My Writing Rules Differ From Yours #1

This post is approximately 800 words and talks about grammar. I mean, a lot. Now’s your chance to flee.

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“Actually, it’s more of a guideline than a rule.”

Still here? Cool. Now we can nerd out about grammar without the eye-rolling judgment of boring people.

This will be the first in a series of recurring posts about English grammar. As a person who delights in the rules (and their exceptions), the eccentricities, and the history of the language, you’d be forgiven for assuming I’d be a crusty curmudgeon about the guidelines, norms, and other grammatical commandments. And often, you’d be right. But it also means I put a tremendous amount of brainpower into thinking about the rules.

And how I’m going to break them.

Don’t get me wrong: the rules are great. They aid comprehension and help ensure understanding between author and reader. However, in the fantasy world I’m creating, I’m making up everything from character names to locations to vocabulary. All of these things need to be understood by the reader, especially in instances where I’m breaking a rule to conform to the norms of my created world. If I can prepare the readers in some way, by the time she or he gets to my non-standard phrase, they immediately understand what I’m saying. They’ve been taught without knowing it.

I’ll use a real-world example so I don’t get you hung up on characters named Flurbbydurm and Nicanick or whatever other nonsense I can conceive (Note: these aren’t really from my book). As a product owner at Thomson Reuters, I’m frequently asked questions by email. My first inclination is to write back, “I have As to your Qs.” Now, every English-speaker I know, including myself, will read “I have as”, possibly understanding my intent when they get to “Qs”. But as a writer, I’ve failed my readers. I’ve written something they thought they understood, only to immediately discover they read it wrong. I’ve ruined the flow and broken the reader’s concentration. It’s one of my biggest pet peeves as a reader, whether for pleasure or work.

Current convention suggests that Q’s and A’s are the acceptable forms, though I believe grammatical rules disagree. You might be thinking, “But Mike, if you’re adhering to the rule, how can you be breaking it?” Well, if everyone believes something counter to the rule, is it still a rule? In college, yes; otherwise…frequently not.  Anyways, it’s my first post on this – I want to ease you into my head my world.

Philosophical grammatical arguments aside (tell me THAT doesn’t sound like an obscure college major…that I wish I had), I generally despise using apostrophes for things other than possessive pronouns, contractions, single quotation marks, and sometimes as part of a colloquial abbreviation (Y’all comin’ back? Yeah I know, you probably won’t after a 800-word post about grammar. Sigh.). Oh, and names, like D’Artagnan.

That’s a really long way of saying, I won’t type DVD’s, CD’s, or DVR’s. And I certainly won’t type A’s and Q’s, no matter what the opinion du jour is.

As a writer, your first inclination should be to re-write. That’s your other option here, and perhaps easier to accomplish without sounding pedantic <looks in mirror>. Yes, yes, what we’re writing is personal and we’re in charge and it’s our way or the highway. Unless you’re doing the reader a disservice. Yes, yes, I know I’m delighting myself more than my audience when I type an email with Qs and As. But it amuses me.

Did you catch what you just read there? You probably didn’t read “as” this time, which means I’ve done the proper set-up. I also reversed the order: since “qs” isn’t a word, you read “Qs”, which put you in the right mindset to read “As”. And there’s the second option, also fulfilled: rewrite it. I usually prefer one or the other, but in this instance, I’ve served the audience’s need for comprehension and my selfish need to be clever.

Those people that read through this – and I thank you for bearing with me – might think that this was an awful lot of words in discussion of a single English rule. Now you know a little bit more about the thought I put into everything I write.

And I do mean everything.

–Mike

PS: Interesting side note for future me: I spent much of this post singing the “Family Finger Song” to Benji as I wrote it. I’m not sure how I typed one thing whilst singing another.


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Things I Did After Sitting Down To Write This Morning

This post is approximately 400 words, and likely sounds familiar to other writers.

Since the dawn of humankind, storytellers have been shaking their fists at the sky, cursing the suddenly important things that got in the way of the work. I believe they shouted something like this:

O, procrastination! Thou art a foul contra-muse who plague-eth my writing time and sendeth me on unnecessary and irrelevant paths.

That might not be a direct quote from writers of yore, but I think it’s pretty close (I’ll probably start using it myself). To be clear, I’m not talking about the demands of daily life (e.g. human interaction, food, or taking out the frickin’ garbage because you can smell it from the other room). Rather, I’m talking about those things that should be put off until the writing session has concluded. BUT OMG, THEY SUDDENLY CANNOT WAIT! THE WORLD’S FATE DEPENDS ON THAT THING BEING DONE RIGHT NOW!

Bad writer.

Stitch spray

It happened earlier this week. As annoying as it always is, Tuesday was particularly disheartening because I’d taken a week off and it was one of my writing days. Consequently, my output for the day suffered.

But not all was lost. I’ve worked to make up the time and the experience gave me the topic for today’s blog. Check out my list of obviously world-saving endeavors:

  • Got coffee
  • Checked Facebook
  • Watched cool acoustic version of Take On Me by a-ha
  • Listened to Prince’s I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man
  • Polished and scheduled blog post
  • Reviewed website stats
  • Added formatting to older posts for consistency
  • Got more coffee
  • Researched WordPress Premium
  • Chastised self
  • Took notes for writing this post
  • Put this post idea aside for a couple days (finally on-task!)

Morning well spent, eh? Oh, well.

Many of these things are important to the job – especially coffee – but most could be done outside my scheduled writing time. I do have some tricks that keep my train of thought from derailing, but they failed me on Tuesday. I’ve been doing writing of one form or another for twenty years, and still, I am plague-eth.

As you see at the end of the list, however, I pulled my morning out of the nosedive. But it took awhile and more effort than it should have. I consider this post a visual reminder that it will likely happen it won’t ALWAYS happen and those days are good indeed.

Good luck with your writing!

–Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, October 2017

Shine a flashlight in the dark

This post is approximately 550 words and deals with the topic of sexual assault. This isn’t some lame attempt to drive traffic to my blog by tapping into a popular social movement. That’s why I’m not using the hashtag or any other tactic to increase the visibility of the post. It’s just me, writing about something I care about, which is the entire point of this website.

On Monday, a Facebook friend boldly stated that she had not and would not participate in the “me too” movement. She meant to say that, sometimes, people don’t realize that their words qualify as harassment, and that without specific examples, we can’t correct them. But she also said, “just telling people you’ve been victimized doesn’t raise awareness.”

I disagreed.

And I think she missed the point. This movement isn’t simply about wolf whistles and “c’mere, honey”, though that’s part of it. My response received positive feedback, and so I share it here because I’m proud of what I wrote (lightly edited for this platform).


I write this as a man, and as a person who has never been sexually assaulted.

My opinion is based on women who have confided in me. Like the drunk woman who woke up naked with a man on top of her. Or the woman who lied about being on her period to avoid rape. Or the woman who kept silent for more than 20 years because she knew no one would believe her. Or the woman who blamed the rape on herself because she had a reputation for being easy.

Much like a crowd shining flashlights in the dark, this movement shows people they are not alone. That there are far more people than we ever thought. To show that such a thing might have hurt a person, but they did not let it defeat them.

I particularly disagree with the statement “we all know basically every woman has experienced” this. Regardless of whether “we all know”, the complacency of that argument is part of the problem. We still live in a culture where men and women blame rape on a woman’s attire. Or her job. Or because she is subservient to men. People dismiss “grabbing her by the p****” as locker room talk because his political affiliation says (R), when they’d give a (D) holy hell for saying the same thing.

However, this movement isn’t targeting the small-minded people, not really, because they will never change their minds. Nor is it seeking the blessing of the enlightened. I think there are many people who really aren’t aware of the size of this problem, and for that, I applaud the momentum behind this movement.

I also disagree that writing out the specifics on Facebook is a better approach. We should believe that people have been attacked without having to read the sensational details. There are myriad reasons victims don’t come forward, but recounting the attack shouldn’t be the price for my sympathy or belief.

I would have believed my friends if they had simply said, “Me too.”


It’s only a Facebook comment, and not intended to be high literature. But I believe in writing things that are important, things that connect people, and things that can make the world a better place.

I know you do, too.

–Mike


© Michael Wallevand, October 2017

Tearing down one of your primary set pieces

This post is approximately 550 words.

I’ve been coming to a realization the last few weeks, which is a poorly-written way of saying, I need to pull another large component from my story. In this instance, it’s about not writing enough words, as opposed to having too many.

This image is a printout of Devils Tower in Wyoming, on which I’ve drawn an encircling wall and shattered pinnacle. The rising smoke resulted from the serendipitous smudge of an eraser that I expanded to add dramatic flair (and hide my error). What started as a concept ended with a new story about the aftermath of a vengeful dragon attack.

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I loved the concept of a massive castle carved from the interior of a mysterious rock formation, isolated amongst desolate hills. When the image came to life, it sparked so many new story ideas, it became the primary location for the final third of the novel. I’ve spent months creating a backstory that guides me as I write scenes for Tildy and her companions.

This brings me back to my realization. If I’m being honest with myself, I haven’t done the location justice. The Last Shard is as large as a city blog and eighty stories tall, which requires far more description than I’ve given it. On top of that, I only have a dozen different rooms that they visit, which feels like far too few in a structure that immense. Consequently, instead of feeling like a fully realized place, my descriptions feel more like set pieces on a stage: they’re superficial and only painted on one side.

Could I flesh it out? Absolutely. I still have unwritten ideas floating about my skull. But I don’t think I will. Adding the necessary description to the last third of the book will unbalance the entire story, not to mention slowing down the reader’s arrival at the book’s climax.

And so, I am contemplating the removal of the Last Shard. Writers dread this kind of decision. Whether it’s remembering the amount of work you’ve spent, understanding that such an interwoven component will be difficult to eliminate, or whether you’re in love with a concept, you always have to make the right decision for your readers (i.e. murder your darlings). In this book I’ve already removed two key characters and another major location, and I’m still happy with those decisions. It helps to remember that deleted scenes can return to life in another book.

If I remove the Last Shard, I still need a location, so it will likely be reduced to a stereotypical castle: familiar in exterior, though the unique elements I’ve created for the interior will likely remain. The Last Shard needs to be a primary character in a story, but this book needs the final setting to play a supporting role. I don’t think I’ll be terribly unhappy with this choice since the mythos of the Last Shard doesn’t add anything to this book. Besides, it’s kind of like putting a Death Star in your first movie: How do you ever top that?

While it might sound like I’ve already made up my mind, I’m going to sleep on this another day or two. The Last Shard and its history are so interwoven into the book, it will take careful review to fully remove it. Precision takes time and work, and I have some larger editing priorities before me right now.

–Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, October 2017

Writing Update: Oct 15, 2017

This post is approximately 450 words, and I originally just wanted to share the clever t-shirt I’m wearing.

Choosing a t-shirt to wear is a bit of a ritual for me, and while that might sound like hyperbole, I do put a ridiculous amount of thought into it (‘ridiculous’ being a relative term, used to compare myself to regular people, who might be making sartorial decisions, whereas societal fashion plays almost no role for me).

Today’s selection is Call of Snoophulhu, a mash-up of two writers: H. P. Lovecraft (The Call of Cthulhu) and Charles M. Schulz (Peanuts). It tickles me, although most people don’t get it.

Call of Snoophulhu

This morning I realized I have a number of literary-themed t-shirts and it surprised me. It shouldn’t have, considering that friends and family enjoy buying things like that for the writer in their lives. Additionally, I like to organize things and should have made the connection. But I’d missed the fact that I have at least five shirts in this category.

In that vein (did you see this segue coming?), I realized I have two connected scenes in my story, but I’d forgotten to help the reader see how they’re related. When it comes to writing, I’m sometimes inconsistent with that. On one day, I can’t see anything but the interconnectedness of things, some of which span chapters or books. Other days, I’m so close to the writing that I can’t see the forest for the trees. That idiom is particularly appropriate today as I realized I missed a key opportunity to connect one scene to the climax of my book.

An important person in Tildy’s life comes to help her, seemingly out of nowhere. It felt a bit deus ex machina, and that annoyed me (ever since I’d learned about that theatrical device in a Greek history class, I’ve been hyper-aware to its use in any story, mine or someone else’s). I’d already established that the character was hiding in a tree near her, waiting for an opportunity to help. Tildy even passed by the place, but I never actually wrote any indication of this or gave any clue to the reader. Alas, for the brain of a writer. This morning’s task is rectifying that oversight (i.e. connecting one scene to another for the reader).

Sometimes, connections like this are part of the writing plan in your head (architect); you’ve grouped things together and you’re presenting them in a logical fashion. Other times, they come naturally (gardener). Editing and re-writing is a great way to find those opportunities you’ve missed.

Good luck with your writing!

–Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, October 2017

Get back to writing, you!

This post is approximately 550 words. Most of them from more than a year ago.

Not a week passes where I don’t see a meme or social post chastising writers who aren’t writing. Sometimes I think, “Yes, thanks!” and others, “I can’t look at that damned manuscript for more minute.”

Misery writing

I found this unfinished post and thought I’d share. It captures my thoughts from a time when I’d been struggling with the work of writing, yet I felt like I was climbing out of the rut. Since those times are safely in the rear-view, I thought this post would be a nice reassurance for writers in ruts of their own.


I’ve discovered that longer and longer breaks are occurring between writing attempts. The fear is that eventually, there will be no more attempts. For someone who enjoys writing as much as I do, this is, of course, unacceptable.

We all have personal responsibilities or weights that drag us down or roadblocks in our way. I started identifying a few of mine. I’ve had a diminishing community of writing people around me. My friend and one-time collaborator has given up writing to focus on a different enterprise. I’m no longer engaging with writers on Twitter. My blog has remained dormant. I seem to know fewer people making serious attempts to write on a regular basis. When weighty things force your head toward the ground, it’s difficult to see the sunrise ahead.

But things are changing. Finally. Though I say this feeling surprised at the amount of time that’s passed since I was serious about writing. I’m discovering the hidden talents of coworkers. My wife and son have written intriguing stories this last year. I’m doing more writing at work, allowing me to flex the important parts of my brain whilst shaking off the rust that’s collected on my fingers.

Certainly, you need to write to write. It’s a stupidly obvious statement. But it is true. The more you write, the more you can write (he says, making another stupidly obvious and trite statement). And to accompany that, you need to surround yourself with discussions about writing, about creation, about art. You need read and read and read. And read some more. You need to create an environment for yourself where, even when you’re not writing, you’re writing. When done correctly, I’ve found the ideas flowed like exhaled breath to the page, effortless and natural.

So, all of that said (he says, using a terrible segue and allowing for another parenthetical aside), I come to the inspiration of this post. I love to hear writers talking about writing. I consume every word as a morsel of inspiration. Last summer, I read a blog post by one of the writers of Community, in which he tells an expletive-laced story about going to write for the show. I can boil it down to “writing is re-writing”, but that’s not as much fun to read, if you like vulgarity.


It usually gets better. It sometimes gets worse. But you guarantee the latter when you’re not sitting down to write. Which result do you prefer?

Apologies for the distraction. Get back to writing, you!

Doctor Who writing

 

–Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, September 2017

A Stick and a Story

This post is approximately 450 words – my interpretation of a child’s imagination.

As we waited for the bus the other day, our son Benji picked up a stick and brandished it. He’s non-verbal, but I could tell by the look on his face that he was suddenly going on an adventure. Like millions of kids before him, this simple act transported him from our world to another, turning him into an explorer, a hunter, or a hero.

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Divine providence signified that Ben was to carry Excalibur. That is why he is your king.

The same was certainly true for me. Like many of my generation, I remember playing lightsabers as a kid. As soon as you picked up the perfect stick, you were transported to the hallway outside docking bay 327 on the Death Star: one of you was Obi-Wan; the other, Darth Vader. Good and evil didn’t matter because YOU WERE IN STAR WARS. (Sidebar: Once, I made the mistake of acting out Kenobi’s sacrifice, which resulted in a painful whack across the arm. I still enjoyed my time in a galaxy far, far away, even if I didn’t disappear amongst crumbling robes.)

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Like Lucy Pevensie passing through the wardrobe, Benji emerged from the bushes into a strange new world.

It’s times like these when you realize magic is real. Like a portkey, a simple catalyst was all it took to transport you to another place, introducing you to new people and new experiences. It could be wearing a cape like Superman, holding a flashlight like the Hardy Boys, or sliding into the open window of a car like one of the Dukes of Hazzard.

Writing a story is very much the same. You’re looking at the mundane or the unusual in your everyday life, trying to find ways to send readers to places strange and wonderful. Maybe it’s a twisted tree or a distant hill or a scent carried upon the breeze. The point of inspiration doesn’t matter in the end; it’s the resulting idea that counts. If you’ve done your job as a writer, it should be as effortless for the reader as picking up a stick.

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The school bus calls for an end to the adventure.

Being carried away by your imagination is an amazing power, and I think writers need to feel the magic contained within sticks more often. At the very least, we’re transported back to our fondest childhood memories; but at best, we’re inspired to get back to the writing.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going outside to pick up a lightsaber.

–Michael


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© Michael Wallevand, September 2017