Friday, June 24, 2011

That Thing We Don't Talk About (Part I)

No...Not the s-thing. Because sometimes we do talk about that.

The i-thing.

Earlier, I riffed on the topic of physical appearance & author photos.

We hardly ever talk about that in writing circles, yet social psychology is clear that appearance matters...that people draw initial conclusions about others (usually false ones) based on the Hottie Scale.

But there's another taboo topic....maybe even worse:


Intelligence is a trait that lurks behind everything we do...everything we are...silently running in the background. If our unique set of personality dimensions represents the "software" of life, intelligence is the "operating system."

And like personality, intelligence plays a pivotal role in our choices, our preferences, our actions and behaviors.

We just never acknowledge it. When was the last time you participated in a discussion about writing or reading where intelligence was invoked to help explain our individual differences?

I thought so.  Why is that? Here's my list of three reasons, for starters:

1) The average person takes intelligence for granted.  One reason we don't talk about it is that we don't think about it. Like personality, unless you consciously decide to study its meaning in your life, you don't realize how widespread the implications are.

2) Intelligence gets a bad rap.  Stereotypes...warranted or not...attach to notions of intelligence. When you think of highly intelligent people, do you think of "arrogant?"  "Argumentative?"  "Cold?"  Intelligence brings with it some baggage that can make it an unwelcome visitor.

3) We can't readily change what we're gifted with.  And that contributes mightily to the "awkwardness" factor.

Modern American society ranks the value of people according to four standards:  Power (status/accomplishment); Beauty; Wealth; Intelligence.

Of these four, Intelligence is the least susceptible to change (with perhaps Beauty taking second place).

If we had a proven way to create significant gains in personal intelligence, it would spark an industry to rival our current obsession with physical appearance (books, videos, cosmetics, fitness equipment & programs, surgery, etc).

But we don't.

You can change you wealth. You can change your power/status. And, to a lesser extent, you can change your physical appearance.  Intelligence, not so much.

Here's the recipe for a taboo:

1) Place a societal value on high intelligence.

2) Recognize the hard truth that some have more of this trait than others.

3) Tell those in the "have not" category that there's nothing they can do to alter that fact.

Sound like a volatile situation?  In our egalitarian, "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" culture, it's not something we like to hear.

Over the coming weeks, we'll talk about this thing we don't talk it relates to reading, and writing, and life.

What's your take? Are there other reasons why Intelligence is such a hot-button topic?


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

George does

One of my favorite books of all time, hands down, is How to Get Ideas by Jack Foster.

Every creative person should have a copy of this book on the shelf...I heartily recommend it to you, and someday I will do a full review. But for now, one particular nugget of wisdom has been on my mind this week:

In this marvelous How-To manual for sparking creative thought, Foster tells a story about George Ade, a popular novelist/humorist/playwright from the late 1800's and early 1900's.

According to Foster, Ade's mother was once interviewed by a journalist who was quite critical of Ade's work. The man was rude enough to pepper Ade's mother with numerous questions about George's shortcomings as a writer, including his "capricious style, wobbly structure and shallow characterizations."

Eventually, George's good mother had taken all she could take.

"Oh, I know that many people can writer better than George does," she said. "But George does."

I first read "How to Get Ideas" many years ago, and since that time, the phrase has always stuck with me...

George does.

How many people sidetrack their own dreams, their own calling, because they talk about it, chat about it, Facebook about it (looking at you, Ginny!) think about it... but they don't do it.

It's easier to talk about writing a novel than to pick up a pen and write. Every day.

It's easier to dream about painting a masterpiece than to get your brushes out and start filling a canvas.

It's easier to tell people about the music career you'd like to have, than to sit down with your instrument and practice.

Despite all obstacles.... George does.

Despite imperfection.... George does.

Despite insecurities and doubts... George does.

It reminds me of the ancient proverb, oftentimes ascribed to the Chinese... "It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness."

Take one small step... Do one small thing towards achieving your dream. Today. And the next day. And the next.

George does.

Do you?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Editing "The Resurrection" (Part Four of Four)

We've been working through a four-part series on Mike Duran's entertaining debut novel, "The Resurrection."

Today, we'll finish with some thoughts on speech patterns, and a list of line-editing comments.
MINOR SPOILERS ALERT: Read and enjoy the book first, then see if you agree:

Mid-Altitude issues (continued):

3) Character speech patterns:  Mike chooses to employ a fair number of phonetic spellings throughout the novel ("lottsa,"  "ya know..."  "shoulda..."). I would counsel him to consider using fewer, for two reasons:

a) The sheer number of repetitions became a bit distracting, for me. Dialogue that attempts to render dialect into black and white is simply harder to read, and my preference is to see it used sparingly, for particular effect. A little goes a long way, which leads to the second, related reason...

b) Almost every character in the book, with the exception of Keen, uses phonetically-spelled dialogue, at least on occasion. Consequently, the speech patterns aren't as effective as they could be as a means of differentiating characters.

Speech patterns are a wonderfully nuanced way to Show, not Tell. Mike nails this perfectly with Keen: even when agitated, Keen's speech is laced with sophisticated diction and syntax, delivered in a pedantic tone that instantly communicates this man's arrogance...the smug superiority he exudes through displaying his knowledge and philosophy. You don't have to tell us what Keen is like, we intuit it naturally, like we do in the real world, from the way he speaks.

But language used by the other characters rarely differentiates them as individuals, with varying personalities, backgrounds, and educational levels. The most noticeable and distressing example, I believe, comes from the character of Beeko.

Beeko is a physician from Nigeria, who grew up outside of Bwari, and speaks with a slight, but unmistakable British accent. From this description, and subsequent events, I infer a few things: a) English is his second language; b) at the very least, he was educated in British schools, and very likely his college years were spent in the class-conscious environment of England itself; c) he is a learned man, and d) Clark specifically seeks out Beeko because he values the doctor as a man of rational thought.

Assuming these things as given, that leads me to expect a certain language style from the character. Perhaps not an arrogant one, as with Keen, but speech patterns that are precise and formal (as with many English-as-a-second-language students), and erudite (throwing in words that even the seminary-trained Clark may be unfamiliar with). Beeko is a product of the British educational system and culture, where speech patterns and accents are badges of social standing.

And, in fact, for the first three or four statements I find what I expected. Then, Beeko unexpectedly turns a corner, and tosses out the very informal term, "critter." From that point on, through the remainder of the conversation he bounces back and forth between the formal ("I'm not daft enough to guess..."  "A bit of a doubting Thomas, are we?" "The atmosphere is a manifestation of cumulative events or a series of historic concessions;") and the colloquial ("evangelism jazz"  "Lotsa places..." "Don't ya, man?")

As an editor, I would counsel Mike to either a) explain this schizophrenic language pattern in the narrative (is there a motivation for it somewhere in Beeko's past?) or b) revise the doctor's speech to something more fitting with his educational and professional status. Similarly, the book would benefit from more careful attention to the other character's dialogue tendencies, as well.

Ground-level issues:

Finally, some micro-level observations...points at which I felt the line-editor missed a beat. These are the type of thing I look for when reading, because I think that training your eye to look for these makes you a better writer...and especially a better re-writer.

p45..."Well, let's say I'm getting closer.    (missing punctuation, quotes not closed)

p64... shallow and erratic breathing...   (why? from other indications, Jack is in a deep sleep, so you would expect slow, easy respiration)

p83...It was a black Hummer, the wide older models, with...   (the Hummer is singular, "models" is plural...  so better would be:  It was a black Hummer, one of the wide older models,....)

p86... clear blue eyes and bright smile offset her aging features.   (better with: clear blue eyes and a bright smile...)

p89... he snapped some surgical gloves on each hand   ("some gloves" is plural, "hand" singular... better:  he snapped a surgical glove on each hand....)

p142... got to wippin' people up.      (Here, the phonetic spelling creates confusion...I think it means "whipping" people up....  but instead, it reads more like "wiping" people up.  Better: Whippin' )

p165... the cabinets consisted of flat rollout trays, each one baring a typed insert...   (unless the rollout trays are naked, they shouldn't be "baring" anything... they should be bearing labels)

p180/248....  on two occasions, characters say "Gentleman" (singular) when they mean "Gentlemen" (plural).

p208...  "What do mean, Ruby?"    (What do you mean, Ruby?)

p235... "Cool it! Both of you!"     (Why is Vin yelling, and glaring, at both Jack and Rev Clark? Clark is standing still, not saying anything. Jack is the only aggressor, here)

p246... Echoes. Mike & his editors did a nice job avoiding those annoying echoes... unusual words and phrases that, when they are used twice or more, catch the attention. But here one slipped by:   [tree] trunk thrust from the bowels of the earth....  (and then, two paragraphs later) a hawk burst from the bowels of the oak...     ("bowels" is a word that you can go a long time without hearing in casual conversation, and here we see the phrase "bowels of..." twice in three paragraphs.)

p270...his delicate, breezy voice seemed to jive perfectly with his graceful demeanor.  (Think the word we want here is jibe. To "jive" is to mislead, or pull someone's leg... to "jibe" is to be in be in harmony.)

For years, I kept a notebook filled with observations like these...culled from a wide range of novels. It's invaluable practice at helping you build your revision skills...Something every writer should strive to improve.

Again, I hope you'll make room on your reading list for this one. I look forward to watching the progression of Mike's writing career.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Editing "The Resurrection" (Part Three of Four)

We're in a series based on my recent reading of Mike Duran's debut novel, "The Resurrection."

Knowing I would be writing a review, I jotted down my thoughts along the way, from the perspective of:  If I was handed The Resurrection as a test reader, what feedback would I give?

THIS MAY CONTAIN MINOR SPOILERS,  so please... get a copy and let Mike take you on the journey first. Then you can judge for yourself whether I'm all wet. If you've already read the book, hit me in the comments and give me your perspective.

So, donning my Amateur Editor hat, here are the conversations I would have with Mike, pre-publication...

High-altitude issues:  As I stated earlier, most of the big-picture, strategic decisions...premise, plot, etc, worked just fine for me. If I were to question anything at this level, it would be the moments when potential drama is left unplayed.

The drama that is present is good...but there were times when opportunities to ratchet up the suspense even further were overlooked. Three examples to illustrate what I mean:

1) Crank the Lizard.  Mike chose to play the scene in the Magic Shop for laughs...ending with the huge, intimidating welder slipping on glass beads like an actor in a silent comedy, and Gwen the owner screeching after her 6-foot iguana, Crank, as if it were a pampered poodle running out into traffic..."My baby!"

Not a bad was humorous. But I would have preferred to see more suspense, here. What if the Lizard, instead of busting loose and racing down the street, had chased Ruby and her friends? What if they had been cornered, trapped in the back room of the magic shop, serious peril from a giant reptile that seems to supernaturally know and  hate what they represent? Maybe someone is actually bitten, with later results?

2)  The confrontation on the Mount.  Our friend Gwen from the magic shop is back again, this time in the company of a warlock. And apparently, they have trailed Ruby to a cemetery high on a mountain slope. But when Ruby's husband Jack and Ian Clark follow, they find the "bad guys" alone, fussing over a grave...and Ruby stumbles in later, having hidden from the magic users.

Again, this would be an opportunity to place Ruby in much greater danger...and present the "bad guys" as more of a legitimate threat. What if they had stalked Ruby up the mountainside, captured her and buried her alive as part of their gruesome rituals? You could showcase Ruby's fear in a series of short segments...and when Jack and Ian arrive, they can't find Ruby, and maybe are about to give up, until.... ?

3) Doire, the tree spirit.   If Doire is real, as Keen certainly believes, then it would be good for Clark to encounter her on one of his three visits....most likely, during the final drama. As a tree spirit, (a guardian?) she may read Clark's intentions, and be protective of her "master." It needn't have been a protracted fact may not have been a physical battle at all...but Clark could have been seduced, distracted, or almost killed before reaching Keen's front steps.  (Alternately, Doire could have tried to warn Clark...tried to prevent him from going inside out of concern for the Reverend)

Mid-Altitude issues:

1) I was a bit puzzled by the two very different reactions Clark had to the most important spiritual phenomena in the story... Mr. Cellophane, and the resurrection event. Even for a jaded, liberal pastor running from God, a translucent apparition should give reason for pause and reflection. Long before the resurrection occurs, Clark is so apathetic that a ghost/demon/whatever in the corner of his office produces nothing more than a shrug and irritation. At one point, it is hinted that Clark sees this as nothing more than a biological echo... but I would have preferred Mike to address this more directly. At least once, Clark should have thought to himself or perhaps talked to Ruby about why the ghost leaves him yawning, but, conversely, the resurrection struck him so powerfully.  Either one would get my attention, big time.

2) Why doesn't someone ask Mondo, or Aida, what their death experiences were like?  For multiple reasons, Mike may have chosen not to "go there" (we do learn, offhandedly, that Aida experienced it as a "blacking out"), but it seems odd that none of the other characters display the curiosity to inquire. If I had the chance to talk with Lazarus, you can bet that would be my very first question..."So, what happened while you were away?"

Next time.....  Language Issues & Line Edits.