Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘George Bernard Shaw

Quote of the Day

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The more completely the dramatist is emancipated from the illusion that men and women are primarily reasonable beings, and the more powerfully he insists on the ruthless indifference of their great dramatic antagonist, the external world, to their whims and emotions, the surer he is to be denounced as blind to the very distinction on which his whole work is built.

George Bernard Shaw, in the preface to Mrs. Warren’s Profession

Written by nevalalee

August 31, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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I have not often formulated the lessons of my apprenticeship as a writer; but I did once write down in a notebook something like this: You cannot be an artist until you have contracted yourself within the limits of your art.

George Bernard Shaw, in a letter to Charles Charrington

Written by nevalalee

May 30, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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It is not that science is free from legends, witchcraft, miracles, biographic boostings of quacks as heroes and saints, and of barren scoundrels as explorers and discoverers. On the contrary, the iconography and hagiology of Scientism are as copious as they are mostly squalid. But no student of science has yet been taught that specific gravity consists in the belief that Archimedes jumped out of his bath and ran naked through the streets of Syracuse shouting Eureka, Eureka, or that the law of inverse squares must be discarded if anyone can prove that Newton was never in an orchard in his life.

George Bernard Shaw, in the preface to Back to Methuselah

Written by nevalalee

March 13, 2018 at 7:30 am

How to write a popular play

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George Bernard Shaw

The formula for the well-made play is so easy that I give it for the benefit of any reader who feels tempted to try his hand at making the fortune that awaits all manufacturers in this line. First, you “have an idea” for a dramatic situation. If it strikes you as a splendidly original idea, whilst it is in fact as old as the hills, so much the better. For instance, the situation of an innocent person convicted by circumstances of a crime may always be depended on. If the person is a woman, she must be convicted of adultery. If a young officer, he must be convicted of selling information to the enemy, though it is really a fascinating female spy who has ensnared him and stolen the incriminating document. If the innocent wife, banished from her home, suffers agonies through her separation from her children, and, when one of them is dying (of any disease the dramatist chooses to inflict), disguises herself as a nurse and attends it through its dying convulsion until the doctor, who should be a serio-comic character, and if possible a faithful old admirer of the lady’s, simultaneously announces the recovery of the child and the discovery of the wife’s innocence, the success of the play may be regarded as assured if the writer has any sort of knack for his work.

Comedy is more difficult, because it requires a sense of humor and a good deal of vivacity; but the process is essentially the same: it is the manufacture of a misunderstanding. Having manufactured it, you place its culmination at the end of the last act but one, which is the point at which the manufacture of the play begins. Then you make your first act out of the necessary introduction of the characters to the audience, after elaborate explanations, mostly conducted by servants, solicitors, and other low life personages (the principals must all be dukes and colonels and millionaires), of how the misunderstanding is going to come about. Your last act consists, of course, of clearing up the misunderstanding, and generally getting the audience out of the theatre as best you can.

George Bernard Shaw

Written by nevalalee

November 21, 2014 at 9:29 am

A few things I don’t like

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Here are a few things I don’t like. I don’t like semicolons. I don’t like ellipses. I don’t much care for the use of italics to indicate emphasis. I really don’t like exclamation points. I prefer “John said” to “said John,” and I won’t use the latter unless I don’t have a choice. I don’t like the use of a blank space to indicate a shift in point of view or a scene change within a single chapter. I obviously don’t like backstory. I don’t like extended descriptions of a character’s physical appearance. I don’t like the adverb “suddenly,” although I sometimes use it anyway. I don’t like hyphenated adjectives, or hyphens at all, except in my own last name. I don’t like sentence fragments or most forms of unconventional grammar. I don’t like interior monologue. I don’t like “found” documents in fiction, like emails or letters. I like dashes, but only at the ends of sentences, and never to set off a clause. I don’t like parentheses. Come to think of it, I don’t seem to like most forms of punctuation aside from the period and comma, and maybe the occasional question mark.

At this point, I’m starting to sound like Chris Lowe in “Paninaro”: “I don’t like much of anything, do I?” But there are some important caveats to this list. These dislikes hold true only for my own writing: I’m quite happy to encounter most of the above in the work of others. They also apply only to my fiction. Over the years, I’ve somehow managed to evolve two distinct styles for my fiction and my other work. The latter, for instance, features copious use of dashes—like this—and even the occasional parenthetical sentence, both of which literally never appear in my work as a novelist. (I don’t use the word “literally” lightly: there isn’t a single parenthesis or interior dash in any of my novels.) My nonfiction style is chattier and less formal, possibly because it’s generally subjected to just a quick rewrite or two before it goes out. If I had to live with an essay or nonfiction book for the better part of a year, or through fifty revisions, it’s likely that I’d start to boil it down in much the same way, until it started to take on the purified, more finicky shape you find in my published fiction.

The hated semicolon

And it’s hard for me to say why. As far as I can remember, these preferences began to emerge in force after I’d written my first, still unpublished novel, which then went through a year of revisions. When you stare at the same pile of pages for months on end, details like the use of a semicolon or the placement of a line break start to take on disproportionate significance, and you find yourself feeling the same way toward these tiny stylistic bacilli that George Bernard Shaw did toward quotation marks, or Howard Hughes toward microbes. You kill one semicolon because it starts to bug you a little, and for the sake of consistency, you feel obliged to kill them elsewhere. The three dots of an ellipsis start to seem like specks of impurity. You polish and smooth out the surface of the page as if you were vacuuming the fringes on an oriental rug, and you start to develop other tics to cope with the elements you’ve eliminated—for instance, in my case, the use of a terminal dash to indicate a trailing off, or even as a form of emphasis, which drives my copy editors nuts. And before long, you’ve ended up with a set of personal best practices that allow you to indulge in these obsessions.

There’s a word for this: it’s called style. And one thing I’ve learned by watching my own progress as a writer is how style emerges as a coping mechanism. Every stylistic choice a writer makes amounts to a preference over some other, equally legitimate alternative, and it often isn’t until you’ve written an entire novel that you start to know what you like or hate. That’s the real reason it takes so much time for a style to emerge. Practice and experience play a part as well, but really, it’s a product of all those hours spent staring at the screen, until you find yourself feeling strongly about such matters as whether you really want to use two contractions in the same sentence. Writers are obsessive creatures; otherwise, they’d never get anything done. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, if this obsession manifests itself on the tiniest levels, as well as on the highest. Many of a writer’s likes and dislikes will turn out to be more or less arbitrary, and each author will develop a different set, which can often seem insane to others. But sometimes finding a style means acting a little crazy.

Written by nevalalee

June 20, 2013 at 9:31 am

Posted in Writing

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Squashing the semicolon

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Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

I don’t like semicolons. I’ve always been conscious of avoiding them in my published fiction, but I’m not sure I realized the truly comical extent of my aversion until I did a few quick searches in Word. Here, then, are the results of—wait for it—my semicolonoscopy: The Icon Thief, a novel of over 100,000 words and half a million characters, contains a grand total of six semicolons, while its sequel, City of Exiles, which is about the same length, has exactly six as well, which implies that I’m holding disturbingly close to some invisible quota. And of the three novelettes I’ve published in Analog over the past few years, along with two more stories slated to appear in the next six months, there’s exactly one semicolon. (If you’re curious, it’s in “The Boneless One,” on page 88 of the November 2011 issue. A few choice revisions, and I could have called it “The Semicolonless One.”)

The really surprising discovery is that this seems to be a relatively recent development. “Inversus,” my first professionally published story, is something of an outlier: it came out in January/February 2004, more than four years before I began making sales on a regular basis, and it contains ten semicolons, or nearly the same number that I’ve since employed in two full novels. Over the last five years, then, as my overall productivity has increased, my use of semicolons has gone down drastically. In itself, the timing isn’t hard to understand: it wasn’t until I began writing for a living, and particularly after I wrote my first novel, that I began to develop a style of my own. And whoever this writer is, he seems to hate semicolons, at least when it comes to fiction. (For what it’s worth, I use semicolons slightly more often in my personal correspondence, as well as on this blog, but I still don’t especially care for them.)

And I’m not entirely sure why. If pressed, I’d say that my dislike of semicolons, and most other forms of punctuation aside from the comma and period, comes from my classical education, in which I spent years reading Latin authors who managed to convey meaning and rhythm through sentence structure alone. These days, writers have a world of possible punctuation at their disposal, but this isn’t necessarily a good thing. One of the best things a writer can do, to build muscle, is to consciously deprive himself of a common tool, while developing other strategies to take its place. The semicolon is essentially a crutch for combining two sentences into one, for the sake of meaning or variety. By eschewing semicolons, I’ve forced myself to achieve these goals in other ways, revising sentences to have rhythm and clarity on the most fundamental level: in the arrangement of the words themselves.

But really, if I’m honest, I have to admit that it isn’t rational at all. Many writers have irrational dislikes of certain kinds of punctuation: George Bernard Shaw thought of apostrophes as “uncouth bacilli,” and James Joyce, as well as many of his pretentious imitators, disliked inverted commas, using a French- or Italian-style quotation dash to indicate dialogue. Other authors, such as Wodehouse and Beckett, have as much of an aversion to semicolons as I do. Such choices can be justified on stylistic grounds, but in my experience, such obsessive decisions are more often personal and idiosyncratic, the result of a writer’s customary isolation. After you’ve spent years of your life staring at the same stack of pages, it takes on an almost physical presence, like a view of your backyard, until such otherwise innocent features as ragged line breaks and ellipses, invisible to casual readers, start to drive you crazy. So if you like semicolons, please keep using them; I only wish that I could do the same.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

October 27, 2011 at 7:41 am

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