The Differences Between Main Characters and “Types”

91mDaiCSybL._SL1500_by Jean Foster Akin

Main Characters are the reason readers invest themselves in a story. Main characters have histories that the reader comes to know as the story progresses. Main characters are complex: they might not do the expected thing, or they might do the expected thing in a way it has not been done before. Main characters have depth and inner feelings which drive them in interesting and/or understandable directions. Now, when I use the word “understandable” I do not mean to say “acceptable” or “moral.” Look at the Harry Potter series. We understand that Tom Riddle had a horrific childhood and because of this, we are not surprised to find that he becomes unstable quite early on. However, Tom Riddle becomes more than just unstable, he becomes a murderer in order to gain power and immortality. While most of us cannot understand the murderer’s mind and do not relate to Tom Riddle or his alter ego, Lord Voldemort, we do not question his actions: Riddle’s/Voldemort’s actions are understandable to us because they fit his character perfectly, unacceptable though they are. He’s a very complex character.

Harry Potter is complex as well. As one of the main characters and the protagonist, he resonates with readers because he is good as well as flawed. Unlike Voldemort, Harry is loyal, sympathetic, caring, fun-loving, and deeply kind. But even though Harry is a protagonist, that does not mean he is perfect or has never had trouble. His creator makes him an orphan on the outset: Voldemort murders his parents when he is an infant and he lives with that pain all his life. Though Voldemort sought to kill Harry as well, he was unsuccessful, something that had never happened to Voldemort before that time nor does it ever happen after. Because of this, Harry becomes known as “the boy who lived,” and he is the focus of attention that he doesn’t ever get used to. Harry can be rebellious, Harry is often lonely, Harry has been known to break the rules at school, to be moody because of inner turmoil he cannot understand—but Harry also puts others ahead of himself, he sacrifices for others, and he faces danger so others won’t have to (even the people who have been unkind to him). Harry is not a goody-two-shoes, Harry is a good boy with big problems. Harry has character. Harry has pluck. Harry is complex. Harry is a Main Character.

TWO TYPES OF “TYPES”

Types are different from main characters and types should not be confused with894981b0c8a0a45d270fd110.L

secondary characters. In the novel Sense and Sensibility, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Edward Ferrars, Colonel Branden, and John Willoughby are main characters. Lucy Steele, Mrs. Jennings, and Mrs. Ferrars are all secondary characters, but without them we don’t have much of a tale. For instance, if there was no Mrs. Ferrars (a cruel, arrogant woman of society who will see her son disowned before she sees him marrying below his station), then there could be no heartbreak for the gentle Edward Ferrars, the crafty Lucy Steele, or the poor Elinor Dashwood. Now, some would say Mrs Ferrars is a “type” as she is a rich socialite and snooty to those she considers below her. Okay, I’ll grant you that this is a recognizable type and that Mrs. Ferrars does what we expect her to do within the perimeters of that type. However, though she may not be as complex as, say, Marianne, Mrs. Ferrars is more complex than a type, and her place in the story makes her a secondary character.

So What Are Types?

We see that types are not secondary characters, but that secondary characters can look like types. Types are different from main and secondary characters in that [A] there is really no reason for types to have a lot of back story, if any at all, [B] types aren’t complex, [C] types are easy to write into stories because readers already have their images locked in their subconscious minds.

Types can be slipped into our stories and can have little impact on our main/secondary characters (they are just the people on the plane, for instance), or they can have a great deal of impact, depending on what you want to use them to do. The mugger on the street might have no purpose in the story other than to snatch your character’s purse and run off, never to be reintroduced in the story. The mugger could also quite believably kill your character’s husband when he attempts to stop the crime, and still never be reintroduced in the story. In either case, we don’t need to know much of anything about the mugger to believe he is capable of stealing or even murder. “The Mugger” is a type. Put him in a dark jeans jacket, pull a cap over his greasy hair with the brim shading his cold watchful eyes, and slip a knife into his pocket—he’s ready to go. Put him in leather, make him a blonde with a crew cut—he’s still “The Mugger.” His vision will rise in your readers’ minds, and it will be an accurate enough vision. Write the words TV Preacher, Used Car Salesman, Sailor on Leave, and Mob Boss and you’ll get the same reaction: people have images of these types hiding in their subconscious. All you have to do is give a brief description and your readers’ particular images are there.

MISTAKES WE MAKE WITH TYPES

Vintage-Dior1). One mistake writers can make with types is in not adding them into their stories at all. I see this a lot with newer writers and with writers who are self-publishing and who aren’t getting enough feedback about their work (or who are ignoring that feedback), so beware of this. When there are no types in a story, the main characters are operating in a vacuum. This doesn’t make for good storytelling. Types cut your character off in traffic, bustle by him in the street, sit beside him in the doctor’s waiting room—types add action and color and realism to your character’s world.

When an estranged couple, Robert and Vivian, meet each other in a restaurant to discuss their relationship, it is much more interesting and true to life if they must endure the over-talkative waitress, knowing they only have this one precious hour to get some things settled. Bring in a fussy waiter to come by their table and fiddle with their salt and pepper shakers while Robert tries to convince Vivian to return to him, and you’ve added more tension. Or, have them sit in uncomfortable silence, that’s always grand. But uncomfortable silences can be turned up a notch when a child at another table begins to tantrum over his chicken fingers (can’t we all immediately picture the bratty child type?). Or, just write perfectly pleasant types into the scene, sitting around the restaurant, enjoying their lunches…but situate their tables a little too close to Robert and Vivian’s table and allow Robert and Vivian to hear snatches of their conversations. Can you see how the intense and heartbreaking topic that Robert and Vivian are trying to discuss discretely is made more frustrating for their not wanting to be overheard? This awkwardness is brought to your main characters through the vehicle of types.

2). The second mistake I have seen with types is when writers write them in a

Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront (1954), one of his best performances. He was not a "type" in this film, he was the main character with all the main character's complexity. But we're talking thugs here and he made a great thug...being Marlon Brando and all.
Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront (1954), one of his best performances. He was not a “type” in this film, he was the main character with all the main character’s complexity. But we’re talking thugs here and he made a great thug…being Marlon Brando and all.

contrived way. The thugs that guard your gun runner don’t have to be always cracking their knuckles and leering at people’s kneecaps, or constantly talking about all the ways they’re going to mess up other characters. I can hear you saying to your computer screen, “Thanks for that advice, Captain Obvious!” but this advice isn’t obvious to every writer, and I’ve dealt with it more times than I can count when working with editing clients. I edited a story once where the thugs were so thuggy that they were no longer thugs at all, they were caricatures of thugs. They knocked down strangers on the street, they leaped forward to grab the gentler characters in neck-holds, and for no reason except the writer was “writing thugs” and he believed they had to be beating on people all the time. If you are writing a thug into your story and he runs around attacking other characters with no provocation, he better be doing this for a reason (for instance, he is mentally ill, he is on drugs, he’s being paid by an even bigger thug to create havoc and instill fear, etc). As long as you’ve made his actions reasonable to your readers, your thug can go around knocking hats off in the street without your readers having to suspend their disbelief. He’ll be doing what thugs in his circumstance do. That’s the great thing about types: they are so necessary for peopling your stories and, if written well, they are like little toy soldiers that your wind up and let go.

[Photos: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Amazon.com); Sense and Sensibility (Amazon.com); On the Waterfront (Amazon.com). Lady in red dress, Vintage-Dior.]

 

 

 

 

 

Writing Real and Avoiding Contrived Dialogue

DSC07229by Jean Foster Akin

I’ve edited for other writers since the year 2000, and in that time I’ve read stories in every conceivable genre about every imaginable topic. Sometimes I can get caught up in a story, forget I’m reading fiction, and believe completely that the characters are living, breathing people somewhere; I want to know what happens next. But then there are other times…well, there are other times when stories I’ve been editing really don’t ring true to life at all. And I’m not talking about genre here, because a good writer could place his protagonist in a diving bell, send him off exploring a body of water on Mars (with his faithful dog Astro) and we’d believe it. Didn’t you believe Watership Down? When you first heard who the main characters were, did you ever think you’d believe that story? Me neither. But then I read the story. And I believed it. It was written “real.”

There are any number of reasons why a story might not ring true, and contrived dialogue is a big one. Dialogue should move the story forward, teach you something about the characters, hint at things to come, reveal backstory, and so on. What is contrived dialogue? Let’s use some to reveal backstory:

“Robert, as my brother, you know that our father was a railroad man and hardly ever home. This caused our mother to be sad, and in her sadness, she took to drink. I, along with your other brothers, Tim and Edgar, have noticed that your wife Janet is also depressed because of the amount of time you spend at the office, and we…”

PROBLEMS: Stilted voice. No real emotion. Telling the reader little instead of showing the reader much. Unrealistic–both the brothers know the family history and both know the names of their family members so there is no need for one brother to remind the other of these things. And yes, I have worked with many clients who believe this kind of dialogue is a perfect substitute for actually taking the time to create a world populated with realistic characters, speaking and behaving in ways that feel genuine to the reader.

A BETTER WAY to REVEAL BACKSTORY and DEVELOP CHARACTERS AT THE SAME TIME: “Robert! Listen to me, will you?” Alfred slammed his palm on the kitchen table, and Robert turned, startled and angry. Alfred ignored the fury in his brother’s eyes and went on. “Do you want Janet to end up like Ma, in and out of rehab? Do you want to wake up one day and find she’s become an alcoholic? You’re never home anymore, you leave her for days alone with the kids, you growl at her when you are home. Just like Dad! The mother of your children is drinking herself into a stupor every night and the whole family’s worried—even if you’re too selfish to be.”

The reader learns much about the two men here: Robert is a bad husband, he’s defensive and stubborn and careless. Alfred is frustrated with his brother’s lack of concern for his family. He’s filled with anxiety over his sister-in-law, but he feels there is hope if only he can get Robert to listen. The reader can understand that the men’s mother has had a tragic life and a bad marriage without having to know every detail of it, simply because of what Albert says about the relationship between Alice and Robert. The dialogue isn’t contrived, it’s real.

One other item I must mention while on the subject of contrived dialogue. I once had a Christian client, a lovely fellow, who believed that whatever he wrote had to be an evangelistic tool. Now, this is perfectly fine, and I have no issue with this. But what I did take issue with was my client’s belief that, as Christian people, his characters had to be perfect. They were always loving, always helpful, always kind, always thoughtful, never became irritated, never said anything “gossipy,” never had even a mild argument with their wives. In other words, totally contrived. Because of this, in addition to being unrealistic, his characters were terribly boring. They were not characters that readers would ever be able to connect with or understand. The story involved mafia dons and drug lords, and these bad guys were chasing the protagonist throughout the chapters with the intention of ending his life. When he falls into the trap of the antagonist, Big Louie (a guy who was a killer at the age of 15 and who has wealth and prestige and power now in the world he’s created), our hero’s dialogue seems even more contrived.

“Look Big Louie. I know you feel you have to live a life of crime. But Jesus loves you and he wants you to lay your sins at his feet and be born again.”

I think more contrived than this line is Big Louie’s instantaneous response, spoken as he lowers his fist from the protagonist’s face. “You know kid, my pop brought me up to be tough. I thought the way to get to the top was by bulldozing over anyone who got in my way. But I’ve been moved by what you said, and well, I guess I’m ready to make some changes in my life.”

Then Big Louie doesn’t snicker, as you’d think he might, and fit our hero with cement galoshes before tossing him into the East River. He actually gives up the life of a kingpin, just like that, and joins forces with the protagonist that minute.

My point here is not “don’t write Christian fiction.” My point here is “write Christian fiction well.” Develop characters from the people you’ve met in your life. Don’t make every bit of dialogue a sermon. You aren’t maligning the faith by writing characters who have doubts, who struggle with selfishness or bitterness, who have done wrong. You’re being real. And when your hero sees the error of his ways, give him time to work it out like real people work things out. Your story will have much more impact and will touch many more lives when you write real.

NEXT TIME: THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MAIN CHARACTERS AND “TYPES” and HOW TYPES ARE ESSENTIAL TO YOUR STORY!

 

photo by JFA

 

Writing and Revision: Two Happy Peas in a Pod

Scan 141430000There is good criticism and there is bad criticism. Sometimes criticism feels bad because of how it is delivered, sometimes it feels bad because it has been delivered at all. Sometimes it needs to be heard, regardless.

People—people who love to write like I love to write—pay me to edit what they’ve written. They pay me to look for mistakes in grammar, they pay me to edit for context, they pay me to warn them when their dialogue sounds contrived, they pay me to note when their characters come out of character—many of them pay me to “do whatever needs to be done,” and, in that case, I catch all those things I just mentioned above without ever being asked to do so. This is fine with me because I can’t leave those things alone anyway.

Some of my clients asks me not only to notice mistakes and inconsistencies and to fix them, but also to open a comment field and write a short lesson on why what they wrote doesn’t work. Writers pay me for this. I want to make that clear—they pay me, they voluntarily seek me out and secure my services. Yet, sometimes these very same writers also become emotionally unhinged when I do the very thing they’ve paid me to do: help them make their poor writing good, and their good writing better.

Writers pay me for this. I want to make that clear—they pay me, they voluntarily seek me out and secure my services. Yet, sometimes these very same writers also become emotionally unhinged when I do the very thing they’ve paid me to do…

A friend of mine, a professional illustrator by the name of Violet Lemay, wrote an article recently about how much she’s enjoying teaching illustration to students online, and how thoughtful these talented student-artists so often are. She had to admit, though, that some of their reactions to the subject of revisions makes her want to snicker. Knowing her, I believe that if she does feel the need to snicker, she snickers in only the nicest of ways; but if you work with student-artists or writing clients, sometimes you can’t help but give at least a good-natured shake of the head when they gasp at the idea of revision. For some of my writing clients, the idea of being asked to make revisions is one of the most insulting requests they feel they can ever receive. It says to them that what they have created isn’t wonderful, fantastic, and utterly perfect. You can see how this might make someone else giggle a bit, right? If you can’t see this, make a…

NOTE TO SELF: “I’m human; perfection isn’t my strong suit. That’s okay.”

It isn’t hard for those of us with some mileage on us to accept the fact that we are not perfect, but for others, it can be a very distressing concept. It isn’t always a bad thing to want to get as close to perfection as we can, but if we are writers, getting close to perfection is accomplished through revision. And not only through subjective writer-birthed revision (or subjective artist-birthed revision if you’re an illustrator like my friend Violet, or a future-illustrator like one of her students), but also through objective revision suggestions made by qualified individuals outside your Self.  When a writer has spent years on a novel, or days on a blog post, she often re-reads passages seeing what she intended to write and not what is really there. It’s a trick of the mind that seasoned writers know well. Extra eyes are the writer’s FRIEND, and we can get closer to perfection when we can accept good, solid critique from someone who wants to see us succeed. AND (stay calm because I have to tell you) sometimes you’ll hear some pretty nasty criticism that will actually be helpful to you once you get a chance to take a breath, lick your wounds, and get on with it. Allow me to repeat that with a slight variation on the theme:

As a writer, as an artist, as a human being, you’ll hear some pretty nasty criticism that will actually be helpful to you once you get a chance to take a breath, lick your wounds, and get on with it.

The VERY thing that makes those words you’ve penned the “perfect” words, is revision. If you take a look at the concept illustrations Violet Lemay did in preparation for cover art in a section of The Baltimore Sun, you’ll see how the limits placed upon her by others involved in the project forced her to think harder, to stretch herself, to work in stages towards the “perfect” cover. Here’s a woman who knows her stuff, she’s proven herself over and over again to all the right people (just take a gander at all the publications where her art has appeared over the years). Violet never lacks for work—I think she knows what she’s talking about when she says revision isn’t bad, revision is the key to exceptional work. This goes not only for artists, but for writers as well.

So, for all my writing brothers and sisters, listen to constructive criticism. Don’t be offended by it. If it doesn’t seem like it’s “right,” that’s fine, put it aside. But don’t just dismiss it out of hand. When an editor shows you ways to improve your writing, understand that she isn’t saying you can’t write, she is saying you can write better. We all can.

 

by Jean Foster Akin

That Old Man Looks Like a Soup Chicken!

semicolonWhat a cheap trick! To lure you in with a post title like this one. But stick with me, the old man will come into play a little later.

Today I want to talk to you about The Semi-Colon! See now? You wouldn’t have come here if the title of this post had been: “The Semi-Colon.” You wouldn’t have come here even if the title of this post had been: “The Amazing Semi-Colon!”  Yet, I am not too sure you actually know how to use a semi-colon and that’s why you really need to be here. I mean, what is the purpose of the semi-colon, after all? Does it have a purpose other than drawing out the red pen of thousands of English composition teachers every year, and causing millions of English composition students to break out in stress-related hives? Flies have more purpose than semi-colons, you say? Well, I think we’re all very well aware of that fact. Flies pollinate the cocoa flower, and without flies there would be no chocolate–so yes, of course, flies have more purpose than semi-colons! But semi-colons have a place in this world, too, and particularly in the world of writing. So let’s stop being nervous about them to the point of never using them, and let’s (please!) stop being so unafraid of them that we pepper every sentence with three or four of them at a clip! As a freelance editor, I’ve seen both ends of this bell curve, and I’d like to see you all move a lot closer to center. Let’s get started toward that end, shall we?  😀

IF YOU WANT YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY TO RESPECT YOU, YOU WILL LEARN HOW TO USE SEMI-COLONS CORRECTLY!

All right. I lied. Your friends and family will not respect you more than they do right now if you learn to use semi-colons correctly. They may even begin to respect you less. They may stop inviting you to parties. Or, they might simply ignore you completely, thereby giving you far less respect than a person of your intellectual sensitivity deserves. You might want to save a kitten from a tree, help a little old lady across the street, return your shopping cart to the cart corral once in a while– something–in order to hedge your bets on the respect thing. But you’re a writer, so learn how to use semi-colons regardless of how your family and friends feel about it, okay?  🙂

Let’s begin understanding the semi-colon by discussing what it is NOT.

  • A semi-colon is NOT a period (also known as a “full stop”). Bartholomew had an irritating habit of picking his nose. (STOP!)
  • A semi-colon is NOT a comma (used to show a reader when to pause). Gretchen was so slovenly, (PAUSE…how slovenly was she?) she had a turnip garden growing in her ears! 

What the Semi-Colon IS: 

The semi-colon is a punctuation mark which signals that two independent clauses are being linked together, and that they share a common theme. Oh now, don’t run away just because I used the word clauses!! A CLAUSE is SIMPLY a SENTENCE! Sit back down and pay attention, because you’re going to get this. Just let me phrase it another way: a semi-colon links two independent sentences (clauses) together that are “talking” about the same thing (in other words, they share a common theme). Nothing scary about that. “Uh-huh,” you say, “but what are these terrifying independent sentences of which you speak??” Glad you asked. Independent sentences are sentences that can stand on their own, just as the term implies. That’s all. Not so scary, right?  Think of it this way: we can place a semi-colon between two sentences that could stand on their own, but which are so related that we want one to follow closely on the heels of the other (so that the latter sentence backs up the former). Watch this:

  • Eleanor hates spiders; she was bitten by a large spider when she was a child.

This one sentence uses two independent clauses (sentences). The first clause tells us something about Eleanor (that she hates spiders). The second clause offers a reason for her fear (she was bitten by a spider as a child). These clauses are so closely related that a semi-colon is doing nothing wrong by hanging out between them. However, because the clauses are independent, they could also stand on their own and make perfect sense too:

Eleanor hates spiders. 

Eleanor was bitten by a large spider when she was a child.

 WHERE SEMI-COLONS ARE NOT APPROPRIATE

(1.) Semi-colons are not appropriate when placed where periods should be.

INCORRECT: Bruce had no chance to eat dinner all day; he left work and drove home in the rain. True, the two clauses which make up the sentence are independent clauses, and they are both about Bruce, but they are not terribly related. Bruce’s lack of supper has nothing to do with him leaving work and driving home in the rain. No semi-colon should be used between these clauses–just a plain old period between them is perfectly fine.

CORRECT: Bruce had no chance to eat dinner all day. He left work and drove home in the rain.

(2.)  Semi colons are not appropriate when placed where commas should be. Read the next sentence, pretending it’s dialogue in your novel. One of my clients used a semi-colon in a sentence of dialogue very much like this one, except his sentence wasn’t so rude and didn’t involve fowl of any kind.

INCORRECT: “That old man looks like a soup chicken; I tell ya!” The first part of this sentence is made up of an independent clause. The second part doesn’t come close to being independent. Just look into a mirror and say boldly, “I tell ya!” See? No good. There’s nothing independent about that clause. A comma is the obvious choice here.

CORRECT: “That old man looks like soup chicken, I tell ya!”

The semi-colon is a useful punctuation mark. It alerts us to the fact that (A.) two clauses are being joined in one sentence, and, (B.) they are independent clauses, and, (C.) they are so closely related they could be the same sentence if they really wanted to be.  

 

written by Jean Foster Akin

You Don’t Have to Obey the Machines

Head-artificial-intelPerhaps you’ve seen the film I, Robot, with Will Smith.  In the highly technophilic future (the year 2035 in this case), almost everyone has a robot companion. The robots make meals for humans, do the laundry, run out to the market for groceries, and protect human homes and human families–and if you forget your asthma medication at home in your purse, don’t worry! Your robot will run and get it for you. The quicker U.S. Robotics can develop the next generation of sleeker, shinier, anthropomorphic robots, the better.

The film appeals to us because we love convenience, we love technology, and even though our technology in the year 2013 isn’t what people hope it will be in 2035, we are still doing pretty well. We are rabid collectors of high-tech toys designed to make life easier, to make our talents more noticeable, to make our work more effective, and to make our leisure time more fun. And each month it seems like there’s some new technological wonder for us to covet or collect.

Many of my editing clients are newbies when it comes to writing and some have admitted to buying some pretty expensive writing software for their computers, software that they believe will help them become great writers. They have wondered why these programs have failed to help them achieve the status of Exceptional Writer though (with the accompanying mile-long line of literary agents banging at their doors, hoping to snatch up an exceptional manuscript). But robots and computer programs can’t write exceptional novels, only people can. Only people with the gift to write—who also have a handle on the mechanics of writing—can write exceptional novels. Even if your grasp is more instinctive than academic, you can write some very fine prose. But, remember, your computer cannot.

I wrote: “Jill washed her hands and started to dry them on her shirt.” The electronic grammar checker I used corrected the sentence to read: “Jill washed her hands and started to dry those on her shirt.” Though most writers would know this is incorrect, many of the less experienced among them would think that there had to have been something wrong with their original sentence to make the grammar checker suggest a change at all. This is the point where insecure writers will make changes where none are needed.

Will Smith’s character in I, Robot is a detective named Spooner. Spooner holds a violent hatred for technology, especially robots, because when Spooner’s car and a car carrying a young girl are involved in an accident which pushes them both into a river, a robot saves Spooner’s life while allowing the girl to die. The robot can check blood oxygen levels, detect heart rate and blood pressure. The robot can detect human life functions and use that information to calculate chances of survival. The robot makes a pragmatic choice: Spooner has a greater chance of surviving than the girl, therefore Spooner must be saved.  But what the robot cannot do is grasp the humanity which would make most of us reach for the drowning child first. It does not have the compassion, morals, sorrows, life experiences, hurts, and love which made Spooner demand it save the drowning child. And a grammar checker does not have the compassion, morals, sorrows, life experiences, hurts, and love that you have which can make your prose sing.

The writer must understand grammar, and she must be confident about what she means to say. She should say what she means, regardless of the demands made by the artificial intelligence which surrounds her.

Jean Foster Akin

Photo by JFA

Is it “Cat’s whiskers” or “Cats’ whiskers”? Plurals and Possessives

Something I notice a lot in my editing work is how often my clients have problems with possessives, especially when plurals are involved. You know, like, how do you tell if you’re supposed to write: “the cat’s whiskers” or “the cats’ whiskers”? Many of my clients feel intimidated by English grammar texts, thinking they’re too complicated to be understood, and so when they need to write about a gaggle of old ladies having tea in the garden, they don’t look in a grammar text before they write: “All the lady’s tea was served with crumpets.” When they need to write about the many chickens being fed by the women in Bolivia, they write: “The women scattered the chicken’s feed on the dusty earth.” And they look like amateurs.

You don’t want to look like an amateur, do you? I didn’t think so.

I am going to explain this subject using examples and no real technical jargon, so don’t be nervous. You CAN understand this!  🙂

THE SINGULAR NOUN

Let’s start with something SIMPLE: the singular noun. A noun is described as “a person, place, or thing.” The word “cat” is a singular noun because it represents one thing, a single creature. When we read: “The cat’s water bowl is empty,” we know we are reading about one creature (a cat) which possesses something (a bowl). How do we know that the bowl belongs to the cat? Because the singular noun (cat) has an apostrophe at the end, followed by an “s” (cat‘s). The word we see BEFORE that apostrophe tells us that we are dealing with a single cat, and the apostrophe and “s” at the end of the word tell us he owns something–in this case, a water bowl that just happens to be empty. The “bowl” is also a singular noun, but it is not important to our discussion of grammar. It would be important in a discussion of animal husbandry and morality (as some human has thoughtlessly allowed his cat’s water bowl to go dry), but for now we are only concerned with the nouns in this sentence that “possess” something, okay? Okay.

How about this: “The boy’s nose is runny.” There is only one boy with one disgusting little nose. The word “boy” is a singular noun, and to indicate the boy owns (or possesses) this particularly wet little nose, the writer adds an apostrophe after the singular noun (boy), and then adds an “s” after the apostrophe (boy‘s) to show the boy owns that nose. The word that we see BEFORE the apostrophe is a singular noun–one boy. One boy who needs a tissue quick, before he uses his shirt sleeve.

WHAT ABOUT MAKING PLURAL NOUNS POSSESSIVE?

This is where my clients have the most trouble. They almost never get this right, but it’s actually very simple to do this correctly. Take the word “girls,”for instance. The word “girls” means “more than one girl.” The word “girls” is a plural noun. It is a word that is made plural by adding an “s” to the end of its singular form (girl). Other words that are made plural by adding an “s” to the end of their singular form are: gardeners, pilots, brains, pimples, and toes. We all understand that. But how do we make plural words indicate possession? By adding an apostrophe AFTER the very “s” which has made those words plural. So, we write, “The girls‘ shoes were arranged neatly in the front hallway.” Many girls have taken off their shoes and those shoes have been arranged neatly in the front hallway. You can also write, “The girls‘ mother placed their shoes in the front hallway” if you are talking about more than one girl, and those girls happen to be sisters and so have one mother. The word BEFORE the apostrophe is a plural noun: girls. That’s what you MUST remember! If all the girls own something, whether it be the same thing (“The girls’ mother…”) or different things that are similar (“The girls’ shoes…”) then the writer writes out the plural noun (girls) and adds an apostrophe after that last “s” there, the “s” which has made the word plural (girls‘) and he has signaled us that there is more than one girl being referred to in the sentence.

Let’s try this with other nouns, both singular and plural.

One pig: “The pig‘s feet are muddy.”

More than one pig:  “The pigs‘ feet are muddy.”

One boy: “The boy‘s baseball cap is white.”

More than one boy: “The boys‘ baseball caps are blue.”

Many girls possessing many dresses? “The girls‘ dresses dried on the clothes line.”

One dog possessing one bone: “The dog‘s bone had been kicked under the couch.”

More than one dog possessing one bone: “The dogs‘ bone was nowhere to be found.”

Many cats possessing many kittens? “The cats‘ kittens mewled for their mothers‘ attention.” Gotcha twice there!

Do you see?

What if there are several individuals who own one thing together? How does one make the plural noun possessive then? Simple. The word following the plural possessive noun does not need to be plural. If many cats use the same water bowl, you can write, “The cats’ water bowl is empty.”  You can also write of more than one old lady, of more than one chicken, of more than one soccer player, all of them possessing one thing together:

  • “The old ladies’ house needs repair.”
  • “The chickens’ coop is delapidated.”
  • “The soccer players’ dressing room smells like zoo.”

You need not worry about what word follows the plural noun when you are making it possessive. All you need to think about is this: are there more than one “persons, places, or things” possessing this thing or those things? Then make sure the word you use for the plural noun indicates “more than one” BEFORE adding the apostrophe (captains‘ crews, football players‘ sweat socks, girls‘ dollhouse…). Is there only one “person, place, or thing” possessing this thing or those things? Then make sure the singular noun indicates “one” BEFORE adding the apostrophe and the “s” (the little girl‘s puppy, my mother‘s apron, the farmer‘s cows).

WHAT ABOUT WORDS WHICH DO NOT REQUIRE AN “S” AT THE END TO BECOME PLURAL?

Many nouns, like the the words “pickle,” “bird,” “hypocrite,” and “boat,” require an “s” be added at the end to make them plural. But some words do NOT require an “s” to be added at the end to make them plural. Think of words like “woman” (singular) which becomes “women” when plural. “Man” is singular, and “men” is plural. “Child” is singular, and “children” is plural. To make these words possessive in their singular form, just do what you would do with singular words like trident and turtle–add an apostrophe followed by an “s.” For instance:

  • The man’s car…
  • The child’s toy…

To make these words possessive in their plural form, DO THE SAME THING. Simply add an apostrophe followed by an “s” as in:

  • The men’s sister
  • The children’s toys

The words “women,” “men,” and “children” are ALREADY plural, so add an apostrophe and an “s” to make them possessive.

With a little practice, and a little extra study (as well as a desire to take your writing seriously by investing in tried-and-true grammar texts), you can improve your writing and not only look professional, but become a professional too!

written by Jean Foster Akin

 

 

 

Don’t Be a Verb Weenie!

Passive, active; intransitive, transitive—whatever you label them within context, verbs are amazing creatures! They fill our stories with zest, with tang, with spice, with punch…if chosen well, of course!

It’s unfortunate that so many students of writing find verbs a mystery to use properly. Believe me, I have been editing manuscripts a long time, and many of my clients view verbs the same way an old man might view an ancient, towering maple tree. He wants to climb it as he once did in his youth; he wants to master the tree and feel the roughness of the bark against his thighs, and listen to the rustling of fresh, cool, green leaves as they tickle the back of his neck. But in the end, he walks away, feeling mildly defeated, too fearful to make the attempt to climb.

Now, of course, this is the point where my illustration falls apart; only a wise old man knows he shouldn’t attempt to climb a large old tree, but as writers we know we should make every attempt to understand our language better and use it masterfully in our writing–in other words, no matter what our age, we must climb that tree! The old man, on the other hand, might look jaunty and brave to the neighbors as he gives a little hop and grasps the first branch he can reach, but if he can hoist his old self onto that branch, he’ll probably fall and break his neck soon thereafter. Not so with the writer who bravely studies the subject of transitive and intransitive verbs! If you take some time to study verbs, squeamish as you might feel at first, you will find yourself a better writer–and that’s always worth the trouble. Besides, think of how intelligent you will look to friends, family, and foes when you can carry on a conversation about transitive and intransitive verbs!  You will definitely adopt a jaunty air, and your circle of acquaintances will all be so jealous (especially your foes, believe me)!

If you will be brave (and I know you want to be) you will take care to pick up the right book on verbs so that you won’t become discouraged in your studies. You must be fearless if you want to write well. You cannot be a verb weenie! I’ve seen first-hand the colorlessness that a rigid adherence to the rules of grammar can bring a story, and I’ve read the very texts that bring on the fear of experimentation which causes this colorlessness in so many pieces of writing. I’ve been victimized by writer-friends, shamelessly hopped up on Strunk and White, who ripped every bit of “passive voice” from my writing so that in the end my work resembled an instruction manual for installing a shower head, only less exciting. But then, I’ve also seen the devil-may-care mess that comes when writers get sloppy and throw grammar into the wind because everything they’ve ever read about “active and passive” has been so technical they can’t be bothered to learn.

Constance Hale, author of the new Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing, recently spoke with an interviewer,** and had a few very helpful things to say about passive verbs (what she calls “static verbs”): “I visited a journalism class in which the instructor advised students to steer clear of is going, was going, and had been going as a way of cutting static verbs out of sentences. That’s a valuable tense he’s throwing out. We need progressive forms! Why not tell students to throw out every neon highlighter and stick only to black ballpoint?”

Ms. Hale goes on to give a fantastic example of passive/static verbs in the following passage from One Hundred Years of Solitude, as translated into English by Gregory Rabassa:

‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant noon when his father took him to discover ice.’

“Here,” Ms. Hale states, “in one of the greatest opening lines of literature, the passive construction captures the infinite passivity of Buendia’s situation: He is facing the firing squad, helpless against his fate, unable to act, to change; he can only remember the remotest past.”

Writing (communicating through the written word) and writing well (communicating beautifully through the written word), should not be shackled by a rigid adherence to rules, and laws, and ordinances. But, you can follow the necessary rules and still PLAY WITH WORDS, and you should! Make sure your readers understand what you are attempting to communicate, of course, but don’t worry so much about rules that you lose sight of the beauty and fun and satire and emotion that naturally blooms as you let yourself go and enjoy the writing process. Don’t allow your particular and remarkable way of expressing thoughts to be overshadowed by stiff, grammatically perfect formula—but do know your stuff. A fun way to start might be by purchasing Constance Hale’s book for writers and teachers, Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing. I do not know Ms. Hale and I don’t get a cut from the sale of her book (wouldn’t that be nice?), but what she said about the purpose of the book made me believe it was just the remedy for the insecurity so many writers feel in the face of the dreaded intransitive verb. She wrote that the goal of the book is not to champion “hypercorrect grammar, but hyperpowerful prose…”

Anyone who knows me knows one of my biggest pet peeves is the lack of preparation I find in modern writers, modern would-be authors. Many of them don’t read enough, they don’t write enough, they don’t allow for enough constructive and honest feedback of their work. They vomit out onto the page whatever it is they feel and think, and believe that this is good enough. It is not. It’s lazy. It’s cynical. It’s not what a true writer does except in a first draft. Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch was written by a woman who has fanatically studied grammar for many many years, but who has written a lively, loving look at the beauty and possibilities of language. For writers who really want their work to shine, I’m suggesting this book.

by Jean Foster Akin

**See the January 2013 edition of The Writer (Vol. 126, Issue 1) for a wonderful interview with Constance Hale.

DANCING WITH WORDS…

Writers are sometimes strange, often introspective, frequently emotional, always (hopefully) highly imaginative, commonly impetuous, and every now and again unpredictable. Writers: those people who burn with desire to dance with words.

I’ve been dancing for a long time. For many many years. Writing has been for me a long and passionate love affair. At nine years old, I would creep to that dark corner of the dining room on the second floor of the three-storey walk-up where my family lived. There I would nestle in the attached seat of a 1950s wood and cast-iron school desk my Nana had given us years before, a small desk that my father had crammed into the out-of-the-way corner of the room, between the end of my mother’s immense dark oak buffet and the old cast iron radiator near the wall. In that corner was a narrow window which looked out on the murky shadows that fell between our house and the one standing six feet away, blocking the light. Through that window, I could just see a patch of azure sky above, and hear the muffled squeak of chains grinding on metal as the children down the block swung on the old lumbering swing set in the park. And there I would sit, writing away, loving it more than the swings–more, even, at that moment (and at most moments) than whatever had caused the giggling at the park.

At fourteen, I was still finding secluded little nooks where I could sit with pencil and notepad, listening to the rain, smelling the tangy wet air, and writing writing writing.

When I was fifteen, my mom and dad went out and found me a hunkin’ old manual Royal typewriter. That grey metal behemoth was the most treasured gift I had ever received at that point in my life (the Easy Bake Oven when I was six was pretty good too), and never once did they complain when, long after they had gone to bed at night, the floor shook with the vibration caused by the tips of my fingers crashing down hard on those old springy keys as the typewriter rested precariously on an old card table in my bedroom.

I still find in the act of writing a contentment and release that few other activities have ever offered. Yes, of course, there is the love I feel for the man who makes me whole, who brings me joy by his very presence in my life: the man whose voice lifts me, the man who can look into my eyes and make the world around me vanish, the man I know as deeply and as intimately as I know myself. For him I have an indescribable love, in him I feel an indescribable contentment. There are children too, children whom I have held in the night, and sung to; children who used to lay in their beds, falling into dreams as they listened to me read The Wind in the Willows from the shadowy hall. These are the children I rocked, the children I bandaged and kissed. These are the children who are no longer helpless, but for whom I still hold a fierce love that steps way over the border of impartial judgement and calm consideration. But writing? Writing is something that was always there, inside me from the beginning. That thing which drove me before the others came along. That thing which defined me before the words “loving wife” and “devoted mother” ever became words to describe me.

Certainly, I have loved spending hours reading books on the “do’s and don’t’s” of remedial correctness. After all, spelling and grammar must be learned (now more than ever in this text-happy world); vocabulary, composition theory, syntax—all these aspects of speaking and writing words need learning, discussion, practice, constructive critiquing. But if words are to be spoken and written in ways which make us feel, then we must dance with words, and allow our children to dance with them too. It is error to say that there are no rules to language except those the writer makes for himself, but it is also error to always harp on every misplaced comma.

There are times to draw grammar trees and define imperative and interrogative sentences, but there are also times when we must simply enjoy the flow of words, revel in the sounds of words, feel the meter without having to name it or dissect it. There are times when we must dance.

Jean Foster Akin

Finding Time to Write

One of the more frustrating aspects of being a writer is finding time to write.

If you are working towards publication, or your first book is in production and you are working on book number two (the latter being the happy position in which I find myself at the moment), then you know how important it is not to allow too much time to elapse between writing sessions.

But published authors are not the only writers, obviously. They are not the only writers who need to write. There are many writers who are not focused on publication who feel just as much urgency to sit and write as any other writer out there. They are poets and journal-keepers, they are the writers of family stories who keep family history safe for generations to come. They are those who write on any number of subjects in any number of genres, and they find it difficult sometimes to find the time to get all that great stuff on paper.

Here are a few problems we all face as writers in finding the time to write, and my thoughts on how we might manage the conflicts between the world which presses in around us (insisting on our attention), and the haven of the writing nook.

  • Poor Prioritizing: We all know that in order to have a relaxed, productive, and ultimately satisfactory writing session, we cannot be distracted by the odor of the overflowing garbage pail in the kitchen, the whining dog we have yet to feed, or the child who needs our attention. We must get certain things settled before launching into hours of uninterrupted writing time, because, contrary to popular theory, your Muse does not come before your children, your hungry dog, or the sanitary conditions of your home! Handle the needs of those important people in your life first (and don’t rush them through like they are telemarketers!), take care of the dog if it’s your turn today, and get rid of the garbage in the kitchen. Then you can settle down and get in some writing time with a clear conscience.
  • Disorganization: If possible, keep your computer in one room, designated as your writing room. It should be a room as free from distractions as possible (no TV, little or no “foot traffic,” etc). Keep all your reference books nearby, and all your multi-colored pens/pencils and notebooks handy. Designate these items as YOURS. This is not selfish as long as you see that everyone else has THEIRS. There are certain tools a writer needs, and needs close, while she is working; allowing the children to borrow your dictionary because they’ve lost their own only leads to you running around the house like a chicken with her head cut off searching for your dictionary when you need it. You’ll be getting up time and time again to go find the thesaurus Johnny left upstairs, and the notebook with your character sketches in it that little Jenny snagged as a drawing pad last Sunday. Also, once you find the room you want as your writing-place, don’t keep packing up and moving elsewhere throughout the month in an effort to change the scenery–this will only lead to YOU leaving your writing necessaries all over the house. Again: find your place and get your mind used to writing in that place; label your things so they aren’t used and then misplaced by the general population. Just those two actions on your part will cut down on many hours of search and rescue missions! 🙂
  • Distractions: Unless there is someone in your house other than you who pretty much always answers the telephone, you must screen your calls. The telephone is one of the biggest time wasters out there. When you are stuck on how to end a chapter, the ringing phone can be like the Siren’s call! Resist her, I beg you, or you will never get any writing done at all! Writers don’t get paid for wasting time–so don’t waste it! If your spouse or children call you during the day, they get priority. Everybody else can wait till after dinner.
  • Internet: this could be listed under “Distractions,” above, but the Internet is so pervasive in our culture, I think it deserves its own heading. When most of us write, we use, not an old Royal typewriter, but a computer. And most of us have our computers hooked up to the Internet. We use online dictionary and thesaurus sites for quick look-ups, and we search the Internet for any variety of information needed in a story on which we’re working. But many writers also sneak peeks throughout the day at email, Face Book, and Twitter accounts, and those “peeks” often distract them for many minutes to hours at a time! Does this sound like you? If the Internet has you hooked, designate a time for surfing or for answering email, preferably at the end of the day, not at the beginning. If possible, disconnect from the Internet (while writing creatively at least) and use the old standbys to support your writing: dictionaries, reference books from the library, tools for writers made of actual paper, in soft or hard cover–the same instruments used successfully for many years by exceptional writers of our past, before the Rise of the Machines.

I wish you productive, distraction-free writing today! 🙂

Jean Foster Akin

Don’t Be a Caspar Milquetoast!

 Maybe you’re too young to know who Caspar Milquetoast was–and I would be too except that my mother used to bring him up to me when I was not being direct with her, or when I wanted something but danced around without asking for it outright, or when I wasn’t standing up for myself at school, or when I was, in some other way, not asserting myself as she thought I should. Caspar Milquetoast was a character developed by H.T. Webster for his cartoon series The Timid Soul, debuting way back in New York World, 1924. That was a LOOOONG time before I was born, and a long time before the Internet could show me what he looked like! But the way my mother described him made me understand exactly why she referred to him when remarking on peoples’ unneccessary timidity. Caspar was a noncommittal, wishy-washy fellow, a wimp, the kind of man (as his Creator H.T. Webster described him) who “speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick!”

Being a Caspar Milquetoast while writing is the same thing as “using a passive voice.” It’s writing in a wishy-washy way that doesn’t move your story along, which saps your story of energy and drive. You don’t want to be mousy and passive when you write–you want to grab your readers and drag them into your story with purpose and confidence—even if they don’t see all the ways you’re doing it. In fact, they don’t have to see all the ways you’re doing it, they shouldn’t see all the ways you’re doing it—your job is just to see that it’s done.

Caveat: Passivity in writing drains your story of immediacy and force, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t times when you will use the passive voice, and quite successfully, to add to your story. We cannot, as writers, follow all the “rules” by every dot and tittle. Strunk’s The Elements of Style should be required reading for every high school composition student, but all writing cannot be expected to embrace that level of preciseness, that level of exactness, that direct and active voice, because then all novels would read like text books. So while we cannot declare that we must never, ever, ever use the passive voice, we can say that we need to use it carefully when we write, because, in general, passivity slows the story and steals  impact.

Consider these sentences:

Sirens were screaming in the distance. (passive)

Sirens screamed in the distance. (active)

Cam’s eyes were beginning to widen. (passive)

Cam’s eyes widened. (active)

He took their bowls and went to to the sink. (passive)

He took their bowls to the sink. (active)

Her eyes were encircled by dark rings. (passive)

Dark circles framed her eyes. (active)

A scream exited her mouth. (both passive and obvious)

She screamed, and her lips contorted in a rictus of pain. (active and much more descriptive)

You can see how active the second sentences are in each of the examples above. While you’re writing, watch for passivity. If you feel it is necessary, by all means keep it in. But if it isn’t necessary (and it so often isn’t) route it out with courage and resolve! Don’t be a Caspar Milquetoast!

Jean Foster Akin