No One Writes Plays About People Brushing Their Teeth

My play writing teacher back in college used to regularly tell us, “No one writes plays about people brushing their teeth.” At the time, my first thought was, “Oh, yeah? Just wait.” Of course, she was right and no one gives a rat’s ass about people brushing their teeth. People turning into rhinoceroses or people standing around waiting for some mysterious thing or person to show up are still perfectly acceptable, even if they are so mired in dense allegory that most folks never get past the rhinos or just who the fuck Godot was.

Hint: Godot was all the stupid shit we spend our time waiting for. At least according to Samuel Beckett, but what does he know?

But here’s a funny thing: Everyone brushes their teeth. And, just like there’s no one right way to eat a peanut butter cup, everyone does it a little differently. For some people, it’s a ritual: Present the toothbrush, bow, and move to each tooth with military precision. Others, slap some toothpaste on the brush and go to town while humming Bliss N Eso songs and drooling toothpaste on themselves. I’ll leave it up to you to determine which one I am.

How we approach things tells people a lot about us. Are we the kind of people who want a neat, tidy meal where the burger wrapper is folded exactly so and there’s a distinct place on the wrapper for the burger, the fries, and the ketchup and they DO NOT TOUCH? Or are we the kind of people who can eat the whole meal straight out of the bag and toss it in the back seat for the next owner of our car to deal with?

Little things that seem trivial when we’re doing them can cast long shadows on our psyches. They’re the kinds of things that add richness and detail to characters, too. Little quirks like collecting Pop Swatches or having an affinity for Teen Beat magazine might not be important to the character’s arc, but they can help explain why a character is doing something without, you know, explicitly explaining it.

Think about this way. How interesting is reading about a character when the author comes straight out and says, “She was anal-retentive”? Boring. What about describing how she opened her burger, pushed it gently to the side of the wrapper, poured the fries neatly on the other side, and put the ketchup perfectly in the middle. Or a character that eats burritos with a knife and fork? Or describing a room so organized that the books on the bookshelf were all exactly the same height and organized in perfect alphabetical order? Those little keys add up to saying someone’s a neat freak without resorting to actually saying it.

While it’s doubtful anyone will write a play about someone brushing their teeth, it’s entirely likely that describing the way someone brushes their teeth can create a more complete picture of the character.

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When You’re Going Through Hell, Keep Going

My first book was easy. That may or may not be the case for everyone and doubtless Henchmen could use some rework. Maybe at some point in the future I’ll go through the whole series and do some big ol’ honkin’ revisions. The bones of the books are good and some of the flesh is even tantalizing, but there are things that need work.

That said, I’ve learned a lot over the past five years or so; enough to make me realize I wasn’t the mad genius I thought I was. Five years from now, I’ll probably be saying the exact same thing along with words like “dumbass” “egotistical brat” and “no-talent ass-clown”. Such is the nature of the growth and change.

The more you work on something, the better you’re gonna get at it, especially if you pay attention to the feedback you’re getting. Yes, even the stuff that says you suck and should go back to giving handjobs for meth or the ones that say you should have your tongue cut out because you curse too much. Okay, I haven’t had anyone tell me the first one (yet), but the second definitely happened.

I tend to take valid criticism to heart. If there’s something actionable (get an editor) and enough people say it, it’s worth listening to. If there’s just that lone nut griping about something, it’s probably okay to pass it by. After all, you can’t please everyone.

Anyway, I stumbled across this image that I thought summed up the artistic pursuits nicely.

I-wish-I-was-born-with-Talent

All too often we assume we can’t do something just because someone else is already doing it better. When I first started Kenpo, the white belts stood in the back of the class and our instructor told us – first day – the only thing that separated us from him was time and practice. That’s the kind of thing that sticks with you and it’s the kind of life lesson that only sinks in after a while. What do you mean I’ve got to wait? I want it now.

Sorry. Can’t have it now.

Neil Gaiman has also said the first million words or so that come out of a writer are shit, but they’ve got to come out so you can to the good ones. It’s like a pipe stuffed full of bad ideas, anxious alliteration, and trite jokes. Push all that crap out and get to the good stuff. Hell, there’ll probably be some real gems floating around in the first million words or so, too, so polish them up and save them.

Now, I’m not saying your book sucks. I’m saying it’s not as good as it could have been if it was your fifth instead of your first. But guess what? You have to write the first through the fourth to get to the fifth.

Like anything else, writing takes time to come to grips with, time to find your voice, and time to get good at it. It can be a hellish journey, but that the end you’ll be able to experience the absolute terror of trying to explain to someone what your book is about without sounding like a babbling lunatic.

If you’re writing – keep writing.

If you’re feeling down about your writing – keep writing.

If your sales suck – keep writing.

Do it until your soul bleeds and you never want to see another word again. Then write some more.

But above all – keep writing.

WATWB – Your Monthly Shot of News That Doesn’t Suck

About sixteen years ago, I was watering my plants when one of those poor college saps who got suckered into going door-to-door to get signatures on environmental issues wandered into my yard looking both lost and bright-eyed at the same time. I like to think he’s get his bright-eyed enthusiasm, but the going door-to-door collecting signatures has a way of beating enthusiasm down with a stick. Anyway, he was collecting signatures to get a bill passed that would help end the state’s reliance on fossil fuels. I told him I thought that was a wonderful idea and asked what the proposed solution was. Nuclear? Too dangerous. Wind? Too dangerous for birds. The answer, according to him, was solar.

Now, bear in mind, this was in the early 2000s when solar tech was nowhere near where it is now and nowhere near ready to take over even New Mexico’s energy needs. He dug in his heels and said it was solar or nothing.

In a way, he was onto something. But, just like the guy putting raw ground beef on a burger bun, he was way too early. The technology was nowhere near mature enough. The ability to kind of power a house didn’t translate to powering a state even in a part of the country where we have something like 300+ sunny days a year. That was bad enough, but he was adamant that the only thing that would work was a complete switch over to solar. No incremental fixes for this guy, he was just going to throw a shit-ton of cash at the problem and flip a switch when it was all said and done and everything would be perfect.

Much as I love the idea of solar power, I couldn’t get behind an all-or-nothing solution, so I bid him good day and didn’t sign his petition; it seemed like it had disaster written all over it.

Back in World War II (and trust me, this will make sense in a few minutes), Japan suffered such heavy bombing that its infrastructure was basically destroyed. Electricity, gas, water, everything. Even phone lines were toasted. Being the Japanese, they rebuilt everything better than it was before and even eventually build the most advanced cellular network in the world. That was partially because they didn’t have to shoehorn it into an existing system; it could be anything they wanted it to be so they made it totally badass.

Or at least that’s the story I’ve heard. It may or may not be true, but last time I was in Japan, their cell system (and cell phones) were light years ahead of anything else I’d seen at the time. Theirs could launch space shuttles, my phone could very slowly play Tetris on a 2″ black and white screen.

The US power system (and its attendant reliance on fossil fuels) is very much a thing and any new things that get added have to be shoehorned into that thing or it’s all gonna fall apart or not even make it to the adoption phase. Fossil fuels are so entrenched in our culture that even the thought of doing something else leads to screams of “socialism!” and “dirty hippies!” Even though getting rid of fossil fuel reliance would be an amazing thing, it’s going to have to be an incremental process that will likely involve bribing no end of Congress critters. It’ll happen eventually – there’s too much public outcry over pollution for it not to – but it ain’t gonna happen all at once.

Interestingly, in emerging nations, that’s a non-issue. They don’t have to worry about shoehorning new tech into old or paying off the old guard to let them do it because there’s just not that much infrastructure there to replace. As a result emerging nations are the ones driving innovation in renewable energy technologies like solar while the developed parts of the world are stuck using decades or centuries old technology. Just like the Japanese after World War II, they’ve got a mostly clean slate to work with.

That means that things like wind a solar energy are much more viable systems and their utilization is driving down the cost of the technologies and improving them at the same time. Meanwhile, here in the U.S., we’re still debating about clean coal and whether or not climate change is a thing.

So, hats off to innovation. It would seem that necessity really is the mother of invention. Read the original article here.

If you’d like to connect your blog and help spread a little joy (or snark, like I do), it’s easy to sign up. Just ask and ye shall receive. Or go check it out here: here.

Our lovely and talented hosts this month are:
Eric Lahti, Inderpreet Uppal, Shilpa Garg, Peter Nena and Damyanti Biswas

~~~GUIDELINES~~~

1. Keep your post to below 500 words, as much as possible.

2. All we ask is you link to a human news story on your blog on the last Friday of each month, one that shows love, humanity and brotherhood.

3. Join us on the last Friday of each month in sharing news that warms the cockles of our heart. No story is too big or small, as long as it goes beyond religion and politics, into the core of humanity.

4. Place the WE ARE THE WORLD Badge on your sidebar, and help us spread the word on social media. Tweets, Facebook shares, G+ shares using the #WATWB hashtag through the month most welcome. More Blogfest signups mean more friends, love and light for all of us.

5. We’ll read and comment on each others’ posts, get to know each other better, and hopefully, make or renew some friendships with everyone who signs on as participants in the coming months.

6. To signup, add your link in WE ARE THE WORLD Linky List below.

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And now, your moment of Zen.

lukegonnahavecompany

Serve Your Sentence With Aplomb

There have been several claims about what the longest sentence in English is. They range from over a thousand words (1,288 in Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!) to nearly 14,000 (13,955 in Jonathon Coe’s The Rotter’s Club). Even though Coe’s apparently got the record nailed down tight until new sentence technology is discovered, 1,288 is freakin’ long sentence. Especially when most sentences range between 10 and 20 words with outliers on both sides.

The Oxford Guide to Plain English recommends 15-20 word average sentences because as the author, Martin Cutts, explains, “More people fear snakes than full stops, so they recoil when a long sentence comes hissing across the page.”

Jyoti Sanyal’s Indlish has this to say on the subject: “Based on several studies, press associations in the USA have laid down a readability table. Their survey shows readers find sentences of 8 words or less very easy to read; 11 words, easy; 14 words fairly easy; 17 words standard; 21 words fairly difficult; 25 words difficult and 29 words or more, very difficult.”

Sentence length and ease of reading

  • 8 words or less: very easy
  • 11 words: easy
  • 14 words: fairly easy
  • 17 words: standard
  • 21 words: fairly difficult
  • 25 words: difficult
  • 29+ words: very difficult

While there’s evidence that the average sentence length has shrunk 75% in the last 500 years – it wasn’t uncommon to see 70+ word sentences in the 1600s – that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea (or good writing) to go for the long sentence. The reason for that has to do with readability. There’s evidence that the average person reading a 14 word sentence will pick up +90% of what they’re reading; that number drops to less than 10% at 43 words.

All this sentence length and reading comprehension stuff is something that’s been pinging around in my head ever since I wrote that post on words back in June. The gist of that post was understanding average vocabulary size with a brief foray into reading levels in prose and why writing to a 7th grade level wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. While that post spent more time with the number of unique words in a book, it touched on the idea of sentence length impacting readability and that idea stuck in my craw. After all, even a short sentence filled with words like fustian, byzantine, and polyglot can make a minefield for some people:

The polyglot’s mind was a byzantine mass of competing ideas and definitions that led to her fustian speech.

Okay, so at 18 words that was slightly over the standard sentence length, but not so outside the norm that it should be hard to parse. On the other hand, most people don’t regularly use words like polyglot, byzantine, and fustian, so those will be speed bumps on the superhighway to comprehension. Other than that, there’s nothing untoward about the sentence. A simple parsing, even accounting for the odd word choice, should reveal she has a whole whack of ideas and definitions and that does something bad to the way she speaks. If you want to go full information density on it, we can also assume she’s probably smart since she knows multiple languages, but her thoughts are jumbled since she sometimes gets lost juggling all those languages and that reflects in the way she talks. Basically it’s an excuse for what seems like pompous oratory.

Parsing is the key element here. While there can be multiple types of sentences – declarative, interrogative, exclamative, and imperative – all sentences come down one key thing: relating words into a complete, coherent idea. Or, if you want to get all fancy with it, according to dictionary.com, a sentence is “a grammatical unit of one or more words that expresses an independent statement, question, request, command, exclamation, etc, and that typically has a subject as well as a predicate, as in John is here. or Is John here?

So, really, a sentence is a bunch of words meant to convey a singular idea, no matter how complicated that idea might be. The kicker is, in order to understand the idea, you have to get through the sentence. That usually entails finding space in your head to store the words and brain CPU time to parse and process the words. All of this has to happen in the background as you’re reading and, in some cases, even moving onto the next sentence.

And you thought you weren’t smart. Shame on you. Even reading this post is requiring you to brain and brain hard.

By the way, if you’re thinking you’re going to break Coe’s longest sentence record, go for it. According to linguists, there is no functional top end in how long a sentence can be in English. Because of the way the language is structured, it’s possible to keep adding recursion (He said that she said that her grandmother said that Cthulhu said that guy over there did something…) or subordinate clauses or semi-colons or iterations or enumerations until the end of time. Even with just enumerations, it’s theoretically possible to write an endless sentence: She started counting to herself, never intending to stop: One, two, three, four, five, six… That sentence will only end when she runs out of numbers and I have it on good authority that there are a lot of them.

Does all this mean you should never go full Coe and write two short-stories’ worth of words into one sentence? Not necessarily, just realize longer sentences are harder to parse and, therefore, less likely to engage your reader. 15-20 words should be enough to convey the message you need to get across with a sentence. If it takes longer than that, or if you find yourself going balls to the wall with recursion, subordinate clauses, and whatnot, you might want to consider breaking longer sentences into shorter sentences. After all, it doesn’t matter how good your ideas are if no one can load and parse them.

A quick addendum to this: As was pointed out in the comments, vary the length of your sentences. Shorter sentences read faster which allows you to speed up the pace; longer ones slow reading down, which allows a reader time to rest.

Just try to avoid the 1000+ word sentences. No one wants to read those.

What are your thoughts on sentence length? Leave me a comment.

WATWB – Your Monthly Shot Of News That Doesn’t Suck

All around you are invisible people. The toilet paper doesn’t magically refresh itself any more than the dirt on the floor disappears on its own. There are people that scrub toilets and take out trash and clean floors, doing all the shit jobs that people don’t want to do and it’s amazing to me how many people completely ignore them when they pass in the halls. On a good day, your average janitor might get a nod from a suit or a muttered good morning as they breeze past.

This is unfortunate and, frankly, pretty cold-blooded.

Fortunately, it’s not always the case. In Tullahoma, TN, a group of kindergartners not only told their deaf janitor, they learned to sing the entire “Happy Birthday” song just for him. The result of this is obviously a good thing for the janitor, but also a good thing for the kindergartners who learned a valuable lesson about why kindness can be a wonderful thing. So, while the immediate benefit went to a guy who spends his whole day cleaning up after everyone, the long-term benefit went to a group of kids who might be able to change the world for the better in some small way.

Go check out the original story. Your homework is to notice a janitor and give ’em a happy, “Good morning” tomorrow. Just remember the only philosophy you really need to make the world a bit better:

If you’d like to connect your blog and help spread a little joy (or snark, like I do), it’s easy to sign up. Just ask and ye shall receive. Or go check it out here: here.

Our lovely and talented hosts this month are:
Eric Lahti, Inderpreet Uppal, Shilpa Garg, Mary J. Giese and Roshan Radhakrishnan

~~~GUIDELINES~~~

1. Keep your post to below 500 words, as much as possible.

2. All we ask is you link to a human news story on your blog on the last Friday of each month, one that shows love, humanity and brotherhood.

3. Join us on the last Friday of each month in sharing news that warms the cockles of our heart. No story is too big or small, as long as it goes beyond religion and politics, into the core of humanity.

4. Place the WE ARE THE WORLD Badge on your sidebar, and help us spread the word on social media. Tweets, Facebook shares, G+ shares using the #WATWB hashtag through the month most welcome. More Blogfest signups mean more friends, love and light for all of us.

5. We’ll read and comment on each others’ posts, get to know each other better, and hopefully, make or renew some friendships with everyone who signs on as participants in the coming months.

6. To signup, add your link in WE ARE THE WORLD Linky List below.

This is a Blog Hop!

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Click here to enter your link and view this Linky Tools list…

And now, your moment of Zen.

Information Density

Information density refers to putting more information into a single statement than is readily obvious. Think of it as a process of layering key pieces of a story on top of, or underneath, other things that are happening. Oftentimes it gets revealed through dialog, but there are other ways to accomplish it.

If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve probably heard someone say, “Show, don’t tell.” In fact, you’ve probably heard it enough that it makes you want to strangle a manatee in the nude every time someone says it.

It’s a bit of cryptic phrase. This is, after all, writing we’re talking about, not cinema; showing stuff in prose seems like the antithesis of telling a story. I’ll admit, I struggled with getting my head wrapped around it. But, like all things, once you come at it sideways, it makes a bit more sense. The path to understanding was a long, strange trip, but I finally had an epiphany that made it click into place.

Supposedly, Anton Chekhov once wrote “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass”.

This is all about scene building and adding poetic license to the grim details of monkey knife fighting in dimly lit alleys surrounded by drunken, toothless rabble chanting broken prayers to empty gods. Imaging the scene in your head. Freeze the frame. See the guy with the eye patch and his fist raised in the air. He’s screaming, lost in the ecstasy of the moment while the woman in the tiny dress leaning on his arm is staring at her phone. She’s focused on a single text and smirking.

The monkey on the right is in the air, about to ram a narrow gleaming dagger into the skull of a gray and black beast with wide eyes and his arms crossed in front of his face.

Now, read between the lines and see what’s lurking in there. The guy with the eye patch bet on the monkey that’s about to kill. He’s happy because he’s gonna get some soda water money. His girl has someone else on the side, someone she’d rather be with. The monkey about to get stabbed knows exactly what’s about to happen because he’s done it to others before.

That’s information density. That’s showing not telling. In a nutshell, you don’t have to be explicit about every little thing. Let the reader make up their own mind about the detail. Give them just enough extra information beyond the scene taking place that they can fill in the details.

The first thing to understand about showing not telling is it doesn’t have to all-encompassing. There are plenty of places where simply saying, “The damned light was blue” is all it takes and there’s no hidden information you need to divulge beyond the blueness of the light.

So, how about some examples?

In 1986, Aliens was released. Some people will disagree, but I still think it was the best in the series and set the tone for everything that came after it. If you’ve ever read the novelization, one of the things that gets brought up is how the aliens are showing signs of growing intelligence, probably due to the age of the hive. In Alien, the critter wasn’t too bright. It was in pure survival mode and, of course, hopelessly outclassed its prey so it didn’t have to be too smart. In Aliens there was more at stake, there was a hive and a queen and relative safety and the aliens had the luxury of moving beyond pure survival.

Even though the movie never explicitly states this, it hints at it in two places. The first is the fact that aliens found a way around all the locked doors and security and generally showed they had an intellect beyond pure animal instinct.

The other place, and the one that should have stayed in the final cut, was more obvious. Unfortunately, you’ll have to scrounge up the director’s cut to see it. In that cut, there’s a scene where the marines set up automated sentry guns. The first gun runs out of ammo and the aliens overrun it with pure numbers. The second gun, however, stops firing before it runs out of ammo. The aliens recognized the threat and retreated to find another way around. That way turned out to be crawling through the ceiling and dropping on their unsuspecting prey. Clever bugs.

Again, information density. Even though both scenes moved the story along and were pretty damned fun to boot, there was another layer that wasn’t as obvious. Even though that layer didn’t necessarily serve to push the plot along, it added something important to the characterization of the antagonists and also ramped up the tension. Now the marines weren’t just fighting a horde of killing machines, they were fighting a horde of smart killing machines.

In the beginning of this post, I alluded to the fact that information density is often revealed through dialog. Imagine a character with a recurring drinking problem. He’s trying to get his shit together, but has a long and storied history with alcohol. At various points in the past, he’s gone so far into the arms of mother booze that he’s made up crazy stories. You could spend a paragraph or so detailing his many times on and off the wagon, or you could hit in one line.

“Are you back on the sauce again, Colton, because that story doesn’t make a lick of sense.”

Your readers are smart. They don’t need everything spelled out for them. Don’t just let their imaginations soar, encourage it.

Got any other tips, drop ’em in the comments. I love comments.

WATWB – Your Monthly Shot Of News That Doesn’t Suck

I just realized I managed to post absolutely nothing during the month of September. This isn’t because I hate September – I’m actually ambivalent about it – it’s because I’m lazy and didn’t really have anything interesting to say. Also, I figured I had more time. In my mind, it’s still mid-September, not almost October. Some would call that being behind the times, but I prefer to think of it as being fashionably late.

Then, of course, I get that monthly reminder from WATWB High Command, reminding me that there are things in the world that aren’t me and I have to suddenly fast-forward myself to the present day. Anyway, I’d apologize for missing the entire month of September, but let’s face it, this ain’t exactly the most hip-hop-happening blog in the world.

So, in the midst of all the wacky hijinks going on in the world these days, it’s good to see there’s still some stories out there that don’t suck or make you want to carve your brain out with an ice cream scoop.

I’ve always been a proponent of equality. In my eyes, either everyone is equal or everything we’ve built our societies on is a lie. Inequality of any kind chips away at the structure of society and the next thing we know, we’ve got tyrants running all over the land pointing at people and saying, “You know what, all those problems you have? It’s because of those guys over there.” Doubt me? Ask history about all the times equality has broken down and holocausts have happened.

That’s why, every time I see someone treat women as second-class citizens (this post was almost about FGM) or refuse to bake cakes for gay people and hide their bigotry behind religious freedom, I shudder a little. I’m not saying it’s a slippery slope to Nazi 2 – The Electric Boogaloo, but it ain’t exactly helping things, either.

It’s nice to see that not everyone is a bigoted fuckwad, though. For instance, there’s a church in Scarborough that has a digital sign out that’s controlled by a company that refused to post a gay-friendly message. St. Paul’ United Church terminated their contract over the fiasco. Another church in the area has also terminated their contract with the mobile sign provider after the sign provider refused to post a message that basically said “Be cool to your Muslim neighbors”.

Bad press and losing customers has got to sting.

So, it’s beginning to look like the best way to handle bigoted assholes is to stop giving them money. Don’t order the cake, don’t pay for the sign messages, and don’t give them your vote.

Check out the original article here.

If you’d like to connect your blog and help spread a little joy (or snark, like I do), it’s easy to sign up. Just ask and ye shall receive. Or go check it out here: here.

Our lovely and talented hosts this month are:
Eric Lahti, Inderpreet Uppal, Shilpa Garg, Sylvia Stein and Peter Nena

~~~GUIDELINES~~~

1. Keep your post to below 500 words, as much as possible.

2. All we ask is you link to a human news story on your blog on the last Friday of each month, one that shows love, humanity and brotherhood.

3. Join us on the last Friday of each month in sharing news that warms the cockles of our heart. No story is too big or small, as long as it goes beyond religion and politics, into the core of humanity.

4. Place the WE ARE THE WORLD Badge on your sidebar, and help us spread the word on social media. Tweets, Facebook shares, G+ shares using the #WATWB hashtag through the month most welcome. More Blogfest signups mean more friends, love and light for all of us.

5. We’ll read and comment on each others’ posts, get to know each other better, and hopefully, make or renew some friendships with everyone who signs on as participants in the coming months.

6. To signup, add your link in WE ARE THE WORLD Linky List below.

This is a Blog Hop!

Powered by Linky Tools

Click here to enter your link and view this Linky Tools list…

And now, your moment of Zen.