From the Director

Where Writing Can Take You

LAST SUNDAY, I was in pursuit of a word — a word I had seen in the description of a painting at Crystal Bridges. I knew that this word, which describes the connection of the viewer to the artist via the art, was important to my next novel about the German artist Albrecht Dürer. So I returned to the museum in search of that word.

But I never made it. I tripped over a curb in the parking garage, knocked myself silly, broke my shoulder, and took an ambulance ride that I don’t remember.

What made this even more horrific was that I was only a week away from leaving on a trip to verify years of internet research. I had m
ade arrangements to view historic sites not open to the public, conduct interviews, and live for a week in the city where my novel takes place. I had made arrangements for my mother’s care and Traveler’s care and bought a new suitcase, dadgummit.

airportMy broken arm is in a little sling that feels vulnerable, but I have decided to go. I will be accompanied by Village Writing School Board member Stacy Murphy. I’ll be posting and blogging on my website and personal social media about the trip from a research standpoint.

Stacy will be writing as a travel writer. Have you ever thought you’d like to write about the interesting places you visit, whether they are around town or around the world? For the next four weeks, Stacy will have a brief column in this newsletter on what makes a great (i.e., publishable) travel article.

Because you never know where writing will take you.

The Merry Grammarian

Three Essential Grammar Texts For Any Writer

Sometimes, grammar is downright confounding. All those rules. All those exceptions. Most of us are fuzzy on at least some details. So where can you turn if you’re in need of a definitive grammar source?

The answer, my friend, is not Google. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Le Google as much as the next person. But too many times, I’ve seen people rely on Google for a grammar question, and the websites that pop up have supplied the wrong answers or have outdated information (remember, as the English language evolves, so does grammar).

Instead, turn to one of these three excellent, straightforward texts—essential reading for any writer seeking a definitive answer to their grammar query, or who simply wants to improve the mechanical side of their writing.

  1. The Elements of Style, by Shrunk & White. Don’t be fooled by the slenderness of this little book. What it lacks in weight, it makes up for in usefulness. Here, in succinct and simple prose, are the essential rules of writing clear, correct English. You’ll find grammar guidance as well as practical instruction on how to improve the clarity of your writing. There’s a reason this slim guide is on the list of required textbooks in English programs across the nation—it’s just that good.
  2. The Chicago Manual of Style. This one might be the opposite of The Elements of Style. It’s a hefty tome, even bigger than my trusty Webster’s dictionary. And where Shrunk and White are lean and clean, CMS goes into detail … deep, intense detail. But it’s got all the information you could ever possibly need, including a robust section on all the grammar particulars of the English language as well as the publishing industry’s preferred style for everything from time to titles. It’s amazing how often I turn to this book—not just when I’m proofreading, but also when I’m writing or editing other people’s work. Turning to CMS is like getting the “official” take—when other sources disagree, this is the text to which I turn.
  3. Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss. I love this little book on punctuation so much – the title makes it case completely. Whether you’re looking for a refresher on comma usage or just want some clarity around that controversial semicolon, this book will set you straight. And it’s funny, too (always a bonus when you’re talking about grammar). It’s great not just as a reference book, but also as a way to painlessly brush up on your punctuation rules.
From the Forge

David Hare’s Rules for Writers

Last month I read a post I liked on Advice to Writers, a site I enjoy reading because they offer brief, and usually pithy, quotes from writers. This post was titled “David Hare’s 10 Rules for Writers.” Sharing successful writers’ personal rules happens often in this column, and I think you will enjoy three of David Hare’s ten rules.

1. Never take advice from anyone with no investment in the outcome. This seems somewhat counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Don’t we usually want at least some of the advice we get on our writing to come from an objective source? I know I do. But for writers, it’s also important to get advice from people who have an investment in writing, people who know writing and believe writing is worth investing time and energy in. Those are the people who can give advice worth listening to.

2. Never complain of being misunderstood. You can choose to be understood, or you can choose not to. When I taught fiction and poetry workshops at the university, there were always students who received unwelcome feedback from the group and responded by saying something like, “You just don’t understand.” And my response was always, “When more than one person in this group doesn’t understand, the problem is almost surely in the writing, not the reading.”

3. The two most depressing words in the English language are “literary fiction.” This one made me laugh. It expresses, of course, one of the longest-running tensions in creative writing—the conflict between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction.” During most of my career as an English professor, I was biased in favor of the literary side. But my guilty pleasure was always crime fiction, and when a few years ago I began reading Scandinavian crime fiction, also known as “Nordic Noir,” and when I read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove for the first time, I realized that there is genre fiction and then there is literary fiction in some genres.

Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

The Whole Writer

Lifelong Learning

No one needs to learn how to write. By the time most of us get out of high school, we’ve written multiple “themes” and even some research papers. We’ve learned the basics of sentence structure, grammar, and how to divide our writing into paragraphs.

Having those basic skills under our belt, we’re able to spend our free time for the rest of our lives writing stories and poetry that we can share with our friends and family. That life hobby brings satisfaction and fulfillment.

It’s possible to go further with our hobby. There’s a big wide world out there of ways to get better at writing. Marry your love of writing with your love of learning, and you will never run out of something to do.

I’ve gotten hooked on learning about writing. Some days, I’m overwhelmed with how much is available. On the internet, I have my regulars. I read Dan Blank, Joseph Michael, Jerry Jenkins, and Jane Friedman. Their blogs, websites, and classes are outstanding. Google any one of them.

Locally, I network with writers through the Village Writing School. They offer workshops, speakers, open mic sessions. One of the best ever literary libraries in the state resides at the Village Writing School, providing reading material on every conceivable aspect of writing.

Personally, I am inspired by my friends who are avid writers: Alison Taylor-Brown, Debbie Quigley-Smith, Nancy Harris, Jeanie Nance, Carol Martindale, Alan Lampe, Dan Baxter, Valerie Fondetti.

I don’t put to use nearly all the lessons I listen to. Much of what I hear at workshops is not directly relevant to anything I’m writing. But, all that information accrues. Soaks into my skin. It enriches me and broadens my general knowledge.

I have attended two recent workshops that stretched me. One was with the author of a book called Be the Gateway — Dan Blank. He actually Skyped in to talk with us about how to connect with readers. Imagine a New York author/guru chatting with little ole me and a few of my friends. The other opportunity was with an editor from New York, Denise Roy, who read my query letter and line-edited it. She took the time to fix my words! Unbelievable. The cost was truly minimal.

I don’t plan to make a splash in New York with my writing. I don’t plan to sell 10,000 books. I’ll be lucky to sell 100. But, I love the fact that I have the opportunity to continue learning about this my chosen field. I love that we are in an age where we can live in the splendid Natural State and still have access to the top teachers in the country.

I don’t need to tell you the value of lifelong learning. You already know. Just take a moment to ponder what a marvelous time we live in and how lucky we are to be writing today.

The Merry Grammarian

Everything’s All Right (But Not Alright)

Here’s a short and sweet grammar lesson this week, tackling one of the more common errors I see in writing: the word alright.

Alright, also known as the one-word version of all right—is a word that is nearly guaranteed to make any grammarian cringe.

All right, as in, “Is everything all right?” is a two-word phrase. The word alrightis a word that some have adopted, likely taking their cues from altogether or already, but it’s grammatically incorrect.

You’ll see it used out there from time to time, like in Pete Townsend’s song “The Kids are Alright,” but it’s mostly used in informal writing (like blogs), or by writers who think alright is an acceptable form of all right(it’s not).

But if you want your work to look polished and professional, or if you’re writing a formal piece—like a manuscript, article, column, professional paper, etc—the correct usage is always all right.