Describing Art

I took in most of the SculptureWalk in downtown Sioux Falls tonight.  It’s fun to check out the artwork, especially when there are as many animal sculptures as there are this year, and a couple of them are really wonderful.

It also got me thinking about describing art.

On each sculpture there is a little blurb from the artist about the piece.  For a couple it’s as simple as “I wanted to make a butterfly” but for most of them it is a chance to describe the work or even go into the symbolism and meaning of the piece.

When it’s the artist who is explaining, you know it’s a pretty credible explanation.  After all, that is the person who created the piece explaining what it means.  When I start questioning descriptions of meaning and intent is when it is done by someone other than the artist.

I’ve only seen this a few places – a particular piece at the Modern in Fort Worth springs to mind – but when there is a long description written by an art historian or critic describing what the artist meant, my first reaction is to ask how they would know.  I realize that the person writing the commentary is likely someone with an extensive background in art and a good familiarity with the artist in question, but I’m still not convinced.  It seems a bit like putting thoughts or words into someone else’s mouth.

Honestly, when it comes to art, I will read the description.  (I’m a reader, so my eyes are always drawn to words.)  I’m not going to base my opinion on the piece itself on the words, however.  I’ll base it on the art itself, which is (hopefully) what the artist intended.

Incorrect Word Assumptions

One of my mom’s pet peeves is the word “orientate.”  One of mine is “conversate.”  These two words have the same thing in common: someone has made an incorrect assumption about how the source words work.

In The Unfolding of Language, Guy Deutscher calls this process analogy, and he uses a classic example.  A little kid who has only ever seen forks with four tines may call a three-tined fork a “threek,” because of the coincidental sound of the number “four” in the word fork.

We’re used to the following relationships:  the noun education and the verb educate, the noun communication and the verb communicate, the noun fornication and, well, you get the idea.

Here’s the problem: the rule applies in the verb-to-noun direction.  Verbs that end in “-ate” turn into nouns that end in “-ation.”  Indicate becomes indication.  Vacate becomes vacation.  It doesn’t apply in the other direction, and most of the time we get it.  Interpretation comes from interpret, not interpretate.  Deprivation comes from deprive.  Exploration comes from explore.

In the cases at the start of this post, conversation comes from converse.  And orientation?  It comes from orient.

So what happened with the two I mentioned before?  Easy.  Someone didn’t know the right base verb, and they made an assumption based on how they knew other verbs worked.  Guy Deutscher argues that this force of analogy is one that helps to not only create new words (my spell check has no issue with orientate, for example) but that this is, in fact, a very good candidate for how complex language structures came into being.

Words and language can be so much fun!

A Lack of Layers

If there’s one thing most readers notice about fantasy novels, it’s that there’s a lot going on.

Multiple story lines.  Intricate subplots that tie in to the main plot in unexpected ways.  Detours to follow side characters.  Details that seem unimportant but reappear with earth-shattering consequences three books later.  Rules for magic, for governing, for courtship.  Many (sometimes many, many) people to keep track of, relationships to remember, places and faces and societies and who was that again?

Some authors even give us a character list (Jacqueline Carey) or glossary (Robert Jordan) to help when we’re confused, because there is so much going on.

This is a problem that I’m trying to address with Mara’s story (and, by extension, Gretchen’s story and Andi’s story).  The original Butterflies tried to cover too much, too quickly, so I’m dismantling it and making it a series.  I would like to give each of the three girls a separate story, at least until their lives intertwine and the stories coalesce.  There is enough in each life to make it worth the effort, but I’m finding that  now I’m going to simple.  If all we’re doing is following one character as she grows up, where’s the complexity?  Where’s that layered look fantasy readers are used to seeing?

I don’t want to use existing parallel subplots, because they will seem unrelated until the stories come together in a later book.  Perhaps what I need to do is find some side characters from the early lives of the girls, so we can have some subplots that resolve within each tale.

Great, Leigh, make this very challenging process of rewriting even more complicated than it already was.  Nicely done.

Free Writing

Tonight I used a journaling technique called free writing, which I will explain more at the end of the post.

I have red toenails.

This is not usual for me.  In fact, the only reason that my toes are red is because when I took off the polish from my sister’s wedding, I wanted to re-paint my nails.  The only polishes that I own are a blue that is remarkably similar to the color I was removing and red.  So I went with red.

The only reason I even own red is because of a New Year’s Eve party/performance I went to a couple of years ago.  I wore a snazzy red dress and open-toe shoes, and given the company and setting I needed my toes to look good. So I bought red polish to match the dress.

In fact, a couple of weeks after that we were at Disney World.  Red is so unusual for me that my mom noticed and commented on them on the way to the pool.  After I explained why they were red, she was surprised (in a good way) that I had polished them myself.  Apparently I had done a good painting job.  This time they don’t look as good.  In fact, it’s probably time to remove the polish.

I think I’ll go back to blue.   It will match more of my clothing, which is dominated by cool colors.

Free writing was taught to me by my favorite high school English teacher.  She encouraged us (or assigned us, whichever) to keep a writing journal daily.  When we claimed we didn’t have anything to write, she told us just to write whatever came to mind.  “I hate this assignment” or “abcdefg” or anything that appeared was valid, as long as our hands were writing.  Tonight’s post is a form of that; in the shower I noticed that my nails were red, and so I just followed where my mind wandered.  Other than typing down my thoughts, this has not been edited in any way; that’s the concept of free writing.

Self Portrait 1

It’s hard to describe yourself, especially from memory.  Here is my first attempt, with a few visits to the mirror for assistance.

Her dark, chocolate hair was pulled back into a careful ponytail, the ends just brushing the top of her collar.  A few stray pieces near her face caught the breeze, but didn’t catch her attention.  Dark brows had been expertly trimmed, but not recently.  Unconcealed by makeup, the tone of her skin betrayed inconsistent and unintentional sun exposure, but save one or two small blemishes her face was clear and smooth.  Her nose and chin were of a size and shape to fit with her features, and rarely elicited mention.  Her mouth, too, was unremarkable, at least until she smiled.  A grin would reveal neat, white teeth and never failed to reach her eyes.

It was her eyes that drew attention and comments.  Framed by dark lashes, they were large and clear, and a blue that was vivid in any light but striking when they caught extra color from her clothes or the background.  Observant and aware, her eyes always carried a hint of intelligence, and sparkled when she was amused.

She considered her eyes to be her best feature.


Seven Sentence Sequel

Check out the Seven Sentence Story for the first part of this tale.

She had been sitting just long enough for anxiety to eclipse anger when an average looking man appeared in her peripheral vision.  Snapping her head around, she got a good look at him as he raised his right eyebrow.

“A clever one; this could be interesting,” he said, quietly enough that she suspected he was talking to himself.

She sat, stunned, and watched him unlock her ankle manacles before she found voice enough to ask, “What’s going on here?”

He freed her wrists, a slight smile on his face, before he stood and replied cryptically, “You should know that he does not want maidens for food, but he does crave their attention.”

She must have seemed utterly confused, for he added, “We’ve come to collect you for your year of service.”

“Who-” she started to ask, but the word died on her lips as a huge, scarlet dragon lifted into the air behind him.

I Know What Happens, But…

Tonight I was planning to write a follow-up to last nights’ Seven Sentence Story.  I know what happens next, so I thought it would be fun to share it with you.

Turns out that knowing what happens in general is not the same as knowing exactly what happens, and that difference can mean a lot.

I will admit that I often sit down to write with a general concept and let it develop as I work.  Sure, I might have a specific line of dialog or a few sentences of action in mind, but I don’t necessarily start with the thing fully formed.  That’s how I was planning to do this one, but it didn’t work.

I’m not sure if the problem is that I’m tired, or distracted, or just simply that I’m out of practice writing, but tonight the details wouldn’t come.  I think I’ll have to keep developing it in my head for a while and see if I can fill in a few more details before I try to write it up.

Hopefully I’ll have it for you soon…

Seven Sentence Story

“It shouldn’t count as a sacrifice if you’re just giving up something you didn’t want in the first place!” she shouted at the retreating backs of her former neighbors.  She had never been very good at keeping her mouth shut, or, for that matter, at following the myriad unspoken rules that guided the life of a village woman.  That was why she’d ended up here, chained to a boulder, wearing nothing but a shift and waiting for the dragon to show up and eat her.

She sent one more glare down the now empty path before turning to assess her situation.  The chains connected to her ankles met and linked into one before running to the boulder, creating a “Y” shape at her feet, while each wrist manacle was connected by chain directly to the stone.  The rock itself was an excellent height to sit on, except that the idiot villagers had locked her in facing the thing.  Shrugging, she stepped her right foot over the “Y” and lifted her right arm over her head; although it left her arms wrapped around her middle, she could sit down, and she might as well be comfortable while she waited for her doom.

But That Means I Have to Blog Tomorrow…

I have some advice for anyone who is considering taking a break from writing and/or blogging.


It is very easy to lose a habit.  In 2011 I set myself a goal to post every day, and I managed all but two.  I decided not to post daily in 2012 but I tried very hard not to skip more than one day in a row.  (This amusing poem captures that idea.)  And then 2013 happened.

It’s been a bad year for blogging, at least on my end of things.  Excuses aside, I’ve slipped out of the habit of writing.  Even tonight, I realized at 10pm that I hadn’t posted anything today.  I almost skipped, but then I realized that I would have to post tomorrow, and I have a late day at work tomorrow.

When not wanting to have post tomorrow is the only reason I write, there’s something wrong.

If I’m not careful, I will slide back into the non-writing abyss that was May 17 – June 21 of this year.  (Here’s a hint – no posts at all!)  Not only is that a great way to lose blog readers, it’s also a really bad way to be a writer.  Writing every day, even if it is just a blog post, is a good writer habit.

Not writing for weeks at a time?  That makes me not a writer anymore.

So, with that in mind (and having an idea of what’s coming in my life and work) I am going to make a mini-goal.  Starting August 1, I am going to post something every day for the rest of 2013.  I am going to use the rest of July to work myself back into the habit of writing every day.  Vacation, work, stress, life, it doesn’t matter what comes my way.  I am going to write!

Wish me luck, and cheer me on!  (An occasional guilt trip wouldn’t be taken amiss, either.)

Living in Other Worlds

I can’t remember a time when I lived only in this world.

Currently, of course, I mentally visit worlds created by others by reading as well as the worlds that have developed in my own mind.  Today I found myself reflecting on my childhood, and I realized that this has always been the case.

Obviously there was a time before I could read, although for me it is lost to the fog that replaces the details of early childhood.  (My mother loves to tell the tale of my indignant reaction to the first library visit in elementary school – “They made us check out a book but didn’t teach us how to read it!”)  The lack of reading skills didn’t prevent me from visiting the realms of imagination, as the adults in my life made sure to read to me often.  As soon as I could read for myself, I was never without a book (or three).

It isn’t just books, though.  The building of worlds has always been a part of my brain as well; as a child, the worlds were often based as much on history as fiction, but that doesn’t make them any less valid.  When I would play outside I would often drag my sled through the grass, crossing the prairie in a covered wagon or questing to the North Pole on a dog sled.  I collected sticks for firewood, turning bushes into my shelter, to survive being lost and alone in the woods.   My own mental adventures started out based on the lives and exploits of others, but they didn’t stay that way for long.  As I got older, this tendency to escape through books or my own imagination only grew.

When it is needed, my brain is fully involved in the real world.  I will, however, take any chance I get to escape to another place.  I can’t imagine life in only one world.

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