Friday, November 30, 2018

Types of Sentences and the Way They Love Us

I hate wanting to love something that’s so unlovable. (Although I’ll admit that loving something unlovable is even worse.) Many times I see independent writers committing to their craft, inspiring me with their ideas and tastes, creating striking concepts and hiring excellent graphic artists, to only get to the actual story part and cringe until my insides flip. We’ve all read a fantastic concept was tainted by the clunky word choice.

Voice is probably one of the most subjective aspects of writing, and readers typically have a love-hate relationship with the stronger prose out there. From Shakespeare to Hemingway, you’ll see a lot of polar opinions on the striking styles. So, when I say that the main common denominator of cringy writing is the lack of flow, it’s notable that the other common denominator is me. (Always, whenever reading anyone’s advice, consider your actual tastes and what sorts of things you respond to.)

Facebook recently bombarded me with a webpage similar to my own. His serial online fantasy of short stories had striking artwork and alluring title. I was also seeking a frequently updated website to take my mind off of the bitterness of Reddit, so I found myself clicking the ad link many days in a row only to stop reading after the first paragraph each time, so it was the quintessential right place and right time, wrong material.

What made the writing so bad?

Well, I felt the story summarized the events without painting a picture. You have little understanding of the world or the character. It’s not that you’re overwhelmed with confusion, but that you don’t care. What’s going on within the character is unclear and underdeveloped, and, most importantly, each sentence doesn’t respond to any other’s existence. He tells the story like he’s listing events, with no sense for perspective, tension, mood, or point.

In other words, you could scramble the paragraph and it wouldn’t affect the rhythm or flow.

What does a sentence responding to another look like? Is that something that’s important? From my experiences reading amateur fiction, I’d say yeah. Understanding how sentences can connect to each other is a very simple way of improving the sound of your writing.

Standalone Sentences

A standalone sentence makes its point without implying follow-up or requiring preamble. That point does not have to be deep; “She had blonde hair,” clearly exists to give a description of the character. While it’s not enough information to be a story or interesting, it does not need more explanation before you consider the thought finished. Typically, a standalone sentence can be easily moved anywhere in the paragraph and still work. Deleting the sentences around it does not cause a comprehension or flow problem. It also doesn’t have an obvious next step. It could change subjects without it feeling like a lost thread. It also does not need to be simple, merely that the subject and action of the sentence are clear and feel finished.

There is nothing wrong with stand-alone sentences, and you will find that you use them often. The problem becomes when every sentence is independent of those around it, making the writing feel clunky as if the thoughts aren’t streamed together.

Leading Sentences

Conversely, a leading sentence implies that the thought isn’t finished, or brings up an interesting question that the reader wants answered. “Johnny hated Susie for her blonde hair,” might not go into why, but it makes the reader feel like it should. A leading sentence often becomes attached to the following sentences and they must both exist (at some point) for it to feel complete. Leading sentences, in contrast to supportive sentences, are usually concept based; their style could allow them to be placed later, turning them into a conclusion instead of an introduction, but they still often need to be kept in the same area.

Supportive Sentences

Supportive sentences give a follow up on the information already provided. They might be capable of being a stand-alone except for the existence of the leading sentence requires them to be nearby to make sense: “Johnny hated Susie for her blonde hair. Light colored eyebrows made a woman look like a chimp.”

Supportive sentences often use pronouns to reference pre-established subjects: “Johnny hated Susie for her blonde hair. It reminded him of his mother.”

Sometimes they need some information prior for them to be understood or to have proper spatial continuity: “She started cutting her nails with scissors,” may require her to find the scissors first, otherwise the audience feels like they missed something.

Contrary to popular belief, starting a sentence with a conjunction is accepted grammar in unformal writing, useful in creative fiction to convey meaning, inflection, and evolution of thought. In the same vein, there are other phrases and words that directly tie one sentence to another: “Johnny hated Susie for her blonde hair. That didn’t exactly explain why he felt compelled to follow her around all of the time.”

Why does it matter? How to apply it?

When you have a series of standalone sentences, typically speaking, the rhythm of speech is repetitive, the information is slow, it’s unnuanced and can come off as juvenile. The author doesn’t have a lot of room to play with the duration of actions, and you don’t learn anything about the characters through descriptions. It’s often too explanatory and doesn’t have a lot of atmosphere. Mainly though, when a writer has an understanding of the narrator’s P.O.V. and tells the story from that perspective, they naturally write a narrative with a smoother evolution of thought and events and organic description of the world. When they write in an object sense, they tend to summarize and be removed.

“Brandon and Kara went hiking but were unprepared for the physical challenge. ‘Hiking is hard work,’ said Kara. She cupped her hands and drank from a limpid mountain steam. They were in the San Gabriel Mountains and from their elevation could see Los Angeles and the smog in the distance. In Los Angeles city people lived in tiny apartments. The tiny apartments had tiny windows.”

I might add this author does this intentionally, admitting that he wants to be like Hemingway in his simplicity. It’s a style, but one that I’m pointing out due to the clear way it affects the flow (which is a choice you may want at some point.) The thoughts are disjointed from another and can be moved around fairly easily. The drinking of the stream isn’t what inspires the narrator to think about where they are; the author includes it because it’s information he wants the reader to know and feels it’s the right location for the bigger story, not typical train of thought. He also (intentionally) doesn’t use pronouns very often, which makes something that normally flows together (the windows in the apartments) feel like separate thoughts as well.

But, there are a good number of writers who do this unintentionally, and if you find this as clunky and Dick-and-Jane-ish as I do, then there’s a couple of ways to watch out for it.

Figure out the P.O.V. character

Writers can get unwittingly hung up on being objective. If you consciously decide to go that route for whatever reason, many writers can make it work and it certainly can serve a purpose. But most people read because they want to feel a human connection and see different perspectives on the world. Even a fantasy fiction writer will often have a much more charismatic style when the story is told through a human lens instead of a robotic camera, and readers learn more from (yes even fiction) writers who are honest about their opinions on humanity, the way the world works, and what’s important.

Who is telling the story and how do they think? Is it Kara? Charles? Another character? God? The author himself? All of the above? You are creatively free to decide whatever you like, just so long as you know whose voice is being conveyed and at what times. Description is typically not objective, and the way that Kara or Charles or God describe something won’t be the same. How the story is told teaches the reader more about the people involved than when you’re just stating facts.

Next, consider alternative ways to tell a story instead of linear events

Paragraphs of only description tend to be victim to too many standalone sentences. This is because when you’re depicting a stagnant image, the order of the objects doesn’t exactly matter, so many authors will start listing thing. Using the P.O.V. character, however, you get better ideas about how to make the description flow naturally. Kara bends down to take a drink from the pond, sees the reflection of Charles staring out at the city, and so turns to the city herself. The narrative now flows together, incorporating the descriptions naturally, and you don’t feel like you’re clinically being handed information.

Authors also don’t have to describe an entire scene first, just because the objects were there first, but can progress the events of a scene by sprinkling description throughout. Mentioning objects and places as the character notices them will make it feel more organic and less bogged down with artsy long passages of what every thing looks like.

Also, the same applies when avoiding a practical play-by-play during the actions of the scene, which is important because…

Length of sentence implies duration of action.

Telling the story in the way a person would remember it or in order of what they saw makes it easier to control the duration of an action. Punching someone is fairly quick. Driving down the freeway is much longer. However, when it takes the same amount of time to describe it, to the reader, it doesn’t feel like the timing is right and tension is decreased.

“Davi went to sleep on the second story of a large inn. Despite this, he woke up the next morning staring at the sky on a slab surrounded by debris. Half the roof sat at an angle next to him on the ground. A drop of dew fell off before the wind caught it and directed straight to his forehead.”

The major problem here really is the length—they’re all the same size despite each taking grossly different times to do. And in many cases in this story, the author “zooms in” on small, quick events like the drop hitting him in the forehead, while glossing over things that would have taken much longer, (falling asleep, traveling a good distance) and things that are much more important and interesting (like the revelation that the inn was gone.)

This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but his actual pacing consistently fights his desired tension. The jokes don’t land, the fear doesn’t grow, and the timing is generally off. The length of his sentences don’t serve a greater purpose, and they tend to lack that narrative flow I’m speaking about.

By thinking of the character’s mindset about all of this—even if the author decides he doesn’t want to describe the internal aspects—and following his train of thought, connecting some ideas to one another, the prose would be less clunky and more indicative of the mood the author wanted. Though I know it was unintentional, it was clear that he wanted each idea self-contained. Being in a large inn, waking up, the debris, and the dew drop were all separate thoughts and had their own single sentences. However, many of them should have been broken up into separate ideas and given transitions connecting them to one another. The reader needs to be given time to adjust to the normalcy of falling asleep at the inn, then comprehend it is suddenly gone, then look for clues about what had happened. Based on the speed in which the story is told, it feels like the character has already accepted the strangeness of the situation long before the reader even comprehends what exactly they are looking at.

Read the story. Out loud, but also not.

Sometimes beginning authors find themselves overwhelmed to what they’re supposed to be looking for when editing, and I never feel like there’s a lot of specifics other than forbidden words. When I started writing, it was a long and confusing path to really identify what cause contributed to what effect, without many people being helpful. Looking for the above signs and understanding how they related to each other took me longer to figure out than I wanted.

But, all that being said, most times, you will see things you can improve simply by reading what you’ve written. Most people suggest to do it out loud, and in this case, the lack of cadence really will become obvious by doing this. Mostly though, read your own writing. It’s the best advice I can offer and really doesn’t take a lot of effort. It’s less of an ego punch than being told, and most people are fairly savvy about what they need to do with their writing all by themselves—just so long as they sit down and actually look at what they’ve done.

Your story should flow from sentence to sentence, thought to thought, and how a story is told gives you just as much information about what’s being said. Check your writing for mechanical tendencies, and remember that people like people, even if it is a love-hate relationship.

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Thursday, November 29, 2018

An Easy Way to Tell If Your Book is “Good Enough”

“Good” isn’t a very good word to use when discussing art. It means different things to different people, and the word coming from the same pair of lips can evolve depending on the context. While I’d be the first to say that if you’re questioning whether or not your book is good enough, you should trust your instincts telling you that it can be better, but a more effective means actually might be just defining what “good” could possibly mean.

Is this intellectually stimulating?
(Does it make you think?)

A good book will activate your brain and make you curious, learn, or engage in some form of puzzle solving. Every scene—and to some extent even line—should teach you something new. But that doesn't mean it has to be calculus or the meaning of life. Maybe it's just that, "Oh, there ARE cows in this world!" Maybe it's, "Man, he's an asshole when he's stressed!" It might be grandiose, causing you to question the greater philosophy in life, or it might be factual, literally giving you interesting trivia about sharks, or it might just be related to the story, changing your perception on what you thought about who and what you were seeing.

Intellectually stimulating isn’t confined to rich literary books, the mystery genre thrives on causing a reader to speculate, question, seek out information, and try to find answers before the characters do.

If you’re questioning whether or not a scene is “necessary” or if your book is interesting, ask yourself if the reader is learning anything, has their sense of curiosity stimulated, or is asking questions. If not, it might be that you’re not giving enough new material or prodding enough of their unknowns. Go back through and make sure the “point” of each scene adds new info—even if that just answers a question the reader might be wondering. Most importantly, give your reader a heads up that they don’t know something important. Don’t try to keep everything a surprise until the end. Give out plot points over the course of the book and make it very clear when there is a question that has of yet to be answered instead of just springing it on them. (And if you do have a twist you want no one to guess, make sure there are plenty of other questions being asked and answered before then.)

Is this emotionally stimulating?
(Does it make you feel?)

Alright, makes sense. But what about those genres that completely lack nuance or surprise? The formulaic romance novels that some people gulp down like a dog who hasn’t had food for a whole five minutes?

Well, a book doesn’t always have to raise questions or wonder. Quite frankly, predictable books usually do far better than ones that leave too much to the imagination (re: don’t tell you what they’re about until three pages until the end for fear of spoiling it). That’s because books are a means for people to feel things when life isn’t getting them what they need. We live vicariously through the characters in order to love, laugh, and win when we lack that sort of excitement in the real world. We want the catharsis of crying and the jolt of fear.

Life teaches us to protect ourselves from these emotions though, so it’s not uncommon for new writers to attempt to save characters from conflict and other intense feelings by making everyone friendly, things go pretty well, and just write sort of a dull story about someone who is navigating their world decently. Realistic usually, but that’s often the problem. If we wanted to experience a world lacking drama or mood swings, we’d just go back to our day jobs.

The most common reasons that a book isn’t activating people’s emotions is that...

1) It needs to be pushed farther. Scarier, funnier, happier, angrier, more erotic. Usually the idea is there, but the writer didn’t take it as far as he could. Most books just need "more" in their scenes. Have the characters push each other's buttons, say the wrong things, do something stupid. 

2) There’s not enough variety. Playing a mood can kill a book, and if you look at most story formulas, they often suggest high contrast. Failure, failure, success. Drama, drama, humor. Loneliness, loneliness, wanted. Polar emotions can intensify each other, so it’s a good idea to make sure your scene of two characters fighting has some agreement and, yes, even bonding, as well as that no scene exists solely to explain. If the scene is really about explaining how the magic of the world works, make the explainer patronizing and the listener pissed off. Emotions are contagious.

After you’ve written something and you're wondering if it goes far enough, ask yourself what the reader should be feeling at multiple points, especially towards the end. It’s not a big deal if some scenes are intellectually founded without a great deal of emotion, but you’ll notice quickly if the emotional aspects are pretty muted throughout.

If a scene doesn’t keep the reader either intellectually or emotionally activated, that scene is boring.

Or, at the very least, not meeting its full potential. Don’t overwhelm the audience with constant new information or worry that not every scene is a tear-jerker. They’re not supposed to be. Sometimes the feeling of reprieve is extremely valuable, and you want different degrees and types of reactions. However, when people feel like something is missing, that maybe their work doesn’t have that magic, thinking logically about the intended impact (to our brains or our hearts) can better answer if it's your insecurity or your brain talking.

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Friday, November 16, 2018

Choice be a Chick Tonight

He didn’t show up to two rehearsals so far. This was after I requested three times for him to check the schedule and make sure that he could attend all of them. Not a word.

The young man gave me a strange conflict sheet when auditioning: “Known/Unknown.” That was all it said. He later crossed it out and wrote, “Work 4 nights a week.” I was assuming he didn’t know which nights or what times, hence his lack of thoroughness. Turns out, the first two he was working, one which I found out when I made a point to contact him, the second when I called him to know why he wasn’t there. He told me that he thought he had made it clear that he was working Friday through Saturday. He said sometimes until six, sometimes until nine. All rehearsals started at six thirty. He said he thought he’d made it clear that he couldn’t work at all those days.

He was also extremely condescending. A neckbeard, of sources, a 21 year old techie who boasted constantly, introduced himself via argument and disagreement. The first thing he ever spoke to me was a criticism in a conversation he wasn’t a part of. For the rest of the night, I never heard him once agree with anyone.

He had gained a bad reputation at town. One person was his Uber driver, having to wait at least ten minutes every time the guy called. Another worked with him at a coffee shop. Being late and a no-show was his cup of tea. He ended up pissing off most cast members by directing and criticizing, including the play’s biggest sweetheart.

He complained about the part he got. He insulted the writer to her face.

I was going to fire him. I was actually looking forward to it. There was some part of me, deep down, who really wanted to take out all of my previous experiences with irresponsible and conceited pains-in-the-ass on him. But I thought better of it.

I am a strong believer in the golden rule. I am a strong believer that people can change.

When I took him aside and chewed him out, he was, understandably pissed. He accused other people of being too sensitive, claiming that he should be able to say, “That’s a fucking stupid idea” as long as he could back it up.

I did not say, “That’s a fucking stupid idea,” having him not take my blunt criticisms well; instead pointed out not only how having a judgmental person in the room directly impacts a person’s aptitude, and explained that even if he’s right, that everyone is overly sensitive, he’s the one who faces the consequences. We were going to fire him. His reputation around town was terrible, and I’d mentioned my stress dealing with him to a fellow theatre producer who wanted his name so she could never cast him. I somewhat wanted him to quit because I knew of people who I could count on who had, at that point, done pretty much the same level of work.

He needs to focus on his goals and reputation and take care of himself, ironically, by taking care of other people. I also made a big point to add that if you tell someone, “That’s a fucking stupid idea,” and are wrong you hemorrhage credibility where, “Here’s what I’m concerned about,” doesn’t. He’d often come across as na├»ve and oblivious on numerous occasions because of his tendency to state things he wasn’t informed about as fact.

He was offended that I made a point to say he was replaceable. I told him, truthfully, that he should be flattered. I knew that he could do better and so I was going through the effort to be clear about the problem and hopefully aim to fix it.

It is harder to work with and redeem someone who has failed you once (or especially several times) before than it is to start over with a new player. If someone takes the time to tell you that something isn’t working, it might mean that they need you, that they don’t think they can find anyone else, but it doesn’t necessarily come from that. I’ve never stuck beside someone because I thought I couldn’t do it without them. I’ve done it because I liked them, because I believed in them. And because I knew their mistakes were idiotic and easily fixed.

The conversation ended pretty well. It wasn’t filled with only criticisms, and I pointed out how his insults to the author (that his character wasn’t really about “acting”) was actually doing himself a disservice too. There were parts of acting that came easily to him, hence why he got casted after even getting himself off on the wrong foot with me. I told him honestly that I was glad the ideas were coming easily for him, but that wasn’t typically normal and it was a hard part to play. He was good at making things his own.

At the end, after the heat died down, I told him that I just couldn’t understand how he could miss so many rehearsals (very uncommon in my years of doing theatre) even after I’d told him to check the schedule.

“I’m a certain kind of special.”

Thing was, he was never late or absent again. He was actually the most punctual person from that point on, despite having claimed several times that being disorganized and tardy was an integral part of his personality. He had explained that he did these kinds of things at work and internships and other places, confirmed by his reputation around town.

My thoughts have always been, well, just don’t do that.

I’ve encountered this several times in my life, where someone who is severely failing in a certain area of their life refuses to change obvious behaviors causing it. Romantically, professionally, or even artistically, many people who can’t get a leg up are making obviously bad choices.

Show up. Be mentally present. Respect other people. Put in effort to do a good job.

These bare-minimum things are absolutely required if you want to excel, and once you’ve made the decision to be a good team player, it’s actually not hard at all. Even as someone dealing with depression, who dreads daily living, I am capable of being on time, listening to people, and thinking critically about how to achieve what is necessary.

Procrastinating is a choice. Tardiness, being unreliable, lying. All flaws are is really a series of choices. You don’t necessarily think about them, and sometimes they’re so ingrained that it’s far more of an effort to not do it. Yet that doesn’t mean it’s going to define you, that you are incapable of achieving your goals because of this tendency of yours.

Today I struggled to get out of bed. I was tired, like always, despite having slept fifteen hours the day before. How could I mentally go to work? It’d been like this for so long, and I couldn’t muster the motivation exist, let alone look at my overflowing to-do list. Yet, I knew that these unproductive days were eating away at me, that I had responsibilities, and so I made myself rise, go to the computer and start writing. And you know what? I feel a lot better now.

Sometimes the decision to do something is the hardest part. But it is still up to you to choose what you want in life and seize it.

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