Saturday, March 11, 2006

Everything "I" Know is Wrong (Well, Maybe not Everything)

Before we get to the main topic of this entry, I feel obliged to mention that the handful of readers who visit this blog have complained that a drawing of myself is on display instead of a real photo. Be careful what you ask for, I always say, but in the spirit of giving those five more than disinterested individuals what they want, I've supplied an un-retouched photo of myself elsewhere on this entry.

Okay, then. While you're setting that image to be wallpaper for your PC, let's get to the subject at hand.


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With My Finger in My "I"
Growing up, as I moved through high school and college, I had many good teachers who related to me a host of useful truisms aout writing fiction. Most of these I later confirmed through experience as I tried to improve my ham-fisted prose.

Let's talk about a few of them.

The first on my list won't be a surprise to most. It goes like this: poetry is the writing form most difficult to master, the short story second hardest and the novel, easiest. The difficult forms of writing are difficult because they require more discipline. As a result, a lot of first-time writers with marginal skills go for the novel. They spew out words like so-much diarrhea and expect people to lap it up.

Gag me.

Another maxim I believe to be true concerns the lesser merit of dialogue-heavy stories. There are exceptions to this rule, but they are rare, usually works of skilled craftsmen that are adroit at conversational cadence and dialect and working for a specific effect. For the vast majority of semi-, quasi- and just plain non-professional writers, however, the precept holds true. Bad writers attain a false sense of security writing down the "voices they hear in their head" and the result is fifteen pages filled with the conversations of three to four people who speak exactly the same way. This leads to a dullness of tone and long stretches of totally unreal information-filled quotations that advance the "plot". Some publications even state that they won't take "dialogue-driven stories". I hear ya. I mean, I love writing conversation as much as anyone, and I hold firmly to the delusion that, on a good day, mine can be fast-paced and funny, but even so I feel driven to practice moderation and challenge myself by doing other things within the story. You can't grow if you keep taking the easiest path.

Okay, if you're still with me, and chances are you're not, let's tackle a third adage, from which today's entry gets its title. It goes something like this:

"First-person narrative takes less craft than third-person narrative."

I have believed this ever since college, and it's the main reason why I have experienced decades-long distress over the fact that first person comes easiest to me. I have seen at least one SF/F/H critic whom I respect savage an anthology for being "first-person heavy". I have seen at least one set of submission guidelines that discourages the same. I have tried, whenever possible, to force myself to write in third person. I've succeeded at least once, but it wasn't the rollicking good time I had when writing such first-person narratives as "Resurrected" and "Night Wounds Time", joy I must say was tempered in the aftermath of their creation because I could never shake this lingering doubt: they came relatively easy because they were lesser achievments.

Then the weirdest thing (now you can't say I didn't work "weird" and "fiction" into this entry) happened. Byron, the Chairperson of FWOMP, entered our second anthology, Monterey Shorts 2, in a contest for self-published anthologies. We didn't make the cut, but the rejection letter contained this sentence which was gratifying in an unexpected, cross-purposed way:

"A really good example of direct, challenging writing is "Night Wounds Time," which speeds on and dares the reader to keep up. Not coincidental that this story was first person."
Even more confounding was this statement which appeared later:

"How come no first person? Is this a forgotten art?"

Holey Moley! "A forgotten art!" Could it be that I was churning out a more exalted form of drek than I had previously thought? For those of you familiar with how I moan over the lack of recognition my stories get, this was nice reinforcement from someone I assume knows what they are talking about.

I'm going to celebrate by dusting off a short story I haven't worked on for awhile given its dubious first-person pedigree. It's called "Delf" and its about a bootlegged intoxicant with just a little extra...kick.

More on that later.


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My New Favorite Word: Putative
This may be semi-obscure--though what blog would be complete without a little self-indulgent obscurity?--but I found a new favorite word the other day. It was in, of all things, the sports page of The San Francisco Chronicle. It read something to the effect that "Jason Schmidt was the putative leader of the San Francisco pitching staff."

It's not often that the sports page initiates a trip to Dictionary.com, but there I was, looking up "putative" and finding out that it meant "Generally regarded as such; supposed".

This word was a great find for me, even though it's now drawing a resounding ho-hum from you. It's even that least sexy of the articles of speech, the adjective (and if you think adjectives are sexy, I have some photos of Margaretet Hamilton you can buy for cheap).

Anyway, "putative" has value for me because I write white papers for consultantcy to banks about subjects like "How to Prevent Fraud" and "A Holistic Approach to Compliancy." Okay, okay, that's even more boring than a reflection on the word putative, but hear me out. We have to set up all these papers with background research to provide objective support to the problem/solution the paper will pose, but I don't have a lot of space to do it in. So as a lead I always find myself considering writing things like:

"Experts agree that..."

or

"The common opinion is..."

It may be me, but I absolutely hate those kinds of phrases; they're far too general. And because these papers get reviewed with a fine-tooth comb not only by the consultants for whom I ghost write, but by the legal department, I am always paranoid that someone is going to come to me and say, "What experts? Or "Whose opinion?"

Well, my little word "putative" may not totally end my paranoia, but it certainly provides the opportunity to post such generalities in a more elegant way.

"Fraud, the putative bane of the financial services industry..."

"Putative opinion would have you believe that more technology is better..."

I love it. I knew reading the sports page would improve my writing. Don't ever let anyone tell you different. And if you think it's bereft of weird fiction, I need only cite the cosmic horror that is the Golden State Warriors' franchise.