Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Blinded by the Light Metaphors

Okay, now the Globe is really starting to bug me! A week after I complained about the fondness of its book reviewers for vague, pretentious light-emitting adjectives, what happens in this weekend's Books section? Let me quote from from the final paragraph of a review of Mary Swan's new book on page 3:
...the ripples Swan crafts in The Boys in the Trees reveal layers of darkness as textured and shaded—even luminous—to anyone familiar with looking deeply into shadows.
It's bad enough that the word is foregrounded between em-dashes, but the editors had to rub my nose in it with the following headline for the review:
Dark, horrific, gripping, luminous
Ack! If I were paranoid (and I'm not saying I'm not), I'd start to worry that someone was reading my blog and baiting me on purpose. Please, please, let Martin Levin know. Please, please, join my desperate petition: No more luminous prose. Nor more lustrous writing. Or lambent. Or incandescent or radiant.

Maybe, in our age of climate change, if a reviewer wants to praise someone's "compact, fluorescent new novel", I'll accept that low-wattage alternative. But I remain blind to all the other light-minded review-writing clichés.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Three-Hour Tour...

Over the last five years, as I've worked on my book and (most recently) an explore article about the Thanksgiving Howe Sound kayaking tragedy, I've had the good fortune to chat with many of the men and women from Canada's Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary, and a few south of the border, too. I've learned a lot about their training, their equipment, their rescue strategies and tactics, and their personalities. These are folks who put themselves into seriously precarious weather conditions to rescue mariners gone astray—and do it on a volunteer basis, in the case of Auxiliary units. Brave stuff, in other words.

They've also got a sense of humour, too, as this recent safety reminder from the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary shows:

Most of us remember the S.S. Minnow from the 1960’s sitcom Gilligan’s Island. That voyage was crewed by a mighty sailing man (Gilligan) and a sure and brave skipper. They were only going to be out for a three-hour tour but ran into some bad weather. What most people don’t know is that the brave and sure skipper never filed a Float Plan, failed to check the weather forecast and did not carry an Emergency Position Indicating Radiobeacon or EPIRB thereby delaying search efforts for weeks and making locating them on an uncharted deserted island almost impossible.

The United States Coast Guard Auxiliary strongly suggests that all recreational boaters, regardless of the size of their boat, carry with them not only the federal and local mandated safety equipment, but also a VHF Radio and a EPIRB, which are not mandated. If the Minnow carried an EPIRB there never would have been a series since the five passengers and crew would have been located very quickly.

The filing of a Float Plan with friends, relatives and your marina enables these people to inform the Coast Guard when you don't arrive at the point your are supposed to when are expected to arrive. When properly completed the Float Plan contains information to make the search faster and easier. In the case of the Minnow no one knew they were overdue for several weeks.

A Float Plan asks such questions as what type of boat, what is your proposed itinerary, do you have a radio, how many people on board, etc. The answers can shorten the process of locating a missing boater.

Although we have made a little light out of the voyage of the Minnow, safe boating and seamanship is no joke. For more information about safe boating, check out the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.
Of course, if the Minnow did have an EPIRB, I wouldn't have whiled away so many after-school afternoons in front of the boob tube, enjoying the fine tradition of desert-island fantasies: a plot line that has led from The Tempest and Robinson Crusoe, through Gilligan and friends, to Survivor and Lost, with hundreds of New Yorker cartoons in between. But gripping adventure lit (as well as cheesy sitcoms) is often the description of what happens when things go wrong—and sometimes that includes some pretty bad judgements in safety planning.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Reviewing the Reviewers

This weekend's edition of the Globe and Mail didn't send me into the apoplexy of rage that it often does, especially the Book Review section, which actually included several well-reasoned critiques, including one by my colleague Lorna Jackson. (I suck up to her not simply because she wields power over whether I keep my present job but also because she has spent a lot of creative energy wrestling with the art and duty of the book reviewer.)

Still, a word choice in one review stuck in my craw. Because of my generous mood, I'll leave the writer anonymous. Instead, I'll indulge in a frequent daydream fantasy that I call "Words I'd Ban if I Were Made Dictionary Deity":

From all book reviews: lambent, lustrous, luminous... in fact, any light-emitting diction to describe someone else's prose or poetry. These adjectives are as vague as the equally galling modifier nuanced, although perhaps they serve a role as code words to warn that the book under study is yet another of the faux-poetic, over-written CanLit melodramas that make me want to take my eyes out with a fork.

From the style sections of newspapers and magazines: I know, having written plenty of trends fluff and home porn myself, that "lifestyle journalism" is an oxymoron. Still, I think we can finally fumigate the following literary tics: fashionista, foodie, boite (for a restaurant rather than a
box of takeaway in France), and bling (unless, of course, you have gold teeth, diamond-encrusted brass knuckles, and did a nickel in Sing Sing before recording your first multi-platinum gangsta rap album).

And, mea culpa, my own over-fondness for cutesy dialogue tags. No one should muse, opine, or marvel about anything. Stop me before I opine again.

Friday, February 8, 2008

It is Finished!

I had a beer last night and a couple of glasses of wine to celebrate signing off on the final final final final page proofs of my new / first book—i.e., the point of no return—catching a few minor formatting errors and resisting the urge for any minute-before-midnight tinkering (always a bad idea). The electronic file is off to the printer some time next week... although I still haven't seen the last version of the dustjacket text.

It's a good feeling, although it still all won't seem really real until I have the physical object in my sweaty palms. Bruce Kirkby, the author/adventurer/TV host, wrote a blurb of advance praise for me and had some welcome words about basking in this pre-production moment:
And my only piece of advice, whatever fate holds for the life of this book you are about to birth, always remember how you feel about it - your work - right now. I really, really think that is what counts. Because PR nightmares and unattended signings and mean-spirited reviews can grind you down - which I suppose is fine, you ask for that as an author - but they should never grind down your pride in what you created.

My wife has already promised to pre-read any reviews when they come out to try to head off mood swings before they strike. I already know how much I already obsess over a single negative or even just ambivalent word on a teacher evaluation. Someone saying nasty things about my "baby" is going sting that much more...

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Hyphenated Writer

I consider it a dedication to my craft that I pulled myself out of bed early last Saturday, shook a screaming toddler off my pant leg, and drove out to Sidney for a 8:30 am conference session called "Grammar Boot Camp". But really, the topic that writers most like to discuss—after moaning about editors/publishers/reviewers and speculating about other authors' advances—is the fine arcana of English grammar and prose style.

And my bleary commute was well worth it, as Frances Peck of the Editors' Association of Canada gave an informative and engaging rundown of the most common grammatical boo-boos she encounters in her work:

  1. Agreement (pronoun-antecedent, subject-verb)
  2. Pronoun Case (esp. the use and misuse of myself)
  3. Dangling modifiers (which she considers the most common blunder)
  4. Commas
  5. And more commas
In the discussion after her talk, someone asked a series of questions that all had to do with hyphenation. Before she answered, Frances cautioned the interrogator with a quote from John Benbow, a former editor of the OED: "If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad." It's a quote I wish I'd heard before, because it could have saved me many stressful debates with fellow magazine editors, as we tried to formulate strict rules for when and when not to hyphenate.

One example from a press release I recently got: "The keynote presenter is a high energy particle theorist." Ah, the possibilities:
  • a high energy-particle theorist (i.e., a physicist gone to pot?)
  • a high-energy particle theorist (i.e., an over-caffeinated scientist?)
  • a high-energy-particle theorist OR high-energy-particle-theorist (more correct perhaps, but starting to look like one of those block-long, throat-stopping German proper nouns)
  • or, as it was, a high energy particle theorist (leave it hyphen-free and trust readers to figure it out from the context)
My own question had to do with em-dashes—long dashes, like these ones—and how they seem to have proliferated (perhaps thanks to quick keys in MS Word) in the writing of nearly every author, good and bad, mine included. They've become the catch-all replacement for nearly every other form of punctuation: commas, semi-colons, colons, even periods and parentheses.

Frances admitted to suffering the same fondness for em-dashes, but told us that after her first draft, she goes back in and removes about 75% of them, especially those that don't convey an abrupt transition or strong emphasis. Good advice.

She also offered a pair of useful online grammatical resources:
I can always tell which of my own students really care about the hard-learned craft of writing (and which simply have airy fantasies of being a capital-W Writer) by how much they care about the comma and other essential grammatical minutiae. And, yes, how seriously they take the hyphen--even if it might drive them mad.