Monday, May 28, 2012

Week 22 - The Sentence

27 May - 2 Jun: It is.

In 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark offers a number of pointers on sentence structure:

1. Begin sentences with the subject or the verb so that the focus of the sentence is brought to the attention of the reader early.

2. Apply the 2-3-1 rule to sentences and paragraphs.  That is, the strongest elements should appear at the end and the beginning of sentences, paragraphs and even chapters.

3. Don't be afraid of long sentences.  They are useful for cataloguing or listing items or images, can add meaning to descriptions of long things, and offer variation to stories where short and medium-length sentences are the norm.  One needs to remember, of course, that although a long sentence is long, every word still needs to count.

4. For effect, establish a pattern through parallel construction and then break it, e.g., Peter, Paul and Mary; Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.

5. Complex ideas are better served with short sentences containing simple language.

6. Use sentence length to set the pace.  Short actions require short sentences; flowing actions require long sentences.  A choppy sentence that slows the pace may be useful for simplifying complex ideas, creating suspense, or creating an emotional impact, e.g., He froze.

7. Use verbs with a purpose in mind.  Active verbs move the action forward; passive verbs highlight a victim; 'to be' links words and ideas.

8. Be conscious of the number of elements within a sentence and how each relate to each other.  E.g., He is handsome, focuses the reader; He is handsome and divorced, divides the reader and can be useful for contrast; He is handsome, divorced, and looking for a wife, offers a complete triangle of information; He is handsome, divorced, looking for a wife, and has a good family, is getting ridiculous.

John Gardner offers further advice:

9. Don't overload a sentence.  One or two syntactic slots can be modified, but too many modifiers can make a sentence confusing.  Gardner provides the following example:  The man (1) walked (2) down the road (3).  Describe the man, the way he walked, or the road, but don't describe all three in one sentence.

10. Avoid using 'that' and 'which' as the added information can undermine the focus of the sentence, and lead to an anticlimax.

Okay, that's enough to think about for this week.  Next week I'll pull together the rest of the bits and pieces relating to general word choice and sentence structure, before venturing on to cliches and stereotypes.

Exercise 43Write a very long sentence (e.g., a page or more) using proper grammar.  Don't place semi-colons and commas where full-stops should be.  (Hint: a character's indecisive ponderings might be a good topic for this exercise.)  Reference: Gardner, The Art of Fiction.

Exercise 44. Think of a simple modern story (from a memory, news item etc) and retell it as a fairytale.  Use symbolism (boss=evil witch, credit card=magic sword etc), customize vocabulary, and change sentence structure to add to the tone (e.g., "Call me Lancelot you may").

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Week 21 - Back to Earth

20 May - 26 May: Random Thoughts

Sometimes I wish I could talk to strangers, and explain to them what I am thinking, why I wear that expression, and how our world could be a better place, if only....

Sometimes I wish I could hide from the world, from all the strangers that silently judge me, and from my own rash words that fail to say what I mean and leave me feeling more empty than if I'd said nothing at all.

Sometimes I wish I could sit down with a stranger and ask probing questions that would lead to the story of the century, or at least a good yarn, and even if it didn't, perhaps I'd learn something.

Sometimes I wonder if I could ever invent a group of characters so fascinating that others would want to read about them, because I am so rational and boring, and I am constantly amazed at how weird real people can be.

Sometimes I need to remind myself that not learning and practising what I learn is as much a part of learning as learning is.

Exercise 41.  This week, I will write a mission statement for something I am writing, I intend to write or I would like to write.  That is, I will explore what I would like to achieve through my story.  (Borrowed from 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark.)

Exercise 42. I will take out a story I have left unfinished and make myself finish it (as suggested by Joan Rosier-Jones in So You Want to Write).

This time next week I will be in transit, yet again, but I will look at Sentence Structure sometime during Week 22.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Week 20 - Punctuation

13 May - 19 May: Punctuation Saves Lives!
(A bit behind this week - oops.)

Yes, we all know the moral behind: Let's Eat, Grandma, vs Let's Eat Grandma, right? (Right?)  It's an oldie, but it's such an effective example of the power of punctuation.

In 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark states simply that punctuation "divides words, phrases and ideas into convenient groupings."

In You Can Write, Eamon Murphy explores in greater depth the basic structure of a sentence, and how punctuation should separate key words and supporting words, but should never be inserted inside a group of key words.  Key words must remain as a unit.

Roy Peter Clark's simple analogy between punctuation and road signals is a good one, I think:
  •  A full-stop or period (depending on which continent you're on), is a stop sign.  The more stop signs, the slower the pace.  This may help with suspense and clarity (in writing, that is, not driving).
  • comma is a speed bump where one needs to slow down, but not stop.
  • semi-colon is a rolling stop where the driver stops and starts up again on the same journey.
  • Parentheses signify a detour; something to be underemphasized.  Clark advises that they are best applied to short, witty phrases within the story.
  • Brackets, on the other hand, i.e. [ ] are used to clarify something by including detail that would otherwise be left out, e.g., 'He [Smith] was found guilty.'
  • colon is a flashing yellow light that alerts of something to come.
  • dash is a tree branch on the road, that is, something that demands attention.  Dashes are usually paired and used for special affect, or used singularly for emphasis at the end of a sentence.
Clark adds that ellipses (...), brackets, exclamation points, and capital letters lend voice, tone, and pitch to the piece.  A writer, afterall, cannot rely on vocal intonation and body language to get a message across.

That pretty much sums up Punctuation 101 in my simple mind, and I feel fairly confident that my understanding of basic punctuation is fair. 

Being far from perfect, however, I still find myself stopping and wondering about the best option, so here are a few random notes and reminders, mainly taken from the Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and You Can Write by Murphy:
  • Ellipses use three dots, or four when it includes a period.
  • Enclose independant supporting expressions, including names, inside two commas, e.g., Well, Tom, it is your responsibility.
  • Be careful when 'who' is used, as this may begin a dependant expression that needs to be grouped with the main subject e.g., The men and women who served in the war, were honoured in the ceremony.
  • The serial comma is that one placed before the joining word [conjunction] in a series, e.g., red, white, and blue.  It is not always used, and is generally dropped in business names. 
  • A run-on sentence is the name given when two independant clauses have no separating punctuation., e.g., She went to the shop her husband stayed home.
  • A comma splice is the name given when two independant clauses are separated with a comma only, e.g., She went to the shop, her husband stayed home.  It is incorrect and a conjunction, or stronger punctuation, such as a semi-colon or period, is needed.
  • Fanboys is a handy acronym for the joining words: for and nor but or yet so. (Ray Bailey, Survival Kit for Writing English, in Eamon Murphy, You Can Write.)
  • Punctuation falls outside parentheses when the expression is within a sentence.  If a parenthetic expression is a sentence by itself, the punctuation falls within the parentheses, e.g., He was fast, (but not fast enough). (He was fast, but not fast enough.)
  • Use a colon in three instances: when something is announced by a complete sentence, e.g., You will need the following: (rather than, You will need:); when the second statement interprets the first, e.g., It was a long process: he picked the fruit, washed it, graded it, boxed it, and labelled it; or when introducing a quotation; e.g., He smiled at the bastard as Oscar Wilde's words came to him: "Always forgive your enemies - nothing annoys them so much." 
  • A comma can be used when quotations are more relaxed, such as, My mother said, "Don't talk to strangers."  No quotation marks are needed when 'that' is used, such as, My mother told me that talking to strangers could lead to dangers.
  • "Use a dash only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate." (Strunk and White, The Elements of Style.)
  • Enclose commas and periods inside quotation marks, e.g., I read "The Pearl," "Of Mice and Men," and "Grapes of Wrath" when I was in hospital
  • "Question marks and exclamation marks are placed inside or outside quoted material depending on whether they apply to the whole sentence or just the quoted portion, but colons and semicolons are always placed outside." (Wikipedia.)
  • Where quotation marks or inverted commas are used for words-as-words, irony, or an implied different meaning, the comma or period falls outside the quotation marks, e.g., She was really 'nice'.

And the list goes on.  While I'm still learning about the quirks of punctuation, if nothing else, I'll try to be consistent, if not totally conventional.

Phew.  I'm not going to do punctuation exercises because they are in every piece of writing I do.  So, here are some fun exercises to lighten things up.

Exercise 39Explain the totally fictional origins of a famous (or not so famous) man-made landmark (e.g., The Great Wall of China was built to ‘keep out rabbits’).

Exercise 40.  Write an account of a point played between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova from the perspective of the tennis ball being played, or, write an account of the moonwalk as first performed by Michael Jackson from the perspective of one of his shoes.


Saturday, May 5, 2012

Week 19 - Vocabulary

6 May - 12 May: 'Words, words, mere words...'

"Better than a thousand hollow words, is one that brings peace." Buddha 

Stephen King On Writing credits vocabulary as being one of the most important tools in the writer's toolbox.  Having said that, he does not differentiate between a good vocabulary and a bad one, just that a writer needs to choose and use words effectively to tell the story.  More often than not, this is achieved through simple words in preference to pretentious embellishments of language.

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner provides more specific advice on vocabulary: avoid words that sound impressive but that everyone else is using, for example, serendipity, ubiquitous, ambiance and milieu.  Instead, he suggests using common words that are not used often and that sound interesting, for example, galumph, quagmire, distraught and remiss.

Roy Peter Clark similarly suggests choosing words the 'average writer avoids but the average reader understands', and that a writer should experiment with language, in serious as well as light-hearted pieces.

Both Gardner and Clark advocate using esoteric terms when the story calls for it, and to use them with authority (but not to the point of overwhelming the reader with jargon).  The writer, therefore, should pay attention to architectural terms for when she is describing buildings, botanical terms for garden settings, and nautical terms for that seafaring adventure.

In addition, Gardner encourages the use of foreign words.  Strunk and White (The Elements of Style), however, advise caution when borrowing from foreign languages, lest the reader become confused and distracted (by the author's inclination to show off perhaps?).

Words are so important - they are the building blocks of every story after all - that I will visit this topic again during June, with a more concise discussion on how language can set tone, control pace and create suspense.  In the meantime, the exercises below are intended to help the writer look for and experiment with new and interesting words.

Exercise 37. Flip through a dictionary and choose six interesting words that are vaguely or not familiar to you.  Now write a short passage that incorporates these words (after reading the definitions, of course).

Exercise 38. Open a thesaurus at a random page. Choose a word and write a story containing every synonym listed for that word (or if you don’t have access to a thesaurus, choose a simple word and use all the synonyms you can think of).

Week 20 will explore the other building block of writing: Punctuation.  I will briefly look at the concept, and then consider less-common examples (that tend to trip me up in my own writing).