Friday, March 8

Handy Guides To Avoiding Mistakes In Grammar

Handy Guides To Avoiding Mistakes In Grammar

I don't usually blog about grammar--I'll leave that to the professionals--but today I came across these guides that I thought were well written and easy to understand.

Avoiding Common Mistakes

The first guide to grammar is called Avoiding Common Grammar Mistakes and was written for students at George Mason University. Here is a sample:
Comma splices
A comma splice is where a comma is used to join two independent clauses which should be separated by a period. An independent clause can stand on its own as a sentence. Do not simply use a comma everywhere a reader would pause.

Subject/pronoun disagreement
There are two types of subject/pronoun disagreement, shifts in number and shifts in person.
Shifts in number
This phrase means the shifting between singular and plural in the same sentence. Be consistent.

Shifts in person
This error occurs when the person shifts within the sentence from first to second person, from second to third person, etc.
"Its" is the possessive form of "it." "It's" is the contraction of "it is." They are not interchangeable.
.  .  .  .
Dropped commas around clauses
Place commas around words, phrases, or clauses that interrupt a sentence. Do not use commas around restrictive clauses, which provide essential information about the subject of the sentence.
Interrupting clause
This clause or phrase interrupts a sentence, such as "however." Place a comma on either side of the interrupting clause.

Restrictive clause
This clause or phrase provides essential information about the subject of the sentence. Without this clause or phrase, the meaning of the sentence changes.

Non-restrictive clause
This clause or phrase modifies the subject of the sentence but does not change the meaning of the sentence if left out.
Here are a few examples of restrictive and non-restrictive clauses.

Grammatical, Mechanical & Stylistic Problems And How To Fix Them

This handy-dandy guide to English grammar was compiled by Professor David Beach:
Use "who" when it can be replaced by a subject proper noun, and "whom" when it can be replaced by an object proper noun.
John kissed Mary. John = subject, Mary = object Whom did John kiss? Who kissed Mary?

Dmitri gave the book to Phyllis. To whom did Dmitri give the book? Who gave the book to Phyllis?

I've been testing out Grammarly and I'm curious whether any of you have used the program. If so, did you find it useful?

What was the most useful grammar tip you've ever received?

Other articles you might like:

- Beware Alibi Publishing, John Scalzi Warns: "This is the worst book contract I have ever encountered"
- Amanda Palmer's TED Talk: The Art Of Asking
- Stephen King Board On Jeopardy Tonight (March 5, 2013)

Photo credit: "jack johnson:while we wait (sleep through the static)" by visualpanic under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, March 7

Beware Alibi Publishing, John Scalzi Warns: "This is the worst book contract I have ever encountered"

In John Scalzi's latest blog post, A Contract From Alibi, he writes that Alibi's contract terms are so heinous he wouldn't recommend them to his worst enemy.

John Scalzi: Do Not Sign With Alibi

At least, do not sign the their standard, boilerplate contract. Scalzi writes:
I want to be clear: I can say, without reservation, that this is the worst book contract I have ever personally encountered. Not only would I never sign it — which should be obvious at this point — I can’t imagine why anyone whose forebrain has not been staved in by an errant bowling ball would ever sign it. Indeed, if my worst enemy in the world was presented with it and had a pen poised to scratch his signature on it, I would smack the pen out of his hand and say to him, “I hate you, but I don’t hate you this much.”
Alibi is a digital imprint of the Random House Publishing Group.

In his article John Scalzi steps through some of the more egregious sections of the contract and, colorfully and with wit, tells authors why they should run, not walk, away from this company.

John Scalzi is best known for writing science fiction, for which "he won the John W. Campbell Award (2006) and has been nominated for the Hugo Award for best novel (2006, 2008, 2009). (Amazon Author's Page)"

If you're thinking about submitting work to any of the new digital imprints (Loveswept, Alibi, Hydra, Flirt) A Contract From Alibi is a must read. Heck, even if you're not thinking about submitting to them, it's good to know what to look out for in the industry.

Thanks to Dean Wesley Smith for blogging about this. Here is a link to Dean's post: Another Bad Publishing Contract.

Other articles you might like:

- Amanda Palmer's TED Talk: The Art Of Asking
- Moby Dick And Amazon One Star Reviews

Photo credit: "Dream" by seyed mostafa zamani under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, March 6

Amanda Palmer's TED Talk: The Art Of Asking

I just watched Amanda Palmer's TED Talk, The Art of Asking (I've embedded it below): Wow!

Amanda Palmer is an exceptional speaker; it was one of the most moving talks I've seen. Although Neil Gaiman, her husband, is biased I loved his reaction:
I am so proud of her. Really: I've never been happier than when I watched her get a standing ovation, and watching this video go viral is an absolute joy.
.  .  .  .
The people who came up and congratulated her over the next few days were people you've heard of, the ones who make the world different.

And when someone came up to me that afternoon and said "You must be Mr Palmer", I said, Yes, I supposed I must be, and I beamed like a madman.

Watch the speech.
Yes, watch the speech if you haven't already. Or even if you have!

The Art of Asking

I need to watch The Art of Asking a few more times; I'd love to read the transcript as well. Asking is something I have trouble with, I hear those shouts of, "Get a job!" too.

Writers kid and say, "If I didn't write I'd have to get a real job!" Perhaps it sometimes doesn't feel like work because we're doing something we love, or because anything you can do in your pajamas can't really be work.

But that's not the way to look at it.

Watch Amanda Palmer's TED talk. She's not just talking about the art of asking she's talking about a new way of thinking about the relationship--and it is a relationship--between artists and patrons.

What did you think of Amanda Palmer's TED Talk? What did you think about Amanda letting anyone download her music and trusting that her patrons will leave a donation?

Other articles you might like:

- Stephen King Board On Jeopardy Tonight (March 5, 2013)
- Cometdocs: A Good Tool For Writers?
- Moby Dick And Amazon One Star Reviews

Photo credit: "Regardless of how silly I look,I adore this photo." by Zawezome under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, March 5

Stephen King Board On Jeopardy Tonight (March 5, 2013)

Stephen King Board On Jeopardy Tonight (March 5, 2013)

This just popped into my mailbox. From Stephen King's official newsletter:
Tonight's episode of Jeopardy will feature a complete board of questions related to Stephen and his body of work. Be sure to tune in, and visit ourMultimedia section later this week.

Clickhere to find your local channel and time
I gave up TV a few months ago, but that's something I wish I could see!

Cometdocs: A Good Tool For Writers?

Cometdocs: A Good Tool For Writers?

Ever had to convert one kind of a file into another? If your experience was anything like mine it wasn't painless.

Recently a website that provides free online file conversion and storage, Cometdocs, contacted me about doing a review of their product so I asked C.G. Cameron, writer and techie extraordinaire, to help me out. Here's the bottom line:
The restrictions on the free account aren’t too tight, and the paid accounts show where their funding comes from, which I find reassuring. (I don’t trust places where I can’t see what’s in it for them.) This looks like a usable business model and a useful service.
Sounds good to me! (By the way, neither C.G. Cameron nor myself have any affiliation with Cometdocs. I was provided with access to their service for the purpose of this review but that is the full extent of my involvement with them.)

Here is C.G.'s review:

C.G. Cameron's Review Of Cometdocs

Cometdocs is a place on the web which lets you store and/or convert your files for free (with limitations). Or in tech-speak, it’s a cloud storage service that also offers file conversions.

In their words:
Cometdocs (is) a fully free (no ads) document management web tool which lets users:

1. Convert their files between 30 possible file formats
2. Store files online
3. Share them with friends privately or publicly – with full control over
privacy and sharing settings
4. Transfer large files to others easily and effectively.
If you’ve ever lost the original of a paper and desperately needed to get the sole version you still have on pdf back into an editable format, you know it can be a challenge.

If you don’t set up an account and just use Cometdocs anonymously (aside from giving them an email address), they deliver your conversion via an emailed link, saying “Link will be valid for 24 hours, after which all data will be deleted from our servers.” If you set up an account, you can have it held for longer.

How it works:

Click the + and add your file to the clipboard. Wait while it uploads. Click on the task you want, Convert, Transfer, Store or Host, and drag the file into the box. Then choose the next option (in the case of Convert you have a choice of any Office product, plus TXT, most graphic formats, plus DXF, ODS, etc. Then enter your email address and they send you a link to download the converted file.

So I tested Cometdocs with the most complicated document I had available, written in three languages. The original was created on a friend’s PC in Word. My Mac has the same English and some of the Tibetan fonts installed, but not the Chinese font he uses although it has the default Microsoft Chinese fonts. He sent me the original Word and the pdf he’d created, and I used Cometdocs to convert the pdf back into MS Word and then compared the results.

Original PC Word document on my Mac:

The Chinese came up on my Mac as gibberish, and some of the diacriticals were missing on the Tibetan. Over all I could read the English and some of the Tibetan. The pecha boxing came through a mess, as usual. Word’s page margins don’t move well between Macs and PCs. Definitely it was not adequate for anything except extracting the English from the document.

Cometdocs Word document after converting the pdf

Cometdocs recognized most of the Chinese and displayed it using the installed Windows Chinese font. Cometdocs missed several characters, but showed more than half successfully. Probably if the pdf had used the standard Microsoft font Cometdocs would have recognized more. Cometdocs completely failed to recognize the Tibetan. Not at all surprising. It also didn’t catch all the diacriticals in the English, so a capital U with umlaut came up as < instead, and a capital U with a line across the top came up as U umlaut. But it did catch the italics and the punctuation and mostly got the right font in the English as well. It did a good job on the pecha boxing, better than the straight migrated version.

It was a difficult test and I was impressed with the results.

But that’s not all. There’s also the cloud storage.

Transfer lets you send a file to a friend by storing it on Cometdocs’ servers and they’ll send a link to the friend so they can download it. Handy if you have a home video you want to share.

You can also share your files publicly, somewhat like Flickr does photos, or list them as Shared or Private. It’s cloud storage space but without file type restrictions like Google Docs has.

For someone without easy access to their own web server space, this could be very handy.

What you get with a free account

Free users can do:
- 3 conversions weekly per IP address
- 100 MB worth of daily file transfers per IP
- transfer and host links are valid for 24h
Free registered accounts can do much more including control sharing visibility and store up to 1GB of documents. And you can pay either $9.99 a month for Premium or $19.99 a month for Pro access to convert more files and store more files. The restrictions on the free account aren’t too tight, and the paid accounts show where their funding comes from, which I find reassuring. (I don’t trust places where I can’t see what’s in it for them.) This looks like a usable business model and a useful service.

C.G. Cameron (@jazz2midnight) is a web developer and writer, living in Vancouver, Canada.

Thanks C.G.!

How much of your time is spent trying to get technology to work as opposed to actually writing?

Other articles you might like:

- Moby Dick And Amazon One Star Reviews
- The Writer's Journey: Writer As Hero
- Hugo Gernsback And The Future That Might Have Been

Photo credit: "It's all in your mind" by

Monday, March 4

Moby Dick And Amazon One Star Reviews

Moby Dick And Amazon One Star Reviews

What would I do without The Passive Voice Blog? I shudder to think! Passive Guy (aka David P. Vandagriff) tweets the best, most interesting stories.

Stories such as ...

Did you know Moby Dick--a treasure of world literature--has garnered many one star reviews on Amazon?

The following is from bibliokept: Selections From One-Star Amazon Reviews of Melville's Moby-Dick, thanks to Passive Guy for the link. (By the way, I found the original reviews on and expanded the quotations used for the article.)

One Star Reviews Of Herman Melville's Moby Dick

Title: Incredible story. What a lousy writer. Name: A Customer
4 of 22 people found the following review helpful
When I think of anyone being FORCED to read this novel (poor students, whereever you are) I want to fall on a harpoon. Ray Bradbury, who wrote the screenplay for this novel, (a la Gregory Peck) couldn't even finish the damn thing! He too just read bits of it ...  He recognized it's inner greatness, its actual grandeur absolutely mired in prose that makes you want to gnaw your foot off...
Title: Moby Dick: a tiresome book, Name: A Customer
1 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Moby Dick, was a horrible waiste of time. Along with its wordy paragraphs, it also talked about uninteresting issues. It is also to long, and you don't hear of them encountering the whale until the end of the book. Heres a good idea, after you read this book, go buy a vile of arsenic, drink it and you will be much happier. The only monster was the book itself. It leaves you with that, "I hate myself" feeling you get after accidentally destroying a major city with a hydrogen bomb or something, anyways, do not read it!
Title: Have trouble getting to sleep at night? Get this! 
Name: A Customer
9 of 38 people found the following review helpful  
[I]f your looking for a good book, dont read this, you will only become agitated. Such was the case with me. I am quite the fan of stories which involve man eating sea creatures, such as Jaws. Moby Dick is nothing compared to such classics, I fear.

In fact, it is boring with a capital B. What is the whales motivation? You dont know. There is no suspense, and I find the idea of people hunting whales offensive. 
Title:A tired old tale - Save the damn whales already!!!,
Name: Gracie Lou Freebush
2 of 21 people found the following review helpful  
This book is HORRIBLE! Classic, my eye! I would love to know what's so great about this book. I have seen better writing in a Hallmark card! Boring! Give me a good ole copy of Elvis and Me! A true story that really tugs at your heart strings! I sleep with that one under my pillow!

Ray Bradbury's Comments On Moby Dick

Since Moby Dick is undeniably a classic of world literature, these are deeply satisfying reviews for any author who has gotten a one star review on Amazon! Though, I should note, what the anonymous commenter says about Ray Bradbury seems to be true, though Mr. Bradbury's remark may have been due more to pique than honesty. The following is from the Wikipedia on the 1956 film Ray Bradbury collaborated on.
During a meeting to discuss the screenplay, Ray Bradbury informed John Huston that regarding Melville's novel, he had "never been able to read the damned thing". According to the biography The Bradbury Chronicles, there was much tension and anger between the two men during the making of the film, allegedly due to Huston's bullying attitude and attempts to tell Bradbury how to do his job, despite Bradbury being an accomplished writer. (Moby Dick (1956 film))

What Critics Initially Thought Of Moby Dick: Not Much

Initially Moby Dick had a rocky reception in America. It was not love at first sight. Although Melville considered Moby Dick his magnum opus the work received scathing reviews when it was first published.
He [Melville] considered Moby-Dick to be his magnum opus, but he was shocked and bewildered at the scathing reviews it received. Instead of bringing him the literary acclaim which he sought, this masterwork started a slide toward literary obscurity in his lifetime. This was partially because the book was first published in England, and the American literary establishment took note of what the English critics said, especially when these critics were attached to the more prestigious journals. Many critics praised it for its unique style, interesting characters, and poetic language, but others agreed with a critic with the highly regarded London Athenaeum, who described it as:
"[A]n ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed."
One problem was that publisher Peter Bentley botched the English edition, most significantly in omitting the epilogue. For this reason, many of the critics faulted the book, what little they could grasp of it, on purely formal grounds, e.g., how the tale could have been told if no one survived to tell it. The generally bad reviews from across the ocean made American readers skittish about picking up the tome. (Moby-Dick)
I wanted, for the sake of balance, to include 5 Star reviews of a horrible book but it seems easier to agree on what constitutes great literature than what constitutes drivel.

Any author who has received a one star review on Amazon--and I would hazard to say that practically all published authors have--take heart! You're in excellent company.

Have you ever thrown a book across the room on frustration? What book was the worst book you've ever read? What was the thing you disliked most about it?

Other articles you might like:

- The Writer's Journey: Writer As Hero
- Hugo Gernsback And The Future That Might Have Been
- Writing And The Monomyth, Part Two

Photo credit: "A Storm of Swords" by flossyflotsam under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, March 3

The Writer's Journey: Writer As Hero

I'm in the middle of writing a series on the monomyth so I couldn't resist sharing this inspirational series of blogs about the writer as hero by Martina Boone (@MartinaABoone).

The Writer's Journey: Writer As Hero

Martina, rather than writing about the hero's journey per se, talks about the journey writers travel every time we tell a tale. She writes:
[T]he other day while I was on the phone with the brilliant Angela Ackerman ... I had a revelation. The journey the hero takes in our manuscripts is essentially the same journey many of us take as writers. (The Heroic Journey of Every Writer: Part One)
So here it is, a journey where the writer is the hero and his (or her) quest is to write a story. Martina writes:


Here we are, bumbling through our careers and family lives, vaguely uneasy and unfulfilled but maybe not even aware that there's a void inside us, a gaping wound. Why haven't we written yet? It could be that we tried and failed, or that we had to get on with the business of making a living, or raising kids, or maybe we have a family who has always dismissed writing as a pointless pursuit—something everyone wants to try but only a chosen few achieve. Implying, of course, that we're not good enough. So we shelve our illicit hopes, paint on a smile, and get on with our lives not realizing that something inside is tugging us in a different direction than the path we are still trudging down.


But then . . . Then we have a dream, or read a book, or see a movie, or witness an event that shakes us. Something stirs inside us, an elusive wisp of an idea scented with adventure. It begins to rise and pull us with it, beckoning us to come along, to put our own spin on the wheel of inspiration.


Of course we refuse. We're human. We're afraid. We don't have time, we don't have money, we don’t have the knowledge to pursue something as overwhelming as writing an actual book.

Or maybe we don't refuse. Maybe we take those first tentative stops, only to hear someone else, someone who means well, who doesn't want to see us hurt or disillusioned, make the refusal for us. For our own good. Because really, the idea of writing for publication is absurd, and we shouldn't have any expectations.
Martina goes on to recount a writer's trials and tribulations, his or her conflicts, as he or she travels through each stage of the monomyth; above, I've just given you the first three.

Here are the links to Martina Boone's articles (there are two in the series):

The Heroic Journey of Every Writer: Part One
The Heroic Journey of Every Writer: Part Two

Before I end this article, here is a link that's just too good not to pass on (thanks Martina!): Plotting Made Easy--The Complications Worksheet.

By the way, Martina has a wonderfully informative blog (Adventures In YA and Children's Publishing).

Other articles you might like:

- Hugo Gernsback And The Future That Might Have Been
- Writing And The Monomyth, Part Two
- How To Communicate Setting: Establishing Shots

Photo credit: "bridging knowledge to health" by paul bica under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, March 2

Hugo Gernsback And The Future That Might Have Been

Hugo Gernsback And The Future That Might Have Been

One of my favorite short stories is The Gernsback Continuum, by William Gibson. It's about a future envisioned in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, a future filled with flying cars and robot maids (think: The Jetsons).

That future never materialized, but it's fun to think, "What if ..." What if you had your very own jet pack and could fly to work? (Just imagine that traffic jam). What if we could have robots clean the house, cook our food and manage our social media?

Hugo Gernsback embodied this future that almost was. He published the first science fiction magazine. In fact ...
[Hugo Gernsback's] contributions to the genre as publisher were so significant that, along with H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, he is sometimes popularly called "The Father of Science Fiction". In his honor, the annual Science Fiction Achievement awards are named the "Hugos". (Hugo Gernsback)
Today I had wanted to publish the third installment of my monomyth series but life intervened. Thankfully, Arthur sent me an Infographic on predictions about the future. Apparently us writerly types have done fairly well when it came to predicting the future! Take a look.

Future Predictions Timeline

Friday, March 1

Writing And The Monomyth, Part Two

Writing And The Monomyth Continued

Yesterday I began writing about what Joseph Campbell called the monomyth (see Writing And The Monomyth), although I drew more from Christopher Vogler's version of the myth than Campbell's.

Today I want to pick up where I left off and examine the final seven or so steps. (update: I only made it to the midpoint, so I'll attempt to finish off tomorrow.)

6. Tests, Allies and Enemies

The hero has just crossed the threshold from the ordinary world and has landed, probably with a few bumps and bruises, in the special world. In a screenplay this plot point would also mark the beginning of the second act. 

Blake Snyder in Save The Cat! make the point that the Special World should be as different as possible from the Ordinary World (for instance, The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Miss Congeniality). If the Ordinary World is the thesis then the Special World is the Antithesis.

Something BIG needs to happen to propel the hero (because I'm talking about the monomyth it feels natural to talk about heroes and villains rather than protagonists and antagonists) from the Ordinary World into the Special World.

The hero must enter the Special World of the adventure willingly, he can't be tricked or abducted, it must be an intentional act.

B Story

Blake Snyder makes the point that this is also the place where we start the "B Story", a subplot that, in some way, is the antithesis, the opposite, of the "A Story", the main plot. In Legally Blond this is where Elle Woods (played by Reese Witherspoon) meets Paulette (played by Jennifer Coolidge) in the beauty shop. Paulette--big and showy--stands in stark contrast to Elle's other, more reserved, friends.

The B Story is often a love story, one that echos the theme.

Fun and Games

As our hero meets some of the people in the special world and gains a few allies, makes a few enemies, we can relax a little. We can have a bit of fun as we get to know our new friends and become adapted to the strange new world

If there is a 'feel good' part of the story, it comes out here.

7. Approach to the Inmost Cave

We have almost reached the middle of the story. The hero must now become serious and prepare for the ordeal ahead of him. If your hero has a love interest there's time for one last love scene before facing the ordeal awaiting him. This is a good way, too, of making the stakes clear.

In preparation for the ordeal, the hero might try to 'think like the antagonist', to get inside his mind.

However your hero does it, he's going to have to prepare for the ordeal. Even if he is blindsided by the danger he needs to make a conscious decision that he will confront the antagonistic force, whatever it is.

At this point perhaps the hero reorganizes his party, perhaps he makes alliances with his enemies. As he gets closer to the ordeal the pressure builds and the mettle of his traveling companions--as well as his own--will be tested.

As the hero approaches the inmost cave he is beset with obstacles. Common obstacles are illusions--perhaps illusions created by threshold guardians--ominous warnings, impossible tests (I always think of the Kobayashi Maru in this context!), and so forth.

8. The Ordeal

We have reached the middle of the story and are in the midst of Act Two. The hero will confront the antagonistic force working against him and either appear to win big or lose big. Neither of these, though, will be a complete victory/defeat.

Michael Hauge calls this "the point of no return". The hero is now completely committed, there is no going back to the Ordinary World except by finishing the journey.

For instance, in The Firm at the midpoint Mitch McDeere is given a choice: go into witness protection and live in fear of being killed by the mob or spend the rest of his life in prison. Whatever happens his life has been irrevocably changed.

What needs to happen at the midpoint:

- A false peek (it all seems to go right for the hero) or a false collapse (everything seems to go wrong).

- The stakes are raised. The midpoint needs to change the whole dynamic of the story. Fun and games are over, now things become much more serious, much more intense.

The midpoint is a place of transformation, of death and resurrection.  Either here at The Midpoint or, later, on The Road Back, there is often a death, either a literal one--for instance, the hero's mentor dies--or a symbolic one. Someone could tell a story about death or, this is Blake Snyder's suggestion, show a dead flower. But there should be a hint of death, a reminder of the price the hero has had to pay for his victory.

#  #  #

Well! It seems, once again, I've underestimated how many words this would take to explain. I'm going to leave off at the midpoint--it seemed appropriate--and I'll pick up this discussion again tomorrow.

Can you think of a movie, a movie you liked, that does not follow the structure of the monomyth?

Other articles you might like:

- How To Communicate Setting: Establishing Shots
- Exposing The Bestseller: Money Can Buy Fame
- How To Edit: Kill Your Darlings

Photo link: "the army" by linh.ngan under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

How To Communicate Setting: Establishing Shots

How To Communicate Setting: Establishing Shots

C.S. Lakin has written another brilliant post, this time about establishing setting, and she starts off by making an excellent point: 
[A] novel is not a visual experience unless you make it one. ... [W]ith novels, you always want to try and show a scene through the POV character's eyes and colored by her emotions, state of mind, way of thinking.
How do you do this? With the equivalent of an establishing shot.

Create An Establishing Shot

This is from Wikipedia:
An establishing shot in filmmaking and television production sets up, or establishes the context for a scene by showing the relationship between its important figures and objects.[1] It is generally a long- or extreme-long shot at the beginning of a scene indicating where, and sometimes when, the remainder of the scene takes place. (Establishing Shot)
C.S. Lakin gives an example from Le Carré's book The Constant Gardener that I include, below, but I'll first give you one from Dean Koontz's What The Night Knows. Yes, I know, that's quite a difference in both authors and genres, but read this paragraph and tell me if you don't think it's a great establishing shot.

Dean Koontz, What The Night Knows

The state hospital stood on a hill, silhouetted against a gray and sodden sky. The September light appeared to strop a razor's edge along each skein of rain.
"... to strop a razor's edge along each skein of rain." I like that, the image of a razor, of a razor in motion, controlled motion, being sharpened, getting ready.  Dean Koontz continues:
A procession of eighty-foot purple beeches separated the inbound and the outbound lanes of the approach road. Their limbs overhung the car and collected the rain to redistribute it in thick drizzles that rapped against the windshield.

The thump of the wipers matched the slow, heavy rhythm of John Calvino's heart. He did not play the radio. The only sounds were the engine, the windshield wipers, the rain, the swish of tires turning on wet pavement, and a memory of the screams of dying women.
I'd say that sets the scene effectively. "Their limbs", "slow, heavy rhythm of John Calvino's heart", "memory of the screams of dying women". Yes, okay, it lacks some of the pure poetry of Le Carré, but, come on, that is Le Carré. He gives writers inferiority complexes.

John Le Carré, The Constant Gardener

Here's the passage C.S. Lakin quoted, and it is truly epic:
The mountain stood black against the darkening sky, and the sky was a mess of racing cloud, perverse island winds and February rain. The snake road was strewn with pebbles and red mud from the sodden hillside. Sometimes it became a tunnel of overhanging pine branches and sometimes it was a precipice with a free fall to the steaming Mediterranean a thousand feet below. He would make a turn and for no reason the sea would rise in a wall in front of him, only to fall back into the abyss as he made another. But no matter how many times he turned, the rain came straight at him, and when it struck the windscreen he felt the jeep wince under him like an old horse no longer fit for heavy pulling.  
Wow. Even just the first sentence makes me want to take a deep breath of the crisp damp air and look for my umbrella.

C.S. Lakin writes:
Look at some of the words he [Le Carré] uses: black, darkening (his quest to find answers is getting that way), perverse (that too), winds, rain, snake, sodden, tunnel, precipice . . . I don’t need to go on—you get the point. The Establishing Shot in this scene was no doubt chosen to work as a metaphor, as the reader has been watching Justin Quayle going through a similar emotional roller coaster, rising and falling into an abyss, turning one way then another, but getting nowhere fast. His task to find answers feels like he’s prodding “an old horse no longer fit for heavy pulling.” And the weight he is carrying is heavy. Powerful, right?

That’s all Le Carré needs to start the scene, and from there we move on to other camera shots revealing important plot points leading to a high moment in his scene. I won’t tell you what that is; you can read it for yourself, and I hope you do. Few writers handle words as masterfully and deliberately as does Le Carré, and he’s a great author to study for cinematic structure.
This week I'm going to do as C.S. Lakin suggests and look at the scenes in my work in progress to see whether I succeed in establishing the scene before I start in with dialogue.

All quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from C.S. Lakin's article Establishing Shots That Reveal Character.

Other articles you might like:

- Writing And The Monomyth
- Steven Pressfield Gives Writers A Pep Talk In A "Get Off Your Duff And Start Writing!" Kind Of Way
- A Pep Talk

Photo credit: "A fish's view of NYC skyscrapers" by kevin dooley under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.