Writing Advice

Singular or plural? It’s complicated.

24 October 2016

From The Week:

There is a myriad of ways we can express quantities in English, but there are just a couple words that are much in dispute.

Wait. Should that be “there are myriad ways” and “just a couple of words”?

Those are the two words much in dispute: myriad and couple. But we ought to just relax and let them go. They’re only sliding down the same slope as many words have before them, and still more might after them: the slippery slope from noun to quantifier.

What’s a quantifier? It’s a kind of word not everyone knows exists. Many people — including some who write usage guides and dictionaries — think there are nouns, and there are adjectives, and everything that modifies a noun is an adjective. It’s tidy, but it’s not true, and it leads to some silly mistakes.

First of all, numbers aren’t adjectives. They’re not! We know this because they don’t behave exactly like adjectives. For example, I can say “soft red pillows” and “the pillows are soft and red,” but if I say “three soft red pillows,” I can’t say “the pillows are three, soft, and red” — and I most certainly can’t say “the pillows are very three” even though I can say they are “very soft and red.” Also, I can say “a pink balloon” but I can’t say “a one balloon.” (After all, a comes from one.)

But not all words that express quantities are numbers. Even some numbers aren’t like other numbers. Consider: I can say “a thousand balloons,” “a few thousand balloons,” and “many thousands of balloons,” but I wouldn’t say “a nine balloons,” “a few nine balloons,” or “many nines of balloons” (unless I meant many nine-packs, in which case nine has become a noun standing for “nine-pack”).

That’s because thousand started out as a noun and, a long time ago, slid down the slope to becoming a quantifier. So did hundred. So did dozen. And that’s the slope that couple and myriad are on right now.

When these words were nouns, they behaved like nouns, pluralizing, taking a singular verb when single, and needing an of to attach them to another noun. That’s right: “a thousand of cattle,” “two millions of pounds,” “several dozens of eggs.” We still sometimes use dozen like this when referring to cartons. These quantifiers still show the marks of their noun past: “There were a hundred cats,” not “there were hundred cats” (compare “there were nine cats”); “thousands of dogs” and “scores of years” but not “fifties of dogs” or “nines of years.” Quantifiers that were once nouns can still be used at least sometimes as nouns (depending in part on how far down the slope they’ve slid). But the rest of the time they’re not behaving like nouns — but not like adjectives either.

. . . .

Myriad is not nearly as common a word as couple, but it has more ways it can be used. I won’t say there are myriad ways you can use it, or a myriad ways you can use it, or even a myriad of ways you can use it — or that thereis a myriad of ways — but there are at least those four ways. It started as a noun, of course, meaning “group of 10,000,” borrowed from Greek by way of Latin. It arrived in English in the 1500s, and by the 1600s it was already being used on occasion as a quantifier, both with and without a. It slipped down the slope quickly, no doubt at least in part because of its magnitude — when many just isn’t big enough, myriad serves nicely. But it’s stayed in use at all the stages of the slope: “a myriad of ways is,” “a myriad of ways are,” “a myriad ways are,” “myriad ways are.” Since it’s been used all these ways for centuries, there’s no reason not to keep using it however we want, choosing according to what works best in the context.

Link to the rest at The Week and thanks to Matthew for the tip.

NaNoWriMo Sucks. Here’s Why I’m Playing Anyway.

21 October 2016

From Medium:

If you’re a writer and you belong to any sort of writing community — in person, online, it doesn’t matter — about this time of year your life suddenly becomes all about National Novel Writing Month.

It doesn’t even matter if you want to try to write 50,000 words in thirty days.

It certainly doesn’t matter whether you want to hear about other writers preparing to bang their heads against their keyboards in abstract misery for the whole month of November.

. . . .

My professional opinion, as a published novelist and a teacher, is that NaNoWriMo sucks. I mean, it has it’s place (I’ll get to that in a minute), but as a method for becoming a real, working write?

NaNoWriMo sucks. For two reasons.

You’re not really writing a novel.

Those 50,000 words don’t make up a novel, unless you’re writing for middle grade kids or younger. A novel for young adults or adults is generally at least 65,000 to 70,000 words long.

You can indie publish whatever you want. If your plan is to try to traditionally publish, you’re going to have a hard time convincing an agent or publisher that 50,000 is long enough.

It’s probably not very good. (Yet.)

Those 50,000 words that were banged out at breakneck speed are almost definitely not publishable.

Chances are good that you’re going to reach December 1 needing the next eleven months to recover from your NaNoWriMo experience. You can’t actually build a career on pounding down 50,000 words every November and never really looking at them again.

Practically every Nano-er I know has a drawer full of 50,000 word great starts. Most aren’t willing to spend the rest of the year working on turning their great start into a publishable novel (of novel length.)

. . . .

NaNoWriMo sucks. It’s fun, but it’s just not the best way to write a novel. It advances the idea that a writing a novel is something you should be able to do in 30 days. It drives anyone who loves a writer crazy.

And yet. And yet, and yet, and yet. NaNoWriMo changed my life.

I wrote the very first draft of my very first novel during NaNoWriMo in 2004.

Link to the rest at Medium

How to be a Writer

16 October 2016

From Literary Hub:

1) Write. There is no substitute. Write what you most passionately want to write, not blogs, posts, tweets or all the disposable bubblewrap in which modern life is cushioned. But start small: write a good sentence, then a good paragraph, and don’t be dreaming about writing the great American novel or what you’ll wear at the awards ceremony because that’s not what writing’s about or how you get there from here. The road is made entirely out of words. Write a lot. Maybe at the outset you’ll be like a toddler—the terrible twos are partly about being frustrated because you’re smarter than your motor skills or your mouth, you want to color the picture, ask for the toy, and you’re bumbling, incoherent and no one gets it, but it’s not only time that gets the kid onward to more sophistication and skill, it’s effort and practice. Write bad stuff because the road to good writing is made out of words and not all of them are well-arranged words.

. . . .

5) Find a vocation. Talent is overrated, and it is usually conflated with nice style. Passion, vocation, vision, and dedication are rarer, and they will get you through the rough spots in your style when your style won’t give you a reason to get up in the morning and stare at the manuscript for the hundredth day in a row or even give you a compelling subject to write about. If you’re not passionate about writing and about the world and the things in it you’re writing about, then why are you writing? It starts with passion even before it starts with words. You want to read people who are wise, deep, wild, kind, committed, insightful, attentive; you want to be those people. I am all for style, but only in service of vision.

6) Time. It takes time. This means that you need to find that time. Don’t be too social. Live below your means and keep the means modest (people with trust funds and other cushions: I’m not talking to you, though money makes many, many things easy, and often, vocation and passion harder). You probably have to do something else for a living at the outset or all along, but don’t develop expensive habits or consuming hobbies. I knew a waitress once who thought fate was keeping her from her painting but taste was: if she’d given up always being the person who turned going out for a burrito into ordering the expensive wine at the bistro she would’ve had one more free day a week for art.

Link to the rest at Literary Hub

Time to See A Shrink

8 October 2016

From Publishers Weekly:

This was a first time for me. Not the first time I’ve consulted an expert—that’s business as usual for a novelist. For my first novel, I interviewed a New York City medical examiner and asked how deep someone would have to bury a body for it not to smell above the surface. (Just several inches, in case you’re curious.) I’ve shadowed talk show producers and change-management specialists (who are brought in during a company restructuring to help keep employees from leaving). But making an appointment to bring my characters to a therapist? That was a surprising development.

It happened after I gave an early draft of my novel Sisters One, Two, Three to a reader who is a former editor. The manuscript was at that rough stage when a writer needs to make sure the story holds together. The reader responded with praise, but she had a question: “By the end, that character doesn’t act like a narcissist at all. How can a narcissist totally change her behavior?”

Wow. This was surprising to hear. To me, the novel was about a family with a secret, mothers and daughters, tragedy and redemption. But a pathological narcissist whose narcissism suddenly disappears?

Now understand, I don’t think a narcissist is a liability in a novel. Narcissists can be fascinating, as long as you don’t have to live with them. But was this character pathological? Was her core behavior inconsistent? Was the reader right? I’m sure editors have tons of experience with narcissists, but they’re not trained mental health professionals.

. . . .

 I chose Dr. O., a smart, perceptive psychiatrist who—disclaimer—I’ve seen professionally, on and off over the years, since I belong to the class of people known as the worried well. I proposed a plan to Dr. O: I’d bring my characters in for an evaluation, and since they had no insurance, I’d pay their fee myself. I’d provide a synopsis of the novel they were occupying and a description of their salient psychological features. As for pathology, I would leave all diagnosing to her.

. . . .

Once we figured out how this would work, my fretting fell away. Dr. O would relate to me as if I were a psychoanalyst in training under her supervision. This was something she regularly did—worked with trainees, listened to their evaluation of patients, responded to the facts as presented. Bottom line: Dr. O got it. My book was fiction, not memoir, and her task was to pay attention to the workings of the characters’ minds, not the writer’s.

So what happened? I got confirmation that the characters in my novel, though flawed and complex, were not pathologically disturbed. Phew! Was one of the characters a narcissist? Did this character change in a way that was problematic? No and no. Phew, again!

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Do commas still matter?

5 October 2016

From The Washington Post:

My favorite bumper sticker I’ve never seen: Commas matter.

So I’ve always thought, and do still believe with the passion of one whose knuckles were rapped for grammatical errors. I mean this only metaphorically — no bloody fingers — but using incorrect grammar was the eighth deadly sin in my childhood home.

How grateful I am that this was so.

And now I have a confession: I’ve begun to forget the rules. What used to come naturally has become a test of recall. Does a comma go here? Should I use the Oxford comma?

I don’t think this is singly attributable to the aging process (shut up) but rather to our increasing sloppiness in new ways of communicating. We may as well blame social media for this, too, especially Twitter. When you only have 140 characters to make a point, why waste one on a comma?

. . . .

If you’re lucky (and probably older), you learned these things in school, along with the multiplication tables. They’re imprinted on your brain so that the correct answer comes relatively quickly and accurately.

Not so for younger generations, who’ve had the dubious benefit all their lives of spelling and grammar checkers, as well as handheld devices. It may not matter how one produces a sum or a sentence, but it’s my pleasure to worry about such things. The quick mental function that says 9 times 9 is 81 without benefit of a calculator, besides being strangely satisfying, provides periodic reassurance that the brain is sufficiently oxygenated.

. . . .

I return to the question of grammar. Does it matter, really?

Yes, please.

It matters because good grammar conveys a great deal about a person.

Quality is in the details — and attention to commas, semicolons, dangling participles, gerunds and the proper placement of quotation marks says to the reader that this person is careful, considerate (because bad grammar is painful to the discerning eye), and (there’s that Oxford comma) competent.

“Grammar is credibility,” says Amanda Sturgill, an associate professor of communications at Elon University, where I recently spoke. “If you’re not taking care of the small things, people assume you’re not taking care of the big things.”

Sturgill, who devotes an entire day of class to the lowly comma, says that most students have a limited appreciation of the nuances of comma usage. Most have been taught that you insert a comma when you would naturally pause in speaking or where you would take a breath.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

Eleven Sneaky Ways To Rescue A Failed Story

30 September 2016

From Writers’ Village:

So your story ‘doesn’t work’. You’ve worried it to death. You’ve cut stuff out. You’ve put it back in again. Now you’re wondering for the nth time if that comma in line three should really have been a semi-colon or a full stop.


Isn’t it time to junk the whole wretched tale and start again?

No. Your story might still be rescued, faults and all. Here are eleven sneaky ways. (‘Sneaky’ because they’re quick fixes and don’t pretend to be complete writing strategies.)

. . . .

3. Your plot has drifted out of sync.

If your character grew up in central Boston, s/he couldn’t have been educated at the same time in Vermont. But you only realize that after you’ve written 10,000 words.

Don’t do a total rewrite. Just go back and add some transitional lines:
‘The family’s move from Boston to Vermont happened like a dream. She remembered only fragments of it. One blink and there were trees. She’d never had a garden before.’
You can use the same ploy to tidy up all kinds of (small) anomalies. Have a character allude to them, agree they’re odd, confess they can’t remember all the details, then move on.

The reader will go along with that. Otherwise, they’ll cry “Hey ho, a plot hole!”

. . . .

6. You have too many named characters.

Your reader can focus their attention on only two or three named characters per chapter. Unlike you, they don’t have the benefit of a cast list to distinguish Jim from Joel and Anne from Alice. They’ll give up.

Two solutions:

A. Give all your named characters names that start with different letters. And…

B. Name only those characters who appear continually in the story or who must otherwise be memorable. Blur out the bit players. Identify them by labels.
So ‘Joe Dale, manager of the deli store’ becomes ‘the deli store manager’.
He can still play a colourful role but, being nameless, he won’t upstage your main players.

. . . .

10. Your dialogue is confusing.

It’s a great idea to draft a scene, initially, as a play script. Just dialogue. With its tit-for-tat exchanges, dialogue has conflict and vitality built in.

But a tit-for-tat exchange is still a playscript. It won’t work as a story. You need to add tags or other descriptors to show us who’s saying what to whom – plus constant reminders of the context.

Otherwise, it’s just voices in a vacuum.

If a single passage of dialogue goes on for more than three lines, it risks turning into a monologue. Break it up. Intersperse it with speaker labels, dialogue beats (inconsequential actions that indicate who’s speaking) or a speakers’ private thoughts, maybe set in italics.
‘She chewed gloomily on a breadstick.’ / The waiter refilled her glass.’ / ‘Not much of a menu, she thought.’
Now we know we’re in a restaurant. And who’s speaking/thinking. The monologue has also acquired life and texture.

Link to the rest at Writers’ Village

Everyone Suffers from Impostor Syndrome — Here’s How to Handle It

29 September 2016

From Harvard Business Review:

One of the greatest barriers to moving outside your comfort zone is the fear that you’re a poser, that you’re not worthy, that you couldn’t possibly be qualified to do whatever you’re aiming to do. It’s a fear that strikes many of us: impostor syndrome.

I know I’ve certainly had those thoughts while publishing pieces of writing, whether it’s blogs or books. I’ve had them while teaching my first university classes and giving speeches to corporate audiences. I appear confident on the outside but feel deeply insecure on the inside, wondering who I am to be stepping up to this stage. What could I possibly have to say that anyone would want to hear?

. . . .

What can you do to overcome these feelings of inadequacy that so many of us experience?

A first tip is something that Portman highlights in her Harvard address, which I’ve found quite helpful: Recognize the benefits of being a novice. You might not realize it, but there are great benefits to being new in your field. When you are not steeped in the conventional wisdom of a given profession, you can ask questions that haven’t been asked before or approach problems in ways others haven’t thought of.

. . . .

A second tip for combatting impostor syndrome is to focus more on what you’re learning than on how you’re performing. According to psychologist Carol Dweck, the feelings that impostor syndrome leaves you with are ones we might actually be able to control. With a performance mindset, which people suffering from impostor syndrome often have, you tend to see your feelings of inadequacy or the mistakes you make as evidence of your underlying limitations. This mindset only fuels the concerns you have about being unfit for your job. But there’s something you can work to cultivate instead: a learning mindset. From this perspective, your limitations are experienced quite differently. Your mistakes are seen as an inevitable part of the learning process rather than as more evidence of your underlying failings.

Link to the rest at Harvard Business Review

How Our Internal Critics Enslave Us

26 September 2016

From Brain Pickings:

I have thought and continued to think a great deal about the relationship between critical thinking and cynicism — what is the tipping point past which critical thinking, that centerpiece of reason so vital to human progress and intellectual life, stops mobilizing our constructive impulses and topples over into the destructiveness of impotent complaint and embittered resignation, begetting cynicism?

. . . .

I found myself contemplating anew this fine but firm line between critical thinking and cynical complaint. To cross it is to exile ourselves from the land of active reason and enter a limbo of resigned inaction.

But cross it we do, perhaps nowhere more readily than in our capacity for merciless self-criticism. We tend to go far beyond the self-corrective lucidity necessary for improving our shortcomings, instead berating and belittling ourselves for our foibles with a special kind of masochism.

. . . .

[Author Adam] Phillips — who has written with beguiling nuance about such variousness of our psychic experience as the importance of “fertile solitude,” the value of missing out, and the rewards of being out of balance — examines how “our virulent, predatory self-criticism [has] become one of our greatest pleasures,” reaching across the space-time of culture to both revolt against and pay homage to Susan Sontag’s masterwork Against Interpretation. He writes:

In broaching the possibility of being, in some way, against self-criticism, we have to imagine a world in which celebration is less suspect than criticism; in which the alternatives of celebration and criticism are seen as a determined narrowing of the repertoire; and in which we praise whatever we can.

Our masochistic impulse for self-criticism, he argues, arises from the fact that ambivalence is the basic condition of our lives. In a passage that builds on his memorable prior reflections on the paradox of why frustration is necessary for satisfaction in romance, Phillips considers Freud’s ideological legacy:

In Freud’s vision of things we are, above all, ambivalent animals: wherever we hate, we love; wherever we love, we hate. If someone can satisfy us, they can also frustrate us; and if someone can frustrate us, we always believe that they can satisfy us. We criticize when we are frustrated — or when we are trying to describe our frustration, however obliquely — and praise when we are more satisfied, and vice versa. Ambivalence does not, in the Freudian story, mean mixed feelings, it means opposing feelings.


Love and hate — a too simple, or too familiar, vocabulary, and so never quite the right names for what we might want to say — are the common source, the elemental feelings with which we apprehend the world; and they are interdependent in the sense that you can’t have one without the other, and that they mutually inform each other. The way we hate people depends on the way we love them, and vice versa. And given that these contradictory feelings are our ‘common source’ they enter into everything we do. They are the medium in which we do everything. We are ambivalent, in Freud’s view, about anything and everything that matters to us; indeed, ambivalence is the way we recognize that someone or something has become significant to us… Where there is devotion there is always protest… where there is trust there is suspicion.


We may not be able to imagine a life in which we don’t spend a large amount of our time criticizing ourselves and others; but we should keep in mind the self-love that is always in play.

But we have become so indoctrinated in this conscience of self-criticism, both collectively and individually, that we’ve grown reflexively suspicious of that alternative possibility.

Link to the rest at Brain Pickings

10 things I learned rewriting a 20-year old manuscript

26 September 2016

From author Elizabeth Andre via Women and Words:

More than 20 years ago, I wrote a 65,000 word novel that I was convinced would make me the sweet young darling of literary circles. It didn’t happen. That manuscript was rejected by every English language publisher in the world. The manuscript was then lost to time until I reconnected with an old friend on Facebook. He revealed that he had the manuscript and was willing to give me a copy. I decided to rewrite it, andTested: Sex, love, and friendship in the shadow of HIV will be published October 7.

I learned a several valuable lessons in the rewriting process:

1: If a detail doesn’t move the plot or develop a character, leave it out, no matter how beautiful and poignant it is.

My 65,000 word manuscript was filled with this most common of rookie writing mistakes. Tested is a story of four 20-something friends in 1993 who spend the day getting an HIV test while contemplating the various risks they have taken that may affect the result. As well written as various sections were, nobody cares about my endless descriptions of high school homophobic bullying, the Chicago public transit system, Ethiopian restaurants or newspaper vendors. I had to kill my darlings, as much as it pained me, but I turned my 65,000 word flabby manuscript into a 23,000 word lean piece of fiction that says what it needs to and does it well.

. . . .

5: My work still mattered even though it wasn’t published.

I’m from a family of writers and grew up with the idea that you write something and then you publish it. If you don’t publish it, what’s the point? My old friend kept that manuscript all these years because a character was based on him. That manuscript meant something to him, and that is enough.

6: It’s a good thing it wasn’t published.

Really, it’s a much better book now. If it had been published in 1993, I would probably be apologizing for it today.

Link to the rest at Women and Words

Here’s a link to Elizabeth Andre’s books. If you like an author’s post, you can show your appreciation by checking out their books.

These 6 Words Helped Me Overcome My Fear of Failure

23 September 2016

From Medium:


My cursor pulsed on the blank page.

I wrote sentence and then deleted every word. I stood up 6 times for coffee in 2 hours. Surprisingly, my page would still be blank when I returned.

I wanted to start a blog. I wanted to start a business. I wanted to change the world.

But all those things invite ridicule. I had a fear of being ridiculed.

So I sat safely in the corner, dumping ideas into my hard drive where they collected dust.

One day, a friend of mine told me something which changed my perspective forever. He said this:

“Nobody cares what you are doing.”

Far from being depressing, this was the most liberating thing I ever discovered.

Obscurity is not a problem. It’s an opportunity. It allows you to lay the first brick in your idea without a judging panel. Then, you might find the confidence to lay another. And then another. Safe in your shroud of being a nobody, you have full reign to take whatever type of material you like and build whatever type of legacy you want.

Link to the rest at Medium

Next Page »