Happy new year! May we all have perfect vision, actually and metaphorically, in 2020! And may we have good writing!
A year or so ago I said here that I would occasionally write something about grammar and usage. Occasionally seemed to be never again, but I have a little rant before I launch the post. Many people misuse lie and lay, so many that eventually usage will probably change. But at this point the old way is still hanging on, and I came across a poem that may make lie easy to remember. It’s an unpleasant two-liner written hundreds of years ago by the English poet John Dryden (I don’t know if he was writing about his actual wife, which would be very sad.):
Here lies my wife: here let her lie.
Now she’s at rest, and so am I.
Lie is the present tense; lay is the past. I lie in bed now. I lay in bed last night. The usefulness of the poem is that if we’re confused, we can think of the poem and make sure our usage fits the rhyme.
What confuses everybody is that lay is present tense when it takes a direct object: The hen lays an egg today. (An egg is the direct object.) The hen laid an egg yesterday.
Onto the first post of the year!
On November 9, 2019, Erica wrote, I like to sing, and have a tendency to randomly start singing bits of songs as I feel like it. My question is, how do you include songs/poetry in a story and make it seem like a part of a character’s nature, rather than like it has to be significant to the plot?
And Sara wrote, My advice would be to have all the songs or poems be pretty different from each other, and pretty random (if that’s what your character is like). I think if your character repeated one song or poem the whole time, then people would expect it to be significant. If the songs or poems are well known in your world, maybe have other characters notice and point out when your character randomly brings them up. They can talk about it. I think if something is related to character bonding, then people will see it more in that way than in a plot way. If they’re making up their own little songs or poems, I would go for random, situation-specific ones, since doing that kind of thing is sorta unique and noticeable and cool. Another thing is to just have little snippets of different songs or poems, because when there’s some huge song or poem in a book, it really seems like it’s there for a huge plot thing. The most important thing, though, is to do it, however you’re going to do it, multiple times in different situations without exactly calling a bunch of attention to it. I think when you let the audience notice something, it comes off as really subtle and clever. And something can’t really be part of a character’s nature if they only do it once or twice.
Erica wrote back, Yes, what I was thinking of would just be snippets here and there. Part of the reason I want to include them is because the plot of the story itself is very serious and dense. Including songs helps keep it from seeming so overpowering.
I agree with Sara that, in general, if songs or poetry are in a story, they should appear more than once, and if they’re part of our MC’s character, they certainly should. They can be as short as a word or two, broken off when someone enters the room where she is. It’s terrific if singing helps define a character’s personality, and I think it can work well to lighten the mood of a book.
(My mother used to hum when she was angry. When my sister and I heard her hum, we would tread very carefully! If I made her into a character, the humming would help define her.)
I agree also that if there is only one song in a book, it will take on a lot of significance just by being the only one, which is fine if that’s what we want.
And I agree again that the selections should generally be short. Otherwise, they can stop the action, and some readers will jump over them.
Many of my books weave in songs or poetry: Ella Enchanted, Fairest, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, Fairy Haven and the Quest for the Wand (though the poems are written in Mermish, the language of mermaids–with no consonants), Ever, Stolen Magic (limericks), The Fairy’s Return (in which the poems are entirely silly). Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It is a collection of humorous poems, and I offer advice on writing poems in Writer to Writer. And in the novel-without-a-title I’m working on now there’s a Greek chorus of crows, who comment and issue warnings in verse. (I love a good Greek chorus.) So I’ve used poems in lots of ways.
For me, writing them is slower than writing prose, because I’m thinking about elements I don’t pay a lot of attention to ordinarily, like assonance, alliteration, rhythm, and, once in a while, rhyme. A couple of editors have asked me to write a novel entirely in verse–until I’ve explained how long that would take.
Erica says that she sings song fragments when the mood strikes her. If we’re like Erica, we can pay attention to those moments when we sing and what gets us started, and we can give them to our MC.
We can think about what we know about our MC and how singing fits in. We can make a list!
∙ She sings when she’s nervous (or when she’s angry, like my mom).
∙ She sings to keep herself from stuttering.
∙ She sings when she’s happy and has to let out her joy, or to express any passing feeling.
∙ She sings because she knows it irritates a certain person.
∙ She sings to see how high or low a note she can hit.
∙ She sings the songs her dead mother loved.
As an early prompt, list at least three more possibilities.
We can also ask how and when she sings–loudly or almost inaudibly, in the presence of others or only when she’s alone or some combination of the two. Is she a good singer?
We can pick a few of these and they will become part of her. They’ll make the reader’s understanding of her more complex. We can create a secondary character who also sings, but at different times and for different reasons, and this will contribute to his character. We don’t have to have two singers, but if we do, we’ll even further solidify how singing can delineate character.
If she gives up singing or stops speaking and only sings, the reader will be affected, even worried, depending on what else is going on.
The singing might become integral to the plot, if we’re pantsers and our story isn’t entirely set. For example, suppose our MC is in a tight spot. Can we have her use song to improve her situation? Maybe she sings in her prison cell and gets better–or worse–treatment from the guards as a result. Or, since song carries better than speech, another prisoner may answer her in song. Their duets can remain defining character traits, or they can influence what happens (plot).
This is not the direction Erica wants to go in, but I–a pantser–love when things I toss in casually turn out to be useful for my plot. For example, when I made Addie talented at needlework in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, I had no idea that her skill would come in handy later on when she’s trapped in a dragon’s lair.
Here are three prompts. In them, there may be more song than Erica is going for:
∙ The two Disney versions and the Broadway show of “Cinderella” are musicals. They did it first, but you can, too. Your Cinderella loves to sing. Write a scene from the original fairy tale and include song snippets. Some may be in Cinderella’s thoughts rather than out loud. One may be sung softly, and one may be belted out. If you like, write your own “Cinderella.”
∙ “Lovely Ilonka,” which I’ve mentioned here at least once, is one of the weirdest fairy tales there is. You can read it for free online in Andrew Lang’s Crimson Fairy Book. (These adaptations are old enough to be in the public domain.) Here’s a link: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2435/2435-h/2435-h.htm#link2H_4_0002. Part of the story involves three maidens, each trapped in her own (of all things) bulrush. Write the scene when the prince plucks the bulrushes. Give each hidden maiden her own song or song snippet, which reveals her character. Show that each character is different through her song.
∙ To satisfy my continuing fascination with Rumpelstiltskin, make him the character who loves to sing. Write a scene in which you reveal his motivation, whether fair or foul, in song.
Have fun, and save what you write!