Revising Leah

September 28, 2008

Dashes! We Don’t Need No Stinking Dashes!

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 2:21 pm
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One of the stylistic decisions that I’ve made in recent years as a writer is to misuse overuse the dash. Technically, a dash or a pair of dashes is used to set off a parenthetical word or phrase from the rest of the sentence. It’s like a parenthesis, except that it suggests a quicker reading pace. You don’t linger on the content surrounded by a dash, it’s just something that has been thrown into the text — almost as an afterthought. I started using dashes more and more just a few years ago. I now enjoy using them so much that I sometimes wish I could use them in place of all commas, semicolons, and periods. I often have to stop myself from using them when a pair of commas or parentheses would be the better choice.

The one place where I give myself permission to use dashes as much as I want is in my dialogue.

If you really listen to people when they speak, you’ll find that people don’t usually speak in complete, grammatically correct sentences. Were you to transcribe a conversation that you have with someone, what you’d see is a “blizzard of words” — to borrow a phrase — that doesn’t necessarily make sense on paper, but in the act of speaking, it can make sense. Language in speech has its own logic — its own grammar — that is different from language in writing. People speak in fragments or run-on sentences or in extremely tortured and convoluted sentences. When I write dialogue, I go out of my way to mess up my characters’ grammar, in an attempt to capture how real people really speak.

But dialogue also screws with the rules and customs surrounding punctuation. Suddenly, in dialogue, question marks and exclamation points seem to pop up a lot more often. There’s still a place for commas and periods, but they’re not quite as discernible and distinguishable when you hear someone speak as when you see a sentence written out.

Speech allows for a number of utterances that are almost never seen in writing. What do we do, for example, when a character abruptly changes the subject, when another idea forces its way into what he or she is trying to say? What do we do when a character is struggling to find the right word or phrase? When you write, you have the luxury of stopping and thinking about what you mean to say. You can check a dictionary or a thesaurus. You can rephrase a sentence again and again until you get it just right. You can’t do that when you are speaking. So how do you capture that element of speaking when you are writing?

I use dashes. Here are a couple of examples from The Spring:

“You’ve been quiet today — what’s the matter?”

“I’m not sucking up — I’m just being nice.”

In the first case, a period would be the correct punctuation mark after “today,” but in this instance of dialogue it might not be the best punctuation mark. The question emerges from the statement. They’re two distinct sentences, yet they’re not. In the second example, a semicolon would make more sense if this were writing and not speech. But you can’t use a semicolon in dialogue because, well, NOBODY speaks in semicolons. I mean, seriously!

Do you find yourself doing anything out of the ordinary stylistically when you write dialogue?

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September 24, 2008

Me Use Grammar Checker Too Right Good

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 10:27 am
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I do most of my writing on OpenOffice’s word processor. It’s a reliable program, and it can do just about everything that Microsoft’s word processor can do, along with a few things that it can’t (PDF exporting, for example). And, best of all, OpenOffice is free. However, when I began this fifth revision cycle for Leah, I opened up an old version of MS Word that’s on my computer and used it to run Word’s grammar check program. What I like to use the grammar check for is to identify potential problems that don’t usually occur to me, such as overuse of the passive voice. It’s a quick and easy way for me to run through the entire manuscript and find additional problems in my writing that I might have missed.

When I teach word processing, though, I tell my students to never use MS Word’s grammar checker. The reason is that while it does sometimes offer good suggestions, it just as often offers bad suggestions. I use it because, hopefully, I’m experienced enough at writing that I can make a judgment call as to whether the grammar checker’s advice is good advice or not. Most of my students don’t have that same level of experience, and if I don’t discourage them from using the grammar function, then many of them will just blindly make whatever change the program suggests — and that’s always a bad idea. The problem, obviously, is that the word processor doesn’t know what a writer intends to write. The program is simply following an algorithm, and when the right words appear in a particular order, the program flags it and offers the best available suggestion. It makes a lot of bad suggestions, though.

For example, following a line of dialogue by Leah’s father, I wrote, “Mr. Nells said.” The grammar checker flagged this, however, and suggested that I write, “Mr. Nells, said.” What?! Why? Inserting a comma before “said” makes absolutely no sense in that context. So I know when I run the program that I’m going to see weird suggestions like that, but for me, the overall benefit of the grammar check function outweighs the potential risk of accidentally following one or two bad suggestions.

July 25, 2008

What’s Past Is Passed

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 10:23 am
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Certain homophones give me trouble when I write. Until recently, I’ve had a lot of trouble with “passed” and “past”.  The other day, I finally settled the distinction (in my own mind, at least) once and for all.

The word “passed” is a verb — specifically, it is the past tense form of the verb “to pass”. When “passed” appears in a sentence, it always serves as a verb. For example:

Leah was surprised by how much time had passed.

The word “past” can be used as a noun, a preposition, or an adverb. It is its adverb and preposition roles that has caused the most confusion for me. A sentence like this,

Luckily, Melanie and her friend didn’t want to stop and chat, and they walked past her and disappeared into the crowd.

used to give me a lot of trouble. In the sentence above, “past” functions as a preposition while the word “walked” is the verb. If I were to rephrase the sentence and write, “they passed her and disappeared into the crowd,” then I would need a verb and “passed” would be the correct word choice.

So the way I decide which word is the right word is simply to think about the parts of speech. I ask myself, is past/passed being used as a verb or as some other part of speech? If I’m using it as a verb, then “passed” is what I want; if it’s not a verb, then “past” is the right choice.

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