I enjoy reading books about usage–vocabulary, punctuation, grammar. Many delve into complex arguments about why ‘X’ is ‘X’, or why ‘X’ was once ‘X’ but is now ‘Y’. Not quite the nail-biting excitement of a mystery novel.
So I’ve come to expect books about the English language to be illuminating, but not humorous or personable. That is, until I read Between You & Me: Confessions of a comma queen, by Mary Norris.
Norris has worked for over 30 years in the copy department of the The New Yorker, grappling with usage, spelling, and punctuation choices.
If you’ve ever wondered about ‘that’ vs ‘which’, the use of past or present in travel accounts, the choices for achieving gender-neutral language, this book will help. Norris gives her opinions, without getting too technical or restrictive. I even discovered a couple of new usage issues, in terms of American vs British English.
She also lets readers know a little about her life and interests. One of her early jobs was milk delivery. Milkmen dropping off a bottle of milk at a house would alert the resident by yelling ‘milkman’. As the only female doing milk delivery, she Thought about yelling milk lady or milkmaid, but settled on milkwoman. If only she had lived in Australia, where the common term milko would have covered both sexes.
Norris covers a lot in this small book—gender issues in language, the use and misuse of hyphens and other punctuation, the rise of swearing. She corresponds with some well-known authors about their language choices, and compares the New Yorker style with that of other publications. Doing so reminds readers that language isn’t set in concrete.
A deviation from correctness is that, like me, she is not a fan of the Apostrophe Protection Society, finding some cultural variations ‘beguiling’.
She makes the case that the dash is not ‘sloppy’ informal punctuation. It provides a greater emotional force than a period or comma. (Her example is the poetry of Emily Dickinson.)
She also clarifies the copy editor’s purpose:
So much of copy editing is about not going beyond your province. . . .Writers might think we’re applying rules and sticking it to their prose in order to make it fit some standard, but just as often we’re backing off, making exceptions, or at least trying to find a balance between doing too much and doing too little. A lot of the decisions you have to make as a copy editor are subjective.
Reading her book, I had a sense of Norris as a thoughtful, skilled editor, someone genuinely interested in the English language in its many variations.
Her last chapter, Ballad of a Pencil Junkie, was a personal essay about her love of pencils. It took me back to the time when many people found great satisfaction in owning the ‘right’ pen or pencil. She mentions attending a party to celebrate a particular pencil. And I was impressed when she mentioned a book that I kept coming across in material about Henry David Thoreau as a pencil-maker. The book is Henry Petroski’s history of the pencil, titled–what else?–The Pencil.
Her comments about different aspects of language also reminded me of a past–not so distant–when accurate language choice was considered an essential element in serious publications. Now in online material, accuracy of spelling, punctuation, and word choice often seems be optional.
(However, like me, she’s not a fan of the Apostrophe Protection Society, on the grounds that some variations–such as the green grocers’ historical variants–can be beguiling.
Norris provides an appendix, with a number of books on language that she finds helpful. I hadn’t heard of a couple, so will be checking them out.
Mary Norris. Between You & Me: Confessions of a comma queen. 2015. Text Publishing, Melbourne, and W.W. Norton & Co. NY.
The article below, from my local library’s blog, provides a useful overview on how vanity presses prey on unpublished writers, while often promising them everything.
I hope it helps writers who are interested in a contract with a vanity press to understand the poor odds they will face in terms of getting their work
* distributed widely and appropriately
* publicised sufficiently to encourage sales
* recompensed in terms of royalties.
The article identifies the unprofessional tactics used by one scammer-publisher. It is a cautionary tale about how these crooks prey on their clients’ dreams of seeing their cherished manuscript published. Many writers are sucked in after their manuscript has been rejected by a number of legit publishers.
The lesson in the article is for writers to ask questions about costs, distribution, and royalties–and to get on the web to see if anything negative has been written about the publisher.
However, it’s easy to be misled. Such publishers raise writers’ hopes by giving overly positive information about potential sales.
One writer was over the moon when a publisher—unfortunately, a notorious vanity press—selected his novel to publish. The writer talked about how his book would get international publicity when the publisher attended a well-known, international book fair. However, the publisher may not have had any intention of attending the fair. Even if the publisher did show up and had a display table, this author’s book may not have been on show.
It pays to ask questions, check the person or company out on the Internet, and ask reputable writing associations for information.
This is a great article that just brings out the potential dangers of Vanity Press publishing (that is paying a publisher up front for having your book published).
Yoga fiction? I’d never heard the term until I read an article in the online mag, Conversation, titled ‘The Difficult Position of Yoga Fiction’.
It started me thinking of how I’ve never included yoga experiences in my own writing. And that’s odd, because I’ve been an off-and-on yoga practitioner for much of my life and identify with it.
I started when I was a young contract teacher working in Far North Queensland, Australia. My yoga instructor was the 70s-something wife of a sugar cane farmer. Her incredible physical flexibility inspired me. She taught yoga at the community centre in a small town dominated by a sugar refinery. I worked at my practice, despite the challenges on doing yoga in the tropics. During the annual Wet, the heavy downpour on the centre’s tin roof made it impossible to hear my instructor. The intense humidity brought out all sorts of creepy-crawlies. I worked through the asanas, pleasantly high from the fumes of the lcoils lit to keep the mozzies at bay.
I have practised yoga in many locations–a uni town in Oregon, Sydney’s Chinatown, a church hall in an Italian Catholic suburb, a primary school gymnasium, a loft studio in a mountain town, a fitness centre dominated by gym junkies.
Along the way, I tried to learn acceptance. The big challenge came at a weekend yoga retreat. The space was double-booked, so my yoga companions and I found ourselves sharing the property with a group of non-yogic, cigarette(?)-smoking, hard-drinking Trotskyites. We endured their loud, boozy parties at night. The were still sleeping in the early morning when we did our pre-dawn sun salues and chants.
Along my yoga path, I’ve tried different styles. The most bizarre was a form of ‘strong’ yoga. The instructor Said that achieving the right mind control would mean that someone could run over me in their car, and I would survive, no injuries. (I passed on that one.)
Given the yoga thread in my life, why have I never used it in my writing? Perhaps it’s because I’ve never read much literature that includes yoga. I enjoyed one yoga memoir (yogoir), Claire Dederer’s Poser: My life in twenty-three yoga poses. The book links each chapter to a yogic pose, which collects to an aspect of her life. And I skimmed Elizabeth Gilbert’s famous book, Eat, Pray, Love, but I couldn’t get into it.
The Conversation article questions if the influx of yoga literature is a ‘good thing’. Yoga fiction is apparently now a major category in English-language literature, so large that it has sub-divisions— yoga comedies, yoga murder mysteries, and yoga chick lit.
However, the article comments that yoga is not a culture-free commodity, something for writers to insert into their story, nothing more than a exotic literary prop to spice up a character or a setting.
It’s similar to the ubiquitous kangaroo showing up in Aussie Outback movies. Or African jungle scenes, where the call of the Aussie kookaburra is spliced in as a bit of culture-aural exotica.
If writers focus on yoga’s trivial elements, readers may never be aware of the centuries of tradition that underpin the discipline. Even the sense that yoga has a rich background may disappear. No wonder that India has now appointed its first national minister of yoga.
It’s been awhile since I enjoyed such a comical and educational romp through literature. John Sutherland’s Curiosities of Literature: A book-lover’s anthology of liberary erudition offers a potpourri of literary facts and issues, with comical illustrations by Martin Rowson. Critic and humor writer David Lodge recommends it for ‘insomniac bibliophiles’. It would be an enjoyable book to take on a long international plane trip or to place in a guest bedroom.
For example, did you know that you can buy a Shakespeare action figure with a nodding head? Ask the bard if he likes what you’ve written and you’ll get positive non-verbal feedback.
Or that a gun website picked David Morrell as the best ‘gun author’, for accurate descriptions of guns and their use in his Rambo stories? And the worst gun author? The more well-known author, Robert Ludlum, gets the wooden spoon.
Some of Sutherland’s literary history gems are more complex. For example, the fascinating story behind the British edible substance called Bovril.
Bovril is a made-up word, with ‘bo’ for the Latin bos, meaning beef. The term ‘vril’ has a literary connection to the early sci-fi of Edward Bulwer-Lytton.
If he sounds familiar, it’s probably because the famous annual contest—to pen the worst opening line to an imaginary novel—is named after him. One of his novels begins with the phrase, ‘it was a dark and stormy night’. The phrase became famous over 100 years later when the cartoon dog, Snoopy, relied on it each time he attempted to write his own great work.
B-L’s 1871 sci-fi novel, The Coming Race, depicts the earth’s centre not only as hollow, but home to an advanced race. Sutherland describes these alien beings as ‘giant, quasi reptilian flying females’ who possess a strong electrical ‘fluid’. B-L called this fluid Vril.
The book was so popular that Fluid Beef, a beef tea created to sustain Napolean’s army, was renamed Bovril!
Sutherland addresses a number of literary areas, e.g., asthma and genius, Hardy’s heart, the first writer to use a typewriter instead of pen or pencil or dictation, the Carlyles’ wedding night, the shortest poem, common misquotes, the first western, the reading tastes of some US Presidents, the most popular novel in the American Civil War, the Baskerville effect, and the celebrity car crash.
John Sutherland. Curiosities of Literature: A book-lover’s anthology of literary erudition. Arrow Bks. 2008.
In a letter to his editor, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) once described the detrimental effect of alcohol on a writer’s processing. He wasn’t against drinking while writing a short story. But he thought that writing a novel while imbibing created problems. In his words:
The very excellent organization of a long book or the finest perceptions and judgment in time of revision do not go well with liquor. For a novel you need the mental speed that enables you to keep the whole pattern in your head and ruthlessly sacrifice the sideshows. If a mind is slowed up ever so little it lives in the individual part of a book rather than in a book as a whole.
What struck me about this quote is the idea of writers getting stuck on one part of a book. The cause is not always alcohol. Some novelists simply get caught up with a difficult section and cannot move on.
There’s something to be said for just pushing on to complete what writer Anne Lamott called the ‘crappy first draft’. Even if writers hate their first book-length draft, they have something substantial and complete to work with. Having the big picture–no matter how sketchy it is–enables a writer to assess emphasis and pace, and decide whether some characters, scenes, or plot issues should be revised or deleted.
Pushing to achieve a complete first draft keeps writers from undertaking rounds of microlevel revision before
they have sufficiently explored and decided what their story is about.
Don’t feel confident about your word choice? Steven Pinker’s book, The Sense of Style, provides writers with useful advice about language and punctuation choices now acceptable in modern English.
Unfortunately, his early chapters, on structure and grammar, are hard going and not that useful if your interest is in knowing what’s OK and what’s not in modern language use. These chapters provide the logic behind language choices. But it’s like expecting someone to memorise the whole grammatical structure of a language when all they want to do is order a cup of coffee.
He lightens up the text a little by adding cartoons about language and punctuation, plus comical examples to illustrate how writers may unintentionally mislead. What we write is not always what we mean:
- I enthusiastically recommend this candidate with no qualifications whatsoever.
- After the governor watched the lion perform, he was fed 25 pounds of raw meat.
- Guilt, vengeance, and bitterness can be emotionally destructive to you and your children. You must get rid of them.
If your main interest is to become more confident about using words and punctuation correctly, skip to the last chapter, Telling Right from Wrong.
Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard, chairs the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Usage–how language is actually being used–is now easy to assess because computers crunch through huge amounts of written and oral data.
The panel considers changes: new words and phrases that enter the language, others that are heading for the English boneyard. In Shakespeare’s day, apparently even uneducated people could follow the plot. Now, four hundred years on, most of us need notes to understand the details. Even punctuation changes with time.
Pinker gives examples of how a word’s current meaning now differs from the original:
Original: To make worse. His actions aggravated the problem.
Common now: To annoy. His half-baked ideas aggravated the audience.
Original: Gradual increase. Her stellar career followed a clear crescendo.
Common now: Climax, peak. Her career reached a crescendo when she became the CEO.
Original: For a moment, lasting a moment. We momentarily believed him, but later it was clear that he lied.
Common now: In a moment. We’ll let him know the outcome momentarily.
Original: Soon. He’s expected to arrive presently.
Common now: Now. There are presently 100 people booked to attend.
Pinker identifies words that often confuse writers. Some examples:
- Bemused means bewildered, not amused. I was bemused by his outlandish actions, and I did not find them at all amusing.
- Criteria refers to plural items, criterion to one item. He answered all the criteria for the job, except one, the criterion of being proficient in Pidgin.
- Flaunt means to show off, and flout means to ignore the rules. She flaunted her skill in deep-sea diving, but the captain criticised her for flouting his diving rules.
- Enormity means extreme evil and enormousness refers to a large size. While testifying, she appeared to be more fixated on her enormousness, which she said was due to stress, than on the enormity of her crime.
- Hone means to sharpen, and home in on means to converge. E.g. When honing my tai chi routine, I try to home in on mindfulness.
- Ironic means incongruent, not inconvenient. Pinker’s example: It was inconvenient when I forgot my chemistry textbook, but how ironic to forgot to attend the lecture on memory techniques.
- Literally means in actual fact, not a marker of intensity. He literally blushed when he spilled his drink, but he did not literally die from embarrassment. However, some dictionaries now accept the intensifier, due to its growing popularity.
The term grocer’s apostrophe refers to the wrongly punctuated signs often seen in the greengrocer’s shop when plurals are used: Apple’s on sale, potatoe’s reduced. I am relaxed about this use. Some people whip out a pen and correct the wrong punctuation, to apples on sale, potatoes reduced. I find the variation charming, reminiscent of a time when language was so flexible that even Shakespeare used different spellings for his own surname.
Changing punctuation developments may also move you to change how and when you use commas, semicolons, and dashes.
At the end of his book, Pinker reminds us that working out what’s right or wrong in our choice of words and punctuation is only a tiny aspect of language. Much more important in using language is the role of ‘critical thinking and factual diligence.’ Rather than nitpicking about how English is degenerating, we would do better to focus on creating a writing style that enables us to ‘enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world.’
Source: Steven Pinker. 2014. The Sense of Style: The thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century. Allen Lane.
I don’t read many romance novels, but I’m fascinated with Alice Campion’s The Painted Sky, a book that is now famous in Aussie rural romance. Why?
It’s not because of the plot, which follows the usual line. Nina, an artist fed up with her life in the big city, feels compelled to learn more about her past. She decides to visit the small country town she remembers from childhood. As expected, she finds love. But she also solvs some mysteries that affect her and others in that community.
It was a good read, with much going on and a number of well-defined characters. I particularly liked the multiple points of view. The story sticks mainly to Nina’s perspective. When the POV shifts to other characters, readers get a better sense of their concerns and personalities.
But the main reason this novel is so much in the news here is because of Alice Campion. She not only did not write the novel, she does not exist.
The novel was written by five Sydney women, members of a book group,The BookSluts. For a lark, they decided to dash off a small romance as a group project. Little did they know that the journey from this idea to publication would take over three years.
Working together, they developed the story’s essential romance elements—an evocative location, a strong heroine, events that test her dreams, a great male lead, and good sex scenes.
Now the writers are sharing their experience with others, which is a new take on the way writing groups usually work. They have a how-to e-book and a website— http://www.groupfiction.net/—to support group-based writing projects. However, part of this group’s success is the members’ long friendship. Starting a writing project group with strangers or people one doesn’t know well could be disastrous unless there was a strong, caring leader.
When I found that they were speaking at my local library, I went along, curious to know what helped them work collaboratively and what issues arose.
- One member was designated the ‘keeper’, with the job of tracking the various drafts and updates. With a group writing project, such a role seems crucial.
- The group first structured the novel as a series of scenes or beats. Each scene was to include the following: 1) the main action, 2) its effect on the developing relationship between the main characters, and 3) other important information. I imagine this format would have been useful in assessing scenes, splitting up the writing task, and keeping everyone focused on the story arc.
- The group established a process from first draft to revision:
1) One member wrote the first draft of a scene, then emailed it to the others to read and evaluate.
2) When they met, they discussed the scene and agreed on the changes to be made.
3) Then another member rewrote the scene, in line with the agreed changes.
This focus on group rather than individual ownership probably helped the group’s success.
- The sex scenes were completed in a different way. Every member wrote a version and did not put their name on their draft. Group members read the anonymous drafts, then chose which one they preferred. Apparently, reading out their attempts led to some hilarious meetings.
- As their characters eventually became more real, the writers were able to assess what each character would be likely to do—and not do. Having a strong sense of each character—their passions, hates, concerns, personality, values—must have helped ensure that each character stayed ‘in role’.
- Issues and problems arose, of course. When this happened, the group tried to reach consensus. When this was not possible, a vote was taken, and the members moved on to the next issue. As one member commented, without the vote, the group could have stalled on some issue and never completed the book.
- The writers’ trip to western New South Wales, the setting of their story, was crucial to their writing. Being there helped them understand and incorporate elements such as weather, landscape, and issues affecting a small town and its residents.
- The members came from different backgrounds, which probably meant a useful diversity in terms of writing. Their roles included YA fiction writer, marriage celebrant, documentary editor, education campaign manager, journalist/editor, and YA fiction writer.