07 July 2005 by Published in: writing 2 comments

Wow the new version of ecto looks pretty slick, despite the fact that it still doesn’t post extended entries in Nucleus. The icons are more professional looking and everything is easier to find. Lots of boring musing about writing and critiquing and my shortcomings follows. You were warned.

I started revising “Hindsight” on Tuesday, and spent about 3 hours on it. I’m probably three quarters of the way through, and will likely finish it later today. I think it will be a much stronger story when I’m done, perhaps one that I’m ready to send off. Here’s the thing, though, I’m not using any of the Critters critiques I got at all. In fact, I’ve stopped reading them, and there are right this second seven sitting in my inbox unread. I’ll have to read them eventually because I’ll have to thank the people who bothered, but I don’t need what they’ll tell me for my revision. Instead, I am using the recommendations of two people from my writer’s group, one of whom is a lady who spent many years as an editor. There were some critiques from Critters that were worthwhile, don’t get me wrong, but here’s the thing: there were too many of them and they were too divergent. Describe more, describe less. The dialogue was great, the dialogue sucked. The story was not engaging, the story was fascinating. And so on. The people who thought they didn’t get it could recite the plot back to me effortlessly, while the people who assumed I didn’t understand my own story fumbled the most basic concepts. The accusations of plagiarism surfaced at several points referencing things I’d never seen/heard/read but no one mentioned the obvious Sandman references I was concerned about (which are now gone, by the way). Others said my story was wildly imaginative and original, which made me suspect everything else those particular critters said, because if they hadn’t encountered some incarnation of the world I was playing in, they can’t have read very widely. Some people demanded that my unnamed characters (that would be all of them, in “Hindsight”) be named without seeming to notice that would fundamentally change the story. Almost universally, my descriptions were praised (though how much I described things was not). Amusing that, since I’ve always thought I suck at descriptions, and I hate doing them. In the end, I had no idea which things to disregard and which to take seriously as functional problems in the story.

By contrast, with my face to face readers/editors, I could talk about what I was getting at, and then talk about ways of making that clear. Some were astonishingly simple, and could be fixed with ten words or less. Right now, making things clear is one of my biggest problems. I allude, I cock my eyebrow, I suggest the reader pay attention to something I mention once, under my breath. Now I have to learn that it’s not insulting the reader to repeat myself. Repetition could be defined, instead, as building resonance. I’ve discovered reading for broad understanding is not something my husband can help me with. He’s far too bright, inclues amazingly well — he has ruined movies for me by revealing their endings ten minutes in — and has a cultural frame of reference that’s too similar to my own. He’s on the same page with me, and I don’t have to get him there. If he gets it, it’s there, but it may well still be too buried for the rest of the world.

Another one of my problems, suffered by “Hindsight”, but also by “Yonder Wicket Gate, Yonder Shining Light”, possibly “Egghead Kingdom”, and certainly “Cualcotel” (so far), is that apparently I have difficulty telling where stories begin. They often do not begin where I start writing them. This would seem like a totally basic proposition, but at least for me at this stage in my writing, it’s really tricky. There’s a whole load of backstory that I write in as I’m building story momentum, but which turns out not to usually be part of the story at all. I’m trying to be more careful about that, and I think “Easier Next Time”, “Found Objects” and “Ancient Gardener” may be started in the right place. All of those are working titles, and subject to change, by the way. It’s so, so, so much easier to shape them when you start them in the right place. None of those are finished yet, though. “Found Objects” and “Ancient Gardener” are both close, and I had a breakthrough on the ending for “Found Objects” last week, which had been troubling me for a while.

My big problems seem to be with beginnings and endings. I don’t tend to wrap things up as nicely as people would like and I start in the wrong place a lot. That sounds kind of hopeless, doesn’t it? Bad beginnings and unsatisfying endings. I have less of an issue with the endings, because I am not all that concerned with satisfying people who require a neat ending. It’s more important to get it right for my story. For example, I told you a while back that “Ennui” was very poorly received at WUTA (my writing group). People critiquing it assumed that I didn’t know what I was writing about, as opposed to not knowing how to express what I was writing about. That was annoying. I got a lot of “think about where the objects you describe are and why and that’s your story”. Uh. No. That may be a story, but it’s not this one. I know where the objects are and why. I know all the back story. Remains the problem of not having told my story well enough to earn reader trust on those scores, but that’s a different problem from not knowing. People were also particularly perturbed by the zero ending. Granted, I’m no Chekhov, but it was a decent attempt, I think. Sigh. Maybe I’m over-educated. At any rate, people’s suggestions for improving the story were all predicated on making something dramatic happen at the ending. Having someone eaten by bugs was a popular suggestion. Now, you don’t need to know a single thing about the story to realize that something titled “Ennui” should not end with a bang, right? If I fix the story in that way, it’s not the story I’m trying to tell anymore. Now it’s possible that the story I’m trying to tell isn’t worth telling, that’s another question altogether, but if you asked me, “Ennui” is the best thing I’ve written in the last six months, since I started writing full time. The boy (bless him) agrees with that assessment. So, you can see where having everyone else who reads it disliking it is frustrating. My opinion remains that it’s a good story, but others don’t agree.

The bad beginnings, however, I acknowledge as more of a problem, since the first few lines are what editors will judge it by for purchase. The opening has to stand out for anything to rise above the slush. I’m working on that, though. I’ve decided, for example, that part of the bad beginning problem is due to my preoccupation with provenance. I feel like I have to establish where things have come from and how we got where we currently are. I may have worked in an archives for too long. I mostly write chronologically, so that means that anything I think I need to establish must be done at the outset. This stage setting is sloppy, and now that I see it, I’m going to be brutal ripping it out. I’m tentative about time shifts, both because I’m big on time unity (especially for short stories) and because moving forward and backward from the story present deftly requires more skill than I currently possess. Still, fumbling a back or forward flash has got to be better than the what I’m currently doing. Some of the stage setting, of course, can be dropped altogether, which will help. It’s for me, not the reader. Other of it will have to be slipped in, but not at the outset. Later.

I say I don’t care if no one really likes the endings, but this isn’t completely true. I have a sneaking suspicion that I have major plot issues which possibly translates into foreshortened endings. What I mean is I have no clue how to engineer plots in stories. You can see how this might be a problem. I first started to suspect this when I did that 30 minute story idea exercise back in March. I’ve actually gone back to what I wrote in that exercise for most of the stories I’ve started since then, by the way, so in that sense the exercise was a success. Reading the list of ideas, I found that all I have written down is a bunch of questions, such as “Is there a way to tell a story without words?” and “Where does each begin/end? How do they touch?” and “Who is the collector?”. I don’t think that’s how everyone else does it. Also, I frequently hear people saying they have all these plots in their head. That’s completely not how my mind works. I have people in there, and situations, and places (really lovely places at that)…but plots? Just not there. Hopefully, plot is something I can learn to do. I’ll let you know. If I had to qualify my writing in some way right now, I’d say I do character studies. And sometimes object studies. Still lifes. I don’t know if that’s because I’m not good enough at plot and action, or because people and places are really what interests me or whether the two aspects reinforce each other. It seems like a beginnerly thing to be doing. I get, however, that this sort of thing may not appeal widely or sell at all, and at some point if I fail in marketing the sort of stuff I like to write, I’m going to have to face changing what I do. However, the writing itself may evolve to solve the problem, so I’m not going to worry about it too much yet.

So I think I’m almost done with Critters. I do like the idea, and I do think that at on some levels it works, but I have some problems with it also. For one, I went way overboard with critiquing (my percentage is still over 150 and I’ve not critted much of anything at all in weeks). It affected my word output on my own stuff. Still, I think the biggest use I get out of the site is sharpening my editing skills on other people’s writings. One can never truly edit one’s own stuff, but one can present cleaner and more workable text to be edited by others, and in this way critiquing has helped (and continues to help) me clean up my own work. As for the usefulness of other people’s critiques of my things (and to be fair, I only submitted one thing: “Hindsight”) it varied wildly. I got some pretty lame critiques, obviously done with little interest. One was a rewrite of my first paragraph, prefaced by a longwinded, self-centered paragraph about how the critic actually didn’t care for fantasy at all and would much rather be reading science fiction. Yeah. That’s helpful. The line edits are always handy, but the whole process seems a lot of effort for a few line edits when I’ve got available several extremely proficient line-editing type friends whom I could call on and whom I trust more to help me that way. People did say things that applied to my story, and which I could use to improve it, but I got far more comments that seemed like a standard spiel and didn’t apply to what I wrote. A person complained of excessive adverb use, for example. By her count, less than 1.3 percent of the words in my text were adverbs. You know, adverbs aren’t forbidden, they just have diminishing returns. I’m going to feel free to use them from time to time because that’s what they’re there for. I have no problem going over a text and excising some or trying to be careful that there aren’t too many, but please. At some point you gotta let some through, and if I’m going to pick on something, it’s not something that appears less than 2 percent of the time, you know what I mean? I also got pablum like my story is “somewhat unique”. Huh? Or comments like “I find you use ‘and’ quite a bit”. Hmmm. Sure, I can look at those dreaded “and”s (I didn’t count them, but I bet they appear more than 2 percent of the time!). I can probably even take some out. But…there’s an inner meter there, you know, that sometimes (well, often!) demands ands instead of full stops. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to shake that off. I would hope that would kind of be the beauty of the thing, you know? Ah, well. It’s probably poor form, by the way, for me to complain about my critiques and I hate to appear churlish about the whole thing. I’m actually grateful that people bothered. As I may have mentioned I was really excited when the first one arrived. I’m really just trying to show how hard it is to work with what came back.

All this work has brought to light a couple of interesting writing idioms that I wasn’t aware I had. Jury’s out on whether these are good things or not, but they are both habits I had brought to my attention by readers that aren’t strictly purposeful on my part. The interest here is that after several comments and complaints about these quirks I’ve thought about them, and I think they’re both a result of my bilingualism. A person in WUTA has pointed out that I consistently have long passages without contractions, sometimes making my language sound (too) formal. It’s true that I feel awkward and self-conscious when I abbreviate words into contractions. The one I’m most comfortable with is “n’t” as in don’t and hasn’t and won’t. The others I have to force myself to use, and usually don’t bother. I never noticed that I avoided them, though, until she mentioned it. My theory is that my difficulty with contractions can be traced to the absence of them in Spanish. I’ve racked my brain trying to think of an example of a contraction in Spanish, and all I can round up are “al” and “del” which are prepositions plus an article. We don’t use articles as much in English, so it’s really not the same thing. It’d be like contracting “to the” or “by the”, which I don’t think happens in current English (though I wonder if it did in earlier incarnations?). But, generally, I don’t think contractions exist in Spanish. Weird, huh? The other odd habit resulted in loads and loads of critters telling me “had” is a filler word and to stop using it. It’s garbage, I’m told. Dutifully, I look at every instance of “had” when I’m called on it, but, you know what? I didn’t get the memo on how to do past perfect without had. Is there a way? Because all those sentences with had? I mean them to be past perfect, I really do. It’s important to me that these things happened in a definite further past. Now maybe I’m hung up on that, and readers would rather not read the three extra letters than know exactly when things happened in relation to one another. I would think had would be nearly invisible to read, like said tags, but what do I know? In fact, to be honest, I’m often hamstrung by my lack of possibilities with verbs in English. With a simple verb tweak in Spanish I can tell you I used to do something daily, or I can tell you that I was doing that immediately before this, or I can tell you I once did that but don’t usually. I love the beauty and versatility of having all kinds of verb tenses at my fingertips, though when I was formally learning them in grade school I was all wtf am I ever going to use the present perfect subjunctive for? Maybe that versatility is what I’m reaching for when I pull out the past perfect. I never get quite what I want, though, and critics really seem to hate that I keep using had. Maybe some of that needs to come out.

I loved participating in NaNoWriMo, and I think it did me good insofar as setting my intent (as they say in yoga) goes, but its becoming clear to me that it did my writing some damage. You may find this hard to believe, but prior to Nanowrimo, my writing was frequently described as concise (often, even, as too concise). Now I’ve second-natured some word padding techniques, and I’m not pleased with that. I don’t know how difficult it will be to return to concise, but I’m going to try and get there. Clean, clear prose. That’s what I want to write. I’m kind of glad I never took people’s advice to throw in ninjas or pirates anytime I was stuck on the plot, I don’t know how I’d undo that.

I’ve thought about how often I write about writing here and how little of that writing I show to you. So today I’ve decided to append some samples in the form of rather bad poetry. Please remember that poetry is not my thing, so if you leave comments telling me you hate it, you’ll find me in complete agreement with your sentiment. I don’t know why I work on it at all, except that it’s some place to stuff ideas and images that pester me but don’t have story potential. In my writer’s group, there’s someone who is going through and writing poems, usually several verses long in senryu form (5-7-5 syllabic count, like haiku), out of biblical passages. He’s the one I usually refer to as “news poetry guy”, because he often composes poems with political overtones related to current events. Here and here are some examples of what he’s doing. A few weeks ago, someone suggested to him that he ought to winnow the whole bible into one senryu. The idea seized me and would not let go. I wrote several iterations, which I shall reproduce here for jollies. This week I read those iterations at WUTA and found, amusingly, that what I considered to be the best and most polished of the three was not the most popular among the people present. Here they are, in the order that I wrote them:

At first, Word spoken:
cosmos, planets, humankind
emerge, sin, die.

At first, Word spoken:
humankind emerges glorious
doomed by its freewill.

First spoken Word’s echo
creates glorious humankind,
failing sacredness.

See, to me, the third one is clearly the best one of the three, though that’s not saying much. Three is the most refined, the most layered, the most complete. Almost everyone present disagreed. Most preferred the second, a few liked the first. People were also disturbed that I hadn’t found room for redemption in the poem. Not enough syllables. Several composed haikus of their own to remedy my omission, and it’s always nice to be inspiring. I wish I had them all to post here, but alas, I don’t. Anyways, faced with such widely divergent views on which version of my own is superior, it seems likely the whole judgement may be rather subjective.

You know, I had something else to say, about Merrie’s Trios, but it’s just going to have to wait or remain unsaid, because this is already way too long. This is what happens when I don’t write about writing for six weeks or more and just think about it. I’m done apologizing for post lengths, though. It is what it is, and you weren’t obligated to come all the way to the end with me.


Thu 07th Jul 2005 at 11:38 pm

Three things. One, I love the new ecto interface. The new default toolbar has helped me find features I didn’t know it even had. Two, all that crap about "and" and "had" and adverbs is bullshit (thx). English tenses aren’t as specifically labor-divided as Spanish ones are, so words like "had" and "have" and "have had" and "had had" have had to do dual duty. So be it. If you’re fluent in the language, you absorb the sense of the hads and haves and the woulds and wills without realizing it and land on the nouns and verbs and modifiers–the MEANING. I’ll always be grateful to my Spanish teachers, though, for teaching me what the tenses were called. No one ever taught me about the subjunctive or past perfect in English; I had to make those connections myself. Three, I always thought it was weird that the places where contraction-like formations appeared in Spanish actually sometimes made sentences LONGER. Like "conmigo" and "contigo" especially.

Big Bro
Fri 08th Jul 2005 at 8:16 am

Re: contractions in Spanish

Elaine, as you recognize, "conmigo" and "contigo" aren’t technically contractions. They represent an exceptional use of the "pronombres preposicionales" (prepositional pronouns) "mí" and "tí" and the preposition "con".

Then there’s the famous quote from an Argentine politician who said: "Conmigo o sinmigo [sic] vamos a ganar."

Here’s what the "Página del Idioma Castellano" has to say about contractions:

Los ejemplos más habituales en nuestra lengua son al (a + el) y del ( de + el) aun cuando existan otros casos como esotro (ese + otro), entrambos (entre + ambos), doquiera (donde + quiera), etcétera.



I have heard "doquiera" (or "doquier") used in hymns and old translations of the Bible. I have never hear "esotro" or "entrambos" used anywhere. I don’t believe there are any contractions that involve verbs in the Spanish language.

Thus endeth the Spanish grammar lesson for today. Ain’t it grande?

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