Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Sunday, March 04, 2012

How to Write a Paragraph

So, having covered the basics of how to write a functional sentence of narrative, I thought it made sense to scale that up to the paragraph level. To kick off then, let's find some material to work with, turning again to The Eye of Argon, the very opening this time:

The weather beaten trail wound ahead into the dust racked climes of the baren land which dominates large portions of the Norgolian empire. Age worn hoof prints smothered by the sifting sands of time shone dully against the dust splattered crust of earth. The tireless sun cast its parching rays of incandescense from overhead, half way through its daily revolution. Small rodents scampered about, occupying themselves in the daily accomplishments of their dismal lives. Dust sprayed over three heaving mounts in blinding clouds, while they bore the burdonsome cargoes of their struggling overseers.


One thing worth picking out for special attention here is the shift in a past tense narrative to present tense, with "dominates," a type of rupture of the narrative's own conventions that's as often as not a blaring signal of exposition. If you're conjuring an illusion of what was, slipping into phrasings that speak of what is -- that's a breach of your framing conventions.* As that opening sentence slides into present tense exposition of the locale's terrain being one "which dominates large portions of the Norgolian Empire," it ceases to be narrative and becomes notes toward narrative.

This is the detail you jot down in your notebook as you thrash out worldscape: the empire is called Norgolia; its lands are largely barren. This is the description you bore a friend with as you blather the background of your story to him: so it's set in the Norgolian Empire, like, which is mostly dusty wasteland, see? This is the present tense of summary, of synopsis. Where the narrative slips into that present tense here, it has ceased to be narrative for that reason, because we're dealing with summary that has not been fleshed out into story now. This is just a detail grabbed out of the sketches for story, slapped onto the page as is.

Aside from that point though, I'm not going to work these sentences individually through each individual principle, just fire through the process to get to the end result. And I'm not going to work the sentences too rigorously, just give them a quick and dirty rebuild to deal with the worst deficiencies. So...

First we fix the sundry spelling errors, and the two major malapropisms -- the wet "splatter" and "spray" attached to dry "dust." Then for the sake of clarity, if the hoof prints are "worn" by age, can they be "smothered" by time? Are they eroded or buried? Let's pick one and stick with it. For consistency, the sands should have "scoured" the hoof prints, I'd say. And how can anything shine dully? A light source can be dim, but if a surface is reflective then it's not dull. This is an oxymoron. Does it even make sense for the hoof prints to stand out at all if they're eroded/buried by time and the elements? If they're on the way to complete erasure you can't even say they "were visible" without logic demanding some sort of "only just" hedging.

Leaving the fix for "shine dully" aside for now though, that "scoured by... time" also renders "age-worn" redundant. We can remove "of incandescence" as another redundancy. We can cut "halfway through its daily revolution" for a "directly" in front of "overhead." Since "climes" is just a way to reference a terrain considered with reference to its climate, "the [...] climes of the [...] land" is basically "the terrain of the terrain." The default size for rodents is small, so we need not specify. "Rodents" is generic for "desert rats." There's a single word for stopgap "barren land" -- "wastes" or "desert." As we work our way through, there's plenty to take the scalpel to. Even without inappropriate splatter and spray, three uses of "dust" is just repeating yourself, so we can switch "dust-racked" and "dust-strewn" for other relevant qualities. Going for one focused on climate and the other on terrain, let's decide on "arid" and "cracked".

There's one fairly big issue here though. How are we even meant to make sense of that last sentence? Surely, the dust is being kicked up by the wind as three pack horses "heave" their "cargoes" (up a "winding" hill track,) these beasts of "burden" led onward by "overseers" who have to "struggle", hauling on the reins to keep the stubborn animals going. No?

As it turns out, no, not at all. For all that everything else in the sentence conjures just such an image -- in part because of concision gone wrong, because of the extra import(s) carried in every single word quoted above -- these are nonetheless mounts. And the only way to make sense of what follows is if their riders are battling, if there are no literal "cargoes" to be "burdensome" here, simply those riders as burdens. Is "heaving" meant to be "rearing" then? I'm going to presume it is. While we're at it, a burden is not a burden if it's not being borne, so we can eliminate that redundancy, take "rear" as the verb for the mounts. So, lightly applying the principles of how to write a half-decent sentence, we end up with this:

The weather-beaten trail wound ahead through the arid wastes which dominated large portions of the Norgolian Empire. Hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time [were only just visible] against the cracked crust of earth. The tireless sun cast its parching rays from directly overhead. Desert rats scampered about, occupying themselves in the daily accomplishments of their dismal lives. Dust swirled in blinding clouds around three mounts while they reared under the burdens of their battling riders.


Now we can start to think in terms of writing this as a paragraph.

Again the scalpel is your instrument. Following on from the principle that added that last extra "thrust" clause to the sentence, you need to be ready to carve up sentences where need be. Do not just murder your darlings. Cannibalise them. The key problem of the second sentence is how to link the two phrasings of "hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time" and "the dust-strewn crust of earth"? But do these really need to be linked at all? Murder that sentence, cut out the nonsense "shone dully" that is its heart, and you have two dismembered limbs that might well fit better elsewhere. You need to be ruthless enough that you don't hesitate to try such maneouvres.

What is the sun casting its rays upon? Couldn't it be that crust? What are the desert rats scampering over or among? Couldn't it be those hoof prints?

Note that the function of "from directly overhead" can be carried out with a simple "noon," so we can conjure the sun in its midday position and free up that position in the sentence. Into that position we can then just as easily insert the target of the sun's parching rays as their source. Note that "about" is a broad, generic term, a hand waved in the general direction of movement around any locale, whereas "among hoofprints scoured by the shifting sands of time" is specific, precise. So we end up with this:

The weather-beaten trail wound ahead through the arid wastes which dominated large portions of the Norgolian Empire. The tireless noon sun cast its parching rays upon the cracked crust of earth. Desert rats scampered among hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time, occupying themselves in the daily accomplishments of their dismal lives. Dust swirled in blinding clouds around three mounts while they reared under the burdens of their battling riders.


There's a lot still wrong with those sentences. The first still does a hard-left into blatant exposition, The second is overstuffed with all those adverbs. The tone and register of "occupying... accomplishments" in the third is utterly dissonant. And the fourth cuts to the quick of the moment about as well as a blunt spork bouncing off a brick. But each sentence is individually functional just enough that these flaws are now, I'd say, somewhat overshadowed by a greater issue of how they work together -- or rather how they don't work together. Where each might just about be forgiven by a tolerant reader if it occurred in another context, there is a cumulative effect that damns them all individually with the paragraph as a whole, an effect I've come to term deposition.

Deposition is narrative as flat testimony, as a droning account of events aimed not at conjuring the murder, so to speak, but merely at communicating the pertinent facts of the deed, as to a court. This happened. That happened. This was because of that. And so on. It is failed narrative for that reason, no matter how functional the prose is as prose. To repeat the axiom, where a sentence of prose is purposed to communicate, a sentence of narrative is purposed to conjure. And deposition does not conjure. To demonstrate the how and why of this, let's pretend that communication is our only concern here, break these sentences apart to convey the necessary information of what is happening in the most straightforward way. If communication is the name of the game, after all, aren't we just aiming for a text that even the simplest child can download into their brain through the eyeballs? So:

The weather-beaten trail wound ahead through the arid wastes. This was a barren land which dominated large portions of the Norgolian Empire. The tireless noon sun cast its parching rays upon the cracked crust of earth. Desert rats scampered among hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time. They were occupying themselves in the daily accomplishments of their dismal lives. Dust swirled in blinding clouds around three mounts. They reared under the burdens of their battling riders.


In case that's not excruciating enough for you, let's take a crowbar to the cracks, unpack it to a level of agonisingly belaboured fucktardery that should make any reader want to take a power drill to their forehead.

The trail was weather-beaten. It wound ahead through the arid wastes. This was a barren land which dominated large portions of the Norgolian Empire. The noon sun was tireless. It cast its parching rays upon the cracked crust of earth. Desert rats scampered among hoof prints. The prints were scoured by the shifting sands of time. The rats were occupying themselves in the daily accomplishments of their dismal lives. Dust swirled in blinding clouds around three mounts. They reared under the burdens of their battling riders.


For all that this is shorn of the worst bodgings of the original, for all that it's a perfectly adequate communication of the basic details Thiess was trying (as best I can tell) to conjure, it's a mind-numbing piece of flat deposition, bereft of all dynamics, dead on the page.

Note the subject-fronted sentences, the trudging repetition of the structure: A was X; B did Y; C was Z. This is a crude monotony of syntax not just dull in and of itself on both those counts -- simplicity and repetition -- but actively precluding the incision that would modify structure to reflect, for example, the sequence in which targe, steel, brawn and blade are registered by a soldier attacked and skewered in the guts.

This is crucial. With the whole principle of syntactic decision, it is not simply some vague rule that one should kinda mix it up just to keep things interesting; it is about the logic of story generating the logic of structure, the latter reflecting the causal relationships and focal shifts of the former. Deposition scissions the one from the other, thereby eliminating a requisite feature of narrative dynamics. It is not just boring narrative; like a ballet stripped of choreography, it is no longer truly an example of the art form it's aspiring to be.

Note also the sheer proportion of declarative sentences describing state rather than action. Even the first action that occurs -- the sun's rays being "cast" -- is really just a gloss on an ongoing process, as is the swirling of dust. The only true sentences of action here are the two in which the desert rats scamper and in which the horses rear. Static description of setting can be narrative if the absence of action by agencies is compensated for by an exercise of agency on the writer's part, if the framing and shifting of focus makes the very conjuring of the scene a coherent sequence of actions, but we do not have this here. Instead we have only the explication of the backdrop, the explanation of what little action takes place. Deposition can be understood as the exposition of story itself. There is no narrative, only the infodumping of a scenario.

Returning to the less deliberately depositional example then, it's not simply a matter of hacking the structure of those sentences about to create some variety. We need to apply incision on the paragraph scale, look for the logic of story that should be engendering the logic of structure. Look for more logical shifts of focus in and between sentences, as for example where, having shifted focus from sun to earth, there is a more logical shift from earth to trail. Which is to say, switching sentence order creates a smoother join:

The tireless noon sun cast its parching rays upon the cracked crust of earth. The weather-beaten trail wound ahead through the arid wastes which dominated large portions of the Norgolian Empire. Desert rats scampered among hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time, occupying themselves in the daily accomplishments of their dismal lives. Dust swirled in blinding clouds around three mounts as they reared under the burdens of their battling riders.


Still, in that second sentence focus is first pointed ahead to the middle and far distance (the arid wastes) and then widened out beyond even what is visible (the Norgolian Empire). This makes for an untenably drastic transition back to the immediate locale, especially on the small-scale of the desert rat. But since the flow of focus in that sentence has a movement from rats to hoof prints to sands, we might think of a broader structural logic, beginning with the rats among the hoof prints, widening to their immediate sun-parched locale, broadening out to the human-scale trail, to the wastes the trail is in, to the empire the wastes are in:

Desert rats scampered among hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time, occupying themselves in the daily accomplishments of their dismal lives. The tireless noon sun cast its parching rays upon the cracked crust of earth. The weather-beaten trail wound ahead through the arid wastes which dominated large portions of the Norgolian Empire. Dust swirled in blinding clouds around three mounts as they reared under the burdens of their battling riders.


If this is better on a broader scale though, it remains supremely awkward in the details. The focus is returned to the rats with the last clause of sentence one, so it's a hard jump to the sun that is parching the earth those rats are scampering across. But, wait. Isn't that our answer -- that the cracked crust of earth is a development of the rats' context? Where that second sentence is a description of state, indeed, can't we turn the focus back to the context -- the cracked crust of earth upon which the tireless noon sun cast its parching rays? If there's no action in that articulation now, we need only let the desert rats scurry on from the first sentence into the next.

Desert rats scampered among hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time, occupying themselves in the daily accomplishments of their dismal lives. They scurried over the cracked crust of earth upon which the tireless noon sun cast its parching rays. The weather-beaten trail wound ahead through the arid wastes which dominated large portions of the Norgolian Empire. Dust swirled in blinding clouds around three mounts as they reared under the burdens of their battling riders.


But this breaks the smooth link between earth and trail. Now no sooner do we cast our eye on the wider terrain than the sun grabs focus with its action. Do we really want it to have focus at all, we must ask ourselves, as a force acting here and now, or should it be relegated to the background, gestured at as the force explaining a quality of the locale more immediately pressing -- given that we're dealing with the hoof prints, the sands, the earth, the trail?

Desert rats scampered among hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time, occupying themselves in the daily accomplishments of their dismal lives. They scurried over the cracked crust of earth parched by the rays of the tireless noon sun. The weather-beaten trail wound ahead through the arid wastes which dominated large portions of the Norgolian Empire. Dust swirled in blinding clouds around three mounts as they reared under the burdens of their battling riders.


Now those two sentences positively reach out for each other. Given the hoof prints, that cracked crust of earth must surely be the trail, the trail that wound ahead:

Desert rats scampered among hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time, occupying themselves in the daily accomplishments of their dismal lives. They scurried over the cracked crust of earth parched by the rays of the tireless noon sun, the weather-beaten trail that wound ahead through the arid wastes which dominated large portions of the Norgolian Empire. Dust swirled in blinding clouds around three mounts as they reared under the burdens of their battling riders.


But how do we get to that final sentence? This is a sudden jump from a setting with only the desert rats as agents into the action of humans on horses suddenly just there in clouds of dust. Ouch.

But a sudden shift of focus is not necessarily a bad thing. This is a quiet scene shattered by the human agents bursting onstage. Focus is being usurped from those little agents who have become now, up until this point, the subject of the paragraph. But we cannot reflect that shattering of quietude without returning from the vast scope of the Norgolian Empire to the immediate small scale locale, returning to the ground-level perspective of the rats about to have their dismal lives so rudely interrupted. We need a stitch here, a rat logically linked to what's beyond its ken -- the boundaries of empire, the riders that have not yet arrived. Insert a rat with its attention on the beyond and we can then smash its peace, send it fleeing, surrendering focus and subject status to the sudden new arrivals.

We can even deepen the effect by making that one little rat the sole subject of the paragraph up to that point, focus in from the general to the specific -- again, from the general to the specific. We'll use a few little tweaks to better conjure that perspective while we're at it. A rat is not an office worker occupied in accomplishments, for example. It is not educated in geography, so we want to avoid the parlance of the schoolroom as we slip in the ubiquity of this terrain across the empire. The trail is not "ahead" to it.

A desert rat scampered among hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time, busy with the daily struggles of its dismal life. It scurried over a cracked crust of earth parched by the rays of a tireless noon sun, a weather-beaten trail that wound through arid wastes all too common in the Norgolian Empire. The rat stopped, sniffed the air, and darted for cover. Dust swirled in blinding clouds around three mounts as they reared under the burdens of their battling riders.


But let's go further. Let's frame with the hoof prints, to have a glint of setting before we bring the little agent in. Note how this also makes a smoother shift from its action of scampering to the purpose of that action, and on to the continuation in the next sentence. Note how the slight disruption of jumping back from the far reaches of the "Norgolian Empire" to "the rat" is echoed in the disruption of the rat's motion, how it becomes a subtle structural signal of disruption -- a surrogate for the untold disruption that causes the rat to stop, a foreshadowing of the disruption about to send it running. Let's milk that moment's tension a little, draw out the pause structurally and slingshot into the the eruption of human-level activity. Let's bring the hooves of the opening line back with a vengeance as a key image of that disruption. Wouldn't the untold disruption be their thundering, after all? Wouldn't the blinding clouds of dust be kicked up specifically by them rather than just the mounts?

Over hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time, a desert rat scampered, busy with the daily struggles of its dismal life. It scurried across a crust of earth parched and cracked by the rays of a tireless noon sun, a weather-beaten trail that wound through arid wastes all too common in the Norgolian Empire. The rat stopped, sniffed the air, and... darted for cover as dust swirled up in blinding clouds at the hooves of three mounts, rearing under the burdens of their battling riders.


It's still not quite enough. Those horses can't suddenly just appear on stage, rearing, as if they were there all along; they have to enter dramatically. They need to come galloping on -- but not keep galloping on out of frame. In the absence of any attempt to make this sensible in the original, let's just use the rearing to suggest the stopping and turning to engage that would have to take place. Given that it's a wild eruption of action, in fact, it's quite in line with the principle of incision to simply throw some verbs at the reader, quickfire, to make a structural pivot out of which we swing into the image of the fight. And with a few more tweaks and twiddles, maybe we've finally got a working paragraph:

Over hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time, a desert rat scampered, busy with the daily struggles of its dismal life. It scurried across a crust of earth parched and cracked by a pitiless noon sun, on the edge of a weather-beaten trail that wound through arid scrub, through the sort of barren wastes all too common in the Norgolian Empire. The rat stopped, sniffed the air and... darted for safety as dust swirled up in blinding clouds at the hooves of three mounts galloping, whirling, rearing under the weight of clashing riders.


Like the sentence example, it's far from deathless prose. Given the source it's hard to avoid a certain clichéd quality of pastiche. I can't resist, in fact, switching "pitiless" in for "tireless" just to get the alliteration with "parched," because really as far as I'm concerned, the idiom is calling for a dash of such relish, hokey as it is. But again the point is not to turn shite into gold, just to show the basics of how one... works the conjuration, so to speak, on this next level up. It's about showing the link between the logic of story and the logic of structure, about unpacking some of the dynamics of narrative focus, demonstrating just how fatal the effect of deposition can be. Make the mistake of imagining narrative to be mere communication, and you may well end up killing your story with every sentence, over and over and over and over, every single trudging flat declarative a bloody tortuous murder of the craft that will make your reader -- believe me -- scream and weep.

If you can learn to write a decent paragraph, on the other hand... well, now we're starting to get into the territory of PoV and voice, and if you can master those I'd argue that a whole lot of the rest of it simply follows.

***

* Unless it's not. The whole narrative could be cast as the reflection of a first person narrator character, for example, (past tense) but with the action of narration itself taking place within the worldscape of the novel (present tense). This is to say that there's an extra level of framing in the narrative. That present tense narrative frame might well be revealed in glimpses as your first person narrator interjects the odd comment on what is to elucidate what was. This is not what's happening here though.

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13 Comments:

Blogger Trip said...

(This is Emo from other comments here and the e-mails.)

Hal, I can't tell you how much I enjoy and appreciate this, both the post on the sentence and this one. In most places you simply read my thoughts on how the writing process, slowed way down, works.

These go directly to the "Important" folder on my Kindle.

Again, thank you!

9:12 am  
Blogger green_knight said...

This is a fascinating post and one I will be pondering in detail.

I just would like to point out that the 'heaving' horses are breathing heavily - so rather than galloping onto the scene, they are trudging along, which fits the burden much better.

On a more general note, I'd like to see a post from you on the good sides of Jim Theis' writing. It's very easy to pick on the bad things, but it's by no means the the worst piece of writing I've come across.

If he, age sixteen, had come to your workshop, what would you have told him?

5:50 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I just would like to point out that the 'heaving' horses are breathing heavily - so rather than galloping onto the scene, they are trudging along, which fits the burden much better.

I'm afraid you're quite wrong here, in a couple of ways.

First, you're asserting a "correct" reading that doesn't exist. The horses don't exist, so there's no facticity to what they "are" or "aren't" doing. There's only the fact of what is being, or is most likely to be, conjured in a reader's mind. So, it might be that you can project a functional meaning into this phrasing; that doesn't mean that the import you glean in it is the "real" or "actual" meaning. For the reader who takes the word in its "haul" sense, that is what the horses are doing. That is the import of the term for them.

Second, you're asserting a "correct" meaning that doesn't work. The word "heave" used in the sense you're ascribing is a transitive verb -- one that requires both a subject and an object. One can "heave a sigh of relief," but one cannot simply "heave." Used intransitively "heave" is either a colloquial term for vomiting or it signifies a rhythmic rising and falling motion -- as in "heaving bosom" or "the sea heaved." In other words, the import of the term for you is based on misuse.

The point is, the reading in which one imagines an onward trudging motion here in place of your projected meaning of "breathing heavily" is not just as valid; it's more valid. That reading is working within the conventional usage(s) of the word "heave," while yours is not. Using "heave" to mean "pant" here is a malapropism.

7:45 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Still, I don't dispute that trudging is what's being conjured here. This is my point indeed, that it does so by clumsy implication. Note that in your reading of "heave" the only other verb in use, "bore," says nothing about forward motion. That they have their riders on their backs does not mean that the horses are moving at all. So you, like me, are reading between the lines, having a plodding forward movement conjured by the general connotative load of "heaving," "burden," et al..

The key problem is, as I say, that the only way to make sense of what follows is to revise that imagery.

Think about it. The horses are plodding along down the trail like carthorses or pack mules, step by weary step, while their riders are engaged in pitched battle? Really? Are we to imagine a horseback pursuit at a leaden pace? Can you imagine an old Western movie with a cowboy being chased by a posse, gunfire back and forth, but with the horses moving at a weary plod? This is an image both implausible and bathetic. It's reminiscent of the milk float parody of Speed in the sitcom Father Ted:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L90BduGKuTo

This is what ultimately requires us to push the revision of that final sentence a little further. It is quite possible, really, that Thiess just didn't think through what was going on here, didn't visualise it clearly enough to realise the absurdity of a plodding horseback battle. Part of what I'm demonstrating here, then, is that working the sentences and paragraphs further should lead to exactly this sort of decision (c.f. the first principle of sentence-writing) -- that it just doesn't work to have the horses slowly "heave" their way on-scene.

8:09 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

As regards a post on good qualities in Thiess's writing... it's pretty much incompetent at the simple level of communicative prose, never mind as narrative. As narrative, with deficits in all possible aspects, it's dysfunctional across the board. I've seen worse writing but that's just a matter of degree -- other works having even more redundancy, even more convolution, even more of the sundry flaws evidenced by The Eye of Argon.

The bottom line is that it doesn't work. Think of this series of Writing 101 posts as like a pottery class. I'm aiming to show how one crafts a misshapen lump of clay into a pot. And the point of using TEoA is that it is a patently misshapen lump of clay, one that doesn't even hold water. The best that can be said for it is that other dysfunctional works are even more misshapen.

The idea of a post on what TEoA is doing right presupposes basic functionality that's just not there. So if I wanted to take a passage of something and show what one should be doing in narrative by pointing to such features embodied in that text... I'd have to use a different text as example.

8:49 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

What would I have said to a 16 year old Thiess handing that in to the GSFWC?

The GSFWC being a group workshop, having maybe a dozen members with turns to take in a session of a few hours, I wouldn't have had the time to go into the text at the sort of depth I've done here; there would be plot problems and whatnot to cover too in a few minutes apiece. Even if I got something like TEoA as a paid critique, my report would be... well, more like this, but again not quite as thorough, as that report would also have to cover a whole lot of other aspects, from PoV to overall plot dynamics.

With either situation, I'd likely encourage him not to take it personally and to take hard criticism as a spur to do better. Other than that, I'm not one to mollycoddle. If a writer doesn't get enthused by a nuts-and-bolt critique that shows how serious a problem is but how easily it could be resolved with hard graft, then they lack a resolve and a writerly vision that I can't give them with a pat on the back over their "talent" or "imagination."

9:18 pm  
Blogger green_knight said...

Hal,
I take your point that the horses are imaginary, but 'heaving' in relation to horses is a technical term - it's not an overly common use as a verb, but it describes a specific action, a horse pushing air in and out with its flanks, usually associated with limited lung function (COPD/'heaves') or extremely exhausted horses. And that picture goes with 'burdensome cargoes of their struggling [overseers].' - horses exhausted, trudging along, riders equally exhausted, hanging onto the saddle.

(Whether it's my kind of struggle- with the journey - or yours - with an enemy - needs to be determined by the surrounding text.)

Your rearing horses, on the other hand, are a cinematic effect, and feel out of place.

And the point of using TEoA is that it is a patently misshapen lump of clay, one that doesn't even hold water. The best that can be said for it is that other dysfunctional works are even more misshapen.

At sentence level, undoubtedly. At story level... I'm not so sure. It strikes me *as* clay - as something you could form something out of, which is a better starting point than bits of rusty metal and tapioca pudding.

If a writer doesn't get enthused by a nuts-and-bolt critique that shows how serious a problem is but how easily it could be resolved with hard graft, then they lack a resolve and a writerly vision that I can't give them with a pat on the back over their "talent" or "imagination."

I would argue that for many people it's not 'easy' (because if all they needed was hard work, most of them would already have done it.) Not everybody reacts to harsh criticism (however justified) with 'I'll SHOW them'. And not having that mindset doesn't necessarily make someone a bad writer.

All this sounds a bit ungrateful - I am glad that you're putting these criticisms up step by step because they're giving me a lot to think about, and I appreciate the time you took to post these.

10:30 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Hmmm, OK. A bit of Google-fu does reveal a medical/veterinarian usage. Clearly the adjective has been transferred over time from the flanks which are actually carrying out the action to the horse in general. And if that's conventional within horse-riding circles, I'm not going to argue that it's "incorrect" to do so. Consider my hat eaten.

However... it still ain't a standard usage outside those circles. It's still going to read to anyone not versed in the lexis of horse-owners and vets as misapplied -- applied to the horse when it should be applied to the flanks, just as "rippled" is applied to an arm when it should be applied to muscles in the previous sentence example. Why? Because the transitive use is the standard use. Look at the etymology of the term, understand how all the various usages relate to the root hebban meaning to raise, and it should be clear why the average reader is going to think "Huh?! What are the horses heaving? Or do you mean their flanks are heaving?"

I'm hardly one to defend reader ignorance, to underestimate their intelligence. I could happily defend a technical use like this on the basis of precision, credit the average reader with the savvy to either know it or go look it up if need be -- c.f. the use of "targe" in the sentence example. But here the technical use ain't even in the dictionary. The condition "the heaves" has made it in, but any reader not boned up on the parlance of horse-doctors... if they go to the dictionary, they're only going to have their sense that this is wrong validated.

And given the meanings that are common use, given the relationships between them, that majority of readers who don't parley horse-talk are going to be jarred by this idiosyncratic use quite at odds with their understanding of where the word works and where it does not. In terms of clarity then, "heaving" remains, I'd argue, a bad choice.

As for rearing being a cinematic effect -- well, for sure, it's a visual cliché brought in as a quick and dirty fix for the bathos of a plodding horseback fight or, if one imagines the overseers (c.f. slave-drivers) struggling to lead pack horses weighed down by cargoes, the non sequitur of combat coming out of nowhere in the next lines. Because one can do that by a) revising the paragraph so as to link with what follows, or b) rethinking the entire opening incident of the scene. And this is a post dealing with paragraphs. Fixing bathos/illogic in the action is for another day.

If your work is unintentionally absurd though, it does need to be fixed.

5:52 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

It strikes me *as* clay...

Well, sure it does. The Eye of Argon is clay in terms of the general story elements. It can't not be. It's pretty much wholly constituted of the tropes and clichés of a highly formulated pulp genre -- S&S. Start with Howard and move up through the decades via Lieber to Moorcock. There's forty years or so of the constituent stuff of story being formulated for that genre. By the time Thies was writing? When you have an idiom in which story is constructed by inserting conventional components into conventional structures, to say that an attempted example of that idiom has the stuff of story in it is nigh on tautological. An attempt to copy characters, settings and actions so formulated one can virtually do so with a single word -- e.g. "barbarian" -- manages to achieve its intent of being derivative. Colour me unimpressed. There's no shame in it. I dare say it's what most sixteen year old writers with such roots would be doing. But if you pick a Swords-&-Sorcery story template off the shelf, you don't get credit for the story stuff that comes with it.

7:44 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I would argue that for many people it's not 'easy' (because if all they needed was hard work, most of them would already have done it.)

There's little difficulty in changing the words of a text, even less so now in the era of word processing. The only difficulty lies in knowing when and how to do so. But that knowledge is a skill, and that skill is developed by hard graft -- not just the practice of making stuff up and writing it down, but the practice of testing one's writing, i.e. pausing, rereading, asking the hard questions, doing so habitually with what you write until it's second nature (c.f. decision as intuitive, instinctual, instantaneous.) Asking the hard questions is a struggle at first, but so is learning any skill. So, yes, it's difficult to learn enough about how a car engine works to be a mechanic. When I talk about fixing being "easy" here, I just mean it's not hard to turn a spanner here or there if someone is talking you through what needs done.

So, most people will not have done the hard graft of applying the skill properly on one story because they haven't done the hard graft of applying it crudely over past stories, the hard graft by which you acquire that skill. If they're looking for a nuts-and-bolt critique, one can assume they haven't slogged their way to savvy, want someone to help them out in that regard. Fair enough. If you want an MOT on your car of a novel, I'll give you an MOT. I'm not going to waste your time and mine waffling on about how lovely the furry dice are. Especially not when you're an apprentice mechanic looking to learn how engines work.

"But it's so hard!" is not a reason for me to downplay the issues or bury them in cock-fluffing. Not if what you're looking for is my critical savvy.

9:44 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

True, not everyone reacts well to the bottom line of what they need to do to get the engine running. In part, that's because everyone is a bit precious at first. But you need to get the fuck over that if you want to write seriously, so coddling is counter-productive. In part, it's because some don't actually want to write at all; they want to have written. Coddling here is just the validation they want instead of critique. And I'm not going to pander to counter-critical egoism.

As far as fiction goes, see, that testing is an inherent part of writing as a craft rather than as a hobby. If you don't enjoy that aspect of it, if you don't get pleasure out of pushing yourself, challenging the text regardless of your emotional investment in it -- hell, as part of your emotional investment in it -- if tough critique is not an exciting opportunity to improve your skills and the products of them, you're a hobbyist, not a craftsman.

There's nothing wrong with writing as a hobby. There are even writers' circles for people who want to get together around that interest, share their work with each other, enjoy a mutually supportive environment that's not about participants challenging each other to excel. The GSFWC is not one of them. And if someone's paying me good money for an MS critique, I'm damn well going to assume they don't want to be treated as a hobbyist without real aspirations.

It's not about an "I'll show them" confidence. It's about an attitude that responds keenly to a detailed analysis of problems and potential solutions because it asks the hard questions you didn't even know needed asked; because it resolves your vague lack of confidence as an "aspiring" writer into tangible flaws you can tackle; because it highlights the issues you actually sorta knew needed fixed, but were papering over, making excuses for; because it crystallizes a niggling sense of wrongness where you were circling round a problem, not quite able to nail it down.

If you don't have that attitude, you don't want to write, you want to have written. You enjoy the making-stuff-up part. You enjoy the sense of achievement at the end when it's all written down. But you don't enjoy the testing and problem-solving that is inherent to writing as a craft, don't enjoy it enough to anticipate when someone hands you a break-down of faults. And if you don't have that appetite for getting deep into the substance of story, no amount of encouragement will urge you to invest the time and effort you need to invest in what will always seem to you like hard work.

I give critiques on the assumption that the writer has that fire. If they don't, the straight no-nonsense literary MOT won't be the validation they're really looking for. But that's not what they asked for.

10:36 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey,

I know it doesn't mean much, but your personal comments to my posts, and your writing 101 lessons helped.

You didn't have to waste your time responding to me, but I'm grateful you did.

Cheers,

10:10 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Glad you found it of use. :)

3:33 pm  

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