Category: Uncategorized (Page 1 of 279)

New Release: The Nightmare House

The Defenders of Dreams Series

I started a new series – or rather continued a story that I had put up a while ago and turned it into a series for middle-graders (9-12 y.o.).¬† These aren’t picture books or chapter books (like Magic Tree House), but more on the level of Percy Jackson or early Harry Potter books.

Note: I’ll be updating the cover for “The Society of Secret Cats” to match “The Nightmare House.”

I realized I’d kept putting off posting that I had a new story up “until everything was perfect,” then decideed that I’d never get it announced if I waited for that ūüôā

A third story, “The King of Cats,” will be out soon.

 

The Society of Secret Cats (Defenders of Dream #1)

Universal Buy Link | Goodreads (reviews)

What if cats were really there to guard your dreams? Handsome, dashing Ferntail the cat must rescue  his human charge from a nightmare that invades her dream, with the help of a mysterious and beautiful cat.

The Nightmare House (Defenders of Dream #2)

Universal Buy Link | Goodreads (reviews)

Ferntail the cat can do nothing about the nightmares the house is giving his family.  For that, a dog must be called in. An annoying pug puppy named Nodoji.

Only one question: will Ferntail or the house get Nodoji first?

How to Study Fiction, Part 23: The Fall of the House of Usher

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, ‚ÄúWhat now?!?‚Ä̬† The rest of the series is¬†here.¬† You may also want to check out the series on pacing,¬†here, which I‚Äôm eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

The Paragraphs of the House of Usher

You can find a copy of “The Fall of the House of Usher” here, on Project Gutenberg.

Today, we’re going to look at paragraph lengths.¬† A note of caution here:¬† as with his sentence lengths, Poe’s paragraph lengths are¬†extremely long for modern sensibilitites to cope with.¬† I would seriously think twice about writing paragraphs this long unless you feel a sort of calling for it, deep in your soul.¬† (I, myself, sometimes do.)

How long should a modern paragraph be?¬† I mean, the honest answer is, “As long as it needs to be,” but how does that even help, if you’re not at the point where you have a good feel for pacing?

I’m going to say that you should be able to fit five medium-length paragraphs on a standard book page.¬† Most book pages will have about 25 lines or so–a reasonable amount before your brain goes, “Hurrrr” and needs a tiny break when you look to the next page.¬† If you check most paperback¬†and most hardcover books, they will have about 25 lines per page.¬†¬†Mostly.¬† I have an edition of “Seven Gothic Tales” by Isak Dineson that I’m trying to read right now, and my print copy has 34 brutal lines per page.¬† I’m thinking about giving up on it and switching to digital.¬† It is sooo hard to read.

But, if I were to skim down any normally formatted page with about 25 lines of text, and I saw five paragraphs of about the same size, I wouldn’t think they were long or short, just kind of medium.

Okay, let me just completely derail this week’s post for a short discussion on book formatting, now that I think about it:

  • Physical books are formatted to certain dimensions because they help readers pay attention better.
  • Most physical books are formatted to be about 25 lines per page.
  • Most lines are formatted to have approximately 65-70 characters per line, which works out to about 10 words per line.
  • Most pages have about 250 words per page, barring chapter art and such.
  • Standard manuscript format will leave you with about 250 words per page so that a manuscript will have approximately the same page count as a formatted book.
  • All formats of book, from mass market paperback to hardcover, tend to have these same rules of thumb, even though they don’t have to.

Your brain needs a brief reset in order to process information.  In a print book, those resets occur invisibly:  the ends of lines, every point of punctuation, every page turn, every scene break, every chapter break.

In a properly formatted print book, that is.

It is 100% a benefit if you, as a writer, find out what basic book design looks like.¬† You don’t have to keep it in mind as you write, but once you know it, you can’t¬†not know it.¬† Readers can’t really read as fast as they seem to read.¬† The time they spend reading is packed with little invisible pauses.

Honoring that can only help you be a better writer.

Wikibooks’¬†Basic Book Design is a good starting reference on basic book design.¬† I’m not joking.¬† I go back to it all the time.¬† If you are an indie publisher, reading this will make your books, both ebook and print, easier to read (and classier looking) as well.

Back to our regularly scheduled post.

Five paragraphs per page works out to about five lines of ten words each, or fifty words per paragraph.

One paragraph that takes up the whole page would be a very long paragraph, at 250 words.

A paragraph that took only one line would be a very short paragraph, at 10 words or fewer.

So let’s say:

  • One line: a very short paragraph.
  • 2-3 lines: a short paragraph.
  • 4-6 lines: a medium paragraph.
  • 7-10 lines: a long paragraph.
  • 10+ lines: a very long paragraph.
  • 25+ lines: a wall of text (as in, there are no indents or paragraph breaks in the black marks on the page).

Now, I personally would say paragraph lengths should be determined, at heart, by the content of the paragraphs, but again, that doesn’t really help if you don’t have a sense of how to match up form and content yet.

So let’s rephrase that:

One paragraph = one element gets described or one action taken.

Now, paragraphing is more complex than that, but that’s the essence.¬† You get to do one thing in that paragraph, and then you have to hit the return key.

But…!

Yes.¬† Some authors put more than one thing in a paragraph.¬† But mostly, in modern fiction, they don’t unless they’re lying to you about something.

One of the best ways to fool a reader is to put something in plain view, but don’t put it as the first or last sentence in a paragraph with more than three sentences.¬† Our brains are like, “Um.¬† This too many things, la la la,” and drifts a bit, because it needs to be reset.

The reader’s brain gets reset at the ends of lines.¬† It gets reset at every punctuation mark.¬† That’s¬†still not enough.¬† It needs to be reset at the end of a paragraph, too.

So:¬† If you see a long paragraph in modern fiction, you can assume that the author, either deliberately or accidentally, is now lying to the reader or has some other mysterious purpose.¬† They’re letting the reader’s attention span strain a little farther than it should, and hoping that the reader will miss important points among all the other little distractions going on.

It’s just like a magic trick, really.

As we established, Poe likes to deceive the reader, and, in fact, he does so in the first paragraph of “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Here’s the first paragraph, once again, for your perusal:

DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was‚ÄĒbut, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me‚ÄĒupon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain‚ÄĒupon the bleak walls‚ÄĒupon the vacant eye-like windows‚ÄĒupon a few rank sedges‚ÄĒand upon a few white trunks of decayed trees‚ÄĒwith an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium‚ÄĒthe bitter lapse into every-day life‚ÄĒthe hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart‚ÄĒan unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it‚ÄĒI paused to think‚ÄĒwhat was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there¬†are¬†combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down‚ÄĒbut with a shudder even more thrilling than before‚ÄĒupon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

This is a 400-word paragraph that, in a print book, would occupy 40 lines, or about 1.5 pages.¬† It is a “wall of text.”

We established last week that Poe misleads the reader by focusing on the details about the house, when really the narrator is really in denial about what he expects to find when he  sees his friend again.

DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was‚ÄĒbut, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me‚ÄĒupon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain‚ÄĒupon the bleak walls‚ÄĒupon the vacant eye-like windows‚ÄĒupon a few rank sedges‚ÄĒand upon a few white trunks of decayed trees‚ÄĒwith an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium‚ÄĒthe bitter lapse into every-day life‚ÄĒthe hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart‚ÄĒan unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it‚ÄĒI paused to think‚ÄĒwhat was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there¬†are¬†combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down‚ÄĒbut with a shudder even more thrilling than before‚ÄĒupon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

Ostensibly, this paragraph is a description of how unsettling the House of Usher is.¬† It covers¬†one thing.¬† It describes¬†one thing.¬† The narrator doesn’t really take much of an action here; he arrives and looks at stuff.¬† (He doesn’t, say, engage in a sword fight.)¬† So we’ll ignore the extremely minor action he takes and focus on the¬†house.

The reason that Poe goes on and on about the house here is to screw with your brain and put it slightly to sleep.¬† Your brain goes, “Blah blah blah, house, blah blah.”

But tucked in that is the narrator going, “By the way?¬† I’m not actually reliable.”¬† He doth protest a little too much.

And please note that the major points of the paragraph–and its major deceptions–are not in the beginning, or at the end, of this massive wall of text.

And that’s enough for today, I think.

Next time: We’re going to look at¬†other paragraphs.¬† Zowie!

The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Herald, here!

New Release: Cat Tales Issue #1

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cat Tales Issue #1

Universal Book Link | Goodreads (reviews)

No matter where you go, no matter what you do, some cat, somewhere, is always watching you!  Nine tales of cat magic, suitable for reading in front of clever, adorable, and even irascible cats.

 

 

Questioning Fairy Tales

I’ve always been interested in folk and fairy tales, as far back as I can remember.¬† I grew up with Grimm’s fairy tales, as a lot of people like me do, and for a long time I thought that was that: Grimm’s was how a fairy tale should be told.

Later, of course, I started discovering fairy tales from other countries and saw similar versions of tales from Grimm’s.¬† I read both Edward William Lane’s and Sir Richard Francis Burton’s versions of¬†The Thousand and One Nights, and discovered just how much was getting bowdlerized out of certain books.¬† I read¬†The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettleheim and started thinking about what fairy tales are for.¬† I had even read several versions of fairy-tale collections that gave the “original, uncensored!” versions of classic fairy tales.

Then, last year, I read The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales, recorded by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, edited by Erica Eichenseer, and translated by Maria Tatar.

WOW.

I hadn’t realized how much the Brothers Grimm had removed from their retellings of folktales intended for children.¬† It’s a lot:

  • Extramarital sex.
  • Defectation.
  • Gender-reversing tales.
  • Tales about adult situations, that is, themes that kids and teen wouldn’t care about, like quality of life in old age and how to die happy.

I assumed, because I had grown up reading tales from the Brothers Grimm, that their versions of the tales–even their¬†selection of the tales–constituted¬†a sort of “default.”¬† Other collections of fairy tales, like Andrew Lang’s color-titled fairy books (The Pink Fairy Book, The Blue Fairy Book, etc.), also tended to aim their fairy tales toward children, often watering down already watered-down versions.¬† Even collections of tales from other countries tend censor themselves.

Most existing fairy-tale collections for children seem to bias themselves in several ways:

  • The stories that were not that meaningful for children or young adults tended to be absent, either not recorded or removed.
  • Elements of stories that were deemed “not appropriate” for children were removed.
  • A strong bias toward raising “good” children who valued whatever the anthologists (e.g., the Brothers Grimm) valued was inserted–no more gender-reversal tales where the prince has to be rescued in Brothers Grimm, even though such tales¬†are included in¬†The Turnip Princess.

About the same time that I read The Turnip Princess, I also read The Tale of Tales, also known as The Pentamerone, by Giambattista Basile, who collected and amended fairy tales in 17th-Century Italy.  This is another collection of folk and fairy tales that was never intended for children (although it claims to be entertainment for children!).  Lots of sleeping around, gossip, spitting (if you have a serious issue with being grossed out by spitting, you may want to skip reading this, seriously), and backstabbery.

These aren’t tales for children in the sense that most of them don’t address the issues of children or young adults, either.¬† The stories tend toward topics of getting ahead in life, when it’s okay to trick someone in business, and what sleeping around on your spouse is going to get you (generally, murdered).

I’m sure there’s still bias in there; after last year’s adventures in more adult fairy tales, I kind of just assume that all fairy tales are told with several levels of bias.¬† But previously, I had no idea.¬†¬†I just thought the Brothers Grimm approach to editing and selecting tales was the right, correct, default one.

My suspicion is that it’s difficult to question an assumption that you already have on every level.¬† But this one hit me particularly hard.¬† I was supposed to be “good” at fairy tales, although (I would say with false modesty), I was no expert.

Maybe that’s just it, though:¬† until you’ve had your assumptions shaken to the core, until the very idea of becoming an expert at a thing becomes, at some secret, internal level, somewhat laughable, you’re not going to progress beyond a beginner’s ignorance.

No matter how many books you read.

The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Herald, here!

 

 

 

New Release: Ever After Fairy Tales #2, Innocence and Deceit

Ever After Fairy Tales #2: Innocence and Deceit

Universal Buy Link | Goodreads (reviews)

Cinderella’s not so innocent, but neither is Prince Charming.  Innocence and Deceit, the second volume in the Ever After Fairy Tales anthology series, contains fourteen fairy tales retold, reimagined, and reinvented.  Enter the magical, unpredictable, wonderful world of fairy tales!

Contains my short story, “Dr. Rudolfo Meets his Match,” an Aschenputtle retelling (quite close to Cinderella!).¬† The editor, Jamie Ferguson, said that she got a lot of Cinderella retellings for this volume and decided to just go with it.¬† We writers, being much like cats, did¬†not go in the same direction.

 

How to Study Fiction, Part 22: The Fall of the House of Usher

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, ‚ÄúWhat now?!?‚Ä̬† The rest of the series is¬†here.¬† You may also want to check out the series on pacing,¬†here, which I‚Äôm eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

Usher’s house keeps falling down, falling down, falling down!

Today’s adventure in wrecking Poe-etic houses is about content vs. pacing in sentences.¬† Why¬†are some of the sentences longer than others?¬† And why are they placed in the order that they are?

Here’s the opening paragraph from “The Fall of the House of Usher” again:

1. (60 words – 10 punct.) DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

2. (22 words – 4 punct.) I know not how it was‚ÄĒbut, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.

3. (32 words – 4 punct.) I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.

4. (80 words – 10 punct.) I looked upon the scene before me‚ÄĒupon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain‚ÄĒupon the bleak walls‚ÄĒupon the vacant eye-like windows‚ÄĒupon a few rank sedges‚ÄĒand upon a few white trunks of decayed trees‚ÄĒwith an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium‚ÄĒthe bitter lapse into every-day life‚ÄĒthe hideous dropping off of the veil.

5. (29 words – 4 punct.) There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart‚ÄĒan unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.

6. (22 words – 3 punct.) What was it‚ÄĒI paused to think‚ÄĒwhat was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?

7. (21 words – 1 punct.) It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered.

8. (42 words Р5 punct.) I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth.

9. (95 words – 14 punct.) It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down‚ÄĒbut with a shudder even more thrilling than before‚ÄĒupon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

Now, if you’re a beginning writer, one of the pieces of advice you receive is to not make every sentence the same length.¬† Yay!¬† Good advice.

But why?

The explanation you get is that it sounds weird and kind of boring/monotonous if your sentences are all the same length.  Fair enough; they do.

But that’s not the only reason.¬† Now that you’re an intermediate writer, it’s time to dig a little deeper, because going, “You should always have sentences of different lengths” doesn’t tell anyone what lengths of sentences to have, or why.¬† Should you have a range of long (20+ words) to super-long sentences (sky’s the limit),¬†or a range of super-short (under five words, for example) to medium-length (fifteenish word) sentences?

And why?

Different sentence length do different things for a sentence, so it’s not like you can go, “I use longer sentences to lull the reader into a false sense of security.”¬† Hemingway used short sentences to lull the reader into a false sense of security; Agatha Christie used a variety of lengths to do the same.¬† This false sense of security, it’s everywhere!

So how do you decide?

Let’s look at the first sentence again:

DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

The bare minimum content of this sentence is:

One day, I went to the House of Usher.

Next sentence:

I know not how it was‚ÄĒbut, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.

Bare minimum content:

It was depressing.

Third sentence:

I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.

Bare minimum:

Not even poetically depressing.

Fourth sentence:

I looked upon the scene before me‚ÄĒupon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain‚ÄĒupon the bleak walls‚ÄĒupon the vacant eye-like windows‚ÄĒupon a few rank sedges‚ÄĒand upon a few white trunks of decayed trees‚ÄĒwith an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium‚ÄĒthe bitter lapse into every-day life‚ÄĒthe hideous dropping off of the veil.

Bare minimum:

Just depressing.

Fifth sentence:

There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart‚ÄĒan unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.

Bare minimum:

Bleah.

Sixth sentence:

What was it‚ÄĒI paused to think‚ÄĒwhat was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?

Bare minimum:

Why did I even feel that way?

Seventh sentence:

It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered.

Bare minimum:

No idea, but I couldn’t shake it.

Eighth sentence:

I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth.

Bare minimum:

Sometimes we just can’t know why we feel what we feel.

Ninth sentence:

It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down‚ÄĒbut with a shudder even more thrilling than before‚ÄĒupon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

Bare minimum:

But maybe if the house had been a little different it wouldn’t be so depressing, I thought, so I looked down in a pool of water at the house’s reflection and it was even worse.

To put the bare minimum interpretation together, here is the basic content of the first paragraph:

One day, I went to the House of Usher.¬†¬†It was depressing.¬†¬†Not even poetically depressing.¬†¬†Just depressing.¬†¬†Bleah.¬†¬†Why did I even feel that way?¬†No idea, but I couldn’t shake it.¬†Sometimes we just can’t know why we feel what we feel. But maybe if the house had been a little different it wouldn’t be so depressing, I thought, so I looked down in a pool of water at the house’s reflection and it was even worse.

If you haven’t taken a moment to reread (or type in!) “The Fall of the House of Usher” lately, please do.

Throughout the story, the narrator sees–but doesn’t seem to understand–that the Usher family, and his friend in particular, have been engaging in self-destructive, irrational behavior, which probably includes incest.¬† The whole story, or at least one aspect of it, might be said to be an exercize in providing clues to the reader without ever resolving the mystery per se.¬† Why did the House of Usher fall?¬† What ruined it?¬†¬†It’s a mystery, says the narrator.¬† Uh-huh.

But then again, I’ve been working a lot on how to add clues to a mystery; thequestion, “How can I hide something in plain sight?,” has been much on my mind.¬† So¬†that is the aspect I’m going to address here, because it’s what’s obsessing me, not because it’s the One True Answer.

What you find, if you choose to do an independent analysis, will likely be different.

When I look at the content of the paragraph, I see a clue that’s hiding in plain sight.¬† The unnamed narrator sees what he sees, but, because he can’t explain it logically or doesn’t like what it implies about his feelings, tries to explain it away.¬† “Shut up, intuition!” says the narrator.

As I continued studying the story, I then kept an eye out for that kind of pattern and saw it everywhere.  Usher gives a hint and the narrator explains it away.  Over and over again.

I did not pick up on this the first time I read this story, or the fifth.  I typed it in, was therefore forced to slow down, and, when I started looking for patterns, had dragged up what I had understood subconsciously the first time to a conscious level so I could actually see it.

The way the sentences are written are readable, but not simple.  At some level, I suspect Poe wanted the reader to be able to read his story, but be at least a little distracted.

His sentence-by-sentence description focuses on the house.¬† The visuals of what he describes are¬†the house.¬† But that really isn’t what the content is about–the content is about the narrator’s feelings.

Why doesn’t Poe focus on the narrator’s feelings?¬† Why does he uses his style to distract from his content?

From my perspective (which isn’t objective, but is in answer to the question of “how to hide things in plain sight” that I brought with me to this study), this story is about distracting oneself from unpleasant truths.

The content of the first paragraph is about distracting oneself from an unpleasant truth; the style distracts the reader from the unpleasant truth that sometimes we distract ourselves from unpleasant truths.

The lengths of the sentences are used as a tool to help accomplish the content of the story.¬† The two shortest, clearest sentences say, “Why did I feel this way?” and “Dunno.”¬† That which is clearest is also the most misleading.

So, to sum up what I learned about sentence lengths in this paragraph:

  • Poe may be using super-long sentences to screw with his readers.
  • Watch out if a sentence looks relatively straightforward.

Do you need to write this way?

No!

But you may want to steal the technique once in a while.¬† Studying like this is¬†not about learning “the right way” to write, or even to analyze.¬† It’s about learning different techniques that you can then steal, period, end of story.¬† If your subconscious is like, “Ugh, I don’t even care,” then you won’t end up with the same analysis.¬† Your subconscious–your muse, if you will–will take you elsewhere.

The important part of studying any work at this level is to follow¬†your muse, not mine.¬† Some authors will align their content and their sentence style so that their sentences make their content obvious.¬† Other authors, like Poe, will set up unreliable narrators (as in this story–who can trust a guy who lies to himself?).

What I want you to take away here is that asking, “Why are the sentences in this work the way they are?” is a question that can lead to all sorts of unexpected techniques which you can then steal.¬† Don’t limit yourself to saying, “Because they’re easy to read” or “Because you should vary the lengths of your sentences.”¬† That is often not the whole story.

And, as a reminder, don’t even¬†think about this stuff while you’re writing.¬† It’s for analysis only.¬† Your muse will steal what it wants and use it when it wants.¬† Mostly where you’ll actually be conscious of this is when you’re editing and go, “Oh, I shouldn’t screw with that long sentence…I need it to lie to the reader” or whatever.

The more you know, the less you’ll screw up your work during edits.

Next time:¬† Let’s look at some paragraphs.¬† What are Poe’s paragraphs like in Usher?¬† How long are they? Do they vary?¬† I’m going to say they’re super-long off the cuff, because when I was typing them in, I kept going, “UGH JUST KILL ME I WANT TO STOP FOR THE DAY BUT I SWORE I WOULD FINISH TYPING IN THIS PARAGRAPH AND THAT WAS LIKE THREE KINDLE PAGES AGO.”

But let’s look at them anyway.¬† Who knows what we’ll find?

The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Herald, here!

 

 

 

 

How to Study Fiction, Part 19: The Fall of the House of Usher

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, ‚ÄúWhat now?!?‚Ä̬† The rest of the series is¬†here.¬† You may also want to check out the series on pacing,¬†here, which I‚Äôm eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

…

Today is my first post exploring some analysis of “The Fall of the House of Usher”!¬† I’m going to focus on structural analysis, because that seems to be both the hardest type of analysis to find (at the moment I’m writing this) and involves some of the most interesting aspects about the story.¬† A link to the Project Gutenberg version of the story is here.

(I picked that version because a) it’s free, and b) because we’re looking mostly at structural level stuff, any typos aren’t going to be hugely relevant, so pointing back to an authoratative version that you have to pay for isn’t going to be all¬†that¬†important.)

BRIEFLY:¬† Structure, for our purposes here, isn’t going to be about plot structure.¬† There are a million books that will walk you through plot structure, and you should have read some of them as a beginning writer (and will likely have to continue to read them as an intermediate writer).¬† What we’re talking about is how the events of the story are put together and why.

A lot of people can tell you vaguely what “The Fall of the House of Usher” is about:¬† some dude, the narrator, goes to his friend’s house; the friend may or may not be nuts; the friend has a sister; she dies; the friend might have been having sex with her; the house falls down; the narrator escapes.

But how are those events (the plot) unfolded?  Which events are told in backstory and which in real time?  Which events are not told at all, but implied?  Are there any tricks to how the story is told that themselves reflect the content of the story?

Let’s find out!

(A note:¬† I’m super nervous about how this is going to pull off.)

The Fall of the House of Usher

Step one:  Reread the story!

Step two:¬† Type it in!¬† It is approximately 7,000 words long.¬† Don’t do this all at once.¬† Type in about one to two thousand words a day.¬† Don’t “fix” anything; just type it in the way you see it.¬† Note: you may want to adjust the width of the lines in the story so they’re about twenty to twenty-five words long, which is about the width of a modern book and is about as many words as a normal reader can comprehend without some sort of break.

Step three: Understand that Poe was a) writing for another time, and b) a genius.¬† You may not understand all the things at first glance.¬† I often found myself at the end of a day’s typing telling myself that I was¬†never going to get this.

Step four:  Make some notes about what you observe about the story.  Whatever you observe about the story.  This will help clear your head so you can observe new things.

Step five:¬† When you’re done with that, let’s begin some structural analysis, starting with the pacing:

  • How long are the words?¬† What level of vocabulary are we talking here?
  • Can you hear an “accent” to the words that place the narrator’s background?
  • How long are the sentences?
  • Are the sentences straightforward or complex (a good rule of thumb is that complex sentences get a lot of punctuation)?
  • How long are the paragraphs?
  • How long is the story?
  • Do word lengths change?¬† Where?¬† Do they change back?
  • Does anything about the “accent” change?
  • Do sentence lengths change?¬† Do they change back?
  • Do sentence complexities change at all?
  • Do paragraph lengths change?
  • Is there anything that fundamentally breaks a pattern within the story?

After that, we’ll start asking bigger questions about the story, but when you first start doing structural analysis, it’s easier to start with the pacing.¬† Once you’re intimately familiar with pacing, the structural-level patterns start popping out.

Something to note: 

I’ve found that typing things in hasn’t lost its usefulness yet.¬† I expected to be able to take in everything I was studying without having to keep typing things in after a few months.

Five years later, I’m still typing things in, but I no longer need to stop and ask myself whether the sentences are long or whether there’s a change in paragraph length.¬† I look for other, more interesting patterns. But I had to start with the pacing; it’s¬†hard¬†to learn how to think this way, but it’s harder not to, if you’re trying to become a long-term professional writer, a master of the art.

As you become comfortable with a technique, you’ll be able to note when an author uses it without having to analyze it specifically.¬† ¬†But until you look at low-level structural questions in detail, it may be difficult to notice the higher-level techniques that I’m going to point out later.

“Where does she get this stuff?” may cross your mind a time or two.¬† The answer is, “She’s been typing things in for five-plus years now, and a thing or two sank in.”

A friend of mine once said that being a black belt in a martial art was where the learning¬†really begins.¬† It’s also where you start studying masters instead of studying moves.

Same thing with writing.¬† We’re shifting from following rules to studying technique.¬† Beginning writers expect to have the rules and explanations handed to them on a platter; intermediate writers have to start becoming the people who can make the rules and explanations for the beginners.

Next time, I’ll go over the points above on pacing in the story, pointing out some things that I think might help give a sense of what to look for.

The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Herald, here!

Current Marketing Strategies

I didn’t have the time or energy to write a long post this week, but yesterday I ended up checking in with myself about what I know about marketing.¬† Admittedly, this isn’t much.¬† But when I started trying to bootstrap myself out of complete lack of sales, it was less, so I’m gonna count it a win.

Current marketing strategies, in order:

  1. Keep writing.¬† You can’t sell what you don’t produce.
  2. Keep studying.¬† It’s easier to sell a good book than a bad one.
  3. Don’t let the money fall out (keep it easy for people to find what they need and buy it).¬† MAKE SURE YOUR FANS & POTENTIAL FANS CAN GET IT.
  4. Keep networking.  A lot of my recent opportunities have come directly or indirectly from people I met ten years ago.
  5. Don’t sell plots, sell reader feelings.¬† People won’t remember your plots unless you make them feel the way they want to feel.

There’s a possible sixth but I’m still testing it out:

Don’t waste time on assholes.¬†¬†They aren’t actually networking with you, helping your career, or providing any kind of support, even when there’s money involved; they’re using you and will, over the long haul, screw you over.¬† Make time and room for people who, when you do nice things for them, don’t make feel like you’re pouring your time down a gaping pit or that they’re blowing smoke up your ass.

I mean, obviously it’s a good idea–but is it a good¬†marketing idea?

Pondering…

Want to get a list of plot ideas for stories within stories?¬† Sign up for my newsletter or Patreon and wait for January’s issue of the Wonderland Press-Herald, which is really just my newsletter but this morning I went, I COULD CALL THIS A NEWSPAPER WHICH WOULD BE FAR MORE AMUSING.¬† Anyway, click here.

How to Study Fiction, Part 18: Intro to some case studies on Poe

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, ‚ÄúWhat now?!?‚Ä̬† The rest of the series is¬†here.¬† You may also want to check out the series on pacing,¬†here, which I‚Äôm eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

…

I really like looking at Edgar Allan Poe stories, not just because of the dark, Gothic subject matter, but also because he is¬†such¬†a nerd when it comes to structure.¬† I’ve been typing in a number of his stories lately.¬† I started with “The Cask of Amontillado” a while ago, but I think I’ve talked enough about that story by now.¬† Maybe I’ll type my analysis all up in one place when I turn this into a book, eh?¬† But the latest spat of type-ins started in November with “The Fall of the House of Usher.”¬† I’m working on a Gothic novel about a house and thought typing in Poe would help me stay in a Gothic frame of mind:¬† long, twisty sentences, thick paragraphs, big vocabularies, foreboding statements galore!

But of course I found more than that.¬† I think the reason that Poe is so interesting on a structural level is that he was also, perhaps even primarily, a master poet who worked in formal verse, uniting form and structure as he went.¬† (I suspect that one day he noticed the fact that a repeated word first becomes distorted, then loses meaning, in a process known as “semantic satiation” and decided to write horror poems in which both meaning and sanity decline simultaneously.¬† Check out “The Bells” for a good example.)

In his stories–as I’m rediscovering, in even more depth–Poe unites form and content so smoothly that sometimes it’s difficult to notice when it’s happening.¬† It is¬†that smooth.¬† But once you see it, it’s like having a hidden image pop out, and you can’t un-see it.¬† Poe wrote some serious, dark-minded stuff…but often in his darker stories is a hidden joke buried in the structure.

Note, I’m going to take the stories in kind of the same order that I studied them, which doesn’t follow publication order, but rather my whim.¬† I could put them in order, but then I’d have to explain Poe-analysis things in story A when really I discovered them in story B.

When I start studying a story, I start by typing it in, basically until I get bored.¬† With short stories, I usually type the whole thing in–with novels, not so much.

Things I start looking for, more or less in order:

  • The feel of the sentences:¬† length, content, vocab, structure (short and direct, or long and twisted? lots of punctuation or not much? what kind of punctuation?).
  • The feel of the paragraphs:¬† length, content, structure.
  • The shift between the opening and the middle of the scene (going from setup to action).
  • The try/fails of the middle, how long they are, how many of them.
  • How the scene wraps up, how long it is.

At that point, I stop and ask myself what I liked or didn’t like about the scene, and what, if anything, else I noticed.¬† I also make a note of the POV character(s), any head-hopping, and try to sum up what happened in the scene, in general.¬† Why were all the elements of the scene in¬†that scene and not another one?¬† That’s the general question I’m trying to answer.

Then I’ll move along to the next scene, either until I’m done or until I feel like I’ve picked up the author’s techniques in that part of the book.¬† I’ll keep re-reading (I never start studying until after I’ve read the story, and re-read it if it hasn’t been lately) until I get to something where I go, “WHAT WAS THAT?¬† HOW EVEN.”¬† Which is pretty often, honestly; if it sounds like I know everything about how stories get written sometimes, it’s mostly just because I’m running off at the mouth.¬† There is such a huge amount to learn, I don’t know if anyone can grasp it all.¬† It’s pretty normal to get intimidated once you start opening up the hood on these stories and tracing where the wires and gears all go.

A note about novels:¬† I’ll sometimes set up an excel spreadsheet so I can study how often POVs show up (for example, in¬†Game of Thrones), or what types of endings each scene has throughout the book. It’s sometimes easier for me to see patterns when I can color-code them.¬† So if I’m working on a novel, I’ll make notes as I go, like, “What’s going on with all the POVs here?” and look at it later in a spreadsheet.

When I’m done with my first pass of a story (and answered any questions I might have via spreadsheet for novels, if necessary), then I’ll step back and go, “Why did the author make the structural decisions that they made?”

I cannot recommend attempting to make that kind of analysis without doing the typing.¬† It’s always¬†tempting to try to pick something apart without really understanding it, but, when it comes to analysis, you can only reach as far as your pre-existing prejudices when you do that.¬† Type it in.¬† Some of the stuff I’ll be talking about is a freaking magic trick, and you won’t be able to see how it’s done without practicing it yourself first.¬† No matter how clumsy it makes you feel!

As I said last time, most of the time (especially in novels), you want to go with a structure that is pretty normal for the genre and subgenre you’re writing in.¬† Once you’ve pulled apart a few stories that fit that mold–the pop song structure of fiction–then it starts to become obvious when something is or is not following that mold.

The answer to the question, “Why did the author write to fit the mold?” is pretty simple:¬† they wanted to meet reader expectations.¬† They didn’t feel like reinventing the wheel!¬† The answer to the question, “Why didn’t the author write to fit the mold?” is usually pretty interesting, though:¬† it’s generally to solve a problem that they couldn’t solve within the mold, or to show off.¬† Sometimes both.

Next time, we’ll get into “The Fall of the House of Usher,” what a douche Usher was, and how Poe made everyone think that it was a story about incest without the narrator ever going there.

Free book and other curiosities here.

 

The Art of Lockpicking

On June 23, I went to an introductory lockpicking class, The Art of Lockpicking, hosted by Atlas Obscura and taught by Jeremiah Jensen.

It was held at the Lighthouse Writers’ Race Street location, which I’d never been to before.¬† It’s a charming location aswamp in parking issues, so I was late getting there.¬† Fortunately, although most of the people there were¬†not writers, it was still like herding cats, and they didn’t start without me. (Whew!)¬† I want to say there were about sixty people, but that’s just a guesstimate.

Each of us received a lockpicking kit, a pen case big enough to hold the lockpicks (sneaky), and a clear practice lock, so you can see all the little pieces inside the lock.  And a piece of fine-grit sandpaper.  More on that in a bit.

The class started with a lot of rustling, scraping, and cursing as people tried to figure out how to use their lockpicking sets unaided.  Some of the people were actually able to open their locks!  I found out later that some lockpicking enthusiasts had attended, though, so I suspect that a) they were able to open their very easy practice locks, and b) they were teaching other people as they went.

As for myself, I resisted the urge.  I was late, it was time for the class to start, and if I started working on the lock I would either break something or not be able to pay attention to what was going on until I got it figured out.  Counterproductive.

Eventually we started.¬† The teacher was a tall man with a beard, tattoos, and a swirl of green hair on top of his head, named Jeremiah Jensen.¬† He had got his start with a practice set in high school that he never used–or, rather, he had dug out the practice set once he had started working at the lock station at Home Depot.

Here are the ethics of lockpicking, somewhat paraphrased:

  • Never open a lock without express owner permission.¬† It’s easy to break a lock.¬† HEY IT’S EASY TO BREAK A LOCK MAYBE DON’T DO YOUR FRONT DOOR ‘KAY?
  • Never help people who want to use your lockpicking skills in a criminal manner.
  • Be mindful of laws about lockpicking equipment.¬† It’s legal to have it in Colorado, but that’s not always the case.

Locksport is the art of lockpicking as a competitive sport.  The r/lockpicking subreddit is an excellent resource, including its own wiki.  (As with all things reddit, Read The F@#$%^& Manual before asking questions.)  Masterlocks are cheap and a good place to start, although you may be disappointed with how easily it is defeated.

The most famed year in lockpicking history was 1851.

It was London, and the Great Exhibition had just started up.¬† A sophisticated, unpickable lock had been created by Jeremiah Chubb.¬† Not only was it a damnably hard lock to pick, but if one nudged it just a bit too hard, the tumblers would jam in place.¬† A second key was required to unjam the lock, turning it the opposite direction as the key that would unlock the lock.¬† (This second key wouldn’t unlock the lock, just unjam the tumblers.)

An American gentleman named A.C. Hobbs picked this lock in about 25 minutes…as a warmup to a second lock, the famed Joseph Bramah safety lock, which had proved unpickable for about 60 years.

Hobbs picked it in 14 days, at the Great Exhibition.

Every lock since then has been crafted in the knowledge that cannot provide perfect security.

There’s¬†always something.¬† (Here’s a link to an article about Hobbs’s challenge.)

We were then given a tour of the lockpicking set.¬† There were several tension bars, basically thin, l-shaped sheets of metal sturdy enough to turn the machinery inside the lock, but delicate enough to help transmit the vibrations inside the lock, to aid in sensing where everything is when you’re not working on a clear plastic lock.

Inside that clear plastic lock is a plug, or the turney bit where the key rests.  Resting inside the plug in the most inconvenient way possible are several pins held in place by small springs.  The pins are in two parts, with half of the pin above the plug, and half of the pin inside the plug.  If the pins are lined up exactly with all pins half above and half inside the plug, then the plug can be turned.

A key lines those pins up in their proper and convenient location.¬† With a little luck, a lockpicker can line the pins up manually.¬† The pins aren’t perfect, see, so you can nudge them into place one at a time, and, if you’re putting the most delicate amount of pressure on the tension bar, they’ll kind of stick in place.

The actual lockpicks come in several flavors.¬† Every lock (even two locks of the same brand and model) has its own personality; likewise, every lockpicker has their own personality.¬† So there is no “perfect lockpick,” only the right lockpick for that lock at that time, used by that person.

Our lockpick sets came with “hooks,” which looked as described, in which one pin at a time could be nudged in place.¬† They also came with “rakes,” which look like tiny key sections with triangle-shaped teeth that can be raked across the pins so that more than one pin nudges into place at a time.¬† There were some other tools, too, like a tiny set of tweezers for repairing and resetting pins after you’ve pulled a lock completely apart, and a fish-hook-shaped one that was for digging out busted pieces of key or lockpick.

“All right,” the teacher said.¬† “Now let’s work on opening our locks.”

Step 1: Insert the tension bar into the practice lock.¬† The plug in a pin lock turns clockwise only!¬† I’m left-handed, so this caused me issues at first, since the way I was holding it gave a counter-clockwise turn.¬† Delicately insert the short piece of the tension bar into the keyhole.¬† Turn it clockwise (lockwise?).¬† Gently.¬†¬†GENTLY.¬†¬†You will almost certainly turn it too hard at first.

Step 2.¬† Insert one of the rakes, preferably one with two or three top triangles. If you feel resistance to doing so, it’s because you’re turning the tension bar too damn hard.¬† What did I just tell you?¬† Don’t turn it so hard!

Step 3.  Move the rake back and forth so you can see the pins moving around in the practice lock.

  • If the pins aren’t moving at all, then you’re not touching the pins with the rake.
  • If the pins rise and fall, you are turning the tension bar the wrong way.
  • If the pins rise but do not fall, great!
  • If the pins rise so that you can see both pins, they’re up too far.¬† Release the tension bar and go “damn it!” as the pins drop back down.¬† You have to be patient about this.¬† Do not become so annoyed by this that you put too much tension on the tension bar.¬† Tension is not the answer here.
  • What did I tell you about that tension bar?!?
  • When the space between the two pins lines up with the plug on all the pins, victory!¬† You should feel the lock kind of give in your hand.¬† Increase the tension on the tension bar (finally), and the plug should turn inside the lock.
  • Congratulations!¬† You just spent like 45 minutes opening your first lock!
  • Now do it again!
  • Optional:¬† If your pick is sticking on the pins, you can give the pick a bit of a rub with the old sandpaper to smooth the points out juuuust a smidge.

Seriously, once I had the clockwise thing figured out, it only took about ten minutes.¬† (Your mileage may vary.)¬† But I wouldn’t expect to be able to pick up a practice lock and magically all better it in ten seconds.¬† There’s a real “feel” to it that you can’t know before you know it, which is annoying to try to explain.¬† (When I came home that night, I tried to explain it to Lee and Ray and failed miserably.) It takes time and intelligent trial and error.

The set we had was fairly cheap; a good site for quality premade lockpicks is Sparrow.  You can make your own tension bars from the metal strip on a windshield wiper and probably should.  You can also cut your own lockpicks using a template and a Dremel.

Some other notes:

  • Zipping is a lockpicking technique where you use a diamond (one point) rake by sticking it all the way in and pulling it out in a steady motion across the pins.
  • Rocking is a lockpicking technique where you use a city rake (it looks like a toothy skyline) to gently rock against the pins until the magic happens.
  • Single pin picking is where you use a hook to nudge one pin at a time, for more fussy locks, such as ones that have a…
  • A security pin, which is a pin specially build to jam into place if you screw around with it too much, causing you to have to constantly start over.¬† There are other tricks to annoy you on more sophisticated locks as well.
  • If it’s not a pin lock with one side of uneven teeth on the key, then it’s probably either harder or impossible to pick with a standard lockpicking set, and you’ll need more tools.¬† See the r/lockpicking subreddit.
  • The Victorian type locks are lever locks, and require different tools and techniques.
  • You can get a lot of vintage and uncommon locks at ReStore (locally, the Highlands Ranch one is especially good).
  • Check YouTube for helpful videos.
  • Hacker conventions almost always have a locksport alley, because people who love security…love all types of security.
  • Your new recommended reading list is¬†A Burglar’s Guide to the City¬†by Geoff Manaugh, and¬†The Complete Book of Locks and Locksmithing¬†by Bill Phillips.

I didn’t have any spare locks to practice on until Saturday this week, when I picked some up at a flea market.¬† I have yet to dig into them with the lockpicking set–my first non-clear locks–so I don’t exactly feel like a “real” lockpicker yet.¬† And it really makes me want to find out how to pick Victorian locks of the cheaper sort, the lever locks.¬† But I haven’t dug into that yet, either.

I feel somewhat changed overall, though.¬† Knowing that I can learn how to pick a lock quickly (well…) makes me realize that there are a ton of people out there who a) can do this, and b) will just break down or pry open doors and windows.¬† It’s happened to me before; someone broke into our house in 2015 as we were moving.¬† A prybar to the door with the real estate agent’s lockbox on it, and they instantly achieved free rent + everything we still had in the shed in the back.

Security is an illusion.¬† “Locks are to keep honest people honest,” as Mr. Jensen kept saying.

True.  It feels weird to be on the other side of that equation now, though.

Free Wonderland Press book here. Enjoy this post?  Sign up for the newsletter.

 

 

Page 1 of 279

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén