Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tips for English Bumblers

Readers, writers, and day-to-day users of the English language, lend me your ear. I'm seeing an alarming number of error-filled manuscripts, emails, and IM conversations. There are incorrect words being used everywhere. Should you care? Please allow me to quote Mark Twain:

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

Twain was a bit of a smarty-pants. Now, I am not William Strunk, or E.B. White, or even Lynne Truss, but goshdarnit I can still list some Fails and Fixes to make your writing gooder… er, better.

(Disclaimer: I started by writing my own explanations, but ended up adapting the definitions from Common Errors in English Usage by Paul Brians. It is the best help site I know of, and I don’t know what else I can say to recommend it.)

Just remember two points and you’ll never make this mistake again. (1) “it’s” always means “it is” or “it has” and nothing else. (2) Try changing the “its” in your sentence to “his” and if it doesn’t make sense, then go with “it’s.”

“You’re” is always a contraction of “you are.” If you’ve written “you’re,” try substituting “you are.” If it doesn’t work, the word you want is “your.”

“There” has “here” buried inside it to remind you it refers to place, while “their” has “heir” buried in it to remind you that it has to do with possession.

Regardless of what you have heard, “irregardless” is a redundancy. The suffix “-less” on the end of the word already makes the word negative. It doesn’t need the negative prefix “ir-” added to make it even more negative.

As in “Could have, should have, would have.” A sentence like “I would have gone if anyone had given me free tickets” is normally spoken in a slurred way so that the two words “would have” are not distinctly separated. Many people hear “would of” and that’s how they write it. Wrong. (Note that “must of” is similarly an error for “must have.”)

That’s it. See? Simple fixes. This isn’t hardcore grammar. This is easy, breezy stuff. Anyone can do it. I’m not crazy.

(Image © 2009 Tracy J. Butler, from Lackadaisy.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Be Fearless

This I believe: If you are a writer, you cannot pull your punches. That means you can’t be afraid of what anyone else will think. That will compromise the writing like nothing else.

At some point, you will have to write about some tough topics. It might occur to you that your words will offend some people, including, but not limited to: your parents, your significant other, your best friends, the world at large, etcetera. Tough. If you want to avoid offending people, don’t write.

We read to learn, to discover new information or to discover something new that was hidden in old information. We also read for entertainment, but entertainment can teach you as much as the supposedly dry and boring stuff. Don’t believe me? Candide, Gulliver’s Travels, and Watchmen are all entertaining reads, but they all speak about the human condition to a certain extent.

This leads me to Jim Nelson, the editor of GQ magazine. As in Gentleman’s Quarterly, the magazine with style advice, expensive taste, and the occasional scantily-clad woman on the cover. I don’t know what I expected from their editor-in-chief, but I sure didn’t expect a thoughtful, serious piece on the state of affairs in the home of the brave. He talks about the R-word (racism), and he’s pointing fingers. For example:

"'Pat Buchanan, rejecting a Latino Supreme Court nominee, glibly declared that “white men were 100 percent of the people who signed the Declaration of Independence, 100 percent of the people who died at Gettysburg” and “100 percent of the people I like to eat dinner with.” (He didn’t say that last part.) Then he made his most ignoracist claim yet: “This has been a country built basically by white folks.” Which, apart from ignoring the entire history of slavery, is the subtext of every song I’ve ever heard by Toby Keith.'"

BAM! I wasn’t expecting to read a smackdown of that kind, but why not? I say good for Jim Nelson. And he didn’t stop there. That was from the September editorial. He covered exploitation and greed in October, and a pseudo-homosexual scandal in Afghanistan in November.

The editor of GQ promoting intelligent discussion and other principles of democracy? That, my friends, is fearless. So, whether you write fiction and you’re basing a bad character on one of your good friends, or whether you’re writing a short piece for a magazine owned by Condé Nast, be fearless. If Jim Nelson can do it, so can you.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Pirate and the Weasel

There once was a man who worked for the Toronto Transit Commission, the esteemed mode of public transportation in the city of Toronto. Every day, people would line up outside the window of the man’s booth. They would see a man who looked like he could trace his ancestry back to some scowling pirates. It wasn’t because of the bald head, or the earring, or the hooked nose, or the thick moustache with pointy ends, although these attributes helped complete the image. No, it was because of the fierce glare he always wore. Some people thought the plexiglass window was the only thing saving them from a duel, or perhaps a walk on the plank.

This thick, duel-sparing window also had a small, inconveniently placed microphone. People would lean into the microphone and speak up, not sure they were getting through to the man. They would look at him with puzzled expressions, and wait for some kind of reaction--other than a glare. Sometimes this amused the man, but it usually irritated him. This was not one of the days when it amused him.

On this particular day, there were few subway patrons, and the man was in the booth with another of his co-workers, a man who could glare with the best of them, but who looked less like a pirate and more like a weasel with mottled fur. The two of them were drinking coffee. Some statistics claim that coffee can increase irritability, but, as Mark Twain said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” These men had never heard of Mark Twain, and anyway, this was not the sort of information you could share with an irritable pirate and weasel, even on the best of days. This was not the best of days, and when a young man showed up at the ticket window, the day did not get any better.

The young man looked carefree and nonchalant. He was carrying a knapsack filled with books. He was probably some kind of student. How odious. He didn’t look like a pirate or a weasel. The young man pulled out a $50 bill and held it up to the window.

“Hello,” he said. “Do you accept this?”

He was probably asking because several places in the city did not accept $50 bills since there were too many forgeries around. But the TTC accepted them. The young man should have known that, if he rode the “rocket” often enough. Clearly, he did not. The TTC employee decided to continue with his usual glare.

“Can I pay with a fifty?” the man asked again, this time leaning closer to the inconveniently placed microphone. His attitude was innocent, which is only a few letters removed from insolent, and the fare-collector was having none of it.

“For what?” he barked. Since it took longer than a second to get an answer, he tried once more, with feeling.

“For what?” he practically shouted this time.

“What do you want to pay for?” his coffee-drinking friend butted in, yelling as well. The young man’s eyebrows drew together. Was he frowning? Was he daring to judge them?

“One fare, please.” He said it like it was the most normal thing in the world to go up to a ticket window and expect to pay the fare for a subway ride.

“Hunh,” the pirate said, taking the bill.

“One fare,” the weasel said, as if that cleared everything.

The young man watched them through the glass until the change was pushed through a slot under the glass. They gave him two bills, and $10 in coins, most of it in quarters. He continued looking at the fare-collectors with a flat expression as he took his money back and paid his fare. Then he stood there for a moment, but he didn’t do anything. He just said “Thank you,” and walked away.

The bald man watched the fellow go through the turnstile. He could hear those pockets clinking with change. Something about that should have made him laugh. It was funny when they made people feel dumb. So how come it was different this time? The guy had looked… disappointed, like he expected better. Like he didn’t expect to be yelled at when all he wanted to do was pay for a fare.

“We got him good, didn’t we?” the weasel said.

“Yeah,” the pirate replied. “We sure showed him.”

Inside, he wasn’t so sure.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Monday finds

Technically, I found this Sunday night, but I was too tired to post. Anyway, what we have here is a short clip from a show called Bookmarks. I understand that it used to run on a local cable channel in Aurora, a cute little town where I went to school and worked for several years. So what’s so special about it? Just that one of my bosses is the very same Christie. This is the show she used to host before becoming the editor at Fitz, and I think it’s really cool.

Next up is some reassurance for aspiring writers out there. It seems that even published authors and journalists have trouble sitting down and actually writing. They will do anything to avoid writing. That means fixing the holes in the drywall, flossing, and doing the laundry. Hey, that stuff has to get done sometime. But I think the key to remember is that eventually these people do get around to writing. You can only procrastinate for so long.

This is bad news for me because I am excellent at procrastinating. Why, even now I'm... well... hmm... I guess I should go do... stuff. Tell you what. I'll leave you with this comic of the Lackadaisy cats, Viktor and Mordecai, and with this bit of news about the casting for A Game of Thrones.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

LGBT in fiction

When I read Leigh Butler's latest Wheel of Time re-read yesterday, I stumbled on a little controversy. A few of the comments after the post were either in favour of or opposed to Leigh's stance on lesbian/gay/bi/trans representation in the WOT. Of course, the issue goes beyond the WOT. Mostly, it got me thinking because I don't want to do the wrong thing as a writer. I can't really hope to be as good as Robert Jordan, but I can look at the areas where he kinda-sorta-mighta slipped up. If any of you readers are RJ devotees, my last sentence might have been blasphemy, but wait before you cast that stone. Let me recap. In brief, here is what Leigh had to say:

"After six books and umpty-thousand pages and nearly as many characters, we finally meet a gay character – and it’s Galina. Seriously? A character who is evil, creepy, bitchy, hates men, and, oh yeah, evil.

"To add insult to injury, while later books made what I believe was an effort to redress this issue, by implying (and then outright stating) the commonplace presence of “pillow friends” in the Tower (a concept I have no problem with on the face of it, though I have issues with the implementation once you start to really look at it), this is undermined by the extremely conspicuous lack of parallel phenomena on the male side of the equation. And when I say “lack”, I mean nothing. In a cast of thousands, I cannot think of one single male character in WOT who has been presented as even possibly ever having engaged in a same-sex relationship. I mean, forget social politics, that’s full of Fail just from a statistics standpoint.

"So it’s actually the double whammy of bad stereotypes: lesbians are either “fake” (as in “well, only since there are no men available...”) or devious man-haters, and gay men don’t exist at all.

"However, in Jordan’s defense, even with all I’ve said above, I honestly do not attribute the dearth of (non-evil) gay characters in WOT to either maliciousness or homophobia on Jordan’s part. Rather, I think it was the same unintentional blindness that plagues so many writers coming from a background of privilege with regard to the particular minority in question. In other words, as a straight married man with a strong military background, there’s a distinct possibility that addressing the issue of homosexuality simply never occurred to Jordan – especially in the earlier novels.

"And when it did occur to him – well. The thing is, being aware of a sensitive topic and knowing how to address/incorporate it in your own works are two very different things, as anyone in sf fandom with access to the Internet in 2009 is probably in a position to know."


FYI, I pared that down from the original commentary. Now that you've had a second, here's what I think:

When I read something, I don't like having certain issues forced into the reading matter. Religion is a good example; heavy-handed pro-religious allegories don't do it for me, and the same goes for pro-atheist views. Likewise, if someone had an overtly anti- or pro-gay agenda, I would probably get distracted from the actual story and lose interest in the book. Grind your axe all you want. Someone other than me will listen to you.

What Leigh is talking about does not involve axe-grinding. I never noticed the lack of LGBT characters in the early WOT books (probably because of my background of privilege), and I wouldn't have said it was an issue, but... RJ's books are huge. Some of them are close to a thousand pages. His world-building is mind-boggling in its enormity. No detail is too small for his notice. And that, my friends, is exactly why this looks like one of the few Fails in the series. In an epic of this scope, how did it take six books to get to the first (minor and evil) homosexual character? I would never think it was intentional. I think Leigh's right, and it was just an oversight.

Again, I don't even imagine that I'll ever write as well as RJ. I can pretty much guarantee that you'll be able to spot larger holes in my story. But at least I got a heads-up on this issue before I finished writing.

That's my opinion for now. What do you think?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Shameless cross-promotion

Where has the time gone? Well, it's just about the busiest time of the year in publishing, so that's where a lot of time is going. However, I've also been doing some drawing on my down time. I set up a little challenge for myself almost a month ago, and so far I'm failing. If you want to see what I'm talking about, have a peek at my other blog, Art... Maybe. That's all for now. I promise I'll write more soon. Maybe even tomorrow. Maybe.

Monday, October 5, 2009

What's a-happenin'?

So where have I been lately? Absent from the blog and Twitter for several days is where. Don't I know that I have a personal blog to run? Actually, I do. Dear blog, I have missed you.

So, what have I been up to? Well, I've been selling books. Sort of. And it's odd, because selling books has nothing to do with my job, unless you count the kinda-sorta publicity thing I do with the my work's Twitter account and Facebook group. No, I spent a few days in a film studio at Downsview Park and learned how some people get teachers to spend their government-alloted money. It's actually a lot of fun. Here I am doing... um, well, not much. It seems that Tracey, Sonya, and Rowan are doing the work. Never mind.

Terrible picture, really. Here is a better picture of Rowan with a slice of pizza. I like the pic, but it may be removed if he threatens to kill me for posting it.

This show was for the Toronto District School Board. If you're a teacher within this board, chances are that someone from your school came to load up on books for your students. As you can see here, there were thousands of books for the teachers to choose from.

When I got hired about a month ago, I was told that I'd get to go to at least one takeaway. No one explained the term. I was hoping it meant a trip to somewhere cool. The trade show in Frankfurt, Germany was out of the question, and the Chicago show already happened, but I'd settle for the less exotic Halifax or Winnipeg. I realized the true meaning was probably something warehouse related, as in "Take away the books that are on the crate by the drop-off doors." So it was nice to find out that the reality was better than that. A film studio in Downsview Park is alright, especially since I got to know my co-workers a bit better. Other than a hairy start because of computer and printer meltdowns, everything else was smooth sailing. We cracked jokes, sold books, and chatted up the good people over at Another Story (a vendor next to us). Who knew standing on your feet for 8 or 9 hours with almost no rest could be fun? Even loading all those books on and off their crates wasn't that bad. Lift with your knees; that's the key. Also, wear gloves. Crates have splinters, and they stop tickling after a few moments.

Now it's back to the office life for a few days.
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