Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Literary Bloomers

We confess that of our articles so far, this has been one of the most enjoyable to write, as well as one of the easiest; for, in order to compile list of literary mistakes, all that was necessary was to mull over all the books we do not like and consider why we do not like them. When something in a book makes us dislike a book, chances are that it makes other people dislike the book as well, and, as we want people to like our own books, these things are best avoided.

As much as many of us dislike poorly-written stories, literary flops afford excellent learning opportunities to writers and innocent amusement to the rest of the public. Even in well-written books we have often found things that we think the authors should have done differently, and felt the story was slightly spoilt because of it. But we have often observed that a bad book is a better teacher than a good one because it demonstrates what not to do when writing a story and it demonstrates it more clearly because it is easier to say why you don’t like something than it is to say why you do.

We have taken the pleasure of compiling a list of our favourite authorial mistakes, first as to story, and second as to characters. If you find that you yourself are guilty of some of these blunders listed, don’t despair. Many of the following are mistakes that we the editors made in our past careers and include them, not only to warn other authors from rocky shoals, but to remind ourselves not to make the same mistakes again.

Boring Stretches
Boring parts of your story should frighten you—they’ll often frighten your readers clean away from your book. One of the greatest secrets of good story-writing is that boringness can almost always be done away with.
From Ghent to Aix
When you need to get your character from one point of the story to another (whether in time or place) how do you do it without slogging into a slough of tedium? It can be done, although to do so takes creativity and hard work. Still, hard work on your part makes easy work for your readers; be sure to cut out of your story long portions of wasted time.
Our rule of right thumb (as we are right handed) is: ‘Don’t tell the reader what he can figure out for himself.’ Stories with any kind of mystery need to explain the mystery at some point (usually), but this can be done through a variety of ways and not necessarily through a character explaining everything. Especially avoid making the villain explain. Villains, rather like Mary Poppins, never explain anything. If they do, they lose half of their villainous mystique. One under-used way of explaining things to the audience is through the main character’s perspective. Authors tend to make all the explaining done to the main character, but audiences like a smart protagonist who can figure things out for himself.
Avoid repeating things. Kipling’s Just So Stories and other children’s books utilise excessive repetition, but mature readers (e.g. over the age of six) will likely find such methods dull and juvenile.

Duncan Donuts
Overt and obvious suspense loses an audience. They know that the hero is not going to have a huge boulder dropped on top of him and that he is not going to fall a million feet to the canyon floor. Thus, ending the chapter (or episode) with this kind of obvious suspense will not really keep your readers on the edges of their seats. Over-use of suspense turns a story into a cheap thriller—a book whose sole purpose is to entertain the reader without regard to eloquence and culture.

Although we are very fond in general of old books, we do not believe that just because people lived in the nineteenth century they were good writers. Elitism is rampant in older books and American books are not exempt (they tend to be worse, on occasion). Elitism is the view that certain people are smarter than other people simply because they are well-born, more moral because they have received a better education, more beautiful because they are rich, more worthy because they are red Indians, and the list goes on.

To make a well-born man in your story intelligent is not necessarily elitism: elitism lies in thinking that because a man is well-born, therefore he must be intelligent—a sort of Calvinistic pre-damning of a person based on intrinsic and unchangeable qualities rather than on his own actions and choices.

Another common form of elitism is making the heroine marry a duke or other high-born person because a commoner is not good enough for her (implied but rarely stated by the author); or, alternatively, making the hero start out a pauper in order to prove that one does not have to be rich or well-born to be a hero, and then making him turn out to be an earl’s long lost son at the end because you do not believe your own premise.

Foregone Conclusion
Readers love to predict what is going to happen in a story, but they like even better to be surprised by the author, and the last thing you as the author want is for a reader to get tired of your book because he knows what will happen. One of the most common ways to make a story predictable is to use stock scenarios. If a princess is locked in a tower, the readers know that sooner or later a knight in shining armour will appear to rescue her.

This is an obvious scenario and really not used that often, but how about this example: a little boy brings home a lost dog. His parents don’t like the dog and only let it stay on trial. The average reader can guess from this set-up that the dog will save the boy’s life (probably by dragging him from a burning building), get his picture in the paper, and live with the adoring family for the rest of his life. Or take this story: the children’s parents warn them not to do something (i.e. skate on the pond); the children disobey and suffer disastrous results (either drown or are invalids for the rest of the winter).

Too many books and short stories have been written with these scenarios and they are now considered ‘stock.’

Non Sequiter
On the other hand, don’t surprise the reader by ruining the story. Leading your readers on to expect something in the story and then making something completely different happen can make your story an instant success or a hopeless failure, depending solely on how you do it. Making your heroine jilt her lifelong friend for a character who just popped into the story for two seconds, and then thumbing your nose at your readers and saying, ‘Ha, ha! Thought she was going to marry the other guy, didn’t you?’ will not win you fans.

Likewise, although you may not approve of resurrecting people at the end of a story, keep in mind that some characters just don’t die convincingly. Example: chap with a gammy leg appears in chapter one and seems to be someone important. Chap disappears and is later said to have been killed in war. Sanguine readers, however, sit patiently waiting for him to reappear and all characters with gammy legs fall under their immediate suspicion. At the end of the story when the chap from the first chapter (or prologue, as it may be) still has not shown up, the readers feel that somehow the story isn’t over—the author forgot something—when is the chap with the gammy leg going to show up? It is no use for the author to say, ‘But I told you—he was killed in the war!’ The author didn’t tell them that, one of the characters in the story told them that, and they didn’t believe him because the author told them something entirely different by making the chap appear to be someone important to the story in chapter one. Rule of index finger: Chappies with gammy legs don’t die.

Ha ha hmm…
Humour is a good tension reliever, but some authors (predominately contemporary ones) use excessive amounts of rather stale or imbecile humour in poorly-chosen locations, such as the denouement. Also note: repeating a good joke makes it a bad joke.

Jo’s Hat
A jo’s hat is generally intentionally perpetrated by the aspiring author and occurs when something in the story is there simply to be cool and does not really make logical sense. When the villain clutches Jo by the throat and Jo’s hat falls down the stairwell, clattering like a hard hat when it is a soft hat (this was done in a movie and not a book, but the principle applies to both), the director is only interested in the violent echoes caused by this alogism; he does not care that soft hats don’t make noise when they fall down stairwells.

Sometimes, however, jo’s hats are caused by the innocent inattention of the author. For instance, when a character refers to an old college buddy of his, and a second character later relates that said person never went to college, it is simply because the author was not paying attention.

An author generally justifies a character because he has the uncomfortable feeling that what the character is doing is wrong. If you feel the urge to justify a character, analyse his actions and make sure they do not deviate from sound biblical doctrine. If they do, change them or punish them; don’t justify them.

Sometimes an author justifies a character before other characters in the story because he cannot bear to have his character misjudged by others. Life is all about being misjudged; don’t justify.

Misplaced Climax
The climax typically comes near the end of the story because that is what the audience want most to read. After the climax they are more easily lost. The main mistake of a misplaced climax is making some other event in the story more climactic than the climax. This can be difficult to avoid, but if at all possible rework the story so your audience are not disappointed with an anti-climactic climax.

Necessary Evil
The necessary evil is something in a story which does not make logical sense, but which must happen in order for the story to work. For example, there is no particular reason for a bad guy to wear a mask when he is obviously the bad guy, but the author requires him to so that the hero will not recognise him until the end.

Romantic drivel is unpleasant to the practical sensibilities of many readers. Apparently many people are fond of it, but we believe it better avoided. For instance, don’t make your hero climb a tree to catch a glimpse of the object of his affections, then swoon and fall out of the tree to be rescued by the lady. This sort of thing does not happen in real life (although it really did happen in a sappy book) and nobody really wants it to.

The Dripping Voice
Dialogue should be original; unfortunately, some authors appear to think that saying how someone said the dialogue should be original too. The only quotative verbs really needed are the two words ‘said’ and ‘asked,’ but some authors seem to think these words are stale and repetitive and so make up their own alternatives. In one book an author went so far as to write, ‘My voice dripped with disappointment.’ This conveys the wrong picture to the reader. ‘Said’ may be used over and over, and the reader never notices because it is unobtrusive.

An author may vary ‘said’ with ‘exclaimed,’ ‘muttered,’ or ‘explained’ if he wishes, and ‘demanded,’ ‘repeated,’ ‘vociferated,’ and such may be used as long as they are not over-used. Words like ‘agreed’ and ‘questioned’ as quotative verbs are right out because they distract the reader and interrupt the flow of the dialogue. Words such as ‘bubbled,’ ‘gushed,’ and ‘enthused’ are not only ridiculous but also make your dialogue sound like attempted Tom Swifties.

Example: ‘I’ll never try this experiment again!’ the professor exploded.
Or, ‘See you later, Captain!’ beamed Scottie.

Vale of Tears
This is another Victorian-era gaffe caused by the illogical idea that the more people who die in a book, the better a book it is. We have read several of these and they were not all from the nineteenth century, either. Of particular note was one book which started out with the heroine’s father dying in the second or third chapter, went on to chronicle the death of several other family members, two or three of the heroine’s children (while preserving one or two as chronic invalids), and wrapping up by knocking off the heroine herself—a definite ending point, yet demonstrating a certain lack of preconceived purpose.

Character Goofs
Some of the most destructive mistakes are made with characters. Characters are living, breathing entities, but some authors treat them as paper dolls to merely fill roles in a story. Other authors forget that characters grow and change and, if an author is not careful, become something other than they were intended to be. And still other authors create wonderful characters and neglect them shamefully, never realising their full potential. Thus, we devote the second half of this article to blunders of character.

Author’s Pet
Authors get attached to their characters on occasion. There is nothing wrong with liking your characters, but sometimes you may be so overt about it that the character annoys your audience. Human nature is such that the audience will rejoice in the downfall of a character who is too perfect or too preferred.

Bad Hat
A bad hat is a hero who is supposed to be good but is actually quite bad, such as Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre, or John Wayne in many of his movies.

Falling Star
Some heroes—and other characters—start out great and then let the audience down by gradually getting less great as the story progresses. Most often this happens when the character falls in love with someone; this usually makes him act rather silly and get on the audience’s nerves. Mysterious characters, too, can let the audience down when the mystery is lifted and they turn out to be only ordinary people. The best way to avoid this mistake is to wait until the end of the story to clear up all the mystery about the character. Even better is to retain one or two mysterious things about him that are never explained, even at the end.

The readers should not be too much smarter than the main character. There is no suspense when the main character discovers something that the audience has known for several chapters.

Fresh Fruit
Some authors make the love interest a jerk. This is not generally a good way to make your audience like him.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent
We are greatly adverse to unfairness of any kind; even if it be to a fictional character. A bad guy who is bad because the author needs him to be and not because he is intrinsically bad, claims our, and the audience’s, sympathy. There are always reasons for a bad guy to be bad—he enjoys it, he’ll get something out of it, he has borne a grudge against the hero since they were kids, etc. They may not be good reasons, but a bad guy (and an author) can always find them. Making a character bad just because you want someone to pick on your hero is a waste of a good opportunity: always make the most of your villain and make sure he has a reason for doing what he does.

This is a man or boy who does not act like a man or boy but rather more like a girl. This mistake is the result of the author being a woman. On the other hand, a Diverne is a woman or girl who acts too masculine. This can be a result of masculine authorship or simply a result of a woman author who believes girls are better behaving as boys. Avoid both mistakes.

Whoever coined the term stuffed shirt allotted to it the wrong meaning—that of a pedant or a prude. The term brings to our minds a character whose only function is to fill a role—usually that of the romantic interest—and fills it as a dummy—a flat, shapeless mass with no true personality or character. In real life certain people may certainly look as if they were stuffed shirts, but everyone has more deep down inside him than stuffing. Every character in a book should be real and alive.

Mr. Blueweather
Named for an actual character in a story, this is a person without fault who drops lofty judgements from Mount Parnassus down on the heads of refractory characters. He is tedious and universally disliked by the audience, and is only in the story so that the author can preach a sermon to his readers. There are better (and subtler) ways to preach sermons besides putting an annoying character in your books.

Mr. Nice Guy
This character is usually used in war stories and plays the part of an enemy soldier who is nice because the author wants his audience to know that he doesn’t think all Germans (British, red Indians, etc.) are bad. Characters should not be thrown into a story solely to prove a point. Therefore a bad guy whom the author makes nice so that the author can prove he is not biased is a waste of time and generally a shoddy addition to any story.

Nancy Drew
Mystery stories specialise in sleuths who read impossible meanings into cryptic clues. These amateur detectives usually are captured multiple times by the villain during the story and escape in easy and obvious ways.

Peter Pan
In a story that spans several years, the author must not forget to make his characters grow up. Some authors never make a character mature and he rapidly outgrows himself, becoming tiresome to the readers.

Show Stealer
This is a character who takes centre stage when he didn’t start out the main character. In a story with multiple main characters this is unfairness and favouritism on the part of the author. He has a right to do what he likes with his own story, but the audience may never forgive his character if he elbows out their respective favourites.

Stereotypes are a lot of fun, but only when they are used humorously or to prove a point. An author who makes all Americans cowboys or all Frenchmen chefs simply because he doesn’t know anything about Americans or Frenchmen is committing a sad blunder that the Americans and Frenchmen who read his stories may enjoy at his expense.

Super Hero
All heroes should be great, but people who want super heroes read Nietzsche or Marvel comics. Most people want a hero who has problems and weaknesses like everyone else and whom they can sympathise with.

Always a woman, she is a surpassingly lovely character who receives proposals of marriage from every man in the story. Like the super hero, she gets on the audience's nerves.

Villainous Villain of Villainy
A super villain is more forgivable than a super hero, but an audience usually likes a villain who is a real person and has real problems and weaknesses like the hero. He can be smarter than the hero and should certainly be more mysterious, but he should seem as if he could really exist.

Conclusion: While we have listed many things that we personally feel ought not to be done in a story, it is true that any one of them may be effected by an author with success. For instance, unrealistically evil villains are sometimes splendid additions to a story, jo’s hats and tom swifties may add subtle humour, and boring stretches could (and on occasion have) become the most fascinating parts of the book. Everything depends on how an author ‘pulls it off.’

The insidious nature of these bloomers lies in their ability to pass undetected by the author, because they are only errors when they are unintentional. Therefore, to point them out to other authors and to describe why we ourselves find them objectionable, we hope, has been a useful endeavour.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Two Minutes of Silence

They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

-Lawrence Binyon

Remembrance Day, also called Armistice Day or Poppy Day, is observed in various parts of the world with, among other activities, the reading of the 'Ode of Remembrance' (above) and the laying of wreaths on the graves of servicemen. These observances commemorate the end of the first World War, formerly known as the Great War, which claimed thousands of lives and was recognised all over the world as a defence of freedom and justice. The war ended at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, and it is observed in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries by one to two minutes of silence at 11:00 a.m. on November 11.

In America we observe the date as Veteran's Day and honour those who have served their country in the armed forces. While this is commendable, would we not also do well to remember what honour is derived from serving one's country by bearing arms? There can be no honour in such a position were not the one holding it defending the rights and liberty of the defenceless and upholding the sanctity of justice and peace.

Ultimately, the responsibility of safeguarding the heritage bought and handed down at such a price by our forebears rests upon each one of us.

...Only, when all is done and said,
God is not mocked and neither are the dead.
For this will stand in our Market-place—
    Who’ll sell, who’ll buy
    (Will you or I
Lie each to each with the better grace)?
While looking into every busy whore’s and huckster’s face
As they drive their bargains is the Face
Of God: and some young, piteous, murdered face.

-‘The Cenotaph,’ Charlotte Mews

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Man Made God

By Jacklyn Remus

In the image of man created they him . . .

Upon being informed, as I am about to inform you, that this article is about abortion, there are probably plenty of readers whose immediate reaction would be, ‘Another article on abortion? Aren’t there enough of those already?’
My response is, as the astute reader who gives me any credit should see, No. There are not enough, and there never will be enough until abortion stops.

I think that, when we are quite honest with ourselves, we can no longer use the excuse that abortion is not taking the life of another person. Even the main proponents of it have mostly ceased trying to claim so. Science and logic point to the fact that life must start inside the mother’s womb, and at conception. Within a few days, the child inside the mother is universally regarded — by doctors and parents alike — as a child. You cannot have an inanimate child. The very designation is an acknowledgement of the life inside the womb.
Besides, if the child were not alive at this point, there would be no point in killing it, would there? Unless it is going to grow (a sign of life), mature (a sign of life), and eventually be born as a live human being in need of care (a definite sign of life), there would be very little point in removing it. We cannot compare it to a tumour, because though a tumour may grow, it will never be born as a live human. It will also never mature. It is not conceived by a mother and father, and it is never called a ‘baby.’
Therefore, if we can no longer deny that aborting a child is taking its life, we can hardly deny that abortion is murder. One definition of murder is ‘the unlawful, premeditated killing of one human being by another.’ If killing is taking the life of something, and if we must admit that a child is a human being — there are very few who claim that it is a rock or a chimpanzee — the only thing that stands in the way of calling abortion murder is the fact that it is not ‘unlawful.’ And that brings us to the issue of morality.

Murder is generally, but not universally, regarded as wrong. It is illegal in the United States of America, and generally elsewhere, to kill any person without lawful authority from the government. In recent decades there has been a decline in morality, marked most sharply by the fact that the government has made taking the life of an unborn child lawful. In 36 years, from 1973 to 2009, four times as many innocent people were killed in hospitals in the United States than were killed in Nazi camps in twelve. There is a child killed for every 24 seconds in a day. We can hardly say these children committed crimes worthy of capital punishment. Their only crime, like that of the Jews and other minorities in Nazi Germany, was that of existence. Now, despite the fact that so many people are claiming abortion to be murder, modern proponents of this custom wish to make the mother judge and jury. She who was once the symbol of life, home, family and love, is now to become the deliverer of the death sentence.
There is never any excuse for abortion. Some would claim that some babies should be aborted for the health of the mother. This is not morality. Morality was never a consideration of what was best for oneself, but what was good for humanity and ultimately, what was obedience God’s commandments. It says in the gospel of Matthew, ‘Whosoever shall save his life shall lose it . . .’ It says in the Ten Commandments, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’

This, then, is no longer a battle for the life of the million plus children who are destroyed every year, but a battle for morality. In the world there is no longer any real morality. It has become subjective. Men say there is no universal goodness, no absolute. Morality has become what the man in power decides to make it. If killing babies is what people want, we will make a law that says, it is all right. How can we do this? Because we no longer have any certain standard of goodness. Man decides what is good.

And that is the issue of God. Today around the world the idea of God has seemed to dwindle and dwindle until it is very small indeed. Men have not just made a god in their own image — they have decided that they do not even need a god. They have made themselves god. Morality will continue to crumble if the true goodness is not rediscovered. This is, as Vaclav Havel said, a contaminated moral environment. It is also an unsustainable one. Presently, we as a society shall return to the cannibalistic tribalism that marked the early ages of history on many continents. Civilisation survives only when it has a moral code. It flourishes only when that code is based on the goodness of God. There is no point in going green if we do not go good, there is no point in claiming a woman’s choice to commit murder if we do not claim God’s choice to punish us for it. We cannot sustain a civilisation where men are their own gods, because such a society is no longer civilised.

There is hope, because God is hope. Today, in what seems to be the opening of a new era, morality must be held to, not less strictly for the sake of those who will not conform, but more strictly for the sake of those whose lives depend upon our courage and bravery. If we are not willing to stand up against the murder and decline of morals going on around us, we are as deeply and tragically responsible as the millions of people in Russia under Stalin or in Germany under Hitler. Fifty million deaths — all of humans who hadn’t even a chance to see the world — is more than a statistic. It is a call for brave men and women, a call for those who believe in God to stand up not just for life, but for morality.