Category Archives: Language

Getting the words right

Ursula K. Le Guin
By Gorthian – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31670340
Writers, whether new or seasoned, know well the central struggle of the craft, which is, as Ernest Hemingway put it, “Getting the words right.”

When you nail it, there’s nothing like it. The scene that sizzles, the story that moves readers — that’s what we live and work for as writers.

To me, no other fictional work has better captured the promise — and risk — of language than Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic, “A Wizard of Earthsea,” which tells the story of a boy learning the art of wizardry. The boy’s aunt, a dabbler in spell-making, introduces young Duny to the mystical relationship between the entities of our world and the names by which we know and influence them:

She praised him, and told him she might teach him rhymes he would like better, such as the word that makes a snail look out of its shell, or the name that calls a falcon down from the sky.

“Aye, teach me that name!” he said, being clear over the fright the goats had given him, and puffed up with her praise of his cleverness. …

When he found that the wild falcons stooped down to him from the wind when he summoned them by name, lighting with a thunder of wings on his wrist like the hunting-birds of a prince, then he hungered to know more such names and came to his aunt begging to learn the name of the sparrowhawk and the osprey and the eagle. To earn the words of power he did all the witch asked of him and learned of her all she taught, though not all of it was pleasant to do or know. pp. 4-5

Young Duny (later to be known as Ged) learns that the purpose of developing his power is to enhance and protect life. One of the themes of Le Guin’s riveting tale is the danger that a wizard can misuse that power if it is wielded carelessly.

The point, of course, is that the power of language is not only real, but necessary for a full life as a human being in society and the world. When used thoughtfully, language connects and anchors us. I like the way Joe Moran of Liverpool John Moores University expresses the process in this Literary Hub article:

For the American writing teacher Francis Christensen, learning to write was also about learning to live. He believed that teaching his students how to write a really great long sentence could teach them to “look at life with more alertness.” It should not just be about ensuring that the sentence is grammatically correct, or even clear. The one true aim, he wrote, was “to enhance life—to give the self (the soul) body by wedding it to the world, to give the world life by wedding it to the self.” He wanted his students to become “sentence acrobats” who could “dazzle by their syntactic dexterity.”

“To give the world life by wedding it to the self.” Beautiful. Such moments make the rejections and rewrites worth it.

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Bright Star

Steve Martin

My wife and I saw “Bright Star” yesterday. We loved it. You will too, and I’ll tell you why.

On the surface, it’s a typical musical, bustling with subplots about young love, the pains and joys of family relations, and Southern gothic melodrama, all peppered with timely comic relief. But it’s really about writing, editing, and language itself. Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) wrote the book, and in addition to his accomplishments as an actor, director, and musician, is a gifted writer. He knows what it’s like to be rejected, to hang in there, and finally get that first manuscript published.

Billy Cane, just returned to Zebulon, North Carolina after serving in WWII, has a bad case of the writing bug. It’s so bad, he’s willing to leave his beloved home town and move to Asheville to endure the rigors of pleasing a demanding editor and her good cop/bad cop assistants. All writers will appreciate young Billy’s exchanges with his editor, who’s brutally honest with what she sees as a promising talent. At one point, she shoves a manuscript back at him as if it’s toxic, then lets another dangle in her fingers and says, “This may be acceptable if you delete 300 words.” Poor Billy scans a few pages, scratches his head, and replies, “Could you tell me WHICH 300?”

There are many references to the Southern writing tradition. Steve Martin, who was born in Texas, knows a thing or two about language’s ability to uplift, to wound, and to connect with others, familiar and rich themes often explored in Southern literature. This musical is a celebration of faith in one’s family, in one’s ability to persevere, and to hope. If you get the chance, don’t miss this one. It’s a winner.

My Name is Joe Bob, and I’m an English Major

Reader

Well. Seems Joe Bob Briggs is torn these days. While repeatedly swearing his life long love for literature, he now claims it has no real-world value:

And eventually, if you study the data, which is what the Modern Language Association does, you have to reach the conclusion that studying English is good for…nothing. …

I’m racking my brain. I’m trying to come up with justifications. I’m trying to figure out some way this translates into “Yes, you are now prepared for life.” But alas, these modern students who thumb their noses at English are correct. It’s good for nothing. It has no practical value whatsoever.

Wait — NO practical value? C’mon, Joe!

Briggs laments that many of today’s college students aren’t even considering majoring in English, and are instead flocking to more “practical” courses of study. No doubt a degree in accounting or math is more marketable these days. But to dismiss the study of literature as having no value is wrong, wrong, wrong.

We could argue that learning how to interpret complex texts has significant value in a technological world. We could talk about the crucial role of reading in improving one’s social intelligence, making one more adept at working with others, or how reading helps one form a robust and informed worldview to make sense of one’s place in the world. Or how fiction in general, and science fiction in particular, opens one to spiritual insights that can make you a happier, and therefore more productive person.

But if you insist on focusing only on hard science, we’ve got you covered. Scientists have solid evidence on the link between reading and general problem solving skills. The act of reading itself builds “white matter” in the brain that boosts its ability to recognize patterns and imagine new scenarios. The importance of reading in nurturing general intelligence is beyond dispute:

But in today’s world, fluid intelligence and reading generally go hand in hand. In fact, the increased emphasis on critical reading and writing skills in schools may partly explain why students perform, on average, about 20 points higher on IQ tests than in the early 20th century. The so-called Flynn effect is named after James Flynn, a New Zealand professor who has devoted much of his career to studying the worldwide phenomena of increasing IQ scores.

Knowing technical details is important, but developing the ability to use technical knowledge in new and creative ways is critical.

The Linguist as piñata

Noam Chomsky

From Scientific American:

Noam Chomsky’s political views attract so much attention that it’s easy to forget he’s a scientist, one of the most influential who ever lived. Beginning in the 1950s, Chomsky contended that all humans possess an innate capacity for language, activated in infancy by minimal environmental stimuli. He has elaborated and revised his theory of language acquisition ever since.

It’s a great article, and includes an interview with another accomplished linguist, Steven Pinker. Pinker concludes that even after decades of brutal examination and criticism, Chomsky’s famous thesis best explains how children master language. The alternatives boil down to arguing that language is an artificial construct of the rational mind that children, starting from a blank slate, must learn.

This vindication of Chomsky’s universal grammar theory is interesting on two counts, and both impact my writing. First, I’m fascinated by language. More important, scientific support of language as an inborn capability bolsters the view that people are naturally social, as opposed to the atomistic, rationalistic view of humanity pushed by both Hobbesians and Marxists.

We’re not plopped on this planet to enrich ourselves and consume; we are born to experience the world and find ourselves in it. That’s the worldview that animates everything I write.

The Power of Body Language

Yojimbo2

Are you frustrated with your characters? Are they slowing down what should be a gripping, page-turning story? Maybe it’s time you got them off their rear ends and put them to work.

In my re-writes, I search the text for characters who THINK rather than ACT. When I spot a cerebral, lackluster character, I start re-staging the scene like a director, deciding how the characters should approach and look at one another. When I’ve done my job, every character will be in motion. His tone of voice, eye movements, expressions, and stance will reflect and amplify his emotions and attitudes. THEN each character can tell a compelling story.

Body language is one of the most powerful tools a writer can use. When we express our characters’ emotions and thoughts in concrete, physical terms, we pull the reader deeper into the story.

In my sci-fi short story Aquarius, the protag, Joni Lingg, leads a shadowy organization within NASA through intimidation and the power of her personality. But why TELL when it’s more fun and intriguing to SHOW:

I once saw her chew out an Air Force major. I was in the next room, and could hear nothing, but could see them clearly through a window. Joni, a short brunette with the face of a child, was enraged, jabbing her finger and thrusting her tiny chin at the major, her blue eyes blazing in fury. The major took it like a confused, whipped puppy.

In Aztec Midnight, I could have had the first-person narrator just say he hits his low point when he’s thrown into a Mexican jail and feels like giving up. But this is more emotionally engaging:

In the dark, drunks with slouching shoulders gave way to grim-faced men with dead eyes and scarred forearms. I found myself being swept along with the drunks. The lone bench in the back was filled with Cuernavaca’s meanest residents, and I didn’t feel like another fight. I leaned against the unyielding bars and shut my eyes. The pressure of the cold metal against my throbbing head and back barely registered. There was no fight left in me, no strength. I had no idea of the time or what I could do next.

Hazy minutes passed by while I propped myself up against the bars. There was no clock. I guessed I’d been in the hole at least two hours. My eyes burned when I shut them.

The reason body language is so evocative is because we are social beings. Long before the invention of language, our physical reactions communicated to others vital information about what we were experiencing. Facial expressions, gestures, and posture came long before the invention of language. The ability to “read” body language is more fundamental, and therefore more moving, than reading written language. So the more physical we can make the story, the more real it is to the reader.

Recent research in neuroscience tells us that when we think about an action, we activate the motor area of the mind that controls that action. Magnetic resonance imaging scanners show that when a subject reads about kicking, for example, the area of the brain that controls kicking “lights up.” There’s an exciting new theory of language called “Embodied Cognition,” which can be summed up as, “We understand language by simulating in our minds what it would be like to experience the things that the language describes.”

That’s why other researchers have found that the brains of those who read powerful stories are changed by those stories. Indeed, reading vivid stories actually creates “muscle memory” in the brain as if the reader had actually lived the events in the story.

No wonder my feet hurt after reading Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. That was quite a trek.

Psychology Today offers a useful introduction to body language. If you want to rev up your stories, learn the basics of body language and, like a stage director, guide your characters’ movements so they reinforce what your characters feel and think.

I Don’t Need An Editor!

Said the copywriter who wrote this for the Beverly Hills Hotel home page:

“Many of our bungalows have interesting histories as well: Elizabeth Taylor honeymooned with six of her eight husbands, Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich, among others, enjoyed them as well.”

Unclear pronoun reference, improper punctuation, confusing repetition — it’s almost everything you could ask for in bad writing.