Oct 15

Wednesday Writing Tip #92: Commas around colors (or “Grammar in Technicolor”)

Cat shocked by colors

The whole point of having commas between adjectives is to make sure meaning is clear, but colors don’t tend to confuse people. Unless you’re this cat. Colors blow him away.

When you have multiple adjectives in front of a noun, you separate them by commas, right? Usually. There are a couple exceptions, and colors are one of them. Do you remember this exception to the rule when you write?

For example:

The adorable white cat is in shock.

His shiny pink pool toy boggles his little kitty mind.

It’s so hard to keep his paws on the hard, wooden floor, when his simple, grammar-loving worldview has just shifted.

Did you catch all of the different uses of commas with adjectives ahead of a noun? For those paying attention, you might have caught that the other exception to the comma rule is size (as in “little kitty mind”).

Commas are captivating, aren’t they? (Oh, there I go making you shake your head again.)

Happy writing, everyone!

Oct 08

Wednesday Writing Tip #91: The Royal Order of Adjectives Fantasticus

run-down blue and white old row boat

Is it a run-down blue and white old wooden row boat or a wooden old blue and white run-down row boat?

There is a finite methodology to the order of words that spill effortlessly out of your mouth. When it comes to a string of adjectives, when it’s wrong, it can just sound weird to the native speaker. And it’s not just the preference of style or fashion. Since those sentence-diagramming lessons (for those of us that had them) might be blocked out of your memories, here’s a quick refresher.

I present to you…

The Royal Order of Adjectives Fantasticus*

  1. Determiner – articles (e.g., “a” or “an”), possessive pronouns (e.g., “his” or “her”), amount (e.g., “four” or “number of” or “some”)
  2. Opinionated descriptors (e.g. “lovely,” “delicious,” “worn-out,” “hard-working,” or “dreamy”) Read the rest of this entry »

Oct 01

Interview with Literary Agent Kimiko Nakamura

You may have noticed that my Wednesday Writing Tips have focused on creative writing for the past few weeks. I’ve been so excited about the upcoming James River Writers Conference that I just couldn’t resist. Yes, we all need to know the differences between less and fewer, who and whom, and historic and historical; indeed, it’s important to know we’re spelling y’all, yeah/yay, and through/threw correctly; however, if our storytelling isn’t working, the entire piece suffers.

Literary Agent Kimiko NakamuraAnd for the storytellers among us, I have a special treat this week. The fabulous Kimiko Nakamura, literary agent at Dee Mura Literary, agreed to do an interview with me. I’ll just dive right in, but for more with Kimiko, she’ll be at the JRW conference this year. I’ll be there. Will you?

KS: What drove you to become a literary agent?

KN: I grew up in a home overflowing with literature on every bookshelf we owned, real or makeshift. Read the rest of this entry »

Sep 24

Wednesday Writing Tip #90: Writing a Character’s Mind, Body, and Soul (and language choice!)

CharactersYou know what’s great about people? We’re all different. How I say things is totally different from how my husband does, which is totally different from how my mom would, which is totally different from how my two year old would. Why? We’re different people. We have different language patterns, different brains, and different life experience.

Moreover, if you put me in a room with these people, the way I standperhaps swaying as if I’m holding a baby (even though I might not be)—is different from my husband who might be stretching, or my mom who might be talking with her hands, or my two year old who… well… has an inability to stand still.

People are different. When you write about your characters, allow them to be distinctive. All shouldn’t wink at each other when they say something clever; they shouldn’t all gesture with their hands, nor sigh heavily, nor twirl their dark mustaches menacingly (okay, maybe you weren’t using that last one for everyone). When writing falls into a pattern, you see the author’s personality, not the characters’. And the author should be the invisible hand that guides the story, not the center focus, right? Read the rest of this entry »

Sep 17

Wednesday Writing Tip #89: Where to Start your Story (Not with waking up!)

Fiction Writing Tip - MorningHere’s a writing tip for the fiction writers out there…

Just because a character’s day starts with his or her morning routine doesn’t mean your chapter needs to start there too. We all wake up in the morning, put on our clothes, brush our teeth, and eat our breakfast. Sometimes we stretch. Sometimes we yawn. Do you see how fascinating this paragraph is? Wait, it’s not? I’m glad you’re noticing, because this is exactly my point.

People don’t want to read about everyday details. As writers, we get to create people and worlds and plots. We get to stir ideas and distract readers from their everyday. So why give them more of the everyday?

Creative writing can have so much potential. Every page, every paragraph, every sentence, and even every word should drive the story forward. If a character is just wiggling his or her toes under the blanket, opening his or her eyes, and seeing the sun break through the window, a reader isn’t being pulled in. Ask yourself how you can intrigue. The morning Cheerios aren’t doing it.

Sep 10

Wednesday Writing Tip #88: “Show don’t Tell” – And what it actually means

Show don't TellEvery writer who’s ever taken a creative writing class has heard the instruction: “Show don’t tell.” It’s so often said, it’s almost meaningless. Except it shouldn’t be. Because if actually understood, being able to show and not tell can make the difference between a humdrum story and a tale that comes alive.

“Show don’t tell” is classic writing advice, and for good reason. Imagine the difference between reading, “she’s angry,” and reading, “her hands tightened into fists; her fingernails pressed so hard against her palms that blood surfaced to her sensitive skin.” Okay, maybe I made that up really quickly, and it’s not the most eloquent of lines. But you see what I’m going for. There can be a named emotion, and then there can be the reality of it that a reader can be pulled into. Read the rest of this entry »

Sep 03

Wednesday Writing Tip #87: Misplaced Modifiers (a.k.a. “Lost & Found”)

Misplaced Modifiers & Lost Buttons

Misplaced any language lately?

Misplaced Modifiers sound like items lost in the laundry. Somehow, you always lose a button and a darn modifier ends up in the wrong location. No? Let’s try this again.

Grammar terminology intimidates for some reason. Why, I’m not quite sure, but it may go back to strict English teachers in our formidable years. Misplaced modifiers are actually quite simple to understand. A modifier is a word or phrase that modifies (or describes) something. A misplaced modifier is when that descriptor seems to be describing the wrong thing.

That sounds silly, right? Sure. But it happens ALL THE TIME.

Glistening in the morning sun, the fisherman cast his line out to the water. (Did you catch the misplaced modifier? The “water” is “glistening in the morning sun,” not the “fisherman.”)

The hunter crouched in hiding waiting for a deer to come along with a bow and arrow. (Wait… Who had the bow and arrow?)

Misplaced modifiers can be subtle, confusing, or just plain funny, but be careful with your language. Of all the things we misplace, our ideas shouldn’t be one of them.

Aug 27

Wednesday Writing Tip #86: Dear Abby: Where to Put Commas with Greetings

Greetings, friend.Commas, colons, the vocative case… Who knew a simple hello was so complicated?

It’s not actually. How to punctuate a greeting is really quite easy to remember–never mind if your email inbox argues otherwise.

Remember “dear” is not a greeting like “hello.” Dear is an adjective, a modifier of the name that follows. “Dear Abby” is no different from “My dearest Abby,” “Darling Clementine,” or some similarly old fashioned but enchantingly romantic greeting that has faded out of favor. (Who wants to bring it back with me? Anyone? … Anyone?…)

If you’re beginning a message with “Hi,” “Hello,” “Good morning,” “Hola,” or any other greeting, however, you should include a comma before the name of the message’s recipient. We learned about the vocative case in middle school (maybe), which directs writers to use a comma before a person’s name when they are being talked to.

Throw me the ball, Peyton.

Hi, Mr. Manning.

It’s the same form.

Lazy punctuation has become pretty widespread on this one, though. Do you use commas correctly in your greetings?

Aug 20

Wednesday Writing Tip #85: Avoid the Blackout Comma

The Blackout Comma

Are your commas making you look drunk?

I’ll admit it: I’m an Oxford comma groupie. But there’s a methodology to my comma zealotry. There’s a difference between correctly comma-ing and looking like you’re drunk. (And yes, “comma-ing” is a word. I just made it up, but I’m claiming artistic license.)

In my book (i.e., my opinion, not my actual book), there is butt dialing, drunk texting, and what I dub “the blackout comma.” Why are they there? What is the logic? It’s a mystery that only the writer once knew. And they may not remember now.

Comma reminders:

  • Do not use commas with lists of two.
  • Do not use commas between subject and predicate
  • Do not use commas around “essential people
  • Do not use commas between adjectives of size and/or color

Sure, we all slip and have one comma too many on occasion. It happens to the best of us. I just feel like I’ve seen a lot of intoxication lately. Maybe it’s just the season for beers at backyard barbecues and tropical drinks at the beach. Consider me your punctuation sponsor. It’s all about moderation, people.

Read the rest of this entry »

Aug 13

Wednesday Writing Tip #84: “Into” vs. “In to”

"Do not go gentle into that good night." - Dylan ThomasDylan Thomas told us, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” But something as simple as a space would confuse the meaning of a famous line, wouldn’t it? Are you one of the many who muddle “into” and “in to”?

“Do not go gentle in to that good night” just doesn’t make sense, as if you’re “going gentle” for the reason of doing something vague and badly worded to the night. And you know what else doesn’t make sense? Your recent Facebook post when you meant to use “in to” instead of “into.” I kid. But I don’t.

A simple reminder, if you’re unsure whether you need to use “into” or “in to,” ask yourself the question, “where?” If your sentence answers that question, you need “into” – the preposition. Otherwise, maybe you just happen to be using these two words (“in” and “to”) next to each other. Maybe it’s a short version of “in order to,” or maybe it’s not. But if it answers “where,” it should probably be just one word.

Where should you not go gentle? Into that good night.

Where should dirty laundry go? Into the hamper.

If the “where” question doesn’t make sense with your sentence, you probably don’t need the preposition.

Rage, rage against the dying of the proper grammar. In my own little way, I try.

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