Vacation Cometh

Me looking haughty in my handmade 14th century English garb. (It's the hair; I'm very vain of it.)

Vacations sure are a lot of work to plan, pack, travel, enjoy, travel, and unpack. To say nothing of catching up work upon your return and cleaning the house that you destroyed while packing.

Regardless, I am about to go on vacation to the middle ages. Every year, my husband and I go to southern Mississippi for a week and camp in our period tent and do various medieval activities. I’m teaching 4 different classes (and one I’m teaching twice), plus I will take take classes. I will also volunteer to do some illumination (we give handmade illuminations to people as a reward). Most of the men (and some women) will spend time fighting.

In most years, attendance is around 3,000-3,500. The economy makes it hard for some people to go, but this year it happens to coincide with most school’s spring breaks, so people with children who do not normally get to go will be there. So we should meet our average, if not a bit better.

So, since I’m going to be gone next week, there will be no episode of Bloodsuckers released. However, I do have a treat for my regular readers. If you go to Amazon on Saturday, March 17 (yes, St. Patrick’s Day), you can download a copy of my short story, The Last Golden Dragon, for FREE. I’m doing this in honor of Ireland–my spiritual home and the place where I conceived of and wrote the story.

This lovely picture–which is now paired with my story–was done by Oakendragon, whom I found on DeviantArt. She very graciously gave me permission to use it royalty-free, so it’s now on Amazon as my “book” cover.

I chose her picture because it’s close to what I envisioned my dragon looking like, plus he’s smiling and rather benign-looking. It’s actually rather hard to find a dragon which is more kindly than fearsome.

Looking through her art–and some of the other art on DeviantArt–makes me wonder about starting with a picture and coming up with a story based on it. That might be an experiment I’ll try after vacation.

In fact, let’s make that today’s writing exercise. Go on DeviantArt and find a picture that appeals to you. Then write a short story inspired by it (it’s okay if your story ends up looking nothing like the picture; creativity can evolve in some weird directions sometimes).

Writing Exercise: Mishmashed Storylines

Monty Python crosses Attila the Hun with a 1960's situation sitcom

My husband and I are now the proud owners of all of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (a steal at McKay’s Used Bookstore in Knoxville, TN because they’re on VHS). The Attila the Hun episode was particularly funny, and several of the sketches in that episode seemed to have been put together using some mishmash (or mismatched) technique. I thought that a similar technique might make for a fun writing exercise (and/or party game).

Using index cards or scraps of paper, write down a main character. Examples:

  • A king
  • An 8 year old boy
  • Betty White
  • A British bus driver
  • A snuffleupagus
  • A teen mother
  • A dead man
  • Yourself

Be somewhat specific (no generalities like  “woman” or “man”) and give yourself a variety of funny, serious, and neutral characters.

Next, compile some locations for your main character:

  • A rural bus stop on a Polynesian island
  • A shady lawyer’s office
  • The Oval Office
  • A kosher deli in Montana
  • A bush meat barbecue in Africa
  • A palm tree on the bank of the Nile
  • A ship rounding Cape Horn

You can stop there, or you add a third level of situations which your main character finds him or herself:

  • Pregnant
  • Someone is dead
  • Unemployed
  • Had a one-night stand
  • Working for a corrupt/dishonest business
  • Driving drunk
  • Newlywed
  • Going overseas for the first time
  • Kidnapped by Mexican drug lords

If you want, you can also do a fourth selection, which dictates the tone/style of your writing:

  • 1st person autobiography
  • 3rd person
  • Narrator view of your main character (think Ishmael in Moby Dick; even though he was the narrator of the story, and a character in it, Captain Ahab was the main character)
  • Humorous
  • Fantasy/science fiction
  • Dream/psychotic episode/alien abduction or some other situation where what happens is later revealed not to be real
  • Serious
  • Satire

Now, put all of your options in separate piles and pull one option from each pile. This sets your main character and location and, if you’ve chosen, the situation and story form. Write a short story (3 pages or more) based on these selections.

You can also do this exercise if you have a novel started, but are totally stuck on your plot. Just write all of your character’s names on pieces of papers and throw in a few new characters (name and a brief description of personality and/or life history). Then make a pile of situations, like above, and pull out a name and a situation. If the situation calls for it, pull out another character name to decide who is the accomplice or victim.

Writing Theme: Unwelcome Visitors

Inspired by real-life news stories, here are three scenarios to choose from for this week’s writing theme:

  • Awakened by a large splash in the backyard, you are immediately terrified that your child/a neighbor child/your pet has fallen in your swimming pool. Running to the back door, you see a bear (black or grizzly) doing laps.
  • Coming home from an evening out, you open your front door, and suddenly there is an explosion of sound; before you can become afraid that you’ve walked in on a burglary-in-progress, you see a male deer in your living room, frantically thrashing about.
  • Walking into your bathroom one day, you are startled to find a rather large alligator hissing at you.

 In 1-2 pages, detail what’s going on before you realize the outside has come inside (you can also do this in third person, if you want), your reaction, and how the problem is dealt with.

The Colon: What Does It Do?

The colon is a rare punctuation mark in this day and age, but when you need one, you need one.

The most common use of the colon is for listing data.

Print 
Mirror margins
Top: 0.6
Bottom: 0.6
Inside: 0.5
Outside: .75
Page size: 5.13 x 8

(Incidentally, these are the settings I use when I want to make a proof copy of my book.)

Colons can also be used in a sentence to organize a list composed of words, rather than numbers.

Isaac had, for the most part, been fairly tidy, but here and there, something was out of place: a magazine casually tossed on the sofa; a post-it note stuck to his computer monitor; a sock half hidden under a chair.

The list of items following the colon detail the things which are out of place.

Colons can also highlight a single item; the list doesn’t have to be two or more things.

Besides, you forgot my exception to the rule: I will do anything for the benefit of others.

If Joshua had more than one exception to his rule, the sentence would still be structured the same.

Besides, you forgot my exceptions to the rule: I will do anything for the benefit of others, and I will break any rule of mortality if I feel I’m doing an even greater good as a result.

A clause or sentence following a colon can explain the preceding sentence.

“You and I are exactly the opposite: we trust Ciaran because he’s trustworthy, and we don’t trust Jonas because he’s not.”

What’s the situation? Kalyn and Anselm have a view which opposes everyone else’s. Why? Because they know Ciaran is trustworthy.

“And that’s why the vast majority of us are pretty strict about our morality—despite the fact we can bend people’s wills to our own: we don’t want anything else on our souls to have to answer for.”

Here, the situation is that the vampires are strict about their morality. Why? Because they’re afraid of the spiritual consequences.

 Colons can also introduce a question or statement.

“Answer me this: do you think your mother died of a broken heart?”

“Give Anselm a message from me: he is to stop this subservient nonsense.”

Mmm, Em-Dash

Since I have a theme going with the more unusual beasts of punctuation, I thought I would do a little blurb on the em-dash. I didn’t learn to use it until college, and most of what I learned actually came from studying it in other people’s work (there’s nothing like reading for helping you with grammar; I usually can’t quote grammatical rules, but I can tell you if something sounds right or wrong, simply because I’ve read so much, I know what sounds correct). Many, many people are not taught how or when to use an em-dash, which is a shame, because it’s very awesome.

First, why is it called an em-dash? This is a typesetting reference: it is a dash that is the length of a printed letter “m.” There is also an en-dash, but you will rarely see it referenced, because most people just use a hyphen (I’ll admit, even I’m not sure when an en-dash should be used, as opposed to a hyphen).

Em-dashes can be similar to semi-colons, except instead of separating two sentences, they separate a sentence and a clause. In some places they are interchangeable with commas. They also offer a place to make an aside.

Examples:

It was beautiful, different, and—for an American city—old.

Here we see the em-dash taking the place of commas. The sentence is still correct if you use commas (It was beautiful, different, and, for an American city, old), but I chose to use an em-dash mainly for aesthetic reasons. While commas abound in turn-of-the-century literature (and I’m rather more fond of them than most modern writers), they are not quite so popular now. For this sentence, replacing the commas with em-dashes keeps it from looking like I’m comma-crazy (despite the fact that they are all grammatically correct).

Why did I set “for an American city” in its own little em-dash brackets; why not something else? The only time you can use em-dashes in lieu of commas is when they’re setting off a clause. “For an American city” is a clause which modifies “old.” I am making it clear that “old” is a relative term (namely because the vampire enjoying the city is 800 years old). “Beautiful” and “different” are words–not clauses–describing “it” (i.e. the city).

At first he thought it was an animal—perhaps in someone’s trash—but then he decided it was too large to be a cat or dog. 

This is an example of using the em-dash to create an aside. The sentence doesn’t require the clause, but it makes it clear why Anselm felt an animal might be the cause of the strange noise he was hearing.

If they were as strong as vampires—and it was safer to assume so than not—Anselm didn’t want to try to take on two of them at once. 

This is another example of an aside. We see here Anselm’s exact rationale for why he didn’t want to try to confront the two strange vampires he’s stumbled across; he’s playing it safe.

It was very peculiar—like something metallic.

Here we see the em-dash functioning almost as a semi-colon. “It was very peculiar” is a sentence in its own right, but “like something metallic.” is not–thus why you can’t use a semi-colon here. The clause following the em-dash describes why “it” (i.e. the smell) is very peculiar.

He looked ordinary enough—ordinary enough to blend in with humans, as they did. 

Here again we see a clause which elaborates on the sentence it is following. Now, you might ask why I wrote the sentence that way. Why didn’t I write, “He looked ordinary enough to blend in with humans, as they did,” instead? I could have written the sentence that way–and it would have been perfectly correct–but instead I chose to write in this slightly more fragmented style because the reader is in Anselm’s head at the moment. People do not speak or think in clean, complete sentences. While I do not write incomplete sentences in general text, I have no qualms about putting them in dialog. Likewise, when the reader is seeing something through the eyes of one of my characters, I will generally describe the thing as a person would see it and think about it–complete with incomplete phrases.

“Dearest, I was never mad at you.  Mad at myself, perhaps, but not at you.”

Here’s an example of dialog where the second sentence is incomplete, and yet it makes perfect sense in context. Why didn’t I use an em-dash in this case? It could have been used, but that’s not the way I want the sentences read. If I had used an em-dash, you would have read both portions as one sentence. “Dearest, I was never mad at you–mad at myself, perhaps, but not you.” I wanted the pause that comes with a period. The second sentence is meant to be said almost as an afterthought to the first sentence, not as a continuation of it. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s much more noticeable if you read it aloud (and I’m a stickler for having dialog that sounds real when it’s spoken).

Edited to Add: Our Case–Please Hear Me Out–Against the Em Dash. This is a recent article on Slate.com railing against the overuse of the em-dash. The author overuses the em-dash to make a point, but at the same time, he creates the horrible writing of which he is railing against. The em-dash is not a force for grammatical evil, which I think he implies, but like anything, it can be misused and make a piece of writing worse instead of better. No one wants to constantly read asides anymore than they want to read a word repeated too many times in a short space.

“Hey, look at that,” Bob said.
“That’s weird,” Bill said.
“I think it’s a bird,” Bob said.
“I think you’re crazy; that’s a weather balloon,” Bill said.

He also seems unaware of the fact that punctuation usage changes over time. While he is complaining that modern writers are using the dash too much now, he totally ignores the fact that 100 years ago, people used commas with abandon. And in some ways, we use them too little today. In short, the trend has moved away from commas. Perhaps writers today, though, are going with em-dashes to replace the loss. But regardless, writing styles change over time, and there’s nothing wrong with the em-dash coming into vogue, as long as it’s not abused.

Unraveling the Mystery of the Semi-Colon

I was lucky I had an excellent English teacher in 6th and 7th grade, and she was a strict teacher of grammar. I have never had a problem of knowing when to use (or not use) a semi-colon, but it bedevils many people.

The first thing you should know about a semi-colon is that it is the love child of a period and a comma. Periods separate complete ideas; commas separate incomplete ideas; semi-colons separate complete ideas which are, in a way, incomplete if kept apart by a period–like this sentence.

The first rule for using a semi-colon is that what comes before and after it must be a sentence; you can’t use a semi-colon if one or both portions are not sentences capable of standing on their own.

Which sentences should be joined by a semi-colon? Where a second sentence explains the first sentence, that’s probably a good place to put a semi-colon.

Example:

Kalyn watched him carefully; she remembered what he said about having a bad temper.

“Kalyn watched him carefully” is a sentence. “She remembered what he said about having a bad temper” is also a sentence. So this passes the first test. And we also see that the second sentence explains the first. Why is Kalyn watching Anselm? Because he warned her previously that he has a bad temper.

Another good place to put a semi-colon is when you have two very short sentences which are related. Numerous short sentences together makes for choppy reading, which runs the risk of sounding like Dick and Jane; a semi-colon makes the two sentences flow together more.

Example:

“Alice, stop that; Kalyn’s fine.”

If you’re feeling really bold, you can use multiple semi-colons in the same sentence. Why semi-colons and not commas? Commas separate individual things (e.g. coats, scarves, mittens, earmuffs), where semi-colons separate short sentences.

Example:

She didn’t have many rights: the Canichmehah weren’t allowed to bite anyone under the age of sixteen—which no longer applied to her; they weren’t allowed to hurt her; they weren’t allowed to bite her if she was pregnant; they couldn’t take her away from her immediate family; when she was ready to move out of her parents’ house, they had to provide her with a place to live; and they couldn’t force her to do physical labor for them—like a slave—or demand sexual favors.

Sometimes two sentences just belong together. You have to marry them with a semi-colon, because they’re both talking about the same thing, and together they form one single thought.

Example:

“I don’t mind you coming over at all, but you’re not here because you want to see how I spend my Saturdays; you’re here because you’re avoiding something.” 

I am a big proponent of reading text as if you are hearing it. While I don’t actually read things out loud, I do hear it in my mind. If you ever get stuck wondering if two sentences should be joined with a semi-colon, read the section out loud. If you slur the two sentences into one continuous sentence, you need a semi-colon. If you pause between the two sentences, you most likely need to keep the period. Sometimes–especially when you’re writing dialog–you want the hard stop of a period. You want the choppiness. It can convey all sorts of emotions, such as anger or impatience, or it can indicate a lack of proficiency in a language (i.e. non-native English speakers tend to use short sentences). But other times you want and need the smooth flow that only semi-colons can bring.