Issues for Indie Authors: Revising The Script, one Strong Verb at a Time

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By Shawn Stjean

Ever catch yourself substituting a wrong word for the right one, on purpose?  Dumbing your language down?  No?

Liar.  (As Emerson once opined, sometimes only one word works.  Like “Damn.”)

The collapse and convergence or shrinking of our language should be apparent to anyone who’s listening and reading: just observe how the word “way” (original meaning: path) has begun to permanently replace at least three other words in modern English: much, far, very.

“It’s way too easy” / “Mine’s way better”

“We go way back”/ “This happens way too often”

“That skirt’s way cool”

These in addition to its now-standard colloquial uses: “There’s no way I’m going there.” [slang for “possibility”]

We, as a literate culture, have somehow managed to lose our way [ahem.]

No, it isn’t just kids.  Watch your own language.  Authors and editors of published books and even what’s left of our newspapers have accepted such sentences as correct for twenty years.  But there’s something not so obvious here, like a complicating infection from an original illness.  And what we do once on purpose–to fit in, to seem up-to-date, for verisimilitude in dialogue, and so on, we repeat out of habit.

It’s all about verbs–weak ones–like the one in this sentence.  Go ahead–I’ll wait while you seek it.

You unearthed the problem, apprehended it, discovered it.   You found it.  Got it.  Yeah, my bad.

The verb IS (infinitive “to be” conjugated further as “was,” “were,” “are,” “being,”) lurking underneath those apostrophes and contractions, stands low as the base of a problematic pyramid, but the issue goes very deep, to the base foundations of illiteracy.  “To be,” as the weakest verb in our language, gets the most use.  It serves slave-duty.  Other third-tier infinitives: “To go” “To do.” “To say.” “To see.”

Next come hundreds of second-tier verbs, and even people who read frequently can get mired at this level, for their entire lives.   “I see what you mean.”  “I get it.” “I said so.”  “I went there.”

Crucial point: I remind my students, ad nauseum, that we don’t just desire better sounding verbs–we require more efficient verbs–ones that do more work.  “Attempt” may work no better than “try,” depending on context.  This advice runs counter to everything they assume–because everybody knows, the longer your essay, and the fancier the vocabulary, the higher the grade, right? (or the more pages in the book, the more money you can charge.)

One-dimensionality needs vigilant guarding against.

Now, among young folks I often like to point to pop culture for my examples, along with occasional pedantic references to Shakespeare and Milton.  Pop music functions well–great, thoughtful artists struggle right alongside horribly mediocre ones. Take:

Rush–the band’s name itself is a multi-signifying verb–though it’s also a noun.  Like the members themselves, the name works hard.  Check them out–and pay attention to the lyrics.

But let’s examine a more current example.  As I attended high school sporting events and practices this summer, I heard much motivational music blaring from loudspeakers:  here’s a YouTube link for the uninitiated, to the The Script’s excellent video for “Hall of Fame”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mk48xRzuNvA

The music video reaches a potential that the song itself does not.  As good and catchy and emotionally stirring as this tune featuring will.i.am is, and as genuinely great as it aspires to be, it ironically relies on some of the weakest language available in English.  And remember, student-athletes hearing it are absorbed in the act, at that very moment, of pushing themselves to become better.

Be students
Be teachers
Be politicians
Be preachers

There’s a certain limited value in the repetition, or parallelism here.   And there’s the musical issue–the stanza requires one-syllable verbs.  HOWEVER, take a look at what just a little more thought can accomplish:

VS.

Be students
Seek teachers
Hear politicians
Heed preachers

The revision emphasizes the process of becoming over the state of being, as every kid jock (not all deaf ballerinas or scrawny boxers) in the grind of rehearsal, workout, or practice knows at a gut level–you have to work hard at it.  And real students–of life–require more than simple classroom attendance, or book learning.  One must venture out and interact with others–listen, try, do, fail, succeed, fail again, try again, work harder.  I’d argue that a great deal of resonance has been added by these revisions: rather than substituting meaning, they multiply it.

Third tier verbs function merely as connectors (“Jack was happy.”)  Second tier [vague and nondescriptive] verbs communicate the basic idea and no more (“I said it,”) and First tier [the best word for the job] verbs ennoble us: make us think, challenge us, inspire us, reward our effort.

Here’s a better verse from the same song:

You can move a mountain
You can break rocks
You can be a master
Don’t wait for luck
Dedicate yourself and you can find yourself

“Way” better.  And it so happens that a one-syllable word like “wait” can be the exact, perfect one.

POST-TEST.  Some might object that pop music makes an easy target.  Fair enough.  For you writers out there, here’s another example of how commercial success does not require anything like the higher standards I’ve described above.  Tune in on that frequency as you read.  Perhaps these opening paragraphs of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo could be improved?

It happened every year, was almost a ritual. And this was his eighty-second birthday. When, as usual, the flower was delivered, he took off the wrapping paper and then picked up the telephone to call Detective Superintendent Morell who, when he retired, had moved to Lake Siljan in Dalarna. They were not only the same age, they had been born on the same day—which was something of an irony under the circumstances. The old policeman was sitting with his coffee, waiting, expecting the call.

“It arrived.”

“What is it this year?”

“I don’t know what kind it is. I’ll have to get someone to tell me what it is. It’s white.”

“No letter, I suppose.”

“Just the flower. The frame is the same kind as last year. One of those do-it-yourself ones.”

“Postmark?”

“Stockholm.”

“Handwriting?”

“Same as always, all in capitals. Upright, neat lettering.”

With that, the subject was exhausted, and not another word was exchanged for almost a minute. The retired policeman leaned back in his kitchen chair and drew on his pipe. He knew he was no longer expected to come up with a pithy comment or any sharp question which would shed a new light on the case. Those days had long since passed, and the exchange between the two men seemed like a ritual attaching to a mystery which no-one else in the whole world had the least interest in unravelling.

The Latin name was Leptospermum (Myrtaceae) rubinette. It was a plant about four inches high with small, heather-like foliage and a white flower with five petals about one inch across. The plant was native to the Australian bush and uplands, where it was to be found among tussocks of grass. There it was called Desert Snow. . .

Now, in America we all seem to believe that one can’t argue with success.  Yet, if this remains the best we professionals can do, I’m a little concerned about the future of the amateurs.  Because let us not forget: reading and writing remain the best activities for promoting critical thinking and growing the human brain.  Students have been taught to write in the passive voice (sentences have no actor in them, as this one.  Who taught the students to do it?,) which solves a few problems (overuse of “I”) but the cure becomes worse than the disease.  It leads to cliche’d and passive thinking.

I have no opinion on the plotting, characterization, attention-getting ability, expositional effectiveness, or any other aspect of Larssen’s work here.  He may well be a genius beyond my ken.  My example only applies to his use of language, which, by the standards described in this article, scores “mediocre” at best.  His characters certainly should be forgiven for their terseness and inarticulateness, designed in by the author as part of a shorthand between intimates.  In fact, in many ways, they speak better than the narrator (who, in two cases, uses “to be” forms three times in one sentence.)  This may sound pompous of me and hopelessly outmoded, but I would never let one of my own students get away with that.

Now lest anyone object that these can’t be improved–that sometimes one must use a lesser word–you are correct.  It’s true.  But, most of the time, it only takes another pass.  And some sweat of the brow.

REVISION:

The plant, native to the Australian bush and uplands, grew [hid, nestled, waited discovery] among tussocks of grass.

Much more efficient–AND the emphasis shifts to the important element under discussion–the plant itself.  But then again, not the best way to get paid by the word, fill up more pages, consume people’s time, or, much like the rare flower of the book, encourage the growth of readers, among stagnant masses.

Perhaps the world does know Larsson’s name–for the moment–and I’m sure he’s made his money.  Will he, or The Script and will.i.am, ever share company with that other famous William, of the 16th century, master of i.am.bic pentameter?  I wonder: After all, no one ever rode into the Hall of Fame on their third- and second-best.

Most sink to the master standard of our time–“Good enough”–or tread water as the Good many were born with.  Only the few rise to Greatness.  Because they’re willing to earn it.  Learn.  Sweat.  Think.  Work harder, smarter, and better.

But hey, as the Most like to say: it is what it is.

Right?

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Traps For Indie Writers: Thematic Ambiguity, or Why Revenge Doesn’t [and Does] Work

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Earlier this year, I wrote about the overlooked importance of plot complication (Act 2 in a 3 or 5 act structure, whether play or novel.)  In Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, the protagonist receives his mission from the ghost of his dead father:  “Revenge [my] foul and most unnatural murder.”  Sounds straightforward enough.  So much so that young Hamlet immediately vows to do it swiftly, and without distraction.  However, the youth (and many readers) overlook the Ghost’s further, vital instruction: that no matter how his son pursues the act, “Taint not thy mind.” Now, invest the time to spin out the implications of “taint.” To paraphrase, Get justice for my murder, with extreme prejudice, yet do not in the process become that which you hate the most.

Most, though not all, of my university students, when this paradoxical pair of charges is brought to their attention, agree: this isn’t Mission Difficult, it’s Mission Impossible.  Take revenge, but remain pure.

One of the more challenging tasks for intermediate writers (which includes pretty much everyone who’s ever published anything–no ever masters writing,) because it takes so much self-discipline, is to communicate thematic meaning through plot, dialogue, symbolism, and other literary elements like motif, without either moralizing through the narrator or using a character as a mouthpiece.  And I think this temptation stems from the very real possibility that readers routinely mistake the intentions of writers.

The idea that Revenge simply isn’t a viable way to obtain justice, while endorsed by most of the literary classics we treasure, remains controversial.  Popular film and television continues to treat the subject on a rolling basis, sometimes with much more depth than manipulative stuff like the masochistic  Death Wish franchise.  And the more complex the writer and audience, the more ambiguous revenge gets.  Just catch some Sopranos reruns.  Because, as human beings, most of us have either done it, or wanted badly to do it.

Television, unlike film, can be dangerous in the messages it sends, because of the continued need to preserve characters for next week and next year.  Tony Soprano does seem to get away with it.  But examine his quality of life.  And. . .watch that final episode carefully, and experience the absolute sense of dread.

Let’s say you got away with it. So you feel great, right?  The world seems sweeter, your life is cleaner, food tastes great.  Hmm.  No–what you did was exchange a cheap sense of justice served for a subtly degraded life.  Because someone hurt you, you hurt back–and now the world is just a bit worse: the trust has eroded like ice caps melting over the course of years.  It’s like the price thieves pay: they must always lock their own doors.  And liars can never trust what people tell them.

Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “A Cask of Amontillado,” a deeper work than the much-anthologized “Tell-Tale Heart,” fools untrained readers into thinking that bad deeds can go unpunished, but a close reading demonstrates that the narrator is uttering a deathbed confession in dire fear for his eternal soul.

The coat-of-arms of the Montresor family is that of a serpent bruising the heel of man, which in turn is crushed under that heel.  The common biblical allusion to Genesis signals what, in modern terms, we might call an endless circle of violence, which can be abstractly represented by the common recycling sign below.

As I teach works that use revenge plots, a minority of students usually don’t agree with the textual evidence–we call this “reading against the grain”–or find that evidence ambiguous.  In other words, a theme that does not seem to accord with basic human truths–such as “Revenge DOES work” always resonates with a few readers.  People who believe that may value personal satisfaction above all else.  This is probably why most fictional revenge plots raise the stakes to life-and-death–so that there’s no mistaking the moral implications of punishing another human being, in pursuit of personal justice.  Even so, ambiguities do persist.  Hamlet may be dead, at the end of Shakespeare’s play, along with his girlfriend, her father and brother, and various members of the royal family and a few friends, BUT the “something rotten in the state” of Denmark has been purged.  We have some reason to believe that Fortinbras will make a better king than any of the Danes, and so the greater good has arguably been served by Hamlet’s quest, if only unwittingly.

On a personal level, however–spiritual remorse of the Poe variety aside–all revenge does is make the world that much more fallen and perverse, which is why the Arthurian mythology stands as antithetical to the medieval “might makes right” ethic–an outmoded code of a vanished epoch.

So, as always, resist the urge to tell, and SHOW revenge not working, if that’s what you believe.  Let your characters suffer for it.  Twist the plot.  Embed the symbology.  Freight the dialogue with irony.

Or, if you believe differently, let them prosper.  And don’t forget to lock your door.

 

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Zombie Fiction or Vivid Talent?: ABNA’s Top 500 Amazon Breakthrough Novelists reach Quarter Finals

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By Shawn StJean

While this contest undoubtedly warrants continued support from all involved, this year I’m adding a political dimension to my announcements.  Aside from the obvious tactic of identifying undiscovered–one might say, buried–talent in the cheapest way possible by the Amazon would-be monopoly, is the fix in at the ABNA?  Are the top contestants going to inevitably turn out to be those who stick with the safest, recycled, cliched plots and characters?  Are we in for more angsty vampire fiction, or do any true innovators lie among those who make the final cuts?  For those who fall aside at this point, it may seem like the “most unkindest cut of all” today, especially if you’ve dared to differ: you’ve created fresh antagonists and plots, written in an experimental style, and/or recombined familiar elements in unfamiliar ways.

So let’s see how many metaphors I can mix into one FTW cocktail:

This post is for those not moving on: Don’t Despair.  Don’t Eat Your Own Hearts Out.  Your rewards may not reside in the material realm–this year, at least, or in the hive of the Amazon universe.  The carpenter never raises the floor to match the level of the nail sticking out above it–he always beats the nail down.  But don’t go down straight.  To Hell with the carpenter–bend, and let him trip on you.  And keep that hard head!  We’ve got enough drones in this Borg Cube of a publishing industry already. . .

link to QF list: http://www.amazon.com/b?node=332264011

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Homage to the late Michael Turner for the above image from Witchblade #150, a superimposition over?/under?/behind? the cover to issue #1.  Talk about a fresh spin on an old concept!  

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award time again: 2014’s Second Rounders announced

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By Shawn StJean

For many fledgling and Independent publishers and authors, Spring means CreateSpace’s Amazon Breakthrough Novel (ABNA) contest is in full bloom.  As many as 10,000 initial entrants in five categories (General Fiction, Romance, Mystery and Thriller, Young Adult Fiction, Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror) are cut to 500 for the second round.  These novelists have just been announced–check the lists to see if your book, or the book of a friend, appears on it: http://www.amazon.com/b?node=332264011

For Indie Writers, this contest represents the pinnacle of their ambivalence toward the traditional publishing establishment (hence the speeding bullet illo, above).  On the one hand, it’s a ruse for Amazon to locate and identify the best new talent, and lure them with the promise of an exclusive publishing contract with Createspace.  It’s free, and thus doubly enticing.  The exposure alone, for folks getting to the higher rounds, may be worth it.  And, oh yeah, prizemoney: enough to keep a frugal young writer from getting tossed out of the coffeehouse for another year.  On the other hand, there’s the inevitable crash of defeat and disillusionment when one doesn’t go forward: “It’s all politics, it’s rigged, my stuff is better than those lousy winners, why do I keep throwing pearls before swine, I’m wasting my life. . .”  Hey, that’s competition, Bub.  If you can’t stand a little flesh-wounding, get off the shooting range.  You’ve probably already discovered, or soon will, that you’re as much a book marketeer as a writer of books.

The third rounders (quarter-finalists) will be announced on April 14.  For now, hearty Congrats to all those moving forward, especially friend of the blog and the author of Tetherbird, Emily McDaid!  And for those who didn’t make the cut–just KEEP WRITING!

 

Indie Authors Defiant: What Are We, and Why, and Who Wants to Know?

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By Shawn StJean

In part this post is a response to my friend Emily McDaid’s ruminations awhile back, Why Do We Do it?, http://emilymcdaid.com/blog/12/why-do-we-do-it and to anyone feeling a similar crisis of spirit over your chosen, unremunerative path.

I’ve been teaching English for 22 years, and every Autumn I find myself reviewing whether I think it’s still worth it–okay, so I’m a bit early–it’s been a tough year. 

My best students are often the most concerned about their grades.  I always tell them, “Do your best, and the grades will take care of themselves.” To me (who was a college student myself for 10 years,) this referring them to a higher standard seems so clear.  But from the undergraduate perspective, and given the pressures and competition of the job market out there, I can empathize with their concern. 

Now, as an Indie author, try this one on for size: “Do your best, and the sales and reviews will take care of themselves.”  Seems hard to swallow, right?  Yeah–now we can really feel my undergrads’ point-of-view. 

‘Cuz writing is no more about making money than going to college is about grades.  College is about learning, making friends, drinking too much, sleeping in the wrong bed, finding out excuses won’t work anymore, doing your own laundry, not eating right, throwing a frisbee, flirting, and. . .learning.  Writing is all of that, too, and more (I’m fairly certain they still offer courses in writing, so it’s no coincidence.) 

Writers have a higher standard to uphold, and that makes us a bit freakish.  The Amazon reviews will be unfair, the good ones mysteriously vanish, sales slump or never start, favors go unreturned, the blog doesn’t get enough hits, it never ends, and it’s all so much damn work. 

You aren’t writing for fame and fortune.  You aren’t.  If those things are in the cards for you, they’ll come like the pot that boils, unwatched (I love to mix metaphors.  Take that, corporate editors!)  You’re doing it for a dual-higher purpose.  One: You’re doing your mite to keep literacy alive on our small planet.  Once we lose it–the ability to communicate at a level above the blurb, to ponder our purpose in words, to think in other than cliches, to access the records of our own fitful past, to force those dormant neurons to fire into life so that our heads actually hurt from the brain growing, a useful pain very few human activities can produce–once we lose those, we’ve lost civilization.  And we don’t want to find out what replaces it–worse, we don’t want our children to find it out for us. 

Purpose Number Two:  You’re writing because you are a freak.  Somehow the latent and preposterous belief that everyone possesses–that, deep down, you really are special, a unique if garbled snowflake–is actually true.  Why else would you pursue such a pathetic risk-vs.-reward-ratio, against all the common sense that pushes most of the human race to their toolboxes, spreadsheets, trucks, plows, cubicles, and secure paychecks, every day?  Face it: you’re a mutant, an X-Man.  There’s a screw loose. 

And you can think of your reward for reaching toward a higher standard this way: When there’s an errant nail sticking up above the hardwood floor, will the carpenter raise the entire floor to meet it?  What will he do?  That’s right–he’ll drive it down, to the level of all the other nails.  It better have a hard head.

But my feeling is, if they’re going to beat on your head anyway–and they will, ‘cuz everyone’s a nail–you might as well go down hard, and bend, or work your way out again, your best way. 

 As Thoreau once insisted, it’s not enough to be a philosopher, or even found a school and think better, if you can’t live according to your wisdom.  And if realizing that pursuing money is not going to improve your life, but will actually hinder your progress, isn’t one of the first steps in reaching a higher standard, then what in Hell is? (I paraphrase).  

To put it another way: 

If you’re a freak like me, Wave your flag 
If you’re a freak like me, Get off your ass 
It’s our time now, To let it all hang out 

So shout if you’re a freak like me, Don’t apologize 
They can’t hold you down, You were born to rise 
It’s our time now, to come out    -Halestorm

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The Stand Writers Take

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By Shawn StJean

Many people of artistic temperament are born into the world with a mixture of native ability and an egomania that insulates them from the criticisms that come the way of everyone who dares appear in public.  The suffering that produces actual artists—painters who regularly paint, musicians who dutifully practice and play, and writers who really write—is not their portion, and they often end by retreating into the safe cocoon of their unrealized potential: “I could have if I wanted to. . .”

In American Beauty, middle-aged Kevin Spacey is asked, by a bodybuilding trainer, which muscle groups he’s trying to target.  His reply—“I just want to look good naked”—is only human.  But inasmuch as other artists all must run their gauntlets, it falls to writers to strip themselves naked and stand on the rocks and in the sun, where all gazes, deserving and otherwise, may fall.  They know they’ve done the reps, reformed their diets, put in the sweat and the time, and done their best.  And yet, they also know that the extra pounds from drink or age, the stretch marks, the tattoos and scars of youth, the genetic abnormalities, or simple, forgivable imperfections may still glare out.  And any writer sensitive to the human condition cannot hide behind the mirror forever: the plain fact is, some folks will not only not praise what they see, they’ll be positively repelled by it for their own reasons, and they will spit toxin.

This is why, above all things, writers must trust.  Trust themselves, of course, but trust someone close, another set of eyes—the sharper and more secure the better—belonging to one who has stood on that same shore, shivering in the wind, and yet whose scrutiny of one’s limitations is unaccompanied by the instinct to point and laugh, and gain a cheap personal warmth at the expense of the exposed initiate.  Why must this other person(s) be sought for help? Can’t it be done alone?  No.  Your partner lives, not without those same scars, but with them—and such healing from them as the Fates allow.  She has survived all-too-easy-to-meet rejection, and refused to run from the stage, to wrap herself tightly in the cloak of invisibility of the failure-turned-critic, “mind tainted,” as Hamlet’s ghost warns, and hurl that bile back at those who have met some measure of public acceptance, or might.

Writers who write stand not only looked at, but looking back.  Search, seek, and you will find the others.  There are those on shore admiring, though their voices may not always carry well on the wind, what they behold– however flawed–among the rough cacaphony of the crowd.

2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award–500 Move on to QuarterFinals

by Shawn StjeanImage

Apologies, I know this is last year’s graphic.

LINK to remaining competitors:

http://www.amazon.com/Breakthrough-Novel-Award-Books/b/ref=amb_link_356616422_1?ie=UTF8&node=332264011&pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=center-1&pf_rd_r=1K52G9M7XXVFQV1YGV3D&pf_rd_t=1401&pf_rd_p=1305986342&pf_rd_i=1000675201

The 25 Semi-Finalists will be announced on April 16. This is an exciting contest to follow, as it: 1) helps keep Indie Writing in the public eye,  2) it will presumably throw a lot of light on to previously obscure writers who advance, and 3) (unlike many other “contests,”) it’s free to enter–thus very democratic!  This is more important than many realize, as the profits on unknown books can be so modest, that their creators will decline any form of promotion that bites into those profits–(for example, one would have to sell 10 copies of a $2.99 e-book to break even on a $20 contest entry.)  So the ABNA is kind of the U.S. Open for Authors.  Congratulations to all moving on, and also to everyone who entered and put themselves out there!

Keep Cultural Literacy Alive!