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Archive for the ‘Rant’ Category

My son James got married yesterday, which is great, but not what this post is all about. When the ceremony was over and they were preparing to walk away from the altar, they played a song I’d never heard before, which isn’t surprising, as I stopped listening to popular music a long time ago.  But it was a nice sounding song, cheerful, and bouncy, with a very appropriate refrain, “Good to be alive, right about now.”

I got the name of the song and sat down this morning to see it on youtube. I was very unhappy with the video, and I said so in the comments. The lyrics to the song are as bland and banal as might be expected. My life sucks but now something’s changed. I kept trying to do anything that would get something going. I was a little bit put off with the use of a word like ‘deserve’, since nothing in the lyrics indicates that he deserves anything.

Then came the pictures. The official video has the singer and his back-up as valets for some hotel. The receive a fancy car from some rich guy with a big cigar and a trophy girlfriend. The proceed to drive around town in the car, then recklessly abuse it driving like idiots. Finally they return it to the hotel as if nothing was wrong and the stupid rich guy drives off, unaware that his vehicle has just been abused. The singer and his backup celebrate.

To me the video, the story of the video, was saying, you should be happy your pathetic tiny dreams got satisfied with a tiny crumb that fell from the High Table where only Big People sit. And apparently that’s all the hero feels he deserves.

There’s one thing that frightens me more than the thought that people can be so clueless, so lacking in awareness, that these are visual images that they think capture the power of the story. It’s the thought that the people who make these videos know exactly what they are doing. They create videos that take the power of the song and attach it to wholly unsuitable visuals.

There’s a reason musicals were so popular for so long. Music + Visuals = message, and the message appears to be this: “Be a peasant, a servant, and be so very happy with the little we allow you to have.”

Having just come from a wedding where this song was the endnote of the ceremony, clearly I have a much better idea of what a proper video for this song would be. Unfortunately happy married life and contentment don’t sell products, and I’m cynical enough to look for the profit motive over all others. At the very least I’m saddened that this guy’s life is so lacking that driving and mishandling someone else’s car fills him with such joy.

On a similar note, the video for Closing Time also strikes a totally false note compared to the song itself. The song is about a child being born. The video has two people kicked out of two bars running into each other on the street. While it’s unpleasant to see maternal love displaced in favor of a casual hook-up, it’s harder to see a malicious motive for doing so. Which is depressing enough. The power of the stories in these videos deserves more respect.

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I was just trying to read a YA novel my daughter got from the library a while back, far enough that I have overdue fees and one renewal on the damn thing, and tripped over yet another thing that really bothers me but not so much that I’ll necessarily pull up a computer and start ranting about it. I actually see it quite often, and it almost always puts me off reading the rest of the book. ‘It’ in this case is the use of internal monologue as a substitute for expository prose.

(Hmm, that’s weird. When I wrote ‘monolog’ the stupid spellchecker prompted me to write ‘monologue’, but when I wrote ‘dialog’ it didn’t prompt me to change anything. Stupid spellchecker.)

As anyone who’s read my posts knows, and hi, whichever one of you that is, I really don’t like expository prose. Expository prose, in a third-person POV context, is the author telling me what everything looks like in some static, how-clever-am-I sort of way, or at least it feels that way to me. Even leaving aside the imagined self-congratulation, it’s still static, a description of what the world looks like before some character comes along to muck it all up, and I don’t really care about any of that. Stories are characters in motion, and I care about what the character currently moving is currently moving through, which isn’t what expository prose describes. Since the character doesn’t see the state of the room before he enters it, I don’t want to know about it either, and I certainly don’t want to know about from the author. If and when the character sees the room, I want to know about it from the character, I want to know what he is seeing, not necessarily what’s there. (This is related to something known in philosophical circles as the noumenon-phenomenon distinction, a distinction between the thing-in-itself versus the thing as it is perceived by anybody. )

Another way to deal with this is to skip out on the third-person POV entirely and use a first-person POV instead. At first blush this looks like an ideal solution, as everything in the story is or should be described as the character is encountering it. This is where I had my little problem with the book I was reading. When writing in a first-person way, a person travelling alone would be perceiving and thinking instead of talking, and thought is a very tricky thing to render. In a first-person story, the character is both narrating and participating in the story. Narrative thought should be kept very distinct from real thought. Narrative thought is the character describing the scene as objectively as possible, as if they were the author. As long as the character is doing things they’ve never done before, or talking to people other than themselves, this is fine. But when this is not the case, I often see this problem.

Most people treat thought like speech no one hears, but that’s a mistake. Speech is a string of words for people who aren’t the speaker. Thought is direct. If I was writing a first-person story I’d be going from perception to reaction with barely a growl or a hmm to indicate whatever cogitation is needed.  Putting thoughts into words is a lot of work, and no one goes to that much work when no one will hear it. Okay, maybe someone does habitually go to the trouble of putting their thoughts into words (who isn’t an author), but it feels very phony and artificial to me, i.e., like narrative thought. It gets even worse when it gets done for paragraphs at a time, since those paragraphs would likely be written in italics and who wants to read paragraphs of that?

There are ways to get around this issue in a third-person POV story. My personal favorite is to do all the description of the setting phenomenally,  which in this case means ‘as the character perceives it’. (I also try to do it very well.) There may be a rosebush by the door, or seventeen panes of glass in his window, but psychologically normal people don’t notice those things after a while. They notice them when it matters, such as when the rose is in bloom and the scent is forcing its way into your nose, or when they’ve been kidnapped and put into a room that looks just like theirs except for the eighteen panes of glass, and something doesn’t feel quite right…So when I write a story, I write what my characters perceive, which is like seeing but it’s really seeing what they care about and not seeing the rest. The words I use are the words they use, so a person from a landlocked culture won’t use nautical terms or idioms casually, unless he goes to someplace nautical, and the change in his word choice would indicate a change in him. The story is about him, and the setting is part of the story.

 

I recently re-posted a story of mine on the http://www.fanfiction.net site, called ‘When Ellie Found Out‘. I had posted it before, as a prequel episode to the first season of my series called nine2five, which I had originally posted as a series of standalone episodes. When I decided to gather all the chapters in one place, I decided to append them to WEFO rather than create a new file, which I now think was a mistake. The funny thing is, that even though it’s a reposted story, I’m still getting comments on it, from people who didn’t see it before, or who just like to comment. Some of those comments take the form of, “This is so much better than what they did on the show”, which is a comment I got fairly often.

What they did on the show (in this particular case) was separate the leads, i.e., take a romantically-involved pair and place them apart, either physically, emotionally, or both, so that their struggles to be reunited will fuel the story for as long as the storyteller can make it. (What I did in WEFO, which was prone to backstory and exposition, was tell about how they got married, so that no one would separate them.) As story-telling mechanisms go, separation of the leads has a lot to recommend it, otherwise they wouldn’t use it so often as a short-cut to ramp up the intensity of the drama, which is where the problems arise.

Tropes like this one, or others like ‘endangered children’, or any of a number of forms of ‘intolerant ideological fanaticism’, are like story drugs, artificial stimulants that keep a story moving but without any real story in them. They are, in effect, pure drama, with no other story elements to speak of. What ends up happening is what you’d normally expect to happen when someone takes stimulants without food, the story keeps going and going until one day it keels over dead. I watched the first episode of season 2 of Glee and was immediately repulsed by the blatant self-sabotage of all the lead characters, which they would no doubt spend the rest of the season trying to repair. The last episode of season 1 of Newsroom did it for me, with all sorts of romantic partners making all sorts of wrong decisions. Tom Clancy used to use them a lot, but at least in his stories they weren’t critical elements, so the stories didn’t die from them.

They aren’t always drugs, of course. If the separation of the leads or the endangerment of the child are built up to with proper character and story logic behind them, then they’re perfectly fine mechanisms. In the canon fiction I was revising, the leads were separated very blatantly and artificially, and the show suffered almost immediately as a result. Many addicts of the first two seasons stopped watching halfway though the first episode of the third, as I did with Glee. Worse, when the showrunners realized how much they’d botched things, they went too far in the other direction, creating a full season of feel-good episodes to counter the previous season of angsty episodes, a heady dose of too-little-too-late, in my opinion. (I eventually separated them in my story as well, but only after a season and a half of development, first his and then hers, and a plot twist that made the separation logical, necessary, and most important, temporary.)

It’s very important to be wary of tropes. They combine story-logic with storyteller logic, which is why they’re useful, but they should never be used in such a way that the the telling of the story trumps the story itself (unless that’s the point of the story, in which case have fun). In my opinion, authors should be invisible in their stories, while using a story drug to force it into a preferred path is as diametrically opposed to ‘invisible’ as it’s possible for an author to be.

You’d think it was a bit early for a blog post about Christmas, and you’re right, it is. That’s why it’s a good thing this post isn’t about Christmas but about the book. I am a member of a group on GoodReads.com (although I’m not sure why, given their hostility towards authors) that’s decided to select a story about winter as the group read for December. Some smart person suggested Dickens as a classic winter tale, and I seconded it, in part because it’s freely available on the web. They have the vote early so people can then get the book, and then they can read it, in time to discuss it, at which point it is Christmas.

My own personal favorite version of the story is the version starring George C. Scott. His portrayal of Scrooge as someone who has forgotten his humanity rang much truer to me than as someone who had to be ‘scared straight.’ The ghosts were also a vast improvement, this was one of the few movies I’ve seen where they were actually scary! The grin on the face of Christmas Past, the open anger from Christmas Present–perfect stuff. Marley’s mouth falling open, and his scream of anguish…

I went out and found the original text mainly because I’d had it up to here with all the different versions of the story that had been made into movies. It’s like every actor wants to play either the President, Hamlet, or Scrooge. So many people claimed that the Alastair Sim version was the best that I even saw it online on youtube, where it exists in 10 parts or something. It was okay, I thought, but the scenes with the dying sister were a little over the top for my taste.

Which is part of why I found the story. Many of the scenes in these movies aren’t in there at all, and it’s no wonder that they ring false with the rest of the story. So many movies take so many liberties with the story that I wanted to know which, if any, were even close to the original. Not that keeping to the script would necessarily make a great movie, but given the script it probably wouldn’t hurt (I saw a variation on the Pirates of Penzance that was just awful).

Do you have a favorite version? How close was it to the original story?

Maybe it’s the slow disintegration of publishing as an industry, but I doubt it, since I’ve seen several authors do this in the past, long before the whole self-publishing craze started. The first time was an author I had heard of as being really good and very popular, so when I saw a book of hers in the library I thought I’d give it a try. I couldn’t get past the first page. Why?

One-sentence paragraphs.

See that one there? Is it hypocritical of me to complain about one-sentence paragraphs and then go and do the very same thing myself? The, answer, in a word, is ‘No’.

I could have made that last sentence a paragraph of its own too, but I didn’t. There’s a time and a place for such a thing, usually when I’m trying to evoke a greater sense of emphasis than a mere exclamation point would provide. I wouldn’t put multiple exclamation points in a single sentence, or even in the same paragraph without a damn good reason, so you can imagine how little I would use a one-sentence paragraph.

So when I read this book by this author and found the entire first page (not even a full page going by the usual rules of first pages) was composed entirely of one-sentence paragraphs, I just put it down again. Every sentence cannot be a screaming imperative. It’s like I said in my post a while back about Story Flow, sometimes the water has to hit a rock, maybe even a rapids, but the entire river cannot be rapids. Those of riding along in our flimsy boats of suspended disbelief start going “Aaahhh!” and paddling madly for shore.

It’s getting worse, though. I discovered later a new book by an author I really liked, an installment in her latest series, and immediately took it out. Same problem. It was very depressing, sort of like Peter Pan discovering Wendy had grown old or something. Now another has started to do it. In her latest book minus one she did it frequently, but mixed in with enough regular paragraphs that the effect wasn’t so obnoxious. In her latest book some pages are nothing but. So don’t do it, unless you have a damn good reason.

It’s annoying.

See?

 

Yes, I’ve heard about the Oxford comma ‘controversy.’ No, I don’t think it’s all that big a deal. To be honest I think it’s more about printers trying to save ink and paper. I prefer it, to be honest, and will continue to use it.

Languages are living things. They grow, they change. New word usements get structured, old ones fall into disuse. Languages are tools, meant to convey an experience of the world. As the world changes, so do they, and the world can change in lots of ways, in time or in space. Travel from the north of France to the South and a common word will vanish, or a new one crop up.

Referring to dictionaries is no way to solve anything for an author, since the whole idea behind being an author is to come up with new stuff, while dictionaries are records of what has been done. Similarly grammarians capture try to codify rules for the use of languages, but only when it’s too late. It’s an exercise in futility to tell someone they shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition when just about everyone does.

There’s a  certain feeling of artificiality about such rules. It’s like they were created not for any real reason, but simply to distinguish one group of people from another, even though they all spoke the same language. I do accept some rules, but only when I can see a valid logical or philosophical point to them. I’m picky about proper use of pronouns, for example, but only because I see a difference between the thing that acts and the thing that gets acted upon.

In the same way, the purpose and use of syntactical elements like commas in a sentence should be determined by the sentence as it would be said. A written scene on the page is only supposed to be an approximation, a representation, of a scene in the world of experience. The use of syntax is meant to capture that realism. Commas are used to indicate pauses in the way people talk and think. They are the joints in the body of a sentence, allowing a transition from one thought to another. A long sentence without commas is like a leg without a knee, which is fine as long as the leg doesn’t need to bend. A long sentence that contains only one thought need not contain any commas in spite of the high or low number of words large or small which compose it. Or, I suppose, it may, but not, I think, as many as this, necessarily.

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I write the best books in the known universe. Every word is perfectly chosen, every action is in character, every character is dynamic and well-rounded. My themes and plots are epic in scope, dynastic in depth, and every saga written after me will be compared to me and my work. Come see what the buzz is all about!

Yah. Right.

I’ve actually read plugs for books that read like this. I don’t know about you, but when I see a series that describes itself as a saga, I put that book down. The Vorkosigan books are a saga, but I don’t think Lois McMaster Bujold or her publisher ever called it that, or that she thinks of it as such. Her fans started calling it that, after the umpteenth book came out. When it was a saga, and they were simply recognizing it as such.

“Come see what the buzz is all about!” I’ll believe it’s buzz when I hear it from someone other than you.

When I read a blurb that says a book is about an ‘epic struggle’ or ‘Mankind’s Ultimate destiny’ or some such, I think, “I doubt that” and put the book down. If I ever picked it up. Usually I see that kind of hype in online blurbs and don’t bother to click the links. Words like ‘epic’ are a bit slippery, though. I have trouble figuring out what makes an epic epic, and whether any of this applies to my own books. I don’t think so, there are certain stylistic conventions that apply, not to mention that epics tend to be narrative and my books are anything but. On the other hand, when the scale of the events in the story is huge, the cast of characters large, the story is described as epic without actually being an epic.

Calling it an epic or a saga doesn’t make it one. Any more than calling a fanged blood-drinker a ‘vampire’ makes it one, but I’ve already said what I wanted to say about that. I have no objection to a little metaphorical sideways slippage, nouns getting morphed over into adjectives, that sort of thing.  That’s how languages evolve, after all. But this ain’t little, and it ain’t sideways.

Is there something wrong with calling something what it is?


Struck By Inspiration

Struck By Inspiration

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St. Martin’s Moon

St. Martin's Moon

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Steampunk Santa

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Bite Deep

Christmas among the vampires!

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Unbinding the Stone

Book 1

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A Warrior Made

A Warrior Made

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Chasing His Own Tale

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Cyber-pirates. Sort of.

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