Wednesday, June 24, 2009

More Fun with Microsoft Grammar Check

Microsoft Word's grammar checker drives me batty. It is terrible for fiction writing. Not only does it gig me for every contraction, but it hates fragments--something necessary for authentic dialog.

But it finds some things--perhaps one good gig for every 10 idiotic suggestions, so I run it anyway. And rant about it later.

One good gig? "Shower head" should be "showerhead." Who knew? Obviously not Google, since it has a red squiggly line underneath it in this blog entry. Hmmm... Maybe that is not such a good gig.

MW also seems to have a problem with landlord. It wants me to change it to proprietor. Sorry, but I just can't hear my character complaining "the proprietor jacked up the rent."

But my favorite today? My protag remarks, "It must be a guy thing." MW wants me to change it to, "It must be a people thing." What? I've noticed it also doesn't like me talking about "ladies."

And why does it want to change every occurrence of "but" to "however" or "nevertheless." I mean, who actually says "nevertheless"?

Nevertheless, I'll continue to use "but."

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Sneaky Writer

Last week, I was very sneaky. A friend and I planned a trip to surprise another friend. And we had a wild and crazy time. But with my friends, a wild time means absconding with the peanuts from the Texas Roadhouse and multiple games of Scrabble while watching Monk. Yes, it was a riot. I had a great time.

But planning the trip and keeping it a secret from my very bright friend was a challenge. And when she started asking me direct questions (and I won't lie) that job became even harder--trying to be evasive without appearing evasive.

Welcome to the world of fiction writing, where lying effectively is what the job is all about. And it is hard work.

Back when I taught school, one of the ways I could tell my kids were lying was when the stories got long. The truth, I discovered, is usually short. Lies, however, we seem to know instinctively, have to be encased in truthful details in order to achieve credibility. All I had to do was ask enough questions, and eventually they would contradict themselves, usually while trying to pull the answers out of the upper left corner of the classroom

The reader has the advantage in fiction. When we, the writers, develop characters, plots and settings, the reader can believe they are real. They get to know them, to see them, to emotionally engage with them. We, on the other hand, are like puppeteers. Creating the magic behind the curtain, we know the characters are only a bit of the fabric of our imaginations. And as we supply the truthful details to fortify our lies, we can never see the whole performance and can forget these telling details. And when we contradict ourselves, we break the magic and pull the reader out of the story too.

This is where discontinuity arises.

Our only defense to keep us from being caught in our lies, is to keep better track of them. Now, it would be great if we could do this mentally, but I have to admit, I've forgotten some of my fictional details. And the organizational materials I used when developing my draft--well, I'll let you know when I find them.

So I'm going to be developing a notebook for my world, if I can use that term even though I'm not writing sci-fi or fantasy. And as I learn how to effectively do that, I thought I'd share a little.

Ok, writers, how do you keep your fictional world(s) straight?

Monday, June 15, 2009


I have to admit, I'm a fan of incontinuity. Or is it incontinence? Eh, better stick with incontinuity.

I know that sounds like an odd statement. But I love finding errors in films and television shows. My favorite continuity issue in a film is the coffeepot that gets picked up twice in White Christmas, while the sisters are in their dressing room at the nightclub in Florida.

My favorite incontinuity in television is from Monk (of course) in the episode "Mr Monk Buys a House." Traylor Howard is sitting on the steps, and as the camera angles change, sometimes her legs are crossed, and sometimes they're not--in rapid succession. We joked that she must have some kind of odd superpower.

But continuity issues are mistakes, and they show up in books too. For example, the book I'm reading now, The Alpine Scandal, by Mary Daheim. So far, I'm enjoying it. However, there is a continuity issue. The protagonist, Emma Lord, walks into a fast food place, orders takeout lunch, and is about to leave with her bag when she encounters the sheriff. So they sit down at a table and eat together. When she's done, oddly enough, the restaurant has transformed to a full-service establishment, and a waitress named Bunny presents her with a bill.

Here's the thing: even if the restaurant has both full-service and a take-out counter (rare, but they might exist), then poor Emma has been double-billed, assuming she paid for the bag she was ready to leave with.

Now, this type of problem is rare in books. But I've seen it happen. Characters can change hair color or some other attribute. I've read one book where a son suddenly turned into a daughter (or was it the other way around.) I caught one in my work in progress when one of my characters went from being a health nut to a junk-food junkie. Oops.

Now continuity issues in film are caused when two separate scenes are spliced together. Continuity issues in books may be caused when the writer doesn't have a good handle on the details, or changes were made (maybe not even by the author), but were not carried through the entire work.

A system of organization, such as a character wall or notebook, and even descriptions, maps or drawings of main locations, might come in handy. And more on this as I develop a system to keep track of my WIP as I edit.

What about you? Seen any good continuity problems lately?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Passives Made Simple... by Me

A recent critique of my WIP yielded an interesting comment. Apparently I overuse passive voice. And the "apparently" in the previous sentence does indicate a bit of skepticism on my part, because the sentence the "critter" marked wasn't even in passive voice.

Here's the problem: somewhere along the line, some critter circled a sentence in passive voice, said, "Tsk, tsk," and then shoved the manuscript back at the writer. The writer, left to his own devices, realized that the sentence contained the verb "was" (or "were," "is," "are," or some other form of the verb "to be.") This writer then eliminated these verbs from his manuscript, in the process correcting the passive voice issue, and soon began to crit others, without ever understanding what he or she was talking about.

What exactly is passive voice? Well, without digging out my grammar books, passive voice is a sentence construction in which the subject of the sentence receives the action of the verb. The subject is passive. He does not perform the action. The action is performed upon him. For example:

John Doe was shot and left for dead on a deserted highway.

Did John Doe shoot himself? No (unless CSI later determines suicide), he was shot by someone else.

The alleged killer was arrested four hours later.

He obviously didn't arrest himself. This action was performed upon him by the police.

Now, does that mean all passive voice is bad? No. There are many legitimate uses for passive voice. The key is to avoid the overuse of passive voice. The best guidelines I've seen recommend staying below 5%. Microsoft Word does check for this, and the samples of my writing that I've checked come in at around 3% passive. So I'm off the hook, right?


What the critter noticed was not passive voice, but an overuse of weak verbs. Now that doesn't mean you should never use forms of the verb "to be." Linking verbs can introduce predicate nouns (or nominatives) and predicate adjectives, and are frequently used in descriptive passages.

John Doe was the Assistant District Attorney. (Predicate noun, John=attorney)

His body was cold.
(Predicate adjective, cold describes body)

Neither of those sentences employ passive voice.

But consider the following sentences from my WIP. Notice how changing the weak verb "was" improves and/or tightens each sentence:

The baby was now asleep.

The baby opened one sleepy eye, then continued snoring.

I tried to unroll it (the car window), but it was missing a handle, so I opened the door instead.

I tried to unroll the driver’s side window, but ended up scratching my hand on the broken stub of the window crank. I opened the door instead.

I was the kind who wanted to know what I was agreeing to before I agreed to it.

I wanted to know what I was agreeing to before I agreed to it.

Charlotte smiled. It was the first time I’d seen her smile all day. She was now missing a front tooth.

Charlotte smiled for the first time that day, her grin revealing a missing front tooth.

You can take a quiz here:

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Odd Plurals

Way back three million years ago when I taught grammar, before I'd forgotten half of what I knew, students would argue with me about odd plurals.

Now, I'm not sure of the technical name. I probably knew it, and have since forgotten. But I'm talking about compound and hyphenated nouns that aren't just made plural by adding an 's.'

Like passerby. Plural? Passersby. Seem odd? To some, yes. But it is absolutely correct.

Attorney general? Attorneys general.

Lady-in-waiting? Ladies-in-waiting.

Mother-in-law? Mothers-in-law. (For the poor folk plagued with more than one.)

What is bringing this up? "Scenes-of-crime officers" in an older mystery I am reading. Technically correct, but I'm really glad we now have "crime scene investigators."