Editor’s Corner 101.23

Hedge Trimming – Bidding Adieu to Ambivalence

Dragon ScribeIt is another glorious August morning; the dog days are past, there is a slight nip in the air, and the New England sky is taking on the vibrant blue of ear…ly autumn. A perfect day for hedge trimming.

I am not talking about shaggy privets or laurels, or overgrown rhododendron and yew turning the yard into a wilderness and begging for the touch of well-edged shears. No, I am referring to the stray equivocations that seep insidiously into our prose – wee, verbal field mice, gnawing away at our meaning. Seems to be, more or less, essentially, about, almost as if, sort of, as it were…. The list goes on with the persistence of a Minoan labyrinth.


They dilute our prose and sap our meaning. Unless spouted by a character less decisive than Hamlet’s second cousin twice removed, they are unnecessary 99.9% of the time. We know this deep in our souls, yet they continue to plague us like verbal viruses we just can’t shake.

From where does this urge to mitigate our authorial voice come?

As with most of our bad writing habits, I believe it comes from writing as we talk. And live – or strive to.

In my youth, lo so many years ago, I was taught to tread lightly through the world. Each step, each word has consequences even if they’re not immediately evident. I was also taught that truth is seldom absolute and to presume to know The Truth about anything is the height of arrogance. The pride before the fall. Call it the Rashomon Effect. (note: truths are not to be confused with facts, which, while open to interpretation are in and of themselves quantifiable constants.) In a cosmic sense, there are as many truths as there are beings in the universe. If we are lucky, we will find one or two that meet our needs, asking for more is just greedy. A venal sin, avarice.Truth%20Cartoon

While such life lessons served me well for being in the world, it took me years to discover – then believe – that the opposite was true for writing in the world. Writing has hedges of a different cut, and the fictive voice must be authoritarian, even dictatorial. Shed the hedges – trim them, if you will – from your prose. Set doubt aside and rage through the landscapes of our making. Be certain. No deference to the masses or shilly-shallying will suffice. We serve the story, after all.

I know this sounds arrogant, and, well, it is. You are the architects of your novels and short stories, and no structure stands with foundations ‘sort of’ level or walls ‘roughly’ plumb. There is nothing relativistic here. As the sole creator of your universe, your truth is absolute and no one can say otherwise. But make your truth precise, memorable, and believable enough to touch.img_artemis A heroine isn’t ‘rather impressive,’ she’s six feet of Artemesian grace, with a mind like Susan Sontag and the riveting gaze of the Delphi charioteer. This is a woman you not only see in your mind’s eye, but know how she’ll stack up against whatever villains come her way.

I am fond of saying the anarchist in me balks at blind obedience to even the most reasonable rules. In the case of hedging, I am more inclined than usual to set my anarchism aside. Still, if the mantle of authorial power sits uncomfortably on your shoulder, and you feel compelled to equivocate, try to do so unequivocally. And when you must hedge here and there to appease the spirit of your prose, let those hedges be topiaries, wild and wondrous, adding to your world, not detracting from it.

962120-bigthumbnailSo be sure of yourself.
Be dynamic.
Be a little arrogant.
Be memorable.

*       *       *       *       *       *       *

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 101.20

The Round and the Furry – When Good Letters Go Bad.

“My spelling is Wobbly. It’s good spelling but it Wobbles,
and the letters get in the wrong places.”

Scribe smallA fragile day, today – last week still weighs heavily – and I was tempted to throw the corner open to you readers in a sort of Q & A: you ask me your most pressing editing questions and I provide pithy bon mots in return. However, the writer in me seems to have a hard time settling for such a terse exposition.

So, a story.

When I was a kid, I was a notoriously bad speller. Oh, I could memorize word lists for tests, but back when I was nine, the rules and vagaries of English spelling seemed as nonsensical as a Hatter’s high tea. As much as I loved roaming through dictionaries, etymology was an undiscovered country to this youthful traveler, one I didn’t knowingly explore for a few years yet. (A failing of our education system, perhaps, to rely on rote rather than reason.)


Fast forward several decades – irony running ahead of the wind – and I now help fill the household coffers by editing crossword puzzles. (I can think of a few teachers laughing their asses off over that!) I have taken advantage of time and experience and am a better, if somewhat indifferent, speller. I am also an occasionally errant typist, prey to dyslexic fingers and fur-laced keyboards. (Thank you, kids!)


This does not even begin to touch on the unexplained mystery of the eye/brain connection which leads us to see words as we expect them to be, not necessarily as they are. I find this most true when proofing my own work; I know the words inside and out and so my mind fills in blanks, automatically switches inverted letters, and glides over –ance when it should be –ence, because, well, the mind is funny that way.


Since nothing screams “Unprofessional!” like a text littered with typos and orthographic errors, the writing gods put their heads together and gifted us poor scriveners with spellcheck. Voila! Proofreading for dummies! All those pesky blunders red-lined and auto-corrected. Nothing could be simpler.

Except of course, nothing is ever that simple.

First, the standard spellcheck database is limited. This leads to erroneous markups or, conversely, if your spelling is truly atrocious, letter-salad flagged, but scant help provided re alternatives. In other words, you’re on your own. (Most word-processing dictionaries can be expanded – something which, as a fantasist, I do frequently, especially with esoterica and exotic names, so easy to make up but not always to remember. But, damn it Jim! We’re writers not lexicographers!)


More troublesome for some – and not really the fault of the program – is the fact that English is a whimsical language, rife with homonyms and frequently confused/misused words, for which spellcheck simply doesn’t suffice.


The list goes on and on….

So what do you do when “I rote a tail about a plain full of grisly bares en root to the dessert” passes through spellcheck with flying colors?

You beet your Brest, pull your hare (but not by his ears), and remember that computers are only tulles.


Tools work best when we users knows our craft. And the best tools are always in our heads. Read your work slowly and with care. Don’t hesitate to drag out your dictionary, handy grammar guide, even a knowledgeable friend or two, if you are stuck. This is the picky-nit part of writing. Love it, hate it, but do it diligently, starting with the a spellcheck from top to bottom, front to back. For, despite flaws in the system, it is still a great proofing aid. Then, if you can, find fresh eyes to read your work through again. And again….

Next week I am going to do that Editor’s Corner Q & A. I’ll be on line all next Tuesday, so drop by. Ask me your questions, I’ll tell ewe no lyes. Oops![THIS IS FROM THE ORIGINAL POSTING—DOES NOT APPLY FOR NEXT TUESDAY]

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 101.19

Point of View – Part II:
Third Person Narrative – Indulging Your God Complex

“…you’ve lost perspective? Well, get it back ―
God alone has the third person point of view in this life …”
― John Geddes, A Familiar Rain

Scribe smallCool nights and rainy days. Time to give thanks to the New England weather gods, and continue our discussion of literary point of view with a clearer mind and an eye to third-person narratives. Simply put, where first person is inside the story, third person is out. It is the realm of ‘he’ and ‘she’, where the use of ‘I’ is limited to dialogue. The author is the storyteller in the old sense of bards and Once-upon-a-time, painting pictures, populating landscapes, mapping quests, choreographing battles and love scenes, but always from the wings or the orchestra pit, never setting foot on stage.

The main decision one has to make with a third-person narrative is how knowledgeable you want it to be. There are three degrees of omniscience: Objective, Limited Omniscient, and Omniscient.

“Show, don’t tell!” – three words spoken by every writing teacher and editor in the world, are at the heart of Objective Narrative. This is a cinematic point of view, with the author serving as the camera or proverbial fly on the wall, recording without judgment or comment. flyYou can’t get inside your characters’ heads or hearts, or write about anything that cannot be inferred from your characters’ words and actions. Major constraints used, for example, in Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” and Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery,” to great effect. Objective point of view naturally makes for spare, action-driven prose in which attention to detail is essential. Like present tense, it seems to be increasingly found in modern fiction. Not for everyone’s taste, but if it suits….

Perhaps I’m nurturing a latent God complex – I leave that to you armchair trick cyclists to discern – but, for myself, third-person POV is most attractive when laced with a dram or three of omniscience. I love to get inside characters’ heads, explore their thoughts, motives, history, even take flights of authorial fancy, like expounding on everything from the philosophy of a Vogon Construction Fleet captain to the language and passions of unicorns.

Limited omniscient is, as the words imply, limited. You crawl under the skin of one of your characters, often your protagonist though it can just as well be a minor character or villain, and limit your authorial wisdom to that one character. This is a particularly effective point of view in sprawling epics where having access to the thoughts of thousands becomes so much white noise after a while. You have to filter and discriminate in order to bring order to the chaos. J.K. Rowling used limited omniscient to great effect in her Harry Potter septet. She let us know what Harry was thinking and feeling, even what he surmised others thoughts and emotions, but direct knowledge of the inner lives of the other characters was shielded to us. When it became essential to the story for Harry to know what was in, say, Tom Riddle’s mind, J.K. would invoke magic – the Memory Bowl, e.g. – and so convey the information without breaking POV.


One pitfall with limited omniscience is the tendency to forget whose story you’re telling and start head hopping. Not that you can’t switch POV, but make sure you are clear. No bouncing about, willy-nilly. One chapter, one character’s POV. If that doesn’t work for you, consider jumping into the deep end of the pool and embracing hard-core omniscient narrative in all its glory.

Omniscient narrative means what it says: the author/narrator knows all about all, past, present, and future, inside and out. You are the puppet master and you can play dice – or not – with your universe at your will. If you have a penchant for going dissecting character, exploring backstory and internal dialogue, this is the path for you. You can stand on the outside but still look deep, deep within. Your authorial voice can shine!

The Ancient of Days - William Blake

The Ancient of Days – William Blake

Of course, there are drawbacks, even to playing god. First, remember that while third-person omniscient glorifies the art of telling a tale, you don’t want to become so enamored by your own meanderings that you lose sight of your story’s needs. The driving thread of the narrative needs to remain compelling and strong. Be wary of getting so lost in the layers of the tell that you forget the show.

You will also have to learn to filter your knowledge. Just because you know everything doesn’t mean everything is worth sharing. Now, you may know that the Queen’s second gardener suffers terribly from anthophobia. He wants nothing more than to take a lawn mower to the royal flower beds but, for the sake of his father and father’s father, palace grounds men for generations, he tends the lilies and lavender and grits his teeth through it all. Now this is fascinating if you are telling the gardener’s tale or if his fear of flowers causes him to take a shears to the royal retinue and frighten the horses. But if it’s a detail that doesn’t advance the story, keep it to yourself – or file it away for when you reinvent Lady Chatterley’s Lover as Panic and Passion Among the Peonies.

Finally, when you choose your point of view, remember that you are not only choosing a narrative tool but framing your work in a manner that impels the reader to follow where you lead.

Where You Lead – Castle Galleries

So, experiment, have fun, find the right point of view for your work. But if you choose to mix things up do it with purpose, conviction, and an honest desire not to lose your audience or give them whiplash from gratuitous head hopping.

Happy Monday.

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 101.18

Point of View
Part I: First Person Narrative – Into the “I” of the Storm

There is nothing insignificant in the world. It all depends on the point of view.

Scribe smallCaveat lector: It’s 90 degrees here with nary a breath of wind and that has a tendency to turn even this Dragon’s mind to mush. So if I meander more than usual, bear with me. In an effort to mitigate such rambling, I thought I’d proceed logically (for a change) from last week’s discussion of tense to a brief exploration of point of view.

  What, more choices? Yes, sorry about that. Can’t be avoided, I’m afraid. Writing is all about choices.

point-of-viewAt least with point of view the menu is limited: First or third person, objective, limited omniscient, or all-out-dice-with-the-universe omniscient. Second-person POV, though rather common in poetry and song lyrics, is almost never used in fiction. (Personally, I think it is just too difficult to sustain without feeling artificial, but that might just be me. If you are brave and it feels right, by all means go for it!)

Now, originally I had grand plans for today: a full-spectrum exegesis of POV, in all its persons and permutations, but as I started writing, I found it far too unwieldy for one post on a hot summer day. So I’ll be breaking it in two. This week: First Person.

With first person point of view you tell your story with an eye to the “I.” You have a actual narrator whose life is interwoven with the tale, a strand running through its warp and weft. She is an actor on your fictive stage who speaks with the knowledge of someone who actually experiences the events and people swirling around her. While some might see it as superficially narcissistic, first person can be an engaging POV, pulling the reader out of the audience and placing them in the thick of the story at the narrator’s side. It is the narrative mode of memoir and history, of stories that strive to get the reader to identify with the protagonist, to see themselves in her. If the “I” is vibrant and someone you care about, then there is an immediacy to what happens to her. To her story. Ideally, you hear her words, experience her hopes and fears and become invested in her outcome with the screaming urgency of “I!”

Often in a first-person narrative, the protagonist is the storyteller. Who better to relate a tale than the lead player, right? But this is not always the case. A supporting character pulled into the protagonist’s world can serve just as well. Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby – even Ishmael in Moby-Dick – are examples of this: secondary figures in the star’s orbit yet distant enough to maintain a certain objectivity. They, in essence, become the reader’s surrogate, the wallflower at the party you were not able to crash yourself.

Pint of View - Sana Parks

Pint of View – Sana Parks

(Some, depending on their point of view, will argue that Ishmael is the lead player. It’s possible, but tangential here. I leave it to you: Go, discuss among yourselves.)

Generally, a story told in first person is restricted to limited omniscience. In other words, the “I” of the tale knows everything about herself, but only what she can experience of other people and events firsthand:

“I am born.” “His syncopated footsteps clacked on the cobbles as he limped ahead of me up the alley.” “A claw tore through the mist and I felt a knot the size of a cantaloupe strangle the scream in my throat.”

Of course, if your “I” is a god or dead (American Beauty and The Lovely Bones come to mind) they are afforded greater breadth of wisdom, but that is the exception, not the rule. So, no rummaging about in another’s mind or emotions without making it very clear you’re engaging in rank speculation, and, even then, base the speculation on something tangible: the sneer on their face or the lilt in their voice. Forget this rule at your peril lest you trespass on divine territory without proper invitation and confuse the hell out of your reader. (Note: Absolute omniscience is for next week’s discussion of third person. That’s when we really get to play god.)


Now, enough for today. Go have fun. Write well. And may the weather deities treat us all kindly.

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 101.17

Choosing Your Tense: From Ever-once to Never-when

Walk inside me without silence,
Kill the past and change the tense.
Empty gnawing and the ache is soaring;
Take me places that make more sense.

― Melina Marchetta, The Piper’s Son

Scribe smallAlbert Einstein said that “the distinction between the past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” And while he is no doubt right on a cosmic level – I would not dare challenge Einstein on a cosmic level! – every day we writers are faced with tense decisions which are far from illusory.

Before even setting pen to paper, we must choose between telling our story in the past or present tense, mindful of just how that choice will influence what is to come. I am omitting the future tense today as it’s virtually never used; it presents problems of divine omniscience that tie you in verbal knots and stretch credulity to the breaking point. Indeed, off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single book told in future tense, either simple, perfect, or pluperfect.

Most of us tell our stories in simple past tense: he said, she said, they galloped across the green and tripped the light fantastic beneath the gibbous moon…. This is the natural tense of Once-upon-a-time, familiar to the ear and so making the reader comfortable for the journey ahead. This is the tense of Dickens and O’Conner, Brontë, Forster, and Marquez, to name but a very few. Regardless of the point of view (something I will discuss in future), working with the past tense has the advantage of implying a degree of knowledge: events have already happened, the author/narrator knows what is around the next bend and how things turn out. Some people feel this creates a distance – a sort of fictional fourth wall. To my mind – and this may be because I’m talking about my comfort zone – this layer of prescience gives the storyteller extra latitude.Past-simple-mind-map

Less familiar, yet increasing used in modern literature (thank you Runyon, Updike, and, recently, Suzanne Collins, to name a few) is simple present-tense narrative. Being in the world of “I am” rather than “I was” creates of certain immediacy and some say a cinematic, even IMAX quality that, for better or worse, demands to be noticed, though perhaps more for form than substance. There is no fourth wall, no distance of time. You are standing along side the characters, in the umbra of their moment. It can be quite exhilarating when done well. As a matter of personal taste, I find it rather unsettling for long stretches of prose, though that is likely my more traditional leanings – some have called me positively medieval; go figure! Predilections aside, I must admit, the more I read of present-tense narratives, the less time it takes me to adjust my ear and go with the authorial flow.mind_map

Of course, as with so many things literary, there is a lot of mixing and matching going on. An epistolary novel like Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” is present tense when Celie is starting her letters, but then becomes past tense when she describes what has been happening in her life. Or, as with Robert Graves’ “I, Claudius, you might have a prelude where the protagonist, in the present, speaks directly to the reader, and then jumps back into the past to tell his/her story. You can even have alternating sections/chapters, some past, some present, some first person, some second or third. (Now second person POV is fascinating and very tricky but that’s for another time.)

In short, you are the author, you decide on the when of your story, and you can puzzle together all sorts of combinations. While you are having a blast with your verbal gymnastics, remember to have your verbs in proper tense and be sure you don’t lose your reader. Ask yourself why a particular tense suits a particular story. Put reason behind all your choices, logic dictated by the needs of the story and not imposed from the outside for the sake of showing off or because all the other kids are doing it.

And remember the words of Winston Churchill: “If we open a quarrel between past and present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

Now, have fun playing through the ever-once of never-when. Perhaps a quick game of hide-and-seek in the here-and-now….

Are You Tense? - tgorose

Are You Tense? – tgorose

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 101.16

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