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Elvis Is in the House

Elvis Is in the House

One of the most frustrating things about writing is chasing the elusive muse. Some days the ideas pour from my fingertips (okay, rarely), and some days the creative spirit seems to mock me from afar. There is no predicting whether tomorrow will be a diamond or coal. I’ve learned that it’s best to adjust my expectations after an hour of work. People sometimes ask if I push myself to write a certain number of words or pages a day, and the answer is no. This process, for me, requires flexibility and patience.

I’ve learned a lesson or two about the phenomena of chasing the muse from Elvis, the neighborhood cat. Barbie, next door, said she was adopting him when he showed up, a self-sufficient stray, on our street some months back. But Elvis belongs to no one -- and to all of us. He occasionally appears at our door and when we open it, he wanders in. He never stays long and he doesn’t let anyone get close. He’s not that kind of cat. He lived on his own long enough to be disdainful of cuddles and strokes. But if you’re really still and you leave him alone, he’ll grace your home with his presence just for a little while. We’re always happy to see Elvis -- a diligent enemy of squirrels and chipmunks -- in our yard, and if he chooses to come in, we welcome him and pour him some milk - which he drinks, or not. He roams around for a little while, then exits without fanfare through the door we leave open for his convenience.

The muse can’t be forced. The muse can’t be invited or cajoled. The muse is as elusive as February 29. But if you leave the door open, allow your mind to float free, he’ll often appear. And if you’re really lucky, he might let you get close. The good news is, even when he’s been gone awhile, he always comes back at some point if you let him in and treat him right.

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Posted in February, 2012


Is Memory Your Enemy?

Is Memory Your Enemy?

I remember thinking, at some point, that I couldn't be a good writer because I don't have a good memory. My Aunt Betty used to say, when my family members were remembering a past event fondly, "Just tell me one thing. Did I have a good time?" But the truth I've learned is that memory can get in the way. If we're too literal about the way things were, we'll never find out how they might have been.

Most of us have had the experience of writing something exactly as it happened, only to have an agent or editor tell us it's not "realistic." But it actually happened, we protest -- pretty much exactly that way. John Gardner in THE ART OF FICTION says, "The fact that the story is true, of course, does not relieve the novelist of the responsibility of making the characters and events convincing."

If you're looking for a good writing exercise, try your hand at making a true story "truer" this week. Use one that's been in the family for years, but force yourself to take shocking liberties in the retelling. Change some of the details, add a few new sensory descriptions you might have noticed if you'd been there, make the dialogue a little more compelling by adding a comment or two. You might even add a character you've invented.

Can you place your reader there by fictionalizing the event - just a bit? Sometimes a good story is too dependent on the hearers' -- or readers' -- familiarity with the personalities involved. See if you can distance yourself from a story you've heard retold again and again and see it in a new light. You might just like your "poetic license" version even better. If you're a beginning writer, it's a great way to ease into fiction writing. If you're a novelist, it might become a scene in your next book. Either way, don't let memory become your master!

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Posted in February, 2012


Space Once

Are you still spacing twice after each sentence like we learned in 8th grade typing? Well, stop. Now. If you're writing professionally, this practice will brand you as novice. It's a little thing, but it turns into a big problem when you repeat this error throughout a manuscript.

The reason for double spacing was that, in the early days of typing, each letter of the font took up the same amount of space, so we needed two spaces after a period to be better able to recognize where the sentence ended. Now we have proportional-spacing fonts (each letter taking up only the amount of space it needs) so one space at the end does the job just fine.

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Dashes Are Not Your Playthings

Dashes Are Not Your Playthings

Dashes and ellipses are not your playthings. They are not confetti to throw against your manuscript for decoration. They are real punctuation marks with real functions in our language. I know you enjoy tossing them indiscriminately at your work. Hey, if it's a rough draft, have at it. But before you submit that manuscript to an agent or editor, clean it up! Why give the gatekeepers one more excuse to toss your work in a slush pile because you either don't know or don't follow the rules when it comes to punctuation?

And don't give me that "I like to break the rules" crap. Just like Picasso knew how to paint a scene with photographic accuracy before he developed his well-known style, you too must master the rules before you bend them. Creativity should not be used as a cover for laziness.

In an attempt to "get it right" for my most recent manuscript, I studied up a bit and tried to boil it all down into one easy-to-understand lesson. Hope this helps.

I.The ellipsis, or dot,dot,dot to some of us (formed in Word with Cont-Alt-Period) is used for:
1) omitted words or phrases, such as "Whether 'tis nobler suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune..."
2) an unfinished thought or a trailing off , like "I don't know what to say ..." or "Oh, well ..."
3)a pause, as in, "You...uh...asked to see me?"

II. An em dash (so named because it took up the same space as an "m" on the keyboard, longer than an "en" dash which took the space of an "n") is formed in Word with Fn-Contr-Alt-Minus. (Minus is usually just left of Enter and shares the key with colon and semi-colon) An em dash is used when:
1) a speaker is interrupted by someone, as in, "This is the last time you're going to—"she said. "Don't lecture me!" he interrupted.
2) a speaker is too emotional to continue and interrupts self, for example, "I can't tell you what your gift means to me and my—"
3) a speaker changes gears in mid sentence, like, "I thought you were going to—why didn't you bring it?"
4)a parenthetical comment is added in the middle of a thought for clarification, such as, "I finally understood—for the very first time—what dashes were used for."

In informal writing em dashes can take the place of commas, semi-colons,colons, or periods:
In replacing commas, paired dashes add more emphasis. "I am the friend—the only friend—who told you the truth about that skirt." They move the dialogue at a faster pace when used as a semi-colon, "You ate the brownie—I gained the weight," a period, "You can learn this—it's not rocket science," or a colon, "I brought the necessary beach accessories—lotion, books, and booze."

III.An en dash is just the hyphen used in compound words like brother-in-law, compound numbers like thirty-three and prefixes like mid-1950's or ex-wife. It's also used to divide words into syllables, and of course, in phone numbers. En dashes also show duration, as in 8:00 – 5:00, and Feb. 4-6.

Let's review, shall we?
Ellipses: omitted, unfinished, pause.
Em dash: interrupted, emotional, change gears, parenthetical.

Yes, there is some overlap. There will be times, a few, when either an ellipse or an em dash would be appropriate. When that happens, your choice is simple. Use the dash if your speaker would be talking fast or is in a tense situation, and an ellipse if you want to slow the dialogue down a bit. (It works. Try it.)

Feel free to add any tips you've discovered that might help others to play nice with punctuation or tips to help writers bend Microsoft Word to our wills when punctuating.

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Posted in February, 2011

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