Tag Archives: writing

We don’ need no stinkin’ rules!

I’m not good with rules. I’ve been trying to write a page of dialogue for my new work-in-progress, Lessons in Space, and I keep getting hung up.

Some of them are easy. Always put the words between quotation marks, unless the communication is telepathic, subvocalized or expressed in some other way, like light waves or odor. Try to show the speaker’s tone of voice in the tag. You could use an adverb to tell emotion, but it isn’t as strong. Make each character’s “voice” distinctive.

The one I always have trouble with is the injunction to place tags (identifiers) before or after the character has spoken rather than in the middle of the speech. For example:

Dilbert shouted, “That’s a piece of crap!”

Or

“That’s a piece of crap.” Dilbert’s shoulders slumped.

These show, rather than tell, something about Dilbert’s character, and don’t interrupt the flow of his words.

A hard and fast rule, right? But let’s examine it. We all know that there are times when we pause as we speak, perhaps to emphasize a point or hunt for an exact word. Sometimes, we can indicate this in writing by using ellipses. For example:

“That’s. . . a piece of crap,” Dilbert announced.

But if we really want to emphasize a point, wouldn’t it be more dramatic to do it this way?

“That,” Dilbert announced, pointing at the painting, “is a piece of crap!”

Here, we reinforce that Dilbert is an arrogant, opinionated individual who is used to being listened to.

If used sparingly, breaking the speech with a tag can be quite successful. But it violates the rules.

Everyone needs rules, writers of fiction included. We have to check our spelling, and obey most of the rules of punctuation and grammar. Without these guidelines, we can’t communicate effectively, and our readers would throw down our books in disgust.

However, as fiction writers, we are accustomed to weaving words to create a mood or define a character, as deftly and succinctly as possible. We might use an otherwise unacceptable spelling of a word to indicate an accent. A lizardman from Omicron VI would need extra esses to illustrate his hiss, and a Klingon growls his rrrrs.

Maybe insert a sentence fragment. We could even string letters together to show an alien language, make up futuristic slang, devise unique ways of indicating non-verbal communications like snorts or sniffs.

I believe that if we allow ourselves to slavishly follow the rules, we will limit ourselves too much. We have to allow ourselves some freedom. Perhaps, sometimes, the laws of good writing lead to the loss of good writing.

I know others will disagree, and I welcome comments.

Use of commonly accepted grammar and spelling optional.

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“But, officer, I really wasn’t. . .”

In 2013, police departments all over the country started cracking down on driving infractions. Driving while impaired took on new meanings as phone conversations and texting were added to the list of distractions. Then it was discovered that daydreaming while driving was almost as dangerous. And so, many years later. . .

I saw the flashing blue lights in my rear view mirror, and obediently pulled over to the side of the road. I couldn’t imagine what was wrong. I hadn’t been speeding, or weaving about. Nor had I been phoning, texting, drinking coffee or engaging in sex.

The trooper who emerged from the black and white was obviously young. And big. The dark wraparound glasses that hid his eyes looked too large for his face. His expression, however, was grim.

I fished my phone out of my bag as he approached and called up my license and registration. Then I gestured to the sensor that controlled the window. The glass lowered silently.

When he stood at the side of the car, towering above it, I handed the phone to him. “What was the problem, officer?” I asked pleasantly.

He took his time syncing my phone to his handheld scanner. When he handed it back to me, he said, “You were daydreaming.”

“No, honestly, sir, I wasn’t.”

“According to my brain scanner, you were actively engaged in an activity involving the creative nodes of your cerebral cortex. That is daydreaming.”

For a moment I was silent. “But the law against driving while daydreaming isn’t due to take effect until–”

“No, ma’am.” His voice was not loud, but authoritative. “It was rushed through. It took effect today. The new law against Driving Under Daydreaming, was pushed through.”

“But I’m not a DUD,” I protested.

“The scanner doesn’t lie, ma’am.”

“No, honestly. I was planning. Thinking. I wasn’t involved in a first-person fantasy world.”

He stood there, broad shouldered and implacable, and didn’t say anything.

“Look,” I said, leaning out the window, “I’m a writer. I was outlining my next book.”

He unbent enough to look at me. “A writer? What do you write?”

“Science fiction. Y’know, space ships, robots, like that.”

“Hmph. Never read the stuff. Were you inhabiting the world you were creating?”

“Oh, no, officer, we writers can’t do that. We have to remain objective. Honest.”

“Well, you WERE distracted. You know that while you are driving you must concentrate on the road, and not on anything else.”

“I’m good at multitasking. I’m a writer. I have to be.”

He unbent more and took off his glasses. “The law against driving while multitasking is still in committee. The Driving Under Multitasking Brainwaves, or DUMB, hasn’t been passed yet.”

I had a brief vision of a bleak future in which any kind of brain activity while driving was outlawed. Where there was nothing but the blacktop and the white line in front of you. Oh, well, I thought, there would be a lot more business for yoga instructors and meditation gurus.

It might make people focus their minds, force them to take a vacation from the billions of distractions that surrounded them. Freed from the constant drain on their energies, they could devote their time to philosophy and art. There would be an explosion of creativity not seen since the Renaissance.

It could be the rebirth of civilization.

The young trooper had returned to his stiff-backed stance and was busy punching something into his scanner. “I’ve issued you a warning, ma’am. No ticket this time.”

“Thank you, officer. I think I can assure you that my mind will not be at all involved the next time I’m behind the wheel.”

“That’s good, ma’am. Remember, road safety is up to you.” He turned and marched to his vehicle.

What a good character he would make for my upcoming novel, I thought. A fine robotic member of the law enforcement community. Or perhaps a young man conflicted about his profession. Or not conflicted. Or actually make him a robot–

I shook the ideas from my head. No more planning while driving, I decided, no more multitasking.

And so, resolving never to think behind the wheel again, I drove off.

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Sombre Meditations

Autumn always surprises me.

Daylight slowly shrinks,

Nights are cooler,

Colors leach from the ground

As the flowers slowly fade.

And suddenly the trees are flame,

An astounding event

Like the sight of gray hair in the mirror

Or sagging papery skin.

I walk through the artist’s palette,

Wondering at the colors,

Breathing the crispness of the air.

This is just the third act,

A different scene

Neither feared nor resented,
But relished for its own joys.

Winter is inevitable

And I will approach it

Strolling through trees on fire

And inhaling the cool air

Of autumn.

 

I guess it’s natural to think of the end of things as fall settles in. But it doesn’t have to be in a negative or morbid sense, but rather in the context of wheels and progressions.

My preoccupation is furthered by the presence on the Massachusetts ballot of a “Death with Dignity” proposition. It would give the individual the right to decide when and how to die, and would ensure that any assisting physician wouldn’t be prosecuted. I think it’s a wonderful idea.

How reassuring it would be to know that pain and suffering wouldn’t be drawn out. That a painless, quick method is available. I don’t mean that the decision should be an abrupt one. You shouldn’t make the leap to end it because you were dumped by your boyfriend of the “wrong” person won the election.

But when you come to the end of things, when, through illness, decrepitude or, perhaps, the feeling that you’ve seen everything you’ve wanted to see and done everything you’ve wanted to do, you know it’s time to end it, you should be able to do so. Further, there should be no worry that anyone helping you in this decision is going to suffer.

In the novel I’m writing now, which takes place in the 26th century, people live nearly 200 years. Rejuvenation treatments are standard, so no one ever really grows old. However, when individuals decide that they have had enough, they can Terminate. There is a party, attended by all their friends and loved ones, to celebrate, and they are then allowed to fall asleep. It’s very civilized and humane.

Even Albus Dumbledore described death as “really. . .like going to bed after a very, very long day.” I would like my end to be like that.

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Is 15 Minutes Enough?

I created a website.

Everyone (that’s with a capital “E”) said that I should do it in order to increase sales of my books. For a while I fought the idea. Somehow it seemed so patently egotistical.

But Vistaprint offered a free trial (and we all know how those work out!) for a month, as well as step-by-step guidance in constructing the pages. It was a “sign” that it was time.

So I embarked on the task of establishing a site. It was easier than I’d thought. Vistaprint did a good job of breaking down the task and directing the neophyte. I have to admit, I had a good time doing it.

When I’d finished, I sat back and admired my work (doing stuff like this does tend to be a bit egotistical). And being able to take a breather now, I tried to dissect my motives. Why had I gone to all this trouble?

Why, to increase book sales, I slyly answered myself.

Humph! I replied. Why, when you take into account the cost of maintaining the site, you’ll have to sell about a hundred books a year to make up what you’ve spent. C’mon. Why did you do this?

Urged on by my carping superego, I delved deeper into my motives.

Perhaps it was egotistical. Maybe I was trying to extend my fifteen minutes to half an hour. Like wearing a red ball gown to a dance where all others my age were wearing pastels (how many of you get the reference?), or sitting in the front row of the classroom to catch the eye of the handsome young professor.

Then I considered the pains I’d taken to link the site to this blog. I want people to read my postings, and not just (I hope) for reasons of vanity. Some of the ideas I write about are important, and could generate discussion. If readers look at me for that reason, I feel I’ve accomplished something.

Which brings us, as these musings often do, to politics.

Why are our current crop of candidates expending their energy and money trying to get elected?

I believe you have to have a pretty strong sense of self in order to run for office. Otherwise, the arguments against what you believe in and negative advertising would be devastating. So is it simply self-aggrandizement that spurs on our would-be leaders?

I hope not. We don’t need people who only want to preen and posture in the spotlight. We need those who have the smarts to understand what’s going on and make decisions that will solve, not worsen, the problems.

Like climate change. And drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And the problem of national debt. And poverty, access to quality health care, international relations.

We can’t afford battling egos. We also can’t afford a plutocracy in which money, controlling communication, decides elections. I know we’ve seen the “dumbing down” of America, but I can’t help believe that can be reversed.

We need leaders who won’t talk down to the electorate, who will make the decisions that need to be made and explain the reasons for those choices. As a teacher I learned that youngsters can rise to levels of expectations. They can finish the school year with a better handle on the world than they started with.

But in order to do that, you can’t just “strut and fret your hour upon the stage.”

You have to lead.

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Educating for the future

The political conventions are done with, and now it’s all over but the shouting—and the vitriol, half-truths and incessant phone calls.

It’s time to get back to writing.

I’m in the midst of fashioning a novel about a teacher in the 25th century who is fed up with the over-regulation of the system and the indifference of the students she teaches. She decides to leave Earth (which has become a steel-encased mega-city) and take a position in one of the “outer colonies.”

Sound familiar? To anyone who has taught in the past twenty years, and anyone who is teaching now, it probably does.

Many of you are probably worried about the future of our planet, as I am. Possibly also the future of our species. Much of whether or not we survive, and thrive, as a species depends on education. It always did. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, education was a matter of which plants were poisonous and which were nutritious, how to avoid predators, which mate would ensure the survival of one’s offspring.

In other words, matters of individual and family survival.

Today, of course, education is far more complex. The human race has amassed a vast compendium of knowledge, and it is impossible to know everything. We can no longer limit the education of our young to the memorization of facts, dates and names. We have to train them to find the necessary information and teach them how to use it. Unfortunately, the standardized tests we employ today don’t allow for that. The emphasis on testing severely limits the creativity of the teacher, and the student.

Children must learn to analyze, synthesize and reach a defensible conclusion. They must also be free to imagine. It’s only from the imagination that new and better machines, techniques and ways of life can come. In defense of the genre of science fiction, it has been said that before engineers can design a technological breakthrough, someone has to think of it, and it has been science fiction writers to whom that task has fallen.

Today, we’re faced with a multitude of problems. Just finding a better machine is not enough. We need new and better ways to coexist without losing identity, to tolerate the ideas and lifestyles of others without giving up our own. And we must do this before we destroy the planet or each other. The ideas have to come from the younger generation.

I’m sixty-eight years old. In another twenty years, I’ll probably be gone. But the kids born now will just be coming into their prime. What will the world be like for them?

You see, no matter how complex or seemingly insurmountable the problems of education are, it’s still about survival.

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A Better Soapbox

So I was rereading C.S. Lewis, the Perelandra series (those who know my preference for science fiction aren’t surprised). It wasn’t my idea, but was urged on me by a friend. I was disappointed all over again.

Why? Because Lewis used his opportunity as a stage from which to proselytize. He chose to write an allegory, similar to those written in the seventeenth century.

Which begs the question, Do we, as writers, have a right to use our fiction to further our agenda?

I don’t see that it’s possible not to. Writers, as all human beings, have their biases and beliefs. Some are strongly held, others merely flirted with. But when we are composing our fiction, it is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore those feelings.

In my novel several ideas (I hope) come through. One is that we must overcome our homophobia and accept all people as worthy of respect. Another is that global climate change is real and will have disastrous results in the future.

The most important, though, is that we are all connected. Everybody has a responsibility to all people on the planet, as well as to the planet itself. Any talent that one person has should be used for the benefit of all of us.

If I wrote a tract, a blog, a non-fiction piece advocating those ideas, it might be read by a few. It might affect a handful more. My hope is that, in writing it as fiction, it will have a broader impact. When we write fiction, we create characters that our readers will connect with. As they sympathize with our creations, they identify with them, and take their problems to heart.

As such, we have a greater influence on people than others. Therefore, we have a responsibility to be aware of the ideas we put forth in our work. I don’t mean to be moralistic. It’s not that we have to stick to the straight and narrow. However, we do have to be honest, to examine the subtext of our stories. And our readers have a responsibility to parse that subtext to decide whether they agree with it. Not ignore it because it’s difficult or inconvenient.

Reader and writer are collaborators in the fiction business. We dream up the stories and present them, along with our biases and beliefs. The reader opens himself to our creation, enters the world we have imagined for him. Together, reader and writer construct a world that was intended by neither one. Because, whether we writers want it or not, the reader changes the stories we write and comes away with ideas and feelings we didn’t intend.

So, the question returns. I believe that writers have a right, and a responsibility, to advocate for the issues we believe in. We just have to make sure that we acknowledge the issues. We have to be conscious of those drives.

We have a better soapbox. We should use it.

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The Editing Flip-flop

There is a debate raging in one of the chats I follow. The question is, if you self-publish, do you need a professional editor?

My answer is a resounding, Yes.

When I was writing my novel, Whispers in the Night (notice I say my novel, because it’s my first and only), I didn’t have an editor. I had friends. My friends were very talented, all authors in their own right, members of the Coral Springs Writers Group. We met weekly and presented our pages to each other. Our submissions were carefully read by the others who searched out all the errors—the misspellings, dropped punctuation, repeated words. They also critiqued for lack of characterization, passages that didn’t move the plot, etc. They were great.

But they only saw a few pages at a time, and, I admit, I didn’t always show them the rewrites. Also, they didn’t see the work as a whole. This limited the effectiveness of their editing. I left Florida before I finished the work. Up north I was lucky to have my friend Jhena Plourde, who further edited the work in progress. And she was wonderful in picking up on the typos, inconsistencies and bloopers.

After the novel was published, I reread it. At that point I realized that what I needed was someone who would have grabbed me by the literary lapels and shaken me hard. “This part is crap,” the person could have said, “get rid of it or revise it. And flesh out this character or kill her off.”

In other words, I needed an editor.

My friends were a fine resource, but by not showing them the finished novel, I didn’t allow them that latitude.

I realize that I changed my mind, and the minds of my characters, several times in the writing of the book. I revised chapters, refocused the conflict, altered the course of the story arc. Some might say I flip-flopped.

Which brings us, not too surprisingly, to the political scene.

Some candidates have been accused of the same sort of alteration in their opinions. I have no quarrel with that. I feel that human beings are allowed to change their minds, even are required to do so, when presented with new evidence or unforeseen circumstances. Our opinions evolve as our minds grow. If they don’t, we become ossified.

Most of us don’t have the same mind set we had ten or twenty years ago. That’s natural, even necessary. Alterations in lifestyle can change a swinger into a cautious parent or a driver with a lead foot into a speed-limit conservative after the third ticket.

The difference, as I see it, between politicians’ situation and mine is that I can point out why I changed. I can specify what necessitated the alterations. I would like the men we are considering as our leaders to do the same thing.

What prompted a change of heart? Where was the point at which they realized their previous ideas were wrong? I crave facts.

I understand that it is often difficult to explain personal beliefs or circumstances to strangers. When I detail the reasons for the difference in my point of view, I am usually speaking to friends. Candidates have to speak to three hundred million strangers. That’s a lot more difficult.

But these are people who want to be our leaders. We have a right to know what prompted their ideas, on abortion, health care insurance, gun control, because these are areas that will impact our lives.

I edit my work to make it better. My focus is on my readers as I try to craft the best possible story.

Is that what our candidates are doing? Are they crafting the best possible story? Is that why they’re editing?

Or have they truly had a change of heart?

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