She Shrugged and Tossed Her Curls

Trying to keep readers from guessing your dominant gender? You would do well to take a peek at this piece reviewing a book in which 100 classic works, 50 by men and 50 by women, were analyzed for word frequency differences. Three of the words that most suggest yours truly is a woman (freely admitted) appear in the title of this post. The piece also points out that some authors, Vladimir Nabokov in particular, are more apt to mix it up in terms of word choice.

While I have never before reviewed research on this subject, I do have experience with gender evasiveness. When I joined writing.com several years ago (I’m no longer a member), I chose for a screen name the nickname of a masculine character from a book series I had been reading. I was experimenting, testing to see if commentary would run one way or another in response to my posts. With the fiction I posted, I took no special measures, but with the blog I kept, I avoided pronouns (sometimes tortuously) that would give away my gender or that of my spouse (those being the days when the likelihood of my spouse being the opposite gender was extremely strong). I must have had some success at convincing readers I was male because I did receive a comment or two scolding me for what struck the readers as sexist remarks made by a member of that group.

Being scolded by women while I posed as a man was not a novelty. In college I played a male character in a role-playing game, tipping the gender balance of our group, which was comprised of more women than men. Since my character tended to strike a protective pose with the women (more because they were less armored and had fewer weapons than because of any skill deficit), I often got complaints about patronizing behavior. To be fair, the men in the group scolded me for hanging back too much. I once got soundly trounced for choosing not to enter a pub by busting down the door, though I was fully capable of doing so and was apparently expected to exercise my abilities to their fullest at all times. The motto must have been: Why do anything without all your weapons drawn?

The only novel-length piece I have written in first voice was done through the eyes of a male character. I have no doubt that if I re-read that book with an eye to the language, I’d find my hero wandering in the same no-man’s land as my role-playing alter ego. I offer no apology for that, since, judging from the men I know in real life, gender is not a hard and fast determinant of your behavior or language. My own experiments aside, I also don’t believe that one gender is not capable of accessing and describing the experiences of the other. It may be that the 100 works chosen for the survey cited above were more exemplars of place and time (and of who could get published) than of true social rules.

Anyway, it’s exhausting carrying a crossbow everywhere.

More Horrible News

No, it’s not Donald Trump winning the presidency. My only comment on that is related to a post on another blog where I noted that Rachel Maddow sarcastically exhorted our governor to “stay classy” but my advice is for him to “stay funny.” Someday historians will unearth articles about Paul LePage and Donald Trump and conclude they are fiction of a dark humor type, because in the abstract they can sound very much as if someone made them up. I have no doubt Mr. Trump will be entertaining as president and hopefully it will be in a good way.

Mention of Mr. LePage brings me to Maine’s best-known horror writer (heck, best-known writer, period), Stephen King who tweeted a super-flash fiction story that went: “Once upon a time, there was a man named Donald Trump and he ran for president. Some people wanted him to win.” Some of those people were probably comedians and late-night show hosts.

I am more interested in what Time magazine published last week in their innocence of the pending dramatic twist in the election. Never mind the cover story or various editorials. My eye fell hard on their ‘chartoon’ entitled “Horror-Movie Plot Generator.” Besides the fact that this piece is a few weeks too late for Halloween (but just in time for, well, election day), I was struck by the inclusion of this item in the “contextual” column: In Maine.

I don’t know if we Maineiacs should be honored or insulted by such a mention. This is the only specific place name on the list. It may be a tip of the hat to Mr. King and/or the many stories he has written that take place in Maine. It may be wise-acre homage to our governor. It might just be a random whim. It’s just interesting that someone thinking very hard for at least 20 seconds thought of this as one of the most recognizably scary places, right up there with “a hospital,” “an old house,” and “the woods.”

Anyway, at least now you have another helpful tool to get you out of that rut and start writing about…Newlyweds in space butchered by an ancient evil thing…

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.

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).

Zeroize the Verbing of Innocent Nouns

So, here I am socializing this list of problematic words with my stakeholders….but since this sentence (while perfectly acceptable in my place of work) barely sounds like English, let me explain. Lake Superior State University reminds us they exist every year by publishing their annual list of words and phrases that have been overused and should be sent to the bench, the showers, or perhaps the airport with a one-way ticket. Many of those words appear in the opening segment of this post and two of my favorites from years past appear in the title.

I was appalled in reviewing the complete list to note how many of these have crept into my writing and my everyday vernacular. In my own defense, the list has been growing for 40 years and has managed to identify some intractable dandelions that have stuck with us in American English (example: “My Bad”) along with some withering violets that have faded from use (example: “Sit On It”).

Review this list carefully and do note that while you are there, you can apply for a Unicorn Hunting License. There are worse ways to support LSSU and good clean English usage…I guess.

Why Breaking Up is Hard to Do

I spotted this piece on Yahoo News that reports the results of a British study that shows what makes a break-up difficult from the point of view of the different genders. Along the way, they note that women are the ones more likely to initiate the dissolution of the relationship, in part because they are more apt to analyze and monitor the relationship all along. Men, on the other hand, do not review the situation or recognize the stages of grief through which they may pass if it was not understood from the start that the relationship was limited and short term. Men tend to drown their sorrows in serial relationships and if they do not have a support network they may never fully recover from the blow of losing their lover.

Wherefore Art Thou JarJar?

NPR recently aired a story about an author who specializes in translating Star Wars movies into Shakespearean language. Along the way, he has managed to take one of the most hated characters of the franchise, the fawning, simple-minded, suspiciously accented JarJar Binks, and added unexpected depth and interest to him. We may never grow to love JarJar, but now, using a couple of Shakespeare’s common techniques, the aside to the audience and the clown or fool character used as a disguise, we can understand him better. This is an inspiring example of how to add shading and dimension to a character to enhance the interest of and connection to the reader.

Your characters may not actually have any other dimensions to add (i.e. they may just be that shallow) but you might reconsider their cause after seeing what a little extra detail work could do. I have known a few people who put on accents or goofy personas when they want to disarm others. I have seen the ploy be too successful as well, to the point that the actor cannot be taken seriously anymore. If this author is to be believed, that is exactly the case for JarJar and we should all be ashamed of ourselves for thinking worse of him. I reserve the right to wince anyway.