Tuesday Terminology: Polysyndeton

Last week we discussed a great literary device (asyndterm) that lets you eschew normal grammar rules for the sake of art. To be honest, many of these Tuesday terms do just that. The more you know; the more rules you can break.

This week we’ll look at the opposite: polysyndeton. Instead of leaving out the connectives, polysyndeton adds excessive ones on purpose.

The wind and the waves and the rain came crashing in.

Notice the rhythm in that sentence. Polysyndeton often provides resonance to the phrase for literary impact, which is why it’s useful for poetry or poetic passages or just descriptions that benefit from the sound.

Wikipedia has a great example of how this device can be used from Ernest Hemingway’s After the Storm (emphasis added):

I said, “Who killed him?” and he said “I don’t know who killed him, but he’s dead all right,” and it was dark and there was water standing in the street and no lights or windows broke and boats all up in the town and trees blown down and everything all blown and I got a skiff and went out and found my boat where I had her inside Mango Key and she was right only she was full of water.”

Is this a run-on sentence? Definitely. Can he do that? He did. Many editors may object, but there are times when this device works. As with any such “trick,” however, use with care.

Any other favorite uses of polysyndeton you’d like to share—even from your own writing?

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When to Use Semicolons

Semicolons are a dying art; I often wonder if this is because they are an unknown realm for many writers. It’s as if they represent a quasi-reality that’s not quite period, not quite comma, and best avoided.

But they really are quite useful and not nearly as confusing as they appear. Let’s look at the three main uses:

  • Commas galore: If you’re working with a list of phrases or clauses that are complex and have other commas buried in them, then use a semicolon between each phrase or clause. This keeps the reader from going back to unravel the knots. Use this when you have a list of dates, especially with days and years; three or more main ideas in a long sentence; or any series that requires extra commas, just as this one uses.
  • Complicated numbers: Separate complicated lists of numbers with a semicolon—especially if there are colons in the numbers (e.g., 24:5–10; 25:2; and 32:4–18 or 1.2a–v; 1.5v–z).
  • A subtle stop: Periods bring your thought to an end; em dashes create a noticeable gap. But semicolons give you a slight pause between sentences that are closely related. As long as you keep this type rare, they can be effective.

Weekend Website: FreeMind

Before you start pounding the keyboard to whip up your next writing project, one thing you might consider is using a mind map. In many ways, mind maps on your computer are like an outline mixed with the rudiments of a first draft—but visual and easier to change via drag and drop.

I enjoy using them for smaller projects, but I’d rather not buy a program for that one purpose. That’s where FreeMind comes in. FreeMind is, as you can imagine, free mind-mapping software for most major computer platforms (Windows, Mac, and Linux). The Java program handles the basics of mind mapping fairly well, but Java itself can be slow.

It’s tough to beat free, though.

Website: FreeMind

Episode 52: Grabbing a Plot by the Horns

While I have no solid data to back me up, I’m often struck by how interested interviewers are in “what-if” moments. The author of a successful book sits down to chat (or emails answers) about their new endeavor, and a question almost inevitably arises about how the project was born.

I confess that I nose through such interviews, looking for some stroke of genius myself. But after reading the answer, I often feel a bit let down. Why? My guess is that we all want to find shortcuts and means by which we can capture the type of exciting ideas that other writers had.

I think you should read author interviews. They’re great for peering into the mind of a writer in your chosen field or genre. But there is no one unfailing method to get ideas or to turn those ideas into a great work.

That said, here are some common ways that authors get inspiration that may or may not work for you:

  • Immersion: Want to write crime dramas? Put yourself into the world of a criminal investigator. You’ll find that the more you study something you’d enjoy writing about, the more plot elements and characters shake out of the data.
  • Plot devices: Some of my ideas have popped out of interesting plot elements that I’ve enjoyed. For example, I love the intensity of countdowns until something bad happens in movies and fiction, and something that simple grew into a whole novel. Overused? Probably, but the point is to find new ways to use tried methods.
  • People: Holidays are great times for story building. You have groups of people together telling anecdotes about their lives. Don’t borrow too closely (for privacy reasons), but don’t overlook a great story about Aunt Hilda’s embarrassing foray into the world of acupuncture.
  • Purposes: It’s tougher for me to build creative projects around social issues, but many other authors do. Outraged by something? Find a way to turn it into a plot—just don’t be overbearing in how you present it.
  • Classics: Great works of literature are often in need of a good updating. Some stories are universal and timeless, which is why Shakespeare gets transposed to teen comedies and dramas even today. Look back, grab a great one, and go.
  • Scenes: Though rare for me, some writers rely on imagery for ideas. They see mountains, and suddenly they have a novel about two people trapped by an avalanche.
  • Drawing lots: For the truly adventurous, one method for coming up with ideas is simply to write out actions and places on slips of paper and then draw them out of a hat. Once you have your lists, connect the dots with a plot.

What ways do you come up with ideas for writing?

Tuesday Terminology: Asyndterm

Literary terms often have imposing names—even though the concept is not as complicated as it first seems. Asyndterm (or asyndeton) is one such term. The word looks like some calculus problem, but it simply means purposefully leaving out coordinating conjunctions (e.g., and) in related clauses.

You even know a famous example:

Veni, vidi, vici.

I came, I saw, I conquered.

Is this bad grammar? Technically yes, but that’s the beauty of it. If someone calls you on a missing and or but or or, you can tell them it’s asyndterm—if you can justify it.

In some instances, leaving out the conjunction gives balance and weight to each part. (It’s like those obsessive periods that show up in marketing now days.) Just make sure that you keep it rare and have a good reason for using it.

Using the Big Letters

I think that many of us suffer from hypercorrectionism. Wanting to make our work perfect, we tend to “over-fix” what doesn’t need fixing. This is especially true in the use of who vs. whom (more about this later) and in capitalization. Some things do not need capital letters, but I see a few specific grammar-tripping issues frequently. So, let’s take a look at the main ones that cause consternation.

  • Seasons: Perhaps this rule is odd, given how we capitalize months and days. However, seasons are not. It’s spring, summer, fall, winter.
  • Directions: Compass directions are not capitalized. If you mean that someone is to look or go in a specific direction, keep it lowercase (just as you wouldn’t capitalize up or down). The confusion stems from the capitalization of specific geographical regions. We say that someone lives in the Northeast (the region of the U.S. starring New York, Maine, New Hampshire, etc.), which is capitalized.
  • General nouns: Unless a noun is standing in as the name for someone, we don’t capitalize. Dad, for instance, is only capitalized if it is naming your father specifically without using a pronoun (I see Dad got into the Wii we bought him). Other peoples’ dads get the lowercase treatment (his dad). The same is true of honeys, snookies, and cupcakes. Capitalize only when standing in for a name.
  • The name of this planet: In most cases (let’s say 95%), you don’t capitalize earth. It’s odd but true. The only good exception is when our planet’s name is listed with the specific names of other heavenly bodies (e.g., Venus, Earth, Jupiter)—and this is mainly for consistency. Some grammar guides make an issue of whether it’s the dirt or the planet, but finding the line of demarcation there is trickier than you think. Stick with lowercase.

I hope these help in your own editing.

Weekend Website: I Need to Read This

The Internet suffers from one major flaw: there’s far too much information to process. One way you can deal with this is by using an RSS feed reader to sort through information from blogs and websites useful to you. That’s my first line of defense.

On occasion, though, all I want is a running list of articles that I don’t have time to read when I first see them. This happens quite a bit when links start flying on Twitter. And there’s actually an easy way to handle this without crowding up your bookmark menu.

I Need to Read This is simple and does just what its name suggests. Sign up for free, and slap two bookmarklets in your bookmark bar (“I Need to Read This” and “Read Article”). When you find an article you want to come back to, click the first bookmarklet to save. Then, when you have some time, click the read bookmarklet to see the oldest article in your queue. You might even surprise yourself all over again.

Website: I Need to Read This