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Random thoughts on style

Cartoon: man sitting at desk with caption "he waited for the next wave of regulations to arrive."Never end a sentence with a preposition?  That is the sort of pedantry up with which I shall not put. (Winston Churchill)

Sometimes it's okay to savagely split an infinitive.  (Me)

And if it sometimes seems right to start a sentence with 'and' or 'but,' do it.

Subject, predicate, object is almost always the right order.  Until it gets boring.

Anglo-Saxon words make for sturdy, yeoman-like prose.  The Romance words add, well, romance, even insouciance, but use them sparingly, n’est pas? (Strunk and White)

Strunk and White also banished the use of “however” at the beginning of a sentence.  They preferred “nevertheless”.  What a dumb opinion from such smart guys.  However you look at it.

Elmore Leonard, who handed out some pretty good writing advice, said to never start a book with the weather.  I wrote a book set in a beach town during the winter.  When should I have alerted the reader that there was a blizzard outside?

Whom and shall are oft-neglected, beautiful words.  For Who the Bell Tolls?  You may eschew such seemingly atavistic usage, but I never shall.

My English teachers said to leave out the comma in front of the word 'and' in a set:  do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti and do.  And I'm sticking with it.  I'm also putting commas in front of adverbs, no matter what some trendy copy editors advise, derisively.

I agree with Lewis Thomas that the least appreciated punctuation mark is the semi-colon; how this precious tool slipped into obscurity is anyone’s guess.

I also love his equating the exclamation mark with an annoying child who’s just interrupted an adult conversation.  Mommy, my butt!

I can never remember if the period is supposed to go inside or outside parenthesis (which bugs the hell out of my stickler of a wife.).

She also taught me to read what I’ve written out loud.  You’ll know right away if it sounds right or not.  So listen up.

In the 18th century, they often used a letter called a “long s”, which looked like an “f”.    This has confiderably confufed later generations.  Proving that evolving our syntax and punctuation is often a good thing.

Advertising copy is the most anarchic form of the English language.  Good.  We couldn't care less about complete sentences.  Dumb assed things.  Neither should you mystery writers.

Many formal, academic writers cannot, will not, bring themselves to use contractions.  To their detriment.  Americans, even smarty pants academics, won’t, don’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t even think of speaking without them, so why leave them out of their writing?  Ain’t that the truth.

A number in the narrative text can usually be rendered as a number.  There were over 1,000 geese soiling my beautiful lawn.  But when the character is actually speaking those words, I think it should be, “There were over a thousand geese soiling my beautiful lawn.”

Because, how do you say 1,000?

 


Chris Knopf is an author of mysteries and thrillers, and a co-publisher at The Permanent Press.

Carpe diem. But not right now. Maybe later.

Businessman standing with arms crossed outside his office, desktop with laptop on foreground, selective focusI always want to be writing anything other than the thing I’m supposed to be writing.  This is the impulse that drives my productivity. It’s why I have so many irons in the fire, because there’s nothing like a fresh iron to take your mind off the ones already in the forge.

The problem with working on the thing I’m supposed to be working on is it’s hard.  It’s hard because people are usually waiting for it to be finished within a certain timeframe. It’s much easier to be working on something no one is waiting for, because no one but you know it’s being worked on. These projects are always my favorites.  It’s only between me and my anonymous compulsions.  Since I always feel compelled to write, this is a happy state.  I get to do what I want with no danger of outside pressure or reproach.

I think most writers are the same way. Procrastination yields tremendous output.  There’s nothing like a short story deadline to get a person out there in the garden transplanting shrubbery, or calling up neglected relatives to find out how they’re doing, even if they only wonder where you’ve been the past twenty years.

The urge to procrastinate is behind all my re-writing. I tell myself that I can’t possibly write anything fresh, but I can spend my writing time going over existing material.  The result is often very useful rejiggering, which almost always leads to fresh composition, despite myself.

I don’t fear the blank page. In fact, I like it.  What I fear is hard work, which original writing always is.  I know I can do it, since so far I always have, though that doesn’t mean I don’t resist launching the effort. I feel the same way about preparing my taxes or hauling the garbage cans out to the curb. All past evidence suggests I can do these tasks, and when I’m done, I’ll feel great satisfaction. But it’s the start that holds me back.  And since I’m an inherently energetic person, I look for something else to do instead, like study the Ming dynasty on Wikipedia or repaint the living room.

I marvel at people like Isaac Asimov, the all-time productivity champ, who would wake up in the morning and just write all day long, rolling his chair from typewriter to typewriter, writing several books, or scientific papers, simultaneously.  Did his fingers ever get tired?  I’ve destroyed my left elbow from constant typing over the stretch (lengthening) of my adult life.  Much of that time, admittedly, was in the service of copy writing and thousands of memos, letters and emails a year, but still. I’ve also published 15 books and written about 20.  Big deal.  The late, great Donald Bain published 125 books.  How many more did he actually write?  How did he keep his elbows going?

Did Asimov, Bain, and to add another freak of productivity, Stephen King, all feel drawn to write because they were avoiding something else they thought they should be doing?  Origami?  Cleaning out the garage?  Learning French?

All the best writing advice says you should sit down in front of the keyboard every day for a subscribed amount of time and write something.  I never do this.  My subscribed amount of time appears when I’m done writing things I don’t have to write and turning my attention to those I do. This could happen at any time during the day or night.  In any place I happen to find myself, which is why I haul my laptop around with me no matter the occasion.

Procrastination has had a bad rap since the British aristocracy was forced out of willful indolence sometime in the early 20th century, though recently it’s been enjoying a bit of a resurgence, with multiple scholarly works published in its support. The claim, bolstered by studies on creativity researchers have finally gotten around to completing,  is that we only think we’re procrastinating, when in fact, our sub-conscious is busily working on the creative problem, and cooking up solutions that will only reveal themselves when the deadline is down to a few hours away.  I love this idea.  It thoroughly justifies all those nights in college playing pool, drinking beer and running out to buy hoagies (I’m from Philadelphia) at 2:00 am instead of writing the term paper due somewhere near sunrise.

On the other hand, 40 years in advertising taught me that a frequent outcome of procrastination was getting fired.  We were gently encouraged to hit the deadline, often less than a day, or suffer a gruesome death.

Luckily for mystery writers, the deadlines are a bit more gracious, and we can convince our spouses that rotting on the front porch and staring at the squirrels running around is a highly productive component of the creative process.

 


Chris Knopf is an author of mysteries and thrillers, and a co-publisher at The Permanent Press.

Thoughts on Copy Editors

Every published author will tell you that a great copy editor is a gift from God, and have horror stories about those more in Satan’s camp.  I’ve had both.  Now that I’m busy with the editorial process, the importance of great copy editing has become even more apparent.

There’s a big range of capabilities different copy editors bring to their roles. Some are basically proofreaders, who concentrate on typos, spelling, punctuation, format screw-ups, like a bad break in the middle of a sentence, things that are objectively incorrect.  But beyond that, there’s a lot of room for thoughtful interpretation.  Especially for things like commas, colons, semi-colons, quote marks, dashes, and so on. These can have a big impact on style and meaning.  The copy editor has to understand the author’s intent, his or her distinctive voice, to know how to properly suggest how these guideposts should be arranged.

Great copy editors also delve into grammar, usage, syntax, continuity, fact checking, historical accuracy, repetitive or poor word choice, character consistency, even unintended pejoratives  – many of the things developmental editors also attend to. This means they have to have a good understanding of the author’s unique style, not only to catch and correct tiny errors, but to maintain a clear understanding of the storyline itself.

A gestalt on the work as a whole.

A not-so-good copy editor is either someone who just misses too many goof-ups, or worse, one who conforms to strict definitions of formal rules.  When I was in advertising, I sent some copy to a bigwig for approval.  After checking for technical accuracy, he turned it over to his admin, who was a former English teacher.   I got it back all marked up with a red pen.  She took out all my contractions, re-attached the split infinitives, and after making sure there were no incomplete sentences, ganged them up into long paragraphs.  Thus taking all the life out of the prose.

I thanked her for her help, and sent her a huge stack of long-form brochures asking her to apply her magic, and never heard from her again.

My favorite copy editors either come from journalism or advertising.  Those professions teach you how to keep the writing from straying too far from acceptable standards, but also that style must be a flexible thing, who appreciate the whole and do not distort the author’s voice by fussing over irrelevant particulars, or imposing rules that were first established in the eighteenth  century.

I work with a lot of beta readers who I ask to ignore typos and misspellings, hoping to keep their attention on the greater work.  This is easy for me, since I’m the world’s worst proofreader.  And utterly dependent on great copy editors, who are the lifeguards in the narrative stream.


Chris Knopf is an author of mysteries and thrillers, and a co-publisher at The Permanent Press.

Doris Ex Machina, Part the Last

Adelina here. I am sorry. I look at this blog and realize I have not been keeping up. You would think, being dead, that I would have plenty of time to blog, but it is not so very simple. Just because you are dead doesn’t mean the beets don’t need to be planted, the butter doesn’t need to be churned, the laundry doesn’t need to be beaten on a rock. 

And I am still needing to tell you about Romania’s Got Talent. My cousins and I were deciding to perform a scene from Medea by Euripedes. It was many days that we were rehearsing. So many days that Stela had to sew the costume for my dear cousin Doris more than one time. I am not one to gossip, but my dear cousin Doris was gaining the weight. Iulia says Doris is in the way of the family. But of course, that is impossible. Doris is not married.

But we were wanting to win Romania’s Got Talent. We decided to hide Doris in the back if it became necessary. But it was not becoming necessary. Because, just when it was our turn to perform, I was finding my cousin Vlad, dead on the floor in Doris’s dressing room.

But the show must be going on. I was leaving the body of my dear cousin, on the floor, in a pool of sticky wet blood. I went on stage, and there is so much more I want to be telling you, but Vlad’s life was coming to an end, and also was our time on Romania’s Got Talent.

Just as it was seeming that our performance would be running out of time without a proper ending, my cousin Doris was descending from the rafters in a dragon-born chariot. We did not the winning, but the audience cheered.

THE END.

I must to be honest here and tell you that we will be missing Doris when she escaped in the chariot, Bucharest’s finest in hot pursuit. We would also be missing Vlad who was carried out on a gurney. It was perhaps the reason I would be giving up the show business and emigrating to the United States of America. Still, we were excited by our appearance on Romania’s Got Talent and greatly enjoyed the after-party.

 

Adelina is the pretty one. She was born in Bucharest in 1887. 

She died of tuberculosis in Brooklyn in 1936.

Being dead, Adelina has time to blog.

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