Writing Characters Outside the Box

Fisheye Scorn - You're in Deep TroubleI hate stereotypes. I get why they exist; human brains like order. They process a lot of information, so they want to sort things into boxes and get on with the day.

But we—individual people—are not tick boxes on a form. We are not the sum of the things people claim we are. We are not X, Y, and Z because our skin is a certain color, or our grandparents were born in a particular country, or because of whom we love.

When I think about how stereotypes apply to writing, I keep coming back to an amazing author and professor I studied under years ago, who cautioned women writers never to write from a man’s point of view. It’s a topic I’ve tackled before but it still applies to so many situations. Continue reading

The Baby Boomer Generation Gap

The-Jokes-On-Me_Cover_web

(Special Note: The Joke’s on Me, ebook edition, will be on sale for $3 off its regular price from Friday, June 28 through Saturday, June 29)

The burgeoning genre of Baby Boomer Lit fascinates me. I love the stories authors are telling about the challenges confronting this generation as we face our mortality but still want to squeeze more out of life.

Often forgotten, however, is that technically, baby boomers represent (mostly Americans) born between 1946 and 1964. That’s a span of eighteen years, for those of you good with math or who happen to have a calculator handy. So theoretically, two generations could be contained within this one moniker: two generations with very different goals and ideals. Continue reading

Are Fewer TV Characters Reading?

Outside of Mad Men, conversations between and among our favorite television characters about contemporary fiction are rare. (Hey, in the early 60s, Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything was contemporary fiction.) But the appearance of books (printed or electronic) in general is getting rarer still, and that disturbs me.

I get it. Who wants to watch someone on television reading a book? Total snoozer, right? But do you remember The Cosby Show? Home Improvement? Mad About You? The rash of domestic comedies that followed? Pick any one of these shows and they probably had at least one scene that opened with a character reading. When a second character came into the room, the book was put down and the conversation began.

Lately, though, when a book is on the set, it’s often used as a metaphor. As in, “I’m just going to sit here and read my book and ignore you.” Or it’s a prop, intended to show personality. The super geniuses of The Big Bang Theory don’t seem to own any books, but least one has a Kindle, displayed on set in screensaver mode. (Inevitably, the non-owner would believe screen-saving mode to be less efficient than simply turning the thing off.)

Often, in comedies, novels are portrayed as something to be avoided. Hence elaborate plot lines involving kids blowing off book reports, using Cliff Notes, or, in one of my least favorite Seinfeld episodes, George spends more time trying to obtain and watch a copy of the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s than actually reading the book so he can impress his girlfriend at her book club. Novelists are often ridiculed as posers. Or, like Nathan Fillion’s Richard Castle, are rarely seen writing.

What are we showing kids? People who read books are suckers? Reading and writing books requires too much work? People who have books in their homes are either rich or snobby?

Some say that certain behaviors shown on television, like sex and violence, have influence on the more easily influenced of us. Others defend the content as merely holding up a mirror to our culture. Do you think this dearth of small-screen reading is a reflection of the evolution of our society, or a slippery slope to illiteracy?

Maybe I should simply spend more time reading.

(Photo courtesy of Fox Animation)

The Fonts of Our Lives

Have you noticed a subtle shift in the use of typography in supermarkets lately? Probably not, because, like most people, you’re more concerned about what’s in the box rather than what’s on the box. Or, unlike me, you have not been indoctrinated by a career in graphic design into the habit of identifying every font that you see. This especially annoys people in movie theaters when I randomly call out, “Gill Sans,” or “Memphis Bold” when the opening and closing credits roll.

I’ve tried to stop doing that, even though I secretly wonder which is more annoying in theaters: hordes of people texting in the dark, errant ringing cell phones, or my typographical Tourette’s.

Let’s go back to the supermarket, shall we? Grab a cart. No, you may not have a candy bar. But take a look at that box of cereal, or crackers, or macaroni and cheese. We’re going sans serif. Serifs are the little “feet” that appear on the ends of the letters. Times Roman, for example, is a serif font. Helvetica is a sans serif font. Historically, and as measured by studies of ease of reading, sans serif fonts are often used for headlines and subheads while serif fonts are often used for body copy, as they have been judged more readable in blocks. Serif fonts are really cool, in my opinion. I love the grace note they put on a character, and how various shapes and flavors denote different periods of history.

But this is not a lesson in typography. I’ll save that for others who are currently working in the field, or for me, when I run out of ideas. This is more about what the Internet has been doing to our eyes, as well as our social discourse and our culture.

I’ve written before on what turns me off about people’s websites, and some of those reasons have to do with typographical choices. But I never thought that the Internet itself, and our reading habits, could change typography. For instance, when using white text on black background (which is a total bitch for anyone who no longer has twenty-year-old eyes), serifs tend to melt into the page and disappear. They also disappear on certain types of screens. Clever marketers, studying the various screens of our lives, have seen a pattern. Extrapolating into a two-hundred-slide PowerPoint presentation unveiled at a conference in an undisclosed location (Akron, Ohio), they have deemed sans serif fonts to be old-fashioned, frumpy, and altogether the domain of “losers” who still gather their information from words printed on dead-tree pulp and would not deign to purchase an electronic reading-type device unless the price dropped below a certain level or they received one as a gift. (Or so I’ve been told. Now that I’m out of the field, I’ve been blacklisted, and even had to return my pica pole and vow to erase the secret handshake from my memory.)

Therefore, packages of crackers and cookies are now devoid of serifs, those nasty, dated, printers’ nightmares, and now sport a clean, modern design, and what has been shown in focus groups to be a younger look. Never thought that buying a package of saltines can make you look younger, did you? Skip that four-hundred-dollar face cream and the Botox injections and just fill your grocery cart with Saltines and Oreos.

I feel younger already.

One Man’s Freedom Fighter Is Another Man’s Antisecrecy Group

Listen to the news sometime. I mean, really listen, beyond the sound bytes, hairstyles, and the cringe-worthy way some of them pronounce “often” and “inundated.” Or that one American network that thinks we’re so stupid, a world map graphic is now used to show where each news story is occurring, even those in large US cities. Try to catch the way anchors, correspondents, and political officials pronounce the names of countries. Take note of the adjectives used to describe potentially inflammatory individuals, situations, or groups. It’s really fascinating. Can you imagine the groupthink that went into those decisions? I see a bunch of suits in a room, bandying about various phrases, cringing in anticipation of the angry letters they might get if certain terms are used. It’s lead to some interesting tweaks of the English lexicon.

For instance, my Journalism 101 professor, who looked exactly like J. Jonah Jameson, said the word “try” is a big tip-off to media bias. As in, “The president tried to rally foreign leaders to get behind his peace agreement.” Meaning, “Our editorial slant is that we disapprove of the president and hope his flawed, imprudent agreement fails.”

But that’s old news. With a 24-hour news cycle, who has time for subtlety?

How newscasters and politicians pronounce the names of Latin American and Middle Eastern countries is also a clue. The late Peter Jennings, Canadian by birth, suddenly became Latino when he had to say “Nicaragua” or “Ecuador.” It’s silly, really, a politically correct nod to our neighbors to the south, whom I’m sure are lovely people, but probably wouldn’t mind if we pronounced their countries’ names with our American accents. Do you hear that on the BBC? I don’t think so. Listen now, as President Obama pronounces “Pakistan.” PAH-ki-stahn. Are you guessing that news outlets rooting for his failure probably doesn’t pronounce it that way?

Certain terms are also buzzwords pointing to editorial slant. Remember Ronald Reagan? (Google it, kids.) Remember his dealings with the Nicaraguan Contras? This band of fighters resisted the Sandinista government that took control after dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle was overthrown in 1979. Taking a cue from the French Resistance in World War II, the contras were called “freedom fighters” by the CIA and the Reagan administration. The contras themselves preferred to be known as “commandos.” And I’m pretty sure the Sandinistas (and those on the American left who supported them) didn’t call the Contras “freedom fighters.” Probably more along the lines of “rebel scum.”

The US media had a little tussle with itself after 9/11, about the use of “terrorist,” an emotionally charged word that was often applied indiscriminately to refer to people who weren’t “actual” terrorists. This led to terms like “enemy combatant,” which the Obama Administration dissed in 2009.

And now, Wikileaks’ Julian Assange has journalists scratching their heads again. Some outlets debated the use of “whistleblower,” and if Assange is truly thus. The New York Times now calls WikiLeaks an “antisecrecy group.” Sarah Palin, Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden call him a terrorist. So now, one man’s terrorist is another man’s antisecrecy advocate. Just doesn’t roll off the tongue.

What euphemisms have you heard rolling off the tongues of those on the news? How do you think we should pronounce Pakistan? Join the discussion!

Acronymlish

Unlike the purity that the French desire to retain in their language (au revoir, le hamburger), American English is a dirtier affair: a living, breathing organism that adapts to changes in times and styles. Dictionaries, even the stodgier names, regularly add new words and phrases that hit the big time, and eventually phase out unused, obscure ones to rescue shelters like this. Also, we see annual lists of words and phrases that grate on us like nails on a blackboard, such as refudiate, epic fail and viral.

I like and hate this about my native tongue. I like the fluidity of our daily conversations, the LMAO moments of our melting pot. But I’m apprehensive about what our collective shorthand will do to our cultural communication skills. Will we graduate class after class of students who can’t master the art of the complete sentence? Already, I see it creeping into the workplace. My husband, once looking to hire a web designer, received an inquiry written completely in incomplete text-message-speak. “Ready when u r,” would not be too far off the mark. This dude’s first contact with a potential employer was tapped out as casually as the text he just sent his girlfriend.

Something’s wrong here. I’ve worked for myself and pitched jobs. I’ve worked for others and hired freelancers. But I don’t recall a single cover letter or e-mail to or from a potential employer that was worded so lackadaisically. (Now, there’s a word worth keeping.)

Maybe this was an isolated incident, and I’m being too hard on the class of 2011. After all, the only constant in this world is change. Who am I to even think I can hold back the advancing glacial foot of the English language? Perhaps some had bemoaned the introduction of movies, radio, and television as the death knell of civilized culture, as I rail against thumb-typing and strange acronyms now.

We survived early technology. We survived cartoon violence and Watergate. We survived Benny Hill, Wham! and Vanilla Ice. I have a feeling we’ll survive this current shift in our cultural paradigm.

After all, old expressions have their way of hanging on and easing us into the future. For every three sparkly new words entered into the Urban Dictionary, only one is jettisoned. We still say “dial” the phone even though we no longer have dials on our phones. We “cc” colleagues who may never have seen carbon paper. Collections of published music are still called “albums” even they may only exist as electronic files. Who knows? One day we might still “drive” cars that require little more than coordinate programming. Or “type” e-mails and blog posts (as I often do) by dictating into our computers. It will be a fascinating world. Although I do hope we continue talking to each other with our mouths, and not just with our thumbs.

Word up.