A blog about the hearths we come from and those we make for ourselves; the myths we create, both cultural and personal; and the stories I write about them.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

"Use adverbs sparingly," she advised editorially.

This coming Wednesday, March 4th, is National Grammar Day, so I thought I’d celebrate by writing a post about grammar. Although it’s not really about grammar. It’s about one of those rules for good writing.

I learned a lot of writing rules back in broadcast journalism school: write short, uncomplicated sentences; don’t put more than twenty words in a sentence; write in present tense; don’t use the word “yesterday,” lest your listeners think you’re running old news; and on and on.

These particular rules are pretty much useless for fiction writing. Most novelists don’t write in present tense (although I hear it’s a thing in some circles) and nobody cares whether you mention “yesterday” in your novel or not. But among the rules that have stuck with me is this: Don’t use adverbs.

As I’m sure you know, adverbs are modifiers. Whereas adjectives modify nouns and pronouns, adverbs modify verbs (and adjectives, and sometimes other adverbs). Adverbs come in many flavors, including in conjunction with other words in adverbial phrases and clauses. But your garden-variety adverb is easy to spot: it’s an adjective with –ly tacked onto the end.

Right about now, you’re probably saying, “But why such prejudice against the poor adverb, Lynne? It never did anything bad to anybody, did it?”

Well, no. But it’s weak. If you dropped that adverb and used a different verb, your sentence would be stronger. Let me show you what I mean. Let’s say you wrote this:

Fred moved quickly across the field.

That’s an okay sentence, as far as it goes. But how did Fred move quickly? Let’s look at a few possibilities:

Fred hurried across the field.
Fred darted across the field.
Fred streaked across the field.
Fred galloped across the field.
Fred careened across the field.

See the difference? In each of these sentences, Fred is still moving quickly. But depending on the verb you choose, your reader will draw a slightly different – and more descriptive – picture.

Sometimes in writing fiction, though, you don’t want your verb to quite so obvious about pulling the action along. Sometimes you want your verb to fade into the background. Yes, I’m talking about dialogue tags.

Some people just hate the word said. It grates on them. The repetition makes them crazy. If you’re one of those people, I apologize, because I believe said and its cousin asked are critical tools in any fiction writer’s toolbox.

If you use strong verbs for dialogue tags, you run the risk of taking attention away from the dialogue. Plus, it’s too easy to stray into the hyperbolic (ranted? cajoled?) or the physically impossible (I’m sorry, but nobody can shriek through an entire sentence).

But if you’re going to use plain-vanilla verbs in your dialogue tags, you need to do something else to give context to your characters’ words. You can describe their body language – crossing their arms, tapping their feet, looking away, and so on. Or you can describe what they’re doing as they’re talking – peeling a label off of a beer bottle, making an omelet, cutting flowers for a bouquet. Or you can use an adverb:

“Is Fred going to be all right?” Sadie asked hopefully.
“He’ll be fine,” the doctor said briskly. “Just don’t let him careen into any more fences.”

I wouldn’t go overboard on putting –ly words in dialogue tags; I’d use them sparingly, and intersperse them with the other methods I mentioned. But my point is that adverbs do have a place in fiction writing. Just not a huge one. And do take care that you don’t stray into Tom Swifty territory with them – unless, of course, you want to.

Happy National Grammar Day!

(This post was originally published at Indies Unlimited.)

These moments of Tom Swifty blogginess have been brought to you, as public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

When the rules don't apply.

Reading can be a subversive exercise. Sometimes it encourages you to break the rules.

I just finished a book that I received in my book bag at last fall's World Fantasy Convention:  Lifelode by Jo Walton. I'd never read anything by Walton before this, so I didn't really know what to expect. But the book's description appealed to me -- it's set in what appears at first glance to be a fantasy world. Applekirk is more or less a castle, and those who live there more or less practice magic, which is called yeya in the world of this book. There are some peculiarities in this world: the farther East you go, the more yeya there is and the more time speeds up; the farther West, the more time slows down, and yeya becomes a rumor, or maybe even a fairy tale. But the oddest thing at first glance is that the book is written in present tense. And it works -- or at least, it worked for me, because one of the main characters views time in a non-linear fashion. Often when she looks at someone, she sees a sort of ghost or shade of their past or future self, so that everything happens at once, all the time.

Now, writing in present tense is not a usual choice for authors. Sure, Suzanne Collins uses it in her Hunger Games books, but by and large, the default is past tense. And the intarwebz are full of reasons why you should stick with past tense (although I would argue that a competent writer -- like, say, Walton, for instance -- would easily avoid the pitfalls listed in this Writer's Digest article).

It turns out that Walton stretched another boundary, too. While at first glance, Lifelode is fantasy, Walton says in the Q&A at the end of the book that it's definitely sci-fi. The novel's world is actually a pocket universe -- a fold in space-time -- which explains why time passes faster, the farther east you go. I don't know that you need to know that to enjoy the book; you can certainly read it as fantasy set in an odd magical world.

This tweaking of expectations is also evident in Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, which was my Rursday Read this week. This book is very definitely sci-fi -- spaceships, aliens, and artificial intelligences abound. Leckie's protagonist, Breq, was once part of the AI that operated a spaceship, which may be mind-bending enough. But the people of the society that created the ship have the capability of becoming either gender -- so their language has no gender. Leckie could have taken the easy way out and denoted this by having Breq use "it" as his/her default pronoun. But instead, it's "she". It's a little disorienting, and a constant reminder that the reader's not in Kansas anymore.

Both of these authors are multiple award winners. Leckie's book won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Arthur C. Clarke awards last year. Walton's past work has also won the Hugo and the Nebula.

I'm bringing this up because I saw a bit of advice on Facebook this week about how you shouldn't use big words in your fiction writing. Supposedly, it's because throwing a bunch of unfamiliar words at your reader will throw them out of the story. Now, usually I'm on board with this advice; after all, I spent a lot of years writing radio copy. For that, you use short words and simple sentences because when you're writing for the ear, clarity is key. But fiction is a different beast, and sometimes complexity is better. One of my favorite authors is Stephen R. Donaldson, whose Thomas Covenant books are rife with unfamiliar words. Donaldson has said he used the difficult vocabulary in part to make it clear that the Land is not our world. And Donaldson's work has won numerous awards, too.

So we have three authors who have won a boatload of awards for breaking the rules. It's probably no accident that these three authors write speculative fiction, where rule-bending of all sorts is allowed, and even encouraged. But I think the takeaway is that each of these authors had a good reason for doing what they did. Donaldson used unusual words to set the Land apart from our world. Leckie's Breq calls everyone "she" to underscore his/her alien origins. And Walton uses present tense to reinforce the idea that time moves oddly in her world.

So if you're tempted to bend or break a writing rule, have at it. But don't just do it to do it. Know what the rule is there for, and figure out why it doesn't apply in the case of your story. After all, that's how the award-winning authors do it.

Speaking of awards: Congrats to Birdman on winning the Oscar for Best Picture tonight! (Did I call it, or did I call it?)

These moments of rule-breaking blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

What's a naja, and where does it come from?

Every now and then, I fall into these mini-obsessions -- something that strikes me as interesting, and there I go, Googling down a rabbit hole, trying to appease my curiosity. Whole afternoons can go by this way.

That's what happened when I spotted this necklace a few weeks back on Mission Del Rey's website and fell in love with it. (If you click through, you'll see it's listed as out of stock. That's because they only had one, and I bought it. Sorry.) It's Navajo made, and it interested me because I've seen the design featured as a pendant on other Navajo-made pieces that are commonly called squash blossom necklaces.

Wikimedia Commons | silverborders.com
Over to the right is an example of a squash blossom necklace -- and not a very elaborate one, at that. The ones you usually see are encrusted with hunks of turquoise. I've looked at the them for years but have never bought one -- partly because I'm not really into big, gaudy necklaces, and partly because I didn't understand the symbolism.

Sure, Native Americans make these necklaces for the tourist trade. But I've been leery about symbols on jewelry ever since I was a kid. The summer I was on vacation with my parents in South Dakota, I spotted a beaded necklace with an "Indian" motif in a gift shop. I think there was a tipi on the medallion, and it had beaded fringe hanging from it -- very '60s. For all I know, it was probably made in China. But I thought it was groovy (keep in mind the era here), and I pestered my mother into buying it for me. She also bought me two ice cream cones that day. What the heck, right? We were on vacation. Yeah, well, I was wearing that brand-new necklace when the toothache hit me that night. Call me superstitious, or just young and silly, but I associated that necklace with bad luck ever afterward. I finally threw it out.

So I want to know what stuff means before I decide to wear it. And as I said, I never knew the symbolism behind the squash blossom necklace. So before I plunked down my money for the Navajo piece that had caught my eye, I dove down the Google rabbit hole to find out what I was getting into.

I had always thought "squash blossom" referred to the pendant part of a squash blossom necklace, but it doesn't. The squash blossoms are the vaguely trumpet-shaped beads on the chain. The pendant is called a naja -- pronounced NAH-hah, with a Spanish "j". And it doesn't mean anything. The design came to the New World with the conquistadores. Those guys may have gotten it from the Moors, who used to put an inverted crescent on their horse's bridles to ward against the ol' evil eye. (I guess it didn't work too well; Ferdinand and Isabella kicked them out of Spain in 1492.)

But the naja even predates the Moors. I fell into another Google rabbit hole this evening, and ended up on a Czech website that sells reproduction items for historical re-enactors. I was looking through their stock of Slavic designs when I saw this. It's a reproduction of a 9th-century pendant found in Nitra, Slovakia.

And going back even further, the inverted crescent was a symbol of the Phoenician fertility goddess Astarte.

 In any case, by the time the Southwestern tribes got hold of it, it was just an appealing motif. So I felt safe on that score. But what do the etched designs on my naja mean? As near as I can tell, the spirals represent lightning, and the sawtoothed design on the arms symbolizes mountains. Rain is always welcome in the dry Southwest, so I'm viewing it as a good omen. And I've already worn the necklace several times without disaster striking.

Knock on wood.

These moments of historically superstitious blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Closing Pandora's box.

It's been quite a while since I wrote a punctuation-related post. Guess it's time.
NNBTK | deviantart.com

One of the most common punctuation mistakes I see is when an author wants to use punctuation to set off a phrase, but doesn't do it correctly. Here, let me show you want I mean. See if you can spot the errors in the following sentences:

I introduced my brother, Hal to the group.*
Frieda swears she's going to shave her head because her hair (which is naturally curly is so hard to manage.
The most annoying thing about punctuation mistakes -- the thing that makes my teeth itch the most is that they're so easily fixed.

In each case, the author has begun the job of setting off a parenthetical expression with some type of punctuation, but has not followed through and finished the job.

I get that sometimes people get going on their point and forget. Or in revision mode, they add something here and forget to adjust the sentence there. But sometimes I wonder whether people even realize they're making a mistake. Hence, this post.

I guess first we ought to define what this thing-that-ought-to-be-between-punctuation-marks is. If you can take the words in question out of the sentence and it's still grammatically correct, then what you have is a parenthetical expression or a parenthetical phrase. And yes, that's what it's called even if no parentheses are involved.

So for our examples above, if I take out the parenthetical material, the sentences would read like this:

I introduced my brother to the group.*
Frieda swears she's going to shave her head because her hair is so hard to manage.
The most annoying thing about punctuation mistakes is that they're so easily fixed.

See? The sentences work just fine this way. So if I go back and insert the words I've left out, I need to set them off on both sides with my punctuation of choice -- commas, parentheses, dashes, brackets, whatever -- so that my reader knows where the parenthetical material starts and ends.

When you put in the first punctuation mark and don't put in the second, it's a little like you've opened Pandora's box. You know that story, right? Zeus was mad at Pandora's husband, so He gave her a box (or actually, a jar) and told her not to open it. But of course her curiosity got the best of her. As it turned out, Zeus had stuffed the jar full of all the bad things in creation, and when Pandora opened it, they all escaped into the world. But the jar contained one more thing: hope. And when the bad stuff got out, it did, too.

So when you put in the first punctuation mark, you've opened the box. You need to remember to close that box when you get to the right place -- or else you run the risk of doing a bad thing: confusing your reader. Setting off that parenthetical material on both sides makes your sentence easier to understand. Which is all punctuation does, guys. Honest.

Anyway, I'm hopeful that you all will remember to close the box the next time you include parenthetical material in a sentence. (See what I did there?)

*A word about this sentence: I've set off the name with commas here (or intended to, anyway) because in this example, I'm assuming Hal is my only brother. So his name is superfluous to the meaning of the sentence; regardless whether I name him or not, I'm still talking about the same guy. However, if I had two brothers, I would omit the commas because the name is now critical to the meaning of the sentence. If I say, "I introduced my brother to the group," my reader won't know whether I mean Hal or Fred unless I say his name.

Only one brother? "I introduced my brother, Hal, to the group."
Two or more brothers? "I introduced my brother Hal to the group."

Okay? Okay. Glad we've cleared that up.

In the news: I was very pleased to learn that I've been named to a 2014 Honours List of Indie Authors in Australia. Thanks very much to Tabitha Ormiston-Smith for the hono(u)r!

This moment of bloggy box-closing has been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.