Thursday, December 8, 2016

Of Precision I Sing

Zestful Blog Post #188

If you’re a stickler for precise language and spelling, these are dark times. The rise of voice-to-text software, declining literacy rates (at least in the U.S.—I read about it), and the hurried way we often produce and consume words—all of this is adding up. Also, OK, I’m all for STEM. STEM for president. STEM for lucrative, clean-hands jobs. But more emphasis on STEM means less emphasis on literature. I’m sorry, but it does. And it shows. And I grieve.

OK, here are some commonly misused words, with corrections. I am driven to write this today. I know word meanings change over time, often because of sloppy usage. But let us not be part of that hideous process.

Reticent / Reluctant
No:
He was reticent to open the door.
Yes:
He was reluctant to open the door.
No:
She was reticent to speak about what she’d gone through.
Yes:
She was reluctant to speak about what she’d gone through.
Yes:
She was reticent about what she’d gone through.

Reticent means being unwilling to speak; the origin is Latin, for ‘be silent.’
Reluctant means being unwilling to do something.

An announcer said this on the radio yesterday: “But the school principal was accused of flaunting the rules.” No. You flout the rules, you flaunt your six-pack abs at the beach.

Keeping to the ‘f’ theme, let’s look at another pair:

No:
The ship floundered on the reef and was lost.
Yes:
The ship foundered on the reef.
Yes:
He floundered for months, then at last grasped the essence of the theorem.
Yes:
They took control of the foundering company and made it profitable again.

To flounder is to struggle; to founder is to sink.


Again, yesterday. I picked up a package of page tabs in a store—you know, those things like paperclips for marking pages in a book? Was going to buy it until I read on the back that the tabs are ‘discrete’. Put it back. No, the tabs are discreet; they don’t hang out like sticky notes or the like.

So, no:
Roger and Joan were discrete about their affair.
Yes:
Roger and Joan were discreet about their affair.
No:
Each file folder holds a discreet project. (Although, come to think of it, if these were personnel records at a bordello, that could be true.)
Yes:
Each file folder holds a discrete project.

Although the words are related, discreet means to be cautious or even guarded, while discrete simply means separate, individual.

While we’re on homonyms:

No:
The demotion didn’t phase him.
Yes:
The demotion didn’t faze him.
Yes:
That model was phased out in 2011.
Yes:
My dog’s mood seems to depend on the phases of the moon.

To faze is to disrupt or disturb. Phase can be a noun or a verb; a phase is a stage or an episode, while to phase is to execute a sequence.

No:
The governor took a lot of flack for his statement on low-fat butter.
Yes:
The governor took a lot of flak for his statement on low-fat butter.

Flak is anti-aircraft fire from ground positions; the metaphorical meaning is severe criticism. A flack is a publicist or promoter.

Thank you so much for your attention to these matters.

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Thursday, December 1, 2016

Thine Own Self

Zestful Blog Post #187

Before today’s post, I want to give a shout-out to one of our own, Stanley Walek. Big Stan is a friend, client, Zestful Blog reader and comment poster, and as of recently, he’s an author. If time travel, archaeology, ancient British history, ventriloquism, science, and off-kilter humor hold any interest for you, check out Paxton's Worlds. Congratulations, Stan!

The latest Writer’s Digest magazine (January 2017) is out, featuring a piece by yours truly, “21 Ways to Pivot Your Plot.” Here’s Editor-in-Chief Jessica Strawser’s blog about the issue. The theme is “Write That Novel!”, most appropriate for the New Year, I say. Lots of good stuff in there.

Was honored to have some of my work mentioned in a roundup of ‘best’ story writing advice by Jane Friedman recently. She’s put together quite a bouquet of sound material in that list, if I say so myself, so consider looking in on it.

OK. Today’s post is a pushback against Shakespeare abuse. The other day I heard somebody say ‘To thine own self be true,’ to justify some little selfishness or other, and it made me mad, because that’s the opposite of what Shakespeare really said. The quotation is incomplete.

I remember my mother discussing this once, when I was about nine. She was attending college to become an English teacher, so naturally she was studying Shakespeare. One day she was sitting with a cup of coffee at the kitchen table, musing, maybe more to herself than anything, about people screwing up this quotation. Then she must have noticed me standing there, and recited the full passage:


[from the cover of my old Kittredge edition]

“This above all—to thine own self be true,
And it must follow as the night to day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

The play is Hamlet, the speaker is the ill-fated Polonius, and he’s finishing up giving a bunch of life wisdom to his son Laertes.

Buddha would approve. Good advice for children of all ages! I remembered that moment with Mom all these years.

Do you have a Shakespeare defense story to share? What do you think? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Random Acts of Thankfulness

Zestful Blog Post #186

Wishing you and yours a wonderful Thanksgiving Day. I’m thankful for all the usual suspects: health, family, Marcia. Beyond those treasures, here are 30:

·       Etch A Sketch
·       Photosynthesis
·       The Artist’s Bedroom in Arles
·       Psycho
·       Sutro Heights Park
·       The Bob-Lo Boat
·       William Walton
·       Georgia O’Keeffe
·       Pie
·       Laura Ingalls Wilder
·       Rose Wilder Lane
·       Trilobites
·       Nancy Kulp
·       Speedo Endurance Lite Fabric
·       Burt’s Bees
·       Randomness


[actual photograph of randomness: this wooden duck outside the music store.]

·       Every Damn Bronte
·       Tanqueray
·       Cows
·       John King Books
·       Samuel Taylor Coleridge
·       Marie Curie
·       Tracey Ullman
·       Palomino Blackwings
·       Matt Groening
·       Trey Parker
·       Matt Stone
·       Garry Winogrand
·       The Pelikan Pen Co.
·       The Cardiff Giant

Do you have any random acts of thankfulness to share? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Thursday, November 17, 2016

A Skill Built to Last

Zestful Blog Post #185

Not long ago a new acquaintance—a fellow author—turned to me and said, “I hate you.” The context was neither a political argument nor a discussion of whether Star Wars IV-VI could ever be surpassed.

No, we were sitting side by side in a conference session, and I was taking notes on my computer, typing on the keyboard. Usually I take notes longhand on paper, if at all, but I wanted to catch everything in this particular presentation.

When the speaker paused, this new acquaintance, who had been watching me out of the corner of her eye, said, “You can type as fast as he can talk.”

I shrugged modestly. (I’ve gotten so good at those modest shrugs!)

“And you don’t make mistakes.”

(Self-deprecating murmur.)

“I hate you.”

Jesus, lady. Of course I knew she meant, “I envy you.” Why do people say I hate you instead? Whatever. Yeah, I can touch-type pretty accurately, and I’m always surprised when other authors can’t. Probably one of the most pragmatic decisions I ever made in high school was to take a one-semester typing class. I was already writing lots of papers and stories, and college was in the offing. At that time, however, part of the female zeitgeist was like, “Don’t learn to type, because then you’ll just be a secretary forever!”


[My keyboard. Oh, and there’s Cheetoh, the baby dinosaur I rescued at the beach last year. He likes to hang out on my desk.]

I was all for the women’s movement, and I certainly perceived the need for it, but I thought, isn’t it like cutting off your nose to spite your face, to NOT learn something because of some principle? (I mean, you could always lie and say you can’t type, right?)

Then after college I got a job as a reporter/photographer, and I sure had to type fast for that. Ahh, that good old IBM Selectric… If absolute certainty had an aural profile, it would be the sound of an IBM Selectric ripping along on 20-lb bond.

Needless to say, I cherish my typing skills now more than ever. Do they teach touch typing (meaning without looking at the keys) in schools these days? Ah, a quick search reveals it’s now called ‘keyboarding skills.’ OK. If you Google ‘how to type’ you’ll find free tutorials on line. Because it’s never too late to learn. Honestly, it’s great not to have to think about the physical act when you’re putting ideas down; it’s great not to have a skill barrier between you and your output.

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

A Real Writer's Duty

Zestful Blog Post #184

These days when extraordinary, historic events occur, everybody becomes a writer. Social media enables all of us to spew impassioned opinions—joy, outrage, elation, despair—if we want to. And so many do. And free speech is great.

But a real writer of either fiction or nonfiction takes a much longer and deeper view of human affairs and human nature than most people.


A real writer is more curious than defensive. A real writer explores. A real writer is ready to be surprised. A real writer never panics. A real writer knows the world is in the work.

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Thursday, November 3, 2016

Word Quota Magic

Zestful Blog Post #183

When you’re writing original material—fiction or nonfiction—setting a word-count goal for your writing session is rewarding on a surface level, but also on a deeper, magical level you don’t understand until you do it.

Surface level is obvious: If you get words down, you’re writing; you’re making measurable progress. Whether your product is good or bad is, at this point, irrelevant.

Now for the deeper reward of chasing your word quota.


As you write, somewhere in the back of your mind is ‘Gotta make word count.’ That alone makes you really not want to cross stuff out, hesitate, choose one way to say something over another, cut off that rabbit trail you’ve been following because, enough.

You’re more likely to write deep into something, to not ‘keep moving forward’ but to linger on something you thought might be minor. Since I’m here and I really have to make word count before I can stop writing, I might as well keep going on this, drill down, because I’m already ON this vein of ore.

You’re more likely to experience flow.

Only when you’re sure you’ve exhausted that vein must you come up and figure out what might be next, or what could be next. And shift to that and write.

When you go back over that material, you might decide to keep or throw, but material written under word-quota pressure will have the greatest chance of containing something wonderful, surprising, totally cool: something you had no idea was going to appear, something you wouldn’t have wanted to miss for the world.

When you choose quantity over quality in the early going, you’re giving yourself WAY more chances to come up with something brilliant. It’s one of the great paradoxes of creativity! It’s Zen, it’s magic, it’s art!

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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Ten-Minute Enigma

Zestful Blog Post #182

This happened on October 21 at approximately 9:25 a.m. at the Florida Writers Association conference. ‘Crystal Ballroom C’ in the Hilton hotel, Altamonte Springs. Some of you were there.

[But oh, first I gotta give a shout-out to the Royal Palm Literary Award Winners. Special congratulations to frequent Zestful blog commenter Tricia Pimental, and to my St. Augustine crit-group member Melody Dean Dimick, who won two awards! Have I overlooked any blog follower? Lemme know.]

OK, the enigma. I arrived at about 9:00 to set up for my presentation scheduled for 9:20, “How to Write Dialogue Like a Pro” and found the room already filling up. There were about 10 of those big round tables seating 8. Or maybe it was 8 tables seating 10. Anyway, over the course of the next fifteen minutes the place got packed, so much so that people were resigning themselves to standing room. Gratifying for me, but problematic for the conference, because attendees were still trying to crowd in.

At 9:20 I received a nice introduction from Nancy, one of the many unsung conference volunteers (so unsung that I can’t remember her last name), and began. After maybe five minutes, two or three hotel staff guys came in and began the process of transforming the wall between Crystal Ballroom C and the currently unused Crystal Ballroom D from a solid thing to a huge accordion-fold of heavy panels. Writers intent on improving their dialogue skills happily moved to occupy the near tables in Crystal Ballroom D. This was a bit disruptive, but one of those necessary things, and everybody was now more comfortable. As the hotel guys shoved the panels into a compartment in the wall behind me and left, I resumed talking, using slides and pictures to illustrate my brilliant points.

Five minutes later a woman stood up and called out, “Excuse me, but my purse has been stolen!” 


“Maybe folks nearby could look around?” I said, checking my watch and starting to worry about time lost. During the next few minutes people peered beneath tables and chairs, despite the upset woman saying, “It isn’t here. It isn’t here. It’s been stolen.”

No one could find it; the purse was gone.

“It would be a good idea to get hotel security involved right away,” I suggested from the dais, and the woman hurried out. I sympathized; it’s terrible to lose your purse, and although the victim was distraught, I thought she was doing a pretty good job of holding it together. I resumed talking, then in another few minutes a hotel security guy came in with the victim and started looking around, etc. I was reluctant to speculate that maybe one of the wall-moving guys had somehow grabbed the purse. One doesn’t want to automatically blame the help, and moreover, the guys had on just shirts and pants, no jackets or anything, and they hadn’t been carrying any kind of equipment bag that could have easily hidden the purse.

I kept talking in spite of the minor hubbub still going on with the security fellow. My audience nicely stuck with me and overlooked it when I lost my place a couple of times.

After another minute, someone sitting close to the dais spoke up and pointed: “I wonder if it could be in that wall!” Meaning the compartment where the partition panels had been folded away.

I thought that was a brilliant possibility, because the victim had been sitting near the partition. A couple of attendees took the initiative to open the compartment and root around in it, and lo and behold came the shout, “Here it is!” The purse had gotten somehow swept up in the partition as the guys accordioned it away. (Thank you for speaking up, RPLA winner Melody! Later I learned others had had the same thought, but hadn’t called it out yet.)

Happy ending, though I had to hotfoot it over the last parts of my presentation to try to make up for the lost time.

Afterward, the woman stopped me in the concourse and apologized, saying, “I’m the drama queen who disrupted your presentation.” Of course I told her never mind, these things happen.

In the aftermath, a few conversations got going around the assumption that the purse had been stolen, which—hey, it seemed like a reasonable conclusion. After all, I was standing there at the lectern thinking of the likeliest suspects: the hotel employees, who had come in and out so quickly. Who were they? Where were they now? And yet—and yet! A freakish, unintended event had come between the woman and her purse; no one’s fault, a perfectly reasonable explanation. Such a fantastic lesson in remaining calm and considering all possibilities in the face of calamity! Any of the great detectives—fictional and real—would have been proud!

I’m still shaking my head over it.

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