editing, Writers Co-op, writing technique

Paws Here

This ia a comma.       This is Oscar Wilde

Hello all.

As many of you have no doubt noticed, the first Writer’s Co-op anthology, Down the Rabbit Hole, is finally complete and ready for release in a few short weeks. Ably midwifed by our own Curtis Bausse, it is a fascinating and engaging collection.  I think you’ll like it. As one of the editors, I was impressed with the quality of writing throughout and the diversity of voices.

Editing is fun. It really is. It’s also a tough job. It’s challenging enough when it’s your own manuscript. No matter how many times you go over it, there’s always another question, another uncertainty. Is that the best word? Is my dialogue believable? Can I get rid of that phrase? (Or paragraph? Or chapter?) Am I using that semicolon correctly?

When you’re editing someone else’s work, the responsibilities multiply. Not only are you trying to polish the writing to a high gloss, you have to do so without wrecking the original. You have to respect the author’s own voice, her own style. It can be a tricky balancing act. There are rules for good writing, of course, but much of it is still subjective. (I confess to having a heavy hand. My first impulse is to rewrite, and I apologize if anyone found my suggestions, eh, overbearing.)

On the subject of rules, I want to take a minute to discuss that smallest bit of stigmeological property: the comma. I know, I know – the comma is not the smallest punctuation mark in terms of ink. That honor would go to the period, natch. But the period is a weightier mark in terms of purpose and effect. It denotes, as writers of Commonwealth English know all too well, a full stop. End of the line. No more sentence beyond this point.

The comma is a more subtle and ambiguous creature. Sure, there are some hard and fast rules, but there are times when its use – or lack of same  – can be somewhat discretionary, a style choice. Hence the potential confusion.

The word comma comes from the Greek, komma, meaning “a bit that is cut off.” Originally, Aristophanes of Byzantium (no, not the bawdy Athenian comic playwright, the other Aristophanes) invented a system of dots that could be included in a written text to signify the amount of breath that a reader should take between phrases when reading aloud. This is, more or less, the original concept of the modern comma. (Which gives some idea how ephemeral the comma can be. It was originally nothing but a mouthful of air.) The modern comma derived directly from a little diagonal slash printers used to indicate a pause – the virgula suspensiva. I don’t know why you need to know that, but now you do.

In these oh-so-sophisticated times, the comma isn’t really used to indicate breaths (but then, we don’t do a whole lot of reading out loud anymore either) but it is still used to separate clauses – those “cut off” bits I spoke of.

First: A comma is used to separate dependent clauses from independent clauses when the dependent clause comes first, such as: “After cutting down all the the turpentine trees, I threw myself into a butt of malmsey wine.”  Turn it around (“I threw myself into etc after cutting down all the whatsis”) and you no longer need a comma. Also, use a comma when two independent clauses are stitched together with one of the seven coordinating conjunctions – so, and, yet, but, or, nor, for.  Consider the difference:  “I couldn’t get out of bed if I wanted to, and the phone was ringing off the hook”  as opposed to “I slaughtered all the innocents because they were getting on my nerves.”  Because is a subordinating conjunction here, so it doesn’t need a comma. There are many others – since, unless, although, after, whereas, whether, while, just to name a few. They don’t need a comma unless the clause they introduce comes before the subject clause of the sentence: “Although they continue to get on my nerves, I will not slaughter all the innocents.”

Okay? Okay.

Now we turn to relative clauses, which can be restrictive or nonrestrictive. Non-restrictive clauses take commas, restrictive clauses do not. Did you see what I did in the first sentence of this paragraph? The clause “which can be restrictive or nonrestrictive” is a nonrestrictive clause, so it needs a comma. If I had said:  “Now we turn to relative clauses which can be restrictive or nonrestrictive,” I would be restricting myself ONLY to relative clauses that can be either. Clear?

No, of course not. That’s a dumb example because the restriction is meaningless. Here’s a better one. “The king mandated the slaying of innocents who were mewling tediously.” This means the king ordered all the mewling innocents – and only the mewling innocents – be dispatched. The meaning is restricted. Presumably, placid innocents were allowed to live, this time anyway. If I’d said, “The king mandated the slaying of innocents, who were mewling tediously,” that suggests that all the little tykes are making an annoying noise and all needed dispatching. No restriction. Any peaceable tykes who were caught up in the fray were just out of luck. 

Plain as rain, no?

On to adverbs. Certain adverbs get commas every time, such as: therefore, however, nevertheless, moreover, furthermore.  Put a comma after it if it begins a sentence: “Nevertheless, it moves.”  If it occurs mid-sentence: “In this competition, however, the loser takes it all,” put commas on both sides.

(Note: I tend to put my commas inside my quotes, an Americanism. The British English practice of putting the comma outside the quotes  – or, if you prefer, the “inverted commas” – is perfectly fine. Even if it’s weird.)

Some adverbs aren’t so fussy, and context and mood can determine usage. “Tonight we dance” has a different feel from “Tonight, we dance.”  Just a bit of dramatic pause. But if that’s really what you’re going for, you might want to sell it a little harder, “Tonight – we dance”  or “But tonight, Esmeralda, we dance!”  It all depends on whether you’re writing a bleak nihilistic novel in a minimalist style, or a florid romance novel  about tango dancers and gypsies. 

But back to commas.

A common comma elision occurs with “too” when it is the ultimate word in a sentence. It’s perfectly valid to use a comma, but it isn’t really needed and looks a little fussy, and – here’s the key point – no one is going to be confused. On the other hand, if you say, “The tubas came in late after the alla breve section too” there is some ambiguity. Do you mean those damned tubas are always missing their cues? Or are you piling on because the pesky piccolos were tardy as well? Fortunately, context will usually make the distinction clear. If not, a comma before the “too” might be enough to suggest the former.

Or consider the following example: “Clang realized too late his airlock was open.” You could enclose “too late” in commas, but you don’t need to. However, if you want to add emphasis for ironic or dramatic or humorous purposes, commas might be the way to go: “Clang realized, too late, his airlock was open.” You could also use em dashes in the same manner: “Clang realized – too late – his airlock was open” emphasizing even more the irony or drama or humor of poor Clang’s plight. Increasing the distance between Clang’s moment of realization and what he actually realizes heightens the tension of the construction: “Clang realized – too late, as it turned out, because his dials were all in the red zone, and the canary alarm was chirping in a manner that, at long last, explained its nomenclature – his airlock was open.”  Here, of course, em dashes are needed to organize this absurd parade of clauses into some semblance of sense.

There are plenty of other uses for commas, like after introductory phrases and around appositives and to separate items on a list and between parts of place names. But when you really get down to the nitty gritty, commas have the same purpose as all punctuation: they make meaning clearer. When it comes to clarifying syntax, the humble comma does a lot of the heavy lifting. But unless the sentence is particularly long or highly complex or especially convoluted, you might be just fine omitting our little friend.  

Consider this nearly random sentence from The Great Gatsby:  

“In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another.”

First off, the barb about the age of his female guests is nicely delivered. But if we wanted to call foul on the comma usage, we could. Technically, a comma should be used after “In the main hall.” It is an introductory phrase, after all. Does he need it? Not really. The meaning is clear. There’s no confusion. So no problem. But let’s look at where he does use a comma: “a brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins…” No comma is wanted here. The “and” might appear to call for it, but both clauses have the same subject: the bar – the bar was set up; the bar was stocked. What follows is not an independent clause. If the sentence had ended with the word gins, the comma would be glaringly wrong (and I’m sure Fitzgerald would’ve omitted it). BUT the clause that follows is long and complicated. This comma is more for pacing, I think. Fitz’s comma gives us a little breath before tackling the rest of the sentence. It is also an organizational tool. We know, without even having to think about it, that everything that follows is one long, breathless phrase. Could he have placed a comma after liquors?  Maybe. Again, there’s no technical need. The rest of the sentence is not an independent clause. The choice would be one of pacing and grouping, and clearly ol’ Scott wanted us to read it all in one gush. Possibly, he wanted us to assume that it was not only the cordials which were were forgotten but also the gins and liquors. And, possibly, I have gone way too deep into the weeds over this. At any rate, I’ll stop now.

Gertrude Stein said, A comma by helping you along and holding your coat for you and putting on your shoes keeps you from living your life as actively as you should lead it”  – which is so smart-aleckishly convoluted, it’s hard to say for sure whether she was for them or against them (she was against them). But the point is made. If you can get away without it, and you really don’t want it cluttering up or slowing down your sentence, hey, try leaving that comma out. You have my permission, which is worth almost nothing. But make conscious choices. Every sentence is different. (Note: It’s easy to find humorous examples of how misused punctuation can change the meaning of a sentence, like: “Let’s go home and eat kids!” – but that kind of thing doesn’t really happen all that often.)

I’m going to leave it there. I certainly haven’t covered everything, and there are some briar patches out there (serial adjectives? Don’t get me started), so maybe next time.

Or maybe I’ll tackle hyphens.

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Uncategorized, Welcome, world-building, Writers Co-op, writing technique

Epistemology for Writers

 

I know, epistemology is the arcane study of knowledge. Epistemologists theorize how we know the difference between what is a justified belief and what is just opinion. And, I realize it originated way back before we mutually decided (against all reason) that everyone’s belief and opinion is equally valid. It is an old way of looking at what we know.

But, fiction writers have to know that, don’t we? Don’t we have to make our readers’ believe our story? People have been studying knowledge for so long that there are now many types of epistemology, but, luckily for us, three types suffice. To be believable, no element of our story can be obviously wrong, the story can’t contradict itself, and all the elements have to fit into the story -they have to “work.” Understanding these three basics makes our job easier.

Foundationalism: or, recognizing that all knowledge is based on accepted facts. Don’t write, “He leveled his semi-automatic rifle and held the trigger back until the clip was empty.” You’ll lose ex-soldiers, gun owners and anyone else who knows that you have to pull the trigger every time you fire a semi-auto.
Pro: Foundationalism is extremely precise. It draws a clear line between what is knowledge and what isn’t. As long as the facts are true and the logic is sound, we can be 100% sure of our reader’s acceptance.
Con: You have to be sure of your facts! If just one is false, then your reader may doubt more of the story.

Coherentism: Avoid contradictions. Don’t have your character “enter a triangular storage area” and then proceed to describe the contents of four corners. Actions are true so long as they are not self-contradictory.
Pro: Coherentism is flexible. It isn’t based on facts. It is the consistent logic of your creativity.
Con: Mere coherentism can fool you into too quickly believing your own “facts.” For example, you can write that unicorns are real and they live on Mars. This is not a self-contradiction. But it is a ridiculous claim unless other story elements strongly support it.

Pragmatism: If it works, it’s true. If your story elements work well for the purpose of your story, the reader will likely accept them. Otherwise, “Nope, that doesn’t make sense.”
Pro: Pragmatism avoids the problems of both foundationalism and coherentism. Pragmatists realize that human beings have limits and that our knowledge is always changing.
Con: It is hard to define “what works.” For example, the Greeks had many incorrect ideas about how the universe works, which we have since disproven. But the ideas were believed at the time, so they worked for then, but now, they are wrong. That’s pragmatism.

All of which is to justify saying that for your story to be believable, you have to know your facts, avoid contradictions and understand your readers’ beliefs.

Source: http://philosophyterms.com/epistemology/

Personally, I find Calvin’s approach appealing:

epist1

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blogging, Stories, Uncategorized, world-building, Writers Co-op, writing technique

NEXT: Writing for VR

The Adventure
Among the many ways to make money writing is to write for the media. If you want to know how to write for magazines, newspapers, television or the movies, Google it. Or get a degree in it. It’s old hat. But to write for virtual reality productions, you must have the Star Trek spirit and boldly go. The attractive thing is, you’ll be one of the early pioneers in a future tech.

The Ship
First thing is, you’ll need a vehicle. I recommend an Oculus Go. At $199, it’s the starter headset in which to explore the worlds of VR. The Go comes with tons of free software. It seems evreyone with a message to share wants a presence in our heads.

The Markets
Put the headset on and your markets will appear before -er, all around your very eyes. Tourists bureaus world wide, governments and NGOs, news outlets like CNN and The New York Times, video game makers and all manner of commercial interests. I, who hate commercials, now have a favorite one: The Jeep VR video that takes me on a ride along the California coast. I am riding inside the Jeep with  two women talking about finding a good place to surf. The camera view pans out to give me a drone’s eye view of the terrain, an experience in itself because I seem to be flying and can look up & down & all around. I go with the surfers into the water, under crashing waves and then on top, surfing back to shore. I can’t come closer to surfing and stay dry.

The Stories
Door No. 1 is Hulu’s live-action multiple choice comedy adventure about a ten-year high school reunion. The show puts the viewer into the middle of the action by making her or him a protagonist of the show.
Think about writing that short story for a sit-com. Your main character is one of the former students attending the reunion. He or she can see and hear everything around them, but can’t talk. You have to present multiple paths for your character to take. Your viewer will make the decisions for you by clicking on other characters with whom they want to interact during the story. And, of course, make many bad decisions along the way – it’s a high school reunion, after all.
For more details, see: https://variety.com/2018/digital/news/door-no-1-hulu-vr-trailer-1202798528/
And VR novels movies? Mind boggling. But that’s only because VR is an unexplored medium.

Introductory Offer
Available for a brief time only! Writing virtual reality stories is a chance for today’s writer to become a known writer in tomorrow’s history of writing. Be one of the first.

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About Writers, inspiration, publishing, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op, writing technique

Insights

Secrets of Bestselling Authors

INSPIRATION & IDEAS
“Good writing is remembering detail. Most people want to forget. Don’t forget things that were painful or embarrassing or silly. Turn them into a story that tells the truth.”
– Paula Danziger

GETTING STARTED
“Two questions form the foundation of all novels: ‘What if?’ and ‘What next?’ (A third question, ‘What now?’, is one the author asks himself every 10 minutes or so; but it’s more a cry than a question.) Every novel begins with the speculative question, What if ‘X’ happened? That’s how you start.”
– Tom Clancy

STYLE & CRAFT
“What a writer has to do is write what hasn’t been written before or beat dead men at what they have done.”
– Ernest Hemingway

PURPOSE
“The only obligation any artist can have is to himself. His work means nothing, otherwise. It has no meaning.”
– Truman Capote

CHARACTERS
“The writer must always leave room for the characters to grow and change. If you move your characters from plot point to plot point, like painting by the numbers, they often remain stick figures. They will never take on a life of their own. The most exciting thing is when you find a character doing something surprising or unplanned. Like a character saying to me: ‘Hey, Richard, you may think I work for you, but I don’t. I’m my own person.’”
– Richard North Patterson

PLOT & STRUCTURE
“The problem for me is finding my own plots. They take a long time. … I like to have it happen, just like in our own lives. We don’t always know where they’re going, and if we make formal decisions on a given night, if we sit down and put a list of things we’re going to do on a piece of paper, they almost never work out right.”
– Norman Mailer

RITUALS & METHODS
“The conclusion to be drawn is that I am happiest writing in small rooms. They make me feel comfortable and secure. And it took me years to figure out that I need to write in a corner. Like a small animal burrowing into its hole, I shift furniture around, and back myself into a cozy corner, with my back to the wall … and then I can write.”
– Danielle Steel

REVISION & EDITING
“I do not rewrite unless I am absolutely sure that I can express the material better if I do rewrite it.”
– William Faulkner

PUBLISHING
“Publishers want to take chances on books that will draw a clamor and some legitimate publicity. They want to publish controversial books. That their reasons are mercenary and yours may be lofty should not deter you.”
– Harlan Ellison

READERS
“In truth, I never consider the audience for whom I’m writing. I just write what I want to write.”
– J.K. Rowling

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About Writers, blogging, inspiration, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op, writing technique

Advice from the Front Lines

Current Writers on Writing Today

But first, an editorial comment:
“I’ve been an editor for a very long time—let’s say several lifetimes in dog years—and I’ll let you in on a secret. Although your workshop colleagues will (ideally) read your entire manuscript carefully, generously, and kindly, an editor will begin making a decision in about a minute.
What the editor is really looking for is presence on the page—a feeling that you, the author, are in control; that you have a deep respect for language and a well-made sentence, no matter how plain or ornate; that something is at stake; and that in addition to whatever plot you are hatching, you can create friction in the simple act of rubbing two sentences up against each other.
– Dawn Raffel

“Great writers play to their strengths. If you’re hilarious, let yourself be funny. If you have an ear for dialogue, keep your characters talking. If you have a sixth sense for plotting and suspense, write a mystery.”
– Arlaina Tibensky

“By writing about your experiences, you transform your memories into tangible monuments. You validate what happened to you from your own perspective, with your own creativity.”
– Alissa Torres

How to Write a Sex Scene: “‘But what if I’m not filthy enough?’ you think. What if Bruce Springsteen is busy? Most sex scenes are read and forgotten. Readers go on with their lives. You’re competing with the entire internet. You’re competing with sex itself.”
– Rebecca Schiff

“Very often, the most effective humor in writing doesn’t come from a clever concept, or a turn of phrase, or a one-liner, or a bit of killer dialogue. Instead, it comes from the manipulation of carefully built structures, from the ways in which you introduce well known patterns, then undermine those patterns with revealing character action.”
– Mike Scalise

“The best bit of that advice, and one I would take to heart as a novelist, is the idea of keeping your readers off kilter whenever possible. If they know what’s coming, there’s a good chance they’ll put down your book and move on to something else.”
– Duane Swierczynski

To me, the most memorable insight into the motivation for writing may be Vladimir Nabakov’s,
“I shall not exist, if you do not imagine me.”

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About Writers, inspiration, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op, writing technique

Writers on Writing

write drunkThere is no proof, of course, that Hemingway ever said that. It was probably his bartender. But many writers we know have offered useful advice. Here’s seven:

Ray Bradbury
“If you stuff yourself full of poems, essays, plays, stories, novels, films, comic strips, magazines, music, you automatically explode every morning like Old Faithful. I have never had a dry spell in my life, mainly because I feed myself well, to the point of bursting. I wake early and hear my morning voices leaping around in my head like jumping beans. I get out of bed quickly, to trap them before they escape.”

Stephen King
“For me, writing is like walking through a desert and all at once, poking up through the hardpan, I see the top of a chimney. I know there’s a house under there.”

Arthur C. Clarke
“When I start on a book, I have been thinking about it and making occasional notes for some time—20 years in the case of Imperial Earth, and 10 years in the case of the novel I’m presently working on. So I have lots of theme, locale, subjects and technical ideas. It’s amazing how the subconscious self works on these things. I don’t worry about long periods of not doing anything. I know my subconscious is busy.”

James Michener
“Being goal-oriented instead of self-oriented is crucial. I know so many people who want to be writers. But let me tell you, they really don’t want to be writers. They want to have been writers. They wish they had a book in print. They don’t want to go through the work of getting the damn book out. There is a huge difference.”

Tom Clancy
“Two questions form the foundation of all novels: ‘What if?’ and ‘What next?’ (A third question, ‘What now?’, is one the author asks himself every 10 minutes or so; but it’s more a cry than a question.) Every novel begins with the speculative question, What if ‘X’ happened? That’s how you start.”

Richard North Patterson
“The most exciting thing is when you find a character doing something surprising or unplanned. Like a character saying to me: ‘Hey, Richard, you may think I work for you, but I don’t. I’m my own person.’”

Tom Robbins
“I’m very concerned with the rhythm of language. ‘The sun came up’ is an inadequate sentence. Even though it conveys all the necessary information, rhythmically it’s lacking. The sun came up. But, if you say, as Laurie Anderson said, ‘The sun came up like a big bald head,’ not only have you, perhaps, entertained the fancy of the reader, but you have made a more complete sentence. The sound of a sentence.”

Me?
Write to be a writer if that’s the one identity that makes sense of everything else you are.

What about you? If other writers want your advice. What do you say?

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Stories, Writers Co-op Anthology, writing technique

Anthology April

Curtis Bausse Book a Break Short Story Competition

A big thank you to all who submitted stories for the first Rabbit Hole anthology – 56 submissions in all, a very healthy number for our first outing. Now the hard part begins – the selection process. We aim to get this done over the next 2 to 3 weeks, and all authors will be notified one way or the other before the end of the month. After that, it’s editing, revision, proofreading, formatting… a process on which I’d rather not put a concluding date right now.

But it’s already begun, and for me not once but twice: for The Rabbit Hole and for The Second Taste. That’s the title of this year’s Book a Break anthology (which will also be its last year). The title comes from Anaïs Nin: We write to taste life twice: in the moment and in retrospection. And in the anthology, as befits the theme of nourishment, there will be many flavours. With more still to come – there’s room for another half dozen stories, so if you have anything you’d like to submit, send it along before the end of this month to curtis.bausse(at)outlook.com. Maximum length: (more or less) 2000 words.

So April for me will be anthology month. All this has got me thinking about what makes a good short story. It’s far easier to say what doesn’t work than what does, which I’m not even going to attempt here. Instead I’ll let Atthys Gage give an idea – this is from the announcement of the first Book a Break competition, which he judged:

Let’s admit one thing. You may need to ignore everyone’s favorite writing tip: “show, don’t tell”— or at least, take it with a grain of salt. Telling is okay, just tell it well. Sometimes it’s necessary. You need a quick set up to get the reader involved quickly, because in a very few pages, you’re going to pull a fast one, yank our expectations out from under our feet, drop us abruptly on our backsides. Consider The Open Window by Saki, or The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, or The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke.

Or maybe your story doesn’t feature a last minute reversal. Maybe it’s all one slow-burn, building to a frantic boil. Think Young Goodman Brown by Hawthorne, or A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor. These stories play with our expectations, but you can see the ending coming. By the time it comes, you know it was inevitable all along.

Then there’s this from Heidi Pitlor: A successful short story does not expose its mechanics. Hell, it most likely does not have mechanics, rather a set of characters, a voice, an arc, momentum and a raison d’être so indivisible that to examine one of these aspects might seem pointless without the context of the others.

There’s only one thing I can say for sure – a good short story makes you want to come back for a second taste.

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