19 August, 2012

Things I Write When I Should Be Writing Something

In late June I began writing a science fiction novel. Sort of. “Writing,” in the sense I mean it here, translates to “outlining and amassing copious notes for.” To claim that the work I’ve put into the project thus far has involved much actual writing — that is, the construction or arrangement of sentences that might end up in even the roughest of manuscript drafts — would basically be lying. I’ve written one sentence. Mind you, I think it’s quite a qood sentence, meeting all the criteria prescribed by so-called experts for a quality opening sentence for any narrative: inviting inquiry, stating something integral to the plot without giving anything away, providing characterization for the protagonist, sounding good…. So I have been working on my novel, completing steps that are part and parcel of the writing process. My attentions are simply elsewhere.

For my reading, these past four months, I’ve chosen exclusively sci-fi and fantasy books. “Priming the pump,” is how I described it in my latest posted reading list. The tactic worked too well, though. Yes, reading all that speculative fiction caused my ideas for the novel to flourish, but ideas for other projects did, too. The story collections I’ve been enjoying so much unintentionally focused my mind on the short form, so even though I have all these notes and printed encyclopedic articles relevant to my novel, and am intellectually prepared to bend to that work, short stories have seized my exclusive interest. It’s frustrating. And incredibly fun.

My short-fiction jag began when I went back to revise a somewhat surreal 2,000-word story — “Remembrance” — about artificial intelligence and grief, which I wrote nearly two years ago. The editorial feedback from the magazines I sent it to, in the only round of submissions I sent the story on, was encouraging. For unremembered reasons, I never got around to making the suggested changes — foolish of me, no matter what my excuse was. Now, having finally (I hope) repaired what in the first version was broken, I’ve sent the manuscript back to one of the original commentators. Maybe “Remembrance” will make the cut now. I’m pleased with the changes I’ve made to it, particularly the 500-word increase in length and the removal of some ambiguity I’d initially mistaken for compelling mystery. This manuscript has been out for several months, which I can barely resist thinking means it’s being seriously considered for publication.

Motivated by how good I believe “Remembrance” turned out, I spent a week writing an atmospheric 4,000-word story titled “Dragons” — a fireside tale of off-world colonization gone genocidally wrong. It’s pretty grim. To balance out that gritty creation, I tried my hand at writing a humorous piece of flash fiction. The result of that is a trifle of urban fantasy I call “Doorbell, Book, and Candle.” Preliminary reports are that it’s a fun read, so I consider it a success. But will these two pieces meet editors’ approval?

The work receiving most of my attention for the previous weeks represents yet another leap of imagination: a satirical 11,000-word work in progress involving a young autistic man, the zombie apocalypse, and one very late grocery delivery. I feel hobbled when the time comes to title my stories, and the struggle to name this one is almost as protracted as anything in its plot. I don’t know if this should worry me or not. Thus far, I’m pleased with the story, even though it’s longer than it will probably need to be for publication. People who give writers advice about such things say it’s best to just tell the story that’s begging to be told, and worry about submission guidelines later. That’s exactly what I’m doing, and my unnamed adventure through the world of the undead is proving very fun to write, as a result.

Will I get back to my novel soon? Absolutely. But it’s been so long since I’ve been this prolific with fiction of any length, so I’m allowing my muse to run her course, whatever crazy route she chooses to take.

08 August, 2012

Those Noisy Aleve Commercials Are Killing Me

Arthritis sufferers deserve relief — I’m not disputing that. I only wish my daily Jeopardy! viewing didn’t subject me to the amplified slurping and swallowing made by the purportedly arthritic as they ingest their palliatives.

For those of you not in the know, no, I don’t watch this, one of my favorite things on TV, with a group of geriatrics. What I’m referring to are Jeopardy!’s commercial breaks, which are frequently sullied by the show’s principal sponsor, Aleve. The Aleve ads feature enhanced audio of pills being shaken out of an easy-open bottle, then taken with a super-loud gulp of coffee. Twice within thirty seconds. It’s too much. These awful adverts make it very hard to get back into a quiz-show mindset. Sometimes they even make me forget my score.

I am not a marketing genius. I am not even a marketing idiot. (I am not in marketing.) But I think a more positive association might have been made by starting the Aleve ads with the sound of creaky knees ascending stairs, then pills dispensing, then the nice silence of knees experiencing whatever is the opposite of inflammation (unflammation?) to illustrate that the pill stops a problem. As they are, Aleve’s commercials are memorable only for being disgusting.

Is there any noise the ad execs could have agreed on that would have been even less appealing than beverage slurping? At least Aleve isn’t foodstuff, or they might have used chewing noises. There is already too much of that on TV. Those Kit-Kat ads, with that percussive crunching, snapping, tapping, and whatnot — you know the ones — are abominations I don’t watch enough television to have gritted my teeth through more than once. Thank goodness. What I’m curious to know, however, is whether I am the only person in North America who is driven to near-mortal terror by the gloopy noises of mastication and imbibement Aleve sees fit to air. If not, why were my sensitive-eared brethren and sistren not invited to participate in the focus group before these nauseating spectacles left studio hands? Someone should be called to account. As punishment, I suggest muzzling.

02 August, 2012

Abbreviation Agitation

I.D. is, we all recognize, the shortened form of identification, and TV is the abbreviated form of television. Both are truncations of single words, so why does one merit periods and the other doesn’t? My preferred at-hand reference, The New Oxford American Dictionary, Third Edition, informs me that the commonest abbreviation of air conditioning is a/c — no periods, weirdly lowercase, and employing an inexplicable slash. The latest edition of the venerable grammar and usage bible, The Chicago Manual of Style, proclaims that morning times may be indicated with the writer’s choice of a.m., A.M., or AM, in roughly that order of preference. The inconsistency is maddening, and I know I am not the first or last writer who’s equally flummoxed and infuriated by such agonizing ambiguity. My solution? I manifest an almost pathological insistence on spelling words out whole.

Addressing envelopes is where this habit is most apparent. It bothers me (probably unreasonably) that the abbreviations of Street, State, and Saint are identical, and I get no small satisfaction from bucking that particular convention. Ditto for Apartment and Suite, Fort and Mount, Avenue and Lane. I do use the standard two-letter postal designations for states; however, that is a matter of systemic concordance. They’re technically not abbreviations but codes. And I’ve got me some mad respect for proprietary code systems.

Strunk and White’s Elements of Style stresses to writers the importance of remaining stylistically consistent, no matter how idiosyncratic your chosen style might be. Pick one and stick with it, to paraphrase. This explains why the often fusty New Yorker, at which White was once an eminent personage, uses an awkward mix of archaic and contemporary abbreviations that make the reader wonder if the editor cultivates a handlebar mustache and rides a velocipede to the office yet also possesses lifetime tickets to TED Talks. For example, the confused New Yorker style is to use A.T. & T. but LLC, Ph.D. but DNA, and N.Y. but CBGB. To this, I ask, WTF?

The magazines and publishing houses can’t agree. My personal reference, though it may be criticized by the Punctuation Police and Grammar Gestapo, is to do away with periods in abbreviations altogether, on those rare occasions when I lapse into Abridgment Mode. I submit to the Powers That Be that, if clarity is the goal of the writer (as it surely should be), then what’s wrong with, say, calling instant messages IMs, instead of I.M.s? What literate individual could possibly be thrown off by that? While editors adhere to their patchwork approach, I try for a little standardization, tidying as I go, not rushing like a literate lemming for an American Heritage whenever the situation calls for a term to be shortened. Why defer to convention when my way is better for everyone?

But what about acronyms? you cry. I think they speak for themselves often enough that we needn’t worry much about them. No one of reasonable mental capability and cultural hipness would spell out NASA as N-A-S-A, DARPA as D-A-R-P-A, or NAMBLA as — never mind, I just ate. As long as it looks pronounceable, with consonants and vowels in some semblance of order, the brain will likely perceive it as a word. That’s fine. Strings of seemingly random letters make lousy mnemonics, so that abbreviation’s resemblance to a word was probably deliberate. In the case of abbreviations like CIA and CEO, both of which make intelligible, if somewhat foreign-sounding acronyms, readers first encountering them chould default to their language instinct and read them as such: See-ah and Say-oh. (Two very different types of company men reading this sentence will get indignant. I don’t care.) This is merely further standardization, further simplification. This just makes sense.

Texting and typing online have gone a long way toward making periods in abbreviations obsolete. Unfortunately, capitalization has largely fallen out of practice, too, which has the potential to be even more detrimental to clarity than a few extra periods ever could. I would love to see a shift away from periods, to all-capital acronyms, but I recognize that this would only alleviate part of the abbreviation problem. Street, State, and Saint are still at issue. I can’t very well expect people to start spelling things out all the time, as I do. There’s laziness to account for, and I suspect a good-sized portion of English speakers don’t know what etc. stands for, nor how to actually spell miscellaneous. So I sigh in resignation while at the same time raving about all the ways stuff could be better if only.... For those of us in love with language, it has always been thus. It probably always will be.