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Whistle While You Work

Men at work by hugovk, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  hugovk 

In my two experiences with Weekend Warrior — the contest on Codex Writers where participants are given prompts for five weeks and have approximately 54 hours to write a 750-word flash piece inspired by one of the prompts — I’ve received a good bit of very terse feedback, one particular recurring phrase of which I had taken to be a negative, because I honestly had no idea what it meant, but it sounded bad. Weekend Warrior critiques are just a few words, with no space or time for in-depth commentary.

<digression> From a reader’s perspective, it may sound like I’m completely obsessed with Weekend Warrior and with critiques and that I spend all my waking time dwelling on it. I don’t. This blog is about writing, so if something occurs to me that clarifies my writing or reading patterns, I may write about it. But there are many other things that occupy my time, and I have spent no more time dwelling on Weekend Warrior or the critiques therefrom than any of you have spent worrying about whether Kim Kardashian . . . uh, I have nowhere to go after that, because I couldn’t care less. But that’s my point. I go weeks without thinking about it, and then a little whisper in the recesses of my frontal lobe surfaces: “‘Workmanlike language’: what does that even mean?” So bear with me, and please don’t go away with the impression that I’m obsessed. :) Now, back to my blog post, already in progress.</digression>

So, the other day, I saw the same phrase used on some forum . . . and it was quite obviously a compliment. So I asked a friend of mine, Terra LeMay, who recently acquired an agent for her novel and for whom I could not be more excited, “What does ‘workmanlike language’ mean to you?” I explained in what contexts I’d heard it.

Her answer not only surprised me, but has given me quite a bit of insight to my own writing and why I inexplicably don’t like some stories / books that are otherwise well-written.

‘Workmanlike language’ basically means that the words that tell the story don’t stand out. Don’t draw attention to themselves. There are no turns of phrase that make you stop reading and say, “Wow! That was beautiful!” and then read it again and again, with the words rolling off your (figurative or literal) tongue. In other words, to quote William Shakespeare out of context, “The play’s the thing.” (Actually, quoting Shakespeare, here, who is quite well-known for his beautiful, often lyrical and surprising turns of phrase was probably not a good choice. Nevertheless, I’m going to go with it.). The words stay out of the way, letting the story — the millieu, ideas, characters, and events — be the star.

And it dawned on me: this is not a negative remark (although it’s possible some people might have meant it that way): it’s positive, for me.

Because this is what I strive to do. It is also what I look for in the things I read.

My feeling about writing and reading is that if you’re paying attention to the words, you’re not giving enough attention to what they’re saying. My characters don’t enunciate with mellifluous melismatic ease . . . they talk. Or perhaps speak.

Now, I can look back on some very good books that . . . I’ve just been kind of ‘meh’ about. Because, as Gloria Estéfan might say, “the words get in the way.”

I like some of them in spite of the flowery language (and I don’t mean ‘flowery’ as an insult, much in the same way that ‘workmanlike’ is not an insult now that I know what it means) because they have the other elements that I want in equal measure. So I can read a novel or story with flowery, expressive language that draws attention to itself, but as long as the story itself holds my interest, I’m fine. I might even pause over a particularly well-put-together sentence and marvel at it and wish I’d written it.

A recent example is Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, which I read as part of a reading group I belong to. Most everyone else seemed to like it, but it just left me high and dry. They were all talking about the beautiful, poetic language while I was saying, “All the absurd stuff lost me.”1 I was focusing on the story; they were focusing on the language, and the stuff behind the language.

It also dawns on me as I type this blog post that this very issue is probably the problem I have with most poetry. In poetry, the words are key, and the beautiful turn of phrase is the point.

Since we’re already talking about Shakespeare, compare these two side-by-side excerpts from Hamlet, Act III, scene 1, in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are telling Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Ophelia about their encounter with Hamlet:

GUILDENSTERN
Nor do we find him forward to be sounded
But with a crafty madness keeps aloof
When we would bring him on to some confession
Of his true state.
“And he’s not exactly eager to be interrogated. He’s very sly and dances around our questions when we try to get him to talk about how he feels,” Guildenstern said.
GERTRUDE
                    Did he receive you well?
“Did he treat you well when you saw him?” asked Gertrude.

[Note: Text on left is public domain. The modern English explication on the right is taken from the No Fear Shakespeare website and used entirely without permission, but I’m pretty sure it falls under fair use. I merely added the quotes and attribution, like you’d see in dialogue in a novel.]

Shakespeare’s original language is beautiful. It’s in iambic pentameter, it rhymes, and each word is carefully chosen to convey meaning and still remain faithful to the form. The right-hand text is ‘workmanlike prose.’ It’s more like what I would write in a story, and far closer to what I would rather read. The meaning is conveyed, but while I might quote Shakespeare, I will only remember the meaning conveyed by the words on the right.

Of course, certain caveats apply here: Shakespeare was writing a play in a strict form requiring rhyme and meter and a certain flair for a turn of phase. He even made words up when existing ones didn’t suffice. But if I were reading a modern adaptation of Hamlet in the form of a novel, I would expect to see language much more consistent with what’s on the right. Because people actually speak that way. The words and their arrangement don’t obfuscate what is being said. The prose form doesn’t require that normal sentence structure be subverted to fit a rhyme or meter.

So I guess what I’m trying to get around to saying2 is this: each individual writer (and reader) uses language that not only makes them comfortable, but excites them and is appropriate for the work itself.

And for me, that is often “workmanlike language.” :)


  1. The very point at which it lost me was when his wife came to visit him in prison and brought all the household belongings, members of her family, the cat, etc, and spent the entire time talking to everyone but him, as he basically cowered in his crowded cell speaking to no one. I did get that there were a number of metaphors and a lot of symbolism going on, but it was at that point that I just stopped caring and said, ‘This is too far out in Absurdland for me to even see the way home.’
  2. I often have a point, and I sometimes actually get around to making it. :)

25

It’s Autumn. Probably.

Red and green berries and leaves

Red berries

We didn’t have what I’d call a “summer” here in Atlanta. “Summer,” here, means sweltering, muggy days of 95° to 105° F coupled with 90% humidity or higher. Walking outside is akin to taking a sauna in a kiln.

Birds pant. It’s not attractive.

This summer, the mercury barely peeked over 90°. Usually it was in the 80s. Temperatures in the evening were in the 70s or even in the 60s. It’s been oddly pleasant even while elsewhere in the country, summer with its heat and humidity reigned.

And now, autumn is either coming or it’s already here. I’m not 100% sure which it is, yet. I don’t have any pecan trees, so it’s hard to know for sure.

My maternal grandmother, LaVerne Branch — Nanny — always said that the pecan trees knew. They knew when it was really autumn, and it wasn’t autumn until they reddened and started losing leaves. And in the spring, it wasn’t really spring until they began to green.

So in the absence of any pecan trees (and I pronounce it ‘pe KAHN’ to rhyme with ‘begone’ and not ‘PEE can,’ in spite of every southern stereotype in the history of ever), I guess I’ll just have to be content to say, “It’s autumn. Probably.”

And in honor of the change of the seasons (probably), I give you this haiku, inspired by the image at the top of this post.

crystalline frost limns;
deadly poison concentrates.
crimson berries, ripe.

That being said, I have no idea if those berries pictured are poisonous. We were told to write a haiku inspired by the image. The first thing I thought was “pretty berries, but they’re probably poisonous.”

It hurt me to not capitalize, but read the ‘rules’ of the contest if you want to know why I didn’t. I’m not still <twitch> twitching, am I? <twitch> Good. I didn’t <twitch> think so.

Heh. It occurs to me that I could make this a science fiction haiku by making it venom instead of poison.


Write Tribe
10

Haikus for a Writing Prompt

Pine Needles After Rain 2 by timage, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  timage 

Wednesday’s prompt on WriteTribe is to write a proper haiku. Many thanks to Ruchira Shukla for the succinct lesson. In brief, an English-language haiku should have 17 syllables in three lines with the pattern 5 / 7 / 5, it should mention or make reference to a season (kigo), and should have a juxtaposition. A juxtaposition is where one of the lines is grammatically separate from the other two. This last one is harder than it sounds.

Further, we were asked to make ‘rain’ the kigo, as it is currently the rainy season in India, where WriteTribe is based. Not to mention here in Atlanta, where it has rained almost every day for several weeks, it seems.

But rain means so many things to me. Rain has different personalities. There’s the light rain that falls straight down, leaving dry patches under everything. There’s the driving sheets of rain that stop traffic. There’s horizontal rain that hits windows with the force of pebbles and make you check your roof for leaks. There’s spitting rain that’s not really worth getting out an umbrella for, but it will leave you just as wet. So I did not constrain myself to just one haiku. So there.

Here are my six ‘rain’ haiku. Note that I chose to actually avoid the word ‘rain’ and instead obliquely refer to it, as it was one of the techniques mentioned by the page at WriteTribe. I’m also sure I didn’t accomplish a juxtaposition in at least three of them. Maybe.

Cicadas droning.
Thundershower’s pitter-pat.
Soothing susurrus.
Low, grey, dreary skies.
Children laugh with abandon.
Puddles for splashing.
   
Musty petrichor.
Pine needles, diamond laden.
Above, a rainbow.
Sunny and stormy:
The devil’s beating his wife.
No mowing today!
   
Some big, some little:
Muddy footprints on the floor.
Mud’s not just for kids.
Torrential downpour.
Weather loved only by ducks.
And I, with my book.

I should also note that ‘diamond’ in my particular dialect (i.e., Southern English) is two syllables, not three. So there are not eight syllables in the second haiku down in the first column. :)


Write Tribe
4

When Ideas Attack! (Next on Fox!)

The Idea

The Idea

It never fails. When I really really should be doing something else, that’s when ideas come to me.

Alternatively, they come to me when I can least do anything about them, like while I’m in the shower or driving. Luckily, keeping a notepad and pencil in the shower (hey, don’t judge me) and a digital voice recorder in the car have solved those particular problems.

Today, I need to finish something else up. But I keep getting side tracked by this little voice in my head.

Every year, I participate in NaNoWriMo, which if you do a little looking around on this site, you’ll find several references to. The goal during National Novel Writing Month is to write a complete novel of 50,000+ words in just the 30 days of November. You can plan and plot and world-build and character-develop all you want before that; but the entirety of the words of the novel itself must be composed between midnight of November 1st and midnight of December 1st.

Last year, I ripped NaNoWriMo a new one, to put it indelicately. I wrote 78,000 words, then went on to write another 15,000 words or so to get my time travel novel (Killing Time) done.

But this year, I have four unfinished novels, dammit. I don’t need to start another one. But I want to participate. And yeah, I could use the month to concentrate on finishing one of the unfinished novels, but…well, I don’t want to. I think part of the fun of NaNoWriMo is the thrill of writing something new.

For the last month or so on the podcasts Escape Pod, PodCastle, and PseudoPod, they have run promos for a series of 34 stories co-written by four well-known authors (Tim Pratt, Jenn Reese, Heather Shaw, and Greg van Eekhout) that are collectively called “The Alphabet Quartet.” Each story title starts with a different letter of the alphabet.

You may be wondering two things right now. One: Why are there 34 stories if there are only 26 letters in the English alphabet? Two: What do all these disparate, seemingly unrelated facts have to do with the price of tallow in Ecuador? I’ll take those in order.

One: There are 34 because although there were originally 26, some of them were published elsewhere, and the magazine that agreed to publish them (Daily Science Fiction) wanted original works, so the quartet wrote brand new ones to replace the ones that had already been published elsewhere. But those of us who contribute to one of the three Escape Artists podcasts (listed above) get all 34. Because we’re special.

Two: I’m about to tie it all together. Stand back. Watch me.

I’ve been trying to come up with some ideas lately for shorter works that I can play with. Stuff that doesn’t require a bunch of world-building, character development, and plotting. When I heard about the Alphabet Quartet, my brain seized on the idea of writing 26 stories, each one beginning with a different letter of the alphabet. It was a cute idea. I filed it away.

A day or two later, a rhyme from Sesame Street long past (which was also featured in the film E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial) popped into my head: “A is for Apple. B is for Ball. C is for Cat that sits on the wall.”1 It played over and over in my head.

Eventually, I put the ideas together. To wit: I should write 26 short stories, each beginning with a different letter of the alphabet, but the titles themselves should make a little doggerel rhyme of that sort.

I jotted down a few ideas in Evernote. I tried to come up with single-word titles beginning with each of the 26 letters of the alphabet in such a way that each three-letter combination formed a ‘stanza.’ But the words had to be evocative; that is, they have to conjure up several ideas. They have to give me a spark. And I have to be able to rhyme the final word of the third line of each stanza with the second title. Think that sounds easy? I’m not a poet. :)

Oh, here. This will explain it better than I’m doing.

A is for Apothecary,
B is for Bard;
C is for Clowns that creep through the yard.

D is for Dragon,
E is for Earth;
F is for Forgetting what some things are worth.

G is for Graveside,
H is for Him;
I is for Innocence wrapped up in sin.

J is for Justice,
K is for Kiss;
L is for Lightning: a strike or a miss.

etc. You get the idea.

The third line of each stanza will give a clue to what that letter’s story should be about. And I’m not saying that these are by any means the final choices. Each alphabet word gives me a number of ideas. I especially like “C is for Clown” and “U is for Uranus.” Those are the two for which more or less complete story ideas popped instantly into my head.

So, the idea that came to me while I was trying to do something else—which then inspired me to write this post, which further keeps me from that something else—is that if I write 26 stories of about 2000 words each (on average), that’s more than enough words to win NaNoWriMo, and it gives me a finished “work,” even if it’s not a novel.

Now, if you remove the four days of holiday at the end of November (where we here in the US celebrate Thanksgiving)…well, golly! That equals 26, doesn’t it?

I think this sounds suspiciously like my brain done went and ambushed me with a plan! :)


  1. The irony of this is that I can find no reference of this anywhere on the Internet. I distinctly remember it, yet I’m probably wrong. It would be amusing in the extreme if my misfiring memory of something that never existed sparked this idea. When I get home, I’ll see if I can find ET and watch that sequence to see what it actually says. The one screen capture I saw online shows Drew Barrymore standing in front of a TV on which is displayed “B is for Banjo,” and it is on a wall.

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An Anti-Valentine’s Day Poem

©2009 by Zen Sutherland

"Stabbed Heart" © 2009 by Zen Sutherland

The Quillians, my writing group that meets each Monday on Second Life, were given a challenge by the group leader/moderator last week.

“Just for fun, and for those of you battling writer’s blockages of various sorts: Write an ANTI-Valentine’s Day poem (that is, not a typical romantic poem). Any length, any style. Have it ready to share at our Feb 14th meeting!

Have fun!”

Well, I ask you: how could I pass that up?

Now, there’s a reason I don’t usually write poetry…

The first thing I thought was, “Valentine’s Day. Love. What are some of the clichés about love that I can think of to parody?” I asked a friend to help me think of a few, and we came up with “can’t live without the other person,” “my other half,” “consumed by love,” “love is blind,” and “you stole my heart,” among others.

Then I thought about the format the poem would have to take. Well, Shakespeare wrote one of the most enduring ones, and it was a sonnet. And would therefore have to be in iambic pentameter, 14 lines long, and with a very strict rhyming scheme.

I could do that.

For several days I’ve been working on it. I now share with you my anti-Valentine’s Day sonnet “Mine eyes were ne’er to roving so inclined.” (In keeping with Shakespeare, the title is just the first line.)


Mine eyes were ne’er to roving so inclined,
But each contingency you sought to cull.
You quoth to me, “’Tis said that love is blind,”
Then left two empty sockets in my skull.

My love, you stole my heart away from me!
Our lives together destined to be blessed.
My lonely heart, you vowed to set it free,
And left a gaping wound within my chest.

Consumed by love I said was my desire,
Our souls entwined forever; two as one.
You tossed my lifeless corpse into a fire,
And then consumed my flesh upon a bun.

My death turned you into a necrovore,
And now we’ll be as one forevermore.


Did…I mention that there’s a reason I don’t normally write poetry? :)

Keep in mind that this is intended to be funny. It’s also written for a Fantasy and Science Fiction audience. And the sing-song rhythm is intentional and is intended to mimic the sound of a beating heart. Lub-DUB. Lub-DUB. Lub-DUB… (You know…an iamb?)

So…yeah. Happy Valentine’s Day to all of you from all of me. :)

Other entries from the same challenge: Nancy S.M. Waldman

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