Peeve of the Day

That’s right, people . . . it’s one of those days when Dr. Doyle waxes, if not wroth, at least a little bit cranky about the latest writing-related pebble in her metaphorical sandal.

Okay, then.  Listen up.

The phrase is not “free reign.”  It’s “free rein.”

Why?  Because it’s a horsemanship metaphor.  In equestrian usage, “free rein” refers to a rein held loosely to allow a horse free motion, or to the freedom that doing so gives to the horse.

(It refers, in other words, not to having control or power over somebody or something, but to having self-determination or freedom of choice in a particular situation.)

Unexpected Ingredients

When you’re constructing a piece of fiction, sometimes what you need to make an old standby memorable again is an unexpected ingredient, a theme or a place or a character that the reader isn’t expecting to find in combination with the other, more familiar elements in the story.  Time was, something as simple as switching in a female character for a male one in a particular role was enough to add the requisite element of strange; these days (and if we’re not all grateful for it, then we damned well should be), the entry into the narrative of a person of the female-presenting kind is not remarkable enough by itself to push the story off of center.

(Actually, these days it’s inadvisable to rely on the mere presence of any character type to provide your story with a hint of strange.  Well-drawn characters are going to have better things to do with their personal narratives than spending them being decoration for other characters’ plots – and if you aren’t going to create well-drawn characters, what are you doing in this game?)

But doing something unexpected like, say, using the story of a zombie apocalypse in order to examine philosophical issues such as the relationship of the individual to the larger group, and how to live a moral life in an imperfect world . . . that’ll provide you with more than enough strange to keep you going.

And as an extra, a recipe, also with an unexpected ingredient:

Beef Short Ribs Braised in Coca-Cola


  • At least 2 pounds boneless beef short ribs (if what you’ve got is bone-in ribs, make that at least 3 pounds)
  • 1 large or 2 medium onions, finely chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced (I also throw in some dried minced garlic partway through the cooking time, because we like our garlic around here)
  • 3 scallions, chopped
  • 1 can of Coca-Cola
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • fresh-ground black pepper, to taste (we also like our pepper around here, so I’m generous with it)



  • Put your short ribs into your crockpot.
  • Season with the salt and pepper.
  • Add the onions, garlic, and scallions.
  • Pour in the Coca-Cola.
  • Cook for 5-6 hours on high or 7-8 hours on low.
  • Serve over egg noodles.  (Actually, over whatever starch you prefer, but we like our short ribs with egg noodles around here.)

The amazing thing, once you’re done, is that this dish tastes nothing whatsoever like Coca-Cola.  But it doesn’t taste like short ribs braised in the usual red wine or beer or beef stock, either.


Writers: Even Their Dreams are Weird

So there’s the standard poor-preparation anxiety dream, the one where you find yourself suddenly required to take a final exam in a course you don’t remember having signed up for, or required to give a classroom lecture for a course you don’t remember having agreed to teach, or one of any number of uncomfortable variations on that general unhappy theme.

What they don’t tell you is that when you’re a writer, those variations can get surprisingly elaborate.

Take last night, for example, when I dreamed that I was at a Worldcon somewhere unspecified (it was in the US, but not in any of the places where I’ve ever been to Worldcons in actual fact), where I was scheduled to be on two or three panels.  The first night at the con was the usual good cheer and meet-and-greet and dinner-with-friends, and the next morning for some reason we had to change hotels, and what with one thing and another it wasn’t until midafternoon that I remembered I had programming obligations, and I couldn’t remember when my next panel was – and worse, whether or not I’d forgotten a panel the night before.

At that point the traditional anxiety-dream rabbit-chase kicked in, as I tried in vain to find a copy of the pocket program to check on my obligations, and likewise tried in vain to download the Guidebook app and search for them.  I could have looked on the back of my badge for my list of panels, but my badge was back in the room at the new hotel.

Finally, some kind soul loaned me a pocket program, where I discovered that I had, indeed, missed a panel I was supposed to be on.  (Children’s writer Bruce Coville wandered through the dream at that point, and paused to assure me that I wasn’t the first or the only person to ever forget a panel.)  Further perusal of the schedule revealed that I had a second panel in only a few minutes.

Cue dream-panic, and the hasty solicitation of a ride back to the main programming venue with another con-goer – who was, as it turned out, anther person on the same panel.  She said, cheerfully, that since we were both present in the car, we might as well go ahead and have the panel right there, because the audience didn’t seem to mind.  And indeed, the car was filling up even as she spoke, with far more people than one would think a small sedan would be able to hold . . . .

And at that point I’m awakened by a household member bearing the glad news that the flush mechanism in the downstairs toilet has ceased to function, and on that note, my day begins.

(I wish I could have gone on dreaming long enough to finish that panel, though.  It sounded like it was going to be interesting.)

A Position Statement, of Sorts

You-the-reader have the right to read anything you want.  I can’t stop you; furthermore, I don’t want to stop you, and I think it would be morally wrong to try and stop you.  And that includes reading stuff I don’t like, by people I don’t like, saying things I don’t like.

You likewise have the right to not read anything you don’t want to, and I have no moral right to make you read anything.  No matter how worthy and important and good for your soul I may consider it to be.

You also have the right to say whatever you please about whatever it is that you’ve read, and I have no moral right to stop you.


If you’re going to make public pronouncements on the quality or value of a work, and you’re planning to say anything more than, “I do not intend to read this book because I disapprove of the author and disagree with his/her views” . . . then you have a moral obligation to read the damned book before you say anything.

Stringing Ideas Together

Or, actually, not.

When you’re building up a sequence of ideas (which generally results in a paragraph, and a whole bunch of paragraphs together generally results in a completed story, or an essay, or a letter thanking your Great-Aunt Euphemia for the half-dozen silver fish forks in a pattern that isn’t yours), you don’t want to just string the ideas together as they occur to you.  You’re constructing something that has to stand up when you’re done with it, not just lie there on the carpet like a string of Christmas lights after the tree has come down.

This means that you need to think about the relationship of your ideas to each other, and put them together in ways that indicate those relationships – while at the same time making sentences that have good sound and good rhythm and good grammar.

Take a simple example.   Here’s a little paragraph where the sentences are all (mostly) grammatical, but it’s still a bad paragraph:

As she hit the ball, Jill ran for first base.  Running for first base, her foot turned under her, spraining her ankle and putting her on the bench for the rest of the season.

This is, as I said, (mostly) grammatical, in that a native speaker of English can read it and understand what’s going on at the softball game.  But it isn’t good.  It’s clunky, the ideas are in the wrong order, and there’s a dangling participle lurking in there as well.

(Also, entirely too many present participles, period.  Writers get told at some point in high school or thereabouts that they need to vary their sentence structures, and for some reason, the method that a lot of them latch on to is the introductory participial phrase.  People, I’m here to tell you – too many sentences starting with participial phrases is just as monotonous as a bunch of simple subject-verb-direct object sentences lined up in a row.)

But I digress.  Let’s fix that little paragraph, a bit at a time.

Sentence one:  As she hit the ball, Jill ran for first base.  This is bad because one, it takes two ideas of roughly the same weight and makes one of them subordinate to the other; and two, it puts the actions into the wrong order.  First Jill hits the ball; then she runs for first base.  So we can fix this sentence by changing it to:  Jill hit the ball and ran for first base.

Sentence two:  Running for first base, her foot turned under her, spraining her ankle and putting her on the bench for the rest of the season.  This sentence is also bad for a couple of reasons and not just one.  The biggie, of course, is the dangling participle right at the beginning:  Running for first base, her foot turned under her.  This is wrong because it isn’t the foot that’s running for first base, it’s Jill.  The first thing we do to fix this sentence, then, is to break that part off from the rest of the sentence and rewrite it:  While she was running, her foot turned under her.  (We also ditch the repetition of for first base, because the reader’s seen that already and we don’t need to have another iteration of it cluttering up the page.)

This leave us with spraining her ankle and putting her on the bench for the rest of the season.  There are a couple of different ways to fix this part, depending upon whether you think that the sprained ankle or the benching for the season is the more important idea, or whether you want to give the two ideas approximately equal weight.

You could throw the emphasis onto the sprained ankle:  She sprained her ankle, which put her on the bench for the rest of the season.

You could emphasize the fact that Jill has been put out of action:  Because she sprained her ankle, she was put on the bench for the rest of the season.

Or you could get fancy and use a semicolon to hook up two equivalent clauses, giving them both equal weight and letting the reader determine their relationship:  She sprained her ankle; the injury put her on the bench for the rest of the season.

I like that last one – but then, I generally like semicolons.  Let’s use it anyway, for maximum sentence variety.  That gives us a new, finished paragraph:

Jill hit the ball and ran for  first base.  While she was running, her foot turned under her.  She sprained her ankle; the injury put her on the bench for the rest of the season.

This still isn’t one of the world’s blue-ribbon paragraphs – but it’s better than the one we started with.

And the voice from the back of the lecture hall asks, “Do I have to think like that about all my paragraphs?”

Sadly, yes.  But not until the second or third draft.  Finish the story first, then work on making the sentences better.  Because pretty sentences will get you nowhere if you haven’t got a story for them to tell.

Goings-On in the North Country

We drove over to Bradford, Vermont, today, to special-order a couple of books from Star Cat Books –also, to take a look at the flood damage along the local roads, because we’ve had some lately.  When the first warm weather of spring is followed up by major rainfall, things up here can get . . . interesting.  (Hint:  a place called Roaring Brook Road has that name for a reason, and every few years you’re going to find out why.)

On the heels of the heavy rainfall and flooding came a return of the winter cold, covering the flooded roads with sheets of ice.  The floodwaters had receded from most of the main roads by this morning (for a few hours on Tuesday night, our town was all but cut off from the world), but the reeds and bushes along the sides of the road were topped with little umbrellas of thin ice marking the level the water had reached.

As I Write This…

…I am moved to peevish comment.

People, don’t use “as” to string clauses together when you’re narrating action.  Save “as” for linking together actions which are simultaneous or nearly so, and are directly related – “He leaped aboard the train as it pulled away from the platform’’ or “As he wandered about the room, he absent-mindedly rearranged all the knick-knacks and framed photographs.”  That sort of thing.

Don’t use it for joining clauses which would be more appropriately connected with “and” or “then.

And remember, also, that “as” is a subordinating conjunction.  If you use it to join a clause to the main body of your sentence, the grammatical setup implies that the action of that clause is less important than the action of the main verb.  Don’t do something like that unless you really mean it.  (Which is a pretty good all-purpose piece of writing advice, in case you ever wanted one.)

In general, important actions deserve to star in their own independent clauses, rather than being supporting players in somebody else’s sentence.

Environmental Change

By which I mean, I have acquired a new desk chair and I have rearranged the layout of my desk.

The new chair was a necessity.  My previous desk chair gave me many years of loyal service, but over the past month or so it had developed a forward tilt and a sideways list, making it uncomfortable to sit in.

The new desk layout sprang primarily from a desire to have my monitor not be in a position where I had to crane my neck slightly upward to look at it.  That placement was a holdover from the days of CRT monitors, which were as long or longer from front to back as they were from side to side.  The lower side of my desk wasn’t built to hold an object of that size.  As for the rest of the desk – let’s just say that back in the year when we bought it, the ergonomics of computer use were far from well-understood.

Also, the damned thing is so sturdy I probably couldn’t break it if I whaled away at it with a sledge hammer for a week.

More from the Department of Interesting Stuff

Here . . . have an article from the LA Times about a pair of stolen paintings – a Gauguin and a Cezanne – that turned out to have spent the last 44 years hanging in the kitchen of a retired Sicilian auto worker “who was unaware of their value” (he apparently picked them up at an auction for the equivalent of $30.)

It’s an interesting tidbit of news, and I’m only inclined to take issue with one statement in it.  The Sicilian auto worker in question may have been unaware of the paintings’ monetary worth, but – considering that he kept them in his home while he was working in Turin, and went to the trouble of taking them with him and hanging them up in his kitchen when he retired to Sicily – he was clearly aware of their value.  They were pictures he saw, and bought, and kept where he could see them every day, and it was all about him and the paintings, and nothing to do with who might have painted them or how much a collector might say they would bring at auction.

There are some critics out there, I am sure, who would assert that Sicilian Auto Guy wasn’t loving the pictures enough, or in the right way – because there are critics out there who say the same sort of thing about works of literature.  But I say that those critics are guilty of snobbery and intellectual arrogance – and I ought to know intellectual arrogance when I see it, because it’s my own second-favorite besetting sin.

(My very favorite is Wrath.  But after several decades of hard work, I’ve managed to tamp it down it to “at least I mostly behave myself in public” levels.)