Monday, February 15, 2010

Save our Semicolons

I read somewhere that we don’t need the semicolon in fiction. The semicolon is a has-been, a left-over of the nineteenth century. Only gets in the way. Readers can’t hack it, it disrupts their race to the end. Editors don’t like it because writers don’t know how to use it.

But what if we don’t want to read to the pace of the average cops and robbers tale? If we don’t want to write the increasingly choppy rhythms of shorter and shorter sentences? This because most people seem to think that the semicolon can very well be replaced with a full stop. There can’t be just action action action. We also need the rhythms of a long lazy swell. We can’t have a storm on every page.

My primary informant on this issue is the Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers, published in 1966, republished in 1992. The argument will probably be that the language has changed, and that we’ve moved on. Here we are already in 2010. Get used to it. Nevertheless …

'6.24 The semicolon separates parts of a sentence that require a stronger break than that marked by the comma but are too closely related to be broken into separate sentences. For example: ‘The past is a different country; they do things differently there.’

Broken into two separate sentences it looks like this: ‘The past is a different country. They do things differently there.’ Separated by a comma, like this: ‘The past is a different country, they do things differently there.’

Both versions lose meaning. The first version ignores the way in which the two metaphors refer differently to the same idea, the past. The second sentence can’t stand on its own, and most editors would cut it. To take the two clauses separated by a comma, this construction makes me feel there are a couple of words missing. When I add them in, there are too many. I might even rethink it, ‘They do things differently in the past.’ Making it an ordinary workaday sentence, having lost the poetry and rhythm of the original.

My secondary informants are the novels I have read, in the past as well as more recently. ‘Rees anchored himself and reached down to help them; he tried not to recoil as charred flesh peeled away in his hands.’ Page 11, The Raft by Stephen Baxter. First edition published in 1991. There’s that close relationship that the Style Manual talks about. The second clause expanding on the first. The relationship is that of Rees trying not to recoil as he closes his hands around whoever is being helped. Not the charred flesh being left behind in his hands. A miniscule but important difference.

We’ve all read strings of clauses and phrases, some related closely to each other, but all separated equally by commas, making them difficult to read. You itch to make some notes in the margin to re-arrange the author’s words.

Then there are such wonderful sentences as this, ‘As she turned to enter the hut she bent her head to kiss the child’s hair, which was black; but her own hair, in the flicker of the firelight from the hearth, was fair.’ From the pen of a master craftswoman. Page 176, Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula LeGuin, published in 1968.

Why should we want to do without such exquisite detail because some people think learning to use semicolons, both as readers and writers, is too difficult? Are we saying that such sentences have all already been said, or that we don’t need them anymore, when we say semicolons are passé?

Semicolons can be a wonderful tool in science fiction when an alien action can be related to a known action for a human reader. ‘Yet they did this delicate operation, not with one or two or five fingers at a time, but with ten thousand fingers; they did it by reflex, no more noticing or planning the movement of each tendril then we notice the individual sensations carried by each neuron form our retinas.’ Page 59, The Abyss by Orson Scott Card, published in 1989.

This last example and many more like it, have convinced me there’s a place for semicolons that cannot adequately be filled by full stops and yet more commas.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Non-Fiction: Deep Survival

I had an image here of the book, but Google in its wisdom has disallowed it. 

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales is one of my favourite books and one that I re read yearly. It's a perfect example of how reading can allow speculative fiction writers, with a bit of empathy imagination and plenty of extrapolation to write realistically about being caught by an avalanche on the Moon, being in a ski-ing accident on your nearest icebound planet--Pluto maybe--trouble at sea, perhaps on the methane seas of Venus?

Getting lost in mountains, how to get ready for take-off from an aircraft carrier, wherever you take that one, and the myriad other death defying situations necessary to their stories.

Deep Survival is a good read also because Gonzales is a good writer. Exciting. Fast-paced. Good first sentences, something I've been studying this week. Every action-packed instance is explained clearly and analysed with regard to physical and neurological influences. Why and how people become blind to danger. Why some people don't. Evolution of emotional responses. How people react to fear and much more.

When writers talk about their ten must-have references, I always add this one in for myself.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Novel: The Spell of Rosette

I’ve been very involved this week in The Spell of Rosette by Kim Falconer, a Voyager title published in 2009. Given the title and front cover illustration I was expecting fantasy. Even the back cover blurb does not give the secret away, speaking as it does of witches, spells, a shape-shifting high priestess, wolf-like Lupins and witch familiars such as Drayco the temple cat.

another missing image, Google's doing

It was when I read the prologue that my jaw dropped. JARROD is a sentient quantum computer? What’s a sentient, quantum, computer doing in a fantasy tale? Or is it science fiction? Science fantasy? A new cross-over genre?

Probably all of the above, with fantasy definitely in there too. Very comfortably under the speculative fiction umbrella, I quote from the back cover, Rosette is a child of two worlds: Gaela, steeped in magic, and an Earth choked with failing technology. The key to their survival is literally in her blood, a spell passed down through her family line to preserve the one they’ve sworn to protect.

The indications for a cross genre tale are all there, though not so in-your-face that fantasy readers are scared off. Note how ‘spell’ can refer to magic as we know it as well as mean a formula for action by a computer.

Is this a tale for hard sf readers? I hope so. Though the science is still theoretical, working as it does with the quantum theories Einstein wouldn’t consider. Readers in the vast middle of the science fiction/fantasy spectrum? Definitely. I recommend it to you. Let me know if you enjoy it?

There are also Kim Falconer’s sites where she explains her theories, supporting them with many references.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Inventing the World

The anthropological take on making a story resonates for me. As well as creating our own stories we do it in groups and families and tribes. We superimpose a grid of common knowledge and understanding on a landscape. In the far past we did this to enable our survival. It’s how, anthropologists tell us, early humans travelled the world – by making it part of their story as they traveled over it.

Now we do it because it’s in our genes. How often have you been told the way to somewhere like this? “Cross the street where Aunty Viva broke her leg. Watch out because cars don’t like stopping there.” In the past this kind of knowledge was told and retold. It became myths and legends. It became the instructions to get to the next waterhole.


Back at the story in the making - still no title - Evan swallows down his breakfast convulsively. It wanted to come up when he saw the eye of a string again, even more lurid than the previous day.  After all, as garbage-boy in his first job, he had to deal with far worse than a putrescent eye hanging from a dried blood-black tentacle …

This is where for the writer, the thing becomes more like an adventure game than a story. Decisions have to be made. Does Evan pull out a mobile and call the police?

No. He imagines how he’ll hardly get to say his socially conscientious piece into the TV News mike before the presenter strolls to where that photogenic ambo picks the offending object off the street. The para-med folds the wrist of his plastic glove over the eye cradled on his fingers. “Not enough of it for me to do anything but hand it over to pathology,” he says into the mike, staring intently at the presenter at the same time. He’s handsome in a rugged unshaven sort of way. The presenter half turns and smiles at him over her shoulder. “What are you doing after work?” The age-old come-on sign.

Evan’s Mr Average demeanour matches his Mr Average height weight and haircut. Plus, while he can imagine that kind of opportunity as well as anybody, he just doesn’t see them in real life. And plus he knows the presenter is totally out of his class. He doesn’t make enough money to say boo to a cat in case it follows him home and expects to be fed.

My second problem is how many times can I have Evan have the same experience before he moves the plot along before you guys reject him? Evan needs repetition, he isn’t that fast off the starting block. In Western Culture three repetitions is standard. Think The Three Blind Mice. Tom Thumb. Cinderella. Better stick with what Evan is familiar with.

He hunkered down for a close look. He wasn’t that old that his joints cracked on the way down. Anyway he practices hunkering. Is aiming for a fluid move to be able to join the sous-chefs hunkering down out the back of the kitchens for their breaks.

I know, I know. Extraneous detail. I probably don’t need to tell you about the sous-chefs. But, hey, it’s the first draft. Let the detail alone for the present. I’m still in doubt as to where I’m going with it.

This is not to say I’m writing this about-story after the fact. Only that I know my process well enough that I arrange for there to be a little stuff to cut second time round.

The eye did it all again. Evan could’ve stopped it but typically didn’t want it in his bare hand. He sensed someone stopping at his shoulder and put his left arm out to stop whoever it was from stomping on the eye. By the time the eye plopped down the tool hole, the person was gone. Evan suspected him to have been one of the local gang.

Meanwhile I’m agonising over the ending. I wrote down the idea and its unfolding beauty forgetting for a minute that stories need their crises and pay-offs to work towards.

Trouble is I still haven’t made up my mind as to who is pulling the string. And is the eye human or alien? There’s a choice of a mute and/or distressed and/or crazy human trying to get attention to himself to be rescued. Or a goblin, hungry again. Which one will give me the most mileage? … Guess I’ll go with ‘the eye is human’ angle.

Evan took home a roasting fork from work. He had a plan. He’d noticed that this morning he wasn’t quite as revolted as the previous day. A case of desensitisation, maybe. The movies he watched till bedtime were to help with that process.

Next morning, Evan elastic-banded the roasting fork to his right forearm, under his jacket sleeve. He clasped the two tines loosely in his hand as he didn’t want them to catch on anything until the time. He practiced his intended move a couple of times then worked a plastic kitchen glove over his left hand.

Evan stepped out the door into the river of humanity streaming towards the city. He did not notice the Jackal gang, though he knew them well, jostling through the crowd on point duty. Jack, their leader trotted at Evan’s heels like a well-mannered minion.

Evan concentrated his mind on his coming actions, playing them over and over. He intended this time not to muff his moves.

Why did I bring in the gang?

Because Evan was always going to be a wimp. He brought a roasting fork, for heaven’s sake! The boy at his shoulder was the risk taker. He’d noticed Evan’s antics the first day. Was there behind him the second and brought a crow bar for the third.

Evan almost ran to his doom. He walked marathon walker style. Wanting to get there quicker but not wanting to be seen to be running. People would notice and then he’d have a crowd to deal with as well. A crowd would only, well, crowd him. He hated having his elbows constrained.

When as a kid he’d played the wallet-on-a-string trick the second punter along put his foot on the string and had taken the wallet. Which was Evan’s mother’s best leather wallet, thankfully with nothing in it. Plus Evan didn’t fancy feeling the eye’s tentacles slippery under his foot. Therefore the roasting fork.

Evan practiced living in the moment. Which did wonders for his stress levels. He was the living proof because as dishwasher and pot scrubber he was at the bottom of the pecking order, and look at him, he was cool about a weird thing such as an eye on a string! It meant, unfortunately, that he wasn’t one for thinking too far ahead.

All he wanted was a close look. See if it was real. Then he’d decide what to do.

Jack, shadowing Evan, made sure his shadow was behind him as he followed Evan. He prided himself that when he peered over Evan’s shoulder yesterday down into the grating’s shadows, he hadn’t shown his shock. …

Whatever it was. I haven’t got that far yet. When I’ve worked out the action scene I’ll have a better idea what or who the boys will be up against…