Save the commas!

writing27That’s really why they came about.

First language was in the oral tradition and it wasveryhardtoreadlettersthat wereslammedalltogetheralongwith sentences that had no form of punctuation because how was one to know where to stop and where to finish know what i mean

Exhausting, right? When you teach second grade, you see a lot of this. It’s hard for kids to get a feel of where to lay the reading road map. (The “where you take a breath” thing doesn’t really help them either, if you ask me. They just add breaths wherever and match them up to the commas.)

Early influences, specifically Christianity with St. Augustine at the helm, wanted to make sure Biblical passages were read correctly because, well, it makes a difference. I’m not a master at apologetics, but I can imagine. Punctuation came into being much the way street signs emerged; as traffic (language) became busier, more signs needed to be put in place so accidents didn’t happen as easily. Like Grandma getting eaten, for example.

The comma, though, like its cousin the semi-colon, is vulnerable to trends. During my 40 years of writing, it’s been out and it’s been in. Rule followers get very opinionated, too: it’s Bobby, Joe, and Sue NOT Bobby, Joe and Sue. (The Red, White, and Blue Rule has vascilated three times during my writing career. It’s hard to keep up.)

I wonder how that makes the comma feel… It is, it’s said, the most frequently misused form of punctuation.

writingfunny4We appreciate you, comma, we do. We’re not always sure how to use you (and behalf on all of us writers I’d like to say it’s not our fault) because the rules are always changing. One thing’s for sure, though. You play an important role, and we know it. While the trend may be to get along without you, I, for one, recognize your value and unique purpose in this world. You’ll always have a place in my stories.


writingfunny3When I passed out pages 30-40 of my most recent work in progress (working title: Intuition--subject to change), I had named my main character after somebody I used to know. Let’s call him Joe. I had no intention of keeping that name, but I needed the inspiration to get me focused on some key personality characteristics. I just couldn’t get that exact inspiration if his name was–umm, really “Joe.”

But at about page 45, I thought, “Now I need to change it before it gets weird.”

I passed out the next pages, knowing my critique members may have some issues with the change.

Me: “Here are my pages–oh, and by the way, Joe is now “Nash.”

Next critique meeting later….

Jen and Darbie: Not a direct quote, but certainly the sentiment. “We don’t like Nash–the name not the guy.”

“Okay. Well, let’s take a vote. Since we’re all going to be reading this together, we might as well all like the name. And I’m certainly not married to Nash.”

A proposed list of names flew around the room, but between the three of us–each of us with teens who have problem-child friends and adding in another level of Darbie’s profession as a continuation high guidance teacher–we were having trouble finding a name we all could agree on. One that didn’t have associations with some kid that bugged us for some reason.

That’s how Levi was born–who used to be “Joe”–who used to be Nash.

I think that’s why I find this comic so freakin’ funny. The only issue I have is with the title. I mean, come on “Indecisive?” That’s not indecision is it? It’s more like carefully calculated inspiration. At least I think that’s what is.

Come to think of it, I don’t really like Levi that much either. Maybe if I take some of Shay’s lines and give them to Levi, I’ll like it more.


Just sayin’.

The Speaking Part of Writing

cabinUsed to be writers could sit in a cabin Thoreau-style and just write. Not so much anymore.

After the long hours in the cave, where often the writer’s best friends are the characters in her novel, it’s time to emerge and share those characters with the world. That involves the real people.

When I first started attending Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators events about eight years ago, I marveled at the skill of the authors who got up to speak in the keynotes or in workshops. Public speaking seemed counterintuitive to a writer’s sensibilities for some reason. Did Hemingway get up and speak on stage? Or wasn’t he usually in a pub or coffee shop somewhere chatting with other writer friends? In my mind, it was always the latter.

I knew I would have to work on that part of writing–the speaking part. I knew it was important to learn how to tell stories on stage just like I had shared Mr. Greenskin stories with my second graders on the carpet in a circle after lunch. I wondered how I could transport that joy my 8 year olds felt, and the comfort level I had making up those stories on the fly, to the stage. I wondered if I could.

But like much rest of the population, I’d rather be burnt alive by fire then get on a stage and speak. I joined Toastmasters several years ago to get over that. At a speaking conference several weeks ago, the guy putting it on said he still gets nervous every time he starts even though he has spoken on thousands of occasions at this point. Some do, some don’t. Some writers I know write their acceptance speeches for their Pulitzer Prize winners before they ever write the books and can’t wait to have the stage.

For me, it was a challenge I would face. I set a goal to let go of the resistance because I knew what I had to say was important. I knew I was put on this earth to share stories that would help others along their path, and that sharing would inevitably involve speaking in front of large groups of people.

For the past week, in my dreams I have been speaking at conferences, in classrooms, in corporations. When this happens while I sleep, I know what’s coming.

And it’s not the cave.

Karmic writing

vinhorneoak“I had been up for four frickin’ days and couldn’t sleep. I was really scared…people were following me…I was just really, really fried, but I couldn’t sleep.” My best stab at sounding articulate fails miserably. “I was so tired.”

He jots a note down on his paper. I think I may have spilled too much.

“You said people were after you?”

“I didn’t say that.” Did I?

This is my 17-year-old protagonist speaking to her ER doc in First Break. I mentioned last week where I am in the process with this New Adult manuscript (going through my agent’s edits on track changes in Word). I’m embracing this–mostly. But here’s a really annoying thing that happened and how something really enlightening came out of it (besides the fact I’m still not entirely sure how to spell frickin’ or why I want to use it so badly.)

Do you see how I use the ellipses (…) up there? Well, apparently I REALLY like the ellipses…a lot! Why is this so apparent? Because in the transfer of formats between she and I my three dots became six and a space. Now to fix that, I’ve got to go back through every ellipses, accept the change, delete a space, accept the change and so forth. Monotonous, at best. Here’s the enlightening part: I clearly need to invite other devices into play. Not leave the hyphen out–or at least let him join in more.

I’ve spent much of my morning fixing ellipsis. (I now know that’s how you pluralize that.)  I’m thinking of it like karmic yoga. Do you know that practice? You just do something for a period of time and then stop without getting married to the results. Like raking leaves. You just rake for an hour without having to pick up the leaves and throw them away. It’s like that.

Except for one thing. I’m totally married to the results: three point elipses and no space…unless it’s at the end, and then four.

I’m typing this under a large oak (thanks, Vin, for the sweet Oak shot), the wind playing with the wisps of hair around my face, the speckled sun making my computer screen almost impossible to see, my dog begging me with her eyes to go out for a morning walk, Karunesh playing the haunting music that so well accompanies my story in this manuscript, and my tomato plants nearby dancing to Karunesh.

With all this, who cares how long it takes to fix the ellipsis? Karmic yoga or no, I’m in my happy place.

What a (first) line!

firstlinesWhen my manuscript came back from my agent with its first batch of edits last week, I was so excited. To have someone engaged with you in your whole work, and sharing their thoughts, is a special kind of connection.

I had wondered how the edits would come. Would they come on hard copy? I doubted that because after all it’s 2013 and we have so many greener options. Would it be a Google doc because we had tried that in our critique group and it didn’t win first place on the preferred form of critiquing and making changes. Turned out we were Old School and still preferred paper. Was there some other way I didn’t even know about?

They showed up on Google doc and after a brief nervous sweat, I looked forward to learning how to use this method better. It’s so much better than paper in so many ways and I really embraced the opportunity to get proficient at it. Besides, it’s so tidy. And everybody’s changes automatically save and never go away. No losing your hard copy in an old file or spilling a glass of juice on it–not that I did that. The days of losing work–gone. (Note: when I typed this, I thought it was a Google doc, but no…actually, track changes in Word was the flavor.)

I started flipping through the manuscript in the view form to see the extent of the edits–you know, so I could tell how far in the cave I needed to crawl. I got to page 50. “Wow,” I told my husband. “I must have really polished these pages. There aren’t any edits.”

“You’re probably looking at the view wrong,” he said. (Oh, ye of little faith.)

“No–oh.” I clicked a button and saw I was indeed looking at it wrong.

There it was–highlighted with a comment. The dreaded first sentence.

No, I thought. Anything but the first sentence. I had labored over this and changed it about 8 million times (I’m approximating.) I stared at the wall for dramatic flare.

Five minutes later, I got excited. I got out my legal pad and started carrying it around jotting down new first sentences. I kept it by my bed. I dreamed new first sentences, ones I liked so much more. Ones I thought others would like.

What makes a great first line? Even more importantly, what first lines do I love? I Googled famous first lines. But before I even got to that doc, it came to me. I trusted it. I liked it. And now I have a new first line. Heck. Who knows? Maybe someday you’ll Google famous first lines, and there it’ll be.