A Poet Passes

Seamus Heaney has died.

He was Ireland’s first Nobel-laureate poet since W. B. Yeats, but I — being a medievalist at heart, rather than a modernist — remember him with gratitude for his translation of Beowulf, which did so much to bring new readers to a work I’ve always loved.

For every reader, I think, there are some books that aren’t just books, they’re part of the permanent furniture of the reader’s mind; Beowulf was one of those for me.  I liked the brightly colored world of Middle English poetry well enough, but the sepia monochrome of the northern thing, with its occasional smear of red and flash of gold, was the landscape that I really loved.  It always disappointed me when modern readers would see it only as a primitive tale of monster-fighting — almost as much as it would disappoint me when critics failed to appreciate the monster-fights as much as they should have.  (Those are some damn fine monster-fights.)  Heaney’s translation may not have been scrupulously accurate; no poetic translation is ever going to be, and only a silly person would use a poetic translation as a crib sheet.  But it did much to convey the mood and the feel of the work, and showed the reading public why Beowulf is a major work of world literature and not just an interesting historical artifact.

And for that, as I said, I am grateful.

A recording of Heaney reading from his translations at the opening of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists Conference, at University College Dublin.

More Simple Cookery for the Deadlined and Overworked

The only difficult part of this recipe isn’t actually difficult at all, just a bit fiddly — if cutting up a whole head of cabbage into thin strips and turning three or four carrots into matchsticks takes more time or attention than you have at the moment, save it for another day.

Pork and Cabbage Stir-Fry

1 head of cabbage, cut into strips
3 T peanut oil, give or take
2 or 3 carrots, cut into matchsticks
1-2 pounds pork tenderloin, cut in thin slices
2 tablespoons minced ginger
1 cup chicken broth, divided (3/4 and 1/4)
1/4 cup soy sauce
shot of sriracha


In a large wok (or a deep skillet, or a dutch oven; but a wok works best), stir-fry the cabbage and carrots in hot oil for about 6 minutes, until the carrots are crisp-tender. Remove and keep warm.

Stir-fry the pork in the remaining oil for 2 minutes — add a bit more oil if you need to. Add the ginger and stir-fry for 2 more minutes or until the pork is lightly browned. (“Lightly browned” pork is actually a kind of pale grey.  What they actually mean is, “no pink showing.”  Thin slices of tenderloin reach this stage quickly.)

Stir in the 3/4 cup of chicken broth and the soy sauce. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat; cover and simmer for 3 minutes or until the meat juices run clear.  Combine the cornstarch and the remaining broth until smooth. Gradually stir into the wok.

Return the cabbage and carrots to the wok.  Add a squirt of sriracha.  (If you don’t have a source of sriracha where you are, I have a suspicion that a healthy shot of Tabasco, while non-canonical, would have a similar effect.)  Bring everything to a boil; cook and stir for 2-3 more minutes or until the sauce is thickened.

Serve over rice.

Not All Here

If things are a bit scattered around here at the moment, it’s because of the traditional end-of-summer flailing-about attendant upon getting the remaining offspring out of the house and off to school — one to graduate school at Rutgers (library science) and the other to his senior year at Curry College.

It only seems, sometimes, that we’ve been putting kids through college for roughly forever; in fact, it’s only been about thirteen years.  But that’s still a good long time.

I’m incredibly proud of my offspring, just the same.  They’re good kids, and they’ve always been incredibly patient with the vagaries and vicissitudes of having freelance writers for parents.

Today’s Link of Interest

A post from harm·less drudg·ery about descriptive and prescriptive grammarians, and what (in the opinion of a reasonable descriptivist) a reasonable prescriptive grammarian ought and ought not to do.

Full disclosure, here:  I’m firmly in the descriptivist camp, both by training and by inclination.  A language that doesn’t change is dead; the spoken language is primary and the written language — however much I may love it — is secondary; and trying to stop language change is like trying to stop the tide from coming in.

(Nevertheless:  it’s sneaked, not snuck, in written discourse; alright is a barbarism; and orientated instead of oriented is wrong, wrong, wrong.  We all have our bits of beach we want to keep dry.)

More from the Department of Nifty Stuff

As an addendum to my post the other day on outlines and cover letters, there’s this (from romance novelist Linda Conrad via Terri-Lynne DeFino): a handy-dandy basic two-sentence “elevator pitch” generator:

(TITLE) is a (GENRE) about (Heroine/Hero), a (backstory/identity) who, after (inner conflict) wants (goal). But when (turning point) happens, he/she has to (external goal), which seems impossible because (external conflict).

Looked at in skeletal form, it resembles nothing so much as MadLibs For Authors, but it works.

Tales from the Before Time: Classroom Issues

For a long time, I was — to put it mildly — skeptical about the value of classroom writing instruction, if by “skeptical” we mean “unconvinced of its utility and halfway convinced that its influence is largely malign.”

I blame early-writing-life trauma.

Picture me, in the eighth grade, bookish and awkward and laboring under the further social burden of being a new kid in the sort of town where everybody has gone to school together since first grade.  I wanted desperately to be — well, not popular, because popularity looked like it came with more strings and preconditions than I felt like dealing with, but ordinary.

At the same time, I was already a beginning writer, turning out lachrymose poetry and lumpy prose and working hard at my efforts to improve both (harder, in fact, than I ever worked at any of the  “draw one line under the subject of this sentence and two lines under the verb” exercises in our English textbook .)  And I was as hungry for outside validation as any writer, beginner or established pro.

Unsurprisingly, there came a day when I had a finished story in hand and wanted somebody else’s opinion on it.  (Needless to say, the story sucked.   I was, after all, only in the eighth grade.)  So I screwed up my courage to the sticking-point and showed the story to my eighth-grade English teacher, hoping to at least get some useful commentary out of the deal.

This was a big mistake, because she liked it.

She liked it so damned much she read it out loud to all her English classes.  Which put paid to any hopes I might have had of appearing ordinary, and got me out of the habit of trusting English teachers about anything.

Three and an Outline

Or, what goes into a typical query package:  three chapters and an outline of the novel in question.  Plus the cover letter, of course.

It shouldn’t really be necessary to say that when we’re talking about “three chapters” what we mean is “the first three consecutive chapters” and not some random collection of chapter highlights . . . but the conversations I’ve had with slushpile readers have convinced me that yes, it is necessary.  (No, not for you, of course . . . but there’s always somebody who doesn’t yet know the customs of the community.  And we were all of us clueless once.)

Likewise, by “outline” we don’t mean the I-II-III/A-B-C/1-2-3/a-b-c format that our high school teachers sweated so hard to insert into our resistant brains.  What “outline” means, in this context, is a five to ten page synopsis of the novel in question, usually single-spaced, giving the main arc of the plot, the important characters, and something about the setting and general milieu of the story.  If there are important plot twists and revelations, mention them here; your potential agent or editor is not worried about spoilers.  Customarily, in an outline, the plot is narrated in the present tense — rather as though you were telling a good (and non-spoilerphobic) friend the story of this really nifty movie you saw last night.

Writing an outline is not fun, at least not for most writers.  The best way to get through it, I find, is to grit your teeth, tell yourself “It’s not an art form, it’s a sales tool,” and push on through.

As for cover letters — briefer is better, generally.  Include the title and word count and a short description of your book (“a cozy mystery featuring a retired card sharp”), relevant publications if you have them (“three short stories in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine“), and relevant personal information (“I made my living for twenty years as a Mississippi riverboat gambler.”) But the single most important thing you can put into your cover letter is your return address and telephone/email contact info.  There’s nobody quite as sad as an editor who has found a good manuscript . . . and has just discovered that the title page with the author’s address on it has gone missing.

Don’t make an editor cry.  Include a cover letter with your full contact information, even if all that the letter itself says is the prose equivalent of Roses are red/Violets are blue/This is a book/That I’m sending to you.

Everybody Has Their Own Ten Rules

Writers like making up “My Ten Rules for Writing” lists (heck, I’ve done it, right here), and other writers like reading and arguing with them.  I’ve said before that I suspect the liking has less to do with a desire for advice and more with a desire for company (“See!  Somebody else thinks this is important, too!”), but even the most wrong-headed List of Ten can provide a useful insight or two.

Today’s noteworthy list is over at the Paris Review tumblr:  Geoff Dyer’s Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.  It’s the usual mix of universal and idiosyncratic, helpful and what-was-he-thinking.  The rule that stuck out, for me, was the second one:  “Don’t write in public places.”  I’ve seen other writers’ lists with the same caveat (coffee shops are often singled out); on the other hand, I’ve seen or heard other writers talking about how writing in cafes and coffee shops was their salvation.  J. K. Rowling, famously, wrote her first Harry Potter novel in a cafe in Edinburgh; the humorist and playwright Jean Kerr used to resort to writing in the front seat of the family station wagon.  Of course, what counts as a public or a private place can differ from writer to writer: a naturally gregarious and easily distracted person might need a quiet office with a closed door in order to get stuff done; a writing mom with a house full of noisy children and nonstop demands on her attention might find an hour a day at the neighborhood Starbucks to be an oasis of sweet privacy.

(More thoughts on public/private writing spaces can be found here.  For the curious, I found the link by Googling “Jean Kerr writing station wagon”.)

Everybody’s different.  But it’s telling, I think, that the one rule most lists have in common is “Keep on writing.”

Today’s Nifty Link

Over at the blog Ex Urbe, there’s a long, chewy post (with pictures) about the historical development of the city of Rome from its first days as a cluster of huts on a hilltop by the Tiber.

Writers dealing with invented worlds (whether past or future), take note:  This is how a real city grows up.  Your invented cities need to have similar layers to them if you want them to feel real.  (This is also, I suspect, why planned cities can have such a flattened feel to them.  They haven’t had enough time in place yet to accumulate additional strata, so when you scratch the surface all you get is more surface.)

Peeve of the Day: Dashes vs. Ellipses

There are two ways to end a line of dialogue that isn’t meant to stand as a complete sentence.  One is with a dash, the other is with ellipses (those three spaced dots, remember?)

They aren’t interchangeable.

Ellipses are for utterances that trail off in some manner:

“Well,” she said, “if that’s what you really want . . . .” (That’s the ellipses, plus a period.)

“Well . . . if that’s what you really want, I suppose it’ll have to do.”  (That’s just the ellipses, showing how the speaker lets his or her voice trail off into a significant pause before going on to the rest of the sentence.

Dashes are for utterances that are broken off or are interrupted:

“I told you I wanted–”

“I know what you told me, but the store was all out of them.”


“And the winner is–”

(Drum roll.)

“Anastasia Oddfellow of East Drumstick, New Jersey!”

Got it?  Good.