Archive for the ‘Rants and ruminations’ category

an acquired distaste

October 23, 2017

I’ve written about this at various times over the near-decade that I’ve been keeping this blog, but it’s a thought that comes to my mind often. It has to do with writing (and reading) and what many people have come to believe is proper (and improper). Essentially, it bugs me when people object to what is not, objectively, improper grammar. Or rather, what is perfectly clear speech or writing that doesn’t match some arbitrary “rule” of grammar. For example, a split infinitive: “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Or ending a sentence with a preposition. Or use of the passive voice. Or sentence fragments.

Usages like these work perfectly well to get meaning across to readers/listeners, and their composition can be elegant or at least not clumsy. But that someone would automatically object to these instances, claiming them to be poor grammar and sniffing disdain at them, strikes me as unconsidered. It strikes me as an acquired distaste. This is something one has learned to object to without there being anything inherently (or effectively) wrong with the usage. They might never have objected to the usage unless and until someone told them it was “wrong.”

I get it. Writing is a perilous business. We work with uncertainty and doubt, never sure if we’re getting our meaning across as well as we can, (sometimes not even sure what our meaning is). And so “rules” of grammar and composition can give a kind of certainty, can relieve us of a next-level effort of expressing meaning through creation. Similarly, they can relieve a reader of the effort needed to understand a writer’s work. (There are plenty of cases when I’ve had to reread a sentence two or three times to extract its meaning: Moby Dick, anything by Faulkner.) And in my observation, many people need clear rules in order to get through life.

But I’ve always thought that creative types are here to create the culture rather than merely reflect it.

Still . . .

I’m finding myself struggling with this very “distaste” thing in the book I’m reading. The writer has gotten excessively creative with wording, and I suppose it’s intended to leave strong, lasting images in the reader, but I think the writing gets in the way of the story; the clever writing seems to exist for its own sake rather than to advance the story. And then it makes me object.

Here are some examples:

  • “his shirt wounded with gray sweat stains”
  • “a toast-colored mustache”
  • “earlobe-sized berries”
  • heat lightning “luminescing distant acres of wheat”
  • the glow of the television “fire-flying” her face

Why was the word “wounded” used in that context? The character wasn’t suffering or victimized; it was merely a hot day. I have a hard time picturing what color toast is. Why compare the berries to earlobes? There was no connection in the context. “Luminescing” seemed like a reached-for word rather than the right word. Fire-flying?

There is something like this on every page. I understand that these create images, but are they useful images to the purpose of the story? Or are they ornamentation that pulls the reader out of the story? Yet not every sentence contains such a device. It seems as though the writer has a workable, readable basic style that carries the story along effectively and yet has picked occasions to doll it up.

And so I get yanked out of the narrative. Is this an acquired distaste of my own?

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writing is hard work

September 14, 2017

Not hard like farming or construction or breaking rocks or futures trading or writing poetry or countless other truly hard things are, but hard work in its own way.

I’m in New York right now, getting acquainted with my new grandbabies and trying to peck out a few words on my latest One-Match Fire story. (Once I have this one done and consolidated with the others, I’ll consider the novel finished and begin sending it out again.) My daughter’s household rises late in comparison to how I now live, so I was able to rise early on my first day here (despite sleeping in for an hour later than my usual time, though in retrospect, my actual usual time according to my body clock given the time zone change) and sit in the quiet darkness before my laptop, tapping away at the keys to spin gold from dross.

Or at least attempting to. The words come slowly. And I really need to get into the tone of the story I’m working on before the words will come at all, which means I need to re-read it from the beginning. Which in turn means that I need to revise it as I read it, perfecting this or that word choice, chopping or lengthening any given sentence, crafting the perfect metaphor, and on. So by the time I get to where I’d left the story my last writing session, enuf time has passed that the sleepy household begins rousing. Just as the words begin to flow, the solitude begins to end.

As problems go, it’s not so bad. As work goes, it’s not so hard. My visit here is intended to be a help to my daughter: rocking or changing either or both of the twins, playing with their older brother, and generally doing whatever I can to lighten her load. So it’s not like I begrudge the interruption in the writing; that’s not why I’m here.

But if I can get a few words in as well, I’ll be pleased.

(By the way, the story has a couple of flashbacks in it. I know this device is not currently in vogue, but I don’t care!)

ten years!

August 19, 2017

It was ten years ago today that I began this humble blog as a way to hold myself accountable for the writing I was attempting. At the time I had only one published story to my name. But I was embarking on writing a series of cozy mystery novels with the unique hook of not having a murder in them. I managed to write four of them, lost one in a hard drive crash, gave up on one as apprentice work, considered one as okay but needing work, and felt that one was good enuf to submit around, which I did, though I never got more than nibbles from agents.

In that time my writing has evolved. I still work on plots for the cozy mysteries (including one with a half marathon in it), but I’ve also written that weird novel The Sleep of Reason, which got more than nibbles but ultimately never went anywhere. (Why don’t I try sending it our more?) And I did a lot of work on a project I called Larger Than Life, which was based on the central character in my story “Travel Light,” but that fizzled, and I don’t feel any desire to return to it.

I also wrote a number of unconnected short stories in various genres, many of which found their way to publication.

And then I seemed to have found my great subject: the relationship between fathers and sons. All of my One-Match Fire stories, originally the few of them not intended to be anything more than independent stories with common characters, sprung from finding my subject. There are more of them for me to write.

Had I looked ten years into the future when I started this blog, I’m sure I would have seen myself as jaded with all of the commercial success I would have achieved. That hasn’t happened (neither the commercial success nor the jadedness). But I’ll persevere because I don’t know what else to do with myself.

flashbacks

August 7, 2017

I was at a reading at a bookstore last week where the host and the guest author talked about many aspects of writing fiction (the host speaking inordinately too much about his own novels while the poor guest was there to plug his own, first novel), when the topic of flashbacks came up. A flashback is, basically, a scene, sometimes quite lengthy, set in a time before the main narrative of the story. It can be useful for giving background to show how a character or event came to be the way it is. And it can be sparked in several ways though most likely by something triggering the memory in a character.

Both the host and the guest author deplored flashbacks. They claimed that they took the reader out of the narrative and slowed down the experience of the story. (I think I have their objections right.) It has, apparently, become the fashion to deplore flashbacks. Even Colm Toibin is lamenting their use (though I’ve read a good bit of Toibin’s fiction, and he doesn’t stint on using flashbacks).

As extensively used and ingrained in Western literature as the flashback is, as hardworking a tool as it is, this seemingly recent objection to its use sounds a great deal to me like those who bemoan the new-fangled internet (or Internet) and word processors.

In fact, flashbacks go back to the Odyssey and have been part of literature ever since. My¬†One-Match Fire stories use flashbacks, and a careful reader could argue that the entire novel is a flashback. Since it is the story of three generations of men in a family, and since in real life we often learn important truths about our families years after they’ve happened, flashbacks seem essential to the verisimilitude of the telling. I’ve even been told on several occasions that I’m pretty good at writing flashbacks. I’d recount those occasions for you but I don’t want to take you out of the narrative of this post or slow down your experience of it.

In any case, I’m not about give up the flashback device. (Or the Oxford common. Or my lament of double spacing after periods.)

bits and pieces

June 26, 2017

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: there is no such thing as unsweetened tea! There is sweetened tea, and there is tea. Simple as that.

__________

The words “tattoo” and “tattoo” are completely different. The first is an evening drum or bugle signal recalling soldiers to their quarters. Its first English use was in the mid-17th Century and is derived from the Dutch “taptoe” that meant, literally, “close the tap (to the casks).”

The second has a Polynesian origin and refers to the inking of skin with designs. It first appeared in English with this meaning in the mid-18th Century.

You can now make even more interesting conversation at parties.

__________

My son said he saw a sticker in the back window of a car that said 26.2, but he thought it looked wrong. Closer inspection revealed the words in small type below it: “Number of Oreos I can eat in an hour.”

That seems a little low.

__________

I regularly look at the Calendar at Duotrope’s Digest to see if any of the themes of upcoming journals match what is going on — even remotely — in any of my unpublished stories. I saw a journal calling for stories about “the face in the photo” and one of my One-Match Fire stories, “Moving Day”, includes the son finding a picture of his father as an infant, with a cryptic notation on the back that sets his imagination and worry on fire. The photo makes another appearance in a later story, so it is an important discovery in the cycle. (See this post for more background.) And so I imagined that my story might be a fit for the theme the journal was soliciting.

Thus I began researching the submission requirements for the journal and found something odd. Submitters within the U.S. must send in a paper document by snail mail. That’s old school (though I am old enuf to have begun my writing life submitting this way and looking askance at this newfangled email submission business). My guess is either the editor is still looking askance at email or they’re using this more labor-intensive method to winnow out impulsive submissions.

So I’m going to prepare a printed version of the story and submit it. All it will cost me is a little time and a little postage (plus a return-addressed* envelope with postage).

*I read an impassioned response to the phrasing “self-addressed envelope” which is the standard wording in the business and which everyone understands: your own address is on the face of the envelope so they can send you the inevitable rejection letter. The writer who objected to this said that a self-addressed envelope would be one that did the writing of the address¬†itself. Better phrasing, he insisted, was “return-addressed envelop” since it is both more precise and, well, possible. You know I’m not so very obsessive about our evolving language, but I was impressed with the passion of the man’s point, and I’ve followed it ever since.

 

 

rise up, or the sins of a writer

June 19, 2017

So I’m reading Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout right now. It is her first novel, from nearly twenty years ago, and I’m finding wording in it that bugs me.

One of you fine readers originally suggested I read Strout’s novel Olive Kitteridge, and I’ve been delving into her works regularly ever since. Strout takes her time telling her story, giving a great deal of attention to minor characters and creating a world that is credible and tangible. Best of all, she writes sentences that often demand pausing and re-reading to get the full effect. I’ve copied some of her sentences and passages into my journal. (She’s also not shy about using sentence fragments for effect, my particular writing “sin.”)

But I’m finding a writing sin recurring in Amy and Isabelle that surprises me. Several times I’ve come across the words “rise up” and “gather together” and the like. The apparently unneeded redundancy has always bugged me; perhaps it is a result of the years when I was committing journalism (as the writer Sue Hubbell called it). I wrote lean in those days, and nearly any time I could shave out a word, I did. And what other direction can one rise than up? You can’t gather apart, so why do you need the modifier “together”? And so on.

Yet these occur repeatedly in this novel. Perhaps it does not bug her the way it bugs me. Or perhaps her editor suggesting cleaning these, but Strout insisted her words remain unchanged. (Iris Murdoch was famous for not allowing edits to her works.) I don’t know, but I do know that Strout has a new novel out, twenty years into her career, and if I read it soon, maybe I’ll find that she no longer sins in this way.

“what’s that?”

June 16, 2017

I stopped into a local big-box bookstore this afternoon to pick up anything by Tracy Smith, the new Poet Laureate of the U.S., because I wanted a gift for my wife — an avid poetry reader — to have on her return home this evening from a week in Portland, seeing our granddaughter.

I could not find the poetry section and had to ask. I was then lead to a far corner of the store and to the four or five shelves devoted to poetry (which included Homer and all of the other Greek classics).

I told the woman helping me that Tracy Smith was the new Poet Laureate. She said, “What’s that?”

They did have a single slim volume of her work, Life on Mars, which I gladly bought.

I had a similar experience that I recounted here.