Author: Christopher (page 2 of 3)

Write what you have

The most important thing for me when writing a first draft—other than trying to remember that First Drafts Suck, and That’s Okay—is to focus on writing what I have, instead of trying to come up with what I have not.

Right now, for my next book, I have something of a beginning, and something of an ending. I have an idea for how it might develop. I have detailed thoughts on several characters and light mental sketches for a few more. All together, it’s entirely insufficient for writing an actual novel. There are probably more scenes that I haven’t thought of than ones that I have. Most of the characters are so thin they’d hardly stick to the virtual paper I’m typing this on. The core idea of the story may not work. And so on, and so on.

Fortunately, it is enough to write a first draft, as long as I focus on those parts that I have. “First drafts are for figuring out what your story is about,” someone once said (I can’t find the attribution, comment below if you know who it was). The best way to figure out what your story is about is to write the parts you have, and ignore the fact that there are clearly massive question marks.

One big question mark is plot. In any first draft I write, there are always big holes. Not “plot holes” like you might find in a finished story, but gaps, where it’s clear something has to happen. I might have a clear idea for Scene A, and a clear idea for Scene B, and a clear understanding that Scene A and Scene B can’t happen right next to each other. Maybe more time needs to pass, or maybe something specific has to happen in between. But if I don’t have anything to put in between those scenes, then I can either a) struggle mightily to try to find something suitable or b) ignore it and keep going.

As much as possible, I try to choose option B when working on a first draft. First drafts aren’t for anyone else to read. They’re often closer to a Hollywood-style script treatment than a real prose draft. A first draft is an exploration that’s documented well enough for me to follow the same path (or a similar one) a second time. And a third, and a fourth, and a fifth…

The most important thing in a first draft is momentum. It’s mind-numbingly hard to write when I don’t have any momentum built up, so I try as hard as I can to conserve it. I’d much rather write a quick sketch of a scene (or skip the scene altogether) rather than get bogged down trying to make it good. Good can wait until I actually know whether the scene will make it into later drafts, and I won’t know that until I actually get to those later drafts. The key for keeping up momentum is to write what I have in my head, regardless of whether it’s any good or whether it’s missing any obvious bits.

So: Write What You Have, and Ignore What You Have Not.

In the next post, I’ll give some tips for how to keep your final-draft brain quiet so you can finish that first draft and move on to figuring out what your story is really about.

Closing the deal

If you’re a professional writer (or ever plan to be one) and don’t have a day job as an intellectual property lawyer, you really need to read Kristine Rusch’s Closing the Deal on Your Terms. I guarantee that you will learn at least one detail about publishers, contracts, agents, or copyright law that will a) scare you and b) make you smarter about how you approach the publishing business.

Rusch has some positions that are a little extreme–she basically thinks that nobody should ever hire an agent or sign a traditional publishing contract–and sometimes her condescension can be grating. But her arguments are compelling. If at one end of the spectrum you have the starry-eyed writer who’s certain that they’re going to make it in the publishing business as long as they have a good book and a good agent, then at the other end you have Rusch, waving her hands and shouting about all the things that can go wrong if you make bad business decisions.

She goes through a pretty comprehensive list of things you should be aware of before signing a contract, from options clauses and rights licensing to termination and reversion. A lot of it is stuff that, if you’re lucky, you’ll never need to worry about; most people probably won’t have publishers trying to extend the lifetime of a contract in perpetuity or enforce dumb non-compete clauses. But the smart money is still on making sure you don’t end up in those situations by negotiating contracts that aren’t tilted against you.

Sometimes Rusch’s stories about the horrors of traditional publishing make her seem a little like the neighbor with a bomb shelter who thinks you’re an idiot because you don’t have a month’s worth of food and water handy in case of a worldwide flu epidemic. You’ll need to make your own decisions about how you publish your  book and what sort of contracts you sign. But whether or not you follow her advice to the letter, you’ll make smarter decisions if you hear her arguments and consider her points before you sign on the mythical dotted line.

from the how-many-rights-did-you-just-sign-away dept

There are really just three steps to learning how to write well

Writing is hard.

Boy, howdy, is it hard. There are a million things you need to learn if you want to master the craft. There’s big, story-level stuff like character arcs, plotting, theme, and pacing. There’s small, line-level skills like writing clearly, using proper grammar, and not overusing your favorite part of speech (whether that’s adjectives, adverbs, or participle phrases).

But really, there are only three basic steps to becoming an accomplished writer. (And two of them are the same thing.)

Don’t believe me? Here they are.

Step One: Write something as well as you can

“Oh, is that all?” you might say. “Just write well?” Except I’m not saying you need to write something at any particular level—just that you write it as well as you can. It doesn’t have to be David Copperfield. It doesn’t have to be anything other than the best you can do.

It’s still easier said than done! Writing something to the best of your ability means not putting up with anything less than your best.  It means taking everything you’ve learned so far and applying it to the entire story. It means rewriting sketchy passages until they’re as polished as you can make them. It means trying to get your characters as human as you know how to make them. It means making it your very best.

It also means finishing. Not just finishing the first draft (and aye, that’s hard enough) but taking the time to clean it up so that it’s consistent. It means not stopping with your rewrites until there are no areas that you know how to make better.

I know this seems blindingly obvious, but it’s important. You can only fix problems that you know how to fix. Furthermore, you won’t know how to fix every problem until you’ve mastered the craft (and maybe not even then). You have to force yourself to solve the problems you know how to solve, while also not beating yourself up about the problems you don’t know how to solve.

Curtis Sittenfeld said it much better than I can:

“It’s OK to let your book be [finished] if you can see its flaws but don’t know how to fix them. Don’t let your book be [finished] if it still contains flaws that are fixable, even if fixing them is a lot of work.”

I’m paraphrasing, here, since she wrote “published” instead of “finished,” but the same principle applies.

So you’ve completed step one! Congratulations. You’ve written something that you can justifiably be proud of, whether it’s your first time at the keyboard or whether this is your tenth novel in ten years. You’ve looked it over and found no problems that you know how to fix. What do you do now?

Step Two: Learn how to make it better

You figure out some of those problems you don’t know how to fix. You figure out how to make it even better.

Once again, this is easier said than done. Didn’t you just write this to the best of your ability? Didn’t you stop precisely because you couldn’t make it any better? Well, yeah. Except you know that it can get better, in a hundred different ways. You just don’t know precise solutions yet. And it’s now your job to figure some of those out.

The first thing you need to do is set it aside for a few months. When you come back to it, you’ll have a much more objective eye, and poorly-written passages will stand out like sore thumbs. Or a particular plot arc (one that you were so proud of) will make you roll your eyes.

But in the meantime, you need to get help from other people. Read books, attend classes, go to conferences and seminars. Ingest their advice like an elixir of learning and store it in your belly. Take notes, highlight, bookmark, record. When you go back to your manuscript, take your notes and see how they apply to your story. You’ll likely find a half-dozen ways to use the advice to improve your manuscript.

Even better: get people to read your story! Preferably, get critiques from other writers who are at least as accomplished as you are. There are a lot of online critique groups which will help you do exactly this. Your fellow writers will helpfully (and constructively) point out a dozen more major things you can do to improve your story. Remember, though, that it’s their job to convince you of things that need to change. You’re not looking for someone to hand down edits from on high. You’re looking for someone to show you what things aren’t working and suggest fixes. Most of the time, you won’t take their fixes exactly as suggested. But their suggestions will spark ideas of your own for how to improve the piece. And more importantly, their feedback will help you understand how to write better, meaning that even if you never actually go back and revise this particular manuscript, you’ve still advanced your knowledge of the craft.

Which brings us to the final (?) step…

Step Three: Do it again

In Step One, you worked on your manuscript until there were no problems left that you knew how to solve. In Step Two, you spent months learning how to fix things that you suspected were broken and finding out about new types of problems that you didn’t even know existed.

Now you put that knowledge to use by looping back around and writing again.

It doesn’t have to be the same manuscript. It’s up to you whether you spend time improving something you’ve already written versus starting on a new project. Sometimes you’ll spend months learning and yet still feel like there’s no specific way to improve the manuscript you’ve just finished. In that case, move on! Start something new.

But a lot of the time, you’ll come back to that manuscript with a mental list of the things you can do better. It’s almost like those daydreams you have about how much better you could do high school if you could do it all over again. (Everyone has those daydreams, right?) You’ve gained wisdom. You’ve gained confidence. You’ve leveled up.

And so whether you start a new project or rewrite an old one for the umpteenth time, you’re writing better. That’s the only thing that matters.

When you look back at something you wrote ten years ago, what’s your first thought? I’ll bet it’s oh, man, I can do so much better than this now. That’s the one-and-only sign of becoming an accomplished writer. There’s no reliable way to measure yourself in any absolute sense. But you can certainly measure yourself relative to your skill in the past. And if that writing you see in your rearview mirror always makes you scream holy cow I’m better than that, then you’re learning your craft.

To put it another way, it doesn’t matter where you are as a writer right now. The only thing that matters is your trajectory. If you’re improving, and you keep working at it, you’ll keep improving. You’re upward-bound. Think of it like this: would you rather have $100 now, or $10 per year for twenty years? Growth is the thing that matters, not your current skill. If you keep growing as a writer, you will eventually achieve your goals. Full stop.

I freely admit that I’ve glossed over nearly all of the important details about writing. This advice, on its own, is almost useless. You’ll need to study and follow the guidance of writers who are much better than I am if you’re going to actually accomplish any of this.

And yet.

That advice can be overwhelming, frustrating, and painful, because you can’t always follow it. You’ll pore over a book on writing better dialogue, and then you’ll apply it, and you’ll say wow I still screwed that up. It takes a long, long time to learn everything there is to know about even a small part of the craft of writing.

But you can always follow these three steps. Nothing can ever stop you. Write, improve, write again. When everything else seems bleak, you can look back and know that you’ve learned something new and put that knowledge to use. If you keep following that path, you’ll always get where you want to go.

from the lather-rinse-repeat-dept

I miss you, Dad

My father passed away on March 10th. It wasn’t exactly a surprise, but we didn’t have much time to prepare, either. He started suffering from dementia the previous August, and his condition very quickly deteriorated. The doctors’ best guess is that it was Lewy-Body dementia, but since there’s no specific test to confirm that (at least not prior to death) we don’t know for sure.

The entire course of the disease lasted about seven months. And yet still, something about my dad was very different by the time he died. I believe that if my dad had died suddenly last August, and my father had been able to look down at all of us in the church where his service was held, he wouldn’t have really understood why we were here.

For nearly all of his life, my father had a pain inside of him. Out of that pain came a voice which told him over and over that he couldn’t be loved because there wasn’t anything about him that was worth loving. If he had seen us gathered here, that voice would have told him ‘they’re only getting together because that’s what you do when someone dies — they don’t really mean it.’ If he had overheard us saying how much we would miss him, that voice would have said ‘of course they’re not going to miss you — what about you is there to miss?’

There were certainly levels at which he understood our love. He knew it in his head—he knew that we all loved him. And sometimes he would feel it, too. But always, the feeling was fleeting. Always, there was the voice.

That voice compelled him to continually seek validation. He would sometimes push advice or recommendations on his family and friends, because that voice told him that maybe if someone saw him as a person of wisdom, that maybe then he would be lovable. Or he would make jokes because that voice told him that maybe if he were funny, then perhaps other people would value him as much as he valued them.

I know the sound of that voice, because I hear it too.

That voice wasn’t my father. That voice is not who he was. It was a cancer that had grown inside of him. But by the time he was sixty, that pain and that voice were so twisted up that it was sometimes hard to see where they stopped and the real Ed Swiedler began.

Then, just in the last six months, something changed. I don’t know why — maybe it was confronting his own mortality, or maybe it was from talking with all of you in the hospital — but that voice went silent.

Everyone who visited him saw it, even if they didn’t know what they were seeing. They talked about how relaxed he was, how peaceful he seemed. Not just peaceful with the possibility of his own death, but peaceful with himself and who he was.

They talked about how funny he was and how his wit seemed to come out of nowhere. He would see something about the world that made him laugh, and he would just point it out. If you thought it was funny too, then you and he could laugh together. If you didn’t — well, too damn bad. He thought it was funny.

Ed Swiedler was there. The voice was not.

Over the last few months, we were given a gift. We were able to see my father for who he was: someone who loved himself and accepted himself, and who could love others and accept that others loved him. That gift is something that I will always treasure.

And so I believe that if my father was able to watch us at St. David’s Church on March 15th, 2017—if he could see us all gathered together in his memory—I believe that he understood why we were there.

Reading your own writing, for fun and profit

Reading your own writing is a strange experience. It’s kind of like listening to your own voice while you’re singing: it feels like such a part of you that it’s hard to know what it really sounds like.

With your voice, it’s easy to record yourself and then play it back. Instantly, you get the same experience as a listener. It’s much harder with your writing, because your brain is very good at short-circuiting the reading process. It’s seen those words on your screen a thousand times, and so it doesn’t route them through the same neurons that get used when you read someone else’s work.

There’s also a subtle psychological ‘packaging effect’ when you read an unpublished manuscript. Because it’s not bound, justified, and paginated the way a book from the bookstore would be, manuscripts feel like they’re not books. Printing and binding a book says “this is a real book.” Printing a manuscript on an inkjet printer says “this is a work-in-progress.” Worse, it’s your work-in-progress, and it’s easy to believe that those Times New Roman words aren’t worth the copier paper you just printed them on.

So how do you trick your brain into reading your own work in the same way that you read a book you would buy from a bookstore? Well, short of wiping your memory clean, you can’t do it. But there are two techniques that can help.

The first is a bit of advice that probably dates back to Homer: put the manuscript away and work on something else. Let your brain process some other words of yours. When you come back to the first piece, a lot of the baggage will have been wiped clean, and you’ll see your story in a new light.

The second technique is to read your book in the most book-like format you can. Up until recently that was almost impossible, short of sending your rough drafts off to a vanity press for a one-copy print run. But with e-books, it’s a cinch to take your manuscript, format it for a Kindle or Kobo reader, and put it on your device.

(It’s a cinch, anyway, if you use Scrivener. If you don’t use Scrivener, well, this alone might be a good enough reason to switch.)

It’s amazing how different your own story feels when you put it on an e-reader. It’s like taking a painting, framing it, and putting it up on the wall of a gallery. Almost immediately, certain sections feel like they belong. Your brain says, “sure, this is a real book.” And some sections feel wrong, like they’re typewritten rough drafts that got pasted in. If you’d read those same sections on your screen or on printed paper, you might have passed by them without a second thought. But now that they’re part of a real book, they stand out as the stinkers they are.

So take some time away from your latest draft and work on something else. When you’re ready to come back to it, put your manuscript on your e-reader and read it in bed, or on the train, or wherever you read other people’s novels. Don’t worry about line-editing; just look for sections that feel unnatural. Mark them with the highlighting function on your e-reader and move on. When you’re finished, rewrite those sections and make them as fresh as you can.

Reading your work like this won’t replace beta readers, or developmental editors, or line-editing. But it will give you a good feel for which parts of your story are off-key, and give you confidence in the parts that do work well.

filed under electronic-words-are-people-too

How to deal with Type 2 writer’s block

As a writer, you’re going to run into times when you don’t have a good idea of what’s going to happen next. This isn’t full-on, Type 1, staring-at-a-blank-screen writer’s block, and it isn’t a mild case of Type 3, I-don’t-feel-like-writing-today doldrums. This is the in-between variety, the Type 2 writer’s block, where you know you could write a scene, but you don’t feel ready to write it yet.

For me, the problem is usually that I don’t have the right concrete details. I think there are two basic types of “what should happen” questions: high-level structural stuff and low-level details. You need both to make it through a draft (or at least, I do).

The first question is pretty simple: where is the scene/chapter/novel going? At a high level, what is it trying to achieve, and how do the pieces fit together to achieve it? For me, by the time I get to a scene or chapter, I have a pretty good idea of what I want it to do. In the story as a whole, the plot goes like this, the characters develop like that. For a particular scene, this is the state going in, and this is the state coming out.

The second (and in my opinion, more important) question is: what are the key details? You need more than big-picture ideas before you can start writing. Every generality in your story is going to be supported by specific details. Readers don’t read about the duality of self; they read about how a particular self is torn in two by a specific set of events. They don’t read about obsession; they read about how a certain person becomes obsessed with a particular thing. This applies to a scene just as much as to a novel. Readers don’t read about a conflict between two opposing goals; they read specific dialogue between two characters who have those goals.

You need (at least, I need) a few of those specifics in mind before you start writing: a line of dialogue, a particular action, even a certain description. I can go from “this scene is a muddled blank mess” to “I have a clear picture of what this scene is going to be” just by thinking of one detail or one good line of dialogue from the most important part of the scene (usually something near the end). Once I have that specific bit, I can hang the rest of the scene around it. Other parts all fall into place as either leading up to that detail, or following from it.

It’s like trying to find your way through a wilderness: when every direction seems just as valid as every other direction, it’s hard to make any progress at all. But if someone were to whisper in your ear, hey, at some point you’re going to pass by an oak tree with a big black lightning scar on its trunk, in the middle of a field with nothing else around, then suddenly you’ve got a much better sense of where you’re headed.

For me, the best way to come up with these details is to take a walk. Walking is a wonderful distraction for your body. It’s physical enough that it gets your blood flowing, but not so much that your brain has to concentrate on what it’s doing. I think the simple repetition of putting one foot in front of the other has the same drone-like cadence of a meditative chant. It takes over part of your brain, and lets the rest of it wander.

Often I find that when I start walking, it’s hard to concentrate on what I want to think about—the next section of my manuscript—and that’s okay. I try to nudge my brain there, but I give it a little time to settle in. Then, about ten minutes into the walk, my mind gets into a focused zone. I can bring up questions like “okay, brain, what should happen next?” and quite often, I’ll get good answers.

Walking may not be your cup of tea. Your cup of tea might be an actual cup of tea, just under the point of scalding, sipped on your back porch. Or a hot bath, or a ride on a unicycle. Whatever floats your boat—including, I suppose, floating boats.

The key, I think, is to get yourself away from your writing, and to get yourself into a zone where bright little bits of creativity can emerge from the dark crevices of your mind. Big-picture things like plot or structure can be chewed-over by your logical mind. But the sharp little details that make a scene work have to come out of your creative side. You can’t force them into existence; you can only put yourself into a place where they can spring into existence.

When they do appear, it’s important to get them recorded quickly. Don’t trust yourself to remember them later! For me, the best way to save ideas while on a walk is to use the voice memo feature on my phone. Then later, when I get back to my desk, I transcribe them. Since walking-and-thinking usually takes long enough that I don’t have time to write as soon as I get back (real life, unfortunately, is waiting for me), I end up transcribing the voice notes at the start of my next writing session. Hearing my own ideas about the upcoming scene, and typing them out, is a great way to ease my mind into a writing state.

Whatever your specific method is, I’ll bet twopence to a pound that there’s something you can do to move your story along that isn’t chaining yourself to a desk (and isn’t playing hooky either). If you can figure out what you have to do to get your muse to whisper some details in your ear, you’ll spend less time in a literary wasteland, trying to figure out which way you should go next.

filed under walking-your-way-to-better-writing

Listening to books

Jason Hough recently brought up something that I’ve been noticing a lot myself lately: that listening to audiobooks can improve your writing. A few months ago I started listening to audiobooks on my morning and evening commutes (since if you’re going to be stuck in Bay Area traffic for 45 minutes, you may as well listen to a good book).

What I’ve found is that my “writer’s mind” is much more active while listening to books than it is when I read them as text. Sometimes I try hard to analyze a particular writer’s technique when I’m reading, but it’s always a struggle, because I’ll get caught up in the story itself and stop paying attention to what the author is doing.

Listening to a book, though, is completely different. For whatever reason, I can immerse myself in the story while at the same time thinking about whether it works, how it works, and why it works. My mind will regularly ‘ding’ with thoughts along the lines of “ooh, that was well-done” or “meh, that could be better.” I’ve started to feel like I’m learning much more about the technique of the writers I’m reading.

And now that I think of it, that’s usually how my brain works when I’m watching a TV show or movie–a fact that my wife absolutely loves. Because walking out of a good movie, it’s perfectly normal and lovable to spend the next half-hour dissecting everything about it, right?

Maybe it’s a good thing there’s nobody in the car with me listening to my audiobooks…

filed under there’s-no-such-thing-as-over-analysis

Best middle-grade book you’ve never heard of: Carry On, Mr. Bowditch

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, by Jean Latham, won the Newbery Medal in 1956, but since then it seems to have slipped into obscurity. An aunt gave it to me for my eleventh birthday, and while it didn’t seem terribly interesting based on the cover, I was fortunately at an age where I would read just about anything, so I lay down on my bed, set the book on my chest, and cracked it open.

A full explanation of the story wouldn’t have gotten me much more interested, either: a historical novel about a mathematician from the eighteenth century? Meh. But Latham does a fabulous job of endearing the reader to young Nat Bowditch, who was born near Boston just before the start of the Revolutionary War. His mother and  grandmother die at the start of the story, and a sister and brother not long after–if there’s one thing this book teaches you, it’s how fragile life was before modern medicine–and Nat is left with his father and older sister. Nat demonstrates a knack for mathematics, to the point where he’s punished by a schoolteacher who doesn’t believe he’s actually solving arithmetic problems on his own.

Nat dreams of going to Harvard, but is forced to quit school to help his father with the bookkeeping at their cooperage. When the business is sold–“lock, stock, and bookkeeper,” as the new owner jokes, Nat becomes an indentured servant, meaning he won’t be free to go to Harvard (or anywhere else) for nine long years.

This is where the main theme of the book starts to show through: when life throws up obstacles, the only thing you can do is just find your way around them. A fellow bookkeeper complains that he and Nat are ‘becalmed,’ but Sam, an older captain, tells Nat that when the wind dies, a ship has to ‘sail by ash breeze:’

Nat asked, “How do you sail by ash breeze?”

Sam grinned. “When a ship is becalmed, the wind died down, she can’t move, sometimes the sailors break out their oars. They’ll row a boat ahead of the ship and tow her. Or they’ll carry out anchors and heave them over, and the crew will lean on the capstan bars and drag the ship up to where the anchors are heaved over. Oars are made of ash–white ash. So when you get ahead by your own get up and get, that’s when you sail by ash breeze.”

Nat takes Sam’s advice to heart and sets about learning Latin, French, and Portuguese with the help of people he meets around Boston. He gets access to a local library and teaches himself mathematics.

When he’s finally releases from his indentured servitude, he goes to sea as a “supercargo,” a term for anyone who isn’t able to directly help with the mechanics of sailing. He’s tasked with keeping the books for the ship’s trade, but he develops an interest in the mathematics of celestial navigation. Many sailors of the time prefer traditional dead-reckoning because they don’t understand or trust the newer mathematical techniques. Nat tries to reassure them that math can be trusted, but he has a hard time winning anyone over.

One night, while reviewing the primary navigation text of the day, The New Practical Navigator by John Moore of the English Royal Navy, Nat finds an error in one of its tables. He bursts into his captain’s stateroom:

Captain Prince jumped to his feet. “What’s happened?

“I found an error in one of Moore’s tables!”

Prince looked at him in utter disgust. “Is that what you came slamming in here about? An error in which table?”

Nat told him.

Prince gave a short laugh. “My dear Mr. Bowditch, Moore didn’t compute that table. Do you know who did? Nevil Maskelyne, the royal astronomer of England!”

“I can’t help who computed it!” Nat barked. “There’s an error!” He showed Prince his page of figures. “There! I checked it! See? Why didn’t Moore check those figures before he accepted them?”

Prince looked at the paper covered with Nat’s tiny figures. “All that, to find one error? And there are probably two hundred thousand figures in those tables. Maybe that’s why he didn’t check every figure, Mr. Bowditch.”

“But he should have! Mathematics is nothing if it isn’t accurate! Men’s lives depend on the accuracy of those tables! It’s, it’s, criminal to have a mistake in a book like this! Do you hear me! It’s criminal! Men’s lives depend on these figures!”

Nat invents a new way of calculating a ship’s position by sighting the moon and eventually decides to write his own navigation text, and spends years of his life making sure that it is accurate enough for sailors to rely on. He becomes a captain of his own ship, and demonstrates the usefulness of mathematical navigation by sailing to trading ports around the world.

This book was engrossing enough that I’m pretty sure I read it five or six times as a teenager. I suppose I knew that it was more-or-less historically accurate, but I didn’t realize at the time how important Nat Bowditch was to sailing and navigation. The book he published in 1802, The American Practical Navigator, is still carried on every commissioned US Navy vessel. When doing research on celestial navigation for a science-fiction novel, I read through online forums which referred to Bowditch’s book. I felt proud, as if I’d just heard about the triumphant success of an old grade-school friend. These sailors and navigators might know everything about Nathanial Bowditch’s navigation text, but they didn’t know Nat Bowditch like I did.

filed under newbery-gets-it-right

Legal semantics

I swim a few times a week, and so I see this sign a lot. Apparently a few years ago California legislators (god bless ’em) passed a law saying this text needs to be displayed near all public pools:

diarrhea

Persons having currently active diarrhea, or who have had active diarrhea within the last 14 days, shall not be allowed to enter the water.

It’s basically a swimming pool equivalent of the ubiquitous this facility has chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer. But what I find funny about it is the distinction between “currently active diarrhea” and “active diarrhea within the last 14 days.”

If there’s a semantic (and apparently, legal) difference between those two cases, then what, exactly, is “currently active diarrhea?” Any normal definition of currently active would mean people who have recently experienced digestive indistress–but that’s a case covered by “within the last 14 days.” Meaning the only remaining definition of currently active diarrhea would be people whose gastric misery is, in the most literal sense, currently active.

filed under eww-gross

The OTHER form of grammar to watch out for in your writing

One of the most common pieces of advice you’ll hear as a writer is to avoid using adverbs. To some writers, the adverb is the spawn of the grammar devil. “Search your manuscript for any words ending in -ly,” they’ll say, “and kill them with fire.”

It’s sound advice to watch out for your quicklies and loudlies and antidisestablieshmentarilies and make sure that they’re really necessary. But there’s another form of grammar which gets overused by beginning writers: the participle phrase.

In case it’s been a while since you took English 101, a participle phrase is a verb phrase that serves as an adjective or adverb:

Strutting up to the car, Mary held out her hands.

The running back charged through the defenders, leaving linebackers scattered in his wake.

Strutting up to them is a participle phrase which modifies the noun ‘Mary,’ and leaving linebackers scattered in his wake is a participle phrase which modifies the verb ‘charged.’ Note that participle phrases are different from gerunds, which are verb phrases which serve as nouns:

Skiing through trees is my favorite pastime.

He wasn’t quite used to the process of transforming himself into a unicorn.

Like the passive voice (another form of grammar that you’ve surely been warned about), participle phrases are weak and indirect. They decorate a clause with an additional, “this-is-happening-too” verb, instead of being broken out into their own clause. Participle phrases are like the sprig of parsley that garnishes your soup: they look pretty and smell nice, but don’t mistake them for the main course.

Writers sometimes use participle phrases as a way of ‘adding an extra verb’ to a sentence. But if the action described by the phrase is an important one, it’s probably better off as its own clause or sentence. For example:

Swinging the sword with all of his might, the knight chopped off the dragon’s head.

The knight’s mighty swing is important enough to be treated as an actual verb clause, instead of a tacked-on phrase:

The knight swung his sword with all of his might and chopped off the dragon’s head.

The participle phrase can seem even more tacked-on when it doesn’t make sense when combined with the main verb of the sentence. People can certainly look around while walking into a room, or pick up an object while speaking. But what about this?

“You are finished,” the knight said, swinging his sword and chopping off the dragon’s head in a single stroke.

Wowsers, that’s quite the participle: two verbs and a prepositional phrase, all glued to a line of dialogue. Even if you assume that it’s possible to say that while actually chopping off a dragon’s head, it makes the swinging and chopping seem like a casual, tacked-on action. That might work for chopping a head of lettuce, but probably not for the head of dragon. Compare it with this:

“You are finished,” the knight said. He swung his sword and chopped off the dragon’s head in a single stroke.

So what should you use instead of participle phrases? Your best bet is the good ol’ subject-verb-object. Compare these passages:

Sliding down the bannister, Joey hit the kitchen floor at a dead run. He skidded across the floor in his socks, flailing his arms wildly. “I’m going to get you for that,” his brother screamed, leaping down the stairs after him. Turning the corner into the living room, Joey braked to a halt in front of their mother.

Four participle phrases in four sentences—a bit of an extreme example, but I’ve seen passages that were almost as bad. Compare it with this version:

Joey slid down the bannister and hit the kitchen floor at a dead run. He flailed his arms wildly as he skidded across the floor in his socks. “I’m going to get you for that,” his brother screamed, and leaped down the stairs after him. Joey turned the corner into the living room and braked to a halt in front of their mother.

Breaking the actions into separate clauses gives a much more immediate feeling to the action. It’s probably not necessary to eliminate every participle phrase from this passage: flailing his arms wildly is a good description of what he’s doing while he skids across the room in his socks. Whether you keep that phrase or not depends on what sort of effect and style you’re going for.

Which brings us to the most important point of all—just like the passive voice and adverbs, participle phrases are not evil. It’s not necessary to purge your writing of all -ly and -ing suffixes, but make sure you know when (and why) they work and don’t work. If you want to write bam-bam, bare-bones action like Elmore Leonard, you’re going to develop stylistic rules that are very different than if you want to write like F. Scott Fitzgerald. So re-read your favorite authors and try to figure out what makes their style work. Do this for as many authors as you can, and then you can develop your own style, picking the choices and styles that you like best.

To (mis-)quote Arthur C. Clarke: All these forms of grammar are yours. Use them wisely. Use them in peace.

filed under spawn-of-the-grammar-devil

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