Monthly Archives: March 2014

Sticks and Stones

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

I wonder at the false bravado of the person who made up this hollow and obviously false statement. Words have power. I can forget over time what I see, but words I read or words I hear go down deep and alter who I am. Words stay forever, changing, sculpting, re-creating who and what we are.

Words can offer disillusionment, discouragement, despair, fear, hopelessness; or words can offer encouragement, strength, vitality, hope, faith. As writers we can choose what to do with our words, what result we desire to leave with our readers, what reaction we want them to have. Do we believe the world is a hopeless place and nothing we do matters? Do we believe that in spite of the horror or difficulties there are still things worth believing in, worth pursuing, and holding on to?

As readers we can chose which words we listen to, which words will fashion and mold us into better people, different people. Once I wrote a novel where the heroine dies, not on a whim, or to raise the tension, or make the reader “feel” something. Her death was “fore-ordained,” it was integral to the story with deep threads woven throughout and enough clues to foreshadow the ending so the reader didn’t arrive at her death with the breathless shock of a sudden departure, a “What? Why? Where did this come from?” The feeling that life was going along smoothly and everything would turn out alright until a sudden accident, like a drunk driver out of nowhere, deprived the character and reader of life.

There is a way of writing death scenes that leaves the reader sad, but not hollow. That allows a reader to see into the depths of the character’s soul and believe in the necessity. Unfortunately too many of today’s books miss the mark. The reader perceives the shallowness of the character’s death, the forced manipulation of events simply to make a point, or grab a headline. It is a cynicism that is all to prevalent in today’s world of books.

I am not a cynic. I believe in happy ever afters, even in the aftermath of difficult situations or unpleasantness. I don’t read books for “realism;” that’s something I deal with everyday. I read books to escape, to enjoy, to find something worthwhile to believe in again. If a book can’t deliver that, then I have no reason to pick up another by the same author. And if I’ve spent time reading a trilogy only to be disappointed at the end, then I’m left resenting the author, as well.

If I live my life believing that life is worthwhile, that in spite of the darkness all around us there is light, and strength, and hope, then my writing ought to reflect that belief as well. I have a responsibility to my readers to show them there is something worth living for and to leave them better people at the end of my novels. I don’t want hollow readers, I want strong readers who can learn to believe in themselves, to believe in others, to be inspired.

Life does have happy endings, even if the circumstances aren’t.

Frindle

It’s not often an elementary book can, not only surprise me, but excite me. Frindle by Andrew Clements is just such a book. At first, from the standpoint of being a wordsmith, the story’s premise annoyed me greatly. A smart aleck kid decides to reinvent the terminology for a writing instrument and stirs up his teacher, his school, and his community. By the end of the story, however, I’m chuckling not just at the story, but the teacher’s wisdom as the plot thickens and unfolds with its surprising ending.

On reflection, the concepts in Frindle are not so different from Martian Scrabble and I learned a valuable lesson in not judging a book by its first chapters.

Our family loves playing with words, twisting them, giving some new meanings and even inventing new ones.  For instance, opesculent: fat with glasses or ultimaphobia: fear of eating the last chip.  Our children created “funny” words, words that by themselves are not humorous, but when said out loud will send our family into gales of laughter; “spleen” and “femur” being the most notorious. Imagine being in a grocery store with one’s teenagers as they stumble down the aisles roaring hilariously after one says, “spleen” in just the right tone.

I shouldn’t be surprised. Our society constantly verbs nouns (thanks to the media) and social media allow us to noun verbs. This twisting and warping of the fabric of words can be extremely unsettling when done improperly, but exhilarating in the right circumstances.

Maybe Frindle ought to be required reading in high school.

 

Kicking and screaming

When it comes to technology, I am a cat. I hate change.  I just become proficient on a program or machine and then the company decides to “upgrade.” Read: make more money.  Car companies do this, too; but I’m not forced to get rid of my old clunker as long as it’s running.

I should be used to this by now.  I loved the old Photoshop and Print Master software; until the company decided to buy out the other, ditched the best parts, and kept the things I hated most about the programs.  I had less trouble when Word Perfect upgraded, although I still use an older version instead of the “new, improved” model. It simply didn’t do what I needed the program to do.

Which brings us to Microsoft and their “one size fits all” mentality. I don’t care whether it’s the operating system or Word. Not all users are businesses. Not all users are impressed with their systems, so why force customers to limit themselves to one choice?  I’ve always felt that a world-class company would seek ways for their products to be more user friendly and interface with other products.  After all, I can open Word documents in Word Perfect. Unfortunately, even Word won’t open its own files if they’re beyond a certain date.  Which means, consumers must resave all their old data under the new format–something that is time consuming and costly.

The other reason I hate upgrading my computer or program is re-installing all my programs onto a new machine only to find several won’t work because the processors are too fast.  I resent having to give up favored games or software simply because they’re considered “old.”  I hate to break it to the 20-somethings who despise anything or anyone older than themselves, but you’ll be old one day, too, and being old doesn’t mean useless. I’m reminded of a smart-mouthed Wraith squadron recruit who thought Wedge Antilles was too old to be useful for anything other than training pilots. She didn’t last; he went on to take down major Imperial offensives.

I’m not against new technology. I love it! However, new technology should integrate old technology or incorporate a method to make the transition easier and less painful. After all, men, you wouldn’t throw out that ratty old, comfortable, high school jersey, now would you? 

Martian Scrabble

Widdershins. Hareath. Plethora. Words have always fascinate me. I can spend hours browsing through a thesaurus or researching the origin and meaning of a word. I love inventing words, too; putting letters and ideas together to create new concepts. Maybe that’s why I invented Martian Scrabble in college.

We used a regular Scrabble board, didn’t keep score, and there were only two rules: you have to pronounce it and you have to define it. Mikklestein: a container for storing fermented fruit. Cryzkle (craizcul): a green and gold striated stone used in fine jewelry. A couple of girls wandering through the UC asked what we were playing. Then they wanted to know how we knew Martian. “I was born there,” I told them.

English has a plethora of intricately beautiful words, each with its own sense of hue and meaning: house, cottage, shed, shack, bungalow, edifice, home; red, crimson, maroon, scarlet, brick, salmon. Even the spelling can change the meaning of a word. Take the word, gray/grey, for instance. The American version has a softer colour, more mellow and gentle, pussy willows in spring. The English version is darker, more robust, grey storm clouds over a Scottish moor.

Which is why I don’t subscribe to the current trend in writing to limit vocabulary and eliminate so many useful English words: vivid verbs, alternatives for “said,” and adverbs. Said: plain and boring. Gushed, screamed, whispered, murmured, replied, stated. Each word paints a specific picture and allows the writer to spend more time creating dialogue, story, and action instead of wasting time and space explaining to the reader. “Trend? Wait a minute, I thought everyone wrote like this?” Today, yes. Twenty years ago, no. Writers were free to use specific verbs and concentrate more on story. I tire of wading through copious amounts of words when a writer attempts to avoid any word except “said” and tortures the reader by spending dozens of sentences to say what could be said in a shorter, more specific manner. I’m not talking about showing the reader instead of telling. I’m merely responding to a “dumbing down” of our reading material in an attempt to satisfy a current fad.

Don’t believe me? Pick up a copy of Fog Magic, then compare it to any storybook written for elementary school kids today. Double dare you.

The Potency of Speculation

Speculative fiction, no matter its genre, takes us on incredible journeys. It allows us to explore facets of ourselves and our worlds in a non-threatening manner. Topics that might be inflammatory, or even taboo, can be addressed through speculative fiction. In addition, speculative fiction allows us to extrapolate current trends and events and carry them to a myriad of possible futures, sometimes preventing catastrophic outcomes before they happen.

But most importantly, speculative fiction sets us apart from the rest of creation. The ability to imagine, to consider consequences, to envision a distant future or connect with the distant past is something innate in humans, not animals. Elephants give up after repeated attempts to break a chain, never realizing the chain has been replaced with a rope. Cats do not consider their lineage, nor the fate of their siblings. Wolves do not affect their environment when food sources run low, they simply move to another environment. Place a human in a hostile environment and he will not only adapt, he will transform the environment into something productive.

Animals are caricatures of human behaviour, but they lack the spark of life, the spark of the divine, that gives us the unique ability to dream, to become more than what we are. History is filled with stories of people that inspire us; stories of people who rose from humble beginnings to become powerful. While some animals rise to the top of their species or local group, I have yet to see one rise to the top of a different species or inspire others to be different, to become more.

The potency of man’s ability to weave imaginative tales to teach, to inspire, to entertain, is for me one of the most compelling facts in the natural world that humans and animals are vastly different. Because we are different, it is incumbent upon us as humans to cherish and protect the animal world around us without sacrificing humans. It is certain the animals cannot imagine the benefits of humans; it is left to us to speculate the impact of abusing our world.

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