Getting back in the swing of things

#amwriting #sabbatical

So, it seems that I managed to take another 8-week sabbatical this holiday season. However, unlike last year, this one was not full of family, friends, and celebrations (although we spent a lovely day at my brother’s house on Christmas). At home, we had only one tree instead of our usual five, and only two of our wreaths made it out of their boxes. While I had managed to get the cookie jars and reindeer distributed, there wasn’t a single Santa, snowman, angel, polar bear or penguin to be seen.

No, at the beginning of December, I managed to wreck my knee. Not quite sure how, as the pain wasn’t there before I stood up. I don’t remember falling, or tripping – though I have to confess I trip so often it wouldn’t register in and of itself. I am definitely not a Tuesday child full of grace, and when they make a Sunday Child, grace is the one positive attribute they just happen to leave out.

At any rate, I’ve spent the last 8 weeks using a walker or wheelchair and in pretty extreme pain. Things are finally getting better, but it’s following that old “two steps forward, one step back” rule. And since painkillers tend to make me less than lucid, I’ve spent my time reading instead of writing or blogging.

But I’ve made some real progress in my reading: my grandmother left me about 600 mystery novels published from the 50s to 70s, and I’ve chewed my way through about half of them. Some are great, some are pretty pitiful, but all of the authors were popular when the books were printed. Many of them would have a very hard time finding an audience now.

Styles have changed so much through the past 30 years or so. Leisurely descriptions are no longer in vogue. Dialogue tags, however fanciful, are frowned upon. And adverbs – heaven help the author who puts an adverb in every paragraph.

No, right now the pros tell use that the use of language must be limited to nouns, verbs and a smattering of adjectives. Description cannot be flowerly, cannot exist for the mere sake of description. Every single word must add to characterization or move the plot along.

Last year, I read several modern books, most of which came highly recommended. One of them stood out from the pack: What Boys Are Made Of by S. Hunter Nisbet. Not because the writing was flowery, or there were leisurely descriptions, or because adverbs abounded. No, because the minimalist style was so beautifully suited to the story. It would be hard for me to imagine that book being so effective if it were written in any other style.

If What Boys Are Made Of had been a romance, I’d have been very disappointed in the style and flavor of it. Yet I’ve read romances that utilize that same style; they’ve left no lasting impression on me.

One of the hardest things for writers right now, I believe, is to decide WHICH style rules to follow, WHAT style best suits our story. With so many people – professional writers and editors, textbook creators, and bloggers like you and me – putting their advice out there for everyone to see, it’s simply not possible to write a book and follow all these rules.

So get out there and be daring! Tell your love story with flowery descriptions, your hero-quest with profligate adverbs, your historical with dauntingly clear details of the scenery. Give it a go!

You’ll never know how good it can be if you don’t try it.

Because the best thing about writing in this day and age is that if you don’t like what you come up with, it’s really easy to revise.

#Writing: THE RULES vs. STYLE CHOICES

#amwriting #grammar #style #rules

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen too many articles that propound “THE RULES of Writing”. An overabundance, if you will, most of which don’t make any distinction between THE RULES and STYLE CHOICES.

THE RULES are universal. For instance:

– a sentence must have a subject and a verb;
– the subject and verb must agree;
– participles should not dangle;
– a sentence may have only one viewpoint: it cannot start out in first person and end in third;
– Etc., etc., etc.

It’s possible for a good writer to break THE RULES occasionally, but s/he must realize what s/he is doing in order for it to be effective. The universal RULES of writing can be found in any reputable GRAMMAR guide; one I like is Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL).

Anything above and beyond the universal RULES is a STYLE CHOICE:

– No adverbs? Style choice;
– No compound sentences? Style choice;
– No words over three syllables? Style choice;
– No dialogue tags but “said” and “asked”? Style choice;
– Etc., etc., etc.

STYLE CHOICES are found in “Style Guides” and are not universal rules. I, for one, would be much more apt to appreciate their advice if the guides followed these so-called “rules” in their own publications. But, almost universally, they don’t. More scholarly types than I have proven that even the ubiquitous Elements of Style by Strunk & White has broken most of the “rules” it espouses. Go ahead, try to count the adverbs in any guide that propounds “no adverbs”. Count the passive verbs in a guide that propounds “no passive verbs”. It’s almost impossible to write fiction (or to write about fiction) and follow these strictures at all times.

(Of course, there are many who get around the “no adverbs” stricture by substituting an adverbial phrase — eliminating an adverb like “tremulously” in favor of a phrase like “in a tremulous voice”. To me, that’s worse, as it adds empty words to the story.)

Adding to the confusion is that, in the history of literature, STYLE CHOICES are transitory. No one writes like Chaucer any more; few write like Faulkner or Austen. The current trend toward starkness and simplicity will no doubt be as short-lived.

Now, I’m not saying that STYLE CHOICES are wrong. On the contrary, each writer should make these choices for him- or her-self. If you want to use smaller words and shorter paragraphs, you are perfectly free to do so. But that doesn’t put writers who use longer words or longer paragraphs in the wrong. Or longer words and shorter paragraphs. Or longer paragraphs… or whatever.

Touting your own STYLE CHOICES to the world at large as “rules” is akin to attempting to convert someone to your religion, and my best advice there is “Don’t do it!”

You and your writer friends will both be happier with the outcome.

 

P.S. Can you find which of the RULES stated above is broken rule in this article? How many times has it been broken?

At the Intersection of #Music and #Writing

#amwriting #amediting

It occurred to me the other day that the people who propound THE RULES OF WRITING are much more vocal than those of us who do not. Since I was listening to a John McCormack CD at the time (it’s almost Paddy’s Day, you know, and I’m learning two new songs), I wondered how those proponents of THE RULES feel about music.

There are all kinds of music for all kinds of tastes: from rap to opera, from big band to show tunes to rock, rock’n’roll, rockabilly, country, pop – the list goes on and on. My tastes are probably a bit limited, as I prefer music with a simple message and a complex but repetitive melody. To wit, I like traditional folk music. Whether it’s Irish or Cowboy music, Appalachian or Gold Rush, African-American spirituals or Bob Dylan, I love folk music.

But I also like mid-century Country-Western, doo-wop, contemporary ballads, show tunes and some classical pieces (though I prefer a single instrument to an orchestral arrangement).

It seems to me that almost everyone enjoys more than one kind of music. Just because you like rap doesn’t mean you can’t like show tunes. People who like swing might also savor classical music.

So what if I said that everyone should like Irish folk music and listen to nothing else? If I did, you’d laugh out loud, wouldn’t you? Give me the brush-off, a raspberry or even an inelegant gesture.

You wouldn’t accept anyone at all telling you what kind of music you have to listen to and enjoy.

Why is it then, that all writers are supposed to imitate one author? Why is only one author held up as the ultimate standard for writing well?

And why, if only one author qualifies for such a high honor – why is it not Shakespeare?

 

coffee & computer - Pexels

Photo courtesy of Pexel

Nope. It’s Hemingway. The Heming-way is the way we must write now. We must eschew adverbs, delete gerunds, avoid passive voice, reduce adjectives and write shorter sentences.

In addition, we must only use “said/ask/whispered” for dialogue tags (or use none at all), simplify our punctuation, and make our paragraphs shorter.

There’s even an app now called “Hemingway Editor © ”. It encourages shorter, simpler words and reports a “good” score as 6th grade reading comprehension level. That might be great for 6th graders, but really? The first sentence of this post is 27 words long and the app considered it “too complex” and too hard to read. The second sentence, it considered “very hard” to read. But I’d bet real money that you had no trouble understanding either of them.

Previous generations used reading as a way to increase their knowledge of words and language. Do we really want to encourage people to limit their vocabulary and comprehension? Do we really want to play to the lowest acceptable level of literacy?

It makes no sense to me.

If you were to catalog the classic literature of the early 20th century, Hemingway is only one of many authors you’d find on the list. Fitzgerald, Wolfe, Steinbeck, Joyce, Faulkner – all contempories of Hemingway, all hugely popular in their lifetimes. All still have a following today. And all have unique writing styles.

The Sound and the Fury – was there ever a better depiction of a Southern aristrocratic family’s dissolution?* Faulkner employed a number of narrative techniques, including omniscient POV and stream of consciousness. Why do THE RULES hawkers disavow him?

Look Homeward, Angel is my favorite book, hands down. Thomas Wolfe gives us an intimate look into the heart and soul of a poor, socially awkward boy with a miserly mother and an alcoholic father.** The writing is lyrical, melodic, majestic in its reach. The emotional scope of the novel is incomparable. Again, THE RULES hawkers decry.

In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce manages to blend the most appealing aspects of the two works noted above. And the hawkers tear out their hair and scream “No! NO! NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!”

Why?

I’ve heard from several sources that contemporary readers prefer a style like Hemingway’s. Do they? Or have they just become so inundated with it that they don’t realize they have a choice?

We as writers have a choice. We are free to choose Hemingway – if that’s what we want. But I think it’s equally important to realize that choosing “other” is not a cardinal sin. We have an obligation – yes, an obligation – to create what is in us, regardless of THE RULES.

I don’t discount or disparage Hemingway’s talents at all. But I do object to them being held up as the gold standard. No single author deserves that, not even Shakespeare.

Believe me, if I could write like Thomas Wolfe I would.

So tell me, what kind of music do you enjoy? Does it translate to what you enjoy reading? or to the way you write?

 

§

*By the way, Hemingway Editor doesn’t think you can understand the first sentence in this paragraph, either.

**Per Hemingway Editor, this sentence is too long for you to understand, and “miserly” was identified as an adverb. Oy vez!

 

 

And more #RulesOfWriting

If you’ve been following me for any length of time, you’ll know that I believe most “rules of writing” need a good hard reality check.

Many times, when asked for rules, a writer will recommend their writing practices, and that’s not at all the same thing as universal rules.

I recently read an article by an author who was asked to list ten rules for other writers to follow. Here are two examples (in blue) and my personal reactions:

Rule #1.) Avoid using too many adjectives and adverbs: strong writing demands strong nouns and verbs.

You all know how I feel about the adverb rule; with this new rule, adjectives are also thrown onto the list of “don’t use” words, effectively cutting our recommended usage down to about half the words available in the English vocabulary.

Ironically, though, this sentence contains three adjectives and an adverb – 4 out of the 14 words (almost 30%) should not be used, according to the rule itself. Yet if you take them out, the meaning, especially for the second phrase, is completely skewed:

Avoid using adjectives and adverbs: writing demands nouns and verbs.

(Looking for the adverb? It’s “too”. Contrary to popular myth, not all adverbs end in “ly”. Adverbs not only modify verbs, they also modify adjectives and other adverbs.)

Rule #2.) A noun is put to best use when it paints a definite picture of what you’re trying to say.

This one actually made me squint. Try as I might, the closest I can come to interpreting this rule is something along the lines of: never say “aardvark” when you mean “elephant”.

In all seriousness, should I never say “animal” when referring to an elephant? Or “creature” when referring to an aardvark? “Cabin” is a more precise word than “house”, which is in turn more precise than “home”, but can’t I use all of them? Using one word over and over to describe a specific dwelling (or anything else) would seem to put the writer on a path of unmitigated reader boredom (not to mention further limiting our usage of vocabulary).

(If you have another interpretation of this rule, please let me know in the comments below. I’m sure the writer had a message – I just didn’t get a definite picture of what they were trying to say!)

To summarize: whenever you see anything called a “Rule of Writing”, don’t take it at face value. Give it some real analytical thought and decide for yourself if the application of it makes sense for you.

Have you ever read a rule that had you squinting? Feel free to share it below. And stay tuned next week for the rule of “passive verbs”.

Thanks for tuning in. Slainte!

Later, Look Back: Another Shortcut for Fixing Misplaced Modifiers

#grammar #amwriting #amediting

Modifiers, as we’ve discussed, are the words we use to provide additional information about another word. Modifiers include adverbs, adjectives, and clauses. Today the focus is on modifying clauses and how they relate to our stories. The problem known as “misplaced modifiers” occurs when the clause or phrase is not connected to the word(s) it’s supposed to modify, and so causes confusion. I discussed the first rule of modifying clauses in this article: First, Look Ahead.

Briefly, the first rule is: when a sentence opens with a modifying clause, the clause must refer to the subject of the sentence. But what happens when the modifying clause comes after the subject of the sentence? Then the clause must modify the last noun (whether a person or thing) that appears in that sentence. (Exception: there must be agreement in gender; when dealing with a pronoun or possessive, you’d go back to the last person of that gender who was mentioned.)

For example:

Bill vowed to get her back at any cost when he kidnapped his sister.

The modifying phrase here is “when he kidnapped his sister”. In this case, the last male person referenced is Bill. Therefore, the “he” in the modifying clause must refer to Bill. Substituting Bill for “he” in the sentence, we wind up with this:

Bill vowed to get her back at any cost when (Bill) kidnapped his sister.

It makes no sense at all, but it’s an easy fix. Substitute the kidnapper’s name (or another identifier) for “he”, and we have:

Bill vowed to get her back at any cost when Mike kidnapped his sister.

Or

Bill vowed to get her back at any cost when the intruder kidnapped his sister.

We could even turn it around to:

When the intruder kidnapped his sister, Bill vowed to get her back at any cost.

All three of these sentences are correct and all now properly identify the person who did the kidnapping. But until we identified the other person, all male pronouns belonged to Bill.

Here’s another example:

Never buy a car from a dealer with a broken odometer.

You figured it out, didn’t you? The last person named was the dealer, and he didn’t have a broken odometer. The modifier belongs to the noun “car”, and the proper way to phrase this sentence is:

Never buy a car with a broken odometer from a dealer.

As with the first rule, it can be apparent what a writer means in a sentence like Never buy a car from a dealer with a broken odometer. But it’s not up to the reader to interpret our work. It’s our job as writers to say exactly what we mean to say.

Here’s a third example:

Looking in vain for an answer to the questions, all excitement dwindled.

This one is fairly easy to recognize as wrong. But it may not be so easy to identify the problem and correct it, because the problem doesn’t fall solely within the modifying clause. The problem is that the sentence doesn’t have a proper subject/verb combination. It doesn’t say who was looking for the answers, or whose excitement dwindled. In fact, this sentence (or I should say “statement”) consists of two incomplete clauses.

Every sentence needs to give the reader someone/something to whom they can attribute the actions that are represented. So the correction would be:

As Bill looked in vain for an answer to the questions, his excitement dwindled.

Or

As we looked in vain for an answer to the questions, all of our excitement dwindled.

Most of these were pretty simple fixes. The problem is not usually how to fix misplaced modifiers, it’s how to find them in the first place. So how do you recognize a misplaced modifier when you’re editing your own work? Just as the first rule of thumb is FIRST, LOOK AHEAD, the second rule of thumb is:

LATER, LOOK BACK.  When the modifying clause comes later in the sentence (after the subject), look back to find the last person/noun mentioned. If the clause correctly modifies that person or noun, you’re golden. If it doesn’t, your sentence needs work.

Again, as in our first article, some will say that a previous sentence or paragraph contains the necessary information to show the reader what we mean. But the simple fact is that every sentence needs to stand on its own. Sentences are the building blocks of our work; every sentence needs to say exactly what we want it to say, without interpretation. To protest that the information needed is in the previous paragraph, or in the next sentence, is the equivalent of saying it’s on the previous page, or in the next chapter. Or on page 45 of Oliver Twist.

“But wait,” you say, “aren’t there exceptions to the rules?”

Of course there are. But we can only get away with breaking the rules if we stick to them most of the time. Then, what we’ve done is considered “poetic license” (or “literary license” if you prefer). Otherwise, it’s likely to be seen as just plain laziness.

Got a sentence/paragraph that you don’t know what to do with? Is it keeping you up nights? For specific input on a specific problem, send your sentences (up to 150 words) along with your question, using the About Me/Contact Info page on this blog. Be sure to put “Ask Giff” in the subject line. Grammar is my passion and I’m happy to help!

First, Look Ahead: A Shortcut for Fixing Misplaced Modifiers

#grammar #amwriting #amediting

We’ve got a fairly complex question this time, with more than one example. A friend of mine, also a writer, is having some trouble with modifying clauses, also called modifying phrases. Modifiers, as you may know, are the words we use to provide additional information about another word. Modifiers include adverbs, adjectives, and clauses. Today the focus is on modifying clauses and how they relate to the characters in our stories.

The problem known as “misplaced modifiers” occurs when the clause or phrase is not connected to the word(s) it’s supposed to modify. The first rule of modifying clauses is:

When a sentence opens with a modifying clause, the clause must refer to the subject of the sentence.

I just recently came across a perfect example in my own work; this sentence has been there for at least three years now and no one (including 2 critique partners, 3 beta readers and my mother) had noticed it.

Since childhood, John Patrick taught his children …”

The opening clause must modify the subject (John Patrick), so this sentence makes no sense. It actually says:

Since John Patrick’s childhood, he taught his children…”

You’ll probably say it’s perfectly obvious that what I meant. But it is, nonetheless, completely wrong. I’ve finally corrected it and it now reads:

As this child and his siblings grew, John Patrick taught them…”

I replaced the original modifying clause with a complete clause: one that has its own subject and verb. A pretty simple fix.

Now let’s look at a couple of the examples that were giving my friend agida*:

While he explained his presence, Bill appeared and…”

Since the opening clause modifies the subject (Bill), both “he” and “his” in this sentence refer to Bill. When you substitute Bill’s name for the pronoun and possessive, this sentence says:

While (Bill) explained (Bill’s) presence, Bill appeared and…”

Obviously, Bill could not be in the middle of explaining things just as he appeared. However, the sentence before this was about George. George was the one explaining his presence, so the modifying phrase belongs in George’s sentence. Another simple fix.

Here’s a third example:

While doing interrogations on Bill’s case, George told him about the incident last year.”

Insert the subject, George, into the modifying clause, and the sentence says:

While (George was) doing interrogations on Bill’s case, George told him about the incident last year.”

However, the reader has already been informed that George is a “person of interest” in the investigation. The opening clause actually refers to the cop who is doing the interrogations. To correct it, it needs the cop’s name in it:

While Mike was doing interrogations on Bill’s case, George told him about the incident last year.”

Again, a simple fix. The trouble is not usually how to fix a misplaced modifier, it’s how to recognize it in the first place.

So how do you recognize a misplaced modifier when you’re editing your own work? The rule of thumb is:

FIRST, LOOK AHEAD. When the modifying clause comes first, look ahead to find the subject of your sentence. If the clause correctly modifies the subject, you’re golden. If it doesn’t, your sentence needs work.

If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you know that I’m not a big fan of all the Rules. To me, there are two kinds of rules–the ones that improve our craft from the ground up, and the others that are simply a sign of the times. The rules of sentence structure fall into the first category: without them, most of us would be writing gibberish. I call them eternal rules, and they’ve been followed by every accomplished writer from Shakespeare on. The more modern rules (like the “said/ask” rule, the “no adverbs” rule) were dreamed up about two generations ago and are probably transitory; in two more generations, other – even more modern – rules will take their place.

The eternal rules create logic and symmetry. Many times, what seems logical to a writer will be confusing to a reader. As writers, we have the inside scoop – we know exactly what we mean to say. But the reader is depending on us to make it perfectly clear to them as well, and the misplaced modifier rules will help to ensure that we do.

So, do you want to know what happens when the modifying clause comes in the middle of a sentence? Check out this spot next week.

* For those not familiar with the term (or the spelling), agida is Italian slang for heartburn. Pronounced ah-jid-ah.

The Rules of Writing: A Built-In Paradox

#grammar #amwriting #amediting

The Rules of Writing.  So many of them are subject to discussion, if not passionate argument.  The Oxford comma, the em-dash, the sentence fragment: you’re on one side or the other.  Hardly anyone stands on the fence.

Two of the most popular and oft-quoted Rules are:
1.) Use a stronger verb instead of a verb + adverb; and
2.) Never use any words other than “said”, “asked”, and “whispered” as dialogue tags.

Do you see the paradox?  To stay true to Rule #1, you must ignore Rule #2.  To stay true to Rule #2 … well, you can see where it’s going.  But strangely enough, many people are proponents of both of these Rules.  They try to sit on both sides of the fence at once.

I’m personally a great advocate of Rule #1.  Strong verbs make stronger writing.  And when an adverb shows up to modify a verb*, a writer can usually make a better verb choice and have a more effective sentence.

So for me, the firm believer in Rule #1,  Rule #2 makes no sense whatsoever.  Is “said” a stronger verb than “murmured”, “squealed” or “protested”?  Of course it’s not.  I’ve seen people who try to get around Rule #2  by sneaking in a modifying phrase: “he said in a low tone”; “she said, her voice almost a squeal”; “he asked in protest”.  But all they’re really doing is replacing one sort of modifier with another, longer one.  Wouldn’t it make sense to use the more precise verb instead?

And how about in spoken conversation?  Do you always use “he said” this, or “she said” that when telling a story?  Don’t you sometimes say, “he told me”, “she demanded”, or “they requested”?  Why should our conversation in print be subject to rules that don’t apply to live conversation?

From those in favor of Rule #2, the main argument seems to be “the dialogue should be enough to indicate the emotion.”  And I have no quarrel with using “said”, “asked”, or “whispered” when that’s the case.  But suppose, as an example, a chapter opens with a little girl crying, and this is the next line:

“Hush,” her father said.

Is that enough for you to tell whether he’s being loving, or annoyed, or threatening?  Wouldn’t “murmured”, “bit out”, or “warned” give you more precise information?

There are undeniably times when “said/asked/whispered” will do the job, and undeniably times when it won’t.  To tie ourselves to what is essentially a limiting strategy when writing is, in my opinion, self-defeating.  The English language wouldn’t have over 200 different words for “said” if no one ever used them.

So……….which side of this particular fence do you stand on?

*Contrary to popular lore, adverbs have jobs other than modifying verbs, and they don’t all end in “-ly”!

Critique Partners: What if the Relationship Bombs?

#amwriting #amediting

Your relationships with Critique Partners and Beta Readers are all-important. But let’s face it, you and your partner(s) start out strangers (or at least you should most of the time, see previous articles here and there). So partnering is going to be trial and error, at least at first. What, then, happens when the relationship isn’t working out for you?

This is a sticky situation. You have no desire to insult someone, and brushing them off can be just as hurtful. But if the feedback you’re getting is of little or no use, the relationship may have to end. How you manage that is up to you, but it’s important to realize that your reputation may eventually be at stake.

When I completed my first novel, LET THE CANYONS WEEP, I found two critique partners on-line. Both had written thrillers. I might have had more luck with other writers of Historical Fiction, but they were the only two people who replied to my post. I didn’t want to turn them down.

For one of them, English was their second language and their goal was to publish in America. I thought I could be of great help in converting “The King’s English” into “American”; that was one of the services I offered, and it seemed to be of great interest. However, after reviewing two sections of the revamped manuscript, I realized that none of my suggestions had been taken into account. I felt a bit let down.

And, although I had fully explained up front that the work was a literary work with an undercurrent of romance, the other critiquer wanted me to turn my book into a shoot-’em-up western. Not an option.

Aside from that, the only feedback I was getting was that I needed to follow “The Rules.” Now I know all the rules – learned them in grade school, when diagramming sentences was something I did for fun. (Yes, I’m that much of a grammar nerd!) I’m a firm believer in these word of the Dalai Lama: “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.” I know them, and I break them when the situation commands it.

The rules I was told to follow included most of what we now view as archaic (like never starting a sentence with a conjunction). And others were rules I’ve never heard of before or after:

  • Don’t use more than one comma per sentence.
  • Never use an em-dash.
  • Never use ellipses.
  • Never use the plu-perfect tense: reword your sentence to stay in simple past.
  • No flashbacks.
  • No internal dialogue.

Etc., etc., and so forth … I couldn’t help wondering what kind of writing courses these Rules came from.

But that’s beside the point. The point was the relationships just weren’t working out. And what was I going to do about it?

I know people who have broken off with a critique partner after the first 50 pages. And I thought about that – I really did. But I also thought about what the possible repercussions of that decision might be.

These days, anyone and everyone can write a review on Amazon, GoodReads, etc. Most people are very honest in their opinions, pointing out both the strong and weak points of a work. But I’ve seen some posters who seem to take pleasure in denigrating others’ works – their reviews seem like personal vendettas. And I didn’t want to put myself in the position of inviting that sort of feedback.

I may have taken the easy way out: I completed my critiques of their works, and accepted their completed critiques of mine. I thanked them for their time and diligence, for their willingness to help. And I moved on to three new critique partners (two write historicals, one writes thrillers, and all of them are wonderful!)

Would you have done what I did? Were you ever in a critique or beta partnership that didn’t work out? What other solutions would you recommend?