Editor’s Corner: 101.6

Written by Shawn MacKenzie
Post Tuesday 16th December 2014

scribe-small 101.6

In the Realm of the Senses

“Observe, record, tabulate, communicate. Use your five senses. Learn to see, learn to hear, learn to feel, learn to smell, and know that by practice alone you can become expert.” …. Sir William Osler, M.D., C.M.

Last night I was watching the cats play with the chinchillas (a special birthday treat for the kittens). Claws sheathed, eyes wide, ears forward, whiskers twitching, and mouths open to taste the air, they were totally in the now, absorbing the experience with every sense at their disposal. The chins, too.

kids chin and carter

Oh, the lessons we learn from our companion critters everyday!

Try though we might to place ourselves on a separate, gilded rung of the evolutionary ladder, we human beings are still animals. Like other furred, feathered, or scaled creatures, we still count on our senses to guide us through the world. Sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell, they layer our existence, give it depth and intrigue. They teach us what is safe, what is deadly, what is sexy, what is repulsive. Indeed, without well-honed perceptions, we would surely be as dead as the dodo.

Curiously, though we live by our senses, many writers have forgotten to write by them. Oh, we communicate through sight, sure. We are highly visual creatures. The aspects of person or place, the colors, shadows, shapes, all are accessible, familiar, and easy to share. Sound usually comes in second, then the other senses fill out the field from afar.

But why should this be? We do not live in half worlds, why should we write in them?

Just imagine if we wrote with all our senses, all the time; if we returned to our animal selves with ears up, nostrils flared, gleaning and giving information at every turn. A Victorian sitting room, for example, may be all teak and William Morris wallpaper to the eye, but perhaps it also smells of lemon oil and stale pipe tobacco, the chair by the fireplace creaking ever so gently when sat upon. This tells the reader so much more than a visual description alone. The resident has taste and a comfortable income; they take pride in their environment, keep it well. As for the lingering scent of tobacco – scent being one of the most evocative of the senses – oh, that can go a hundred ways! A father lost in the Crimea, his spirit conjured by the slightest whiff of his favorite chair; a pretentious brother who fancies himself the next Sherlock Holmes but went up to Oxford at Michaelmas.

Layers, one on another…

We are writers. Our purpose is to communicate, to move, to inspire. We take our knowledge of the world and give it back, limited only by our imaginations. So why stop with familiar? Why not go all topsy-turvy? We can focus, perhaps, not on how a city looks, but on how it tastes; not on how a thunderstorm sounds, but on how it smells. And let us not forget the rasping tongue of a whisper or the intricate fugue of a meteor shower.

meteor shower

As Dr. Osler said, learn to hear, to see, to smell. Dig deep; use all your senses. And next time you write about the first green shoots of spring, do not ignore their verdant voices raised to the heavens in paeans of rebirth. Welcome to the Big Picture. Have fun.

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 MacKENZIEMacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Thoughts on Writing – Susan Sontag [Series Pt 8]

a writer's word new 14th june 2014Thoughts on Writing

A Multiple Part Series – Part # 8

“Think With Words—Not Ideas”

by Susan Sontag

Post by Jennifer Kiley

Post Sunday 14th December 2014

susan sontag photo for series

The writer does not have to write. She must imagine that she must. A great book: no one is addressed, it counts as cultural surplus, it comes from the will.

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Ordinary language is an accretion of lies. The language of literature must be, therefore, the language of transgression, a rupture of individual systems, a shattering of psychic oppression. The only function of literature lies in the uncovering of the self in history.

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The love of books. My library is an archive of longings.

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Making lists of words, to thicken my active vocabulary. To have puny, not just little, hoax, not just trick, mortifying, not just embarrassing, bogus, not just fake.
I could make a story out of puny, hoax, mortifying, bogus. They are a story.

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A Short Note for the end of each part of this 8 part series.

When Susan Sontag died the obituaries omitted her relationship with photographer Annie Leibovitz, with whom Sontag maintained a relationship with throughout her last decade.

gold fountain pen for sontag series

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Editor’s Corner 101.5

Written by Shawn MacKenzie

Dialogue: Tag – You’re It!

scribe-small dragon at desk

I trust the rhythm of your narrative is now flawless and you are fast on your way to limning worlds as idyllic as a Church river bank, as shadowy as a Hopper city street.

Time to talk dialogue.

Years ago, my head full of dreams of becoming a great writer, I entered college intending to study literature, Aiken to Zola. Dissect great books, take a writing seminar or two, what could be a better education for a would-be writer? And, over my four years, I took a slew of lit courses, poring over everything from Shakespeare and Woolf with Camille Paglia to Beowulf – in Old English – with John Gardner. But, in the end, I found a more comfortable, less academic home in the Theatre Department. There I studied acting, directing, and design. And there I wrote plays. Though I have since replaced acts with chapters, no course of study could have served me better. In the spare play of characters, their voices uninterrupted by description, I learned the power and magic of dialogue.

--- Bennington College. Today

— Bennington College. Today this is the Bookstore. In my day it was home away from home, The Barn Studio Theatre

By it’s very nature, dialogue is an active force in storytelling. People are talking to each other – they are engaged, sharing thoughts and emotions, weaving incantations and bittersweet declarations of love and loss. Idiomatic or formal, what characters say, what others say about them, the words they choose, the subjects they tackle or avoid, all this becomes flesh on otherwise lean bones.

Writer or editor, there are a few basics to good dialogue.

As art imitates life, so no two characters will talk exactly the same way. To this end, it is very important to know your characters well before you let them open their mouths. Know their background: place of origin, class, education, profession, age, gender, even species – I can assure you that the locution of a Land Angler from Venus-12 speaks would be unrecognizable to a Cymric Red Dragon from Anglesey! All these and more inform a character’s words, and help us tap their organic speech patterns and choices. This is the first step towards dialogue that sounds natural, not written.

Important as it is for characters to sound real, remember that a writer is not a tape recorder. Just as we don’t describe actions, second by second, frame by frame, so we do not put down every hem and haw that passes a person’s lips. We are here to distill and discriminate, to pick and choose the words that advance our tale, no more, no less. Once such authorial decisions are made, fade into the background and let your characters have their say. It is time for their voice to rise, not yours.

Dialogue can be a dynamic way to disseminate information, without getting bogged down in pages of dense narrative, but be careful not to use it as a dumping ground where you reiterate information the reader already knows. (A quite delicious example of this used to be found in the old soap opera “Passions.” Within the first five minutes of every show, one character would give another – and the audience – a rundown of everything that happened in the previous episode. It was ritual shtick that tipped into campy self-parody by series end.)

Lastly – at least for today – a few words about dialogue tags, those pesky ‘he saids’ and ‘she saids’ replete with qualifying adverbs of dubious merit. Everyone has their opinion about tags. For myself, I try to follow the principle of less is more.

If you are not sure about your own work, try this experiment: take several pages of dialogue and strip the tags out, every last one. Then read it through. If your characters are distinct, their words alone may make it clear who is speaking. If not – if the vocal differences are subtle (as with family members, for example) go back and tag where absolutely necessary. You are striving for clarity, not clutter. This is usually an easy matter in a two-person chat, but might tumble into nightmare territory with a party or mob scene.

As for adverbs, they are like putting line readings into a script – something actors would ignore and directors expunge with zeal. The lingering playwright in me says leave them out whenever possible, and then take the last ones out for good measure. If context and content don’t convey how something is said, try being creative with your verbs. Instead of “Cassandra said softly” consider “Cassandra whispered” or “muttered” or “sibilated”; instead of “said Uriah unctuously” consider “The words dripped from Uriah’s tongue….” Verbs with such specificity can add dimension to both character and scene. Plus, they are fun. That said, don’t go crazy – apt though it might be for oratory from a Naga, “sibilated” is a bit over the top for everyday prose. In the end, if you use tags, use them imaginatively but simply. Use them well.

A final thought:
Read plays. Classic or modern, Shakespeare, Albee, O’Neill, Stoppard, Williams, Beckett, Wasserstein… There is no substitute for learning from the masters.

Dialogue with a Bird - Yuri Dyakonov (1951-2005)

Dialogue with a Bird – Yuri Dyakonov (1951-2005)

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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

Thoughts on Writing – Susan Sontag [Series Pt 7]

a writer's word new 14th june 2014Thoughts on Writing

A Multiple Part Series – Part # 7

“Think With Words—Not Ideas”

by Susan Sontag

Post by Jennifer Kiley

Post Sunday 7th December 2014

susan sontag photo for series

Language as a found object

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Last novelist to be influenced by, knowledgeable about science was Aldous Huxley
One reason [there are] no more novels — There are no exciting theories of relation of society to self (sociological, historical, philosophical)
Not SO — no one is doing it, that’s all
(undated, March 1979)

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There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work
(undated, March 1979)

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To write one must wear blinkers. I’ve lost my blinkers.
Don’t be afraid to be concise!

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A failure of nerve. About writing. (And about my life — but never mind.) I must write myself out of it.
If I am not able to write because I’m afraid of being a bad writer, then I must be a bad writer. At least I’ll be writing.
Then something else will happen. It always does.
I must write every day. Anything. Everything. Carry a notebook with me at all times, etc.
I read my bad reviews. I want to go to the bottom of it — this failure of nerve

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A Short Note for the end of each part of this 8 part series.

Maybe I could have given comfort to some people if I had dealt with the subject of my private sexuality more, [Sontag considered herself to be bisexual] but it’s never been my prime mission to give comfort, unless somebody’s in drastic need. I’d rather give pleasure, or shake things up.” – Susan Sontag

gold fountain pen for sontag series

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Editor’s Corner 101.4

Written by Shawn MacKenzie

Music to the Ear.

“Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it …” … Virginia Woolf

Always remember, never forget: As much as there is rhythm to life, there is rhythm to writing.

shawn scribe-small dragon at deak

In preparation for the challenge of the Editor’s Corner, I have, much as time and stomach allow, perused a cross-section of blogs and self-published novels and short stories. While there are sparks of brilliance out there, I am amazed by the amount of clunky, tin-eared prose out there, replete with stilted dialogue, baroque narratives, and lurky-jerky labyrinths of bad grammar and even worse punctuation. It’s enough to make this editor weep – or at least tear her hair.

‘Can’t these people hear what they’re writing?’ I ask myself. Such a simple question, yet too often the writing gods shake their heads, ‘No.’

For this is the realm of the writer’s ear, of beats and tempo and auditory wonders; and to some of us it can be a down-right scary place. Like a sense of style or musical pitch, it does not come naturally to all of us – and like a virtuoso with perfect pitch, the unerring writer’s ear is rare, indeed. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn.

Schools used to helped with this. They once taught a great little subject called Rhetoric – how to use words effectively, to move people with eloquence. In my junior-high English classes we would study great speeches, past and present, and discuss how they were constructed and why they worked. Of course, that was forty-five years ago. Sadly, rhetoric is now too often relegated to university classics departments or Sunday morning pundits parsing the relative communication skills of Candidate A vs. Candidate B. (A quick look at the 2012 Presidential campaign makes it abundantly clear which party had the writer’s ear.)

In the absence of such pedagogic aids, it falls to us to be our own teachers. Thanks to the internet, the sonorous writing of the ages is a click away. Familiar and obscure, sites like http://www.americanrhetoric.com and http://www.history.com/speeches let you read and often hear great speeches. And if the speech is too old or little known to merit a YouTube rendition, read the words aloud yourself.

The same applies to prose and poetry. Go to your book shelf and take down your favorite authors and read them aloud. Take your time. Find the music of the work. Note how the words bounce off each other, how the author uses assonance and alliteration, breaks for breath and sounds of silence. Hear how the rhythm serves the story, how the lyric meter of The Great Gatsby, for example, would be totally out of place in Catcher in the Rye, and yet how each is perfect in its own way. How, in the right place at the right time, even discord has a sublime music all its own. Like description, conversation has its rhythms, too, though it is governed not only by the author’s style but by the essential truth of the characters. Read aloud, these truths crystalize: we can hear how dialogue flowing true for Queequeg would sound positively alien coming from Eleanor Dashwood.

Now turn to your own work, and remember: you are a storyteller, with the accent on teller. Your job is to weave a spell with your words. Read your pages as if they were from one of the treasured books on your shelf. Feel the words, their sound, their hue, their weight and balance. See where they live up to your expectations and where they fall short. This is one of the great advantages of a [good] writers’ group, being able to present your work aloud and having other ears pick up on the clunkers to which we’re deaf. (And try not to get defensive. Remember: we all screw up, we all write really awful stuff now and then. A good group is there to help you become a better writer, not just tell you how wonderful you are.)

Finally, jump into the empirical deep end and train your ear in the field. Get up and out and listen to the world around you. Hear how cities churn and villages amble, how region, season, age, even gender all affect the cadence of life and, in turn, the cadence of literature.

From the overarching shape of a story to the choice of every word in every sentence, every mark of punctuation, all are linked, pearls on a string, thrumming together. If we do it right, they linger, echoing deep in the blood where they’re not soon forgot.

Rhythm and Flow  Tara Arnold

Rhythm and Flow Tara Arnold

Language in fiction is made up of equal parts meaning and music. The sentences should have rhythm and cadence, they should engage and delight the inner ear. …Michael Cunningham

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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

Thoughts On Writing – Susan Sontag [Series Pt 6]

a writer's word new 14th june 2014Thoughts on Writing

A Multiple Part Series – Part # 6

“Think With Words—Not Ideas”

by Susan Sontag

Post by Jennifer Kiley

Post Sunday 30th November 2014

susan sontag photo for series

One can never be alone enough to write. To see better.

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Two kinds of writers. Those who think this life is all there is, and want to describe everything: the fall, the battle, the accouchement, the horse-race. That is, Tolstoy. And those who think this life is a kind of testing-ground (for what we don’t know — to see how much pleasure + pain we can bear or what pleasure + pain are?) and want to describe only the essentials. That is, Dostoyevsky. The two alternatives. How can one write like T. after D.? The task is to be as good as D. — as serious spiritually, + then go on from there.

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Only thing that counts are ideas. Behind ideas are [moral] principles. Either one is serious or one is not. Must be prepared to make sacrifices. I’m not a liberal.

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When there is no censorship the writer has no importance.
So it’s not so simple to be against censorship.

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Imagination: — having many voices in one’s head. The freedom for that.

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A Short Note for the end of each part of this 8 part series.

“Intellectually, I know why I haven’t spoken more about my sexuality, but I do wonder if I haven’t repressed something there to my detriment.”
– Susan Sontag

gold fountain pen for sontag series

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Editor’s Corner 101.3

Written by Shawn MacKenzie

You Gotta Have Style

“Fashion fades, but style endures.” …Coco Chanel

Scribe smallNow, I assume that everyone has done their homework and brushed up on their grammar, punctuation, and all the other pesky elements of our craft.

Which brings me to the second part of William Strunk’s treatise: style.

What is literary style and how does it play into a writer/editor’s labors? Can we even discuss style or is it like Potter Stewart’s obscenity, we simply know it when we see it? Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

Curiously, over this past week my thoughts veered away from the world of letters and into – for me – the unfamiliar world of haute couture, specifically the wit and wisdom of Ms. Coco Chanel. One does not usually put Strunk and Chanel in the same breath, and yet, when it comes to style, they actually have a great deal in common. Both emphasize simplicity and clean lines, a style which is natural to the wearer, not forced or laden with ornamentation.

In words or cloth, despite publishers’ fads or the vagaries of the marketplace, style is like a little black dress, well-made, beautifully tailored, and right for any occasion.

So, how do we get there? Are there rules to literary style? Nothing as specific or rigid as those of its elements. More aptly, I would say there are principles – some of which I will examine in detail in upcoming weeks. These principles vary slightly with region, culture, and, to a degree, time, but the underlying tenets remain the same. A few things – and only a few – to bear in mind are

• Write naturally. It is high artifice for a 21st century author to write like Brontë or Twain, and has a tendency to wear thin. That said, you also want your style to fit your genre. The language of sword-and-sorcery is not that of noir mystery or gritty YA.

• Fit form to project. For example, few people – Joyce is an exception who springs to mind – would, could, or should spend 500 pages on a tale as intimate and temporally restricted a single day in a man’s life. Most of us would see this as the stuff of a short story, play, or perhaps a narrative poem.

• Chanel said, “A woman is close to being naked when she is well dressed.” So dress your story well. Write with nouns and verbs. The rest is needed, of course; it is the flesh on the skeleton. But without the skeleton, you have only a blob of distracting words.

• Don’t overstate. Few readers want to have everything spelled out, let alone be hit over the head again and again.

• Avoid qualifiers. “Rather,” “around,” “sort of,” et al., only make for fuzzy writing and make the reader wonder if you know what you’re talking about. You are the author. You know that you character is not “about twenty-five years old” but was born on May 20, 1987 and will be turning 26 in seven weeks.

• Don’t get cute or slangy or use fancy or foreign words when simple, native ones work just as well.

• Be clear. A reader will work with a book that deals with difficult subject matter or tells a tale in an unusual way, but don’t make them scratch their head because you didn’t take the time to be clear. Strip away the clutter so you can see your story from A to Z. With dialogue, make sure the reader knows who is speaking when and to whom. (This is not just a matter of dialogue tags, but we’ll get to that another time.)

• Don’t fall in love with the sound of your own voice. It’s something we all do. That exquisite phrase we labored over for hours, days, so hard to let go of it. But sometimes we must learn to say ‘No!’ (“Elegance is refusal,” Coco said.) If it puts you, the author, in the spotlight and your story in the shadows, then it has to be cut. What we do is ultimately not about us writers; we are simply servants to our stories, and serve them best in the background.

In the end, hard-edged as Raymond Chandler or lyrical as Alice Walker, regardless of tone, hue, or voice, style comes down to dressing your story in effortless elegance. Ms Chanel noted, “Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.” We want people to remember our storied women.


Simplicity is the keynote of true elegance. coco_chanel1

Luxury lies not in the richness of things, but in the absence of vulgarity.

If you were born without wings, do nothing to prevent them from growing.

Women think of all colors except the absence of color. I have said that black has it all. White too. Their beauty is absolute. It is the perfect harmony.

…Coco Chanel

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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