Category Archives: Language

Weird words and the foibles of language.

The Dog Days Doldrums: Or, Be Good to Yourself Even When You’re Doing Nothing

It’s the dog days. It’s the doldrums. It’s the nothing’s happening time. When I was growing up in sunny SoCal, this was the deep middle of summer, which for us ran from when school was out in early June until school started again after Labor Day. Endless days, warm nights. Lots of time with nothing to do but run the imagination. Read a book. Play solitaire (with cards; didn’t have computers then). Try to stay cool without A/C. A lot of time doing nothing.

I don’t know if any of that has anything to do with why I can’t seem to focus on getting anything done now. I’m eager to write. I have a number of stories I’m trying to push forward, but mostly I just keep pushing things back and forth, side to side. What am I doing? I don’t know.

The other day, while trying rather unsuccessfully to focus on a story, I ended up stumbling on a blog post by my advisor from my MFA days, the author Stephen Schwartz. The post is called “Feeding the Lake,” and it’s full of great advice for writers. But perhaps the one that struck me the most was this:

Realize that you’re writing even when you’re not. It’s called wool gathering. Lying on the couch daydreaming, mulling over a story in the shower, waiting to pick up your kids from school, spacing out in a staff meeting. Give yourself credit for all these.

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The Strange Dichotomy of “Life”

What do you do with those really great moments of life, those times when you’re most happy? Like when you’ve just sold your first short story, or a novel. Or it’s your wedding day, or the birth of a child. Maybe you’re celebrating a fiftieth anniversary. It’s your parent’s or grandparent’s eightieth birthday and they’re in great health. So you’re beaming. And do you, at that moment, spare a thought for the ending, the fact that no matter where we are in life, eventually it ends in death for all of us?

Of course not! Why would you? Revel in the now. (Unless you’re of a particularly morbid character.) . . . And yet, that death is still out there waiting for each of us, isn’t it?

Before I lose you, I’m not here to dwell on death, but rather to examine the uplifting message in the song “Life” by Devin Townsend. As the two or three people who read my posts regularly will recognize, I’ve been rather obsessed with the music of Devin Townsend recently. And I’m OK with that. “Life” is a happy song; you can have a listen while you continue reading below:

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The Writer’s Geekosphere

How important is your personal writing space? That is, can you sit and write just anywhere, or do you have a specific place—a desk, a room, a coffee shop—that tends to be where you can focus your attention on the task of writing? One of my writing friends blogged today about the disruption that can come from having a person (or a puppy) unexpectedly in your writing space (“OMG, There’s a Person in my Writing Space!”). I’m interested in the physical makeup of the writing space itself, and how it helps or hinders the writing process.

There’s a term I remember from the early days of the Internet, which is mostly used by programmers and developers, but I think it applies equally well to writers and anyone who spends a lot of time on their computer. The word is geekosphere, and it means all the junk (and occasional useful items) that decorate the area around your computer monitor. If you work regularly on a laptop, and do so wherever you happen to be, you probably don’t have a geekosphere. (Although I’ve seen road warriors who have traveling geekospheres, pulling out all those special items before settling down to work; anything’s possible.)  Continue reading

Examining Wretched Words: Plotting & Pantsing

If you’ve been part of the writing community for long, you’ve probably at some point been asked: Are you a plotter or a pantser? If you’re a plotter, you write by plotting—that is, you outline or otherwise work out the details of your story before actually writing it. If you’re a pantser, you engage in pantsing—flying by the seat of your pants, writing to find out what the story is.

As a description for what we do as writers, I think these terms are ugly, detestable, and reductionist. Almost no one claims to be purely one thing or the other; they’ll answer, “I’m mostly this, but with a little bit of that.” The idea behind using these terms seems to be to pigeonhole writers into types, although reality fights against such narrow definitions.

As far as what these terms define, the two writing methods (and shades in between) that they describe, both types are perfectly valid. Depending on what I’m working on, I might find myself working at either end of the spectrum—different types of stories call for different approaches to the writing process. At least for me.  Continue reading

When to Use “Backup” vs. “Back Up”

I’m working on an article about setting up good backup procedures for your writing files. Of course, as soon as you start writing about backup (which is different from back up), the careful writer can get into trouble—although the problem might only be one of confusing yourself or others by alternating the one-word and two-word spellings. I’ve seen plenty of writers, even—perhaps particularly—on technology websites, get this wrong.

However, there is a difference between the two, and there’s an easy way to tell them apart. As one word, backup, it serves as a noun or adjective:

  • My backup of my files is stored in a secure location. (noun)
  • I have backup copies of my writing in multiple locations. (adjective)

However, if you want to use this term as a verb, you need to use the two-word form, back up:

  • Careful writers back up their files frequently. (verb) 

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Bobby Socks Trees, Lake Music, and the Evocative Nature of Yellowstone

Because I often write fiction set in Yellowstone National Park, it should be no surprise that I follow the social media streams from the park. Of course, it’s also a favorite vacation spot, although my aversion to cold keeps me away at this time of year. A few days ago, the Yellowstone Facebook page posted a lovely picture that called to mind a scene from one of my stories and also introduced me to an interesting new term.

Bobby socks trees at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

Bobby socks trees at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

The picture showed a scattering of standing dead pines covered in morning frost and in the background just a faint hint of a dark forest tree line through a thick fog. According to the caption, the photo was taken at the Lower Geyser Basin; the location around thermal features explains the dead trees as they don’t tend to thrive in the hot water, steam, and excessive minerals typical in such locales.

These dead lodgepole pines are known as bobby socks trees because of their white bottoms, which is caused when the trees soak up the mineral-rich water of the thermal area. After the water evaporates, they appear to be wearing white ankle socks because of the minerals left behind, and thus the name. With all my many trips to Yellowstone over the years, it seems like I would have heard this term before, although if I did, it certainly didn’t stick.

I like the term bobby socks tree because it’s so wonderfully evocative: The name describes the thing. I tried to discover how common or scientific this term is through a variety of online searches, and although there isn’t a wealth of source material, it is in fairly common use, even by the National Park Service. (Along the way, I also got to learn a bit about the history of bobby socks themselves, and why not?) It just makes me wonder why more scientific terminology doesn’t follow such obvious or descriptive naming conventions—I’m sure we’d all find it much easier to remember our science lessons if so.

You can see the picture that sparked this musing here. Although I might not have known the term, I find I’ve been taking my own pictures of bobby socks trees for quite a while. They frequently provide an interesting foreground for some larger and more colorful background, such as the Mammoth Hot Springs area of the park, which is where my photos that accompany this post were taken.

Bobby socks trees form from minerals in the water around thermal features

Bobby socks trees form from minerals in the water around thermal features

Yellowstone contains a wealth of evocative names. Dragon’s Mouth Spring. Frying Pan Spring. Dot Island. Fairy Falls. Castle Geyser. Even Old Faithful, for goodness’s sake. They’re names that describe the feature or perhaps have some significance in its history. And they’re names that call to mind fantastic stories, which goes a ways to explain why I’ve spent so much time writing about this place.

I learned a new Yellowstone term this morning, also from the park’s social media. From a post called “Unexplained and Unreported Phenomenon in Yellowstone” on the park’s In the Shadow of the Arch blog, I learned about “lake music.” Apparently, this is a phenomenon where people hear a buzzing sound above Yellowstone Lake and Shoshone Lake, and it was reported as far back as the 1880s. Something else I’d never heard of—or heard!

I’ll be listening for lake music on my next Yellowstone trip, and I imagine this phenomenon will have to end up featuring in a story at some point. I haven’t decided about Bigfoot yet.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins

Mindful Writing, Mindful Life

English: Bread from India

English: Bread from India (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whenever I make a sandwich, or toast, and get bread out, I always say the word mindful to myself as I remove the clip or tie from the bread. This is a reminder to myself to remember—be mindful—of where I set down the item so when I’m done with the bread, I’ll have no trouble closing it back up. Over the years, repeating mindful to myself has become habitual, and I never lose a bread tie.

The same principle can apply to all sorts of things, such as keys, a file on your computer, where you parked your car. Remember to remember where you put things, and you won’t forget where they are. Yeah, it’s sort of obvious, but if we did it all the time, we wouldn’t lose things. And we do lose things.

Fact is, most of the time we are not mindful. We are sloppy, or lazy, or too busy to worry about the details, our minds on too many things at once. Our minds are full, and so we aren’t mindful. (Now, doesn’t it seem mindful is a strange word to mean being aware? I guess it’s supposed to mean your mind is full of awareness. Or some such.)

When it comes to writing, I believe in the same principle of mindfulness, although I confess it’s not at all as straightforward to make it habitual. We should be careful to put every word in the correct place, every detail in the correct scene, every character in the correct story. And so forth. But you can’t always tell what’s correct as you’re writing.

Fortunately, writing, unlike life, gives you the chance for revision. You can practice mindful writing up to a point, but ruthless editing is likely to be even more helpful in this regard. In my case, I benefit greatly from having outstanding readers in my writing group who can point out all the wasted words I spew—criticism that makes sense as soon as I hear it even when I’m blind to it on my own. (Although I’m learning and becoming more and more mindful while I’m writing.)

So that’s my story of mindfulness. Be mindful in writing and in life. Now perhaps I’ll go make a sandwich.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins