Sunday morning, not by Wallace Stevens: Orts, redux

There’s now a tenth planet. I knew I had heard this on TV some time ago (it has been known since 2003, so it could have been quite a while back) while I napped, and I remember waking up and telling my husband there was a new planet and that they had named it some funny name. It must be the Planet Mongo, straight out of the old serials (as mentioned in the film and novel _Summer of ’42_.)* Hope they don’t name it something really weird with a lot of Ys where there should be Is. (grin)

* My mother reminds me that the planet Mongo is where Flash Gordon is from. So there.

* * *
Oh, Lord. More howlers that I see everywhere that are commonly boo-booed:

“bated” breath (not “bait-ed”–think about it)
“whine” (where did “whinGe” come from??)*
“piqued” your interest (of course it’s not “peaked”! Think!)
“Voila” (not “Wallah” or “Wah-lah” or any number of fo-netic, I mean phonetic, renderings–it’s a French word. There’s an accent grave on the final “a.”)

* I am informed that “whinge” is a Briticism combining “whine” and “cringe.” I’m all for coining new terms where they’re useful, so this one now makes sense. The neologism had not made it into any of my dictionaries when I last looked, so I had been thinking it was a really weird thinko.

Sorry if I stomped your toes, but a writer must know words (connotation as well as denotation, spelling as well as meaning) the way a carpenter knows the tools in his box, or else what’s the use. . . .
* * *
“The faster I write, the better my output. If I’m going slow I’m in trouble. It means I’m pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.”–Raymond Chandler
* * *
You wanted me to mention some books that I think are perfect, near-perfect, or at least worthy of your careful attention?

* To Kill a Mockingbird (the first four chapters rock, as does the rest of the book–and the opening line and closing line tie together.)
* Cat’s Cradle (Vonnegut isn’t putting down organized religion, despite what high school study guides may claim–it’s more complex than that)
* Bellwether, Connie Willis (you’ll FLIP for this one–it’s no FAD–and it’s FUNNY through and through)
* Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner (read the originals, not the condensed or the Disney version)
* Peter Pan (ditto)
* The Secret History (one of my favorite books, although the story is “framed” by the device of recollection, which is out of style now, but who cares–it reminds me of Gatsby, which it was supposed to, and of TKaM, which it wasn’t supposed to do, but Henry Winter (brrr) is quite the anti-Atticus Finch, and the moral compass of this story, Julian, is quite lacking so far as being a compass, spinning away)
* A Clockwork Orange (note the neat Russian-type slang and enjoy the violence–it’s just like anime *grin*)
* 1984 (Yes, really. It’s not dated. You do need to let it absorb you, but it has lessons to teach that I wish the current world politicos would learn. Just trust me on this.)
* Trust Me On This, Donald E. Westlake (yes, some of it is a bit coy or twee or whatever you want to call it, but it’s still one of mine and Harlan Ellison’s favorite novels, and that is saying a LOT)
* The Great Gatsby (yes, I really want you to read it, and don’t study it, but do study it)
* The Grapes of Wrath (if you can read it like a book and not be looking for J. C. and symbolism and non-teleological thinking)
* Travels with Charley (after TGoW, you’ll need this relief, and I think Steinbeck will charm you)
* The Egypt Game, Zilpha Keatley Snyder (xoxox, still charmed me on a re-read the other day)
* Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth by E. L. Konigsburg (I recently re-read this and found that I enjoyed it just as much this time, from the perspective of a grown-up, as I did in the fourth grade when I went gaga over it–fairy dust)
* The Book of Three, Lloyd Alexander (I intend to re-read this one soon–it’s FUNNY. And if you love Potter, just give it a chance)
–and if you love fantasy,
* A Bad Spell in Yurt, C. Dale Brittain (funny and different from most series fantasy)
* Tam Lin, Pamela Dean (and this one is like Secret History in that it is also somewhat about a Classics group and their mystical attraction, PLUS it’s based on a famous old Irish legend or story or whatever it is, maybe a song, IIRC)
* Harriet the Spy (the book, not the movie–yet it does have some flaws, especially in last 1/4th and the ending, I think)
* A Separate Peace (it’s like Secret History in a sense, like other boarding school stories in a sense–tore my heart out and I wrote at length about it during my AP English exam, on which I received a 5, highest mark possible, tying it to “Hamlet” and the poem “Birches” by Robert Frost, if I recall correctly)
* The Catcher in the Rye (try to approach it as though you haven’t been told about it all your life)
* The Broom of the System, David Foster Wallace (it’s digressive and funny and doesn’t have a tied-together plot to speak of, so it’s rather literary, but it has endured, unlike the other brat-packer novels which haven’t endured so well. The ending is NOT MY FAULT. It probably embarrasses the author of Infinite Jest now. But if you don’t get it, write to me and I’ll give you my take on it.)
* Carrie Pilby (the first Smart Chick Lit novel and the only one that I think will really hang around in any sense)
* Shine Hawk by Charlie Smith (okay, you don’t have to read Shine Hawk because it might make you crazy, but if you like Faulkner, you may like this, and you could even fall in love with the prose)
* Marjorie Morningstar, Herman Wouk (if you would like to see some long sentences and some eloquent prose up close . . . the story’s pretty good, too)
* The Door Into Summer, Robert A. Heinlein (but do be ready for a genre read)
* Casting Fortune, John M. Ford (actually short stories tied together, and it’s about the theater, and about magic!)
* Ubik, Philip K. Dick (this one has some interesting ideas, as do all of Dick’s novels. You could probably start anywhere in his oeuvre and end up just as confused. You should also read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? if you have seen Blade Runner, because the book emphasizes different things and is even more profound than the film.)
. . . and if you haven’t read the Outsiders, you might still be able to enjoy it, but it could be one of those books that only speaks to children of the ’70s. S. E. Hinton has published a new book, but I’ve been reluctant to pick it up for fear it breaks the magic blue glow that her name is suffused in.

There are more.

More thoughts about fiction writing

I’m not a big fan of suspense novels that are designed just to be page-turners. I know that’s the Big Thing now. But they just don’t reach me. I don’t often get pulled into the stories. (I’ve also got a problem plowing through somebody’s clunky and inelegant prose, which makes things very difficult nowadays, when so many people seem not to care or to have “tin ears.” Must be all the rap on the radio re-training them. *wry grin*)

A first page that starts with a “REALLY EXCITING” scene is usually BORING, because we don’t know where we are, what’s at stake, or who the hell these people are and why we should care. We’re not grounded in the world; we’re not sure about the characters. We have nothing invested in this and don’t yet know what is at stake in the conflict.

This is not to say you need lots of buildup, or that you should dwell on exposition, or that you should be BORING-boring (listing off what’s in front of the character, doing scenery, etc.) Back when I used to go to the library as a teenybopper (and that wasn’t a tough disguise at the time, for I was one) and get on the stepstool to pull down those huge binders that held “Writer’s Digest” and “The Writer” magazines all the way back to the 1940s, I would sit for hours and read the articles about craft. Sure, some of the advice was laughably dated, but much of it was timeless. Back then, and up until about the mid-1980s, those two magazines were actually useful (believe it or not!) That was before the personal computer arrived on the scene and made it easy for everyone with any ability to type to “write a book.” Now those mags aren’t even useful for markets–IMHO–but I digress (as always). ANYway. In the articles about craft, writers would often mention The Hook and Raising The Story Question.

I think this works so much better than the “jump into a battle” opening. A hook with some kind of intriguing premise implied, followed by the raising of a story question that’s important, and then within a page or so jumping into the rising action. That way, we have some feeling for the character(s) and don’t just say, “So what?” Remember to intrigue and inform the reader as the action builds to conflict.

So many readers think they LOVE those REALLY EXCITING first scenes, and a goodly number of those scenes get published. But they do set up an expectation for the remainder of the novel. If your novel is not going to proceed at a breakneck pace, or you have a more thoughtful way of going about storytelling, then the reader who was grabbed by that action scene is going to say, about a third of the way in, “This is boring,” and drop the book. That goes for agents’ assistants and editorial first readers, as well. You might as well show your true colors in the opening; that way, you’ll attract and hold your true audience.

And the flashy openings come at a cost, I believe: you almost have to do either a huge “As you know, Bob, we all live in a jar of Tang and it’s two minutes from midnight at the turn of the 25th century” three-pager (which the Jenny’s Cherry Writers call “exposition” and absolutely forbid, so at least they’re on the canoe with me there, and which most writers call a story-stopping interlude of maid-and-butler dialogue worthy of Moliere) or do a flashback (also forbidden by most lists of “rules,” so it’ll be difficult to pull off) in order to play catch-up about what led to this conflict. And the reader will be frustrated because she’ll have to read that flashback whether she likes it or not. You’ll have to do some explaining soon or the reader won’t be willing to stick with you, because most readers don’t want to have to draw a flowchart in order to figure out what is going on.

I know that Ursula LeGuin or Vonda McIntyre or somebody said, “Start 100 miles underground and in the middle of the night during a war and DON’T TELL THEM,” but that’s (IMHO) not “starting in the middle”–that’s raising a story question and letting readers make a few conjectures and test them against the text. THAT is an intriguing hook. What is NOT intriguing is having a shoot-out and then needing to do these blocks of “explanatory” backstory or here’s-what’s-happening text between the lines of dialogue. I hate hate HATE to bring this up because it bugged some readers that I “criticized” another author, but that was what I noticed about the opening of that SF novel I used in an earlier post to talk about this kind of scene. (There had to be explanatory text because we were starting during an invasion scene. I recommended that the opening be a little different.)

Build up to the Big Battle Scene quickly after hooking the reader with an intriguing premise and something that indicates the true tone of your novel, and you’ll be happier. Also, eat more salad.

Damon Knight (on GEnie) once typed (and I saved it in my quotations file):

There is a difference between =in medias res= and an action scene that means nothing without context. For two classical examples, look at the opening scenes of the Iliad and the Aeneid. You can be in the middle of the story without being in the middle of action.

(Hope he’s content over there on the Other Side. He was a good person.)

O’course, nobody memorizes the first lines of the Iliad or the Aeneid any more. (pout)

From the Rejectomancy Files:

I kept an old rejection letter in which an agent implied he just didn’t understand my work (“I didn’t get it. Dialogue too witty. Too much suspense. Not enough explanation.”); I also have a rejection in which the editor said the manuscript made her sneeze. (Maybe she’s allergic to cats?)

One friend of mine admitted, “I know I have a knee-jerk response to certain names and always have to force myself to consider the story in toto rather than hating it because the hero is named Murgatroyd or whatever. Or sometimes there are uncanny similarities in a previous bad experience that I’ve had and the novel. I can’t find it believable if it doesn’t match my own experience.” I can say that I get turned off by explicit sexual or sex-fantasy scenes and by splattergore. Those are the parts that I skip. I think everybody has “the parts I skip.”

Anyway, now and then the critiquer just “won’t get it.” Fine. Thank them for spending the time doing the critique and then _walk away from it_. Your audience lies elsewhere.

(Or perhaps they’re telling the truth elsewhere. At any rate, they’re somewhere else. Go join them. And send me a postcard!)

One of my old “craft of writing” posts from 1994

(The new icon is my adorable fur baby. He’s so smart, too.)

Here’s a post I once wrote on FidoNet that got picked up for a newsletter sent out across AuthorsNet in 1994. I think it’s still kind of interesting, and since someone suggested I do some positive examples and talk about craft, here ‘t’is.
* * *
You always hear that you should make your characters sound different enough that you don’t need dialogue tags. Wouldn’t you be able to tell that these are two different speakers, although the subject is the same?

“I need to see the map so we can get there before ‘The Two Ronnies’ comes on telly. Ah! There it is, not far at all . . . soon be there . . . I’ll just nip down to the chemist’s in a bit.”

“Gimme that map. I don’t wanter miss ‘The Three Stooges’ on TV. It’s over yonder. It’s a fur piece from here, looks like, down the road quite a ways. I’m fixin’ to run downtown t’the drugstore directly.”
(For non-Southerners, “directly” in this context means “afterwhile/soon.”)

Dialect. Does it help you or hurt you?

Obviously, we’re not talking about ye olde Mark Twain and Br’er Rabbit style of dialect, when you can hardly stand to look at those collections of characters on the page without grimacing, and where you can’t hope to know what was meant until you practically read it aloud. “Ah’m a-goin’ thar drecktly, but Ah dunno if’n I’ll git anythin’ a-tall outa dem.” HUH?!

Here’s how I handled (over 20 years ago, so be kind) my dwarves’ mildly spelled dialect in the prologue to PALADIN SPELLBOUND.

“Oncet we git the ransom, thur’s no need for more finaglin’, is there, now? Otherwise ‘s too dang’rus for us, y’see.” His thick, lumpy fingers caressed the dented pewter tankard. “Besides, oncet she’s saf’ly home, I’ll warrant they’ll be out to kill every dwarf in the Kingdom, just t’be sure they git us.”

About five years after that was originally written, I toned it down greatly.

“Once we get the ransom, there’s no need for more finaglin’, is there, now? Otherwise it’s too dangerous for us, y’see.” His thick, lumpy fingers caressed the dented pewter tankard. “Besides, once she be safely home, I’ll warrant they’ll be out to kill every dwarf in the Kingdom, just t’be sure they get us.”

(Not that the book ever got finished or actually sold. But anyhow.)

Whether you have a character who is from New Orleans (N’Awlins) or New Earth (T’Zillon), you will eventually have to deal with dialect or an accent. Usually, you’ll want this characteristic to belong to a minor character, rather than one of your main characters. The reader is in the mind of the main character, so he or she is understood to “hear” that stuff as the “baseline” normal voice. Dialect will tag some of your more colorful and beloved “character actors,” and can do it well.

Since ALL the conversation in a fantasy novel is not-English, but is assumed to be translated for our understanding, sometimes it is convenient to have several languages in the world. You might want to just occasionally have private conversations between characters, wherein they go into dialects or languages: “…she said in Wrennish…” or “in their common language, Ailorre’,” and/or the occasional “…he said in the local dialect.”

Or tell the conclusions you want the listener to draw: “Her accent had the polish of an educated city-dweller”, or, “He had that slow cadence and colorful imagery of the country folk, and she suspected from that why he had never been to university.” “The thieves’ cant susurrated all around her in the tavern. Alyx took a step back. Perhaps she shouldn’t have come into this place alone….”

The one thing you probably *shouldn’t do* is “do it like the movies and TV.” They are NOT good examples. Worst thing in the world is to have your MS look like a recycled set of Star Trek/Farscape/Babble-On Five outtake phrases.

“Would somebody tell me what in the Sardinian flapk is going on here?”
“Don’t look now, but we’re being followed.”
“I feel pain! I feel pain! I feel–” *smek!!!smek!!smek!!*

Editors can be annoyed by “eye dialect,” such as having a character say “gulls” or “wimmin.” You might have to repeat the way they mispronounce the word in the next sentence, instead of respelling it inside the sentence, if you want the reader to know what you mean.

“I git tard of hearin’ all them barren wimmin whinin’. Wimmin should be seen and not heard.”

A little also goes a long way; dialect tends to wear on the reader’s inner ear very soon, unless done very lightly and skillfully. Better to have everybody speak standard American than to load up the cast with Aussies and Scots (as in a book I just read) for no reason other than to have them talk funny. What were all those lovely Englishmen and Oz-men doing in a small town in Arizona? That was never explained.

Let grammar, word order, and slang in-clue and remind the reader.

The same question three different ways: “Do you want me to do it?”

“Would you prefer that I do it?”
“You want I should do it, God forbid you should ask straight out?”
“Aw, Mom . . . c’mon, I’m about to make level ten. Can’t SHE do it?”

Suggest an accent through the occasional respelling of a word after the dialogue to indicate the pronunciation, or, in the narrative accompanying the character’s quotation, add some descriptive comments.

“Let me have one of them mint juleps.” _Mi-yunt jewlips_. The customer mocked Elena’s accent and winked at her date. Elena shifted, feeling her bunions ache.

“Where at?” He’d never stop adding the unnecessary preposition, just because he knew it bothered her. If he wanted to say “whurrat?” and sound like a hick, fine. Didn’t mean she had to talk that way when she knew better.

Or one character can make fun of the way another talks, so we know the pronunciation is supposed to be exaggerated. “Oh, you are in the space muh-reeens_? When are you come-EEN back Planetside?”

The main character in one of my novels has a Hispanic mother, and I occasionally have the mother speak a few words in Spanish. The rest of the time she speaks English, with a few un-idiomatic phrases here or there that might show she isn’t native-born. As such a character speaks, she will use phrases or words or syntax in a way that reminds the reader. If you have a long bit of dialogue, she can speak standard English, but still keep your character’s voice in the ear of the reader. You can use many foreign phrases that are pretty much understood in
America without translation–“faux pas,” “loco,” “dreck.” You’ll have
your own little phrases in your invented language that you can use this
way. “He hated the _veroon_. It stank.”

You don’t necessarily need French words, though, to suggest a French accent. The way a character answers questions can be telling. The French start many answers with “mais oui” or “mais non”; in English, the idiom to use is “but .” (Grey Poupon’s ad–“But of course!”) “That is not the French way, _ma cherie (mon cher)_!” Don’t go too Maurice Chevalier, though. I had an Arabian character once, and I suggested his broken and accented English by having his grammar slightly fractured, like the cartoon 7-11 clerk: he’d say, “They are pretty much completing.” “You do the car washing in your dressed pants?” (I guess you had to be there.) But I finally decided that I might offend and upset people by doing that. I never really settled on how I could represent this fellow. He eventually dropped out of the novel’s cast.

Careful–don’t let it drop into parody.

Also, a steady stream of poor grammar out of characters’ mouths grates on readers like one of those cheapie all-in-one graters. A little goes a long way to suggest what you mean. It doesn’t take much irregular diction to get the idea of illiteracy across. Believable dialect comes, for the most part, out of using a collection of key phrases and eccentricities to indicate the character’s verbal idiosyncrasies.

Many moons ago, an acting teacher (okay, it was Mrs. Margaret Robison, in Plano, Texas) told me that if a character has a certain trait–a stutter, a limp, whatever–an actor should display it to good effect during the first few lines of her first entrance. After that, just hint at it, without exaggeration or emphasis. Subtlety is the watchword.

I think the same method works well in fiction. After all, you are all the actors as well as the playwright and director here.

You can also have a character drop into his/her “down-home” way of conversing in response to certain situations and when talking to certain people. It is a subtexty way of indicating the character’s comfort level. Similarly, you can have her “unconsciously” or deliberately drop into the dialect of another person when talking to him. That would “level the field” and possibly make the other person more sympathetic to listening or agreeing. (“Because we comin’ from the same page, dude.”)

Hope some of this is useful (although it wasn’t succinct, brief, or very short.)

It works for Jon Stewart

Don’t know exactly why it is that when I exaggerate or use sarcasm for comic effect, I always get at least one person who doesn’t recognize the tone for what it is and gives some response based on taking it all too seriously.

Jon Stewart. Harlan Ellison. Robin Williams. Woody Allen (most of the time.) It works for them! Hmm. Must one be Jewish? Male? No, I think not. It works for Roseanne . . . Paula Poundstone . . . Rita Rudner.

I’ll keep working on it.

Electric Linkyland

Four links of the Apocalypso.

A man who criticized Harry Potter–and lived!

A lady who is over-the-top funny about not liking Potter, but who may need a bit of counseling as well

A wikipedia entry that helps me understand Tom Cruise, but blurs the line between SF and . . . something: um

And, finally, a GOOD one:
A wonderful new writer and friend I met on a mailing list–she writes YA and chick lit and other stuff