We Are The Other?

Janis Patterson

In these tiresome days of Political Correctness and ‘woke-dom’ there is a small battle raging about using italics for non-English words in book manuscripts. “It is divisive,” shriek the PC crowd. “It fosters other-ness and is not inclusive.”

Well, duh!

When speaking of a book written in English for the use of an English-speaking audience, of course the writer should use italics for foreign words and phrases. The words are foreign words, not English words – they are ‘other.’ Italics show that. It’s not divisiveness, it’s clarity, showing the reader that this is a different language. Some words in other languages are spelled the same but have wildly different meanings. (For example : douche (French) and douche (English) while having the same familial root are totally different things.) Without italics to differentiate what is English and what is another language, the reader can be confused and pulled out of the story to puzzle it through, and no writer wants that. Of course, that homophonic mayhem happens in all-English books, too – if I read one more story that mixes up ‘grizzly’ and ‘grisly’ that book, like a number of others, will end up smashing against the wall. Words are the tools of the writer, and one should learn to use one’s tools properly. To do less is to disrespect both the art of writing and the intelligence of the reader.

To make things even more confusing, the PC crowd applauds the use of a bunch of weird self-chosen pronouns that a small portion of the population uses to describe themselves which, while doubtless emotionally satisfying to them, are linguistically and societally bizarre. How can there be anything else but a deliberate ‘other-ness’ when an individual refers to him/her/itself as ‘they’? Talk about mixed signals!

Of course an individual has the right to call themselves anything they like; that is freedom of speech in its purest form and is guaranteed under the First Amendment. Those who want to use the ‘new’ pronouns are most definitely free to do so, but no one has the right to demand that everyone else use them, most especially in a written format. The result is a linguistic minefield.

The essence of language is communication. Language is nothing but a collection of sounds and syllables to convey ideas, but it only works if everyone understands what those sounds and syllables mean. This is especially true for writers, for they must communicate by written symbols only, without the supporting means of vocal intonation and facial expressions.

Can you imagine the delicious confusion (or might it be deliberate obfuscation?) in a mystery when a single individual obviously speaking in the first person refers to himself as ‘they’ or ‘we’? How does the poor confounded detective/sleuth react, especially if he is not up to speed on this linguistic trend? That could almost be a subplot in itself.

Conversely, the essence of communication – especially for writers and the written word – is language. We need the same reference points, the same starting points for efficient interaction. Standard linguistics offer this universal base. If a non-English word in an English language book is italicized, everyone knows it is not English, even if it is identical in spelling to an English word with a totally different meaning. If a writer uses the ‘new’ pronoun structure, he’d better have a really good reason that forwards the story or risk confusing and perhaps even alienating his readers.

Years ago someone coined the phrase K I S S – Keep It Simple, Stupid (or Silly, depending on to whom you’re talking). It’s still good advice. Good communication is simple, and the foremost tool in the writer’s toolkit.

 

Personal Note – if you have been a reader of this blog for a while doubtless you have been accustomed to seeing my picture with blonde hair. It’s red now, both in the picture and on my head. I finally decided that it would be a charitable act to give the general populace a warning label.

Confession Of A Pixelated Writer

by Janis Patterson

When I first started writing computers were the stuff of science fiction and cheesy space opera movies. If you wanted to write a book, you either wrote in painful longhand, talked into a recorder for someone else to transcribe or typed it yourself on a typewriter. Just to set the record straight I learned to type on a Smith Corona manual portable the summer before I entered the fourth grade and have regarded any kind of handwriting more than a simple signature as cruel and unusual punishment ever since!

Now, of course, like most everyone else I use a computer. It’s faster, it’s easier to edit (I remember in the old days when ‘cut and paste’ meant exactly that!), there’s no need for multiple filing cabinets to hold different versions of different manuscripts, you don’t have to go scrabbling for cheap or even pre-used paper to use for rough drafts, there’s no need to do a complete retype in order to have a clean copy… all in all better. A single thumb drive or dvd can hold every version and every note or bit of research on several novels. Several filing cabinets’ worth of data can be held in a small box on your desk.

So why isn’t my house neater?

I digress…

Since I still tend to mistrust technology, I not only keep dvds of my projects in my desk and in the safety deposit box, I also have them in cloud storage and… wait for it… in a paper copy. Yes, I know what I just said about paper, but this is different. I print out a copy of the final manuscript using both sides of the paper, the narrowest margins I can manage, single-spaced and in a tiny type – 8 or 9 point – not so large as to be bulky, but still able to be retyped if the unthinkable happens. This can reduce the biggest book to a manageable size. Then I drill the manuscript and put it in a 3 ring binder, along with a dvd (yes, that’s 3 copies per book on dvds), a photocopy of my contract (the original is in the safety deposit box as well as scanned to my computer), and any other ancillary things specific to the book. Usually I can get 3-4 novels or 6-8 novellas in a ring binder. It’s a lot smaller than a couple of file cabinets!

I have been writing for a long time, which means I have a lot of partials, multiple copies and extras of all kinds of manuscripts. My husband and I are living in the house where I grew up, and boxes of old manuscripts are still turning up in the garage and attic. I think they’re breeding.

Still, I hate to lose any of my work, even if it’s juvenile or unfinished or just plain unworkable, so I scan what I don’t already have copies of. Then, once assured that I do have a record or that the manuscript I just found is one of many duplicates, I split the pages in half and stack them up for notepaper.

For someone who hates to handwrite, I use a lot of notepaper. Have a quick idea for a cute or a scary scene? A great idea of a different way to do murder? A reminder of an appointment? An appealing name that may fit a character in a future project? Whatever? I scribble it down and affix it to a huge corkboard against the wall. When it starts to resemble some weird sort of scaled creature I do have to go through that board and pare it down. The paper recyclers just love it when that happens…

So, even though I am an admitted techno-naif with only the sketchiest kind of détente with technology, I have to admit that the computer has made this writer’s life much more simple. I have no choice but to do so. I sold all my filing cabinets.

If Seinfeld Can, Why Can’t I?

by Janis Patterson

While The Husband loved the TV show Seinfeld and still occasionally watches DVDs of it, I found it stultifyingly boring and even more uninteresting. It was heralded as a show about nothing, and as far as I am concerned it definitely succeeded. However, it was undeniably popular. (Does that say something about me, or about everyone else?) I much prefer shows in which the actors are attractive, shows in which there is something going on – explosions, genuine humor, dead bodies, passionate kisses on a sunset beach… something!

Still, I have to admit that the show did something right to be so popular and on the air for so long, so I’ve decided to explore its particular trope and find out what made it so successful. Except I can’t find what it is. All I can find is that it is regarded as a show about nothing. (Perhaps a metaphor for the supposed emptiness of modern urban life?)

Okay, I can run with that. Most of our lives are filled with nothing. Oh, we’re busy all the time, usually with things that seem important at the time but have little cosmic impact. Things like deciding what to serve for dinner tonight. (Always a biggie for me, as The Husband is a very picky eater and I am a rather indifferent cook.) Shopping for same. Making lunches in the morning. Laundry – what gets tumble dried and what gets line dried and if any of it gets bleach. Deciding if I really want that cute pair of shoes we saw at the mall. Trying to switch the appointment for a much-needed oil change because that’s the only day I can take an elderly neighbor to a much-more needed dental appointment.

See? All important at that minute, all demanding your immediate attention, but in the grand scheme of things generally dismissed as the minutiae of life. Six months – heck, six weeks – afterward, are you going to remember if you had that oil change on Wednesday or Friday, or if those shoes were the red ones or the blue ones?

So what does this digression have to do with murder? Because everything in a murder is important. How many times does the detective (professional or amateur) bring the miscreant to justice by reason of a single fact uttered some time before? Jessica Fletcher was a master of this – a throwaway line uttered perhaps days ago in the storyline, perhaps at the very beginning of the show, and she remembers it. Worse, I can’t remember it at all. Of course, now that I write mysteries my ‘sleuth’ instinct is honed to dangerous acuity, watching every line and usually being able to figure out what is a clue. That, however, is a reader/viewer trick, trained by far too many hours spent absorbing other people’s stories.

Real detectives, however, don’t have that luxury. They can’t automatically know that the fact so-and-so wore red shoes on Tuesday is important. They have to give every bit of information weight. They don’t have editors and beta readers and directors and cinematographers giving focus to every necessary nuance. I think that’s the main reason most real-life cases are not wound up in 20 chapters or 47 minutes. There is too much everything to deal with and that unfortunately translates to nothing to deal with.

So – I am getting too close to saying something instead of sticking with my intended policy of blogging today on nothing. That’s perhaps fortunate, as I have nothing else to say on nothing.

Stay warm this during this cold winter, write well, read widely and don’t get overwhelmed by nothing.

The Case for Standardization

by Janis Patterson

As a raging individualist I stand up for self-expression. That said, I also stand up for ‘normal’ punctuation and formatting. I do not see that as a behavioral oxymoron.

As writers we want our stories to be read, and in these days of literary bounty that’s getting harder and harder. It should be obvious that one way of achieving this end is to make the reading experience pleasant and easy, right? Well, there are those who apparently didn’t get the memo. Several times in the last few months I have read stories with ghastly formatting – I’m talking about deliberate formatting choices, not the weird kinks all electronic platforms toss at us occasionally. And I’m not going to mention the misspellings, the homophonic mayhem and just general wrong-ness, either. My blood pressure won’t take it.

Why on earth do people make deliberate formatting choices that make their books difficult to read? My guess is that it’s the same reason teens (as well as some older people) dye their hair kelly green and burgundy and other unnatural colors. They want to stand out, to shout ‘I’m different.’ Unfortunately, all too often in books the message comes through loud and clear – and what could be a good story is lost in an impenetrable sea of ‘individuality.’

When I worked in a literary agent’s office several decades ago (back in the bad old days of trad/paper pubbing only) we got an over-the-transom submission of what – from the blurb – sounded like a decent story. Except – the manuscript was a mess. He used standard quote marks, but every first line of each paragraph was flush with the left margin, while the rest of the paragraph was indented half an inch. Reading that was work, but even though I stopped after about ten or twelve pages I could see that it could be a good story with a little work – and proper formatting.

Being of a helpful nature, I sent the manuscript back with a note, explaining what I thought the ms needed, including standard formatting. I got back an excoriating letter, calling me a frustrated writer (I had sold half a dozen books by then, though none through the agency where I worked), accusing me of being hidebound and unwilling to accept new things, even of trying to stifle his creative genius and hide it under a blanket of conformity.

He, he said, knew better than I because he was a teacher of language and literature. (At one of our local junior – excuse me, community – colleges, I learned.) He also said he would take his book to those with the intelligence to appreciate it.

I never heard of him again.

I still believe that non-standard punctuation, misspellings, and incorrect word choices can kill a story, no matter how good it is, especially in today’s book-glutted world. Reading should not be work.

The Tyranny of Deadlines

by Janis Patterson

If you’re a writer, you have felt the heavy hand of a deadline. Whether dictated by a publisher or self-inflicted, they are always there, overshadowing your life, waiting for you like Nemesis. And, sadly, it seems like the more productive you are, the closer they come together, squeezing more and more words out of you. It’s a vicious circle.

That said, I pride myself on never missing a deadline… at least, not by more than 18 hours for a book – with one exception. I had been in a car accident close to deadline and pretty much slept through it. Since I had been very reliable up until then the publisher (I was publishing exclusively traditional then) was very understanding and we worked things out. During my recent hospitalization I was on deadline (several months away) but knew there was no way I’d be able to make it, so I contacted the publisher (a different one) and ended up buying back my contract. They understood and have offered me a new contract since then, so everything turned out all right.

There are horror tales about deadlines, though; the worst one I have personal knowledge of was years ago, during the print-only era. I had been contracted for a book and, as I had a lot of things on my plate, had finished it early. (My habit is to finish a book, then let it go cold for at least a week or two to cleanse my mind before going through the first self-edit.) My editor called me one day, quite distraught and almost crying.

Publishing schedules then were pretty much immutable things, set up months if not years in advance. She had long before contracted a book from an author with whom she had never worked before. That day was the author’s deadline. The author had called the editor, saying she had had a lot going on and hadn’t finished the book, but she would be sure to send the manuscript along as soon as she did. She was, she announced proudly, almost half through with it! The editor told her not to bother and I never heard of that writer again.

Knowing that I usually wrote ahead of time, my editor called me and begged to know if I had a finished book. She was, I realized, crying so of course I told her that the rough draft was finished, but it needed work. She told me about the publishing schedule and the perfidious writer and that the book needed to enter the system that day. Well, I’m good, but I’m not magic, so I told her I needed at least two days to get it into a publishable form and ready to mail to her. (No email in those primitive days!) She agreed, so I cancelled everything I had on deck, made a pot of coffee and sat down to work. Twenty-four sleepless hours later, exhausted, I sent the manuscript off by the fastest mail possible (horribly expensive, but she personally reimbursed me for that.)

In a way, though, I’m sorry I did it. There was a lot more that could have been done with that book; I could have done a better job. Even though it was a good story at heart it’s not one of my better efforts, and I feel that. On the other hand, that editor was able to salvage her publishing schedule with just a little juggling, which saved her reputation and maybe her job. And after that incident that editor thought I walked on water. Every book I submitted was an automatic buy – and at a larger advance. The only bad thing was that just two years after this she retired and went off into another field. After a while we lost contact. And I never was able to sell another book to that publisher, why I don’t know.

Good or bad, deadlines are a reality in this business. They can either be lures to entice you into finishing the project, or a threat of something dire rushing toward you like an oncoming freight train. Or both. Whatever it is, you have to learn to use it, because a deadline is an inescapable part of this business.

I was fortunate. I grew up in my parents’ ad agency, writing copy and doing layouts since the age of 12, and therefore learned early. Deadlines were a part of daily life, sometimes coming two or three a day, depending on the project and what state it was in. Anyone who is going to be a professional writer – books, articles, pamphlets, whatever – is going to have to learn to use and respect deadlines. Even if we don’t like them!

Don’t Call Me – I’ll Call You

by Janis Patterson

I have been accused – and pretty much rightly so – of being a Luddite. Technology for the sake of technology has never attracted me, especially when it interferes with my life. Now I love my computer, love the ease of word processing, love the ability to publish both ebooks and paperbacks with the tap of a finger. That’s practical and useful.

By contrast I do hate telephones. And every day I hate them more. Not really telephones, per se, but telemarketers and most especially robocalls. Just what makes these people believe they have the right to interrupt what I am doing at any given moment and use an instrument and a service for which I am paying to advertise their wares, which I neither need nor want? It’s also insulting for them to imply that if I do need/want something I am not smart enough to go find whatever it might be by myself, that I need them to bring it to me.

Robocalls are the worst. You can’t even get the satisfaction of reaming out the caller, and since they don’t give you a phone number (at least, I never stay on the line long enough to find out if they do) there’s no way to report them to the National Do Not Call list. Which is a joke – a bad joke – anyway. When it first came out I was religious about reporting every single unwanted call  – which might have made me feel righteous, but which did absolutely no good. As a taxpayer I am furious that my tax money (for which I work very hard) is being spent on something that does nothing. (Which, when expanded, becomes a whole other post, probably unacceptably political.)

I don’t respond to robocalls. As soon as I realize that it is a robocall I hang up, and I don’t care from whom it comes. It’s taken me a couple of years, but finally I have my doctor and my dentist trained that if they want to communicate with me, they don’t do it through a robocall. My dentist emails me, and my doctor has her office receptionist call directly, both of which are infinitely more civilized and human systems than a robocall. I don’t talk to robots.

Of course, I could just turn off the phones when I’m working, but aside from the fact there are elderly people in our family for whom I am responsible and need to be available to them, WHY should I have to? It is my telephone, my line… in order to get my work done why should I be forced to deprive myself of a convenience for which I am paying? If Congress really wanted to help the American people, they would make all sales, charity and political calls – in other words, all solicitation calls – illegal and back it up with gigantic penalties/sentences for offenders.

As a mystery writer with a definitely twisted mind, I cannot help but dream of ways to get my own back on those unwanted robocalls, especially when they yank me away from something important. So far the best (and least bloody) idea I’ve had is a disrupter. Remember back in the early days of answering machines when you carried around a plastic box about the size of a package of cigarettes? When you wanted to check your messages you’d call your phone and after the outgoing message began you’d hold the box next to the mouthpiece, press a button and your messages would play. I dream of a similar set-up, but with my idea when the robocall begins, you press your disrupter device and the robocall machine burns out, unfixable and never to be used again.

Of course, there would be dangers, like could the disrupter signal be traced back to the call it was making when the call machine imploded – i.e., to my phone number? However – I know we have the technology to make such a disrupter, so I can only hope that the technology also exists to protect the poor inundated recipient of such calls who has been driven to madness because of such unwanted interruptions. Sigh. Hopefully someday. Whoever invents such a device will make a fortune. And in my opinion, use of such a device would be guilt-free. I am on every no-call list that exists, and if the offender ignores the law to try and sell me something, why shouldn’t I be able to ignore a law to protect my privacy?

I repeat – I pay for my telephone service and instrument because I want a way to contact and be contacted by those with whom I wish to talk – not to provide a free venue for strangers to try and sell me something I neither need nor want. Surely there is at least one mystery plot somewhere in this muddle of obtrusive criminal (yes, criminal – they steal my time and use of my line and instrument) vs telephone owner. Perhaps if everyone wrote one the telemarketers/robocall bosses might get the idea we’re mad as h*ll and won’t take it any more!

On another note, I would like to say that my YouTube channel is up and running – and I would be most appreciative if you would drop by. It’s called Janis’ Tips and Tales, and a new episode is released on the fourth Thursday of every month. Thank you!

Stalking Ideas

by Janis Patterson

One of the questions authors are asked the most is “Where do you find your ideas?” – as if ideas were rare and wondrous things as difficult to discover as flawless emeralds. As far as I and most of the writers I know are concerned, there are fewer questions more maddening.

As if one has to ‘find’ ideas. They find us, as ubiquitous as mosquitoes during a lake holiday, and sometimes just about as annoying. For example : you’re working happily on a sophisticated big city humorous mystery, when all of a sudden the sight of an axe in a hardware store brings up a flash of inspiration for a dark and noir-ish story about a suburban serial killer. It lurks at the edge of your consciousness, waiting to leap on every unguarded moment with yet another character or plot twist.

The sleuth you’re trying to write is an urbane, wise-cracking former male model who speaks four languages and not only knows but actually cares about the difference between white tie and black tie evening wear. (Sigh) The sleuth who is trying to creep into your mind is a wise-cracking suburban mom who hates soccer, has a daughter mad for ballet and who, through her knowledge of some arcane middle-class suburban pastime, deduces the killer who has been decimating the neighborhood.

Finally to propitiate the annoying creature you take a few precious hours to make some notes, jot down an idea or two, scrape together the bare bones of an outline and file the results into your bulging Ideas file. (You do keep an Ideas file, don’t you? I have for years. Mine is now roughly the size of Rhode Island.) The only problem is, when you decide the suburban mom has to have a garden, there is the flicker of an idea about a well-known television writer who loves to raise poisonous plants and his encyclopedic knowledge allows him to solve crimes as there is suddenly an epidemic of poisonings on the set of a controversial new series…

See how insidious this is? Before long you’re doing nothing but making notes about possible story ideas while your sophisticated and urbane city detective languishes somewhere in black tie (appropriate to the occasion, of course) waiting for you to come back to him. Ideas are everywhere, and catching them can take over your life.

Now, as we must never forget, I will repeat my mantra – an idea is not a plot. An Idea Is Not A Plot. Repeat that three times every day before you sit down to write. An idea is a situation, a frame, a slice of a singular moment in time. For a successful book, you need hundreds of ideas, and you need to be able to mesh them together seamlessly to provide a workable story. That part is work. Fielding a couple of the bazillions of ideas that flash by you every minute is not.

For the record, my second-most-disliked question is when some bright-eyed naif comes bouncing up (for some reason this is usually a middle-aged male at a cocktail party) and says with the utmost generosity of a Lord Bountiful, “I’ve a wonderful idea for a book – why don’t I tell it to you so you can write the book and we’ll split the money.” If it weren’t so maddening it would be funny to see their faces fall with disbelief when I tell them that ideas are literally everywhere and why would a writer need or even want to borrow ideas when there are more around for free than we could ever even make notes on in our lifetime? Let alone that the writing of the book is the work part, not finding an idea or two.

There have been a few, foolish ones who forge ahead and tell me their idea anyway, apparently convinced that once I hear it I will find it so irresistible and wonderful that I will fall all over myself begging to write it. Huh. Usually this idea is either an improbable farrago of wish-fulfillment or a twisted re-hash of some recent television show. Sigh. Unfortunately, there is nothing in any etiquette book about how to handle this situation and stabbing the innocent but tenacious offender with a cocktail pick is frowned upon. (I say that from sad experience…)

See the problem? It’s not that we have to stalk ideas – it’s that ideas stalk us, continually battering at the gates of our mind until we acknowledge their existence, which diffuses our focus. Perhaps a friend of mine said it best : “It’s not the idea; it’s what you do with it.”

What we do with it – writing the story itself – is the important part.