Monday, December 14, 2015

Sequencing action in a sentence with verbing

(I think I made the word "verbing" up.)

One task of revision is to make sure that sentences make sense. There's the semantic sense-- the reader understand easily what you mean. (Harder than it sounds, ain't it?) Then there's the sequence of action. I try to revise sentences to be coherent, that is, if there would be a pause between actions, then I try to put them in different clauses or different sentences.

This isn't a rule or anything, but there's some sense here. If you have a group of actions that take a couple minutes to perform-- getting the groceries out of the car, carrying them up the stairs and into the kitchen, unloading them and putting them away-- well, the reader isn't going to get much sense of the experience if you jam all that into one long sentence that takes two seconds to read. If you group the actions together (carrying upstairs and into kitchen could be a one-sentence group), then you'd have two or three sentences which would take a longer time to read, echoing the longer time it would take to do that sequence of actions. If this long sequence of action isn't important enough for three sentences (and the grocery sequence probably isn't), then consider skipping the earlier actions and use the latter one as a quick narrative bridge, relegated to a dependent element connected to a more meaningful main clause, like:
(The reader will assume she somehow got the groceries into the kitchen.)
Halfway through putting the groceries away, she found the wine underneath the 12-grain bread and sat down to get moodily drunk.

There's an interrupted action there, then a new action coming out of the initial action/interruption. I notice that I've got verbals (a verbal is a form of the verb which won't be a predicate, like "putting" and "to get") which refer to the things that don't happen right then-- the "putting" is interrupted, and she "sits down to get drunk"-- that is, we know she's going to get drunk, but within this 10 seconds or so, she just sits down TO GET drunk.

Is this important? Well, maybe not, but using verbals rather than actual verbs is a subtle way to indicate un-actions-- things that don't quite happen or don't fully happen. Would there be a difference if we stressed the actions that weren't completed in the original? I don't know. Let's see:

She put half the groceries away, then found the wine underneath the 12-grain bread and sat down and got moodily drunk.

In this case, the main clause action is putting half the groceries away (She put) rather than "she found" the wine as it had been in the previous version. Which is more important? For my purposes, what was more important was this almost accidental "finding" of the wine which leads to her quitting what she'd been doing (putting away the groceries) and embarking on a, shall we say, less productive plan.

What happens when the drunk part stops being a intended/prospective thing (to get drunk) and becomes a certain thing (got drunk)? My main problem with that is that getting drunk takes some time, while the earlier part of the sentence could be measured in a minute or so. So we'd have a sequence of actions that might take a minute (stopping the grocery putting away, finding the wine, (presumably opening it-- probably it's a screwtop :), sitting down), and then at the end of the sentence, an action (getting drunk) that would on its own take, well, even if she's very determined, ten minutes.

In contrast, "sat down to get drunk" -- that is, sitting down with the intention to get drunk-- would take only the amount of time it takes to sit down. (Intending, alas, takes no time at all.)

So... no rules here! But as you revise, look at a sentence or sequence of sentences where there is a group of actions. How can you give the reader the experience of this span of time and motion? What actually happens, what almost happens, what might still happen, what was meant to happen but never did? Is there some way to indicate which action falls into what category?
And what is the most important action? Should that be in the main clause?
Do you have too much for one sentence?

I am puzzling right now over a sentence where the man takes several actions in sequence. They're important in aggregate (he's coming forward to confess to a murder), but one isn't that much more important than another. 

Before she could answer, Winstead rose suddenly, pushing back his chair with a clatter, and stepped in front of his wife.   
Right away I see the problem that "she" (who couldn't answer in time) and "his wife" are the same person, so .... ugly....! And heck, why not dialogue it, huh?
"Don't answer that!" Winstead rose suddenly....
Hmm. Suddenly-- to convey that, I think I'll make it the harder-sounding word "abruptly" and put it first so that it's an interruption--
"Don't answer that!" Abruptly Winstead rose....

I have "rose" and "stepped in front" as equal in importance (both are verbs/predicates, which is fine), and pushing the chair back relegated to a participial phrase, so that's okay too, I think. The sequence wouldn't take long physically, so one sentence would be about right. I do notice that the rising and the pushing back are probably actually one motion-- or? Let me act it out. (One moment please. :) Well, you can push the chair back a bit by the act of rising, but you can't really push it very far, and I do mean this to be emphatic. 
Question for me: Look at the "and". Does the pushing back motion go better with the "rose" or better when the stepping in front?

"Don't answer!" Abruptly Winstead rose, pushing back his chair with a clatter, and stepped in front of his wife.


"Don't answer!" Abruptly Winstead rose, and pushing back his chair with a clatter, stepped in front of his wife.

I like the feel of the second, but I don't think it's entirely logical as the participle means that he's more or less simultaneously pushing and stepping.

I think I'll get rid of the pushing. :)

"Don't answer!" Abruptly Winstead rose and stepped in front of his wife.

Not much of a sequence of motion, but at least it's physically logical. 

You can see why it takes me so long to edit my books. I fret about this sort of stuff.

What are some motion-sequence sentences of yours? Can you make them more logical and coherent?


Little words and meaning

Came across this in writing a letter.

"Worse than just failing was trying and failing."

That "just" makes all the difference. It emphasizes the contrast between the two options (1 and 1+1), and implies that there is something worse than "nothing."

One of our tasks in revision could be "just" this: To find places where one little word, not a big significant word like "forever" or "power", but one of those little words we use every day, will make a big difference.

After all, the reason we use "just" and "then" and "now" and "only" and "this" and "these" and "because" and "so" every single day is because they are so useful in underlining or undercutting or emphasizing our ideas. They also echo our spoken English, first because we use them in conversation, and second because they provide the emphasis in written English that tone of voice would provide when we speak.

Less is more, of course, or we'll end up with something unwieldy and poke-y (poking the reader with the constant emphasis, I mean). But this is why I read my sentences aloud, to hear when I would emphasize this phrase with a stronger tone-- and that might be where I need to insert an emphasis word.
Who is revising now? What's an example of where you've added or subtracted from a sentence or paragraph? And why?


Saturday, December 12, 2015

Want lots of free writing and publishing material?

Calling all writers! There are a lot of free resources here (just for a few days-- click now!), including some free courses in publishing basics. There's so much you can pick and choose. And free! If you click on my link here, supposedly I get some free $. smile emoticon And it really is free (for now). I got it for myself just now.


Commas to set off introductory elements-- rationale for the "always"

I've been working with students on the purpose behind punctuation, so that they can feel like they don't have to learn a bunch of arbitrary rules or else spend the rest of their life kind of randomly sticking commas here and there.

The purpose of punctuation, at bottom, is to tell the reader what goes with what. So in that last sentence, I set off "at bottom" by a comma before and after because the whole term goes together, and it's meant to interrupt the sentence in order to emphasize something about the subject (the purpose of punctuation).

While there are a lot of rules (and some dispute about them!), I do think it will help writing students to keep in mind there is a purpose-- this is not arbitrary-- and the purpose is grouping words and phrases that belong together in the sentence.

One of the most common "dropped comma" opportunities is the introductory element in a sentence. More and more, I'm seeing students (and other writers) discard what I think is often essential for the reader to get what goes with what-- what the real meaning is.

Punctuation's main purpose is to signal to the reader what parts of the sentence go together.  For example, in this sentence done without the comma (which is, cough, becoming all too common in magazine and web articles):
 After he completed the fields in the application document all the software apps he needed for regeneration were automatically downloaded to his brain.
 (Yes, I know, ugly sentence, but it's a close copy of an actual sentence I came across, and is a good illustration of my point. We'd all rewrite that, I know! But just for now, let's let it be there in all its ugly so I can use that introductory element.)

That long a sentence, really, I'd be looking for a place to punctuate (a GOOD place) even if there weren't an appropriate rule. That many nouns all in a line-- the reader will get lost. And the most important of those nouns (for our purpose here) is "document" (at the end of the introductory clause), and that can also be a verb, especially when followed by "software." ("One of my jobs at Compudesign was to document the software.") Hang on to that thought about nouns that can also be verbs, as that's a common problem with these sorts of sentences.

We don't want the reader to get lost! Fortunately, I don't have to invent an excuse to punctuate and slow down that cascade of nouns. I can figure out what the elements are in the sentence:
Introductory element supplying some condition or information: After he completed the fields in the application document
Main clause explaining the important action of the sentence: all the software apps he needed for regeneration were automatically downloaded to his brain.
... and add a comma in between to separate.
 After he completed the fields in the application document, all the software apps he needed for regeneration were automatically downloaded to his brain.
...the introductory clause After he completed the fields in the application document creates a different "unit of meaning" than the main clause beginning "all the software apps". If you separate those with a comma, the reader won't run the two together --  document all the software apps. Sometimes without the comma, when we let the last word of the intro element run into the first words of the main clause, the reader will get confused. It’s especially confusing when the word at the end of the intro element can be either a noun—a thing or name—or a verb—an action. "Document" would generally be assumed to be a noun... but not when it's right by "all the software," because "documenting software" is an actual task.

In English, there are many words that started as mere nouns and then became also verbs, and vice versa. Here are just a few that I've seen at the end of intro elements:
Can you think of more? I know that you can. :) Hey, "CAN" would apply also.
And we don't even want to get into adjectives that can also be past-tense verbs (because a past participle, which is often identical to the past tense, can be used as an adjective, like "brushed" and "enlightened" and "solicited). 
When a intro element ends with a word like “time” or “report” that could be either a noun or a verb, the reader might automatically connect it as a verb to the next word—time it, report that….)  

So if we don't routinely use the comma to separate intro from main, quite often the reader will rush past the end of the intro to the start of the main and stop. Confused. What? 
At that time the swimmers...
In the report your comings and goings...
When she read through the survey the new highway....
After I started to walk down the street was the store where...
Since I already had everything in order the children....

Eventually the reader will go back and pick out what goes with what, and, well, mentally insert the comma we left out. Because I deal with so many student papers, I see many such sentences, and every time, I -- a trained reader, teacher, editor, writer-- pause, regroup, re-read. If I'm confused even when I'm carefully reading, imagine how confused the skimming reader will be.

We want readers to pause over our brilliant insights, not our confusing syntax.  And even a moment where the readers are confused and have to re-read brings the danger of losing their attention, and, indeed, their trust in our ability to control our own meaning.. 

Hence the rule: Introductory phrases and clauses should be set off from the main sentence with a comma:

This is pretty easy to fix as you revise, once you get used to recognizing these introductory clauses and phrases. They'll be at the beginning of the sentence, but the main part of the sentence, the main subject and verb clause, will be after that. It's just a matter of finding where the intro phrase or clause is, and where the main clause begins, and putting a comma to separate them. Some examples (intro phrase or clause bolded):
Intro phrases:
Therefore, Napoleon's invasion of Russia led to his doom.
In 1815, Wellington won the battle of Waterloo.
Well, I don’t know about that.
After that, she went to the university to study biology.
Already knowing everything, my teenaged son won't listen to me.
Garish with red and blue stripes, his shirt clashed with everything.

Intro clauses:
Even after Jane drank the warm milk, she couldn't fall asleep.
When she was 16, her parents bought the house in Surrey.
When I asked, he couldn't explain.
Before it starts to rain, let's finish painting the garage door.

Recently, I've been seeing many writers discard this in most of their sentences. I really don't get the rationale of not using this comma routinely.  Running together your intro and your main clause will almost always create confusion, and most of the time you won't want to create confusion.

Then-- if you usually follow this rule-- when you choose NOT to use it, to energize the flow of the sentence to create more of a sense of action say, your choice will stand out as meaningful. There's no meaning in breaking a rule you never follow anyway... so if a writer wants the additional speed and flow of NOT using that comma, following the rule most of the time will make the occasional rule-break stand out as significant.

 To restate:
Breaking a rule you don't follow anyway provides no additional value or meaning.
Rebels need something to rebel against. :)
"Always and never" make the exception possible.

I would love some better examples of sentences that confuse, so if you come across some in your reading, can you let me know? Real examples are so much more... real... than the ones I make up.
Also, if you have examples of sentences where you've broken a rule (esp. this rule) for a particular effect, can you post that too and why you did it? I need good rule-break examples also, to show the contrast between accidental and intentional. Thanks, all!


Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Conflict questions, problems, ideas?

I am trying to flesh out my booklet on conflict, and wonder if you all could help? In the comments, can you post an idea about conflict-- something you've discovered or are wondering about or having a problem a problem with?

Conflict, plot conflict, scene conflict, romantic conflict, external conflict?


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Nominate my book? No obligation, just a click.

Would you click this link and nominate my book?
I have just finished a new novel, and I’m trying something new, the Kindle Scout program. And I hope you’ll help me by clicking this link and “nominating” the book.
This is a program where Amazon Kindle chooses certain submissions for publication based partly on nominations from the public. Would you nominate my book? All it takes is following this link for my Regency-England mystery novel Tryst at the Brighton Inn and clicking the Nominate button (right under the description of the book).
There’s an excerpt from the book there on the campaign page. If the book gets chosen for publication, you’ll get a free e-copy.  Thanks! (And if you're willing, I'd appreciate it if you shared on your FB and Twitter and stuff! I'm not sure how much "social media reach" affects the outcome of this campaign, but it can't hurt. Thanks, all!)

And when this is over, I'll come back and give info about the Scout program, if I get in, that is. If not, I'll probably grouse and grumble.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Subjects, Verbs, and Zombies

 I was tasked to write about a grammar issue for a coming book using zombies to explore prose issues. So I chose Subject-verb agreement.

Subjects and verbs “agree” when they are both singular (one zombie growls), or both plural (two zombies growl).
Native speakers usually make the right choice automatically—that is, in normal simple sentences. The problem usually comes when there’s some distance between the subject and the verb, so you’ve kind of forgotten what “number” the subject is. Here’s an example:
Giles, in his treatises on the varieties of the undead, define zombies as the undead ones who lack brainpower and eat brains. THIS IS WRONG—SINGULAR SUBJECT (TRETORN), BUT A PLURAL VERB (DEFINE).
Why do we make that mistake? That’s because we’ve lost sight of what the true subject is because of the other nouns in between—treatises, varieties, undead—which are all plural. But who is doing the defining? Giles. And there’s only one Giles, so that’s singular, and should take a singular verb:
Giles, in his treatises on the varieties of the undead, defines zombies as the undead ones who lack brainpower and eat brains. THIS IS RIGHT—SINGULAR SUBJECT, SINGULAR VERB.

Another situation that commonly causes this mistake is when the subject is echoed by the pronouns “who or which”, both of which in their disconnected state lack number. (How many “who’s” are there?) Who and which take on the “number” (that is, singular or plural) of the noun they replace.
In the undead hierarchy, zombies have a low status compared to the vampires, who is/are? usually elegant, intelligent blood-drinkers.
That should be “are”--  “who” replaces the plural noun “vampires.”
In the undead hierarchy, zombies have a low status compared to the vampires, who are usually elegant, intelligent blood-drinkers.
Notice—just to complicate things further—this rule applies even when the noun isn’t the subject of the whole sentence. Here, “vampires” is just the subject of the “who are elegant, intelligent blood-drinkers.”

Looking for more complication? Okay! What if you have two subjects, one singular and one plural? Ready? (This is REALLY complicated.)
The zombie and the two vampires has/have been fighting over the frightened accountant.
In this case, it’s easy enough with that “and”—there are three undead ones, and they’re all fighting, so “three are”. With multiple subjects joined by “and”, you just add them up. More than one? Plural, so plural verb—are fighting.
The zombie and the two vampires have been fighting over the frightened accountant.

But… but… what if the subjects are joined by “or”?
Soon, either the zombie or the vampires is/are going to notice that their prey has fainted dead away.
Addition doesn’t work here! In the end, either one or two will notice! What now? Weirdly, it depends on which of the two subjects is closest to the verb. (Really. It’s a sound thing.) So:
Soon, either the vampires or the zombie is going to notice soon that their prey has fainted dead away.
Soon, either the zombie or the vampires are going to notice soon that their prey has fainted dead away.

A Pondian Thing:
One more complication! This is a geographic difference—“a Pondian distinction,” as the linguists say (Pond = the Atlantic Ocean).
In British English, collective (group) nouns like “horde” and “coven” are plural. So you’d say:
The coven were meeting at the haunted grove.
But in American English, collective nouns are usually singular, so:
The coven was meeting at the haunted grove.
However… in American English, a collective is singular only when it’s “one”—all unified in this action, as the coven was in its meeting.
But a collective is plural when it is divided or in disagreement, like: The zombie horde were running around in all directions like zombie chickens.
As usual with English issues, there is a fairly simple rule, but there are also variations depending on usage.

Just to summarize:
General rule: If the subject/noun is singular, its verb should also be singular. One zombie->eats a brain.
 But if the subject/noun is plural, then its verb should also be plural. Three zombies->fight over the scraps.
Multiple subjects:
Joined by “and”, the subjects are plural and take the plural verb.  The witch, the vampire, and the zombie->walk into a bar.
Joined by “or”, the nearest subject to the verb determines the number:
The devil or maybe two of his demons àhave delivered this contract for your soul.
Either the angels or the lamb being led to slaughter-> is responsible for those tufts of white puff along the path.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Do Your Characters Speak For You?

A commenter mentioned being annoyed that in a post about scenes, I spoke about my characters "male-bashing" (with words, not bludgeons :).  Wasn't that sexist? If it were reversed, and these were male characters trashing women as a group, would I be more sensitive?

That brought up an interesting issue! At what point does our portrayal of characters being offensive become offensive "from us"? If I have a character who insults a group or is otherwise objectionable, does that mean I am espousing those sentiments? What if there are several characters like that? (I don't mean just politically incorrect offensiveness, but maybe also violence or discrimination.) When does it stop being just offensive characters and become an offensive book by an offensive author?

But... it gets so complicated when we're working with fictional characters. Every character we create is within us, they say, so perhaps a reflection of us. Yet if we create only characters that reflect what is best about us, well, there won't be much conflict in our books! Not to mention, you can't always know ahead of time what will offend someone somewhere.
Recently I was teaching character point of view to college students, and this issue came up. Most of their "novels" are really sort of fictionalized memoirs, with (probably idealized) selves as narrators. There was some bafflement when we read "A Cask of Amontillado" where the first-person narrator is truly an evil guy. (One of the worst ever-- walls up a friend for committing "an insult" and leaves him to die). They weren't sure how Poe might write a bad narrator without being bad himself, and who knows? Can we create a character who is not within us? Or should we even try? (And Poe of all writers has probably suffered the most slings and arrows because his first-person narrators are so nasty... many readers and his first biographer succumbed to the belief that they were him.)

I often wonder if mystery writers or thriller writers are associated with the bad behavior of their characters. We think, oh, yes, it's just fiction, but deep within, we might wonder... well, if she created this plausible serial murderer, does she have a serial murderer within??? 

I bet we've all read books where the entire tone and plot seem to push some offensive button-- it's not just one character who hates Italians, it's all of them, and there are three scenes where someone gets food poisoning at an Italian restaurant, and then there are all those metaphors referring to the Mafia, and the only joke in the book has a punchline about the dirtiness of Venice canals, and.... Yeah, it's not just "subtext" that's screaming out there.
In my own writing, sometimes I'll notice I have a character will reflect some silly prejudice of my own, usually something like "only children" or  "people who bring potato chips to a potluck dinner" or "those annoying sorts who are cheerful at 6 am." And I do sense sometimes I just give it a bit too much emphasis to this Thing I Don't Like, you know, sliding into rant-territory.
There's probably a point where this stops being a story with a character or two who is offensive, and becomes an offensive story overall. But I don't know where that point is. What do you all think? Is it safer to avoid characters being offensive, or instead just impart all the potential offense to a villain character so it's clear I Disapprove Of Male-Bashing and Only Bad Guys Hate Spaghetti? Is it worth examining our own subtexts and tone to see if we're conveying some offense we don't want to convey? What do you do? Have you ever changed a story or character because you thought you'd gone too far?

My example:
One of my characters was "authentic" in a lot of ways, bristly and angry and sardonic, but at some point, it just went too far, and readers didn't like her or sympathize with her. Worst of all, they didn't want to spend time with her. I don't think we need to make characters "likeable" to keep readers interested, but there is a point where the character just gets tiresome. I didn't want to make her a wimp or trivialize her justifiable anger about the past. But I found several "offense-ticklers" and phased them out. Like she had a habit of endowing people with slightly mean nicknames. And she was always thinking if not saying defensive responses to other characters' conversations. Once I could isolate the "too much", I was able (I hope) to make her both herself and reader-involving.

I notice I keep saying, "There's a point where...." That indicates, I guess, that this is a matter of degree, that what's acceptable at 48% can become annoying at 55%.