Paraprosdokians – A New Look at an Old Technique

by Janis Patterson

As some of you may know, I’m on my way out of the country for my Very Big Vacation… which I’ll be writing about in my new newsletter when I come home. If you’re interested, you can subscribe from my website. However – I didn’t want to neglect this blog or you, so here is an essay I did several years ago and which I still quite like!

I’ll admit, I didn’t know what a paraprosdokian was until a friend sent me a list of them. She’s always sending me jokes and funnies and, I’ll admit, I laughed heartily on reading them. Then the writing brain took over (doesn’t it always?) and I read them again, finally realizing that they were a lesson all in themselves.

By definition, a paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part. It is frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect. Here are a few of the best ones :

— I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn’t work that way, so I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.

— I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather. Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.

— To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.

— A bus station is where a bus stops. A railway station is where a train stops. My desk is a work station.

— You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive more than once.

— The voices in my head may not be real, but they have some good ideas.

— To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.

— Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

You see what I mean? Each starts out with a statement that gives you an idea – then the second part puts an entirely new spin on the idea, usually turning your perception of it 90 degrees in a different direction. In other words, a turning point.

In real life, with real people, I’ll bet that most of us like a smooth stream – learn, meet, love, prosper, happy every after with no catastrophes or dead bodies or evil villains or whatnot. Such a progression is comforting and happy – and boring, at least from a story point of view. In our books, whether mystery or sci-fi or romance or whatever, we love to torture our characters and that is best done by surprise and change.

The character we trust turns out to be the villain. The safe house isn’t. The clue that proves the hero innocent is false. (See where I’m going?) A single incident pops up and suddenly the entire story is careening off in a different direction. Could we call these ‘plot paraprosdokians?’ Sure – if we can remember that tongue twister of a word! (You’re on your own there.)

Sometimes these plot twists can happen in a single sentence. Or paragraph. Or, in some rare cases, a chapter or more. It depends, as so much does, on the style of the writer and on the story itself, But they must happen, or your story becomes a sweet, linear telling of events that have no excitement, no challenge, and very probably no real interest.

For example, Bob comes home from work and finds a dead body lying in his driveway. He calls the police. The police find he has nothing to do with the body. Bob goes on and lives his life. Snoooooooze! Even though, if I were Bob, that’s what I’d want to happen in real life, but it makes for a boring and unsellable story.

By contrast, Bob comes home from work and finds a dead body lying in his driveway. The body is that of a fraternity brother from his college days, one who ostensibly died in a frat house fire years before. Also, unbeknownst to Bob, the body was Bob’s new wife’s brother.

See? You can go on and on, turning each plot twist in on itself, each time giving your story more depth and complexity, as well as more danger and higher stakes for your protagonist.

Deepen your plotting – become a practicing paraprosdokianist. I think I just broke my spell-check. Whether you can spell it or not, though it works. Give it a try.

Life and Other Troubles

by Janis Patterson

I almost forgot this blog post. Then when I remembered it was due I almost blew it off. Almost. Such an action was tempting but having been trained in professional journalist ethics by my father totally impossible. One simply does not do something like that – he would have risen from his grave and gibbered at me. I was taught early (like around nine or ten, when I first started working in the family agency) that there was just one acceptable excuse for missing a deadline. Death. Yours.

I’ve probably told you that before, and since it is such an integral part of my blood, bone and genetics, will probably tell you again in the future.

However, that does not mean life does not get in the way. After returning from a very intense conference held across the country from us, wrestling with the Book That Will Not Die (and which is due 1 September), working to get my new newsletter set up, working with my producer to get new episodes in the can and revivify my unfortunately moribund YouTube channel (which will probably debut in late October), dealing with the most exhausting illness a wife can have to deal with in her husband (the dreaded Man Cold), trying to get at least half a dozen books ready for release/re-release (yes, I’ve been disgracefully lazy) and prepping for a Very Big Trip it’s small wonder that this column is somewhat disjointed.

I would really rather talk about our Very Big Trip, but for various reasons can’t at the moment. Suffice it to say that it is a working trip for me (research for a new book, and probably more than one), multi-continental and probably very physically taxing. Sadly, I am now of an age when physically taxing is much more of a problem than it was in previous decades.

So even though I can’t tell you about our Very Big Trip now, I will be making detailed notes every day (even got a new travel computer – a used MacAir – to take with me just for that purpose) and promise to tell all in the first edition of my new newsletter. You can subscribe either by going to my website or by going to https://bit.ly/jsmnews – either way I’ll give you your choice of a mystery short story or a short romance novella – and you’ll get the entire story of our Very Big Trip as well as a schedule for new releases.

So now I must either return to the fray with The Book That Will Not Die or keep going through my closet to see if I can assemble a wardrobe suitable for the trip without having to go shopping. Unfortunately, I do have to go look for good hiking boots. My old ones are sadly indestructible, but too heavy for all-day comfortable wear. I did order some pink ones, but while they are cute I’m beginning to think they just aren’t right for the trip. Decisions, decisions…

I have decided that for the moment I will work on The Book That Will Not Die. The characters are behaving very badly and not doing anything I tell them. I can deal with a sick husband, and an upcoming Very Big Trip, and a superannuated dishwasher which is on the cusp of having a breakdown (if it doesn’t give me one first!), but my father’s child cannot take the insult of misbehaving characters. Authority must be maintained!

I will let you know what happens.

Balancing Balls and Weather Machines – A Look at Setting


by Janis Patterson


The temperature has been in triple digits for the last week or so, but in the wee hours of the morning it does fall to the low 90s…


And here I am, wrapped in furs in the middle of a snowstorm. Sadly, it’s only in my mind, as I am working madly to meet the deadline for my Christmas anthology novella. It’s hard to keep one’s mind on snow and cold and greenery and holly berries and sleigh rides when in spite of air conditioning and skimpy sundresses there is sweat dripping from the tip of your nose.
However – I have been complimented about how real and evocative of time and place my previous Christmas novella anthologies have been, and they were written under similar unseasonable (for the work) circumstances, so I guess I’ve been doing something right.


But isn’t that the job of a writer? To create a world into which the reader can immerse themselves, feeling, seeing, knowing what the characters feel? To transport the reader into that world?
Writers are creators of worlds, whether that world is a snowbound country estate, a shack beside the cool orange seas of a distant planet, a year distant in either the past or the future, or even the here and now of our own home street. And it is our job to take the reader there.


So how does one do it? That varies; if it is a here-and-now story set in a pleasant American suburb, that is something to which most readers can relate without too much exposition or world building, even if they do not now nor have ever lived in one. On the other hand, if the story is set on a distant star, where gravity is minimal and the three orbiting suns insure that darkness is an unknown concept, the writer has to do more spadework in creating this world. Same if the story takes place in a great stone castle in the Dark Ages; most people have at least seen pictures of castles, but have little to no knowledge of the socio-political-religious attitudes/beliefs which not are only reflective of the time but which formed the society and belief systems of the time.


Another thing that writers must be aware of is that once they have created this world – be it tidy American suburb, distant star or long-past history – they must be true to it both in construction and action. For example, there is no way I could believably have the characters in my Christmas novella go out and sunbathe in between snow flurries. If my story were set in the distant future where the weather was controlled and there were strict time systems for each variety of weather, it could be perfectly believable that my characters could turn off the snow, set the sun to ‘melt’ and then go out for a nice long sunbath… as long as I had set this part of my world up correctly.
And the final thing to remember is once your world is built and works and you are sure you will have no trouble in maintaining this soap bubble of belief, you must craft a story – a good story – that will fit into the strictures of these parameters and profit from an interaction with them.


Taken like that, the prospect of writing a novel becomes both overwhelming and terrifying, all too often leaving the poor writer feeling like a trick seal who must balance eight or ten balls on its nose. It’s a wonder anyone ever writes.

A Room of One’s Own

by Janis Patterson


I belong to a number of writers’ groups, some of which – at long last! – are starting to meet in person again. The particular group of which I speak is composed of all kinds of writers from working professional to stark-beginner aspirant, and was finally having a real meeting after two years of Zoom-ing. The conversation level was astounding as we all talked full speed full volume catching each other up on what had happened since our last real gathering. (As good as Zoom is for the meat of meetings, it is not up to personal interaction and exchange!)


One woman, who had joined the group only a few meetings before the shutdown, was holding forth, proudly showing photos of her new office. She had acquired one of those monstrous L-shaped desks that can eat half a room. It was festooned with several shelves of reference books, plaques of inspiring quotes, beautiful pictures, a few lovely little objets d’art and even a gorgeous silver vase of fresh flowers. A large brand new Mac computer took pride of place in the typing area and – to the envy of my uncertain back – a new, bright red X-Chair sat in front of it. I will it admit, it took a great amount of discipline not to drool openly over that.


“Now,” she concluded with pride after finishing a highly descriptive virtual tour, “I can be a professional writer.”


Huh?


When pressed for an explanation she said, “Well, one has to have a professional office in order to be a professional, doesn’t one?”


The eyeblinks in the room were almost deafening.


“It’s lovely,” someone said. “It must make writing so much easier. How many books have you done?”


“None yet.”


Double huh?


When The Husband and I inherited our house, we turned the guest bedroom into my office by the simple expedient of adding a small desk and a cheap office chair. Even though I have been publishing for decades I had never had a real office before and it was heavenly. For a number of family reasons, though, it ceased to be an option and I moved my writing center onto a table in the family room, a room shared with our animals, the TV and a newly retired husband. My output did not drop, though – at least, not significantly and not for long. I know a prolific multi-published novelist who writes at the dining room table, and another who has a card table squashed into the corner of her bedroom. There was one who turned the built-in bar in their home into her office and another who has a day job stays late every night for an hour and a half or so to write simply because she cannot write in the chaos of her home. In fact, I know more professional writers who do not have dedicated offices than those lucky few who do.


“You mean you haven’t written anything?” another asked incredulously. “It’s been two years since we last met.”


She looked offended. “How,” she replied only a little huffily, “could I have written anything? It was only delivered last week.”


There was nothing any of us could say to that. We separated into other conversational groups, metaphorically if not physically shaking our heads. This woman had had two years of what basically amounted to house arrest (she does not have a day job) and while many of us had taken advantage of the enforced lack of external activities time to write even more apparently she hadn’t written at all. I myself wrote 1 ½ more books than I would have normally done in that time span, and many of my professional writer friends did even more.


This woman had obviously spent her time poring over design magazines and websites. Now, she proudly proclaims to anyone she can get to listen, since she has a professional office she is a professional writer.


Hey, lady, professional writers WRITE. We write in dens and dining rooms. We write while waiting at the garage and in line waiting to pick up children from school. We have been known to scribble facts and ideas and scraps of dialogue on paper napkins while at lunch. Some of us even write on our phones wherever we happen to be.


I am not a total grinch. Her office is lovely (how I do truly envy her that red X-Chair!) and I wish her much joy in it. It will not, however, make her a professional or any other kind of writer except a wannabe. Only writing and selling makes a true professional. The agents/editors/publishers/readers won’t give a flip if she writes on a huge L-shaped desk or a card table. What matters to them is the story, the words, the worlds she creates… and you can’t order them from any design house.

Conformity – Celebration or Curse?

by Janis Patterson

There is a plague spreading through my neighborhood and no, I don’t mean the recent Covid Crazies. This new assault is visible, concrete and sublimely ugly. I live in a nice, mid-century development of nice, middle-class custom homes, mostly single story and at one time all of natural brick. The different hues and shadings of the different bricks were beautiful, and one of the most appealing facets of the area. A former cotton field, this was starkly bare land when my parents first built this home, but as people moved in they planted trees and now we live in a forest of towering trees, mainly oaks and crepe myrtles, some twice as tall as the houses they shelter.

But that is changing, and not for the better. The soaring price of real estate and congruent punishing taxes has priced a lot of the old residents out of their homes, many of which have been snapped up by developers and flippers. (My thoughts on these two categories of humanoids are not suitable for public pixilation!) Sadly, the result is that our neighborhood is subject to both the denigration and degradation of conformity, and the lovely old brick is being covered by thick layers of paint with no shading, no personality and definitely no taste.

Painted almost exclusively a dead flat white or a dark, depressing grey, these once beautiful and individual homes now resemble nothing so much as the love child of Soviet brutalist architecture and a rogue box of Legos. In the setting of gracious old trees and carefully tended gardens the result is not only ugly but jarringly distressing.

One of the flippers proudly said the painted brick trend was new, modern and made a more cohesive neighborhood. He then asked me what I thought of his newly decorated grey lump, whereupon I asked him did he mean other than the fact it was hideous? Hmmm… even in this riotous real estate market the painted brick houses seem to be moving more slowly than the traditional brick. Perhaps the concept of good taste may be taking a beating, but is not yet truly dead.

So, you are doubtless thinking, has this woman lost her mind? What does this have to do with writing?

I fully believe there is such a thing as synchronicity amongst human beings. Bringing individual architecture (and remember, this is a neighborhood of custom-custom houses, each individually designed and built) into a fast (and relatively cheap) homogeneity in order to appeal to the (theoretically) vastest amount of people is a form of seeking the lowest common denominator with no thought or regard for individual tastes. The same thing happened in publishing.

Remember before the tsunami of self-publishing became practicable? Remember the pigeonholes of genre fiction? The ever-tightening pigeonholes as dictated by traditional publishing? If you didn’t write to their exact specifications you didn’t get contracted. They always wanted (and I quote) “… the same as (insert name of currently popular author here) but different…” Forget creativity. Forget individuality. Conformity at all costs. I can remember when some publishers even put out tip sheets, dictating what should happen in a manuscript almost to the exact page.

Now I understand that traditional publishers have to make a profit – that is right and natural – but don’t the readers have rights as well, mainly the right to read whatever permutation of fiction they want? If the trads dictated that Regency romance is to be super-sexy with only the barest nod of the head to history, what happens to the reader who finds written sex boring and is fanatic about historical accuracy? Or vice-versa? What about in mysteries the dictum that a dead body should appear in the first chapter, the closer to the first page the better?

Thus self-publishing was born, and thank God for it! It has freed writers to write what they want and get it before the public, and given readers to find the exact kind of book/genre they want. Sexy psychic vampire nuns on the planet Zeon, anyone?

Yet a certain conformity has crept in there, too, as more and more writers write to market. If talking cats who live in a needlework shop and solve crimes with their telekinetic powers are suddenly big, there are star-chasing writers who will writer them, often with widely varying degrees of both success and ability. At least there will always be variety, no matter if some constantly try to write to market without regard as to if the market is right for them or not.

Also the indie author is getting shafted by more and more pirates/thieves and are even getting short shrift from the sales outlets which make money from their sales. Amazon has a monthly subscription program for readers called Kindle Unlimited, which it pushes far more than books that are ‘wide’ – i.e., available from other retailers. A self-published book written by an unknown can be so far down in the algorithms that even with a search for the exact title and author you might have to go 10 or 15 pages in to find it.

For a self-published author to be in KU they must be totally exclusive to KU, and woe betide any lone outlet which has been neglected to be removed by any retailer, no matter how small, distant or obscure. The writer will have that book pulled instantly from KU and even runs the risk of having his entire account and all his books cancelled.

Nor does it stop there. Unfairly, traditional publishers can put a book into KU even while keeping the title wide. Here conformity only seems to affect the independents. There are also pricing/payment options available to the trads that are denied to self-publishers. I cannot help but wonder if the trad books on Amazon are as plagued by the buy, read, return, refund plague which afflicts self-published books – and their authors’ incomes,  but that is a rant for another day.

We have come a long way from the tastelessness of painted brick to the pitfalls and traps of self-publishing, but it is all part and parcel of the curse of conformity which seems to be infecting our land. America was founded on the right to individuality and self-responsibility, be it business, bricks or reading material. Celebrate this by supporting your courageous and dedicated self-publishers. Go buy one of their books today. You’ll enjoy it.