Happy Punctuation Day

Happy and punctuation are two words I rarely see used together. But since this is a day to celebrate grammar, who am I to argue? And, yes, there’s even a website—and punctuation meatloaf.

Today we honor those symbols, those curves and dots, those sentries of proper understanding. Today we salute the marks that make our sentences possible.

Or, conversely, today we wonder why some of these rules even exist.

Whatever the case may be, I hope you will leave a comment to tell about your favorite—or least favorite—punctuation mark. What makes it special? How has it tripped you up?

For me, I’ve always been a fan of the interrobang—and thereby hangs a tale. Right‽

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Episode 64: Deadlines and Deadweight

When I don’t have a deadline, I invent one. Yes, I add a whole layer of self-inflicted stress. But it’s not as crazy as it sounds.

My creativity is often like a massive wave of indistinct clutter. Ideas, images, characters, article elements pour out of every news story, biography, TV show, and weird looking rock. I love it, and I don’t.

Given enough freedom, I spend more time relishing in that cacophony of curiosity than I do actually reaching conclusions. I steer frantically from one topic to the next and generally leave off after a few pages. Without some sort of guardrail, I simply jump out and let the writing sail off wherever it will.

My own unbridled creativity can be a deadweight.

It was tough to admit that a few years ago. Writers feed on creativity, after all. But I also noticed how I rev up a notch with deadlines—they’re like literary coffee. Tell me to get something to you in a week, and my mind starts throwing down an outline. Tell me I can get it to you whenever, and you’ll probably see a few unfinished drafts—maybe.

So, I made some changes in how I approach my writing. I had to if I wanted to be serious about it. Here’s what I did:

  • I stopped thinking of writing as just a creative endeavor. While there’s creativity at the core, writing is also a process and a business. It’s going from idea to finished product—and then selling that product. That’s not as cold and lifeless as it may seem. Changing my outlook has made me far more productive.
  • Deadlines are now mandatory. As I mentioned, I don’t work on anything if there’s not a firm deadline. Unchallenged, I can be a slacker. So, I started a blog with a set schedule of at least a post per week, and I make myself stick to a deadline for anything that I work on. If you need support, find someone who will hold you accountable. And start small, as well—a page in a week, for example.
  • I’m training myself to pick out the good ideas quickly. If you’re like me and have tons of ideas filling up notebooks and Google Docs (and your head), tossing out the ones that won’t work is essential. The more I read, the more I write, the more I’ve honed that instinct. However, I still keep even silly ideas in a file. I just focus on the ones that seem to click instead of all of them.
  • I write—and submit. Successfully submitting something to an editor is a huge motivator. Even if I don’t get the work published, the act itself reminds me what I want for my writing. And then I want to do it all over again.

Continually Continuous

I’m the first to admit my grammar faults, and the difference between the words continual and continuous continually trips me up—if I’m not vigilant. In fact, this once popped up on an editing test I took, which has since made me redouble my efforts to keep them straight and to develop a mnemonic device for simplicity.

Here are the basics:

  • continual: intermittent, repeated often (i.e., not always happening)
  • continuous: uninterrupted, unceasing (i.e., always happening within a certain period of time)

If something is continuous, that does not mean that it has to go on forever. For example, a person’s talking can be continuous for the span of a minute.

How do I remember the difference between these two words? You’ll have to dive into my brain to find out. Your results may vary.

  • Continual ends with an L because the same thing happens after a lull.
  • Continuous ends with an S because it doesn’t stop.

The proper use of these words looks something like this:

  • The frequent storms are a continual reminder that fall is fast approaching.
  • The rain fall was continuous from morning until night.

Episode 63: Doubt

No matter how long I’ve been slogging through articles, papers, stories, novels, and marketing copy; no matter how many other writers’ works I’ve contorted, massaged, and gutted; no matter how many times I’ve improved my craft with writing classes, seminars, and groups, I still have moments in which I wonder if any of it is any good and contemplate stopping.

Doubt has invaded.

Although I do not know the source, the best definition of doubt I’ve come across is “fear projected outward.” What started as a nagging feeling has now become manifest in the world outside your mind.

First come the fears:

People are going to hate my work.

There’s no way I can finish this project.

The editor has no choice but to reject my article.

No publisher will take a chance on my book.

Doubt happens when those fears impact your mindset and your actions. They cripple your writing, slow you down, and perhaps make you give up on a project.

But you don’t have to let doubt conquer you.

The first thing to remember is that there’s a fine line between fear and instinct. Your writing instincts show you what works and what doesn’t. Not liking the current draft and worrying that it might not work out doesn’t make a failure of it. In fact, your instincts are simply being honed, sharpened for future writing. This draft didn’t work. You knew it. That’s a sign of progress.

Second, doubt has warning signs. Long before you feel like burning your computer, notes, and everything else associated with the written word, you’ll have moments of intense emotional stress, indecision, and uncertainty. When those come, make sure that you deal with them. Remind yourself that writing is not an easy task, and it takes a lot out of a person. You can’t turn off those feelings, but you can use them to drive you to improve.

Next, blunt doubt before it starts. Writing on a consistent basis dulls a great deal of doubt. You may have 99 drafts that don’t work, but you know a new one will be finished soon. Beyond that, actively seek ways to enrich your knowledge and skills. Progress is a doubt killer—through supportive writing groups, classes, reading for research (or pleasure), writing conferences, or trips to see places where writing and history collide.

Finally, and this is a big one, examine what influences you. Surrounding yourself with people who mock you and your writing will inevitably drag you down. You need support and understanding as a writer. Conversely, not reaching out to other writers (or a personal community) can just as easily make you feel unchallenged and uninspired.

Doubt comes to us all–what makes us successful writers is the way we deal with it.

You can do this.

Tuesday Terminology: Anapodoton

What I’m about to reveal may very well cause editors the world over to send hate mail. But you, my faithful readers, must know the truth.

Well, this is actually not some arcane grammar secret, since a simple Internet search will give you the details. I will caution you up front to use this literary device very sparingly, but let me show you the proper, classical way to skirt grammar rules.

Remember the old maxim that one should never use sentence fragments? Most of the time this is great advice, but there are occasions when a fragment can have a powerful impact. This mainly works because the reader, consciously or subconsciously, fills in the blanks and becomes more involved with your prose.

Let’s give the formal definition:

  • anapodoton: leaving out a clause to deliberately make a fragment, though the missing clause is suggested by the fragment

The key here is that what’s left out needs to be understandable (if not, you’ve only got a fragment). Here’s a classic example:

If only I were down there on the field.

While we don’t know exactly what the narrator thinks will happen, we do know that delusions of grandeur are in the offering. Or take this example:

Whenever you decide to be reasonable.

Here we know the narrator means that the desired outcome will happen when the audience sees things in the correct way (i.e., the narrator’s way).

As you may have noticed, anapodoton usually works best with dialog or first-person narration. However, you could also make it work with essays, poetry, and even formal writing.

If you use it wisely.

What I can’t promise, however, is that editors, professors, and others deciding your writing fate will see a witty anapodoton instead of a fragment. That depends on how well you can argue your point.

Fewer or Less and Farther or Further

The distinction between the words fewer and less can seem almost silly. However, the train of English grammar over the centuries has kept on a specific course. And this is what we have for now:

  • The word fewer (a plural noun) is used when you can count the number of items in question (no matter how high or microscopic the number is).
  • The word less (a single noun) is used when you cannot make an accurate count because what’s being measured is an abstraction.

That leaves us with correct usage that looks something like this:

  • There are fewer than five chips left for the salsa.
  • You have less patience than you did before I scratched your paint.

Is there an exception to this? You bet. When less is followed by than, it can function exactly like fewer.

  • No less than 90,000 fans watched their team lose in the last minute.

As a bonus, farther and further are becoming more and more segregated (in much the same way as fewer and less). The interesting aspect here is that this is a newer development.

  • Prefer farther when you can actually measure spatial or temporal distance. (In other words, further is acceptable, but farther is considered better.)
  • Use further when there’s no physical distance.
  • With metaphorical distances, you have the option of either term depending on preference.

Here’s what I mean:

  • The ball sailed farther to the left than he would have liked. [measurable distance]
  • He worked on further refining his kicking game. [no distance to actually measure]
  • Nothing could be further/farther from the truth. [pick wisely—based on what the editor likes]

Weekend Websites: BookLamp.org and Whichbook.net

Surfing Amazon for something—well—novel can be a daunting task. How do you really know if the book you choose is something you’ll like once you get past the “Look Inside” snippet? Libraries offer tons of books as well (without the need to plunk down money on an unknown), but those tomes don’t come with labels telling if the plot suits you.

Okay, sometimes it is fun to pick new books simply because they look interesting, but if you want to make a less random match, these two sites may be useful. Each helps you find something new in a unique way.

BookLamp.org (still in beta) does for books what Last.fm and Pandora do for music. Once you register, you select a book you enjoy from the list, and the site analyzes the dialog, word density, pacing, and other factors to determine other books you should read. The selection is limited, though expanding, and the site makes you choose from a rather unwieldy drop-down menu. But the graphs are fun.

booklamp

The other site, Whichbook.net, takes a more user-centric focus to the process (without requiring you to register). On the main page, you select from a number of factors that are important to you and rate them on a sliding scale. For example, you could ask for a book that is mostly happy, a little safe, and very violent. The sliders are plentiful to fit any mood. Once you find out which book is for you, those in the United Kingdom have the option of borrowing it from the library (via the library’s Website).

whichbook

Websites: BookLamp.org and Whichbook.net