Sep 02

Defending semicolons

Yesterday I reblogged a thing on Tumblr. It was a list of writing tips, many of which I agreed with, some of which I disagreed with but didn’t outright object to.

One of them, though — a transphobic comment that Kurt Vonnegut made, disparaging semicolons – I cut, and replaced it with a different piece of Vonnegut’s advice.

I am pro-semicolons in fiction. I think they have a legitimate place in fiction writing; furthermore, I think the objection to semicolons emerges from a problematic trend in American literature of rejecting complexity of every sort.

There are, frankly, ideas that are best expressed through the use of semicolons. Not because they add new information, but specifically because they allow a writer to juxtapose two or more ideas without declaring an idea of the relationship between them.

For example, here’s a phrase with a semicolon: “She was angry; she was tired.” Using a semicolon allows you to give those two ideas equal weight, and to present them as separate ideas that nonetheless are meant to occupy the reader’s experience of the narrative at the same time.

Other ways you can present those phrases all carry different meaning. “She was angry and she was tired” presents those states as specifically in harmony with each other. “She was angry but she was tired” presents them as explicitly contradictory. In the ‘and’ sentence you might expect her to lash out because she’s out of patience. In the ‘but’ sentence you might expect her to want to lash out, but decide not to bother for lack of energy.

“She was angry: she was tired” implies that she’s angry because she’s tired. “She was angry, she was tired” implies she’s tired because she’s angry. You could maybe achieve a similar effect with an em-dash: “She was angry — she was tired.” And I do, also, like em-dashes quite a lot. But they carry more energy, more abruptness than a semicolon, so if you wanted that sentence to sound exhausted you’d lose something by losing the semicolon.

In a recent post for the Tor/Forge blog, John Scalzi talked about his non-use of semicolons in his recent murder mystery, Lock-In:

There’s another thing; semicolons create a certain sense of pace in one’s writing. There are few sentences with semicolons that could be described as “punchy”; indeed the presence of semicolon suggests rather the opposite. Sentences with semicolons are languid, or unhurried, or even draggy; they take their time to get to their point. Often that is the point; a writer who knows his or her craft knows there are times when a point will be better made by going a circuitous route. But when every sentence starts taking the long way home, even without you intending it, that’s a problem.

He explained that, while semicolons played a major role in his writing up to that point, they weren’t appropriate for the kind of suspense that a murder mystery demands. And, certainly, there are books that are better for containing no semicolons, or would be better if they contained no semicolons.

But I think the categorical proscription against them stems less from a sense of good advice, and more from a weird, fetishistic competition that the American writing tradition seems to be engaged in, that says: “How un-British can we possibly be, without actually using a different language?”

Hemmingway and e e cummings cut as much as they could from their writing to see what they could achieve with the minimum of adornment. Mark Twain and Stephen Crane took local dialect and vernacular to extremes. In The Elements of Style William Strunk and E.B. White turn what is pretty good advice for folks who want to go from English amateurs to functional communicators in the workplace into a religious canon of American writing instructions, from which deviation is, they give the impression, morally wrong.  And Kurt Vonnegut and Stephen King talk about writing in a personal, local accent that sometimes sounds like they think you shouldn’t ever use any words you learned after you turned 14.

I think this attitude is wrong. But more importantly, I think it’s symptomatic of a trend in American narratives that says all complication is unnecessary complication. I mean, I don’t think that people objecting to semicolons is the same thing as refusing to discuss complex, systematic issues like global warming or racism. But I think they both build from the same truism: that anything elaborate can be made simple, without losing meaning; that complexity is a form of dishonesty.

It’s one thing to say that a lot of people use semicolons wrong; to say that it’s hard to use complex structure to make effective points. I think it’s a great idea to hand a copy of The Elements of Style to every high school student and say “Master this before moving past it.” If a narrative can be written clearly and correctly without any sentences longer than ten words, then it’s probably a bad idea to throw in elaborate stylistic flourishes.

But semicolons have a place in fiction writing. The solution to difficult realities is not to pretend that we’d all be better off pretending they don’t exist.

Sep 01

Laptop sads

I spent some time online today, window-shopping1 for a new laptop. Turns out, laptops are pretty expensive, and nothing I would have wanted was available for a price I could have convinced myself was reasonable. So, instead, I decided to spend a chunk of the afternoon getting a friend to wipe my old computer so that its worthwhile contents can be reinstalled, in the hope that many or all of the problems with it were viruses or something, and not flaws in the physical structure of the device.

It’s not that I don’t like my chromebook — it’s definitely nice having a computer that weighs less than 10 pounds, and syncs easily with google products — but I’ve been noticing a lot, lately, functionality that I want to have in a laptop that isn’t available through my chromebook. For example: Adobe Premiere, Scrivener, and Minecraft. And working when I don’t have WiFi.

But that functionality doesn’t seem to be available for under $300 at the moment.

  1. lol

Aug 29

First Observer production night

Tonight is / was the first production night of the NECC Observer, the student newspaper of Northern Essex Community College. I’m here for my third (fourth?) year, and am the copy and web editor. About half the people are new. So far, I think this is the best batch of new people we’ve had.

And that’s good, because we’re doing more this year than we’ve done at any point in my time here before.

First big thing: we’re getting a website. It isn’t live yet, but is going to be at www.observer.necc.mass.edu.

It’s going to be running on WordPress, which is convenient. But I’ve got no experience with editing other people via Wordpress, and I’ve discovered a new and exciting potential problem: stories go through three or four stages of edits a night, usually right on the InDesign file — so it’s not going to be convenient to get the most-edited version of the story up on the web.

Another exciting challenge is that we’re going to try to get content up on the web regularly, which means delayed publication on the paper, but it also means getting stories online ahead of the issue they’ll be printed in, as well as getting up stories that won’t make it to the paper at all.

The other thing we’re doing is getting a Lawrence Editor.

NECC has three campuses: the Haverhill campus, the Lawrence campus, and the Riverwalk campus, which is also in Lawrence. But the Observer’s press room, and the entire journalism program, are both in Haverhill. So, historically, we’ve done a profoundly bad job of covering things going on in Lawrence.

We did a little better last year, but this year we’re attempting to put ourselves on the spot and devote a whole page every issue exclusively to Lawrence content.

Usually, a first production night runs till about 10 p.m., or much later. It’s 7:45, and we’re basically done — just finishing some last details. So I’m optimistic.

Aug 28

I’m developing a cautious interest in the Bluetones

On today’s episode of “Yo, Is This Racist?” comedian & guest Gaby Dunn talked about her experience with white male comedians failing to live up to basic standards of moral decency. She said,

I don’t think I can support white men doing anything in entertainment wholeheartedly, the way I’d want to, now — because who knows what they’ll do later.

It’s with that sentiment in mind that I’ve been conflicted about getting into the Bluetones.

Like — I really like their music. Slight Return is becoming one of my favorite songs.

But, I haven’t listened to their discography exhaustively. I haven’t really paid attention to all the lyrics in the songs I have listened to. I know barely anything about the artists themselves. Like, I don’t even know their names.

What I’ve seen so far is in that uncomfortable borderline space, where I really like a lot of their music, but some fair chunks sound like they could be interpreted charitably or not — songs like Carnt Be Trusted, I feel like I’d need to know more about the singers’ feelings about women in general and about the subject of the song in particular before I could tell if they’re being creeps or not. And Sleazy Bed Track — the first track of theirs I heard, off the Scott Pilgrim vs. the World soundtrack — all it has going for it in defense is that the title acknowledges that its plot is sleazy.

But I don’t know if they’re singing about asshole dudes because they think it’s important to point out that those kinds of behavior are awful and should stop? Or if they’re exactly those kinds of assholes, and subscribe to the popular logic that if you acknowledge that you’re being a douchebag that’s basically the same as not being a douchebag in the first place?

And I know the only way I’m going to get answers to these questions is by continuing to invest time and energy into exploring their work, which I do want to do, because I’m really enjoying it so far. But when it comes to cishet white dudes, it can kind of feel like taking a deeper interest is like playing a game of minesweeper: the asshole receipts are out there, and the further along I get the bigger a disappointment it’s going to be when I stumble on them.

So, Mark Morriss, Adam Devlin, Scott Morriss, Eds Chesters and Richard Payne (I looked their names up): if you’re reading this, and any of you are racists, sexists, misogynists, homophobes, transphobes, transmisogynists, abusers, or otherwise awful, let me know, okay? It’ll save me some time.

Oh! And same goes for Blur, who I’ve also been listening to a lot lately.

Aug 27

(No title)

it’s been a long day, it’s 10 at night and I am not feeling well. I don’t have anything to blog about or the energy to come up with new content. (I just deleted three paragraphs about a dream I had when I realized it was incredibly boring.)

I promise to not do this again for at least, like, two months.

Aug 26

So close to done!

So today I sat in a Papa Ginos for 3 hours, ate an entire large pizza, and worked on my novel.

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before? But I’m hand-writing this whole draft on yellow legal pads. I did the same thing with ( the first draft of this novel | my first novel ) and it worked pretty well, because it really forces the “You can only move forward” feeling that I think is necessary sometimes when writing. The most back-up editing I allowed myself was brief margin notes on the current and previous days’ writing, and, once, cutting the last two or so sentences from the previous day in order to move forward properly.

I’ve just gotten past the climax of the novel, and I think at this point it’s fair to say that it’s definitely the third draft of my first novel, not something new. The story didn’t end up taking me to new and unexpected places, it continued all the way through to be what I intended it to be: a restructuring and tightening of the plot of the previous draft.

(That included: changing who the main character was, who the villain was, what their relationship was, cutting whole characters, arcs, institutions and settings entirely, and adding a lot of cool new stuff that I’m really excited about, including superheroes, an underground city, and nonbinary people with magical plant powers.)

And the climactic scene ended up playing out pretty close to exactly how it did last draft.

After that part, in the first and second drafts of this story, there were just a couple pages of “This is what the heroes did after that,” and barely a reference to what happened next to the character who clearly should have been the main one.

So, I have no idea how the next chunk of the story is going to go. I am officially off the map. But, at least, I should be able to finish this draft before the start of the semester.

Aug 25

running out of memories?

I had a nightmare the other night that my little brother had turned into some kind of monster and was creating a sort of wintery post-apocalyptic hellscape evocative of World War I imagery in which I had to fight to survive, and, hopefully, prevail over his destruction.

After getting over the terror, when I woke up, it was actually pretty reassuring.

Right now I’m working on a draft of a novel into which I’m pouring a ton of my anger about the circumstances of my childhood and early adulthood, and the people I ought to have been able to trust, and by whom I was instead threatened, gaslighted, and occasionally physically harmed.

And I’ve had what I know is a kind of anxiety writers I admire would recognize (because they’ve talked about it) — The fear that there’s no more story in you after this one.

It barely even begins to make sense, but I’ve been afraid that I’m going to use up all the sad in my life, write one good book, and then never be able to accomplish anything written down again. So it was a pretty reassuring experience to have a nightmare reminding me that there are yet-untapped avenues of pathological fear and mistrust in my mind.

Aug 22

semi-laws

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about this article, I Got Myself Arrested So I Could Look Inside the Justice System. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about this passage:

But in between the important cases, I found myself spending most of my time prosecuting people of color for things we white kids did with impunity growing up in the suburbs. As our office handed down arrest records and probation terms for riding dirt bikes in the street, cutting through a neighbor’s yard, hosting loud parties, fighting, or smoking weed – shenanigans that had rarely earned my own classmates anything more than raised eyebrows and scoldings – I often wondered if there was a side of the justice system that we never saw in the suburbs.

I know this isn’t really news to anybody, or groundbreaking legal philosophy or anything, but it’s really important to spend some time sitting with the question: what does it mean for a society to have laws of which everyone, or almost everyone, is guilty, and which are prosecuted selectively?

Cory Doctorow talks about this in one of his talks, Authors@Google: Cory Doctorow,1 describing black market laws in the Soviet Union — since the legal markets sometimes sold nothing but forks, to survive you needed to buy food on the black market. Therefore, everyone was guilty of using black markets. Therefore, if anyone with the authority to arrest anyone wanted to arrest anyone at all, for any reason, they could — and the transgression doesn’t have to be illegal, because they can just charge them for using black markets.

He compared that to piracy laws, that have allowed the entertainment industry to target disruptive programmers and musicians — whose behavior was totally legal — for illegal downloading, which everybody, or almost everybody, is guilty of.

In the video Don’t Talk to Police, (which I recommend,) Officer George Bruch of the Virginia Beach Police Department tells a classroom “I can follow a car for however long I needed to and eventually they’re going to do something illegal.”

Almost nobody doesn’t speed. People drive recklessly. People forget their seatbelts. People forget to signal, people tailgate, and so on. Nobody drives legally — which is how tongue-in-cheek offences like “Driving while black” emerge. Cops can pull over whoever they want, and, it turns out, they mainly want to pull over people of color.

White people, myself included, routinely rely on the common sense of authorities that, while an act might be technically illegal, enacting the proscribed punishment would be absurd. We grow up assuming that everybody can rely on that common sense — that the system as it’s written has its problems, but they’re resolved by the reasonableness of the humans with good intentions that are responsible for enforcing it.

People of Color, LGBTQIAP+ people, and other groups of people who are Othered by the mainstream of society don’t have that protection to the same degree as mainstream, cishet white people.

And, as we’re seeing in Ferguson, Mo. at the moment, it works in the other direction, too. When a white cop shoots an unarmed black teenager while he’s running away with his hands up, then keeps shooting after he’s on the ground and dead, then prevents the family from identifying the body and leaves him in the street for hours, it suddenly becomes common sense to a lot of Americans that, since being a cop is scary, it’s not really reasonable to go through the procedure of taking away that cop’s gun and investigating him. That ambiguity about which laws are really fair to apply manifests in defense of the white cop who used excessive force and murdered a black teenager.

This is a big part of what Thoughtcrime was about in 1984. It wasn’t just the criminilization of beliefs and expressions of belief — it was the existence of a crime of which everyone was guilty, so that in the eyes of the law, no one can reasonably defend themselves. That way, the police can do whatever they want. No one can possibly feel safe to stand up against them; although, as long as you’re not planning on it, it’s pretty easy to feel like you aren’t guilty — because no cop in their right mind would arrest you.

  1. This section starts around 20:30, but for full context start at 19:00.

Aug 21

I’m pretty excited about Frankenstein, M.D.

(Episode 1) (Episode 2) (Episode 3)

This is the new show from Pemberley Digital, the company that brought us the groundbreaking Lizzie Bennet Diaries. (Also, the company that was brought to us by the Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Isn’t the internet neat?)

I’m super excited about this show, because — well, because I’ve watched three episodes, and I’m super excited about it.

I was really into the Lizzie Bennet Diaries. I think they did an awesome job capturing and modernizing Pride and Prejudice, and keeping up with it was a genuinely fun and exciting experience.

Consequently, I was pretty bummed when I felt less engaged in Welcome to Sanditon, even though Gigi was one of my favorite characters in LBD, and I couldn’t even muster enough interest to keep watching Emma Approved into double digits. (As it happens, I also struggled to watch the movie version of Emma end to end. It ended up being really good, but I think that story naturally engages me less than Pride and Prejudice; I feel I have a lot in common with Lizzie, which I expect is a common experience among book nerds.)

So I’m not just excited to have a cool new series that looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun, and a faithful adaptation of Frankenstein — which I still haven’t gotten around to reading, but which I know isn’t quite the same as the pop culture version of the story.

I’m also excited because I enjoyed liking LBD, and being a part of that community and this new kind of media, vlog-retellings of classic literature. I’m glad I’m going to get to do that again.

Aug 20

The Girl In The Road

Africa is the new India, after India became the new America, after America became the new Britain, after Britain became the new Rome, after Rome became the new Egypt, after Egypt became the new Punt, and so on and so fourth. Now we’re back to Punt.

That’s how Monica Byrne describes the movement of cultural centers throughout history in her novel “The Girl in the Road.”

I had never heard of Punt before. It was an ancient kingdom, which at some point was contemporary to Egypt. It’s part of the bits of history that just don’t get taught, I guess. Clearly it’s important, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never even heard it referred to.

This is one of my favorite things about science fiction — learning new bits of information that are minimally emphasized, if at all, in the narratives of 21st century America, but which could be drastically more important in another context. And, in particular, reading SF about perspectives that are marginalized in 21st century America. “The Girl in the Road” follows the stories of two women, one Indian and one from northwest Africa, both travelling through a world that thoroughly does not revolve around Europe or the United States of America.

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