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A Comma Here, A Comma There

 

 

 

Let’s talk about commas, shall we? Not all uses of commas, mind you, because that would take way more time than either of us has and way more space than one wee blog post. Let’s talk about one use only today. It’s one that confuses lots of the writers I work with – and lots of writers whose books I read.

 

My brother, Frank is a good driver.

My brother Frank is a good driver.

My brother, Frank, is a good driver.

Look at those three sentences. Each one uses the same words. The only variable is the comma. Let’s examine each one in turn.

Number one is wrong. Period. If you do that, stop it. Just stop. You’ve left things unfinished. You began something with that comma and then dropped the ball, fumbled the hand-off, stumbled out of the blocks, whiffed your at-bat, and probably five or six other sports-related phrases I could throw out.

The second sentence shows that the particular brother you mean, Frank, out of your two or more brothers, is a good driver. You might mean that your other brother, George, is a bad driver. And maybe your third brother, Henry, is too young to drive. But Frank, that one particular brother, is a good driver.

Sentence number three indicates that your ONE brother whose name is Frank is a good driver.

If you want to think of it as an equivalency, go ahead because that’ll work, too. Your brother (your only brother) is equivalent to the name Frank, so you set that additional information off with a comma. Your one-brother-of-several Frank is NOT equivalent to the word brother, because you have other brothers as well, so you don’t set his name off with commas.

My stove, that annoying appliance I’m chained to, provides meals for my family.

In this case, the stove is the equivalent of “the annoying appliance I’m chained to,” so – you guessed it – that latter phrase is set off with commas.

 

My husband, Walter, is the love of my life.

My husband Albert is the love of my life. (My other husband, the one I’m committing bigamy with, isn’t.)

Try these.

Vinnie’s cousin Cleo thought her brother, Michael, hung the stars. (Vinnie has more than one cousin; Cleo has only one brother.)

That dog Sparkles is a huge nuisance .(Well, of course, there’s more than one dog in existence.)

My dog, Sparkles, is a huge nuisance. This time there’s only one dog.

I’ve used simple sentences in these illustrations, but the principle will remain the same, no matter how complex the sentence.

Women in Horror Month

 

Why do women write horror? That’s really too broad a question for me to answer. I’ll just try to say why I write horror. I write horror because that’s where my mind goes. I like to wonder how human beings react when they’re put under the worst kind of stress. My stories are never about the monsters or the demons or the Great Big Evil, even though they often contain monsters, demons, and Great Big Evil. My stories are always about the people, their responses, their failures, their successes.

I’ve always loved horror. I’ve loved the terror – which I could still control, at least in part,  by closing the book or turning off the television, leaving the theatre, or shutting down Netflix. (Disclaimer: I never once walked out of a theatre because I was frightened. I’ve closed a book to take a break, etc., but only rarely.)

Darkness is interesting to me. Dark colours of the palette. Dark corners of the mind. We know that light cannot exist without darkness – and vice-versa. I’ll let other writers write the sunny side of the street, though. I’ll be over here playing in the shadows.

As one of my sons said once, “You don’t look like the kind of woman who walks around all the time thinking of horrible ways to kill people. But you do. You absolutely do.”

Yes. I do.

Dialogue vs “talk”

 

A wannabe writer said to me the other day, when we were discussing dialogue, “You know, dialogue is just two or three characters talking. That’s all. There’s nothing to it. I don’t know why people make such a deal out of it.”

Well, after I picked my jaw off the floor and packed my teeth back into it, I tried to answer him. Here are a few of the things I said.

No. Dialogue =/= talking.

When I talk to my sons or my husband (or my dog), the words are frequently interrupted with nonsense sounds like argh, um, er, uhhhh (or eeeeeby, beeeeby, baby doggy — don’t judge me). You know what you don’t want a lot of in dialogue? Argh, um, er, uhhhh (and definitely no eeeeeeby, beeeeeby) — except for a particular effect.

You know what else you find a lot in talking that you don’t want in dialogue? Waffling, wandering, chit-chat, twaddling. Call it whatever you want. A book or even a short story filled with this — again, except in short bits for effect — won’t attract readers. Here’s the sort of thing I mean.

“Hi, George. What’s up?”

“Hey, Pete. What’s up with you?”

“Oh you know. The same old stuff. Wife’s down with the flu.”

“Man, I hate to hear that. Sue had the flu last month. She had a hard time getting over it.”

That is perfectly “real.” You can hear that conversation in any grocery store, hardware store, church parking lot, or bar in the country. What it’s not: dialogue.

Dialogue has to do more than one thing at the same time. It has to reveal character, show us something about the characters who are saying it. We don’t know anything at all about George and Pete except that they’ve both got wives (or significant others) who have had or are now suffering from the flu. The things they say don’t tell us anything else.

Dialogue also has to advance the plot in some way. Idle chit-chat doesn’t do that. Unless you’re writing a book dealing with a mutant flu that’s about to kill half the population, these women’s illnesses really matter only to them and their families.

And dialogue needs to pop. If the dialogue is flat — and what I wrote up there is deliberately as flat as I could make it — you’ll lose the reader. Dialogue needs to sound as if some human being said it — but a clever human being with a great vocabulary.

There are some good books out there to help you improve your dialogue-writing skills. I like James Scott Bell’s “How to Write Dazzling Dialogue.”  Robert McKee has also written several good books on dialogue.

Discrete =/= Discreet

old typewriter by menken at morgueFile.com

 

 

Dear Writers,

Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” He was entirely right.

Please, for the love of the language, learn the difference between discrete (distinct; separate) and discreet (unobtrusive; modest; prudent). Writing something like “He was a discrete person” makes someone who knows what discrete means very nervous. Yes, I really hope he was a separate person. Otherwise, you’re writing a particularly creepy form of science fiction/horror.

Ditto for disinterested and uninterested. These are two discrete (see what I did there?) words with entirely different meanings. If you are on trial, you want a disinterested (impartial) judge; you don’t want an uninterested (bored) one.

Furthermore, nonplussed doesn’t mean unfazed. It really doesn’t. It means the opposite of unfazed. It means bewildered. Oh, and unphased isn’t a word. Also phased (from phase, a distinct time period) doesn’t mean fazed (disturbed). So “I wasn’t phased by that” is wrong — unless you’re discussing time travel which went awry. You mean “I wasn’t fazed by that.”

End of today’s rant.

Building blocks, marinara sauce, and sentences

old typewriter by menken at morgueFile.comA couple of weeks ago, I was at a retreat with several other writers. The topic of indie writers, small presses, and general writing quality came up. If you’ve ever spent more than ten minutes in a room full of writers, you’re not surprised by that, I’m sure.

One thing I said was this: I’ve read books published by a well-known (in the horror community anyway) medium-sized press where the copy editing was so lacking that I found glaring errors on nearly every page. I’d rather self-publish and pay for my own editing than publish with a house that doesn’t provide a good editorial staff.

Immediately, a chorus of objections arose. “That’s not all there is to editing!” “The story is more important!”

I don’t actually disagree. I know, shocking! 🙂

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to explain myself because unpleasant news about Hurricane Matthew’s looming party-crashing seized everyone’s attention, including mine.

So let me elaborate on what I meant.

If I go to a new Italian restaurant and find that the cooking staff cannot produce a substantial, rich marinara sauce, I don’t need to know much more. I don’t need to wonder if the tiramisu at that restaurant is substandard. I don’t need to taste-test the Pizza Rustica. I don’t need to sample the spinach ravioli either. Why? Because the basics aren’t there. The foundation is weak. I will look elsewhere for my lasagna fix.

If the building blocks of the story — the actual sentences the writer uses to build the plot, develop the characters, and weave the magic spell — are flawed, the structure of the story won’t be as strong as it could be. If the structure isn’t strong, things will fall apart sooner or later. Usually sooner.

When I check out a book, usually via Amazon’s “look inside” feature, I can’t read more than a few pages. I can’t read enough to know if the story itself will pass muster. I can, however, notice the basics. If I see spelling errors, bad grammar, screwy punctuation, etc., I have a pretty good idea I won’t enjoy the journey very much, no matter how good the story idea might be.

That said, can a book be perfectly grammatical, excellently punctuated, and brilliantly spelled and still be lousy? Oh, heck yeah. I’ve run into a few of those, too.

On balance, however, I’ve seen way more badly spelled, badly punctuated, ungrammatical books — usually with stories I can’t get into because the basics aren’t sound —  than correctly spelled, well punctuated, grammatical books with incompetent stories.

In my opinion, the ultimate responsibility for correcting these errors rests with the publisher if there is one and with the writer only if the book is self-published. If a publishing house is involved, I hold them responsible for editing. Granted, some writers are as obsessed with words and grammar as I am. Some aren’t. If you write and aren’t good with grammar, hire a copy editor, especially if you plan to self-publish.

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