A Birthday Present from Grammar

I got a great birthday card, the front of which said:

Dear people of the World,

I don’t mean to sound slutty,

But please use me whenever you want.

    Sincerely,

    Grammar

A great card on several levels.  The “use me” is so much more economical than most of the explicit things one could think of, and therefore allows for (salacious) imagination, reminding me to be careful in writing to give the reader license to create her own vision of what I describe.

Which leads to the f-word (really?).  I’m just thinking of the so-called dysphemism treadmill, in which a vulgar word becomes more and more acceptable.  Pamela Hobbs, quoted in Wikipedia, notes that usage of the f-word falls into two categories:  non-users and users.  Non-users define the word in its proud Anglo-Saxon context and therefore consider it obscene and rarely use it.  Users, on the other hand, have dissociated the word from sex and make frequent use as an intensifier, noun, adjective, adverb or verb. For them, as Hobbs says, fuck “no more evokes images of sexual intercourse than a ten-year-old’s ‘My mom’ll kill me if she finds out’ evokes images of murder.”

As a writer hoping to interest both users and non-users, my take is very, very abstemious use of the f-word (see, at my core, I’m a non-user, except when irritated).  My rationale is that users usually employ fuck in ways that add no value to the sentence (although sometimes to the meter).  None of that is useful in storytelling unless establishing a character’s unique voice.

So most of the time, I’ll go fuck-less.  Grammar, on the other hand, I shall use and use and gratefully use.

 

 

What is writing like?

Roger Cohen wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times about Israel a couple of Legoweeks ago.  He began by quoting a novelist.  The quote is perhaps the best commentary I’ve seen on the process of writing.  He said:

“(Writing) is like reconstructing the whole of Paris from Lego bricks. It’s about three-quarters-of-a-million small decisions. It’s not about who will live and who will die and who will go to bed with whom. Those are the easy ones. It’s about choosing adjectives and adverbs and punctuation. These are molecular decisions that you have to take and nobody will appreciate, for the same reason that nobody ever pays attention to a single note in a symphony in a concert hall, except when the note is false. So you have to work very hard in order for your readers not to note a single false note. That is the business of three-quarters-of-a-million decisions.”

Soar like an eagle, but don’t forget typography

I have an exasperating problem. Here I am writing (rewriting, actually) an exciting novel, capturing great thoughts, basting it in the oral tradition, riding high. Except the quote marks keep coming out wrong.

There are two kinds of quote marks: straight up and down (like a typewriter) and curly. As the Chicago Manual of Style notes, straight up and down quote marks are ONLY for legal documents and philosophical treatises. I learned the difference right quick when my first edited piece came back marked up because my much-loved Scrivener software seemed to have salted my Times New Roman with straight quotes.Typography

I won’t bore you with the details, but after about four hours and several pounds of expletives later, I know the source of the problem, and I think I know the solution. The reason is I found a wonderful site covering many aspects of the appearance of a printed work. The site is Butterick’s Practical Typography.

When your protagonist’s voice is clear and consistent, when the metaphors and similes draw gasps of appreciation from your writing group, when you have taken out the grammatical gaffes and turgid prose, then you need to resort to Butterick’s.  Before you get shredded by your editor.

Editing And Playing Tennis Solo

I believe there is a version of the 5-stage Kübler-Ross model of grief related to editing: Denial/Surprise/High Dudgeon/Fascination/Damn, I’m glad I did it.

Kubler Ross Model

The Kübler-Ross Model

I’ve often been told that every writer needs an editor. Of course, my grammar and syntax are impeccable, so that admonition was easy to ignore. Pay for advice that I surely didn’t need? On my budget? Really?

Of course, I was in the first stage of the model, Denial.

A writing group friend caught me up short when he said, “Writing without an editor is like playing tennis with yourself.” My second novel is in draft and is being pummeled by my writing groups. But maybe the first novel needs … help?

Finally, I decided to dip a 50-page toe in the ocean.

When the manila envelope bearing the edited product arrived, I opened it wondering why I felt a little like the moment right before I ripped the paper off a present from my certifiably loony aunt. (You never knew what was coming. When I was ten, it was a heat lamp. Just the bulb.)

This is a waste of time. He’ll only be able to argue with word choice.

 First page: 4 marks. I gasped. Second page: 8. Third page: 9. Surely, he must be wrong.

Surprise threatened to become High Dudgeon.

I put the envelope aside for a couple of days and pretended to be too busy to look at the other 47 pages.

Then the fourth stage, Fascination, saved me. I don’t (well, didn’t) know the convention about single quotes, and the editor’s word choice suggestions were excellent.

Over the last several days, I have achieved the fifth stage, Damn I’m Glad I Did That. Guess I have to adjust the budget.

Critiquing: Electronic or Paper?

My writing has been enriched by my friends in writing groups.  I’m in three groups, and I think I see a trend toward electronic critiquing.  Two of the groups use MeetUp, which allows us to post files in advance of a face-to-face meeting.  The standard way of critiquing is to download and print the file, mark it up and review the markup at the meeting, then pass the marked-up copy to the author.  The other option is to download the file, use Word’s review function to make notes and then send the file to the author after the face-to-face meeting.

I would be interested in how other writers view the process.  For me, once the printing is done, hand notation is easiest.  On the other hand, for one monthly meeting recently, I had to print 105 pages.

What do you do

If you edit electronically and have tips on best practices, I’d love to hear them in the ‘Comments’ box.  For instance, do you make changes directly in the text or limit your comments to notes in the margin?

First Draft Finished

Finished the first draft of Skins and Bone. Now on to the dread rewrite. This time, I’m going to be a little better organized than I was for Hack the Yak. This time, I have 120+ critiques. Better yet, this time I have the mistakes I made before. I hope the new ones (mistakes, that is) will be fewer this time!

Rewriting, Editing, R.U.E. and the two-by-four

About a week ago, I reblogged (yecch … are we brutalizing the language or just being creative?) — I reblogged a list of books on writing from Carly Watters.  I noticed one I wasn’t familiar with, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Renni Browne and Dave King).  It promised to speak to the challenge just ahead for my second nself-editing-for-fiction-writers1ovel:  Rewrite.  I ordered the book.

I’m pretty familiar with Rewrite.  I’m on the seventh pass through my first novel.  I think I’m getting better at it — at least, I know that I’d do the first two or three rewrites of novel #1 differently.

If you’re reading this because you’re a writer, get this book.  It’s short, practical and is almost sure to give you insight on what makes writing work, regardless of your level of sophistication.

For me, the two-by-four upside the head is B&K’s margin note R.U.E. (“Resist the Urge to Elaborate”).  So I guess the discussion of Hans Prohoffer’s improbably success in sabre fencing inserted in the middle of a fight scene in which he uses a parry two (that goes, too) when Le Pic lunges is out.  I do like to elaborate.

Anyway, I consumed the book in a day.  Consumed is like a dog consumes a beefsteak.  Big bites, not chewing much.  But, like that dog and that steak, I loved the process.  Now, to read it carefully.  Then rewrite.

Ten Rules For Writing

Important rules, with thanks to my friends at Writers Alliance of Gainesville:

1.  Avoid Alliteration.  Always.

2.  Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.

3.  Avoid clichés like the plague.

4.  Comparisons are as bad as clichés.

5.  Be more or less specific.

6.  Writers should never generalize.

Seven:  Be consistent.

8.  Don’t be redundant; don’t use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.

9.  Who needs rhetorical questions?

10. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.

Finally, when confronted by an upset grammar Nazi, always say softly, “Oh, there, their, they’re.”

The Pilgrim’s Progress

HTY progress chartWhen I started out writing Hack the Yak, I didn’t think about genre, length or plot.  Just an interesting story.  The characters pretty much wrote the plot as they developed.  I ended up with 127,000 words, a main plot, two subplots, and a trip through the country where the blues music I love came from.  Then came reality.  Editors and published writers pointed out that a beginning writer has to hit the expectation of the market, which is 80 to 90 thousand words for mystery/suspense … 100,000 at very most.  So the seventh rewrite took it to 88,000 words.  I’ll save the subplots for other novels.  The blues highway is gone, too, but it gave me a published short story and inspired two that are out to magazines. All in all, it’s been a wonderful learning experience.  I hope the next novel, Skins and Bone, will require a little less rewrite.

PROOFREAD!

One thing all writing instruction seems to have in common is the injunction to PROOFREAD.  The world is harsh … don’t add to your burden by making foolish typos, and certainly, in this day and age of electronic spell check, never misspell a word.

Now, I have to admit, I’m a hell of a speller.  I really don’t need the spellchecker, and I can go pages a time without that red underline that indicates a problem … and then it’s always a typo.  Well, almost always.

So, this morning, I got a note from my college classmate, Jim.  We were both English majors.  He said, “I signed up for your blog…..”Pilgrimmage”….and just wondered if you intended to misspell (double “m”) the word, and if so, for what purpose?”  He was nice enough not to finish the sentence (and me) off, with “, dummy.”  Or, as Weezy, the Tracker in Hack the Yak would not have hesitated to say, “Dumbass.”

Thus spake the Father of English

Thus spake the Father of the Mother Tongue

But I might be saved by older spelling, right?  Anything not to bruise my ego further.  Off on the web to variations on ‘Pilgrimage.’  Chaucer probably said, “Thanne longen folk to goon on Pilgrimmages.”  Nope.  The OED, that’s it.  Some archaic form, right?  But no.  Just the entry, ‘incorrect spelling of ‘Pilgrimage’

So I have learned a valuable lesson today … don’t let your ego get in the way of the spellchecker, dumbass.