Award-winning author
Unusual times, remarkable places

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

26 March 2008

Phrasal verbs: Cool, but often misused

You may never have heard of “phrasal verbs,” but you use them all the time. Phrasal verbs—also called compound verbs—consist of a verb (often of Anglo-Saxon ancestry) plus a preposition or an adverb. English contains thousands of these chimeras.

Like the mythological Chimera, the phrasal verb is often more than the sum of its parts: The meanings of the verb and preposition bend, twist, and warp in unexpected ways when combined. For example, take “grind”*:
  • grind away at (person): needle, criticize, or nag continually
  • grind away at (thing): crush something continually into particles
  • grind (thing) away: remove something by grinding
  • grind (person) down: wear someone down by constant requests or nagging
  • grind (thing) down: make something smooth or even by grinding
  • grind (thing) into (thing): pulverize something into powder; crush or rub one thing into another
  • grind on: drag on endlessly
  • grind out: produce something in a mechanical manner
  • grind (thing) to (thing): grind something until it is something else
  • grind to a halt: slow and stop
  • grind (things) together: rub things together
  • grind (thing) up: pulverize or crush
As a copyeditor, I’ve seen three phrasal verb mistakes over and over.

1. Tangled sentence due to reluctance to end a sentence with a preposition. I can give no better example than Winston Churchill’s tongue-in-cheek comment on this mistake: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

2. Wrong preposition. Like “grind,” many verbs can pair up with several different prepositions and adverbs. The most common confusion is probably between “compare to” and “compare with.” “Compare with” is used when comparing how people or things are alike or different: “Compared with last spring, this spring has been cold and rainy.” “Compare to” is used when likening one person or thing to another, as in William Shakespeare's “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Dictionaries often give examples of phrasal uses of a verb after its definitions, so if you’re not sure which preposition to use, you may be able to find the answer there.

3. Missing preposition in a sentence with two phrasal verbs. Because phrasal verbs are so common in English, two or more often end up in a sentence together. It’s okay to drop a preposition when both verbs take the same one, as in, “We were excluded and banned from the party.” “From” does double duty. Problems arise, however, with sentences such as, “We were banned and thrown out of the party,” which should be, “We were banned from and thrown out of the party.”

*Examples and definitions based on NTC’s Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs and Other Idiomatic Verbal Phrases by Richard A. Spears.

19 March 2008

My town Wednesday: Riverside, CA

Travis Erwin of One Word, One Rung, One Day has started of series of posts entitled “My Town Monday” and invited others to take part.

Here is my contribution. I usually post on Wednesdays, though, so this is “My town Wednesday.” Being new to California and Riverside both, I’ll probably get some things wrong, and I apologize in advance.

Riverside’s biggest claim to fame is that it's home to the mother navel orange tree, a national landmark. Any time you eat an American-grown Washington navel orange, there’s a good chance it came from a graft from the tree at right, which came to Riverside from Bahia, Brazil, in1873. The mother navel orange tree now lives in a tiny park protected by a tall fence and is still producing oranges. You can view a slide show about the tree at

Settlers named the town “Riverside” because it was by the Santa Ana “River.” I use quotation marks because most of the year the river contains no water. Since its founding in the early 1870s, Riverside has grown to be the 61st-largest city in the country and the 14th-largest metropolitan area—pretty impressive stats for a town you’ve probably never heard of!

Riverside is a good place for hiking because it has many hills and a few mountains. At left, for example, is the view from our back yard. We often see hikers and horseback riders on the ridge silhouetted against the skyline. Although the hills are bare most of the year, the winter rains turn them many shades of greens, dotted here and there with the bright oranges and yellows of wildflowers.

Perhaps my biggest surprise after moving here was the winds. Few days are still. Most days are pleasantly breezy, taking the edge off the heat. Then there are the Santa Ana winds. They can gust as hard as a tropical storm and sometimes fuel terrible fires, as they did this past fall.

If Riverside were abandoned, the desert would reclaim it quickly. No rain falls for months at a time, forcing the orange growers and home gardeners alike to rely on irrigation and sprinklers. Cactuses are many and varied, as are xeric wildflowers. Roadrunners graze in our yard, and coyotes visit at night.

I’ll revisit Riverside again in my blog when I’ve had a chance to explore it more.

11 March 2008

Interview with debut novelist Carleen Brice

In Carleen Brice’s women’s fiction novel Orange Mint and Honey, burned-out grad student Shay does what she had hoped to never do again: live with her mother, Nona, whose alcoholism destroyed Shay’s childhood. Shay and her now-sober mother must forge a new relationship as Shay rebuilds her own life.

Carleen, thank you for visiting my blog, and congratulations on the publication of Orange Mint and Honey.

Thank you very much for having me!

Although this is your fourth book, it’s your first novel. Did you need to change your writing method for fiction?

Not really. This book took research and a great deal of organizing, just like nonfiction. Maybe even more so. Trying to keep the chronology straight was especially challenging. But my method was still pretty much the same: try to sit at the computer and do some work every day. The difference between the two forms that really surprised me is that writing fiction felt more revealing.

Why did you choose singer–pianist Nina Simone to be Shay’s spirit guide?

Ooh, I like that term spirit guide! Nina Simone chose me. I was listening to a lot of female vocalists and I knew Shay would be more responsive to someone from the past rather than the present, and Nina Simone is the one who came alive for me. Her voice and personality have such presence!

I came across an apropos quote from Carrie Fisher: “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Shay resents her mother and has every reason to; Nona is now sober, productive, and happy, while Shay still carries the scars of her upbringing and has never learned how to live a normal life. How did you walk the fine line of redeeming Shay while keeping her story realistic?

Thank you for saying I did walk that fine line. It was difficult, and some of the early feedback I got was that Shay was an unlikable character because she was so bitter. (Interestingly, though, friends who had similar issues from their childhood didn’t think she was too bitter at all.) But I did scale her back some so the focus of her anger was more directed toward Nona rather than just being angry at the world. And I was careful to include specific flashbacks from her childhood so the reader could see that her feelings were justified.

Nona’s garden helps her recover from her alcoholism. The garden serves as a friend, surrogate child, a pathway to God, an activity to replace drinking, and a reminder that life can be beautiful. You yourself are an avid gardener. What roles does gardening serve in your own life? And why do you garden in your pajamas?

I sort of became Nona as I wrote about her, so gardening became more important to me as I wrote this book. Gardening is an opportunity to lose myself in a way that is very different from writing. It’s physical and yet demanding of a different part of my brain and heart than walking or bike-riding.

I garden in my pajamas for the same reason I do anything I can get away with in my pajamas: I’m lazy. I totally understand Hugh Hefner (at least the part about the pajamas)! I have a loose definition of pajamas, by the way: Sweatpants and t-shirts also count as jammies. But much to my husband’s dismay, I’ve been out in my fenceless front yard in pajama pants and nightshirt.

You did an amazing job of showing Shay’s pain and how she has been scarred to the very core of her soul by her childhood. What techniques do you recommend for conveying emotion in fiction?

I know the scene I’m writing is working when I’m feeling the emotion my character(s) feels. If I’m laughing during a funny scene or crying during a sad scene, I’ve got it nailed. So, I guess the technique I recommend is really getting in touch with your character. Much as an actor does. Really put yourself in his/her shoes. If you’re writing about a situation that you haven’t directly experienced, try to call up a different memory when you felt a similar way. And most important: Be specific to that character. Try not to just think sad = crying, but think how your character would feel and react to each situation. Would she spit, slap, scream, run, laugh, hide? The more true her reaction is to her character, the more powerful the scene will be.

You use many striking images in the book. Once you compare the bags under someone’s eyes to potstickers. Another time, someone’s heart thumps like the speakers in the car of a teenage boy. Do these images come to you naturally, or do you need to play with them to get them right? Why do so many writers fall back on clichés, do you think?

Thank you. Those two examples came pretty easily, but for the most part I have to play around with metaphors and images. My first drafts are full of clichés! Some of them I scout out, and some are pointed out to me by early readers. My friend Marisol is particularly good at circling overused phrases and writing “You’re a better writer than this” next to it. Sometimes I think “No I’m not!” but I try to rise to the challenge.

I don’t know that many good writers fall back on clichés, but for those of us who do, I imagine it’s because it’s so easy to do. We use clichés in conversations. They’re part of the national vocabulary. Also, when you’re trying to write a book a year, I don’t know how you come up with fresh images every time. I really admire writers who seem to really drop down into the scene and describe things in a way that doesn’t sound generic.

I’d like to point out the opposite problem: I’ve read some books where I’m overwhelmed with metaphors and images that make it seem as if the writer is working overtime, and the book ends up feeling worse (to me) for the effort.

What is your writing regimen? Would you recommend it to aspiring authors?

I try to write every day, and I do recommend that to aspiring authors, especially when the story is new. Writing is pretty scary for most of us, and taking time away from it can allow the idea of it to become even more so in your mind. But sometimes I get tired and need to take a break. Coming back to the story is PAINFUL, and I always regret taking the break.

I think I’m fresher in the morning, but lately (as in the last year or so) I’ve fallen into the habit of doing anything and everything before I write, so I’ve learned to “refresh” and get down to work in the evenings and late at night.

One thing I do is track my word count. After you get some words down, it’s really satisfying to look back to when you didn’t have any. I especially like it when I have about 50,000 words and can look back to when I only had a few thousand.

Do you have any advice for people writing their first novel?

Don’t believe all that you hear about writing and publishing. There are lots of people who will tell you the first novel you write won’t sell or that unless you write about X you won’t sell. But for every rule, there’s an exception.

Now having said that: It is important to know the rules. To be professional. Be nice. Understand grammar. Just don’t let all that “advice” direct you. Write your book and worry about the rest later. Tell a story that’s important to you, and chances are good it will be important to someone else, and even if you don’t sell it, it will still have been worth your time.

Guard and nurture your dream ferociously. Surround yourself with people who will be supportive, and keep your mouth shut about your goals around haters and naysayers.

What is your next book about?

It’s about two half-sisters. One is white, and one is biracial and was adopted and raised by a black family. It’s about race, identity, and what makes a family. The working title is Children of the Waters. It’s scheduled for release from One World/Ballantine sometime next spring.

Thank you again for visiting my blog to talk about your book.

Thank you again for the time and space!

Carleen Brice’s Website is at and her blog at Her book Orange Mint and Honey is available at all major bookstores and can be ordered online from and Barnes & Noble.

05 March 2008

A depressing evening with Joyce Carol Oates

“Life sucks, and then you die.”

Joyce Carol Oates did not quote metal band Cerebral Fix when she spoke at the University of California at Riverside on 8 February 2008, but her words clearly echoed the band’s sentiment. In her talk, titled “The Writer’s (Secret) Life,” she discussed the life a writer’s fans don’t see, a life of boredom, rejection, marginalization, and even psychopathology. In fact, she argued that isolation was at the core of creativity.

Jeepers. I had hoped she would speak on feeding creativity or structuring the writing day or balancing writing and other work.

Anyway, she discussed writers who were emotionally wounded as children by their parents’ rejection, such as the Brontë sisters, Anaïs Nin, Samuel Beckett, and Samuel Clemens. She then moved on to writers who were driven by hate. Ernest Hemingway loathed his mother, she said; Eugene O’Neill loathed his father, and Patricia Highsmith hated both her parents. Oates listed Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry Miller, and Flannery O’Connor as other writers motivated by hate.

Next came people who had extraordinary success early, only to flame or fizzle out. These included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer, Ralph Ellison, and Harper Lee, whom Oates quoted as saying, “When you are on top, there’s nowhere to go but down.” Oates wrapped up by discussing rejection.

In answering a question from the audience, Oates said that she had written some children’s books so that she could write happy endings. One can’t have simple happy endings in adult books, she said.

I left the talk frustrated that she was content to merely list miserable people who were writers and writers who earned their misery through writing and never got to the heart of the matter: Is it necessary to be miserable to be a writer?

I don’t think so. Certainly, creative people see the world differently, often more realistically, and life without rose-colored glasses can be tough. Certainly, many artists discover truth the hard way, through pain, illness, mistreatment, depression, or drugs or alcohol. Certainly, artists often cannot integrate fully into society, not only because they see the world uniquely but also because their world view, expressed through their art, may alienate or frighten others.

But so what? Outcasts don’t have to be lonely; they can make friends with other outcasts. Counseling (sometimes aided by psychiatric drugs) can help people play the hand life has dealt them. Creative people can transform their pain and achieve meaning in their lives by writing, painting, composing, photographing, quilting, gardening, cooking . . . . or doing all of the above.

You can’t stop misery from knocking at your door. You don’t have to invite it in and give it a bedroom.

That’s my take. What’s yours?


Next week's blog post: an interview with Carleen Brice about her first novel, Orange Mint and Honey.