What makes good literature?

An extremely good conversation in my literature class about intelligence (Inspired by Ted Chiang’s The Great Silence). We talked about other species that fall under the definition of intelligence, which is “the ability to understand and apply knowledge.” parrot.jpgConsidering Alex the Parrot and Koko the Gorilla, and other species: crows are problem solvers and remember faces. We discussed dogs, cats, and others. Is love, as an abstract idea, understood and applied by animals? And then – is intelligence found in showing love?

This is what good literature should do. Teach, delight, and create wonder.

Read The Great Silence here

What’s So Scary?

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“Don’t be afraid of failure.  The reality is that most people successes rise out of the ashes of their previous failures.”

From a new documentary on Netflix titled Creativity. The narrator is talking to the creator of Game of Thrones. The creator is talking about how many times he’s failed.

I started this to say – what are you afraid of?

Then I wanted to ask – what if there was no such thing as fear? What would you do? What could you do?

I want you to think about that. What if fear was not in the human range of emotion or thought?

 

The Comma Coma – a deadly disease

Do you go into a coma when someone starts talking about commas?

Don’t get bit by the deadly comma coma bug! Figure out how to make the comma work for you, not against you!

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The purpose of all punctuation is to clarify your thoughts and ideas so readers can enjoy and understand the book!

Did you have a teacher that told you, “whenever you feel the need to pause, insert a comma”?

WORST ADVICE EVER!

When we are writing, we naturally pause to think. That is not necessarily where a legal-grammar-rules-keep-calm-and-use-commas-e1490740001283comma needs to be.

Commas have a number of rules. My favorite site to use – and to introduce to my students – is the Owl at Purdue. Their comma usage explanations are clear and detailed.

One of my editor-friends believes the comma used for introductory words, phrases, and clauses is “going the way of the dinosaur.” While I agree that some people and publications seem to think so, I think it’s still a valid and needed use. [I’ve used introductory commas in this blog – one was in the previous sentence, “While I agree…]

The Fanboys rules is the easiest to remember; however, because of the number of teachers giving the pause advice, I get sentences that look like this:

The Rams won but, not everyone was happy.

We sometimes punctuate our speech this way for emphasis, but you can’t hear tone in these words, and it’s just wrong.  < this sentence contains correct use of the fanboys rule.

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My students often ask me to explain the whole “Oxford Comma” disagreement. Well, it goes like this: There are people who use the oxford comma and then there are monsters!

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Commas are confusing, but they’re not impossible to learn. Any editor is going to appreciate the correct use of commas regardless of how much they appreciate or introductory comma. 🙂

 

 

Friday Feature: Just a Bit O’ Dialect by Expert Story Teller David Francis Curran

Just A Bit O’ Dialect

Dialect can make anything from a Sci-fi novel to a western story come alive with unique and realistic voices. But if your English fiction contains text as obtuse as:

Da grill da bik rude

it is unlikely that your work will be published.

To master the mystery of writing good dialect it helps to have a little insight into the difference between the rules of English, and effective communication. Some years ago a communications researcher at the University of Colorado, Dr. Sally Planalp, did a study on transitions. She took articles featuring various types of transitional links between paragraphs, broke them up into individual paragraphs, and then scored each transition on how well students could put the paragraphs back in the proper order using transitions as the key.

Most of us are to used to the idea that there are rules in the English language and students get graded on how well they know them. What Planalp did was grade the rules on how well they helped people understand what was going on. When we write in dialect we are breaking the rules. What we need to know is how to break them in such a way that people will still know what is going on.

There are three basic rules that pretty much sum up how we understand what we do understand in our language.

Semantic rules govern the meaning assigned to words. For example in the obtuse example above I substituted “da” for “the.” Semantic rules are arbitrary. There is no reason, for example, why a cat couldn’t have been named a “Meow.”

Syntactic rules govern the way in which sentences are put together in a language. In English we would say “The girl rode the bike.” Other languages have different syntactic rules. A German, would say, for example, “The girl the bike rode.”

The final rule, is Regulative. These govern the meaning of a communication based on the context. For example, the difference in a mother saying, “Johnny!” when her son gets a good report card, and “Johnny!” when the boy has just emptied the entire laundry detergent box into the washer. There is much more to regulative rules. They are the reason that, even though we somethings mispronounce words, or use the wrong words when speaking, our friends still understand us. If you make the context clear your dialect will always be understandable.

Now that you know the rules you can write effective dialect. To write effective dialect, that is dialect your reader will be able to understand, break either the semantic or syntactic rules but never more than one of these rules at any given time.

To prove this, in my fiction writing classes I give students one long paragraph to translate in which I’ve broken only the semantic rules. I’ve included a shorter example below. (It will probably be more fun to try solving this by reading it out loud with a friend.) See if you can figure it out.

Hum pieity Dun pieity at onta wrull. Hum pieity Dun pieity wrad o grit brawl. Sol ta binks borsis wrend sol ta binks ben, wroudn’t but Hum pieity agrather awren.

Similar things have successfully appeared in popular fiction. In Larry Shue’scomic play The Foreigner the main character is presented as someone who does not speak English. When asked to tell a story, he tells Little Red Riding Hood, substituting made up words for the English equivalent. The audience always gets it, the characters on the set think it sounds familiar and the result is hilarious.

Did you solve the example above yet? As in Shue’s play I used regulative trick to help you. In both the story in Shue’s play and the nursery rhyme I used in my example above,the words sound a bit like the original English words. The sound helps, but when understanding comes it is more than just the sound of the words, it is that the syntax is English and words themselves sound familiar. The sound helps remind you of a context that you should remember from your childhood.

Let’s go back to the obtuse example at the beginning of this article. “Da grill da bik rude” hard to understand is that two rules have been broken, syntactic and semantic. You probably guessed by now that this is an attempt at a German accent, saying, “The girl the bike rode.” Two far simpler ways to hint at the German accent and still get the color of the speakers voice across would be:

(1) To use the german syntax with only words that can be found in an English dictionary, “The frÑulein the bike rode.”

(2) Or to use some German, or made up German words but with English syntax. “Da frÑulein rode da bike.” If you use another languages syntactic rules(1) your writing will be far harder for English readers to understand.

If you must break syntactic rules keep your writing to short sentences. The second version(2) gives a sense of a foreign language but is much easier for an English readers to follow, and is the most often recommended way to include dialect in a story.

We’ve talked about semantic and syntactic rules, but not regulative rules. Regulative rules are the most important of all. Regulative rules govern the meaning of what is written in the context of how you tell the story. Regulative rules are so important that, If you make the context clear enough you can go beyond dialect and even write in a foreign language. If you set up the context so well, that when a character speaks in a foreign tongue we know from the context ( that has been given in English ) the basic gist of what the character must say. Randy Wayne White in his Doc Ford mystery series does this exceptionally well in books like North of Havana. However, again, you want to keep the foreign language sections as short as possible.

One thing you should keep in mind when using dialect is that there is a paradox in the “translation” of foreign languages. Look at these examples of translations of Ihara Saikaku’s book The story of Seijuro in Himeji.

Here is a short section of the translation by Wm. Theodore De Bary:

1. Darkness is the time for Love; Love makes night of day In spring the treasure ships lay, with waves their pillows, on a quiet sea before the bustling harbor of Murotsu. . . .

Here is the exact same work translated by Ivan Morris:

1. Love Is Darkness, But in the Land of Love the Darkest Night Is Bright as Noon. The town of Murotsu is a great bustling harbour and here, in the peaceful springtime waves, rest the ships with their heavy cargos of treasure. . . .

I ask my students, how can two men, translating the exact same text come up with such different translations. The paradox is that in languages with far different grammatical rules, words and metaphors, the writer’s tools, may not be directly “translatable” into English and vice versa. Which means you should concentrate on capturing your story and not worry too much about the language. Dialect should be used only to give your writing flavor, like spice in cooking. If you put too much in and try to capture the foreign language itself you’ll ruin your soup.

To used dialect effectively break either syntactic or semantic rules, but break only one of these rules. Then use dialect sparingly, and your fiction will come alive.

David Francis Curran

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Many Thanks, David!

noreen

Food Crimes: How PSL Saved My Life.

We’ve all had those days. For one reason or another, we didn’t get enough sleep, on the verge of exhaustion, or worse – near ill, but we need to make it through, we need to show up and be functional.

Enter: Caffeine. psl3

Every day I read a different article about caffeine, it’s good, it’s bad, tea has more, coffee has more, they have antioxidant effects, people live longer, live shorter. No one study has definitively come up with one right answer.

But here’s the truth:  Too much caffeine can cause anxiety.

psl2See me two months ago for my first set of anxiety attacks. There’s a lot going on right now, but I’m usually the queen of calm. But too much caffeine and not enough physical exercise, and the onset of anxiety happens.  I know this because my sisters have anxiety and the first thing their doctors said is “cut out the caffeine and chocolate.”

Well, before I let a doctor tell me to cut out chocolate, I decided to ease back. During the summer, I’d been drinking three or four cups of tea by 2pm and sometimes an added cup of coffee by 4pm.  I know some people drink coffee all day long and are not affected; it’s what you’re used to and what your body can take. Mine decided too much was too much. I cut back to one cup a day. It wasn’t too hard. I actually still had two cups made from one tea bag; my way of cheating.

Then, school begins. Not related to caffeine, or coffee, psl1tea, chocolate or any guilty pleasures, but to a new schedule and my body trying to get used to it – I spent one night tossing and turning and getting up and laying down, breathing deep and keeping my eyes closed, but to no avail – I ended up falling asleep around 4 in order to wake up at 6am. I felt zombie-like.

I made it through my first class, but had another class to teach after an hour of office meetings.

Enter: PSL.

pslStarbucks sent me an email (yes, me personally, about their early release of Pumpkin Spice Latte), but I ignored it, telling myself I was off the hard stuff. I didn’t need any espresso and sugar to get me through the day, just good healthy food and clean, clear water. Besides, it’s far too early to imbibe on pumpkin anything.

But, see, it was one of those damn dirty lies we tell ourselves. When our next sleep is off on some unknown horizon, we must continue to function. My car turned, almost automatically into the Starbucks parking lot, and I found myself in a mist, floating to the barista as they handed me an iced-grande-half-caff-PSL-no whip.

The mixture of caffeine and sugar, the delishness of it all, kept me awake so I could earn a living, not fall on my face in front of 30 some students, and hold worthwhile conversations (I hope), with my colleagues.

Good, bad, friend or fiend, crime or not, caffeine isn’t going anywhere. Thank goodness.

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