The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel by Robert J. Ray

I’d say The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel is useful whether you’ve got a completed manuscript or not.

There are suggested methods for rewriting a whole manuscript by targeting certain parts of it on specific weekends, and suggested methods for writing vivid word pictures: use sensory descriptions, strong verbs, and concrete nouns—especially repeated objects that can become symbols.

But there are larger lessons, too.

The book talks about the primal conflicts that make stories compelling. Using examples from successful fiction and film, it explains story structure by breaking down subplots by character and showing how major scenes happen when secrets explode from the subplot and collide with the plot.

I still like Save the Cat better.

When and Why I Read The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel

I read this before. I remember it had useful things to say about subplots.

Genre: non-fiction (writing)
Date started / date finished:  07-Mar-17 to 13-Mar-17
Length: 266 pages
ISBN: 9780823084432 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2007
Amazon link: The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel

Today Special

Let’s have a look at a strange sentence.

My class today was fun.

Which word is “today” modifying?

It’s an adverb, and the verb is “was”, so “today” must be modifying “was”. Easy, right?

Not so fast!

I think the sentence above is trying to say:

The class I had today was fun.

in which case “today” is modifying “had” because otherwise we’d say

My class was fun today.

So if you say “My class today was fun,” you’re either using Chinese syntax (which requires adverbs to go in front of verbs) to say that your class was fun today, or you’re using the word “today” to modify a verb that’s not technically even in the sentence but buried inside a possessive adjective.

You could say “Today’s class was fun,” using “today” as a noun but transforming it into a possessive adjective; then you’d be missing “my”.

In Chinese, I believe you could say “My today’s class was fun” because apparently there’s no rule against doubling up demonstratives like that; I’ve heard people say things like “my the other one is nicer”. In English.

In Singapore maybe you could also get away with “My today class was fun.” After all, “today” is an adjective on all the signs outside restaurants that say “Today Special”. Such signs are of course attempting to say “Today’s Specials”, but they not only fail to transform the noun “today” into a possessive adjective, they also fail to pluralize “special”, an adjective acting like a noun.

Why do we even have different parts of speech? Words change part of speech constantly, and people “misuse” them, and start fights about whether they are in fact misusing them or not, and yet we all manage to understand each other anyway. Most of the time.

Maybe the concept of parts of speech survives for entertainment value—and to provide jobs for English teachers!

Speaking of which, back when I was a teacher for a company called I Can Read, I posted about using “I can…” to test whether a word is a verb. The word ‘window’ hilariously failed my test.

Or so I thought. Shakespeare would disagree.

Antony and Cleopatra (IV.xiv.72):

“Wouldst thou be windowed in great Rome…?”
It just goes to show:

(a) Shakespeare is awesome,
(b) the internet is awesome, and
(c) you learn something new every day!

Why do we dislike ‘reads’ and ‘eats’ used as nouns?

This sign at Marks & Spencer at Parkway Parade promises a “free $10 food voucher with min $150 spend on apparels and lingerie”.

I have always had a vague antipathy towards the shop that offers rewards for a “minimum spend”, the colleague who apologizes in advance for a “big ask”, the restaurant that promises “good eats”, and, yes, even the website that recommends “good reads”.

Turns out: I am not alone!

Why do we have this yucky feeling?

It’s the tone. These phrases rub us the wrong way because they are aggressively colloquial. Perhaps we feel that we are being disrespected, that the message is invasive in its excessive familiarity (inappropriate intimacy).

Do not think that because we are slightly offended by an informal tone, we are “too sensitive”. In general, being able to discriminate (tell apart) subtle shades of tone is a good thing. Many different words and phrases can designate the same objects and ideas, but a speaker’s or writer’s word choice conveys important subtleties.

Of course, in a truly informal context, an informal tone is appropriate. Whether a particular media channel should be considered an informal context is a separate question.

Which words cause discomfort?

Some words that change from one part of speech to another without changing form are unobjectionable, if not downright invisible.

The annoying phrases I’ve listed are all verbs used as nouns. But so are these:

  • The attacks in the capital shocked everyone.
  • The works in the gallery are priceless.
  • We receive many calls from overseas.

Or are they? There is no rule that says a noun is just a noun and a verb as just a verb. In fact, there are dozens of common words that are both noun and verb.

Some words traditionally considered nouns are controversial when used as verbs, at least in some circles.

  • Feel free to contact us if you have any questions.
  • How do you think the campaign will impact sales?
  • I need to access the file for the project.

Some new usages (such as the verbs “Google” and “friend”) are tied to new tech, which arguably merits specific, new, concise usages.

Some new usages are just trendy (or experimental—new but not trendy) and are unlikely to survive when their novelty, trendiness, or shock value has waned.

Disliking certain usages and not others doesn’t mean we conscientious objectors are hypocritical or inconsistent. It just means we’re linguistically conservative. We accept older usages because they have already stood the test of time. Such usages are unobtrusive. They don’t yank on our sleeve demanding attention like the newer ones sometimes do.

Ironically, sometimes the “new and obtrusive” usages align perfectly with obsolete, forgotten ones that are even older, so it’s dangerous to insist that anything in the English language is better just because it’s old.

“What’s wrong with neologisms? Language change is natural!”

Some readers eagerly repeat hip, new usages, some cringe inwardly, and some sneer. Words, like products for sale, have early-adopters and skeptics. Some never “cross the chasm” and become accepted by the majority.

I think what bothers the sneerers is that not all those who repeat  neologisms understand what they are doing. Ad copy is created for the sake of fleeting expediency. The oblivious repetition of flashy, gimmicky, casual language out of context tends to strike thoughtful, well-read language enthusiasts as callous destruction, not as natural evolution.

Surely, the thinking goes, we should respect existing usage when it makes sense to do so, and welcome change by making considered, conscious choices. Language is a beautiful thing; we shouldn’t tromp all over it with muddy, ignorant boots.

I’m not sure it’s reasonable to insist that languages change only by means of considered, conscious choices. Since not everybody who needs language has the leisure for such consideration, it seems callous to insist on it.

On the other hand, surely the task can be—and already has been—delegated to armies of dedicated culture keepers: writers, editors, and lexicographers who perform both the innovative and the stabilizing functions that ensure we can all more or less continue to communicate with each other effectively and enjoyably.

“Just get over it.”

In general, I don’t mind seeing people bend language into new forms. The conversion of “because” from a conjunction into a preposition genuinely amuses me. Language isn’t just for communication, it’s also for play. I have no problem letting people have a little fun with words—and in any case, I couldn’t stop them if I did!

Even in the awkward case of “eats (n. pl.)” and “reads (n. pl.)”, worries about the risk of permanent damage to the vast and amorphous thing that is the English language are misplaced. We can always find room for different ways to express ourselves.

Still. The niggling discomfort when I hear of “good eats” and “good reads”, now that I know its source, nevertheless remains.

Further Reading

On “verbing”:

On “spend”:

I would rephrase the text to “with a minimum of $150 spent…” so that the idea of “spend” becomes an adjective modifying “dollars”. Using the gerund “spending” is also grammatically correct and seems to be regarded as slightly more normal than using “spend”.

Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

Phew. Okay. Saint Anything was way less heartwrenchingly dire than Dreamland!

I loved the ongoing debate about what the band should be called; reminds me of the Zits comic in which Jeremy’s mom offers the band some goat cheese pizza during practice, and “goat cheese pizza” thus becomes the name of the band.

I’m always impressed by Dessen’s fake world. At least some of the time she reuses the same town and high schools, which makes the places feel familiar and real even if they’re not. Her world also has its own shops, restaurants, brand names and pop stars. The culture her teen characters inhabit is specific and authentic without being real. It isn’t tied to a specific place and time.

I have noticed technology creep in over the years, though, which might give readers a way to place the setting in time. For example, the characters didn’t have smartphones in earlier books… but nobody had smartphones in 1996 when Dessen published That Summer! The characters; computers and phones aren’t an important part of the novels, but teens reading the earlier ones might scratch their heads wondering why tech isn’t as important in the characters’ lives as it is in their own.

When and Why I Read Saint Anything

I’ve read all Sarah Dessen’s books so far.

Genre: fiction (YA)
Date started / date finished:  04-Mar-17 to 06-Mar-17
Length: 417 pages
ISBN: 9780147516039 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2015
Amazon link: Saint Anything

Westworld (Season 1)

After watching the trailer plus one episode, I would say Westworld reminds me of two other sci-fi productions.

Westworld reminds me of Bladerunner (1982) because the “hosts”, the synthetic people who inhabit the Westworld theme park, are, like the replicants, starting to want to protect themselves and choose their fates. The difference is in the hardware: the replicants are genetically engineered, not built by robotic 3D printers and controlled by wireless signal receivers like the hosts.

Westworld also reminds me of the show Dollhouse (2009–2010), which is also about an expensive service that gratifies rich clients by supplying them with realistic but fake people. One difference is that the dolls are not fundamentally artificial; they were and will again be people with their own pasts and futures. Their brains and bodies are simply borrowed during their contracted time. Another difference is that the dolls go out into the real world and pass as people, whereas the clients of the Westworld park only interact with the hosts within the park itself… at least as far as we know!

There’s also an element of repetition reminiscent of Groundhog Day (1993) or Edge of Tomorrow (2014), but the loops are not actual loops in time, just loops in the behavior of androids who have been programmed to behave the same way over and over.

I’m interested in the philosophical questions the science-fiction premise raises:

  • Could an android become human by having experiences?
  • How should we treat androids for our own sakes, if not theirs?
  • Could we be downloaded into replacement bodies, and thus live forever? If so, would we still be human?

What I don’t like about the show is that it has violent scenes with a real tinge of horror. I get that the show is trying to be raw and disturbing. Reining back the violence would lessen the drama.

Update 13 March 2017: After watching all of Season 1, I can say that the show is thoroughly bloody, and yet philosophically interesting enough to hold the attention even of a squeamish person. Free will vs. determinism, good vs. evil, humans vs. artificial intelligence. Captivating.

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

I love Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

I’ve been using Snyder’s fifteen-item beat sheet to analyze movies. The beat sheet has helped me remember movies after I’ve watched them, and has also helped me appreciate their twists and turns as they happen. Ultimately, I hope internalizing the beat sheet will help me as a writer.

A 2013 Slate article blamed Snyder for a slew of bad movies, claiming that ever since he published his ‘formula’, movie-makers have slavishly followed it, to the detriment of art. It’s hard to disagree, until you read the rebuttal, which is that bad movies exist because making good movies is hard. Okay, yeah, fair enough.

Storytelling is an old art, and stories already had a three-act structure back when Aristotle was around, because he wrote about it. Nobody blames Joseph Campbell, with his famous Jungian Hero with a Thousand Faces, for ruining storytelling by outlining the meta-myth from which all myths spring. No more should we blame Snyder for understanding how best to bend myths into movies.

I read the Campbell book in 2014; didn’t much care for it. I’ve considered reading Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey, but I suspect it’s more on Campbell’s end of the spectrum than Synder’s. Somewhere sitting happily in the middle is Robert J. Bly’s book The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel, which leverages many mythological archetypes and terms from Greek rhetoric but explains and exemplifies them usefully, often giving tips for writing novels lifted from—you guessed it—the discipline of screenwriting. I’m tempted to read something by Syd Field or Robert McKee, but then, at least at this point, I’m not actually interested in screenwriting per se.

Save the Cat isn’t all about the much-maligned beat sheet; if it were, the book would be called Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet instead. What else is in the book?

  • how to write and test a good logline (one sentence movie concept)
  • Blake’s list of 10 unconventional movie “genres”
  • how to choose a hero
  • how to arrange your scenes on “the board” (use four rows; one row of about 10 scenes for Act I, two for Act II, one for Act III)
  • how to leverage a handful of quirkily named commonsense rules of screenplay writing (including Save the Cat)
  • how to troubleshoot a weak screenplay
  • what to do after you finish writing a screenplay
  • a glossary of terms (industry terms and Snyderisms)

Right, so, what does “Save the Cat” mean anyway? It just means that your protagonist should do or experience something very early on to win the audience’s support.

When and Why I Read Save the Cat

I have read this book before. It has been great at helping me think about plot. In fact, I have the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet on the wall by my computer. I read the book again to get a firmer grip on the details. There is so much more good advice than I remembered. How does it all fit in such a short book with so much whitespace? I don’t know how he did it.

Genre: non-fiction (movies, writing)
Date started / date finished:  26-Feb-17 to 04-March-17
Length: 195 pages
ISBN: 9781932907001 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2005
Amazon link: Save the Cat