Archive for September, 2010

English Usages That Do Not Make Your Text Look Better

We’ve all had a chuckle at the expense of bad spelling or usage a time or two.  Signs wind up advertising not quite what they thought, the IKEA instructions tell us to “place the longer shaft in the lower hole for maximum comfort;” French politicians say “fellatio” when they mean “inflation.” That’s just part of the fun of English (and part of the even more fun of French, apparently).

But there’s a lower category of linguistic mutilations that aren’t really wrong — just dumb.  Little touches that don’t add anything and leave readers scratching their heads and saying “I wonder what they meant by doing that?”  And I’ll preface this with a warning:  my job involves a lot of greeting cards.  Don’t ask, just accept that I see more oddly-used English on a given day than most people, and that most of the examples below come from those experiences.

The Weirdly-Placed Quotation Marks

Sometimes this one crosses the border into just-plain-wrong territory, but mostly you see quotation marks surrounding perfectly reasonable phrases…that no one’s actually saying.  You know — graphic of a cake with candles, fun font; text that reads “Happy Birthday” with the quote marks included.  No one’s saying it, so maybe it’s meant to be like those little air-quotes people do with their fingers?  Birthday cards for the secret ill-wishers in your life or something.  Often appears in conjunction with one of my least favorite linguistic abuses…

The Quote “by Anonymous”

Let me be clear here:  if no one knows who said it, it isn’t a quote. It’s a saying, a truism; a just plain-old sentence.  You do not ever need to print something that looks like this:

How can I manage my life if I can’t even manage my hair?

-by Anonymous

I want to personally slap each and every one of these publishers.

The Misattributed Quote

I’ve hit on this one before, but very briefly — any phrase that’s so common you know it by heart is probably a quote.  At a guess it’s from Shakespeare or the Bible, with Milton running a distant third.  But there’s lots of potential sources for all the little colloquialisms of modern English, so do a fucking Google search.

Exclamation Points

I guess there’s nothing wrong with being excited about things, but the use of exclamation points in advertisements kind of weirds me out sometimes.  It looks especially odd attached to incomplete sentences or single-word phrases:  SALE! This is a very emphatic declaration.  I’m not sure I want to go into a store that gets that excited about markdowns.  They must really want to get rid of that merchandise.

Glancing back over the list, most of these have to do with quotations.  Not sure where that’s coming from.  I’ve probably missed a few, so you fill in the gaps — what are people doing to their texts that isn’t wrong in a technical sense, bu still makes your writerly nerves twitch?


This Just In: You Picked the Wrong Job!

An off-day post, from the front page of today’s Wall Street Journal:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703369704575461542987870022.html?mod=WSJ_hps_MIDDLEFifthNews

Cheerful way to start your day.

On the Dangers of Googling Furniture

Do you have a loved one, a spouse; a special friend in your life?  Are they, too, an avid reader?  If you do and they are, you already know where this post is going, as the weather turns cool and the blankets come out:  snuggling up with a book and a loved one is about as cozy as juggling scrap metal on horseback.  If the horse is made out of ice.

I don’t say this to malign O Best Beloved, who is a warm and cozy and loving individual.  So are my cats, for that matter.  But most furniture just isn’t designed with the elbow-room that reading requires in mind.  What begins as an adoring pile of limbs and joints (which sounds kind of like an early Anglo-Saxon gift basket when you write it out) quickly turns into a series of aches, changes in position to relieve aches, and quietly-nursed grudges about changes in position that left one party more comfortable than the other.  Soon a U. N. Special Commission is asking Bill Clinton to come mediate between the feuding states.

But just as I was dreading the snuggling season my page-a-day desktop calendar featured something called a “tête-à-tête chair.”  (Yes, my desk calendar occasional features antique furniture, and yes, O Best Beloved is really a woman.)  For those of you that aren’t familiar, tête-à-tête chairs were a typical Victorian solution to the problem where people who sat on the same normal couch might ocassionally brush ankles or something equally salacious, and they look something like this:

Now imagine my surprise when I Googled “tête-à-tête chair,” just to see how much one of these would set me back (almost anything seems a small price to pay for that down-home, cozy feeling of reading side-by-side sans elbows in the kidney) and one of the first results was this:

It’s come up a time or two before, but O.B.B. really loves flamingos.  Really really loves ‘em.  I count four at a casual glance around the living room, but that’s only because she’s drinking her tea out a big mug this morning instead of one of the little flamingo cups (we still made it in the flamingo teapot, though).  So I really don’t see how I’m getting out of this one without buying the appropriately-named “flamenco chair.”

Any suggestions on snuggling and reading comfortably before this thing sets me back a couple hundred?

X-Rated Shakespeare!

The Bard gave us some of the greatest work in the English language, but he also wrote some of the lamest dick jokes ever.  I like to think that I was honoring the latter part (hur hur hur) of his legacy when I first scribbled down a handful of titles for “Shakespearean Parody Porn,” which I have made the poor decision to improve upon here.  They were a bad idea then and probably a worse idea now.  If you possess anything even vaguely resembling good taste you’ll stop reading here and come back Monday.  No?  Then enjoy…

X-RATED SHAKESPEARE!

Contains offensive and idiotic language.  Viewer discretion and inebriation advised.

A Midsummer Night’s Cream

Two pairs of runaway lovers start slamming back liquor in a fairy-themed bar, and it’s all downhill from there! By the end of the night Titty Anna’s starring in a Mexican donkey show for manager Boneron and the rest are doing an eight-way on the table with the lust-crazed Mechanicals and their startling toolboxes.  In an iconic “play within a play” The Bard himself pioneers the idea of the glory hole.

Hamlust the Ponce of Denmark

In an effort to “cure” her increasingly queer son, the Queen of Denmark starts getting caught in compromising positions with her latest of several husbands.  Hamlust fails to respond, running off to play “Hide the Dagger” with flamboyant sailors Grows-in-pants and Gives-in-stern instead.  This film was originally banned in Denmark — and you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get a porno banned there!

Ream A. Ho and Julie Wett

Rival gangs the Montascrews and the Fapulets come to town, and it’s a showdown to see who can pimp the most bitches! But when Montascrew pimp Ream A. Ho sets his sights on the star of the Fapulet’s line-up, Julie Wett, there’s trouble in Verona. Can the two budding sex workers buck the gangs and start their own stable of fine, fine hos?

Oh Hell No

When his well-hung buddy passes him up for a three-way scene and chooses a rival porn star instead, Erotigo vows vengeance. Posing as an innovator of dildo technology, he plies his former friend’s number one ho Dezzy Moaner with larger and larger toys, while dropping casual hints that she has found an even more studly lover.  But all ends happily when Dezzy’s previously-undiscovered fetish for erotic asphyxiation unites the lovers at the last moment.

The Reaming of the Screw

Once upon a time the quarterback of the visiting team got with Katy “the Screw” under the Verona High bleachers, and now no one’s good enough for the temperamental head cheerleader.  Since tradition dictates no one can ask anyone else on the squad until she’s got a date for prom, the boys team up to satisfy the Screw!  Meanwhile, the girls have their own competition to see who can oblige their boyfriend’s desires the best.  Repeatedly burned at feminist rallies!

Titties Androgynous

…actually, there’s nothing I could write that would be worse than the original plot of the play.  What the fuck, Shakespeare?  I’m just going to quit while I’m ahead (hur, hur, hur, “head”).

Dedicated to the authors of Throbbin’ Hood, The Madams Family, and many other fine parody pornos of the late 20th Century.

Hamburger Style

I tend to credit my mother with teaching her sons to cook (since she knew she’d never get grandkids on the strength of our other merits), but I realized tonight that I may have actually inherited most of my technique from my father.  This does relate to writing, so bear with me!  Dad tended to leave the cooking to Mom except for grilling in the summer, so the only real “recipe” he ever walked us through was hamburgers.  It consisted less of reading off a page and more of opening the cupboards up and pondering what would taste okay mixed in with ground beef.  We used at least all of the following items at one point or another, sometimes all in the same batch of burgers:

  • salt
  • pepper
  • oregano
  • eggs
  • beer
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • soy sauce
  • onions
  • garlic
  • anchovy paste
  • catsup
  • barbecue sauce
  • more beer

And they usually tasted pretty good.  To this day I just kind of throw things in the bowl and mash them around with the beef when I make hamburgers.  The technique has spilled over into my other cooking to the point that I’m often hard-pressed to tell O Best Beloved what was in something when she takes her first bite and says “This is delicious; how do you make it?”

This is also how I write.  (The relevance appears!)  I am dreadful at start-to-finish plans.  I try to have them, just like I try to look at a couple different recipes before I start making a dish for the first time, but (just like the recipes) I tend to find myself straying immediately.  It’s hard to say whether the finished product is better or worse, since I’ve never sat down and outlined an entire story and then written exactly that story with no deviations.  I’m not sure I could.

I do know that the “throw it in and see what happens” approach requires watching and frequent adjusting, though, in cooking or in writing.  Taste regularly by re-reading.  Test the flavor pairings by reading the new material and then something else you’ve written.  Open new versions in side files and re-write parts from scratch (but don’t throw out the old files, ever).  Poke, prod, simmer, and stir, and try to only serve the first version of the experiment to someone who loves you very much.

Or, if you’ve got the discipline for it, plan the whole thing out so carefully that the actual writing is just draping words over a neat framework — and tell me how you did it.  Like in a comment here or something.

Also, does the title of today’s post make anyone else think of folding paper in elementary school?  I forget what we were folding papers for, that it mattered whether we folded along the shorter axis (“hamburger style”) or the longer one (“hot dog style”), but I sure remember the phrases.

Does that make the tri-fold used for most letters “veggie wrap style,” do you think?

Six Times You Could Be Reading (And Probably Aren’t)

Books!

We love ‘em.  At least I hope everyone reading this blog loves ‘em, because I will surely be bothering you to read at least one at some point.  Not for a while, though, don’t worry.  Anyway.  Books!  Writers should read ‘em, as anyone who’s ever even vaguely looked into the career has heard a thousand times already.  Keeps you exposed to fresh ideas, different styles, examples of what works and what doesn’t work, yadda yadda yadda.

The only problem is that reading takes time. (The main problem, anyway.  A kitten that hates books and tries to murder them with claws is also a problem.  I have lots of problems.)  Time is the precious commodity you spend on writing.  There’s probably a day job or a marriage or kids or something in there, too, so the schedule can start to look pretty full pretty quickly.  But who can give up reading?  Bleary-eyed but triumphant, I have finished a list of six excellent ways to sneak reading back into your life without losing your mind or more than a few hours of sleep:

  • Take Public Transit. Commuting sucks and is the worst thing you could ever do with your life including swallowing live bees for money.  But public transit isn’t really a commute at all!  It’s “Sustained Silent Reading,” or whatever your primary school called “the best hour of the school day always” — just you and your book.  And it’s all for work. They can’t take it away from you.  Don’t let them.  Make up environmentally-appropriate reasons to justify bussing it even after they offer you the company car.  And be sure to cover your books with a cut-up brown paper bag, because the crazies on the bus have an opinion about everything.
  • Read at Meals. I am told that some children get picked on for doing this, but you’re an adult!  Fuck ‘em.  If you get a lunch hour, bury your  nose during it.  (I was over six feet tall by seventh grade and may be underestimating how bad the teasing was for smaller humans, but seriously — adults now.)  Breakfast is even more permissible, since no one wants to talk to you at that hour of the morning anyway.  Even my book-hating cat won’t fuck with me when I’m that surly.
  • Top the Toilet Tank…with a good book!  Or bring one in, either way.  I worked at a Boy Scout camp throughout my misspent youth, and one of my fellow counselors finished the entirety of Anna Karenina without ever moving it out of the toilet stall.  Your diet is hopefully a little lower in fiber than ours was, but you get the idea.  Those minutes on the toilet add up to a lot of wasted life if you don’t have a book in there with you.  And you don’t really want your mind on what you’re doing anyway.  As an added bonus, those blank pages in the back can be a last-ditch salvation when you use a public hole without checking for TP first.
  • Be a Good Employee and Never Ever Read on Your Shift Even if There Is No One Else There and It Could Not Possibly Matter. Come on, guys.  My boss reads this thing.  But if you ever get stuck manning a tollbooth on an underused exit ramp or something, you could consider sneaking a few pages in at work.
  • Storytime before Bed! You don’t need small children for this one.  In fact, it’s even better without small children, because you can read much more interesting books.  Reading aloud with a friend or partner is a lot slower than reading to yourself, but it lets you effectively double-bill your time:  you’re getting “hard-working writer” credit for continuing to read other material and you’re getting “loving spouse” credit for doing a shared activity.  And while honesty compels me to admit that O Best Beloved and I mostly do read books meant for children for our read-alouds, I’m sure there are couples out there that could read more advanced literature…or even something spicy to set the mood before the lights go out, perhaps?  I leave it to you.
  • Read Yourself to Sleep. If you don’t have someone to do read-aloud with or they go to bed before you do, you can still get a bit of reading in after you’re done with your exhausting day’s work.  A wind-down book after writing for hours helps quiet my brain and knock me out — usually.  This can be a double-edged sword, since once in a while you’re reading something so good that dawn’s rosy fingers escape your notice entirely and are replaced by mid-morning’s sucker punch.

Where are you sneaking your reading in?  Inquiring minds want to know…right after they get done with their evening wind-down reading and the inevitably short hours of sleep that follow.  See you on the Comments page!

Even Thinking of a Title is Hard

Today is one of those days where my brain comes up dry.  There’s nothing post-worthy in it (seriously, you should have seen the draft that revolved around allusions to Werner Herzog’s adaptation of Woyzeck).  But that’s okay, because I can pick other people’s brains, and here is a lesson for all my writer-readers:  surround yourself with interesting people. Not necessarily people that you like, although I encourage you to get a few of those too, but people who will regularly exemplify the more interesting and entertaining human behaviors.

Because that’s what makes good copy.  So here are the things that people in my personal acquaintance said today that would not be out of place in a novel somewhere:

  • Sometimes at gay clubs, guys who are flirting with me will grab my dick through my jeans. Those of you who have never been to a gay club are saying “WHAT?” But it’s actually pretty par for the course, so those of you who have are waiting for me to get to the punchline. I’m in the habit, if I don’t want to discourage someone completely, of giving them a disapproving look and saying “Careful, honey, that’s attached.” It never fails to make them 1)smile and 2)stop grabbing my dick in public. So last night, I was a little drunk, and I automatically laid that line on a post-op MTF. Whoops!
  • Note on my fridge to myself: “You have a Ph.D. in chemistry. Keep your apartment clean!”
  • He smiles in the rain.  But it’s because he likes gloomy days, not because he’s optimistic in the face of adversity or something.
  • My job is so good I get to rent porn for free, and reviewing it is kind of part of my job.

This is all in a twenty-four hour period; more like a twelve hour period since I spent the morning in my fuzzy-eyed writing cocoon (which actually sounds like an adorable insect kind of thing, if any artistically-inclined readers cared to draw it).  Will I ever use any of them in writing outside this blog?  Probably not.  But good books are made up of lots and lots of little good stories strung together in the right order, so immersing yourself in good stories can’t be a bad starting place.

Has someone said something to you recently that you kind of want to put in a book?  Or want someone else to put in a book, so that your friends can’t read it and go “Hey, that was me, you asshole”?  I have that problem sometimes…

The Importance of Basic Arithmetic

Musicians like to joke about working to support their job, or at least I heard it from a musician first.  But it’s pretty good for anyone in an artistic field, right?  Writers actually have it kind of easy, on account of only needing to pay for food, utilities, and something to write on plus (these days) an internet connection that works at least part of the time.  Things like instrument storage and repairs, canvas, paints, or whatever are just that many more reasons people need jobs to support their profession.  So I think my readers will be sympathetic when I say that I’ve been putting some long hours in at my writing-unrelated job.  It’s a busy time of year for us and a long-time employee left, meaning there’s been plenty of hours, and I’ve been working pretty much all of them.  It’s meant a bit less time for writing, both personal projects and my current freelance gigs.

This was actually kind of a bad choice.  And I should have known it was a bad choice, because (to interrupt the linear flow of the narrative here) I was determined in fifth grade to be so precocious I needed sixth-grade math lessons, and I remain better at math than nearly any fifth-grader in the business.  I will never know what those stretched-out S things in calculus are for, but I can add and subtract like a motherfucker.

Turns out that (without going into details of my wages here, which always seems rude and also a little depressing) I can make way more per hour writing any available freelance jobs unless those hours are seriously unproductive.  I can write anywhere from a couple hundred words to several thousand in an hour depending on how it’s going; pick a number somewhere in the middle and multiply by five or ten hours of work and you can see how it would be hard for minimum wage to compete.  Responsible adults probably would have sat down and done that math back when the choice first arose, huh?

So today’s lesson for writers is know what your writing is worth. Not in an abstract kind of way, but in a “how much money am I guaranteed for this hour’s output” way.  If money is tight in your life, and you have a more profitable way of spending that hour, think about doing it.  But don’t get so caught up in the idea of writing as the unprofitable career and everything else as the support for it that you miss the chance to make more writing.

Writers: Not Necessarily Experts on Books

I don’t actually try to make dinner parties more awkward than they need to be, but that didn’t stop me from kicking Saturday’s northern-Minnesota shindig off by mentioning that I was from Iowa, which for those of you living outside the Midwest is somewhat akin to listing “retaking the Palestinian homeland” in your interests on JDate.  But it’s okay — I’m a writer.  That’s a much more interesting curiosity even for Gophers fans, and the conversation shifted to books and writing with only a few slurs on one another’s ancestry exchanged en route.

Unfortunately, this quickly turned into one of those”well, surely we can agree that this is great literature” conversations as everyone strove valiantly for some kind of shared ground.  Tolkien was mentioned, some of the complaints from my Most Absolutely Overrated Books You’ve Probably Had to Read list came up, and the whole thing sort of dissolved into a soup of mutual disgust that wound up reminding me of an old favorite from Penny Arcade:

I appreciate the effort to include the writer in conversation by way of the written word, I really do.  But we can realistically assume that any book popular enough for a crowd of lawyers, doctors, professors, grad students, and god knows what else (plus one writer) to know intimately is probably pretty fixed in our minds.  Either we like elves giving gifts or we do not.  Like guiding a hungry yellow blob around a dark, ghost-filled maze, it is an experience that bears little further discussion.  It took someone actually throwing his beer on someone else and the subsequent clean-up to distract us from our hate-filled circle of redundancy.

A recent attempt to come up with a succinct Goodreads review for Peter and Wendy (better-if-inaccurately known as Peter Pan) sort of drove this point home to me.  There’s no question that this was a text I responded to and have thoughts on, but it’s hard to find a meaningful way to share those thoughts.  People already know what Peter Pan is about, even people who’ve never read Peter and Wendy — it’s just part of our cultural heritage.  How do you review that?  It’s fucking Pac-Man.

Oh well.  Did you hear about the Minnesotan who married a Palestinian?  They’re naming the child Yassir Yabetcha.

Writing Life: Skills to Pay the Bills

The difference between a dish towel, a dish cloth, a washcloth, and a tea towel:  neither the set-up for a joke nor something I knew a few years ago.  For that matter, it’s not something I ever considered anyone else knowing, or caring about.  I was dimly aware that all of those words/phrases existed and would not have been surprised to hear someone refer to the scrap of cloth hanging from their refrigerator door as any of them, and that seemed sufficient.

I have done a number of odd things since deciding that what I want to do with my life is publish pretty stories (none of which is publish a pretty story, unfortunately, but that’s okay — there’s been lots of other writing, and that’s a good thing).  In the course of being a shop clerk, a short-order cook at a from-scratch Cajun joint, and the general caretaker for the hard-working O Best Beloved (sometimes called O Stressed Beloved during the bad weeks), I have acquired all sorts of skills that have nothing to do with writing but are still interesting. I think this must happen to all writers, not to mention artists, musicians, jugglers, and at least a few prostitutes that I know.  You just kind of pick things up (hur hur hur) along the way.  How to chop an onion in a few seconds, how to jury-rig shelves from IKEA; how to fold bedsheets with military crispness.

Does any of that ever make it into the writing?  It’s hard to say.  I deliberately avoid any characters that could turn into a Portrait of Me at Any Age, so I don’t put my various professional skills into anyone else’s head, but you could certainly do that.  And I like to think that someone who knows the difference between a dish towel, a tea towel, a washcloth and a dish cloth is at least a little more consciously attuned to the effect and importance of word choice.  Are other writers/bloggers out there learning things they never thought they would as a consequence of their intended profession?  Does it make it into the writing?  Inquiring minds want to know!

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