Tag Archives: Writing Tips

Flying Commas and Other Gramatical Anomalies

flyingcommas

When I was in high school, it seemed much easier to keep things like punctuation and syntax straight. Back then, teachers reviewed that stuff every few months. I don’t think I ever had time to forget it, and they had those handy posters on the classroom wall if I got stuck. It was also something that came easily for me. I never understood why some people had so much trouble with it. I would shake my head in disbelief when other students would do things like call apostrophes ‘those flying comma things.’ Let me just say: I get it now.

I don’t know if it’s the effects of having joined the texting world where, “lol u r sooo funny!!!  ttyl” is perfectly acceptable,

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or if it’s just that I have so much other crap taking up space in my head now. (Examples include, but are not limited to: car payments,  job security, taxes.)

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It’s not that I’m terrible with grammar and punctuation now, it’s just that things seem less clear-cut than they used to, and at a time when I’m expected to be more confident and competent in my writing.

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Having easy-to-use reference material that doesn’t make me feel like an idiot for having to use it is essential.

Here are some of my favorites that never leave the shelf above my writing desk:

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Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White

The most concise, easiest to use, straightforward book on writing ever written, and it’s small enough to fit in a pocket (okay, maybe a big pocket, but still…) or a purse. It includes examples of common mistakes, not just in punctuation, also spelling, word usage, tense, etc., so you know what not to do. Then, it shows you how to fix them. This book has been a life saver throughout my college career, and when I edit my writing one last time, (and then twice more) before submitting it.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

She made punctuation interesting, even humorous and fun. I don’t know how she did it, and I don’t want to know. It’s like when a magician makes an elephant disappear. I don’t question it. I just stand with my mouth hanging open in disbelief, and applaud. I love the Punctuation Repair Kit that came with the book. The author encourages readers to become punctuation vigilantes who go around fixing signs that say things like, “50% off you’re favorite brands, prices so low you wont believe its real!”

I’ve started doing this. It’s incredibly geeky, good, clean fun… and a public service, if you ask me. (Just make sure you fix it when the managers aren’t looking. Otherwise, they try to take your punctuation stickers and chase you out of the store. Still fun, but more exercise.)

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Grammar Smart by the staff of The Princeton Review

A few years ago, my brother started coming to me with questions about prepositions and dependent clauses. I searched my internal memory- I had learned these things, so I must possess the answers- only to discover those files had been overwritten with the rules to beer pong and lyrics to Weird Al songs. Sad, but I guess that’s what happens when you go to college. I invested in this book to help answer his questions and refresh my memory. It was an excellent purchase. They cover everything from parts of speech to punctuation and even gender-neutral writing. (So you can be all politically correct.)

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The Chicago Manual of Style

I haven’t sprung for one of these yet, as they are on the spendy side, but, if you want to write professionally, I suggest at least putting it on your wish list. Most publishers I’ve talked to use the formatting and guidlines found here to evaluate submissions, so it can usually give you some insight as to whether your writing is clean and up-to-par.

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5 (Writer’s) Block Busters You Can Do in 5 Minutes

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[Said in obnoxious infomercial voice:]

Hey there, Fellow Writers!

Are you tired of having a scene (or even a whole story) in your head that you can’t seem to transfer to a notebook or computer?

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Or, sitting down to do your daily writing, and coming up with a big fat blank?

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It might not be your fault! According to the research of people you’ve never heard of who do studies of questionable legitimacy, you might be suffering from a condition known to lay people as “Writer’s Block.”

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If you have strategies to help get rid of writer’s block that I haven’t mentioned, please feel free to say so in the comments. Hearing new ideas (Or ones I knew, but had forgotten) is always helpful. Thanks.

Here are some exercises I’ve found helpful when my brain locks up on me:

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1.) Spend 5 minutes doing a prompt. This always gives me a mental kick-start and gets me writing. I don’t have to sit around trying to decide on an idea, and the time limit keeps me from editing as I go, which is something I do too often.

Prompt Examples:

– Find a friend. As quick as you can, both of you write a beginning sentence and an ending sentence, but nothing in between. Trade papers and fill in the blank  left in the scene of the other person’s sentences. Try to have a paragraph-long scene or story when you finish.

– Flip open a magazine and write a paragraph inspired by a picture or article on that page. What you write doesn’t need to have any actual connection to what’s on the magazine page. It’s just whatever that image/article brings to mind for you.

– Look at a news paper and start a scene where a character reads and reacts to one of the headlines. (This is also good for keeping your writing current and socially relevant.)

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2.)Take a 5 minute walk. Fresh air, Vitamin D. The outdoors are full of stuff that’s good for you. You’ll also be getting a little (but probably enough for our purposes) of exercise, which, as you probably know, gives your brain more of the stuff it needs. (Blood flow, oxygen.) Try to find a power walking pace that boosts your heart rate, but doesn’t leave you winded. You should end with more energy than you had when you started.

Things to pay attention to while walking:

– Landscape. Is there anything around the area where you’re walking that inspires or interests you? Anything that could be used in a potential story setting? This includes natural and man-made structures. Does a house look like a place one of your characters would live?

– Graffiti. I actually go around looking for graffiti because it always makes me wonder who wrote it there, and what made them think it was important enough that everyone should see it.

– People. What kinds of other pedestrians are in the area? What kinds of cars? How are the people driving? How are they dressed? Is there anything unusual about someone’s gait or mannerisms?

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3.) Eves Drop. Not on people you know, or anything. Just people out in public places who are having loud obnoxious conversations anyway. Make them work for your writing process. (I know two out of three so far require leaving the house, but they’re worth it.) Pay attention to word choice, voice inflection, speech patterns, accents, euphemisms. It can really help when writing dialogue.

Good places to overhear a conversation:

– Coffee Shops. Not a coffee shop where everyone else is there alone, writing or playing Fruit Ninja. One where you know people meet for lunch and gossip.

– Bus stations. I swear I have seen and heard stranger things waiting for buses than anywhere else I’ve been except the blood bank. (I do not recommend the blood bank for this exercise. You want to go someplace where the conversation might be a little scandalous or sketchy, but not someplace where you’ve got a high probability of getting stabbed and robbed as you leave.)

– Colleges. You don’t have to crash a class. You can just visit the campus and grab lunch in the cafeteria or something. Topics overheard can range from who did what with who/what for x amount of beer/money to the validity (or lack thereof) of existentialism.

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4.) 5 Minute Research Session. Fact check a portion of what you’ve already written, or do some quick research on a subject you may have avoided writing about because you didn’t feel knowledgeable.

Things to remember while researching:

–  Bored sixth graders have taken over a good portion of Wikipedia. That’s not to say you can’t or won’t  find good information there. Just remember to double check it.

–  Librarys aren’t just where homeless people go to use a computer. Most of the writers I know do a good job of utilizing the library as a resource. (Which is much cheaper than buying every book on amazon. Nothing against amazon, but it’s hard to beat free books.) A few, however, seem to keep forgetting it’s there, so I like to throw out a reminder once in a while.

– Databases are your friend. The good ones make it easy to search specific subjects and check the credentials of the authors of particular articles/ books. Plus, lots of these are also totally free.

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5.) Make an outline/timeline/flowchart/whatever. I have a large white board I use for this purpose. Sometimes when I’ve got writers block it’s because I know on some level that what I’m trying to write isn’t working. I could be missing a key fact, or maybe a new idea contradicts something that happened in a previous scene. either way, this process helps me figure out what’s wrong and how to change it so it works.

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Prompt Writing

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I  used to believe writing prompts would only serve as one more distraction from whatever project I was working on.

When I took a creative writing class in college, however, I discovered that one of the best ways for me to shake off writer’s block was to stop what I was doing and spend about five minutes working on a writing prompt.

Prompts are to the writing world what a starting gun is to a sprinter. And it is a sprint. The goal is not distance, quantity, or energy conservation, it is to get something down as quickly as possible regardless of how coherent, silly, or irreverent it may be.

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How I GotLit! :

Writing prompts also illuminate how many ways there are to look at a single subject. At Inland Northwest Writers’ Guild meetings, we often do a writing prompt or two, and even if we all have exactly the same starting point, the differences in the directions our thoughts take us is striking.

This was also the case at a panel I went to during the GetLit! Festival. Four professional writers were given a prompt: Red Eye, and asked to write something that could be read in about ten minutes. The person who came up with the prompt had been thinking of airplanes and red-eye flights, but that’s not how any of the authors interpreted it.

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Kim Barnes, a professor at the University of Idaho and the author of In the Kingdom of Men, wrote a nonfiction piece involving her family history (Which was filled with scandal and made for a great story.) and the Red-Eye Gravy her grandmother made. It brought to life the complicated family dynamics involved with several generations of relatives, and the self discovery that comes from bringing who you are together with where you come from.
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Shann Ray, author of American Masculine and professor of leadership studies at Gonzaga University, wrote a fictional story about a professional ballerina who marries a lumberjack. The connection to the prompt was a scuffle between the husband and wife, which he starts, but she ends by nearly putting his eye out. It sounds violent, but it had an emotional depth and a flow reminiscent of well-written poetry. By the end, I felt as if the characters were old friends, and was rooting for them to patch things up.

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Nance Van Winckel, a Spokane poet, read a piece about a young child’s tragic accidental death, and the after math for the child’s parents and their friends. Everyone’s eyes were red from crying. It was so powerful partly because she had the courage to ask the question I can never bring myself to ask when I hear about something like this on the news: [Please note, I am paraphrasing, these were not her words. I could never hope repeat her exact phrasing here, but I tried to capture the sentiment because I found it so incredibly moving. My apologies if I fail to do so.]

This was an accident caused not by malice, but by a simple lapse of memory. He forgot. I forget things all the time. Little things mostly, but where is the line between and a careless moment that leads to inconvenience and one that leads to disaster?

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Jim Lynch, author of Truth Like the Sun, ended the panel on a lighter note. His story was a spoof of old Noir detective stories (which faithful readers will know I love.) It was titled Spokane Envy, and involved a blues-music-obsessed son of a rich Seattle woman running away to Spokane. I never would have guessed I’d laugh so hard at anything so soon after contemplating death and culpability and whether good intentions mean anything. But as soon as Jim Lynch started reading, I was so caught up in the story of this socially inept, bumbling private eye who was running around Washinton State looking for a missing rich kid, trying to interrogate a girl who works in a fruit stand by the side of the road, posing as a waiter in the Peacock Room at the Davenport, and meeting a rooster named Red Eye, it was impossible not to laugh.

I found the spectrum of emotions and styles, all evoked by the same two words staggering. It was like some insane literary Rorschach test. But that’s the great thing about prompts, everyone comes up with something different. It’s also easier to venture outside your comfort zone because you don’t give yourself time to over think things.

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My Own Prompt Response:

Annette Drake asked me to include my own response to the prompt given at the last Writers’ Guild meeting in this post. The prompt was GetLit! You could take it any way you wanted. We were told shorter sentences were preferable because that had been a style we were discussing at the meeting. Anyone who had anything at the end of five minutes was asked to read if they felt comfortable doing so. I did. It’s good practice for reading my more polished work, and you won’t find a friendlier audience. I came up with this:

Patches don’t do a damn thing for me.

Gum don’t work worth shit.

What I need is a cigarette:

The glow of an ember.

Smell of tobacco.

Warmth of smoke in my lungs.

But the bitch took my lighter when she left this morning.

The unlit cylinder hangs from my lips:

Benign.

Impotent.

No fire hazard here.

[Please note, I am not and never have been a smoker. I have no idea what inspired this, but that’s often how prompt writing goes. Things seem to come out of nowhere.]

I liked that I’d found a rhythm different from what I usually do, but my feelings about the piece as a whole were lukewarm until I heard the response (laughter like you hope for in a comedy club) and Annette encouraged me to share it with all of you online. I highly doubt I would have even thought of anything like this, without a prompt, let alone written it down or shared it with anyone.

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The Difference

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I stumbled into my first Inland Northwest Writers’ Guild meeting on a December Wednesday several years ago. (My memory is not what it used to be, so I don’t remember precisely which year.) And I stumbled because the sidewalk was icy, okay? Don’t worry, this post contains no alcoholic beverages.

I was nervous as I climbed the stairs to what was, at the time, the third floor of Auntie’s Bookstore. A guild sounded so official. Probably these people were serious if not professional writers. Probably they’d all been published.

I felt like an impostor. I’d never even finished anything besides short stories and articles. Most of those had been for school. What was I doing here? I’d been a closet writer all my life. I was always “working on something,” or “had a great idea for a book,” but when people asked me what I wanted to do after college, I almost never had the guts to say I wanted to write. I’d usually come up with some kind of day job for myself. Besides, lots of my friends were working on their own novels. If so many people in a place as small as Deer Park were trying to get published, what chance did I really have? What separated me from every other schmuck with a novel or screen play in a desk drawer?

Yet, here I was. I’d straightened my hair, put on a skirt, tights, button-down shirt, blazer, and nice boots. I wanted to look professional. This seemed like a big deal. The truth of the matter was, I wasn’t finishing a novel on my own. I wasn’t sending things out to publishers. I felt lost about the whole thing. Maybe these people would have some answers for me.

The third floor of Auntie’s was packed with chairs. There was a stage with a podium at the front of the room. There was juice and cookies. This didn’t look so scary. This kind of looked like a church social. Everyone was dressed casual. Many of the people were older, but there were a few who were my age.  Linda, an author and an Auntie’s employee, and Bonnie, an author with professional marketing experience, ran the meeting. I’d guess the audience was somewhere around thirty or forty people. Maybe more.

We all went around and introduced ourselves, then Linda asked if anyone had any news to report about being published, or getting a rejection letter.

I don’t remember whether anyone had any news at that meeting, but I remember the way Linda phrased it, “Any wonderful rejection letters.” I loved that. It made me realize we were all in the same boat. The published authors coming there to network, the newbies like me, none of us could control whether a publisher would accept our work. All we could do was send out our best product possible, do our research, and keep trying.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed that many of the people who talk to me about wanting to write a book seem excited until I start talking about monthly meetings, weekly critique groups, rejection letters, and revisions. Then their eyes start to glaze over. Maybe for some people, it’s something they just like to daydream about and they don’t want reality getting in the way of that.

In reality, writing is work. It’s not something you always feel like doing or have energy for. It’s not always easy, but if you let that stop you, you’re a hobbyist, not a writer. Writers Guild is still held every month at Auntie’s Bookstore. There are still snacks most times. We meet on the second floor now, on one half of the mezzanine, but it isn’t crowded because we’ve got about half the group we had when I started. Bonnie has left to persue other interests (she really did have alot going on.) Linda is still there, still running the group, and I still see her every month when I show up. There are fewer of us now, but we are still here.

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The Occasional Meatcleaver

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The first time I tried to write a horror story, I was in the second grade and I put my class to sleep by reading it out loud. Fortunately, I’ve gotten much better since then.  By fifth grade I was making people speechless rather than tired, and by college I actually started writing things people thought were exciting and scary.

After years of writing, I’ve learned a few things I’d like to share with anyone who is interested:

5 Ingrediants For A Successful Horror/Thriller Novel

  1. A willingness to read a wide range of published authors. It’s easier to know if your writing is working if you know what has worked for other writers. What did you like about their work? What didn’t you like? 
  2. Make it your own. Make sure your story has something unsual: A strange setting, an object used in an attack that isn’t typically a weapon. Something memorable. Throw in the occasional meatcleaver.
  3. Start with a ‘what if’ scenario. Even if you have great characters, they need something to do. This is the case with any genre, but what you should do next is more unique to horror writing.
  4. Imagine the worst case scenario, then try to take it a step further. Everyone thinks, “What if my car breaks down?”  so your job is to think,  “What if my car breaks down and my child is having an asthma attack in the back seat?”
  5. Make yourself and your readers uncomfortable. Everyone has topics they naturally shy away from, but the tension and discomfort these subjects can cause is what will make your readers stay interested and emotionally invested in your story.

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