Category Archives: Language

On the evolution, abuses and politically incorrect use of English as a language

Editing day

In an effort to be disciplined and productive, I’ve decided that every Thursday is going to be an editing and rewriting day. What I’m trying to do is keep a story still fresh in my mind, reading and re-reading the previous few days output until I’m happy with it, at the same time keeping a lid on the typos and filling in details I missed on the first and second read throughs.

I’ve tried editing MSS all the way through from end to end and the results, to be quite candid, have been a bit patchy. Far better to run through the last six or seven thousand words and get what you want to say as close to right as humanly possible. Keeping the sentences rhythmic and fluid without getting too ‘flowery’. And try to keep the characters, dialogue and situations reasonably credible. Keep the ‘passive voice’ to a minimum without messing up the cadence.

Readers need to suspend a certain amount of disbelief, but not so much as to sprain a neuron every time they trip over an impossible plot device. Even if you’re writing fantasy, a certain amount of logical consistency has to be applied. These are the rules I write by. Even if I don’t always manage to live up to them. We’re all human.

So, today is the naming of parts. My editing day. Back to the keyboard, and maybe a walk later.

Switching to WordPerfect

For Christmas this year I’ve decided; I’m treating myself to a full copy of Corel WordPerfect. I’ve always liked its functionality as a piece of word processing software, and liked the way I could always get deep into the code of a document. Unlike Microsoft Word, or Lotus, or OpenOffice which are basically very similar. All right, they’re fine for the basics, but when you need to turn out a document untrammelled by spurious code, you can’t beat WordPerfect. The ‘Reveal Codes’ command is the kicker as far as I’m concerned. It reaches the parts all the others can’t or won’t. Takes the Bloat out of the Bloatware, and makes a nice clean job of it. Especially when outputting XML or HTML formats for web based documentation.

I’ve always liked WordPerfect for its virtuosity as a piece of word processing software, although it requires a higher level of expertise than all the others put together. Yes, maybe the menu system looks a bit complex and old fashioned, but once mastered, you can do far more with it as an application. What has brought this desire to change on is my increasing frustration with the self correcting facilities in Word, OpenOffice or Lotus. When saving across formats, I tend to lose language settings and special characters, which in documents over 50,000 words long means a lot of extra proofing and re-reading. I’ve tried switching these features off, but even then MS-Word, OpenOffice Write and Lotus keep on losing the details, which is very frustrating. I actually gave up working in MS-Word when I found code fragments creeping in and ruining anything up to two months of work during document conversion. Yes, fine, Word can output PDF’s, it’s fairly intuitive, but because the code structure is not completely transparent and correctable, Word and its various clones won’t let you clean the whole document up properly. This has previously cost me time, money and energy that I could better spend elsewhere. There’s also the issue that WordPerfect is often the choice of Law Offices because it is more secure than most.

With the climax of ‘A Falling of Angels’ looming on my mental horizon, I’d far rather be writing than constantly correcting stuff that was already corrected.

Developing ideas

One of the things I think, and this is purely the opinion of a nobody so who really cares, is that when writing a story of any kind, an effort must be made to dodge all the incoming cliché’s. Hear the tell tale whistle of a tired old axiom and hit the metaphorical dirt. This is where I am with both ‘A Falling of Angels’ and ‘Darkness’.

Sometimes, like with Heathrow Airport, these hackneyed old saws can’t be avoided, and for a short while story lines can become predictable and even a little tired. Which can turn original story telling from a journey into a commute, having to use the same old piece of highway or train track, seeing the same old sights with the same old companions. Knowing you’re going to end up in the same old places. Day on day. Year after year. Recycling the same old same old without a new angle rapidly gets dull and repetitious. Which is rather like where Hollywood went with their usual crop of Blockbusters Summer 2013. No wonder audience figures are reported as down.

When I write I’m always looking for a new angle, a quirk or random element. Something unusual, tragi-comic maybe, but always human, always drawn from my or other people’s experiences. It’s my belief that a story path should jump the tracks occasionally to give any reader a fresh perspective. Flesh out a critical character. Surprise, astound, engage a readers thinking muscles by adding a new depth or level of perspective. All that shizzle. Excuse the neologism, but with two stepdaughters in their 20’s, these things tend to creep in. As has been observed, children can do awful things to a vocabulary. Which can be fun until everyone starts doing it, which is where I came in, I think.

Jean-Luc Godard observed that any given story should have a ‘beginning, a muddle, and an end‘, with the codicil “But not necessarily in that order”. By way of comparison, I often see posts about the ‘rules of writing’ on LinkedIn forums, only to observe that there seem to be as many rules as there are writers. I suppose, having thought about it, the key is applying your own singular world view. If other people like it, great, wonderful, fine, but as many a marketing manager stuck on a failing campaign has noted; what should doesn’t always. So it is with developing an idea into a narrative. Which is where I keep on getting stuck. Between what might be original, and what I think constitutes good.

As soon as I’ve worked out a relatively cliché free story direction, I’ll be able to move on. Today that involves stepping away from the keyboard for an hour or three. Making myself useful on the domestic front before evening shift.

Language; art or science?

While re-editing a couple of paragraphs this morning, Angie threw a couple of things my way from one of her students. Quotations and examples from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for the most part. Which kicked off the thought; is Language Art or Science? Or even both?

Metaphor and simile we are told, are mainly within the province of art, but when it comes down to metre and cadence and structure, it’s all down to syllable counts, pentameter, hexameter, and other rhythmic patterns doing the grunt work of communicating an idea. Which is the very function of language. Words can dance and skitter to the beat of the ideas driving them, giving both the context and subtext of a text. The science forms the rules of languages as they evolve from a purely ad hoc means of grunting, to a myriad subtleties conveying a layered whole rich with new meaning. Nonetheless, there is a subtle mathematics to language which can be broken down into components and reassembled to a common comprehensible formula. Context, intonation and juxtaposition are also tools from the same box.

Maybe it’s the Technician in me that wants ideas to have clarity, continuity, and the elegance of simplicity. The beauty of an efficient and well designed machine. Multiple processes binding together in a seamless whole. Many premises distilled, flowing to a single conclusion into a great river of thought. Tiny logical strings woven into a great hawser you can pull a Supertanker of concepts with.

Yet where does the science of language leave off and art begin? Like a single feather is not an Eagle there is no easy answer. The Science and art of which I write are sides of the same coin. Components of the same whole. Like the microscopically barbed elements that form the mesh of each Eagles feather can be viewed scientifically through a microscope, like the tempering and folding of metals can give additional strength to a component, there is art and science in everything. The subjective, which is art, gives us the desired whole, and the objective, which is the science, gives us the parts from which the whole can be built. Without the feather, the Eagle cannot fly. Without Science, there is no art. Without Art, we have no desire for science. Which is probably why well designed machines often have an artistic beauty all of their own.

Excuse me if I’m waxing lyrical and obscure today, but I’ve had a bit of a story breakthrough, and am feeling a tad giddy.

Ten steps to a more businesslike approach to writing #WritersBlock

Have been thinking about this a lot recently, and have come up with a simple ten step businesslike approach to writing;

1. Plan the narrative, set and use timelines
2. Write to the plan unless there’s a bloody sound reason
3. Set a schedule, hours, dates, times, which are given solely to producing ‘product’
4. Set hours, dates, times for getting the message ‘out there’
5. Set up a web linking strategy. Follow it.
6. Create useful resources for readers
7. Create interesting forums with anti-troll and spam defences. Be ruthless.
8. Stick with what you’re writing, don’t get distracted.
9. Don’t listen to too much advice
10. Proof read, spell check daily.

This is more for myself than for anyone else, as I tend to let myself get distracted and do anything but get on with it because I get stuck. I intend to set myself a target of 10,000 words per week minimum, with a set maximum of 3,000 words per day. If I’m going to try and make a success of something, the least I can do is do it in a disciplined, focused manner.

Confronting the style demon #WritersBlock

If I have a fault as someone who writes, it’s that I tend to get a bit florid with my prose. My particular demon is complex three adjective and noun descriptions of character, place or time, rather than the more simplistic approach of salting character traits throughout a particular passage. This fault is most prevalent with minor characters. I have a tendency to go right over the top with fixed bayonet, charging into sentences, whooping and spilling gory syllables left right and centre. Often long after a particular paragraph or section has come out with white flag and hands high screaming “Enough, already!”. There’s a lot of fun to be had with conceits and extended metaphors. Especially with the more horrifying details. I have a tendency to be a little too, shall we say; graphic? Especially with murder scenes. Having seen a number of deaths up close and personal, I find this disturbingly a little too easy.

So Angie has to sit me down, pat me on the head, and say something like; “I know you don’t react too well to my criticism, dear, but don’t you think you could have written that better? You’re being a bit too poetic.” Which is true. Too often in my rush to impress, I’ve tried to cover all the bases at once. Reiterating and perhaps labouring points too hard when perhaps I should take them sparingly, one at a time. But I am getting better at it. Not being quite so lavish with my descriptions, and putting more effort into simply getting on with the story. Letting the characters speak their lines and not bog things down with leaden travelogue descriptions.

I blame too much Donne and Shakespeare in my literary upbringing. That and two exceptional English teachers, who were, funnily enough, both Welshmen. Not to mention another college lecturer who introduced my class to reading Chaucer aloud in the original Middle English. Which is still a pleasure after all these years. The cadence and rhythm of the language feels somehow more real when spoken. It has its own sorcery.

However, I am always mindful of this particular edict by Samuel Johnson, father of modern English and Lexicographer is once quoted with saying; “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” Although like a fond parent who dotes on his children, I’m not sure if I can ever be this ruthless, but I am trying to be good. Honestly.

Correct use of the “F-bomb”

I see on a lot of writers and publishers forums discussions of what is euphemistically called the “F-Bomb“. Some seem to feel that using this multi-purpose slang word is ‘bad writing’.

Excessive use is certainly poor practice. Although my feelings on the matter are that ‘bad writing’ is sometimes not using said swear word. If a character is one who swears, then they should swear properly, and not get all dainty mouthed about it. Spending any time in a male dominated environment means one is likely to hear the F – word used as adjective, verb, adverb, noun and in some ‘blue collar’ environments, punctuation and even pauses for breath. A character in any narrative is framed by their speech, and part of a writers job is to paint that picture with veracity. This whole self censorship thing detracts from the honesty of any fictional character and makes them less credible. This attitude comes across, to me at least, as teeth grindingly prissy, censorious and dishonest.

Conversely, it can be argued that ‘bad writing’ is excessive use of the aforementioned swear word, which is also true. My feelings? The trick is to use bad language appropriately.

Technorati key: WW8T74NRBWFX

The art of creative cursing

Picked this up off a Groupon deal site. ‘Clean’ alternatives to swearing;

• Oh my biscuits!
• What in the hairdresser’s wet jar of tools is going on in here?!
• Sweet mother of hate!
• For the love of kisses, will you kids cut it out?!
• Holy soldiers of the underworld!
• Whoopsie poopsie!
• Stick it up your pneumatic tube!
• Gosh nosh it!
• Aw, Starbucks!
• Good sky-monster almighty!
• You can go to Florida, you disheartening grandfather!

My preferred options, which are mostly shorter and pithier (Although I’m shamelessly going to steal “Oh Starbucks”);

  • Ye Cats!
  • Kiss it!
  • Ihr va tha! (Made up Saxon / Old Norse style cuss)
  • Ach du lieber (German, short for “Oh dear God!”)
  • Ah, stuff!
  • What in the name of Burger King is going on round here?

RIP Harry Harrison

Not a good piece of news this morning. Another of the Science Fiction pantheon has passed from our midst. I grew up reading Harry’s work, and about the only thing of his I never read was “Make room, make room!”

I still love his short stories; especially a quirky little novel (Although all of Harry’s work could be described thus) ‘The Technicolour time machine‘ which I read until my paperback copy fell apart. Such was the fate of most of his work at my hands. The ‘Deathworld’ series, just about every compilation of his short stories I could buy, and of course the stories of James Bolivar DiGriz – The Stainless Steel Rat.

Harry will probably end up with a big fancy tombstone somewhere, but his real marker will be the very, very funny body of work he leaves behind.

Abuse of language

My wife Angela, is a Learning Consultant who is, in my estimation, one of the best teachers I’ve ever seen for the age group she covers. When she worked in the UK education system, she often brought children from being barely literate to over three reading grades forward. For this alone she has my total awestruck respect and admiration. In her field I consider her an unsung genius.

Sometimes though, I have to raise my hand and say “No.” This should not detract from who she is or what she does, more to some in her profession who should be taken back to Junior High to learn the proper use of language. Failing that, beaten soundly with a copy of the OED, all twenty plus volumes, including the appendices until some sort of vocabulary sinks in.

Today’s foul neologism is ‘Languaging’. A war crime of a word if ever one was uttered. Essentially it’s an invented adverb, a polysyllabic nonsense to describe how language is used and perceived emotionally to convey ideas to children. In my English literature classes of long ago, we were taught to use the terms ‘context’ and ‘subtext’ to describe such usage. Inventing a term like this speaks to me of someone who can’t be bothered to pick up a dictionary.

My complaint stems not from the invention of the offending collection of semi-random syllables, but the $60 dollar a ticket price tag for a seminar to learn how to use ‘soft’ language and concepts to convey ideas to children. Angie was trying to persuade me to go to a seminar in Vancouver to see what the inventor of this bastardisation was saying. I declined. Sixty bucks is a lot of royalties right at this moment.

In addition my initial reaction to the word, which almost had me roaring with laughter, might have been a marital mistake. Angie became quite defensive and went into intellectual counter-attack mode. We occasionally fence with words and ideas, just for the fun of it, but this little bout had a different tone, like I had challenged something she valued and cherished.

In the end I conceded that this might be the vocabulary of the online world she inhabits, but with the rider that whilst English as a language evolves, that particular term should be buried in a deep Thesaurus at midnight with a figurative stake through its suffix.

Inventing terms for things which do not currently exist is for the creators of fictional worlds, and certainly not in the purview of educators. Language is a toolkit to give ideas shape and form, not for blurring the edges to create some pink fluffy la-la version of real life, then present an infantile world view as factual. Such usage only cheats the children it is used to teach because they are not being properly equipped to deal with the world.

My own point of view is that children will read what stimulates their imagination. Sometimes what children need to get them reading is perhaps not what their educators desire. Dressing it up with terms like ‘Languaging’ doesn’t help.

Visual aids

Not a good day so far. Writing is again at the zero level because I’m busy running around doing other people’s errands. Small things being blown up out of all proportion, and being dumped in my lap. Like it’s my fault they were broken in the first place.

Still. One must persevere in these situations.

I’m beginning to understand why movies cost so much to make. My own first dozen attempts at doing readings for a simple YouTube vid are so full of slurring, fluffs and swearing that I’m beginning to doubt whether English is my first language or not. This is puzzling, because at Drama School, sight reading was at the top of my skill set. There’s also the issue that any vid I make approaching a Gig in file size overloads my little cameras memory controller, and the file will not download. Although considering the standard my sight reading has sunk to, I’m currently thanking goodness for the delete key. There is no way I’m inflicting that on an unsuspecting world. Even for the sheer comedy value.

Return of the ‘Penny Dreadful’

Back in the 19th, and early 20th century, there was a type of cheap sensationalist fiction called the ‘Penny Dreadful‘. Serialised fiction which is echoed in the less literary ‘Graphic Novels’ of today. Of late I’ve found myself thinking that there’s a gap in the market as far as eBooks are concerned.

Having considered the matter, there’s always been a market for such material, from Romance to Thriller, from Supernatural to Science Fiction. It’s called ‘pulp’, and there was once a modest living to be made from it.

Now I’ll be the first to concede that I’m no towering intellect. I’m a working stiff with an occasionally elegant turn of phrase. Yet even I can see echoes of the Victorian past and mass literacy that rode on the back of such reading material in the growing market for independently published eBooks.

There are those high-minded individuals who sniff at such poor literary fare, disparaging anything which does not live up to their personal ideals. For my own part; I think this attitude is counter productive to mass literacy, and expecting everyone to prefer Dickens or Orwell rather misses the point. The idea of the ‘pulp’ end of the market should be to provide a springboard to get the less literate actually reading. Providing a set of low rungs on the literacy ladder that the less motivated or able can readily clamber onto. Although I personally draw my own line at tales of Vampires and Zombies. Just never seen the appeal.

The truly great thing about the new eBook market is that no-one sees you hanging around the e-comic book store and makes sniffy comments about age, intellect, or darker associations. There’s no-one in online book stores to pass judgement on the contents of your eReader. It’s incredibly cheap, democratic, and there’s nobody telling you what to read. I think it would be a crime against mass literacy if we let the narrow tastes of the high minded dictate who reads what.

As far as reading is concerned, we all have to start somewhere, and we all have different tastes and comfort zones.

I will be presenting my own contribution before Christmas. One ten thousand word serialised eBook a month; and if demand is good, perhaps more often.

Some notes on eBook formatting

Just had a story rejected as an eBook over formatting issues. Easily resolved, but a thoroughgoing pain to have to go over and redo work you thought you’d completed a month ago.

The trick seems to be that my specific eBook publisher needs the source document to have the story spilt into specific segments, like chapters. Now I find cutting up a story like this a bit limiting sometimes, as chapters can get in the way of a narrative flow by cutting it into distinct chunks. For some narratives they work, but for others, not. I find they tend to slow the flow of a story down too much, especially if you’re dealing with multiple related story lines.

For my Novella, ‘The Odd Machine‘ which is out as an eBook, I had to chop the story into fourteen distinct ‘chunks’ to satisfy the eBook criteria, with the factual story notes as a fifteenth section. As someone who can read at over twelve hundred words a minute when the mood takes him, I find chapters in this format are often too short and detract from the pleasure of reading.

When formatting, the simple rules to follow seem to be these,
Firstly; ensure that all indented paragraphs have no extra tabs in them. Always use the ‘Paragraph format’ tool with the ‘first line’ option selected. If you can get away with it, don’t use tabs in your manuscript at all.
Secondly; in the MSS file, the eBook title should be in ‘Heading 1’
Thirdly; the chapter headings should be in ‘Heading 2’ and any subsections in ‘Heading 3’. Anything else doesn’t seem to work.

Following these simple rules should ensure that your eBook gets out into the marketplace without any unwarranted and annoying formatting related delays.