The Benefit of Knowing Grammar Cold

When I’m working on prose, I find myself writing a sentence over and over, I think of the guard scene from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, in which the same sentence was repeated about fourteen times, in various forms.

  • These included:
    • Make sure the prince doesn’t leave this room until I come and get him.
    • He’s not to leave the room even if you come and get him.
    • You just stay here and make sure he doesn’t leave the room.
    • Until you come and get him, we’re not to enter the room.
    • You stay in the room and make sure he doesn’t leave.
    • You stay here until I get back, and make sure he doesn’t leave.

I was generating countless versions of the same sentence, so writing was taking me a long time. I hoped that knowing English Grammar cold would help me find the ideal sentence structure on the first try.


Overview of English Grammar

1. Simple Sentence – A complete sentence consists of  [ Subject ] [ Verb – Object ], where the subject is the active noun, and predicate is everything else.

sentence

 

2. Compound Sentence – created by gluing two sentences together.

conjunction

 

3. Complex Sentence – applies a modifier to the subject or predicate.

modifiers

Modifiers – We usually think of modifiers as single words. (“The red sweater was scratchy.” “The fire burned fiercely.”) but phrases can also be modifiers. A phrase that modifies a noun may be thought of as an adjective, a phrase that modifies a verb, an adverb. Modifiers come in a variety of structures, from short phrases to dependent clauses (complete sentences) that are “glued” on.

Prepositional – describes the relationship of something in the main sentence to something else, often in terms of space or time. (“near the pond” “after the battle“) The phrase is “glued” with a subordinate conjunction. (“Colonel Mustard killed someone in the library, with the pipe, during dinner.“)

Relative Pronoun – provides further information about the Subject or Object. The phrase is “glued” with a relative pronoun like that, which, who/whom. (“I got the assignment from a boy who was in my class.“)

Infinitive – a verb phrase in which the verb is an infinitive. “I want to see the movie.”  “His desire to climb Everest was ambitious.”

Label – assigns a name or a label to a noun or verb. (“Some kind of insect, it might have been a cricket, chirped.” “He ran, a no-holds-barred pace you might call a sprint.“)

Participial – a phrase based on a participle, an adjective made from the -ing form of a verb: (“Knowing what we know now, we wouldn’t have done that.”)


  • Writing research has found that knowledge of grammar doesn’t improve writing speed. It may even make it worse. So what’s the benefit of studying the grammar of complex sentences? None.
  • I studied things I wrote before I studied grammar. I discovered I’d done every subordinate conjunction, every relative pronoun, every comma around a dependent clause correctly. If you’re a native speaker of English, you already know this stuff, even if you don’t know the names of all the parts.
  • And finally, “Don’t split an infinitive” and “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.” These are real rules in Latin, not in English. “Who are you staying with?” or “To boldly go where no man has gone before“.

The Nine Triggers of Anger (or how to upset your characters)

Book review – Why We Snap by Douglas Fields

Dr. Fields has written a wonderful book explaining what makes people fly into a rage. He identifies nine triggers of anger, summarized by the acronym LIFEMORTS.

L Life and Limb – Physical threats
I Insult – Anything that undermines your status, either words or actions.
F Family – Threats or insults to your family
E Environment – Threats to your territory
M Mate – Threats to your significant other
O Order – A violation of the way things should be. “That never should have happened”
R Resources – Threats to your income or property
T Tribe – Being cut from the herd
S Stopped – Being thwarted, prevented from going somewhere or doing something

I learned of this book when the author was interviewed on a talk show earlier this year. Each one of these triggers had set me off at one time or another. Giving them names was a relief and a catharsis. Now, whenever I’m upset about something, I try to identify the triggers involved (Lost Job:  Resources, Tribe, Insult) (Cut off in traffic: Life and Limb, Stopped). I found that understanding the triggers makes the emotions easier to deal with.

The book was written for therapists with patients who have anger management issues. I probably wouldn’t have picked it up in a bookstore. Anger is not my issue. I don’t get mad, I just get upset. But if you replace the word “angry” with “upset”, the triggers still work. They work extremely well.

I recommend this book as a powerful resources for writers. As writers, it is our sad duty to torment our characters. (unhappy character, happy readers) It’s our job to send them terrible misfortunes and put as many obstacles in their way as possible. The nine triggers are an excellent source of ideas for things that would be upsetting to a character.

Don’t Feed The Troll

Beware Of Trolls

At some point in your writing career, you’ll start publishing your work. If you publish online, you’ll get reviews. Some will be good and some bad, since no writing is to everyone’s taste. Even Shakespeare’s Hamlet can get bad reviews from high school students.

But every once in a while, you’ll get a horrendously bad review like, “This was so vile, it made my eyeballs explode and run down my face”, “Do me a favor, put the pen down and walk away”, or “Don’t write anything ever again, please just kill yourself.” These aren’t authentic reviews, they’re the work of a troll.

Trolls write bad reviews for entertainment: to pick a fight, stir things up, or get a rise out of someone. In some cases, a troll will trash the work of an author they consider to be a rival.

What Trolls Do

They give bad reviews to books they haven’t read.

They criticize in general terms, like “It had no plot” or “I wrote better than this when I was in second grade” but don’t describe what’s in the book beyond what’s in the blurb.

They express outrage over things they claim are in your book, but aren’t.

The reviews might be extremely disturbing, for example, listing sex acts they claim they were offended by, which aren’t in the book.

Some of the reviews left by trolls describing how outraged they are about (the thing they say is in your book, but isn’t) are extremely disturbing.

They attack the author personally.

“Next time, do something useful instead of trying to write, and I do mean ‘trying to write’, not ‘writing’.”

They obsess about a minor point.

It’s likely they don’t care about whatever it is, they just like to argue.

They berate you for opinions you don’t actually hold.

False accusations of racism or sexism are common. One author was accused of being an apologist for rape even though there was nothing in her book about it.

They take a grain of truth and twist it.

The person took something you said the wrong way and claims to be upset about it. They completely misunderstood what you were trying to say. They took it out of context, or didn’t catch the irony, or were operating from a mistaken belief.

You might think, if only you could just respond to them to explain, the misunderstanding would be resolved. But contacting them would be a mistake. You think you’re speaking intellectual to intellectual, but you’re not. You’re speaking intellectual to troll.

They give a one star review and write multiple long paragraphs tearing your book to pieces.

On the plus side, if they attack the contents of your book, then they’ve actually read it and had some kind of reaction to it. The possibility exists that this troll is another author who sees you as a rival.

How to Spot a Troll

How to tell a legitimate reviewer from a troll: The language of a troll’s review has a tone of meanness. The comments may be condescending, dismissive, mocking, or openly cruel. Remember, the goal of a troll is to provoke a response.

How to Deal With Trolls

Don’t feed the troll. Do not reply to or argue with a troll, that’s what they want from you. Block and ban

In general, it’s almost impossible to remove troll filth from your page, even with the “report as abuse” button. Unless the attack is on the author vs. the book, the site won’t even consider it.

Trolls are like scratches on your car: unavoidable, annoying, hard to fix, but ultimately not very important.

Salty Language

One of my characters is a mariner and sea captain. I wanted to give him a voice such that, when he spoke, readers would think of the sea. To distinguish his voice from that of other characters, I filled his speech with nautical expressions. I felt that I couldn’t have him say, “You salty dog” or “Shiver me timbers”, because it would sound stupid. I had to be subtle.

I started to collect nautical expressions. I began by looking online. Then I carried around an index card and jotted them down whenever they came up in ordinary speech. It turns out that English is filled with nautical expressions. They’re so common, most of the time we don’t even notice them.

Examples of nautical expressions:

Above board – on deck, not hidden
Any port in a storm – when you’re desperate, any haven is a good one
Bail out – get the water out of a boat prevented from sinking
Don’t make heavy weather of it – slang for “Don’t fuss”
Get on board (with) – share space with, agree with
Get under way (weigh) –  to weigh anchor, to raise the anchor
Give a wide birth to – stay away from other ships
In tow – something being led by another
Keep a weather eye – watch carefully (for storms)
Lower the boom – to risk being hit by a swinging boom, to be scolded severely
Off course – going in the wrong direction, not following the compass
On an even keel – calm
Plumbing the depths – use a lead weight on a rope to measure water depth
Run aground – get stuck on a sandbar by accident
Rudderless – without a leader
Shore up – to support with a beam of timber, to prevent from failing
Show him the ropes – show someone which ropes operate which sails
Steer clear of – stay away from other ships
To the bitter end – the end of the rope that’s braided so it won’t fray

These are nautical expressions used into ordinary conversation, and may be slipped into dialog unnoticed, yet each of them originated with ships and the sea.

Taking Emotional Risks

You have to take emotional risks to be a good writer. I’d even call it the acid test of high-quality writing.

One of the writers in writing group had an extremely emotional story. She left a marriage and surrendered custody of her small children. Years later, when her daughter was almost grown to adulthood, she tried to reconnect, but her daughter refused to see her. It was a wrenching story. I was in tears thinking about it when I was driving home after the group.

Yet when she wrote about her wrenching loss, the text was abstract, remote, and impersonal. She wrote at length about the psychological phenomenon of parental alienations, and mentioned a few facts like her daughter was four when she saw her last and she was 22 now, that they all lived in Northern Virginia but there had been no contact with the children, how she was trying to schedule a time to meet with her daughter, but hadn’t pulled it off yet.

I wanted to know more. Why did she give up custody of the children? Had the courts taken the children away from her, and if so, what had she done to deserve it? Had she fought the decision? Had she tried to see them while they were growing up? What was it like for her on their birthdays, Christmas, Mothers’ Day? Her memoir didn’t say, because however strongly she felt about what happened, she wrote in abstractions.

Later, I met another writer who’d worked in the camps with the refugees in Somalia. I would consider that an emotional subject. I remember seeing a symbol on a chart about refugees, “Families who’ve lost track of one of their children”. That dry statistic made me tear up. I expected his stories about people in the camps to be gut-wrenching. But no, he’d written a book length nonfiction, and it never left the realm of abstraction and philosophizing. I learned a great deal about what he thought of globalization and connectedness, but nothing about what had happened to the refugees or how he felt about it.

Those examples were both nonfiction, but I use them to make a point. If you shelter behind abstractions, speak in generalities, and don’t reveal how you feel, you’ll lose your reader.

I’m guessing that all fiction writing is autobiographical, to some extent. When I first started writing, I would slam the notebook shut or hide the window if anyone else came in the room. Putting my stories down on paper felt like walking through an airport concourse naked. If I hadn’t hidden behind a nom de plume, I wouldn’t have dared to publish at all.

If you want to engage your reader, you have to reveal things about yourself. Things you’re not proud of, that you’re rather other people didn’t know: a youthful misdemeanor, a minor cruelty later regretted, being attracted to the wrong person, a crisis of faith, a fib that took on a life of its own. Readers love this stuff, and surprisingly, they never seem to be shocked.

Does it ever get easier? Yes. I’ve been writing for five years, and while I still feel like I’m walking around naked, but I’ve gotten used to it, and no longer mind.

Anglo Saxon vs. Latin Words

To write simply, choose words of Anglo-Saxon origin over words with Latin or Greek roots. Anglo-Saxon words are usually shorter, and they tend to be specific and body-centered, where Latin and Greek words, as we use them, tend to be abstract and mind-centered.

As a writer, this helps you achieve two things. First, your prose will be easier to read because the words are shorter and more widely used. Second, the specific, body-related words reach your reader’s emotions more directly. It’s like a form of Deep POV based on word usage itself.

anglosaxon

There are more Latin and Greek words in our language than Anglo-Saxon words, so again, you might have to look harder for a simple word than a long one.

Exercise Your Writing Muscle (by writing every day)

Stephen King (along with most “How To Write” books) advises writing every day, and says you have to exercise your writing muscle. What does this mean?

Transients – To borrow a term from electrical engineering, you go through a transient phase to reach steady state. Steady state is where you want to be. (writing) Transients are what you do to get there.

If you don’t sit down to write regularly, you go through a longer transient. Your desk might be covered in junk mail. You might have trouble finding the Scrivener file of your novel if you’ve worked on other projects. You might need to remind yourself of details of the story itself: a minor character’s name, the color of the hero’s clothes, or whether an important conversation had already happened or not.

But if you write every day, you sit down at your desk and start writing. You remember where you left off, the necessary files are already open. You reach steady state almost right away.

Inhibition – You might feel a certain inhibition about diving in and starting to write if you don’t it all the time. If you’ve been away from it for a while, you may feel pressure to write as well as you remember writing in the past.

But if you write every day, you don’t feel inhibited. You know from experience that most writing starts out rough. And besides, the first thing attempt is not a horrible first draft, it’s a sketch. Artists produce lots of sketches before they produce the finished work, so do writers.

Your neutral point – If you’re writing all the time, you’re more likely to be thinking about the story when you’re not at your desk. If you’re thinking about it, you’re working on it.

There’s a book about doing research in which a scientist promoted to department head said, “I don’t have time to think anymore.” He meant that when he was a scientist, he thought about his research when he wasn’t thinking about anything else. As an administrator, he was trying to do research in his spare time, but it was no longer the neutral place his thoughts went to automatically. I’m usually thinking about writing when I’m not thinking about anything else, and I know that some of my best dialog, telling details, or metaphor comes to me when I’m away from my desk.

As a everyday writer, the last thing in the evening, I usually think about what I want to write the next morning. It’s not more of a plan than a few bullets about what needs to happen in a scene, or a vague idea about foreshadowing something, but it sets up the expectation that, first thing the next day, I’m going to sit down and write. I also get to ruminate on it overnight, which seems to be important.

Of all of these, I think the third one, the neutral point, is the most important. Writing takes a lot of time, and the more time you spend thinking about your story, the better it will be.

What if you write something, and then lose it

It happens to every author. You write something wonderful, and then you lose it. It’s an extremely frustrating experience, but one that almost every writer goes through.

This article discusses two things – why it’s so devastating to lose something, and strategies for finding writing that was lost.

Why it’s so devastating to lose a piece of writing

When you lose something, you feel like the original was the most perfect treatment that passage or scene will ever have, and the replacement could never be more than a shadow of the original.

This attitude is sort of strange. In the normal course of writing, the first draft is usually sort of stilted. It’s a place to kick around ideas, not all of which are good. Only the best ideas survive into the second draft. Those that do tend to be supported by a greater level of detail. The third draft is more sophisticated than the second, with the addition of foreshadowing and symbolism, and the prose is likely to be of higher quality.

If I find a copy of a first draft after I’ve finished a piece, I usually cringe in embarrassment and then destroy it. But if I lose a first draft before I’ve had a chance to write a second draft from it, I feel like I’ve lost some great treasure that can never be replaced. Like I said earlier, this attitude is sort of insane. For one thing, when you sit down to re-write a piece (which takes less time than searching for it, in my experience) it’s often word-for-word identical to the original. And writing it the second time goes much faster than the first.

Why would you think the lost version is the best? It’s an example of confirmation bias. The first example of something you see of anything is the one you like best, believe the most, or think most highly of.

How writing gets lost

  • You saved it in a different folder than intended
  • You forgot what application you were using (MS Word vs. Scrivener)
  • You forgot what computer you were on
  • You forgot what media you were working in. (It wasn’t saved to a hard drive, it was written in longhand. I’ve done this more than once.)

I’ve never, ever completely lost something I wrote, although on a few occasions, the piece took months to turn up.

Searching for lost writing

I’ve spent hours searching for something I wrote and then lost. Not fun. Here are some strategies that may help.

Look in Recent Documents  Open the application you use to write and look at what was opened most recently. This isn’t foolproof, because you might have renamed it, moved it to another file, or opened a number of other documents since you looked at that one last, such that it’s fallen off the queue.

Search the Hard Drive  Identify a distinct phrase that occurs in the document and search for it. In Windows, you can search a folder, a folder and its subfolders, or the whole hard drive. Include external storage, like thumb and book drives. (Caution – external storage may not be indexed automatically. In a pinch, I copy the folders I want to search to the C drive.)

This method isn’t foolproof either, because you might remember the phrase wrong, and hard drive searches aren’t as flexible as Google. A word unique to the piece, if there is one, works better.

Look in the Recycle bin  You might not find the most recent version of the lost document, but there might be an old copy or something in another format. (I often post a .pdf for writing group, even though I compose in Word. I can almost always dig an old .pdf out of the trash.)

I’m happy to report a success story. There’s a description of the first sight of land that I lost mid-summer. I searched every hard drive of every machine and storage device I owned, and turned up nothing. I came to believe that, possibly, I’d overwritten it, possible by restoring something from Recycle on top of it. But it turned up when I was cleaning the house for the Christmas party, written in longhand on a tablet buried beneath the children’s schoolwork. So I’m happy to say that, as of yesterday, everything piece of writing I ever lost has turned up.

Tetris and the Process of Writing

I was taking a break from writing the other day, and I happened to run into my neighbors who were out walking their dog Fergus.

“How’s the writing going?” “What page are you on?” they asked.

I said I’d written about thirty-four pages since the last time we spoke. I was quick to add, “But page count isn’t very meaningful. It’s not like I’m reading a book and am on page 34.” Most people read from beginning to end, but almost no one writes that way.  Even a seat-of-the-pants writer still pens a rough draft, a second draft, etc. to produce a finished piece.

I told my neighbors that, for me, writing was more like watching a .gif downloading.

For those of us old enough to remember the early days of the Internet, bandwidth was limited and it used to take forever to download an image. But the.gif compression algorithm did something extremely clever. Instead of plotting one pixel at a time, which would have been boring, it gave you the whole image all at once, but in very coarse resolution.  then, is the download continued, the image sharpened into something crisp and well-defined.

Richard III b

  Downloading a.gif  (portrait of Richard III)

The  early, highly pixelated image is like an outline or a general idea of where the story is going. The recognizable but  blurry image  in the middle is like a rough draft, and  the  high resolution image on the left is like a finished piece of writing.

But a few minutes after we’d  parted company, I realized I should have said that writing is like a game of Tetris.

In Tetris, brightly colored squares fall from the top of the screen  to the bottom. Colored squares descend from the top of the screen and fall toward the bottom,  from any random point on the upper margin.

If a story is linear and stretches across the screen from left to right, with the beginning on the left and the end on the right,  then in this model, scenes that are little more than ideas are the colored squares near the top of the screen, and finished scenes fall near the bottom.

As a writer, I tend to bop around a lot.  I write the scenes or vignettes I’m in the mood to write. At any given moment, I have a collection of scenes in varying degrees of completion.   The Midpoint might be a few bullets,  the Inciting Incident a paragraph  of synopsis,  and the Climax something that’s been three times and painstakingly polished.

How close a scene is to finished has nothing to do with its place in the story. So “What page are you on?” or even “What’s your word count?” ( Rough draft words?  Fluently polished words? Developmentally edited words? )  isn’t something I can answer with confidence.

Maybe “How many hours have you put into it?” would be easier to answer. I don’t necessarily know, but it’s a metric I understand.

Writing for Beginner-Beginners

photo – skater Paolo Bacchini of Italy, European Figure Skating Championships in Sheffield, 2016

There are people who long to be writers, although they haven’t yet begun to write. (see “I’ve Always Wanted To Be A Writer, but I’ve never written anything”) I started thinking, suppose such a person landed on my doorstep? What would I do to help them?

There’s as much to know about writing is there is to know about engineering. People go to graduate school to study writing, and long after they leave school, they’re still honing their craft.

But what if you’re picking up a pen for the first time. What’s the least you need to know?

What Is A Story?  A story is a series of events (or insights, decisions, epiphanies) that result from a goal, a motivation to reach that goal, and obstacles that get in the way. In the end, the goal is reached (or not).

Where Do I Get Ideas?  All ideas come from somewhere. They don’t originate inside your  head. They pass through your head, but they come from somewhere else.  There’s a book called Fieldstones which tells you to build up the raw material you’ll need for your writing. Notice landscapes, pay attention to clouds and the ocean, eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, have interesting life experiences. It’s all grist for the writing mill.

Nor is there anything wrong with re-using an existing plot.  There are only so many plots out there, twenty according to one count ( boy meets girl, coming-of-age, escape, revenge, etc.) that it would be impossible not to repeat plots. Don’t even worry about it.

And characters? Most novels begin with the disclaimer, “This is a worth of fiction, the characters do not resemble any person living or dead.” As an author I can tell you, that is totally BS.

Finally, if you ever had worries that you’d use up all your good ideas in your first book and not have any left for the next one, most writers find that  the well doesn’t dry up, it starts to overflow.

Start Small  As a new writer, your first stories will probably be short, a couple of pages at most. That’s completely normal, the length of the story is closely associated with how long the writer has been writing.

Give Yourself Permission To Write Badly  As a new writer, your first stories will almost certainly be awkward or clumsy. Think of the first time you ever went ice skating. Pretty lame, right? But if you want to learn to skate, you have to fall, get up, fall again, and get up again. You wouldn’t go out on the ice for the very first time and expect to be good at it. Writing is the same. And unlike ice-skating, no one will see your first attempts unless you let them.

The way to become a good writer is to start out as a bad writer. There’s no other way, we’ve all been there. Writing is mostly skill, it gets better with practice.

Exercise Your Writing Muscle  If you write every day, writing gets easier and the quality of your writing gets better. There are two reasons for this.

First, if you do something regularly, it doesn’t take as long to get started. You know where your materials are, and your workspace hasn’t disappeared beneath ordinary household clutter. Also, when you write a lot, you think about it more when you’re not writing, and you get more ideas.

Second, there’s an inhibition about putting your private thoughts and feelings down on paper. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. When it’s done well, writing exposes your innermost self. Emotionally speaking, it’s like walking around naked. But if you do it all the time, you get used to it.

Writing is Hard Work   You may see books or articles that promise, “The secret of …” or “Writing made easy”, but even Hemingway said, “Sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.”

You can read a page in about a minute, but it might have taken a hundred times that long to write. (I recently got fan mail, “I really liked your book, I read it in just one day,” which I loved hearing, but I also thought, One day? Do you have any idea how long it took me to write it? Over a year!)

I find the experience of writing similar to the experience of reading, but slower and more intimate.  It’s like the difference between driving along a scenic route and walking. It takes longer and it’s more work, but you feel it more deeply.

Write What You Like  Stephen King said, “Write what you like to write about, even if it’s Teenage Zombies Ate My Brain.” His point was, when you’re writing about something you really enjoy, you’re doing your best work. I like to write fanfiction. My writing friends say, “You are such a good writer, you don’t need to be writing this schlock,” to which I say (middle finger extended). When I’m writing about ringwraiths, I’m having a seriously good time.

Keep Writing  If it seems like you’ve hit a rough patch, keep writing. If you think you aren’t any good, keep writing. If someone important to you says they hate your story and you should be prevented from ever writing anything again, keep writing. The only way to learn to write is by writing, and the only way to become good is to write a lot.