Thursday, November 24, 2011

To be or not to be

While revising my novel these past couple of weeks, I've come to realize just how badly high school English damaged my writing technique. A parade of English teachers impressed upon me the importance of using the active, rather than the passive, voice. The active voice was always good, while the passive voice always bad. So far, not so bad. Stephen King agrees. But they went farther. Some teachers I had went so far as to mark up every time I used the word to be, whether it was passive voice or not. (Ironically, science papers were supposed to be entirely passive voice.) As a result, I'd developed a pathological aversion to the word "to be." Looking over my novel, which was first written ten years ago, I've come to see just how problematic this aversion was. Some of my writing was ridiculously convoluted just to avoid the words "was" or "were." A lot of my revision has been killing these overly contrived evasions and just rehabilitating the word "to be." So, for other writers recovering from high school English, here are three reasons to embrace "to be".

  1. Sometimes things just are. Compare "She was angry" to "She felt angry."  The first is a stronger statement, more definite and clear.  When I was trying to avoid "to be," I used equivalent words, words like "seem" or "feel" or "become" or "appear."  These are useful and sometimes necessary words, but they're weak words.  When something is, say that it is, don't try to weasel around it.
  2. A whole tense depends on "to be."  The imperfect tense, where we say "He was coming," as opposed to "He came" or "He did come," needs "to be" as a helper.  Imperfect is a useful tense, conveying incomplete past action, and I needed it to write a book in the past tense.  Without "to be" there's no imperfect tense, and it's a shame when that's gone.
  3. Passive voice is sometimes the right voice.  I'll admit, new authors often write in passive voice when they need to use active.  It can make writing timid and weak.  But the reason it does that is not the voice itself, but the subject of your voice.  We tend to use passive voice when things are happening to our characters, as opposed to when they are doing things.  That's what it's for: passive voice puts the emphasis on the object of the action, rather than the subject.  When our heroes stop doing things and things happen to them instead, then our writing is weak and timid, no matter what voice we use.  There are times when things do happen to our characters, and passive voice is perfectly good for keeping the focus on them even when they're not active, but if the characters are inactive too long, active voice won't save the story.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Why the iPhone needs a hard reboot button

My iPhone died the other day. When I took it out of my pocket I noticed that it was hot, but when I tried pressing the home button, nothing happened. I tried the power button, I tried holding down the power button, but still nothing. Then I tried plugging it in, in case the battery had run down. Still nothing. No sound, no screen, no indication besides its heat to let me know it was anything but plastic and glass.

Finally, I plugged it into my computer and started up iTunes, which recognized that the phone was there, but wasn't able to do anything with it. It hung backing it up, and it hung canceling the backup. There's an Apple store near where I work, and I considered taking it to them, but I didn't want to ask for help until I had at least rebooted the darn thing. The problem was that there was no way to reboot it. I suspected it had simply hung, and was now unresponsive. You could use the power button to turn it off, but first you had to hold it down, then it would prompt you to swipe the screen to shut it down, and as I mentioned, there was no response when I hit the power button. I couldn't even take the battery out, since the iPhone doesn't give you access to it.

Ultimately, I had to let the battery run down. When I charged it back up, it was fine. But this has convinced me that the iPhone really needs a hard reset.

Friday, November 18, 2011

World Fantasy Convention: Day 4

I honestly thought it had been only a week since my last post, but novel revisions create a time distortion field, and it's really been two. To be honest, Kristin and I didn't do much Con related on our fourth day. We didn't go to any panels or readings. We did go to the banquet, which was held on the last day. The food was so-so, but Connie Willis gave a very funny toast. There were awards too. A number of our friends were nominated, but I don't think any of them won. They were robbed, of course. I can say this with absolute confidence, despite not having read any of the nominated books or stories.

Afterward, we went to the beach. Kristin's Clarion West class was staying at a beach house, and we went to visit them. We took advantage of the California weather to wander along the beach while we were there.

Kristin on the San Diego beach.

Afterward, we had dinner with them, then went back to the hotel, where the final con party was. We hung out there as well, mostly with Kristin's Clarion West class. So we saw a lot of them.

After that, we went to bed. We were exhausted, and I had my flight home the next day.  Kristin also had a flight, though she was going to San Francisco to visit her sister.

Overall, it was great fun.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

World Fantasy Convention: Days 2-3

I expected to have a lot to say about the rest of World Fantasy.  But it can be summed up fairly quickly: I went to panels, I went to parties, I met interesting people.  I talked to John O'Neill and the Black Gate crew again, which is always fun.  I hung out with friends, and with Kristin's friends.  More Kristin's friends than mine, actually, as she knows more of the regular Con-goers than I do (which is only natural, as she's been going to Cons longer than I have).

That said, let's try to hit the high points.

In terms of panels, the most interesting one I went to was on the role of character stupidity in genre fiction.  I felt that this was somewhat one-sided, as the arguments of the panelists boiled down to "your characters shouldn't be stupid."  But I felt this was unfair.  The real issue with characters, especially in horror movies, is that they don't know that they're in horror movies.  Much of their stupidity stems from this fact.  People, all the time, will go downstairs, alone, unarmed, in their underwear even, to check out a strange noise because they think the dog knocked over something or something toppled over, and they won't be expecting someone to be lurking there.  If they knew they were in a horror movie, or a suspense movie, they wouldn't do that, but they don't know.  That's not stupidity, it's just ignorance.

The most interesting party was the pajama party, which was a release party of N.K. Jemisin's new book, The Kingdom of Gods.  You were supposed to wear your pajamas, and there were kids' games like Hungry, Hungry Hippos and Operation, and there was liquor in sippy cups.  The book supposedly has a god of childhood in it, hence the theme.  It was fun.  We went, but didn't wear our pajamas, since we were going to the aforementioned panel on stupidity later.

One thing we enjoyed was the sun.  San Diego in the fall is nice--the temperatures in the 70s, rather than the 50s, like it is here in Boston.