Three authors of historical fiction joined forces to create History Imagined, a blog for writers and readers who relish the opportunity to imagine long-gone worlds.
The following is from Delancey Place…I’m always fascinatted by dictionaries and how they’re put together. Several years ago I was enthralled by Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Going to have to have this new one!
Today’s selection — from Word by Word by Kory Stamper. The smaller the word, the harder it is to define. The author, an editor of dictionaries, describes the difficulty involved in defining short words:
“We were working on revising the Collegiate [Dictionary] for its eleventh edition, and we had just finished the letter S. … I signed out the next batch in T and grabbed the galleys for that batch along with the boxes — two boxes! — of citations for the batch. While flipping through the galley pages, I realized that my batch — the entire thing — was just one word: ‘take.’ Hmm, I thought, that’s curious. Lexicography, like most professions, offers its devotees some benchmarks by which you can measure your sad little existence, and one is the size of the words you are allowed to handle.
“Most people assume that long words or rare words are the hardest to define because they are often the hardest to spell, say, and remember. The truth is, those are usually a snap. ‘Schadenfreude’ may be difficult to spell, but it’s a cinch to define, because all the uses of it are very, very semantically and syntactically clear. It’s always a noun, and it’s often glossed because even though it’s now an English word, it’s one of those delectable German compounds we love to slurp into English
“Generally speaking, and as mentioned earlier, the smaller and more commonly used the word is, the more difficult it is to define. Words like ‘but,’ ‘as,’ and ‘for’ have plenty of uses that are syntactically similar but not identical. Verbs like ‘go’ and ‘do’ and ‘make’ (and, yes, ‘take’) don’t just have semantically oozy uses that require careful definition, but semantically drippy uses as well. ‘Let’s do dinner’ and ‘let’s do laundry’ are identical syntactically but feature very different semantic meanings of ‘do.’ And how do you describe what the word ‘how’ is doing in this sentence?
“It’s not just semantic fiddliness that causes lexicographical pain. Some words, like ‘the’ and ‘a,’ are so small that we barely think of them as words. Most of the publicly available databases that we use for citational spackling don’t even index some of these words, let alone let you search for them — for entirely practical reasons. A search for ‘the’ in our in-house citation database returns over one million hits, which sends the lexicographer into fits of audible swearing, then weeping.
“To keep the lexicographers from crying and disturbing the people around them, sometimes these small words are pulled from the regular batches and are given to more senior editors for handling. They require the balance of concision, grammatical prowess, speed, and fortitude usually found in wiser and more experienced editors.
I didn’t know any of that at the time, of course, because I was not a wise or more experienced editor. I was hapless and dumb, but dutifully so: grabbing a fistful of index cards from one of the two boxes, I began sorting the cards into piles by part of speech. This is the first job you must do as a lexicographer dealing with paper, because those citations aren’t sorted for you. I figured that ‘take’ wasn’t going to be too terrible in this respect: there’s just a verb and a noun to contend with. When those piles were two and a half inches high and began cascading onto my desk, I decided to dump the rest of the citations into my pencil drawer and stack my citations in the now-empty boxes.
“Sorting citations by their part of speech is usually simple. Most words entered in the dictionary only have one part of speech, and if they have more than one, the parts of speech are usually easy to distinguish between — the noun ‘blemish’ and the verb ‘blemish,’ for example, or the noun ‘courtesy’ and the adjective ‘courtesy.’ By the time you’ve hit T on a major dictionary overhaul like a new edition of the Collegiate, you can sort citations by part of speech in your sleep. For a normal-sized word like ‘blemish,’ it’s a matter of minutes.
“Five hours in, I had finished sorting the first box of citations for ‘take.'”
Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries
Author: Kory Stamper
Publisher: Pantheon Books
Copyright 2017 by Kory Stamper
“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Michelangelo
I am in the throes of editing my most recent novel. I have taken my last stab at it myself and sent it out naked and afraid into the hands of other readers to be picked over and marked up. It is a terrible time. The copies will come back to me with heart-breaking slashes, corrections, ideas and warnings…but as painful as some of those will be that is precisely what I want, what is best for me and for my novel. My writing group gives me the input along the way and for me that is a great boon, but this sending my baby out whole to be judged in the harsh light of “Here it is, it’s done,” is nerve wracking. These critiques I prefer to get whole, not a running commentary in bits and pieces over the days. Drop the whole ten ton package on me at once; I will accept the sudden crushing weight and slowly…days, weeks…will begin to sort through it all. I will launch happily into the punctuation corrections, because I suck at it. I will look hard at the grammar, because sometimes they’re right. The toughest parts are the suggestions on story line, character, dialogue, plot movement…my darling quips torn to shreds, that perfect scene devasted, etc. Hard to swallow, hard to bear…but in the end I do swallow it, not whole by any means. Some comments and suggestions are easily discarded…not my story, not what I’m doing. It’s the ones that hit home…that “Oh, my god, they’re right. How do I fix it?” Those are the real prizes received from this stage. Those are the jewels that I receive from this scariest part of my process.
I love my final edit readers, love and fear them. So bring it on!
Here’s a Review from RedHeadedBookLover…check it out. I will definitely be reading this book!
Numerius Meridus Pulcher and the Case of the Syrian Slaves and Slippery Slopes
Made my last edits and have sent off copies to some readers. I am also making a couple of paper copies for the final “eyeballing” of various persons. What a relief!
I am into the final editing of my second book in the Numerius Meridius Pulcher series, Numerius Meridius Pulcher and the Case of the Syrian Slaves and Slippery Slopes.
I really do hate editing! Punctuation I hate most! All those commas, semi-colons…and I use a lot of them in the Numerius stories…a style choice. Much easier with the New Orleans series, shorter sentences, shorter chapters. Could I write the same way for the Numerius Series? Certainly, but then it wouldn’t be Numerius. So I muddle on.
Today’s selection — from Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters by Michael Tierno.The Greek philosopher Aristotle’s book Poetics has given countless writers a guidepost for creating great fiction:
“One of the many things we can thank Aristotle for is his writings on how to create characters that seem both realistic and able to captivate an audience. First, make them good enough that we can root for them. Second, make them ‘appropriate,’ meaning give them characteristics that make sense for the type of person they are. Third, make them human — give them flaws or quirks that make us believe that they exist. Finally, whatever characteristics you do give them, make sure you keep them there throughout the length of the screenplay. As Aristotle says, make sure they are ‘consistently inconsistent.’…
“Additionally, he gives us five principles of life that we can use to create character in our stories:
Capacity for Rational Thought
“Because these five principles all belong to the makeup of a real-life person’s ‘psychology,’ they can be used to create convincing three-dimensional characters. Let’s examine each one.
” 1. Nutritive Life. Do you wonder about your characters’ eating habits? Wouldn’t that tell you (and your audience) a lot about them? Don’t your eating habits say a lot about you? You should brainstorm as much as you can to get a clear picture of what the eating habits of your characters might be, to gather clues about who they are. How do they eat, what do they eat? Do they think about food a lot? What do your characters’ refrigerators look like? Not that any of this ever has to make it to the page, but it’s a window into their character. I mean, when Rocky gets up at 4 a.m, and drinks four raw eggs, isn’t that worth a gazillion pages of psychological notes on him? That image is so powerful and evocative that you know without further elaboration that he is serious about this boxing match. Look at Lester Burnham [in the Oscar-winning American Beauty]. What does he eat? By the end of his transformation from miserable mid-life-crisis guy to seeker of eternal youth, he’s blending and drinking health drinks. What could tell us more about Lester’s new attitude toward life? What could make Lester seem more human?
Roman copy in marble of a Greek bronze bust of Aristotle by Lysippus, c. 330 BC
” 2. Desiring Life. At the heart of all action is the desire of the hero. Basic human desire is really what makes characters come alive on the screen. In The Godfather, when Michael Corleone goes to Italy and falls in love with an Italian woman from the mountains, doesn’t that make him seem truly alive? It’s a probable incident that flows with the action, reflecting his deep commitment to his Italian ‘roots.’ In Gladiator, Maximus yearns to go home to his family and, after they have been murdered, to join them in eternity. In The Blair Witch Project, the kids’ ambition to tape the Blair Witch and make a film leads them to their death. Desiring is at the heart of what it means to be a living, breathing human being.
” 3. Sensitive Life. It goes without saying that our five senses are a big part of being alive. If a human being faces the prospect of losing sight or hearing, it’s devastating. In fact, all of the five senses — sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste — define our lives at the most basic level. Lester Burnham spends a lot of time masturbating, doesn’t he? In fact, it’s how we are first introduced to him. What more do we need to sense that Lester is real and to ‘know’ who he is? In cinema, perhaps the most important sense in regard to character development is visual perception. Great screenwriters know how to feed information to the audience through the eyes of characters, such as when Lester sees Angela at the pep rally and fantasizes about her. Showing how characters actually see things with their own eyes enables the audience to experience ’causes’ of the action.
It also puts to use a powerful aspect of the cinematic medium, which is the hero’s literal point of view.
” 4. Locomotion. Carefully depicting movement is vital to a screenplay. For example, The Blair Witch Project is a tapestry of rest and locomotion, in which the characters’ use of their eyes and ears is also notably important. Heather, the lead character in the story, spends a lot of time running around, screaming, and trying to videotape the ground in front of her. The lifelike aspect of all the characters is transmitted largely by their physical movement, as they trudge through the woods.
“5. Capacity for Rational Thought. Thinking about the mind and thought processes of people can be a fun way to brainstorm characters into existence. In Annie Hall,
Alvie is a rational man who has bouts of irrationality. This surfaces when a cop pulls him over and he tears up his license. In Titanic Rose jumps from the lifeboat to return to Jack, a slightly more irrational than rational act — but hey, this is a love story, and romantic love is rooted as much in animal nature as it is in the higher mind. (Rose is also slightly larger than life, and she’s being consistent with what we’ve seen of her.)
“In summary, to create a real human being for an audience you must have them do things that convince the audience that they are alive, really alive, giving details that even a scientist like Aristotle would appreciate.”
Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters: Storytelling Secrets From the Greatest Mind in Western Civilization
Author: Michael Tierno
Publisher: Hachette Books
Copyright 2002 Michael Tierno
The longlist for the Man Booker International Prize 2017 was announced today. The 13 books are: Compass by Mathias Énard (translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell) Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg (translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak) A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman (translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen) War and Turpentine […]