What made you smile today?

I worked a bunch of hours today and didn’t have any high expectations, except maybe for  the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team. But today wasn’t so bad:

1) I got a call from my beautiful wife.

2) I got a call from my older brother.

3) I got a ton of work done, both NASA and NOVEL . . .

4) And I got tagged in a funny post. (I don’t know why, but seeing someone reading your book in print, when you haven’t publicized it, put a huge grin on my face. Yeah, the print version is live!)

Thanks for each of you that made my day special.

Facebook Surprise from Virginia

And thanks to the USWNT for a strong defensive performance. Cheers!

To Swear or Not to Swear

Last week my boss at NASA told me a funny joke:

Boss:     “What did the fish say when it swam into a wall?”
Me:        Is she really telling me a swear-joke?
Boss:     “Dam.”
Me:        “Heh. Heh. My older sister–”
Boss:     “What did the wall say back?”
Me:        “. . .”
Boss:     Dumb Bass.

I laughed. I hadn’t heard the postscript.

Now I’ve offended someone. Probably you  in the plaid dinner jacket. . . You’re constantly plombing this blog for inspiration, and now you’re appalled that I laughed at a swear-joke and doubly appalled that I actually repeated it. . . in e-print. You put down your tablet and almost vowed to never read this blog again. You considered turning to Dave Barry for inspiration. [Not a bad idea, by the way.]

But you didn’t. You wanted to see if there was a point to this, and there is: The other readers are now laughing at your expense. “Lighten up. It’s just a little swear,” they chuckle. “And funny.”

And some of my edgier readers aren’t laughing either. They’re busy making up their own swear-jokes this instant, and salty ones at that. [I heard that Rusty.]

I had a wonderful relative that said the d-word every time he hit his head on something, which happened rather frequently. Bedposts, chandeliers, and open cabinets we’re always gunning for him, and he rewarded them with the finest “dammit’s” money can’t buy.

Some in the family laughed. Others tried to bribe him to stop. He wanted to, but short of padding his head with a pillow, it was pretty clear he’d never kick the habit . Blunt object to the head? Automatic D-word.

The fine gentleman’s gone to a better place now, but is probably still accidentally banging his spiritual noggin and cursing away. Some of the angels are frowning, too, and some are laughing, and I suspect a few of the edgier sort are telling swear-jokes of their own, like they used to do back on Earth:

J. Kimball:          “Hey Peter, how do you make holy water?”
Saint Peter:        Sighing. “Not again. . .”
J. Kimball:          “You boil the hell out of it! ”

My point in blogging about it? Use it sparingly. Profanity affects different people in different ways.

Dr. Richard Stephens, in his paper “Swearing as a response to pain” indicates that the use of profanity can make a thing hurt less. We know intuitively (unless you’re better than me) that the occasional D-word does seem to make things better, at least if you’re the one saying it.

But profanity evokes an emotional and physical response from recipients as well. I’ve seen the effect of my profanity on friends and family members in flushed cheeks, fallen faces, and unhappy eyes. Curse words pack an emotional punch because they are laden with the layered meanings of our cultural taboo. Interestingly, shouting “Ow” is also shown to have an analgesic effect (Annett Schirmer), but without the same proximity fallout. And nowadays, shouting “Ow” might get a few laughs, too. Not to shabby.

Clinical evidence of the effects of swearing are demonstrated in a study by Jeffrey S. Bowers and Christopher W. Pleydell-Pearce at the University of Bristol. Bowers found that the use of swear words, even by fully-informed test subjects, provokes an electrodermal response. In less-accurate layman’s terms, swearing is stressful and makes you sweat.

So why do we swear? Certainly not to join the army of “unsure” lampooned on antiperspirant commercials. Swearing happens for a variety of reasons, depending on the person: to shock, to express frustration or another strong emotion, to be trendy/funny/cool, or automatically, because we’ve adopted it into our knee-jerk vocabulary.

One interesting assertion that Dr. Stephens makes: those who swear frequently also demonstrate a lower tolerance for pain. Excessive use of profanity appears to affect the way we perceive the world around us and lessen our ability to cope.

There’s more research to be done, but the current evidence suggests it might be wise to go easy on the four-letter words. My sister told me that dam (damn?) joke years ago, and it’s stuck with me. How many jokes do you remember from the late ’90’s? Those words stay with us, and they affect the way we view the world.

And profanity does different things to different people, based on our own experiences and cultural context. We get an emotional jolt when we use a “power” word, but we don’t control the messaging that occurs in the hidden mental folds of those we interact with. That effect was developed over time in the recipient’s experience base long before we came around brushing up on our sailor-speak.

So as fun as it might be, I probably won’t be telling abundant swear-jokes, or carving those words into my books. I may occasionally review a book with excessive profanity, but won’t reuse the stronger words here. I enjoy authors who take the time to create and control their own cultural and emotional context without borrowing too heavily from the raft of modern profanity.

Is this the definitive post on swearing? Hell no. But it works for me.

Blue Dam

“Mr. Darcy, might I borrow your elven blade?”

Aragorn and Liz

I’ve liked a great many books these last three decades. Books about dragons. Books about space ships. Books about Dragons and  Spaceships. But 2014 was a landmark year for me: I read my first Jane Austen novel.  By “read,” I mean, listened to on audiobook.

I realize, this may not count as “reading” to purists, no matter how many times in a row I listened to it on my way to work. Point taken. My copy of Pride and Prejudice isn’t littered with margin notes, as are my copies of Hunger Games or The Hobbit.  But, what’s important is how much I enjoyed it, while realizing that Pride and Prejudice has a lot in common with The Lord of the Rings . . . .

As a 1st grader, I learned to read primarily because (1) we had no T.V. and (2) because at the library I watched Smaug descend on Laketown with his fiery breath during movie time and wanted to recreate that exact moment. (There is no more catching scene in all of Tolkiendom than Bard the bowman’s whispered prayer to the black arrow and his final heroic shot.)

So I learned to read and then hunted down a copy of The Hobbit. Nowadays we have Riordan, Mull, Sanderson, and Rowling, but back then we had Tolkien. And maybe Terry Brooks. Tolkien was my measuring stick for literature. And still is, when it’s applicable, or . . . fun. And there are definitely some fun comparisons to be made:

Take Sauron, a schemer with hands are in everybody’s business and eyes and ears across the Middle-Earth. His flame-bound eye, sorcerous hostility ,  and epic self-deception make him chief antagonist, especially as he keeps sending his minions out to “discourage” the protagonists.  Lady Catherine De Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice is not unlike Sauron.  While Sauron rules with an iron fist, Lady Catherine uses prevailing social structure and the small-mindedness of her minions to effect her designs. Her insidious manipulation of the people around her, and seduction of Mr. Collins,paint her in a sauronic light. Both Catherine and Sauron rarely intervene directly, but when they do, it is with wind and fury.

Gandalf may not be Mr. Bennet, but he is a fatherly figure with wayward, bickering children, and he’s certainly capable of serious oversight. How long did it take him to figure out that Bilbo had the One Ring?  Both leave their children to their own devices too often. In Gandalf’s case this is out of necessity. He’s got the whole Middle-Earth to protect. And he has a sword. Take that, Bennet.

Both stories rely on a plot device. In the case of the Bennet’s, it’s a nasty entailment that passes the Bennet estate down the male line and away from Mr. Bennet’s daughters, necessitating the Bennet quest for suitable husbands. The entailment also puts a price on Elizabeth’s decision not to marry Collins, a test of her commitment to her principles.

In LOTR, the One Ring galvanizes the action, forcing the protagonist(s) to leave their comfortable existence and strike out into the unknown. It also represents a test of character, and an analogy for that favorite flaw we nurse along, instead of flinging it aside into our local flaw-meltdown factory.

The entailment does its job in Pride and Prejudice without calling undue attention away from character development. The Ring, a little less. It’s constantly calling attention to itself and then doing nothing, except slipping on and off people’s fingers at inconvenient moments.

Wounded and misunderstood, Mr. Darcy can only be Aragon. His first appearance is decidedly villainous and many of the characters- especially the bad ones, fear him for the entire novel.  Both are quiet, reserved, and intelligent. Both are dashing, talented, and moderately recalcitrant. And most of all, both are good at tracking, leading, and getting people out of trouble. But Aragorn has a cooler first name and a sword, and he gets to use both.

To balance this, I don’t doubt for a moment that Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy could put an elvish sword to good use, should the occasion arise.  And Darcy’s character development is masterfully done. The reader sees him coming to grips with his pride as an aristocrat and his love for Elizabeth in a way that Tolkien barely hints at in Aragorn’s  struggle with his birthright and his love for Arwen.

Elizabeth Bennet most resembles Eowyn,  who fears “[t]o stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of great deeds is gone beyond recall.”

Both women show strength of character head and shoulders above their compatriots. They stay their chosen courses without capitulation to prevailing thought, and cling to their integrity. Eowyn slays Sauron’s  Chief of Staff with an elven blade, while Elizabeth dissects Catherine De Bourgh’s imprudent inquiries and outright threats with scalpel-like precision.

There are some other similarities, but I’m going to stop there. (The militia in Pride and Prejudice isn’t one of them. It’s sole function is to provide dancing partners for the younger Bennet sisters.)

If you haven’t read LOTR or P&P, I recommend both, possibly as audiobooks, during a long commute. Both are remarkable examples of English literature.

Next week: Sense and Sensibility meets Full Metal Jacket.

Just Kidding.


Austen Novels Ranked


Jacket Copy Criticisms

A few weeks ago I had a little fun deconstructing a 1-Star Review. This week’s deconstruction has been less fun. In order to finalize the print version of RINGS, I’ve been writing and rewriting back cover copy.  For those of you interested in the nuts and bolts, here are a few iterations and my associated criticisms:

(Or you can just skip to the end to see the final draft. . .)

Mr. Steep’s bad night has been put to bed: the dart game is finished, the assassins have gone home, and most of the fires are out. But the morning after is no cup of tea either. For one thing, Magnus still can’t see straight. Add to that a dress shop burnt to the ground, two hyperactive teens,  and Lucinda’s awkward attempts to nurse Magnus back to health, and Teacup begins to wonder if he shouldn’t just stay in bed . . .

Humorous, but doesn’t tell what the story is about. There’s no discussion of the action or intrigue, no real question begged, and the stakes are low. It’s also inaccurate.  Not all the assassins are gone. . .

Mr. Steep’s bad night has been put to bed: the dart game is finished, the assassins have gone home, and most of the fires are out. But Pale Tom’s ghost  isn’t about to let Teacup off easy.  He’s left a breadcrumb trail to follow, and plenty of “pointy” reminders to keep Teacup on track.

Can Teacup survive long enough to unravel the mystery?

This teaser isn’t great, but the “ghost message”  has promise. It also raises the stakes from “hyperactive teens” to “death is on the line.”  🙂 But the “pointy reminders” bit is confusing and easily misread. Ooops!

Teacup didn’t go to bed dreaming of ways to antagonize the assassins’ guild. In fact, he barely got any sleep at all, thanks to the town drunk humming lullabies on his back porch all night.

But when he gets up in the morning, the dark guild is after him, and his only hope of survival is following a breadcrumb trail left by the one of the Nightshade’s own best and brightest. . .

Establishes that Teacup has (1) antagonized the assassins’ guild  and (2) gotten very little sleep. It also hits on the novella’s core theme: stay alive while learning about Pale Tom’s legacy. Not much in the way of context though. . .

Teacup didn’t go to bed dreaming up ways to irritate the deadliest guild in Teuron. But he never planned to be a thief either, and now the Nightshades have it in for him.

There’s a breadcumb trail to follow, but no evidence suggesting the best way to make amends: agreeing to use his own considerable skills to the guild’s advantage, or convincing his teenage kids to stop trying to resurrect his dead wife’s cobble shop, or surrendering a still blind paladin to the dark guild’s twisted brand of justice.

And the Nightshade’s aren’t the only ones trying to kill Teacup. . .

Establishes that Teacup is a reluctant thief, that he has a job to do, and that the assassins’ guild isn’t the only enemy to worry about, but makes false promises. Teacup won’t be making “nice” with the Nightshades.  Overall, a bit too complicated.

Teacup thought one good deed was safe enough.

He was wrong.

With a house filling up with uninvited guests and a death-mark  on his head, he’s beginning to wonder if Pale Tom might have put a little more in that death-curse than just the traditional ever-burning flame.

Short. Ironic.  Mildly funny. Nods to a bit of magic, but doesn’t give a new reader much to go on.

Join the fun. Was there something in the analysis above that you disagree with? Ed, Alisha, Cami, Ralph, and Victor shared their thoughts earlier this week.



Word Reduction

I’ve been wondering what happens to a story once it goes through the magazine editorial process.

Some of you have written anecdotes for various alumni magazines, maybe even BYU, but until now, I’ve never had a clear picture of what to write or how much would be cut.

Now I know. From the 289 words I submitted to BYU Magazine, only 177 words were used. That’s a 39% reduction. So either only 61% of what I write is worth printing (smirk), or space is still at a premium in ‘zine print media.

I suspect the real answer is somewhere in between. And I’m not offended.  I got paid for every word. . .