giving them an answer-- but subtly. So Lincoln asks this himself, and plays devil's advocate-- it might have been unconstitutional. Or maybe it was all right during the war, but the war is ending. Maybe he did the wrong thing. He argues with himself (to an audience of younger aides), and through this conflict, we get all the information we need to answer our question, why do we need an amendment?

So: Subtle.In character. In conflict. Use opposition. Use interaction.

But there's subtle exposition, and then there's obscure. I'm reading a book now which has a fairly complex set of events leading to the characters' having to make big serious decisions. I'm at the point where one major character is going to take some major action. So two of his aides are talking. A says to B, "I hope that C will do the right thing." B gets angry, and replies, "C always does the right thing." A comes back, "Well, just tell him, we're counting on him to do the right thing."

So I read that scene, and I went back and skimmed the previous chapter, and I still had no idea what "the right thing" is. I mean, it's not just that I don't know precisely what they meant. I don't even know the basic area of what they meant. Did they mean morally? Did they mean about the staff? Did they mean legally? Did they mean about themselves?

That's too subtle. I'm a good reader, and I was paying attention. And while I'm okay with not knowing everything, I'd like to know a little. (There are about 12 major characters in this book, so, alas, I don't know enough about C even to know what -he'd- think this was.) But really, this is just a dialogue problem. A few more words here and there, and there would be enough to satisfy-- maybe not enough to make it all clear, but enough to keep me aware so that when (I hope) there's a resolution I'll know it's happening.

For example:
A says to B, "I hope that C will do the right thing about (one word, maybe? us? about the evaluation? about the account?)."
B gets angry, and replies, "C always does the right thing. He's no (deadbeat? traitor? idiot?)."

 A comes back, "Well, just tell him, we're counting on him to (what? keep us safe? tell the truth? solve the problem?)."

That is, with just a few words-- completely in character, because we don't actually speak that cryptically unless we're being overheard, and that wasn't happening here--  we could get a sense of whether this is the staffer scared they're going to be used as a scapegoat, or if this is about some payment, or if it's a problem only he can solve. We don't need to know everything-- but we do need to know a little.

And it only takes a little. How would these two converse if they weren't being forced by their author to be obscure? They'd still be subtle. But they wouldn't be cryptic.

The reader has only what we put in there. Now exposition can be handled many ways. But if there's exposition needed, decide how much the reader needs to know, and find a way to tell it.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Three Acts, Three Risks


Use the 3-act Structure to organize your plot events into setup, rising conflict, resolution, and that structure provides propulsion and the progression of events within the story arc. Willy nilly eventing won't build up the dramatic power that intensifies the emotion.  In fact, effective plotting is all about cause and effect. Events matter because they cause something else to happen and something to change and the characters to feel. The accumulation of events is what propels the reader to read on, and organizing this cause/effect sequence into acts will help you build tension and cause change.  

Three Acts:
Act 1 -- Set up conflict.
Act 2 -- Make conflict rise.
Act 3 -- Make conflict explode, and then resolve it.
Try breaking these acts into 3 big events of ascending emotional risk:
Examples- Three Things
3 times she needed help
3 times he got stuck
3 attempts to deal with the conflict
3 attempts to reach the goal
3 heartbreaks
3 secrets
3 lies

3 failures
3 betrayals
3 times she didn't ask for help

Just try it--ascending risk, remember!

Then what are the risks he/she is afraid of?
Why is this a risk? What might this risk cause, and what might be caused by their trying to AVOID the risk?

For example, let's take one that is just full of emotion-- secrets. Three secrets.
Kept or revealed? Or both? Maybe the attempt to keep a secret leads to revelation.Let's think of ascending risk --

Act 1: This sets up the first secret. She's an FBI agent, and she's sent undercover into a small town.
So the first secret is that she's secretly an FBI agent. There's not a lot of emotional risk in this secret because it's her job. But it sets in motion all the rest of the risks.
What does this cause? It causes her to be placed in this small town to investigate the local bank, and it causes her to have to take on a disguise—she's pretending to be a bank teller.

Act 2: The next secret comes when she meets and is drawn to the son of the bank president. This is just the sort of guy she despised when she was growing up, rich and polished and educated. But she's supposed to
investigate his father, and she's supposed to be a bank teller who would be flattered by his intentions, so she has to keep the secret from him about who she is... and the secret from her boss that she's falling in
love with one of the "targets".
What does this cause? She's getting deeper entrenched into deception. It's going to be far, far worse now
when her secret is revealed. She's also becoming alienated from her job, from her old self, from the FBI, as she's not reporting her contact with Junior. Maybe she's even started lying to her boss, withholding
information that could get Junior in trouble. 

Act 3: What's the final secret? It's probably her real identity, not just FBI, but her former identity. Maybe she's never told anyone that she grew up as "trailer trash," the daughter of a small-town prostitute or drug dealer. Her final secret is her shame, which has caused her all along to hide her past and her true self, to cut herself off from her old friends and her family, maybe even to make up a more generic and acceptable past.  (The big task would be—and I'm too brain-dead now to come up with an idea!—make the revelation of that secret in the start of Act 3 happen and affect the plot.)


Let's try another "Three Acts, Three Somethings."

Remember the film Casablanca?
Rick is a symbol of the United States before Pearl Harbor, isolated, uninvolved, as the world crashes around him. This is a tightly plotted story, and there are several "3 things", but the one I like to focus on is "Three Times Rick Refuses To Help."

Act 1: Ugarte asks Rick for 2 things—to hold the letters of transit for the evening (he agrees), and
later to help him escape from the police (Rick refuses).
There's some emotional risk from refusing to help—a few hours later, he drunkenly refers to it—but he can shrug it off as kind of a cost of doing business—sometimes, to run a successful saloon, you have to sacrifice a friend.
What does this cause? It's very important externally because with U dead, Rick is now stuck with these letters of transit, and as he says drily, "As long as I have them, I'll never be lonely." (I tell you, this film is SO well-written, because in fact, he is alone, and his loneliness is only ended because he has those damned letters of transit!)

Act 2: The news of his having the letters spreads, and he's approached by Victor Laszlo, a Resistance leader who will be arrested by the Gestapo if he can't get out of Casablanca. When L offers to buy the letters (which will get him and his wife to safety—do NOT ask why! Because, that's why. These are magic letters :), Rick refuses, and when asked why, says bitterly, "Ask your wife."

Much more emotional risk here! In refusing to help, he is acknowledging that the wife (Ilsa) hurt him earlier as he's using this as a means of revenge. His hard-won isolationist wall is beginning to crumble. Also, weirdly, he's sort of letting himself hope that Laszlo will find out about the earlier affair and cast Ilsa out so that she will come to Rick again.

What does this cause? Well, one effect is, paradoxically, to reconcile Laszlo and Ilsa. She's been keeping the secret of the former affair (she'd thought L was dead), and this actually lets Laszlo understand what happened and gently indicate that he doesn't blame her. (This becomes a huge part of her conflict, actually, as she realizes she still loves both of them.)
For Rick, this causes him to get more and more involved in Ilsa's dire situation and make it that much clearer that he's still in love with her.

Act 3: Ilsa herself comes to him and asks for—no, demands—the letters of transit to save Laszlo so he
can continue to fight the Nazis. She is so determined that she pulls a gun on him, and he is so determined to refuse to help her, that he invites her to shoot him. Rather than help her, he will commit suicide! Talk about emotional risk. Helping her would be worse than dying? (She as always ends up acting with love, putting the gun down and confessing that she still loves him, and he ends up embracing her—this is one of the greatest scenes in the history of film.)

What is the risk? That he will fall in love with her again (as he does), that he will lose all his defenses, that he will be hurt again, that he will lose her. This ALL happens. (That is, sometimes the greatest emotional risk should explode.)

 What does this cause? His refusal causes her to confess her love, and that leads to their tacit decision to use the letters of transit. But here's the amazing thing. Ilsa says to him, "You'll decide what's right? For all of us?" That is, she is telling him that whatever he decides to do, he has to help Laszlo to safety. (She assumes that he will give Laszlo one letter of transit, and she and Rick will escape together some other way. And you know what happens, or if you don't, go watch the film!!!!!)
The real result is Rick's return to the family of man, actually. He accepts responsibility for other people, and joins the war effort. He gives up his isolation and accepts the power of love.
Notice that a powerful place to put 'the thing' is close to the end of the act, and its repercussions propel into the next act.

So look at your own story, and see if you can identify "Three Things", or invent them, and center each act upon this thing.

1. What is the "thing" in "Three Things" in your story? If you'd like to speculate about what this means, how it relates to a deep internal issue or theme (like Rick's refusal to help is an aspect of his fear of getting too involved again and getting hurt), have at it.

2. Where can you put some manifestation of "this thing" in each act?

For each occurrence:
3. What is the emotional risk here (and remember to assemble these three in ascending risk)?           
4. What does this thing cause to happen?
5. How can this thing in the end of the story (maybe the dark moment?) cause a great emotional change?

Monday, January 14, 2013

More on restrictive clauses and commas

Just copying and pasting this from that old style guide I wrote. It might be useful to see some more examples, so here they are--

A nonessential (or nonrestrictive) subordinate clause is one which is not necessary to the meaning of the sentence but merely adds an additional idea. These clauses take commas.
If the essential meaning of the sentence changes, then the clause does not take commas. (Essential phrases and clauses do not take commas.)
Test by removing the clause to see if the meaning of the sentence changes.
Example: Jane Smith is the only cheerleader who didn’t get pregnant her senior year.
If you remove the clause, you get:
Jane Smith is the only cheerleader.
The meaning of the sentence is not the same. Therefore, the clause is essential and does not take commas.

Compare to: Jane Smith, who was the only cheerleader not to get pregnant her senior year, accepted a scholarship at Harvard.
If you remove the clause, you get:
Jane Smith accepted a scholarship at Harvard.
The meaning is the same. The extra clause merely adds new information. The clause is therefore nonessential and requires commas.
The same test and rules applies to essential and nonessential participial phrases.
Another example:
NONESSENTIAL: My sister, who works for the bank, drives a company car. (I have only one sister, and she happens to work for the bank.)
ESSENTIAL: My sister who works for the bank drives a company car. (I have more than one sister, and I am specifically referring to the one who works for the bank.)


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Restrictive clauses and commas

We were asked about this. It's really hard to explain and I never do it well-- ask my students. Basically, it's about whether a noun is "restricted" by the modifying clause that follows.

To start, a modifier is a word or phrase or clause which tells us more about a noun or verb. (The RED dress... he said VICIOUSLY). Those that modify a noun are called "adjectival".

A clause is a sentence element that includes a noun or pronoun and its verb. The most common adjectival clause (modifying a noun) is the relative clause, which usually, not always, starts with a "wh" pronoun, particularly who and which.

The filmmaker Otto Filbenstein, who died in 1999, directed the remake of the French silent film C'est La Vie.
 The writers who went to Hollywood after the war often achieved financial success beyond their wildest dreams.

See the difference there? The first has commas around the modifying clause, and the second doesn't.

The first is "non-restrictive" because it is just additional information about the noun. It doesn't "restrict" the noun to a smaller group. You could take that "who" clause out and you'd still have the main point-- that Otto remade that French film.

The second is "restrictive." That is, this refers only to those writers who went to Hollywood after the war. The noun isn't really just "writers," but "writers who went to Hollywood after the war". It "restricts" the noun to this smaller group. You can't take out the "who" clause in this one, because it's necessary to say who achieved financial success. (The writers often achieved financial success.... It's a legitimate sentence, but it isn't what you mean-- all writers don't often achieve this success--  you're talking about only the ones who went to Hollywood before the war.)

(Everyone should learn to diagram sentences, because it's much clearer in a diagram that "The writers who went to Hollywood after the war" is the noun phrase.)

Point is, Non-Restrictive= comma before and after, because it's 'unnecessary information," useful, perhaps, interesting perhaps, but inessential. You can pull it out and the sentence still means what you want it to mean.

Restrictive= no commas, because the clause actually is part of the noun.
I'll give some examples, but you all supply some too, and that'll help!

My brother Phil, who is two years older, ran for Senate and won.  (NON, because his age is just additional information.)

Governors elected in the past two years often faced serious budgetary issues their first year in office. (RESTRICTIVE, because this refers only to those governors elected in the past two years. -- There's no "who" there, though it could be there--- Governors who were elected...)

N: Part-time students, who often have outside jobs, need to learn time management skills.
R: Students who haven't attended class the first week will be automatically dropped.
N.: The snow, which will be so grimy in a few days, is lovely tonight.
R: Coaches who choose to go for it rather than punt show trust in their offense.

N: A first-class upgrade, which allows the passenger more legroom, takes 60,000 points.
R: Bronco fans who move out of Denver can keep in touch through this Facebook page.

How about you all supplying some examples?

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Narrow Character Focus

The dh mentioned the current trend towards revenge films, you know, Liam Neeson (hmm) as action star, manfully pursuing vengeance for his daughter's abduction, and Harrison Ford going after those who killed his wife, and Uma Thurman killing everyone something about her wedding (sorry, I could never actually watch that pair of films, not really needing to know how many different ways there are to kill other people).

Anyway, he said that something that made films of this genre seem thin is that the perspective is often so narrow, that we as viewers(readers) are meant to identify entirely with the protagonist and never question his goal or his motivation or take a wider view of the situation.

It's hard for a writer, I know, because we have to identify with the protagonist, and we certainly want the reader to do that too. But the reader is NOT the protagonist. The reader has and should have a slightly wider view, or rather, we ought to provide that wider view. It might be just the question of whether, say, the hero has perhaps gone too far in his vengeful actions, or a hint that perhaps the other guy might have another story, or just a sense that this might be disproportionate.

The protagonist doesn't actually have to consider this or express ambivalence for the reader to feel that. Another character, for example, can provide the other dimension (and it is dimensionality this adds-- depth is created by adding a different perspective). Spielberg's film Lincoln does both of these. Lincoln himself admits that his action in emancipating the slaves during the war might have been extra-constitutional, thus he is showing the other side of the question. But then, in regard to his own family, it takes his wife and son to add dimension to his refusal to let his son serve in the army. His wife (paradoxically) in providing his justification (keeping their child safe) forces Lincoln to remember that many parents haven't had that security. And Robert, the son, by showing his opposition forces Lincoln to say something that appalls even himself-- that every father wants to protect his son, but only Lincoln has the power to send thousands to their deaths and also the power to spare his own son. So in this case, the other characters are the ones who bring out the extra dimension.

In that case, the question is resolved when Lincoln reluctantly allows his son to serve, showing his complex moral progress.  If he'd been okay with this from the start, the question would never have been raised. It's the opposition or the conflict which provides the dimension.

So I guess-- it's important to get the reader to identify with the protagonist. But to offer a fuller reading experience, we might add to that by at least hinting at a more complicated dimensionality, that the world of the book is not confined merely to the one character's reality.


Thursday, January 10, 2013

That Again

Okay, this is where "that" things get a little more complicated. We're going to talk about culling "that" when used as a conjunction, but before we do that, we have to talk about conjunctions.

A conjunction is a word used to conjoin (get it? conjoin - conjunction) pieces of a sentence. And we know that the specific conjunction used usually indicates something about the nature of that conjoining. That is, and creates unity, but creates an exception, and so on. Usually, we think of a limited list of words when we think of conjunctions (FANBOYS = For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So), but sometimes that can be used as a conjunction to join two independent clauses.

He promised that he would be back in an hour.
She dreamed all night that he held her while she slept.

If you look at the parts on either side of that, you see complete clauses. And normally, if you drop a conjunction from between two independent clauses, you get a run-on sentence.

He promised he would be back in an hour.
She dreamed all night he held her while she slept.

In this case, though, the first one doesn't read like a run-on. The second one does, and it's awkward to my eyes, but the first one is just fine. So what is the difference? Because if you understand this key difference, you'll understand how to drop that from this kind of construction -- and when to leave it in place.

If you look closely at the first clause of the first sentence, He promised, and think about what it resembles, you might hit on the right answer. It reads like a simple two-word tag.

He said, "I will be back in an hour."

With that sentence, our mind absorbs the dialogue tag (He said) and the dialogue with no trouble at all. It would be the same with a thought tag.

He thought he would be back in an hour.

In this case, He thought is the tag. Notice the ellipsis? "That" has been dropped from this sentence, same as in our first example sentence, and it's perfectly readable. So if you have a clause that's functioning like a tag, you can safely drop it (in most cases) without damaging the meaning or grace of your prose. This is one elliptical sentence form that readers will absorb seamlessly.

Now let's revisit the sentence that read like a run-on when that was dropped.

She dreamed all night that he held her while she slept.

I chose this example to illustrate a point about tags. You might think that "dreamed" here is a thought tag, but it's not. It's an active verb. You know how we sometimes joke about active verbs used as dialogue tags with disastrous results?

She snorted, "Guess who called today." 

What would it sound like to snort those words? Maybe this is the way a cartoon pig speaks? Or maybe it's completely impossible to snort words. This is an active verb, not a speech tag, and using it as a speech tag throws off the sentence.

Ditto with using this kind of verb as a thought tag, and heaven spare us from writers who think adding "silently" cures the problem.

She silently snorted, guess who called today.

Yeah, that's laughably bad. Our original example sentence isn't this blatantly awful, but it allows me to make this important point: When you're debating whether to cull "that" from a sentence that looks like it might describe thoughts (dreams could be described as thoughts, right?), you still have to watch out for this active verb issue. The less the clause resembles a pure thought or dialogue tag, the less chance you can get away with cutting the conjunction that.

There is one final detail to discuss. In the dream example, we have words intervening between the two clauses.

She dreamed all night that he held her while she slept.

Intervening  words can also contribute to awkwardness if "that" is dropped. If we moved those words, we get something marginally better with the dropped conjunction.

All night she dreamed he held her while she slept.

It's not great, but it makes it a little easier for a reader to interpret that clause "she dreamed" like a tag. It makes the ellipsis a bit easier to read. Even though it still has a small degree of awkwardness, I might leave this alone in a manuscript, depending on the clarity and grace of the context.

I think that takes care of the "that" as a conjunction. Next up, we'll talk about "that" as a relative pronoun and when we can cut it.


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Emotional experiences in books

Let's think of ourselves as readers, which we were before we were writers. We're still going to learn most about writing from the authors we love. So let's talk about books that have affected you emotionally.

For example, there's a great Patrick O'Brian book, Reverse of the Medal, where the hero, a storied sea captain of great courage but not great intellect, has invested his war booty with someone who turns out to be a crook, and Jack gets charged with stock market fraud. He is sentenced to pillory (this is 1811) and forced to be shackled in a public square in London in the midst of a crowd which is going to pelt him with rocks and
rotten fruit.  But seamen (his fellow Royal Navy guys) show up from every corner of the kingdom and surround him and doff their caps in respect for him-- and of course, keep the rabble from humiliating him.

Reading this really did show me the separation that can occur between the reader's experience and the main character's experience. Jack feels overwhelming gratitude and humility, to be protected so well. The reader
feels pride mostly-- the opposite of humility-- because of the actions not of the hero, but of all these anonymous seamen. Centuries before Facebook, they manage to learn of this travesty and figure out how to
deal with it together, and they do it with a characteristically British blend of self-deprecation and bristling arrogance.

That is, in the final moments, and throughout the book, I as the reader of course identify with Jack, the protagonist. But every character, every scene, every setting, every value in this book contributes to the reader experience. I really learned from that book that the emotion comes from the entirety of the story, everything that builds up to the final scenes, and everything that comes from the interaction of all the characters with the events of the story and the settings.

So I learned it's really important to get the reader to identify with the protagonist. But that's not enough. The reader has to be able simultaneously identify deeply with the main character, but also have a fuller experience that comes from reading the whole book (which the hero can't do :).

Let's start with the totality of the book experience, the change from start to end, and then break it all down:

Theme: I'm just pointing to the title here-- this book is all about "reversal"-- of fortune, of expectations, of focus.

Change from start to end, the "praxis": Jack starts out at the top, a real war hero, a bit conceited about his new glory. Because of his gullibility and desire for wealth and status, he trusts the wrong person. So the change for him is from pride to shame, really from "moving up" to "falling down". This descent is paralleled in the war's progress. In the beginning, it seems that France (Napoleon) will be surrendering soon, that Britain will finally triumph (which it does, but not for another long year and not in this book). In fact, this misconception is what is used to trap Jack into the stock swindle. Point is, the nation's fortunes seem at the top to start, and that turns out to be wrong.

Situation change: But all of O'Brian's stories are more than the story of the main characters (Stephen, the other major character, has his own downfall). The situation is the Royal Navy at war, a war that the Navy won years ago (at Trafalgar), and at this point is more about acquiring wealth in ships and influence. The purity of purpose has been lost, along with the camaraderie that makes months at sea bearable. The powerful simplicity of the military at the beginning is corrupted into the deceptive, dangerous world of the City of London and Westminster (finance and politics).

Setting change: The setting starts out in that "wooden world" of the ship at sea, with its familiar traditions and simple loyalties. But half the book, the latter half, is mostly on land and in the sophisticated, deceptive world of London politics and finance. The ending takes place at Cornhill, in the City of London, the finance center, so very different than the ships and the sea. But that pillory scene brings the two worlds together as all the seamen "from Land's End to John o' Groats" arrive to protect Jack.

The fulfillment in the end: The end really does have to fulfill the promise of the rest of the book. The conflicts are intensified and then resolved, if not in the obvious fashion. The Reverse of the Medal's ending is particularly emotional because the verities are restored. Jack has, to some degree, abandoned his crew by associating with the men of finance and politics who destroy him. As a consequence, he loses his ship and his position in the Navy. (This is extremely affecting, btw.) That loss makes him remember what really counts. I know it sounds trite (it's not in the book), but he learns who his real friends are when every seamen in the kingdom shows up to honor him in his moment of greatest shame. (And then Stephen buys the old ship and gives it to him to be a merchant ship.)

The distinction between the protagonist's emotion at the end and the reader's: Jack's shame and loss are so entire, and the reader participates in that. But when the seamen come to protect him, Jack's response is appropriately (for him) gratitude and humility. He knows how badly he screwed it up, and how fortunate he is to be restored to the camaraderie and friendship he had moved beyond. But for the reader? We don't have to be confined to his experience. I know what I felt as I closed the book was pride-- pride in the Navy and these simple seamen who were able to forgive so generously-- and also admiration not just for the courage of Jack, but for the unstinting love of his wife and his best friend. I know I had a sense of the power of forgiveness, as everyone was able to forgive Jack and gather him back into the family of the Navy. That is, the reader response moves beyond Jack's to a greater understanding of the meaning of the story, and part of the emotional reaction (to me, at least) was a renewed hope in the goodness of humans. (A final reversal-- at the lowest, most humiliating moment in the 20-book series, we have the greatest joy.)

So how about you? What's a book that you can remember really experiencing emotionally-- the book, not just the character?  And how in the end did you feel and why?


Sunday, January 6, 2013

That One

Every now and then, I'll hear writers talk about searching their manuscripts for "that" and cutting the word from the text. You don't need it, they say. It's just clutter, they say. And so they type those for little letters into a find bar and cut away.

This worries me a little because the word does serve a purpose, and mere mindless cutting can create problems in the text. This is not an idle worry. I've seen these problems in manuscripts. Let's think about the ways we use that, and let's see if we can figure out when the usage is good. We'll start today with that as a pronoun.

That is her car in the third space. 

In this sentence, that is being used as a pronoun which substitutes for the noun car. The clause That is together form the main clause of the sentence, with the direct object her car and the prepositional phrase in the third space completing the predicate. It's a grammatically correct sentence. To eliminate that, you would either need to use a different pronoun --

It is her car in the third space.

Or you would need to revise the sentence to eliminate the pronoun altogether --

Her car is in the third space.

Either of these sentences is grammatically correct, but the differences between them are vast, to my eye. The first sentence, the one with that, to me appears to be emphasizing the specific car as distinguished from any other cars -- her car is not the one in the first space or second space. Her car is the one in the third space. That car, not those other cars.

The second sentence, with it, seems to me to be asserting ownership. It is her car, not his car, not your car, and not my car. The difference between the first and second sentences is subtle, though, because both are using structures of emphasis. This distinguishes them from the third sentence, which is stripped of any such emphasis. The third sentence is a mere statement of fact, providing the location of the car and identifying it as belonging to her. Neither of these facts are emphasized.

In some cases, you will want the emphasis, and in some cases, you will not. Much depends on context. So when you're looking at a pronoun usage of that, don't just cut it without evaluating whether it is being used as a means of emphasis. Most of us will make this decision on autopilot and get it right, but with all the that-cutting advice floating around the writersphere, make sure your autopilot doesn't get compromised!


Saturday, January 5, 2013

Dr. Who Tears

I'm way behind on my Doctor Who watching, because, well, really, David Tennant. I mean, he's gone. And I haven't been able to really accept this new guy, though I think he's on his third year. It's got to be hard following David Tennant.

Anyway, I'm up to sometime in his second year, and came across something important. It's actually amplified by this Doctor being sort of manic and unanchored, because the contrast when he pauses and say something wise is more pronounced. So he's talking to a young woman whose husband was killed in the war, and it's Christmas so she hasn't told her children because she doesn't want to spoil Christmas forever for them.

So he says that he understands, that she's angry because they're happy now and they'll be so sad later, and what's the point? He says, "They're happy now. They'll be sad later. So what use is the happiness?"

Then, very gently, she says, "Because they'll be sad later."

And that's it.

I was trying to reverse-engineer why this was so powerful. First, of course, the situation (children losing father, always sad). But also I think it's because the mom is having to pretend. She knows her husband is dead, but has to pretend that he's going to join them. The tension and conflict that deception adds is wonderfully poignant. I think often we want to portray the exact experience, but in fact the depth of emotion is often in the complications, the what-ifs and if-onlies, not the exact reality. If we can impose some complication, we might intensify the emotion.

The other thought though is that emotion is always paradoxical, and when we express it as a paradox, we are presenting its power.  How meaningless it is that they are happy now but only because they don't know they'll be sad later. And yet, there's exactly where the emotion is-- that they will be sad later, so the happiness now is even more important. And then -- we can look ahead-- the future pain will be that much greater because of the present happiness.

The paradox, the complication, can't really be explained, but can be expressed, and in simple terms, the simpler the more affecting:
Because they'll be sad later.

Emotion is complicated, and it's simple. The experience is complicated, but the expression is simple. Think about that. Our response to great emotion, however complicated, is tears, you know? Great joy. Great confusion, Great pain. Tears.

Complicated emotion, simple expression.


Friday, January 4, 2013

Rights reversion

First: I AM NOT AN ATTORNEY. Theresa is, so she can smack me down if I'm wrong on all or some counts.

Second: This will be of limited interest if you don't have old publishing contracts. Then again, if you see a publishing contract in your future, you probably ought to research this: Reversion of Rights.

Third: Goodness, we writers sure are quick to kneel down and let the industry beat on us like a hard rain.

When I "sell" a book to a publisher, I'm not really usually selling it in the sense of giving them all rights to the book in perpetuity in exchange for some doubtlessly inadequate amount of money. (I have done that with a book or two, sold all rights forever. I don't advise it-- depends, however, on the $$. :) I am instead "licensing" the book, giving the publisher the right to publish, distribute, and sell the book for a certain period of time under certain conditions. The contract spells out the conditions (like usually the publisher must publish the book and have a certain number of copies for sale within a specified timeframe). Most contracts have some end -- they are not in perpetuity, and aren't supposed to be.

So as nasty as most publishing contracts are (and I've signed a lot of them, and usually they're so nasty attorneys consulted have to take antacids-- "there's an option required, but no consideration for it???"), they usually do have a "reversion clause". That means that if the publisher doesn't keep the book for sale in a certain quantity, the rights can revert to the author. The weird thing is-- this is part of the nastiness--  there is a specified time to the licensing period (seven years is common). But the publisher can often "retain rights" past that period by keeping the book in print and for sale.

Notice "in print" used to mean they had to go to the expense of printing and shipping physical books. Now "in print" can mean virtually no expense for the publisher, as it might mean just having an electronic version available for sale. Many contracts used to have specific requirements for this (like one of mine was that the publisher, to keep the rights, had to do a print run of 10K), but more and more, the clauses are pretty open, so that just having it for sale on Amazon might be enough to keep the rights. This is pretty pernicious, IMHO.

Another truly pernicious part of some of these clauses is that the rights claimed include "all rights including those not yet invented". In the 90s, electronic books hadn't been invented (not really), and so now many publishers are saying that, even for books 20 years old, they "own" not just the print rights (which have long since lapsed probably) but also have the right to put out an electronic edition whenever they want. And sometimes they do that, not to earn any real money or goodness knows to pay royalties to the author, but just to do a rights-grab-- you know, in case I turn out to be the next Stephen King or something. (Don't hold your breath!)

Many of us were puttering along, sadly giving up on old books. After all, we couldn't afford to get new versions printed, and anyway, the near-monopolistic control of bookselling until recently made it hard to get popular fiction self-pubbed books into the stores (not impossible, but hard). And even though we knew that our old publishers weren't likely ever to sell our books again, it wasn't like any other publisher was eager to reprint old romances or Westerns. So we just went on, assuming those books were lost forever. But then came, finally, the wonderful hardware that would present our wonderful books to new readers, and a host of new online booksellers to let us reach those readers. And all at virtually no cost! A miracle!

That's when many of us unearthed those old contracts and started trying to get our rights back to those old books, which could now reach a brand new audience.

The first mistake was thinking we needed to "request the rights back." In fact, usually we just need to "serve notice that the rights have reverted." That is, the publisher needs to do something affirmative (put out that new print edition, maybe) in order to keep the rights after a certain period where the book has been out of print.

What's been happening a lot is that an author will write to the old publisher and say, "I request that you return my rights to (title)," and the publisher JUST NEVER RESPONDS.  I can't tell you how often I've heard authors moan about books lost because the publisher never signed off on this rights reversion. Cough. Of course, every contract is different, but really. A publisher can't just ignore the letter and retain rights. We authors need to remember, these are OUR books that we licensed to them, often for pennies, and the contract did not cede the books to the publisher forever. And if the publisher doesn't respond to the letter, that means they have refused or neglected to assert any claim. (And even if they do assert a claim, that doesn't mean they have one. We as the creators have a claim. They probably don't if the book has been out of print. Check the contract. Hire an attorney. These days, it's worth it.)

Our serving them notice of the intention to take back the rights does not need their approval (depending of course on the contract, etc.). We just need to be able to prove (maybe registered mail receipt) that we did in fact serve them the notice. Sometimes there's a waiting period after service-- mine was 60 days. If they didn't do whatever that affirmative action was (10K copies in print for mine) in those 60 days, then the book is mine all mine again. Forever.

In fact, I've sent rights reversion letters about ten times. Once the publisher responded promptly with a letter recognizing the reversion. Once the letter came back (publisher out of business). Four times the publisher waited many months before finally sending the letter of acceptance. Four times I never heard anything. Every single one of those books, I put up for sale as soon as the specified waiting period was up. I never waited for the publisher to get around to responding to the letter. And if the publisher had responded by refusing? I'd send another letter saying, "The contract period is up. I've served notice of reversion. Your rights are terminated." They're welcome to come to Indiana and sue me. (They won't. They'd lose, so why bother?)  I don't mean to be cavalier, but we should not allow fear of litigation that probably will never happen get in the way of claiming our rights to our books.

Now there are all sorts of tricks publishers have used to get around our own ownership of our own books. I wish they'd put that much ingenuity into marketing books! And more recent contracts have been much more restrictive in the rights reversion clause. However, if you're signing a new contract, this is one clause it will pay to keep author-friendly. If you have an agent, talk through what you want and insist on getting that. And decide if you're willing to go to the mat to keep eventual control of your own work.

To tell you the truth, I'd advise giving up rights for a long time only if this is otherwise a great deal. It's one thing to license a book for $2500 advance when you can get the rights back in 10 years. It's entirely different to pretty much give the book away forever for a piddly advance, especially now when there are so many other options. There are many reasons for accepting a traditional publishing contract, and go for it if that's what you want. But I have to say I am very glad that my early contracts had what in retrospect was a pretty loose reversion clause so that now I'm making far, far more money selling the books on my own. Yeah, you know, when I was 32, I didn't look ahead and think that I might want the rights back 20 years later. But I did, and I'm really glad I asserted my rights and took the books back and offered them up for sale. I would not sign a contract now that pretty much took all rights unless the money was pretty darned good.

And I have to say this to publishers. Stop being obnoxious. This rights grab many of you are embarking on is alienating authors and driving us away. We have other options now! And often you're grabbing rights you have utterly no intention of exercising. Hey, you make money for us, you don't have to grab the rights! We'll rent them to you very politely. But if all you're going to do is hold on to rights to deprive us of benefitting from our own work? Well, how very Gordon Gecko of you. You need us more than we need you, and it really is about time publishers realized that.

I recently heard a publisher say, "These books are our intellectual property!" Arrgggh! No! They are the intellectual property of the person whose intellect created them. The author. Maybe instead of being nasty and asserting control over our own creations, publishers should try to be equitable and reasonable and offer us a reason to license our books to them. What a crazy idea. But you know, it just might work. Publishers can no longer rely on a near-monopoly to corral authors into the publishing paddock. If a book is good enough for a publisher to want it, it's probably good enough to be sold by the author herself. (Not that publishers are all that reliable in choosing books that will sell well. Many books that got rejected by the big publishers became bestsellers. I have one of those, as a matter of fact, published by a small press and rather lucratively. Not quite -- not near-- a seller like Harry Potter, of course, which was rejected by a dozen publishers.) And in that case, the publisher will need to make a good sales pitch about what the author will gain from this relationship when there really are other options.

And if worse comes to worst, after 35 years creators have the right to terminate anyone else's use of their work.
It's a limited period (five years, I think), so set your clock. Also this means all copyrights should be mentioned in your will and specifically left to one person (to reclaim the rights, the person has to have more than 50% ownership, it sounds like). You might not live to get your rights back under the termination law, but your heirs can.

Anyway, let's just stop talking about "requesting our rights back" or saying the publishers "gave us the rights back."  These are our rights. We need to know how to contractually assert our ownership. But usually we still own them, and they are OUR intellectual property, and publishers will do well to recognize for perhaps the first time in decades that authors are not "fodder" but rather essential partners in the bookselling trade. And if not, well, now we can go it alone. The liberation of saying that! Ah. I'll say it again. Now we can go it alone.


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Back in the saddle-- Non-American spelling

Hi, it's only been a month! Who knows where the time goes. Nowhere productive, I'd say.

Anyway, back again. I'll try and post more. I really want to post about what I call the Tyrannosauruses, the powerful industry professionals who are still powerful as the industry changes. But that will come later. Now I'm thinking about something much more trivial-- non-American spelling and formatting.

An Australian author who has been "dinged" in writing contests for her Australian word choice and formatting asked if she should try to standardize everything for American readers, or trust that they really can read English that isn't American. Good question!

 I think there are realities at issue here. First, of course Americans are perfectly capable of reading other forms of English, and publishers' worries about that are generally unfounded. Harry Potter, after all, managed to sell fairly well despite the terrible handicap of a British author using British terms. :)

American Publishers
However, those publishers will say, "We have a house style. We're not going to change that style (including spelling, punctuation, formatting) just for one author." And they're right too. Their editors and copyeditors and proofreaders and software are all geared to their own country's style. So if you sell a story to an American publisher and use "colour" instead of "color", expect it to be changed. No big deal. House style almost always rules. Even Harry Potter, after all, showed up in the US edition with double apostrophes for quotations! The publisher might be wrong about the ability of American readers to figure things out, but
there you have it. Those of us who have spent decades battling with "house style" tend to counsel choosing your battles when it comes to the copy edit. You know, "Okay, so they made Grandma into a friendly cocker spaniel. And they Americanized my spelling. Which should I go to the mat for?" :)

A couple thoughts-- will writing the story in your own style cause a publisher to reject you? Probably not, especially if the story is set in Australia. But don't be surprised if after buying the book, an American publisher sets the copy editor on all the URs. Probably they'll be gentle with your wordchoice (torch instead of flashlight), but monstrous on your punctuation. Just keep reminding yourself that JK Rowling had to put up with this too. (AS Byatt once wrote a funny article about having her British book Possession Americanized, with the pallid hero kind of Rambo-ized because the publisher assumed that American readers couldn't
abide a "slight" hero.)

Independent Publishing
And what if you're not going through a publisher but publishing it yourself? Well, then I'd say, go with what makes for a better experience for the reader, who is the only other person to consider then. Most readers who look for indie-pubbed books are very experienced readers who appreciate an author's voice, so don't worry that they'll be upset-- they're probably the least likely people to object to this. I would probably in the subtitle of the book or description make sure "Australian" is in there, like (title): An Australian Love Story, or in the description, this story, set in Australia.... the author, a native Aussie.... That is, give them a signal that this isn't Amy American's book. Then they have fair warning that if they are offended by non-American spelling, they should steer clear.

As far as contests, really-- ignore any comments that don't make sense to you. And I say this as a chronic judge. Sometimes judges comment on things just to have something to comment on, and they don't mean for it to be taken as holy writ. And sometimes they DO mean for it to be taken as holy writ, but they're wrong or this is some individual issue they care about and no one else does (I have a lot of those ). If what they say sounds wrong to you, just ignore it.
And if you're being scored down for this, I'd complain to the coordinator of the contest.

I'm one of those who loves the slightly different "taste" of British books and those single quote marks, so go for it.