From the Forge

The Problem of Filtering Action

Read the following two passages and think about which of them offers a more direct expression of the action:

  1. “As Larry sat on the sofa reading the paper, he heard a car engine roar from the street outside, followed by two sharp backfires.”
  2. “As Larry sat on the sofa reading the paper, a car engine roared from the street outside, followed by two sharp backfires.”

In both of these passages, the writer offers the reader a character in a setting and an experience the character has. But of course, the reader shares the experience with the character. That’s one of the things good fiction does—allows the reader to share an experience vicariously.

Look at what happens to the reader’s experience in each of the passages. In the first passage, the reader sees Larry sitting on the couch reading, and then the reader is told that Larry hears an engine roar and backfire. In number two, the reader sees Larry sitting on the couch reading, and then the reader hears the car engine roar and backfire.

In the first passage, the writer has, in effect, pushed the reader a big step further away from the action. This is called “filtering” the action, and its typical effect is to ratchet down the reader’s experience of the action. The reader is no longer sitting with Larry and experiencing the car outside. The reader stands at a distance and watches Larry experience the car. Not so in the second passage. By eliminating the “he heard,” the reader experiences the action directly.

As with any rule for writing, there are exceptions. If the action of hearing itself is the most important thing, then the writer may choose to use the filter. But in fact, that is rarely the case.

A retired English professor, Gary Guinn writes both literary and mystery/thriller fiction. You can read about him and his books at and follow him on Facebook, Goodreads, or Twitter.

Blog From the Forge

What’s in a Name

Juliet tells Romeo that nothing’s in a name. “That which we call a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet,” she says. And even Hamlet seems dismissive in his “words, words, words.” But after this past week, I must rebuff the beautiful maiden and challenge the churly prince. Au contraire sweet Juliet. And as for Hamlet, well, a noble mind o’erthrown, and so forth.

Monday afternoon, my friend George sat beside me as we watched the moon creep through those final degrees toward totality. A short while earlier, thousands of people rested in lawn chairs or lay on blankets before the beautiful Greek Revival capitol building in Jefferson City, MO. On the stage, set up on the capitol steps, the Fort Leonard Wood military orchestra performed. Kids tossed footballs, played in the fountains, chased each other through the obstacle course of resting adults. Clouds drifted lazily by, bringing with them some unease.But when the final seconds ticked into totality, all eyes stared at the sky, and a roar went up from the multitude. Then just as quickly, the roar died into silence as, awestruck, we listened to the cicadas wailing in the mid-day dark, and the bright corona flared around the black ball of the sun. It was an eclipse, but suddenly that word, which had been mundane, even common, was charged with mystery and awe. It had put on a stunning new mantle.

A few minutes later George asked, “What word would describe the eclipse? What word would best communicate something beyond the ordinary, beyond the natural?” We rejected the word “supernatural” immediately as far too tired and burdened with the clutter of history. A dictionary reveals the problem: Supernatural: of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially, of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil; departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature:  attributed to an invisible agent (such as a ghost or spirit). Nope, just doesn’t fit. What we had seen was governed entirely by the laws of nature.

The term preternatural offered itself, and we thought perhaps it would work. Preternatural: beyond what is normal or natural, extraordinary, exceptional, uncommon, singular, unprecedented, remarkable, phenomenal, abnormal, inexplicable, unaccountable; strange, mysterious, fantastic. That’s more like it. All these words accurately apply to the eclipse, and in fact, when taken together, they are, as a whole, a good summary of an abstract description of what happened in the sky above us. But our experience was not abstract in the least. Preternatural would not do.

Each of us had experienced the eclipse as something spiritual (notsupernatural), something natural that seemed to stop time, to pull us out of ourselves. And the response of thousands of people gathered there revealed that the immediate, shared human response was not just awe, but joy. A shout, clapping, and laughter erupted. We were all drawn totally into the moment, and in that moment there were no democrats or republicans, no liberals or conservatives, no northerners or southerners, no believers or atheists. There were only human beings sharing an experience of totality, an experience of total self-forgetting, of good will and unity. It must have been like what the ancient Israelites (or any other ancient peoples in a similar vein) felt when they first saw their God in a whirlwind or a pillar of fire.

Looking back now, those so-brief two-and-a-half minutes of totality, and the response that followed, tempt me to a bizarre comparison. Forgive the incurable English professor in me, but I think of the words of The Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” after he kills the meddling, bossy grandmother: “She would have been a good woman,” he says, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Perhaps you can see where this is headed. In some future aeon, after humanity has destroyed itself, I see a cosmic Misfit, sitting on an asteroid, looking down at earth and shaking its head. “They would have been a good species,” it will say, “if it had been a total eclipse to strike them with awe and wonder every minute of their life.”

From the Director

Primary Research: Balancing the Sought with the Serendipitious

Primary research: any type of research that you collect yourself through interviews and observations. Primary research is often undertaken after the writer has gained some insight through secondary research, (also known as desk research) which is basically what other people have discovered and reported

alisonbridgeI have been studying the sixteenth century for around ten years and have written two complete novels set in that time. But except for reading primary sources, such as letters and journals, and a few trips to museums, everything I know I learned from books or the internet. I have not personally time traveled.

Now, for the first time since I fell in love with it, I have the opportunity to visit tiny pockets of the sixteenth century, for it is scattered, almost like debris, all over Europe.

My nature is to make a to-do list and check it off. I want to see the Bramante staircase in the Vatican and the ancient, hidden foundations beneath the Strasbourg Cathedral because I have scenes set in both locations.

But I know it’s important not to obsess over a list. I know it’s important to approach primary research with all senses on alert, thinking constantly: might my character have seen or heard or tasted this? And if so, what would his reaction have been?

I know that, if I pay attention, when I return home to integrate this research into the novel, I will find that the majority of the good stuff I discovered was not on my to-do list.

Your setting may be your own home. You may be creating a character based upon yourself. Nevertheless, approach it as a primary researcher. Seek what you know you need but also recognize what is laid before you unsought that will amp up your story’s authenticity. As writers, we seek the truth, but we also recognize it when it appears unbidden.

Blog The Merry Grammarian

Why yes, you may end with a preposition

The Merry GrammarianHere’s a question I get asked quite often as a grammar guru: Can you end a sentence in a preposition?

Yes, dear readers. Yes, you can.

Not ending a sentence in a preposition (about, off, at, too, by, etc) is yet another of those grammar myths, similar to the “rule” about not being allowed to start a sentence with a conjunction (and, but, for, yet, or, and so on. As I wrote about in a previous column, it’s totally legit to start a sentence in modern English with a conjunction). And it’s perfectly natural to end a sentence in English with a preposition.

Now, I know many of you were probably taught in school that ending with a preposition is verboten. But believe it or not, there’s never been a formal rule against it. In fact, ending with a preposition is often a clearer and easier way to speak and write in English.

Take, for instance, this example: To whom were you talking? 
Compare that with this: Who were you talking to?

Sure, the first sentence avoids ending with a preposition. But it sounds a little unnatural or dated, more fitting for the Dowager Countess than a modern American-English writer. The second is clearer and plainer—and therefore more easily understood.

Now, there may be times when ending with a preposition can sound clunky or awkward. If that’s the case, then by all means, rearrange.

Still, some may dislike the construction of a sentence that ends in a preposition, and you may find yourself edited or otherwise pressured to change your sentence. If you want to avoid controversy, then go ahead and rearrange.

But if you feel like ending with a preposition, and the sentence is clearer for it, then by all means—go for it. I promise: there are no rules against it.

–Rebecca Mahoney
Blog The Whole Writer

Trouble Writing? Don’t Beat Yourself Up

Sometimes it seems that the “Whole Writer” becomes the “No Writer” when other things in your life get in the way, preventing you from making progress on your creative writing. Even the most determined, well-disciplined writers have times when their writing takes a back seat to other projects.

Don’t beat yourself up like I tend to do.

I haven’t written anything on my book for two weeks. This is when the negative self-talk begins:

  • Well, I’m not really a writer. I’m just doing it for fun. 
  • Who really cares if I write a book anyway?
  • My writing isn’t very good. I’ll probably never get a publisher.

We’ve all been here. So, what do we do? First, recognize and admit what’s going on. Then, counsel yourself, telling yourself that you’ll soon get back on track.

When you simply can’t dredge up any self-confidence, that’s when you go to a meeting (as they say in support groups). Get yourself to a writing group or workshop or event. Hang out with other writers who are excited about their work and are interested in yours. That’s the best medicine for inspiration and motivation. There are writing groups all over Northwest Arkansas and Southwest Missouri. You probably have a favorite.

You haven’t written for two weeks? So what? Go to a meeting. Get back on schedule.

Indulge yourself. Get lost with your characters again as the summer comes to a close.