Thursday, August 29, 2013

But, It's a Trend

At least one of those pencils is blue.
Confession: I sent a garbled email this morning. The garbling was accidental, but isn't it always? When I reread anything I've written, I find typos and errant commas. I make mistakes. They decrease in quantity as my coffee consumption goes up but their severity accelerates with the number of emails I must send before seven a.m. This morning proved a doozy. Here's a snippet from my mixed-up email: "…to get you what you the disclosure form…" Oh, the humanity. Woe the clarity.

I'm no grammar guru. That said, I like language and believe using it correctly increases the chance we'll be understood. Good grammar = easier communication.

Two evenings ago, an unexpected comma in a student's work snagged my attention. The sentence went something like this: "But, no one answered." I scribbled Why the comma? in the margin. (Are you surprised I let a student begin a sentence with but? I don't fight that battle anymore. In fact, I've joined the enemy.) A page later, the same construction appeared. And then it showed up again.

Three times? I smell a trend. 

Language trends thrill me, and I see no conflict in appreciating both good grammar and the elasticity of the spoken and written word. Think of an interior designer who creates a room around principles of scale, balance, and symmetry and then injects asymmetry to shake things up.

I clapped in delight at a post entitled "But, Are You a Person That Does This Alot?" by the Houston Chronicle's Kyrie O'Connor: Check out # 7 on the list. Yes, it's a trend!

While no one will ever accuse me of being on trend, I'm guilty of the last oddity in # 5. That's right, I say "I'm good" whenever servers approach me in noisy restaurants. Why? I'm afraid I'll misunderstand what they're offering/asking and will end up with the Kale Special or a $24 glass of wine. A former student who arrived in this country with little English learned to answer requests with "okay" rather than yes or no. He figured "okay" acknowledged the request but didn't commit him one way or the other.

Update: The recipient of my garbled email responded as if I'd written nothing wrong. More to the point, he understood exactly what I'd meant to say. 

Have you garbled any sentences lately? How much coffee do you drink before you trust yourself to send important early-morning emails


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Links for Writers, Elmore Leonard for Everyone

This edition of Links for Writers is dedicated to Elmore Leonard, the master of Westerns and crime novels who died Tuesday. If it weren't for Leonard's Ten Rules for Writers, I'd stud each paragraph with adjectives and adverbs. Indeed, once upon a time, I aspired to create characters who spoke dolefully harbored rueful thoughts, yet walked with a spritely step. Every time I edit my copy, I thank Leonard. 

Here's the man himself on writing:


I have lots of hooptedoodle to cut from my pages, but first I'd like to share two writing links that caught my eye. I think Leonard would approve of them.

1.) Every writer dreams of working with a gifted editor. Knopf's Jordan Paylin has edited Jennifer Egan, Allison Pearson, Julie Otsuka, and many more. Here, her passion for her work jumps off the page and onto your computer screen.

2.) Nowadays, a lot of writers grouse about traditional publishing and insist self-publishing's the way to go. If you prefer to keep your options open, read Delilah S. Dawson's how-to for completing a novel and snagging a traditional publishing contract.

The next link is for writers and readers. Writers, of course, are readers; it's a law, isn't it?

As a reader, you may be a curiosity to some acquaintances and co-workers. (Don't you wish you had a nickel for every time someone said, "You have time to read?!") You'll relate to "problems only book lovers will understand," a gif-happy list from Harper Collins.

Your turn: which of Leonard's "rules" speaks to you?

How many times a month do you encounter someone who's surprised you have time to read? Now, how many television shows does that person reference in a conversation? C'mon, you know you count 'em.



Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Drop in the Bucket

Fill it, don't kick it
For the longest time I avoided starting a bucket list. Sure, there are plenty of places I want to see and things I want to do, but bucket, as in "kicked the bucket" bugged me. I want to focus on life, not death. Eventually I came to see a bucket list as about making sure we wring every bit of fun, adventure, and learning from the time allotted to us.

I'm composing my list slowly. Some things I've talked about doing for years, like zip-lining. My 2012 trip to France reopened a long-shut door, and I can't wait to go back, so you know another visit to France is on the list. 

In a bid to live a long time, I'm making sure I've got things that will take months if not years to accomplish, like learning Spanish. Clever, huh? I can see myself at the pearly gates explaining to St. Peter it is necessary I return to earth to master the subjunctive tense. Think he'll buy it?

My goal is list of 100 or more items. Here are my first twenty--a drop in the bucket.

1. Learn better-than-basic Spanish. (This one's going to take a while, so I'd better get started.)

2. Go zip-lining. 

3. Walk at least part of the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage trail also known as The Way of St. James. It leads to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Was I influenced by watching The Way, a movie made by Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez? Si.

4. Visit The Cloisters in northern Manhattan, a museum devoted to art and architecture from the Middle Ages, including the Unicorn tapestries.

5. Acquire decent knife skills. I don't want to toss 'em in the air; I want to dice, mince, and julienne quickly and neatly.

6. Rent an apartment in Barcelona for a week. (Those Spanish skills, once acquired, are going to come in handy.)

7. Visit Yellowstone National Park

8. 5. Go kayaking

9. Revisit Flathead Lake, Montana A visit to Flathead Lake means I'm close enough for another visit to my much-loved Glacier National Park. (For a three-fer, I could kayak at Flathead Lake.)

10. Find a recipe for sangria that's not too sweet and has a kick. Lots of fruit, please.

11. Learn to make a souffle, then branch out to chocolate souffl├ęs and cheese souffl├ęs.

12. Visit Santa Fe

13. Visit Washington State's San Juan Islands (I could kayak there, too.) 

14. Learn to make sticky toffee pudding

15. Go to France

16. Go back to France

17. Visit France again.  

18. Learn to rewire a lamp

19. Visit Tulum (Spanish skills needed!)

20. Go to Alaska. See Denali, glaciers, moose, and the northern lights

That's it for are my first twenty. What about yours? Please share three things that are on your bucket list. Or tell why you hate bucket lists.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Five Things House-Hunting Teaches about Writing

If I had this pantry, would l can veggies?

House-hunting and writing have more in common than you'd think. The house hunter opens strangers' pantry doors to gauge how many boxes of cereal and cans of chicken broth the shelves will hold. The writer makes up a story about a mother and child who take refuge in a pantry during a home invasion. Both scenarios require imagination. 

The house hunter must be able to picture his/her family living in a particular space. Will the bedrooms please the children? Will the morning sun wake them gently or rudely? The writer pictures the mother and child wedged behind sacks of pet food and set of tray tables. The mother unscrewed the light bulb in the fixture overhead, so she and her little boy have a shot at staying hidden. Unfortunately, the invaders are hungry, and pantries hold snacks. 

House-hunting hammers home five basics of writing/querying:

1. Writers get one chance to make a good impression on agents and editors, so our queries should be polished to a high gloss. By the same token, house sellers get one chance to impress potential buyers. Power wash the front entry area, and don't forget the overhang. Is the door clean? Is the hardware in good condition?

2. At first, Hubs and I felt honor-bound to walk through every room of a for-sale house. Now, we check out the view. If it doesn't suit us, we're out of there. Editors and agents reject or ask for sample pages after reading a query's first couple of paragraphs. If the writing, plotting, and characters don't "speak" to them, why should they invest more time? Of course, a view that doesn't thrill me, may be someone else's idea of heaven, and a child-in-jeopardy plot that turns off one agent, may enthrall another.

3. The important-to-the-owners statements stenciled on walls and carved into wood may not speak to potential buyers. Not everyone wants to be reminded to "Live, Laugh, Love" during the house hunt. Similarly, the best fiction doesn't appear to have an agenda and doesn't shout its themes. 

4. Homeowners tend to remodel room by room, but each project should suit the house as a whole. Ten different kinds of flooring and wildly different paint colors make the overall effect choppy. Writers proceed chapter by chapter but have to keep the overall storyline in mind or the work becomes episodic.  

5.  Smart sellers get advice from those who've been there and done that. Someone who's relocated five+ times has a good idea of what buyers want in a house, and real estate agents routinely advise home owners to declutter. When it comes to my writing, it's hard for me to see certain flaws, so I count on critique partners and beta readers to point out mistakes and missteps. 

Do you see lessons for writers in the house hunt? Do the whiny house hunters on HGTV make you throw things?

About the house hunt: Where do you stand on carpet versus wood or tiled floors? When you walk into a showing and find scented candles burning, are you charmed or do you suspect a mold problem?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Hot Town! Summer in the City


I misplaced June and July. I know! Who loses whole months? I glimpsed them in passing but have no idea where they went.

Blame the heat for my absent-mindedness. My adopted city, Houston, shows its worst side in summer. We get lots of sunshine, true, but with it come high temperatures and humidity so thick, I'm tempted to doggy paddle rather than walk. I long for the cooler air of late October but didn't mean to wish away two months.

In Texas, schools typically reopen in late August, and the Houston Independent School District welcomes students on the 26th--just 25 days from now.

That means I have 25 days to enjoy the pleasures summer brings.  I vow to appreciate each of the following:

1.) Shandy - This drink is half lager, half carbonated lemonade (think lemon soda). If you're in the UK, use Schweppes lemonade. If you're in the US or Canada, try Sprite, Squirt, or 7-Up. 

2.) Watermelon - Summer's gift comes with or without seeds and in sizes suited to big and small households. It tastes like summer to me.

3. Haagen Dazs mango sorbet -  Stow a pint of this in the freezer and consume as needed to prevent heat-induced crankiness. 

4. Pools and lakes - Water and summer go together. Don't discount the simple pleasure of a dip in a kiddie pool in your own backyard.

5. Air conditioning - What would we do without it? 

6. Crepe myrtles - These trees never let us see them sweat. They put on a show when the heat roars and the plants around them close the shutters and take siestas.

7. Ceiling fans, oscillating fans, paper fans - What would we do without these air movers/relief givers? 

8. Sprinklers--The twap-twap-twap-hiss of automatic sprinklers means relief is on the way for stressed plants, and the sight of kids playing in the old-fashioned rotary kind takes me back to long-ago summers. 

9. Peaches cooked on the grill - Grilled veggies are my go-to meal accompaniment during the summer, but I recently discovered the joy of grilled fruit, particularly peaches. I offer you two recipes. The first is a dessert grilled peach from The Pioneer Woman.

10: Swings--Young families have moved onto my street and and re-energized the neighborhood. Two neighbors hung swings from the big tress in their front yards. One's a tire swing and the other has a wooden seat. The joy of kids at play is infectious.

Last month, record-high heat struck the country. Did you wring something positive out of temperatures that hovered near or above the three-digit mark? How'd you do it? (I have at least ten weeks of summer-like heat to get through and NEED suggestions.)