A to Z Day 26: Zeugma


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Zeugma is a fun word to say, and a fairly simple concept, but the explanation is a bit complicated, so I’m borrowing one more definition from Dr. L. Kip Wheeler of Carson-Newman University.

ZEUGMA (Greek “yoking” or “bonding”): Artfully using a single verb to refer to two different objects in an ungrammatical but striking way, or artfully using an adjective to refer to two separate nouns, even though the adjective would logically only be appropriate for one of the two. For instance, in Shakespeare’s Henry V, Fluellen cries, “Kill the boys and the luggage.” (The verb kill normally wouldn’t be applied to luggage, so it counts a zeugma.) If the resulting grammatical construction changes the verb’s initial meaning but is still grammatically correct, the zeugma is sometimes called syllepsis–though in actual practice, most critics use the general term zeugma to include both the grammatical and ungrammatical types interchangeably. Examples of these syllepses and zeugmas abound–particulary in seventeenth-century literature:

“If we don’t hang together, we shall hang separately!” (Ben Franklin).
“The queen of England sometimes takes advice in that chamber, and sometimes tea.”
“. . . losing her heart or her necklace at the ball.” (Alexander Pope).

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A to Z Day 25: Yarn


I can’t do any better for a definition of Yarn than Dr. L. Kip Wheeler of Carson-Newman University:

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YARN (Old English gearn): An informal name for a long, rambling story–especially one dealing with adventure or tall-tales. The genre typically involves a strong narrative presence and colloquial or idiomatic English. The tone is realistic, but the content is typically fantastic or hyperbolic. Cf. the Chinese p’ing hua and the Russian skaz.

When I think of yarns, I think of Mark Twain stories, Davy Crockett, and Paul Bunyan. I loved a good yarn as a child — that’s probably one of the sources of my love of stories and storytelling. Here’s what makes a good yarn. It’s a story you tell in conversational language, and you tell it as though it’s true. But at the same time, the actual events you’re narrating are so fantastical that no one could possibly believe them. The effect is usually humor.

Some people limit yarns to campfire stories and shaggy dog stories. Include folk tales in them, so long as they’re long-winded, exaggerated, and use colloquial language. In other words, I don’t think a story necessarily has to be pointless or anti-climactic to qualify as a yarn.

Feel free to drop the titles or links to your favorite yarns, or yarns you’ve written, in the comments in this next-to-last day of the A to Z Challenge.

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A to Z Day 24: Xanaduism


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This was the most difficult day to come up with a topic for, because there just aren’t that many writing terms that begin with X. I went with Xanaduism because the name is derived from a poem I enjoy. Here’s a definition provided by Dr. L. Kip Wheeler of Carson-Newman University.

Academic research that focuses on the sources behind imaginative works of literature and fantasy. John Livingstone Lowes, in his publication The Road to Xanadu (1927), inspired the name, which in turn goes back to Coleridge’s visionary poem “Kubla Khan” (i.e., “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree . . .”). More recently, the term has been used in a pejorative sense to describe scholarship involving dubious scrutiny of amorphous, difficult-to-prove sources, especially simplistic studies lacking any redeeming theoretical perspectives

So, if you write an essay about the orgin of a piece of literature and someone says you’re engaging in Xanaduism, they’re probably not complimenting you on your scholarship. I’ve never actually heard this term used in conversation, and don’t have anything else to say about it.

Since Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is in the public domain, I’ve included it below for your enjoyment, with another thought or two afterwards. Librivox has several audio recordings of this poem.

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A to Z Day 23: Worldbuilding


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Since I shared my fantasy project on day six, I thought it might be good to talk about worldbuilding from a practical point-of-view today. To some extent, all fiction writers are worldbuilders. But I am using the term to mean the creation of worlds that are so different from the world we actually live in as to feel alien or exotic. I am thinking about these sorts of worlds:

  • Other planets, or worlds that don’t follow the laws of natural physics at all (like other planes of existence or dimensions).
  • Settings that are so far distant in time they’re fantastical – civilization circa 8,000 C.E., say; or advanced civilizations that existed before recorded history.
  • Using historical divergence to create an alternate modern setting. (For example, what would the world look like in 2050 if the Soviet Union had never collapsed?)

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A to Z Day 22: Villanelle


The villanelle is a very strict poetic structure. It’s one of the most challenging forms of short poem I’ve ever attempted to write. I started trying to write one for this post on Monday – what could be better than that?

I gave it up on Tuesday, because I realized that if I tried to actually post a credible villanelle – even one that was pure doggerel – I would still be writing it this time next week. When the villanelle works, the payoff is well worth the effort. When it doesn’t, you end up with something that’s just repetitive. Rigidly-structured writing is DIFFICULT.

The villanelle seems simple enough:

Nineteen lines composed of five three-line stanzas (tercets) and a quatrain at the end.

The rhyme scheme is ABA for the tercets and ABAA for the quatrain.
The first and third lines are repeated as alternating refrains in the second through the fifth stanzas, and used together as a couplet for the final two lines of the poem. The repetition accounts for eight of the 19 lines, if I counted correctly. This gets you a structure which looks like this:

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A to Z Day 21: Utopian


Utopian stories are set in perfect or near-perfect societies. Writers have created utopias in English for at least 500 years. The term as we use it today comes from Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, which was first published in 1516. You can find antecedents in the practice of creating ideal states, a truly ancient philolosphical practice; and it is interesting that More’s book is both a work of narrative fiction and a social critique of European society.

The opposite of the utopia is the dystopia – a fictional society that has gone terrifyingly wrong. Dystopias are far more popular that utopias in contemporary fiction, and they are often presented as cautionary tales or social criticism. I have to think hard to come up with more than a couple of utopian works without a search enging (More and James Hilton’s Lost Horizon are the only ones that just spring to mind). The list of dystopian works I can name off the top of my head is long. Here are a few (links to their Goodreads pages):

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Utopian and dystopian settings are popular in speculative fiction. You could even argue that they are speculative fiction by their very nature, even when they don’t contain a lot of sci-fi or fantasy elements. Some authors even combine them. It’s not uncommon to find writers playing with these concepts by doing things like creating an obvious dystopia but having everyone who lives in it convinced it’s a utopia (well, except for that one guy at the center of the story, and perhaps a few social elites).

Utopias and dystopias work well in film. So well, in fact, that I have an easier time naming dystopian movies than I do naming dystopian books.

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A to Z Day 20: Tone


Tone is all about how an author treats the subject of a text and the audience. The two most common categories for tone

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are “formal” and “informal,” but other words to describe it abound. “Solemn,” “friendly,” “sarcastic,” “condescending,” and “enthusiastic” are a few other examples.

Tone is sometimes confused or used interchangeably with mood; but they are different concepts. Tone is about the author’s attitude as expressed by things like diction, syntax, and point-of-view. Mood is about how a piece of writing affects the audience. So, tone has an influence on mood of a piece, and there are many words that can be used to describe both (somber, for example).

Many other aspects of a piece of writing can affect tone, including the amount of detail an author employs (see images), the sounds of the words themselves (see euphony), the level of specialization in the chosen vocabulary (see jargon), and the overall pace of the piece.

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell exactly what sort of tone you’re setting, and sometimes different readers will read the same words and interpret their tone differently. For example, sometimes it’s hard to distinguish “passionate” from “angry.” The only way to really be sure about the tone of a piece of writing is to have other people read it and give you feedback.