Study This: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

I’ve already written about The Summer Before the War—which I read first (and which is, in fact, the more accomplished novel)—but I really enjoyed Helen Simonson’s novel-writing skills in Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (the New York Times calls it “funny, barbed, delightfully winsome storytelling”) and I think there’s a lot to learn from reading her. Indeed, the Times points out the “narrative, which is enjoyable even when it tootles along with mechanical efficiency, follows a three-act structure” and that the author “leaves these manipulations proudly visible.”

I could go on and on, but let’s look at what Simonson does particularly well:

  • Characterization
  • Subplot
  • Foreshadowing
  • Humor!
  • Dichotomies in theme

I’m one of those readers who believe that a novel rises or falls on its characters, and this novel has them in spades. Chief among them is the titular character, Major Pettigrew, an old-fashioned English gentleman forced to confront a world less genteel than he is. The beauty is in watching him encounter situations that push him further and further outside his comfort zone while remaining perfectly in character. He is surrounded, too, by a host of richly drawn personalities of various ages and cultural backgrounds.

Regarding the plot and subplot, make no mistake: this book is a wonderfully satisfying love story. But while we watch and wait for the romance to come to fruition—both characters being conservative types, after all—it is the intricately planned subplots that keep us turning the pages. In one, the Major having been promised a valuable hunting rifle upon the death of his brother, schemes to get it back when his widowed sister-in-law refuses to part with it. In another, Pettigrew befriends and then must offer advice to a young Muslim man (the nephew of the woman he loves), even though he is, culturally speaking, the least likely man on the planet to handle it. Every development in both the plot and subplots is beautifully foreshadowed; a student of the craft will relish them all.

Simonson’s comic timing is impeccable. (Even though she opens the story with news of a death, she leavens the scene with the Major dressed in the bright pink robe of his deceased wife.) And she finds the humor in even the most uncomfortable circumstances. When his son does business with a racist, Pettigrew objects, but the son demurs: “It’s called the real world. If we refused to do business with the morally questionable, the deal volume would drop in half and the good guys like us would end up poor. Then where would we all be?” But the Major shuts him down: “On a nice dry spit of land known as the moral high ground?” Honestly, I giggled all the way through this book.

Finally, what I liked the best were the unexpected thematic dichotomies: a white, Old World protagonist paired with a woman of color with an immigrant background, for example: race and class diametrically opposed. There are themes of fathers and sons; the old ways and new; old-fashioned and progressive; youth and age; friends and family; grief and laughter; change and refusal to change; a clashing of cultural mores—all set in an English village novel.

And it works.

The writing is delightful. The love story is very satisfying. You’ll sigh with pleasure. Study this!

Tweet: The writing is delightful, the romance satisfying. You’ll sigh with pleasure. Study this!
Tweet: I believe a novel rises or falls on its characters, and this novel has them in spades.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in Books You Might Like, The Writing Craft | Tagged as: , , , , , , , ,

#WordUse Series: Dear Kroger
(Why You Need an Editor #5,278)

Sent in early December …

Dear Kroger,

Y’all spend a lot of money on these lovely multipage mailers with recipes and beautiful photography and coupons. (I have an idea about how much these things cost, what with the photo shoots and the graphic designers, the postage, and, oh, the copywriters. You have 2,400 stores in 31 states so I’m guessing $250,000.) So don’t you think you could spare a crust for an editor in that big budget?

I ask this because on page 7, the brochure reads, “… then display the candle as a centerpiece or a mantle decoration.” However, your young copywriter has made an error. A MANTLE is a cloak or a robe. A MANTEL is the ornamental shelf over a fireplace—which is what your photograph indicates. How many people saw this flyer? I based my cost guesstimate on four million. Dude.

Your friend,
An editor and Kroger shopper

There’s no misspelling here. It’s a common problem, and I don’t just mean the mantle/mantel conundrum. (Which is, by the way, a homophone: one of two or more words pronounced alike but different in meaning, derivation, or spelling—such as all and awl or ritewriteright, and wright. Or mantle and mantel.*)

I see this sort of thing all the time on websites, in correspondence, advertisements (usually local; but we should call Kroger’s ad a regional one), and so on. Surely I’m not the only one who notices?

Sometimes it is a misspelling. Or a pronunciation issue. Or confusion over the meaning. Sometimes the writer has heard the word or phrase but never seen it written. But guessing is never the way to go on this, friends. Not in a world in which the Internet exists. So in case you didn’t know some of these, you’ve come to the right place. I’m here to help.

It’s definitely, not defiantly. Two adverbs, both alike in dignity … but I’m pretty sure you meant definitely (positively, unmistakably). In fact, I’m definitely sure that’s what you meant.

It’s intact (one word), not in tact (two words). The latter isn’t … well, it isn’t intact. And while we’re at it … it’s tack, not tact. If you’re changing direction, you’re taking a new tack. Tact is what you employ when your best friend says, “Do these jeans make me look fat?”

It’s a moot point, not a mute point. This issue is not moot: there is only one way to spell this word and only one way to pronounce it. What does the cow say? Mooot.

He’s a world-renowned artist, not a world-renown artist. Renown, a noun = fame; renowned, an adjective = famous.

It’s shudder, not shutter. If it has to do with shaking or shivering, it’s shudder. A shutter, among many other things, is a cover for a window. Is it alludeelude, or illude? I alluded (mentioned indirectly) to a famous play above. That reference may have eluded (escaped) you. But I wasn’t trying to illude (deceive) you.

It’s all right, not alright. Seriously, it’s never all right to use alright. Not in elegant writing, or even good writing, which is what we’re aiming for, right? Hear, hear. And you’ll notice, it’s hear, hear! Not here, here. You can read about it (ahem) here.

It’s unique, never very unique. Because the latter is redundant. And good golly, kids, it’s take it for granted, not take it for granite. Unless you’re replacing those Formica countertops with stone.

It’s speak your piece, not speak your peace. You hold your peace (that is, remain silent); if you’re going to audibilize, you’re speaking your piece. Two different idioms altogether.

We could go on and on: affect/effect, that/who, anxious/eager, farther/further, more than/over … and don’t get me started on lie/lay and all the possible permutations of error in that. As I’ve said before, I’m here to help, without judgment. But I won’t always be looking over your shoulder, so what should you do? Hint: Don’t assume you know, as Kroger’s copywriter did. Look it up!

*Not to be confused with a homonym: one of two or more words spelled and pronounced alike but different in meaning—such as a pool of water and pool, the game (billiards).

Tweet: Y’all spend a lot of money on these mailers; can’t you hire an editor in that big budget?
Tweet: Guessing isn’t the way to go on this, friends. Not in a world in which the Internet exists.
Tweet: It’s definitely, not defiantly. Two adverbs, both alike in dignity …

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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#WordUse Series:
What’s In a Name? That Which We Call a Pudding …

I grew up the child of two Midwesterners of modest means, so I knew from an early age about pudding—it was that powder Mom mixed with milk on her old Kenmore mixer until it thickened, then put in the fridge to cool and thicken a little more. You know—like a soft custard.*

But … not so fast, there, cowgirl. The meaning of this word depends on where you’re from, a phenomenon we’ve discussed before. It’s interesting to me that pudding can have several so very distinct meanings, all food-related. My Merriam-Webster Unabridged lists many of them (though not all—because, well, it is an American dictionary).

First …

The first and oldest meaning (thirteenth century) is sausage, and more specifically, blood sausage. I’ve seen this usage predominantly in Ireland, where at breakfast one is served both black and white pudding—ground pork mixed with oats and, in the case of black pudding, pork blood. They’re delicious.

Related to this first, old word—the Middle English poding perhaps having derived from Low German puddek (sausage) or puddig (swollen)—was a sausage stuffing for roast meat (Shakespeare wrote about “that roasted … ox with the pudding in his belly”**) and from there you get a slang usage of pudding that means, in England, guts. I’d like to see that in a sentence. Or maybe not.

Second …

I am not sure how we moved from meats to sweets, but that’s what happened. The second meaning in my American dictionary is four-part:

  • A boiled or baked soft food usually with a cereal base, like corn pudding or bread pudding, eaten as a main course or a side dish; sometimes, long ago, called porridge.
  • A dessert of a soft, spongy, or thick creamy consistency, like chocolate pudding or rice or tapioca pudding. This is the sort of pudding Americans think of first, I believe.
  • An unsweetened dish often containing suet or having a suet crust and originally boiled in a bag but now often steamed or baked in a mold, like a kidney pudding. You would often cut it with a knife, rather than spoon it.
  • Something that resembles a pudding, like a pudding bolster (a long thick pillow; looks like sausage) or more poetically, anything churned up or mixed up, like clouds or tilled soil—though I don’t think the latter is particularly common.

The differences here can be boiled down to milk puddings and cake puddings.

An Aside …

I emphasize that these definitions are from my American dictionary because M-W makes absolutely no allowance for the British use of pudding, which has two meanings, as best I can tell:

  • It’s a generic word for what Americans call dessert, i.e., that sweet course served at the end of the meal.
  • A very specific cake-like dessert, such as Christmas pudding or something like (yes, Virginia, it’s true) figgy pudding.

The latter usage is related to the savory (unsweet) pudding mentioned above, in that it is firm and cakelike. I got to experience it when the Boy and I visited an English friend one Christmas. We had a very traditional English Christmas dinner (including, appropriately to this post, Yorkshire pudding, which is nothing like anything I have described so far). And then we had dessert: eight weeks in the making, the oh-so traditional “Christmas pudding”—which you may also know as plum pudding or figgy pudding. Americans might call it fruitcake, and it’s similar (an Irish tea brack would be even closer in spirit), though it is made in a mold and steamed rather than baked. Doused in brandy and set alight, it was a spectacular conclusion to the meal.

Another Aside …

Merriam Webster suggested I “compare” hasty pudding (cornmeal mush); Indian pudding (cornmeal mush with butter, molasses, and spices); Yorkshire pudding (batter of eggs, flour, and milk, baked in meat drippings); and plum pudding (bread crumbs, raisins, currants, suet, eggs, and spices, boiled or steamed).

It also suggested I have a look at:

  • Pudding grass: a pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides) formerly used to flavor stuffing for roast meat.
  • Pudding stone: conglomerate, from 1752.
  • Pudding time: 1 archaic : dinnertime (“as it was pudding time with us, our visitor was invited to sit and eat”), and 2 archaic : an auspicious moment (“here he comes in pudding time to resolve the question”).
  • Bag pudding: a dessert pudding boiled or steamed in a bag, from 1598.
  • Batter pudding: an unsweetened pudding of flour, eggs, and milk or cream baked or boiled (for example, Yorkshire pudding).
  • Black pudding: blood sausage, from the fifteenth century.
  • Blood pudding: blood sausage.
  • Cabinet pudding: a pudding of bread or cake, candied or dried fruit, milk, and eggs often molded and usually served hot with a tart sauce, from 1821.

I love the word pudding so much I’d love to see a revival of pudding time to replace, say, the knick of time. Let’s work on that!

Third …

Even M-W’s third definition has a connection to food, because it describes something that looks like a sausage: a fender made of rope yarn or canvas attached to the stern of a boat or ship—in other words, a boat bumper. :)

Finally …

You’ve been waiting for this one, I’m sure: pudding can also mean “inherent quality; ability to measure up to expectations.” As in, “He proved his pudding with that magna cum laude.” Or, of course, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

This little saying goes way back to the fourteenth century; by the 1600s it was appearing in proverb books. In Don Quixote Miguel de Cervantes wrote, “You will see it when you fry the eggs,” which was translated in one 1701 version as, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” These days, we often say, “The proof is in the pudding” (it dates to the 1920s) and mean something was worth it because of its discernible quality. But unless the shortened phrase is in your frame of reference—my parents used it—you won’t quite know what it means.

And there’s your pudding lesson for today. :)

* Not a pouring custard, though.
** Henry IV.

Tweet: What’s in a name? That which we call a pudding …
Tweet: The meaning of this word depends on where you’re from!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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#WordUse Series:
Merry Melancholy Christmas

On Christmas Eve last year, I was alone in the house, awaiting my son’s arrival from out of town the next morning. It was a quiet—but happily anticipatory—time. When I posted a comment on Facebook—

A little melancholy tonight … but my heart is full. I am blessed in so, so many ways. Merry Christmas, friends.

—I soon realized my friends didn’t grok what I was feeling at all.

Now, I know what the dictionary says:

• depressed in spirits : dejected, gloomy, dismal, mournful, sad

• suggestive or expressive of melancholy or dejection : depressing

• producing sadness : causing dejection : lamentable, afflicting

• seriously thoughtful or meditative : pensive

• favorable to meditation : somber

But I meant melancholy not in the dejected sense but in the thoughtfulmeditative sense. PensiveContemplativeReflective.

It should be noted, then, that “a little melancholy” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s equal parts nostalgia and fond memories and perhaps a little bit of unknowing … but also contains elements of peace and contentment and quietness too. (Also exhaustion, but that’s another story.)

Here’s wishing you a little melancholy too. It’s rather nice. :)

Tweet: Melancholy contains elements of peace and contentment and quietness too.
Tweet: I meant melancholy not in the dejected sense but in the thoughtfulmeditative sense.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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#WordUse Series:
May the Blessing of the Rain Be on You

We’ve had a drought here in the American South. It stopped raining in early August and didn’t start again until early December, after the irrigation system had been turned off for some weeks. So it seemed only appropriate to republish this post from 2012—a sort of written rain dance. Let me know how it works for you …

• • •

Before I visited Ireland the first time, I had the impression (as many do) it rains a lot there. (I packed a raincoat.) Here’s what the Irish Meteorological Service says: “In fact, two out of three hourly observations will not report any measurable rainfall.”

That sounds good. But consider this: “The average number of wet days (days with more than 1mm [3/100 inch] of rain) ranges from about 150 days a year along the east and south-east coasts, to about 225 days a year in parts of the west.” Well. That threshold for what constitutes a wet day is pretty low. And if you do the math, you’ll see 41 percent of the days in the east are wet while it’s wet 61 percent in the west.

So it’s no wonder, then, the Irish have a lot of slang for rain.

My favorite is soft, as in a soft day, which is characterized by a soft rain, which is actually more like mist. (Hence the soft.) A soft day is cloudy and sometimes the wet is a little more drizzle than mist. You might hear a day described as a grand soft day, which is, as best I can tell, no actual rain, just an elevated humidity.

Here are some other wet-weather words (and here’s a chart to help you decipher their relation to size and number of drops):

• Misht: mist with a country accent
• Drizzle: a little heaver than a soft rain, not quite a light rain
• Mizzle: very fine drops, but definitely raining
• Mildering: a light rain, regional version
• Light rain: looks soft, but don’t be fooled; it’ll ruin your hairdo
• Drop of rain: not enough to worry about, but take an umbrella
• Shower: enough rain to know you’ve been rained on
• Sun shower: raining while it’s sunny; watch for rainbows
• Wet rain: yes, they’re teasing you
• Pissing rain: hard vertical rain (not as much wind as lashing rain); an annoyance
• Lashing rain: diagonal, hard rain (due to wind)
• Driving rain: too much wind involved; stay inside or you’ll get soaked
• Heavy rain: you’ll want rain gear
• Teeming rain: heavy rain
• Raining cats and dogs: a heavy rain; careful, you might walk into a poodle
• Spate: a sudden, strong rain, out of nowhere
• Heavens opened: a spate of rain
• Downpour: a heavy rain
• Bucketing rain: you’re instantly soaked, like someone threw a bucket of water at you
• Sheets of rain: like buckets only steadier; walls of rain coming down
• Torrential rain: unrelenting; seriously, stay home
• Almost biblical: can’t get much worse

The real test, though, is the Gaelic. I found this list here, which post is also somewhat amusing for the dueling linguists:

• biadh an tsic (“food for rain”): rain in frosty weather
• brádán báistí: light rain
• braon: the dripping of the rain
• cith agus dealán: sunshine with showers
• ceóbhrán: light drizzle, mist
• durach mor: a big shower
• focíth fearthainne: occasional rain showers
• frás: shower
• fuarbháisteach earraigh: a cold spring downpour
• lá frasaidheacht: a showery day
• greadadh báistí: heavy (pelting) (driving) rain
• plimp fearthainne: a sudden downpour of rain
• síorbháisteach: a continuous downpouring of rain
• scáth báistí (“rain shield”): umbrella
• smurán: a shower
• stoirm ceatha: breeze before a shower
• stoirm shíobhta bháistí: a driving rainstorm
• taom fearthainne: a bucketing down of rain

You’re on your own for pronunciation, so if I were you’d I’d stick to the English. :) And pack a light raincoat. You may need it!

Tweet: Pack your raincoat & your dictionary when you visit.
Tweet: Raining cats and dogs? Careful, you might walk into a poodle!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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#WordUse Series:
The Soda / Pop Conundrum

My siblings and I talk like Midwesterners, although none of us live there (or have ever lived there). Our mother was a Midwesterner: born and raised in Chicago. Daddy was also a Midwesterner, born/raised in St. Louis, although he had Southern roots: his mother was born/raised in Tennessee, as were her people, while his father’s people were South Carolinians all the way back to the 1600s.

This Southern thread manifested itself in the way we were allowed to call our parents’ friends names like Miss Diane and Colonel Frank or Uncle Bill and Aunt Elaine, rather than the more traditional Mr. and Mrs. Ours was a household in which “C’mon in this house!” was a lifestyle straight out of my father’s Southern upbringing in the heart of the Midwest. (His speech, however, was unadulterated Midwest. Witness the way he prounced his home state of Missouri, which came out Mizz-ooo-ruh.)

My father was in the air force; over time our family lived in various places all over the country. We kids met and played with kids from other places who were in our situation. So I was exposed to regional differences in speech (among other things) at an early age. Oh yes, accents are fun. I can tell Illinois from Missouri, Wisconsin from Michigan, Tennessee from Georgia, North Carolina from South Carolina (no mean feat). But my parents were essentially Midwesterners, and we all sounded like that.

Until we moved to California when I was seven (and where I stayed through school). I pretty quickly became a California girl (far out, man), but those family vacations “home” to Illinois, where I had a multitude of cousins, were a great source of material to feed my budding interest in regionalism—both accents and words. In Yorkville everything was wouldacouldashoulda, things my mother, the amateur linguist, had painstakingly trained out of us. (We said ed-you-cation, not ed-joo-cation. And we by God said yes, not yeah.) Most interesting to us kids, my cousins called carbonated drinks pop—it sounded like pahp—whereas we called them soda. (I was delighted to stumble on this pop/soda map awhile back; you can imagine my joy. However, it doesn’t cover the designation soda pop, which my father used. In the South, of course, the point is moot. We drink Coke.)

Words are just as interesting as accents, I think. Some years ago a friend of mine moved from Tennessee to Michigan and followed up with this report:

“People almost never say you’re welcome up here. Synonyms include sureyou betyou betcha, and no problem. All four responses really mean you’re welcome, but on a deeper level no problem means you are welcome, although it was a bit of a pain for me. I’m not kidding.”

I thought of this when I stumbled on an interview with Henry Alford, author of Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That? A Modern Guide to Manners, who says, “Don’t say no problem unless an actual problem has been averted. It’s false modesty.” (Your Editor makes a mental note to stop saying no problem.)

Now I’ve lived in the South for … well, a long time. When I go “home” to California, my friends giggle and say I have a southern accent. Here in Tennessee, I often get asked where I’m from. If you want to know where you’re from—or where your accent says you’re from—you can take this little test. Me? I’m from “the Midlands.”

Tol’ ya!

Tweet: I am a Woman Without a Region. I talk like a Midwesterner, but never lived there.
Tweet: Regional words are just as interesting as regional accents.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in Words & Language | Tagged as: , , ,

#WordUse Series:
Words I Never Want to See in Your Novel. Please.

When I get to the end of an edit, I generally make a list of the author’s “favorite” words and phrases—words he or she used over and over without realizing it. It’s quite instructive.

Usually they are words like so and well used at the beginning of sentences of dialogue. Often it’s amazing (and you know how I feel about that!). Smirk shows up a lot too. Recently a manuscript I worked on had dialogue littered with you and I both know and listen as a way to begin a sentence (Listen, Sam, you and I both know the president will never approve that death squad).

You can’t hide much from your editor, my friends. We’re like hairdressers. :)

But in the spirit of self-improvement, let’s talk about some words and phrases I really wish you wouldn’t use, because I am, frankly, tired of reading them. It’s good for you to know these things now. Honest.

• I couldn’t help but … (notice, think, wonder)
This phrase shows up in many variations, and all of them are unoriginal and empty. Stop it. Just say, “I noticed …”

• Truth be known
Aside from the fact it’s way overused, it’s awkward. If you really must use it, it should properly be If the truth were known. Don’t tell me it’s your voice. Please.

• Suddenly
The hallmark of an inexperienced writer. Think about it: everything in fiction (in life!) happens suddenly. One second it wasn’t happening … and then it was. Suddenly.

• Blurt out
You remember my post on dialogue tags, right? I’m already not crazy about blurt for that reason, but when you write he blurted out, I cringe at the redundancy.

• I thought to myself (or he thought to himself)
Of course you think to yourself! Who else is in there with you? Now, you can say things to yourself. That means you’re speaking out loud, but are not engaged in a dialogue with another character. And that’s fine. Although it is, they say, one of the first signs of insanity.

• Then, then, and then
It’s not necessary to keep reminding me that one action came after another.

• May, when you mean might
When you are telling a story in the past tense, might is the word you should use. Trust me.

• Memories that flash or crash
Why is it so difficult to write about memories? Phrases like Memories of that day came crashing down on him or He flashed back to a happier time are just overdone. Corollary: memories that stab, as in Waves of guilt stabbed at him. Ick.

• That
He used to think that he couldn’t live without her. Then he realized that he could. If I had a nickel (as my father used to say) for every superfluous that I’ve removed from manuscripts, I could retire to that little Tybee Island beach house I’ve had my eye on.

There are other words/phrases that are fine to use, but because they are so very distinctive, you should only use them once. For example:

• Huff
I’ve seen characters who huff (1: to emit puffs of breath or steam; 2: to proceed with labored breathing, as he huffed up the stairs; 3: to make empty threats, to bluster; 4: to react or behave indignantly; 5: to utter with indignation or scorn), but when I see it repeatedly, I start to think there are pulmonary issues. Recently I read He huffed to himself, and I’m not even sure how that would work.

• Droll as a verb
Droll can be an adjective or a noun, too, but when a character drolls a line of dialogue, he should only do it once in any given novel. And I sincerely hope the line he is drolling is reeking of irony.

• Quirk as a verb
I love the word quirk used as a noun. But I only want to see your character quirk an eyebrow once.

• Smirk as a verb
I’ve written a whole blog post on this word; my biggest objection to it is it gets used incorrectly. But even when you do actually mean smirk, I’d prefer you only use it once.

I could make a long list of these distinctive words. I know you like them—they’re fun and different. But they call attention to themselves. For that matter, so do your favorite words. But the minute your reader starts noticing the repetition, she’s no longer lost in the story. When she starts rolling her eyes after the tenth you and I both know, you’ve lost a reader. Full stop.

Tweet: Words I never want to see in your novel. Please.
Tweet: In the spirit of self-improvement, let’s talk about your favorite words.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in Words & Language | Tagged as: , , , , ,

#WordUse Series:
On Stationery. And Guilds. And Vocabulary Words.

Stationery is an old-fashioned word. Or maybe I just think it’s old-fashioned because I learned it a long time ago and I don’t see it used much any more, given our electronic culture. But no, my fave dictionary lists it as having appeared in 1688—which is old enough, but its etymology is stationer, which we’re told by the same dictionary dates from the fourteenth century. So there you have it: old.

Stationery, a definition: 1) materials (as paper, pens, and ink) for writing or typing; and 2) letter paper usually accompanied with matching envelopes. And it follows, then, that a stationer is one who sells stationery, but the original meaning of stationer—the one that dates from the fourteenth century—is a) a bookseller and b) a publisher.

A-ha!

Back in the day, stationery was considered a ladylike gift for a young girl, and I had plenty of it, having already gained a reputation—by age ten!—for being quite the letter-writer. My first job in high school was at a stationery store. My mother kept stationery (Crane’s) and to this day, I do too. Nothing else will do.

So I was intrigued and later quite delighted when a friend of mine* noted (on Facebook) she was having dinner here. She attached that very link and there followed some discussion about whether her party (a professional organization) would be allowed to tour the building, particularly the library and archives:

The Company’s historic records from 1554 to the present day, housed in its Muniment Room, are remarkably complete and have withstood the ravages of time, fire and war. They form the single most important archival source for the history of the English book trade and have been used by scholars since the mid-eighteenth century.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What, er, Company? Answer: The Stationers’ Company is the City of London Livery Company for the communications and content industries.

We’ll need some more definitions. For example, the City of London is not to be confused with … well, London. (I’m not kidding. Read. We’re moving on. Keep up.) The City of London is only about a square mile, but it contains—besides a whole bunch of banks and other global financial institutions—precisely 108 livery companies. That is, trade associations. Or, if you remember your history lessons, guilds.

Guild, a definition: an association of merchants or craftsmen in a particular trade. The earliest types of guilds were fraternities of workers; Wikipedia says they were something between a trade union, a cartel, and a secret society. But I’m talking about the guilds that emerged in Europe during the Middle Ages—tenth to twelfth centuries, say. Masons, blacksmiths, apothecaries, and such. These particular guilds have all been approved, at one point or another, by the British Crown.

When you think of livery—although you probably don’t, because it, too, is an old word—you may think of a uniform: 2a) the distinctive clothing or badge formerly worn by the retainers of a person of rank; 2b) a servant’s uniform; 2c) distinctive dress, garb; 2d) chiefly British, an identifying design (as on a vehicle) that designates ownership. Or you may think of “the feeding, stabling, and care of horses for pay,” as the words livery stable regularly appear briefly onscreen in Westerns and other period films set before the automobile replaced the horse and carriage as our primary means of transportation. But in this context—the 108 livery companies—we’re talking about a guild.

The Livery Companies of the City of London, then, started as guilds in the Middle Ages. Wikipedia says, “Some livery companies continue to have a professional role today. Other Livery Companies have become purely charitable foundations. Most Companies, particularly those formed in more recent times, are primarily social and charitable organisations. The active Companies play an important part in social life and networking in the City and have a long history of cultural patronage, and control of the City of London Corporation (which still functions as a local authority with extensive local government powers).”

Which brings us ’round to the Stationers Company. It was founded as a guild in 1403 and at that time stationers were text writers, illuminators, bookbinders, or booksellers (of hand-copied books; it would be 1440 before Gutenberg’s famous press arrived on the scene). Stationers worked at fixed, assigned positions (stations! a-ha again!) around the outside walls of St. Paul’s Cathedral. By the time the guild received its royal charter in 1557, though, machine printing had displaced manuscript production, so it was effectively a printers’ guild. In 1559 it became the forty-seventh Livery Company. Its official name is Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers, which dates from 1937, when the Stationers’ Company and the Newspaper Makers Company were amalgamated by Royal Charter.

Are you still with me? The word company as it’s used in this context kept throwing me off, because I think of a company as something intended to make a profit. But, hey, a quick trip to the dictionary helps us make the distinction: 3a) a chartered commercial organization or medieval trade guild; and 3b) an association of persons for carrying on a commercial or industrial enterprise.

The Stationers’ Company has a beautiful, sophisticated, deep website, which is where this whole post started. (It was intended to be a Short Saturday post, but clearly I’ve failed.) I suspect you’ll get a kick out of it, as I did, not least because it’s our industry. I particularly delight in the way this six hundred-year-old organization with all that history presents such a modern face:

The Company’s mission is to be recognised as the most effective independent forum in the UK Communications and Content industries, actively contributing to the strategic development, success and education of these industries. The majority of our members work in or supply the paper, print, publishing, packaging, office products, newspaper, broadcasting and online media industries.

Oh, this has been so much fun!

*You didn’t know I’d get a blog post out of this, Roz, but thank you!

 

Tweet: Stationery is a very, very old word (14th century). Read all about it.
Tweet: On stationery. And guilds. And vocabulary words. They’re connected, really!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in Miscellany, Words & Language | Tagged as: , , , , , ,

#WordUse Series:
Step Away From the Thesaurus and No One Gets Hurt

You know I love my thesaurus, right? I do. I have at least four of them, from various decades dating back to the ’40s (you’d be surprised how useful that is), as well as a rhyming dictionary, a slang dictionary, and something called the Flip Dictionary, which is more fun than any dictionary has a right to be.

Still, I love my thesaurus, for a variety of reasons. It’s especially useful for brainstorming, I think. As noted in a previous post, I often start by make lists of words I might use in a project. A Western-themed copywriting assignment led to a list that included cowboycowpokebuckaroobuffalo galssaddletrailblazelassomaverickcampfirepardnerhowdybandana, and so on. I use word lists to set mood, too; I review the many words that mean, let’s say, elegant—such as classycourtlygracefulrefinedtasteful—though I may never use them. I just want to feel them, let them roll around in my head and see if they knock anything loose. And they usually do.

But not always. A few weeks ago I drove my friends crazy when I was seeking a word for a man who is worldly, enjoys the good life, and is, perhaps, a bit of a bad boy, although the kind who endears himself to everyone. He’s a bon vivant, though that’s not the word I was looking for. Boulevardier, sophisticate, epicurean, and roué dance around it. This is a man who is cultivated, cosmopolitan, continental, refined, and always gracious; he’s elegant, polished, debonair, cultured. He is a connoisseur of the finer things. But none of these is the word, and I’m still annoyed with myself for all the hours I’ve spent thinking about it. I feel strongly that it might be some sort of British vernacular, and I’m probably going to have to go read a Julian Fellowes novel or three to come up with it. (It’s a tough ol’ job, but someone’s got to do it.)

If you’re a writer, you might have used the thesaurus when you were looking for ways to describe a character’s blue eyes (azure, icy, sky) or blond hair (straw, honey, bleached)—but sometimes I wish you wouldn’t.

No, seriously. I can tell when an author’s spent too much time with his thesaurus at fifty paces. In a manuscript I reviewed for a publisher years ago, someone must have told the author he should replace duplicate words. So he did. He just opened his thesaurus, looked up a word he’d used more than once, and picked substitute words without having a real knowledge of the substitute’s drill-down meaning. For example, I noticed the word aspect used as a substitute for face, as in “he had a look of horror on his aspect.” True story.

That’s an extreme example, but the fact is, a thesaurus is not a shortcut to building vocabulary. There are shades of meaning. And if the word isn’t already in your personal vocabulary, you’re liable to use it incorrectly. It won’t sound like you. The lesson here is when you use the thesaurus too much, two things happen:

1. The unusual words draw attention to themselves.
2. It just doesn’t sound like your voice.

Sure, sometimes the story might call for a sparkly word. You might have a character who speaks with flair. Or you may not be able to remember a word that’s right on the tip of your tongue. By all means, avail yourself of this wonderful tool.

Just be careful. You’re allowed to use words more than once, you know. :) And sometimes plain, simple language helps the reader stay in the story. Sometimes less really is more.

UPDATE: There’s more on this subject here.

Tweet: I can tell when an author’s spent too much time with his thesaurus at 50 paces.
Tweet: A thesaurus is not a shortcut to building vocabulary. Use with caution.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in Words & Language, Your Editor Says … | Tagged as: , , , , , ,

Short Saturday: Should You Hire a Professional Editor?

That answer’s always going to be yes of you ask me, of course. :) But publishing expert Jane Friedman has a more measured response in this article. :)

“There are three primary reasons to hire a professional,” Friedman says:

1 The learning experience.
2 The industry advantage.
3 Submission preparation.

All excellent reasons. But before you can benefit from them, you have to fully embrace the editing process. (Or, as one of my authors said to me this morning: I’ve realized you and I speak the same language.) I’ve seen this in my own practice, and Friedman has too:

Writers don’t always understand what type of editor to use, or how an editor is supposed to improve their work. This results in surface-level changes that don’t meaningfully affect the chances at publication. Less experienced writers also tend to be more protective of their work and less likely to revise. … If you’re hoping an editor will wave a magic wand and transform your work into a publishable manuscript over night, you’ll be disappointed by the results. But if you feel you’ve come to the end of your own ability to improve the work, you’re more likely to benefit.

That bit about the magic wand is an important point. Editing is a give and take arrangement.

Read the rest—it’s very informative.

Tweet: You have to fully embrace the editing process before you can benefit from it.
Tweet: Should you hire a professional editor?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in The Book Biz | Tagged as: