11/27/13

The Weird World of Plotto


PlottoI came across Plotto a few years back – references to it in other works, rather than the actual book. it sounded strange, complex and wildly over-reaching. I couldn’t find one – it was long out of print. It wasn’t until I got my own copy that I realized how really odd, clumsy – and delightful – it is.

Plotto was first published in 1928, and not reprinted until recently as far as I can tell, which is why it’s not been readily available to read and comment on. But it has been lurking in the background, a collector’s item. The young Alfred Hitchcock was one of the early adopters of the work. So was Earle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason books. It’s been  referred to, with a combination of reverence, humour and skepticism, by many other writers about writing.

In 2011, it was reprinted by Tin House Books, and finally made available to the general public again. My recently-received copy is the 2012 second printing (another edition was released in 2011 by Norton Creek Press). And I’m gobsmacked by it.

What’s all the fuss?

Plotto was the brainchild of a wildly prolific, early 20th century pulp writer, William Cook (he also wrote screenplays for silent films). Cook was a writing machine: he pumped out the paperbacks, sometimes more than one a week. But he was also passionate about the process of writing itself. He made it his goal to catalogue all types of plot and create a mechanism for writers to be able to create their own novels by selecting from a menu of plots, activities and characters.

And we was obsessive about it, drilling down deep into levels of minute detail. On its own site, Tin House says:

In the first stage, Cook demonstrates that “a character with particular traits . . . finds himself in a situation . . . and this is how it turns out.” Following this, each Master Plot leads the reader to a list of circumstances, distributed among twenty different Conflict Groups (these range from “Love’s Beginning,” to “Personal Limitations,” to “Transgression”). Finally, in Character Combinations, Cook offers an extensive index of protagonists for what serves as an inexhaustible reservoir of suggestions and inspiration.

Once you have the skeletal structure chosen, all you need to do is fill in the blanks – the verbs, the adjectives, the dialogue, and voila: your own novel. Sort of. It’s not that easy, of course, but Cook wanted to take the guesswork out of the cogitation part of the formative process that often led to writer’s block. So he catalogued and indexed and outlined like crazy. And ended up with a combination encyclopedia and rebus puzzle.

The result is stunning – and confusing. As Brainpickings tells us:

In 1894, French critic Georges Polti recognized thirty-six possible plots, which included conflicts such as Supplication, Pursuit, Self-sacrifice, Adultery, Revolt, the Enigma, Abduction, and Disaster. In 1928, dime novelist William Wallace Cook, author of Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots, did him one better, cataloging every narrative he could think of through a method that bordered on madness. His final plot count? 1,462.

That’s a lot more than the three or four I learned about in school! And more than the 36 basic plot situations the French writer, Georges Polti, described.*

Here’s a sample (see here for some follow-up numbers):

Plotto sample

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11/16/13

These Poolish Things…


52 LoavesPoolish. Levain. Banneton. Autolyse. Retardation. Lactobaccilli. Bassinage. Windowpane test. Crumb. Batard. Barm. A new vocabulary is building in me, one that brings the lore of breadmaking, the etymology of the loaf to my conversation.*

It’s a necessary vocabulary, if one wants to fully understand the techniques and technology of baking bread. Knowing the names of things gives one power. It’s also a bit like being welcomed into a secret society where members whisper to one another in their codified language. Is there a secret handshake?

It also helps broach that disconnect between our modern selves and what we eat. Knowing the process, knowing the steps and the names, is like pulling aside the curtain to see the man who is the reality of Oz.

I don’t know the secret language of, say, asparagus, or broccoli, pasta or tea – although I consume them all in quantity. I don’t know the processes that turn peanuts into peanut butter, ginger into marmalade or milk into yogurt. (I may venture into pastas, once I get a pasta maker… and I am pulled by the gravity of tea to learn more…)

They, in my state of ignorant bliss, simply are. Like most foodstuffs, they appear on supermarket shelves, cut, cleaned, packaged and ready to be purchased. There is no hint of earth about them, no stench of manure, no crunch of dry hay beneath my feet as I stalk the aisles. No field workers, not tractors, no sprayers, plows and hoes impede my supermarket visits.

How they get to that status is magical, at least to my understanding.** It’s like religion: it involves the intervention of some supernatural entity to get them to readiness. And like religion, when you gain the gnosis of how it all works, you don’t always become an unbeliever. You may, as with breads, become a more fervent adherent, a true believer.

But I’m learning the lingo.

I had thought, after my previous bread post, to create a separate blog about my as-yet amateurish breadmaking efforts (loaves 10 and 11 are in the process of being devoured), and the quest for the perfect loaf.

That was until William Alexander’s book, 52 Loaves, fell into my hands last week. Then I realized someone had done it before, and better than I could hope to. It’s subtitled: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust. Now my intent seems presumptuous. Doesn’t mean I won’t still do it, just that I’ve been humbled in my intentions by a better writer’s effort.

I really like his book. I can relate to many of his issues and concerns. I read the first ten chapters in one bedtime sitting.

Along his journey, Alexander throws in some science, some philosophy, some travel notes and insights into his personal and family life while he obsesses on replicating a bread he tasted once in France:

“The bread clinging to the crust was every bit as good. It wasn’t white, wasn’t whole wheat; it was something in between, and had a rustic quality to it — a coarse texture that, while managing to be light and airy with plenty of holes, also had real substance and a satisfying resistance to the bite. This bread didn’t ball up in your mouth like white bread and, like the crust, it was yeasty, just slightly sweet, and exhaled (yes, the bread exhaled) an incredible perfume that, cartoon-like, wafted up from the table, did a curl, and, it seemed, levitated me from the table. I was seduced, body and soul, my senses overloaded.”

Large loaf, Nov 14Damn. It seemed like such a good idea (although given my own talent, it might be more like 101 loaves, or even 1,001 before I get to that level).

And that’s just what I’m after: to make bread, rustic bread, like that our friend Bill brings up to us from a Guelph baker when he visits. A combination of taste and texture that will haunt my every loaf until I get it right myself.

But let’s move on. Alexander is clearly better at baking, has more money and dedication than I, so I will learn at his metaphorical feet.***

I want to learn how to make breads with a starter.

That can be a biga, poolish, levain or sourdough. All related, but not the same. Poolish and biga are sponges: pre-ferments.  Usually made of simply water, flour and yeast. But it’s not quite that simple. Care and feeding is necessary. Am I baking bread or adopting a new pet? Given the personal attention some bakers pay to the fermenting starter, I wonder.

Wikipedia gives us a confused but entertaining etymology of the word poolish:

The common, but undocumented, origin given for the term poolish is that it was first used by Polish bakers around 1840, hence its name, and as a method was brought to France in the beginning of the 1920s. “Poolish” however is an old English version of “Polish”, whereas the term seems to be most used in France (where “polonais” is the word for “Polish”). Some nineteenth-century sources use the homophone “pouliche”, a French word that typically means a female foal. With either spelling, the term only appears in French sources towards the last part of the nineteenth century. There is not currently any credible explanation for the origin of the term.

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11/10/13

I’m struggling with this…


Recent bread loafMy recent passion for bread and baking has caused a bit of an internal upset. Not the baking thereof, but rather the writing about it. I’m doing a lot of that, recently. Writing (and, yes, baking too). And of course it comes with the attendant research into bread’s history, the combing through websites for recipes and book reviews, the hunt for equipment and the discussions about yeasts, pH balance, sourdough starters, Canadian versus American flours, protein contents, vintage and ancient grains… gawds, I’m having fun.

And it is, if you don’t mind some hyperbole, damn tasty fun.

It’s both culinary and hands-on science, with a bushel of history tossed into the mix. I haven’t had this much fun since I discovered the ukulele, back in 2008.

I suppose everyone needs new challenges, new horizons, new mountains to conquer. Bread – well, so far artisan, rustic bread – is my latest Everest.  Which is a bit synchronistic, because sourdough is often described as the “Everest of breads” and sourdough is one of my next projects. Enroute to that pinnacle, I have a lot to learn. But sourdough is on the horizon for this winter.

It’s a bit of a throwback for me because I was baking bread 25-30 years ago with all the earnestness of a wannabe chef. My notes from classes at the Toronto Academy of Culinary Arts date to the mid-1970s. I was making bread (albeit mostly in bread machines by 1988) into the late 1980s. I stopped after we moved here. Now I’ve started again.

BouleThanks to both a spate of new books on breadmaking and the internet, I can now re-indulge that interest and share the experiences of others, as well as their recipes. It’s an obsession, I admit, but a creative one.

I am pondering starting a whole new WordPress blog zone for my baking and research about bread. One amateur to another, it would be. Here’s me flailing around with recipe after recipe, tweaking, tinkering and photographing. And about the historical impact and implications of bread, as I have recently posted (on the impact of ergot and witchcraft via bread). My naked tweets would be – unlike Anthony Wiener’s – about my bread results.

Bread blogging is actually been and being done successfully on other sites such as The Fresh Loaf (highly recommended if you’re into bread baking, by the way). But I am reluctant to create my own blog zone on their site (if for nothing more than I want to be able to create recipes in my preferred format and style, which is possible through WP plug-ins). Besides, there have a lot more accomplished people there, and my efforts would seem presumptuous.

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11/6/13

The Fretful Porpentine


Fretful porpentineLike quills upon the fretful porpentine. That phrase just makes the modern reader stop and wonder. What, you ask yourself, is a porpentine? And why is it fretful?

We never learn, although later interpreters would knowingly tell us a porpentine is a porcupine in today’s argot. Porcupine itself dervices from the Old or Middle French term, “porc espin” or spined pig. Which it isn’t – it’s a rodent*

It’s an old word, encountered earlier as “purpentine” in 1589, but hardly a common word in any spelling after that, at least not in drama.**

Shakespeare wrote it as porpentine in 1602. One seldom encounters the word between his Hamlet and the middle of the 20th century, when it reappears in The Amazing Vacation, a children’s fantasy novel written in 1956 by Dan Wickenden. It also appears in P. G. Wodehouse’s 1960 novel about Bertie Wooster, Jeeves in the Offing.***

Today, of course, the word porpentine is frequently paired with the adjective fretful on may online sites and blogs. In more common use is the phrase “hair stand on end,” penned in the same verse of Hamlet. Phrases.org.uk tells us of that:

The allusion of makes your hair stand on end is to the actual sensation of hairs, especially those on the neck, standing upright when the skin contracts due to cold or to fear. This is otherwise known as ‘goose-flesh’ and the condition is, or rather was, known by the entirely splendid word horripilation. This was defined by Thomas Blount in his equally splendidly named book Glossographia, or a dictionary interpreting such hard words as are now used, 1656.

Horripilation. Love that word. We owe a lot to Shakespeare and the number of phrases of his we still write and speak today is truly astounding.

The Australian News commented on the longevity of Shakespearean phrases more than 400 years later:

Then there is the English language. The debt it owes to Shakespeare (and the slightly later King James Version of the Bible) is incalculable. No English speaker with any pretensions to culture (above that of phone texting or advertising brochures) can avoid using words or expressions that originated with the Bard of Avon. Not bad going for the son of a draper.

Porpentine isn’t one of Shakespeare’s many neologisms, but rather a nonce word: “a linguistic form which a speaker consciously invents or accidentally does on a single occasion.” Or in this situation, a word used rarely (but not singly). Perhaps it’s simply his unique spelling of purpentine.

Shakespeare was, regardless, an unprecedented source of neologisms and nonce words. According to the Oxford Dictionary, some 2,200 words first appear in writing in Shakespeare’s works, and linguist David Crystal says he invented about 1,700 of them. These are aside from the phrases mentioned above.

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10/28/13

The Circuitous Path from Bulge to Budget


If tinkers may have leave to live,
And bear the sow-skin budget,
Then my account I well may, give,
And in the stocks avouch it.
Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale,  Act IV, Sc. III, Shakespeare

These lines got me thinking about the town’s finances. Sow-skin budget? What does that mean? And how does that relate to the financial plan for the coming year staff is preparing for council’s review? I did some reading (of course…).

In Shakespeare’s time, the online etymological dictionary tells us the word budget meant something quite different:*

“leather pouch,” from Middle French bougette, diminutive of Old French bouge “leather bag, wallet, pouch,” from Latin bulga “leather bag,” of Gaulish origin (cf. Old Irish bolg “bag,” Breton bolc’h “flax pod”), from PIE *bhelgh- (see belly (n.)). Modern financial meaning (1733) is from notion of treasury minister keeping his fiscal plans in a wallet. Another 18c. transferred sense was “bundle of news,” hence the use of the word as the title of some newspapers.

The use of budget as a verb comes from much later – 1884. But for the Bard, a budget was a leather purse (or pouch or wallet). The annual budget is also a fairly new invention, as the Telegraph tells us:

It was not until the early 18th century that a version of the annual Budget emerged. The origins of the word Budget lie in the term “bougette” – a wallet in which documents or money could be kept. While at first referring only to the Chancellor’s annual speech on the country’s finances, the word quickly became used for any financial statement or plan…
Budget Day has historically been held during Spring because the collection of the Land Tax took place in April, and much of the country’s wealth derived from agriculture.

There’s a great description on World Wide Words of the convoluted path the word took to get to today’s usage:

Its first meaning in English indeed was “pouch, wallet, bag”, and followed its French original in usually implying something made of leather…
By the end of the sixteenth century, the word could refer to the contents of one’s budget as well as to the container itself. People frequently used this in the figurative sense of a bundle of news, or of a long letter full of news, and the word formed part of the name of several defunct British newspapers, such as the Pall Mall Budget…
The connection with finance appeared first only in 1733, as the result of a scurrilous pamphlet entitled The Budget Opened, an attack directed at Sir Robert Walpole… It probably also echoed the idiom to open one’s budget, “to speak one’s mind”, which was current then and continued to be so down into Victorian times…

Marina Orlova, the entertaining and pulchritudinous word lady at Hot for Words.com, gives us a more amusing etymology in the Youtube video at the top of this post. Who says learning has to be dull?

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10/24/13

Words, words, words


Elements of StyleWriting before the arrival of the internet*, Bob Blackburn commented on the nature of exchange on then-prevalent BBS (Bulletin Board Systems), words that could as easily be written today about the internet:

“…the BBS medium reveals not only a widespread inability to use English as a means of communication but also a widespread ignorance of that inability, and, in consequence, a lack of interest in doing anything about it.”

Words that were prescient. As if he could foresee Facebook. Blackburn also wrote that most people thought they spoke and wrote well…

“The majority of English-speaking people I’ve come across…think they already know it. After all, it’s their native tongue, and they’ve been to school.”

Which is, for most of us, a fallacy. Language, like any skill, needs training, practice, experience and reminders. Yes, we have an innate  sense of grammar from an early age, encoded in our genes, but it is rudimentary and needs refinement.

A new study from the University of Pennsylvania has shown that children as young as 2 understand basic grammar rules when they first learn to speak and are not simply imitating adults.

Like our muscles, our ability to speak and write develops with use. But it does not develop with haphazard, unfocused usage. Just visit some of the many sites that illustrate the grammatical nightmares found on social media sites like Facebook. While these are good for a chuckle, they reflect a greater problem with education and learning.

Anyone who attempts to correct the written wrongdoings online is labelled a “grammar Nazi” (or more often, a “grammer nazi”). As if writing poorly is some protected, constitutional right. The term has been adopted by some of the practitioners themselves. I sometimes count myself among their company, although I do not belong to any of their organizations.

Still, like Lynn Truss, I bridle at the egregious mistakes in grammar, punctuation and spelling I find online (not everyone likes her, by the way, but her book is great fun to read). And yes, sometimes I am prone to comment thereon. That may be an automatic response, according to a recent study:

Your brain often works on autopilot when it comes to grammar. That theory has been around for years, but University of Oregon neuroscientists have captured elusive hard evidence that people indeed detect and process grammatical errors with no awareness of doing so.

This week, I began again what used to be an annual activity for me – back when I was working in the media or in publishing – rereading the classic work, The Elements of Style. I felt my metaphorical red pencil was in need of a sharpening.

It’s a small book – the fourth edition is just over 100 pages, including the afterword, glossary, and index. At a chapter a day, it can be easily read in less than a week, even by people who don’t read quickly. It encapsulates a mere 22 basic rules of style. Rule 19, for example, states: “Omit needless words.” It follows with this:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Who can argue with that? Ron Sudol, Professor of Rhetoric at Oakland University, comments on this:

Strunk’s attitude toward style is that English is more beautiful the more direct and spare it is. As White notes in the introduction, “for sheer pith I think it probably sets a record that is not likely to be broken.” The students at Cornell in 1919 were probably more wordy and pretentious than students today, whose writing is more often underdeveloped and oversimple. Nevertheless, the lessons — and that’s exactly the right word for the direct orders issued by Strunk and White — are eternally valuable to anyone who wants to take writing seriously. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject. Put statements in positive form. Use the active voice. Omit needless words. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

TEOS sits, almost hidden, in a bookshelf packed with many books on grammar, style, writing, punctuation and communication. They range from the whimsical works of Richard Lederer to the dense, academic Chicago Manual of Style. Most of the rest I read sporadically and randomly. Some – like Safire and Lederer – I read more for entertainment and amusement. Others I read to keep my writing sharp, like the periodic honing of the knives in my kitchen drawers.

Strunk & White alone of all my style and grammar books I read cover to cover because, for me, it is the quintessential book, the source from which all the others derive. And its short little rules are like little jabs; pointed reminders to pay attention.

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