Their tiny eyes lit like chips of emerald…

Lorrie MooreReading time: Less than 2 minutes

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about a host of metaphors from Lorrie Moore…

The coming-of-age story of a young woman in the ’70s, in upstate New York, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital is a novel by Lorrie Moore that offers more than an engaging plot.

It also displays some very fine figurative language. Here are my favourite examples:

  • I imagined these frogs now scattered through the woods, their tiny eyes lit like chips of emerald, while their pumping whistle-chant —part summons, part yearning lullaby— piped through the night.
  • She was beautiful — her eyes a deep, black-flecked aquamarine, her skin smooth as soap, her hair long and slit-colored but with an oriole yellow streak here and there catching the sun the way a river does.
  • Her face—with its long nose cut like a diamond, her cheekbones flying off to either side in a crucifix— looked stark and dramatic in this light.
  • The thick pelts of our eyebrows shrieked across our faces, some legacy of the Quebec fur trade. Hers were faint and wispy, like an aerial shot of grain.
  • But then he has fallen over the cliff of sleep and is snoring, his adenoids a kind of engine in his face, a motorized unit, a security system like a white flag going up..
  • Tree crickets and katydids sang with the ceaseless squawk of a clothesline pulley, all that endless hanging of laundry in the night. Please! We don’t want to hear about it!
  • Strung alone the same wire of song, we lost ourselves; out of separate rose and lavender mouths we formed a single living thing, like a hyacinth.

My favourite metaphor of the bunch? I think, perhaps, it’s the crickets and katydids who sound like a clothesline pulley. I remember the wirey creak of that from my own youth.

No Responses/Posted December 18th, 2014 in Figurative language

What does prodome mean?

prodomeReading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: prodome.

In early November, I was in a panic. I resolve to read 52 books every year — and, in fact, I resolve more than that, because I also promise to report these books to my readers well before Christmas.

As of November 1, I was eight books shy of my goal. Yikes! What was I going to do? Read at least two books each week, I decided. I quickly surveyed my friends for recommendations of particularly short books. The 186-page novel Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner topped one list so I grabbed it from the library.

The story of a young American poet on a prestigious fellowship in Madrid the book is funny in a sad sort of way (I kept wanting to grab the poet by the scruff of his neck and shake him a bit.) The author’s description of the character’s inability to understand Spanish is particularly amusing, given that he typically provides several wildly alternative meanings for most conversations.

The book also gave me my word of the week: prodome. Here’s how the author used it:

I was beginning to find it a little difficult to breathe, the prodrome of panic.

I hadn’t encountered this word before but it means an early symptom or set of symptoms that might indicate the start of a disease. For example, sensitivity to light might be a prodome of a migraine. It comes from the Greek word prodromos.

No Responses/Posted December 17th, 2014 in Word of the week

Why writers need to practice generosity

how to fight perfectionismReading time: Less than 3 minutes

Have you ever wondered how to fight perfectionism? I’ve battled it for many years. Let me share my strategy…

Born into a highly competitive family, with a father — a writer — who believed his five children always needed to try a whole lot harder, I felt as if I was engaged in one big rivalry for most of my early life.

If school was a fire, then his you-can-always-do-better attitude acted as a set of bellows. Who had the highest marks in my class? Who was published in the school magazine? Who was editor of the school yearbook? Who won the debates? (My very DNA set me on a course towards the debating club.)

Making matters worse, the work I did in high school and university only cemented these notions. I reviewed books and papers — critiquing their conclusions, their structure, their style. I was encouraged to find flaws or shortcomings in other thinkers’ works. I was taught to scorn classmates who made spelling or grammatical errors.

Then, in my case at least, I went into newspapering: a profession awash with writers who desperately sought to be more acute, more insightful, more adept than their colleagues. Some published books. The rest of us were envious.

Now that I’ve published my own book, I can say with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight that being competitive did not help me one iota. If anything, it hurt me, adding at least another six months to the book-writing process. Writing is not about competing, it turns out. It’s about quelling the inner voice of doubt buried deep inside our neocortex.

People often confess to me that they’re “perfectionists,” and that this is their biggest problem with writing. When I was younger, in fact, experts used to say that confessing to being a perfectionist was the ideal answer to the classic job interview question: What’s your biggest fault? After all, who wouldn’t admire a perfectionist? (Don’t try that these days. Perfectionism is now a dirty word.)

The problem with perfectionism is that it seems like an inherent mistake to crush it. After all, who wants to produce less perfect copy? Of course it’s impossible to see that as a good thing. My advice? Forget the perfectionist lingo.

Focus, instead, on reducing your competitive feelings and increasing your generous ones. If you’re not happy with how you’re speaking to yourself then take a quick look at how you speak about others. If someone you know does something that really bugs you, ask yourself why it should affect you so deeply. If you see a piece of writing that you really dislike, instead of badmouthing the author, figure out why you dislike it.

This might take you from, “He’s a really boring writer,” to “I could make my own writing more interesting by including better quotes.” From, “She’s such a braggart,” to “I’ve been missing some chances to promote myself.” From, “They’re so pretentious,” to “How could I be more humble?”

The idea isn’t to become a better person. It’s more about focusing on your own life, on what you want to accomplish. Some people (lucky me, my husband is one) are born with the gene of generosity. They see mostly the good in people. They almost always imagine exemplary motives. They are happy for the success of their friends.

Others of us are born or raised to be less generous and more competitive. Steeped in the art of critiquing should it really surprise us when our own internal editor or shoulder devil starts turning on us? 

So for those of us who weren’t lucky enough to have a generous attitude, naturally, let me spell out the selfish reason for practicing generosity:

If you can be generous with others your nasty, judgmental inner critic will be less harsh with you. The next time you find yourself critiquing your own work, stop for a moment and reflect on what you say about the writing of others. If it’s negative, then break the habit.

As the old saying has it, when you point one finger at someone else, there are always three pointing back at you.

P.S. If you’re writing a book or thesis and want some accountability, consider my Get it done program. Applications for the January to March session close Jan. 2.
How do you deal with perfectionism? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me. If you comment on my blog by December 31, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a no-charge copy of the inspirational non-fiction book, The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.

28 Responses/Posted December 16th, 2014 in Power Writing

How to become a prolific reader

how to become a prolific readerReading time: less than 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss an article on how to become a prolific reader…

Everything I’ve read about Ryan Holiday should cause me to dislike him. He takes pride in exploiting the media. He’s a former director of marketing (for American Apparel) who’s become a bestselling writer. And, worst of all, he’s only 27.

But his advice on how to become a prolific reader grabbed me by the eyeballs and wouldn’t let go. What he says makes so much sense! Let me quote at length from his column:

Look, where do you get the time to eat three meals a day? How do you have time to do all that sleeping? How do you manage to spend all those hours with your kids or wife or a girlfriend or boyfriend?…The key to reading lots of book begins with stop thinking of it as some activity that you do. Reading must become as natural as eating and breathing to you. It’s not something you do because you feel like it, but because it’s a reflex, a default.

I disagree with his argument that library books are a waste of time. He’s just speaking like an entitled rich boy when he says that. His line, “If you are OK giving the books back after two weeks you might want to examine what you are reading,” carries no weight with me. After all, how can you judge a book until you’ve read it? But I will confess that if I really enjoy a library book I’ve read I’ll often go and buy it later. Why? So I can have it as a reference.
People often ask me how I manage to read at least 52 books every year. As Holiday suggests, I always have a book with me. Reading is my default position. If you’re a writer, it should be your default as well.

No Responses/Posted December 15th, 2014 in Writing about writing

My favourite grammar reference book

grammar reference bookReading time: Less than 2 minutes

We all need at least one decent grammar reference book for our shelves. My recommendation? The Transitive Vampire…

I’ve never fancied myself as much of an expert on grammar. I hated the subject as a school child and I learned it only reluctantly as an adult. But I was blessed with parents who spoke correctly and intelligently and somehow, by osmosis, learned my grammar mostly by ear.

Perhaps because I write so much and teach writing to others, people assume I will have an inherent ability with grammar. (The real secret? I have an excellent copy editor.)

And I have some excellent books. Whenever anyone asks me to recommend such a reference book, I don’t hesitate for a nanosecond. I always recommend The Transitive Vampire, by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. Complete, concise and cheeky, the book is filled with illustrations from cheap Victorian tabloid novels. They include prints of gargoyles, demons and vampires illustrating ridiculous sentences such as: Hey, girlie, drag your carcass over here!

And see how eloquently she defines and describes verbs: The verb is the heartthrob of a sentence. Without a verb, a group of words can never hope to be anything more than a fragment, a hopelessly incomplete sentence, a eunuch or dummy of grammatical expression. No verb can parade around without a subject, which can be stated openly or simply implied. Even if a sentence is only one word long, as in a command such as Scram!, the subject is understood to be you; here the verb holds the whole thing together, carrying the burden of the meaning all the way through to the exclamation point and into the reader’s head.

I bought the book some 27 years ago, at Foyles in London. Shortly thereafter, I bought her equally charming and useful The Well-Tempered Sentence, subtitled: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed. Near as I can tell, both books have now been combined into a single title known as The Deluxe Transitive Vampire. If you have ever despaired of learning grammar, buy this book. (Or ask for it for Christmas!)

3 Responses/Posted December 12th, 2014 in Gray-Grant Communications

Time seemed to be moonwalking backward…

moonwalkingReading time: Less than 1 minute

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about a metaphor on moonwalking from Harlan Coben.

I was never a huge Michael Jackson fan, but I always enjoyed watching him moonwalking.

The thrilling dance move, which presents the illusion of the dancer being pulled backwards while attempting to walk forward, had been used by bandleader Cab Calloway as far back as 1932. But Jackson made it famous in a March 1983 performance of Billie Jean.

Recently, I was taken back to the 1980s when I stumbled across the word, in a Harlan Coben piece in the Nov. 28/14 edition of the New York Times. Speaking of his experience at a book-signing table at Waldenbooks in suburban New Jersey, Coben wrote:

Time didn’t just pass slowly. It seemed to be moonwalking backward. 

I hadn’t before heard of Coben, perhaps because I don’t usually read suspense. But based on his bravura metaphor, I think I’m going to have to try one of his books. Read his Times piece here and let me know what you think.

No Responses/Posted December 11th, 2014 in Figurative language

What does catercornered mean?

catercorneredReading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: catercornered

I love regional variations in language. In the US (and Canada), for example, some places call the sugary drink “pop,” others refer to it as “soda” and still others use the trademark term “Coke.”

As a Canadian I also find that when I travel in certain parts of the US, it’s imperative for me to specify “hot tea” when I’m ordering my favourite beverage in a restaurant. In some states, if you ask for “tea,” you’ll promptly receive a tall glass of the iced variety.

A similar variation exists for another word: what I call kitty-cornered. But as I learned when reading Eduora Welty’s 1972 Pulitzer winning novel, The Optimist’s Daughter, there are many similar words meaning exactly the same thing:  catercorner, cater-corner, catty-cornered.

Here’s how Welty used it:

She saw at once that nothing had happened to the book, Flush Times in Alabama and Mississippi, the title running catercornered in gold across its narrow green spine, was in exactly the same place as ever.

The word is an adverb, meaning placed diagonally. All varieties derive from the Middle English catre-corner, meaning four-cornered. All three forms are used throughout the English-speaking world. While most dictionaries recommend cater-cornered the terms kitty-corner and catty-corner are more commonly used.

No Responses/Posted December 10th, 2014 in Word of the week

Why you should satisfice your writing

457-satisficingReading time: Less than 3 minutes

Here’s a new verb: to satisfice. And let me explain why you should satisfice your writing…

When my triplets were born in 1994, I knew I needed help.

That said, we didn’t want to hire a nanny. We had no space in our house for one. As well, my husband and I value our privacy. So, instead, we decided to go with an assortment of part-time helpers, some of whom remain our friends to this day.

But the hiring, oh, the hiring. It was horrible. As a mother looking for help with her three premature, doll-sized babies (the girls were just over 3 lbs. apiece, our son, just over 4), who each needed to be fed every two hours (do the math!) I wanted only the best. Someone who was mature. Loving. Unflappable. Smart.

But ads in the local newspaper led to dozens of calls from dozens of women, most of them looking for fulltime work. As I tried to interview them — while juggling three screaming infants — I started to become hysterical. How could I possibly do this? How could I ever find someone who cared as much as I did about looking after my kids?

Thank goodness I said those precise words to myself. They caused me to snap to attention and realize, of course, I couldn’t. Nor did I need to! I was being ridiculous. I promptly outsourced the hiring to a friend who had been clamoring to help. She kindly put her own phone number in the ad, prescreened the calls and gave me a shortlist with three names. From that, I found a couple of great candidates.

Our helpers weren’t perfect. They weren’t Mary Poppins. Or  Fred Penner.  They couldn’t change diapers in 9.5 seconds. One of them (who was Scottish) didn’t know any Canadian songs or nursery rhymes. But I could tell they were competent. They would get the job done. They were good enough.

In short, I had satisficed my childcare. Have you ever heard the word satisficed? I hadn’t until last week. But I was familiar with the idea. Developed by American political scientist and psychologist Herbert Simon (1916–2001) to satisfice means to search through available alternatives until you have an acceptable solution. Most of us do this all the time with a wide range of products.

For example, how much energy do you put into choosing which jam to buy? (No need to answer if you make your own!) What about breakfast cereal? I don’t eat the stuff but when I buy it for my kids I do a quick check to make sure the sugar level isn’t off in the stratosphere, then I throw it in my buggy. What about laundry soap? Beyond checking its environmental record and whether or not it cleans your clothes, have you ever done a thorough analysis of all the possible options in your local store? I thought not!

And what about really big decisions like buying or renting a house or apartment? Sure, most of us look at a number of options. But, depending on the housing market conditions (white hot in Vancouver, where I live) we might not even have the time to think hard about the location or getting a house inspection. We go with our gut and do the best we can. In other words, we all satisfice, all the time.

But do we ever satisfice when it comes to writing? I think not. Most of us have a wrathful inner-editor in the back of our brains scolding us with comments like:

  • this piece isn’t anywhere near good enough yet
  • your boss is going to hate this
  • your writing is soooo boring.

All of these things may well be true. And, while I never want to discourage anyone from editing — after all, this is the only thing that will improve our writing — I also want to suggest you pace yourself.

Not every piece of writing is equally important. Not everything you do needs to be perfect. If you set perfection as your goal, you’re going to drive yourself crazy. Writing will be fraught with terror and you’ll choke yourself on the I-need-to-make-this-better hairball.

Instead, before editing, ask yourself how important the piece of writing is. Could your career rise or fall on it? If the answer is yes, then lavish it with editing. If the answer is no, however, then be more mindful of your time. Cut yourself some slack.

Writing is not a 50-yard dash. It’s a marathon. Keep yourself in shape so you can continue running. Without pain. Without terror.

In other words, know when to satisfice your writing.

P.S. If you’re writing a book or thesis and want some accountability, consider my Get it done program. Applications for the January to March session close Jan. 2.
How do you satisfice your writing? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me. If you comment on my blog by December 31, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a no-charge copy of the inspirational non-fiction book, The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.

24 Responses/Posted December 9th, 2014 in Power Writing

Exploring the grammar of Christmas carols

grammar of Christmas carolsReading time: Less than 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss an article on the grammar of Christmas carols…

I regret to confess that I began playing Christmas carols on the piano on November 21. This is not because I’m a zealot for Christmas music. It’s because I’m in only my second year of piano lessons and my teacher wanted me to get started good and early.

In this way, I’ll have some pieces fully rehearsed by the time the holiday actually rolls around. My poor family! I think they’d become tired of Joy to the World by Dec. 1.

Meanwhile, my high school friend, Marcelle, who is a musician, passed along to me a link about the grammar of holiday songs. I love it! In this piece, linguist Arika Okrent deconstructs Silent Night, Deck the Halls and four other tunes for their points of grammar. Read her piece for some useful insights.

For me, her most interesting revelation rested on the comma placement in God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen. I’ll let her explain:

The gentlemen in this phrase are not necessarily taken to be merry already. It’s not “Hey, you! You merry gentlemen! God rest you!” It’s “Hey, you gentlemen over there! May God rest you merry!” In Shakespeare’s time, “rest you merry” was a way to express good wishes, to say something like “peace and happiness to you.”

So, let nothing dismay you, grammar-wise, as you set about preparing for your own holiday celebrations.

No Responses/Posted December 8th, 2014 in Writing about writing

How to find a communications trainer

how to find a communications trainerReading time: Less than 1 minute

Does your company need some communications training? Here’s how to hire a trainer…

I’m negotiating with a potential client right now about delivering a series of communications workshops. Today, I thought, we might be getting close to signing a final contract.

Instead, I learned, they’re feeling jittery. And they have good reason.

The last person who delivered such a workshop for this large company was a bust. He or she (I don’t know which), was very knowledgeable but delivered a class that was totally academic. Theoretical. Impractical. Participants found the class interesting, to be sure. But when they returned to their desks they had no practical tips for writing or editing. No tools. No idea what to do next.

Understandably, the client doesn’t want to see this happen again. We talked at length today about the kinds of things I can do that will be different. I learned more details about the employee group and reiterated my commitment to practicality. I told them about the Hemingway app and described how I’d teach employees to vary their sentence length.

But it wasn’t enough. The client wants to see an hour-by-hour class breakdown. And examples of the kinds of exercises I’m going to give their people. I don’t blame them for insisting on this! It’s exactly what I would do if I were them. In fact, it’s exactly what they should have done the first time.

If you’re lucky enough to have the budget to hire a trainer, review their work before you hire them. Get them to prepare a class outline for you and ensure that what they’re teaching your people is exactly what you want them to learn. Brian Tracy describes communication as a skill that anyone can learn. “It’s like riding a bicycle or typing,” he says. “If you’re willing to work at it, you can rapidly improve the quality of every part of your life.”

Here’s hoping I get the chance to show this company they know how to find the right communications trainer.

No Responses/Posted December 5th, 2014 in Gray-Grant Communications