Thursday, March 25, 2010

What's up with "Could"?

I suppose the title of this post doesn't convey my question very well.

What I'm wondering about is why I see so many narratives where we are told that some "could see" or "could hear" something. For example:

She could see the ducks in the pond.


He could hear the rumble of trucks on the nearby freeway.

Why "could"? (Which is one of those words that starts looking odd after you've written it too many times...)

In the case of the first example, the author might have instead written

She saw the ducks in the pond.

Or even, if we are clearly embedded in her POV,

The ducks paddled across the pond. (etc)

Why the "could see" construction? When I read it too many times, I find myself asking, "She could see? But what? She could, but chose not to? She could see, but instead put her hands over her eyes?"

Now, there are completely legitimate uses of this construction, especially when it follows a change in conditions:

Standing on the box, he could see over the fence


Once he turned off the car's engine, he could hear the chirping of the crickets in the field.

But the longer I think about it, the less I like

He could hear the chirping of the crickets in the field.

all on its own. Obviously the writer is telling us that he heard them, not that he could have but overlooked them, or the writer would have said something like

Were he not so distracted by his mobile phone, he could have heard the chirping of the crickets in the field.

So why are some writers so tempted to avoid saying

He heard the chirping of the crickets in the field. ?

It has an air of the hypothetical case about it. Are people drawn to the "could" construction because it's a little weasely? My dictionary notes that could is sometimes used as "an alternative to can suggesting less force or certainty or as a polite form in the present ". In other words, yes, weasely (which in my opinion usually weakens fiction).

Or perhaps it simply has a fine, slightly archaic ring to it (as it were)? I was at a graduation ceremony not too long ago where I heard the slightly formal hypothetical used in an unending stream. As each graduate was announced, we heard something like

John Richard Smith...John would like to thank his parents, and Mrs. Jones at the school library.

Uh-huh. He would like to, but he can't? He'd like to, but is having us do it instead? I, well, could think of reasons he would like to but won't, and after I hear a speaker repeat 'would like to thank' a dozen times, I not only could think of reasons, but I actually do think of reasons. He'd like to, but at the moment he's too stoned to talk. He'd like to, but unfortunately they never helped him, and in fact were the major impediment to his success. He'd like to, but he was captured by Moorish pirates and had his tongue cut out.

(Hey, it helps pass the time. If there's any thing more boring than a graduation ceremony, I never want to attend it.)

I note that could and would are both similar, very old words. And when I think about it, should is pretty fuzzy, too. It must be those -ould words--shifty and circumlocutive.

Of course, I exclude from this category -ould words like mould, which is a very different matter. But perhaps that's why on this side of the Atlantic we spell it mold. I could believe that. I would like to believe that.

I should be ending this post now.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Working Titles

Over on his blog, Tim Stretton mentions that, despite possible uphill publication battles, he is immersed in his next Mondia novel (to which fans of Dog of the North and Dragonchaser, amongst whom I am numbered, can only say, Bravo and The Sooner the Better.)

He discussed many aspects of this venture, but the one that drew most comments was the fact the he hadn't yet chosen a working title. A couple of novelists I won't name (okay, he said, breaking down at the first threat of torture, they were Aliya Whiteley and LC Tyler) were a bit surprised that Tim didn't have a working title. Indeed, Tim himself seemed a bit surprised, though not really bothered.

A digression: Working Title Films is a great Irish/British/Hollywoodish production company, whose name has always amused me. (Wingnut Films, Peter Jackson's production company, is equally well-named.) Working Title has produced big films like Atonement and Elizabeth and Pride and Prejudice, offbeat films like Bob Roberts and The Tall Guy, Richard Curtis' Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually, the two wonderful Simon Pegg vehicles Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and most of the Coen Brothers films from The Big Lebowski and Fargo on down to their recent A Serious Man. (If you haven't seen A Serious Man, check it out. Truly original, peculiar, and delightful.)

I've always wondered how many of their films really had working titles different from their release titles. (Other than Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, of course.)

Based on a highly scientific survey of the field I have ascertained that authors can be sorted into four classes on this issue:

1) Those who must have a title to proceed, even if it is likely to be changed. Aliya and Len fall into this camp. There is something admittedly seductive about a good title. It is fraught with potential and promise. Tim joked that he was calling his new novel War of the Midget Trolls, and I don't think there was a follower of his blog who didn't want to read that book. Of course, I can't see any way that a book with that title would fit into the aesthetic of Mondia, but it's an irresistable, pulpy, preposterous title that almost makes you want to write the book yourself if Tim won't. (War of the Albanian Dwarves is equally provocative, though that's off in Whiteleyland.)

Titles can be a kind of muse or irritant, and some writers flourish with them, flounder without them, and basically can't function unless they have them on at least a temporary basis. About half the writers I know seem to be in this camp.

2) Those who discover titles--sometimes many of them--somewhere along the way. I'm in this bunch. I don't mind calling it Untitled or My Current Book or Work in Progress or The Effing Novel until something leaps out and grabs me. And even then I'm not married to it until I'm near the home stretch.

And, as it turns out, however, even if I'm married to it by the end, I'm not really a till-death-do-us-part kind of guy on the title thing. I'm kind of attached to my title by the end, but, hey--was she really all that better than Untitled or My Latest Thing? Come to think of it, the other titles were less demanding, more affectionate, and didn't leave their pantyhose hanging on the shower-curtain rod to dry. So when my publisher suggests another title might work better, I'm quite capable of dumping the one that has emerged over the course of the novel.

In this I don't think I'm more of a sinner than the writers who have to have a title from the outset. Okay, I made a mistake, but we acted like adults, and our ways parted without a lawsuit or coverage in People Magazine.

I had a long lonely time in the world of Untitled before I discovered The Right Title, and then I dropped The Right Title for The New Title, who was younger and had fewer wrinkles, less emotional baggage, and support from my publisher, but I don't see that this makes me a bad person.

Well, okay, in fact it does make me a bad person, but it's certainly no worse than the writers in Category 1) above. They commmited to titles, real titles, knowing all along that those titles weren't Ms Right, just Ms Right Now. (Those of different genders and/or sexual orientations and/or states of feminist awareness are invited to insert Mr, Miss, or whatever title pleases into the previous sentence.)

I can live with the uncertainty of Untitled for quite some time. In fact, I fancy it gives me an air of mystery--sitting alone at a table in a cafe with no title beside me, a far-away look in my eye. It makes me want to adopt a slight accent, or perhaps obtain a good imitation of a Heidelberg dueling scar on my cheek.

"What are you working on?" they ask. "What's it called?"

A weary sigh from me. "I'm not sure yet." A languid, French throwaway gesture with an uplifted palm. "Ah. The title." Shrug. "She will come when she pleases."

This can also be done in Zen Monk form, with remarks about not pushing the river because it flows by itself.

Truth is, I wish I had a title before I started writing. It just doesn't work like that for me.

I believe I'm in about a quarter of all writers in this Untitled/Soon-to-be-Titled crowd. Which gets us to perhaps 75% of the writing community.

3) The third group of writers--almost another quarter of the whole, which gets us near to one hundred percent--claims they have working titles, but they aren't fooling themselves or anyone else who is beyond the age of believing in the Easter Bunny. A lot of famous writers fall into this class. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, even pop writers like Margaret Mitchell, all settled on titles--and sometimes title after title--that are so irredeemably stupid and unmarketable that they are either designed to make listeners change the subject, or are carefully constructed strategems to force their editors and publishers to think hard about a decent title and allow the writer to get on with his or her work.

Gone With the Wind. A nice title. But earlier she claimed it would be called Tote the Weary Load, or Pansy, or Tomorrow is Another Day. Yeah, sure. Those have bestseller written all over them.

The Great Gatsby. Iconic, no? Except perhaps when it was named Trimalchio in West Egg, or Hurrah for the Red, White and Blue, or The High-Bouncing Lover. Scotty was a master of language, so I have to believe he was having us on.

And, of course, Hemingway was the master of offering titles he could never have intended. A Farewell to Arms is good. But The Sentimental Education of Frederick Henry, or Those Who Get Shot, or Love in Italy...well, come on. Did he ever really believe those were the titles?

I'm not sure if the writers in this class simply rattle off titles as a way of telling folks to Go Away, or if they want to get their editors working on titles that fit the market, and hope to strike fear into their publishing hearts with preposterous possiblities. But it's pretty clear to me that this crowd of of writers are disingenuous. Their books are really called Untitled until the last minute, and in the interim they'll call them any damn thing that comes to mind, which amounts to the same thing.

4) David Thayer. As far as I know, Mr Thayer is the sole occupant of this class, though there may be others. David calls every new novel the same thing--in his case, An Aztec in Central Park--until the final title comes to him.

It's not that David's bad with titles. Some of the ones he's settled on for various books--Tossing the Jack, The Working Dead, Flamingo Dawn--are evocative and potent. But all of these at some point or another were An Aztec in Central Park.

Problem is, David recently wrote a novel that involved--you guessed it--a person of Mexican ancestry, with a good deal of Aztec blood, who spends some time in Central Park. And the title got attached to that book, because, well, it was a sort of irrevocable molecular attraction.

I'm not sure how David gets through his novels now that his Single Working Title has been abducted. It's the problem I'd face if I suddenly wrote a book and settled on Untitled.

But there you have it. Those who use titles as a sort of muse; those who grope for titles; and those who claim to have titles when they are still waiting for inspiration (or suggestions) to arrive.

And those who call everything An Aztec in Central Park.


PS. I don't really call everything Untitled. Like the Jews after they'd settled down from their wanderings in the wilderness, and like the Christians ages later, I just call whatever I'm struggling with The Book.

Or, sometimes, The Goddamned Book.

Hey, come to think of it, that's not a bad title...

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Failure and Experience

Ryan David Jahn has a stimulating post on the myriad ways our works fail, and the extent to which we can be embarrassed by our early efforts...or even, in retrospect, by our published efforts.

His assessment, like Paul Valery's observation about poems, is that a work is never really finished, only abandoned. The hope, I suppose, is that as we mature we do our reworking more completely and more expeditiously, and therefore abandon our fiction a little more closely to the ideal, unattainable, point of true completion.

I can't argue with that. But reading RDJ's description of his filing cabinets full of early stories and novels--works he now sees as having been nowhere near as good as they could have been--has made me reflect on the role of experience in our writing process.

I'm not talking about life experience here. I'm familiar with the belief that a wide experience of life and years of hard knocks are vital seasoning for a writer (though I'm not sure I entirely buy it. For every Ernest Hemingway or Jack London you can name, I can give you back a Stephen Crane or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or, best of all, an Emily Dickinson. Some writers get lifetimes of perspective from the merest crumbs of life experience.) What I think is often overlooked is writing experience--the sheer number and variety of works undertaken.

I've seen any number of writers spend years writing and rewriting the same novel, to the exclusion of all other projects, and this kind of dedication is often extolled as the kind of devotion that singles out the true writers--the Joyces, the Flauberts. Real writing is rewriting, we are told, and this is so widely repeated by writers that one must take it seriously. (Though I also take Byron seriously when he said, "...I can never recast anything. I am like the tiger. If I miss the first spring, I go grumbling back to my jungle again; but if I do hit, it is crushing.")

There are many metaphors and analogies for the novel, from Colin Wilson's "philosophical experiment" to the various architectural images on down to the concept of a journey or expedition. All are valid. And no one wants a sloppy experiment or a slapped-together cathedral or a stumbling-blind journey. Fair enough.

Yet there is a kind of knowledge and skill which cannot be gained by the meticulous reworking of a single novel. Failed novels and stories are, as RDJ notes, often blush-inducing (despite occasional flashes of quality). Yet I think these failures are valuable in terms of writing experience. The range of characters, the different approaches to style, the possible story structures--and all of the ways those can either fail or enhance a work--are the kind of bone-deep understanding that comes only from experience.

What's my point? I suppose I'm saying that, as everyone (except Byron) agrees, rewriting is vital. But so is first-draft writing itself. Most of us are standing atop a considerable stack of unpublished and unpublishable work. Do I wish I had stayed focused on improving that first novel I cranked out? Not really. I learned from my efforts at rewriting it, but I think I learned much more by moving on to the next, and the next...

And, who knows? Maybe I'll go back and do more rewriting on some of those old manuscripts some day.

Meanwhile, I'll go grumbling back to my jungle.