We’re so lucky. The English language is like play dough.
Oh yes, we have strict rules of grammar, tense, POV, all the way to the minutia of intransitive verbs. We can choose from a number of eminent grammar and style guides to ensure conformity. We have stalwart English teachers to drill those rules into our heads so that we are all on the same page. (And bless them all – there is nothing better than order over chaos). But despite those rules a writer has so much freedom to shape our mother tongue into forms wry, brittle, silly, heartbreaking, snarky or just plain mad.
I don’t have much command of any other language; a smatter of German, a soupçon of French, about a third cup of Latin and a healthy plateful of Spanish. But I do know that the rules of those languages are not as forgiving as English — not as much room to roam before you run afoul of the language police. English allows us to mangle all the rules of spelling, meaning, and sentence structure to reflect dialect, or character traits, add color, shift perceptions or mood and anyone with a good command of English can understand — and only pedants ever complain. Of course, you have to use the rules of punctuation. Gotta have those traffic signs.
Anthony Burgess used bits and pieces of Russian mixed with Shakespearian English and other tongues to give us Nadsat, the terrifyingly unique argot of his dark characters in A Clockwork Orange. The reader may have had to work at it a bit, but it was intelligible and colored the story with an unforgettable feel. Fantasy and Sci Fi from J.K. Rowling to Ursula K. Le Guin play with all sorts of mixed up language that become magical words and when you’re reading in those worlds you understand.
Dialect and special vocabulary enrich a tale on many levels and I’m in awe of those writers who do them well, but my favorite form of play dough English is the portmanteau. Anybody can create one of these inventive combinations, and everybody does — usually with something faintly deprecating or ironically funny in mind. And with just one word a portmanteau can ooze with meaning. Frenemy speaks volumes — we’ve all had one and it’s exhilarating to give ‘em a proper name. Craptacular very neatly wraps up the verdict on so much of our over-hyped media. And then there’s pompidity, my own invention from University days when I struggled to describe the quality of politicians.
All writers love words. Words are paint, chisel, fabric, and clay for our creativity. If you can’t find that one word that perfectly reflects your intent, try cobbling a new one together — no one will take points away. Blog is a portmanteau (web log) so if you’re lucky enough to have your portmanteau go viral, you might wind up in the OED.
With a BA in Anthropology and English Jenny pursued a career in advertising and writing and segued into developmental editing. She has worked on nearly 400 books during her career. Her clients include both traditionally published and indie authors. She has worked in every genre from romance to horror and thrillers as well as edited Air Force manuals, commercial communications and memoirs. She offers every service from copyediting to developmental coaching.
*This blog is an oldie but goodie, originally published in March, 2018
In the oceans of writing instruction and advice available to anyone with a search engine I look for everything publishers have to say about current trends. Since you can’t really access publisher’s marketing info — and certainly not Amazon’s sales data — that’s as close to the horse’s mouth as I can get to learn about sales trends. That’s info that helps me help my clients. One offering stands out about contemporary fiction: keep the narrative fast paced. This digital world of FX, Twitter, flash fiction, etc. has our brains wired for lightening fast action. There’s not a lot of room for ruminating on superfluous details of landscape, the nature of family bonds or the sounds of church bells. The story has to gallop from the starting gate to capture and compel a reader. I think we all get that. What’s interesting to me are the narrative techniques an author can use to set and maintain that just-right pace.
Voice and tense are formidable tools to heighten tension, move action and hook and hold the reader. I don’t know what goes into an author’s decisions about what tense and voice to use but I’ll venture to guess it most often comes organically. When a protagonist begins to take shape in the creative sphere of the brain the author hears 3rd Person or 1st Person (which is tricky to write but such fun to read when done well) and the story grows in the mind in the present or past tense. Past tense is most common in fiction (and has been for eons) and is almost always 3rd Person. Present tense is more commonly used with 1st P voice; it creates an immediacy and intimacy that’s very engaging.
I’d never given a thought to 3rd Person present tense. Then I discovered the who-dun-it series of British writer Bruce Beckham. He’s amazing! Set in Britain’s Lake District his detective, Skelgill, is an irresistible mixture of irascible, self-centered, scruffy, generous and intuitive. Every character is roundly drawn and intriguing, the setting is as integral a character as the murderer and the pace never lags. Beckham accomplishes all of this in 3rd Person (omniscient) voice, present tense. It’s an unusual combination but in the hands of this author it is riveting.
It’s how he uses this tool to set and maintain a perfect pace and to draw the reader so fully into his world that amazed me. Reading a narrative described to you by an unknown, unseen, non-judgmental voice as the action unfolds just shouldn’t work. But it does. It’s like having your eyes covered at the movies while a very erudite friend describes what is happening on-screen.
Beckham is a master wordsmith and so uses dialog to show characterization and plot points but the present tense and 3rd P voice puts the reader in a front row seat as the action scenes unfold before our eyes. I didn’t feel as though I was right there — I was right there.
A writer’s choice of voice and tense would have to be dependent, in some part, on the story they are telling. Not every tale will fit just any combination. But it is amazing what a powerful difference the choice can make.
With a BA in Anthropology and English I pursued a career in advertising and writing and segued into developmental editing. It was a great choice for me. I love the process of creating and am privileged to be part of that process for so many great voices — voices both seasoned and new.
I’ve worked on nearly 400 books over 25 years, books by noted authors published by New York houses as well as with Indie bestsellers and Amazon dynamos. From Air Force manuals and marketing materials to memoirs, thrillers, sci fi and romance, my services range from copyediting to developmental coaching.
Having worked in advertising and marketing, I am always cognizant of the marketplace in which the author’s work will be seen. I coach for content and style with that knowledge in mind in order to maximize sales and/or educational potential. My objective is to help the author’s material stand out from an ever more crowded and competitive field.
I told myself I am not going to write about Corvid19, quarantining, masks, six feet of distance or the improbably exotic recipes popping up in my in-box (sheesh, they sound like neurosurgery). Do I have anything other than what’s top of all our minds to share? With relief, I realize I do.
My current project is editing a non-fiction manuscript written by a gentleman who has a national, well-respected reputation as a consultant and researcher to advertising agencies. He tests and provides direction for successful ads. He is doing a book on memory. Not his remembrances of things past, but how memory works with firing neurons and synapsis and all the physiological doo dads whirring around in our brains and how that leads to building different types of memories. (After all, the manufacturer does want her snack food/disposable razor/perfume/car to always be the strongest memory, always top of the consumer’s mind.)
My client bases his approach to successful ads on the structure of storytelling as that innate human characteristic is ultimately what drives communication—this is something the Slice of Orange community knows quite a bit about so it is fascinating to see the storyteller’s principles applied to something as work-a-day as marketing. He uses the work of neuroscientists, philosophers, script writers, cartoonists and psychiatrists to back up the idea that human speech developed from the need to communicate a story – gossip.
Okay. I don’t quibble because I know that storytelling is fundamental to every human I’ve ever met. It’s the good storytellers, the writers, who touch us the most deeply; those are the stories that are memorable. What the good storyteller knows—the arc of inciting incident to climax to resolution, and all the beats and color and emotion and drama that get the story to those points—is also fundamental to good advertising. And that is linked to how our brains make memories.
I consider the ads that stick in my memory. Some of these are really long-term memories, coming from childhood—does anyone ever forget Speedy Gonzales or Tony the Tiger? They’re complete, miniature stories and I’ve retained the high points. “Where’s the Beef” had all the emotional beats of a 350 page novel and whether or not I consciously made the connection, I had Wendy’s top of mind for my beef fix. It was impossible to see a giant choir of fresh-faced kids singing I’d Like To Teach the World to Sing without thinking of Coca Cola and hearing a million different emotion charged stories. All of those marketing moments—and more—hit an emotional note that became an indelible memory. Wow! Good story telling is magical.
This new perspective, with its emphasis on memory and the potency of storytelling, will be top of mind for me on my next fiction project. I don’t know that it will change how I look at the content of a story or the effectiveness of the structure and style. I’m not sure it will effect how I edit the manuscript but it’s refreshing to learn that the things good writer’s know instinctively can be measured and diagramed and graphed and applied to any creative endeavor.
There is one sticking point, however. I remain unconvinced that language developed from an irresistible urge to gossip. Putting myself in caveman days I prefer to think our species began talking because of an irresistible urge to warn me of the saber-tooth tiger leering at me from the cliff above. It’d clearly be time to run—and that’s a story.
Beware the company you keep.
Hunkered down, social distancing, getting that restless cabin fever thing. Having made myself nuts listening to 24/7 Corvid19 updates I’ve weaned that to 5 minutes a day. That leaves a lot of free time. I tried cooking. The eggplant parma that came out of my oven looked nothing like the one onscreen at Food & Wine. I won’t comment on the pea soup, though I may try to sell it to a prop house. Enough wasting precious food stuff; back to what I know best.
Books are my ‘go to’ and like millions of us, I’m bingeing. That’s not anything new, of course, but this time I’m really binging—like eat, drink, sleep, dream, 24/7 bingeing.
I decided the Cozy offered what I need most—to be surrounded by friends— friends with far more exciting lives than mine. Cozies are character driven, filled with smart/plucky/idiosyncratic/befuddled/unique MCs. There’s always a supporting cast of peculiar vicars/spinsters/widows/jolly butchers; a bucolic village or a quaint boutique of some sort (I always over-eat when the MC owns a bakery) and an historical local feature—castle, manor, deserted distillery etc. Oh yes, and a dead guy or two. All stuff a socially distanced gal can sink her teeth into.
I started with Agatha Raisin (M.C. Beaton). I love this character—egotistical, insecure, smart, intrepid etc. Agatha gets bored easily and by book 7 a nasty suspicion began to nag me. Was she orchestrating all this mayhem? We know her PR skills, her lust for the limelight, her mastery of manipulation. Could it be that beneath her plucky facade lies a serial killer? What better way to keep one’s fame flame burning than solving the statistically improbable number of Cotswold murders? Do I really want to hang with her?
I turned to Miss Marple (Agatha Christie, of course!). She’s a chameleon. She blends to invisibility in any setting just by sitting demurely with her her knitting. She sees and hears everything and remembers it all. Murder plagues even her slightest acquaintance and she perches like a spider ‘til the culprit shakes her web and he is revealed. Even with six degrees of separation, I don’t want to know her. I could be the unfortunate victim of her butcher’s wife’s cousin-in-law. It’s too bad because the village of St. Mary Mead sounds so lovely—until I recall Miss Marple’s own words, “There is a great deal of wickedness in village life.” Time to move on.
Flavia deLuce (Alan Bradley). Just the ticket! Flavia is a prodigy, a wit, a poverty stricken blueblood and she’s 11 years old. She welds a grand vocabulary, intimidates adults, and has a Phd in cheekiness. Flavia’s hobby is chemistry and really, science in general, and she uses her hobby to solve the who dunnit of every body she stumbles on in “Bishop’s Lacey, a notable hotbed of crime.” See! I’m completely reassured. Flavia is the perfect company to keep. She does nothing to attract all that homicide; that’s just a Bishop’s Lacey issue. Besides, she named her bike Gladys. I’m sticking with her.
I hope all of you have found your binge worthy material. Read on and stay well.
Yesterday Rebecca Forster posted a challenge on FB. Write about whatever pops into your head right now. I’d just listened to the 1st WH news conference and feeling an odd mixture of ignorant, apprehensive and sardonic this is what came tumbling out:
Only one Rhode Island Red crowed like that. And it hadn’t come from Scoundrel’s pen. Curly Tuwitt ground his teeth—all seven of them. He hated that wart faced, belly slitherin’, wrinkled old hag on a good day but this—this was the last straw from a lifetime of her crap.
Already het up over the never ending updates and dire warnings about that Chiineeze virus pouring from the TV, pissed that he’d failed to stock up on anything and was out of everything. (There was that one lone can of beans, and he hated to think what that could lead to.) A second, clearly distant call from Scoundrel chased out any thoughts of supplies and focused his blazing anger.
The first time he’d seen her was skippin’ across his grannie’s strawberry patch, just a pickin’ and a nibblin’ her way through those fat ripe berries like she done own it all; like she’s the one who’d been out in the last frost, barefoot and freezin’, just to get the young plants covered and then come early summer who you think did the weedin’ and the waterin’?
He wasn’t but six and that girl looked tall. Despite that he knew she weren’t much older than him. With that fiery red hair and those rusty freckles like she was in the way come sloppin’ time he knew this was Marjo Geordy. Pa said that whole clan was troublesome.
“Hey, you there! Put them berries down now or I’m a gonna whoop your skinny butt fer stealin.” Curly’d made his voice as deep and growly as he could and he’d stood his ground, frowning, like a man ready to make good on his word.
Marjo looked up, slowly placing a purloined berry into the basket on her arm. Her mouth, red with the smear of ripe strawberries, looked to be dripping in blood. A slow, malicious smile bared reddened teeth. “Where you want me to put ‘em, big scary man?”
Marjo didn’t sound scared and for a moment Curly was flummoxed. “Down. Put ‘em down. Right there.” Curly pointed vaguely to the edge of the patch. He hoped he sounded as stern as Pa when he caught Curly in the sugar bowl.
Marjo looked to where he’d pointed. Her smile got even wider and she turned back to him. “Okay. But you better be ready to grab this basket quick. I don’t give up easy.” Her long legs took three steps to the edge of the patch and reaching out one long skinny arm she placed the basket high on the top of a bush. Three reverse steps took her back in the patch. She didn’t have to say a word; her whole body screamed challenge.
Curly looked to the basket and knew he’d have to jump to reach it. I’m fast; I can do it. Running like lightening he’d leapt into the bush, grabbed the basket and got a snoot full of unmistakable scent—poison sumac. A cackle of mirth faded into the distance. That was just the first time.
Curly understood life takes us on unexpected paths. From his family’s farm down the road of economic highs and lows he’d come near his end in this dusty settlement of trailers, not more’n 60 feet from his nemesis. There was some satisfaction in seeing Marjo brought to the same pass but she had taken Scoundrel and that was the final poke she was gonna take at him.
Heaving himself out of the recliner he slammed out the door, grabbed his pitchfork and stormed across the open 60 feet. “Marjo Jean Geordy you give me back my rooster or I’m gonna use this pitch fork to take him.”
“Possession is nine tenths of the law. Got papers to prove that last one tenth?”
“You stole Scoundrel and you know it, you skinny old cow.”
“Naw. No stealin’. I just took him to try him out. I like him. That rooster is as purdy as everyone says. I‘ll trade ya for him.”
It was always like this. Marjo Geordy bein’ all reasonable like and Curly Tuwitt gettin’ flustered and maybe a little confused. “You can’t trade for somethin’ ya stole.” Curly glared at Marjo who leaned calmly against her little storage shed.
“Mebbe not in regular days but things’re a bit different right now. Might be there’s somehin’ you want more’n that rooster.”
Curly lowered his pitchfork, eyes wary as he saw the familiar smile creep over her lips. “What could I possibly want more’n the best Rhode Island Red in the tri-counties?”
Still graceful and wiry after all these years Marjo turned and pulled the shed door open, bowing like she was presenting the Queen of Sheba. Curly stared into the shadows at rows and rows and stacks and stacks of toilet paper.
It had always been like this and it looked like it always would.
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