Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Starting this up again!

New resolution! I want to blog more about writing and editing. So here I go...

Well, today I got nothing. Bad start!

I have been listening to the John McWhorter podcast Lexicon Valley.  He's got a new episode up about "habitual past" (I used to blog a lot). He points out that we also now use "would" to indicate a past action that recurred habitually- I would blog a lot.

His podcast is always fun. He has a thing for Broadway musicals, so he will have clips from Ethel Merman and Shirley Booth singing some long-forgotten ditty that explicates something about language.

So... any writing questions or topics I can address? I respond well to requests. :)

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Can’t Start a Fire without a Spark…. Creating that Spark when You Think You're Burnt Out

Can’t Start a Fire without a Spark…. Creating that Spark when You Think You're Burnt Out
by Alicia Rasley

You can decide what to love. You can spark the fire.
Enthusiasm doesn’t always arrive fully blown. Sometimes you have to take a little spark and turn it into a flame.
For example, Sam was hauling the Christmas tree off to the mulch pile in the city park when he heard a bird warbling. Its insistent song- weeuh weeuh weeuh—really stood out in the snowy winter day, when most of what Sam could hear was traffic and the cracking of iced-up tree branches above him. He stopped in the middle of the park, forgetting his errand, forgetting the little dead tree in his hands, and wondered, “What sort of bird hangs out all winter in the city?”

He’d never been interested in birds before, and to tell the truth, he wasn’t all that interested now. He was just momentarily intrigued, and made a mental note of it, and – he’s a software guy, so he’s always thinking of things like this—wondered if anyone had ever designed a phone app to record and identify bird songs. (Duh, of course.) But when he’d tossed the tree on the pile and got his phone set to record, the bird was gone, or at least, the song had changed to a long intricate trill of different notes. It was as if the shower-singer had given way to the opera singer.

When he got home, he sat down at the computer and (natch) googled to identify the birds. What he found really intrigued him. He hadn’t heard two birds, each singing their songs, but one bird singing two songs. He started reading about the northern mockingbird, which somehow can imitate other birds’ songs and repeat them back note-perfect.

Now Sam wasn’t any kind of actor or con-man (he was in software development), but he’d always had a secret envy for people who could do impressions of famous voices. So he started reading more about the mockingbird, and the next morning, same time, he went back to the park. This time it wasn’t on a Christmas-shutdown errand, but just to pursue this momentary interest. When he caught sight of the chubby gray-and-white bird, he had his phone handy and was able to snap a picture.

He’d never been into birding, and he’d always thought of it as a pursuit for less-macho people. But he was at loose ends since the divorce and the kids leaving home, and work wasn’t challenging anymore. And he’d been at his company so long, he was up to five weeks vacation a year.  So after a few weeks of going to the park and trying to find the mockingbird and its fellows, he thought he might as well take a few days’ birding trip to somewhere warm.

By the time he got back, well, he wasn’t precisely obsessed with birding. But he realized he’d had fun on the trip. The other birders were interesting people, rather like software developers in their temperament (focused and thoughtful) if not their conversation. There were even a couple women he thought could become friends. He decided to emulate the mockingbird a bit and “act as if”—act as if birding was interesting. And what do you know— just sticking with it, and fanning that tiny flame, Sam found himself a new hobby. He never got as passionate about birds as some of his new friends, but he enjoyed being outdoors, and enjoyed the quiet during the hikes and the lively conversation afterwards. Most of all, he liked his new community. A year later, he marvels at how the accident of hearing that little bird in the park led to – well, not a life-change, but a life-opening.

You might remember that great time in your childhood, when you skipped from one fleeting interest to another, and your poor parents shelled out for a drumkit and then a skateboard and then all those watercolors and…. You had all the time in the world to sample potential obsessions, and if you were lucky, one stuck, and you ended up in the city symphony or at least playing Auld Lang Sine on the piano late at night on New Year’s Eve.

But you know what? We don’t have time to skip around anymore. We don’t have time to sample. And we know whatever we do isn’t likely to end up as the route to a PhD or fame and fortune. There’s no purpose to new hobbies in the last-chance decade—except to have fun and meet people and maybe do a little good and join or start a community.

Trouble is, without the energy and openness of youth, and with all the usual distractions of everyday, it’s hard to get excited about anything new. It might not be worth all the fuss.
Well, make it worth it. You have more discipline and focus than you did when you were young. You can actually make yourself more interested, now that you know how to move beyond the mere activity into creating a whole situation: That is, you won’t just DO this, you can research it and converse about it and join a group and take trips. You have resources now to make this minor interest into a major part of your life. (And you know if it starts to bore, you can quit it without regret, as it’s only your own money that bought that drumkit or invested in that birding app!)

Some tips to fan a flicker into a flame:

  1. Consider what, overall, you ought to do, that you’re already thinking you should get going on.
“I really need to get out from behind the computer.”
“I need to get more fit.”
“I need some new friends.”
“I should get more involved with the community again now that the kids are gone.”
“I’ve been so self-absorbed since the break-up.”
“I’m bored. I need to do something fun.”
“I have to exercise my brain more.”
“If I’m going to take that trip to Italy, maybe I should learn some Italian.”
If you can link this existing need to a new hobby, you’ll feel more motivated. Birding will get you outdoors and away from the computer. Volunteering at the city music festival will get you involved with the community. Hiking in the woods will help you get more fit.

  1. Think beyond broad categories of activities you used to enjoy, like “nature” and “socializing” and “music.” Try to pinpoint what you really liked about that, like, “I didn’t care much about all those nature walks, but I sure liked camping in a tent,” or “I thought I was going to be a movie star, but that never worked out. Looking back, what I really liked about acting was the cast parties after first night,” or “I wasn’t much good at the flute, but I still remember how my teacher would accompany us on the piano. I kind of liked the piano, but my parents could only afford a flute.” Once you get into what was the really fun part (camping, cast parties), you can more effectively design a new hobby to create that experience without all the more boring stuff.
  1. Look for existing interest groups where you can join at low cost and low commitment. “Meetup” groups are great for this. You can just show up at the assigned place and play a few games of Scrabble or go to a film or take a hike in the woods with the group. No one will bug you to buy a year’s subscription or run for group president. You can just do the activity in the company of other people who enjoy it.
  1. Stick with it for awhile. Of course, if you have a rotten experience—you break your ankle hiking, or the Scrabble players are all PhD linguists who scoff at your words—you might try another group or a related but less intense activity. But if the experience is okay or better, try it again on the next possible occasion. This doesn’t have to end up as a lifelong, life-changing obsession. You just want to have some fun. So don’t require a huge conflagration of passion the first experience. Just remember, a flicker can become a flame if you don’t douse it too quickly.
  1. When you find some hobby you like, ritualize it. To make it a hobby, it has to be more than a habit. Alas, one of the lessons we learn as we get older is—a good habit is easy to break. These days, there are just too many distractions, too many other things to do. If it’s not the TV in every room, it’s the web on your computer and phone that can give you momentary if empty entertainment. Nothing becomes really meaningful, however, unless you repeat it—make a date of it, make an occasion. “Thursday night is film noir Meetup night!” “Every March, I’m going to London!”
  1. Make it more. Enhance the experience. Make it your own. Add something to it. If you meet up every Thursday at a friend’s home to watch the film noir, start bringing popcorn (or, if you’re also trying to get fit, some crunchy veggies and hummus). Make it more fun—a different type of popcorn every week, or a new kind of punch.
Make it more. If you’re in a book group, maybe do a half hour of research beforehand and give a mini-report on the author or the early (and misinformed) reviews of the book. Before the Italian lesson, go out to an Italian restaurant, or experiment with making a new kind of pasta. If you’ve started birding, buy a bird book or borrow a new pair of binoculars.
And let’s face it. Nothing makes an occasion more memorable than taking a couple photos and posting them on Facebook or Instagram. You’ll have the pleasure of other people commenting, “Oh, I always wanted to do that!” And in a year, Facebook will repost the photo so you can remember it.

  1. If this turns out to be more than just fun—if you find yourself getting passionate—ride that wave! Expand your experience. If you’ve been teaching yourself guitar chords by watching Youtube videos, maybe now you might spend a little money and employ some impoverished music student or old grunge bandmember to tutor you. If you’ve been volunteering at your old school, consider joining a committee or even running for school board.
Remember your limitations, however. You don’t want to overload your life and start fretting about what used to be fun. For example, I wanted to help more with kids in my sons’ old school, but when I talked to a tutoring organization, I realized that while I was still working and traveling so much, I really couldn’t commit to weekly sessions. So I put that desire aside for later, for when I’m retired. I’ve done enough of the tutoring to know I really want to do it, and I can keep that flame alive until I can really make it more of a passion.

  1. Most important, stick with it long enough to know if it will be meaningful in your life. Many of us have gotten so competent at our jobs, we might get impatient at being beginners again. But if we can get past the awkwardness of being around much younger but more knowledgeable film fans, and if we can persist with the Italian lessons even if we can tell our accent is horrendous, then we will get past that uncomfortable newbie experience and be ready for more easy enjoyment. We really do know how to learn and grow efficiently and effectively, and we’ll probably get better at this pretty fast, if we just… you know… stick with it.

  1. But… but really, if it’s not right, if it’s getting less not more fun, try something else. We don’t have endless time to devote ourselves to a pursuit that agonizes us rather than interests us. We know we have a limited store of patience, so why waste it on a group of people who make us anxious and unhappy? If after a few months, it’s still no fun, let it go and try something else. It might help to analyze what you liked and didn’t like (“I liked going on the ski trips, but I didn’t like whole competitive vibe of the group, like you were a loser if you didn’t want to risk your life”) so that you can find a better experience without the negatives.

  1. Most of all, open yourself to enjoyment. Put away that hard-earned cynicism (“Everyone can tell we’re amateurs”) and skepticism (“Kids like this will never learn”). Give into the experience. Don’t be self-conscious about your age or the sound of your laugh. Don’t obsess about others’ possible perception of you (“Everyone thinks I’m stupid that I never learned to read music”).  You’re grown now. You know that “everyone” isn’t thinking about you, and even if they are, and they’re not thinking positively, their thoughts aren’t worth your time.
You might even have to force it a little, to “act as if.” You don’t want to do that for long—if the “as if” doesn’t become real in a few weeks, this probably isn’t right for you. But sometimes, yeah, you have to fake it till you make it.  
Remind yourself—this is just for fun. You’ve been working all your life. You deserve some fun. Audition the experience.
 It doesn’t have to be life-changing as long as it’s life-opening… but you won’t get either if you don’t try it out for awhile.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Here's an article based on an exercise I led in Active vs. Passive Writing course


Inhabiting the Prose

author prose tipsby Patricia Bradley, @PTBradley1
Do writers ever stop learning the craft of writing? I don’t think so. Or maybe I’m just a professional student. But at any rate, this month I took a class from Outreach International RWA (oirwa.com) with Alicia Rasley on Active VS Passive Writing. It’s been a fascinating class, and as always she gives her students little nuggets beyond the scope of the lessons.
On the very day I was stuck in a scene, Alicia talked about inhabiting the prose, and how to make your prose sound like your character rather than just flat, unemotional words. She gave us a free-writing exercise to do, and the exercise (adapted from Les Edgerton’s Finding Your Voice) helped me to connect the emotion of the character and scene to the physical action I wanted that character to perform.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

When You Have Too Many Words....

I was just asked for a few tips on cutting big bunches of words. You know, you were aiming for a nice 75K novel, only this ended up at 95K words.  And from your perspective, it works! But it's too long for the line or the editor or the type of story, right? So how can you trim words without deleting meaning? 

It's hard. It can be done. I had to cut 35K from one of my books once, and it was hard, but I don't think afterwards the reader could tell what was missing. (Okay, okay. Theresa did most of the cutting. I did most of the whining and whimpering.)

While the plan here is not to go back, it can really help to think that nothing you're doing is permanent, that if you realize you cut something important, you can restore it. So be sure to 
 save the original version first, then save the version-to-be-cut under another filename. Just in case you want to UNcut later!
But here are some tips if you want to cut 20K words:

1) The first option is to cut a whole scene. That's a broadsword rather than a scalpel approach, but let's say you wrote this book in a white heat during Nanowrimo. There are probably scenes you wrote or started to write which ended up as unimportant or irrelevant, or you later did a better version and both versions are still in there. 

A whole scene might well be 5,000 words. That's a pretty good cut! And cutting it might make for a stronger, tighter plot. Then again, you might accidentally cut out something essential like a clue, or an important step on your character's journey, or the satisfying "reunion" scene the reader has been waiting for. 

To do this, however, you have to look at scenes not as groups of words but as part of the action of the plot. So try this: Outline the book as you have it. Yep, a scene outline. List -- in order they occur, every chapter, and every scene or scenelet or passage (complete or not) within each chapter. 

Then you can evaluate if there are scenes that can be deleted without causing plot/emotion problems.  

2. Look also for adjacent scenes that can be combined.  That will let you delete some of the set up and transition between scenes. Be watching for "single-purpose" scenes, especially several in a row-- a scene where he argues with his brother, and then a scene were he discovers a clue to the mystery, and then a scene where he travels to where the robbery took place. You could combine those into one scene where he argues with his brother, leaves and discovers the clue, and ends with him deciding to go to the robbery site. Really, once you start looking at what happens from scene to scene, you might find several which can be combined.

3.  If you can't cut a whole scene, look for passages (especially at the beginning) which are mostly set-up. That's where I found the most opportunities to trim, at the start of scenes, where I might have spent a couple pages describing the setting and establishing what the characters are doing there. 
Here are some other "cutting" options:
4) Look for mini-scenes (I call them "scenelets"-- 1-2 page bridges usually from one important event to the next) that don't much matter. Often these involve a main character interacting with a minor character or a "walk-ons" like a waiter who will never be seen again in the book. An example might be a cab ride to the convention hotel. There might be good character interplay with the cabdriver and give a good sense of the main character's mood, but if you want to cut, that's an example of a good 'non-essential' scenelet. Usually these aren't full scenes but intros to more important scene passages. You can always argue how this bit is important or clever or enlightening, but you know, you have to trim something, and a scene without an event to change the plot is usually trimmable.
5) Try the Jane Austen tactic-- in dialogue, if there's no conflict, do narrative summary. (They reminisced for a few minutes, then she remembered, and said insultingly, " ". :) There are going to be parts of scenes the reader needs that might have no conflict (like a moment of grace where two characters share a cigarette), but those are best kept fairly short and fairly rare. 

6) Look for those passages where there's nothing-dialogue-- often when there's some movement from one setting to another. ("Let's go into the den and watch TV/What do you want to watch?/ I thought this season of The Voice was starting. Did you record that?/No, the last one was so annoying, I didn't bother. But we can probably get it on-demand." :) No, I never actually wrote that passage, but that's the sort of "transition conversation" that's usually easy to cut away.
7) Also look for long passages of introspection where a character is thinking. Sometimes these are important, and the way they think is important to show, but the deeper we get into the story, the less long introspection is needed. (The reader knows more about the character by the middle of the book, and probably just needs a hint of what they're thinking, or only introspection when something unexpected is felt and needs explanation.)
8) Try my ruthless technique: Decide on a page goal, like "cut 50 words out of this page". This takes awhile, but it's usually easy to find at least 20 words to cut. Or "cut one sentence or sentence part out of each paragraph". Or "trim two sentences and combine them into one shorter sentence". This is actually my favorite thing. :)
9) Even more ruthless: If you know there are words you over-use (for me, it's "then" and "just"), do a "find" for them and for each one, decide whether it's needed. Delete if not. A friend of mine cut two pages out just by getting rid of justs. :)
Because all this is so "voice-centric," it's probably best to do it yourself first and see how much you can cut. That way you'll still have control of the scenes and the interactions between characters and how that's presented. 
Then again, an outsider might be able to be more objective, as Theresa was with my over-long book.

I can tell you from experience, trimming is hard to get started, and painful, but after awhile, it's easier to see where something can be discarded, or  how scenes or sentences can be combined.

Broadsword/scalpel experiences you can share? 

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Oxford Comma, Robert Frost, and Comma Suicide

This will start out boring for non-punctuation-lovers, but then I'll quote Robert Frost, which is always a great benefit to society. So slog through the boring part to get to the poetry and my explanation of how Frost shows how important it is to "know the rules, then break them."

Oxford Comma
Here's a minor comma fix, and it's more "discretionary than obligatory:" The Oxford comma.
For some reason, the final comma in a series (before the "and") is called the Oxford comma, but it's also called the "serial comma". The rule is, when you have a series of three or more items in a row, with "and" before the last one, you put a comma before the "and" so that there's a comma after each item. So: The US flag is red, white, and blue.

This is done differently in journalism, where they used to have to save space and ink and so eliminated as many comma rules as they could. J So you'll see the "and" without a comma before in magazine and newspapers and often on news websites too.
Academic writing, however, follows the rules of book publishing, and the "Oxford comma" is the convention there. Just a minor change, and as I said, this is a rule in academic and book writing, so you'll often see series without that comma in the popular press.
More about the "Oxford comma"

What About Robert Frost, You Ask?

The great American poet Robert Frost surely knew the rules. No one made better use of the conventions of the language and grammar than he did in creating his deceptively simple and lovely poems. He's a great example of how understanding the convention (and how the reader would conventionally read something) in order to subvert it for a greater or deeper meaning-- punctuation becomes subtext.

Now as I said above, the general rule followed by book editors and publishers is that when there is a series of three or more like items (like three adjectives), you place a comma before the "and" or the last item in the series, indicating that these are all basically similar and yet separate from each other.

So with Frost's poem in manuscript, the book editor (or, as the Frost myth goes, the typesetter of the book, cleaning up after the editor ) saw this line with this series:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep

Well, of course the punctilious editor/typesetter made haste to add that Oxford comma-- the RULE.
And usually, that would have been exactly correct.

However, again according to myth, Frost saw the proofs and quickly "stetted" or insisted that the original be maintained.

Why? Was Frost being stupid? Did he not know the rule?

He knew the rule. He knew what effect abiding by the rule would create for the reader. And he knew he wanted another effect, one that could be achieved by subverting the rule.

Let's look at the two meanings-- comma in or comma out.

Here's the entire stanza. This is the final verse of that achingly beautiful poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening".  (You can read the whole poem, and you really should, here at the Poetry Foundation.)

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep

So this was what Frost ended up with-- what he started with, what he wanted-- comma out.

Why did he insist on that change, or rather, the change back? The defiance of convention? 

Let's look at the meaning conveyed by each option.  
Comma in:
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.
With that comma in, the three adjectives are "equal in weight". That is:
The woods are lovely, the woods are dark, and the woods are deep.
They each modify or describe "the woods".

Now take the comma out, and see what happens:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
With the comma out, the "dark and deep" now modify "lovely":
The woods are lovely, because they are dark and deep.

See the difference?

The first is a placid and unremarkable (though perfect in its scansion :) description of the woods.

The second is a subtextual confession of the longing for "darkness and depth".

Here is a man who has stopped by a snowy woods on a winter evening, a man weary of his responsibilities, his "promises to keep", and momentarily transfixed by the "loveliness" of the woods. And what is lovely about them to him? The darkness and depth. The death. (This is poetry, so it won't be transparent. This is Frost, so we must always search beneath the extraordinary "prettiness" of his prose to find the deep meaning he always embeds.)

He looks at the woods. He finds the darkness and depth "lovely". He thinks of... well. No. He can't do that. He has promises to keep, and miles to go before he sleeps.

We have just witnessed a man choosing life. 

Those final lines (repeated just to make you ponder this):
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep

Those would have little resonance if all that had just happened was the man stopped and saw the pretty woods and commented on how they are "lovely, dark, and deep."

Coming after that line with the missing comma, however?

They mean he's made a choice. He will not succumb to the "lovely dark and depth." He will keep those promises and trudge those miles and then sink into a temporary (not permanent) sleep.

He knew the rules. He chose to break them-- for a very specific effect. That effect could happen only if he could trust that most readers would know how it "should" be punctuated, and stop and wonder why the comma was left out.

This is one of the great techniques we have when we craft and refine our own voice. We can know the conventional rules and the conventional and usually appropriate effects they will have.
And then we can choose to subvert the rules to achieve a different effect. 
It's not just breaking the rules to be defiant or because we're ignorant... but accepting the rules, knowing that they create a conventional meaning, knowing that now the reader-- trained in the conventions-- will be surprised and thoughtful in discovering this new meaning.

We are in control of our own voice. But we need to take control. We need to know more about the language and how it can be manipulated-- and most important, we need to know how the reader will interpret our choices.

Well, heck, time to go read that whole poem. I encountered this first in 5th grade at St. Aidan's School in Boston. Interestingly, the nun (nuns weren't known then for cross-curricular pedagogical innovations) Sister Hugh had us put this poem to music, and I could still sing our ballad if you want. (You don't.) I thought it was the most beautiful poem in the world then. (I'm still pretty in love with it.)

Monday, May 22, 2017

Contranyms: Words that mean two opposites

I asked for examples of "contranyms"-- a word with two opposite meanings. 

Here are some friends contributed:

 Fast= quick to get away/ Fast like "he was held fast by the giant lobster claw."

Bolt= to run away, but you also bold two things together.

Oversight - looking over something carefully -- or overlooking something entirely.
Sanction -- to approve of an action, or to punish an action. 
Weather -- to withstand the effects of weather ("the house weathered the storm"),  or to *show* the effects of weather ('the stone statue was badly weathered")

Cave, as a noun, a big hole in the ground. As a verb, the collapsing of a hole.

Can you think of any others? And why does this happen? One friend reminded me when flammable things were labeled "inflammable" (meaning, uh, flammable-- don't set these on fire). Why do that?



Friday, May 19, 2017

Grammar questions answered: Restrictive and non-restrictive

I asked for some grammar questions, expecting/wanting some softballs. Ha! Not a chance. But I will throw myself to the wolves and try to answer.

Stacey asked-
Here's my question(s): What is a restrictive clause? What does it mean, really? What makes it restrictive?

I ask this, because I have a note that says if I'm using the word "which" in a restrictive clause, I should replace it with "that." It would be a helpful note if I knew what it meant! Hahaha! :)

 Okay, to get very basic, a clause is an element which has a subject and verb, and it can be "independent" (can be a sentence on its own, like This will be a long and tedious explanation), or dependent, (which can't be a complete sentence on its own, like which will be hard to understand). 
 Dependent clauses can be used in many ways in a sentence, like to establish some time or place condition--
When I was young, we used to have to walk three miles uphill to school.
Wherever we stay that night, we should get a suite with a view of the river.
"Restrictive" clauses are special types of  "relative" clauses. (A relative clause – I know, this gets arcane, but you know, you say and write these every day, even if you don't know the terms—is a clause which "relate" one thing to another. Forget that—just know that relative clauses start with those relative pronouns—who, which, that, what— and then have a verb, like Relative pronouns, which include "which and who," are how relative clauses start.) Relative nouns are usually "adjectival", modifying a noun (often but not always the subject of the sentence). So they are usually used as "appositives" and tell more about the noun that precedes them:  Governors, who serve a four-year term, are the chief executives of their states.
 You can see there that the relative clause—the appositive—just tells us more about governors. (Not all appositives are clauses—they can just be phrases, like The lady in the red hat ordered the soy latte. But let's not deal with that now. :)
What's important in that example is that it tells us more about ALL governors- that is, the meaning of the noun governor isn't narrowed by the appositive. ALL governors serve a four-year term.
 That is a NON-restrictive clause. It tells us more information about the noun it modifies, but it doesn't "restrict" the noun.

Relative clauses can be restrictive or non restrictive.  That is, they either restrict or don't restrict the noun they modify.

Let's come up with a RESTRICTIVE appositive/relative clause (so many terms! But "appositive" is syntactical—about the role this plays in this particular sentence—while "relative clause" is a grammatical term… well, never mind J).  
A restrictive clause will "restrict" or narrow the meaning of the noun it modifies, like:
Governors who take bribes should be impeached.
In this case, the relative "who" clause "restricts" the noun to a specific and narrow meaning. There are many governors, but in this case, I'm speaking only of the ones who take bribes. I'm not saying every governor should be impeached, only that special group who take bribes (I'm hoping that's a small percentage of them!). The restrictive clause stuck in there actually "restricts" the noun, see.
Now the noun phrase isn't just the single word "governors," but the narrower term "governors who take bribes."

Let's diagram both those sentences:
Subject (noun phrase)
Predicate (verb phrase)
Governors, who serve a four-year term, are the chief executives of their states.
Governors who take bribes should be impeached.
See the difference? Who are the chief executives of the states? Governors. You can take the appositive clause out and the main clause still means what you want it to mean—
Governors are the chief executives of their states.
But see what happens when you take the appositive out of the second one:
Governors should be impeached.
Even if we don't like politicians, we probably don't mean that all governors should be impeached!

Relative clause (who/which/what/that + verb)
Appositive (a clause or phrase which explains more about a noun)
Restrictive clause (a relative clause which "restricts" the meaning of a noun) Governors who take bribes should be impeached. This is NOT set off with commas before and after because it is necessary to the meaning and actually becomes part of the noun.
Non-restrictive clause (a relative clause which explains more about a noun but doesn't restrict the meaning)- Governors, who serve a four-year term, are the chief executives of their states. These are set off before and after with commas, to show that they are "unnecessary" to the meaning.
What about "which and that"?
They are both "relative pronouns" which start relative clauses.
"Which" is used in non-restrictive clauses JUST BECAUSE. (I mean, I don't know why.) That means you use commas before "which"—not because it's "which," but because it's non-restrictive, which uses "which".
"That" means exactly the same thing, but is used with restrictive clauses and no commas.
(With people, btw, no matter what, we use "who." Also, my cat, WHO is named Bandit, reminds me we also use "who" with pets.)
Restrictive clause  Pedestrian malls that are successful share three important factors. (that is, we're only talking about successful pedestrian malls).
(People= who) Pedestrians who cross against the light are taking a big risk. (Only those who cross against the light are taking a big risk.)

Non-restrictive clause -- Pedestrian malls, which limit car traffic on downtown streets, are popular with businesses because they increase foot traffic. (All pedestrian malls are popular with businesses.)
Pedestrians, who are often walking for their health, are tempted by the bakeries which line Ontario Street.

What do you think? Does that make sense?  Often if you speak the sentence aloud, you can tell if you mean the more narrow subject ("Governors who take bribes"), as you will speak that without the pause that would indicate commas.

Restrictive vs. nonrestrictive always gives me a headache to explain, and anyway, it's been explained better by others:
Another site for this
Check these out. :)

Friday, May 12, 2017

Grammar questions?

Hey, everyone,
I'm getting together some grammar lessons-- punctuation, sentences, wording. I'd love to do the lessons writers really need. What's your grammar question? I'll put it down on my list and write up a lesson for it. (I can't help it. I love this stuff.) Post here-- and also, if you see a lot of other writers' work-- what's the biggest issue you see, even if it's not a problem for you? I have to say, dialogue punctuation. (You know- She said "you don't understand" . )

What do writers need to be reminded to check?
What annoys you or intrigues you about grammar?

I just spent about a half hour trying to explain who/whom, and privately concluded this was something (along with subject/verb agreement) I might drop if I were Grammar Goddess.


Monday, May 8, 2017

3 Reasons to Choose a Small Press

3 Reasons to Choose a Small Press

Why a Small Press?
My publishing career is so checkered, I call it a “herringbone.” I’ve been published by major publishers and a couple small presses, and self-published too. So I thought I’d give you all some food for thought and write about why I chose to go with a small press for my women’s fiction novel, The Year She Fell.
I got my first publication back in the Golden Era of romance publishing, when all the major NY publishers were starting romance lines and midlist romance writers had print runs of 300K. (Not me, but many others!) I never benefited much from that wave as I wrote in a small niche genre (Regencies), but I stayed published by major pubs for more than a decade. I never made much money, but the prestige of major publication helped my teaching career, as nearly everyone was impressed to hear that I was a “Dell author.” (Of course, I published only one book with Dell before they suddenly dropped their Regency line. The great thing about prestige is it can be based on singular and long-past events.)
But consolidation of the big publishers in the 90s led to the greater commodification of books, and the multi-nationals didn’t seem very interested in marketing to niche readers anymore. Even with a top agent, I couldn’t get back into the closed circle with a book I’d certainly considered commercial. Why? Because I’d been writing “small books,” with print runs under 40K, the suddenly all-important “numbers” – how successful an author was at making lots of money for the publisher—meant editors had to send letters with high praise and that “Unfortunately” last paragraph. (“Unfortunately, with the market as it is, we can’t take a chance on Alicia who hasn’t the record of success we want.”) I knew the book was good, and I knew it would sell well if it got the chance. But it looked like I wasn’t going to get a chance. Then someone suggested submitting the book to Belle Books, a small press that a friend of mine had started years ago with some friends.

Small Press, Big Advantages (3 Good Reasons to Consider a Small Press)
1. Small presses aren’t afraid of small audiences.
For someone like me, who had mostly read big-press books, and had published only with “The Big Eight” (soon to become The Big Seven and then The Big Six and now I think it is the Big Five), looking beyond NYC for publication was scary. I mean, I’d heard about small presses, but thought they published only literary fiction and poetry, and regional publishers, but thought they published only local histories. Boy, did I get an education when I sold the book to Bell Bridge Books (the women’s fiction imprint of Belle Books). I learned that small presses like BB can aim for niche readers because their lower overhead (no Manhattan office to rent! no Manhattan salaries to pay!) means they don’t have to sell as many copies to make a profit on a book.
2. Small presses can be more nimble in responding to changes in technology and marketing.
I also learned that compared to the ocean-liner-sized major publishers, a small press is like a nimble cruiser, able to turn on a dime to take advantage of new technologies and techniques. So though my book came out initially in print, the publisher quickly realized that the rise of the Kindle and other e-readers would open up low-cost opportunities. So they published my book in several electronic formats, and while the sales were small for the print edition, the title caught on for Kindle readers.
The costs are lower, and the royalties much higher in e-format, and a small press like mine can experiment without much cost. For example, my publisher put the book up for free in Kindle format the week after Christmas 2010. I admit, I thought it was crazy to give away books. But it worked, generating many reviews and getting the book onto the top 10 list in the Kindle store. Even when the free period ended, customers still downloaded the book, only this time they paid for it. So paradoxical as it seems, giving the book away was an effective way to sell the book. But I’d never encountered that method with a big press. They didn’t even like to give the author many copies. (Of course, free copies aren’t cheap in print!)
In fact, for a brief moment (and I do mean a moment), my book was the #1 bestselling book on Amazon Kindle. Hey, it’s not the NYTimes list, but you better believe I now call myself a “bestselling author.” For a Regency writer, used to sales in the lowest five figures, this was a heady experience. (And yes, I checked my ranking constantly, and suffered through every bad review too!) And when I got my first royalty check, well, it didn’t quite pay for a new Lexus, but it was several times larger than any of my big-press book royalties.
3. Small presses are eager to maximize income from a potential bestseller, because they don’t have many of those.
One of the Big 5 might have 20-30 bestsellers a year. (That is, after all, how they get to be one of the Big 5.) So even making one of the major bestseller lists won’t necessarily make them pay special attention to your book when it comes to selling it onward. In contrast, small presses are more likely, I think, to explore opportunities for alternate revenues like foreign sales and subsidiary rights, because that way they can maximize income from their relatively short list of books. Just an example: the Harry Potter books were released both in the UK and the US by relatively small presses. Of course, these novels sold millions, but much of the revenue (JK Rowling is the first writer to become a billionaire) came from adroit dealing of film rights and other sub-rights. Of course, the big presses sometimes do try to sell film rights and the like, but very seldom for books in the midlist or below. (A word to the wise, then– try to retain a big percentage of your film and subsidiary rights! JK did. 🙂
My decision was further validated the following Christmas, when my publisher once again did a marketing push for my book (now out for more than a year), and got The Year She Fell up onto the bestseller list again. This persistence was in great contrast to my experience with big publishers, where a book was pretty much up for sale for the release month, and never again. I’d gotten used to doing a frantic round of promotion that month, and then seeing the book taken from the store shelves and stripped to be sent back to the publisher. Instead, I got a second sizeable January royalty check, because my small press can keep the book for sale literally for years.
There are always trade-offs in any decision, and going with a small press has meant giving up a few perks, especially the powerful influence created by the huge multi-national publishers. And there are, of course, limitations to the small press experience. The advances tend to be small because the companies are usually under-capitalized, using the profits from one book to fund the production of the next. The smaller presses can’t afford to have marketing divisions that go out and sell the books to big accounts. (On the other hand, this means that the marketers don’t get to interfere with editorial decisions as I kept running into with big publishers.) Small presses also don’t have the clout to force booksellers to sell a “small” book in order to get enough copies of a “big” book like a Grisham or a Koontz.
[optin-cat id=”630″] But I think my own experience shows that there’s no reason to confine our submissions to big New York publishers. Small presses might have the flexibility and resilience to keep up with the near-constant changes in the marketplace. However, because small presses don’t have the name-recognition and long public histories of a Random House, I’d suggest doing some due diligence before signing that first contract. Google the company name and check with the author-warning sites (like Preditors and Editors) to make sure there aren’t a lot of author complaints (especially ones concerning unpaid royalties!). Read the contract carefully and compare it with sample big-press contracts. Make sure that you’re not expected to contribute any funds of your own. Ask about the company in your writer’s groups and lists. Check the biographies of the company personnel to see if there’s a good mix of editorial and business expertise. Check their own website, and the sales pages of some of their books at Amazon or bn.com to see if the presentation is professional. Finally, talk through with the publisher what is planned for your book in terms of publication and marketing. These common-sense precautions will also help you get to know the publisher and get some ideas of how together you can make your book a success in a rapidly changing marketplace.
Has anyone else tried the small-press route? What’s been your experience?
Alicia Rasley is a Rita-award winning author and nationally known teacher of writing workshops. She teaches composition and tutors students in two state universities. She grew up in the mountains of Southwest Virginia but now lives in the midwestern flat land. Her book The Year She Fell has been a Kindle fiction bestseller.
Her website is www.aliciarasley.com. Her writing book, The Power of Point of View, is still available from Writer’s Digest Books. All her books can be found on her Amazon page.