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Don’t stick a fork in the reader, or, getting the ending right

“Beginnings hook readers. Endings create fans.” plotwhisper.com

“Beginnings hook readers. Endings create fans.” plotwhisper.com

We talk about beginnings and opening lines in fiction frequently. I’ve written about it many times myself1, as well as participating in panels at conventions on the topic. We spend less time talking about endings. One reason why is because it’s a more complicated topic, because for the ending to work all of the stuff in the middle of the story needs to come together in a satisfying way, and ideally the ending will tie back to the opening. So it’s easier to give advice about moving character arcs along, making them work with the external conflict, and so forth, and assume that the ending will take care of itself if we get all the rest right. I’ve been thinking a lot about endings lately in part because I’ve been seeing the topic talked about a lot on various social media—but also because over the course of the last week I’ve watched season finales of three shows that I’ve been following for years2.

First, an ending doesn’t have to be a happy ending to be satisfying to the reader. Tragedies have been around for a long, long time. But most readers do want a character they can root for throughout the story, and if the character fails in the end, the reader still wants to feel that they were right to root for that character. Maybe the protagonist’s death allows others to escape a terrible fate. Maybe the cause was worth the sacrifice and the way the protagonist failed leaves the reader with a glimmer of hope that someone else will succeed where they failed. Maybe all the reader needs is to know that the protagonist believe their sacrifice was worth it—making an effort against the forces of darkness is better than not trying at all.

Even happy endings have to feel earned. The reader isn’t going to be satisfied if it doesn’t feel as if the struggle was real.

And surprise endings? Surprise endings can’t feel as if they came from nowhere. You can surprise the reader at the end, sure, but a second after the surprise is revealed, the reader should go, “Dang! I should have seen that coming!” The surprise has to make sense within the narrative frame and the character arc(s) you’ve already led the reader through.

I’ve written about that particular phenomenon once before, specifically in the context of murder mysteries and similar stories, so I’m just going to quote myself:

For me, part of the fun of a good mystery is finding the puzzle pieces in the storyline and admiring how well they are constructed, or how good a job the author does of putting them in plain sight while not making them obvious.

Sometimes I am completely blindsided, and if that happens without the author cheating, that is just as much fun as figuring it out before the reveal.

Bad mysteries aren’t bad simply because they are predictable. They’re bad when they are too predictable. When the author (or author and director, in the case of a movie or show) clumsily gives things away or relies on cliches, there is no delight in the reveal. If the author cheats by simply withholding information, or otherwise pulling something bizarre and shocking out of nowhere, that also spoils the fun.

And, as in all stories, if the author makes us care about the characters, even if the puzzle isn’t terribly difficult, we can still enjoy the battle of wits between the detective and the puzzle.

Getting the ending right isn’t easy. And if you get it wrong, the reader doesn’t just dislike the ending, they feel as if all the time they have spent on the story was a waste. And remember, it is a sin to waste the reader’s time. This doesn’t mean that you have to give the reader the ending they want—it means your ending has to make sense, it has to pay off any questions or themes you teased the reader with before, and it has to feel earned. It has to be the best ending you could deliver, not a prank you pulled on the reader to show how clever you are.

It isn’t easy, but nothing worthwile is.


Footnotes:

1. The Night Was Sultry, part 1—adventures in opening lines, The Night Was Sultry, part 2 — more adventures in opening lines, The Night Was Sultry, part 3 — finding the emotional hook, The Night Was Sultry, part 4 — fitting the opening to the tale, The Night Was Sultry, part 5 — closing the circle, openings and endings, and Begin at the beginning, not before for instance.

2. Specifically Lucifer, Arrow, and The Flash. Which I feel I need to mention, because I know that one reason so many others are talking about this topic is because of the final season of Game of Thrones which is not a show I have ever watched—so none of this is intentionally about that topic.

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I hate the term “fan service,” or, don’t forget you’re writing to an audience

“A story has to be a good date, because the reader can stop at any time. Remember, readers are selfish and have no compulsion to be decent about anything.”—Kurt Vonnegut

(click to embiggen)

I was reading a review of a work of art that I had already observed, but the review was by an author that I usually like, so I was interested in their take on it. Now while the review was mostly phrased as a positive, it also included the observation that the work of art was mostly fan service, and that stringing together a series of entertaining moments was not the way to accomplish substantive writing.

Bull.

While everyone is entitled to their opinion, that doesn’t mean that the opinion is valid. I mean, technically, if one’s definition of substantive writing absolutely excludes the possibility that anyone would find said writing enjoyable, I guess it is a valid observation. But I don’t think that such a definition is a reasonable one.

One of the reasons I hate the term “fan service” is because the implication is that merely because a moment in a story (whether that story is a novel, short story, movie, or television episode) makes the audience cheer that means it is objectively a bad thing. Now the counter-argument is usually stated that they aren’t saying a story shouldn’t be enjoyable, but rather that the author shouldn’t put something in merely because the audience wants it.

To which I say, “Bold of you to insist you can always discern the writer’s motive.”

On one level, the fan service critique sounds like simply another way of stating an oft-repeated piece of writing advice: “Of course you have to write to an audience, but never forget you are writing for yourself.” That’s a good piece of advice so long as you understand what it means is that you shouldn’t compromise your story to appeal to an audience. And by compromise we mean, don’t make the story unsatisfying/unbelievable to you. Because then you aren’t writing your story.

Sometimes what people who use the term “fan service” really mean is that it is something they think the wrong sort of person would want. It’s a weird form of gatekeeping. “This plot development appeals to the sort of person I don’t want to consort with, and I don’t want to consort with them so much, that I don’t want to be perceived as liking the same sort of things as they do.”

While others who use the term seem to honestly believe that if something is enjoyable that it isn’t worthwhile. Because only difficult-to-understand art is substantive? Though there is a lot of snobbery in this attitude, so it may just be another form of gatekeeping.

Other times, the person using the term means the event was something they didn’t care for. And that is a valid reason to dislike a particular story, but that doesn’t mean the story is objectively bad. Whether you like the plot point or not is literally a subjective thing. And you know what else is subjective? The definition of “substantive” when applied to any work of art. Because substantive just means “important” or “meaningful” and what is important and meaningful is going to vary from person to person.

“A story has to be a good date, because the reader can stop at any time. Remember, readers are selfish and have no compulsion to be decent about anything.”
—Kurt Vonnegut

I like this Vonnegut quote because it embraces the idea of subjectivity. Readers are selfish, he observes, but he doesn’t say that is a bad thing—because in this context it isn’t. Just as a person who is on a date with someone that they find incompatible (whether they simply have no common interests, or are off-putting, or creepy, or acting like an asshole) has the right to walk away, so too the reader has the right to set the book aside and never finish it.

It’s simply the flip side of the principle that not every story is for everybody. While a particular person may be incompatible with you, they may be absolutely perfect for someone else. The same goes for stories. Something that I can’t stand might be one of your favorites, and vice versa.

Putting things in your story that makes some of the readers cheer ought to be one of your goals as a writer. You shouldn’t be afraid of it. The key is whether or not that same thing is something you think belongs in the story.

The ultimate goal is to write a tale that makes some readers keep turning the page, again and again, anxious to find out how it ends. That means at least occasionally including moments that cause that reader satisfaction.

That isn’t fan service.

That is simply good storytelling.

Life is short and other musings about writing, reading, and variety in sf/f

“Life is short. Write that novel. Paint that painting. Try new recipes. Learn black magic. Go into the forest at night. Summon a demon. Earn that demon's trust. Become best friends with it. Brag to everyone else about your new cool demon best friend. Knit that sweater.”

Life is short… (click to embiggen)

So, I started Camp NaNoWriMo yesterday. I and a few friends have a cabin (which is basically a private chat group for up to 12 people who have set up projects). Camp NaNoWriMo is similar to the full fledged National Novel Writing Month, but it’s meant to be a bit more low-key and flexible. You get to set your own word count goal, for one. Lots of people use Camp NaNo to edit or revise a large project (such as whatever they wrote during a previous NaNoWriMo). It’s fun. I like having the private chat and having a structure for posting progress, getting and giving encouragement to friends, and so on.

Our cabin isn’t full, so if something like this appeals to you, set up a project and send me a message with your user name so I can send you an invitation to our cabin.

My particular project is an editing one, and I’m counting words as I go through scenes in the larger project. When I finish the edits on a scene, I copy it into a seperate Scrivener document to keep track of my word count. I was a little suprised at how much I got done on the first day, since it was a day at work where I don’t really get a chance to take a full lunch to spend writing, and I was feeling more than a bit out of it when I got home from work.

In other news, the 2019 Hugo and Campbell Awards Finalists have been announced. I was quite pleased to see that in every category at least one thing I nominated made it to the final ballot. The flip side of that is that there are also a lot of things with which I’m not familiar that made it onto the ballot, so I get to read a lot of new stuff soon!

I was really happy to see that Archive of Our Own—a massive fan fiction repository—is nominated in the Related Works category. It’s a little weird, because there are thousands of contributors (including me, though I have such a teeny tiny bit of stuff posted I don’t really count). Clearly if it wins, thy won’t be handing one of the big rocket trophies to every contributor. There are a couple of things in that category that I haven’t read, so I don’t yet know if AO3 is going to be my first choice for Related Work, yet.

As I said, I’m once again looking forward to reading stuff that has been nominated for the Hugos. As happy as I am to see things I nominated make the list, I also love seeing new things that I haven’t read, yet. Because, as I mentioned as part of another point last week, no one’s favorites list can encompass all of science fiction/fantasy. And that isn’t just because a whole lot of it is being published today (although with self-publishing being so much easier, and the internet making things more discoverable, there is an incredibly wide variety to choose from).

But a lot of people operate under the illusion that in times past a single fan could, indeed, read everything in the genre that had been published that year. It only seems that way if you assume that only the authors and stories you have heard of years later are who and what were being published at that time. A great example of this misapprehension is one of the flaws in a recent blog post by whacko Brian Niemeier (that I won’t link to directly, but since Camestros Felapton does a nice analysis of some of the flaws, I’ll link to his post: Did fandom cause the collapse of civilisation or vice versa? Let’s Assume Neither 🙂).

Niemeier makes the claim that “back in the day” everyone read Edgar Rice Burroughs and everyone listened to The Shadow radio show. Now, it’s true that Burroughs’ Tarzan books sold so well that he was able to form a film company and produce his own adaptations of his books, something that would be unthinkable for an author to do today. But it’s simply not true that everyone read the Tarzan books, if for no other reason that regular readers of novels and the like have always been a minority of the population. James Branch Cabell, a contemporary of Burroughs, sold more copies of his books during the nineteen-teens and -twenties than Burroughs did, yet he is largely forgotten today. There were scores of magazines publishing sci fi, fantasy, horror, and related fantastical fiction, publishing thousands of stories during that time most of which written by hundreds of authors many of whom we’ve never heard of.

While there is a huge amount of fantastic fiction to love now, there was a huge amount then, too. And I think that’s great! Because not everyone likes the same things, and the more variety there is, the more likely that there is something wonderful to discover and read for the first time, right? Similarly, the fact that many people like many things, mean that something you or I create is likely to find a receptive audience.

I am quite certain that if someone wrote a story about a conjurer who becomes best pals with a demon and they take up knitting together, someone out there will want to read it.

And those are good things.

Use Your Words, or, let your characters talk to each other!

“writers: how are we gonna top ourselves! we got tones of exciting stuff in store!! at least eleven big bads this season!!!! who's gonna survive who won't????!! 3 love triangles and 2 quadrangles!!!!!  me: I'll Pay You $5 To Let The Characters Just Simply Talk To Each Other For Once  #650000 baffled articles: but WHY is fanfiction a THING tho”

“writers: how are we gonna top ourselves! we got tones of exciting stuff in store!! at least eleven big bads this season!!!! who’s gonna survive who won’t????!! 3 love triangles and 2 quadrangles!!!!!
me: I’ll Pay You $5 To Let The Characters Just Simply Talk To Each Other For Once
#650000 baffled articles: but WHY is fanfiction a THING tho”

We’ve all been there: watch a new episode of a TV series or the like, where the characters do stupid things that serve no purpose other than to prolong a misunderstanding and put off the resolution of a subplot until a later episode. A subplot which could easily be resolved if one character simply told another character a piece of information that we, the viewers, already know. And usually a piece of information that would naturally come up in conversation if the two characters simply sat down and talked.

This particular storytelling problem isn’t just limited to television shows or similar serialized stories—but it is prevalent in such narratives because of a perceived need to use up screen time and prolong the suspense so that the viewer will keep coming back.

I say perceived because that time could be used showing the characters having the conversation, reacting to what they learn, and so forth. The counter argument is that viewers/readers don’t want to watch that sort of thing. Yet, as alluded to in the screencap of the blog post above, tens of thousands of readers and viewers create and read tens of thousands of fanfic stories that do precisely that. One of my favorite fanfics is 45,000 words of two characters processing some shared trauma and learning to trust each other. They aren’t just talking, things happen and other characters are involved, but at its heart the story is about these two getting to know each other and decide whether they are going to be friends or something more.

I totally understand the need to create suspense and keep the reader interested. But you don’t have to do it my creating these contrived circumstances where the characters who normally interact all the time just keep not speaking about something that both of them are very upset about. Because if the issue causes suspense, that means any revelation about it will have consequences. And you know what? Whatever those consequences are, they will also be new things to create suspense about!

Instead of finding ever less believable reasons that the characters don’t talk, let them talk. Then let the chips fall and see what happens next.

Don’t stop writing!

The phrase "You should be writing" over a picture of author Neil Gaiman

(click to embiggen)

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is nearly over. I hit the NaNo standard goal of 50,000 word over the weekend, though I still have a ways to go before I hit my personal goal of 66,000 (attempting to break my previous record of 65,591). This year’s project has involved writing some scenes multiple times from several perspectives—the most egregious one having now seven different versions, which is fairly amazing since it really consists of just two characters. Another scene that was written five times at least involves four active characters and one passive observer, which makes the multiple versions make a bit more sense.

There are some who would say this isn’t in the spirit of NaNoWriMo, and certainly not in line with advice I have often given people who are stuck: to just write the next word and keep moving. Since each time I have redone a scene I started from scratch, I think this counts as legitimate first draft activity. I’m not revising, see. And if someone thinks this is a form of cheating, well for years I was a member of the NaNoWriMo Rebels. The original rules specified that you not write a single word of the story before the stroke of midnight on October 31. So I was a rebel because I was usually trying to finish one of more works already in progress. So if my multiple tellings of the same (or substantially similar) scenes is cheating, I guess I’m a rebel again.

My progress as of last night.

On the other hand, there is a scene that is told twice which I intend to go into the book that way. The reader will first seen the end of a battle from the point of view of the main villain of the story, as he arrives when most of the fight is over and tries to figure out what’s happening. Then in the next chapter the reader will see the beginning of the battle from the point of view of one of the protagonists and learn quite a bit more. And I think it works quite well.

We’ll see what the readers think.

That voice whispering that no one wants to read your story? It lies…

“First drafts don't have to be perfect. They just have to be written.”

Click to embiggen

While I’m working on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) I’m going to try to get at least a few blog posts about writing. And during NaNoWriMo a particularly apt topic is that of first drafts, why a bad but finished first draft is better than a blank page, and so forth. There is one particular aspect of this topic that I probably haven’t written about enough. To get to that aspect requires me to lay a bit of ground work, so grab your favorite beverage, tuck in, and let me share some background.

I first encountered Neil Gaiman’s writing back in the late 80s and early 90s while he was writing The Sandman for DC Comics. Sandman was not a superhero comic, it was the story of the incarnation/personification of Dreams, and over the course of the series Gaiman told tales crossing many genres: myth, mystery, horror, and a lot of things that are difficult to classify. It won a bunch of awards. One issue won a World Fantasy Award for short story–a thing which shocked some people so much they changed the rules so that no graphic novel or graphic story could ever be nominated in a World Fantasy Award writing category again.

Anyway, over the years after I would encounter some of Gaiman’s short stories and novels. Some I liked, some I didn’t. But the ones I liked were always so good that I would always at least give a new story a try.

When I first saw reviews of his 2001 novel, American Gods it sounded like something that would be right up my alley. A combination of fantasy and Americana that looks at the question, if ancient mythological creatures were all real, where are they now and what are they doing? Admittedly themes Gaiman had already explored in Sandman, but it’s an area of fantasy of which am an enamored. So I expected to love the novel.

I didn’t.

It would not be fair to say I hated the novel simply because I have never been able to make myself finish it. I got bogged down maybe a quarter of the way through. Since I’m often reading multiple books at any given time, I set it aside with a bookmark in place and grabbed another book on one of my shelves with a bookmark and read it. Months later I happened across American Gods on one of my shelves, and I picked it up read some more. And I still wasn’t feeling it.

A few years later I headed into the computer room at our old house intending to copy some files from my desktop computer to take back to my laptop and my comfy chair in the living room and get some writing done. We used to have a small stereo in the computer room that one or the other of us could plug our iPods into. When my husband was playing video games on his computer, he often listened to audiobooks on the stereo. He was in the middle of one such book when I entered the computer room that day.

And during the few minutes it took me to find the files I needed and copy them, I found myself sucked into the book he was listening to. I sat there for more than a half hour listening. I only stopped because my husband paused his game for a bathroom break, and also paused the book. I asked him if, as I suspected, the book he had been listening to was Anansi Boys. It is sort of a sequel to American Gods, though Gaiman said he thought of the second book first. Anyway, it shares one important character, and essentially happens in the same world.

I asked my husband if we had a hardcopy of the book. He said he thought his copy was on the shelf next to his side of the bed. So I went, found the book, and spent the rest of the night reading Anansi Boys from the beginning, instead of writing. I quite enjoyed the book.

So not long after, I figured that maybe, now that I had finished the sort-of-sequel and really liked it, I should give American Gods another chance. After all, I had disliked and not finished the first three or four Discworld books people had tried to get me to read years before. Then a friend convinced me to read Wyrd Sisters and, well, it wasn’t long before I owned a copy of every single Discworld book there was.

I still found it impossible to become interested in American Gods or its main characters.

There are many people whose opinions I respect who really like American Gods. There are many people whose opinions I respect who don’t like it—I can think of at least one friend who hates it with a passion. I don’t hate it, I just can’t get into it. On the other hand, there is the related book I love, and a number of other things by the same author I love.

The lesson to be learned here is: not every story is for every reader.

If someone reads your story and doesn’t seem to be interested—even if they come out and say they hate it—that doesn’t mean it’s a bad story. It doesn’t mean you are a bad writer. All we can know from that data point is that that particular story is not for that person.

So don’t let the fact that anyone has ever reacted poorly to something you wrote stop you from writing something else. Don’t listen to that voice that says that no one will be interested in this story. Or that says you shouldn’t try. And so on.

There is someone out there who needs the story you are trying to tell. I am confident of that. But they will never know they need it until they find it. And they will never find it if you don’t write it.

So, go! Write! Tell that story! Now!

Just because I need to know that, doesn’t mean the reader does — or, adventures in back stories

“I rather think you should be writing.”

(click to embiggen)

As mentioned previously, I’m doing NaNoWriMo again, and so have less time for blogging than usual. I was bantering with a couple of friends last night on line while also trying to finish a scene, and something one friend said about her childhood made me think of an interesting detail to add to the history of one of the characters I was writing. The other friend asked why would I complicate the story with that new detail, and I had to explain that just because I add some more information to a character’s biography doesn’t mean it’s going to pop up in the story.

This reminded me of another conversation I was part of online elsewhere in which another NaNoWriMo participant commented that they had gotten bogged down because they reached a part of the tale where some characters needed to explain something that had happened off screen to other characters. Since NaNoWriMo is a first draft, experienced writers go into it knowing that a bunch of what we write isn’t going to remain in the final story. Sometimes we know that we’re just writing a scene to figure something out. Other times we don’t realize that all or most of a scene isn’t needed until much later, while we’re editing revising.

It is true that sometimes you need to give the reader information to understand a character’s motives and relationships. The trick is to do it without a lot of exposition. One of my favorite instances of giving the viewer such back story happened in the pilot episode of Teen Wolf the series. There’s a lot of bad story telling (contradictions, nonsensical villain plots, queer-baiting by the metric tonne, et cetera) that happened in that series, but sometimes they got things right. In that first episode, the two teen best friends, Stiles and Scott, are trying to figure out what bit Scott the night before, and whether it has anything to do with the mysterious body found be authorities the previous day. They are in the woods and are confronted by a slightly older, very gruff man who tells them they are trespassing and to go away. As they leave, Stiles whispers to Scott, “Don’t you remember who that is? It’s Derek Hale, he was a couple years ahead of in school? His entire family died in a fire several years back.”

It’s a whole lot of backstory, packed into a couple of sentences that set up a number of more mysteries and reveals that come up over the rest of the season. And having Stiles be the one who says it helps you learn a bit more about his personality traits that become important later: he notices things, he obsessively researches things, and no matter how many times his father, the Sheriff, tells him not to snoop, his curiosity just can’t be restrained.

Anyway, I’ve written about this topic a few times. But rather than paraphrase, I’m just going to quote one of the shorter posts on that topic from some years ago:

Too much back story

In order to write a character’s dialog correctly, I have to have a good image in my head of who he or she is. That doesn’t mean I need to know eye color and hair length and how they dress, necessarily—I’m using image metaphorically. I mean that part of the process of giving a character a personality is imagining their life and how they got to be who they are now.

This is for everyone, even walk-on characters who may have only one or two lines of dialog out of an entire novel. I’m not one of those authors who has to write all of that down before I can use the character. Walk-ons usually just pop up when I need them. I’ve put my protagonist in jail, let’s say, and I’d planned who his cellmate would be before I got to the scene, but I hadn’t thought much about any other prisoners. As I start writing the scene between the protagonist and his cellmate, the other prisoners just chimed in at appropriate parts. While I don’t know the names of any of them, I have a small sketch in my mind of each one’s personality and a bit of his or her history, too. It just blossomed as soon as I needed someone to make a humorous interjection.

That’s just the walk-ons. Supporting characters that are planned as parts of subplots have quite a bit more than that, while the main characters have even more.

Most of the backstory remains in my head and my notes. My stories tend to be character- and dialog- driven, so usually the only details about a character’s background that come up are the ones that would normally occur in conversation:

“You always have to be smarter than everyone else, don’t you?”

“There was a time when you found that endearing.”

“I grew up!”

Even without any description or names, reading that dialog tells you that these two have known each other a long time, that they used to be close (perhaps even romanticaly involved), and now they are less friendly. I may never reveal more about the past experiences between these two characters, but I know how they met, how long they were close, how they spent their time together, and how they had their falling out.

Usually I’m pretty good about not letting the backstory over shadow the current action. But not always. Especially if I get some characters together in a scene who are very talkative. The dialog can go on and on for a while, if I let them.

During re-write I always find some scenes like this, filled with a lot of interesting banter, but that I need to trim. When reading the scenes aloud, even just by myself, I can tell when they’re going on too long. Fortunately, usually it only takes a little pruning to punch up the scene and get things moving.

But sometimes that backstory includes information the reader needs, and it isn’t always clear until I get a reader’s perspective that some details I thought could be inferred weren’t obivous.

I have a couple of supporting characters I’m working with right now whose scenes I was trimming the last couple of nights. They’re both intresting characters. I’ve gotten feedback indicating readers like them. (Even though in the current novel they don’t have any scenes together, one of them had a short story of his own published a few years ago, and the other happened to be a supporting chracter in it.) But they’re only supporting characters in this tale, and the parts they have to play in the current story aren’t big enough to justify all that information.

Even though I saved the removed dialog elsewhere, it still hurts to trim it.

But when it’s too much, it has to go!

You should be writing — whether you join us in NaNoWriMo or not!

Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Robert Downey Jr, and Mark Ruffalo pointing at the camera and saying "You should be writing."

(click to embiggen)

It’s the first of November, which means that it’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)! NaNoWriMo is a lot of fun. I frequently recommend it precisely because the point is to just keep writing and not worry about being perfect. That worry often paralyzes people, preventing them from writing. Oh, they type out a few words, maybe a few sentences, but then they stare and delete and write something else. It is easy to fall into the trap of rewriting and revising a story (or a single scene) again and again because it isn’t perfect.

I’ve discussed this topic many times both on my various blogs, on convention panels, and in personal conversations. The person thinks they can’t write because the idea they have isn’t perfect, or they aren’t being creative/original enough, and so forth. One very specific form of this issue I’ve heard many times goes something like this: “I’ve read about how plotting and so forth works, and when I’m analyzing a book or show or something I can often see where the tale went wrong, but I’m not able to apply that skill to writing something new.”

At which point I usually launch into my rant about how writing is not the inverse of literary criticism?

What do I mean by inverse? Well, let’s first consult the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language. The relevant definition is: “ Of two operations, relations, etc.: such that the starting point or antecedent of the one is the result or conclusion of the other, and vice versa; (of one such operation, relation, etc.) opposite in nature or effect (to the other).” So, for instance, untying a shoelace is the inverse of tying it, while tying the shoelace is likewise the inverse of untying, right?

So, what do I mean when I say that literary criticism isn’t the inverse of writing? I mean that if one imagined the process of analyzing and deconstructing a story as a series of tasks, performing those tasks in reverse doesn’t produce a story. And when you compare your ability to find flaws in a story as being a necessary skill to creating a story, you are misunderstanding the creative process. Also, knowing how to perform literary deconstruction doesn’t guarantee that one understands stories—it means one understands paradigms that some authorities have proclaimed about stories.

Another way to understand it is to think about music: literary criticism and the like can be looked at as similar to understanding the mathematical equations that describe sound waves. Understanding those equations doesn’t mean you can think up a catchy tune. Which doesn’t mean that studying music theory might not improve your music making, but it doesn’t guarantee you will make compelling, or even mildly interesting music.

So, for instance, when a story teller begins working on a story, they don’t make lists of the metaphors they intend to use. Likewise, we don’t usually think about what the theme of the tale is and so on. I, personally, virtually never know what any of my metaphors are in a story unless someone points them out to me.

Everyone’s process is different. Most of my stories begin as a question, and the process of writing is how I try to find the answer to that question, and to the subsequent questions I uncover while working on the first.

Analysis is very useful during the editing and revising. Studying some of the things we can quantify about how stories work isn’t a waste of time. But don’t focus on that. Certainly not when you’re at the first draft stage.

Or, as Gandalf observed: “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

Once again, time to start your word processing engines!

In just a couple of days November will be here and that means National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)! In case you aren’t familiar with NaNoWriMo, let me first quote from their website:

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing.

On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30.

There are rules, but for years I participated as a Rebel, until a few years ago when they dropped the one rule that kept making me a rebel.

  • Write one 50,000-word (or longer!) novel, between November 1 and November 30.
  • Start from scratch.
  • Write a novel. We define a novel as a lengthy work of fiction.
  • Be the sole author of your novel.
  • Write more than one word repeated 50,000 times.

That second bullet is the rule that they changed. Most years I use NaNoWriMo as a motivation to work on some stalled or otherwise unfinished projects rather than starting from scratch, which is why I was always over in the Rebel category. NaNoWriMo is a lot of fun, and I find that having a few friends participating and mutually cheering each other on (and in a couple of cases to try to race against, word-count wise) helps me get a lot of work done.

NaNoWriMo isn’t for everyone. But I’ve seen people who didn’t think they’d like it come out happy that they’d given it a go.

If you’ve ever wanted to write and have trouble finishing, give it a try. Particularly if the thing that is holding you back is a feeling that whatever you’re writing isn’t good enough, there is something freeing about just focusing on getting the word count up. Leave editing for later. you can revise and correct a horrible draft, but you can’t do that to a blank page.

And it is supposed to be fun, not a chore.

I think I know what I’m going to work on this year. But I’m leaving myself the option to change my mind at the last minute.

Let’s make some fiction!

Why I’ll never be a great copy editor — or, the beauty of ambiguity

Why English is difficult to learn. (click to embiggen)

I often comment upon how people don’t understand grammar. But I don’t usually mean that they have poor grammar, or that I think they are undereducated, or that they aren’t smart. No, most of my examples of people misunderstanding grammar comes from my 31+ years working in the telecommunications and software industries surrounded by extremely bright engineers, technologists, and the like—people who are used to looking for patterns that can be turned into algorithms, or used to identify anomalies. Therefore, they either slightly misunderstand grammar rules, or think that all grammar rules work like algorithms. So I will get asked, “Settle an argument about grammar for me…” and then they will outline something that isn’t actually about any rule of grammar at all, but is more a matter of style.

They aren’t always happy when I tell them that this thing they have gotten into spirited arguments with their spouse/relative/co-worker over doesn’t have a clear answer.

They are even less happy when I tell them that it does have a clear answer, and they are partially correct but have misunderstood the actual rule. I’ll give an example.

Which of the following do you think is correct:

  1. A FBI agent called me today about the threatening letter I reported to the police.
  2. An FBI agent called me today about the threatening letter I reported to the police

I’ve had a huge number of engineers who insist the first sentence is correct because “you only use ‘an’ when the next work begins with a vowel.” And they are sort of right, but completely wrong. Whether one uses the indefinite article “a” or its variant “an” isn’t determined by the spelling of the following word, it is determined by the pronunciation. Because most people pronounce that three-letter initialism FBI as if it were spelled “eff-bee-eye.”

It isn’t whether the next word begins with a vowel, it’s whether the next word begins with a vowel sound.

If that’s still a little too vague for you, you can use the instruction given in the Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer: “Use the indefinite article a before words in which the first sound is a consonant, a sounded h or a long u… Use the indefinite article an before words in which the first sound is a vowel, except long u, and before words beginning with a silent h.”

The reason that pronunciation determines which word is used is because written English is not a programmatic system for creating sentences nor an algorithmic apparatus for manipulating the alphabet. Written English is a methodology for representing the speech of English speakers. And when you try to pronounce a phrase like, “a hour” it feels wrong. The “uh” bleeds into the “ow” sound. Some people literally can’t force themselves to say it without the “nnnn” sound in there to break them apart; that’s how deeply rooted the habit has become.

This is a bit of a ramble to get to my point (and to introduce a new series of posts I’ve been plotting for a while): using language is not like assembling a piece of furniture. Language can be ambiguous and still be proper from a grammatical standpoint. Words have different meanings in different contexts. Sentences usually provide enough context that which meaning the author wants is clear. But sometimes the ambiguity is the author’s intent. That’s how much of poetry works; a line or group of lines are constructed in such a way that several meanings of a particular word are evoked, in order to create a synthesis or a juxtaposition of the concepts.

One of my problems when I am copy editing someone else’s work is not just that I have a bad habit of unconsciously decoding common typographic errors (so I literally don’t perceive the wrong word a person has written in some cases), but also because I love the many variant ways that language can work. Enforcing a standard style guide is difficult, because sometimes, even though a sentence in a particular article or instruction violates the guide, it more elegantly conveys the meaning than one which followed the guide.

This isn’t to say I don’t have my own style preferences that I will enforce on others if I’m in an editorial role (copy editors I have worked with can tell you about the long rows we’ve had because I insist that the only acceptable spelling is “okay” and not “OK” for instance), but I also know that those instances are preferences that I’m insisting on because I like them, not because there is an absolutely right or wrong answer to the particular question.

There are times when ambiguity is bad. There are times when you have to make the meaning crystal clear leaving as little doubt as possible about the exact meaning of a particular description or instruction. Most of those cases have to do with procedures which people are undertaking: instructions related to medical conditions, or repairing equipment, or recording legal documents. But quite often in fiction, a little ambiguity is required; it provides the wiggle room necessary to breathe life into your story.

“Semicolons revel in ambiguity; ambiguity is beautiful.”
—Jeannette Ng


This is hardly the first time I’ve written on this topic, of course: Editing is not about understanding the semi-colon and similar arcana.

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