Thursday, June 30, 2016

Getting Down the Basics

Here we are, the first week back from residency at Seton Hill University's Writing Popular Fiction Masters in Fine Arts program. And while we're all simmering in the creative juices (alcohol) from a week of hanging around with other crazy people (writers), I figured now would be a good time to remind everyone of a simple truth:  If you're going to be a writer, or be in a MFA program (and keep in mind, technically, this is an MFA in English) you really should know the basics. I mean, if you want people to take you seriously, you want to come across as someone who knows what he's doing, right? I mean, if a mechanic opens the hood of your car and doesn't know what he or she's looking at, you wouldn't take him seriously, would you? If a doctor asked you to remind him where the lungs were in the body, you'd leave pretty quickly, wouldn't you? The same holds true if you are a writer. If you send your manuscript in to an agent, editor, or publisher, and you appear to not know the basics, your manuscript will find its way quickly to the circular filing cabinet.

Pictured: Rejected Manuscripts
So what are these "basics" of which I speak?  If you've ever been a student of mine, you already know the answer. It can be broken down in four simple terms:  Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation, and Sentence Structure (GSPS). And, let's face it, if you find yourself in an MFA program and you don't have at least a basic understanding of this, you've got a lot of work to do. By which I mean outside work.

Buffalo Custardbath tells it like it is...

So, in case you don't really know what these things are, here's a helpful guide. 
  • Grammar - is the set of structural rules governing the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any given natural language.  The term refers also to the study of such rules, and this field includes morphology, syntax, and phonology, often complemented by phonetics, semantics, and pragmatics.  Put simply, what are nouns, adjectives, adverbs, tenses, clauses, and the like? If you don't know, you should really figure it out. Things such as subject-verb agreement, irregular verbs, who vs. whom, prepositions, etc. are all part of grammar, and they're all tools in your writers' toolbox. 
  • Spelling - Right... Who needs it, write? I mean, owl are computers have spell-checker on them, right? Nobody kneads to no how to spell anymore, right? Read that sentence again. Realize every word in it is spelled correctly, and realize that spelling actually goes beyond just what letters make up a particular word.  It's also figuring out which word is the one you actually mean. 
  • Punctuation - Commas. They are the bane of my existence. Whoever started the whole "put a comma every time you take a breath" should be taken out back and beaten with a well-worn copy of Strunk & White. Punctuation deals with spacing, periods, semicolons and colons (never use them in popular fiction), quotation marks, hyphens, ellipses... As well as a thousand other little rules that you need to use to make yourself look like you know what you're talking about. And don't ever believe that's what the editor is for. Your work won't even get to the editor if you don't have a firm grasp on this. 
  • Sentence Structure - Quick!  How many sentence structures are there?  One? Ninety?  How about four?  Yep, four.  Can you name them? If you can't, you might have a problem. How about fragments? Run-ons? Comma splices? Any idea what I'm talking about? 
Didn't think so.
But wait, you say!  I'm a creative writer!  The rules of grammar (etc.) don't apply to me! It's art! Listen to me very carefully.  The rules. Still. Apply. You have to know the rules to know when and why to break them. Also, that's the difference between amateurs and professionals. Pros learn their craft. Pros take the time to improve their skill level. Pros never stop learning. Amateurs?  Not so much. So choose. Which one do you want to be? 

Two paths converged in the woods...

But where, you ask, can I learn such things? Glad you asked. There are so many books out there. Here are a few that I often recommend:
There are also a lot of FREE online resources that you can use to hone your sword of knowledge.  Here are a few:
And, of course, if all else fails, always trust in your good buddy "Weird Al" Yankovic to break it down for you.

Also, while we're at it, learn the proper expressions and idioms, unless the character is supposed to be a blithering idiot.  For example:

  • It's "For all intents and purposes," not "For all intensive purposes/porposes."
  • It's "I couldn't care less." "I could care less" means you do, in fact, care.
  • It's "Specifically," not "pacifically" unless you're referring to the ocean.
  • "Literally" means it actually happened. You've not been waiting "literally" a million years for this blog post. "Figuratively" is the word you want. 
  • It's not the "Statue of Limitations," it's the STATUTE of limitations. 
  • What the hell is a "mute point" anyway?  It's MOOT.  
So that's it.  Education is your weapon.  Use it. 

Until next time...


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