The Demands of Craft: Why Details Matter

Handwriting, boredom

In an interview published a few years ago, but well worth this second look, author Alexander Parsons provided considerable useful advice (and support!) for other writers. Now an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Houston, Parsons is the author of the award-winning Leaving Disneyland and In the Shadows of the Sun.

New writers, he believes, are lucky they don’t know what they don’t know about writing. It looks deceptively easy. “The more you commit to it, the more time you spend learning the craft, the more overcoming your ignorance feels like an extended alpine stage of the Tour de France,” he said. Good writing—and isn’t that what we all aspire to?—isn’t a skill, or a practice that you just “pick up, like learning to throw a Frisbee.”

Parsons would probably endorse the idea that a good writer is always learning the craft. There’s so much to know, so many craft details, that you can’t take it in all at once. In my own case, I have gradually tried to teach myself to recognize my own writing tics—you know, the weak sentence structures and repetitive word patterns that appear in a first draft, as I’m setting the story down, but need to be scrubbed out later. (Examples: “There is,” “there are,” “things” instead of more concrete nouns; sentences with too many adjectives or too few.)

In the Shadows of the Sun included portions that take place in the Philippines and Japan, neither of which he’d visited at the time he wrote about them. Research—in books and photographs—let him visualize the setting, but he believes the lack of first-hand knowledge also freed him. “The landscape of fiction is always the landscape of imagination,” he says. “Fiction organizes and alters the factual to serve the larger truths embodied in the work.” I interpret this to mean not just the larger facts of plot and character development, but also reaching down to the sentence and word level. Possibly many readers gloss over the precise details, but I cannot help but think that at some level, they sense the difference between a red dress that the author describes as “cherry” versus “ruby” versus (god forbid) blood-red.

Parsons’s first novel, Leaving Disneyland, explored prison culture and its effects on inmates, current and former. Learning enough detail about that world to write about it forcefully, honestly, and authentically took him several years, he says. Despite the amount of effort involved, he believes mastering the details of a character, a place, an environment let you write “from a point of view that takes you out of your comfort zone.” Scary, but possible.

When writers take on that challenge, they not only connect with the story they’re trying to tell, but also with their readers. It’s easy to create characters that are thinly disguised versions of oneself, but they are ultimately thin, not very satisfying, gruel.

Writing Tips: Lingua Franca

I read (and liked!) Daniel Mason’s debut novel The Piano Tuner several years after he was interviewed in the late, lamented short story magazine Glimmer Train, and only now rediscovered what he’d said about it.

The Piano Tuner takes place in Myanmar, and Mason faced a dilemma that all of us who write stories set in other countries and cultures face: how much do you express in English, and how much in the language of the people speaking?

The interviewer pointed out that Mason used a lot of Burmese words and phrases in his book, and Mason explained why. He said he usually kept the Burmese word when there was no English equivalent, or at least not a good one. Some of the words he could have explained, but then the novel becomes a dictionary, so he didn’t. Following that decision-rule, he used the word thanaka, rather than “the women whose faces were painted with sandalwood paste.” Good call.

In my upcoming novel set in Rome, the main character is American, but speaks Italian, and except when she’s talking with her brother, all the conversation is in Italian. I make the point about her language skills early (it’s even a plot point), and then drop in an Italian word, here or there to remind the reader that it’s not English being spoken. Certo (sure), Bene (fine), Cara (dear—oddly, a word I’d never use in English, unless the speakers were elderly!) are all words I use as reminder words. I also make sure to use the Italian name of the hospital where my character is taken: Ospidale Fatebenefratelli (Isn’t that great!?) Word order and speech rhythms can serve as reminders readers are in foreign territory too.

I especially admire the way Cormac McCarthy handled Spanish in The Crossing, set in Mexico. There was a lot of Spanish conversation, but he managed to reiterate the thought, not verbatim, but sufficiently, so that I always understood what he meant.

Mason said he used Burmese words for specific jobs, to avoid English connotations that don’t fit the Myanmar context, and, sometimes, just because of the way the word sounds. For example, the Portuguese word caatinga refers to scrubby brush-land, but to Mason simply sounds much more evocative and he used it in another book.

Just in case readers are uncomfortable encountering such an unfamiliar word, Mason put little instructions on how to say it in front of the word—just once, I hope. I don’t remember this, so it must not have been intrusive (and I don’t find any examples of this using Amazon’s “look inside” function). I suppose if an author used a great many foreign words, the pronunciation advice might become tiresome, but there might be other ways to handle it too—for example, including a glossary, correcting a “newbie” to the country, or having a character take language lessons. Readers figure out their own pronunciations for names of characters, for example, and go right on reading, so it isn’t a huge dilemma. But the occasional culture-specific reminder through language helps maintain a sense of the exotic.

Mason’s first collection of short stories, A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earthwas a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In the Glimmer Train interview, he said he had a lot of ideas that weren’t 300-page ideas, but might make good short stories. “I’d love to try to do that again,” he said. He did. And was right.

Look It Up!

Colleagues who heard University College of London professor Dennis Duncan was writing a book about indexes regarded him skeptically, saying, “Isn’t that a bit . . . niche?” He described the experience in a recent American Ancestors Webinar.

His cleverly titled Index, a History of the, turns out to be livelier than those people may have anticipated. Its significance was underscored when it appeared on the front cover of the New York Times Review of Books last February. What’s more, the history of the index is still developing. When we do a Google search, for example, we are not searching the entire Web, we are searching Google’s index of the Web. The possibility that such an index could be manipulated to provide or obscure certain results has thrust indexing into the political arena.

Having an index was such a good idea, Duncan says, that monks invented it simultaneously in two different places, around the start of the 13th century. One of them (Hugh of St. Cher, pictured; the glasses are an anachronism) was based in Paris, and the other (Robert Grosseteste—“big head”) was in Oxford.

St. Cher wanted to index the Bible by recording the occurrences of every word in it. Starting with “a  a  a  a,” which appears four times, the list was alphabetical and was created to facilitate preaching. As long as monks used their Bibles to read and meditate, an index wasn’t necessary, but once they started preaching they needed to navigate the Bible more efficiently. This type of index was like using Control-F, Duncan says.

Grosseteste, by contrast, created an index much more like the ones we’re familiar with. It was a subject index. But he went far afield with the concept, including in his index all the books he’d read. It was a parchment Google.

For the next approximately 150 years, every copy of every book was still hand-lettered (manu-script, manus being Latin for hand). And the copy was not necessarily the same size as the original. As a result, the page numbers and index were copy-specific; what’s on page 50 in the original may be on page 70 in the copy, if the pages are smaller. Once printing was invented, copies were duplicates, page numbers were consistent, and scholars referring to specific content could be sure they were “all on the same page.”

From the beginning, naysayers criticized people for being “index-readers,” rather than working their way through an entire text. This questioning of colleagues’ scholarly rigor reminds me of today’s critics of Wikipedia users and headline-scanners (guilty).

Several well-known battles between intellectuals broke out in indexes. “Brown, Jeremiah, his dullness, 24, 40-45, 213” and the like. A more recent tweak in an index resulted after Norman Mailer refused to let William F. Buckley quote from his letters in Buckley’s book, The Unmaking of the Mayor. When the book came out, Buckley sent Mailer a copy and in the index, next to Mailer’s name, he wrote “Hi!,” knowing that would be the first thing Mailer would look for and calling him out on it.

A Plague of Plurals

Belfast, Writer's Square

English with all its aberrations in spelling and pronunciation is fairly simple when it comes to forming plurals (with innumerable exceptions, of course). For most nouns, you can feel pretty safe just adding -s or -es and be done with it. My daughter arrived at that conclusion by age three, and, one day when she was getting dressed asked for her “clo.” Once you’ve tacked on that “s,” you switch to a plural verb. Easy, right?

Orrin Hargraves in his current Language Lounge column for Visual Thesaurus points out two classes of exceptions. One is the group of words that in earlier English ended in -ik (physik, magike) or the French -ique. In modern English these words generally end in –ic or –ics. Having that “s” doesn’t automatically call for a plural verb, though (“Physics is beyond me”). And sometimes, it depends. He gives the example of “optics.” If you’re talking about the field of study, it’s acts like the word physics and takes a singular verb: “Optics explores light and vision.” But if you’re talking about any number of events in our recent political history, it calls for a plural verb: “The optics were bad.” The ethics too, sometimes.

A second strangely interesting group of nouns that are plural (that is, end in “s”) whose verbs are tricky have to do with disease and illness. (Why? Is this a philosophical question?) Measles, mumps, the bends, rickets, smallpox (plural of pock), yaws are among Hargraves’s examples. An attack of any of these conditions usually has multiple effects (not just one measly measle), yet they take a singular verb. The whole things is simpler if you refer to “a case of measles/smallpox/the bends,” with “case” taking a singular verb, unequivocally.

But singular verb isn’t a universal solution here. He takes up conditions in which the noun is plural (hiccups, shakes, sneezes) and takes a plural verb too—no “My hiccups is embarrassing.”

In reading, I frequently run across passages where the author/editor allowed themselves to be distracted by a prepositional phrase, in sentences such as “The group of teenagers are celebrating.” Clearly the subject is “group,” a collective noun, not “teenagers,” and in American English, collective nouns are singular and usually take singular verbs. However, British and American English differ on this question. Other collectives are class, family, jury, staff, and team. I never have become comfortable with “the staff is,” and don’t trust myself to get it right, so usually amend the phrase to “the staff members are.” That workaround also helps with “members of the press,” “family members,” and in other situations.

The word “number” presents its own challenges. It’s correct to say, “A number of us are . . .” but “The number of victims is . . .” The former example refers to an undefined, possibly malleable number of people; the latter refers to a specific integer, even if the precise number is unknown.

Well, I’m happy to have cleared that up.

Photo: Writer’s Square, Belfast. Copyright, Albert Bridge; creative commons license

Tennessee Williams: In His Own Words

(Very) recently I discovered a thing called Quote Cards, which seem to be used in Facebook posts, to create cards for book promotion, etc., etc., etc.

So many times I read a powerful/beautiful/resonant sentence that inspires a “Wow!” You probably spot those too. Was there a sentence in the last book or story you read that stopped you in your tracks? That meant something powerful to you in that moment? Put it in the comments! I’ll compile a list for all of us. And I’ll bet you get lots of likes!

Meanwhile, here are quotes from a master. The Zoom class on Tennessee Williams I’ve been taking ended last week, and if you’ve read the previous posts about it (links below), you’ll know how interesting it was. The class was led by Bonnie J. Monte, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. The theater’s next session is on Shakespeare’s Henry V.

For our last class, each of the 45 or so students submittedthought-provoking quotations from Williams’s plays, stories, and poems that particularly struck us. Here’s a sampling:

“I tell you, there’s so much loneliness in this house that you can hear it.” (Vieux Carré)
“Snatching the eternal out of the desperately fleeting is the great magic trick of human existence.” (“The Timeless World of a Play,” essay)
“I’m not living with you. We occupy the same cage.” (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)
“Caged birds accept each other, but flight is what they long for.” (Camino Real)
“A prayer for the wild at heart kept in cages.” (Stairs to the Roof)
“Every time you come in yelling that God damn ‘Rise and shine! Rise and shine!’ I say to myself, ‘How lucky dead people are!’” (The Glass Menagerie)
“Mendacity is a system that we live in. Liquor is one way out and death’s the other.” (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)
“The girl who said ‘no,’ she doesn’t exist anymore, she died last summer—suffocated in smoke from something inside her.” (Summer and Smoke)
“There’s a time for departure even when there’s no certain place to go!” (Camino Real)
“Make voyages—attempt them—there’s nothing else!” (Camino Real)
“I think that hate is a feeling that can only exist where there is no understanding.” (Sweet Bird of Youth)
“The only difference between a success and a failure is a success knows an opportunity when he sees it and a failure doesn’t.” (Night of the Iguana)
“All of us are in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars!” (Summer and Smoke)
“If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.” (Conversations with Tennessee Williams)
“Why did I write? Because I found life unsatisfactory.” (Tennessee Williams)

Previous posts in this series:
The Deep Dive (2/10)
How to See (2/17)
The Actor’s Challenge (2/24)

Image by sonseona for Pixabay.

Beyond the Human Gaze: Writer Jeff VanderMeer

octopus

Now that every issue in my complete set of the literary short story journal Glimmer Train is on its way to true vintage status, I’m taking a look at some of the essays the editors provided over the years—content I’d skip over to get to the stories!

In the fall 2018 issue, David Naimon interviewed Jeff VanderMeer, an award winning author in the vast realm of fantasy and science fiction, plus the landmark writing guide Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. Consider adding that to your list of possible birthday presents for author-friends.

Their conversation began with a discussion of VanderMeer’s post-apocalyptic novel Borne, which includes a character that is a piece of biotechnology. Writing about non-human creatures, including animals, is a big blind spot in fiction of all types, VanderMeer believes. Writers do plenty of research to create a fictional world that’s believable, but, when it comes to animal behavior, blow it completely. We perpetuate the folklore that owls are wise; he says they’re not. (Don’t tell Harry Potter fans.) If an animal is cute, or if we believe it’s intelligent, it’s considered more worthy of attention, at least for fund-raising. We think of sharks as loners (not loaners, that’s something different), when some are quite social. “We do, I think, have to get beyond the idea of trying to find human-like intelligence in other animals, because their intelligence is very different.” Whoops! There’s my cue to mention octopuses.

Ursula K. Le Guin believed scientists’ reluctance to anthropomorphize animals’ behavior and emotional state has backfired. While we shouldn’t ascribe human motives and feelings to them, sure, we shouldn’t go too far in the other direction either, presuming they have no intention or emotional component to their actions. “It’s an act of empathy and imagination to at least try to get beyond the human gaze,” VanderMeer said.

VanderMeer is a believer in the ineffable. The more you explain about the science imbedded in a story, “the less the reader usually believes it.” Over-explaining signals a lack of confidence in what the story is saying. I personally like technothrillers with a generous amount of precise explanation, at least of things I can understand—the assassin’s requirements for the gun in Day of the Jackal, for example. But if the science is beyond lay understanding, best to assume the reader will accept the outcome and move on, VanderMeer said. A miracle happened. Now that’s something people will believe.

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: What Kind of Trip Is it?

Tarifa, Spain

When describing characters’ travels, do you bear in mind the purpose of the trip? Is it business, pleasure, family, or personal? The trip’s purpose will of course affect their actions, but it also colors what they see and observe.

Think of a destination as a bare-bones stage set; what the writer adds can reinforce the drama and the character’s state of mind. To some extent, writers may do this almost unconsciously. If there’s danger, they might describe a cold wind, trash in the streets, streetlights blinking out. If there’s romance, they may provide beaches and outdoor cafes and bright colors.

So the ideas about what to describe in a place and how to describe it come from the place, from the character, and from the character’s purpose in being there. These descriptors need to be tightly connected to all three or they risk feeling arbitrary and superficial.

I try to move some of those unconscious—call them automatic—choices into the conscious realm, hoping to strengthen them and make sure I’m not sending mixed signals. My novel’s protagonist, Manhattan architect Archer Landis, travels to Brussels for work and to Tarifa, Spain, for powerful personal reasons. In Brussels, he was there to get a job done. But in Spain, he can’t escape the emotional reasons motivating his trip. As a result, a different set of details are highlighted. In Tarifa, food and street life and vistas are emphasized over the newspapers and briefcases and cabs of Brussels.

Tarifa is on the southwestern tip of Spain, and, amazingly, right across the Strait of Gibraltar, you can see Africa. When I was there myself and realized Tangier was only an hour away by hydrofoil, I had to go. Proximity to Morocco is one reason my characters ended up in that spot.

Despite having visited, I still had to study maps to remind myself of the broad strokes. From Google street views, I gained a sense of different neighborhoods that let me pick an area for my characters to stay in. I studied people’s photographs for details—whitewashed walls, narrow brick streets, potted red geraniums, wrought iron balconies. These were among the things an architect, like my character Landis, would notice. If he’d trained as a Navy Seal, the claustrophobic streets, the balcony shutters ajar, the low-rise, flat-roofed buildings would have had totally different significance.

Although I didn’t write a point-by-point description of the streets, I worked these elements into the action. For example, Landis naturally notices how the whitewashed buildings bring light into the narrow streets; at one frustrating point, he says he’s come to hate the geraniums’ aggressive cheerfulness.

One photograph I studied a long time was a rooftop view, akin to the one reproduced here. Staying in a hotel penthouse suite (sixth floor), Landis’s view would have been similar. Studying that view, he pulls together stray thoughts about the Pillars of Hercules (the nearby Rock of Gibraltar in Spain and the mountain Jebel Musa in Morocco, in thispicture, only slightly visible through the haze).

Tarifa, Spain

Hercules wasn’t in mind at all when I wrote my first draft, but I do a  kind of “see where it leads me” research, and at some point I realized the myth’s potential metaphorical value in the story. As a result, Landis muses that the difficult task he’s set himself in Tarifa would be worthy of another of Hercules’s labors.

It’s a few simple words, but for those who know their Greek myths, I hope it has resonance. And, even for those of us (like me) who have forgotten so much, such associations still work, I think, at some subconscious level. On a business trip, that kind of wandering thought probably wouldn’t have a place.

Other posts in the Where Writers’ Ideas Come From series can be found under the Writers’ First Draft tab.

Photos: balcony, Akuppa John Wigham; rooftop view, Andrew Nash; both for Pixabay

The Blues Are More Than a Color

peacock, bird, proud

Authors appreciate the power of color to not just describe a shade but evoke an emotion. How different is your reaction to a woman’s dress described as sky blue (flirty) versus electric blue (bold) versus navy (conservative)? The color choices tell you not just about the dress, but something about the wearer as well.

The colors of things are such distinctive characteristics that we have a full palette of clichés about them—another reason to give their descriptions careful attention in your prose.

Sherwin-Williams, the paint people who each year bring us the “color of the year” (read my take on their ironic choice of Living Coral for 2019) puts well-spent energy into trend forecasting. And there definitely are color trends. One of them may show up on the cover of your next book. Certain colors are so trendy that they age quickly and not well. The 2020 Color of the Year, by the way: Naval. Good old navy blue.

S-W’s color aces have announced the company’s colormix forecast for 2020. Their several palettes are lumped under the rubric of “wellness,” because, they say, designers are seeking colors that enhance social, spiritual, physical, and emotional factors. Go for it! Interestingly, a S-W marketing manager looks to our world in describing her goals: “Designers want color to enhance the story they are telling.” Raising my hand.

You might check whether one of the S-W palettes inspires an overall feel for a character or setting you’re working on. Scandi authors will likely stick with gray. Or, maybe you just need to repaint your office. A collection of some of my favorite books about color, described here and here too.

Photo: jpeter2 for Pixabay, creative commons license

Navigating Oceans of Words

From time to time, my writing group has included a member whose first language is other than English. It’s only when you tackle editing the prose of such an individual that you begin to appreciate what an unwieldy beast American English is.

A stunning recent reminder of this came in Reuben Westmaas’s essay on word order. It turns out that English has a very precise requirements for stringing along adjectives. Who knew? I didn’t.

Here is Westmaas quoting Mark Forsyth: “Adjectives absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose Noun. [Really?] So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.”

It’s mind-bogglingly true. Try rearranging this example: “I just bought nice new wine refrigerator” (opinion-age-purpose-Noun) These insights, which most of us have internalized since “See Spot chase the big red ball” (size-color-Noun) and not thought of again—not even thought of as reflecting a thing, like a rule–are from Mark Forsyth’s 2013 book, The Elements of Eloquence.

I’m sure glad that decades of reading and listening have imprinted that rule in my brain so that I don’t have to actually think about it. I’ve also abandoned any thought of teaching ESL.

A second problem is our language is jam-packed with idioms. To a German-born friend, I suggested a book I was currently in love with—The Big Sky, one of Pulitzer-winner A B Guthrie. Jr.’s six monumental novels about the Oregon Trail and the development of Montana. To me, it was a perfect evocation of the American sense of the limitless possibilities of “going West” (alas, fading now), of being independent and free, of the frontier.

I foolishly didn’t recognize that the idioms were thick as the forests, and not just modern (for 1947) idioms. It employed colorful uses of language that would make sense to an 1830 fur trapper and his backwoods brethren rafting on the Missouri River. And here I thought the language was absurdly simple. We won’t mention their grammar: “Ain’t nothin like whiskey to ile (oil) a rusty tongue.” He gave the book back to me in complete bafflement.

A final problem is spelling, given that dozens of languages form our crazy talk, and the “rules” created to pretend it makes sense, which are rife with exceptions. Relatedly, I’d include that bane of the self-published and indifferently edited: homophones (led, lead; bough, bow; pique, peak; great, grate; and so on and on and on).

We all remember the spelling rule “i before e except after c and in words that have the ‘a’ sound.” Sure. Westmaas points out that more American words violate that principle than follow it. In fact, the score is 900 to 40 in favor of “exceptions.” I’ll take his word for it. How I became a school spelling bee champion is one of life’s mysteries. We writers sail on, navigating our little boats through a sea of linguistic confusion. We may take the peculiarities of English for granted, but when we’re faced with a non-native’s prose, wow. There be dragons. Give those adventurers credit!

Photo: Steve Johnson, creative commons license.

What Writers Know – Part 2

typing

Kiran Foster, creative commons license

Writers receive an endless stream of advice about what they are doing wrong (!) or could be doing better(!!). Since most of us can admit that we are not yet perfect, this firehose of negativity becomes wearing. Recently, I posted a few words of praise for what we get right. With a promise of more to come.

My thoughts are prompted by Reedsy founder Ricardo Fayet’s recently reprint of “12 Common Writing Mistakes Even Bestselling Authors Make.”  Let’s look at the second half of his list, plus my own #13.

Prepare to pat yourself on the back.

  1. We can punctuate! We know that (in the U.S.), the comma and the period go INside quotation marks, the colon and the semi go OUTside, and the question mark and exclamation mark, well, it depends. We know (and I admit to still be working on it) not to overuse the dash, we know to put commas before independent clauses and not dependent ones, and, if the brouhaha over the Oxford comma is ever resolved, we stand ready to hear the outcome. I’ll acknowledge sloppiness in first drafts I read regarding the need for commas before AND after people directly addressed: “I’m telling you, Mom, but you never listen”; in city-state pairs (Princeton, New Jersey, is a fine place); and around the year in month-day-year trios (December 7, 1941, a Day that will Live in Infamy).
  2. We eye-roll over dangling modifiers we see in the local newspaper and eliminate them in our own work – “Through hard work, the draft was at last ready to go!” If only our drafts would do the work themselves.
  3. Our characters say or ask. They don’t chortle or declaim or insinuate or interrogate. And they usually do so without any adverbial boost. Those of a certain age may recall the “Tom Swifty” (I know a truly filthy one; don’t ask). Its perils may make using adverbs seem downright dangerous.
  4. We make sure the names and spellings of people and places are consistent. Of course. (I deliberately violated this precept in my short story “Tooth and Nail.” Bear in mind, the narrator was unhinged.) Moreover, spare me manuscripts whose characters are Berger, Brager, Benton, and Beaton. I will never keep them or anything close to them straight. We know many of our “readers” are actually audiobook listeners. A name heard is harder to remember than one read. Thus the nametag.
  5. We are not time-travelers. We don’t mistakenly flip back and forth between past and present, and we establish the way-back time with a “had” or two then drop the “hads” in the interest of simplicity. Led properly, our readers know where they are.
  6. Homonym errors. OK, enough about there, their, and they’re and its and it’s. We know the difference between carrots, karats, karets, and carets. But even when my brain knows the right word, sometimes my fingers do not. Words with homonyms are landmines: “reign it in,” “beyond the pail,” “the plane truth.” In a story set in Alaska in which a character was eaten by a bear (bare), I referred to his grizzly death. I was making a pun, but I’ve since run across writers apparently unfamiliar with the word “grisly.” Lee Masterson compiled a nice list of these and their cousins: heteronyms, homographs, and homophones.
  7. And, when in doubt, we consult the experts.


Read What Writers Know – Part 1