Category Archives: Q Lovin

Imperfect and Subjunctive Scenes

I’d like to talk about two types of scenes that occur in stories (different media may give them different forms) that are different from the types of scenes we are taught to write in writing classes. In writing classes, and even in literature classes, I have always been told that a scene must create a change in the character’s condition. But neither of these types of scenes present such a change—or at least not in the way we have been taught.

I have chosen to name each of these types after grammatical concepts that are not traditionally considered useful in English.

The first type of scene I’m calling “Imperfect” because it’s the tense one would expect to be used in languages like French and Ancient Greek that have two different past tenses. If you’re talking about a “classical” scene in which something specific happens at a specific time, you’d use the other tense (passé composé in French, aorist in Ancient Greek). The imperfect tense would be used for situations that are either repetitive or continuous.

The best way of illustrating this would be by presenting the beginning of a fairy tale. “Once upon a time, there was a boy named Kaylim who lived in the Kenthi Highlands. He didn’t get along with his twin brother Dansiv or with most of the rest of the tribe because of his violent tendencies, so he spent most of his time alone training with the weapons as though he was dancing.”

This works as the set-up for a story—a very short one—even though none of these sentences capture a single moment in time. Instead, they evoke a continuum, one that can be bracketed by saying, “Then one day, the Chief of the Choni agreed to let Dansiv marry his daughter Lodarn and Kaylim was sent ot fetch her for the wedding.”

There are several scenes suggested in this one sentence: a negotiation between the two tribes that leads to a conclusion, the announcement to both brothers, perhaps even an argument as to why Kaylim might not want to go. But though there are many events, each of them is distinct and far more unique than “Every day, Kaylim would retreat to the garden where he kept his flail.” If one were filming that, what specific day would one choose?

This isn’t just about the beginning of a story, though. After critical events, there is usually a plateau of sorts, where a new status quo is reached. “There, in the desert,” for example, “Kaylim wandered day and night, sometimes sleeping during the day so he could travel at night, sometimes deciding that was foolishness, too. But always, he was thirsty, always hoping beyond  hope that the shimmering on the horizon really was a body of water, but even when it was, soon discovering it was shallow and tasted like dust, and he would long for home. Again, we see that the events are repetitive, which enhances the hopelessness of Kaylim’s situation. Now, one could write out blow by blow what happens to Kaylim along the way, but that would become as tedious in the telling as the experience in the living of it; alternatively, one could focus on a single time this happened (the last time would be my preference) and refer every step of the way to all the other times it was hopeless. This would be a particularly appealing way of telling this part of the story if this time, things turned out differently, but an Imperative approach is still the most economical, if word count is, in any way, an issue.

This idea, though, of dwelling on fears in a scene brings me to the other type. I call this type of scene Subjunctive. The Subjunctive isn’t really all that useful anymore in English, either, except in specific cases such as “be that as it may”; where other languages might use it, English falls back on auxiliarly verbs, like would, could, should and may. This is a mood that a verb takes when it’s in a sentence describing something that isn’t really taking place.

“Kaylim thought of all the things he could do as commander of Alceius’s armies: he could return home and prove to his tribe that he wasn’t the disgrace they all thought him to be. But no, that wasn’t an option. If he took command, he would lead this army to conquer Maxillon—he might even win. From there, he could reach out and conquer the entire world—but should he?”

Each of these sentences suggests a scene, but not a scene that we are meant to imagine actually happening. These summaries can even be expanded and enriched with details, as long as it remains clear to the reader by the end of the summar that they are only taking place in the character’s mind.

There are many advantages to the use of Subjunctive scenes, but the attribute I find most fascinating is the way they open up the possibilities for what a single story could be. All authors have to make choices, not just about what details to include and which to omit for sheer lack of space, but even over what will happen over the course of a story. Subjunctive scenes, in addition to enriching the inner life of a character and creating a sense of foreshadowing and even irony in a tale, can be a way for writers to implement alternative strategies in an environment that is as divorced from the world of their story as the story is from the world in which its author lives.


Turn It Up to Three Hundred and Sixty Degrees

This weekend, I attended the fourth VR challenge here in Seattle. It was at a private residence known as the Birdhouse and it was not what I want to be talking about here, specifically. I want to talk about what it’s like to film for VR and to experience content in 360º.

My first experience with this emerging medium was about a year ago when a guy I knew through a friend on Facebook sent out an invitation for people to participate in an experiment shooting a video with a 360 camera. I ended up on the team writing the script and I also acted in it.

*takes ironic bow, realizes how awkward that was, apologizes*

When the idea of 360 was first described to me, my very first thought was “Wow, that sounds exactly like doing theatre in the round, only backwards.” So before I launch into my diatribe on 360, I want to talk a bit about my experience with theatre in the round.

I’ve done a fair amount of acting and neither of the two stages that I have done most of my acting on can be described as “conventional”. One of them, the Hazel Robinson Amphitheater in Asheville, NC, where the Montford Park Players stage their Shakespeare performances every year, is an outdoor venue that has two available levels, so that Shakespeare’s stage directions “enters above” and “enters below” actually make sense on that stage (though I’ve never noticed anybody actually following them). The other theatre in question is Carol Belk on the campus of UNCA, which, as indicated earlier, is in the round.

To be clear for those not familiar with theatre parlance, a theatre in the round is a stage that is completely surrounded by audience. On all sides, the actor is visible to someone, but no one is going to be visible to everyone in the audience from the same side. There is a saying in theatre that you never do the same show twice, between the rotating audience and the minutiae of the performances night to night, but in the case of theatre in the round, no two members of the audience on any given night see the same show, certainly not if they’re on opposite sides of the room.

My favorite example of this from my own experience was when I assistant directed Jose Rivera’s Marisol in 2005. There is a scene in the play where the title character comes upon a man with bandages all over his face and once she’s won his trust, he lets her take the bandages off. If you were seeing this scene from Section 4 at Carol Belk, you would see the bandages coming off and the wonderful (i.e. horrifying) makeup of the burn wounds covering his face. But when I saw it from Section 6 (approximately 150º around) I saw a very different story: first, I saw Marisol’s reaction to the horror, far more satisfying when I could see her face, and then I saw the very edges of the make-up as the unbandaged man told the story of how he’d gotten these scars. I liked it better, but it was pointed out to me later by a friend that from that angle, you could barely see the make-up at all. One side got poetry, the other horror–two very different performances.

Some consider this a challenge when working in the round–they ask themselves how they can avoid it. But if the show is going to be different every night anyway (as is the nature of theatre) then why not embrace the fact that it is the nature of theatre in the round that the audience will get a very different picture of every moment, depending on where they sit?

Now I find myself having the same argument when talking about 360. At the pow-wow Friday night, one of the mentors of the group advised us that “even though you’re shooting in 360, you’re going to want to frame all of your action in 180 degrees, just like a regular movie.”

I call bullshit. I keep seeing footage online nowadays of “360” video and images that I click and drag on for more, only to find that I can’t scroll past 180º and it makes me livid. I find it wasteful. But then they try to say “Well, if you’re at home and you’re sitting on the couch wearing your VR goggles, you’re not going to want to turn all the way around.”

First of all, most of the time, when I look at 360, I’m looking at it on a screen where I can drag the field of view, so I wouldn’t have that problem, but more importantly (and I cannot stress this enough) if you are experienced VR while sitting on the couch, you’re doing it wrong and I will not be made to cater to your comfort or laziness.

If you are shooting a 360 film using only 180 of the available degrees, then WHY BOTHER? This is expensive equipment, this is specific equipment and for the sake of the R&D that’s gone into it, it deserves to have its full potential exploited.

The question is, how do you control where your audience is going to be looking?

Don’t. This is my answer. Your audience is going to look where your audience wants to look. Especially at this stage in the development of the medium and the training of the audience, it’s still new to people, so they’re going to be looking around the moment they put on the goggles, just to take in their surroundings and it is your responsibility as the artist in this exceptional medium to make every direction they look in both exceptional and specific. Just as every person in the audience at a play in the round deserves to see a good show, every one of your three hundred and sixty degrees deserves the attention that will be lavished upon it by appreciative fans. To ignore any of it would be like staging the entire action of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on only one level of Montford’s Amphitheater. Why did you even bother?


When I was writing my first Master’s Thesis, which was on using Semiotics to define the difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy, I found a typo in one draft that caught my attention: I had spelled “Fantasy” with a “c” where the “n” should go. I burst out laughing when I found it. I thought that was a beautiful word, potentially a portmanteau in the making. So I defined it.

It would be easy in the current political climate to find a decisive use for it and turn it to derogatory uses, and I am well aware that this will happen if the term ever takes off, but I still want to root the idea in something real, something that could have its uses in something approaching intellectual pursuits, if not quite (yet) academia.

The definition is as follows: a work of Factasy is a work of fiction that pretends to base itself on actual-world sources. One of my favorite examples is Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Clarke uses footnotes to quote and reference sources on the study of magic. These sources are so convincing in their detail that it took me a good three hundred pages to remember that there had never, in our actual world, been a Raven King ruling the North of England for several centuries after the Middle Ages.

But on the other hand we have novels like The Da Vinci Code. It was very popular, but I didn’t like it. Part of the reason I didn’t like it was because it seemed to play fast and loose with its sources, which put it on uneasy footing. It’s one thing to have an expert in a field make discoveries over the course of a novel of “facts” that aren’t representative of any reality outside that novel, but the sources in Dan Brown’s most popular novel were confusing enough that I never figured out which sources he made up and which I could track down myself and read, if I took a fancy. And that was very dissatisfying to my reading experience in the long run—perhaps in part because I wanted so much to believe the version of reality that he presented.

So if I were to write up an instruction manual as how to incorporate aspects of Factasy in one’s work of fiction, my first bit of advice would be to be absolutely clear from the beginning on the relationship between the world and the sources. If they are tongue-in-cheek and all-encompassing like Clarke’s, then commit to them fully, but if your main character is a “world-renowned expert” in the field in question, and there is nothing utterly different about the world (i.e. if this is or could be the world we are living in) don’t be casual with the Factastical sources. Be careful. Be respectful of reality.

Against the Oxford Comma

All right, it’s time. Too long have I been silent.

The Oxford comma is overrated.

There. I said it. And you know what, I’m proud that I said it. I acknowledge that there is a chance that I will lose friends over this post, but for fuck sake, if you’re going to unfriend me because of a point of punctuation, you are the fucking problem.

Now, mind you, I don’t mean to say that it doesn’t have its uses, but to blindly throw it about without thinking critically does in fact label the user a pretentious git without sufficient faculties for this business.

The idea of the Oxford comma is that when you are serializing words in a sentence (usually nouns, but I suppose verbs and even adjectives would qualify, too, in some cases), there have to be commas in between all of them, even if there is also a conjunction. Now, standard practice in English only demands that you put a verbal conjunction (e.g. and, or) between the last two; if you say “I was angry and sweaty and nauseated”, that’s a non-standard form of stylised emphasis, not something you would say casually or in a formal context.

The argument for adding a comma even in the presence of a conjunction is ostensibly to avoid misunderstandings based on one of the other uses of the comma: mainly, description. The commas are used to bracket descriptions and enumerations within the sentence by separating them out from the rest of the construction:

“My mother, a renowned linguist, taught me how to speak and write correctly,” or

“The twins, Byron and Shelley, had a terrible time in their English classes.”

In the first example, the phrase “a renowned linguist” is used to give more insight into why the speaker is bringing up his or her mother in this conversation by giving a pertinent description. In the second, the phrase “Byron and Shelley” tells us specifically to which twins we are referring in this context—and possibly why.

Proponents of the Oxford comma argue that if you are serialising words, omitting a comma between the last two even in the presence of a verbal conjunction makes it appear that the comma before the penultimate word in the series is actually used for this alternate purpose of enumeration and/or description. Here are some examples used by Oxfordites in their campaign:

  1. “We invited the strippers, JFK(,) and Stalin.”
  2. “Kill Harry, Hermione(,) and Ron.” (which I am using instead of the more popular “I’m having milk, toast and orange juice” because it makes just slightly more sense)
  3. “Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, a dildo collector(,) and an 800-year-old demigod.”

Each of these examples has its own odd quirkiness, linguistically, but the first is the most common and widespread, as well as the one that makes the best case, which is why I will be handling these three in reverse order.

So, to begin with 3:

“Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.”

The contention from the Oxford camp is that this sentence, sans comma, suggests that the former President of South Africa was both of semi-divine origin and guilty of certain profane proclivities. The idea is, of course, as stated above, that the sole comma creates the impression that it is for descriptive purposes, rather than for serialising.

But this accusation is without merit—not only is Mr. Mandela not (provably, at least to my knowledge) guilty of either of those things, but moreover, this sentence does not and cannot suggest that he is. No one who has not been brainwashed by the Oxford camp would think that.

The reason for this is because repeating the indefinite article (an/a) creates an unmistakable separation between the two entities that come after the comma. If you were trying to suggest that Mr. Mandela was both of those things, the sentence would look like this:

“Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and dildo collector.”

Now there’s no mistaking it. Once you leave out that indefinite article, you make it quite clear just how twisted your mind is. That is not, however, what the original quote shows; the original quote very clearly delineates three separate “highlights” (which is plural, btw) that will be seen on the subject’s world tour.

Interesting things happen, however, when we do put the Oxford comma where its proponents say it should go:

“Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, a dildo collector, and an 800-year-old demigod.”

Here we really do have a case of ambiguity. You will notice that there are now commas on both sides of “a dildo collector”—this puts it in the same syntactic position as “a renowned linguist” and “Byron and Shelley” in the examples above. So while you may have spared the former South African President the torment of an unnaturally long life-span, you have now unmistakably linked him with certain implements many members of his constituency would no doubt find scandalous.

The second example from the Oxford camp is awkward in a wholly different way and the argument against it bases itself on yet another standard use of commas, which is to mark a form of address, e.g. “Harry, do speak up” or “Pay attention, Mr. Potter!”

The contention here is that if we do not use the Oxford comma, as in

“Kill Harry, Hermione and Ron,”

we are telling Harry’s two closet friends to kill him (probably under an Imperius Curse, one assumes). Now, though this does not seem likely, we could just as easily use the example:

“Kill Harry, Crabbe and Goyle!”

The problem is that this still sounds quite awkward. I honestly can’t think of any case in which I would be addressing two people and put both of their names at the end of a sentence—at least not in English. If I was (terrifyingly blonde and) trying to command my henchmen to rid me of my nemesis, I would probably say something more like

“Crabbe! Goyle! Kill the Potter boy!”

So I really can’t think of

“Kill Harry, Hermione, and Ron”

as any less ambiguous than

“Kill Harry, Hermione and Ron.”

But now we get to the crux of the argument: number 1.

I have seen a great many variations on this construction—I would even venture to say that most examples in favor of the Oxford comma follow this precise pattern, which is a series of three nouns, the first of which is plural:

“We invited the rhinoceri, Washington and Lincoln.”

“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

“I was twerking with the puppies, Miley Cyrus and Jennifer Lawrence.”

The only reason any of these look ambiguous at all is because of the order in which they are summed up. If we reverse the order:

“I was twerking with Miley Cyrus, Jennifer Lawrence and the puppies,”

“This book is dedicated to Ayn Rand, God and my parents,”

“We invited Washington, Lincoln and the rhinoceri,”

there is no more confusion. Under no circumstances can “Jennifer Lawrence and the puppies” add up to “Miley Cyrus,” who is not nearly cute enough to even compete with that; nor is Ayn Rand composed of any divine aspects (and frankly, if I understand correctly, she would probably resent the association); and no matter how many rhinoceri Lincoln brings with him—hold on, how did Lincoln even get hold of multiple rhinoceri? None of this makes sense, anyway.

The point is, if you reverse the order—which, frankly, makes a lot more sense to me stylistically anyway, most of the time—there is almost never any ambiguity at all.

I did find one example where there is, though: the example given is

“Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”

which, of course, makes it seem as though those are the names of his ex-wives. Which is ridiculous, of course, because if he had married those two, we would call them “husbands” as they are obviously men. But if you switch it around:

“Among those interviewed were Kris Kristofferson, Robert Duvall and Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives,”

then modern conventions present the risk of thinking that each of these three men married the same two women. However, this is not necessarily a problem that would go away if you added the Oxford comma, e.g.

“Among those interviewed were Kris Kristofferson, Robert Duvall, and Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives,”

because it is not a problem of punctuation, it is a problem of syntax and word use. And if we actually were trying to say “the two women who were both married to each of these three men,” and we said

“Kris Kristofferson’s, Robert Duvall’s(,) and Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives,”

it would sound like they had two wives apiece, and the ambiguity would be compounded. So, really, when it comes down to it, the only thing for it is to rely on tone in speech and context in writing to create this distinction.

And to a certain extent, the same is true for the Oxford comma in most cases. No one in their right mind is going to think that Jennifer Lawrence OR Miley Cyrus are puppies or that Washington and Lincoln are rhinoceri—well, unless you named two rhinoceri “Washington” and “Lincoln”, which I suppose would be valid—or that Ayn Rand and God (who HATE each other, by the way) would ever get close enough to become anyone’s parents. Syntactically, it’s a very specific case where it’s necessary at all and if it is used in other cases, it can create the very ambiguity it professes to combat.

This ambiguity can, however, be fought from the opposite direction, by discouraging the use of commas in these alternative cases. At the end of a sentence, after all, if you want to enumerate, you might as well use a colon, as in

“We brought in the rhinoceri: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln,”

or, conversely, a dash, which would give us

“I was twerking with the puppies—Miley Cyrus and Jennifer Lawrence,”

which sounds a little clunky, but would serve to enhance the comedy of two puppies having been named after celebrities. Or of two celebrities being referred to as young dogs.

And in the case of enumeration in the middle of a sentence, either bracketing dashes or parentheses can be used:

“To my parents (Ayn Rand and God) I dedicate this book,” or

“The strippers—JFK and Stalin—were invited to the party.”

There are solutions, then, that might actually cure the problem, rather than providing a band-aid for it. Yet there are those in the community at large who have bought into the meme so thoroughly that they have forgotten what the purpose of the Oxford comma was.

I also need to address one specific case that came up recently—and when I say “case”, I mean that literally, as this pertains to a legal matter. The issue in question was the enumeration of the types of activities that don’t qualify for overtime pay, which are, as listed in the contract,

“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) perishable foods.”

The part of the sentence that is rendered ambiguous is “packing for shipment or distribution of”, the contention being whether “packing” could refer to “distribution” as well as to “shipment”.

This should have been considered a moot point, however, given the rest of the sentence, because of the way that serialization works. Serialization only functions to begin with because the final conjunction between the last two serialized words gives context to every preceding comma. That means that if “packing for shipment or distribution of” was meant to be a single unit, we wouldn’t know how to interpret the SEVEN separate commas that preceded it. So if they had wanted to set up the sentence that way, they would have to have put an extra “or” before the word “packing”. Unless of course it was a newspaper headline, since those seem to get away with everything.

Recently, I had a conversation with a woman who told me that the omission of the Oxford comma was a pet peeve of hers, and when I pressed her about it, she not only told me that she wasn’t interested in hearing my arguments, but she didn’t even seem to be current on the actual arguments in favor of her own position. She was just taking stock in the Oxford company to be trendy. In and of itself, this is lame because it cheapens the cause of people who actually know and care about grammar when someone arrives at these conclusions with zeal that can only be described as religious, but when I see people online foaming at the mouth about the Oxford comma, it becomes downright frightening. Blind loyalty to phenomena you do not understand is the opposite of science, and that applies to linguistics and grammar every bit as much as it applies to the natural sciences.

So the next time someone tries to lecture you on “Why you should always use the Oxford comma”, show them this sentence:

“I’ve had about enough of Nick, my dog, and other liars.”

And ask them what the dog’s name is. When they look confused, show them this one:

“I walked into the room and saw Hank, the man who killed my father, and the Sheriff.”

And ask them how much trouble “I” am in. If they see an Oxford comma there, they won’t know that “my dog” is a description of “Nick”, and they’ll think that there are three different men in the scene at the bottom. Then you can laugh at them and their useless, too-specific and ultimately nonsensical examples.


If I were ever to open up a bookstore, I’d want to call it Satisfiction. You know what I’m talking about. It’s that feeling you get when you curl up with a good book at the end of the day, or when you get to the end of that good book and the ending was even better than you could have imagined.

But that’s all it is.

This feeling is rooted in something that isn’t actually there. How can you invest so much emotion, so much of yourself, in a world you will never be a part of?

How can you not?

We feel for the people who will never really know us, to practice feeling for each other.

But this still isn’t real. That’s why we have to remember, to remind ourselves, that there is an actual world outside, and that it isn’t something we can experience by just reading. We can prepare for it, but nothing can really prepare us for it.

You can’t really achieve true Satisfaction from a story. But maybe, just maybe, a story can help you practice for the real thing.