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.

Dang Those Dangling Modifiers

This post was published almost four years ago, but it merits another appearance here, and it may entertain you while it provides tips for better writing.

You don’t have to be an author to know how important parts of speech and grammar rules can be. I wasn’t doing anything writing-related one day, when I saw the importance of sentence structure.

Not having seen rabbits eating up my garden for several months, I was sure the owls had taken care of my problem. I realized that I was not going to be that lucky when the Captain came home and announced, “I saw a rabbit driving down the road.”

The smart aleck in me couldn’t resist saying, “Oh, what was he driving?”

You see how easily we leave parts of our sentence dangling, making the meaning unclear. Dangling modifiers are more common than you might think. They make our writing look bad, but they certainly provide some entertainment for the copy-editor.

Very often, phrases that modify a noun or pronoun are placed carelessly into a sentence. When they contain verb forms and are left dangling, without a definite indication of what they are modifying, the results can be disastrous to our writing.

Here are some examples of dangling modifiers.

  1. Gerund phrase:

After finding out about the actors, the movie did not seem as appealing to us.

(It sounds as if the movie found out about the actors.)

  1. Elliptical phrase (where some words are omitted and meanings presumed to be understood):

Weapons ready, the duel was fought.

(Did the duel have the weapons ready?)

  1. Participial phrase:

John heard an owl walking through the woods.

(Was the owl walking through the woods?)

  1. Infinitive phrase:

To drive a car a licence must be held.

(Does this mean I have to hold it in my hand while driving? Or does it mean that if I don’t have a licence I won’t know how to drive a car?)

  1. Prepositional phrase:

With only a dollar in his pocket, it seemed useless to try to go far.

(Who is “it”? Does “it” have a dollar in “his” [whose?] pocket?)

  1. Appositive

A magnificent mansion, the door opened to show a grand ballroom inside.

(Is the door the same as a mansion?)

Misplaced Modifiers

Other problems with modifiers happen when they are misplaced, as often happens with qualifiers such as “only” or “almost.”

Some examples follow. Note the difference in meaning when the word is placed in various locations.

  1. Her cousin only drives their car. (He doesn’t wash it or fuel it up.)
  2. Her only cousin drives their car. (She has no other cousins.)
  3. Her cousin drives only their car. (He doesn’t drive anyone else’s, or he doesn’t drive their truck or van.)
  4. Her cousin drives their only car. (They have no other car except that one.)
  5. We almost saw ten whales. (We saw none because we got to the spot too late.)
  6. We saw almost ten whales. (We saw eight or nine of them.)

Placement of modifiers matters a great deal.

Squinting Modifiers

One more type of modifier causes ambiguity in a sentence. Often it is placed between two possible elements, and we have no way of knowing which it is meant to describe. We call it a “squint” modifier, perhaps because it seems to squint and we can’t tell which way it is looking or which element it is meant to modify.

Some examples:

My mother told me sometimes to watch where I’m going. (Did she tell me sometimes, or should I only watch where I’m going sometimes?)

She said every day to wash my face. (Did she say it every day or should I wash my face every day?)

The squint can also appear at the end of the sentence.

My dogs chased each other in the yard when I called them for a good reason. (Did the dogs chase each other for a good reason, or did I call them for a good reason?)

The fisherman was smiling when he caught the fish without even knowing it. (Did the fisherman not know that he was smiling or that he caught the fish. OR, was it the fish who didn’t know it was caught?)

While dangling, misplaced, and squinting modifiers can be a source of amusement, they do not provide the kind of entertainment we strive for in our writing. They can be very sneaky and are sometimes hard to detect. Be watchful and try to avoid them.

And while you’re being watchful, keep an eye out for that rabbit driving down the road. Most likely he was driving a brown VW Rabbit.

For more about my copy-editing services, please visit my website www.anneli-purchase.com

Gimmicks that Work

Let me begin with farther and further, since these were mentioned in a comment recently. I’ve struggled with these myself, but when I have trouble remembering something, I find that a gimmick works well for me.

Farther is used for distance, so I think of “far.

Further is used for expanding on an idea, so I think of the word “furthermore.” You wouldn’t say “farthermore” so that narrows it right down.

Desert and dessert

I like to have my dessert in the desert. That’s all very fine, but how do I know which one has one “s” and which has two?

I think of a resort in a desert. Both words have one “s.”

Once I’m in the desert, I think of what a blessing it is to have a dessert there. Two “s”s in each of these words.

Ah, but there is trouble on the desert horizon. A disgruntled soldier is going to desert (pronounced like “dessert”). All I can think is that he is going to leave the resort (one “s”) and if he does that, he will NOT get dessert (two “s”s).

Bear and bare

For a start, my gimmick is for “bare,” and I think of part of the word (bare), because if you are bare, you ARE naked.

All the other meanings are spelled bear.

Bear is an animal. Bear means to carry or to withstand an ordeal. I imagine a big strong bear who can carry the load and put up with a lot. He can bear it. You can even have him marching along on two feet with a shotgun over his shoulder and a sign that says, “The 2nd amendment says we have the right to keep and arm bears.”

Stationary and stationery

These two words gave me trouble in elementary school already. I came up with a gimmick way back then and it has worked for me ever since.

The spelling difference is the “a” and the “e.”

Stationary means not moving from a place, so I think of the “a” for “at” a place. Stationery means letter-writing material, so I think of the “e” in “letter.”

I would bet that you have gimmicks that work for you. If you care to share them, please do. It might make someone else’s writing life easier.

Troublesome words

Some words give us more trouble than others.

This group seems to belong together in the troublemaker group. I will try to use each example in a sentence to help explain how they should be used.

altogether or all together

The child received altogether too much attention for her own good.

Altogether it was a good weekend.

It was a wonderful time because the family was all together at Thanksgiving.

anytime or any time

Please visit me anytime you like.

Do you think you will have any time to do that mending?

anyplace – colloquial, better to avoid it

Use anywhere instead.

anyway or any way

I know you don’t want to take the gift but I want to give it anyway.

Is there any way you can make it work?

anyplace and someplace – use anywhere and somewhere instead. Putting “s” on these words to make anywheres and somewheres, is a no-no! Bad, bad, bad! Same goes for anyways, everywheres, and nowheres.

everyday, every day, everyone, every one

Everyday means ordinary. Every day tells when.

Sunshine was an everyday occurrence. It happened every day.

Everyone means all people in a group or category. Every one means each person.

Everyone came out to hear the actor reciting Dickens’ work. It ended with “God bless us every one.”

Sometime and sometimes or some time and some times.

I will visit you sometime in February, but sometimes it snows and the roads can be bad. I hope we can spend some time together. We’ve had some times together, haven’t we?

someday or some day

Someday we’ll have a picnic in our backyard. We did it once before, some day in July, I think.

maybe or may be

Maybe it’s not a good idea to drive the car on icy roads like this.

It may be that you’re a good driver, but that may not be enough.