Monthly Archives: July 2014

Things Writers Need – Dictionaries


In this next installment, it’s time to talk about more tools of the trade.

Last time, of course, I talked about the word processor, and why I like small, minimal ones instead of monolithic, fully-featured ones — for the drafting process, at least. Today, another staple: the dictionary.

Every writer should own a dictionary.  Scratch that — every writer should own a Dictionary, capital letters and italics included and necessary.  There’s a gargantuan difference between a Dictionary and a dictionary, and I’m not just talking about the price point.  Of course, there are alternatives.  To effectively draw a distinction, we need to consider what you’re using a dictionary for. To my mind, there are basically two functions that the dictionary should serve for you.

One, the dictionary needs to let you find and define words that you don’t already know the meaning of.  (Yeah, I just ended a sentence with a preposition.  SOMETIMES IT’S OKAY, OKAY?  Would you rather have read “words whose meaning you don’t already know” or “words of which the meaning you do not know” or the thing I wrote?  YEAH I THOUGHT SO.)  If you’re reading age-appropriate literature, odds are there will be a tasty handful of these little gems sprinkled in there.  Why?  Because variety is the spice of life, and you can only read the word “good” or “fast” or “slow” so many times before you want to pluck your eyes from their sockets and puree them into a gristly soup so that you don’t have to read those boring words any more.  Good writers avoid having their readers puree their eyeballs by using a broad swathe of words so that you don’t get bored to the point where eye-pureeing seems like a good idea.  That means that they will, by necessity, exhaust the canon of “ordinary” words that the average person lives with in his average life and strike out for the far reaches of the unknown, where words have four or five or six syllables (multisyllabical words, oh my!) and the sad fact is that a lot of us just don’t know all those highfalutin’ words well enough to use them in our everyday speech or writing, if at all.  And I say that with full confidence in my vocabulary as an English teacher.  I know my vocabulary sucks.  Sorry, it’s atrocious.

I read once that the English language is composed of something like three hundred thousand adjectives, which is more than 850% of the total words in the language.  Statistics are always true.  The point is there are more words in the language than you have room in your brain for, and a good storyteller will push your limits by throwing some of those words in there.  Sure, you can figure them out on context a lot of the time, but isn’t it satisfying to look up a fancy word so that you know it and can then toss it offhandedly into your water cooler conversation like a foppy prince tossing a bag of change at a servant?  “That episode of The Walking Dead was so guttaperchic, man.  I mean, positively seminiferous.”  See, if you knew those words, you’d know that at least one of those statements is absolute nonsense. The other reason (and it flows from the first, really) you need a solid Dictionary is to help you discover new words to use in your own writing.  Think of it this way.  Electricians have tools.  Carpenters have tools.  Missile building geniuses have tools (right John?).  Hell, even a Comcast Service Technician has a truck full of tools.  What do all those tools do?  Well, unless you have a lifetime of experience running wires or building vestibules or being a totally worthless appendage of a company best likened to the Sarlaac — sorry, a Comcast Service Technician — you don’t know!  Sure, you can guess that the clippy-looking-thingy might be used to, I dunno, cut things, or that the pointy-bit-on-the-end-of-a-steel-doodad could be used to poke holes in things, but when it comes to poking the proper holes in the proper things in the proper place, you’re as educated as a Comcast Service Technician.  (Truthfully, CST’s I’ve had experience with have all been pretty decent human beings, even if they work for the most unholy corporation in the known universe, a corporation that now apparently has religious freedom, so HAVE FUN WORSHIPPING THE BLACK MAW.  Thanks, Supreme Court!)

Ahem.  Writers have a job just like carpenters and electricians and rocket scientists and… no, we’ll leave the Comcast Service Techs out of this one.  Unlike those, you know, technically-abled sorts, we don’t have trucks or toolboxes or closets to keep our tools in, because our only tools are words.  A good, solid dictionary is the best tool repository you can hope for, and on a per-word basis, even an expensive dictionary is the equivalent of getting a 5,000-piece drill-bit and screwdriver-attachment set for $19.99.  You wouldn’t set out to build an addition onto your house with just a manual screwdriver and a hammer. All that said, let’s look at your options.

Online Resources.  Here’s your web-based dictionaries, i.e., Merriam-webster.com, dictionary.com, or whatever website floats your boat.  And don’t get me wrong, these are AWESOME, but they come up short in that “discoverability” factor in the same way that Amazon doesn’t quite measure up to a good old fashioned bookstore with actual walls and shelves and books and snooty clerks.  With an online dictionary, you can only find the words that you’re looking for.  Now, that’s a great feature — albeit one you can accomplish with an old-fashioned dictionary in the absence of a working internet connection, and for those write-at-the-edge-of-society-so-as-to-commune-with-nature types, that’s a monstrous plus.  Sure, these sites will highlight words from time to time and post “words of the day” and other fun stuff, and again, those are GREAT.  But you miss the tactile feel and sense of wandering among corridors and pages of words that a hard copy brings. By the way, just for poops, I scrolled down on the Merriam-Webster site and found a list of the top 10 most searched words in the last week.  They are:

  1. bestiality
  2. bigot
  3. pedantic
  4. et al
  5. biweekly
  6. comradery
  7. holistic
  8. sex
  9. culture
  10. closed-minded

And I think that says JUST A LITTLE BIT about the insane perverted prudish idiotic political culture that we live in.

Cheap, dollar-store dictionaries and pocket dictionaries.  This is a step backwards from online resources, because there is not nearly enough depth or breadth in these.  I saw one in a dollar store once that was literally one hundred pages long.  That was boasted on its cover.  How many words can you cover in one hundred pages?  Not enough.  The really tasty words just aren’t going to be in there, and even the definitions are condensed and crap, like a microwave dinner.  These are useful until about the time you finish high school, assuming you’re not particularly interested in expanding your horizons beyond high school.

Abridged dictionaries.  Now we’re getting somewhere.  If a dollar-store dictionary is a microwave dinner, an abridged edition is a meal-in-a-box.  You don’t feel as dirty using it as you would if you just tossed your food — THE FOOD THAT YOU EAT TO SUSTAIN YOUR LIFE — in the microwave for its entire cooking process, but you know in your heart that you can do better than boiling water to dump the noodles in or preheating the oven to 350 and then cooking for an hour.  The definitions are better and you get a lot more depth and breadth and you start seeing some of those juicy words, but you’re still only dredging the shallows.

Dictionaries.  Here I’m talking about books that might be better classified as bricks.  This book is probably hardcover, because a paperback won’t stand up to being cracked open and laid bare along its spine the way a hardback will, not to mention that there are SO MANY PAGES a paperback wouldn’t even support them.  This is a book whose presence on your shelf demands notice, like an elbowy mafia fatman squirreling for space in an elevator.  It uses that ultra-thin paper like bibles use because the printing costs would be astronomical if it used standard paper; that paper that feels like it would dissolve in direct sunlight, that paper that makes you feel like you need the steady hands you developed from years of playing Operation just to turn the pages without crinkling them.  And ooh, that smell.  Smells like knowledge.  Crack this book open and you can just taste that delicious aroma of every word that’s ever been thought of crashing through your olfactory nerve and wrecking your frontal cortex with the pungent stank of knowledge.  Thumb through the book, put your finger down on any random page and discover words like isogamete and nasturtium and teetotalism (which actually means the OPPOSITE of what I thought it means, in fact I didn’t even think teetotal was a word until just now, I always thought it was “T-total”, like “capital T Total”, in other words COMPLETELY MOTHERTRUCKING TOTAL, but it DOESN’T.  The more you know!).  Add them to your daily lexicon and impress your friends (or, more likely, earn yourself a few raised eyebrows and punches in the mouth).

I’m not making any secret what my preference is.  At the moment I’m flipping through the weathered pages of a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, a book bound in beautiful royal blue and weighing in like a bowling ball.  This book could classify as a home defense system if you could get a good swing with it.  And it’s not even a “big” dictionary.  To my mind, if you’re writing in any arena beyond high school, you owe it to yourself to have a hefty hardbacked capital-D Dictionary handy.  One that’s heavy with wordstuffs, so heavy you need a packmule to carry it around.  Thumb through it from time to time.  Make it into a drinking game — one shot for every word that features a schwa.  But more importantly, use it to GROW YOUR LANGUAGE-FU.

What else do writers need?  What else do people think writers need?  Am I wrong about dictionaries?  Let me hear it.

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“Keep Running, Faggot!”


Short one tonight.

Most of the time when I run, it’s either in the dark of the wee hours or it’s off the beaten path away from traffic.  Today, however, I went for an evening run in the vicinity of the main drag near my house.  Why an evening run?  Well, I missed the chance to go this morning, but more and more in my life of late I am realizing that momentum matters, so I didn’t want to just let it slide, so after the sprout went down to sleep, I laced up.

It was hot out, but the sun was down and a breeze was blowing through courtesy of the cold front that’s on its way in, so it was all pretty pleasant.  And then I hit the little side street by the post office where the sidewalk disappears for about a thousand feet.  I was alternating between the curb and the runaway grass when I heard a honking horn and a brash male voice shouting at me (from the opposite side of the road, let the record show), “Keep running, faggot!”

Not that it matters, and certainly not to generalize where generalizing would be inappropriate, but he was driving a big ol’ truck, probably to match his enormous manhood.

I have to say, I’m perplexed.

First of all, I know that for all the “progress” we’re making in the world, there are still people out there that have no truck with forward thinking and want to stay racist and homophobic and idiotic and drunk all the time.  But it’s a little saddening to me to learn firsthand that we still live in a world where an idiot feels just fine — probably righteously justified or even compelled — to lean out the window and shout at me for no other reason than that he thought he knew something about me.

Second, I really don’t know what he was implying.  Was he implying that there was something I was already running from  and should continue to flee?  His own indignant and puny and inwardly terrified hate speech, for example?  Or was he in a weird and twisted way trying to offer encouragement (keep going!  You got this!) and then forgot himself and added the homophobic epithet at the end?

Third, I cannot for the life of me think what he hoped to gain by his shout.  A momentary chuckle and boost in the eyes of his paleolithic social circle?  That superior feeling you get from watching over-made-up faux-celebrities pull each others’ hair in a flurry of bleeped language on reality TV (well, at least my life isn’t THAT crazy)?  More likely, he just wanted me to feel like an idiot.  I have news for you.  I already know.  You don’t go running during the waking hours in Georgia in the summertime if you don’t have at least one or two screws loose.  Or maybe he wanted to hurt my feelings.  But sticks and stones and all that.  All I really felt, ultimately, was sorry for him.

I know this is a biiiig stretch and a helluva long way to walk, but I wonder if this is an inkling of what women must feel when guys (is it ever anything other than idiotic, small-minded guys?) catcall them for running or in fact for just being a woman in public.  I’m not saying I know how it feels, but I’m saying maybe I can empathize a little bit.  For just a moment — I mean a brief, fleeting, lightning-strike of a passing moment — I felt hurt.  Not because he’d struck at the depths of my soul with his comment, but because it was just so egregiously disrespectful.  Then after that, I felt sad, because for one reason or another, this walking (and driving!) bacterium has made it through his life without anybody telling him that that sharknado is totally out of line and uncalled for, regardless of whether it’s true.  Finally, I felt frustrated that this spineless sack had occupied as much of my thinking as he has, as evidenced by the fact that I took the trouble to write about this little interlude.  I’m sure I was out of his gadfly’s brain without a second thought moments after the encounter, but he stuck with me, and I wonder if that doesn’t make me at least a little bit of the idiot in this tale.

Is there anything more cowardly than the drive-by shouting?


Five Stories, One Title


Chuck’s challenge this week:  A Story in Three Sentences.  Initially daunted by the task, I wracked my brain all weekend for the first of these stories and then, like a delicate flower, my consciousness opened and more stories started pouring out.  Enchanted with the concept, I just sort of ran with it, ending up finally with several variations on a theme.  I had a lot more fun than I thought I would with these; I’m quite proud of them.

Here, then, are Five (5!) Three-Sentence Stories that all share the same title.

Hope you enjoy!

 

Rejected, v. 1

Leonard trembled with rage as his fingers crumpled the latest rejection letter into a rumpled little teepee on his desk.  There was nothing further for it, he decided.  He loaded his mother’s pistol, telling himself again and again that those stuffed suits at McGillis would think twice before they turned down another of his novels.

 

Rejected, v. 2

Caroline sobbed into a fistful of the pages she had torn from the latest issue of Chic.  The magazine had been telling her for years that her nose was too broad, her thighs too wide, her cheeks too chubby, her hair the wrong shade of brown; from the looks on Darryl’s face during their blind date, he thought it all just the same.  Coroners the next morning ruled that the stabs and slashes all over Caroline’s body and face, originally deemed the work of a demented murderer, were self-inflicted.

 

Rejected, v. 3

“He’s not like us,” the lungs protested, as the liver, the kidneys, and the spleen listened, nodding in zealous agreement.  “He has to go,” the gallbladder burbled, peeking out from under the pancreas, “guys, you know what you have to do.”  The white blood cells did know what to do, and began their final assault against the transplanted, interloping heart.

 

Rejected, v. 4

“Not yet,” Carl thought, as he spit the dollar out once more.  It was a perfectly good dollar, of course, but he couldn’t help himself; elation flickered through him at the caress of her fingertips on his buttons, the enchanting pout on her face as she tsked in frustration, the rattle of his frame as she kicked him in what might have been his shins if he weren’t a vending machine.  He would reject her until the end of time if he could, and he buzzed in pleasure as she tried once more to buy a pack of Junior Mints.

 

Rejected, v. 5

All his life had been lived in a pile, from the pile of rocks in the depths of the earth, to the pile of his brethren in the miner’s pocket, to the delicate pile sitting on the jeweler’s desk in Ethiopia.  But the moment loomed before him now, the moment when he would leave piles behind and become the prized accoutrement on some grand lady’s dainty finger, or the dazzling accessory in a young songstress’s pouty, flaring nostril on a magazine cover.  “Imperfections,” the jeweler said simply, and tossed him into yet another pile of brothers as shattered as his dreams.


There Are Good Runs, and Then There Are Exceptional Runs


This summer has been a bit of a running renaissance for me.

I got my latest start in running a little over two years ago, flew a bit too close to the sun back in January, crashed and burned at the beginning of the year and have been clawing my way back, clutching at gnarled roots and jagged cliffsides ever since.  Today, I went for my first “relaxed” 10k run in more than a while, and I’m happy to say that I feel damn good afterward.  But it’s not the run I want to talk about.  Er, rather, it’s not the distance.

In trying to get myself out of the injured dumps, I’ve been running this summer with a mind toward becoming more complete: running more trails, especially, but also varying my workouts and working to stay healthy rather than just trying to spin the wheels on the odometer.  I think it’s paying off, but more importantly, I think I’m really getting to enjoy my runs again, rather than facing each one with the fear that the next step is going to injure me again and set me back for a couple months.

This morning found me on the Atlanta Beltline, a series of paved “trails” that wend through and around downtown Atlanta.  It’s been much-touted by colleagues of mine and runners I know in the area, but is one of those things I just hadn’t gotten around to doing (man, that’s a long list).  Mainly I’ve avoided it because it doesn’t jive with my minimalist philosophy of running to drive half an hour just to go on a leisurely run; I prefer to just step out the door and go.  But a facebook group of local runners scheduled the event for this morning; said group is composed of some folks I know from high school and some others I’ve not met yet, so it seemed a good time.

Just by the by, does anybody else have horrible luck when signing up for casual “events” on facebook?  I’ve tried this one or two other times and everybody seems to bail at the last minute.  You see where this is going.  I pull up to the meeting spot at five minutes til the start time and I see a big smiling crowd of zero people.  Yep, ten people signed up as “definitely going” and I was the only one.  Except for my pal from high school, J.  He hops out of his car and hits me with a warm grin and a hearty handshake and a “great to see you.”  We chat for a few minutes about how pitiful it is that nobody else has slogged their butts out of bed on a Saturday (seriously, what are you doing that you can’t get up at 5:45 to go for a run??), then, after allowing enough time for any reasonable latecomers to show up, we’re off.

We set an easy pace — J’s a lot faster than me, but he’s logged a lot of miles this week and wants to relax a bit, and I’m a bit jangly over attempting my first six-miler since a race I ran (and probably overran, to be honest) a month ago.  And my first six-miler ever in my Vibrams, for that matter.

A lot of people, when recounting their runs, like to give a breakdown of each mile, the highs and lows, the hills and the hurts, but that seems silly to me.  I could no more recount each moment of a good run — let alone a good long run — than recount every bite of my breakfast this morning, and it wouldn’t be good reading besides.  (Now, whether the alternative makes for good reading…)

First, a review of the trail.  The Beltline is a very long series of trails, I found out, but we ran a stretch of it from Piedmont Park East over to Ponce de Leon, then doubled back and took a tour of Piedmont Park.  The line is a very well kept, spacious jaunt through residential areas and commercial developments, under overpasses and through great sweeping vistas of the Atlanta skyline.  Nearly every overpass or concrete wall is adorned with the sort of tasteful graffiti that almost feels like an art exhibit.  And the line is so popular that it’s absolutely bursting with runners, bikers, walkers, rollerbladers.  We must have passed or been passed by a hundred people or more in our four miles on the line.  I’m sure that’s nothing new to regulars in the area, but for a guy like me who runs out in the burbs and, on a good day, glimpses maybe three or four other runners in my heavily trafficked zones (none at all otherwise), it was a welcome sight.  Made me feel less like a lunatic on an island and a little more like maybe a guy in a bodysuit at a convention.  Still not totally normal, but at least at home among the other freaks.

Then, the fact that I was running with a guy I’ve not spoken to in any meaningful capacity for oh, about fifteen years (please kill me).  We ruminated a bit about running, a bit about life, a lot about people and marriage and kids and pop music and only a little bit about work, with the kind of easy, unhurried conversation that would have been impossible to achieve otherwise.  You bump into somebody in line at the DMV or at the grocery store, and he’s got someplace he’d rather be, something he’d rather be doing, and he doesn’t want to waste time getting there and doing it.  You settle in for an easy six miles and you find there’s no need to rush things, you let the talk drift where it will.

To top it off, as we hit the turnaround and headed back for the trailhead, I look up and see my young Padawan cruising toward us.  This is a guy who saw me start running and lose thirty pounds two years ago, then took up running himself and has since lost in the neighborhood of one hundred pounds.  He now runs races about every other weekend and is a big contributor and participant with running groups in Atlanta.  Unfortunately, he lives on the opposite side of town from me, so we’ve never actually had a run together — and we didn’t today, because he was hustling along, late for a meeting with his running group.  Still, seeing him in action was just another shot of good vibes on an already good morning.

An hour passed faster than it had any right to.  The run finished, we headed back to our cars and agreed to try and meet up again soon.  I like to think it was the sort of agreement we’ll follow through on — it’s hard to lie and be phony after you’ve just run six miles — but whether we do or not, I’m thankful for the time we had today.  Running is one of those things that binds people together in ways that don’t even make sense a lot of the time, and it certainly brought J and me together today.  I’m one of those hippy-dippy people that thinks there is no such thing as a bad run; that every time you lace up you accomplish something.  But even if there are no bad runs, certainly some runs are better than others.

Today’s was exceptional.


Things Writers Need: Drafting Software


In this inaugural post of my Things Writers Need series, I want to take a look at the big daddy.  No sense doing a thing if you’re not going to take on the biggest parts of that thing, right?  So, I want to start with something every writer needs to make friends with:  The Word Processor.

I’m sure some out there will disagree with me, but I’m sorry, if you’re not writing on a computer at this point, you’re just being silly.   Now, before you jump down my beak and strangle me from inside, rest easy, I don’t think all writing needs to be done on a computer.  There is a time and place for writing with whatever’s to hand, and even in the best of situations, your computer or laptop doesn’t fall into that category.  That said, you can’t hope to punch out the word count you can get with a word processor using pen and paper.  A typewriter might come close, but seriously… who uses typewriters any more?  Honestly?  Are you just trying to make a statement?  “Oh, I’m so retro, technologeee ain’t for meeee!”  If you have a typewriter in your house or apartment or storage shed and it’s being used as anything other than a paperweight, you’re doing it wrong.  Don’t get me wrong.  There’s nothing wrong with typewriters.  At the time they were marvels of engineering, and many of them are positively bubbling over with delightfully adorable designs and sleek features.  They’re great to look at.  But if you’re using one to do any amount of actual Writing, you’re being pretentious.  Get with the times.

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