by Jim Harrington
I am, but I’m getting better. First, I have a confession. It’s not my fault!!
In seventh grade, the school placed me in a remedial English class due to a scheduling conflict. Because I did so well, I was assigned to the advanced class in eighth grade. I reveled in that accomplishment for about three days. That’s how long it took me to realize I was way behind everyone else in the class. Too embarrassed to admit I didn’t know what the teacher was talking about, I slogged through as best I could.
I still struggle with certain aspects of grammar. Here are some steps I took that might help readers who, like me, hold up a wooden cross whenever the word grammar appears.
Buy a style book*
It doesn’t matter which one, and you’re not going to read it cover to cover. I use it as a reference. For a while, I questioned every aspect of grammar from where that comma should go to am I supposed to capitalize the names of the seasons. I still use it from time to time. However, I find the more I write, the better I get at spotting errors.
Read for grammar, not for content
Pull a few novels off the shelf and read them for grammar and word usage, especially when looking at dialog. From a grammar standpoint, ask such questions as: Where is the punctuation placed prior to he said? If the dialog ends with a question mark, is the he capitalized? Does the question mark go inside or outside the quotation marks? Where do the quotation marks go when the dialog runs across two or more paragraphs? Why is there a comma in one sentence but not another? When looking at usage, ask why that word? To answer this, replace the word with something else to see how the flow and context change.
I need to add a caveat here. When choosing books for these exercises, select ones that were published a few years ago. Too many recent books suffer from a lack of editing. This is especially true of self-published books. Unfortunately, these authors fail to realize they are branding themselves as amateurs when they put a mistake-laden work on the market. Readers notice!
Follow online sites
There are sites online like Grammar Girl that provide insight into grammar issues. On this site, you can ask questions and sign up for a free newsletter.
Write shorter sentences
This may seem like silly advice, but I’ve read many submissions with grammar issues that could have been solved by, as John Gardner suggests, getting to the period sooner. There are times when using longer sentences helps set the tone, but incorrectly punctuated ones can create an unintended response in the reader.
Grammar counts! Many editors say they will forgive a few mistakes, but don’t usually say how many that is. Other editors simply pass on a work that doesn’t show a certain level of professionalism (i.e., poor grammar). Getting it right is important, whether it’s grammar, or plot, or overall storytelling ability. How the manuscript looks is just as important as what it has to say. Grammar errors and misspellings stick out. Don’t let your manuscript be the one the editor sets aside because of poor craftsmanship. Make it one of your writing goals for 2013 to improve your grammar skills, even if you think you know it all. How about a goal to learn one new grammar “rule” a month? Even the busiest writer should be able to accomplish that.
*Online style book links: The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and GrammarBook.Com by Jane Strauss.
Jim Harrington began writing fiction in 2007 and has agonized over the form ever since. He serves as the Flash Markets Editor for Flash Fiction Chronicles. Jim’s Six Questions For . . . blog provides editors and publishers a place to “tell it like it is.” You can read his stories at http://jpharrington.blogspot.com.
by Gay Degani
A friend and I were wandering around Vromans Bookstore a few years back when we found ourselves in the reference section (dictionaries, thesauri, and The Elements of Style) and we both started fingering various and sundry books on writing. She’d just started writing and asked me if there was any particular book she should buy. I told her, “You don’t have to buy any. I can lend you some.”
“That would be great, but I’ll buy something and you can borrow that from me,” she said. “Which one don’t you have?”
I stared at the shelves and started pulling forward books that I owned, saying, “Well, I have this on plot and this on character, oh, and this one by John Gardner. Before long there were more books poking out than tucked in.
The truth was and still is, I am a book junkie and I’d spent several periods of my life trying to “get myself back into writing” and each of those periods brought with it a need for new books to deal with renewed insecurities.
When I finally “got serious,” I decided I would write movies since I loved movies and I didn’t want to be the only person in Southern California not writing movies. I bought Syd Field’s Screenplay. What I had struggled with in the past was producing stories with decent plots or story arcs. Field’s book, which many have dismissed as mere formula, was an excellent introduction to the idea that in order to write with emotional impact one has to engage a reader in the story, leading that reader through the story with some kind of thread. An arc doesn’t always produce itself without the author’s conscious help. An understand of Aristotelian structure is a handy tool for a writer to have in her pocket. Two other favorite books came from that time: Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman and Story by Robert McKee. Oh and along with everything Joseph Campbell, came The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.
Some of the first books I glombed onto were those to keep me at it which meant I bought Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Anne LaMott’s Bird by Bird, and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. This will give you some insight into just how insecure I was. All three helped me better understand that writing is a practice (Goldberg’s words) and that we have to live it every day in some way.
I eventually decided as most writers do to write a novel. That meant a need for more advice and more encouragement. The books I remember that helped most included One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty (a heroine of mine along with Flannery O’Connor), The Art of Fiction by John Gardner (classic), Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Sterne (more about structure), the now out-of-print The Art and Craft of Novel Writing by Oakley Hall, Stephen King’s On Writing (the great mystifier demystifies), Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway (a little plodding but very good), Jerry Cleaver’s Immediate Fiction (straight forward practical and fabulous insights), Ron Carlson’s Ron Carlson Writes a Story (this is my go-to when I have to write a story and I am stuck), and more recently Turning Life into Fiction by Robin Hemley.
I’m sure I’ve left a lot of books out that influenced me at the time, but these are the ones that I have remembered as I write this. Maybe I’ll go out tomorrow to my office in the garage and check my shelves and see which ones I can pull out from the rest.
Now for some miscellany:
Smokelong Quarterly, Issue 37 is out! There’s lots to read and the artwork is terrific. Look for stories from featuring Simon Barke, Patrick Allen Carberry, Sarah Carson, Simon Jacobs, Will Kaufman, Harry Leeds,Lindsey Gates-Markel, Adam Padgett, Young Rader, Sarah Carson, Matt Rowan, Joseph Spece, Jon Steinhagen, Aaron Teel, Dan Townsend, Eugenio Volpe, Ryan Werner, and Bess Winter.
2013 AWP Conference & Bookfair and All Around Good Time Party is coming up and we’ll be there. I’m going this year and so are many of the Smokelong Quarterly staff. We have a table! Sooooo…. we want to meet you!! Here’s the info: the 2013 AWP Conference will be held at the Hynes Convention Center and Sheraton Boston Hotel on March 6 – 9, 2013 Dates: Early bird registration ends: October 31, 2012, Sheraton Boston room block opens for conference attendee reservations: September 10, 2012, Sponsorship deadline: October 19, 2012, Regular registration: November 1, 2012 – January 18, 2013
workflowy.com If you are like me, you have trouble keeping your lists straight and up-to-date, or even worse, they become coffee stained coasters. There’s a new application out there in the ether and it’s free called Workflowy and basically it works like an outline except you don’t have to remember what letter, number, or roman numeral you need to keep things ordered. It has its own unique system. Check it out at workflowy.com.