The Trap

When the Captain and I toured Europe in our VW camper van, it was a time before the war in Yugoslavia. Tito was still alive (he died in 1980), and the country, made up of at least six separate ethnic groups, was under Communist rule. Fourteen years after our visit, all hell broke loose.

But in 1977, as we drove through Yugoslavia from Greece to Austria, pretty much oblivious to their situation, we were struck by two things: the countryside was beautiful, and the people, for the most part, looked very unhappy. The only happy faces we saw were those of a few farmers who waved from their oxcarts and smiled as they drove along near us on the byroads. City people generally wore dark clothes (gray, black, or brown), and their facial expressions were troubled and joyless. Right or wrong, those were my impressions.

The rural area reminded us of Alberta, Canada,  with its slightly rolling hills and huge sections of farmland, but the houses were unique to Yugoslavia. Most had the same construction, squarish houses with red tile roofs and very few windows, all small. It was September and the red peppers had been harvested and strung up to dry, dangling from the eaves of many a rooftop.

We had been driving for a long time, without finding a place to pull off the road to heat up some leftovers for lunch in our camper van. At last, we saw a pull out area  and took advantage of the chance to stop for a rest and a bite to eat. Beside the pullout in both directions, were acres and acres of grapevines.

While I heated up lunch, the Captain sneaked a bunch of grapes that temptingly hung over the fence. No sooner had he broken off a bunch than we heard shouting. A man wearing military style clothing brandished a rifle and yelled angrily. I thought we were going to jail.

“Okay, okay.” The Captain reached for his wallet. “How about I pay for the grapes?”

The man waved him away and threatened him with the rifle again. But when the Captain pulled out a 50 dinar note ($3), the rifle was lowered. Sheepishly, the man took the money and then said something in a friendlier tone.
They shook hands, and I asked the man if we could take his picture.
He shook his head vigorously. Definitely not! He flapped his arms as if trying to erase us from the face of the earth.

“Okay fine. No pictures.”

But as he hustled away, I snapped a quick one with my point and click camera from inside the van.

Not wanting to hang around there any longer than we had to, we grabbed some of the half made lunch to eat as we drove. At least we would have our expensive bunch of grapes to nibble for dessert. 

The Captain looked for traffic as he turned out onto the road. Behind us, a car had its signal light on, to pull into the spot we were leaving. 

I looked back at the grapes, wistfully, and saw the military man crouching down in his hiding place, preparing to scare another 50 dinars out of his next victim.

A Lousy Story

A very long time ago, Eleanor, a friend who worked in the Hudson’s Bay store in Vancouver, was going to get her hair done in the Bay (they used to have a hair salon right in the store), but she didn’t have an appointment.

“If you come back in about 45 minutes I can do your hair,” the salon receptionist said.

“No problem,” said Eleanor, “I’ll just browse around the store while I’m waiting.”

Eleanor wandered around the hat department and tried on different hats. She looked in the mirror and laughed as the hats seemed to change her personality with each different hat style.

At last the time was up and, still smiling, she entered the salon to get her hair done.

The salon girl lifted some of the tresses of Eleanor’s hair. “So what are we doing today? A shampoo and cut?Suddenly she dropped her hands and said, “I can’t do your hair.”

“Why not?”

“You have lice.”

“WHAT?” Eleanor’s jaw dropped. She shook her head. “You’re kidding. I don’t have lice. I’ve never had lice.”

“Yes, I’m sorry, but you do have lice and I can’t do your hair,” the hairdresser repeated.

“Well!” Eleanor harrumphed. “If I have lice, I got them in this store.”

“Where did you go in the store?”

“I wandered around looking at some dresses and then I went to the hat section and tried on some hats….” Eleanor’s eyes grew bigger. “You don’t think….”

“Let’s go see,” the hairdresser said.

They went from one hat to the other, all the ones that Eleanor had tried on. The hairdresser picked up a tam that Eleanor said she’d tried on, and said, “Oh … my … here is the culprit.”

The inside of the hat was crawling with the tiny critters.

“I’ll do the treatment on your hair for free,” the hairdresser told her.

*****

I haven’t tried on a hat in a shop ever since I heard this story.

Lay or Lie

This is a repeat of a post from three years ago, so apologies to those who have seen it, but maybe it won’t hurt to have a refresher.

You wouldn’t believe how often, as a copy-editor, I see “lay” and “lie” misused.

Do you have trouble knowing the correct form of lay or lie to use in your writing?

Why not copy and paste this chart? Print it out either with your printer or by hand, onto a piece of paper that you can keep handy by your desk for a quick reference.

A quick version of how “lie” and “lay” are used with the pronoun “I.”

To Lie (down)

I lie (present)

I lay (preterite)

I have lain (present perfect)

I am lying (present continuous)

To Lay (to set an object down)

I lay (present)

I laid (preterite)

I have laid (present perfect)

I am laying (present continuous)

To Lie (tell an untruth)

I lie (present)

I lied (preterite)

I have lied (present perfect)

I am lying (present continuous)

Good work! Now have a cookie.

Ellipses – So Many Dots!

One thing I see frequently when I’m copy-editing (to be honest, I see it in almost every book I edit) is the confusion about how to use ellipses. (Before I go on, let me say that ellipsis is the singular form and ellipses is the plural).

Sometimes in our writing, we want to show that the speaker is hesitating. Sometimes we want to show that some words were left out on purpose. Sometimes we want to show that a person is just drifting off and stops speaking before finishing his sentence.

All of these things can be shown using ellipses. But how many dots should we use? If more words are left out, should we use more dots? If the hesitation is longer, do we use more dots?

The use of ellipses can be quite involved, but for writing fiction or for writing informally, here is a method that is fairly simple to learn and to remember.

Basically it is a three-dot method, although sometimes you may see four dots used. The fourth dot means that one of them is a period marking the end of the sentence.

Robert Bringhurst in Elements of Typographic Style, suggests that normally an ellipsis should be spaced fore-and-aft to separate it from the text, but when it combines with other punctuation, the leading space disappears and the other punctuation follows. He provides the following examples:

i … jk….l…, ll, … lm…?n…!

I find these examples very helpful when I’m writing and want to show that something is missing. The examples also help me to keep my punctuation correct and stop me from going wild with more than four dots…………..

Have you seen this done? Have you done it yourself? Well, now you can do it right and quite simply without wondering what you should do.

Some examples for each of the above cases:

What kind of fruit do I like? Er … let me think….

I like bananas, oranges, and plums…, but most of all, … yes, I think I like papayas.

Do you like papayas best, or is there something else you prefer, like…? I know, it’s that one that starts with m…! Mangos!

Often, if we try, we can work around the use of ellipses, but if you really need them, try using the little chart above as a guide.

But don’t let them make you go dotty.

If you need a copy-editor, check out my website and click on the tab for Copy-editing.

Website: http://www.anneli-purchase.com/

Conversations and Punctuation

Dialogue adds interest for the reader and helps to bring them into the story, almost as if they were an invisible bystander in a conversation. It also helps to break up what could be dreary paragraphs of narrative that could be a turnoff after a while.

Using a conversation helps to show, rather than tell, what the characters are feeling. So, great! Why not use some dialogue to perk up the story? But be sure to do it right, or your reader will give up in disgust.

Some basic punctuation rules will help to make your dialogue look professional.

First of all, think of your dialogue as a sentence just like any other with a capital letter at the beginning and a period at the end.

Second, we want to show which words the person said. These go between double quotation marks.

“You sure are bossy,” Joe said.

The part that is inside the quotation marks is like a sentence within a sentence, but instead of a period at the end of what he said, we put a comma, or a question mark if it is warranted. These go INSIDE the closing quotation marks.

If there is a quotation inside a quotation, you would use single quotation marks to show that.

“Did he say ‘You sure are bossy’?” Darryl asked.

Supposing Joe had more to say, and wants to continue his sentence. The dialogue tag (Joe said) interrupts the words he is speaking, so we use a comma to separate it from the spoken words and no capital letter is needed to continue the words he spoke .

“I’ve asked you three times already,” Joe said, “if you’d like to go to the movies with me.”

However, if Joe has two or more sentences to say, we must treat them just like any other sentences, separated by a period.

“I’ve asked you three times already,” Joe said. “That tells me you don’t want to come with me. Why didn’t you just say so?”

If you are trying to show that the character is thinking some words, these are put into italics and not within quotation marks.

“I’ve asked you three times to come to the movies with me,” Joe said. I guess that should have told me she doesn’t want to go.

If you have dialogue at the end of a paragraph and perhaps the speaker is changing the subject, so you want to start a new paragraph as he continues to speak, you leave off the final quotation marks but begin the new paragraph with quotation marks. This way we know it is still the same speaker. If it is a new speaker, we put the closing quotation marks on the sentence before beginning a new quotation.

“I painted the house since you were gone,” Joe said. “I hope you like it.

“By the way, would you like to come to the movies with me tonight?” he added.

Also, notice that no capital is used to begin the dialogue tag (he added) after the quotation, unless it is a person’s name, of course.

“I hope this helps you with your punctuation,” Anneli said, “especially in the case of a sentence interrupted by a dialogue tag.” I wonder what they’ll think. Will they leave a comment to tell me?

More Commas in the Air

I know I’ve done a post about apostrophes before, but I thought I would focus on the most troublesome cases once again.

Most of the time, apostrophes show that one or more letters have been left out. This should help you to decide on the spelling, if you keep in mind which letters are missing.

You are = you’re (the “a” is missing)

Your just signifies that something belongs to you.

Here’s (here is) and example with both.

You’re going to miss your train.

Another way to think of which word (your or you’re) shows ownership is to think of the spelling. Your contains our, another ownership word. If it’s not our car, it might be your car.

*****

there, their, and they’re

They are = they’re (the “a” is missing)

There, as in over there, should be easy to remember because it has here in it. If it’s not here, it’s there.

Their (which shows that something belongs to them) gives a lot of people trouble with spelling. Is it i before e? Not if it sounds like “a” as in hay and weigh. Easier yet, is to think of the word as the with ir tacked on. You’ll never spell it thier again.

*****

Then there is who’s and whose.

Who is = who’s (the “i” is replaced).

Who’s going with me?

But to show ownership, it’s whose.

Who’s coming with me to confront the man whose son is a bully?

*****

Let us go to the movie together. Yes, let’s. (the “u” is missing).

I’ll go if my mom lets (allows) us. No letter missing. No apostrophe needed.

Also if it means to rent out a place. She lets (rents out) the apartment upstairs. No apostrophe needed.

*****

If you are just trying to write the plural form of a word, no apostrophe is needed.

A lot is an amount, a group, or a bunch. If you have many groups or bunches, you have more than one lot. You have lots. No apostrophe needed. And by the way it is “a lot” with a space between the two words. Not “alot.”

All the years in the decade from 1970 to 1980 are the years in the 1970s. It is a plural number (more than one year). There is no ownership and no letters are missing, so no apostrophe needed. So years in any decades are written without an apostrophe, e.g. the 1950s, the 1890s and so on.

Before you put an apostrophe in a word, ask yourself why you are doing it. Is it taking the place of a letter? Is it showing ownership? If not, then maybe it doesn’t need the apostrophe at all.

Dialogue – He said, she said

Why do we use dialogue in novels when it could all be done with prose? The benefits of using dialogue:.

  • It brings an engaging immediacy to the scene. You feel you are right there with the characters, involved in their conversation.
  • The dialect, choice of vocabulary, and the tone can reveal a person’s characteristics in a more interesting way than a wordy description could.
  • Dialogue can be a tool for advancing the plot, especially if  inner conflict is woven into the spoken conversation.

Some tips about using dialogue:

  • Use short snappy dialogue when appropriate. It heightens the tension.
  • People don’t normally use long sentences in conversation. They more often speak in fragments and phrases.
  • Speakers don’t repeat what the other person just said.
  • Don’t use it as an all-too-obvious way to pass on information in a way that the person normally would not do. (E.g., “Don’t yell at Henry. He’s only two years old and he’s our only boy.” Painfully obvious information forced into the story.)

Dialogue tags:

  • These are the words that tell the reader who is speaking. They can be a distraction or even an annoyance if belaboured. The “he said/she said” part of the sentence should be like punctuation; it’s very important, but shouldn’t stand out or be noticed. Fancy dialogue tags like argued, insisted, responded, inquired, questioned, and replied are an unnecessary distraction. In most cases, said and asked are all you need.
  • Having said that, try to limit your use of dialogue tags. Often if you precede or follow the dialogue with an action by the speaker, we know who is speaking. (E.g., Sam pointed at the ball. “Go fetch.”)
  • If your speaker is grimacing or laughing, be sure that this is occurring in its own sentence, not as part of a dialogue tag.

Examples:

Wrong – “That’s so funny,” Sam laughed.

Right – “That’s so funny.” Sam laughed.

The period, instead of the comma makes all the difference. In most cases, though, the action should come before the dialogue.

Combining actions with dialogue:

  • Be careful how you handle this one. I see this done very often. Here is the pattern: “How are you?’ she asked, gazing at his eyes. When I peruse a book that I’m considering reading, I look for use of gerunds behind dialogue tags. If I see more than the occasional one, I’m already turned off. This kind of pattern stands out in a novel and can become irritating when you know that each set of quotation marks will be followed by the gerund pattern.

Here are some examples: “Pleased to meet you,” George said, pumping my hand up and down. “I’ll be right back,” David said, running down the street. “Give those back,” he said, grabbing at the candies. “It already looks irritating to me,” Anneli said, going on to a different book.

Conclusion:

Dialogue can be an effective tool to make your novel more readable and engaging. It’s definitely a skill worth working on. Watch for examples of dialogue in novels. Do they work? What are the faults, if any, in the writing of the dialogue? Take some bad examples you find and see if you can make them more effective. When you know how to use dialogue to your advantage you’ll find that the quality of writing in your novel improves greatly.

 But best of all, writing dialogue can be fun, especially when your characters, saying what they would naturally say, steer the conversation in a direction you hadn’t intended it to go. So watch out for those characters with a mind of their own, but have fun chatting.

Anneli Purchase is a published author who works with writers to bring out their best. She is a freelance copy-editor providing services that include correcting spelling, punctuation, word usage, sentence structure and balance, and many other aspects of writing. To find out more about Anneli, go to her website at http://www.anneli-purchase.com/.

Have you ever struggled with writing dialogue?

Has your dialogue ever sent your storyline off in a different direction from what you had planned?

Please feel free to leave a comment. We’d love to hear what you think.

Emotion in Writing

When I read a book, I often base my opinion of whether it’s a good story or not, by the emotion it brought out in me. If a book made me laugh or cry it was usually a good one. Of course there are many other emotions besides happiness or sadness. Fear, paranoia, depression, sympathy, worry; they are all part of our emotions. It is the writer’s job to draw the reader into the story by making him care about the characters. As a reader, if I feel that I am emotionally drawn in, that usually means I’m enjoying the book.

I would like to share with you an excerpt from my novel, Julia’s Violinist. I hope you’ll feel some kind of emotion as you read it.

Excerpt from Julia’s Violinist

Three days later the POWs gathered their few possessions and lined up at the Stalag gates to have their passbooks stamped on their way to freedom. The last distribution of mail was done as the soldiers passed through the gates. Only a handful of POWs had mail. Karl thought he must have heard wrong when his name was called. The Russian guard tossed a tatty bundle of letters to him and read the next name. Karl was stunned. Not a single letter for over a year and now, on the last day, a bundle of … thirty-one, he counted. All from Julia.

He was frantic with wanting to open them, but nothing, not even these special letters, could make him lag behind in the POW camp. Out! Out! Just get out first, and then I can look at them.

As soon as he was out of sight of the prison camp, he sank down on the ground beside the road. His hands trembled as he opened the first letter. Through tears he saw her lovely handwriting, so perfect and neat; words that spoke of loneliness and longing. Each letter contained a small anecdote of Julia’s home life and ended with the hope that they would see each other again. Around the edges of the pages his name was written over and over in a border design, “KarlKarlKarlKarl. I miss you, Karl.”

He wasn’t sure how long he sat there. Other recently released POWs walked by. No one stopped. They had seen it all and there was nothing unusual about a man sitting in the dirt crying his eyes out as he read his mail.

Front Cover  jpg (1)(2)

Julia’s Violinist is available at all amazon sites in paperback or Kindle and at smashwords.com in paperback and all e-reader formats. You can find out more about my books on my webpage:  http://www.anneli-purchase.com

Like, You Know

I’ve been posting about writing tips – things to avoid in writing, correct grammar, and word usage. But what about the way we speak? Writing is just another way of recording our speech, just another form of communication. The two forms often overlap.

Young writers, especially, are guilty of letting their chatty colloquialisms and bad language habits creep into their writing. The two are closely related, but today I want to talk more about oral language than written.

Probably one of the first things people learn when they take lessons in public speaking is to get rid of the habit of filling dead air with “ah … er … uh ….” Listen to one of our top politicians speaking and you’ll find it hard to concentrate on whether he is saying anything worthwhile between the many “ah”s.

Filler words allow the speaker to keep control of his turn to speak, a subconscious ploy to prevent someone else from interrupting, while he buys time as he searches for words or ideas. My own preference would be for the dead air.

When I listen to an interview on the TV news or a podcast, I often hear meaningless words interjected as fillers.

One of the speech habits that drives me crazy is the use of “like” when it doesn’t mean “like” at all. This word is thrown into every second sentence whether it needs it or not, thus saving the speaker from having to think of other words to explain what he really means. When I hear, “I was like, wow!” I think, “What does that mean?” Grammatically, it’s nonsense.

We expect some stupid language habits from teens, but it seems to me, that adults are beginning to get lazy too. It’s not unusual to hear a person use “like,” hundreds (and I mean hundreds) of times in an hour-long interview.

“You know” is another meaningless expression thrown into conversation far too often. Just listen to any interview on the news and you’ll hear it repeated.

I had a history teacher who basically lectured, and had little interaction with the class once she began to speak. I didn’t learn much in that course. I was so focused on her habit of interjecting, “of course,” and “of course you know,” that I whiled away the time making tally marks every time she said either. One day, at the end of a one-hour lecture she had used “of course” 137 times. I was torn between wanting to help her by letting her know, and making sure I passed the course. “Of course” I chose the passing grade.

And then there is profanity. We each have our own level of tolerance for the use of the F word, but I think I speak for the majority who realize that once in a long while, it is the only word that fits the situation. However, it is not a word that should have a place in our regular conversation.

Excessive use of the F word seems to be more popular with men who work in jobs requiring physical labour. Maybe they run into more injuries. I think most people who hit their thumb with a hammer might say F—! But it has become the norm for some segments of society to throw in the F word as if they are punctuating a paragraph. I do admire their knowledge of grammar though. I would find it a difficult act to follow, to tell a story with the addition of the F word in front of every noun and every verb. How do they do it? It is also often placed in front of the word “right.” So just remember that. It goes in front of every noun and every verb, and usually when you are agreeing with someone you say, F’n right. Do all of that and you will be admired by others of your ilk, ye of little brains. This includes that group of 15-year-old girls who were waiting for the school bus outside their high school, swearing as loudly as they could, to show that they were all grown up now. Lord help us!

Other habits of language we may have, include the use of certain words that we use to wrap up a conversation. You’re telling the other person, often on the phone, that it’s time to wind it up. You put on a singsong voice and sing, “Anyway,” or worse yet, “Anyhoo,” or “Well,” or “So.” Be sure to sing it in a wavy “up, down, up” sequence.

Lastly, there is the kind of speech that requires reassurance every few words. You’ll find insecure people telling their story with each phrase rising at the end as if they were asking a question.

“I was driving into town?… and there was this man?… he was standing on the corner?…” By this time I’m already going mad! No question mark needed here.

I think we all have some language habits that we should probably work on correcting. It helps if we’re aware of them. Then we can catch ourselves and eventually break the bad habits. If you happen to be Canadian, you might want to check if you use “okay” a lot, “eh?”

Emphasis

One of the problems I run into when I’m copy-editing someone’s work is the overuse of various efforts to emphasize writing.

An obvious one is the overuse of the exclamation point!!!! I’m sorry to say that I’m guilty of overusing it too, but hopefully, not in published work. Oops! I just realized that a blog post is a published work. Okay, I’m going to exclude blog posts.

When we use exclamation points (or, as I call them, exclamation marks), we are taking the lazy way out. Rather than finding better, more precise words to describe the emotion we wish to portray, we stick an exclamation mark after some ordinary words. Sometimes we even put in two or more exclamation marks, mistakenly thinking that this shows the emphasis. No! Please don’t do it. One is enough.

Exclamation marks are meant to be used sparingly, and usually only after very brief expressions (like Oops! and No!) If you use exclamation marks liberally, you will sacrifice good writing. The reader will soon tire of the smatterings of unnecessary punctuation they find throughout your work.

Another bad habit that prevents good writing is the use of the passive voice. It de-emphasizes, where the active voice would lend more urgency to the expression.

For example, here is the passive voice:

The ribbon at the finish line was broken through by the exhausted runner.

Here is the active voice:

The exhausted runner broke through the ribbon at the finish line.

Using generalizations like abstractions, euphemisms, and circumlocution, also takes away the emphasis you might have shown by using more precise words to show meaning in detail.

He gave up the ghost last week.

He died on Friday.

He minimized his exposure in oil.

He sold all but 100 of his shares in British Petroleum.

Using vague expressions like “kill two birds with one stone” and “let the cat out of the bag,” dilutes your work. Get rid of this kind of verbiage and you will improve your writing.

Now we come to one of the most common, yet misguided forms authors use in aiming for emphasis in writing.

Throwing these words into sentences is supposed to add emphasis, but it waters down the writing into a boring assortment of overused words.

Instead of saying, “He was an awfully good friend,” why not tell why that was so, and say something like, “You could always count on Bob to be there if you needed help.”

Here is a list of words that most of us use without even thinking about it much. If we left them out of our sentences, we would be forced to write something better.

amazing

awfully

beautiful(ly)

certainly

exciting

extremely

fantastic

highly

perfectly

really

richly

so

such

super

swell

terribly

too

tremendous(ly)

very

wonderful(ly)

If you find yourself using these words, ask yourself, “Do I need this word? Does it improve my writing? Can I come up with something better?”

I will save the last tip on overused words for next time, as it merits a page of its own.

Meanwhile, think of these suggestions as coming from one who is guilty of making these very mistakes and, like you, is learning along the way.

Awareness is a good place to start changing our writing for the better.