Sunday, July 15, 2018

Comma Abuse

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published September 9, 2010. Enjoy!

By Jewel Amethyst

Back in my days as a middle school teacher, an English teacher shared an exercise that she had given a 7th grade class with the rest of the staff. She gave them this paragraph to punctuate:

Sammy went to the market in his pocket he had grandma’s purse on his back he wore his shirt on his feet he wore his shoes on his face there was a big smile at the market Sammy was very happy
One student punctuated it like this:Sammy went to the market in his pocket. He had grandma’s purse on his back. He wore his shirt on his feet. He wore his shoes on his face. There was a big smile at the market. Sammy was very happy.
You can imagine how hilarious that was to the rest of the staff. But looking back at it, I can understand the student’s error, especially with the emphasis we make on using the active rather than the passive voice.

Grammar is one of those things that are difficult perfect, even as a writer. I, like the student have my punctuation weakness. In my case, it’s the abuse of commas. I recently read through a rough draft of my last blog post and was mortified at my abusive use of commas. While some tend to underuse commas, I over use them. Unfortunately, Microsoft word, the most popular word processing program, doesn’t detect comma abuse in its spell and grammar check. This, sentence, with, commas, after, every, word, escaped, detection, by, the, spelling, and, grammar, check. So for those of us needing a “Commas Anonymous” group there is little help there.

I know I’m not alone on this. I Googled comma abuse and found numerous hits. I found a blog about comma abuse: “
How to use the comma: Simple rules and hints that help you stop comma abuse” by Shane Werlinger. The introduction of the article states, “The comma has to be one of the most abused punctuation marks. It is either overused, placed haphazardly on the writer’s whim, or not used enough. I think it’s safe to say that most of us have been guilty of this at one time or another.”

In the comments, someone even pointed out the comma error that the “expert” inadvertently included in his post. Yes comma abuse is prevalent, but I’m sure there are also other punctuation abuses.

So there you have it: “Hi I’m Jewel Amethyst and I’m a comma abuser.”

What about you? What punctuation do you abuse?

Sunday, July 8, 2018

What I learned from books on writing

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published August 11, 2009. Enjoy!

By Liane Spicer

I sometimes miss that blissful time when I wrote my first novel, unaware that there were dozens of books out there presenting countless rules and recommendations for what I was attempting to do. I've picked up a few things since then, and the advice that has resonated often had little to do with the actual writing and everything to do with the attitudes that might make the difference between being a productive writer or a frustrated one.

On Writing by Stephen King:
I learned from King's recounting of his years spent collecting rejection slips that those little forms are not symbols for "Failed Writer". You place the slip in the appropriate file and move on.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield:
Mr. Pressfield wrote this book for me. He turns a spotlight on writers' block in all its manifestations: fear, resistance, procrastination, obsessiveness, self-dramatization, self-medication, victimhood, self-doubt, toxic relationships, support (yes, you read that right), and rationalization. Then he tells you how to combat it all, and his recommendation is simple: You turn pro. How does a professional approach his work? Apply the same principles to your writing and see the difference.

"A professional shows up every day."
"A professional demystifies."
"A professional acts in the face of fear."
"A professional does not show off."
"A professional self-validates."

There's lots more, and it's all written with the authority that comes only from first-hand experience, aka the school of hard knocks.

Page After Page by Heather Sellers:
Here's another writer who demystifies. She knows that declarations like 'waiting for my muse' are nothing but lame excuses. "It's a matter of sitting down, conjuring a state of complete dedication and complete openness, and writing. Putting pen to paper." No hocus-pocus there.

What else did she teach me? To talk less about writing, and write more. That except for a very few lucky souls, being published (finally!) does not change your life. You won't be rich and famous, loved and admired by everyone, rail-thin and immune to chocolate binges. You'll still have to deal with all your bumps and warts; those don't disappear once you get published.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White:
This book gives great advice on the fine points of usage, common errors, and style. There was little in there I didn't already know after having taught the language for 22 years, but that slim book clarified something vital I had hitherto understood only superficially: the US version of my mother tongue is a very different beast from the UK version I was taught.

I've got two more books on writing lined up: Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, the title of which has just the sort of new-agey tone I'm a sucker for. (Did someone mention the word demystify?) Next to it on my bedhead bookshelf is The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. I'll be sure to let you know what I learn from those in a later post.

Liane Spicer

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Guest author Charles Gramlich: Gems

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published September 18, 2009 by one of our first guests who went on to become a longstanding member of our blog group. Enjoy!

Charles Gramlich grew up on a farm in Arkansas but moved to the New Orleans area in 1986 to teach psychology at a local University. He’s since sold four novels and numerous short stories, mostly in the genres of Horror and Fantasy. In 2009 Charles’s nonfiction book, Write With Fire, was published. It’s a collection of his articles and essays on the craft of writing. He also produces a regular column on writing for the onlinenewsletter, The Illuminata. All of his books are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online sites. Charles lives with his wife in Abita Springs, Louisiana, and has an adult son named Joshua. He blogs at Razored Zen.

Thanks to Novel Spaces for inviting me today. I’ve been enjoying the posts, and getting to look at the variety of featured books. Many talented authors live and visit here. I feel at home.

So, let me tell you about GEMS, which stands for GOAL, EFFORT, MOTIVATION, SKILL. I’m a mild mannered professor by day, and usually by night. And I’m always looking to help my students think about their education. As a writer too, everything ends up adapted for my own struggles with story, as well. That’s how GEMS developed, and here’s how I apply it to writing.

Most writers start with one GOAL, to get published. I did. But after you’ve seen your name in print that first goal is superseded and new goals must be set. It wasn’t until recently, however, that I realized the need to interweave my goals to produce the greatest effect. Specifically, I needed to set both long-term and short-term goals, and had to understand the difference between primary and secondary goals.

A primary goal is the highest level and I believe a writer should have only one. Everything else will be secondary, although that doesn’t mean unimportant. These days, my primary goal is to “advance my writing career.” Any other goals I set should work toward that purpose. Some “secondary” goals will be short-term: setting up a signing, improving a website, or even reading a book on writing. Other secondary goals are long-term. Eventually, I want to write a more ambitious book than I have so far, one appealing to a wider audience.

GOALs cannot be met without EFFORT, and the key is “sustained” rather than “acute” effort. Almost everyone “rises to the occasion” when a deadline is due. Such “acute” effort is often necessary in a literary career, but it won’t get a novel written. Sustained effort means doing the work every day; it means making continual progress toward a goal. Many novelists have a set page number or word count they strive to reach every day. That’s sustained effort. At times, when school overwhelms me, I’ve been reduced to, “just one paragraph a day.” But paragraphs lead to pages, and pages to stories. Push forward, and you’ll get there.

An individual’s effort level is affected by what psychologists call “locus of control.” People with an “internal” locus of control believe their own actions control the events of their lives. People with an “external” locus believe chance or “others” control their fates. Writers with an internal locus hold themselves responsible for their success or lack thereof, while authors with an external locus might say they were merely lucky or unlucky. Certainly, both internal and external factors impact a writer’s career. Research shows, however, that people with an internal locus typically work harder toward their goals. They believe effort is directly related to success or failure. From an “effort” standpoint, writers should try to feel in control of their careers, even if that isn’t always the case.

MOTIVATION is the third facet of GEMS, and it comes from two sources, “intrinsic” and “extrinsic.” Intrinsic motivations come from within. I’m proud of myself when I write hard and make progress. I feel guilty when I don’t. No external force applies these judgments to me. The pride and guilt come from inside. Extrinsic motivations come from outside. Rewards like money and praise are examples.

Most writers have both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. I enjoy money myself, and I beam when someone compliments my work. But I also write because it engages my emotions. Intrinsic motivations make careers for writers. Extrinsic motivations actually lose their value over time. Would you have been thrilled to earn a few thousand dollars on your first book? What about on your tenth? When behaviors are controlled solely by extrinsic motivations, the payoff has to grow over time or the behaviors stop.

Extrinsic motivations also diminish intrinsic ones. Many writers write their first novel for love. They write their second for love and money. They write their third for money and love. See where the trend is headed? Love decreases; money increases. When it becomes all about money, many writers quit. To maintain long careers as writers, authors need to keep the love, even if that means changing genres or reinventing themselves.

Finally, we come to SKILL. When I started I had a good vocabulary, good visualization abilities, and had read enough to acquire a sense of story. That was it. I was a dialogue virgin, had no idea what a “scene” was, and used atrocious grammar. I could handle periods, but other than some haphazardly placed commas, I had only a nodding acquaintance with other punctuation. I hadn’t the faintest idea of submission format. These were skills I lacked. Yet, I sold a few stories (in the small press), all of which had vivid descriptions, interesting vocabulary terms, and periods. There were only two lines of dialogue in the first four stories I sold. There wasn’t a dash or semicolon anywhere. Fortunately, I knew what skills I lacked and found books to help me develop them. Unfortunately, they’re all still under construction.

Many of my students, and many writers, constantly play to their strengths. As a result, their strengths become crutches. We shouldn’t ignore our strengths, but improving weaknesses often brings the biggest advances in careers.

One weakness I’ve ignored is developing a business sense. I see others doing the same. I hate the business side of writing. I couldn’t sell slop to a hog. I’m not a good people person. I don’t smooze well. But I need to work on these issues if I really hope to expand my audience.

Now, it’s off to check my goals, increase my effort, and find some love in the story I’m working on. I might even read a book on selling. Anybody know a good one?

Thanks for having me!

Friday, June 22, 2018

How It All Started: My First Writing Effort

by Maggie King

As a devotee of Nancy Drew, I wrote mysteries in grade school. In high school I poured my considerable adolescent angst into bad poetry. After that, the only writing I did for many years was journaling. During the last year I lived in Los Angeles, three of my co-workers took creative writing and screenwriting courses at UCLA Extension. I read their work and was impressed by their talent. I also thought “I could do this.” I was a member of a mystery book group (it was the model for the Murder on Tour group in Murder at the Book Group) and felt confident that I could turn out a mystery. When I moved to Virginia in 1996 the first thing I did was to register for a writing course at the University of Virginia. Two women, Margaret and Tristan, taught the course and were extremely encouraging and supportive of their students.

Despite the title of this post, “My First Writing Effort,” I don’t have my first writing efforts, the ones inspired by Nancy Drew in grade school. They seem to have vanished—probably a good thing. But in that class at UVA I started the story that would evolve countless times until its birth as Murder at the Book Group, my debut. 

I called it Death Comes Knocking and intended for it to be a prologue. On October 14, 1996 I submitted a shorter version and got a lot of helpful feedback from the teachers. I added to it and came up with the following a week later (I haven’t changed a word. Honest!):

Deanna unlocked the door of the motel room, flipping the light switch as she entered. She threw her purse down on the chair, sat on the edge of the lumpy bed, stood up, started pacing. Waiting. Clearly agitated. She no longer noticed the holes in the carpet, the cigarette burns on the formica nightstands as well as on the foam-filled vinyl chair cushions, or the steady drip of the shower.

She had been meeting her lover in the sleazy rooms of Marty’s Hideaway many times over the past year, but this time was different. This time they would talk about the future of their relationship, if indeed there was one.

The last time they met, Deanna had hit him with the news that she was pregnant. He didn’t have much to say, in fact he had lapsed into silence for an hour, a silence she wasn’t able to break. Then he said he needed time to think, that he would call her. He was distant.

He didn’t call for several days. Deanna was sure he was going to bolt, that this was the end for them. After a period of fretting, obsessing, and barely functioning, she started to accept his desertion. But then he did call, said he wanted to see her, he’d done a lot of reflecting, “agonizing” was how he put it, about their situation. He had seemed rather excited on the phone, not like his usual subdued self. They arranged a time to meet at “their” place.

So here she was, at Marty’s Hideaway, waiting for him, for his decision. She vaguely resented that he controlled the relationship, but didn’t feel up to addressing that issue now. She knew she couldn’t express her needs, like marriage, family, living happily ever after, etc. she paced some more, drank water from a plastic cup, felt almost desperate enough to peruse the inevitable Gideon bible, a blasphemous joke in this place where the clientele paid by the hour.

She jumped when she heard the knock. As she ran to open the door, she put on a big smile, and tried to pretend that she wasn’t nervous. She was greeted by an enormous bouquet of red roses, so enormous that it totally obscured the face of its presenter. What a nice surprise!—he wasn’t given to relationship niceties like flowers, and this arrangement must have cost him a fortune. So maybe he had decided to take the plunge, and make a commitment to her after all—maybe things were looking up.

Then the bouquet fell to the floor, the beautiful floral arrangement strewn over the ugly, threadbare carpet. Deanna bent down to pick them up, but stopped, startled, uncomprehending at what she saw before her. And she would never be able to reveal what she did see in that moment just before her world went black.

I wish I still had the critique comments from the teachers and the students. It’s not great writing but I don’t think it’s horrible, especially for my first effort. And that’s coming from someone who’s highly self-critical. What do you think? It won’t bother me if you think it’s unpublishable—I’ve typed too many words since this first effort. But I’m toying with the idea of doing something with it, perhaps a short story.

The important lesson for me and one I can pass on to other aspiring writers: look at the first paragraph of this post where I told myself “I could do this.” Well, I am doing this.

This is my last post on Novelspaces for a while, as we’re taking a hiatus for a year. But we’ll periodically select the best posts from the past nine years.

Olive, my muse since 2012

Maggie King is the author of the Hazel Rose Book Group mysteries, including Murder at the Book Group and Murder at the Moonshine Inn. She has contributed stories to the Virginia is for Mysteries anthologies and to the 50 Shades of Cabernet anthology.
Maggie is a member of Sisters in Crime, James River Writers, and the American Association of University Women. She has worked as a software developer, retail sales manager, and customer service supervisor. Maggie graduated from Elizabeth Seton College and earned a B.S. degree in Business Administration from Rochester Institute of Technology. She has called New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California home. These days she lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband, Glen, and cats, Morris and Olive. She enjoys reading, walking, movies, traveling, theatre, and museums.
Instagram: authormaggieking
Amazon author page:

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Three "R"s

No, I'm not talking about the school curriculum. This month I thought I would share three "R"s - a Recommendation, a Reservation and a Remarkable.

It's not all about writing, but this is a bit of me as a woman, wife and mother. Oh, and an author.

Recommendation - Get a dog

I had always been a cat lover, and I still love the sleek, independent, furry creatures. When I met my now-husband, my home was shared with a female, feisty, demanding Siamese seal point and a loving, put-up-with-anything ginger tom. The other love of my life shared his home with a four-legged tortie and white, and a three-legged tortie and white. With these two irresistible females in his life, I had to fight for his attention.

Twenty-six years, and a wedding and a son later, I received the nag nag nag for a dog. My response was automatic, having been rehearsed for about three years, during which time everyone in our village got a dog.

“I don’t want a dog. I haven’t got time to walk a dog, I'm a busy writer. I don’t want claws on my wooden floor. I don’t want dog hairs on my clothes…” There were a lot of “I”s, I know.

Then I stopped to think. I had given up work to raise our little boy. My choice to be an author was a by-product of that decision. So why was I saying “no” to our only son.

Needless to say, six months later eight-week-old Pepper came to live with us. For the first few weeks I asked myself, “What the hell have you done?”

In the decision-making progress to have a dog, I evaluated being an author working in the kitchen would fit right in with keeping an eye on a puppy. I was wrong. I could only have eyes for the puppy. The times she slept were not long enough for me to get into the zone for my writing. There was no continuity, which is so important to make scenes work. And I felt quite low at times, as a prisoner of my own house, mostly the kitchen. On top of that my hands were scarred with bite marks from scissor like baby teeth, and sore from being in and out of water to clean up numerous poohs and wees—rubber gloves were not an option and hand cream became my new best friend. Although Pepper was a very good sleeper at night—we have not had one bad night with her—we couldn’t put her to bed until about 10.30 and had to be up with her before 6.30 in the morning. That left me and my husband exhausted.

BUT I absolutely love her. Pepper is ten months old now. She slobbers. She loves mud. She’s happy going out in any weather. She is a leaf and twig magnet, and she adores shredding cardboard and paper.

And guess what one of my favourite things is? Taking our gorgeous, strong (!) Newfoundland for a walk.

All the hard work in those early months has paid off. Now she is well behaved, clean in the house, has a loving temperament, and I can write again. So go on, get a dog.

Reservations – Something referred to as smart

Today we have smart cars, smart phones, smart TV, smart meters…

I don’t want “smart” things taking over the world. Or at least not mine.

Yes, I am all for making life easier – I wouldn’t want to be without a dishwasher and I value the parking sensors on my car.
But I hate it when the likes of Google, or Facebook, or Amazon make assumptions about me. If I put in a search for something—which as an author I frequently do—I will find the information or product I need and use it for research, buy it or ignore it – my choice. That’s it. Done. Time to move on. I don’t want to be inundated with alternatives, duplicates or, even worse, tenuous substitutes for the next few weeks.

My reservation is that we will stop thinking for ourselves. We won’t look beyond a screen that has been programmed to give us what IT wants. Our views will become narrow, our diversity will become uniform, our creativity cramped. We mustn’t lose our humanity – it’s what makes us.

Gripe over.

Remarkables – Having your story published.

It is every author's dream to have their work in "print," be it electronic or paper. To start with an idea in your head, and then create a world of fictitious people doing made-up things, requires imagination and hard work. Skills in language, grammar, word count, characterisation and continuity, are all necessary to complete your manuscript. Then there are the cover and the blurb, and at last you have your book. That is remarkable. Of course the next step is selling your story. But as they say, that in itself is another story!

What would your three "R"s be?

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Second Time Around

by Linda Thorne

Is writing that second book like the song says? “Lovelier the second time around. Just as wonderful with both feet on the ground.”

My answer is no, nope, nada. None of the above.

With the first book, I felt like Mad Max in Beyond Thunderdome, not knowing what obstacles I’d face until they were there, me fighting to mow them down and keep moving with one major goal, publication. I’d been so forewarned about rejections and criticisms that no matter how many hundreds of them I received, they only fueled me to keep churning toward my most important goal.

I’m no longer scything through underbrush seeking to become a published novelist. I’m already there with a publisher by my side. Yet, this second-time-around experience is more intimidating because others are counting on me to produce a book that is at least as good as my first and hopefully better. This scares me. Almost everyone I talk to about writing and books, asks me the same question: “When is your second book coming out?”

Time flies by and still no number two. This time I recognize when my writing is bad and this time it’s downright mortifying because I should be better just like everyone else seems to assume, presume, or expect. The second-time-around pressure is tremendous in a different way because there is something very tragic-sounding in the words, a one-book author.

I celebrated the first, but I will celebrate big-time when I have number two .

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Refusing to Review

            I’ve been thinking a lot this month about book reviews, a subject near and dear (or maybe not-so-dear) to writers’ hearts. And specifically, I’ve been thinking about reviews for books you don’t like.

            What do you do when you don’t like a book? I think it’s a tough question: as writers, we know the importance of the numbers of reviews we garner for each book. It doesn’t matter if a review is a one-star or a five-star. It counts. We like to support other writers with reviews and we tout the importance of reviews to anyone and everyone who will listen.

            But what do you do when you read a book and you really don’t like it? What if, according to your personal rating scale, it rates two or three stars, or worse? What do you do then?

            My own policy, with one notable exception which I’ll share below, is to leave an online review only if I feel I can give a book four or five stars. On rare occasions, I’ve given books three stars. I struggle with the intellectual honesty of this policy of not reviewing every book I read, but in the end, it’s what I feel comfortable doing.

            Here’s my thinking: I know how much work goes into writing a book. I know how much it hurts to read a review from a person who didn’t like one of my books. I don’t want to be the person who ruins another writer’s day because I didn’t like how he or she told a story.

            When I review a book, I always state what I like about it. When I don’t feel it deserves five stars, I write what I think would make it a better book. That’s what I appreciate from reviewers, so I figure other writers might appreciate it, too.

            But here’s the caveat I noted above. When a book is written by an author of the John Grisham-JK Rowling-Lee Child-Danielle Steel caliber, I don’t mind giving it two or three stars if I really didn’t like it. My reasoning is simple—they have a monumental, worldwide fan base, and one lousy review from me isn’t going to make or break their day.

            I’m curious about other writers’ review practices. Do you review everything you read? Do you review only certain books? Are there circumstances under which you will or will not give a low rating to any book?