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February 16, 2005

Motivation
Posted by Teresa at 09:18 PM * 228 comments

Yo, everybody? Do me a favor. Tell Lucy Huntzinger to finish her novel.

Comments on Motivation:
#1 ::: J.K.Richard ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2005, 10:00 PM:

The marvels of internet communication; first there was ePublishing; now we have eQueries, eBadgering, eSubmissions, eDeadlines and...
*You've got mail*
...Hey look eForm-Rs!
Ahh the marvels!
-=Jeff=-

#2 ::: Sherwood ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2005, 10:11 PM:

A neatly numbered list of reasons why (and what shall happen if she isn't nippy about it) will await her in her LJ upon her return from points east.

#3 ::: Anna ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2005, 10:20 PM:

I will if she'll tell me to finish editing mine. ;)

#4 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2005, 10:54 PM:

Well, I'd read it. And I'm picky.

C'mon, Lucy. Finish the book!

#5 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2005, 10:58 PM:

But she says she has finished it on her biography page, penultimate paragraph:

She decided to end the diary at the same time in order to concentrate on writing her first novel. She finished the novel September 1, 2004.
#6 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2005, 11:20 PM:

We're talking the revisions. Ahem.

#7 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2005, 11:27 PM:

That was the first draft. She's now balking at revising it.

#8 ::: Stephan Zielinski ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2005, 11:32 PM:

She's in the City, right? You want I should go lean on her, boss?

#9 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2005, 11:46 PM:

Yeah, that'd be good. She just muttered "Bring it on," but I think you can take her.

#10 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2005, 11:58 PM:

Maybe I should try some sympathetic magic and work on finishing this dissertation.

Nah. If that trick worked, I'd have finished the dissertation by now.

#11 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 12:05 AM:

You want I should give her The Look? I got lotsa practice.

#12 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 12:21 AM:

Once upon a time, Lucy gave the following annotations about me:

"Sharp mind.
"Sharp tongue."

Oh, Lucy, finish your revisions...

#13 ::: elizabeth bear ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 12:47 AM:

I don't know her, but I think she should finish her novel.

Finishing is the nice part. Or, at least, it beats the stuffing out of middles.

#14 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 01:29 AM:

<shame class="heaping">
September was a while back, wasn't it?
</shame>

#15 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 01:35 AM:

Lovely code, pericat!

#16 ::: Shalanna ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 03:23 AM:

Well, it's kind of up to the artist whether he/she wants to make the suggested revisions. It can be an "invasion" of your creative vision, and it can be really tough to visualize what will turn up once you've started cutting and pasting (you think it might be a patchwork quilt and a mess, and it scares you.) I have no influence on this lady. Were it I, and I had a book contract in hand (which is, I presume, the reason she has said revision letter in hand as well), I'd be all over it like stink on s--I mean, like white on rice. However, it's an artistic decision, and it can be painful to take out all those lovely descriptions of the Ukranian sunset as seen from inside one's bellybutton (I saved mine in the "Deletia" file for the fifteenth book in the series, when my readers won't mind so much). Sometimes you'll envision revisions (that's a cool phrase), and it'll seem the book *was* better from an artistic viewpoint before you revised it, and other times it *wasn't*, but if that's what's going to make it commercial . . . all I can say is, I wish THAT were my problem (having an editorial letter in hand, I mean.) I have to send out, get rejected wordlessly, and then figure out whether/what to revise. Which is far more chancy, quality-wise (and may lack wisdom entirely.)

So I suppose I'm kind of on "her side" in a sense and hoping you'll be patient, and in another sense I'm impatient with her as well--not because I know anything about the book, but because my life (unlike hers, judging by her bio page) has seemed like one long endless struggle (interrupted by a few long, soaking baths and several temper tantrums) to write something that a New York editor would buy , and I would hope that people who *do* sell would be all over doing whatever it takes to get that book into the production line. But what do I know?

#17 ::: Shalanna ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 03:31 AM:

I should mention that Nietzsche said, "He who would be a creator must first become a destroyer and break tables of values." So there you are.

Going off now to bust up them multiplication tables.

#18 ::: Dorothy Rothschild ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 06:12 AM:

Can I join the growing chorus of 'someone tell me to finish MY novel, too?'

#19 ::: Eleanor ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 07:59 AM:

And mine, which has sprouted so many changes recently that it has no right to call itself a third draft any more.

#20 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 08:28 AM:

The text that you perceive is not the text that you have written.

All drafts are illusion; all words are illusion; all readers are illusion; all questions of meaning are built of illusion.

So, too, with editors; the text that they perceive is not the text that you have written. To revise is only to alter the editor's illusion, the editor who is also a reader and so themselves an illusion. The market, that myriad of illusions, asks "Are they a worthy tale-teller? Can they change a dream's dream?".

This is only as air demands to be breathed, and not knowledge, for the myriad of illusions posses custom, and not knowledge.

The story is not an illusion; it is not the dream of the text, nor the dream of the artist, nor the dream of all artists. It is only itself.

The words are a signpost, a window, the edge of a shadow unto the story, and so others -- who are themselves illusions -- can find where the story is only itself, through the mist of words.

So it is that the dream of some words serves one story better than another, for if the story is not like unto a distance and the illusion of words is like unto a signpost, the illusions of readers who dream that they have found the story will be few.

Even so, the story is not always lost. That-which-is is glimpsed, and the illusions change themselves, because knowledge has passed through them.

This is not a miracle, but the nature of the world.

#21 ::: Suzanne ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 08:40 AM:

Lucy: finish your novel already, eh?

And *everyone* else, finish your novels too (and I will finish mine, I promise). I just built an entire room's worth of bookshelves[1] and for the first time in more than a decade I actually have room for new books. (-:

([1] the construction of which led to me to wonder if there is a way of specifying the sturdiness of bookshelves based on how many Hartwell anthologies it will hold without bending)

#22 ::: Andy Ihnatko ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 08:46 AM:

Dear Lucy:

We've never met. In fact, we've double-never-met, as I've never even met the person who's just urged me to email you. I am therefore a Stranger Once Removed, but my medium of non-meeting you was the Internet, and as such I'm allowed -- nay, encouraged -- to stick my nose where it doesn't belong and involve myself in situations which I am only vaguely familiar.

Thus armed with a powerful mandate, I want to talk to you about this novel of yours.

You are, no doubt, being browbeaten by dozens of people with a view towards getting you to finish your revisions. My advice to you: Resist. Buck. Follow the fine example of the five-year-old kid whom I encountered the other day at the supermarket, somewhere near the Dairy aisle. When her parent confronted her with a directive with which she desired to show a vote of unequicoval non-confidence, she immediately threw herself to the ground, hitting it on the very first try, and proceeded to stage a tantrum whose scale and passion caused the local barometric pressure to drop by fourteen millibars for the entire afternoon.

Why resist, Lucy? Well, clearly you know full well why. You seem like a sensible woman. But I'll explain it for the benefit of anyone who is (naughtily) looking in on this highly personal and private discussion between you and me: if you finish your revision, then your novel will be one step closer to being pubished. And we certainly can't have that, can we?

You and I know better. If your novel is published, terrible, terrible things will happen. The specific wording of the incantation that breaks the seal on the tomb of the Damned and floods our earthly plane with the Forces of Darkness is lost to the ages, but historians note that it's supposedly a simple phrase of eight words. Your novel is considerably more than eight words long. It's therefore conceivable that it contains the Phrase That Must Never Be Repeated. I pray, Lucy, that you stick to your guns and take no chances. I have a small wager on the outcome of the Academy Awards and I'm keen to live long enough to see how that works out.

Even in the unlikely event that pubication of your novel will _not,_ as you suspect, set alight the Curtain of Pain and lead to the subjugation, torture and execution of all life on Earth, would there be any benefit to putting this novel of yours behind you? Of course not. Editors keep nudging you to finish it because they're selfish, selfish creatures. The more books they move through their offices, the more comp copies they receive, which means more titles that they can sell off at yard sales and online auctions, and more money to spend on the highly-specialized roasting pans and silverware with which they cook and eat the hearts of innocent children.

You don't want to be a part of that, do you?

No, your plan is much, much better. If you finish your novel, you'll only have to start writing another one. Remember how hard it was to get the first one finished? Hell, think of how hard it was to even start the bugger. You don't want to go through that again, do you? Plus, once you've finished and published the second one, there's the risk that your work would develop a devoted and passionate following. What happens then? Yup: these so-called "fans" of yours would only demand a THIRD book. A third opportunity to accidentally unseal the tomb of the Damned, more comp copies that fund your editor's pursuit of his or her unholy appetites...no, no, no. It's a vicious cycle and you're wise to jump off at this early stage before it even really starts spinning.

Besides, there's nothing more satisfying than being one of those writers who is fond of saying -- repeatedly, thoughtfully, and without provocation -- that You're Working On A Novel, No, it Hasn't been Published Yet, You Haven't really Finished yet, you Can't Rush these Things, Can You?

You did, of course, make a common rookie mistake in that you actually completed the draft. See, the great thing about being One Of Those Writers is that the people you meet will never actually demand that you show them some sample pages. It does help if you can say "Think 'The Hunt For Red October' meets 'Rendezvous With Rama'" if you're pressed for a general impression of the alleged work, but that's just insurance.

No, usually, the people you meet are impressed enough with your thoughtful, writerly expression, you see. It's a terrific labor-saving device. You want to know why P.G. Wodehouse was forced to write a hundred novels? He had this social-anxiety disorder that kept him inside the house most of the day. Wanting to describe himself as a Writer, but lacking an audience for the Thoughtful Expression that he'd spent much of his late teen years cultivating, he had no alternative but to actually sit down and write the damned books and then have them published.

What did that get him, I ask? A huge personal fortune, a knighthood, an international reputation as the greatest writer of humorous English literature, key influence of untold generations of writers, and the satisfaction of having created a fictional character equal to Sherlock Holmes and Superman in terms of immediate worldwide recognition, even eight decades after its creation.

Meanwhile, for decades, the neighborhoods and playgrounds near his publisher's offices was curiously free of the sound of children. The guilt gnawed at Wodehouse, even though he surely didn't know any better. He did not, after all, have the benefit of my reassuring words. Perhaps if he'd followed the same advice I gave you, he'd have lived to be 100 years old, instead of dying at the green age of 93, the terrible burden of remorse having taken hours, or even days, off of his natural lifespan.

Stick. To. Your. Guns. Lucy.

That manuscript of yours of much, much more use to the world sealed up there on your hard drive than it would be if it were revised, edited, typeset, proofed, printed, and distributed to bookstores and readers all over the world. You know it and I know it. So don't let these thoughtless jerks wear you down.


Your Pal -- A.

#23 ::: Skwid ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 09:03 AM:

Graydon...you think that's air you're breathing?

(Seriously, though...step...away...from the Kant...slowly, now!)

#24 ::: Eleanor ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 09:43 AM:

Lucy, get a move on and finish your novel. The very existence of this thread strongly implies that it's a good one. So, naturally, I want to read it, but I can't do that until you've finished it. You don't want me reading your unpolished first draft, do you?

#25 ::: Pronoia ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 09:45 AM:

I don't know that I type for laughing after that, Andy. Do you mind if I print that off and substitute my name for Lucy's? It will be ever so motivating....

#26 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 10:22 AM:

I'd also like to make some minor alterations to Andy's sterling effort, although it will be not just changing names, but slight tweaking to fit my problem, i.e. to suggest that it is time I did something about making up a submission package to add to the Tor slushpile.

(I'm home again. I have DSL. I have free time. I have not having to explain "what I'm doing on that computer". I have not having to explain "what this stuff on the printer is". For about three weeks until I go off on my travels again. I *will* get that submission package done and in the post before I go.)

#27 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 10:26 AM:

Skwid --

Were it not air, it would not burn.

#28 ::: Andy Perrin ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 10:47 AM:

Lucy: I don't know you either, but after reading that biography on your site, I'm dying to see any properly revised book you care to write.

Screwtape...er...Andy: That was brilliant.

#29 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 11:00 AM:

Andy Ihnatko: Where were you when I was not-finishing my dissertation?

#30 ::: epistole ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 11:02 AM:

Andy:

You win the internet. For at least a week.

HEY LUCY DO IT I WANNA SEE TERESA EAT A HEART THAT'D BE RAD 'COURSE I DON'T MEAN ACTUAL KID HEART THAT'D BE LIKE CREEPY BUT, DUDE, TERESA + HEART = GNARLY*2^10e4.

#31 ::: Columbine ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 11:03 AM:

Dear Lucy:

I do know you, and I don't dare poke you about your novel because you know where too many of the bodies are buried. But, um, I'd like to see it one of these days. Of course, if I say that then you will turn around and say the same thing to me. Tricky business this.

P.S. It is always good to have continued affirmation that Andy Ihnatko, whom I have never met or even corresponded with, remains true to form.

#32 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 11:17 AM:

Kant, Skwid? I'd be telling Graydon to lay the Duns Scotus on the floor and assume the position, only just at the moment I've no idea what the position is.

Eh, Lucy, I've got 25K words to go on mine. Wanna drag?

#33 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 11:29 AM:

If Lucy finishes her book, I will undertake to roast and eat a heart. I don't guarantee that it'll be the heart of a child, virgin, or other member of a traditional sacrificial demographic group. However, I do guarantee that I won't wuss out and eat a chicken heart, or anything like that: Arthur is safe.

#34 ::: Beth ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 11:48 AM:

Lucy: Do finish the book, but let us know when that happens so the rest of us know when to avoid Teresa and her cutlery.

#35 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 11:50 AM:

Kant? Duns Scotus? Maybe I'm mistaken, but Graydon's post sounds Buddhist to me.

#36 ::: Mris ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 11:51 AM:

Hearts are on sale a lot of places this week, Teresa.

I'm a little confused about what Shalanna said, though: are we talking about, "I, Teresa, would like Lucy, my friend, to finish revising her book to the point where she considered it finished"? Or is it, "I, Teresa, would like Lucy, who happens to be my friend but is in this case also someone under contract to publish a book with the company that employs me, to finish revising her book in the ways we discussed professionally"? It seems to me to change the situation.

In either case, Lucy, my sympathies, because revision makes me cranky, but if I have to do it I don't see any reason you should be exempt. Misery, company, etc.

#38 ::: Christina Schulman ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 12:07 PM:

Lucy: Screw the revisions. PublishAmerica will take your book without crushing your artistic vision!

#39 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 12:16 PM:

Christina: Santa Fe-style rice and beans nearly decorated my monitor just now. (And my boss has asked me to not eat over the keyboard anymore.)

Lucy: Finish your novel.

Self: Finish your novel. But first finish the short story.

#40 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 12:43 PM:

Teresa --

Thank you.

I was starting to think my estimation of my command of tone was entirely awry.

#41 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 01:13 PM:

Well, I just got here, so it's too late to say "Gone, Gone, Gone Beyond, Gone Altogether Beyond! O what an awakening! Glory!" to Graydon's post.

Duns Scotus, feh.

I will instead say that when I mail my yet-to-be-finished-or-even-begun stories (about 3 in my head with plots and big chunks of actual text, just waiting to be written down).

#42 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 01:14 PM:

Oh, and Lucy? Finish the damn novel already, OK?

#43 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 01:23 PM:

Hi Lucy! Teresa says to finish revising your book or she'll cook and eat your heart!

#44 ::: Cathy ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 01:47 PM:

So offer her a small tasty contract while she's there--then she'll have to finish it. And Lucy, my mom's waiting to read it!

#45 ::: Harry Connolly ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 01:59 PM:

Hi, Lucy.

A lot of people have already told you to finish your book. Instead of repeating that, I'm going to suggest that you have some fun. Life is short. Do things that you enjoy.

If you enjoy finishing the novel, even better.

#46 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 02:08 PM:

To reiterate, Teresa is not the editor to whom Lucy will be showing this book. Neither am I. It's not the kind of novel in which we specialize. This is the recreational harrassment of an old friend, not a devious editorial scheme.

#47 ::: Metal Fatigue ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 02:40 PM:

Duns Scotus and Buddhism are not exactly polar opposites.

#48 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 03:25 PM:

Graydon, I'm going to print that out and hang it up. It's eerie and weird and I think it will scare me into doing this faster.

The hing about writing, at least in my condition, is that the work doesn't matter to anybody but the writer until it's a thing in someone else's hand. And if that hand never takes it up -- well, that's a terrifying thing -- like contemplating the abyss, or what happens when entropy wins: or like watching "Ed Wood."

#49 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 03:27 PM:

Now I'm confused. It appears that Teresa and Patrick are "Playing Hardball." As Patrick has explained:

Just in case you were contemplating a pickup game. Evidently, Republicans have special rules for baseball, too:
“I can play hardball as well as anybody. That’s what I did, cut people’s hearts out.” —Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN).

Skwid correctly noted that: "Heart Cutter outer ...that's that guy that stands behind the catcher, right?"

But now I can't understand when the Heart Cutter Outer eats the heart. Is that during trhe 7th-inning stretch? And I can't remember Teresa's explanation of the issues in the American League versus the National League, in terms of the Designated Heart Cutter Outer. That was back when Boston was in the process of winning a World Series, while Hell froze over. Now the New England Patriots won the superbowl twice in a row (3 of the past 4 years). The NFL policy on cooking and eating hearts differs, especially regarding steroids.

So please, Lucy, finish that novel so that I can learn the answers to these throbbing problems.

You really aorta do as they suggest!

#50 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 04:09 PM:

Teresa has not said what kind of heart she would roast. So we don't know, and we should not jump to conclusions.

May I recommend roasted artichoke hearts, on a bed of braised hearts of palm?

#51 ::: epistole ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 04:40 PM:

Jonathan Vos Post:

You really aorta do as they suggest!

SO FIRED.

#52 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 05:03 PM:

Lucy K. -

The question of audience and futility, oh yes.

That first post of mine is about where I've managed to find myself attempting to deal with the niggling feeling that I'm either going to write for stupid people[1] or I'm not going to have a measurable chance of an audience adjudged sufficiently numerous to be worth any risk of publication.

So, having hauled my head of to a relatively detached place about it, managing revisions when someone can tell me why they're getting tangled is easy, mostly -- the point is after all to point as clearly as I can to the story-that-is-itself. (example "not easy" - I would have to be able to notice the subjective completions reliably to reduce their number.)

But there are some things that I can't yet do, starting with story past or third person viewpoints, and if Lucy H. is finding herself obliged to do something that she cannot herself yet do in order to perform the necessary task of revision, I have a lot of sympathy for her state of stuckness.

[1] this is my emotional reaction to something that is much closer to 'write stuff I don't particularly like to read' than the emotional reaction's description. My attempts at a writing process still have to deal with that emotional reaction, however unfair it might be to everyone else on the planet.

#53 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 05:11 PM:

Futility is too strong a word. What does one expect to come of a story, anyway? It's not a revolution, or even a baby.

#54 ::: sGreer ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 05:19 PM:

Andy: I come to this thread late, but...

You rock. You so flippin' rock.

#55 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 05:27 PM:

Lucy --

Futility of striving, like building a road no one walks on or cooking a meal no one cares to eat.

I don't mean general, pervasive futility -- the idea that striving in general is without use -- but futility is how I feel about the possibility of writing stuff that no one wants to read. It's a lot of effort to entirely fail to have anyone else more likely to find the story-that-is than they were before I made the effort.

#56 ::: John Scalzi ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 06:16 PM:

Lucy's got a novel? Damn, I want to read that.

Finish the novel, Lucy!

#57 ::: S. E. ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 07:29 PM:

From a random, complete stranger...

If an utter nobody like me can revise a novel, ANYONE with THAT bio can.

As long as the cat doesn't decide to help. *looks more clueless than reality would dictate*

#58 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 07:48 PM:

Graydon:

Every time I try to read the sentence

> It's a lot of effort to entirely fail to have anyone else more likely to find the story-that-is than they were before I made the effort.

I get anoxia before I'm halfway to the top. Possibly I should establish some sort of base camp halfway through the sentence, rather than trying to make the entire climb in one go.

#59 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 07:55 PM:

Steve -

A lamentably common complaint.

((It's a lot of effort) (to entirely fail)) ((to have anyone else) (more likely to find) (the story-that-is)) ((than they were) (before I made the effort.))

That help?

#60 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 08:15 PM:

Graydon writes:

> That help?

Yep. And it gives me the strange feeling that I've finally got around to learning Lisp without having noticed.

Thank god you didn't translate it into perl instead.

#61 ::: Pippin Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 08:16 PM:

I believe that *all* authors should write thier books. Every. Single. One.

No, I'm not using this as another way to harrass my father into writing his book. What would make you think that?

#62 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 08:21 PM:

Hey, Andy Ihnatko has discovered Making Light! Cool!

Or rather, Andy has chosen to let us know that he knows about Making Light. Quite possibly he has been lurking for eons.

I am a fan of his writing, not least because he has one of the all-time great titles for a Web site: Andy Ihnatko's Colossal Waste of Bandwidth. Think what a mind like that could have accomplished, if only he had turned to fanzines.

#63 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 09:13 PM:

And I can't remember Teresa's explanation of the issues in the American League versus the National League, in terms of the Designated Heart Cutter Outer.

It's not a league question. You gotta have heart.

Miles and miles and miles of heart.

#64 ::: Sara E. ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 09:48 PM:

Dear Lucy,

Behold the POWER OF THE INTERNET! There are hundreds, if not thousands of us willing to follow the words of Teresa and Patrick.

Therefore, finish your revisions, or more of us will bug you.

Sincerely,
Sara E.

#65 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 09:59 PM:

Hmm, Graydon. Something out of the Yoga Sutras, perhaps. Definitely not Kant.

#66 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 10:02 PM:

Don't Eat Heart! Write! Write! or Dictate Well! OK!

#67 ::: Rob Callahan ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 10:39 PM:

Dear Lucy,

If you're reading this, you've obviously spent far too much time avoiding your revisions.

#68 ::: sdn ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2005, 11:27 PM:

lucy, i am not going to bug you to revise. everyone else has.

instead, i think we should get another book out of teresa. what do you say??

#69 ::: Bob Oldendorf ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 12:24 AM:

Graydon:
We've never met, and I know your writing only by what I've seen here - - but if you're writing a grocery list, I'd like to read it. Please, proceed.

And Lucy Huntzinger: you sound like you have something interesting to say, so, you too, please.

#70 ::: Karen Funk Blocher ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 12:24 AM:

Okay, Lucy, and everyone else, including me: take a break from messing around online, and get back to the writing and revision of less ephemeral words.

Karen

#71 ::: Ray Radlein ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 01:11 AM:
I was starting to think my estimation of my command of tone was entirely awry.

Heck, one need not have studied Buddhism extensively to recognize that quote; one need only have read Lord of Light. Sam filed the serial numbers off that same passage himself.

(I likewise remember finding enormous chunks of Rild's dialogues with Sam and Yama the first time I read Yeats' translation of the Upanishads)

#72 ::: Sarah Avery ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 01:21 AM:

I wish you luck and perseverance, Lucy. Luck and perseverance to all.

One of the mantras that got me through the end of my dissertation was, "Completion requires sacrifice." Of course, at the time, I was thinking about giving up my Babylon 5 habit, rather than about the sort of Aztec performance TNH proposes.

#73 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 01:42 AM:

...but if you're writing a grocery list, I'd like to read it.

When there's no bread, my dearest
Bring home rye loaves for me;
If there be none, some seven-grain,
And Twinkies, all for thee.
Bring the green grapes of Thompson
And kibble for the pet;
If there's nice Brie, remember,
If Camembert, forget.

We have a need for black tea,
And also camomile;
Fifty Melitta filters,
And Skippy, chunky style.
Of pork loin you are dreaming
The beer you'll not forget,
But never have remembered
The toilet paper yet.

#74 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 03:00 AM:

Okay, I couldn't resist either, but mine's kind of long, so I stashed it elsewhere.

#75 ::: Alison Scott ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 06:11 AM:

Gosh, this is one of those small world things. Andy Ihnatko is the chap who used me to demonstrate a totally cool method of taking photos of yourself with another person, the first time I set foot in that hallowed ground that is the Apple Store on Regent Street. Utterly cool speaker. Keep going back, only to find some brainless Apple Store employee explaining how cut and paste work.

#76 ::: Joseph Nicholas ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 07:39 AM:

Oh yes, absolutely, so she should. If only for the purely selfish reason that I want to see what the two characters allegedly based on Judith and myself are like.

#77 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 08:15 AM:

Sharon -

You have a truly admirable degree of focus on your calling.

Bob --

Thank you!

Current shopping list:
TP
clear file bucket
SD card
non-LG DVD drive
food

Not much entertainment value.

Ray -

Lord of Light and a Taiwanese cartoon series on traditional Chinese philosophy is where I got the tone, so I should hope it's recognizable.

#78 ::: Jeremy Preacher ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 08:24 AM:

John Ford - you've totally destroyed my favorite poem for when I'm feeling melodramatic. Perhaps I should thank you. Heh.

#79 ::: Bob Oldendorf ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 08:45 AM:

John M. Ford, Lucy Kemnitzer:
I'm pleased to have sparked such outpourings - that'll put a bounce in my step all day.

I've never thought of myself as a Muse.

#80 ::: Bob Oldendorf ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 09:58 AM:

Graydon: "Not much entertainment value."

Maybe for some values of 'entertainment' - -
but I was correct to predict that your list would be at least interesting.

#81 ::: Dan Blum ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 10:01 AM:
Lord of Light and a Taiwanese cartoon series on traditional Chinese philosophy is where I got the tone, so I should hope it's recognizable.

What, he asked with some trepidation, was the episode on Han Fei Tzu like?

#82 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 11:24 AM:

Dan --

Printed cartoons; I only got to the ones on Zen and Zhuangzi. I quite enjoyed them, but cannot of course speak to their faithfulness to the original texts or traditions.

Should try to find the rest, one of these days.

#83 ::: Paula :Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 11:24 AM:

Pippin Macdonald

I believe that *all* authors should write thier books. Every. Single. One.

No, I'm not using this as another way to harrass my father into writing his book. What would make you think that?

I saw you doing a live harangue, that's what.

#84 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 12:29 PM:

Heart Cutter-Outer, Gallic Style:

"... But we should be careful: Gods are not mocked. Better perhaps to keep one's distance from mighty Eros, as the French so often and so wisely do, than to see one's heart served up on a salver."
On Love
As the French know, love --
like good food and wine --
is a stimulant best consumed in small, very pretty portions.

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, February 13, 2005;
Page BW15

#85 ::: James ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 02:44 PM:

John M. Ford:

"If there's nice Brie, remember,
If Camembert, forget."

I am informed by those who know these things that real Brie (i.e. Brie de Meaux) and real Camembert (i.e. Lait Cru, A.O.C.) are identical in their method of manufacture and components, aside from the variations in grass used to feed the cows due to regional differences between Normady and the Ile-de-France, and the size of the cheeses produced, so you may want to rethink this ...

#86 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 03:32 PM:

Lucy, if you don't finish, how are you going to get to the really fun part: Rejection?

#87 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 03:59 PM:

James, possibly, though I wonder what component of the grass in Camembert country makes their cheese smell like that particular that. Admittedly, nous barbares Americains* cannot eat them à point; we get the cheese more traveled, and that has made all the difference.

*Barbare l'Elephant is, of course, a powerful monarchical/imperialistic symbol in certain circles.

#88 ::: Dan Blum ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 04:11 PM:
Printed cartoons; I only got to the ones on Zen and Zhuangzi. I quite enjoyed them, but cannot of course speak to their faithfulness to the original texts or traditions.

Should try to find the rest, one of these days.


Ah, I get it now. Amazon has a few others in the series, but they don't appear to have done Han Fei Tzu, the cowards. They did do Sun Tzu, but who hasn't by now?

#89 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 04:34 PM:

Mike Ford, your grocery list reminds me of the Williams poem about the plums.

#90 ::: Ulrika ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 06:11 PM:

Beware of infant hearts, for they are small, and crunchy, and will make you ill from over-indulgence.

Lotus.

Arthur is not a chicken, he is a coyote.

I rather wish this sort of group behaviour were any good at motivating me; I would have my MA and my TAFF report done by now. But I progress apace, and look forward to the day when I can apply peer pressure to other incomplete TAFF reports...

#91 ::: Ulrika ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 06:14 PM:

Revolutions and babies have gone awry before this. Stories hardly ever kill people.

#92 ::: Ulrika ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 06:17 PM:

Ah. Graydon most naturally writes in English-like programming code. The hotdog is enlightened.

#93 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 06:40 PM:

Dan -

The idea that punishment produces virtue perhaps doesn't need present elaboration, having found so many philosophical devotees?

Ulrika -

I would have said that I most naturally write in a way that has bad judgement about what many other people consider a complex sentence.

#94 ::: Michael Croft ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 07:13 PM:
Andy has chosen to let us know that he knows about Making Light. Quite possibly he has been lurking for eons.

I am a fan of his writing, not least because he has one of the all-time great titles for a Web site: Andy Ihnatko's Colossal Waste of Bandwidth.

I saw this on Andy's site and came by based on that. I need to stop by more often.

I'm a fan of Andy's writing because he likes words, which is always a plus in a technology pundit. Besides, Andy has to do something now that there aren't new Dysfunctional Family Circus cartoons to caption.

#95 ::: Ulrika ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 07:34 PM:

Graydon-

The way you write has bad judgment? Buggy code.

#96 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 08:25 PM:

I wouldn't call it bad judgement: misapprehension at the strongest. Not even.

There are different levels of effort and concentration which are appropriate to different types of art. For one of those narcissistic close-to-me and alien to others examples, there's music: I mean bagpipe music -- some other person would be able to talk about classical or something (hush. bear with me). When my kid plays some jaunty march or jig as the fanfare for the brass band, everybody gets it (all 12 notes): it's fast, fun, and easy to follow. Or when she plays "Amazing Grace" which is now, for some reason, a pipe tune, though it wasn't in times past.

When she plays a piobaireachd, that's a different story. The listener has to concentrate, to exert effort on the piece to get it. Casual listeners don't enjoy it like they do a reel or an ordinary slow air or something. But they could, with effort.

All I'm saying is, not everything needs to be equally transparent (ooh: "you make a better door than a window").

#97 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 10:13 PM:

Lucy Transparent writing appeals to the broadest audience. The less transparent the writing, the smaller the audience that will appreciate it. Also, the more you make the reader work to understand what you are saying, the more significant the payoff you have to provide for the reader. There has to be a reward for the extra work. Few writers provide enough of a payoff to justify making their readers work more than necessary.

To use your analogy, most people are willing to glance out a window to see what is going on. Fewer people will open a door out of curiosity. Fewer still will open a door that is stiff or seems to be stuck. And if you are making the would-be reader struggle to open the door, what lies behind it must be worth the extra effort.

To me, "difficult" writing usually indicates a writer unwilling or unable to express things clearly. In most cases, I unpack the dense writing and then wonder I bothered. I usually find a simplistic or malformed idea hidden in the cloud of obscurity. More typically, I lose patience and switch to something else. The writer's role is to send the message, and the reader's is to comprehend it. As a reader, I have no interest whatever in doing the writer's work of communicating clearly. Not my job.

There's a related issue with "making a reader concentrate." By doing so, you've pretty much eliminated 90% of your potential readership. So you have to really target your work to some definable subgroup of the remaining 10%. Much "difficult" writing languishes because the potential readership is too small to justify publication.

It is all a matter of what audience you are trying to reach. Define the audience for your novel, and you'll pretty much defined how you need to write to reach that audience. To me, the worst possible target readership as a writer is "people like me." I don't know anyone who is really like me. If I define the audience as effectively "Greg and his ilk," I run the risk of writing for myself alone.

On the finishing-your-novel thing: what would I know? I've never actually finished one of the damned things -- at least, never finished one of the ones I've tried to write. (I've finished many many as an editor. Polishing prose comes far easier to me than writing from scratch. For me, it's the old "an editor is a good writer with nothing much to say" thing.) Maybe some day I'll cobble together all the unrelated eight-chapter fragments I've written and try to palm them off as some experimental narrative form.

Finish it! Inspire those of us who are stuck infinitely rewriting a chapter that just won't click, or reworking a "sympathetic" character that all the poor guinea-pig readers hate.

Or don't finish it. There's a comfortable familiarity about old projects that linger, half-finished, dimly unforgotten on a mental back burner. Revisited them sometimes brings the joy of rediscovering just how good the work you have already done actually is. I think for some of my writing projects that the real audience was the small number of friends that I showed it to, and myself in the future, looking back as a reader. But that's a variant of "Greg and his ilk" -- the worst possible target readership.

I revisited an old old writing project yesterday, by accident, while I was looking for something else. It was an interesting rediscovery -- finding that some parts I'd remembered as clever really fell flat, while other bits I'd struggled with and given up on actually worked well. There was one section that I remember thinking through, but have no memory of actually writing. It was really quite nicely done. I'm tempted to go back and fix the bits I now see don't work -- it has become an editing project, as if someone else had written it. But I have no interest in finishing the manuscript; whatever muse inspired me to want to tell that particular story has long since moved on. Maybe I should have finished it at the time after all!

#98 ::: Barbara Gordon ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 10:51 PM:

My son, for reasons unknown to me, has The Writer's Block Calendar, with a snippet of advice for each day. The only one so far that has seemed worth keeping is 11 Dec 2003:
When you edit your work, pretend it was written by someone you don't like.

#99 ::: Barbara Gordon ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 10:53 PM:

Oh, and Lucy? Finish revising your novel.
I'd use my Mother Voice, but it doesn't work on my own child, so I'm not attempting it on someone else's.

#100 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2005, 11:17 PM:

Greg, I don't know if I'm misreading you, and I probably am, but that analysis makes me nervous - it's coming across to me as only paint in blue and green because your viewer is wearing red lenses.

Isn't the point to put enough interesting detail in the blue and green to tempt them to take their glasses off?

#101 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 01:48 AM:

Julia I'm not good at visual analogies. Let's do popular music. Look at two extremes: Celine Dion and Fred Frith.

Celine performs in a style that is very easily accessible -- lowest common denominator stuff. Almost anyone can understand what she's trying to do. The music is basic pap. There's a certain segment of the population (myself included) that rebels against the shallowness and emptiness of her music, but it sells like crazy.

Fred Frith is a guitarist who composes and performs very experimental pieces. He's written for dance, artsy films, and in various rock, new music, and classical groups. Among many other things he's a Professor of Composition at Mills College in California. I love his music, and own many of his recordings.

Celine's music is easily accessible. The content is pap, but she makes trainloads of money.

Fred's music at first sounds strange. It always takes a while to get used to a new piece. But the more you listen to it, the more you hear in it. He is constantly innovative, and takes you to new places with every recording. He was the most talented, uncompromising musical figure I could think of. Fred doesn't make trainloads of money.

All musical performers are on an accessibility continuum that ranges from Celine near one end to Fred near the other.

Most listeners are most comfortable at the Celine end of the scale. Few would be willing to listen to more than a minute or three of Fred's experimentations.

At Celine's end of the spectrum, there is little need for successful experimentation; no requirement to challenge the listener. At Fred's end of the spectrum, the chances for "success" at any level are slim. The music can be challenging to listen to and grow comfortable with. He expects a lot of the listener. His relatively small group of listeners only listen to him because of his ability to make that investment in getting to understand each piece of music worth the effort.

Most performers find an appropriate place on the continuum between the two, being somewhat less accessible than Celine and somewhat less challenging than Fred. And there is more content to their music than there is to Celine's pap, yet less than there is in Fred's often-challenging pieces.

Similarly, there is a continuum in fiction, ranging perhaps from Harlequins on one end to Finnegan's Wake on the other. Harlequins are easy to read, and offer no surprises and no challenges. Finnegan is a challenge to read but is for some readers worth it. Finnegan only has an audience at all because of its ability to make it worth the reader's while to make the effort. Despite its relative prominence, ol' Finnegan sell fewer copies than the average Harlequin, to put it mildly. (Finnegan is ranked #509,983 on Amazon.)

Writers have to place their work on that continuum. At one end, mass sales but no real creativity. At the other, sometimes prodigious creativity but usually few sales. The problem with many writers is that the content tends towards the Harlequin end of the spectrum, while their writing style drifts towards the Finnegan end. If the writing is going to be difficult to read, there has to be enough payoff to make it worth the effort.

It is very very easy to write sentences that are a challenge to read. Few thoughts are complex enough to require complex sentences to express them. Simple thoughts expressed in complex sentences are just plain irritating.

More often, the complexity of the writing is not a result of the complexity of the underlying ideas. It is more the result of the writer being unable to express simple ideas clearly. Clear, easy to understand writing can be difficult. Empty bafflegab is easier to write.

I was responding to Lucy's "When she plays a piobaireachd, that's a different story. The listener has to concentrate, to exert effort on the piece to get it. Casual listeners don't enjoy it like they do a reel or an ordinary slow air or something. But they could, with effort." The piobaireachd is at the Frith/Finnegan end of the spectrum. When it is done well, it is challenging but rewarding (but not likely lucrative). Done badly, it is challenging yet unrewarding (and still unlucrative).

In some ways, I'm a lazy, impatient reader (and listener). If you are going to make me work at understanding what you are trying to say, it better have been worth listening to or you lose me utterly.

#102 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 03:23 AM:

What Greg say, with swords, diamonds and palm leaves. May I quote you?

There is one further touch I would add. Among the rewards to be found in reading fiction is the sudden realisation that it has told the truth about human beings, or at least about a human being - truth in a sense that goes deeper than the words themselves. For some, that truth is told about the Blooms in 'Ulysses', and it justifies the prose.

For me, it doesn't, but that's me.

#103 ::: Edo ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 05:51 AM:

Graydon, having grown up in a household where Taoist philosophy was discussed fairly often, I'd say that you did a pretty good rendering of the spirit of Chuang Tzu/Zhuangzi (I'm not sure what the current romanization is). In fact, that would've been my first guess if the mentions of Kant and Buddhism hadn't scared me off.

#104 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 06:54 AM:

As long as we're talking about audience, shall we think of what a small audience means in a large world?

We live in a huge world full of people many of whom read things printed in the language we're writing to each other. Even small audiences are significant groups of people.

I don't believe writing exists in a spectrum for two reasons. One is that a spectrum has one dimension, whereas writing varies over multiple dimensions. The other is that there are discontinuities: it's not all continuum. And things that are contiuously related in some dimensions are discontinuous in other dimensions.

And I'm not just fooling around with abstract ideas, here. I can't think of more down-to-earth ways to say it at the moment because it's really early in the morning and I'm only up because I had to interrupt another loud discussion between the dear dog and the raccoon thugs and I can never go back to sleep right away after that.

#105 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 06:56 AM:

Edo --

Ooh, thank you.

I suppose it is entirely proper that I didn't do it on purpose. :)

#106 ::: Lucy Huntzinger ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 09:00 AM:

Peer pressure is a brutal but effective tactic, and I bow before it. I will finish the novel.

Then I will rise up and smite Teresa with it on the head.

#107 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 09:09 AM:

Okay. I'm cool with that.

#108 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 09:11 AM:

Greg: ol' Finnegan sell fewer copies than the average Harlequin, to put it mildly.

This brings out another aspect of your spectrum. I have heard the Amazon ratings are almost as shallow as Celine; i.e., they rate quick gratification over slow, steady sales. I suspect that the total sales of Finnegan's Wake are well beyond that of a Harlequin; the Frith end of the spectrum continues to be interesting for decades or centuries, where the easily-comprehended is just as easily exhausted and discarded for the next facile bit.

Some of this is accumulated reputation; is Shakespeare really so much better than Marlowe, Jonson, ...? (Pick your own neglected favorite; I'm not expert in the literature of any period. And for amusement, read Shaw lacing into Shakespeare.) But some of it is that the qualities you describe are hard enough to find that their fans will continue interest in old examples. I'm conscious of this because I've sung classical choral music even longer than I've been an SF fan; there are pieces approaching 300 years old that I'll go back to again and again, even as I prepare and appreciate a Pinkham premiere.

#109 ::: Metal Fatigue ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 09:50 AM:

Lucy Huntzinger's will has been broken by the relentless onslaught of Making Light readers' comments! Hurrah for distributed brainwashing technology!

#110 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 10:52 AM:

Something else about Graydon's writing: it isn't deliberately obscure. When he's writing in his natural language, he makes sentences like gripping-beasts. All the parts are present, and they're logically connected, but there's an unusual degree of compression.

#111 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 11:36 AM:

"Despite its relative prominence, ol' Finnegan sells fewer copies than the average Harlequin, to put it mildly. (Finnegan is ranked #509,983 on Amazon.)"

Quite wrong. For one thing, there are multiple editions of Finnegans Wake in print. For another, the very first edition that comes up for me when I type "Finnegans Wake" into the Amazon search bar is the Penguin "Twentieth-Century Classics" paperback, which currently shows a sales rank of 45,021.

For a third, CHip is exactly right--any trade publisher would be delighted to have a canonical literary classic like Finnegans Wake on its backlist, no matter how opaque the prose. A popular paperback romance might sell 100,000 copies in a year, at considerable expense of new typesetting, art, printing, sales, promotion, and distribution. A book like Finnegans Wake sells every day, every week, every month, and every year with almost no effort or expense whatsoever, aside from that entailed in designing a new cover every decade or two, and thinking up new formats, critical editions, and other ways to increase the revenue stream. Speaking as a commercial fiction editor, I'll be glad to take over publishing rights to Finnegans Wake any time somebody wants to offer them to me. Books like that are like printing money.

#112 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 11:38 AM:

Oh, and while we're on the subject, riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, Lucy should finish revising her novel.

#113 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 12:06 PM:

About transparent writing and accessibility -- I think this is a mistaken categorization without providing fairly specific context.

All narrative fiction is to some extent or another ritualized and codified; if you don't know the protocols, it's going to be hard slogging, never mind how straightforward it is to people who do know the protocols. (Don't believe me? Watch no television for a decade, and then try to make sense of some. Or try to make sense of a third-tier Victorian romance novel.)

So 'transparent' has to answer 'transparent for whom?'

Transparent also has to answer for throwing out evocation.

Invocation is naming things -- that hat, the car, the man with the gun. Evocation is producing a space into which the thing can be placed by the reader -- tip of the rain-shedding felt, conveyance of contained explosions, hard of heart with death in hand. Evocation is more work for the reader, but there are things you can do that way and no other, particularly when it comes to building significance over time.

There is no way anyone could ever have written The King of Elfland's Daughter or Serpent's Reach or Fool's Run using purely invocational prose; couldn't begin to be done. (These are the first three samples that come to my mind; my view is that there are more books of which this is true than not true.)

Yes, this does mean hauling the reader in as a collaborator, and fewer readers are likely going to be willing to do that than otherwise. (Unless you luck out and change the language, and the shifting tide snares all who speak.) But there are still things that you can do that way that can't be done with the transparent prose, and I don't think there's any reason an author shouldn't want to do those things.

#114 ::: Metal Fatigue ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 12:52 PM:

Graydon: You mean in a few more years I'm going to be irrevocably estranged from a primary medium of cultural evolution?

I think I should be frightened by that idea, but instead I'm pleased. Perhaps I am growing old.

#115 ::: Harry Connolly ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 01:00 PM:

Peer pressure is a brutal but effective tactic, and I bow before it. I will finish the novel.

Hooray for peer pressure!

#116 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 01:03 PM:

The example that springs to mind here is Umberto Eco. I find Name of the Rose compulsively readable even though it's explicitly about semiotic analysis (which drives me up a wall), but what got me to the end of it in the first place was a damn good mystery.

Foulcalt's Pendulum, on the other hand, was a slog even though the style was similar because it read to me like a semiotics lecture with a plot hanging off it by safety pins. I couldn't get past chapter three of Island.

So I guess I agree that felicity of language probably won't sell a book in and of itself, and that a lot of what people buy these days is something they vaguely recognize as lifelike because it reminds them of what they've seen on TV, but it seems to me that if you write something compelling they'll buy it even if they have to work at it.

Whether you can convince a publishing company of that is another question, although I've just finished a fascinating book that I understand Teresa got off the slush pile, so it does happen.

#117 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 02:27 PM:

A couple of things, quickly while I take a quick break from trying to salvage a book that is going off the rails quite horribly:

-- I hadn't intended my comments to apply to Graydon's writing. I was responding to Lucy's bit about accessibility, which I think was in response to Andy's writing, not Graydon's. But my posting was supposed to be in the abstract, not specifically about anyone's writing.

-- Finnegan's Wake was a poor choice of example, and Patrick is of course correct. It would be a cash cow as a backlist title. I'd originally written that section about a specific writer's current book, and then realized that one of my New Year's resolutions was to never again comment publicly on the work of living writers, unless I was lavishing unambiguous praise on that work. (Criticizing people's writing in public always seems to get me into trouble or at least dispute -- and it has cost me a couple of friends.) So I tried to go back in time for a work by an apparently dead writer. Oh well!

#118 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 02:42 PM:

Greg -

Didn't think you were commenting on my writing, and did recognize what you were saying as an abstract point about accessibility.

My reply is meant to be an abstract address of the question of accessibility, too.

It's a set of questions I've thought quite a bit about while arguing with my instances of a fabulator.

#119 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 03:37 PM:

Julia:

You might enjoy "Baudolino" by Umberto Eco. Semiotics is muted, except so far as it underlies theology; medievalism is intense; Fantasy is overt; and the mystery resolves neatly at the end.

Greg Ioannou:

It was widely believed in the Caltech Physics department that Murray Gell-Mann named the subatomic particle the "quark" in order to implictly boast: "I read Finnegan's Wake and you didn't."

Many Joyce scholars find quantum electrodynamics and quantum chromodynamics to be terribly obscure, and many particle physicists feel the same way about modern novelists, at least if you believe C. P. Snow's premise in "The Two Cultures," which I do not.

#120 ::: Jonathan Shaw ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 04:28 PM:

Julia: Like you, I loved The Name of the Rose, but not Foucault's Pendulum. Shortly after I finished reading the latter I had a memorable lift ride. The office-building lift was packed; I didn't know anyone in it and had the impression that most of the passengers were strangers to each other. Suddenly a man at the back, whom I couldn't see, started ranting loudly about Foucault's Pendulum: the biggest load of crap he's ever read, should never have been published, what a wanker Umberto Eco was, etc. Presumably only he and I and perhaps his invisible interlocutor knew what he was talkng about, but he clearly was so overwhelmed by passion he didn't give a damn.

#121 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 04:32 PM:

Graydon wrote:

About transparent writing and accessibility -- I think this is a mistaken categorization without providing fairly specific context.

It isn't a category. It is an attribute of writing, one that is on a continuum -- one of many dozens of such attributes.

All narrative fiction is to some extent or another ritualized and codified; if you don't know the protocols, it's going to be hard slogging, never mind how straightforward it is to people who do know the protocols. (Don't believe me? Watch no television for a decade, and then try to make sense of some. Or try to make sense of a third-tier Victorian romance novel.)

Agreed. That is true of any mode of communication. You can't communicate with someone without having some idea of what that person already knows and what the person will be able to understand.

So 'transparent' has to answer 'transparent for whom?'

Yes. I was trying to say the same thing when I said, "It is all a matter of what audience you are trying to reach. Define the audience for your novel, and you'll pretty much defined how you need to write to reach that audience."

Transparent also has to answer for throwing out evocation. [Examples snipped.]

Invocation versus evocation is another continuum, one that is unrelated to accessibility. Very simple writing can be powerfully evocative. For example: rather than trying to describe a character's complex stew of emotional reactions, one writer came up with the perfect evocation: "Jesus wept."

There is no way anyone could ever have written The King of Elfland's Daughter or Serpent's Reach or Fool's Run using purely invocational prose; couldn't begin to be done.

Their evocativeness and their accessibility are unrelated. (Out of curiosity, I pulled Serpent's Reach from the shelf. The writing is very accessible, even at its most evocative: "The Hald pulled off a frond. Others furled tightly, remained so, twice offended. He began to strip the soft part off the skeleton of the veins. It left a sharp smell in the air." I think the book is an example that undermines the point you are making.)

Yes, this does mean hauling the reader in as a collaborator, and fewer readers are likely going to be willing to do that than otherwise. (Unless you luck out and change the language, and the shifting tide snares all who speak.)

Perhaps, in some cases. (Changing the language is a bit beyond the reach of most writers. The best most can hope for in that regard is to introduce a new cliche.)

But there are still things that you can do that way that can't be done with the transparent prose, and I don't think there's any reason an author shouldn't want to do those things.

I think we're simply going to trade assertions here, which isn't likely to be very enlightening. I agree that there are some things that cannot be done in transparent prose. Complex ideas often require complex language. But simple ideas are usually best expressed in simple language. And few people write solely about complex ideas.

I was reading a piece Jame Gleick wrote on phase transition in physics a couple of days ago, and was struck by one sentence he used to introduce a discussion of how a scientist went about designing a complex experiment: "Swinney was experimenting with stuff." That introductory sentence, by its child-like simplicity, eases the reader gently into a complex topic.

(TWO discussions of the work of living writers in this post, and not the slightest hint of criticism in either. I'm being so well-behaved!)

#122 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 06:24 PM:

Greg, Julia, Jonathan Shaw:

Umberto Eco (1932-): major semiotics and bestselling author of Italy; of
all the sparkling intellects I'd met before their bestsellerdom, I'd have
least expected his. I met him at Amherst College circa 1979, where my
friend Timothy Jessup and I totally disagreed with his statement that
DNA had no semiotic significance because it only copied information.
Through his lecture, we drew a complex chart of the DNA-RNA-Protein
repressor/derepressor interactions, which baffled him. He hit the big
time with:
* Il nom della rosa [1980; tr. William Weaver as
"The Name of the Rose", 1983] {film hotlink to be done}
* Il pendolo di Foucault [1988; tr. William Weaver as
"Foucault's Pendulum", USA: 1989]
* L'Isola del giorno primo [1994; tr. William Weaver as
"The Island of the Day Before", 1995]
Other Non-Academic Works:
* Postille a Il nom della rosa [1983; tr. William Weaver as
"Reflections on The Name of the Rose", 1984] nonfiction
* Travels in Hyperreality [1986] story/essay collection
* Il bomba e il generale [1989; tr. William Weaver as
"The Bomb and the General", 1989]
* Tre Cosmonauti [?; tr. William Weaver as
"Three Cosmonauts", 1989]

#123 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 07:08 PM:

Okay, so if Lucy H finishes her novel, will Tor slushreaders get to Lucy K's novel?

(all of a sudden, "Lucy" looks wrong)

#124 ::: Jonquil ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 08:45 PM:

When you edit your work, pretend it was written by someone you don't like.

Lambchop, when I write my work it's being written by somebody I don't like. If it weren't for shitty first drafts, I'd have no drafts at all.

#125 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 08:59 PM:

I'm glad I'm not the only one (I also really do know how to spell Foucault, dammit).

How to Travel With a Salmon, on the other hand, is delightful.

#126 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 09:35 PM:

We seem to have wandered away from needling Lucy. Sorry. I meant spurring her on. It involved doing something with a pointed stick, anyway.

Invocation. Would this count?:

"The centipede lovely-faced stork-colored daughters of the Bald Lady struck maiden-slaying Thetis with their blades."

It means "the black ships rowed up the Hellespont." Every word needs exegesis. It is the effusion of Lycophron of Chalchis, one of the Seven Pleiades of Alexandria, about 200 BCE.

Personally, I think this and "Finnegan's Wake" are both examples of obscurantism, the wilful hiding of meaning behind literary figuration, allusion, abstraction and cloaking devices. Further, I think this is done so as to gain a specific readership: those who read so that they may congratulate themselves on their culture, learning and sophistication.

There is, of course, such a readership. Its existence is even fairly harmless, so long as it remains a minority taste, like flagellation. But woe to the culture that it takes over!

#127 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 10:38 PM:

Lower-case-j-jennie has argued (in person -- we work together) that she likes the challenge of reading difficult writing, and that she finds some of the stuff I like to be simplistic. (I'm probably simplifying her position.) I can understand that; I'd hardly want to read only young adult novels myself (although I just read and loved Cornelia Funke's YA fantasy novel Inkheart). But some of the "difficult" books she's loaned me have, to my mind, simply been badly written. (I've enjoyed others, but didn't consider them to be particularly difficult.)

I'd better get back to work. The disastrous book (which is non-fiction) went through an emergency redesign today and I now have to cut 60 pages from it by lunchtime tomorrow. Why? The redesign made the book 60 pages longer. And the printer has already bought the paper so the book can't be 60 pages longer. This thing goes to press on Thursday.

Lucy, get writing and your book too can one day be someone's production nightmare.

#128 ::: Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2005, 10:38 PM:

I've apparently misinterpreted the context of Teresa's epigrammatic "I'm doomed" note over on Lucy's livejournal. Rather than rising up and smiting her with a finished copy of the novel, I was expecting Lucy to say: "Turnabout is fair play. Now, Teresa, you must cull and revise the essay material that will become "Making Light II."

#129 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2005, 12:18 AM:

Thank you Graydon: I think you said the thing I wished I had said.

And yes, I was talking about Graydon's writing, and when I said that not all writing needs to be equally transparent -- that was not what I wanted to be saying, but I couldn't think of the thing I wanted to be saying, which is that not all writing needs to be transparent in the same way. And that is the reason, too, I objected to the notion of a continuum -- the discontinuities are there, in the cultural, linguistic, and experiential toolkit that the writer assumes and the reader either needs to have or have the ability to work around not having. And there's no vertical slide from high art to low art -- genres are churning around in a complex and multidemsional universe, touching and moving away in an always-changing dance.

And Greg: I was in fact supressing the strong urge to write about Graydon's writing, which is like among the favorite things I've read. I'm suppressing another strong urge to explain exactly what is so wonderful about his writing, because I think he'll just suffer over it.

Marilee: thank you, but don't do that. Everything is in slush in various places where it belongs, going through the process it's supposed to.

#130 ::: Ray Radlein ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2005, 04:18 AM:

Graydon's writing uncoils itself carefully as you read, with every word under considerable tension. In the hands of lesser writers, the whole thing would probably fly to pieces, littering the far corners of the room with concept-shrapnel; but Graydon has, after all, had a lifetime of practice at writing Graydon's sentences.

The reason why Graydon sentences have to be wound about themselves so tightly is that the act of unpacking them contains as much information about what he is saying as does the idea at the crunchy center. If it only took three licks to get there, it probably wouldn't even be worth making a sentence about.

To be fair, Graydon did have a minor problem, once upon a time, with winding his sentences too tightly on occasion. The problem then was that he would keep on winding right past the word level, overloading extra meanings upon individual words that they simply didn't have for anyone else besides himself (or those sufficiently used to his writing). It didn't happen often, mind you, but it did happen.

So he fixed it. Good writers do that sort of thing.

#131 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2005, 07:07 AM:

JvP quasi-quotes:
"I read Finnegan's Wake and you didn't."

Block that apostrophe.

#132 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2005, 08:45 AM:

Greg --

Invocation versus evocation is another continuum, one that is unrelated to accessibility. Very simple writing can be powerfully evocative. For example: rather than trying to describe a character's complex stew of emotional reactions, one writer came up with the perfect evocation: "Jesus wept."

Which doesn't work reliably without its context -- bare like that, my first through third readings are sarcasm, rather than anything complex.

Emotions are complex; emotions are indeed inherently as complex as people, and people are as complex as anyone can write about, at least until there are at least weakly superhuman AIs writing fiction. Getting all the landscape in place for the reader to perceive the height of the cliff is a complex task.

Complexity is antithetical to accessibility; the short words and simple sentences will only get you so far, and after that the reader has to be willing to do a good deal of heavy lifting to follow the writer's assembly instructions for the emotional structure the book is building.

Sentences, after all, aren't the basic unit of conveying emotion in prose fiction; paragraphs are, and you can have fiendishly complex paragraphs using only simple sentences.

There is no way anyone could ever have written The King of Elfland's Daughter or Serpent's Reach or Fool's Run using purely invocational prose; couldn't begin to be done.

Their evocativeness and their accessibility are unrelated. (Out of curiosity, I pulled Serpent's Reach from the shelf. The writing is very accessible, even at its most evocative: "The Hald pulled off a frond. Others furled tightly, remained so, twice offended. He began to strip the soft part off the skeleton of the veins. It left a sharp smell in the air." I think the book is an example that undermines the point you are making.)

If you find Serpent's Reach accessible, I will note that you are in a minority, and throw in Wave Without A Shore or the original edition of Dreamstone. Ms. Cherryh's usual preference for short words and simple sentences doesn't make what she is writing about accessible on any level except perhaps that of sentences.

If one is going to write about the social isolation of genius and the social isolation of the alien, sometimes at the same time, and not be an intolerable poseur -- which Ms. Cherryh is not -- there's this fundamental requirement to handle complex concepts.

People bounce off of those; I remember what the initial discussions of Cyteen looked like on the rec.arts.sf.written of old, with people bouncing in all directions. (Because it's Cherryh, many people were picking themselves back up and flinging themselves into the book again. This is the benefit of reputation.)

Dave --

Invocation. Would this count?:


"The centipede lovely-faced stork-colored daughters of the Bald Lady struck maiden-slaying Thetis with their blades."


It means "the black ships rowed up the Hellespont." Every word needs exegesis. It is the effusion of Lycophron of Chalchis, one of the Seven Pleiades of Alexandria, about 200 BCE.

Those are kennings, a combination of metrical device (so the stresses come out right) and mnemonic (so the poet has time to remember what comes next, as well as a familiar pattern to follow when feeling a bit hung over). Kennings are fundamentally a device of oral poetry, and should (I think) see very limited use in prose narrative.

They're really invocative, in original context, rather than evocative, because the audience is meant to solve the riddle -- the audience almost certainly already knows this one, because the kenning list is formulaic and standard -- and get the name of the thing directly.

Use them modernly, and you have definite evocation, though -- "Flame of the play of the wave-bull's side" isn't going to collapse to "sword" in most people's heads very quickly, if at all; it will, if the author is lucky, leave a space where something can later go.

(I will confess to an unreasonable fondness for the things that leaks into my fiction from time to time, all the same. :)

Ray, Lucy K. --

Thank you ever so much.

#133 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2005, 10:17 AM:

Graydon wrote:

Which doesn't work reliably without its context -- bare like that, my first through third readings are sarcasm, rather than anything complex.

True of any example either of us could cite -- nothing is truly reliable out of context.

Emotions are complex; emotions are indeed inherently as complex as people, and people are as complex as anyone can write about, at least until there are at least weakly superhuman AIs writing fiction.

Every aspect of life is complex. The ones we think are simple are the ones we don't know well or haven't thought about much.

Getting all the landscape in place for the reader to perceive the height of the cliff is a complex task.

The task is complex, when done well. The resulting prose can be simple or complex, depending on the preferences and abilities of the writer. Complex tasks don't necessarily result in complex results. In fact, many of the most elegant results of exceedingly complex tasks are stunningly simple. Think Einstein.

Complexity is antithetical to accessibility; the short words and simple sentences will only get you so far, and after that the reader has to be willing to do a good deal of heavy lifting to follow the writer's assembly instructions for the emotional structure the book is building.

The complexity of the ideas and the complexity of the language can be considered independently. Much of my work has consisted of explaining exceedingly complex ideas (such as, "how does a spring really work?" -- a good example of something that becomes less and less simple the more you think about it) in language that will be understood by an averagely intelligent grade 8 student.

Sentences, after all, aren't the basic unit of conveying emotion in prose fiction; paragraphs are, and you can have fiendishly complex paragraphs using only simple sentences.

I disagree. I think words are the "basic" units. You can have exceedingly complex sentences using only simple words. I'm not sure this is relevant anyway -- what is to be gained by a discussion of what the "basic unit" (whatever that is) is?

If you find Serpent's Reach accessible, I will note that you are in a minority, and throw in Wave Without A Shore or the original edition of Dreamstone. Ms. Cherryh's usual preference for short words and simple sentences doesn't make what she is writing about accessible on any level except perhaps that of sentences.

Whis is the very point I'm trying to make! Serpent's Reach is a wonderfully ambitious book, and what Cherryh succeeds in doing is to explore and convey a very complex series of perceptions and ideas. The content of the book is very difficult to access. But, as I said, the writing is very simple. She doesn't need to use difficult-to-access language to convey difficult-to-access ideas. The two are unrelated issues.

If one is going to write about the social isolation of genius and the social isolation of the alien, sometimes at the same time, and not be an intolerable poseur -- which Ms. Cherryh is not -- there's this fundamental requirement to handle complex concepts.

Agreed.

People bounce off of those; I remember what the initial discussions of Cyteen looked like on the rec.arts.sf.written of old, with people bouncing in all directions. (Because it's Cherryh, many people were picking themselves back up and flinging themselves into the book again. This is the benefit of reputation.)

And imagine how much further they would have bounced had both the content and the language been inaccessible!

Use them modernly, and you have definite evocation, though -- "Flame of the play of the wave-bull's side" isn't going to collapse to "sword" in most people's heads very quickly, if at all; it will, if the author is lucky, leave a space where something can later go.

The use of this sort of technique will define your audience for you. If I encountered "Flame of the play of the wave-bull's side" in something I was reading, I'd close the book then and there. I have no interest in unpacking something like that and discovering at the end that it simply meant "sword." Some people enjoy that sort of word game. I don't; I find it irritating.

(I will confess to an unreasonable fondness for the things that leaks into my fiction from time to time, all the same.

And I admit to an unreasonable, irrational impatience with that sort of thing. These things are always a matter of personal preference. Neither of us is "right" -- our tastes differ. But that sort of difference in tastes is what defines the audiences for different styles of writing.

By playing that sort of game as you write, you are in effect defining your audience as "people who also understand and enjoy that sort of word play". As I see it, you're betting your entire writing career that there are enough people like that to make it financially viable to publish your writing. I hope you win that bet.

#134 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2005, 01:59 PM:

Greg Ioannou, Graydon, Ray Radlein, et al.:

A book can work on multiple levels. The deepest levels can be extraordinarily complex and inaccessible to all but the most erudite puzzlemaster/readers, while the shallower levels are popular to the point of bestsellerdom.

Examples: LOLITA by Vladimir Nabokov.

Many short stories by James Joyce.

web-based multimedia annotation to Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, created by Kevin Moss, Middlebury College.

Granted, it takes a genius author at the top of his/her form to pull this off. But that includes Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Cervantes, and others at the absolute peak of canonical excellence.

I suggest that an editor needs to point this out to an author who is needlessly recondite. The deeper stuff can be there, but the surface needs to be rewritten and rerewritten to be easy to read and follow. In the Science Fiction genre, as you have suggested for C. J. Cherryh, it is possible to have rip-roaring action adventure in straightforward prose, which overlays an extremely subtle sociological or historical paradigm. Just because Isaac Asimov intentionally wrote as clearly as as possible in English does NOT mean that his novels lack philosophical profundity. Similarly, Robert A. Heinlein was a master at apparently straightforward prose which hid deep concepts.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke admitted knowing almost nothing about the great works of world literature; his coauthor in the "Rama" sequelae was startled when Clarke didn't know who Raskolinov was -- having never read any canonical Russian fiction. Yet Clarke is never shallow, even in his lightest stories.

As you have said on this thread, Umberto Eco sometimes succeeds and sometimes fails. Stanislaw Lem put very deep things in his books, at an intellectual level which fascinated his old drinking buddy, who is now the pain-crucified Pope, back when said Polish Pope was a young theology student. Yet Lem was dead wrong (and thus the only person ever ousted from SFWA for stating a literary opinion) in claiming that English Language Science Fiction hadn't had much of philosophical interest since H. G. Wells.

Deep enough thought can survive even hamhanded characterization and plotting, as Olaf Stapledon demonstrated.

Ursula K. Le Guin sometimes writes transparently, and sometimes with poetic semi-obscurity, but always works on multiple levels.

I am not going to define "complexity" here. That would have me put on my Math hat, which does not fit all heads. I simply point out that a work of art can be simultaneously of child-like simplicity, and Einsteinian complexity.

Oh, and REAL Haiku by masters such as Basho seem so shallow as to be trivial, while their referential, contextual, and metaphysical depths can draw one in towards enlightenment. The format of 5+7+5 syllables is merely a requirement, not a genuine definition. Similarly, proper manuscript formatting and spellchecking is a requirement (outside of Publish America) but not any viable definition of minimal novel publishing quality.,

#135 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2005, 03:18 PM:

Greg --

The complexity of the ideas and the complexity of the language can be considered independently.

I think this is what we're disagreeing about.

From my academic background, presuming that you're trying to convey the entirety of the ideas, this is an obvious falsehood -- the encoding has to have at least as much complexity as the idea.

There are different ways to get that, just as there is in principle no difference between the graphic display of a JPEG image and a large stack of paper listing pixels positions and colour values, but eventually the explanation of the spring has to have the calculus or it's lossy.

Which is not to say that there's something fundamentally wrong with lossy; there isn't. Pretty much all of the work of civilization starts with knowing how to tell the difference between information (which causes change) and data (which is a waste product of organization). There's this pesky need to then know what kind of change, and how to effect it, but that gets rather afield from fiction.

Fiction is always lossy; that's why it needs to be redundant.

Whi[ch] is the very point I'm trying to make! Serpent's Reach is a wonderfully ambitious book, and what Cherryh succeeds in doing is to explore and convey a very complex series of perceptions and ideas. The content of the book is very difficult to access. But, as I said, the writing is very simple. She doesn't need to use difficult-to-access language to convey difficult-to-access ideas. The two are unrelated issues.

How is the content of the book different from the writing?

Serious question -- assuming that we're talking about roughly contemporaneous understandings of a living language on the part of writer and reader, and no social contact between writer and reader, where's the distinction between the content and the writing?

[Kennings]
By playing that sort of game as you write, you are in effect defining your audience as "people who also understand and enjoy that sort of word play". As I see it, you're betting your entire writing career that there are enough people like that to make it financially viable to publish your writing. I hope you win that bet.

The one time I used outright kennings was a scene in the Blessed Novel where the amnesiac they found in the sub-basement starts asking ritual questions of a concussed berserk. Since all the reader really needs to take away from that short exchange is 'creepy', it works well enough. If the reader happens to get the kennings, it's vastly more creepy, because I get a thousand years of nasty implications for free, but they don't have to make sense for the scene to work.

Or consider one of Lucy K.'s short stories, where the setting is saga-period Iceland and the kennings are present mostly to allow characterization of Skarp-Hedin Njallsson through how he explains their meaning.

The rest of the time the tendency gets constrained to the milder version, of having a phrase stand for something else. I don't recall the proper rhetorical term for that, but it's widely used in advertising, so it's not going to prove over-challenging to a potential readership.

Besides, the thing that really constrains the kind of readership I'm likely to have (or to be judged likely to have) is a tendency to write slowly.

That I have also got a tendency to write about the moral quandaries of aliens used to worry me; what I've found, though, is that readers never read the book I think I wrote, and never, ever get everything anyway. A book has to hold together as a signpost to the story without stuff, and it has to -- or at least it ought to -- work in more than one way, because readers will find a different story in it than the one I thought I was writing.

Which is why redundancy is important; the kind of rigid overspecification it would take to define only one story is not fun to read.

#136 ::: mayakda ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2005, 03:28 PM:

The writing discussion is fascinating. I know, as a reader, that the books I love the most are those that can be read at several levels, so that I can read it as a 12 year old, then come back 10 years later and read it again and say "oh!".
And there are conventions in each genre, and it's wonderful to read books that can wear those coventions flatteringly, rather than be worn by them. Like a beautiful woman in understated, elegant clothing, instead of either an emaciated fashion model on a runway in a designer's latest "statement", or a child who's ransacked her mother's closet and smeared lipstick all over her face.
If the novel's going to be dressed in ten layers and topped by a burkah, then, as was said upthread, the payoff has to be worth it. If I don't find Helen of Troy under all that clothing, I'll be annoyed.

#137 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2005, 11:28 PM:

a large stack of paper listing pixels positions and colour values

This is what's always bothered me about the complete literary transparency school (Robbe-Grillet springs to mind).

If I wanted the author completely out of the way, it would be far easier to accomplish by not reading the book.

#138 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2005, 11:57 PM:

Dear Lucy: I have already done my part even before Teresa asked.

Dear Teresa:

Roses are red
Violets are blue
I agree with Sharyn
Another book from you!

MKK

#139 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2005, 12:24 AM:

A quibble:
Don't believe me? Watch no television for a decade, and then try to make sense of some.

Do you count Buffy as a throwback, or is "a decade" an underestimate? Unless my mind has slipped even more gears than I thought, it was the first serial TV show I watched >1 episode of since the late 60s. Perhaps TV is a bad example; I suspect that, even more than SF film, TV is several decades behind written protocols, such that anyone who reads will not be baffled by anything designed for the much larger market of the tiny screen.

Delany touched on the effects of changes in his argument that people who say "I can't read SF" are not being metaphorical; he offered examples of tools whose use has vanished, e.g., "She would no longer receive his letters," and compared them with stock SF phrases (IIRC, one was "the door dilated") that (he said) leave mundane readers baffled or misunderstanding. But I did not find what I heard of his argument convincing, possibly because the examples he offered were small-scale and learnable -- or possibly even derivable from exposure; I think it only took two Thorne Smith novels for me to figure out what it meant when a man stopped by a drugstore in an evening. (My summary would be "won't" is different from "can't".) Perhaps having been exposed to more protocols from the spread of the past makes one less likely to be caught off-base by a new technique?

#140 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2005, 12:35 AM:

Graydon:

Kennings: I understand the idea in the same way as you do, that is, that the audience is supposed to understand the reference, because a kenning list is, as you say, "formulaic and standard." Quite so. But the passage I quoted is from a literary versifier writing deliberately to obscure. (The poem, "The Alexandria" was known in antiquity as 'the obscure poem') There is no short or standard list of formulaic epithets here, nor any mnemonic purpose. On the contrary, the references were drawn from all sorts of odd places and obscure stories, and often used in grotesque ways. Prof. Green, who quotes the piece in his "Alexander to Actium", states that of the 3000 different words used in it, 500 are found nowhere else, which implies that they were probably coined.

This is obscurantism, as I said, and there seems to be general agreement that it is bad. What I can't understand is why Joyce isn't.

#141 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2005, 01:17 AM:

Graydon --

[Greg] The complexity of the ideas and the complexity of the language can be considered independently. [Graydon] I think this is what we're disagreeing about.

You're right, and it seems an unlikely thing to be disagreeing about. I hadn't expected that my statement would be contentious. But you've articulated your disagreement well, so...

From my academic background, presuming that you're trying to convey the entirety of the ideas, this is an obvious falsehood -- the encoding has to have at least as much complexity as the idea.

That presumption would be debatable in an academic context, and I think it is irrelevant in writing fiction. In fact, I would think that virtually everything you learned about writing academese would have a harmful influence on your ability to write fiction.

Let's go back to the nice simple example of explaining how a spring works. If you want to go to town on the topic, you discuss elasticity; types of springs (compression, tension, torsion, leaf); the physical characteristics of various metals and alloys, both isotropic and anisotropic, and non-metals, such as polymers; metallurgical techniques; coiling techniques; shapes of coil; the shape and size of each end of the spring, and how it is to be attached to the items being sprung; elastic constants (21 of them for anisotropic alloys); the various forces acting on the spring, from full extension to rest to full compression, ranging from shear stresses to torsion to gravity; friction; temperature; and so on. For almost all of these topics, you can explain it in words, or get into the math behind the words.

In what context, short of a textbook on designing springs, would you ever want to explore the entirety of "how springs work"? (As Buck Starhopper was wearily returning home after vanquishing the Zorblomps, the spring on the gas pedal of his rocketship broke, and he had to pull into the remote planet of TrinidadAndTobago for repairs. At the main street market of NewPortOfSpain, he found a metallurgist and very carefully and thoroughly explained the details of the required spring to him. "...then you have to be careful to multiply the shear modulii in the compliance matrix resulting from the difference between shear strain..." The metallurgist grabbed Buck by the ears and threw him into his mini blast furnace.)

In almost all cases (outside of academia), writers convey parts of ideas. And they choose the amount of detail to provide.

I arrived at university able to write clearly. In second year, I started to get Bs on some papers because they were "simplistic" -- that is, the reader could easily comprehend the ideas I'd written about. I learned to recast my writing into obscure academese, and found that if I simply made the writing difficult to read, I'd consistently get As -- even if I hadn't done the research as carefully as before or though my ideas through as clearly.

It took a few months of working in publishing to get me out of writing academese. EVERYTHING you learned about writing at university is wrong.

There are different ways to get that, just as there is in principle no difference between the graphic display of a JPEG image and a large stack of paper listing pixels positions and colour values, but eventually the explanation of the spring has to have the calculus or it's lossy. Which is not to say that there's something fundamentally wrong with lossy; there isn't. Pretty much all of the work of civilization starts with knowing how to tell the difference between information (which causes change) and data (which is a waste product of organization). There's this pesky need to then know what kind of change, and how to effect it, but that gets rather afield from fiction. Fiction is always lossy; that's why it needs to be redundant.

Most non-academic writing is intentionally lossy.

Your example of a jpeg is interesting, because that's a very lossy file format. Different purposes tolerate different loss levels. Keeping the discussion in terms of images, a building-sized blowup of a photograph requires a very high quality negative. Comparing the negative to the thing that has been photographed there is always some loss of detail, but an able photographer can keep it to a minimum. For a magazine cover, a 2400 or 1200 dpi tiff file is needed. For images inside books, we use 300 dpi tiffs. For the web, a 72 dpi jpeg is sufficient. For each purpose, you know ahead of time what rate of loss is tolerated.

But the "able photographer" often intentionally chooses to lose information, through such things as lighting that only illuminates part of the subject or a soft focus that hides wrinkles. Similarly, a writer chooses to lose information that is not central to the story being told and the ideas being conveyed.

How is the content of the book different from the writing? Serious question -- assuming that we're talking about roughly contemporaneous understandings of a living language on the part of writer and reader, and no social contact between writer and reader, where's the distinction between the content and the writing?

That distinction was pounded into me in my early days in publishing, when I was reading slush at Seal Books. At Seal, we had to write up a quick reader's report on a pre-printed page. We had to comment on three things: the book's content, writing, and marketability. "Content" was what the book was about -- the story (if any) and ideas (if any). "Writing" was the author's writing ability, usually discussed in terms of how much editing it needed, whether it was entertaining, and what the reading level was. "Marketability" was "can Seal make money on this?"

When an editor prepares a manuscript evaluation, most of the evaluation usually focusses on the content: plot, characterization, setting, and such. Less is said about the writing.

I now think of fiction in terms of four basics:

Premise: what the book is about -- the idea at its core. If there are problems with the premise, there's no point continuing to edit until they've been addressed.

Plot: the things that happen in the book.

Structure: the story-telling technique, most easily thought of as how the author reveals the elements of the plot. There are an infinite variety of ways of telling the same story -- different things are emphasized, things are introduced in different orders, and so on.

Writing: the mechanics of word choice, sentence construction, and such.

(That was a dementedly brief summary of the Editing Fiction course I teach at Ryerson. Yes, I get into characterization, dialogue, POV, using humour, and all sorts of other stuff too. But the four basics are where most stories most seriously go off the rails.)

#142 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2005, 01:18 AM:

Dave Luckett:

I'm not trying to argumentative here. I have suggested that Joyce could be extremely clear in his magnificent short stories, although there were deep symbolic things going on beneath the polished prose, vivid description, and simple explicit plot. Then he tried something different, more experimental, very challenging, and profound in his novels. I think that you are mistaken in assuming that he was just doing one thing, and for no good reason. There are many early drawings by Picasso that show his clear draftsmanship. Later, he tried more difficult and experimental things, by the thousands, some of which worked brilliantly, some did not, but which were very influential. If you know the rules inside-out, there are some things that you can do more effectively by intionally breaking a few rules in the service of deeper structure and function.

In the SF genre, consider the works of Samuel R. "Chip" (I almost wrote CHip) Delany. In his teenaged years, even while still at the Bronx High School of Science, he wrote dazzling but accessible novels. Then he probed deeper, writing more experimental things such as "Time Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Stones." Later, he became a professor of Comparative Literature, and was fascinated by semiotics and deconstruction and many theories. He became bored with straightforward plot, and wrote things more puzzling and involuted, but rewarding for those who took the time and attention, as he was deeply insightful into social and psychological and metaphysical vistas that didn't fit his acquired tastes. Would you accuse Delany, Picasso, Le Guin, and other mentioned in this thread as suffering some disease of discursive darkness, beyond "the Alexandria," beyond Joyce's Dublin, as nothing more than chaos in a vacuum, mere "obscurantism... it is bad."

Was T.S. Eliot "bad" in "The Wasteland" -- even after the remarkable editorial guidance of Ezra Pound, himself once called "a madman loose in a museum?" Then you are taking the side of the school of H. P. Lovecraft, and you are suddenbly plunged into another occult umbral dimension of what some still take to be obscurantism.

It really is more complex than that. In My Humble Opinion.

#143 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2005, 01:20 AM:

LUCY We started this discussion on Wednesday, and already it is well over 15,000 words long -- about 20% of the length of a average novel. At this rate, we reach novel length on March 8. How are you doing?

#144 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2005, 02:04 AM:

About 4K a week, thank you (yes, I know you meant the other one, but she's in revision, I gather, not in drafting).

#145 ::: Andy Perrin ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2005, 02:38 AM:

Some digressions from Greg's post:

[technical details cut] In what context, short of a textbook on designing springs, would you ever want to explore the entirety of "how springs work"?

I think this could make a nice popular non-fiction account of how mechanical engineering and materials science is done. In this vein, Henry Petroski has written some excellent books (e.g. The Pencil) about some seemingly simple subjects, using them as a gateway to explore history and engineering. I won't be surprised if you tell me you've read them.

EVERYTHING you learned about writing at university is wrong.

I can't speak for all fields, but in my writing classes simplicity was a virtue. I remember one assignment was to take an old essay and rewrite it to be half as long while retaining all of the content. Perhaps academic writing trends have changed in recent years?

#146 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2005, 04:29 AM:

Andy Perrin:

Not that I have anything against simplicity:

ANDY
by ROGER ANGELL
For E. B. White’s readers and family, a sense of trust came easily.
Issue of 2005-02-14 and 21
Posted 2005-02-07

White’s gift to writers is clarity, which he demonstrates so easily in setting down the daily details of his farm chores: the need to pack the sides of his woodshed with sprucebrush against winter; counterweighting the cold-frame windows, for easier operation; the way the wind is ruffling the surface of the hens’ water fountain. Clarity is the message of “The Elements of Style,” the handbook he based on an early model written by Will Strunk, a professor of his at Cornell, which has helped more than ten million writers—the senior honors candidate, the rewriting lover, the overburdened historian—through the whichy thicket. “Write in a way that comes naturally,” it pleads. “Do not explain too much.”

Similarly, I left most of that spring stuff out for one of the last classes I taught in Math. I gave them Hooke's Law, detoured into asymptotic confinement of quarks, had them do a few examples at the whiteboard, and told them that they could boast to their schoolmates and family that they understood an equation which had just won a Nobel Prize for some guy at Caltech.

#147 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2005, 07:08 AM:

Jonathan "It really is more complex than that."

It serpently is, Ollie.

I don't deny there may be more than one thing going on in Joyce. I do think (in his later novels) he deliberately makes obscure whatever it is. I can't think why, and I can't see how this is different from the work I quoted.

I simply don't understand why any writer would be deliberately obscure at all. I don't know whether Delany or Joyce or any writer whose prose makes no sense to me is "suffering some disease of discursive darkness", but I do know that deliberate obscurity loses my goodwill. I can't be bothered with it.

As a group, writers are not more successful at the art of living than the average human being - rather to the contrary, I believe. I do not read fiction to be informed of their insights in this department, therefore. Certainly I do not read fiction to be the subject of experiment, especially of failed experiment. I do not read it to be advised of recent developments in literary theory. If I were interested in political polemic or social ideas, I would not turn to fiction to feed those interests.

I read fiction for one purpose only: to be told a story. Only that. Nothing else. If the writer can slip something else past me because I really want to find out what happens next and how it all comes out, good. But that won't happen if the writer deliberately sabotages my understanding. For me, no fiction writer has any quality whatsoever that survives compromise of the narrative values. I say again, I can't be bothered. More, I can't for the life of me see why anyone would be.

But there you are. Others read for other reasons.

#148 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2005, 08:30 AM:

Greg: ...15,000 words long -- about 20% of the length of a average novel...

Is that still true? I've read that 60K was a benchmark ca. 1950; my words-per-page counts (when I was curious about reading speed) suggest 70-75K was tolerated. But I recall reading here, relatively recently, the dread news that publishers were looking to \reduce/ word count -- to 120K? 100K?

I suppose 75K might be valid if you average in all of the factory books (e.g. Harlequins) -- the ones my last landlady chewed through were probably under 70K, and there are a lot of those ... objects ... published.

Dave: I've never read more than bits of the works that give Joyce his reputation for difficulty, but I think you're being needlessly reductive. The traditional model of a story comes out of \telling/, which means it must be essentially linear; a speaker can't discurse far before losing the audience. Does anyone else here think it plausible to call Joyce a form of hypertext, albeit incredibly dense with links? That's not a great metaphor since hypertext is still supposed to be clear at the top level, but what does an author do if he wants to pack in more information but avoid massively tangled sentences? I'll assume you're looking for a more substantial story than Dick and Jane; some authors give substance purely by length, others by adding depth. It's unclear (from your excerpt) whether there's any depth in "the obscure poem", or just opacity; I suggest that Joyce has both.

#149 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2005, 10:05 AM:

CHip Teresa and Patrick would know far better than I would. The last five novels through here have been (in reverse chronological order) humour/humour/mystery/thiller/thriller. The first three were well under 100,000, the two thrillers were 120,000 and 160,000.

#150 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2005, 11:44 AM:

Greg and CHip:

CHip is right, Greg. Joyce is doing something quasi-hypertextual because he is telling more than the story of a person or a small number of people.

To pick an example on the web:


MR RANDALL STEVENSON'S LECTURE
James Joyce, Ulysses: Lecture 2

"... this kind of writing establishes a strong point of view within the individual consciousness of the character, but also pluralises and constantly shifts the points of view directed upon him from all around the space he inhabits -- in this case, not only a form of authorial objectivity; not only a character subjectivity, but even extra perspectives thrown in through the eyes of the cat. No wonder Bloom wonders about 'parallax' at one point: Joyce's tactics are themselves parallactic, resisting the paralysis diagnosed in DUBLINERS by enlivening what is seen of the city and its life through constantly shifting and changing the perspectives through which it is recorded. At a level of form and style, ULYSSES clearly resists the narrowing singularity of vision the novel warns us against in that Cyclops chapter."

"The nature of that Free Indirect style --' made him feel a bit peckish' -- may also help us with the apparent stylistic oddities of other whole chapters. Why did Joyce keep changing styles of language between chapters of the novel, sometimes in the oddest ways? Because -- in one theory -- he sought to use the prose to reflect (more intimately than in conventional fiction) the particularities of character or location depicted: exemplifying what Kenner or Bakhtin describe as a kind of 'gravitational field' or 'sphere of influence' surrounding them. Thus Chapter 13, 'Nausicaa' (Gerty on the beach, Bloom masturbating) approximates to the kind of language of women's magazines which has drenched Gerty's mind; 'Aeolus' (chapter 7) is 'naturally' written in headlines, since it is set in a newspaper office; Chapter 14, 'Oxen of the Sun', 'naturally' imitates nine different historical stages of the development of the English language because it is set in a maternity hospital and thus linguistically mimics the nine-month gestation of the foetus toward birth."

"In other words, though unusual, Joyce's stylistic diversity and linguistic complexity can still be seen as motivated by perfectly conventional impulses of mimetic, realist fiction: the only difference is that Joyce now includes the nature of the linguistic medium -- hitherto mostly treated as 'neutral', or just as the domain of the AUTHOR'S stylistic choices -- within the representative capacities of the novel. ULYSSES, in other words, is 'a realist novel par excellence', as Pound said; all its innovations and excellences directed towards a heightened, brightened way of saying yes to the life and reality it seeks to represent.... "

"Chapter 15, 'Circe' (Nighttown/Brothel/ Fantasy) is weird and phantasmagoric because all the characters are drunk. Chapter 16, 'Eumaeus' (Cabman's Shelter) is weary and cliched because Bloom and Stephen are exhausted: Bloom even thinks of writing a story 'My Experiences in a Cabman's Shelter', which might turn out like this Chapter. But Chapter 17, 'Ithaca' (Bloom & Stephen go home), written entirely, as Joyce said, as 'mathematical catechism', question and answer form..."

In Science Fiction, we saw such methodology used (with moderation) by Alfred Bester, and with varying success within the New Wave.

#151 ::: Lucy Huntzinger ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2005, 07:53 PM:

Be of good cheer; I have taken your efforts to heart and am revising the novel. Besides, I understand five months to mull over revisions after completing a first draft is not that outrageous. Neener.

#152 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2005, 08:02 PM:

Exactly right, Lucy.

You could even take a few more months and still be within the realm of normality. Of course, by then, the discussion here would have consumed all the pixels on the internet and be in the process of swallowing the Sun. All die. Oh, the embarrassment.

#153 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2005, 08:08 PM:

Greg --


From my [Graydon's] academic background, presuming that you're trying to convey the entirety of the ideas, this is an obvious falsehood -- the encoding has to have at least as much complexity as the idea.

That presumption would be debatable in an academic context, and I think it is irrelevant in writing fiction. In fact, I would think that virtually everything you learned about writing academese would have a harmful influence on your ability to write fiction.

My academic background is in the information theory and formal specification ends of computing science, where the point is to write stuff that isn't lossy at all. (Or, if it is, you know and can prove exactly how much.)

Your example of a jpeg is interesting, because that's a very lossy file format. Different purposes tolerate different loss levels. Keeping the discussion in terms of images, a building-sized blowup of a photograph requires a very high quality negative. Comparing the negative to the thing that has been photographed there is always some loss of detail, but an able photographer can keep it to a minimum. For a magazine cover, a 2400 or 1200 dpi tiff file is needed. For images inside books, we use 300 dpi tiffs. For the web, a 72 dpi jpeg is sufficient. For each purpose, you know ahead of time what rate of loss is tolerated.

JPEGs don't have to be lossy; that part of the specification isn't typically implemented, but non-lossy JPEG encoding libraries exist.

Sorry -- compulsive geeking.

How is the content of the book different from the writing?
That distinction was pounded into me in my early days in publishing, when I was reading slush at Seal Books. At Seal, we had to write up a quick reader's report on a pre-printed page. We had to comment on three things: the book's content, writing, and marketability. "Content" was what the book was about -- the story (if any) and ideas (if any). "Writing" was the author's writing ability, usually discussed in terms of how much editing it needed, whether it was entertaining, and what the reading level was. "Marketability" was "can Seal make money on this?"

These all strike me as reasonable questions to ask from the point of view of a publisher, but it's not getting at the question I was trying to ask.

The only thing you've got is this stack of paper with marks on it. All the things you know about the story as a story stem from those marks. (Not necessarily marketability, that question of a wider world, since "O Muse, why must they send us stories about vampire broccoli?" is not a question the text can answer.)

I would call those marks on the paper the writing; if what you mean is the mechanics of word choice, I can see where we're disagreeing.

But, anyway, how is the complexity of the thing conveyed to the reader different from the complexity contained in those marks on the paper?

In particular, can it possibly be greater in the reader than on the paper? (I would say yes, but that's an accident of brilliance on the part of the reader, not a property of the text.)

#154 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2005, 09:15 PM:

Graydon:

Your question: "how is the complexity of the thing conveyed to the reader different from the complexity contained in those marks on the paper?" depends, of course, on the complexity measure (Kolmogorov, Chaitin,...) and the notion of the systems which include the manuscript, the reader, the writer, Brooklyn, and so forth, in various combinations, with various types of relative information.

The February 2005 Physics Today (pp.64-66) has, coincidently, a review of "E Coli in Motion" by Howard C. Berg [AIP Press/Springer-Verlag, 2004] and "Modeling Complex Systems" by Nino Boccara [Springer-Verlag, 2004]. They both sound like winners to me. I was amused by this in Richard M. Berry's review of the former (in our novelistic context):

"E. coli is just about the simplest organism that displays behavior complex enough to be worth studying.... He presents E. coli not as the faceless biochemical factory familiar to geneticists and molecular biologists, but as an individual swimming around looking for food, making decisions, and trying to get along in the world. Often he invites the reader to 'step... into E. coli's shoes,' and he shows obvious affection for his tiny protagonist..."

Made me sigh and remember James Blish's masterpiece: "Surface Tension." 1942 story, "Sunken Universe," later glued to a revised version of his 1952 classic "Surface Tension," to become the fix-up Book 3 of The Seedling Stars. The original version of "Surface Tension" appears in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I.

The fix-up also includes the 1955 novella "A Time to Survive" that is retitled "Seeding Program" for its appearance as Book 1 of the novel; the 1954 novelette "The Thing in the Attic" becomes Book 2; and the 1955 short story "Watershed" is expands into the concluding Book 4. Great stuff! But very different from how James Joyece would have written it.

Patrick: does your band play that Beatles song "I'll swallow the sun?"

#155 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2005, 10:47 PM:

Lucy: I was thinking that -- five months is not so long. I figured the reason that Teresa wanted to do this thing to you is that she probably had reason to think all this would somehow make the hard parts easier, knowing that a kajillion people, many (or most?) of them strangers had now become invested in your book -- and knowing that writing can be an isolating thing. Anyway. I've been hoping you were the sort of person who enjoys this kind of attention and not the sort of person who suffers from it, and I figured Teresa probably knew.

Jonathan: Even though Graydon can be all geeky and stuff, I really doubt that the complexity he's talking about is the mathematical kind.

Graydon: I think that the complexity of a work is necessarily greater in the reader than on the paper, if the reader is at all competent to read the matter, and probably even if the reader is not: however, this doesn't mean that the complexity of the work is greater in the reader than in the writer -- that's a different thing, and totally up for grabs, I think.

Greg: you've lost me several times. The way you're talking about writing and reading just doesn't ring any bells with me -- as a writer, a reader, or a reading teacher. I can't tell if you're saying something useful that I don't get because of the language it's said in, or if you're saying something that's sideways to the thing I know, something which doesn't connect and doesn't parallel.
But. It sounds like, if I were to try to second-guess audience the way you seem to be saying a writer has to do, I'd never say another word, let alone write one, because I'd be constantly trying to calculate what's going to be immediately transparent to the absolute most people everywhere at this very moment (and, I think, flat, without ambiguities or contradictions? because I think that would be required in order to fill the demand I'd be making). Which would be like asking the 1960s television super computer robot god thing the question "why?" and it would occupy my brain and not allow anything else in. And if I succeeded in writing a phrase or two, however transparent it would be to however many people the moment I wrote it, by the time it was published it would be unintelligible.

#156 ::: Sarah Avery ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2005, 12:07 AM:

If you're curious to see an accessible, ardent defense of deliberately difficult writing, you might want to check out the poet Joshua Corey's blog (http://www.joshcorey.blogspot.com/). I disagree with him about...well, almost everything, but his ongoing project of explaining why the most challenging of the contemporary poets are worth the work assumes an intelligent audience that disagrees with him.

#157 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2005, 12:59 AM:

Sarah, thanks for that. Mr Corey is well worth reading, though I, like you, disagree with him on most things, even about poetry.

I don't know. When the fifth (I think it was) Canto of Byron's "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" came out in 1818, it was into a London in which only three in five of the population could read at all, but the publisher was mobbed. Crowds stood outside the printshops, bidding for the galleys as they came hot from the press. There were small riots. Pirate editions. Packed public readings.

But poetry... isn't that the stuff where the words don't mean anything and the lines don't fill up the page? Isn't that the stuff that nobody reads and nobody cares about except the small number of people who write it and then stand around in a circle admiring each other's?

It wasn't so, then. Now? Well, can you conceive of a volume of new poetry receiving such a reception now? And if not, why not?

#158 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2005, 01:30 AM:

Lucy Kemnitzer:

You're probably right. "Complexity" is a word with many shades of meaning. My bias comes from reading many papers and books on Complexity, and hundreds of emails about Complexity in Management, and having several paperts published as conferences on Complexity. If there are "7 types of ambiguity" there must be quite a bit more than 7 types of "Complexity" these days. Hot subject. Loaded word. But, in the literary sense:

"Are there books we under-appreciate through no fault of the author's, but because our own imaginations as readers are not up to the task?"

Jeff VaderMeer's review of "HARUKI MURAKAMI'S KAFKA ON THE SHORE"

Sarah Avery:

Good link! "...There's nothing "sensual" about narrative as such: it's just the most easily accessible handle by which we grasp a piece of writing. Having once grasped it by that handle, however, it's damn hard to look at it from any other angle. For me the sensual or physical experience of a poem is in the words: their sound first, then the images they conjure, and then the network of references they call up: melopoeia, phanopoeia, logopoeia...."

Greg: in that sense, how important to you is the SOUND of a work of literature, read aloud? Is a poem by Dylan Thomas with no particularly deep insight a seductive experience when read aloud by someone with a Welsh accent? Or Shakespeare, well-acted, even if the words are obscure? James Joyce read aloud is different from what you see on the page. The late Arthur Miller (I used to live in the same building as he did) insisted that his plays were not meant for the page, but to be acted on the stage.

#159 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2005, 02:23 AM:

Graydon wrote:

I would call those marks on the paper the writing; if what you mean is the mechanics of word choice, I can see where we're disagreeing.

What is writing if it is not word choice?

But, anyway, how is the complexity of the thing conveyed to the reader different from the complexity contained in those marks on the paper?
In particular, can it possibly be greater in the reader than on the paper? (I would say yes, but that's an accident of brilliance on the part of the reader, not a property of the text.)

Not sure how we got from where we started to this point, and not particularly interested in retracing. The first question seems trivial: yes, they can differ drastically -- for example, very complex writing often conveys nothing to a noncomprehending reader. On the second question, I have no idea.

Lucy You don't write with a particular readership in mind?


#160 ::: liz ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2005, 02:57 AM:

Oh, dear, this is rather tangential to the topic, other than he was a man famous for blowing his deadlines and dashing in copy over the Mojo Wire, to the vexation of his editors...

Hunter S. Thompson has decided that the next world is better than this.

I am sitting in another mountain town, not Aspen of 1971, and not in a smoky bar, and not chasing any sort of mood- or perception-altering substance. I am far away from that person, now, but I am tremendously sad that Thompson's left.

I've been listening to Jimmy Cliff and also the Neville brothers and lastly Grisman & Garcia, singing:

Sitting here in Limbo
Waiting for the tide turn.
Yeah, now, sitting here in Limbo,
So many things I've got to learn.
Meanwhile, they're putting up a resistance,
But I know that my faith will lead me on.

Sitting here in Limbo
Waiting for the dice to roll.
Yeah, now, sitting here in Limbo,
Still got some time to search my soul.
Meanwhile, they're putting up a resistance,
But I know that my faith will lead me on.
I don't know where life will take me,
But I know where I have been.
I don't know what life will show me,
But I know what I have seen.
Tried my hand at love and friendship,
That is past and gone.
And now it's time to move along.

Sitting here in Limbo
Like a bird ain't got a song.
Yeah, I'm sitting here in Limbo
And I know it won't be long
'Til I make my getaway, now.
Meanwhile, they're putting up a resistance,
But I know that my faith will lead me on.
I don't know where life will take me,
But I know where I have been.
I don't know what life will show me,
But I know what I have seen.
Tried my hand at love and friendship,
That is past and gone.
And now it's time to move along.
Gonna lead me on now.
Meanwhile, they're putting up resistance,
But I know that my faith will lead me on.

Sitting in Limbo, Limbo, Limbo.
Sitting in Limbo, Limbo, Limbo.
Sitting in Limbo, Limbo, Limbo.
Meanwhile, they're putting up a resistance,
But I know that my faith will lead me on.

#161 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2005, 03:50 AM:

Greg said: Lucy You don't write with a particular readership in mind?

Well, not particularly particular, no. Dog knows I hope I'm not limited to a particular readership. That's almost as terrifying as being Ed Wood.

And here I guess I might seem to be contradicting what I said earlier, about there needing to be different kinds of books for different kinds of readers. But the thing is, it's like evolution in this way: the niche that the organism occupies is created by the organism occupying it. There is no eyelash mite niche until an eyelash mite appears. Likewise there is no C.J. Cherryh readership until there are C.J. Cherryh books.`

So I guess I write with a Lucy Kemnitzer readership in mind, kind of. Kind of.

Actually, I just write stories.

#162 ::: Bill Blum ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2005, 12:04 PM:

Since I don't have any prospective employers returning my calls, I've been wondering how to occupy myself in the lulls between bursts of job searching.

I finally dragged out, finished, and submitted a short story again. Felt motivated for some reason--- all this peer pressure floating around.

#163 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2005, 01:15 PM:

Okay, so if Lucy H finishes her novel, will Tor slushreaders get to Lucy K's novel?

Somehow I read the above as "Tor slushdivers." I am now stuck with images of interns tied to lifelines and wearing diving suits straight out of Girl Genius wading into a surging sea of manuscripts. And no, singing Excelsior to the Underdog theme isn't driving it out of my head. I've tried.

#164 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2005, 01:58 PM:

We wade through the piles with the coffee close to hand,
For we give not a fig for the Author's Vanity,
And we sink them in the slushland, slushland, slush,
Sink them in the Slushland Sea.

#165 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2005, 03:42 PM:

You know what, John? You're not helping.

#166 ::: HP ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2005, 03:51 PM:

And no, singing Excelsior to the Underdog theme isn't driving it out of my head.

The answer came both quick and blunt:
"It is an an advertising stunt.
I represent Smith, Jones, and Jakes,
A lumber company that makes
             "Excelsior!"

From Rocky and Bullwinkle, season 2 DVD, "Bullwinkle's Corner: Excelsior!" Rocky has just interrupted Bullwinkle's recitation to ask him why he's going to such trouble.

For what it's worth, that one drove the actual final verse of "Excelsior" right outta my head. Try singing that to the Underdog theme.

#167 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2005, 05:06 PM:

Dave: When the fifth (I think it was) Canto of Byron's "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" came out in 1818, it was into a London in which only three in five of the population could read at all, but the publisher was mobbed.

Ah yes, the days when serials were published in verse rather than prose. If I recall my high-school English classes, at that point the novel was less than a century old, while narrative poetry had millennia of tradition behind it. But poetry had other uses than narrative for centuries before Byron (cf Marvell, of which the obvious was read at a Valentine party nearby); with prose fiction becoming popular (?despite the best efforts of the poetic classes?), perhaps the additional effort to narrate in verse just didn't seem worth the effort.

Tracing back to past comments on kennings and mnemonics, I could argue that verse narrative grew out of the problems of narrating from memory, and died when the accumulated cachet of verse (cf Shakespeare putting high speech in verse and low speech in prose(*)) was eroded by the greater clarity(!) offered by the flexibility of prose. People still do it when they feel verse works better than prose (cf "Winter Solstice, Camelot Station"); but those are the exceptions.

(*) "Hath not a Jew eyes?" is a notable exception; the recent film again makes me wonder why this speech is not in verse like all of Shylock's other substantial speeches. My first use of a time machine might be to ask Will just what he intended with that speech; I've played the part and read on it but have no firm idea why he gave such a wonderful speech to someone who turned so dark. Dave -- as a fan of narrative verse, do you have any guesses?

#168 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2005, 05:48 PM:

In his book/survey about Bad Songs, Dave Barry wrote about how since he misheard the first line of "Help Me Rhonda" by The Beach Boys as "Well since she put me down I've had owls pooping in my bed" he's been unable to remember it the right way.

Gee, thanks Dave.

Now I have to dig out the song and listen to it every few weeks or I do the same damn thing.

#169 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2005, 09:09 PM:

About the 'who do you write for' question, well, despite having been through complex models of alleged, presumed, and actual audience when studying Renaissance poetry, the first novel I wrote I followed the write what you like advice.

The result, well, people who liked it used 'neutronium' to describe it.

So I went, hmm, need to do something about that -- I know, I'll write a big square fluff-fantasy, and that will fix the density problem.

After the people who liked that one variously ceased making choking noises at the word 'fluff', they very kindly attempted to disabuse me of my folly, though it was once allowed that a large and thoroughly shaken box full of tungsten light bulb filaments might be the right model of fluff if I really wanted to keep the description.

I went 'hurm, that didn't work' and have set out to write a D&D novel in a universe where the forces of Good got an unambiguous win generations previously, and not for the first time.

But, well, no, I don't have a notion of audience, beyond the idea that discussing virtue indirectly might be to some people's taste.

Greg --
What is writing if it is not word choice?

A system of presumptively asynchronous communication using symbols to represent language.

The word choice end of things is certainly a part of the process of composition, but one I see as secondary to the basic question of narrative, which is "what happens next?".

#170 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2005, 09:33 PM:

Graydon:

"the basic question of narrative, which is "what happens next?".

That seems to me to confuse plot with story.

What happens next IN THE TELLING, happening TO WHOM, and exactly WHY, and how does that person's character, in the setting, determine what happens and HOW IT IS PERCEIVED?

The sequence of events AS I TELL YOU is likely different from the chronological sequence, and the slant, viewpoint, pacing, word choice, and other characteristics play as large a role as the sequences.

I'm simplifying here -- but I think that you simplified to the point of guaranteed failure.
IMHO.

#171 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2005, 10:08 PM:

Bruce -
"I could argue that verse narrative grew out of the problems of narrating from memory, and died when the accumulated cachet of verse (...) was eroded by the greater clarity(!) offered by the flexibility of prose."

So, then, the advantage of (good) prose is its clarity. But isn't the exploitation of the advantages offered by the medium one of the elements of good art?

Why, then, in some instances (Joyce, Delany et al) is it considered a virtue for the prose to be unclear?

As for being a fan of narrative verse, I don't think I would go so far as to describe myself as one, specifically. I'm a fan of well-told stories, no matter the form or convention. Hence, I don't care why Shakespeare chose to write Shylock's great speech in prose. It works to create a human character, which is an element of story, and that's what I care about. (I also care about the intrinsic beauty of the speech, and find that its beauty and its narrative value are involved with each other in a way I find difficult to specify, but that's another matter.)

#172 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2005, 10:27 PM:

Graydon I meant the verb, not the noun. "Presumptively asynchronous" sounds a tad dated. (Hmm -- and would that be "presumably" or "presumptively"? I can see an argument for using either in this case, but think "presumably" is a shade more appropriate. And I tend to opt for the better-known word, all other factors being equal.)

I agree with Jonathan on "what happens next" -- it is what I was trying to say above when I distinguished between plot and structure.

#173 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2005, 10:28 PM:

Dave Luckett & Bruce:
Neil Gaiman's Journal
posted by Neil Gaiman 2/19/2005 01:12:00 PM
Here's a quote that struck me as being wise and true this morning, from the film critic C. A. Lejeune. She was an English writer from the earlier part of the last century. It's from her review of Coward's Blithe Spirit.

"It is true that it may be easier to have wit than, in the deepest and most enduring sense, to have imagination. But it is easier to pretend to have imagination than to pretend to have wit. A pretender may get away with a phoney poem, because it is the privilege of a poet to be mysterious. But a pretender cannot get away with a phoney joke, because it is the point of a joke to be seen."

#174 ::: Anne Sheller ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2005, 11:51 PM:

If Teresa is still contemplating eating a heart, and it is to be neither child's nor chicken's, I recommend beef heart as the meat in a hearty beef stew. These days the hearts (or more usually half hearts) I find at Krogers are already well trimmed of valves and large blood vessels, needing only to be cut to bite size bits. Dredge in flour, brown, pour in some beef broth, some dark beer (pour some into the cook too), add onions, carrots, potatoes.... soon as Lent's over I gotta get some stew fixins.

#175 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2005, 12:20 AM:

Graydon:

"the basic question of narrative, which is "what happens next?".

That seems to me to confuse plot with story.

Only if you have a very narrow sense of what "next" means.

#176 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2005, 05:08 AM:

Lucy --

Yes!

Greg, Jonathan --

Questions of plot and structure and so on strike me as appropriate to critical discussion of existing writing, and not so much to the process of composition.

All that extensive, well established critical vocabulary assumes the whole thing is done and available as a whole, and moreover that we have a bunch of them to compare with one another, and that is surely not true of the process of composition.

Fundamentally, there is only the linear sequence of story-building instructions received by the reader, no matter how much terminology exists to make generalizing assumptions about the function of those instructions.

I think the process of composition benefits greatly from being addressed at that level -- this is an instruction to add the next chunk of story to the reader's head -- rather than at the generalized level of comparison to other existing works. (which is what all that critical language is for, after all; if there were only one story in the world, no one would talk of plot, and while one is writing it, it is the only story.)

Dave --

Evocation counts; so does rhythm, stress, and implication. The process of reading, the process of apprehending linear narrative in whatever form, is fundamentally accumulative, and the way we appreciate this isn't chiefly rational. So there's ways to get emotional responses that don't work if all you're doing is presenting rational information packets in clear sequence.

Which is not to say that the clear presentation of information isn't required in fiction -- it is. The reader needs some known points to hang their growing understanding on.

The way the understanding grows can pass through dark places to its benefit, all the same.

#177 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2005, 10:41 AM:

Graydon, et al.,

Linear? A short story has something happen to someone. A novel has lots of things happen to lots of people. As playwrights and screenwriters know, you can hand an actor a script that only has the scenes where they appear. Each character has his/her own "linear" subsequence of plot events. But even to run each character through their events chronologically requires cutting from one character to another.

Linear? The labelled graph of what happens to what character when, what character thinks what of which other character, character says what to whom, and what character does what to whom -- that labelled graph is not even planar. Draw it for a novel you've analyzed, or are writing. Lots of lines cross.

The choices of where to cut to another character, where to flash back, where to flash forward, are important aspects of structure. Films such as "Pulp Fiction" and "Sixth Sense" depend on playing at an even higher level with our processing of plot and story. Twist ending; forced re-evaluation.

Then there's the unreliable narrator. Films such as Rashomon.

Sure, the reader may end up having constructed a linear plot in his/her head by the very end of the novel -- and the Mystery genre in particular forces one to reconstruct that model -- but that is not itself generated in a linear fashion.

The effort is not deterministic, either. Re-read the novel, and you can have a very different experience.

Post's Linear Law: "The Road to Hell is paved with Linear Approximations."

#178 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2005, 11:20 AM:

Jonathan --

Notice how you're hauling in movies as examples for points you're making about text?

Linear is correct for text; you read one word and then another word, and while readers cannot be relied upon to read books in printed order, they can (mostly) be relied on to read the sentences that way.

That's just how spoken or written language works -- it's linear and accumulative. Visual arts are based on edges, and what creates and fills them. (Same basic wetware issues -- the stuff for doing 'tuft of grass, tuft of grass, LION!' is heavily biases toward edge detection.)

No matter what the author does in the way of scene cuts, point of view changes, or transitions to order information, the reader gets that information in a linear fashion, one letter, one word, one sentence at a time.

I'm not saying there is no such thing as structure, that the writer doesn't have options about how to order the information that the reader will get (if the reader plays along by reading the thing in order); I am saying that the process of writing involves assembling a story into some particular linear order on the page.

#179 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2005, 01:09 PM:

I've been very happy lately thinking of composition as being like crochet: you have a string, yes, and you can only put in a stitch at a time, but you set up the conditions for later stitches in the stitch you're working on now, and you can also go back and insert the current stitch into a stitch that came before -- or several of them.

It's not a metaphor that works for reading, though, I think.

#180 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2005, 01:39 PM:

Language, especially written language, is linear in nature. That doesn't mean the narrative has to be linear. I think there are two conflicting senses of the word 'linear' here.

Dave Luckett: I haven't searched the thread, so I can't be sure that no one said Joyce and Delany's obscurity as such contained value. If anyone did, I disagree. I think they convey information (including mental states and condition of characters etc.) that CANNOT be conveyed by simple journalistic prose, or at any rate not without looking more like a physics paper than a story.

My favorite Delany sentence (actually it may be my favorite sentence in the entire English language) is "Things that made the obscure obvious by overturning overturned." I don't know about yours, but it took my brain a couple of tries to parse that, and when it did, what happened in my brain was the exact event the sentence was describing (albeit with different content). This conveyed what happened in the character's brain in a way no three-paragraph description, or worse, a cliché like "the penny dropped" ever, ever could: it caused me to experience the character's mental process.

#181 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2005, 02:14 PM:

Xopher, Lucy Kemnitzer, Graydon , et al.:

Please allow me to repurpose an extended metaphor from my 1977 PhD Dissertation (never accepted NOR rejected).

The string (linear sequence) of typographical characters on the printed page of a book -- alphanumerical including blanks plus punctuation -- is the analog of a sequence of codons in a DNA molecule. This is a "primary structure." The codon is further composed of nucleotide pairs; each letter is made from strokes.

The book has been printed [DNA reproduced] by a printer [cell nucleus].

The string (linear sequence) of typographical characters on the printed page of a book is "transcribed" and parsed by your eye, optic nerve, superior colliculus, visual cortex, other parts of the brain (Broca, Wernicke) into a sequence of mental representations of words. There are some things stuck to them, feelings, rhymes, connotations, synonyms. [DNA is transcribed by RNA, and the ribosome translates that to the primary structure of a polypeptide].

The string of words, with associated flavoring, in your brain, is more deeply syntactically and semantically processed into a hierarchy of phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters. [the polypeptide, with the assistance of chaperone proteins, folds in a very complicated way]. This is a Secondary Structure.

Then the hierarchy of phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters further reconfigures in your brain into a complex experience which includes story, plot, characters, evocations, and much more. This is what the author was trying to do in the first place. This is Tertiary Structure. [The folded DNA is further edited by RNA and prorein into a protein molecule in its functional form, for example as a nanomachine called an enzyme, with active sites where subtrate binds, and the substrate molecule transformed into an intermediate metabolite. Or, if it's an allosteric enzyme, there are two active sites, one for substrate, and one for a control signal molecule for feedback and regulation].

The writer puts genotext on the page. It becomes phenotext in your head. The writer tells a genostory, which you experience as a phenostory. Xopher: "what happened in my brain was the exact event the sentence was describing (albeit with different content)." See T. S. Eliot: "Objective Correlative."

Text strings, for computers writing novels, can be created by simulated evolution, using John Holland's Genetic Algorithm. Editors, publishers, critics, and market forces created by readers, provide an environment in which evolution of texts, i.e. evolution of literature takes place.

A strong hypothesis is that text strings evolve in your brain by a Genetic Algorithm. That's why you want texts and DNA and RNA to be "linear" in a reductive sense. But they are linear in primary structure precisely so string-manipulation algorithms can reproduce them easily, translate them easily, and transcribe them easily. But all that is mere infrastructure for the deeply meaningful Tertiary Structure, where things actually function.

Ummmmm. Is that clear to anyone at all here?

#182 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2005, 03:10 PM:

Jonathan wrote:

Please allow me to repurpose an extended metaphor from my 1977 PhD Dissertation (never accepted NOR rejected).

I can sympathize with your thesis committee. I still have some stray to-dos left over from the 1970s on my procrastination list. You might try phoning them to remind them.

#183 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2005, 03:14 PM:

me: "I could argue that verse narrative grew out of the problems of narrating from memory, and died when the accumulated cachet of verse (...) was eroded by the greater clarity(!) offered by the flexibility of prose."

Dave: Why, then, in some instances (Joyce, Delany et al) is it considered a virtue for the prose to be unclear?

Others have noted that lack of clarity is not a virture per se. I'll add that it's not automatically considered a defect; after a tool has been around for a while, people find more (and more elaborate) uses for it. Note that I was not arguing that prose is automatically clear, or is required to be clear, but only that it overrode narrative verse because verse, by imposing an arbitrary framework, obscures clarity -- or at least makes clarity more difficult to achieve, which would not have been a small consideration when the demand for fiction was increasing.

It may be ironic that a medium that won its place through clarity should gain more attention through lack of clarity; but consider how many times this has happened in music: Baroque becomes heavily embroidered Rococo, Romantic is overlayered into Post-Romantic -- even early rock becomes Pet Sounds and the later Beatles. And note how each case the elaboration drew a reaction: Rococo gave way to formal Classic, Post-Romantic begat Neo-Classic, and late-60's rock led to Punk. (I can already hear Patrick grumbling about my simplifications.) Do comics represent a similar reaction to prose fiction, and are graphic novels a similar elaboration?

Note that this is an amateur's observation; I'm a software engineer and ex-chemist, not a literatteur (unlike many who wind up in software because it pays). But I can see that the above is plausible even though I often lose patience with Delany et al. myself.

#184 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2005, 03:45 PM:

Greg Ioannou:

Well, clearly Literature evolves. Clearly novel manuscripts can be rewritten. Clearly this thread is probing the mechanisms.

To comply with the exacting and strenuously enforced format for Making Light submissions, I left out the equations from my extended metaphor;)

"Jonathan wrote:
'Please allow me to repurpose an extended metaphor from my 1977 PhD Dissertation (never accepted NOR rejected).'
I can sympathize with your thesis committee. I still have some stray to-dos left over from the 1970s on my procrastination list. You might try phoning them to remind them."

Once, after making presentations and broadcasts in Munich (combined SF Film festival and Aerospace industry convention) I flew back to the USA via Logan airport. I rented a car and drove from Boston to Amherst, and dropped in on the chairman of the COINS (Computer and Information Science Department) and Dean at Umass/Amherst. I reminded them that I'd gotten my M.S. in record time, passed the PhD candidacy exam with a record high score, been a T.A. for two Chairmen in a row, paid for dissertation credits, had an ad hoc dissertation committee, and had most chapters of my dissertation now published in refereed journals and the refereed proceedings of international conferences. Suited & Tied, I politely asked that they accept my dissertation, already mostly published, for Oral Defense. I also gave them a list of about 65 publications I'd had in Computer Science.

They told me that I had one or two typos in my list of publications. They told me that there is no provision in the rules for a PhD candidate to take a sabattical (which is how they interpreted their unilaterally breaking the Fellowship contract and throwing me out).

They suggested that I reapply for admission to the graduate department, "although we're not as interdisciplinary as we used to be," and then pay retroactive tuition and dues for every semester back until 1977. Then, if they admit me (not guaranteed) they might ignore the fact that they never, per their own rules, turned the ad hoc dissertation committee into a formal dissertation committee and read my dissertation in the firtst place. They might cash my $30,000+ check, create a new formal dissertation committee, and then maybe accept and maybe reject the dissertation.

I didn't have $30,000 in my wallet at the time. Friends suggested that I pay them, apply, submit, get the PhD, and then sue to get the $30,000 back. As if.

So I just accept that their not giving me the world's first PhD in Nanotechnology and the world's first PhD in Artificial Life has cost me $10,000 per year of salary in the corporate and governmental and academic worlds, and turn the other cheek.

And that I've had several years of part-time Professorships and a very hard time even getting interviewed for tenure-track professorships.

So, now that you've (I'm quoting a coauthor, not complaining about your insighful comments) "expressed your knee-jerk reaction to my text, do have any actual criticism of my content?" My friend (a full Professor of Business & Economics) recommends laughing when someone makes a feminist or Right-Wing or other ideological comment on a hypothesis that deserves further consideration.

Note that "Literature evolves" is perfectly consistent with CHip's clever "Rococo gave way to formal Classic, Post-Romantic begat Neo-Classic, and late-60's rock led to Punk." In Rock terms, it is Whiggish to conclude that "We are the Crown of Creation!"

#185 ::: Laura Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2005, 03:46 PM:

Nalo Hopkinson has been experimenting with a goat's heart.

#186 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2005, 06:33 PM:

the exacting and strenuously enforced format for Making Light submissions

It seems to me -- just another guest, mind -- that the only rule of participation in the Making Light conversation is to be neither a bore nor a boor.

Why is that so hard?

#187 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2005, 07:10 PM:

Xopher: The tenses in that sentence were frying my sockets until I realized that it is probably supposed to be "Things that make the obscure obvious by overturning overturned." Sort of like "Things that go bump in the night went bump." Having it "made" rather than "make" suggests that the things no longer exist, which (as they seem to be the narrator's mental functions) seems unlikely.

#188 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2005, 10:10 PM:

"I don't know about yours, but it took my brain a couple of tries to parse that, and when it did, what happened in my brain was the exact event the sentence was describing (albeit with different content)."

Well, there you are, you see. The first observation (that parsing the sentence took a couple of tries) is alone enough to separate you from the immediacy of the event, and thus invalidate the idea that you experienced the event itself.

But what is more interesting is this: how do you know that it was the exact event, from such a description? For it seems to me that the words quoted might refer to so wide a variety of experiences as to render them all but meaningless.

That is not to say that you have not experienced something. But what is it? A sudden revelation of truth? Then why not say "the truth suddenly revealed itself"? Or if it is not that, then whatever it is?

As for me, what I experienced was simple frustration and annoyance that the fellow will not (not cannot; Delany was a fine writer) say what he means. Who is to say that your reaction was more valid than mine? But is not the purpose of art to obtain a given reaction to a stimulus? Not any reaction at all, but a given one?

#189 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2005, 10:29 PM:

Dave Luckett:

"But is not the purpose of art to obtain a given reaction to a stimulus? Not any reaction at all, but a given one?"

EDGAR ALLEN POE
From
"The Poetic Principle"

In speaking of the Poetic Principle, I have no design to be either thorough or profound. While discussing, very much at random, the essentiality of what we call Poetry, my principal purpose will be to cite for consideration, some few of those minor English or American poems which best suit my own taste, or which, upon my own fancy, have left the most definite impression. By "minor poems" I mean, of course, poems of little length. And here, in the beginning, permit me to say a few words in regard to a somewhat peculiar principle, which, whether rightfully or wrongfully, has always had its influence in my own critical estimate of the poem. I hold that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, "a long poem," is imply a flat contradiction in terms.

I need scarcely observe that a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient. That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags—fails—a revulsion ensues—and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such...."

T. S. Eliot
"Objective Correlative"
[1919 essay on "Hamlet"] Eliot claimed that Shakespeare had failed to dramatise in the character of Hamlet some apparently "intractable material." Eliot's general definition asserted:

"The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an 'objective correlative'; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is evoked.'"

The unified expression of these two concepts in terms of a DNA-Prorein analogy is left to the reader as an exercise.

#190 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2005, 11:18 PM:

Acck!, on the link to Nalo Hopkinson's attempt at cooking a goat heart.

Heart is a muscle. A very tough muscle. Liver is an organ, and has a completely different structure and texture.

You DON'T cook heart by treating it like a slice of liver. Heart needs l-o-n-n-n-g-g-g, s-l-o-w-w-w-w-w-w cooking, at relatively low heat, with a fair amount of moisture, to break down and tenderize the muscle fibers. (Yes, Virginia, there IS a good use for crockpots.)

We now return you to our regularly scheduled episode of LITERARY DEATHMATCH.

#191 ::: Sarah Avery ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2005, 02:52 AM:

Lucy Kemnitzer, a technical writing teacher once told me that crocheting each sentence back into the one before it was a useful technique for making text easy to use if one expects one's reader to be reading under highly adrenalizing circumstances. She was talking about placing the most conspicuous nouns from the end of the previous sentence within the first five words of the new sentence. Apparently that kind of repetition soothes the fight-or-flight response. I have no idea whether the claim's true or not, but it sounds good.

#192 ::: Keith ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2005, 10:17 AM:

Personally, I think this and "Finnegan's Wake" are both examples of obscurantism, the wilful hiding of meaning behind literary figuration, allusion, abstraction and cloaking devices. Further, I think this is done so as to gain a specific readership: those who read so that they may congratulate themselves on their culture, learning and sophistication.

There is, of course, such a readership. Its existence is even fairly harmless, so long as it remains a minority taste, like flagellation. But woe to the culture that it takes over!
-Dave Luckett

I’ve often tried to imagine a world in which housewives read ponderous obscuratanist tomes instead of romance novels while lit professors have their students exorcise the meaning from sixteenth century latin exegesis on goat’s hooves but the result scares me something awful: the President gazes thoughtfully at the atomic football, pondering the nuclear meaning of the button and hesitates, wondering what some writer will make of his actions a hundred years from now. Meanwhile, the hoards of barbarian Televiewers storm the city, taking jumpy, quick actions as they scuttle our civilization.

That we sometimes need simpletons and the simple, straitforward pleasures that they enjoy is an unfortunate reality. It gives me the literary equivalent of the willies. But then again, sometimes it’s nice to go back to basics, fool the masses (and the elites) into thinking big thoughts hidden under small words. Who was it that said that fairy tales and science fiction novels were more subversive than any political pamphlet?

And since it’s snowing today and the city is shut down, I think I’ll spend the afternoon finishing up that novella I’ve been whittling at.

#193 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2005, 06:06 PM:

Graydon, I think I got lost:

Questions of plot and structure and so on strike me as appropriate to critical discussion of existing writing, and not so much to the process of composition.

...

Fundamentally, there is only the linear sequence of story-building instructions received by the reader, no matter how much terminology exists to make generalizing assumptions about the function of those instructions.

You seem, here and elsewhere, to be jumping from the process of composition directly to the point where the composition is being received by the reader.(As opposed to the point where the writer is considering how the result of the act may affect an imagined reader, which is the only one that tends to be present at the moment of actual composition and thus is the only one relevant to the immediate of composition).

And I am, for the life of me, trying to figure out how a question of structure can NOT be essential to composition (particularly to revision). To choose the best words in the best places to create the linear sequence of story instructions requires the composer to carry in their head the various kinds and forms of structures that could create the best possible set of story instructions.

That would be true even if there were no other existing story to compare it to; because there is a structure in our heads of what we want the reader to receive, and how, and if the story, even the only story, failed to convey those instructions, it would be necessary to compare what it has been to what it should become, to see if the fault is within the thing itself, or within the reader. It would be a task made difficult if no other stories existed with which to compare structure, though I believe it would be not only possible but possibly beneficial to compare to structures that work in other media, (because with all the availability of other written text compositons in the world, outside media comparisons are still done, and soemtimes to the betterment of the creation).

But these other stories and texts do exist, and the creator's work is made easier thereby, due to a knowledge of what structures have moved them and other readers of their knowledge, which go to form the potential but non existant reader of the composition still being made.


Linear is correct for text; you read one word and then another word, and while readers cannot be relied upon to read books in printed order, they can (mostly) be relied on to read the sentences that way.

But is it correct for the composition of text?

Unless your definition of linear is so broad that every task of creation becomes linear (Building a cathedral involves one brick or beam after the next, making pottery requires that you must do these things in this order - and there is also the question of whether and how a script is linear and a film made from that script not) I think composition can be very non-linear, most particularly at the point where enough of the text is present that the actual structure can be compared against the structure intended, and to other possible future structures, and the results can be compared as to how they will/should work for the reader. (And since the reader of the structure in the mind cannot exist and the reader of structures that may replace the actual exists only in potential, is this a valid comparison? I suspect it is less prone to error than the method that considers only the reader of the actual. Until the composition is done, and all the potential structures are collapsed into the actual.)

At which point, it is possible for a word changed in one place in the story to affect a chapter in another point, and I have revised in outward-expanding ripples from a central change. It is unlinear but not necessarily illogical.

And I'm running on two little sleep and too much caffeine. Apologies for making nonsense.

#194 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2005, 06:07 PM:

... *too* little sleep. I previewed about five times to fix typos and shrink paragraphs.

#195 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2005, 06:34 PM:

Xopher: The tenses in that sentence were frying my sockets until I realized that it is probably supposed to be "Things that make the obscure obvious by overturning overturned." Sort of like "Things that go bump in the night went bump." Having it "made" rather than "make" suggests that the things no longer exist, which (as they seem to be the narrator's mental functions) seems unlikely.

No, it's just the narrative past. I don't think you've parsed the sentence correctly yet. I quoted it correctly, and it's perfectly grammatical and semantically well-formed as it stands. (Hint: they made the obscure obvious by overturning. Their overturning was how they accomplished the action of transforming obscure things into obvious ones.)

A couple of facts: Cardiac muscle is unique in the body. All other muscle is either striated (e.g. biceps) or smooth (e.g. intestine). Cardiac muscle has characteristics of both, but is different from either. I don't know how this would affect cooking it, as I'm a vegetarian and have never attempted any such thing.

People do not, in fact, read sentences or paragraphs linearly. They perceive themselves as doing so, usually, but eye-movement studies of readers show that they glance at the beginning and end of paragraphs, and back and forth in sentences, and at the beginnings and ends of lines, in order to gather information most completely. I think I remember that good readers did much more of this than poor ones, but I'm not sure about that part.

I do not think that this fact in any way invalidates Graydon's point, since the book must have some linear existence, at least conceptually (though if you think about it, once it's written it all exists simultaneously, doesn't it? but again, not really a serious flaw in Graydon's argument).

#196 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2005, 07:20 PM:

Xopher

Your explanation makes me even more certain that it is a tense error. The verb serving the function of narrative past is "overturned." To say that they "made the obscure obvious by overturning" suggests that they have lost the ability to do so, which is not what I think is intended -- because in this sentence, saying so suggests the subject of the sentence has lost the ability to think.

Consider:

Schools of carrier pigeons make the days dark by flying over. [The pigeons can blacken the skies.]

Schools of carrier pigeons made the days dark by flying over. [The pigeons can no longer do so.]

#197 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2005, 07:46 PM:

I guess, more accurately:

Schools of carrier pigeons make the days dark by flying over. [The pigeons can blacken the skies.]

Schools of carrier pigeons made the days dark by flying over. [The pigeons no longer do so.]

#198 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2005, 08:50 PM:

Lenora -

You seem, here and elsewhere, to be jumping from the process of composition directly to the point where the composition is being received by the reader.(As opposed to the point where the writer is considering how the result of the act may affect an imagined reader, which is the only one that tends to be present at the moment of actual composition and thus is the only one relevant to the immediate of composition).

That way lies madness.

And yes, I'm talking theory without the host of practical caveats which should hedge it round, but, well, the reader imagined entire and the reader unimagined and the actual reader, as imagined, are all together as one in the mind of the writer; the neurons do not come labelled betwixt theory and experience.

So I find it is much, much simpler to think of 'this particular reader' by name, only when there is one, and 'the reader', that supposed individual possessed of the audience nature, the rest of the time.


And I am, for the life of me, trying to figure out how a question of structure can NOT be essential to composition (particularly to revision). To choose the best words in the best places to create the linear sequence of story instructions requires the composer to carry in their head the various kinds and forms of structures that could create the best possible set of story instructions.

Mock me not for a heap of eels, but I think all notion of best a hindrance and an obstacle.

"Best" devolves into "best for who, when?" at a minimum, and that way, too, lies madness.

"Is this right (for this point in this story)?", "Does this need to be here?" aka "What (number of things between two and five) does this do?", and "Does this make sense?" seem to me to be better questions than "is this the best thing?"

And, well, in all good sooth and honesty, what I want the reader to do is to go "glurk!".

[the constraint of linearity]
But is it correct for the composition of text?

I can only type one character, word, sentence at a time. (The large gang of guys building the cathedral can do lots of things at once.)

Film is linear, but the way it gets into your brain isn't; the core wetware is doing edge detection, not accumulation of significance. (Very rarely is anything the pure case, but it would be very very hard to make text work by edge detection or visual anything work by a chronologically ordered accumulation of significance.)

Nothing says you have to write things in the order you expect them to be written, nor that changed something in chapter eleven can't ripple in all directions.

The text is still going to be understood through an accumulation of significance in reading order; that with an extant but not yet fixed text one can look down on it from on high and smooth out the bumps and straighten the kinks in the road (or add some, or an abyss) does not, to my mind, invalidate that.

#199 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2005, 09:07 PM:

Keith:
And since it’s snowing today and the city is shut down, I think I’ll spend the afternoon finishing up that novella I’ve been whittling at.
By cutting out all of the words on the paper that don't look like your novella?

#200 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2005, 10:04 PM:

Graydon:

"Film is linear..."

I politely disagree. There is a linear sequence of frames (not counting the Czechovlovakian Branching movie at the 1962 World's Fair, and many interactive media since then), but each frame is a 2-dimensional image (or 3-D in some films and theatres). There is a simultaneous soundtrack, with dialog, background sounds, and music, sometimes several channels. There can be multiple people on screen (whole armies) against a background, as the camera swoops in a 3-D trajectory.

"The text is still going to be understood through an accumulation of significance in reading order."

Again, I respectfully disagree. Scientific studies of what actually happens when people read include many highly nonlinear processes. To pick just one example, people make hypothesis continually on what they think will be said next and will happen next, and scan words and phrases in an ongoing process of revising, confirming, disconfirming, and editing their expectations and projections. Puns and jokes work, in part, by forcing the reader to revise earlier decisions about parsing and disambiguation.

You are presenting your theories reasonably, but I seem to differ with you on almost every statement that you make. Perhaps I am disadvantaged by all the courses that I've taken at Caltech and in grad school on Linguistics, Psycholinguistics, Computational Linguistics, and
the formal mathematical theory of grammars, languages and automata. Plus all the graduate coursework in advanced Mathematical Logic. Plus the courses that I've taught in Psychology and Philosphy. Plus my B.S. in English Literature. Plus my 1200 publications, presentations, and broadcasts.

I guess that I've been brainwashed by a vast conspiracy of professionals who disagree with you. I've put some of my own thoughts into this thread, but they seem not to have shed much light. I've quoted Poe. I've quoted Eliot. Maybe I should go back to lurking for a while, because I suspect that I shall not convice you, nor that you can convince me. I am, of course, quite possibly wrong, and will try to keep an open mind.

#201 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2005, 10:59 PM:

Graydon:

"And, well, in all good sooth and honesty, what I want the reader to do is to go "glurk!"."

Aha! So do I. But at the end, only at the end. During the act, as with certain other acts, the participants should be enjoying themselves so much that a premature glurk would be an actual disappointment.

#202 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: February 25, 2005, 12:52 AM:

Greg, you're just wrong about the use of past tense in English. In general, and in specific as to narrative past.

In a story -- generally -- we use the past tense except when we have reason to use some other tense. That's the default, it is the "not calling attention to itself" tense.

When Delany wrote "Things that made the obscure obvious by overturning overturned," in that sentence he made no implication as to whether one might still possess the things which overturned -- or whether the things ceased to exist in their overturning -- or whether they will continue to overturn in the future, in that person or in other people, in order to make the obscure obvious. The sentence is only dealing with what pertains to the story. The overturning makes the things different from what they were, that's all.

Greg, if you read this paragraph:

"The bridge had been fixed up underneath with chain link fence and cement pieces to keep people from sleeping there. But there was space between the fence and the water's edge where people sat and drank and sometimes slept anyway. It wasn't safe: drinkers would fall into the shallow water, sometimes, and drown, or get sick from water in their lungs. But the men met there anyway, with clumsy bottles of drink nobody else would ever be caught with."

Would you think that winos never foregather at that river for a drink? Maybe that the fence, or the bridge, or the whole river, is gone? Because it's in past tense?

In the Delany quote, I would forebear to say much more without having the context in front of me. -- Xopher, where's it from? The autobiographicalm thing, or something else? I have to go read whatever it is now. It's been a while since I read Delany, and this is a damned good excuse.

#203 ::: Anarch ::: (view all by) ::: February 25, 2005, 03:23 AM:

From waaaaay upthread:

Greg Ioannou: Simple thoughts expressed in complex sentences are just plain irritating.

As someone who's had to explain a multitude of simple concepts, I disagree. There are a couple of topics in mathematics that I dread teaching precisely because they're so simple; there's nothing there for the students to grab on to. I actually have to artificially complexify the topics, raising them up to a level at which they can be digested, before dropping them back to their austere, incomprehensible simplicity.

IOW: Simplicity of concept is not in any way equivalent to ease of understanding. You're talking about the one when you really mean the other and I think it's weakening your point.

#204 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: February 25, 2005, 11:18 AM:

Anarch: You misquote me. I said "simple thoughts" not "simple concepts." I don't think they mean the same thing. You then proceed to disagree with something I didn't say. For what it is worth, I agree with you.

Lucy:

The sort of "narrative past" verb usage you are advocating is really lazy writing.

The simple past tense simply indicates something that happened in the past, not an ongoing condition. An ongoing condition is indicated by the present tense.

I thought about it for a minute, wondering who would provide me with a credible counter-example. Robertson Davies is usually good for proper-usage examples, and sure enough, the second page I looked at had:

There are many here who remember our Christmas Dance in 1969. It was a delightful affair, and as always the dress worn by the college men and their guests ran through the spectrum of modern university elegance. I myself always wear formal evening clothes on these occasions; it is expected of me; of what use is an Establishment figure if he does not look like an Establishment figure?

The feeling of the passage would be totally lost without the accurate use of the past and the present -- it would make the narrator feel more disconnected from the event being described.

Similarly, using "made" rather than "make" suggests that it is a condition that had ended, not an ongoing one.

Consider the example I provided earlier: "Things that go bump in the night went bump." If that had been written as "Things that went bump in the night went bump" you'd wonder about the odd use of the tense. The tense use in the overturning quote doesn't sound as odd as that because it isn't part of a cliche and so isn't as familar -- but it would be just as wrong.

#205 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: February 25, 2005, 12:49 PM:

Greg: you're simply wrong, and have NOT correctly parsed the sentence. Standard English does not distinguish between completed and repeated action very well. This is a single completed action; the "things" may have ceased to exist immediately after overturning, or existed from the beginning of time to the end; the sentence does not say or imply anything about that.

Consider this: "People who were wearing formal attire to get into the restaurant got into the restaurant." That doesn't say they never wore formal attire for any other reason, or imply that they never wore it again. It also doesn't imply that they did it every week, or in fact ever more than once.

In the Delany sentence, there's no sense of the habitual about the overturning. The things may have made a habit of overturning in order to make the obscure obvious or they may not have; there is no implication of EITHER in the sentence.

To put it another way: 'things that go bump in the night' is the habitual present; it refers to the entire class of things that ever go bump in the night, whether they went bump in any specific night or not. If, on the other hand, I write 'things that went bump in the night', I am referring to a single night, though probably with a satirical edge. If I go out to find "things that go bump in the night," I'm hunting this entire class of bogeys and bugaboos; if I go looking for the "things that went bump in the night" I'm looking for things that disturbed my sleep the night before (or whenever the night in question was). (This probably involves a spooky house on a windswept crag with lots of secret passages and like that.)

Delany's sentence breaks down something like this:

Things overturned.
The things made other things obvious.
The other things had been obscure.
The first things did this by overturning.

Finally, you can say a lot of things about Delany's writing, but "lazy" isn't one of them. Anyone who knows anything about his life or his process will laugh at the very notion. Also, the fact that you can call the simple narrative past "lazy writing" makes me wonder if you've read many novels in English; most of them are in the simple narrative past.

Lucy: the sentence is from Dhalgren. In fact, when I told him it was my favorite sentence of his, he commented that "if you think of the book as a Möbius strip, that line is where it flips." I felt oddly vindicated by this.

#206 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: February 25, 2005, 01:04 PM:

I thought the quote was either from Dahlgren or The Motion of Light in Water.

Time to reread Dahlgren.

I've been mulling over overturned and I have to go back to context to finish mulling.

I want to think about --
you overturn a regime when you oust it by force or by a political movement that is so fierce, strong, and sudden, that it feels like force.
You turn over a rock to see the things hiding under it: the rock is overturned.
And, since Dahlgren has a 1975 date, there's turnover in the sense of change -- the Chinese term "fan shen" briefly popularized in a book written about then but which has slipped so far out of human consciousness that I can't find it on Google.

I don't usually get into word contemplation like this, but this is lovely and thick.

#207 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: February 25, 2005, 01:20 PM:

Isn't it? Part of why I like it so much. Note however that 'overturn' is used intransitively in the sentence; your examples are all transitive. (You also reversed Delany's dyslexic spelling of Dhalgren, which I bet he wishes his editors had done!)

#208 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: February 25, 2005, 02:36 PM:

Lucy: you probably mean William Hinton's 1966 book Fanshen. There's an interesting piece on it here. I remember being really impressed with it when I read it in my late teens. Some sinologists I discussed it with a few years ago consider it to be almost a work of fiction -- they were totally scornful of it. I'm not convinced either way.

Xopher: had he meant what you say he meant, he would have written, "Things that were making the obscure obvious by overturning overturned." (Which is how you, correctly, phrased your attire example.) That is what you read him as having written, but it isn't what he wrote.

I'm obviously reading the sentence out of context, and can't find my copy of Dhalgren (which I may have thrown out at some point -- it was falling apart). The likeliest referent for "things" is thought processes, and it seems incongruous (to me) to suggest that the narrator's thought processes ended with that single overturning.

To me, using a simple past when another tense serves better is lazy writing. True, most novels are in the simple narrative past. That doesn't necessarily mean that that is how novels should be written.

Have you ever edited fiction? Most manuscripts (even the ones from well-known writers) come in with the tenses absolutely scrambled. Getting the writer to cast things in the simple past where possible is an easy solution. That doesn't mean it is a good one.

#209 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: February 25, 2005, 05:10 PM:

Greg, thanks for reminding me of William Hinton's name. I actually think he wrote what he saw. That there were very different things happening under the same ideological umbrella all over the place is another, much larger, thing.

On the other hand, I just don't see much profit in talking to you about verbs anymore. Go read some novels, and mark them up for verb tense, and tell me if you find an incidence of not-"lazy" writing: a fiction writer who doesn't use the narrative past every time he or she has no special purpose in using another tense.

Xopher: yes, I had noticed the transitive-intransitive thing, which is one of the reasons I'm interested in going into context: that's not a word that's usually used that way, and it's really interesting that he did that. It's not casual.


#210 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: February 25, 2005, 05:30 PM:

Lucy: I'm pretty sure Delany doesn't do much of anything that's casual. One doesn't read Dhalgren for its plot.

I agree with you on another thing, too.

#211 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: February 25, 2005, 05:36 PM:

One doesn't read Dhalgren for its plot.

I set out to, the first time I read it, but I figured out pretty quick there was some other reason to be there.

#212 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: February 25, 2005, 07:29 PM:

Lucy, the only writer I've edited who had real control of (almost) all aspects of writing was Robertson Davies. His manuscripts occasionally had a misused comma, but that was about it. (I smiled as I typed the sample passage of his I quoted above. As I did so, I quietly deleted a misplaced comma. His Achilles heel as a writer.) He is the only fiction writer I've ever worked with who turned in virtually clean manuscripts. (There is also one non-fiction writer who turned in really clean work: Hank Johnson, a tech writer who wrote on engineering topics.) I've worked on about 3,000 books.

Other than Davies, I know of few writers indeed whose prose doesn't have glitches, even after editing. Dorothy Sayers was one. Katherine Mansfield was another. Of course, I have no idea how heavily their manuscripts were edited, although I'd expect in the case of Mansfield the answer might be "not at all."

Closer to home, I'm currently reading, and loving, Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw.

#213 ::: Brad DeLong ::: (view all by) ::: February 26, 2005, 08:10 PM:

sqwid wrote: "Graydon...you think that's air you're breathing?(Seriously, though...step...away...from the Kant...slowly, now!)"

I thought it was Zelazny, _Lord of Light_, the sermon preached after the death of Lord Yama at the hands of Sam?

#214 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 26, 2005, 09:16 PM:

Brad --

Certainly some of Lord of Light; also some redactions of Zhuangzi.

Having never read Kant, having it come out like Kant would be disturbing.

#215 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2005, 02:38 AM:

Xopher: One doesn't read Dhalgren for its plot.


Lucy K: I set out to, the first time I read it, but I figured out pretty quick there was some other reason to be there.

I figured out pretty slowly there was some other reason to be there.

#216 ::: Anarch ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2005, 04:54 AM:

Greg Ioannou: Anarch: You misquote me. I said "simple thoughts" not "simple concepts." I don't think they mean the same thing.

Fair enough but I think that's something of a distinction without a difference in this context. Assuming you mean "simple" as the opposite end of the continuum spanned by "complex" -- as opposed to "simple" meaning "stupid", which I'm fairly sure has been no-one's intent -- a "simple thought" might well require complex communication to transmit its simplicity. Whether we regard the unit here as being "thought" or "concept" seems somewhat immaterial to this point.

In less tortured language, I'm basically saying that I think there's a range of complexities that the human mind is comfortable dealing with and that range lies somewhere in the middle of the complexity continuum.* Transmitting too high a complexity, whether we describe it as "thought" or "concept", requires rendering that notion into its simpler constituents for communication; but transmitting too low a complexity requires artificially complexifying it until it becomes comprehensible, then somehow teaching the listener how to strip out the chaff and reduce the thought/concept/idea/whatever down to its natural state.

Or something like that. I don't understand this very well so I'm reduced to writing complicated sentences ;)

* Technical note for Jonathan et al: I'm not sure if there's an existing complexity measure (a la Kolmogorov) that can adequately describe this intuitive notion. Any ideas?

#217 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2005, 11:28 AM:

Anarch: Again, I basically agree with you. The thought/concept distinction I was trying to make is probably pretty artificial. I think of a simple thought as having virtually no conceptual content: "my ear is itchy" was the obvious example that came to my mind as I sat here absentmindedly scratching my earlobe. If I go the next step and actually apply a tiny modicum of brainpower to the itchy ear issue, I get to "my ear is probably itching because I've irritated it by scratching it absentmindedly." Lame as it is, that is a simple concept -- some trivial analysis has happened.

I agree with you about the range of complexities, both in concepts being transmitted and the language used to transmit them. My strong preference is for language that transmits those concepts readily. Others have different preferences. As I've said above, the complexity of the language and the complexity of the thoughts being transmitted are (for me) separate issues.

Consider the following examples:

1. "Curved like the inner surface of a sphere."

2. "Curving in -- used of the side of a curve or surface on which neighbouring normals to the curve or surface converge and on which lies the chord joining two neighbouring points of the curve or surface."

Both are definitions of "concave." The second (debatably, but I don't really want to get into it) is more accurate. Which is likelier to convey the concept to someone unfamilar with the word? The simpler definition is more "lossy"; in various ways it is incomplete -- but I think it conveys the concept more readily. In fact, the second definition, for most readers, would be more lossy, because it leaves more scope for misunderstanding. Misunderstand one bit of that definition and you won't get the concept. There is little to misunderstand in the first definition.

On your technical note: not sure if you are asking if there is a complexity measure for concepts or for language. If you mean language, there are such measure as the Flesch-Kinkaid index and the Fry formula (both of which measure readability), the Dale-Chall formula (which specifically measures vocabulary accessibility). I know of Kolmogorov slightly from a stats class about 30 years ago -- but he considered the complexity of objects, not concepts, no? (There aren't many individual lectures I remember from so long ago. The theme of the lecture was something along the lines of "things they (wrongly) say you can't do with stats" -- and the prof tried to point out the various stats techniques Kolmogorov had used while trying to come up with axioms that didn't use classical probability theory.) I'm unaware of any technique for measuring the complexity of concepts.

Because readability is readily measurable, I have trouble getting my head around Lucy's assertion that:

not all writing needs to be transparent in the same way. And that is the reason, too, I objected to the notion of a continuum -- the discontinuities are there, in the cultural, linguistic, and experiential toolkit that the writer assumes and the reader either needs to have or have the ability to work around not having. And there's no vertical slide from high art to low art -- genres are churning around in a complex and multidemsional universe, touching and moving away in an always-changing dance.

I don't see any discontinuities in something that can be described by pretty simple equations. No individual reader can be pegged at a specific point on a comprehension curve, but in the aggregate readers' ability to comprehend can be described pretty accurately. So as long as we are writing for a mass readership, the continuum is pretty accurate. To a considerable extent, such variables as culture and experience wash out in the aggregation.

I'm not sure how much the variables you mention were considered in building the existing formulae -- I know they aren't directly included in them. I also don't know how the formulae were tested against individual subjects' actual comprehension. If you wanted to include those variables, it would be pretty simple to gather some data and use regression to build an equation that would do so. (I loved playing with regression and analysis of regression residuals in grad school.)

Unlikely as it sounds, those measures provide really useful feedback on your writing (or, at least, they do on mine). When the readability level is really high, it usually indicates that I've been trying to hard to be very very precise, usually at the detriment to the narrative thread. When (as is more typical of my writing) it is too low, it indicates that I've dashed it off quickly, and need to rewrite the passage to flesh it out some more. (I usually run a readability test in Word when I think a passage is ready. The results sometimes surprise me -- and the surprises are really useful feedback.)

Lucy also wrote:

you've lost me several times. The way you're talking about writing and reading just doesn't ring any bells with me -- as a writer, a reader, or a reading teacher. I can't tell if you're saying something useful that I don't get because of the language it's said in, or if you're saying something that's sideways to the thing I know, something which doesn't connect and doesn't parallel.
But. It sounds like, if I were to try to second-guess audience the way you seem to be saying a writer has to do, I'd never say another word, let alone write one, because I'd be constantly trying to calculate what's going to be immediately transparent to the absolute most people everywhere at this very moment (and, I think, flat, without ambiguities or contradictions? because I think that would be required in order to fill the demand I'd be making).

On writing:

It simply sounds like we have really different writing styles, to put it mildly. I tend to write a chunk then run it by a couple of friends (or co-workers, if the writing is work-related), to see how they react to it. One of my current fiction projects is stalled because all three of the people who have read bits have disliked the main character, who was supposed to be endearing. I now know why he comes across that way; I haven't yet figured out how to fix it without destroying the story. When I write, I frequently check to see if it is coming across the way I'd intended to people who are representative of my intended readership. Isn't that what all the various writers' groups do? I simply don't see how one can write something with no consideration of the people you intend will to read it.

It isn't simply a matter of transparency. I'm reworking one section because a reader pointed out that I've literally used no adjectives in it -- I was so wrapped up in portraying the characters' actions properly that I'd forgotten to build the setting. In that case, the writing was far too tranparent -- that bit read like a plot summary, not a finished piece of fiction. (I tend to be adjective-averse anyway.)

On reading:

The more abstract the writing, the more open it is to misinterpretation or unintended interpretations. Consider my reaction to the short quote from Dhalgren. I read it the same way you did, but to me there was also an additional implication (presumably unintended), because of the way the tenses were used, that the narrator had stopped being able to think. Simpler phrasing wouldn't have been as open to misinterpretation.

Bill Blinn, on his website, says

Editing requires, as an editor friend of mine says, a "professional idiot". Why? If anything exists that could trip up the reader, it's the editor's job to find it and fix it. That means asking dumb questions, not making assumptions, and being an advocate for the reader.

I have nearly 30 years experience as a "professional idiot". I'm a bloody-minded, very very literal reader. I read what the writer has written, not what the writer intended to write. I then try to figure out the best way to get from what has been written to what was intended (if I can figure that out -- if not, I ask).

It has been many years since I was able to turn the editor off as I read. As I read, I spot the glitches and try to fix them, whether I want to or not.

To pick just one of your examples, intentional ambiguities are fine and fun. But most ambiguities I see in fiction clearly were not intended, and they tend to spoil the fun.


#218 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2005, 12:07 PM:

Greg Iouannou channels Jonathan Vos Post! Film at 11.

#219 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2005, 03:05 PM:

Greg:

For every discipline in writing, there is a counter discipline. For the discipline of listening to beta readers and polishing your work in response, there is the counter discipline of forging ahead and writing with horse blinders on, getting the thing done and not worrying about the audience until you have an entire thing to show them.

If I had said the thing I think you said -- if I had said that I was having people read all my chunks of writing and I was stalled over how to fix my writing to suit their reactions -- I would engage the counter discipline and blind myself to those signals for a while, and just write and write for a while. And even ignore the queasy feeling it gave me. Because, while the queasy feeling is information, and the reactions of readers are information, one is not necessarily in the best place to interpret that information. And sometimes when you have more stuff on the page, it becomes clearer what to do with that information.

I know you weren't asking for advice. I was just responding, as always, to how I would feel if I were saying those things.

People I know who have done both say that editing and writing are physiologically different. And that it is very hard to write while in the editing mode. So they exercise another discipline, of wearing only the writer's hat while writing. But I don't know this first hand. I live in the Dubious Hills, and I can only relate this as something I have been told.

#220 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2005, 03:44 PM:

Lucy

yeah, well. When I do that, I get bored in about 15 minutes and usually hare off and start writing a totally different story. Fragments r us.

The only way I ever have even the slightest discipline (as a writer) is if I'm trying to get a chunk of something ready to show someone. (Or get into a dispute with someone and yabber on all day. Too bad there's no market for a book of rants -- it would take me maybe a week to write, tops.)

At the moment, I'm not blinding myself to the beta readers' signals because they are right.

The characters in one story I'm tinkering with work just fine, but the story really needs help. And the narratively dysfunctional characters in the other story are living a really good plot line. Hmmmmmmmm.....

#221 ::: Tiger Spot ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2005, 05:47 PM:

Anarch -- Could you give an example of something so simple it needs to be artificially complexified to be understood? I'm not sure what you're getting at there.

#222 ::: Anarch ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2005, 10:08 PM:

Anarch -- Could you give an example of something so simple it needs to be artificially complexified to be understood? I'm not sure what you're getting at there.

The topical one, since I was teaching it last week, is mathematical induction. There isn't anything to say: you just need to understand the induction step, which is to say you need to understand what it means to prove

(For every n) P(n) -> P(n+1)

The problem is that this concept is too damn simple to relay effectively, at least IME; there's not enough "there" there for the students to grab hold of. So I had to invent a bunch of ridiculous tap-dances -- in one case, literally -- in order for them to appreciate what was going on. I added completely extraneous pictures, diagrams, metaphors, anything I could think of that might help illuminate the central simplicity, then tried to help the students strip out all the flimflammery in order to actually do the proof. It seemed to work, too, but unfortunately I'll never really know for sure.

Other candidates include the rules of differentiation (more generally, any artificially restricted derivational calculus, especially those that look similar to basic arithmetic), concepts from elementary logic like interpretations v. elements (the thing is not the name of the thing, even if we tend to use the same symbol to refer to both), and, I'm told, the basic concepts of algebra like "Let x be the number of widgets". Some people grok these intuitively; those that don't have a horrifically hard time because, IMO, they're too simple to be directly understood.

#223 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2005, 05:27 AM:

There's always the idea of zero to add to Anarch's list.

Plus, outside of math, the fire triangle and the germ theory of disease.

#224 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2005, 06:14 AM:

... and once you HAVE got them, you wonder how you never did before, it seems so clear and obvious.

I think some people don't get their full thanks for doing something like that (tho' thanks may also be concentrated all onto one Great Man, instead of a whole lead-up, lead-out group), because people forget just how un-knowing we were before.

#225 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2005, 07:50 AM:

Epacris:

people forget just how un-knowing we were before.

And presumably still are. I'm quite sure many other equally "obvious" simple concepts are staring us all in the face, waiting for someone to make the leap.

#226 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2005, 11:29 AM:

Hmm. Perhaps, Anarch, the term mental stochastic resonance would be useful?

#227 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2005, 11:58 AM:

I've had a couple of Mental Stochastic Resonance scans. I just barely made my saving roll.

#228 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2005, 10:43 AM:

Greg: Tooth and Claw is written in the conventional story past tense of "This happened, then this happened, and I'm telling you that this happened afterwards and I hope you believe me." It couldn't be a more conventional story-past historical tense if I'd written it in Latin.

I don't think the story-past is lazy, I think it's transparent and conventional. I think there are some wonderful things to be gained by writing in other tenses, occasionally, for specific reasons, but story-past is the normal tense for telling stories and the one most people use most of the time because it works.

Could you clarify?

Confused of Montreal.

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