Sunday, July 22, 2012

In Praise of Parentheses

I'm currently reading "Wickedly Charming" by Kristine Grayson, a pen name of Kristine Kathryn Rusch. One of the things I noticed is that there are lots of parentheses in this novel. Now, this might not seem of sufficient import to base a whole blog entry on, but think about it. When was the last time you saw parentheses appearing once in a novel, much less multiple times?

:::Queue Jeopardy theme:::

That's what I thought. It seems that punctuation marks, along with everything else, fall out of fashion. Somewhere in the last few decades, parentheses have become unfashionable. They've been replaced by the em-dash in most cases. An em-dash ( --> ) is a slightly wider version of the regular dash (-). You won't find one on your computer keyboard, but they're often used in printed matter. If you type two dashes next to one another in Word, it will convert them to an em-dash.

But I digress. In "Wickedly Charming," Kris writes:
Still, she hoped she had on enough sunscreen (even if it did make her smell like a weird, chemical coconut).
instead of:
 Still, she hoped she had on enough sunscreeneven if it did make her smell like a weird, chemical coconut.
The second form is what I've grown used to seeing in current fiction, which is why the parentheses stood out on the page for me. And I realized that I liked the parentheses better. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but the first form is what I remember being taught in elementary school. The second form seems lazy to me. Like the writer couldn't be bothered to use the proper punctuation.

I do have to point out that putting the asides inside parentheses is sometimes carried away in this book. There are remarks inside remarks, which are shown by square brackets ([]) inside the parentheses.
 She had her hands on her hips (which hadn't expanded [much] since she was a beautiful young girl, who caught the eye of every man) as she surveyed...
 There are even a few cases of parentheses inside brackets inside parentheses. This began to remind me of A Garland of Ibids for Van Wyck Brooks, a very funny essay by Frank Sullivan in The New Yorker published in 1941, in which footnotes gradually took over the piece. Since "Wickedly Charming" is a lighthearted romance, the touch of humor wasn't too out of place.

The use of parentheses struck a chord with me. Although I tend to use em-dashes rather than parentheses, my out-of-favor punctuation mark is the semicolon (;). It's used to separate two independent clauses in one sentence. You could put in a period instead and start a new sentence with the second clause and be grammatically correct. But the semicolon ties the two thoughts closer together. It's a subtle difference, but an important one when you're trying to communicate with a reader.

Members of critique groups I've belonged to usually cross out my semicolons and replace them with periods. Or, worse, commas. I've been told more than once that an editor had told the person who had done this that you don't use semicolons in fiction.

Why not? It's a valid punctuation mark. It's even on my computer keyboard. Who made up this rule about no semicolons?

There are other rules that have become "common knowledge" in publishing today. Show don't tell. Eliminate all adverbs and adjectives. Active, not passive. Now, while I understand (I think) the point of most of these general rules, which was to use more of the former and less of the latter, I don't think they were originally meant to be absolutes. Unfortunately, too often they've become absolute.

I have this picture in my head of all these young English majors working at their first job at a New York publisher, shaking their heads as they cross out every word that ends in "ly." They've learned "the rules" and, because they don't have the maturity to realize that it's the excess of telling and adverbs and passive voice that was intended in them, they apply them too rigidly.

It's certainly not the readers. I remember reading a blog not too long ago where the writer was commenting on the growth of indie fiction and how, as a reader, she was thrilled with this. Specifically, she wrote something like: "Yay! The adjectives and adverbs are back!"

So, while "Wickedly Charming" was published by Sourcebooks, a traditional publisher, I'm still happy indie publishing has allowed more flexibility in "the rules." And I was very happy to see the parentheses in it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Book Review: Catching Fire and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

A two-in-one this time. I was going to post just a review for Catching Fire this week, but I didn't stop reading at the end. I just flipped the page (this was the entire trilogy in one ebook) and kept going into Mockingjay.

I don't think anyone needs me to tell them about these books. All three were bestsellers and continue to sell well. I read The Hunger Games quite a while ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, but held off on reading the other two until now. It wasn't because I didn't want to read them. Quite the opposite. But my chronic cry is "So many books, so little time." It seems like I've always got a book I've reserved at the library coming in or I hear about something that I have to read now. Anyway, I recently came to a pause and had a friend Lend Me his nook copy of the trilogy.

These are the kind of books that make you remember why you love to read. I've been disappointed in a lot of what I've read recently. The books are formulaic or something unbelievable happens or the characters are poorly drawn or it just gets boring somewhere in the middle. There was only one short section in Catching Fire where I felt like the story was dragging. This was when Katniss et al were participating in the Hunger Games for the second time. Since the first book had covered the challenges of this environment, some of the novelty of the idea had worn off. But I understand that the author had to have a set of similar challenges in the second book to make the story work. And it didn't last all that long.

Katniss and Peeta have returned to District 12 and now live in the Victors Village, a dramatic change from the poverty they knew before they participated in the Hunger Games. But despite not having to worry any longer about feeding her family, Katniss is restless. Gale, her best friend and hunting companion, is now working in the mines. His family is still poor. So Katniss starts hunting alone, bringing her game to Gale's mother.

Then she gets a visit from President Snow. It's hard to say a whole lot about this without giving away plot elements from The Hunger Games. I suppose I can say that Katniss needs to prepare for a wedding. Her decisions in the prior book have forced her down a path she's not sure she wants to take.

And the second twist is that she must take part in a second Hunger Games. Every twenty-five years, there's something known as the Quarter Quell. This involves doing something different, something more intense, than a normal game. This time, it's decided that the participants will be chosen from the victors of previous games. Now, the rules have been that once you participate in the games, you can never be called on to play again. But the Capitol has changed the rules.

And so begins a story not only of surviving the games, but revolution and the survival of mankind. An awesome tale, full of action and emotion. Memorable characters. I doubt I'll ever smell roses again without thinking of President Snow. And, despite being YA novels, I never felt like I was being talked down to. The writing was more mature than some of the "adult" books that I've read.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Journeyman Writer

In the Middle Ages, the way a young man or, less frequently, a young woman, learned a trade was through the apprenticeship system. For seven years, they would live with a master craftsman, being trained in exchange for receiving room and board. They usually started out doing menial tasks like sweeping up. The master would give them lessons and eventually they started to produce work of their own.

Once they had completed their training, they would then become a journeyman. A journeyman had learned his trade or craft and was paid for his labor, but was not yet considered a master craftsman. They might stay working under a master or travel about the country plying their trade.

Under the Guild system, a journeyman only became a master after producing a masterpiece that was submitted to the guild for judging. If the work was not judged worthy, the applicant would remain a journeyman.

I've been thinking a lot about this system lately and was reminded of these thoughts by a blog recently written by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Her point in that blog was that creative writing was the only field in which your education included nothing about how to become a working writer who earns a living from their craft.

This attitude persists in the traditional publishing world. Everything about the process screams that you have to produce your masterpiece in order to get published at all. Even once you are accepted for publication, the advance money is minimal, somewhere around $5,000, doled out in three pieces over a year's time. And you're expected to spend that money on promoting your book. In other words, like an apprentice, you're expected to work for free. Without the room and board.


 Kris Rusch uses music as an example. Performance was required of music majors. I remember when my brother, a professional musician who earned a living at it for many years, was in high school. He, like most high school musicians, formed a band and picked up "gigs" on weekends. For pay.

They were still students. They were learning how to play in a band, how to relate to an audience, what tunes people liked and didn't like. And they got paid for it.

It was similar when I took my first job as a programmer. I had an associates degree in data processing. I'd taken classes in Cobol and PL/1 and RPG and assembler. I'd done assignments. But when I got my first job as a junior programmer, I still had an awful lot to learn. Senior programmers mentored me. I wrote simple programs. And I got paid.

Somehow writers have been sold on the idea that being published and read is reward enough for their labors. I've read blogs written by more than one agent saying you shouldn't expect to earn a living as a writer. Somehow, the honor of getting past all those gatekeepers and getting your book into print should be reward enough.

Worse than that, writers have been suckered into paying to try to achieve this goal. There are still vanity presses out there who will gladly take your money, promising to publish your book for you. Or, in the age of epublishing, houses that will format your work, slap on a cover, and upload it to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords, something most people can do for themselves for free.

One way of impressing the gatekeepers is by winning writing contests. Which have entry fees. In other words, you pay a group to judge your writing. The judges are most often other writers, some of whom who haven't been published themselves yet. That doesn't stop them from grading your work and doling out criticism in ample spoonfuls.

The competition to be traditionally published is so intense, it isn't enough anymore to submit a query letter. Now you're encouraged to go to conferences, often held at luxury hotels in large cities, so you can get an appointment for a five minute pitch to an agent or editor. So, for a few thousand dollars more, you get the right to send in your query with the treasured "Requested Material" written in the heading.

As I've written before, I've decided not to play this game. I've done my apprenticeship over the past seven years. I've written several "practice" novels. I've taken classes on plotting and characterization and grammar. I've put my work through critique groups and entered contests and gone to conferences.

Another recent post by Kris Rusch reaffirmed my decision. In it she talks about the difference between writers who critique a story and readers who read it. Writers are always looking for the perfect story, the masterpiece. They've learned all the rules and look for violations. Readers read for enjoyment.

And getting hung up on perfection (which is very easy for me) is fruitless. As Kris writes:
Is the story perfect? Of course not. No story is. Not a one. No matter how many times it’s “polished” and “fixed” and “improved.” No one can write a perfect story.
So I know I'm not writing my masterpiece. It won't win a Pulitzer Prize or even an Edgar. But I'm no longer an apprentice. I'm at the journeyman level. And journeymen get paid for their work. Which is what I intend to do by self-publishing my book. Hopefully, some readers will agree.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

What Is To Come

Frankie Robertson, a member of my local RWA chapter, gave a talk on paranormal investigation at our last meeting. For a period of time, Frankie and her husband belonged to a group that investigated reports of hauntings and apparitions (there's a difference). She described how they would go into a location and separate, each person going into rooms individually so that they could experience whatever might be occurring uninfluenced by other members of the team.

A self-avowed skeptic, she didn't experience a lot of the things some of the other sensitives did. She was also very aware of how experiences could be "contaminated" by events surrounding the investigation. For example, if you're reading a book about a ghost right before you go to sleep and, in the middle of the night a ghost wakes you up and speaks to you, there's a good chance the experience was a dream caused by your pre-bedtime reading material.

That's not to say she never experienced anything. However, she was aware that certain phenomena could be induced by stimulating specific areas of the brain with an electrical current. So she questioned whether what she experienced was real or just a momentary lightning storm in her brain. When she mentioned this to one of the others, that investigator said, "Just because you smell bacon when a scientist sends electricity through your brain doesn't mean there is no such thing as bacon."

Parapsychology was included as a subset of paranormal in Frankie's talk. I hadn't thought of Extra Sensory Perception (ESP), which includes telekinesis, precognition, telepathy, and clairvoyance as paranormal, but I suppose they are. As a teenager, I was fascinated by these abilities. I had experienced bits of precognition in my own life, like knowing the telephone was going to ring seconds before it actually did, and felt that there had to be something factual to it. I suppose I also wanted to be able to see the future more clearly or move objects across a table with my mind. Definitely the fantasy of a girl without athletic abilities, but with a higher than normal IQ.

I did my senior term paper on J.B. Rhine and his studies into parapsychology at Duke University. Most of these centered around telepathy, which he tested using a deck of Zener cards.

The researcher would stare at the image on the card and the subject would attempt to "see" what the researcher was looking at. Statistically, there's a one in five chance of the subject guessing the correct symbol. Anything more than twenty percent accuracy was taken as evidence of the subject "reading the mind" of the researcher.


Near death experiences (NDE) are another form of paranormal phenomena. Coincidentally, just the previous weekend, my church had Heavenly Harp perform at a service. Karin Gunderson works at a hospice facility, playing music and providing comfort to those who are close to death. With her daughter, she played and sang some beautiful hymns. She also told some amazing stories that touched all of us.

We've all heard stories of what people who have been died, then come back to life, have experienced. A bright light. Loved ones who have gone on before us. A sense of peace and joy. Karin told stories about this, too, from the people she has worked with. Even an atheist saw Jesus beckoning to him from the other side of a stream.

Okay, but the brain undergoes a lot of changes when a person is dying. It's possible that the phenomena people report from NDE are triggered by random electrical impulses, drugs given to ease the pain of terminal cancer, natural chemicals released by the body.

Possible, yes. But maybe it's like the smell of bacon. I prefer to believe that the visions people see, while they might be explained by other things, really do exist.