A Little Talking-To About Hyphens

In another post, I noted that lost commas can be the root of drama. From this post about how lack of a hyphen nearly cost a job, we learn how still another bit of punctuation can be a make-or-break force.

I won’t take the conversation any further, except to recommend this “well-intentioned rant on hyphens” by the good people at The Atlantic. I’m exhausted from battling with them in a draft given to me by a colleague where the hyphens had migrated from their necessary places to forbidden territory. For example, “follow up,” which is a (sort of) verb, got turned into “follow-up,” which is a (sort of) noun, and vice-versa. (NOTE: the last reminds me of my husband’s story of working for a boss who ordered him to “not visa-verse things.”) At least like my Northeastern US-born husband and his “conservation of R’s” (saying “cah” for car and then  “dramar” for “drama”), the writer lost no hyphens.

The best advice comes from The Atlantic article: before you slap a hyphen in place, check whether it’s advisable to use one.

Of Two Minds

As if my brain didn’t hurt enough from spending hours at work learning about how medical claims get paid and then recorded in the accounting system, I learned this morning that Schrodinger’s Cat is (was? will be?) more complex than we all thought. I keep a copy of a Dilbert cartoon about this on on my fridge as an homage to my physics loving progeny. In the strip, the evil HR director, Catbert, introduces the new staff member, a cat that used to work for a Dr. Schrodinger who let him go before an experiment was done, thus leaving him both dead and alive. Dilbert asks if that means he’s a zombie, to which the cat replies, “I have half a mind to be offended.”

In the new twist to the cat’s story, it has been determined that the cat can be dead and alive in two different places and that acting on one of the cats will cause the same outcome or reaction for the other. For example, tickle the cat…well, first you put on gloves, I guess…and it laughs or bites someone in both places…heavy gloves are needed. This concept was taken a step further by physicists applying it to photons in the lab.  I can see where if I went beyond writing space operas and actually wanted to put the effort into writing actual science fiction or more robust fantasy, this could be a very useful concept. With it, I could feed both my cats at once remotely. Everybody wins.

P.S. I re-released and rededicated the most recent volume of my “Startrail” space opera in honor of Prince, who inspired one of the characters back when I wrote the first story that would eventually become the first book.


Purrfect Love Gone Wrong

You think the Jarndyce lawsuit in Dickens’ Bleak House was long and excruciating?  Maine papers and other papers around the world have chronicled another suit in which one party is a veritable flock of cats. As USA Today noted, “No, this is not the plot of The Aristocats…”

In short, an elderly cat lover left a tidy fortune to the care of a group of rescued cats via her trusted housekeeper. Since the woman’s death several years ago, lawsuits have swirled about attempting to dislodge the money from the housekeeper and turn it over to a squad of volunteers who feed, pet, and clean up after the cats. Snug in their own little trailer, the cats only know that they are safe and warm.  The cat ladies maintain them by turning over a chunk of their social security checks each month. Now the town has lent a hand to their mission with a portion of the budget and fans are stepping up as well through a “Go Fund Me” page.

Just Another Martian Monday

In my local paper this morning, the regular naturalist writer, who covers everything from snails to supernovas, posted a piece on how time works on Mars.  According to this article, there are authors who (unlike me) have written about Mars without glossing over the issue of how one manages the disjoint between Mission Control time on Earth and another planet with different lengths of day, month, and year (as well as two moons). In particular, he cites a thoughtful time-keeping tweak proposed by Kim Stanley Robinson in Red Mars to help Mars-base staff stay in sync.

When NASA finally does get us onto Mars, they may well look to fiction as their model, in the same way Star Trek probably paved the way for Siri (though I am very disappointed with our web-conferencing tools at work for not looking anywhere near as cool or working as well as the ones on a show from over 40 years ago).

I am daily reminded of how disorienting time can get when reaching across time zones to meet with colleagues. One poor fellow staggered out of bed this morning for a meeting with us chipper East-coasters and at points seemed unable to remember what we were talking about. “Needs a gallon of coffee,” I texted a colleague just as our comrade muttered (unnecessarily), “Man, am I tired!”

Then there’s the clock in the common hall of our office complex. For a time it was stopped altogether but then began to run several hours off (ahead? behind?). Lately, it has been 55 minutes behind (I think) on average but sometimes less. I distract myself all the way to the door every morning wondering why no one can seem to get it running on regular Eastern Standard Earth time but I am no longer able to trust it if it does. Of course, I can just ask Siri, I suppose (thanks, again, to fiction writers).

A Picture’s Worth

Lately, the coffee shop crowd will greet me with, “How’s the book?” In fact, I have set aside my writing project for now to work on visual arts projects. Since some of my book covers have come from past art projects and working in another medium stimulates creativity in general, this does not feel like a bad trade. I have set up a new blog devoted to recovering old art projects and documenting new ones, as well as recording the results of my “haiku-a-day” project.

In reply to my admission, the writer among them grins and says knowingly, “Same with my book.” The implication is that I’ll never finish. With 18 books under my belt (some of which waited over a decade in an envelope in a closet to be published) I am neither worried nor hurried. My present book will get done when it and I are ready.

When Bad Words Go Gooder

Time magazine published a sidebar column tracing the history of a handful of words and phrases that have broken the rules of grammar and lived on in their improper form as acceptable formulations. One example is the word “contact,” which is now understood as a verb as well as a noun. The column describes those of us who care about grammar as “snapping their monocles” over change but we all understand that English is a living language and, like our children, changes over time, sometimes in ways that make us cringe. We still love you, Mother Tongue, you wily, complex, eccentric old thing.

Write in the Place Where You Live

I was hard at work in a local coffee house, elbow deep in paper festooned with red pen marks. A lady from a nearby table leaned over and asked what I was doing. When I told her I was working on a novel, she chirped, “Oh! What is it about?” I described the plot and setting and then answered her follow-up question: “What’s your working title?”

Almost before the entire title was out of my mouth, the woman’s companion cut me off with the remark, “You’re not supposed to TELL people your working title.” The woman leaned back and shook her head at me. She said in a despairing voice, “I don’t KNOW about Maine writers who write about other places.” Her companion added “I’ve LIVED in the place where your novel is set.” The lady added, “He’s a professional writer, you know.”

I did not have the opportunity to explain that I’ve traveled in my book’s setting and lived in similar places, giving me my own experience of that setting (i.e. I’m not “making up” everything I describe). The pair lost interest in me and my book after their pronunciations, closing the topic with a soft murmur from the woman, repeating my working title and promising, “I’ll watch for it.” The last utterance is a roundabout way of saying I can count these guys out as readers, since if they “watch for my book” under the working title (which I’ve since changed twice), they won’t be finding anything I wrote. POSTSCRIPT: Having crossed paths with the couple again, I am certain now that they won’t be among my fans. The man said a very brief “hi” and looked away and the woman merely gave me the panicked ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ look to which I have become accustomed when people discover that I write (see the post Snakes Alive).

The topic of working titles and etiquette around them could be a post all by itself. Instead I prefer to ponder the question of why anyone should write about any place other than their home. Some sages tell us we should “write what we know.” Others have noted that if that were a rule we would have no fantasy, little science fiction, not much in the way of adventure, and, I suspect, a lot less romance (good-bye to both Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray). The vast majority of my Smashwords catalog would be wiped out, excepting maybe a couple short stories and, perhaps, my gentle romance parody set in Jackson, Wyoming, where I lived for a summer. The short story, ‘Learning to Shine,’ stolen from a friend’s childhood memories would be iffy.

The lady’s concern about my setting is voiced in such a way that it presumes I had a real choice. In fact, ideas will come to me in situ, asking to be written in a place that I can fully picture. Once in a great while, I can perform a transplant but the risks are the same as if I were dealing with live hearts. Once in a while, I drop one and it splatters. As many have pointed out, settings are characters in themselves (Google “setting as character” for many useful tips on the subject). One does not deal with settings lightly.

It’s not that Maine is a terrible setting. Literature set in Maine is a genre unto itself and writers ooze out of every nook and cranny in the state. Much of Stephen King’s work is set here in the fictional Castle Rock and other such towns. Although the movie was filmed in New Hampshire, On Golden Pond is set here, very close to where I live now and where the author once lived. For that matter, Empire Falls, based on a Pulitzer Prize winning book, was partially filmed in my town on a street I often pass. These two depictions of life in Maine couldn’t be more different and yet both are true to the place I know. So is The Beans of Egypt Maine, a different vision yet. I can recognize King’s characters (until they sprout scales, fangs, and fur) in my daily life (usually buying a carton of cigarettes and two cases of beer at the local convenience store in line ahead of me).

I have a lot of affection for Maine. It just does not always happen to be what calls to me when I sit down to write. I am not deliberately spurning my home state. I simply have to follow the path the story has taken. I’d rather take the advice of another professional writer from Maine, Stephen King (see the Plumbers in Space post) and write what I want (or what is wanted by the story), than let random coffee shop patrons dictate my actions. Besides, my book wouldn’t have it any other way.