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The Fennel Giraffe

Aug. 5th, 2008

09:08 pm - Narrative Voice

A question elsewhere about use of contractions in narrative set me to thinking about narrative voice.  Because, of course, the answer to the question is that it depends on whether it would be appropriate for the narrative voice to use contractions.

The same applies to use of slang, expletives, colloquialisms, etc. As well as pacing, word choice, sentence complexity, level of diction. It all depends on narrative voice.

So this is what I started writing there:

In dialog, the use of contractions depends completely on whether the character who is speaking would use contractions.

In narrative, it depends on the narrative voice. Narrative voice, however, is related to POV. In first person, the narrative voice is the POV character's voice, so narrative is essentially the same as dialog. If the POV character would use contractions, then use them.

For omniscient (or objective) POV, the voice that matters belongs to the omniscient narrator. It's far from being any kind of rule, but use of contractions in narrative is probably rare for omniscient. (Possibly less rare when the fourth wall is broken.)

When you get to limited third, narrative voice has many possiblitites. Unlike omniscient, it should vary depending on which character currently has the POV. Unlike first person, it shouldn't be entirely the character's voice. It's, well, somewhere in between. But just where in between is a matter of narrative distance. You can focus in close, sometimes called hot, and be almost like first person. You can pull out distant and cool, and be almost like omniscient.

Jan. 25th, 2008

02:26 pm - Writing Numbers, Take 2

[Forgot I had saved the previous rant here, and the same thing happened again: by the time I got this version written, the original discussion elsewhere had digressed. Anyway, I think this one is better.]

(Caveat: This applies to fiction and general nonfiction only. Some academic and professional disciplines have mandatory styles; those overrule general advice.)

First, recognize whether the number is being used quantitatively or symbolically.

Quantitative Numbers
These are numbers representing quantities and amounts, things that can be counted or measured. For example: three books, 15 gallons, 257 miles. This also includes age.

There are several alternate versions for the basic rule here. Pick one and follow it consistently, but it doesn't matter which version you pick. If you make it all the way to publication, it's likely that house style will trump your choice anyway. Before that point, as long as you stick to one of the standard variations, you won't look stupid.

- One through ten in words; 11 and above in digits
- One through twenty in words; 21 and above in digits
- One through twenty, plus thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty, and ninety in words; all others in digits. (This is rare, but it happens to be the way I was taught in childhood. ETA: The logic here is that these numbers can be written as a single word.)
- One through ninety-nine in words; 100 and about in digits
- One through one hundred in words; 101 and above in digits
Unfortunately, there are exceptions that apply to whichever of those you choose:
- Always write out a number at the beginning of a sentence. If the number would be cumbersome to write out, try to reword the sentence to avoid the necessity.
- Don't mix modes in the same sentence. Ex: Bring seven tables and 28 chairs. This can be corrected by changing either one. It's a judgment call. (In a simple case like the example, I prefer writing out them both out. If there are more than two numbers involved--7 tables, 28 chairs, and 56 notepads--I go with whichever predominates. When one of the numbers would be cumbersome to write out--2 tables, 8 chairs, and 5679 marbles--that rules.)
- Extremely large round numbers can be written as a combination of digits and words, such as 452 million.
- Always write out numbers in dialog. This is somewhat controversial. Purists say you can't speak digits, only words. Dissenters say the digit "1" is just as valid a representation of the spoken word as the letters "one". My opinion is that most numbers of three or more digits can be spoken in multiple ways and that showing which one he uses it helps reveal the character's voice. Also, situations in which a character needs to say a precise large number (such as 26,879) are rare.
Symbolic Numbers
Symbolic numbers include phone numbers, ID numbers, serial numbers, addresses, dates, time, money, and other similar things. (Yes, the logic breaks down a little for money, but it's treated as symbolic anyway. However, do notice the distinction between five dimes, which is counting tangible coins, hence quantitative, and $5.00, which is abstract money, hence symbolic.)

Outside of dialog, symbolic numbers are always written as digits, no matter how few digits they have, even at the beginning of a sentence.

In dialog, however, the debate gets really heated. Many people feel the rule to always write as digits extends even into dialog. A few stand firm on speaking words, not digits. And I still think it comes down to character voice. If a character says, "Meet me at 3:45," it doesn't reveal anything about him. Whereas "Meet me at three forty-five," "Meet me at a quarter of four," and "Meet me at fifteen minutes until four" are three distinct voices.

Oh, I almost forgot. There's one other exception: some addresses with one- or two-digit house numbers. The responsible authority--usually the city or the property owner--is the one who gets to decide whether it's 5 Shady Lane or Five Shady Lane. Treat those like proper names or titles and use them as they are.

ETA: The big exception is for titles and proper names. Also see preceding comment re addresses. They are what they are; right or wrong, always write them as their "owner" does.

Sep. 6th, 2007

08:39 am - Copyright

The SFWA vs. scribd.com kerfluffle is being widely discussed around the net.  Among many other issues, the nature of copyright itself is being discussed. I have no dog in that fight, and the odds are approaching certainty that I never will. Strangely enough, however, that doesn't stop me from having an opinion.

I believe that the law should recognize a distinction between personal and corporate copyright.

Personal Copyright
 - It should be non-transferable. No one except the original author or his estate should be able to hold copyright to his works.
 - No copyright should ever expire during the author's lifetime. However, what of works written shortly before the author's death? Shouldn't his heirs receive some benefit from those?  Life or N years, whichever yields the later date, seems most appropriate.  (I'm flexible regarding the exact value of N, but something in the neighborhood of 20-25 years would protect minor children.) Say N is 20. Then, at the time of an author's death, all of his works which are over 20 years old would immediately become public domain.  His works which are 15 years old would retain copyright for another five years.  His works which are five years old, would continue under copyright for another 15 years.
 - Collaborations pose some difficulty. Using the above rule, it would be possible for one author's copyright to expire while the other's is still active. This would occur when a work is over N years old, one author is deceased, and the other is still living. I see two possible solutions.  One is to let the deceased author's copyright expire while the living author retains sole control. The second is for the copyright to continue for both authors as long as either one is alive.

Corporate Copyright
 - Some people have suggested this should not be permitted, but I see value in allowing it under careful restrictions.
 - It should be of a set duration, probably something like 40-50 years.
 - It should only be allowed when ALL of the following conditions apply:
 - - Multiple individuals share creative input
 - - Those individuals were paid a salary or hourly wage for the time spent creating this work
 - - Those employees were explicitly tasked to develop a work of this nature
 - - Each separate work must be so designated prior to its creation (may need to tweak this for the case of an ongoing series)
 - Some of those restrictions are aimed at preventing a corporation from claiming copyright over work an employee creates outside of his work environment, unless the corporation can demonstrate that the work in question is clearly and significantly related to the employee's specific work assignments.

Sep. 1st, 2007

06:10 pm - Character Names

A common bit of writing advice is that no two character names should start with the same letter.  That's excellent advice as far as it goes, but with a large cast, you could run into trouble once you get past Quentin and Zelda. Besides, those of us writing SF/F occasionally want to use patterns of name prefixes to signal cultural details.

So, herewith, a few techniques to take the curse off names that begin with the same letter. Use at least two of these for any pair of names, preferably more. Give them a different:

You should be varying the number of syllables anyway.  Names like Bob, Ted, Dave, Mike, Sam, and Jim all run together even if they don't start with the same letter.  So do names like Tiffany, Beverly, Malory, and Jeremy. Or Kevin, Lauren, Jason, and Shannon.

Avoid pairs like Chris and Christie, male and female versions of the same name, even if you spell one of them with a K. Also avoid pairs like Ben and Benjamin, where one is the nickname for the other.

The exception is when the name similarity is a plot point.  You can have a Bryan and a Brian if the plot hinges on one of them receiving a message meant for the other. However, you should limit it to one such pair per story, and the other characters should notice the similarity as well. Of course, you should also make them as distinctive as possible in every other respect.

Aug. 30th, 2007

01:00 pm - Writing Numbers

(This one isn't quite so wimpy; I did post a much reduced version in the appropriate forum thread.  But I like the long version, too and wanted to save it.  ETA: No I didn't.  I kept fiddling with it for too long.  The original thread had gone sideways, and my comment was no longer apropos.)

The true answer is that house style trumps all, but it also depends on what you are writing.

The Basics

These are generally acceptable rules which will keep you from looking clueless. Even if the house style differs in some details, you'll merely be asked to change your MS. No one is going to point and laugh.
For time, money, phone numbers, addresses, dates, etc., use digits. (10:15 AM; $27.50; 555-9062; 375 Oak St.; June 6, 1987) Addresses can occasionally be an exception; a small house number may be spelled out. (Eight Juniper Circle) I treat those like proper names and use the same form as the owner or other applicable authority.

For quantities, spell out small numbers and use digits for large numbers. (Five weeks; 379 books) There are several alternative rules as to which numbers are considered small. At a minimum, you should spell out zero through ten. Many people also do eleven through twenty. I was taught an obscure version--to spell out any number that can be written as a single word. So, zero through twenty, plus thirty, forty, fifty, etc.

Don't mix spelled-out numbers in the same list with digits. If the list is mostly small numbers with only one or two large ones and the large ones are reasonably brief when written, then spell out the whole list. (Three tables, twelve notepads, and twenty-five pencils) If the list has more than a couple of large numbers or any one number would be cumbersome when written out, then use all digits. (3 tables, 12 notepads, 25 pencils, and 2,146 pieces of candy)
Nonfiction
In the absence of any other guidance, follow the basics listed above. However (a huge, important however), there are many different types of nonfiction, many different specialized contexts, and many different house styles. You really do need to find out which style guide is applicable to each individual project. Unfortunately, using the wrong style in some (not all) nonfiction venues does get you treated like an idiot.
Fiction-Narrative
Relax. No editor or agent is going to reject your MS because you wrote "16" instead of "sixteen", or vice versa. Follow the basics listed above. The most important thing is to be consistent. As long as it's obvious you're using some specific style, not the whim of the moment, you won't look like an idiot.
Fiction-Dialog
Your character can't speak "$12.50". What s/he says is "twelve dollars and fifty cents" or "twelve fifty" or "twelve and a half bucks". S/he will probably say 555-2782 as "Five five five twenty-seven eighty-two" or something similar.

Spell out all numbers, no matter what. I try to avoid the necessity of using any cumbersome numbers in dialog. Do remember to keep it in the character's voice, though. Different chars will say numbers in different ways.

Aug. 29th, 2007

01:51 am - Handling Background Info in SF/F

(Yet another wimped-out forum comment.  What's up with me this week?)

SF/F writers discuss this endlessly, so there is a whole vocabulary of specialized jargon related to the problem.


ETA: I've been thinking about the difference between worldbuilding and backstory.  This is my personal take on it, which may not reflect anyones else's usage.

Backstory refers to the details of the characters' lives prior to the story, plus certain events that occurred prior to the story.  Yes, it has to be handled, but there usually isn't very much to handle.

Worldbuilding, on the other hand, includes a whole bunch of stuff other genres* don't have to deal with. Backstory is just one small part. Good SF and fantasy, the kind that doesn't rely on stock settings, has to handle a lot of it.

*I should note that historicals are a special case. Handling historical setting is not far removed from handling SFnal or fantasy setting. I'm just not familiar enough with historical writers to know whether they have specific terminology.

Aug. 28th, 2007

10:24 pm - Italicize or Underline?

(Apparently I am in a phase of being both opinionated and timid. Here's another "had second thoughts about posting in the forum thread that inspired it" comment.}

Regarding whether to italicize or to underline to indicate italics in a manuscript:

The problem is that we are in the middle of a transition. Publishing as an industry is fairly conservative (in the sense of resisting change to its business practices). Long after most authors were using word processors, the typewriter way of doing things remained a solid industry standard.

There are still a lot of individuals in the publishing industry who started their careers in the typewriter era, although the numbers are dwindling. Even some of the next generation were mentored by traditionalists and became accustomed to the old standards. It has only been quite recently, that the number of publishing professionals who grew up with computers has reached the critical mass (and level of authority) to begin whittling away at outdated standards.

That's why it's confusing right now. That's why you find conflicting advice from reliable sources. There are three kinds of publishing professionals: those who insist on the old standard and see anything else as a lack of professionalism; those who acknowledge the transition and accept either format; and those who think the old standard is a sign the author is a stale old fogie.  We can only hope that most fall into the second category.

Aug. 27th, 2007

11:52 am - Larger Than Life Heroes

(yet another comment I wimped out on posting where I should have)

Someone elsewhere was discussing certain critiques:

I have gotten similar criticism on my own heroine. People seem to want her to have sprung forth from the head of Zeus with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal persons. And she can't have any flaws or any room to grow and learn.

I wonder if this is a fundamental divide. I know a lot of people want stories with very clear-cut good guys and bad guys. They want villains whose sole justification for doing evil is that they are Evil. They want flawless heroes who are larger than life.

To me, those stories feel simplistic and cartoony. It's a struggle for me to accept that as a valid style. I want characters who are multilayered and complex. I characters who have both strengths and weaknesses. I want almost-ordinary protagonists who happen to be in a key place at a key time with a key set of skills. ("For want of a nail....") I want antagonists I could relate to if the story were told from their POV.

So maybe this is one of those chocolate and vanilla issues(1). When someone criticizes your chocolate heroine for not being vanilla enough, check whether they expect *every* hero/ine to be vanilla(2,3).


(1) Obviously, not every negative critique comment is of such a nature.

(2) Such a critiquer may still have useful things to say about *other* aspects of your story. I'm merely suggesting that their comments on this one issue can be disregarded(4).

(3) Some people, of course, are aware of the difference and knowledgeable enough to critique both varieties, no matter which they personally prefer.

(4) After you make sure it's *clear* that you're writing about chocolate, not vanilla.

Jan. 5th, 2007

10:27 am - Place Names

Place names are a product of history. They traditionally start out as simple descriptions used in conversation: South Fork, Jones' Mill, Eagle Rock, Snake River, etc. After a while, the description solidifies into a name. Then, as more time passes, the name gets slurred and shortened. Eventually, the area gets taken over by people who speak a different language and don't recognize the original meaning of the name. To them it's just a string of syllables, so they mush it around to sit easier on their tongues.

Sometimes the process results in redundancy. Say the original occupants of a place call it Valley of the Horses, which in their language is Gabril-na Tonar. But they say it so fast it all runs together. When invaders come in, to them it sounds like Gavrilato. But it's clearly a valley, so they add their word for valley in their own language, and call it Gavrilato Domera. But that's long, so after a while they blend it together as Gavriltomera. Finally, a new wave of invaders comes along and mushes that down to Aviltom. But, again, they add the word valley, to make Aviltom Valley. If you translate all the way back, it's actually Valley of the Horses Valley Valley.

Today we usually name places self-consciously. We still use a lot of descriptive names, but we also choose historical or literary references. Sometimes we honor prominent individuals by naming places after them, like MLK Park, even though the place has no direct connection to that person. Sometimes we even copy the names of faraway places, like New York or New England.

Dec. 14th, 2006

09:17 am - Reasons For Writing in a Genre You Don't Read

1. Watch a couple of movies based on books from genre X.
2. Decide those are crap.
3. Therefore, everything in genre X must be crap.

Option A:
      4A. Decide that everyone who writes in genre X is an illiterate idiot.
      5A. Decide that genre X is waiting for a brilliant writer who appreciates Real Literature to demonstrate how it should be done.
      6A. Decide that oneself is said brilliant writer.

Option B:
      4B. Decide that any semi-competent hack can get published in genre X.
      5B. Decide that tossing off a book in genre X is an easy way to make a few bucks to support one's efforts at writing Real Literature.

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