Um, I Invented Post-Its

romy and micheleLast night, I walked into an introvert’s nightmare: my 30-year high school reunion (class of you-do-the-math). I wasn’t totally unprepared. A selfless friend had taken me shopping for a cute top to wear with the black skinny pants I had ordered online. (I owe her dinner, though she deserves a medal—I’m a petulant shopper.) I exercised faithfully (two dog walks and a half-hour workout) every day for two weeks in order to fit comfortably into the aforementioned trousers.

The day before the reunion, I got a mani-pedi. As the 20-something manicurist performed a ticklish maneuver on my feet, she asked if a special occasion had prompted my visit to the salon. After I answered, she replied, “My mother recently went to her 30-year reunion!” Ouch. It dawned on me that I could easily have an adult child by now. Indeed, I would later find out that many of my former classmates have kids entering, or already attending, college.

At the reunion, I made another discovery: others (and not just the introverts) had also been apprehensive about attending. Why? Were we afraid that seeing our old cohorts might revive teenage insecurities? Did we feel pressure to show how little we had changed—or how much? Would there be a reckoning for issues that had lain unresolved for three decades? I joked with a friend (with whom I have remained in contact since high school) that we should have a signal if the event was not to our liking—exaggerated winking, pointing toward the exit, exclaiming with boredom. As it turned out, we didn’t need one.

I observed (as introverts do) that conversational groups would form and then shift, creating ever-changing combinations of individuals. I personally talked to about a dozen people. The toughest question for me was, “What do you do?” As discussed in a previous post, I don’t really like talking about my “flair.” I forgot my hair stylist’s advice to say I invented Post-Its (a la Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion), but I think I did okay.

I’m glad I went. Two hours before I actually left, I started trying to leave, in anticipation of an hour-long drive home. But I kept getting absorbed in pleasant conversations with my erstwhile acquaintances. By the age of you-do-the-math, your high school days are a distant memory. Perhaps reuniting with the ones who were there confirms those times weren’t mythical—even brings you back to them.

They’re a fun place to visit.

Nerd Alert!

space

Last weekend, I “attended” a writing conference. I put “attended” in quotation marks because the event took place online, so there was nowhere literally to be present. I enjoyed this setup because I got to sit in my kitchen, near the snacks. And I didn’t have to be out among people, a bonus for an introvert.

Put on by Writer’s Digest University, the conference focused on science fiction and fantasy. Unless the sitcom The Big Bang Theory isn’t true to life, fans of these genres have the reputation of being, well, nerdy. So imagine how nerdy the writers must be! Delightfully so. Seven accomplished, award-winning authors presented webinars on various topics, such as worldbuilding, creating suspense, and crafting three-dimensional female characters. Let me tell you, these folks were legit. They didn’t just phone it in (unless the microphone on their computer wasn’t working).

Here are some tidbits, one from each session, that I found interesting, helpful, amusing, or surprising:

  1. Foreign language. Science fiction and fantasy do very well overseas, especially in Germany. Other big markets are France and Russia. In fact, the bulk of income from such works may come from outside the United States. (Michael J. Sullivan)
  2. Fictional universe. Worldbuilding in science fiction and fantasy takes place at both the macro and micro levels. Macro relates to the external factors that affect societies and individuals; micro refers to the internal factors that make characters seem believable. On the micro level, one of the most important factors is power, which is the ability to affect or control others. (N. K. Jemisin)
  3. Structure. A mistake to avoid when writing a science fiction or fantasy novel is failing to hit the three major plot points hard enough, causing the story to drag. The first of these revelations (the “tent poles” of your story) occurs 25 percent of the way in, the second at 50 percent (the “midpoint”), and the third at 75 percent. (K.M. Weiland)
  4. Raising the stakes. One way to add suspense to science fiction or fantasy is through the villain. It is more effective for a villain to pose the threat of menace than to be omnipotent. Avoid the “evil overlord syndrome,” opting instead for “less is more”: let the reader wonder what the relentless villain is capable of doing. (Jeff Wheeler)
  5. hatThe past that never was. Steampunk, a subgenre of science fiction, reimagines modern technology as powered by steam, set against a 19th-century backdrop (such as Victorian England). The colorful essentials of steampunk include airships and steam locomotives, “brass works” (such as weapons and armor), goggles, corsets and waistcoats, and bowlers and pith helmets. (Tee Morris)
  6. Human women. In science fiction and fantasy, avoid female characters who are purely objects, exerting no influence in moving the story forward. Other things to avoid: having just one female character in your cast, and making your female characters suffer in order to motivate the males. (Pip Ballantine)
  7. Grabbing and holding. The opening scene of a science fiction or fantasy book should follow the “punch, push, explain” format: punch your reader in the face (first sentence), push him to the floor (first paragraph), and then explain why you did it (next few pages). (Philip Athans)

As for my own nerdiness, I believe that was confirmed when I spent the first weekend of summer indoors, learning about writing.

 

Proofing Your Own Writing

dental careAs a copyeditor, I receive manuscripts in various conditions. On occasion, I can tell that an author has gone back and read what he or she wrote, making some refinements. Such authors are like diligent dental patients, brushing and flossing before reclining in the hygienist’s chair—where torturous tools will be used to get those whites pearly. (I’m the ruthless dental hygienist in this scenario.) More often, I know I am in possession of a true first draft: the author has keyed the content and never looked at it again, perhaps assuming that a professional would follow behind, making the words shine. Such authors have done the equivalent of downing a bag of Cheetos in the dentist’s waiting room. But at least they’re in the right place to get the help they need.

Think of all the writing you do that isn’t reviewed by an editor—e-mails, letters, agendas, reports, blog posts, social media posts, etc. These communications reflect on you, and possibly your company, yet how carefully do you check them? Admittedly, seeing mistakes in your own writing can be difficult—and, while spell-check is a handy tool, it misses things. Comparing your compositions against this brief checklist can save you from a good number of linguistic missteps:

  1. Read what you have written. Make sure you have conveyed your points clearly and succinctly.
  2. Eliminate erroneous capitalization. Generally speaking, capitals are used for the first word after a period and for proper nouns. If you aren’t sure whether a word is a proper noun, consult Merriam-Webster. Here’s a cheat sheet of items that should be lowercase, unless they contain a proper noun: animals, foods, medical conditions, seasons, compass points, and general academic subjects. Capital letters are not used for emphasis. See my earlier post for additional capitalization errors.
  3. Ensure the proper use of tricky homophones. Homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings. You know the ones I mean: your and you’re; their, there, and they’re; to, too, and two. I think it’s easy for your fingers, poised on the keyboard, to “hear” the wrong word as they take dictation from your brain. Here are some additional examples to watch out for: cite, sight, and site; for, fore, and four; rain, reign, and rein; palate, palette, and pallet; peak, peek, and pique; and right, rite, wright, and write.
  4. Delete apostrophes in plurals. Most nouns form their plural by adding or—if they end in chjsshx, or z—by adding es. I know of only one case in which the plural of a noun is formed by adding an apostrophe before the s: for single lowercase letters. For example: “There are two c’s in cupcake.” See my earlier post for more on the subject.
  5. Change two spaces between sentences to a single space. Double-spacing between sentences suggests that you came of age in the era of the manual typewriter. Breaking this lifelong habit can be hard, especially as the life has been so long.

There’s one more thing, and I would consider it a personal favor: in your e-mails, after “Hi,” always use a comma to set off the recipient’s name (for example, “Hi, Thomas.”).

The use of commas to set off nouns of direct address is a sign of a truly refined character.

Out of Humor

486 - cartoon

My caption: “Is it take your dog to war day?” (Contest #486, August 24, 2015)

478 - cartoon

My caption: “The forecast said localized showers.” (Contest #478, June 8, 2015)

In March of last year, I wrote about my discovery of—and instant obsession with—the New Yorker’s weekly cartoon caption contest. I have an update: I still haven’t won. Or been a finalist. After entering 58 consecutive times. (Film critic Roger Ebert, prior to his victory, made 107 attempts; that number seemed really big 13 months ago.) A few of my efforts appear throughout this post; the winning entries have invariably been smarter and funnier than mine.

For a particular week’s contest, if your caption is among the three on which the public will vote, you are notified by e-mail—or so I’ve heard. So I was more than a little excited to receive a message from the magazine’s cartoon editor, Bob Mankoff, last Wednesday. But instead of congratulating me on my top-three submission, he was inviting all entrants to use a new ranking tool to help choose the finalists from among the 5,000 entries. Give it a try! It can be addicting—especially if you’re waiting for your own caption to come up, so you can “honestly” assess whether it’s “unfunny,” “somewhat funny,” or “funny.”

480 - cartoon

My caption: “He’s a notorious gagster.” (Contest #480, June 29, 2015)

Since I started entering, I don’t feel any closer to cracking the nut that is the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest. In fact, based on my failure up to this point, I feel distinctly qualified to offer advice on what not to do:

  1. Don’t submit your entry early in the week, late in the week, or in the middle of the week.
  2. Don’t go with your first instinct or ponder the cartoon at length.
  3. Don’t embrace clever wordplay or avoid it.
  4. Don’t go for the obvious or the obscure.
  5. Don’t seek out the opinions of others or work in isolation.

In other words, I’ve tried everything. Of course, the best way not to win is not to enter. I won’t not be entering anytime soon.

On Purpose

necklace

My writing talisman

At least one subscriber to this blog has noticed that my posts are always published at the same time: Close to the end of the month. Very close to the end of the month. The last day. Sometimes a few minutes before midnight. Many months, I doubt I will be able to fulfill my self-assignment. Doing so requires that I place as much importance on what I wish to accomplish as on what others expect or need of me. In other words, I have to be as responsible to myself as I am to others.

menuDue to various commitments, it would be a relief to take this month’s post off my plate. Yet if I don’t cobble something together, here’s what will happen: At some point, I will search my blog’s archives, and there will be no entry for March 2016. I won’t get a failing grade, Earth won’t be sucked into a black hole, but I will know I didn’t meet my own minimum writing requirement. (Ironically, I have now completed the second paragraph of a post I didn’t have time to write. Similarly, in junior high, I wrote a poem called “If I Could Write a Poem.”)

Over the last six months, I have completed the first drafts of 2.5 short stories. (One needs an ending, and another needs a new ending—hence, the decimal number.) Next, I would like to take a novel-writing class. But my work projects are too demanding right now. I feel frustrated that I am devoting so much time and energy to activities that have nothing to do with what I perceive as my purpose in life—to share my ideas through writing.

I don’t know how many people ponder their purpose and whether or not they are living according to it. In New Age circles, this inquiry is hugely popular. Two individuals whom I respect recommended the same book to me on the subject, about creating the “great work of your life.” According to Kindle, I made it through 14 percent of it. Ultimately, I don’t believe my purpose is related to what I accomplish in the world—even if that is sharing my ideas through writing.

miami vice

“Miami Vice”: half pina colada, half strawberry daiquiri

In other words, I can still fulfill my purpose if I never publish a book or write one or even edit one. I can fulfill my purpose at the grocery store, on an airplane, or walking my dogs. I do it by being an example of love. Only love is real. To become aware of love’s presence, and to let it shine out through me, I need to let go of my grievances, which attack love. No matter what I seem to be doing—or seem too busy to be doing—I can always practice my real purpose.

Of course, I have found it is easiest not to hold grievances while vacationing in a tropical paradise . . .

 

Does the Paranormal Have to Be Proven?

rainbow_paint daubs

Earlier this month, I accompanied my husband to Florida for an art event in which he was participating. We shared an Airbnb property (“vintage Spanish revival with pool”) with six other street painters. One morning, one of the artists and I were the last two left in the house. We got to talking at the breakfast table. I described a pair of short stories I had been working on: a ghost story about conjoined twin sisters born in Victorian England, and a science fiction tale about a physics professor who invents a device to talk to the dead.

She said the subject matter appealed to her, and we shared that we both had an interest in the paranormal. We never knew this about each other, despite having been acquainted for over 10 years. I think there is a stigma associated with curiosity about phenomena that aren’t conclusively supported or explained by science, such as aliens, angels, energy healing, near-death experiences, and reincarnation. This stigma tends to keep us quiet, especially in the presence of vociferous proponents of “rational thought.”

A skeptic is someone who questions the legitimacy or genuineness of something alleged to be factual. Some skeptics automatically reject claims that do not fit their worldview or that challenge the status quo. The Skeptics Society tries to distance itself from these “cynics” and “grumpy curmudgeons.” The organization’s mission is to investigate the paranormal by “continuously and vigorously” applying the scientific method to it. “We must see compelling evidence before we believe,” the group says.

While this approach sounds reasonable, it makes a major assumption: that science can prove the truth or falsehood of everything. What if certain aspects of reality can’t be measured by the instruments of science? Albert Einstein said, “One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike.” In other words, science is too rudimentary to account for all of reality. Interestingly, there are non-paranormal occurrences and circumstances that science can’t explain satisfactorily, including ones we consider basic scientific principles, such as gravity, magnetism, and time.

Furthermore, does “compelling evidence” have to be scientific in nature—arising from a double-blind experiment conducted in a laboratory setting? Do personal experience and observation have no value? Is a mountain of anecdotal reports not persuasive? Why can’t we study and scrutinize phenomena ourselves, and then use our intuition to assess their validity? Such an approach would probably sound like sacrilege to a skeptic. But to quote Einstein again, “The only real valuable thing is intuition.”

I understand the appeal of science. Its systematic organization of knowledge imposes a sense of order on a world that can often seem chaotic. Its testable explanations make the universe seem predictable—and predictability is comforting. I also recognize the role of science in facilitating technological advances that improve our lives. Moreover, scientific insights and discoveries are often completely fascinating. But I am not willing to limit my inquiries about life to what science alone is capable of proving.

Fiction is a socially acceptable outlet in this regard. It lets us play with the acceptance of things that can’t be verified. What if there is an afterlife, and we can communicate with those who have passed on? What if aliens are visiting us? What if angels intervene on our behalf? What if we come back to earth in different forms, lifetime after lifetime? We can explore these “what ifs” in stories.

And then maybe the stories will open our minds, little by little, to the potential reality of the paranormal.

Yes! We Have No Banana’s*

*Superfluous apostrophe intentional—please, no angry letters.

A recording of the Broadway revue tune “Yes! We Have No Bananas” spent five weeks at number one in 1923 (which speaks to a simpler time, I think). It tells of a greengrocer who has string beans, onions, cabbages, scallions, tomatoes, potatoes, coconuts, walnuts, and two kinds of red herring but is out of bananas. An agreeable fellow, “he never bananas_cutoutanswers ‘no,’” so when customers request the tropical yellow fruit, he responds with the famous titular line. Believe it or not, there is a tenuous connection between this novelty song and superfluous apostrophes in plural words. Can you possibly imagine what it is?

The insertion of an apostrophe before the final s in a plural noun is a common pet peeve among the “apostrophe intelligent.” But did you know this contentious grammatical error has a name—a really cute one? It’s called a “greengrocer’s apostrophe,” after the misuse of apostrophes on the often handwritten signs in greengrocers’ shops: “FRESH ENGLISH PEA’S,” “SEEDLESS GRAPE’S,” “JUICY NECTARINE’S,” “LEMON’S, 25¢ EACH.” By the way, I am not insinuating that Jimmy Costas, the Long Island greengrocer who allegedly inspired the song about out-of-stock bananas made this blunder himself—he was just an interest-creating device.

In case it’s news to you that apostrophes have no place in plurals, or you are a greengrocer, let’s review the rule for creating standard plural forms (from The Chicago Manual of Style):

Most nouns form their plural by adding s or—if they end in chjsshx, or z—by adding esFor example:

  • boy/boys
  • apple/apples
  • watch/watches
  • dish/dishes
  • tax/taxes

But what would a rule be without exceptions? For some words, you just have to learn the correct plural form or (as a last resort) consult a dictionary:

Words ending in y that changes to ies

  • ruby/rubies
  • family/families

Certain words ending in o

  • tomato/tomatoes
  • hero/heroes

Certain words of Latin or Greek origin

  • bacterium/bacteria
  • crisis/crises

All words with irregular plurals

  • child/children
  • ox/oxen

Of course, there are additional nuances—we are talking about the English language. For example, Chicago recommends using the singular form for the plural for names ending in an unpronounced s or x, as in “the seventeen Louis of France.” There is also one instance in which an apostrophe should be used to indicate a plural, to aid in comprehension: for lowercase letters used as words, such as “x’s and y’s.” On a related note, capital letters used as words, numerals used as nouns, and abbreviations form the plural by simply adding s: “two As and three Bs,” “the 1970s,” “PCs.” There are exceptions to this rule, as well, but we won’t get into those here.

Today’s takeaway: don’t be possessive about plurals!