A Slave to Language

Politicized language can be annoying. “Politically correct” is not exactly a term of admiration. That  irritation is justified to the degree that a change in language is meant to alter, rather than reflect reality. A perfect example of the bad kind of politically correct: “Deferred success” in place of “failure.” Very 1984 “War is Peace” type of thinking there. On the other hand, “Native Americans”  for “Indians,” is inarguably an example of the good kind of linguistic shift — mistaking the Americas for India was the biggest geographical gaffe in history, and its stubborn perpetuation is a metaphor for European arrogance and ignorance.

But recently I encountered an even more potent word change –all the more powerful because the word in question did not stick out as absurdly as “Indian.” It was a short, common word that I had never thought to question: “slave.” My wife and I were walking around a preserved colonial plantation when I noticed an interpretive sign that repeatedly used a novel (to me) phrase that almost knocked me over. Although this had been a Southern plantation, the word “slave” never appeared. It had been replaced, in all instances, by some form of  “enslaved man.”

My bias is always in favor of plain speaking. And slave, as ugly as the concept is, was at first glance a very honest word. But the more I thought about it, the more of a lie it became — a pernicious one at that.

Being a slave is something you are, an intrinsic state of being. Being enslaved is something that has been done to you, and has no bearing on your essential being. Calling someone a slave is instantly rendering that person as something other. The constant repetition of the alternative on the historical plaques — enslaved man, enslaved woman, enslaved people — had a surprisingly compelling effect. It made the condensed history of that plantation anything but the boilerplate that would have issued forth without that subtle edit — exponentially more awful, more real. 

And that’s exactly what words should do.

Just Communicate

Leo Tolstoy: He had something to say.

A client sent me a first chapter to a book. I don’t want to say it was awful, but it just wasn’t working on any level. After receiving my critique, the client sent me a long message of explanation. The message was clear, funny, insightful and fun to read. It had me hanging on every word. How do you explain that? Actually, I think embedded in the explanation is the secret principle for all good writing. The root problem with the chapter was that the writer had never figured out what the story was. In the absence of a clear idea, she just tried to WWrite around it. That’s trying to be a writer with two cap Ws, big fancy words, flashy sentence structure, metaphors out the wazoo, with the net result something that is overly cute, trying too hard, and still, since the root problem was not knowing what the story was, meaningless. But when she was trying to explain her difficulty to me, she knew exactly what she was experiencing, which allowed her to do nothing with her writing except attempt to communicate that to me in the best possible way. Since she was talented, the result was everything I describe above. So that’s something to remember: the key to good writing is, first and foremost, actually having something significant and interesting to communicate. Once you have that, forget about everything else but communicating that thing in the most effective way possible. Easy peasy.

On being Single

The Hunt for Bin Laden single has been the #1 Kindle Single pretty much from it’s launch. It’s also hovered around the #50 range in the entire e-book store on Amazon. What does that translate to in terms of hard numbers of sales? A friend of mine had a #1 Kindle Single that proceeded to stay in the top 20 Singles  for a couple of months. He said he was told that the sales were headed for a total of about 10,000. At $2, $3 a pop, nobody is going to get rich on that. But it might just be a form that is only in the early stages of catching on. With the low overhead, including the reduced amount of resources and time that go into a 15,000 word piece (as opposed to a 90,000 word full-length book), it won’t take much more in the way of popularity to make this a very positive development for writers.

Is the Kindle Single the Salvation of Story-Telling?

The Post asked me to take 15 years of reporting on the Hunt for Bin Laden and edit it into a single narrative, which they then gave to Amazon to distribute electronically as “Kindle Single.” It’s 18,000 words and costs $1.99 to instantly download into your e-reader. There is suddenly an apparently thriving market in these not-quite-book-but-more-than-article type pieces. Production costs, practically zero. Distribution costs, practically zero. Price barrier? Negligible. Could this be the salvation of non-fiction story-telling?

Tiger Fatigue — Hear Me Rory

Here’s the way a great columnist can capture the zeitgeist in a phrase: Sally Jenkins on Tiger fatigue after Rory McIlroy’s historic win at Congressional . . .

“I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a new champion who doesn’t treat the world as his spittoon.”

An Old Master

Henry Allen’s best piece in years here.

Post Hunt IV

Chatting with Gene and Dave today at 11 at

Hunt Sunday

If you are able to come out to the Post Hunt that starts noon Sunday in downtown DC, when things die down from the zany and (for us) terrifying kickoff, around 1 pm, stop me and say hi. I’ll be wandering with an expression of dazed anxiety. Dave Barry, Gene Weingarten and I chatted about it on the Post site today for an hour, without giving out a single bit of useful info.

Bad Blogger!

I keep neglecting this blog because “blogging” turns out to involve “writing.” But I hereby apologize to my legions of fan for being such a poor correspondent. Lots of stuff going on with various Story Surgeons projects, so maybe I’ll just update here so this space can maintain its well-deserved reputation as “blog of record.”

* T.M. Shine’s hilarious picaresque novel, Nothing Happens Until It Happens to You didn’t become a bestseller, as I’d hoped and it deserved, but months after publication it was chosen for a Florida Book Award, where it was in some pretty distinguished company. Now the paperback will be brought out in September — go out and buy it. Or just stay in and click it.

* Scott Higham’s and Sari Horwitz’s book Finding Chandra, which was nominated for a Poe award, was the basis of a TLC documentary, starring . . . Scott and Sari, who both demonstrated excellent TV talking head chops.

* Snigdha Prakash’s fabulous book All the Justice Money Can Buy — a kind of Civil Action narrative about the battle between Big Pharma (Merck, makers of VIOXX) and Big Personal Injury Lawyers, a titanic struggle  that leaves the victims as mere footnotes — will be published in June. Snigdha will be at Politics and Prose on June 18.

* I’ll be talking about Fire on the Horizon at the Gaithersburg Book Festival at 11 a.m. on May 21. I was so tickled to discover that FOH made it into one of my favorite venues, Hank Stuever’s One-Man Book Club, and if you follow Hank on Twitter you’ll get noticed everytime he uncorks one of these perfect and perfectly solipsistic reflections on reading on his website, Tinsel.

Guess I need to go and face my intimidating to-do list, including depositing cash money in my son’s bank account, which also necessitates doing the kind of writing that actually provides said money.

Fire on the Horizon on NPR

NPR’s Weekend Edition interview with my co-author about Fire on the Horizon: