Monthly Archives: March 2016

Wizardry, Illusion, and Allurement


This is not anyone you know

Back on Wednesday I was having a beer with Harry Potter. OK, I’m kidding—he doesn’t like beer. He was drinking black Russians, quite a few as a matter of fact. You know the drink? Made with vodka and Kahlua? Anyway, I said, “Harry, doesn’t ordering a drink with that name sort of imply that you’re into black magic?”

He narrowed his eyes in that spooky way he will sometimes and said, “Oh, somebody wants to be a frog for the rest of the day.”

“No, no,” I said, “I’m not criticizing!”

This is one of the problems with magic: it can go in any direction. One minute Harry is protecting you from a basilisk, and the next minute he’s got four black Russians in him and he’s waving the wand in your direction slurring, “I want a puppy.”

In general, though, whether benignant or malevolent, magic permeates our lives. Perhaps you don’t believe in magic, but I would still ask you whether the idea of magic isn’t a useful metaphor to express the mystery that makes up every day. I’m looking out now at tiny bright green leaves appearing at the ends of branches. They seem to come from nowhere, year after year, like…you know, magic.

Or have you heard a mockingbird sing? I don’t know how any bird knows its song (I mean, how big can the brain of a bird be in that tiny head?), but the mockingbird goes from song to song to song. Look, that’s not a metaphor—that’s actual magic.

And then throw in the rising sun, the birth of babies, the sound of thunder, an occasional yeti coming down off the mountain, and elves who steal stuff in your house at night, and you end up with a world that is hard to explain, unless you consider magic.

As far back as we have writing, writers have occasionally used magic in their writing. Sometimes we do this just because it’s fantastically entertaining, as Harry Potter keeps telling me. At other times, we may use magic because it gives us another way to explore the wildest mystery we encounter, the human mind. How can the same person (i.e., me and you) be capable in one instance of gentle caring, or in another instance of atrocity? There is no explaining this mystery, but we try, and to explore that chaos we call the mind, we need both angels and dragons.

We can also do more subtle things with magic in writing. Suppose you had a mirror that would only show you as you will appear three days from now. It wouldn’t be all that different, with only three days. Would you use that mirror? What if you looked in it and you had black eyes? What if one day you looked in it and you weren’t there at all?

Aside from the reasons I’ve given here, what makes magic so natural to writing is that all writing uses magic. Instead of this magic discussion, I might simply describe a heavyset man in a blue sweatshirt walk into a coffee shop, order a hot chocolate, then go sit in a corner to drink it and read a book on accounting. No magic, right? Except that there is no man, no coffee shop, no book. It’s all nothing more than letters I’ve put on a computer screen, and you used them to create this man in your mind. How is that different from the same imaginary man walking outside, rising off the ground, and flying away?

Here’s some more magic for you. I have an author Facebook page now—woohoo! 21st century!—and I’d appreciate it if you’d go there and express fondness for it:

There is also a video there in which I talk in more detail about the use of magic in writing. In exchange, I promise not to turn you into a frog. Really, I promise, mostly.

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Don’t Scare the Elephants

painted elephant

The author is coming!

Here at Ye Olde Literarie Blogge, we sometimes regale ye with tales both sad and true, and sometimes they are the same tale. Here we carry stories of wordsmithing, story crafting, and publication supplicating.

As I sit here composing, I picture you there in your pajamas, if you’re wearing pajamas, but you don’t need to tell me that, and I picture you reading a blog about words and the writing life, saying to yourself, “So this is what it’s like to be a writer, living a life of imagination, spending the days in creative fabrication. Thank God I don’t live like that.”

I can’t say you’re wrong. But here in my house, fate says that writing is going to happen. Not so long ago someone asked me if I write for pleasure. My answer, to their surprise, was no, I do not write for pleasure. Almost every time I sit down to write, I’m not there because I’m having fun. I write because I’m compelled to write, and as to why that is—well, life is filled with mysteries.

Not that writing isn’t sometimes a pleasure, regardless, but that’s not the reason I do it. Anyway, let us update the tales of this magnificent life drunk on vowels and consonants and handfuls of punctuation. Back last fall, I went to a writers’ conference and talked with a literary agent who told me to send a few pages and she’d look at them. I think I mentioned here in ye olde blogge that in this brutal publishing business, that’s considered a triumph (seriously, I’m not making that up—if an agent says “send me a few pages” other writers will actually congratulate you).

To shorten a longer story, I heard from the agent this week, and she wrote, “There’s a lot of potential in the story of a father and daughter reconnecting through fantastical shared experiences, and you write very well. Your witty, contemplative prose kept me reading—” Oh, my, doesn’t that sound good! And the sentence went on to end: “even after the pacing of the plot had slowed.”

Wait. What? Followed by “Unfortunately, that pacing is a problem…” You get the idea. She said no. I knew she liked the idea for the book, and she liked my ability to write, so…why not work with me then? Maybe I could fix the pacing. Maybe I could take out all the pronouns. Maybe I could get her a nice mocha latte. Maybe I could walk her dog.

Alright, we move on. Perhaps eventually, when I have more time [sardonic laugh goes here] I’ll work on the pacing for that novel and ask if she’s willing to consider it again. Generally the agents tell you that even if you revise, no, they will not consider it again. But if you do ask, they’re not going to come to your house and slap you and say, “What did I tell you, damn it? I won’t look at this again!”

The trick in being a serious writer walking through the wilderness is perseverance, to keep writing, keep working. As perseverance-type news, I’m now three chapters from the end of finishing the next novel. I’m happy with how it’s going, though I do become paranoid about the pacing, the plot, how it might catch the reader at the beginning. Agents seem to care a lot about having an opening with the emotional impact of having sex with aliens during a car chase while high on LSD. Or something. Apparently I don’t know exactly.

I also move slowly forward with the upcoming short story collection (I’d Tear Down the Stars, in case you forgot the title). This week I got the final copy of the book cover, and I’m quite happy with it. For this book, a few weeks ago, I also hired a publicist, and he has been engaged in various activities, which I’ll talk about as they come up. For one thing, I’ve started a Goodreads author page, and I’m hoping we’ll add a video there before too long. He has also created a Facebook author page for me.

At my publicist’s suggestion, we’re holding the short-story collection to release it in October, in order to do preparatory things. Like, I don’t know, paint the elephants. I mean, obviously, the elephants need to be painted. And the exotic dancers have to be trained not to scare the children.

Don’t need any crying children while I’m perched up on an elephant. It spooks me to be up there as it is.

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Person, Place, Thing, or Something

Strange newspaper headline

How many nouns in that sentence?

I was sitting this past week in a local redneckery, the sort of joint where the woman serving at the bar could be missing a tooth in back, where motorcycle posters have been on the wall so long the colors have faded, and where they have anything you want to drink as long as it’s Budweiser, Bud Lite, or whatever that other one is.

So I sat there, contemplating the degeneration of the brewing art, when the door opened and a noun walked in. It sauntered up to me and said, “Aren’t you the guy who writes about words sometimes?”

“Maybe,” I said and took a drink. “Depends on the word.”

“Not that you’re good at it,” the noun said, and then frowned. “Like last week. Sheesh, all that pronoun nonsense.”

“That’s my business,” I said. “Sometimes I kind of run out of topics.”

“Oh, please,” the noun said and held a hand up to its heart. “With all the nouns there are in the world. Turn your brain up to 11.”

“You know,” I said. “I can tell from your capitalization that you’re a proper noun, so a cheap joint like this isn’t really your kind of place. It’s not real proper in here. Look at the bartender.”

The noun sighed and instead of leaving took a seat at the bar. “Well, sometimes I’m proper, sometimes I’m not.”

“You have to be either a proper noun or a common noun,” I said. “You can’t be both.”

It laughed, but it was a kind of unpleasant smirky laugh that I didn’t like. “That’s why you’re so bad at this,” it said, “and why nobody reads your blog. You don’t know anything.”

This obnoxious noun was trying to insult me, and I was considering whether to open a can of whoop-ass or another can of beer, when a large group of nouns walked in the door and headed toward us. I decided to remain circumspect under the circumstances.

The noun sitting beside me said, “I’m John. Sometimes I’m a person’s name and a proper noun, and sometimes I’m a prostitute’s customer, and then I’m a common noun.  Let me introduce these guys. This is Zamboni, Diesel, Styrofoam, Sandwich, Kleenex, and Watt.” They all took seats at the bar and ordered beers.

“Every one of ’em was a proper noun, a person’s name, like Rudolph Diesel, or a brand name, but now they’re all common nouns.”

“I don’t think Zamboni is all that common,” I said. “I don’t even know—”

One of the nouns at the bar moaned and said, “We could end up as pronouns. Common as dirt, hardly mean anything to anybody.”

“Oh, my God,” another one said. “I’d rather be a verb.”

Jesus!” said Zamboni. “We’ll never be that bad. What a flighty bunch they are.”

“Yeah,” said Styrofoam. “Verbs! They’re always like ‘Oh, look at me, look what I’m doing. Look how active I am.’ They wear me out.”

“At least we have some substance,” said John. He turned to me. “So you should write about us.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ll think about it.”

“Yeah, yeah, think about it.” He turned back to the bar and waved at the bartender. “And while you’re at it,” he said, “maybe buy a grammar book so you’ll have a clue what you’re talking about.”

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Bring Me the Jiggedybobber

man with pig

This is my candidate

Earlier this week, I was sitting at my medical editor desk, when a scowl of incredulity ran over my face (this kind of thing can happen when you’re an editor and read other people’s writing). My vexation, my pique, my wordsmith irritation came from seeing the phrase “it reduced its effect”—seeing that phrase, you no doubt say to yourself, “What up, nerdboy, what the hell’s wrong with that?”

In fact, it would be a perfectly fine phrase, and I would recommend it for an award, if both uses of the word “it” referred to the same noun, but it referred to two different nouns, spaced haphazardly here and there in the preceding sentence. Figuring out what it was talking about demanded a good bit more imagination than I’m inclined to think a medical article ought to require.

So you know what a pronoun is, right? It’s a part of speech that always votes for the noun. Hah, OK, I amused myself there. I couldn’t resist a slight political joke, since we just had Super Tuesday here in Georgia, when we all got really drunk and went to vote—well, just normal southern politics.

I’m off track. So a pronoun, it’s a word that stands in for a noun, as an expression of human laziness, to save us from the trouble of having to say the noun all the time. Instead of referring to my Uncle Jasper Leroy, I can just say “he”. One syllable instead of six, which is all he deserves, anyway. When you’re really drunk on your way to vote, and can’t even remember the names, it’s useful to stagger up and slur out “I vote for him”. Or “her” of course, equal opportunity political inebriation.

The problem with pronouns is that they don’t mean much. Let’s take “he” because by wild coincidence I just mentioned it. It means “singular” and it means “male” and nothing else. There’s an awful lot of them. Which he are we talking about? Donald Trump? Abraham Lincoln? Kanye West? (When’s the last time you saw those three names in a row?)

So when we see a pronoun, or hear one, even though we’re not that conscious of it, our brain immediately searches back through the last few nouns we’ve run into to see if one of them will make sense in the sentence. Usually, I suppose we find something that works well enough, and we go on. But sometimes we get it wrong, and then there’s confusion, or sometimes we just don’t know what that pronoun is talking about.

Speaking as a medical editor, or as a writer, or as a human being, I will almost never allow the word “this” immediately followed by a verb, because what on God’s green earth does “this” refer to? Sometimes I swear even the writers must not know. They’ll write things like “This shows effectiveness when treating patients” after they’ve just been talking about several things.

For people who want to become good writers—and if you’re a computer programmer, DON’T TRY THIS, just accept that you’ll never be good—one way to improve is to become really conscious of pronouns, to consider whether the reader can easily find the right noun in the last few words.

On the whole, though, pronouns are incredibly boring, with two exceptions. Now that we’ve got a bunch of gender hokey pokey going on in our society, people have been hard at work for a good while now making up new pronouns that can refer to a single human without saying “he” or “she”. You can look it up.

It’s mighty hard to change the pronouns people speak with, however, since we use them every day all day long, although thou knowest it can be done over time. We don’t talk like Shakespeare anymore. (In case you don’t catch it, “thou” is a pronoun and it went away.)

The other exception to interesting pronouns is a bunch of slangy words that I’ve never heard anyone refer to as pronouns, so maybe I can be the first to declare that “thingamabob” is a pronoun, as are “doohickey” and “whatchamacallit”. These words have no particular meaning other than to represent a noun of some sort, if you can ever figure out what that noun is.

And unlike the boring short pronouns, these extravagant pronouns step forward with a sense of grandeur, like Oscar Wilde on methamphetamine, wearing velvet jackets and lace cuffs, with large hats covered with flowers and long feathers. If we are going to flounder around in a confusing linguistic world where meaning is hazy, the words should at least be colorful.

Isn’t it?

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