Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Friday, November 27, 2009

Reading about Writing


The Elements of Style
by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White





Elements of Elements of Style

Over the past fifty years, many people have praised The Elements of Style as an essential resource, sort of a Bible for writers. Like the standard Bible, it mentions Jesus,1 and some revere it so highly they follow its teachings to the letter. Unlike the standard Bible, however, strict adherence to it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Also, it’s only 85 pages long.

There’s a reason this text is so revered by writers: Strunk and White set forth their rules and principles in a simple, straightforward manner, with examples of unclear, incorrect, or wasteful language placed side by side with their proper (or recommended) revisions. They provide guidelines around usage, composition, form, and style, and also include a section highlighting commonly misused words and phrases. On occasion, they interject little morsels of humor into their advice, but if you’re looking for grammar-related entertainment, I suggest you look somewhere else; The Elements of Style is first and foremost a guidebook. A damn good guidebook, but a guidebook nonetheless.

As I read through the section on usage, my confidence soared, with proper use of the colon my only potential issue.2 My confidence dipped, however, when I hit the section on composition. This was due to the fact that a few of the principles, particularly #14-17, were not always adhered to when I wrote.3 As a minor grammar snob, I was also surprised to find that I had been misusing a few of the most commonly misused words and phrases.4

Of course, both Strunk and White aren’t completely unbiased: Strunk lets his prejudices shine through most prominently in the section on misused words — he reserves an inordinate amount of ire for the phrase “student body,” for instance — whereas White airs his in his section on style. Also, some of their recommendations feel outdated, although this is not that shocking. If Strunk supplied the suggestion, it was originally made over ninety years ago. Even if White only inserted it in the most recent edition of the book,5 the word or phrase has now been misused for over thirty years. Either way, it might very well have been absorbed into the modern lexicon by now, and certainly, the “incorrect” usage of some words can now be found among the accepted definitions in many dictionaries.

Anyway, count me among the converted; I plan to follow the wisdom of this particular Bible. I already picked up my own copy of the ’79 edition for 50 cents at a book sale this past weekend, and I know I’ll be referring to it extensively once I begin the editing phase on my novel. For now, I’ll just leave you with one last bit of praise for Strunk and White, courtesy of Dorothy Parker:
If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.

Rating:

1 Specifically, Jesus’ possessive.
2 This makes perfect sense; I have Crohn’s disease. (Grammatically, though, the problem is my tendency to wuss out and use a semi-colon when I should be using a full-fledged colon. For example, see first sentence in this footnote.)
3 And that sentence illustrates me erring on three of them: 14. Use active voice, 15. Put statements in positive form, and 17. Omit needless words.
4 Such as “due to” in the previous sentence.
5 E.B. White, a former student of William Strunk Jr, took his mentor’s self-published book from the 1910s and added his own insights, publishing updated editions in 1959, 1972, and 1979.



On On Writing

Stephen King wanted to impart his wisdom of writing to the great, unwashed masses (a.k.a. aspiring writers). He also, seemingly, wanted to write a memoir about his early life and his more recent brush with death. But why go to the trouble of writing two separate books? He’d grouped novellas into one volume before, so why not non-fiction, too? In On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft, he sandwiches his writing advice in between the life and times of Stephen King. It doesn’t quite work.

Through the first 100 pages of On Writing, King details, among other things, his first attempts at writing, how he met his wife, and the origins of Carrie. Some of it is quite interesting, but it’s still about him, rather than the process of writing, which is the supposed focus of the book. Though, it helps to explain why I found the book in the biography section of the library.

When King finally gets to the writing part of On Writing, he proffers some useful tips. Likening the writer’s skills to tools in a toolbox, and stories to fossils the writer must unearth, he delivers solid advice on such things as pacing, dialogue, and description. And I expect his suggestions for the editing process and about writing for your “Ideal Reader” to prove quite valuable. Yet, many of his recommendations seem overly personal. While I agree that perhaps the two most important things a writer can do are to write a lot and read a lot, not everyone has the time to do that “four to six hours a day, every day.” Also, writers thrive in all manner of locations; just because he holes himself up in a room with the door closed and shades drawn doesn’t preclude someone else from finding a busy cafĂ© to be ideal. Likewise, going virtually plotless may work for King, but not everyone is gifted in that way. Some people (myself included) prefer to develop the basics of their plot before they sit down to write, to ensure that everything will tie together in the end. Basically, too much of King’s advice smacks of, “It worked for me, so it’ll probably work for you.”6

Perhaps because his expertise is in writing fiction, or perhaps because he doesn’t like to plot out his books, King lays out his writing advice without any formal structure, making it difficult to reference specific sections quickly. He praises Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, yet may be worse than I am at complying with Rule #17 (Omit needless words). And he tends to relate the majority of his advice back to his experience with one of his own works, though I’m not sure if it’s a marketing ploy to sell more books or if he is simply talking about what he knows.

All in all, I can’t argue with most of the advice King offers. I will argue, however, with the decision to sandwich the advice in between autobiographical texts that provide little guidance in the practice of writing. Even if the word “Memoir” is in the subtitle.

In On Writing, King says that it is impossible to turn a bad writer into a competent one, and impossible to turn a good writer into a great one, but with hard work and dedication, a competent writer can become a good writer. I feel as though I’m on the cusp of goodness; all I need is a little more practice.

Four to six hours a day should do it.


Rating:

6 This wouldn’t be a direct quote, though, since throughout the book Stephen King makes it abundantly clear that he really really really really abhors adverbs.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanks for Nothing (and Everything)

Today, Americans everywhere will be going online and spewing forth the many things that they are thankful for this year. Family, friends, and football will be featured prominently, and everywhere you look you’ll be knee-deep in sap. But as they say, if you can’t beat ‘em (and I can’t; they’re too far away), join ‘em. So join ‘em I shall...
  • I am thankful that, unlike last Thanksgiving, I have yet to drive through the garage door.

  • I am thankful for gorges with rock walls just far enough apart, and water at least eight feet deep at the bottom. (So very thankful...)

  • I am thankful for ninjas.

  • I am thankful for my wonderful group of friends, not one of whom has seen through my ingenious disguise to discover that I am, in fact, their sworn arch-enemy.1

  • I am thankful for my family, without whom I probably never would have existed.

  • I am thankful for organizations such as the Food Bank. I deposited a turkey last year, and thanks to magic of accrued interest, I now have a turkey with gravy, stuffing, a side of mashed potatoes, and a slice of apple pie for dessert.

  • I am thankful for our aquaphobic dog, since “aquaphobic dog” is generally synonymous with “dry, unsmelly dog.”

  • I am thankful for the stupid people of the world.2 If it wasn’t for them, not only would news headlines be horrifically dull, but I’d have much less to write about.

  • I am thankful for turkeys. Without getting three strikes in a row, I’d never break 200 in Wii bowling.

  • I am thankful for the little things in life.3

  • I am thankful for laughter so contagious that it spreads throughout a room in mere seconds, doubling everyone over with giggles and chortles and guffaws so they don’t notice that I’m eating some of their pie.

  • I am thankful to be so full of thank.

  • But most of all, I am thankful for Denise. She made muffins.

1 For I am... Nemesis Man!
2 As long as those dumkopfs remain far, far away from me. No, really; stay away.
3 Smurfs.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

And Then She Said Those Three Little Words...

“Center of Excellence.”

In fields such as health or technology, a Center of Excellence is often a place where top minds come together to share their knowledge and experience, and to strive for only the highest standards of achievement.

In the world of business, it’s a buzzword, a catchphrase designed to make something sound more impressive than it is. Affixing the label “Center of Excellence” to a group of talented or knowledgeable people does not automatically ensure that the work they create will, in fact, be excellent. On repeated hearings, the phrase sounds hollow and void of any real substance.

In a meeting today, someone proposed we create a Center of Excellence to help direct our company’s social media strategy.1 When I heard this, I died a little inside. Now, I’m all for getting the top minds together to make the best decisions, but if they’re seriously contemplating calling themselves the “Center of Excellence,” we need to find some better top minds.

I decided to do a little digging, and delved more into the meaning of Center of Excellence. As anyone can see, the center of “excellence” is two L’s. Or, in schoolyard parlance, “double hockey sticks.” However, I have it on good authority that any corporate Center of Excellence would have absolutely nothing to do with hockey. Not even air hockey. Nor would it involve football, turkey, zombies, monkey butlers, unrestrained laughter, skee-ball, ball pits, lasers, wolfsplosions, flux capacitors, hot fudge sundaes, footie pajamas, espionage and intrigue, Bill & Ted, Wayne & Garth, or C. Montgomery Burns.

How can something honestly be called “Excellent,” with a capital E, yet not contain a single one of these things? They might as well call it the Center of Mediocrity.2 At least that way, they won’t be getting anyone’s hopes up... and, if they succeed, they’ll look like geniuses!

Well, not like real geniuses. Real geniuses would have monkey butlers.3


1 Translation: ...to help figure out how we can use things like Facebook, Twitter, and blogs to get young people interested in a stodgy old insurance and financial services company. Like that’ll happen.
2 The center of “mediocrity” is, fittingly, the OC.
3 And lasers.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Deer-Spangled Banner

For at least the past week and a half, my company’s flag has been at half-mast. This isn’t altogether unexpected, since Veteran’s Day was last week. However, during this same period of time, the American flag next to it has flown at three-quarters mast. I’m not quite sure what sort of message management is trying to convey.

Of course, that didn’t stop me from coming up with a few possibilities:

  • It could be translated as: “We care more deeply about our veterans than the United States of America does.” And sure, my company recently came in at #67 on the list of the top Military-Friendly Companies for 2010, but that’s kind of the wrong way to go about touting that fact.
  • Perhaps they’re saying: “we’re weighed down by the $3.4 billion in TARP Funds we accepted” or “we’re slow to recover from a downturn,” though I have trouble believing that after its tumultuous past year, my company still trusts the old maxim “any publicity is good publicity.”
  • Or, maybe all they’re trying to say is: “We’re too busy looking at the big picture to sweat the small stuff.”

Of course, you’re probably thinking it’s obvious: my company hired an imbecile to take care of the flags. I won’t argue that, but I will point out that the meaning is exactly the same as that third bullet point.

And maybe they don’t sweat the small stuff. How else could you explain the design of our bicentennial logo? Back in May, we started replacing the logo on all of our websites and printed materials1 with a redesigned logo containing the slogan “Trusted 200 Years.” This is all fine and dandy, except that back in May the company had only existed for 199 years, and we were in the midst of a recession, so no one had really trusted us much during the previous eight months.

I understand the reasoning behind it. This way, we gets to celebrate the company’s bicentennial (and hype it in the media) for two whole years. Also, “Trusted 200 Years” rolls off the tongue much more smoothly than “Trusted Almost 198½ Years.” After all, compared to the big picture of two centuries, what’s one or two measly little years?

Don’t sweat the small stuff... we have a legal team for that.


1 Yet not on our buildings, or on our more-half-masty-than-Old-Glory flag.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Stopping for a Nanosecond

Well, we’ve reached the mid-point of NaNoWriMo, and with over 3,000 words under my belt,1 I decided to take a break today and celebrate the other NaNoRhyMo (National Novel Rhyming Month), for which, I believe, I am the lone participant. So far, I have a dozen entries to share, all written using... wait for it... NaNo meter2:

The itsy-bitsy spider went up the water spout.
Down came the rain and washed the spider out.
But now the little spider is in a foul mood,
Since while she was stuck swimming, some pig was killed for food.

Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn;
The sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn.
The pigs in the farmhouse are plotting our doom.
Four legs are nice, but not better than two.

Mary read a little Lamb
And turned as white as snow,
For although Christ himself was pure,
His buddy Biff? Fuck, no.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With tender care and Colin there,
But don’t let his dad know.

Little Jack Horner sat in the corner
Eating a Christmas pie.
‘Twas taken away, and he lost that day’s pay,
But three ghosts set his boss straight that night.

Jack, be nimble.
Jack, be quick.
Jack, kill whores and escape that dick*.

* Dick = detective. I know I’m the one who mentioned whores, but c’mon, people! Get your mind out of the gutter!

A tisket, a tasket,
A golem in a casket.
Young Sam and Joe wrote comic books
Till DC blew a gasket.

It’s raining, it’s pouring,
The old man’s imploring,
“Let the kid fish! No better dish
Than marlin in the morning.”

Star light, star bright,
First time on a space flight.
Towel and salt don’t ease Dent’s plight;
Earth is gone, which just ain’t right.

Hey diddle-diddle, we thought and cared little
Before our Spring Break on the moon.
Then our feeds went dead and it screwed with our heads,
None of us saw our world would end soon.

There once was a man from Nantucket
Who knew not where tickets were stuck at.
He looked high and low,
Far and wide, to and fro,
But the last was found by Charlie Bucket.

In South Central Maine I was born and raised
At the Barrens where I spent most of my days,
Running, and hiding, being bullied by fools,
Sometimes constructing a dam when not at school,
When this one creepy clown who was up to no good
Started killing children in my neighborhood.
There was but one little death and we all got scared;
Instead of Pennywise we should’ve made a date with Linda Blair.



1 I actually keep them inside my computer.
2 For those of you hoping to find Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner among these selections (and no, I’m not apologizing for that punderful title), I must remind you that it’s actually a poem. Thus, it’ll have to remain here, in the footnote:
Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.
Red sky at night, albatross in flight.

"Dog" License

On my way to work Friday morning, I stopped behind an SUV with a vanity license plate. The plate was the type proud pet owners might purchase: The slogan “Caring for Pets” sat in small letters at the bottom, accompanied by an illustration of a dog and cat posing with a red croquet ball on the left. Typically, the center is reserved for the name of the beloved pet, such as Fluffy or Mitzy or Eugene. For this license plate, however, the owner had chosen three letters that most people wouldn’t consider to be a name:

G I R

Only then did I see the two decals, one plastered onto the license plate itself, the other onto the bumper next to it. The first depicted their “dog” in a state of elation; the other showed the same little guy screaming. Upon seeing this, I spent the next ten minutes in my own state of elation, rattling off quotes to myself in the car. Rarely does something make my day before 8:30am even rolls around.

Now, I know some of you are probably confused, wondering how a dog could scream, or why such a thing would bring me such joy (or, for that matter, why I put the word “dog” in quotation marks up above), and that’s a horrendous shame. For instance, if I asked the floor to make me a sammich, or announced that I wanted a barrel of flies and two balls of glue to be my friends, you might have me fitted for a straightjacket.1 But the explanation is really quite simple: GIR is not actually a dog. He is a robot from another planet that wears a costume to blend in here on Earth. And frankly, I’m disappointed that you didn’t know this already.

If you are indeed one of the poor confused saps I’m talking about, this next part is of the utmost importance: You must stop whatever you are doing this very moment — and yes, I mean stop reading this blog mid-sentence — and go watch the first few discs of Invader Zim, or else you will continue to live a sad, baseless existence and never find true enlightenme—why in the name of The Tallest are you still reading this? Didn’t I tell you to go watch the show? Go on! Go!

Now where was I? Oh yeah. I also want a chair made of a cheese, and a table made of cheese, and…


1 Or, maybe you’ve already done that long ago. I probably shouldn’t assume.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Glowsticks 1, NaNoWriMo 0

Yesterday was Day 7 of NaNoWriMo. It was only my third day of writing this month, but that’s beside the point. What matters is that I surpassed 2,000 words and completed a chapter, which for me to do in three days is pretty impressive.

I knew from the start I’d never reach 50,000 words — I write too slowly and edit too frequently for that to happen — but at this rate the only way I’ll even reach 20,000 is by filling page after page with:

All work and no play make Nate a dull boy.
All work and no play make Nate a dull boy.
All work and no play make Nate a dull boy.1

Anyway, to celebrate such a monumental achievement, today I spent the afternoon uploading images of glowsticks to Flickr.

I present to you: Glowstick Mania!


Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, I should get back to my novel. After all, all play and no work make Nate stay unpublished.


1 Actually, that’s not a bad idea... if I write that line 4,800 times, I’m done!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The V in November

Ten years before the Wachowski brothers turned V for Vendetta into a major motion picture, I could easily recite what would become the film’s opening lines:
Remember, remember the fifth of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot.
Something something something something
Should ever be forgot.
On this date in 1605, Guy Fawkes and his motley band of Catholic conspirators planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament1 while King James I and his motley band of (mostly) Protestant nobles and aristocrats were inside. Alerted by an anonymous note to a Catholic noble warning him to stay away that night, palace guards searched the cellars and caught Fawkes as he was leaving. Only then did they discover dozens of barrels of gunpowder hidden beneath piles of firewood and coal. Throughout the city, people lit bonfires to commemorate the King’s escape from assassination, a tradition which has since evolved into fireworks and the burning of effigies.

Prior to Guy Fawkes Day children would request a “penny for the guy” to raise funds for the fireworks, although this practice has diminished in recent years, likely in an attempt to avoid the incendiary combination of children and explosives. Thus endeth the history lesson.2

So, where did I learn all this? My 12th grade English teacher, Mr. Ludlow. Through this story of treachery, he found a way to impart a little British history and connect with his students at the same time. When he asked you for a “penny for the guy,” you didn’t give him anything that year. But the next year, and the next... Every year, former students sent him pennies as November 5 approached, each coin enclosed in an envelope and perhaps accompanied by a letter detailing college life or whatever the graduate was doing after high school. Mr. Ludlow would read the most noteworthy letters in class, introducing his Guy Fawkes tradition to a whole new group of students.

I wrote a letter the first year, and only mailed pennies perhaps two years more, but I’ve never never forgotten the fifth of November. Maybe it’s time I look up Mr. Ludlow, long since retired, and restart the tradition by sending him a penny. Not by mail; that’s so last century. But perhaps he has PayPal...


1 I mean, of course, the British Houses of Parliament (for it is in London that our scene lies).
2 By the way, the word “guy” is derived from Guy Fawkes’s name. Therefore, Sloth owes much of his popularity (“Hey you guys!”) to a failed 17th-century assassination plot. Thus endeth the etymology lesson.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Happy Flickrween!

National Novel Writing Month is, as the name states, all about writing. So, to celebrate the first day of NaNoWriMo, I spent the afternoon editing photos from last week’s Halloween party and uploading them to Flickr.1


These images from Halloween ’09 are the first I’ve uploaded to Flickr, but with thousands more to sort through on my computer — and numerous upcoming photo opportunities throughout the holiday season — others will surely follow. Though I may post about them if they’re interesting enough, I’ll also keep a link to my Flickr Photostream over in the right-hand column for easy access.

As for the writing thing, there are still 29 days left in November. I’ll get started on that tomorrow.

Probably.


1 What, you expect all my procrastination to be productive? You don’t know me very well.