Excerpt from XIII: Strophe

Sometimes it’s fun to open the proverbial drawer and take a look at old writing, even when you don’t think you’ll ever revisit it again. About two years ago, I got the crazy idea that I might revise XIII, my old series and one of my favorite things I’ve written. I’m still bothered by the fact that XIII remains completely finished but mostly unedited; I suppose I have a hard time letting go, which is why I return to it at times. My mind wants to “complete the circuit.” Upon looking through the most recent revisions, I found that my writing is passable but still needs work. There’s something about it that’s “missing,” but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is.

This excerpt is from the September 2015 revision of Chapter 11 of the first book in the series, STROPHE,* which introduces the main characters who remain in play for most of the series and hints at the upcoming supernatural conflict (related to demigods and Greek mythology).

Low, murmuring voices broke into her thoughts. Gavin was speaking to his mother, but Naomi couldn’t hear a word they were saying, and from where she stood on the stairs, she could see only the gray streaks in Gavin’s mother’s hair as the light from the television flickered over them.

“Naomi,” Gavin said, and she followed his voice until she joined him on the couch opposite the plush recliner in which his mother rested.

Ms. Dufford was a squat mushroom of a woman; she had a smooth, youngish face that betrayed little emotion, and as Naomi moved closer and stretched out her hand for her to shake, she caught the scent of mold on the air, as though the woman were releasing spores. “Hi,” Naomi said. She put on her best school spirit smile and waited for Ms. Dufford to take her hand.

She did not. “I heard my stepdaughter admiring your outfit,” she said.

Naomi dropped her hand and slipped it into her other, which she hid behind her back. “She said she liked it,” she said.

As Sylvia had done, Ms. Dufford glanced at Naomi, who shivered involuntarily, like the woman’s gaze itself emitted dust that tickled her skin.

“Naomi and I are going back up to my room,” Gavin said. He took Naomi’s hand and threaded his fingers in hers. His hand felt clammy, like he was feverish. The entire house seemed to have taken on a dismal cast that not even the bright, smiley commercials on the television could lift.

“You do that. I hope you will remember what I told you,” Ms. Dufford said.

Feedback is welcome.

*strophe [n]: (1) the movement of the classical Greek chorus while turning from one side to the other of the orchestra; (2) the part of a Greek choral ode sung during the strophe of the dance.

Differences in Processing Time

In 2015, I read Susan Cain’s Quiet, which is about the hidden power of introverts and the many talents they can bring to the table and how they are often overshadowed in America—a far more extroverted country than, say, Japan. Introverts tend to be misunderstood as “shy” or “rude” or “antisocial,” which has been a source of frustration for me throughout my life.

To me, the biggest difference between introverts and extroverts is what I call “processing time.” Extroverts are way better at making decisions in shorter time frames than introverts, at least in my experience. They come up with solutions faster and their witty comebacks are that much more effective and funny because they are spontaneous. Introverts need more time to process and consider all options. This may lead to a better-informed decision, but it’s useless in times when a quick decision is mandatory. And I find myself annoyed because I come up with the perfect witty comeback… four hours after the time when it should have been said.

I consider myself fortunate to work in a department that consists of mostly introverts (editors and writers). We understand each other’s “antisocial” tendencies and need for “processing time.” We don’t have too many long-winded water cooler conversations because we just want to get back to our desks and focus. However, I think I got a little spoiled by my workplace, because when I go out into the real world, where the majority of people are extroverts, I get frustrated when they don’t seem to understand my “slow” thought process and impatience with small talk.

Then I also realize that perhaps I am not being as understanding of extroverts as I ought to be, and I may be using “introversion” as an excuse to avoid social situations that might otherwise benefit me. So the need for a fine balance comes into play. There are times when a quick decision is necessary, and there are decisions that require more thought. There are times to go to parties and social gatherings, and there are times to go home and relax and read or watch a movie. Some projects would be better when worked on in a group situation, and others are best worked on individually. As with many other things, it’s a matter of understanding other people and what they’re like and how their brains function.

It’s not like in the days of elementary school when you can immediately write off that one kid as weird because he likes to play by himself, or avoid another kid because he likes to be the life of the party. In the real world, we have to work together.


Plain Language Reprise

A few years ago, I wrote a post on the Plain Writing Act, and received the honor of being Freshly Pressed on WordPress, probably not because of the quality of the post but more because of (1) the timeliness of the issue and (2) I happened to mention then-President Obama.

Plain writing and plain language are still pretty important issues and will become more so, as people have less and less time to read (and absorb what they have read). In my job, we do a lot of work for the federal government, which is still pushing for plain language as it attempts to make its reading material more accessible to the public.

A few of my coworkers went to a conference on plain language and learned that images and typography are just as important, if not more so, than words in conveying a message. Many elderly people cannot read text as easily when certain fonts are used, and they may not interpret symbols in the same way as a younger audience would.

The terminology used is also important; if you are writing a pamphlet for lay readers about how to detect early signs of a stroke, it is crucial that you use simple language, not complex medical jargon. People have a tendency to completely give up on reading something if it’s too complicated. They simply don’t have the time or the energy to sift through it. Your message may be important, but it will be lost if nobody reads it.

My parents received a booklet on Medicare benefits from the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. I idly flipped through it and was surprised to see that the plain language principles were being used. The booklet was geared toward older people, so it was written in a larger font, it used images and text boxes, and there were fewer words on each page. It had a glossary in the back that defined commonly used terms in simpler language, and it seemed to be organized a lot more clearly than a lot of other government materials I had been seeing. It almost made me want to read it.

Even so, my parents didn’t read the booklet, at least not cover to cover. Perhaps the larger font made it seem like it was longer, perhaps my parents didn’t have the time, or perhaps it’s the simple fact that nobody really wants to sit around and read about Medicare because it’s one of the most boring topics in the known universe. The booklet was the kind of thing you look at when you are at your wit’s end trying to hunt for some tidbit of information that you thought you might have remembered seeing somewhere. And that’s all the more reason to make these types of documents accessible. The last thing you want to do is confuse or frustrate your audience, especially when they’re reading about a topic that’s confusing, frustrating, or boring to begin with.

Have you had any frustrating experiences with documents that did not use plain language principles?