Critiquing: Metrics

You’re sitting in your car at a stoplight, and it’s a late spring day, and your windows are all rolled down so you can bask in the warm floral breeze.

And then another car pulls up, more or less beside you, and they are absolutely blasting their music. You know the song instantaneously, because it inspires in you immediate revulsion, and now it doesn’t matter how delicious that breeze is, because you are not going to endure that song for another second. You close your windows and turn up your own music just to drown out the assault on your ears.

So what’s the song?

More broadly, what’s the movie that makes you groan, or the book, or the video game? And more importantly, why? When you say “That (whatever thing) sucks,” what makes it suck?

If we stick with music for a second, people tend to go with three major things: 1) The way it sounds, in terms of beat/rhythm, 2) Sincerity of the music, in terms of the people playing it versus who write it, and if it can be reproduced live, and 3) the lyrics.

Fans of pop music tend to value the first and sometimes the second two things most; if a song has a good beat, something you can dance or sing along to, it’s a good song, even if the lyrics aren’t especially masterful. Sometimes the second one will also come into play, often in a strange defensive stance, like “[insert pop singer here] can totally sing amazingly – check out this live proof. See, they’re super talented!” That’s the metric of ‘good’ for these folks. And that’s great for them.

Fans of more esoteric stuff tend to be more about 2 and 3, and that’s great for them. So if they say a song is good, it’s because the lyrics are inspired, or different, or interesting. OR they, again, value the ability of the artist to reproduce the sound in a live situation, or that the artist singing it is the same human that wrote it.

I think this is one of the major reasons people disagree about what’s good and what isn’t (the other being the much more obvious thing about people having a variety of tastes). If you take these themes a little more broadly, it’s the same sort of thing across a variety of media. In movies or TV, the metric is sometimes “Was it entertaining?” and sometimes “Did it have depth?” There are all sorts of other things that work into each of these, of course, but those seem to be the major camps.

I’ve run into this most in discussing books, I think, where the metrics are often the same as the ones we use to judge television and movies. In books, the entertainment value usually comes from things like pacing and drama, whereas the depth tends to come from tackling philosophical concerns.

For me, the best are the books that can manage both. For me, a good book is one with strong syntax and the power to propel me through the pages, but also leaves me thinking about it later.

I guess the moral of the story is that we could probably have better discussions about these sorts of things if people would start out by describing their metrics, and by people noting that everyone has different ones.

If you have a second, let me know what your metrics are in the comments! I was being pretty general, so I’m sure there are plenty that I missed, and I would love to hear about them.

 

Commonplace Book: Winter 2017

Since this is my first commonplace book entry I’m sharing, let me just give you a quick idea as to how this is going to work.
To avoid spoiling anyone on anything they haven’t read (or watched or whatever) yet, I’m going to give a little introductory heads up as to what things (books, movies, etc) I’m going to quote lines from, and how many entries will be lines from each of them. So, for an example, if I was going to quote one thing from Cinder by Marissa Meyer and three things from Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor, my introduction list would look like this:
Cinder, Marissa Meyer – 1
Dreams of Gods and Monsters, Laini Taylor – 3
Right, so I’m also going to begin each commonplace book with lyrics rather than something from a book or show, so you’ll have a nice long space here at the beginning where spoilers aren’t, so you won’t happen across them if you’re trying to avoid them. There will also be a nice big announcement on each page when the lyric section is over.
Side note, anybody want to posit ideas as to why people don’t usually want spoilers from books and movies, but don’t seem to mind when people start singing the middle of a song? Song spoilers don’t seem to be a thing for most people. My guess is because usually there’s some kind of narrative tension in a book or a movie, but some songs are like that, too, and also often rely on their context, so I’m not sure about that.
Anyway! Hopefully this will help everyone figure out how to navigate the page easily enough without stumbling across anything you mean to avoid.

Shadow Scale, Rachel Hartman – 1
The Copper Gauntlet, Holly Black and Cassandra Clare – 2

Lyrics:

“You are the hole in my head

You are the space in my bed

You are the silence in between

What I thought, and what I said.”

           No Light, No Light – Florence and the Machine

What a way to begin a song.

It immediately establishes the relationship between the singer and the addressed as a romantic one (reference to bed), but it makes it difficult in that the lover is, in all these cases, the absence. Also, I really love the reference to the things that we do not say, and how often that might come out in romantic entanglements.

Being a hole in someone’s head also does not seem like a compliment, but the lover is still seemingly sought after (especially by the rest of the song).

 

“I can’t decide if it’s a choice

Getting swept away

I hear the sound of my own voice

Asking you to stay.”

Treacherous, Taylor Swift

This is more about the idea than the syntax or poetry of the actual lines – it’s just a really interesting consideration to me. Do you choose to give your heart away, or does it happen all on its own? I hear all the time that falling in love is an accidental thing, or something we can’t control (if we could, would heartache ever happen?) but I wonder how much we choose to be open to someone. Or during the act of falling in love, how many things do we dislike and try not to, just because we want to have that feeling of falling in love, or being with someone?

The uncertainty of being unsure as to how much will determines love also carries through the second pair of lines; the speaker’s request for the lover to stay seems to occur without her consciously deciding it, due to the way she hears it as if it’s somehow disconnected from her. It’s like her voice is answering without her permission (sweeping her away without choice).

The verb ‘decide’ in the beginning, though – that’s a verb of agency, and it implies the very thing that she’s unsure of – choice.

 

This next one is a little strange, because I misheard the lyrics at first, so Iv;e done an entry for the wrong lyrics that I thought existed, and then the actual lyrics.

“Abandoned drink the lonely down.”

Until the Levee, Joy Williams (and my own incorrect ears)

Even though it’s not the real lyric, this is a nice because she’s calling herself abandoned, which gives her a kind of ownership of that state. “Abandoned” as that part of speech would stand in for a whole group of abandoned; it would stand for “the abandoned ones,” which groups her in with other abandoned ones, and that kind of softens the isolation/loneliness. It makes her part of a family.

“I bend and drink the lonely down.”

            Until the Levee, Joy Williams

This lyric is still really interesting, but in a different way. Still has a kind of agency, because it’s a deliberate action that she’s taking, both in bending and in choosing it sip on that lonely.

Lonely as a drinkable, physical thing is a nice rumination, because then it seems like something she might have more physical control over, and it ties in with the water metaphor of the whole song (like the recurring levee and the beginning line “ghost out on the water”).

It also seems to create a more positive message with the song overall when it ties in to that extended water metaphor. If the levee is holding back the water, as levees do, and the water is where her emotions are, it means she’s hanging out in the feelings (which also ties in neatly with “stand here in the ache” from the chorus) and that when that levee breaks, there could be a kind of release for her.
Lyric section ends now! Here there be spoilers, all the way through the end of the post. To reiterate, there is one line from Shadow Scale, by Rachel Hartman, and two from The Copper Gauntlet, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare.

 

“Josquin polished my words in translation, laying them at Baroneta Do Lire’s feet like gleaming jewels.”

Shadow Scale, 87, Rachel Hartman

This reinforces the bowed stance of the protagonists before Baroneta Do Lire, and creates a consistent metaphor. Words are gifts here, and words can gleam.

 

 

“He was starting to worry that there weren’t any good guys. Just people with longer or shorter evil overlord lists.”

The Copper Gauntlet, 171, Holly Black and Cassandra Clare
This is really nice because it references his current state of concerns and simultaneously reflects on the world around him. It’s a very protagonist-growth moment, and it’s hilarious, and it feels sincere.

 

 

“So that had been his first kiss. It had been…soft?”

The Copper Gauntlet, 260, Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

His dazed confusion is really entertaining. Also, the construction echoes the confusion well, and it feels the way that kind of first experience feels – it feels like “Well, okay, a kiss is happening now.”

Seven Poems for the Sins: One

I found this prompt through PROMPTUARIUM, from thesolitarywordsmith. The idea is to write a poem for each of the seven deadly sins (Lust, Greed, Wrath, Sloth, Gluttony, Envy, and Pride) without naming the sin. I don’t consider myself much of a poetry writer, but I thought this would be a fun exercise, so I’ll be posting them up periodically. This is the first one.

Commonplace book for March coming tomorrow!

If you want to see the original prompt, you can find it here:
https://promptuarium.wordpress.com/2015/06/05/seven-sins/

One

Breathe.
Don’t bite.
Stuff it down,
Out of sight.

Breathe –
Nails bite.
Fists open,
or ache tight.

Smile.
They all watch
But can’t know
The rapid painful beat –
Your stinging blood flow.

Smile –
Find kindness.
We all know
We’re not our worst day
Be soft and be slow.

No.

Scream.
Scream it raw –
Scream it bloody –
How it festered
in the body –

Scream –
Set it free
With brutal force.
A toxic burden
No longer yours.

Commonplace Books!

What is a commonplace book, you ask?

Once upon a time, when there was no internet and when books were far too expensive for most people to own, people had commonplace books to record the things they liked or needed to know, so they would always have access to it. It’s basically a quick-reference notebook filled with the things you want it to be filled with, in whatever format works for you.

Now, I have the luxury of both access to the internet and a collection of books that I enjoy, but I still find keeping a commonplace book helpful for a few reasons.

My commonplace book is comprised mostly of sentences that I like from books that I’m reading, but I also sometimes take note of lyrics or lines from a show. Usually I jot down a few notes about why I liked it or what it made me think of – some kind of quick analysis.

For me, the pieces that demand to be recorded in my commonplace book are the ones that are really strong in sentence structure – I think the sentences that sound beautiful. This kind of thing is really helpful in determining the style that want to achieve in my own writing. It also helps me understand the things I’m reading (or whichever verb is applicable for the medium) on a deeper and more satisfying level.

Besides, with a commonplace book, I’m much less likely to try to tell someone about something I read that sang in my heart, and then garble up the conversation by completely forgetting what the thing was. I remember better when I write it down, and if I still manage to forget, I have it written down (although that second part only works if you take it with you everywhere you go).

Sometimes I do write down things I disliked or think could be done better, just to see if I can do it in a way that I like more, or so that I can pore over it later and grumble about it again to some passerby.

And soon, that passerby could be you! Because I am going to be typing up and posting pieces of my commonplace book at the end of each month from here on out. Only, I will not be only grumbling, but also praising. Mostly praising, in fact.

I will say that if you decide to keep your own commonplace book, you might want to stick to the handwritten kind. Mine is handwritten too, partly because I like to write with pens in actual notebooks, but also because SCIENCE says that your brain tends to retain handwritten information better than not-handwritten information (this is something I learned from my teachers at my university, but admittedly, I haven’t done much research into the subject myself). It’s also really satisfying to be able to look through the paper copy of my commonplace book, and do things like change up the colors of my pens and whatnot. Finally, you can use it to show how nerdy and archaic you are.

Writing Your Thesis

So today I’m going to talk a bit about writing an essay. In particular, I’ll be talking about the thesis: what it is and what it is not. This is going to be in relation to theses on literature, though, so if you’re trying to figure out your psychology thesis, I’m probably not going to be much help to you (although my expertise in psychology theses is so limited that I can’t actually be sure).

If you’re anything like me, the hardest part of writing an essay is the thesis. Throughout my literature classes, I had the continual issue of not knowing if my thesis was going to be strong enough for my teacher, but once I had one, it was usually easy enough to find the evidence to make a strong argument.

Your entire paper is going to revolve around proving that your thesis makes sense. If you don’t have a strong thesis, or even a strong idea of what it should be, your paper is likely going to be confusing and rambling and in general, not very good.

So then, a thesis is: an argument about a piece of literature.

In a smaller paper (let’s say up to five pages or so) your thesis is most likely going to be a single sentence. My guess is that most of the people trying to figure out how to write a thesis are going to be looking for the small one – you probably didn’t get to multi-sentence thesis level (late Bachelor’s degree and on, probably) without knowing what a thesis is to begin with.

Depending on the style of essay you’ve been instructed to write, a teacher is probably going to look for your thesis near the end of the introduction paragraph. I’ll probably talk more about introductions and the like later, but for now, try to keep in mind that you don’t want your thesis to come out of the blue – try to build up to it so it’s nice and cohesive in that introduction.

Now, back to that definition. A thesis needs to be an argument, and that means that somebody needs to be able to argue back against it. You need to make a claim about what you’ve read, and then back that claim up with evidence. It something that you figure out from the book that is usually not obviously stated. You’re arguing what you think the piece is arguing. You are claiming that the literature you are discussing means a certain thing, or is doing a certain thing.

 

A thesis is therefore NOT summary or description of the piece. Here are a few examples or theses vs not-theses.

NOT A THESIS: Harry Potter is an orphan who goes to a school for wizards.

Because: This is just a fact. You can include it in your essay as some kind of groundwork for what you plan to argue, but it isn’t going to be your thesis.

ALSO NOT A THESIS: Harry Potter is young woman with the ability to talk to birds.

Because: This is obviously not true. Yes, someone can disagree with it, but it is going to be extremely difficult (probably impossible?) to back this up with evidence in the rest of your essay. Also, this is a bit surface-level.

STILL NOT REALLY A THESIS: Harry Potter’s experiences at Hogwarts are actually a coma/fever dream/coping mechanism for child abuse.

Because: Alright, so this one is actually an argument, and that’s a great start. The problem with this statement is that it’s not making a claim about what the piece of literature is arguing. Instead, it’s tackling a surface-level issue (setting, basically) and claiming that the setting is actually a metaphor for a different setting. Interesting and worth discussion? Yes. A thesis? Not really.

A THESIS: Harry Potter’s experiences at Hogwarts are actually a coma dream, suggesting that the most powerful experiences are the ones that happen in the mind.

Because: That second part is where the magic happens, because now the statement is claiming that a particular aspect of the piece (in this case, the coma dream metaphor) creates the overall argument that the most powerful experiences are mental ones.

ALSO A THESIS: Harry Potter ultimately demonstrates that the struggles of the physical are secondary to the imaginative triumphs of the mind.

Because: This is basically that other thesis again, but now it’s a little more general. This might be better, if you want to gather a whole slew of various types of evidence. This thesis also narrows in more neatly on the actual argument, instead of sticking it at the end of the statement as a dependent clause. This thesis is probably better, unless your goal is to specifically zero in on the way a very particular mechanic of your piece is functioning to serve the argument.

Now that you’ve had a few examples, I’m going to give you…a few more examples. These ones are not going to be wizard-related, though, so if you’re not interested in that, these might be more helpful or relatable.

NOT A THESIS: Romeo and Juliet is about a pair of star-crossed lovers.

Because: This is summary again. Everyone already knows this.

A RATHER BASIC THESIS: Romeo and Juliet shows us that even the trust love can be torn apart by hatred and refusal to change.

Because: This one makes a claim about what the narrative action means. I’m not saying this is a particularly good thesis (kind of foolish of me to try to use anything Shakespeare as an example, really) but hopefully it gives you an idea.

This example maybe suggests spoilers for John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, so if you don’t want that, wander your attention away for a bit.

NOT A THESIS: Cancer is a troublesome and heartbreaking disease that we need to find a cure for.

Because: There are a few problems here. First, the piece that the thesis is about is not even mentioned at all, so the statement would have a hard time referring to the argument of the novel. Second, this is both vague and rather obvious. Third, again, pretty much everyone already knows this.

A THESIS: Hazel’s relationship with Augustus demonstrates that love can be flawed, agonizing, and uncertain, and that even in light of those things, it is still love.

Because: Arguing happens here. The main issue I have with this one is that it is a bit vague and broad; I would probably spend more time tightening it up if I was going to write an essay around it.

 

So I don’t think that I actually ended up spoiling much up there, but just in case: Spoilers end here.

 

So, if I’ve done everything right, you now have a solid idea as to what a thesis is! Use your new powers wisely.

This was the first of what will probably be a small series about essays and their components. If you liked it or found it helpful or are procrastinating actually writing an essay, please come on back to get more lessons/more procrastination!