A Birthday Present from Grammar

I got a great birthday card, the front of which said:

Dear people of the World,

I don’t mean to sound slutty,

But please use me whenever you want.

    Sincerely,

    Grammar

A great card on several levels.  The “use me” is so much more economical than most of the explicit things one could think of, and therefore allows for (salacious) imagination, reminding me to be careful in writing to give the reader license to create her own vision of what I describe.

Which leads to the f-word (really?).  I’m just thinking of the so-called dysphemism treadmill, in which a vulgar word becomes more and more acceptable.  Pamela Hobbs, quoted in Wikipedia, notes that usage of the f-word falls into two categories:  non-users and users.  Non-users define the word in its proud Anglo-Saxon context and therefore consider it obscene and rarely use it.  Users, on the other hand, have dissociated the word from sex and make frequent use as an intensifier, noun, adjective, adverb or verb. For them, as Hobbs says, fuck “no more evokes images of sexual intercourse than a ten-year-old’s ‘My mom’ll kill me if she finds out’ evokes images of murder.”

As a writer hoping to interest both users and non-users, my take is very, very abstemious use of the f-word (see, at my core, I’m a non-user, except when irritated).  My rationale is that users usually employ fuck in ways that add no value to the sentence (although sometimes to the meter).  None of that is useful in storytelling unless establishing a character’s unique voice.

So most of the time, I’ll go fuck-less.  Grammar, on the other hand, I shall use and use and gratefully use.

 

 

Long words

My critique groups often lean on me for using bigger words than necessary. Particularly people who read and adore Hemingway. My weak defense is accuracy: I want the reader to get an exact picture. The response is, “in well-written work, sixty percent of the reader’s vision is what the author wrote; forty percent is drawn from the reader’s own experience.” Now with several years and more than several rewrites under my belt, I understand.

So who had the twisted sense of humor to give an exact definition of ‘fear of long words’ as hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia?

The Agony of Grammar

I’ve been running into an issue in writing lately that has me stumped: grammar. Specifically, how precisely to follow grammatical rules in writing, particularly in dialog. On the one hand, John McWhorter (Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue and others) points out that the language is always in motion and often intimates that the “rules” we follow are dated. On the other hand, a shared grammar should give the most possible meaning to those words we write.

The difficulty I have is bridging the gap between real speech, which has available to it gestures and visual cues to help meaning along.  Also, because it’s thought on the fly, it includes repeats, irrelevancies and meaningless y’knows, umms, and so on, which we tolerate and edit out.

Written dialog needs to be clean and economical while sounding natural. It’s a delicate balance. I try to stay grammatical, but occasionally find my characters sounding stuffy as a result. (That’s what rewrite is for.)

Here are some I struggle with or see in my writing groups:

Bring/take: Most people seem to know the difference between transporting something toward where we are now and transporting it away. That said, common usage is collapsing to just plain “bring.” Writing needs to minimize confusion about motion. I’m sticking with the distinction.

It's LIE, dammit!

It’s LIE, dammit!

Lay/Lie: Difficult because lay is also past tense of lie. But lay is something you do to an object and lie is an action you do to yourself. (Furthercomplicated by the fact that no one is interested in getting lied or even lain.) I stick with the distinction.

Who/whom: At least in speech, few of us observe the difference. I try to rework sentences to use who, thereby getting over the speed bump of the reader trying to remember the correct application of the rule instead of following the story line.

All part of the accretion of the craft.  If you have ones that bug you, let me know.

 

 

The Value of Literature in 30 words or Less

It was a simple statement on a subject too often drowned in words:

Study of the Liberal Arts “is for developing the muscle of thoughtfulness, the use of which will be the greatest pleasure in life and will also show what it means to be fully human.”

It came from Anne Hall, a lecturer at Penn, as quoted in a New York Times column by Frank Bruni. He remembers being transfixed by her lectures on Shakespeare.  His telling took me back to my undergraduate experience, where I, too, realized the power and depth of Shakespeare because of a gifted lecturer.

These days, I am greedy for examples of good writing. I see in this short phrase the brilliance of an analogy that packs a world of meaning into a few words.  Would that we might often write with such clarity … and brevity.

Big Words

Last week, I had one of those epiphanies that come when seemingly unrelated events collide and produce insight.  In my case, three events gave me perspective my habit of (proudly) using big words.

The first was wife Beverly chuckling over a John Grisham short story, Fetching Raymond. It’s a wonderfully written story in its own right, relying on big words for humor (and, in the end, sadness).

The story centers on Raymond, a sorry soul on Death Row at Parchman Farm in Mississippi.Parchman Farm  The family fetching him is uneducated, but Raymond has spent ten years with a dictionary, so he lards his frequent letters home with the impressive vocabulary he’s acquired.  On the way to Parchman, the family contemplates one of his letters explaining why yet another lawyer is coming to his defense:

“Not surprisingly, a lawyer of such exquisite and superlative yes even singular proficiencies and dexterities cannot labor and effectively advocate on my behalf without appropriate recompense.

“What’s recompense?” she (Inez, his mother) asked. “Spell it,” Butch said. She spelled it slowly, and the three pondered the word. This exercise in language skills had become as routine as talking about the weather. “How’s it used?” Butch asked, so she read the sentence. “Money,” Butch said, and Leon quickly agreed. Raymond’s mysterious words often had something to do with money. “Let me guess. He’s got a new lawyer and needs some extra money to pay him.”  Grisham, John (2013-06-17). Fetching Raymond: A Story from the Ford County Collection. Random House Publishing Group. 

Okay, so that exquisite bit of humor built on ponderous writing tweaked me.  Surely, not my vocabulary, though.  Right?  My wife just smiled, which brought on the next act of realization: a vision of sitting long ago in my college writing professor’s office.  He had asked what I was trying to say in a particularly tortured passage.  I explained in much plainer English.  He looked up from the paper, puffed his pipe and said, “Why don’t you just say it that way?”

The last event came at a meeting of a writing group.  Tim, a fine writer, editor by day and thus person one listens to carefully, read out these lines from my work-in-progress, Skins and Bone:

It had started as a simple statement that as a good trader, he was simply trying to do the best for his company. Over a couple of days, it had morphed into a full-fledged tragic exposition. In Ross’s perfervid imagining, the judge would surely understand how Ross’s desire to do good had been taken advantage of by dishonest, ungrateful people.

“Perfervid,” he said.  “Great word, but it drags the reader away from the character who’s speaking and reminds us there’s a narrator.  You don’t want to do that.”  But I love the word, a marvelous conflation by my cousin, Gamble, a consummate story-teller.  You won’t find it in the dictionary, but it has a pretty clear meaning. However, Tim’s right — it’s showing off, and it weakens the passage.

I need to think simple language, or at least not orotund (oops!).

Stories vs. Genres

Over the last couple of years, I have been forced to learn about the difference between the drive to create and the (apparent) expectations of potential readers.  Writing is writing, and the doing of it is reward in itself.  It’s just that you need a  saw and hammer sometimes to fit it into the genre.

When I began writing my first novel about three years ago, it was my romantic notion that it should be an exercise in storytelling, a blending of oral tradition and whatever skill with the Mother Tongue I could muster.  I had wispy ideas of a plot, to be sure, but I found myself larding the first draft generously with diversions about my own special interests:  blues music and the southern gift of language and storytelling.  (Living as I do now in Minnesota, I don’t hear as much euphony.  We tend to keep it clipped.  Maybe it’s the 25 below.)  As a result, the first draft of Hack the Yak weighed in at 127,000 words.  (Most novels of my genre are 80 – 100 thousand words).

I finally figured out that the story needed to move more quickly, took out some material that I love, and squeezed Hack the Yak down to 88,000 words.  I hope that is closer to the publishing world’s perception of reader expectations.

Frank Ratliff, telling the story of Bessie Smith

Frank Ratliff, telling the story of Bessie Smith

I was just looking back at pictures and notes I took in March 2012 on the Blues Highway (Hwy 61 between Memphis and Vicksburg).  I justified the trip as part of writing my first draft.  As I worked through the novel, I had to cut most of the blues highway material, but it has provided a couple of short stories.  My character Mase in The Cle eland Travel Inn is based on … well, really, abjectly copied from … Frank Ratliff, the proprietor of the Riverside Hotel in Clarksburg, MS.  I attempted to capture Rat’s storytelling voice in a non-fiction piece, Bessie Smith’s Death.

A fine writing teacher and novelist, Steve Ulfelder, mentioned in a class that his third novel was the one that finally made it into the marketplace (check out Purgatory Chasm or his new one, Shotgun Lullaby at his website) but said a bit wryly that the good stuff in the first novels is creeping back into his later writings.  An optimistic hope for me.

Pelvic Affiliate

The English vocabulary is arguably the largest and richest of all languages.  So, why are there so many concepts with no word at all?

In particular, why is there no word for grown up people who are in a relationship that includes both friendship and sex, but neither children nor marriage?  ‘Friend’ is too broad.  ‘Special friend’ is too cute.  ‘Girlfriend’ or ‘boyfriend’ is both inaccurate and insulting.  ‘Mistress’ for woman … we won’t go there.  The best one I’ve run into is my cousin Gamble’s term, ‘pelvic affiliate’, but that doesn’t really capture friendship.

I suspect that social inertia is involved … after all, such a relationship wouldn’t have been much discussed even thirty years ago.  I’m tempted to make a new word up, since my story happens in 2050.  I really need something to describe the relationship between my two protagonists, Joe Mayfield and Louise (Weezy) Napolitani.  He’s 40, and she’s 36.  The relationship built during my first novel, and, as Weezy thinks at one point, recalling a song lyric, “If it ain’t love, it ain’t bad.”

Any ideas?

PS: This issue was neatly described by Professor Anne Curzan in a Teaching Company course called The Secret Life of Words.  If you are a word mechanic, aka Writer, you will be made more capable by this wonderful dissection and explication of the enormous, colorful bag of tools we all use.

A Query Letter

Another reason for my dilatory behavior with respect to this blog is that been polishing my query letter for Hack the Yak and have come to realize that style is all.  For instance, ‘dilatory behavior’ probably doesn’t belong in my query, given its soporific effect on a 21st century reader.  While good writing is thought to be timeless, style changes pretty dramatically over time. Here’s the equivalent of a query letter from 1706:

John Locke

John Locke

 

I HAVE put into thy hands what has been the diversion of some of my idle and heavy hours. If it has the good luck to prove so of any of thine, and thou hast but half so much pleasure in reading as I had in writing it, thou wilt as little think thy money, as I do my pains, ill bestowed. Mistake not this for a commendation of my work; nor conclude, because I was pleased with the doing of it, that therefore I am fondly taken with it now it is done. This, Reader, is the entertainment of those who let loose their thoughts, and follow them in writing; which thou oughtest not to envy them, since they afford thee an opportunity of the like diversion.   (John Locke, a letter accompanying An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and addressed to:  the Right Honourable Lord Thomas, Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery, Barron Herbert of Cardiff, Lord Ross, of Kendal, Par, Fitzhugh, Marmion, St. Quintin, and Shurland;
Lord President of His Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council;
And Lord Lieutenant of the County of Wilts, and of South Wales.)

Writing, storytelling and the music of language

I’m finding that the process of writing sometimes gets in the way of the goal of writing, which is storytelling.

Language may be the most important gift from the genetic dance that formed us.  It allows us to remember things and share ideas beyond tribe and lifetime.  But writing is a johnny-come-lately at maybe 6,000 years old or so, and writing seems to want to squash the tempo out of language.

I have to admit a little bit of a grudge against you, Alphabet.  After all, you hijacked our stories.  Oh, Alpha, I know you didn’t mean to, and I know it was important to count heads of cattle and amphorae of wine so we could get on with the business of civilization.  But, Alphabet, you made us too often ignore the music of language. Before you came along, I suspect that there were no stories without music.  Even if unaccompanied by instrument or choir, spoken words always have music.  The oral tradition values that sound and rhythm.  You can still get whiffs of it today, but modern media often override sound and rhythm with sound bites and volume.  It’s hard to compress art into a Tweet.

I spent a lot of my career writing for business.  Precise, accurate, dry writing.  Facts strung together by logic in pursuit of matters legal and financial, didactic and persuasive.  I enjoyed it … there is a challenge to making something clear in as few words as possible.  ImageWriting the novel has been different and harder.  Tone and rhythm are take effort to maintain.  I test out my words by speaking them.  I do it to find their natural melody.  I have a pretty strong suspicion that nobody’s going to read something with no beat and no flow.