Minute Minuet

I was reading some amateur fiction the other day. It doesn’t matter which specific story it was or where I was reading it, though. I’ve seen this error show up with increasing frequency. Note that I’m referring to amateur fiction that has not been professionally edited. I would be horrified if a professional editor let this error through. This error has made my pet peeves list as a result of at least one author systematically getting it wrong.

So what is this error? Put plainly, it is writing “minuet” instead of “minute”. We all know that a minute is a unit of time consisting of sixty seconds and that there are sixty of them in an hour. It is also used figuratively to refer to a relatively short period of time. On the other hand, a minuet is a ballroom dance. The two really are not interchangeable, though if you squint at things correctly, you could make “I’ll be with you in a couple of minuets” make sense. However, unless the context is dancing, writing “minuet” is almost certainly wrong.

I do have to admit that writing “minuet” instead of “minute” is easy enough to do. The difference is a simple transposition of the last two letters. I could easily put this down to a simple typo if it occurs once. However, when it occurs systematically in a particular text, I have no choice but to conclude that the author is doing it intentionally and, thus, has no idea that they are making an error. I do wonder if this isn’t due to some idiotic preference for the much more rare “minuet” over the common “minute” in the autocompletion gimmick in some device or other.

In this case, “minuet” isn’t even pronounced the same as “minute” so it’s particularly jarring. I’m not going to confuse you with IPA representations of the words since I never could get my head around all the IPA symbols. However, “minuet” is pronounced something like “min-you-ette” while “minute” goes something like “min-utt” or “min-it” depending on your local dialect and/or accent.

Because “minuet” is a valid word, a spell checker will not catch it. Basic grammar checkers won’t either since both are nouns. This is the sort of thing that only actual proofreading will catch. If you are one that often writes “minuet” instead of “minute” (and don’t assume you aren’t – you could be doing it without realizing it), make sure you look specifically for this sort of error when proofreading. And if you don’t proofread, start doing so.


Ruminations on Writing: Narrative Writing

One of the things I see all the time in style guides and writing courses is a focus on formal writing. This does make some sense since most people will be writing formal documents at one time or another. Unfortunately, this focus does not produce a well rounded writer. A style that makes sense for an academic assessment of historical events is uncomfortably stuffy and restrictive for recounting the hijinx from a recent fishing expedition.

Even when writing courses do discuss appropriate styles for the target audience, they tend to simply gloss over what that really means. Often they will have a quick discussion about appropriate word choice. There are cases where writing “It behooves us greatly on this most auspicious occasion…” is appropriate. But there are also cases where writing “Good job we did that, eh?” is more appropriate. (If you’re wondering when one would ever use the first one, think comedy.)

For most formal settings and many informal settings, the rules taught in writing courses do, in fact, make sense. The introduction, body, and conclusion structure of an essay also works well for a speech. Arranging paragraphs with a topic sentence, body sentences, and a possible concluding sentence makes sense in most cases, too. These structures are a good way to keep the text organized and understandable. Rather, where those structures break down is when it comes to narrative writing.

If writing courses focus on anything other than formal prose, they usually focus on poetry. Poetry has its own rules and generally attempts to violate as many rules as it can. Well, that’s not strictly true, but the styles used for poetry have little to do with prose and, as such, it is not helpful for anyone attempting to write narrative prose.

Narrative writing is a completely different thing to writing formal papers or speeches. There are different overall structures though the general introduction, body, and conclusion structure can be used successfully. Usually taught in English classes is the “introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, conclusion” structure for a story. That, too, is a useful structure. Where the courses fall down is that they fail to provide any real guidance on how to structure the prose itself. Instead the focus on the structure of the overall work and they only do that so that they can set the students exercises in analyzing what someone else wrote. That is hardly conducing to learning how to actually write a narrative unless the student accidentally learns something from reading.

Most notably, in narrative writing, the formal paragraph structure is useless. It can serve as a guideline, but it generally cannot be strictly adhered to. With a narrative, there are many factors which confuse the situation, not least of which is that fact that a narrative combines many different types of text at the same time. It is quite common to encounter a brief opinion essay, possibly as internal monologue, followed by an extensive set of quotes from various sources, followed by a detailed blow by blow accounting of a fight somewhere. Within the narrative, various sections may adhere to various formal guidlines. Speeches by characters may follow a typical speech format while an infodump discussion the nature of farming in the back of beyond may read like a formal essay.

Fortunately, there are reasonable guidelines that can be followed for narrative writing in English. These are, however, just that. For every recommendation, it is fairly trivial to construct an example in which the recommendation is less than ideal.

Foremost, understand formal writing. There will be many cases in the course of writing narratives where the formal structure recommendations will make perfect sense. In those cases, it is perfectly acceptable to follow them. In fact, the rules of punctuation and sentence structure do not change between formal and narrative writing even though a narrative has more freedom to bend those rules as needed. Even the rules for quoting sources in academic literature generally translate to the purpose of representing dialogue in a narrative. After all, dialogue is simply quoting a primary source, in academic parlance. Stick to the rules as much as you can without compromising the flow of the narrative and you will tend to be on the right track. Also, if you do not understand the rules, you cannot understand the impact of breaking them if you choose to do so.

There is one thing that formal writing guidelines like to present as an absolute. That is a proscription of the passive voice. This may be a result of backlash against political doublespeak and various other face saving and ass covering behaviours. Passive voice can often be used to obfuscate just who is doing what and it often weakens a statement’s impact. However, passive voice is often appropriate. It depends just what aspect of the statement is important. For instance, consider the following. I could write “the car was flattened by a falling rock” or I could write “A falling rock flattened the car.”  The former emphasises the flattening of the car while the latter emphasises the fact that a falling rock did it. Neither is incorrect. Use whichever is appropriate in the context.

The most difficult thing writers encounter is deciding how to construct paragraphs. When reading, the choice often feels random, though when the authore gets it wrong, it can be quite jarring. A general rule of thumb is to group related sentences in a single paragraph. For instance, sentences describing the room that the character just entered would make sense as a single paragraph, at least if there is a lot of description. On the other hand, if each item examined by the character is described in excruciating detail, one might reserve a paragraph for each item. Or, if the character only makes a cursory examination of the entire building, that entire examination may be one paragraph. The general goal is to prevent paragraphs from becoming too bulky without having every sentence become its own paragraph. For this reason alone, paragraph breaks are something of an art form in narrative writing.

There are, however, a few guidelines for paragraph structure that should be followed unless there is a very good reason to break them. First among them is that each time the speaker changes in a dialogue, begin a new paragraph. It is rare that quotes from multiple speakers make sense appearing in a single paragraph, though it does happen on occasion. The practice of ending a paragraph each time the speaker changes has become such a common practice that readers tend to expect it and will be thrown if the expectation is not met.

Another well established tradition is to break the paragraph whenever the point of view character changes, or whenever the narrator’s attention switches to a new character. Mixing point of view characters in the same paragraph tends to be confusing. It is worth spending a few extra words or a few extra lines to avoid this confusion.

Finally, paragraphs should not span multiple pages, and, if avoidable, should not take up the majority of a single page. The longer a paragraph, the longer a reader has to wait to find a convenient breaking point to stop reading. Even if the reader is not intending to take a break, reaching the end of a longish paragraph affords a convenient place to pause and regroup mentally. Even if the paragraph reads comfortably and does not seem to drag on, paragraph breaks also serve as a means to keep one’s eyes in synch with the text. The longer a paragraph goes on, the harder it is to reset to the correct line at the left margin. Paragraph breaks give visual cues along the left margin that make aligining on the next line easier. Remember, the system that controls our eyes is imprecise and only locks in on particular locations through a feedback system. The more information that feedback system has to work with, the less effort it takes to synchronize. Of course, how this works out depends a great deal on the typesetting and format of the end product. Also, if a paragraph really does need to be massive, as sometimes happens, there is no reason to artificially break it.

There are other things that should be considered when writing a narrative, but most of those are the same as any writing. Make sure you use words correctly. Spell words correctly. Use punctuation correctly. Keep your writing as clear as it can be. And most of all, proof read your work (something you will likely discover I failed to do on most things on this blog).

Ruminations on Writing: Terminology

Recently, I’ve seen quite a few instances of “fumble rules” and other things discussing writing style. This got me thinking about some of the “rules” that are bandied about for style and grammar. I’m going to pick on a few of those rules over the next while, I think.

Before I get into the rules, I think it would make sense to establish a vocabulary for doing so. I’m going to use a number of terms in these commentaries that may not be clear to all my readers. They certainly weren’t clear to me when I started this. I should make it clear that my definitions below may vary somewhat from the definitions used by a linguist. I am not a linguist and I find linguists to be singularly unhelpful in understanding any language.

First, we have the “classic” parts of speech which are simply labels to classify the function of words.

noun. This one should be clear and is about the most obvious definition for a part of speech ever. A noun is a word representing a specific thing, tangible or otherwise. Nouns are thinks like “cat” or “love” or “group”. They also include names (or “proper nouns”) such as “Fred” or “Edmonton” or “Earth”.

pronoun. A pronoun is really just a word that takes the place of a noun which has possibly been inflected in some way. Thus, an pronoun may behave like a noun but it might also behave as an adjective. For instance, “he” would behave like a noun, but the possessive form “his” would behave like an adjective, just like any noun inflected to be possessive.

verb. This is the other obvious part of speech. A verb is a word representing an action. While that action is normally something like running or thinking or eating or hating, it may be somewhat more abstract as represented by verbs like “be” or “become” which represent a “state of being” or associate a description with a noun of some kind.  This particular dichotomy arises from the general structure of English; there is no reason that a verb construction need be used to do the linkage. That just happens to be how English does it.

adjective. An adjective is simply a word or phrase that adds description to a noun. For instance, “fat cat”, “slow car”, “green leaf” and so on all have adjectives before the nouns.

adverb. This is something more confusing. An adverb (or adverbial phrase) modifies the action in some way. That is, it describes when or where or how the action occurs. To further confuse the issue, adverbs can also modify adjectives though if you squint at it carefully, you can realize that adjectives are really describing an action – the state of being as described by the adjective.

conjunction. A conjunction is simply a word or phrase used to join different sentences or phrases together.

preposition. A preposition introduces a phrase describing position or manner. It serves much the same purpose as a conjunction but at a lower level. Words such as “to”, “under”, “beside”, and so on often serve as prepositions.

article. An article is really just an adjective when you get down to it. In English, you have “the” which is the “definite” article and “a” or “an” which is the “indefinite” article. These are used so commonly that it makes some sense to label them separately. Other languages have a much larger complement of articles. A definite article indicates that the following noun phrase is a specific instance of the noun while the indefinite article indicates that the noun phrase is only one instance of a the noun.

interjection. An interjection is simply an emotional outburst that usually stands on its own. It generally ignores any other rules of proper grammar.

Labelling words as a particular part of speech is something of a problem in English. This stems from the fact that much of English is positional rather than inflectional. That is, rather than modifying the word to change its function in a sentence, it can often simply be relocated.  For instance, one could write “a door for a man” in which case it is clear that “man” is a noun. Or, one could use the more common phrase “man door” which means the same thing except that “man” is now serving as an adjective, describing a type of door. To further add confusion, one can “man the pumps” where “man” is now a verb meaning to apply ones own energy to operating the pumps. These are both examples of “zero derivation” in which a word of one type is repurposed to act as another without modifying it in any way. Of course, English also has inflections which are useful in many circumstances. One of the most common is the “-ly” suffix used to convert an adjective into an adverb.

Even though words can usually be labelled as one of the above parts of speech in English, there are cases where that just doesn’t work. Notably, in cases where a verb is multiple words. Let’s consider the example of “go” and “go out”. If you remove “out” from “go out”, you actually change the meaning. The difference is sufficient that “go” and “go out” can be considered distinct verbs. “Out” is not describing “go” in any way but, rather, is part of the verb itself. This is much like “to” in the infinitive form of a verb. Most references I have found seem to agree that “out” in “go out” is an adverb, but my contention is that it is nothing of the sort. That leads to another definition:

particle. A particle is simply a word serving a functional purpose. It may or may not actually behave like a part of speech. The “to” in an infinitive would be a particle. So would the “out” in “go out”. Indeed, one can take the definition to extremes and consider every word that serves as part of a larger unitary construction as a particle. Words that form parts of various verb conjugations, such as “will” or “shall”, while often considered to be verbs, are really particles as well.

There are a few other words I’ve tossed around above that could stand definitions, too.

derivation. This is simply the act of forming a new word from previously existing words by adding affixes or compounding words, or, in the case of zero derivation, simply using the old word as the new one.

conjugation. This is the act of modifying a word for its grammatical function. This is usually used in the context of verbs describing the formation of various verb tenses, voices,  and moods from the base verb form. The conjugation may vary depending on the subject, object, or even sentence position. In some languages, other types of words also conjugate, often adjectives.

mood. This is an obscure term used to describe the context of the action. Such things as “interrogative”, “indicative”, and “infinitive” are all moods. Except to linguists, this term is largely meaningless in English and can be folded into the notion of a “verb tense”.

voice. Grammatically, voice describes the releationship between the verb and its subject and object. If the verb is being done by the subject, this is active voice. If the verb is being done to the subject, this is passive voice.

tense. Strictly speaking, this describes the temporal relationship between the action and the doer. In English, that means past, present, or future. Other languages may have other tenses. In practical terms, mood and tense are often conflated or combined mentally.

inflection. Inflection is simply modification of a base word to fit into a particular function. Examples are verb conjugation and pluralization.

affix. An affix is simply an addition to a base word for some purpose. The addition may be at the start (prefix), in the middle (infix), or the end (suffix). It may even include more than one addition.

suffix. An addition to the end of a word. Generally denoted by a leading hyphen, such as “-ly”.

prefix. An addition to the start of the word. Generally denoted by a trailing hyphen, such as “un-“.

infix. An addition to the middle of a word. Generally denoted by both leading and trailing hyphens.

There are a couple other terms which are likely to come up at some point:

first person. This refers to the speaker or writer. In English, “I”, “me”, “we”, and “us” are all first person.

second person. This refers to another person in proximity to the speaker in some way. This is usually the person being spoken to or the reader. “You” would be second person.

third person. A third person is a person distinct from the speaker or the listener and is often not party to the communication. “he”, “it”, “they”, “them”, etc., are all third person.

singular. This means exactly one, as you would expect. Grammatically, it means the word itself is treated as singular even if it is notionally referring to multiple things. Singular forms are often used to refer to zero as well, depending on context.

plural. This means more than one. It may also refer to zero depending on context.

There will likely be other terms that show up. I will attempt to define those as they do. However, now that we have something of a vocabulary, I can safely proceed with my various ruminations next time.

Time Streams in Fiction

Temporal effects are a common gimmick used in science fiction and fantasy. Unsurprisingly, it is handled with varying degrees of competence in various circumstances. In fact, aside from magic and/or technology (depending on context), it is probably the most mishandled gimmick of all.

Like with the rest of the writing process, where most writers fail is at the planning stages. They don’t think through the implications of time travel for either their characters or the universe those characters exist within. Below I am going to discuss several important factors that need to be considered when developing a time travel (or other temporal effect) story.

The most important thing to consider is causality. Your audience lives in a universe where effects follow causes linearly and usually in a straight forward manner. So do you, for that matter. What this means is that your audience will expect a chain of events that is consistent, and which makes sense. That is not to say that you have to spoon feed them every little implication or detail; most will be willing, or even pleased, to spend a bit of effort figuring out how things work. They will, however, be extremely miffed if when they finish expending that effort, they discover that you have provided them with an inconsistent mess that completely defies any concept of causality. What this means is that you must make absolutely certain that there are no holes in your causality chain that are introduced due to time travelling. This includes temporal paradoxes. Of course, this is somewhat less than a strict rule depending on other factors.

You must also think carefully about the mechanism that causes the temporal effect, whether it is one character living in the reverse order to everyone else or a garden variety time travel story or some funky temporal anomaly noodling around causing weirdness. You need not explain the physics or metaphysics behind the effect, and often it is better if you do not, but you do need to be absolutely clear about how it works and you must think through the implications of it carefully. You have to know what the effect allows to happen and what it does not. For instance, a simple time dilation field will likely only affect the speed at which time passes within the field. But this might have implications at the edge of the field. Also think about what happens if the field collapses, and why that might happen based on how the field works. Make sure you understand why you have chosen a particular effect and avoid having some cool effect happen simply to make your plot more tense. It must make sense within the existing context of your story. If it doesn’t, your audience will be left with a vague sense of confusion at best.

You should most certainly avoid adding cool sounding explanations of your effect in the event you are writing science fiction, especially if you are not a physicist involved in the field you are borrowing. Quantum mechanics is often abused to handwave away random weirdness, for instance. While this may be plausible, the more detail you give, the less plausible it is going to be, especially if you happen to get some detail of quantum mechanics subtly wrong. It’s much less jarring for the gimmick that allows your effect to be named after some fictional scientist who discovered it in your universe and leaving it at that. Or naming the gimmick after the actual effect it has.

You should also carefully consider if it will be possible to change the timeline if you allow time travel. Not allowing changes may seem like it severely limits your options for tension in the story because your characters’ actions will already be part of their own history, or it means that the future is predetermined depending which perspective you attack it from (one implies the other if you look at it carefully).  However, an understanding of how history is recorded and how many details are simply not recorded at all, and even the fact that we notice only a fraction of what goes on around us at any time, should provide you with a nearly unlimited set of stories anyway.

On the other hand, if you do allow the timeline to be changed, you need a mechanism by which that can happen. This is the part of time travel that is usually messed up substantially because it is the one that directly affects causality. There are a number of aspects of this which need to be considered. For instance, if time is changed, what happens to the original time stream? Does it still exist in a branch? Does each choice create a branch in the time stream and time really isn’t changing at all? Does anyone remember the original timeline, and if so, why? What is the effect on causality? What happens if the change leads to a paradox (“I killed baby me.”)? Who can change the timeline? Is there an objective frame of reference from outside the timeline being changed? You begin to see the picture. There are many variations, some of which work better than others. It is probably helpful if you have at least an implied explanation of what mechanisms are at play.

It is probably clear to most that it is easier to do temporal weirdness in a magical universe than a technological one since magic is generally not bound by any rules of physics. But even so, if you are going to allow time travel in your fantasy universe, you still must define exactly how it works in the context of the universe. Otherwise, you will still end up with something that rings false.

I’ll close with a few examples.

The movie Timeline gets things exactly right. While it is unclear during much of the movie, the timeline is not altered at all during the course of the adventure. It turns out that their trip to the past was always part of the past. There is no rewriting time just so everyone gets a happy ending.

L. E. Modesitt, Jr.’s Timegod’s World is another example where things are basically sound. While the exact mechanism of the causality preservation system of the universe is not clear, it is clear that it has specific rules. There must always be one person that remembers things the way they were before the change. And, it turns out that the entire story is about the consequences of tinkering with time.

A recent episode of Sanctuary (“Carentan”) gets a time dilation field almost right. It may even be completely right depending what comes out in future episodes. However, there is a direct causality violation that seems apparent. If the time dilation field was merely causing time within to run at a vastly accelerated rate (6 years per 24 hours in this case), then collapsing the field would not have caused anything to cease to have existed. That effect seems to have been added in after the fact to add extra unnecessary tension to the overall plot, and possibly to avoid having to deal with the consequences later. It is not adequately explained how collapsing the field causes people born within to cease to exist yet does not kill or wipe out the outsiders. The comment about time resetting actually muddies the situation more rather than helping because a time reset would imply that absolutely nothing within the field even happened yet the main characters can clearly remember it. (And if none of it actually happened, how did the field get collapsed in the first place since that was done by characters within the field!)

Any discussion of temporal weirdnesses cannot avoid Doctor Who which makes no obvious attempt at internal consistency. It even goes so far as to describe time as a “wibbly wobbly ball of timey wimey stuff”. But then, that is the general point of the time related stuff in Doctor Who: it just doesn’t make sense. But even so, there are some rules that are generally followed and they do deal with paradoxes on occasion. And messing with time often goes badly or has long reaching consequences. That said, Doctor Who is most certainly not a model to emulate for time travel or other temporal weirdness stories.

Other works which I will not analyze in detail are listed below. Some get things right, some get them wrong, most get them partly right or partly wrong. Some might actually be consistent but there is insufficient information to figure it out.

  • Back to the Future
  • Millennium
  • The Girl from Tomorrow
  • The Time Tunnel
  • Vanishing Point
  • The Callahan stories by Spider Robinson
  • The Time Machine
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
  • Terminator (and sequels)
  • Star Trek
  • The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (and related)
  • Time Storm
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife
  • Planet of the Apes
  • Seven Days

There are, of course, many other examples. Being familiar with what works and what doesn’t in many different examples will help you avoid the same pitfalls others have fallen into.

Of course, nothing is stopping you from writing a story that makes absolutely no sense and specifically uses every possible error when dealing with time. But if you do, expect ridicule, or indifference.

Adventures in Character Development 2

I decided early that I wanted two main characters who would follow separate paths for some portion of the story before coming together. I also decided that the second character should be a strong female character and would serve as a potential love interest for the male lead (and vice versa). This idea is not original by any stretch but it often works well.

Continue reading “Adventures in Character Development 2”

Adventures in Character Development

Character development is one of the often overlooked facets of story planning. This applies equally to short works and long works. So many stories lack depth and realism because the author simply does not know his characters. Knowing your characters is critical to avoid such pitfalls as backstory contradictions and actions out of character. To this end, even before I have developed the plot in more than broad strokes, I am spending time developing my characters.

Continue reading “Adventures in Character Development”