Tag Archives: writing

Review 159: Alphabet Juice

Alphabet Juice by Roy Blount Jr.

When I was last home for Christmas, my mother pretty much shoved this book into my hands and said, “You have to read this.” And far be it from me to ignore my mother’s advice, except possibly that little tidbit about being trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse and about to die of asphyxiation in deep space. I kinda spaced out on that one. Probably wasn’t important….

Anyway, Mom was right. Like nearly everyone else in my family, I am a lover of language. I read voraciously (as you well know), I’ve dabbled in writing – songs, stories and poems – and I make a living teaching non-speakers the joys of being English speakers. I grew up in a literate household, with a mother who used to teach me Latin roots whenever I asked “What does this mean?” My words are the way I express my thoughts and the way I understand the world, and as such they are as precious jewels – to be cherished and admired, used with elegance and style, and not wasted on fripperies and tacky indulgence.

He's much funnier than he looks. Really.

Roy Blount Jr is a kindred spirit indeed. He’s a humorist, the author of about two dozen books and a regular panelist on one of my favorite radio shows – Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me…. He talks with a slow southern drawl and never seems to hurry. This is the kind of person who savors his language and treasures his words. He’s not only interested in the meanings of words, or the sounds, but in the very feel of them. And if you’re the kind of person who never thought about how words feel when you say them, this book might do you some good.

Think of a word. Any word. How about doldrums? It’s a great word, a “sonicky” word, to use the term that Blount coins in this book to mean “a word whose sound doesn’t imitate the concept it represents (like boom or poof), but rather evokes the essence of the word.” Say that word out loud – doldrums. Doldrummmmsss…. If you were asked to come up with a word that describes a seemingly endless, unchanging environment, you could do worse than this one. It’s got flat vowels, heavy and pendulous, that practically sit in the bottom of your mouth, defying your tongue’s attempt to shift them. Then it ends in a flat hum that becomes a thin and lifeless hiss. Doldrums.

It is clear that Blount takes great pleasure in the sounds of words and the feelings of words as phonemes slide, crash and bump together, but he’s also interested in the etymology of words. He looks into the origins of some of the most innocuous words in the language – and some of the most useful – and looks at how they descend from the same ancient Proto-Indo-European roots. Take the P.I.E. room pag- which has given us such a diverse crop of words as pagan, compact, pole, pace and pageant. All this from a little word that meant, roughly, “to fasten.” The words that we speak have taken a long and wild journey to get into our minds and our mouths. Some were ported directly from Latin, others took a longer route. But every word that you speak has great history behind it.

There is no other name that this man could have. Not a coincidence, I'm sure.

Finally, of course, there is meaning. Without meaning, words are just sounds and aggregations of letters. One of the big questions that Blount hits over and over again is whether words mean something for a reason or if they’ve just been arbitrarily assigned to ideas and things. There are those who hold to that idea – that a word like “go” is no better or worse suited to its job than iku or jít or aller (Japanese, Czech and French, respectively). There’s something to that, I suppose – after all, if one sound really were perfectly suited to a concept, why would other languages bother to use so many variations? Or, y’know, exist? You would think that eventually the speakers of other languages would hear “Go” and think, “That’s IT! That’s the word!” If that were the case, it would probably have put me out of a job.

So there probably is some element of arbitrariness in language, but Blount isn’t very convinced by that idea. He says that there are so many words – such as doldrums or go, which fit their ideas so very, very well – how could such an appropriate set of sounds have just been arbitrarily given to these ideas? Words like scribble, itch, wrest, pool – words whose sounds and meanings match so very well, how could they be arbitrary?

The most likely answer, of course, is that language defines how you understand the world. As an English speaker Blount has inextricably connected these words and ideas in his head, and to suggest that, say, berceuse is perfectly suited to describe a soft song sung to children to get them to sleep would be asking an English speaker to put aside a whole lot of the associations he or she had made about lullaby.

This isn’t an academic book, though, so don’t worry about that. Blount has made a career out of entertaining with his words, and he doesn’t put that aside just because he’s doing language analysis. He brings up common words, unusual words, thought-provoking and laugh-inducing topics, all arranged – of course – alphabetically. You can jump backwards and forwards through the book, following the cross-references, and still enjoy it to its fullest. In fact, Blount recommends that you do so.

Genius!

Language is our way of making the world make sense, no matter what language it is. For those of us who are native English speakers, we look at the world through a complex and sometimes baffling language. It’s hard to learn (and hard to teach), sometimes frustrating to deal with and occasionally incapable of doing what we need it to do. But it’s part of our cultural heritage – our cultural DNA, if you will – and deserves appreciation. So take a gander at this book – read it, savor it, enjoy it, and then look at your language afresh. You’ll be glad you did.

—————————————————
“English is an outrageous tangle of those derivations and other multifarious linguistic influences, from Yiddish to Shoshone, which has grown up around a gnarly core of chewy, clangorous yawps derived from ancestors who painted themselves blue to frighten their enemies.”
– Roy Blount, Jr., Alphabet Juice
—————————————————

Roy Blount, Jr. on Wikipedia
Roy Blount, Jr.’s website
Alphabet Juice on Amazon.com

Leave a comment

Filed under humor, language, nonfiction, Roy Blount Jr

Lost in the Stacks 12: The Year In Review

A very small sample from this year...

Well, 2011 was an interesting year. I got an iPad, with all that that implies, I started writing again, I completed NaNoWriMo, work got a bit more difficult and challenging, and DC Comics rebooted their universe again. All of that had an impact on how I read and what I read, and not all of it was good.

In this year in review podcast, I’ll talk about what went well in 2011 and what could have gone better. What I enjoyed and what I struggled with, just like everyone else in the world. On balance, I think 2011 went well for me – I hope it did well for you too. And if it didn’t, well… there’s always 2012.

At least, assuming the Mayans were wrong.

Happy New Year!

(Technorati claim – T3BBTZPCZ37P )

2 Comments

Filed under analysis, comic books, Lost in the Stacks, reading

Lost in the Stacks 11: The Lessons of NaNoWriMo

This is my pen - THE CREATOR OF WORLDS.

As you may know, I’m doing National Novel Writing Month this year – though it’s nearly over by now. The goal of this activity is to write 50,000 words in the thirty days of November. It’s not easy, and sometimes it’s downright frustrating, but it reveals a lot about being a writer that can help you on your way to joining the ranks of authors that you love to read. The main thing you learn is that being a writer means doing actual work. It’s not backbreaking (unless you have a crappy office chair), but it can be just as frustrating and difficult, or as fulfilling and exciting as any other kind of work out there. Chances are that you’ll go from one to the other from day to day.

In this episode, I talk about what I’ve learned from writing every day for six months, and how it really has helped me appreciate what the professionals had to go through in order to become pros. Whether I will one day be a professional or not isn’t really something I’m thinking about right now, but it’s certainly been fun finding out….

1 Comment

Filed under Lost in the Stacks, writing

Lost in the Stacks 4: Writers and Readers

With the debut of HBO’s “A Game of Thrones” miniseries and a new article in The New Yorker, the strange story of George R. R. Martin and his fans has been on my mind. So, in this episode of Lost in the Stacks, we examine the weird, often dangerously codependent relationship between the Writer and the Readers.

What does the writer owe to his or her readers, if anything? What can the readers honestly expect of their writer? What promises, implicit or explicit, have been made, and what happens when they’re broken?

Join me for an interesting conversation, and let me know what you think!

George R. R. Martin’s homepage
Finish the Book, George
Is Winter Coming?

2 Comments

Filed under analysis, criticism, ethics, fans, fiction, George R. R. Martin, Lost in the Stacks, morality, reading, writing

Lost in the Stacks 3: Women in Fiction

This week, Scott Adams handed the internet a firebomb and then complained when it went off. In a blog post (deleted from his blog, but kindly reprinted here), he compared women asking for equal pay to children asking for candy. It roused the ire of the ‘net’s feminist population – rightly so – but his reaction of, “You’re just not smart enough to get it” was the icing on the cake.

Yes, ma'am....

But some good did come out of it – I started thinking about female characters in fiction. What difficulties do writers have in creating female characters, and why? How can we go about making sure that more writers do a better job at writing women?

It was an interesting topic to talk about, and I’m sure I made some mistakes or omitted some important details somewhere. After all, from my testiculated point of view, I’m bound to overlook something, so give the show a listen, drop me a comment and let me know!

Some links of interest:

Comics Alliance – ‘Dilbert’ Creator Scott Adams Compares Women Asking for Equal Pay to Children Demanding Candy
Feministe – Scott Adams’ alleged response to criticism
OverthinkingIt.com – The Female Character Flowchart
OverthinkingIt.com – Why Strong Female Characters are Bad for Women
Feminist Frequency – The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies
The Bechdel Test Movie List

2 Comments

Filed under analysis, fantasy, fiction, gender roles, Lost in the Stacks, science fiction, Scott Adams, women, writing

Review 106: Eats, Shoots & Leaves


Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

This is how I know I’m a real English teacher – I have a shelf dedicated to books just about English. The history of English, the uses and misuses of English, and even the history of the alphabet we use. This is something I never expected to have in my personal library, that’s for sure.

So has my brain. (photo by Nathan Harrison)

But that’s all to be expected; I’m an English teacher, and people like me are supposed to read books like this. It’s professional development, or something. The weird thing about this book, a book dedicated to punctuation, of all things, is that it was popular with people who weren’t English teachers. Everyone was shocked by how well it sold, the author included. A book written as kind of a primal stickler scream somehow struck a chord with the general reading population. Perhaps there is some hope for our species after all….

The reason it sold well, of course, is that it’s well-written and entertaining to read. Far too many books about language are written by dusty intellectual Linguists who exude smugness with their impenetrable jargon and are completely inaccessible to the general public. I have those books on my shelves as well, and nothing this side of a double shot of NyQuil is as good at getting me off into slumberland. Ms. Truss, however, writes like one of us. She’s an ordinary person who loves her language and who just snaps every time she sees a sign like, “Apple’s – $1”. I share her pain.

Can't use white-out on neon, can you? (photo by James McNally)

The book is a well-mixed combination of history, usage and style. The tiny marks that make the written English word behave the way it does have come to us along a remarkable number of paths. In the last millennium or so, marks have been added, changed and removed over time as necessity dictated. One of her fears (and the impetus to write this book) is that we may be changing English to a new form that requires less of that rigid, form-fixing punctuation.

Or people just haven’t bothered to learn.

As she notes throughout the book, punctuation is one of those things that few people ever really get to learn. Our English teachers give it a once-over in elementary school, and then we never get a review of it, so we spend most of our lives just throwing around commas and apostrophes and hoping we get it right. More often than not, we don’t. And we’re afraid to ask anyone, lest we look like ignorant yobs.

But to master punctuation means more than just being a pedant and a nerd. Heavens, no. Mastering punctuation means controlling your language, which is controlling your thoughts. The vast difference between a sentence like, “The convict said the judge is mad” and “The convict, said the judge, is mad” should be enough by itself to illustrate how important proper punctuation is. In a language like English, so dependent on rhythm, timing and stress, punctuation is the substitute for our voice. It tells us when to speed up and slow down, which points need to be stressed and given special attention, and which points (like this one) can be safely disregarded, if one so chooses.

Only one member, mind you.... (photo by Lobstar28)

It would be very easy for Ms. Truss’ obvious frustration with the misuse of punctuation to overwhelm her and poison the book. Admittedly, she does at one point put together a kit for those who would be punctuation guerrillas and risk prison to set the world straight, but by and large she stops short at advocating actual lawlessness.

Ms. Truss understands that punctuation abuse isn’t something that people do intentionally – it’s largely a matter of ignorance, and she wants to help. What’s more, she’s funny. For example:

In the family of punctuation, where the full stop is daddy and the comma is mummy, and the semicolon quietly practises the piano with crossed hands, the exclamation mark is the big attention-deficit brother who gets over-excited and breaks things and laughs too loudly.

Every section in the book has sharp and clever humor, a description of something as simple as a comma made in such a way that you find yourself laughing out loud on the train.

Of course, whenever you get into this topic, you run the risk of finding yourself forced to one side or the other of the “proscriptive” versus “descriptive” debate. You know, the people who want to tell everyone else how to use language versus the people who want the speakers to decide for themselves how it is used. The latter smacks of classical democracy, and as both an English Professional and a person with a healthy distrust of The People, I’m hesitant to sign up for it. I like rules in language. I like having a common set of guidelines we can turn to in order to make sure we’re all getting the meaning that the speaker or writer is trying to convey.

WHAT? The fabulous fur's WHAT?? (photo by Trevor Coultart)

Unfortunately, for people like Truss or myself, it’s all too easy to cross that line from being the person who appreciates a bit of order to that person who writes letters to the editor because some headline writer used a colon where a semicolon would do. And I’ve seen internet flame wars go wild over this pro- or de- divide. People who could politely disagree with each other about Sarah Palin’s international policy experience will find themselves screaming bloody murder over whether or not you should put two spaces after a period.

What has to be remembered is this: there are rules to language, like it or not. Those rules, however, change, and no single one of us has any power to impel or obstruct that change. The best we can do is to make sure we are writing with clarity and precision so that our intended audience understands our thoughts with the least amount of effort on their part. Regardless of what you think of the rules, if the reader has to stop and ask herself, “Wait, what did he say?” then you have failed. So learn the rules. Once you’ve learned them, you’re free to do what you wish, but make sure you have them down cold.

So, if you’ve always wanted to know about how to use a semicolon, or you’re not sure if your commas are in the right place, or if you’ve ever driven someone to madness by dropping an apostrophe into a possessive “its” – and you know who you are – then this book is the one you need. Enjoy.

——————————————
“Using the apostrophe correctly is a mere negative proof: it tells the world you are not a thicko.”
Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots and Leaves

Lynne Truss on Wikipedia
Eats, Shoots & Leaves on Wikipedia
Eats, Shoots & Leaves on Amazon.com
Lynne Truss’ homepage

24 Comments

Filed under humor, language, Lynne Truss, nonfiction, punctuation

Review 85: On Writing


On Writing by Stephen King

When I was in college, I sent a letter to Stephen King. It was the first letter I’d ever sent to an author – to any famous person, as far as I can recall – and I did my best to not sound completely fannish in it. I told him that I really liked his work, especially The Stand, and how I looked forward to seeing how other books came out, The Dark Tower series in particular. As far as I can remember, I kept my head. I was cool.

But I also did what I reckon many people do when they write to their favorite authors – I told him that I enjoyed writing as well, and I hoped I could be an author someday. In retrospect, I imagine King gets a lot of these letters, and after I’d sent it, I figured that was my stupid fanboy move. I knew what I wanted to happen next – I’d get a call from Stephen King who says, “You know, judging from the well-written letter you sent me, I would like to see an example of your fiction,” and so I’d send him the short story I was working on and he’d write back and say, “You’re BRILLIANT! I’m going to devote my remaining days to seeing that you become a writer of greatness! Stick with me, kid, and the world is your oyster!”

The advantage I have over other people with overactive imaginations is that I know when mine is bullshitting me. Honestly, I figured I’d never hear from him at all.

On that point, at least, I was wrong.

A few weeks later, I got a letter from none other than Stephen King himself! Included was a card, on which he thanked me for my kind words about his work, as well as a couple of photocopies of articles he had done about writing. I figure he had a whole stack of these, ready to send to every prospective writer out there, but it meant a lot to me that he had taken the time. The articles talked about how he wrote, and the advice he always gave to budding writers.

I figure he must have gotten a lot of letters like mine, because he eventually wrote this book. In it is nearly everything he knows about how to write well. I figure that he hoped people would stop asking when he published it, though I doubt people did. Those who want to be writers – and you can ask any published writer about this – believe that there’s a Secret to getting published. That there’s some special club of writers and agents and publishers who all know each other and in order to get in you have to go to live with John Scalzi and become his personal cat waxer for a year.

But it ain’t so. What those who are already in publishing will tell you is that the best way to get a story published is to write a great story. Do that, and your chances of success are much improved.

How, then, do you write a great story? All King can tell us – all any writer can tell us – is how he does it.

The first of the book is his Curriculum Vitae, in which he tells us about how he became a writer. It’s not a particularly surprising story, really. He gives us his memories of writing as a child, from knock-offs of horror comics to original works of horror and fantasy. The stories he tells, the memories that he relays to us show that he was interested in writing all his life, and the desire to write – no, the need to write – was something that has always been with him.

It follows him through his days as a neophyte novelist, breaking into the big time with the sale of Carrie, and how the personal and financial success he gained from that propelled him to write more and better. And, of course, there were the Dark Days. The drugs and the alcohol, the books he can’t remember writing and the days he can’t remember drinking through. He’s sober now, of course, but this is a warning – one of many peppered throughout the book: beware the Writers’ Traps. The illusion that you must be a drunk, a la Hemingway, to be a good writer, is one. He fell for it and, fortunately for us, he climbed his way out again.

Much like any trade, skill in writing is built by experience, and having the faith that you have something worth saying to the world. But even just having something to say and an unshakable faith won’t make you a good writer, so the second part of the book is a bit more practical: how do you make a story? Well, much like any trade, you need your tools. You need your grammar and structure and vocabulary so that you can present your ideas in a comprehensible form. You need your metaphor and simile, so that you’re not being too obvious in what you want to say. You need your symbolism, description and characterization, foreshadowing and nuance and dialog. But what you need the most is practice, patience and faith.

He walks through the steps of composition, character creation, and coming up with the essential through-line of your story. He gives us his own pet peeves as a writer (he hates adverbs passionately and says that the passive voice is to be avoided at all cost) and exhorts us to read as many different writers as we can. He gives us the benefit of his years of experience and the things he has learned, and says to us, “Now you try.”

King sets a very challenging bar, though – 2,000 words a day, every day, no exceptions. Well, for people just getting started he’s willing to be a little lenient: 1,500 words a day and you can have Sundays off. And you have to take it seriously, as you would any true craft. King recommends that you establish a Writing Space, ideally somewhere where you can close the door. Lose the distractions and take care of the reasons not to write.

And, as the fine folks at Nike would say, just do it.

Of course, if you’re new at this, most of what you write will be crap. In fact, even if you’re not new, the odds are that your first draft will be a mess. But if you have something to say, and you know what that is, then the story will shine through. You can polish it, revise, tweak and massage it until it’s something that you’re willing to let the rest of the world see.

It’s hard work, that’s for sure. At no point does King say that being a writer will be easy. He says that it’s sometimes thrilling, scary, exquisite, weird, toilsome, difficult, Sisyphean even. But never, ever easy. And there’s no guarantee that you’ll end up where he is. In fact, the odds are that you won’t be able to make a living as a writer. It’s certainly not impossible, of course – many men and women make that bar every year. But to write consistently at that level requires even more practice, patience and faith.

In the end, King is one writer who has most certainly made it big. He avoided destroying himself, and survived an accident that should have destroyed him, and he’s still writing. And if you get nothing else from this book, perhaps it is this lesson: a writer writes. No matter what, no matter why, a writer writes because that is what a writer must do to survive. If you’re willing to do that, if you have stories that you need to tell, then you might be a writer. It’s a scary thing to do, but who knows scary better than Stephen King? Take a read through this book, open up a fresh Word file, and get to work.

————————————————-
“What follows is everything I know about how to write good fiction. I’ll be as brief as possible, because your time is valuable and so is mine, and we both understand that the hours we spend talking about writing is time we don’t spend actually doing it. I’ll be as encouraging as possible, because it’s my nature and because I love this job. I want you to love it, too. But if you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well – settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on.”
– Stephen King, On Writing
————————————————-

Stephen King on Wikipedia
On Writing on Wikipedia
On Writing on Amazon.com
Stephen King’s website

Leave a comment

Filed under memoir, Stephen King, writing