How Ogden Nash saved my bacon!

When I was in junior high school, they began a test program called Phase Elective English.  It consisted of modules of varying difficulty.  Depending on how good of a student you were, you weren’t allowed to just take the easier classes (ranked 1 to 5, with 5 being most difficult – if your English skills were lacking you couldn’t take those as they felt it would be above your ability).

One of those classes was called American Humor, and we were encouraged to bring in outside items, and “tests” and “homework” were a little free-form.  In one instance, we were supposed to bring in a humorous poem as the homework assignment, but I had forgotten to do it.  Thinking quickly, I asked the teacher if I would still get credit for it if I turned it in before class ended.  She looked skeptical that I could pull that off, but said yes that would be fine.

I quickly jotted down this poem by Ogden Nash (a favorite poet at that time) and submitted that as the homework assignment – and got the grade for the day!

Today, all these many years later, I can still recite this poem from memory.  Silly, nonsensical – yes.  But just a feel-good poem that brings a smile to my face every time.

The Duck

Behold the duck.
It does not cluck.
A cluck it lacks.
It quacks.
It is specially fond
Of a puddle or pond.
When it dines or sups,
It bottoms ups.

Funny the things we remember through the course of our lives.

—–

Ogden Nash [1902-1971] an amazing humourist whose short pithy poems entered the realm as an American Literature treasure . With more than twenty books to his credit he is a versatile writer for children of all ages.

[source:  https://allpoetry.com/poem/8496609-The-Duck-by-Ogden-Nash   (though search the first line and you will find it elsewhere also)]
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Choices

There used to be a popular series of books for kids that involved “Which Way?”.  Depending on which of two options you chose, the story took a different turn.  Because there was the option for “which way” at several points in the story, you could end up with several different stories that all started at the same place.  It was possible, theoretically, for all or some of the stories to end in the same place, but get there by different paths.

In our own writing, there is a huge element of “which way” going on, even if we are not consciously aware of it.  At any given moment in the story, things change based on what the characters do or do not do.  It may be something as simple as walking around a building on the left side versus on the right side and still ending up on the other side, but seeing different things along the way.  Or it may involve much more.  Think of the first line of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”:  Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

What if one of those paths is merely a scenic trip home, but the other has a wounded grizzly bear who attacks and kills the traveler?  Quite a different outcome simply from which path was chosen.

Further to what I discussed in a previous post (Spell It Out), you can use this to your advantage, whether because of writer’s block or simply plotting out your story early on.  There may be some things that are fixed in your mind, that you absolutely want to have happen.

Below are some variations of “which way” (certainly not all that there could be).  Suppose you know A and you know you want to get to Y.  Then you start figuring out how to get there.  What path is taken?  What happens along the way?

You start a list of your various options at each point, and then note what options disappear/become available based on each one.

As you begin to write these ideas down, you either come up with more ideas and keep going with it, or run into problems and decide that choice isn’t working.  So you go back to your sticking point and choose another path.  For instance, you start at A and go to C and go to J, but somehow S is a boring way to get to Y.  So you either back up to J or even C and start down a different path and look at the possibilities.

If H is a farm in present-day upstate New York, and I is a castle in Medieval times, and J is a futuristic settlement on Mars, it is unlikely that all those paths could end up at the same place (Y).  At least, it would take a whole lot of writing and creativity to include all those elements in a single story, probably involving time travel or such.

But smaller changes can give more flexibility to a single story.  A is the hero.  He lives in a small farming community (H), or in a small town (I), or in a bustling, large city in the heart of things (J).  Q might take him to the next town over.  R might lead him into a dark forest.  And S might send him on an epic journey across the land to some distant place.  The land, the people, the environment, etc. that he/she meets along the way to any of those three will play a part in the story, and impact what happens.  Does the hero meet only nice, helpful people, or is he/she constantly having to hide/avoid evil, mean people/creatures to safely reach their destination?

A  –>  B –>  E –>  N –>  W

A –>  B –>  F –>  O –>  W

A –>  B –>  G –>  P –>  X

A –>  C –>  H –>  Q –>  X

A –>  C –>  I –>  R –>  Y

A –>  C –>  J –>  S –>  Y

A –>  D –>  K –>  T –>  Z

A –>  D –>  L –>  U –>  Z

A –>  D –>  M –>  V –>  AA

So this is an additional element to working through writer’s block or story problems, or just writing the story in and of itself.  Start mapping it out.  What happens?  What is/could be the result of that?  If the hero is headed through the dark forest and the person they need to meet is in the next town over in the opposite direction, there’s a problem that needs to be fixed if you want to get them together.

Going back to the example in the previous post (and here think Lord of the Rings):  the evil magician has a magic ring.

What can the ring do (what magic does it possess)?  Can anyone wield that magic or is it specific?  (Anyone could possess the Marauder’s Map in Harry Potter, but it was just blank parchment unless they knew how to use it.)

If there are words that need to be said to make it work, how does the person finding the magic ring discover what the words are?

What is the hero trying to do with the ring?  Use it?  Sell it?  Destroy it?

If he wants to use it, he must learn how.  (Or maybe only learn how to control it when it acts on its own.)

If he wants to sell it, he must find a buyer, and keep it safe from someone who might want to steal it rather than pay for it.

If he wants to destroy it, how can it be destroyed?  The One Ring in Lord of the Rings could only be destroyed in one specific way.  That one way required a trek to a certain place (through hazardous terrain crawling with dangerous foes).  If your hero wants to destroy the ring, what challenges does that present to him?

Perhaps these ideas will give you even more food for thought in getting your story from your head to your fingers to written.

[Basic sample of Which Way story:

http://englishforeveryone.org/PDFs/Finish%20the%20Story%20-%20Which%20Way.pdf%5D

(While the url above is correct, possibly because it is a pdf, clicking on it or even copy/pasting it won’t work.  I found it by googling:  “which way” stories

Be sure to put the quote marks around “which way” or you get each word searched.  In my search in Firefox, this came up as the first item.  Look for the englishforeveryone entry.)

Spell It Out

One of the things genealogists are told to do when they hit a brickwall is to either write out the problem, listing what they know, or tell it to another person.  The reason for this is that sometimes in the course of explaining it, to ourselves or someone else, we see things we miss when we focused just on the problem itself.

Similarly, that might help you get going if you are ‘stopped’ in something you are writing.  Start writing down what the problem is, even if the question is merely ‘What happens next?’.  Then consider the possible choices – list them.  Sometimes that effort alone – the mere act of writing – gets you moving and gets your mind working the problem better than just staring at a blank page thinking ‘What do I write?’

I’ve often seen writing advice that when you have writer’s block you should simply write.  That’s all very well and good, but if you could do that you might not be blocked.  So focus on something you CAN write, then embellish it a little, then a little bit more and so on.  Hopefully that will start your fingers moving, with the pen or the keyboard, as you choose.  Find something in your story, or that you want to be in your story, or about your story and commit it to paper/screen.  Describe characters.  Describe the finale.  Jot down ideas on the environment they inhabit – what is around them?  Skyscrapers, barns, castles?

For instance, Main Character finds a Magic Ring

  •    Where did he find it?    (I don’t know)
  •    Where did it come from?     (an evil magician)
  •    How did the magician lose it?  Or did he hide it?  Or did he place the ring FOR someone/the Main Character to find?   (the Evil Magician is about to be captured so he hides the ring in order to keep it away from his captors)
  •    Based on the How, where might the Evil Magician and the Main Character both happen to be to make this possible?     (a forest that is between the lands where each lives)
  •     What brought the Main Character to that forest so that he could find the ring?  If the ring is hidden, how does he/she happen to find it?
  •     Who is about to the capture the Evil Magician?  Why?
  •     How did he come to be in the forest while trying to elude capture?
  •     What does this Magic Ring do?  Why do the Magician’s captors want it?  What can the Main Character use it for?

Those questions can help you see what is still missing in your story, and perhaps guide you on what to write.

And, personally, I don’t feel compelled to write in a straight line.  Sometimes when I’m stuck on one part of a story, I work on another part – even if I only do a few lines or paragraphs.  I try to insert them roughly in the correct order so they essentially form something of an outline for where I’m headed.  This will sometimes mean that later you need to tweak details in order to fit the pieces together, but it keeps you moving.

Maybe we should think of Writer’s Block not in terms of block=wall, but rather block=blocks.  As in children’s blocks.  With the alphabet on them.  Don’t try to tear down the wall.  Try to rearrange the alphabet blocks into words.

Try it.  See if it helps you.

baby-blocks-letters

[image found at:  http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/%5D

 

Save

Suffering similes, ‘as easy as one two three’!

We’ve all seen them.  Maybe we’ve even been the culprit who wrote or otherwise used them.  ‘Pretty as a picture’, ‘soft as a bunny’, ‘light as a feather’ or ‘big as a bear’.

While all of those do accurately convey a mental image, they have become overused and dull.  But sometimes you want to compare things.  You can say something is black, but if something is ‘black as the darkest night’, a reader will better connect to that mental image.

So, how do you avoid falling into the overly-familiar simile trap?

One way is to consider who your characters are.  If a guy lives, breathes and works as a football player, instead of his describing someone as ‘big as a bear’, he could say they were ‘as enormous as the most intimidating defensive tackle’.  That would be a mental connection he would readily make.  The same holds true for other characters:  a quilter, a bookworm, a fisherman, a stamp collector.  Each would tend to think in terms of their hobby/profession/interest, and make comparisons accordingly.  Most of us would not compare someone large to a defensive tackle; it’s simply not the first idea that would come to our minds.  But characters are individuals, just as people are.  Sports aficionados tend to speak with sports references:  the ‘game of life’, a ‘team effort’.  A quilter, though, in describing a group effort, might refer to them as ‘working as efficiently as a quilting circle’.

Hopefully, each of your characters has their own individual interests that play into the way they experience the world around them.  Genealogists perk up at the sight of a cemetery while most others would drive right by without much notice.  A fisherman is possibly eyeballing every body of water as a potential fishing spot.  Use those details to give your story depth and interest.  Such things can create conflict between characters:  the husband reluctantly stops at a cemetery so his wife can walk around, but spots a nearby stream and wanders over to check out the prospects while he waits.  Or they argue and don’t stop at all.

Interests and experience will drive everything about your character – what they say, what they do, how they react.  And that’s a good thing.  It’s what makes them different from each other.  Can you imagine reading a story where everyone is exactly the same:  they look the same, they talk the same, they have the same interests?  In that scenario, it’s going to be pretty hard to come up with a compelling to story to tell about them (unless they’re the Stepford Wives).

So, next time you want to make a comparison, look a little deeper than the obvious ones.  ‘Soft as a bunny’ or ‘soft as the whisps of hair on a newborn baby’?  ‘Pretty as a picture’ or ‘pretty as the first bud of spring’?  Children running through the house ‘like a herd of elephants’ or ‘like the bulls at Pamplona’?

Which pulls you into the story more?  Which would you rather read?

Definition of simile

  1. :  a figure of speech comparing two unlike things that is often introduced by like or as (as in cheeks like roses) — compare metaphor

simile vs. metaphor

Many people have trouble distinguishing between simile and metaphor. A glance at their Latin and Greek roots offers a simple way of telling these two closely-related figures of speech apart. Simile comes from the Latin word similis (meaning “similar, like”), which seems fitting, since the comparison indicated by a simile will typically contain the words as or like. Metaphor, on the other hand, comes from the Greek word metapherein (“to transfer”), which is also fitting, since a metaphor is used in place of something. “My love is like a red, red rose” is a simile, and “love is a rose” is a metaphor.

Time Is Short – Shorter Than You Think

My grandfather was a prolific journal writer.  Sometimes it was little more than trivial observations about his day, but other times he went into more depth talking about something.  Of greatest interest to me at the moment are all the tidbits of family history he recorded.  Some of it predates my existence, but much of it covers the time of my growing up, going to school and finally leaving home to pursue my own way in the world.  While not focused on me specifically, what he recorded were events I often was involved in or at least knew about.  At the time, I had no particular interest in them – kids usually aren’t terribly interested in the doings of their parents, aunts and uncles.  But now, they provide a vivid reminder of a significant portion of my life.  Sometimes I learn things I didn’t know (things you don’t tell the children) and sometimes I find out more about something I knew about but maybe didn’t fully understand.

Why is this important?  Well, in my teen years I developed a slight interest in family history/genealogy.  I gathered some little information, and I even sat down with my grandfather a time or two to ask questions and find out more.  The thing is, I felt no urgency in the matter.  High school students usually have other things of more pressing interest where they choose to focus their attention, and so did I.  So the notes I scribbled down, without writing up completely while the information was fresh in my mind, did not always make sense years later when I looked at them again.  It never occurred to me that it wouldn’t be perfectly obvious how “Aunt Sue” fit into the family tree, until I couldn’t place her.  My grandfather could have readily told me, and answered a myriad of other questions that later surfaced – if I had thought to ask.  It never occurred to him to give a lengthy explanation when I did not ask questions.  For all he knew, I already had enough information not to need to know more.  And then he was gone.  Because people die.  Many years later, my mother was also gone.  And there are so many unanswered questions that remain behind.

When we are young, life will go on forever.  While we know that it won’t, of course, the end is nowhere in our sight, so we happily live each day as it comes and expect no great negative changes to our world.  But if we think about it, we know that isn’t likely.  Death, accident, disease – all these and more can suddenly disrupt our existence and send our world careening off on a course we never imagined or expected.  “People die when they get old”, except that isn’t always true.  We don’t like to think of car accidents or terrorist attacks on public places, but they happen.  And when they do, sometimes lives are ended much sooner than anyone would expect.

With that in mind, I encourage you to evaluate what is important to you.  And then, don’t postpone doing/saying those things that matter most.  Is it more important that you rewatch past episodes of Game of Thrones or spend time with your mother?  Have you been meaning to tell your father/brother/sister/grandparents/spouse/significant other/friend how much they mean to you, but just haven’t taken the time to do it?  Are there questions you want answers to, that someone could readily provide the answer, but you haven’t gotten around to asking?  Would you love to travel and see more of the world, but don’t make time right now – putting it off until retirement?

Don’t postpone the most important things in your life.  Game of Thrones will probably be available on Netflix or other such services for a very long time, but grandma may not last out the year 2017.  Pinning things on Pinterest can happen most any time, but that exhibit on Egyptian artifacts that you want to see may be gone in six months and you’ll miss the chance.  And by the time you reach retirement, finances and infirmity may greatly limit your ability to travel.  Yes, time and money may restrict the things you can do in the here and now, but don’t let them slide, figuring you’ll get around to them eventually.  Eventually may never come.

Consider your time and how you want to spend it.

Choose wisely.

Perspective

I wasn’t going to post anything so soon after yesterday’s post, but I ran across this in the course of doing something else and thought it would be useful to share.

This is a snippet from a fan fiction Lord of the Rings story that I wrote.  You don’t need to know anything about LOTR or have read my stories, because the details are not the point here.  The POV for pretty much the entire story is Eomer’s.  Note in this paragraph, though, that originally I brought in thoughts Gamling was having (which shifts it to his POV for a brief moment).  That doesn’t work entirely well in the overall piece.  It is possible to have multiple POVs, but it isn’t good to jump from one person to another like this.  The first part (red text and with a strikethrough) is the original wording, shifting the POV to Gamling.  The portion in green text rewords those lines to shift them to Eomer’s POV, in keeping with the rest of the story.

Gamling met his gaze.  “I have often ridden to battle, either for my king or alongside him.  But now I have no call to fight, other than to remove disturbers from the Hall on occasion, and even that I do not have to do with my own hand.  It would seem my days as a warrior are ended.”  He had thought about this before.  In some ways, he felt almost useless when Gondor would call for aid and the king would gather men to ride out.  Always, now, Gamling was left behind.  It was not so much that he enjoyed warfare, and was eager to risk himself in battle, but it felt…weak, to be one of the few who did not ride to the defense of peace.  It was evident he had given this matter much thought.  Eomer was sure he was as pleased to see peace as the rest of them, and did not desire the need to go to war, but for Gamling to watch his king and fellow soldiers ride to battle without him must surely grate.  Most Riders would think such a thing made them appear weak, whether others perceived them that way or not.

This is a good thing to keep in mind in your writing.  Changing POV can confuse the reader.  Further, if you aren’t intending to have multiple points of view it really muddies things.  The story will flow better if it doesn’t jump all over the place.  Once you start writing from a certain person’s POV, try to stick with it.  Remember, that means not expounding on things they wouldn’t know (someone else’s thoughts, things that are happening when they aren’t around, etc.).  Their POV should only include what they know – whether they think it themselves, hear it from someone else or even ‘surmise’ from what they see as Eomer does above.  What he says about how Gamling is feeling is his assumption based on what he has seen and heard Gamiling say and do, but Gamling never actually spelled it out to him.

I can look at someone’s expression and think they look angry or sad or happy, but whether or not I am right in my interpretation is not something I can know unless that person gives me more input .  “I’m so happy I could just burst!”  Yep, that’s what I thought from the expression on your face.  But for all I know, they may look happy but are hiding a sadness or anger or upset that I don’t see.  My POV can’t include that information unless I have been informed of it, or I have found out in some way (maybe read a diary entry they wrote that makes me realize what I think I see is wrong or overheard a conversation between others).

As writers, sometimes we want to share information with the reader, but are limited by our POV choice.  It can be tempting to ignore the POV and shove the information in anyway, but usually that is not a good idea.  The choice then becomes how to either make the information known to the POV person via some means or change the POV choice for the story to allow for more leeway.  If I write in first person, (“I made some coffee and sat down at the table to check my email.” vs third person “She made some coffee and sat down at the table to check her email.”) then I can’t include any information that I haven’t specifically made sure the main POV character would know.  If someone steals a necklace and hides it, I can’t just pop up and say “They hid it in a hollow tree in Riverside Park, near the small duck pond.”  Unless I was there with them and saw them do it, or they told me that’s what they did, or I receive that information from some source (dream, diary entry, whatever), I wouldn’t know that.  And anyone reading the story would cry foul.

Hopefully this will prove a helpful reminder.  Yes, I’ve made this mistake (in the above snippet and in other stories), but I try to avoid it, and fix it when it creeps in.

I Like Words

I think most writers do.  We aren’t content with just saying something is blue, we want to give you an exact shade so you are seeing what we are seeing

The interesting thing, though, is that many people think that “synonym” means the same thing as “equal to”.

According to Merriam-Webster.com, the very first definition listed somewhat supports that idea.  But the crucial part is the modifier “or nearly the same”.

Definition of synonym

  1. one of two or more words or expressions of the same language that have the same or nearly the same meaning in some or all senses

In English, as in many languages, there are nuances of meaning that can subtly change what is being said.  Take, for instance, the word ‘deflate’.

Merriam Webster sometimes does a synonym discussion, considering those nuances:

Synonym Discussion of deflate

contract, shrink, condense, compress, constrict, deflate mean to decrease in bulk or volume. contract applies to a drawing together of surfaces or particles or a reduction of area or length <caused her muscles to contract>. shrink implies a contracting or a loss of material and stresses a falling short of original dimensions <the sweater will shrink when washed>. condense implies a reducing of something homogeneous to greater compactness without significant loss of content <condense the essay into a paragraph>. compress implies a pressing into a small compass and definite shape usually against resistance <compressed cotton into bales>. constrict implies a tightening that reduces diameter <the throat is constricted by a tight collar>. deflate implies a contracting by reducing the internal pressure of contained air or gas <deflate the balloon>.

Would it feel right to say that we “condensed the balloon”, “constricted the balloon” or “compressed the balloon”?  No, we deflate balloons.  While those other words are synonyms and have similar meanings, they don’t quite evoke the image we want to create.  I’m not sure I would even know what you meant if you used any of those alternate choices for this example.  Granted, this is a little more obvious example since we are so familiar with the idea of deflating a balloon.

Let’s look at something a little less obvious.  I once read a fan fic written by someone who was not a native English speaker.  She mentioned that someone was “jealous of the way a brother treated his sister”, and a reviewer took exception to that.  The trouble was, likely the writer had checked a thesaurus and found jealousy listed as a synonym of envy.

Native English speakers, though, are more aware of a subtle difference.  Usually we are ‘envious’ without any ill intent toward another person.  We simply want what they have, but aren’t necessarily looking to take it away from them – we want it ALSO.  Jealousy, on the other hand, is usually an angrier, selfish word.  They have what we want – how can we take it away from them so we have it instead.  Envious people don’t usually kill anyone to get what they want.  Jealous people have been known to do that.  The close relationship shared between a brother and sister – we might envy it, but few would normally be jealous of it.

Definition of envy

  1.  painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage

envy Synonyms

Synonyms

covetousness, enviousness, green-eyed monster, invidiousness, jealousy, resentment

Related Words

animosity, enmity, hatred, ill will; malice, maliciousness, spitefulness

Near Antonyms

benevolence, goodwill, kindness, sympathy

Definition of jealous

  1. a : intolerant of rivalry or unfaithfulnessb : disposed to suspect rivalry or unfaithfulness
  2. : hostile toward a rival or one believed to enjoy an advantage

jealous Synonyms

Synonyms

possessive

Antonyms

unenvious

Related Words

controlling, demanding, domineering, grasping; covetous, envious, invidious, jaundiced; distrustful, mistrustful, suspicious; overprotective, protective

That being the case, we should always make sure we understand those subtle differences in meaning before we use unfamiliar words.

There is a popular young adult fantasy series out, and I love the books/stories, but it drives me batty that the author often uses the wrong word.  Not wrong in the sense of ‘there’s a better choice’, but wrong in ‘that doesn’t mean what you think it means and it doesn’t make sense in this sentence/context’.

Choose your words carefully, and make sure you know what they mean.

 

This also comes into play in a different way when we have someone speaking or moving.

We can use ‘he said’ or ‘she said’, but that is boring, plain vanilla language.  And it doesn’t give us any sense of how the person is saying it.  Are they speaking timidly, angrily, evasively?

“I didn’t mean that,” he said.

or

“I didn’t mean that,” he retorted.

‘Retorted’ makes the statement more forceful.  If this conversation isn’t already an argument, it could easily become one.  Emotion might kick this discussion to another level.  We don’t see that with ‘he said’.  ‘He said’ is merely pointing out that we have been misunderstood.  Using an exclamation mark instead of a comma would help, but it could still be a peaceful remark (I had a slip of the tongue.).  ‘Retorted’ emphasizes an exclamation mark and makes it clear that the discussion is energetic at the very least and could get heated.  But if that sentence were spoken in a complete monotone, only the word choice would guide the reader/listener in knowing how the dialogue was intended.

We have so many words to choose from, why use the same boring ones over and over?  As they say, variety is the spice of life!

It’s only words, and words are all I have
To take your heart away.    

               [Words by the Bee Gees, written by the Bee Gees]

                Words lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Universal Music Publishing Group

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XgrTPNp-Hdg]

Writing ‘Writing Advice’

There are a TON of blogs out there with writing advice.  I follow a couple of them, and possibly some of you do also.  Since one of the espoused purposes of this blog involves writing, that raises the question “Why bother reading yet another ‘how to’ blog?”

Right there with you.

So, how will my ‘advice’ differ?  Hopefully by being a little more specific.  I know when I read some of these blogs, while I don’t doubt that it is good advice, I can’t really relate it to anything I am writing.  What I hope to offer is advice that is more specific.  I will remark on things I see that are wrong, or at least that I consider to be, but I will suggest ways to improve them.  My hope is that after reading such suggestions, you will be able to jump back to your own writing and see ways to fix or improve it.

At least, that’s the goal…

FYI, I am on Pinterest and have a board devoted to collecting information on writing:  http://www.pinterest.com/dalleyan/writing/

These are things that I have looked at and considered useful to me.  It is not necessarily a comprehensive list of everything out there, but if an article addresses an issue that doesn’t apply to me, I don’t save it.  Additionally, I keep a board of ‘temporary’ things – these may be sorted to other boards eventually, or they may be articles I want to look at but have not had time yet.  As such, once I take a closer look at them, they likely will either be moved or deleted.  However, there are some Writing pins in there also if you want to poke around.  Just keep in mind you’d better save anything you find there as it may not be found if you come back later looking for it again.