Kurt Vonnegut Jr. on Good Writing

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. on Good Writing

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Price's Write: Avoid Splitting Infinites

The Price's Write features tips I have run across or discovered myself through my years of writing and teaching writing. They are offered as suggestions to help you become a better writer. Our explanations will be brief, but I think if you follow these tips you can improve your writing. And more importantly, your audience will notice that improvement.
No matter what you were taught in school, you can split hairs, you can split logs, and you can split your infinitives.

The break-the-rule rule for infinitives (to + a verb) is simple: If it sounds better, write it that way.

I mean think Star Trek. Which sounds better? To go boldly or to boldly go. Creator Gene Roddenberry chose the second way and he's made a lot more money and had much more of an influence on the world than any teacher who ever red-penned your split infinitive.

The to-split-or-not-to-split question actually comes down to 2 main points:
  1. Split the infinitive when any the following would be improved - the sound, the emphasis, or the clarity of the phrase.
  2. The type of writing you are doing - academic with formal audience, probably avoid splitting; informal or creative, split away.
Sometimes you want to write successfully and sometimes you want to successfully write. 

Monday, August 8, 2016

Speaking Blountly, You Should Always Save Room for Pie

A Georgia author and a Georgia chef talk food
Can a book talk make you hungry?

Well, if it's the recent food forum featuring noted Atlanta chef and former Top Chef contestant Kevin Gillespie discussing Roy Blount Jr.'s new book Save Room for Pie: Food Songs and Chewy Ruminations with the author, the answer is yes.

If you're not familiar with Blount or his work, think the regional wit of Mark Twain or a more historical, but none-the less hysterical Dave Barry.

The discussion was held in Blount's hometown of Decatur, Georgia, where Gillespie operates Revival, one of his two wildly popular Atlanta-area restaurants.

With both participants being native-born Georgians, it wasn't surprising that most of the night's hour-long program was devoted to talk of Southern cuisine and Southerners' devotion to the regional cooking and specialities of their area.

While both Blount and Gillespie admitted their love for Southern food, their wide-ranging discussion did highlight some of the differences in their food preferences, one of which was prompted by the title of Blount's latest work.

Blount, as the title suggests, is a pie person. Gillespie pointed out that he is more of a cake man.

"I think cakes are better than pies," the chef laughingly challenged the author.

"But everything goes so well with pie," Blount retorted. "You don't have cake crust. And there's more fruit. Of course, what I like about pies is mostly the sugar."

As for the book title itself, Blount said that is something he had been hearing all his life. "Now save room for pie," he said. "You don't even have to have any pie. If you're just thinking about pie that's enough".

In an observation that launched him into the first of the night's many humorous asides, Blount acknowledged that the world could be divided up into pie people and cake people. "It's like monkeys and robots," Blount claimed. "Of course, I, myself have never had a monkey, but I know a few people who have. And here's the thing - every one of them says nobody ever has more than one monkey".

Blount had arrived in town the day before and had dined at Gillespie's Revival. He said his meal deserved great praise. But it did involve one disappointment - by the time he ordered desert, the restaurant was out of one of Gillespie's signature dishes, pineapple upside down cake with Doctor Pepper Ice Cream.

The chef told Blount that he had inadvertently come up with the topping for that dish. "I was going to use Coca-Cola syrup, but I used Dr. Pepper instead," Gillespie explained. "It was an accident, but I was sort of relieved. It turned out to be one of the better things I have come up with. It may just be the sweetest ice cream in the entire universe".

Both participants cited their family as the source for their love of Southern cuisine and food in general.

Gillespie said his parents both enjoyed a good meal. "They would go on vacations and come back and tell me all the good meals they had. I never knew where they went, but I knew what they ate," he said.

Blount said that interestingly vacations also played a large role in his family's love of dining. But Blount's childhood trips always involved staying with a relative, most often a grandmother who lived in Jacksonville, Florida. "Why would you go anywhere where you didn't have a relative?" the author asked.

He said that his long-standing idea that food was integrally involved in conversation arose from his days sitting around his grandmother's kitchen table with his family. He recreated a typical Blount family food conversation for the audience.

"Hmm ... hmm ... hmm"

"Phew-eee. This is good"

Blount finished by saying these preliminary remarks were just "working their way up to the big question - now where did you get these beans?"

Gillespie said that he first began seriously preparing Southern food when he was beginning his cooking career in the Pacific Northwest. "There's something magical about food. It's more about the relationship of people than the food itself. I used it (cooking Southern) as a cure for homesickness.  It was the process of making it, of recreating the smell our home had. I think it somehow reduced the distance away," he said.

Blount agreed. "There's something about Southern food that always gets me in touch with my roots," he said.

When he first moved to New York for his writing career, Blount couldn't find any genuine Southern food. "I went in to this one place and ordered fried chicken," he said. "I bit into it and I wasn't sure, So I asked the cook - is this fried chicken? He said - I think it is. But it wasn't like any fried chicken I had ever had. It wasn't even crisp".

But the situation is much different today. Blount said you can find good Southern food in the Big Apple. "They're serving cornbread and deviled eggs and collard greens in Brooklyn and they've got Popeyes," he noted.

But not all northern eateries get the Southern food formula exactly right. "There was this one place that served biscuits with banana pudding in them. Now that's just crazy. The place closed," Blount said.

But while Southern cuisine has headed North with the frequent mobility of people today, a sense of the North has also penetrated the South.

"I originally went to New York to become a sophisticated humor writer like Robert Benchley," Blount said. "But I found out that Mark Twain and Southern humor was more my schtick. So now, when I come home, I feel that Decatur has actually outstripped me in terms of sophistication".
Following the presentation, the audience got to sample small pies prepared by the staff at Revival

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Dave Zobel Talks the Science Behind TV's Big Bang Theory

Author Dave Zobel breaks down a scene involving scientist Stephen Hawking and The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon Cooper.
When it comes to the image of a southern good ole boy, you couldn't find one much more opposite than that of Sheldon Cooper, the extremely intelligent, rigidly logical, and completely socially inept breakout character of TV's long-running, highly rated comedy hit "The Big Bang Theory".

But in a ironic twist, Cooper, played by multiple Emmy winner Jim Parsons, was supposedly born and raised in Galveston, Texas, has a overly devout southern-drawling Evangelical mother, and a doting grandmother he calls by that most southern of sobriquets "Mee-Maw".

For those few who aren't familiar with the show, it revolves around the antics of Cooper and three other brilliant young scientists whose geekiness and intellect are contrasted for laughs with the social skills and common sense of the women they encounter in their lives.

However,  the real co-star of the show, after humor, is the actual science employed on every episode, a science so detailed that it eludes understanding by all but the most trained practitioners.

Two Daves - Zobel, the scientific talented one, and me
And so enter Dave Zobel and his book The Science of TV's Big Bang Theory: Explanations Even Penny Would Understand. Zobel, a science writer, humorist, and himself a computer science graduate of Cal-Tech University, breaks down the actual science concepts used in the scripts from quantum physics to why Sheldon would think 73 is the best number.

Zobel recently appeared at The Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Georgia, as part of the week-long Atlanta Science Festival. At the bookshop, the author engaged fans of the show in a fun, funny, explanatory conversation about the show, his book, and the science underpinning it all.

"The science you see on the show is accurate ," Zobel said. "This is CBS, not PBS. It's highly unusual for a sitcom. I applaud the makers of the show. They could start each show with a statement - the science you about to see is true".

For example, the show often features white boards with complex formulas filling them. "The white boards are all real stuff,"the author explained.

David Salzberg is the Big Bang Theory's real-life science guy
So who makes sure the science is correct? That task falls to UCLA particle astrophysicist and show science consultant David Salzberg. He offers scientific suggestions and verifies all science references for every episode.

"It's not the cast that writes it and it's not the writers that write the science. That's all David Salzberg," Zobel said, adding with a laugh that Salzberg contacted him after the book was released, telling him "thank you for writing this so I didn't have to".

Some have questioned how the show can include references to such recent scientific groundbreaking work. Zobel explained that the script writers will leave a blank that offers something like where Leonard (Sheldon's best friend) says: "I think you'll find this pretty interesting. I 'm attempting to replicate the [science to come]". Salzberg then can fill in that blank with the most recent science being discussed.

Zobel's talk was well-received by his audience, which included 14-year-old 8th grade student Madeline, who described herself as a big fan of the science and the humor of the show. In fact, she laughingly says she identifies herself as a "female Sheldon".

Madeline was accompanied by her father Robert Sheppard, whom his daughter called her "geek buddy".

Sheppard verified that his daughter really was scientifically advanced. As an 8th grader, she is already taking four courses at the local high school and as a 9th grader  next year will be taking Advanced Placement Biology and Advanced Placement Human Geography, courses often reserved for juniors and seniors.

But doesn't Madeline's academic prowess put her in the dreaded, automatically reviled and picked-on geek-nerd-braniac category of the teenage social world?

Emphatically no, says Sheppard, whose older daughter is already taking the most advanced courses offered at the local high school.

"They (advanced students) are really celebrated. Maybe it's a cultural thing where we live (Woodstock, Georgia), but it's cool to be smart," he said.

Cool to be smart? What a reassuring, refreshing concept. And what if the humor and humanness of shows like The Big Bang Theory and books like those of Zobel are paving the way for such acceptance?

Now wouldn't that be, as Sheldon Cooper is so fond of saying, the biggest "Bazinga!" of all.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Price's Write: Starting a Sentence with a Conjunction


"The Price's Write" features tips I have found or discovered myself through my years of writing and teaching writing. They are offered as suggestions to help you become a better writer. Our explanations will be brief, but I think if you follow these tips you can improve your writing. And more importantly, your audience will notice that improvement.
Here is another post in our ongoing series about knowing the rules of grammar and then breaking them if it makes for better writing. Never starting a sentence with a preposition is an older rule that has become outdated and you should actually be breaking it right now.

This rule probably came into effect from English teachers attempting to keep their students from writing sentence fragments. Obviously, to be grammatically correct English, a sentence must have a subject and a predicate (verb). 

Many say the greatest sentence ever written in English is this - Jesus wept. It has a subject, Jesus, who is a recognized figure around the world. It also has a universally understood action that Jesus took - he cried. 

Here we will take Jesus wept, which is a marvelous sentence in itself, and expand it. As a writer,  you might might write the sentence to read: Everyone else in the room was laughing, but Jesus wept. This also is a fine sentence, one which now explains Jesus' actions in relation to the other people's. However, if you really wanted to emphasize Jesus, you might write this. Everyone in the room was laughing. But Jesus wept. Technically, you now have a fragment - but it is still fine writing.

How you write with conjunctions should be determined by 3 things:
1) What you want to say as a writer
2) The style of the piece
2) Which way sounds better to the reader

Of course, before you know how to write with conjunctions, you need to know those connecting words. (Aside: Every time I write the word conjunction, I keep hearing the song "Conjunction Junction, What's Your Function?" from School House Rock playing in my head).

Here is a list of the most common conjunctions in the English language. You can check out this list. Or not. The choice is yours.

Epilogue
Here is the video for "Conjunction Junction ..." that I mentioned above.