Category Archives: Writing

Smoke, Mirrors, and Grammar Software

Grammar software is like taking a photograph, clicking watercolor rendering in Adobe Photoshop, and calling it artwork. Never mind all those years of practice, study, endless sketching, classes, books, museums—and most of all the longing and passion to improve your art.

Grammar software will not make you a better writer because it doesn’t know how. It’s a robot. I recently tried to read a work of fiction by a self-published author but was so wearied I could not finish the book. No matter how intriguing the theme, four hundred pages of stilted excess that should have been two hundred pages will exhaust the reader. How many times does a writer have to say the same thing using slightly different wording in each sentence? And after the third or fourth “her and Steven hadn’t taken a movie in years…” I could take no more. It felt like homework.

How many times do you need to say “that”? I have changed names and words in the following example but have left the verbose structure. It is not my intent to single out any writer—lack of restraint is a common trend.

“He knew that the more hurtful that something was the more someone felt driven to act as though it wasn’t, but he had thought that Sarah might be different. He had always believed that his wife had arrived at some highly evolved approach to life which had made her immune to the usual humiliations of the world, but now he saw that the differences between them…”

How can software recognize bloat? Only the writer has the power to make his or her work interesting, and it’s done by editing.

I looked up a tutorial for a popular grammar software program called Whitesmoke. The video guides you through a sample text and explains why you really need these computer-generated revisions. Whitesmoke is a good name for this program, because that’s what it is—expensive smoke.

Useless grammar software example 1

The text in this tutorial reminds me of the poorly translated assembly instructions that come with your new TV cabinet made in China. The grammar software suggests inserting a comma after “air strip,” but completely misses much more obvious and urgent mistakes in the last sentence: “If you are not interest in flying, we’ll arrange for something else exciting for you.”

Useless grammar software example 2

Here the software is asking if the user wants to add the placenames to the spellcheck dictionary. Big woot. But look at the last sentence in the first paragraph, “This night is on your own in Marlborough.” The robot apparently has no way of knowing what a very bad sentence this is.

The second paragraph begins with “After breakfast, we’ll drive to Heathrow airport for those who need that.” Um, Mr. Robot, you don’t sense a problem here? First, Heathrow Airport should be capitalized, and second, “for those who need that” is just awful. Just about anything would be better. Whether you understand why isn’t as important as simply feeling it.

In the second paragraph, the robot suggests changing “Or we can take you to the train” to “Alternatively we can take you to the train.” Do writers think changing plain English to a longer word randomly selected from the robot’s thesaurus makes it better?

Algorithms cannot replace imagination, knowledge, experience, and intuition. Software will never be a substitute for learning how to construct a sentence.

I wonder what would happen if you ran Ernest Hemingway through grammar software. Would it “fix” it?

The Week in My World 9-23-11

The gnawing of homesickness abrades—not for my native home, but for someplace that feels like home. But whether inspiration to act is born of ecstasy or sorrow, the result is the same—you are moved to discover resourcefulness you didn’t know you had.

Finding Love in Arizona

The two dogs rescued from my neighbors have been adopted into wonderful homes. I continue to keep a close watch on the yard, which right now is blissfully empty. But there are thousands more animals hanging on to life in similar hells. All mammals have an instinctive will to live. I am researching how to approach schools to talk about how to care for animals. There are scripts to be learned and protocols to follow.

A Story to Share with My Victims

I promise never to use the word share unless it’s to share buried treasure, my bed with dogs and cats, or pizza with a friend. I promise to never share news, an absurd encounter, or personal confessions. Those, I’ll just flat out tell you. Leave the word share for something tangible, like your meal or your toys. You may not notice the almost imperceptible cringe of a polite person when you say you have a story to share, but it’s there.

The Trials of Tag Surfing

A good way to show disrespect to your readers is frequent use of the following phrases:

As I said  •  as I said before  •  like I said    as many of you know    as I mentioned before    I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while    I haven’t posted in a while and for this I deeply apologize    now I know a lot of people will be surprised about this revelation  •  everyone who reads my blog knows how I feel about  •  if you know me then you know that when I  •  it’s a well-known fact that I do not like…

All these phrases do is highlight your ego.

Was it a Girl Shad or a Boy Shad?

Before personal computers existed, I ran a typesetting shop for 12 years. My job was not to edit, but to set the type for a variety of businesses—but naturally I corrected errors. One of my clients was the Griswold Inn, a historic restaurant and inn in Essex, Connecticut. The inn changed its menus frequently and was a steady customer.

The owner at the time was a wealthy businessman from New York who used pompous phrases such as “I’ll see you in a fortnight” or “ring me up” or “it’s frightfully good.” Brochures outlining the inn’s history were available in the lobby, typeset and printed long before I came on board. The owner wanted to make some revisions and asked me to re-typeset the brochure. As I was typing it and fixing the usual errors made by careless typesetters (and careless business owners who sign off on proofs before printing), I came across a howler I will never forget. The copy explained how the inn was situated at the mouth of the Connecticut River where it meets Long Island Sound, and it read:

In the spring, when the androgynous shad swim upstream to spawn…

There, in a haughty Connecticut town full of extravagant homes, luxury cars, sumptuous sailboats, and trust-fund kids, not one person had ever reported the fact that shad are anadromous. I fixed the ridiculous blunder and never said a word.

The Awkward Alsatian

Before restaurants started creating their own menus with computers, they were a primary source of work for typesetters. Owners were often difficult to work with, and would insist I set the copy exactly as they had written it. One testy man from Alsace, France, was not a native speaker. His menu read: I welcome you to sample the flavors of my region. This struck me as both distasteful and hilarious, but there it stood.

It’s Not About the Acting—Four Boxes Review

Movies are a form of therapy that help distract us from the constant assault of negativity in the world, and I love them for it.  A small luxury in life is Netflix, and my plan allows unlimited streaming. The selection of movies available for streaming is meager compared to regular-delivery DVDs, it’s only the gratification of an immediate need for escape that supports its appeal. I often scan the instant movie list looking for something that isn’t awful. Many of them are either Independent or “B” movies, but you can sometimes find a sparkler among them. I don’t read professional reviews because they often pan my favorite movies but praise convoluted hipster crap.  So it’s helpful to read customer reviews, but not for reasons you might think.

One common complaint by amateur reviewers is the quality of acting and/or graphics. You should hear them go on. Even low-budget movies I really loved such as Four Boxes continue to get terrible reviews full of much worse clichés than the movies they complain about. It’s as if the reviewers see this venue as a legitimate invitation to flame something that displeases them. Many of the reviewers are semi-literate and out of 78 reviews for Four Boxes, a few people loved it and nearly everyone else complained about the bad acting. The reviews basically read like these:

stupid, the acting is bad, and im glad they all die.

i got to say this was the worst movie ive got from u it absolutly sucked never quite got the plot and far as acting VERY POOR.

whoever wrote the dialog for this steaming pile of feces should do the world a favor and never write again. words cannot desrcibe how much I detested this aweful, aweful abomintion before god.

And here I thought the characters in this movie were acting like real-life 20-somethings. I had no idea that made them “bad actors.” I was finally compelled to join about three other people and write my own favorable review.

How do they know the acting was bad? Is it because they found the characters annoying? Then what difference would it make if they cast Shia or Leo or Keira? Why does the acting matter so much if a movie is original and intriguing? It’s all about the writing. I would watch a school play if the story was good and I could hear it. Half-billion-dollar budgets featuring gorgeous Hollywood clones are no guarantee of a good movie—just witness the heap of boring clunkers starring highly paid actors. My biggest complaint is the trend toward non-articulate speech, and that’s why subtitles are indispensable. In streaming, subtitles are rarely available, so if the music is overpowering, the actors mumble, or the script ridiculous, they lose me. Subtitles would have greatly enhanced Four Boxes, but despite the fact they weren’t available I was completely absorbed.

I don’t care how primitive the production or how unskilled the actors. Movies are all about the script, and that’s what smaller production companies should strive for.

Life’s Rich Knots

Your Friend’s Problems

A friend of mine allowed a 35-year-old man to park his RV on her property and hook up to her facilities in return for the completion of an agreed-upon punch list of work. The man had broken up with his wife and lost his job and blah blah boo hoo.

Six months later he has yet to fulfill his obligations and my friend claims she has asked him to leave. Since his truck is in a thousand pieces in her garage, I don’t see this happening without a sheriff.

I disliked him from the first day I met him. He’s a pathological know-it-all with the personality of a blister. He talks about himself obsessively, borrows my friend’s car, and walks into her house anytime he pleases. As he’s sucking up her electricity and hot water using her washer and dryer, he’s complaining about her cigarette smoke. I was curt with him until, in respect to my friend’s wishes, she asked for my cooperation.

A month ago he reconciled with his wife and moved her in without first asking permission. The wife does nothing but sleep and assist her husband in relating pathetic tales of woe. They are accomplished con artists.

I have since stopped speaking to him and his self-aggrandizing logorrhea is met only by my cold glare. My friend does not want to provoke them, so I must seethe quietly. At times I must get up and leave or I will explode in fury.

Our role in a friendship is often difficult to define. Is a friend’s job to empathize, yet remain a detached third party? Isn’t it natural to feel outrage when a friend reports exploitation or abuse? But at whom—the abuser or the victim? Maybe some people have a subconscious desire to be a doormat, or maybe I do not know how to be a friend.

Subscriber Button Drama

WordPress keeps trying to social-mediatize us. They took the Subscribe by email button off and replaced it with Follow at the top of the page. So many people complained that they returned the subscribe button, but with an obnoxious update—it announced to the world how many subscribers you have. Blogging is not Facebook. We are not here to play Farmville or Mafia Wars or endure the anxiety of publicly accumulating “followers.” Many blogs are specialized, personal outlets, and discussion is our goal. How many subscribers we have is nobody’s business but our own. I just now noticed that the number of subscribers information is gone, so thank you WordPress for listening to your flock.

A Little Antidote

I once worked for two Connecticut veterinarians. They were specialists in conditions other vets were stumped by, and charged usurious fees for consultations. One day as I was assisting one of the doctors in a poisoning case, he said to the client, “don’t worry, we’ll find the right anecdote.” I didn’t understand how relating a clever account of a humorous incident would help the dog one bit.

The Week in My World 8-31-11

A harrowing, adrenaline-charged midnight rescue of a starving chained dog in my neighborhood…another neighbor with an old camper in his yard reports harassment by drug cartel members…so hot you can’t breathe…oh who the hell cares? Put the razor blade down and look at some recent six word stories and pictures from my world.

Autodidact’s delusions at least self-taught.

Noxious aura radiates from negligent psychic.

Dignity gone. Queasy dawn. Agreement withdrawn.

People’s revolution. Virtuous intentions. New oppressors.

Antisocial butterflies invited to somber soiree.

Forked road. Left, elimination, right, bereavement.

Don’t worry be happy. Lobotomy included?

Please amputate right leg this time.

Exfoliated angst shards predicted. Better duck.

Polluted hydrologist burst into brackish tears.

Beautiful, meticulous, handcrafted artwork. Price reduced.

Amo, amas. In extremis. Ante bellum.

Suicide hotline, on hold. Elevator music.

Every year during monsoon the nectarivorous Mexican long-nosed bats (Leptonycteris curasoae yerbabuenae), come at dark to drain the hummingbird feeder. Bats are major pollinators and/or insect eaters and there is no reason to fear them. Plus, they’re really cool!

Long-nosed bat drinking sugar-water at the hummingbird feeder.

A big flock of them come every night and drain the feeder within half an hour. It’s definitely worth buying extra sugar to support them!

Beautiful, mysterious long-nosed bats love nectar and sugar water. Both their roosting sites and their main source of food, the agave, are being destroyed by people and fires.

 

 

The second brood of barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) have been born, raised, and fledged. There will be no more this year. This series of pictures starts with newborns.

3 days old. It takes about two weeks for the swallow babies to reach maturity. Like most birds, both parents are extremely attentive.

For the first week after the babies fledge, the parents continue to watch, feed, and guide them. The babies still return to the porch light nest every night for several more weeks.

Hey, you on the end! Listen up! I have important stuff to tell you!

During monsoon blasts of rain pour down in one part of town but not another.

We are at 5,000 ft., so we are actually IN the clouds. Picture taken from my street.

The Monument fire destroyed my favorite refuge, Coronado National Park, and the road in is closed due to destruction by flooding as there are no trees left to stop it. But the San Pedro River is lush and full, and the animals don’t care that the water is muddy.

Raccoon prints along the San Pedro, which is teeming with wildlife seeking water.

New Word Rants—Don’t Kill the Messenger

Oxford University Press periodically publishes new words, and they recently announced a small sampling from the list of 400 new words that appear in the now-available twelfth edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. These words will not appear in print for a while in OUP’s flagship American dictionary, the New Oxford American Dictionary, as the 3rd edition was just released last fall (with the addition of about 2,000 new words and senses), but updates are available online. As I browse blogs, I encounter indignant rants from folks who just don’t get it.

I am proud to be part of the New Words Program. Each month, a group of readers submit 20 new words. Our job is to read, read, read—and though we are all assigned specific subjects, any new submissions are accepted. Sometimes we find older words that slipped through the cracks, sometimes new senses of old words emerge. OUP in no way inserts as actual entries all the submissions they receive—after the group submits them, the lexicographers further research them to determine the number of times they are used in everyday language.

So you’re mad that “sexting” went in. Lexicographers don’t create new words or make judgments on their suitability, unless they are considered too obscene. The lexicographer’s job is to record the language. If they don’t define new words, the dictionary becomes stagnant and unhelpful to a person needing a definition. Without new words, we’d still be speaking like we did hundreds of years ago. Many words become dated or archaic as new words dominate our culture. That’s progress.

If millions of idiots are sexting every day, it has to be in the dictionary. I’ve read angry posts calling for a stop to this—this is the downfall of English! They’re ruining our language! No, they’re not—our culture is. What they don’t realize is hundreds of new words are defined each year from the fields of technology, science, medicine, computers, government, cosmetics, mental diseases, weather catastrophes, fashion, architecture, culture, and a host of other subjects. Note that not long ago, even “blog” was a new word, and someone had to research it and make a decision whether to insert it as an entry. I wonder if the people who are now fuming about “retweet” were also mad about “blog” ten years ago.

Yes, some new words are a sad reflection of our times, but a dictionary has no need to apologize. If you don’t want to see sexting in the dictionary, then make it obsolete. If you don’t want to see jeggings, stop wearing them. If you can put an end to cyberbullying, then we won’t have to record it. If you don’t want to see social media terms in, then check your obsession with Facebook and Twitter. Because this is what people do, it must be documented. If these words bother you, there are still hundreds of thousands of other exquisite words in our beautiful language you can use to express yourself.

Editor for Hire

I’ve spent part of the past week helping fiction writer Kay Camden edit her synopsis and query letter for her first novel. My love for dictionary work has met its match.

Is this post blatant self-promotion? No, just survival. Editor for hire, and here’s a lovely reference from Kay: How to Write the Perfect Synopsis. Many years of working on dictionaries and reference books have taught me that every word counts.

Perhaps there are other writers out there who may need this service. A girl’s got to make a living.

Sherlock is My Drug—Masterpiece Mystery Review

In times of stress, I turn to Sherlock Holmes. When I’m in a book-flinging mood where bestsellers are irritating and classics make me want to slit my wrists, Sherlock Holmes is my morphia. I read the stories over and over, each sentence stands alone as a work of art. A nightly chore is the attempt to distract myself from daily stress before I try to sleep, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories get it done.

I’ve watched most of the Sherlock Holmes movies out there and some series were pretty good, such as the one with Jeremy Brett. Others try to cast Holmes in Jack the Ripper scenarios or other plots not in the original stories, and that’s fine with me, but so many of these productions completely miss the essence of Doyle’s character (see The Terrible Things People Do to Sherlock Holmes). Guy Ritchie’s movie Sherlock Holmes was even pretty good, though an absolute fabrication and in Ritchie’s trademark way, too violent.

But nothing has reached me like Masterpiece Mystery! Sherlock, originally presented on BBC, then aired on PBS in 2010 and now available on Netflix. They only made 3 episodes and have promised more in the fall. I have always wondered how Sherlock Holmes would translate to 21st century technology—Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, who created these new stories, show us how it’s done.

This version of Holmes is thornier. His retorts are more barbed and impatient, but brilliantly delivered. He’s not a blowhard like in some books and movies. He doesn’t brag, he states facts. Physically, he’s tall and thin and handsome in a wraithlike way. I love the closeups of his strange and beautiful visage and its many expressions. Even the music is perfect for the show—not old, not new, but an ethereal air played off and on throughout the show that underscores the horrors being perpetrated without resorting to melodramatic violins or modern rock remixes. It sticks with you when the show ends.

In this series Holmes and Watson are known as Sherlock and John, the way we would informally address people now. John Watson, like the original, is an ex-army doctor fresh from a modern-day tour in Afghanistan. Sherlock has his own website, and John blogs about the cases they solve. Sherlock is a wizard with smartphones and computers, of course he would be. He finds so much information instantly on his smartphone that I wonder if he subscribes to database sites like Lexus Nexus. The viewer sees what he looks for online, and some of it seems as if it would be unavailable to normal users. Snippets of Doyle’s original stories are superbly intermixed—but not expanded upon—and I wonder if the writers almost had to do that because of modern technology. I’m not a purist, I’m much more interested in good writing and characterization so I love what they’ve done.

As Holmes responds to accusations from a local officer that he’s a “psychopath,” he says, “I am not a psychopath, I’m a highly functioning sociopath. Do your research.” And so he is, and we don’t want him to change. Benedict Cumberbatch pulls it off beautifully, and Watson is played sympathetically by Martin Freeman. This Watson is streetwise, depressed, gets irritated with Holmes, but craves the adventure. In this series Lestrade and Sherlock get along well and Lestrade allows Sherlock a lot of freedom. But the very best scenes are the interactions between Sherlock and John alone. They are often mistaken for gay partners, a modern assumption and something naturally never mentioned in the late-Victorian originals, and it’s amusing to see them fend off well-meaning remarks how it’s perfectly OK to be gay.

I love the way Sherlock redeems his brusque personality at the end of each show. He and Watson walk off, trading quips and laughing. I always put the subtitles on so I don’t miss a word, and I’ve watched these three episodes at least five times each. The third episode ends in a cliffhanger as Holmes clashes with a much more sadistic Moriarty than the original, this one comes with bombs, and they’ve promised more episodes in the fall.

I must take utmost care to never watch or listen to an interview with Benedict Cumberbatch. I don’t want to know him personally because, as in many characters we love, finding out that they’re simply good actors and not much else is a letdown. Let us have our Sherlock and John then. Let them solve their cases with brilliance, wit, and dark humor. It’s all about the writing anyway. Let it wash over me and give me hope that all is not lost.

Abstract Expressionism—in Writing

There has been an explosion of flash fiction in recent years. Flash fiction has been around a long time, parables and fables go back to ancient times. Some writers berate it by claiming that modern readers have attention deficit disorder, hence the popularity of Twitter, but I don’t believe this is entirely true.

If I want to read a book, I’ll read a book. I don’t have Kindle or any kind of e-reader, can’t afford to keep up, and seem to survive just fine without them. So, when I’m at my computer, which is often, there’s just no way I can sit here and read 1000 word stories, posts, or articles unless it’s part of research for work, writing, or my own curiosity. It would have to draw me in immediately, and there are a few who do, but they usually pertain to a subject I’m interested in.

I believe in the principles of flash fiction and wish all writers would apply these to their work. There are so many longwinded posts, articles, and bestselling fiction, full of superfluous text or boring or irrelevant details that I want to bleed a red pen over them.

But there’s something else in flash fiction that is just as cumbersome, and that is fiction so surreal it defies explanation. Reading a short story ten times trying to figure it out takes just as long as reading a long story once. I keep getting told it’s all about the reader’s interpretation, but stories aren’t dreams nor should they resemble a Jackson Pollock painting. Even a very short story should give you some basic facts and have a beginning, middle and end, even if it’s just 100 words. That’s what a story is. This is done by choosing each word carefully and not assuming the reader knows what’s inside your head. A page from an imaginary novel is not a story. By leaving out important pieces of information, writers think they are being profound but they are simply leaving many readers asking “huh?”

Bloggers can write whatever they want, it’s no one’s business but their own. But I would like to see writers of surreal fiction ask their readers what they think it means. I would like to see the commenters who write “awesome post” explain why they think it’s awesome. I love puzzles—cryptograms, crossword puzzles, Scrabble, jumbles, and hangman. I don’t get the same enjoyment from a puzzling piece of fiction. You can be just as profound without leaving the reader bewildered.

The Week in My World 5-10-11

I feel at odds with myself and the world, like an alien creature sent to live among humans to collect information but unable to send anything back but corrupt data. I despair at the state of the planet and of my personal life. And, I’m out of coffee filters.

_______________________________________________________

We’ve been streaming episodes of the TV show Lost. First season, well who doesn’t like a plane crash? Second season broached turbulence when we began to realize how unlikable the characters are. Last night we were midway through the third season when we were cast adrift. The characters bicker dully and can’t answer a simple question without some snotty witless remark. Who’d I rather? None of them. And nobody’s fracking, what’s up with that? I don’t care about any of them, and aren’t you supposed to care? The episodes crawl tediously, without a hint of insight why these weird things are happening, it’s just one mystery piled on top of another with no relief. One of the most annoying motifs throughout the show is that though each survivor experiences nightmares, hallucinations, and visions, whenever they relate their incident to another character, it’s met with “oh it was just a dream” or “you’re under a lot of stress” or “get some sleep.” Wouldn’t ya think they’d want to share these dangerous and scary visions, like maybe they’re related? We read the rest of the plot outlines and saw no need to suffer this wreckage to the end. The island is beautiful but the plot and dialogue are stagnant.

______________________________________________________

Sorry, can’t resist another boyfriend story…

When Don Lenz first zoomed in on me and flashed me his smile, we really clicked. He said I was a cute little pixel but he must have been looking at me through a diffuser. I shutter to think how overexposed I was, and had to F-stop him quite a bit at first.

But as time went on, the contrast between us sharpened. All he wanted to do was download me with his inkjet. I wasn’t the first either, his memory stick had a long history. Well he can stuff it up his aperture for all I care. Next time I see that self-focused bastard I’m going to point and shoot.

______________________________________________________

An acquaintance said to me the other day, Debra, all you do is rant. I said that’s a boldfaced lie, can’t you at least put it in italic? He said, well you’re still weird. I said, me weird? You oughta try blogging.

______________________________________________________

Some recent pics…

I think my favorite tree here is the ruggedly beautiful alligator juniper. Such character, such spirit.

Alligator juniper berries

Alligator juniper roots

Bottom half of ancient palo verde (“green stick”) tree, another exotic beauty and state tree of Arizona.

Various woodpeckers, flickers, and owls make their nests in saguaros (pronounced suh-wahr’-oh) They don’t grow up here at 5,000 feet, this was taken on a recent trip to Tucson, where they flourish.

Spring and fall are the busiest times for the border patrol. Our house is situated on a corridor, which I did not know when we moved here. USBP trucks, ATVs, horses, and helicopters are a daily event in my backyard. I snapped this picture the other day in front of my house. 

Here an agent is giving one of the men IV fluids. There are so many coming through.