September 27, 2010

The sunk cost of well-written crap

The Dear Author blog runs a weekly "First Page" anonymous writing evaluation. About four months ago they posted that they were running low on submissions so I sent in a first page. My first thought when they ran it this weekend was, Oh great, that draft is at least six months old by now

And my sister had already made most of the critiques in the comments. Namely that it's horribly overwritten. Not only the info-dumping, but I had twice as many names and proper nouns as necessary (the reader was going to benefit from all my research, whether she liked it or not).

I know what I was thinking when I wrote it: I was still irked by people who'd assumed qualities about the characters in Angel Falling Softly totally unsupported by the text. As in a three-part freshman essay, I was going to define all the facts up front and foreclose misinterpretation.

A Sisyphean task if there ever was one. But here's the most recent draft from a couple of weeks ago:

     Matsu's soul tore free of its human vessel.
     Whether severed from Chieko's body by Hatakeyama's sword or ripped asunder by her own despair, she was reborn in the netherworld of the damned, in an icebound Naraka. A Buddhist hell fashioned from her own karma.
     In temporal terms, not two days had passed since she and Chieko first met. For a mayfly of a moment, Matsu lived the life she'd never known she wanted. And now could not imagine living without. But that brief candle was out. She was a drifting shadow, the bloody price of her wishful thinking staining every conscious thought.
     The infested waters of the Sanzu River gave up her shipwrecked psyche to the permanent midnight of a windswept tundra. The bitter air stabbed at her lungs. Aching cold wracked her body. Her tears froze before striking the ground.
     But the pain was a flea bite compared to the millstone of guilt strapped to her back. She had one recourse left to her—to embrace the hell within and be reborn as a vengeful ghost. Every time Hatakeyama and Ouchi cast off the mortal coil, she would await their reincarnations and hunt them down and haunt them to their miserable deaths.
     In her mind she could hear Priest Gendo quoting his gods: Self-mortification is as grievous a sin as self-absolution. And Chieko quoting hers: Vengeance is mine.
     But vengeance was hers and she would repay.
I rewrote it a dozen times, but it still bugged me. All tell, no show. Ultimately redundant. Finally I hit delete and fed the whole chapter (plus a thousand words beyond that) to the digital compost pile (i.e., cut and archive and maybe the bits and pieces will come in useful later).

A big problem with writing something that doesn't quite work and doesn't belong (versus stuff that is just bad) is that you end up investing so much time trying to make it work and belong that you start valuing the invested effort over the actual value, the sunk cost over the true worth.

Human nature. It's surprisingly hard letting go of the useless, and thus surprising how much things improve when you do. Anyway, I'm pretty sure "Get rid of prologues" is on one of those writing advice bullet point lists I've read somewhere. It's still a prologue even if you call it a chapter.

Oh, and to "Mai": yes, an HEA in this life (and good call on "hungry ghost"; I'd carried that term over from my source material and hadn't fixed it).

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September 23, 2010

Sparing the grammatical rod

Writing the previous screed about the present tense (with a side screed about the second person), it occurred to me that the informal essay is often written in the second person, present tense. Maybe because Americans could never get the hang of "one" as a pronoun.

And there's nothing wrong with that. It works perfectly well. It's very American, the opposite of the "royal we." Call it the "plebeian you." The southern dialect could be more accurate in this case: it's not "you, personally," it's "all y'all."

Mulling over a few other acceptable degradations of "proper" English grammar:

• "You" in the second person has been joined by "they" in the third as a dual-purpose, singular/plural, gender-neutral pronoun. Fine with me, and definitely better than the politically correct "he and/or she" kludges (though given a little thought, they're not difficult to avoid).

• The subjunctive. It's dead, Jim. Except when it just comes out without really thinking about it because, you know, it sounds right.

• "X and I" in the objective case. I usually don't care, though if I'm the copy editor, I will correct it. A similar quandary--albeit one that only grammarians care about--concerns whether than is a subordinating conjunction (subjective case) or a preposition (objective case). I play this one by ear too.

• Confusing "less" and "fewer." For some reason, this bugs the hell out of me, but it's going the way of the dodo bird, so I might as well resign myself to it.

And a few arcane writerly concerns.

• My approach to omniscience is "whatever works," though once you've chosen a voice, please stick to it and don't change the person without some sort of flag. Head-hopping is not allowed.

Personally, I write better under the discipline of limited omniscience with a small number of POV characters. Third person, limited omniscience with one POV character impresses me the most when done well (Shadow of the Moon by Fuyumi Ono is a good example). But I'm fine with cinematic POV too.

• The second person voice in third person narratives. Even though it is arguably more "natural," (the way Peter Falk switches back and forth between second and third person in Princess Bride), I can't abide it as the editor.

I think it was while editing The Path of Dreams that Beth Bentley at Parables convinced me that third-person narration should not slip into second person unless flagged in the text, usually by italics, or by breaking the fourth wall (dangerous, that).

Now I'm a rabid convert. So if I'm wielding the blue pencil, I will insist that the narrative voice be consistent.

Hey, I ended on a subjunctive!

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September 20, 2010

Consign the present to the past

Philip Pullman (and Philip Hensher, though I don't know him) made some lit crit headlines by criticizing the Booker Prize for including novels written in present tense (half of them, in fact). This may sound like a pretty arcane complaint, but I'm with Pullman (and Hensher) 100 percent on this.

To my mind [the present tense in narrative fiction] drastically narrows the options available to the writer. When a language has a range of tenses such as the perfect, the imperfect, the pluperfect, each of which makes other kinds of statement possible, why on earth not use them?

Pullman twists the knife by adding, "I just don't read present-tense novels any more. It's a silly affectation, in my view, and it does nothing but annoy." YES! I'm not the only one who can't stand the present (tense). Here's a prediction for the future: write fiction in the present tense and I will not read it.

To be sure, the present tense can be effective in storytelling when used sparingly. A you-are-there action sequence here, some stream-of-consciousness musings there. But like the shakey-cam in movies, it's easily overused and becomes an headache-inducing triumph of form over substance.

Like the second person. Jay McInerney wrote a whole book in the second person: Bright Lights, Big City. It's a literary stunt worth reading just to watch him pull it off. And now that McInerney's done it, NOBODY EVER NEEDS TO DO IT AGAIN! That's how I feel about the present tense.

Philip Hensher compares the present tense to kudzu grass, and he's right there too. Worse than novels written in the present tense are documentaries narrated in the present tense. HISTORICAL documentaries! About stuff that happened IN THE PAST! That means it's NOT happening IN THE PRESENT!

How freaking pretentious can you get? STOP IT. It's as annoying as WRITING IN ALL CAPS! And that means you, PBS. You're just giving me more reasons not to give you money (in the present and future tenses).

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September 17, 2010

Romeo Must Die

Jet Li is what you'd get if you combined Jackie Chan's agility with Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry personality. He has, I've observed, about three emotional responses to any given situation: a scowl, a deadpan expression, or a smile. Which can be quite engaging. He might even have comic timing, but as he's been channeled into "hard edged" films (similar to Chan's early Hong Kong films) it's hard to tell.

What he does share with Jackie Chan is a physical grace that makes rock 'em, sock 'em actors like Stallone and Van Damme look like large earth movers. Unfortunately, his U.S. film debut, Romeo Must Die, is a poor vehicle for demonstrating it.

Yes, there are Shakespearean allusions, focusing on a turf war between two gangs on the San Francisco waterfront, and the mixed race relationship between Jet Li and (the late) Aaliyah. And it would have been preferable had they stuck to Shakespeare and done something more with the great title. It certainly would have been more coherent.

There's enough plot here for three films. After a rousing start (some creative opening credits) and Jet Li's jail breakout sequence, absolutely nothing interesting happens for the next forty-five minutes while all the storylines get developed.

It almost threatens to turn into a Columbo episode. And you don't watch a Jet Li movie expecting a whodunit. Especially when they get around the language problem by having him speak about ten lines in the entire movie. What you want is the good guy here, the bad guys over there, and then a bunch of flimsy excuses for the good guy to beat the crap out of the bad guys.

A better Jet Li showcase is a Hong Kong import, The Enforcer (some creativity in the titling department, perhaps?). It's your standard Hong Kong uncover cop plot, but like I said, innovation in the plot department isn't what's important.

This time around, Li is well matched with Anita Mui, and it helps to have an action co-star who can do more than just stand around and watch when the fighting starts.

But what really makes The Enforcer fun is Tsu Miu, who plays his son. Now, twelve-year-olds beating up adults is always ludicrous, especially hand to hand, but this kid is so good that you're willing to suspend disbelief and enjoy the acrobatics.


September 13, 2010

English to the rescue!

One consequence of Japan's rapidly aging population is difficulty staffing nursing homes. A first step was opening its nursing examination to foreign applicants (mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines). The formidable language hurdle, however, resulted in a pass rate of less than one percent.

A popularly-proposed workaround is a greater emphasis on automation. But this is a more satisfactory solution on paper than in reality. As my computer programmer brother points out, a human being with a middling grasp of Japanese can learn to speak the language better than any machine.

Japan's Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare has thus arrived at the most logical solution:

The ministry is considering including English translations for technical terms, including disease names, in the [nursing] exam, while clarifying subjects and predicates in Japanese sentences to make Japanese more easily understood by applicants.

Technical terms are pretty straightforward, there usually being a 1:1 relationship between the word and its definition (there are exceptions). The most exasperating aspect of Japanese for me are the "Heisenberg" subjects that disappear when you look at them, only to pop up paragraphs later.

Missing antecedents and dangling modifiers are grammatical and common in Japanese. The subject-less passive voice dominates the language (even in genre action novels). If you can't sort out all the unmentioned parts of speech based your knowledge of the shared cultural context, that's your problem.

English, on the other hand, evolved among speakers who often had nothing culturally in common with each other, so eschews vagueness and mocks the passive ("Mistakes were made").

On a related note, "Rakuten, which operates the largest Internet mall in Japan, intends to conduct all executive meetings in English and eventually have all internal documents written in the language."

I'm not sure how practical a goal that is, though it does sound like a really good way to limit the life-sucking time wasted in business meetings. Either way, speaking English is good for your health!

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September 09, 2010

Burn notice

Twice a year, Evangelicals turn up in Salt Lake City specifically to protest at the semiannual world conference of the LDS Church. Not to protest the church's political views (on that they're pretty much identical), but to protest the utter gall of Mormons proclaiming themselves "Christian."

The horror, the horror.

At worst, there's a little pushing and shoving and shouting. As Evangelicals are openly offended by Mormons 24/7, it's not so much the message that ticks Mormons off as the sheer rudeness. But, hey, it's a free country. If that's how they want to waste their weekends, the more power to them.

Say, why doesn't the Reverend Terry Jones burn a Book of Mormon instead? Mormons would appreciate the publicity and the opportunity to claim the high moral ground while venting clouds of self-righteous indignation. And the intellectual left will finally rush to the church's defense.

Well, I wouldn't count on that last one.

Yes, I know. It's all too soon. The world is still recovering from the international outrage over this incident.

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September 06, 2010

The medium is still not the message

Over on the TeleRead blog, Chris Meadows points to Yet Another Public Handwringing about how ebooks are going to ruin everything. Author Deborah Willis asks, "Can something that is not bound, not made of paper, and not necessarily meant to be read still be called a book?"

And goes on to thrash the poor tattered strawmen of unholy hyperlinking and holy linearity.

I should have phrased it: Yet Another Public Handwringing that Mistakes Tautology for Thought (P.G. Wodehouse: "Nothing stands between us and victory except defeat! Tomorrow is a new day! The future lies ahead!"). But the "bound" part in particular caught my eye.

In any Japanese historical drama, there will be the inevitable scene of somebody taking a letter out of an envelope and snapping his wrist to unfurl the scroll (they're folded flat). Long letters end up looking like somebody held down the form feed button on a dot matrix printer.

Pages! What's this newfangled thing called pages?

Japanese is read right-to-left when printed vertically and left-to-right when printed horizontally. This distinction was cemented by the computer revolution. In old newspapers and signs, you can still find text written right-to-left horizontally. Now that's confusing.

Japanese word processors have vertical and horizontal display modes. Books (and manga) are mostly vertical. Most cell phones display horizontally. It is common to see both vertical and horizontal text used at the same time, for example, during television news broadcasts.

Native English speakers quickly adapted to reading manga "unflipped," that is, in the original right-to-left format (though the English text is horizontal). Any additional complexity presented by electronic displays is child's play to the adaptability of the human visual cortex.

And child's play compared to the visual complexity of an old-fashioned periodical. Remember those? Text surrounded and interrupted by ads, content distributed hither and yon, and accessed via link tables. Except the links are manual and you have to turn the pages yourself.

The medium is the same-old, same-old. No matter how much things change, it's still the message that matters.

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September 02, 2010

Monocellular Americans

On a linguistic note, one of the things that struck me about former Japan Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa's odd aside about "monocellular Americans" was the expression itself.

The translation is literal. The word tansaibou (単細胞) means a single cell organism, but can also refer to one-track thinking or simple-mindedness.

Perhaps the closest literal/figurative English analogue in this case is "one-dimensional." Off the top of my head, a common dual-use biological insult (where, sans context, the literal meaning is assumed) is "invertebrate."

Related posts

Trash-talking time

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