My 2017 Reading Awards

As usual, I’m going to do a best of 2017 books list. This does not mean the book came out in 2017; it means I read it this year. According to Goodreads, I read 55 books. Of course, many of those were novellas, and probably a dozen I listened to while on long runs training for a half marathon. So don’t get too freaked out by that number.

 

BEST OVERALL:

Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri

My thoughts are recorded here.

The Book of the New Sun – Gene Wolfe

I read this divided into four novels. Only The Sword of the Lichtor stood out at the time as excellent. But if the four are taken as one single novel, then I think this deserves best overall. Even ten months later, I continue to think about it. It’s fascinating how I’ll be reading something else, and I realize something about this book. I think: Oh, that’s what that probably meant.

I remain haunted by its strangeness, and how perfect and shocking it was to realize certain things right in front of me the whole time were something totally different. (I’m remaining intentionally vague to not spoil it for anyone).

 

BEST SCI-FI/FANTASY:

Imajica – Clive Barker

I know Clive Barker writes “horror,” but this novel is fantasy through and through. Nothing has influenced my writing this year more than this novel. Further thoughts here.

Gardens of the Moon – Steven Erikson

This is some of the best written, most inventive/unique, and deep fantasy novels I’ve ever read. I can’t wait to dig into the rest of the Malazan series. I have the second one sitting on my shelf.

Analysis of the prose can be found here.

 

BEST NONFICTION:

The Boys in the Boat – Daniel James Brown

This was an impeccably written and gripping story of a group of poor boys working hard to achieve their Olympic dreams. The pacing and prose are better than most fiction books I’ve read. Daniel James Brown has produced something beautiful here.

The story also serves as a much needed reminder that intercontinental sport competition and the Olympics in particular are never really just friendly shows of competition. They are highly political acts that can have real-world implications.

From the 1936 games under Hitler to the Munich massacre in ’72 to the recent use of victory at the Sochi Olympics for Russia to invade Crimea and Ukraine, this book should serve as a wake up call to anyone under false delusions about what’s really going on.

The Case Against Sugar – Gary Taubes

The book starts with the analogy of a trial. Sugar is being prosecuted for many of the illnesses associated with obesity: diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, heart disease, etc. This book is the case against sugar.

Am I convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt? No. And if you were, you didn’t understand the arguments. In nutrition science, one will never reach that point. It isn’t even theoretically possible to tease out such complicated interactions.

Am I convinced there is a preponderance of evidence? Of course! I would again say that if you can’t convict at this standard based on the case made in this book, you just haven’t understood the arguments and evidence.

The fact that this evidence standard is good enough to convict in many civil and criminal cases means we, as a society, need to take sugar more seriously. It’s an addictive drug and there’s a preponderance of evidence that it causes four of the top ten leading causes of death each year.

Dialogue – Robert McKee

This was quite excellent and a must read for all writers of fiction. Note: the book is NOT about how two characters converse with each other. This touches upon all aspects of prose, because even exposition is a type of dialogue between the narrative perspective and the reader.

The most useful part to me was the constant reiteration of how great works and complex characters use subtext. People rarely say what they mean or what they think. When your fictional characters do this, they come across as underdeveloped and one dimensional.

The price of the book is worth it for the in-depth analysis of several scenes from famous works at the end.

 

BEST RELEASED IN 2017:

I’m going to skip this category this year. There were a bunch of books that came out that looked great, but I never got around to them. The Case Against Sugar wins by default. Instead, I’ll list books that came out this year that I want to read.

Oathbringer – Brandon Sanderson

Exit West – Moshin Hamid

Borne – Jeff Vandermeer

Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

 

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Year of Short Fiction Roundup

The year of short fiction is over, so I thought I’d post my final thoughts on it. Here’s a list of what I read with links to each post:

  1. Daisy Miller by Henry James
  2. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  3. The Red Pony by John Steinbeck
  4. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
  5. The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft
  6. Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino
  7. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
  8. Tenth of December by George Saunders

I planned on doing at least two more than this, including Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang (mostly because I hated Arrival and felt a little bad about not reading the story it’s based on first). Unfortunately, I tend to read by picking up whatever I see at the moment I need a book, and so I got derailed at some point by not committing to my list.

If this collection of short fiction seems to be lacking the standard “greats,” it’s because I intentionally didn’t re-read stuff I knew I loved (like Dubliners or Kafka, etc). I actually got so far ahead of my reading goal of 52 books for the year that I went crazy the other way and added a few 1000 pagers (the second Stormlight Archive book [much better], the second Wheel of Time book [a little better], and the entire rest of the Dark Tower series [each gets worse]).

I did a good job of keeping the mix of novellas and short stories even (four of each). Breakfast at Tiffany’s was by far the best novella of the ones I read. It’s heartbreaking and subtle and the characterization is very deep for how short it is. That novella is a masterclass in great writing and was exactly the type of thing I hoped to encounter by doing this.

I think Interpreter of Maladies was the best short story collection, though Tenth of December is a close second. Saunders experimented a lot more than Lahiri, and I came to a realization that short stories were the perfect medium for experimentation. Some of his stories didn’t work for me, but that was okay, because they were short.

I have to say that I’m a little embarrassed I never picked up the Lahiri collection before now. It’s been on my radar for at least a decade. Those stories taught me that short fiction can have the same gut punch of emotion that great longer fiction often has.

I’ve always had the impression that a key component of generating emotion in the reader is to have them spend a lot of time with the characters to develop empathy. Lahiri gets reader empathy for her characters in a very small space. A lot can be learned by studying this collection.

I’ve had a sinking feeling for a while now that I like short fiction better. This year has confirmed it.

In my opinion, the novella is the perfect medium for storytelling. Most novels ought to be novellas, but for marketing reasons and social/career pressure, people take their novella-length idea and make it a novel. This means there’s often too much description, dragging the narrative. There’s often a soggy middle, where some artificial barriers stall the characters and the story along with it.

The novella (to clarify, I mean around 30,000-50,000 words) fixes all these problems. It gives one plenty of space to develop the story and characters, have the action rise and fall in a satisfying way, and still layer in description and worldbuilding. I often end up despising novels that have great premises and great writing, but they refuse to end. Maybe it’s just me, and the internet age has finally taken its toll.

Last year, I ended up not liking almost any of the “giant novels” I read. This year, I genuinely liked all the short fiction. We can come back to this idea in a week when I do the best books of the year post (spoiler: if the book was 80,000+ words, I probably didn’t like it).

Now you may be thinking, why did I have a “sinking feeling” about this revelation? Answer: I want to primarily write short fiction, since that’s what I like. But short fiction has a much smaller reader base (especially in sci-fi/fantasy). This shouldn’t be the case, but it is!

I even get it. If you’re a casual reader, it’s easier to make a single purchase and live in a giant novel for a few months. If you’re an avid reader, it’s more cost efficient to buy larger books so you aren’t making three book purchases a week.

But I think it would be good if more writers in the genre embraced shorter fiction.

Sci-fi is almost always at its best when exploring one interesting idea. Sci-fi writers often have way more cool ideas than they can write novels for. So why not do a short story collection where each idea gets a story? This is what made The Twilight Zone so great. This way no one has to suffer through a whole novel conceived from this idea. If it’s longer, do a novella. One should only write a novel if one’s story arc actually calls for it.

This used to be more common. Many of the great works in the genre were novellas: Foundation, Rendezvous with Rama, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451Even The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy didn’t break 50,000 words. Even Samuel R. Delany started with novellas.

Unfortunately, we’re in an age of the ten-volume space opera and 10,000-page epic fantasy series.

Literature is for the Other

I’ve decided to end my silence by responding to a recent Tor article by Liz Bourke entitled Sleeps With Monsters: On the Question of Quality.

I have one main beef with it, and it comes as a fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of literature. But before I get to that, I want to address a throwaway comment that gets at a pet peeve of mine.

She says, “Past a certain level of prose and structural competence, ‘quality’ is a nebulous concept.”

No, it’s not. This is one of those things people say that aren’t true. In the best-case scenario, she hasn’t thought very hard about this. In the worst-case scenario, it’s a rhetorical trick used to defend works of dubious quality.

If quality were as nebulous and subjective as Bourke wants us to believe, all editors may as well quit. Let’s inform the big publishers they can save millions of dollars a year. Those suggested edits won’t improve the quality of your manuscript.

Why waste time as an author even going beyond your first, rough draft? Your edits might change the words on the page, but there’s certainly no sense in which you’ve improved the writing, because, hey, quality isn’t a real thing. While we’re at it, no more literary agents. Everything in the slush pile is a masterpiece to someone.

Since this was published at Tor, let’s also inform those people at Writing Excuses that they’ve wasted twelve years of their lives teaching people the ins and outs of various aspects of the craft of writing. Because, hey, that’s like just their subjective opinion, right? Following that advice can’t improve the quality of your writing. Quality isn’t even a well-defined concept.

What about the hundreds of books on writing and writing programs across the country. Call up Robert McKee and tell him story structure is meaningless. Let’s burn our copies Strunk and White, since prose style doesn’t matter. We can save universities tons of money by canceling Freshmen Composition classes, too. Why not kill the whole English department? What’s to be learned in a literature class when all that matters is what you subjectively feel as you read. Those professors can’t add anything.

I’ve done dozens of “Examining Pro’s Prose” articles pointing out aspects of high-quality writing. I’ve also done a few “Lessons in the Fundamentals” pointing out low-quality writing.

Anyone who has consider the idea for more than a few minutes knows that quality is not a nebulous concept. The notion of “quality” is reasonably objective and fully separate from whether anyone connects with or appreciates the product. One is related to the craft of writing, the other to the art of writing.

End rant and on to the real point of this post.

Bourke writes:

I wrote a column in September about the utter shock of feeling catered to, of feeling seen, of feeling centred in books as a queer person. It was a shock that brought home to me that this is how straight white cis men can rely on feeling when they come to a narrative. After a lifetime like that, it must be disconcerting to experience narratives in which you are present but not central.

It must be alienating to come to narratives where you are an afterthought, or not there at all.

Sit with that for a minute. Just sit with it.

You can feel the smugness emanating from those words. She feels so clever, like she’s struck upon something profound. I almost feel bad that she has literature exactly backward in its importance.

More than any other art form, literature can transport you inside the soul of another person no matter how distinct their identity or experience is from your own. We read literature precisely to get the understanding and empathy that a perceived other is just as worthy of compassion and consideration as our own in-group.

It’s why I chose to be a writer.

It is such a shallow, egocentric, and frankly embarrassing admission to say an important revelation of your reading life was seeing yourself represented. Literature is for the other, not for the self.

Some of the most profound reading experiences of my life were reading James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, and getting a glimpse at what it was like being a bisexual black man in very dangerous time for both of those identities. And The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, and The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and Jhumpa Lahiri and Joan Didion and Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison and and!!!

These books all made me a better person precisely because I was not represented as the main character. They gave me empathy and understanding I wouldn’t otherwise have had.

People who LARP (live action role play) have a name for this: bleed. When you inhabit someone other than yourself, those effects can be profound and lasting on your life. The narrative experience “bleeds” over to real life. This only happens when reading about people dissimilar to oneself, and it’s the most important and powerful part of great literature.

(My next novel delves into this concept considerably).

You know what wasn’t a powerful experience for me? Seeing myself as a main character in a book. I’m gay, and I can’t even tell you the first time I read a gay main character. I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower in high school, and this had a gay side character. If I had to guess my first gay main character would be from the novel At Swim, Two Boys. That is a beautiful book, but I don’t know for sure.

Do you know why this wasn’t a “shock” to me? Because I already had that experience. It was me. There wasn’t as much to learn from it. I’ve also never had trouble jumping right into the mind of a character of any sexual orientation, gender, race, etc.

I find it kind of disturbing that Bourke thinks people other than herself (namely straight white cis men) would find a book centered on a character of differing identity “disconcerting” and “alienating.” This probably says more about her than about the people her article is lambasting.

I’ve just made the correct argument for quality diverse literature in the world. It allows people to inhabit the other and find common ground and understanding. It unites through revealing the human condition.

You know what is not a good argument for diversity in literature? To see yourself represented. That creates a useless bubble, and I’d be embarrassed if I read books for that purpose.

As a postscript, I wouldn’t make the same claims about visual media. Representation in film or tv, where you are separate from the character, and their physical traits are present all the time is a different scenario and underscores how important literature is as a distinct storytelling medium where you inhabit another person for a time.

Year of Short Fiction Part 8: Tenth of December

Today we dive into the short fiction of George Saunders.

Saunders made it in the literary world on short fiction alone. He might be the only person I know of to do this. His first novel came out earlier this year and that was twenty-one years after his first story collection (and novella). I can’t believe I’ve made it nine months through the Year of Short Fiction without getting to him. There’s so much to learn.

I once watched an interview with Saunders, and he said that some of his stories start out as 200+ page novels. Then he realizes how unnecessary most of that is. It sometimes takes years or even a decade, but eventually it gets distilled down to the important bits, only a few pages long. Most writers don’t trust their readers enough to do this. Most writers don’t want to do the work it takes to produce short fiction with this type of professional mindset.

I haven’t finished the whole collection Tenth of December yet, but I wanted to do a post on the title story. I don’t know how much longer this story started, but holy is it dense. I had to go back and read the first three paragraphs again after I finished the story for them to make sense.

We’re dropped into a character’s head with pretty much no context as to what’s going on. The descriptions are scatterbrained and keep referencing people and things that make sense to the character but not the reader. Some of the words and people are made up.

This is a character with a fully developed voice and backstory and eventually it starts to make sense, but this is exactly how you’d expect it to be inside someone’s head the first time. If it makes sense right off, you’re doing it wrong.

Anyway, it doesn’t take as much time to get your bearings as I made it sound, but everything mentioned does play a role. So we figure out that we’re in the head of a child who has gone out to play. He’s making up stories, but he’s pretending they’re real. So to the reader it’s a little disorienting as to what’s real and what’s made up.

We also realize the short, choppy, scattered sentences with bad grammar and made up slang makes sense for a child. The voice is whimsical in what details keep getting added on for effect:

They were Netherworlders. Or Nethers. They had a strange bond with him. Sometimes for whole days he would just nurse their wounds. Occasionally, for a joke, he would shoot one in the butt as it fled. Who henceforth would limp for the rest of its days. Which could be as long as an additional nine million years.

Then we change characters. The voice is unmistakably different. The sentences are more refined. It’s wiser, older, melancholy. But there’s something off. Then we realize he can’t get to certain words. Sometimes they come out as a similar sounding word that makes no sense in the context.

This man has something wrong with him. It’s obvious from the voice alone before we find out the truth. The story is so good and suspenseful and moving once it gets going that I don’t want to spoil any of that by revealing what’s wrong or what happens. I want to keep focusing on the voice, because I think that’s one of the best things we can learn from this story.

It was a miracle. That he’d got this far. Well, he’d always been strong. Once, he’d run a half-marathon with a broken foot. After his vasectomy he’d cleaned the garage, no problem.

He’d waited in the med-bed for Molly to go off to the pharmacy. That was the toughest part. Just calling out a normal goodbye.

His mind veered toward her now, and he jerked it back with a prayer: Let me pull this off. Lord, let me not fuck it up. Let me bring no dishonor. Leg me do it cling.

Let. Let me do it cling.

Clean.

Cleanly.

I think this type of really close third person is amazing in short fiction. It can get tiresome in a whole novel, but here it reveals so much in so little space. It’s entirely in the character’s voice.

The stream of consciousness takes us from what he’s doing to past times he’s done difficult things. This allows us to get a sense of the character in a natural way that would be hard to work in otherwise.

I’ve already exlained the word thing, but it’s pretty amazing the first time it appears and you have to work out what’s going on. “Leg me do it cling.” I read that, and was super confused. I had to read it again thinking I’d missed something. Then I continued as the character fights to find the right words. My confusion shifted to curiosity. What in the world was going on with him that he had trouble?

This is my takeaway. This collection of stories is a masterclass in how voice isn’t just another tool of characterization. It can be an integral part of the tension and action of the story if used properly.

I highly recommend checking out these stories and reading them with this in mind.

Examining Pro’s Prose, Part 14

Today we’ll look at some prose from Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon. It is both some of the best fantasy prose writing I’ve seen, and one of the most original and captivating fantasy novels I’ve read. I’m kind of in awe of it still. I’ve come across so many passages I wanted to use for this series, but I didn’t mark them. So here’s one I found at random.

It is the start of a scene, so I don’t have much setting up to do.

In a secluded glade in the forest, Quick Ben poured white sand in a circle and sat down in its center. He took five sharpened sticks and set them in a row before him, pushing them to various depths in the loam. The center stick, the highest, rose about three feet; the ones on either side stood at two feet and the outer ones at a foot.

The wizard uncoiled a yard’s length of thin gut string. He took one end and fashioned a scaled-down noose, which he tightened over the center stick near the top. He ran the line to the left, looping it once over the next shaft, then crossed over to the right side and looped it again.

The scene continues like this for quite some time. The number one takeaway from this is very easy to state. The whole scene is one person sitting alone. Yet all of the prose is active. For pages, I can’t find a single “was.” This is hard enough to do in a natural way when people are fighting or some other high action moment.

Let’s do a reverse analysis on this. Let’s guess how some earlier draft version might have gone to see why this final version is better. It’s somewhat telling that this is a hard task on this passage.

First, it begins with the clause “in a secluded glade in the forest.” I could imagine myself trying to be as descriptive as possible and waxing poetic with this. “Dark green leaves draped over Quick Ben. He had made his way deep into the forest, where no one could find him…” Even that would probably get fleshed out with more sensory detail in revisions.

I can easily identify two reasons why Erikson’s version is better. First, it’s just not that important. The actual content of the scene is what Quick Ben does. By spending so many words on it, it draws unnecessary attention to irrelevant information.

Second, it’s important to think if a “more detailed” version actually contains more detail. Erikson uses highly evocative and succinct words in that clause. The term “secluded glade” already encompasses the entire phrase “deep into the forest, where no one could find him.”  So my version is the same, but more clunky and difficult to read.

The next sentence I had an easier time thinking how a first draft might read. “Five sticks were in front of him, and they were in arranged with the middle the highest and outer the lowest.” This is a train wreck of a sentence, but very common in early drafts.

First, it passively sets the scene, so Erikson wants Quick Ben to do the acting. It gets better immediately: “He set five sticks in front of him and arranged them with the middle the highest and outer the lowest.” But here we have the opposite problem from the first clause. Our version is attempting to do too much in a single sentence. It’s hard to understand what is going on.

The way to fix this is to describe the action, and then prepare the mental image of the description of the end result. This gets us to Erikson’s version:

He took five sharpened sticks and set them in a row before him, pushing them to various depths in the loam.

“Sharpened” is a descriptor that prepares us to see them pushed into the ground. We’re then told that they are pushed in at “various depths,” this also prepares us to visualize the different depths in the next sentence. So we don’t merely use two sentences to break apart the sentence that had too much in it, but we do it in a way that keeps priming the reader for proper understanding.

We could keep doing this and find similar things. It would be so easy to write the whole thing passively. “The wizard had string and it was put on a stick…” Erikson manages to take a person sitting by himself and get all these interesting active verbs into the paragraph: uncoiled, fashioned, tightened, ran, looped, crossed over.

This is one of the hallmarks of great prose. Passages like this push the reader along. We get highly detailed descriptions in our head, and we see them unfolding because of the active verbs.

I don’t want to spend time bashing another writer, but take someone like Terry Brooks, who I’ve also been reading recently. His prose does almost the exact opposite. Here’s a passage from The Elves of Cintra:

He had met Erisha and old Culph as planned at the entrance to the Ashenell burial grounds at just past midday, excited and anxious to begin their search. But Ashenell was vast and sprawling, a forest of headstones and monuments, mausoleums and simple markers that defied any easy method of sorting out. The terrain itself was daunting, hilly and wooded, the burial sections chopped apart by deep ravines and rocky precipices that made it difficult to determine where anything was.

In light of our discussion, everything is passive. Most sentences try to have too much, which in turn makes it hard for the reader to visualize any of it. It’s also not necessary to get this information up front. Why not take the search (an active thing) and let the descriptions flow from that as they appear?

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Midweek Patreon Update

I’m doing a midweek update to inform you I’ve changed my Patreon goals. I originally said that I wanted to be at $100 per month by the end of the year in order to keep the blog “alive.” But now I’m changing that to $50 per month by the end of September (with the old goal still applying). If we don’t make that goal, I’ll shut the Patreon down and no longer post every week.

If you haven’t read it, here’s the original announcement about starting a Patreon page.

I’ll remind you that my rewards are actually very, very good compared to a majority of people making similar content. The most typical reward is to give an ad-free version (I don’t run ads) or to give people the content a day early. One prominent person gives supporters the information of an upcoming speaking engagement early (yes, your “reward” is to be told how you can give them more money before other people find out).

These are all trivial rewards.

My rewards are part of the reason I can’t sustain the Patreon model anymore. I give a whole video and an extra “Examining Pro’s Prose” blog post each month. I give out free books. These are actual rewards. Of course, supporters shouldn’t be supporting to get the rewards. They should support because they like the content. The rewards are just a side benefit.

Anyway, I’m not actually complaining. I’ll be happy if people make it worth my time, and I’ll be happy if I no longer have to stress about getting quality content out on a deadline. So whichever way it goes, I’ll be happy. It’s this middle ground I don’t like.

I’ve been blogging for about ten years now, and since the majority of my day is reading/writing/editing, it’s not feasible to keep doing a weekly blog for (essentially) free. Patreon was meant to get a modest (barely breaking even) amount for that effort. All it has done is create more work, so it’s a sanity thing to end it early unless some more people show interest.

Again, thousands of you come here every week. If a mere 40 of you find the content valuable enough to give even a dollar a month, we would hit that $50 per month number (and you’d get a bonus post each month). If this doesn’t happen, then I can say it’s been a good run. Most blogs probably go defunct in less than six months.

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Lessons in the Fundamentals of Writing, Part 4

I was all set this week to get away from the negative critiques of fundamental errors I keep finding. I wanted to discuss the prose of Steven Erikson, because Gardens of the Moon is one of the best fantasy books I’ve ever read. But each week, it seems I find a new candidate for the worst way to start a novel. So here goes. This is so bad that it almost crosses over into brilliant comedy.

“Careful, please,” I said to the worker who was ineptly handling a crate full of dishes as I walked back into the house I was preparing to leave. “I think we’re just about done,” I called into the living room.

As usual with this series, I’ll point out a few things unrelated to the lesson first. There’s too much passive voice. I’ve become much more lax about this type of thing in my own writing, because it sounds wrong to change every single “was” to a more active verb. But in the opening paragraphs, I really want to draw the reader in.

Here it’s quite easy.

“Careful, please,” I said. The worker fumbled a crate full of dishes, and I cringed, waiting for the inevitable crash.

Notice how the awkwardness of phrases like “was ineptly handling” can be replaced by a more suitable active verb: fumbled. Already, this simple change corrects the fundamental lesson I want to get to.

Lesson 4: Don’t do too much in a single sentence!

As with every rule, there are amazing exceptions. Some of the best sentences I’ve read break this rule. But one must be able to follow and understand the rule before it can be broken, or you’ll end up with the tragedy that is the opening sentence to this novel.

Here’s a list of what the author tries to fit into the first sentence. There’s a mover who isn’t doing a good job. He has a box of dishes. The main character walks into his house. He’s preparing to leave the house.

That is far too much. First off, in an attempt to get so much across, the reader will barely comprehend any of it. The sentence seems to be grammatically correct, but it feels like a run-on sentence with how wordy it is. He has to resort to awkward phrases to avoid a run-on. And most important of all, the information is told instead of shown.

What’s so disheartening is how close this author came to getting it right. He sets up a scene perfectly suited to showing all this information without telling the reader anything. Let’s finish up correcting the paragraph, since we’re so close.

“…I was preparing to leave.” This is completely unnecessary. The main character is moving out in the scene. There is absolutely no reason to then tell the reader something that has already been shown.

Whenever you write the word “as,” a red flag should go off that you’re cramming too much into a single sentence. It is sometimes correct, but you must always ask yourself: are the two clauses actually happening at the same time?

In the example above, the word “as” introduces ambiguity. Where is the worker? I imagined him loading a truck outside, and then the main character walks into the house and speaks to someone else. But “as” implies he calls into the house, since otherwise he’d be speaking to someone behind him. Wait. If the person is in the house, how does the main character know he’s “ineptly handling?”

Pretty much all interpretations of the scene don’t make sense. I’ll return to the lesson. This only happened because the author tried to cram it all into one sentence. If everything were described across multiple sentences, a more precise and logical picture would appear in the reader’s mind. So for the correction, I’ll place the people in their locations.

“Careful, please,” I said. The mover fumbled a crate of dishes, and I cringed, waiting for the inevitable crash. The box somehow made it onto the truck safely, so I walked back into the house. A lump formed in my throat, and I found a man wrapping tape around the last box in an empty living room.

Half to myself, I said, “I think we’re just about done.”

This is what I do when I go from first draft to second draft. There would still be a lot of tinkering to get it just how I want it. But notice how all the same information comes across much better in this version. The reader has a chance to digest and visualize it all now. Putting too much in a sentence is a recipe for ambiguity and telling. It’s also far harder for the reader to process.

And that brings us to my favorite exception to the rule. Sometimes you want to intentionally confuse the reader to imitate the experience of a character. The easiest way to do this is to cram too much into a sentence.

I hopped on the carnival ride. As it sped up, an awful feeling developed in the pit of my stomach. We spun and flung and bits of cotton candy whizzed by as my side pressed into the metal edge, pain and nausea filling my body, laughter and noise and that horrible smell of burnt burgers offending my nostrils.

Or whatever. You get the point. Fight scenes are a common place this will happen, too. There are times when breaking the rule makes sense, but I consider this rule to be pretty solid. It’s going to be very rare and obvious when breaking it is a good thing.

Critical Postmodern Readings, Part 4: Derrida

This series hasn’t been as rough as I’ve expected this far. The first few parts showed some of the classic postmodernists to be clearer and more prescient than many give them credit for. This changes all that. Derrida is rough going. I chose his most famous work, Differance, for today.

I couldn’t remember if I had read this before, and then I read the first paragraph. Oh, boy. It all came flooding back. Not only had I read this, I’d watched a whole lecture or two on it as well. I’m not sure it’s fair to be super critical of lack of clarity when reading a translation, but in this case, I think it’s warranted (more on that later).

The article begins by Derrida making up a new word: differance. It is phonetically related to “defer,” meaning to be displaced in time, and it is phonetically related to “differ,” meaning to not be identical.

So what is differance? Here’s the clearest explanation I’ve come up with after reading the opening paragraphs many, many times. Derrida wants to say that two things can only differ if there is a relationship between them for comparison. Anything that has such a relationship must have something in common. So:

We provisionally give the name differance to this sameness which is not identical.

Derrida then starts dancing around what he means. I don’t say this to be demeaning. His whole point is that language can’t describe the thing he is getting at, so he must dance around it to give you some idea about what he wants differance to mean.

To defer makes use of time, but differance is outside time. Differance produces the differences between the differences. It isn’t a word. It isn’t a concept. I’m going to describe differance as a “tool” or even “thought experiment” to get at Derrida’s particular form of deconstruction even though he doesn’t exactly say that.

Now I’m supposed to be doing “critical” readings of these texts, so I’ll admit this type of thing makes me feel a little funny. On the one hand, I’m okay with being a bit loose on definitions if the only point is to perform a thought experiment. On the other hand, I fear there will be a switch at some point where we start attributing a bunch of unknowable things without argument to a term that has such nonsensical properties as “being outside time.” So I want to carefully keep track of that.

Derrida moves on to the relationship between spoken and written language. In French, “differance” and “difference” have the same pronunciation. He spends far too long talking about how difficult it will be to talk about this, since he’ll have to indicate verbally “with an a” each time (this paper was originally a talk given to the Societe Francaise de Philosophie).

He next spends quite a bit of time explaining some very precise etymological concerns about the word differance:

But while bringing us closer to the infinitive and active core of differing, “differance” with an a neutralizes what the infinitive denotes as simply active, in the same way that “parlance” does not signify the simple fact of speaking, of speaking to or being spoken to.

This type of thing is a pretty silly game. He freaking made the word up! There is no etymology or historical context to analyze. It’s a pure fiction about the word. I hear the Derrida defenders here saying that this is precisely the point, because every word is made up and we play an etymological game to understand them. Maybe, but I don’t really see what’s gained by presenting that idea in this way.

Derrida then recaps some of Saussure’s structuralist ideas about language: the signifyer / signified distinction. The word “chair” is a mere symbol that signifies an actual chair. The connection is arbitrary. We could easily make up a word like “cuilhseitornf” and have it symbolize the exact same thing. (All that was the Saussure recap).

Derrida wants to now say that actually it’s not so simple as Saussure thinks. Words don’t have a one-to-one correspondence to things (concepts, etc). In fact, meaning comes from being in a linguistic system, and the meaning of a word comes from understanding what the other words are not signifying. He wants to call this negative space “differance.” Again, I’m worried about how much we’re loading into this one made up word.

But overall, if I clarify this point to a degree Derrida would probably hate, I’m somewhat sold on the concept. Think about removing the word “chair” from the English language (i.e. a linguistic system). If you think about something that is different from all the remaining words, you’ll probably get something close to “chair,” because it’s partly defined by the differences between it and all the other words in the system. This seems an okay statement to make, if a little confusing as to its importance to theory.

Derrida introduces the concept of “trace” to make the above point. Basically the trace of a signifyer is the collection of all the sameness and differance left on it by the other words in the linguistic system.

Overall, I don’t get what real contribution this paper makes. To me, it is essentially a reiteration of Wittgenstein’s ideas about words in linguistic systems/games with a single, seemingly unnecessary, mystical layer that comes through the meta-concept of “differance.” Maybe if I were to read some of Derrida’s later work, it will become clearer why he needs this, but at this point I don’t get it.

Derrida is less confusing than I remember. He’s not hard to read because of obscurity or complex sentences or big words. He’s hard to read because he just meanders too much. There are entire pages that can be thrown out with nothing lost, because they are pure reiteration of minor tangential points.

Lessons in the Fundamentals of Writing, Part 3

As I continue to read poorly edited (I’m not referring to typos) KU books, I continue to find fundamental problems to talk about. Here’s one that will probably be obvious to many people when I point it out, but it would never jump out in a self-editing session to them.

Here’s a real example:

Maria glanced in the window of the coffee shop and saw that it was nearly packed to completely full capacity.

This lesson is again on the level of word choice in sentence construction. There’s a lot to pull from this one mistake. The first is in modifying absolutes. There are times when there’s no choice. One must modify a word that has an absolute meaning.

An example of an absolute is “perfect.” It exist as an absolute extreme. I don’t have much of a problem with saying “nearly perfect” (in other words, modifying the absolute), because synonyms like “flawed” have too much baggage to get the right meaning.

The first part of this lesson is to always try to get the right meaning without forming this construction. I believe the Chicago Manual of Style even lists this as a mistake. The reason is that something either is the absolute or it isn’t. Absolutes set up a pure binary, so it doesn’t really make sense to modify it somehow.

The common example is “unique.” The word unique means “one of a kind” or “the sole example.” This is an absolute and should not be modified. For example, “That’s the most unique car I’ve seen.” The word “most” doesn’t do anything, because the word unique already has that information in it. One should write, “That car is unique.”

But that’s not the real fundamental flaw in the example. The fundamental flaw is redundancy and wordiness. Let’s just look at “packed to completely full capacity.” First off, “completely” serves no purpose. “Full” and “completely full” have the exact same meaning, so it is redundant to say it that way (it’s again modifying an absolute in an unnecessary way).

But “full capacity” is kind of redundant as well, because “packed to full capacity” and “packed to capacity” have the exact same meaning. It is also touch jargon-y, almost like corporate double speak. The other option was to use “full.” That flows much better to me.

Now “full” is an absolute, so we come full circle and have to decide what to do with the “nearly” before it. I say scrap it. When looking into a coffee shop, a human isn’t going to see a difference between “nearly full” and “full.” It’s just going to look full. Here’s my fixed version:

Maria glanced in the window of the coffee shop and saw that it was full.

Go back and read the original now. Wow. This version is so much better. The last two lessons I said an editor wouldn’t point it out, because the mistakes were too fundamental. Any editor worth paying for will point out this type of mistake, so I have to assume the self-published writer that wrote this book did not hire one.

Sorry for the short post, but I’m away on vacation this week. I think this lesson is quite important though.

Lessons in the Fundamentals of Writing, Part 2

This is going to be a post on a bizarre pet peeve of mine. This advice isn’t as universal as my dozens of other posts on writing. It’s an idiosyncrasy of my own personal taste. Yet, of all the writers I think of as taking the craft of prose seriously, I can’t find anyone that makes this “mistake.” It’s only found in books by people who pump out quantity over quality, so I think there’s actually something to it.

Here’s a quick refresher on definite versus indefinite articles. An indefinite article is used when talking about a thing in general. In other words, not a specific thing already known to the listener. Example:

A cat cried outside my window all night long.

The indefinite article is “a.” Definite articles are used to refer to a specific thing known to the listener.

There is a cup of water. The cup is brown.

In this case, “the” is the definite article. Here is the lesson for today: Do not use definite articles too early in a novel or story. This will take some unpacking, because, obviously, it’s often appropriate to use a definite article in the first sentence.

I know, this sounds like nitpicky nonsense. Here’s an actual example (kind of, modified like last time so you can’t Google the person and find their book). Here’s the first sentence of the entire novel.

Bob set the glass of water down before going to the bedroom.

Let’s ignore the fact that this also violates Lesson 1 in this series (come on, is setting the glass of water down really where this story begins or at least a vital detail?!). I’ll first say that this is a noble effort. She uses an active verb, and a specific detail is given (though, a glass of water is quite generic).

But why is there a definite article? The reader has not been exposed to the glass yet, so it isn’t known.

Don’t freak out on me that this is absolutely ridiculous. Every time I encounter this, I cringe at how strange it sounds to my ear. I hear your complaint: how can this be avoided? First off, something like “Bob set his glass…” reads much better to me. The possessive article is still somewhat definite, but it indicates Bob is the one familiar with it and not necessarily the reader.

Also, “Bob set a glass…” sounds correct as well. My guess is that many KU authors read other KU authors, and this creates a cycle of subconscious imitation. Using a definite article in a first sentence has become the norm, unfortunately.

There are times when it is fine.

The sun crested the horizon, and a streak of red jutted across the sky.

Here it’s fine, because the reader is already familiar with the sun, the horizon, and the sky. In other words, we know which one she’s referring to. But I’d like to return to a deeper problem and the core of this lesson. If you find yourself using a definite article for an object unfamiliar to the reader, don’t quickly change it to an indefinite or possessive. Ask yourself why that object is there.

In almost 100% of the times I see this, the more fundamental problem is that the object shouldn’t be mentioned at all. If the object is important enough, then really emphasize it by making it the subject of the sentence. In that case, it is okay to use a definite article.

The glass of water sparkled on the counter. Bob wondered if they’d be able to lift the killer’s prints off it as he wandered to the bedroom—the scene of the crime.

Now it makes sense. It’s not just “a” glass of water, but a highly specific one that plays a crucial role in the opening of the novel. This opening draws the reader in. There aren’t just objects and details for no reason. The glass is mentioned to create tension in the scene.

There are also hundreds of exceptions to this rule, so don’t go posting a bunch in the comments or something. I’ve seen books where this rule is broken and it works. It’s like all writing advice: break it when you have good reason to.

Here’s some obvious exceptions. You have to use a definite article if referencing a proper noun (It happened while listening to the Beatles). There are also common phrases and colloquialisms that use definite articles (It was the best of times). But the most common exception is if the scene has been set enough that the object in question could be inferred by the reader. Here’s the opening to A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

It began in the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall.

Pay close attention to “the” versus “a” versus “her” in that paragraph. Egan uses “her yellow eye shadow” because the reader hasn’t been exposed to it. She uses “the mirror” and “the sink” because Sasha is in a bathroom of a hotel. If a reader hasn’t envisioned a mirror or sink, they aren’t familiar with standard bathrooms. But Egan uses “a bag,” because the reader wouldn’t envision a bag on the floor from any of the previous information.