Thinking about thinking
Posted August 7, 2010on:
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.