Novel Excerpt

dr
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Thu Jan 21, 2010 3:48 pm Post

africanstardust, thanks for your sensible reply. The first mark of a pro is the ability to accept criticism and learn from it. You're on your way!

I would like to suggest that it might be fun, under this topic heading, to take excerpts from published writers and offer our comments on them. Dead writers, even better, so no one has to worry about bruised feelings. It might give us a chance to talk about practical issues like how to start a story or work out a turn in a plot. Whaddya think??

Here's the first page of Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land (1965)

http://books.google.com/books?id=oq1e_C ... q=&f=false

I picked that because many of you are sci-fi buffs, and I am not.

I will tell you right away, I think the first sentence is a stinker.

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Thu Jan 21, 2010 4:09 pm Post

africanstardust wrote:vic-k may I say that I quite like your choice of apostrophe.
:shock: :? Which one? I do suffer from chronic commatitis.
druid wrote: Dead writers, even better, so no one has to worry about bruised feelings.
Typical! Typical! Ever heard of ghosts?! jeeeezz! :shock:
As a professional, you, are your one and only asset. Without integrity you are worthless, but with it, you are priceless.

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Jaysen
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Thu Jan 21, 2010 4:19 pm Post

Druid,

I didn't like that. It was dry and felt to clinical. Maybe that was the point, but by the second page I was back to reading email that i have been trying to avoid. I agree that the first line needs taken out back and shot. It adds nothing to the introduction.

Maybe i should bookmark this so that I can re-motivate myself to doing my actual job when needed.
Jaysen

I have a wife and 2 kids that I can only attribute to a wiggle, a giggle, and the realization that she was out of my league so I might as well be happy with her as a friend. 26 years marriage later, I can't imagine life without her. -Me 10/7/09

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africanstardust
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Thu Jan 21, 2010 4:54 pm Post

vic-k wrote: :shock: :? Which one? I do suffer from chronic commatitis.


Well, I actually meant your use of the ` as opposed to ' . :)

Hmm. I'm no critiquing expert, but as a reader of...lots of things...I didn't like it very much. The combination of dry writing and what feels like an information overload for three paragraphs was off-putting.
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dr
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Thu Jan 21, 2010 6:35 pm Post

Yes, it's very dry. Too many passive verbs, too much listing of facts, no dialogue or sensory experiences. Nothing to grab a reader away from e-mail. Yet Heinlein's book is an all-time best seller, a cult classic that has never gone out of print. Lesson: style alone does not make for popular reading.

Let's try another one: the beginning of "Indian Camp" by Ernest Hemingway (1925)
This one is so short you could read it all.

http://books.google.com/books?id=GG7Y6Z ... q=&f=false

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Jaysen
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Thu Jan 21, 2010 7:23 pm Post

The pace was off. Choppy and abrupt. Difficult to follow. Almost too simple. I could imagine this as a newspaper account of a triple A ball game "X scored 32 points. Y scored 18 points. Team Q won". The end felt like a giant sigh of relief, which may have been the goal.
Jaysen

I have a wife and 2 kids that I can only attribute to a wiggle, a giggle, and the realization that she was out of my league so I might as well be happy with her as a friend. 26 years marriage later, I can't imagine life without her. -Me 10/7/09

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Fri Jan 22, 2010 3:54 am Post

I think those are fair observations, and they agree with many reactions to Hemingway's style in the 1920s. He was emulating modern abstract painters, especially Picasso and Cezanne, who used simple brush strokes and rendered stark forms.

The narrative justification is that he wants to create the impression of a young boy's mind, seeing but not understanding the events at Indian camp. The older men, his father and uncle, refuse to explain. As we learn in later stories, the boy thinks that the Indian father had to die for his son to be born. That men are tragic; obliged to live in self-destructive silence. The source here is Freud's theories of repression.

This is high literary narrative, the kind of tale that's not evident on the surface but has a lot going on below. (Hemingway said his stories were like icebergs.) It's never going to be popular art, or even a cult classic.

Great examples of popular narrative, the kind that's widely appealing but also artful, are books by Austen, Dickens, Bronte, or Twain. In the 20th century, Raymond Chandler. Last example: the opening of The Big Sleep (1939)

http://books.google.com/books?id=J45s2d ... q=&f=false

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Fri Jan 22, 2010 10:09 am Post

Well, I think it's wonderful. Perhaps to some it may seem hackneyed in certain respects — but only because its style has since been hugely imitated — and somewhat unfashionable for the opening of a thriller, because it mostly consists of description. But I love it for its humour and its vividness.

H

P.S. For some reason Google doesn't deliver your openings here, druid; maybe for copyright reasons. So I found my own copy of Chandler, a green paperback passed down through the family with a price written on it: "6d", two-and-a-half pence, about four cents.
'Listen, some quiet night, when you've shirked your work that day. Do you hear
that distant, almost inaudible clicking sound? That's one of your
competitors, working away in the night in
Paris or London or Erie, PA.'

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Ah
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Fri Jan 22, 2010 11:17 am Post

And, of course, there's always this little invitation to come sailing:


Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how
long precisely --having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular
to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the
watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and
regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the
mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find
myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the
rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an
upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me
from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking
people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish
Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is
nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their
degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the
ocean with me.

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Jaysen
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Fri Jan 22, 2010 1:26 pm Post

Druid,

new passage: Too many commas. At least Mr. Hemingway seemed to want the chop as part the build up. This just seemed to be a series of interrupted thoughts sandwiched between a capital letter and a period. I was unable to get comfortable reading. That and the voice of Bogart really got on my nerves after awhile. That was just how the story felt, like Bogart's choppy delivery in the one movie I have watched that is not Casablanca. As an exercise in "the uneducated proving their lack of education" I moved a few words around and made things "more comfortable". Problem is that it lost that "dime novel detective story" feel which I assume is wanted.

Hemingway: Based on what you said in your last post, H achieved the goal. My initial response (which I felt was too juvenile to post) was that this felt like the raping of innocence.

Hugh: The humor of the stained glass was there. I had a tough time getting around the chop of the style. I like descriptive (LOTR, Wheel of time) but the delivery made this one hard for me.

Ahab: Your nemesis was a passion for me. I love the story but was always struggling with the prose. In looking at all the examples so far I am finally able to see the problem I have always had with "the great white one": I hate commas. Which is odd coming from a person who litters commas like a chain smoker on a walk. Let me explain.

I fell in love with inked paper to the works of Dickens, Twain, London, and Lewis. A quick pick up of a few books from my shelves leads me to believe that I see a comma as a real pause. As someone (I think it was Hugh) said in a different thread, punctuation should tell you how to speak the words. Which means that reading the last couple of examples have caused me to hyperventilate. Yes I understand that formalized grammar has lead to uses for the comma that are not "dialectic" but that doesn't mean my hick brain likes it.

Which is all to say. I love Moby Dick. I don't like the prose. I force myself to read it ever other January hoping that someday I will love the writing style. Apparently I am doomed.
Jaysen

I have a wife and 2 kids that I can only attribute to a wiggle, a giggle, and the realization that she was out of my league so I might as well be happy with her as a friend. 26 years marriage later, I can't imagine life without her. -Me 10/7/09

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Fri Jan 22, 2010 1:35 pm Post

None of my English teachers were ever able to provide a rational, cogent argument explaining why run-on sentences were bad, unless you were Hemingway. I still think they're bad for everyone.
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For Maura, 4/7/59-11/21/09... My Muse, my Heroine, my Editor, my Patron. All that I have achieved as a writer is because of her.

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Jaysen
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Fri Jan 22, 2010 1:54 pm Post

So that means that everything my daughter says is a malformed sentence? I can't find any discrete words, let alone a punctuation mark that would indicate a stop when she is talking. It all sounds like
teenage girl wrote:dadineedmoremoneytogetumthethingthatisaidiwantedlastweekiknowiwassupposedtousethemoneyyougavemethenbutiwantedtobuysomethingdifferentmomsaidtoaskyoucanigonow

On the other hand my coworker gets
different teenage girl wrote:

Too bad there isn't something in the middle.
Jaysen

I have a wife and 2 kids that I can only attribute to a wiggle, a giggle, and the realization that she was out of my league so I might as well be happy with her as a friend. 26 years marriage later, I can't imagine life without her. -Me 10/7/09

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Fri Jan 22, 2010 2:21 pm Post

Jaysen wrote:
Ahab: Your nemesis was a passion for me. I love the story but was always struggling with the prose. In looking at all the examples so far I am finally able to see the problem I have always had with "the great white one": I hate commas. Which is odd coming from a person who litters commas like a chain smoker on a walk. Let me explain.

I fell in love with inked paper to the works of Dickens, Twain, London, and Lewis. A quick pick up of a few books from my shelves leads me to believe that I see a comma as a real pause. As someone (I think it was Hugh) said in a different thread, punctuation should tell you how to speak the words. Which means that reading the last couple of examples have caused me to hyperventilate. Yes I understand that formalized grammar has lead to uses for the comma that are not "dialectic" but that doesn't mean my hick brain likes it.

Which is all to say. I love Moby Dick. I don't like the prose. I force myself to read it ever other January hoping that someday I will love the writing style. Apparently I am doomed.


The only way to read writers not from our time period is to understand that they write from another era, when punctuation seemed, to our modern eyes, not just excessive but almost random. I read unhealthy gobs of pages from the 19th century, and after a while begin to see past the punctuation to the story as I also see past the fly specks and foxing and the archival staining of long-gone bookmarks, pressed flowers, and maidenly tears.

The antique writer who got it most nearly right was a lunatic from Newburyport, Massachusetts, who called himself Lord Timothy Dexter and The Greatest Philosopher in the Western World, and who wrote a book of hilariously crackpot (and sometimes disturbingly insightful) philosophy called "A Pickle For the Knowing Ones, Or Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress." Its first edition contained no punctuation at all, so with his second edition he addressed his critics, The Knowing Ones, by adding a page of periods, commas, question marks, exclamation marks, and colons that "thay may peper and solt it as they plese."

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Jaysen
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Fri Jan 22, 2010 3:01 pm Post

I have always assumed that the fault was mine. I love the story but choke on the delivery. The odd thing is that I don't seem to fight with Hawthorne, Bronte, Dickens, or Eliot. The other "olderish" authors that I enjoy are all translations so I am assuming that there is some editing being done between the original and me (Cervantes, Tolstoy, Dumas). The dumb hick in me sees the magic on the pages but knows that the originals are probably much different.

As I have ventured into this wold of writing I come to realize that the written word is almost more unique to an individual than the spoken word. Having time to go back and edit this post to ensure that my words really mean what I intend to communicate allows "me" to be seen much more clearly than a quick verbal comment. This thought causes a second, much less pleasant thought of: have we irrevocably harmed the future generations by forcing them to be conformist to a specific style of communication?

I think africanstardust answers that concern quite nicely.
Jaysen

I have a wife and 2 kids that I can only attribute to a wiggle, a giggle, and the realization that she was out of my league so I might as well be happy with her as a friend. 26 years marriage later, I can't imagine life without her. -Me 10/7/09

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dr
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Fri Jan 22, 2010 3:14 pm Post

Jaysen and Ahab, great stuff!

About commas: just think of them as pauses for breath. The 19th-century writers grew up in an era of grand rolling oratory, mostly heard in church, debate, or court. Some of them heard grand opera; so the aria is another model (see F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance).

In Moby Dick, Melville often tries to emulate the sound of waves and the wash of sea against boat hulls. The sound also picks up the way whales breathe, when they are resting at night on the surface. He possibly thinks of that rhythmical, heaving sound as something profound, like the heart of Nature, God, the Eternal.

So, don't think of commas as a stop. They are just light, quick moments of hesitation. Hmm. I'm not a programmer. Do they signal a full stop in programming? If so, you need to re-calibrate your mental tuning fork when reading prose.

About Moby-Dick: I am teaching it this spring, a few chapters a week. Each week the students write up a report of our discussion. If you would like to see copies, let me know. They might be of help as you work through your annual reading.

About daughters and their rate of speech. First, I love it that she begins with "I need some money..." I have a writer friend who is blessed with four daughters. He said they referred to him as The Wallet.

Why do kids talk so damn fast? It's their cussed YOUTH. Everything flows out of them with such careless ease that they don't bother to breathe or articulate or stop to think that Old Dad needs a tick or two to take in what they want, measure that against the family coffers and his itch to buy new software. Also, the kids don't have much variety in their words, so they repeat a lot and use slang, mainly to hide meaning from the 'rents and attain their identity with peers. It will pass.

I love 19th-century prose, too, but the style of moderns also has a lot going for it. I really connect with the idea of less is more; implying rather than explaining at length. But that makes us work harder as readers. And writers influenced by movies are even sparser with words. Some films I've seen recently have less than 100 lines of dialogue.