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 🙂

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?

Abandonment

When I was growing up, I loved visiting abandoned places.

I grew up on a farm in the 1980s.  Haunted houses, old trash landfills in gullies, rusting farm equipment, and half-collapsed buildings were a major part of my landscape.  My world seemed ancient and nostalgic, as if I lived in an actual post-apocalyptic society that had rebuilt itself to become modern times.  I was surrounded by the detritus of the Great Depression era, which devastated the area where I grew up.  The aftermath seemed almost magical.

But the thing that never connected was that abandoned places had once been not abandoned.  I couldn’t conceive of it as a child, not really.  Places were only abandoned in the past, which was a foreign country.  Not now.  Everything that existed now would last forever.

Now that I’m older, I can see abandonment in progress.

It’s strange; it feels like time and space are being twisted, that something is just plain wrong about such places.

Take, for example, a tourist attraction from my youth:  the Marine Life Aquarium of Rapid City, South Dakota.  It wasn’t big, it wasn’t impressive, but I knew it well.  My family would travel to the Black Hills every year for a summer vacation.  We must have gone to the aquarium a dozen times.  I had friends in college who worked there over their summer vacations.  One of my friends got to work directly in the dolphin tanks.  He had such a dense physique that he could walk along the bottoms of the tanks with them, without floating.  If I remember correctly, he said once that it was as peaceful as being dead.

There were trained seals, trained dolphins, all sorts of tanks for fish, murals painted everywhere.  Trainers would feed porpoises raw fish from their mouths.  I thought it was miraculous.

And now it’s gone.

There are other attractions from my childhood which have survived, of course.  Storybook Island is a free children’s amusement park with everything from live puppet theater to Noah’s Ark.  Giant dinosaur statues watch over the town from Dinosaur Hill (built in 1936 by the WPA), Flintstones Bedrock City in Custer is still there, and so are all the caves.  Even Reptile Gardens is carrying on.  (Sadly, Methuselah, a tortoise born in 1881 on the Galapagos Islands, passed away in 2011.)

But, when I first drove past the area after it closed, there was nothing in the place where the Marine Life Aquarium used to be.  It closed in 1997.  I don’t remember what year I first drove past.  I don’t actually want to remember.  In fact, I make a point not to look, if I’m in the area.

And as far as I can tell from Google Maps, there’s still nothing there:  just bare ground.

Since the aquarium closed, I’ve heard all kinds of creepy stories about how bad it was for the animals.  I wouldn’t have believed it at the time, but now I’m not so sure.

It’s hard to feel nostalgic, exactly.

There’s nothing left to feel nostalgic about.  No ruined buildings, no cement pools, no bleachers, no half-standing tents, no rusting metal, no peeling paint.

And yet:  that place along the side of the road is not a normal place.

Someday, someone will build there again, and I will still not go there, no matter how tempting.  That place along the road just feels wrong.

Part of me wants to go:  oh, that’s because it’s haunted.  I want to start coming up with stories about how someone died there in an accident, or it’s the tortured souls of the marine mammals who once swam there, or something.  That’s usually how a ghost story goes, right?

But I can’t find any legends about how the old site is haunted.  If there had been anything left for people to go, “There, that’s where the ghosts of the dolphins still swim,” then maybe there would be.  But it’s just a bare spot on the ground, so truly abandoned that it doesn’t even have a street number anymore.

It’s like the place itself doesn’t even exist, it never existed.  It’s not a haunted place so much as one that got erased.

It’s a strange thing to have seen a place disappear like that.  As a writer, I think, This must happen to everyone, eventually.  I’ve known people who have died; I’ve grown apart from other people, knowing that I’ll probably never see them again; I’ve had the strange sensation of still being “friends” with dead people on social media.  I’ve seen places where I used to live change slowly, in a succession of snapshots as I drive through, becoming somewhere else.

But this seems different.

I’ve read stories where people talk about how this or that city seems to have a personality and life of its own; one of my favorites is by Neil Gaiman and Alec Stephens, called “A Tale of Two Cities,” about a man who wanders the streets of his favorite city until he accidentally steps into the city’s dreams, and begins to fear what will happen if the cities awaken.

As a farm kid, I’ve never had trouble with the idea that cities are alive and might do something to you that gets you so lost that you never find your way back home again.  Of course cities will do that!  The first time I went to the Twin Cities I was terrified.  (Fortunately, someone else was driving.)  Tales about haunted bookshops and antique stores that have exactly what you need but that you can never find again—oh, yes.  That is what it feels like, to go to a strange new city.  I understand that.

But what about this other thing, where an abandoned place just disappears as though it never existed?

Does the city remember that place in its dreams?

Or do we forget it, because the city itself can’t remember?

…

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

 

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, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m 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—but, 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—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with 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—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it—I paused to think—what 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—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon 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—but, 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—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with 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—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it—I paused to think—what 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—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon 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, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m 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—but, 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—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with 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—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil.

5. (29 words – 4 punct.) There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an 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—I paused to think—what 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 – 5 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—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon 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—but, 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—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with 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—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil.

Bare minimum:

Just depressing.

Fifth sentence:

There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an 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—I paused to think—what 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—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon 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!

 

 

 

 

The Learned Something New Blues

Side note – I’m trying to write more articles for readers (instead of or in addition to helping writers get better at their craft).  Normally, the advice that writers get on “what to blog about” is to write about the same thing that you’re researching for your current works in progress.

Right now, I’m working on a story about a cat who travels dreams.  So what do I write about?  Cats?  Dreams?

I sat down this morning and went, “Well, what do people who read my stories actually find interesting?  They like cats and dreams, sure, but is that what I’m really writing about?  Is those the kinds of articles that I’m passionate about reading?”

Eh…no.

If you look over at my Facebook feed, what you’ll see me reposting are:

  • Posts about people discovering that they were wrong about something.
  • Posts that dig deeper into a commonly held narrative, to find something not commonly repeated.
  • Psychology and mental health stuff.
  • Pop-culture jokes, memes, and puns, but usually the second-generation ones that are a little meta.
  • Gothy art.
  • Snark.

I like the idea of writing about the things I actually like, not the things I research so I can write about the things that I acutally like.  I think I’ll go with that kind of thing as my “for the reader” posts.  It’s an experiment 🙂

Today, I’d like to talk about learning new things.  It’s hard.

I have had this discussion before; often, when I say that “learning new things is hard,” there will be that one person who bravely makes the stand that learning new things is not hard.  That person will often lash out at me personally, either within the same conversation or (and this has happened more than once) on via some other post or even a private message to tell me what a terrible person I am.

There is a psychological term for learning new things being hard; it’s called “cognitive dissonance.”  The definition is actually is that cognitive dissonance is when a person holds two contradictory beliefs, values, or emotions.  But one of those beliefs is held before the other one.  Ergo, cognitive dissonance is the discomfort of learning something new.

So, to repeat my previous statement: learning new things is hard.

I don’t believe pretending otherwise makes learning any easier, although doing so literally is one of the techniques for reducing cognitive dissonance: pretending that the new belief doesn’t actually come in conflict with the others you hold.  I have a suspicion that the people who lash out at me for saying “learning new things is hard” are using this technique.  “Learning things is not so hard!  Therefore I don’t have anything to fear!  How dare you tell anyone otherwise!  It’s discouraging!”

Well, okay. That’s one coping technique.

The rest of us cope with the difficulty of learning new things by:

  • Avoiding learning new things.
  • Overestimating how difficult learning new things will be (if something is impossible or takes too long, you don’t even need to try!).
  • Learning new things “at any cost,” and then not being prepared for the actual cost.
  • Start learning the new thing, then quitting as soon as learning triggers difficulty or cognitive dissonance.
  • Becoming angry at the new thing, mocking it, devaluing it, “I didn’t want to do that anyway, it was stupid.”

We have a lot of mental tricks to help us avoid learning anything truly new.

What’s a healthier, more effective way forward?  It’s going to vary from person to person, obviously, but here are some strategies:

  • Set priorities.  How important is learning to you in general?  How important is it to you that particular day?
  • Admit that learning something truly new is hard on every level, and treat yourself as though you are having a bout of physical illness and/or depression.  The mind can get melodramatic about this.
  • Limit your focus to one truly new thing at a time.
  • Accept that other elements of your life that require willpower to accomplish will slide on especially difficult learning days.
  • Acknowledge negative self-talk (“I suck!!!”), and remind yourself that it’s likely part of how hard learning really is.
  • Acknowledge arrogant self-talk (“This is stupid!”), and remind yourself that it’s a defense mechanism against feeling like you suck.
  • Be ready for an especially bad negative reaction on days when you get feedback.  Even positive feedback can be shattering.

Learning something truly new at some level involves changing how we think about ourselves, even changing our identity.  If you take a class on learning how to cook like a chef, for example, there’s part of your brain that goes, “I am supposed to be as good as a professional chef.”  That can be painful on days when you screw up a meal; that can also be painful on days when you make the best meal ever and you’re like, “Why am I not as famous as that one TV Chef?  I’m just as good.  Maybe even better.”  If you are a chef, the mental consequences can be even worse–because it’s your livelihood at stake.

There is some good news, though.  Once your identity has recovered from the hit that learning something new delivers, the learning gets easier.  It’s like taking that chef class and telling yourself, “Okay, at first I sucked at this, but then I got better, and now when I screw up, I know how to fix or disguise that.  I’ll know that I’m not perfect, but nobody else will.”

The best thing, I think, is to identify the way in which the new thing is making you question yourself, and address whether you want to change that about yourself–or not.

Do you really want to be a chef?

Yes?  Okay, then.

No?

Sometimes we start on something new, not knowing that it’s going to take us to a place we don’t actually want to go.  (“I don’t care how much better of a chef it would make me, I just don’t care about food costs.”)

Sometimes we just want to obsess over the easy early part of learning something and move on to the next relatively easy thing–sometimes we just want learning to be easy, a kind of distraction from the real stress of the day.  And that’s fine, too.  As the saying goes, “Jack of all trades, master of none–but oftentimes better than master of one.”  It’s no bad thing to know how to make homemade mayo, even if you’re never going to be a professional chef.

Sometimes learning gets to be easy and fun.

But other times it’s hard.  New jobs, new tasks, new expectations, new attitudes.  Admitting that you’re struggling won’t defeat you.  But pretending that it’s either always impossible or always easy–that just might.

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

 

 

 

How to Study Fiction, Part 21: 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, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

Today, in “Let’s pull The Fall of the House of Usher to pieces,” we’re going to work on sentences.

  • 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)?

Last time, we discovered the Poe uses a lot of different, medium-length words, but none are super-long or complex (which wasn’t what I’d expected, personally).

I’m expecting a lot of super-long, super-complex sentences.

You can find a link to the Project Gutenberg version of The Fall of the House of Usher here.

I’m going to use the first paragraph as our example again, but I’m doing to insert  a line break after every sentence.  “Punct.” is short for punctuation marks; I’m not counting apostrophes and hyphens.

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—but, 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—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with 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—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil.

5. (29 words – 4 punct.) There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an 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—I paused to think—what 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 – 5 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—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

That first paragraph is 403 words, 9 sentences, or about 45 words per sentence.  I used to be a technical writer and editor.  Our sentence-length guideline was to stay at 20 words or fewer; 20 words was considered a long sentence at the outside edge of what a reader could pay attention to without losing the train of thought.

It would be easy to accuse people of being poorer readers or just less intelligent in general these days.  Let’s not.  There are plenty of texts from the same time period that have long sentences and which make my head hurt, and I’ve studied philosophy from that era with relative ease.  Something about how Poe wrote made his long sentences easy to read.  Not as easy as a short sentence, but easy enough.

First, let’s take the lengths of the sentences:  they vary.  The longest sentences are separated from each other as well.  So it’s not a constant stream of super-long sentences.  No, it’s super-long sentences interrupted by merely long ones 🙂

Next, let’s look at how much punctuation there is, as being an indication of how complex a sentence is.  The longer sentences have more punctuation.  There are 55 punctuation marks (not including apostrophes and hyphens), or about 6 marks per sentence.

Here’s what I did on the paragraphs above, from “That first paragraph…” to “…about 6 marks per sentence”:

  • 212 words total.
  • 4 paragraphs, or about 50 words a paragraph.
  • 15 sentences, or about 14 words a sentence (the longest is 36 words; shortest, 2).
  • 28 punctuation marks, or about 2 per sentence.

I would consider my ordinary blogging style pretty complex, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Poe.

Please note that in the last paragraph of the original tale, while the narrator is staring into a tarn (a small mountain lake) and looking at the reflection of the House of Usher, he stops to say, “I reflected,” because apparently Poe couldn’t leave a good pun alone.

In the above paragraph, from “Please note…” to “…couldn’t leave a good pun alone,” there is one sentence of 48 words.  There are 9 punctuation marks, much higher than for my natural writing style.  And yet it’s not impossible to read.

  • My best guess here is that Poe used a lot of punctuation marks to help keep his sentences readable.
  • My best guess, which unfortunately may not be accurate, is that Poe’s punctuation marks, much like the sections of a plastic pillbox, helped keep his words organized.

In modern times, we tend to use shorter sentences with less punctuation.  Because we’re more direct?  Or because we tend to break down more complex sentences, starting with the same words we would have used, had we packed everything into a single sentence?

Maybe punctuation density is important!  Poe’s, for that first paragraph, is ~7 words per punctuation mark. Mine, for my more natural writing selection, is about one per 10 words.  Maybe Poe’s denser punctuation makes his long sentences easier to read–and it’s punctuation density, not sentence length, that we should be measuring.

(If I haven’t recommended it lately, a lot of the discussion here points back to what I learned in Joseph M. Williams’s Style: Toward Clarity and Grace.  Why is one writer’s style different than another’s? Why choose one pattern of writing over another?  The book has the answers.)

To conclude, Poe’s sentences are super-long and super-complex, as anticipated.  But they’re written with sufficient clarity to still be readable today.  This may be due to his skillful use of punctuation.

Next time:  Content vs. pacing in sentences.  Why are some of those sentences longer than others?  And why are they placed in the order they are?

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

 

 

How to Study Fiction, Part 20: 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, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

So let’s start breaking down “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  Please note that I realize that you didn’t actually type it in, despite all the times that I’ve advised you to do so.  This series of increasingly-complex posts is at least partially about convincing you to try!

As beginning writers, we tend to accept writing advice from an actual, working writer (or even just someone who speaks with authority) as being from on high, not to be questioned.

As intermediate writers, that’s a big no-no.  A lot of good writing advice will not work for you.  If you listen to it, it can wreck your career.  You can find out whether it’s good or not by testing the advice in your own writing, or testing the advice against the work of writers you love.

If you think typing stuff in is laborious…it is.  But it’s less laborious than trying to write several novels using someone’s technique to see if it works for you.

Maybe that should be a side note: of all the things that you can do to support your career long-term, listening to other people’s advice without questioning and testing it isn’t it.  Critique group giving you advice that doesn’t make sense?  Type in some of your favorite writers’ work and see whether that advice applies to what you want to write.  If it doesn’t, that advice may not be for you.

Let’s go down the list from last week on basic-level analysis:

  • How long are the words?  What level of vocabulary are we talking here?

Here’s the first paragraph:

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—but, 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—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with 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—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it—I paused to think—what 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—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

In order to study the lengths of the words here and what kind of vocabulary that Poe uses, you could use one of several different techniques.  You might make a general impression after typing in a passage.  Or you might run the paragraph through an analysis program that counts word lengths and how many unique words there are.

For this example, I’m going to go with a middle route.  Here, I removed the words that make the sentence make sense–words mostly there for grammar purposes.  We need those words to help analyze the sentence structure, but, because they’re pretty common to every sentence, we don’t need to look at them as indicators of vocabulary. For example, “the” isn’t the world’s most exciting vocabulary word, and it doesn’t tell us much at this level.  Let’s leave it out.

So, removing the “grammar” words that stick the sentences together but have no real personality of their own, we’re left with the following:

whole dull dark soundless day autumn year clouds hung oppressively low heavens passing alone horseback singularly dreary tract country length found shades  evening drew view melancholy house Usher know first glimpse building sense insufferable gloom pervaded spirit feeling unrelieved half pleasurable poetic sentiment mind receives sternest natural images desolate terrible scene mere simple landscape features domain bleak walls vacant eye windows rank sedges white trunks decayed trees utter depression soul compare earthly sensation properly dream reveller opium bitter lapse life hideous dropping veil iciness sinking sickening heart unredeemed dreariness thought goading imagination torture sublime paused think unnerved contemplation mystery insoluble grapple shadowy fancies crowded pondered forced fall unsatisfactory conclusion doubt combinations simple natural objects power affecting analysis lies considerations depth possible  reflected mere different arrangement particulars scene details picture sufficient modify annihilate capacity sorrowful impression acting idea reined horse precipitous brink black lurid tarn lay unruffled lustre dwelling gazed shudder thrilling remodelled inverted images gray sedge ghastly stems

I tried to remove duplicate words, but I may have missed a few.

When I thought about Poe’s writing before typing it in or analyzing it, I would have guessed that he used big vocabulary words to the point of being confusing and annoying.  I had this impression of Poe as pretentious.

When I looked at the actual words he used, however, I found that, while the vocabulary he used wasn’t simple, none of the words he used were so sesquipidalian as to be frustrating to read.  My impression is that the vocabulary is in line with Gothic novels of that era.  Another impression is that Poe uses polysyllabic words because they sound right.

I’m going to call this a medium to medium-high vocabulary, thoughtfully used.

  • Can you hear an “accent” to the words that place the narrator’s background?

The narrator seems like a generic “Gothic” narrator, a fellow from some anonymous but well-bred place in Britain.  Poe was from the United States.  I suspect Poe removed as many U.S.-sounding regionalisms as he could, but didn’t really understand U.K. accents.  He may have also “aged” the language a little to make the 1840 story sound like it happened even earlier.

Jane Austen was writing satires of Gothic novels in 1816, with the original Gothic The Castle of Otranto being written in the 1700s and purporting to be a “discovered” manuscript from the 1500s.  Trying to sound old-fashioned and mysterious was an accepted mode of writing, one that readers liked.

Another side note: What you notice will differ.  That’s just part of your fingerprint as a writer.  What you notice about a work reflects the way you see the world and how you write about it.  Don’t take my word for what’s in Poe’s work:  it should be different for you.  Your high school English teacher may have been authoratative about what books meant, but I’m not!  This example of analysis is more to show you that you can connect your subconscious to your conscious understanding of a story, and of writing in general, than to tell you what to do.

In addition, please note that you do not need to follow the same process every time:  when you type things in, you do not need to analyze the individual words.  When you feel confident that you have a feel for the kinds of words that an author is using, then you can stop thinking about the individual words–until you find an author who uses words in a way that doesn’t make sense. Then take a deeper look.

Next time, more on sentence analysis.

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

 

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