Saturday, 27 October 2007

Which Hunt

I'm never sure whether to use which or that.
It's almost Halloween, so d'you fancy coming on a which hunt with me?

It's actually rather complicated (to my inferior mind), and I'll try to simplify as much as is humanly possible.
So here's the deal:

The problem I have with which and that comes from my use of relative pronouns.
Relative pronouns refer back to people or things previously mentioned:

People who wee should use the toilet.

Okay, fine so far. If we're discussing people in this manner, we use who.
Who is the relative pronoun: it refers back to people.

But what about non-people things?

We use THAT to introduce an ESSENTIAL clause.
We use WHICH to introduce a NON-ESSENTIAL clause.

Sorry? What is a clause?
Well, a clause is a group of words containing a subject and a verb.

And essential and non-essential clauses?
There are several ways of identifying such clauses:

The simplest test is this:
Remember how we can partition off non-essential stuff with commas?

The bathroom, which had blue tiles, was down the hall.

Yes, it's that simple! By placing a chunk of your sentence between commas, that chunk is non-essential: you could take it out and the sentence would still work fine. Take a look:

The bathroom was down the hall.

See, it still holds water (pun intended)!
In that example, 'which had blue tiles' is called an adjective clause. Like many adjectives, we can lose them without harming the reader's understanding. Non-essential, see!

* So, if we place a clause between commas, it is NON-ESSENTIAL and we use WHICH.

Now, what if there were loads of bathrooms in the house?

Imagine that:
the bathroom with blue tiles is down the hall;
the bathroom with red tiles is upstairs;
the bathroom with yellow tiles is in the cellar.
Sure is a queer house!

Ah, well now the adjectives are important aren't they!
The adjectives are now essential because they alter the reader's understanding: I could send the reader down the hall to the bathroom with blue tiles, or maybe upstairs to the bathroom with red tiles.
What do we do with essential clauses? We forgo the commas and we use THAT:

The bathroom that had blue tiles was down the hall.
The bathroom that had red tiles was upstairs.

* If we alter the meaning with a clause, the clause is ESSENTIAL and we use THAT.

And finally:
If we use this, that, these, or those to introduce an essential clause, we always introduce the next clause with which.
So, if we open with THAT, we move on to WHICH.

That is a problem which has now been resolved!

Same goes for THIS, THESE and THOSE.

Here's a basic summary:

*People use WHO.
*Essential things (stuff that is required for the sentence to make accurate sense) use THAT.
*Non-essential things (stuff that could be removed, or sits between commas) use WHICH.
*When introducing with THIS, THAT, THESE or THOSE, we move on to WHICH.

Now take this test.
Forget what you thought you knew, stick with what I've just explained, and you'll score full marks.

Feeling brave?
Then take this grammar test.
I scored 40 out of 50, WHICH means THAT I will continue to learn and to blog!

Here's why I have devoted my Saturday morning to this research:

As it [the tunnel] twisted off into the musty distance, stone pillars tapered into towering arches high above which contorted into wide and improbable vaulted ceilings.

The relative pronoun refers back to the towering arches. It leads to information that is non-essential: the vaulted ceilings apply to all of the towering arches and could easily be removed without harming the reader's understanding, just like the bathroom which had blue tiles. Phew.

There are detailed rules here:
Get it Write
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Friday, 19 October 2007


There seems to be a lot of confusion about the ordering of time within a narrative.
What is the purpose of a flashback?
Why might I open in 1964 and then move to 1946, or why might I do the reverse?
Ricardo's fascinating examination Of Sarah Waters' The Night Watch is well worth a read.

Let's evaluate this dilemma using the following criteria:

What does the reader know?
What do the characters know?
What should the reader feel (position on emotional topography)?

And here's a really simple example:

John and Jane are getting it on.
John says he loves Jane.
Jane says she loves John.
The reader is invited to share their intimacy and feel good about life.
Afterwards, John leaves and chuckles to himself: he has some horrendous STD.

Now let's reorder this information and see its effect:

John has a horrendous STD.
He and Jane are getting it on.
The reader is invited to feel horrified! John is a bad man! Poor Jane.
John says he loves Jane. (See how this action is utterly transformed.)
Jane says she loves John.

The permutations are endless.
What would happen if John didn't say he loved Jane?
What if the reader knows that Jane too has a STD first? Or last? Or what if Jane knows that John has a STD?
And so on.

Quentin Tarantino, as far as I can tell, orders knowledge and arranges the emotional topography to achieve a very specific response from the audience.
Take the introduction to Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield:

1) They are driving in a '74 Chevy.
2) They are dressed in cheap black suits.
3) They discuss hash bars in Amsterdam.
4) They discuss the 'little differences' between Europe and America (the famous Royale with cheese!).
5) They stop, open the trunk, and take out two .45 automatics.

The audience is invited to join in with this familiarity: a world of beer and burgers and little differences and cheap suits. The audience feels comfortable with these two men.

The audience is jolted from their familiarity and led into anticipation with the introduction of the weapons, and the men's familiarity, indeed nonchalence, around them.
How would the audience have felt had the guns been introduced first?

Well, we have actually seen these two men in the diner in the opening (and preceding) scene.
But Quentin doesn't want to introduce us to them there: they are dressed in horrible shirts and have guns and a briefcase containing some valuable cargo.
Quentin wants us to empathize with these men first.
And then he wants us to be terrified of them - of what they can and might do.

It's not such a conundrum: knowledge and emotional response dictate the ordering of scenes.
If the desired response requires a little time-bending, then the reader will be cool with that convention.

Pulp Fiction script here.

Clinical Relief with Poles

Could it be that this is the final push?
I'm hitting Tethered Light again, and hitting it hard. These short breaks are truly beneficial: reading through my opening chapters yesterday, they felt new and alive, as though they had been written by someone else.
So, what did I discover?
Technically, they are as tight as the skin on a snare drum.
(You're gonna love this link!)
I was listening to the latest Rush album the other day. Neil Peart is surely one of the most technically accomplished drummers of all time.
He opens one track solo, buzzing one-handed on the snare (and it's not a regular buzz either - think of a military snare pattern), whilst dancing around the toms with his other hand. Bloody hell! To a drummer, there is a magic in those opening few seconds.
But to listen to it beyond that perception, it is little more than a barren introduction to a piece of music. In short, it's not very exciting and is rather exclusive.

I found that I could quickly identify those moments in my opening where I have been a little too clinical: I recognized them because they felt the wrong side of sterile.
I fixed them by hitting the reader's senses. My opening gambit was devoid of sounds, and the introduction of a single line refreshed the magic:

Silence fell from the heavens, dusting the crests and the valley - a silence tempered now and then only by the shrill and distant chatter of emerald-crowned hummingbirds.

Of course, once I had identified the missing element, I still had to define it.
The words distant and only reinforces Penpa's alienation; emerald-crowned adds to that rich and majestic theme of royalty; dusting mimicks the cold snow. I chose hummingbirds because they are the smallest birds, and because they have an exotic quality. I made them plural because they are not alone - they have the family that Penpa so craves (aw, poor Blinky doesn't quite cut it for her, not least because, while the hummingbirds chatter, any conversation between P&B will be one-sided).
Emerald-crowned hummingbirds do not exist in our world. Ten minutes research led me to the ruby-throated hummingbird, and everything clicked.
And, of course, I am quick to remind the reader that everything is important to and loved by God: He watches and presides from the heavens.

So there we see the trouble that sometimes accompanies clinical writing, and we can compare this to the multiple troubles that always accompany inconsidered or poorly understood writing.

Jackson Pollock remedied the ailment of clinical precision by magnifying the element of chance. This seems a terrific solution: as you can see, even when I recognize a sterility, I am still prone to analyzing its solution.

Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles Number 11

I've been looking for a new technique to experiment with for a while now. The word palettes idea does conjur some words within a theme that one might not have ordinarily considered, and goes some way to adding that random factor (still controlled of course: certainly Pollock chose to splatter paint on canvas).

I shall consider new techniques and would welcome any suggestions:

How might we take ourselves away from all that we have learned and retrieve that naivety that might warm a mood and make it more friendly and less oppressive?
(Indeed, might a randomness or a naivety do this? Am I pointing at recreational drugs here? Crikey, that's an interesting parallel [and one that I will not be exploring]).

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

The Passive Volcano

Here's a snippet from Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano:

'Joffrey' became 'The Old Bean'. Laruelle mere, to whom, however, he was 'that beautiful English young poet', liked him too. Taskerson mere had taken a fancy to the French boy: the upshot was Jacques was asked to spend September in England with the Taskersons, where Geoffrey would be staying till the commencement of his school term. Jacque's father, who planned sending him to an English school till he was eighteen, consented. Particularly he admired the erect manly carriage of the Taskersons... And that was how M. Laruelle came to Leasowe.

Michael Schmidt's introduction to the book begins thus:

'The novel gets off to a slow start,' Malcolm Lowry concedes. Is this indeed 'inevitable' and 'necessary'? Many readers find it hard to break into Under the Volcano ...
... After three false starts I first read the book when I was twenty-two ...

It really is an impossible book to read. Indeed, one gets the impression that the proof-readers felt that way too as there are spelling mistakes on every third or fourth page.
It's not too difficult to demonstrate why the book is such a slog: Lowry shuns the basic building blocks of good writing.

We've looked at a cool technique for creating confusion in the reader: by rapidly switching subject and object within a long and breathless sentence, we create an effect rather like a spinning pov. This is brilliant for developing that sense of giddyness that we might require in a fight scene or a chase scene.
But Lowry scarcely lets up. I've found myself reading the same passage several times, each time wondering who this 'he' is or that 'we'.

Right-branching sentences form an active voice and that is how we logically think. First to last.
Who are we looking at?
What are they doing?
Who or what are they doing it to (if applicable)?

Alan shot the deer.
(Btw, a verb that does something to something else, like shoot, is called a transitive verb, which is indicated in a dictionary by v.t.)

Reversing this order forms a passive voice which requires the reader to think backwards:

The deer was shot by Alan.

You don't need to stretch your imagination to see how this might damage one's immersion in the narrative.

In a similar way, we can consider Sunset Bickham's advice on moving the story forwards.
Point the reader in the right direction from the off, he says.
So, elegant prose leads the reader by the hand; it does not stumble or falter or require of the reader an athletic brain that might deal with all manner of direction changes or focus changes. It has a clear heading and imperceptible transitions.

There's a lot of good, sound, building block advice here.

Monday, 8 October 2007


Came upon this interesting phenomenon:

fi yuo cna raed tihs, yuo hvae a sgtrane mnid too Cna yuo raed tihs? Olny 55 plepoe out of 100 can. i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!

It strikes me that much of this is not about reading words but about anticipating the next word, or even the conclusion of a sentence. The unscrambling process would likely be far more difficult if words were removed from context.

(Btw, note that not all the words above retain their first and last letters in position. Btwbtw, Gegs is a classic cryptic crossword clue.)

Monday, 1 October 2007

The Poppet

Apparently, that's what those voodoo dolls are called: poppets.
Y'see, nobody cares about those poppets when the pins go in: instead, we focus on the 'real-life' person whom the poppet represents:
When that child Maharaja impales the Indiana Jones-shaped poppet, we worry about Indy and not the poppet.
Or do we?

Does the reader truly care about our protagonist, or does he care for himself - how he felt when he was scared, not how the protag feels when she is scared?
If I do terrible things to my protag, what have I really done? Have I not simply used the protag as a vessel to translate that emotion across to the reader? Have I not simply used the protag as a vehicle for triggering a particular memory or expectation based on experience within the reader?

How am I supposed to feel about this line from Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God?:
'Dat school teacher had done hid her in de woods all night long, and he had done raped mah baby and run off just before day.'

Who do I empathize with, and how? Who should I extend my sympathies to?:
The poor mother of the rape victim?
The daughter (some minor character about whom I know next to nothing)?
The narrator who is recalling this conversation?
And then, how could I know what it would be like to be the mother, or even parent, of a rape victim? Or how could I know what that victim must feel like, or how the narrator might feel in relating these memories?

Then, my powers of empathy are everything?
The author imparts information and I apply that information to something I know from my own experience. I would imagine something horrible happening to someone I love - someone to whom I have a duty of care - and conjur that emotion and translate it across to the poppet - the receptacle of my emotions.
I imagine a response based on my own experiences of the world and of my perception of the responses of others, and I find the closest emotional match within myself.

So the author has invited me to experience a best-fit emotion. And when I can find close matches within myself, I feel a resonance. Indeed, Zadie Smith says of Their Eyes Were Watching God: 'There is no novel I love more.'
How does the author ensure that I experience this emotion deeply?
Or, what might prevent me from experiencing this emotion deeply (or at all)?
I would hardly empathize with a poppet: I would no more empathize with a poppet than I would with a sheet of paper.
But I would empathize with another person.
In the cocoon of a novel, I might allow myself to believe that the poppet is/was real (it's suspension of disbelief y'know) - provided that the author encourages this belief and/or does nothing to damage it.
Perhaps it is true to say that the more 'real' the character seems, the more likely I am to seek that resonance - that match. And the more I resonate with this character, the greater my emotional response.
Therein we might see the true power of familiarity: we cry not for the protagonist but for ourselves.

Thoughts ongoing.