A Mind for Madness

Musings on art, philosophy, mathematics, and physics


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Basic Game Programming Part 1

A lot of people think the best way to get young people into programming is through making games. I agree. Unfortunately, it is kind of hard to find the basics, so I want to do a series on it (Pygame is your best bet for a tutorial, but I’ve personally had bad experiences with it). This is definitely not meant to be some comprehensive tutorial. It is only meant to introduce some basic ideas.

There’s a lot of tools out there to make this easy (RPG Maker comes to mind). These tools allow you to make a fairly complicated and polished game without having any idea about how it is coded. Drag and drop images on a screen, and voila, a game is born. This defeats the whole point!

Other tools like game engines (Pygame, Unreal Engine, Unity, Monogame, Cocos, etc) are important to not have to deal with complicated graphics rendering or other hassles. These should be used in real life. For the purpose of this series, we will look at rudimentary simplifications of some of the things going on underneath these engines.

I will not assume you are comfortable with programming, but I also won’t explain the code much. I’ll assume you can look at the code and are able to figure out with some prompting what it does. The most important part of learning to program is learning the ability to look things up.

I’m going to use C++ even though I know most people learn Python or Java these days as their first language. But if you want to write cross-platform games, you’ll want to use C++ (Cocos) or C# (Unity and Monogame) or whatever Unreal uses. If you want a refresher, this game will only use cin, cout, variables, if/else. This should take less than 2 hours to learn from a reasonable tutorial.

If you have a little programming experience, there is a fundamental concept you’ll have to get used to called the game loop. It essentially looks like this:

while(true) {
    //Insert entire game here.
}

The game will infinitely loop through the instructions. For most simple games, this is overkill and uses a ton of unnecessary processing power. Also, without a professional game engine underneath, you don’t have a way to limit the speed at which it loops (30 times per second or 60 times per second). Don’t worry about any of this. Just know that you will eventually want this constant loop, so it is good to get used to it.

Let’s add a touch more detail now. The game loop roughly consists of three parts: Getting input from the player, Updating the game state based on that input, and Drawing to the screen whatever has changed from the update step. This is called the engine, because it keeps churning and puts the game in motion. If you use Unity or some pre-built engine, each of these parts will exist already (and will loop independently in parallel, but that is for another time).

Our game now looks like this:

while(true) {
   GetInput();
   Update();
   Draw();
}

Again, this is needlessly complicated for the game we will make, but it is worth getting used to this flow with something basic so you aren’t learning a whole new framework with something more complicated.

Now let’s describe the game. The game will display your health and the enemy’s health. The player will have 2 choices: Attack or Run. If you attack, you hit the enemy, in which case the enemy’s health decreases by some amount (we’ll make it random between 0 and 3). If you run, you leave the game (effectively a “quit” choice). The enemy always hits you.

If the enemy’s health reaches 0, the player wins. If the player’s health reaches 0, the player loses.

A part of the engine I didn’t describe is the initialization that come before entering the game loop. In this case, we might want to describe the setup and get the initial variables set up and call the Draw() function to get something on the screen.

There will be 2 variables: PlayerHealth and EnemyHealth. Let’s set them both to 10 to start. At this point I think we can write the first form of the Draw() function, which right now will just print out and label these variables and give the two options for action. Eventually, we’ll probably want to say who got hit, too.

void Draw(int playerhealth, int enemyhealth) {
  cout << "Your Health: " << playerhealth << "\n";
  cout << "Enemy Health: " << enemyhealth << "\n";
  cout << "a. Attack \n";
  cout << "b. Run \n";
}

This might look a bit confusing, but “cout” just means “print to the screen.” So each line of that is printing “Your Health: 10″ (and the \n means “new line”).

Now let’s get the input. We’ll do something a little bad, but we’re just trying to get the flow down here. We’ll worry about “good coding practices” some other time. Let’s make the function Input() return the string the user inputs, so we can store it rather than modifying some global variable.

string Input() {
  string tmp;
  cin >> tmp;
  return tmp;
}

Again, “cin” just asks for the player input. The input is stored in the variable “tmp” and then gets returned.

The most complicated part of this is going to be the Update() function, but it isn’t so bad. Update() needs to say: if the player typed “a” we subtract the attack amount from EnemyHealth. If the player typed “b” we exit the loop. If anything else was typed, we don’t do anything and notify them it is not an option.

if (PlayerInput == "a") {
      int r1 = rand() % 4;
      EnemyHealth -= r1;
    }
    else if (PlayerInput == "b") {
      break;
    }
    else {
      cout << "This is not a valid option.\n";
    }

I used here a random number between 0 and 3 (inclusive) for how much damage the attack does. (Look up rand() for how it works. It is part of the standard library.) There isn’t much left, so I’ll give the whole thing now with some comments:

#include <iostream>
#include <stdlib.h>

using namespace std;

void Draw(int playerhealth, int enemyhealth) {
  cout << "Your Health: " << playerhealth << "\n";
  cout << "Enemy Health: " << enemyhealth << "\n";
  cout << "a. Attack \n";
  cout << "b. Run \n";
}

string Input() {
  string tmp;
  cin >> tmp;
  return tmp;
}

int main() {
  //Initialize the variables
  int PlayerHealth = 10;
  int EnemyHealth = 10;
  string PlayerInput;

  //Initial Information Drawn
  cout << "An enemy approaches... \n";
  Draw(PlayerHealth, EnemyHealth);

  //Game Loop
  while(true) {
    PlayerInput = Input();

    //Update Information based on input.
    if (PlayerInput == "a") {
      int r1 = rand() % 4;
      EnemyHealth -= r1;
    }
    else if (PlayerInput == "b") {
      break;
    }
    else {
      cout << "This is not a valid option.\n";
    }

    //Enemy attacks.
    int r2 = rand() % 4;
    PlayerHealth -= r2;

    //Break out of the game looop if won or lost.
    if (EnemyHealth <= 0) {
      cout << "You Win.\n";
      break;
    }
    else if (PlayerHealth <= 0) {
      cout << "You Lose.\n";
      break;
    }

    //Print out the Updated Info
    Draw(PlayerHealth, EnemyHealth);
  }

  cout << "Game Over.\n";

  return 0;
}

Here’s some features to add as homework. Now that the core is there, if you think of one thing and add it each day (15 minutes tops?), in 2 weeks you’ll have a pretty interesting and complicated text-based game. They don’t have to be these or even in this order. These are what popped into my head.

Excercise 0: Try cleaning up the current code so that Update() is its own function like Input() and Draw(). Don’t try too hard, because it is more complicated than it’s worth. You will encounter your first struggle with how to scope variables that all your functions want to know about. Also, breaking out of the while loop will become tricky.

Feature 1: Look up how to do random numbers. Make it so that you only hit the enemy 50% (or whatever you want) of the time. Make it so the enemy only hits you sometimes. This might be a 2 day feature if you are totally new to programming in C++.

Feature 2: Tell the Player that they hit the enemy and how much damage they did.

Feature 3: Make a “Title Screen” that tells you the game you are about to play.

Feature 4: Add some backstory to the introductory text.

Feature 5: Add more options for player input (different types of attacks that do different damage amounts).

Feature 6: Figure out where to clear the screen to not be so cluttered.

Feature 7: Ask if the player wants to play again rather than automatically closing the program when it is over.

That’s a whole week’s worth of exercises, and you’ll have a basic working game at the end. Next week, I’ll go through implementing these changes and maybe make a quick video to show that end result can look like a real-life, old-school text game.


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Best Books Halfway Through 2015

It’s halfway through the year, so it’s time to update you on the best stuff I’ve been reading. This year I’m doing the Goodreads reading challenge and trying to read 50 books. I’m on pace so far, but there’s a lot of time to mess it up. As usual, this is not a “best books that came out in 2015″ list (I’ve only read four or so books from this year). This is a list of the best books I’ve read this year.

In no particular order:

Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. You can see some thoughts I had on it back here.

Dan Simmon’s Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion.

Hyperion cannot easily be described. It pulls together several sci-fi elements that made me skeptical at first. Anything that deals with time manipulation, particularly time moving backwards, usually makes me groan. This cleverly makes it work.

The mystery is brought up early, and the narration is done through a sequence of stories. Each story hints at different pieces, but are wildly different in tone, style, time frame, and reference point. Each story is excellent in its own right. Together they form a beautiful non-traditional narrative.

Simmons is not only a master at suspense and mystery, but proves he can create a timeless work of art that still feels fresh and original 25 years later.

I was a little concerned when The Fall of Hyperion felt so different. Simmons is amazing with non-traditional point-of-view. He seamlessly works in a way to have both first person and third person (the first person character dreams the story of other characters in third person). It is quite a brilliant trick.

The story is just as gripping and page turning as the first. It gets weirder but in a good way. The sci-fi elements still feel fresh, unlike many novels from 1990. This is turning into one of my favorite sci-fi series, though I’m definitely concerned about continuing. This second book has a clear ending.

Ethan Canin’s Carry Me Across the Water.

This novel has exquisite pacing. It is very short, but spans three generations and never feels too quick. Each of the threads builds into a tragic, inevitable ending. The built suspense is perfectly executed.

I had serious doubts at first that this could work, because I spent the first third grappling with who was who and how they were related. It is a lot to take in, but by the half-way point, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

I liked For Kings and Planets, because it asked the big questions. It showed how others dealt with those questions and the consequences of being flawed in answering them. This was the opposite. I liked it because each character had something familiar, but the novel as a whole remained focused on specific, non-universal questions worth pondering. This is a beautifully written and compelling story.

Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Adult Onset.

Adult Onset is a modern return to a novel form that has been relegated to history: the character study. You’ll find reviews that complain about “too much detail” or “nothing happens” or “slow” or other such nonsense.

This is a result of the age we live in. Everyone wants instant gratification. The plot has to move at this pace, in this way, with cliffhangers here and here, with a perfect Freytag pyramid structure, and on and on just so the reader can coast along with minimal effort.

Sorry to disappoint, but this book causes you frustration for a reason. It is an in-depth study of a single character through a few days of her life. Despite the focus, we end up getting a huge backstory masterfully woven into description.

The book stays highly focused on getting to the bottom of a character flaw. We all desperately want neat and tidy explanations for our psychology, yet we rarely get them. It is human nature, and it is explored with touching humanity here.

As outsiders, we want to shout at the character that sometimes life is messy. Stop trying to make it something it isn’t. Yet we can look to our own lives and find ourselves behaving just as the main character. This is the essence of a great character study.

The excessive description people complain about is done for a reason. The main character feels trapped in tedium. The description emulates these emotions by making the reader feel claustrophobic. You can sense every tiny moment of your day fill up with this stuff, and you want to escape to a moment of personal agency.

Welcome to the main character’s life. If you want plot, go read The Da Vinci Code. If you want art, you’ll find it here.

The worst book I’ve read this year has been Nell Zink’s Mislaid. This book is such a strangely overrated novel. We’ve somehow put ourselves in an emperor-has-no-clothes situation. This woman writes novels in a matter of weeks and then goes on to publish without really editing (according to her own interviews).

The effect is bad writing, but it is so different from the excellent, polished writing we are used to that people praise it for its quirkiness. It’s not. It’s just bad, and there aren’t enough people speaking out against this. This has to do with being bad for their careers to go against what many famous people are saying. Or maybe the groupthink is so strong they really believe it is good. Both scenarios represent a failure in the upper echelons of book reviewers.


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Examining Pro’s Prose Part 4

Today we’re going to examine some prose from Nell Zink’s newest novel Mislaid. She came to prominence last year, when her debut novel, The Wallcreeper was championed by the New York Times as a notable book of the year. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

Unfortunately, this post is going to be quite harsh. I won’t focus on any single “writing rule,” but instead I’ll go through and point things out that catch my eye. I haven’t finished reading the book yet, but from a prose standpoint, it is pretty terrible. All the examples below occur within the span of a few pages. The examples are far from exhaustive. Almost every sentence breaks a rule.

First, the novel is a collection of sentences that tell you what happened. In my last post, we looked at the various levels of showing a scene, action, or character trait versus telling it. It is difficult to find even one scene in the first half of the book (what I’ve read so far) which shows you anything. Everything is told. Giving examples can’t give you a grasp on how large this problem is, but here’s an attempt.

“Soon the detective, a working-class townsman, sympathized with Peggy.”

First, we’re told he sympathized. Why not show it? Also, “a working-class townsman” adds nothing (and introduces point of view inconsistencies: how does the main character know this?). Extraneous bits like this abound in the novel and are weak attempts to “add detail,” but are without substance.

“Nor would they have found anything anyway. The runaway was keeping a very, very low profile.”

These sentence fragments occur on almost every page. A rule we haven’t talked about yet is: only ignore proper grammar and usage rules if you are going for a special effect. This should be done so sparingly that no one notices (three times over the course of a whole novel maybe?).

The effect is stilted, choppy prose. I can’t find it now, but there is a paragraph where there are more sentence fragments than complete sentences. Another rule is to minimize modifiers. If you have to modify a verb or noun, you probably haven’t put enough work into choosing the right words. Never use the modifier “very.” At least make it interesting if you’re going to break the rule. The use of “very, very” is inexcusable under all circumstances. Also, past progressive tense creeps in here.

I’ll do a whole paragraph now:

Lee looked up and down the street, watching for slight women with brown hair. He watched for women with blond children. He watched for anyone at all. It was a quiet afternoon, paced by the rhythm of traffic lights. He stood up and walked, thinking he might ask after her, if he happened to see her kind of store. He walked the length of town and as far as the railroad tracks. Ice cream, real estate, musical instruments. Porcelain figurines and teacups. He shook his head at his own dumbness, got back in the car, and sat.

He …

First off, avoid repetition. It is hard as heck when writing about one person to not start every sentence with “he,” but with work it can be done. Look at any of the greats we’ve already discussed. They will never have 8 out of 9 sentences start the same way. The sentence fragment thing appears again.

These sentences all tell you what he did but never do we get beyond a superficial level of showing. The longest sentence in the middle breaks the rule of being clear and direct (and is grammatically incorrect). I still don’t get the comma construction in the middle of it. It reads like an appositive, but can’t be, because then the if-clause makes no sense.

To prove it can be done, I’ll “fix” these problems without altering content or breaking with the intended effect of the style. I’ll even remove the “was.”

Lee looked up and down the street, watching for slight women with brown hair. He watched for women with blond children or anyone at all. The rhythm of the traffic lights paced the quiet afternoon. Lee walked the length of town and thought he might ask after her if he happened to see her kind of store. Along the vacant street, ice cream, real estate, musical instruments, and porcelain figurines caught his attention. Lee traveled as far as the railroad tracks before he shook his head at his own dumbness, got back in the car, and sat.

It’s better but not great. I would like for this to expand out into three paragraphs and really pull the reader in. The whole book suffers from this, because I always feel at arms length from the characters. This novel gets praised for making us think about complicated topics like race and sexuality. Since I never get inside the characters’ heads, all I end up thinking about is how unbelievable their actions are.

Another rule we haven’t discussed is point of view (POV). This is more important than most people want to believe. You either write something highly experimental or you stick to one clear POV. If you use third person limited and change POV, it must be clear. The fluid POV in this novel makes many sentences confusing and forces the writer to use even more extraneous phrases.

“Stillwater Lake retreated far from the bamboo grove. It stood in yellowish-gray mud streaked with reddish brown that looked to Lee like diarrhea.”

If it were clear that this is Lee’s POV, the phrase “to Lee” is unnecessary. It is almost always considered a bad writing practice to indicate a simile is a character’s opinion (unless in an open third person omniscient situation, which this isn’t). With clear POV and narrative voice, we understand all sentences to be the character’s opinion. It is redundant to specify. Also, that alliteration (looked to Lee like) is terrible and should be removed. It is interesting that removing “to Lee” fixes both problems at once.

The first sentence has an awkward choice of verb. It isn’t clear to me what exactly happened or what it means without more context (to be fair, more context comes a few paragraphs later). It is true that lakes can “retreat” if there is a drought or something. Is this what happened? Starting the next sentence with “it” is usually seen as a mistake, because the preceding sentence ends with a noun. This makes it unclear whether “it” refers to the subject of the preceding sentence or the ending noun.

Another rule we haven’t discussed is: all dialogue tags should be “said.” Using other words comes across as amateurish, because it is used by people who are not good at writing dialogue to make the dialogue sound more convincing. It is most commonly found in low quality pulp fiction from many decades ago. If you need to use another word, you haven’t voiced the dialogue properly. If you don’t need another word, don’t use one. I’m pretty sure this book must have been professionally edited, so I’m surprised to see the editor let these slide.

“I can spell ‘astronaut,'” Karen volunteered.
“That’s a third-grade word,” the clerk said. “You’re very smart for such a tiny little thing. You sure you don’t want to have her be white?”
“We’re black and proud,” Meg said.
“I’m blond,” Karen objected.
“There’s no blond race,” the clerk corrected her.

As you can see, “the clerk corrected her,” is redundant. Editors often write “RUE” for this type of thing: Resist the Urge to Explain. You don’t have to explain the clerk corrected Karen when we understand from the dialogue this is what she was doing. It isn’t even clear to me that “objected” is the right alternate to “said” in the above. “Said” works much better in that passage. On the next page we get, “Karen repeated solemnly.” Not only do we get an alternate dialogue tag, but it gets modified with an adverb.

I could do this all day, and I truly feel bad about it. I didn’t come to this post with the intention of bashing Zink’s prose. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is sitting on my desk right now, because I intended to use him. I started Zink’s book and decided the opportunity was too good to pass up. We keep looking at excellent stylists. It is important to see something in comparison.

I know there will be a lot of excuses that sound good. She’s intentionally subverting the oppressive writing rules that stifle creativity to show they aren’t necessary to create a good novel. Or, she used a voice conducive to the satire and wit of the content of her material … or whatever. Let’s face it. She probably thought a lot about the plot, characters, themes, symbols, and so on and never put much thought in to how the prose came across.

This is fine. Some people write excellent prose with no content. We shouldn’t strive for either extreme. I’ll agree that rules are meant to be broken and that focusing too much on them will create mechanical, uninteresting prose. But they exist for a reason and those reasons became apparent when I had trouble reading this novel. Breaking the rules has to be a deliberate choice, and I’m not going to be convinced Zink did this deliberately until I’ve seen that she can follow the rules.


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Examining Pro’s Prose Part 3

Today, let’s turn to the master himself, John Cheever. As I said in the first post on the series, many say this modern “MFA” set of rules teaches people to write like Cheever. What might be surprising is just how often he doesn’t follow them. Today’s rule is the roughest of them all.

Rule 3: Avoid narrative summary.

More accurately this should be: minimize narrative summary. Narrative summary means you tell the reader something happened rather than let the reader experience it. Often this falls under “show don’t tell.”

Let’s do an example. Bob went to the store. That is narrative summary. We hit our first difficulty, because summary is not a binary concept. We could expand it to a paragraph. As Bob approached his car, he couldn’t help but be reminded of how desperately he needed a new one. At least the beat up, green ’82 Oldsmobile would get him to the store. The store sat only two miles away, so his frustration built at each successive red light. Kate’s cello lesson ended in a half hour, and he wouldn’t get to hear her play if he was late to pick her up.

There’s still a bunch of summary in there. This trip to the store could easily blow up into a 3000 word short story if you take the advice of Rule 3 too seriously. Despite the shining silver of the handle glinting in the sunlight, it never occurred to Bob to exercise some caution. His finger seared as he touched the handle of his ’82 Oldsmobile, and he pulled away with a quick, jerking motion before any serious damage could be done. His brow furrowed in annoyance as his superstition kicked in. I bet I’ll hit all the red lights with this luck.

To understand why people talk about this rule, it is important to first understand that this whole scale of summary exists, and summary can never be fully removed (nor would you want it to). The point of the rule is that the more fine your description of detail, the more you will pull a reader in. Narrative summary is a problem if it takes the reader out of the moment.

Summary is how we remember books, but the great authors only give an illusion of continuity by creating a sequence of scenes where the time between them can easily be inferred by the reader. New writers often don’t realize this and try to explicitly fill it in, because this is what they think was done.

One of the most common examples of breaking the rule (in a bad way) occurs with backstory. This may be a flashback, or may be stray information. Either way, it is almost always better to turn it into a full-fledged scene that is not summarized or fit it in some more subtle way.

Consider this example. If the main character’s mother died when he was ten, you could say “Bob’s mother died when he was ten.” But if this is relevant information to the story, it will be apparent on its own through conversations or thoughts or interactions or whatever. There is no need to summarize it explicitly like that.

This is what the rule means. Avoid the summary. If it isn’t important enough for the reader to figure out, then it isn’t important enough to summarize. If it is important, then you are repeating the information needlessly and pulling the reader out of the moment.

All this being said, summary provides a moment of respite for the reader. It can be judiciously used to slow down or speed up the pacing. If you constantly describe every little detail of every minor, tiny thing that happens, you get a very intense experience that overwhelms the reader. There must be balance.

This is one of those “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” rules. If you follow the rule too literally, you mess the pacing of your writing up. Even when you are careful, if you break the rule (with good purpose!), critics/editors/reviewers have an easy target: look at this amateur, doesn’t even know to show and not tell.

Are you screwed on this rule? Kind of. The only thing you can do is read the prose of people you admire and really think about how they get their balance right. I imagine this is something the greatest writers struggle with even after decades of success. Maybe I’m wrong.

Let’s see how Cheever handles it in The Wapshot Chronicle. I’ll skip the first chapter which is basically a creative way to get some quick information on each of the main characters. The literary world seems divided on this. Half of writers think you can break the rule in the first few pages to get the reader grounded somewhere. The other half wouldn’t be caught dead doing this. The second chapter is a full family history. This, again, used to be more common back in the 50’s when the novel came out. The third chapter gets to the first real scene (we’re only talking about 15 pages in).

Mr. Pincher’s horse galloped along Hill Street for about a hundred yards–maybe two–and then, her wind gone, she fell into a heavy-footed trot. Fatty Titus followed the float in his car, planning to rescue the charter members of the Woman’s Club, but when he reached them the picture was so tranquil–it looked like a hayride–that he backed his car around and returned to the village to see the rest of the parade. The danger had passed for everyone but Mr. Pincher’s mare. God knows what strains she had put on her heart and her lungs–even her will to live. Her name was Lady, she chewed tobacco and she was worth more to Mr. Pincher than Mrs. Wapshot and all her friends. He loved her sweet nature and admired her perseverance, and the indignity of having a firecracker exploded under her rump made him sore with anger. What was the world coming to? His heart seemed to go out to the old mare and his tender sentiments to spread over her broad back like a blanket.

“I ain’t going to stop her now,” Mr. Pincher said. “She’s had a lot more to put up with than the rest of you. She wants to get home now and I ain’t going to stop her.”

Mrs. Wapshot and her friends resigned themselves to the news of their captivity. After all, none of them had been hurt…

The summary all but disappears. The only place I see it sneak in is when Cheever outright tells the reader “…she was worth more to Mr. Pincher than Mrs. Wapshot and all her friends…” According to Rule 3 (and even Rule 1), this is an egregious error, because we get shown this fact soon after when he prioritizes getting his horse home over letting the group of women off the float. Not only is this needless repetition, but the summary gets shown a few sentences later.

One could argue that the only natural way to guide the reader’s attention properly is to put that summary in. It flows naturally as language and lets the conversation veer in a different direction. On the other hand, it feels like you haven’t tried hard enough if you can’t think of another way to do it. Cutting much of the rest of that first paragraph and continuing with the scene takes absolutely nothing from the novel and keeps the scene moving without repetition or narrative summary:

The danger had passed for everyone but Mr. Pincher’s mare. God knows what strains she had put on her heart and her lungs–even her will to live. Her name was Lady. Mr. Pincher loved her sweet nature and admired her perseverance, and the indignity of having a firecracker exploded under her rump made him sore with anger. What was the world coming to? His heart seemed to go out to the old mare and his tender sentiments to spread over her broad back like a blanket.

You might find this to be extremely nit-picky, but this is why it sometimes takes years to edit a book (and other, less meticulous, popular writers take less time). These changes are so minor that they don’t seem worth it. It’s true that a typical reader can read something carefully polished in this way and something less polished yet good enough to get published and not be able to articulate any of these differences. But over the course of a novel, there will be thousands of these tiny differences, and they add up to a very different reading experience.

The Wapshot Chronicle was John Cheever’s first novel, and my guess is it would be harder to find these subtle repetitions and unnecessary lines of summary in later ones.


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Examining Pro’s Prose Part 2

Today I’ll pick a passage from Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs to talk about. I really wanted to do something from McEwan, because he is considered the quintessential example of clean, clear writing for our time. I’ve read many of his books (including the more famous ones), but I only own two of the lesser known ones, which is why I’ve chosen this book. Let’s get to our rule.

Rule 2: Simple past tense is better than past progressive (or even past perfect).

This builds upon Rule 1 (Avoid repetition). Recall that past progressive tense takes the form “was [verb]ing.” If you overuse this tense, you will naturally repeat the word “was” in ever sentence. This gets monotonous and tedious to read. But there is another, possibly more important reason to minimize past progressive. It isn’t quite passive voice, but it makes all actions passive.

Mary was throwing the ball. And? It feels like there must be something else happening at the same time that is more important. Mary threw the ball. That shows the action and brings it into focus. This rule might be the loosest of all that we examine, because there are so many instances where avoiding a certain tense makes the prose awkward.

You must do what is necessary, but my suggestion is to edit every “was” out of the prose first and only put it back in if absolutely necessary. If you keep making excuses because you are too lazy to figure out how to edit it out, you can trick yourself into thinking the tense was necessary when it actually wasn’t. Don’t be lazy.

Now on to the passage:

I was the one who was startled. She was watching me, slightly amused, as I began to apologize for the interruption.

She said, ‘…’ She did not have the strength to move against my disbelief. The afternoon was at an end.

I was trying again to apologize for my rudeness, and she spoke over me. Her tone was light enough, but it could well have been that she was offended.

(I edited out the one sentence that is spoken with “…” because speech follows a different set of rules than prose.)

Notice that about half of the uses of “was” come from the past progressive tense and the other half are simple past tense where “was” is the verb. This makes it a bit trickier to analyze. Also note how grating the repetition of that word becomes by the end. In 6 sentences, the word “was” appears 7 times. The rule exists for exactly this reason.

I’ll first point out that both places where he uses past progressive seem necessary, because it is chained to another action happening simultaneously. But honestly, it is hard to imagine why converting it to simple past tense doesn’t just make it better: She watched me, slightly amused, as I began to apologize for the interruption. Or: I tried again to apologize for my rudeness, and she spoke over me.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, the past progressive is truly important to emphasize the simultaneity. Then why keep “was” as the main verb in the simple past tense sentences? The middle part makes sense in terms of Golden Rule 1. He uses longer, complex sentences on either side, so he wants two simple declarative statements in the middle for contrast in flow.

For example, something like “Because the afternoon neared its end, she did not have the strength to move against my disbelief” flows too much like the other sentences for contrast and alters the meaning slightly. On the other hand, that one change breaks up the “was” enough that maybe all the other ones can stay.

Another simple fix is to change the last part: but it could well have been that I had offended her. The only downside I see to this is so subtle that it doesn’t outweigh the overwhelming repetition in my mind. One could argue that this last use of “was” keeps the style consistent because of the previous ones. If this is the case, change the earlier ones as well!

I hate to say this, but I think this is a passage that slipped through. When you write a book, there is too much to edit for editors and writers to catch everything. Even the best of the best have places that can be tweaked. My guess is that Black Dogs is around 75,000 words. There are probably 50 or so of these rules. You do the math.

In any case, I’ll write my change here in full, so you can decide for yourself. Maybe you like the original better.

*

I was the one who was startled. She watched me, slightly amused, as I began to apologize for the interruption.

She said, ‘…’ Because the afternoon neared its end, she did not have the strength to move against my disbelief.

I tried again to apologize for my rudeness, and she spoke over me. Her tone was light enough, but it could well have been that I had offended her.


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Examining Pro’s Prose Part 1

If you read any modern book on writing or editing, you’ll find the same sets of rules to follow over and over. These rules come out of an aesthetic known as minimalism and is the type of thing you’ll be taught to do if you go to one of the big name MFA programs like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

The idea of these rules is to produce tight, clear writing. Some people go so far as to say they teach you to write like John Cheever (though I find this a bit unfair as Robert Coover was faculty at Iowa, and I don’t consider his style to be minimalistic at all).

The idea of this series is to take people famous for their excellent prose and look at whether they follow some of the most common rules. I’ll also try to pick writers from at least 1950 onward, because before “modernism” there were some factors which messed with prose (Dickens was a master, but when you’re paid by installment …).

Rule 1: Avoid repetition. This is vague, but it means at the word level (I saw a saw next to the seesaw), repetition of an idea a paragraph or two later, or repetition of themes/concepts across the whole book. The reasoning is often called “1 + 1 = 1/2.” A technique or word or idea is most effective when done once. The next time it is done, people have seen it, and both lose their punch.

I’ll start with Michael Chabon. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay won the Pulitzer in 2001, which is the novel we’ll examine. It has “rapturous passages” (Entertainment Weekly) and “sharp language” (The New York Times Book Review). I don’t point this out sarcastically. The novel is excellent, and if I ever made an X books everyone should read, it would probably be on it.

I’ll admit, this is not the easiest rule to start with. A rule like “don’t use adverbs” or “don’t use passive voice” is much easier. Luckily, after some scanning, I think I found something. Here’s the start of Part II Chapter 4:

Sammy was thirteen when his father, the Mighty Molecule, came home. The Wertz vaudeville circuit had folded that spring, a victim of Hollywood, the Depression, mismanagement, bad weather, shoddy talent, philistinism, and a number of other scourges and furies whose names Sammy’s father would invoke, with incantatory rage, in the course of the long walks they took together that summer. At one time or another he assigned blame for his sudden joblessness, with no great coherence or logic, to bankers, unions, bosses, Clark Gable, Catholics, Protestants, theater owners, sister acts, poodle acts, monkey acts, Irish tenors, English Canadians, French Canadians, and Mr. Hugo Wertz himself.

As you might have guessed, the technique that gets repeated here is making a long list. The first list contains the reasons that the Wertz vaudeville circuit closed. The second list contains what Sammy’s father blamed losing his job on.

The intended effect is humor. There is no doubt, reading that second list brings a smile to my face as I visualize someone blaming such an absurd list of things. The way it morphs as it goes on is brilliant: sister acts, poodle acts, …

It is hard to see the first list as intended humor. It is more a statement of fact. One could argue that the repetition of the technique in such close proximity is fine here because it is being used for two different purposes, but I’m not so sure.

The first list primes you for the second. Imagine if the first list only contained “the Depression” or “a victim of Hollywood,” and then all the rest got thrown into the second so it morphed from more serious blame to the absurd. My guess is that this would increase the comic effect, not having already just seen a list.

This might seem nitpicky, and I’d agree. I wouldn’t have chosen this example if it ended there. The next paragraph:

The free and careless use of obscenity, like the cigars, the lyrical rage, the fondness for explosive gestures, the bad grammar, and the habit of referring to himself in the third person were wonderful to Sammy; until that summer of 1935, he had possessed few memories or distinct impressions of his father.

I think this is where it crosses the line. Yet another list right after those first two becomes tiresome. This is almost certainly what an editor would tell you if you wrote this book and got it professionally edited. The rule exists for a reason, and if you do a quick mental re-write, you’ll see that the passage becomes much tighter and easy to read with only one list.

But it’s kind of weird to blindly critique a passage out of context like this, so let’s talk about some reasons why such a great writer broke this rule. The narrator of the book has an erudite and exhaustive style. Part of the charm of the book is that it breaks from clean minimalism to present fascinating (but possibly unnecessary) details to create a rich texture surrounding the story.

In the context of the narrative style, these lists fit perfectly. The narrator is so concerned about not being exhaustive with them that he feels the need to qualify with a parenthetical, “And any of the above qualities (among several others his father possessed) would …”

This brings us to the first Golden Rule, a rule that supersedes all others. The problem with these exceptions is that you will often trick yourself into thinking you are allowed to break a rule where you aren’t. These are not excuses! If in doubt, follow the rule.

Golden Rule 1: You may break any other rule in order to create a unique and consistent narrative voice.

This is where the book shines. The narrative voice itself provides so much entertainment independent of the plot. Note that once you break a rule for this reason, you are locked in. You have a long, bumpy road ahead of you. It will take hundreds of times more effort to keep that voice consistent than to keep to the rules.

If it ever falters, you risk giving up the illusion and losing your readers. The end result can be spectacular if you pull it off. Go read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay if you’re interested in an example where it succeeds.


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Composers You Should Know Part 4

It’s been a while since the last “Composers You Should Know,” so let’s do another one. Recently Julia Wolfe’s piece Anthracite Fields won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. I had been planning on including Wolfe in this series anyway, because she is a founder of one of the most important contemporary music collectives: Bang on a Can. If you don’t know about this, it came about in the late 80’s in New York to put on contemporary music concerts and remains an important source of new music concerts around the world.

Wolfe has written a large number of pieces for basically every ensemble, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll go through three pieces in chronological order. Recordings of these pieces can be found for free at her website if you want to follow along. Wolfe has a very clear minimalist strain, but it could be said that a change happened in 1994 with her piece “Lick.”

Once the piece gets going, it almost feels like John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” with the style of minimalism it uses (as opposed to Reich, which is surprising considering the East coast/West coast divide in minimalism). But the important change is the introduction of pop culture elements, most prominently rock and funk.

The driving bass and drums simulate rock, and the guitar and sax introduce some funk riffs. All of this gets tied up in minimalism, but it isn’t that simple. Large sections of the piece lose all sense of time in a confusing mess. The work was groundbreaking and set the stage for how her style would progress in the following years.

In no way do I presume to speak for her or oversimplify anything, but we get a major change in the years after September 11, 2001. The next piece we will look at is “My Beautiful Scream,” which is a concerto for amplified string quartet. This piece is a direct response to the attacks and simulates a slow-motion scream. It almost completely throws off the driving rhythms in favor of building suspense through sustained dissonance.

It is a chilling and moving experience to listen to. The driving beat is part of her musical syntax, so it isn’t completely absent in this work. Here it feel more like pulses, quavers, and bouts of horror. Before, the technique was used to push the piece forward which made the listener feel light and floating along. Here we get a pulse that struggles, as if trapped, trying to stay above the dense sustained notes engulfing it.

In general, her music had been getting more complicated and dissonant, but after 2003 there is a sense that the tie to “Lick” is all but severed. The evolution happened little-by-little to arrive at darker, more severe, and emotionally rich pieces. That driving rhythm remained, but its purpose changed. Listen to “Cruel Sister,” “Fuel,” and “Thirst,” and then compare to earlier works like “Lick” and “Believing.”

This brings us to present day with “Anthracite Fields,” which is a study of the anthracite mines of Pennsylvania. It is a work for chorus and chamber ensemble. The choral parts are set to historical texts including lists of names of people who died mining. I’ve only heard the fourth movement in full from the website, but you can find pieces of other movements in the short documentary “The Making of Anthracite Fields.”

The piece is chilling at times and soaring and beautiful at others. There’s certainly some folk and Americana influence as well. I’m pretty excited to hear a recording. The work makes sense in her evolution as a composer and sounds like it is the most diverse and wide-ranging yet.

Overall, one of Julia Wolfe’s lasting achievements is her ability to blend and push the boundaries of rock and classical elements, but her finished products are so much more than that.

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