Communication Is the Thing

Back in the early ’90s, I learned a new way of communicating.

Communicate: to make known; to inform; to convey knowledge or information; to impart or transmit; to send information or messages sometimes back and forth; speak, gesticulate, or write to another to convey information; interchange thoughts; to be connected.

I’ve been writing as a way to connect to other people—and myself—for as long as I can remember. I still have the first book I wrote. The cover is pale blue construction paper, which holds the hand-lettered pages together with brass fasteners. It’s fiction*—about two otters who live in Grand Rapids.** I was in first grade when I wrote it. Later there was the fan fiction based on the Beatles. And the innumerable letters I wrote to neighborhood friends left behind (my father was in the air force), kids who wrote back because they were wordy, communicative kids like me. I had many pen pals, as we called them back in the day. I journaled (“Dear Diary …”), and in high school my written smart-mouth antics, on occasion, got me into trouble.

I had then and have now a not-insignificant vocabulary, I don’t mind saying, acquired from the books and magazines I read, as well as from my wordy parents. I liked using it too. It’s a delight to have the right word for the right situation. Even if it’s slang. I’m a lifelong reader, a lifelong learner, and a lifelong communicator.

It’s also a delight to learn new ways to communicate. Like emoticons. You may think they’re old-fashioned now, but at the time—read it sideways, we were told—being able to write a smile into a sentence was revolutionary. :) Or communicate surprise :o or a raspberry :p or … here’s a list. It was brilliant. The smile emoticon filled my email correspondence (and still does).

I also learned Internet slang about this time—LOL, for example, and brb, which was handy for online chat (and later, phone texts). As usage of emoticons and Internet abbreviations increasingly crept into email correspondence, so did the gnashing of teeth of certain commentators over the demise of, you know, The English Language.***

But I see it as another interesting way to communicate. A new, different language, and just as valid. (Although let’s not call it a new language. It’s more like getting an additional kit filled with new, exciting, extra words that you’ll use alongside your standard vocabulary set.)

When I started blogging I learned about tagging and hashtagging. You’ve seen them, I know: #foodporn or #blacklivesmatter or #firstworldproblem. Wikipedia says a hashtag is “a type of label or metadata tag used on social network and microblogging services which makes it easier for users to find messages with a specific theme or content.” (Or, as they say, trending topics.) In other words, they make learning and communication easier. Although the concept was in place earlier, Twitter users really put hashtagging on the communication map, and between that and other social media, such as Facebook and Instagram, the practice is ubiquitous.

And, in fact, there’s another way hashtags are used, aside from trending topics and news about events (#WorldCup2014) or tragedies (#JeSuisCharlie). Now #hashtagging has developed into yet another way to communicate that allows us to express written irony or sarcasm (or even just humor) and be reasonably sure we won’t be misunderstood. Hashtags have become punchlines.

When author Matt Haig tweets, “Tomorrow I am going to Barcelona for two days to promote the Spanish and Catalan editions of [my new book]. #notaholiday #honest #tapas,” those hashtags aren’t trending topics, they’re humor. When a friend of mine who enjoys gardening posts a photo of, well, dirt on Facebook captioned, “Half a tonne of compost and manure has just landed on my drive. #‎gardeningheaven #‎sciatichell,” I chuckle. A friend of mine with a large (male) English sheepdog cracks me up every day with her posts about the dog (#peeonallthethings). When another friend has a little Facebook conversation (complete with sarcasm and ironic humor) almost entirely in #hashtag, I’m amused (though not clever enough to respond in kind):

She: I don’t care if it is getting Oscar buzz, I’m not going to watch another stupid movie about stupid boxing. #creed #Ihateboxing #didimentionthatihateboxing #alsowrestling #stopitAcademy

He: That’s understandable. #Boxingisformen #StayawayfromBoxing #Ihatecookingshows #alsodecorating

I enjoy interpreting hashtag in its written form, and it can be hilarious in verbal form, like this skit with Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake. I could go on and on. My younger friends are definitely far more fluent and clever in hashtag than I am, but I’m working at it.

The written word can be cold. There’s no tone of voice, no facial expression, no twinkle in the eye, no hand placed on an arm to accompany the message—and sometimes there are misunderstandings. Misreadings. Miscommunication, in other words. Emoticons and texting abbreviations and hashtags—these new subsets of our written language—are possibilities to create communicative nuance in ways we never had before. Communication is the thing.

Epilogue

(No, I haven’t forgotten emoji. I’ve wanted to write about emoji, but to be frank I don’t even understand them. It’s a language I haven’t been able to generate any desire to learn. I embraced emoticons—and though the words are similar (emoticon, emoji) they are unrelated—but emoji leave me cold. Wikipedia describes emoji as ideograms or pictographs. Meanwhile, I see a string of little icons and they mean nothing to me. Too much left open to interpretationhere’s a good example using just the smile emoji—which is the opposite of what communication means to me. Is it a new language? The New York Times says so, but why would I waste my precious life sorting though thousands of tiny, tiny drawings trying to piece together a bit of unclear communication I could type easily and with utter clarity in a tenth of the time? Nah.)

* Title: Tales of Tails and Tail-Less. Clever, I know. :)
** I made up the location name based on what I knew about otters at the time; it was much later when I learned about the real Grand Rapids.
*** And putting a smile into a business email was unprofessional. Whatever. I’ll do business my way, you can do it your way. So far, my way is working OK.

 

Tweet: I’ve been writing as a way to connect to other people for as long as I can remember.
Tweet: The written word can be cold. There’s no tone of voice, no facial expression.

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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Plagiarizing, A Quick Aside

Dear Author:

If your sentence has the exact same structure as that sentence in WaPo, but you just change a word or two … it’s still pretty much plagiarizing. Just sayin’. No, really.

Kindly,

Your Editor

No, really, y’all. This stuff is important. I know you’ve got a lot going on and I know your deadline is looming, but I want you to know two things:

1 Your publisher is paying you for your writing and your ideas.

2 Editors can tell (or suspect) when you’ve helped yourself to someone else’s.

Even if you’ve credited your source—for our example, let’s say the New York Times—for a quote, if you’re going to keep talking about the subject and take another line or two out of quotes, you need to be careful to restate the idea, not just change a word or three. Here’s the sentence in the Times:

Moving is stressful at any age, but for those who have lived in one place for many years, getting rid of things that have accumulated over decades is a large barrier to overcome.

This is the sort of adjustment I’ve seen reused:

Moving is emotional at any age, but for those who have lived at one address for many years, getting rid of items that have accumulated over decades is extremely stressful.

Sure, it’s changed. But I recognize it right away. The sentence structure hasn’t changed. This isn’t rewriting, isn’t putting anything into your own words. It’s just careless—or lazy.

Don’t be that writer.

Here are related articles:

The Book, er, Blog Thief
Be Careful What You Copy and Paste
Legal Issues

Tweet: Plagiarism—don’t be that writer.
Tweet: If you just change a word or two … you’re probably still plagiarizing.

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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Short Saturday: Someone to Tell Your Stories To …

I’ve recently finished a wonderful memoir by geobiologist Hope Jahren called Lab Girl. The book is many things—“a treatise on plant life,” the jacket blurb tells us—but it’s also about scientists, the world of science, and about being a woman in a field dominated by men.

Perhaps as a side note, it is marvelously written, and where a person who has accomplished so much in a career found time to polish her writing chops is beyond my ability to fathom. Read it. Hope Jahren has some wonderful stories to tell to you.

At the end of a long silence Bill [my lab partner] surprised me by saying with quiet seriousness, “Put it in a book. Do me that favor someday.”

Bill knows about my writing. He knows about the pages of poetry stuffed into my car’s glove box; he knows about the many nextstory.doc files on my hard drive; he knows how I like to sift through the thesaurus for hours; he knows that nothing feels better to me than finding exactly the right word that stabs cleanly at the heart of what you are trying to say. He knows that I read most books twice or more and write long letters to their authors, and that sometimes I even get an answer. He knows how much I need to write. But he had never given me permission to write about [our work] until that day. I nodded and inwardly vowed to do my best. …

I have accepted that I don’t know all the things that I ought to know, but I do know the things that I need to know. … Like anyone else who harbors precious secrets wrought from years of searching, I have longed for someone to tell.

Hope Jahren

Transcribed by me from pages 276–278 of my hardcover copy of Lab Girl, © 2016, Alfred A. Knopf.

Tweet: Longing for someone to tell your stories to? Write a memoir.
Tweet: “He knows how much I need to write.”

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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The Principle of Write What You Know

Do a little search for this phrase—write what you know (WWYK)—and you’ll get all sorts of articles, some deeper, more knowing, than others. Some of these articles contradict. Some make the concept more difficult than it needs to be.

But I’m here to make a case for writing what you know—because I have been seeing a lot of (ahem) outlandish novels* from (often) first-time authors who clearly aren’t writing anything based in what they know deep in their bones. And OK, it’s fiction, I get it—you’re making it up. But I still don’t buy it, because you’re not really writing what you know, and as a reader I can sense the lack of organic authenticity.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked on novels set in some exotic place, and/or with an unusual set of circumstances, and/or with a completely unbelievable protagonist, and/or with a cause the author wants to advance … and everything just feels off and awkward and forced.

Here’s a classic violation of the Principle of WWYK: we Americans speak the same language—and many of our cultural markers have the same origins as—our cousins in the British Isles, and yet the differences between the lives of residents of Britain and the United States is vast. Just ask accomplished British author Zadie Smith how vast; she found out when she set a novel—not her first—in New York. She was living in New York at the time, and she thought she knew the place—but she didn’t. She later told an audience at a book festival that she would “never set another book in the US after her experience with her 2005 novel On Beauty,” according to the Guardian.

It’s an extreme example, perhaps, but when Smith, a Londoner by birth, sets a novel in England, she knows that milieu without even thinking about it. It’s organic. Write what you know.

This is what I mean. In an article in the Atlantic called, interestingly and counterintuitively, “Don’t Write What You Know,” author and college professor Bret Anthony Johnston says,

To be perfectly clear: I don’t tell students not to ferret through their lives for potential stories. I don’t want, say, a soldier who served in Iraq to shy away from writing war stories. Quite the opposite. I want him to freight his fiction with rich details of combat. I want the story to evoke the texture of the sand and the noise of a Baghdad bazaar, the terrible and beautiful shade of blue smoke ribboning from the barrel of his M-4. His experience should liberate his imagination, not restrict it. Of course I want him to take inspiration where he can find it. What I don’t want—and what’s prone to happen when writers set out to write what they know—is for him to think an imagined story is less urgent, less harrowing or authentic, than a true story.

Johnston calls this sort of WWYK “emotional integrity,” and that’s exactly what we are looking for. Not autobiography—though that, too, can be mined for emotional integrity. Last week I used Pat Conroy’s work as an example of overwriting, but note also that all of Conroy’s material is a superior example of WWYK. From his teaching experience to his abusive father, from his experience in a military family to the places he lived up and down the southern eastern seaboard, from his own experiences in therapy to his sister’s institutionalization with mental illness and his brother’s suicide—all of these details and many more show up in Conroy’s fiction. And there is not a detail out of place, there is not a story that feels inorganic. If there ever was anybody who knew from WWYK, Pat was that writer. (James Lee Burke is another.)

I’ve seen this excellent use of WWYK, too, in the books of writers I know personally, have worked with, and call my friends: one grew up in the small farming communities of West Virginia’s Appalachia and uses what she knows about this world (people and place) when she writes; another who grew up and lives in west Texas (a different milieu entirely from Appalachia!), and sets her novels there; and yet another who has expanded on the tiniest of autobiographical details to develop rich, rewarding novels of great depth that bear no resemblance to her own life whatsoever.

Write what you know. Organic authenticity. Emotional integrity. It’s hard to write past your personal frame of reference, no matter how accomplished you are, so use that material instead. Literary agent Amanda Luedeke enjoys visiting the hometowns and important sites of authors she loves. In an article about visiting John Steinbeck’s gravesite, she says,

In Salinas and in Monterey and in the strawberry farms and cattle ranches in between it was as if I had been transported to a world that I’d always thought of as fake.** And yet there it was—real. It had been modernized, no doubt. But the winding coastal streets, the smell of the ocean, the whales in the bay, the ever-pressing presence of the distant ranges surrounding the Salinas Valley were real. And they were just as he had written.

This is the power of writing what you know. Of taking something that may seem ordinary and plain and boring to you and describing it with such truth and care that a girl thousands of miles away can visit for the first time decades after the stories have been written and published and think, “I’ve been here before. Many, many times.” (Emphasis mine.)

And yet … so often folks who want to write, who have a story, go off on a tangent, even to a foreign country, away from everything they know. I know this because sometimes I am asked to edit them.

Aside from the exotic locales, I have seen early novels that are working out an unrequited romantic relationship from the author’s past. But when you start writing a wish-fulfillment novel, making the main character a proxy for yourself, while you may think you’re writing what you know, what you’re really doing is fantasizing. And the only person who’s interested in that story is, well … you. You should trust Your Editor on this one.

Or it has elements of a past relationship (not necessarily romantic) or something else that is “true,” like a protagonist who suffers from depression. Or it’s a personal fantasy (you meet a really rich guy who falls madly in love with you … oh, wait, E. L. James has that one covered).

            Write what you know doesn’t necessarily mean write autobiographical fiction, although, like Pat Conroy, you certainly can and should use details—truths—from your life, with care. Truth and care, see? WWYK doesn’t necessarily mean write about something that really happened either. To you. I can’t tell you how many times I have questioned an author about a scene (“This scene doesn’t ring true,” I say, or, if I’m cranky, “I don’t believe this scene”) and been told, “Well, it happened to me,” which shuts right down any conversation about realism, about authenticity, and about fantastical scenes taking over your plot.

Or, “Well, I lived there.” Recently I read a mystery/police procedural by a Canadian author now living in France. The book (it’s one of a series) is also set in France, with French characters (as opposed to, say, a Canadian protagonist). I’d wanted to like it—and there were aspects of it I did like—but it just didn’t ring true, particularly in some of the word choices. I wonder if the French—as French characters in this novel did—use the word tummy (or, that is, the French equivalent) when they mean to refer to a stomach, for just one off-putting example. This also is a classic case of violating the Principle of WWYK. I would posit that a Canadian expat in France should make her protagonist an outsider (she surely knows that experience), rather than using French protagonists. See the difference?

Write what you know. Organic authenticity. Emotional integrity. Truth and care …

WWYK doesn’t mean you should pepper your dialogue with “um,” either, or begin every sentence with “Well” or “So.” But that’s real, right? That’s the argument I get from the defensive first-time novelist: people really do talk like that. Maybe they do, but it’s tiresome to read and doesn’t move the conversation or the plot forward, so skip it. Please.

No, WWYK means getting the underpinnings right. Bret Anthony Johnston puts it like this:

Instead of thinking of my experiences as structures I wanted to erect in fiction, I started conceiving of them as the scaffolding that would be torn down once the work was complete. I took small details from my life to evoke a place and the people who inhabit it, but those details served to illuminate my imagination. (Emphasis mine.)

Write what you know. Use the small, telling details about a place or about the human condition. (I’ve written about this here and here.) If you get the underlying structure—emotions, characterization, or milieu—right (because you know them), then you can lay a fiction—a story—on top of it, and all will be well. I really do think Johnston and I agree, no matter that he says don’t and I say do, or that he says scaffolding and I say underpinning.

This is nowhere more important than in your first novel. Writing a novel is hard enough; there are a lot of moving parts. Write what you know.

* Note: we’re not talking about fantasy or science fiction here. That’s a different post altogether.
** I love this line, because I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, about an hour’s drive from Steinbeck country. I always knew it was real—but I get it.

 

Tweet: Write what you know: what it means, what it doesn’t mean.
Tweet: Write what you know. Organic authenticity. Emotional integrity.
Tweet: Use the small, telling details about a place or about the human condition.

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 Writing Craft | Tagged as: , , , , ,

Short Saturday: Why I Stopped Reading Your Book

Like author Chuck Wendig, I’ve gotten a whole lot pickier about what I read and how much time I give it before I stop. “For one,” he says, “it’s time.” Work and time and personal responsibilities all intrude. But also, he says, “I’m like a stage magician where it’s harder to fool me with your magic because I know all the tricks. I can see the misdirection coming a mile away.”

Thus this article, “25 Reasons Why I Stopped Reading Your Book.” It’s long, it uses strong language (so you’re warned), but it’s right on the money, despite Wendig’s claim that it is an intensely personal list. Here’s number 21:

I gain no sense of why now? Every story you write should begin with that essential question: why is this story happening now? If we are to assume that a story is a break in the status quo—and to my mind, stories are exactly that—then the timing of the story is vital. What precipitated the narrative? What events inside the story make it necessary, and necessary at this moment? Did someone just steal the Death Star plans? Is this a Christmas party set in a building just as German terrorist-thieves are about to initiate an, erm, hostile takeover? Has there been a wedding? A funeral? A discovery? An attack? HAS THERE BEEN AN AWAKENING AND HAVE YOU FELT IT? Some stories lack an answer to that question, why now, and I can feel it. It undercuts the urgency of the tale. And urgency is everything. Creating urgency makes the story feel vital and it keeps people reading. (Lending the narrative that urgency is a lesson unto itself, of course.)

This, as you know, is my job. So I present this list to you as #writetips more than anything else. If you need permission to bail on a book, though, I’ve written on this topic too:

Quitting While You’re Ahead
The Moment the Reader Lost Interest

Have a great weekend.

Tweet: Sometimes the book’s just not for you. Sometimes it’s flawed writing.
Tweet: Writers need to know why readers give up on a novel.

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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Overwriting: Relax, You’re Trying Too Hard

Many years ago—long before my editing days—I was reading my hot-off-the-press copy of Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides. (Before lights out, in bed, where I still do my pleasure reading.) There was one paragraph (among many) that was so exquisite, so perfect, that I threw the book across the room in despair. (I’m not proud of this. But.) I was, at the time, trying to write a novel myself (an endeavor I knew absolutely nothing about), and I was certain I could never emulate what I’d just read.

Oh, I loved Conroy’s work. My mother had given me a copy of The Water Is Wide when the movie based on it (Conrack) came out. I grew up in a military family, the daughter of a USAF pilot, so The Great Santini was essential reading in our house.* The Lords of Discipline followed, and it shocked my young self—in a good way—but forever colored what I think of the Citadel. I was familiar with the milieu (my family goes ’way back in South Carolina); Pat Conroy spoke a language I knew in my bones.

Eventually I fell away from Pat, moved on to other authors, other interests.** He wrote a spirited defense of English teachers in 2007, but I’d passed on the 800-page Beach Music in ’95, having read reviews that suggested it was bloated. (In fact, Wikipedia reports he submitted 2,100 typewritten pages to his editor, who trimmed it significantly.***) Reviews were mixed for South of Broad too.

Then I was directed to his 2010 memoir, My Reading Life, which I am enjoying, yes, but also cringing a little over. It’s exposing both Pat’s writing gifts and his writing flaws. It occurs to me that we can learn something from the flaws of a best-selling author—so let’s talk about overwriting.

What is overwriting? Simply: writing that is too elaborate, too ornate, too wordy, too much in every way. (This is a really great article about it.) It can be a lot like purple prose—it might make use of purple prose—but that’s really just the beginning; artificial springs to mind, along with repetitious, convoluted, overloaded, overexplained. Overwriting is prose that is melodramatic, schmaltzy, florid, and overwrought—all words I’ve seen used in reviews of Pat Conroy’s work.

Maybe it’s just better if I give you an example, just one paragraph, transcribed by me from page 84 of my copy of My Reading Life:

I grew up a word-haunted boy. I felt words inside me and stored them wondrous as pearls. I mouthed them and fingered them and rolled them around my tongue. My mother filled my bedtime hour with poetry that rang like Sanctus bells as she praised the ineffable loveliness of the English language with her Georgia-accented voice. I found that hive of words beautiful beyond all conveyance. They clung to me and blistered my skin and made me happy to be alive in the land of crape myrtle, spot-tailed bass, and eastern diamondbacks. The precise naming of things served as my entryway into art. The whole world could be sounded out. I could arrange each day into a tear sheet of music composed of words as pretty as flutes or the tail feathers of peacocks.

In this 134-word paragraph we move from haunting to pearls to poetry to bells to a hive to blistered skin to art and music. And that’s just the imagery. It’s not connected, it doesn’t flow, it’s over-the-top, frankly. I read it a few days ago and though I don’t wear my editor hat during pleasure reading, my first thought was What in the world happened to this mess? (Forgive me, Pat,**** but it’s true. This paragraph makes very little sense. You are trying too hard.)

If you’ve gotten editorial notes from me in which I’ve told you to Relax, you’re trying too hard … you’re overwriting. You’re overworking. If you find yourself in this situation, stop, drop, and simplify. :)

Was Conroy always this full of himself, always this bombastic? Or was his earlier work more finely crafted (or less crafted, to its benefit)? I don’t know, and I haven’t read those early books in decades. Yet I see sparks of the Conroy I loved in little gems like this sentence from page 114:

In the early days, Cliff treated me with all the suspicion of a trapdoor spider.

If you’ve watched as much science TV as I did with the Boy, you know it’s perfectly visualized.

There’s lots more you can learn too. Conroy was a great teller of stories with complex plots that always satisfy. His voice was powerful and self-assured—and that was because he absolutely and always wrote what he knew: he mined his own personal life—its tragedies and triumphs, his family, his school, his locations—for every book he ever wrote. “Write what you know” is a simple dictum, but it’s often misunderstood. Conroy understood it completely.

Pat Conroy wrote movingly about the military “brat” subculture; he supported research and the awareness movement. The children of career military families live lives so different from other children it’s almost impossible to describe. The constant moving alone means they never have a hometown. Pat understood the sacrifices of the children—and he didn’t pull any punches when he wrote about it.

I forgive Pat the paragraph above, I do. And you writers can learn from it. At its best, his prose is lyrical and beautiful. At its worst—well, there are all those New York Times best-selling books to answer that. I imagine that he wasn’t easy to edit in his latter years. (If you’re a fan of those works, let me hear from you, please.) And as always, I believe we can learn a lot by reading other writers. Pat Conroy is no exception.

* I want to note emphatically that my daddy was great in every sense of the word but he was never, ever like Bull Meacham.
** I did read his memoir My Losing Season when it came out in 2002.
*** Manuscript pages have fewer words than printed pages in the book, but still, 2,100 pages is a lot. For comparison, the longest manuscript I’ve ever worked on was a little over 500 pages.
**** Sadly, Mr. Conroy left this world on 4 March 2016.

 

Tweet: Overwriting: too elaborate, too ornate, too wordy, too much in every way.
Tweet: Overwriting—relax, you’re trying too hard.

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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Short Saturday: Developing Your Writer’s Voice

Jane Friedman really has some interesting guest writers on her blog. A couple weeks ago, this one from author Jennifer Loudon on developing your writing voice: “5 Ways to Develop Your Writer’s Voice.” (I’ve written some on this myself: here and here, just for starters.)

It’s an interesting article, with elements I hadn’t considered. Like this one:

2. Show Your Mistakes
Your voice won’t fully mature if you edit as you write. One of my writing retreat participants, Erin, said:

“My writing process hinged on editing. I wanted to say things perfectly, compulsively. My creative process consisted of a flash of inspiration and then the editing of that flash of inspiration repeatedly and compulsively until I was bored and it was boring. The hard work for me is to write through the bad.”

Try generating new material without deleting as you go. Leave a string of your not-quite-right words and ideas. What happens if you erase your first inkling? You interrupt the flow that will soon lead you to what you really want to say. Tidying as you go cuts off your process. Learn to tolerate seeing the mess so your voice has room to grow and permission to show itself.

I do this a lot: I leave asterisks in the text for a word or phrase I am stuck on. And I leave lists of words—sometimes I’m just using the list to brainstorm—in margin notes. I can’t tell you how helpful this practice is.

This “show your mistakes” also points out another advantage of the “ugly” first draft. Just get it down—and then go back and tweak it into your voice. You’ll instinctively know how.

It’s a good read altogether, so check it out!

Tweet: Writer, know thyself (to find your voice)!
Tweet: An interesting way to look at your writing voice.

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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When Yes and No Mean the Same Thing

When do yes and no mean the same thing? Do they? I’m trying to wrap my head around this and I’m not sure I have the knowledge/vocabulary to express it. But I’m going to find out. Here, this:

You’re writing along, using your personal writer’s voice in your little blog, and you ask a question of your reader, something you expect your reader to agree with. You’ve relayed a little story and then you say …

That was interesting, no?”
That was interesting, yes?”

(Or you might say, “That was interesting, wasn’t it?” But it’s not as snappy.)

I think these mean the same thing. Yes = no. :)

But which one should I use? Yes or no? I’m an editor. I’d like to make the right choice. Also I want to be able to talk about this yes/no phenomenon, and I’d like to sound as if I know what I’m talking about. (Ha.) So what is this linguistic practice called?

I started with the hypothesis that it is a rhetorical question. Wikipedia says, “A rhetorical question is a figure of speech in the form of a question that is asked to make a point rather than to elicit an answer.” That’s a start, but here’s the line that gets my attention: “Though a rhetorical question does not require a direct answer, in many cases it may be intended to start a discussion or at least draw an acknowledgement that the listener understands the intended message” (emphasis mine).

But … that’s not close enough. I want to know what these yes/no questions are, dagnabbit. And it turns out they are tag questions. (I spent a lot of time strolling up one aisle and down another in the interwebs to find this out. Someday maybe I’ll figure out a way to make all this time I spend googling around and around worth some dough. For now, though, it’s just self-edification.)

Tag questions! Wikipedia is helpful here:

A question tag or tag question (also known as tail question) is a grammatical structure in which a declarative statement or an imperative is turned into a question by adding an interrogative fragment (the “tag”). For example, in the sentence “You’re John, aren’t you?”, the statement “You’re John” is turned into a question by the tag “aren’t you”.

In most languages, tag questions are more common in colloquial spoken usage than in formal written usage. They can be an indicator of politeness, emphasis or irony. They may suggest confidence or lack of confidence; they may be confrontational, defensive or tentative. Although they have the grammatical form of a question, they may be rhetorical (not expecting an answer). In other cases, when they do expect a response, they may differ from straightforward questions in that they cue the listener as to what response is desired. (Emphasis mine.)

So … is the yes/no choice a cue to the listener? If so, why sometimes yes and sometimes no? Remember,

You might say, “That was interesting, no?”
Or you might say, “That was interesting, yes?”

Do yes and no mean the same thing here? And how do we choose? If I were using Wikipedia’s question with the yes/no tag, I’d say, “You’re John, yes?” But I chose no for my “that was interesting” question. Am I just overthinking?

Here’s the answer.

This single-word yes/no tag is not a common construct in American English. But it is very common in both eastern and western Europe (the Spanish ¿verdad?, German nicht wahr? [not true] or the French d’accord?); it’s common in Russia (“da”); it is common in China and southeast Asia; it is common in Canada (“eh?”—which is Scottish in origin). In Ireland, one hears “so” as a sentence-ending tag. Here in the States we use tags like …

isn’t it?
aren’t you?
yeah?
right?
OK?
is it not?
don’t you think?
didn’t you?
wouldn’t you agree?

Not a yes or a no among them.

But our lives are becoming more global every day. We travel. We read. We surf the Internet and make friends on Facebook with folks from other cultures and countries. We begin to adopt figures of speech and grammatical structures from these sources. And the yes/no tag questions show up in our speech.

The answer, then, is yes, I was overthinking. Intention doesn’t matter. Context doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter if you’re inviting agreement or disagreement. It doesn’t indicate the social class of the user; it’s vernacular, full stop. Yes and no can mean the same thing when used as tag questions. You’re welcome!

Tweet: When do yes and no mean the same thing?
Tweet: Yes or no? I’m an editor. I’d like to make the right choice.

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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Short Saturday: What Will the English Language Be Like in the Future?

We’ve talked a lot about how language—words and grammar—changes over time (here’s one of my posts with links to many of the rest: “The Language Metamorphosis”), but this article takes a really long view: What will the English language be like in 100 years?

The global role English plays today as a lingua franca—used as a means of communication by speakers of different languages—has parallels in the Latin of pre-modern Europe.

Having been spread by the success of the Roman Empire, Classical Latin was kept alive as a standard written medium throughout Europe long after the fall of Rome. But the Vulgar Latin used in speech continued to change, forming new dialects, which in time gave rise to the modern Romance languages: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian and Italian.

This, author Simon Horobin of Oxford University points out, indicates a future of multiple Englishes. (A look at this map—which shows, among other things, where English is spoken—plays into this idea too.) Chances are you already know at least one alternate English language now. :)

Tweet: Chances are you already know at least one alternate English language now.
Tweet: New interlanguages are emerging where English is a second language.

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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Saving a Beautiful History

On Friday morning, January 25, 2013, fifteen jihadis entered the restoration and conservation rooms on the ground floor of the Ahmed Baba Institute in Sankoré, the government library that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had taken over the previous April. For nearly a year, thousands of manuscripts left behind by the Ahmed Baba staff had been sitting in the open, stacked on shelves and lying on restoration tables, while the jihadis prayed, trained, ate, and slept around them.

Now, on the verge of being expelled from Timbuktu, the Al Qaeda fighters would extract their retribution. The men swept 4,202 manuscripts off lab tables and shelves, and carried them into the tiled courtyard. In an act of nihilistic vindictiveness that they had been threatening for months, the jihadis made a pyre of the ancient texts, including fourteenth- and fifteenth-century works of physics, chemistry, and mathematics, their fragile pages covered with algebraic formulas, charts of the heavens, and molecular diagrams. They doused the manuscripts in gasoline, watching in satisfaction as the liquid saturated them, and tossed in a lit match. The brittle pages and their dry leather covers ignited in a flash. The flames rose higher, licking at a concrete column around which the volumes had been arranged. In minutes, the work of some of Timbuktu’s greatest savants and scientists, preserved for centuries, hidden from the nineteenth-century jihadis and the French conquerors, survivors of floods and the pernicious effects of dust, bacteria, water, and insects, were consumed by the inferno. …

And yet out of this wanton act of destruction the curators of the Ahmed Baba Institute had managed to extract a small victory. [Seven months later] Bouya escorted me down a wide flight of stairs to the basement, leading the way by flashlight, since power had still not been restored to the city months after the occupation. He turned the key in the lock and cast his beam over black, moisture-resistant cardboard boxes neatly arranged on dozens of metal shelves, as tidy and ordered as the stacks of a university library in the United States. During their ten months of living at the Ahmed Baba Institute, the fighters had never bothered to venture downstairs to this dark and climate-controlled storage room hidden behind a locked door. Inside were stacks containing 10,603 restored manuscripts, folios, and leather-encased volumes, among the finest works in the collection. “All of them—untouched,” Bouya Haidara said.

In Bamako, Abdel Kader Haidara [no relation] saw the burning of the manuscripts as a confirmation of the jihadis’ intentions—and a vindication of his remarkable undertaking. Starting with no money besides the meager sum in his savings account, Haidara had recruited a loyal circle of volunteers, badgered and shamed the international community into funding the scheme by presenting it as an epic showdown between civilization and the forces of barbarism, raised $1 million—a tremendous sum for Timbuktu—and hired hundreds of amateur smugglers in Timbuktu and beyond.

In a low-tech operation that seemed quaintly anomalous in the second decade of the twenty-first century, he and his team had transported to safety, by river and by road, past hostile jihadi guards and suspicious Malian soldiers, past bandits, attack helicopters, and other potentially lethal obstacles, almost all of Timbuktu’s 377,000 manuscripts. Not one had been lost en route.

Joshua Hammer

Transcribed by me from pages 209–211 of my hardcover copy of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, © 2016, Simon & Schuster.

 

Tweet: Hundreds of amateur smugglers saved the priceless manuscripts of Timbuktu.
Tweet: An epic showdown between civilization and the forces of barbarism.

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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