Focus: Words

Orange You Glad? Autumn Colors

Green in Arizona

Since Halloween is marching its way to our doorsteps, and my books have slight “green” tint, I thought I’d share a bit of lore about “green,” and a very bad joke that mentions that other autumn color, orange.

“Knock-knock.”
“Who’s there?”
“Orange.”
“Orange Who?”
“Orange you going to download my free book on Amazon and give it a stellar review?”

Foul Wind, the second in my Havoc in Hancock humorous suspense series, is now free on Amazon Kindle from October 19th – October 23!  I changed the cover, making it a bit more menacing.

In Foul Wind, when former activist Feather finds the brutally murdered body of her sister’s lover but can’t find her sister, she rushes to discover what’s behind the foul wind from a new energy plant in North Idaho. Why rush?  Her meddling mother could become the next victim. Or Feather could become the prime suspect. 

 

Download it here.

 I promise it’s better than my joke!

Now on to the green, the word and the political movement.

The word green has its roots in the Old English grene, meaning young, immature, or raw, and possibly, from Old High German, meaning to grow. According to some of my sources, grass has the same roots. (Language-wise.)

A green as a grassy field comes from Old English, and its reference to someone of a tender age, youthful, and hence, gullible has been in use since the 15th century.

Any discussion of the green movement and where it has its roots can fast be made murky by politics. Many agree that Henry David Thoreau, who pled, in his book Maine Woods, that we preserve our virgin forests, was one of the first Americans to make an environmentalist statement. Others cite Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a 1962 book that warned of the dangers of pesticides and environmental pollution, as the key factor launching the green movement.

The first Earth Day, a grassroots demonstration on behalf of the environment, was held April 22, 1970, the brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson. The 1970s saw the worldwide beginnings of green parties, formed to promote grassroots democracy, environmentalism and social justice.

The season of harvest and Halloween led me to consider something else green: the maze. Given the many corn mazes that we see at this time of year, I wondered if the word maze had any relation to maize. It doesn’t.

Maize is corn, from the Spanish, maiz.

Maze comes from Middle English and means bewildered or stunned. It is the root of the word amaze, to astonish or stun. Maze was formerly a verb meaning to confuse or bewilder, but generally today is only used as a synonym for a labyrinth, a network of interconnecting and confusing paths, a warren; a puzzle.

What’s not a puzzle is  the beauty of Arizona’s fall and my delight in knowing it won’t be followed by snow and ice.

Don’t Needle Me: The Words We Use

While traveling a while back, I saw a woman toting a sewing machine as her carry-on luggage. No one stopped her.

What is the matter with the Transportation Security Administration? Don’t they realize the dangers inherent in sewing machines? Consider the terminology.

A needle is a small, slender, pointed implement used for sewing or surgical suturing. Have you never punctured yourself while attempting to attach a button or stitch a hem? I inevitably bleed on my blouse or skirt. It’s no wonder the verb needle also means to goad or provoke. I’m often provoked when attempting to sew.

This line of thought led me to consider the analogies used in business and wonder for a moment why sewing analogies don’t show up as often as sports. I assume it is because until recently the majority of business strategists were male, and the majority of sports enthusiasts were also male. “Let’s figure out our game plan so we’ll be in the catbird seat.” I’ve wondered where the catbird seat is and where the phrase came from. It apparently was used in the south to mean an advantageous position, high up where the group of birds that includes the mockingbird choose to sit to sing their tunes. The term was popularized in a story by James Thurber, who cited its frequent use by sports commentator Red Barber.

When things are going well, the company is batting a thousand, perhaps with the assistance of a cleanup hitter.

Although these terms are easily understood by most Americans, even those who aren’t fond of sports, the full court press utilized by basketball teams and business strategists may be more obscure. Any of these could be misconstrued by those not familiar with the sport.

Some years ago, former Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice, urging patience to critics of a plan to shut down North Korea’s nuclear program, assured them we were only in the first quarter, with a lot of time left on the clock.

Rice’s language was familiar to others on the Bush White House team, but less to the Asians she was addressing. But that’s okay. Ms. Rice took one for the team and kept her eye on the ball. A good thing, else her gaffe might have become a political football for Democrats to kick around.

Let’s level the playing field and consider the other endeavors and hobbies that we employ to add spice to our words. Want to postpone making a decision? Put it on the back burner. Let your ideas simmer for a while. But don’t stew about the problem and by all means, don’t cook the books. However, if the issue rises to the top of the list, consider your opportunity to curry favor with your manager by putting some heat under it.

The phrase curry favor has nothing to do with Indian cooking. It comes from an old French morality poem about a vain donkey named Fauvel that deceived the leaders of the court and rose to power. Those who wanted to please him and gain political power stroked and curried Fauvel. A later English moralist changed the term and it evolved to currying favor.

Let’s end where we began, with sewing. Two basic stitches in knitting are the knit stitch and the purl stitch. Is it possible the word purl is related to purloin? Purloin, meaning steal or misappropriate, has its origins in Middle English, meaning to put away or set aside. I’d love to hear from knitters out there if there’s any sense in my thinking. One website referred to the purl as the opposite of a knit stitch. The purl stitch is yin, the dark, shady hillside, to the knit stitch’s yang, the bright, flat open space.

Or am I merely missing a stitch?

Fit or Flat: Getting Your Novel in Shape Part II

Let’s chat about sagging middles. Pilates works at strengthening the body’s core, creating a taut, attractive, strong middle. That’s what we want in our writing, too.

exercising womanOne way to create that taut core in a novel is to strengthen the connecting tissue by applying tension and conflict. That strong line of tension and story question pulls you through to the end.

Throughout the story arc, your protagonist must face a series of obstacles. Things must get worse, then worse yet. Oh, and even worse, before she uses her wits and talent to resolve those problems.

But each chapter, each scene, also needs tension. An argument between the main characters isn’t necessarily conflict. Or at least not compelling, page-turning tension.

In each scene, the focal character wants something. You can create tension by making it hard to achieve that objective, by putting up obstacles and by showing the emotions created in your point of view characters as they struggle to achieve their objectives. Even better? Show the emotions created in the non POV character in the scene, as observed by the POV character.

Pacing creates tension. Taut, rapid fire dialog without tags and with lots of white space on the page moves the scene along. Contrast that pace by using telling details to stretch a physical act beyond what you’d normally expect, or by allowing your character a moment for reflection. A moment. A brief moment. Too much internal thought drains tension.

You want to make sure your protagonist is not getting what he or she wants from the scene. Nor is the reader. And that creates fat-30252_1280tension. And tension is like a girdle for a sagging middle.

Another cause of the sagging middle is including too much back story. We’ve learned that you need to delay back story until after the first 50 pages. That’s a good lesson. It doesn’t give you permission to dump back story, like a four cheese lasagna, into your middle. It will sag. Sprinkle the bits of essential back story throughout the middle and avoid the back story bulge.

Make things difficult for your protagonist, season lightly with the right details, show the emotion that each obstacle, each event, creates in your characters, and don’t drown your reader in back story. You’ll avoid flabbiness and achieve a tasty, toned tale.

How do you keep your writing trim? Please share your tips.

 

Fit or Flat: Getting Your Novel in Shape: Part I

Just like the people who pen them, novels in progress (and some in print) are subject to several physical ailments:  flabbiness, sagging middles, lack of tension and tone, and just plain old flatness, no zip.

And as we do for our bodies, certain practices or exercises will help get them into shape. In today’s post, I’ll give my take on ways to control flabbiness. Possibly because flab has been on my mind (and above my waistline) of late. Next time we’ll tackle sagging middles.

sunset-163479_640Beware. While walking the dog can help tone you and the dog, what Margie Lawson terms “walking the dog” in your novel can lead to flabbiness and bored readers.

When you include every detail of your protagonist’s life, from the alarm’s pealing to the kind of shower gel he uses to the cracking of two free range eggs into a cast iron skillet, you’re walking the dog. TMI, too much information. And then…and then…and then….sounds like the report of an excited kindergartner, who assumes the listener wants to hear every moment of the day.

eggs-932189_1280Details are effective ONLY when they provide useful insights into your character’s personality or the problem he or she faces. Details mean more when they are specific, and have meaning to your character. Possibly some of the facts in that first sentence told you something about the character, but I would only include it if, say, I wanted my reader to know my protagonist uses iron skillets because he’s deathly afraid of using aluminum.

Telling details, as they’re often called, tell us something about the character or the scene. Showing the character cutting her food into tiny pieces and moving it around on the plate instead of consuming it provides more insight than her hair color, body type and facial characteristics.

In description, include details that are important to your point of view characters, details that evoke their emotions. Don’t just catalog the scenery because you like your setting. Make it count for your characters and it will compel your readers to keep reading.

How much detail do you think works in the books you read and/or write?

Avoid Embarrassing Goofs

I’m working on a book that compiles many of the articles I wrote for The Idaho Statesman’s Business Insider when I lived in Boise.  I’ll be posting them throughout the next months and welcome your comments and corrections.

Before you hit “print” or “send” on any document, you need to be sure it is as free of errors as possible. This is most important when dealing with words with a longer life span, such as website copy, but mistakes weaken any communication.

First, for fun, let’s define grammar, punctuation and mechanics. Grammar is the way words are put together to make units of meaning. Punctuation refers to those symbols used to help people read sentences the way we want them to be understood.

Mechanics refers to the arbitrary “technical” stuff in writing: spelling, capitalization, use of numerals, and other conventions.

Usage is the way language is used. Usage evolves and changes with time and attitudes. Usage affects grammar, punctuation, and/or mechanics.  write-2400px

Let’s move on to ways to check our documents. The best proofreader is someone else, because it is hard to find our own typos. But if you don’t have that luxury, try these hints.

1.) Print your document instead of proofreading it on the computer screen. You’ll find more errors.

2.) Read the document backward. You’ll see words you’ve skipped.

3.) Pay attention to, but don’t blindly obey the spelling and grammar checkers on your computer.

4.) Use the auto-correct feature in your word processor to correct words you consistently mistype. Add your personal bugaboos to the program.

5.) Read your work aloud. If you are bored by your voice, consider trying a free program such as Text Aloud, which converts any text into spoken words. Standard voices are free, premium voices come at a fee. I don’t know exactly what a premium voice is, but perhaps sultry comes at a cost.

6.) Use the tip of a pen or pencil to physically touch each word (on the printed page) to force yourself to read each word. Try putting a ruler under a line. Or (idea thanks to Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing) cut out a small rectangular window on an index card and slide it over your copy as you read. I think the hole would be hard to cut. Maybe a notch in the top?

7.) Several automatic editing  programs may provide the help you need to  check your manuscript for style: overuse of words, unvarying sentence lengths, clichés, too many “ly” adverbs, passive voice, ending with a preposition (not always wrong), misused homonyms, repeated words (close together), common misspellings (such as mispel) and other flaws. Some are free; most give free trials. Google automatic editing for reviews and try them. I’ve tried a couple and they do indeed find errors. I don’t always agree with them or have the patience to use them. However, some people love these programs.

Error-free may be a dream, but these hints will lead to fewer typos and a better finished product.

How about you? What’s your best hint for avoiding those embarrassing goofs (the kind on the page)?

Rorters, spruikers and malarkey

While researching the art of the long con for a new novel, I came across an article from Australia and was introduced to two delightful words: rorter and spruiking. Exploring them led me farther astray. What a great way to procrastinate.

A rorter is generally considered Australian slang, and is a noun meaning a swindler, a small-time confidence trickster or cheat. Say it out loud, with or without the Aussie accent. It simply sounds cool, nicely insulting.hog in meadow

The same article referenced spruiking, which means speaking in public, especially to advertise. Ever visit North Beach in San Francisco? No doubt you’ve heard spruiking from the people trying to lure you into the strip joints. The term also is used—by the opposition, no doubt—to describe political speeches. Proponents call it orating.

A rorter might be found spruiking near a bank, hoping to snare a mark with a pigeon drop scheme. A pigeon drop is a confidence trick in which a mark or “pigeon” is persuaded to give up a sum of money in order to secure the rights to a larger sum of money, or more valuable object. In reality, the scammers make off with the money and the mark is left with nothing.

The wise—or bitterly experienced— passerby will recognize the con artist’s spiel as malarkey and keep passing.

Malarkey. Ah, yes. Love the word. Malarkey is defined as foolish words or ideas, or bunkum. Another great word. While the origin of malarkey appears murky, bunkum has a specific and colorful history.

Around 1820, U.S. representative Felix Walker, from Buncombe County, North Carolina, rose to make a spDSC01016eech during a debate. He spoke on and on. And on, refusing to stop, even though most of what he said was irrelevant and foolish. He maintained he was speaking for Buncombe. Because it was not used as an intentional delaying tactic, it was not filibuster, a technique and a term introduced a few decades later. It quickly transformed into bunkum and took on the general meaning of nonsense or balderdash. Balderdash originally meant a jumble of liquors but now means a senseless jumble of words, or claptrap.

Claptrap, according to an online etymology dictionary, originated showy stage action designed to trap applause or claps and has evolved to mean nonsense.

A quick search for synonyms reveals a basket of words—beans, blarney, blather, blatherskite, bosh, blither, drivel, codswallop, fiddlesticks, humbug, guff, taradiddle, and more. Is this because we encounter it so often?

Have you encountered a flim flam man (person) or written about one? What’s your favorite film about con artists? I figure watching several could extend my procrastination for weeks!