Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Novelist and “Their” “Grammer” (sic)

Not to be fractious, but isn’t grammar even more trivial than fractions? After all, fractions help you cope with 3/8 teaspoon of baking soda when doubling or halving your muffin recipe. Far more practical than cringing over offering guests less or fewer muffins. Readers are a novelist’s guests, and many simply couldn’t (or the inaccurate “could”?) care less. For many people, grammar evokes the nightmarish high school memory of diagramming sentences.

Admittedly, diagramming sentence won’t polish your prose. Still, the impracticality of that exercise doesn’t justify discarding the elegant system that grammar represents. Even if diagramming sentences won’t improve your novel, grammar certainly might.

Here’s why.

~Perfect pitch.

Some folks lack it with language, just as others do with music. You wouldn’t inflict your off-key singing on a bunch of strangers, would you? Between “you and I” (sic!), consider protecting your readers from sounds that make them cringe. If the reader’s cringing, the reading’s not much fun.

~ Hierarchy.

Subordinate (“however, “but,” “if,” etc.) or coordinate (“and,” “also,” etc.) words indicate significance. Seemingly trivial word choices convey that some things are equal and others not. Intentionally or not, the clauses you create express relationships—including run-on sentences. Subordination captures causality at the sentence level: if the protagonist does this, then that happens. Doesn’t that deserve your attention? And your reader’s?

~ Syntax.

Grammar sensitizes you to what your sentence underscores. Aside from distance and wordiness, the real problem with passive voice is misplaced emphasis. If the bat is used by the girl, don’t you imply that the bat matters more than she does? Relationships between words (grammar!) accentuate or minimize. Noticing parts of speech encourages greater reliance on verbs instead of (yikes!) modifying everything with (sad) adjectives or adverbs (sadly).

~ Parallelism.

Though part of syntax, this construction deserves separate mention. Grammar reveals whether you’ve missed an opportunity to connect, echo, and create unforgettable patterns. After all, what if Lincoln had said, “The government that represents the people, which is the one they help to run and is thus capable of giving them what is needed… “shall not perish from the earth.”

Tip: Here’s a secret. Grammar is exactly as important as it’s cracked up to be.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Beauty and the Best

America’s literary giants had plenty to say on the subject. Romantic Edgar Allan Poe asserted that “Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears.” Who could argue with that? Or with Ralph Waldo Emerson observing that “Love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art.”

It’s no newsflash that interpretations of “beauty” or “art” vary widely. In fiction, though, beauty comes from characterization, from causality, from imagery and rhythmic syntax.

~ Characterization.

The more rapidly and insightfully you can develop a character, then the more exquisite the impact. In Ten Little Indians, Sherman Alexie does it in one sentence: “She wanted to be buried in a coffin filled with used paperbacks. ”

*** Are you gathering examples of characterization that strike you as particularly  concise and true? Are you seeking ways to accomplish this yourself?

~ Causality.

Jane Austen’s novels end happily because the characters mature enough to earn their happiness. Darcy overcomes pride and Elizabeth overcomes prejudice because neither can bear to lose the other.

***Are you noticing examples of causality? Does causality drive your own novel? Shouldn't it?

~ Imagery.

The best imagery works both literally and symbolically. It infuses the trivial with significance; it makes the ordinary extra-ordinary, but without calling attention to itself, like this example from Bernard Malamud’s The Natural:

Roy Hobbs pawed at the glass before thinking to prick a match with his thumbnail and hold the spurting flame to his cupped palm close to the lower berth window, but by then he had figured it was a tunnel they were passing through and was no longer surprised at the bright sight of himself holding a yellow light over his head, peering back in.

*** Do you catch yourself using three or four or five images? Does this suggest vague awareness that you haven’t found the right one?

~ Syntax.

Rhythm and emphasis can transform prose into poetry in prose. Like this: “People hide their truest nature. I understood that; I even applauded it. What sort of world would it be if people bled all over the sidewalks, if they wept under trees, smacked whomever they despised, kissed strangers, revealed themselves?” ― Alice Hoffman, The Ice Queen

*** Are you rationalizing sentences that don’t quite sound right? Are you aware that either craft or psychological obstacles often originate such sentences?

Tip: Savor beautiful writing. Collect it. Isn’t that the start to your own beautiful writing?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Chicken Soup for the Pen

 Fiction writing can be a rough ride. You have no musicians to rehearse the symphony with or actors to make you grin and blush. Worse, you face an absurdly competitive market, not to mention your own super-secret fears that you should already have a book, an agent, a better draft, a more productive schedule, a less effective set of rationalizations, or whatever bums you out.  Maybe you need some sort of retreat?

Writing retreats happen in exotic places (Maui tops the list) or pedestrian ones (your local coffee shop). Retreats can involve coaching and critique or simply an escape from grass needing mowing, kids wanting feeding, or bills awaiting payment. Every so often, you need the metaphorical chicken soup as much as the critique. One balances the other.

The best retreats feed both mind and soul. This means that the menu must include some beauty, some spirituality, and at least a little awe. In fact, the power of an imposing environment can prove surprisingly useful in balancing a writer’s mind.

~ Humility.
     In 2014, it takes gumption to write fiction. Competition is fierce and reward scant. You need a healthy ego to write anything at all. But you also need a healthy reminder that unspoiled nature is so vast and incomprehensible that you’re like one grain of sand. That makes you feel so small. And that reminds you that you’re part of something huge. How much can one rejection or one missed writing afternoon really matter? The best writers combine confidence with perspective.

~ Faith.
     It’s discouraging to struggle with the same paragraph, have your critiquers request yet-another revision, receive one more rejection, or simply feel that no matter no long you sit before your laptop, the magic isn’t going to happen. That’s when an infusion of beauty can restore morale. This might be mountain snow reflected in a lake, a sliver of moon, or even a crimson leaf. Such things remind you that awful as it might seem right now, tomorrow’s another day. You’ll want to get up. You’ll want to write. You won’t be able to stop yourself.

~ Inspiration.
     Every writer achieves this differently. Maybe it starts with the characters. Perhaps the themes. Annie Proulx says it’s always the setting for her. No matter how disciplined you are, how open to plot, metaphor, or psychological insight, the realities of working, flossing, commuting, and clearing the kitchen can demolish energy and originality in insidious ways. Every so often you need something so glorious that it steals your breath. When you can breathe again, you’re ready to write.

Isn’t it wonderful that the internet, the burgeoning interest in creative writing, and the numerous credit and non-credit options out there mean that you needn’t write all by yourself all the time?

Tip: Find yourself hosts as generous and thoughtful as Patti and George who graciously sponsored a mountain miracle for writers.

Treat yourself to a writing retreat.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Muddy Waters

Clear as mud. Don’t muddy the waters. Still waters run deep. The number of expressions fretting about clarity suggests deep concern, if not absolute obsession. How clear is clear enough? That’s not just a general issue; it’s a major writing one. How much “mud” will readers tolerate? How clear is so obvious that all the fun’s gone? Without polling everyone, how could you possibly decide? Here’s a little bleach for that cloudy water.

~ Audience.

Identify whom you’re writing for. One gal’s transparency is another gal’s sun-in-your-eyes. One guy’s drone statistics is another guy’s droning on and on. The more precisely you can pinpoint the kind of people you hope will read your novel, then the more precisely you can pinpoint what will please them. Do they like an absolutely firm foundation—with everything laid out? Or would they enjoy a little ambiguity? At what point does mysterious become confusing—and thus boring.

Assess clarity in fiction that resembles yours. What do they leave out? What do they spell out? Do this repeatedly, and you’ve begun charting a course.

~ Context.

We play guessing games because guessing’s fun. It’s not fun, though, if readers must guess how these sentences connect, how we got from there to here, where the characters live, how old they are, and what could possibly motivate them to behave this way. Think journalism: “why” must follow “who,” “what,” “where,” and “when.” Nor do you get to ignore those essentials. Just don’t bury the good parts beneath logistics.

No one likes being lost. Readers struggling with context can’t infer concept.

~ Concept.

Many readers enjoy inferring ideas, emotions, and themes. These readers want enough well-placed clues—and then? The freedom to reach their own conclusions. Taste exerts enormous power here. You’ll find readers at both extremes: those who don’t mind a bit of “telling” for clarity and those who mind even a nip of “telling”—no matter how much it clarifies.

Differentiate the details readers can’t possibly infer from those that certain readers want to discover for themselves. If you still can’t decide, aim for a point midway between obscure and belabored.

Use the fiction you read and feedback from those who critique your work to develop an ear for when to be clear, when to be slightly cryptic.

Tip: The writer should help the reader focus—and the right amount of clarity accomplishes just that.