Award-winning author
Unusual times, remarkable places

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

28 January 2009

My life with dictionaries

A copyeditor’s best friend is her dictionary, and that’s the main reason I own approximately 43 of them.*

I have to admit, I also like dictionaries.

My first dictionary—the Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary—I won in sixth grade in the Clark and Greene Counties Elementary Spelling Bee. It still sits on a shelf in my office.

My newest dictionary, the Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, sits next to my computer. It’s the standard dictionary for many magazines, newsletters, and newspapers, so I need to refer to it frequently when copyediting or writing for magazines.

My favorite dictionary is the behemoth three-volume Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition, Unabridged. You can read why at the “Friday’s Forgotten Books” post I did in October at Patti Abbott’s blog, Pattinase.

The hard-copy dictionary I use most often is the Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, because it weighs less than the second edition.

The electronic dictionaries I use most often are the electronic Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary (which is installed on my computer) and the online OneLook at, which claims to search 973 dictionaries. Even so, it’s incomplete; it rarely finds the musical terms I look up.

We keep a dictionary on the table in the breakfast room so that we can look up words in the newspaper that we don't know.

Many of my dictionaries have chewed corners, courtesy of my late cat Susato, who never met a book he didn't like. Samuel Johnson's cat helper Hodge is memorialized in a statue outside of Johnson's former home, sitting on a copy of Johnson's dictionary. I suspect Hodge did not win his favored status by chewing on books.

The first thing I do with a new dictionary is open it to the middle and take a big whiff of that wonderful new-book smell.

I have the one-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, but would love to have the full twenty-volume version.

No one asked my advice about dictionaries, but I’ll give it anyway.

•Keeping a good dictionary by your side when you read and looking up every word you’re not quite sure of is the best way to expand your vocabulary and learn the nuances of meaning among synonyms.

•Be aware of whether the dictionary you are using is descriptive or prescriptive. Most modern dictionaries are descriptive, which means they tell you how a word is used today. That sounds good, but it means that they include usages considered incorrect by editors, often without any warning. An exception is the American Heritage Dictionary family of dictionaries. These are descriptive but also tell you what its 200-expert usage panel thinks of questionable uses—the best of both worlds.

•If you primarily use a dictionary other than the American Heritage Dictionary, it’s a good idea to also own a grammar book and/or a style manual (I prefer Claire Kehrwald Cook’s, which is sold under various titles including The MLA’s Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing, Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing, and Line by Line: How to Improve Your Own Writing). A style manual can help you with frequently misused words such as “comprise” (it does not mean “is composed of”) and “infer” (it does not mean “imply”).

•Having more than one dictionary is useful even if one is not a copyeditor. Each has its advantages. Some include more pictures than others. Some contain more definitions. Some have better etymologies. Some compare synonyms. Some are more up-to-date on new words. Some contain more reference materials.

•If you have a Macintosh, read the fine print when buying a dictionary that includes a CD-ROM. Some are not Mac-compatible.

•Just because a word is not in the dictionary does not mean it's not a word, unless you are playing Scrabble.

*My hard-copy dictionaries include dictionaries in French, German, Spanish, Latin, and Greek (classical and Biblical); six medical dictionaries; two visual dictionaries (in which one can, for example, look up “horse” and find a picture of a horse with its parts labeled); A British English–American English dictionary; five science dictionaries; a rhyming dictionary; two etymology dictionaries; a dictionary of phrasal verbs; a reverse dictionary (look up the meaning and find the word); two dictionaries of medical acronyms and abbreviations; two dictionaries of slang; a dictionary of plant names; a modern condensed edition of Mr. Johnson’s dictionary; and nine standard dictionaries. I used to have a wonderful early music dictionary, but it drowned in the flood after the federal levees broke in New Orleans. I also have an ancient Sumerian dictionary in a PDF file.

20 January 2009

Interview with sword-and-soul author Milton Davis

Milton Davis’s debut novel, Meji, is set on the fictional continent of Uhuru (Swahili for freedom), a composite of Africa that brings different people and customs of Africa into close proximity. Two brothers, separated at birth, struggle to find their places in a world of tribal conflict.

Welcome, Milton, and congratulations on publication of your first novel, Meji!

Thanks! I’m honored to be invited.

Your book’s genre is sword and soul. What is sword and soul, and how is it different from sword and sorcery?

Sword and soul is action-adventure fantasy based on ancient and medieval African culture, mythology, and traditions. The main characters are almost always Africans or people of African descent. This is what makes it different from conventional sword and sorcery, which is steeped in European medieval and Dark Age myths and traditions.

For you, what were the advantages and disadvantages of self-publication?

Self-publication allows me to present my visions exactly the way I wish. It also frees me from the timetables, commercial restrictions, and content meddling of mainstream publications. It was very important to me to bring my sword-and-soul stories to the audience as is to have an effect on the genre, and I felt self-publishing was the only way. The main disadvantage to self-publishing is distribution. If you view it as it is, a small business, then that challenge goes with the territory. Dealing with it is just a matter of patience and persistence.

What marketing tips would you give to other people who are self-published or published by a small press?

Sell yourself. Get out of your comfort zone and network. Every reader is a potential customer, so be prepared for the opportunity to sell. Set up book signings on your own, and always have copies of your book and contact info on you. Concentrate on your local market. Try to have an event set up every month to promote your work.

What writers have influenced you the most?

I love James Baldwin because of his simplicity. Of course, Robert E. Howard was a great influence on my sword-and-soul work, and I’m a big fan of the Dune series by Frank Herbert. Philip José Farmer’s World of Tiers series was a favorite of mine, as was the Casca series by Barry Sadler.

Recently I’ve become a big fan of Charles R. Saunders. We met online last year, and now I consider him a friend and a mentor. We communicate on a regular basis, and his opinions and support have a great influence on my work. I’m glad to see him back to work on the Imaro series.

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

My motto is “A page a day,” and I highly recommend it to aspiring authors. You have to treat it like a profession to get production. I write at least a page a day, more on the weekends.

What was your favorite part of writing Meji?

I loved the way the story began to write itself. I spent an enormous amount of time on the background research and the details. Once I began writing, the characters and the settings took me in directions I didn’t anticipate. It was the first time that happened to me while writing and it was exciting.

If someone wanted to write sword and soul or if Meji made someone want to learn about Africa and its history, what sources (books, Websites, museums, whatever) do you recommend?

I have a long list of reference materials on my forum, Djembe. A good place to start are the books by Basil Davidson and Cheikh Anta Diop. The Web is always good, and if you live in Atlanta the Auburn Avenue Research Library is a great source.

In Meji, groups living close to each other have such different cultures that conflict becomes almost inevitable. We seem to have the same situation in today’s world. Do your studies of African history give you any hope for creating a peaceful future?

I wouldn’t say it gives me hope, but it does give me insight. Many of the conflicts we have today in Africa and elsewhere are rooted in disagreements that go back centuries. These long-standing conflicts must be considered when developing a solution.

Can you tell us anything about your next book?

I’m working on Meji Book Two; I hope to have it available by the summer. My next project is a historical fiction fantasy, Changa’s Safari. It’s about a 14th century Swahili merchant–adventurer.

Milton, thanks so much for visiting my blog, and good luck with book two!

Thanks for having me!

You can learn more about Milton and Meji by visiting his Website at and his blog at His book can be purchased at

14 January 2009

Prémio Dardos

DeAnna Cameron of Writely So recently honored this blog, For Love of Words, with a Prémio Dardos, which apparently is Italian for "Prize Darts." Thank you, DeAnna, for considering my blog worthy of notice.

Here’s the purpose of the award:

The Prémio Dardos is given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web.

These are the rules:

  1. Accept the award by posting on your blog along with the name of the person that has granted the award and a link to his/her blog.
  2. Pass the award to another 15 blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgment, remembering to contact each of them to let them know they've been selected for this award.

With so many great blogs around, narrowing the field was a hard task. Here are the ones I am passing the Prémio Dardos on to. First, the writing-related blogs, in no particular order:

DeAnna Cameron’s Writely So. The rules don’t say I can’t give it to someone who’s already received it. DeAnna interviews published writers about their book-promotion methods—what they’ve done, what worked, what didn’t. I’ve printed out nearly every one for my stack of information on book promotion.

Charles Gramlich’s Razored Zen. Charles is not only a great writer, but he can also write well about writing. His psychology background gives him good insights that he is generous enough to share.

Travis Erwin’s One Word, One Rung, One Day. Travis has done more than anyone I know to unite bloggers and make the blogworld a little cozier with his regular “My Town Monday” posts. Travis and his family lost everything they owned in a house fire last week. If you want to help him out, Habitat for Travis Erwin is accepting donations and tells how to contribute directly if you prefer.

Ferrel “Rick” Moore’s The Writer and The White Cat. Rick has lots of great things to say about writing, and he says them entertainingly. If only he were less prolific so that I could have the pleasure of reading all his posts!

Lisa Kenney’s Eudaemonia. Lisa is on a quest to write and understand good literature, and she takes the reader along as she thinks about and discusses books she’s read, commercial vs. literary fiction, and her writing journey.

Steve Malley’s Full Throttle and F**k It. Steve claims to operate at two speeds (the aforementioned “full throttle” and “f**k it”), but in reality he seems to be always in zoom ultra-high-creativity mode. His posts on writing and art are clear, enlightening, and thought-provoking.

Carleen Brice’s White Readers Read Black Authors. Carleen has recently made it her mission to encourage nonblack readers to seek out books by black authors and to brave the scary African American section of the bookstore. Her posts are jammed full of recommended authors and books. (Be sure to also check out her other blog, The Pajama Gardener.)

William “Billy” Hammett’s Publexicon. Billy’s topics range widely, from literary agents to writing tips to the publishing industry, but are always interesting and worthwhile.

Therese Fowler’s Making It Up. Therese chronicled the journey to the publication of her first novel and continues to blog about writing and the writing life.

Lynne Griffin, Amy MacKinnon, Hannah Roveto, and Lisa Marnell’s The Writers’ Group. This blog just ceased publication this week, but the archives contain much useful information on the writing life and particularly on belonging to a critique group.

Bella Stander’s Reading Under the Covers. Bella discusses what publicists do and what you can do to help promote your book and have a good relationship with your or your publisher’s publicist.

Stephen Parrish’s Stephen Parrish: If You Heard It Here First, I Probably Made It Up. Stephen dispenses wisdom, humor, compassion, and inspiration, particularly for writers.

The following two nonwriting blogs express personal values in a way that provides a good example for others.

Lana Gramlich’s The Dreaming Tree. Lana is one of those rare souls who lives her values and is an inspiration to those who feel caught in the rat race. Her blog often features her paintings and beautiful photographs of nature, as well as retellings of her dreams, which often inspire her art.

Shauna H.’s Shauna’s Life in Pain and Other Fun Things. Besides having a really cool name, Shauna has a deep desire to reach out to help others. Her blog chronicles her own journey with severe, never-ending pain and provides support and resources for people in like circumstances. She lives her motto: “Laugh at your pain; it won’t hurt as much.”


The blog Out of the Cradle named my story "Coyote and the Gambler" in Return to Luna (Hadley Rille Books) winner of Best of the Moon 2008 in Moon Fiction.


Coming up soon: more interviews and a discussion of dictionaries (hint: I'm in favor of them)

06 January 2009

It was the best of years, it was the worst of years

Several bloggers last week summarized the good and bad of their 2008s, inspiring me to do the same.

It was a revealing exercise. My father’s death in February cast a pall over the rest of the year, and I walked around with a dark cloud over my head like Joe Btfsplk in “Li’l Abner.” It didn’t help that Dulcinea had the frequent medical crises of an elderly cat and then died from one. 2008 felt like a terrible year.

When I made a list, these deaths were the only events in the “bad” column. Granted, they’re each the equivalent of several run-of-the-mill bad events. But overall, I had a wonderful year. Here’s a brief counting of my blessings:

•I made my first novel sale.

•Dave and I finally sold our house in New Orleans.

•Barack Obama won the presidency, and for the first time in years I’m optimistic about the country’s future.

•I had three short stories published and did a booksigning for the anthology one of them is in.

•I read books by many of my blog friends, and some of those were first books.

•I’ve always wanted an herb garden right outside my kitchen door, and now I have one.

•I started taking a bellydancing class and am having a blast.

•We found more people to play music with here in California.

•I went to Book Expo America in Los Angeles and the Romance Writers of America conference in San Francisco. One of the highlights of both was reconnecting with old friends and meeting some friends in person for the first time.

•We got most of the boxes from our move here in 2007 unpacked.

•I’m still meeting with my wonderful New Orleans critique group through videoconferencing.

•I finally updated my nonfiction writing Web page, which I hadn’t touched since 2003. Prospective clients somehow still found me, even after we moved, but my information was embarrassingly out of date. My new page, still at, still needs some tweaks and fixes, but at least it’s up to date.

•Dave and I climbed to the top of a mountain on Fourth of July and watched fireworks from above, an incredible experience.

•I had a too-short but still great visit in Las Vegas with my sister, whom I rarely get to spend time with.

•My sister gave me a CD recorded from her telephone answering machine of my father singing “Happy Birthday” to her. Now I’ll have his voice forever.