How to Become a National Merit Scholar in One Easy Lesson

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Unless you count words like “groovy”, which has been of limited use to me since the mid-1960s, I personally do not have an enormous vocabulary. But I know someone who does, and I know where she got it, so I’m passing the information along to anyone else who might be interested. (And yes, she was a National Merit Scholar.) When you sit down to write, you can never have too many words to work with. The right one, in the right place, makes all the difference.

And by the “right” one, I do mean right, and not merely close, or right-sounding— as in “complacent” for “complaisant”, for instance, which I encountered just yesterday in a letter from somebody who really knows better. Trust me: The thesaurus provided by Word can be a useful jog to the memory, but its assertion that this or that word totally unfamiliar to you is an exact synonym for the one you do know should not be relied upon.

My secret method for acquiring a powerful and versatile vocabulary not only works better than lists to memorize, anything offered by Microsoft, or even a Word-a-Day calendar; it’s lots more fun, too. My secret is reading nineteenth century literature. Tons of it.

Sure, you can pick up new vocabulary from the literature of any century, including our own. But there’s never been a time in the history of the English language when writers were more determined to stuff even the most trivial matter full of words like “lucubration”, and “pulchritudinous” than they were in the nineteenth century. Even in adventure books—intended for the masses and young people who had not yet been to University—“gloamings” were “crepuscular”, and storms “illumed” by “coruscating” flashes of lightning.

And that’s the great thing about my method. With it, instead of battering your brain with some dull scholarly tome in an attempt to force in new words, you get to read Mark Twain; Bret Harte; Lewis Carroll; or something—anything—by Jane Austin. –And don’t neglect H. Rider Haggard, whose She, I believe, at one point enjoys an empyrean feast.

What could be easier or more fun? Read cool stuff: learn new words. Win/win.

Also, you will learn a lot of grammar from long nineteenth-century sentences that you will never pick up from, say, Ernest Hemingway, who thought he was going overboard if he put two dependent clauses in the same paragraph.

Still, if you happen to get that Word-a-Day calendar for Christmas, you should totally go for that, too.

Yesterday’s Future

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After attempting a few books (well, first chapters of books, actually) about non-human races and societies, I’ve decided that genre’s not for me. I love writing for the chance it gives me to throw off the constraints of reality and flat-out make stuff up; but, as turns out, there are limits to just how unconstrained I want to be. After just a few pages of having to make everything up—the psychologies of the individual beings; the sociological parameters of their culture; the biology of my non-human creatures, and whether they had mommies and hearts and fingers and if they did, how many of each; and, most of all, whether any of it actually needed to be in the book—I was exhausted.

So I decided to go back to writing about humans again—not my very favorite species, but one with which I am at least somewhat familiar—and mess around with my projected book’s temporal setting instead. I decided I’d send my characters to live in one of those predicted futures that somehow never came, and see what they would do.

There are hundreds of these “futures” to choose from, of course. The one of my young years was mostly a post-nuclear moonscape in which the mutated remnants of humanity fought each other for scraps, but that would be depressing to write about. I decided instead to appropriate the “world of tomorrow” that giant corporations like GE and Ford were selling to the American public in the two decades after World War II. It’s consistent and well-documented; and it’s also the vision of the future that probably most influenced the generation just before mine; a generation whose values and beliefs—as I was recently sharply reminded—I have never understood.

—Also I picked Giant American Corporation Future because I thought it would be easy to research. All I’d have to do was watch a few of the many, many short films Corporate America produced to promote merchandise they did not yet manufacture* (!) and I’d be ready to go. I remember watching these films on rainy days at school in the 1960s, when my teachers, at least, thought the “tomorrow” they depicted, though delayed, might still on the way.

I think my personal favorite was the one in which, after making herself comfy in bed, a modestly night-gowned young lady pushed a button (everything was done by pushing a button) and the head of her bed slid through a suddenly-appearing portal in the wall, half-way out into the— The what? The back-yard? The alley the garbage-truck was going to trundle down early next morning? A void in the air twenty floors above Manhattan? The idea was that you could sleep breathing God’s fresh air; but did the engineers who conceived this marvel never hear of smog; stray cats; sleepwalkers? Despite unanswered questions like this one, I enjoyed the first half-dozen flickers (all except Wink Martindale as an astrophysicist, which I found highly unconvincing); and then I began to feel very sad. It wasn’t appliances these little movies were selling, it was a bill of goods.

The Future of these films was very, very clean; and all the wives (no women but wives appeared) were submissive and content. When not pushing buttons, they entertained the bridge club. Children were scrubbed and happy; all men were gainfully employed and played golf. Culture was entirely homogeneous—core values; music; fashion; everything. By the 1960s, a few African Americans had begun to appear in them, but any implied threat was neutralized by carefully pairing every black male with a black female. There were no Asians. Presumably they all lived in Asia. Hispanics lived in—Mexico City. Where there were nice golf-courses. Everything was peaceful (no nuclear moonscapes here, folks!); uniform; and, from my point of view, very boring.

And all this cultural homogeneity was made possible through the miracle of technology! According to the films, technology was going to solve everything. Every need was met, every disease cured by the push of a button. An automatic dishwasher would cure Mother’s restless striving to have something meaningful in her life; and technological Plenty meant that there would be enough of everything even for “Those People” (you know the ones); who would, under the influence of this Plenty, become happy, non-threatening replicas of “Us”. All of Middle America’s worst fears, in fact, would (according to the films produced by Corporate America) be met and conquered by technology. All without a shot being fired; and all, the films implied, by the year 1999.

My own generation was too despairing about the future (moonscape!), which was bad—but at least it means that we have been happily surprised all through our lives to find ourselves not only still not bombed to radioactive atoms, but living to grow old. In contrast, those members of the generation before mine who believed in Corporate America’s vision of the future have suffered disappointment after disappointment as knotty social problems were not, in fact, solved with better household appliances.

And if they passed their exaggerated hopes and outsized disappointments along to their children—and one assumes many did—it might explain a few things about recent history.


*(Whirlpool is still trying to predict the “Kitchen of the Future“, by the way.)

Welcome to My World That I Just Made Up

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I made up a new maxim. It is, “Those who don’t learn from the mistakes they make in picking what kind of book to write are condemned to keep writing the same kind of book.” It’s not very catchy, it’s grammatically a little obscure, and it probably won’t catch on generally; but I hope that pinning it up over my desk and looking at it every day will stop me from making another literary foray into applied sociology.

Like most writers, I think, one of the reasons I started writing stories in the first place is because I’m interested in human psychology. I try to figure out the answers to my questions about how people’s minds work by making up characters and moving them through the various life situations that constitute my plot. But outside of people, my greatest love is history, and I keep seeking insights into history by creating whole societies, and moving them through the various historical situations that constitute my plot. For me at least, this is really tough.

In my experience, it’s relatively easy to write an original—and yet believable—character, because individual personalities vary so much. Any being with opposable thumbs is plausibly human. Ever known a Heathcliff or a Cathy? Me neither—but I’m perfectly able to believe they might exist. And to write an original society is pretty easy, too—but not to make it convincingly stable, or lasting.

This is because societies are like dogs. Breeders can work hard and create animals as different as Great Danes and Chihuahuas; but let them relax their vigilance and in a few generations they find themselves with a bunch of very similar medium-sized, flop-eared, saber-tailed mutts. (–Nothing against mutts, by the way. Mutts are my favorite breed.)

Similarly, put a bunch of humans together, and however they initially conceive their society, eventually they evolve one that has similar rules; norms; authority groups; social, familial and religious structures and institutions; and exhibit the same degrees of cooperation and conflict as every other human society.

I won’t say that I’m a contrarian, but the fact that this homogenization is so general annoys me. So I keep writing fantasies in which the characters are human, but the societies they have evolved are different. Then I spend the whole book trying to figure out why, and how to keep them that way.

It’s hard work. I’m crazy to do it. One of the societies in Ant-lands was a bit on the utopian side, and what with all the extra research I had to do on how utopias are created (and why they never last long), the damn book took me at least an extra year to write. And now I’m writing about the first encounters between different societies, and researching how long, in general, it takes people to realize how superficial their differences, and how deep and innate their similarities are. Do you realize how many books have been written on this topic? And I have to read a bunch of them.

Hence the un-catchy little aphorism pinned up over my desk. If I read it daily and take it to heart, my next protagonist will be a loner, an outcast from all societies. –And not the kind of loner who goes around making friends with the little woodland creatures, either. It wouldn’t be an improvement for me to have to research woodland creatures.

NaNoWriMo: Fifty Thousand Words Containing an Infinity of Possibilities

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I have my own National Novel Writing Month project going this year—one just a little outside the official parameters of NaNoWriMo. I know. Shame on me. But I hope I can be forgiven for playing fast and loose with a few rules on the basis of the fact that I write novels every month of the year, not just in November.

Forgivable or not, instead of attempting a whole book this time, I’m allowing myself the treat of writing as many first chapters of books as add up to the requisite 50,000 words. I love writing (and reading) first chapters, and I’ve always resented the fact that under ordinary circumstances, I’m limited to just one at a time.

I love the way that, when I begin the first chapter of a new book, all the possibilities are still open. Oh, sure; I have an outline, and I know generally how the story is going to go. But nothing is certain until I actually write it down. Before I start typing, the protagonist can still be either fair or dark; rich or poor; wearing a crinoline or jeans or a space-suit. After that, over the sound of the keyboard clicking, I can hear doors slamming shut. By the end of chapter one, the protagonist is immutably tall, white, jeans-clad, and has three kids and a job from hell. What makes it even worse is that a lot of the former “choices” that I have now petrified into “facts” aren’t even things I care about. The job from hell is a plot-point, and I need it to be that way; but the jeans were an option. —Only now she’s wearing them and I can’t suddenly say they’re a cocktail-dress.

(Or at least, I can’t without some rewriting. Some things are worth rewriting, and when they are, I think I may brag that I do not shirk. I was well into my latest book when I realized that an immutable plot-point just had to mutate. Out of 148 pages of work, I was able to save exactly 36. But this—though necessary—was very painful; and I can’t imagine doing it for jeans.)

So to get back to NaNoWriMo, it’s a great thing in which everyone should definitely participate, and do so with a due regard for the rules. Except me. This year I’m breaking them. I’ve been hard at work for a long time, writing within increasingly restricted parameters, and now I’m going to let go and have some fun. The first chapters I write seem to vary an amazing amount from one to the next in length, but as nearly as I can calculate, 50,000 words works out to about six of them. Six whole new worlds, full of almost infinite possibilities, to play in for a month…

Or, since I’ve already finished the first one—five new worlds. Paradise!

And next year, I promise to play fair again.

NaNoWriMo

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It’s November again, National Novel Writing Month; the time when those who subscribe to the Holy Truth that anyone can write a novel must dust off the old keyboard, lay in a supply of snacks, and call me up in a state of either panic or despair (other states also acceptable) to ask me for a plot. Go ahead: Do it. You won’t be the first to call; you won’t be the last to call; and honestly, I don’t mind.

Not that I really understand why anybody would need help my help to come up with a plot. Plots are the easiest thing in the world. For starters, there are books full of them (the classic is Polti’s The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations); and if the ones in the books are too bare-bones to stimulate your imagination—and some people have complained to me that they are—there’s always your own life and the lives of those around you to draw on for inspiration.

In fact, there’s everything around you to draw on for inspiration. I may have mentioned that as a child in school, I failed to learn much arithmetic. One reason for this was the distracting quality of so-called story problems. Set up a situation like, “Janie’s mother gave her seven apples. She gave Janie’s brother Ted nine apples,” and my mind was off and running. “Mother always gives me fewer apples than she gives Ted,” thought Janie resentfully. “It’s because he’s a boy. Mother says it’s a Man’s World, and I must just get used to it. Well, I’m not going to get used to it, Mother. Someday I’m going to take this Man’s World of yours and make it my oyster!” (I was big into food imagery as a child.) By the time that, in my mind, Janie had grown up, extracted herself from the stifling influences of both Mother and an unsuitable marriage, and become the rich and powerful founder and CEO of a company that produced women’s shoes that were somehow both stylish and comfortable, arithmetic period was over, and I wasn’t any closer to figuring out how many apples were left in the barrel for cousin Ann than I’d been in the first place.

So—trust me. If the reason you hesitate to participate in National Novel Writing Month is because you can’t think of a plot, you need hesitate no longer. That bad date? Novelize it. Setup: The protagonist’s life as it is before the date—happy, sad, boring, lonely; your choice. For convenience, make it your own life; or your own as you wish it were. Easy-peasy stuff. Just description. Rising action: He/She asks protagonist out! Yay! Or, not yay: you only said yes because your mother made you. (Extend this part, if necessary, by detailing some of the preparation for said date. For NaNoWriMo, you’re supposed to write at least 50,000 words.) Conflict: It’s the date from hell!/it’s paradise! Put in some stuff about that. S/he’s everything you ever wanted! S/he’s a crushing disappointment! S/he’s a psycho who locks you in a room and tortures you mercilessly. –Okay, that wouldn’t be my thing; but maybe it’s yours. I won’t judge you. Resolution: Happy—you’re right for each other. Sad—other. Grotesque—your tale emanates from the afterlife, where his/her tortures sent you. (Don’t ask me to read Grotesque.)

See? Nothing to it. Now just pick a setting—city; suburbia; seventh moon of Jupiter—and you’re ready to write.

Almost ready to write. You’ll also need some characters. Don’t ask me for any characters. Plot–yes. Setting–not my specialty, but okay. But not characters. Mine are all personal friends, and I won’t share.