Category Archives: writing

I’ll do it Mañana #amslacking #amwriting (a little)

For those of us who regularly participate in NaNoWriMo, the month of December can be a comparatively unproductive time. I average 500 – 1000 new words each day, mostly in the form of re-writing and tweaking existing prose.

I find myself cooking a lot and doing some housework. I’m not a great housekeeper but I do like to keep things dug out, so some sort of chore is always on the list. Whatever can be done in one hour gets done. Everything else can be done mañana (tomorrow).

It’s the end of the year and a good time to look back, and see your accomplishments for the year. One of my personal goals this year was to clean out the garage.

Oops.

Maybe next year. I’m sure it will happen in 2019.

The weather has been dark and dreary here in the Pacific Northwest, and I’ve been reading old Agatha Christie novels. When I’m not reading or writing, I like to bake bread at this time of the year. Few things are homier than the aroma of freshly baked bread wafting through the house.

And, when I have a little urge to write, I find myself in the Room of Shame, taking a look at existing work with a fresh eye and checking for:

  • Spelling—misspelled words, auto-correct errors, and homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently). These words are insidious because they are real words and don’t immediately stand out as being out of place.
  • Repeated words and cut-and-paste errors. These are sneaky and dreadfully difficult to spot. Spell-checker won’t always find them. To you the author, they make sense because you see what you intended to see. For the reader, they appear as unusually garbled sentences.
  • Missing punctuation and closed quotes. These things happen to the best of us.
  • Digits/Numbers: Miskeyed numbers are difficult to spot when they are wrong unless they are spelled out.
  • Dropped and missing words.

These are things that always find their way into my work during the mad rush of NaNoWriMo. In my writing hours, I’m working on things to submit and don’t want to send out work that looks unprofessional.

I plan on taking it easy for the rest of the month, cooking a little, cleaning a little, and making revisions, but mostly I’m going to spend the dark time of December curled up on the sofa with Agatha Christie, lost in as many Miss Marple mysteries as I can stuff into my Kindle.

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Conflict #amwriting

Winter has embraced my Northern home. For the last two weeks, cold and clear days have been followed by freezing, foggy nights. Each morning the roads have been covered with black ice, making the morning commute an adventure. We expect black ice here, but we don’t enjoy it.

The sun was so brilliant I had to locate my sunglasses when I went to my writing group last week. Driving east as the sun rose was like driving into a solar flare.

Alas, this week the rains have returned. But I am warm and dry here in the Room of Shame. I am now rewriting what was spewed forth during NaNoWriMo, turning garbage into something marketable, I hope.

I am taking a piece set in Neveyah, my Tower of Bones world, and rewriting it, so it is a story. This is something that happens to me all the time—4,000 words of a character talking, with no reason for them to be there. I loved the character that emerged, and I wrote what I thought was a story, but something was lacking.

Situations like this are why it is good to have a group of fellow writers whose opinions you value, and who can be trusted to see your work with unbiased eyes. I sensed something was wrong with it but didn’t know what, so I showed it to two of my writing friends, and they both gave me good insights.

What I had written was a character study. My characters are engaging, but there is no obvious obstacle for them to overcome, other than a minor quest for self-knowledge. So, now I am taking these people and that quest and turning it into a larger quest, making it a real story.

The story is for an anthology and can be only 5,000 words long so only one quest will be explored. That quest will not be the obvious quest, in which the hero believes he must free a kidnapped girl. The real quest will be for self-knowledge, and for his superiors, who see promise in him, to help him develop humility.

If I do this one right, there should be ample opportunity for hilarity.

So how do we create conflict in an established story?

We must ask our characters three things:

  1. What is the core of the problem? In the case of my story, the core of the problem is my Main Character is a cocky, arrogant sort, a young man who is good at everything and is quite “honest” about it. His Mentors fear his boasting will hold him back, as no one wants to work with him.
  2. What do the characters want most? The Main Character wants to be just like his childhood hero, or better. He desires approval and admiration. Everything he does is calculated to make him look like a hero. His Mentors have plenty of heroes on hand and just want a mage that can be relied upon to get a job done well and with no fanfare.
  3. What are they willing to do to get it? The Main Character has boasted many times that he will overcome any obstacle no matter how difficult the path to success is. His Mentors devise a simple quest with dirty and disgusting obstacles that he hasn’t planned for, and they ensure that when he does “rescue the hostage,” he gets their message quite clearly.
  4. How will it end? Quite messily, and with all the acclaim the young hero could ask for. But somehow, he won’t feel quite as proud as he thought he would. (Cue the evil laughter.)

I started with the core conflict: his arrogance. I didn’t see the way to take that arrogance and make it a story until my writing friends showed me what it was lacking. They didn’t tell me what to write, but their input gave me that “Ah hah!” moment where I knew just what had to be done. I think this will be one of my favorite Neveyah stories, as it is not dark—it’s full of gallows humor, detailing the deeds of a hero who becomes a man.


Credits and Attributions:

The Green Knight, by N.C,Wyeth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Boys King Arthur – N. C. Wyeth – p82.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Boys_King_Arthur_-_N._C._Wyeth_-_p82.jpg&oldid=304597062  (accessed December 9, 2018).

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The character sketch and motivation #amwriting

Sometimes a novel gets off track half way through the first draft and we don’t know why it isn’t working. At that point, it may be a good time to take a look at the characters and rediscover what motivates them.

A character sketch is a tool that can help solidify the story in the planning stage. It is also a way to rein in characters who have taken over the story to no good effect. Once I remind myself of who my characters are and what their secrets were at the outset, I can get them back to the path that will take the novel to its completion.

Sometimes, I need to remind myself why they commit the sometimes heinous acts they do.

It’s a good idea to make a character sketch of the main players with all the important points mentioned, but not too detailed. With a paragraph for each character, the document isn’t too long. For example, two good characters might be:

Isobel (Izzy) Gardner: 41, vegan, novelist, lives in Seattle with her husband, Parker. Writes fantasy novels, has a deadline for next book. Her stepsister lives when them when she isn’t on tour, putting stress on an already difficult marriage.

Claire Claymont: 39, world renowned pianist, with secret opiates addiction. She is obsessively in love with Dominic, obsessed to the point she would do anything to keep him. Insists on living with Izzy when she isn’t touring.

Once the character sketches are out of the way, I do a short synopsis of the story as I intended it go. Basically, it’s a few words that just hit the high points of the novel, a few paragraphs that briefly tell me the story as I imagine it will go. An example:

The inadvertent revelation of Claire’s unplanned pregnancy throws Izzy’s plans for a productive working summer and the reconciliation of her marriage into chaos. Claire’s refusal to name the father threatens each of the three men.

Someone will attempt murder. Not sure yet who, but it will be one of the three men.

This might tell me that some events I have written into the story need to be cut, as they are what I think of as NaNoWriMo fluff—the stuff that falls out when I am writing stream-of-conscious and not looking at my outline.

I go back and look at the original motives of each character, and if the new elements are good and a side-character should have more prominence, I expand their character sketch, detailing what motivates them and why they are more important than a character I first thought would work. This is where doing a new character sketch can resurrect a stalled novel.

Motivation is everything. Motivation is the character’s quest to fulfill his/her deepest needs.

  1. What do these people have to lose?
  2. Who has the most to lose?
  3. What is their greatest fear?
  4. What is their greatest hope?

John Pierce: 42, Claire’s cousin, a licensed doctor, he practices exclusively by volunteering with Doctors Without Borders for half the year, and the rest of the time he works as a well-known painter/illustrator. Illustrates Izzy’s book covers. His longtime relationship has disintegrated, and he is trying to process that. Served as an Army doctor in Afghanistan, has PTSD from his tour of duty, which is worsened by his missions in third world countries. Mentally exhausted, he is conflicted, considering leaving medicine for good. His subconscious motivation for art is escapism.

His wife has left him. As a way of dealing with the failure of his marriage, he engages in some risk-taking behavior, such as storm surfing, a hobby embraced by Parker and Dominic.

John’s conscious motivation–hopes to use the time to make a decision regarding his medical career.

Each of the main characters gets an expanded paragraph.

Then I sit down and consider how I want to use symbolism to emphasize the environment and the emotional chaos of those people. If I were writing this novel, I would want to bring out the Gothic feeling of the summer house, the unspoken undercurrents, and fractured relationships. I make a list of symbolic things to support the atmosphere I’m trying to convey:

  1. Jigsaw puzzles – many dramas going on, but it’s hard to see the pattern until the pieces are put together.
  2. Broken and cracked objects visible in the landscape and environment.
  3. Mist and fog rising from the sea in the mornings and evening – everyone hides something behind a smiling façade.
  4. Scenes and fragments of interactions viewed in mirrors – Parker attempts to divert Izzy’s suspicions with “smoke and mirrors.”
  5. Izzy’s unfinished novel is an subconscious mirror of real events she doesn’t seem to recognize.

Nothing that muddies the story arc needs to remain in the story unless it is important to advance the plot. If it is necessary but isn’t working well, then you must rewrite that plot point until it pushes the story forward.

In my work, a plot twist that is not working generally has failed because I have stuffed too much detail into it. The things that make a character feel conflicted are important, as are their negative qualities, but minute details don’t matter.

The downside to the work I produce during NaNoWriMo is that much of it requires massive reshaping. The positive side is that some of my best ideas for later projects seem to spew forth during that month of madness—it’s just that they are unformed and unwieldy, and may just be an exercise in creative writing, not a novel.

And that’s okay too—it’s good to admit to yourself that some words were written just for you.

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5 things I’ve learned #amwriting

I’ve been writing for all of my adult life, but for most of it, not professionally. For the majority of my writing life, I was new, untutored in the craft, writing words that shouldn’t have been shown to anyone. I didn’t have the information I needed to make my work readable and didn’t know how to get it.

I felt embarrassed for even thinking that I could be an author.

One day in 1990, I stumbled upon a book that was offered in the Science Fiction Book Club catalog: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card. The day that book arrived in my mailbox changed my life. It was possible for me to become a writer, and one of my favorite authors was going to tell me how to do it.

In the years since that book, I have amassed a library of books on the craft. Some are brilliant, some not so much, but I always learn something from them. However, personal experience is a great teacher, and I’ve learned many things by trial and error.

So here in no particular order are five things I would like to pass on to you:

Make a style-sheet as you go, a glossary of words and spellings unique to your story, and be sure to list names especially. I use an Excel spreadsheet, but use anything you like, and that will help you stay consistent in your spellings.

Develop a good system for naming your files and save regularly. Save each version of your manuscript with a different name so you can go back and retrieve bits you may need later. I use a system like this:

Heavens_Altar_V5.docx

That stands for Heaven’s Altar version five, and I work out of Word, so the extension is automatically a docx.

Find a local group of writers to meet with and talk about the craft. Critique groups are great, but they are only one small part of the picture. Authors need to network with other authors because we need to discuss the craft with someone who doesn’t look at you with glazed eyes. I gained my extended author network for by joining The Pacific Northwest Writers Association and going to their conferences. This is how we educate ourselves. I also gained a local support group through attending Write Ins for NaNoWriMo.

Don’t even consider signing with any slick-talking publisher that contacts you out of the blue, saying they want your work if you haven’t submitted your work to them. How can they possibly want work they haven’t seen?

Make use of SFWA’s Writer Beware site. These predators want your work all right—and want to sell you publishing services you can do for yourself. You won’t benefit from the publisher’s “services,” but they will benefit from your desperation to be published. They will publish your work unedited, and your payment is the glory of having it published, as you will never see any royalties. They will expect you to market their product and offer you all manner of for-payment services that are dubious at best. Worst of all, you will have signed away the rights to your work for nothing.

Even though you are writing that novel, write short stories. Short stories are a training ground, a way to hone your developing skills. They’re also the best way to get your name out there. My advice is to build a backlog of work in lengths from 2000 to 5000 words ready to submit to magazines, anthologies, and contests. All those fabulous scenes and vignettes that roll though your head can be made into short pieces. Get the Submittable App and see who is asking for what sort of work, and start submitting.

These are five things that I wish I had known in 2010 but didn’t.

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The End #NaNoWriMo2018

Today is the final day of that annual writing rumble, NaNoWriMo. Many writers have passed the hurdle and already collected their winners’ goodies. They have ordered their winner’s T-shirt and are embarking on revisions.

Many other writers are scrambling to get that final thousand words written, the words that will reach the golden ring of 50,000 words before midnight tonight.

Others have decided that they are never going to finish, it’s a waste of time, and they’ll never do this again.

But they will.

They will come back in a year or two with a plan and they will beat those inner demons that block our creative mind and keep us from succeeding.

This year, I have so far written over 90,000 words. I’ve expanded my novel some, written many short stories and vignettes. I’ve written poems that made me happy,  and also chugged out a great many words that will never see the light of day.

But buried deep within the rubbish are some good words, words that are useful and make me happy.

I’ve been participating in NaNoWriMo since 2010. This annual burst of word-spewing has forced me to become disciplined. It makes me do what is for me the most difficult thing—I have to ignore my inner editor to get my wordcount. By November 30th, the little voice that slows my productivity down and squashes my creativity is numb and has accepted that no one is listening.

For that reason alone, I will most likely always “do” NaNoWriMo, even when I am no longer able to be a Municipal Liaison.

I love the rush, the thrill of having written something for myself, something that I alone will see and enjoy. But more than that, I love knowing that some of what I have written is good and is worthy of submission.

Perhaps one or more of these short stories will be accepted by a contest or magazine. Perhaps one of these little jewels will see the light of day and make a reader happy too.

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Sculpting the second draft #amwriting

The end of NaNoWriMo approaches. Many novels have been written, and many are still incomplete. And when we do finally write the last words, we will get that happy-dance feeling, that moment where the world is singing.

Following that burst of joy, we have the urge to immediately share it. I know it’s tempting, but don’t do it.

We need to gain some distance from our work to see it more clearly, so put it aside. If you work on something else for a couple of weeks, or even a month or two, you will gain a better perspective on what you just finished, and your revisions will bring out the best in your work.

Writers tell me all the time how new and intriguing characters pop up and take their tale in a different direction. Sometime this works out well. Other times, not so much. I floundered for years on my first novel, only to have it never be published.

So, when we do get back to our manuscript, where do we start so we can avoid the failed novel syndrome? I didn’t know the first thing about how to write a novel, which is clear when you look at that old ms.  I didn’t know that we are like sculptors. The first draft is not the finished product–it really is our block of clay.

I know—you see a complete novel, but trust me, others won’t see what you do in it, just yet. When a sculptor sees a block of clay, she also sees what it can become. She begins scraping the layers away, and that is what we must do.

We scrape the layers away scene by scene. As you revise, keep in mind:

  1. Each chapter is made up of scenes. It might be one scene or several strung together.
  2. These scenes have an arc to them: action and reaction.
  3. These arcs of action and reaction begin at point A and end at point B.
  4. Each launching point will land on a slightly higher point of the story arc.
  5. Strung together, these scenes form the entire story arc, with a beginning, middle and end.

If somewhere near the middle you discover that you have lost the overall plot of your novel, remind yourself what the original idea was. This happens to me for several reasons.

First, it can happen because I deviate from the outline, and while my new idea is better, it lacks something. I can

  • Go back to the original idea and rewrite it so that it conforms to that outline.
  • Try to figure out why the plot has failed.

More often, I have to ask myself, did the original quest turn out to be a MacGuffin?

Every story has a quest of some sort. It can be a personal quest for enlightenment or a quest for the Holy Grail. No matter what, the characters want something, and that thing must be sharply defined.

Alfred Hitchcock popularized the name “MacGuffin” in the 1930s. The MacGuffin’s importance to the plot is not the object or goal itself, but rather the effect it has on the characters and their motivations. Many times, it is inserted into the narrative with little or no explanation, as the sole purpose of the MacGuffin is to move the plot forward.

The Maltese Falcon is a classic example of a MacGuffin. The object of the quest might not be the purported “Maltese Falcon” after all, despite the obvious quest to acquire it and the lengths the characters must go to in the process. The true core of the story is the internal journey of both Sam Spade and Brigid O’Shaunessy, two people brought together by the quest, and whose lives are changed by it.

If the quest has become a MacGuffin, the effect that searching for it has on the characters must be clearly shown. The true quest is not for the object. It is for power, love, money, or personal growth and must be given more prominence.

As we are peeling back the layers of our rough draft, what symbolism have we subconsciously inserted into the story that we can work with? Once we identify the symbolic aspect of the plot, we must amplify it. Symbolism is a powerful tool and is part of the subtext that pushes the story forward. In my opinion, one of the most masterful uses of symbolism happens in the film, The Matrix.

In one of my favorite scenes, when Neo answers the door and is invited to the party, he at first declines. But then he notices that Du Jour, the woman with Choi, bears a tattoo of a white rabbit. He remembers seeing the words: follow the white rabbit, on his computer.

Curious and slightly fearful of what it all means, he changes his mind and goes to the party, setting a sequence of events in motion. The white rabbit tattoo is a symbol, an allegorical reference to Alice in Wonderland, a subliminal clue that things are not what they seem.

What is the deeper story? With each pass through our manuscript, we are sharpening the final product, scraping away from this part and adding over here, rewording and redefining as we go.

Ultimately, we will have exposed the core of our original vision, revealed the parts we couldn’t articulate at first. Some things only become clearer to us as we dig deeper.

This is why, while many people can write, not just anyone can write well. It takes patience and time to cut away the fat and bring out the true story that needs to be told. It also takes practice. Digging the deeper story out doesn’t happen overnight.

A first draft is our block of clay, and after much effort, the final draft is our finished sculpture.


Credits and Attributions:

Portrait of German-American sculptor Elisabeth Ney with a bust of King George V of Hanover, 1860, by Friedrich Kaulbach. PD|100. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Elisabeth Ney by Friedrich Kaulbach.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Elisabeth_Ney_by_Friedrich_Kaulbach.jpg&oldid=286953027 (accessed November 27, 2018).

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Subtext and first person point-of-view #amwriting

Third-person omniscient has been my usual mode to write in, but I’m not limited to it. When we write in third-person omniscient mode, the story is told from an outside, overarching point of view. The narrator sees and knows everything that happens within the world of the story, including what each of the characters is thinking and feeling.

This works because the narrator hold much of the information back from the reader, doling it out as the protagonists need it.

But what if we want to create a sense of intimacy, of being in the character’s head? And what if we don’t want the reader to know everything that is going on until the last minute?

This is where the literary devices of point-of-view and subtext come into play. It’s fairly easy to keep the reader guessing what is going on in either narrative mode if you make good use of subtext.

The first-person point of view is fairly common and is told from one protagonist’s personal point of view. It employs “I-me-my-mine” in the protagonist’s speech, allowing the reader or audience to see the primary character’s opinions, thoughts, and feelings.

A limited first person point of view is stream of consciousness. This is a narrative mode told from a first-person perspective, replicating the thought processes as well as the actions and spoken words of the protagonist. In real life we can’t be all-seeing and all-knowing—witnesses are notoriously unreliable. First-person point-of-view employs the unreliable narrator which I like when the author understands how to make the subtext work.

Disbelief paralyzes me, but then my emotions coalesce into one thought—Ricky…of course.

Through the use of interior monologues, we show the inner desires and motivations of the protagonists. We also offer the reader the incomplete thoughts they express to themselves but conceal from the other characters. So, we see the POV character’s rambling thoughts, as well as witness their conversations and actions.

How do we fit subtext into our narrative if we’re using a limited first person point of view? “Subtext” is the hidden story, the hints and allegations, and secret motives of the entire cast. Subtext is the content that supports the dialogue and gives private purpose to the events each character experiences.

We don’t want to just lay it all out for the reader in the first paragraphs. Just as in all other narrative modes, in limited first person point of view we have several ways available to reveal the subtext, the hidden motives and desires of our characters.

The Double Entendre: a word or phrase open to two interpretations, one of which is usually risqué or indecent. “My, those are some plump loaves you have rising there, ma’am.” This can be too in-your-face for many readers if the author is heavy-handed. Many classic Noir detective novels of the 1930s through the 1960s employed the double entendre to convey ideas and intentions that the censors wouldn’t have allowed to be published.

Sarcasm: the use of irony to mock or convey contempt. “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.—Mark Twain. I sometimes use sarcasm as a way to show subtle aggression and tension. Also sarcasm, especially that which is self-directed, can highlight the dark humor of a bad situation.

Lying: The main character may be guilty of habitually telling falsehoods. “Sorry, I’m late. Traffic was a bitch.” If the first page shows the character oversleeping, this lie is a clue that the character is not always truthful. In a first person narrative, the reader should consider that what he tells us may be a lie too.

We can also employ the use of allegory, words, and images that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one. Animal Farm, written by George Orwell, is an allegory that uses animals on a farm to describe the overthrow of the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, and the Communist Revolution of Russia before WW I.

Symbolism: using an object or a word to represent an abstract idea. An action, person, place, word, or object can all have a symbolic meaning. Literary Devices.net gives us these examples:

  • The dove is a symbol of peace.

  • A red rose, or the color red, stands for love or romance.

  • Black is a symbol that represents evil or death.

  • A ladder may stand as a symbol for a connection between heaven and earth.

  • A broken mirror may symbolize separation.

Writing is as much about rewriting as it is writing new words. Sometimes I have a story that I think might have potential, but I can’t decide if the plot should continue down the bunny trail it’s on or not. I will share it with my writing buddies to see what they think about the premise.

Usually, I get good feedback that helps me steer the narrative in the right direction when I am embarking on the second draft. I consider all feedback good, even when the first readers of a scene or short story don’t “get” what I am trying to convey. The readers don’t see what I mean, so their comments aren’t directly helpful as they have missed the point of the story entirely.

What that kind of feedback tells me is this: the scene or a story must be completely rewritten because the subtext failed to do its job. My protagonist’s intentions must be made clearer to the reader.

That struggle to express my ideas clearly is just part of the process.


Credits and Attributions:

LiteraryDevices Editors. “Symbolism” LiteraryDevices.net. 2013. http://literarydevices.net/symbolism/  (accessed November 24, 2018).

Quill Pen, PD|by author, BWCNY at English Wikipedia.

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#FineArtFriday: Hunter in Winter Wood, George Henry Durrie

Hunter in Winter Wood, by George Henry Durrie 1860 is one of my favorite images of 19th century Americana. The snow on the bare trees and rocky outcroppings gives the impression of weight, yet it is only a light dusting. The way the light shines golden on the snow—this is how a snowy winter looked in the woods surrounding the rural lake where I grew up. The grandeur of the view shows the 19th century vision of a wide, boundless country. Anything is possible in a country where the land and resources are as limitless as shown in this painting.

Hunter in Winter Wood was painted near the end of Durrie’s life. His most famous works were made into prints by Currier and Ives after his death at the age of 43.

About the Artist, quoted from the National Gallery of Art:

Born in New Haven in 1820, the son of a Connecticut stationer, George Henry Durrie remained in that city virtually his entire life. Married to a choirmaster’s daughter, Sarah Perkins, in 1841, he immersed himself in the quiet pursuits of family and church. While he never achieved the fame of the most renowned nineteenth century American landscape painters, he appears to have had a fulfilling, productive career. His letters show that he never felt the need to move beyond his community, although he once briefly took a studio in New York and exhibited there regularly at the National Academy of Design.

Almost all of his compositions are relatively small in scale, few exceeding 18 x 24 inches, and his views are quiet and intimate. He knew and admired the works of Thomas Cole, and may have tried to emulate certain aspects of Cole’s style, yet he eschewed the Hudson River School’s compositional complexity and expansiveness. Because his paintings combined extensive genre elements with landscape they had a story-telling content that made them pleasant, accessible images to the average viewer.

The lithographic firm of Currier & Ives successfully reproduced ten of Durrie’s scenes and these, in turn, became popular calendar illustrations in the twentieth century. As a result, Durrie’s depictions of rural life in the mid-nineteenth century are now among the most familiar images in all of American art. As Martha Hutson has noted, however, these printed pictures do not convey the keen sensitivity to and understanding of conditions of atmosphere and light that are so pronounced in Durrie’s paintings.

From Wikipedia:

In his teens the self-taught artist painted portraits in the New Haven area. In 1839 he received artistic instruction from Nathaniel Jocelyn, a local engraver and portrait painter. After 1842 he settled in New Haven, but made painting trips to New Jersey, New York, and Virginia. Around 1850, he began painting genre scenes of rural life, as well as the winter landscapes that became popular when Currier and Ives published them as lithographs. Four prints were published between 1860 and the artist’s death in New Haven in 1863; six additional prints were issued posthumously. The painter Jeanette Shepperd Harrison Loop studied with him.


Credits and Attributions:

Hunter in Winter Wood, by George Henry Durrie 1860 [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Wikipedia contributors, “George Henry Durrie,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=George_Henry_Durrie&oldid=861433469 (accessed November 23, 2018).

National Gallery of Art contributors, “George Henry Durrie,” biography, © 2018 National Gallery of Art, https://www.nga.gov/collection/artist-info.6397.html

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Existence and Past Subjunctives revisited #amwriting

Because we are deep in depths of NaNoWriMo and it is Thanksgiving week, I am neck deep in cooking and writing. So, today I’m serving a post from last year—a little treatise on existence and verb forms. Enjoy!


Grammarians are philosophers. You can find us in darkened chat rooms. We argue about existence, to be or not to be, and postulate theories that are subjective, doubtful, and often hypothetical.

Or, at least, the words and rules to describe existence can be murky.

We call them Subjunctive Verbs.

When you go out to Wikipedia, the whole subjunctive verb thing looks quite complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. The subjunctive (in the English language) is used to form sentences that do not describe known objective facts. So today, we are once again looking at Past Subjunctives: the verbs was and were.

But first, what does “subjunctive” mean?

Dictionary.com defines “Subjunctive.” as:

adjective

1.(in English and certain other languages) noting or pertaining to a mood or mode of the verb that may be used for subjective, doubtful, hypothetical, or grammatically subordinate statements or questions, as the mood of ‘be’ in ‘if this be treason.’

2.the subjunctive mood or mode.

3.a verb in the subjunctive mood or form.

First, let’s consider existence and what Past Subjunctive Tense covers: how to use the words ‘was’ and ‘were,’ which are forms of the verb ‘be.’

Which is correct?

  • I wish I were a penguin. I would fly through the water.
  • I wish I was a penguin. I would fly through the water.

If I only wish I were a penguin, were is correct. If I could actually be a penguin, was would be correct and I would have to rewrite my sentence, by changing ‘would’ to ‘could.’

The Grammar Girl goes farther. She says: Believe it or not, verbs have moods just like you do. Yes, before the Internet and before emoticons, somebody already thought it was important to communicate moods. So, like many other languages, English has verbs with moods ranging from commanding to questioning and beyond. The mood of the verb “to be” when you use the phrase “I were” is called the subjunctive mood, and you use it for times when you’re talking about something that isn’t true or you’re being wishful.

I love that clue—that verbs can be wishful.

The Grammar Girl gives us a great example: Think of the song “If I Were a Rich Man,” from Fiddler on the Roof. When Tevye sings “If I were a rich man,” he is fantasizing about all the things he would do if he were rich. He’s not rich, he’s just imagining, so “If I were” is the correct statement. This time you’ve got a different clue at the beginning of the line: the word “if.”

English tends to favor fewer subjunctives than some other languages. So why are some grammarians ranting about irrealis mood and were?

(And what the hell does that mean?)

The irrealis mood is an older, nineteenth century label for a verb mood. Simply stated, it means that language can express fact (what is real) and can indicate fallacy (what is unreal). It was identified by the linguist, Roman Jakobson.

English has a formula for expressing the unreal: the irrealis mood, but that label is no longer as well-known as its modern label: the past subjunctive verb form. This verb form expresses a hypothetical condition in present, past, or future time:

Steven Pinker, in his extremely convoluted book on language and usage, The Sense of Style, discusses the word, irrealis. He offers several complicated explanations but eventually gets to the point, and I will boil it down here:

There are times when we use a form of the verb ‘was’ even though the subject of the sentence has not yet happened or may not happen at all:  the past subjunctive verb form. It is unreal and may remain that way. “If I were.”

Let’s go back to the song from Fiddler on the Roof, If I were a rich man. As I am a woman and intent on remaining so, I will never be a rich man. As I am an author and intent on remaining so, I will never be rich. So, for me, that song title contains two impossibilities. “If I were” is the correct subjunctive mood.

When you are supposing about something that might be true, you use a form of the verb “was” and don’t sweat it.

If it’s likely real: Was (possibly is) I heard he was training his dog to fetch.

If it’s likely unreal: Were (possibly isn’t) If I were a penguin, I wouldn’t need to rent a tuxedo.

We are still talking existence here. Remember from above? The past subjunctive verb forms express a hypothetical condition which may exist in present, past, or future time:

  • Don’t complain about the food. What if I was a chef?
  • I wish I were
  • If this be treason…
  • To be or not to be

What if you are writing a technical manual, a dissertation, or an email to a client or coworker? Despite the ill-conceived efforts of many critique groups and Microsoft Word to erase all forms of ‘to be’ from the English language and replace it with ‘is,’ you have a right to use the subjunctive verb form if you choose to do so. Write with your own sense of style.

When your intent is formal, subjunctives may abound, often in the form of commonly used phrases:

  • Be that as it may,
  • So be it,
  • Suffice it to say,
  • Come what may,

Steven Pinker has a point that is important to this blogpost: Subjunctives are hard to spot. Forms of “to be” can be found in subordinate clauses where something is mandated or required:

  • I demand the prisoner be fed the same as anyone else.

A verb like “see” also has a subjunctive form when something is mandated or required:

  • It’s essential that I see your report before you send it.

In ordinary writing, we rarely need to use subjunctives in clauses with mandates except perhaps to show a formal conversation.

Subjunctives are small verbs of existence but used correctly they have a large influence on your writing voice.

And, thanks to Steven Pinker, we now know that if someone drops the word “irrealis” on you at a critique group, it’s a hint that they are fond of obscure, nineteenth century words. Surprise them by telling them the past subjunctive verb form is your friend, and you enjoy using it appropriately.


Credits and Attributions:

Existence and Past Subjunctives by Connie J. Jasperson, © 2017 first appeard here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy on November20, 2017.

Subjunctive Verbs, by Mignon Fogarty, http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/subjunctive-verbs, Copyright © 2017 Macmillan Holdings, LLC. Quick & Dirty Tips™

Wikipedia contributors, “English subjunctive,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,  https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=English_subjunctive&oldid=807313887 (accessed November 19, 2017).

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#FineArtFriday: Saint Cecilia, by Edward Burne-Jones

Saint Cecilia is the patroness of musicians, and her feast day is traditionally celebrated on November 22. The above image is my favorite rendering of her, as it is so vividly colored.

One of the most beautiful forms of art is stained glass, and the many works of Sir Edward Burne-Jones has inspired and influenced my own art.

While I have no patience with some of the more hyper-romanticized, physically impossible art produced by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the  concept and execution of Burne-Jones’s artistic visions in glass is without peer. Vivid, intense colors, romantic subjects – each of his windows tells a story. They are glorious, and seem illuminated even when not back-lit by the sun.

About Saint Cecilia, From Wikimedia Commons:

One of nearly thirty versions of a window designed by Burne-Jones and executed by the company founded by William Morris (1834–1896), Saint Cecilia is a product of the Arts and Crafts movement they initiated. Friends at Oxford, Morris and Burne-Jones became disciples of John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelite movement and put into practice his vision for the renewal of art. They sought to counter the effects of the machine age by reviving medieval crafts, abolishing distinctions between fine and decorative arts, and beautifying objects of everyday life. Morris wrote on the philosophy of art and founded a company to execute textiles, wallpaper, and other objects, while Burne-Jones, in addition to painting and sculpting, studied with the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and designed murals, tapestries, and stained glass for Morris’s company.

The Gothic Revival style in architecture created a market for stained glass, especially in the 1870s, when Burne-Jones was a particularly prolific designer of windows. The first Saint Cecilia window, at Christ Church, Oxford (1875), shows the influence of the early Renaissance art he had seen in central Italy, most recently in 1871. The flat, abstracted, linear style and the wilting pose of the impossibly tall, graceful woman make reference to the work of Botticelli (Florentine, ca. 1445–1510), while the tapestry-like screen of pomegranate trees and fruits and the richly patterned brocade fabric recall the latest Gothic phase of Italian art, about 1400.

Saint Cecilia, an early Christian Roman virgin martyr, became the patron saint of music and was portrayed with an organ — here, a portable organ of the fifteenth century. Although water organs existed in the ancient world, pipe organs date from the fourteenth century, so we must assume Cecilia is singing the praises of God in heaven, not during her earthly life. In the window at Christ Church, she is flanked by lancet windows with music-making angels; scenes from the life of a fellow martyr saint, Valerian, and her own martyrdom are shown below. In Chicago, a Saint Cecilia window was included in the stained glass of the Second Presbyterian Church (1904); there, the fabric behind the saint is blue, and the tree bears lemons, demonstrating the permutations that could occur among these windows.

About the artist, from Wikipedia:

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, 1st Baronet ARA (28 August 1833 – 17 June 1898) was an English artist and designer closely associated with the later phase of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, who worked closely with William Morris on a wide range of decorative arts as a founding partner in Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. Burne-Jones was closely involved in the rejuvenation of the tradition of stained glass art in Britain.


Credits and Attributions:

Saint Cecilia, Edward Burne-Jones [Public domain], Stained and painted glasss, ca. 1900

Wikipedia contributors, “Edward Burne-Jones,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Edward_Burne-Jones&oldid=868174553 (accessed November 16, 2018).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Burne-Jones, Sir Edward, Saint Cecilia, ca. 1900.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Burne-Jones,_Sir_Edward,_Saint_Cecilia,_ca._1900.jpg&oldid=303427881 (accessed November 16, 2018).

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