Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Sixth Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Murder

Earlier this week, I happened to notice something about the phrasing of the sixth commandment. I thought it might make an interesting discussion, and it's pertinent to how authors design characters and readers sympathize with them.

What I noticed:

Per the NKJV, the sixth commandment is "You shall not murder" (Ex. 20:13, Lev. 5:17). Not kill, which is in KJV, ASV, and some other translations.

If you've ever thought about how war or capital punishment relates to that commandment, you might notice that the word used very much changes how the commandment applies. A fair number of words have changed meanings through the centuries, so I got to wondering…

How much of the varying modern interpretations are our own biases foisting themselves on the commandment? I've heard folks use the command argue that even capital punishment is wrong—though it's commanded in Scripture. I've also heard the command defined in such a way that the speaker then could justify the American Revolution starting over taxes, while vilifying the French Revolution, which was also kinda over taxes

Different words about killing have different connotations in different languages, functioning differently depending on the cultural beliefs about death. (It's worth noting that in Spanish, death is a temporary state of being, according to the verbiage used to refer to it.) What was that commandment's original meaning?

And has the word kill always meant what it does today? Per the Online Etymology Dictionary, kinda, though quell hasn't.

Let's go back to Jesus's words about the commandment.

21 Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: 22 But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. Matt. 5:21–22, KJV

Usually, that's read comparing "kill" to "anger", in the sense of the passage about adultery in later the chapter (Matt. 5:27–28).

However, it occurs to me that the common factor if Matt. 5:21–22 is the matter of judgment. It's like a parent saying, "If you break the neighbor's window, you know you'll be in trouble. But if you drink my coffee without asking, you'll also be in trouble." Maybe there's a connection between the window and the coffee, but maybe not.

I also notice the "without a cause". Anger with cause is therefore fine.

So now, wishing I'd bothered to take Hebrew this past year, I go digging into Strong's Concordance with Hebrew and Greek Lexicon, because what word is used in the Ten Commandments, murder or kill? Per Strong's, the word in that context is ratsach.

The majority of the old definitions of kill/ratsach look to be in line with murder—and the Lord actually does command some folks' deaths in Scripture, so that in itself can't be against the commandments—so I'm inclined to think that translation more likely. (That means self-defense would therefore be permissible, though the turning the other cheek of Matt. 5:39 might be preferable.)

However, I can't say that those who define the Sixth Commandment as "Thou shalt not kill anyone, ever, no matter what" are necessarily wrong. The verse can be read that way. So it looks to me like a conscience issue, comparable to the meat sacrificed to idols.

Which gives me inspiration for some interesting conversations I could have between characters who learn they aren't as similar in belief as they necessarily thought… ^_^

What are your thoughts on the Sixth Commandment? Do you think me entirely off-base, or do you think my view reasonable?


Thursday, May 23, 2013

On the Value of (and Danger in) Labels

People have labels and systems for everything. That's where the entire Latin name system came from with living things: seeking to organize everything into neat little compartments. I suspect that's some of where the various Christian denominations come from, seeking to use the label to say "This is what I believe."

Labels can be useful as shorthand descriptors of particular specifics of a thing. For example, you can know that a reformed Baptist will disagree with a reformed Presbyterian over baptism and church government. Method of salvation will be the same. Other things—like opinions on alcohol, music, and dancing—might or might not be, so the label doesn't do you any good on those topics. But if you swap the "reformed Baptist" for fundamentalist Baptist", you can know one side's opinion on alcohol, music, and dancing. But you'd have to know the reformed Presbyterian personally to know his or her own opinion on those topics, because those topics aren't part of the definition of "reformed Presbyterian" label.

However, just as labels can be valuable, they can also be dangerous.

Danger #1: Labels are easily misunderstood or incorrectly defined.

Case in point: Calvinist (which is a misnomer anyway, but that's beside the point). Many folks, when they hear the term "Calvinist", get the wrong idea. They think that "Calvinist" means a person believes that God selects those He wants to save and then drags them kicking and screaming into heaven.

*rolls eyes* <-- The reaction you'll get from a lot of Calvinists when you make that accusation. Though you might get a sigh.

If you ask a Calvinist, "Free will or election?" the actual answer is "Both." Verses like Acts 13:48 specifically refer to God ordaining who chooses God. Even John 3, when you read the full context surrounding John 3:16, says that those of the world spurn the light of Christ and don't come to it. And then verses like Ephesians 2:1, that says "And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins." As anyone who's read A Secret Garden knows, "quick" means "alive", and so God's the one who makes us alive when we're dead in sin.

Note that this is a brief explanation of where the Calvinist view on free will "vs." election stems from, to make my point about misunderstood labels.

So the Calvinist view is that God acts first, enabling those whom He elects to choose Him. From our end, we want to choose God and do so, so we choose freely. But that's not the image that comes to most folks' heads when the label is used.

Another example of labels that tend to do more harm than good is the T.U.L.I.P acronym—which actually wasn't designed by Calvin. A lot of Calvinists hate it because it oversimplifies things and is probably misunderstood more often than it's understood. There are other acronyms that some use, but they all have the same root problems of being readily misunderstood and misinterpreted.

Which brings us to the other major problem with labels:

Danger #2: Labels are easily misinterpreted as definitions.

What do I mean by that?

Let's say someone has dyscalculia (essentially, dyslexia with numbers). Dyscalculia is a math disability. It can be a problem with numerical comprehension, but not necessarily. It can just be a problem with getting everything in the right order.

But if you treat the label as a definition—"Oh, she has dyscalculia; she can't learn that"—you might limit someone who comprehends the concepts just fine. She might just need to know various methods to double-check her work.

I know that personally, because I have dyscalculia. I was never officially diagnosed, but I self-corrected all through school. I've even taught math. I use several check-work methods, one of which is that any in-head-only problem gets worked three times. The answer I get two out of three times is the right one. (My family makes fun of me. "It took you that long to figure that out?!" I've tried explaining, "No, it took me that long to do the problem thrice," but I don't think they believe me.)

Another label that often gets misdefined is introvert. Many people conflate introverted with shy. (Result: I have to explain what introverted means just about every time I use it, because I'm comfortable with people. But I need my alone time to recharge, or I get stressed. It helps that I'm good at finding pockets of "alone" time in a crowd.)

Which brings us to the third major problem with labels:

Danger #3: Labels can be used as excuses.

This is where people who say "I don't like that word" (like "introverted", etc.) are coming from. Someone gets labeled "introverted", thinks that means they dislike people (no, it just means they get their energy from alone time), and then use that label "Oh, I'm just an introvert" to explain away being anti-social.

It's fine to dislike parties. It's fine to dislike crowds. But that's not what "introverted" means. It's a descriptor. Yeah, a lot of introverts don't care for parties and crowds, but that's not part of the definition of "introvert". If you dislike parties and crowds, it's because you don't like parties and crowds. Not because you're an introvert.

Same goes for learning disabilities. "Oh, I have dyscalculia. That's why I suck at math."

No, you suck at math because either nobody's taught you properly or you're not bothering to make provision for your dyscalculia. I made good grades in math until college. (Calculus.) That was the first time a teacher ever even commented that something was odd about how I handled numbers. (I dismissed his question at the time and didn't think much of it until later, when an employer told me "Is there such thing as dyslexia with numbers? If so, you have it.")

The only value of labels: shorthand descriptors.

Labels are summaries.

If you use them as any more than that, you're only shooting yourself in the foot.

What are your thoughts on labels?


Thursday, May 16, 2013

Is "Hackwork" Necessarily "Hack Writing"?

Lately, I've been seeing another round of the "Don't just write what sells—it'll show!" vs. "If I write what sells, I can then have an income while I write my ideal genres…" Folks against it insist it'll show in the quality, that it'll necessarily be hack writing—an assumption that folks for it tend to be puzzled by.

But before we can get into that, we have to address…

What is "hack writing"?

Writers (and some readers) tend to have strong opinions on this question. Those who write from the heart are deemed artists, while those who write for the money are called hacks…. If you intentionally focus on a specific market or series that's selling, you're called a hack. If you publish more quickly than somebody arbitrarily thinks realistic, you're called a hack. If you write certain genres, you're called a hack…

So pretty much, when you write something that isn't appreciated by the "intellectual" crowd, you get called a hack.

*Note: If I may point out… How well does the genre targeted at intellectuals sell, again? Last I checked, literary fiction was renowned for very low sales.

Let's go back and define our terms, here (using the Merriam-Webster Unabridged dictionary):

hackwork (n)
: literary, artistic, or other professional work done on order or according to formula or conformity with commercial standards of quality; especially : work done by a hack writer
hack (adj)
  1. working for hire
  2. performed by, suited to, or characteristic of a hack : mediocre, uninspired
  3. hackneyed, trite

So looking at those definitions, there are two types of hackwork: work done to formula, and work done to be commercially viable. And a "hack writer" could be mediocre, trite…or just working for hire.

But whenever people use these terms, it seems as if they conflate meanings, insisting that writing to sell = writing to formula = work that's trite = work that's mediocre…

I call bull.

First off, there are plenty of writers-for-hire who do fantastic work.

Second, intentionally writing something that's commercial or to formula does not make something mediocre or trite. I've found that to be true even in my own writing, and I suppose I should walk through how it's possible to develop (commercial) hackwork without hack writing.

I developed Thrice Uncharmed by starting with a plot premise I knew the publisher would like. I then asked what genres they were wanting, and I molded the idea until it slipped into something approximating the genre, tone, etc. that I intended. That doesn't mean I despise the characters or world or any such thing—it just means that I used the publisher's preferences and content guidelines as foundational, outline-level pieces. The rest is all me.

It's not yet released, but so far, reader response has been positive—even among those who don't usually read sci-fi.

Now, A Fistful of Water (a novel I'm working on right now, #3 in a series)? I dislike the narrator. A lot. I feel sorry for her, but I find her unpleasant company. (Might be why I'm pulling teeth to get a scene up on Wattpad every Friday.)

But—and I'd appreciate it if someone who's read one of the stories I'm mentioning would chime in here—I had a hard time with the others in the series (A Fistful of Fire and A Fistful of Earth), too, for different reasons. And despite the difficulty I had writing those stories, it really doesn't show in the final product.

Just like the ease I had writing Thrice Uncharmed doesn't reduce its quality.

Now, I understand where the "Hack!" accusations come from. They don't fit a particular writer or reader's preconceptions about how writing works, but everyone is different.

Case in point: Dean Wesley Smith (an award-winning author with over a hundred novels under his belt) says that he never outlines, that once he knows the end, he's bored. Whereas I find it useful to figure out where I'm headed, before I'm too far into a story; it gives me a goal to reach.

I've tried his "Write and see where it goes" approach. Doesn't work well for me, at this point, though I could see myself doing better with it after I get more experience under my belt. We've, ah, conversed enough online for me to know that my method includes something he advises people to never do. I've tried writing both with an in-progress beta and writing something without one. If I remember correctly, he calls the former option "stupid", but I've found it helps me rather than hinders.

Everyone's different. A method not working for you or your favorite authors does not make that method unusable by anyone.

And hackwork (writing designed for commercial viability) isn't necessarily hack (trite, mediocre) writing. Nor is writing quickly or certain genres necessarily hack writing.

Can it be? Yes.

Is it necessarily? No.

What are your thoughts on hackwork vs. hack writing? Have any examples you'd like to share?


Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Many Faces of POV

Still sick and currently coughing quite a bit, so I'm building on one of my recent attempts at comments on another blog that got eaten somewhere and didn't post. (Which happens fairly often.) And this issue is something I see often as an editor, too.

Mike Duran's blog is kind of like mine—or, more accurately, mine's kinda like his, because his predates mine. Three or so times a week, he posts about everything from random thoughts about writing, news about his publications, and thoughts on theology. He's a Christian speculative fiction author, on the horror end of things.

Now that I've introduced him, he just wrote a post mentioning shallow vs. deep POV. Evidently, he'd been taught that deep POV (a.k.a. close narrative distance) was the right way, and he'd just now learned that shallow POV (a.k.a. far narrative distance) was okay, too.

He's terming it having to "unlearn" what he learned early on as a writer.

But in doing so, he's missing the point of why he was taught to write in "deep" POV to begin with:

Deep POV is the easiest to get right.

It's common for new writers to struggle with POV. Shallow POV, much like omniscient POV, is easy to screw up, and if I had a dollar for every writer I've encountered who was convinced that they were writing proper POV when they weren't… Well. I think you get my gist. ^_^

Fact is, shallow and deep POV are both tools, like showing vs. telling. Some situations and stories need more of one or the other. For example, "deep" POV still needs enough "shallow" observations of the world outside the narrator for it to make sense (although a person doesn't necessarily have those transitions when they look at reality), and "shallow" POV needs enough "deep" character motivation and thought in there for the reader to make sense (although the POV theoretically just skims the surface of the POV's perceptions).

But it can take a strong familiarity with words and how they work to identify the differences between shallow third person, omniscient POV, and head-hopping. New writers usually lack that. So they get told to write the "right" way (because it's right for them until they comprehend what they're doing)…which is where the misconception that other ways are wrong comes in. Because some folks forget to put those qualifiers on there, and then writers get to thinking that other POVs and styles are actually wrong.

No, not wrong. Just a lot more difficult to pull off than they look.

My mother is a cake decorator. I've dabbled just enough to know I don't enjoy it, myself, but I understand how it works. Rolled fondant makes cakes look so smooth and simple, and gum paste flowers are the cleanest, with the best lines. But you can't use fondant without first knowing how to use frosting, and it's best to know how to work with fondant before you start playing with gum paste.

I can look at a cake photo and guess how it was done, how difficult it was, etc. Some of the simplest-looking cakes are the most time-consuming and tedious, if not downright difficult. And some of the most difficult-looking cakes are the easiest. (And it's kinda sad when I can look at a professional bakery's cake photo and can immediately say what they did wrong. Granted, my mother does sometimes show me a pic and ask "What do you see?", so she has trained me to notice…)

But to continue the cake analogy, beginner (frosting) —> intermediate (fondant) —> advanced —> (gum paste, airbrushing, etc.).

POV is the same way. Beginner ("deep" POV) —> intermediate ("shallow" POV) —> advanced (omniscient).

Might someone jump around on the steps? Sure. But most newer writers find themselves failing miserably when they try…and some readers are trained just enough at writing to crow "Head-hopping! She doesn't know how to write!" And when folks think that, they tend to crow loudly.

It's completely possible to mix POV distance in a book—even in a scene. It's also possible (and I'd say likely) for the author to do that by "feel" or by "ear" rather than intentionally setting out to make a particular line or paragraph or scene a particular distance.

"Head-hopping" is when you mess up POV.

Unfortunately, as with the other rules of thumb that are taught to new writers as "rules" without the qualifier, any change in POV can be mistakenly seen as a head-hop, just as some people think every "to be" verb (is, are, was, were, etc.) indicates passive voice*.

*Hint: It doesn't. There are two sentence styles and a few verb tenses that require "to be" verbs, in English, and only one of those styles is passive voice. For example, the "is" in the previous sentence? Not passive voice. It's a linking verb.

The key is to understand how different POV and narrative distance affect a story. That understanding will likely be subconscious long before a writer is aware of it consciously, and I personally believe that it works better when a writer lets it flow naturally, by "ear".

Example: A Fistful of Fire is fairly distant, because the narrator is emotionally distant. But I first wrote it before I even knew what narrative distance was.

Outside of narrative distance and narrator omniscience or lack thereof, POV can be third person, first person, second person—any of it. (Though second person admittedly isn't very popular in English, except for directions and recipes. I have a second person short story in my "PRIMpriety" bundle, though.)

The person used affects the way a story comes across. The verb tense used affects the way the story comes across. And the narrative distance affects the way the story comes across.

As an experiment, I've dabbled at converting A Fistful of Fire to third person, past tense. It's fascinating to see how just the change in person and tense can completely change the tone.

Some people—readers, writers—refuse to believe that POV choices affect how a story comes across. That's one reason I suspect I'll someday convert the entire Chronicles of Marsdenfel to third person, past tense, so I can be a case in point. Because I'm stubborn like that.

POV has many faces, many forms, and not one of them is necessarily wrong. They can just be used wrongly or badly.

And that distinction is where some writers and writing instructors get confused.

Do you have any thoughts to share on POV, narrative distance, verb tense, or preferences in or implications of any of the bove?


Thursday, May 2, 2013

Blog Post of Randomness

I have a lot of little stuff going on this week, no one thing sufficient for a full post—

Okay, that's strictly untrue, but one of my little things is that I'm sick and don't want to compile yet another argumentative piece. (To give an idea about what I've been mulling over lately, is "free will" idolized by being emphasized and election being downplayed?)

But I'm not going into all that today. I might another time. But as for today…

What's Up with Misti, in No Particular Order:

My Kickstarter for Know Thy Frienemy ends in a week. As things stand, it looks as if I'm not going to hit it. (Which is okay, honestly—I won't be bawling in despair over it. So please don't feel as if I'm trying to guilt you into participating.) Update 5/4/13: And now it's due to fund!Update 2: It funded! Thanks!

I…well…kinda-sorta already did the cover for A Fistful of Water myself. I'm still fiddling with it, but I have the text, and I have the photo. Just figuring out how to do a natural-looking watercolor effect.

Allergy-induced infections are a pain in the ears.

A few drops of oil are remarkably soothing for inflamed ear canals, after you get past the "That feels weird…". (I prefer argan nut over the apricot kernel oil. I have some mullein-infused olive oil, too, but I keep forgetting to strain it, so I can't use it right now. I have a vial to put it in, though.)

Being sick is annoying, but it can be rather conducive to finally rebuilding your website from the foundation up. The content's still pretty much the same, but the back end… Oh, the back end is so much better. (No more WordPress! Yay!)

I'm still hammering out a few kinks, like a phantom right-hand 1em margin/padding, caused by something I can't seem to track down, probably related to either definition lists or images. But the few password-protected pages? I got my PHP right on the get-go, for those. Success!

I might redo the nav bar altogether, though. As it is, it…blergh…. (Update later same day: I fixed the buttons. They're a lot prettier now.)

I've also been, well, playing with code, and produced a demo page* with a nav bar I like a lot better than the one I have currently had originally, though it, too, is isn't perfect (…yet?).

*That link's temporary, by the way.

My birthday's in a week. I'm not old. I'm nowhere near old. But I actually remember my mother, when she was the age I am now. I was in grade school and reading her psychology textbooks. (I've since realized that the psychology textbooks might explain how I handled getting bullied, in school.)

Fortunately, my illness has fallen on a week where I can take things slow, because my deadlines aren't that bad. Though I am trying to get something done tomorrow that has a deadline of Friday, and tomorrow I'll be getting a file due Monday, but the editor says there's (probably) not much in it.

The aforementioned "probably" is because there's one not-quite-tiny detail that's probably fine, but it's dependent on "Hey, did the person who acquired my story intend to tell me to change this?" If so, I'll have to change it.

Uh, yes I did just mention an acquisitions editor, who processed a story and got it on to further editing. "Thrice Uncharmed" is under contract. Did I forget to tell you? Got it Tuesday, and I'm getting my first round of edits back tomorrow. Which means I really need to finish writing the sequel, to get it started in the process before the first one comes out. (Which is my goal.)

The editor is demanding the second story, too, actually. ^_^

The pre–line edit version of "Thrice Uncharmed" is still over on Wattpad for the near future, though it'll be coming down soon…probably in the next week or two, if not the next few days. Pulled.

Oh, and I flunked Camp NaNoWriMo. Oh, well. At least I made progress.

And I am still making progress on A Fistful of Water, so that's what counts, right?

I modified Kait Nolan's "pizza bites" to a tomato-free pork-free Greek version to be dipped in tzatziki sauce. (Note that Kait converted it to gluten-free herself, mentioned over on her writing blog, with gluten-free all-purpose flour and 3/4 t. xanthan gum. The bites are fairly quick and easy to make—within an hour, including bake time—except for the dicing prep. If you're doing it by hand, that can take a while.

And that's my lot of random news, this go-around.

You have any random (or not-so-random) news or response to news, that you want to share?


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