I Promise You Won't Learn A Thing From This Blog

The official blog for author Ashley Chappell. Check back every week for a few laughs at my expense or, if you know the love-hate process that is writing, commiseration.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Why I Love This Crazy Language

Captain Caveman
Captain Caaaave Maaaan!
It occurred to me this week that I’ve written many times lately about grammar misuse in a very negative light, basically bashing the grammar-challenged over the head with a blunt blogject. It further occurs to me that this maaaaaaaay not be the best way to lure the on-the-fencers away from the dark side that is grammarcide.

So I’ve decided to take another approach and make today’s post about why I love this kooky language of ours so much. Hopefully by the end of this piece my lovely readers will understand that my bashing of bad grammar isn’t purely out of snobbery; it’s out of an earnest desire to preserve the richness and the meaningful structure of the language. If anything, I’m a mama bear protecting her favorite cubs.

I’ll start with an example from one of my favorite authors. I love, love, love, love LOVE Isaac Asimov (Did I mention that I love him?), not for his prose, but for his story-telling, suspense-building, and his sharp analytic mind. Reading his robot novels is a master class in science fiction and analytics all in one. Last week I was reading The Robots of Dawn and came across a passage where Elijah Baley, our hero, was trying to explain the difference between the words ‘homicide’ and ‘murder’ to a robot. By definition these two words are the same and so the robot makes no distinction, but Baley has to try to explain why a human would scream ‘Murder!’ rather than ‘Homicide!’ when witnessing the act.

And why is that?

Those two synonymous words, like so many so many in our language, have evolved their own emotional value through usage, through cultural development, and through association. At some early point people may not have made any distinction between the two, but now we reserve the word homicide for describing the legal nature of the act, and murder for the emotionally charged, teeth-clenching, fear-inspiring nature of the act.

Now think of some other similar words from a writer’s POV. This is where my love of our fantastically diverse and complex language comes into play; when it comes to the thesaurus I’m like a kid at the world’s most gigantic and nerdy vending machine. For fun, I’m including a short list of other synonyms without a definable distinction. Take a look at these and think about the way they make you feel; if you use one instead of the other in a sentence, does it change the image you want to convey?

Worried, Apprehensive, Fraught
Weak, Frail, Spineless
Hungry, Famished, Ravenous
Fat, Obese, Beefy
Smile, Grin, Leer
Arrive, Appear, Pop-in
Surprise, Overwhelm, Dumbfound
Real, Solid, Absolute

Some of these are more subtle than others, but they are still the key device in the writer’s tool box and the most important part of the picture we want the reader to paint for themselves. What are your favorite synonyms to add to this list?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Swashbuckling Grammar Pirate

Grammar Ninja Today’s blog might be the most important blog I have ever written. I have decided, after yet another blunder today, that I must share the annoying information in my head or suffer blow after blow to my own sanity for the rest of my natural tenure on this world as a Grammar Nazi Avenger (yeah, I’d like to see Marvel take that one on, too).

The Set Up: All names and identifying references have been changed to protect the innocent. Though, mind you, they were NOT innocent of committing accidental grammar-cide.

Person chatting in my office: “Oh, I always have someone else do that. Caulking isn’t really my forté.”
Me, sitting in my chair and cringing: “Um, you know, that word actually... oh, nevermind.”

Anatomy of a sword
The Anatomy of a Sword
What you have just witnessed is a shortened version of a very complex mental train-wreck of thought. As I heard the last word in her sentence pronounced as the oh-so-common two syllables, what I wanted to say was this (picture me in a tweed professorial jacket as I speak deferentially of etymology and linguistics):

“You know, what you have stumbled upon is actually a very common and interesting mispronunciation of the word ‘forte.’ You see, it all stems from a misunderstanding of the obscure French origin of the word in this use in combination with the much more frequently seen Italian musical term of the same spelling. Indeed even more so due to the somewhat synonymous meaning of the words. When you intend to use the word as a description of your strengths you are actually invoking a French fencing reference that describes the strongest point of a sword: the ‘forte,’ (pronounced like ‘fort’). Weaknesses similarly are described using the word for the weakest point of the sword: the ‘foible.’ Therefore, fortes and foibles = strengths and weaknesses. The Italian version, pronounced ‘fortay,’ is the musical reference for playing loudly or strongly, thereby explaining the confusion especially among people with a musical background. It's really quite amusing, isn't it? I said isn't it?”

I’m sure it doesn’t take much imagination to envision the blank and/or glazed looks I would get had I actually let that come out of my mouth. Hence the abbreviated version that started with ‘Um’ and ended with ‘nevermind.’ And because this pronunciation of the word is so very common, if I try to use the term correctly people give me that smug look that is tantamount to pointing fingers and laughing that the grammar nazi got something wrong. Either they try to correct me, at which point I have to go into the long explanation given above and the glaze goes over the eyes, or they just sit there looking smug, at which point I FEEL like I have to go into the long explanation given above and the glaze goes over the eyes.

So, over time, I have just made myself avoid using this term at all and even make myself choke back the lofty correction I so yearn to deliver. The phase “Blank is/is not my forte’ has been forever lost to my conversational repertoire, and sometimes I do lament its passing while cursing the English teacher who pointed this out to me in high school. Perhaps this is one case where ignorance might have been bliss.

The First Fist Pump
The First Fist Pump Ever.

The Solution:

And this is where I decide that constantly ignoring this abuse of language is just as bad as condoning it (not to mention that I selfishly just want to be able to use this phrase again without entering into the above conflict). To kick off this campaign which I shall code name "May The 'Forte' Be With You", I have shared this knowledge with you, my lovely readers and fellow writers and language lovers, in the hope that you will all go forth and spread the word, educating the masses and freeing me from my vocabulary paralysis.

If we put our minds to it, together WE CAN TAKE BACK THE FORTE!!!!!!!!

Until then, my friends, May The 'Forte' Be With You.'

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Coffee - The Unsung Hero of the Work Week

Today I felt like recognizing the many times that my dear sweet friend Coffee has kept me from being fired, from being slapped, and possibly out of jail. Happy rest of the work week!

Coffee, coffee, how I love thee,
Let me count the ways.

You start my mornings ever brightly
Despite the dismal days.

You give me strength to speak and smile
When I’d rather run away.

You turn monsters into people
In a cup or three a day

You fend off Armageddon
And keep it safe at bay.

But I thank you most of all
For the near impossible way

You help me cope with the masses
Whom otherwise I might flay.

GarfieldWorkplace Violence

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

What's It All About, When You Get Right Down To It?

Today's title is an homage to Sir Terry Pratchett, my favorite author, greatest inspiration, and liege lord should he ever need my services in battle. This is a question he likes to toss (albeit comically and always brilliantly) from a character's perspective when that character is forced to really stop and evaluate themselves, their routines, the world... But it is also one of my worst nightmares, leaving me quaking, nervous, and speechless in front of children, adults, and puppies alike.

The Question, so innocently posed: "So, you wrote a book. What's it about?"

Scaredy Cat
This is how I picture myself scared.
What's it about?? I sweated, I cried, I struggled, I warred with editors, I went sleepless for months to write this 90,000 word novel that spans my dreams, flights of fancy, innermost conflicts and struggles, and you want me to tell you in a quick couple of sentences what it's about?  ACK!!! *This is about the point where I develop a nervous ocular twitch*

It is times like these that I realize how much I love writing and how much I hate marketing (read: detest, abhor, loathe, anathematize, scorn, curse). And, of course, this is the natural first question everyone wants to ask you as soon as they learn you're an author. I knew this was a risk when I became a writer and made the conscious decision to not use a pseudonym (and it was tempting, I'm not a public sort of gal), but despite my best efforts, I still have not been able to do more than babble off the nearly memorized text from the book jacket.

You see, I hear the question 'what's it about' and I want to tell you the story. The whole story. I can't separate an incident/person from the story as being primary any more than I can tell you that I have a duprass-mate in Steven without explaining to you the long background of the word 'duprass' (see: Kurt Vonnegut), the way our relationship developed, AND how we came to apply the word to ourselves. I suck at summarizing, I'm sick of synopsizing, and the fact that I'm resorting to alliteration should tell you how serious I am about it.

Sleazy Sales Guy
This is how I picture all salesmen.
HOWEVER, like any new author, I have to make that effort for Alice Will and figure out how to answer this question without letting my skin crawl away. That is, unless I like the idea of remaining Ashley Who the rest of my life (not so cool as the good Dr.). I've come up with a few starts so far...

The Tagline Despite her out-of-control magic, teenage demi-goddess Trotter takes on dark gods and chatty demons while fending off the very apocalypse that everyone thinks she caused.

The Audience-Oriented Pitch "Alice Will is a novel for every person who’s struggled with how they identify themselves and learned to define their own niche in a world that doesn't seem to have a place for them."

The Conversation Starter Pitch - “Trotter isn't your average demi-god and these aren’t your average Olympian gods. The gods of Aevum are exactly what we would be if  forced to live forever with no sense of meaning, reason, or even Prozac.”

The Dramatic Voice-over Pitch - "The lives of a demigoddess and a tiny orphan girl collide when one of them accidentally begins remaking the world according to her wild imagination."

And finally:

The What-I-Want-My-Readers-To-Take-Away-Pitch - "Alice Will is about laughing at ourselves and the empty traditions we value without knowing why. It’s about taking stock in our instincts before we let our fickle brains over-rationalize us out of the right choice. It’s about learning the hard way that maturity, at any age, is no match for experience. And finally, it’s about remembering that the right thing to do is still the right thing to do when no one is looking."

So what do you think? And for all of you writers out there, how do you go about answering this question? I'd love some advice!

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Embarrassing Ways To Lose Fingers

safety ironyToday was a ‘Safety Stand Down’ day at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. It is a day during which all of us are supposed to pause from our daily work tasks and reflect on our own behaviors toward safety with the understanding that all actions can incur risk, from the important decisions involving others to the tiniest and most innocuous seeming ones involving only ourselves.

One of the events I attended during this stand down was an engineering branch safety meeting. Normally during these monthly safety meetings (my MSFC friends are groaning already) we stomach an impersonal canned slideshow covering topics from road rage to chemical storage to proper stretching before reaching into those treacherous filing cabinets. This format was (thankfully) different – everyone sat together in a room and shared personal stories of accidents, foolish stunts, and lessons learned the hard way (some more hilarious than others). As a group, we gleaned the lessons that should be taken away from these experiences to try to find a way to incorporate this information and re-train ourselves to think more practically and cautiously.

And all the while I was thinking of the lesson I’d learned just the day before...

It started, as most disasters do, with chocolate. And in this I can blame one of my officemates who for this purpose I will refer to as LAM. LAM has a habit of stocking on her desk the most wonderful dark chocolate stash known to mankind. Ok, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but when you’ve had a week as bad as mine, all chocolate develops a touch of mystical enchantment. In fact, had it not been for the ethereal glow above the bowl and the angel chorus singing Barry White, I might have walked right past her door and my day, and finger, would have ended without misery.

But I didn’t, and it did.

I grabbed that delicious piece of dark chocolate from LAM’s bowl and by the time I got back to my desk I realized that I’d smeared a big brown streak of it right across my front pant leg. And this is especially aggravating considering I only have the one pair of khakis left that fit me (also partially because of LAM’s delicious bowl of chocolate). So for the next several minutes my other officemate, Mama J, got to hear a variety of cursing from me that I wouldn’t normally use in the office while fighting with the chocolate napalm stain. The dear heart had a plastic tub of sanitizing hand wipes which we were both hoping might work without leaving my leg a wet, soppy, chocolaty mess... which it almost did. Now my stain looked less like a chocolate smear and more like spilled make-up.
baby wipes
Yes, baby wipes are evil.

Now onto the hand wipes. *this would be a good place to cue the evil music*

This container was similar to most any tub of baby wipes that you might have seen – the cylinder with a cap and a star shaped slit in the top from which you pull the sheets individually. Well, not wanting to be unkind and leave one of the wipes half hanging out to get dried out, I did what anyone would do and what I have done probably a dozen times with baby wipes. I take my finger and shove the sheet back into the canister.

But, as I learned, this was not your average canister and it certainly wasn’t for babies. Whereas the star slit in baby wipes is a weak, flimsy sheet of plastic, this one was an industrial strength sheet that I’m surprised my finger went through in the first place. And when I realized how insanely tight it was and tried to pull my finger back out, those star shaped wedges of thick plastic became barbs holding my finger in and giving me the choice of continue to let the circulation be cut off and endure that pain, or pull at my finger and say Adios, skin.

By now Mama J is listening to an ever more inventive string of cussing from me as the pain is getting worse and my finger is turning a not unattractive shade of purple. On one hand I’m angry because I never dreamed that something that simple could hurt so badly, but second to the pain is the thought that there is NO WAY in hell that I’m going to have to go to the medical center on site to have them cut this monster off my finger and end up on a slide in one of our safety presentations.

And this is where my own personal safety lesson comes into play. As I sat there trying to wedge pens, bottle caps, paper clips, ANYTHING that would get the teeth of that star slit to let go of my poor tormented finger, I was struck with the thought of how I wished that I hadn’t left my pocket knife at Steven’s house. It wasn’t until later that I realized how LUCKY I was that I’d left my knife at Steven’s house because, in my blinded-by-pain state, I actually thought that it would have been a GOOD idea to take a knife to wedge between my finger and the plastic using I don’t know what as leverage. A vein, maybe?

Since all stories should have a happy ending, yes, I did finally get the evil hand wipe lid off my finger before the actual rot set in but yes, it does still actually hurt. So my safety lesson to share for this day is a combination lesson. On the high road, be aware of how pain clouds your judgment – you might be in trouble, but getting out of it quickly can get you into MORE trouble. On the low road, your mother was right. If you stick your finger into puckered holes, you really might not get it back...

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Book Release Date, Pre-orders, and Cover Reveal!

And now for the announcement I promised in yesterday's blog post...  Alice Will, my debut novel, will be released  by Center One Publishing on November 13, 2012! I'd call that perfect time for stocking stuffers, wouldn't you?  For a special May Day treat you can head over to Center One's website and pre-order a copy now  :-)

Alice Will JacketThe cover art might change slightly between now and publishing, but I'm thrilled with the way it turned out! The publisher asked me in the beginning if I had any suggestions for the cover art and, knowing that I have NO talent for creative design at all, I turned it completely over to them. Now that I've seen their fabulous work I couldn't be more glad that I kept my hands out of it.

This is my first ever publishing experience and I have to say I have been very happy with it so far. I see horror stories from emerging authors on forums and other boards and I think I have to count myself very lucky. My experience has been positive, the publisher so responsive, and the quality top notch.

But nothing I ever imagined, no fantasies from childhood, no day dreams from when I first decided I wanted to become an author, could possibly match the elation I felt when I first laid my eyes on the cover art with my name on it. I did mental back flips and pirouettes when I received the contract offer and ran around the house squealing when I signed the contract itself. Seeing the artwork with my name on it made it seem so much more real, but I think my nuclear spastic crazy squealy celebration won't officially happen until I hold my book in my hands for the first time. That will be the day that I finally feel like I've reached the culmination of a near life-long dream!

Wait... culmination? Maybe that's the wrong word. Because this isn't the last stop on my authorial journey - my next goal is to do this over, and over, and over, and over, and over again :-)