Miss Spelling

When I was young, I would ask, “How do you spell, *****?” My Dad’s response, bless his little cotton socks, was always, “The Dictionary is in the  sunroom. Go use it.” Ungrateful wretch that I was, my first thought was always, “But I don’t know how to spell the darn thing. How CAN I look it up?”

I have typing dyslexia. In addition, my eye for spelling, and more importantly: misspelling, is horrid. (Although that sentence is demonstrating my lack of skill with punctuation.) Give me a word that looks like, sounds like, is even close to the word I wanted for that spot, and my eye thinks it’s okay, fine and wonderful. And to top that off, lately, when I begin a word that has more than four letters, it seems as though my fingers only get the first three right, and then substitute some alternate word in place of the one that would fit the bill.

I am stumped. No reasonable explanation explains the steady downhill slide of my spelling ability. How do I get past this affliction?

For now I’m using spell check and reading the piece out loud. Any suggestions will be gratefully received! (At least those not involving chalk and repetitive writing…)

Help!

Write Away

I’ve been in revisionist country lately, so haven’t done much new writing. The best thing about all this is that I enjoy revising. It’s so much easier than doing the rough draft. I liken revision to working with clay on a potter’s wheel. Shaping, scraping away unwanted flaws, imprinting patterns, changing the shape of it so that it is more pleasing. Writing a book is like building the clay molecule by molecule, word by word. Once you get that clay into a basic shape, you have your rough draft.

Editing, now, that’s where the hard work of spinning all that clay pays off. You can pinch and pull, turn it around to look at it from all sides — and do whatever the hell you want to with it because you created it. It didn’t “happen that way” because that’s the way you wrote it the first time around. Even if you are channeling Ernest Hemingway, you might be getting interference on the line.

Here’s my recipe for revision:

Ingredients:

  • One completed manuscript.
  • One completed storyboard for each scene.
  • List of overused words: a short example of mine are…just, very, anything ending in ‘ly’, ‘ing’ or fronted by ‘was’, ‘to be’, whatever my critique group says is my word of the month.
  • One finger capable of hitting delete even if I really like that sentence.

Scenes: Pull out the storyboards. On the basis of the info on the page, state why that scene belongs in the book and why it belongs where it is in the narrative. Cut any scenes that don’t move the action, motivation, or character growth forward.

Characters: Do they all form a vital function in the storyline? If not, do they need to stay as a supporting character. Have I over-described supporting characters? (Don’t want the reader to finish the book and wonder about what happened to him/her.)

Dialogue: Read it out loud. Does it sound natural? Does it fit the character who is speaking? Is it age/geographically/gender/socio-economic/etc. appropriate?

Exposition: Where is your white space? (hint: usually around your dialogue or fast-moving action.) Lay your chapter pages out and see if there are any dense areas. Look at them. Does it work? Does it need breaking up? Do you need more description because all you have is dialogue?

Sentence Structure: Have you ended sentences with prepositions? (In dialogue it’s ok, otherwise avoid.) Do all your sentences follow the ‘Subject, verb, Bang/Pow!’ format, or do you have a pleasing variation of sentence structures.

Punctuation: How many commas can you take out and still breathe while reading the work out loud. Did you use parentheses, semi-colons, colons, and quotation marks correctly?

Repeats: (AKA Deja Vu.) How many times do you use a word in the same paragraph? It sometimes throws a reader off if you touch someone on the shoulder over and over again. Have them take their honey’s hand before the awkward pat on the shoulder. Do you have two scenes that seem eerily similar?

Touch/See/Taste/Smell/Emote All The Senses: We don’t just see things. We feel them in a myriad of ways throughout our body. Develop a vocabulary that includes the taste of happiness on the tongue and the fear of fire on our skin.

Color your way to a visual understanding: I go through my rough draft in printout form, using my nifty box of 48 color Crayons to mark sections with sentence structure. Underline the Subject/verb/object sentences in blue, the ones with an independent marker in the middle with orange, and ones where I use fragments with red. And so on. This gives me a nice visual for the rhythm without me having to worry about missing something because I got distracted and didn’t notice I had an entire page of sentences with the same structure. I do the same thing with dialogue, each character getting a different color. I usually do this along the right side of the manuscript page. I mark the left margin of the page with plot. Is the action centered on the main plot or a subplot? Again, each plot line gets its own color.

Then I revise the electronic copy, print it out and do it all again.

Eventually it pleases me enough to let it go. Or the deadline hits me over the head and I have to let it go. Either way it is a darn sight prettier than it was when it started.

I’ve now finished five novels. (Three in print. One more in half-way to rough draft-dom status.) Despite the fact that I could conceivably consider myself an experienced novelist, I still have to do this for each and every book I write. It takes me a year to write a book — at the least. There’s a lot to forget about the process in that amount of time. Must be why I face the blank page of each new book with a feeling of complete and utter panic.

What am I thinking?

I know I’ve done this before, but I have no clue what I’m doing!

Fortunately, now I can go back to some of these blog entries and have at it.

Happy Writing!

Commatosis

Comma pic from the Comma Police

I suffer from a disease that afflicts many good writers, who have not yet had it beat out of them by concerned critique partners. See?! Even with three published novels, I’m still sprinkling extraneous commas freely in sentences that have no need of them. Strike that comma!

It all goes back to the horrid English teacher I had in middle school who tried to teach us grammar by having us diagram sentences to improve our grammar usage. Just the thought of having to diagram my work put me off writing in general for years. I actually believed her rather than running in the opposite direction like any sane person would have done.

And yet… much as I now hate to admit this, she had a point. It is helpful to know how to properly place those prepositions, phrases, dependent clauses — and those pesky commas.

This poor woman, who shall remain nameless because she was probably actually a great teacher, (except for telling me things I didn’t want to hear) gave us a rule of thumb that you ought to place a comma where you take a naturally take a breath when reading. I internalized her words about commas. Not until I began attending a critique group did I realize I had a real problem. My work came back with red slashes through fully half of the punctuation liberally sprinkled throughout my pages.

Remember Teacher’s admonition to place a comma each time you take a breath?Writing excites me. Evidently it also literally takes my breath away. I had no idea that breathless anticipation wasn’t an asset when writing.

So I am here today to confess: I use too many commas in my work. Far, far, far, too, many, commas.

What to do about it? I did an internet search and came up with quite a few really good grammar sites. I signed up for daily grammar and spelling tips which arrive via e-mail. I read humorous essays by other writers about their own affliction with commatosis. And I found a couple of things that actually helped.

The best of these are the witty, well-written Grammar Girl podcasts. These tend to stick with me better than anything else I’ve found. I bought her book, but honestly, the podcasts are the next best thing to sliced bagels.

Oops! Another of my personal problems raises its ugly head — mixed metaphors.

Happy Writing!