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:
- A FBI agent called me today about the threatening letter I reported to the police.
- 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.”
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.
And it was in the pages of the April 1983 issue of Asimov’s that I first met Connie Willis.
The novelette included in that issue, “The Sidon in the Mirror” is told from the point of view of person just arrived on a new planet. Except it isn’t a planet. Paylay is a dead star, and somehow humans have figured out how to live on a solid crust of the outer layers of the dead star. It isn’t a terribly nice place to live, but large pockets of various pure elements can be mined, so people have an incentive to come there. A side effect of the mining process has created a thin layer of mostly breathable air that is much higher in helium and hydrogen that ours is.
We learn that our viewpoint character is not human, but rather a Mirror: an alien species that has the ability to absorb personality traits, skills, and other things from other beings. They don’t take on the shape of the copied person, and the process is totally involuntary. Mirrors don’t even know they are copying, their personality being re-written as they go, unless someone else notices and tells them. There have been some instances in the past of Mirrors absorbing the murderous thoughts of others and acting on them, so they have been banned from various world.
He’s been brought to this strange mining colony to play piano in the colony’s only brothel. He had previously absorbed the piano playing skills of a now dead man who was known to both the other of the brothel and at least one of her employees, which is at least part of the reason he was brought to Paylay.
The rest of the plot is difficult to summarize, in part because Connie does a really good job of putting you inside the head of the person who doesn’t know or trust his own thoughts and motives. He is afraid he is going to be compelled to do something horrible, and there are characters he is now living among who appear to be trying to manipulate who he copies for their own nefarious purposes.
But I should explain the title. The viewpoint character’s species are called Mirrors, as explained. There is another alien creature mentioned, it’s called a sidon. Sidon’s are vicious predators, but some people have tried to tame them (because people will do that), and it has always gone badly. The miners have taken to naming their mining taps as sidons—while all the compressors and pipes and such are holding, everything seems under control. But ever miner knows it is only a matter of time before a tapped sight explodes. They’re just all trying to make their money and leave before that happens.
By the end of the tale there are violent deaths, and it is left to the reader to decide which of the deaths were murder, which were self-defense, or whether they fall into another category all together.
On one level the story is about the meaning of free will. Willis herself has said, when introducing the story in collections of her work, that the story was inspired to seeing stories of twins who were adopted out separately, and then find each other as adults and learn how many things about their lives are spookily similar. Many things we think of as choices may not be at all.
If was a tough story to read, because there were points in the tale when I wanted the viewpoint character to do something different. I saw moments he could have escaped the trap. Except when I got to the end, I found myself questioning the definition of trap I had been using. Was the trap the manipulation coming from one of the two characters who were trying to turn the Mirror into a killer, or was the trap the Mirror’s own belief that he himself would inevitably turn into a violent killer, or was the trap the fear of the other characters?
I’ve re-read the story many times over the years. And even though I know how it ends, I’m always at the edge of the seat throughout. As mentioned above, Willis really puts you in the mind of this character so that by the middle of the story, I’m just as afraid and uncertain as to what will happen as the character is.
The story made me think a lot about how we make decisions. How much of what we feel is the result of what people expect us to feel? How many decisions that we think are our own are being forced upon us? What, exactly, is the nature of our own identity?
They were questions I was wrestling with personally. While I didn’t have an sudden epiphany at the end of the tale, it did nudge me further in the direction of coming to understand how the nature of the closet. The stifling social trap that many queers find themselves living in is constructed at least as much by our desire to win the approval of society, family, and even my closest friends. It isn’t just fear that drives one into the closet, but also (ironically) the need for love.
And it took an alien playing piano on the surface of a dead star to show me that.
I’m once again participating in Camp NaNoWriMo. Camp is different than the full-fledged National Novel Writing Month in that the word count goal is set by each participant, folks frequently use camp to edit an existing work rather than write new, and the camp website supports small private chat groups called “cabins.” The best part of either project, IMHO, is having a mechanism to publish your daily word count totals, and have friends to encourage you.
At least those are good things for me. I am more productive when there are people I have promised certain things (completed stories, word counts, edits, et cetera). I’m also someone who loves getting in a race with someone on word count, if they’re into that. That doesn’t always work for everyone.
But writing buddies and cabin mates are a good way to have folks to consult with or just get encouragement from or give it to. That’s another thing I find that motivates me: getting to encourage other people and congratulate them on milestones improves my mood considerably. And sometimes when you’re trapped deep in seemingly irresolvable plotholes, anything to perk my mood up is great!
So, that’s what is happening here. If you’re doing Camp NaNoWriMo, especially if you’re interested in joining my Cabin, leave a comment here, or send me a message on twitter, or send me an email with the Contact Me page here—or if you already have another way to ping me use that.
Let’s get writing!
First, let’s deal with the song a bit. If you aren’t familiar with the song (which knocked the Beattles off the top of the pop charts for 4 weeks in 1967, then went on to make it into the top twenty of the Blues chart, the Soul chart, and finally the Country chart), you must listen to it once before we talk about it. Even if you are familiar, you really should listen again, and try to listen to it as a short story, rather than just some song:
The song is often retro-activily classified as Country, but at the time it was more clearly pop with a heavy blues influence. I think people classify it country because the story of the song is set in the south and she lets her Mississippi accent through.
Anyway, as a short story, it’s pretty phenomenal. And part of appeal of the song, clearly, is the mystery at the center of the song: what did the narrator and Billie Joe throw off the bridge earlier in the week, and why did Billie Joe commit suicide?
Over the years, Bobbie gave a very consistent answer: she didn’t know and it didn’t matter2. Many times she explained to interviewer, “It’s a MacGuffin. Alfred Hitchcock called the object that moves the plot along but isn’t really important on its own a MacGuffin, and writers have been using that term since the 1930s.” The song wasn’t about what happened, rather it was about unconscious cruelty. The family is sitting around the table discussing the suicide of someone they all know as casually as they ask each other to pass the biscuits, completely unaware that the suicide victim’s girlfriend is a member of their family, sitting right there listening to them.
The something that the narrator and Billie Joe were seen “throwing off the Tallahatchie Bridge” is one type of MacGuffin. It is something another character saw, and a third character comments on, which draws a connection in the minds of the audience between other events in the story. But exactly what it was and why it was thrown off aren’t important to the tale that the writer is sharing.
You’ll find a few different definitions of MacGuffin out there (also spelled McGuffin and Maguffin). My definition is:
- A story element that draws the reader’s attention to certain actions and/or,
- Drives the plot of a work of fiction (usually because several characters are willing to do almost anything to obtain it), but,
- The specific nature of the object may be ambigious, undefined, left open to interpretation, or otherwise completely unimportant to the plot.
Alfred Hitchcock once said that in a thriller the MacGuffin is often a necklace (a small object which can be worth a lot of money, but may also hold sentimental value or be coveted for its beauty), while in a spy stories the MacGuffin is usually some mysterious papers. The important thing (storytelling-wise) about the MacGuffin is what it motivates the characters to do, not what it actually is. In the example of “Ode to Billie Joe” the thing thrown off the bridge is important because apparently it contributes to Billie Joe MacAllister’s decision to commit suicide, probably motivates the preacher to come tell Mama the news of the suicide, and draws the audience’s attention to the connection between the narrator and Billie Joe.
One might wonder how MacGuffins relate to subplots. As I’ve discussed before, subplots are sequences of events with plot-like structures that happen within a larger story an are sometimes only tangentially related to the main plot. And sometimes a way you can connect subplots more closely to the main plot, or even connect subplots which aren’t otherwise related to each other is with the use of a MacGuffin.
For example, many years ago when I became the editor-in-chief of a small sci fi fanzine, I inherited a project started by the previous editor. She had come up with a framing tale to allow contributors to write a large group story together. This allowed contributors who had trouble coming with with plots an easy situation to write some scenes about their characters in, for instance, and encouraged contributors to work with each other. When I became the editor, there were about 40,000 words worth of writing from a whole bunch of people… and most of it did not fit together very well.
I went through the whole thing, taking notes and trying to come up with an outline that would fit all the disparate pieces into the original framing tale. One of the contributors (and an Associate Editor), Mark, regularly wrote a lot of the stories we published, and had written several sequences with different characters which could have been turned into interesting plots on their own. So we talked at length before bringing the proposal back to the rest of the editorial board. There would need to be a lot of new stuff written to tie the pieces we had together and push the whole thing to an ending, and I proposed two MacGuffins to help us out.
A lot of the existing sequences (and the framing tale) involved a criminal deal (worth the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars) gone wrong. While the initiating event for the non-criminal characters was an anniversary party to celebrate the original maiden voyage of a spaceship. So, one MacGuffin would be the 36th Century equivalent of a bearer bond: a physical object containing some kind of encryption key which could be presented to a particular financial institution and be exchanged for the hundreds of millions of dollars—that could be cashed by anyone. The other was an anniversary present which the pirate captain charged his first mate with making certain was delivered to the captain of the ship celebrating the anniversary.
This gave us two packages that were both in the possession of one of the criminal leaders early in the story and then became separated in the chaos of the shoot out and the inconveniently times major earthquake. Many of the criminal characters believed that either of the lost packages was the fabulously valuable bearer bond, but weren’t sure which one. Other characters had no idea when either package was.
A lot of the sequences which had no other connection to the established plots could thus be connected merely by adding a few sentences where one or another of the characters came into contact with a package that looked important, and then losing it. Other sequences got a more firm connection to the plot by adding a few sentences where one or more of the characters was trying to find one of the packages.
The two MacGuffins on their own didn’t solve all the problems. We spent a few months dividing various sequences and subplots to members of the editorial board to write additional bridging material5. And then Mark and I would each re-write these sequences to make them fit with the others. After a few months of this, I started sensing a bit of dread from the other members of the editorial board when we got to the standing item of this story6, so one meeting when we got to that point I immediately said, “I think we’ve reached the point where I should take over and finish weaving the rest of the tale together, and then Mark can do a clean-up pass.” At least two members of the board audibly sighed and said something like, “Thank goodness.”
We published the final tale as 24 chapters in consecutive issues of the ‘zine. The final word count was a bit shy of 250,000 words. And those two MacGuffins really helped. In the penultimate chapter, one MacGuffin finally ended its journey, and I managed to make the delivery of the lost bearer bond to the pirate captain into the punchline to a joke. The other MacGuffin never made it to where it was originally destined, but it served as the final punchline to the entire story.
The objects themselves were not really important, particularly in light of the number of characters who were killed in the course of the tale7. But the objects provided through-lines for may subplots and kept the reader guessing until the very end.
1. The opening lyrics of the song are, “It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day”
2. Please don’t ping me to tell me that the 1976 movie based on the song reveals the answers. It doesn’t. Through a series of events involving a later minor hit of Ms. Gentry’s that was the theme of another movie, a studio approached her with the idea of making a movie based on her first hit. Per the agreement, her only involvement with the movie was they would use an existing recording of her singing the song in the soundtrack, and she would have one meeting with the screenwriter. Only one. He reported afterwards that the first question he asked her was why did Billie Joe commit suicide. He said Gentry laughed and told him, “I have absolutely no idea. That’s not why I wrote the song.” Then he asked her what they threw off the bridge, and she repeated that she had no idea. Left with no information he could use, the screenwriter made up a rather convoluted plot, and named the previously unnamed narrator of the song Bobbie, so that audiences would believe that the song was autobiographical3.
3. Which it wasn’t4.
4. In a very early interview about the song, when the interviewer was not happy with Bobbie’s explanation that it was a MacGuffin and pressed her repeatedly for an answer, Bobbie said, “I really don’t know. Maybe it was a ring or a locket that represented an engagement or something?” But clearly at this point she admits that she is guessing, too.
5. A lot of the authors or co-authors of some of the sequences had left the project, but we had permission to use the material, without always knowing how the absent writer had intended to end their sequence.
6. Yes, we were technically a fan project, but we had regular meetings and I had agendas for the meetings and we took minutes and everything. I’m that kind of editor!
7. It was a natural disaster story and the story of a criminal deal gone wrong, with multiple shoot-outs—of course characters died!
8. Edited to add: I should have linked to the podcast. Cocaine & Rhinestones Season 1, episode 4, “Bobbie Gentry: Exit Stage Left”.
He had submitted a set of lyrics to the committee for a song that he hoped the chorus might sing in an upcoming Pride concert. In order for us to have performed the song, the chorus would have had to hire a composer to come up with music to accompany the lyrics, and an arranger to convert that melody into four-part harmony and some sort of accompaniment. As it happened, two years previously when those lyrics had been submitted, I had also been on the committee, serving as the secretary of the committee, and I remembered the meeting where we had evaluated music suggestions that had been submitted for consideration. And I remember reading the lyrics and being underwhelmed—it wasn’t just that it was rather trite poetry of the kind you might expect someone’s grandparent to stick up on the wall somewhere, but it had ended on a defeatist note about staying in the closet rather than being out.
So it had been one of the pieces eliminated early by the committee. We had a very limited budget to hire composers/arrangers, and we all agreed this thing wasn’t worth it.
I was a bit stunned to be sitting there, listening to this guy who had decided to use my recent bereavement as an excuse to bring out this ax to grind, and was trying to figure out how I could possibly respond, when he made the comment that crystalized the real problem. He said, “I don’t know if you know what it’s like when you just really, deeply, sincerely wish to have had your music published, but you never got to go to school to learn music theory or how to arrange music because your family couldn’t afford it. I don’t know if you know how much it hurts that someone who knows how to do that won’t turn the words you’ve written into a song for you.”
He didn’t say that he sincerely wished to make music. No, what he said was that he sincerely wished to have music that someone else made but that he could take credit for produced.
I understand the frustration of not being able to do the whole package. I’m not very good at the art side of things, so if I go the indy publishing route, I’m going to have a difficult (and expensive) time getting good cover art for my books. While arranging is a different skill set than writing music or creating lyrics, it’s something you can learn without having majored in music in university. And particularly when one is in their fifties (as this guy was) and had supposedly been trying to become a songwriter for decades, how can he think it’s okay not to have ever even learned how to read music (yes, he was the kind of chorus member who could only learn the part if someone who could read music sang the melody in his ear).
Some would say I don’t have proper sympathy because I took band and orchestra and various vocal classes in high school, and for one year my major in college was music education (I changed majors a lot: math ed, music ed, communications, journalism, then back to math without the ed part…). But the reason I was in so many different musical groups playing so many different instruments back in the day wasn’t because my family paid for lessons for each of those instruments. Public school teachers taught me to read music and how to almost play the viola and later to play the trumpet. But I taught myself how to play bassoon, ephonium, trombone, french horn, flute, bass clarinet and a bunch of others. And while I’ve only finished full arrangements of a few songs over the years, no one taught me arranging, I taught myself.
I’m not saying that finding teachers isn’t worth it, but I am saying that if you want to be good at something, you have to be willing to work for it. Yes, it is harder for those of us who come from working class families. There are many social, financial, and other systemic barriers to many opportunities in this world.
But there is a point where you need to realize that before you can be a star, you have to learn how to make music (or how to write a story, or how to draw a picture…).
Some people never get that.
And some of them are people who seem to have successful careers in the arena which they aren’t really very good at. These folks have enough privilege to fail their way into middling success. Because of connections and so forth, these guys (it is most often a white guy from an upper middle-class or better background) get jobs where they have some responsibility to create (or direct the creation of) something, and they screw up in various ways, they make promises they can’t keep, but they have an assistant (almost always a woman) who cleans up for them. Anyone who has worked in a large office knows this woman: she may have a title like Executive Assistant or even rarely Office Manager, but the upper management people she reports to clearly think of her as a secretary; but she’s the one that actually makes everything happen. She knows how to work projects through finance. She “cleans up” the boss’s presentations. She smooths things over when morale is down or people are angered by things the boss said or did. She finds solutions to the contradictory instructions.
It doesn’t just happen in boring corporate locations. Lots of people in creative positions are just like those bosses. They make decisions that contradict other things they’ve said. They order people to do things that won’t actually work. They write scripts full of clunky dialog, if that’s part of their project. And other people “clean things up.”
That’s how you get someone who can’t direct an interesting movie to save his life being paid to make one loser after another. It’s how you get best-selling authors who throw temper tantrums when someone writes a critique of their work who are flabbergasted when someone holds the page in front of them and shows them that yes, that passage did come out of their work. That’s how you get senior partners at law firms who had an extensive and impressive record as a prosecutor, when deprived of their phalanx of assistants making blatantly incorrect declarations of the law and actually further incriminating their client in television interviews.
And sometimes, apparently, it’s how you get someone clueless enough to use a supposed condolence call to whine about why other people won’t compose and arrange music to accompany their mediocre poetry.
If you really want to be a rock star, you have to learn to rock and roll. Otherwise, you’re no different than a lip-synching puppet.
Over the years people have reacted with everything from amusement to confusion to disbelief to my references to my Evil Grandmother. I had two grandmothers, a Nice Grandma and an Evil Grandma. Sometimes when I would comment about something going on with one of my grandmothers, a friend who had heard me use the phrase “Evil Grandma” would ask if this grandmother who had done this annoying thing was her, and I would say, “Oh, no! This is my Nice Grandma!” And they would freak out, “What do you mean, this is the Nice Grandma? That doesn’t sound nice at all!” To which I would reply, “Let me tell you about my Evil Grandmother…”
Here is a mild example. My Evil Grandmother (who was my paternal grandma, i.e., my dad’s mother) believed that all mental illness was just the person selfishly vying for attention. There are a surprising number of people out there with a belief very close to this. Any person who responds to someone else struggling with depression or recovering from trauma by telling them to get over it, for instance. They don’t see it as a real illness that requires treatment or recovery, right? But my Evil Grandmother was even worse than that. My Evil Grandmother believed that epilepsy was the same. So when one of my sisters started having seizures, my Evil Grandmother was constantly undermining the doctors. She would scold my sister for having a seizure after the fact, for example.
Oddly enough, she also believed that mental illness was hereditary and a sign of poor moral character. Which she also believed was hereditary. When my parents finally were getting a divorce, after my Evil Grandmother found out I had told the judge that I definitely did not want my (alcoholic, physically abusive) father to have custody, she sat me down and gave me a long litany of all of the mental health issues that plagued many of my mom’s distant relatives. One example was a great-uncle who we would now say was suffering from severe PTSD because of his experiences during World War II.
Now, if I wrote a novel in which a woman who had a college degree and worked as the City Treasurer for many years and was a respected member of her community, who punished her nine-year-old grandchild for having a seizure on a day where said grandmother had prevented the grandchild from taking her prescribed medication, I would get irrate messages from people telling me that this was completely unbelievable.
But I would also get comments from people who would tell even more horrific stories from their own childhood.
This is just one example of why having a bunch of editors tell you a story is too far-fetched is not indicative that the story is, in fact, too far fetched.
The editors or critics may have a valid point that you, as an author, hadn’t done a proper job of laying the groundwork to help the reader suspend their disbelief, but it doesn’t mean the notion is objectively and universally unbelievable. Even if they focus on the groundwork aspect, they still may be letting their personal perspective override things.
For example, there’s the tale of the male writing professor who once gave a woman in his class the advice that merely showing that one character had raped a young woman was not enough to justify the young woman killing him later in the story. “You haven’t convinced me he’s truly evil. Show him being cruel to a dog or something to make this evil real.”
Being cruel to a dog is worse than raping a woman? Irrational disconnect much?
Preception isn’t just a matter of taking in the information offered. It is heavily influenced by our prejudices, past experiences, expectations, fears, and hope. This doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as objective reality, it just means that it takes a lot of work to sort through all that subjectivity…
And it means that there will always be some things no one will agree on. Likewise, there will always be some people who will refuse to see something, no matter how much evidence we provide.
This doesn’t mean they are hopeless, it just may mean that we have to walk away and expend our energy elsewhere.
I have two codas to the saga of my Evil Grandmother. First, 20 years after my parents’ divorce and the subseqeunt exodus of myself, Mom, and one sister to the west coast, Mom, Nice Grandma, and my step-grandpa took a road trip back to the town where my parents met to attend the christening of my oldest sister’s first child. At one point in the visit, Mom found herself alone with my paternal grandparents, her ex-in-laws. Mom told them that she was sorry that my parents’ marriage had ended the way it had. Grandpa admitted that saying goodbye to Mom, myself, and my sister when we left was the hardest and most painful thing he had ever done.
Evil Grandmother muttered something, and she had tears in her eyes. She cleared her throat a couple of times and eventually said something about the time for blame being past. Now, I should mention that long before my parents divorced, Evil Grandma, on two occassions, set up appointments for Dad with a divorce attorney without consulting him first, and tricked Dad into meeting her at the law office on pretexts to do with her business. When I say that Evil Grandma had wanted my parents to split, that’s an understatement. So, Mom took this “time for blame” as a way to change the topic and avoid taking any blame.
But then some more extended family members arrived, and as people were picking places to sit and talk, my Evil Grandma moved from the seat next to Grandpa, to sit next to Mom. And she grabbed Mom’s hand and in Mom’s words, “squeezed it like she was afraid to let go.” She didn’t say anything, and didn’t really join in with the rest of the conversation for the next couple of hours, but she refused to let go of Mom’s hand. And later, when Mom needed to leave, Evil Grandma gave her a hug. Her eyes were full of tears again, and she murmured, “I’ve missed you all.”
Mom said that she decided that that was the closest Evil Grandma could come to saying she was sorry.
Second coda: About ten years after that I was out with friends at a bowling party when my phone rang. It was a call from one of my aunts. She was at a hospital with Evil Grandma. Evil Grandma had had both a stroke and some sort of heart issue. She’d been revived and was on a resporator, but she was alert and had demanded the my aunt call me. I need to add here that when I came out of the closet in 1991, other than one handwritten note that said, “I hope you’re happy now,” Evil Grandmother had stopped talking to me (and I would later learn she had forbidden other family members from mentioning my name in her presence). My aunt handed the phone over Evil Grandma. Because of the resporator, she had to speak in short bursts. She could speak on the exhale then wait for the machine to push in the next breath. She said my name. I replied, “Yes, Grandma it’s me.” She repeated my name on the next two exhales, and each time I told her it was me and I could hear her.
I, meanwhile, was moving to try to find a quiet place thinking the noise of the bowling alley was confusing her.
Finally she said, “I love you.” And I replied that I loved her. She repeated it a couple more times, and each time I replied. I was sobbing at this point. How could I not be? No matter what had happened between us, here she was, possibly on her death bed, using perhaps her dying breaths to reach out?
After about the fourth ‘I love you’ exchange, she said. “I know you…. I know you do… but do you know…. do you know… I love you?”
I said, “Yes.” She repeated my name and said “I love you” again, and then my aunt was back on the phone.
That turned out not to be her deathbed, but she had at least one more stroke before being released from the hospital, and her ability to talk was severely impaired for her remaining years.
But, Christmas cards started arriving every year. The outside of the envelopes were clearly addressed by the aunt who was caring for Grandma by then, but the inside always had very jittery writing that was clearly Grandma’s. Some years Christmas presents (usually ornaments) would also arrive, sometimes with Grandma’s writing on the tag. There was sometimes be a note from my aunt saying that Grandma had seen it in the store and wanted to get it for me because it reminded her of something I had once talked to her about as a child.
One is left wondering, which her was the real her? Is it simply that years of regret and an acute awareness of her mortality caused a change of heart? Is such a deathbed conversion, as it were, believable? Or as much a product of our hopes and wishes?
I know she had always been extremely concerned with keeping up appearances and not doing things that would make the right sort of people look down on you. So had she been suppressing inconvenient feelings for years–feelings that went counter to her hopes and aspirations–and only later in life as neurological changes occurred she started letting them out?
Wrestling with these questions have not led me to stop referring to her as my Evil Grandmother. She just did too much too many times to hurt people–often people she should have been protecting. But I am reminded of an observation which I once put into the mouth of one of the characters in one of my fantasy novels: “Evil isn’t something you are, it’s something you do.”
There is a flip side to this concept of being bounced out of the story. It is implicit in the relationship between a reader and a story that when one first opens a book (or opens a reading app, et cetera) the reader is ready to give the story the benefit of the doubt. Which isn’t to say that a reader is obligated to keep reading if they don’t enjoy the story or it becomes confusing or whatever. It just means that for the first sentence or so the reader will accept what is being offered.
Different readers have different definitions of that initial willingness to accept the story. I once had an English teacher insist that a good story shouldn’t begin with a compound, complex sentence. An arrogant smart aleck student in the class1 pointed out that the classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities, opens with a single very long sentence:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
One reason that opening works is because it doesn’t sound, in one’s head, like a run-on sentence. It has almost a musicality to it that builds and builds as it goes along. My favorite bit is the “we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”
Somedays when I read the news, I find myself convinced that we’re all going that other way and in a handbasket of colossal proportions.
But occasionally that handbasket induces a few giggles. Such as #CockyGate: This Romance Novelist Trademarked the Word ‘Cocky’: And now she’s threatening other writers with legal action if they don’t change their book titles and The #CockyGate Trademark Kerfuffle. The article gives more details. An intellectual property lawyer working with the Romance Writers of America has filed a petition with the Trademark office to invalidate the trademark on the word (and it is possible this will work; but the system has been inconsistent).
The notion that someone could trademark an adjective and forbid other people using that word in their stories (or even just the titles of stories) is a chilling one. I hope that, like the “space marine” trademark issue from five years ago, that this trademark bully will be stopped.
Because that’s what this is: bullying. The cocky author has been sending cease and desist messages to any other romance author who has used the word in a book title, including books that were first published long before she started writing herself. She’s been threatening to issue takedown notices to Amazon (just like the space marine trademark bully did years ago), which can result in lost sales as well as messing up their review and ratings histories, even when Amazon re-instates the listing. Also, some books were taken down when the cocky author contacted Amazon directly without first sending a letter to the author. The RWA and their lawyer has since contacted Amazon, to ask them to stop taking action on any cocky romance books until the legal matter is resolved. Fortunately, the books were restored.
It’s also a likely case of the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is the notion that incompetent people aren’t able to recognize their incompetence. In this case, I say that in part because of how the cease and desist messages are worded. Rather than having an actual lawyer draft the letters (which would cost money), she is writing her own, and her messages include the statement, “my lawyers have advised me that I will win all the monies you have earned on this title, plus lawyer fees will be paid by you.” Which clearly is not a statement a competent lawyer would make. The lawyer might say that if she prevails in a lawsuit that she might be entitled to the money earned and so forth, but they would never say they were even guaranteed to prevail.
And someone has already posted a parody book called, Too Cocky for the Law: Cockier Than the Rest (Cocky Legal Book 1), and have included the word cocky and many synonyms in the description. I have heard that the proceeds of the book are going to help with the legal fees of the trademark challenge, but I wasn’t able to confirm that.
I have been very tempted to create a parody e-book with the title Cocky Space Marine, but since I have crazy deadlines at my day job and a couple of fiction writing deadlines also looming, I really shouldn’t… even if the story almost writes itself…
1. It was me, all right.
So the other night, when I conked out after dinner unexpectedly, I woke up to find the apartment full of smoke and my Mom was standing at the door, calling to me to come help her open it because and we needed to get out and where is Michael? And I jumped up from the recliner, stumbled over a filebox on the floor trying to get to my mom and the door and just as I’m opening my mouth to yell for Michael the smoke had vanished. Also, Mom (who hasn’t visited us in over 20 years because travel is difficult for her for various health reasons) had vanished. There was no smoke. There was no fire. There had been no Mom.
And the dream was so vivid that I went to the bathroom and dug out the box with the unopened bottle of the nasal spray just to confirm that I hadn’t opened it and used it when the sinus headache had been real bad the night before. I didn’t remember using it, but the dream really felt like one of those, so I thought maybe in the middle of the night, when I was half asleep and had been tossing and turning because of the headache I had given in and added the spray to the mix of allergy pills and over the counter cold medications I’d already taken.
And that was only the first day of the fever.
I haven’t used the spray, but I keep having the weird dreams. The next morning my alarm watch went off a few hours after my husband left for work (he leaves much earlier than I even want to wake up). I often wake up briefly while he is getting ready for work. I may mumble, “I love you” or “Good morning” to him as I stumble to the bathroom and then back to bed. Sometimes I just try to wake up enough to say something to him and don’t succeed. Also I often wake up briefly once or twice before my alarm goes off, note that I still have more time to sleep, and roll over. But back to the alarm: The alarm was ringing and Michael is calling from the next room that I should turn off the alarm and asking if I’m going to try to go into the office or call in sick. And I get up and stumble out to the room where my Apple watch is on its charger to turn it off and I ask Michael, “What are you doing here? Did you get to work, decide you were too sick, and come back home?”
And Michael didn’t answer. But now that I’d spoken aloud, that was enough to completely wake me up, and I’m standing in front of the watch in its charger. Its face is lit up showing me that there are still two minutes until the alarm will actually go off.
There have also been two dreams where I was somewhere in the city trying to remember where I had parked the car because I either needed to pick up Michael somewhere or I was trying to get away from someone who was trying to hurt us. And both of those ended with me awake, standing in front of the phone charger, trying to find the app on the phone that will help me find the car. One of the mornings I wasn’t actually holding my phone, I was holding the TV remote (which is normally on the shelf above the phone charger), but I swear a few seconds before it had been my phone. And yes, it was as if I watched it morph from phone to remote as I finished waking up.
The fact that when I’m having a nightmare I will get up, walk around, talk (sometimes yell), and so forth is one of the reasons that normally I don’t watch scary movies, by the way.
So I still haven’t actually used the spray. I’m of two minds: since I seem to already be having the side effect I least like, maybe I should go ahead. On the other hand, the spray might just make the weird dreams even worse.
And this gets me to two reasons why I shy away from writing dream sequences in my fiction. When I have tried to write them like the dreams I remember, the reaction from readers (at least the ones I hear from) is that the dream was more confusing than enlightening. When I tried to write them to have a bit more narrative flow, readers say they went on too long. Having had these reactions, I am not enthused when someone suggests that a dream sequence would better explain a particular mystical thing happening in one of my stories.
Besides trying to get work done while juggling regular meds, symptoms of this cold thing, extra meds, it’s been a bit of a struggle to remember to keep hydrates and get enough caffeine in me so that I don’t wind up with a caffeine-deprivation headache on top of everything else. You would think that coffee, of all things, would be something I didn’t have to remind myself to drink, but you would be wrong.
I hope I’m well sooner rather than later.
Camp NaNoWriMo is underway, sponsored by the same people who do National Novel Writing Month. Camp happens in April and July each year with far more nebulously defined goals that NaNoWriMo’s big word count target. For camp, you set your own goals. Often people use camp to edit something already written, or to write something shorter than a novel, or to get out of a rut of non-productivity. Because of the camp metaphor, participants are encouraged to join a cabin, which is really just a small on-line chat. You can let yourself be randomly assigned to a cabin, or you can set up a private cabin and invite your friends, or you can join someone else’s private cabin.
I like having the expectation that I’ll publish my word-count (or number of words revised, or what ever) regularly and having at least a few people to kibbitz and commiserate with. My attempts at Camp have had a varying degree of success.
Anyway, part of my Camp NaNoWriMo project for this month is to implement some of the new things and changes that I’ve been thinking about as I’ve been revising my goals. I wrote earlier about why I hadn’t posted a list of goals for the year, nor posted monthly updates. The summary is that I’ve been writing private checklists each month, and so far each of those checklists has included at least one item about better defining my long terms goals. The list of long term goals is shaping up, though there are some details I haven’t quite finalized.
I am still using the model of attempting to replace a bad habit with a better habit. I’m also trying to redirect where I’m expending my energy and attention. I’ve been cutting back a bit on my Twitter activity, for instance. Another more obvious change is that I’ve replaced the labor-intensive Friday Links weekly post with a much easier to assemble Friday Five post.
When I start posting monthly updates on my goals, the posts are likely to be put up on Patreon, rather than here. I’m still figuring out how much and where other things I post a lot (such as my Writing Advice posts or my Why I Love SF/F posts) should be posted/cross-posted and how to manage that without it eating up more time than I’m freeing elsewhere.
I hope to finish a longish NorWesCon Convention report to post here this week. There is at least one movie review and one book review about half finished that should go up soon, too.
So that’s what is happening here. If you’re doing Camp NaNoWriMo, especially if you’re interested in joining my Cabin, leave a comment here, or send me a message on twitter, or send me an email with the Contact Me page here—or if you already have another way to ping me use that.
Let’s get writing!
When I wrote previously about subplots, I searched for other blog posts and articles about it to link to for other perspectives, and was surprised to see a few pieces of what I considered bad advice being repeated in a lot of them. For instance, many such articles insist that subplots must be resolved before the main plot. A few allowed an exception for a subplot that is intended to carry across multiple books (perhaps to become a main plot of a later volume), but most didn’t even mention that. And that’s simply wrong.
Let’s review a few definitions: the main plot is an obstacle, puzzle, or problem which confronts the protagonist at the beginning of the story, is resolved by the protagonist’s own actions at the end of the story, and is the thread that ties everything else together. A subplot is a subordinate plot taking up less of the action than the main plot, having fewer significant events occur, with less impact on the “world” of the work, and often occurring to less important characters. A resolution is the point where the outcome of a plot or subplot is revealed (or sometimes only suggested). And remember that a resolution isn’t always a solution in that the character can fail to solve the problem; which makes your story a tragedy.
Now, subplots can end before the main plot. In a novel many of them will as a matter of course, because some subplots are literally distractions and additional obstacles your protagonist encounters while pursuing their main goal. In order to rescue the enslaved knight, your protagonist may first need to get information from a mystical oracle, which may involve enduring some hardship just to consult the oracle. Then the oracle may tell her that she has to find a magic artifact, an ancient spell book, and a blood relative of the enslaved knight. Obtaining each of those involves a mini adventure and thus a subplot and resolution along the way, and so on.
But some subplots can also be resolved at the same time as the main plot. In the same fight that the protagonist frees the enslaved knight, a supporting character may rescue his children also captured by the main villain, while another supporting character avenges himself upon the minor villain who is a minion of the main villain, and so forth. Several subplots all being tied up at the same time. Pulling that off with a lot of the subplots, getting them to converge on the main plot, makes for a very satisfying climax to your novel.
However, a few subplots can also be resolved right after the climax, in the part of the novel known as the denouement. Time for another definition!
The denouement is that portion of the story where all the loose ends are tied together. Side note: the word comes to English from the French dénouement meaning to untie something—isn’t language funny? To get back to the main point: in most modern novels, the denouement is usually a single chapter at the very end, after the outcome of the main plot is revealed. It’s the time to assure the reader that the characters who survived and triumphed have actually gotten their happy ending, to show that the villains are indeed suffering, and so on. One of my university literature teachers described it as the time for the reader to catch their breath after the excitement of the resolution and say good-bye to their favorite characters.
I think the reason so many of those other blog posts and articles think that the subplot has to resolve before the main plot is because their authors conflated the resolution with the denouement. Which is easy to understand, because in short stories the resolution and denouement often happen in the same sentence. In plays and movies the denouement is usually in the same scene, comprising only a few lines of dialogue or the like after the resolution.
I mentioned above that most modern novels accomplish the denouement in a single chapter after the resolution. But that hasn’t always been the case. A great example of the old school way of doing it is found in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, in which the denouement goes on for nearly a third of the final book!
Some of your subplots will be those loose ends tied up during the denouement. Loose ends don’t always require an entire scene for a resolution, they can sometimes be handled by a couple of lines of dialogue. “But what happened to the elephant?” “I found him a good home with that druid we met at Gobsbridge.”
And yes, some of your subplots will be left unresolved, carrying over into a future installment. They can even, technically be introduced in the denouement! That moment when a supposedly minor sycophant of the main villain is shown to somehow have survived the explosion and is clinging to some floating wreckage down river, perhaps. Horror movies and the like often have the cliché of a single hand reaching out of the smoking wreckage, indicating one of the supposedly dead villains isn’t. You get the idea.
If you decide to emphasize that a subplot is going to continue into the next story, don’t lay it on too thick. You don’t want to overshadow the happy endings for those characters who got one. Remember, the denouement is a time to let the reader catch their breath. It’s a way to ease the reader out of the excitement and anxiety of the main plot. Yes, you want the reader to be interested in what happens in the next book, if you plan to write one, but they’re most likely to do that if they feel good about the ending of this one. That isn’t to say that everyone always has to get a happy ending. I’ve set denouement scenes at literal gravesides of heroes, as well as the bedside of two children being read a bedtime story by their grandfather who is taking them home to their mother with the news that their father was killed saving them.
So bittersweet and tragic endings are fine. But any indication you give that there is another adventure ahead for some of the characters shouldn’t leave the reader feeling as if the protagonist accomplished nothing.
Readers may not remember everything that happened during a story. They won’t remember a lot of the lines, scenes, plotholes and such that you worked hardest on. But they will always remember how you made them feel.
For another perspective on subplots, you might want to check out this blog: Writing and Such: Tackling Subplots