September 8, 2011 / 12 Comments

An Ode to OED

No, don’t worry. There will be no poetry.

There will, however, be mocking. And some shameless plugging.

Ex-Patriots is now out in both paper and ebook formats, available pretty much anywhere fine books are sold. Mysterious Galaxy, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Bord… well, okay, not Borders. But I got to see Ex-Heroes there a few times, at least. Please feel free to pick up a copy.

Anyway, let’s talk about the Oxford English Dictionary. Or Webster’s, if you prefer. I’m actually a dictionary traitor. One of my college professors was on the OED board and I have a huge Webster’s dictionary on my desk.

But I digress… again.

Remember last week’s little rant about tools? Those folks who insist on carrying their tools around one at a time even though it makes the job take ten times as long? Well as bad as it is to be the person showing up on the jobsite with only one tool at a time, imagine if someone showed up with a basic tool they didn’t know how to use?

Seriously–what would you do if you were the foreman and one of your workers–someone who claimed they were a skilled, professional carpenter–admitted they had no idea how to use a hammer? Their excuse? “Well, y’know… I always work with Wakko, and he does all the hammering. So, really, I don’t need to know how to use one.”

Would this guy still have a job at the end of the day?

And yet, it’s stunning how many would-be-writers—people trying to convince publishers that they’re skilled professionals—don’t know how to spell. Their excuse? They’ve got a spellchecker on their computer. It already knows how to spell, so why should they learn how?

Words are our tools, and knowing what they are and how to use them is the most basic skill any of us has to have if we want people to take us seriously as writers. If you don’t know how to use them it is painfully obvious to someone who does.

Let’s go over a little list of words and see how many definitions you can get.

pour, poor, and pore – only one of these means to read intently

confirm and conform – one of these means to become similar

faze and phase – only one of these deals with a blow to the head

role and roll – only one of these is a list of names

further and farther – one of these usually refers to physical distance

glutton and gluten – only one of these words is a person

desert and dessert – only one of these comes after supper

barely and barley – one of these is a food source… almost

satin and satan – one of these is a silky fabric

lightning and lightening – only one of these is an atmospheric event

conscience and conscious – one means being awake

Done with the list? Good.

Now, I’m sure two or three of these made you laugh. Satan and satin? Really? I mean, they’re so obviously different words only a complete idiot would mess them up, right?

Bad news, everyone.

Your spellcheck program is a complete idiot. It’s the worst writing partner you could possibly ask to have. As far as it knows, your main character is supposed to be making a gluten of himself by shoving barely down his throat for desert.

Y’see, Timmy, whenever I make these lists they’re from words I’ve seen misspelled in manuscripts or screenplays I’ve been given to read. Not once or twice in a hundred pages but consistently. These are all mistakes made by people who were trying to convince me (or, through me, someone higher up) that they know how to write. People claiming to be professionals.

One story I recently read had someone trying to resist the temptations of Satin all the way through it (which makes it sound like a very different story, believe me). The power of Satin, get behind me Satin, resisting the will of Satin, all that. If the writer hadn’t asked an idiot to check the whole thing for them, they wouldn’t’ve had that problem. And my opinion of the story wouldn’t’ve dropped every single time I came across it.

I’ve said many times before that people need to buy a dictionary, and more than once I’ve gotten a chuckle from folks over it. After all, the computer does that sort of thing for us, right? Silly dinosaur, telling people to resort to books. Modern writers don’t need such antiquated tools.

As the above list proves, though… a sizeable percentage do.

Using a dictionary doesn’t just mean looking up how a word is spelled. It also means you’re going to look up what the word means. These two things are inherently bound together in a dictionary and they’re not in a spellcheck program. I look up barely and realize it’s not a grain, it’s an adverb. I also just learned that baresark is another form of berserker, which I can probably file away and use sometime later.

But the spellchecker? It looks at barely, grins, and gives you a big thumbs up. “Looks cool—send it off to a publisher.”

Plus, when you use a dictionary, odds are you’ll learn something and not need the dictionary next time. My mechanic’s worked on my car a few times, but I didn’t learn anything about auto repair because I wasn’t the one doing the actual work. I’ve also gone out to eat several times, but having someone else cook for me didn’t teach me anything about cooking. If your writing partner’s doing all that vocabulary work–idiot or not–how do you expect to learn anything?

I’m about to start my fifth novel. Not my fifth attempt at a novel. Not my fifth manuscript to sit in a drawer. My fifth already-got-a-contract-and-deposited-a-nice-advance novel. And I still reach for the dictionary at least once a day to make sure I’m spelling a word correctly or that I’m using it correctly. Using the dictionary doesn’t make me a lesser writer. It makes me a better writer. I’m the guy who shows up at the jobsite with all his tools and who knows how to use them. I don’t need anyone else to do the work for me. Which is why I’m the guy the foreman hires again and again.

If the foreman didn’t hire you… maybe it’s because you’ve got an idiot for a partner.

Not sure what I’m going to rant on about next week. I’ve got a half-formed post of random screenwriting tips. Also got one on villains. And the bare bones of one about motivations…

Any of those sound interesting? Let me know.

Until then, go write.

March 26, 2010 / 3 Comments

Thyme to Bored You’re Fight

Today’s ranty blog takes us to the land of imagination. To be exact, the airport of imagination. Say you’re a passenger on the new supersonic jumbo jet I designed. I call it the OmniTurboTron 3000. It’s going to make the Concorde obsolete. And you’re here to ride on one of the very first flights, the maiden voyage. The rest of the passengers are on board, the luggage is packed below, and the flight crew goes to close the door.

Oh, but there’s a problem. The door’s not quite the right shape for the frame. It’s built to all the specs, but it doesn’t seem to fit. That’s odd.

The crew wrestles with it for a while and finally figure out if they use some crowbars to lift it a bit on the hinges it mostly fits into place. They just need to whack it with a sledge a once or thrice and it sits almost perfectly. Well, maybe with a few blankets pushed into that crack on the bottom.

The question for you is… are you going to stay on this plane?

Heck, if I’m supposed to be an engineer and I messed up something as simple as the door, what else is wrong? Is this cabin airtight? Are the windows safe? It seems like I didn’t run any kind of tests or double-check anything–maybe the wings are going to come off in mid-flight!

Believe it or not, the same logic and conclusions are true of writing. If a reader hits something which shows I didn’t check any of this or don’t even know what something does, why should they risk going any farther? If I don’t even know how to spell or use an apostrophe, who knows what kind of plot holes were left behind when I declared this “done” and put it out for people to see. Why would any editor (let alone any reader) risk their time with something like this when there are signs of shoddy workmanship right up front?

Y’see, Timmy, if I skim the page and see Wakko is playing a few cords to compliment the music the band is perforating over their, do I really need to read anything else? That’s four failures in one sentence.

Yes, four. If you can’t see them, pick up a dictionary.

No, not spell check. Not the internet, either. A real dictionary.

I know I’ve gone on about this again and again. Spelling is the number one thing I tell people to work on here. Just look how many links the keyword “spelling” has over there on the right. You cannot succeed at this until you learn what words mean and how to spell them. Not more or less what they mean. Not close enough with the spelling so people will know what you mean. You have to know and you have to be right.

I also know I push owning a dictionary a lot, which seems a bit pointless in our wonderful space age world, but there’s a rhyme to my reason. A dictionary and the internet are not the same thing. If you have to look something up in the dictionary, you are the one doing the work. When you do the work, you learn. Once you’ve learned, you rarely need to look it up again. Like any skill set, your writing improves with study and practice. You need both.

When your computer does the work, you become more dependent on your computer. As I’ve pointed out many times now, a computer is the worst writing partner you can choose. It has no idea what word you wanted to use, only what words you’re close to. This is why people who use spell check all the time continue to use it and continue to need it. Same goes for the folks who tend to Google-search for definitions rather than looking them up. They’re not studying how to write–only practicing.

And practice without study is like that idiot guy in the park swinging his katana around and convinced he’s learning to be a ninja.

Yeah, you know that guy…

Now, there’re some great arguments out there that people don’t need to know this stuff anymore because computers do it for them. It’s my firm belief this is why there’ been such a boom in would-be-writers lately.

Thing is, we’re not talking about people. We’re talking about you. And if you’re spending any amount of time here reading the ranty blog, the assumption is you want to be a writer who can actually sell something. As a writer, you must know how to spell and what words mean.

There’s a huge difference between an engineer and someone who owns a copy of The Way Things Work. Just because I’ve got few friends I can call to help with car repair does not qualify me as a mechanic. Taking a health class in high school and owning a first aid book does not make you a doctor. More to the fact, we’d all mercilessly mock (maybe even sue) anyone who tried to call themselves an engineer, a mechanic, or a doctor based on these “abilities.”

Likewise, if you’re going to say you’re a writer because your computer knows all the right words and spellings, don’t expect a lot of people to take you seriously. Because in their eyes, you’re just that guy in the park, wearing a black tee-shirt and swinging your katana…

Next time, I would like to tell you all a 100% true story about a baby discovering her own feet. Really.

Until then, go write.

August 26, 2008 / 2 Comments

Akeelah and the Bee

In these heady days of internet communities, text messages, and failing school systems, spelling and grammar have fallen on hard times. There’s a fair share of people who even think we should just do away with “traditional” spellings. After all, if you can understand what the writer was trying to say, that’s what matters, right?

Alas (or perhaps, thank God) this view is not taken by any serious publishers, agents, or readers.

Some of you are going to chuckle, but it’s funny how many editors, professional readers, agents, and contest directors bring up this same point again and again and again when asked about tips for up-and-coming writers. Grammar. Spelling. These two things are a must. There is no easier way to distract or derail a reader and make them put your manuscript in the large pile on the left instead of the small one on the right.

For now, let’s look at the easiest one to deal with—spelling. Take a look at the sentence below and try to spot the misspelled word.

Two cell eh vampire yew most half eh would steak.

Not too hard, eh? Of course, you understood what I was trying to say, so some people would claim that’s acceptable, right?

(If you are one of those people, stop reading now, turn in your pens and word processor, and go ask to pick up a few extra shifts at Jack in the Box with all the extra time you’ve got.

Go. Go now!)

For those of you still reading, that’s a pretty horrific sentence, yes? And not just because it talks about killing poor, misunderstood vampires. But let’s move on to stage two of our little exercise—how many of you know which words are spelled wrong in that line?

See, here’s the catch—There aren’t any misspelled words in that sentence up above, and a spell-checking program will tell you that too. Because from its point of view, there aren’t. Smell-chick doesn’t help yew if all then warts are spilled write but are ill jest the wrong wards. Every single word in that last sentence is spelled correctly, too, so Microsoft Word will skim right over it without a second glance.

If you want to be a writer, you need to be able to spell. You, not your computer. Your computer, if I may paraphrase someone far smarter than me, is a very sophisticated idiot. It doesn’t understand context. It doesn’t know colloquialisms. Split infinitives will give it panic attacks. You cannot depend on your computer for grammar and spelling checks. Cannot, period, done, end of story (see that? That makes microprocessors cry). If you can’t do it yourself, your career as a writer is going to be a verrrrrrrrrrrryyyyyy long, uphill battle.

Do you always use there, their, and they’re correctly? All three are spelled right, all three sound alike, but they are not at all interchangeable. What about its and it’s? Complement and compliment; wile and while; humans and human’s; peek, peak, and pique. If you don’t know what the differences are between all these words, stop reading this and start looking over all your stories right now…

Any one of these mistakes can kill your chances with an editor or an agent. Will your story, script, or novel get rejected just because you don’t know the difference between it’s and its? Well, it probably wouldn’t be just off that (for the record, with an apostrophe is the contraction of it is, without one is possessive). However, it could be the thing that knocks a “strongly consider” story down to “maybe consider,” and “maybe consider” down to “Thanks for querying, but at this time…” If nothing else, it guarantees your work is giving off the immediate, subliminal message amateur writer to anyone who reads it.

Read your own writing. Don’t just skim it or run it through a spellchecker. Sit down and go through it word by word, line by line. Know what words mean and how they’re spelled. Don’t think you know. Be 100%, absolutely, willing-to-sacrifice-your-right-hand sure you know.

In a similar vein, Stephen King once said “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” This little maxim cuts both ways, for the record. It’s also the wrong word if your readers need to go looking for what it means. Using extremely uncommon or antiquated words like titian instead of red, glabrous instead of bald, or atramentous instead of dark may show off your vocabulary, but the moment the reader has to stop and wonder about what a word means, they’ve been taken out of your story. And knocking people out of your story is one of the certain ways to make sure the reader puts your script in that ever-growing left-hand pile.

Consider a bad sci-fi story. I can tell you that Angnagrog took his zheraful out for a twenty wobosa drive along the neerwoks of Qin’nixxia, but that really doesn’t mean anything, does it? Sure, you could probably sit down, diagram the sentence, and get some very rough ideas of what one or two of these words mean. Maybe. How often do you want to do that, though? Can you imagine weeding through a whole paragraph like that? Or multiple pages?

Of course not. You’d much rather read that Angnagrog took his hovercar out for a twenty minute drive along the ocean cliffs. So would an editor. The fact that you’re not wasting time with silly or pretentious words tells the reader you’re more interested in getting to the story. As I mentioned before with characters, what every reader wants to see is forward motion. It doesn’t matter if it’s a short story, a script, or a novel, the last thing the reader wants is to get hung up on something that just does not matter.

A few great books every writer should have on their shelves—

The MLA Handbook. If you went to college, odds are you already have it. Update it every four or five years or so to get an idea what general standards are. They don’t change much, but they do change.

Webster’s Dictionary or the good old O.E.D. Have an actual, physical dictionary on your desk. Dependency on the internet is a form of being dependent on your computer, and we already discussed that. Plus, you’d be amazed how many interesting words you’ll come across once you get in the habit of reaching for that Harry Potter– sized reference book.

Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale. It’s a fun step-by-step guide to basic grammar. A good read and great for all those “I could never really figure out…” problems or questions you may have.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. Punctuation at its finest. She’s approaching things as a Brit, so there are some intercontinental differences (notice my ethnocentric bias in assuming you’re all from North America), but she usually points those differences out. For the most part you can follow her lead, especially when it comes to apostrophes.

If you want to be a writer– in any format– it’s essential you have a grasp of the written word. You, not your word processing program. It sounds harsh, but if you don’t, you don’t have a chance of succeeding.

Now get back to your writing.