About My Pet Peeves in Grammar, Usage and Style

by Taylor MacHenry

Up front, I admit that I nitpick.

It comes from a lifetime of writing and editing (rather my more than 50 years as a professional writer and not counting my childhood and adolescence). I hate having an editor using red ink on my page, correcting anything of which I should know better, mainly grammar, usage and style. Also spelling. Thus, the OCD nitpicking began. So, forgive me if I hair-split. (see a cliche, and I’m not going to bother to check if the hyphenated verb is correct, though I believe that it is).

Today, I observe that grammar has become the common blanket that covers usage and style too, thus the entire Handbook for Writers has become grammar.

That given, perhaps my most irritating thorn that has festered in my old skin for years is the misuse of words and use of non-words. At least words and non-words by my definition of them.

Much egregious to my dinosaur ways, appears the language drift from words to non-words to acronyms used as words caused by text messages and social media. A glance at my granddaughter’s text messages on my smartphone (and what makes it so smart?) and I realize that perhaps (more likely than not) I have probably joined Geoffrey Chaucer in the dark halls of language arts Valhalla. These days, I might as well be writing in the Middlesex Dialect of English.

Therefore, should I simply update my personal writers’ handbook and move forward? Language is communication, and if, “OBTW” or “IMHO,” finds meaning among today’s readers, then BAM, use them. For those who do not yet understand acronymic shorthand language, let me translate: OBTW = Oh By The Way; IMHO = In My Humble Opinion, and BAM = By All Means.

This thorn in my ancient writer’s hide festers from long ago when I began to take notice of the news anchor using words like “Flammable” in place of “Inflammable.” Flammable began existence as a non-word because when safety engineers painted Inflammable on the sides and backends of gasoline trucks, people misunderstood the word to mean that the fuel inside would not catch fire nor explode. If a company painted Non-Inflammable on their trucks, peoples’ heads exploded. To them, Inflammable meant not flammable, meaning that a thing would flam or not flam. The late comedian George Carlin also suffered from a similar thorn in his side when he too noticed that dumbness had now taken over the English language. Dick Cavett, who wrote jokes for Tonight Show host, Johnny Carson, alongside Carlin, likewise shared our language angst.

So, as a writer, I feel my age and I suffer for it. I don’t understand acronymic language, and I groan at the idea that when people use capital letters rather than words, they can often have a multiplicity of meanings. (I also note that I wince when someone uses the word Capitol when meaning Capital, or There when they meant Their, and Facebook’s automatic word checker automatically changes Their into There when Their was the correct word. Or from left field, They’re appears.)

All this rambling simply begs to ask the question: Has English-speaking society just become dumb? Have our communities of humanity just become too stupid to care? And there I go judging people. Another mark of the writing dinosaur. Move over, Mister Chaucer. Dust off a rock for me so that I can rest my weary nitpicking writer’s butt on it.

Oh, and regarding a common pet peeve of people writing endless verbiage in a story without paragraph breaks, I have to smile. Yes, breaking up long-winded diatribes into short paragraphs does greatly improve readability. But what makes me smile is that Jack Kerouac and his “Original Scroll” of his novel, On the Road, comes to my mind. I am a Kerouac devotee. I am part of the Dharma Bums wandering the hinterlands in search of something better.

I also began my professional writing career as a news reporter for a newspaper that printed its daily pages on a rotary press that used hot lead melted and poured into casts to make the printing plates. These casts came from Linotype machines that also spit out words on hot lead. We received our news stories on teletype machines (pre-computer era, not really that long ago), and they used large rolls of yellow paper.

As a reporter, rather than feeding sheet after sheet of typing paper into a typewriter (yes, a mechanical typewriter), I kept a large roll of teletype paper suspended with a coat hanger on the back of my typing table. The yellow paper fed the typewriter, and I typed endlessly. At the -30- mark, I ripped the paper off the typewriter, tossed it into the editor’s in-basket and began another take on an ongoing story or I wrote a new one.

I hated when my typewriter ribbon finally wore so dim that I had to change it. The interruption of thought transference to page seemed brutal to my being. But even then, I broke my stories into paragraphs, divided by logical thought (check out your handbook for writers regarding paragraphs, they do have logical breaks).

Jack Kerouac came from this same school of writing shared by many of us: Lazy. Well, not really Lazy but, let’s call it, Efficient. A roll of yellow teletype paper and a fresh ribbon in his Remington Standard or Underwood, and Jack was a free man. Free to let his thoughts flow through his fingers onto the yellow paper racked around the platen (rubber roller) of his typewriter. Thought transference! Pure and unfettered.

And Jack Kerouac could not be troubled by Strunk and White nor their ideas that addressed logical paragraph breaks and order. Jack thought and wrote and only took his right hand off the keys long enough to give the typewriter’s carriage return a hard whack to the left.

Kerouac’s first edition manuscript of On the Road was one long paragraph typed on a roll of yellow teletype paper. It represented his uplifted middle finger shoved skyward to the smug, judgmental publishing community of his day.

Although Viking Press, in 1957, published On the Road, editors broke the manuscript into logical paragraphs, conformed it to the Chicago Book of Style and published it regardless of the artistic meaning that Jack had tried to show to the world with no punctuation, no paragraph breaks and no place for a reader to take a breath–his virtual raised middle finger to conformity.

Years later, after Jack Kerouac had joined Lenny Bruce, Dylan Thomas and other nonconforming critics of society in the place where their spirits now dwell for eternity (I’m pretty sure that George Carlin and Charlie Bukowski reside there with them), some rebellious editors at the house of G. P. Putnam and Berkley books, which morphed into Penguin-Putnam, then Penguin USA, that has today become Penguin-Random House, fought for and succeeded in publishing Jack Kerouac’s Original Scroll of On the Road.

Kerouac’s resistance to conformity uplifts my soul. A nudist among fully-dressed literary compliance. I recommend reading it.

After all, I too am a rebel. I begin sentences with conjunctions. And that is that!

Love is a Dog from Hell

by Taylor MacHenry

Not long ago, my friend and fellow writer, Kirk Ellis, posted his contribution to his friend Stuart Rosebrook’s challenge to post on Facebook banned books and drive Facebook censors crazy. Yes, a worthy cause.

Of course, my heart went straight to Harper Lee’s brilliant novel that won her the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1961 and was voted by the American people its favorite novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. A book that has been banned multiple times since 1968 through today with other people knowing best what a person ought to be ALLOWED to read. Set in a time when Jim Crow laws caused many innocent poor people to suffer terrible injustices, like the railroading of Tom Robinson, innocent but convicted anyway because he’s Black. That was a time when mentally challenged people like Boo Radley suffered persecution no different than Quasimodo. Scout and Jem and father, Atticus Finch, knew better, despite that ugly world that told an American truth that held up a mirror to our biased faces and helped make us better for it.

Oh, but why even enter such things in the mind? We must control the narrative that the people hear, so they can act pure and be pure and not hate. Right, that’s called brain washing. Censorship is in a way a means to wash the minds of the people, so they will agree on the prescribed politically correct path.

Me? I was always the kid who wondered why books got banned, so I searched out underground copies of the forbidden texts and read them.

Hate is hate. Thus, censors scurry today to rid us of such trash that perhaps might offend us or cause us hurt. So, they ban To Kill a Mockingbird, and of late, they remove from publication six books penned by Dr. Seuss, yanked by the sensitive publishers at Penguin Random House. Because they might be hurtful.

And that brings me to my entry of books best consumed in brown paper wrappers, for fear that the thought police might see us reading them.

As a writer, I find inspiration from an odd assortment of authors, poets and novelists, all tormented by inner demons, with which I use to mold myself into the writer I want to be, and perhaps explain why I share such demons with them. Among this sordid cast of mostly human trash, foreign to polite society, living in the shadow of down-looking noses, rises perhaps my all-time favorite, Charles Bukowski.

I find connection with such nihilistic social rejects as Hank Moody, the main character in Tom Kapinos’ creation, Californication. Totally depraved and yet inspiring. It did seven seasons on Showtime, so someone watched it. Besides me.

I liked it because I know Hank Moody’s heart. Since I have not talked to Tom Kapinos about his inspiration for Hank, I can’t say for sure. But I suspect that Kapinos, like me, draws much inspiration from the insufferable reprobate Charlie Bukowski and his even more deplorable alter-ego, Henry “Hank” Chinaski.

Hank Moody and Hank Chinaski are their own worst enemies. Very much alike. If you’ve watched the seven seasons of Californication, and related to Hank, then you must also read Bukowski’s five novels that take us through the life of Hank Chinaski.

Read the five novels in this order:

First, read Ham on Rye, then next slum your way through the pages of my offering for the list of books that offend the Facebook censors, Factotum. You’ll be hooked with Ham on Rye, and Factotum picks right up.

Then you can settle into the steamy drunk pages of Post Office, where we journey with Hank Chinaski, aspiring to be a novelist but needing to eat, gets a job delivering mail. That, and seducing women, and staying drunk as he tries to write, and keep afloat, resisting everything except temptation. Yet Hank finally reels out his first novel, as Post Office slides to a slow stop.

Next on the reading list we find Bukowski’s introspection of himself through Henry Chinaski in his novel called, Women. In it, life gets good for Henry Chinaski after his first novel takes him to stardom. Down on life, down on stardom, cynical yet fun-seeking, Hank Chinaski and Hank Moody would live well together, if they ever met. And somehow, I believe that Tom Kapinos probably did just that with these two howling mad writers.

A trail of lost loves in his own life, shown to us in the life of Hank Chinaski, I am not surprised that Charlie Bukowski wrote a book of poems entitled: Love is a Dog from Hell.

While the last in the life of Hank Chinaski, the novel Hollywood takes our hero to the land of crazy, phony and glitter, Los Angeles. Here we see Henry Chinaski write the screenplay called, Barfly.

And while Hank Chinaski lives the depraved, careless and self-absorbed life of a writer spinning out of emotional control in the novel, Hollywood, Charles Bukowski lives a similar, depraved life for real as he writes the screenplay for the 1987 feature film, Barfly, which starred Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway.

When you finish reading Hollywood, get a copy of the book form screenplay, Barfly. It’s the final edit of the script, all written by Charles Bukowski.

Charlie Bukowski died in San Pedro, California on March 9, 1994, at the age of 74 years old. Same as my age now. And just as cranky and cynical.

He got his first story published in 1944 and never stopped smoking and drinking and living life with little to no control. His physical body’s worst enemy and his emotional being’s champion of self-abuse, Charlie never stopped writing for the next 50 years.

That’s when God stopped him.


In his tracks.

A few weeks before the Grim Reaper took Charlies Bukowski down for the count, Black Sparrow Press published the first edition hardcover of Charlie Bukowski’s (Hank Chinaski’s) final novel, Pulp.

While looking Lady Death square in the kisser, Bukowski dedicates his story told in Pulp to “bad writing.”

His novel, you see, takes dead center aim at writers and publishers and spoofs their pretentious, over-inflated, narcissistic world.

No ground is sacred.

Replete with everything vile and reviling, lewdness, drunkenness, debauched, hurtful, insulting, immoral but downright funny and heartbreaking.

No Facebook censor could ever allow any of these novels to appear on these hallowed, sensitive and politically woke webpages.

So, I offer to the Facebook censors Charlie Bukowski the man, and Hank Chinaski the fictional hero, and maybe his sidekick, Hank Moody. I guarantee them to be fairly and justly insensitive, insulting and hurtful to all.

But, God bless them, our world would be pretty sad without them.


America’s next bestselling novel, or not

by Charles Henderson

I can’t count the times I’ve heard fellow writers puzzle and pull out their hair at what to do to make their books sell. Sell well enough to pay me for all my work researching and writing the bloody beast over the past year, or two, or three? For that matter, just how does a book become a bestseller? Why not mine?

If ITerminal Impact had a good answer to those questions, I’d have a shelf of bestsellers and more coming out the chute. But the truth is, no one knows. Not even the biggest publishers in the world. And they truly want bestsellers. That’s what they live for. Every editor in New York
City spends his or her hourlong train ride to work from Westchester or Long Island
pondering that illusive dream of every author and editor.

Is it luck? Is it just landing in the right spot at the right time with the right story for the
fickle and unpredictable book buying public? Or is it a lot of effort to publicize a well written book, and to market it smartly?
Probably all of the above.

I can do nothing about luck. I don’t think luck exists anyway. I pray to God to bless me, and trust His will. I also can do nothing about what the book reviewers at all the major media want to feature, nor what the TODAY SHOW or JIMMY KIMMEL want to feature. What I can do is what I can do. And what can I do?

I can put my best efforts forth, and my limited budget, into marketing and publicizing my work. And I can coordinate everything I do with my publisher, who is supposed to be marketing and selling my new book. If I want to make money on the work, and the publisher wants to reclaim his input costs and make a profit, we’ll work together and work hard. But just how hard will a publisher work with my book, as opposed to the thousands of other titles he may have out there?

I have been published by the same major house, now evolved to Penguin Random House, since 1986, and gone through two editors there. In all the years I have written professionally, and done well too, well enough to live on my earnings, I keep coming to the same conclusion: Readers somehow find books they like and buy them, despite the worst efforts of publishers to sell them.

I say that tongue in cheek, because I know, intellectually, that my publisher really wants to sell millions of my books. However, emotionally, I can’t help but feel that their sales department lives inside a box that only contains the limited few bookstores that today exist, and no one at the publishing house and bookstores can see past shelf space. New Media has them all bumfuzzeled.

I pride myself at keeping up to date on the latest technology, and I reach out to my fans and reading audience, many fiercely loyal. However, as fast as public communications today is evolving, I have to admit that I am bumfuzzeled too.

What makes a novel or nonfiction book a bestseller? I think the media has a big part of making a book sell, but ultimately the people who read and chunk up the jing for books (print or digital) have to have a compelling reason to buy the books and make them bestsellers.

How do we build an audience? How do we get our titles to be the talk of the town? Mass marketing. Posting a notice on Twitter gets seen by our typically 200 friends, unless we are a household name. Likewise, friend count on Facebook determines the numbers of people who see your post. Unless you spend some bucks and advertise.

As an experiment, I spent $100 bucks on a Facebook post “boosting” my new novel, TERMINAL IMPACT, coming out in hardcover, audiobook and digital on November 1. In about 10 days, I have more than 4000 people who have clicked on the post and looked at it. The post takes them to the Penguin Random House webpage featuring TERMINAL IMPACT. But will that sell any books? And shouldn’t my publisher be spending the C-note instead of me?

Bang for the buck is my idea. And yes, if we want our books to sell, we have to put forth the effort to publicize them. But spend the money smartly. For each dollar, we need results. The idea is to have a million people become aware of the title, and want to look inside. Then it’s up to our wonderful writing and compelling stories to set the hook and reel that fish home. It’s a numbers game. Just like catching lots of fish, you’ve got to put out the chum, unless you land in a big school of mullet.

Now, I got a decent advance on my books, and I think that the fat advance is also a key ingredient that encourages the publisher and their understaffed sales and publicity departments to put the new title on their front burners. The more pork they have hanging in the fire, the harder they work to pull their exposed porks from the flames and sell your books.

Remember, no publisher is doing you any favor by publishing your book. They’re in it for the money. They won’t publish a page unless they think they can turn a profit with it. That brings it back to the writer’s doorstep. The book has to be super hot, compelling and a story the hungry book hogs will inhale.

Don’t buy into any publisher saying, “I’ll do you the favor of publishing this very questionable manuscript, but you have to take nothing for it, and no promises.” If you sell your book for flattery, then the few copies the publisher sells to your small circle of friends, and the marginal profit they make that is added to the thousands of other marginal books whose marginal profits makes the publisher’s nut, is all you get. Don’t work for flattery.

If the book is good enough to interest a publisher to want to print it and sell it, then I suspect another publisher out there might pay a few coins more for the privilege. A good agent knows this. Shop it around, and see what comes.

And beware, many agents today are like that lawyer we all see on TV. You know, “The Strong Arm.” He’ll get you money for your injuries, fast. “I got a hundred thousand dollars!” the paid shill says, trying to look like a customer. These lawyers work on volume business and fast settlements. A seemingly growing number of agents (like the tide of flotsam and jetsam that clogs the ebook market today) are working that same numbers game. Grab a title that might sell, show it to an editor who wants to finish a list, get a contract with a few bucks advance, and make the author feel like the newly crowned prom queen (or king).

Even though I have been with my publisher more than 30 years now, my agent of more than 30 years, shops my stuff around to the other major publishing houses. When he walks in the door, editors know they have to fight and make an honest offer to get the contract. They know they’re not doing me a favor, and they know I know it. Like the wise guys say, “It’s just business. Nothing personal.”

But when a publisher pays a lot of money up front, they are motivated to work hard at selling the book. They open every avenue that will return their investment, plus a profit. That’s how it works.

Like female hitman Irene Walker said of the Prizzi family in Richard Condon’s bestselling mafia satire (published by my publisher and edited by my first editor, and made into a great motion picture by Steven Spielberg, directed by the late, great John Huston), PRIZZI’S HONOR, “They’d eat their children before they’d part with money. And they LOVE their children!”

Keep saying to yourself what Irene told her hitman lover Charley Partanna as the publisher smiles like a used car salesman offering a “great deal,” wanting you to think it’s more than you really deserve, especially if you’re a virgin. They’d eat their children before they’d part with money. And they LOVE their children!

You want your book publicized and sold, don’t do the deal until you and your agent know it’s the deal that will commit the publisher into working hard to get back his nut and a little juice on top.

 ©Copyright 2016 Charles W. Henderson