Who Is My Audience?

Mark Twain photo portrait.
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Mark Twain claimed that, before he ever published a book, he would “always read the manuscript to a private group of friends, composed as follows:

1. Man and a woman with no sense of humor.

2. Man and a woman with a medium sense of humor.

3. Man and a woman with prodigious sense of humor.

4. An intensely practical person.

5. A sentimental person.

6. Person who must have a moral in, and a purpose.

7. Hypercritical person—natural flaw-picker and fault-finder.

8. Enthusiast—person who enjoys anything and everything, almost.

9. Person who watches others, and applauds or condemns with the majority.

10. Half a dozen bright young girls and boys, unclassified.

11. Person who relishes slang and familiar flippancy.

12. Person who detests them.

13. Person of evenly-balanced judicial mind.

14. Man who always goes to sleep.

“These people represent the general public. Their verdict is the sure forecast of the verdict of the general public. There is not a person among them whose opinion is not valuable to me; but the man whom I most depend upon—the man whom I watch with the deepest solicitude—the man does most toward deciding me as to whether I shall publish the book or burn it, is the man who always goes to sleep. If he drops off within fifteen minutes, I burn the book; if he keeps awake three-quarters of an hour, I publish—and I publish with the greatest confidence, too. For the intent of my works is to entertain; and by making this man comfortable on a sofa and timing him, I can tell within a shade or two what degree of success I am going to achieve” (from Who Is Mark Twain?)

Who is our audience? While the notion of “art for art’s sake” certainly has its place, at some point writers must ask themselves what they really hope to accomplish by putting words on paper. If you’re writing fiction (be it a potboiler or more serious “literary fiction”), the story had better be engaging, otherwise you’ll likely lose your readers before you’ve begun.

The same is true for non-fiction. Although the purpose of your writing could be simply telling a true story or providing information, there are effective and ineffective ways of doing this. Historical writing, for example, often lands somewhere on the extremes of the audience-engagement spectrum: either it’s a compelling narrative that breathes life into figures from the past, or it’s as dead as Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones.

So remember Twain’s analogy, and no matter what we are writing, let’s all try to keep that drowsy fellow on the sofa awake.

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Comma Chameleon

Yes, the title is reminiscent of the only song by Culture Club that I can stand, but it fits the topic so….thank you Boy George?

Part of the beauty and frustration of the English language is that it is constantly changing. Not only does this relate to morphemes and phonemes but it applies to punctuation as well. Take the comma for instance. Back when I was slogging through grammar lessons there were some rigid rules as to how commas were used: Put a comma anywhere in a sentence where a natural pause occurs. Place a comma before conjunctions and and but when they occur in a compound sentence. And I recall dozens of little red circles throughout my essays indicating where I had broken these rules (and many others I am sure).

These days though it seems the whole idea of comma usage has become more flexible. Actually it seems that the rules have been tossed aside like so much used tissue. Many rules now state that the use of the comma can many times be a personal choice. Well, which times? Are you telling me that if I conveniently forget a comma before the conjunction and that all will be forgiven because it was my choice not to break out the comma? I don’t buy that for a second.

So, as an English teacher, these days I’ve got commas gathering like ants at a picnic. Students are throwing them into their essays as the panacea for all their grammatical ills leaving me to sort out where they can get away with such frivolity and where it just doesn’t work…for me…because I am the teacher….and it is my personal choice.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a good punctuation mutation every now and again. Some writers use it and the results are pure genius. Take for instance the remarkable poet e.e. cummings. Following is his poem “she Being Brand” where the poet experiments with the rules of capitalization and punctuation (and a few others as you will see):

she being Brand
-new;and you
know consequently a
little stiff i was
careful of her and(having
thoroughly oiled the universal
joint tested my gas felt of
her radiator made sure her springs were O.
K.)i went right to it flooded-the-carburetor cranked her
up,slipped the
clutch(and then somehow got into reverse she
kicked what
the hell)next
minute i was back in neutral tried and
again slo-wly;bare,ly nudg.  ing(my
lev-er Right-
oh and her gears being in
A 1 shape passed
from low through
second-in-to-high like
greasedlightning)just as we turned the corner of Divinity
avenue i touched the accelerator and give
her the juice,good
was the first ride and believe i we was
happy to see how nice she acted right up to
the last minute coming back down by the Public
Gardens i slammed on
brakes Bothatonce and
brought allofher tremB
to a:dead.
        e.e. cummings

This is an excellent example of how a writer can manipulate the way his or her text is read simply by playing with the rules. You are forced to experience this poem just as e.e. cummings had in mind and it makes for intense reading. Notice the way he surrounds the word “dead” with a colon and a period. These are two pieces of punctuation that when encountered, cause a reader to slow down or stop abruptly. So to write it this way “:dead.” Cummings is expressing the finality of the experience. It is a thing of beauty.

he absence of punctuation can be just as powerful. Open up any Cormac McCarthy novel and read a page and you will notice that the lack of punctuation also forces you to read the text a certain way. You must pay very close attention to understand a conversation between two or more characters when there are no quotation marks to guide you.

Many of us have read a sentence where someone forgot to use a period to end it or a comma to break it up and have found ourselves scratching our head and having to go back to reread it. This just goes to show you that punctuation in writing is an important element and one to be considered carefully. Ask yourself how you want your text to be read and then choose your punctuation accordingly.

Word of caution. There is a time and a place for such experimentation and during a formal writing assignment or in a cover letter is not the time. But don’t be afraid of punctuation. Use the fluidity and flexibility of the English language to your advantage…and read more e.e. cummings…..really…..he is brilliant.

The Old Chuck Palahniuk’s Rules For Short Stories

Kurt Vonnegut speaking at Case Western Reserve...

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I was discussing with some friends last week whether Chuck Palahniuk was the new Kurt Vonnegut.  Statements like that always strike me as a bit of a cop-out, but I lack a better way to describe Mr. Palahniuk’s writing to people.

The discussion did remind me of Vonnegut’s rules for short stories, which I quite like.  I think they apply to much more than just short stories, and here are my favorites (at the moment):

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

At the least! I’ve seen many screenplays now where every character is hard-boiled, mean, crazy, evil, or just generally unlikable.   Even anti-heroes need something you can like about them, some way to identify with their plight.   Even if your characters are an army of ninja serial killing robots, you have to find a way to make one of them somehow sympathetic.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

Conflict. Every scene, every act, every chapter, everything needs to have some element of conflict in it. It’s the drama that drives interest in the tale. As Mr. Vonnegut says, it doesn’t have to be a cosmic battle, but if there isn’t some goal that a person is trying to reach, lose the scene.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

Here’s another one that carries well into screenwriting, but it is expanded to “Start late and finish early.”  One of my most common edits when I rewrite is to trim the start and end of a scene.  Don’t put every moment on screen (or in print).  It leaves something to the reader’s imagination, and is rarely needed at all.  If we don’t need to see the postman pull over, get out of his truck, and walk all the way up to the front door, start with them ringing the doorbell.  Or start with the character opening the package.

I’d love to hear any thoughts on the list, and any items you like or hate!

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Slow zombies or fast? Know your rules.

In my recent screenplay class, one other student was working on a pretty slick idea that involved zombies.  I won’t get into the details other than to say when he got to the details of the zombies getting around, a battle broke out in the class.

True connoisseurs of the brain eating undead grew up watching the Slow zombies trudge across the screen in classics like Night of the Living Dead.  The zombies were scary because they were like a force of nature, inexorable and relentless.  You could whack, smack, slap, beat, and repeat these things and they were still coming for you.  They were like Death itself – you could run, but eventually you would fall.

Newer zombie movies tend to favor Fast zombies.  Rigor mortis doesn’t bother this crew. In fact, they’re like rotting ninjas as they come over every obstacle and around every corner.  If you didn’t bring your track shoes you’re going to be lunch.

The debate was mostly along generational lines, or which versions you saw first as you were growing up.  Slow or Fast, they each have a different story to tell.  The moral of it all was to know the rules of your own universe.

I’m a Slow Zombie guy, so I lobbied my case accordingly. I got nervous when the writer said he was going for a mix of Fast and Slow zombies. A mix?! He was a little fuzzy on what was causing his zombies to become zombified, and just liked the idea of two different speeds.  We then pushed him to try and define his world better. You need to know your own rules to convey them effectively to the audience.  You’ll quickly lose your viewer if your genre changes mid-stream or the impossible happens out of left field.  They’ll feel cheated.

So pick your zombie’s top speed to suit your story, then let them do their thing.