August 14, 2014 / 5 Comments

There’s Not an App For That…

            Amazon’s Shelfari service sent me an interesting email alert the other day.  It seems their algorithms had found a new character in Ex-Patriots and wanted to let me  know it was being added to the list on Shelfari.  What character had they found?
            St. George of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
            I’d just glanced back at the book recently, so it only took me a moment to figure out where they’d found this.  From page 89 in the paperback version

            The soldier straightened up from the crouch he’d landed in, a move that reminded St. George of Arnold Schwarzenegger traveling from the future in the Terminator movies.

             This is why the algorithm also added characters like “boss,” Douglas Adams (mentioned in a conversation), and my college roommate John who I thanked in the afterword for his technical help on the book.  A computer doesn’t actually understand language and context.  It can go over the book mechanically, looking for specific patterns, but it can’t see these patterns in the bigger picture.  Or the bigger sentence, in some cases.
            This is also a great example of why I would never trust a computer to write for me.
            Yet a lot of would-be writers do trust their computers.  And other people’s computers.  They use subroutines and apps and websites to do all the hard work for them.  They never bother to learn how to spell—or even what some words mean—and just remain confident a machine will catch all of that for them.  It’s the literary equivalent of choosing to walk with a crutch over training to run a race. 
            And it’s hard to say I’m dedicated to being a professional runner when I announce I’ve decided to keep using the crutch.  People will have trouble taking me seriously.  And, speaking as someone who was stuck with one for a while, moving with a cane or crutch gets dull really fast.  For everyone.  Take that as you will.
            I mentioned last time that I was going to bring up some words every author needed to know.  Are you ready for them?  The words I should absolutely, no-questions know if I want to call myself a writer…
            All.  Of.  Them.
            Words are our tools and our raw materials.  Our bricks and mortar.  Our paint and brush.  A surgeon doesn’t use the same blade for everything and a chef doesn’t use the same spices in every meal.  A huge part of the reason we consider people to be professionals is because they know the tools of their trade.  If I want people to consider me a professional writer, I need to know words.  All words.  I need to know how to spell them, what they mean, and how to use them.
            Oh, sure, I can string some words together and argue that people will get most of it from context.  Maybe sometimes I’ll even get an emotional response (the one I was intending).  But this is crude, base communication.  It’s campfire stories that depend on a loud scream at the end to deliver their punch.
            Which brings us, as always, to the list…
            Here’s a bunch of words that sound kind of similar but all have very different meanings.  Some of them are different parts of speech.  Some of them are homonyms.  Some of them aren’t (which is even more embarrassing).  More to the point, a spellchecker will accept all of them as correct… no matter how I’m using them.
            As usual, every one of these is a mistake that I saw in print. They were all in news articles or short stories or books.  All of them were seen by thousands (or is a few cases, dozens) of readers.  In all fairness, one of them is a mistake I made in an early draft that went out to my beta readers and they all rightfully mocked me for it.
            How many of them do you know?
alter vs. altar
balled vs. bawled
Calvary vs. cavalry
censer vs. censor
cruller vs. crueler
explicit vs. implicit
instants vs. instance
manners vs. manors
past vs. passed
wrecking vs. wreaking
rational vs. rationale
packed vs. pact
bale vs. bail
raise vs. raze
phase vs. faze
lamb vs. lam
isle vs. aisle
pus vs. puss
            Did you know all of them?  Both sides?  None of these are obscure or unusual.  I’m willing to bet most of you reading this have used at least one of them today.  I think I’m already up to five or six.
            If I want to call myself a writer, it’s important that I know the tools and raw materials I’m using.  All of them.  Because if I’m talking about the rational the bad guys have for wrecking havoc on stately Wayne Manner while Alfred balled his eyes out…
            Well, I don’t look like someone who should be making a living with words, that’s for sure. 
            Next time, I might be a little late while I try to get these rewrites to my editor.  But once that’s done, I’d like to talk a bit about how I’ve chosen to end my latest rant each week.
            Until then, go write.

0 replies on “There’s Not an App For That…”

Hello Peter. Just listened to that awesome Raksura music on Martha Wells' site. So dramatic, so haunting. I could listen to that music all day. Actually, I'm listening to it right now in my office. I interviewed Martha for Diabolical Plots and would like to interview you. About writing advice and about your Ex-Heroes series. Can't find contact info for you on your writing advice blog. I'm in China (I teach ESL), so I can't contact you through Facebook, Live Journal, etc. Hope this message gets to you.

Carl Slaughter
moreheadalumni yahoo

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