Archive for October, 2013

That’s Really Graphic

Over most of the last rather ignominious years of my life I’ve watched the English language change in several ways, many for the better, many not.  (For example, “impact” has now become a verb.)  I’ve seen new words arise, especially through the influence of computers in our lives, new words such as blog, email, and modem, and new definitions of older words such as virus, browser, and cookie.  Even the space program has added new words to the language.  “Glitch” comes to mind.  But what I’m blogging about today is the evolving definition of a word that’s not related to space or computers–in fact it’s not related to anything new, though in the past few years it’s become a part of the publishing lexicon.  The word is “graphic.”

“Graphic” has a lot of meanings.  A scientist would use it to mean a visual representation on Cartesian coordinates of the change of a dependent variable with the concomitant change of an independent variable.  (Sorry about that.)  In other words, graphic means “it’s being shown on a graph.”  But graphic is also used to indicate extreme or vivid displays, like a graphic description of something.  It’s usually used to mean “not leaving anything out,” most frequently in reference to sexual or violent acts.  I hear the term used on the evening news all the time about scenes from countries in turmoil.  They mean blood and gore and even–as from Syria–people affected by nerve gas.  Graphic has come to mean “it’s all out there for you to see,” or “nothing held back,” violence and pornography at their worst.

There’s more to the word “graphic.”  It also has to do with pictures, not just graphs, like a “graphic” novel.  The “all out there” concept of the word used to be so common in English that when I hear of a “graphic” novel, I figure it must be in the X-rated section of the bookstore.  Yet that’s not the case.  Now “graphic” just means the novel has been reduced to a series of pictures with balloons giving the words of the characters.  Like a cartoon or a comic book, in most cases suitable for children.  The definition is almost reversing itself; it’s like it’s going back to being non-committal, rather than remaining “all out there.”

I suspect that the word “graphic” probably has more definitions that are unrelated or only vaguely related to each other than any other word in English.  It’s related to graphs, to pictures, and even, according to my dictionary, to words themselves and the letters or symbols used to depict them.  That’s a broad range of definitions, and I’m beginning to think it would be better to try and come up with another word to indicate a novel shown in pictures in a cartoonish manner.  However, I haven’t been able to come up with anything now, but I’m working on it.  Anybody got any ideas?

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The Grammar Checker

I just got through checking the grammar on a science-fiction novelette which I have decided is finished, at least to the point of submitting it to a magazine for publication.  I use Microsoft Word, probably the most common word processor in the US, and I must say I was a little surprised by the results of the Grammar Check.  The checker–to be distinguished from the Spell Checker which works quite well–gave me some really odd and unusual suggestions for correcting grammar in the piece.  The story, which has slightly over 22,000 words, took about ten minutes to scan, mainly because the checker stopped at so many places where the story didn’t need changing.  For example:

The most common “error” the Grammar Checker found–by far the most common–was a sentence fragment.  Perhaps 90% of the “errors” were this type.  Now that may sound correct, but so much of the way people talk and write is in sentence fragments.  For example, where I had a young person yell, “Daddy!” the Grammar Checker flagged it and suggested I revise it.  Revise it?  How?  In the context of the story, that was an appropriate thing for a young boy to yell.  Apparently the Grammar Checker is programed to require a subject and a verb in all sentences.  So, every sentence must contain at least two words.  That doesn’t always work, though.  Dialogue is frequently in fragments, and a Grammar Checker should be able to filter them out.  Might be a very difficult computer programming problem, though, for a computer to get every little, insignificant, subtle nuance of the English language correct.

Other grammar “mistakes” the Checker made were, and this is just a partial list, incorrectly suggesting a semicolon where a comma was, in fact, needed; a weird “number agreement” where it flagged an adjective (?); an incorrect “your/you’re” construction; an incorrect “that/which” usage; flagging a questionable subject-verb agreement that was actually correct; and even once not flagging an obvious grammar mistake.

After I completed scanning the story, the checker came up with a list of figures about the document, such as the number of words, the number of sentences per paragraph, words per sentence, characters per word, and, most significant, the percentage of passive voice construction in the story.  In my story, the passive was listed at 2%, but I find myself wondering how accurate that number is if the checker made so many errors flagging things that were correct to begin with.

The most significant thing I take from this exercise is: be extremely careful.  The Grammar Checker is not very accurate.  Don’t rely on it to “correct” your grammar in your writing.  Know the rules yourself.  A sentence fragment is okay in the proper context.  Know where a comma goes and where a semicolon goes.  And so on and so forth.  (That, BTW, is a sentence fragment.)

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Time For NaNoWriMo Again

It’s that time of year again.  Time for all of those who are writing a novel (or trying to) to think about getting involved with NaNoWriMo.  For all my non-writing friends, that’s National Novel Writing Month.  That’s the month of November where novel writers, novice and experienced, sit down and write the first draft of a minimum 50,000 word novel in thirty days.  I’ve heard of people who’ve completed the draft and published the novel, and I’ve known people who’ve tried and failed.  More, by the way, of the latter than the former.  My personal opinion of NaNoWriMo is that it’s a bad idea and I’ve never had anything to do with it.  Here are some of my arguments.

I should point out before I get started that these represent strictly my opinion.  If you like NaNoWriMo, and especially if you’ve pulled down a novel out of that furious time, then by all means go ahead and do it.  Don’t let my arguments dissuade you.  Keep in mind, though, I won’t be joining you.

First, I’m already in the process of writing a novel, the third in my Anthanian Imperative trilogy, and I don’t need to sit down and write it under some other circumstances.  I’ve got over 63,000 words so far and it’s about two-thirds of the way through the first draft.

Second, I don’t want to write that way at all.  I don’t like the idea of pressure to force me to write.  Deadlines are one thing, but sitting down to do something I can do in the other eleven months of the year is quite another.

Third, I see no reason for it.  If you can write a novel of at least 50,000 words, why don’t you?  Why wait for November?  Work all year long.

Fourth, I do other things than write novels.  I also write short stories and blog posts (self-evident if you’re reading this).  I’ve just revised several short stories in preparation to sending them out to magazines for possible publication.  September and October are good months for doing that because a lot of literary magazines are affiliated with universities and have reading periods of September to around April or May or so.  I may want to work on shorts during November.

Fifth, I dislike the choice of November.  I think a better month for NaNoWriMo would have been March.  March has 31 days and it’s mostly in winter where little else is going on.  It has no appreciable holidays either.  Yeah, okay, St. Patrick’s Day, and if you’re Irish, that may be much more of a distraction than for those of us who aren’t, but at least it’s not Thanksgiving.  I’ve heard some people say that perhaps the month of November was chosen precisely because it has a large national holiday, and that tests you, to see if you can handle a big interruption and still finish your novel.  That’s possible, but I don’t think it’s necessary.  I say pick a month and write.

Sixth, I hate the idea of someone telling me what to do.  There are so many rules in writing, many of which are predicated on the idea that if you don’t do them, your work will be a pile of trash and you’ll never be published.  Buck the trend, I say.  Write your own way.  Don’t let someone else tell you what to do.  If you want to take a month off and not write, go for it.  Or, if you want to take a month and write until your fingers fall off, go for that.  What the hell, it’s your novel.

Seventh, I think it’s a bad idea for a beginner.  As an unpublished writer, I feel that putting that much pressure on a new novelist is not a good way to get that person interested in a career in novel-writing.  NaNoWriMo should be reserved for experienced writers.

Eighth…well that’s enough.

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Silicon And Life

As someone interested in science fiction as well as regular science, I tend to watch the news for articles about life on other planets, especially outside our solar system.  The most recent news from the rovers exploring Mars, especially Curiosity, is the definite evidence that water existed on Mars in the distant past because it left behind stream beds that could only have been caused by running water.  But outside our solar system, we’ve only just begun to examine other planets, and there’s certainly no evidence for life on any of those yet.  I’m waiting for astronomers to get an image of an extra-solar planet good enough to be able to identify chlorophyll in its reflected light by spectroscopic examination.  That would be astounding, to say the least.

But today I’m more interested in discussing a somewhat more prosaic substance that will almost certainly be found on far distant worlds, namely, silicon.  Silicon is the second most common element on earth, behind the ubiquitous oxygen.  Sand is mostly silicon dioxide, and glass is made from sand, and pure silicon–as most of us are aware–is used in large quantities in the semiconductor industry.  Man-made silicone is used in insulators and adhesives.  But in spite of this superabundance, silicon has rarely been found in living organisms.  Some have suggested that life forms on other planets may have used silicon as the chief structural molecule of life, instead of carbon which is really what makes life possible here.  I suppose that could be true, but considering the almost total lack of the use of silicon by living organisms here on Earth, I wonder if living forms on other planets could really use that element in any substantial way.  As far as I’m aware, the only organisms that use silicon on Earth are diatoms, and they use it as silicon dioxide to manufacture a shell which encloses the soft body of the living microorganism.  The shell consists of two halves, one slightly larger than the other, which fit together like the two halves of a petri dish.  This forms a solid “shell” to protect the unicellular organism.  If you’ve heard of “diatomaceous earth,” that’s a powder composed largely of the empty shells of diatoms, so it contains a heavy proportion of silicon dioxide.

So, if silicon is so much a part of our earth, why don’t living organisms utilize it more?  Not being a chemist I can’t answer that directly, but it may have to do with the tremendous insolubility of silicon dioxide in water.  Think of it, if silicon dioxide were soluble in water to almost any extent at all, by now, billions of years after they were formed, all the beaches in the world would have dissolved into the seas and oceans and lakes and rivers.  Yet the sand remains.  Diatoms must have an extremely difficult time extracting it from the water.

Still, silicon and its dioxide are so far outside the sphere of living things, it seems unlikely that it could ever be used by extra-terrestrial life forms.  Let us assume a hypothetical planet composed of large quantities of sand (the “Dune” planet comes to mind).  On such a planet, siliconaceous beings could possibly arise, but they might be so brittle and delicate they could be destroyed with the mere whack of a rock.  Or even a hammer.  Still, stranger things have happened, so it remains within the sphere of possibility, though I feel it’s unlikely.  It will be a long time before we land on another planet outside our solar system, so all we can do now is hypothesize.

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