Wednesday, March 28, 2012

WNW: Why Punctuation Matters

People joke that I'm the Grammar Nazi.
My critique group says that I know exactly how to use commas (and then they go comatose, and tweet about it, if I try to explain why a semicolon is correct on page 5).
For that matter, rumor has it that when they speak about our group and mention members' strengths, they bring up punctuation as my strength.
While I do know my fair share of punctuation rules, I do like to hope that in the 12 years I've been there I've been worth more than fixing comma splices. :)
But yes, I do care about punctuation more than the average reader or writer. Why? Because it adds nuance and meaning that nothing else can. The same words can have a totally different meaning with a few different punctuation marks.
This is true with big issues like pacing, tone, and mood.
But to make my point, I'll go a bit over the top for today's Word Nerd Wednesday.
First off, read Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots, and Leaves (the title of which is a punctuation joke). If you think punctuation is stale and boring, read that book. I read it on the treadmill and nearly fell off, I was laughing so hard.
Truss has several other titles, including picture books. I own one of them, and my kids love it. My third grader took it to school for show-and-tell. (And probably had to explain it to the class . . .)

To make my point about how punctuation can change meaning, here are three fun examples:
1) I've seen this one go around Facebook under the guise of, "Punctuation saves lives!"
Let’s eat Grandpa.
(I doubt he's very tasty)
Let’s eat, Grandpa.
(Yo, Grandpa, dinner's ready! I'll race ya to the table!)

2) I saw this one in college during my nerd training (read: English major studies). The professor, a woman, wrote the following sentence on the board:
Woman, without her man, is nothing.
I was rather incensed. Until she changed the punctuation.
Woman: without her, man is nothing.

And then I laughed.
3) One of Lynne Truss's books, Twenty-odd Ducks, includes a punctuation joke right on the cover with the title. With the hyphen, the title means, "roughly twenty ducks." If you take the hyphen out, it means, "twenty weird ducks." So the cover has twenty funky ducks: some that are striped, one ready to go snorkeling, and so on.
Even the subtitle has a play on punctuation: Why, Punctuation Matters
On each page spread, the book has the same sentence but with different punctuation (and therefore different meanings), plus illustrations to match.
You need to get your hands on a copy. Really. As proof, I present my kids' favorite 2-page spread from the book. It's gruesome, which may be why they love it.
The first page shows a king strolling near a group of girls bowing and throwing flowers at him as he says, "Ah, life is grand." The caption reads as follows:
The king walked and talked. Half an hour after, his head was cut off.
The second page makes the whole thing read as one sentence, which changes the meaning drastically:
The king walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off.
Above the caption: three illustrations showing the king decapitated and his head talking ("Why can't I feel my lips?") as his body walks around.
Hysterical, if you ask me. At the end of the book, Truss manages (quite brilliantly) to write an entire letter to a school teacher on one page and then changes the meaning entirely using nothing but punctuation on the other.
Convinced that punctuation matters? I hope so. At the very least, remember point number one: punctuation saves lives.

Monday, March 26, 2012

A Rant Against "I Expect Nothing of My Children that I Don't of Myself"

Soap box for the day:

In many circles and blogs, I hear the idea that we shouldn't give our children standards and expectations that we don't follow ourselves.

One blogger (who got lots of support in the comments) went so far as to say they didn't feel comfortable doing anything that they wouldn't approve their children of doing.

Oh, boy.

Okay, I get the concept, and in theory, if you stand at a great distance, squinting your eyes, it's a very nice-looking idea.

Yet I can't take people who say these things seriously, because the premise is so completely flawed.

On a very basic level, consider these examples:
  • I will not let my nine-year-old wear make-up or get her ears pierced. Does that mean that as an adult woman, I should take out my earrings and remove all make-up?
  • No way would I allow my twelve-year-old to get behind the wheel of a car. I expect her not to drive. Yet I drive. Every day. Dang. I'd better stop that.
  • When my son was six, I expected him to stay away from the hot stove. Yet that's where I made him dinner. I also used sharp knives, but no way would I let him use them. I'm such a hypocrite.
  • I also had to keep dangerous chemicals out of my children's reach, things that are perfectly acceptable (and sometimes necessary) for adults to use. Except that's a double standard. I guess I'll have to figure out another way to clear the drain.
  • Some medications that are good and useful for adults (even something as simple as aspirin) can be harmful for a child. Yet, by the "same standard" argument, I shouldn't take aspirin if I refuse to let my children take it.
And here's the one I really giggle at:

Virtually all of the people I hear insisting that they maintain the same standards as their children are married and have children.

I'm betting they live a very different standard for physical contact in their bedrooms than they expect of their children! (Or else, how else would those children be here?!)

Obviously, I have issues with the "same standard" idea. In general, I agree with it, sure. But in big, sweeping generalities. As in the sense of, "Be honest," and "Obey the law," and, "Choose media that uplifts."

It's that last one (media) I want to mention in particular. I think that various types of media can be appropriate for one person at one age and totally inappropriate at another age.

For example, I would have traumatized my children if, at the age of four, they'd heard me read Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning to them. At that age, they were still dealing with scary things like monsters under the bed; they didn't yet have the emotional and mental maturity to face real-life monsters like Hitler and the Holocaust.

But is that a book we should all avoid, just because it's not appropriate for a small child? No way. I have teenagers now, and I'd love them to read it. They're at a place where we can sit down as parent and child and discuss issues and ideas, and they are mature enough to grasp it.

I can think of dozens of similar examples of books, movies, and more, things I want to share with my children when the time is right.

And yes, I do partake of media (and other things!) that they aren't yet allowed to.

Sure, some books and movies no one should be seeing.

But some are of great worth . . . even if they aren't for small children.

Is that a double standard? Maybe by some definitions. Not by mine.

Every time I hear people go off about how they ask nothing of their child that they don't ask of themselves, I can't help but laugh. They can't possibly mean that, not if they looked at the idea in bright light.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Author Interview: Susan Corpany

Today I get to interview Susan Corpany, a writer I've gotten to know a bit better over the last couple of years. Most of that has been electronically, as Susan lives in Hawaii, but she's made it out to a few conferences and the like, and it's been a lot of fun to rub shoulders and get to know her better.

About Susan:
Susan Law Corpany is the author of five novels. Her latest novel, Lucky Change, was a finalist for a Whitney Award. She writes a column for Meridian online magazine called “A Beacon Light.” Susan grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, and currently lives on the Big Island of Hawaii with her husband, Thom. In her spare time, she manages the family vacation rental home on historic Kealakekua Bay. Between them, they are the parents of six children and add new grandchildren on a regular basis. She loves to travel and see the world and loves to stay home and enjoy the paradise in which she lives.

AL: How long have you been writing and how did you get started? (When did the bug bite you?)
SC: I have been writing for about twenty-odd years now, if you don't count the "kid stuff." I don't think I caught "the bug" when my Primary teacher showed the poem I wrote to the Primary president and she read it to everybody. I was mortified, actually, to have attention called to me. Much has changed since then.

In the early 90s, on Prodigy, I connected with Orson Scott Card, because a friend of mine told me that his publishing company had produced a humorous book that reminded her of my writing. I traded a few humorous anecdotes with him online and sent him a short story called "A Month in the Life of a Relief Society President." After he read my short story, he told me I should try and write a novel. It was his kind and encouraging words that made me believe I might be able to write a novel, even though I had no idea how to go about that. My son says my early novels are a series of short stories about the same characters, and he is pretty much on the money.

After losing my husband when I was 26, I had often said, "someone should write a book" about some of the experiences that resulted, and I didn't know what else to write about, so I created the character of Beverly and wrote my first four novels from my life experience, about her courtship and marriage, young widowhood and remarriage to a widower, although I wrote about that last part first and then lived it. After I wrote the last two books, I married a widower with five kids, aged 15 to 23. Several chapters eerily came to life, including the one where my character Bob didn't tell Beverly that he had been the bishop until well into their courtship because he wanted to see how she would relate to him without knowing that.

AL: Where did the idea for Lucky Change come from?
SC: I actually got the idea for Lucky Change from a frugal boss in Florida who used to give the members of his sales team a lotto ticket from the gas station for a month well done. I used to stick them in the bottom of my purse and never even checked to see if I had won anything. Then one day I saw them there and thought about how embarrassing it would be to be a Mormon and win the lottery. The wheels started turning. I had already created the character of Karen in one of my novels, and she seemed like the perfect person to pull it off.

There have been a lot of books written about the poor person with a heart of gold who wins it big, but I thought the added twist would make this book unique. And I loved the juxtaposition of Karen in a wealthy ward where people unused to struggling would have to swallow their pride to accept help from her. I have been on both ends of that, and it is way more fun to be the source of charity rather than the recipient of it.

AL: What research did you have to do for the book? What was the most interesting thing you learned?
SC: I had to do some research into how the lottery works and how a winner would be paid off and notified, what the options would be for payment, as in a lump sum vs. annuitized payments, tax issues, etc.

I had to find out how the Church handles such windfalls and what the policy was regarding payment of tithing on "ill gotten gains."

I worked at a law firm for seven years, so I used that life experience as research into how a law firm operates. I am still rather embarrassed by one major mistake I made, pointed out to me by a friend. Isn't there always that one type or mistake that gets through somehow? I call it the "humility typo."

I always tap into my husband's brain for help with the motivations of my characters, since he is a family therapist as well as a Sociology professor. For example, I had written a scene where Ted was admiring the corner office and Thom told me that a guy with an ego like Ted's would not aspire to the corner office. He would assume it would someday be his.

Thom also suggested I do a scene where the balance of power shifts from Ted to Camillle, in an interesting subplot where a secretary was being sexually harrassed by one of the attorneys in the office. I enjoyed writing the scene in the elevator where Camille stands up to Ted, because I took her out of "doormat mode" for a few minutes. Research for these characters was also provided by real life experiences along the way.

I think the most interesting thing I found out is that if you embezzle money, you are not allowed to pay tithing on it. There goes that plan!

AL: What is your writing style? Are you an outliner or a by-the-seat-of-your-pantser? Somewhere in between?
SC: On the Myers-Briggs personality test, I am halfway in between being a planner and a winger, and that pretty much sums it up for my writing, too. I plan enough to give me clearance for when I fly by the seat of my pants. My experience with books is that if you overplan, you don't allow for those happy adventures when the characters do what they want and you just follow them around and write about what they're doing. Likewise with presentatoins and talks, you may miss those whisperings of what needs to be said rather than what you planned to say

AL: What is your typical writing schedule like?
SC: There is nothing typical. I don't have a job outside the home, but I do manage our vacation rental on the other side of the island, so every week my schedule is different depending on who is coming and going. The drives across the island are an important part of my writing process, because I hammer out lots of ideas in my trusty Jeep Grand Cherokee.

I think the only pattern I have set is not having a pattern. I admire those disciplined writers who write every day for so many hours. I find writing enjoyable and fulfilling and fun and something in me resists thinking of it as work that should be done on a schedule. For me part of the beauty of being a writer is the freedom over my schedule and my life. I build momentum once I get rolling on a project and then I can be like the little kid on the playground who doesn't want to stop playing, even to heed the call of nature. Okay, maybe not that bad, but I have been known to forget to eat. So I have periods of obsessiveness interspersed with periods of laziness and neglect. It all balances out on paper, eventually.

AL: What is one big thing you've learned through the process of publishing?
SC: Ooooh, there are so many things to choose from. I think the overarching thing I have learned is that like everything else that looks wonderful from the outside, like marriage, it is harder and more challenging than I had imagined. If you are self-published, there is the challenge of acceptance as a serious writer. If someone else publishes you, you lose creative control. I've discovered that every writer I know has had challenges, frustrations and disappointments that most people know nothing about.

I have also learned that you can find yourself in a constant state of discontent if you fail to enjoy the good that is happening in the present. There is always something greater to strive for. First all you want to do is hold that book in your hands and glory that your name is on it. Then you want the book to be in everyone else's hands. And some money would be good. Then you want the awards. Next, where is my movie deal? The bestseller list.

I have my "Glass Half Empty" mug on my desk, along with some of my other writing props, to help me keep perspective. I have little pieces of paper I have to pull out and read every once in a while to remind myself what I have accomplished and reframe things to the positive.

My first novel, Unfinished Business, was quite successful. It brought me a husband and a life in Hawaii, not to mention the big Mormon family I always thought I'd have, inlcuding my beautiful grandchildren. During the lean times, I have to remind myself of what I call "non-financial royalties." One of my nephews served a mission because of something in one of my novels. For the greater number of LDS writers, our success has to be measured in other than worldly terms.

AL: What's been the biggest surprise about the publishing process?
SC: That as an author you really are responsible for much of the publicity and promotion your book receives. I expected this when I was self-published, but it is also true when someone else publishes your work.

AL: Which authors are your biggest literary influences in the national market?
SC: I think I have always been influenced and inspired by humourous writings—Erma Bombeck. Bruce J. Cameron, Gordon Kirkland, my funny Canadian writer friend. In the LDS market, I have been collectively influenced by my fellow LDStorymakers. There is no one writer I emulate, because everyone's style is different, but I have learned so much from their classes at the conferences and have enjoyed the friendships that have developed and benefited from the encourage I have received.

AL: In the LDS market?
SC: Of course, I already mentioned Orson Scott Card and his initial encouragement and what that meant to me. I finally got to meet him and thank him in person a few years ago. It also helped elevate me in the eyes of my son and stepsons who are big fans of his.

AL: Any advice for aspiring writers?
SC: Find your own strengths and play to them and ferret out your weaknesses and work on them. Don't compare yourself to others. Be resilient and understand that rejection is part of the process. Most of us get that we aren't going to marry the first person we date. Have dreams and aspirations tempered by reasonable expectations. You have to develop a thick skin and understand that there are lots of reasons for rejection. On the other hand, a wise writer always learns from his critics. But don't allow someone else's lone opinion to discourage you from pursuing something you believe in. Obey most of the rules, break a few of them now and then. As Randy Pausch said in The Last Lecture, "the walls are there to keep the other guys out, the ones you don't want it as much."

Purchase Lucky Change at the publisher's website.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

WNW: St. Patrick's Edition, Take 3

This one's as fun for geeks as it is for word nerds.

"A Biologist's St. Patrick's Day Song" explains the science behind alcohol, from how it's made to what it does in the body.

I may be Mormon (and thus don't drink), but I think the song is great fun (and educational!) nonetheless.

Give this guy a beer. Me? This Saturday, I'll be celebrating the holiday with some Irish soda bread, which I first tasted last St. Patrick's Day thanks to Sarah, who brought it to critique group.


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