Sunday, January 26, 2014

You don't want me to make a playlist. No, really, you don't.
Back in November, when Kriss Morton and I first started talking about the Crosswind tour, she suggested -- among other things -- that I could put together a playlist for one guest post. I demurred. But the subject came up again later, and I finally had to confess that I didn't want to do a playlist because I haven't bought any new music, other than Irish trad, since 1983.

That might be a slight exaggeration. I mean, there's the odd new Christmas CD (Chicago, Hall & Oates, and Jethro Tull, as well as some rockin' Renaissance tunes). I picked up Raul Malo's "Today" because a friend was really, really into him (hi, Kim!) and I liked that I could almost understand the songs that are in Spanish, and could sing along with the help of the liner notes. A couple of guys from Czech class gave me a copy of a Vlasta Horvath CD, which I liked so much that I searched the intarwebz to find the lyrics to the songs in Czech so I could sing along. (I even made an attempt to translate them; the less said about the result of that exercise, the better.) Another friend once gave me a tape of gamelan music. And I bought "Sevilla" by Young & Rollins, which, it turns out, is classified as nuevo flamenco. That, together with CDs by Irish trad bands -- mainly the Chieftains, Lunasa, and Flook -- constitutes the sum total of my "new" music purchases for the past (oh gods!) thirty years. Virtually verything else I've bought has been a replacement for an album I once owned on vinyl.

I didn't set out to step so far away from popular music, honest. It just kind of happened.

The breakaway began in 1982, when I moved from WKEE-FM in Huntington, WV, to WGNT-AM crosstown. KEE was a top-40 station; 'GNT played country. This was when country was in its "Urban Cowboy" phase, and I just couldn't get into it. (Sorry, country music fans -- I like bluegrass, but not country.) We had a sister station that played album rock, but I can't listen to heavy metal for long without getting depressed.

From there, I moved to WTAR-AM in Norfolk, VA, which played oldies from the '50s and '60s; our sister station, WLTY-FM, played lite rock, but I'd long since gone off chirpy love songs due to too many bad relationships. Next stop was DC, where I eventually ended up at all-news WTOP; 'TOP's sister station, WASH-FM, also plays lite rock (see "chirpy love songs" above). So the bottom line is that from '82 on, I didn't like any of the music I was hearing at work.

And by then I had little kids, so we were listening to a lot of "Wee Sing" and Disney soundtracks at home. In their teens, one of my kids got into Eminem and the other got into Disturbed, neither of which were my thing. At the same time, they were both listening to soundtracks from Broadway shows -- "Rent" and "Wicked" in particular.

Our taste is nothing if not eclectic. But you can't make a playlist out of it.

What I'm listening to these days is Chicago -- their early stuff. I picked up a box set of their first two albums plus V and VI, and I've been playing them while I do my time on the elliptical machine. I had forgotten just how original and challenging their music was -- the rapid key changes, the unusual time signatures ("A Hit by Varese" is in 5/4) -- and how it requires active, almost participatory, listening. I can sink my teeth into it, the same way I can sink my teeth into singing along in Spanish or Czech.

If you've gotten this far and you're still looking for a playlist from me, here's what I suggest this week: "Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon." Have a great week, everyone.

These moments of musical blogginess are brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Et al., etc.: Why English is hard.

I wanted to let you know a couple of things before we get going here. First, today is the final day to enter the giveaway from the blog tour for Crosswind. Head on over to the Finishing Faeries website right now, before you forget, and enter the contest at the bottom of the page. Go on, click the link. I'll wait.

Back now? Cool. Because the other announcement is that the trailer for Undertow is live on YouTube, as of really late last night. Enjoy.

Now on with this week's post.

One of the things that bugs me about getting older is finding out that a whole lot of my cherished rules of English grammar are nothing but style choices.

Nic McPhee,
Take the rule about whether punctuation goes inside quotation marks or outside of them. Way back in grade school, I was taught that if the punctuation mark was a part of the quote, it went inside the quote marks; otherwise, it went outside.

This has always made sense to me. If something is an exact quote, then whatever's inside the quote marks ought not to have anything extraneous -- and if it does, then it ought to be clearly marked. So if you leave out a few words, you insert an ellipsis; if the quote didn't start with a capital letter and you're putting it at the front of your sentence, or if did but you aren't, then you put the letter that changed in brackets.

I've always treated periods and commas this way, too. If it was part of the original quotation, then I put the comma or period inside the quote marks. But if I'm just quoting a word or two and they happen to fall at the end of my sentence, then I would put the period outside the quotes.

Turns out that's UK style. The gods alone know how UK style got into 1960s-vintage textbooks in Michigan City, Indiana, in the good old U.S. of A., but there you have it.

The worst part is that I didn't realize I was "wrong" until an American friend ranted about it on her Facebook page awhile back. Fifty-odd years of writing, a fair bit of it professional, and only now am I discovering I'm wrong. (I'm trying to break myself of the habit, honest.)

But the truth is that English is a living language, and so stuff changes all the time. I suppose I should be grateful. It's just that sometimes it's hard to keep up.

So let's turn to a language that hasn't changed in thousands of years: Latin.

Not many indie authors use the abbreviations etc. and et al. -- but I do see them at work. Et al., particularly, is used in formal writing. But just so we're on the same page, punctuation-wise, I thought I'd explain a few things about them.

First, et al. means "and others." Et is the Latin word for "and." It's not an abbreviation. Okay? So it doesn't ever get a period after it. That would be like putting a period after "and" every time you use it in a sentence.

The al. part of et al. is, however, an abbreviation -- for alii (masculine plural), aliae (feminine plural), and/or alia (neuter plural). I'm not going to try to explain masculine/feminine/neuter nouns here; suffice it to say that Latin has 'em (as does Czech, by the way). As English speakers, all we really need to be concerned with is that al. is an abbreviation and et is not. So the proper way to punctuate the phrase is like so:
et al.
Clear so far? Okay.

So now, clever thing that you are, you have recognized that the first two letters of etc. are the same as good old et that we just talked about. And you're correct. In Latin, etc. is short for et cetera, which means "and the rest" or "and other things."

"So how come," you are now going to ask me, "etc. gets slammed together into one word and et al. doesn't?"

Good question, and the answer is probably similar to how, in English, "has not" turned into hasn't and "I am" turned into I'm. It's a contraction, sort of. Typesetters, who liked to save a space anywhere they could, dropped the space in et c. at some point, and etc. eventually became common usage.

Got that? Et al. is a two-word abbreviation with no period after et; etc. is a one-word abbreviation that gets a period. Good. Okay.

Now. There's one more sticky thing about these two, and it comes up when you stick them in the middle of a sentence. They take commas on both sides. If you have a phrase like "the rain, the park, and other things make me very happy," and you want to replace and other things with etc. to save space, you need a comma both before and after etc. Like so:

The rain, the park, etc., make me very happy.

Don't be tempted to forget that second comma. Just like with a quote or some parenthetical material, you need to mark off the end of the Latin you've just inserted. Hence, the closing comma.

Okay? Cool. Here's your reward for suffering through this post. As a bonus, it's approximately the same vintage as the textbook that taught me UK style. Have a great week, everyone.

This very happy bloggy moment was brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Curmudgeon Corner: a humble bowl of oatmeal.

I swear I'm not going to turn this into a dieting blog.

It's nearly the middle of January, which means your New Year's resolutions -- assuming you made any -- are probably just a distant memory now. But some of us are just now getting going on our, uh, annual goals. One of my annual goals, pretty much every year for the past three or four decades, has been to lose weight. Sometimes it works; sometimes it's an epic fail. This year, it needs to work.

But the photo shows what I'm up against.

When I was in my 20s, I went through a period when I ate oatmeal for breakfast every day. The recipe from the side of the package was 1/3 cup of dry oats (quick-cooking or regular -- we didn't have any of your crappy instant oatmeal product back then, no ma'am) to 2/3 cup of water. I'd cook it on the stove (this was also before microwaves, okay?) and then I dressed the result with a little milk and brown sugar.   I distinctly remember this recipe because I used to keep my 1/3-cup measure inside the oatmeal container so I wouldn't have to hunt it down every morning.

Not long ago, I decided to start eating oatmeal again. Not every day, but a fair amount of the time. It's nutritious (if you don't pour a ton of sugar on it), it takes two minutes in the microwave for the quick-cooking kind, and it's cheap. (I can't believe the price of a box of ready-made cereal today. Five bucks? For processed flour and sugar with selected vitamins put back in? Seriously?)

So okay. I go to make the oatmeal and.... Here, I would like to direct your attention to the photo, which I took tonight. Pay close attention to the line under "Nutrition Facts" -- the one that says, "Serving size."

See that? A serving of oatmeal is now 1/2 cup of dry oats. Then you mix it with a cup of liquid. So the proportions are still the same -- 2 parts liquid to one part oats -- but the amounts have changed. And don't think it's due to the fact that I bought the store brand; the serving size is the same on the package with the guy in the porkpie hat on the front.

A humble bowl of homemade oatmeal has more calories today than it did in 1982.

This upsizing of American eating habits has been going on right under our noses. Dr. David Kessler, the former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, wrote a book called The End of Overeating. In it, he talked about the science behind our food -- not just the nutrition, but the food marketing, too. Food R&D has determined the best ways to convince us to stuff the maximum amount of food down our gullets so that the processed-food conglomerates and fast-food companies can maximize their profits. It's no accident that processed foods are high in sugar, fat and salt, or that they're often sold in bite-sized pieces (chicken nuggets, popcorn shrimp, etc.) or in slurpable packaging (Go-gurt, anyone?). All of it is deliberate. After all, chewing takes time. Delicate flavors encourage people to slow down and savor their food. It's far better, from the manufacturers' point of view, to have us scarfing marginally tasty food that doesn't really fill us up, but that we can eat as quickly as possible -- way before our stomachs can signal to our brains that we're full -- so that we'll eat more. Because the more we eat, the more money they make.

I think It's pretty well known that restaurants do this -- and I'm not just talking about McDonald's. Any standard menu item in most mid-priced American restaurants will give you two, or maybe even three, actual serving-size servings. So people are on guard when they go out to eat, at least to some extent.

But come on -- oatmeal?

America has a huge obesity problem today. Gee, I wonder why.

Wish me luck, guys.

Now that I've got that rant out of my system....

Undertow has gone to my editor (whoo hoo!), which means we're on track for an early spring release. (That also means I need to come up with a plot for Scorched Earth here pretty quick. But I digress.)

The Crosswind tour is underway, and I'm having a blast. The stops are listed under the "Tour Dates" tab up top. Please come by! And be sure to enter the contest -- you could win one of two autographed paperbacks, a Navajo dream pillow, or a $10 Amazon gift card. I've got to give 'em to somebody. Might as well be you.

This moment of bloggy oatmeal has been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

"So how's your book doing?"

I read a blog post this past week in which the author complained about people who ask how your book is doing. The author of the post called out those people as incredibly rude, and the question as akin to asking a doctor or, hey, anybody else how much money they make.
Well, sure, it's rude. But people ask all sorts of rude questions in the name of "making small talk": "So when are you two getting married?...When are you going to have a baby?...Have you found a job yet?...Haven't you put on a little weight?" This is no different.

And too, the questioner might not be asking for sales numbers. They probably have another agenda entirely. Maybe they've thought about publishing their own work, and want to know whether they could make succeed -- or whether it's possible for anybody to succeed. Maybe they think you're dreaming too big and want to take you down a peg or two. And, hey, maybe they just want to know how you're doing in general. A simple, "It's doing well, thanks," with a quick change of subject, ought to be enough to put these boors off the scent. And if they continue to push for an answer, you can turn the tables and ask them how much they make. Muahaha.

But there's a better answer, and it relates to the other point the author of that blog post made about the way she felt, now that she had a book out in the public eye. Before publication of her first novel, she says, she could write three or four books a year (although she wouldn't necessarily release all of them). Last year, she wrote two -- and she second-guessed herself all the way, because she kept thinking about how people would react to what she was writing.

My flippant response is that the quickest and best cure for second-guessing yourself about your second published novel is to publish it, already. Because then when someone asks you, "How's your book doing?" you can respond the way I always do: "Which one?" Then I tell them I have eight novels out, and they should look me up on Amazon.

That usually shuts them up. Because that's when it dawns on them that I'm serious about writing. I'm not just a one-book wonder; I'm in it for the long haul. That's worth some respect.

But the blogger's observation about her own changed perception might go a long way toward explaining why second books -- and second songs, and second just-about-anything-else creative -- sometimes don't measure up to the first one. Sure, there's the time factor. First-time novelists (or songwriters or whatever) have years and years to perfect their work. They have nothing but time to nurture the novel -- putting it through multiple drafts, tweaking it here and there -- until it satisfies their vision. The second book is often, in comparison, rushed. The secret about the author's talent is out, and somebody -- the agent, the editor, fans -- is pestering her for the next book. That puts pressure on the author to turn out something new, and to do it faster, perhaps, than she is comfortable with. Sure, the author cares just as much that the work is as perfect as it can be. But it's not going to be exactly like the first book that everyone loved so much, because why would anybody write the same book twice? So inevitably, someone will be disappointed.

But that's from the point of view of the fans, really. This blog post was interesting to me because it's from the point of view of the author. And the key word from my preceding paragraph is "secret." Up until the moment of publication -- or the moment the ARCs go out to reviewers -- the author has been writing only to please herself. The writer makes changes to the book based on her own feelings about the work -- about what she wants to say and how she wants to say it. Now, she knows there's a wider audience out there. Other people are going to judge her work. With Book 2, she's no longer writing to please herself; she's writing to please others.

Which is why my flippant response is also the correct one: just publish the damned thing already. And that requires turning off your internal worrywart even when you're writing the first draft. Ignore the editor and agent (if you have one); ignore the reviews (even the good ones); ignore the fans who want more. Yes, you will have to feed the beast. But the only way to feed the beast the good stuff is to keep writing to please yourself.

Donna Tartt's newest book, The Goldfinch, was released to rave reviews a few months ago. It's her first new work in eleven years, and only the third novel she's had published in her whole 30-year career. She's obviously a slow writer, but I suspect the real reason it takes her ten years to get a new book out is that she won't publish 'til she's satisfied. She's writing to please herself, and it seems to be working pretty well for her.

In the Brave New World of Indie Publishing, you're responsible for your own career. Don't feel like you have to release X novels in X months to stay in the public eye, and don't feel like you have to please everybody with Book 2 or 3 or 4. Stay true to your own vision. Keep writing to please yourself.

I'm on tour with Crosswind starting Wednesday. The tour dates are up on the "Tour Dates" tab. See you there!