Monthly Archives: May 2013

i was a teenage teenager

When I saw a video entitled “Phonetic description of annoying sounds teenagers make,” I was like YES! And then I was like, NO! And then I was like, “breathy voice long low back unrounded vowel with advanced tongue root.”

Because while I love a rigorous breakdown of adolescent speech patterns as much as the next linguistics-obsessed young adult writer, this video kind of encapsulates a writing problem I’ve been having lately: I’ve forgotten how to sound like a teenager.

MUSICBAND totally sold out after their first album, dude.

MUSICBAND totally sold out after their first album, dude.

Well, not totally. At the wizened age of 23, I’ve just just passed the pivot point of language shift from “hip young thing of today” to “old,” and so I can still trade fluently in the slang and speech patterns that define millenials or Gen-Y or whoever. I know enough not to say things like “I wrote a blog” or to put a definite article before the names of websites. The expressions are easy, but they’re not the problem. It’s the expressed.

One of the reasons I love reading (and writing) YA fiction is because teenage feelings are, to borrow an appropriate phrasing, some intense shit. Besides the inner turmoil engendered by ungodly amounts of hormones coursing through your body, you’ve got a new external experience practically every day, whether it’s driving or taking the SATs or making out with someone you really really want to (or don’t want to, for that matter). And while fiction is, by definition, fictive, that doesn’t preclude it from telling the truth, and I think YA fiction operates with a singular understanding between the reader and the writer to translate the specific details of one character’s ups and downs to the larger, universal curves of the teenage human experience.

Getting the feelings right is crucial, in other words. And when your point of origin is no longer the chemical cocktail of adolescence but a conscious recipe of one part imagination and one part memory, inspiring that same buzz of immediacy and intensity is tricky business. But besides the rusty archives of your own recollection, where can you find teenage truth?

Du-uh. The internet.

I’m not saying you need to go out and #followateen-stalk actual, individual teenagers. That would be weird. But you also shouldn’t go out and read think-piece essays about Those Kids Today, because that is looking at teenagers with all the subtlety and understanding of that song from Bye Bye Birdie. Don’t have a cow, man!

Here’s my curated list of true teenage stories. These kids aren’t always going to be neat, or dynamic, or well-edited or -rounded or -spelled, or even interesting, at times. But then again, none of us was. The stories are still valid.

Are you wincing? Are you feeling it? Are you optimistic and cynical all at the same time? Good—or as the kids would say, “voiceless velar affricate”—that’s the place you want to write from. And if I missed anything good, hook a girl up and let me know.

the art of that which is to be proclaimed

This post is about plot. But also grammar. The grammar of plots.

Stay with me!

Here is a lovely picture of Grammatica personified from the Hortus Deliciarum, a 12th century manuscript by the Abbess Herrad of Alsace, to endear the concept to you

Here is a lovely picture of Grammatica personified from the Hortus Deliciarum, a 12th century manuscript by the Abbess Herrad of Alsace, to endear the concept to you

So, I’m teaching my mother Latin. It’s an ambitious undertaking, sure, but she’s an eager student. And I’ve always believed that nothing deepens your own understanding of something like trying to explain it to someone else who has no idea what you’re talking about. Also, she gave me life, so the least I can impart in return is the best thing I’ve ever learned in that life.

Learning Latin requires swallowing a lot of abstract concepts. Like, for example, predicates. From the Latin praedico, meaning “I proclaim.” I know what a predicate is, but I cannot sum it up simply and succinctly for love or money (though my mother only pays me in the former). Regardless, here goes: In broadest terms, predication is all about relationship between the subject of a sentence and…the rest of the sentence (I’m sorry, I’m sorry; think Mad Libs-y thoughts.) And thinking about predication made me realize that it’s a beautiful way to think about the plots of stories.

Look, I get it: you do not like grammar. It is not only unsexy but also inflexible, and you need to bend things. You think sentence structure is boring and technical and you think that narrative structure, that glorious tapestry of self-expression, is the seat of the soul of writing. Rules are the opposite of creativity. Right?

To use a technical term: ish. Comprehension of grammar is not about learning to diagram sentences. It’s not about whinging when someone misuses an apostrophe. It’s about cultivating the purest, most efficient fluency of thought. So if you want to call yourself a writer, you’d damn well better get grammar. Got it?

So. A sentence is a microcosm of the narrative it builds. Understand the sentence and there is nothing more to know. Heaven may not dwell in wildflowers, William, but when a grain of sand is grammatical there is indeed a world within. It’s a beautiful specimen, and I want to slice it up on slides and peer down for a second at these predicate things.

The way a sentence’s string of words generates a gravitational pull towards sense is a perfect analogy for the way sentences eventually coalesce into a sensical, emotionally authentic story. A sentence makes grammatical sense when and only when it expresses a logical relationship between its subject and verb (plus whatever prepositional phrases or adverbs help set the scene). Once you’ve got your subject, the rest is predicate—the action! the drama! the good part! A subject tells you what is, a predicate tells you what happens.

A story’s the same way. The climax of your story will only compute well if it plays upon what was set up in the very beginning. If your plot hinges on a betrayal, the effectiveness of that betrayal is predicated on an establishment of trust in the beginning of the story. A story about redemption is predicated on an appreciation for the depth of the mistake. To be effective, the end of your story must take its singular significance and resonance from the circumstances of its beginning.

Maybe this is obvious. But I like that there’s a common back-and-forth between the place of story and the place of grammar. Bringing across, trans latio. And this is why I’m bothering to teach my mom. Translation is not about how different two languages are, like Latin and English; it’s about how similar two concepts can be, like predication and storytelling. And while I’m generally agnostic about theories of everything, I do think this: humans are nothing without stories, stories are nothing without language, and language is nothing without grammar.

Or, in other words, know grammar and know your soul. Sic transit gloria fabulae. Translate everything, because everything will translate.

various states of subjunctive unreality

Verbs, like people, have moods. You know this intuitively even if you didn’t know it had a name: the difference between I write, I might write, and to write lies in the mood.

This somewhat non-sequitur of an image relates writing to building, because Christine de Pizan GETS IT

This somewhat non-sequitur of an image relates writing to building, because Christine de Pizan GETS IT

And when you write, you exist in the indicative mood. Creative doings are untempered action, after all: you draft and you plan and you put words on paper and you revise and you proofread. And then, you submit. And everything goes subjunctive.

For those of you whose hobbies are gerunds like “bicycling” and not abstract nouns like “grammar,” a quick refresher. Wikipedia, that Official Transcription of the Collective Unconscious, says that “subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred.”

Various states of unreality. Also known as the stretch of days between when you abandon your wonky little bundle of words on a doorstep and when you hear that someone’s adopted it. Or the time it takes for your void-shouting to echo. Or the haze of wishes and hopes that clogs up your ability to make declarative sentences. You say things like this:

Someone might like this.
If only my book were less weird!
Please let other people think this is readable.
I wish/hope/pray that this doesn’t suck.
This shouldn’t be so hard.

All subjunctive. All moody.

“It might have been” may be the saddest words of tongue or pen, but trim the phrase to its present tense and you have the most flirtatious: “It might.”

The subjunctive is wonderfully seductive like that. It’s the most human aspect of the most human form of word. What separates us from the animals if not “wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred”? What else is story if not a manifestation of those things? And where else do writers like to while away time if not in “various states of unreality”?

I think there’s a reason this aspect of action words shares its name with a synonym for emotion: verbal mood is mercurial, hard to grasp and harder to explain. (Even now, you are probably still scratching your head and wondering if this will be useful for Mad-Libs. It won’t, and I’m sorry for being stupidly obtuse.) Writers, being the agent nouns that they are, gotta write. It’s the only cure for what ails us—getting back to the indicative I write I tell I create—but how are we to make the transition? Thinking of ourselves in the future-tense-indicative might seem like the just the thing to rekindle the blaze in our bellies—I will write, I will succeed—but there’s a hollow, New Year’s resolution sound to those phrases. No, the necessary, block-breaking paradigm shift is of a much more imperative mood.

Literally. Get out your exclamation marks, get rid of your moodiness, and get ready.

Sit down! Type letters! Make words! String sentences! Print pages, scribble on scraps, keep creating! Do not stop! Do not despair! Do not dwell in possibility! Do not gentle go into that good night! Make your mark! Plumb depths! Exhaust everything! Revise! Wrestle! Struggle! Go, go, go!


SURGITE: the motto of Brock University, a school I have never heard of before now, means PUSH ON in Latin. Do it.

video portals to the past

My new novel project has some History in it. Actually, it kind of takes place in History, because there is Time Travel. (I know, what am I thinking?) And this means I’ve been doing some Research.

My Medieval Studies degree is useful for about three things, and historical fiction is debatably one of them. But I don’t know all the details by heart. I know a few things about William the Conqueror, and they are these:

1. He was from Falaise, the tiny town in Normandy where I spent three soggy weeks on an exchange in 9th grade.

2. He had a castle there.

3. He conquered England in 1066.

Needless to say, I need the help of seasoned historians. And while I love to get library books out and will actually (gladly) spend 2 hours engrossed in a fine-printed book on the history of the French language, I will also take any excuse to watch historical infotainment on YouTube. Because really, what is YouTube if not a wormhole to days of yore?

Award for Best CG Backdrop goes to this one, which forces poor Dale Dye to weatherman his hands around a greenscreen while what looks like a map of England superimposed over a loadscreen from Oblivion flickers behind him. Also great is the reenactment of William yelling “…with God’s help, I will conquer!” It’s about as great as the scene in The Last of the Mohicans when Hawkeye tells his father that he is, wait for it, the last of the Mohicans. I think that’s what we call Dramatic Irony (I think?)


Oh my God. Badly-dubbed English, CG animations of trees bursting out of William’s mother Herleva (here called by her much cutesier name “Arlette”), pronouncing it “dinnesty” instead of “dyenesty,” dramatic recreations on par with not-too-great courtroom drawings, AND ominous bell-tolling sounds about every five seconds.

The ol’ bait-and-switch! You think you’re just going to see some stuff about “the greatest amphibious invasion in history” BUT NO, it’s just a big WWII psyche-out to get your feeble mind to realize where Normandy is in France. Host Michael Wood’s got some scholarly seventies sideburns and the soundtrack’s got some Rite of Spring lite sturm and drang.

Also, this quote: “Normans are as fiercely proud of their separateness as Yorkshiremen.” Uh. I’ll take your word on that one, Mike.

It’s the details that make this one interesting. I don’t just mean that this video somehow knows that William the Conqueror was a redhead or that the strolling narrator has that kind of Ken-Doll haircut that seems to stick out of his head more than it should. I mean about thirty seconds in when the voiceover says “seck-shoo-ull innnnnntrigue” in the Britishest way possible.