Category Archives: storytelling

Word counts: Do you want candy, or a meal?

candy apples on bed of sprinkles

CC image Candy Apples courtesy of Andrea Williams on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I saw a piece recently discussing the incredible shrinking word count for the children’s storybook. The topic resonated with me, although I am not a children’s writer, because I get the feeling a similar trend is happening in novels and some sectors of nonfiction books. The crux of the matter seems to be that too long is unacceptable, and will turn off the audience.

Let me point out for a moment that “too long” is a relative and subjective measurement. Someone’s Harriet the Spy is another person’s War and Peace. And some may prefer War and Peace over anything bite-sized.

It’s true the media has been supporting a move towards the bite-sized. News stories on American TV are quick and punctuated by commercials. In total, the coverage lasts less than an hour. Social media platforms for the pithy and quickly witty proliferate: Twitter by definition seeks a short hit, Facebook trends favor the visual and the funny, Vine (6 second videos) is a thing, texting (with a character limit) is the new telephone call.

Flash writing has also been rising in interest among readers and writers. As a method of writing, flash can be quite satisfying: been there, completed that, all in my lunch break (I can go back to edit later, of course, but you get the idea). As a method of reading, flash also satisfies—like much social media—the desire for a quick diversion, something we can access easily on small devices like our phones without having to focus too much attention or the work of a “real” computer on the event.

Shorter content is like candy. Longer content is a meal. We’re not always hungry for a full meal—occasionally, that’s too much food. Candy, meanwhile, is known for its addictive properties, the way it pretends to satisfy and always leaves you wanting more instead (my father, when we kid him about the tiny portions of ice cream he serves himself, famously says, “there is no such thing as enough ice cream. No matter how much you eat, you always want to have a little more. So why do I need a big portion?”). There is almost no time when we admit we’ve had enough (or too much) candy. We feel vaguely sick after a while, and have to take a break… we feel too sick to have a real meal, either.

A meal takes time to prepare and ideally takes time to truly enjoy. A meal involves care and attention, often the participation of other people, and the opportunity to savor. As payback, the meal satisfies, often for a long period of time. If I have a good meal, and I enjoy the preparation and the eating of it, I may spend time dwelling on the positive experience of the meal, and I also don’t feel like having another immediately afterwards. I need time to digest it. Eventually I’ll get hungry again, but for now that meal stays with me and sustains me.

Candy sometimes is good. I think we can and should give ourselves small bursts of pleasure and luxury. I believe that we should pamper ourselves and take the opportunity to make a special moment, an exception, to do something fun that may not be the best for, say, our dental health if we overdo it. I just don’t think candy replaces meals in any way. Just as an obsession with word count doesn’t replace a true story. As someone who enjoys both preparing and savoring a real meal, I hope I am not alone in this.

Where to find your next story

Answer: everywhere

small person near the front wheel of a classic automobile

This won’t take a minute… CC image “The Mechanic…” courtesy of Kool Kats Photography on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

From the back, all I could see of her was a wild head of long, grayish-white curls.

“He died there, you know? So they didn’t want to treat him,” she was saying. “They were worried.”

Sitting in my chair further back in the room, I frowned. What?

The phone started ringing, and the mechanic behind the desk took a moment to put the call on hold. The woman barely let this slow her rate of conversation. “I can’t blame them,” she continued. “They would be after what happened last time.”

I was confused. A moment ago, they’d been talking about a $750 bill. Now someone was dead. Or he wasn’t? He was dead in the past… The verb tenses threw me.

“I’ve never been a religious person,” the woman said. “I didn’t know how to pray or anything. Never. But that’s how I learned that I had a gift. It was the accident that did it.”

I tried sneaking a glance at her out of the corner of my eye. Not for one moment did I want to risk being pulled into her conversational orbit. Nonetheless, my curiosity got the better of me. I might end up with a head of hair like that as I got older, if I didn’t cut it short. The woman was small and fine-boned, wearing a narrow, charcoal-gray coat. She kept her back to me, all her attention focused on the mechanic, who probably had been expecting the discussion to take a different tack.

I had breezed in a few minutes earlier, ready to pick up my car after an oil change. My transaction should have taken no longer than five minutes, but I had to wait my turn, since they were taking care of another customer when I arrived. I stifled my irritation. I too appreciated when the shop took time to explain a $750 bill to me.

Ever been there?

A perfect stranger feels the need to share, well, everything. At the time, this is less than ideal. However, if you’re a stuck creative, there are fringe benefits.

“I told him, you know, they’re concerned about your heart,” the woman was saying. “After all, you’d been dead for forty minutes. They had asked him to make a follow-up appointment to get his heart checked out,” she confided. “He’d never done that. I told him they need to put you under anesthesia for your tooth appointment, and that depresses your heart. You never got the tests. They’re worried you’re going to die again.”

By sheer willpower, I refused to meet the mechanic’s eye while this monologue unfolded. My ears, on the other hand, grew like Pinocchio’s nose. Now she was talking about the time she broke her neck… or was it nearly busted her artery?… they thought she wouldn’t live… or she’d be brain damaged. “And that’s how I learned I had the power of prayer,” she said.

The phone started ringing again. “Excuse me,” said the mechanic.

“Sure,” she said. He put two more calls on hold.

The woman wasn’t done.

“I was praying for him, praying for him, and finally I said, you know what? Just give this man a young man’s heart. That’s it. That’s all I could do.”

Another customer emerged from the back of the shop, exchanged greetings with the mechanic, and offered the woman a few chocolates from the bowl on the desk. I wondered whether he was her husband, but they seemed to be there on separate errands. I was trying to place pronouns… was she praying for the same friend who died? Was that before he died, or after?

“They made him take all these tests,” she continued. The mechanic, I could see in my peripheral vision, was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “They made him run, they hooked him up to all these machines, they kept on running tests over and over. You know? They couldn’t figure it out. Finally they had a specialist come in and tell him, ‘Sir, you have the heart of a young man’! That’s how I found out I had a gift.”

The woman’s thematic and tense switching was making me dizzy. I wanted her to keep talking, so I could figure out what she was talking about, while at the same time, I wanted her to wrap up, so I could get home. My fingers started to itch for a pen.

Life hands us people and situations like this all time. We’re actually on the way to do something else, or we want to talk to someone else, or we want an experience to end so that we can get on with our original plans. How unlucky, if we stay stuck in this mindset and let pig-headedness stomp all over our creativity. There are a million million different ways we can use our life experiences, ways our experiences can shape our stories, our visions, our music, our dance. Every creative act comes from somewhere, and sometimes, if we are stubborn, the universe needs to hold us hostage to get our attention. As with me at the mechanic’s shop.

Recognize opportunity

Sometimes, opportunity has a secret knock. The knock can be annoying. It’s interrupting us. But if we start paying attention, some of those knocks like to repeat themselves, like Morse code. They have meaning.

The ringing began again. “I’m sure you need to get that,” the other customer said, pointing to the phone.

The mechanic leaned back in gratitude to pick up the receiver. Meanwhile the woman turned to the other customer and started telling him about her son who rides BMX. He had called her up before doing a trick on a thirty-foot vertical ramp, to tell her what kind of injuries he could get from the jump. At this point, I was sure of only one thing: I wanted a tape recorder in my hand.

I knew I was losing glorious detail every moment I failed to capture what was happening around me.

Last year, I attended a meeting in which the keynote speaker told us, “I’m a professional speaker. I never have a bad day. I only have new material.”

I leaned over to my friend who sat next to me and whispered, “That works for writers, too.”

Even at the mechanic’s shop.

Recognize opportunity. It’ll feed your story or project idea like a king if you let it.

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What is the most unlikely place you’ve ever picked up inspiration?

This movie coming soon to a bookstore near you!

considering book trailers

black and white of a group of children covering their eyes

Gasp! it’s a movie! about a book! CC image “children of horror” courtesy of wolfgangfoto on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Did you know you could make movie-like trailers for books?

I didn’t.

I’m not talking about a trailer for a movie that was based on a book. I mean a trailer that was shot exclusively to promote a book. As part of that book’s publicity.

This may not be as new for the world as it is for me. I only discovered book trailers this week. The first one was utter serendipity — a link in an article I was reading. I was intrigued by the concept of making a film to advertise literature. Since then, I see links to book trailers everywhere (it’s like little red cars; see the post I wrote about Attentional Bias for more info on that).

I think this is an awesome idea.

Admittedly, I can see the trailer concept working better for some genres and types of stories than others. The link that opened the world of book trailers for me was for a kind of thriller. That type of story structure lends itself to excitement. A very interior storyline might not — for what it’s worth, that’s what I think tripped up the movie version of The Hunger Games. That book was a page-turner for me; I stayed up at night because I had find out what happened next. So much of it — and much of what appealed to me — lay in the protagonist’s reaction to the world around her: her thoughts; her ideas. The movie, in comparison, was bland. You and I could make a lot of arguments about how and why that was… one of them, for me, is that the movie failed to cash in on the first-person, interior landscape of the book, lingering instead on the easy, outside paraphernalia.

Still, I think that if you’ve got a good storyline, no matter what the genre, you could create a book trailer for your book. What a way to capture audience — our social media sharers these days are absolutely video-obsessed!

Seriously…

I mean, really.

In fact, creating a video could be a great benchmark for figuring out if you do have a story, and how interesting that story is. In a way, a trailer is kind of like an abstract of the book, or a pitch letter. You have to be able to capture the essence of the story and the interest of the audience in a short amount of time — hook them, leave them wanting more.

I don’t want to say the book trailer replaces the book, however. Film and literature are different media, and need to be imagined differently. Which I frankly regard as another advantage of the book trailer concept — cross-media play is a tried-and-true recipe for breaking into the creative zone. Our brains are forced to be dynamic, considering artistic problems from different angles. I wrote a little about this, too.

If you’re creating a book trailer as a test for the story’s viability, there’s no reason your film efforts ever need to see the light of day, though. Like my drawings, the video can be just for you…

…but if you do make a book trailer that you want the world to see, let me know. And long live the story!

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What do you think of the book trailer idea? Blessing or curse?

Squozen language — fun stuff our family says

This recipe for canning salsa* will forever live in my heart for its use of the word, “squozen.”

baby squirrel holding onto the fingers of a hand

You must be squozen! — CC image “Charlie the hugger” courtesy of novocainstain on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

“Squozen” is a family word. As in my aunt announcing to me or my brothers or cousins, “You must be squozen.” A term of endearment and affection.

My family has also been known to “shniggle,” to drive each other crazy by “gussifying” (“please stop gussifying!”), and to discuss “buppos” in public.

Nephews and brothers must be liberally “goosed” by an authority figure, and references to anthropopagi are regularly made in conversation. “Do not sit at the table like one of the anthropopagi, the men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders,” my father liked to intone, as we sat at the dinner table.

One of many reasons to be glad to be part of the clan.

Ours is of course not the only family to have family-specific terminology for things. I do think, however, that being a bilingual family has added a special flavor to our adaptations on language. Anyone can snuggle, after all, but not everyone abuses German in English by shniggling.

snippet of recipe text for salsa

Courtesy of PickYourOwn.org

As a group, we have been caught punning nearly constantly, and having our way with various sayings. “Like water off a duck’s foot!” has become standard, as has “open foot, insert mouth…” The dog is a “hairy beast” while minds are terrible things to lose. (All true, by the way)

Sometimes I use family terminology in a non-family environment. Occasionally, hearers will look confused. Other times, they congratulate me on my language creativity. I smile and accept their admiration, not bothering to set them straight.

The family dog is now multi-lingual, being fluent in Dog, as well as proficient with English, German, and family-speak (though sometimes he pretends he doesn’t know what we are talking about). He is particularly attentive when we illustrate points with food, or with small kittens. So far, he has not attempted to eat the kittens.

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What are some fun words your family or friends use or have invented?

*yes, I did indeed make that salsa. Many tomatoes were squozen, and the result was delicious!

Writing with IPA (and not in the snow)

We got your Shakespearean OP -- Yeah you know me!

confused-looking woman holding a notebook

CC image “Confused” courtesy of CollegeDegrees360 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

M paused as he explained the definition of the word. “You know that weird string of letter-like symbols when you look it up in the dictionary?” he said. “Do any of you have a clue what that’s all about?”

The nerd in me took .02 seconds to pipe up. “That’s the International Phonetic Alphabet,” I said, equal parts proud and embarrassed.

“Of course it is,” said M.

The International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA for short (not as tasty as certain fermented beverages that also go by the same name, but at least as interesting, in certain circles) is a kind of symbolic spelling that linguists use to represent how a word is pronounced without stumbling over spelling conventions. The IPA applies across all known languages or dialects. IPA spelling shows up immediately after the boldfaced entry of every word in the dictionary, between two backslashes, as with this example from Merriam Webster:

dic·tio·nary: noun \ˈdik-shə-ˌner-ē\

Since I was a somewhat nerdy child, and did use the dictionary while I was growing up (going through the pupae stage of my bookworminess, I guess you could say), I had long wondered about those symbols myself. Although I supposed they were related to pronunciation, I was never quite sure how until I took my first phonetics class.

The sounds of language

Ahh, phonetics. The study of the sounds of speech. Typically, when we’re talking about how a writer renders a particular dialect or language, we’ll say “s/he wrote that dialect phonetically” to mean that the spelling evokes sound rather than writing conventions. “I’m gonna” versus “I’m going to,” for example. The thing is, every author has his or her own idea of what that dialect actually sounds like, and all kinds of spelling variations can be used. How do I know what I’m hearing in my own head is what the writer intended?

This poses a problem just among English-speakers. Try to get an American English speaker or a Welsh English speaker to write “phonetically” for an Aussie or a Kiwi. They will just look at each other curiously. The vowels for all our varied English dialects are totally different.

Enter the IPA. Every symbol is assigned one sound. Additional notations known as diacritics add details such as whether the sound is voiced or voiceless, aspirated (followed by a puff of exhaled air) or not. Although based on the Latin alphabet, IPA contains plenty of other funky symbols to keep digital transcriptionists busy.

To the layperson, IPA looks like a bunch of hieroglyphics. Learning IPA is the equivalent of learning a new written language. It’s most useful in academic circles and for students of language. (I did say I was a nerdy child, right?)

IPA in daily life and in Shakespeare

We could use it to represent the sounds of English today. All of us, native speakers or not, have at one point complained about how English spelling and pronunciation don’t seem to have ANYTHING to do with each other sometimes.

But there was a time when English writing was much more “phonetic” than it is today. And scholars say Shakespeare captures a lot of that language.

The fruits of research into the language of Shakespeare have even taken the stage at The Globe Theatre in London, where a number of productions were performed in what is called OP, “original pronunciation.”

Original pronunciation, you say? How do they know what Shakespeare’s compatriots actually sounded like?!

For a fuller discussion, watch this video. In brief, according to the noted historical linguist David Crystal, there are three main types of evidence researchers use to determine the pronunciation of historical dialect. First, they look at what people writing at the time have to say about how their language is spoken. Second, they use the written evidence (since English used to be much more phonetic, spelling gives us helpful clues). And third, researchers look at poetry and rhyme, on the concept that poetic stanzas were meant to rhyme, and not look strange as they do to the modern eye.

The result is something that doesn’t sound at all the way most of us are used to hearing Shakespeare pronounced (watch for examples). To my ears, it even sounds sort of Irish. I swear it’s not the apostrophe in my name talking.

I’m pretty sure The Globe’s production staff put together a pronunciation guide for the actors who had to learn the script in OP. I doubt it was an IPA guide, though.

 

Bi-ˈkəz ðæt wʌd bi ˈkɹe-zi!1

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What’s your favorite nerdy discovery?

 

1 With apologies for any mistakes I may have made, or any dialectal offenses I may have incurred.