What I Did Yesterday

I didn’t post yesterday because I was upgrading my operating system.

I’d picked up the Windows 8 upgrade at the good-until-31-January sale price, which — unlike the regular list price for a Microsoft product — was low enough that I didn’t have to angst and ponder over making the purchase.  I was originally planning to hold off on installing the upgrade until I’d finished all the work on the current novel, but reader, I caved.

Maybe it was my prophylactic efforts at backing up everything in sight before I started, and there’s always the chance that some lurking time bomb will explode and splatter my files all to hell and gone, but so far it appears that the Windows 7 to Windows 8 upgrade process is the fastest and cleanest (and least data-destructive) of any I’ve seen yet.  And I started with Windows 3.1, so that’s been a lot of upgrades.

To Hyphenate or Not to Hyphenate

…that is the question.

English isn’t quite as fond of togetherstuck wordpairs as some languages, but it still comes close to loving them not wisely, but too well.  Creating new words by compounding old ones is one of the main ways English expands its vocabulary (the other being outright piracy.)  What this means for the writer is that at any given moment there are a number of English terms sitting uneasily on the hyphenated/unhyphenated fence.

The usual progression, in modern written English, goes from two separate words to a pair of hyphenated words to a single word:

hand held becomes hand-held becomes handheld
stand alone becomes stand-alone becomes standalone
hand book becomes hand-book becomes handbook

Handbook is a fascinating case.  It started out in Old English as handboc, translating the Latin (liber) manualis — a book of a size to be held in the hand (as opposed to a honking great codex.)  The word was replaced in Middle English by its snootier French equivalent, the Latin-derived manual, and manual remained the word of choice until the early 1800s, when hand book (or hand-book or handbook) was reintroduced by word lovers who wanted to return English to the purity of its Anglo-Saxon roots.  The move was opposed, of course, by other word lovers, who regarded handbook as an ugly and unnecessary upstart, but the new (old) word caught on anyhow, and now we have handbook and manual both in our vocabulary as terms for more or less the same thing.

(A slight shade of difference does remain, however.  Consider:  given a Handbook of Emergency Procedures and a Manual of Emergency Procedures, which of the two books is more likely to fit into the pocket of a pair of cargo pants?)

So which spelling should you, as a writer, use?  For those terms where there is a settled version, go with that one unless you have a firmly held preference for doing it the other way and are prepared to defend it.  For the terms where the hyphenation issue is still in flux, pick the one you prefer and be consistent with it.  Otherwise your longsuffering (long-suffering?) copyeditor will end up counting all your uses of standalone versus stand-alone in order to figure out which one you’ve used the most — and cursing your name all the way.

Another example of the hyphenization process in compound words. Most spell-checkers (spellcheckers?) will give a choice of copy editor or copy-editor, but all the practitioners of that trade whom I’ve had the good fortune to know have spelled it copyeditor.

Caffeine: A True Story

Once upon a time there was a writer (who bore an uncanny resemblance to the owner of this blog) who was pulling an all-nighter in an effort to finish a book.

She started out in the morning of the day before, drinking hot tea with milk and sugar — a soothing and respectable brew, one that stiffens the sinews for the work ahead.  I can’t be certain, but I think the tea was English Breakfast.                                     .

She worked through the morning and into the afternoon, and at some point in the process she switched to coffee — no sugar, but plenty of cream — and kept on going.  I don’t know what she made for dinner that night, but it was probably something simple and mindless, because her brain was deep into that writing space where the internal world has at least as much reality as the external one, and things like complex recipes are beyond it at such times.

And she kept on writing, throughout the afternoon and on into the evening.

At some time around midnight she switched to instant hot chocolate made up using strong black coffee as the liquid — a truly deadly brew, but a potent one.  Fueled by several cups of the coffee-and-chocolate mix, she finished the first draft of the novel, then collapsed into bed at 4AM, weeping with exhaustion and the conviction that the book in question was utterly hopeless.

(It wasn’t.  But it would take a cast-iron ego to believe that, at 4AM on a caffeine jag.)

I’m not sure that there’s a moral to this story, other than “Caffeine necessary; too much caffeine bad,” or maybe “Writers on a deadline have been known to do silly things.”

An Underutilized Plot Resource

The story is never about the middle kid.  The eldest gets to be the heir, or sometimes the lost heir, or occasionally the bully or the man in charge or the villainous oppressor (or the mimetic-realism equivalents of the above.)  The youngest is the bold one who goes out into the world to find his fortune, or the virtuous and kindly one who wins while the older siblings are undone by their own unpleasantness, or sometimes the mysteriously adopted foundling or the one with special powers.

But nobody ever tells a story about the middle kid.

This is a law of storytelling that could, under the right circumstances, be profitably broken.  But it would take work.  A novel of mimetic realism would want to make itself into a family problem novel about the angst and trials of being a middle kid; a fantasy novel would want to deliberately subvert the archetype.  Novels in other genres would want to handle the problem by thrusting the protagonist’s family so far into the background that he might as well have sprung fully-formed from the brow of the CIA, or the USMC, or the NYPD, or the faculty of Harvard Law.

The last-named case moves us over into “action heroes don’t have families” territory — which is a profoundly unrealistic motif.  But nobody wants to think about the noir-story LA private eye with his trench coat and his fedora and his world-weary outlook going back home to Toledo, Ohio, for Thanksgiving, where he spends a long weekend not as the owner and sole operative of AAA Investigations Incorporated, but as Joey the middle kid who gets ribbed by his siblings for showing up looking like a poser on TV and whose mother wants to know if he’s met any nice girls yet out there in California.  After four days of this, murder and palm trees and brutal cops and corrupt city officials start looking really good.

Writing an ordinary family with no more than the normal amount of inter-sibling and parent-child conflict can be hard work.  It’s no wonder, really, that so many writers resort to making their protagonists orphans, or to giving them dysfunctional families that they don’t talk to any more.  But it does leave a lot of open territory out there, just waiting to be explored.

In Honor of the Season…

… a recipe for The World’s Easiest Cranberry Sauce.

1 bag fresh cranberries

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

Put cranberries into a small-to-medium-sized saucepan.  Take a moment to make certain there isn’t a twig or a pebble in there by mistake.  (I’ve never encountered one, but everybody says to check, so somebody must have, at least once.)

Add the water and the sugar.  Stir to combine.  It’s probably a good idea to use a wooden spoon, because you’re going to want to stir the mixture some while it’s cooking, and it’s going to get hot.

Put the saucepan on the stove and turn the burner up to high.  Bring the cranberries-water-and-sugar mixture to a furious boil, stirring every now and again.  Keep on boiling it until the cranberries have all popped.

Remove from heat and pour the sauce into a bowl or tureen or what-have-you, so long as what you have isn’t going to melt from the heat.  Put the saucepan in the sink and run some water into it, so that you don’t end up having to remove the cold solidified remnants with a chisel later.  Remember to turn off the stove.

Serve the sauce with turkey, or with pancakes, or with whatever seems good to you.  It’s good warm or cold, either way, and will keep for a day or so in the refrigerator.

Some people fancy this up with lemon peel or other seasonings, but simple is easier and works just fine.

Christmas Eve

To all of you who celebrate — have a Merry Christmas tomorrow!

And to all of you who celebrate other holidays, or no holidays at all — have the very best of non-occasions, with good fellowship or solitude as you prefer, and as much of good food and good drink as you deem appropriate to the day, and good weather and safe travel wherever you may go.

Character Types to Avoid

While you’re stocking your plot with characters (or, if you work the other way around, while you’re assembling the cast of characters who will generate your plot), there are some types you want to steer clear of because they will  lose reader sympathy — not just for themselves, but for any characters who happen to be standing too close to them.

One is The Annoyingly Perfect Character.  This character is good at everything, and is always on the right side of any issue — no matter what the normal side may be for his time and place.  Dogs always like him.  He can drive a stick shift without ever stalling at a busy intersection.  He can cook an intimate dinner for two and not have the kitchen stacked full of unwashed pots and pans at the end of the evening.  If the character is female, she can do all of these things and run a Fortune 500 company without ever chipping her fingernail polish.

Another is The Character Who Wins All the Arguments.  This usually happens because he or she is also The Character Who Agrees With The Author.  Readers get annoyed by this one in a hurry, especially when they start thinking that the author is deliberately setting the character up with debate partners who aren’t exactly the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree.  (Yes, Robert A. Heinlein, I’m looking at you.)  If you’re going to be writing a debate, remember that even the wrong side is likely to have one or two good arguments going for them — be fair, and let them have those two measly points before your highly principled hero crushes them under the weight of a dozen stronger ones.

And a third is The Character Who Can’t Get a Break.  This is the guy (or gal) for whom the line “if it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all” might have been written.  If he has a job, he will lose it.  If he gets a job, it will be in a sweatshop, or a soul-destroying cubicle farm, or a seething office morass of backstabbing and bureaucratic corruption.   His significant other will cheat on him; or, if faithful, will contract a lingering and expensive malady that will cause him to turn to a life of incompetent crime in order to afford the treatments.  He will leave his only umbrella on the bus.  The reader will begin to suspect that the author hates this character, and will secretly despise the character for putting up with such unfair treatment.

Don’t write these characters.  Your readers will be grateful for it.

Gentlewriters, Start Your Engines

It’s the 20th of December 2012, which means it’s time for a reminder that applications for Viable Paradise XVII open up on 1 January 2013.  Guidelines and further details can be found at the VP web page.

Viable Paradise is a one-week workshop focusing on fantasy and science fiction, held annually in the autumn on the New England island of Martha’s Vineyard.  A couple of pictures, below the fold:

Continue reading “Gentlewriters, Start Your Engines”

Funny. Scary. Hot.

That’s humor, horror, and erotica for you, right there.  Three genres where the success or failure of the project depends upon the effect it has on the reader.  Humor that doesn’t make you laugh, horror that doesn’t make you afraid, and erotica that doesn’t turn you on — they’re all failures.  And given that what amuses, scares, or turns on an individual reader varies widely from one specimen of the human race to another, it’s pretty much inevitable that a piece of writing in one of these genres is going to fail at least part of the time — and it’s no wonder that writers in those genres have a tendency to go quietly nuts.

(Or sometimes, not so quietly.  There have been some spectacular author meltdowns, especially in the horror and humor fields.)