Archive for September, 2010

The Exclamation Point

Do you like the exclamation point?  I do.

As a beginning writer, I’ve heard several admonitions about using exclamation points.  Elmore Leonard says you’re allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.  I’ve also heard “one or two per 100 pages,” and I’m sure there are others, but I tend to discount all of them and use my own rule.  I will agree in one aspect: when it comes to description or narration, the fewer the better, and zero is probably best.  Using an exclamation point in description is like telling the reader, “this is important.”  It gives an artificialness to the narrative.  The emphasis should be obvious and carried by the action.  Let the reader decide.  In dialogue, however, I maintain that the situation is wildly different.

I once wrote a chapter of a novel about several people trapped in an airplane in a thunderstorm, and exclamation points flew all over the page like hailstones before a cold front.

“Look out!”   “Pull up!”   “I can’t see!  I can’t see!”   “I can’t control the airplane!  We’re going down!”   “Brace for impact!”

With the addition of one simple punctuation mark [!] the real terror of the situation becomes obvious and palpable.  The fear in the speaker’s voice, (actually, the shouter‘s voice), the horror that permeates the cabin, the terror of potential disaster, all are brought front and center, pushed into the reader’s brain like osmosis through a membrane.  With the exclamation point, there’s no need for explanations of what’s going on, no need for adverbs to try to carry the meaning in a way that makes it obscure and imprecise.  The simplicity is amazing.

Which do you like better?  The method above?  Or, this–

“Look out,” he shouted.     “Pull up,” she said firmly.    “I can’t see,” he said repeatedly.    “I can’t control the airplane,” he shouted with the fear in his voice that indicates the fear we all feel in times of terror, jerking the control column around as though he was trying to control a kite in a windstorm …” and so on and so forth.

I’d rather write (and read) the first.  Enough said.

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Show; don’t tell … or maybe not

One of the most common maxims doled out to new writers (like me) is the tried, true and worn dictum, “Show; don’t tell.”  Personally, I don’t care much for it.

In its defense, it has a lot in its favor.  It’s used to warn new writers not to simply tell the reader that a certain character or place or event is what it is, but rather show the reader through events or comments by other characters that illuminate the specific character’s (or place’s or event’s) personality.  For example, suppose I invent a character whom I want to be a miser.  Instead of telling you, “he’s a miser,” I might show him hiding money in his mattress, or tipping a waiter a dime instead of a dollar, or some other activity common to misers.  It works well that way.

My argument with “show; don’t tell” is not that it doesn’t work, or that it gives bad advice, but that it uses conflicting terminology.  I maintain that to write a story, I, as author, have to tell the story.  No matter what I do, I’m telling something.  Writing is all about telling.  If I show you a character hiding money in a mattress, I may not be telling you he’s a miser, but I am telling you that he hid money in a mattress.  Telling a story is, just that: telling a story.  I can’t get away from it.  Neither can you.  At some point in a story, I have to tell you something.  In fact, a story is all about telling.  Telling, telling, telling, that’s what we writers do.  And it confused the heck out of me when I first heard it.  How, I wondered, do you tell a story without telling something? 

Robert Louis Stevenson, in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, doesn’t simply state that “Edward Hyde is a murderer,” he relates it in detail, described from the point of view of a maid who watches it from a second-story window, and how she recognized the murderer because Hyde had once visited her employer and she took an instant dislike to him.  This incident is a vitally important part of the novel.  Yet, it could be argued that Stevenson told us this incident.  He had to tell something.  How to reconcile the quandary?

Then I found out.

I don’t know who first said it, but I prefer the dictum, “Never tell the reader what to think.”  Notice the word “tell” in there.  I’ve tried to find out where I first heard or read it, but I haven’t been unable to.  Probably in a magazine somewhere back in the mists of my early years as a writer.  This, to me, expresses the basic tenet I’ve tried to go by when putting words on paper (or computer screen).  Readers are more intelligent than we often give them credit for.  Readers can figure it out for themselves, and telling them bluntly that so-and-so is a miser or a murderer becomes an insult to their intelligence.  Readers like to be involved with the plot.  If someone stuffs money in a mattress, or tips poorly, or steers clear of banks, or leaves nothing in his will to his heirs, well, the reader understands this is a miserly person.  It may not pop up in his head “Oh, hey, this guy’s a real miser!” but it will get the point across without insulting his intelligence.

Wording it this way may not be for everyone (“Show; don’t tell” will be around for a long time) but it works for me.

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It just gets thrown away…

I really like my garbage can, don’t you?  The person who invented the garbage can should get a Nobel prize.  It’s always there when I  need it, stashed comfortably beneath my sink.  If I have some tiny bit of something I don’t know what to do with, I can always rely on my garbage can to accept it without hesitation, without question.  And I frequently have things I need to discard: bits of paper too small to go into the recycler bin, bones that won’t go down the disposal, lids of cans the recycler people don’t want, plastic microwave dinner trays, the empty rind of half a grapefruit, empty frozen orange juice cans–well, you get the idea, into the trash it goes.  Then, when my wonderful trash can gets full, all I have to do is tie up the drawstrings of the bag and toss it into the dumpster.  Just like everyone else, I toss it aside as though I didn’t have a care in the world.  It’s so simple and easy, I don’t give it another thought.

No problem, right?  Well, maybe not.  We humans are the trashiest species on the planet.  We throw away so much crap it takes hundreds of trucks in every city several days a week just to collect it.  Then it goes to a landfill where it settles into the landscape like a methane-exhaling dragon settling down to take a nap.  We have so much trash that it’s collecting in the Pacific Ocean not far from Midway Island in the oceanic equivalent of a gigantic landfill that contains items from all over the world.  I wouldn’t be surprised if, say, a plastic cup, or old prescription bottle, or KFC plastic take-out tray I threw away years ago isn’t trapped within that mess.  I’ve heard it’s so big, it’s almost impossible to clean up.  Eventually that dragon, landfill or oceanic, will wake up , sooner rather than later, and we’re going to pay the price of our throw-it-away lifestyle.

What’s worse is that we throw away our trash in plastic bags!  Plastic bags that are impervious to the elements and don’t degrade, and hold our trash in a comfortable cocoon while they pile up in the landfill.  Ridiculous.

I haven’t researched the problem in any detail, and that’s not the point of this essay.  I could go out and collect figures and facts about how much we discard every [day, week, month, year] but looking at a lot of numbers and data points on a graph isn’t going to make the problem go away.  I’m not a specialist in waste management, but neither I nor you nor most of the people who read my blog have to be to understand there’s a problem, and it can’t continue.  I don’t have any answers (comment if you do) other than to recite the usual mantra, recycle.  As much as you can.  Always.

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Bubonicon 42

I just got back from Bubonicon 42, the science fiction convention sponsored by the New Mexico Science Fiction Conference, held in Albuquerque August 27-29.  Interesting convention (usually abbreviated as “con”).  The theme of this year’s Con was “Life, the Universe, and Everything,” a quote from Douglas Adams’ book, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”  That’s because the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything, is … “forty-two.”  I’m glad I went. 

The Con is basically a gathering of SF writers and fans, though others, such as gamers and artists also attend.  No agents or publishers, though.  The Guest of Honor this year was Peter David, who’s done a lot of comic book writing (Marvel Comics, including Batman, Spiderman, and others), and the Toastmaster was Mario Acevedo, a writer of serious SF books like The Nymphos of Rocky Flats.  Basically, the Toastmaster’s job is to introduce the Guest of Honor when he gives his hour-and-fifteen-minute presentation of all he’s done in his life, which, considering it’s Peter David, wasn’t boring in the least.

But mainly, the Con is panel discussions with guests, and an occasional solo talk.  I attended one solo talk about selling Mars, or at least parcels of it.  There seems to be a move afoot to sell land on Mars.  No kidding.  Some people have assumed that since no one (yet) owns Mars, it’s fair game for land speculation.  You can actually buy land on Mars.  I always thought you had to go to a new territory in order to claim it, but some feel you can claim it from afar.  The United Nations Treaty be damned.  I didn’t buy any land; I think I’ll wait until the legalities are settled before putting down hard cash for what seems to me to be the biggest speculative land grab in history (or at least in a long time).

Another solo talk was about the “Grand Unified Theory, the Theory of Everything,” a fascinating look at how the Universe is held together and our feeble attempts to understand it.  Sort of what’s happened since Einstein and Max Planck gave us relativity and quantum mechanics, and attempts to relate it to the real world.

I also attended several panel discussions, such as the one that discussed “Everything is recycled.”  Many ideas for SF novels and stories can be taken as older ideas, recycled.  One person suggested “Star Wars” (the original 1977 movie) was a rip-off of “The Wizard of Oz” with C-3PO as the Tin Man, and Luke Skywalker in the role of Dorothy.  Personally, I don’t see it, but … whatever.

The most interesting session to me was the one on Options in Publishing, mainly about electronic publishing (e-publishing).  Traditional publishing is (or will be shortly) undergoing a change, and e-publishing will become more prevalent.  The Kindle is a grabber.  Some pundits have suggested that traditional publishing will reach a crisis by summer 2012, and will change drastically, though one person on the panel thought it would be as soon as 2011.  (Look for it at your nearest bookstore.)  Another on the panel, more of a marketing expert, gave a good overview of things a writer can do to promote an e-published book.  Book signings are on their way out.  Radio, but not TV, is a good way to go.

One other aspect of the Con was the readings.  Several authors took time to read from their latest works, for as long as 40 to 50 minutes.  Gives you a good idea of the book, and whether you like it or not before you decide to buy it.  Several widely divergent methods of writing, too.  I never found myself nodding off even for readings that long.  I enjoyed them, and hope I can do it sometime.

In short, an interesting three days, time (if not money) well spent.  I also found a place to live in Albuquerque.

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