A Vulnerable Technique

When you had to write in school, you were probably placed under certain all-encompassing bans. “Never use the first-person” is a perennial favorite among teachers. I once had a respected professor who instructed students not to use semicolons. Now, the semicolon is a perfectly legitimate punctuation mark and has been put to many venerable uses. I believe my old professor banned it because so many people were prone to use it badly it was better that no one use it at all.

Many of the “Nevers” in writing are drawn up along a similar principle: Almost nobody does it right, so nobody should do it. Adjectives are an oft-targeted victim of this kind of reasoning. Another technique vulnerable to it is flashbacks, our topic of the day. Flashbacks possess a special nature, generally inclined to be awkward. They are written like narrative, but they are not narrative. Flashbacks disrupt the story, breaking up the flow and momentum of events to reprise old news. I have seen them done well, but I have also seen them done with extraordinary badness. Not all authors appreciate the nature or the purpose of the technique.

Two rules may be applied to the use of flashbacks. First, flashbacks must be relevant. A good way to think of this is that flashbacks must be revelatory of the story and not of the characters. What ought to be revealed of your characters can be revealed through the narrative proper: through their present talk, actions, thoughts. You might have constructed an entirely fascinating backstory, but you are telling a different story. Your story is in the present. The past throws light on the present, but the present throws light on people. There is no need of flashbacks to tell us about your characters.

Once I read a sci-fi novel that made excellent use of flashbacks. Very brief chapters, sprinkled among the narrative and set apart by italics, gave snapshots of the past. But these snapshots were keys to the story. They explained the nature of the present struggle, put forward mystery, foreshadowed the final revelation of villainy. Like all good flashbacks, they were dedicated to the story.

The second rule is that flashbacks must be brief. Again, flashbacks break the flow of the story, and for that reason they must be employed sparingly. Even if the flashbacks are genuinely interesting, people will become frustrated and impatient if the story is continually interrupted for field trips to the past. Flashbacks can spice up a story, but they should never be a main ingredient. Neither are they, in prodigious measure, likely to be altogether relevant. In the rare event that a prodigious measure is necessary, it is possible that you are starting the story in the wrong place.

The things people warn you about when you write fiction can generally be done. They just have to be done carefully. Flashbacks have been used to great effect, and you should always feel free to use them yourself. Only remember that they break the narrative and so must be very relevant and always brief.

News: Hidden Histories

It is my pleasure to announce that my story “The Fulcrum” will be published next month in Hidden Histories, a Third Flatiron Anthology (they’ve published many!). Hidden Histories is devoted to the fascinating theme of history changed, hidden, or forgotten. Twenty-eight stories will be published in the anthology, running the SFF gauntlet from science fiction to fantasy to horror – with some flash humor thrown in.

My contribution is “The Fulcrum,” which tells of a military operation to infiltrate the past and erase events that triggered a disastrous war. It’s an exercise of sci-fi geekery and history geekery, and I hope you all have as much fun with it as I did. I would love to delve into my speculations and research snags – but I will wait for the release date.

Hidden Histories is available for pre-order on Amazon. Those of you with an eye for a good bargain can consider pledging on Patreon, where you can get a yearly subscription to Third Flatiron for $1 a month (yearly subscription = 3-4 e-books). But if you like free books and you like to write about books …

I’ve got an offer for you. Third Flatiron is offering review copies. A personal blog is not necessary – you can post your review on Goodreads or Amazon (or both!). If you’re interested, contact me at info@shannonmcdermott.com, and I will put you in touch with the publisher.

Release date is April 15 – a dark day, I know, but here’s a ray of sunshine. See you then!

A Time For Generosity

The Authors Guild has announced that, as a curative to writers’ falling incomes, it will champion a national Public Lending Right program. The President’s Letter didn’t lay out the details, and PLR programs vary in their particulars (thirty-five countries already possess some version of it). The essential idea, however, is that public libraries will pay authors for the loaning out of their books. It’s a kind of royalty payment: a little money every time a book is checked out, with a cap on how much any one author can receive. For a factual examination of PLR, drop by the Steve Laube Agency blog. For a strongly-worded opinion, stay here.

Now, the benefit of this program is that authors make more money. The downside is that that money has to come from somewhere or, rather, from someone. The Authors Guild proposes the classic solution to this age-old problem: a federal government program. They are advocating (I must quote this) “creating a new government entitlement program.” The idea that Congress would create an entitlement program solely for published authors is touchingly ingenuous. The Authors Guild should consider – I suggest it with gentleness – that it is not a national issue that authors would like to make more money. Everyone else would, too.

The point of a federal PLR program is to shift costs from local governments, which are often poor, to the federal government, which is also broke but possesses nuclear weapons and therefore can be trillions of dollars in the red. This is unlikely to happen, but even if it does, it is still only shifting the cost. The inevitable result of any PLR program will be to increase the cost of public libraries. The ALA estimates that Americans check out an average of eight books per year, a number we can extrapolate to 2.6 billion books checked out per year. If public libraries must pay a fee every time a patron checks out a book – even a fee measured in pennies – the annual cost will be tens of millions. At the princely royalty of four cents per loan, the cost will top 100 million. (This will be multiplied again if – and why shouldn’t this happen? – Hollywood and musicians decide to get in on the game and libraries must make payments for CDs and DVDs, too.)

People talk glibly of raising taxes and government entitlement programs. But you cannot charge the public library system millions to loan out their existing collections and expect that library services will never be reduced.

So the costs of the PLR will be borne by the public. But there will be costs for authors to pay, too. Make libraries in general, and library books in particular, more costly, and it’s only a matter of time before someone lights upon the expedient of fewer library books. The least established authors will find the raised bar hardest to clear, and the consequence of making the system more profitable for some authors may be to push others out of the system entirely.

I am sympathetic to writers struggling to make their work profitable. It’s certainly true that readers should have a spirit of generosity toward writers. But there is also a time for writers to be generous to their readers. Public libraries exist for the public, especially the less well-off public: seniors on fixed incomes, families with small children, adults getting by, voracious young readers whose parents can’t afford all the books they want. It is already profitable for authors. Even authors should have concerns beyond making it even more profitable yet.

The Saving Mystery

Last time I came by this way, I talked about Coco‘s demoralizing portrait of the afterlife and how it casts a pall over the movie. Today, I want to move that discussion to a more general question of how the afterlife ought to be portrayed in fiction. My concern is not the gate to heaven or the road to hell, the broad and the narrow way; I am thinking of the much slighter question of what glimpses should be given of the afterlife, including the secondhand glimpses that come through ghosts or other denizens of the spiritual world.

The first thing to say is that we don’t really know what the next world looks like (which complicates creating glimpses of it!). We know what truly matters – eternal good or eternal bad, reward or punishment, God or the devil. Yet these abstractions are not translated into the concrete, except in the visions of Revelation. To what extent the fire and harps and gold are symbols of final destiny, or actual components of it, is a point of theological debate. Even the literal interpretation would leave us mostly with images of the New Jerusalem, which is not quite synonymous with Heaven. By any interpretation, the next world is mostly unknown – and unimaginable.

And fiction rushes in where theologians would fear to tread. It is easier for storytellers, you know: No portrait of the afterlife can truly be the way it is, but such literal truth is not their game anyway. Writers take two different avenues to spinning out visions of the afterlife. The first is that of symbolism; the concrete pictures represent abstract truths. In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis painted Hell as a city of empty streets sprawling out for thousands of miles in order to express the idea that the willful self-isolation of sin is consummated in Hell. Twilight Zone‘s “Nothing in the Dark” personifies Death as a handsome young man to convey the idea that death is not a monster in the dark. In works like these, the presentation of the unknowable is true in the only way it can be – as a symbol.

Not all writers have such elevated aims. Those interested in a good story, and not transcendent spiritual truths, take the second avenue. Putting aside the quest to tell the truth about the next life, some writers take happy license to invent whatever is most expedient to plot twists, world-building, or thrills. Coco is an unusually elaborate example of this. Ghost stories provide a broad array of more simple instances. Consider the popular trope of ghosts who linger to finish some item of business, or say goodbye, or even to simply realize that they’re dead. The tellers of such stories don’t necessarily believe that dead people remain on earth seeking closure. In fact, I would wager that most of them don’t, and some don’t believe in the immortality of the soul at all. There is no actual attempt, in many stories of the afterlife, to express any truth of whatever lies on the other side of death.

Yet there is, implicit in most of these stories, a sense of journey and a sense of mystery. We don’t know where the ghosts are going when they are finally ready to leave, but they are going somewhere; we don’t know what happens when the twilight over the city of empty streets ends, or where Death is leading the old woman. Many stories affect to peer through the great veil of death, but few pretend to tear it down. We are ignorant even in our stories, and in that ignorance is mystery, and in that mystery is hope.

That is the mistake that Coco makes: It doesn’t have the saving sense of mystery, the sense of journey that could have redeemed the dreariness of the Land of the Dead. This, then, is the cardinal rule for writers who wish to tread into the next world: Leave the mystery. Never pretend to tell all.

Uncommon Knowledge

Once I made what is, I fancy, a common mistake in college and registered for an elective English class. At one point in the course, the professor told us to make allusions that our audience would understand, and furthermore to consider our classmates our audience. To illustrate what our audience would not understand, he asked for a show of hands from anyone who recognized the name Nebuchadnezzar. The percentage of those who did raise their hands was about one out of ten. The lesson? No biblical allusions. (We should all take a moment and consider what it means that it couldn’t be a historical allusion.)

This is a question Christian writers now face: With biblical illiteracy on the rise, should biblical allusions be on the wane? Knowing that many people simply will not understand the reference, should it still be made? To find the answer, I think it is useful to move the conversation back one step to the more general question. Should writers limit themselves to allusions they can be confident their audience will understand?

There are two immediate answers to this question. My professor gave the first – Yes. The danger of this lies in reducing writing to the lowest common denominator, carefully pruned of any historical or literary references that imply you read books not optioned by Hollywood studios. The second answer, of course, is No, and it is exemplified by the writer William F. Buckley, whose writing style was once summarized as, “Look it up, serf.” The danger of this lies in becoming abstruse, indecipherable, maybe pompous and obnoxious. One’s communication (and what else is writing?) should not encrypted with obscure allusions.

There ought to be somewhere authors and readers can meet in between the lowest common denominator and encryption. As with so many things, an excellent example of this is found in Jesus Christ. Consider this passage from the Gospel of Matthew:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. (Matthew 23:23-24)

That final sentence – strain out a gnat but swallow a camel – would sound proverbial and esoteric taken alone. But it’s perfectly explicable in its context. It’s an extravagant image to illustrate how the Pharisees keep the law in small matters and violate it in large matters; the point explains the image, and the image sharpens the point. You need only the context to understand.

At the same time, the sentence makes several allusions. It is, first of all, an allusion to the Law of Moses, which prohibited both camels and gnats as unclean animals that would make God’s people unclean. You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel explicitly accuses the Pharisees of breaking the Law of Moses and implicitly accuses them of being unclean. The sentence also alludes to the real Pharisaical practice of straining gnats from wine or drinking water – and indicts that practice as useless in achieving true obedience to the law.

In fact, the more you know of the Pharisees and the Law of Moses the more you see how acerbic and brilliant Jesus’ statement really is. But you don’t need to know any of it to grasp the essential idea. The allusions add meaning; they don’t hide it. And that is the way all allusions should work. Allusions should create new depths of meaning, not lock the whole meaning away. Once you make the meaning clear, you can dare an allusion to uncommon knowledge. And you know something? Those biblical allusions really class up the joint.

Bad Religion

If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject.

The release of A Wrinkle In Time has brought this quotation to the surface. It sounds profound and is, I think, deeply wrong, but I don’t want to attack a lone, disconnected sentence. It would be better to return the sentence to its proper context, attempt to understand it, and then attack it.

The statement is taken from Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. After some meandering, L’Engle expands the idea:

Basically there can be no categories as “religious” art and “secular” art, because all true art is incarnational, and therefore “religious”.

To understand what she means by incarnational, we must backtrack to an earlier passage, a sort of extended analogy that compares artists to the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation (it sounds less silly when L’Engle says it, but never doubt: It is really, in absolute and incontrovertible truth, just as silly): 

[The] artist must be obedient to the work … I believe that each work of art … comes to the artist and says, “Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.” And the artist either says, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses; but the obedient response is not necessarily a conscious one. 

The pithiest summation of all this is that art is religion. A more difficult, and perhaps truer, summation is that art is inherently religious because to create it is, consciously or unconsciously, a religious act – an act of obedience to the divine or, at least, to the transcendent. And this brings us back again, circuitously but logically, to the original statement that to be guilty of bad art is to be guilty of bad religion.

Make no mistake: The guilt is real. L’Engle lightly comments in Walking on Water that the writer of a “shoddy novel” has “reject[ed] the obedience, tak[en] the easy way out.” So to write a shoddy novel is a moral failing. Your bad prose flows from your moral weakness and the holes in your plot darkly reflect the hole in your character.

The equation between bad religion and bad art, and between moral failure and artistic failure, is false. It is flat nonsense to believe that a bad story must come from disobedience to “the work” and never consider that it probably comes from the eternal gremlins of artistic endeavors, lack of time and lack of skill. I put great emphasis on skill, more than on any nebulously-rendered obedience; it’s real and practical and necessary. In art, as in sports, no emotion, belief, or effort is enough in itself. You must have the skill, too.

Art is not an obedient response to “the work” that, L’Engle imagines, somehow already exists and wants to be incarnated; it’s not a religious act. Art is work, in the same way that cooking a meal or building a bridge is work, and like all work, it can be done badly or it can be done well. Certainly the religion of the art can influence its quality. But to make the quality of a work’s religion synonymous with the quality of its art is as wrongheaded as judging love by its poetry. (And if we did judge love by its poetry, we would know from the greetings cards we have all given and received that the world is a cold, dark, loveless place.)

There is excellent art that is bad religion. There is bad art that is excellent religion. Religion and art are not so closely bound as to make one bad or good as the other is bad or good. To think they are is bad religion.

To PC or Not PC

Let’s talk about grammar.

Wait! Come back! This will be interesting, I promise. It will involve politics and controversy and barely any pop quizzes. Politics and grammar meet – let’s say clash, because I did promise controversy – in the question of pronouns. There’s an old convention in English that, when the sex of a person is unspecified, he is referred to by the male pronoun. This is probably related to the old use of “Man” as a term for all humanity: The male stands in for all.

Not surprisingly, the classic rule of he has fallen out of repute and use. Several new conventions are now fighting for the privilege of replacing it. It’s too early to project a winner, because like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, they’re all flawed in different ways. As speakers and writers of the English language, let’s consider our options.

(Pop quiz: What is a conjunction?)

Some people replace the lone he with the phrase he or she. The benefit of this formulation is that it is inclusive and all-encompassing. The downside is that it’s clunky. He or she has cluttered up many sentences with verbiage that serves no purpose beyond not being politically incorrect. The phrase has produced its own variants: he/she and, better yet, s/he. These updated versions are sleeker and more refined, but severely limited in that they are suited only for the written word. No one could speak them and still appear normal.

(Pop quiz: What is a subjective clause?)

Another common solution is to use the pronoun they in place of he. The clear advantage of this is that it avoids the clunkiness of he or she, and the android weirdness of s slash he. Unfortunately, it is also grammatically incorrect. If they were correct, it would already be used. To replace the singular he with the plural they brings the pronoun into conflict with its noun (or indefinite pronoun, which is functionally the same thing). You could say that everyone has their own opinions, but this is true only of Gollum. Everyone else has his own opinions.

Perhaps the most unique answer to this grammatical quandary comes from Charles Murray, who advocates that female writers use a generic she and male writers use a generic he. This is ingenuous and possesses certain aesthetic qualities of balance and symmetry. If it had been invented by Chaucer, it might have caught on. Such innovations are much more difficult at the language’s current stage of evolution, however, and to decide the use of the pronoun by the sex of the author can rub oddly.

(Pop quiz: What is a dental fricative?)

Now we come, at last, to the final and best solution. Some writers replace he with she – a solution that maintains elegance, simplicity, and grammatical precision. It avoids the pitfalls of other solutions but skirts on the brink of its own: Is the use of this pronoun merely political, bowing to the pressure of those who have taken it into their heads to be offended by he (and just about everything else)? Taking the question as a literary one, the classic he and the modern she are the best answers. But the question is always in danger of becoming political: He or she, to PC or not PC?

How do you grapple with the dilemma in your own literary wanderings? Remember, there is no right answer. But there are several wrong ones.

 

(ANSWER KEY:

  1. The concomitance of two or more events.
  2. The North Pole’s darkest secret.
  3. A clear violation of the Geneva Convention.)

Good Character(s)

This summer I made my first foray into Jane Austen, reading Mansfield Park. I found the novel more thought-provoking than enjoyable, and one of the issues it raised for me was the relationship between moral goodness and good characters. Fanny Price, the novel’s heroine, is probably the most emphatically good (in the moral sense) character I have ever experienced, and also a bad character in the sense of not being compelling or enjoyable. She is, in fact, one of the reasons the book drags as it does (the other is that the simple plot takes far too long to unfold). I began to find her tiresome; Jane Austen’s own mother called her insipid.

I call Fanny Price emphatically good not because she is the most moral character I have ever read but because the whole book emphasizes her goodness. Austen’s admirable theme is that the meek shall inherit the earth, and her intriguing purpose is to cross-examine the true value of the witty, vivacious belle who was (is) the ideal of high society. Fanny exists as a kind of living counterpoint to all the defects of the upper classes – lack of principle, lack of kindness, form over substance, glitter over gold. Her goodness, as central to the novel’s ideas, is inescapable, but it does not do her many favors.

Yet I am sure that it is not due to excess goodness that Fanny Price is (to be kind) unengaging or (to be like Jane Austen’s mother) insipid. Fanny would be both a more enjoyable character and a more accurate representation of goodness if Austen had not mishandled the virtue of humility. She portrays it quite badly – though, in fairness, most authors do. In Mansfield Park, Fanny is humble; this means that she has a pathetically low, and generally false, valuation of herself and accepts other people’s negative opinions of who she is and what she deserves to a point that seems almost weak-minded.

Nor is Fanny a moral paragon in all respects. The narrator repeatedly reminds us that she is anxious and timid, and it’s certain that she has almost no courage at all. It is to Austen’s credit as a writer that she created such limitations in her character, and if you stop to consider it, Fanny’s timidity lends a poignant note to her climactic resistance to an unwanted marriage. Ironically, though, Fanny would have been better company for four hundred pages if her virtues had extended a little farther, and that would have done more for the novel than a little poignancy.

Additionally, Austen – who excelled in creating sharp, lively portraits of female characters – failed to do so with Fanny Price. Fanny gives little impression of anything except strong moral convictions and a puddle of weakness besides. Details such as her physical grace and her love of reading are barely seen and certainly not felt. Her passivity is the stuff of legend; her only contribution to her own destiny is to reject Henry Crawford – in other words, manage to do nothing when someone else is trying to get her to do something (usually she is just carried along when other people do things).

What makes a good character is ultimately disconnected from what makes a good person. White knights and black villains have alike succeeded as characters, and have alike failed. Even the case of Fanny Price proves that what matters is not the amount of goodness a character possesses but how it is used, and what the character possesses besides.

Arresting Attention

The topic of the hour is superheroes, so I am going add my two cents, or less, to the conversation swirling around this cultural and cinematic phenomenon.

I was never that into superheroes.

On to a new topic. Good openings, endlessly emphasized in modern fiction, are defined by being evocative, and it doesn’t really matter of what. What counts is arresting the attention of the reader, whether through humor, originality, mystery, or a felicitous turn of phrase. Here is a list of beginnings that showcase the art of the good opening, being not only evocative but memorable. You will note that famous, immortal, and timeworn first sentences, such as “Call me Ishmael,” are omitted from this list. You will also note that other famous, immortal, and timeworn first sentences are included. There is no good reason for this.

Please share in the comments any book openings that would complete this list, or whether any opening included makes you want to pick up its book.

 

There is a young legend developing on the west side of the mountains. William E. Barrett, The Lilies of the Field

Marley was dead: to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that. Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

I dreamed of Goliath last night, strangely enough, considering it was Joab, David’s general, who died yesterday. Eleanor Gustafson, The Stones

The young prince was known here and there (and just about everywhere else) as Prince Brat. Not even black cats would cross his path. Sid Fleischman, The Whipping Boy

These tales concern the doing of things recognized as impossible to do; impossible to believe; and, as the weary reader may well cry aloud, impossible to read about. G. K. Chesterton, Tales of the Long Bow

April is the cruellest month. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods. I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they can hurt me. My body, this lean carrion that still has to be washed and fed and have clothes hung about it daily with so many changes, they may kill as soon as they please. The succession is provided for. My crown passes to my nephew. C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

In a hole in a ground there lived a hobbit. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

The universe is infinite but bounded, and therefore a beam of light, in whatever direction it may travel, will after billions of centuries return – if powerful enough – to the point of its departure; and it is no different with rumor, that flies about from star to star and makes the rounds of every planet. Stanislaw Lem, “The Seventh Sally

Monsters do, of course, exist. Matt Mikalatos, Night of the Living Dead Christian

The only possible excuse for this book is that it is an answer to a challenge. Even a bad shot is dignified when he accepts a duel. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Technically, the cucumber came first. Phil Vischer, Me, Myself & Bob

I don’t remember one thing about the day I was born. It hasn’t been for lack of trying either. I’ve set for hours trying to go back as far as I could, but the earliest thing I remember is riding in the back of Floyd’s wagon and looking at myself in a looking glass. Jonathan Rogers, The Charlatan’s Boy

Had he but known that before the day was over he would discover the hidden dimensions of the universe, Kit might have been better prepared. At least, he would have brought an umbrella. Stephen Lawhead, The Skin Map

Review: Power Elements of Character Development

What is it that makes a sympathetic hero, a compelling villain, a persuasive and realistic character? I can sum it up for you in one golden word. But you really should read the book for yourself.

Power Elements of Character Development is the second book in the Power Elements of Fiction series, written by Rebecca LuElla Miller. Some time ago I read and reviewed the first book, Power Elements of Story Structure, and I knew then that I wanted to read this one, too. Characters are my favorite part of stories, and I am a writer. I knew I’d enjoy this book about writing characters.

Power Elements of Character Development is only 138 pages long, but it is divided into 45 chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion. These chapters organize the book effectively, moving easily over many different facets of characters, their creation, and their overall place in fiction. Minor characters, dialogue, inner conflict, antagonists, character arcs, character death, and what qualities make characters memorable or compelling are all considered.

Most importantly of all, this book emphasizes that characters should drive the story rather than be driven by it, and their actions must, in turn, be driven by – and this is the golden word – motivation. It may be a beginner’s lesson that characters shouldn’t be passive, but even experienced writers can get lost in the blurred distinction between an active character and a reactive one. A character can be very active in his reactions, especially if what he’s reacting to involves live ammunition, but heroes should do more than just respond, and I appreciate how clearly this is established.

I found the emphasis on motivation invaluable, and how it must be present not only as the story’s end goal (what the character ultimately wants) but also as every scene’s purpose (what he is trying to do right now). The insight regarding motivation helps to focus plots and scenes and characters, a prevention and cure of writer’s block.

I enjoyed Power Elements of Character Development as a lucid, concise, broad-ranging review of the creation, use, and role of characters. Its points, especially about motivation, help me to focus and evaluate my own writing. Recommended to writers of all stripes.

 

I invite you to check out Power Elements of Character Development on Goodreads and Amazon, and I highly recommend you visit Becky Miller’s writing blog Rewrite, Reword, Rework.