Review: Power Elements of Character Development

Writing | Posted by Shannon
Jan 11 2017

What is it that makes a sympathetic hero, a compelling villain, a persuasive and realistic character? I can sum it up for you in one golden word. But you really should read the book for yourself.

Power Elements of Character Development is the second book in the Power Elements of Fiction series, written by Rebecca LuElla Miller. Some time ago I read and reviewed the first book, Power Elements of Story Structure, and I knew then that I wanted to read this one, too. Characters are my favorite part of stories, and I am a writer. I knew I’d enjoy this book about writing characters.

Power Elements of Character Development is only 138 pages long, but it is divided into 45 chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion. These chapters organize the book effectively, moving easily over many different facets of characters, their creation, and their overall place in fiction. Minor characters, dialogue, inner conflict, antagonists, character arcs, character death, and what qualities make characters memorable or compelling are all considered.

Most importantly of all, this book emphasizes that characters should drive the story rather than be driven by it, and their actions must, in turn, be driven by – and this is the golden word – motivation. It may be a beginner’s lesson that characters shouldn’t be passive, but even experienced writers can get lost in the blurred distinction between an active character and a reactive one. A character can be very active in his reactions, especially if what he’s reacting to involves live ammunition, but heroes should do more than just respond, and I appreciate how clearly this is established.

I found the emphasis on motivation invaluable, and how it must be present not only as the story’s end goal (what the character ultimately wants) but also as every scene’s purpose (what he is trying to do right now). The insight regarding motivation helps to focus plots and scenes and characters, a prevention and cure of writer’s block.

I enjoyed Power Elements of Character Development as a lucid, concise, broad-ranging review of the creation, use, and role of characters. Its points, especially about motivation, help me to focus and evaluate my own writing. Recommended to writers of all stripes.

 

I invite you to check out Power Elements of Character Development on Goodreads and Amazon, and I highly recommend you visit Becky Miller’s writing blog Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

Review: Rogue One

Culture | Posted by Shannon
Jan 04 2017

Rogue One needs no introduction, so I won’t make one. This review, however, requires an emphatic spoiler warning. So:

spoilers

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

SPOILER ZONE. ABANDON HOPE, ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.

Now to the review.

Rogue rogue oneOne is Disney’s first half-step beyond the traditional Star Wars trilogies. It’s a Star Wars story rather than an episode and officially outside the main arc, but it’s so closely bound to A New Hope it’s practically the prologue. If the praise is not too faint, Rogue One is the most epic prologue ever made.

There is an inherent dramatic difficulty in making a movie whose end everyone knows (they get the plans), but the makers acquit themselves well. To some extent, Rogue One is Disney retconning George Lucas. But it’s a creative and convincing retcon, and it brings a level of freshness to the story. The decision to star a new cast of protagonists and a new villain created a wealth of potential because A New Hope doesn’t dictate what happens to them – and the filmmakers mine that potential to its limits.

Rogue One is the first Star Wars movie without a Jedi in sight, and that creates another dramatic challenge. The makers attempt to meet the challenge with the warrior-mystic Chirrut Imwe, who succeeds in sustaining the presence of the Force in the absence of the Jedi. Although evidently not a Jedi, Chirrut exhibits Jedi-like traits – an intriguing idea that goes exactly nowhere, because the movie leaves him unexplored and unexplained. Possibly he belongs to a different Force-order. Possibly he’s a freelancer. Maybe he’s not even Force-sensitive. It’s not in the movie.

If Rogue One fails to take the idea of the Force anywhere new, it does present a whole new view of the Rebel Alliance. The Alliance’s plan to assassinate the Death Star’s intellectual architect raises an intriguing moral dilemma, and if the idea is unsavory, it’s still impossible to regard the intended victim as innocent.

Oddly enough, the Alliance’s assassination plot is more forgivable than its ruthless manipulation of Jyn into aiding the killing of her own father. Indeed, the portrayal of the Alliance is surprisingly dark, with little sense of higher ideals or aspirations to relieve it. Cassian, the principal Rebel character, brutally murders his own informant. The Rebels who ally with Jyn are declared to have done terrible things in their fight against the Empire. The Alliance’s leadership rejects a chance to destroy the Death Star through cowardice and sheer stupidity. The sad truth is that Rogue One goes rogue against the Rebel Alliance.

Rogue One’s primary failing is that it takes too little interest in its own characters. All of them suffer some degree of neglect. Cassian is the most developed of the lot, by virtue of having a cause and experiencing inner conflict, but he’s also a joyless character, consumed by a crusade against the Empire for reasons that are only hinted at. Why the ex-Imperial pilot defected from the Empire is a mystery, as is why he volunteered for the desperate last mission. Similarly, Chirrut and his friend, what’s-his-name – you know who I mean, the one with the fancy gun – intervene once and then just sort of tag along for the rest of the movie.

But no one is more neglected than Jyn, the main protoganist of the film. Rogue One can’t be bothered to invest in her the sort of quiet moments with which other Star Wars movies introduce their heroes – think of Luke playing with his toy ship or looking at the setting suns, or the brief shots of Rey’s handmade pilot doll and wall of marked-off days. It’s not even interested when Jyn makes decisions crucial to the plot. In the first half of the movie, Jyn disavows any interest in fighting the Empire, blames the Rebel cause for her suffering, and likens Cassian to a stormtrooper – indeed, this is the surest sign that she disapproves of the Empire: she compares Rebels to stormtroopers. And then suddenly she’s talking more Rebel than the Rebels and giving rallying speeches against the Empire.

Did she believe those speeches, despite blaming the Rebels for her father’s death so shortly before? Did she believe that the Imperial flag doesn’t bother you if you don’t look up, despite being orphaned by the Imperials? Who knows?

Rogue One is above all an action movie, and as it rushes from one action sequence to another, it seems hardly to care why its characters fight so long as they do. The characters are lost in the parade of explosions and firefights, and I think the meaning is, too.

And then, in the climax, it’s found. It’s ironic that the film waits until the penultimate action sequence to slow down and give the characters their moments, but every second is welcome. The end of Rogue One is fantastic, leading brilliantly into A New Hope and imbuing the fight and the sacrifice with meaning. Tarkin’s final use of the Death Star offends logic, but it also gives the villain’s end a kind of horrifying justice I’ve never seen any other story achieve.

No review of Rogue One would be complete without praising K-2SO and how masterfully he is used for humor, or without noting that every moment of Darth Vader’s presence is pure win. Rogue One’s frenetic pace crowds out too many quiet moments and too much thoughtfulness, and the absence of the Jedi and tarnishing of the Rebellion feel like losses. It doesn’t capture the Star Wars magic, but Rogue One is a skillful sci-fi action movie that possesses its own gleams of greatness.

Christmas Is Too …

Culture | Posted by Shannon
Dec 21 2016

Christmas FireplaceIf you listen long enough, you will discover that Christmas is too much of many things. It is too commercial, too materialistic, too Christian, too pagan, too saccharine and nothing but an excuse for shameless capitalistic mongering. These opinions will be with us until the end of Christmas, and I have no ambitions of dislodging them. But there is one I would like to dispute.

Christmas is a pagan holiday. I’ve heard this a lot, from people who approved and people who did not, and I’ve grown ever more skeptical. The historicity is vague at best, the thinking is demonstrably sloppy at times, and I see a fundamental confusion of the past and present tenses.

The historical details of the claim are often hazy. For example: Which pagan holiday? Saturnalia? The winter solstice – and if so, whose? Because strictly speaking, the winter solstice is an astronomical event and a good number of cultures have made it a holiday. More importantly, when and where did Christmas first begin to be celebrated? What descriptions of it, or commentary on it, exist in ancient sources? Is the “Christmas is a pagan holiday” claim really just an inference from general facts?

And this leads into the thinking that is, shall we say, less than rigorous. Very little is proved by the fact that Christmas takes place at roughly the same time as Saturnalia and several European solstice holidays (not to mention Hanukkah and Sanghamitta Day!). A midwinter feast is not a terribly original idea and it is quite possible that Christmas and Saturnalia both began in the Roman Empire and were still entirely distinct. That Christmas existed in the same time periods and cultures as pagan holidays may suggest associations, but it does not prove them.

Another idea in need of debunking is the notion that anything used as a symbol by pagans is forever a “pagan symbol.” Among my favorite instances of this are the Advent wreath, supposedly pagan because it is a circle and circles are a pagan symbol for eternity, and the Christmas Tree, which reputedly has its antecedent in pagan use of evergreens as symbols of life and fertility.

Part of the fallacy in this is the evident assumption that anything pagan is by definition anti-Christian. And this assumption is false; the divide between Christian and pagan may be large but it is not total. It is further obvious, as soon as you think it through, that the circle as a symbol for eternity and the evergreen as a symbol for life aren’t derived from some intrinsically pagan belief. They are derived from the nature of the things and from the universal cast of the human mind. A circle is endless, like eternity; an evergreen tree is living green when everything else is dead brown and gray. Pagans turned them into symbols before Christians did; there were, after all, pagans before there were Christians. But that does not make the symbols false or bad.

Another part of the fallacy, and perhaps the most significant part for this discussion, is that symbols change with culture. It’s likely that pagans had, in evergreen and holly, associations that Christians do not. It’s possible that certain Christmas rituals were adapted, long ago, from customs with pagan religious meaning. And so what? Who has those associations or cares for those meanings now?

And here we reach the confused tenses. Though I’ve never seen a compelling historical case for it, perhaps Christmas was pagan. It still wouldn’t mean that Christmas is pagan. No one can imagine that, if an ancient Roman were sucked through a time portal to our modern Christmas, he would say, “Why, it’s the Saturnalia!!!” Things change, sometimes beyond recognition. Their meanings change. Consider the symbols of Christmas – whether snowflakes and reindeer and Santa, or angels and the manger and the star – and it is plain that neither Saturn nor the sun-gods have anything to do with it.

What matters is not what Christmas was centuries and millenia ago, but what it is today.

So Merry Christmas.

From the Office of Cooking Experiments (Christmas Edition)

Culture | Posted by Shannon
Dec 14 2016

Today, in timely festivity, the Office of Cooking Experiments presents its very first Christmas edition. Christmas is, of course, a beautiful, spiritual season that is easily ruined by stress, and it is our hope to reduce the stress that you, the amateur holiday cook, so naturally feel. At Christmas, you are expected to cook for numbers and at a culinary level beyond your comfort zone and possibly beyond your capability. With the cookies you bake, the eggnog you whip up, and the many side-dishes you concoct, you contribute to the joy of the season and the cherished holiday memories of your loved ones, many of whom are no help at all. So you are naturally, as we say, stressed.

The Office of Cooking Experiments understands! The Office of Cooking Experiments has been there! Once it almost cut its own cable line because it observed that the world is divided between those who cook on holidays and those who watch football, and no cable, no football! But it did not, because it remembered it would then have to call the cableperson and perhaps answer awkward questions. The Office of Cooking Experiments further reflected that Christmas is, after all, a time of warmth and charity, and of all the faces that charity wears, cooking is not always the least.

The Office of Cooking Experiments also resolved to reduce its stress and not-totally-necessary work. Now it shares its well-learned tips with you, the amateur holiday cook, in cautious optimism that they will help you to enjoy a merrier Christmas.

Nine types of Christmas cookies are not necessary. Reflect for a moment: What cookies are people digging up from the bottom of your festive Christmas-themed tins a week after New Year’s? Don’t make those anymore.

Use crockpots. At the Office of Cooking Experiments, “Use crockpots” is our mantra; it would even be our motto, if our current one were not so absolutely superlative (“We make mistakes so you don’t have to”). It is ideal that, at Christmas dinner, there be dishes of unusual number and complexity and that they all be done at more or less the same time. Amateur cook, crockpots are your end run around this; things cooked in crockpots can be done hours apart and served, hot, at the same time with minimal burning.

Count the number of burners on your stove and add the oven. This is the upper limit of dishes to make for Christmas dinner, even if you use crockpots.

Measure the spices carefully. We mean this literally – many dishes are sadly sensitive to generous amounts of, say, cumin or red pepper – but also figuratively. In Yuletide recipes, you are liable to come across spices that you do not use the rest of the year and have never even seen in your local grocery store, though granted you were not looking. Measure the likely contribution of these spices to your Christmas joy and decide whether they are worth an excursion to the store. We recommend cloves but not fennel. We cannot even define cardamon.

NOTE: When the recipe calls for “grated lemon zest”, it is merely joking. Have a hearty laugh and break out the lemon juice.

There are many, many different ways to decorate a Christmas cookie. Some people regard sprinkles as a necessity, others as a superfluity. Some people prefer the dunk-and-done method, others view frosted Christmas cookies as works of art as elaborate as the Sistine Chapel, only not as permanent.

Which method is best? Whatever method is not yours. Trust us, and let everyone, including four-year-olds, frost as many cookies as they want in whatever way they want.

Yes, amateur holiday cook, there are many ways to reduce your stress during the Christmas season, and one of them is to get other people to do cookery for you. It makes them feel useful. It is a gift. ‘Tis the season.

Movie Review: Small One

Culture | Posted by Shannon
Dec 05 2016

You’ve all heard of a boy and his dog. This is the story of a boy and his donkey. It’s an old, mangy donkey, tattered ears and scruffy fur, but in his eyes it’s good enough for a king’s stable. He loves it, you see.

But his father tells him they must sell it, because it’s too old to earn its keep and they can’t afford an animal that doesn’t. So the boy takes his donkey to town, trying to find a good man who will buy it.

A good man is hard to find. “Small One, Small One, Small One for sale,” the boy sings. “One piece of silver – Small One for sale.”

Comes the answer: “No, no, little boy, I will not buy!” And those are the nice people.

Small One, one of the movies of my childhood, is a simple and sweet film. The run-time is 26 minutes, and I think the only character whose name we know is the donkey’s. This does not feel like a lack (though it can make review-writing a bit awkward). The story does not need names. It’s too directly human, engaging the heart in broad plainness.

The animation is old-fashioned and charming. There are lovely touches – moonlight falling into the stable, golden clouds in a pale blue sky, the illustrations that formed the background of the credits. There are clever touches – the forbidding atmosphere of the tanner’s shop, silhouettes seen through colored tent curtains, the soldier who seems, as the boy looks up at him, seven feet tall.

So with the music. From the tender song in the credits, to the plaintive chorus, “Small One for sale,” there is a great deal of loveliness here. There is also a good dose of cleverness in the bankers’ song. “Clink clink, clank clank, give your money to the bank, telling little stories you can trust” – as they shift their eyes so slyly.

Small One is a children’s story artfully told. That’s why its maturity surprised me. The father tells his boy that Small One must be sold. There’s no rebellion, no escape. The happy ending that the film seeks is that the boy will be able to sell his donkey to a kind man. We never doubt how much he loves Small One; that love drives him to the end of the story – in trying to find a good home for Small One, not in trying to keep him.

The end is beautiful. Softly, lightly, it steps into the radiance of Christmas. We see the stranger who buys Small One … a glimpse of travelers on the road … the stable and the Star of Bethlehem, its long rays a shining Cross between heaven and earth.

And you begin to feel that everything is more than all right in the end; it is right. As they sing in the credits, and again as the Cross stands in the sky: “There’s a place for each small one – God planned it that way.”

Honors Villainy 312

Culture, Literature | Posted by Shannon
Nov 14 2016

(Because, coming off the election, we could all use a laugh.)

 

Good morning. Or bad morning – whichever is most applicable to your day, and as you all know, I don’t care.

First order of business, your tests. Observe, class, the newly empty seats. These belong to your former classmates, who have been dropped from the class. I will never tire of saying it: In the Higher University classroomof Super-Villainy, there are no second chances. Anyone not bright enough to pass the test, not competent enough to cheat and not be caught, not cunning enough to discern the one bribe I am willing to take – anyone who fails, fails. Because they were not superior enough to give orders, your ex-classmates have gone to the Lower College of Henchmen, where they will learn to take them.

Don’t smile. Next week, it could be you.

Second order of business, the recent pleasantness. You observed the riots surrounding the Superior Court of Inquisition, although as underclassmen it was not, of course, your privilege to participate. I am happy to tell you that justice was done. Total Expulsion was carried out, complete with a Demoralizing Monologue and several Witty Taunts. The honorable inquisitors did not even consider sending the criminal to the Spurious School of Mindless Minions.

The offense that brought about such a punishment is, of course, shocking, but I am going to explain it, because this is not a safe space, and I do not care about your triggers. The criminal, while preparing a treatise to earn the rating of a Malefic Magician –

(And don’t you see, class, that that is a clear sign that something was wrong? Who studies to become a Malefic Magician? It is really a matter of kidnapping or blackmailing or killing or ensorceling, all the good works of villainy) –

The criminal forgot the Infallible Law of Power, that teaches that Might Is Right and Will Prevails – forgot, I might add, the revered Doctrine of Self-Preservation and the sacred Imperative of Self-Interest – and presented to the Higher University the following statistics:

  • In 97.8% of all stories, the villain loses; in 70.5% of stories, the villain dies; in 83% of stories where the villain survives, it is only to die at a later date; in 99% of stories, the villain has an unhappy ending; to this we add, parenthetically but with great annoyance, that in 44% of stories, the villain is reputed to cry, and not the crocodile tears or boiling tears of pure rage that are the only acceptable kinds of crying.

 

All this is bad enough. But what disqualified the criminal from being even a Mindless Minion was the conclusion of the treatise. This put forward the thought – and let this be a lesson that you should always think twice before you think – that the universe works against us and beats us, and that is how Clotilde Skuld came to be banished to the Outer Regions of Perpetual Back-breaking, Soul-Destroying Work, Where Your Face Will Never Be Clean Again.

Skuld’s treatise is specious on its face. How can the villain lose in 97.8% of stories and be unhappy in 99%? Clearly, if the villain won, then the villain would be happy. These numbers are self-contradictory and worthless. Furthermore, how can anyone fail to consider the issue of authorial bias? The authors of these stories are nervous creatures, afflicted with too little exercise, too little sunlight, and too much caffeine, and write out of their timid heart’s desire to escape our coming dominion.

Take heart, students! The universe is blacker than they paint it. Time is a tyrant, Death conquers all. Entropy is on our side. Nature knows no law but Power – and neither do we. We fight without the self-imposed limits of the heroes. Our will to win is absolute, our cunning knows no qualms, our ambitions are unfettered. Our fashion sense is manifestly superior. We will prevail.

That is our time. Tomorrow night is the game against the Knights, and I encourage you to cheat whenever you can get away with it and commit wanton fouls against the enemy’s star players. Remember, it’s not how you play the game; it’s whether you win or lose.

And as I have taught you, you will win. Or else.

A Notable Lack

Culture, Literature, Writing | Posted by Shannon
Oct 31 2016

A notable lack in speculative fiction, and one that cuts across the divide between Christian and secular, is that of genuine, fully-realized religion. There may be religious belief and religious feeling; in Christian speculative fiction, there usually is. There may be scraps of religion – vague expressions of faith, a benevolent priest, a fanatic, a cross or a stray invocation of the gods. But genuine religion – religion that possesses a structure, doctrines, holidays, customs, stories and rules, and all the physical artifacts from temples to jewelry? That is rare.

This lack is hardly crippling. Great speculative fiction may exist without practical religion and even be deeply spiritual. Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia exhibit little of religion as it is practiced in actual life and possess spiritual depths rarely matched. Complete religion isn’t necessary. But its scarcity in our novels is a loss.

You may ask, Why Snoopy? And I answer: The other images Google gave me were too ugly.

To gain an idea of the loss, let us consider Halloween, because ’tis the season. There are surely people in this great nation whose favorite holiday is Halloween, and I frankly worry about these people. At best, it’s a half-holiday. There is a version of Halloween for children, and a version for adults, but no version for everyone. As a popular holiday, it makes no pretense of religion or meaning; it has no songs and most Halloween stories could be told without Halloween and probably would be.

And out of even this poor half-holiday you could dig a tale that teaches us who we are. The origin of Halloween is taken to be Samhain, the Celtic holiday that marked the journey of the dead into the otherworld. Ghosts were near on Samhain, too near for anyone’s comfort. The inhuman, both demons and fairies, were also believed to be abroad with power, perhaps because the journey from this world to the next suggested a general weakening of boundaries. A spiritual anarchy hangs about the whole day, and to the extent that there was real belief there must have been real fear.

The Catholic Church later established All Saints Day and All Souls Day, days that commemorate the dead without fear of the dead, or horror of death. It’s long been said – very plausibly, though I admit I all-saints-daydon’t know on what evidence – that the Catholic Church did this to replace Samhain. And Samhain did fade away, leaving only vestiges of customs and superstition where powerful belief once ruled. Yet All Saints Day and All Souls Day never replaced it. These are just days on the church calendar, occasionally observed but never celebrated.

Much can be gleaned from the history of Halloween – the revolution of a civilization changing from one religion to another, humanity’s elemental horror of the dead who do not stay properly dead, the dread of the inhuman, the evolution and mixing of beliefs and practices. It is strange that, although many people believe the saints are happy in heaven and few think ghosts travel on Halloween, Halloween has so much greater a presence than All Saints Day. An empty holiday with concrete practices has more power than a holy day with abstract joy, and we see how instinctively humanity demands, and perhaps even needs, physical expression of spiritual things.

What can be illustrated through a holiday – from the history of a civilization to religious beliefs to fundamental human nature – is extraordinary. Holidays, and all the expressions of a whole and genuine religion, offer a wide and rich opportunity to speculative fiction authors. I don’t demand that they take it, but – well, would you consider it?

Blog Tour: Hide it In Your Heart

Culture | Posted by Shannon
Oct 10 2016

front cover

More than just a coloring book, this inspirational activity book will help you relax, unwind, and enjoy some creative fun while hiding God’s Word in your heart. 

The 35 separate verses and passages are printed in colorable word art with decorative borders, blank on the back to make them easier to remove and frame or display, if desired. Each one is accompanied by two different activities or puzzles featuring the verse or key words from it. 

Hide it in Your Heart is an ideal Scripture memorization aid for Christian schools, homeschool programs, Sunday schools, or your own personal use. Children and adults will enjoy learning, practicing, and meditating on these artistically presented verses from the New International Version Bible. 

Proceeds from the sale of Hide it In Your Heart will be donated to www.Christar.org to help provide a translation of God’s Word for a particular people group in East Asia who do not yet have the Bible in their own language.

Here are a few sample coloring and activity pages from Hide it In Your Heart. If you’d like to color them or complete the word puzzles, click on the link to access a PDF that you can download and print.

Hide it In Your Heart is available in paperback on Amazon. Click here to order your copy for $8.99.

HOWEVER, you can get it for 15% off if you order it here on CreateSpace with coupon code JZBVVBH8! The code can be used an unlimited number of times and will not expire, so feel free to order as many copies as you like for family and friends. Hide it In Your Heart makes a great gift for anyone who enjoys word puzzles, coloring, or God’s word! 

You’re welcome to share the code with others, too.

Happy coloring!

 

About the Author:

Annie Douglass LimaAnnie Douglass Lima spent most of her childhood in Kenya and later graduated from Biola University in Southern California. She and her husband Floyd currently live in Taiwan, where she teaches fifth grade at Morrison Academy. She has been writing poetry, short stories, and novels since her childhood, and to date has published thirteen books (two YA action and adventure novels, four fantasies, a puppet script, five anthologies of her students’ poetry, and a Scripture coloring and activity book). Besides writing, her hobbies include reading (especially fantasy and science fiction), scrapbooking, and international travel.

 

 

Connect with Annie Douglass Lima online:
Email: AnnieDouglassLima@gmail.com

Blog: http://anniedouglasslima.blogspot.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AnnieDouglassLimaAuthor

Twitter: https://twitter.com/princeofalasia

Goodreads: http://bit.ly/ADLimaOnGoodreads

Google+: http://bit.ly/ADLimaOnGooglePlus

Amazon Author Page: http://bit.ly/AnnieDouglassLimaOnAmazon

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LinkedIn: http://bit.ly/ADLimaOnLinkedIn

Sign up for author updates and receive a free ebook of “interviews” with characters from her fantasy series: http://bit.ly/LimaUpdates

Fame is Fugacious

Literature, Writing | Posted by Shannon
Sep 26 2016

Not long ago, I took a vocabulary quiz. In the process of it, I learned two new words, avulse and fugaciousfugacious. It struck me as unfortunate that I would have to look long and hard for an opportunity to use avulse, and I would probably never get a chance to use fugacious at all. They’re just too obscure.

We stand heir to a vast accumulated vocabulary, with words that range from everyday to rarefied to absolutely arcane. This has spawned one of those perpetual debates among writers and editors and agents, and in which readers have their own well-deserved opinions. The never-resolved question is: What words should writers use? What words are too old, too different, too long?

At the heart of the debate is a tension between two competing, legitimate principles. The first principle is that the ultimate aim of writing is to be understood. Far more than self-expression (because then why not just keep it to yourself?), writing is communication. You are not communicating if people cannot understand you.

The second principle is that writing cannot be reduced to the lowest common denominator. Some words are more apt than others, and sometimes the long word or the old word is the one that sings. Although writers should not, on the risk of being obnoxious, consider it their duty to expand their readers’ vocabularies, neither have they failed if they send their readers to the Dictionary.

The tension between these two principles is worked out book by book, sentence by sentence, word by word. There is no universal rule to lay down. I think it worth stating, however, that the thing really to be avoided is not the unknown word but the odd-duck word. These are the words that sound awkward or weird or (perhaps worst of all) funny. These are the words that jolt readers out of a text, and that is something all writers strive devoutly never to do.

Words often drop out of use because language evolves and culture changes, and they don’t fit anymore. Consider the wordoxblood,” a shade of red that is not actually what you would imagine ox blood to be. Ox blood was once used as a pigment in creating dyes and paints. This would explain why oxblood is a dark color, and not the bright red we normally associate with blood: It was originally associated with ox blood that had dried or been mixed with other ingredients or soaked into materials such as wood or leather.

In our own day, when these associations have been lost, oxblood has lost much of its power. Even people who can define the word do not possess the images that first inspired it. Writers develop literary crushes on words, but it is good to consider whether those words, transplanted from the soil where they first grew, will truly thrive.

With most obscure words, the trouble is not dead cultural associations but simply the sound. Some are so unusual, so odd, that your eyes trip over the syllables. Others don’t sound like what they mean. This is the trouble with fugacious. It means fleeting, but to modern ears it only sounds silly, and I would sound silly, too, if I tried to used it (“Fame is fugacious”). Possibly, though, I could play it for humor: “My lunch hour was fugacious.”

By contrast, I have more hope for avulse (“to pull off or tear away forcibly“) because similar, well-known words like repulse and convulse also have vaguely violent meanings. Encountering an unknown word does not, in itself, jar readers out of a book. But the unknown word must flow, must give an impression in tune with its actual meaning. This is why you will not go wrong with words like invidious and deleterious: They sound as bad as they are.

There is a time, Solomon wrote, for everything, and probably a place for every word. No word should be summarily rejected, or uncritically accepted. In a living language, words fade away and sometimes ought to, but it takes a long time for a word to fade beyond all use.

Never Forget

Culture, History | Posted by Shannon
Sep 11 2016

(Excerpts from President Bush’s address at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001.)

 

 

We are here in the middle hour of our grief. So many have suffered so great a loss, and today we express our nation’s sorrow. We come before God to pray for the missing and the dead, and for those who loved them. On Tuesday, our country was attacked with deliberate and massive cruelty. We have seen the images of fire and ashes and bent steel.

Now come the names, the list of casualties we are only beginning to read:

They are the names of men and women who began their day at a desk or in an airport, busy with life.

They are the names of people who faced death and in their last moments called home to say, be brave and I love you.

They are the names of passengers who defied their murderers and prevented the murder of others on the ground.

They are the names of men and women who wore the uniform of the United States and died at their posts.

They are the names of rescuers — the ones whom death found running up the stairs and into the fires to help others.

We will read all these names. We will linger over them and learn their stories, and many Americans will weep. …

War has been waged against us by stealth and deceit and murder. This nation is peaceful, but fierce when stirred to anger. This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others; it will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing. Our purpose as a nation is firm, yet our wounds as a people are recent and unhealed and lead us to pray. In many of our prayers this week, there’s a searching and an honesty. At St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, on Tuesday, a woman said, “I pray to God to give us a sign that He’s still here.”

Others have prayed for the same, searching hospital to hospital, carrying pictures of those still missing. God’s signs are not always the ones we look for. We learn in tragedy that His purposes are not always our own, yet the prayers of private suffering, whether in our homes or in this great cathedral are known and heard and understood. There are prayers that help us last through the day or endure the night. There are prayers of friends and strangers that give us strength for the journey, and there are prayers that yield our will to a Will greater than our own.

This world He created is of moral design. Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance and love have no end, and the Lord of life holds all who die and all who mourn.

It is said that adversity introduces us to ourselves. This is true of a nation as well. In this trial, we have been reminded and the world has seen that our fellow Americans are generous and kind, resourceful and brave. …

America is a nation full of good fortune, with so much to be grateful for, but we are not spared from suffering. In every generation, the world has produced enemies of human freedom. They have attacked America because we are freedom’s home and defender, and the commitment of our Fathers is now the calling of our time.

 

On this national day of prayer and remembrance, we ask Almighty God to watch over our nation and grant us patience and resolve in all that is to come. We pray that He will comfort and console those who now walk in sorrow. We thank Him for each life we now must mourn, and the promise of a life to come.

As we’ve been assured, neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities, nor powers nor things present nor things to come nor height nor depth can separate us from God’s love. May He bless the souls of the departed. May He comfort our own. And may He always guide our country.

God bless America.