Category Archives: Writers

Flirting with Proper Nouns

 

OR, COMMONNESS AND CAPITALIZATION

Caps and little lettersOne of the things that never ceases to amaze me when I read self-published books are how often basic rules of grammar are flouted. We all make typos, yes, but a serious writer knows language is her most important tool. Spelling, grammar and parts of speech are our basic building materials. If you don’t master those, you’re not ready to publish. (Don’t even get me started on correct use of apostrophes. The world is not ready for a rant of that magnitude.)

Today, however, I want to talk about nouns. And why sometime they’re capitalized and sometimes they’re not.

The simplest definition of a noun is any word that represents a person, place or thing. A more detailed definition, from the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, is that “a noun is a word that names something, whether abstract (intangible) or concrete (tangible).” In other words, a noun can name things both perceptible, like a tree, and imperceptible, like goodness.

A common noun names a generic person, place, thing, activity or condition: The mayor of the city visited the ball park. Common nouns are capitalized only when they begin a sentence or appear as part of a title: “Detective Johnson examined the body.” vs. “The detective examined the body.”

Concrete nouns name things that are perceptible to the five senses: apple, rose, window, music. Abstract nouns name things than cannot be directly seen, heard, smelled, tasted or touched: grief, anticipation, schizophrenia.

A proper noun is the specific name of a person, place or thing. To rephrase the example above using proper nouns, it could read: Mayor Daly of Chicago visited Wrigley Field. Proper nouns are always capitalized, no matter how they’re used.

Titles of works are also proper nouns and have their own rules of capitalization. Big Sky River, (book), The Importance of Being Earnest (play), Downton Abbey (television show), Zero Dark Thirty (movie). Note that in two- or three-word titles, all words are capitalized. In longer titles, prepositions and articles are all lowercase except when they are the first word: The Old Man and the Sea, Of Human Bondage.

Articles on the web or in print can follow the same rule, or it is acceptable if the first word and proper nouns are capitalized and other words are lowercase.

Common nouns can become proper nouns: Democrats, Republicans, the Big Apple. And sometimes a proper noun may be used informally as if it is a common noun:  “Who died and made you Hitler?” implies that someone is dictating their wants without regard for right or wrong.

A class of common nouns called eponyms are derived from proper nouns that passed into such universal usage that the formal version was dropped. Today we might pack sandwiches, not Sandwiches (from the Earl of Sandwich, who popularized them) before setting off on an odyssey (a long journey, from the adventures of Odysseus in Greek legend) .

Do you have a spelling or grammar pet peeve? Which resource do you check for correct usage?

Yeah, I Own This

Image courtesty of http://www.utmem.com

I have a terrible confession to make: I write books for money. Filthy lucre, the root of all evil, dead presidents, moolah, dough, the ultimate capitalist tool — whatever you call it, that’s a big part of why I seek publication. I care about my craft and submit to critique groups and tear up lousy pages not just because I love good writing, but because I also want to create a quality product. People who plunk down their hard-earned cash for one of my books should feel like they got their money’s worth.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank every single person who bought one of my books last year. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for giving me a chance to entertain you through either a mass market paperback or a digital copy. If you liked the books so much you loaned them to a friend, or friends, thank you for the recommendation! I’m thrilled that you would do that. I would also like to thank those libraries that purchase my books for their patrons. I am grateful to you.

Those of you who uploaded digital copies of my product to sites that engage in mass distribution of copyrighted material without regard to the creators’ rights…nope. No gratitude. While the Stop Digital Piracy Act includes sections considered too controversial to pass, many opponents of the bill agree that pirate sites should be shut down. I only wish more people, *coughSwedencough* agreed with them.

My books, like every other copyright-protected electronic file, are not free information.  They are unique creations. Producing them takes weeks or months. I write the best story I can. I developed the characters and plotlines and arranged the words into those particular stories, and as their creator, I have certain rights regarding their use and distribution. Copyright law gives me the right to profit from my own work. It gives me, according to www.merriam-webster.com, “the exclusive legal right to reproduce, publish, sell, or distribute the matter and form of something (as a literary, musical, or artistic work)”.

I granted Kensington the rights to publish my work because they are in the business of turning manuscripts into books. The publisher decides how and where to distribute my books. Not someone who uploads a copy to a pirate site, not the pirate site itself, not even me. I can use excerpts for marketing purposes and quotes, but if I want copies of my book for giveaways, gifts for promos, I buy them. This is the contract I read and agreed to. I benefit from the agreement because I reach a wide market through legitimate distributors, and that means more royalty money for me.

And it means copies of my books are available for you to read in print and electronic formats, provided you cross my palm with silver, figuratively speaking. Cause yes, I write books for money.

Pirate sites are despised by writers, musicians and film makers with good reason. They violate our rights to our own work while making outrageous claims: Like the exposure benefits us. Or we shouldn’t have electronic copies of our work available online if we didn’t want them stolen. Or those sites only exist to let people swap property with their ‘friends’. Or that all electronic information belongs to everyone.

Rot.

As far as I’m concerned, royalties instead of unpaid-for downloads will benefit us. We put our creations online for profit. Sharing electronic files between ‘friends’? In the tens of thousands, most of whom have never met? Does anyone actually believe that??? And to those who insist that all electronic information belongs to the world — upload your online banking passwords & maybe we’ll talk.

The Play’s the Thing

I earned my bachelor’s in Theatre Arts and I’m not sorry. As a writer, I still use what I learned in acting, criticism, and theater history. Playwrights and actors, like writers, are storytellers at heart, and books, screenplays and stage plays all share similarities. But the best thing about spending years during and after college immersed in theater is that I learned how to talk.

Yes, I could speak before I started college. But plays depend on the spoken word for every aspect of the story: character development; setting up Goal, Motivation and Conflict; description; and back story. Most actions on a stage are rooted in the dialogue between characters. (The italicized stage directions are, in most cases, notes taken by the stage manager of the play’s original production.)

Each character in a play has his or her own voice, made up of vocabulary, speech patterns, and slang; influences include but aren’t limited to education, economic status, occupation, gender and historical era. Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire speaks differently not only from Stanley Kowalski, her brother-in-law, but from Stanley’s wife Stella, who is her sister. In Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, three actors play the same character at different stages in her life. You will think, and thus speak, differently at 90 than you do at 52, or than you did at 26, as Albee’s dialogue for A, B, and C makes clear.

Whether it’s on the stage or the page, dialogue shows how a character thinks or how they respond to other characters. If a conversation or a line of dialogue — especially interior dialogue, a luxury playwrights don’t have — doesn’t convey something about the characters or advance the plot, cut it. Tight writing keeps the reader engaged in the story and turning the page.

And the spoken word has a rhythm all its own. Listen to the people around you next time you’re standing in line. We repeat each others’ words, emphasize points by slowing our speech down, and convey ideas with a brief phrase.  We use slang from our workplaces or ethnic backgrounds. Even geography affects dialogue. A New Yorker is likelier to start a conversation by stating what he or she wants right away, as opposed to someone from the American South, where even business conversations begin with “How are you doing today?”

The best playwrights of every nationality and era capture the language they hear (or heard) around them. The vitality of Elizabethan English lives on in Shakespeare’s plays, as do the drawls and flutterings of the mid-20th century American South in the those of Tennessee Williams. English plays one of my most valuable resources for grasping the syntax and slang of both the nobility and commoners through the centuries.

If you’d rather rent a movie of a play, that’s great! Although film is much more visual than stage plays are, many are a good introduction to dramatic dialogue and characterization. Plays were meant to be seen and heard. I haven’t tried looking on Netflix to see if any of my favorites can be streamed, but there are a lot of DVDs of plays out there. Some library systems have good collections. Or best of all, support your local community theater! Go see a play!!

If you could pick any play,stage or movie version, to see today, what would it be? Shakespeare wrote my all favorite body of work, but my all time favorite play is Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac.

Will Volunteer for Food

Sunday, I had the pleasure of working the Nebraska Writers Guild booth at the state fair in Grand Island. I freely admit that my volunteerism was influenced by a desire to eat corn dogs as well as ice cream from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Dairy Store in the FFA/4H building. The prospect of air conditioning, a roof and walls encouraged me as well.

Although NWG authors are allowed to bring their books and sell them, mostly I just wanted to meet people. And I did! I worked with fellow writers Charlene Neely (poetry), Jerri Hauser (inspirational), Dr. Jean Lukesh (Nebraska history) and Mary Maas (Nebraska and local history). I had a blast talking up the guild with these women. The Guild is a statewide organization that includes journalists, fiction writers, non-fiction writers, poets, and family historians. In the next 12 months, the guild plans to hold a Young Writers Conference in Lincoln, NE.

Charlene Neely, Jean Lukesh and Jerri Hauser

A lot of people stopped because  they love to write and didn’t know the NWG existed. A lot of others stopped because they love to read and are excited at the idea of finding Nebraska writers, particularly on subjects of state or local interest, kids’ books and fiction set in the state. I even met a young woman who specialized in historical textiles and design in college. Hello, resource!

The location provided a great view of the 4-H pet presentation, and we chatted to passers-by to the background of kids describing the history, care and quirks of various gerbils, guinea pigs, cats and one ferret. We joined the applause as the judge awarded ribbons and grand prizes. I am pleased to say that all participants earned either blue or purple ribbons for their animals’ health and well-being.

My personal favorite was Princess the Cat, whose owner has a great narrative style and should look into creative writing.

Although I did sell copies of Her Scottish Groom and To be Seduced, I spent most of my time handing out bookmarks and booklets, aka ‘free samples’. My romances were upstaged by a 4th grade history book! Jean Lukesh, a former teacher, wrote what may be the most popular textbook in the state. Used by 85% of our school districts, it drew kids like a magnet. The ‘double-take, ‘hey-I-used-that-book’ ‘ response happened over and over. A lot of the kids asked for her autograph, and at least one wanted a picture with her.

Jean and Fans

To say that Jean is a talented local historian is like saying Einstein was kind of a smart guy. Her current project is a series for kids on Noteworthy Americans. The first in the series, Lucky Ears: The True Story of Ben Kuroki, World War II Hero recently won a Bronze Medal for Multicultural Nonfiction for Children/Teens/Young Adults in the Independent Publishers’ 2011 Book Awards. And she is hilarious and outgoing in person.

Before I forget: the UNL Dairy Store ice cream is so OMG FABULOUS that I passed on the corn dog in favor of their chicken bacon ranch wrap in a tomato basil tortilla. Yum. Next year, I may have to come back an extra day to get that corn dog in.

Everybody’s a Critic!

My mother, bless her heart, is under the impression that writers just scribble or type out the words and poof! — we’re all done.  I wish!  I’ve never, ever heard of a book being accepted as is by a reputable publisher, and that is a very good thing.  As a writer, I am too close to the work to judge it objectively, never mind the spelling and grammar errors that come out when you’re focused on just getting the story written down.  One of the best pieces of advice I can give to new writers is to seek out supportive, respectful criticism from other writers.

The key words there are supportive and respectful. I have heard a number of horror stories about critique groups.  My own weekly group is a huge blessing.  It includes writers at all levels of experience and in a range of genres from romance to science fiction to thrillers to horror.  Some of us write books, some write poetry and some write plays or screenplays.  The main thing is that we all demand well-written stories with vivid characters that draw us in and keep us begging for more.  Without this group’s encouragement, I would never have had the nerve to enter the contest that led to my first sale.

Equally important are rules of conduct that limit criticism to the writing.  Our primary goal as a group is to help each other become better writers.  If you join a critique group that praises or dismisses anyone’s writing based on how well or poorly they conform to a set of religious or political views, move on!  The same goes if they treat you differently based on your genre.  Or if they think there is something wrong with you because you want to write a book that people can buy in grocery stores.  (This is one of my goals as a writer, so I will admit to some bias here.)

I’ve also heard stories where new writers are condescended to by those who have been in a group longer.  This is not okay.  Most published authors I have been in contact with, either personally or through correspondence, have answered questions and provided advice when I asked, and even when I didn’t.  Those who were unable to help still took the time out of their schedules to offer encouragement and good wishes.  If these women (and men) can treat strangers nicely, so can Madame Poobah of the Local Community Writers Circle.

Of course, supportive and respectful apply to the ‘critique-ee’ as well.  If you are submitting your work to other people so they can exclaim that it is the most innovative piece of fiction since Western Civilization crawled out of the Dark Ages, probably you’re not going to have a positive experience.  (Yeah, we have folks show up with that attitude from time to time.  They don’t last long.)  ‘Critique’ and ‘criticize’ are related.  You’re asking people to tell you where the weak spots are in your WIP.  Don’t be surprised or offended when they actually do that.  If you get comments from five different people complaining about the same paragraph, that’s a pretty good indication that you should reconsider it, but it’s unlikely that they’re conspiring to drive you away.

Be patient if someone suggests you take your story in a direction that you don’t want to go.  There is no law that says you have to follow every piece of criticism you get.  Ultimately, you are responsible for what you write.  Smile, say thank you and move on.

And yes, you should thank someone who has taken time to listen to or read your work and given you their advice.  Even if you don’t agree with them.  Even if someone has given all negative comments, or you think they’re being nit-picky over teeny tiny details.  I’ve slept on criticism I’ve disagreed with and found it valid the next day.  When something isn’t working my weekly group lets me know.  They’re not brutal, but once you’ve been there long enough for your skin to thicken, they’re blunt.  And I love it when people nit-pick — it means there are no major problems that week!

As long as I’m discussing critiques, what are some of the best or worst scenes you’ve read in a book?  Or what kind of scenes do you love or loathe?  As writers have any of you ever found some embarrassing mistakes in your manuscript — or worse, in your book?  (Like the two paragraphs where I use the word ‘wrist’ four or five times.  Or one of my first readings where everything was ‘scandalous’.  Luckily for all of you, I abandoned that story!)

Writing…and Reading

Some writers have had the urge to string words into stories from their earliest memories, while some of us don’t discover this passion until middle age or later.  Whether they first scribbled a story on the back of grade school homework or had to gather courage and read their first attempt to a room of people more experienced than they were, all the good writers I’ve ever met or heard of reads, and has read, enthusiastically from childhood on.

Well before I started writing seriously, I gave thanks that I was born into a family of book lovers. My parents possessed wildly different tastes in reading material, and both of them affected me. I got my love of historical romance from my mother. Her paperback books contrasted with my father’s volumes on geology, dog training, history and anthropology. Mom introduced me to Georgette Heyer, and the late historian Barbara Tuchman. Dad’s books were drier, but watching him devour volumes on a wide range of subjects encouraged me to explore the non-fiction shelves of the library.

They read to me and my sisters, everything from poems to comic books. I don’t really remember anything but pretty pictures, but the sense of security and comfort of being tucked beside them carried over into the act of reading itself. Once we could read for ourselves, we got books on most major occasions and often on smaller ones. Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott were found in my bookshelves, along with Swiss Family Robinson, fairy tales and myths. I saved my allowance to buy Nancy Drew books.  My dad attempted to get me interested in ‘Treasure Island‘, his favorite book as a boy, in vain. Ditto for Charles Dickens. (Sorry, Dad. I tried.) He succeeded wildly with ‘Lord of the Rings’, though.

High school lit classes introduced me to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and The Moon is Down, as well as the sly, wry humor of Mark Twain. I found Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein around then as well, thanks to my best friend who shared out her brother’s science fiction books.

My interest in Tolkien led me to explore other fantasy writers. The voice of Ursula LeGuin is more ambiguous and darker, but her haunting stories stay with you long after you finish them.

As an adult, I discovered Jane Austen (finally!) and Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, the histories and biographies written by Lady Antonia Fraser, and Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody mysteries, among many, many others.

These days, I read Tolkien for comfort and inspiration, Heyer when I want to be charmed and amused, Fraser and Tuchman when I need more solid fare, C. J. Cherryh when I want to read science fiction, and Shakespeare and Homer when I’m in the mood for something classic. And I’ve read historical romance in one form or another for decades. There are so many wonderful authors out there to choose from.

Who are your go-to writers for comfort or inspiration?