Friday, July 25, 2008

Demystifying THE WHITE BLANKNESS by Robert W. Walker

Demystifying THE WHITE BLANKNESS - BEFORE YOU CAN BEGIN STORYTELLING DESTROY The myth of diagramming sentences By Robert W. Walker

Transforming grammar as this is NOT about your mother’s grammar.

If we could only all go back to Mrs. Carlisle’s 4th grade grammar class now that we are old enough to not only appreciate the old dear’s sincere heart but to understand and know what the hell she was talking about when she was spending all that time with her back toward us while diagramming a sentence.

Diagramming a sentence is DE-constructing it...taking it apart AFTER it has been built. The mind works in lightning fashion (computer fashion) to construct the foundation and the floors of a towering compound complex sentence and Mrs. C comes along and tears it down brick by F@#$%*!@#K!! brick? What’s that? It was and still is believed by many an English professor that DECONSTRUCTING a hairy and compound and complex sentence (created in the mind that way, created to be compound and complex in a heartbeat) is and always will be a worthwhile exercise. But typically the only one getting the thrill of it and the point of it is the single person in the room who understands why do the process of deconstructing at all, and that would be, you guessed it, the instructor.

An audience of one again, but at least she has a “form“ to work with— the shape of the sentence she has chosen to dissect like a lanuage pathologist: “Here lies the spleen of the sentence, swipe, snip, remove to a lower compartment down here. Here is the head, here the heart—subject and verb—while here lies the rump! The end object...object we were going for. To the side, we place the adverbs and adjectives, the kidneys and liver. Once all the vital organs are relegated to these secondary spirals and spin offs, we are left with but three items in the corpse of the sentence on the table: the subject, verb, and object (the kernel sentence). All those eons since Latin scholars first graced us with “how sentencing works” they were tearing down, cutting away, deconstructing in order to SHOW us how the damn thing was built to order by the remarkable language machine we call the mind (at play in the field of words).

Watch any developing child and ask yourself would you go to his little chalkboard and deconstruct the sentence he just came up with? That red rubber ball with the bulls-eye on it is mine, and I want it back now, or I will hit you with a candelabra.

How easily English teachers can wield the knife or red pen, and deftly deconstruct our constructs. How easily this crowd also destroyed any hope of hundreds of thousands in public schools across America of ever really enjoying Shakespeare’s Julius Ceaser or The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, The Faerie Queen or anything Nathanel Hawthorne ever penned because of being forced at a tender age to endure the grim and morbid Scarlet Letter when Twice Told Tales would have been perfect for sophomore or junior year reading!

So how do we understand SENTENCE BUILDING if we don’t take the machine apart and look at all its cogs, wheels, levers, pulleys and the put it back together again? Why not work with the Construction Boss, the brain itself, and teach youth how sentences are built from first brick—subject noun—to next brick—verb (action of subject) –to final brick—object (object of subject, object of action) and then we see the awnings, the grill work, the tapestry, the gargoyles go up on the turrets and spiraling chimneys. The gaudy adjectives that work like pilot fish following a shark, that attach themselves to the subject noun and other nouns (or names in the sentence), the colorful adverbs that attach themselves to the verbs, the prepositional phrases that attach themselves either to the subject or object, or AS THE OBJECT phrase, as in “for all mankind”. Then we begin to SEE THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THINGS (the very definition of learning), and we begin to see that sentences don’t get formed by DE-construction but by ADD ONS. So? So rather than doing deconstructive surgery on a sentence, we English professor types ought really to be doing RE-constructive surgeries on sentences, explaining not only HOW the mind imagines and creates a sentence but WHY? What is the need for all these add-ons? These things we call MODIFIERS which, while in the haste of CREATION are sometimes...often actually...misplaced and make for the unintentionally humorous—a the unintended outcome, better known as a dangling modifier.

While this is not a grammar text, I urge anyone who has read this far to look into Transformational Grammar—a sensible and scientific way to look at how sentences are built and created and imagined by the mind.
Until overcoming fear of two elemental items involved in writing, this successful author of over 40 published novels knew only how to write crippled, awkward, halting, hesitant stories filled with boring sentences on crutches.
Stories that felt (to me alone) clear, obvious, exciting, and breathtakingly compelling, while others (bastard editors or teachers in particular) found the same story a mish-mash and a landslide of relentless boredom without the least compelling aspect save perhaps the kernel idea or plot, or a nifty character or two. Something my plumber could do.
This is not a grammar text. However, the elements of style are steeped in and wrapped in the rudiments of our fundamental decisions and choices between adverbs, adjectives, pronouns over nouns or visa-versa, of word choice which creates voice, diction, tone, and eventually builds point of view characters. In the beginning there was the word—the lone single choice of which word is better suited, which choice has the rich nuance required. Most important in that decision is to select a rich verb over an impoverished one, that is a healthy, strong, active verb over an anemic, weak, passive or helping or linking verb (the verb to be). Some movement is afoot to get rid of the verb to be altogether and this may be taking root in Spotsylvania, Louisiana and Paupau, New Guinea, but I’d put money on the verb to be staying put as it is firmly ensconced in our psyches as well as our dictionaries. To be or not to be—to act or not to act—to use the BE verb or to use the ACTIVE counterpart, that is the question. The answer came to me in a vision when I was young and fearful of all things GRAMMATICAL. If the sentence I write sounds right and just and good, and it rings a fine tone, and it makes sense, USE IT. After being “transformed” by a course in college called Transformational Grammar, I added, “If it sounds good and makes good sense, and if it is ACTIVE VOICE then USE IT.

While this blog is not a grammar textbook, I will counsel you often throughout the to race to a good grammar and to make reference there to certain matters of all important item we are discussing as when we discuss the monster in language that eats up meaning and clarity, a monster called “The Qualifier” or qualifying statement, as with pronoun confusions, as with number confusions, as with active over passive verb constructs.
An active construct can be a hammer blow in tone as with any strong two-word sentence: Jesus wept. Requiring only a SUBJECT noun and an active VERB. Notice the object is cut off by the period. It may or may not follow in the next sentence as in: The shepherd and carpenter of Nazareth did so for all mankind.

Biblical writing is filled with active voice constructs, but so too is the writings of such men as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Martin Cruz Smith, and other best-selling authors (although there are just as many best-selling authors who have either forgotten or become lazy over the years whose works are crushingly passive but whose fame has overshadowed any hope of their gaining serious and solid editing).
However, this blog is not a textbook on grammar. It does not aspire to such a lofty goal. Rather I will concern you with the least you need to know about grammar elements that can win you readings or, if ignored, lose the hoped for editor reading and respect.

That said, let us move on to the heart of the matter. As every story begs a beginning and the old saw that says simply “Begin and the beginning.” Easier said than done, but where is the beginning? Get a pocket watch with a chain on it and dangle it before your eyes at your work station, so that you are ever mindful that every successful story has an internal clock ticking, and ask yourself at what TIME in the story should I open with my first salvo, that most compelling of all sentences, the one that makes the reader go on to my second, third, fourth, and so on and on. Draw a line in that imaginary sand of the mind and have it run flat for a while, then arch up and up. This storyline looks flat at the beginning. At the first arch upwards, what is your main character doing? Where is her hands? Is this little girl whose point of view comes clear aged twelve or six or is she a teen, a young woman, and does she have an occupation or career or aspirations, and for God’s sake, what is her name? What is gained by witholding elemental facts that can help us READERS determine who she is and if we should be interested or not? And again, where are her hands, her feet, on what kind of slippery slope is she standing, hanging, or swinging, and is it by a thread? Has she just broken into the local ancient condemned movie theater? If you open with your character in mid-crime, in mid-act, in mid-mistake, wow, one step ahead of the last story the editor rejected already (not that a fast out of the gate alone will sell a story, but it will get a reading).

There’s an old axiom in script writing as well as fiction writing: begin with the backstory firmly in place. That is all that has ALREADY occurred before your story’s first line opens; it should be your research or days or weeks of contemplation on this fully-realized character. If she is an accomplished twelve-year-old burglar coming through a window that is going to change her life forever (due to conflict with someone inside?), then you have to be convinced of it before you can convince me—or any one else for that matter. Suppose Sue Appel goes through that window just for the kicks, or as a dare? Gotta be some trouble in her past that led up to this. Suppose she’s a pro at this age because she’s feeding a drug habit? Or that her parents raised her “in the business.” Suppose she defines herself as a Gypsy? And if it is drugs? It’s one thing if she’s feeding her own habit, another if she’s doing it for her big brother or father or mother.

We’re still not about grammar here but we are. The opening sentence showing Clarice climbing clumsily through the easy mark’s window that looks out on a trash-can- lined alley and a polluted sky blocking out any hope of stars and moon is already MISTAKE-ridden with the single word clumsily. Clumsily is an adverb --that is it only has one job to do and that is ADD-to-the-VERB, thus add-verb. By our choice we have made her clumsy altogether in selecting this word, and yet our backstory idea on her is that this has become routine, simple, easy, and she does it with grace and without a thought to why she does this crime. Clumsy throws us entirely in another direction, making us suspect just the opposite. She is a first timer. It is at instant odds with our plan. Enough such thoughtless choices and our story will work for no one on any level except our blind selves. We become the home movie guy who shoots reels and reels but the only one who enjoys the reels is an audience of one.

I had a student once defend the indefensible in class. He shouted his conviction that a poem could be about anything and take ANY form, finishing with, “The word IT can be a poem, standing alone, just IT. There’s your poem.”
You know he might be right, and some guy somewhere is going to have an Andy Worhal fifteen minutes when he displays his poem in a frame at the Guggenheim or the Art Institute of Chicago with his artistically stylized poem IT in an ornate frame. But I still beg to differ that all lasting, all good art conforms to a form even if it is pushing the envelope of what constitutes form, and a single-word poem is not pushing the envelope, and it has no form. It is like a Piccaso cast off pencil drawing of a single line and will get as much attention as the man‘s preoccupation with a certain female body part in his dotage—seen one, seen all—and I resent having paid for the dubious privilege at the prestigious Chicago Art Institute.

Moral: no matter who calls it art, elephant dung on canvass is still elephant dung, but at least the elephant dung artist plugged into a motif, a form, the pieta—mother and child in one another‘s arms. The single-word poem, however beautiful its frame, has no such “art” in and of itself except perhaps on the cover of a Stephen King novel in which case the publisher‘s art department has to make IT look interesting as a title. Go ahead now, prove me wrong and write the epic poem IT and show me up, but I submit that IT alone is not “epic”. Still, I’d love to see it....

Point being that stories want to “take shape” and have “form” and without this they become formless, miasmas of tone, slices of melancholia, portions of shock, fragmented gems uncut and unset as in a nifty little haunted house story that goes nowhere but darn if that wasn’t a fresh haunting opening sentence, huh?

Beginnings SET the tone. First sentences, fist paragraphs, first pages, first scenes, and first chapters are all important, so it behooves you to REWRITE them over many times, but rewrite SMARTLY, rewrite as an EXORSIST. You alone can exorcise and cast out the demons and gremlins that come about as a result of your own weak, passive, brain-snot as Stephen King calls it. In a grammar text “brain snot” would be called extraneous and confusing and misleading words, and you saw by example that a single adverb can mislead, confuse or befuddle the reader who is an amazingly forgiving cuss for the most part, but who will drop your story like a stone in the nearest toilet if you again and again fall into passive verb voice and or make other elemental errors that deep-six a dramatic moment as in a three paragraph block telling me that one character told another character this, and the second character responded by telling the first that, and so on. Beware the word TOLD. If it was told why isn’t the author allowing the character to speak in his own words? To walk and talk in his role?

Next blog willl be an actual exercise to improve dialogue overnight, a finger exercise you can do repeatedly to remind yourself what is truly dramatic in dramatic writing.

Until then, happy writing . .
Rob Walker
Knife Editing Service – contact me via

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