As I try to wrap my head around the loss of my friend and mentor, former publisher Carolyn Hayes Uber, and attempt to describe her influence, her persona, her life, I am struck by a remark I heard just today that helps put everything in perspective. And the fact that this remark mentions a common editing term (the dash), is serendipitous. Carolyn would be tickled.
In the documentary Into the Abyss, director Werner Herzog interviews Fred Allen, who explains his role in executions as the former captain of the Death House team at the Polunsky prison unit in Livingston, Texas. Allen is clearly conflicted (eventually resigning his post), as he sees the lives of inmates reduced to numbers: 1954 – 2011, for example. He realizes and explains, quite eloquently, that our lives are not reflected in a birthdate or date of passing, but the dash in between. (Granted, it’s really a hyphen, but I’m not here to edit today.) Mr. Allen then asks, How are you going to live your dash?
Which brings me back to Carolyn, who lived her dash with courage and strength and humor and love. So for Carolyn and my father and my “adopted” mother Patricia and other dear friends who are no longer here, I will live my dash, really live it… bravely, respectfully, happily. I hope you will, too.
As I’ve mentioned before, writers have a tendency to rely on favorite words and phrases … often without even knowing it. Maybe it’s considered part of your style or personality, but from an editor’s standpoint (who advocates for the reader), these “catch phrases” can become annoying and distracting.
Because I’m being objective and looking at a manuscript with fresh eyes, I can easily see the repeated words (and can make suggestions or revisions). I can search for how often the word or words have been used. But you can’t do this, because you don’t know what you’re looking for! It’s like looking up the correct spelling of a word in the dictionary … when you don’t know how to spell it.
But now there’s help. Word clouds. Thanks to an attendee at my recent writing workshop, I learned of an amazing tool to self-regulate your pet prose. There are many Word Cloud programs available, which take your text and visualize your repeated words. I found one, TagCrowd, which not only creates a very cool image of the words you use most frequently, but it can also tell you how many times you’ve used them.
I worried for a minute that I was shooting myself in the foot by revealing this trick of the trade, but then I realized, if I can help one memoirist from repeating “I remember when,” one mystery writer from abusing “He couldn’t help but notice,” or any number of storytellers from plastering “In fact,” “Of course,” “That being said,” it will be worth it. I’m sure I’ll still have plenty of work to do.
You’ve probably seen the sign for “jumbo shrimp” and laughed at the obvious incongruity, but have you paid attention to the oxymorons in stories you read … or stories you write?
I’ve been keeping a list as I run across these wacky word combos, and thought it was time to share. They are in random order, which, I hope you can see, is exactly my point. While they’re entertaining, I suggest NOT using them in your literary masterpieces.
For instance, if your bank robber is brandishing a dangerous weapon, I ask you (gently), is there such a thing as a weapon that is not dangerous? Your star-crossed lovers get an unexpected surprise; tell me, isn’t a surprise supposed to be unexpected? Wouldn’t an expected surprise defeat the purpose?
Mysteries and horror stories often have an uninvited guest (stomping about in the attic). Help me understand this; a guest is invited, yes? I think uninvited is an intruder!
Is your hero on an adventure or involved in a secret mission and finds him or herself in a tight squeeze? I wonder what other kind of squeeze there could be. Of course, your character could be clearly delusional. How about strangely delusional or clear and coherent… but not both, eh?
Should you be writing a cookbook or diet book, perhaps you can explain diet ice cream, Kosher ham (really?) and in the section on portion control … the bigger half. If you can, you are eligible for a free gift.
Imagine my surprise when one of the detectives on the new TV show Murder in the First (TNT) realizes that a suicide note is a fraud based on an unusual use of an apostrophe! Punctuation meets Prime Time!
Noticing that “shouldn’t’ve” (as in “I shouldn’t’ve killed that girl…”) in the supposed typed confession was—coincidentally—exactly the same as in a workplace email communique, the ace detective (as in A+ in English!) researches the statistical commonality of the double contraction … checking with UC Berkeley’s linguistics department (a nice plug for my own alma mater!) and voila! a killer is identified. (In case you’re interested, according to what the detective told the suspect, only 1 in 800,000 use this particular double apostrophe.)
Enough of DNA matches, fingerprint comparisons, text message threads, bloody footprint trails. This is true detective work. Which gives me an idea; rather than referring to myself as an editor, I think I will now consider myself a grammar gumshoe.
If you’re in Central Oregon mid-August … love to see you!
For more details about the workshop, or COWG, visit their website:
If you happen to be in London this summer, be on the lookout for BookBenches! Books About Town features 50 unique BookBench sculptures, designed by local artists to celebrate London’s literary heritage. The sculptures, depicting great works of literature, are scattered throughout the city. What a great way to bring the book world and the real world together!
I want one … or two.
For more information, check out the link below:
Now you know when I say I’m getting a new piece … or working on a magazine , I mean of the Smith and Wesson kind. A big thanks to the clever writing at the ONION.
4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence
(New York) Law enforcement officials confirmed Friday that four more copy editors were killed this week amid ongoing violence between two rival gangs divided by their loyalties to the The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual Of Style.
“At this time we have reason to believe the killings were gang-related and carried out by adherents of both the AP and Chicago styles, part of a vicious, bloody feud to establish control over the grammar and usage guidelines governing American English,” said FBI spokesman Paul Holstein, showing reporters graffiti tags in which the word “anti-social” had been corrected to read “antisocial.” “The deadly territory dispute between these two organizations, as well as the notorious MLA Handbook gang, has claimed the lives of more than 63 publishing professionals this year alone.”
Officials also stated that an innocent 35-year-old passerby who found himself caught up in a long-winded dispute over use of the serial, or Oxford, comma had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
For the original ONION story:
(Photo courtesy of Arvind Grover