About Suspensions of Disbelief and American Horror Story

Happy new year everyone!

I know I’ve been excessively absent for a while, but one of my resolutions is to post at least one thing every week, even if its small. Maybe that will involve more reviews of books, movies, and TV shows and the narrative elements which work in them or the ones that fall apart.

Like many people over the winter holidays, freed from the requirements of work and school, I’ve taken to binge-watching TV series’ on Netflix. That phenomenon, and how it has changed the way TV shows are written and produced, could very well be the topic of another post. Today, however, I want to talk about the show I watched: American Horror Story. Specifically, I want to talk about season two: Aslyum and why it felt weaker to me than seasons one and three.

Small Spoiler Warning

While I won’t be talking about specific plot points in this post, I will be discussing the premise of each season, which may necessarily reveal some of the plot. If you haven’t seen the show yet and want to watch it completely unspoiled, I recommend it. If you’ve already seen it, or want to take the risk of a big plot element being revealed, then read more to hear my take on it.

Continue reading

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Everything in its Place: Managing Modifiers to Improve your Writing

Let me start this with a few disclaimers.

Disclaimer #1: I have not formally studied writing since high school. I am not a syntactician nor am I a grammarian of any sort. I am a physicist and a teacher by training and a writer only by preference, someone who loves to read and write and observe. I will be avoiding using technical syntactic vocabulary because 1) that is not my area of expertise, and 2) who really cares about that shit anyway (side note: I apologize if you do in fact care about that shit, but if you do you can find many far more knowledgeable sources on those topics than myself). Basically, this is just my opinion and I welcome you to share your own so that we all (myself included) might improve ourselves.

Disclaimer #2: My view of the goal and purpose of writing no doubt colors my thinking of structure and style to a large extent. For that reason, I feel I should briefly describe where I’m coming from before diving in to the subject at hand. I view writing from the aspect of storytelling. I judge almost everything about a book by how well it sucks me into its world and carries the forward momentum of the story along. I love phrases and sentences for the payload they carry, the effect they have on me, and not for their grammatical or syntactic perfection or elegance. A beautifully-crafted sentence that cannot translate into a tangible image or emotion when I read it (if such a sentence is possible) just doesn’t do it for me. I’m a pragmatist when it comes to writing; good writing is writing that works, not necessarily writing that is most technically correct.

Disclaimer #3: This may get a little bit long. I apologize for that. I’ll try to make it worth your while.

What are modifiers?

Disclaimers out of the way, let’s briefly review what a modifier is so that we’re all on the same page. If you’re confident you already know what a modifier is and there’s nothing I might cover you haven’t heard before, feel free to skip down to the next section.

Modifiers are, brace yourself, words or phrases that modify other components of a sentence. I’ll try not to get too technical (because, again, who cares?) but the very foundation of your sentence is called the base clause. This is the meat and potatoes of your sentence, the essential information that it must relay to your reader. It doesn’t have to be neat or pretty, just (technically) complete: subject and verb, all that stuff you learned back in elementary school. For the purposes of this section I’ll use as my base clause: He sat in the chair.

A modifier is anything you add to your sentence to give new meaning to your base clause. The first kind of modifier that will immediately come to mind is the one-word modifier: adjectives and adverbs. He anxiously sat in the chair. He sat in the green chair. Or, if we’re being truly bold: He anxiously sat in the green chair. Notice how each has expanded on the meaning of the base clause (though not by much, admittedly)

Adjectives and adverbs are the easiest modifiers to make and use in a sentence, so of course we won’t talk about them much. Actually, we’ll neglect them because 1) modifying phrases usually do a better, more descriptive job of conveying the same information; and more importantly 2) the main point of this post is to talk about the placement of modifiers in a sentence and there really isn’t anything to say about the placement of adjectives or adverbs. They can either precede or follow whatever they modify, and picking one of the other doesn’t much change the flow of the sentence. Case and point: He anxiously sat in the chair vs. He sat anxiously in the chair. Any difference in those two sentences are entirely rhythmic or stylistic, two things that are so individualized trying to tackle them would be pointless.

The same is true of adjectives. He sat in the green chair vs. He sat in the chair, which was green. Here the difference is a little bit pronounced and in this example one seems stuffy if not downright ridiculous. Adding so many extra words just for a single adjective is wasted space which dries out your sentence and decreases its impact and fluidity.

The other type of modifier, the type which will be the focus of this post, is the modifying clause or modifying phrase. These are any phrases which cannot themselves stand as full sentences that modify any part of the base clause of your sentence. For reference, each of the last two sentences contained modifying phrases (the type which will be the focus of this post, and which cannot themselves stand as full sentences). These are, usually, far more powerful than one-word modifiers because you can use them to evoke specific details or add new actions altogether, giving you much more freedom than simple adjectives or adverbs ever could.

Notice how He sat, hands trembling and sweat forming on his brow, in the chair gives you a much more visceral sensation than does the simple adverb anxiously. It also, I would argue, changes the feel of the sentence. By deliberately spending more time and space emphasizing his reaction, the simple words the chair gain almost an ominous portent that was nowhere to be found before. Or, as another example: He sat in the chair, green although the dye had long since started to fade to a dreary and depressing white. Notice that, while before putting the modifier after the noun felt clunky, here it fits because the modifier adds enough extra information to warrant the extra space and word count afforded to it.

And keep in mind that the most famous modifying clauses of all are the sibling Metaphor and Simile.

Where to place your modifiers

Grammatically, modifiers are very easy to place. The can go before whatever they modify or after it. You can even jam them all the way to the front or back of your sentence, although doing so opens you up for the dreaded misplaced modifier (Green although the dye had long since started to fade to a dreary and depressing white, he sat in the chair is an example of the misplaced modifier because the modifier, which is intended to modify the chair, seems to want to modify the person sitting in the chair, which makes no sense).

As long as it’s clear what they are intended to modify, you can place your modifiers wherever you want.

But where should you place your modifiers? Finally we reach the main point of this post!

While to some extent the choice of where modifiers are placed is one of the things that gives each writer their own personal style, there are some concrete advantages and disadvantages to each. Knowing these can help you decide if you’ve placed your modifier in the most effective position.

Putting modifiers in front

In most cases, I would advise putting your modifiers in front of whatever they modify. This is certainly the case for descriptive modifiers.

The thing to keep in mind is that as a writer it is your job to determine three things:

  1. What information is given to the reader (plot, details)
  2. How that information is presented (word choice, foreshadowing)
  3. In what order that information is presented (sentence structure)

The point I’m going to be talking about is #3. Most people remember this on a large scale (You don’t put the conclusion to the story in the first chapter), but tend not to think about it on the small scale.

You have to remember that people read one word at a time in the order you’ve put them, and that as they do they form mental images of what is happening. Most readers don’t, or at the very least I certainly don’t, wait until they reach the end of a sentence or paragraph to begin processing the information it contains. It’s a brick-by-brick process, so putting your descriptive modifiers after whatever they are intended to modify can actually cause the reader to misinterpret the scene, then have to stop and go back over it.

This has happened to me a lot. I read a line of dialogue, imagining it said in a certain way only to get to the end to see “she shouted, tears in her eyes” when I thought she was happy. This is a sign of sloppy writing, and a betrayal of the reader-writer contract of “I’ll tell you what you need to know, when you need to know it.” If it matters that the character is shouting, you need to find a way to convey that information before I read the dialogue.

The same is true for modifiers. In some cases the difference is negligible, for example knees cracking, he sat down and he sat down, knees cracking have no real significant different between them in terms of the pacing of the sentence, but only because the modifier is so short.

As an example of where it would matter, take the following two sentences:

“I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong,” the man added without a hint of regret.

“I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong,” the man added, his eyes looking anywhere but at mine.

Those two sentences are identical up until the modifier at the end, but that modifier colors everything that came before them including the tone in which the dialogue should be read. If your modifier completely changes the tone of the sentence, it needs to be in front.

This is the case with most adverbial modifiers. You need to tell me how something is done before it happens so that I can picture it the way you want me to. Otherwise you’re just hoping that we both picture the same thing and slapping me in the face if I’m wrong.

That said, you can also do the reverse by intentionally misleading your reader using modifiers before whatever they modify. For example: Huffing and puffing, sweat pouring from every part of his body, looking like he had just ten rounds with a champion boxer, he finally made it up the first flight of stairs.

Putting your modifiers at the front of your sentence allows you to set your readers expectations. Whether you fulfill or dash them is up to you.

Putting modifiers in back

All that said, there are times when the modifiers should go behind whatever it is they modify.

Adjectival modifiers generally fit into this category, and for exactly the same reason adverbial modifiers should go in front: It allows the reader to process the information in the proper order.

Take for example: Once white, now speckled with the grime and wear of neglect, the walls needed a new coat of paint.

That sentence works, but only if the subject of a walls was brought up previously. If this is the first we’re hearing of the walls, we just have no idea what this phrase is modifying and thus cannot establish a mental image of it until we finally reach the end of the sentence. That modifier could just as easily be describing a floor, a sink, a bathtub, or a toilet.

The same way you wouldn’t start painting without first laying down your canvas, you don’t start describing something you haven’t first introduced to the reader. That’s just wasting your words.

Another reason to put modifiers after whatever they modify is to imply order, especially chronological order. He took his stance, his gloves shaking slightly in front of his face, his footsteps heavier than they had been just one round earlier, but his gaze unwavering. Here the choice of putting the modifiers after the base clause seems to give the sentence a sense of motion through time. It progresses the story.

Note that the same thing can also be done with the modifiers in front (e.g. Not even having time to toast it, he shoveled some bread into his mouth as he sprinted for the bus) depending on the situation.

Yet another use for putting the modifier at the end is if it adds new information that isn’t directly related to the action of the base clause. He reached down a grabbed the fish, the very one which had swallowed his wedding ring all those years ago. Adding too much new information in the middle of a sentence can cause your reader to lose interest, while putting it at the end makes a nice segue between the two ideas.

You can also use this to surprise or shock your readers. He howled with delight tainted to no small extent with madness, the severed hang hanging by its hair from his bloodied hand.

Final thoughts

There really aren’t any hard and fast rules for when to put your modifier before or after the clause it modifies. These are only some of the many things to keep in mind. Just remember when writing to think about how the information you present will hit the reader and go with whatever sounds right. Maybe try it both ways and see which one strikes the chord you’re looking for.

And for sticking with me through such a long, possibly-boring post, here’s a picture of a smiling puppy (note: this puppy is, sadly, not mine):

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‘A’ vs. ‘An’–the why and how

It’s been a while since I’ve updated anything at all, and even longer since I’ve posted anything about writing. I’ve taken on a new project which I’ll probably talk about more once I have something to show for it. For now, all you get is a pedantic rant about one of the smallest yet most irksome mistakes I see in writing.

Putting an ‘a’ where there should be an ‘an’ might not seem like such an unforgivable offense at first. It doesn’t obscure the meaning of the sentence as other grammatical mistakes may. But every time I see or hear this mistake it grates on my nerves like nails on a chalkboard.

It’s not just a stylistic or pedantic reason that this particular mistake bothers me. Coming across this mistake robs the entire passage of any narrative momentum it may have had, making you stop dead in your tracks much the same way a misplaced comma does. It’s one of the little things that can suck you right out of whatever you’re reading.

What is the rule?

Most–if not all–of you have probably heard this rule before. If a word begins with a consonant it gets ‘a’ while a word that begins with a vowel gets ‘an.’

However, saying it this way is what leads to some of the confusion. The truth is, whether you use ‘a’ or ‘an’ has nothing to do with how a word is written or spelled. The difference is entirely for spoken English.

Everyone knows the five and a half vowels (a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y), but how many people are actually taught what makes a vowel a vowel? The difference between a vowel and a consonant is in what you do with your mouth while you pronounce them.

Consonants are closed sounds. While pronouncing a consonant your mouth closes in one way or another, either by touching your lips together or pressing your tongue against the roof of your mouth. In contrast, while pronouncing vowels you keep everything open.

This difference is actually why consonants and vowels combine so well to form syllables, whereas several consonants in a row are hard to pronounce. It’s also why vowels tend to merge together and change their pronunciation when placed side by side.

For most letters you can only say them one way. No matter how it’s stressed you can’t pronounce an ‘a’ without keeping your mouth open and you can’t pronounce a ‘b’ without closing it.

Y is the exception. Sometimes you pronounce ‘y’ by closing your mouth and then opening it, such as in the words yonder or yodel. In this case it’s a consonant. But other times, such as in the word why, you keep your mouth open, making the ‘y’ a vowel. This is why we say that y is only sometimes a vowel.

So the rule ‘a’ if consonant, ‘an’ if vowel, applies only to the sound it makes. If it sounds like it starts with a consonant, whether or not it does when you write it out, you put an ‘a’ in front of it. Two examples of this are “a unit” and “a eukaryotic cell”. Both of these words sound like they begin with a consonant ‘y’, and so they get ‘a’.

Similarly, if it sounds like it starts with a vowel it gets ‘an’. An heir, or an hour are good examples of this, since in both cases the ‘h’ is silent and thus, when spoken, they begin with vowels.

Again, the reason for this rule is to make spoken English clearer and more fluid. Multiple consonants in a row sound slow and sloppy, which is why “an banana” just sounds wrong. Multiple vowels in a row merge together, which is why “a apple” just turns into “apple” with a long ‘a’ in front. The ‘n’ was added to the end in order to keep space between the two vowel sounds, to make it clear where one word ends and the other begins.

What really gets me are the hypercorrections people make, such as putting ‘an’ in front of every word that begins with an ‘h’. This is why you’ll have people talking about “an historic event.” These hypercorrections stem from people knowing the rules but not really understanding why they exist, which is why I went into more detail than you’d ever wanted to know about vowels and consonants.

Hopefully that cleared somethings up for people. If not, at least it let me rant about something that had been bothering me lately. Until next time,

~JC

About Light Novels and the new Standard of Readability

If you don’t know what a light novel is, it’s a kind of literature pretty much limited to Japan.  They’re written primarily for young-adult audiences, but are distinct from traditional young-adult novels. They’re usually serialized chapter-by-chapter in magazines before being gathered into full-volumes (a topic which I’ll probably discuss later because I love the idea of serialization).

Rental Magica, a Light Novel written by Makoto Sanda

Rental Magica, a light novel written by Makoto Sanda

A lot of people define light novels by the fact that they’re illustrated, which they are (usually in manga-style), but I disagree with that. I think it’s possible to have an illustrated novel that isn’t light and a light novel that isn’t illustrated. To me, the difference is wholly in the style of the writing, and that’s why I’m so interested in them.

The first thing to notice about how light novels are written is that they tend to be…shall we say playful…with the conventions of the language. It’s not uncommon to see musical notes used as punctuation, as well as things like “What???!!?!?!??” and my personal favorite: “…” to indicate a pointed silence. Whether it’s grammatically correct or not to use ellipses that way I think it’s fantastic. And sometimes they go on forever, taking up entire lines so that you can actually feel the awkwardness of it as you read.

But that’s all superficial. The real differences is that they’re very minimalistic in terms of their writing style. They’re generally shorter than regular novels, though not always (and, just as we see in regular novels, they tend to get longer the farther into a series you go). The good ones use their illustrations to make providing descriptions quicker and more fluid (a picture is worth a thousand words, after all), which can be helpful in cutting out some of the bloat. But again, that’s not necessary.

What really makes them faster reading is how their paragraphing is laid out. It’s rare in a light novel to see a paragraph longer than three sentences. This actually makes a huge difference in terms of reading speed. On my best day I can get through a full-length novel in eight hours. I can get through a light novel in three and get just as much out of the experience. The best example I’ve seen in American literature is the Danial X series by James Patterson and various co-authors (no paragraph is longer than three sentences and no chapter is longer than three pages).

This actually brings me to my main point, about what it means for a novel (or anything for that matter) to be “readable.” By definition that would mean if you are capable of reading it, it’s readable. But when we say that, we’re usually only thinking in terms of legibility, of whether or not it can be understood. Yes that’s an important thing to keep in mind, but there’s another question that is equally important that must be kept in mind: Is anyone going to take the time to read this?

There are some people who absolutely love books. For them, reading is its own reward. For them, the time spent reading isn’t a factor. That’s fine, and that’s why books like Ulysses get published despite being hellish verbal bogs through which readers must fight for every step forward. But I would argue that most of the market for novels isn’t made up of this kind of bibliophile. They’re not reading to be reading, they’re reading to be entertained. To hear a story, to see something different or unusual. And for a time, books were the only game in town if you wanted that kind of diversion.

But not anymore. Now books need to compete with movies, TV, video games, and comics to earn the right to entertain us, and just looking at the time commitments involved books don’t look so good. Let’s say it takes an average person ten hours to read a full novel. In that time, they could watch nearly seven movies or an entire 13-episode series of a TV show (I should know, I spent the first part of my winter vacation getting caught back up on How I Met Your Mother when I still have unread books on my shelves).

I believe that each media has some advantages over the others. There are things books can do that movies will never even come close to touching. But are those things really worth a whole 8.5 hours of someone’s life per book? With more things to occupy our time than ever before, now more than ever every moment is valuable and how we choose to spend it matters.

In light of this, I think the traditional ideas of readability, as well as the traditional idea of the novel, may need to change and adapt to the modern marketplace or else face extinction. This is why the style of the light novel interests me so much, because anything we can do to make our writing just that much faster will definitely help it stand out and ultimately survive.

But those are just my thoughts. What are yours?

Podcast: FSoG Critique, chapter 1

Hey everyone!
As promised, here’s my podcast critique of the first chapter of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. Download link below:

Download it Here!!!

Sorry if it’s a little rough, this is my first time doing something like this. The quality gets a little better towards the end, but it is what it is. If you enjoy it, feel free to share the link.

Remember I do not own this book. This is only my opinion and is meant to use the text to teach and talk about writing. Feel free to read along with me and share your thoughts in comments. If you don’t have the book, you can buy it here.

Music courtesy of Piano Society. Seriously, check them out if you like classical music.

Let me know if you enjoy this or find it helpful/interesting. If you want me to keep going and do chapter 2 as well let me know, or if there’s another popular book you’d rather hear me talk about next.

About Teaching and Writing

As most of you have probably noticed, most of the time I’ll write about writing on my blog. That’s because I love writing and I love talking about writing. However, as much time as I’ve spent doing it over the past few years, writing isn’t my area of expertise.

My degrees are in physics and education. By day I’m a teacher. It’s only by night that I’m a writer, at least for now. I love teaching just as much as I love writing. After all, I get paid to talk nonstop about a subject I really enjoy to kids who are required to sit and listen to me. What could be better than that?

With the school year fast approaching, I was thinking about my two passions, and I realized that it’s no coincidence I enjoy them both so much—they’re practically the same thing.

 

Here’s what I mean.

Writers as Teachers:

In order for us to enjoy a book, it has to be able to teach us. If you’re writing fiction, you’re creating a new world. This is true whether your book takes place in a distant galaxy, in a magical realm, or in downtown Detroit. When you write you create a setting that’s distinct from the everyday lives of your readers. It’s your job as the creator and writer to teach your readers how your world works. What does it look like? What are the rules (magical, societal, legal, it doesn’t matter where they come from)? What can we expect?

The same is true for your characters. They are obviously not real people, but you must teach your readers enough about them that we can forget this and think about them as people rather than constructs. You need to teach your readers about each character’s history and how it has shaped their present. You teach their quirks, their interests, their hopes and dreams, and if you’ve done your job right we know them as well as our own friends.

The better you are at teaching your readers about the worlds you create and the characters who inhabit it, the more lasting an impression your book will leave. What separates a good book from a great book is how much and how well a writer can teach his or her readers about the world they’ve created.

Teachers as Writers:

If you think a teacher’s job is to sit in front of a class all day and just spout facts and information, think back to your best and favorite teachers in school. Is that how they taught? Odds are it wasn’t.

If all it took to learn was exposure to knowledge, school would consist entirely of someone standing behind a podium reading an encyclopedia. But as anyone who’s ever tried to memorize an encyclopedia (just me?) can tell you, it’s not that easy.

That’s because facts devoid of context are boring, and boring things are harder to commit to memory. What we learn best are stories, so that’s what teachers have to create.

In order to teach effectively, you need to create a story out of your material. You need to reshape it so that it’s interesting and relevant to the lives of your students. It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching science, history, foreign language, or art, the best teachers weave their subject matter into a narrative that’s interesting and easy to follow.

Why this Matters:

Teaching and writing mesh together really well, and incorporating aspects of one into the other have made me better at both. I mentioned last week how my outlining process is the same for writing units and novels, but that’s not all the crossover I’ve seen. Teaching has made me more conscientious of my readers, always keeping in mind where they might be coming from, what they’re expecting to get out of a book and what they may want to see. Writing has made my units more cohesive, my classes more engaging. I’ve even reshaped my curriculum, straying from the traditional sequence to form a better and more compelling narrative.

So my question to all of you this week is this: How does your job relate to your hobbies? This could be writing, gardening, boxing, I don’t care. What might doing one teach you about the other? What aspects can be shared between them? Think about it and let me know. I’d be interested to hear from you.

About the Importance of Planning [a Novel]

Another post on writing, or my opinions thereof. As I get ready for school in a few weeks maybe I’ll write about education week. Let me know if that sounds interesting.

In terms of writing, and I suppose more generally life, there seem to be two schools of thought. One favors spontaneity and diving in head first while the other favors thinking and looking before taking the leap.

I’m talking, of course, about whether or not to outline a story.

Honestly, I’m not sure why there’s even a debate about this. My first attempt at a novel I wrote with unfortunately limited forethought. It was 130,000 words of absolute train wreck. On the upside I still take it out and read bits of it when I’m feeling down to remind myself that I used to be much, much worse. So at least I got something out of the process (aside from the experience).

Part of the reason I think it was so bad (sadly neither the fact that I was in college at the time or that most of it was written at three in the morning count as decent excuses) is that I didn’t take the time to plan it out properly.

Planning a novel, or even a short story, is the only consistent way to end up with a good product. At least in my experience. There are, of course, flukes and exceptions, but then someone has to win the lottery every once in a while. But more to the point, after I took the time to think about it, it’s the only way to write that actually makes sense to me.

Think about it. You don’t take a trip across the world without first booking yourself a place to stay. Painters don’t immediately put their brushes to the canvas but sketch out their vision in pencil. Architects make blueprints and models long before they break ground. That’s because all of these things—trips, paintings, buildings, and even novels—all represent huge investments of time and resources.

There are bound to be flaws in everything we do at first. As Hemmingway once said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” He’s right, and not just about writing. When we first conceive of something, it’s riddled with holes and inconsistencies, parts that are hazy and parts that are just bad and we don’t have the perspective yet to notice.

Often, writing a full draft on that first hazy idea is like building a model around a broken skeleton. Don’t be surprised when it can’t stand on its own.

Rather than that doomed draft, write an outline. That way, you’ll be able to see which parts aren’t working without investing the months (or, more realistically for a novel, years) it takes to write something only to find out it’s crap. It’s a sketching and diagnostic process where you enhance the parts that work well and cut out the parts that are dragging you down, just as an artist perfects his vision in malleable pencil before moving to paint and the architect first works with models before building the real thing.

You could argue that writing is far less permanent than a building, or even a painting, and you would be right. We can always go back and fix our mistakes (at least until it gets picked up and published, but that’s a different story), but do we really want to spend that time? Isn’t the whole point of the first draft to just get it on paper, even if it all ends up being unusable gibberish? Well, yeah, but it doesn’t have to be. It seems like a shame to waste that much time, especially important if you have to support yourself with something other than writing. For most of us, time to write can be hard to come by. I personally don’t want to waste it running in circles chasing my tail.

That said, the main argument against planning and outlining is that such forethought becomes constraining, inhibiting the naturally creative process of writing. If you ever find this to be true, then you’re not using your outline properly.

An outline should never constrict you. You’re the boss, you make the decisions. If you come up with a better idea while writing, then by all means go for it. It’s a guide, not a cast-iron contract. You’re always allowed to branch off, the outline is just there to keep you focused and heading in the right direction. You should never let any part of your writing control you, and that includes your outline.

Outlining novels has worked well for me since I started doing it, cutting down the number and severity of re-writes I’ve had to do and making the writing itself go quicker. I’d definitely recommend everyone at least try it. If it’s not for you then that’s fine. But I’ve found the process has helped me in more than just my writing—I plan weekly lessons and monthly units for my classes the exact same way I plot a novel. And now, I can’t really imagine doing it any other way.

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A little planning could keep this from happening to you.

What do you think? How do you prepare before you write? What’s worked for you? What hasn’t?