Archive for April, 2014

Shall Or Will–Which Will It Be?

Which do you use?  “Shall?”  Or “will?”  Personally, I don’t use “shall” much at all.

When I was in school, and this was many years ago, I was told that “shall” was used in the first person only, while “will” was used in second and third person.  “I shall…” or “We shall…,” in contrast to “You will…,” or “He will…,” or “They will….”  But even then, that advice seemed inconsistent with how I heard English being spoken.  I never used “shall” much at all, and no one I talked to did either.  It sounds funny to hear someone say “I shall….”  It’s immediately noticeable.  Even the teachers who dispensed this unrealistic, out-of-date advice never used “shall” that way.  So, what’s correct?

In my opinion, the answer can best be summed up with one simple rule: don’t use “shall” at all.  Forget about it.  You don’t need it.  “Will” is used with all three persons: “I will…,” “you will…,” “we will…,” “they will…,” and so forth.  “Shall” seems obsolete now, even anachronistic.  It was outmoded in my childhood, and that’s a long time ago.  (Never mind how long, exactly.)  Nobody uses “shall” anymore, so, with two minor exceptions, forget about it.

There are still two situations where “shall” is used properly.  First is the case where a futuristic question is being asked, mostly in the first person.  For example, “Shall I choose one?”  Or, “Shall we go now?”  Using “will” here is awkward and changes the meaning of the sentence.  “Will I choose one?” seems more to be asking a question, rather than stating something that will happen in the near future.

A second situation where “shall” is used is when a speaker wants to emphasize a point he’s trying to make.  It’s a way of forcefully indicating a future event, as in the well-known phrase, “I shall return.”  General MacArthur got it right when he left the Philippine Islands in 1942, after Japan had taken over most of that nation and was about to capture him.  He wanted to emphasize that he’d be back.  He did, too.

I went through the two sci-fi novels I’ve finished and looked for uses of the word “shall.”  In the first novel, I found “shall” only twice.  Once was where a somewhat pompous person was talking.  That’s the way he talked, even though no one else in the novel talked like that.  The second time was the futuristic question above, “Shall I choose one?”  In my second novel, I found “shall” four times, all used by aliens who were talking poor English.  None of the main characters used “shall.”

I suspect “shall” will stick around for a long time, probably because it’s used only in those two rare situations.  Otherwise, it’s gone.

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A Varied Opinion

I had an interesting time at a writer’s conference yesterday.  I went primarily to pitch my novel (actually the trilogy of novels) to a representative of a well-known publishing house in New York.  This makes the third time I’ve pitched this novel to either a publisher or an agent.  I’ve gotten a different response each time.

As a bit of background, my science fiction novel, The Anthanian Imperative–Blue, concerns a group of people from another planet, Anthanos, who come to Earth about 15,000 years ago and look around.  Their planet is about to be destroyed by their sun which soon will undergo a nova blast and wipe out all life there.  Consequently, they have what they feel is an Imperative to find another planet to live on, hence The Anthanian Imperative.  The “Blue” indicates they are looking at Earth as a blue planet.  The next two books in the series are Green and Red.

The pitch went quite well.  I described the novel, touched on the two sequels, and got into a good discussion with her about the details of the story.  Everything went okay until I mentioned that a couple of the people were rescued at the end.  She didn’t like that at all.  Can’t have someone rescued.  “Would have been better,” she said, “if they’d died.”

“They can’t die,” I said.  “They have to live.  For several reasons.  One, and most simply, is to allow the series to continue.  Without those two alive, the series wouldn’t work.”  What I didn’t say, largely because of time, (this was, after all, a ten-minute pitch) was that that scenario was not the novel I wanted to write.  I set out to write a novel of a group of people who come to Earth to explore, but don’t find Earth to their liking.  But even further, her ending would be too predictable, too much expected by a reader.  In fact, it would be too Hollywood.  It wouldn’t work because I deliberately set out to write something different from what we see so much of.  I wanted something that gives the series, not just one novel, a sense of continuity and purpose.  But most importantly, it wouldn’t work because it wouldn’t fit with the development of the plot in rest of the book, a point that is difficult to get across in a ten-minute pitch.  In order to have that type of ending, I’d have to re-write the entire book, and that wouldn’t be what I started out to write at all.  You have to read the book to understand.

Her response differs from the reaction I got from another publisher two years ago, who was simply lukewarm to the book and didn’t say much about the plot line.  He just kind of blew it off without a real comment.

It also differs from the response I got from an agent last year at a different writer’s conference.  She liked the first chapter, but didn’t say much about the ending.  I suspect she was okay with it.  She didn’t like the book itself because she had a hard time dealing with the fact that the characters aren’t really human, even though they embody the best actions and traits of humans.  “Would be too hard to sell,” she said.  Well, that’s her opinion.

In short, I’ve encountered a wide variety of opinions about the book.  I’m going to another writer’s conference soon, and I’ll pitch to another agent and see what she thinks.  Her opinion will most likely be different.  Watch this space for a full report on the results.

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Adverbs Can Work

For those of us who are beginning writers, one of the rules of modern-day writing (as opposed to 19th century writing, for example) that is so frequently beaten into our brains is the concept that adverbs are to be avoided if at all possible.  They rarely work, the writing teachers say, and look down on us who use them.  Generally that’s good advice.  I suggest new writers learn not to use an adverb if something else will work.  But there are occasions where an adverb can work, and work well.  The key to using adverbs is to use them in places where their modifying ability can be put to good use and give more information that couldn’t be added any other way.  Remember, an adverb modifies a verb or an adjective or another adverb.  Don’t use them to modify the word “said” when using “said” as a dialogue attributive.

For example, take the quotation,  “‘I’ve got nothing to say to you,’ Dave said bitterly.”  Here, “bitterly,” an adverb (note the “ly” at the end of the word) is unnecessary, because the context of the quotation gives the reader all the information he or she needs to know about Dave’s mood.  What precedes that line of dialogue may also contribute to the context of Dave’s bitterness, but the reader should get the point without the adverb.  This is one of the most common misuses of adverbs.  The adverb in this example is also an instance of “Show, don’t tell,” where the author is “telling” the reader what Dave’s mood is.  Not good.

But I maintain that adverbs can be used well.  For example, “The woman walked across the street.”  Okay, she walked across the street.  Big fat, hairy deal.  Doesn’t tell you much.  But, add an adverb and it becomes: “The woman walked quickly across the street.”  Better.  From the context of the sentence, it might be obvious why she had to “walk quickly,” but in a situation where the context was minimal or lacking, the sentence at least gives more information.  There’s more action in the sentence.  It’s more visual.  I can visualize the woman walking in my mind’s eye.  It also rules out other possibilities.  She could have walked “slowly,” or “languidly,” or “drunkenly,” or even at her normal rate.  How’s the reader to know?  It’s in this type of situation that adverbs can work.  I certainly wouldn’t want to use adverbs in every sentence, of course not.  But in the right situation, an adverb can be important, and give a reader a better idea of what’s happening.

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