Thursday, April 26, 2018

A Deeper Shade of Flavor

Zestful Blog Post #261

I love learning something more profoundly than I originally learned it. A reader helped me recently, and I want to share the learning with you.

If you keep track of Writer’s Digest magazine, you noticed a piece on dialogue by me in the May-June 2018 edition. It’s actually an excerpt from You’ve Got a Book in You, where I discuss how to sharpen your dialogue skills by tuning in to the natural speech around us. I mention reading plays, and included this little story:
[excerpt begins] Not long ago when I read a play by the extremely talented Martin McDonagh, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, I kept noticing the word so at the end of characters’ lines, and I was like, I guess that’s an Irish-ism. And it sort of is, but sometime later I heard myself say so at the end of sentences sometimes, like, “I already ate, so.” Which is a trailing off with a precise meaning: “So I won’t go along to lunch with you guys.”
I heard myself say that and a bell rang in my head, and I remembered those plays where sentences ended in so, and I realized, “I do that, it’s a modernism, it isn’t totally just an Irish-ism.” And I understood another little thing about realistic dialogue there. [excerpt ends]
And then I got this email from a writer and reader in a far-off land!:
[email begins] My name is Bronwen, I’m a Toronto-based writer. I read your article on dialogue in this month’s Writer’s Digest and really enjoyed it.
I’m writing to you with a little tidbit which you may or may not find interesting. I grew up in Ireland but moved away, first to the UK and then Canada, about 12 years ago and as a writer and word nerd have often thought about how the Irish speak English, including the use of the word “so”.
Irish people don’t use it at the end of a sentence as an American / Canadian might, letting the sentence trail off (as in, “I already ate, so... [I won’t join you for dinner]”) but rather as another way of saying “in that case”. For example:
“We’re going to be late if we walk.”
“Let’s get the bus so.”
“We should eat that chicken tonight.”
“I’ll take it out of the freezer so.”
Anyway, I just thought I would share -- you seem like a fellow word nerd who would find such an idiomatic way of speaking interesting.
[email ends] [Bronwen, thank you for giving me permission to share that!] 
And I went back and looked through that play to try to prove it, and Bronwen is right! Here are a few lines:
[excerpt from The Beauty Queen of Leenane begins]
Maureen: You don’t give it a good enough stir is what you don’t do.
Mag: I gave it a good enough stir and there was still lumps.
Maureen: You probably pour the water in too fast so. What it says on the box, you’re supposed to ease it in. [excerpt ends]

 [Photo of the book cover by ES. Original photo by Amelia Stein.
The actress is Anna Manahan as Mag. I wouldn't want to cross her, either.] 

If you replace Maureen’s “so” with “in that case” you have the exact meaning Bronwen was talking about. I hadn’t understood it fully before.

And there, ya see? This is why it’s so great to connect with writers and readers all over the place, who take language seriously and continually strive to grasp and master it! Happy times. Word nerds, unite! Talk to me about this stuff.

Before signing off, here are a couple more items from friends:

Rick Bettencourt’s latest novel:

Summerwind Magick: Making Witches of Salem by [Bettencourt, Rick]

And: Here is information, forwarded by novelist Cheryl Head, about a new GCLS Bridge Builder scholarship for women of color.

What do you think? Do you have a story to share about the finer points of vernacular word meanings? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever.
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Thursday, April 19, 2018

Awards Night Survival Guide

Zestful Blog Post #260

OK, so I promised to follow up on Zestful blog post #255, “Awards Versus Happiness.” Marcia and I went to Tallahassee last Thur-Sat to attend the Florida Book Awards dinner and participate in other very nice events: a morning-after breakfast at the Midtown Reader and a panel talk and signing at Word of South, an annual music/books festival at the pretty fabulous Cascades Park.

My most burning question before the awards dinner was whether we would just be handed our medals, or whether the bling would be given Olympics-style. Thankfully, we got handed a little box with our medal in it along with our name tags and drink tickets at check-in. No stress. 

[For my standalone novel, Crimes in a Second Language. Sorry if you saw this already on FB.]
I was glad we went; it seems the awards are a bigger deal than I thought, and the evening was swankier than I expected. Lots of very smart and accomplished people in the room, all interested in, and many devoted to, quality writing, research, and expression. And given that Florida State University is in charge, meaning actual paid staff handle things, you could count on things going smoothly, and somebody there to fix problems right away. Nothing against events run exclusively by volunteers. God bless them. I have volunteered at events. But you know what I mean.

OK, based on having attended many awards dinners, and received prizes at a few, here’s my survival guide. Do these things and you are 75 percent less likely to lie awake later, silently insulting yourself:

·       Arrive sober. If you’re a social drinker, consume one drink immediately, which will loosen you up during mix and mingle. Then nurse the next one for the rest of the evening, so you don’t look like a lush. Everybody at your table counts everybody’s drinks.
·       For non-drinkers, you have far less to worry about. You probably don’t know this, but you are envied by social drinkers in these situations. For instance, if a drinker says something they later think sounded stupid, they’re like, “Oh, hell, I shouldn’t have had that wine.” But in their heart of hearts they know it was just them. Non-drinkers don’t have to do any mental/emotional gymnastics.
·       Realize that everybody is a little or a lot nervous. If you act cool, that helps others relax and makes you look good. Act cool by being friendly. My opening line was, “Hi. Who are you and what did you win?” which always drew a grateful smile and started a convo. Nobody expects you to know who everybody is and what they did. Another good one is, “Hi. What’s your role here tonight?” Or, “What are you up for?”
·       Try to be attentive to your spouse/partner, introduce them around, and mention their accomplishments at dinner. Often the spouses have the most interesting stories!
·       Write out your remarks in advance. I consider this a no-brainer, but have witnessed unprepared speakers get flustered. And you’re there because of your work, so make your comments mostly about that, rather than yourself. (FWIW, my remarks for FBA are reproduced below.)
·       Tell your table-mates they did a good job when the come back from the dais. Everybody appreciates this.
·       If it’s the kind of uncivilized event where you don’t know who won what until it’s announced, steel yourself for disappointment. I hate events like this. Needless to say, if you lose, try to congratulate the winners. The key is to remember this too shall pass; there’s always next time. If you won this time, you might lose next time, and the other way around.
·       Thank everybody as the evening unfolds, and don’t forget the wait staff. Put a buck or two into the bartender’s cup.
·       These days everybody’s pretty cool with posting selfies, etc. on social media during events. So post away, but avoid looking like a twelve-year-old by fiddling on your phone only a little bit.
·       Be neither the first nor the last to leave.
·       Send follow-up emails of thanks to the organizers, etc. Handwritten notes are great too!

Special shout-outs to:
Jenni McKnight and Chase Miller, Florida State University
Wayne and Shirley Wiegand and the Abitz family
Kaitlin Silcox, Museum of Florida History
Sally Bradshaw and her staff and bookstore, the Midtown Reader
Mark Mustian, Word of South
Laura Lee Smith, gold medalist and co-panelist par excellence

For the heck of it, here’s what I said when called up to the dais that evening:

[Remarks for winning FBA silver medal, Tallahassee, April 12, 2018

It’s great to be in the winner’s circle, with so many talented authors. Thank you to the Florida Book Awards and all the organizers, Florida State University, and all the affiliates.

Thank you to the judges in my category—Chris, Jennifer, Dianna. Having been a judge for literary contests, I know it’s a difficult task, and largely a thankless one.

Moreover, I’m extremely gratified that the judges took CRIMES IN A SECOND LANGUAGE seriously: a book I released under my own imprint, Spruce Park Press. I have been published by a Big Five house, Macmillan, and by smaller publishers. But there have been massive changes in how books come to market, and I appreciate this organization’s recognition of that.

CRIMES IN A SECOND LANGUAGE is a standalone novel, apart from my two series. It was prompted by a true situation. By the way, it is not a book about Florida. It’s set in Los Angeles. I wanted to bring in the flavor of all that Hollywood hustle, and because I’ve spent a lot of time in Los Angeles with family, and with friends in show business. My uncle and aunt lived near LA, and they were retired, and they employed a young housecleaner who had been recommended to them by a neighbor. The cleaner, Maria, was from Mexico, and she didn’t speak English. And my aunt and uncle didn’t speak Spanish, and so every time Aunt Tracy needed to tell Maria something in particular, she had to go get the neighbor who spoke Spanish.

One day Aunt Tracy, who had been a kindergarten teacher, asked Maria if she’d like to learn English. Si! So Maria started coming one day a week to clean, and another day to learn. As soon as Aunt Tracy started teaching her English, she discovered that not only did Maria not know English, she knew very little about anything else, because she had only gone to school in Mexico through the fifth grade. So then Aunt Tracy started teaching regular school to Maria. Elementary subjects. Because of this bonding over learning, those two women became lifelong friends.

HOWEVER. This teaching and learning did not sit at all well with Maria’s husband, Jose. He barely spoke English, and he didn’t want Maria to get ahead of him. Aunt Tracy offered to teach him too, but he said no. And he tried to get Maria to stop learning.

And when I heard about this, and I met Maria, I started thinking, well, what if there was a more nefarious reason that Jose didn’t want his wife getting more educated? What if he was up to something seriously criminal, yes, and what if Maria knowing how to read and write English could be dangerous for him? And that set me onto a plot where (spoiler!) the Jose character is much more sophisticated and educated than he let on. I brought in Hollywood in the form of a film-producer neighbor, and an aspiring author who writes technical manuals about machines that make airplane parts, and I introduced themes of corporate sabotage, money, greed, idealism, and true friendship. Another spoiler: the two women in the story become lifelong friends.

And I had a lot of fun with it. Oh, and one last thank-you, to my supportive and wonderful wife Marcia.

Thank you very much.]

Do you have an awards-dinner anecdote to share? Was this post interesting/potentially helpful? To comment, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Power of Thank You

Zestful Blog Post #259

Last week I got an email from a high school student in Los Angeles who asked if I would serve as his writing mentor for his senior essay project. As you might guess, I get asked to help writers a lot, from young people to elderscribes (yeah, I just made that word up!), and I have to say no to almost everybody. Because I hate saying no, I sometimes try to give the person a bit of help anyway. In this case, I did a little research and came up with two suggestions for the young man: a possible local mentor, and an article I found that I thought might be helpful to his project.

It’s funny, but when the student wrote back saying thank you, and that he understood, I felt this surge of warmth toward him. Many times, I don’t get a thank-you, and I predicted this young stranger would not bother. But I was happily wrong. I’ve given back-cover or inside-pages book blurbs to authors who never said thanks. Isn’t that amazing? It takes time to do those things. (When they ask the next time, guess what I’m gonna say?) One does not help people solely to be thanked, but it certainly does your heart good when it happens, and you remember it. I’ll always have warm feelings toward certain people I’ve helped who’ve gone out of their way to say thank you, or even send a little gift. (I have my eye on a 2018 Corvette, blue, hardtop, in case you’d really like to get on my good side. Seriously. Awesome car.)

[I kind of think this is a picture of gratitude. It's a prayer rug from the 19th century. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.]

The times I’ve neglected to say thank you (and realized it) still bother me, even though they were when I was young and didn’t really know better. Not long ago I thanked a newsletter editor for highlighting one of my books, and she wrote back thanking me for the thank-you, saying it was “rare to get a thank-you from an author.”

So I guess my humble bit of professional wisdom today is: A thank-you is not only polite, but it actually goes some distance in networking and plain old building of human capital. So, you know, win-win. Such a simple but powerful thing! We’re all much more eager to help someone who expressed gratitude for a prior favor.

I might add, thank you for reading, and thank you for being my friend!

Do you have a thank-you, or a didn’t-thank-you story to share? Tell us in a comment!

And hey, before signing off today, I want to give a call-out to three pals with new (or newer) fiction. They are all good people and good writers!

Neil Plakcy:  In His Kiss

In His Kiss by [Plakcy, Neil ]

Jessica Strawser:  Not That I Could Tell

Not That I Could Tell: A Novel by [Strawser, Jessica]

Lucy Jane Bledsoe: (preorder for release date next month)  The Evolution of Love

If I’ve missed noting a new or newer book by you here, lemme know, OK? You have my email addy.
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Thursday, April 5, 2018

Getting the Words More Better

Zestful Blog Post #258

I bet you already know some of these, but here’s a nosegay of words that commonly get misunderstood and therefore misused, along with the info you need to do it right. Between the internet and various magazines I get, I’ve seen all of these used wrong within the last month. And all of the wrong usages are creeping into popularity. This is upsetting to me, and I know it’s a losing battle, but this is my damn blog, and I’m going to stand my ground. I invite you to stand with me.

My friend Arjun was bitten by a poisonous snake, and we rushed him to the doctor.
My friend Arjun was bitten by a venomous snake, and we rushed him to the doctor.

Tide pods are venomous if you eat them.
Tide pods are poisonous if you eat them.

A poisonous substance is something that makes you sick or kills you if you ingest it. Venom is a substance injected into you by an animal, like some snakes or spiders. Yet so many people are using ‘poisonous’ to describe venomous creatures that the usage is showing up as a secondary definition in dictionaries.

Suellen was cold, so I loaned her my sweater.
Suellen was cold, so I lent her my sweater.

Ramon went to the bank and got a lend for a new car.
Ramon went to the bank and got a loan for a new car.

Again, loan and lend are commonly considered synonyms. But loan is a noun: “It was a loan of five thousand dollars.” Lend is the verb form: “She wanted to lend him the money, but he wouldn’t take it.” Lend is the simple form, while lent is past tense.

Brenda tore her left bicep.
Brenda tore her left biceps.

The muscle at the front of the human upper arm is the biceps, not bicep. The muscle is anchored at the elbow by a single tendon, then the muscle splits in two (hence the prefix ‘bi’) and is anchored at the shoulder by two tendons. Biceps. It is a plural form. If you’re thinking it must be the same with triceps and quadriceps, you would be right.

[A Case knife with clip and pen blades. Photo by ES.]

In olden times when writers used quill pens, they fashioned the points with a small knife blade, maybe an inch or so long. This blade was usually fixed in a handle and was part of most deskscapes. It was a penknife: a knife used to make pens. Sometimes penknives were made as tiny folding knives, often seen at the end of pocket-watch chains. A jackknife is a knife with a folding blade, also known as a pocketknife. Some jackknives feature a small blade, called by knifemakers a pen blade, along with a larger blade.

Yet many writers are now calling any folding knife a penknife. I believe that’s because they think it is a more precise or educated-sounding term. It is not.

Thank you for joining me in the pursuit of linguistic precision.

What incorrect or sloppy word usages bug you? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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