Friday, January 31, 2014

To Grammar or Not to Grammar

That is the question for writers in today’s world of texts and tweets where sentences have been reduced to phrases and words have been condensed to mere letters and numbers.  Capitalization, punctuation, and correct noun-to-verb agreement seem a thing of the past.  Indeed, studies reveal that today’s students have poorer grammatical skills than students of the previous five decades.  Interestingly enough, these are the students who grew up with the ever popular and delightful Junie B. Jones series, written purposely with misspellings and incorrect grammar to mimic the style of writing of its targeted age readers.  So, one can wonder whether correct grammar has a place in today’s writing world as its usage declines?

The answer, of course, is, “Yes.”

Grammar gives stories freedom.  Just as studies show that children will roam and play more freely around a playground with a fence, good grammatical usage allows stories to soar to their potential.  Well-chosen words, correctly placed, convey mood, tone or meaning without distracting the reader from the forward motion of the story.  Properly placed punctuation steers a reader’s mind toward specific emotions the writer wishes to elicit.  Accurate use of verb tenses seamlessly transitions characters from past to present to future.

Poor grammar, however, usually enslaves a writer.  Disjointed sentences and improperly placed punctuation prevent a reader from immersing himself into the writer’s story.  Incorrect word usage confuses the reader and detracts from the intention of the writing.  Sloppily written sentences normally make a would-be publisher question the seriousness of an author’s desire to be published.

While grammar holds an important part in writing, there are some caveats.  Correct grammar rarely is used in the spoken language, so most often dialogue should be written naturally, not grammatically.  In some cases, breaking the rules of grammar conveys more in a written piece than its conventional use. And finally grammar should never hinder getting the story onto paper, however.  Write first, correct for grammar second. 

Paula Castner

Friday, January 17, 2014

Sharpen Those Pencils!

Please join us tomorrow, Saturday, January 18th, from 10:30 - 12:30 at the Thayer Memorial Library for a workshop facilitated by local writer and journalist, Ann Connery Franz on  Freelance Writing and Editing At Home and On Line.  Anne is a regular contributor to several local publications, including the Worcester Telegram and Gazette and The Item, among others, and is the author of the blog, Read it and Reap: A blog for Readers and bookclub members in Central Massachusetts. Bring your questions and join us for an informative and interesting discussion of the world of freelance writing. 

Lessons in Craft

Have you read a good book lately?

No, really read it—for structure, impact, word choice? That's how writers learn how to improve their craft. Good writing is more than a set of skills lying on the desk, waiting for you to pick them up and create a masterpiece. It's anything but.

There are tools to help construct good sentences, frame articles with just the right story arc, conduct interviews that contribute meaty bites to your work. Good tools make good work. But you have to know what to do with them. And that's where craft comes in. To my mind, craft is a combination of tools, inspiration and sweat.

It takes longer to read a book while trying to absorb lessons in craft. It harkens back to courses you may have taken that involved analysis. You're looking for the sound of the words, their impact, and their hints about what's really going on, what a character is thinking despite what he's saying. Craft goes beyond the written word, exposing tone and truth. Better writing also makes your book a more valued experience for writers. For example:
 When is the story taking place? Is it all in the present tense, the past tense or is it switching? Does the timing add to the story's impact? Do you like to read it?

Sure writers these days jump into the future and tease us with their leaps of fantasy, but that's not something new. Faulkner could tear narrative structure to shreds and produce a wonderful study of family history and pain.

A source to help: "The Mind of Your Story," Lisa Leonard Cook.
Point of view is the toughest task masker in writing. Many writers struggle to stay within the voice of the person who is narrating a scene. If that's an all-knowing narrator, the job's a little simpler—but not always. Who's talking, and how much does he or she know? Is it a very close, first-person narrator? Several characters, in sequence? A diary? Is it necessary for more than one person to narrate the story in order for readers to experience it fully? Who is telling it best? Do you end up understanding a character better after reading his or her own point of view? Is the narrator being truthful—some lie, or deceive themselves. POV is tricky and requires some study.
A source to help: "Writing Fiction Step by Step," Josip Novakovich

Notice the voice of each narrator, and what kinds of detail that person brings to light. Are the words he uses negative? Notice the world he surrounds himself with, or how she reacts to each situation. Analyze how they differ from each other, because you'll want to do that when you write. There's a world of information in each character's response to the world. You may dislike some of them, or find them untrustworthy. You may, as in "Gone, Girl," the novel by Gillian Flynn, find yourself not trusting anyone in the end. Or, it may be that you will only understand that character when the ending is revealed. Keep a notebook and record what you observe, especially if you want to use the technique.
A source to help: "The Making of a Story" Alice LaPlante

Dialogue can't be wasted with unnecessary comments ("How's the weather, Jeb?" "Oh, I dunno, Mack.") Everything has to have a reason for being. Mastering dialogue means mastering flow in a story. These days, writers don't use multiple "he said" and "she said" references as often as they used to. Although readers mostly fly over such references without being bothered, notice how writers do it. Sometimes, it's as simple as this, from T.C. Boyle's "Talk Talk", a novel:
           "I'd love to, but—"
           "But you can't afford it. Because you don't have a job. Right?"
           She dropped her eyes. Used her hands. Right.
It's clear which character is talking, but a whole lot of "said" is not required.
Notice whether the writer even uses quote marks when characters speak. Is the dialogue clear to you, or not?
A source to help: "Revision and Self-Editing," James Scott Bell

There is so much more one can learn through reading carefully, with an eye to style and technique. In future columns, I'll pursue this area more deeply. In the meantime, there are other good source materials on the subject, including "Scene & Structure," by Jack M. Bickham and "The Power to Write," by Carolyn Joy Adams, "Stein on Writing," by Sol Stein, "The Art of Fiction," by John Gardner. There are so many good books out there that will help you to understand the art of writing. But you will learn a great deal simply by reading carefully. Give it a go.

Ann Connery Frantz

The Velveteen Rabbit, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, The Mitten, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Katy and the Big Snow

          My children have a very special box of books that they bring up from the basement the weekend after Thanksgiving and read from until New Year’s.  Some of the books, like Winnie the Pooh’s Christmas, are “baby” books, which even the seventeen-year-old still loves to read because it brings back memories from earlier childhood.  A few, such as Christmas Day in the Morning, are specially chosen to read on certain days of Advent to remind us as a family of what’s truly important in life.  Others like the Snow Angel are fantastical, fun books which delight our imaginations and entertain us on those wintry nights of December. Each of my children have chosen these books, adding them to our growing collection.

The authors and illustrators of every book in that box are dear to me as a parent because their works have increased the enjoyment of the holiday season for my family.  They’ve helped us to think in ways we might not have if it weren’t for their stories.  They’ve made us laugh on days when we were least inclined to. They’ve given us something to do as a family every evening of the holiday season, despite extremely busy schedules.  And they’ve united our family from the nine-year-old to the forty-two-year-old around a common bond we all hold dear – reading.

As writers we can sometimes wonder if what we’re doing is worth it.  We might write for local newspapers and wonder if anyone even cares about what’s in the articles we write.  We may have written novels which we think are good, but they continue to receive publisher rejections.  Maybe we haven’t won any writing contests in a while.  Or we’ve written stories for our children or grandchildren which they don’t seem to appreciate.  My New Year’s encouragement for 2014 to all writers, whether you write for yourself only or for others, is to keep writing.  Somewhere, someplace, at some time, there will be someone who needs to read what you’ve written.  Trust that your writing is definitely worth it.   

Paula Castner