Notes from Loncon 3: The perfect sentence

You Write Pretty

Geoff Ryman (no show), Greer Gilman, Frances Hardinge, Christopher Priest, E J Swift

This panel was a fun one. Four authors proposed their favourite sentence from a fantastical work and defended it to the audience and the rest of the panel. The winner was selected by an audience show of hands.

The winner was Frances Hardinge’s pick from Jabberwocky:

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood
And burbled as it came!

The points in favour of this sentence are that while it is nonsense verse – a playful experiment – the made-up words have meaning because of their music. It exists on the line between comical and eerie. The best monsters are those half-glimpsed. Jabberwocky is such a monster because it is described with unknown words.

E J Swift’s proposed sentence was from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad:

But this wish only camouflaged the deeper feeling Sasha always had: that fat, tender wallet, offering itself to her hand—it seemed so dull, so life-as-usual to just leave it there rather than seize the moment, accept the challenge, take the leap, fly the coop, throw caution to the wind, live dangerously (“I get it,” Coz, her therapist, said), and take the fucking thing.

The points in favour of this sentence are its energy as it pinwheels through the stream of consciousness, the justification for stealing a wallet, and that while it does so it displays such a great deal of self-awareness on part of the narrator.

Christopher Priest’s proposed sentence was the first sentence of Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed:

There was a wall.

The points in favour of this sentence are its classic simplicity, its brevity. The sentence is both declarative and symbolic (summing up as it does the main theme of the whole book).

Greer Gilman’s proposed sentence was another one from poetry, Andrew Marvell’s The Garden:

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.
I fear a lot of the discussion of this sentence went over my head. The points in its favour were the many connections it included both backwards and forwards through the history of the fantastical.
There was also general discussion of what makes a good sentence. These were my takeaways:
  • A sentence is a building block and as such has a function to perform. Different sentences have different roles. A perfect sentence is one that does the job that has been assigned to it elegantly. Sentences don’t have to be beautiful to be effective.
  • Sentences can be weighty in context. Many good sentences come late in a work because they have the full story working towards them. In contrast, opening sentences have a different task – often to be striking.
  • Kill your darlings? Opinions split on this one. Some panellists agreed, take the sentences out and put them somewhere where they can be reused or reabsorbed into more appropriate contexts. Frances Hardinge characterised a ‘darling’ as “a splendid soloist, who is not playing with the rest of the orchestra.” On the other hand, Christopher Priest’s attitude to the urging to kill darlings was “It’s my book. my words. Sod ’em. Sometimes your darlings are really good!”
    I loved both of these quotes – as you might be able to tell from the fact that I transcribed them verbatim in my notes.

Semicolons: A rant with pictures

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I have a love/hate relationship with the semicolon. To be specific, the semicolon with which I am in this relationship I not the semicolon that acts as a boss-comma.  The boss-comma semicolon performs admirably the function of making clear lists of phrases that embrace internal commas. I’m fine with this usage. This semicolon is invisible to me – as all good uses of punctuation should be.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

No. My turbulent relationship is with the semicolon used to join clauses. Used correctly, it joins independent clauses. Used often to join up any damned fragments the writer wants to mash together.

I’ve recently joined a critique group. This week the pieces submitted were so this with semicolons, I thought I was reading a Java class.

Side note: Has anyone ever tried writing a narrative within the  strictures of a programming language? Would it be fascinating or dull to read?

Obtrusive and irritating are the nicest things I can find to say about the parade of semicolons in these pieces. The nib of my red pen was worn to a nub. My attitude to those who use semicolons can be summed up in the following diagram:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

  • Use too many semicolons – you look pretentious
  • Use them incorrectly – you look like an idiot
  • Use semicolons incorrectly all over your writing – you look like a pretentious idiot

While the boundaries of correct usage are solid, the boundaries of what constitutes too many semicolons are blurry. It depends entirely on how good a writer you are and whether these usages are not only correct, but appropriate.

That’s the hate out of the way. As for the love… When I see a writer use a semicolon for its intended purpose, in a sentence that it perfectly fits and enhances, it makes me happy. It gives me a level of craft to aspire to (because I’m definitely not yet in the class of confident and stylish semicolon users).

Until then, this is the advice I follow and I urge folks to do the same:

Use them correctly; use them sparingly; use them elegantly.

Writing at the speed of story

I’ve noticed that my writings fall into one of two buckets. The labels for these buckets haven’t crystallised for me yet. Not “short and long”, not “character-driven and plot-driven”, not “good and bad” – these do have some truth in them. Maybe “fast and slow”, though those words don’t describe how I write them – a “slow” piece might flow out much more freely than a “fast” piece that had to be dragged out by its ankles a word at a time. These descriptions apply more to my mental attitude about a piece.

Often I find that when writing a strongly plotted novel or short story, the plot rushes me through. These are my “fast” stories. I see the dots and I’m in a hurry to join them. My fingers furiously forge the chain of causality that is plot. I hit each scene like a pinball and bounce off in search of the next. I don’t have a metaphor for the kind of writer that I want to be, but I can tell you it isn’t “a pinball”.

Of the stories I’ve had published by others, 2/3 were not that plot driven. Yes, there was forward motion carrying the tale through the scenes, but it was not the focus of the story. In those pieces, my focus was inside each scene and on making them evocative and forceful. These are my “slow” stories. They are almost always short and I can see why: when the destination is close, I can take the journey more slowly.

My problem is a problem of tense. Writing the “fast” stories, I concentrate on “What is going to happen next?”; writing the slow, “Where am I now?”. I believe I get better writing out of myself when I hold the second question in mind.

I’m finally beginning to edit a novel that’s been languishing in first draft purgatory for over a year. The edit is hard, because this is a book from the “fast” bucket. I’m not present in the scenes. I’m in the next scene, waiting for my words to find a way to get there. They catch up; I skip on. Much of my description feels perfunctory or for pacing or to provide a floor plan for my characters to move around in without tripping over any continuity mistakes.

I’m taking my despair as a good sign – it lets me know I’ve learned things and grown as a writer over the last year or so.

There’s more to learn yet.

I must learn to linger. I must learn to stay inside a scene and run my fingers through it, taste the air, spy out the bright details.

In this way, I can create more stories to be proud of.

 

 

Performance Art vs Garret Art

I had the opportunity last month to head up to the Edinburgh Fringe and see a friend of mine act and dance in a show (that she had also choreographed). Fringe is something I’ve been meaning to do for years and this extra incentive finally got me there – that and an 8 hour train journey broken in Leeds. After I got over my mind being blown by this awesome show and my friend’s incandescent talent, I started thinking about the difference between introverted creativity and extroverted creativity.

What do I mean by those terms?

I think of introverted creativity as what I do. I sit, generally alone, in my own space and write, draw or sew. When I have something ‘finished’ – by which I mean, something that can survive being abandoned – I push it out into the world as a thing that is almost separate from me. Then I step back into the shadows. If an audience comes to interact with my creation, it is asynchronous. If they choose to feedback to me, that feedback is often filtered through the process required to commit thoughts to keyboard.

Extroverted creativity, then, is performance. The creator and the creation entwined. The creative is out there creating in front of the audience’s eyes. Even under the weight of all the prior preparation and planning and practice, each performance creates anew. There’s always the potential for new discoveries and new interpretations. No performance is ever the definitive performance. The piece does not have to be abandoned. There are no shadows for the performer. The spotlight of the audience’s attention shines on them. The feedback is immediate. It flows across the faces of the audience. It thrums in the energy that is shared between performer and audience. The connection is human, not textual.

This is what I envy the performance artist: that connection. I create, but I can’t stand close to the reader, peering over the top of their screen, and watch fear, sadness, surprise and joy move their face. I stay in my garret.

The Iron Garden, Steampunk Magazine #9

Hello all. Just a quick blog post to let you know: I’ve been published!

The Iron Garden, a short story of mine, has been featured in Steampunk Magazine #9. That alone is exciting. More exciting is that it has been illustrated – beautifully. Admiration and appreciation to Sergei Tuterov for his art.

Steampunk Magazine is available free from their website in PDF format. They work on a donation model to keep producing awesome content, so please do show them some love in £££ form.

Why do I have such trouble with continuity?

Consistency and continuity is a problem that I find quite perplexing.

Why can’t I remember whether I made a character’s eyes green or brown or how a particular action scene played out. I would consider that being unable to keep all of this in my head is understandable, except for the fact that I am a continuity-monster when it comes to other people’s writing. As a reader I seem to be able to keep an entire world in my head, even between novels in a series, so when internal inconsistencies occur I’m all over them with teeth out.

Why can’t I do the same with my own writing?

I think I’ve figured it out. As a reader only one world exists for me – the one presented in the finished novel. As a writer each novel I write contains a multiverse – hundreds of tiny variations in plot, location and character that have traipsed through my head during the writing process. The pencil lines of these ideas will, for me, always be visible under the finished drawing. Not all chosen, but all considered. And for the considering, they are burned in deeper. Which of the options I chose sometimes seems less tangible.

This is why any long writing project finds me paging back through old material or scattering notes-to-self in angle brackets through each draft.

Prior art

There is very little in fiction that is utterly new. Everything stands on the shoulders of that which came before it – the prior art. And that’s fine. There are an infinite number of ways to mix together existing ideas, styles, characters and themes, and to throw in a few new ideas as well.

You have to keep the prior art in mind, though, because the reader will have all these existing cultural references bubbling away in their subconscious when they get to your book. For example, I can’t pick up a vampire book without mentally cross-referencing it against Stoker, Rice, Whedon and Meyer. (Vampires are a particularly good example, because there are so many variations of the ‘rules’.)

Prior art can be useful to a writer because it creates a shorthand. You don’t have to describe the rules for your chosen paranormal creature, because most people already have an idea of them. All you have to do is describe the deltas, the deviations from the established rules. It also gives the potential for dramatic irony, because the reader can use his or her knowledge to figure out what’s coming before the characters in the books do. (Of course this can be irritating. Characters in books can seem particularly dense if they fail to catch on, yet we know that they are in possession of the same pop culture and prior art knowledge as the reader.)
The downside of prior art is that the first or most popular example often overshadows others. It creates canon and sets rules that are then hard to break.

Here’s the prior art pickle that I find myself in. I’m writing a series of books about faeries set in Yorkshire. For the second book I wanted the main villain to be a local aquatic faerie that pulls people into the river to drown them. Yorkshire/Northern water faerie that likes to drown people? Got one of those. Job’s a good un. Or is it?

If I say the word ‘grindylow’ to you, what do you immediately think of? The pesky little creatures in the Harry Potter books that can be dismissed  with a single blast from a wand.

That association doesn’t work well for what I want to use this creature for. My villains need to interact with the main characters on an even footing. They need to be much more threatening and anthropomorphised. Two choices. 1) Pick a different faerie villain. 2) Take the hit. I went for option 2.

My current draft deals with the disconnect between my story and JK Rowling’s prior art by hanging a lampshade on it early and then getting on with the story. Anything else would be disingenuous. My novel is set in the present day UK, there’s no way most of my human characters would not have read Harry Potter.