Photojournalists have an old saying: “f/8 and be there.” I have a very limited knowledge of photography, but as I understand it, this means that if you want to get a good photo, you set your f-stop (the aperture setting on your camera lens) to f/8 to make sure that most of what you’re shooting is in focus. At that point, your task is to make sure you are in place to get the shot when something happens. You won’t get a good shot of the mayor flipping off the city council or the cute kid shaking the president’s hand if you are busy fiddling with your camera settings when the action goes down—or for that matter if you’ve wandered off in search of a better photo (or a cup of coffee).
Not being a photographer, I’m not sure how practical that advice is, but it makes a great metaphor. As a writer, if you want to get the good stuff, you have to be ready when it happens by. I’m sure you’ve noticed that all your good ideas seem to come while you are driving, in the shower, or doing something else you can’t stop in the middle of to write it all down (soapy water can wreck a notebook). Unfortunately there’s not much you can do about the soapy-water problem, and of course, no matter how great the idea, don’t try making notes while driving. (Next time you see someone muttering to himself in traffic, remember that he may not be insane; he may just be a writer trying to remember something until he gets to a safe place to pull over.) It is a great idea, though, to keep a notebook (or scratch paper) and pencil on or near you at all times: by the bed, in the kitchen (I get a lot of ideas while cooking—that could explain some burned garlic from time to time), in the car, in the seat pack of your bike, wherever you spend time.
Writers have the advantage of being able to go back and fuss with details—over and over, if necessary. Sometimes, though, ideas or images grace us with one visit, then real life (what goes in after the garlic) distracts us and we never think of that great line or simile again. Like photographers, we need to be alert and prepared for those moments that aren’t likely to happen twice.
I have on my desk a “Note to Self ” that reads: The word “whom” is starting to sound strange to me even when it is used correctly. I’m not sure why I left myself this note, but it has been there for weeks. Today a friend sent me a link to Alexandra Petri’s Washington Post blog post about changing attitudes toward the word “whom.” Language changes and that is a very good thing. But occasional resistance can be a good thing as well. Petri closes by suggesting a gentler way of expressing frustration with fellow speakers and writers who aren’t as fussy as we are:
“Compliment a stranger’s grammar today. It may be our only hope.”
It’s a nice essay. You can read the entire thing here.
Someone recently asked me for a list of my favorite books on writing. I came up with a few and thought I’d share them here. This is a very idiosyncratic list—just a few I like and an attempt to tell you why I like them. These are not listed in any special order other than the order in which I pulled them off my shelf.
The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life Priscilla Long
I like this one for several reasons, but top of the list is that it addresses all types of writing: fiction, non-fiction, even poetry. All too often writing books give short shrift to non-fiction, but Long offers advice and useful exercises no matter what type of writing you are doing.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft Stephen King
This is a very popular writing book. I’m not much of a fan of memoirs (especially memoirs of writers, because writers’ lives are generally far less interesting than their work), and the writing advice in On Writing is pretty much the standard stuff. What makes me love this book is King’s voice. His love of his work and respect for the craft of writing come through strongly, and the result is both affirming and inspiring.
Garner’s Modern American Usage (MAU) Brain Garner
This is my current favorite usage manual for far more reasons than I have time to go into here, not the least of which is that it is just plain fun to read. I have an older edition, called A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. If you are a hard-core language geek, you’ll also enjoy David Foster Wallace’s review of the first edition of Garner’s guide. You can find the review in Wallace’s collection Consider The Lobster And Other Essays. The review is called “Authority and American Usage,” and is filled with Wallace’s deep and quirky insights, weird asides, and footnotes that have footnotes with still more footnotes.
Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation Lynne Truss
If you truly care about misplaced commas and their ilk, you’ll probably get a kick out of Truss’ over-the-top bashing of those who don’t bother to get punctuation right. The snarky language police attitude gets old quickly, but Truss really is funny and offers some good explanations of how to use punctuation correctly, even elegantly.
Saying What You Mean: A Commonsense Guide to American Usage Robert Claiborne
This is for my money the best cut-to-the chase usage book, perfect for people who want a simple, easy-to-understand usage guide that is also good-natured and fun to read. Claiborne takes his language as seriously as Truss, but is much more easy-going about it. He won’t make you feel like an idiot if you have trouble with when to use “who” and when to use “whom” and have to keep a chart by your desk with conjugations of “to lie” and “to lay.” He’ll just help you make the chart.
Working With Words: A Concise Handbook for Media Writers and Editors Brian S. Brooks and James L. Pinson
This one is very handy and useful for journalist and editors. It has plenty of guidance and examples on common issues that tend to crop up in the working life of getting words in to print (or onto screen).
Alphabet Juice Roy Blount, Jr.
I adore this book. If you are at all a word person you probably will, too. Blount begins the book by making a good case for why the connection between words and their meanings is not arbitrary (I so wish I had had this book when I was in graduate school). Then he meanders through the alphabet choosing interesting words and writing cool, funny, and sometimes wacky things about them. Alphabet Juice is sort of scholarly, sort of irreverent, often funny, and for the word lover, a pleasure so intense you almost feel you should slip the book under cover if anyone walks in while you are reading it.
Language changes. I’m cool with that. I even enjoy it. But, like most people, I have my little quirks. Some usages just annoy me for no particular reason. One of those is using gift as a verb. We have a perfectly good verb for this: to give. Why do we need to gift? But just to show that I am a reasonable person, willing to get into the spirit of things, I’ve decided to take up this new usage with enthusiasm. Here are some of the ways I’ve found to use this handy verb:
Hey, dude, gift me the ketchup, will ya?
He was so fed up he gifted me a whack upside the head.
Oh, jeez. Gift me a break.
So now no one can call me a usage purist. If they do, I will gift them a piece of my mind.
One of my jobs is to help other writers write well. But often, in order to do that, I first have to teach them to write badly.
Few things are more frightening than an empty sheet of paper (an empty refrigerator and an empty bank account are two that spring to mind, but let’s stick with the topic here, okay?). Many people totally choke when facing that pale monster. And that’s a completely rational response. Though not all are willing to admit it, even pros have this problem. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that the majority of successful, working writers have at least some anxiety (maybe a lot) when looking directly into the gaping maw that stares up from the desk or out from the screen and declares, “Feed me.”
Fortunately there is an easy way to deal with this: Write something. Anything. Let’s say the project that has you sitting at your desk in a cold sweat is an essay about the possible comeback of a near-extinct species of Galapagos tortoise. You’ve read everything there is to read about Galapagos and its famous creatures. You’ve read historic background; you now know more about Charles Darwin and Robert Fitzroy than you thought there was to know. You have the biology of the tortoises and the ecology of the islands down cold. The floor of your work area is littered with articles, research papers, and interview notes. You even have a rough outline and a couple of ideas for leads. There is no more avoiding it. It’s time to write.
After all this preparation, you naturally expect heart-stopping prose to tumble effortlessly onto the page. When the first few words that come to mind are lame beyond belief, you wig. The only possible option now is to move to another city, change your name, and get a job waiting tables at a cheap diner. Or go directly to the kitchen and eat an entire bag of potato chips (well, that’s probably what I would do). But don’t. Calm down. Stay at your desk and simply write down that stupid sounding crap. Really. No matter how bad it is, just put it on the paper. The turtles of the Galapagos are really big turtles. They were almost extinct; now they are coming back. Darwin would be so freakin’ happy.
Stupid? Of course. Don’t worry. No one but you will ever see this part. And you’ve now defeated The Demons Of The First Draft. You now have something to fix. And fixing things is way easier than making them up in the first place. The real beauty of the plan is that the insatiable monster known as the blank page (or blank screen) has been fed. Now you can concentrate on working.
When it comes to writing, this may be the most important lesson of all: In order to write well, you have to be willing to write badly.
I recently reviewed a vampire novel (sort of a combination teen romance/detective thriller). I was new to the genre, having read only a few parts of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and passing on the thousand or more other options for vampire reading, except for my recent reading of The Passage by Justin Cronin. The deadline for the review didn’t allow me enough time to catch up on vampire lit, but I did do a little background research. I was fascinated to learn that the first modern take on vampires (presenting vampires as cultured, well-dressed, sexy creatures, as opposed to reeking, rotting members of the undead) was a story by John Polidori. Polidori’s tale, The Vampyre, was written—or at least begun— as part of the same rainy holiday challenge that gave us Frankenstein. And that, of course, explains how vampires made the transition from foul, moldering creatures to smoldering Byronic counts. Of course, Justin Cronin is bringing back the reeking, rotting, disgusting members of the undead, but it is probably about time for that.
Polidori and his companions, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley (then still Mary Godwin), Claire Clairmont, and Byron, were spending a cool, rainy summer holiday on Lake Geneva. The weather often kept them confined to the villa. Byron suggested they pass the time by making up ghost tales with which to frighten one another—and the rest is history. Polidori wrote—or at least began— his vampire tale, and Mary Shelley created Frankenstein. Ironically, Percy Shelley produced nothing we remember, and Byron apparently inspired Polidori and let him run with it. Clairmont was pregnant with Byron’s child, so perhaps she was too troubled with morning sickness or indigestion to get any literary work done.
Reading about this in November, I realized how much this classic literary adventure, at least as it is told and retold to generations of literature students— resembles NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month, which takes place every November. Each November, in a challenge not unlike the one Byron proposed to his companions in the summer of 1816, millions of writers take up their pens (or boot up their laptops) to write first drafts of 50,000-word novels during the often dreary and always short month of November. I will never again think of the origins of Frankenstein, or now of The Vampyre, without shifting the scene to November and imagining Byron and Shelley and Godwin and Polidori bent over their pages, cranking out their daily page count in time to meet the NaNoWriMo deadline.
English Is Like A Child
Kory Stamper at harm·less drudg·ery has posted the best (so far) answer to the perennial question: “Why is the English language so messy and illogical?”
Below is the best part, but click here for the full post. It’s all very interesting:
English is a little bit like a child. We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go: it heads right for the goddamned light sockets. We put it in nice clothes and tell it to make friends, and it comes home covered in mud, with its underwear on its head and someone else’s socks on its feet. We ask it to clean up or to take out the garbage, and instead it hollers at us that we don’t run its life, man. Then it stomps off to its room to listen to The Smiths in the dark.
Everything we’ve done to and for English is for its own good, we tell it (angrily, as it slouches in its chair and writes “irregardless” all over itself in ballpoint pen). This is to help you grow into a language people will respect! Are you listening to me? Why aren’t you listening to me??
Like well-adjusted children eventually do, English lives its own life. We can tell it to clean itself up and act more like one of the Classical languages (I bet Latin doesn’t sneak German in through its bedroom window, does it?). We can threaten, cajole, wheedle, beg, yell, throw tantrums, and start learning French instead. But no matter what we do, we will never really be the boss of it. And that, frankly, is what makes it so beautiful.