Category Archives: English and Editing

A Quotable Quote

Every morning, when I boot up my computer and check my email, I’m greeted with the Word of the Day from A Word A Day. Sometimes the words are obscure and simply add to my understanding of the language although there is little chance that I will use them. Sometimes, like this week, the words are shiny new and reflect the culture we live in. For instance today is:

carbon-neutral (KAHR-buhn NOO-truhl, NYOO-) adjective

Adding no net carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

[A greenhouse gas such as carbon dioxide is a contributor to global
warming. Carbon-neutral means contributing zero total emission of the gas
into the atmosphere. The earliest citation of the term is found in a 1992
article in The Independent (London, UK).]

Being carbon-neutral doesn’t necessarily mean producing zero carbon dioxide.
What it means is that the net addition is zero, offset by other actions,
such as planting trees, buying clean energy, etc. And it doesn’t have to be
all or nothing. If you cannot be completely carbon-neutral, you can definitely
reduce your carbon footprint.

Calculate your carbon footprint:

-Anu Garg (words at

“As an award-winning leader in green design, it’s no surprise that
Vancouver architect Peter Busby is planning North America’s first
carbon-neutral office tower.”
Kerry Gold; Carbon-neutral Building Sets a Standard; The Globe and Mail
(Toronto, Canada); Nov 20, 2007.

What I like about A Word a Day, apart from its being completely free, is that in addition to the definition, it gives you the pronunciation an explanation where necessary, and its usage in a “real” quote from the world to put it in context.

There’s another thing I like about my daily word email: the quote section. A daily quote is included with the word definition, although it’s not always directly related to the word itself. Anu Garg, the owner of A Word A Way, always selects a thought-provoking one from a well-known person. Today’s especially resonated with me since I made a lifestyle choice ten years ago of leaving a well-paying job to write.

For money you can have everything it is said. No that is not true. You can
buy food, but not appetite; medicine, but not health; soft beds, but not
sleep; knowledge but not intelligence; glitter, but not comfort; fun, but
not pleasure; acquaintances, but not friendship; servants, but not
faithfulness; grey hair, but not honor; quiet days, but not peace. The
shell of all things you can get for money. But not the kernel. That cannot
be had for money. -Arne Garborg, writer (1851-1924)

I’ve never regretted my choice, not for one minute, but it’s often been interesting to juggle the necessities of life. This quote reminded me why I do what I do. Thanks, Anu.

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There are only so many storylines…

I found this image on the internet (unfortunately there was no attribution to it) and found it not only hilarious but very telling. I’ve read somewhere that there are really only seven plots in all literature. This is a small confirmation of it.

Harry Potter and Star Wars

I found the image at

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Beginning in the middle

If you’re a reader, you know that most stories don’t begin when the main character is born, following him/her through childhood and teenage years, etc. unless that’s the purpose of the story. Stories begin in the middle of people’s lives, they assume a background (which the writer may hint at or develop during the story), an already formed personality, friends, family or lack thereof, a place to live in, a path chosen. Authors usually concentrate on one slice of life, even when they write a family saga. That’s why the first sentence of a book is so important.

The first sentence allows you to jump in the middle but also to hook the readers and prompt them to read the next sentence, then the next, then the next…

John Gardner was a master at the first sentence. Here are a few of his most intriguing ones:

“One day in April–a clear, blue day when there were crocuses in bloom–Jack Hawthorne rand over and killed his brother, David.” (Redemption)

“I had been troubled for days–odd sounds, objects our of place, all the pitiful and mundane symptoms of a disordered mind, symptoms I know all too well, coming as I do from a family of lunatics, as everyone knows–when a few odd phrases in a book on aesthetics threw everything into sharp new perspective.” (The Library Horror)

“There once was a man who made pictures on boxes.” (Vlemk the Box-painter)

“There used to be a cook in our town, a “chef” he was called in the restaurant where he worked–one of those big, dark Italian places with red fake-leather seat cushions, fake paintings on the walls, and on every table a Chianti bottle with a candle in it–but he preferred to think of himself as simply a cook, since he’d never been comfortable with high-falutin pretense, or so he claimed, though heaven knew the world was full of it, and since, whereas he knew what cooking was, all he knew for sure about chefs, he said, was that they wore those big, obsene-looking hats, which he himself wouldn’t be caught dead in.” (The Art of Living)

Now jump in the middle of ten stories by writing the first sentence of it:

  1. The first time I met my future husband, I disliked him on sight.
  2. Sally hated her name; she said it was a dog’s name, or even a horse’s name, but certainly not a girl’s name.
  3. Squeezed between the mountains to the south, and the tundra to the north, there lives a village with no personality.
  4. We all are prisoners of our memories; reality and history do not necessarily coincide.
  5. Torver Lockwood checked his watch. Damn, he thought, I blinked and another year disappeared.
  6. That night, Lucy began to plot ways of getting rid of all the kids she had to watch over.
  7. Sam Trudeau had not sold a car for three weeks now, and he was afraid he might have lost the magic.
  8. The road to Quepos slices through the mountains before it plunges, like a pearl diver, to sea level.
  9. “If you knew my secret,” said Lando the Magician, “it would damn you along with me.”
  10. “In the name of His Majesty, King George V, you are hereby sentenced to hang by the neck until death.”
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The multitude of description, part two

Putting description into motion

Writing a technical description of something is not easy, but things are rarely static and are rarely stand-alone.

In Tolstoy’s and Dickens’s times, there were no telephones, no TVs, no Internet, no movie theaters. Traveling fifty miles was a long trip, even by train, and expensive. People knew their village or their neighborhoods, and very little else. Authors had to resort to lengthy technical or pictorial descriptions so their readers could “see” what the writer wanted them to see or so they could understand the mechanism of a contraption.

Today, however, most people will know what I’m talking about if I write about the green expanses of Ireland, the Sahara, or the smog of Los Angeles. They know what a toaster, a TV, or even a science lab looks like, so I don’t have to describe every little thing about them. What I need to do is to put those things into motion to give them life. Below are four places where adding motion can make them more “real” to the reader. As last time, first write motion into the place, then use the place as a setting for putting your character into motion. Remember to keep it short.

A bagel bakery containing bagels, bagging machines and aluminum pans

1. Contrary to other large bakeries, this bagel shop, as huge as it was, still used employees to make, fashion and bake. Its only concession to modern times was the bagging machines. Once the bagels were cool enough, the bakers would upturn the aluminum pans onto a conveyor belt that led to the machines that sorted, counted and filled the bagels into plastic bags which, when filled, were dumped into cardboard boxes.

2. Ellen couldn’t believe the noise, and the heat. The roar of the ovens, the swish of the conveyor belt, the hop and skip of the bagels marching towards the bagging machines, the clang of the aluminum pans as the bakers stacked them, produced a mad symphony that made her dizzy.

A view of Switzerland containing trees, mountains and railroad tracks.

1. A few spindly trees clung to the side of the mountains that stretched to the heavens, while the railroad tracks seemed to hug themselves so they could squeeze into narrow passages or through long, dark tunnels.

2. Ellen remembered the endless length of railroad tracks, squeezed between barren mountains on one side and clusters of spindly trees on the other.

A house on the night before Christmas, containing silence, stockings, and dreams.

1. The silence hung heavy while the empty Christmas stockings waited. Dreams tiptoed through the children’s slumber, adding a smile to their expectations.

2. Ellen tiptoed through the silence of late Christmas eve. For the past week she’d  dreamt that Santa filled her stocking with rocks. I don’t think so, she thought. She’d wait for him and tell him she’d been a good girl. Well, mostly good.

A health club containing a swimming pool, a basketball court, and Nautilus machines.
1. The water in the swimming pool sparkled under the neon lights. The basketball court waited quietly for the sounds of the game. The Nautilus machines held their breaths until they clinked and clanked with the strain of use.

2. Ellen plunged into the cool water of the swimming pool and winced at her still-sore muscles. She’d take a turn at the Nautilus machines after her swim so she’d be warmed up before the pick-up basketball game on the outside court. A week at the health club and she’d be good as new.

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The multitude of description, part one

Another difficult part of writing is using description. I’m not a fan of long descriptions, à la Tolkien or Tolstoy, taking pages and pages to painstakingly build the setting into which the protagonists with play, work, fight, love and die. I’m not a fan either of the minute description style used in romance novels, for example, to give a near photographic image of the protagonists in the story. I’ve always preferred using my imagination to see a character and identify with him or her.

So today we’re starting on description exercises. Again, I invite you to do the exercises yourself and post the result in the comments section. The first in the series of exercises on description is about what I just talked about: keeping it short.

The exercise: For each of a hot air balloon, a fashion show, a modern kitchen, and a gun, use a paragraph to describe the function of it. The descriptions can be totally biased, or of a journalistic or encyclopedic tone, but the purpose is to use as few words as possible to create a picture.

Then write a one- or two-sentence description that could fit into a story. Here are my feeble attempts. (Note: description is, for me, one of the hardest thing to do, so you’re also welcome to constructively critique my writing –no flaming, please).

A Hot Air Balloon

1. A hot air balloon is usually made of flexible pieces of material sewn together to make a bag two stories high. The top has the shape of a ball, while the bottom tapers into a funnel-like aperture. Over this pouch is cast a net, its ends attached to a wicker gondola large enough to hold people and a gas heater. The balloon soars upward by filling the pouch with a lighter-than-air gas such as helium. Since it has no propulsion system, it goes where the wind goes. To rise, the balloon is filled with more heated air; to go down, the hot air is released through a series of openings.

2. Ellen lifted her head when she heard a whooshing sound in time to see the hot air balloon, so low she could almost feel the flame of the gas heater on her face.

A Fashion Show

1. As long as women and men want to make a statement with clothes, others will use art and cloth to design them. In order to exhibit their creations, designers have invented the fashion show. People interested in viewing the new designs sit around three sides of a long elevated platform, called a runway. Models –and through the years increasingly tall, slender, almost androgynous men and women– walk toward the audience, showing off hats, skirts, dresses, shoes and often more bare skin than material to the blasting sound of music. They flit and flutter, in a type of walk that is almost like a dance. They stop at the edge of the platform, wait to be admired and photographed, turn around then walk back and disappear to be replaced by another creation, worn by another model.

2. Ellen took her assigned seat at the back of the room. Covering a fashion show was not her idea of influential journalism and she’d be damned if she’d enjoy watching a gaggle of anorexic cranes unhinge their hips while walking, pouting and looking like they couldn’t be bothered.

A Modern Kitchen

1. The modern kitchen is not complete without major appliances such as a refrigerator to keep food cool and fresh, a stove and oven to cook it, and a dishwasher to clean the dishes and pans the cook used to prepare it. Some, however, would say those are the basics, but not the only essential instruments for anyone who has to work in a kitchen. A microwave oven speeds up heating and cooking food. An electric can opener saves the wrist. Then there is the electric juicer for homemade juices, the waffle iron for those Sunday brunches, the deep-fryer for that serving of French fries with the burger, the coffee-maker –and espresso machine, for those morning lattes– a toaster oven to reheat that slice of pizza, a blender for those frozen daiquiries. In fact, if you can think of a mechanical way of doing something in the kitchen, it has probably already been invented.

2. Ellen looked around and sneered when she saw that Darrell had surrounded himself with all possible modern appliances, from electric juicer to waffle iron to walk-in freezer. They gleamed silver against the granite counters and the dark cupboard doors, so pristine she knew he’d never used any of them.

A gun

1. A gun is a metal weapon that shoots bullets or shells through a tube. The bullet is projected at great speed when a hammer hits it, thus igniting a charge of gunpowder. The hammer is moved by a trigger, a piece of metal pulled with the index finger. The explosion propels the bullet out of the tube.

2. Ellen froze when she saw Darrell pointing a gun at her, his eyes hard, his jaw set. She heard him cock the hammer and knew she was dead before he pulled the trigger.

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