Friday, September 30, 2011

Sing to a lizard

...because apparently lizards like to be sung to. From David Rains Wallace's Chuckwalla Land: The Riddle of California's Desert:
Lester Rountree, a prominent California botanist, was singing to herself while collecting plants one day when a lizard emerged from under a boulder, climbed on her knee, and "showed an enormous capacity for large doses of song, closing his eyes in absurd abandon and opening them whenever I shut up, his eyelids sliding back to reveal pleading orbs. This went on for some time till I finally...placed him, limp with emotion, on the boulder."
Couldn't hurt to try it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tips on tightening dialog

I've recently received notes from two editors on two different pieces. And the gist of both was: tighten your dialog.

I've always thought my dialog was particularly scintillating. Also, lately, I've gotten it into my head that if a character (other than the POV character) has a big idea to present, it's best to do it as an extended dialog so that the character can use his or her own voice. Turns out that's not true. In literature as in life, lots of talking can be boring. In order to make the talk sound realistic, the writer might also start throwing in lots of "wells" and "you knows" and "really?s"--which go unnoticed in speech but really clutter up the written page.

What's the solution? Paraphrase. As a former academic, I still shudder at the word. You want the unfiltered voice whenever possible, right? But in this case, you paraphrase through the perception of either the interlocutor, or the overall narrator, if the later has a distinctive voice. You don't just paraphrase neutrally, relaying what the speaker is saying like some objective reporter. You say what the other person actually hears, and thinks about what he or she's hearing, which will be colored by their personality and prejudices. The filter doesn't fuzz things up, but adds information and nuance. You can then spice up the dialog with brief, actual quotes from both speakers, just to give the flavor their individual voices.

Obviously this isn't an issue for short dialogs, or for fiction in which dialog plays an unusually important structural role. But I myself have been annoyed by page after page of dialog in fiction--especially if I sense that the dialog is actually just exposition that the author can't think of another way to bring out. And I especially don't like it when the speaker pauses just so the other character can say "really?"--which is a lame way to break up long paragraphs. I am looking through my own work now for those "really?s" and "tell me mores," so I can replace them with something revealing about the character saying them. If the character truly has nothing more to say than "really?" then he should remain silent. The presence of "really?," more often than not, means the speaker is going on too long, and it's probably time for another paraphrase.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Here be dragons, or something like dragons...

I never watch Jeopardy!, but I became a fan of Ken Jennings after that whole Watson thingie. Turns out Jennings has now written a book about maps, called Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks. 

I hate maps, personally. That is, I hate them as functional objects, because I can't read them. I'm the one in the Honda Fit, parked cockeyed and three feet from the curb, holding the map upside down and bordering on tears. However, as aesthetic objects, I like maps very much.

I particularly like map monsters, and Jennings has put together a delightful slide show thereof. Also, a fun fact (what else would you expect from the Jeopardy! champ?): the phrase "Here be dragons" is not common at all on old maps, and in fact seems to have only one recorded appearance. And that is probably a translation error.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A non-fiction sentence I happen to like

Since we've been on the subject of sentences lately, I thought I'd say a few words about one I just came across. It's the first sentence in the opening chapter of David Rains Wallace's Chuckwalla Land: The Riddle of California's Desert:

The desert's stark reticence challenges comfortable notions that we humans occupy the apex of benign, reasonable processes that have unfolded especially to produce us.

At first glance, this is not an especially stunning sentence. It doesn't really start the book off with a bang (though there is a prologue that begins with a shorter, zippier line). It also contains some fairly abstract, generic terms like "challenges" and "notions" and "processes" that in other hands could have made the sentence deadly dry.

So why do I like it? First, the striking phrase "stark reticence" at the beginning creates a lot of goodwill for proceeding through the rest. The phrase personifies the desert, and it's always nice to have an active presence for the reader to attach to right off the bat. Moreover, it brings together two terms that I, at least, am not used to seeing together. It makes me think the writer is precise and inventive, without being overly showy about it. The vividness of that phrase spreads over the relatively dull words in the rest of the sentence, and the dull words, in turn, end up setting the phrase off more. The dull words keep the prose from becoming purple, an especial risk in nature writing.

Second, although it's a somewhat long sentence, there is only one comma. As a sort of Johnny Appleseed of commas myself, I appreciate this particularly. But it's not just a matter of leaving commas out. The sentence is constructed in such a way as to not need them. It's a sentence about qualification--in fact, the whole thing is one big qualification of humanity's sense of itself at the end of the evolutionary chain. Qualifications usually beget commas. However, Wallace has obviated this problem by correctly identifying the subject of the sentence as the desert, not humanity. In other words, the sentence mirrors its point: we're not at the apex after all--not in this book, anyway.

With the true subject properly named and situated, the rest of the sentence can unfold according to the book's overall argument. And it really does seem to unfold. As we move forward through its smooth, nearly comma-free terrain, complex ideas peel away and bring us--at last and ironically--to "us." Here we are, except we don't know where we are anymore. Now we are in position for a guided tour through the "enigma" of the California desert.

(No, I haven't finished the Pynchon cinder block yet; thanks for asking.)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Plot is thought turned into action

Five years ago, I attended the Tin House Writers Workshop, where I worked with Aimee Bender. The rumors are true--she is an awesome teacher. One thing in particular that she told us has become so embedded in my thinking that it has never before occurred to me to comment on it. But I caught myself using it again today, so I thought I'd pass it along.

In a lecture on plot, Bender told us to try having our characters do what they are only thinking about doing.

Consider: I find my characters thinking about doing stuff all the time, only to brush aside the thoughts and continue on their (probably more boring) paths. He wanted to kiss her, but turned away and pretended to look at the dunes. Which is the kind of thing we do all the time in real life--turn away. But real life is not fiction. Fiction is precisely where we explore the paths we didn't take in life, where those discounted thoughts can and should become action. It's the road not taken. Perhaps we don't take it out of fear, and that might be a good enough reason in real life not to do something.

But in fiction, fear is no excuse. If anything fiction allows us to confront what we fear in relative safety, which means that succumbing to fear in fiction is a doubly missed opportunity. Not only will you never know what the road not taken might have been like, but your character won't know either. His life will be just like yours. Is that what you really want?

I don't. That means my characters have to do stuff I probably wouldn't. It also means that if I'm stuck for plot, or character, I could think of something I wouldn't do, and then create a character who's quite capable of doing it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Of dorm-room philosophizing

There's this scene in my new novel where some characters--adults well over 40--are discussing whether the color blue that you see is the same as the one I see. And then I come across this very same question (same color even) on some blog or other, and it's being mocked as a "dorm-room" conversation.*

So, wait...did that question get answered, and I missed it? Was I out getting coffee or something? Is it the same color? Or is this just too dumb of a question to bother with, now that we're out of the dorm? I get the impression that there are those who believe that asking these kinds of (so far) unanswerable questions is a sign of immaturity. College is the place where they are explored, and contained; they have no place in the real world.

Why not? Is it because after college, one is (and is supposed to be) preoccupied solely with practical concerns? Is ordinary life so fast and furious that contemplating unanswerable questions is really a waste of one's limited time? Maybe so. And maybe the "blue" question is not particularly interesting, although I kind of think it is. What concerns me is this brusque dismissal of an act of wondering. This notion that certain questions aren't appropriate for adults--and not because we have the answers now. It's just time to stop wondering and get on with it, whatever "it" is.

Personally I'd rather be in a dorm room than a cube.

*I can't find that blog, but here's this, about the "dorm-room" conversations in Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City. In his book they may be meant as satire, and in my book, they aren't. Or at least I don't think so.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Forgetting about writing so you can write

Over at the Tin House blog, they're doing an occasional series called "The Art of the Sentence." In the current installment, Jaime Quatro sings the praises of a sentence by Denis Johnson. I won't reprint the sentence here, but, as Quatro points out, "Read the sentence aloud and you’ll hear the rhythm and pulse of the elevated tracks—structure informing content, music suited to subject matter."

Indeed. The sentence really does make you feel like you are right there in the train car, watching squalid snatches of other people's lives flicker by. And this makes me realize that Johnson, at some or possibly many times in his life, really paid attention while he was riding in such a car. That is to say, he wasn't sitting there thinking: I've got to pay attention to all this so I can write about it later. All right, maybe he thought that at some point during the experience. But in order to register this much sensory detail (sights, sounds, the physical sensations of rhythm), he had to be, as we say in California, fully present in the moment. He was not thinking (yet) about what he was going to write and how he was going to write it. He knew those answers would come later. He is a writer, after all; there should be no need to remind oneself of this fact constantly, if one is a real writer. In the train car, he was where he was, and experienced the experience. That's the only way this sentence could have happened.

So: while we are out and about, away from our machines and the actual physical process of writing, we need to be exactly where we are. We will do our writing a great favor by forgetting about it when we aren't doing it. If we are truly present where we are, we will absorb--and remember--the kinds of experiential detail that make sentences like Johnson's truly stand out.

Experience is craft.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Through amber-colored glasses (from the gas station)

The other day I bought an iced tea that came in a reusable drinking glass. Seemed like a pretty good idea. Except maybe in order to make the whole proposition affordable, perhaps the glass was made somewhere way overseas, by poorly paid workers, and then shipped thousands of miles over here. Who knows? The glass is quite nice, though.

The experience pleased me particularly because I am old enough to remember when gas stations gave away glassware. *Nice* glassware. I think you got one glass with every fill-up or something. My mom still uses the extensive set of distinctively 70s-style amber drinking glasses as part of her regular dinner setting. I am not sure what happened to the Cleveland Browns glasses, which were also nice, particularly once the Browns logo wore off. These came in two sizes, were vaguely ball-shaped and heavy-bottomed. I recall they were especially nice for serving eggnog, a staple beverage of Browns fans. We had a ton of those, too. Perhaps they vanished, along with the "real" Cleveland Browns, in 1995.

Anyway. What an odd thing, it now seems, to be getting your dinner glasses from Shell or wherever. But a wondrous thing, too! Why not bring back those days? And why stop at glasses? Why not china, silverware, pots and pans... Engaged couples could register at Chevron.