rules of thumb

a basic rule of thumb: sharpen your knives

For me, at least, this rule works at almost every level: if something isn’t working, prune it.

If a sentence doesn’t read well, take off any preposition phrases at the end. If that doesn’t help, strip every word out of the sentence that you can possibly do without, and then start putting things back, one at a time, until you get back a sense of balance.

Paragraphs are odd things with a rhythm and reason all their own. In fact, multiple rhythms. Well structured paragraphs move the reader along a smooth path; choppy paragraphs don’t. (Sometimes you need choppy, for stylistic reasons; I’m not talking about that here.) The flow of multiple paragraphs on the page is also important. If the scene isn’t feeling balanced, print it out. Hold it up at arm’s length and look. Lots of big, blocky paragraphs? A whole squadron of short, choppy paragraphs? these things should tell you something. Of course, a nice balance will help the scene move, but it’s not a guarantee that the story will work.

Because sometimes stories don’t work. More often than not, something is off. Out of balance, off kilter. This is where the real pruning comes in.

I have heard it said that the first thing you have to do with any manuscript is chop off the first page or so. Oddly enough, it’s true sometimes. The writer starts writing, but the story takes a while to click into being. This happened to me with Homestead. The only major edit was that I cut the first two scenes in the first story, and the whole thing immediately took on a new energy.

It’s often true that the writer can’t let the story go and so it drags on. I stop and ask myself if I need the last paragraph in the chapter I just wrote, and about half the time the answer is that I don’t.

Someplace along the line, many of us got the idea that flowery constructions and long descriptions make good prose. And sometimes they do, but more often they just get in the way.

When I’ve stuck too many characters in a scene, it sometimes comes to a grinding halt and will only start up again as I toss people out of the room. Why exactly Peter is sitting there? No good reason: out with him. Stripping extraneous characters from the scene can give it — and the writer — a tremendous boost of energy.

Finally, this thought: some people hate to cut anything at all, because every word is written in blood. I can hear my students wailing still: but i worked on that opening scene for HOURS. Sometimes you have to let things go, no matter how hard won they were to start with. If it kills you to do it, put all the little snippets into a file someplace and give it a name you’ll remember. You can have a look at your snippets file when you’re trying to get a sense of where to go next, and sometimes you’ll find the answer there.

Sometimes I pick up a novel and just look at the way the sentences and paragraphs are structured. It’s an interesting exercise and quite useful.

are we there yet? or, writerly illusions

Karen the Lurker asked me an interesting question a few posts ago: How do you know when you’ve gone over the top?

The discussion was specifically about writing sex scenes, but I’m going to try to answer it in a greater context. It’s one of those questions that people don’t discuss much and here it is: how do I know if what I’ve written is any good?

The short answer: you don’t.

Say you write a short story about your Uncle Max and his shoplifting habit. You work a long time on the story, and now you believe it’s done. It’s as good as you can make it.
You print off a couple copies and you give them to people to read. The range of responses you get is astounding. Your mom wonders if Uncle Max will be offended; Uncle Max wants to know if your mother will be embarrassed. Your best friend says, you know, I really like where you’re going with this. Your best friend doesn’t think it’s done. Should you sit down and start writing again? First you show it to a bigger group of people. Your friend Janet who has some short stories in print says: You know I just can’t get into first person narratives. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. Your coworker says: wow, where do you get the time to write? Your boss says, When DID you get the time, and: I liked the bit about the dog.*You find a writing workshop, where other people are working on short stories or novels. After a couple meetings it’s your turn so you submit Uncle Max. The range of the feedback is confusing: Continue reading…

spelling

Here’s my mini rant.

First: I am able to ignore spelling for the most part. When I was teaching especially, I made an effort to read for content and to handle issues of presentation and spelling as a secondary matter.* Because there are kids out there with excellent minds and analytical abilities, but teachers overlook them because for whatever reason, they spell badly.

So have I established myself as a non-prescriptivist when it comes to spelling?

Having said that, it does irritate me when I email somebody and they email me back as Dear Rosini.

My name is right there in front of them in black on white, but they type it in Rosini. Which is the masculine plural ending (in Italian). If a misspelling is mandatory, Rosine would at least mean something. Little roses (plural, feminine).

I get at least two emails a week addressed to this odd Rosini person. I never correct people as one of my personal rules of thumb is that it’s rude to correct other people’s spelling or writing. But it does irritate me.

And there’s a similar problem with the Girlchild, whose name (I have mentioned it before) is Elisabeth. With an s, not a z. We have blood relatives who cannot remember this, and still address mail to her as Elizabeth.

Really, what’s so hard about that s?

Herewith endeth the rant.

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*an anecdote from grad school: a very proper, very German professor was not at all happy about the coming of computer-generated student papers. His take: Ja, dese undahgaraduates, dey dink if the paper looks pretty all iz well. Dey forget that the pretty page must also say sometink.

My fourth grade teacher, Miss Lack, is Forever in the Building

I had a fourth grade teacher called Miss Lack. Imagine a young Mother Superior with a beehive instead of a wimple and habit. She had to be in her twenties, but that never occurred to us. She was scary.

She was also a good teacher. I first remember thinking about writing in her classroom, the elements that went into it, how a comma made a difference. Of course she was a product of her time, and she was a strict grammarian. One way and one way only to speak and write the language. We diagrammed sentences and labored over quotation marks.

Still today I think about Miss Lack when I hesitate over where a period goes. Even though her rules are now way out of date and new punctuation fashions are in place, I remember her rules. And when I see somebody using them, I’m torn between admiration and irritation.

Here’s the rule I still see used a lot and it drives me nuts because it’s so stilted:

Mary took her best friend, Louise Harrigan, out to lunch.

The old fashioned rule is: got two semantically equal noun phrases (friend=Louise), set the second one off with commas. Now I ask you, is this not awkward? Doesn’t it make you pause and think about, say, beehive hairdos intead of what Mary and Louise are talking about at lunch? It’s like a footnote stuck right up into the face of the story. But I see this a lot. I never, ever do it myself. I try to find a way to achieve the information without evoking Punctuation Parameters.

Mary took her best friend out to lunch. Louise was always in the mood for sushi, and she had no compunctions about gossip.

You can get the Harrigan part in there someplace in the scene, it doesn’t need to be right up front. At least not for fiction. I would make this same argument with a slightly different approach for creative non-fiction. It’s just awkward and silly and fourth-grade to stick to this better-introduce-the-character-to-the-reader approach.

Miss Lack taught me some very useful things, as well. For example, I credit her with the beginnings of my extreme dislike of excessive exclamation marks.