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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Show, Don’t Tell: The Difference between Life and Text

Posted by CW64 on August 24, 2012

Another major issue I encounter while editing manuscripts is the excess of descriptive and explanatory narratives that produce flatness in character and the world in which that character lives (and quite often involves redundancies in many forms). This annoys me more than impresses me, but I am always understanding and patient with beginning writers.

For one thing, ongoing explanations of text offend intelligent readers; such continuous tirades deprive readers the opportunity to use their own minds during the reading process. A story means nothing without the reader’s cognitive input, which includes interpretation and query-making among other things. As I state in an earlier post, writers are never to underestimate the intelligence of the readers; doing so drives away an audience that sums up the experience as nothing more than an aggravating slap-in-the-face.

The point: quality writers get on with the story and let the readers figure things out for themselves. The rule is to stick with the action, dialogue and minimal description, sharing casually the essential information necessary to facilitate the flow and flesh out character development to the point of promoting a sense of realism. This practice refers to the ever-mentioned notion of “showing,” and it isn’t always easy to do. With experience and reasoning, though, writers develop the skill quite naturally.

Let’s start with the two sentences below:

Frank moves slowly
Frank drags along like a slug in the mud

Which of these two describes the concept of moving slowly? If you don’t know the answer, chances are you haven’t done enough reading and writing.

The concept of “showing” is both a fuzzy and distinct one, and an understanding of said concept will help readers and writers discern why. This might sound like a contradiction, but it is not; “showing” in literature—any kind of literature, whether it be fiction or non-fiction—is extremely complex.

Firstly, the assertion of “fuzzy” refers to the idea that each person has her or his own idea what “showing” means and what it entails to be executed appropriately. A nice example lies in the above illustration. One person might say that the first line is simple and clear and therefore more appropriate than the second. Another would likely say that the second is longer, but it “fleshes out” out the concept in question and conveys more information about the character and what he is doing than what is merely stated. Finally, a third might concur that both, in fact, are showing the reader what is meant by “moving slowly” but in two different acceptable ways. In the end, however, the particular perspective to which one wants to adhere is dependent on that person’s ideals and style preferences.

Conversely, the idea that “showing” as distinct follows through the obvious: to convey imagery so that it “jumps” from the page and appeals to the reader’s senses. In this light, the imagery comes to life in vivid color, sound and motion so that it appears and feels real to the reader. Not everything written can do that. Do the two illustrations above satisfy the requirement necessary to consider them “showing”?

Let’s take a closer look…

Frank moves slowly

According to the first person mentioned above, this one is sweet and simple and therefore most adequate to convey the idea, which shouldn’t take extensive passages and countless adjectives and modifiers to express. This, indeed, makes perfect sense. The sentences contains three common words—a noun, a verb and an adverb. The noun tells who is performing the action, the verb clarifies what that action is and the adverb—the keyword necessary to establish the overall idea—describes how the action is carried out. What more is required? Nothing is, apparently; the entire idea is complete.

Still, the second person can jump in and say that this sentence, though simple and direct, is cliche and therefore not fresh or unique at all; the character and the action are both flat and contain no life beyond the three words used to write the sentence. From an artistic perspective, this point is extremely valid. The better writer stands out by not expressing ideas the same as any other; she/he captivates the reader’s attention and has a greater potential for achieving a larger and wider audience than the writer who employs the use of the first line. Creativity demands individuality and non-conformity, and that quite often means breaking away from conventions, no matter how common.

Frank drags along like a slug in the mud

This line, according to the second voice, consists of four extra words than the first line, so it isn’t really excessive in length. The action word “drags” and the simile “like a slug in the mud” together paint a vivid picture that appeals to the reader’s senses and emotions by allowing said reader to feel Frank’s slow movements. In addition, this line implies something regarding Frank’s personality, that he is, perhaps, a sloth by nature. Simply put: the sentence shows the reader who Frank is, at least in part, and therefore does more than just tell. The reader is much more likely to be drawn into characters that seem real than those whom the writer merely dictates in sprawling descriptions and explanation.

Another point to be made here is that although the first sentence is terse and direct, the fact that it expresses nothing more than the three words suggests that the writer will require longer passages to express the same amount of information that the second one does, so it isn’t really shorter in the end. By using a greater number of words in a single sentence, as in the second line, the writer conveys more about the character and her or his situation by using fewer words overall.

An example: a sunshiny day encapsulates the same information, impressions and characteristics as a day full of bright sunshine and warmth filled with smiles and laughter; everything mentioned in the longer version is implicit in the shorter one.

Then, of course, there is the third speaker, who takes a neutral stance and insists that both perspectives are equal yet different. In this view, individuality is still promoted, as both lines offer a unique form of expression compared to the other. As long as all of the points and/or premise are clear and the information discernible, the words shouldn’t matter.

This attitude makes sense as well and is worthy of consideration. After all, intelligibility and clarity are two major cornerstones of good, quality writing. Both lines are intelligible and clear in their delivery, so one form should not necessarily be superior to the other.

In the end, however, the writer needs to know her or his characters and their lives well in order to “show” them effectively. This fact is quite often associated with the context…

Showing in Context

Context makes a substantial difference when it comes to how, where and if a writer “shows” something. By this, a writer uses the means, if necessary, the appropriate elements to effectively bring something to life.

The case of a story on a World War II aviator requires imagery relevant to that particular scenario, such as the use of metaphors like “dust” and “shattered metal” and fireball” as opposed to, say, “rag doll” or “lollipop,” for instance. The words employed should hold some type of relevance to the subject matter at hand if the description is to be applicable and effective.

Take the following passage for instance:

Young James Claybourne heard the hellish squealing bursting through the crackling and the grinding of twisting metal. His heart slammed against his ribcage as he scanned the smoking windows. Vile fumes of cinders burned his nostrils.

“Where is it coming from?” he muttered, spitting ash to the cracked sidewalk. The grime on his skin felt sticky under his coat, but he pushed that out of his mind. “Wh-where?…”

Then she appeared suddenly, jutting her reddened face from the top floor. The building shook violently. The girl’s eyes flamed white in terror.

“Help me!”

James sprang forth amidst the crumbling walls and smothering heat from the eruptions around him. He held his helmet tightly with a glove while gripping an axe with the other. Water swelled in his eyes and his head spun and swayed like a loose light fixture, but he forced himself onward stair after stair after stair after stair. . .

Here, no explanations are given and descriptions are minimized and limited to relevant references. No mention of the particular situation is stated because it isn’t necessary for the reader to realize that the scene is about a burning building and that James is a fireman. The narrative stays on the action and keeps pace all the way through. The words and phrases used belong in this scenario and paint a vivid picture that appeals to all of the senses: “hellish squealing,” “bursting,” “crackling” and “grinding of twisting metal” (audio); “vile fumes burning his nostrils” (olfactory); “swelling water” and “spinning and swaying” (visual); “spitting ash” (taste) and “grime” and “sticky” (textural). The reader can sense what he is experiencing, and so he seems real as a result. Other words, like “redden face” and “flaming eyes of terror” not only describe how the girl feels, but also enhance the overall tone of the scene and contribute to the description of the fire and the sense of urgency prevailing. The “swaying like a loose light fixture” simile isn’t really necessary here (“spinning and swaying” would be enough), but its inclusion demonstrates the use of an appropriate reference that serves two purposes: (1) to illustrate James’ mental state, and (2) to offer a suggestive detail that sharpens the overall descriptive image of the shaking building that plays in the reader’s mind while reading.

Also: James’ actions say something about him: pushing discomfort out of his mind and springing onward into the firetrap to save the girl and forcing himself onward despite his dizziness all attest to the man’s persistence and dedication to helping others in need. This message comes through the actions, NOT any drawn out and tiresome explanation.

In Conclusion. . .

Whatever means of “showing” a writer employs, the objective is to bring the characters and their situation to life so they can interact with the reader. As said, a story’s value is nothing without the reader’s reception and interpretation of said story’s contents. Publishers know this all too well, which is why their evaluations revolve around how riveting a story is. If readers are drawn into a story/book/novel, it will surely sell. The “show” aspect, or the degree of vividness and/or realism a story projects, often makes a difference between high-quality and substandard quality writing, and it ultimately determines failure or success.

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Posted in Editing, Fiction, General Commentaries, Novels, Publishing and Publication, Reality and Realism, Short Stories, Writing Development Issues, Writing Topics | 2 Comments »

Lexical Redundancies: A Need for a Cleaner, Easy-to-Read Text

Posted by CW64 on July 16, 2012

As an editor, I have come across a variety of redundancies. Beginning writers especially tend to harbor these ongoing no-nos when laying out their drafts.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against beginners—I was one once as well—but my experience as both a writer and an editor have honed my skill of observation. I am patient and extremely open to those who are just starting out in their careers. This is exciting for me, just as it is for them. For that reason, I always look forward to sharing my insights, as I am doing now through my blog.

One of the most common forms of repetition I find is, what I call, the lexical redundancy. This phenomenon denotes the overuse of words, especially in close proximity, as in the same sentence, passage or paragraph.

Take, for instance, the following example:

“Mary went to the convenience store and then from there went to the grocery store to buy groceries. The only store in town that sold the kind of groceries she wanted was Maverick’s Groceries.”

Okay, this passage includes more than one type of redundancy, but the one in question—the lexical redundancy—is quite clear. The reuse of the same words flattens the text and makes the writing uninteresting. Therein lies why this phenomenon is deemed a writing weakness.

Some writers (i.e. beginners) are likely to read this and say “Well, the passage is clear and makes sense, right? That’s all that should matter, so what’s the problem?”

On the level of intelligibility and coherency, that’s exactly right. However, when one is writing fiction, creativity is crucial, and that deals with language, among other things. The characters and worlds we conceive are dependent on how we write them, on the language we use to express descriptions, actions and dialogue within a story. In light of this, the words we use are extremely important.

A “policeman in uniform” is not as descriptive or as dynamic as “the blue knight,” the latter of which offers more than the merely description provided by the former. For that reason, variation brings forth color and depth that not only allow the characters and their worlds to stand out, but also makes for interesting reading.

So how do we improve the above example? Well, first off, determine which words are overused and why. Here, we have a few: “store” (3 times), “went” (2 times) and “grocery” (4 times). Their purpose is, evidently, to clarify, or ‘spell out,” the character’s actions. That’s noble enough, but that can be done through text-condensing and word change. The first technique alone might solve the redundancy problem by simply eliminating unnecessary words.

Okay, let’s take a look at that passage again. I will repost it here so you don’t have to scroll back up to read it:

“Mary went to the convenience store and then from there went to the grocery store to buy groceries. The only store in town that sold the kind of groceries she wanted was Maverick’s Groceries.”

Now, we can work on it. The first sentence has two “stores” and a reiteration of the action verb “went”. How can we cut that down? Well, the first “store” fits because it is part of reference (to say only “convenience” is an incomplete thought), so it stays, as does the initial verb “went” because it let’s us know right away about Mary’s action.

The second half if the sentence (i.e. the subordinate clause), however, can drop those words because they aren’t necessary. First, the second “went” is not required, and the two “grocery” references can be omitted altogether. “Market” replaces “grocery store,” which hits two birds with one stone by eliminating one “grocery” and one “store”. The phrase “to buy groceries” is a content redundancy because we already know what Mary is going to buy at the second stop.

So here we have a revised first sentence:

“Mary went to the convenience store and then to the market.”

As you see, not only do the word repetitions fall away, but the entire passage is economized with regard to word count. The sentence gets right to the point and reads better in a clear and simple form of expression.

How about the second part of that example?

Here it is:

“The only store in town that sold the kind of groceries she wanted was Maverick’s Groceries.”

What can be done here? Let’s see …

Well, the first form of “grocery” can be thrown out because we already know that this is a given with Mary. The instance in the market title can go, too. Although it is part of the business name, the first word can stand alone clearly. As for the “store” at the beginning of the sentence, what other word can we substitute to cancel out the redundancy and ensure that the sentence remains coherent and intelligible? How about the simple and everyday “place”? This will work. Take a look at the revised version of the sentence:

“The only place in town that sold what Mary wanted was Maverick’s.”

Yet, again, we have a simple statement that is right to the point. Now, let’s put the two sentences together and see how the new passage reads:

“Mary went to the convenience store and then to the market. The only place in town that sold what Mary wanted was Maverick’s.”

Does this example contain any further lexical redundancies? Is the passage clear and understood? Does it make sense?

With a bit of deductive reasoning and some careful and objective editing, a piece of writing can read easy and clean, and this will always impress editors and publishers.

The Reality of Public Perception

The closing statement in the previous section touches on an issue that continues in many debates between writers and editors. That issue serves as a universal contention for many reasons.

Public perception can either make or break a writer’s chance for success. This is an obvious reality. The ideal that a writer’s opinion of her/his own work being all that matters is a logical fallacy. Even though that notion does make sense (to a degree), it is not consistent with the way the writing and publishing industries really are.

Lexical redundancies can directly affect a writer’s level of vocabulary. A short range of terminology, as seen by the ongoing reuse of words, leaves writers appearing limited at best. That does not attract the confidence of either publishers or readers, both of whom seek wit and sophistication to stimulate their minds. Readers won’t buy materials exhibiting overwrought terms and expressions, and publishers won’t take a chance on them because they know such works appear dull and unprofessional and will likely not sell.

Does this sting?

If it does, that’s good.

This is why editing is so important and why a broad cache of words and expressions is necessary for writers to improve their work. As demonstrated above, the removal of all lexical redundancies rendered the example passage easy-to-read while maintaining proper grammar and syntax. Loquaciousness (a state of being long and wordy) quite often renders writing drawn out and confusing, and that turns off even the worst readers.

To come: Show, don’t Tell – Another common issue in writing.

Posted in Editing, Fiction, General Commentaries, Personal Experiences, Publishing and Publication, Writing Development Issues, Writing Topics | Leave a Comment »

Redundancies: Reflexive Pronouns Used to Clarify Internalized Communication

Posted by CW64 on January 4, 2012

One of the most common mistakes I encounter when proofreading manuscripts is the inclusion of self-reference as the object to internal dialogue. Although the indication of such a tag is true, signifying the thinker as the object within the text is redundant.

Take for example the following sentence:

How I wish I were going to Hawaii this coming summer, Jack thought to himself.

In this example, the narrative speaks in the third person as it describes what Jack is thinking with regard to a desire he has. Since his dialogue is internalized, he is the only one who knows of it, so the identity of the object receiver goes without saying.

Let me put it this way: Can a person ever ‘think’ to anyone other than oneself? No, not unless she or he is psychic, but that is beside the point, since most people do not possess this proclivity, and the reader would have to know about that personality trait beforehand. In any case, due to the obvious fact that a thinker’s audience is always oneself, the reflexive pronoun is overkill; the sentence Jack thought to himself is redundant because he can only think to himself in the first place, and so the “to himself” modifier is both grammatically incorrect and unnecessary.

This rule is so simple, yet it slips by so many people, among them writers. This both annoys and saddens me. Why do people think and write this way?

One added note: This involves any intransitive verb that suggests internalization: ‘thought,’ ‘contemplate,’ ‘wonder,’ ‘consider,’ ‘ponder’ . . . The notion of private dialogue (i.e. thoughts) collectively encompasses all of these and other like words.

The simple rule when expressing internal dialogue is this:

Subject + intransitive verb

That is it.

In other words: “Jack thought” is perfect; this says it all. No indication of receiver needs to be added because it is implied, much like the ‘you’ subject in questions.

This, however, is different than openly talking to oneself:

“Damn, why couldn’t you have left well enough alone?” Jill mumbled to herself on her way home from her ex-boyfriend’s house.

Since verbalized comments can be directed toward anybody, the inclusion of the personal pronoun here is both acceptable and necessary to indicate to the audience the idea that Jill is, in fact, speaking to herself and not to someone else. On the other hand, one can argue that if the audience knows beforehand that Jill is alone, the comment is implicitly self-directed. This is why the context of the scene is important for dialogue clarity.

A similar point can be made regarding laughing and smiling, both of which are open, externalized expressions of thought and feeling. The reflexive pronoun is appropriate here as well. The sentence Jill smiled is different than Jill smiled to herself because the two have distinct implications: The former suggests that she is smiling openly and/or outwardly; the latter indicates discretion with regard to a smile she has no intention of sharing with others in the scene. That being the case, the reflexive pronoun is used only in the second example. This rationale applies to laughing for exactly the same reason.

Of course, the “to oneself” modifier is sometimes unnecessary to indicate a private laugh. The simple use of other words or cues does the job nicely: Jill laughed under her breath. This sentence suggests that Jill is keeping the laugh to herself. Alternate words or phrases apply equally to all forms of expression, internal or external. This is where writers exercise creativity.

This is a simple rule that marks the difference between the seasoned writer and amateur. Although clarity is important in writing, nonsensical redundancies and unnecessary modifiers annoy readers who quickly lose confidence in the writer and that writer’s abilities. As a matter of fact, overkill in written expression destroys the communicative process for both writer and reader because it quite often impedes clarity by creating ambiguous or unintended references.

A writer should NEVER underestimate the reader’s intelligence; the latter is quite capable of deductive reasoning. One should remember that a writer can convey more by saying less, IF she or he chooses the right words or phrases to use in the first place.

Coming Soon: more on redundancies…

Posted in Editing, Fiction, Logic and Illogic, Writing Development Issues, Writing Topics | 4 Comments »

Research and Influence #1b: Echoes from the Past: Urban Legends Brought to Life

Posted by CW64 on January 19, 2011

Urban Legends: Real or Unreal?

Urban legends, such as those created and maintained through stories of Lambertville High School, are always assumed to be just that, with no basis of reality, at least not in the major sense with all of the ghost stories prevalent throughout history and the various cultures of the world; most of these stories are believed to be figments of the imagination or tales conjured up through pranksters or hearsay or those weird inexplicable phenomena witnessed by people who find no logical source but that are, again, assumed to have a rational explanation.

Still, with all of the accounts that continue to emerge and be passed along throughout time and space by people from all walks of life—those of imaginative capacity and those who are “respectably level-headed,” as the learned and prominent in society—not all urban legends can all be untrue or non-factual, can they? What if some of these urban legends were based on some actual truth in reality? After all, many encounters have been investigated and still remain unexplained. Some even have scores of witnesses.

Such a case would be Columbine High School. The dreadful event took place on 20 April, 1999, almost eleven years ago. Two disturbed high school students burst into the school library and murdered several students in cold blood. Some bodies were even tossed out the windows for terrified onlookers to see. No one ever believed that such a situation could happen, until it did—more than once.

Virginia Tech, even more recently (17 April, 2007), echoed that long-ago scenario, and it occurred in another part of the country (the former in Colorado; the latter in Virginia, farther east). A troubled Asian student burst into a hall while classes were in session and open fired, killing many, this time including instructors.

Both events and others like them have left lingering nightmares in the minds of those who witnessed them or knew those involved—effects that will likely last a lifetime. The country, as a nation, will never forget these horrible scenes and the lives lost. Such indelible impressions have shaken a nation and scarred its conscious so deeply that no one will escape the damage incurred.

As far as haunts go, however, Columbine has already begun manifesting the paranormal residue of its own story based in reality. Accounts reported by both students and teachers attest to feelings of being watched, oppressing pain and apprehension, voices and screaming throughout the school (but especially near the library), orbs and even sightings of mysterious figures. Could this be a result of so many minds still under siege by a persistently lingering nightmare that many are unable to forget? That is entirely possible. Yet, how can one explain the uncanny similarities between accounts, especially with regards to students now attending the school who were too young to remember the actual event of eleven years ago? To those who have experienced these phenomena, the series of variable manifestations are certainly unwaveringly real.

Obsession or Destiny Fulfilled?

The protagonist of my novel, Hallowed Halls, encounters similar manifestations. Nothing so unusual about that, only that he is drawn by forces beyond his control to pursue them in a dire need to uncover answers and is uncertain as to what he might find, even as he is succumbed into what he senses as real. This is subjective, of course, until others from his clan, without knowing anything about his situation, become involved and experience the same overwhelming manifestations that purposefully interact with them as well.

This is a case exploring what it would be like if such urban legends were actually true or based on some fact. My protagonist (and later his comrades) conduct research on the haunted place and discover the horrible event that happened there so many years before, so long ago that it has been left forgotten, except by those who were there and have managed to survive. The answers reveal a story that is surprisingly not as much science fiction, fantasy or as supernatural as human. THIS is enough to weigh upon the heart and mind because it involves actual people. It is such a sad ordeal that no one can or would want ignore it. An obsession turns into a need to help others who are lost, and that attempt, the protagonist learns over time, is his destiny, whether he is ready for it or not.

Both Lambertville High School and Columbine play a part in this story’s development, mainly because these are real-life places with real-life stories. Although the legends of the first example are unproven and are assumed by lingering manifestations continually permeating the place eerily destroyed but still standing, the latter has a confirmed account that correlates to the phenomena experienced by those there.

Another chilling point testified by Columbine is the fact that such a possibility of an in-school massacre is, in fact, true, since it actually happened. Such a scenario, though one that no one wishes to imagine, is indeed not beyond the realm of feasibility. As ugly and as tormenting and as disconcerting as it is, such an occurrence forces us to keep an open-mind and never underestimate what is possible and what is not, and never to assume anything is considered too farfetched to be conceived or believed. The protagonist of Hallowed Halls learns this lesson all too well, as do all of those around him, including those who have died.

Another aspect that correlates between Lambertville and Hallowed Halls is the echoes that ring over time through several means to grip the minds of those in the present. Such signals take the form of visual manifestation, such as the mysterious artwork of students on the blackboard and other various images throughout the site to sounds vibrating in the inner conscious, such as calling voices and laughter of those from an earlier time to even the deeply embedded feelings of presences sensed. These are common, true, but they are nonetheless profound on those who experience them, whether young explores at the Lambertville ruins, attendees at Columbine or the protagonist in Hallowed Halls, who encounters is own array of inexplicable visuals and sounds directed specifically at him. They all share similar experiences that draw and tie them to the past where they learn more about their surroundings and themselves. This is the true nature of any haunting, and though it is skeptically contested by many, it is an experience prevalently shared by an even greater number of people than those who deny it. There is no concrete evidence to substantiate any of this, of course, but, then again, those who have experienced such phenomena do not need evidence—their own sensations and how they are affected by said phenomena are absolutely real enough. Perhaps that’s all that is necessary to create impressionable meaning in the human mind.

This is what gives the story of the novel its strength, persistence and solidity, as well as the assurance that so many people will be able to relate to it over time. This is an urban legend that is all too human, just as the readers are; the human factor is what makes the story as real to the reader as the ghostly experience does to the individual. If this is the case, as apparently it is, the story is well-justified, as it achieves its intended purpose.

Lessons on Writing

As writers, we all learn more about writing by actually writing. It’s not too out-of-line to say, then, that each writing project we complete as writers teaches us lessons on writing while simultaneously improving our skill in writing. The two, therefore, go hand-in-hand.

What have I learned about writing through Hallowed Halls?

First: that the characters themselves create the story, just by being the entities they are. If the writer knows and is confident in her/his characters, the story will flow out and write itself. Yes, I already knew this, but this experience has reminded me that such a notion is not merely an ideal, but indeed a truth in creative writing. The Characters are everything; they are the essence of the story. If a writer underestimates them, s/he is wasting time with the story. First thing a writer needs to do—regardless—is to get to know the characters. Before I even started writing on the story itself, I delineated pages upon pages of life story for each of the characters. That took hours, days, even weeks, but it was necessary, and by the time I was done, I knew exactly what the story would be from beginning to end. Yes, some details fluctuated, but the essence of the entire story was already there and out, so I felt confident when I started on the actual novel. All this came to be because I knew my characters well beforehand.

“But if it isn’t going into the novel, why waste your time writing it out?” Many of you might say.

The answer: It doesn’t matter. Not all of the details of a character’s background should go into the body of the novel. The important thing is that you, the writer, must know your characters well enough to write about them.

A fine example would be that which lies in a different field of writing—journalism. One does research on a given subject to familiarize oneself with the subject so that one can write about it, even if much of the information obtained remains unenclosed in the final product. The writer gains an in-depth understanding regarding the overall nature of the subject so that s/he can write about it confidently without the need to include everything.

A writer isn’t wasting time by developing character backgrounds. The principle described above applies to creative writing and the characters one creates. Writers need to know their characters, how they think and feel and what makes them tick, how they relate to others and what motivates them, their families, their childhood friends, their enemies, their issues and pathologies (we all have these). In doing this, the writer IS writing the novel because all of this serves as the basis for the story upon which the novel is founded.

Another important point I accomplished through writing Hallowed Halls relates to foreshadowing. This not only alludes to future developments in the novel’s story, it also ties together the many elements of the plot so that everything is unified. This is done through the employment of metaphors and similes, setting, dialogue, structure, even font. As I mentioned in earlier posts on this blog, modifiers are of the essence. Nouns themselves can and do serve as modifiers for themselves. If such elements are used correctly and innovatively, foreshadowing will be effective.

One should keep in mind, though, that the most efficacious foreshadowing is, believe it or not, the most subtle. Nothing destroys a storyline like foreshadowing that SCREAMS what will be to come. Never underestimate the intelligence of the reader; if they are paying attention, readers will pick them up quicker and easier than the “in-your-face” references, probably because the former are naturally and casually presented, as they are in life, and are therefore more profound.

An instance of the subtle foreshadow would be a conversation between two characters who are joking. An off-the-cuff slur is made that will come into play later on. Do NOT elaborate or explain this right then and there, as the foreshadow will lose its power and so the story will lose its strength. A writer should simply make the slur and move on. Unnecessary explanations and descriptions are not only redundant (please see post on “redundancies”), but also interferes with the flow of the story and bloats the content.

The overall irony about composing a novel is that despite all of the writing that goes into character developments, minimal referencing will make the final product.

A conscientious writer should never underestimate the power of a single word, as long as it is the RIGHT word.

As for Hallowed Halls, this is only the beginning; more writing development and lessons to learn will come with the revisions. That’s where the REAL writing takes place.

I am looking forward to it . . . .

Posted in Fiction, General Commentaries, Novels, Personal Experiences, Reality and Realism, Writing Development Issues, Writing Topics | Leave a Comment »

The Essential Space: Creating Distance between Writer and Work

Posted by CW64 on November 3, 2010

If editing is the responsibility of the writer, does that mean each writer needs to invest money into paying a professional editor? While it is a good practice to develop, you can certainly avoid the expense if you have a friend who can objectively review your manuscript. Having a second pair of eyes review your writing is always a good idea. Remember, you are too close to the writing and will have a tendency to read what you meant to type rather than what you actually typed. Another way to avoid hiring an editor is to put the piece down for a month or so and then reread it with fresh eyes. Certainly this will not work when you have a specific deadline, but if you are working on a book or short story, it will definitely work and is a good idea. In fact putting your story down for a while will also help you see any flaws in your storyline

A friend and colleague of mine, Brenda Coxe, has recently been writing a series of articles on the importance of the editor and editing in the processes of writing and submitting a manuscript for publication. The conclusion to this would seem like a no-brainer, but, believe it or not, the subject has taken on a debate. Some people actually believe that neither hiring an editor nor performing one’s own edits during the writing and submission processes is important.

Please read here and here.

The one point she made that really struck home for me, however, is the above paragraph: specifically the question as to the importance of setting one’s work aside before revisions and editing begin. Now, I am not going to restate her points (except where and how they relate to mine), but I will elaborate on them with insight derived from my own experiences writing.

First, the question that comes to mind is whether or not a writer should suspend some space between writing and the ensuing revisions and edits. This all depends on the writer and, equally as important, the piece being developed (not every piece is or should be done exactly the same way, although certain general steps are advisable to follow at all times). For me, the answer is a resounding yes, and I am pretty certain that most if not all writers put their work aside before they administer the necessary revisions and edits, as nine hundred and ninety-nine out of every one thousand manuscripts will need them.

Brenda was right when she said that writers are too close to their work. This is natural for every writer due to the time, interest and hard work invested into the writing. Writers know the content better than anyone else (or at least are more in tune with the ideas expressed and how those ideas are developed), so they trust what they write. Is this a good thing? Well, yes, to some extent, because self-confidence is important. However, after time, said writer loses a sense of objectivity necessary to assess the piece in order to review it honestly and with assurance. Objectivity is a good thing as well, and necessary if one is planning on submitting a manuscript for publication. Writers’ perspectives are essential, but so are the readers’, otherwise publishing a work would have no purpose.

Another question that comes to mind is: How much time should a writer wait before returning to the work? That depends as well. I was advised by my graduate professor once that the time span should be approximately or at least six months, Sensible, as writers need some distance from their work. This is especially true if the writer has had problems leading to migraines.

Diverting one’s attention away from a particular piece of writing will not only provide distance, but also allow new insights to emerge through other projects and activities. When I was writing on the draft to Hallowed Halls, I found myself conflicted by the ongoing direction regarding the protagonist’s mission in relation to the spirits who were calling to him. Which way should I go from here, and to which extent and why? What significance(s) would any particular solution have regarding character development and/or plot? In any case, I had a basic outline, but I found myself getting lost in the details and I became aggravated. I knew I had to get away from the story and the text, so I put it away for about a year and focused on other stories. One was Urban Legend, another ghost story about skepticism versus open-mindedness. When I constructed that plot-line, which was easier due to the story’s simpler structure, I gained a great sense of clarity that allowed me to progress with Hallowed Halls. I even changed some of what I had already written. The story flowed naturally and realistically, and all of the details bore significance to the characters and/or the plot.

Other forms of writing, such as articles, would sometimes only require a few days before revisions or editing takes place. These are relatively short, but they quite often need rewrites or even re-conceptualization. Magazine features and diminutive items of research fall into this category. My recent post on Lambertville High School, with its background and how it has served as a literary influence for both Hallowed Halls and Urban Legend, was one such article. That article was really involved and included various sources for which several links had to be provided and integrated into the text. Which angle should I have taken? Which information was relevant and to what extent? Which sources or links are most important and should thence be used? These questions and others were asked. The draft was redone several times, and I reviewed and edited it more than once—and each time I had to put it off for two or three days to gain a fresh perspective. Within a two-week period, I finished it and even appended a series of additional resource links for readers to explore. This post serves as the basis for an extended piece on the subject which will contain more information and elaboration on various points regarding the history and paranormal aspects of the site and how it has influenced my work.

Upon their submission, after they have been properly and thoroughly revised and edited, manuscripts have a better chance of being accepted for publication. Editors will be able to review them much more swiftly and easily, and with very few, if any, complications involved, which is ultimately what they prefer.

Posted in Editing, Fiction, General Commentaries, Personal Experiences, Publishing and Publication, Research, Writing Development Issues | 3 Comments »

Research and Influence #1: Echoes from the Past

Posted by CW64 on September 1, 2010

This is the first of many musings discussing research and how such influences have shaped and driven my works. Perhaps some of this insight will inspire other writers the same way such insight has inspired me.

Also, I must maintain an unbiased perspective, to consider all alternatives, ideas and other possible notions regardless of my personal views or beliefs, in order to develop intriguing, balanced, credible and realistic accounts. Ironically enough, opposing arguments contribute to the premise of my novel and other works as much as supporting arguments do.

In the end, I try not to over-think these points, but to remain laid-back about the whole thing. The well-developed and naturally flowing stories emerge easier that way.

Echoes from the Past

Recently, I found myself becoming absorbed in one intriguing find that serves as a major influence for a novel I am writing, not only because the site correlates in ambiance with a major setting in the story, but also because it speaks to me with distant voices reminiscent to the voices that speak to my story’s protagonist. These voices echo from the past, like those of some resonating entity penetrating me with such a force that pulls me to the site. Everything this place represents is covered in mystique that has captured my imagination.

‘What place is this?’ you may ask.

This is a place known as Lambertville. No, it’s not an abandoned military base or some obscure American Civil War battlefield—it is, of all places, an old high school.

Lambertville High School, in western New Jersey, has a long history filled with more than just a few inexplicable if not interesting stories. A once-lively place consisting of a small building and a bell tower, the school is now a decrepit hulk, resting under a veil of trees on a hill overlooking New Hope, Pennsylvania. The roof and third floor are gone, and the interior is a cold darkness screaming with a sense of foreboding.

This place has come to be what I consider the ‘Titanic’ of abandoned high schools, and for good reason—the mysteries behind this place are more than just imaginary.

A Legend Built on Mysteries . . .

According to a tribute stone erected at the site, the school was built in 1854—before the Civil War. That means Lambertville was open for classes during a time prior to that long-ago war serving as but a distant memory to us today. That’s how antiquated the school is. The stone rests in the ground near the center of the western wall, situated so that it may watch the sun set every day. Painted graffiti scrawled across its face reflects the vandalism it has endured over the years, but the stone refuses to falter. Truly inspirational and extraordinary indeed!

This is but the first mystery. The tribute was erected by the class of 1927, after a fire gutted most of the school back in the early-1920s (the date carved into the brick over both doors—‘1924’—provides some indication as to the time period). The fury that consumed Lambertville came about as a result of unknown causes, though some enthusiasts believe the culprit to have been a boiler explosion (common in many stories regarding school fires). The tribute is reminiscent of a tombstone, and what makes it eerie is that that representation was apparently intended.

The story goes that this fire took the lives of 150 students and some staff and that the stone is in memory of them. Other indications related to these deaths resonate here as well: the disturbing chalkboard drawings that depict praying and burning students, voices and laughter on the top level, steady footsteps, and messages scribbled along the walls here and there that allude to some horrible tragedy long ago . . .

Still, city officials, graduates of the high school (from the 1950s) and others who have studied the background of the place have attested that such an event never occurred, that the deaths are all hearsay and fiction created by someone’s imagination. Supposedly, the fire was at night when the school was empty, despite the inference through historical references that students used to live on the upper level during the school’s early years. When did this arrangement change? I don’t dispute any of this; these sources serve as more knowledgeable and reputable authorities on the subject than I, but I am curious.

I have to ask, though: Who would conceive such stories and why? Every story has a basis of reality somewhere. Whatever that reality is, this mystery has grabbed the attention of so many people, many of whom have visited the school from all over the United States. They have taken pictures as if the place were some vacation spot, and then subsequently posted those images on their own respective websites. Hell, the school even has a page on Wikipedia. No other abandoned high school can make that claim.

So I ask again: Who would conceive such stories and why?

The chalkboard theory, which leads into another mystery, seems to have been true; the website alluded to above actually features images of students drawn in elaborate detail.

Yet there are simple explanations behind this one. One woman who claimed to have graduated back in 1954 said in one personal account that she had known the art teacher who drew them on the boards before leaving the school. She never explained why the teacher had done or would do this, and I find it doubtful that a teacher would do such a thing. Also, even if a teacher from the 1950s created these images, it’s doubtful that said images would have lasted so long without fading, being erased, or marred in some way (though there are methods to freeze chalk on a blackboard) with vandals racing through the place on a regular basis. Furthermore, the photographer might simply have followed some artist thrill-seeker who had drawn the images on the boards to generate excitement. If this is what happened, apparently, this person succeeded.

Alas, all the chalkboards are gone now, likely absconded by souvenir-hunters who wish to hang them in their basements or perhaps sell them on eBay. Needless to say, the place is a smorgasbord; everyone is going there to get what s/he can before the building finally collapses. It’s not like the owner is protective of such items; if s/he wanted anything in there, s/he would have had it removed and stored away long ago. Before long, nothing will be left except the shell itself—and maybe the ghosts, if there are any.

As for ghosts, or spirits, there are other stories as well. Take, for example, the case of Buckeye Bill, probably the most famous mystery associated with Lambertville. This entity and the story on which he is based have become a unified legend.

The year was 1935: Lambertville and New Hope high schools engaged in their famous football game. During the game, one of the New Hope Buckeye quarterbacks caught the ball. A pile-up ended his attempt to make a touchdown. When the players rose, everyone was horrified to see that the quarterback was dead, with a broken neck. Even more grisly is the claim that the player’s head was twisted 180 degrees (his face was over his back). The parents of the New Hope student body subsequently insisted that the school no longer sponsor football. To this day, New Hope High School does not have a football team. This entire story is supposedly documented and true, although it doesn’t serve as evidence to substantiate the paranormal stories that were to follow.

As the legend goes, if one stands on the front landing to the main floor of the west wing and challenges Billy with “Billy, I challenge you to a game of football!” a football is said to fly from within the darkness and slam into the challenger’s face, breaking her/his neck. Another variation of this legend assumes that if one stands on the old football field (which lies up the hill, if anyone can ever find it) and cries “Billy, I challenge you to a race!” a breeze sweeps overhead and/or a pair of red eyes appears and a deep voice growls “run to the other end of the field or die!” If the challenger doesn’t run or runs and doesn’t make it to the other side, s/he dies.

This second variation derives from a questionable event that also occurred back in 1935 immediately following the game that had claimed the life of Buckeye Billy. Allegedly, five boys were on the football field. One jokingly challenged Billy. A pair of eyes appeared and said “run or die!” The boys jumped, startled, and four ran while the fifth didn’t. Three made it across the field, but the fourth stumbled and could not be found. The next day, the authorities found the last two boys at the field. They were dead and their heads were turned 180 degrees. The story is supposedly true, yet it was passed along as hearsay, perhaps by someone who might have wanted to scare his friends. Teenagers can be and frequently are this way. I am not saying the story is a fiction; only that it could be, so there is a reasonable doubt. I therefore am not one to assert a case of reality here.

By the way, this is the story around which the movie Only Go There at Night revolves. Five friends go on a thrill adventure to a supposedly haunted high school in New Jersey where two get killed and, upon investigation, the police come to realize that the killer might not be a living human being (i.e. a spirit, presumably based on Buckeye Billy). The simple difference here, however, is that the five boys live in present-day, not seventy-five years ago. I haven’t yet seen the movie, but the fact that these boys are going to a supposedly ‘haunted’ high school suggests that a significant amount of time has past since the school was in use for classes. The premise here seems to consider, among other things: What if the legends WERE true?

Let’s also keep in mind that several thrill-seekers have gone to the school at night and have challenged Buckeye Billy according to version #1 (the stair landing scenario) and nothing happened. Does Billy choose when to come out? Could something else explain why nothing happened? I don’t mean to mock this, because I do believe in spirits and a spirit realm, but if nothing happened, the story would be difficult to believe and/or accept. That’s not saying that there isn’t some aspect of reality on which the legend is based. After all, as said, every story has its origins in some basis of reality.

Still, how could a story like this be true? What could have possibly caused this? Why would Billy have red eyes and threaten the lives of those who ‘challenge’ him? And at a high school he didn’t even attend? The story seems farfetched, but that’s only because we don’t know the account on which it’s based, the story that inspired it, and there likely was one. What was it? Was it the experience the five boys had in 1935?

If these stories and legends are not true, where did they originate?

Yet, another fire broke out soon afterward, but the exact year is not known. This event resulted in no deaths or injuries, but significant damage still incurred and repairs initiated. Apparently, Lambertville was developing a pattern of attracting fire.

The school finally closed its doors somewhere between 1954 and 1959 (sources conflict on the date). The closing had nothing to do with the fire as commonly believed, but to zoning issues and the need for city expansion. The Lambertville community had outgrown it and the area consolidated all students into the larger South Hunterdon High School, which is still in operation today. Not only does this new structure easily house all the students in one place, but a single school cuts down on city expenses and minimizes taxes involved. The old high school was disregarded at that point, but it was not razed.

Also of special note is the strange fact that the school closed one century, perhaps to the year, from the time it was constructed and opened. The second fire occurred around this time, but, as said, the specific year is not known.

After sitting empty in excess of ten years, Lambertville High School reopened for business—literally. During the 1970s, a private machine press company occupied the basement and changed the area into workspace (the equipment is still there, though not operational) while families rented the upper level and had the total run of the building. It’s admirable that the high school, instead of being destroyed, took on the role of a shelter for homeless families who might have even worked downstairs. How convenient and surreal, considering the structure’s earlier past.

When the last fire broke out around 1992, the city decided not to rebuild. The families disappeared and the business apparently moved on without taking its machinery. That’s odd, isn’t it? I say that because the last fire supposedly destroyed only the upper floors, not the main floor or the basement (had the fire consumed those lower levels as well, nothing would have remained there; they would now be in the same condition as that of the upper floor), so there was no reason to leave this equipment.

The chaotic state which resulted from this final conflagration is the same in which the building is today, except that over the years the second floor collapsed in on the main floor in some areas, especially the east wing, which is essentially nothing more than four walls enclosing a great heap of rubble, although some classrooms and offices on the main floor there are still accessible. The upper-floor corridor in the central hub has caved in, exposing the hallway beneath to open air. Trees have sprouted in a rough terrain of dirt and grown throughout these upper levels, creating the appearance of some ancient ruins. Cracked doors are suspended or lie askew. Window panes are shattered and their frames wrenched or obliterated. The west wing windows are blown out and nothing more than a row of six large square holes. Rusted pipes twist around like weird sculptures. Sections of walls still stand amidst piles of scrap consisting of timber and bricks. Plaster, which was at one time shiny white and pristine, is now chipped or completely stripped away. Sooty tiles are among what little remains of the showers for a non-existent gymnasium. A few scorched girders dangle precariously around a chimney that, once stately, shoots up in the air like some aged sentinel attempting to continue standing guard over its charge.

When one realizes that this is a century-and-a-half-old high school with a unique and legendary background, not something typical of the inner-city ghetto, the feeling becomes quite surreal and sobering, indigenous to a history struggling to maintain itself, but in some morphed, dreamlike manner. The sight is unbelievable, but it’s real, though many people question whether or not some deeper aspects of it are a part of the physical world or something else only sensed.

This is possibly the ultimate mystery. We know how the devastation occurred, yet we have no evidence that the fire had a particular source, like a flame out of thin air, just as the previous fires. The effect on the mind when one views the chaos reflects on the mystique of deeper meaning resonating there, whatever that meaning may be. Amidst all of this incredible destruction, Lambertville High School continues to live on.

Final Thoughts . . .

Lambertville High School is indeed a spell attraction. Even I have found myself pondering about this place, although I wonder from time to time why. After all, it is only an abandoned building, dilapidated and crumbling; an empty shell that people who have attended it have claimed is or was nothing more than a regular high school.

Or, again, is it something more?

This place has not become a legend for nothing. Several high schools in the United States have ghost stories connected to them, yet THIS one inspired a movie, a plethora of websites and a wiki page. As said, droves of people from all over the United States have traveled to see and explore the site. As a matter of fact, some have scheduled vacations to the place, as if this abandoned building were an attraction that cannot be missed, like the haunted house at Disney World.

This, I guess, is the final mystery, the great irony.

Perhaps that is because THIS high school is real, actual, not fabricated or imaginary. That fact alone is more than enough to create a spell on the human mind. The paranormal legends associated with it make it even more magical, regardless of whether or not such phenomena are true or real. That is why visiting the school allows one to become a part of that legend, a part of the reality.

The mysteries of Lambertville are likely never to be resolved, and that’s fine. The longer the mysteries endure, the legends will as well; as long as these legends persist, Lambertville will never die.

Lambertville High School, as said, serves as one of the main inspirations for my novel Hallowed Halls, which is another story reflecting the possibilities of spiritual haunting and what it would be like if such haunts were real. Again, I believe in a spiritual realm, as I have had encountered some profound experiences. There is something to it, and I am thoroughly compelled to explore that conceptualization in light of human nature and how we’re driven to learn about the forces within and around us through life and death, just as the case is with Lambertville.

In the follow-up, I will discuss more about how Lambertville and another growing legend of death, based on truth—Columbine in Littleton, Colorado—relate to the novel with regard to similarities, differences, parallels and background development.

Those who are curious to know more please stay tuned . . . .
———————————————————————————————————————————————–

I wish to thank Lostdestinations.com, Surrealnewjersey.com, WeirdNJ.com, The Goop blog and Randy Kline (a.k.a. StangGT), whose Lambertville High School photo-stream can be found at Flickr.com, for providing their photos. Great pictures, guys! Anyone interested in reading up on or seeing more images of Lambertville High School please feel free to visit their sites as well as those listed below . . .

Lambertville High School:

Buckstore
Experience Project: Get the Paranormal Report
Forgotten USA
Hub Pages: Haunted Places – Lambertville, New Jersey
Lost in New Jersey
Spectral Review: Lambertville High School
STU of Doom
The Lambertville High School Story

Other [Haunted] High School Stories:

Forgotten Ohio
Forgetten Ohio – Stivers Middle School
Ghost Village
Newsweek.com – Ghosts of Columbine High Schools
OMA Haunted.com – Columbine High School
Snopes.com – Discussion on Columbine
StrangUSA – Discussion on Columbine
Unexplainable.net – Article on Columbine
Unexplainable.net – Haunted High Schools in the United States – Columbine
Your Ghost Stories – Real Ghost Story – Columbine

Reminder: I do believe in spirits, but that doesn’t mean that I automatically believe these stories; I am fair and skeptical about everything without evidence, which is why I ask questions. I included ghost and haunt sites to show how prevalent in number these sources are with regard to Stivers Middle/High School, Lambertville High School, Columbine High School and others. That’s how one conducts ongoing research—by asking questions and following through with leads to form her/his own conclusions. I encourage everyone to do the same

Posted in Fiction, General Commentaries, Historical Accounts, Movies and TV shows, Novels, Personal Experiences, Reality and Realism, Research, Writing Development Issues | 2 Comments »

Modifiers II : Painting Pictures–Elaborate Use of Modifiers

Posted by CW64 on May 21, 2010

My apologies; I have been away for so long due to a busy schedule. Such is the life of a writer. I haven’t forgotten my readers and will try posting more frequently.

Now, on with the post . . .

This might be old news for some of you, but as a writer, I have come across an endless array of modifiers; they come in a variety of forms, descriptives being only one of them. Anything that inflects an idea in order to show specificity or molds that idea into some uniqueness is a modifier.

Well-crafted writing uses the modifiers not only carefully, but also creatively to paint a desired picture consisting of particular smells, sounds, images, thoughts, feelings, textures, and a wide range of emotional and psychological framework, as well as story depth, and human experiences. Such modifiers and how they are used are at the heart of writing, especially creative writing.

No, this doesn’t contradict the points on redundancies related in the last post; this merely goes beyond them. Modifiers are not ‘weeds” that need to be plucked out and thrown away (unless they are not necessary), but serve to extend an idea to its fullest potential without going irrationally or unnecessarily extreme in expression.

One of the most common modifiers is the genitive case whereby the description of a term or group of words is contingent on grammar. This can be shown in two ways—with the use of the apostrophe and the preposition “of” between the term and its possessor or that which specifies it. The possessive, which is marked by the ‘’apostrophe-s’ in English provides the designation of ownership or measurement, such as in the case of “John’s house”. In this case, the grammatical modifier identifies two points: the owner and that which is owned. Therefore such a modifier serves a two-part function that is incomplete without either point. In terms of measurement, however, the ‘apostrophe-s’, which continues its dual purpose role, specifies a particular length of time or total. “We got a full-week’s pay this period” is ideal in that the sentence establishes the amount of compensation received by the speaker and her/his group, just as “the can contained a wall’s worth of paint” infers the amount of liquid in that container. In both cases, the simple ‘apostrophe-s’ conveys all the same information, or more, than “the house belongs to John” and “the can contained enough paint to cover the wall,’ only that the grammatical former example provides a cleaner and more direct reference, and minimizes word count.

The “of” variation has its place but is rare in English, considering the ‘apostrophe-s’ and does the same job more concisely. “John’s house” is more acceptable and preferable than “the house of John,” where the latter would be the apropos structure in Latin-based languages like Spanish. Since the ‘apostrophe-s’ does not exist in Spanish, “La casa de Juan” would be the precise equivalent to English’s “John’s house.” Both serve the same purpose.

And to think: a simple apostrophe accompanied by an‘s’ does all that. Amazing, isn’t it?

That’s not the end of it, of course; it’s just the beginning.

Syntax also contributes to modifier elaboration. A host of rhetorical, poetic and tropic concepts collectively recognizes such internalization with regard to sentence and paragraph structure as associated with idea development. Where the ‘apostrophe-s’ modifier minimizes expression, antithesis and chiasmus focus on the relationships involved in the development of the chosen idea. In like fashion, the construction of narrative influences how said idea will be perceived, not to mention the fact that tone, which itself also adds to the descriptive mix, can take a life of its own and create color and ambiance in unique and intricate ways. Consider the following example:

Zack had always been a pedantic conversationalist with his repetitive “wherefores” and “henceforths,” while we equally grew as intrigued enthusiasts in a multitude of academic areas. His hours’ worth of talking, though interesting, still annoyed us to no end.

Where the chiasmic structure of the first sentence describes the basic relationship between Zack and narrator in balance, denoting that both sides hold equal importance, the antithetical contrast presented in the second statement adds depth to the complexity exchanged between both parties. Notice, too, that the genitive, with its apostrophe after the plural ‘s,’ alludes to the subject’s loquacious nature.

The quoted verbal cues, as well, enhance Zack’s character even further; the readers can actually hear his educated though pretentious voice speaking in their heads.

Then, too, there are the dynamics of speech which mark not only the various relationships between ideas, but organize development in terms of progressiveness and priority. The gradatio and auxesis are similar in regards to this, but where the former involves repetitive word links, the latter deals with word arrangement devised to illustrate gradual intensity in textual meaning, such as in the case of climactic growth.

Despite the repetition, however, redundancy is not the case here. The anadiplosis inferred in gradatio offers a poetic flare to an expression, as does the anaphora. Re-employment of a word or phrase can quite often add emphasis on certain ideas or aspects of ideas so that such significances need not have to be spelled out in verbosity. Word count is important, and minimalism is imperative in all kinds of writing. One can say more by saying less, as the adage goes, and that is indeed so true.

Next: Modifiers III: Painting Pictures—Minimalism, the Use of Symbolism and Other Creative Innovations . . . .

Posted in Editing, Fiction, General Commentaries, Personal Experiences, Writing Development Issues | Leave a Comment »

Modifiers I: Redundant Discriptives

Posted by CW64 on April 22, 2010

Q: What are modifiers?

A: Things that modify other things; descriptives.

As sarcastic as that sounds, the question answers itself. More specifically pertaining to writing, modifiers are those parts of speech, such as adjectives, adverbs and even other nouns, that clarify the meaning or description of a term or idea or to create imagery in a passage.

Simple enough.

If this is the case, why do so many writers abuse or misuse them? They either use the wrong ones, weak ones, stale ones, repeated ones, too many, too few, or even none at all when modifiers should be used.

One common mistake writers make when it comes to using modifiers is the unnecessary application of adjectives, such as the fifty-word sentences consisting of a long string of references to describe a term that doesn’t even need to be modified.

Consider this sentence:

The dirty, unkempt, stubble-faced, smelly hobo in the torn and tattered clothes ravaged through the garbage for food scraps out behind the restaurant because he was dying of starvation

What is wrong with the above example?

Almost everything.

First, how many modifiers are necessary to clarify the description of the person in this sentence?

A: None.

Why? The answer is simple: the term being described (i.e. hobo) is by nature and definition dirty, unkempt, struggle-faced, smelly and wears torn and tattered clothes, so all of these chosen modifiers are unnecessary and even overkill. These words and their inapplicability are known as redundancies.

Q: What is a redundancy?

A: Specific to grammar: words, clauses, phrases, analogies, metaphors or images that provide unnecessary repetition.

What is meant by ‘unnecessary’ is that no viable purpose exists in the usage of said modifiers. If a purpose can be ascertained, grammatical or otherwise, then the modifiers are not redundant; if no purpose is apparent, then the modifiers have no applicability and should be deleted.

Believe me, I have seen the excess of unnecessary descriptives (i.e. redundancies), especially in erotica, and that has made me both cry in sadness and laugh in amusement.

Let us try to fix the above example:

The hobo ravaged through the garbage for food scraps out behind the restaurant because he was dying of starvation

That’s better. Is there anything else that can be done to improve this sentence?

Why not remove the clause ‘because he was dying of starvation’? Is it needed? Not really. The passage says that the hobo is ravaging the garbage behind the restaurant,so the reference to his hunger is already clear. The verb ‘ravaged’ suggests, even infers, desperation, and the fact that he is ravaging for food scraps in the garbage behind a restaurant adds to the statement of his hunger. Therefore, the clause ‘because he was dying of starvation’ is redundant.

Let’s remove that clause and see what we have left?

The hobo ravaged through the garbage for food scraps out behind the restaurant.

One could argue that ‘behind the restaurant’ isn’t necessary either because the term ‘food scraps’ establishes the fact that the hobo is hungry. The first clause, however, is not redundant, as it adds an important piece of information to the puzzle: setting. Here we have a person performing an action, with a simple motivation, and a setting. The sentence is complete.

Of course, is the intended description of the sentence clear enough?

Well, when one considers that we can picture a hobo scrounging through a restaurant garbage bin for food, then, yes, the sentence is clear. The passage might not sound elegant, but it is understood, and that is the most important factor in any kind of writing.

Why, then, is there a need for all of those modifiers?

In my short story Born to Be Wild, I describe one scene featuring a colony of hippies gathering at a rally in 1968. Although not all hippies look the same, most share common features, like leather or fringe jackets, knee-high moccasins, weird-shaped glasses, beaded jewelry, dyed T-Shirts, blue jeans, headbands or.bandanas, long hair and beards. Because of this, the word ‘hippies’ is enough to create the necessary image in the reader’s mind. Consider also that using only the word ‘hippies’ allows the particular reader to conceive her/his own unique image, whereas the use of all the modifiers tends to restrict said reader’s imagination.

When it comes to using modifiers, the rule-of-thumb in writing goes like this: If the meaning or description of the passage is clear without the modifying element(s), remove said elements.

Be simple, not complicated. Being complicated only clouds expression and takes up the use of space, where simplicity not only maintains clarity but also keeps the story flowing unhindered.

Also notice the verb (i.e. ‘ravaged’) assists in creating the intended image and description. Therefore, even verbs can be used as modifiers and are among the most important to use in lieu of the action. In light of that, some modifiers must be included. Writers should always make sure that the modifiers used are the right ones and that the number of modifiers is minimal.

For those interested, please return to the previous post and work with the examples provided there. Remove and/or play around with the modifiers and see what happens.

Next: Painting Pictures – Elaborate Use of Modifiers . . . .

Posted in Editing, Fiction, General Commentaries, Personal Experiences, Writing Development Issues | 13 Comments »

The Rationale behind the Practice of Revising

Posted by CW64 on March 24, 2010

Simply put, revising is writing. That is when the work takes shape and comes to life.

It is for this reason that the ‘first-shot masterpiece’ (i.e. ‘perfect’ right out of the gun) is a myth. Every work requires some revisions, whether grammatical, morphological, semantic or structural. When a writer creates a rough draft, s/he merely delineates the basic idea or premise of a work from the beginning to the end—that’s it. The first draft is called the rough draft for a reason.

A serious writer’s number-one requirement for successfully conducting revisions is to be open-minded and realistic. That means s/he must be honest and objective with herself/himself regarding her/his work. No work is perfect, just as no writer is perfect (of course, what is ‘perfect’?); each work reflects the skills of its writer. Still, the presence of aberrations within a draft doesn’t mean the writer in question is a bad or unskilled writer, only that the work requires development. Revising determines and enhances that skill.

That is another reason why revising is important—so that each writer sees where strengths and weaknesses lie and then initiates improvements in the area of the latter.

One writer, for example, sees that s/he has issues with run-on sentences. Since shorter, simpler sentences are preferable for the sake of clarity, the writer applies time to breaking down run-on clauses to form a cleaner and a more coherent sentence structure.

Let’s take a look at the following illustration:

Janice is by far the most attentive and meticulous person in the office, and she goes out of her way to show this in her everyday work, such as in the case with executive memos and the weekly promos, which are submitted to her company’s various affiliates, like Wash-All Detergent, Inc., because she also considered their needs just as important as those of her own company.

Okay, this run-on sentence consists of at least two smaller sentences, and even contains information that isn’t necessary at all to clarify the point of the overall passage. The revision below casts the above example into a new light:

Janice is the most attentive person in the office; her memos and weekly promos are extremely detailed. Such an attribute reflects the importance she places on her company and its affiliates.

Here, everything is concise and fluid, and one sees the point of the passage quite easily. Note, too, that every sentence is active (more on this later).

In this way, the revision process not only improves the quality of the work by making it readable and more engaging, but provides said writer with (1) the practice of writing short sentences as a matter of routine, and (2) the insight into effectively editing her/his own work.

That brings me to the next requirement for conducting revisions: developing editorial and writing style. Quite often, a work insists upon various phases or stages (what I call ‘sweeps’). Rarely do writers catch everything on a single ‘sweep’. Writers tend to miss things, even forget, especially when they are in a certain mindset at the time. That is why I dedicate each ‘sweep’ to addressing a particular issue or writing feature (e.g. grammar, vocabulary). The development of the piece has a better chance of reaching its destination when the writer focuses on one feature at a time.

For example, one ‘sweep’ eliminates grammatical errors, while the following ‘sweep’ places emphasis on vocabulary choices and phrasing. This works best, although each writer, and each piece, is different and revision styles are contingent on the particular writer’s comfort and sensibility. Rest assured, though, that taking on all issues at once (i.e. in a single ‘sweep’) is likely to extend and create further problems.

Sometimes revising one point in a text simultaneously resolves one or two others, such as the case when rephrasing a passage to accommodate vocabulary eliminates a misplaced semicolon and removes a dangling modifier. Focusing on one thing at a time need not extend the revision process; skill and forethought allow seasoned writers to devise strategies to facilitate multiple enhancements at one time, even within the context of one-feature ‘sweeps’.

Patience is a virtue, and that is oh-so true; as far as writing is concerned, it is crucial! Haste makes waste, as goes the saying.

Honesty and objectivity push writers to apply due attention in certain areas of text development. Revising becomes easier because problems stand out, such as spotting unnecessary or redundant passages (and, believe me, this happens all the time with every writer). Seasoned writers think about expressing only what needs to be conveyed and stick right to the point, even in fiction.

One analogous reference per description or idea is all that is necessary; more is overkill. The following sample below illustrates that point:

The two-hundred-pound boxer appeared as a large rolling bolder when he walked. His wide, round frame instilled spine-chilling fear in those around him.

This passage provides at least three references to the man’s immense size. Yes, all of the references might sound appealing, but only one is required to produce the desired effect; the other two should be deleted. As a result, many great analogies, metaphors and other descriptive modifiers require frequent omission. That is unfortunate, true, but it is an unavoidable fact; as tough as that is to do, it is necessary. Common-sense supersedes flare, although both are essential.

As for words like large, wide, rolling and spine-chilling, the next segment discusses trimming modifiers and the various reasons why this is important in effective and quality writing . . . .

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The Many Adventures of Creative Writing

Posted by CW64 on March 3, 2010

The process of creative writing from start to finish is just as endlessly adventurous as it is intellectually draining—from the conception of a basic idea to delineating the draft to revising that draft to the point of having developed a completed manuscript.

No one said any of it would be easy, but, then again, the uncertainty and challenge of hard work make the entire process exciting and irresistible.

The basic idea, which is the seed to any writing project, is both easy or difficult, depending on several factors, including the purpose of the writing to be produced. Sometimes a great idea comes in a flash and other times it requires a bit of mulling, especially when one is attempting to take a twist on a subject (the”twist” itself is a legitimate idea in its own right because it prompts readers to think differently about a given subject AND because a “twist” can offer new information on said subject). In the case of the latter, a thorough understanding of subject is prerequisite to writing so that the twist, or unique angle, is fully realized and makes sense in light of the subject (i.e. is consistent with all known facts associated with said subject). This is where research is sometimes necessary to form the basic idea of a work, such as the case with dissertations, where the central point quite often emerges through the accumulation and evaluation of data.

See how complicated, or difficult, devising a basic idea can sometimes be?

The short story Urban Legend, which deals with a young skeptic who explores an urban legend and encounters a few surprises, the basic idea came to me in a dream. When I woke up from that dream, the images and premise of the story were still fresh in my mind, and I dictated the story, word-for-word, mentally as I recounted the dream. That motivated me to write, so I could get down the idea and start on the draft from beginning to end, which, in this case, came and went quick and smooth.

The draft isn’t always that easy to do, but when the basic idea is there, and is fully realized, it can be. In the case when it is not, however, sometimes the basic idea emerges through the writing process in establishing the principle characters and the plot. That was the case with the novel The Monkey Cage, which also served as my graduate thesis (the first three chapters). I started with a simple scene that I originally intended as the beginning of a short story, but as I developed the characters and expanded the story beyond the scene in question, I found a whole new world opening wide around the characters. But what are they doing here? What should they be doing? As I disregarded the need to set down a predetermined premise, I threw caution in the wind and just started writing. The plot and conflicts of the characters came on their own, and one stage led to another from beginning to the end of the first draft.

Yes, I said the first draft!

Sometimes stories require more than one draft, especially when details of the original draft do not work in the overall story, such as inconsistencies in character behavior or farfetched scenarios that sound good at first but, upon reflection, work poorly in bringing the story out in its most serious and respectable light. That happens. When it does, a writer has no other recourse but to start over. The fact that characters have been realized, however, makes story development easier due to a writer’s familiarity with said characters—a sense of familiarity increases a writer’s confidence, and confidence means everything in story development.

An important note should be made here: If a writer does not feel comfortable enough to write about her or his characters, s/he should spend time getting to know those characters first, either by ruminating over them, composing character profiles or sketches, drawing illustrations of their character, or a combination of any or all of these suggestions. When a writer knows her or his characters intimately and feels comfortable with and confidence in them, the story begins.

Once that story is down (i.e. the draft), revising starts. This is where it really gets fun!

Although a draft is down and a basic plot-line established, the creative process is far from over. Revisions not only correct misspellings and grammatical errors or provide condensation where necessary, but also serve as a means for writers to introduce new and essential information into the plot-line where necessary in order to “flesh out” the characters and/or story. This is important for two reasons: (1) the narrative will flow more smoothly, and (2) gaps are filled so the story will be clear and make sense. This is where one pays particular attention to detail, which had been foregone when scaling the draft (the basic idea) in the previous stage.

Revisions are quite often require various stages; creativity goes on and on. That is why revising is synonymous with the actual writing, because it is here that the characters emerge and the story is fully realized. The stage of revising is a long and tedious process spanning hours, days, sometimes even weeks on a particular work. But a writer shouldn’t be discouraged; s/he should have fun exploring the creative possibilities.

I can certainly elaborate more on revisions here, as insight on that subject abounds, but I thought I would reserve further discussion for a separate post designated specifically to that particular phenomenon, as that seems apropos.

More on revisions and writing development to come . . . .

Posted in Advice, Editing, Fiction, General Commentaries, Marketing and Advertising, Novels, Personal Experiences, Publishing and Publication, Research, Short Stories, Writing Development Issues | Leave a Comment »