Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Steampunk Genre

Copyright © 2010, Steven E. Houchin

I've seen the term "Steampunk" lately, referring to a form of fiction. It is a sub-genre of science fiction or fantasy that is generally set in a Victorian time period - the industrial 19th century - where anachronistic technology of the time (such as steam power) is adapted in ways more common to our modern time, and alternate histories are often presented. Think of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, or the futuristic gadgets used in the TV series Wild, Wild West.

"Steampunk" is derived from the term "cyberpunk", which refers to noir-like technology in a near-future world. The steampunk genre emerged in the 1990's, and has inspired enthusiastic subcultures in art, design, and fashion.

William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's 1990 novel The Difference Engine is often credited with bringing widespread awareness of steampunk to readers. Seattle author Cherie Priest's Civil War-era novels Boneshaker and Dreadnought - part of her zombie-infested, alternate-history Clockwork Century series - are other examples of the genre.

Book Review: Border Songs

Copyright © 2010, Steven E. Houchin

Jim Lynch’s Border Songs is a work of literary fiction set in the Blaine, Washington area along the USA/Canada border.  The main character is an unlikely Border Patrol agent named Brandon Vanderkool.  He stands out from everyone else at six-eight, and seems to have some sort of dyslexic problem that causes his speech to get mixed up when he is flustered.  Despite his size, he isn’t a tough-guy character; instead, he is uncomfortable with most social situations, and has a love for the area’s birds, which draws his attention away from his job.  He also has an artistic streak, often taking time out from his patrol duties to construct works of art from leaves or driftwood.  His walk is described as a “lope”, and his behavior is a source of amusement and wonder by everyone who knows him.

The border area is plagued by marijuana smuggling and illegal immigration. There are no border fences.  Much of the line between the two countries is simply a ditch, with Boundary Road spanning along the USA side, and Zero Avenue running parallel on the Canada side.  Some of the characters are dope smugglers, and the reader is taken inside their world of hidden indoor pot farms and hazy, drug-laced parties and business meetings.

Brandon’s father, Norm, struggles to keep his dairy farm afloat despite the aches and pains of age and his wife’s onset of Alzheimers.  Across the ditch in Canada are dozens of estates that overlook the USA side.  Immediately across from Norm, in a modest home, is his America-hating neighbor, Wayne Rousseau, who often incites political arguments across the ditch, just to irritate Norm.  Wayne’s daughter, Madeline, is up to her neck in the pot trade.  As the story goes on, we learn that Brandon is in love with her.  She regards his attempts to woo her with annoyance and worry because she fears the contact is related to his job as a border agent.  But, Brandon is oblivious to her involvement in the smuggling business.

Brandon’s love of nature leads him into remote areas where most border agents never venture.  This results in a number of spectacular, accidental arrests that only serve to increase his local celebrity.  But all he really wants to do is watch the birds and construct spontaneous works of art.

Brandon and the other characters are well developed, but the middle of the book drags; many of the chapters come across as character vignettes without a clear, consistent story line to pull the reader along.  I didn’t always feel the “Oooh, what’s gonna happen next?” impulse to turn the page.  But, I persisted, and the story picked up in the final one quarter of the book, leading to a thoroughly satisfying ending that has Brandon finally appreciated for who he really is.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Scare Quotes

Copyright © 2010, Steven E. Houchin
(Originally written October 31, 2010)

It's Halloween, so I figured this topic was damned appropriate: Scare Quotes.

What is a Scare Quote? Here is the definition from Wikipedia:
Scare quotes are quotation marks placed around a single word or phrase to indicate that the word or phrase does not signify its literal or conventional meaning. In contrast to the nominal typographic purpose of quotation marks, the enclosed word(s) are not necessarily quoted from another source.
In other words, the phrase enclosed in quotes is not dialog and is not a quotation of someone else's words. Instead, the phrase is quoted to indicate that its meaning is not to be taken literally by the reader. The intention of the writer is to indicate sarcasm, skepticism, derision, irony, or doubt over accuracy.

Scare quotes usually show the attitude of the writer, or of the point-of-view character, about a certain subject.
Some examples:
  • She demonstrated her "knowledge" on the subject by citing Oprah.
  • The driver turned on a hip-hop station and pounded his hands against the steering wheel in time to the "music".
  • A reporter began to recite his "objective" account of the incident.
  • Our Great Imperious Leader signed an order giving the military full authority to engage in "population control" of undesirables.

When writing scare quotes, you use the same quotation marks that occur throughout your manuscript when writing dialog or including literal, quoted material. That is, if your dialog uses single quotes ('He's dead, Jim.'), then scare quotes use the same. If double quotes ("Take that, sucker."), then use doubles. Single quotes tend to be British formatting, doubles for American. Of course, when inside dialog, the opposite quote mark is used ("Oh, your 'music' is really great.").

An aspect of scare quotes that I consider controversial is this: does sentence-ending punctuation belong inside a scare quote as it does in dialog? Consider these examples:

Dialog: "Take that, sucker."
Scare quote: He hated Eddie's "music".
Versus: He hated Eddie's "music."

In the case of dialog, the ending period is clearly part of the dialog, and thus belongs inside the quotes. For the scare quote, the ending period is not part of the sarcasm, but simply terminates the narrator's sentence. Strict grammarians insist that, for American English, the punctuation must reside inside the quotes. To me, it just plain looks wrong; the punctuation is not part of the quoted phrase. And, one can find all over the place where authors do place the punctuation outside the quotes. So, it seems to me that this has now entered common usage.

One last thing. Some assert that writers shouldn't use scare quotes at all. The quotes can be replaced by phrases such as so-called, supposed, purported, self-styled, or alleged.


Wikipedia, Scare quotes
Guide to Punctuation, University of Sussex (UK English), Scare Quotes
The Chronicle of Higher Education,What's 'Scary' About Scare Quotes
The Victorian Web,Punctuation Matters and Matters of Punctuation
Writer's Relief , Odds and Ends: Scare Quotes, Exclamation Points, Almost, and Plural Compounds

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Another View of 'Show, Don't Tell'

Copyright © 2010, Steven E. Houchin

Recently, I attended the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA) monthly member meeting in Bellevue. The guest speaker was local book doctor Jason Black (http://www.plottopunctuation.com/), who gave an excellent presentation on the topic "Show, Don't Tell" Demystified.

He began his presentation by explaining that showing versus telling is a contrast between the meaningful and the mundane. It is acceptable, even necessary, to tell the things that are mundane in your story. For example, you can tell that your characters are meeting for dinner, because that is a mundane detail. You can tell where the characters are after a scene change - they're standing on the sidewalk outside the hotel. You can tell that a character turned on a lamp. But, for those things in a scene that are meaningful, it is better to try to show it. For example, instead of saying "Hubert felt affection for her", you would have Hubert come close and give her a tender hug.

Jason said that showing is the process of manifesting the invisible. The show should cause the reader to draw an inference from it, rather than telling the reader what to conclude. As an example, he displayed a photo of two smiling women at some sort of public event. What can be inferred from the photo? Their teeth were white and straight, thus they may come from an affluent background. They were leaning close, so they must be friends. People in the background wore identical plastic bracelets, so they may be at some paid event. In our written scenes, can we get the reader to draw an inference from what we show? Think about this scene:

Hubert's eyes followed the curvy woman as she sashayed across the restaurant. His wife griped her knife, white knuckled, and stabbed into her steak.

Is Hubert a philanderer? Is their marriage already on the rocks? Will the wife murder him in his sleep? Is the other woman a hooker?

When to show? To cause an inference, to draw attention, to evoke a feeling.

When to tell? At a scene break, jumps in time (i.e. "Three days later ."), to summarize mundane events ("They drove into town").

Jason gave these general steps for adding shows to your scenes during the editing process:
  1. Figure out the meaningful invisible facts in the scene. For example, A hates B, C fears dogs, D drinks too much. These are things you could tell the reader, but they have an invisible quality from the other characters' point of view, versus a lamp or a blue dress, which are obvious and visible.
  2. Find the moments in the scene where these invisible facts come into play.
  3. Determine the visible consequences/manifestations of the invisible facts. A always sneers at B, C cowers when dog approaches, D staggers with drink in hand.
  4. Write down these visible manifestations (the show).
    Other examples of tells:
    • Information dumps and backstory.
    • Some dialog tags, other than said and asked.
    • Adverbs, which tell a manner of action. Better to use stronger verbs.
    • Exclamation points in narration!
    Other things that show:
    • Dialog.
    • Inner monologue (i.e. POV character's first-person thoughts).

    Friday, October 8, 2010

    Book Review: Stein On Writing

    Copyright © 2010, Steven E. Houchin

    Stein On Writing book imageI recently finished reading Sol Stein’s book Stein On Writing. Its chapters are divided into seven sections, allowing the reader to zero in on the subjects he/she cares most about. Stein’s writing is straightforward and the chapters are peppered with excellent examples, both good and bad.

    I concentrated most on the Fiction section, where each chapter presents different concepts and techniques, such as Plotting, Characterization, Suspense, Tension, Dialog, and Point of View.

    I especially liked two of the chapters.

    A) The Crucible: A Key to Successful Plotting. This is the situation that binds the characters together even as things go terribly wrong. What is it that keeps them together until the end, rather than running away? It can be something like a marriage, a blood relationship, a closed physical location, a business, a competition, etc. The crucible can exist for one or more scenes, or may define the whole novel. When used, it can breed plenty of character conflict and be a device for the character to grow or change.

    B) The Adrenaline Pump: Creating Tension. The chapter starts with the great notion that “Writers are troublemakers”. Rather than seeking to relieve stress, we wish to give our readers the sense of more stress and pressure, like stretching a rubber band. He makes the point that, once the author creates the tension, he/she shouldn’t let go too quickly; let the stress linger - drag it out as long as possible. The tension can come from a single chilling sentence, or by setting up a stressful situation, such as a ticking clock to an ominous deadline.

    Stein’s book should be a valuable reference I can refer to again and again to get my novelist’s juices flowing anytime my writing feels stale.

    Monday, September 13, 2010

    It's Soooo Obvious, I Didn't See It

    Copyright © 2010, Steven E. Houchin

    I read a posting on Anne Mini's excellent blog "Author! Author!" titled The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XXI: Millicent holds these truths to be self-evident. Trust me.

    It discusses two aspects of editing your manuscript to eliminate phrases that drive agents (or their slavish manuscript-reader underlings) crazy. One she calls "statements of the obvious". These are phrases like "nodded his head" (what else would he nod?) or "shrugged her shoulders" (what else would she shrug?). The second is the "Walking Across the Room" (WATR) problem, where you describe your character's every movement as she rises from the chair and walks across the room and bends over to pick up the tray of biscuits. Once you tell us she rose from the chair, the reader can fill in the rest until she picks up the tray. That is, unless she has suddenly suffered a stroke and is now dragging her left leg.

    The examples Anne gave prompted me to scan my latest manuscript - the one I am currently shopping around - for these terrible language faux pas. It was an enlightening exercise, even though I found only a few of the bad phrases. Some of the phrases that didn't cross Anne's lines, did have other things wrong with them, or could be written better. Here are the words I searched for:

    * Blink
    * Wave
    * Nod
    * Shrug
    * Walk

    I noticed "blinked rapidly" several times. I tried to do that, and found it thoroughly unnatural. So, the word "rapidly" rapidly got the axe. I had used "waved her hand", one of Anne's obvious no-no's, and discovered a few bad nods and shrugs as described above. But, the exercise caused me to reevaluate many of these gestures in context and rewrite them slightly, or caused me to notice that I'd overused them in a particular scene.

    As far as examining "walk", I was able to eliminate a few altogether, and to change some to other words, such as "stroll" or "saunter" to better fit the feel of the action.
    When I was all done, one hundred words had vanished from my manuscript, which I'm struggling to keep below 120,000 as I continue to do edits.

    Monday, July 19, 2010

    Useful Rejection?

    Copyright © 2010, Steven E. Houchin

    I often wonder what I’m doing wrong when I hear another author gush about the nice, personal, detailed rejection letter received from an agent. Why don’t I get those? What are they doing in their query that I’m not? Is there some magic “useful critique” potion they sprinkle all over their query before sending? Was it sealed with a special kiss?

    My rejections read like they’ve been downloaded en-mass from Rejections-R-Us, every one nearly identical:

    Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately I do not think this novel would be a good fit for me/would not know how to present it to an editor. Please remember that this is just one agent’s opinion, and another agent may feel differently about your work. Best of luck/keep trying elsewhere.

    Ahhh! Okay, but why? Did the story premise not work? Was the writing style flat? Were the characters thin? Do you not handle this genre this week? Did you drink too much last night and can’t remember? Do you only like New York-centric locations?

    I know - agents get hundreds of unsolicited queries. But I even get form rejections after partials or full manuscripts were requested. Those of us who have studied the craft, had our works critiqued, and polished the manuscript, hunger for real feedback to improve even more. Providing feedback is not an agent’s job, but making those kind of quality judgments is part of the process. Even a few words about their unique take on the novel would be nice. Either that, or give a hint where I can buy the magic potion.

    For the agent’s perspective, Nathan Bransford provides insight into his side of the story in this blog posting of June 24, 2010, titled Why I Write Vague Rejection Letters.

    Monday, June 21, 2010

    "I" Gotta Go!

    Copyright © 2009-2010, Steven E. Houchin

    A few months ago, I received a critique from an agent I'd queried. She offered me a unique criticism of my writing that hadn't occurred to me. It was a repetition in my structure that got on her nerves. The solution to the problem was vexing.

    My story is written in first person, so it is peppered with "I", "me", "my", "we", "us", and so forth. Use of these words is inevitable for first person. But, the agent saw too much of the pattern " 'I' plus verb". Looking at the writing sample I'd sent her - and keeping her critique in mind - I suddenly saw the annoying pattern, too. It was especially glaring when used to start a sentence. The agent had just added a new rule to my arsenal of "don'ts" for writing: spare the "I's".

    So, now my task becomes removal of a bunch of those pesky I's. But, how to reword "I did something" into a new sentence sans the "I"? Here are some examples of before and after:

    "They woke me on Sunday mornings when I craved sleep" becomes "They rudely woke me from a peaceful sleep on Sunday mornings".

    "I reached over to her side of the bed, feeling only empty space" becomes "Her side of the bed felt cold and empty".

    "I hurried to the window and peered into the night, the cold floor sending my spine a brisk shiver" becomes "The cold floor sent a brisk shiver up my spine as I peered through the window out into the night".

    "I lit the bedside lamp and checked my pocket watch: one forty-five" becomes "After lighting the bedside lamp, a glance at my pocket watch showed one forty-five".

    "I bundled up for the late-January deep freeze" becomes "The late-January deep freeze required plenty of bundling up".

    "I descended Lake Avenue toward the harbor and the railroad tracks" becomes "Lake Avenue descended steeply toward the harbor and the railroad tracks, making for treacherous footing".

    Some of these changes are definite improvements. Others are so-so, and probably need more work. In one case, the dreaded "I" remained, but moved inland. These examples are all from the first few pages. Jeez! I've got 470 pages in the damned book. Four pages took an hour to fix. Does that mean I have 118 more hours of re-editing to go? Ugh!

    Quick! Somebody get me a carton of Oreos - and keep the pizzas coming!