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Bad Sentences in Classic Literature: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice 2

It’s difficult to make the case that Jane Austen wrote bad sentences in her novels, especially in Pride and Prejudice.  Jane Austen was known for many qualities: her wit, her sarcasm, movie adaptations that put guys like me to sleep (but that’s not her fault).  One thing that Jane Austen is NOT known for is writing bad sentences.

Since writing is so subjective, it’s tough to define what makes a bad sentence.  The lazy approach would be to treat a bad sentence like pornography; you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it.  Unlike a certain former United States Supreme Court judge whose name I can’t remember, I can define pornography (if certain body parts are involved and mix in with other body parts, it’s pornography).

The same applies to bad writing (having the standard, not the body parts).  Once you have a set standard, it’s simple to determine if a classic sentence is bad or not.   Here’s my standard for a bad sentence in classic literature:

If my writing instructors would have red-marked me for writing the same sentence, then it’s a bad sentence.

Using this standard, Jane Austen’ popular novel Pride and Prejudice is full of bad sentences.

DISCLAIMER:  I am not saying Jane Austen wrote bad sentences.  I have learned from experience not to criticize Jane Austen books.  I am saying that my writing instructors would have considered Jane Austen sentences to be bad if I had written them.  I like Jane Austen.  She was a great author.  Even so…

BAD SENTENCE #1-from Pride and Prejudice Volume I, Chapter Three, at the end of the fifth paragraph:

The gentlemen pronounced him (Mr. Darcy) to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding countenance, and being unworthy to be compared to his friend.

WHY IS THIS A BAD SENTENCE?

1.  Massive Run-on- Six independent clauses with two dependent clauses.  A decent writer could get at least three sentences out of that (my writing instructors would say).

2.  “…his manners gave a disgust…” –What did Mr. Darcy do?  Fart loudly?  Chew with his mouth open?  I want to know what Mr. Darcy did to offend everybody, especially if it involved farting loudly.

3.   “…he was discovered to be proud…”  How was his pride discovered?  What did Mr. Darcy do to show he was proud?  Did he boast?  What did he boast about?

4.  “…a most forbidding countenance…” Who felt this most forbidding countenance?  What made his countenance forbidding?

In that single sentence, Jane Austen did a lot of telling and no showing.  If I had written something like that, my writing instructors would have filled the page with red question marks.  Therefore, it’s a bad sentence.

*****

Sometimes a bad sentence needs context from another sentence (which also might be a bad sentence)

CONTEXT FOR BAD SENTENCE #2- from Pride and Prejudice Volume I, Chapter Twenty:

Mr. Collins was not left long to the silent contemplation of his successful love; for Mrs. Bennet, having dawdled about in the vestibule to watch for the end of the conference, no sooner saw Elizabeth open the door and with quick step pass her towards the staircase, than she entered the breakfast-room and congratulated both him and herself in warm terms on the happy prospect of their nearer connection.

Remember, that was merely the context.

BAD SENTENCE #2- from Pride and Prejudice Volume I, Chapter Twenty

Mr. Collins received and returned these felicitations with equal pleasure, and then proceeded to relate the particulars of their interview with the result of which he trusted he had every reason to be satisfied, since the refusal which his cousin had steadfastly given him would naturally flow from her bashful modesty and the genuine delicacy of her character.

WHY IS THIS A BAD SENTENCE?

1.  Wordiness- “proceeded to relate” should just be “related”

2. Wordiness- “with the result of which” is clumsy.  The sentence could end with “interview,” and the next sentence could start with “He had every reason to be satisfied…”

3. Wordiness- “since the refusal which his cousin had steadfastly given him” should be “since his cousin’s steadfast refusal.”

4.  Wordiness- “Bashful modesty” should just be “modesty.”

5. Wordiness- “genuine delicacy” should just be “delicacy.”

In other words, my writing instructors would have accused Jane Austen of wordiness.

*****

A sentence doesn’t have to be long to be a bad sentence.  Below is proof that even a short Jane Austen sentence could be a bad sentence (according to my writing instructors)

Example #3- the third paragraph of Pride and Prejudice Volume II, Chapter Eight third paragraph:

Colonel Fitzwilliam seemed really glad to see them; anything was a welcome relief to him at Rosings; and Mrs. Collins’s pretty friend had moreover caught his fancy very much.

WHY IS THIS A BAD SENTENCE?

1.  The word “really” is used.  “Really” is worse than “very,” and “very” is bad enough.  Jane Austen used “really”?  Really, Jane Austen?  Really?

2.  The adjective “pretty” is also lazy.  Get a thesaurus (my writing instructors would have said).

3.  The word “very” is used.  Again, it’s lazy writing (my writing instructors would say).  For decades, authors like Stephen King and Mark Twain have warned writers not to use the word “very.”  True, Jane Austen was writing before Stephen King and Mark Twain were born, but she still should have known better.  Or maybe Stephen King and Mark Twain are wrong about “very.”

In one sentence,  Jane Austen uses “really, “pretty,” and “very.”  My writing instructors would have been disappointed in me if I had done that.  They might have even been really very disappointed.

*****

What do you think?  Are the above sentences bad sentences?  What standard do you have for bad sentences?  Should great authors use words like “really” and “very”?  What other great classic author wrote bad sentences? Which is worse, using “very” or using “really”?

Binge-Watching Literature: Which Books Turned Into Television Shows Should You Read?

It's almost impossible to write a caption without SPOILER ALERT!

MISLEADING COVER!!!  I would be outraged, but I just watched Season 5, and I’m outraged out.

It’s not easy being a book snob and a television binge-watcher.  There’s not enough time to be both, and to make things worse, a bunch of books like House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, and Game of Thrones have been turned into pretty good television shows.

Unless you have more than 24 hours in your day, it would be impossible to watch all of the television shows AND read all of the books AND watch the binge-worthy shows that AREN’T based on books.

Since there isn’t enough time to read and watch everything, we book-reading binge-watchers have to make some rules about what to read and what to watch.  And if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s making rules.

THE HOUSE OF CARDS RULE

See?  I told you it was a book.  Nobody believes me when I tell them it's a book.

See? I told you it was a book. Nobody believes me when I tell them it’s a book.

House of Cards by Michael Dobbs

If the television series is based on a single book, then read the book.  For example, House of Cards is based on a single book by Michael Dobbs.  Since the book is less than 400 pages, we book snobs can easily read it, and then we can brag that we don’t need to watch the television series.  When we go into book snob mode, we can point out that literature is superior to television.  Yeah, we might be missing out on a great show, but we’re still better for having read the book.  Plus, we don’t have to order Netflix just to binge-watch a show.

Be careful when you say that you’re superior to everybody else just because you’ve read the book.  Sometimes people think we’re not kidding.  I’ve lost friends that way.  Of course, they’re the friends who don’t read books, but still…

THE GAME OF THRONES RULE

Call it A Song of Ice and Fire, and watch the novices get confused.

Call it A Song of Ice and Fire, and watch the novices get confused.

Game of Thrones by George RRRRR Martin

People who have read A Song of  Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) are great examples of book snobs (That’s not an insult; I’m a book snob too).  They like to point out which characters have died on the show but didn’t die in the books or which characters on the show are composite characters of which characters in the book.  They like to be outraged when the show does something vastly different from the book.

Game of Thrones book snobs think they’re superior to the rest of us because they’ve read the books, and we haven’t.  The rest of us believe we are superior to the Game of Thrones book snobs because we haven’t wasted our time reading thousands of pages of a convoluted story that might never get finished.  I’m not sure who is superior to whom, so if you’re reading this and you’ve read the Games of Thrones books, you might be superior to me and I just wouldn’t know it.  I want to feel superior, but if I ever read A Game of Thrones, I’ll read it when/if George RR Martin finishes writing the series.

THE HOUSE OF CARDS/GAME OF THRONES RULE- RECAP

1.  If the television show is based on a long book series, watch the show.

2.  If the television series is based on a single book, then read the book.

Follow these rules, and you’ll save a lot of time and still be knowledgeable about pop culture.  You will even have more time to binge-watch worthy shows that aren’t based on books.  Most importantly, you will be superior to those who haven’t read the books because reading books is always better than watching television.

Following The House of Cards/Game of Thrones Rule, here is a list of popular shows/books and what to do:

Now it's time to demonstrate our critical thinking skills by applying the House of Cards/Game of Thrones Rules to other books.

But a month of Netflix is cheaper than buying the book!  Ugh! Now I’m torn.

House of Cards- Read the book (of course).

Game of Thrones- Watch the show (of course).

Orange is The New Black– Read the book.

Bosch– Watch the show.

The Musketeers– Read the book The Three Musketeers.

Elementary (or any Sherlock Holmes series) – Read a Sherlock Holmes novel or a couple short stories.

Dexter– Watch the show.

Sex and the City– Read the book.

Friday Night Lights– Read the book.

Under the Dome– Read the book.

True Blood– Watch the show.

Boardwalk Empire– Read the book.

Of course, these rules aren’t perfect.  Quality isn’t taken into consideration, and quality does matter. But quality is subjective, so I can’t make an objective rule for it.  In other words, if you think the show sucks, don’t watch it.  If you think the book sucks, don’t read it.  If you really want to read the books AND watch the television shows, go ahead.  But be warned; doing both will be very time-consuming.

*****

What do you think?  Which of the above books are worth reading?  Which of the above shows are worth watching?  What other books/shows could be included?  Have you ever felt superior because you read a book before it got turned into a television series?

5 Reasons Why It’s Great To Be A Writer Today

He’s grinning because he hasn’t noticed any of his mistakes yet. (image via wikimedia)

He’s grinning because he hasn’t noticed any of his mistakes yet. (image via wikimedia)

It’s easy for most writers to be negative.   It’s tough to make enough money to earn a living.   We’re never satisfied with what we’ve written.  No matter how many people read and respond to our work, it’s never enough.  But even with these challenges, it’s better to be a writer today than it’s ever been.

1. Writing is physically easier than it’s ever been.

Authors used to have to physically hold a pencil or a pen and physically write out each word on a sheet of paper.  Even worse, back in the really old days, writers had to dip quills into ink and then got beaten by monks if they made a mistake.

I’m not sure that ever really happened because there’s no ancient video footage of monks beating writers who made mistakes.  If there’s no video footage of an event, I’m skeptical that it ever happened.  Then again, back in the 1970s I saw nuns rap student knuckles with rulers, so if  nuns in the 1970s were doing that, I’m pretty sure in the really old days monks did much worse to young writers who made errors on their parchments.  After all, nothing inspires perfection like the threat of violence.

Even when writers didn’t have to worry about hyper-critical monks and nuns, using a typewriter could be frustrating.  If you weren’t a good typist, you spent more time making corrections than actually writing.  The most frustrating weekend I ever had was during my senior year in high school when I had to type out my own term paper for English class.  An entire Saturday was spent making corrections with white-out or retyping pages altogether.  My mom, who typed 70 words a minute, said it taught me a valuable lesson, to always have a few spare bucks lying around to pay somebody to type my essays in college.

Writing with a computer/tablet is much easier than using a typewriter, pencil, or quill, and we don’t get beaten by monks when we make mistakes.

2. Writers can get an instant audience.

20 years ago, if I wanted an audience, I had to join a writer’s group, and even then, I had to wait until the next meeting (which could have been a week, two weeks, or even a month away, depending on the group) before I received any feedback for my writing.

Now, writers can get instant feedback. With blogs, Twitters, Instagrams, ebooks, and much more, writers have a bunch of choices of how they want to write.  As long as writers are patient, we can eventually get an audience.

To be honest, when I started Dysfunctional Literacy, I didn’t get any feedback for about six months, but that was probably because I didn’t deserve any feedback.  When I received my first “You suck!” comment, I knew I was finally doing something right.  When a writer hasn’t gotten any feedback for 20 years, “You suck!” is exhilarating.

3. Writers can be anonymous.

Some people complain about anonymity on the internet and how it allows people (usually trolls) to misbehave without any real repercussion.  To me, anonymity is essential because it keeps me from getting fired.  Most people who get fired for online writing lose their jobs for posting/writing/tweeting comments that are on the “wrong” side of political issues or hot topics of the day.  My problem is a little different.

I can’t let my boss find out I write for Dysfunctional Literacy because I’m on the “wrong” side of the literary James Franco debate.  My current boss claims he knew James Franco in college (though I still haven’t seen any proof yet).  If he ever finds out that I’ve criticized James Franco’s books, I’ll get fired.  I like my job, and I even like my boss; I just didn’t like James Franco’s writing.  Since I’m anonymous on Dysfunctional Literacy, my boss won’t find out that I’ve panned James Franco’s books.

For all you know, I could be James Franco.  This is the internet, after all.   But to be clear, I’m not James Franco.  If I were going to claim to be another author, I’d claim to be JK Rowling.  It worked for Robert Galbraith.

Anyway, I’m glad I live in a time where I can pan James Franco books without fear of being fired.

4. Writers don’t have to deal with people.

Even though a lot of writers are borderline anti-social, we usually have to deal with others to get published.  Before the internet, if we wanted to get our work out to the public, we had to get past literary agents and publishers.  It was frustrating to writers.  Even if we thought we had something publishable, too much was out of the writer’s control.  Unless we had connections or were willing to network to make those connections, we were most likely never going to be published.

Now, the anti-social author doesn’t have to deal with anybody.  I published my own ebook on Amazon, and I didn’t have to talk to anybody during the entire process.  True, hardly anybody has read my ebook, but I didn’t have to talk to any literary agents or publishers to get it out there.  That has to count for something.

5. Writers can take advantage of friends.

I’m not a fan of network marketing.  I don’t like the idea of using my friends to make money.  Since I’m borderline anti-social, I don’t have many friends anyway, and I don’t want to alienate them by having them buy my stuff, even if it’s a cheap ebook.  Knowing my friends, most would gladly help me out, but I don’t want to put them in that position, at least not yet.  I’m not opposed to ever asking my friends for help, but that’s a tactic that should be used only once, and I’m not ready to take that step yet.

Even though I haven’t used my friends to buy books yet, I’m glad I live in a time when I can use them if I want to.

*****

What do you think?  Why are you glad that you are a writer right now?  Have you ever had to use a typewriter?  Have you ever been beaten by a monk/nun for making a mistake while writing?  Have you ever used your friends to buy books?  Have you been fired for something you wrote?  Has anybody ever told you that “You suck!” on your blog (or writing format of choice)?

*****

If I had written this story 20 years ago, nobody would have had the chance to read it.

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

Books That Make Readers Feel Stupid

This has to be a conspiracy.

This has to be a conspiracy.

Reading should be a pleasurable experience.  Most of us work really hard throughout the day, looking forward to that spare moment when we can relax and lose ourselves in a good book.  Honestly, I’m proud to be an avid reader.  Book readers tend to be of above-average intelligence.  And reading is supposed to make us smarter.  But some books have made me feel the opposite of intelligent.  There are some books that I haven’t understood.  There are some books that I didn’t “get.”  And then there are some books that just made me feel stupid.

Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce

First of all, I’m not a conspiracy theorist.  I believe the United States actually put astronauts on the moon.  I don’t think FDR knew about Pearl Harbor ahead of time.  But I believe Finnegan’s Wake is a cruel literary joke.  Personally, I believe James Joyce intentionally wrote a bunch of gibberish just to see who would pretend to understand it.  Anybody who claims to understand Finnegan’s Wake would then unintentionally expose himself/herself as a literary fraud.  I have to believe in that because otherwise, I have to admit that I’m not that smart.  I mean, I’d like to be intelligent enough to at least understand a little bit of Finnegan’s Wake, but I couldn’t get past the first sentence.

Therefore, it has to be a conspiracy.  And James Joyce laughs (or laughed) himself silly every time somebody pretended to understand Finnegan’s Wake.  It has to be that kind of conspiracy because otherwise, I would have to feel really stupid.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

This one makes me feel stupid because I think I don’t “get it.”  I don’t like it when I don’t “get it,” especially when other people whom I know aren’t much smarter than me claim to “get it.”  It reminds me of high school, when a bunch of guys claimed to “get it” all the time.  Most of them were probably lying, but it still ticked me off.  Yeah, the “get it” was something different, but it still ticked me off.

At least I understood what was going on in The Sound and the Fury.  But I didn’t see anything special in it.  I didn’t think it was especially insightful.  The writing was okay but nothing that I remembered afterward.  I was actually bored.  To tell the truth, I didn’t finish it, I was so bored.  I was downright ambivalent about the book.

As a writer, I don’t want readers to be ambivalent.  I’d rather they hate something I write than be bored by it.  But I was bored.  Maybe it’s a reflection of me as a reader rather than of Faulkner as a writer.  I’d say it was a little of both, but that’s a cop-out, and I don’t like cop-outs.  I’d rather be wrong than take a cop-out position.  But I felt like I should have finished The Sound and the Fury because it was short and was so supposed to be so great.  It makes me wonder what I was missing.  And that makes me feel really stupid.

The Corrections– by Jonathan Franzen

A lot of people hate The Corrections.  I understand why.  A lot of people love The Corrections.  I understand that too.  I wanted to hate The Corrections when it came out in 2001.  I had just given up on writing after ten years of several projects, one coming kind of close to getting published (“kind of close to” probably meant “never had a chance of,” but I was at least told I was “kind of close”) and I was bitter that some guy who wasn’t much older than me was getting published, getting publicized, and then almost winning a Pulitzer, while I had nothing to show for my own efforts.  I read The Corrections just so that I could be justified in hating it.

I also remember thinking that Jonathan Franzen looked like a prick in his publicity photos.  Again, that was my bitterness.  Even though I’m usually hard on myself for my faults, I don’t blame me for my attitude back then.  Every unsuccessful writer should be allowed to go through a bitter stage, and 2001-2003 was mine.  But I’ve gotten over it.  Blogging helps.  And if I ever got nominated for a Pulitzer, I’d probably look like a prick in my publicity photos too.  I don’t think that Jonathan Franzen looks like a prick anymore (and if I did, I wouldn’t admit it).

I’m still glad that The Corrections didn’t win the Pulitzer.  I’d never before cared about whether or not a book won a prize or not, but I was filled with joy when I learned that The Corrections didn’t get a Pulitzer.  I know I shouldn’t get emotionally connected to situations that are out of my control like that, but I couldn’t help it.  Maybe The Corrections made me feel worthless, but the author didn’t win a Pulitzer.  Yeah, Franzen got nominated, but he still lost.  What a loser.  Ha!

Okay, that was really stupid of me.

*****

What do you think?  What books have made you feel stupid?  Or are you such a good reader that no books make you feel stupid?  Have you ever gone through a bitter phase as a writer?  What do you do when you don’t “get” books that other readers claim to “get”?

Best James Patterson Jokes Ever!

If James Patterson doesn’t like these James Patterson jokes, he can hire some co-authors to write new ones. (image via wikimedia

If James Patterson doesn’t like these James Patterson jokes, he can hire some co-authors to write new ones. (image via wikimedia)

Wow, James Patterson has written a lot of books! Even without his co-authors, James Patterson has written more best-sellers than the average writer.  It takes a lot of talent (and other traits) to “write” around 12 books a year.  Since very few authors have matched James Patterson’s achievements (I wasn’t sure whether or not to put quotation marks around “achievements”), no other author deserves to be honored with humor (or good-natured mockery) like James Patterson .

The following James Patterson jokes might not be funny, but they are the only James Patterson jokes around (that I know of).  So by default, these are the BEST JAMES PATTERSON JOKES EVER!!!

*****

JAMES PATTERSON’S LOYAL READERS

Stephen King, John Grisham, and James Patterson were hanging out at a coffee shop bragging about how loyal their readers were.

“I could write five novels a year,” Stephen King said, “and my readers would purchase every book, no matter how poorly they were written.”

“Oh yeah?” John Grisham proclaimed.  “I could write ten novels a year, and my loyal readers would purchase every single one of them.”

“That’s nothing,” James Patterson scoffed.  “I already write 12 novels a year, and my loyal readers spend their money on all of them.”

Tom Wolfe overheard the conversation and became upset.  “You are doing your readers a disservice with your hackery,” he said.  “I took five years to write Back to Blood because I believe in giving my loyal readers my best effort.”

And with that, Tom Wolfe stormed away.

“I hate to say this,” Stephen King said, “but I didn’t think Back to Blood was very good.”

“I hate to say this,” John Grisham said, “but I spend so much time writing all my books that I don’t have time to read anybody else’s writing.”

“I hate to say this,” James Patterson said quietly, staring at Stephen King and John Grisham, “but you guys actually write all your own books?”

*****

JAMES PATTERSON MEETS HIS BIGGEST FAN

James Patterson was in a public place (but not a book store) when he was approached by a fan.  Even though James Patterson was a best-selling writer, most people don’t recognize authors, so James Patterson was surprised at the stranger interrupting him

“Excuse me,” the fan said.  “Aren’t you James Patterson?”

When Patterson admitted that he was indeed James Patterson, the fan gushed, “I’m a huge fan of yours!”

The fan was very loud and shook Patterson’s hand too hard.  Patterson really wanted to move on, but he was gracious and said, “Thank you.”

Even though Patterson was in a hurry, the fan seemed oblivious and just stood in his path and kept talking.

“Your Alex Cross series, it’s great,” the fan continued.  “And I can’t wait for your Zoo series on television.  And my kids love your YA books.”

Patterson was a bit uncomfortable, but he appreciated that a fan would be emotionally connected to his series.  Still, the fan kept rambling, and Patterson had places to go.

“All that money you’re giving to indie booksellers, I really really admire that kind of philanthropy,”  the fan said.

Patterson was in a hurry.  His patience was running out, but he couldn’t be rude to a fan, especially one who was so complimentary.  To make it worse, the fan kept talking and wouldn’t budge.

“I’ve read every single book you’ve ever written,” the fan bragged.

With that, James Patterson had had enough.

“Just stop right there,” James Patterson said with sudden authority.  “Now you’re going too far.  Even I haven’t read every single book I’ve ever written.”

+++++

THE WRITING CONTEST

James Patterson, Stephen King, John Grisham, Janet Evanovich, Danielle Steel, and an unknown author were competing to see who could write a 300-page novel in the fastest time.  The six authors gathered at a coffee shop, pulled out their laptops, tablets, and other assorted writing devices, and began composing furiously.

While the other authors stared at screens and tapped at keyboards, James Patterson sat back on a couch, smoked a cigar, and drank coffee.  He occasionally checked his tablet/smart phone, and then went back to smoking and drinking coffee.

After a few hours  of writing, the unknown author finally stopped and took a deep breath.  The other authors (except James Patterson) continued writing.

“Done!” James Patterson suddenly declared.  He printed out hundreds of pages of text and handed a manuscript to each of the competing authors.  James Patterson then left to take a break while the other authors judged his work.

“This manuscript is full of half-page chapters,” Stephen King said.  “That’s typical James Patterson.”

“The plot is far-fetched, and the dialogue is atrocious,” Janet Evanovich said.  “That’s typical James Patterson.”

“I can barely see my name because his takes up all the space,” the unknown author complained, squinting at the cover of the manuscript.  “That’s typical James Patterson.”

*****

What do you think?  Which James Patterson books have you read?  When we talk about James Patterson’s achievements, should “achievements” be put in quotation marks?  What other best-selling authors should hire co-authors so that they could write more books?

Curse of the Summer Reading List

He wondered why there was no Ernest Hemingway on the summer reading list (image via wikimedia)

He wondered why there was no Ernest Hemingway on the summer reading list (image via wikimedia)

My oldest daughter received her school’s summer reading list yesterday, and she was not happy about it.  Her idea of summer is sitting around the house doing nothing until we take our vacation.  I don’t blame her.  I had lots of summer vacations where I sat around and did nothing, and that was before cable and the internet.  It’s a lot more fun to sit around and do nothing than it was 35 years ago.  But this summer, my daughter has another reading list.

“It’s my summer break,” she fumed.  “What is it about ‘break’ that they don’t understand?”

I laughed, not at her words, but at her level of outrage.  She has to read and complete book reports for a grand total of… two books.  Students are supposed to choose one from a list of classics that include Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  The other list consists of more contemporary stuff like The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, or The Lightning Thief.   My daughter has read most of the contemporary books, so she plans on doing her “contemporary” project on a book that she has already read.

I have mixed feelings about this.  Part of me thinks she should read a book she hasn’t read before because she has almost three months to do it and it never hurts to read a new book, even if it’s assigned.  On the other hand, if she already has read most of those books willingly, she should reap the benefits of reading on her own.  I’m a believer in taking advantage of your advantages.  But if she chooses a book she’s already read, I’ll require her to reread the book rather than going from memory.  There’s nothing wrong with reading a book more than once.

My daughter is acting like this summer reading list will ruin her summer.  I can think of other things that would ruin a summer, more serious things, but I don’t want to jinx anybody.  Her reaction is pretty typical of people who don’t want to do things they have to do.  If anything, I’ve been a bad role model for how to handle unpleasant tasks.  When I get a surprise list of activities I don’t want to do, I can overreact too, as if a couple chores will ruin a day.  But I’m not sure a reading list can ruin a summer, unless the list is really long.  Two books?  Not really long.

Last summer, when my daughter had a reading list, we bought the books in June, and she read them in August.  My wife was annoyed she waited so long.  I was just glad my daughter didn’t lose them between June and August.  A lot of stuff happened (we moved… that was the “lot of stuff”) where she could have lost them.

I’ve never been a fan of summer reading lists for adults either, even when the lists are optional.   Summer is that time of year when magazines and websites come up with their own lists of what people should read.   I used to check out the lists to see what I’ve read and what I haven’t read, but after a while, most of the lists seemed a lot alike.  Almost everything had To Kill a Mockingbird on it.  I don’t know why summer reading is such a big deal.  Most of us have to work just as much in the summer as we do during the rest of the year.  At least, I do.  I’ll take a week-long vacation with my family, but I won’t get much reading done, except in the airport before the (legal) drugs kick in.

I don’t have a pre-planned summer reading list anymore.  Years ago when I did, I’d quit most of the books and feel like a failure (except when I lied and told everybody that I’d actually finished them, and their admiration temporarily made me feel better).  It was as if every book I put on the list was cursed.  Now, I don’t make my summer reading list until September, when I go back and chronicle all the books I read over the summer.  This time, I only include books that I finished.  The others go on the NON-reading list. I hope the reading list is longer than the NON-reading list, but it doesn’t really matter.  You usually know after a few pages if you’re going to like a book or not.

My daughter also has to complete a math packet over the summer, but this doesn’t bug her as much, even though she likes reading more than she likes math.  The math is more like a refresher to keep students from forgetting the basics.  Between reading the books and completing the reports, the reading list will take much longer.  Even as I write this, she’s cursing the summer reading list (but she doesn’t know I can hear her).  I don’t blame her.  I don’t like summer reading lists either.

*****

What do you think?  Should my daughter read a book she hasn’t read?  Or should she be allowed to select a book she’s already read?  Should I tell my daughter to watch her language in the house, even when she doesn’t think I can hear her?  Do you (or your children) have to complete a summer reading list?  How do you (or your kids) react to a summer reading list?

5 Topics Every Author MUST Write About

If Ernest Hemingway said that you MUST write about these five topics, you'd take him seriously. (image via wikimedia)

If Ernest Hemingway said that you MUST write about these five topics, you’d probably take him seriously. (image via wikimedia)

Writers don’t like being told what to do.  That’s part of what makes us writers.  We like to write about what we want to write about, and if somebody tells us what to write about, a lot of us will struggle.

Just like most people, I don’t like being told what to do, but I also don’t like telling others what to do.  This puts me in a bad position.  If I don’t like being told what to do and I don’t like telling others what to do, then I’m in a social no-man’s land.  Maybe that’s why I like being a writer; I have complete control without really having to make decisions for anybody else.

I don’t like being told what to read either.  As a reader, I constantly see lists about what books I should read, must read, have to read.    The best thing about not being in school anymore is that nobody tells me what to read, and if somebody does tell me what to read, I’m usually getting paid for it.

Even though I’ve seen plenty of online lists telling readers what to read, I’ve never seen a list of what writers have to write about.  If there are certain books we must read, then there must be certain topics that we should have to write about.  It just makes sense.

But I don’t like telling others what to do, and I feel awkward telling other writers what they have to write about.  It goes against my nature.  Then again, I’m not the one who decided what authors have to write about.  It just is.  If you’re going to write, these are topics that you have to write about.  These aren’t the only topics you have to cover, but you have to write about these.  There’s no way around it.

A lot of writing advice sounds pompous.  I don’t want to give any examples because I don’t want to offend any advice-givers by calling them pompous, but you probably know what I mean.  Nothing sounds more pompous than saying MUST really loudly.  If I’m going to give writing advice, I might as well go all out and sound pompous, so you MUST write about these topics if you want to be an author.

Maybe the contrarian writer will look at the following list and say, “Screw you, Dysfunctional Literacy!  You can’t tell me what to write!”  The contrarian writer might go out of his/her way to deliberately avoid writing about the following topics just to prove to it can be done, just to demonstrate that a writer doesn’t have to MUST write about any particular topic.

While I respect the contrarian author, I’m not sure he or she would be able to write without ever focusing on one of the following topics:

1.  Relationships

Most stories about one individual are kind of dull.  Even stories about one person include relationships of some kind.  Robinson Crusoe had Wilson.  Or was it Friday?  I get them confused.

2. Emotions

Honestly, I try to avoid emotions as much as I can in my personal life because they can distract me from reading and writing, but writing without emotions can be boring.  I like boring in my life, but I don’t like boring in my reading and writing, so I write about emotions whenever I can fit them into my stories.

3. Yourself

If you can’t write about yourself, who can you write about?  Every character you create is an extension of yourself in some way.  Or maybe not.  But some character in every story is probably an extension of yourself.  I have no evidence to back that up, but it sounds good, so it must be true.

4. What you know

Of course, you have to write about what you know.  It’s probably impossible to write if you don’t know anything about everything that you’re writing about.  Then again, I’ve never tried it, but I’ve never heard of anybody who has, so it has to be impossible.

5. What you don’t know

If I only wrote about what I knew, my writing would be pretty limited.  Luckily, I have the internet.  With the internet, I can find out about stuff that I didn’t know about and then pretend I knew it all along.  Nobody knows what I know and don’t know, except maybe Google, but I hope Google is too busy selling information in bulk to look individually into what I know and don’t know.  I wonder how writers wrote about what they didn’t know about before the internet.  I guess they just made stuff up.

As much as I enjoy a challenge while writing, I’m not sure I would ever try to not write about these five topics.  On the other hand, I don’t like being told what to do either.  This stinks.  I’ve just told myself that I MUST write about these topics, and I have a tough time writing when I’m told what to write about, and now my mind has gone blank.

Great.  I’ve just given myself writer’s block, and I know exactly what I MUST write about.

*****

What do you think?  What is worse, being told what to read or told what to write?  What other topics MUST authors write about?  Do you like to focus more on what you know or don’t know?  What do you do when you accidentally give yourself writer’s block?

Writer’s Block vs. Reader’s Block

The author completely lost his train of thought as soon as he put his manuscript on the writer's block. (image via wikimedia)

The author completely lost his train of thought as soon as he put his manuscript on the writer’s block. (image via wikimedia)

Most people don’t understand how frustrating reader’s block and writer’s block can be.  When I have reader’s block, I can waste an entire day wandering down aisles of book stores looking for something interesting to read. When I have writer’s block, I just stare like I’ve witnessed something traumatic.

A co-worker of mine doesn’t even believe that reader’s block exists.  He thinks it’s something that I made up.  In this day and age, I can’t believe I work with a reader’s block denier, but that’s the world we live in.  After he loudly proclaimed that reader’s block was all in my head (which kind of proved my point), he admitted that he doesn’t read books.  Typical denier, I thought.  Maybe it was my fault for trying to explain reader’s block to him.

To me, reader’s block is more frustrating than writer’s block.  Reader’s block isn’t supposed to happen.  If I want to read, I can just read. Logically, writer’s block should be more difficult to beat because it’s tougher to force yourself to be creative than it is to force yourself to read.  Over the years, I’ve figured out how to beat writer’s block.  If I’m struggling, I just go to James Patterson’s website, and I get mad, and that usually inspires me to write.  Sometimes I even write about James Patterson.  Pretty soon you’ll see a post on Dysfunctional Literacy called “Best James Patterson Jokes Ever!”  When you see that, you’ll know that I just had writer’s block.

Some people can drink themselves into writing.  Ernest Hemingway said “Write drunk; edit sober.”  I can’t even write drunk.  I can’t type when I’m intoxicated, and I can’t handwrite while I’m inebriated.  In fact, I can’t do anything very well when I’m drunk.  Unlike most drunks, I’m aware that I’m not good at anything when I’m drunk.  I’ll even give my car keys to other drunks when I’m drunk, but that’s not smart because they don’t know how drunk they are.  I don’t hand over my car keys anymore because now I’m too much of a control freak to get drunk.

Ernest Hemingway also said: “There is nothing to writing; all you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”  I think “bleed” is just a euphemism for “drink.”  Since Hemingway claimed to drink while writing, I don’t think he bled too.  Bleeding and drinking at the same time seems like a bad idea.  The next time you get stuck with writer’s block, try bleeding, drinking, and writing at the same time, and then let us read what you wrote.  That’s the kind of experiment I’d rather not do myself.

Even though I’ve had both reader and writer’s block, I’ve never had both at the same time.  That would be frustrating, wanting to read and write but being unable to do either (or both).  Maybe all those people who just watch TV all day have both reader’s block and writer’s block all the time and don’t even know it.  Maybe we’re the lucky ones, because our blocks are temporary.

I’ve always thought that writer’s block was like getting the wind knocked out you; you hate it when it happens, but you know it’s temporary.  Except now I think there are people who have it permanently, and I don’t want to become like them.

Maybe I get reader’s block more often now because I’m getting older, and nothing seems new anymore.  If every new novel that I read feels like some other novel that I’ve already read, why shouldn’t I just reread the older, better book?  Too many of the newer novels are no longer self-contained.  I don’t feel like reading trilogies or any multiple-book series.  I don’t feel like reading novels that are 500+ pages anymore.  Maybe I’m getting more impatient.  Maybe I’ve just read too many multiple-book series and trilogies.

Just like some writers have to write to break out of writer’s block, some readers have to read their way out of reader’s block.  If I really want to read some good fiction and don’t want to take chances with a new book, I’ll read The Godfather by Mario Puzo or The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett or Different Seasons by Stephen King (the first two stories, at least).  They’re not the best books in the world, and I’m not necessarily recommending them, but they’re easy to read.  And when I’m stuck with reader’s block, I need something easy to read.

Maybe I should try drinking and reading at the same time whenever I get reader’s block.  Maybe reading is the one thing that I can do really well when I’m drunk.  I’ve never tried it before, and if I can’t read while drunk, then I’m not really hurting anyone else.  I can give the book to somebody else to read for me, but most drunks would probably look at me funny, but everybody looks at me funny when I get drunk.  Or they look annoyed.  I’ve been told that I’m a jerk when I’m drunk.  Even people who are jerks when they are sober have told me that I’m a jerk when I’m drunk.

If I thought writing drunk would make me a great writer, I’d consider doing it (under certain conditions).  But I’m not willing to drink just to be a great reader.  I’m not willing to bleed either.  When I look at it from that perspective, I guess writer’s block is worse than reader’s block.  But… that might not be the best perspective.

*****

What do you think?  Which block is worse for you, writer’s block or reader’s block?  What’s your best method to get out of writer’s block?  What books do you read to break out of reader’s block? Do you even believe in reader’s block?

*****

Whether you’ve got writer’s block or reader’s block or both or neither, it’s always a great time to read The Writing Prompt!

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

The History of “Thug”

Ugh!  Now I have to go back and change every "thug" to "ruffian."   (image via Wikimedia)

Ugh! Now I have to go back and change every “thug” to “ruffian.” (image via Wikimedia)

I might have to stop using the word “thug” in my writing.  Over the last few days, several television commentators on several cable news stations have stated that “thug” is the new code for the “N-word.” I have to take their opinions seriously because cable news commentators are known for carefully thinking about what they say before they say it.

I admit, I use the word “thug” when I write.  I’ve used the word “thug” in a story that I’ve written recently.   In that story, the word “thug” is racially ambiguous, but that might not come across to the reader.  In today’s hostile cultural climate, a reader might see the word “thug” and assume certain attributes in my character that I hadn’t meant, and then that reader might assume that I am a racist.

I don’t want to be thought of as or accused of being a racist.  I don’t want to say the “N-word.”  I don’t even want to say words that rhyme with the “N-word.”  I always use the word “larger.”  I always say “that little lever your finger pulls to fire a gun.”  I don’t like to be misinterpreted when I speak, so I speak carefully, even more carefully than cable news commentators.

Being accused of racism is serious.  When I was in school, the worst thing to be accused of was passing gas.  Once a kid got called a farter, his/her reputation was destroyed, even if the accusation wasn’t true.  The same fear exists with racism.  Once you’re accused, that’s it; your reputation is destroyed.  Nowadays, the only thing worse than a racist is a farting racist because they spread both hate and nauseating smells, and that’s a bad combination.

Even though I don’t want to be accused of racism, it’s tough for me to let go of the word “thug.”  I like the way it sounds.  It’s short, so it’s tough to misspell.  It sounds much better than “ruffian.”  I really don’t want to use the word “ruffian” in place of “thug.”  Nobody really gets scared of “ruffians.”

If “thug” replaces the “N-word,” I’ll blame the British.  According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the British took the word “thug” from India in the 1800s.  In its original form, it was “thag,” meaning thief.  Then when the word “thug” found its way to Britain, it began to mean anybody who engaged in rough criminal behavior.  I usually don’t mind blaming others for my own problems, so I blame the British for “thug.”  I like the British, but this is all their fault.

Since “thug” originally meant “thief,” anybody who steals something is technically a thug.  So when looters clean out a store, they technically would be “thugs.”  When football player Richard Sherman was called a thug for trash talking after a football game a couple seasons ago, he had just intercepted an opponent’s pass, in effect stealing it, so technically, he was a “thug.” If he hadn’t just been a “thug,” his trash talking wouldn’t have made any sense.

If “thug” is the new “N-word,” and I can’t say it anymore, that’s going to cause problems because several common words rhyme with “thug.”  I will have to “embrace” my daughters, and they’ll look at me weird when I say that.  I’ll have to walk on the “small, thick carpets” in my house.  I’ll have to drink coffee from my “oversized cup.”  It’s annoying, but it’s a small price to pay in order not to be called racist.

If “thug” is the new “N-word,” then how are we going to refer to it when we’re talking about it?  We could call it the “T-word,” but there’s already another “T-word,” and that’s going to get confusing.  One “T-word” is a female body part and the other “T-word” would be considered a racial slur.  In the hierarchy of culturally insensitive words, racial slurs are usually worse than body parts, so the “T-word” would be understood to mean “thug,” unless the communicator makes it clear that a female body part is being discussed instead.

One of the television commentators said that “thug” is a new code word for racists, but I haven’t been able to verify that.  I’m afraid to.  I’d search for the new racist code words online, but I don’t want Google to have records of me researching “racist code words.”  I have enough problems (none of them racial) without Google notifying everybody that I was searching for racist code words.

I don’t want to speak in racist code, I promise.  The only reason I’d search for racist code words is to make sure I wasn’t accidentally speaking in a racist code.  I even looked up the word “thug” with a real dictionary so that nobody would have permanent digital proof that I looked up a word that might soon be considered racist.

Yes, I opened up a real dictionary and turned the pages and squinted my eyes.  I’ll do anything to NOT be accused of being a racist.

*****

What do you think?  Do you use the word “thug” in your writing?  What other questionable words or phrases do you use in your writing?  What other words rhyme with “thug” that I need to avoid saying?  Does anything rhyme with “ruffian”?  How can I research racist code words (so that I can avoid saying them) without somebody believing that I’m a racist?

How to Overcome Family Distractions While Writing

Another perfectly-worded phrase was shattered by the children's ruckus in the other room. (image via wikimedia)

Another perfectly-worded phrase was shattered by the children’s ruckus in the other room. (image via wikimedia)

“There is no such thing as 110% effort,” a colleague ranted at work last week.

He’d been watching an athlete’s interview online after our local sports team won an important victory.  The athlete had given credit to his team’s efforts, saying that they’d given 110%.  Of all the things going on at work, this was what had set off my colleague.

“I hate it when they say that,” he continued.  “You can’t give 110% effort!”

“At least he didn’t say they ‘literally’ gave 110%,” I said.  Everybody likes to complain about the incorrect usage of “literally” nowadays, but I have a monotone voice, and nobody in the office could tell if I was joking or serious, so they pretended I hadn’t said anything.

110% is a great concept, but it’s limiting.  If you’re going to make a statistically impossible claim, why limit yourself to 10% over the possible?  If I’m going to overstate my effort, I want to overstate it by more than 10%.  I’m going for it all.  I’m giving 1,000,000% effort.  If I think I can get away with it, I’ll go for infinity% effort.

As I thought about how much effort a person can give, I realized that I haven’t been giving 100% to my writing recently.  When you have a family and a full-time job, you can’t give 100% to writing all the time.

For example, I started my most recent writing project in January with a goal to finish by August, just before the new football season begins.  That gave me about seven months.  Four months have passed and I’m less than ½ of the way done, and that’s not including formatting and last-second panic edits.  If I’m going to finish, I’ll have to pick up the pace.  I’m going to have to become obsessed.  I’m going to have to give at least 110% effort, maybe even 150%.

When I put anything more than 75% effort into my writing, though, my personality changes.  I become obsessed and cranky.  My family gets annoyed with me.  If I were making money from my writing, they’d be more likely to put up with it, but I’m not.  At the same time, I’ll never reach my writing potential if I don’t occasionally give myself the chance to put 150%, maybe even 200%, effort into my writing.  As I returned home that night, I decided I was going to change the way I did things.

I gathered my family into the living room to tell them the news.  My two daughters knew it was important when I muted the TV and told them to put their phones away.  When I explained to them that I wanted to have my writing project finished by August, my daughters exchanged a knowing expression.  It’s tough to describe their knowing expression because it’s just eye contact and no visible change in their faces, but I’m their dad, and I can see the change that’s invisible to everybody else.  If I accused them of exchanging a knowing look, however, they’d probably deny it.

I explained that when I announced that I was writing, I was to be left alone.  If the two daughters got into an argument while I was writing, they had to wait until I was done for me to settle things.  If they needed help with anything, they had to wait.  If anybody came to the door, I wasn’t available.  With an imperious tone, I asked if my rules were clear.  They said yes.

Since everything was set straight, I announced that it was time for me to write.  I stepped into the den and closed the door.

Five minutes into my writing session, my youngest daughter stormed into the den.

“I need help with my math,” she said, plopping a bunch of worksheets on top of the keyboard.

“I’m writing now,” I said irritably.  Christ, I couldn’t even get five minutes, I thought.  I probably shouldn’t have thought the word “Christ,” but at least I didn’t say it.  You can’t help what you think.

“You take too long,” my daughter said.  “I don’t want to wait.”

I huffed, but I still followed her into the living room where my oldest was watching TV.

“Why aren’t you helping her with her homework?” I asked.

My oldest daughter shrugged, not even making eye contact with me.  Annoyed, I sat down on the couch, explained a math concept, talked my youngest through a couple practice problems, and told her I’d check her work when I was done.  When I got up to leave, I turned around to make sure she was working, and I spotted it, the knowing look between my two daughters.

This time there were even traces of grinning.  I’d been had.  I’d been made the chump, the fool.  I knew they had been messing with me with this whole homework thing, but I could never prove it.  They’d just deny it.  I don’t want to be like a television dad where the kids get away with everything.  If I was going to finish this writing project by August, I thought, I needed to make an example now.  As my own dad used to say, it’s better to punish the innocent than let the guilty get away.

“The floor’s dirty,” I said.  “You two need to sweep and vacuum.”

Then I looked around.  “Wash the dishes.  Clean the kitchens and the bathrooms.  Fold the laundry.  Clean the litter box and walk the dog.”

Their mouths hung open, eyes flashing with anger, but at least they weren’t giving each other knowing looks.

“And when you finish,” I said, grabbing the television remote and their phones, “read a book.”

I completed the remainder of my writing session uninterrupted.  I can’t say I gave it a complete 1,000,000% effort, but it was productive.  I was proud.  I’d figured out how to keep the kids from distracting me while I wrote.  The next challenge in distraction, I knew, would be more difficult:

My wife.

*****

But enough about me!  What do you have to do to establish a productive writing environment?  How much effort do you have to give to your writing in order to be productive?  Is it 50%?  100%?  200%?  What are your most challenging distractions?  How do you deal with distractions when you write?  Is it better to give 1,000,000% or infinity%?

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