Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Boys Will Be Boys And Other Lame Excuses for Bullying.

I don't usually get caught up in articles about parenting. I don't have kids and so don't want to get drafted into the endless debate about which kinds of mothers are "best." But still, this article was thought provoking and rich with analogies.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Incredibly Inspiring Bizarreness of Dreams

I know some people who say they never remember their dreams. Maybe it's because I'm a light sleeper, or maybe it's simply a function of the way my memory works, but I have never had that issue. I've had more than my share of nightmares in my life, but most of the time, my visits to the dreamscape are just really, really bizarre.

I had one a couple of nights back where I was a kid again, and my dad took me down to the dark, scary basement in some biology department's research building (he was a molecular biology professor, and this basement was rather like the one I very vaguely remember visiting when he was a grad student at MIT when I was really tiny). The weird thing was, he was taking me down there to use something called "the atomic toilet." Fortunately, I woke up before that aspect of the dream played out.

This so-called atomic toilet looked like a weird mixture of the space shuttle toilet, a solar toilet from the high country, and the atomic clock at NIST. Efforts to reconstruct where this dream came from yield the following insights:

1. I had to go to the bathroom,.
2. I'd been thinking about my dad (whom I still miss a great deal) before I went to bed.
3. My dad had once wanted to get a composting toilet for his property in Paso Robles.
4. There was a rerun of Big Bang Theory on a while back with a space toilet in it.
6. I'd read something about the atomic clock a few days before, because I was researching the way the definition of a second had changed throughout history.
7. I'm getting older, and while I'm mostly okay with this at a conscious level (it beats the alternative), I'm often a younger version of myself, even a kid again, in my dreams.

And strange as this dream was, I've had stranger. In fact, nearly all my dreams are strange and seem to be amalgamations of random memories, emotions and fears. I don't have an inordinate number of nightmares as an adult, but I can sure remember some doozies from when I was a kid, often involving falling, coming home to a strangely abandoned house, or being chased by something. As an adult, many of my nightmares entail things like teeth falling out or getting a horrific diagnosis at the doctor's.

Ugh. At least dreams about atomic toilets make me laugh when I wake up.

I've had dreams that felt intensely symbolic to me that have provided insights about relationships. I've also occasionally had dreams that have provided story ideas or that have given me insights about how to deal with something in one of my novels.

Scientists are still not completely sure why mammals (and possibly birds and reptiles as well) dream. But the emotional and bizarre nature of dreams means that they have played an important role in spirituality and art, and have inspired some important works of literature. For instance, Mary Shelly's Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were purportedly inspired by dreams the authors had.

But incorporating dreams (by a pov character) as actual plot elements in novels can be problematic at times. Dream sequences often end up on agent and editor rant lists. And whenever the subject comes up on writer's forums, the sentiment seems to be at least 3:1 against including scenes that describe a dream the character is having.

So what are the problems with using vividly described dreams in books?

1. If they're used in the wrong place, they can distract the reader from the plot and can interrupt the flow of the story.

2. They're sometimes used as info dumps re backstory or as "quick and easy" ways for the pov character to gain an insight about something without working for it. They can sometimes be seen as a deus ex machina type resolution to problems in the story.

3. They are sometimes used to introduce an element of tension. But since tension surrounding something that isn't really happening, many readers feel cheated by it, especially if the dream is introduced in such a way that it seems "real" at first--and then the character wakes up.

4. But if it's clear from the beginning that it's "just" a dream, then some readers wonder if it's important enough to read at all and will skim or skip it.

5. Real dreams are strange and don't always make a lot of sense. Yet in books, they're nearly always realistic or richly symbolic.

6. If the dream has relevance to another character in the story, and he or she then has to tell another character about the dream, the author may end up covering the same ground twice.

7. There are often other ways (i.e. flashbacks, dialog, expository lumps) to achieve the same end in a story.

Now in speculative fiction, there's a potential for a dream world to exist as a "real" spiritual realm (like in H.P. Lovecraft's works). It's also possible for dreams in speculative works to provide the characters with access to hidden knowledge or with a connection to another character. Sometimes the dreams are even an integral part of the plot, like in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven. And of course, if the entire point of the story is a dream world becoming more real in some ways than the waking world (as in Alice in Wonderland) it's hard to think of a way to forego using them.

But even so, I think the author has to consider whether or not the ends could possibly be achieved in some other way. And as with any other plot device, a light touch is often the best approach. No one wants to read a long, jumbled piece of dream narrative that confuses, or worse yet, bores.

Detail from The Knight's Dream (1655) by Antonio de Pereda (1611–1678)

Monday, May 6, 2013

Thesaurus Abuse Versus Dumbed Down Language -- Choosing the Right Word for the Job

Ah, words. They're the bricks and mortar with which a writer constructs his or her worlds, plots and characters. Choosing a word that's blatantly wrong can be, at worst, mortifying. The English language contains many homophones and near homophones (like accept and except), and a lot of people mix some of these up in their writing. Some of these words (affect and effect, for instance) overlap enough in meaning that even highly literate writers can get confused.

But these kinds of errors usually become less frequent with time and experience. Not all word errors are as blatant as these, and sometimes the "error" is in the eyes of the reader. One issue that comes up is the use of what some would call an "inflated" vocabulary and others would call " normally literate wording" in their writing.

I recently ran across a thread on a writer's forum where the original poster asked how to increase his or her vocabulary. An innocent enough question, and of course the "best" answer is to read voraciously and about a wide variety of topics. Research has shown that people (both native speakers and English learners) tend to gain a substantial amount of their functional English vocabulary by contextual exposure to words in reading.

This corroborates my own experiences. I actually have a very clear memory of learning what the words laconic and pedantic meant via encountering them in books I was reading back when I was a kid. Both of these are words that some might consider closer to fifty cents than nickel level, but they've served me well in my adult life.

Interestingly, though, a lot of people suggested that the person posting the question in the thread simply use a thesaurus. Other people suggested that fiction writers should always use the simplest vocabulary possible. One person even bragged that he/she "never" used "fancy" words, because he/she didn't want their readers to get the wrong idea about him or her.

I think both of these pieces of advice are bad if taken in the wrong way.

Picking up a thesaurus just because you want to find synonyms for relatively common words is generally not a great idea. Often the simple, everyday word for something is the best choice. For instance, a horse can also be a steed or an equine. But most of the time, horse is the best word for a horse. Then there are those more contextual synonyms. Words like gelding, mare, colt, filly, destrier, pony, charger, palfrey and so on all refer to specific types of horses that may or may not be appropriate in a given context. A typical thesaurus lists all the synonyms but does not hint at connotations or contexts. If you refer to a little girl's pony as a destrier or a charger, you'd better be shooting for an ironic tone.

But a thesaurus can be useful if used in an informed way. Sometimes I'll bring one out if I need to be "reminded" of synonyms I actually know the meaning of. But just randomly selecting words leads to the "smirk" phenomenon I encountered a while back. A character greeted another character with a friendly, open smirk.
Smirks are not, by definition, friendly or open, because of course, smirk is really not a synonym for smile. It's a particular type of smile, and one that is not at all nice. Calling an ordinary smile a smirk is like calling a girl's pony a charger.

Also, readers notice uncommon words more. Smirk is probably not a word I want to see more than a handful of times in an entire book, even when used correctly. My hand starts itching to slap somewhere around the third or fourth time a villain smirks. Aside from being very annoying, a "strong" word like this creates a pretty clear impression of a person. Once I know someone's a smirker, I don't need to be reminded of this every scene.

But going back to the other extreme piece of advice, which was to never use less common words. Aside from insulting the ability of readers to pick up on word meanings via context (which, after all, is how we all learned to talk), this piece of advice ignores the importance of using words to set voice and tone, whether authorial or character.

In short, if your character is a medical doctor, she'll probably use some "fancy" words to describe body parts and whatnot, even when she's not in a medical setting. And a character who is an auto mechanic may know and use a lot more words related to motors and engine parts than someone who isn't. And in general, a character who is educated, well-read, or even just of a whimsical bent, will use language differently than someone who is less so.

If your narrative is "in point of view," then it should reflect this to some extent.

But of course, an author has to exercise restraint, even when writing in point of view. A story with a medial doctor character needs to include believable language usage and terminology, but the writer needs to introduce these words carefully and use them in a way where their meaning is contextually clear, or defined. And it's probably not a good idea to dump a ton of these words out in a single paragraph, unless the intent is to illustrate confusion (for instance, the pov character is talking to a doctor over dinner and is being bombarded with a bewildering array of terms he doesn't understand).

But aside from the obvious issues of the role of word choice in characterization, mood and tone, the advice to categorically avoid "big words" is a bit troubling. Going back to the "creating the wrong impression about me" line. What would that impression be? That you're an educated and intelligent person who knows how to use appropriately chosen words with care and precision to evoke a nuanced meaning or mood? Why is coming across as being reasonably educated creating a bad impression?

Of course picking words willy nilly from a thesaurus is a terrible idea, as is using the most obscure and complex words available "just because." It's something students sometimes do in their essay writing because they mistakenly think that doing so will make them look clever. But there's a big difference between doing this and picking that perfect word for what you're really trying to say.