Peeve of the Day

‘Tis a great day for the peevish . . . grey and clammy and chilly from dawn until dusk.

Perhaps it is the general greyness of the weather that moves me to say the following:

Gentle writer, if you’ve described a character as wearing “a colorful t-shirt”, pray employ your eraser or your delete key, as appropriate, and instead tell the reader what color that t-shirt actually is.

A “colorful” t-shirt is just a vaguely-tinted smudge in the reader’s mental vision.  A red t-shirt, now, or a black t-shirt, or a red-green-yellow-and-purple tie-dyed t-shirt . . . all of those different t-shirts don’t just make specific images in the reader’s head, they also carry information about the person wearing them, and a lot of other cultural data as well.  (We’ve got the vintage hippie, and the emo kid, and the guy who – depending upon his t-shirt’s hastily-glimpsed logo  – is a fan of either the Communist International or the University of Arkansas Razorbacks.  All that, from a t-shirt.)

Specificity is your friend.

A Good Thing.

I don’t make political statements very often, mostly because I’m the civics equivalent of a Christmas-and-Easter churchgoer:  I vote in elections, I pay my taxes (crankily, but the IRS doesn’t care about my state of mind so I don’t feel obliged to be faux-cheerful about the process), I serve on a jury if I’m called.

 Further than that, I don’t usually go.  If I’m going to make a statement about something, I generally prefer to let my stories do my talking for me anyhow.

So believe me when I say that signing up at (which I did, with only a day to spare before the deadline, because I am a horrible slacker when it comes to doing paperwork, even electronic paperwork) caused me to be exceedingly grateful to the President and to the Democrats in Congress, because – like a lot of freelancers – I’ve had to go bare-naked to the wind as far as insurance goes, far more often than I’d like.

And let me say right now that a writer who doesn’t take the chance to serve on a jury when it comes along is falling down on the job. It’s an invaluable research opportunity.

From the Department of Interesting Stuff

An amusing mini-essay in defense of the semicolon, here.

I confess; I am, myself, one of those who love the semicolon, sometimes perhaps not wisely but too well.  Much as other writers need to double-check their second and third drafts for run-on sentences, excessive sentence fragments, and comma splices, I have to go through and make certain I don’t have entire paragraphs where every single sentence has a semicolon in the middle.

And a thought-provoking long article here about the connections between the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the Cold War, and the CIA. The whole thing makes me strangely grateful that my writing lineage comes through science fiction, which at least in those days was an inhabitant of the outer darkness and hence spared conscription into the feuds and politics of respectable literature.

I did come briefly into contact-at-a-remove with the academic workshop style, in that I took a couple of undergrad creative writing courses at the University of Arkansas, whose MFA writing program has a certain degree of credibility as these things go.  To which all I can say is, I learned a lot, including just how little respect genre writers got in writing programs back in those days.  My reaction was to go off and get a doctorate in medieval literature and write almost no fiction for the next seven years.

(Things are a bit better these days, or so I’m given to understand.  But if you’re working in fantasy or science fiction or mystery or romance, and have a hankering for the MFA experience, it’s still a good idea to check out your prospects for genre-friendliness first.)

It’s Been Cold.

I blame this year’s March weather for my laggardliness in posting new stuff.  Normally, by this time of year we’re already in the segue from winter to mud-time (which I used to think was a season invented by Robert Frost for poetic purposes, and then I moved up here); this year, we’ve had nights in the double-digits below zero Fahrenheit as recently as this past week, and the snow is still two feet deep in the front yard.

It makes it hard to work up energy for anything beyond the absolutely necessary, so it does.

One thing I did accomplish, though, because it didn’t require anything much beyond shifting some pixels around:  I took advantage of Google Drive’s recent lowering of prices for extra storage to pick up the 100-gigabytes-for-$1.99/month deal, and then spent a couple of days backing up my photo and image files to the cloud.

Backing up text is easy – text is compact. If you don’t have your working files saved in two or three different places (two different drives and at least one offsite backup is a good minimum), then you’re courting disaster.  Image files, though, and video and audio files, those are big.  They take up lots of room on any physical media you might want to store them on, and they transfer from one medium to another at a crawl.  Which is why up until a couple of days ago I had my image files stored in the virtual equivalent of a single shoebox.

Now, at least, I’ve got them stored in a couple of shoeboxes, and one of the boxes is on a shelf in somebody else’s house.

Fully Rounded

That’s what we all want our characters to be, right?

Well, yes and no.

We want our primary characters to be well-rounded, the sort of free-standing personality that, if one of them were done in marble instead of words, the reader could walk around it and view it from all sides.  And we want our secondary characters to at least stand out from the background in high relief.  But when it comes to the great mass of minor characters who populate our fictional worlds – the assorted spear carriers and exposition delivery persons – we don’t necessarily need that at all.

One reason we don’t need it is that readers are trained to expect significant things from characters or other story elements that are described in detail. (The cinematic equivalent to this is the Elevator Operator Rule, which states that if the camera’s eye returns to an unnamed walk-on character three or more times, he or she is going to be important later.)  If you take the time to let your reader know that the postal delivery person had dry toast and scrambled egg whites for breakfast, and that she’s three days from retirement to a mobile home park in Florida, your reader is going to assume that he or she needs to remember that postal delivery person because she has a role to play in the story beyond simply slipping the actual plot-important letter into the mail slot of the protagonist’s house.

You can play with this a little, if you’re aware of what you’re doing.  Maybe your spear carrier or exposition delivery person is going to have a brief page or so of interesting action before leaving the story for good – the equivalent of a walk-on part with a couple of really good lines in it, the sort of scene that later has casting directors saying, “What about So-and-So for the role?  She was really good in that scene in Another Person’s Story, the bit where she tries to deliver the letter and finds the body instead – who’s her agent?”  If you’ve got a scene like that, you can bring your spear carrier out into higher relief with a few details like the scrambled egg whites or the mobile home park in Florida.  Not a lot of detail, mind you – the light touch is best here.

(And be careful about those characters on the verge of retirement.  Readers have been trained on what to expect from them, too . . . and it’s almost never fun for the character.  Finding a body on the front porch is probably the nicest of the possibilities for our example above; she’ll be lucky if the envelope she’s trying to deliver isn’t rigged to explode.)

Research: Old Sources and Bad Sources

To begin with:  they are not the same thing.

It’s true that when you’re doing research for something (and it’s hard to be a writer and not need to research things from time to time, even if what you write is contemporary literary mainstream), you want your sources to be up-to-date.  Nevertheless, there are at least three kinds of older texts that are still worth using and/or necessary to know.

First you have those essential works in a particular field that have not yet been superseded:  grammars, dictionaries, concordances, scholarly editions of primary sources, and the like.  Works of that sort tend to be difficult and time-consuming to prepare – seriously, when I contemplate the years of painstaking work it took to compile the big nineteenth-century dictionaries in fields like Old English or Old Icelandic, using only stone knives and bearskins slips of paper and filing cards, I am awed; there were giants in the earth in those days – and once a good text exists, there has to be some sort of major revolution in the field before anyone is willing to tackle the job again.

Then you have the groundbreaking foundational works that aren’t necessarily where the field is at any more, but that you need to be familiar with in order to understand how things got to where they are now — Sapir and Whorf in linguistics, for example, or C. S. Lewis’s The Allegory of Love in the study of medieval literature.

And then you have the works of scholarship or criticism that are literary artifacts in their own right, like Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or, in a perverse sort of way, Robert Graves’s The White Goddess.  (Even as a bookish high school student, I saw quite clearly that as a work of anthropology or comparative religion The White Goddess was nonsense, but as a book about how Robert Graves wrote poetry, it was a fascinating document.)

Bad sources, now . . . there are also three main kinds of bad — or at any rate, considerably less than dependable – sources.  First you have books  like Holy Blood, Holy Grail, that are not just wrong in certain particulars but wrong in stereo, Sensurround, and glorious technicolor.

Then you have the surveys and popularizations and introductory texts that, however useful they may be for familiarizing a new reader with the basic outlines of a particular subject, are nevertheless bound by their very nature to be wrong in some particulars and outdated in others.

And finally, you have the sources that are hazardous to use because they’re located right where your discipline’s current controversies are taking place, and citing one of them rather than another is the equivalent of deciding which gang’s colors you’re going to wear.

Approach with caution, however, any book mustering copious amounts of primary-source data in the service of a Grand Theory of Everything. In my experience, Grand Theories of Everything mostly don’t work (or, as Edward Sapir put it, “all grammars leak”), and a scholar in full pursuit of a Grand Theory of Everything is in a prime position to be seduced into over-interpreting his or her data. On the other hand, they tend to collect an awful lot of it, and can be downright obsessive-compulsive about their footnotes and bibliographies.


If you’re a writer, one of the first things you learn is that not all words are created equal.

Some words are so common they might as well be invisible.  They do their job and go unnoticed, like the waiter in a really good restaurant who tops up your water glass with such utter transparency and perfect timing that you never notice he or she is there at all . . . but you come away from the evening with the impression that you were, briefly, in possession of one of those ever-filled chalices of legend.

Said is like that, for example.  For ninety-nine percent of your dialogue attribution purposes, said will work just fine, because your reader will never notice that it’s there

Then there are the common run of words, which attract only as much notice as they need to, and come and go doing their jobs without disrupting anything. Sometimes they can accidentally draw too much attention to themselves, if the same word or its near-variant are used in too close proximity to one another, or if two or more of them accidentally rhyme or alliterate, but for the most part they can be used freely without concern.

After that, you get the words that stand out enough, or call enough attention to themselves, that you can only get away with them once or maybe twice in a particular project: squamous, turpitude, eleemosynary.

At the extreme end of that last spectrum, you get the words that stand out so much that you’re probably only allowed to use them once per career.  I used phantasmagorical once, in an early novel, and I think I’ve used up my lifetime allotment for it.

Peeve of the Day

“Glimpse” and “glance” are not the same thing.  Don’t use one when you mean the other.

If you glimpse something, you get a quick look at it:  Jane glimpsed something moving outside the window.

The noun indicates the product of  a quick look at something:  Jane caught a glimpse of something moving outside the window.

If you glance at something, on the other hand, you look at it briefly:  Joe glanced at the window.

Likewise, the noun form refers to the action of looking:  Joe and Jane exchanged meaningful glances.

(What’s lurking outside that window?  I don’t know.  But Jane and Joe don’t seem terribly surprised to find out that it’s there.)


Check it out . . . my co-author, James D. Macdonald, is blogging over here.

(Full disclosure here:  he’s also my husband.  But it took us nearly ten years of marriage and two kids before we worked up the nerve to play “I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours” with our writing.  Which was fun, but not nearly as much fun as the year we decided to go full-time freelance . . . which turned out to also be the year I had twins.)