26 February 2010

Punctuation point: comma use in reasoning and consequences

In my last post, I had the following two sentences in succession:

(i) And this is where I grumble about droughts that necessitate four minute showers, because I used to do some of my best thinking in the shower.

(ii) These days epiphanies are fewer because I'm under the water a lot less.

When I'm reading over my blog posts (which, I'm rather ashamed to say I don't always do), I'm reading as an editor and thinking about my grammar and punctuation. So when I got to these two lines, I noticed that I had a comma before "because" in the first, and no comma before "because" in the second. A flag went up in my head because both sentences were similar, yet punctuated differently. Was this correct? Yes, it was.

Both sentences begin with a main clause (which expresses the main idea in the sentence) and are followed by a subordinate clause (which cannot stand alone). The first "because" is introducing a clause that explains a consequence of the action in the first clause. In the second, however, it's introducing a clause that shows the reasoning behind the first clause.

This difference is seen more readily when two main clauses are linked together with the word "so". Here's some examples:

Just before five pm, I went to the post office so I could pay my bills. (The reason why I went -- no comma.)
Just before five pm, I went to the post office, so I didn't get to the bank. (The consequence of my going to the post office; this one takes a comma.)

Here's another example:
Mrs Jones's dog has a muzzle so it can't bite. (Why it's wearing the muzzle, the reason she has muzzled it -- no comma.)
Mrs Jones's dog has a muzzle, so it can't bite. (Ah, now it's not why it's wearing the muzzle, but a consequence of its wearing the muzzle -- that comma changes the reading of the sentence.)

I know I'm anal about such things -- that's the editor in me -- but I have to say I love this kind of nuance I can give just by knowing the rules. Of course many readers won't get the fine distinction, but some will. I can't determine exactly how readers will read my writing, but I can make it as clear as possible so that those who can get it will.

25 February 2010

The recalcitrant scene

On and off for the past year or so, I've been wrestling with a difficult scene. It was one that initially caused me writer's block, but then I told myself to get over it -- that if I couldn't write that scene there were plenty more I could write. So I did those instead. But I kept coming back to this one.

At first, I thought it was that I didn't know what my character would do. That surprised me, because it's a character I know well. Eventually, I wrote the scene, but I wasn't happy with it. It didn't feel right, and I couldn't figure out why.

Then one day, in the shower, I had an epiphany. (And this is where I grumble about droughts that necessitate four minute showers, because I used to do some of my best thinking in the shower. These days epiphanies are fewer because I'm under the water a lot less.) The reason the scene wasn't working was that I had my character doing what the plot needed him to do, not what he would really do. I had forced his hand. In my head, where he ended up was where I'd envisaged him ending up right from the start. And the truth is -- he didn't want to go there. That's why I had so much trouble in the first place. It wasn't that I didn't know what he would do -- I did know, but it wasn't what I (or rather the plot) needed him to do.

Okay, easy enough. Scrap the second half of the scene and rewrite it. The more I looked at the scene, though, the more I liked what I had done, the emotional journey he'd gone on, the reasoning he'd used. So I put the scene aside again. I reread it. And reread it.

Then I thought that maybe I could just cut and paste some of the old scene and rewrite a new bit in the middle. I did this and now suspect I've ended up with a mishmash of what the scene had been and what it should be, but I have something I can work on now and refine. I'm excited. I love the refining process. I love writing! I'm going back to it right now.

21 February 2010

Book launch: Solace and grief

Yesterday, Foz Meadows, one of my SuperNOVA writers group, launched her first book Solace and grief. I'm a great believer that we all feed each other as writers, that we all grow from reading each other's work and from critiquing -- not just from the comments that other people make on our stories, but as much from the comments we make on theirs. However, we didn't have any input into this book -- it was written and perhaps even accepted before Foz joined SuperNOVA. (If not accepted, then this followed shortly after, but the book was certainly already with the publisher.) But none of that stopped us coming out in force to help Foz celebrate.

Finishing a draft is a huge thing, so is whipping the book into publishable shape (or finishing the redrafting process) and getting it out there, and having it accepted and published is the hugest of all. Each stage should be celebrated because each is a success. And we should take joy in the success of our peers. One writer whom I was in a workshop with once, both as unpublished novelists, signed a seven-figure deal awhile ago. I'm ecstatic for her. Such success helps all local writers -- it opens doors for all of us.

Every so often I hear of writers, often published and successful writers, who hear of somebody else's success and get their noses put out of joint because they see that as a success they've missed out on. There are many different readers and many different books to meet those differing tastes -- to hear of someone else's success and see it as a loss for you is not only likely misguided but a path to self-destruction. Such small-mindedness harms you.

It astounds me that people are so competitive in this sort of pursuit. You have control over what you do in terms of perseverance, you have control over how much reworking you do, how exacting you are, you have control over whether you research a publisher to make sure you're giving your book the best chance, but you have no control over whether that publisher will take on your work or not -- whether the editor who reads it falls in love with it enough to go out and bat for it. That's what you need -- and it's not easy to find, so rejoice when you find it, and rejoice too when your friends do.

Foz's launch was unusual in that it was the first book launch I've been to where the books weren't actually out yet. Don't get me wrong: they were there. I've been to launches where there were no books because they hadn't come back from the printers, and to launches where there was no author because of illness. But this was the first preemptive book launch I've been to. Anyway, Foz, I hope it's strike is long, hard and successful! I look forward to the launch of the sequel! (And in a side-note, I haven't been able to lay my hands on it for reading yet -- my daughter took one look at it and said, "You must've been reading my mind. I want that book. And she's had her nose in it ever since.)

19 February 2010

Nonfiction reading

I'm not a great nonfiction reader. Actually, I say that thinking about books. Give me a novel any day! But I do read the newspapers (though not every day), and I read Time magazine, and sometimes rail about the Pacific edition being full of US news, especially if there's an election on. I mean, I'm like most writers in that I read whatever is in front of me at the time -- I'll eat my cereal while reading the back of the cereal box if there's nothing else at hand. And it's not that I mind the back of the cereal box as much as that I've read it several times already. All right, more than several.

At the moment, though, I do seem to be on a bit of a nonfic drive. Last year I read Captain James Cook: a biography by Richard Alexander Hough and A short history of the 20th century by Geoffrey Blainey, both books that I enjoyed. I'm currently reading Blainey's A very short history of the world, and then have a book lined up about how the barbarian invasions shaped the world. I've been dipping in and out of other history books -- one a pictorial history of the twentieth century, one about history's greatest hits, and really enjoying the experience. I suppose it's not that unusual for a fantasy writer to be reading history, but this is more recent history than the timeframes I'm writing about.

I'm also marvelling at Avatar: a confidential report on the biological and social history of Pandora (James Cameron's Avatar) by Maria Wilhelm and Dirk Mathison. It's staggering to see how much worldbuilding Cameron did. I suppose it helps to have the kind of resources he has behind him. I can't pay someone to develop a Myrad language the way he was able to do for his Na'vi. On the other hand, I respect that he went to that effort. Not everyone would have. Tolkien did of course. But as I say to my classes, it's the whole tip of the iceberg thing -- that you show your readers the tip of the iceberg, but you have to know the whole thing. (I kinda like that I can include an iceberg reference in the same para I'm talking about Cameron's masterpiece!) You can't do too much worldbuilding. Unless of course that's all you end up doing -- there comes a time when you have to say enough and actually start writing. You can always do more as needed.

The other book I'm dipping in and out of is The art of Avatar: James Cameron's epic adventure by Lisa Fitzpatrick, James Cameron, Peter Jackson and Jon Landau. All right, this one I'm not reading so much from a writerly perspective but because I still can't get enough of Avatar. I was the same with Star Wars. Bought the Art of for that as well. And the script. Hmm, I haven't seen that one on the shelves yet . . .

13 February 2010

Copyright and greed

Let me say first off that I am not a copyright lawyer and don't fully understand all the complexities of copyright law. Working from time to time as a freelance editor, I've come up against copyright issues and have spent some time, therefore, perusing the Copyright Council's wonderful website and reading their free fact sheets, and have once or twice spoken to their lawyers about some of the trickier aspects.

As a writer, I'm a great believer in copyright and the protection it gives me. I think if someone borrows something from someone else, they should get permission and perhaps pay for the privilege. As an editor, I have sometimes sent writers scurrying off for permission, or advised them to remove something that I think is an infringement. They are often astounded that I could think it so -- but it's only two lines of a poem. Yeah, I know, but it's not about quantity: it's about quality. About how much craft went into something. And if that something is a poem or a song, then it might be a lot of craft for a few words.

Copyright protects all of us. It means you can't just take my short story, put your name to it and publish it somewhere else. Think that kind of thing never happens? Think again. It does. (Well, I haven't heard of it with short stories, but I have heard of a poet in the US who fortuitously discovered some of their poems published by someone else; I also know of a rather notorious Australian writer who plagiarised someone else's whole article and put their name to it and got caught out. Astounding, isn't it? Why would you do it?) It also means that you can't take that page I've reworked several times and drop it into your story without my permission. I may choose to grant you permission or I may decline. It's entirely up to me.

Having said that I've also heard of writers who've applied for permission and been asked an astonishing amount of money. Several hundred pounds for the reproduction of a couple of lines, for example. The writer decided not to use them. The owners were within their rights -- but, really, does that sound fair? It sounds somewhat excessive to me.

So, what has set me on this train of thought is the copyright battle that has been playing out in the music industry. Men at Work and their iconic song, and that other iconic Australian song "Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree". I'm not going to comment on whether or not I think there was a case to answer to because my opinion is irrelevant and in any case a judge has made a decision. What I am astounded by (all right, I've used that word already, so let me say appalled by) is the amount of money that the plaintiff's have been demanding. One newspaper reported it as sixty per cent of the profits. Sixty per cent! The more the better, I read that their lawyers had said. Is that attitude really about fairness or about greed? (Yeah, I know. Wake up and face the real world! The real world runs off greed. And some professions seem to embrace it more than others.)

Part of deciding whether copyright has been breached includes an assessment of how much work went into the original -- perhaps part of the consideration of recompense for a breach should include an assessment of what percentage the infringement makes up of the new work it appears in. I'll be waiting with interest to see what amount is awarded. I hope I'm not astonished.

08 February 2010

Currently reading

Short story and poetry entries for the Friends of Newport and Williamstown Library literary competitions. I love seeing the inventiveness of children's writing. It reminds me of the fun we forget to have as adult writers when we're trying hard to be literary or serious. Or even sometimes when we're not. That's what I loved about ... Oops, almost dropped the A-word, and I promised I wouldn't do that!

05 February 2010

Travels in the land of my imagination: the beaches

My characters don't spend a lot of time at the beach, but there are a few beach scenes, all at a place called the Forgotten Beach, which I largely modelled on the beach at Tidal River, Wilson's Promontory, but with whiter sands -- something like Denison Beach, near Bicheno (below). It could otherwise have been the bottom picture, which is on the Southern Ocean. When I was at the prom (in Victoria), I walked part of the beach blindfolded, to see whether it could be done, because one lot of my characters have to walk the Forgotten Beach in almost total darkness. As well as finding out whether it could be done, I wanted to experience their sensory deprivation, to experience the cold mauling on my ankles the way they would, so did this walk late in the evening.

I've always lived near the sea, but on a bay, not the ocean. I know its moods, its scents and sounds. I know the birds that wheel overhead. It's amazing to me when I go somewhere like Squeaky Beach at the prom, or Denison Beach in Tassie, to hear the different sound that the sand makes, that sharp squeak on the ball of my foot. Or to go somewhere like Perissa Beach in Santorini, and feel just how hot black sands get -- quite different to the paler sands I'm used to.

I've never seen a beach with the sand rippled the way it was in the picture taken near Strahan (below). This was an estuary with day-tripping cruise ships moving up and down it, their wakes causing the rippled effect.

Visiting places gives you those telling details that you might not have otherwise imagined. I remember one of the surprises for me was walking on Corfu on a hot day (say 40ish degrees), and the hot wind (which I'll always think of as a north wind, because in Melbourne our hot winds come from the north) bringing the scent of eucalypts -- a startling smell that made me nostalgically homesick. Had I never travelled, I don't think I could have imagined this as something I might smell in Greece. You really do need to get out there.

One day, I'm going to set a novel in Delft in Holland. My father's from Holland, but not from Delft, which is somewhere I haven't been. Yet. But if I do write that novel (have to finish the current and next trilogies first), then I will be going -- going to track down its sounds and scents, its colours and textures, all the things that make it unique.

Honeymoon Bay, Freycinet National Park
Honeymoon Bay, Freycinet
Nine Mile Beach (near Swansea)

Denison Beach (near Bicheno)
Tessellated Pavement, near Port Arthur
near Strahan
near Strahan
near Strahan