“Snark” vs. “Smarm”

This piece on Politico delighted me to no end. To summarize: BuzzFeed’s new book editor, Isaac Fitzgerald, said that he wouldn’t post any negative reviews on the site. This sparked a controversy among several prominent writers and intellectuals over the merits of only-positive writing vs. critical writing, with the former being labeled “smarm” and the latter, “snark.” Without going into the core argument, I feel, as a grammarian and writer, I must address their misuse of the words “smarm” and “snark.”

Gawker’s Tom Scocca wrote that smarm is “a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves. … Smarm would rather talk about anything other than smarm. Why, smarm asks, can’t everyone just be nicer?”

I think he might be just a little off. The best definition I’ve found comes from, of course, the Urban Dictionary: “cloying, over-ingratiating, oleaginous (“oily”), close, and over-familiar.” While there is certainly some overlap between Scocca’s definition and UD’s, they are not the same. Scocca’s “smarm” is genuinely nice (if vapid); real “smarm,” as I think most people use the word, is not actually nice. It’s the “niceness” that greaseball players use to get into girls’ pants or used-car salesmen use to part you with your money.

On the other hand, “snark” is never really defined in this debate, other than “meanness” or “critical thinking,” depending on the writer. That’s also wrong. “Snark” is an amalgam of “snide” and “remark,” and basically means “sarcasm.” So all snark is mean, but not all meanness is snark. Critical thinking can be delivered with snark, but so can pure stupidity.

Which brings me to my  point: the people embroiled in this debate are all writers, some are considered intellectuals, and yet they don’t seem to grasp the actual meanings of the words they are arguing about.


What’s Up With Friday the 13th?

I’ve always been curious about why Friday the 13th has gotten such a bad rap. According to The Telegraph, the U.S. loses some $800 – $900 mil. every Friday the 13th because so many people won’t fly or do business on that day. There is even a real mental disorder – paraskavidekatriaphobia – caused by fear of Friday the 13th.

The story goes that the day became tainted when King Philip IV of France ordered all members of the Knights Templar to be assassinated on that date in 1307. But that explanation never made a lot of sense to me: the Templars were a relatively small, elite organization. Why would regular people still be frightened of that date some 700 years later?

Deviant Art Tarot, # XIII – Death

It probably has more to do with the the “unlucky” status of both the number 13 and the day Friday. The number 12 is seen by most Western cultures as complete, harmonious and benevolent: 12 months of the year, 12 tribes of Israel, the 12 apostles, and two 12-hour cycles in a day. Thirteen, then, is one too many; it represents disorder, treachery and evil. Thus, 13 witches in a coven, the 13th guest as betrayer (Judas or Loki, depending on the mythos), Death as the 13th arcanum in the tarot.

Fridays, in our culture, are also ill-favored. Originally named in honor of the Germanic Goddess of Love, Frigg (or possibly Freyja), it was assigned as the day of Christ’s crucifixion by Christians (though that is a matter of debate). In Great Britain and America, Fridays were the days when all executions took place.

So there you are. All the “bad luck” ascribed to today’s date is really just the convergence of two superstitions. In fact, for me, it’s payday, which negates all the other stuff!


Healthy, Wealthy & Wise, On Schedule

Tim Goessling on The Good Men Project recently posted about his experiences trying to live and work on the schedule Benjamin Franklin laid out in his 1791 autobiography. I’ve always admired Ben Franklin, the writer, publisher, inventor, philosopher, revolutionary, and, especially, the humorist. Therefore, I feel I could learn something from living  and working as he did.

So, with some slight modifications, here is my account of living one day according to a similar schedule. The day I did this was a Sunday, when I do not have to go in to work at my paying job (where I have no control over my schedule).

One of the things I really like about this schedule is that he gives plenty of time for eating and reflection: two hours in the morning, not just to rise, wash and breakfast, but also to ponder “Powerful Goodness” and ask oneself, “What good shall I do this day?”

While I did not get up quite at 5 a.m. (more like 8 a.m.), I did follow his timetable. I had a nice, leisurely cup of coffee, chatted with my partner, and composed a checklist of stuff to do today. I free-wrote for 15 mins. on “Powerful Goodness,” and as for the “good I shall do this day,” the best I could come up with was to try to educate and enlighten a few people. I had time, glorious time, to fix myself something to eat for breakfast. It is indeed the most important meal of the day, and I know that I often skip it because I’m so rushed in the morning.

Next, I shaved the five-hour work block down to four, thinking maybe Franklin was factoring in commute times. Beginning at 10 a.m., I did errands and wrote a little, and finished 45 minutes early. So I made an executive decision to start lunch 30 minutes early and make up the time at the end of my day.

Franklin’s schedule allows two whole hours for lunch, to dine and “read or overlook accounts.” As Goessling writes, he considers his social network “accounts” and so updated them during his lunch hours. I think this is a capital idea; for freelancers, especially, managing one’s social networks is a vital part of the job. And a long lunch break is a perfect time to get on the smartphone or tablet and respond to messages and/or post updates.

I had a simple lunch – grilled cheese and tomato soup – but it felt absolutely decadent to have so much time to cook and dine. Usually, I’m so rushed during meals that I end up getting fast food way too often. It’s no secret that fast food = obesity, whereas slow food = health and happiness.

However, as part of attending to my accounts, I ended up on the phone with the cable company for a lot longer than I anticipated, so that my lunch break lasted 30 mins. longer than allowed for. Therefore, I am going to count dealing with the cable company as “work.” I’ve now noticed that he didn’t schedule any time for cleaning or household tasks; oh, yeah, he was a rich white guy. In his world, that’s what wives or servant girls were for. No matter; household tasks are work, and I’m going to count them as such.

After lunch, according to Franklin’s plan, it’s back to work for another five hours.  I again shrank this to four, then added the extra thirty minutes from my early lunch, which meant writing from 4 – 8:30 p.m.

I forced my way through a bad case of writer’s block until, at 7:15, I  had to take another break. I was starving. I reheated some leftovers, slurped them down, and got back to it. While I ended up about 400 words shy of my goal of 2,000 words, I actually had a pretty productive afternoon and evening.

The four hours at the end of the day are scheduled for “put[ting] things in their places; supper, music, or diversion, or conversation; examination of the day.” This is the time, he suggests, to ask oneself, “What good have I done today?” Another excellent idea, much better than just vegging out in front of the TV.

Alas, I did begin this day far too late. I free-wrote on what good I did today (not much, really) until 10 p.m., then watched Venture Bros. on DVR, and crawled into bed at 11.

The takeaway? First, I really, really like what this schedule represents: a good, healthy balance between productive work and valuable downtime (i.e., sleeping and eating). Without this clear balance, one of two things usually happens: either you let the work creep into all your time, so you’re never really “off the clock,” or else you find everything in the world to do besides work (like laundry, paying bills, doing dishes) and never get anything done.

On the other hand, his schedule, as is, just doesn’t work for me. Ben Franklin wasn’t kidding about being “early to rise”;. he got up at 5 a.m. I cannot – will not – get up at 5 a.m. unless something very close to me is on fire (and maybe not even then). I’m old enough to know who I am, and my chronotype is a later one than early-bird Ben (Brain Pickings has an excellent article on the stress of being a late riser here). Unstuck, an excellent app and blog, has a great post about how the right routine can make you happier and more productive. The right routine being, of course, one uniquely matched to your own internal rythyms. It even offers a printable scheduling worksheet for you to find your best times for different tasks.

So, in the tradition of creative geniuses, I will keep what works (long, leisurely meal times) and leave off what doesn’t (everything else). And I think I might print that worksheet…

10 Holiday Gifts for Writers

Happy holidays! If you’re looking for gifts for fellow writers, or just ideas to ask your own Santa, here are some cool items from around the web:

1. Cheeky mugs are the standard go-to gift for people you don’t know too well. I especially like this one from Cafe Press.

2. Writing instruments: For some reason, people seem to think a quill pen is a great gift for a writer. News flash: no-one but occultists and Shakespearean actors use quill pens anymore. What writers do obsess over, however, is a good quality pen. Writers (myself included) will often have a favorite pen, which they will guard like Gollum guards the Precious. Everyone’s criteria for what makes a pen great is different, but in general, we like pens that feel comfortable in the hand, lay the ink down smoothly (with little pressure) and leave nice, non-smudgy lines on the paper. The Pen Addict has a good list of his top five in various categories. For me, I prefer retractable (as opposed to having a separate cap) gel pens with big, cushy grips, and I like medium point (0.7mm) rather than fine point. My all-time favorite pens are Foray Super Comfort Gelios. They’re pretty cheap – only $10.99 a dozen – so they’re probably more of a stocking-stuffer than an actual gift, but there you go.

3. Susankeepsakes’ handmade tablet pillows on Etsy. As someone who likes to curl up on the couch to read, this would be a welcome wrist, arm and neck saver! And she makes them in different designs.

4. Edgar Allan Poe wall art from Cafe Press.

5. Magazine subscriptions: the gift that keeps on giving. Writer’s Digest, Poets & Writers and The Writer are all really helpful publications (though I have to admit, I’d love a subscription to Funny Times and/or Mental Floss, just because they are funny and interesting).

6. “I’m Silently Correcting Your Grammar” long-sleeved T-shirt. I only wish these were in women’s versions (with a wider collar), because I do walk around thinking this a lot.

7. Wordie Wars game from Mental Floss. I’m a fan of games, and this one promises to “stump even the brainiest of word nerds.” The game challenges players to “flex every rhetorical muscle, build words, brainstorm synonyms, and test their proofreading skills.” Sounds like fun to me!

8. A typewriter flask from Etsy. Not all writers drink, of course. Just the good ones.

9. This awesome journal…I think I may have mentioned my little “journal problem” before…

10. TIME.  A hand-made “gift certificate” to babysit or take over some other tasks for a few hours can be priceless to a frustrated writer. Or, if you really want to splurge, instead of spending hundreds of dollars on shiny rocks (i.e., jewelry), give the writer you love a mini-retreat: book several nights at a nice hotel or B&B, add a modest “food stipend,” and you’ve pretty much got the perfect gift. Well, for the Nerdy Words blogger, anyway!

Can “Hunger Games” Change the World?

Some novels have the power to spark the collective imagination, resulting in sweeping societal changes, for example, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “The Jungle,” “1984” and …”The Hunger Games”?

Maybe. Besides setting off a trend of girls getting into archery (perhaps along with “Brave’s” Princess Merida), the “3-finger salute” has been popping up a lot lately. The Harry Potter Alliance (itself an example of literature sparking social activism) is running a “Hunger Games”-themed campaign called “Odds In Our Favor” to raise awareness about economic inequality.

According to HPA’s Facebook page, “fantasy is not an escape from our world but an invitation to go deeper into it. We are going to go deeper into it and we are going to fight for 99% of this country in our Districts to be granted equality.” Indeed, a HuffPo article by YingYing Shang asserts that the dystopian Panem is not so different from our current U.S. of A. “The Hunger Games are real,” she writes. “The Hunger Games are here. And what the Hunger Games mean is the death of the American Dream.”

All I can say is, “may the odds be ever in our favor.”

There May Be Hope for the Future Yet

Just as I was playing the funeral dirge for print books, along came an article that restored my faith in humanity. First, GalleyCat reports that in the UK, a big majority (62%) of young adults prefer print to e-books. Admittedly, it was a very small sample – only 1,420 people – but it was heartening.

And then, I read this: Children’s and Young Adult e-book sales increased by almost 200% in August, while hardcover and paperback sales only rose in the low double digits. So, while the smart kids in the UK are recognizing the value of old-school print books, most young people over here are spending their money on e-books.

For those who say e-books are better for the environment because they don’t require cutting down trees and poisoning rivers, I agree we shouldn’t make paper from trees. We should be growing hemp. But that’s a whole different discussion.

I just feel sorry for the future generation who will grow up in a world without real books. They will never know the sublime pleasure of holding a book in their hands, feeling the different textures and weights. Or the scents of fresh ink on glossy paper or the grassy-vanilla scent of old, yellow pages. No standing in line to have an author sign – with a real pen – the first page of a much-loved book. No pages to slip a note between and pass to a secret lover.

And what will they do when their devices crash, or the batteries die?

They’ll come crawling to us old coots who still hoard real books, that’s what. 😉

Taste: The Neglected Sense

A great article on writing with the five senses on the Writer’s Relief blog gave me a much-needed prod: I have been neglecting one of the best senses in my writing! My mystery novel, set in the Arkansas Ozarks, features several scenes with characters eating and drinking; I’d fleshed out the sights, sounds, and smells, but completely left out taste. Bad writer!

So let me expound on the idea of writing with the five senses. First and foremost: do it! Don’t use bland adjectives like “pretty” or “cozy,” describe what exactly makes the thing pretty or cozy.

Next, know what order to put your descriptions in. When you are introducing a person, place or thing, first ask yourself, is the narrator approaching from afar, or is the narrator suddenly thrust very close to it?

If the narrator is approaching (which is pretty much the normal way most people/places/things will be introduced), start with sight, the most long-range sense humans have. Give a few (say, three) telling visual details to orient the reader. Then come in a little closer with sounds and ambient feelings (hot or cold, wind blowing, etc.). Come in even closer with scent and touch. And don’t forget taste, the sense that puts your person/place/thing inside the very body of the narrator, and hopefully, the reader.

If you’re introducing something in a sudden way (your narrator turns and bumps into someone unexpectedly), the order of intimacy will be reversed.

Obviously, sensory details will depend on the context, for example, if your narrator is blindfolded or deafened. Yet you must not forget to give us these sensory details as soon as your character walks into a new setting or meets a new person, or you run the risk of leaving your reader floating in limbo.

Is Iceland Heaven for Writers?

When I traveled to Ireland in 2007, I thought I had arrived in the most literary country on Earth. Irish novelists, poets and playwrights were widely celebrated and honored; there were numerous tours to the homes and haunts of these famous writers.

As it turns out, I may have been off by a letter… and 890 miles. According to the BBC (via FishbowlDC), Iceland might be the most literary country on the planet. The article states that about 10 percent of the island nation’s population has published a book; their motto is, “everyone gives birth to a book.” It also quotes Agla Magnusdottir, head of the new Icelandic Literature Centre, which offers state support for literature and its translation. She states, “Writers are respected here … They live well. Some even get a salary.”

Wow. An actual salary. Catch me; I’m swooning.

The article goes on to say that the most popular genre is crime fiction, with sales figures “double that of any of its Nordic neighbors.”

The funny thing is, the conditions that make both countries havens for writers are similar. First, they are both small islands in the North Atlantic, chilly and treeless, with epically long winter nights. Both islands are inhabited by the descendents of peoples with strong storytelling traditions. And both have contemporary governments that prioritize and support writers and artists.

Time to dig out my passport…


Books That Should Be on Every Writer’s Shelf

I write and teach others how to write, so I have the pleasure/pain of reading and working with lots of books about writing. Recently, my mom asked me a seemingly simple question: “What books do you recommend to learn about writing?” Alas, my brain circuits fried: there are so many! Where to begin?

However, now that I’ve had some time to properly think about the question, I give you my favorite writing books, in no particular order:

Feel free to link to this post if you’re dropping hints to Santa! 🙂

Happy Holidays!


Tools to Help You Meet Your Writing Goals

As we head into the sturm und drang of the holiday season, hopefully some of you will find some time to work on that novel, chapbook or collection of essays that’s been sitting on your computer’s hard drive for far too long. In the spirit of sharing, here are some tools that can help you get started, reach your goals and clean up your prose:

  • NaNoWriMo 30-Day Challenge: a prompt a day to get your creative juices flowing
  • Imagination prompt: Creativity Portal features a random prompt generator that features questions like, “What changes do you wish to make in the next five years?” and ” Money, fame, or happiness? Are they mutually exclusive?” designed to make you think about your goals and ambitions.
  • Soul Pancake’s writing prompts: A quirky collection of writing prompts that will get you pondering things you’ve never thought about before. BTW, the SoulPancake site is pretty cool, too.
  • 750 words app: This is a fun site designed to help writers reach a goal of 750 words per day. You can earn “badges” (the cyberspace equivalent of stickers) for writing consistently and productively.
  • Cliche finder: Very easy-to-use tool to weed out those nasty things. Simply paste your text into the screen, hit “Find Cliches,” and the tool will put the offending words and phrases in red.

Happy writing!