Grammar Workshop

Grammar-Judge

So, I’m giving a grammar workshop at Wordier Than Thou on August 20th. If you’re in the area and curious about how the English language is supposed to be used, come check it out!

I know it may seem like English is filled with esoteric idiosyncrasies that can never be worked out–and that’s true some of the time–but there are actually some rules that you can use as a guide to tweak that sentence that just doesn’t seem quite right for some reason. The workshop will focus on mechanics as well, so if you wonder where to put a comma, you’re in the right place!

Here’s the link to the event: https://www.facebook.com/events/284458601925165/

I hope to see you there!

You above all others

I’ve been thinking about Tarzan lately. You know, the guy who can get you through the jungle alive? I saw the new movie, and Alexander Skarsgaard is still Eric-hot, but that’s not why it keeps running though my head.

It’s that whole keep-you-alive-slay-all-enemies-you-above-all-others mentality. The original Tarzan had that, and I’m glad to see that it stayed alive through this newest incarnation. Jane is everything. Absolutely everything.

He goes back to the jungle because she wants to. He chases her to the exclusion of everything else. He jumps off cliffs, dives into dangerous waters, and just physically propels himself in the direction he thinks she is in. Maybe those other things matter–you know, fighting gorillas, rescuing slaves, slaying evildoers, all that–but they all disappear into the background when Jane is in the picture.

That’s the kind of guy you want, right? The one who will get you through the jungle, fight to save you, literally run right off the edge of a cliff and jump off because he heard you scream from somewhere beyond the edge? That’s the kind of guy I write about. Sort of.

And that’s what I’ve really been thinking about. As I finish the second novel, I’m starting to see my menfolk a little differently. I thought Rory was Tarzan all along–saving Hannah from this and that (and more often from herself)–but it’s not her Hannah or nothing else in the world. Not really. What I’m realizing is that Klauden is turning out to be my Tarzan–and I never realized it until now. No spoilers here, but yeah. Klauden runs right off several cliffs in pursuit of his goal–and I never quite noticed it. I guess I’m more like Hannah than I realized!

The awkward middle novel in the trilogy

I’m finishing up the second novel in the Klauden’s Ring series, and I’m struggling with the cliffhanger not-so-happily-ever-after ending that this middle book seems to require.

My characters have overcome some major challenges in this one. Lives have been shattered, vows have been broken, loyalties have been strained. But they are still standing. Mostly.

And I, the reader who LOVES her happy endings, who will get so frustrated with a sad ending that I have been known to toss a paperback across the room in a fit of rage–I find myself heading inevitably in that direction. It’s not all going to work out perfectly in this one. Life is too messy, issues too unresolved, truths just barely beginning to show themselves.

I know it has to happen this way. I know that there has to be struggle before the happy ending can come and actually feel like it’s been earned–and Peter S. Beagle taught me that happy endings can never happen in the middle of a story. If they can happen at all–because nothing ever really ends.

No worries, though, dear followers of Hannah and Rory. They will return in book three, battered, a little bedraggled and beaten, but they shall return, and I promise that book three does have an ending (and spoiler: it will be  happy one…for most of them). But as someone heading directly towards the Empire Strikes Back ending, I apologize in advance. But sometimes, characters have to struggle, have to weather the storm, and then the next, before they can actually get to the end of the road, or as King puts it, the inevitable clearing at the end of the path.

The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began, but for now, this is a dark part of the path, and if we are to truly appreciate the sunlight to be found on the other side, we need to follow them now through these tangled trees, even though this whole forest looks ready to reach out and strangle us.

Lazy Summer Days

Summer means a great deal to someone in my profession. I’m a teacher, and even though I teach adults instead of teenagers or little kids, I still find myself counting the days left in the spring semester. I usually teach a class or two during the early part of the summer as well, just to try out new things that I want to do in the fall semester–those summer sessions are always my guinea pigs. Does that assignment work if I do it this way instead? What happens if I swap this out for that? Those summer students are always more open to these little trials of mine, it seems. They are, after all, crash coursing through what normally takes a solid 16 weeks to cover in a mere 6 weeks, so they start off running, continue to sprint while I add hurdles and dexterity challenges, and at the end, they stumble bleary-eyed yet triumphant across that finish line.

But then there is the the down time. Time that is suddenly, gloriously free of all restrictions and expectations. Time to read a book on the couch All. Day. Long. To binge watch those tv shows late into the night and even the next morning because, seriously, it’s not like I have to get up for anything. My daughter is old enough now to play quietly if mommy decides to sleep late–as long as I roll out of bed long enough to supply breakfast and snack and lunch, she’s fine. Sometimes, she snuggles back into bed with me, tablet in hand. Yes, I let my kid play with her tablet while I sleep in. It happens. It happens more when it’s summertime and I decide to let it go for a few magical weeks. There are days when I don’t know what day of the week it actually is–and I don’t care. I have nowhere to be and nothing to do until August 10th, when my daughter goes back to school, and August 18th, when I go back to campus for meetings.

Until then, though…glorious, wonderful freedom.

And before I even start to feel guilty for all of this free time, I remind myself of those days during the semester, days when I teach five hours and then come home with a stack of papers and grade until midnight or 1am while my eyes cross and my pen bleeds everywhere. It works out in the long run because of this time right now.

And I know it will end. And that’s good. Because endless days and nights of nothing would be tiring.

And I have actually been doing things besides reading cheesy books and watching cheesy television. I’ve been writing. Look-I’m writing now!

I know when I’m in the dog days of November, grading that mountain of papers, I will remember this time and sigh, and use that memory to go on, to grade just one more before I finally go to sleep.

But until then, I will relish each moment. Summer is the best.

On Grammar: Prescriptive vs Descriptive

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I just read a review of a book that advocated descriptive grammar over prescriptive grammar, that the way people use the language is more important than the way the language is “supposed” to be used, and I’m having a serious talk with myself.

I’ve always been what I consider a reasonable prescriptivist; that is, I think that language has rules, and those rules are what allows the language to function as a tool of communication–and that’s why they should be followed.

But I’m reasonable about it.

If people stop distinguishing between “who” and “whom,” is it the end of the world? No. There are some moments when case matters, when the distinction between subjective and objective  is critical, like the sentence “He likes Mary more than I” in which case it’s fine, he can like Mary more than I like her. People like different people. No problem.

But what if I say “He likes Mary more than me”? He prefers Mary’s company to mine? Now we are in a fight. And all over one little pronoun, the subjective “I” and the objective “me.” (In case it’s been a while since grammar lessons, the subjective is the doer or the actor in the sentence, like “I” do things. The objective is the recipient of the action in the sentence, as in things are done to “me.”) I would argue that prescriptive grammar trumps here, since communication will be lost if the rule isn’t followed. Relationships could end!

I do listen to my students when they say, “But you know what I mean!” and their pleas for descriptive grammar. So what if “irregardless” literally means “without without regard”? “People know what you mean when you say it!” my students cry. (Yes, they know that you don’t know how prefixes work!) But honestly, if the message of a lack of regard is sent to the receiver, does it matter if you add the extra syllable?  The ultimate goal of any language is communication after all, and if your message is received and understood correctly, what does it matter in the end?

But, I still argue, it does matter. Maybe not in the little words like “irregardless” or the oft battered “literally,” but in the big picture. Words change meaning. They adapt. That’s what makes English so awesome. And it’s going to happen. But there are some overarching guidelines that we can’t just ditch altogether, or we won’t be able to understand one another at all. People have been arguing over the “rules” of grammar for a long time now; let them have something to argue about. Language has to have some substance, some way that the speakers agree on; otherwise, we’re all just making sounds at each other and this post is a series of random letters with odd spaces thrown in for fun.

So I’m not advocating for a National Council for the English language to preserve the language or anything–that battle was fought hundreds of years ago and ended in dictionaries. I just think that prescriptive grammar still matters. Descriptive grammar is interesting and relevant, and worth studying, but it’s not worth emulating, not when the language is capable of such great feats.

After all, an important part of writing is learning the rules so that you can break them later.

 

 

“There is nothing new under the sun…”

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Is there anything new under the sun? A friend of mine once worried that she had nothing to contribute to the ever-growing body of words. “How can my story be worth reading?” she asked. “It’s not original. This story has been done over and over again.”

True, I told her. The events in the story may have happened in another story. And maybe I had even read that story, or imagined it myself.

But it doesn’t matter.

Because she had never told that story. And that’s what makes it worthwhile. No one could tell it like she could. No one else would tell it like she would. I don’t care how many monkeys you put in the room, even if they can eventually recreate Shakespearean plays, no one else will put those words together in quite that way. No one will focus on the things she will focus on. No one will emphasize the features that she thinks deserve emphasis.

And so I told her that her story was worthwhile, was valuable, was worth sharing, and it was worth doing all of that as only she could do it.

I think this is a valuable lesson for those of us writing now, in a world flooded with words, flooded with stories and versions and retellings about anything we have thought about. Harold Bloom wrote about the anxiety of influence, the idea that because all authors unconsciously absorb the patterns, tendencies, styles, etc. from the books they read, they also unconsciously repeat those motifs in their own writing–thus making their own writing an amalgamation of the ideas they have collected over a lifetime of reading and listening and watching and learning. All current writing is influenced by the writers and thinkers of the past. You can’t escape the influence. And so, there is nothing new under the sun, and it’s all been said before. Maybe, but you’ve never said it before.

You can hate on Stephenie Meyer and her vampires all you want, but she definitely struck a chord with her readers. And what did she write about? Vampires plus high school romance. Both of which have been done before, and done again and again and again, and yet, Meyer’s story captivated millions of readers. Some of them may have read their Stoker, or maybe they had only heard of vampires from tv or movies, but it didn’t matter. Readers drink it in anyway because this was a new story, a slightly different tale with small changes (sparkle anyone?). I write cheesy romances with vampires–done and done and done again! But my vampires are MY vampires, and no one else would write about them the way that I do. And that’s why I should write about them.

So don’t worry if your story isn’t brand spanking new original. Don’t worry if it’s been done in ancient times or in a movie last year. You haven’t done it yet.

Give it a try–who knows what chords you may strike?

 

This place, That place…

I just returned from a 4000 mile road trip around the Eastern US, and I’ve noticed something. When you’ve been in the car, watching the landscape slide by the windows for hours on end, you realize that Everywhere, America looks like Everywhere Else, America. Remove the dusting of snow, the covering of kudzu (the plant that ate the South), change the elevation slightly, alter some letters in the town names, and all places seem to blend into one. There’s a gas station, usually more than one, three or four competing family type restaurants (insert Chili’s, Applebee’s, Cracker Barrel here), a Walmart, and some other big box stores. Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, Carolina (North or South), New York, Florida–it all looks the same except for the hills/mountains in the distance or lack thereof.

I’m not saying that different places in America don’t have distinct personalities. I’m sure that if I were to spend time in a local haunt, talk to some people who live there and work away from the stops near the highway, or spend more than a passing moment actually in the place, each town would leave distinct impressions on me. And certain places on this trip did that.

Boyne, Michigan is a tiny little town, but they have an indoor water park. In Michigan. I live in Florida and we don’t have indoor water parks! I know, I know, you are thinking “Why would they need water parks inside? Florida weather is postcard perfect heavenly!” Of course. But spend a sweat-soaked July afternoon cooking in the Florida sun, and then tell me you wouldn’t enjoy the regulated 68 degrees of an indoor water park! (end rant)

I went to Niagara Falls as a child, but have few memories of the place (lots of water and noise). Apparently, we must have gone during the summer because the American side seems to roll up the streets during the winter. Still, it was nice to stand near the falls (Yes, I know the view from Canada is better. Yes, I know there is more to do over there. We didn’t bring our passports, so it wasn’t an option.), hear the roar, feel the icy spray, and watch my five-year old  daughter giggle in delight as she pulled icicles from the railing and throw them over the cliff. Apparently, wonder of the world = 0; icicle tossing = 1.

New York City is always different from anywhere else, but I grew up going to the city often, so it’s not a new delight to me. It’s still wonderful and amazing every time I go, but it’s always part of a trip to visit relatives–and that’s never the same as going somewhere to be on vacation. We did go on the Staten Island Ferry and splash by the Statue of Liberty though (and some guy tried to sell us tickets to the free ferry ride, of course. Welcome to New York!).

I have never been to Myrtle Beach, so that was nice. Even though it’s Spring Break, we were at a smaller family-oriented resort, so the party madness was far away. I live in Florida though, so the beach isn’t that different for me. It was odd to remember that the big deal on the Atlantic is the sunrise, not the sunsets I see over the Gulf at home.

But even with those places standing out, there were still thousands of miles of the same, of truck stops and stores and people who all seemed to blend together in the end: Americans. Even getting off the interstate to follow two-lane roads through back country started to look the same–windmills here in the mountains, heavy farming equipment parked there in fields, abandoned houses with collapsed roofs every few miles.

I keep trying to think of this similarity of geography in terms of my writing (and my reading). When characters in a story are in a forest, it can be Any Forest; so too for Any Small Town, Any Village Pub, Any Place Anywhere! How can I make my places distinct? And then, ultimately, does that really matter? I don’t generally focus on the place in the story (unless it’s significant, integral to the plot, familiar and named, or I’m reading Tolkien who beats me over the head with his detailed descriptions of foliage); I focus on the characters. I care about them and what they do and say; the place is usually just background, useful for details about personal comfort or delightful view, but ultimately forgettable–or at least understandable as some generic version of the place.

Maybe I should spend more time thinking about places as distinct. Then I will see the difference the next time I drive around the country.

 

That’s French, eh?

speak-french-quebec

I’ve been on vacation this week with my husband’s Canadian relatives, and I’ve heard a lot of French. My in-laws switch from English to French and back again mid-sentence. It’s been an interesting experience to hear a language that I definitely do not speak, and I’ve enjoyed sitting back in the crowded room, trying to follow conversations with half words and body language. I don’t mean to say that I’ve been ignored in any way–when they speak to me, they always use English, but I enjoy listening to the pockets of discussion amid family members: the exclamations of frustrated children, the questions from other rooms as someone hunts for something, the names of friends and relatives that I could understand if I saw them in print, but cannot hear except for a slurry of vowels and cadence.

The English major in me knows that English has a lot of French words, make that a ton of French words, that it absorbed after the Norman Invasion. I even know how French influence changed both pronunciation and spelling, and I explain the transition from Old English (Beowulf!) to Middle English (Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales!) to my students each semester. But knowing the history of a language and being able to sit in a room full of people who speak it are very different things, and I’ve found my vocabulary straining this week as I try to parse the French sounds from the words I know on paper and then connect them to the French inspired English words. After all, the French gave English something close to 10,000 words (because English did what it does best between 1066 and the 13th century–absorbed words); in fact, some scholars say that the average English speaker already knows some 15,000 French words already. I find myself trying to remember that this week. It’s not that I don’t recognize the words, I think; it’s that I don’t hear the sounds and translate what I’m hearing (which is a lot of musical ups and downs with lots of “j” and “v” to my untrained ears) into something I recognize. I keep asking my husband to spell things for me so I can remember them that way (apparently, I retain more information this way–who knew?)

So, I’m having a lovely time with my extended family, but I’m also enjoying the practical lessons in language acquisition. And since my characters often find themselves in places where they do not speak the local language, I want to remember this feeling of curious intrigue–wanting to know more, but wanting to figure it out for myself.