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What distractions do you use to clear your head?

Whether I’m writing or working on other things, sometimes taking a quick break to go off and do… something… can be a great way to clear your head of whatever details you’re currently tackling. It allows you to take a step back and approach the same task with a fresh mind. Obviously this isn’t something you want to do while you’re “in the zone”, but rather when you feel your “mental stamina”, if you will, becoming a little depleted.

Here are some of the things I tend to do:

  • Play a quick game of free cell
  • Go outside to play with the dogs
  • Do a bit of stretching (I should do that one more, methinks)
  • Scramble and solve my Rubik’s cube
  • Check the TV schedule and program my recorder if I want to catch something specific
  • Take a look through the online news
  • Go get a drink of water

On the other hand, these are the things I try to avoid when I want to make progress (because they could lead to spending a whole lot more time on stuff I shouldn’t be doing right then):

  • Turn on the TV “just to see what’s on”
  • Log in to my favourite game (Guild Wars 2) to see if any guildmates are on
  • Pick up a book (that one’s really hard to resist)
  • Watch stuff on youtube (it’s never “just one”!)
  • Sit anywhere where the cats like to claim your lap

How about you, fellow writers (or other creative types)? What works well for you, what do you try to avoid? Please let me know in the comments!

a very brief semi-rant about punctuation

As writers, I think it’s our duty to lead by example as much as possible. Even if you’re not serious about ever being published and just blog for fun, consider that every time you make a common error, the chances of someone reading your error and subconsciously registering that that’s the way to do it increase, and you’ve helped the error to spread. If you write, consider yourself one of the guardians of good language. Thomas’ succinct post hits the head on the nail.

North of Andover

It’s not that difficult a concept:  If you have a sentence that could be divided into two sentences by removing a conjunction (a compound sentence), there must be a comma before that conjunction.  This isn’t optional.  This isn’t a matter of personal taste.

It is also a good idea not to use a comma after a conjunction-type word at the beginning of a sentence.  If you’re going to start a sentence with but (usually fine in informal writing, which is what fiction is), don’t use a comma after it.  The same thing goes for and.  After all, if you use but or and in the middle of the sentence, the comma goes before it.

Inept punctuation in a novel makes the author look bad; inept punctuation in an indie-published novel makes every other indie author look bad, too, because a lot of readers still think indie equals unprofessional.  Perpetuating this misconception is

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10 more common mistakes writers shouldn’t make

Previously, on Amos M. Carpenter

In one of my very first posts, back in early March, I wrote about 10 common mistakes writers shouldn’t make. Spotting mistakes is one of my gifts – or curses; hard to say which at any given moment – and I’ll go over some I notice in writing of all types, from Internet scribbling to serious books.

To recap those from the last post, the five easy ones were:

  1. Definitely
  2. Don’t add apostrophes to make plurals
  3. Homonyms: “its” vs “it’s”, “their” vs “there” vs “they’re”, “your” vs “you’re”
  4. Using “alot” a lot
  5. I before E, except after C… how hard can it be?

The five that were slightly trickier:

  1. Careful with your tenses
  2. Singular “is” vs plural “are”
  3. Who thinks of whom
  4. The postfix -ward vs -wards
  5. Using “if” vs “whether”

Continuing on from last time, I thought I’d blog about 10 more mistakes that have caught my eye.

Five (arguably) easy ones

1. Separate

Like “definitely”, this is one of those words an incredible number of people just do not know how to spell. It’s not “seperete”, or “sepret”, or “separete”. If you can’t remember it any other way, think of the word “karate” when you write it.

2. Space before punctuation

I believe that some people who also speak (and read/write) French get confused on this one (because in French, you use a space before punctuation). Or they just don’t know any better. In English, there is no space before punctuation like commas, full-stops, exclamation marks, or question marks. (“No space for you!”) Of course there’s one space after them, though. With en- and em-dashes, it can be different, depending on which style guide you’re following, as some prefer to use spaces both before and after them.

3. Couple OF

Dropping the preposition “of” after using “couple” is becoming more popular. However, I’d always recommend adding the “of”, as dropping it is mostly due to writers following in the footsteps of sloppy speakers. In spoken language, of often gets abbreviated to o’, so we go from “a couple of apples” to “a couple o’apples” to “a coupl’a apples” to “a couple apples”. It’s the same with “a cup of tea” becoming “a cuppa tea” – but would you ever say “a cup tea”, dropping the “of” completely?

I recently noticed how much this annoyed me when I read Patrick Rothfuss’ otherwise wonderful books (as I mentioned in this post). He’s one of those people (or perhaps it’s his editor?) who don’t believe “couple” needs a preposition, and many times while reading his story, it jarred me enough that it broke my immersion. (He’s still one of my favourite authors. I’m a forgiving sort of person. At least when someone tells such great stories.)

4. Then vs than

This one should be very simple – use then when referring to time, use than when comparing – but many people still get it wrong. First comes one thing, then something else. Jack is taller than Jill. Simple.

5. Have isn’t of

When “have” gets abbreviated, as in “I could have” becoming the contraction “I could’ve”, it sounds like, but isn’t “I could of”. I suppose people who get this wrong just write things the way they hear it, but pausing just a second to think about it should make it obvious that the two are not interchangeable. I could of, would of, should of used could have, would have, should have.

Five more, slightly trickier

Ok, I’m sure you knew all of the above, so here are some that are just a tad more advanced.

6. Is “alright” all right?

Many careful English users would consider the shortened form, “alright”, to be less acceptable than “all right”, especially in formal writing. Some would even consider it to be an invalid word, but it can be found in some writing, mainly in the US, so perhaps it will become more acceptable in time. For now, I’d recommend sticking with “all right”.

7. Further vs farther

You’ll know this one if you’ve seen Finding Forrester. It’s easiest to remember if you keep in mind that “far” relates to (measurable) distance, as does “farther”. On the other hand, “further” is used when denoting an abstract amount of something. So it’s “set them farther apart”, but “of no further value”.

It gets tricky when the dividing line between the two isn’t immediately obvious, as in “to go one step further/farther” – you have to ask yourself whether it is a physical step (i.e. “farther”), or a metaphorical step (“further”).

8. Capitalisation of formal titles

Obviously, certain things are always capitalised (capitalized, if you prefer – in Australia, we use the “s” form, I believe both are used in the UK and the US prefers “z”), such as days of the week, languages, or countries. But what about formal titles, “honourifics”, like General, or Professor, or Queen? Are they capitalised or not? Well, it depends on how you use them. If the word is used to refer to a particular person holding that title, it should be capitalised. If it is used to refer to a group of them, or to the title itself, leave it in lowercase (with the obvious exception of being the first word in a sentence).

Thus, it would be “Professor Smith”, or even “there’s the Professor” (despite the name not being used, it’s a particular professor), but “he’s a professor at my university”, or “the professors have arrived”.

If you invent a title for your story, you should treat it the same way.

9. Full-stops (periods) after abbreviations

When do you place a full-stop after an abbreviation? Why do you sometimes see it written as “Mr.”, and sometimes as “Mr”?

In British English (similarly for AUS/NZ/SA as far as I’m aware), the deciding factor is whether the abbreviation begins and ends with the same letters as the full word or phrase. Since “Mr” does meet this criterion (mister), there is no full-stop: Mr Jones. “Prof.”, however, does not begin with “p” and end with “r” (professor), so it gets a full-stop: Prof. Jones.

In US English, I believe the full-stop is always used. Just something to be aware of when you read and write.

10. Ellipses at the end of sentences

The ellipses I’m talking (well, writing) about are the ones in creative writing that indicate the speaker trailing off, or leaving something unsaid, as opposed to those that indicate an omission in a quote.

This is one that depends on which styleguide you follow. Some argue that an ellipsis (dot dot dot) at the end of a sentence finishes that sentence, while others consider it a part of the sentence and add a fourth dot to end the sentence, just as if the ellipsis had been any other word….

Personally, I add the fourth dot, even in informal writing (e.g. in blog comments), but I think the main thing is to pick a convention and stick with it consistently.

Conclusion

There you go, I hope some of these common mistakes have refreshed your memory of what to look out for, or perhaps even taught you something new.

Which errors do you frequently commit, or spot? Which ones really annoy you when you see them in written form? Or do you think sticklers for detail (like me) should just stop with the nitpicky posts already? Please let me know in the comments!

Robin Hobb – A to Z: R

R is for Robin Hobb, my favourite author and probably the author whose writing has most inspired me to attempt to write myself. Two of my previous A to Z challenge posts, the very first one on Assassin’s Apprentice and the “F” post on Fitz and the Fool, have featured content related to Robin Hobb’s work, so today, I’ll try to minimise the swooning and just write a little about the person behind the pseudonyms.

Robin Hobb

Robin Hobb in 2011; image embedded from Wikimedia Commons.

Wikipedia will tell you that Robin Hobb’s real name is Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden, and that she published a number of books under her first pen name, Megan Lindholm, before taking on more epic fantasy as Robin Hobb, starting with the Farseer Trilogy. She still writes using both names and uses different styles for both; Megan Lindholm books seem to be a fair bit shorter while Robin Hobb’s are more epic in scope. Well, unless you count short stories, which are also kind of… er, short.

Margaret/Megan/Robin will be making appearances in Sydney and in Perth (where I live) in June, and I’m looking forward to being able to see her in person (without gushing or screaming like a teenager seeing The Beatles, hopefully) and getting her to sign one of my books (oh, but which one?).

If you’re a writer looking for some great advice, and the secret of how you can become a writer, check out Robin’s excellent post on I Want To Be A Writer, But…. Ok, I’d better hit the “Publish” button now because it’s nearly midnight and this post needs to be for today.

Any favourite writers or other idols you’re looking forward to seeing in person? Let me know in the comments.

Bill Bryson’s in town

Probably a bit late now, but driving home from the train station after work today, I heard an interview with Bill Bryson on my favourite radio station. I hadn’t known that he was in town (Perth, Western Australia, in my case), but he’s doing a show in the Riverside Theatre tonight, and over the next few days in other cities around Australia. If you have a chance to go, you can still buy tickets.

Some of the things he said in the interview really rang true with me, mainly about language, about how it is changing, and about how his kids, like so many people these days, treat punctuation like it’s a superficial courtesy that you don’t really have to observe when you don’t have time for it.

He’s an interesting character with an interesting life, well worth reading up on if nothing else.

That’s all from me for tonight, time to roll up the proverbial sleeves (still late summer here) and get some writing done, ’cause today is creative day!

The other side of the (Literary) Submission Circus

Sometimes this whole submission thing seems to me a little like the Submission Circus I blogged about last time. I apologise to any agents or editors and hope they’ll forgive my exaggerated presentation of how the process can appear from the writer’s side (not that I expect any of them to actually read my humble blog). Of course there’s another side to the Submission Circus.

I get it, I really do. Agents and publishers need to make a living as well, they need – nay, are forced – to make cut-throat decisions to sort the wheat from the chaff. With so many manuscripts to read that reading them – something we all passionately love to do, right? – becomes a tedious chore, and turns even the most enthusiastic professional reader into a cold-hearted cynic, the Powers That Be of the publishing world need some sort of method of wading through the slush piles; there just have to be multiple filters to weed out the various layers of The Unworthy:

  • The masses of wannabe-authors who suffer from self-delusion and can’t string a grammatically correct sentence together, let alone a complete story. Not entirely unlike those pathetic dorks who make fools of themselves on TV talent shows, and even though it’s painful in a way because you want to sympathise, the expression on their faces when they realise that they’ve just given their best and the judges are trying not to laugh… is just too delicious. Along with millions of other couch potatoes, you laugh yourself hoarse at those idiots, even though you’d never have the guts to even get up and have a go….
  • Those who are, well, not that bad, and something could be salvaged from their manuscript, but only with the help of some book quack. Er, book doctor. Sorry.
  • Those who are, grammatically speaking, absolute geniuses, but their book idea has been done before, or is just plain lame. Maybe they end up being cynical enough to become book doctors.
  • The writers with the heart of a poet, who, like a grand master pianist, can entwine several harmonised melodies so beautifully it makes your heart ache, make their music tug at the heart-strings, make it invoke the full range of emotions from their audience… their audience of five, three of whom are family members, because, let’s face it, man, who the f*ck wants to listen to “classic” music anymore, get real, that’s so last-friggin’-millenium, dude, shut the hell up and let me check my twitter feed as I roll my eyes.
  • Then come the truly talented, who get what it takes to write a story even the twitter generation may want to read, and can do so. But they lose heart at all the obstacles in their way and just aren’t willing to jump through all the hoops. Or they can only receive so many rejections before it gets to them and they can’t take it any more.
  • Finally, there is that tiniest of percentages, who persevere through it all, who are realistic about their chances but cling to that glimmer of hope, who learn from their mistakes and who don’t give up.

For a very few of the latter, Lady Luck finally relents and gives them the chance they deserve. They seize that chance by the throat and, well… the rest of us end up reading their books. Maybe.

Kudos to those last few, most of you really deserve it and we wish you all the best (though it’s hard to entirely suppress the suspicion that some got through because they “know somebody”, because occasionally, books get published that shouldn’t).

But my heart bleeds for the writers with the heart of a poet, and the truly talented who lose heart or just don’t persevere long enough, and Real Life just doesn’t wait long enough. Despite being worthy, their stories are lost to us forever.

It’s a little like in school, where the ones that do best are those with above-average intelligence who are also willing to do the boring legwork. To the really brilliant, smarter than the ones who do best but they don’t do as well because they’re either lazy, or rebellious, or they have street smarts but not book smarts, this school rewards system seems rather unfair. Sometimes Real Life is the great leveller, they all find their niche, and the brilliant are able to laugh at the book smart ones who can’t fight their way out of a paper bag, but all too often, that’s not the case. A word to those with the street smarts, though: sometimes, having street smarts means you need to get your hands dirty and do what the book-smart kids are doing.

I don’t have any answers about how to fix the established submissions system. And if I did, I realise it would be nigh impossible to change the existing system, not even over the span of many years. I can only write down my own personal observations about it. Not to whine for the sake of whining, but to encourage others – and myself – not to give up, to accept things for what they are, to persevere, to roll up our sleeves and to jump through the necessary hoops so that one day, baby, one day we’ll be old… but our story will have been told. (Pat yourself on the back if you get that reference.)

Welcome to the (Literary) Submission Circus!

Step right in, don’t be shy! No, silly, your time of just watching is over… now you’re the performer. Shout three quick words – choose wisely, for your audience behind the curtain has many more performers to watch, and has watched more than you can count, so you must make it memorable, but hurry! – and off you go, now jump through this hoop and that one, and, wow, that was one terrific quintuple somersault, but sorry, kid, the audience of one (for whom you must perform before you can show your act to the world) stopped watching long ago. Seems she heard those particular three words before. Oh well.

What are you doing, still standing there? Get off the stage, freak! Don’t you realise there are hundreds – nay, thousands – of other performers waiting in the wings for their turn?

There’ll be other towns you can perform in. Not all that many, at least for your particular type of act, but there are others, and maybe the audiences there haven’t heard your three words yet, or you can tweak them slightly. Which won’t matter, because you’ll forget that their hoops are at a slightly different angle, or height, and, well, you should’ve done your homework better to read up on their particular hoops, shouldn’t you?

And what about the remaining twelve towns that, according to your new research, have audiences willing to watch your particular genre of performance? It’ll go a little something like this:

One won’t like that you addressed him by his surname before you started. Too formal, you’ll sound like a pompous prick.
Two won’t appreciate you using her first name. Presumptuous pervert, you.
Three, Four and Five are currently doing something else, but they’ve left assistants (not that you’ll be able to tell the difference) with instructions to send you a very politely worded “thanks, but not quite right for us just now” letter.
Six and Seven will be enthusiastic about helping you, praising you lavishly, but Six’ll want you to first pay some money to his friend, Six Point One, just to help you polish up your act a bit, you know how it is, and then you and Six will take on the world, while Seven will think that your performance would be just perfect if only you’d be willing to take your clothes off.
Eight. Well, Eight will want to watch your performance, but he needs four months to think about whether he really liked it. During those four months, you can’t perform this particular act for anyone else. And after four months of waiting nervously, your tentative enquiry about whether he did in fact like it will be answered with, “Who were you again?”
Nine will only allow you two words, but you’ll think you can get away with your standard three. Gotcha!
Ten will only do taped performances, not live ones, and will sell tapes of your act to anyone, but they need to go to his stand and pick out your tape from amongst a trillion others. Plus you won’t get much cash each time your tape does get picked.
Eleven and Twelve will be the last on your list. They’re old-fashioned and want you to actually walk to their towns. If you arrive by car, or even by bicycle, they won’t even watch anything you do. You’ll arrive at Eleven, exhausted, only to find that they’ve gone on a Christmas holiday, so you need to come back again next year. Then you’ll arrive at what you think is Twelve with bleeding feet, desperate but not yet losing hope. You’ll perform your act better than ever before… but you’ll never even find out that the reason you never heard back was that your street directory was outdated and your performance simply… lost its way.

Live and learn, baby. Come up with another act and start all over. Or just make it easier for everyone and give up now. You didn’t really think your performance was good enough for the Big Top, did you?

But… wait! New research reveals there’s a Thirteen you didn’t see before, because you weren’t searching hard enough, and thought, “Surely one out of One to Twelve will get me.” Thirteen is looking for something just like your act right now, and she’s willing to overlook that you touched the side of the second hoop a little when you jumped through it. She actually watches your full performance. What’s more, she likes it. She makes a few suggestions of how it can be improved, and you’re skeptical at first, but realise she knows what she’s talking about. In time, she helps you to get an audience with The Ringmaster, and with Thirteen’s support, you’ve finally made it at last. The Big Top. You can share your performance with the world as you’ve always wanted.

Fellow writers of the world, may you persist until you find your Thirteen.

(More on my take on the submission process in the next post, The other side of literary submissions.)

Favourite films about writing

I recently watched the 1989 film Her Alibi, which I hadn’t seen for a number of years. I really enjoyed it, especially how Tom Selleck’s character constantly turns seemingly harmless events in his life into clichéd exaggerations on paper that are often typical of some of the, shall we say, cheaper mystery novels.

This got me thinking about some of my favourite films about writing or writers, and here’s the list of my Top 5:

  1. Dead Poets Society – arguably, this one isn’t about writing (poetry) so much as it is about finding inspiration in poetry, but it’s too brilliant for me to leave out.
  2. Finding Forrester – wonderful film about a friendship between a young talented basketball player and the old reclusive writer who helps the kid hone his writing talents.
  3. Limitless – exciting film about an author with writer’s block whose life changes drastically when someone gives him a pill that severely enhances his mind.
  4. Moulin Rouge! – won two of eight Oscars it was nominated for; a great musical about a writer falling in love with a courtesan in 1900 Bohemian Paris.
  5. Her Alibi – very funny rom-com about a writer who bites off more than he can chew when he “rescues” an alleged murderess from Romania by pretending to be her alibi.

Actually, they’re pretty much the only five I could come up with. I’m sure there are waaay more that I’ve forgotten or never even seen – feel free to let me know in the comments what your favourites are!

10 common mistakes writers shouldn’t make

I know posts and articles like this are all too common, and many people are probably sick of them. Maybe, but too many people still make these mistakes for me not to at least have a go at ranting correcting them. (Any mistakes in any of my posts? Please let me know in the comments. Really.)

Five (arguably) easy ones

I’ll start with five I find all over, though I assume serious writers would know them, from online newspaper articles where “journalists” should really know better to informal scribblings where they’re not as bad, but anyone who writes anything on the ‘net should really know these first ones.

1. Definitely

So many variations of how this word is misspelled, yet it’s so simple when you remember that the word “finite” is in there.

2. Don’t add apostrophes to make plurals

I see this on shop signs and the like so often it’s embarrassing. To make a word plural, you generally just add an “s“, not an “‘s” (i.e. without the apostrophe). You may have to make adjustments like changing “y” to “ie“, but otherwise there are very few exceptions. (For instance, there are different opinions on what to do with numerals, but that’s another story.)

3. Homonyms: “its” vs “it’s”, “their” vs “there” vs “they’re”, “your” vs “you’re”

Just know your possessives and it’s a whole lot easier.

Generally, possessives are where you add apostrophes to words: Fred’s head, Amos’ blog (note the apostrophe at the end there since it already ends with “s”, though some would argue that another “s” won’t hurt).

However, possessive pronouns are an exception: mine, yours, his/hers/its, ours, yours, theirs… no apostrophe. (Same goes for “whose”, an interrogative possessive pronoun.) The examples in the above heading that do have an apostrophe are all contractions: it’s (it is, or it has), they’re (they are), you’re (you are).

Everyone should be clear on when to use “there” (though some apparently don’t bother to think about it).

4. Using “alot” a lot

They are two words. Just like “a little”.

5. I before E, except after C… how hard can it be?

This is the golden rule when you don’t know whether it’s “ie” or “ei”. Long “ee” sounds almost always conform to it: “believe”, “relieve”, “thief”, “piece”, but “receive”, “ceiling”, “conceit”, “transceiver”.

Actually, this one isn’t as easy as the others, as it has quite a few more exceptions. But I’d argue it’s better to follow the rule and be wrong on the occasional exception than to not follow it and be wrong on, well, many more words. Don’t let the weird exceptions seize you and scare you off.

Five more, slightly trickier

Knew all of the above already? The next batch aren’t quite as obvious and some can catch out even seasoned writers.

6. Careful with your tenses

Writers should really be comfortable with these, but occasionally I still spot mistakes of this kind even in printed books that should have been proof-read by professionals. I’ll leave it at one example I saw just last night in an otherwise very well-written story, where a character “knew he overreacted”. The story is told in the past tense, so it should be either “knew he’d overreacted” (if the overreaction was over by the time he knew it), or “knew he was overreacting” (if the overreaction was still occurring).

7. Singular “is” vs plural “are”

This one seems to be sneaking its way into formal English from everyday use. People no longer just (mis)use it when speaking informally, it can now be found on radio/TV as well as written online or in print. It may seem innocent when people say something like “There’s two things that tick me off”, but beware of using “is” with a plural. “Things are“, not “things is“.

8. Who thinks of whom?

Some may argue I’m flogging a dead horse here, but I don’t think we should give up on the word “whom” just yet, at least in formal writing. The rule of when to use which is not as tricky as most would think. Just remember that who replaces the subject of the sentence while whom replaces the object.

(Edit: while writing this, I googled the subject and found a great “comic” on this describing both when and why to use whom in a sentence. It explains the subject/object rule better than I could as well as pointing out a simple he/him test that’s easy to remember. “Do it for the steeds!”)

9. The postfix -ward vs -wards

Did he go toward her or towards her?

Short version? If unsure, leave out the “s”.

Long(er) version? Historically and more formally, the form with the “s” is an adverb, while the form without the “s” can be an adjective, a noun, or an adverb (a variant of the “s” form). From what I’ve been able to read from various sources (please correct me if I’m wrong), it seems that this distinction has become less relevant in recent years, and that the form with the “s” (towards, downwards, backwards) is used more in UK/AUS/NZ while the shorter form (toward, downward, backward) is chiefly used in the US. Personally, I’d still say something along the lines of “He moved backwards in a backward world.”

10. Using “if” vs “whether”

“I don’t know if I should tell you this.” Correct or incorrect? We all use it in informal language, but, at least formally, “whether” should replace “if” in this example. Formally, “if” indicates a conditional phrase, but “If I should tell you this, then I don’t know” doesn’t make sense. In cases with two distinct possibilities, use “whether”. Mixing these two up can drive students of logic up the wall (which, admittedly, can be fun).

Conclusion

Whether or not you use “if”, especially if you’re your own boss’ boss, and they’re not in their right mind over there while it’s obvious that saying “definitely” is its own reward a lot of the time, remember whom to thank for these great rules and continue to believe in the gloriously weird language that is English.

Cheers,

AMC