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So yesterday I broke down effect/affect for my developmental students, and realized that nobody had ever given them a complete explanation. Instead, they’d been given absurd explanations like “affect is for emotions and effect is for events” which contain dangerous and meaningless half-truths but utterly fail to explain that affect and effect are really five words pretending to be two words that sound like one word.

If I have time later today, I’ll break them down and explain with examples, though I’m sure somebody else has already done it better. When you break it down, it makes plenty of sense, even if it’s a sort of absurd sense. I’m sure it would make more sense if one is familiar with the Latin prepositions ad and ex, but maybe we don’t need to go there …

In Search of Lost Technical Close Readings

Dear writers: I’m embarking on a study of … the study of technique in fiction. I’m particularly interested in finding highly technical studies that use close reading to deliver a detailed analysis of the way effects are created in the mind of the reader.  I’m more looking for craft/technique than literary theory/appreciation.

Much of what I’ve read so far (for example, in The Writer’s Chronicle) offers a few tidbits of technical analysis and then a lot of aesthetic and moral Theory of Fiction which literature professors are probably better equipped to perform; I’m definitely looking for rigorous technical analysis instead.

I’m not averse to blog posts, articles, or books of plot or dialogue techniques–the screenwriting discipline has some great ideas to offer about plot-structure and dialogue, since that’s basically all there is to a screenplay–but I’m vastly more interested in the way point of view, line by line, word by word, creates the reader’s experience moving through time. (See my previous post for an example.)

Fiction technique: The setup-one-two punch of revelation, via Suzanne Collins

In a 350-page  novel, wasting a page is a sin against the gods of fiction. Every page needs to serve multiple masters: to be sure, it has to help build the plot, advance the story, and turn into lived-through synopsis in the reader’s mind, but it also has to offer the reader something special, something specific to that page, a local reward, a thrill of horror or a stirring of beauty. However, fiction is an expectations game; if you merely arrange pretty things for the reader to sample but don’t take their expectations into account, you will create less pleasurable local pleasures.

Suzanne Collins, the author of The Hunger Games, is a master of setting reader expectations, which she does through point of view. Here’s a close-reading of a sequence from near the end of the book with the technique highlighted. After all but three of the twenty-four children in the Battle Royale Hunger Games have died (including one charming young psychopath named Glimmer), the final three are cornered by dog-like mutant monsters called “muttations”; they shelter on top of a structure, preparing to defend:

“The mutts are beginning to assemble. As they join together, they raise up again to stand easily on their back legs giving them an eerily human quality. Each has a thick coat, some with fur that is straight and sleek, others curly, and the colors vary from jet black to what I can only describe as blond. There’s something else about them, something that makes the hair rise up on the back of my neck, but I can’t put my finger on it. [this is the setup]

“They put their snouts on the horn, sniffing and tasting the metal, scraping paws over the surface and then making high-pitched yipping sounds to one another. This must be how they communicate because the pack backs up as if to make room. Then one of them, a good-size mutt with silky waves of blond fur takes a running start and leaps onto the horn. Its back legs must be incredibly powerful because it lands a mere ten feet below us, its pink lips pulled back in a snarl. For a moment it hands there, and in that moment I realize what else unsettled me about the mutts. [trigger 1] The green eyes glowering at me are unlike any dog or wolf, any canine I’ve ever seen. They are unmistakably human. And that revelation has barely registered when I notice the collar with the number 1 inlaid with jewels and the whole horrible thing hits me. [trigger 2] The blonde hair, the green eyes, the number … it’s Glimmer.”

The revelation continues, as the heroine realizes that all the mutated monsters are based on the dead children (and may be stitched together from their reanimated corpses). From a purely high-level-plot perspective, the events are simple: the monsters appear, they turn out to be parodies of the dead children, and the fight commences. You could write that in a paragraph. But it would suck. Suzanne Collins knows much better than that.

The key to the trick is the setup, but the masterful flourish is the breaking up of the revelation. The setup line tells us that something very bad is about to be revealed, but doesn’t tell us what. We’re left to imagine something bad. It’s worth noting that a close third or a first person POV could both use this technique–any point of view where you can restrict what the reader knows to what a character knows–and that one of the pleasures of those close viewpoints is the constriction of information, the way revelation can be dramatized in this way. So: we, with the heroine, know that some awful revelation is coming, and we’re trying to imagine what it can be.

Then we get the first half of the revelation, and we were sort of expecting something like that. “They’re part-human bioengineered monsters with human eyes” is pretty horrific, but it’s not something beyond our expectations. We think we know what kind of monsters we’re dealing with; we relax a little.

That sets us up for the other half of the revelation, which is rendered more shocking by the little release of the first half. We’re not expecting another revelation, so it’s more startling. It’s a one-two punch, something the reader will experience and remember.

Not All Points Are Trivial, But Some Trivia Are Pointy

It may seem a bit cranky to use the recent Akin rape flap/Freudian slip/mouth-engulfing-foot moment in order to make a point about the importance of word order, but to one who believes in the paramount importance of words, no opportunity can be wasted.

The sample phrase, taken from an essay by CNN contributor Tom Carroll follows below:

“Every sexual encounter does not lead to pregnancy, but every sexual encounter leads to the possibility of pregnancy.”

What’s the problem? The problem is that the meaning is just a tiny bit imprecise. Obviously from context we can determine that Tom Carroll does not believe that ‘every single sexual encounter fails to lead to pregnancy,’ but that is one plausible grammatical meaning of the first clause.

What he meant, of course, was this:

“Not every sexual encounter leads to pregnancy, but every sexual encounter leads to the possibility of pregnancy.”

The ambiguous case vanishes. Not only that, but some other nice things happen. First, “leads” parallels “leads,” creating a varied repetition that fits perfectly with the “Not … but …” construction. Second, that “Not … but …” construction promises the reader that a multi-clause sentence is coming. It’s an extra nudge in the right direction. Third, by streamlining the grammatical construction of the first clause and matching the second–by creating that congruency of construction–the sentence focuses like a laser on one single contrast: pregnancy vs. the possibility of pregnancy.

It makes a much better sentence.

Course Syllabus for Fall Research Class

[School Redacted]: Introduction to Research

Course Description:

You have access to research tools undreamed of as recently as thirty years ago. If you know what to look for and how to look, in a few months you can master knowledge that once would have taken the world’s best scholars years. But are you a good researcher? Can you ask the right questions in the right way and put your findings to the test? Can you assemble existing knowledge  and then create new knowledge that people can actually use?

In this course you will do exactly that. Working under cognitive apprenticeship to your professor, you and your classmates will form a learning community to achieve a single book-length scholarly research project. Together we will study a book, Tanith Lee’s Don’t Bite the Sun, which has real literary but has not been much studied by scholars. We will use library and internet resources to gather all existing scholarship and contextual information on this book, edit and expand Wikipedia’s general coverage of the book, its author, and its literary context, and then do primary textual scholarship on the book, using research tools ranging from traditional analysis to computer stylometry. Finally, we will assemble all our scholarship into a book which will be a free public resource. Each of you will take a leading role in the research, documentation, and publishing of our findings, and will be credited as a co-author.

In the process you will practice extensive basic research and strongly develop your writing skills.

You will narrow broad questions down into researchable ones, locate and evaluate a wide variety of sources, write annotated bibliographies and literature reviews, prepare ongoing plans for further research and progress updates, and write and edit chapters and appendices. This is a writing-intensive course: no matter how exciting our findings, unless we can present them effectively, no one will benefit. Be prepared for extensive workshops and revision.

You will be graded on the strength of your ongoing project participation, your research bibliographies, your analysis, your contribution to a relevant Wikipedia page, the book chapter you contribute, and a final analytical statement about the work performed.

Required Texts:

Hacker, Diana. A Writer’s Reference (6th ed.). New York, NY: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007.

Lee, Tanith. Don’t Bite the Sun.

Course Policies

  • Be professional, as you will have to be in your professional life.
  • Do all assigned work on time. If for some reason you can’t, notify me immediately, before its absence will affect the rest of the class. Don’t force other people to carry the project.
  • Attend every class session. Don’t force other people to carry the project.
  • Be prepared. Participate actively in discussions and in-class work. Don’t force other people to carry the project.
  • Ask questions when you do not understand. Keep asking until you do understand. Don’t force other people to carry the project.
  • Do your own work (see Academic Honesty policy link above). Don’t force other people to carry the project.
  • Your work willbe workshopped. The day before workshops, bring 20 copies to class.
  • I am happy to accommodate any special needs or protected conditions. If you require accommodations, please contact the Learning Access Program.

Grading Policy

 I will keep track of your ongoing contribution. If you complete all assignments on time at an acceptable standard of quality and no more, you will earn a C. If you complete all assignments on time at a high standard of quality while setting an example of energy, creativity, and scholarly rigor, you will earn an A. If you miss deadlines or turn in sloppy or unusable work, your grade will suffer accordingly.

Grades will be assessed using a 1000-point scale. Late work will be fined 10% of total score, while missing work will get a grade of 0. You do the math. The table below will convert points into grades:

931-1000 = A 901-930 = A- 871-900 = B+ 831-870 = B
801-830 = B- 771-800 = C+ 731-770 = C 701-730 = C-
671-700= D+ 631-670= D 601-630= D- 0-600 = F
Participation 5 points/class. -1 to -5   for poor participation, lateness, absence.
Online   Work (memos, etc)Progress Report 150 points total25 points
Wikipedia   ArticleAnnotated Bibliography 1

Annotated Bibliography 2

Ongoing Article Revisions

150 points25 points

25 points

25 points

Book   ChapterAnnotated Bibliography 3   & Chapter Research

Chapter Plan

Initial Draft

Peer Editing

Analytical   Statement

200 points50 points

20 points

50 points

50 points

100 points


Schedule of Classes (Dates subject to change; readings assigned weekly)

Thu Sep 6 Introduction. Assigned:   Readings about learning community, learning by doing, make-work. Memo 1: About Me – Your Skills and   Aptitudes.
Tue Sep 11

Thu Sep 13

Due: Memo 1. Fundamentals   of primary & secondary research. Introduction to Don’t Bite the Sun. Initial project planning.Wikipedia background   research. Establishing initial “common knowledge.”
Tue Sep 18

Thu Sep 20

Assigned: Memo 2: Initial Observations and Questions   about Book.Basic analysis of book. Formulation of broad initial research   questions.Discussion continues.  Questions of context, framing, approach.
Tue Sep 25Thu Sep 27 Due: Memo 2, initial   secondary research plans.Library visit. Assembling   secondary research. Annotated bibliography 1 assigned.
Tue Oct 2Thu Oct 4 Due: Annotated   bibliography 1.  Deadline to withdraw. Groups assigned.Discussion and reading:   Wikipedia articles. What do we have that they lack? Memo 3: What Makes a Wikipedia Article Good?
Tue Oct 9Thu Oct 11 Wikipedia articles   assigned. Annotated bibliography 2 assigned on articles.Memo   4: Wikipedia Rule Reports.   Discussion of Wikipedia rules and formatting requirements. Discussion of   synthesis.
Tue Oct 16Thu Oct 18 Due: Annotated   bibliography 2. What’s going in the articles?Computer lab: workshop on   early-stage article drafts.
Tue Oct 23Thu Oct 25 Class canceled for   one-on-one meetings. Bring article problems to me.Due: Wikipedia article in   draft form.

Workshop: developed   drafts.

Tue Oct 30Thu Nov 1 Preceptorial advising –   No class. Due: Publish Wikipedia article.Revision begins.   First-round edits with your Group.   Primary scholarship begins. Chapters sketched and assigned.
Tue Nov 6

Thu Nov 8

Due: Memo 5: Chapter Plan for Scholarship/Research. Assigned:   annotated bibliography 3/chapter research.Ongoing work on chapter.
Tue Nov 13Thu Nov 15 Ongoing work on chapter.   Due: Bibliography 3/chapter research.Ongoing work on chapter.   Due: chapter plan.
Tue Nov 20Thu Nov 22 Ongoing work on chapter.Thanksgiving – No class
Tue Nov 27Thu Nov 29 Due: Journal 5: Research For My Major. Writing lab / library class.Due: Annotated   Bibliography, Outline. Workshop.
Tue Dec 4Thu Dec 6 Discussion. Due: Initial   draft of book chapter.Workship. Peer editing.
Tue Dec 11 Last day of class. Due: Final   chapter draft, analytical statement.Finalized term grades are   due before the 21st.

If we have produced an   adequate book, it will be finished and freely available to the public as an   ebook by early January, at which point you may wish to add it to your resume   as a project credit.


Were I a halfway competent app programmer, I would be developing an app that restaurants could use to replace waiters. It would use tabletop QR codes, a smartphone-and-tablet-based menu ordering system, and phone billing for the orders.

It’s bizarre that in the age of the smartphone we send people around with little paper pads to get information from other people and then encode it in a usable form for the kitchen, then manually transport it into the kitchen. It also creates problems, bottlenecks, inefficiencies. The waiter is chatting with the people two tables over. The waiter is busy helping the table of fifteen. The waiter messes up your order. Etc., etc., etc. It’s also a colossal waste of human beings. Instead of having them wait tables, make the information-gathering automatic and let them cook food or run whole restaurants instead. More restaurateurs, please, and fewer waiters. Better living through information technology.

Teaching by Doing – Further thoughts

I’m going to do it this semester. I’ll adapt all my teaching plans accordingly, make my wikipedia project serve this larger goal, and blog the entire process from beginning to end.

My students and I will collaborate to write book-length resources for the general reader. I’m presently thinking of having them write critical companions to three meritorious but relatively little-known fantasy/sf novels: Meredith Ann Pierce’s The Darkangel, Stephen Donaldson’s The Mirror of Her Dreams, and Tanith Lee’s Don’t Bite the Sun. Three books, of course, for three different class sections. There’s very little critical writing about any of these books, so a general-purpose resource would be both useful and probably welcome to anyone writing on these books in the future–and the relative dearth of resources means they’ll really have to work to find meaningful resources. Real research problems. Real research. Real output at the end that a reader can use. Fairly obscure subject matter, to be sure–but so what? It’s still meaningful knowledge production rather than a tedious sham, and we shall be proud of it at the end of it.

So the first question is this: How to define the mission for the students. If this is a cognitive apprenticeship, they don’t get to pick the project; just as carpenter’s apprentices wouldn’t get to decide, “Let’s make a sailboat instead of a table,” my students will not either; instead, they will get to collaborate, learn, and share credit with me for the finished product. I think I’d like to start the class by having them reflect on makework vs. real work, read a bit about learning communities and cognitive apprenticeship, and then start planning how we’ll actually achieve a book-length project in a mere 15 weeks. Thoughts? Ideas?