You Don’t Have to Obey the Machines

Head-artificial-intelPerhaps you’ve seen the film I, Robot, with Will Smith.  In the highly technophilic future (the year 2035 in this case), almost everyone has a robot companion. The robots make meals for humans, do the laundry, run out to the market for groceries, and protect human homes and human families–and if you forget your asthma medication at home in your purse, don’t worry! Your robot will run and get it for you. The quicker U.S. Robotics can develop the next generation of sleeker, shinier, anthropomorphic robots, the better.

The film appeals to us because we love convenience, we love technology, and even though our technology in the year 2013 isn’t what people hope it will be in 2035, we are still doing pretty well. We are rabid collectors of high-tech toys designed to make life easier, to make our talents more noticeable, to make our work more effective, and to make our leisure time more fun. And each month it seems like there’s some new technological wonder for us to covet or collect.

Many of my editing clients are newbies when it comes to writing and some have admitted to buying some pretty expensive writing software for their computers, software that they believe will help them become great writers. They have wondered why these programs have failed to help them achieve the status of Exceptional Writer though (with the accompanying mile-long line of literary agents banging at their doors, hoping to snatch up an exceptional manuscript). But robots and computer programs can’t write exceptional novels, only people can. Only people with the gift to write—who also have a handle on the mechanics of writing—can write exceptional novels. Even if your grasp is more instinctive than academic, you can write some very fine prose. But, remember, your computer cannot.

I wrote: “Jill washed her hands and started to dry them on her shirt.” The electronic grammar checker I used corrected the sentence to read: “Jill washed her hands and started to dry those on her shirt.” Though most writers would know this is incorrect, many of the less experienced among them would think that there had to have been something wrong with their original sentence to make the grammar checker suggest a change at all. This is the point where insecure writers will make changes where none are needed.

Will Smith’s character in I, Robot is a detective named Spooner. Spooner holds a violent hatred for technology, especially robots, because when Spooner’s car and a car carrying a young girl are involved in an accident which pushes them both into a river, a robot saves Spooner’s life while allowing the girl to die. The robot can check blood oxygen levels, detect heart rate and blood pressure. The robot can detect human life functions and use that information to calculate chances of survival. The robot makes a pragmatic choice: Spooner has a greater chance of surviving than the girl, therefore Spooner must be saved.  But what the robot cannot do is grasp the humanity which would make most of us reach for the drowning child first. It does not have the compassion, morals, sorrows, life experiences, hurts, and love which made Spooner demand it save the drowning child. And a grammar checker does not have the compassion, morals, sorrows, life experiences, hurts, and love that you have which can make your prose sing.

The writer must understand grammar, and she must be confident about what she means to say. She should say what she means, regardless of the demands made by the artificial intelligence which surrounds her.

Jean Foster Akin

Photo by JFA

Don’t Be a Verb Weenie!

Passive, active; intransitive, transitive—whatever you label them within context, verbs are amazing creatures! They fill our stories with zest, with tang, with spice, with punch…if chosen well, of course!

It’s unfortunate that so many students of writing find verbs a mystery to use properly. Believe me, I have been editing manuscripts a long time, and many of my clients view verbs the same way an old man might view an ancient, towering maple tree. He wants to climb it as he once did in his youth; he wants to master the tree and feel the roughness of the bark against his thighs, and listen to the rustling of fresh, cool, green leaves as they tickle the back of his neck. But in the end, he walks away, feeling mildly defeated, too fearful to make the attempt to climb.

Now, of course, this is the point where my illustration falls apart; only a wise old man knows he shouldn’t attempt to climb a large old tree, but as writers we know we should make every attempt to understand our language better and use it masterfully in our writing–in other words, no matter what our age, we must climb that tree! The old man, on the other hand, might look jaunty and brave to the neighbors as he gives a little hop and grasps the first branch he can reach, but if he can hoist his old self onto that branch, he’ll probably fall and break his neck soon thereafter. Not so with the writer who bravely studies the subject of transitive and intransitive verbs! If you take some time to study verbs, squeamish as you might feel at first, you will find yourself a better writer–and that’s always worth the trouble. Besides, think of how intelligent you will look to friends, family, and foes when you can carry on a conversation about transitive and intransitive verbs!  You will definitely adopt a jaunty air, and your circle of acquaintances will all be so jealous (especially your foes, believe me)!

If you will be brave (and I know you want to be) you will take care to pick up the right book on verbs so that you won’t become discouraged in your studies. You must be fearless if you want to write well. You cannot be a verb weenie! I’ve seen first-hand the colorlessness that a rigid adherence to the rules of grammar can bring a story, and I’ve read the very texts that bring on the fear of experimentation which causes this colorlessness in so many pieces of writing. I’ve been victimized by writer-friends, shamelessly hopped up on Strunk and White, who ripped every bit of “passive voice” from my writing so that in the end my work resembled an instruction manual for installing a shower head, only less exciting. But then, I’ve also seen the devil-may-care mess that comes when writers get sloppy and throw grammar into the wind because everything they’ve ever read about “active and passive” has been so technical they can’t be bothered to learn.

Constance Hale, author of the new Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing, recently spoke with an interviewer,** and had a few very helpful things to say about passive verbs (what she calls “static verbs”): “I visited a journalism class in which the instructor advised students to steer clear of is going, was going, and had been going as a way of cutting static verbs out of sentences. That’s a valuable tense he’s throwing out. We need progressive forms! Why not tell students to throw out every neon highlighter and stick only to black ballpoint?”

Ms. Hale goes on to give a fantastic example of passive/static verbs in the following passage from One Hundred Years of Solitude, as translated into English by Gregory Rabassa:

‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant noon when his father took him to discover ice.’

“Here,” Ms. Hale states, “in one of the greatest opening lines of literature, the passive construction captures the infinite passivity of Buendia’s situation: He is facing the firing squad, helpless against his fate, unable to act, to change; he can only remember the remotest past.”

Writing (communicating through the written word) and writing well (communicating beautifully through the written word), should not be shackled by a rigid adherence to rules, and laws, and ordinances. But, you can follow the necessary rules and still PLAY WITH WORDS, and you should! Make sure your readers understand what you are attempting to communicate, of course, but don’t worry so much about rules that you lose sight of the beauty and fun and satire and emotion that naturally blooms as you let yourself go and enjoy the writing process. Don’t allow your particular and remarkable way of expressing thoughts to be overshadowed by stiff, grammatically perfect formula—but do know your stuff. A fun way to start might be by purchasing Constance Hale’s book for writers and teachers, Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing. I do not know Ms. Hale and I don’t get a cut from the sale of her book (wouldn’t that be nice?), but what she said about the purpose of the book made me believe it was just the remedy for the insecurity so many writers feel in the face of the dreaded intransitive verb. She wrote that the goal of the book is not to champion “hypercorrect grammar, but hyperpowerful prose…”

Anyone who knows me knows one of my biggest pet peeves is the lack of preparation I find in modern writers, modern would-be authors. Many of them don’t read enough, they don’t write enough, they don’t allow for enough constructive and honest feedback of their work. They vomit out onto the page whatever it is they feel and think, and believe that this is good enough. It is not. It’s lazy. It’s cynical. It’s not what a true writer does except in a first draft. Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch was written by a woman who has fanatically studied grammar for many many years, but who has written a lively, loving look at the beauty and possibilities of language. For writers who really want their work to shine, I’m suggesting this book.

by Jean Foster Akin

**See the January 2013 edition of The Writer (Vol. 126, Issue 1) for a wonderful interview with Constance Hale.


Writers are sometimes strange, often introspective, frequently emotional, always (hopefully) highly imaginative, commonly impetuous, and every now and again unpredictable. Writers: those people who burn with desire to dance with words.

I’ve been dancing for a long time. For many many years. Writing has been for me a long and passionate love affair. At nine years old, I would creep to that dark corner of the dining room on the second floor of the three-storey walk-up where my family lived. There I would nestle in the attached seat of a 1950s wood and cast-iron school desk my Nana had given us years before, a small desk that my father had crammed into the out-of-the-way corner of the room, between the end of my mother’s immense dark oak buffet and the old cast iron radiator near the wall. In that corner was a narrow window which looked out on the murky shadows that fell between our house and the one standing six feet away, blocking the light. Through that window, I could just see a patch of azure sky above, and hear the muffled squeak of chains grinding on metal as the children down the block swung on the old lumbering swing set in the park. And there I would sit, writing away, loving it more than the swings–more, even, at that moment (and at most moments) than whatever had caused the giggling at the park.

At fourteen, I was still finding secluded little nooks where I could sit with pencil and notepad, listening to the rain, smelling the tangy wet air, and writing writing writing.

When I was fifteen, my mom and dad went out and found me a hunkin’ old manual Royal typewriter. That grey metal behemoth was the most treasured gift I had ever received at that point in my life (the Easy Bake Oven when I was six was pretty good too), and never once did they complain when, long after they had gone to bed at night, the floor shook with the vibration caused by the tips of my fingers crashing down hard on those old springy keys as the typewriter rested precariously on an old card table in my bedroom.

I still find in the act of writing a contentment and release that few other activities have ever offered. Yes, of course, there is the love I feel for the man who makes me whole, who brings me joy by his very presence in my life: the man whose voice lifts me, the man who can look into my eyes and make the world around me vanish, the man I know as deeply and as intimately as I know myself. For him I have an indescribable love, in him I feel an indescribable contentment. There are children too, children whom I have held in the night, and sung to; children who used to lay in their beds, falling into dreams as they listened to me read The Wind in the Willows from the shadowy hall. These are the children I rocked, the children I bandaged and kissed. These are the children who are no longer helpless, but for whom I still hold a fierce love that steps way over the border of impartial judgement and calm consideration. But writing? Writing is something that was always there, inside me from the beginning. That thing which drove me before the others came along. That thing which defined me before the words “loving wife” and “devoted mother” ever became words to describe me.

Certainly, I have loved spending hours reading books on the “do’s and don’t’s” of remedial correctness. After all, spelling and grammar must be learned (now more than ever in this text-happy world); vocabulary, composition theory, syntax—all these aspects of speaking and writing words need learning, discussion, practice, constructive critiquing. But if words are to be spoken and written in ways which make us feel, then we must dance with words, and allow our children to dance with them too. It is error to say that there are no rules to language except those the writer makes for himself, but it is also error to always harp on every misplaced comma.

There are times to draw grammar trees and define imperative and interrogative sentences, but there are also times when we must simply enjoy the flow of words, revel in the sounds of words, feel the meter without having to name it or dissect it. There are times when we must dance.

Jean Foster Akin

Finding Time to Write

One of the more frustrating aspects of being a writer is finding time to write.

If you are working towards publication, or your first book is in production and you are working on book number two (the latter being the happy position in which I find myself at the moment), then you know how important it is not to allow too much time to elapse between writing sessions.

But published authors are not the only writers, obviously. They are not the only writers who need to write. There are many writers who are not focused on publication who feel just as much urgency to sit and write as any other writer out there. They are poets and journal-keepers, they are the writers of family stories who keep family history safe for generations to come. They are those who write on any number of subjects in any number of genres, and they find it difficult sometimes to find the time to get all that great stuff on paper.

Here are a few problems we all face as writers in finding the time to write, and my thoughts on how we might manage the conflicts between the world which presses in around us (insisting on our attention), and the haven of the writing nook.

  • Poor Prioritizing: We all know that in order to have a relaxed, productive, and ultimately satisfactory writing session, we cannot be distracted by the odor of the overflowing garbage pail in the kitchen, the whining dog we have yet to feed, or the child who needs our attention. We must get certain things settled before launching into hours of uninterrupted writing time, because, contrary to popular theory, your Muse does not come before your children, your hungry dog, or the sanitary conditions of your home! Handle the needs of those important people in your life first (and don’t rush them through like they are telemarketers!), take care of the dog if it’s your turn today, and get rid of the garbage in the kitchen. Then you can settle down and get in some writing time with a clear conscience.
  • Disorganization: If possible, keep your computer in one room, designated as your writing room. It should be a room as free from distractions as possible (no TV, little or no “foot traffic,” etc). Keep all your reference books nearby, and all your multi-colored pens/pencils and notebooks handy. Designate these items as YOURS. This is not selfish as long as you see that everyone else has THEIRS. There are certain tools a writer needs, and needs close, while she is working; allowing the children to borrow your dictionary because they’ve lost their own only leads to you running around the house like a chicken with her head cut off searching for your dictionary when you need it. You’ll be getting up time and time again to go find the thesaurus Johnny left upstairs, and the notebook with your character sketches in it that little Jenny snagged as a drawing pad last Sunday. Also, once you find the room you want as your writing-place, don’t keep packing up and moving elsewhere throughout the month in an effort to change the scenery–this will only lead to YOU leaving your writing necessaries all over the house. Again: find your place and get your mind used to writing in that place; label your things so they aren’t used and then misplaced by the general population. Just those two actions on your part will cut down on many hours of search and rescue missions! 🙂
  • Distractions: Unless there is someone in your house other than you who pretty much always answers the telephone, you must screen your calls. The telephone is one of the biggest time wasters out there. When you are stuck on how to end a chapter, the ringing phone can be like the Siren’s call! Resist her, I beg you, or you will never get any writing done at all! Writers don’t get paid for wasting time–so don’t waste it! If your spouse or children call you during the day, they get priority. Everybody else can wait till after dinner.
  • Internet: this could be listed under “Distractions,” above, but the Internet is so pervasive in our culture, I think it deserves its own heading. When most of us write, we use, not an old Royal typewriter, but a computer. And most of us have our computers hooked up to the Internet. We use online dictionary and thesaurus sites for quick look-ups, and we search the Internet for any variety of information needed in a story on which we’re working. But many writers also sneak peeks throughout the day at email, Face Book, and Twitter accounts, and those “peeks” often distract them for many minutes to hours at a time! Does this sound like you? If the Internet has you hooked, designate a time for surfing or for answering email, preferably at the end of the day, not at the beginning. If possible, disconnect from the Internet (while writing creatively at least) and use the old standbys to support your writing: dictionaries, reference books from the library, tools for writers made of actual paper, in soft or hard cover–the same instruments used successfully for many years by exceptional writers of our past, before the Rise of the Machines.

I wish you productive, distraction-free writing today! 🙂

Jean Foster Akin