Sift through the dark memories of a family farm where trees come to life. Run with a frightened young woman through quiet streets after a sinister priest’s smile clings to her like a spider’s web. Meet a convicted man who must flee the family of his victim in a dystopian nightmare. And visit a small Missouri town where a Nazi matriarchy lies silent, hidden, waiting – and they’re hungry.
“Road Closed: Twelve bloody stories to brighten your day” is Jason Offutt’s first book of short horror fiction, which includes the tale “A Just Cause” that won Best Science Fiction Script at the Los Angeles Film and Script Festival in 2011 as a screenplay entitled “The Balance.”
Luke Rolfes, author of ‘Flyover Country,’ says of ‘Road Closed,’ “Readers should put this book down at their own risk. Once these twelve sink in their teeth, it’s all over but the screaming.”
The British chap* on television said something that struck me as silly. Not the context, the pronunciation.
Given that Americans speak English, and the English speak English (strange but true), language comprehension problems between Americans and the English should not exist.
They, of course, do. There are enough subtle differences between the two versions of the English language to make a conversation between an American and a Brit sound like it’s in Klingon.
The man on television pronounced aluminum “al-U-min-E-um,” which I discovered is correct, although horribly uncomfortable to say. Go ahead; try it.
This particular pronunciation problem came from two sources.
The first being English chemist Sir Humphry Davy who in 1807 discovered a metal in alum and named this new metal alumium. He later changed the name to aluminum because “aluminum” sounded more (whatever word they used for “hip” in 1807). Davy’s colleagues in the chemistry department couldn’t let well enough alone and changed the spelling to aluminium in 1812 because they just couldn’t let Davy have his day in the sun, now, could they.
The second reason is that Noah Webster developed a God complex and completely mucked up American English.
Noah Webster, Jr., was a lexicographer, a pioneer in the field of textbooks, and yes, the dictionary dude. In 1828, he published “An American Dictionary of the English Language.” You see what he did there? It’s the “American Dictionary of the English Language,” meaning it’s not the real English language.
Ever wonder why former British colonies like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and freaking Belize spell color with a “U”? It’s because that’s how it’s spelled. Webster thought English spelling rules were inconsistent, so he tried to standardize them.
He cut out the “U” in words like colour and flavour, changed “ise” to “ize” in words like organise, and realise, turned tonne into ton, grey into gray (although for some reason he left the greyhound dog alone), and aluminium to aluminum even though compared to Sir Humphry Davy, he didn’t know jack squat about chemistry, or apparently spelling.
It doesn’t stop there. Because of Webster’s tinkering even words spelled the same in both countries are not always pronounced the same.
In England, privacy is PRIV-a-cee, advertisement is Ad-vert-ISS-ment, schedule is SHED-u-al, mobile is mo-BILE, oregano is OR-EH-GON-O and garage is GARE-idge.
As an American, this bothers me. I grew up thinking the British talked funny. Turns out it was us. However, Americans aren’t the only villains here. Time, culture, and geography also play a part. But mostly Webster. Yeah, let’s blame most of this on him.
*You can’t use “chap” unless the voice in your head talks with a British accent. For example, “that German chap with the funny mustache gave us quite a fit during the war.” Or, “that New Guinea tribesman chap with the spear.” Wouldn’t sound right coming out of the mouth of a Texan, would it?
Writers drink. Or do drinkers write? Either way we should all turn to the masters to learn our craft. As for writing, Ernest Hemingway said, “Always stop for the day while you still know what will happen next.” As for what happened next, Papa Hemingway often had a cocktail … or seven. Below is Mr. Hemingway’s recipe for the perfect bloody mary.
“To make a pitcher of Bloody Marys (any smaller amount is worthless) take a good sized pitcher and put in it as big a lump of ice as it will hold. (This to prevent too rapid melting and watering of our product.) Mix a pint of good Russian vodka and an equal amount of chilled tomato juice. Add a tablespoon full of Worcestershire sauce. Lea and Perrins is usual but you can use A1 or any good beef-steak sauce. Stirr (with two rs). Then add a jigger of fresh-squeezed lime juice. Stir. Then add small amounts of celery salt, cayenne pepper, black pepper. Keep on stirring and taste to see how it is doing. If you get it too powerful, weaken with more tomato juice. If it lacks authority add more vodka.”
“We are focused on enhancing our climate by creating a paradigm so that we may be a model for blah, blah, blah.”*
And you’re selling what, now?
As someone who’s dealt with politicians, large faceless corporations and small children for years, I’ve been attacked almost daily by gibberish. However, “enhancing our climate” is not just an attack, it’s the literary equivalent of an intentional food poisoning.
Trust me. I just threw up a little.
The point of communication, any type of communication, is to communicate. And the best way to do this is to choose words that actually mean something. Unfortunately, since we Americans have used the English language as long as we can remember, we think we can communicate. However, most of us have a weaker vocabulary than Koko the sign language gorilla. We have the mistaken idea that if something sounds good, it must be good. Right?
For example: “The positive aspects of the elements of our character factor into condition of the situation.”
I just made that up (hey, I could work in government), and although the sentence may seem important, all it really sounds like is official. Read it again and tell me if the sentence means anything. No, wait. I’ll save you the time. It doesn’t.
“I want French fries,” has meaning.
“I sat on a cat,” has meaning.
Even “I like both major candidates running for president,” has meaning. It means you’ve gone stark raving mad.
The point is Americans are busy people and we don’t have time to spend determining if we should listen to what you say, or if we can nod our heads and wander off to read in the bathroom.
Here’s a tip: If you use words like aspect, character, condition (unless you’re talking about the great 1968 song “Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Condition Was In” by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition), element, factor or situation, chances are you’re simply babbling in Corporate-Speak.
If something’s important enough to read, it better be written simply enough to understand. Here are Jason’s Five Steps to Battling Corporate-Speak:
Step one: Have an idea.
Step two: Chose words to express that idea. If you can’t define a word without saying “uh,” or “um,” don’t use it.
Step three: If you’re confused about words, you can find lots of them in a big red book. No, the one labeled “dictionary,” not the one labeled, “Better Homes and Gardens: New Cook Book,” although that one does have a killer recipe for roasted potatoes.
Step four: Put these words together. If the words don’t make sense, try putting them in a different order.
Step five: Read it aloud to Koko the sign language gorilla. If she doesn’t throw you through a window, you’ve advanced beyond Corporate-Speak and can now communicate in English.
*Company name withheld to protect the enhanced integrity of its character.
News headlines rarely offend me. I’ve gotten over that. If an article attacks my political, social or ethical viewpoint, meh, big deal. Everyone has the right to an opinion.
But I do have a hot button and the Washington Post pushed it with: “Stop. Using. Periods. Period.”
Stop using the period? The Period? The period is a standard, one-size-fits-all sentence stopper. It tells the reader my statement, or indirect question, is over. It tells the reader I’m not asking a question (there’s another big, friendly fellow for that). Why so much hate for my pal the period?
Apparently young people don’t use them anymore.
Early writing was generally meant for the person who wrote it, so punctuation wasn’t all that important. The Greeks didn’t even put spaces between words. Everything ran together in one long sentence, like a line of thought from a kindergarten class. What’sthiscolorwhat’syournameIhaveacat.
This laissez-faire attitude about punctuation was understandable. Most people couldn’t read.
Then, in the 15th Century, Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press. For the first time the printed word became available to the masses (at least in Europe. The Chinese had developed the movable type printing press around 868 A.D.).
This outflow of reading material brought with it standardization in spelling and punctuation. Thank you, Johannes Gutenberg.
Which brings us to today. Young people text. Young people send instant messages. Young people have grown up in a world where they don’t have to talk with anyone to get their point across. This has done two things:
Seriously annoyed me.
Changed the way young people use language.
They talk in “textese,” which is the code word for “gibberish.” For example, “*$” means “Starbucks.” What? “NIFOC” means “nude in front of the computer.” That’s common enough it has its own abbreviation? And “KK” means “OK.” Which I assume must make some sort of sense to people too lazy to move their finger to the “O” key.
Young people also have new rules for punctuation.
If someone doesn’t use an exclamation point in a message, they’re angry. If someone uses a period, they’re angry. If someone uses a comma, semi-colon, or em dash they must be an NSA agent. Drop your phone in the pool and go hide at *$.
In texting, most of the time young people simply do not use punctuation at all. To go from one sentence to another they insert a line break – like a poem
that doesn’t rhyme
or take effort to compose
or make sense
Our language evolves. I get that. If it didn’t evolve we Americans would still spell “theater” with an “re.” In the early part of the 20th Century the word “theatre” morphed into “theater,” which actually makes sense. And don’t give me any “‘Theater’ is the building, ‘theatre’ is the art” crap. Tell that to an editor and they’ll laugh in your face and make you spell it right.
But ditching the period is silly, especially for the reason the Post article argues – that young people don’t use it anymore.
So, since the cool kids are doing something, we should all do it too. Excuse me, too
Whether you like Stephen King and/or George R.R. Martin, or you don’t, this is still a great discussion between two best-selling authors about how and why they do what they do. It’s an hour long, but worth the time. Here’s the link, check it out.
A friend recently posted on social media (seemingly the only media people listen to anymore) that he had started writing a book. Good for him. He concluded his post with “I have never completed a fictional work in my life. Always gave up before I got through it.”
How many of you have done the same thing? I know I have.
After starting a couple of novels in college (and failing miserably), upon graduation I sat down and hammered out my first novel. Unfortunately, like all first-time novelists (or non-fiction writers for that matter), I had no clue what I was doing. I plopped down in front of my Mac Plus, loaded MacWrite, and typed whenever I got the whim.
Note, I said, “typed.” I don’t think I was really writing. I didn’t consider character development, setting, plot, or any of those other pesky elements of a story we’re taught in school. I fired on pure inspiration alone. And yes, I fired blindly.
About 10,000 words in I almost quit. I wanted to. I mean, I really, really wanted to because writing, contrary to what people who don’t write believe, is hard. Sure, it’s sitting in front of a computer, or typewriter, or blank pad of paper (like I did sometimes while writing that first novel, on the hood of my car, staring across a lake hoping inspiration would fall from the sky). But the act of writing, of composing entire new realities, of bringing new people to life, is nothing but hard work.
One of my favorite quotes on writing, mainly because of its accuracy, has been attributed from everyone to Ernest Hemingway to Thomas Wolfe, but it was Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist Red Smith who said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”
Although I did everything wrong, two years later I finished my first novel out of pure persistence. It was awful. Simply terrible writing. It’s gone now, thankfully. I had the manuscript in a box for a while, but it was lost in a move at some point, and the electronic copy is on a 3.5-inch floppy. Good riddance.
I started four more novels after that, and stopped at roughly the 10,000-word mark for not doing what I’m going to outline in these five handy bullet points:
Don’t let a good idea pass you by. Good ideas are everywhere; you just have to pay attention for them. Stephen King conjured the basic thoughts for his novel, “It,” when his footsteps on a dark, creepy bridge made him think of trolls. Danielle Sosin’s novel, “The Fate of Mercy Alban,” popped into her mind unexpectedly when touring a historic mansion. My latest work, the novella “Matriarchal Nazi Cannibals,” came to me in a dream. I woke, and told my wife who said, “You should write that story.” And I did. Thanks, honey.
The two main obstacles in writing a novel are starting it, and finishing it. Start at the beginning. No, scratch that. Don’t start at the beginning. Novice writers spend a lot of time staring at a blank page because they don’t know where to start. Don’t be that guy. Start somewhere – anywhere – which, strangely enough, is rarely the beginning of the story, but usually winds up being the opening of your novel. If you really need the beginning, or origin story, weave it throughout your work as the reason for the protagonist’s troubled soul. Start somewhere exciting, like when your hero is in trouble. Your goal is to get words on a page. This will help you do it.
Goals – set them. Novel lengths vary. A YA or romance may be as short as 50,000 words, whereas a thriller or science fiction epic could be 100,000-plus. Either way, those numbers are daunting. Your goal should not – I repeat NOT – be to finish the novel. (Yes, yes. That’s what we’re doing here. Bear with me). If finishing your novel is the goal, you’ll probably give up at 10,000 words. You need multiple goals. Your main goal should be to complete one chapter. After that’s finished, your main goal is now to complete another chapter, and so on. Relish the completion of each small goal. If your working goal is the book as a whole, you’ll quickly start begging yourself to quit. Try establishing a word count. Five hundred words a day, 1,000, 2,000, something attainable. Before you know it those chapters will add up.
Don’t edit your work until you’ve finished the entire manuscript. First-time writers who keep going back to edit almost never finish their book. There will always be something to fix. Always. Graham Greene, author of “The End of the Affair,” famously stopped mid-sentence whenever he reached his daily word count. That way he could easily pick up where he left off without having to refresh his memory.By reading what he’d already written, he would have felt compelled to edit it. You’ll have plenty of time to edit your work AFTER it’s finished. The main thing that keeps writers from becoming authors is they don’t finish the book.
Our language is one of the most abused parts of our every day lives. How it hasn’t asked for a restraining order against us is beyond me.
With noun-verb disagreements, misplaced modifiers and word usage such as “thru,” “donut” and “over” instead of “more than,” our butchering of the language is akin to using a blender without a lid. Sure, it gets the job done, but it leaves a mess in the process.
Language evolved because we did. Our larynx and mouth structure are unlike anything else in nature, allowing us to produce precise sounds. The first were probably onomatopoeias (Greek for “to make names”), which are words that sound like what they represent, like “boom,” “crackle,” “slap” and “sizzle.” (Although caveman onomatopoeias may have been words like “growl,” “woof” and “Gronk, my hair’s on fire.”)
Exactly how our language has developed is still argued. An example of this is the word for mother.
In English it’s “Mama.” In Chinese, oh, surprise, it’s “Mama.” In Swahili, what do you know? It’s “Mama.”
Germans say “Mutter,” Russians “Mat’,” Hindis “Mataji,” Swedes “Moder,” Icelanders “Móðir,” French “Mère,” Spanish “Madre.” I could go on. The point is, words for “mother” universally begin with “M.”
According to party poopers like Associate Professor Cheryl Messick at the University of Pittsburgh, “Ma,” is the first word a baby says because it’s the easiest sound for our larynx to produce. Except for the fact that the first word usually spoken is “Dad,” according to a Stanford University study.
Take that, party pooper.
However language evolved, the one ugly truth purveyors of grammar don’t like to admit is that language is made up. Every word, every rule, all invented by someone and we’re reinventing it all the time.
William Shakespeare alone is credited with inventing roughly 1,700 words, my favorites being “besmirch,” “obscene” and “puke.” (In the play “As You Like It,” he wrote a baby as, “Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.” Although you gave me headaches in high school English, William, we’re friends now.)
How many of you have conjured up words? Probably all of you.
I made up two words when I was small (at least two I remember). Dutchesspepper and Curlybird.
When I was five my family had a dog named Duchess. One day I held a plant up to her nose and she sneezed. In the cartoons, if Tom sprinkled Jerry with pepper, Jerry sneezed. So, in my little blond head, that weed was Duchess’ pepper, or, Duchesspepper. I still have no idea what the weed is really called.
Same with Curlybird. There’s a bird that’s call sounds like Curly from The Three Stooges. It might be a Sora, but I’m not sure, and frankly don’t care. It’s a Curlybird.
After being plagiarized in 2011, I came up with a word later printed in various newspapers and used on a TV broadcast about the incident. It was “flangry,” the feeling of being flattered and angry at the same time.
Although there’s the right way to spell things (through, doughnut) and the wrong way (thru, donut), this doesn’t preclude you from adding your own words to the lexicon.
And if you hear someone using your word, don’t be flangry about it. You’ve simply become part of the language.
I curse a lot, as do my characters – some of them. It’s not the classiest thing to do, but damn it, sometimes that’s just how the words come out.
My mother wasn’t a fan of swearing, although I occasionally heard her say, “shit” (the catch-all curse word of middle class America). When I was old enough to experiment with vulgarity, she told me that kind of language wasn’t for the clever. She expected more from me.
I eventually discovered Mom was right – sort of. Here are some examples:
In Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors,” the characters Antipholus and Dromio, talk about a large woman, whom they could have simply called the late 16th/early 17th century equivalent of “lard ass.” However, this is fucking Shakespeare.
Antipholus: “Then she bears some breadth?”
Dromio: “No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip. She is spherical, like a globe. I could find out countries in her.”
Insulting, funny, and clean. You don’t have to use foul language to get your point across. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill didn’t when he verbally sparred with aristocrat Lady Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor.
Lady Astor: “You’re drunk.”
Winston Churchill: “My dear, you are ugly, but tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be ugly.”
If Churchill was that pithy when drunk, I’d have hated to be on his bad side when he was sober.
But Mom wasn’t entirely right about cursing.
A study by psychologists Kristin and Timothy Jay published in Languages Science Journal concluded that, contrary to what Mom believed, people who curse are sometimes more intelligent than those who don’t.
“Unfortunately, when it comes to taboo language, it is a common assumption that people who swear frequently are lazy, do not have an adequate vocabulary, lack education, or simply cannot control themselves,” the psychologists wrote. “The overall finding of this set of studies … is a voluminous taboo lexicon may better be considered an indicator of healthy verbal abilities rather than a cover for their deficiencies.”
Yeah. Whatever they said. Fucking science, you’re awesome.
So, after all that, is it okay to curse in your writing?
That depends on three things: 1) the audience, 2) the character, and 3) the situation.
Are you writing for a newspaper? A nature conservation magazine? The Watchtower? If so, then you should probably stay away from @*$^, #$%@, and maybe even %&*^#^#!@. The reader isn’t expecting the curse word, and you’re violating their safe world by using one. As a writer, your first responsibility is to the reader – always. Don’t jerk them around.
However, if you’re writing a horror novel, and the protagonist doesn’t drop a “JC” or an “MF” or two while running from an ax-wielding maniac, you’re probably not depicting the situation as accurately as you should. In this case, the audience will expect the curse word, and might consider you disingenuous for leaving it out.
On “The Simpsons,” the Reverend Lovejoy doesn’t curse because he’s a man of God. Homer Simpson does because he’s a narcissistic bastard. On “Star Trek,” Mr. Spock doesn’t curse because he’s the voice of stone-faced reason. Dr. McCoy does because, damn it, “I’m not a magician, Spock, just an old country doctor.” Samuel L. Jackson’s Neville Flynn in the movie “Snakes on a Plane” curses because he’s Samuel L. Jackson.
Flynn: “Enough is enough. I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane.”
It works for him. Have you ever heard Samuel L. Jackson narrate the parody children’s book, “Go the Fuck to Sleep”? It’s beautiful.
In Stephen King’s novel, “Misery,” the psychotic antagonist Annie Wilkes hates profanity so much she says things like “cockadoodie” and “dirty bird.” But those are her curse words, her motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane, and they work. To her, they’re just as bad, just as dirty, just as meaningful.
Remember when I mentioned the ax-wielding maniac? Even the most polite person will forget their manners in a crisis. Did you ever hear a teacher lose their cool in high school? Hilarious, right? They were furious about something (in my case, me). That’s their motivation. It’s okay when your characters curse, but there has to be a reason for it – every single time.
Finding snakes on a plane is a pretty damn good reason.
In the 1996 action movie “Eraser,” Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the muscle-bound good guy who defies all odds to rescue the girl and make the world safe for humanity. You know the one, right. While watching it (again) recently, I realized two things:
My love affair with Netflix may be problematic.
The science was wrong.
Number One I can deal with. Number Two I can’t. I’ll get to that in a minute.
When astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson saw director James Cameron’s “Titanic” (1997), he realized the night’s sky was full of random pinpoints of light, not the actual star field the people aboard the sinking Titanic would have seen on April 15, 1912. Tyson called him on it, and when Cameron re-released “Titanic” in 3D, the star field had been corrected.
Although going back to correct stars for the North Atlantic wasn’t necessary (I mean, the movie still grossed $1.84 billion worldwide, right?), good for James Cameron.
The bad science in “Eraser,” however, is egregious.
When Schwarzenegger’s U.S. Marshal John “The Eraser” Kruger is drugged aboard a private jet by good guy-turned-bad guy U.S. Marshal Robert DeGuerin (played by the always spot-on James Caan), he shrugs off the effects of the drugs (I’m not even angry about that), blows the door, and makes his brilliant escape. The brilliance is how a 6’2”, 235-pound man can drop a parachute from a plane, jump after it, and catch up to the chute just in time to slip it on, pull the cord, and land without killing himself.
Our Friend Physics 1: Items of different weights fall at the same rate. Try it. Grab an orange, and a grape. Now drop them. It doesn’t matter how much more the orange weighs, the fruit will land at exactly the same time.
The same goes for a man and a parachute. Although wind resistance can slightly vary the rate at which objects fall, it’s not going to slow the chute, or speed up Schwarzenegger’s character enough to catch it.
Our Friend Physics 2: A private jet has an average cruising speed of 604 mph. Arnold jumped from the jet exactly eight seconds (I timed it) after he dropped the parachute. At 604 mph, eight seconds would put a mile and a half between Arnold and that big old bag of life-saving nylon.
It’s easy. Get things right. Your reader may be an astrophysicist, or someone like me, an armchair science enthusiast who got most of his training watching old episodes of “Star Trek.”
It’s not hard. That whacky Internet can help, so can your local library, or better yet, your local university. Universities are filled with experts in almost every field who love to answer questions. In fact, we’re paid to do it.
And this doesn’t just go for science. Get everything right. I grew up on a farm. If I wrote what I was confident about, my stories would involve tractors, arc welding, and animal husbandry. It would get boring after a while.
If you’re going to write about police procedure, and you’ve never been a policeman, ask your local department if you can ride along, or hang out at the station. The same if you’re writing about a doctor, mechanic, airplane pilot, or sideshow freak. Just get it right. There will always be someone in your audience who knows when you’ve made a factual error, and chances are they’ll simply stop reading.
To quote another Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, “Don’t do that.”