From the Editor’s Desk: Adverbial Traps

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Once more, I’ll endeavor to go some of my (somewhat) informed opinion, this time regarding -ly adverbs. I recently elucidated a bit about the pitfalls of using these lovely (see what I did there) adverbs in conjunction with dialogue. He said rudely. She remarked kindly. They laughed loudly. On the surface it seems like these -ly modifiers help the reader to understand how an action is happening. But I say trusting your writing is more important than definitively (I am on a roll) telling your reader how things are happening.

Outside the realm of dialogue, the old -ly’s are much more acceptable. He moved silently. He grabbed it quickly. She moved gracefully. Here they can make things a bit more clear when describing an action. And sometimes you can’t avoid them. But what you can avoid is letting them stand on their own, or using them as an easy out:

-He moved silently, like a olive-drab panther, barely making a noise in the brush.

-He grabbed it so quickly it was in his hands in the space of a blink.

-She moved with precision and grace, every inch the archetype of a ballerina.

The three sentences above probably feel am little more descriptive than the simple   -ly sentences. These are quick simple fixes, but on occasion and -ly adverb isn’t necessary. If you simply (Somebody stop me) say He sat, in the right context, surrounded by effective description, it can be more powerful than any adverbial modifier in existence, and makes the reader feel more involved in the story.

The crux of the argument is the same argument against over-describing a characters physical attributes. You want the reader to have a personal experience when he reads your work. Taking him or her by the hand and describing, to a T, the exact and complete physical appearance of your character, I,or any other reader, can’t allow our imaginations to stretch out. The same applies to the -ly adverbs. A little physical description is good, helps create an image for the reader. Like a coloring book you supply the lines, and let the reader fill in the color. Again, same concept with the -ly words.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Trust your writing. Give the readers some credit. Most of us are smart enough not to ruin your narrative if you let us fill in some of the blanks.

Once more, this is my opinion, for what its worth. Take it. leave it. But there it is.

Signing Off.

From the Editor’s Desk: On Dialogue

Rather than bore you with grammatical nuances, today I just want to look at something purely stylistic. Dialogue, arguably, is the most important piece of character development in any lengthy work of fiction (or non-fiction for that matter). Inarguably it’s in the top three. It can sharply illuminate a personality by magnifying how that character interacts with others, or in certain cases his or her self. Graphic novels and comic books rely heavily on verbal interaction between characters, and us prose-hucksters can learn a thing or two from the pages of Marvel, DC, and the like.

I’ll climb down from my pulpit in a minute, but in a society that’s increasingly more obsessed with immediacy and the now-now-now, there may be a reason for the renaissance of graphic novels, comic books, and image-heavy amalgamations of art and prose. Dialogue is the fastest way an author can move a story. Stylistically, linguistically, bouncing words off of characters propels a story faster than anything else.

To keep your dialogue compelling, there’s a few guidelines to follow. I will (un-modestly) share 3 key things to keep in mind when figuring out what your characters want to say:

1) Accents – use ’em at your peril – One of the hardest things to do with dialogue as a writer is make written words sound organic and authentic, like someone’s really talking. We may be tempted to add an accent or dialectic conventions to a speaker. It’s been done, both poorly and effectively, but be wary: the fastest way to turn your character into a caricature is through hokey accents. You’ve probably read Harry Potter. Hagrid, Fleur, and Viktor Krum are all examples of poor dialogue execution, and characters (at least in the prose) marred by a stylistic choice.

To me, a less-is-more approach works the best to embody accents. Maybe throw in an “’em” instead of a them, or an “ain’t” here or there. This works way more effectively than the full-on Transylvania or John Wayne treatment. Some of the most successful authors (Stephen King, Dan Abnett) will have another character react to their speech (leaving off –r sounds or turning -a’s into –o’s) which, to me, is a much more effective way to portray an accent than directly in the dialogue. Food for thought.

2) Contractions – embrace them – I’m sure it’s advice you’ve heard before, but most human beings include a lot of contractions when they talk. Would you tell someone you “can not make it to their party”? No, you’d say “I can’t make it.” When a person reads your work, they’re imagining someone talking when they see those magical quotation marks. If there’s no contractions in between them, it feels like they’re reading someone trying to make dialogue rather than listening to a conversation.

Use this to your advantage Sci-Fi or Fantasy writers! You’ll notice famous (or infamous) aliens, robots, etc. never used contractions. Mr. Spock, Data the Android, countless computerized voices, they all avoided shortening word combinations. It makes them feel less human, cold, which was precisely the point with most of these characters.

3) Identifiers – avoid them, or keep it simple – Identifiers are the literary equivalent of a necessary evil. The “he said” “she said” of the literary world. Context is a much better medium for indicating who is speaking. Trust the readers to intelligently determine the course of a scene with your description and pacing. In a two-character conversation they’re entirely unnecessary. The ping-pong back and forth dialogue feels snappy and natural. With a group of three or more, however, identifiers sometimes feel necessary, and they are.

Try to stick to simple “he said” or “she said” and don’t fall into an adverbial trap of adding “slyly, quietly, or loudly”. It’ll be much more effective to let your description of the scene describe how things are said, rather than relying on the oft-dreaded -ly.

Thank you for once more listening to me opine on writing. Take everything I say with a grain of salt, it’s all simple experience speaking from a lifetime of reading and a critical eye.

If you have any questions about writing or editing, feel free to reach out. Complaints…go ahead and write them down. And then throw them in the trash can.

Signing off.

From the Editor’s Desk: The Perils of Punctuation

2b5b8f2abf53c88f9e068be4216433e93c9191f3115b0005f73ae3c26c0b06deOh punctuation, she is a harsh mistress indeed. A great equalizer, because all writers and authors are subject to the same stolid rules, no matter how successful or renowned they might be. There’s a bit of stylistic wiggle room, if you’re brave, but mostly their guidelines blanket anyone who traffics in the written word. Early on we all learn about commas, periods, periods, parentheses, colons, semi-colons, and the like. We all know the basics, where they go, and what they mean. The trouble is making them align properly in tricky situations like dialogue, and how to tweak and adjust to help the reader’s ride through your prose go easy and smooth.

I’ll endeavor to address some of the issues I’ve seen more commonly, and some that I just want to address. I’m writing. You’re reading. If you want my somewhat informed opinion on any other matters of grammar, please let me know:

1) Commas, and The Oxford Comma: When you list a group of three or more things in a row, you may or may not include a comma preceding the final and (i.e The crowd was loud, raucous, boisterous, and foul-smelling). I’m not going to spark the debate. I’m not going to climb up on a soap box. The Oxford comma is listed as “optional” so that’s what it is. I choose to use it, you may not. Why is it the Oxford comma? Because it was traditionally used by the Oxford University Press.

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Oxford or not, commas can be excellent pacing devices in your writing. Don’t make the mistake of running sentences on and on, or of smattering commas around willy-nilly. That will turn a reader off faster than poor spelling (or maybe just as fast). But if you’re trying to create suspense, focus in on a particular moment in the prose, or slow down the pace, don’t shy away from using commas to control the speed of your writing. It can be surprisingly effective.

2) Dialogue Punctuation: While it seems straightforward and grammatically established, properly (or even better, effectively) punctuating dialogue is a key component for any kind of writing. You must clearly depict which character is speaking, or the reader may get frustrated and confused.

The easiest way for me to break it down is into three key details (hooray, another list):

a. Treat anything the speaker says as a sentence on its own, contained within the quotations. Capitalize when you start, even if you have description or an identifier preceding the dialogue, and place all punctuation within the quotes (as long as its pertinent to what’s being said), even if you’re ending the sentence with a quotation. It’s permissible to have quotation marks hanging outside of the last period. That’s English for you.

– Felix stood up and proudly stated, “Poor bloody infantry is a state of mind.”

b. The commas make a stunning return. If you precede a line of dialogue with an identifier (as seen above), you must separate it with a comma from the text of the dialogue. If you choose to divide or pause in the middle of the dialogue, close with a comma, and then re-open with a comma. No need for a period or capitalization on the second half unless it completes a thought:

– “I don’t understand,” he said, eyebrows furrowed in confusion, “why you think a rubber chicken is ineffective for self-defense.”

Now here’s a wrinkle: If you close the sentence with a modifier outside of the quotation, then you close the quotation with a comma, even though it closes a thought:

-“I can’t believe he hit me with a rubber chicken,” he said

c. Always start a new paragraph when a new character starts speaking. This is the one I see go wrong the least…but when it goes wrong it is very noticeable. This is the easiest way to differentiate among a group of people speaking to each other, and like most punctuation it sounds simple but can be very tricky if you introduce interruptions or clipped speech.

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3) Dashes, Hyphens, and Italics: Less punctuation and more stylistic, dashes and hyphens are commonly used in prose writing to indicate sudden stops (M-Dash), describe ranges (N-Dash), and helps us make fun combo-words…like combo-word (hyphen). Some standard guidelines (WordPress is not a punctuation tool, so use your imagination):

Hyphens – Connect compund words (like-minded)

N-Dash – Describes ranges (July-October)

M-Dash – Can be used like commas to separate a unique idea from the main clause of a sentence:

“Utilizing a rubber chicken—rather than mace or nunchaku—is a safer alternative.”

– Sets an inserted thought or clause apart the main clause:

“The tall man swung the rubber chicken—was he a ninja?—and the masked man stopped and stared.

– Shows when dialogue is interrupted:

“I swung the rubber chicken with all my–”

“Wait, did you say rubber chicken?”

Similar to hyphens and dashes, Italics can serve a mutlitude of purposes for an author. They can delineate internal monologue from external action, can serve as exclamation in dialogue without the use of an exclamation point, and serve to identify a “story within a story” when a character reads a letter or a journal entry, for example. But don’t over do it, or the italics will lose their power, and the reader will get annoyed. Trust me. I’ve been there.

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Punctuation matters, and not just to keep people from thinking you’re a cannibal. Keep that in mind fellow writing enthusiasts. It seems easy and standardized, but the tricksy English language has twists and turns it can take a life time to master. Just don’t make any of the big errors. Because those are distracting. And a distracted reader is not a reader for very long.

Signing Off.

Pride of Baghdad – A Review

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I’ve been on a bit of a review kick lately. Hopefully that’s not too boring.

Brian K. Vaughn is one of the strongest graphic writers out there. You may or may not have heard of him, most of his bigger stuff is off-major label (as in not Marvel or DC, and not being developed into million-dollar movies). He’s written some off-the-line stuff for Marvel and DC too in the past, but his best stuff is Y the Last Man and Ex Machina. He likes his own stories, and that’s where he thrives.

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But enough about the writer. Let’s look at the book. Based on a weird story from 2003, a pride of lions escaped from the Baghdad zoo, and apparently roamed around the broken city, starved and dehydrated, until US troops shot them. In Pride of Baghdad, the animals can all talk to each other, which gets hilarious in a hurry. Its not just the lions, but the monkeys, antelope, giraffes, bears, all of them. They can all talk to each other. The pre-bombing talk of revolution and alliances between lions and antelopes alone is worth checking out.

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The lions are the focal point, and they all get personalities that feel all too human. Ali is the over-curious cub, which can’t help but draw comparisons to the Lion King. In many ways I feel like Vaughn embraced this and didn’t shy from it. A decision that payed off. Safa is the old lioness, scarred and past her prime but still capable. Zill is the male, somewhat dopey and more or less the comic relief in the story. Noor is the younger lioness, equal parts naivete, quick-temper, and idealism. The interaction among the pack is surprisingly human, anthropomorphized into classic behavioral tropes, yet still spun around real lion behavior. Sound weird? It is a little, but after a while it works. Vaughn’s strength is he creates compelling characters, whether its a long series or a short, one-shot approach, and the Pride of Baghdad is no exception.

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I highly recommend checking this one out. It’s a bit dated (2006) but the art is still strong and the story is top-notch. It’s funny, bleak, cute, scary, all in the same breath. And the small piece of it pulled from real-life events gives it a tragic, weirdly authentic feel for a story about talking animals.

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Since I’ve been a pet owner, I find myself more attuned to the animal-based comics. If you read Pride of Baghdad, and you enjoy it (Which you should. Because I’m telling you to) check out WE3 by Grant Morrison, which is way more terrifying and tragic but still kind of adorable.

I give this one 4-out-of-5 paws up. The other one…a bear ate it.

Signing Off.

The Martian: A Review

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What do you get if you put super-science fiction, MacGyver, math genius, and infantile snark in a test tube, seal it, and watch as the seemingly opposing forces collide? A damned entertaining book called The Martian. I don’t generally summarize plot too in-depth, but I can get pretty succinct:

Man gets left on Mars, man has to use his super-brain to duct-tape-and-glue his way to survival and rescue. Also man has a Sophomore pledge’s sense of humor, so boob and that’s-what-she-said jokes abound.

If you like science fiction, this book is for you. If you don’t like science fiction, this book is still for you. Don’t let yourself be scared off, there’s no aliens or laser beams. It’s all mathematics and slight extrapolation that feels incredibly real and genuine. Andy Weir is some sort of math prodigy (He’s been a programmer since he was 15. I played football, slept a lot, and prayed for miracle acne cures when I was 15. What did you do?). He also charts orbits and does insane-level calculus for fun.

Let me repeat the salient points for you: Calculus. Orbits. For fun.

The impressive math skills of the author notwithstanding, his incredibly detailed mathematics actually lend a very stark authenticity to both the character of Mark Watney, the setting, and the story-line. This guy did some serious homework, between the calculations, the Mars geography, NASA history, and technical descriptions, and I bet he enjoyed every minute of it. Bastard.

A reader can get a bit mired-down in the endless litany of numbers and equations, especially in the beginning of the narrative, which is always the worry when you go too science-heavy in Sci-Fi, or any genre. My one complaint for The Martian is the first narrative reprieve outside of Mark Watney’s occasional hilarious journal entries comes a bit too late. When it comes, it off-sets the conversational, dare I say “blog-like” tone of the journal entries with some straightforward third-person narration with the same dry wit translated into the dialogue. I know some engineers, super math geeks, government employees, and many differing combinations of the three. This is how they interact. I swear.

To get a bit more Meta, the overly-technical descriptions in the journal could be perceived as a scientific mind’s struggle to stay sane in utter isolation an unimaginable distance from home. He rarely if ever gets too dark and self-defeating. Every writer is an arm-chair psychologist, and when I read this I felt the journal entries and super-math walkthroughs would be exactly what any nerd stranded on Mars would use to stay in the right frame of mind. Just my two cents. You can take it if you want it.

I give The Martian 4.5 out of 5 emoticon boobies (.Y.). When you read the book you’ll understand. With the movie on the horizon, go out and grab this (or download it) and read it before you see the Matt Damon version. It’s a quick read, and the author’s story is just as interesting as the protagonist’s. Go read it.

Signing Off.

Little Soul

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He calls this “Blue Steel”

A few years ago, my wife and I split-up. Yeah yeah same old sob story. No one’s making you read it. There wasn’t any infidelity no one was angry, it just wasn’t working. We divided what we had, and went our separate ways. The only thing that couldn’t be split was our puppy, a Freelance (French/English) Bull dog named Abe. We both wanted to keep him. I ended up relenting, and waved goodbye to a tiny little four-legged life that had affected in ways I could never have imagined. I’m a large, scary-looking grown man, and I will openly admit I had a bit of a cry.

And two weeks ago, I got him back. I wasn’t sure how it would go, or if he’d even remember me. He’s a bit bigger, a little less energetic, but still the fuzzy little (ok…not quite so little now) ball of crazy that stood in the passenger side seat and looked out the window, confused as to why I wasn’t in the car with him, when I thought he’d been driven away, and out of my life, forever. I was surprised that he folded right back in, we got into a routine, and after a week or so it feels like he never left. Almost like I’ve always had him and we didn’t spend two years apart.

I have to stop and remind myself to feel the joy of having him back. Some days it hits me all on its own.

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Preferred method of cooldown after a walk.

The biggest change hasn’t been the overwhelming font of joy I thought it’d be. it’s actually something much deeper. Life hasn’t been the smoothest ride the last six months or so, and I’d had an extended weight on my shoulders, a yoke of stress and worry that was figuratively driving me into the ground. But with Abe back, that weight is gone. I worry less, stress less, and when I feel good its no longer through a cloudy haze.

I can’t really put my finger on why. My science brain says it can’t be anything chemical, unless he releases endorphins just with his presence. Which would be a neat trick. Then some other part of my brain side says why are you relaxing? You’ve got another mouth to feed now.

Yet everyday, when I come home and see that priceless mug, tongue a-wag and butt wiggling, the worries, the cares, the crazy, it evaporates. Maybe not completely, but enough that it’s easier to bear. I never had a pet growing up, but maybe that helps me appreciate exactly what they have to offer. Do they sometimes seem like expensive poop machines with little regard for personal space? Yes. Do they always do exactly what you want them too? No. On paper, they’re entirely dependent on us for everything. But it’s a small price to pay for what we get back from them. Unconditional love? Universal acceptance? Slobber and shedding? Its a bit above my pay grade to put that kind of label on it.

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20-hr round trip to get him. Worth every second (He sat shotgun the whole way)

Whatever it is, I know I’ve missed it. If you have a pet, give it a hug today. Their lives are fragile and brief, their souls little yet bright, and you may not notice what they do for you everyday.

Signing Off.

Red Country: A Book Review

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My love affair with Joe Abercrombie continues. This closes out the last of the books written in the First Law universe (except maybe the Half a King series but its bit unclear…at least to me). I won’t gush too much about how awesome a writer he is, how his action sequences are great, the dark fantasy setting manages to be depressing and compelling all at once, that the characters he creates and re-introduces throughout the stretch of 6 books (All of the First Law trilogy, Best Served Cold, The Heroes, and finally Red Country) are developed in such powerful ways they make a jaded almost-30-year-old man giddy like a 12-year-old opening his first comic book…nope, I’m not going to do that.

I want to focus on the setting, which is as compelling and interesting as anything else in the book. As much as Firely was a Space Western, Red Country is a fantasy western. There aren’t any gunslingers or gunfights, but there is a gold rush into a barren, uncharted country, historically under the control of an under-developed but proud people (In this case called the Ghosts). Complete with boomtowns, Oregon-trail style caravans, and back-stabbing piled on top of more back-stabbing, and over all of it the spectre of nine-fingered ghost from the past, I couldn’t put this one down. Seriously. I read all 400+ plus pages in about 4 days. And I work 40 hours a week. I can’t give a book much higher praise than that.

I’ve always been fascinated with trying a western-style story imported into a fantasy or sci-fi realm, and one of my favorites authors attempting the juxtaposition was a welcome discovery. I’m of the particular opinion that these books are better than the Game of Thrones series and would also make better TV adaptations. Yep. I said it. Because it’s true. The books are definitely better, the characters are just as complex but more relatable, and actually make more consistent decisions (You’re rooting for a crippled torturer and a homicidal maniac…what could be more compelling?)

All in all, I highly recommend Red Country, or anything Joe Abercrombie writes. As usual. I give this particular book 5-out-of-5 bloody severed heads on pikes.

P.S. there’s way more than 5 in the book.

Signing Off.