Editor’s Corner 101.16

Dangling Our Toes in the Stream of Consciousness

Scribe smallI love flowers Id love to have the whole place swimming in roses God of heaven theres nothing like nature the wild mountains then the sea and waves rushing then the beautiful country with the fields of oats and wheat and all kinds of things and all the fine cattle going about that would do your heart good to see rivers and lakes and flowers all sorts of shapes and smells and colours…

So, I picked up Ulysses the other day – as one is wont to do – and dove into the roiling river which is Molly Bloom’s beautifully, rudely fecund tale at book’s end. With my mind groping towards a subject for today, I read not only for the jaw-dropping poetry of the words tumbling across the page, but also for their precise, artful construction.

james-joycecollageAfter last week’s discussion of structure and time, it feels only natural to turn this week to a structure often entirely out of time, stream of consciousness. As a matter of history – and by now you know how I love my literary history – the term was first used by William James in his Principles of Psychology (1890) to describe the uncensored way thoughts play across the mind. Writers picked it up as a narrative conceit, a means to imitate our interior chatter that fills out brains. Though some say his baby brother Henry (and a few other 19th-century scribes) toyed with the style, it did not really catch on until the 20th century.

Which brings me back to Joyce – and to Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Eugene O’Neill, and other masters of stream of consciousness. Ulysses, The Waves,The Waves As I Lay Dying, Strange Interlude, all are modern classics with interior narratives as intricately constructed aAs I Lay Dyings Chartres cathedral. They lead the reader into the mental meanderings of characters, each word leaping off the page 200px-Strange_Interlude2like a synaptic spark, seemingly random, spontaneous, and free. Yet they knew what too many novice writers do not: an imitation of unfiltered thought is not truly unfiltered. Intimations of freedom require restraints.

Now, as an editor, I lay the trouble many people have with SofC at the door of misguided youth and J.D. Salinger. (For the younger generation, consider the culpability of the vast Cyberian wasteland and the Twitter/Facebook anything-I-think-is-brilliant-because-I-think-it mentality.) Back when we were teenagers many a would-be writer sat in third-period English poring over The Catcher in the Rye, carried along by Holden’s free-wheeling SofC narrative. Chances are generation of well-meaning teacher even assigned stream-of-consciousness essays, urging a generation to emulate Salinger and capture the spontaneity of his style. And why not? We were young and easily enamored by the freedom SofC embodied, believing that it’s simply a matter of turning on a tap and going with the verbal flow.

While this may be great for dusting the morning cobwebs from a sleepy brain, or dislodging a paralyzing case of writer’s block, an objective look at such writing will tell you that it may be ‘free’ but chances are it’s not very good. Even journaling, personally fascinating and helpful as it may be, seldom rises to the level of literature. (Pepys, Nin, Woolf, and a few other extraordinary diarists are the exception that proves the rule, and in some cases, they clearly wrote their diaries with an eye on posterity, making them more intentionally artful. But I digress….)

The fact is, if you look at Joyce or Woolf, you will see that there is no happenstance in their words (there was a reason it took Joyce 12 years to write Ulysses). They’re filtered through character and structure and rules, each stream-polished stone placed just so, that it might catch the sun perfectly. Like each stroke Jackson Pollock put on canvas, there is purpose and intent behind every word. There is the meticulous manifestation of choice.Jackson-Pollock-21

Throwing paint at a canvas doesn’t make someone Jackson Pollock and spilling random words onto paper doesn’t make you James Joyce. Literary stream of consciousness is not automatic writing, it just feels that way.

And that is the writer’s magic. The studied art of effortlessness.

Dive in, if you dare.

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner 101.15

House of Words

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” …Lewis Carroll.

Scribe smallWhen I was a kid, aside from wanting to be a writer, part of me wanted to be an architect. To design and build houses – and castles – from the ground up. To focus on the 3-D aesthetic of what goes where and how it all fits together. As I grew up, I realized that you don’t have to build houses to focus on the elements of construction. And so today, I want to talk about literary structure, about how, as writers, we are architects with words. shot02

First, let me clarify: I am not talking about plot. Personally, I tend to be a little lukewarm about plot. But I love structure.

And at heart, structure is largely a matter of knowing – and keeping – a story’s time.

Long ago, one chilly Paleolithic evening, our storytelling ancestors sat around the hearth and talked about their day tracking woolly rhinos and dodging cave bears. And when there was a lull in the tale someone would invariably say, “What happened next?”

Such an A-to-B-to-C progression is, after all, how we live, and literature – even at its most fantastic – tends to mirror life. It is this familiarity, no matter how tenuous, which draws the reader in and lets them (us) say, “Yes! I can relate to that person/dormouse/dragon. They have elevenses before tea just like I do.” Time (1)

This is the natural flow of time, the requisite of history books, biographies, and Dickensian tomes beginning with “I was born.” Chronology. Day follows day, week follows week, year, year, in a logical progression. Just as you build a house floor to wall to roof, so you build a tale beginning to middle to end. This is the skeleton upon which we drape characters and plots, themes and lofty metaphors. Spanning an hour or a century, a linear sense of time serves as the most simple – reliable – framework for a story.

So, your foundation runs deep, load-bearing walls are in place, no holes in your roof. You have a solid structure; now, within reason, you can do most anything with it. As long as the ornamentation suits the tale, go for it. Add a tower for lofty perspective or a priest’s hole full of subplot and tangential intrigue. Paint the walls with psychedelic murals or line them with yard after yard of leather-bound books. These are the details of character and text that make fiction more than a string of events. Though remember: adding gingerbread to an intimate tale for the hell of it tends to read as just showing off. You want to enhance, not distract. cm-forbes-home-nw-corner-vista-and-park-8343-1892

You can even start having fun with time, an increasing used conceit of contemporary fiction. One of my favorite plays is Harold Pinter’s classic, “Betrayal,” which spins out across the stage from end to beginning, from good-bye to hello, last awkward look first fervid touch. And yet, as much as Pinter manipulated the presentation of events, his frame’s always solid.

Jeremy Irons, Patricia Hodge - "Betrayal"

Jeremy Irons, Patricia Hodge – “Betrayal”

Or you have something like William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” in which, without strict regard for chronological order, the Compson brothers (and Dilsey, the family cook) explore not only their relationships with each other, but also their personal relationships with time. In the end, Time takes on a character all its own, defining the Compsons as profoundly as any human connection they might have.

Leaving typical notions of chronology even further by the wayside is Julio Cortazar’s interactive lyric novel, “Hopscotch.” Escheresque in its complexity, Cortazar so fractured his temporal world that he provided reading instructions for the book – a sort of temporal GPS, if you will, lest you get lost. (If you haven’t read it, give it a shot; it’s a treat on many levels.) But even Cortazar doesn’t abandon a temporal framework entirely. It is still there, the underlying – if extreme – blueprint to his work.9780764946448_big

One last thought, strictly from an editor’s perspective. Flaws and deviations from sound structure are often easy to see and usually easy to fix. If you find yourself getting lost along your way, step back and see where you went down the wrong hallway, opened the wrong door, and backtrack to the basics.

Granted, not everyone has architectural sensibilities. If you can’t see something yourself, go to someone who can. That’s what editors are for.

OK. I’ve rambled quite enough.

For now.

Editor’s Corner 101.14

Deviling the Details

Scribe smallThose of you who visited the Editor’s Corner last week will likely think I am working in a backasswards fashion. Given that I am never quite sure what I will tackle until I set fingers a typing, I am actually surprised this doesn’t happen on a regular basis.

Be that as it may, last week I spoke about going macro and reclaiming your Big Picture. Today, I want to turn the telescope around and talk micro: the realm of detail and what particular details tell the reader. A character can have breakfast, sure. But a breakfast of corn flakes and black coffee says something very different than eggs benedict and fresh pomegranate juice. A simple suburban house tells us far less about its occupants than a Cape Cod on a corner lot with a thriving vegetable garden around back. John Cheever would certainly never settle for the former! It is the details which define our setting, our characters, their actions, and are, at times, as important as all the broad brush thematic flourishes on which we prefer to focus.


In short, I am talking world building via vivid detail, the “life blood,” as John Gardner said, of fiction. And though ‘world building’ is a phrase more familiar to those of us who delve into the sci-fi/fantasy genres, I believe it remains apt for all.

Caveat emptor: I, as a rule, am one of those fantasy/sci-fi folk. I stride across landscapes alien and strange even when set in the relatively familiar environs of our home world. This often requires world building of the highest order, from geography to flora and fauna. That said, not anything goes. Quite the contrary. When we world build from scratch, we can be outrageous as long as the core structure is 100% authentic and believable. Natural law must apply. We can, of course, rewrite natural law but that usually demands far more exposition than most readers will abide. Thus, the best sci-fi/fantasy is grounded in a relative degree of familiarity. Air and water and gravity are constants for life; fish – or their counterparts – swim, and dragons –or their counterparts – fly. Within such parameters, all sorts of things can happen and the more detail you give your world, the more believable it becomes; the more clearly your reader can imagine your tale.


I am currently (still – I mentioned this story a couple of weeks ago and chide myself daily for my slow progress) reediting a short story which takes place on very foreign soil, the planet Asru-Nai. Though Earthlike in terms of atmosphere and livability, there are notable distinctions. Geographically, Asru-Nai is closer to Venus, with mountains that would dwarf Everest and a shallow sea twice the size of the Pacific. The latter creates real-life problems, like massive storms and tsunamis. This requires a believable solution: the colonists must terraform a vast archipelago of barrier islands to mitigate nature’s chaos. The flora and fauna are a treat to create, though I admit I spent 2 hours today trying to find the right name for a harbor delicacy that was both unusual and demanding no explanation. Tricky that, but the sort of thing which is essential flesh on a story’s bones. (I settled on braised jawfish on a bed of fern-root.)

Now, you don’t have to travel across the cosmos to build worlds. Every detail is important. More to the point, those details we choose to include in our work – as opposed to the plethora of authorial backstory – should BE important. We are painters with words and without detail the best we can hope for are rather ill-focused monochromatic sketches. From warm skin to fairy hair, from a praying mantis waltzing through the rhododendrons to the floral sweetness of saffron in bouillabaisse, these are our tales, the colors of our palette, the building blocks of our fictive worlds.

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner 101.13

Other Eyes and Beatles Wisdom

Scribe smallThe trick to forgetting the big picture is to look at everything close up.” …Chuck Palahniuk

“It is better to take pleasure in a rose than to put its root under a microscope.” …Oscar Wilde.

There comes a time in every editing endeavor when each wall you face is an Everest and each knot Gordian in its complexity. You have taken your work apart, dissected and resected every sentence, paragraph, and chapter. You know your characters inside out and have removed every extraneous pronoun, preposition, and adverb, but still it’s not right.

Typewriter Girl - Zev Hoover

Typewriter Girl – Zev Hoover

Chances are, while slogging through dense literary underbrush, you have not only lost sight of the forest, but also the trees. This is the boundary beyond which all the rules in the world will do you absolutely no good. In fact, chances are you are in this predicament in part because you’ve become so caught up the rules and craft of writing that you can’t get out of your own way. What started as a labor of love has simply become a labor, and the task ahead so dwarfs your spirit, a big part of you wants to just pack it all in. The only thing that will save you is an immediate dose of Big-Picture perspective.

But how to get that perspective? First, get thee to a writers’ group. For years I was a solitary writer, scribbling away in sordid isolation, the only critical voice in my head my own and that of a friend or two and family who were too kind to be helpful. Then I joined a local writers’ group; for 5 years it was the best thing I could imagine. (Now I am part of a different group and it’s even better, but that’s another story.) A serious writers’ group is a sounding board, a place to bring your work and gain perspective. This works for finished work that might need a little tweaking here and there, but is even more important for that paragraph or chapter you just can’t pull together. Ideally, other writers will come at the work from their own perspectives. Like Google Earth, they can help you see – and reclaim – the forest you have lost.


If that doesn’t work – or no group is available to you – I like to follow a path suggested by the Beatles and just let it be. Stick your manuscript in the desk drawer for a week – or four – and just forget about it. Work on something else, take a trip, go to the circus. Just let your mind wander where it will. Do not, under pain of being stripped of quill and vellum, obsess over your tale. When your mind is clear, your soul refreshed, go back and approach the piece anew. It doesn’t always help but it never hurts.

Ultimately, no matter how you get there, returning to the Big Picture is about returning to the heart of your work, to the magic that inspired you to tell a particular story in the first place. So when you feel beat up by the editing process, just step back and try looking with different eyes. Trust yourself. You’ll find your way home.

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner 101.12

Audience Appreciation Day

Scribe smallIt is my hatching day – well, it was when I wrote this – so I am invoking the Celebrant’s Prerogative to be brief.

Today, I want to talk about audience, trust, and respect. When we write, a part of us is at least peripherally mindful of our audience. Whether we imagine legions clamoring for our prose, pushing us up the bestseller lists, or focus on a more limited public of our devoted blog and website followers, audience is important. After all, we are in the business of sharing our work, of shouting it to the proverbial rafters and communicating our ideas to best effect. Real or ideal, awareness of audience leads us to choose fitting storylines and characters, as well as structures and language that are both age and genre appropriate.

Sadly, this too often leads people to believe they need to oversimplify or – Goddess forbid – be repetitious. Though apt for a luncheon speech at the Rotary, Dale Carnegie has ruined many a writer with his infamous advice, “Tell the audience what you’re going to say, say it; then tell them what you’ve said.” Sooner than rubber chicken rots sinks to your stomach, this will bore a reader silly when applied to fiction. Far better, I think, the words of Lily Tomlin: “What I appreciate is acknowledging to the audience that I think they have brains.”

Readers do have brains. I like to believe this is evident by the fact they are poring over pages of type rather than wasting hours to TV or the latest video game. (Gamers, please do not come for me with pitchforks at the ready. I am being (a tad) hyperbolic and know many of you are bloody brilliant.)

The point is, we have to treat our readers with respect. Regardless of age or other salient demographic, value and trust your audience. Ultimately this comes down to trusting yourself. If you have written a good tale with evocative prose, engaging characters, and an intriguing plot, trust that your audience will follow you, page after page. It will happen. And when it does, they will allow you to be subtle and complex, to challenge them at every turn, as long as you’re not just doing it to show off. In short, assume your audience is at least as smart as you are (they’re often smarter), and then write up, never down. Craft your prose for mirrors of your best possible self. Unless you have short-term memory loss, assume telling once is enough. And shape your narrative with a lapidary stick not a sledgehammer, and believe that your audience will appreciate the difference.

Finally, as Madeleine L’Engle said, “You have to write whichever book it is that wants to be written. And then, if it’s going to be too difficult for grownups, you write it for children.”

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner 101.11

Packing Up Clutter and Dispatching Our Darlings

Scribe smallThis morning the rain – and snow – stopped here in the Green Mountains, the sun came out, and I was finally able to mow the shaggy lawn and begin the arduous spring ritual of uncluttering my life. While this is one of those ongoing projects which I likely won’t finish until the next millennium (I come from a family of long-lived optimists), it is something I mirror in a more manageable way when I sit down to edit and rewrite.

Which is what I am doing right now to a short story I wrote four years ago. It was ok at the time, but I always thought there was something that didn’t quite work. Or could work better. At the time the need to pen two books intervened, but now, up against a block on my chinchilla novel, there’s no better time to dust it off and spruce it up.

I was timid, at first. Moving a comma here and there, making sure the prose was active and clean; after all, we can learn and improve a lot in four years. But that lingering sense of wrong remained.

Death by pen03Time to resurrect that oft-quoted (dare I say clichéd?) bit of Faulknerian advice: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” This is actually a variation on the words of another Oxfordian – thought from England, not Mississippi – Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who said, “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.” It was more recently echoed by Stephen King in his splendid book, On Writing, with distinctive King flair: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

Now, this can either be excruciating or liberating or, for those of us with a perverse appreciation for carnage, great fun. But before you get down to the business of literary homicide, start by going through and removing anything that seems like clutter. From clutzy phrase to extraneous scene, even that colorful character you so fell in love with but who really belongs in a story all her own, snip them out. Fill the wastebasket (with paper or bits); or file them away for later use, perhaps random inspiration.a3cc3-revisionangst

If this doesn’t fix things, it should at least make it easier to see those darlings begging for a swift execution. It doesn’t matter how eloquent or heart-rending the prose, nor how many days you slaved over a paragraph (Oscar Wilde once quipped, “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”). Be willing to look with an objective eye to the whole. If something doesn’t work, kill it. You can always play necromancer later, if you must.

I’m still working on my story, deconstructing, reconstructing. But the old clutter is gone, the old darlings dead and buried. Tomorrow I’ll deal with the new ones.

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner 101.10

Every Dog Will Have His Cliché
Written by Shawn MacKenzie

Scribe smallI am going to start with a little tale from the past. History is a passion of mine, particularly the history of words, writing, and books. In 1450 CE, goldsmith-turned-printer Johannes Gutenberg popularized moveable type, and books left the hallowed confines of scriptorium walls for the libraries and studies of anyone with ready cash and the ability to read. (Note: The Chinese and Koreans had moveable type as early as the 11th century, but, given the intricacies of their ideographic languages, a proliferation of books was not immediately forthcoming.)

Printing-Press-1568 As revolutionary as Gutenberg was, each word on each page still had to be set individually. Once an edition came off the presses, the type was knocked down and used for the next project. This was labor intensive, to say the least, particularly if a book became an unexpected bestseller and merited a second edition. All those pages would have to be reset. Thank goodness printing technology upgraded over the years. In 1725, William Ged, also a goldsmith – though this time a practical Scot – came up with a brilliant idea. He used his metallurgical skills to make casts (flongs) of entire pages of type which could be used over and over again until they wore out. These casts were known as stereotypes. Or, as the French called them, clichés.

1219782482yLCfpgOffset and desktop publishing have replaced the old presses, yet clichés remain. Originally as bright and sound as new-mint pennies, over the years these pithy bits of cultural shorthand have lost their luster and their once-naked truth has all but melted into thin air. (Thank you, Mr. Shakespeare!)

Fun though playing with clichés can be, standard editorial advice is to avoid them like the plague. And I won’t disagree. We may be casual about such things in our everyday exchanges, but our literary endeavors demand better of us. Use your imagination; turn your own phrase rather than use one as stale as Bounty hardtack. It gives your writing originality and force easily lost in a moss-backed thicket of hackneyed phrases.cliche-2

If – and it does happen – you find only well-worn words will do, be self-aware and discriminating in their use. A little cheekiness doesn’t hurt, either. As wonderful as the Bard’s lines are – or Lewis Carroll’s or Voltaire’s or various scriptures’ – remember they belong to other pens, other voices.

To thine own, be true.

A few familiar phrases from the Swan of Avon:

    • All that glitters is not gold
    • All’s well that ends well
    • As good luck would have it
    • Bag and baggage
    • Be-all and the end-all
    • Beggar all description
    • The better part of valor is discretion
    • Brave new world
    • Break the ice
    • Brevity is the soul of wit
    • Refuse to budge an inch
    • Cold comfort
    • Conscience does make cowards of us all
    • Dead as a doornail
    • Dog will have his day
    • Eaten me out of house and home
    • Faint hearted
    • Fancy-free
    • Forever and a day
    • For goodness’ sake
    • Foregone conclusion
    • The game is afoot
    • Give the devil his due
    • Good riddance
    • It was Greek to me
    • Heart of gold
    • ‘Tis high time
    • Hoist with his own petard
    • Ill wind which blows no man to good
    • In a pickle
    • In my heart of hearts
    • In my mind’s eye
    • In my book of memory
    • It smells to heaven
    • Kill with kindness
    • Killing frost
    • Knock knock! Who’s there?
    • Laid on with a trowel
    • Laughing stock
    • Lean and hungry look
    • Lie low
    • Live long day
    • Love is blind
    • Though this be madness, yet there is method in it
    • Make a virtue of necessity
    • Milk of human kindness
    • Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows
    • More honored in the breach than in the observance
    • More sinned against than sinning
    • Murder most foul
    • Neither rhyme nor reason
    • Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it
    • [Obvious] as a nose on a man’s face
    • Once more unto the breach
    • One fell swoop
    • One that loved not wisely but too well
    • Time is out of joint
    • Out of the jaws of death
    • What’s past is prologue
    • Pitched battle
    • Play fast and loose
    • Pomp and circumstance
    • [A poor] thing, but mine own
    • Primrose path
    • Salad days
    • Sea change
    • Seen better days
    • Send packing
    • Sick at heart
    • Snail paced
    • Something in the wind
    • Something wicked this way comes
    • A sorry sight
    • Spotless reputation
    • Such stuff as dreams are made on
    • The short and the long of it
    • Tedious as a twice-told tale
    • Set my teeth on edge
    • Tell truth and shame the devil
    • Thereby hangs a tale.
    • There’s the rub
    • To gild refined gold, to pain the lily (“to gild the lily”)
    • To thine own self be true
    • Too much of a good thing
    • Tower of strength
    • Trippingly on the tongue
    • Truth will out
    • Wear my heart upon my sleeve
    • What’s done is done
    • What fools these mortals be
    • What the dickens
    • Wild-goose chase
    • Working-day world
    • The world’s my oyster

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest