This Modernist Life

Rainbow over the magic valleyThe work of the Modernists and Post-Modernists is not for everybody. Literature from this period can be dense, esoteric, and difficult for the casual reader to access. However, if you don’t mind playing the occasional mind game while you read a book, you might try a work from one of the greats like T.S. Elliot or Jennifer Egan. By reading these works and studying the scholarship around them, you can develop a new understanding of and appreciation for he use of the English language in art.

The representational nature of language in art is one of the big concerns of Modern and Post-Modern writers. In order to function, art must represent something – or must it? The act of representation has such a profoundly disruptive effect on a thing or concept that, in the eyes of many modernists, the thing represented is rendered completely pointless. Rather, it is the representational act that should stand at the center of the artistic work, and the artist should feel free to call the audience’s attention to the fact that representation is happening.

This emphasis on ‘the person behind the curtain’ is conveyed to the audience through a variety of techniques. Some writers use elaborate, inaccessible language to make the reader work for any meaning found in the text. Others use a kaleidoscopic timeline to force the audience to recreate the process of making a narrative out of real events. In almost all cases, the reader is challenged to find meaning rather than handed meaning on a silver platter.

Of course, if you want to be a commercial writer, you’re typically better off indulging your readers’ laziness than you are challenging them to a battle of wits. This doesn’t mean that the modernists don’t have some interesting philosophical ideas to offer the writer. We are, after all, in the business of representation, and learning a little about the ramifications of that act behooves us all.

Writing Exercise: Vocabulary Lists

Praying mantis on a sauce lidWe sometimes think of vocabulary exercises as the worst sort of busywork, something mainly imposed upon schoolchildren to teach them how to sit down and do something uninteresting for hours on end. However, writers can gain a lot from the simple task of defining and briefly using a list of words.

An increased understanding of vocabulary is never a bad thing, and going through a vocabulary list forces you to double-check your understanding of the English language. You’ll be surprised how much you learn about words you think you know – one word may have had more nuance than you realized, while another word might have another use that you didn’t know about. Still other words get learned once and then put in storage in the back of our minds. Going through a vocabulary list is a good way to find these (frequently excellent) words and put them to work in your writing.

In addition to a new perspective on the vocabulary of the English language, writers can gain a new perspective on their craft from this exercise. When you’re used to plotting, composing, and editing a long work, “use _____ in a sentence” can be a bit of a jarring task. Doing this kind of thing over and over again, without the distractions of plot and character development, lets you focus on how you construct sentences. If you’re trying to make your style more elegant, going through a vocabulary list will help you think about the mechanical elements of style.

Even if you’re the one your friends come to when they need to know how to use a word, you can benefit from the simple practice of defining and using all the words on a vocabulary list. This process can help you understand the English language better, it can help you develop your style, and it can even help you come up with an idea when you’re looking for inspiration.

Epistolary Storytelling

Dandelion seed-headMost writers eventually find themselves writing about some kind of text. A lover might leave a note that changes the course of a novel, or a character may complain about a major plot event in his diary. Some writers take things a little further by using an epistolary structure to frame an entire narrative.

Epistolary stories are told entirely or in large part through texts. Traditionally, they’re told through letters, but modern works like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Joseph Fink’s Welcome to Night Vale have used everything from advertisements to elaborate fake scholarly articles to tell their stories. Generally speaking, these narratives don’t break the fourth wall – they get their appeal from the way they communicate with an audience as fictional as they are.

The thing about epistolary narratives – and this can make them either excellent or wildly inappropriate for your story – is that they ask you to manage a very complex relationship. The narrator is communicating with an audience which exists within the universe you’ve created for the story, but the readers who pick up your book in real life are the ones who really need the information. You need to carefully and subtly work in world-building elements when you write an epistolary narrative. The narrator will need to spend some time talking about how people in your story go about their day, and their linguistic choices need to represent their background and their personalities.

A lot of writers don’t write many stories in epistolary form, but there are some who find it’s the most effective way to tell about a story. If you want to challenge your readers, some form of epistolary narrative can certainly help you provide an unusual and colorful narrative. However, writers should be extra conscious of clarity when using this intimate narrative form.

2XTreme4Dialect: Using Slang in Prose

Olive pickingMost writers learn quickly that when we refer to the English language, we’re really talking about a group of micro-languages, or dialects, which are so similar that a speaker of one can easily understand the speaker of another. Dialects are differentiated from each others by a variety of markers. Highly important among these markers (at least for writers of fiction) is slang.

Slang can do a remarkable amount of work when it comes to establishing the time and place of your novel. Terms like “Doll-dizzy” and “Killer diller” are as essential to the fabric of a 1940s US setting as bebop records and wartime propaganda. These informal expressions help the reader feel at home in a historical setting. They can also be used to add a modern touch to a story set in the present day, but be warned: in a few years, they will date your narrative and may jar the reader.

Slang can also help you build your characters. While nearly everybody uses slang to some extent, more educated characters (particularly in historical settings) will prefer to use more formal, ‘correct’ language. Moreover, characters from different backgrounds will use different kinds of slang. For example, a sailor during the Napoleonic Wars would have a rather rich slang vocabulary that is distinct from other slang of that era.

There are situations, of course, when you want to avoid the use of slang. Formal and technical writing are obvious areas, and some writers (such as myself) prefer to even keep it out of the narrator’s lines in fiction. You also want to steer clear of slang where it would make your characters seem stereotyped, and you never want to overuse it to the point where your writing becomes impenetrably gimmicky. However, a little informal expression here and there can help you make your settings and characters more rich, varied, and believable to your readers.

Why We Love the Books We Love

Love-in-a-mist flower with raindropsThis weekend, I had the displeasure of dealing with a minor flood in my basement. No lasting damage was done, except to the tall bookshelf that used to house my collection of books. Checking dozens of books for water damage and drying out the damp ones is not exactly my idea of a party. Nonetheless, it gave me a chance to think about how I came by these volumes and why I still keep them around.

Like anybody who’s gone to college for the liberal arts, I have a collection of books that I studied for classes. Some of them are laborious volumes of criticism and theory, and others are amusing novels that don’t take a day or two to read. What they all have in common is the level of scrutiny I have given them. I have analyzed and discussed their contents on an academic level, and I have a good understanding of where they fit in with their genre and their time period.

Other books in my little library are familiar in different ways.  There are encyclopedias of magical creatures, of fairy tales, of gods and goddesses from ancient civilizations around the globe: these, I go back to when I feel like I need to know how a particular mythic narrative works. Then, there are favorite novels, which I lose myself in to remind myself of the sheer pleasure of the written word. There are books of poetry, which I enjoy for their varied beauty at the same time as I mine them for lessons on effective technique.

I think it’s good to consider the relationships we have with different texts in our lives – even boring ones, like the drivers’ manuals in our glove boxes or the Idiot’s Guide to Cooking Things in Crock Pots. As writers, we seek to give each of our works a purpose. By considering the purposes of our favorite texts, we become a little more aware of how the best authors make their texts serve those purposes.

Avoiding the Dreaded Comma Splice

Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar close up, croppedThe comma represents no sound, but we pronounce it anyway when we read a sentence in English. A comma is a signal that we need to regard a word as a sort of ending point. Used properly, commas enhance the flow of your writing and let you develop a lovely, unique cadence. Used improperly, commas can muddle your writing and make your sentences awkward.

One frequent comma error is the comma splice, this sentence is a perfect example of one of them. It contained two clauses, one on each side of the comma. Both of the clauses were independent, and yet they were joined only by the weak mooring of an unadorned comma.

This comma splice can be corrected in one of three ways: the comma can be replaced by a break between sentences; the comma can be replaced by a semicolon; or the comma can be supplemented with a conjunction. These techniques keep your sentence’s clauses from running together, and they help your reader process the information your sentence is trying to get across.

Writers frequently have issues with comma splices in dialogue. It may be well and good to use conjunctions and semicolons in descriptive passages, but speech patterns tend to vary ever so slightly from the cadence of descriptive prose. Let’s face it: people speak in comma splices, and it’s tempting to write them into lines spoken between characters. However, you should opt for the emdash instead. It conveys a pause between two independent clauses – not quite a period, but more grammatically correct than a comma.

Comma splices are one of those little habitual errors that many writers have a hard time shaking off. However, it’s worth it to keep an eye out for this common mistake, because it can make your writing seem unpolished and make it hard for your readers to follow you. Be sure to always use something stronger than a comma to link two independent clauses.

Writing From Prompts

DCP_0369A lot of writers feel like they’re somehow ‘cheating’ when they write a story based on a prompt they found somewhere. Although this feeling comes from a good place – we do, after all, want to strive for originality in everything we write – there’s no need to be afraid to write from a prompt you stumbled across somewhere beside your own head.

Writing from a prompt is a freeing experience – particularly if you tend to get so enmeshed in where your story’s going that you wind up never writing it. If you have difficulty building your plots, writing a few stories using a detailed prompt can help you get a sense for pacing events and constructing a narrative.

However, plot isn’t the only element of storytelling that you can perfect by writing stories from prompts. There are prompts for character development, where you’re given some of a character’s personality traits and backstory as well as a change that the character will go through by the end of the story. You can combine this kind of prompt with a plot prompt, or come up with a plot of your own to develop the prompted characters.

Settings, too, can be prompted – although in many ways, randomly selecting a setting from a list can be a prompt of its own. Although I personally prefer to start with a setting and develop the characters and plot from there, many other writers start off with characters and stories in mind, but no setting.

Whatever your troublesome areas are when you write, a prompt can give you the structure you need to overcome them. The internet is full of prompts for plots, characters, settings, or even pieces of dialogue. In addition, coming up with prompts can be a fantastic way to spend an afternoon with your writing group. This is one writing tool that no writer should be afraid to use.

Understanding Predicative Phrases

Snail close upSome writers and linguists like to think of English sentences in terms of subject and predicate. The subject is the thing, character, or concept that the sentence describes to the reader, and the predicate is some property or attribute of the subject.

When we think of predicates, we typically think of verbs and verb phrases. The boy might throw the ball, or the woman touches her lover’s cheek. Predicative verb phrases are the heart and soul storytelling. They describe action, which is the most valuable attribute of all in fiction. Even if the action takes places on a somewhat abstract level, you should structure most of your sentences so that a subject does something to an object using a predicative verbal phrase.

I’m using the somewhat pedantic term ‘predicative verbal phrase’ in this discussion because I want to call attention to a different kind of predicative phrase – an insidious one that leads many writers to believe that they are using powerful verbs when they are not. The predicative adverbial phrase (and its sister, the predicative adjectival phrase) technically contain a  verb, but they do not convey an action. Rather, they function as a modifier, using a copula like “is”  to communicate static information about the sentence’s subject.

Now, the predicative adverbial phrase is not necessarily a bad sentence structure. Indeed, you will need it to describe many important details regarding your setting and your characters. Phrases like “Barbara was at home” or “the necklace was made of fine gold” are occasionally necessary to help the reader understand the setting and the story. However, they do not have the same sentence-driving affect as a true predicative verbal phrase, and using them excessively will make your writing weaker rather than stronger.

Although it’s almost impossible to find a predicate that technically lacks a verb, it is important to distinguish the predicative phrases that communicate action from the predicative phrases that simply describe the subject. Good, clear writing relies upon active verbs and verb phrases. Being careful with your predicative phrases will help you make sure your story’s language focuses on doing rather than being.

Nosce te ipsum

baby

What does it mean?

Know Thyself

The Suda, a 10th Century encyclopaedia, says that “the proverb is applied to those whose boasts exceed what they are”. The aphorism, sometimes written as temet nosce, is also used as a counsel against heeding the opinions of the masses.

Etymology

Nosce te ipsum or temet nosce are Latin terms which literally translate in English as ‘know you self’ and ‘yourself know’ respectively. The Suda places the maxim in the 10th Century and it recognises Thales of Miletus and Chilon of Sparta as its first sources. However, some scholars argue that it was probably an already popular proverb that was then attributed to various members of the Seven Sages of Greece, such as the two gentlemen above.

Improper use

If translated on some search engines and online translators, the word ipsum is deciphered as meaning ‘football’. To anyone with a half a brain, this is evidently incorrect. I can’t imagine any self-respecting sage wanting to put their name down in history to the phrase: “Know your football”.

Proper Use

Even in Ancient Egypt, it has been used in the Inner Temple of the Temple of Luxor where, among other proverbs, it is inscribed:
Man, know thyself … and thou shalt know the gods.

Ad nauseam…

What does it mean?

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Ad nauseam is a fairly negative term. It is used to refer to something that has continued for a long time, to the point of making everybody feel slightly sick. It may or may not have been unpleasant in the beginning.

Etymology

‘Ad nauseam’ is a Latin term which literally translates in English as ‘to sickness.’ It’s first recorded use was in 1647. A form of the phrase used previous to this was ‘usque ad nauseam’ which means ‘all the way to sickness.’ The ‘usque’ was later dropped.

Improper use

It is commonly misspelt ‘ad nauseum’ due to the way it sounds aloud. If there’s a linguist in your life who you really want to irritate, this is a very good way to do it.

Proper Use

 

It is used to express being really fed up with something that has gone on for a long time or been overdone. Examples of use in a sentence:

‘He’s told the same story over and over ad nauseam.’
‘They’ve argued about the same thing for days ad nauseam.’
‘She talked about her new car ad nauseam.’