May 25, 2015

How to Become a Better Writer in Less than 500 Words

You've probably read these two words in more than one place: "Write more." People like to tout them as the secret to becoming a better writer.

They're not wrong, but... Quantity alone is not enough. You can teach a horse to sit on a piano keyboard, but you won't get Chopin out of that. So, besides quantity, what else do you need to improve your writing?

1. A point of view.

You care about certain things, while others don't matter at all. By definition, a creative writer is someone with things to say, even if those things aren't apparent to the writer.

Take Robert E. Howard's Conan, for example. Howard systematically pits Conan against foes that lack his vitality and straightforwardness — sorcerers that have forfeit their humanity, aristocrats that wield deceit instead of a sword, or brutes that lack Conan's faculty for reasoning, such as giant snakes and albino apes.

Through Conan, Howard expressed a longing for heroism and enchantment in his day and age, and a desire for confrontation with transmundane forces. To affirm the human he contrasted it with the non-human. Howard did not preach, he told stories that conveyed his personal values. Regardless of how you feel about those values now, Howard had points to make. So had George Eliot when she wrote Silas Marner; Margaret Atwood with The Handmaid's Tale; the same applies to The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin.

Take a look at your life and figure out what matters to you. What you can't live without. The lines you will not cross. If it's love, write about finding and losing love. Maybe it is justice? Write about it.

Set Your Heart Free
by Christian Schloe

2. Voice and style.

Style. You will never be able to write like someone you admire, but copying as a learning strategy just works. It's like learning to draw or play an instrument! By copying, you learn forms and structures. You learn rules and how to break them.

Now, here's where quantity helps: The more you write, the more you learn what works for you and what doesn't. You develop style by reading and incorporating lessons from your favorite authors. Wait, what am I saying? Even authors you don't like have things to teach you.

Voice. Voice is developed by writing with sincerity. That means being true to yourself and what you want to say. It means you will not try to make your writing pretty and you won't let ornaments become more important than the story you want to tell.

To wrap things up, a Portuguese proverb: Ninguém nasce ensinado. "Nobody is born a learned person." Congratulate yourself for learning. Enjoy your progress.


May 22, 2015

Why Isn’t the Plural of Asparagus “Asparagi”? And 5 Other Questions for the Modern Man, Woman, Child and Robot

1. Why Isn’t the Plural of Asparagus “asparagi”? 

Focus in the plural is foci. For nucleus, you have nuclei. But asparagus? Oh noooo, the word asparagus must diverge. It must taint the language with the plebeian form "asparaguses." Ach. To my chagrin, I learned that asparagus has replaced the Old English word sparagi. But how? Only gods and philologists know.

2. Why platypuses?

The scientific name for the platypus is Ornithorhynchus anatinus. It means — are you ready for this? — duck-like bird snout. People also call the platypus by its full name, "duck-billed platypus," as opposed to the shovel-billed platypus, the colander-billed platypus, or the donkey-powered-helicopter-billed platypus.

3. Why did they call Vivaldi "The Red Priest"?

Venice suffered an earthquake on the day Vivaldi was born. That very day, Vivaldi's mother decided he would take holy orders. He became a priest at age 25, and earned the nickname "Il Prete Rosso" (the red priest) thanks to the color of his hair.

You can listen to a creative interpretation of Vivaldi's "Summer" right here.

Birdhouse Revisited
by Laura Graves

4.  Why, why, why do we need a new Poltergeist?

The original film was not perfect, not a masterpiece, and it boasts more than a handful of unintelligent scenes. But does this story need to be told more poorly, with more impressive special effects taking the place of character development? I'm thinking back to the Evil Dead remake, which makes the original look like an Orson Welles.

Hollywood doesn't just underestimate you, however. It also thinks that movies need to be dumbed down for foreign audiences — a bizarre notion, because human brains are equally capable anywhere on Earth; we're a single species, Homo sapiens sapiens. Besides, Europe alone has directors like Peter Greenaway, Pedro Almodovar, Wim Wenders, Marc Rothemund... All of whom make sophisticated movies for demanding audiences.

5. If I glue an alligator to a bear, do I get a beargator?

No. You get two dead animals.

6. What's a good, non-dairy source of calcium?

Raw kale, garlic and arugula (rocket). The word kale, by the way, comes from Old English cāwel via Latin caulis.

May 16, 2015

Do You Know What 'H' Is For? Also, Heavy Metal Oven Mitt Hwants YOU to Have a Hwonderful Hweekend

Do you drop your aitches habitually? Or do you emphasize them in words like What, Who, Where and When?

So this week I decided to reread Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights and the word heights got me to think about the letter H. Why is H important?* Why should you care? But before we delve into the whys and wherefores, a quote from the book.

'The more the worms writhe, the more I yearn to crush out their entrails! It is a moral teething; and I grind with greater energy in proportion to the increase of pain.'

H is the unacknowledged legislator of the alphabet. It imparts authority, lends weight to vowels, makes 'anti-hero' sound great. Just imagine! Heathcliff without H would be named Eatcliff. What kind of teeth does it take to grind a cliff?

A girl with heterochromia iridum adopts a heterochromic dog. They meet a photographer and together
they create this wonderful image.

The word heterochromia owes a lot to the letter H.

Photo © Sergei Sarakhanov

Look at the letter H: It puts one in mind of two pillars connected by a bridge. H is the great connector. You try writing a novel without the letter H. What am I saying, a whole novel? Try a paragraph. Without it, you might as well forget about the hardest-working member of the English lexicon: the. And while the phonetic transcription might be [ðə], us common mortals that use the Roman alphabet would lose our way without H. We could do without a couple of vowels for a bit, but H? In your dreams.

This post was suggested to me by my good friend, Heavy Metal Oven Mitt.

Heavy Metal Oven Mitt
by John Magnet Bell


Heavy Metal Oven Mitt would now like you to enjoy a bunch of great things on the Hinternets.

[Further Reading]
Heducate Hyourself, part 1: The letter H on Hwikipedia

Learn of its Semitic origins, marvel at its hundred names in a dozen languages.

Heducate Hyourself, part 2: Folkscanomy, a collection of vintage science book covers

The much-beloved Internet Archive has gone through a redesign - it now looks bigger and bolder and fills your screen more confidently. Go and delight yourself with this Pinterest-like presentation of book cover design spanning the last few decades.

Heducate Hyourself, part 3: Heavy Metal Picks by Heavy Metal Oven Mitt

* Without H, we wouldn't have W.H. Auden, only a W. Auden. Admittedly less authorial and inspiring. Harold Pinter would be known as Arold Pinter. (Uuuuuugh.) And the word superhero would become unpronounceable.

Strawberry Lime Avalon
by John Magnet Bell

Inkscape / Photoshop

I designed a pair of leggings based on Strawberry Lime Avalon.
Click here to see my other legging designs

May 8, 2015

Three Book Mashups the World Is Dying to Read

If you learned you had six hours to live because the Earth was about to get hit by a giant space octopus riding a comet twice as big as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, what would you do with your six hours?

Let me tell you. You'd find the nearest spaceship, stock it to the rafters with ramen noodles and Two Buck Chuck (because you're thrifty) and make for the nearest planet. Mars.

Yet it takes a while to get to Mars. About six months, last time I checked. (I didn't check.) Here's something you could do to pass the time: Write novels that would entertain the native people of Mars. Now, you have to remember you may be the last living representative of the human race and all its cultural legacy, so you may find yourself obliged — noblesse oblige — to write books that summarize six thousand years of literary tradition.

One hopes you feel up to the task.

Don Davis

And — AND — because I do not begrudge you getting to the spaceship first, and kicking me off the ladder when I tried to climb into the cabin with you, condemning me and my hamster to certain death, I have a few suggestions for the sort of book you could write during your long, lonely, tedious, excruciatingly boring, sanity-crushing journey to Mars. Because I wish you well though I write this at the outset of my state of defunct-ness.

Suggestion #1.  
The Great Gatsby Fight Club*

OK, so The Great Gatsby told the story of a guy in the 1920s who lied to other people and Fight Club is about a totally different guy in the 1990s who lies to himself. It's all about lies and what others expect from us. About what is good and proper. Both lead characters have alter egos, I guess — for Gatsby it's his past self, for the guy in Fight Club it is Brad Pitt.

The Plot: In the 1920s, this Gatsby dude starts a secret club where spoiled rich kids beat the crap out of each other for his amusement. He pines for this Daisy girl like mad, doesn't realize he's been balling her since forever. When he treats Daisy like crap, she dumps him for an imaginary friend, so Gats goes ballistic and starts Project Mayhem in which the scions of California's richest families lay waste to suburban America thereby giving rise to the Great Depression, which was this morning when everybody woke up and all the Zoloft was gone.

Suggestion #2. 
The Star Wars Communist Manifesto**

Star Wars is this thing in space where lots of spaceships go kablooey. People fight with swords that require batteries to function properly, and have strange arguments about the use of force.

The Communist Manifesto was written by two beardy dudes and it proposes that all of us should be equal and have no bosses because we're the proletariat or the working class. And we're also supposed to be in this thing called a classy war which is when you wear a suit and tie and throw fancy wine at people, I guess, and the person with the cleanest outfit at the end wins the Internet.

The Plot: Red Vader wants to bring a common language to the galaxy, enforce uniform legal frameworks for everything from maritime law to private zoos and traveling circuses, organize taxation, provide utilities to the populace, provide for universal primary schooling and a galaxy-wide academic curriculum (none of that mystical, obscurantist Jedi crap) yet somehow, SOMEHOW, none of this is acceptable to the Rebellion.

But why? All that Vader asks in return for his generosity is a little cult of personality. Is that too much? What's wrong with sensible limitations on freedom of speech and a command economy, anyway?

So the great benefactor has to face opposition from his own children, who've been brainwashed by Obi Trump Kenobi, and protect the Red Star (a big fat honking warship on the Atlantic) against waves of attacks from robber baron fleets, broadcast signal intrusions and Rebel air raids.

Bonus points if you can come up with a dieselpunk setting for this.

Suggestion #3. 
The Lord of the Rings Had a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

The Lord of the Rings is mostly a travelogue but it includes some bonus content about an ancient spirit getting all pissy with the corporeal beings that run around his planet making funny noises and not looking in his general direction or acknowledging his authority. Also, the ancient spirit has huge daddy issues because his daddy made pretty corporeal beings and all of the ancient spirit's toys are ugly, so he gets real jelly and tries to break everybody's stuff. There's stuff about rings but only one of them matters, though it doesn't seem to do much.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is about Alexander, whose day doesn't go very well. He doesn't get a prize from his cereal box, his teacher refuses to admit that he drew an awesome invisible castle because she doesn't get modern art, and it sucks when they get you the wrong sneakers.

The Plot: Little Sauron Alexander*** goes to a school where all the kids make fun of him because he's a disembodied spirit who cannot exist outside his tiny armor. Undressing for the shower after gym is invariably the low point of any school day. If puffs of smoke could blush, little Sauron certainly would! He doesn't like being the only dark overlord in school; nobody respects his authority.

At mace practice he tries to hit his third best friend but bludgeons his best friend instead. The poor boy goes flying off the schoolyard! Fortunately, a passing eagle catches the boy midflight and brings him back. Only a broken jaw and a couple of ribs out of place — nothing too concerning. Everyone has a laugh at Sauron's expense. Oh, Sauron, you are so clumsy! Oh, Sauron, how will you conquer Middle Earth when you can't even master a simple mace? Then Sauron's best friend punches him in the shoulder and refuses to speak to him for the rest of the day.

After school a fancy magic ring at the ring shop catches Sauron Alexander's eye. He walks into the store and inquires about the price, nearly fainting when the sales associate says "one billion and forty-seven million dollars."
"That's insane!" Sauron cries. "My allowance is two dollars a week. It'll take me thousands of years to save up for that ring!"
"Well, you might just have to," says the sales associate.
Off goes little Sauron without the magic ring.

Coming home, he finds out that mother made ghost beans for dinner. Ghost beans suck! When Sauron grows up he will NOT accept any ghosts in his army. Especially not glowy green ones. The beans go BOO at Sauron, but he ignores their feeble groans and shoves them into the slit in his helmet. Where they go after that, nobody knows. Sauron asks to be excused and runs to the bathroom so he can brush his teeth and get rid of that bean taste... Except in the bathroom he remembers that he doesn't have any teeth. Damn. Damn it all to Mordor.

What an awful day. If only Sauron could move to New Zealand! His mother Galadriel explains that people have bad days everywhere, even in New Zealand. Maybe tomorrow will be even worse.

This is what New Zealand looks like now. Photo by Phillip Capper.

*This mashup probably contains a few factual errors. I only read a couple of pages of The Great Gatsby, got bored, watched part of a movie adaptation with Mira Sorvino, got bored of that, and I never read Fight Club either, although it does feature a great opening line. I did watch the movie twice. I do think Mira Sorvino played a character named Daisy in the Gatsby movie but I'm not sure.
**I have a rather foggy notion of what's in The Communist Manifesto. I do believe Marx wrote it in Hastings though, which is a nice seaside town in southern England. "Nice seaside town in southern England." Welp. "Nice" is just one of those words, isn't it? You don't really know what it means. At any rate, I'm sure Hastings was a nicer place in the 19th century than, say, Stalingrad during the famous siege.
***Wow, that sounds badass. If I ever get a turtle I'm going to call it Sauron Alexander.