Monday, March 25, 2013

Grammar Corner: Forget Grammar

That's what the editor is for! Not to mention the second draft.

Now this grammar suggestion, this one is quite controversial in the writing world, and has been a point of contention between authors and the different schools of writing. However, as far as I am concerned this is one of the most important rules. Allow me to explain.

Grammar is a necessary and innate part of our culture as a writer. This we know. The key word in that phrase is innate. If we want to call ourselves writers, something we are already quite familiar with is the English language (or any language in which you are writing in), and how to use it. We have a lot of practice in the realm of grammar just out of practice alone. We know simple sentences have a noun, verb, and predicate, and end in periods, questions end in question marks, and exclamation marks can be an eyesore when there are too many in unison. We get this and our hands and brain know how to deal with it naturally.

So what do I mean when I say forget grammar?


I mean literally, forget it. Not in the sense where you completely disregard it, or go out of your way to make every sentence you write a grammatical fallacy. No, nothing like that. What I mean is simple. Do not let grammar dictate your writing. Do not spend hours and hours letting the sentence structure of one section of your prose keep you stuck for hours because it's just not right. We're all guilty of this, I know I am. When a sentence doesn't flow right, we fixate. Every writer is a little bit OCD in my opinion, and like any OCD it starts to interfere not only with the writing, but the life of the writer.

So forget it.

Now this is easier said than done of course, as is anything with writing. Because we've been trained, no conditioned from a very young age to be very attentive to grammar and grammatical fallacies. We've been taught to worship the academic essay and the 9 sentence structure.

Stop! Right now! Just throw that all out of your mind, because if you're here, you are writing for pleasure, you are writing because it's something you enjoy, because you're embracing something deeper than the academic essay. Any manual can teach you how to write a good research paper, but no manual in the world can tell you how to properly break all the rules and become a New York Times Bestseller.

One of the greatest things about being a writer is the freedom we are given. When we let go of the mental constraints that grammar puts on us, the need to make sure we always use the right word at the right time, the right, right or write, then or than, or even where we put a comma in a sentence. Constantly watching for little mistakes that are easy to spot and edit later, we are inhibiting our natural writing process, and inhibiting our ability to write all together.

And sentence structure, that's another matter all together. We are given all these rules that tell us how to write a sentence, but those rules often lead to dry and frankly boring commentary that wouldn't be fit in a 'How-To' manual. So forget about those rules. Writing is an art form, and one of the greatest achievements an artist can make evolving the art. Many authors have adopted a lyrical or poetic approach to their writing, replacing periods for commas, or quotations with never underestimating the intelligence of the reader. Play with your writing, build on your writing, and worry about grammar later.

Those little mistakes that everyone nags and nitpicks about, those can be edited in the future. But losing your story because you're not able to focus because all the rules are holding you down, that can sometimes be devastating. So just write, and enjoy what you're writing. Grammar, sentence structure, rules; all of those can wait until later.

Note: This is merely the thoughts and ideal expressed by me personally and may not be shared with other contributors on this blog. And remember, editors are there to help you.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Vocab word of the week


  [tas-i-turn]  Show IPA
inclined to silence; reserved in speech; reluctant to join in conversation.
dour, stern, and silent in expression and manner.
1765–75;  < Latin taciturnus,  quiet, maintaining silence, equivalent to tacit us silent (see tacit) + -urnus adj. suffix of time

tac·i·turn·ly, adverb
un·tac·i·turn, adjective
un·tac·i·turn·ly, adverb

1. silent, uncommunicative, reticent, quiet.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Notes on Dystopia

At the Solstice MFA Winter Residency, I attended a class on writing Dystopian literature taught by the wonderful Laura Williams McCaffrey.  We discussed a few novels during the class (The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi and 1984 by George Orwell) and delved into some of more intricate characteristics of Dystopia.

Firstly, we discussed the idea that there is no such thing as objective time.  It is relative in every way (the experience of time), regardless of the ways we have discovered in measuring it.  When you extract all rigidity from time itself you open yourself up to alternative time-lines and alternative nows.  In one 'now' you are married, in another 'now' you are not.  How many nows, how many yous?  The possibilities are endless.  The alternative nows are what Dystopia is all about.  True, these stories are often placed in the future, but that is a future that 'could' happen in the now, or a future that the 'now' is helping to create, or, most vitally, it is a now that is already happening this very moment, but we just don't or won't realize it.  In Bacigalupi's story, the backdrop of war and child soldiers is terrifying and upsetting, but it is also a reality: In several parts of the world, there are children who live this life everyday.

Dystopia is a juxtaposition of the possible and the actual, the future and the now, the there and the here.  It is wrought with all the things that keep you up in the night.  Not just monsters, but broad ideas and abstractions that chill you to the bone.  The goal of this type of writing is to make the strange familiar and make the familiar strange and to upset habituality. Suddenly going to the market place to buy apples becomes a dangerous and alien experience, while searching dead bodies for gold teeth becomes just part of the morning routine.   Dystopia draws its power from destabilizing characters, events, settings, and even language. For more information on this concept, Laura recommends an essay by Charles Baxter called "On Defamiliarization" from Burning Down the House.  Another source, one that I highly recommend, that some might find valuable are Anne Bogart's essays from A Director Prepares.

In terms of the overall concept of a story, it should be rooted in something concrete that your audience can relate to or at least understand.  Essentially, find the Hurricane Sandy in your story and make people respond to your abstract idea.  Think to yourself, what might be the worst outcome of 'now,' and study history and human nature because plausibility is what makes Dystopia such a frightening genre.   Study regimes, dictators, and hegemonic power systems.  Ground the 'now' of your novel with the horrors of things that have already happened.  And never forget that your characters are the key.  Put your main characters in the center of the problem, don't skirt around the society through the eyes of a casual observer.  In 1984, the main character works in the records department that allows him to see clearly all of the corruption and censorship around him that others might not be privy to.  In The Drowned Cities, the characters are directly caught up in the conflicts of the war lords and the direct fallout of unsuccessful peace keeping missions.  Show us this unrecognizably familiar new world from within.

Amanda LaFantasie (Skoora) © March 2013

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Craft Choice: Tone

Made in MS Paint

Something in craft that can often escape the writer's train of thought is, tone. What is tone? To put it simply it is the voice your writing takes on, the mood it exudes. How do you want to make the reader feel? Do you want to grip their heart with an emotional roller coaster, or do you want to make them laugh out loud at witty humor? What feeling are you trying to portray? That is tone; but why is it important?

Tone is what draws a reader in, what makes them sympathize with characters and settings and what makes them cry, what makes them laugh. Tone to put it simply, is the backbone of your writing, and it is what helps get the meaning of the story across. So what can a writer do to get the tone across? Is it all emotion? Or is there an  rubric towards immaculately writing a story with good voice? That's not so easily answered, and every writer's opinion will differ on the topic. Below are some suggestions of my own that I've picked up during my time as a writer, as well as the advice from my professors and other great writers.

One method, that I spoke about earlier on in Detangled Writers, is verb consistency. Everything in your story is going to work to create your tone, including the tense you use, so yes, in a way there is a rubric. How does your character relate to time and place? How does he/she respond to the reactions around them. Another hint towards tone is internal dialog. A characters thoughts and feelings can set the tone for the entire story. Another thing about tone to consider is your own feeling as the author when you're writing and how your own emotions can influence the story. It is sometimes a real challenge to actively influence while at the same time trying to proactively keep yourself from influencing your story. However the real challenge is knowing when to consciously and subconsciously pull in the reigns.

Sounds like a breeze doesn't it?

Try thinking of writing as a labyrinth. There is a beginning, there is an end, and then there are a million and a half wrong turns and challenges you will have to face between the two. However, with enough diligence and a good dose of  humor, you can make it past the hurdles and you will find the end. That's where the real work begins.

Many an acclaimed writer would tell you for your rough draft, just write! And this is good advice, great advice in fact. Just write, get it out, don't care how horrible you think it is, or how wonderful you think it is. Your second draft will be nothing like your first draft, and this is because that's when the real work begins. That is when you as the writer will have to make the tough decisions, and tone is one of those decisions. It will be your job to make sure the tone is consistent and flows, and moves the story. It will be your job to make sure that you're saying everything in a way that is tangible to the reader, while keeping the story true to its roots. It is during this phase that you will really have to make choices about your craft, and this is where you'll have to pay particular attention to tone.

Questions you can ask yourself during your revision/rewriting phase in regards to tone:

  • What is my message? Is there a message?
    • Do you have an agenda in your story? If you do, be it personal, political, etc, your prose will take on a tone to match that agenda.
  • What is my genre? 
    • For example, Mystery writing tends to have a very different tone than romance.
  • What kind of characters am I employing for my story? 
    • How do the characters interact with the world, interact with each other? Do they look at the world with optimism, pessimism, indifference? How do their interactions affect the world around them?
  • What is the setting? 
    • Setting can play a HUGE role in tone. For example, are you in a fast paced city where it just feels like you never get a moment to breathe? Well then your tone will probably be quick, with twists and turns that leave the reader's head spinning. This is okay as long as you don't lose the reader in the processes. On the contrary, if you're writing a story that takes place on a smooth, languid lakefront, your tone will probably be slower, perhaps more philosophical. 
There are many other questions you can ask yourself too, but not to overwhelm you, I'll leave it there. The point of these questions are simple: What are you trying to say? And really, that is the purpose of tone. Writing is an art form, and just like a painter will paint and expressive piece of work to invoke feeling into the viewer, that is what you're doing in your writing. Tone is how you do that. So next time you write, ask yourself the tough questions, and when you finish a draft, read through it. How is the story moving? Is it consistent? Does it feel right for the story? If not, well you might have to rewrite it, but understanding the role tone plays can certainly help. 

Finally, consider the elements of your story piece by piece. Consider the symbolism, the atmosphere, the setting. Consider how your world works on it's own, and then how the world works integrated with the characters. Lastly, consider the senses, how do the senses work to influence tone? How does your character see? Hear? Feel? Is your character deaf or blind? Are they emotionally detached? Does the world exude a feeling all its own? Is the setting its own character? These are all things to consider during your revision phase. You might be surprised by how your story changes.

So here is my question to you: How often do you think of tone in your writing? Does it play a role in your writing? Is it conscious or subconscious? Has this helped you re-evaluate the role of tone/voice in your own writing?

Monday, March 4, 2013

Vocab word of the week


2  [keen]  Show IPA
a wailing lament for the dead.
verb (used without object)
to wail in lamentation for the dead.
verb (used with object)
to bewail or lament by or with keening.
1805–15;  < Irish caoine  (noun), caoin-  (v., stem of caoinim lament

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Craft Choice: Point of View

When composing a narrative, one must examine point of view.  There are many different types, some of these are rather common while others are obscure and typically only attempted by the masters of craft.  This is meant as a refresher for POV since most of us, if not all of us, are familiar with and have written in the vast majority of different POVs.
  • Third Person Limited: 'he' or 'she' is used to denote a POV character and it is through this character that we experience the story.  We see through his/her eyes.
  • Third Person Unlimited or Multiple: the POV character changes throughout the story usually by chapter.  In one chapter we experience things through character A and then in the next we experience it through character B and so on.
  • Third Person Omniscient: it still uses 'he' and 'she' but now the narrative voice is above and beyond a single character.  We see through the eyes of every character and 'head pop.'  It can be difficult to do this and keep the audience clear and who's head we are in and when.  
  • First Person: 'I' is used and the POV character is the narrator.  
  • Second Person: 'You' is used and the narrative tells 'you' what to do or what you are feeling.  This is mainly used in 'how to' type writing and text books.  The choose your own adventure tales also employ this technique.
These are the building blocks of narrative and once you learn to use them, you are more than welcome to abuse them.  Mix it up!  Jonathan Stroud's Bartimeaus Trilogy employs the use of third person multiple as well as first person depending on which character's head we are in.  

In college (undergrad) I had a professor who stated most adamantly that female authors should only write from the POV of female characters and male authors should only write from the POV of male characters.  He also said that most, if not all, stories should be written in third person limited and keep with one character throughout the entire novel.  Recently, during grad school, I met several accomplished and aspiring authors who awakened me to the freedom we have in writing.  They encouraged me to play with POV and also reaffirmed my belief in the commonality of human experience, a.k.a women can write men and men can write women.  For me, being given a sort of permission to mix up POVs and play with alternating POV characters in a story, was extremely liberating.  I encourage our contributors and readers to never feel limited in delivery.

Please visit the following sites for other definitions and explanations of POV: The Beginning Writer, Humboldt.Edu, and Learner.Org.  For further discussion on this topic, comment below!

Amanda LaFantasie (Skoora) © 2013