A Lesson in Perfectionism

Writing students can learn much from their heroes.  As an 18-year-old, J.D. Salinger was my main literary hero.  When I read a Smithsonian.com article about a new exhibit of Salinger notes and family-memorabilia coming to the New York Public Library soon,  I was inspired to write this critique and analysis of the article.

Critical Writing | Some Insight into an Inscrutable Man

Please read and comment, especially my over-all conclusion:

Part of my sadness  is thinking what he could have shared — if he hadn’t been striving for irrational perfection and hadn’t been second-guessing the public’s reaction.

Thanks, & happy writing.  VMK

 

Be an “Amibguity Sleuth”

Too many times, I’ve been reading an article by professionals, and suddenly come across a sentence or clause that takes a lot of effort to “decode.” This usually happens when when the reader’s mind mistakenly takes a literally- purposed phrase for a familiar idiom that might use the same combination of words. Or it can happen when the reverse appears as well: idiom-purposed for litterally-meant.

The best way to explain this is by example. Along with each example I’ll be making suggestions on how the ambiguity might be corrected — removing the “stumbling-block,” and thus improving the flow of the written work.

This one is from one of my own Tweets. It makes the reader have to decode whether I am using the word “values” as a noun or a verb:

“If they don’t attend it’s one more PROOF that GOP leadership values ideology over showing even an iota of respect for America’s institutions.”

The ambiguity arises from “GOP leadership values” When I re-read the tweet, I took “values” to be a a noun, as in GOP leadership-values. After I submbled, I remembered that I was saying that the leadership of the GOP values ideology over showing… I should have said that. Or maybe, better: the GOP’s leadership has come to value… either way would have avoided the ambiguity. Several of these in one piece of writing lowers the reader’s esteem for the writer.

I think you get the idea. As I run into more examples, I’ll update this article and put a notification on Twitter.

@kerr_vernon.Twitter.com

VMK

SciFi | Return of the Astrolance Chapter 1


Return of the Astrolance

©2020 Vernon Miles Kerr, vernonmileskerr.com writersclass.net

This post is a view into the writing process, latest edits in blue text.  VMK

Synopsis

A perfect society with a perfect history is impacted by shocking news.  Their Holy Book, “The Hitex” —  which describes “People’s” origin as having been birthed from” Planet” by ” Creator,” fully civilized — is brought into question, when a gigantic cave is found with artifacts indicating long occupation by People and much preparation for coming to the surface.

Even worse, a few years later, astronomers report an object approaching Planet at near light-speed. Doppler-distorted electro-magnetic messages in a strange code are received from the object.  This too, belies Hitex, since Hitex states that People are Creator’s sole children in “Universe.” 

When the code is broken and some sense made of the senders’ message it is determined that both “Strangers”, and People, having been faced with Earth’s imminent nuclear destruction had argued two competing methods for trying to save a remnant of humanity: People, using the method of 10,000 years in underground cities, and Strangers, setting off in a near-light-speed needle in a circular path that should have brought them back to Earth in 10,000 years, with only decades of elapsed-time on board.  The Strangers’ solution, using the craft, called The Astrolance, was good in theory, but the course’s unplanned passing near an obstacle, a dark-matter black hole, drastically exapands time-dilation to 100,000 years.

Now, Planet’s political and religious question becomes, what to do with the savages from the 21st Century?  How to help them, yet still preserve respect for Hitex and its formula for a perfect world?  Before this quandary is solved near catastrophe occurs for both Stangers and People.

Chapter 1

Renselr stood, barefoot as always, on the smooth alabaster veranda of his school, looking out over the radiating greens and yellows of forest and field which stretched to the horizon, far below. Normally, the comparison of the cool, white stone with the mollifying, warm morning air set him into a meditative state — but not today.

If this is what the Hitex refers to as “anguish,” I must be feeling it.

He frowned, set his jaw, as he absent-mindedly gathered and released the sash of his tokah in both hands, squeezing wrinkles into it, smoothing them out, squeezing again.

Why was I chosen to bear this burden?  What am I going to tell them?  How do I start?  Why me? Rulers of Fate, oh why me?

The sky in the East grew lighter.  Soon, Star would be breaching the horizon, and soon thereafter, his students would be arriving from the valley, below, meandering, chatting giggling, straggling, up the coiling marble walkway, as always.  They, and his Holoviewers around the planet, would have to be told.  He had prepared his notes. — scrupulously and agonizingly.  But still …

Those students present and those remotely-present were like his own children.  Nearly a century before, he had been granted authority over the education of potential adults. Each year’s harvest of infants were placed in nursery groups, each with a surrogate mother for five years.  After that, they became Renselr’s charges, until they had  passed a dozen years of age. On that milestone, Renselr graduated the brightest out to the Academy or to the School of Technology.  The remainder went to Crafts.  Renselr’s having charge of the most formative of Planet’s children was a responsibility he took seriously, but he never considered it a burden, until now.  How to tell nearly a million students that the nexus of all education, the Hitex, contained errors?  The Solons would take care of Planet’s adults, but the children had to be prepared first.

Renslr had decided on a timed release of information, in stages.  But, the Solons had given him only limited time to accomplish this. The adult supervisors in the dormitories would be getting a preview after school, each day.  Renselr knew that rumors would spread from there, but the complete version of the news would follow so closely, rumors wouldn’t matter

Not much sleep last night.  Not much in the past 14 nights, since they unloaded this cargo on me.

It was the downside of being the planet’s Father-pedant figure:  Public proclamations of the  Scholastic Assembly of Archaeology and Paleontology (SAAP.)

Rensler had been disgusted with the SAAP. There seemed to be some dark current of conspiracy in their digging around. They seemed to be subtilely implying, within academic circles, that each new shard of strange glass or seemingly artificially-formed metal, hinted at previous intelligent life on Planet. They wouldn’t come right out and say it — that would be blasphemy against Hitex, which teaches that all of People’s history began within the womb of Planet and somewhere Planet gave birth to People, fully formed, fully clothed, fully possessed of Hitex in the form of a spoken saga. Later, People had devised the method of making marks on fabric and later, paper, which represented words, and Hitex was given physical form.

Trauma had accompanied each of these eked-out “Updatings” to planetary philosophy — for the ninety seasons Resnselr had been tasked to it.  Long, long ago, many Father-pedants ago, SAAP was already whittling away the ancient myth of the People’s origins, (the myth of the spontaneous birth of the thousands of the Initial People from the womb of  Mother Planet.) The myth had not been rejected, merely modified.  The myth gave the People a sense of order, a sense of purpose. The Great Creator, creator of Mother Planet, had ordained  that she give birth to the People as fully prepared to dress her surface, to groom her. The People were delivered with the moral-imperative, fully developed and with primitive tools in their hands.

“Go,  prosper,  her thunder spoke. Dress my surface, coax the tiny buds and leaves from the cracks of rock. Build cities, explore Mother Planet, then explore the neighboring planets.”

These were the words of the Hitex.  The words of truth.  The miracle of the People’s spontaneous creation as a species.  Morally complete, prepared with tools and accompanied by the their domestic animals.

Now, how do I tell them there was no such miracle?

He morosely watched the Gardeners and Crafts people far below, filing out of the ground floor,  headed for their assigned husbandries. They would clear the under brush, transplant seedings, maintain cobblestone paths, perhaps lunch by a babbling stream — content in the knowledge that Mother Planet was pleased. A few would nap through the apex of Star’s journey through the sky — others would merely enjoy the shade, reciting to each other sayings from the Hitex.

The brightening sky began silhouetting other spiral towers on the horizon as Renselr stared blankly at the continual stream of air-conveyances (chariots, barges, and passenger-liners) silently  following their appointed paths, far above the clouds.  Refocusing, he tried to pull-together all of the pieces of these recent revelations.

An earthquake had uncovered an opening from which, it was argued, the Initial People might have emerged from Mother Planet.  Until now, “archaeology” was only involved with collecting (and arguing about)  mysterious shards of melted glass, a few tiny pieces of petrified bone, and seemingly “manufactured” chunks of hard minerals. If these were artifacts, from some prior intelligent species, then Hitex was false, or at a minimum, incomplete. SAAP had always throttled and impeded these announcements, giving only what was necessary to keep the trauma to a slow drip.

SAAP had secretly briefed Renselr, only weeks before, that the opening was sealed by the same manufactured mineral substance as those previously gathered chunks.  If this were the womb of Mother Planet the Initial People must have wanted to hide something.  Breaking through the mineral substance, the archeologists discovered metal doors, and within the doors, a cave.  The cave was too vast to explore, but the first room an anti-room more vast that an air-barge hangar, was littered with cast-off containers, what appeared to be rotting clothing of some sort, and a few mysterious metal implements.  Whatever the past of the progenitors, they wanted to leave it behind — forever. 

How to Approach a Poetry Assignment


How to Approach a Poetry Assignment

© 2020 by Vernon Miles Kerr,  WritersClass.net, VernonMilesKerr.com

Hello writing students.  If you’ve been assigned the task of writing your first (or nearly first) poem, I think you might find this article a means of jump-starting your effort.  I hope so.


What is poetry?  It is the most advanced form of human communication.  It is far beyond mere rhetoric and far beyond any scientific treatise, because a well-written poem communicates on many levels all at the same time.  Yes, it communicates simple information, just as other types of writing do—but it also communicates emotion.  More than that, it transfers emotion from the poet directly into the soul of the reader. A poem communicates not just on a physical level but on a subconscious level and, perhaps, even a spiritual level as well. As my friend, mentor and former writing professor,  Dr. Manfred Wolf, wrote to me recently: “A good poem does have a certain Je ne sais quoi about it.”  More than just not knowing what it is that makes it a good poem,  a good one can leave you slightly stunned — if the poet is someone who really speaks to you personally.  In my case it’s Emily Dickinson.  Her short little poems are sometimes like acid cutting through the steel of my preconceived notions, and maybe my prejudices as well.

Here’s how I start a poem:  Write down what you want to say, in regular prose.  Assume your assignment is to write a poem about Spring.  Write down all the emotions you feel about Spring, positive AND negative — if you do have any negative feelings about it.  Those feelings might be negative for someone who has recently lost a loved one, where the happy sounds, fragrance and balmy breezes keep reminding that person of happy times they spent with their loved one.  It therefore winds up compounding their feeling of loss.

On the other hand, things are good or bad by comparison.  Use the soggy cold, muddy images of winter to emphasize the beauty, comfort and ease of springtime.  Use the quiet, lifeless woods of winter to showcase the riotous life breaking out in the spring such as squirrels chasing each other or mocking birds having song competitions across a field or woods.  Traveling to North Carolina from California, a few years ago, the woods around Mooresville were bare and the forest floor was brown.  Then one day, the dogwoods bloomed in the forest and they became  layers of white clouds, a cottony staircase marching up the hills between the ground and the, still bare, tops of the great hardwood trees.  The comparison between those delicate white flowers and the roughness of the tree bark and  dead leaves on the forest floor was very striking and memorable to someone seeing it for the first time.

The next step, after getting your emotions about your subject out onto paper, is start to pare it down. Throw away unneeded words; boil it down.  If you can imply something without even saying it directly, so much the better.  Experiment using synonyms and see what emotional effect the change of wording creates.

It’s not enough to provide information about the beauty of spring — or even a very accurate description of a springtime scene — if you don’t clearly communicate your emotional reaction to that scene.  Even better, would be to use it to show some psychological or emotional growth within you as the poem progresses.  The reader will be learning the lesson you learned right along with you as if they were re-living the experience of coming to an “epiphany” the same moment you did.

Go back and read a few poems by Emily Dickinson or perhaps Robert Frost.  Sip, don’t gulp.  Take a sip and roll it around in your mind and savor the taste like one would do with a fine wine. Read and re-read the same poem several times while meditating for a few moments at the end of each reading.

I haven’t said anything about rhyme or meter.  Songs have both, and poems used to. Now it’s optional.  Rather than being stuck in strict meter, such as Di dah, di dah, di dah, di dah, di dah … (iambic pentameter) try to make sure that (with or without meter) there is a pretty flow to your verses.  For an example of where little or no thought has been given toward maintaining a smoothly flowing rhythm in the mind of the reader, read a newspaper article .  Re-read your own poem when you think it’s finished.  Does its rhythm have the feel of a bumpy road or a beautiful new Interstate Highway?  If a rough ride, go back and flatten the bumps and fill in the pot-holes.  Above all, have fun.

For future hints and lessons, please follow WritersClass.net using the block on this page.  VMK

Common Grammar Errors


 

If you’re like me—you love writing, but don’t have an advanced degree in English— memorize these most common grammar-errors and few readers will even guess.  I know, I know … some of these seem to make no sense, they just are; they’re just part of the lingo that educated people speak, and write.  


Common Mistake

Correct Usage

I’m adverse to that idea I’m averse to that idea, I have a real aversion to that idea.
        “             “ The trip will have some adverse road conditions
On page three, I sight Plato’s  quote… …I cite Plato’s quote
Siteseeing is good in Germany Sightseeing is good…
      “               “ I like this job-based site
I use to like Elvis, I was suppose to like Mozart I used to like…  I was supposed to like…
It’s a good concept, we should flush it out …we should flesh it out  (add flesh to those bare bones)
       “               “ Get the dog to flush the quail out
Here, here – I’ll vote for that. Hear, hear… (as in, “now hear this”)
I’m loathe to dental visits I’m loath to dental visits, because I loathe the pain
I’ve got to go, we can dialogue later. … we can have a dialogue later.
Me and you are the best… You and I are the best (You wouldn’t say “Me is the best.”)
That plan is better for both you, and I. …better for both you, and me. (not “That plan is better for I”)
There’s less people here today. There are fewer people..  1,2 3.. (fewer numbers)
          “               “ There’s less milk in the carton this morning. (less volume of milk)
For all intensive purposes… For all intents and purposes
The special affects were awesome, Special effects were awesome
but they effected the audience in a weird way. they affected the audience…
It was obvious that the actress was effecting an English accent …the actress was affecting … (it was an affectation)
Sorry, I did that on accident. … I did that by accident.
I like latte, cappuccino, ex ceterta …cappuccino, et cetera

or cappuccino, etc.

Come here, I’ll give you a sneak peak. …I’ll give you a sneak peek. (like peek-a-boo)
In regards to your letter of… In regard to…
As regards…
With regard to…
I could care less.

 

I couldn’t care less. (statement), I could care less? Could I care any less?  (as a question)
I hope you don’t mind me asking… I hope you don’t mind my asking…
“asking” is a noun (gerund) it names a person, place or thing. (the thing being “the act of asking”) so use the possessive my asking.
We could of had money if we would of worked harder. We should of. …could have (or could’ve)
…would have (or would’ve)
…should have (or should’ve)
Just go ahead and say your peace. …say your piece (your piece of info)
I’ll give you a case and point case in point
They’re giving out samples, get in the cue. …get in the queue.
She likes that guy, supposably. …likes that guy, supposedly. (She’s supposed to like that guy,)
Reign in your enthusiasm, Rein in… (like grab the horse’s reins)
He’s honing in on the target. homing in on the target. Honing is for knives.
Waiting with baited breath …with bated (abated) breath, holding your breath
Bate and switch tactics Bait and switch (dangle the bait of a low price then switch to expensive goods)
Their stories didn’t jive. …didn’t jibe. (Didn’t match)

 

Editing Your Writing

Nothing helps make your message more effective than simply re-reading it several times. You can do this in your mind, you can read it aloud, or even have your computer read it to you. Whichever of those methods you use, listen for cadence and flow. The flow may sound “choppy” if you use a lot of unnecessary conjunctions (but, or, yet, and, because, nor, since, that …) or even worse: compound conjunctions (as well, as well as, as long as, so that, even if, in order to …) Excise these whenever possible if it doesn’t detract from your meaning. Misuse or overuse of conjunctions is only one thing that causes a reader to trip and stumble through your work. By re-reading your work you will probably find other word or phrase-choices that detract from flow. Comments and Suggestions are welcome here.

Update – Nov. 17, 2019

As an excellent example of writing which flows beautifully see this Atlantic article by Yoni Applebaum, senior editor:

Strunk & White

How a Thin, Little Volume Fixed a Lifetime of Lazy Scholarship

© 2017 VERNON MILES KERR

I didn’t learn about The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White  until twenty years after my brief sojourn in the Creative Writing program at San Francisco State University (then San Francisco State College.)  I came upon it as  the 41 year-old father of a college freshman.  Our eldest son Aaron, had just entered our local community college and was showing me the newly purchased textbooks he had arrayed across the top of his bedroom dresser. Conspicuously surrounded by, and leaving a gap between the weighty books on Sociology, English, Psychology and History was a tiny, thin paperback. “What’s this little guy?” I asked, picking it up and opening it to the Introduction.  I was immediately intrigued, as I usually am, by something that promises a short-cut method of achieving  results that normally require some effort. Here is the introduction to the 1920 edition, available for the Kindle, free of charge, from Amazon.com:

“THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE 

BY WILLIAM STRUNK, Jr.

PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH

IN

CORNELL UNIVERSITY

NEW YORK

HARCOURT, BRACE AND COMPANY

COPYRIGHT, 1918, 1919, BY

WILLIAM STRUNK, JR. COPYRIGHT, 1920, BY

HARCOURT, BRACE AND HOWE, INC.

 THE MAPLE PRESS YORK PA

   “This book aims to give in brief space the principal requirements of plain English style. It aims to lighten the task of instructor and student by concentrating attention (in Chapters II and III) on a few essentials, the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated.

In accordance with this plan it lays down three rules for the use of the comma, instead of a score or more, and one for the use of the semicolon, in the belief that these four rules provide for all the internal punctuation that is required by nineteen sentences out of twenty.”

Strunk, William. The Elements of Style (p. 1). . Kindle Edition.

In my high school and early college days, “being a writer” was my dream, but the act of writing and pouring through peevish grammar texts was drudgery.   So I set about to learn writing by osmosis.  I enjoyed reading and the typical curriculum for an English major in college requires a lot of that.  I read and read, always with a virtual ear opened for writing and rhetorical style.  I was confident that my little shortcut to scholarship would work just as well as tedium and elbow grease.

Arriving from community college into the upper-division  English program at State — at the time, reputedly, one of the best Creative Writing programs in the country — I experienced a rather abrupt and rude awakening.  Getting papers back from professors with generous red edit marks not only for grammar mistakes but also stilted and trite phrasing was bad enough.  The capper was when a Biology Lab Teaher’s Assistant  — not even a real professor — gave me a “D” on some required lab notes because of several spelling and grammatical errors.   Not that this was some knd of “come to Jesus” moment, when I vowed to  abandon my lazy ways, but I did determine to inculcate the advice and correction of professors and to keep a dictionary handy, looking up any word, the spelling of which I was not absolutely certain.

As life would have it, I dd not go into the writing business after college but I did get a lot of writing practice in my three pre-retirement careers as bank officer, sales and marketing manager and finally, computer software developer and manager. Each of these careers often involved the requirement to produce formal documentation.  Thanks to that initial reading of my son’s copy of The Elements of Style, I think I was able to pull it off in a credible manner and even help others to tighten up and improve their own business writing. Since that initial exposure to “Stunk & White”  both I, and my wife have purchased several copies of this little manual and have kept them handy for not-infrequent reference and  occasional entertainment.  Never tedious or boring, it’s always amazing how the book’s clear and  staccatto presentation of what it represents as the most important tools of intelligent English discourse, is actually fun reading.  Here, from the Kindle Edition, are the subjects covered in the Table of Contents. Hopefully they will whet the reader’s appetite for Strunk’s witty and sometimes humorous expansion of each subject and also the contributions of Strunk’s posthumous editor and former student, the poet E.B.White.

I. Introductory

II. Elementary Rules of Usage

  1. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s
  2. In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last
  3. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas
  4. Place a comma before a conjunction introducing a co-ordinate clause
  5. Do not join independent clauses by a comma
  6. Do not break sentences in two. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject

III. Elementary Principles of Composition

  1. Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic
  2. As a rule, begin each paragraph with a topic sentence; end it in conformity with the beginning
  3. Use the active voice
  4. Put statements in positive form
  5. Use definite, specific, concrete language
  6. Omit needless words
  7. Avoid a succession of loose sentences
  8. Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form
  9. Keep related words together
  10. In summaries, keep to one tense

Strunk, William. The Elements of Style .  . Kindle Edition.

The reader might wonder how a curt and abbreviated overview of English writing style can be of any value to someone whose journey through academia wasn’t as lackadaisical as my own.   Brief as it may be, Strunk & White’s little volume is an excellent refresher course for even the most accomplished and diligent scholar of English. The free Kindle version is an excellent research tool, but E.B.White’s later resurrection and  editorial annotation of Professor Strunk’s, originally mimeographed and hand-stapled, handout is well worth the price of one of Amazon’s  hard copies.

Day One, Writers Class

The world is filled with wanna-be writers, or so it seems. Don’t all those library shelves, overflowing with books, seem intimidating? There’s a lot of competition out there. Trust me, as a largely un-published writer, I too, get discouraged. But if I were in it for the money I think I would have given up long ago. It’s the love of writing in the English Language and the magic of rhetoric and story-telling that keep me going. There were several things that motivated me to create this new blog, which will be solely devoted to the Art of Writing:

  • Collaborating with anyone who considers themselves a writer.
  • Sharing editing suggestions for any writer, amateur or professional
  • Sharing articles and advice from the thousands of good writing publications out there
  • Developing in my readers the same love and appreciation I feel for the English language and for its rich heritage of literary and artistic excellence
  • Developing a following of vocal critics of bad writing and sloppy editing, holding the publishing industry’s feet-to-the-fire to stop the trend of economizing on editors and editor salaries, as if there were no moral reason for striving for journalistic and literary excellence. There is a moral reason: it is the requirement to show gratitude for our gift of English, the world’s greatest, richest, most welcoming and most non-chauvanistic tool of expression — ever.

 

About Vernon Miles Kerr

I am an amateur author, literary critic, poet and screenwriter. As a recently retired banker, IT salesman and software configuration manager, I write about my passions which are: the magic of English rhetoric, speculative science, drama, music and —with a jaundiced eye—occasionally, politics. With the exception of a year at University of the Pacific’s Mc George School of Law, I am a product of the California public educational system, from primary school through high school, two community colleges and , San Francisco State College pursuing an English Major with Creative Writing emphasis, in the early 1960s. While at SF State I was taught by professors like S.I. Hayakawa and Manfred Wolf. Doctor Wolf, now professor at the Fromm Institute of Lifelong Learning at University of San Francisco, was my professor of Critical Writing and a true mentor. Today he is still a close friend and occassional collaborator. Contact me at vmkerr@writersclass.net

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