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.

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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.

Year of Short Fiction Part 7: Interpreter of Maladies

Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri, is one of those collections of stories I’ve heard about for years. It came out in 1999 and won the Pulitzer Prize. I think I dragged my feet on it because of the Oprah endorsement and the fact that I assumed I knew it already (i.e. it’s just another of those MFA story collection clones).

Today, I want to dig in to the first story in the collection, “A Temporary Matter.” It kind of blew me away. This is the type of story one should spend a lot of time understanding if one wants to do short fiction well. It packs a serious emotional punch but also has a ton of things to notice on subsequent readings.

WARNING: The entire story will be revealed. If you want to experience it as intended, read it first. The obvious Google search is your friend if you don’t have a copy.

Short stories tend to focus really, really hard on a single moment: think Joyce’s Dubliners. This is because if one is showing instead of telling, there just isn’t room to do anything else. Lahiri builds to this moment in “A Temporary Matter” with a lot of backstory, and to do this she has to “tell.” So it will be interesting to see how she does this in an engaging way.

The structure of the story is also really important. It jumps around in time, and this is done so that certain emotional reveals happen where they need to happen. Here’s the structure labeled in a way that can be referred to (the whole thing is told in past tense limited third person).

Present 1
Past 1
Present 1
Present 2
Past 2
(Present 2)
Past 3
Present 2
Present 3
Sequence of Past events revealed
Final Present moment

Here’s a brief summary. Present 1: Shoba and Shukumar receive a notice that the electric company will shut the power off for an hour each night to fix some power lines (a temporary matter). Past 1: We get a semi-flashback to Shukumar finding out that Shoba went into early labor while he was away at an academic conference. The baby dies, and Shoba resents Shukumar for not being there during the horrific experience.

Present 2: The first blackout night comes up and Shukumar makes dinner. Past 2: There’s a brief description of how they’ve developed nightly routines of avoiding each other. It’s brilliant how none of these flashbacks feel like flashbacks. It’s more like Shukumar is having idle thoughts while cooking. This layers in the backstory more naturally than a true jarring flashback. Past 3: We also get thoughts about Shoba’s mother coming to visit and help after the miscarriage.

Present 2: The real content of the story begins at this first blackout dinner. Under the safety of darkness, they decide to play a game where they each reveal a secret they’ve never told the other before. The secrets start out minor: cheating on a test years ago, getting drunk in the middle of the day once.

Present 3: The game continues each night, and they start to be able to talk to each other again. They start to fall in love again and move through the grief. They even make love. Then final night comes, and the power company finishes early. They have light.

They still play the game, because each has saved their bombshell for the final night. Shoba reveals that she has signed a lease to an apartment, and she’s moving out. Shukumar reveals that he actually made it back from the conference and held the baby after the miscarriage. The ending is left open.

As you can see, the structure is quite complicated, but it must be this way for the most emotional resonance. Let’s look at how these “flashbacks” work by taking a passage from the first one.

Each time he thought of that moment, the last moment he saw Shoba pregnant, it was the cab he remembered most, a station wagon, painted red with blue lettering. It was cavernous compared to their own car. Although Shukumar was six feet tall, with hands too big ever to rest comfortably in the pockets of his jeans, he felt dwarfed in the back seat. As the cab sped down Beacon street, he imagined a day when he and Shoba might need to buy a station wagon of their own, to cart their children back and forth from music lessons and dentist appointments.

There’s two things that make this fit into the story so well. First, it meanders like thought. So instead of jerking you to another time and place with a sudden hard break, it lets Shukumar’s thoughts wander, as if he’s actually standing in the present still, thinking about it.

The other thing is that it sticks to one important detail and drills into it: the car. At first it’s just the physical description. But then it becomes an emotional description. It’s not a detail for detail’s sake. This detail is important. He thinks about how he and Shoba would need a car like that for their future children. He has no idea that his wife is about to lose the baby.

Lahiri also lets Shukumar’s present thoughts bleed into this passage by indicating “the last moment he saw Shoba pregnant…”

The title is very clever. I don’t want to dwell on it too much, but it draws attention to how many of the disparate threads weave together. The lights going out is a temporary matter. The game is a temporary matter. We come to believe that the title is secretly about the rocky place of the relationship being a temporary matter. They’re moving through it and falling in love again.

But then it smacks us in the end. It’s actually their relationship which is temporary. Obviously, it’s easy to read too much into this, because everything in life is temporary. So the title would draw these themes out of any story.

There’s also a lot of interesting symbolic stuff going on. For example, the darkness each night doesn’t merely give them safety to speak their minds. It also represents that both are in the dark about the interior states of the other. It’s not an accident that Lahiri cuts the darkness short on the fifth night so that when the truth is revealed they are in light.

This is what makes the story so brilliant. One can read it without noticing any of this stuff and have a serious emotional reaction to it but then read it again and notice how all these details reveal who the characters really are and the conflicting themes and the symbols.

Lessons in the Fundamentals of Writing, Part 1

I have a Kindle Unlimited subscription, so I start a lot of self-published books. Many of these are bad (don’t take this the wrong way: 90% of everything is bad). I don’t want to criticize specific people or their writing, but I really want to dig into some of the fundamental problems with some passages I’ve found out in the published world.

I’ve decided that I’m going to take real passages and change the verbs and nouns and names (but in a way to not create a new problem). This is so you can’t go find the passages easily. Most of the time proper grammar and so on is used. It’s even possible they hired an editor. The issue is that when certain fundamental problems exist, the work isn’t ready for an editor.

Here is the opening passage to a novel. Sorry for how long this excerpt is, but context is needed to understand the fundamental problem:

A 23 year old girl named Veronica who had just ended her relationship with her boyfriend found herself alone. After a few years of being with him, she decided to follow her instincts and have a relationship with an older man. Veronica had always been with people her own age but she secretly found them immature.

One day in the afternoon Veronica was bored at her house and decided to go out and visit some friends to chill and have some fun. When she got to their house, they were talking to a coworker named Sam …

We could take a few directions with this. First off, every single one of those sentences is telling the reader what happened instead of showing it. In addition, most of what we’re told is completely irrelevant. An agent or publisher wouldn’t have to read any further to know it was a hard reject.

It might be instructive to see how to change some of this to show more and tell less. Let’s do that for a moment, but there’s actually a more fundamental problem than that.

First, let’s think about what’s actually important in the first sentence. The age we can later infer. The relationship ending is inferred by the last part of the sentence. Already we could make a much stronger opening by changing that to:

Veronica found herself alone.

This conveys the same information in a much less clunky way. Strings of glue words like “who had just” should always throw up red flags. The rest of that opening paragraph is also unimportant. We can show all of it better through action or dialogue.

“One day in the afternoon” and “was bored at her house” can be converted to showing. Never say “one day.” However you proceed, it will be assumed that it is a day (unless it’s night, of course).

The heat of the afternoon sun beat on Veronica’s skin as she lazily flipped through the latest Cosmopolitan.

Now we’ve given the character some action that slips in the time of day and shows her being bored. With specific details like the magazine title, we’re developing characterization. Imagine how you’d feel if instead that had said Popular Mechanics or Harper’s. It’s already infinitely better, but if we try to convert the next part, we’re going to run up against the more fundamental problem I alluded to.

There’s no good way to transition to the upcoming house party scene. We have to spend a full scene with her being bored at her house, or we should probably skip it. Here’s the fundamental lesson: make sure the story starts in the right place.

The original first paragraph is backstory and told motivation. There’s no need for either. The “being bored” is irrelevant. This novel actually begins at this party scene where she’s going to try to start dating this older man.

I tend to think of novels having two good opening strategies. One is the poetic scene setting or character description. I know that’s gone quite a bit out of favor recently, but most of the masters did this. This sets a patient tone for the novel. Here’s the opening to Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon (Malazan, Book 1):

The stains of rust seemed to map blood seas on the black, pocked surface of Mock’s Vane. A century old, it squatted on the point of an old pike that had bolted to the outer top of the Hold’s wall. Monstrous and misshapen, it had been cold-hammered into the form of a winged demon, teeth bared in a leering grin, and was tugged and buffeted in squealing protest with every gust of wind.

The inventive description draws you right in. There’s no need for action because so much of the descriptors paint in an active way: stains, blood, squat, bolt, monstrous, demon, teeth bared, leering, and more. This is all just a description of the setting!

We could easily do this with the example we’re trying to fix. We could dwell on the house for a while before getting to this other idea:

Fragments of sunlight cut through the clouded sky to illuminate a small bungalow on a hill. Veronica glanced out the window at her garden—at how the raindrops refracted the light on the silvery wormwood leaves. The storm had broken. Three days of being cooped up was about all she could take.

This is getting more advanced than I want this “fundamentals” series to be. Here’s the idea.

If Veronica is sad about the breakup, we can symbolically illustrate this with the storm. Now that she’s about to go to this party, the sun coming out foreshadows things getting better. She’s coming out of the post-breakup depression (and we even worked in why she was bored since this was so important to merit mention to the original author!).

So if we absolutely must start the novel bored at the house, we should use inventive description to paint vivid pictures and draw the reader in like this. But honestly I feel quite strongly that this “bored at the house” idea was merely lazy writing and not the true beginning.

The more common advice these days is to start in media res, meaning in the middle of some action. But in the case of the example we’re trying to fix, there’s no need for actual “action.” All this means for us is to start where the actual story starts. All the stuff that came before it was unnecessary. It will be inferred later or was too unimportant to care about.

Veronica circled the party in a slow and deliberate prowl. She watched Sam as he talked to people she didn’t know. He had a streak of silver in his brown hair, a hefty square jaw covered in stubble, and those piercing green eyes. She thought to herself: age is just a number.

Oh. What in the world is going on here? We know the man is older by the physical description, but leaving what exactly their age difference is creates mystery. We don’t know whether to be intrigued or disturbed yet. She’s on the prowl but why? It’s the action of the scene right up front.

And don’t think that a good editor will tell you any of this (they’ll be thinking it, though!). Editors can only fix so much. If there’s a true fundamental problem like this one, it requires a rewrite. Editors edit. A rewrite is part of “writing” and beyond the scope of their job. They might be generous and write things like “telly,” but you’ll have to understand that what they mean is what’s in this post.