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Archive for September, 2011

The Usage Swamp

woman writingMy editor hates the phrase “stand up.” She’s also not crazy about “sit down.” In both cases she cuts “up” and “down,” I guess because she considers them unnecessary. Since I know she’s going to cut them, I’ve tried not to use them when I write, having my characters stand and sit without supplying the direction. But I have to admit I find it very difficult.

Also unnecessary. I’ve checked every usage guide I own, from the ridiculous (Strunk and White) to the sublime (Webster’s Dictionary of Usage), and I can’t find any rule regarding the use of “stand up” or “sit down.” Bottom line: apparently, it’s not a mistake, it’s a preference.

That’s typical of the whole mess that is language use, or “usage” for short among us English teachers (and copy editors). Rules for punctuation and spelling are pretty reliable, not that these things don’t change, but they change so slowly that it’s possible to keep up with them. Usage, on the other hand, is the most fluid part of language. It includes things like flammable versus inflammable or hopefully used to mean we hope so. It’s also the part of language that causes the greatest and most vicious controversy. Most of the pop writing guides from people like Edwin Newman are directed in part toward usage, and a lot of them sound like the authors are holding the door closed against the onslaught of barbarians.

But the problem is that it’s very difficult to stop language change. In fact, it’s pretty much impossible. Which means railing against it is a waste of energy, but that isn’t going to stop anybody from doing it anyway. Face it—you’ve got your own sore spots, right? For years as an English teacher I fought a losing battle against because of the fact that and reason is because. I still hate these phrases, but I don’t kid myself that they’re going to disappear any time soon.

So back to sit down and stand up. What am I going to do about it? Nothing. Back when I was a copyeditor, I worked for an editor who refused to accept dove as a past tense for dive (it was an underwater photography magazine, so that word came up a lot). Now I could show her lots of usage guides that would have assured her that dove was, in fact, perfectly acceptable. But it wouldn’t have made any difference. She didn’t want the word used, and that was that. Similarly, Ruth Reichl talks about fighting with the New York Times over using the word lit—the Times insisted that the past tense of light is lighted, and that was that.

If you get caught in a usage war, my feeling is that it’s best to just let it go.  Except of course for shined. Geez Louise, don’t people realize the right word is shone? I tell ya, sometimes I think the English language is headed straight to the dogs.

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The Boring Serial Killer

I was watching a rerun of CSI with the hubs the other night. Well, I started watching it, but I got too annoyed to go on with the episode about halfway through. It was the climax of last season’s serial killer plot, with Bill Irwin being a maniacal genius. In the end, the whole thing just made me tired.

Here’s the deal folks—I am so sick of genius serial killers that sometimes I want to do a little serial killing myself, aimed at writers and directors who think this is a good plot.

We all know where this started, right? Silence Of the Lambs. Now I’m the first to admit that SOTL is a great movie. In fact, it’s one of the few movies that’s actually better than the book it was based on IMHO. Hannibal Lector is a marvelous character and Anthony Hopkins did a marvelous job with him (and then proceeded to play him again and again in at least half of the movies he made after that). But here’s the thing—he’s a character. He’s not reality. If you look at most real serial killers, they’re not geniuses. They’re nut cases who mostly managed to evade capture by moving around a lot and killing perfect strangers.

That’s part of the problem with the whole “genius serial killer” thing. The other part of it is the way the police are inevitably portrayed in the serial killer plot—basically, they’re morons. The killer lays elaborate traps for them that they always trip into. The killer sends them taunting notes that contain clues they’re too clueless to unravel. The killer, in other words, is the puppeteer, while the police dangle on his strings.

Now you could talk about how unrealistic this plot is, but I’d prefer to talk about how clichéd it is. I’m so tired of killers who are wacky enough to go around killing strangers for kicks, but brilliant enough to make the whole thing into some kind of grotesque grand guignol. The only surprises in this plot involve the gruesome things the killer does to his victims.

Of course, some books do buck this trend. Jane Haddam’s Glass Houses, for example, features a serial killer who really isn’t one and who gets away with it for a while because of a bureaucratic screw-up. Haddam’s detective, Gregor Demarkian, is a former serial-killer-hunting FBI agent, and Haddam is even more scathing in her dismissal of the whole “genius serial killer” cliché than I am.

And that’s the point here: the serial killer plot has become so clichéd that it’s almost impossible to do it with any kind of originality any more. Every serial killer becomes another Hannibal Lector clone, and who wants to see that?

So here’s a suggestion. If you’re writing a thriller, how about not making the villain a serial killer? How about giving him a motive for a change—money, sex, revenge, and self-protection all work nicely. Yeah, it’s harder to create a plot that involves motive than somebody with a degree in particle physics and a guillotine in his basement, but trust me, a lot of us will thank you.

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What’s In a Name?

woman writingSo I see from the Sports page that Colt McCoy, former quarterback for the UT Longhorns, has a brother named Case who is the current quarterback for the Longhorns. I mention this only because the McCoys are the only men I’ve ever run into who actually have names that sound like romance heroes.

Think about it—how many times in real life have you run into guys named Colt or Cade or Lex or Jax or, well, just about any romance hero you can name? I don’t know about you, but the closest I come is my nephew Cody, and even that’s a more common name than, say, Mikal. Most of the guys I know fall into the Bill/Bob/Dave/Harry/Tony nexus. But even the slightly more exotic names like Josh or Ben or Mark don’t show up in romance as often as Nate or Chance or Cade or Seth or Wade.

I’m as guilty as anybody in this—my Toleffson heroes are named Cal, Pete, Lars, and Erik. Of the four, only the name Pete has shown up regularly in my experience. I named the hero of Brand New Me after Steve Earle’s song “Tom Ames’ Prayer,” so his name was a little more run-of-the-mill. But the hero of my newest, Don’t Forget Me, is Nando Avrogado, not exactly your guy on the street.

Why do we do this? I think part of it is to create the sort of fairytale atmosphere you find in most romance novels—these aren’t normal people and this isn’t a normal situation. But it’s also a kind of instant characterization. A guy named Chance has a head start on being a romantic hero, simply because he’s not someone you’d run into in your daily errands. And, of course, we’re not alone in this. Tennessee Williams has heroes named Chance, Val, Brick, Kilroy, and Shannon. If you need an indicator that these plays don’t take place next door, the names alone should be enough.

So why don’t we run into these wildly romantic names in real life, given the number of women who read romance and might name their sons after their favorite heroes? I think probably because they’re a little too wildly romantic. If you name your son Chance, you’re putting a heavy burden on his shoulders (not to mention setting him up to be the punch line in several dozen bad jokes). It’s going to be hard for him to settle for being an accountant or an insurance agent. So most of us give our kids names that are a little more anchored in reality. But we still love the romance heroes who don’t sound anchored there at all.

So my hat’s off to the McCoys. Not only did the parents give their sons names that sound like they should be Pony Express riders or sheriffs in Deadwood, but they raised two boys who lived up to all the implications those names involve. After all, quarterback for the University of Texas is nothing to sneeze at. However, if you decide to name your own son Colt, I suggest you might want to give him a middle name like George. After all, he might need someplace to retreat if he decides he really wants to live in the suburbs with a wife, two kids, and a golden retriever.

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Switching Genres

booksRecently Kim Wright wrote a blog post about the movement of literary fiction writers into genre: http://www.themillions.com/2011/09/why-are-so-many-literary-writers-shifting-into-genre.html. It seems that the valiant lit fic types can no longer make a living writing about despair among the suburbs, thanks to the current publishing climate, and so they’re heading over to the genre slums to supplement their incomes.

Those of us who live in these genre slums can demonstrate that we’re big girls and boys by not sneering at the new kids, but it’s a little hard to do. After all, we’ve had so many years of being sneered at ourselves that it’s really tempting to get a little of our own back.

There are a couple of things I find interesting about this idea, however. The first is the genres that the lit fic types are heading for. First and foremost is mystery fiction, not surprisingly. Mysteries have always been closer to respectable than some other genres. Writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett have rated serious literary study, showing up in college literature courses. And writers like P.D. James have world views that are as dour as anybody writing lit fic these days.

After mysteries, these writers are turning to science fiction and fantasy, and again those are genres that have long attracted lit fic types who feel like slumming. And currently horror fiction is up there as a genre of choice as well.

Which leaves romance. You’ll notice that none of the genre-switching lit fic types is trying to write a romance novel (and no, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies doesn’t count). I wish I could say that’s because these writers don’t feel they could do romance justice, but in fact I suspect that it’s because romance is still too low-class for them. After all, no matter how many times Nora hits the NYT bestseller list, she’s still not the subject of college courses in anything other than sociology (usually as an example of where neurotic women go to let out their frustrations).

The other thing that strikes me about all this is the confidence that once lit fic writers turn their attention to genre, they’ll get it absolutely right and be instantly successful. However, that’s an argument I’ve heard before, mainly from unsuccessful lit fic writers: in their opinion, those who write literary fiction can write anything better than the rest of us. That’s because they’re writers, you see. And, of course, we’re not. Yeah, that’s the sound of my grinding teeth you hear in the background.

Anyway, I guess I wish these people well. I know how hard it is to make a living as a writer, particularly when you’ve got a tweed habit to support. And who knows? After they’ve labored in our vineyards for a while, maybe they’ll develop an appreciation for what we do. Or maybe not. It’s tough to abandon the prejudices of a lifetime. As a former literature teacher now turned romance writer, I can tell you all about that.

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The Great Unpubbed

Woman writingThe Romance Writers of America, unique among writers organizations, allows unpublished writers the same membership privileges that it gives to published authors (other organizations, like the Mystery Writers of America, have a tiered membership system). The idea behind this policy, apparently, is to encourage aspiring writers to join a professional organization in order to have access to tools that would help them to hone their craft and eventually become published. However, one unanticipated result of this policy has been that the organization now has more unpublished members than published ones.

This wouldn’t be a problem, particularly, if those unpublished members all aspired to be published. If that were the case, they would be open to workshops, craft-oriented meetings, and critique groups. And, of course, many unpublished authors are involved in all these things. But surveys have indicated that other unpublished RWA members are perfectly happy to be unpublished. They have no particular aspirations toward publication, and, in fact, little interest in what it takes to make the leap from unpubbed to pubbed (RWA uses the euphemism “not career-focused”).

The problem here can be summed up in a simple question: is your RWA chapter a professional organization or a social group? The former is made up of people who are interested in the ins and outs of publishing, ways of making their work better, ideas for marketing and self-promotion. The latter is made up of those who want to hear from authors about their latest books and who want to talk to other members about what’s going on in their lives. But they don’t necessarily want to do much with their own writing careers.

Why is this a problem? It doesn’t have to be. However, sometimes those goals clash. For example, I heard one horror story of a “not career-focused” RWA member who scored a meeting with an editor at a national convention—as it turned out, she didn’t want to talk about her work (she didn’t really have anything anyway). She just wanted to tell the editor how much she liked her publishing house and some of the authors she worked with. Apparently, it never occurred to her that she was taking a spot away from a writer who really wanted to pitch her work to the editor.

I have nothing against social groups, necessarily, but as someone who moved from unpublished to published in part because of the advice and guidance I received from my RWA chapter, I’d say the needs and goals of the two groups are quite different.

The journey toward publication isn’t easy, as most of us can attest. It’s full of detours, disappointments, and occasional shots at glory. It also requires a lot of work, not all of it pleasant. I can understand why some writers decide to skip the whole thing, but I’m not sure they should be in charge of a professional group that’s at least nominally focused on the tough road.

The most obvious answer to this problem is for RWA to adopt a two-tiered membership system like other writers’ groups. The organization already has what’s called PRO status for members who have submitted manuscripts to publishers. Anyone who falls into that category can be safely considered “career-focused.” With tiered membership, the non-career focused would be in a separate category. But that solution is probably not going to fly with the current membership, given that more of the members are unpublished than published.

Giving the members what they want may change radically if most of those members aren’t really interested in publishing as a goal. Beyond potential problems in focus, there are also implications for RWA’s tax status, none of them good. It’s too bad RWA hasn’t focused on this problem before, but believe me, they’re focusing on it now.

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