Two years ago (see my post of 9/14/2014, “Obsolete”) I posted about words that are going out of style. Words such as “actress” and “comedienne” are disappearing because of the tendency to use one word to refer to both male and female performers. A female playing a role in a film or on stage is an actor, not an actress. There are other words that are going out of use or changing their definition, and there must be several of them in the English language. The one that I’ve been wondering about for several years is the word “depot.”
“Depot” isn’t actually disappearing, but its definition is changing. There are several dictionary definitions of “depot.” It can be a place to store goods or motor vehicles, or—and this is a definition I’m most familiar with—it can be a place to store military supplies, such as vehicles. A “supply depot” is common at a military base. But most often, especially in civilian life, the term “depot” indicated a place to board a train or bus. Depots were common all across the United States when travel by railroad was much more common than it is now. Any town on a rail line had a depot, sometimes combined with the bus depot, though mostly those were separate. The depot might have been a large building serving several railroads and hundreds of people every day, or a small shack where a only few riders caught the local.
Nowadays, however, rail travel is only a fraction of its former self. We travel by car or plane or, to a lesser extent, by bus. Greyhound still has depots. The only large intercity rail travel in the US today is Amtrak, which has been around since 1971, and they usually use the word “station” rather than “depot.” To most of the younger crowd, the term “depot” probably indicates a big box store such as Home Depot or Office Depot. Why those two companies decided to use that word in their name I don’t know, but it may have to do with the fact that they have a large selection of items, much like a military depot. But for those of us of somewhat advanced years, the term “depot” in a name evokes the a train station, and catching the train in the middle of the night, and sleeping on the train, and getting off the train at another depot in the early morning and meeting friends and family you haven’t seen in years, and so on and so forth. It was a fun way to travel.
In any event, the meaning of the term “depot” is changing, and I suspect the definition of the term to mean a place to catch a bus or train will eventually be lost. Watch your dictionary to find out.
Several weeks ago the apartment complex where I live suffered a breakdown of its trash pickup system. Normally, trash is emptied from the dumpsters on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. That means, in a normal week, trash accumulates usually for only two days, and for no more than three days over a weekend. But during this particular week, no trash was picked up for the whole week. In total, that meant that trash wasn’t picked up for ten days, from Saturday of the week before to Monday of the week after the hiatus. On an average week, the dumpsters get full just in the short time from one pickup to the next. Two days can really fill a dumpster. So when trash pickup was interrupted, a huge amount of material accumulated around the dumpsters.
That was a good time to see just what people were throwing out. Most often, that is, during normal times, articles to be discarded are hidden within the dumpsters and not visible. But when trash pickup was stopped (and I never did find out why), much of it became visible. And what stuff it was. Mattresses and box springs seemed to be the largest items that were thrown out, but furniture made an appearance too. Chests of drawers and large chairs, especially reclining chairs, as well as a huge number of the ubiquitous white garbage bags.
Most of the large items like the mattresses and furniture didn’t appear to my eye to be re-useable, and taking them to Goodwill or some other place that has used items for sale wasn’t an option to the owners. (I doubt that Goodwill will sell a used mattress under any circumstances, anyway.) I can understand that these large items were totally worn out and seemed to be in need of discard instead. Yet, even with their logical appearance in the trash pile, I still find myself wondering what happens to all these large items. Sure, they go to the garbage dump somewhere near town, but is that all that happens? Isn’t there some way these large items, unusable in themselves, can be recycled? Do they simply sit in the dump, only to slowly disintegrate or sink into the ground? Our dumps are getting to be places where, when we have something we don’t want, it just finds its way there and we conveniently forget about it. The large garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean is a good example of the same thing. So much of our material lifestyle in this day and age is simply discarded and forgotten. And too much of the material we discard is either non-degradable (like plastics), or degrades very slowly. Some of it is even toxic, like electronics, and poisonous materials can leach out of those and make their way into the ground and seep into the water table. Our society has the mind-set that, if we don’t want it, we just throw it away and don’t even think about where it goes or what happens to it. This isn’t a situation which can continue for much longer. We need better recycling, especially for the items we normally don’t consider recyclable. A civilization is known by the trash it throws out.
In this season of hotly contested political races, including the Presidential one, I think it’s interesting to sit back and try to learn something from all the commotion that surrounds them. I’m speaking here of what writers can learn from the current Republican nominee, Donald Trump. I’ll leave the political and economic and foreign policy and sociological and other lessons to be learned from this race to those better equipped to discuss them (as well as to those who have intensely held opinions), and deal with the more prosaic issue of writing. Specifically, what can Donald Trump teach us about writing?
Shortly before the first Presidential debate, a comment was made by a TV reporter that the Democrats were wondering which Donald Trump would show up: the combative, belligerent, trigger-happy one, or in direct contrast, the more thoughtful or reflective one. By the time of the debate, Donald Trump had begun to tone down his vitriolic attack on almost anything that moved, and the Democrats were unsure of how he would come off.
I didn’t watch the debate and I’m not sure exactly which Donald showed up, but that’s not the point of my essay here. It is, rather, the fact that Donald Trump has (at least) two different public personae. It is precisely this duplicity of personality which makes a character in a novel or short story far more interesting than a simple, one dimensional one. That is not to say that all the characters in our stories have to be politicians, but that they should be complex and interesting. We all are that way. We all have aspects of our personality that might seem incongruous to others. I, for example, am a PhD scientist, committed to using the scientific method (experimentation and logic) in my vocation, yet I have always been a deeply religious person too. Some people will ask, how can you believe in something you can’t see or feel or measure? I have my reasons, though I usually don’t speak about them. It certainly isn’t necessary that all of our literary characters need be as dualistic to the same extent as “the Donald,” but they should be to one degree or another. A few examples: the cowboy who writes poetry, the football player who does needlepoint, the banker who plays the horses, the priest who visits a strip club (probably in disguise), the jazz musician who attends the opera, the atheist who attacks organized religions yet surreptitiously reads the Bible or Koran—and there’s zillions more. Putting these people in situations where their odd interests become the focus of the plot line can make for interesting reading, and, for the writer, interesting writing.
Readers of this blog are probably aware that I’ve written three science-fiction novels, though they haven’t been published yet. I’m still trying to get an agent or editor interested in the first one, as a way of selling the whole trilogy. That has taken time, and I’ve tried my hand at other things, notably short stories. But that extra time while the novels sit in my computer has allowed me to do a substantial amount of revising, editing, cutting, adding, and just plain fiddling around with the manuscripts. One thing I’ve done over the past several months has been to go through each manuscript using the “Find” function of MS Word and look for specific words, especially words that a reader tends to notice for one reason or another, but shouldn’t. Writing, I believe, should be smooth and free of obstructions the reader could stumble over. As I’ve mentioned before in these little essays, I subscribe to the maxim, “Never tell the reader what to think.” This is similar to the older and much more widely known adage, “Show, don’t tell.” So I look for individual words which inject into the readers mind a concept that I want him/her to discern for him/herself. To not be told what it is. These are what could be called “crutch” words, where the writer used them ostensibly to support his writing, but in reality is using them as words to fall back on because he/she couldn’t come up with anything better. They can be very unimaginative.
One of the most common words that falls under this category is “suddenly.” Sure, lots of things in fiction happen suddenly. But that concept, the abrupt change of some facet of the narrative, should be obvious from the context. It doesn’t have to be stated out loud. If the boulder is rolling down the hill about to squish the hero, that’s sudden enough.
Some other words that don’t usually need to be stated directly are “knew,” “felt,” “thought,” and “realized.” These are words that should also be obvious from the context. It usually isn’t necessary to state that the hero “knew” or “thought” or “realized” the boulder was rolling down the hill.
“Very” is a good example of a crutch word, and it’s one of the worst. Not much ever needs to be modified by “very.” It gets overused and it becomes obvious to the reader. The thesaurus has a multitude of substitutes if you need them (for heaven’s sake, try not to use “pretty” as a substitute), or if that’s no good, rewrite part or all of the sentence. Stronger words are a good way to eliminate “very.” Instead of “very angry,” use “enraged,” or “furious,” or “incensed.” You get the idea.
In any event, here’s the list of words I checked for and in most cases either eliminated or replaced: suddenly, because, knew, felt, thought, very, began, realized. That’s the list I have right now. Other words may be added as necessary. Do you have any crutch words that could be added?
Why do written works have to start with something that captures the reader’s attention immediately? We novice writers are told repeatedly that in order to get a book to sell, we have to grab the reader’s attention with a boffo line or sentence. This is because, we are told, readers are a fickle group and will not read into a book or even into the first chapter unless we capture their imagination right away. Especially nowadays, what with so many other things competing for everybody’s time and attention. Also, we are told, an agent or an editor won’t consider a book if it doesn’t grab their attention in the first paragraph or so. But, why should that be? Is that really essential?
I like to compare books to music. A good book is like a great piece of music that takes you to an alternate world and leaves you there to explore on your own. But many great works of music start slowly and build toward a stupendous ending. Bolero, by Maurice Ravel, comes to mind in this category. Even as I write this, I’m listening to a piece by American composer Joseph Curiale called Wind River (I am). It, like the Ravel, starts slowly and quietly, and builds to a fantastic and masterful ending with drums and brass and all that sort of stuff. Other pieces, too numerous to mention, do the same. It’s not an unknown or unrealistic technique in music. Like, for example, the “Invasion Theme,” in Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, which starts with a simple theme and builds to a martial ending.
Of course, musical compositions are much shorter than books. A great symphony may take 45 to 60 minutes in performance, (the Shostakovich symphony mentioned above is about 75 minutes and that’s long for a symphony) and an opera is considered long if it runs four or five hours (some of Richard Wagner’s operas are that long), but a reader may spend several days or weeks enjoying a book. It’s also true that some great symphonies, like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, do start big, with a entrance that grabs the listener right away. But not all. And I maintain that isn’t entirely necessary.
I have tried in all my books (currently unpublished) to write a beginning that snags the reader’s attention and induces him/her to read on, and then buy the book. I have to, if I want to get it published. (For me, that’s the hardest part of writing a novel.) Even if I self-published my novels, the reality of the situation is that books sell on the basis of the first several lines or first chapter. I admit that I, too, look at the first few lines of a book when I pull it off the shelf when considering whether to buy it. It’s a fact of life. Yet, it doesn’t have to be. A book that starts slowly should have just as much chance as one that starts with fireworks. But it’s not likely to get published, or even read. If listeners are willing to accept a slow beginning in a musical composition, why should readers not be content with the same in a book?
Just a few thoughts about incidents that have taken place over the past few weeks. I’ve completed a massive revision of the third novel in my Anthanian Imperative trilogy, and now the novel looks pretty good. I’ve been working on it for about five years now, and it’s in good enough shape I wouldn’t be ashamed for someone else to take a look at it. And that brings up an important point.
I’m looking for beta readers for all three of the novels which constitute the trilogy, especially the last two. The first one has been through five or six critique groups over its eighteen-year lifespan. (Yes, it’s true, if that novel were a person, it would be old enough to vote in the coming election.) But those groups were made up almost exclusively of amateur writers, people who had never published a novel before, and who, like me, were novices at writing. I admire and appreciate their comments. However, I need a professional to take a look at it. Someone who has actually published a novel. Someone who knows what the publishing world wants. Self-publishing doesn’t count. And this applies to the other two also. If you’re a professional writer with a history of getting publishers to take a look at a science-fiction novel, let me know.
You may say, why not use some of the literary critique websites, and I certainly could. Perhaps I could get one or more good reviews that way. But I’m not sure I want to give it to just anyone, sight unseen. I’d like to know a little about whoever it is I’m sending it to. A little familiarity perhaps, say from Facebook or from personal experience in the Albuquerque area.
Also, I’ve just finished querying eighteen agents with the first novel. I’ve completely revised my query letter along the lines of I-don’t-know-how-many authors, agents and editors who have all published helpful hints on writing a query letter. I’ve already gotten two rejections (some agents are really good at keeping up-to-date with their inbox submissions). But the other sixteen will, if experience is any guide, dribble in over the next several months. Some will not reply at all, and after about three months, that will constitute a rejection. I’m upbeat about the possibility of getting a request for more pages, even for a full manuscript, but my experience tells me not to be. I’ve had so little luck with either the novel or the query process, I tell myself to stay grounded and not let a good novel or query letter go to my head. I really like the first novel, though. I think it’s my best work. But nobody else does.
Other comments: If you are one of my “friends” on Facebook, you might have noticed that I criticized LitReactor for their use of profanity (i.e., four-letter words) in endorsing an author they like. Call me a prude if you want, but don’t call me a taxi. I happen to believe that the profession of writing is above all that. The use of profanity is disgusting and repulsive. It drags the user down into the gutter, and the book and author with it. It makes me wonder about the character of the people who run the website. What are they thinking? I sure hope that if in the (unlikely?) event that I get a few books published, LitReactor won’t call attention to mine in the same manner. I would rather have them keep quiet than submit to that form of support or approval.
Do you write reviews of books you’ve read? I haven’t done many recently, though I suppose I should because I would expect readers to review mine once they’re published. Reviews, especially on Amazon, affect how the book is displayed, and a large number of reviews can impact the book’s position in the ratings. But, for me at least, therein lies a problem.
Everything in this world seems to be rated in terms of number of stars, usually zero to five. Or, if you’re rating hotels and such, zero to four. Books take the 0-5 star approach and everybody wants their book to garner as many five-star ratings as possible. Granted, it would be nice. But a large number of five-star ratings brings up an obvious question: does a book really rate that many top reviews?
Many of my writing friends have published books in many different genre. They consistently ask for reviews, and I, just as consistently, refuse. I’ve blogged on this before, and it bears repeating—I find it hard to review a book from a friend because I’m not going to give it five stars if I don’t think it really deserves it. That would diminish the value of the book, and quite possibly my friendship with the author. Suppose I read a book from someone I know, especially if I know that person well, and feel the book rates only zero or one or two stars. What do I say? Do I give it five stars just to keep the friendship, or do I insult the author and tell him/her that I thought the book was awful? The conundrum bedevils me to this day.
It has been suggested that I could review books that I liked and would willingly give a five-star review, but not others. That logic suffers from the fallacy that if I did that, then those authors whose books I didn’t review would know immediately that I didn’t like their book. (“What?! You didn’t like my book? Well, take your one-star review and shove it.”) So, for the time being, I’ve refrained from book reviews at all.
It has also been suggested that I should give every book I read an honest review and not be afraid to express my feelings about the book. That’s so the author will know where he/she stands. Most authors would really like to know. Maybe so. (I know I would.) That suggestion is, I will admit, the only good argument against my current position. But is it worth risking a valued friendship over a book? I can’t answer that question right now. (Perhaps I never will.)
My feeling is that a large number of five-star reviews can indicate one of two things: one, that the book is really great and the author did a wonderful job, or two, that the author has a lot of friends who gave the book a five-star review merely because they are friends. But that second possibility only serves to diminish the value of a five-star review. Five stars should be reserved for those books that really deserve it. I mean, really. It’s got to be damn good to get five stars. I find it so unlikely that all those books that got five-star reviews actually deserved it, and, as a result, most five-star reviews are worthless.
I would like to see reviews go to 0-10 stars. That would give a reviewer more room to maneuver, and it appeals to me, probably because of my scientific background. A reviewer could give a book 9 stars to indicate that, while it was an excellent book, it just didn’t quite make it to the top. It’s not likely to happen, though, because it would be too unwieldy for most people. One-to-five stars is easy to use.
What do you think about five-star reviews?