Archive for the ‘ Writing Life ’ Category

The Singular They: Another Grammatical Hang-Up You Can Get Over Already

pronouns-he-she-they-itThe legacy of the nit-picking late 19th and early 20th centuries is with us still, in the form of armchair grammarians. You would think sometimes that the English language had been shat whole and complete out of H. W. Fowler’s clenching sphincter.

We’ve already talked about “literally,” and how it can mean literally any degree of literalism you want; now let me clarify another grammatical misconception for you: the singular “they” has been with us from the beginnings of modern English, and no one has ever been confused by it.

Chaucer used it. So did Shakespeare. Jefferson, Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, Shaw…pick a famous English-language writer, and somewhere in their works you’ll find the singular “they.” (See what I did there?)

And really, why wouldn’t English writers rely on the oldest and most common gender-neutral pronoun in their language? Taken as both a singular and a plural pronoun, “they” is just one more English word out of thousands with multiple possible meanings.

It’s not like there are better alternatives. English lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun with no alternative meanings (other than “it,” and an emotional separation between humans and all other objects is encoded too deeply in the rest of the language to ever let that one catch on).

A purportedly gender-neutral “he” isn’t gender-neutral, obviously (try a construction like “everyone hates getting a run in his stockings on the way to work” to see the absurdity of it), and if we were to use a gendered pronoun as the generic, “he” has worse odds of being accurate than “she” in our slightly female-skewed population. If reducing ambiguity is your game, that’s not the way to go.

“He/she” has obvious readability and efficiency issues, and while more inclusive than one gendered pronoun is still not particularly representative of modern gender identities (which could be better shortened to “fuck it; who knows?”).

And perhaps the reformists who want a brand-new pronoun will have their day eventually, but the cause would be drastically helped by moving away from really odd and under-used English consonants that produce ambiguous pronunciations: none of us old farts give enough of a fuck to figure out what the difference between “ze” and “zhe” is, or how you say either one, and they’re both a pain to type. Until a very widely-read author or publication picks one option and throws all their weight behind it, those will remain an alphabet soup of wistful good intentions.

So until something better comes along, please — use the singular “they” with confidence. You could probably come up with a sentence where the numerical disagreement created ambiguity if you really tried, but it would be a tortured construction that no one would realistically use in their day-to-day speech.

See what I did there?


The Freelancer’s Holiday

martin-luther-king-day-of-serviceWorking from home is an odd beast.

If you read the entrepreneur blogs (and there are a lot of them, most of which appear to have an audience consisting entirely of other entrepreneur blogs), the self-employed are the real overachievers of the modern economy. You are your own toughest boss, &c., which let me tell you as I swig my beer and scroll through Tumblr porn in another tab is total bullshit, but it’s a nice-sounding idea.

(Or maybe not a nice sounding idea, depending on how you feel about work. But the point is that these self-employed gigs are supposedly the ones where there are no days off and every workday is a 12-hour-plus day. Your mileage in terms of actual productivity may vary, based on how many of those twelve hours are spent fondling your crotch.)

So I take all of that with a grain of salt, or several grains of salt gracing the rim of my afternoon margarita. But I will say this much about working from home: it really takes the fun out of federal holidays.

Seriously. King Day and all those others aren’t holidays; they’re workdays plus I can’t run down to the bank.

Ah well. Over the last few years of federal holidays I’ve called Veteran’s Day “the most awkward holiday of the year,” listed “making out with your sister-in-law” as a traditional Memorial Day observance, and castigated Labor Day as a watered-down bread-and-circuses distraction designed to separate American workers from the international labor movement (which it is). Reverence for national days of celebration is clearly not in me.

At least I can fill that bank run time I’d scheduled with another beer from the fridge.

Four Years of Misanthropology

ma101-logo-geoffrey-cubbageThey say it takes ten years to truly master a skill, so only six more to go until I’m actually entertaining!

Yes indeed, it’s been four years here at MA101, which remains to this day one of my least-monetized assets. Still, the savings in therapy bills are considerable. I don’t know why everyone doesn’t get themselves a digital soapbox from which to rail.

Rather than bore you all with tedious recounting of my triumphs as a blogger over the years, I shall celebrate the anniversary with a well-deserved “throw some crap up and leave the rest to the comments section” dodge.

Readers: Do you remember the post that first brought you here? Share it in the comments! Or just pick a favorite, if you don’t remember what got you started. You can tell me what it was about and I’ll hunt the link down if you’re feeling lazy.

Don’t be shy! I’m genuinely curious what I’ve written over the last four years that people actually liked.

Freelance Writing: Q4 Projected Earnings May Look Great, But Try Telling Your Landlord That

If I were a company, now would be a great time to buy stock in me. (Cue the obligatory lefty-liberal jokes about incorporating oneself to get more constitutional rights than individuals enjoy, etc.)

My earning potential looks fantastic. I’ve got long-term, big-payout jobs dropping in my lap left, right, and center. More and more people keep hiring me. I’ve been turning down jobs and raising rates just to keep the workload manageable.

On the other hand, between the “long” part of those long-term jobs and the $900 or so in auto work I shelled out today, cash reserves are pretty well wiped out and we’re looking at what’s demurely called a negative cash flow for the next few weeks.

So, to put it another way: I’m glad I stopped at the Asian Midway from some fancy ramen on my walk back from the garage, because apparently that’s what I’m eating for the next little while. I’d feel guilty about shelling out for the good stuff, but damn if that extra ten cents doesn’t get you a way better bowl of ramen.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go see how many words I can write in the next couple hours.

3 Reasons New Writers Shouldn’t Start “Writing Blogs”

blog-penRemember back when MA101 was ostensibly about writing?

That was a stupid idea.

Writing blogs are a popular stupid idea, at least, but by that measure I should take up smoking, too, which would at least make me look cooler than blogging does.

Nonetheless, people are still starting new blogs-about-writing every day, and there are lots of authors, publishers, and agents out there encouraging the trend.

They are wrong, and here is why:

#1: You Don’t Know Shit About Writing

This was true of me back in December 2009, and to a great extent it’s still true about me today.

If you’ve got some success in the business, people want to know how you achieved it. Writers who’ve made a decent living (or at least a decent critical impact — the two don’t always go hand in hand) have some authority when they talk about their process. The process worked, demonstrably.

Until your process has worked out for you, however, both critically and fiscally, you’re not in a position to dispense advice. Accept that you don’t know how to make your career work yet, and figure that out before you start writing how-tos.

#2: There Isn’t Enough to Say

Just how long are you planning on running your blog? And how many times a week are you posting?

If the answers are “at least a year” and “at least once,” you already need a bare minimum of fifty-two unique, writing-related topics. And if your writing process has fifty-two unique steps in it that you can talk about, you’re a hideously inefficient writer.

You can keep the writing focus and move beyond your own experiences by keeping an eye out for writing-related news and other blog posts — but at that point you’re putting quite a bit of time and effort into becoming an aggregator of stories that other people already covered.

And did you really go into the writing business to become a content aggregator? If you want to do that, go aggregate fuzzy kitten pictures for Buzzfeed and make some real money.


#3: The Audience That Cares Is Useless to You

Who actually wants to read writing tips?

Aspiring writers, and pretty much no one else.

That means that your primary audience is A) your competition and B) probably pretty broke. Neither one is likely to make them want to buy your books, in the event that you actually start publishing some.

I’m not saying you won’t acquire any loyalists who just love your blogging style and will feel they have to try your books — but you certainly won’t be attracting the thousands and thousands of them you’d need to make a discernible bump in your sales.

So Don’t Do It

Blog all you want. Blogging is fun, it can attract audiences that will want to buy books, and if you work hard at it you might even be able to sell some on-page ads for a couple bucks a month.

But get over the idea of a “writing blog” sooner, rather than later. It’s overdone, it doesn’t interest anyone outside of a small and relatively poor echo chamber, and there are already a couple of seriously established heavyweights filling all the content-aggregating demand. Go write about something unique instead.

Or just post fuzzy pony pictures — that’s worked out okay for me.

Blogger, Be Humble

blog-clickSo, MA101 changed the internet a little yesterday.

Not a lot. Not on anything really important.

But something I noticed and pointed out here ended up enough other places, and was seen by enough people who cared enough to complain, that a company changed its product.

The process was a lengthy one, involving web forums and Twitter and other blogs, but it all started here, and it ended with some offensive content being removed from an extremely popular game.

That’s very cool. Not gonna lie. It is a heady draught, and the temptation to spike the ball, take a victory lap, etc. is a strong one.

Unfortunately, if I ever want to do something along the same lines again, what’s called for instead is sober reflection, self-awareness, and some affectless modesty. Talk about not playing to my strengths.

Because the reality is, I did two things that anyone who wants to affect real-world change with their blog has to do:

  1. I picked an easy target.
  2. I got really lucky.

Was it nice to see MA101 garner enough attention that people with actual power and influence had to do something? Oh God, yes.

But I wasn’t asking for much. All the important people had to do to keep their customers happy was maybe five minutes of quick coding work. The price for shutting up the complainers was set so low only a criminally incompetent community manager would have taken a stand on principle instead.

So that’s lesson one, if you’re out to change the world: make it easy for the people who actually can make changes to do so. Give them an easy path to victory. Ask for something small.

That’s  part of the reason that the trash-talking orcs have been removed from World of Warcraftbut Wisconsin still has private mercenaries patrolling its public-access lands with assault rifles, even though my take on the two issues was basically identical (“this is wrong and we need to get rid of them”). It’s easy to wipe digital characters that don’t serve a practical in-game function out of an MMORPG, but it’s a lot harder to get rid of soldiers who are being paid to occupy a territory and whose employers have a vested interest in keeping people away, no matter how many bloggers shriek about it.

The other big difference between the two cases (and between any successful advocacy and unsuccessful advocacy) is the pure, fickle luck of public interest.

About 9 or 10 million people still play World of Warcraft. I don’t have statistics for how many are on the US servers (and therefore the US web forums) specifically, and I certainly don’t have a number for how many read the General Forums, but it doesn’t really matter. We’re talking about 10 million people here. If a rounding error were glancing at the General Forums when the thread that linked to my blog post was up, it’s still a massive audience.

So in the hour or so of online discussion before Blizzard shut the thread down, enough people saw it that a small percentage of that small percentage were the sorts of people who pass concerning stories along to their social networks. That meant the story was out on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and Reddit, in places I never would have thought to put it and never would have had the influence to place it if I’d wanted to.

And one or two of the people that eventually saw it were active community members with some pull on Blizzard’s community moderation team, and they took the complaint straight to the people with actual authority. That’s when real change happened.

So lest I or anyone else get carried away by the power of I’m Going to Complain About Them On My Blog, a reminder: you are exactly as powerful as the people you can get to listen to you. No more, no less. And powerful people tend to have more serious concerns on their minds than making you happy.

Write away. Write well, and write passionately, and write about things that you think matter. But do it with an eye toward what can actually be changed, and with an appropriately humble awareness of your dependence on the fickle winds of fate.

And that’s enough navel-gazing for one day. We’ll do something fun tomorrow. Fuzzy ponies? Sex scandals? Something. No more of this gaming stuff, anyway; it brings too many Reddit dudebros on board, and I’m tired of double-checking the comments.

The Blogs You Read Every Day

bookmark-iconI have a small but loyal set of followers here at MA101 who actually use that little “Like” button at the bottom of the page, and many of them use it almost every day I post.

I can’t tell you how much that warms my heart, especially because I never think to use the built-in “like” buttons, even when I do in fact like something. To my self-centered perspective, it looks like a massive extra effort every time someone does it. Flattering!

But it’s taken some time for me to adjust to the deeper implications of those pleasant e-mailed notices, to whit, that I am a part of multiple people’s regular routine.

Multiple people! Me! Or at least my writing; I personally am not a part of many routines on account of never leaving the house or even really bothering to put on pants much.

And it got me to thinking about how most of us have things we at least glance at every day, of the blog or blog-like variety, in this internet-driven age, and how you could probably learn a lot about a person from his/her blogs bookmarks (or RSS feed, or whatever). Or then again maybe you couldn’t, and it would really just show you that most people read a bunch of random crap on the internet, because that’s what the internet is for — you tell me, after taking a look at my “routine” blogs:

  • Comic Strip of the Day - I first became aware of Mike Peterson’s blog when he linked to mine, and possibly called me a hipster in the process (his syntax was ambiguous). But I will forgive all wrongs because his writing is fantastic, often better than the comics he selects to comment on themselves — and those are already pretty great, and a good exposure to things I wouldn’t necessarily have noticed on my own. If I were the sort of person to put stock in “Best Blogger” types of awards/chain letters/whatever, which I’m not, his would always head my list.
  • Don’t pet me, I’m writing – Tawna Fenske doesn’t blog nearly as much as she used to, which (as someone whose blogging suffers when he has other things going on in life) I’ve come to recognize as an almost universally positive sign. But she was an early role model for me in the pantheon of writers/bloggers/writers who blog about writing without turning it into a “Five Great Tips!” scam, and I’ll still read anything she writes, as evinced by the growing collection of her books on my shelf. Her archives are a must-read for aspiring genre fiction writers.
  • Le cul entre les deux chaises – My favorite Tower of Babel on all the internet. I can’t recall how I found it, but I come back regularly for all the linguistic oddities of “AN AMERICAN SPANIARD IN FRANCE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO MAKE AN ASS OF MYSELF IN THREE CULTURES.”
  • The Maddow Blog and Wonkette – My preferred lefty-liberal rags, in part because they know they’re lefty-liberal rags and are at least a little tongue in cheek about it. The commentary is often biased to the point of silliness (sometimes deliberately and sometimes not), but they both do a good job of picking out stories worth passing along. If they were my only news sources I’d have a pretty strange view of the world, but they make a good counterweight to my print subscription to The Wall Street Journal.

I’d be lying if I said there were many others that I checked absolutely every day, or at least every day they updated. Those are my biggies. There are lots of others that I check on a semi-regular basis, partly so that I can enjoy reading through their recent archives when I need a quiet moment or two, and I suspect many of my readers’ own blogs are on that list. (In fact, I know they are. I do go take a look when I see that someone has “Liked” one of my posts, just to see what they’re up to.)

But the goal for today was to see if we could tell anything about someone from his/her list of daily-read blogs. You tell me.


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