Contradictions

My official stance on editing as you write your rough draft is don’t do it. I always say, keep going and don’t second-guess yourself until you’ve completed the draft.

Yet, how do you follow that sweeping advice if you honestly don’t know what you’re doing? What if you’ve never written fiction before, or are tackling your first novel? It’s like being trapped in a fun-house, with dead ends, distorted mirrors, and wobbly floors. Just as you think you see the path ahead of you in whatever scene you’re going to write next, the dialogue falls apart, or it doesn’t go as planned, or you hate it. How are you supposed to keep going while the whole structure of your premise is crumbling around you?

It’s next to impossible.

However, if you began your story with an ending in mind, you should keep floundering forward. You may have to rewrite certain passages or redesign certain scenes because your first effort flopped and the artist inside you is howling with frustration. But rewrite that troublesome character conversation once or twice and then–if you still dislike it–flag it for later and move on.

WHY?

QUESTION: If you’re rewriting chapter one for the fifteenth time and still not getting anywhere with it, what are you accomplishing?

ANSWER: A big case of writer’s block.

Grinding a problematic section over and over and over and over without having a clue how to fix it is only creating frustration. Meanwhile, the story isn’t advancing. And you aren’t making progress toward anything except the death of your idea.

I’m sure you’ve read or heard the adage about the best way to learn how to write is to write, but while that’s glib and seems wise superficially, it can’t be your sole mantra.

If you perpetually write in error, violating story principles you don’t know, and you hit one dead end after another, grind your story to death, then abandon it–all you’re accomplishing is the reinforcement of error. You’re creating bad habits and training yourself never to bring any story you attempt to completion.

It’s been said that it takes 30 days of repeating a task or action to form a habit. If you start a story, get stuck, and toss it aside–how long until that variety of non-production becomes a habit?

Conversely, skipping over problems every time you hit one carries the danger of creating another bad habit–one of never solving plot holes. It’s entirely possible to blithely disregard a technical flaw in the cause of forcing a story forward no matter what. I did exactly that early in my writing career because I had a book deadline and I wanted to take a small vacation, so I hurried along by hammering out my daily page quota and paid no attention to a scene I goofed up. I took the trip, did not enjoy it because my story sense was screaming by then, and–once home again–had to work many long, hard hours to rewrite over 100 pages of material to correct my mistake and still meet deadline.

Now, here I’ve told you to keep going, but I’ve also told you not to skip/disregard problems. Is that contradictory? Yes, I think it qualifies, so I’ll explain:

Keep going, but when you stumble over a problem or find yourself facing a scene you don’t know how to write, pause and think it over. Is it an issue of changing viewpoint but you’ve never written multiple viewpoint before and you aren’t sure this is the right thing to do? Is it a difficulty in that your scene is long and complicated with six characters to juggle, and nothing is coming out where you want it to?

Pause and seek technical assistance. Look up scene construction in your books on writing technique. Consult the rules of changing viewpoint. Then think about what you’ve read and consider how your problematic passage is meeting those technique rules or falling short. Think about how you might approach your material differently and how the consequences of such change might affect your story outline.

In the viewpoint example, ask yourself why you want to change viewpoint at this point in the story. Is it to follow the story action? Has your protagonist suddenly become sidelined and is no longer central to the exciting story events? Why has this happened? Have you lost focus? Is another character becoming more intriguing to you than your dull protagonist? Why did you let your central, lead player become boring? What could you do to enliven your star again?

If you really want to show the villain making plans to ambush your protagonist and you think switching viewpoint will heighten the suspense, that’s a sound dramatic reason for doing so. However, do you plan to use the villain’s viewpoint more than once in the novel, and if so, have you plotted that? Before you make a decision, weigh the pros and cons of heightening suspense with the risk of giving too much away versus the advantage of an unexpected plot twist striking your hero without warning. It’s a judgment call of anticipatory suspense versus an unpredictable jolt of danger.

As for the complicated scene example, juggling six characters who are all upset, angry, or distraught is a difficult challenge for the most seasoned writer. Generally, scene conflict works most efficiently and dramatically when it’s narrowed down to two characters. Could you possibly divide your conflict into three smaller scenes, with your protagonist confronting one or two irate characters at a time? Or, could you push five characters into the background while the most vocal among them becomes the spokesperson?

After you’ve researched and thought, write a correction. It may wobble and still fall short, but chances are it will be on track enough for you to continue forward.

If it still doesn’t work, ask yourself if your story needs it at all. Experience has taught me that one or two futile attempts means I need to cut that section. There’s nothing to be gained by stubbornly beating your head against an immovable wall.

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FICTION FORMULA FIX-IT IS LIVE.

It’s now available through Amazon’s services.

Here’s the link for the print version:

And here’s the link for the Kindle e-book:

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Book Announcement

After a year filled with interruption after interruption (besides a world-wide pandemic, personal complications, loss, and an avalanche of new responsibilities), my little book on how to revise fiction is finally uploaded to Amazon. FICTION FORMULA FIX-IT–available in both Kindle and print versions–should be live by tomorrow or the next day.

It’s a step-by-step guide to approaching short or long fiction changes, from major rewrites to polishing.

Some writers I know embrace revision and can’t wait to generate a rough draft so they can rework their material. Others dread it and find it incredibly tedious. Either way, there’s no getting around the responsibility of correcting and polishing our manuscripts to their very best–especially in these days of independent publishing. Even traditional publishers now expect manuscripts to be delivered clean, requiring as little editing as possible.

If you know of anyone with a rough draft in hand and in need of help, please pass the word.

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Go Big!

One piece of frequently given writing advice is to make your characters vivid. It’s a valid suggestion and has been proven consistently to be successful.

Why, then, do we fear to implement it?

What makes us conjure up a bright, vivacious character in our imagination, then draw back in the typing? Why do we limit our character to just lines of flat dialogue coming from her mouth? Why do we retreat to a few tepid details of description?

Are we afraid?

Of what? Creating a ridiculous character, one that readers will jeer at?

Are we oblivious?

Do we think that because our character is vivid in our imagination that readers can somehow telepathically envision that individual without our making further effort?

Are we unskilled?

Maybe we know what kind of character we want to present in our fiction, but we just don’t understand how to design or construct that story person.

Maybe any or all of those reasons lie behind our general timidity.

Fear of possible ridicule can be a huge barrier to any writer who feels unsure of an idea or premise. As writers, we tend to be introverted to a slight or massive degree. It’s hard enough for us to find the courage to begin a new story, let alone risk having someone criticize or sneer at it.

Gaining confidence in yourself, in your story sense, and in your abilities happens through practicing and mastering the writing craft. Acquiring writing skills and honing them constantly will help you tackle new methods and more complex stories. Understanding what you’re doing is the best way I know to push yourself to go bigger with your character designs.

Sometimes you have to try it until you can do it. Just as we form habits by performing an action repeatedly and regularly for many days until it becomes an ingrained part of our routine, so can we push ourselves beyond our writer’s cave to try whatever seems intimidating.

A vivid character needs to be large, bold, colorful, unrestrained, and active.

Let’s examine these separately, starting with the last adjective.

An active character is up and doing, not sitting on the sofa as an observer. An active character has opinions and isn’t afraid to express them. An active character enters confrontations, faces opposition, and attempts solutions even if they don’t work out as planned.

An unrestrained character does and says things that we may wish we dared in real life. An unrestrained character butts in. An unrestrained character gets involved. An unrestrained character may have few scruples, low ethics, and act impulsively. An unrestrained character will fall into trouble, but can probably climb right back out of it. An unrestrained character is daring, unpredictable, and jolly fun to write about.

A colorful character is so busy and uninhibited that he or she can’t help but jump off the page. A colorful character will be hard for readers to forget, whether it’s because she always wears purple socks and orange sneakers or because he drives a silver Lotus or because she dons a blue cape and can fly like the superhero she is.

A bold character is all of the above. A bold character refuses to be put in a corner. A bold character will see someone lurking in a corner and make him come out of there. A bold character takes the chances others won’t and seizes opportunities no one else has noticed. A bold character is the one that shows up, steps up, and stands up. A bold character may be a rebel or a natural leader. A bold character sweeps past while others hesitate.

A large character is exaggerated. A large character is every quality you want him or her to have–only bigger. A large character can be heard in the back row. A large character is unforgettable.

With this in mind, you must put these qualities on the page. Remember that readers can’t read your mind. They’ll never know what you don’t provide. And even if they decide your big, bold, colorful, unrestrained, active character is wild–chances are they’ll laugh or gasp first with amazement, and then fall in love with your vivid creation.

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Making Progress

Just letting you know that I am pouring every spare moment right now into revising my book on revision. Fortunately this week–so far!–I haven’t suffered serious power outage like many of my friends. However, there are flickers and blinks.

Even as I just typed the above paragraph, the power cut off then back on. Yikes!

Needless to say, entering my corrections into the book’s document file is flirting with danger. My nerves today have suffered enough of that.

And, yes, if you’re wondering … I compose on the computer, then print out a paper version and proofread it with manual line editing with a red, green, or bright pink pen–whatever strikes my fancy. I stick with the same ink color through a single pass. As I go back through, I’ll change color to something else. That way, I know what draft I’m on. It mattered less in the past, when I could really concentrate on editing. These days, I’m so frequently interrupted that I need every device, method, and gimmick I can find to stay on track.

Once I’m done line editing, I then get back on the computer and enter my corrections. Laborious? Yes. Tedious? Sometimes. Necessary? I think so.

Why don’t I just edit off the computer screen and save myself all that work?

Because I do that, too. And because I comprehend better from paper. I work faster from paper.

A few years ago, the Smithsonian conducted a study that showed human comprehension is greater from reading paper than screen. Since their findings validated my already-formed opinion, I’m sticking with it.

We each have our own habits, our own methods.

October has been wild and crazy on the personal front. Sometimes I lift my head and ask myself, where did my favorite month go? Could I rewind, please, and have a chance to enjoy it?

Now I’m thinking, can November be put on pause so I can maybe, despite everything, finish this book? But instead I should just be satisfied to have power restored and operating smoothly. Then I at least have a chance to make deadline.

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Explain the Game

The sibling genres of Fantasy and Science Fiction feature unknown worlds, unusual inhabitants, and extraordinary adventures. They carry readers into lands of enchantment or embed them into a matrix of the fantastic.

Although this holds tremendous appeal and draws readers like bees to honey, it presents writers with the challenge of how to make the unknown knowable without getting in the story’s way.

After all, description and exposition are the two slowest-paced modes of discourse in writing. If allowed to continue too long, they bog down the story or stop it altogether. Traditional fantasy is especially prone to the awful explanatory info-dump at a story’s opening, where the hapless but eager writer shoves page after page after page after page of background, mythology, history, and foretellings of the as-yet-unborn protagonist’s destiny at readers.

Writers can’t toss aside description altogether. That leaves readers disoriented, with next-to-no way of imagining the settings or characters.

Background–if pertinent–can’t be dodged either. There’s so much to learn if readers are to understand what’s happening and why.

Fortunately, there are solutions. Here are a few:

  1. Take your time. You don’t have to explain everything in a single, twenty-page passage. Inject a paragraph here and there as you go, supplying the bare minimum of information to help readers understand ramifications or context of what’s happening in the story action.
  2. Explain immediately before or after an exciting scene. This will help position your characters for an upcoming conflict or, immediately following a scene, it will help your viewpoint character–and readers–process what just happened.
  3. Avoid long explanations during slow spots in your story. Are you becoming bogged down in the middle of your story, where your characters are slogging along on their quest to the fabled caverns of Mitharia and have nothing to do except choke on road dust and explain to each other why it’s so important to go there, defeat the demons now guarding the ancient treasure, and solve the riddles an oracle will ask before letting them inside? You might suppose, given that no action is happening, that this would be the perfect place to inject lots and lots of background information. WRONG! Do not place slow informational passages in a plot’s slowest spots. (Use Suggestion #2.)
  4. Dialogue of information is bad. No one is forbidding your characters from discussing their situation. Dialogue of information, however, is where two characters who already fully know and understand a story problem are discussing it solely to inform readers. It comes across as hokey and stilted and artificial.
  5. Let your characters USE their props and gadgets instead of marveling at them. No matter how fantastic such items might be to readers, the characters should treat them as part of everyday life without pausing the story for descriptive admiration. After all, do you admire the sleekness of your iPhone each time you pick it up to check your inbox, Instagram feed, or weather report? (Only if you just bought a new phone, perhaps.)
  6. Make description as vivid and specific as possible. This will not only strengthen your writing, but it will help you keep necessary description short and effective. Consider the following: The dagger was ornate and shiny. It was long with a curved point. It had obviously been designed for use in ceremonies since it was too fancy for any common purpose. The hilt seemed heavy, but that’s because it was ornamented with many jewels and probably made of solid gold. Now compare it with this: Johan picked up the heavy ceremonial dagger, glittering from its jeweled hilt down to the wickedly sharp point of its curved silver blade. “How many sacrificial throats have you sliced, my beauty?” he murmured.
  7. Improve your verbs. Avoiding the flabby weakness of to-be verbs not only strengthens writing but also serves a descriptive purpose. For example: The door dilated open. That conveys an immediate image in a reader’s mind of a round orifice spiraling open. It also shows readers a glimpse of the setting’s unique architecture.
  8. Put nomenclature to work. All of the places, plants, animals, geographical features, cities, etc. that writers invent will require names. While it’s fun to generate exotic ones, make them descriptive to help readers comprehend the object quickly. For example: stingfly instead of jornak.

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Clothes Make the Character

When you’re designing a character–especially your protagonist–do you know what’s hanging in her closet? Do you even think about this individual’s wardrobe, or do you just imagine her in a pair of yoga pants and a generic white tee-shirt?

After all, don’t you have enough to do already with choosing personality traits, age, hair color, background details, and deep inner flaw?

Uh, no. You need to do more.

Because while you’re attending to all those details–and juggling plot decisions at the same time–you should also be thinking about what a character is going to wear for those upcoming scenes of conflict.

Really?

Yes!

If we want to get technical about technique, then clothing falls into the tags-of-appearance or tags-of-possession category of character design. What your character chooses to wear at any given time or place in your story emits signals about this individual’s taste, judgment, personality, degree of imagination, degree of practicality, and likability. Your readers may be focused on the story events, but on some level their brains are registering wardrobe signals. They’re either liking your character even more or starting to doubt or mistrust this person.

If you’re unaware of the effect such signals can have, then you’re missing an opportunity to manipulate how strongly your readers will like or dislike a character. You’re also risking crossing up those signals, which will–at worst–create an inconsistent, uneven character, or–at best–confuse your intended audience.

Consider movie costume designers. They are working off these same principles as they choose colors, styles, and costume wardrobe for the actors in a film. Such costumes contribute to the dominant impression the director wants the actors to make on an audience.

So, too, should you be factoring in style and fashion choices as you plan character introductions.

Let’s consider the Disney animated villain Cruella de Vil. Everything, from her skunk-stripe hair to her angular body, chiseled face, and cigarette holder, is chosen to make her unlikable. All her clothes match her hair. The touches of red she favors are garish punctuation marks. She wears furs. She wants a new coat made of dalmatian puppy skins. She’s absolutely ghastly, and there’s nothing subtle about her design.

Cruella de Vil from 101 DALMATIANS

On the other hand, Cinderella in the film THE SLIPPER AND THE ROSE is always dressed to make her as sympathetic and appealing to audiences as possible.

Cinderella in THE SLIPPER AND THE ROSE

Even in her working clothes as a servant in her stepmother’s house, the rich color and ornate details of her dress show that she once possessed pretty things although this dress has been worn threadbare.

Cinderella dressed for the bride-finding ball in THE SLIPPER AND THE ROSE.
Even in exile, she’s dressed exquisitely as a princess should be.
The fabulous slippers for the ball. That’s serious bling!

Therefore, if your protagonist wears Armani suits, a paper-thin gold Cartier watch, and handmade shoes, he is conveying his level of success or affluence, his taste, and his degree of formality in an increasingly casual world. He may truly be cosmopolitan and wealthy, or he may be trying to fit into that world while living above his means.

Conversely, he might own a multi-million-dollar company but always dresses down in Levis, hand-knit sweater, and work boots. What, then, would that tell readers about him?

Whether you design a character that wears Paris couture or Target trendy, remember the signals of attire that give readers insight into her true nature. Make those signals work for you rather than against you.

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Revising

Almost three months have elapsed since my previous post. Those months have been very challenging personally; however, although my head is not yet above water, I am at least bobbing to the surface to draw breath.

Today, I opened the box containing my hard-copy manuscript of the book on revision and edited the first two chapters.

I can remember a time when I would have sneered at such a puny effort. How unprofessional! I would have thought. Slacker! Just get on with it.

Well, today I did get on with it. And it felt good.

My determination to bring this book project to completion and publication remains as strong as ever.

My determination to resume this blog and to post regularly after a far-too-long hiatus remains as strong as ever.

For those of you who began following this year, expecting to receive regular writing tips, I apologize.

For those of you who have followed for several years, expecting to receive regular writing tips, I thank you for your loyalty.

I am being hit with some life lessons this year. I am trying to pay attention and learn whatever they’re attempting to teach me.

The positive aspect of this hiatus is that a book idea that I’ve struggled with for over a year, trying hard to fit the market and coming inexplicably short every time, has benefited. Finally, I’m seeing how to make it better. And I’m embarrassed to admit with that project I erred by not following one of my long-held rules: with any page or paragraph or line of dialogue or scene or passage that doesn’t work, try once or twice to fix it and if those attempts fail, throw it out.

I made the supreme mistake of being so determined to make it work that I blinded and deafened myself to my own story sense. I erred more by trying to listen to others rather than myself.

So I’m revising my approach. I’m revising my idea. I’m revising this book on revision. We’ll see how all this goes. Slowly, taking little steps, because Life is being rough–not just on me but on most of us–and yet we don’t and won’t stop.

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Principle Guidance

The other morning I was cutting up a pineapple for my breakfast smoothie. Granted, using the canned variety is quicker, but I find something satisfying in taking one of these hefty chunks of weird-looking fruit and sawing it into edible bits.

pineapple

Being a writer, I wasn’t thinking about my list of to-do tasks for the day. Instead, I was thinking about my step-by-step process of taking off the top and bottom, then cutting the … um, whatdoyoucallit outer layer–the peeling, the scales, the skin, the armor plating?–bit by bit, taking care not to slice the plate-armor too thin because then it takes for-ev-er to pare out those prickles or eyes or thorns or whatsits. (Maybe I should have researched the various parts of a pineapple before writing this post.) I learned long ago by experience that you can’t and shouldn’t try to save too much of that luscious, delightful yellow fruit because it only makes the job difficult and frustrating. However you approach it–whether with all the super-nifty gadgets sold by Amazon or with a serrated kitchen knife and a bit of courage–it boils down to two primary tasks:  hacking off the plate-armor and then removing the core.

It’s a juicy, aromatic, sticky procedure. I just need big pieces to throw into my smoothie-maker, so they don’t have to be pretty. And I just need to focus on not letting any precious fruit skate off the cutting board onto the floor because the juice gets slippery.

Now what does pineapple carving have to do with writing? I was focused on my procedure–which is mainly to cut off the plate-armor instead of my finger and to drip as little juice as possible onto the floor–and from there my thoughts drifted to rules and how creative people usually loathe, despise, and abominate rules. Why? Because they hinder us and hamper us and handle us, and we want to do things our way.

In the past few lingering days of June, I’ve watched designer Rachel Ashwell–yes, the Shabby Chic creator–posting a series of visual tours of various homes of British designers and artists. While I’m not an aficionado of the Shabby Chic style or an Ashwell fan, I am finding these small Instagram tours of the shops and homes of highly creative people to be fascinating, and I appreciate her efforts to provide this diversion during lockdown.

These are not the highly stylized, commercialized, glossy designers featured on HGTV. These are makers of miniatures, wallpaper designers, milliners, leather artists, photographers, people who wrap their stairway railings in hand-stitched leather or pile children’s ballet slippers in unused fireplaces or hang scraps of exquisite, antique handmade lace from the ceiling in ethereal draperies to veil the room. They are NOT following design-school rules. Their sofa pillows are not karate chopped. The art on the walls is not color-coordinated to match the rug. Their kitchens are not regimented into efficient work triangles. They don’t have sectionals arranged around ginormous flat-screen TVs.

But the colors they use harmonize. The petals of peonies plunked in old jars drop delicately on table surfaces in natural just so patterns. There’s something magical and mysterious about veiling rooms in lengths of sheer voile and lace with low amber lighting beneath old paper parasols used as shades and mirrors so old and worn they barely reflect images, just shadows and flickers.

These are all images created by people that don’t worry about rules. Instead, they consciously or instinctively follow principles of design to make their rooms or creations work.

ballet costume imageparasol lampCB545_SERA_LACE_BATH-001_RT

The difference is key to taking yourself from basic wordsmithing to the next level, where  writing stories that soar and come alive is more than possible.

A rule is something arbitrary. It’s there for a reason. It works. It has boundaries. It is not flexible.

Principles–whether in art, interior design, or writing stories–show us the why and how of the craft we’re using. Principles are about how something works and why it works. Rules tell us to do something a certain way because that’s the way it should be done.

A rule says, Don’t write in first-person present tense. Fiction is always written in past tense and has been for at least the last two centuries.

A principle says, Present tense–especially when combined with first-person viewpoint–creates the illusion of speed and intimacy that appeals to twenty-first-century young readers.

A rule says, Never change viewpoint within a scene.

A principle says, Scenes are more dramatically effective when written from a single perspective.

A rule says, Create high-intensity action in a thriller climax by setting a hook then breaking to a new chapter and different viewpoint.

A principle says, When intense story action is needed, cross-cutting two different viewpoints through the usage of scene fragments will add to the urgency and sense of danger.

When we understand our craft thoroughly so that we grasp the underlying principles that yield well-told stories, then we can begin to break the rules.

Not for the sake of being rebellious and wild and unfettered and ridiculous. Breaking the rules of writing and storytelling isn’t about dumping anything and everything into the story, ignoring punctuation, dodging craft, and jumbling events into a chaotic mess. Breaking the rules of writing is about balancing on the support beam of guiding principles and bringing your characters and plot to life.

To know and understand writing principles is to know and understand the art of writing. When we master our craft, we begin truly to create.

ben peck whitson

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From My Bookshelf: SEMICOLON

The semicolon is a punctuation mark created in antiquity, long before the common man became literate. It reached its pinnacle in the nineteenth century, where literary giants such as Herman Melville and Henry James loved it. During the twentieth century, it gradually fell from favor, with influential authors such as Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, and Kurt Vonnegut loathing it. Today, with all grammar and punctuation on the ropes, it is nearly reviled.

However, thanks to author Cecelia Watson and her critically acclaimed book, the semicolon has a witty and erudite champion. Watson grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, which automatically makes her okay with me. She’s a historian and philosopher of science. She’s taught at Yale and been a researcher at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. Currently she’s Scholar in Residence at Bard College. She handles advanced punctuation the way I wish I could.

cecelia watson semicolon

For years I felt myself to be a punctuation geek. During my childhood, no one else I knew seemed to experience the sheer delight in compound sentences, which required usage of a precisely placed semicolon. Although my formal training was rudimentary, supplied by my county’s public school system, I taught myself the rest of what I know through reading, reading, reading.

I have always felt punctuation to be architectural in a way. It supports sentences like pier beams support houses, and it enables the meaning to be conveyed efficiently like air conditioning circulating through a well-designed HVAC system.

More recently, as it’s become fashionable in certain circles to decry punctuation as elitist and therefore horribly wrong, I’ve begun to view myself as a punctuation defender. Where are we as a civilization if we discard literacy? If our public education generally is failing to teach children how to read with comprehension above a fourth-grade level, generally is failing to teach children how to write clearly so they can be understood, and generally is failing to teach children how to add, subtract, and divide without the use of their smart-phone calculators, then why aren’t we cleaning up that problem? So-called educators who sweep the problem of American’s declining literacy under the rug by telling children they needn’t spell words correctly as long as the teacher can guess what they mean are perpetuating a huge deception on the public trust.

Of course there are many dedicated teachers and brilliant teachers working hard in the trenches, coping with lack of funding, poor salaries, and overcrowded classrooms as they do their best to teach bright, compliant children along with those who are lazy, undisciplined, uninterested, or unable to pay attention. Systems too often become similar to factories, pushing children through regardless of results because more are pouring in. Not all children learn the same. Not all children fit the mold. One size or approach does not fit all. And there’s never enough time to give to those that don’t fit.

Lamentably, too many children never start off well or quickly fall behind. Poor home life, poor nutrition, poor parental enforcement of homework, etc. are all documented problems that hinder learning. Immigrant children enter classrooms with no knowledge of English and must struggle to catch up if they can. These difficulties–and more–are known issues. They are solvable.

However, the solution is not to throw knowledge away. We shouldn’t discard history. We shouldn’t pretend things that make us uncomfortable don’t exist and never did. We shouldn’t lie to ourselves about what is wrong, not if we honestly want to fix the problem. Why, then, is there this push within portions of our society to throw grammar and spelling away as things “invented by dead white men,” which isn’t necessarily true or valid? Why are segments of modern society clawing their way back to the Dark Ages with such enthusiasm? Are we so lazy that it’s easier to toss a subject or skill set than to make the effort to master it?

I understand that all people are not educated equally in this country–which is an outrage–but the solution should be to boost those who lag behind, not drop everyone to a level below mediocrity.

Again, being the product of a mediocre public education, I worked hard to boost myself because I wanted to be a writer. I figured out early on that the only way I could express myself was through a better understanding of grammar and comma placement. Through my adolescence, I observed the contrast between my eagerness and my classmates’ indifference. My high school English-class teachers droned through the lessons and made scant effort to help anyone comprehend why Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter. No doubt these teachers had burned out from years of trying to ignite fire in kids destined to be farmers and car mechanics. But don’t farmers and mechanics need some poetry in their souls as well as knowing how to spell correctly? And who is to say what a child might grow up to become, if taught the importance of standards and given the pride of mastering them?

Today, when I read certain product reviews on Amazon or social media messages, I wince at how poorly our language is handled. Yes, some individuals are dyslexic; some limped through language arts classes the way I struggled through geometry; and some simply don’t care. I get that. But compare a text message today with something written in 1865 by individuals with third-grade educations and be ashamed of where we’ve fallen. Are we living too fast and too busily for it to matter?

That’s enough of my tangential soapbox.

As for this book, SEMICOLON, it’s charming and witty, by no means dry. Granted, you won’t whip through it the way you might a novel. Although delightful, it’s not written for speed. But Watson makes punctuation a lively skip across history and popular culture. She explains how Raymond Chandler made the semicolon incredibly expressive.

Here’s a quote from Abraham Lincoln on the subject:

“With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule; with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say I have a great respect for the semi-colon; it’s a very useful little chap.”

Finally, here’s a quote from Watson herself:

“Newspaper columnists and pundits have been giving it six months to live since at least the 1970s. But no matter how much its function has shifted over time, no matter how many rules are piled on top of it, and no matter how many people rail against it, as long as there are those of us who find it beautiful and useful, it will survive.”

And I say, long live the semicolon and all who use it well!

 

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