Category: Uncategorized (Page 1 of 279)

New Release: The King of Cats (Defenders of Dream #3)

The King of Cats (Defenders of Dream #3)

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Whose friendship matters most in the land of dreams?

Ferntail the cat and his friends have been summoned to the capital of dreams. Why? No one explained, but it seemed foolish to decline. Perhaps the King of Cats would like to recognize them for their brave and valiant deeds.

Or perhaps the King of Cats needs their help.

The nearby Kingdom of Mice has been overthrown, and suspicions abound. Who is undermining the land of dreams?

Only Ferntail can find out.

A Defenders of Dream story:

The Society of Secret Cats
The Nightmare House
King of Cats

New Release: Cat Tales Issue #4

Cat Tales Issue #4

Universal Book Link | Goodreads (reviews)

Featuring my short story “The Nightmare House.”

Nine of the wildest and weirdest cat stories that you have ever come across. Fantasy, mystery and true-to-life tales of cat wonder. You will laugh, you will cry, and your cat will wonder if it is time to put you down and call you breakfast.

“The problem with cats is that they get the same exact look whether they see a moth or an ax-murderer.” – Paula Poundstone

“After scolding one’s cat one looks into its face and is seized by the ugly suspicion that it understood every word. And has filed it for reference.” – Charlotte Gray

“Cats are intended to teach us that not everything in nature has a purpose.” – Garrison Keillor

“A cat will purr when it is angry, or happy, or sad – and you will NEVER freaking know the difference – until it is too freaking late.” – Steve Vernon

How to Study Fiction, Part 24: 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.

Last week (figuratively speaking) on “The Fall of the House of Usher,” we worked on the first paragraph and why it might be the length that it is.  If you haven’t read that one, you should probably check it out.

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

So what are the rest of the paragraphs like?

This is the entire text of “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  I copied it out of Project Gutenberg, cut off the disclaimers and whatnot, and reformatted it a little so the paragraphs had white space between them to make their lengths more obvious. You should be able to click on the image and pull up a larger version.  The text goes from left to right on the top row, then to the bottom row.

What I hope you can see, at a glance, is that the paragraphs here are long.

LOOOONG.

Also, you can kind of see that there’s only one big section to the story, although there’s a poem in the middle of it.

Just from the layout above, we know:

  • Long paragraphs are long.  (As it happens, the first paragraph is the longest by like 28 words.)
  • There’s only one even remotely short paragraph, at 52 words long.
  • This is a short story that occurs in one section, more or less, although it may or may not be divided into different scenes connected by transitions.  When you go to look at the content, look for what ties this all together.
  • The center of this story is the poem.  Literally.
  • The two set-apart quotes, at the beginning and two-thirds of the way through the story, may be more important than they at first appear (they may appear to have been randomly placed, but they’re the only structural elements, along with the poem, to interrupt the lengthy series of paragraphs).

What we’re looking for are things that make themselves visually apparent, either because they stand out in and of themselves, or because they form patterns.

You might say that Poe wrote in long paragraphs because of the requirements of his day, in which the goal was to pack as many words onto a page as possible.  (I have no idea whether this is true, but let’s say it is.)  Thus, the lengths of the paragraphs would have no specific meaning, and, if he were writing the same story today, he would have paragraphed it differently.

Which is entirely possible.

However, as most poets know, the form in which one writes affects the contents of what one writes.  A pop song is not an aria; a haiku is not a sonnet.

Fiction in which one must pack as much text as possible onto a page is not text in which you’re getting paid by the line.  The content will prove to be somewhat different:  a tale in which it is encouraged to have long, smooth, almost lulling paragraphs will be more slowly paced than a tale in which short, staccato paragraphs are the norm.  A slowly paced story will have different content than a fast-paced one, just as a historical drama like The Remains of the Day will be paced differently, and have different content, than John Wick.

A good author suits their content to their form, and their form to their content.  If it works out better to have long paragraphs, then a good writer will write the best slow-paced story they can produce.  (An inexperienced writer may try to force a fast-paced story into long paragraphs, and may or may not succeed.)

So what we’re looking at in Usher is a relatively short piece with long paragraphs and therefore slow pacing.  The paragraphs tend to stay in the same pattern of long paragraph followed by long paragraph–giving the piece a hypnotic feel.  You’ll often see a writer interrupt long paragraphs by one- or two-line short paragraphs to keep the reader from getting fully lulled.

Like this.

Then, in the middle of the story, is something completely different, the poem, called “The Haunted Palace.” (I pulled the numbers out; they’re distracting.)

In the greenest of our valleys
By good angels tenanted,
Once a fair and stately palace—
Radiant palace—reared its head.
In the monarch Thought’s dominion,
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair!
Banners yellow, glorious, golden,
On its roof did float and flow
(This—all this—was in the olden
Time long ago)
And every gentle air that dallied,
In that sweet day,
Along the ramparts plumed and pallid,
A wingèd odor went away.
Wanderers in that happy valley,
Through two luminous windows, saw
Spirits moving musically
To a lute’s well-tunèd law,
Round about a throne where, sitting,
Porphyrogene!
In state his glory well befitting,
The ruler of the realm was seen.
And all with pearl and ruby glowing
Was the fair palace door,
Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing
And sparkling evermore,
A troop of Echoes, whose sweet duty
Was but to sing,
In voices of surpassing beauty,
The wit and wisdom of their king.
But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch’s high estate;
(Ah, let us mourn!—for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him, desolate!)
And round about his home the glory
That blushed and bloomed
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.
And travellers, now, within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms that move fantastically
To a discordant melody;
While, like a ghastly rapid river,
Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever,
And laugh—but smile no more.

Why?

Here are the other elements that stand out:

The short paragraph:

“And you have not seen it?” he said abruptly, after having stared about him for some moments in silence—“you have not then seen it?—but, stay! you shall.” Thus speaking, and having carefully shaded his lamp, he hurried to one of the casements, and threw it freely open to the storm.

The first quote (at the beginning of the story):

Son cœur est un luth suspendu;
Sitôt qu’on le touche il résonne.

Which translates to:

Their heart is a poised lute;
as soon as it is touched, it resounds.

The second quote:

Who entereth herein, a conqueror hath bin;
Who slayeth the dragon, the shield he shall win.

Why?

Next time, I want to talk about the content of the poem and the two quotes (and the story that goes with the second quote), and why they are formatted differently.  Poe could have written a story without a poem at its heart, no quotes, and no shorter paragraph.

Why didn’t he?

The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Heraldhere!

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)

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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)

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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, “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 Talesrecorded 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-Heraldhere!

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

 

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, “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 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!

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