Pipe Dreams; or, the Someday List

Like (I suspect) most writers, I have a Someday List — “someday” here being short for “Who knows, it could happen, someday someone in Hollywood might decide that the stuffed and mounted outer skin of one of my novels might work as the basis for a movie, and decide to pay me money for it.”

My Someday List changes from month to month, if not from day to day, depending on what things I’m hungry for and what things I’m annoyed by and exactly how much Someday Money I’m daydreaming about at any given moment. (It’s a generally-accepted truth that what most starving freelancers regard as a life-changing sum is the equivalent of pocket change for a major movie studio, but sometimes I’d rather daydream about a quirky budget flick by an independent producer who might actually get part of the story right. Other times, I’m all about the money.)

Anyhow, someday:

  • I’m going to get this house repainted. In light brown, this time, with white trim, instead of the dark brown with what I think was meant to be ivory but which looks more like mustard that the previous owners preferred.
  • I’m going to replace the wooden steps leading up to the double doors that we don’t use. They were old when we moved in, and have rotted since.
  • I’m going to tear down the front porch and the steps leading to the kitchen door that we do use, and replace the whole thing with one of those solarium/mudroom deals.
  • I’m going to rip out all the old plumbing in the downstairs bathroom and put in new stuff that actually works.
  • I’m going to put in a new kitchen sink and kitchen counter and kitchen cabinets, and while I’m at it a built-in dishwasher. And a tile floor. Or at any rate, fresh linoleum.
  • And I’m going to put in oil heat. We’ve already got the ductwork for forced hot air, so a change like that might even be doable for a comparatively small amount of someday money.

In the meantime, we work, like most freelancers, from day to day.

More Nifty Internet Stuff

If a little learning is a dangerous thing, then a lot of learning is, well . . .  pretty damned neat, actually.

For example:  Gothic for goths.

Because, face it, what up-and-coming young goth — or anyone else, for that matter — wouldn’t want to know how to say, “My fancy new black underwear is chafing”?

(Sa feina niuja swarta undarklaiþs meina gneidiþ mik, in case you’re curious.)

God, I love the internet.

A Good Soup for a Snowy Night

Because dried vegetables from the kitchen cabinet and meat from the freezer have saved many a writer from having to go out shopping on a winter day, and they can be purchased when the money is flowing in and kept on hand for the days when it isn’t.

Pantry Staples Beef Barley Soup

  • 1 slice of cross-cut beef shank
  • 1 cup, more or less, of pearl barley
  • a bit under a quarter cup of dried onion flakes
  • a generous shaking of dried chopped garlic
  • a good handful of dried champignon mushrooms
  • a good handful of dried porcini mushrooms
  • a moderate sprinkling of mixed dried vegetables
  • 4 cups of water
  • 2 cups of beef stock
  • 1 packet of onion soup mix
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 pinches of dried rosemary
  • soy sauce (a couple of tablespoons, I suppose)
  • about a tablespoon of tomato paste

Throw it all into the crockpot at about 10 in the morning and let it cook all day.  At dinnertime, fish out and discard the shank bone, then bring the soup to the table and serve it forth.


What’s in a Name?

New writers often ask, “Do I need a pen name?”

The answer, usually, is “No.  Unless, of course, you do.”

What do I mean by that?  Let me unpack a bit.

There are several reasons why a writer might have a true need for a pseudonym, of which security is the biggest.  A writer who is engaged in saying things about powerful people and entities to which those people and entities might take exception, for example, may choose to write under cover of a nom de plume, as Jonathan Swift did when he wrote a series of political pamphlets about English fiscal policy in 18th-century Ireland under the pseudonym of “M. B. Drapier.”

Similarly, a writer whose regular employment involves working with or for people who might look askance at one of their employees having a commitment to something other than the job might use a pen name to keep the two lives separate.  Writers who work for the government, or for the military, also fall into this general category.

Then there are the writers who, for whatever reason, don’t want their friends, or family, or co-workers to know that they write — or sometimes, to know what they write.  Schoolteachers, for example, are expected to be as above reproach as Caesar’s wife — if you’re teaching eighth-grade English as your day job and writing steamy romance novels on the side, you probably don’t want the school board to catch on.  (Not even if half of them are devoted readers of your other persona’s literary output.  They’ll just ask for your autograph out of one side of their mouths and decline to renew your contract with the other.)

Sometimes the decision to use a pseudonym is driven by economic reasons.  An author whose previous output had a lackluster reception, or which fell prey to one or another of the assorted bad things that can happen to good books, may choose to start over under a pseudonym.   Opting for this course of action used to be a closely-guarded secret, rather like going into the Witness Protection Program, but readers are more savvy, usually, than publicists think, and the cats in those cases never stayed in the bag for long.  These days, the economy-driven pseudonyms are more about what the marketing types would call “establishing brand identity” — this is the pseudonym for the author’s YA work, and this is the sf/fantasy pseudonym, and that one over there is for mysteries and thrillers, but everybody knows that they’re all the same writer at the keyboard.

And finally, you get the writers who chose to write under a pseudonym because they don’t like the name their parents stuck them with, or they like their name just fine but know in their heart of hearts that nobody outside of their particular ethnic group is ever going to be able to pronounce it, let alone spell it right or shelve it correctly in the bookstore, or they prefer to draw a hard line between their writer-persona and their everyday-persona for some reason that is private and particular to them.

My parents were teachers. It didn’t leave me with a high regard for school boards or school administrators in general.

In the Deep Winter

This is the time of year and the kind of day when it’s hard for me to get anything done, where “anything” covers a lot of territory, from writing to cooking to taking the trash to the town dump.

It’s bitterly cold out — we’ve got another wind chill advisory up, which means that going out-of-doors without proper protective clothing is a life-threatening proposition — and distinctly chilly inside, and all I really want to do is huddle up next to the electric space heater in the office and try to think warm thoughts.

High summer is another hard time to get things done, but winter, I think, is worse . . . the heat only saps my physical energy, but the cold leaches away everything.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that I need to get to work and do some editing, at the very least, before I turn into a pumpkin for the night.

No exaggeration . . . in cold like this, a person living on one of the less-traveled roads could slip and fall on the ice on their way down the driveway to get the mail out of their mailbox, and die of hypothermia before anybody passed by who might see them and call for help.

The Perils of Lexicography

Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper of harm•less drudg•ery has an entertaining but pointed blog entry about dealing with the sort of people who take the dictionary as an authority on things for which it isn’t one.

Ten years ago, we added a second subsense to the noun “marriage” that covered uses of “marriage” that refer to same-sex unions. Someone eventually noticed.

Outrage! screamed about 4,000 emails, all flooding my inbox in the space of a week. How dare you tell us that gay marriage is okay now?

I was not surprised, honestly: I drafted a long, thoughtful reply about how words get into the dictionary, noting that this sense of “marriage” had been used by both proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage since at least 1921, and finishing with the caution that the dictionary merely serves to record our language as it is used. I spent the next two weeks doing nothing but sending this reply out to everyone and their mother.

But that wasn’t the line that made me laugh out loud at my computer. That line was this one:

As for the dictionary being a moral guide, it never was and it never should be. We enter the words “murder” and “headcheese” into the dictionary, but that shouldn’t be read as advocacy for trying either one of them.

Anyhow — go read the whole thing. It’s good.

Another Thing Not to Do

Don’t cut the ground out from under your own feet.

There are some words and phrases that, while they’re meant to intensify the meaning of a word or phrase, more often have the effect of weakening it.  Very is one such; instead of adding a stronger punch to whatever it modifies, it suggests instead that the writer didn’t think the idea was mportant enough to spend time finding a better word.

Rather and somewhat have a similar effect; they undercut what’s being said.

And then there’s seem.  Most of the time, seem is better avoided — also seemingly and apparently and appear to be.  Don’t shilly-shally; if something is hot, say that it’s hot, not that it seems to be hot.

(This brief bit of crankiness brought to you by the temperature outside, which is currently -20 F, and by the question, “How warm can you keep a two-story house with a full basement in deep snow country?”, to which the answer is, “Never quite warm enough.”)

Who Said What When How?

I said I was going to talk about dialogue attribution.  Right, then.

By “dialogue attribution” I mean those “he said” and “said John Doe” and (less fortunately) “he commented/answered/stated/retorted/other-verbed” tags that get applied to lines of dialogue so that the reader can tell who’s speaking.  And I have a few points to make about them, in my peevish way.

First, you don’t need nearly as many of them as you think you do.  If your dialogue is doing its job properly, you aren’t going to need to identify the speaker every time the talking-stick gets handed over, because your speakers will sound like individuals and not all like each other.  If you’ve got an extended stretch of two-person back-and-forth, you can throw in an attribution every few lines just to keep things anchored; and if you’ve got a multi-person conference you’ll need to identify people as they jump into the discussion, and as often as necessary to keep your reader up to speed; but even in those cases, you don’t have to tag every single line of dialogue.

(How often is enough?  How often is too many?  Sadly, I have to tell you that you need to play it by ear — and if you haven’t got an ear for it yet, you’ll need to work on developing one.)

Second, you don’t need to get fancy with your verbs when you’re tagging dialogue.  When in doubt, remember that it’s hard to go wrong with a plain vanilla said.  Beyond that, you mostly want volume indicators — shouted, whispered, murmured, muttered.  (And for the love of Mike, don’t have your characters hiss things that don’t have an s– sound in them!)  Anything more than that comes perilously close to over-writing, and sometimes crosses the line.

And third, you don’t have to place the tag at the end of the line of dialogue every time.  You can put it in front:  Joe said, “It’s time.”  Or you can break up the block of dialogue and put the tag in the middle.  “It’s time,” Joe said.  “Let’s get going.”  In fact, if Joe doesn’t just have a couple of sentences of dialogue, but an entire paragraph’s worth of inspiring speechifying or careful instruction or closely-reasoned argument, don’t undercut its effect by slapping down a Joe said at the end of it with a dull and leaden thud.  Break up the block of dialogue early on to slip in the tag, then let the rest of the speech roll on to its effective climax.

“That’s it, then,” she said.  “We’re done for the night.”

Where I Was; Where I Am

I was at the Arisia science fiction convention in Boston, land — at the moment — of a myriad hand sanitizer dispensers.  It remains to be seen whether or not I’ve escaped catching the flu, or some lesser variety of con crud.  (Bring people from all over the country, and sometimes the world, into one hotel for a long weekend, and a lot of people are going to go back home with new and exotic colds and other viruses.)

Now I’m back in far northern New England, watching the thermometer drop and still chasing my Zeno’ s tortoise of a novel denouement.

Tomorrow, maybe, I’ll have some cranky and intemperate things to say about dialogue attribution tags and their deployment.  But not tonight.