#WordUse Series: These Are a Few of My Favorite Words

There are words and then there are … favorite words. Like, you know, cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels, these are a few of my favorite—

You have favorite words, don’t you? I do.

Again, I don’t mean favorite phrases, like Awesome, dude. (Although I do love the phrase clotted cream, as you must surely know by now. I’ve worked it in to more than one post.) Another fave of mine is Just sayin’, which was roundly criticized as being a cliché by a reader of my post on clichés. (I’m claiming artistic license.)

But no, no, I mean words that are my faves because I just like the way they sound (and sometimes the way they look), separate from what they mean. Like …

amaryllis           forsythia         sublime
aspen                  frisson              surpass
astilbe                gossamer        svelte
aubergine         moss                 svengali
cusp                    precinct           sycamore
December         sartorial         tessellation
esplanade         sibilant           whilst
exquisite           smitten

This would seem to suggest I’m attracted to the S sound … and clearly I am. It’s sssoft and ssspecial and even sssexy, that sound. If I were writing about trees there would probably be an aspen or a sycamore among them. (Under the spreading aspen tree the village smithy  … nah.) But I assure you the word Slytherin gives me the creeps just as it creeped out millions of Harry Potter readers. So it’s not just the sibilant.

See, I also like:

ardor                  green                    paradigm
bravura             harbinger           paradox
décolletage      harmony             penultimate
detritus              lachrymose        purview
egg                       lagniappe           velvet
egregious          lavender             verbatim
epiphany          melody                verdant
French               myriad                 verve

And there are others I like due to an emotional reaction I have to them, a probably not-complex-at-all fusion of humor and intellect and something that happened when I was three but no longer remember. These words just make me happy.

badger                         feline                         protuberance
bean                             gubernatorial (and the not unrelated goober)
bunny                          haphazard               sassy
cabbage                      kerfuffle                   soup
chubby                        Madagascar          tickle
conundrum                meerkat                  waffle
discombobulate       parsnip                  wombat
eggplant                     poppy                     zebra

Word Nerd True Confession: These highly unscientific lists of words came out of a little notebook I keep as a result of a poetry workshop I took years ago. They’re designed to inspire writing through imagery and sound. I think it’s a useful exercise, and fun (well, if you’re a fool for words like me). I am delighted when I come across one of them in something I’m reading. (OMG, lachrymose! He used lachrymose!)

I make lists of words when I’m brainstorming a writing project, too: copy for a Western-themed marketing piece was initiated by a list that included cowboycowpokebuckaroobuffalo galssaddletrailblazelassomaverickcampfirepardnerhowdy, and on and on. You’ve done it, I’m sure, when you were looking for a way to describe a character’s brown eyes (chocolatecoffeenut) or black hair (ravenmidnightebonyjetpitch, obsidian—oh, stop). Your thesaurus is useful for these sorts of exercises (just don’t get too carried away with that thing, please).

But that’s work, of course, and this is play. And play is an important part of the creative process, I think. Make a list of your own favorite words and you’ll see what I mean. Try words you like the sound of, or words that make you laugh. Other exercises in the workshop included making lists of words that might be used to describe, say, winter. (Then we began writing poetry, but that’s another topic entirely. As is zombie apocalypse, the very idea of which. Just. Cracks. Me. Up. I am currently trying to work this phrase into my daily conversation. Check for today!)

So now I wonder this: Can we analyze a list of favorite words the way we analyze dreams … or the books on our friends’ bookshelves?

Tweet: Can we analyze favorite words the way we analyze the books on our friends’ bookshelves?
Tweet: There are words and then there are … 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: , , , , ,

#WhatImReadingNow: These Old Shades

‘Done!’ said my lady. ‘Oh, Rupert! I lost my big emerald at play last week! I could have cried my eyes out, and Edward could only say that it must be a lesson to me!’

‘That’s Edward all over,’ nodded Rupert. ‘Don’t I know it!’

‘No, you do not, tiresome boy! He will give me another emerald.’ She blinked rapidly. ‘Indeed, he is very good to me. I wonder if he will come here? I vow I shall be miserable if he does not!’

Rupert’s eyes were on the street.

‘Well, he has come, and mighty à propos, too.’

‘What! Is it really he, Rupert? You’re not teasing me?’

‘No, it is he, right enough, and in a thundering rage, by the look of him.’

Lady Fanny sighed ecstatically.

‘Darling Edward! He will be very angry with me, I am sure.’

Marling came quickly in. He was travel-stained, and heavy-eyed from lack of sleep, and his mouth was set in an uncompromising fashion. He looked his pretty wife over in silence.

‘That’s the last of us,’ said Rupert jovially. ‘We’ve all the family now, glory be! Give you good morrow, Edward!’

Lady Fanny rose, and held out her hand.

‘Edward, I protest this is foolish of you.’

He ignored the outstretched hand.

‘You’ll return with me today, Fanny. I don’t brook your defiance.’

‘Whew!’ spoke Rupert under his breath. ‘Sa-sa – Have at you!’

Lady Fanny tittered.

‘Oh, sir, you are ungallant! Pray have you looked at yourself in the mirror? You come to me muddied and in disorder! And I who so love a man to be point de vice !’

‘We’ll leave my appearance out of it, if you please. I’ve borne enough of your whims, Fanny. You’ll return with me to England.’

‘Indeed, sir, do you think I shall?’ The light of battle was in my lady’s eyes.

‘You are my wife, madam.’

‘But not your chattel, sir. Pray take that frown from your face! It likes me not.’

‘Ay, do!’ Rupert put in. ‘How did you leave my cousin, Marling?’

‘Yes, sir, and why did you leave poor dear Harriet? It was not well done of you, Edward.’

‘Fanny, have you done? I warn you, I am in no mood for these tricks!’

‘Now, careful, Fan, careful!’ said Rupert, enjoying himself hugely. ‘He’ll disown you, so he will!’

Marling swung round to face him. ‘Your pleasantries are ill-timed, Alastair. I believe we shall do better if you leave us.’

‘How dare you, Edward? And the poor boy just out of his bed, with a wound in his shoulder that only escaped the lung by a bare inch!’

‘I am not concerned with Rupert’s hurts,’ said Marling cuttingly. ‘He will survive without my sympathy.’

‘Ay, but damme, I shall suffer a relapse if I have to look on your gloomy countenance much longer!’ retorted Rupert. ‘For God’s sake, smile, man!’

‘Oh yes, Edward, do smile!’ begged her ladyship. ‘It gives me a headache to see you frowning so.’

‘Fanny, you will give me five minutes in private.’

‘No, sir, I shall not. You are prodigious ill-natured to talk to me in this vein, and I protest I want no more of it.’

‘There’s for you, Marling!’ Rupert said. ‘Go and bespeak some breakfast. You’ll be better for it, I swear! ’Tis the emptiness of you makes you feel jaundiced: I know the feeling well. A ham, now, and some pasties, with coffee to wash it down will make a new man of you, stap me if it won’t!’

Lady Fanny giggled. Marling’s brow grew blacker, his eyes harder.

‘You’ll regret this, madam. You’ve trifled with me once too often.’

‘Oh, sir, I’m in no mood for your heroics! Pray keep them for Harriet! She has the taste for them, no doubt!’

‘Try ’em on Justin,’ suggested Rupert. ‘Here he is, with Léonie. Lord, what a happy gathering!’

‘For the last time, Fanny, – I shall not ask again – will you accord me a few minutes alone?’

‘Alone?’ echoed Rupert. ‘Ay, of course she will, as many as you like! Solitude’s the thing, so it is! Solitude, and a fat ham –’

‘My dear Marling, I hope I see you well?’ His Grace had come quietly in.

Marling picked up his hat. ‘I am in excellent health, I thank you, Avon.’

‘But his spirits!’ said Rupert. ‘Oh, lud!’

‘I confess,’ Marling said steadily, ‘my spirits are a little – bruised.’

‘Never say so!’ Rupert feigned astonishment. ‘You’ve had a bad crossing, Edward, and your liver’s upside down.’

Avon turned. ‘Your conversation is always so edifying, Rupert. Yet I believe we can dispense with it.’

Rupert collapsed promptly. My lady tossed her head. Avon went to the sidetable, and poured out a glass of burgundy, and offered it to Marling, who waved it aside.

‘I came, sir, to fetch my wife home. As she declines to accompany me there is no more to be said. I’ll take my leave of you.’

Avon put up his quizzing glass, and through it regarded my lady.

‘Yes, Justin. I do. I am coming to Paris with you.’

‘I am gratified, of course,’ said his Grace. ‘Nevertheless, my dear, you will go with your husband.’

‘I thank you!’ Marling laughed harshly. ‘I do not take her an she comes at your bidding! She must come at mine.’

‘I w-won’t go at anyone’s b-bidding!’ Lady Fanny’s face puckered like that of a child about to cry. ‘You are very unkind!’

Marling said nothing. She dabbed at her eyes. ‘You come – bullying, and – and scowling – I won’t go with you! I hate you, Edward!’

‘It needed only that,’ said Marling, and turned to the door.

There was a rustle of silks as my lady fled across the room. ‘Oh, Edward, I didn’t meant it, you know I didn’t!’

He held her away from him. ‘You will return with me?’

She hesitated, then looked up into his face. Two large tears stole down her cheeks.

Marling took her hands, and pressed them. ‘In truth,’ he said gently, ‘I cannot bear to see you weep, love. Go with Justin.’

At that she cast herself into his arms, and sobbed. ‘Oh Edward, I will come! I truly will! You must f-forgive me!’

‘My dear!’ He caught her to him.

‘I am decidedly de trop,’ remarked his Grace, and poured out another glass of burgundy.

‘I’ll come, Edward, but I do – oh, I do want to go to Paris!’

‘Then go, sweetheart. I’d not deny you your pleasure.’

‘But I c-can’t bear to leave you!’ sobbed Fanny.

‘May I be allowed to make a suggestion?’ His Grace came slowly forward. ‘There is really no occasion for these heartburnings. The matter is very simple.’ He swept Marling a magnificent leg. ‘Pray come with us to Paris, my dear Edward.’

‘Oh, I thank you, but –’

‘Yes, I know,’ said Avon languidly. ‘You would prefer not to enter the unhallowed portals of my abode.’

Marling flushed. ‘I protest –’

‘It is quite unnecessary, believe me. I would not propose such a distasteful plan were it not for the fact that I have need of Fanny.’

‘I don’t understand why you should need her, Avon.’

His Grace was incredulous. ‘My very dear Edward, I should have thought that with your strict sense of propriety the reason must positively leap to your understanding.’

‘Léonie! I had forgot.’ Marling stood irresolute. ‘Can you find no other lady to chaperon her?’

‘I could doubtless find an hundred, but I require a hostess.’

‘Then Fanny had best stay with you. I will go back to England.’

Fanny sighed. ‘Edward, if you will not come to Paris I must return with you. But I do wish that you would come!’

At that moment Léonie appeared, and clapped her hands at sight of Marling. ‘Parbleu, it is M. Marling! Bonjour, m’sieur!

He smiled and kissed her hand. ‘I hope I see you well, child? Your pretty colour answers me.’

‘My infant finds favour in the austere eyes,’ murmured his Grace.‘Infant, I am trying to prevail upon Mr Marling to honour my poor house with his presence. Pray add your entreaties to mine.’

‘Yes?’ Léonie looked from one to the other. ‘Please will you come, m’sieur? I shall ask Monseigneur to invite M. Davenant also.’

In spite of himself Avon smiled. ‘A happy thought, ma fille.’

‘Why, child, I believe I must not,’ Marling said. ‘You shall take her ladyship, and let me go home.’

‘Ah, bah!’ said Léonie. ‘It is because you do not like Monseigneur, is it not?’

‘My infant is nothing if not outspoken,’ remarked Avon. ‘That is the matter in a nutshell, child.’

‘You do not think he is enough respectable. But indeed he is very respectable now, je vous assure !’ A choking sound came from Rupert; my lady’s shoulders shook, and Marling collapsed into helpless laughter.

Léonie looked at the convulsed trio in disgust, and turned to the Duke. ‘What is the matter with them, Monseigneur? Why do they laugh?’

‘I have no idea, infant,’ replied Avon gravely.

‘They are silly, I think. Very silly.’

But the laughter cleared the air. Marling looked at the Duke, and said unsteadily: ‘I confess – it’s your lack of – of respectability that sticks – somewhat in my gullet!’

‘I am sure it must,’ said his Grace. ‘But you shall have Davenant to support you. He will be delighted to join you in mourning over my departed morals.’

‘The prospect is most alluring,’ Marling said. He glanced uncertainly at his wife. ‘But I do not think I fit well in this mad venture.’

‘My dear Edward, do I fit well in it?’ asked his Grace, pained. ‘I count upon you to aid me in lending a note of sobriety to the party.’

Marling regarded his Grace’s coat of dull crimson velvet quizzically. ‘I might lend sobriety, but you, Avon? You supply the magnificence, I think.’

‘You flatter me,’ Avon bowed. ‘I am to understand that you will join us?’

‘Yes, Edward, yes! Oh please!’

Voyons, it will be fort amusant, m’sieur. You must come.’

Rupert ventured to uplift his voice. ‘Ay, join us, Marling. The more the merrier.’

‘In face of such kind entreaties what can I say?’ Marling took his wife’s hand. ‘I thank you, Avon. I will come.’

‘Gaston, then, had best return to London for your baggage,’ said his Grace.

Léonie chuckled. ‘He will die, Monseigneur. I know it.’

‘As you observe,’ remarked his Grace to Marling, ‘death and disaster are a source of never-failing amusement to my infant.’

—Georgette Heyer, These Old Shades, 1926

Some thoughts on this book:

  • The cast of characters in this scene: Siblings Justin Alastair, 40; Fanny Alastair Marling, 30something; and Rupert Alastair, 20. Léonie, 20, a young woman of noble birth Justin has rescued. Also Edward Marling, age unknown, Fanny’s husband. The highest-ranking here is Justin, who is also the Duke of Avon. He has lots of money and power, and a reputation of getting what he wants, no matter the cost.
  • I know, I know—this is a scene from a time when only noblewomen had any autonomy at all, and they had but a modicum of it. There are also some silly assumptions about humanity, such as the lowborn imposter, who is raised as a nobleman but still wishes he could be a farmer (the class he was born into). Nature or nurture? Hm. You may let things like this bother you, or you can say a) but it’s Georgette Heyer! and b) it’s historical! and just enjoy it for what it is: a very funny scene. It is classic Heyer.
  • Heyer is a hoot. She’s witty, her vocabulary is brilliant, and her details are well researched. I fell in love with her romances in high school and have never, ever fallen out. I read and reread her novels, particularly during times of stress.
  • Regency Romance: Wikipedia says, “Heyer essentially established the historical romance genre and its subgenre Regency romance. Her Regencies were inspired by Jane Austen, but unlike Austen, who wrote about and for the times in which she lived, Heyer was forced to include copious information about the period so that her readers would understand the setting.” Here’s a little bit about the Regency period, which lasted from 1795–1837 or 1780–1830, depending on who’s writing the history. All that said, These Old Shades is set during the Georgian period and takes place around 1755–56.
  • Blurb: “Set in the Georgian period, about twenty years before the Regency, These Old Shades is considered to be the book that launched Heyer’s career. It features two of Heyer’s most memorable characters: Justin Alastair, the Duke of Avon, and Léonie, whom he rescues from a life of ignomy and comes to love and marry. The Duke is known for his coldness of manner, his remarkable omniscience, and his debauched lifestyle. Late one evening, he is accosted by a young person dressed in ragged boy’s clothing running away from a brutal rustic guardian. The Duke buys “Léon” and makes the child his page. “Léon” is in fact Léonie, and she serves the Duke with deep devotion. When he uncovers the true story of her birth, he wreaks an unforgettable revenge on her sinister father in a chilling scene of public humiliation.”
  • Although many, if not most, of Heyer’s books are stand-alone stories, These Old Shades has a sequel, Devil’s Cub, and I indulged myself in it as soon as I finished. :)

Tweet: Some enchanted evening, indeed! These Old Shades is classic Heyer.
Tweet: Heyer is witty, her vocabulary is brilliant, and her details are well researched.

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 | Tagged as: , , , , ,

#WordUse Series: Standing Around With My Finger in the Dike, Feeling Hopeful

Yes, I am trying to hold back a flood. And I’m a little annoyed with the AP StylebookAs the Washington Post says:

The barbarians have done it, finally infiltrated a remaining bastion of order in a linguistic wasteland. They had already taken the Oxford English Dictionary; they had stormed the gates of Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition. They had pummeled American Heritage into submission, though she fought valiantly—she continues to fight!—by including a cautionary italics phrase, “usage problem,” next to the heretical definition. Then, on Tuesday morning [17 April 2012], the venerated AP Stylebook publicly affirmed (via tweet, no less) what it had already told the American Copy Editors Society: It, too, had succumbed. “We now support the modern usage of hopefully,” the tweet said.

You know what I’m talking about: sentences like Hopefully, that won’t happen (when what is meant is I hope that won’t happen or It is to be hoped that will not happen). Honestly? I can’t stand them; they sound clunky, inelegant. They sound, to my ear, like the writer doesn’t know how to write very well. A puppy can look hopefully at a toddler’s ice cream cone; one can answer the phone hopefully (particularly when one is half-expecting good news). But Hopefully we’ll get a break in the weather does not work for me.

I know, I know. But … the OED! Even my own favorite dictionary accepts the usage:

Main Entry: hope·ful·ly
Function: adverb
Date: 1593
1 : in a hopeful manner
2 : it is hoped : I hope : we hope <hopefully the rain will end soon>
usage In the 1960s the second sense of hopefully, which dates to the early 18th century and had been in fairly widespread use since at least the 1930s, underwent a surge in popularity. A surge of criticism followed in reaction, but the criticism took no account of the grammar of adverbs. Hopefully in its second sense is a member of a class of adverbs known as disjuncts. Disjuncts serve as a means by which the author or speaker can comment directly to the reader or hearer usually on the content of the sentence to which they are attached. Many other adverbs (as interestinglyfranklyclearlyluckilyunfortunately) are similarly used; most are so ordinary as to excite no comment or interest whatsoever. The second sense of hopefully is entirely standard.

Whether you call it a “sentence adverb” (as Grammar Girl does), a “floating adverb” (Geoff Nunberg), or a disjunct—this certainly puts me in my place, doesn’t it! Nunberg, writing for NPR, says about complaints like this, “It doesn’t herald the decline of the West, but it does signal another little unraveling of the threads of literary memory” before he goes on to call the issue inconsequential. The fact is, language changes. Grammar changes. (The deputy standards editor at the Associated Press says, “We’re realists over at the AP. You just can’t fight it.” Or as this guy says, all you have to do is “wait until your brand of bad becomes acceptable.”) This is why dictionaries and style guides get updated—because language and grammar users have made a new usage common.

Common being the key word for me. I still don’t like it. And the style guide I use—The Chicago Manual of Style—waffles on this issue: “The old meaning of the word (‘in a hopeful manner’) seems unsustainable; the newer meaning (‘I hope’ or ‘it is to be hoped’) seems here to stay. But many careful writers deplore the new meaning.”

Like me. I believe if you stick to the fundamentals of writing you will produce clean, clear, graceful prose. I don’t mind if you use this new hopefully in dialogue (because that’s how people talk) but if I see it in your narrative I will suggest a change. It’s about elegant writing, in my opinion, and the modern usage of hopefully just isn’t.

Tweet: Hopefully: Just because everyone’s doing it doesn’t mean you have to!
Tweet: The modern usage of hopefully just isn’t graceful.

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 Uncategorized |

#WhatImReadingNow: Good As Gone

Jane woke up and whispered, “Julie?” The room yawned around her. After two years of sleeping alone in her own bedroom in the new house, Jane no longer dreamed of the ceiling fan dropping onto the bed and chopping her up. The spiders, too, had vanished from the shadows; ten-year-olds don’t need to have the corners checked before bedtime. Only occasionally, when something woke her in the middle of the night, the silence around her ached for Julie’s soft breathing. In the old house, she used to hoist one foot over the top bunk railing and giggle until Julie said, Shhh, Janie, go back to sleep. Now, she shut her eyes tightly before they could drift toward the dark seams where the walls and ceiling met.

The next noise definitely came from Julie’s room. Jane pulled back the covers and slid her bare feet down to the carpet. In the old house, a braided rug slipped over the smooth wooden floor when she got out of bed. Now her feet barely made a sound on thick carpet as she padded to the door and peered down the dark hallway. A faint rectangle of lighter darkness hovered at the end—a closed door.

They rarely slept with doors closed; Janie’s room got too hot, Julie’s too cold. Mom grumbled about the air circulation in two-story houses, but Mom and Dad’s room downstairs on the first floor was always shut at night, because they were adults.

Now Julie was too, or wanted to be. Ever since her thirteenth birthday, she seemed to be practicing for adulthood all the time, brushing her hair slowly in front of the bathroom mirror as if rehearsing for some secret play, sitting at her desk to write in her diary instead of flopping on the bed stomach-first, like Jane.

And closing her bedroom door. At the end of the hall, the pale rectangle shuddered, a crack of darkness opening up around one side. Julie’s bedroom door receded inward, four large fingers hooked around its edge.

Before she had time to think, Jane ducked into her closet, crouched down, and pulled the door shut behind her.

The fingers—they were too high up on the door to belong to Julie, too large to belong to her mother. They didn’t belong to her father either, but she didn’t know how she knew they didn’t, and that was the most unsettling thing of all. A tiny, sickening click reminded her that the closet door never stayed closed for long. She threw her hands forward, but the door was already floating slowly open.

Jane squeezed her eyes shut as a soft tread started down the hallway. When she opened them a moment later, the closet door had come to rest three inches from the door

frame. The slice of hallway visible from her hiding place almost glowed against the closet’s deeper darkness; she could see every fiber in the beige carpet, every ripple in the wall paint, and, hanging on the wall, half of a framed studio portrait in which long-ago Jane sat on long-ago Julie’s lap, wearing a baby dress with a sailboat on it. The sailboat shook on its embroidered waves. Everything else was shaking too.

The steps continued toward Jane’s room. The noisy floorboard in the middle of the hall moaned. The owner of the hand was now halfway to her room. Could he hear the creak in her ears each time her thundering heart shook the little boat?

Jane resisted the urge to shrink back into her clothes on their rattling hangers. Just then, a skinny foot appeared against the carpet, a patch of pink polish clinging to the big toenail, and Jane let out her breath. It was only Julie. She’d crouched over her toes perfecting the pink for an hour before her birthday party, but by the middle of the summer, most of it had scraped off on the rough white bottom of the backyard pool, leaving only these little triangles around the edges. So Jane had been wrong about the fingers, seeing things again, like the spiders in the shadows.

Sure enough, here came Julie, moving into the frame with her ordinary Mickey Mouse nightshirt flapping around her ordinary knees, heading toward the staircase by Jane’s room, probably just going down for a midnight snack. Jane’s matching Donald Duck nightshirt was in a brown bag waiting to be taken to Goodwill; she’d already outgrown it. Her mom said she’d be taller than Julie someday. Jane hugged her pajama’d knees in relief.

But the fingers were back, this time perched on Julie’s shoulder, clutching at the fabric of her nightshirt, her long blond hair trapped between their knobby knuckles. Jane barely had time to notice Julie’s stiff, straight posture, like that of a wide-eyed puppet, before she saw the tall man following close behind her. Julie and the strange man moved together in slow motion, as if his long arm and hairy hand were a chain binding them together.

Wake up, wake up, wake up, Jane told herself, but nothing happened. Everything was frozen, including her, like in a dream; only Julie and the man kept moving. Slow, but faster than frozen; slow, but they were almost to her room.

Janie opened her mouth to scream. Then Julie saw her. Jane’s scream slid back down into her stomach as Julie stared straight into her closet hiding place. Jane stared back, begging Julie to tell her what to do next, readying herself to obey, to yell or cry or maybe even laugh if it was all a joke. Surely Julie wouldn’t leave her alone in this bad dream. If Julie would just tell her what to do, Jane promised silently, she would listen to her and never complain from now on.

Without moving her head, Julie lifted her eyebrows and glanced meaningfully toward the man behind her, then back to Jane, as if telling her to take a good look, but Jane didn’t want to; she kept her eyes trained on Julie instead. Girl and man turned on the landing without pausing at her door, and Jane saw why Julie was walking so stiffly: the man held the tip of a long, sharp knife to her back.

Jane felt a nasty sting like a bug bite between her own shoulder blades, and her eyes filled up with tears. They were poised at the top of the stairs when a loud tick sounded from the attic. Jane knew it was only the house settling, but the man stopped and looked over his shoulder nervously. In the split second before he looked back, Julie, as if freed from a spell, turned her head to Jane, raised her left index finger to her lips, and formed them into a silent O. Shhh.

Jane obeyed.

Julie started down the stairs, followed by the man with the knife.

And that, according to the only witness, is the story of how I lost my daughter—both my daughters, everything, everything—in a single night.

—Amy Gentry, Good as Gone (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)

Some thoughts on this book:

  • I can’t tell you why I bought it in the first place (it might have been a quick review in Entertainment Weekly); I like a little mystery, but usually find psychological suspense to be unsettling. And this opening scene was just creepy enough and just scary enough that I nearly didn’t go on. But I did. :)
  • The blurb: “Anna’s daughter Julie was kidnapped from her own bedroom when she was thirteen years old, while Anna slept just downstairs, unaware that her daughter was being ripped away from her. For eight years, she has lived with the guilt and the void in her family, hoping against hope that Julie is still alive. And then one night, the doorbell rings. A young woman who appears to be Julie is finally, miraculously, home safe. Anna and the rest of the family are thrilled, but soon Anna begins to see holes in Julie’s story. When she is contacted by a former detective turned private eye, she is forced to wonder if this young woman is even her daughter at all. And if she isn’t Julie, what is it that she wants?”
  • Oh, ho, ho! “We immediately know that something is off about Julie,” the Los Angeles Review of Books tells us, “but we don’t know quite what it is. We want to believe in the happy reunion, but there are too many jagged edges inviting our suspicion, and once we gain access to Julie’s interior monologue, it becomes clear that neither of our narrators is wholly reliable.”
  • Nice interview with the author includes a discussion of her research, her inspiration and influences, and her thoughts on writing. Check it out.
  • Writers will definitely want to look into how Gentry structured the story, with special attention to the way the past history is revealed. She also used alternating POVs in first and third person. Some commenters in the usual places found this “confusing,” but I didn’t. The themes here are the nature of truth, the complicated relationship between mothers and daughters, identity and how it changes over time, and the nature of sexual assault and victim-blaming.

Tweet: Is she or isn’t she? Good as Gone will keep you guessing.
Tweet: The opening scene was so creepy and scary that I nearly didn’t go on. But I did.

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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#WhatImReadingNow: The Time Fetch

They walked silently to science class. Edward sat down in the back row and tried to think things through. A few days ago Feenix was a terror, a plague, a human tsunami, and now she was gone. Not only was she gone; it was like she had never existed. No one even remembered her, except Danton, Brigit, and him. Why? How could such a thing be? Rack his brain as he might, there were no good answers. …

Mr. Ross was standing in the middle of the room holding the fruitfly jar aloft. It was now absolutely, totally jammed with fruit flies. “As I said the other day, they get ten days to grow up, breed, and die. Each female lays about four hundred eggs. Let’s say there’s a hundred females in here right now and each one lays four hundred eggs in the next few days. How many new fruit flies will be in here by the end of next week?

“A million,” someone offered.

“What’s important for you to understand,” said Mr. Ross, “is that the growth of the population is exponential. It doesn’t merely double in size. Every ten days it is four hundred times bigger than it was ten days earlier. In theory, in ten days there will be forty thousand fruit flies in here. In twenty days, there will be sixteen million. If we let them out of here, by the end of next month they will have taken over the world, won’t they?”

A confused look of worry appeared on a couple of faces, but Robert said, “No, of course they won’t take over the world.”

“And why would that be, Robert?”

“Because they’ve got to find fruit to eat. When they run out of food, they’ll stop reproducing.”

“Excellent. There are many checks and balances built into ecosystems. One check of a population is how much food it has to eat. It can only keep on growing for as long as it has adequate nutrition. So when these guys run out of food they will start dying. Can you think of any other things that might keep this population from growing out of control?”

“Not enough room?” someone offered. “Sure,” said Mr. Ross. “If this population keeps exploding in here, they soon won’t have enough room to breathe or move.”

“Not enough to drink?”

“Right, again. Drought is a very effective way to keep populations in check. What about disease? And predators? If we let these fruit flies go in a nice sunny meadow full of swallows, they’d probably be mostly eaten up in an hour. In other words, a population can keep on growing only if no other checks are put upon it. In our world, the checks and balances are part of an extremely delicate and complicated system. Human beings, as we are continually discovering, are generally the worst offenders when it comes to messing with the balance of things.

“Let me remind you, my dear young friends, that you will soon inherit the guardianship of our beloved planet, a planet that is in the midst of a mass extinction event such as has not been seen since the CretaceousTertiary extinction event sixty-five million years ago when the dinosaurs were wiped out. There are predictions that if we continue in our greedy and shortsighted ways, half of all currently living species will be extinct within a hundred years. Remember what I have said to you many times. Entropy is one of the busiest and most powerful of forces at work in the world around us. Entropy, anybody?”

Robert answered in a bored voice: “The tendency of systems to move from order to disorder.”

“Right. All the things in a closed system—cars, people, animal species, the solar system—everything tends to run down, fall apart, die, lose available energy. Human beings, in their willful ignorance, generally seem eager to help the process along. But think about it, my young seekers. There may be ways to slow entropy down. Even reverse its progress. You can align yourself to fight alongside the powers of order and creation. You can battle to keep things going, even join the ranks of those who devote their lives to making greater harmony and knowledge. Or you can sit back and allow things to run down.”

There was one of those long pauses where everybody waited for something to happen. Only Edward and Danton and Brigit knew that they were all waiting for Feenix, who no longer existed, to interrupt and send the discussion shooting off on some other tangent. Since she couldn’t do this, the silence grew until Mr. Ross suddenly remembered that they were actually supposed to be talking about rocks.

“So,” he said. “Back to mineral formations. Let’s turn to chapter four.”
—Amy Herrick, The Time Fetch (Algonquin Young Readers, 2013)

Some thoughts on this book:

  • I have always loved middle grade fiction. It’s a very broad classification, with everything from sporty books (often for boys, who are, at this age, starting to lose interest in pleasure reading—just when it’s getting good!), animal books, historical fiction, and—my fave in this category—fantasy/sci-fi. Middle grade readers are at the perfect age for slightly far-fetched fiction that sucks you right in. If you add just enough science to keep things on the up and up, this adult reader is in heaven. Enter The Time Fetch. Fun! And perfect for a light read during stressful times.
  • (One exception in the middle grade category: I do not care for—I’m being diplomatic—the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. Poorly written, in every sense of those words. I can’t for the life of me understand why the books have done so well. No, really.)
  • As I was reading The Time Fetch, I was reminded repeatedly of Einstein’s Dreams, a special novel I read in the early ’90s and have recommended repeatedly. The author of Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman, is an interesting guy, and I urge you to read his official bio and be amazed. He’s a poet, a novelist, and has a doctorate (physics) from Cal Tech. He is also, Wikipedia tells us, the founder of the Harpswell Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to empower a new generation of women leaders in Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia.
  • I’ve had more than one fruit fly infestation in my kitchen. Ugh.
  • I have read more biographies of Einstein—and books on physics and mathematics in general—than most people I know. This is unusual for a woman who only has a rudimentary grasp on middle grade–level math. :)
  • Here’s the blurb: “Under normal circumstances, a Time Fetch sends out its foragers to collect only those moments that will never be missed or regretted. It then rests, waiting to be called back by the Keeper, who distributes the gathered time where it is needed in our world and others. When eighth-grader Edward innocently mistakes a sleeping Fetch for an ordinary rock, he wakes its foragers too early, and they begin to multiply and gobble up too much time. Soon the bell rings to end class just as it’s begun. Buses race down streets, too far behind schedule to stop for passengers. Buildings and sidewalks begin to disappear, as the whole fabric of the universe starts to unravel. To try and stop the foragers, Edward must depend on the help of his classmates Feenix, Danton, and Brigit―whether he likes it or not. They all have touched the Fetch, and it has drawn them together in a strange and thrilling adventure in which the boundaries between worlds and dimensions are blurred. The places and creatures on the other side are much like the ones they’ve always known―but slightly twisted, a little darker, and much more dangerous.” I totally identified with that speeding-up of time thing.
  • School Library Journal says, “This transcendent middle-grade debut could almost be subtitled ‘A Young Person’s Guide to Existentialism.’ The opening scene presents Edward struggling to get out of bed with the knowledge that ‘it was all dancing atoms. Nothing was solid.’ It’s not a depressing novel, though. The story is strange and beautiful, with profundity hiding in the mundane while science and magic come to a comfortable alliance. … [It] provides an accessible, age-appropriate introduction to deeper themes of both the intellect and the spirit.” I agree! I loved the way the science lessons—Mr. Ross is Edward’s favorite teacher—subtly give clues to what’s happening in the Time Fetch universe. The book gets started and never lets up. Plenty of good tension! Your tween will enjoy it, for sure.

Tweet: I have always loved middle grade fiction. The Time Fetch.
Tweet: The Time Fetch: I was reminded repeatedly of Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams.

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: Lexicon Love

It’s not very often I’m stumped by which word to use—and frankly I kinda enjoy it when I am—but I came across a sentence in a manuscript the other day and had a little lexicological tizzy.

Here’s what I read. It was a story about an old man telling the events of his life. He had been all over the world and had many experiences, some good, some bad. He said, “My life has been divers and colorful.”

And I thought, hmmmDivers or diverse?

So I went to my handy-dandy argument settler and all-round first source for fact checking. That is, my Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition (online version © 2013).

Main Entry: di·verse 
Function: adjective
Etymology: Middle English divers, diverse, from Anglo-French & Latin; Anglo-French divers, from Latin diversus, from past participle of divertere
Date: 14th century
1 : differing from one another : UNLIKE <people with diverse interests>
2 : composed of distinct or unlike elements or qualities <a diverse population>
synonym see DIFFERENT

Main Entry: di·vers 
Function: adjective
Etymology: Middle English divers, diverse
Date: 14th century

The online edition offers audio pronunciation, so I listened to that a few times: dy-VERSE and DY-verz. Then, of course, I began to overthink it. Diverse, after all, seemed to mean variety. And divers meant various. Oh, good grief—what did the old man mean to say?

When I posed this question to my Facebook friends, I got the answer quickly, although I didn’t realize it in the moment. “Divers: People in wet suits, masks, air tanks, etc.,” one friend typed.

Yes, but that’s a noun. I was talking about the adjective. And context wasn’t helping me.

So I checked the thesaurus:

Entry Word: diverse
Function: adjective
1. Synonyms: DIFFERENT, disparate, dissimilar, distant, divergent, unalike, unequal, unlike, unsimilar, various
Synonyms DISTINCT 1, different, discrete, separate, several, various
Related Word contrasted, contrasting, contrastive; contradictory, contrary, opposite
Contrasted Words: equal, equivalent, same
Antonyms: identical, selfsame
2. Synonyms: MANIFOLD, diversiform, multifarious, multifold, multiform, multiplex, multivarious

Entry Word: divers
Function: adjective
Synonyms SEVERAL 3, some, sundry, various

A little more research was in order, because these still seemed very similar. I found this: “The archaic adjective divers means various or manyDiverse means having great variety.”

That’s a little more helpful. It’s archaic, which is lexicon talk for past its sell-by date. Not used much anymore. Except, as the online OED says, “in legal and scriptural phraseology.” Or, probably, formal or poetic writing. Tolkien used divers in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, which is no doubt where I’d read it.

Bottom line: diverse, etymologically related to divers, has its own meaning (different) but it has taken on aspects of divers too (various). Divers has faded from use. It’s not likely you’ll need it. Most folks will see the word and think “people in wet suits, masks, air tanks, etc.”

Tweet: I came across a sentence in a manuscript the other day and had a little lexicological tizzy.
Tweet: It’s not very often I’m stumped by which word to use. Then, of course, I began to overthink it.

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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#WhatImReadingNow: Stoner

Two weeks after that conversation Stoner received a memo from Lomax’s office which informed him that his schedule for the next semester was changed, that he would teach his old graduate seminar on the Latin Tradition and Renaissance Literature, a senior and graduate course in Middle English language and literature, a sophomore literature survey, and one section of freshman composition.

It was a triumph in a way, but one of which he always remained amusedly contemptuous, as if it were a victory won by boredom and indifference.


And that was one of the legends that began to attach to his name, legends that grew more detailed and elaborate year by year, progressing like myth from personal fact to ritual truth.

In his late forties, he looked years older. His hair, thick and unruly as it had been in his youth, was almost entirely white; his face was deeply lined and his eyes were sunken in their sockets; and the deafness that had come upon him the summer after the end of his affair with Katherine Driscoll had worsened slightly year by year, so that when he listened to someone, his head cocked to one side and his eyes intent, he appeared to be remotely contemplating a puzzling species that he could not quite identify.

That deafness was of a curious nature. Though he sometimes had difficulty understanding one who spoke directly to him, he was often able to hear with perfect clarity a murmured conversation held across a noisy room. It was by this trick of deafness that he gradually began to know that he was considered, in the phrase current in his own youth, a “campus character.”

Thus he overheard, again and again, the embellished tale of his teaching Middle English to a group of new freshmen and of the capitulation of Hollis Lomax. “And when the freshman class of thirty-seven took their junior English exams, you know what class had the highest score?” a reluctant young instructor of freshman English asked. “Sure. Old Stoner’s Middle English bunch. And we keep on using exercises and handbooks!”

Stoner had to admit that he had become, in the regard of the young instructors and the older students, who seemed to come and go before he could firmly attach names to their faces, an almost mythic figure, however shifting and various the function of that figure was.

Sometimes he was villain. In one version that attempted to explain the long feud between himself and Lomax, he had seduced and then cast aside a young graduate student for whom Lomax had had a pure and honorable passion. Sometimes he was the fool: in another version of the same feud, he refused to speak to Lomax because once Lomax had been unwilling to write a letter of recommendation for one of Stoner’s graduate students. And sometimes he was hero: in a final and not often accepted version he was hated by Lomax and frozen in his rank because he had once caught Lomax giving to a favored student a copy of a final examination in one of Stoner’s courses.

The legend was defined, however, by his manner in class. Over the years it had grown more and more absent and yet more and more intense. He began his lectures and discussions fumblingly and awkwardly, yet very quickly became so immersed in his subject that he seemed unaware of anything or anyone around him. Once a meeting of several members of the board of trustees and the president of the University was scheduled in the conference room where Stoner held his seminar in the Latin Tradition; he had been informed of the meeting but had forgotten about it and held his seminar at the usual time and place. Halfway through the period a timid knock sounded at the door; Stoner, engrossed in translating extemporaneously a pertinent Latin passage, did not notice. After a few moments the door opened and a small plump middle-aged man with rimless glasses tiptoed in and lightly tapped Stoner on the shoulder. Without looking up, Stoner waved him away. The man retreated; there was a whispered conference with several others outside the open door. Stoner continued the translation. Then four men, led by the president of the University, a tall heavy man with an imposing chest and florid face, strode in and halted like a squad beside Stoner’s desk. The president frowned and cleared his throat loudly. Without a break or a pause in his extemporaneous translation, Stoner looked up and spoke the next line of the poem mildly to the president and his entourage: “‘Begone, begone, you bloody whoreson Gauls!”’ And still without a break returned his eyes to his book and continued to speak, while the group gasped and stumbled backward, turned, and fled from the room.

Fed by such events, the legend grew until there were anecdotes to give substance to nearly all of Stoner’s more typical activities, and grew until it reached his life outside the University.

John Williams, Stoner (Viking Press, 1965)

Some thoughts on this book:

• A few years ago I read some article about the best book I’d never heard of, or some such thing. And I thought, hmmm. I like discovering unheralded gems. Then last year two separate reader friends of mine recommended the book, so I loaded it to my Kindle, and that was that. If you poke around on the interwebs, you can see plenty of raves of this best-book-ever nature—and they do say things like “You should seriously read Stoner right now” (New York Times). But I’ll be frank: I didn’t particularly enjoy it. That said, I didn’t give up on it, either, which I am very quick to do these days. So make of that what you will.

• The blurb: “William Stoner is born at the end of the nineteenth century into a dirt-poor Missouri farming family. Sent to the state university to study agronomy, he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar’s life, so different from the hardscrabble existence he has known. And yet as the years pass, Stoner encounters a succession of disappointments: marriage into a ‘proper’ family estranges him from his parents; his career is stymied; his wife and daughter turn coldly away from him; a transforming experience of new love ends under threat of scandal. Driven ever deeper within himself, Stoner rediscovers the stoic silence of his forebears and confronts an essential solitude.

“John Williams’s luminous and deeply moving novel is a work of quiet perfection. William Stoner emerges from it not only as an archetypal American, but as an unlikely existential hero, standing, like a figure in a painting by Edward Hopper, in stark relief against an unforgiving world.”

• The story is moving, in spite of the fact that I didn’t enjoy it. Which is to say, it’s freaking sad. Heartbreaking. The reviewer in the New Yorker says: “Despite its pellucid prose, ‘Stoner’ isn’t an easy book to read—not because it’s dense or abstruse but because it’s so painful. I had to stop reading it for a year or two, near the middle of the book, when Stoner’s wife, Edith, undertakes a deliberate but unselfconscious campaign to estrange him from his daughter, the one person he truly loves. Later on, after his daughter has been lost to him, Stoner finds real love again with a young student, his intellectual equal—and once again an enemy, seeing his happiness, sets out to take it from him. Williams contrives to forcibly deprive his hero of happiness in his marriage, his daughter, his lover, even his vocation. It all feels grindingly inevitable, like the annihilating whim of the gods in Euripides.” That pretty much covers it for me. The protagonist never fights back (well, OK, once, as quoted above). He just accepts what comes to him, over and over, no matter how unfair. Yes, I understand that life is “unfair.” I just don’t necessarily think it makes an interesting story.

• It is beautiful prose, yes. The Guardian says the “prose is clean and quiet.” The novel “flows like a river, calm and smooth at the surface of its unruffled prose, but powerful and deep,” the reviewer at the Independent says. I could go on and on in this vein, but I’ll just say this is why I kept reading. There was a rhythm, a mesmerizing-ness to it. It felt like something written a hundred and fifty years ago—not fifty—and I mean that as a good thing.

• That said, it’s all telling. All narrative. Everything that is felt or thought by the protagonist is told to us, rather than shown. It is an unusual book.

• There were two things I thought a lot about as I read Stoner. First, that a lot of “my people” (that is, family) come from Missouri, in the area where the novel is set, and are there still. My father’s mother, furthermore, was of the same generation as William Stoner (born in the 1890s). And I don’t think the things that happened to this protagonist were all that unusual in that generation. So there is truth in this story. The second thing I thought about also had to do with truth—the truth of teaching as a vocation, how it was more respected in Stoner’s time, how difficult it is for academics now. (I have some personal experience with this, but this article in the New Republic encapsulates my thoughts on this topic. If you read any link at all from this post, read this one.)

• If the reviews or the blurb speak to you, if you think this book might be for you, then don’t let me talk you out of it. Clearly lots of readers have loved it. It just wasn’t for me.

Tweet: I like discovering unheralded gems. Stoner.
Tweet: There were two things I thought a lot about as I read Stoner. First …

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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Everybody Knows How to Write, Right?

A friend of mine recently asked me a question on Facebook:

I was browsing some business pages on FB and happened across this description: “We help our clients expose themselves at trade shows, presentations, conferences, events and celebrations.” Is it just me, or should this be worded a bit differently?

Um …

The smart-aleck response to this would be Get your mind out of the gutter! but let’s face it, that’s what you thought, right? It’s certainly what I thought. Yet the person who posted that to a company Facebook page didn’t even see it.

You’ve heard me say this many times, and it’s the truth: if you’re in the communication business—and if you use words at all, ever, you’re in the communication business—you need an editor.

And sometimes you could use a copywriter.

Some years ago (it was 2005, about a year after the launch of Facebook at Harvard), when I had just begun freelancing and was doing a lot of networking, I met with an active local chapter of a national business organization to speak with their members about why they should hire a professional copywriter (that is, me) to manage their written communication.

Big companies do. The have a “communications manager.” Or they hire a PR person. One requirement for either job is undoubtedly strong writing skills, with sides of creativity and self-editing experience.

For the presentation to this group I took examples of Yellow Pages ads, websites, client letters, pamphlets and brochures, and so on, all with communication mistakes like the one above. Some were obvious, some were less obvious. Sometimes I just showed them how the message could have been more clear. Or simpler, so the reader got the idea quickly. (A teacher friend of mine tells me that recent research shows that our attention span has fallen from twelve seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2015. Eight seconds, for pity’s sake.)

So if you want to grab someone’s attention, you’d better do it fast.

But my presentation didn’t convince anyone. These were all small business owners, and they were simply not interested in spending money like this. Pay someone to write? Every person at that table already knew how to write! They’d learned how to write in school. They didn’t need a copywriter.

I don’t mean to be insensitive. I have a small business myself, and I know businesses have to make budget allocation decisions. A professional copywriter has to be paid (though perhaps not as much a you think). But the person who wrote the post above likely didn’t even consider that he or she was writing copy. That’s how little people value words these days.

Still, I’d tell any small business owner that investing in a freelance copywriter is money well spent. And if not a copywriter, an editor to look things over (sometimes you get both for the price of one). An editor would have noticed that expose right away. That one sentence might have become …

We help clients put their best foot forward at trade shows, presentations, conferences, events, and celebrations.

Sure, best foot forward is a cliché, but when you only have one sentence (sixteen words!), a cliché will be understood by many. Or you could say …

We help our clients present their goods and services at trade shows, presentations, conferences, events, and celebrations.

It’s boring but does the job. Eight seconds, remember. Or …

We’ll help you look good at trade shows, presentations, conferences, events, and celebrations.

I’d go on, but you get the idea. A copywriter and/or an editor can save you time and face. Don’t expose yourself to ridicule!

Tweet: Everybody knows how to write, right? It’s debatable.
Tweet: Small business owner? Investing in a freelance copywriter is money well spent.

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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#WhatImReadingNow : Hillbilly Elegy

It was at this meal, on the first of five grueling days of interviews, that I began to understand that I was seeing the inner workings of a system that lay hidden to most of my kind. Our career office had emphasized the importance of sounding natural and being someone the interviewers wouldn’t mind sitting with on an airplance. … Our interviews weren’t so much about grades or résumés, we were told; thanks to a Yale Law pedigree, one foot was already in the door. The interviews were about passing a social test—a test of belonging, of holding your own in a corporate boardroom, of making connections with potential future clients.

The most difficult test was the one I wasn’t even required to take: getting an audience in the first place. … It was pretty clear that there was some mysterious force at work, and I had just tapped into it for the first time. I had always thought that when you need a job, you look online for job postings. And then you submit a dozen résumés. And then you hope that someone calls you back. If you’re lucky, maybe a friend puts your résumé at the top of the pile. If you’re qualified for a very high-demand profession, like accounting, maybe the job search comes a bit easier. But the rules are basically the same.

The problem is, virtually everyone who plays by those rules fails. That week of interviews showed me that successful people are playing an entirely different game. They don’t flood the job market with résumés, hoping that some employer will grace them with an interview. They network. They email a friend of a friend to make sure their name gets the look it deserves. They have their uncles call old college buddies. They have their school’s career service office set up interviews months in advance on their behalf. They have parents tell them how to dress, what to say, and whom to schmooze.

That doesn’t mean the strength of your résumé or interview performance is irrelevant. Those things certainly matter. But there is enormous value in what economists call social capital. It’s a professor’s term, but the concept is pretty simple: The networks of people and institutions around us have real economic value. They connect us to the right people, ensure that we have opportunities, and impart valuable information. Without them, we’re going it alone.

I learned this the hard way … [The last interviewer asked a question for which I was laughably unprepared. My answer wasn’t the smartest thing I could have said.] The interviewer looked at me like I had three eyes, and the conversation never recovered.

I was certain I was toast. I had flubbed the interview in the worst way. But behind the scenes, one of my recommenders was already working the phones. She told the hiring partner that I was a smart, good kid and would make an excellent lawyer. “She raved about you,” I later heard. So when the recruiters called to schedule the next round of interviews, I made the cut. I eventually got the job, despite failing miserably at what I perceived was the most important part of the recruiting process. The old adage says that it’s better to be lucky than good. Apparently having the right network is better than both.

—J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (HarperCollins, 2016)

Some thoughts about this book:

• Vance is young and brave and admirable in every way. He’s just six months younger than my own son, so in some ways I feel like I know him. My son was raised by a single mother too. (Though I hasten to add I have never been addicted to painkillers or heroin.) Vance spreads around a lot of thanks for his good fortune (his grandparents, his sister, four years in the marines, one of his college professors, his wife), but I give him a lot of credit for his own success.

• It’s a very provocative book, no matter how you’d solve the socioeconomic problems that exist in Appalachia and surrounding regions, which is where Vance’s story takes place. And he certainly doesn’t sugarcoat the failings of his family or the people group from which his family emanates, raising questions about personal responsibility and hillbilly culture as well as economic insecurity. These are tough times, and what Vance perfectly describes is despair.

• Some of the copyediting decisions (or were they simply mistakes?) bothered me, including goodbye (which should be good-bye).

• I could have chosen the sad section about the poverty of Appalachian hillbillies, or the one about the white working class, how hard they work. There were several passages I thought about using. But I chose this one about social capital because I’ve seen it in action myself. It’s an intriguing concept. This book is full of interesting ideas and things to think about. Definitely recommended.

Tweet: J. D. Vance is young and brave and admirable in every way. Read the book.
Tweet: Hillbilly Elegy: Vance doesn’t sugarcoat the failings of his family or people group.

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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Those Important First Pages

Sometimes you set out to do a thing for one reason … only to find it was so much more than you ever imagined. More than you could have actually planned. In this case, I learned just how much value can be wrung out of focusing on the first chapter and how it relates to the rest of the plot.

Months ago I donated a First Pages package to a national writer’s group for their scholarship* auction. In a First Pages package I ask for a one-page synopsis (500 to 1000 words) and the first chapter, about 3000 to 5000 words. In this case, I told the sponsors I’d take 8000 words for this special deal. I also placed a slightly higher value on it than I would normally charge to cover anything unusual that might come up. When it was all over, the committee put the winning bidder and me together via email. We communicated about scheduling and then we got started.

As it turned out, I had quite a bit of email conversation with the author who bought the package. We went round and round for days. Some days I waited impatiently for her next email.

My author’s manuscript was romantic suspense, but the premise threw a third person into the mix, a character who kept trying to run away with the plotline. We tweaked the synopsis and took care of that. As we did so, the author began to realize the third character had been masking the fact that her two main characters weren’t very interesting (her words and assessment), so while we allowed the third character to step backward into the periphery where she belonged, we added details to the two main characters’ backstories to make them more compelling. We didn’t actually change much about the scene in which we’re introduced to them—a little dialogue, a few facial expressions—but now the motivation seemed much more clear.

I also was a little unexcited by the first paragraph—the oh-so-important opening paragraph—so I suggested some ways to make it more active, less passive, and to start revealing character early on. The author grokked my thoughts right away and the next time I looked at that opener, wow, it was great. We continued to discuss and tweak the synopsis too.

And then we were finished. The author herself decided she’d gotten what she needed from our interaction, and she cut me loose, although I invited her to keep in touch.

Thank you so much for all of the excellent advice to improve my manuscript. I really like all of your ideas about where and how I can increase the romantic tension between my two main characters, and I appreciate your point that I need to focus on [male character] and [female character], rather then let [that other character] steal the story. You really are amazing. Rather than just offer a critique, you actually took the time to figure out what I needed to do to make the story work—even though I didn’t know it myself! You can add psychologist, motivational coach, and mind reader to your résumé.

It made my day.

But here’s the thing—this was fun for me. :) Fun! I’d say I had three hours of actual time in those nineteen pages, including detailed notes over three passes. It helped that this author “got” what I was saying and was able to run with it. I feel great about the work we did.

The first pages of your novel set the tone; introduce your characters, milieu, and motivation; set the story in motion; and—we all hope—make the reader want to keep turning the pages. Take special care with those pages.

I’ve always loved to read and write and talk about what I’m reading to anyone who would listen, so I guess it was only a matter of time before I managed to stumble into the work I was meant to do, even if that stumbling around in the dark took the first half of my life. :) I’m here now, wide-eyed and loving every minute of it. Next!

* Scholarships would pay for registration at the national conference, where aspiring authors attend classes; meet agents, editors, and other authors; and just generally marinate in the writing business for a few days.


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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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