Let Me Tell You a Story #25: The 29 Rules for Proper Comma Usage

When I was in seventh grade, waaay back in the early ’90s, I had an English teacher who is almost single-handedly responsible for everything I know about commas.

Now, I can’t say I hadn’t noticed the rules of proper comma usage before. I read, and I read a lot. But some of the niceties had undoubtedly been escaping me.

I will never forget that class, because it was the first and only time my tests have been blank sheets of paper.

The teacher was already elderly, nearing retirement, when I had him twenty-odd years ago, so his teaching methods seem antiquated now–even by the time I reached my senior year of high school, teachers were moving away from strict memorization to applied learning.

For the most part, I think that’s great. But I am forever thankful I learned punctuation “the hard way.”

We had spent the week going over the rules for commas in our grammar books. (I’ve tried and tried to remember what textbook it was, and I thought it might be The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation–the teacher called them “your blue books,” and I remember the awful baby-blue cover with ’70s-esque font in darker blue. But quick research turned up that TBBoGaP isn’t old enough to have been my textbook. I’ll probably never know what it truly was.)

On Friday, we sat at our desks, bare except for a single pencil, and waited for the blank sheets of paper to be passed out.

Then we wrote down every rule we’d learned for comma usage, word for word.

I don’t remember exactly how many there were–my mind jumps to 29, but that could be because I’ve been telling this story to my friends over the years, and hyperbole has crept in. It was probably closer to 20 than 30.

Any student who didn’t get them perfect had to take the test again the following Monday, while the rest of the class read the next short story we’d been assigned in our other textbook.

Most of the year went like that–a week of intense focus on a single grammatical concept or the rules of a particular type of punctuation, then a week of reading. (Oh, and we had to do a 500-word “persuasive” essay every week. I laugh to think how hard 500 words was, back then. I’m pretty sure one of mine was “People Should Grow Roses.”)

Fast forward to now. Could I write out all 29 (or however many) rules again, word for word, like I did in seventh grade? I’m sure I couldn’t.

But every time I read a book that never sets off forms of direct address in dialogue with commas (“What are you doing Ted?”) I cringe, and remember how I know doing needs a comma after it, and think of those blank sheets of paper.

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Let Me Tell You a Story #24: Another Running Analogy

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When I started this blog last summer, I wrote about my running. A lot. More than I probably needed to.

But I’m heading out later today to go on my second run of the new year. The first was on an unseasonably warm day back at the end of February, when spring peeked its pretty head out for a day then retreated again for six weeks.

I know I’m going to get blisters. I always do when I haven’t been running for months–I don’t run in winter for two major reasons:

  1. I work on my feet at my day job and don’t want to risk a slip-and-crash on ice;
  2. I run barefoot-style, and look at those shoes! I’d get frostbite!

So it takes my body a few runs to adjust to the running routine again.

And apparently, the same thing has happened to my brain.

Remember how I said I loved that new rewriting method I tried out?

Apparently, it made my brain forget for a while how to write entirely new bits of story. Over the past week and a half, I’ve been struggling through the space left by five chapters I had to cut 90% of, to rewrite that entire plot arc from the foundations up. And in some cases, the foundations, too.

It might be the hardest slog I’ve done on this book thus far. I felt slow and stupid and sluggish.

And then, yesterday, I was presented with the cherry on top, figuring out how to transition back into the original draft, picking up (mostly) where I left off after the cuts. It wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped, and this morning, I toughed it out, writing the bridging chapter to bring my new storyline back to where it needed to be.

I was hoping I’d be done with this rewrite by now, so I could go back to the beginning of the new draft and work on the technical edit–spelling, filler words, repetition, all that fiddly stuff.

I’m not. And it’s frustrating.

Now, I need this run. Even though I know I’ll be slow and sluggish, and my body will ache like hell tomorrow. Especially because I know that.

If I can retrain my brain, then I can retrain my body, and in a few weeks when I’m back in the running habit, it will be something I look forward to instead of The Dreaded Exercise.

Struggle is good for us.

But so is taking a break from rewriting, when the words go fuzzy in my brain and I need music and the feel of concrete under my feet.

Work hard, my fellow writers, but not too hard. Go enjoy the sunshine!

Let Me Tell You a Story #23: Back in the Good Ole Days…

The Time Traders

The scene: Game Night at my parents’ house. I’ve just finished trouncing everyone at Alhambra, and we’re taking a break to cook dinner. (Don’t worry, I got my ego deflated afterwards, coming in last at Tripoley and middling at Apples to Apples.)

My mom and I are talking books. Because we do. A lot. She’s already offered to loan me her shiny new copy of Love, Loss, and What We Ate. (I may or may not have squealed and started jumping up and down until she put the book in my hands. We’re both big Top Chef fans.) I mention how cool it was to read an original edition from the library (that was Kindred, last week) but I was boggled at a time when a hardcover could cost only $8.25.

So Mom heads off into the jungle. By which I mean her bookshelves. Not an actual jungle, but she has a lot of books, so it takes her a few minutes to find what she’s looking for.

She comes back with the oldest book still in her collection, The Time Traders, first paperback edition, 1958.

It was $1.25.

Yes, yes, I know, inflation, relative value, all that jazz. It just tickles me.

And of course, now I’m borrowing that one, too. I just love old paperbacks.

Let Me Tell You a Story #22: Trying Something New

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With my first novel under my belt, I’ve been through the rewriting process before. Last time around things got complicated, but this time, hopefully, I can keep myself more streamlined.

That doesn’t mean I’m not open to trying new methods, though. I’ve been reading up a little on other authors’ rewriting styles, and I stumbled upon one that gave me a light-bulb moment.

I’m typing up an entirely new draft, side-by-side with the old one.

It sounds like a lot of work. And it is. But I drafted this novel so fast during NaNo. I’ve always been stronger at dialogue and character interaction the first time around, and weaker on setting and description. I don’t always “see” where my characters are, just what they’re doing. So the story, as it stands, has a lot of talking-heads passages where nothing much happens except dialogue.

I feel like this process is tailor-made for my weaknesses. Armed with my notes from the re-read, I can zoom through, adding whatever I need along the way.

My first revisions always end up longer than the original draft anyway, because I realize I need extra scenes I didn’t envision during the outline phase, or I have to shore up weak settings, or I have to expand on something that seemed obvious in my head the first time around, but doesn’t make sense when I re-read. (And if I don’t remember what I meant, how is the reader supposed to figure it out?)

In the last five days, I’ve plowed through the first six chapters, taking 12K and turning it into almost 17K.

But, Elena, I hear you saying, isn’t that going to bloat your draft? Wasn’t it long enough in the first place?

Well, yes, and no. I wrote everything I thought it needed at the time, though by the end I already knew there were some flaws that needed fixing. It came up about 8K shorter than my target (WWNTS clocks in at about 98K, I was aiming for roughly the same length) but I didn’t mind if it ended up a little shorter, because book length isn’t a hard and fast rule.

And I’m not cutting words at this stage, not with intent. Some sentences get rewritten to be shorter as I go, if I see blatant issues that I can correct on the fly, but I’m not doing the nuts-and-bolts editing yet. That’ll be the next pass. So here’s what this book’s life will hopefully look like:

  1. Rough draft – done!
  2. Additive rewrite draft – underway
  3. Subtractive, language-tightening edit draft
  4. Beta reading! (During which I will start rewriting #3)
  5. Fix-the-reader-issues draft
  6. Final proofing
  7. Ready to print!

See, I have a plan. It’s so comforting to have a plan.

Let Me Tell You a Story #21: Creative Exhaustion

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It had to happen eventually.

I sailed through NaNoWriMo last year, which took me most of the way through the first draft of the sequel to What We Need to Survive.  I wrapped it up by mid-December and took two weeks completely off writing, then started the first draft of book #3 over my post-Christmas vacation.

But now I’ve run out of outline!

Historically, I’m more of a pantser than a planner, but since I had the idea for both books at once, and planned to attempt a drafting cycle in order to increase my productivity, I decided to draft #3 before revising #2.  (WWNTS was my sole project at the time, aside from fiddling with plot bunnies during beta-reading stretches, so this is a new experiment for me.)

It certainly has benefits, even this early on, and especially for a series: having at least some idea of where #3 ends up means I can lay better (ie, more consistent) groundwork in #2, trim dead-end subplots, plot stronger character arcs.

It has downsides, too, in as much as oh my god I’m writing two first drafts back-to-back, somebody pull me out of this quicksand!

My outline for #2, created in a blitz just prior to NaNo, was solid, and the right length.  I only had to add a few spur-of-the-brainpan chapters here and there to fill holes I hadn’t anticipated, but that’s always been my experience writing from an outline.  Scenes become necessary during the actual writing process that I hadn’t imagined ahead of time.

I thought that would carry me through #3’s much shorter, looser outline.  By the time I get there, I told myself, I’ll have plenty of ideas on what to do next.

I know these characters.  I know who they are, what they want, and what they’ll do to get it.

And yet, suddenly I don’t know where I’m going.  And a new, completely unrelated plot bunny is fighting for space in my brain.

I think that’s why I’ve been spending so much time reading lately, instead of writing.  I’m excited about my reading challenges, yes, and I’m having a grand time trying out new books for them.  But I’m losing the discipline of writing.  Over the weekend, I didn’t meet my 1000-word-a-day minimum I’d maintained since starting the draft.

It’s time to switch back to pantsing, which is a little scary, after working from an outline for so long.  I know where I need the story to end up, I just don’t know how to get there.

There’s no real fix for it.  It’s not so much a case of writer’s block as a feeling that I’m spewing useless words out for the sake of writing.  A lot of what I force myself to write in the next few days (or however long it takes me to get back on track) will probably end up being heavily revised or (gasp!) cut entirely.  Knowing that, I have a hard time wanting to write it.

But the dedicated writer soldiers on, plowing through the tough times.

I am that writer.

I can do this.

(This grandiose, public self-pep-talk brought to you by a dismal, rainy afternoon, the letter T, which decided to become stuck on my keyboard for a while yesterday, and the number 3, for the books I picked up at the library on my last trip and am dying to read.)

The Twelve Days of Christmas Blogging, Day 2

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Favorite Christmas tradition, new or old. Well, I sort of covered that already, with the sugar cookie story.

So I’ll use this opportunity to tell a funny story that came about because of one of my family’s other traditions.

I was an impatient child.  I am a slightly more patient adult, but as a kid, I was a monster.  I had to have everything now.

My parents mollified me (and got me to sit still through Christmas Eve services) by promising I could open one present after church, before bed.  Just one. I think they did it first when I was five, but the tradition continued until I moved out of the house.

Eight-year-old me was fascinated by this one strange box under the tree that Christmas.  It was small, about as big as my fist, but heavy.  Really heavy.  I could not figure out what it was, though I tried.  It didn’t make any noise when I shook it, so there were no clues to be had except its size and shape.

One night about a week before Christmas, while my parents were watching TV in the other room, I took this strange, heavy box from underneath the tree and carefully, carefully undid the tape holding one end of the wrapping paper down.

I didn’t dare unwrap it completely–I was hoping there would be something printed on the box that would tell me what it was. Alas, all I saw was shiny black cardboard.

I folded the paper back down along the original creases, pressed the tape back into place, and hid the box behind some other presents, as if I could hide my guilty conscience along with it.  (This was the only time I’ve ever tried to peek, and it didn’t even work!)

After coming home on Christmas Eve, I crawled under the tree and fished out the mystery box.  I remember my parents giving me a strange look as I unwrapped it, maybe trying to remember what it was.

It turned out to be a power adapter.

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Yes, a power adapter.

Then Mom says, “I guess we have to give her the other one now, too.”  And she knelt on the floor beside me, searching through the boxes until she found the right one, which she handed to me.

I get a second present early?

That year, we’d moved, and in the move, we sold my mother’s piano.  I’d wanted to learn to play, so they got me a kid-sized electronic keyboard, and that was the other half of the power-adapter present.  The good half.

But not the mysterious half.

I was an impatient child, but a curious one.  I had to pick the weird present, right?

Let Me Tell You a Story #20: Christmas Cookies

cookie-235801_1280My first childhood Christmas memory is not of trimming the tree or opening presents, but of baking sugar cookies with my dad.

The first time must have been when I was four–who would let a three-year-old into the kitchen with a hot oven going?–and while Dad made the dough and rolled and cut the cookies, I stood on a step-stool with an array of sprinkles and colored sugars to hand, ready to decorate them before they went into the oven.  (We’re not a fancy frosting family, it’s all about the sprinkles.)

As I got older, my duties expanded to include: 1) helping choose the cookie cutters; 2) actually cutting the cookies; 3) rolling out the dough; and eventually, 4) making the dough and being allowed near the oven for the baking part of the process.

We did this, me and Dad, every year until I went off to college, and sometimes even then, too, if I was home on break soon enough to help.  Several batches were always necessary to keep up with the cookie plates for church, for my parents’ coworkers, for my teachers, and of course, for our own voracious sugar-teeth.

The cookbook that the recipe came from is long gone–the page fell out of the book when I was eight or nine, from excessive use.  We saved the loose page until it was so flour-coated and milk-spotted that Dad copied the recipe over onto notebook paper, then that version lived under a magnet on the side of the fridge so that it wouldn’t get lost before next Christmas.

When I moved out on my own, the first Christmas I wasn’t there to bake with him, I ended up calling a week before Christmas so he could dictate the recipe to me, because I needed to make them to have a proper Christmas, and I’d never taken the time to copy it out for myself.

My own Christmas baking, to cover my friends and my family and my coworkers, has spiraled into the realms of “What new and exciting things can I try this year?”  But I still try to make at least one batch of the family-recipe sugar cookies, because traditions are worth having and keeping, and of course, they’re freakin’ delicious.

If you want some new recipes yourself, here are some of my favorite finds from last year’s cookie-and-candy extravaganza:

Happy baking!