Logjam

For the last week or so I’ve been writing around a logjam in the novel, nudging at it from time to time but not trying to break it up.

This is a log pile, not a logjam, but you get the idea.

This is a log pile, not a logjam, but you get the idea.

Imagine logs massing where the river widens, jostling each other to fit through a narrow gap and float on downstream. These logs aren’t wide around like tree trunks, or all that long either. They’re small enough to fit in your woodstove or fireplace, but that’s big enough to create a logjam.

Morning is my writing time, from whenever I get out of bed till 9 or so. The novel was jammed, but I kept writing. You may have noticed that my bloggish output has increased in the last week.

It's hard to take a selfie of me and Trav walking, so here are our shadows.

It’s hard to take a selfie of me and Trav walking, so here are our shadows.

Images and ideas, scenes and snatches of dialogue, often come to me when I’m out walking with Travvy. Forward motion is all the more important when the novel is stuck, so this is where I did most of my nudging.

But “nudging” isn’t really the right word. What I was doing was listening — listening to Shannon, one of my viewpoint characters, listen to what’s going in her head. It’s pretty cacophonous: much has happened in the last 24 hours, and her own childhood has been pounding on a long-locked door. I knew what she was going to do next, but I didn’t know how she was going to get there.

This morning when I sat down in my chair, Shannon was waiting. Pixel, her old dog, was curled up next to her on the sofa. Wolfie, her recently rescued younger dog, was stretched out on the rug. The November sun has long since set; the living room is dark except for the power lights on her computer monitors, the red “on” light on the coffeemaker in the kitchen — and the blinking red light on the answering machine. The message was playing when she walked in the door half an hour earlier. It’s her younger sister, with whom she’s had little contact in 30 years. She’s about to listen to the message and return the call.

That’s the log that jostled itself loose from the jam, slipped through the gap, and started on down the river. The rest of the logs will follow in good time.

When Trav and I headed out for our walk, this song was running through my head. Different kind of logjam, very different solution, but you get the idea. Slaid Cleaves singing his “Breakfast in Hell.” Now that’s a story.

 

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Dot Comma

This is part 2 of “Sturgis’s Law #5.” I got carried away with hyphens and didn’t get around to commas till the word count was edging toward the stratosphere. Here’s Sturgis’s Law #5 redux.

Hyphens are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the dictionary. Commas are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the style guide.

Commas drive people crazy. They’re small but they’re powerful. They can be used for so many things. Teachers, editors, and the authors of style guides often try to wrangle them into some sort of order, which is fine, but when the guidelines harden into rules, writers and other editors may get feisty.

I suspect that it’s not the poor commas that drive people crazy; it’s the notion that there are a gazillion iron-clad rules about the right and wrong way to use them and if you get any of them wrong someone will think you’re stupid.

Context matters. Is this a comma or an apostrophe? Actually it's the bottom half of a semicolon, but it's impersonating a comma.

Context matters. Is this a comma or an apostrophe? Actually it’s the bottom half of a semicolon, but it’s impersonating a comma.

Take my sentence above: “They’re small but they’re powerful.” To comma or not to comma? It’s actually OK either way: convention sensibly advises a comma before the conjunction that separates two independent clauses, but an equally sensible corollary notes that the comma may be dropped when the clauses are short.

So I went back and forth a half-dozen times between “They’re small, but they’re powerful” and “They’re small but they’re powerful.” To avoid settling on one or the other, I actually contemplated “They’re small but powerful” and “They’re small — but they’re powerful.” All four options are well within the pale of acceptable usage, but each reads a little differently.

Sentences like this can send us running to the style guide, and when the oracle responds with “It depends,” that’s when we start to lose it.

This, however, is no reason to throw the comma conventions out. Writing that consists of long comma-less sentences is devilish hard to read, and besides, we usually talk in phrases, emphasizing some words and not others. Commas, and punctuation generally, help shape your sentences so they’ll be read, understood, and heard the way you want them to be. Learn the basics so well that they become your default settings. At that point you’re ready to change the defaults when it best serves your writing.

Here’s a short paragraph plucked at random from my novel in progress. Shannon is explaining to the selectmen in her town* why Wolfie, a dog who’s been running amok and maybe killing livestock, should be allowed to remain in her house. No surprise, the paragraph has a lot of commas in it, doing common comma duties.

Shannon smiled. “You might say so,” she said. “When Wolfie’s confined to a crate, he tries to get out, and when he can’t get out, he howls. We’re making progress on that, but, well, I don’t think he would do well at the kennel.”

The first comma is standard in punctuating dialogue in American English (AmE). Use a comma before or after a dialogue tag, depending on its placement in the sentence. If you want, you can turn that sentence around:

She said, “You might say so.”

The second comma follows a dependent clause at the beginning of a sentence. Commas are also used to set off introductory phrases, especially when they’re fairly long. How long? I remember learning that any introductory phrase or clause of at least seven words should be followed by a comma, but please, don’t be making your decisions on word count alone. The main purpose of that comma is to keep the introductory phrase or clause from bleeding into the main sentence.

The third comma, the one before and, separates two independent clauses. The fourth, like the second, sets off an introductory clause. This sentence is both compound (it comprises two independent clauses) and complex (it includes dependent clauses). In such sentences, commas help the reader figure out what goes with what.

Next comes another before-the-conjunction comma, and then we’ve got an interjection: well. When interjections — well, oh, good heavens, and the like — come at the beginning of a sentence they are almost always followed by a comma. When they come in the middle, you usually want commas fore and aft. Say the sentence out loud. You pause before and/or after the interjection, right?

Good writers often use commas to help pace our sentences, perhaps to signal a slight pause. I hear a subtle difference between She shut the door then opened it again and She shut the door, then opened it again. In the former, the opening follows hard on the shutting. In the latter she hesitates; maybe she’s had second thoughts. Some people don’t hear any difference at all between the two. When an editor who doesn’t hear the difference meets up with a writer who does, things can get ugly.

When they approach commas that can’t be neatly explained by one of “the rules,” some editors ask “Is it necessary?” When I’m editing, my own work or someone else’s, I ask instead “Is it useful?” and “What purpose is it serving?” If it’s serving a purpose, I generally leave it alone.

This is not to say that I pause to ponder every comma I come to. In most book-length copyediting jobs I put a bunch in and take a bunch out on the fly. If asked, though, I can nearly always explain what I did and why: this is a knack that comes with experience, lots of experience.

Commas ready for recycling

Commas ready for recycling

Some writing, even good writing, is peppered with commas. I remove the excess and save them in a pepper shaker, so I’ll have them on hand when I come to a work with too many long, breathless sentences.

When a sentence or whole passage is overpunctuated — it contains so many commas and other punctuation marks that you barely notice the words — this is often a sign that the sentence itself needs work. The writer is trying to tame the sentence with commas when the real problem lies with the words, phrases, and/or clauses and the arrangement thereof.

OK? Commas may be small and powerful, but they don’t have to be scary. Play around with them. See what works and what doesn’t. And if you’ve got a comma question or observation, post it in the comments or use the “Got a Question?” form at the top of this page.


* This town, like most small to middling towns in New England, runs by the town meeting system. Town meeting, in which all the town’s registered voters can participate, functions like a legislature. In addition to the big annual town meeting, usually in the spring, there are usually two or three special town meetings during the year. The board of selectmen takes care of business in between.

Recognition Rocks

bloggerrecognitionaward

Ordinarily I don’t do awards, but hey, recognition is good, especially when it comes from a fellow writer, so thank you for nominating me, Gavin Zanker. I recently started following Gavin’s blog, but already I get the impression that he’s making it up and figuring it out as he goes along, which is pretty much what I do. More power to us.

I have two blogs, this one and From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, about being a year-round resident of Martha’s Vineyard. As both writer and editor I’m mostly self-taught, which is to say I’ve learned a tremendous amount from my peers, a couple of mentors, and reading master writers but I haven’t gone to school for any of it. Write Through It is part of my attempt to give something back and keep learning at the same time.

Advice to bloggers, especially bloggers who do other kinds of writing: Your writing will teach you what you need to know. Just keep doing it — and be prepared for unexpected detours and forks in the road.

Here are my nominees, in no particular order. All these blogs expand my world, albeit in different ways. Some of these bloggers don’t do awards, but check out their blogs anyway. They’re special.

The TomPostPile • Tom lives up the road from me. I already knew he was a musician and a master sign painter, but until he started his blog I knew nothing about Wishetwurra Farm. Here’s your intro. He also takes wonderful photos of both here and “away” — sometimes as close as Woods Hole but other times considerably more distant.

Charlotte Hoather • Charlotte Hoather is a gifted young soprano pursuing her music studies in Scotland. She also writes wonderfully.

Cochin Blogger • I “met” Cochin Blogger on an international editors’ list we both subscribe to. His words and wonderful photos have introduced me to daily life in Kerala, which is where he lives.

The Immortal Jukebox  • Thom Hickey’s “blog about music and popular culture.” Every post is a musical adventure, complete with embedded videos.

Evelyne Holingue • Evelyne is a novelist who grew up in France and now lives in the U.S. She’s witty, observant, and perceptive, and she blogs in both English and French. Earlier this year she worked her way through the alphabet, looking for the English equivalents of common French idioms. Her readers joined in. It was wonderful.

The Glass Bangle • Thoughtful, perceptive, funny — this is my window into the world of a writer, poet, and avid reader in India who’s raising two daughters.

MV Obsession • Joan has known the Vineyard for longer than I have, but she sees it from the perspective of someone who doesn’t live here year-round. When I start getting snarky about “summer people,” I think about Joan and all the others who have their feet in the mud of this place too.

What Matters • Janee Woods doesn’t post all that often, but everything she does post is essential reading for anyone trying to understand how privilege works and why dealing with it is important.

Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors • Absolutely crucial for writers thinking of self-publishing, and for those who want to put their own experiences to good use.

Off the Beaten Path: Hikes, Backpacks, and Travels • Just what it sounds like. I’m a lifelong East Coast girl, and Cindy’s wonderful photos of wildlife, mountains, and places you can’t reach by car transport me to parts of the U.S. that I may never see in person.

Alex Palmer: Your Man in the Field • Sports is terra incognita to me, mostly by choice, but Alex writes so well that I might turn into a sports fan in spite of myself. He just launched this blog a few months ago, so check it out. P.S. Not only does Alex live on the Vineyard, he grew up in the same off-island town I did.

Sturgis’s Law #5

This past spring I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. Here’s #5:

Hyphens are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the dictionary. Commas are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the style guide.

Policy making, policy-making, or policymaking? If “policy making” is the noun version, do you hyphenate “policy-making process”? How about “policymaker”? One word, two words, or hyphenated word? “Prodemocracy forces” or “pro-democracy forces”? “Back-seat driver” or “backseat driver”?

So you trot off to the dictionary. This is where the real fun starts. Dictionaries can be internally inconsistent: “policyholder” is one word, but “policy maker” is nowhere to be found, which generally means it’s two. The American Heritage Dictionary offers “policymaking or policy-making” but recommends “policymaker” for the person who makes the policy.

For even more fun, consult a second dictionary. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, aka MW, makes “backseat” one word, both as noun and adjective: “The dog sat in the backseat” and “He’s a terrible backseat driver.” American Heritage doesn’t list “backseat,” so it’s safe to assume that it considers it two words: “The dog sat in the back seat” and (probably) “He’s a terrible back-seat driver.”

My dog sits in the front seat.

My dog sits in the front seat. He is not a backseat driver.

Note that MW doesn’t list “frontseat” anywhere, so presumably it considers it two words. So what if you’ve got “front seat” and “back seat” in the same story, the same paragraph, even the same sentence? Do you follow the dictionary into an inconsistency that makes no sense? Not me.  In my own writing, it’s “The dog sat in the back seat” and “He’s a terrible backseat [or back-seat] driver.” (My dog sits in the front seat, by the way. It’s all I can do to keep him out of the driver’s seat.)

When you’ve sorted out “backseat” and “front seat,” you can move on to “backyard” and “front yard.” What’s sauce for the seat is sauce for the yard — or maybe not.

The Chicago Manual of Style has a handy-dandy several-page hyphenation chart. It’s extremely useful, it really is: you really don’t need to be deciding all this stuff from scratch. But if you use it a lot, as I do, pretty soon you’ll notice that it and your dictionary of choice don’t always agree. You’ll notice that different genres and different disciplines often have their own conventions, and these conventions are perfectly OK even if they don’t agree with Chicago or Merriam-Webster’s.

Here’s an example: Chicago often recommends hyphenating compound adjectives when they appear before a noun but leaving them open when they follow the verb. “A well-known proverb” but “The proverb is well known.” The catch here is that “well-known” appears in most English-language dictionaries. This makes it a word, and English words don’t generally change form according to their position in a sentence. So it depends on whether you think of “well-known” as a word or as a temporary compound — two or more words yoked together to serve a common purpose and that may be unyoked after that purpose is satisfied.

Arbiters of style.

Arbiters of style.

Here’s another one: Both Chicago and Merriam-Webster’s generally recommend dropping the hyphen after prefixes and before suffixes: multitask, flowerlike, and so on. (Yes, there are exceptions. No one recommends dropping the hyphen in “bell-like,” which would give you three l‘s in a row.) However, I’ve also noticed, both in my own writing and in what I edit, that the hyphen can call attention to the root word in a way that makes sense and may even aid understanding.

One of my current jobs refers several times to “pro-democracy activists.” Consider “prodemocracy” and “pro-democracy,” or “antichoice” and “anti-choice.” To me,  whether I’m reading or writing, the hyphenated version gives a little more weight to the root. This can be especially useful when the prefix is something like pro- or anti-, non-, or counter- and the compound is a temporary one, not an established word like “antifreeze.” Consciously or not, plenty of good writers seem to feel likewise. When I’m editing, I’m loath to delete hyphens where they’re consistently used and serve a purpose, even when Chicago and Merriam-Webster’s recommend against them.

American Heritage is more hyphen-friendly than Merriam-Webster’s, and British English is more hyphen-friendly than its American cousin. This is why I usually have American Heritage, MW, and Oxford open in my browser when I’m working. I’ve set my Oxford default to “British and World English,” which seems to be why I keep getting billed in pounds. No, I don’t live in the UK, but I do like the reality check when it comes to hyphens.

The short version: Hyphens are responsible for [insert large number of your choice] percent of our trips to the dictionary because we think there’s a right and a wrong way to do it and the dictionary has the answer. When it comes to hyphens, there may be more than one right answer, and different dictionaries may give different advice. Learn the guidelines, pay attention to what hyphens can do, and don’t get too hung up on it.

So I’m closing in on 1,000 words and have said almost nothing about commas. The comm part of Sturgis’s Law #5 can be found here.

“Tag!” She Scowled

Let’s talk about dialogue tags: the “he saids” and “she saids” that you can’t do without if you’re writing fiction or memoir or anything that includes people talking. (Except play and film scripts: those are different.)

How did they come to be called that? I don’t know. “Tag” to me suggests a bit of paper attached by string, wire, or plastic to an item for sale at a yard sale or in a store. Or a children’s game in which one kid catches up with another and yells “Tag, you’re it.” I think of them as “attributions,” because they attribute speech to one speaker or another, but “tag” is shorter so I’ll stick with that.

There’s plenty of hoohah out there about dialogue in general and tags in particular. I’ve contributed a bit to the hoohah: “Monologue About Dialogue” and “Of Dots and Dashes.” Here’s a bit more.

Most of the style guides, how-tos, and freelance pontificators agree on two points:

  • Tags are supposed to be unobtrusive.
  • “Said” is usually the best choice.

As guidelines these are fine. As rules? Not so much. “Said” is often the best choice, but by no means always, and “unobtrusive” does not mean “invisible” or (maybe more important) “inaudible.”

Dialogue tags can do so much more than attach words to speakers. Depending on what you choose and where you put it, they can help convey how your character is saying whatever s/he’s saying and where s/he pauses to breathe or think.

Take a scene from Wolfie, my novel in progress. It involves several speakers and a lot of dialogue. Having  written it in longhand, I typed it into the Word file, doing a very light edit as I typed and paying particular attention to the tags. Most of the tags are “said,” but we’ve also got “stage-whispered,” “admitted,” “called out,” “muttered,” “advised” (twice), “agreed,” “added” (twice), “ordered,” “protested,” “continued,” “told,” “hissed,” and “wondered.”

Here’s a sample. The scene is a big bash celebrating Lorna’s retirement. Shannon has just arrived. Not to worry: the tags aren’t italicized in the original. I just want to call attention to them here. (“Seemed” in the first para is italicized in the original.)

Lorna gave Shannon a big hug then held her at arm’s length. Lorna was actually shorter than Shannon: she only seemed six feet tall. “Looking good, girl,” she said, then she leaned in closer and stage-whispered, “Is that love light in your eyes?”

“Lorna, darlin’,” Shannon said, shaking her head, “you need to make an appointment with your eye doctor.”

Lorna wagged a stubby, impeccably manicured finger at her, setting her beaded bracelets to clinking merrily. “You don’t fool me for a minute,” she said. “I know that look.”

“Well, I do have a new dog,” Shannon admitted. “I can’t believe you’re really leaving.”

When I write dialogue, I’m usually transcribing a scene playing out in my head. I use tags and punctuation to convey it the way I hear it, the cadence, the facial expressions, the body language of each speaker, but without weighing the passage down with detailed description.

When I write, I just write. When I edit, I play around with alternatives. Go ahead: play around with that passage. Would said work better than stage-whispered or admitted? How about changing one of the saids to something less neutral? Experiment with tag placement. See how it changes the pacing of the sentence?

In this particular passage, all the tags have the same structure: Shannon said, not said Shannon. In what follows there’s a said Lorna and a said Shannon. No problem. Recently I fell in with some editors discussing online whether”John said” or “said John” was better. One asked if one was more “correct” than the other, and someone else surmised that one was more typical of British English than American.  When editors start talking like this, it’s time to run in the opposite direction.

Whether “John said” or “said John” is better depends on whether it precedes, follows, or comes in the middle of the spoken part. And on what’s being said. And on whether the speech is being attributed to a noun or a pronoun: “said she” calls attention to itself in a way that “said Shannon” does not. If it suits the tone of whatever you’re writing, by all means go with it.

Choose whatever works best in context. What you do want to avoid is using the same structure every time.

One more thing about tags and editors: Some editors take exception to using words like “smile” or “scowl” or “grimace” as dialogue tags. Hence the title of this post. These aren’t synonyms for said, they argue. No, they’re not, but they can (I argue) convey how something is said — and heard. A phrase said with a smile on the face doesn’t sound like the same phrase said with a scowl. So (say these editors) write “she said, with a smile” instead of “she smiled.” Sorry, no. That separates the smile from the sound. Sometimes that’s fine. Other times it’s not what you want.

The scene excerpted above includes this line:

“What, you’re not retiring to Florida?” Shannon grinned.

Here the question mark fudges the issue of whether grinned is a tag or not. I don’t believe it is. As I see and hear it, Shannon asks the question, then grins. But say that line was followed by this one:

“No way,” Lorna scowled.

It isn’t, but to my mind and ear it’s fine, and neither Lorna said, scowling nor Lorna said with a scowl conveys quite the same thing. The difference is subtle, but if you hear it, don’t let a tin-eared editor talk you out of it.

 

More About Song Lyrics

In a post a couple of weeks ago, “My Epigraph,” I touched on the subject of “fair use”:

Fair use” is a contested area. If you plan to quote other writers in your work, read up on it. I believe there is, and should be, a huge middle ground between “anything goes” and “consult a lawyer,” Do learn the lay of the land, because the cost of putting a foot wrong can be high. Word on the street for a long time has been “don’t ever quote from popular song lyrics without getting permission.” This has nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with the fact that the big music publishers have been zealous about defending their turf. Your use of two lines from a popular song may be fair by any reasonable definition, but it takes very deep pockets to defend it in court. Might often does make right, and it makes us jumpy too.

Note especially the sentence in bold. Here’s something better than “word on the street”: a link to novelist-blogger David Hewson’s October 23 blog post, “Never quote a rock lyric in a book unless you’re rich.” It’s his grueling first-person discovery of how permissions work in the music biz.

Do read through to the end. Musician Bruce Hornsby did grant Hewson permission to use a line from his lyrics, and all he asked in return was a signed copy of the finished novel. I like to think there are more Bruce Hornsbys out there, though perhaps they’re more often found in the less glamorous corners of the music world.

The real moral of the story is this: Assume nothing. Do your homework — especially when you’re dealing with lyrics.

 

Those Pesky Details

Once upon a time I copyedited a novel set in 19th-century New England that had cranberries being shipped to market in May.

Uh — no.

cranberries

Cranberries

I grew up in Massachusetts and have lived here most of my life. When fresh cranberries reach the market in early to mid fall, I stock my freezer with them because they aren’t available earlier in the year. That’s true in the 21st century, it was true in the late 20th (which was when I copyedited this novel), and it was surely true in the 19th, when transportation, storage, and other technologies were a good deal less sophisticated than they are today.

That’s known in the trade as a “good catch”: I caught something that the author, the book’s editor, and everyone who had already read the manuscript missed. Copyeditors are always catching things that everyone else missed, but this was an especially good one. That’s why I remember it more than 15 years later. (Tellingly, I can’t for the life of me remember the title of the novel or the name of its author.)

We copyeditors quite justifiably pat ourselves on the back for these catches and crow about the best ones to our colleagues.

Readers crow about them too when they find what they consider a glaring error in a published book. “Where was the copyeditor?” they cry. “Where was the proofreader?” This is often followed by a lament about how publishing, the English language, and/or western civilization is going to hell in a handbasket.

Well, if there are several glaring errors in a book, coupled with infelicities of spelling, usage, and style, it may be that it wasn’t properly copyedited or proofread at all. But errors do crop up in even the most conscientiously written, edited, and proofread works. The overwhelming majority of them, thank heavens, are minor.

Think of how many factual details go into any book-length work, fiction or nonfiction. Pity the poor author, who must focus on the whole forest while remaining acutely aware of each tree in the forest, each branch on each tree, each twig on each branch, each bud on each twig. Say you’re an expert in a particular sort of bud. Chances are good that you’ll eventually catch the author out — “No, no, no! Those buds never appear before May in the Upper Midwest!” — but chances are even better that most readers won’t notice. It won’t, and shouldn’t, undermine the credibility of the work.

Unless, of course, the work is about trees in the Upper Midwest. Then you may have a case.

swans on the Mill Pond

There’s a lot more to Martha’s Vineyard than swans on the Mill Pond, but we’ve got that too.

I live on Martha’s Vineyard, a place that is so often misrepresented in both fiction and nonfiction that much of my own writing is devoted to countering those misrepresentations. At the same time, I know that some errors are more significant than others. I don’t care (too much) if someone has a ferry sailing from Vineyard Haven at 5:15 instead of 5:00. Recently, though, I reviewed a book that got some of the geography wrong and misspelled several names that could have been verified without much trouble. Editor fail, I thought.

I do get really, really angry when someone assumes that what they’ve seen on the news is the whole truth and nothing but; that everyone here is wealthy when our median income is one of the state’s lowest.

“Write what you know” is a truism quoted ad nauseam, but I don’t mind it when it’s accompanied by its obvious corollary: “And if you don’t know it now, do your research.

This is why I was so impressed when I was contacted a couple of months ago by a writer whose novel in progress was partly set on the Vineyard. Could he ask me a few questions? Ask away, said I.

His questions were the sort that would only be asked by someone who had at least a passing acquaintance with the place. The larger world wouldn’t notice if he got these things wrong, but many Vineyarders would. I was thrilled to be asked and impressed that he cared enough to get it right. I answered as thoughtfully as I could. (Note to anyone who’s writing about Martha’s Vineyard: Contact me. I’m not kidding. If I can’t answer your questions, I can probably put you in touch with someone who can.)

This has inspired me. If I didn’t mind answering this writer’s questions — hell, no! I’m glad to be asked! — other people won’t mind answering mine. I’m not going to get all the details right, and even if I do, some people are going to disagree with me. But if I get out there and ask the questions, I’m probably going to meet some cool people and get into interesting conversations.

It’s all good.