Monday, December 26, 2016

What is Chiasmus?

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”. Many readers will recognize that John F. Kennedy quote. But I expect far fewer people will know what that style of writing is called, or where it comes from.

It’s actually an ancient literary technique called, chiasmus, Greek for “crossing”. That is, two or more clauses are related to each other through a reversal of structures in order to make a larger point. The technique is found a lot in Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Quran.

A well-known quote from Shakespeare is, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair", Macbeth 1.1

Chiasmus enables writers to create a special artistic effect in order to lay emphasis on what they want to communicate. Richard A. Lanham in his treatise, Analyzing Prose, said, “By keeping the phrase but inverting its meaning we use our opponent’s own power to overcome him, just as a judo expert does. So a scholar remarked of another’s theory, ‘Cannon entertains that theory because that theory entertains Cannon.’ The pun on ‘entertain’ complicates the chiasmus here, but the judo still prevails–Cannon is playing with the power of his own mind rather than figuring out the secrets of the universe.”

Have fun creating your own chiasmus.

Helen Woodall

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sentence length: Too long or too short?

Could you read that? Did you understand it?

Way back in the eighteenth century, or thereabouts, sentences were long because ladies sat in their drawing rooms, while Mama read out the latest book, sentence by sentence, for the young women to dissect, also sentence by sentence, comma by semicolon, while they all discussed all the descriptions therein. It was only after a page or three they would stop to work out the actual story behind the sentences. These days an editor would put a big fat red line (or possibly a track changed red comment) on the opening sentence of this blog and say “49 words. Too long. Cut into 3 short sentences for clarity”.

Readers today want their description in bite-sized chunks. They don’t want to stop and decide whether the punctuation required an extra comma or semicolon here or there, or if the curtains on the withdrawing room windows would have been prettier with an extra ruffle of French lace. They want to know if the villain catches the hero right now.

As a fiction author, your job is to keep the reader reading right to the very last line of the book. Only then do you want them wondering about window decorations or anything other than the characters and what is happening to them.

Of course you do need to vary the sentence structure somewhat. Every sentence starting with “The hero…” gets boring fast and will not keep the reader entertained. As for the curtains, show them flapping in the breeze, the French lace billowing (or whatever). Your reader will fill the gaps to their own satisfaction.

And yes, sentences can be too short. Fragmentary. Boring. Although fragments can add a lot of tension to a pivotal scene. But don’t do it too often.
Keep writing!

Helen Woodall

Helen is available to line edit and/ or content edit fiction and non-fiction. Rates on application.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

I don’t believe you

I was asked to explain the different needs for accuracy in fiction novels when dealing with those gray areas between fact and fiction.

The most important thing is that your reader must believe the story. You can have blue people, three purple moons and red and white striped flowers in your world, as long as they’re consistent and logical. Those people/flowers/moons must stay the same, or be logically different (the moons can set) throughout the book.

I have mentioned before in a previous blog about an author who won a major literary award for her semi autobiographical story about how she escaped from a country by walking across the border. The problem was that the country she said she escaped to, does not share a border with the country she left. The editors, publisher, and judges all missed that point but the readers didn’t. They stopped believing her and the award was withdrawn. If only she’d made a country name up, no one would have had a problem with her story. They’d have thought she was protecting the people who helped her, not telling a lie.

It turned out later after investigation the entire book was made up. Again, this would not have been a problem if she’d used imaginary place names and said it was fiction. She then would have deserved the award she won so briefly.

Which takes us back to the key point. The reader has to believe what you’re telling them. If your villain is using an automatic rifle and doesn’t hit the escaping-on-foot heroine, the villain needs to be a very bad shot, or distracted, or both. And if that heroine is running barefoot through the woods at midnight how can she see where she’s going, why doesn’t she cut her feet on rocks and what was she doing there in the first place?

Helen Woodall

Helen is available to line edit and/ or content edit fiction and non-fiction. Rates on application.

Sunday, December 4, 2016’s 2016 Word of the Year: Xenophobia

Every year, chooses a Word of the Year that they believe encapsulates the writings and actions of the previous twelve months.

2016, they have conclusive evidence, is the year of Xenophobia. This word has only been around in English since the late 1800s and translates as fear of strangers. Now, fear is not always bad. The fight or flight reaction has led to many people running away from danger and being saved. But a random and all-pervasive fear of anyone different from ourselves goes a long way beyond a sensible response.

Those "others" we fear have brought us pizza, spaghetti, most spices, coffee, and chocolate, along with a huge list of other foods. I don't know about you. but I don't plan to give up chocolate any time soon.

Meanwhile a little less fear and a lot more intelligent thought and sensible planning, might be appropriate.

Let's hope next year's word is one that brings us positive outcomes, enlightenment, and an improved world, not irrational medieval fearmongering.

The full article about's studies is here: