Linguistic Quirks

Since I started writing, I’ve been paying more attention to how I speak. Mostly, I look for those little quirky regionalisms that can be fun to put into stories. Bits of linguistic legerdemain add spice to a story if they’re handled well. Go too far and you wind up with a nigh unreadable bit of dreck, but in small doses, things like “root hog or die” can add something wonderful to a story.

Language is hardly static. Change is what separates a living language from a dead language. Sometimes the change is brought on by direct experience – as in the case of “root hog or die” – sometimes new words need to be invented to explain new concepts or new ideas. Other times, it’s just easier to create a portmanteau of two words to get a new one. Frogurt’s a good example of that.

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Damn it. Now I want some frogurt.

Words and phrases can come out of nowhere, due to mispronunciations or intentional changes to the language. My Kenpo teacher used to use simultuously. Apparently, he had an SAS guy show up at his school sometime in the distant past who regularly used the word. When asked why he said it, the SAS guy said he picked it up in SAS training because his drill sergeant used it and when an SAS sergeant says it’s simultuously, the word is simultuously.

Other times words and phrases are deliberately added to the language. A buddy of mine has proposed “crizzle sticks” for something that’s really crazy. It’s a fun thing to say and embiggens the levels of craziness. Something that’s entry-level crazy is still just crazy. Slightly crazier and you get cra-cra. When it’s really pants-on-head level nuts, you can call it crizzle sticks.

You’re welcome.

Seeing written words has changed the way I think about word usage. Some expressions and words are commonly used, but you know they’re regional dialect and deep down inside you know they’re not to be used for writing. Around here it’s words like “y’all” and “fixin’ to”. I know I’m not supposed to use them in formal communication, but they still keep slipping into my vocabulary. I haven’t quite hit the “I’m gonna mosey on down to the chow wagon and get me some grub” level yet, but I fear it may not be too far off.

Learn to mosey in three easy steps. Only $9.99 per lesson.
Learn to mosey in three easy steps. Only $9.99 per lesson.

That said, I’ve noticed a couple quirks in my language that have stopped me and made me wonder where I picked them up and what they actually say. They’re language elements and language elements don’t always have to make sense, but they still derail my train of thought every now and then.

  • Couple of – as in “It’ll take a couple of hours to do that”.
  • Try and – as in “I’ll try and do it”.

Taken at face value, they’re not phrases you’d think of very often. In a couple of hours I’ll try and get around to caring. But, why would I say a couple of hours when I could just say a couple hours? It seems odd. From what I’ve been able to ascertain, “couple of hours” is more grammatically correct than “couple hours.” Why? It has to do with sentence structure in the English language. Couple is a noun, but it’s being used as an adjective more and more frequently. Think about this way: couple and pair mean essentially the same thing, but you wouldn’t say, “I’ll get a pair dogs”, you say “I’ll get a pair of dogs”. That’s because pair is being used as a noun and not an adjective.

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Pair of dogs with bonus baby hippo. Apparently the hippo was abandoned and joined the dog pack. It’ll get its leather “Furniture Eaters” kutte after it finishes basic dog training.

Somewhere around the 1920s, American English started dropping the “of” between couple and something else. The language changed to better suit the needs of its users and couple went from being a straight noun to a noun and an adjective simultuously. So, even though saying “A couple of hours” seemed odd to me, I apparently picked up the grammatically correct phrase at some point. Probably elementary school; we were big on grammar at Mesa Verde Elementary.

Try and do it always struck me as a strange thing to say, too. Maybe not as strange as “root hog or die”, but still an oddity. If you’re going to try and you’re going to do something, why not just do it? Great. Nike’s probably going to sue me now. It seems like saying “try to do it” would make a better phrase. Again, you wouldn’t say “attempt and do it”, but you would say “attempt to do it”. It turns out saying “try to do it” is more grammatically correct, at least according to the OED. The OED even goes to so far as to say “try and” and “try to” are interchangeable.

Not so fast, though, OED. I can easily attempt something and fail at it as in “I tried and failed to comprehend the allure of the Kardashians”, but why would I attempt to fail at the same thing? “I tried to fail to comprehend the allure of the Kardashians” doesn’t make a lot of sense. Plus, there are too many “tos” in there. Two tos is one too many to.

Therefore, the usage depends on intent. “Try to” and “try and” are interchangeable if success is the outcome. Even though “try to” may be more grammatically correct, it doesn’t work the exact same way as “try and”, nor does it work in as many situations.

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Shocking, I know.

What’s the take-away from all this? Aside from the fact that I need to stop overthinking things, it would appear I was correct in one case – using “couple of” – and incorrect in another – using “try to” instead of “try and”.

Does that mean the entire exercise was a waste? Not really. As a writer, it never hurts to stop and ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. Try and take a couple of hours every now and then to mosey away from the computer and think about words. Anything else would be crizzle sticks.

Do you have any linguistic quirks of your own?

Write Your Own Conspiracy Theory

When I was working on my Master’s Degree, everyone in the MA (yes, I got a Master of Arts in Speech Communication – go figure) program had to go through grad-level statistics. Ostensibly, this was to teach us how to have valid experimental work and give us a better understanding in general of how statistics works. It was actually a good class and I’m glad I took it, even if the only real stats work I did was running a chi square test and some basic validity and reliability tests on my thesis. What I actually took away from the class was how easy it is to manipulate people with numbers. 60% of the time it works 90% of the time. 79% of people know that.

Since my degree – even though it was in Speech Comm – focused on rhetoric and persuasion, I’ve had a sick fascination with the ways people can be manipulated. Naturally, this last election cycle was like being on a several month long bender of lies and distortions. U.S. Presidential elections are usually like that, though. They’re like that crazy chick you know you should stay away from, but you still find yourself waking up in her bedroom and wondering what happened to your clothes and where you got the crazy idea to pierce various places.

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Shocked owl is shocked.

Just to get this out of the way, the election is over and this post isn’t directly about the election, anyway. What this is about, is all the paranoid ramblings that come up every election cycle. Since I’m a writer, I thought it would be fun to write a conspiracy theory and step y’all through the process of manipulating people for fun and profit.

Conspiracy theories are inherently interesting to us as humans. It’s easier to believe aliens built the pyramids than it is to understand a whole lot of people can accomplish something amazing when they set their minds to it. Just like with fake news stories (which are a form of conspiracy theories in that they exploit our base predilections) the trick with any good conspiracy theory is to take advantage the small truth and expand it in all kinds of exciting ways. We’re going to start with two small (probable) truths:

  • Self-driving cars will be a reality in about ten years
  • Insurance companies will offer higher rates for people who insist on driving themselves

I don’t have any concrete evidence for this, but the beauty of a good conspiracy theory is it doesn’t require much evidence. Actually, less evidence is better because it’s hard to refute nothingness. All you really need to do is work with something people already “know”.

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Meet your new car. The high-end ’82 Firebird turned a jaw-dropping 165 bhp from a V8 engine.

Now we’re going to throw some techno-babble at it to make it all sound scientific. Self-driving cars rely on GPS navigation and advanced near-AI computers. Don’t go overboard with the tech stuff or people will ignore it. Add a major corporation and a touch of heath care and you’ve got the makings of a great conspiracy theory.

To finalize the conspiracy theory all you need to do is add a bit of paranoid ramblings that sound truthy. Truthiness is important. A conspiracy theory plays on people’s inherent pre-judgements about the world around them. Again, take something everyone already “knows” is true. This is what separates a conspiracy theory from propaganda. Propaganda seeks to create the “truth”, conspiracy theories exploit that “truth”.  For our conspiracy theory we’re going to play on Americans’ inherent mistrust of government and large corporations. That’s actually one of the things that brings us together as a country: distrusting the people that run the joint and pay the bills.

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Knows a little too much about truthiness, if you know what I mean.

Put it all together and you get something like:

Self-driving cars are almost a reality. Google’s almost got one ready to deploy and you or your kids will probably be able to buy it. Guess what! You’ll also get a discount on your car insurance if you let the car drive itself because that’s how good Google is at this kind of thing and they’ve cut a deal with automotive insurance companies. Google’s actually creating an artificial intelligence to make it all work!

Think that’s a great idea? Think again.

Google is the same company that helped design the Great Firewall of China that blocked Chinese citizens from learning what their government is up to. And they did it at the behest of the State Department! It doesn’t take a genius to think they can do the same thing here in the United States. They’re also masters at working with GPS. Ever looked up your house on Google Maps? They’ve got pictures of your front door. They know where your phone is, too! Now, at the behest of the United States government, Google is going to be able to track your car and see everywhere you go! If you decide you’re going to McDonald’s, Google will know and they’ll tell the government. Since the government runs healthcare now, your health insurance rates will go up because you wanted a Big Mac and someone decided that’s unhealthy!

We’re through the looking glass here, folks. The future is now and it’s just like Orwell predicted: a boot on your throat forever. When self-driving cars debut, do yourself a favor and DON’T BUY ONE!

See how easy that was? Unfortunately, a lot of news these days follows the same kinds of formula. Find something interesting that are already twitchy about, extract it to a logical-sounding conclusion. Next time you read something that sounds too good to be true (Obama founded ISIS!), do yourself a favor and do some digging, especially if it smells conspiratorial. Just like with statistics, it’s possible to “prove” almost anything. Unlike statistics, a conspiracy theory or a fake news story doesn’t require much in the way of truth, it just has to sound true.

Remember, perception is reality.

The Blurbery Revisited – Writing A Book Blurb

Show me an author that claims to enjoy writing book blurbs and I’ll show you a liar. There’s a fundamental difference between writing a book with 70k+ words and writing a blurb that needs to clock in at a few hundred. And you know what makes things even worse? You’re not even supposed to use “In a world…” to start off the blurb? How are you supposed to hook a reader without using “In a world…”?

Madness, I tells ya. Madness.

It's a Beautiful Day Now Watch Some Jerk Mess it  up Patch | Embroidered Patches
There’s always some jerk messing things up.

I’ve written a couple posts on writing blurbs in the past, but now I’m staring down the barrel of needing to write one for Transmute and decided it’s probably time to give my skills a little brush up. Just like in Kenpo where we regularly practice punching and kicking, it never hurts to shore up the basic skills of writing.

The first thing to think about is what a blurb is supposed to do. In its simplest form, a blurb is the second mechanism for getting a reader’s attention. The first mechanism is the cover. If your cover blows, no one will even take a look at the blurb. The third thing potential readers will look at is the preview – although this is optional. Of course, the final bit of attracting a reader is those precious first few lines of the book that set up the story.

I’ll hit on covers in another post and it’s really up to the author to make the book good and hook the reader with the first lines. Since I’ve got Transmute’s cover done and the first chapter kicks all kinds of mad ass, I’m going to focus on the blurb.

Transmute cover ©2016, Eric Lahti. Illustration by sababa66
Transmute cover
©2016, Eric Lahti. Illustration by sababa66

To start off, a few rules for writing your blurb, taken from various places on the Interwebs (see the notes at the bottom if you want to read the original posts).

  • Use a formula
  • Figure out how best to link to your genre
  • Show the conflict
  • Pick the best kinds of words to use. (I have the best words, trust me)
  • Use hyperbole

Things to not use

Most of the don’ts are pretty obvious and easy to follow pointers. The dos, likewise, are fairly straightforward. One thing to note is the word choice by genre. A romance blurb isn’t going to hook many readers if it emphasizes the action in the story. Unless it’s that kind of action. You know what I’m talking about. Likewise, a blurb for an action/adventure story probably won’t focus on the interpersonal relationships between the main characters. The choice of word use can have a huge impact on that. Action words like explosive, rapid, terrifying, exhilirating don’t look as good on romance blurbs unless you’re using a phrase like “She experienced rapid-fire, explosive orgasms.” And even that doesn’t sound too good. Choose words that fit the story and the genre. A book about The Cure, for instance, could use words like morose, ennui, and soul-crushing.

That leaves us with implementing a formula and using it as well as possible.

Start it all out by looking at the book and applying it to the formula. Formulaic writing is bad. Formulaic blurbs are good. A reader expects a certain amount of information in the blurb and if they don’t get it your book gets ignored.

stoppedreading
What a bad blurb might look like.

A book blurb should consist of four things: a setting, a problem, a twist, and something that establishes the mood. Depending on the book, the setting might be a single place or a multitude of places, but it should refer to the place that the action starts. For instance, in Transmute, Steven suddenly finds himself in the middle of nowhere overlooking a small farm where every animal has been slaughtered and a woman is buried up to her neck in the sand.

The problem is the component that shifts the narrative from normal into the events of the story. It’s the part that kick starts the story and it doesn’t have to be complex. In the setting sentence above, the problem is hinted at; namely Steven suddenly finds himself somewhere else. It’s a bit worse for poor Steven, though. He’s a god now, and gods aren’t supposed to have to do anything they don’t want to do, but the rules of the universe seem stacked against him.

To make matters worse, as he tries to figure out how he got transported and why, an old enemy makes a fresh appearance. The twist isn’t so much how he got transported, but why and to what end. That’s the meat of the story.

The final thing to consider in writing a blurb is to give the reader a sense of the mood of the story. Does it have action and adventure? Is it a romance? Are there Nazis and giant snakes? Is it funny or deadly serious?

Transmute follows on to Henchmen and Arise, both of which have plenty of jaw-dropping action and witty dialogue, and is written in the same style. Most books have good guys and bad guys, but Henchmen started out with the bad guys and Arise added the worse guys. Transmute gives the bad guys a worse enemy than they imagined and sets up for the final exciting book in the series.

That’s the formula and a basic summation of the plot to Transmute. The rest of the do list needs to be kept firmly in mind while writing the blurb and the don’t definitely need to be avoided. So, here’s a first crack:

Steven and Jessica find themselves outside small farm in the middle of nowhere. One moment they were sharing dinner, the next they’re surrounded by dead animals and staring at a woman buried up to her neck in the sand. Steven’s a god now and gods aren’t supposed to get teleported all over creation against their will, let alone get called out to save damsels in distress.

As if he doesn’t already have enough problems dealing with the Dreaming Lands actively rebelling against his rule, now the freshly minted God of Dreams has to learn how to be a god, deal with overzealous followers, and generally get his head in the game. To make things worse, a powerful enemy has set its sights on Steven and Jessica and the entire world could be at stake.

An epic tale full of jaw-dropping action, powerful magic, and a cast of memorable misfits, Transmute will take you from New Mexico to the Dreaming Lands and back again. With a quick stop in the best bowling alley eatery in the world.

New god. New powers. New problems.

At least he’s still got friends.

What do you think?

Links for further reading

Book Review – Beyond Right Or Wrong by Renea Taylor

This is my first erotic romance book review. I read about half of 50 Shades of Grey and couldn’t find the allure of it, but I’m hardly the target audience for that book. Renea Taylor’s Beyond Right Or Wrong doesn’t have the elaborate BDSM aspects of 50 Shades, but does have its own sex scenes. It focuses a lot on the interactions between the characters and less on the sex, but there is still sex in the story, so if you’re not into that it’s probably best to put this aside in favor of something else.

Don’t worry about me. Not much bothers me and it takes quite a lot to offend me, so I was fine.

Anyway, what you get in Beyond Right or Wrong is primarily a story about a woman whose boss is a total jerk (but a hot jerk) and the interactions between them that lead to them bumping uglies. Truthfully, those aspects were more interesting to me, but much like with 50 Shades, I’m hardly the target audience for Beyond. There’s a lot of internalization between the two main characters (Andrea and Clint) and their revolving supporting cast.

Now, here’s the hard part about the book: it’s essentially a love story woven together as a cheating story. Clint’s married, but falls for Andrea. In order to mask his feelings, he treats her like crap. Despite all that, the two eventually winnow their way together, blowing off Clint’s failing marriage. Interwoven into that plot is a subplot about a serial killer – which was interesting in its own right. Actually, I’d like to see Mrs. Taylor try her hand at writing a straight-up murder mystery.

But, let’s all be realistic here: the prime reason the erotic romance genre is as popular as it is has nothing to do with murder mysteries. People like these stories because they focus on the characters and there are sex scenes in the books; the murder mystery was secondary to the sex and the interplay between the characters. Were the sex scenes good? Sure. They were primarily written from a woman’s point of view, so, as a guy, they were distant to me, but interesting nonetheless.

There are some typos here and there and some stylistic choices that I wouldn’t have done, but it was a good story. If you’re into erotic romance, this is an entertaining book.

“Warning: Not intended for those under 18. Contains adult content.
Can be read as a stand-alone. Beyond Right Or Wrong is an Adult Romance. This is a love story.
Andrea Cody moved from Los Angeles to Dallas Texas because she was running, running away from the way she’d been living, to a simpler way she remembered as suffering from the shock of her partner losing his life in an undercover sting and nearly losing her own at the same time, she needed away, away from the lower, seedy side of life that had come with her job! However, after living in Dallas for several months, where she’d avoided anything that had to do with her old career, she’d realized that she missed it, missed the adrenaline rush it allowed. Deciding to seek employment with the FBI’s Dallas Field Office, she hopes to find the something that has been lacking in her life. What she wasn’t expecting to find in her pursuit, though, was an instant, pantie drenching desire for her team leader Clint Romero! The fact that he’s married definitely threw a monkey wrench in the needs and wants of her body, for even she, has some morals, but those crumble when she learns Clint is fighting his own battle of temptation. One to not just give in and take what he wants. And what he wants is Andrea in every way he can take her to satisfy the ache…the need she has brought about within him, even as a killer within their city gives in to his own wants and desires!”

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Book Review – The Doodlebug War by Andrew Updegrove

If you ever want an opportunity to feel the kind of creeping malaise that can only come from knowing just how electronically entangled you are with everyone else, go hang out with some IT professionals, especially those who deal in IT security. It’s a (small) part of my job, so I’ve come to grips with the fact that my cell phone is probably listening to me type right now and just how dependent I’ve become on the Internet in my daily life. Not just for cat pictures, either; there’s data storage, access to applications I’ve written and maintain, interactions with other people, and, let’s face it, the Internet is pretty much the only way to get computer games anymore.

So, since I’m feeling like being a bit of a jerk, think about this way: Everything you do online – and this includes your phone, your car, your computer, your gaming system, your stereo, everything – is probably working through a series of choke points. What Steve Jobs called “The Cloud” is really just someone else’s computer and they’re renting you storage, access, and processing power. If that computer goes away, so does your data, your application, and your ability to do stuff. Poof. Gone. The backups are probably toasted, too, unless you’ve been keeping your own.

You have been backing up your own data, right?

Okay, now that I’ve lit a fire under your butt, let me also tell you there are still a whole bunch of people out there who want you dead and no wall, no mass deportations, no ban on certain religions entering the country is going to change their ability to get to you. Mostly because they’re already here. With some pretty common, off-the-shelf tools and hardware, a small, but determined adversary can cause a horrific amount of damage.

And when that small, but determined adversary really wants to stick it in and break it off? Well, remember the choke points I was talking about earlier?

So, just how bad can it get and what can be done to stop it? Read the Doodlebug war to find out. Like all of Updegrove’s books (read the review for The Alexandria Project), The Doodlebug War manages to finesse that fine point between action and thriller, giving us a tense read with plenty of moments of action and emotion interspersed throughout. There’s also a turtle. But the seriously scary thing about Updegrove’s books is he finds those little things that no one thinks about and finds ways to tighten the screws on them. If you like thrillers and thinking-person’s books, try one of them out. You won’t be disappointed.

The time is the immediate future, and the Caliphate is the enemy in the third Frank Adversego Thriller. Mullah Muhammed Foobar, the mysterious leader of a post-ISIS terrorist organization, has won control of much of the Mid East. Now he threatens to launch a horrific attack that will bring the United States and Europe to their knees. But How? The CIA turns to cybersecurity super sleuth Frank Adversego to find the answer. In a race against time, Frank must overcome personal as well as cyber trials to save the Western world from destruction. When he does, he discovers an all-too-real vulnerability that may lead to our own downfall – not at some theoretical point in the future, but as soon as tomorrow. In the words of “world’s greatest hacker” Kevin Mitnick: “Andrew Updegrove has done it again – delivered an impossible to put down thriller while exposing a dire cyber vulnerability that until now has gone unnoticed.”

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The (Not So) Great Experiment

Toward the beginning of the year, I decided I wanted to spin off Wilford Saxton into a kind of serial set of stories. None of them would be terribly long. If a novel is a movie, Saxton’s tales were supposed to be more like T.V. shows. I kind of followed the idea of a single plot per story, but with an overall arch to the series that would let me explain a bit more about the sometimes good guy, sometimes bad guy from Henchmen and Arise. It would also give me a chance to do some of the setup for the forthcoming Transmute, expanding on the bad guys and giving a closer look at why Wilford changes so much between Arise and Transmute. Plus it has Nazis, home-brew monsters, and Sanngrior.

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Well, I’m happy to say that series is done and the events of The Brotherhood take place mostly at the same time as the events of Transmute. Unfortunately, I’m gonna have to say the experiment was pretty much a failure in terms of sales. Oh, ah. At some point in the distant future, someone will discover the stories and they’ll give that person a bit deeper look into one of the main characters from the Henchmen series. At some point in the near future, I’ll compile all the stories into an omnibus edition.

If you happen to be interested in the Saxton stories, the links are to your right. Or at least were when I published this. They’re fun reads and only $0.99 each. The compiled omnibus edition will drop at $2.99.

What can you take away from this? I’m not entirely certain. The advent of digital publishing has taken a lot of constraints off things like word count. Traditionally, novels are considered to be over 40k words, although in reality most sit between 70k and 300k. The Saxton tales clock in at about 27k each, which puts them firmly into the novella arena. Since it costs exactly as much to publish a 60 page story as it does a 400 page novel, digital publishing and print on demand technology open up the ability for authors to do more exploring and experimentation. Hopefully, the future will see more authors looking at how the written word can be handled. Not every story needs to be a thousand pages long and you don’t always get the same depth or length of story from 60 pages, but it’s nice to live in a world where both the epic novel and the shorter novella can live together.

What do you think? Are novellas just not as inherently interesting as novels?

Book Review – The Return of the Pumpkins by Lacey Lane

Nearly two years ago, I reviewed Lacey’s first story – The Revenge of the Pumpkins. It was a brutal story of pumpkins slaughtering the people who had carved them for Halloween and was, in a lot of ways, a great horror short story. Like some of the best horror stories, Revenge didn’t bother to explain the antagonists or why they were doing what they were doing. The pumpkins were just flat out evil.

Now, a couple years later we get the follow-on to Revenge and Lacey has taken the story in a different direction. It’s still a good slasher story, but rather than relying on the overt pumpkins with shiny blades and glints of evil in their eyes, we find the sole survivor from the first story locked up in a mental institution after he insisted the pumpkins had carved up his family and set fire to their house.

Needless to say, no one believed him. But they did give him a nice home and a jacket with sleeves that tie in the back. Okay, I’m joking about the jacket, but the kid does spend a decade in an asylum learning to question whether or not sentient, evil pumpkins really did slaughter his family and wondering when they’re going to come back.

In addition to the usual creepiness of a mental institution, we get a lot more character development and an ending that leaves you wondering just where the madness ends and where it starts.

All in all, an excellent short read from an excellent new horror author.

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Peter Smith is a patient at West Hills hospital. He has been there for nearly a decade. At the age of thirteen, his parents were brutally murdered and Peter was tortured to near death by his Halloween pumpkins. Killer pumpkins haunt his dreams and his doctor thinks he’s delusional. Determined to turn his life around, he has eventually decided to join in with the Halloween festivities in the hospital and carves his first pumpkin. Will Peter survive the tenth anniversary of his parents’ death? Or will his pumpkin be the death of him?

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