Tag Archives: writers

Metaphor Monday: Carpet Conundrum


The new house has these great wood floors in it. They’re lovely — dark and smooth and soothing. A real upgrade over the carpet we had in the old house, if you like that sort of thing — and, as it turns out, we do.

There’s a problem with them, though. If you have similar floors in your house, probably you already know what I’m about to say: they are a bear to keep clean. With the little kids and the pets running around, our floors get (and pretty much stay) filthy.

It’s all manner of stuff. Crumbs. Dust. Pet dander. Hair. Little pieces of paper. Tiny gobs of this slime stuff the kids are playing with lately (god I hate toy manufacturers). Cat claws. Grass clippings and dirt from the yard. Dried-out bits of Play-Doh (god I hate toy manufacturers). Toenail clippings. Laundry lint. Scraps of candy wrappers. More crumbs.

Yesterday, I swear, we opened the back door and the little breeze stirred up a tiny cyclone of detritus. A tumbleweed rolled through the kitchen. And I’m thinking to myself: “I just swept yesterday!”

Turns out that, though we love the look of the wood over the comfort of the carpet, the carpet was comforting in other ways too: it hid the disgustingness of our existence from us. But now, if we don’t clean it up every day or two, that dust is gonna show out, and there’s no hiding it from anybody.

But here’s the rub: in the old house, with the carpets, sure — we could go a week or so without vacuuming. Most likely, nobody would notice — sometimes, not even we would notice. (“When’s the last time we vacuumed?” “I dunno, March?”) But that doesn’t mean that the gross stuff wasn’t there. It was just disguised. Camouflaged. Trapped in the fibers underfoot. Out of sight and out of mind.

Which seems like where you want it — out of sight — until you consider that the longer it lurks there, the more it piles up. And every step kicks that stuff up into the air, into every room in the house, into your lungs. Where it lurks and festers and crystallizes and congeals into gunk that’s got you coughing and sneezing and feeling cruddy year-round and you don’t even know why.

Not so good after all.

When it’s out on the hardwood, we can see it, so we can clean it — as unpleasant and tedious as that may be — before it has the chance to pile up and do damage. So the floors might look dirtier than ever, but on balance, I know that in reality, they’re cleaner than we’ve had in years.

So I wonder:

How much crap is hiding in the carpet in my headspace?

Well, a lot. Probably an unconquerable mountain of it, if I’m honest. These are troubling times we live in, and unfortunately, a lot of the feelings and thoughts and shock and awe and disgust and sorrow and anger and regret … all of that stuff gets swept under the carpet. Mass shootings. Bigotry out in the open. Injustice and indifference to the common man (and woman). Death and destruction and general bad behavior everywhere you look. (And that’s just the past weekend in Trump’s America.) To say nothing of the everyday stuff in my own neighborhood. Work. Parenting. Neverending effing yard work.

All of it piles up, and unfortunately, it’s got nowhere to go. So it just gets pushed around. Pushed out of sight and … well, in this case, decidedly NOT out of mind. It just sits there, grinding itself deeper into the fibers, suffocating the productive thoughts I want to have and making the air unpalatable for the new thoughts I haven’t had yet. Which probably explains the drought I’m in — have been in — during this terrible, awful, no good, very bad year.

And while I usually like to take a positive tack here in these posts, I’m not sure where it is in this instance. I don’t know how to rip up the carpet inside my own head.

It sure does seem like I could use some hardwood up there. Even if it’s a pain in the butt.

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Mutual Back-Scratching


Regulars around here will know that I take part in weekly flash fiction challenges over at Chuck Wendig’s blog. These are a lot of fun in their own right, but occasionally he switches things up and gives us the chance to co-op a little bit. Last week we were tasked with creating an interesting character, and this week we’re using those characters created by other authors in short stories of our own.

Well, I crafted a sketch of a shape-changing individual last week, and that character was picked up and run with by Kira Jessup, in a story she called “Shifters.” It’s pretty cool. Also, she’s Australian. Check it out!


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.


The Howler Monkey of Doubt


It’s a widely-held aphorism amongst creative types that we tend to be our own worst critics. This is doubly true.

In the first sense, we are our own worst critics in that I am certainly not aware of anybody out there who judges my own work more harshly than I do myself.  I’ll grant, my audience is virtually nonexistent at this point, but I am constantly naggled at by a vicious little voice in the back of my mind: “That thing you just wrote is stupid!”  “You should have used more commas there!”  “You should use less commas there!”  That OTHER thing you just wrote there is stupid!”  “They’re all gonna laugh at you!”  I’d say that one of the greatest barriers to my progress on the Project has been getting that little howler monkey to shut the fargo up.  Problem is, he never shuts up.  Much like the Id-Writer, who is always screeching from the damp cellar he gets locked in, “WRITE ABOUT THIS AND ADD MORE METAPHORS AND MAYBE MAKE A COMPARISON TO JESUS OR AN INFINITELY-LEGGED OCTOPUS OR I DUNNO WRITE ABOUT COOKIES,” the best I can do to overcome the ever-present, ever-negative voice of writer’s doubt is to tune it out for a while.  That doesn’t mean it shuts up.  That means that, like the muzak in an elevator, or like the phantasmal infinitely-legged octopus floating just out of my line of sight, I tune it out and attempt to live my life. 

In the second sense, we are our own worst critics in that we are TERRIBLE JUDGES OF OUR OWN WORK.  Perhaps I shouldn’t speak for other creative types; I imagine it’s easy for a Stephen King, for example, to discern whether the pages he’s written today are utter tripe or not. Personally, I have no idea.  I wrote 1300 words today, and haberdashery, I think they’re pretty good.  There are parts in there that suck, but I enjoyed them while I was writing them.  Some of the metaphors in there are pretty darn clever, I think, but who knows, maybe you’d read them and find them inane.  I really have no idea.  I just vomit up my word-slurry (slurry has been my word of the week) and hope that when I finish writing it, I can edit it up into something that will eventually pass as entertaining and not awful to the masses.  (Let’s be optimistic, right?)

It’s a weird place, being a writer.  I sit here, banging my fingers against this poor defenseless keyboard which has never done me any wrong (the tablet keyboard is another story, I want to murder the built-in tablet keyboard in the face), pouring the better part of an hour most days into telling a story (which I’m not sure is any good) to an audience (which I’m not sure I will even have) in a way that will hopefully be funny and poignant (which I’m not even sure I’m capable of).  It’s a quagmire of uncertainty, a web of doubt, a forest of what-ifs. And it’s daunting as haberdashery.  On the daily, I am daunted.  Always, always, always, the howler monkey of self-doubt chitters away at me.  It flings its tiny little balls of doubt-poop at the wall, it leaves the peels of its doubt-bananas on the floor for me to slip on (doubt bananas?  Really?  YES.)  Whatever form it takes, the message is the same. 

You’re not good enough.  Quit.  Writing is hard.  It would be so easy to quit.  Just quit.  QUIT.

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No thank you, howler monkey of doubt.  Not today.


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