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Thinking about thinking

Posted on: August 7, 2010


I’ve been away from this blog for a while, first with that short story I was writing for the contest, and more recently with the editing of my new novel, St. Martin’s Moon.  Fortunately for my writerly pride there weren’t too many real issues to edit, mostly breaking sentences up or putting them together, or excessive wordiness.  Not that the words didn’t work, but the difference between ‘the creature’ and ‘the creature itself’ is not so great that it justifies the extra syllables, on a semantic level.  The real issue is the poetry of it all, the way the words flow.  Sometimes those two syllables make a difference not in the meaning of the sentence but in the way it sounds.  Note the use of ‘in’ twice in the previous sentence (or ‘to’ in the next), and try to imagine what it would sound like if only the first one was there, i.e., “not in the meaning of the sentence but the way it sounds”.    I have similar concerns about the current campaigns against words like ‘that’ and ‘had’ which serve a purpose, not to the meaning but to the flow.

The main other offender in my original manuscript was the use of italics to represent thoughts, as opposed to tags such as ‘he thought’ or ‘he wondered’.  I like italics.  The problem is I like them whether or not I use the tag.  The general rule of editing is one or the other.

One such sentence is : Turn right, he thought with grim humor, and go straight.

Now, I can see dispensing with the tag if all it said was ‘he thought’.  Those words add nothing.  In fact, many of the edits I got were to remove such tags, and I did.  There are, so far as I can tell, only two reasons to use tags, either to identify the speaker or to describe the manner in which the thought was thought or the words spoken, such as ‘ with grim humor’ or ‘with a complete lack of sincerity’.  This tag contains the grim humor, which adds to the meaning, and I can’t just dispense with it, so I have to take the other route and drop the italics.  The thing I don’t like about the tag is that the thoughts it refers to don’t get blocked off anywhere.  You don’t use quotes, either single or double, around the thought, and that looks really ugly to me.

Turn right, he thought with grim humor, and go straight.

I’m always reading sentences like these and getting tripped up over the fact that I don’t know it’s a thought until I read the tag, and then I have to go back to the beginning and reread it, because thoughts don’t read like normal sentences.  They are not just thoughts, they’re thoughts that the thinker has taken the trouble to put into words.  This is not a common occurrence.  Words are slow, thought is fast, like a flash of vision, a memory, an emotion.  Nothing reads worse to me than great blocks of thought, especially in italics, which are really ugly in great long chunks.  I read speech differently from the way I read a plain declarative sentence for that reason, and thoughts are a form of speech.  But it’s not dialog, which is why I don’t like to use quotes, either.  Quotes are spoken, italics is unspoken.

This is to distinguish them from yet another form of thinking I use in my books, but which I don’t see in other books.  I don’t like descriptive prose, as we all know, so most of my description is done through the eyes of whatever character is seeing the scene, i.e. perception.  As a result, I have a type of description which reads like a thought but isn’t, which I don’t italicize, don’t tag, and don’t block off.

Could they have seen the Earth from where they were?

And the answer is, yes. Just barely. In a meager, first-quarterish phase. Could that matter?

Only one sentence makes it to the realm of thoughts. The rest are better thought of as filtered perceptions.  He’s already had the thought, now he’s checking what he sees, to see if it fits the model he’s already thought of.  So for my writing it’s important to have some way to distinguish these three forms of thought when standard editing practice only has two.

None of which means anything when it comes to editing.  I wrote my manuscript with italics and tags because I like it that way and it looks better and makes more sense to me.  But I am not the editor.  I am not the interface between me and the rest of the reading public, she is.  This is where editing becomes a judgment call, because sometimes what the editor wants changed matters to the sentence, and sometimes it doesn’t.  This change matters because of a distinction only I seem to be making.  When enough readers see the distinction and care about it, then and only then will the editing manuals catch up.

Which means I’d better write some more.

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8 Responses to "Thinking about thinking"

My feeling as an editor as well as a writer is that you don’t need the distinction. I understand that to you, interiorly, there is a difference. To the reader, the difference is there but not important, and they will understand when something is a thought voiced in the character’s brain and when it is not.

Italics are best not overused because, like exclamation marks they tend to shriek. I would save them for moments when you want a thought to really pull the reader up. Other thoughts can be conveyed effectively by the words you choose rather than gimmicks. Write it well and the reader will get it.

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Exactly, which is why I bend to the editorial will on this point. She knows better than I do what makes a difference and what doesn’t. Your second paragraph describes my attitude perfectly.

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You can do it with phrasing, do the mood as a tag, then the thought as italics, and it should work.

Grim humour filled him. Turn right, go straight on.

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True! Our posts were very much in the same vein! I like this thought: “But I am not the editor. I am not the interface between me and the rest of the reading public, she is.” And I think that’s what I’m learning to accept–we need that interface, someone who knows our readers intimately and can see where we’ve fallen short in giving them what they want and need.

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Oh, I so do not like the trend toward removing “have” and “had”. In many cases, excess use of them can be avoided, but more often by rephrasing than merely by removing them inappropriately. They have functions in the English language and sometimes the seeming effort to remove them from the language results in the most uneducated-sounding, mushy, and ambiguous sentences I’ve ever had the misfortune of reading. (Ok, so it’s a trite phrase, but would it have had the same impact in its early days without the “have” and “had”?) I get why the “that that” usage has largely been eliminated: generally, it is understood, it looks funny, and, like the word “self”, the difference between its presence and absence can be subtle, but I have seen “that” stricken from the most appropriate uses as if it weren’t a real word at all, as if it were a stray double space mid-sentence.

Communicating, including the writing of fiction and nonfiction, is about clarity, and removal of helper words often takes away clarity as well as texture and possibly poetry. In the end, my primary concern is to wonder: is the editor removing it because the reader really doesn’t want or need it, or because the publisher just wants the thing shorter? Sometimes, removal of a less valuable sentence or paragraph elsewhere is a better way to shorten a piece than to remove helping words that add clarity and texture to an important sentence. I don’t envy editors a hard job but hope they put as much thought into it as I try to put into what I write.

For those writing to a younger audience, especially, I lean toward writing correct English, though I see value in trying to reach an audience through their own (colloquial) language. There are places for both, but I see a strong tendency to accept that what we see most often is “correct”, whether it is or not (if i were going to leave out the ‘that’ I would have rephrased the previous bit to read “to accept what we see most often as ‘correct'”, rather than just removing the “that”). As much difficulty as I have with miscommunication in my day job, I have no desire to be among those who encourage poor communication skills. Nor can I see writing a novel in texting shorthand, at least not yet. (Has anyone published such a thing yet?)

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Exactly my point.

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Regarding thoughts and tags. I see the distinction, the word versus… other things, images, ideas, concepts not quite put to words… but I tend to think of any thought I put to writing as a thought that has been put to words to some degree. If it is just a… half-formed thought or whatever, I try to imply it less directly with the language of feelings and instincts and the like, and not as a specific thought-quote. If it is important, I will add emphasis through phrasing or a tag, writing it as if it were a quote, but without the quote marks, and leave making a distinction to the rest of the thought forms, sometimes with lead-ins, sometimes with italics, though usually I leave italics to a brief change in language, as a means of indicating that not everyone in the room can understand what is being said.

The one use of a special formatting that I can recall using is key, brief memories, usually images that have come to mind because of a phrase the POV character or someone else has said aloud. They are brief, very separate from the ongoing scene, and sometimes contradictory to what is being said, but as important as your word-thoughts, so I distinguish them with parentheses, which I rarely use elsewhere.

I don’t think what format is used is as important as that it be used consistently throughout the book. If I use parentheticals in one part of the book, I make sure I use it elsewhere, too, and that some image-memory is occasionally brought to mind in order to have a reason to use the format. That way, the reader understands what it means without having to puzzle over the formatting when it’s particularly important or comes up in a fast-paced section.

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Thank you for mentioning this, as I also have a special punctuation I use for that sort of thing. I often have thoughts and words and actions running simultaneously in the story, just as people do in real life. When I first started doing it i didn’t know of any examples of how to do it, so I invented my own. “I’ll be saying something–” while thinking something else “–and then completing my sentence on the other side.” It drives my editors crazy sometimes.

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