Category Archives: words

3

A book can change your life

The title of this post might be overly dramatic, but if you look hard enough you will find some pretty incredible stories about people whose lives were changed by books and reading.

One of those amazing stories comes from YA author Matt de la Peña, whose piece this week in NPR is well worth your time. He touches on so many moments in his own life that were altered by books, and then when he goes into talking about his dad and how his life was changed by reading, well, I was in tears by that point so that tells you what kind of piece this is. In simple prose, he taps into why words and books and reading matter, and how the power of the written word can literally change your life. And I believe almost always for the better.

A love of reading doesn’t have to start early, either. Matt’s life-changing moment came in his second year of college. And you know what else I love about this article? That teacher. That amazing teacher who saw something in this young man and knew he had potential and needed a nudge so she gave him a copy of The Color Purple and asked him to read it before he graduated and then come talk with her about it.

I’m sorry for the way things go for Joshua, a tough young kid profiled here with a secret writing habit, and I hope that de la Peña or someone else can help him find his way through his writing, and through books. When I read pieces like this, it’s so validating to think that the work that we are all doing can make a difference, and in some cases, all the difference.

Do you have any stories to share about how a book changed your life, or the life of someone you know? Please share. And pass this article on too. It’s a great read, and an inspiring one.

4

Bookscapes

It’s impossible to quantify the power of books.  Books are comfort, knowledge, strength, humor, heartache, faith, experience, society, joy…and pretty much everything else you want to ascribe to them.

This TED talk by Lisa Bu which I found through Galleycat is a wonderful reminder of the power of books.  Take a look and think about the notion of comparative reading, but also about how books have gotten you through particularly challenging periods in your life.

Myself, I need books to help me interpret grief and come to terms with it.  I also need books to help me understand confusing events, whether personal or global.  (And I understand Lisa Bu’s comparative reading as perhaps only those of us with feet in two cultures can.)  Most of all, though, I just need books.

How about you?  What kind of comparative reading do you do?  And, what books do you turn to when things are topsy turvy in your life?

15

Which or that and other gripes about grammar

The question of “which” versus “that” came up when I drafted my last blog post and the person editing my post took a stab at which one she thought it should be but then suggested I double check. Here’s the sentence: Aimee Bender, the talented author of most recently The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, has this enlightening piece in the latest O Magazine that talks about her decision to create a writing contract with a friend that would allow for each of them to maintain certain very specific writing rules complete with confirmation e-mails that each had stuck to their previously agreed-to commitments.

What do you think it is? I was happy to come upon this article about the subject in a recent writersdigest.com piece, and I thought it was a useful topic to cover since it’s a common challenge to get right, and like the questioner, I think many people do feel the two words are interchangeable. The explanation given here by Brian Klems is clear and anecdotal, making it easy to digest. Based on his advice, I’d say we got it right in my blog post (thanks, Rachel!).

I started digging around to read more about common grammatical mistakes, and came across this fun and snarky piece from litreactor.com that highlights the 20 most common grammatical errors (or word usage mistakes, as many of them are, and happy to say Which and That is right at the top). And I’d like to add to the list “I” and “me” — how often do you hear someone say “Between you and I” which should be “Between you and me”?

What’s your biggest grammar pet peeve? Is there a grammatical faux pas that drives you crazy? Oh, there are so many. Please share with us some of your favorite grammar gripes.

11

Getting the Words Right.

A published author and a Facebook friend posted the following exchange to her profile, excerpted from a Paris Review Interview with Ernest Hemingway.

INTERVIEWER

How much rewriting do you do?

HEMINGWAY

It depends. I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.

INTERVIEWER

Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?

HEMINGWAY

Getting the words right.

His is a marvelous and pithy response, underscoring again that brevity is not only the soul of wit, but devilishly difficult to achieve.

I’m curious, can you top Papa Hemingway’s 39-times-a-charm ? Have you rewritten a scene not dozens but scores of times? If so, what sort of scene were you struggling with?

15

What’s your favorite line?

I’m reading a new middle grade novel from a client, and I came across a line I just love. In it, he is describing a pack of dogs on the attack: “They were a boiling wave of flailing paws and arching backs.” It’s so juicy and descriptive and intriguing. In just a few short words, it says so much about what’s to come.

Great writers amaze me with their capabilities at taking simple words or phrases and turning them into sentences that blend together seamlessly to form the books we love. But, even within a favorite novel there are always a few lines that jump out, that demand to be read again, and that are remembered when you think back to that book in the future.  Miriam talked about favorite last lines on the blog this summer, and it was a fun exercise. When I was young, I remember underlining lines I liked in books as I was reading (in pencil, of course!).

I’d love to hear what your favorite lines are. The ones you go back to or quote or think about fondly when remembering where you were and what you were doing when you were reading that great book. Sometimes it’s harder to remember lines from books than it is song lyrics or movie quotes (some days, I can barely remember my kids’ names), but see what you can come up with, and please share!

7

Diagramming Sentences

John McPhee’s essay “Progression” in The New Yorker http://byliner.com/john-mcphee/stories/progression takes an interesting look at the process of writing.  At one point, McPhee expressed the structure of a piece he planned to write as an equation, ABC/D, in which A B and C are different people who share some common connection, D. As far as equations go, this is probably just my speed (there’s a reason I’m in publishing and not physics) though I also liked Alain de Botton’s quasi-scientific formulations in On Love and other books.

I know authors who create the writerly equivalents of flowcharts, who doodle “idea webs” on legal pads before they sit down to write. I know of a couple’s therapist whose methodology relies on simple line drawings. When planning your own projects, do you rely on some actual, visible process of diagramming?

8

One day I’m going to want to use the word “growlery.”

The Oxford English Dictionary is getting too big. Those people at Oxford who decide all about what words are actually words and what are just silly sounds people make when they talk are in a fix. They really need to add important terms like “mankini” and “retweet” to their formidable tome, but there’s just no room! Some words have got to go.

It’s a strange concept, isn’t it? Removing words from a dictionary? What makes these terms no longer acceptable to use? Of course, words fall out of common parlance first and then are no longer even seen in text, but they’re still words, aren’t they? What’s most interesting is that one of the words that will be removed from the most updated version of the reputable dictionary is “cassette tape,” a name for an item that while no longer in high demand, is still tucked away in quantity in many homes and shops.

I don’t mind so much that I will no longer be able to look up “brabble,” defined as “a platry noisy quarrel,” in the OED, should I ever come across it even once in the rest of my life, but it’s still a pretty fun word. Now that I know it exists (or, I suppose, existed) I kind of want to use it. That’s what language is—discovering and using new or old words to express not only meaning but your particular personality in writing or conversation.

These particulars, these words, help define authors and writers in specific styles. For a prolific or very distinct novelist, it’s not hard for readers of their works to be able to identify a passage as coming from that author, even if they have never seen the text before. New writers are compared to older, more accomplished authors if they use similar words or structure. Words and their definitions are more than a printed ascription in a book or online—they are defined more by their relevance to an era or place and by their resonance with an individual emotionally and personally. Why else would writers agonize for hours over the perfect word to put in an important dialogue or narrative?

I have nothing against, then, the addition of words, no matter how silly or trendy they might be, to the dictionary, but I do not understand the necessity of removing anything (save its unwieldy size) Words fallen out of use are still words and the ability to look them up upon reading or to use them in a piece of writing should not be curtailed. What do you think? Does it matter, really, in the long run?

11

Clichéd clichés

Full disclosure:  I’m on vacation as of end of business tomorrow.  I need this vacation like oxygen.   As a matter of fact, my brain is functioning as if it’s a bit oxygen starved right about now.

As a result of being vacation/oxygen deprived for so long, I’ve been finding myself spouting things like “it is what it is” or “we need to think outside the box” or “money doesn’t grow on trees” instead of providing well thought out, intelligent commentary to questions posed by clients, co-workers, and my five-year-old.  Clearly, I need to go off and relax a bit so that I can come back refreshed and stop speaking in clichés.

Then I saw this piece in the HuffPost and remembered reading a historical romance recently where the author used a wink, wink variation of “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”  Anachronistic? Yes.  Annoying cliché? Yes.  Funny?  Mildly.

Thing is, sometimes only a cliché will do (and sometimes repetition is a wonderful literary and oratory device, and sometimes using dialect in a novel is not a criminal offense, but very rarely are those things deployed with enough brilliance and verve to be effective) mostly, however, they make my teeth ache from excessive grinding.  Writing well is all about expressing ideas, feelings, emotions, storylines, character development, in original and fresh ways.  Using clichés instead of coining a new phrase is about as lazy as you can get as a writer and speaker, in my opinion.

What are your favorite clichés and which ones do you find most egregiously used and misused?

7

Writing well is important

You might look at the title of this post and then higher up at the masthead of this blog and think, “Duh!”  Well, yes, a literary agency blog post that states something as obvious as “writing well is important,” would seem to indicate that its author is either (a) simple minded or (b) really, really struggling to find a subject for her weekly rant.

In fact, while idly catching up on my online news, I came across this post by Kim Brooks, who teaches college composition courses.  As I read about Ms. Brooks’ frustration with the papers her students turn in, which show a complete lack of understanding of or even appreciation for correctly written English, I started musing about the countless queries my colleagues and I receive which are peppered with awkward at best, ungrammatical and nonsensical prose at worst.  Then, there are the proposals and manuscripts turned in by journalists and other professionals whose livelihood depends on their writing skills and which make us pound our heads on our desks in desperation.  One can ascribe these sloppy, sometimes undecipherable texts to laziness or haste, but perhaps, as Ms. Brooks suggests, we should be looking at how English is taught in this country and why it is that so many kids are graduating high school without knowing what to do with a comma, much less a semi-colon.

Call me old-fashioned, a geek, or a more colorful epithet, but I think it’s shameful that we are not more invested in knowing how to write well—not imaginatively, creatively, or poetically, mind you, just technically well.   Can you enjoy a piece of writing when the punctuation is off and there are misspellings or malapropisms throughout, even if the subject matter is compelling?

6

Writer’s block of ice cream sandwich board room

They say that the cure for writer’s block is to simply sit down, put pen to paper and go—no overthinking, no thinking at all, really. Stream of consciousness writing, however, I still find difficult. It takes a lot for me to just shut off my brain like that. I continue to judge, feel the need to edit and plan. The same way that there are few things I like better in the world than taking a really long walk, but find it tedious and nearly impossible without a destination in mind, no matter how arbitrary it may be, writing for no reason whatsoever eludes me.

Flipping through an old journal of mine, I came across a page that was fully filled, margin to margin, in words that didn’t seem to make sense, at first. Nevermind that my handwriting was more terrible than it usually is (though, I had an excuse for myself as emblazoned across the top of the page was, “this train is really bumpy.”), there didn’t seem to be any discernible narrative of any sort. It took me a second, but I realized I’d come across an old word game I used to play with myself when I wanted to write, but couldn’t actually think of anything to say. It’s never actual words themselves, but the putting them together in cohesive and sensible structure that’s the trick, so that’s all I’d focus on—words that go together. It got fun creating longer and longer strings of words that could connect to the one before, growing more challenging as I tried to make myself not repeat word pairings and phrases as I went along.

I remember this pack in particular being one of my favorites, if only for the sheer length I managed to make it (though I notice that I did repeat cookie -> monster…):

Coffee pot sticker book store room to breathe easy does it girl talk radio wave runner’s high dive bomb shell shock treatment center stage coach class act two step father time check please and thank you for not smoking jacket potato soup kitchen staff only entrance hall pass play nice guys finish last chance card game ball bearing to the right hand man to man combat zone ordinance paper plane captain hook and eye doctor patient confidential(ity) file away we go big or go home base line dance class A plus sign language barrier reef dive bar tender is the night light as a feather pillow mint chocolate chip cookie monster truck stop sign in sheet rock star power button mushroom cloud cover story book mark my word of the day break out post office building block party clown car park bench warm(er) and fuzzy navel orange juice box turtle neck of the woods men folk music collection plate glass house guest room to breathe easy street smart cookie monster mash(ed) potato chip off the old block letter box top hat stand up straight shooting star of stage and screen test run like the wind tunnel vision impaired judgment day trip wire tap dance off the record player of the year book worm hole in the wall flower girl scout around the bend in the road block schedule(ing) conflict of interest rate we’re going strong hold the phone numbers game day shift work of art studio apartment hunting season of giving tree of life or death card stock room mate for life lesson plan

I’m ever fascinated with words and the different ways a single one can be perceived. It’s no secret that word games—crossword puzzles, word searches, jumbles—are so popular. It’s just fun to play with words and this sort of interconnected flow that I found myself resorting to when the ideas weren’t coming served the perfect antidote to my stream of consciousness + thinking/purpose problem. Afterwards, the result is not only kind of funny to read aloud, but it also opens up the possibilities for inspiration and use. I mean, come on—a clown car park? A street smart cookie monster? A paper plane captain? If afterwards, I couldn’t find some sort of jumping point, then maybe I never really had the drive to do it in the first place.

How do you keep yourself writing when there doesn’t seem to be anything to say? Any fun word games I could try?