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.

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 13

Graham Greene is one of my favorite “classical” English language writers (I guess I mean he’s taught in some schools). I first read The Power and the Glory eleven years ago, and I was blown away by it. I haven’t returned to the novel since then, but I wanted to use it to dig into Greene’s prose a bit.

I’m not religious, and I wasn’t back when I read it either. One of the things that struck me most about the novel is its ambiguous stance toward religion. The book takes place in a (future?) time where religion is banned. Literally every single reference to any religion is destroyed by the government.

The main character is a Catholic priest secretly keeping religion alive and standing up to the evil government. It sounds like the setup to a cheesy, made-for-tv, inspirational religious movie. But the priest is a drunkard (known as the “whisky priest”). He’s gluttonous and immoral. Now it sounds like anti-religious fiction about hypocrisy in the Catholic church.

Eventually I realized that thinking in terms of these competing narratives was a mistake. This setup was merely a powerful tool to examine the human condition. Each of us has virtues and vices. Each of us has a moral compass we try to live by, and part of the novel is to show how even the strongest of us can throw these ideals away when put in dire situations.

Greene writes with a simplicity and clarity necessary to drive these points home. The book could have easily slid into excess drama and cliche and angst if done by a less-skilled writer. Instead, we get a beautiful story of human frailty.

Anyway, I thought that preface was necessary to understand an analysis of the prose style. Here’s a segment from the second chapter:

The lieutenant walked home through the shuttered town. All his life had lain here: the Syndicate of Workers and Peasants had once been a school. He had helped to wipe out that unhappy memory. The whole town was changed: the cement playground up the hill near the cemetery where iron swings stood like gallows in the moony darkness was the site of the cathedral. The new children would have new memories: nothing would ever be as it was. There was something of a priest in his intent observant walk- a theologian going back over the errors of the past to destroy them again.

One of the hallmarks of non-professional writing is the misapplication of “show, don’t tell.” Something that is supposed to be a small detail blows up into paragraphs of showing for no reason. The brilliance of Greene here is how he uses single, carefully chosen descriptive words to evoke feelings, mood, scenery, backstory, and more. Lesson: one can show more with less words if those words do work.

One could imagine an exuberant young writer letting that first sentence get out of hand with descriptions of the shutters and houses and the general mood and atmosphere of the town. Instead, Greene’s use of the phrase “shuttered town” does all this work for us. We understand the people are terrified. They’ve shut themselves in. No one is out and about. It’s desolate and bleak.

All of this “showing” happens in our head, because Greene struck upon a great word. If the word “shuttered” were something like “terrified,” we’d only get the mood. If it were something like “locked up,” we’d get a visual, but not the mood.

Next, Greene does multiple things at once. He describes select places in the town in order to get backstory on the lieutenant and paint a picture and explain the current political climate.

When the lieutenant was a child, there was a school. He was part of wiping it out and replacing it with the “Syndicate of Workers and Peasants.” Greene doesn’t take the time to explain what this is, but it’s clear. This is some bureaucratic government thing. The name evokes this without further need to explain.

A cathedral was destroyed, and a playground put in. But if Greene had said it this way, we might think this is a happy place. Instead, he gives us the simile “iron swings stood like gallows.” It evokes the disturbing thought of children having to do with chopping people’s heads off. Careful juxtaposition like this can paint vivid imagery in people’s minds. Greene continues this theme. The playground is “cement.” It’s near the cemetery.

Everything about the description of this place is disturbing, and what’s brilliant is that he reveals so much about the character and the town while doing this. This is a man remembering his own history with these places: how he helped wreck the town.

Then he uses a parallel concept. The new children will have new memories. Greene shifts from the character’s childhood to new children and what they’ll think.

The paragraph closes by drawing a parallel to the priest. He connects two of the characters in the novel and draws out a theme. All people want redemption from their past mistakes. But sometimes things we do to absolve a “mistake” only makes things worse. Those “mistakes” might not even have been mistakes at all, but we only see this in hindsight.

The takeaway from Greene’s prose is that one can show more with a few carefully chosen details than if one were to spend paragraphs describing it all. This stripped back style strikes emotional resonance in the novel (especially the haunting last chapter).

Of course, style must be chosen to suit the needs of the work, so this might not be the best choice for everything. But it’s hard to think of a modern novel that wouldn’t be made better by moving in this direction a little.

Become a Patron!

I’ve come to a crossroads recently.

I write a blog post every week. It takes time. The last one was close to 2,000 words and required reading a book. For the past three years I’ve been writing full time, and so blogging can be a burden that cuts into this with no monetary rewards.

This blog is now over nine years old, and I’ve done nothing to monetize it. I think this is mostly a good thing. I do not and will not run any sort of advertisements. Even upon the release of my first book, I only did a brief mention and then no promotion afterward (and as far as I can tell, this converted to literally 0 sales).

I want this to be about the blog content. I do not want it to turn into some secret ad campaign to sell my work. I can think of many authors who have done this, and I ended up unsubscribing from them.

This brings me to the point. Putting this much work into something is not really sustainable anymore without some sort of support, so I’ve started a Patreon page. As you’ll see, my initial goal is quite modest and will barely cover the expenses to run my blog and website. But without anything, I will slowly phase out writing here regularly.

If this concept is new to you, Patreon is a site dedicated to supporting creative work. Patrons can pledge money to support people creating content they like. It can be as little as $1 a month (or as many podcasters say: “less than a coffee a month”), and in return, you not only help the site to keep running, you’ll receive bonus content as well.

Because of the scattered nature of my posts, I know a lot of you are probably scared to support, because you might not get content of interest for the month. Some of you like the math and tune out for the writing advice. Some of you like the critical analysis of philosophy and wish the articles on game mechanics didn’t exist.

For consistency, I’ll only put out something that would be tagged “literature” for the vast majority of posts from now on. This means once a month or less and probably never two months in a row (i.e. six per year spread out equally). This “literature” tag includes, but is not limited to, most posts on philosophy that touch on narrative or language somehow, editing rules, writing advice, book reviews, story structure analysis, examining pro’s prose, movie reviews, and so on.

Again, the core original vision for the blog included game and music and math posts, but these will be intentionally fewer now. If you check the past few years, I basically already did this anyway, but this way you know what you’re signing up for.

I think people are drawn to my literature analysis because I’m in a unique position. This month I’m about to submit my fifth romance novel under a pseudonym. This is the “commercial” work I do for money, and it’s going reasonably well. I’ve come to understand the ins and outs of genre fiction through this experience, and it has been a valuable part of learning the craft of writing for me.

My main work under my real name is much more literary. I’ve put out one novel of literary fiction. Next month I’ll put out my second “real” novel, which is firmly in the fantasy genre but hopefully doesn’t give up high-quality prose.

These two opposite experiences have given me an eye for what makes story work and what makes prose work. All over this blog I’ve shown that I love experimental writing, but I’ve also been one of the few people to unapologetically call out BS where I see it.

As you can imagine, writing several genre novels and a “real” novel every year makes it tough to justify this weekly blog for the fun of it.

If I haven’t convinced you that the quality here is worth supporting, I’ll give you one last tidbit. I get to see incoming links thanks to WordPress, so I know that more than one graduate seminar and MFA program has linked to various posts I’ve made on critical theory and difficult literature. Since I’m not in those classes, I can’t be sure of the purpose, but graduate programs tend to only suggest reading things that are worth reading. There just isn’t enough time for anything else.

I know, I know. Print is dead. You’d rather support people making podcasts or videos, but writing is the easiest way to get my ideas across. I listen to plenty of podcasts on writing, but none of them get to dig into things like prose style. The format isn’t conducive to it. One needs to see the text under analysis to really get the commentary on it.

Don’t panic. I won’t decrease blog production through the end of 2017, but I’m setting an initial goal of $100 per month. We’ll go from there, because even that might not be a sustainable level long-term. If it isn’t met, I’ll have to adjust accordingly. It’s just one of those unfortunate business decisions. Sometimes firing someone is the right move, even if they’re your friend.

I’ve set up a bunch supporter rewards, and I think anyone interested in the blog will find them well worth it. I’m being far more generous than most Patreon pages making similar content. Check out the page for details. The rewards involve seeing me put into practice what I talk about with video of me editing a current project with live commentary; extra fiction I write for free; free copies of my novels; extra “Examining Pro’s Prose” articles; and more!

I hope you find the content here worth supporting (I’m bracing myself for the humiliation of getting $2 a month and knowing it’s from my parents). If you don’t feel you can support the blog, feel free to continue reading and commenting for free. The community here has always been excellent.

Difficult Subject Matter in 90’s Song Lyrics

I don’t want to make one of those click bait “the 90’s had the best music EVER!!” posts. One can find really terrible music and really excellent music in any decade. It would be a futile task to claim one decade had the best music.

I went down a strange rabbit hole the other day, though. I just put up a song on youtube and let the autoplay happen while I worked on some other things. It shifted into some sort of 90’s nostalgia playlist, and I kept hearing very surprising lyrics. They were songs I knew from living through the time, but they handled difficult subject matter in subtle and beautiful ways I hadn’t noticed.

I’d be surprised if songs like these could get on the radio today, but I distinctly remember hearing both of these songs on the radio in the 90’s.

Let’s start with “Round Here” by Counting Crows. First off, I’d like to point out that the song is through-composed, already something that could never happen today. The song appears to be about a depressed girl who attempts suicide. But it’s also about the disillusionment of growing up and finding out all those things you were told in childhood probably didn’t matter.

If you think it’s farfetched to have so much in one “pop” song, listen to it a few times. It’s all in there and more. A quick google search brings up wild, yet convincing, interpretations. This “universality” is the hallmark of great song art. Everyone listens to it and thinks it’s about their experience.

Here’s the opening:

Step out the front door like a ghost
Into the fog where no one notices
The contrast of white on white.
And in between the moon and you
The angels get a better view
Of the crumbling difference between wrong and right.

It opens with a beautiful simile. Sometimes pop songs have similes, but they tend to be funny or ironic. It’s hard to think of any current ones that do the hard work of writing something real. “Like a ghost into the fog” is such apt imagery for the point he’s making. Ghosts are white and ethereal. Fog is white and ethereal. A ghost that steps into fog loses all sense of self and no one else can see the person. They’re lost.

Then angels see a crumbling of the difference between wrong and right. This sort of moral ambiguity is another thing it would be hard to find in today’s lyrics. In the context of one of the interpretations I provided, this is probably in reference to how adults tell children right and wrong with clear certainty. As one grows up, one learns that it’s never that obvious.

The lyrics just keep getting better from there.

Next up is “Freshmen” by the Verve Pipe. This song hit Number 5 on the Billboard Top 100. Fifteen years ago, I thought I understood this song. Now I hear it from a totally different perspective.

Originally, I thought it was about a girl that broke up with the singer and then she killed herself over it. The singer is ridden with guilt. But the lyrics, when carefully analyzed, paint a slightly different picture.

Here’s the opening:

When I was young I knew everything
She a punk who rarely ever took advice
Now I’m guilt stricken,
Sobbing with my head on the floor
Stop a baby’s breath and a shoe full of rice

The singer is a typical Freshmen. He thinks he knows everything. This is part of what has changed for me in the song. I was pretty modest as a Freshmen, but now I can look back and it terrifies me how much I thought I knew. I’ve heard this feeling only gets worse as you age.

The key to the song is given right up front. “Stop a baby’s breath” is a reference to his girlfriend getting an abortion, and how this led to a fight and breakup. “A shoe full of rice” is about how they were even planning on getting married. Again, this is subtle imagery that blows by early on in the song. It requires careful attention if one is to understand the rest of the song.

I can’t be held responsible

This is something he tells himself, but he doesn’t believe it. This is a shift in voice, because it goes from narration of the story to internal thoughts. If one takes this line at face value without understanding this shift, one will misinterpret it. Here’s the chorus:

For the life of me I cannot remember
What made us think that we were wise and
We’d never compromise
For the life of me I cannot believe
We’d ever die for these sins
We were merely freshmen

Here’s another reference to his youthful arrogance. He thought he knew everything, and convinced his girlfriend to get the abortion. He refused to compromise and it destroyed their relationship. If you don’t know this song, it’s worth a listen to the rest. It progressively complicates as the guilt reverberates. He can’t hold other relationships out of fear of it happening again.

There’s something haunting about the reiteration of “we were merely freshmen” at the end of each phrase. When we’re young, we think we can do anything without much lasting consequence, but the singer learns the hard way that one devastating mistake can haunt you forever.

To wrap this up, I want to reiterate that it isn’t the difficulty of the subject matter that I find so amazing about these 90’s hits. Plenty of current hits have difficult subject matter. It’s the delicacy with which the lyrics handle the subject. It’s poetic and abstract so that the feeling comes through but the listener interprets it to apply to their own life.

Elements of Writing that Annoy Me Part 2

I wrote the first of these something like three years ago. Maybe I’m just in a bad mood or the writing I read really is getting worse, but certain things have been getting on my nerves a lot. It’s time to pick this up again!

  1. Not trusting your reader. This is a typical flaw of first-time novelists. They have a beautiful idea and execute it in a clever, original way, but they are so fearful the reader will miss what they’ve put all this work into that they overdo it.

It’s like if someone were to tell you a joke, you laugh, and then they say, “Did you get it? Here, let me tell you why it was funny.” There’s never a reason to do this. If someone didn’t get your art without you telling them, then it failed. Telling them what it’s about doesn’t fix that. For everyone else, they already got it, so there is no need to re-explain it.

The example that jumps out to me the most is the movie A Single Man. I thought this movie was brilliant when it came out, but the ending made me cringe a little. A new character comes in right at the end and explains it all to you. I haven’t seen it since it was in theaters, so maybe I’d feel differently now.

The other way this manifests is in thoughts and exposition. I hate when a book explains how a character feels right after it was demonstrated.

Sally yelled, “I hate you!” Fred annoyed her so much, and she was beginning to hate him.

That’s obviously not a real example, and I exaggerated it to illustrate the point. But I’ve seen things almost this bad.

2. Alliteration. I have a theory about alliteration. When you’re in a flow state of writing, the brain makes a lot of weird connections. So when you get to a noun like “book” and you want more description, the brain naturally jumps to something like “boring” or “bothersome” or “bad.”

I have no evidence to support this theory. I’ve noticed in my own writing that this is when it tends to creep in. Don’t get me wrong. Alliteration is a literary device that can be used to great effect when done right. But if you find it in a first draft, it should pretty much never make it to the final draft. It was probably an accident.

I view the misuse of alliteration to be a mistake on par with a grammar mistake. I know this sounds unfair, since it’s only a prose style error. It falls under the category known as “diction.” I’m not sure why standards have gotten so lax in this category. You will never find this error in great writers of the past, but it’s everywhere now.

It’s hard to say what annoys me so much about it. I think it’s some combination of thinking about why it happens. It’s either laziness on the writer’s part or lack of knowledge on the writer’s part or laziness/lack of knowledge on the editor’s part or the writer ignoring the editor’s advice. All of these are pretty annoying reasons.

3. Semi-dangling modifiers. Okay. I made this up. It’s not a real thing. If a book is traditionally published, it should go through an editor good enough to not allow any actual dangling modifiers. A dangling modifier is when you start a sentence with a clause that modifies a subject not actually present in the sentence.

An example: Having eaten a large breakfast, lunch was unappetizing. The first clause has an implied person as its subject. The second clause has “lunch” as its subject. This is an easy fix: Having eaten a large breakfast, I found lunch unappetizing. Now the implied subject of the modifying clause matches the subject of the sentence.

Beginning with modifying clauses in general can be grating. If this were in something I was editing, I would strongly suggest the change: I found lunch unappetizing, because I ate a large breakfast. It converts the sentence from passive to active voice, and it clarifies the logic.

Now I’m going to pick on a real book to illustrate what I mean by “semi-dangling modifiers.” I’ve been reading The Bees by Laline Paull, and she does this all the time. I don’t want to pick on her too much, because I actually see this in a lot of what I read. I just happen to have that book on my desk right now. Chapter 21 begins with this sentence:

Shocked at her own act, Flora was among the first out.

When I read this, I had no idea what act it referred to, because I had put the book down at the chapter break. But let’s not dwell on that (this might be against 1 in trusting your reader too much by starting a chapter with a reference to the last event of the last chapter).

The modifier is not dangling, because Flora is the subject of the sentence. I call this “semi-dangling,” because the clause has no logical connection to the main sentence. When a sentence begins with any clause, it is implied that the sentence could be rearranged in a way to make it clear how the clause contains relevant information to the rest of the sentence. In the example I gave above, we learned why the I found lunch unappetizing.

In this example, the clause could be deleted without losing anything, and so it should be deleted! It’s semi-dangling in the sense that the clause itself never refers to something relevant to the rest of the sentence.

People, stop semi-dangling your modifiers. If the clause is irrelevant, delete it. If it is important information but has no logical connection to the res of the sentence, make it a whole new sentence.

Year of Short Fiction Part 4: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of those weird cultural staples that literally everyone has heard of it. Most people over a certain age have probably seen the movie, but ask them what it’s about, and they probably have no idea. It’s kind of fascinating to think how a novella/film gets to such a point. I can’t even think of another cultural phenomenon of this type.

I was pretty excited going into this for a few reasons. I, too, had seen the movie enough years ago to not remember it. Oh, there’s the long cigarette, and a crazy cat, and a wacky party girl, and singing “Moon River,” but what was it about? What was the plot? The other reason I was excited was that Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is one of two books that have ever made me cry. The way he writes is breathtaking.

The first thing to jump out at me was the vulgarity of the language. It was published in 1958, so we’ve moved past short fiction that hides indiscretions. But I still must imagine this novella pushed what was acceptable for the time. It openly talks about prostitution and homosexuality and a 14-year-old girl getting married to an adult man. Plus, Holly’s language is very direct and crude (I don’t recall if she swears, though).

Lolita came out a few years before Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Tiffany’s doesn’t compare in disturbing imagery to that. So I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised. It had more to do with tone than imagery, though.

The novella is basically a long character study, and it does an excellent job at this. Holly has to be one of the strangest characters of all time. Capote’s attention to detail is incredible. Almost every sentence that has Holly in it is crafted to expose some tiny piece of how her mind works. An early example is that the location on her business card is: traveling.

At first, it comes off as chaos. Nothing about the character makes sense, and the sentences she speaks come out in a stream-of-consciousness level of confusion. But then, by about halfway or so, she’ll do something weird, and you find yourself thinking: that’s so Holly. There appears to be a deep internal logic to it. Holly feels very real and knowable.

The plot itself is fairly melodramatic. It goes by at rapid-fire pace. This short novella has Holly being in love with and engaged to several people. She travels to probably a dozen places, often not even in the U.S. There’s parties. She’s involved with a scheme to smuggle drugs orchestrated by a man in prison. She gets pregnant and miscarries. It’s almost impossible to take stock of all that happens in this, and there’s almost no real emotion behind any of it.

Capote clearly did this on purpose. Holly’s character is flighty, and she often jumps into things without any thought. If we think of the novella as a character study, then all these crazy events occurring is part of the brilliance of the novella. The plot doesn’t have weight for the main character, so it would be a mistake to have the events play a significant role to the reader. Holly moves on, and so should the reader.

And now we come full circle. No one remembers the plot to Breakfast at Tiffany’s by design. We’re only meant to remember Holly. Even her last name is “Golightly.”

The only moments of emotional poignancy are when the narrator reflects on it all, and when we see beneath Holly’s shell. He falls in love with Holly for real (this is a bit of a theme to the book: what is love?). This is quite well done, because it contrasts so starkly with Holly’s indifference and shows how devastating her indifference can be as she tears through people’s lives.

Capote gives Holly one piece of depth that prevents her from being some caricature of a socialite. She cares deeply about her brother, and it is probably the only real human connection she’s ever had. A lot of her carefree attitude stems from a disturbing fact dropped subtly in tiny details. She runs from human connection because of the psychological trauma of being a child bride.

Overall, the novella was way better than I expected in terms of character development. It was also sort of disappointing in a way. I went in expecting it to be a romance between the narrator and Holly done in a brilliant literary Capote-esque way. It’s not that at all. But once you get over the initial shock (and genre confusion), it’s brilliant.

The Book of the New Sun

It took me three months, but I finally finished The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. It was published as four novels, but it is clearly one giant novel. Each one practically ends in the middle of a sentence, and none are standalone. There’s so much to say about this, and yet it basically defies talking about.

The initial critical reception was quite good. It was published throughout 1980-1983. So it fits into a transition time for SF/F. The pulps had died off by this point and a lot experimentation happened in the 60’s and 70’s, but the genre hadn’t fully evolved into the literary phenomenon that it would become by the end of the 90’s.

This book is very much ahead of its time in this sense. The Washington Post said Gene Wolfe is “the finest writer the science fiction world has yet produced.” Maybe. But the genre has taken the best of both worlds: fast-paced genre action/adventure/fun and quality literary writing that imparts deeper meaning on subsequent readings.

Anyone who has been reading this blog for any sufficient amount of time will know my views on abstract, difficult, or avant-garde art, especially writing and music. I love it. I love having to dig in and listen to a piece of music 10+ times to start to understand what’s going on.

These types of pieces often give the listener the most rewarding artistic experiences. As DFW once said (I paraphrase), art is a relationship between artist and viewer. Relationships can’t be meaningful if all the work is done by one side. The more you put into experiencing a work of art, the more you get out of it.

Anyway, I won’t rehash that argument any further. My views when it comes to long novels have evolved a bit. There’s something of a difference between getting more on repeated readings and requiring multiple readings. It’s a respect thing. I respect an artist who promises more depth on another visit. An artist is disrespecting my time if I spend three months experiencing their art only to be told at the end that I can’t have understood it on the first time and I absolutely must spend another three months rereading it to make that first time around meaningful.

So that’s where The Book of the New Sun ends. The novel intentionally draws the reader out of the story many times. Two of the most difficult points for me were the long play within the novel in Book 2 and the sequence of short stories told by various characters in Book 4. Yes, I get that they are vital pieces to that underlying secret story that couldn’t be understood the first time. But they’re pretty obnoxious if you aren’t on that second read.

Overall, don’t let this dissuade you from reading these. The first read is pretty good outside of those complaints and a few meandering bits. The futuristic society Wolfe creates is shockingly deep and remains fresh and original today despite the number of dystopian/dying earth novels that have come out since then.

The writing is incredible. Wolfe is often too good I’d say. First off, he has created an SF/F series with a bunch of weird terms that sound oddly fitting. It turns out that every strange word in the book is actually a legitimate English word that has fallen to the wayside of history. This is an incredible idea to create both an ancient, strange sound that also feels very familiar. Same thing with the names of characters. They look all fantasy-like, but they are all names that were common at one point in history but have fallen out of fashion.

The dense, precise writing often challenges the reader to stay in the story rather than contemplate what it says:

War is not a new experience; it is a new world. Its inhabitants are more different from human beings than Famulimus and her friends. Its laws are new, and even its geography is new, because it is a geography in which insignificant hills and hollows are lifted to the importance of cities.

Many genre writers, to the extent that they think about prose, might want to show the horror of war by having the description be short, choppy, and crude like the thing it is describing. How many times have you read something like: “War is hell—horror everywhere. It changes your world.” This is lazy and cliched writing.

Wolfe’s elegant imagery does so much to bring the terror to the readers mind. War is a new world. This hinges on the cliche, but the followup prose doubles down on the imagery by precisely describing the geography of this new world: insignificant hills are lifted to the importance of cities. I get chills when I’m transported to such a devastating world. And then I’m off thinking about this and pulled out of the story. It’s almost a catch-22: write too well and it might be a distraction to the reader. I’m only half joking about this.

The astute reader is presented with some difficulties early on. The narrator claims to have a perfect memory. Later on, we start to get contradictory information about what happened. So either he lied about his memory or he’s lying to us about parts. This isn’t a logic puzzle. We have 100% confidence that the narrator is unreliable at that point, which puts the reader in an awkward position.

Since I recently read Imajica, I was struck by the similarities. I’m pretty sure Barker was not inspired by New Sun, but the archetypes and structure are the same. Barker has the Reconciliation and Wolfe has the Conciliator. I guess these, or similar terms, are bound to come up in any grand savior plot.

Will I reread this? I’m not sure. It won’t be anytime soon for sure. Do I recommend it? I’ll cautiously say yes. It’s very, very good. As Neil Gaiman said, “The best SF novel of the last century.” I’m not willing to go that far.

My main reservation is that you’ll certainly struggle at points, and you might be disappointed that everything changes at the end, requiring another reading. On the other hand, if you want to sink a few years of your life into discovering the hidden depths of an excellently written book, this is probably your best bet (seriously, peruse urth.net for a half hour to see the truth of this).