Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Martha's Sekrit Mortification

I've been the lead in a small production play. I performed in a student-teacher hip hop workshop. I've done piano recitals. But my friends and family have never seen these performances - because I've never invited them.

Why? Because I'm awful. I mean it. I'm not one for false modesty. I really, really, really suck ass, but I like the high and fortunately I don't give a rat's ass about what strangers think.

Unfortunately, it's becoming harder to keep a sekrit life. One of these days I'm going to find my shame all over youtube which sucks. Sometimes you want to break free of you who are 99% of the time and give in to the crazy 1% without having to deal with questions/comments/judgments from your well-meaning friends and family.

Sometimes you want to be bad at something. You don't want permission or acceptance. You just want to stink your life up a little.

Think back on your childhood memories. Heart-pounding embarrassment trumps daily grind all the time.

So I say go ahead. Give yourself permission to be mortified.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

i got nothin'

Mortification...I got nothin'

On my wedding day, I got the best advice of my life. Whatever happens, pretend as if that's what you meant to happen. And while the advice was pretty much meant for that particular day, I've adopted the motto for *every* day.

So, whatever happens, that's what I meant to happen. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Yellow happy face

Monday, March 29, 2010

A Tricky Topic

L.G.C. Smith

I'm mortified to admit that I can't seem to wrestle my thoughts into shape this week. Sophie's post last Monday gave me a lot to consider, and I've been trying to distill my ideas ever since. Alas, the focus simply hasn't emerged from way too many words. Interesting that this should be the case during Holy Week. Perhaps I'll sort this topic out by the time my next turn comes around.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Next Best Mortification

Hello! Thanks to the fabulous Pens Fatale for inviting me here today… “Kristan, would you mind blogging about one of the (many) times you’ve embarrassed yourself in public? The topic is mortification, and we all instantly thought of you!

Hey. Of course I wouldn’t mind! Humiliation and embarrassment are, after all, a cornerstone of my career. One of the best fan letters I’ve received said, “What I love about your books is you admit things we’ve all done, thought and said but would never have the cojones to admit.” Oh, baby! High praise indeed!

So. Mortification. Stories of embarrassment. Where to begin?

A couple of years ago, I switched churches (don’t worry, the story gets better). I’m what I call a “church whore” — can I say that? See, I love the idea of going to church, but I can never seem to find The One. So I go to one church for a few months, then switch. So anyway, I’d been going Episcopal, but heard nice things about the new priest in the Catholic church, was getting restless with the Church of England, figured the Catholics were worth checking out, and trotted across town.

The priest was so nice! And young! And cute! And he had this adorable accent! Did I mention how cute he was? So we’re chatting away about my kids and whatnot, and he says, “Do you work, Kreestahn?”

And I say, “Oh, sure. I’m a…um…a writer. Um…a romance writer.Can I say that to a priest? Does he think I’m trashy now? Should I tell him I don’t do gratuitous sex scenes? Can I say ‘sex’ in front of a priest? Does he know what sex is?

Father Cutie: “How wahnderful! What ees your book about?”

Kristan: Crap. “Um…well, it’s about a, um, a woman who’s…um…in love with a priest.” Great, Higgins. Look at him. He’s frozen in terror. Quick! Explain yourself. “But it’s not about you, obviously. Because we just met. Let the record reflect that I had no idea how cute you were until this very day. My book is not based on you. I swear to God. Which is not to say that you’re not very attractive. Or so some would think. Not me. You’re not my type. (Had he not been a man of the cloth, however…)

Father Cutie: Super. Another suburban mother in love with me. I need this like a bullet in the eye. “Ah. I see. We are done here, are we not?”

And then there was Sensei Tom, my kids’ karate instructor. The man is beautiful. He just is. Plus he can jump through the air like Spiderman. Sigh! So okay, one day to keep my monkey of a son occupied before class, I let him (my son, not Tom) tie my hands together to practice his knots. McIrish, my dear husband, had been teaching out little guy nautical knots, and our son needed to practice. So there we were, and my little guy had my hands bound and was tying this huge knot, and Sensei came out, all manly and sweaty (oh, Mommy!), and said, “Hey, D., should you be tying your mother up like that?” to which I replied, “Daddy does it all the time, right, honey?”

Of course, I meant that McIrish ties knots all the time…it’s not like he…well…Okay! We’ll just stop here. Needless to say, I think of that line every dang time I take the kids to karate. I’d like to think that Sensei has forgotten, but sometimes he gives me that cute little smile, and I blush and pretend to be engrossed in something terribly fascinating, like the crumbs on the floor.

So I think I’ve been really honest. And it’s only fair, then, that you admit some of your more embarrassing moments. ’Fess up! As a bribe, I’ll send a commenter a signed copy of The Next Best Thing, in which mortification is very well exemplified on page 282. Can’t wait to hear your stories!


Kristan Higgins is the award-winning, best-selling author of five romantic comedies. Her latest book, The Next Best Thing, is available in bookstores now. Look for All I Ever Wanted this August.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Rudimentary Physics & Someone Else's Pain

--Adrienne Miller

When I was a little girl my dad used to tell me stories. He told all kinds of stories, some of them pure fantasy and others not so much, but all of them magical to my five year old ear. 
My favorites were the Dumb Donnie stories. Well, the Dumb Donnie and his Motorcycle stories to be precise. I still remember them.
Once upon a time, Dumb Donnie decided he wanted a motorcycle. Now, Dumb Donnie didn’t know how to ride a motorcycle, but he figured that didn’t matter very much. He’d seen people riding them and that meant he could too.
So Dumb Donnie bought that motorcycle and Dumb Donnie rode that motorcycle very fast...right into the chain stretched across the entrance to the closed parking lot.
The motorcycle stopped...(dramatic pause)...but Dumb Donnie kept going. 
The ending is what I really remember. The ending never changed. 
The motorcycle stopped...but Dumb Donnie kept going. 
Oh, Dumb Donnie managed to ride that motorcycle into all kinds of things--chains, gravel pits, open ditches. I loved them all. The action. The excitement. The hysterical image of a grown man being hurled through the air. In my mind, my dad was the greatest storyteller the world had ever known. Forget Dr. Suess; nobody ever ended up with facial lacerations in his books.
I learned a lot from those stories--rudimentary physics and how to laugh at someone else’s pain. Important lessons, I’m sure you all agree.
Then one day at a family get together, I was introduced to my second cousin, Donnie. The helmet under his arm, the badly scarred cheeks, the somewhat vacant look in his eyes--the pieces all fell into place.
And out of my mouth came, “You’re THE Dumb Donnie. You’re famous! My daddy told me all about you.”
And thus was born my life long curse of saying exactly the wrong thing when I meet someone for the first time.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"I'm just...mortified"

“I’m just…mortified.”

I can't tell you how often I've heard those words in my life. My mother was from the south, and as a child I came to understand that mortification was an integral part of life for a traditional Southern Lady of a certain age: upon being born (that messiest of endeavors), upon having sex (um, we don't talk about such things)…and even upon simply growing up. Mom used to leave the room whenever an ad for euphemistically entitled “feminine products” came on television, ashamed even to acknowledge that such bodily functions existed.

Shame is a powerful emotion, and no doubt serves an important purpose: it helps train us to respond appropriately to our fellow humans, to deny certain base impulses because we know them to be wrong, and to understand the consequences of our actions. In fact, amorality, or an utter lack of shame at doing wrong, leads to criminality and a banal sort of evil.

But at what point does shame turn on itself, twisting into something more sinister? Sex, sensuality, our very bodies....these are problematic in our culture. The Bible describes humanity's discovery of shame and the need to cover one's shameful (especially female) body. Christian or not, we all experience the repercussions of our historical/cultural tradition.

Above: Upon expulsion from Eden, Eve attempts to hide herself in shame.

'To mortify' -- the root of the word so clearly connected to death -- refers to subduing or deadening the bodily appetites. It is no wonder that mortification so often takes place in a religious context, where one's love for a higher power is proven by damaging one's all too human flesh.

But how much can we shame ourselves or each other without experiencing a twisted, malformed reaction? And less dramatically, simply the death of joy?

Luckily for me, I came of age in California during the 70s and no matter how much my sweet and loving mother tried to impose certain ladylike mores upon her youngest daughter, I threw out a whole lot of shame with my childhood bathwater. But how much do those who allow their lives to be restricted and dictated by fear of mortification miss out on in life?

When I looked up this week's theme in order to write this post, I saw that medically, 'mortification' refers to gangrene: the literal death of flesh. Mortified flesh does not heal without ugly scars. Neither does our psyche.

So I say down with shame...not with flesh.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Rachael Forgets

I'm mortified that I'm not more mortified.

I think it has something to do with my terrible memory, and that in and of itself is embarrassing. It's not like I don't do embarrassing things, because I do. I walk around with spinach in my teeth. I trip off curbs. I knock people over in the grocery store. I say things that are completely, horribly, soul-churningly mortifying.

I know I do mortifying things because I know the FEELING behind the action. I know I've had it, hundreds of times. I can picture my own face in the rear view mirror of my car, as I glance at myself.

I've just done something. I'm horrified. How could I have just done what I did?

It was awful!


I'm so embarrassed, I just want to die!

I can't ever think about it. Not once. Not ever again. I have to put this out of my mind, push it right out. I won't ever think of this again.

And then, apparently, I don't.

Somehow, somewhere, I learned the talent for forgetting how stupid I really am (believe me, I'm aware how valuable this talent is). And I don't think it's a good trait in a writer -- I want to be able to mine that material! What am I missing by burying my emotions this way? Augh! Such a rich, deep field I'm missing out on, because I'm so good at hiding things from myself!

(I blush a little less this way, I suppose, which is a blessing, since I'm usually red as a beet.)

But when I think back to being a kid, I can think of a million of 'em, and even though none of them really matter, only one truly mortifying moment really sticks out.

I was at some kid's day camp, and I was about nine or so. I think we were acting. I have no idea why. We were supposed to follow this adult around the stage. He was a big fellow, and seemed old to me, although he couldn't have been more than thirty. He was wide, broad-shouldered, with a beer-belly and a beard. He said, "Come on," and gestured to me to start things off. For some reason, the way he gestured to me reminded me of the way my dad moved when he was willing to give me a piggy-back ride, so I hopped on board, even though I was years too old to do so. I thought it was part of the acting exercise. Maybe we would all get piggy-back rides! Yippee!

But no. The guy gave a shriek to find a nine-year old girl stuck to his back like a limpet, and screamed, "No TOUCHING!" After shaking me loose, he showed us how to follow what he was doing on stage as if we were conga-ing. I remained in the conga line, but I only knew one thing: I wanted to die. Death would have been better than remaining alive after jumping on the back of a man who shrieked like that in front the kids who then looked at me like I could make THEM holler the same way if I touched them.

Shudder. Such a minor thing. Yet when I think of being mortified, that's the feeling I get. I just don't get it very often.

*However, this was slightly embarrassing, I have to admit. Ahem. Sorry, Clara.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Bottomless Theme: Damage Women Do Themselves

by Sophie


I'll just say up front that this theme was my idea. I know it's a little denser than some of the subjects we talk about here, but it's a pervasive theme in my stories, a frequent flyer in the idea department, and I was hoping we could have an all-in discussion about it among my favorite fellow writers.

"Mortification" is the title of one of my favorite short stories that I've written. It is not a perfect story by a long shot - in addition to trying to do too much in too little space, I was a bit heavy handed with the theme.

{Quick sidebar: Thanks to Beat To A Pulp and all the other terrific 'zines keeping short fiction alive on the internet.}

I was trying to juxtapose two kinds of mortification. One was the religious practice of corporal mortification (in this case self-flagellation practiced by some Shi'a muslims) and the other was shame (in this story, a girl who suffers deep humiliation because gives herself away too often and for far too little).

It is my belief that much of the physical mortification that girls and women practice on themselves grow directly from shame - and in our society, shame is in ample supply for girls of every class. I circle this idea in everything I write, whether it's my 50-year-old semi-comic heroine in my mystery series, or the 16-year-old adventurer in my young adult series, or the young female addict in my not-yet-sold dystopic fiction.

Women punish themselves relentlessly. Popular fiction addresses this all the time, and appropriately so, I believe. WINTERGIRLS by Laurie Halse Anderson is a young adult novel that has taken a lot of heat from parents, but is beloved by teen readers; it is an unflinching look at eating disorders. SHARP OBJECTS by Gillian Flynn examines cutting in a young woman who is at the center of a twisted and grievous cast of characters: it is an unforgettable story. I could name many more examples, and so could you.

But mortification does not have to be dramatic to be profound. I have a habit of watching people from the sidelines, being at heart a bit of a tongue-tied observer. I see self-damage done a thousand little ways. I see the sweet teenage girl on the softball team, pushing her stomach in her team pants when no one is looking, willing it to betray her less, hating the unforgiving and unflattering synthetic fabric almost as much as she hates her soft body. I see the women my age at stoplights in the town I live in, squinting into their rear-view mirrors, planning their next botox appointment. I see it starting early: the little girls on BART, trying to be small enough and quiet enough in the shadow of their despondent and overworked mothers, chewing at the flesh of their fingers, chewing it raw.

As I said, I dance around mortification in nearly every book I write. Some day, though, I am going to write a book in which I face it head on, a big book, a brave book. I'm not ready to do it yet, but I'm thinking, thinking, thinking, let it creep up on me. When it does, I'll get to work.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Marks of the Amateur

by Alicia Rasley

Alicia Rasley is a long-time friend of the Pens and we are thrilled to have her sharing her expertise from both the point of view of an editor for Red Sage and an author! To read more about Alicia and her views, she can be found at and also blogging at

Alicia in California for L.G.C.'s Birthday!

As an editor, I get a lot of submissions, and like most editors, I can usually tell by the end of the first page if I think this proposal is worth reading. Yeah, it's unfair, I know. But it's reality. I hasten to add that it's not the subject matter or your character's name or anything content-oriented that stops me from reading.

But there are times I read the first page and see markers that this is probably not an experienced writer. An amateur, not a professional. A beginner, not an intermediate. Every editor I've ever asked has a mental list of what I call what I call "The Marks of the Amateur," that signal that this submission needs more work before it's ready to be seen.

Cruel? Maybe. But it's reality. Remember, your task in sending the first submission is to give the editor no reason to reject you. And I'll tell you something maybe no one will tell you—for many editors, these are a quick excuse to reject. (Well, the actual reject-triggers might be different for other editors.)

None of these means the writer is necessarily an amateur, of course. But why risk the assumption? Read over your submission for these mistakes, and especially the first couple pages. Now I'm not going to deal with big picture stuff, like a confusing opening or a lack of point of view or an unappealing character, just the grammatical and formatting flaws. These are the problems the editor notes in the first page and thinks, "I bet these are on every single page."

So here are the Top Ten Marks of the Amateur that you don't want in your submission. Make your manuscript look perfect, so that the editor has no excuse to instant-reject.

1. Dialogue without quote marks, or without both quote marks: "I think I love you, he said. If that doesn't immediately jump out at you, well, you need to train yourself to recognize what a quote is, and when it starts and when it ends.

2. Dialogue without the right punctuation. The editor looks at He growled "I don't have time for this" and considers how long it will take to fix every single dialogue sentence in the book…

Here's a site about punctuating dialogue.

3. Unclear attribution of dialogue, so that you have one character saying something in the same paragraph as another character acting, so it seems like Character B said what Character A said. The convention is that you start a new paragraph for every speaker, and that you focus A's paragraph on A. So when I see:
Jeremy tipped up his beer bottle but nothing came out. "I'll get the next round."
Barb went to the bar and ordered another round of beer, then returned to the table.
"Here you go. You get the next round, and I'll pay for the cab home." Jeremy nodded.
Who said what???

Why are the first three about dialogue? Well, there's a lot of dialogue in most books, so dialogue problems show up early. And they're very visible to editors, who will have to fix them. Every single one. But this is also a sign that the writer, who presumably has been reading for a couple decades, doesn't absorb much in her reading, if she's never noticed that there's a comma after quote tag, or that usually there's a change of paragraph when there's a change of speakers. Editors don't really want to have to teach slow learners the very basics of English syntax.

4. Bling punctuation and inappropriate capitalization. My co-blogger Theresa Stevens talks about "bling punctuation," which describes the overuse of fancy looking punctuation like exclamation points and semicolons. (I overuse dashes myself.) Exclamation points really call attention to themselves and when seen by sensitive readers (that is, editors), cause an uplift in tone at the end of the sentence that really grates about, oh, sentence three. Semicolons have two very specific uses, and if you don't know what they are, you shouldn't be using semicolons. :) What are other examples of bling? A lot of italics, which makes a sentence hard to read. Ellipses… which makes your sentences sound faded and indecisive. And of course, Inappropriate Capitalization. These days, we capitalize proper nouns, and the first letter in a sentence. That's about it. We don't capitalize seasons and we don't capitalize job positions and we don't capitalize most nouns. I figure I'm dealing with an amateur if I see a passage like this: In the Fall, Judy was promoted to Vice President and knew that she had finally pleased her Mother.

Truth is, we are going to a stripped down typography these days, and you should be sensitive to the examples shown in published novels.

5. Apostrophe problems. Apostrophes are used in possessive nouns and in contractions, and their proper use is a signal to the editor that you know what you're doing with words and sentences. You want to show that you understand what words mean-- that this noun is a possessive, or that this word has letters left out to make a contraction. Here's a good site to help with apostrophe use.

Apostrophe mistakes are a real "mark of the amateur"(TM) for me, and I doubt I'm the only editor who cringes at "Taylors mom really believes in marriage: She has had five husband's herself."

6. Misused words, including homophones ("sound-alikes") and misspellings that get past spell-check (that is, they are words, just not the right words). More than a couple uses of wrong words tells the editor that you aren't reading your own sentences for meaning, or you'd notice that you mention "the blogger form Indiana." And if you don't read your own work for meaning, achieving real meaning is likely to be a haphazard process. Read ALOUD. You will hear the sentences as sentences, not as collections of words. And then you'll figure out if there are any wrong words, because the sentence won't mean what you want it to mean.

For more on homophones, see Commonly Misused Words.

7. Sentence which are just strings of phrases and clauses, stuck together without regard to why they are in the same paragraph. "And" is not a bad word, but if you are connecting a lot of clauses with "and," read over and see if you are just stringing things together without any sign of why they belong together. Again, you don't want to send the signal that you don't understand the meaning (or lack thereof) of your sentences.

8. Check for dangling modifiers. These tend to be invisible to the writer but jump right out at an editor. I'd start by checking every participial phrase, as those are the ones most likely to dangle. Then look at prepositional phrases. Almost any adjectival phrase can wind up dangling. Again, reading aloud is your best revision technique at this point. LISTEN to your narration. HEAR what you're saying.

9. Participial phrases starting many sentences. I know the introductory participial phrase is suggested as a way to vary the opening of sentences, and the occasional one, if used correctly (to signify simultaneous action with the main action of the sentence) and undangled (see #8 above), is probably fine. But more than a few in your opening scene— this will make your prose sound clunky and mannered. My co-blogger and I had a long series of posts about this: There They Go, Again With the Damned Participle Rants

10. Paragraph after paragraph that are very long or very short. This indicates that you might not have thought about what goes together, and are breaking paragraphs only when you remember or reach the bottom of the page, or, alternately, after every period. A lot of one-sentence or two-sentence paragraphs tells me that you can't "hear" the rhythm of your prose or you'd realize that your family saga sounds like a children's book. Several 25-line paragraphs tell me that you are probably just rambling, and the story will be hard to read and full of digressions, because you aren't focusing on the connections that create paragraphs.

So you're telling me that you are not an amateur? I believe you. So you can't possibly want to submit a manuscript that has problems editors associate with amateurs!

Here's a tip or two. While nearly every publisher has a "house style book," these are mostly based on the proofreading rules in The Chicago Manual of Style. That's an expensive book, but if you're in a critique group, maybe you can buy a group copy. A cheaper alternative is to go to your bookshelves and pull out several books published by the big New York-based publishers. Those books will have been edited using the established rules, and each one is a master class in how to format your prose.

I don't want you to think that I'm consumed with minutiae, though of course as an editor I sort of am. And no single misplaced comma or inappropriate capitalization is going to make me reject your manuscript. But a pattern of these suggests that the writer hasn't revised well or absorbed the publishing conventions. Just don't trigger that automatic "uh-oh" with sloppy editing.

ps. From the addition to fiction Alicia publishes several booklets on various aspects of writing (she is brilliant!) and she has a book on Point of View currently available on Amazon.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

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Grammar's Cruel Cousin

I don't mind grammar. I don't adore him like some of the Pens before me, but I do have a successful working relationship with him.

It's his cousin spelling I hate.

Spelling has had it in for me since I was a kid. He does to this day.

Spelling is a devious one. He lets me have the hard words, just to give me a false sense of security. Conscientious. Mischievous. Albuquerque. Those are easy.

But lettuce? Whenever I make a shopping list, I inevitably spell it "lettus."

Sense versus sence? If it wasn't for that squiggly red line that pops up, I'd have no idea which is correct.

Decipher? I swear it should be desipher. Or maybe descipher. (And yes, this is an important word to a mystery writer.)

The most frustrating part about being spelling challenged is that I often don't come close enough for spell-check to recognize the word I'm trying to type. I stared at the word finness the other day for 5 minutes. (The correct spelling turned out to be finesse. Crazy, huh?) Talk about killing my inspiration when writing a scene.

I know what you're thinking: Now that I've written a whole blog post about how lettus is supposed to be spelled lettuce, I'm sure to remember it. But no, that's the kicker. When I think back on this, or any other word I can't spell, my brain will refuse to remember which is the right way to spell it and which is the crazy Gigi way to spell it.

Well, I have a garden now, so I shouldn't have to write lettus on any more lists--at least through summer. I'll take these small victories where I can get them.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Problem with Grammar

I stink at grammar. As a writer this puts me at somewhat of a disadvantage! And the problem with grammar is that there are all these RULES.

But I've managed to overcome my complete suckitude (I excel at using new words not yet found in Webster's). I found just what I needed.

The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers. (8.173 Headline Style)

After I purchased Chicago, I realized I knew less about other writing stuff too. Grammar (Chapter 5) is only a fraction of the information in the manual. So, when I'm not sure of the correct treatment for everything from ellipses to whether or not to spell out the number fifteen, I whip out my big orange reference book and set to research. I haven't been disappointed yet.

There are rules upon rules upon rules (enough to make my brain hurt!). The Chicago addresses over 2300 (9.3 Chicago's general rule on Numerals or Words) points. Yes, I added them up after skimming my manual in preparation for this post. However, I was continually struck by one singular thought...who makes up this stuff?

Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful to all the tyrants, uh, dedicated professionals who define these rules. Me? I'd rather just write. Then when I'm all done, I consult my Chicago and make sure I've constructed my sentences right.


ps. I'll leave you with this one last rule....

Rule 7.69 Rhyme Scheme
Lower case italic letters, with no space between, are used to indicate rhyme schemes or similar patterns.

The Shakespearean sonnets' Rhyme Scheme is abab, cdcd, efef, ggg. I'm pretty sure good ol' Will wsn't lying (laying-I cannot get this one right) around thinking, "I'd better italicize in lower case letters to explain to the masses how I rhyme."

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Laying Down Grammar Rules Makes Me Want to Lie Down and Cry

L.G.C. Smith

Grammar is not my strong suit. Despite, or perhaps because of, all those degrees in linguistics and years of teaching writing to college students, if someone said to me, "Quick! What's a dangling participle?" I would have to slink away, mortified and unable to muster a single word of explanation.

However, if I were handed a sentence with a dangling participle, I could explain why it doesn't work, and help you fix it -- without ever using the words 'dangling participle.' I maintain that because I learned to think of grammar as the whole syntax of a language, rath
er than as a small subset of usage preferences dictated by conscientious English teachers, I short-circuited the synapses that might have been devoted to remembering standard grammar lingo. Add to that the fact that grammar was not taught -- seriously -- in my secondary schooling, and it's all bad. I have to rely on aiming for meaning and overall effective communication.

This means observing the norms of standard grammatical usage more often than not, whether or not I know what to call things. Fortunately, grammar isn't a moral issue, though my language teaching grandmothers would have argued that. Unfortunately, blowing off grammatical norms will almost certainly annoy editors to the point of no return. We don't want to be that writer.

That said, some of the best writers I've ever worke
d with were predominately non-standard English speaking students at a tribal college in South Dakota. The majority of both the Lakota and white students in my classes spoke what's generally considered an 'uneducated' dialect. As with many lower status dialects, the regular grammatical features my students used are perceived by many as 'bad' grammar. I heard a lot more "I done it" than "I did it." "I seen" trumped "I saw" by eight to one or better. Yet when these students wrote, the power of their words and their critical analysis skills sparkled. Their voices were smart and strong, nuanced, and insightful. What looked like errors to some readers looked like regular, systematic grammatical differences to me. It was fun to talk about the differences and how much meaning could be altered by using standard versus non-standard grammatical choices.

Grammatical correctness is largely arbitrary because language is changing all the time. The sounds of words change as we slur over one sound, or add in a little something that didn't used to be there. We add and drop words. Grammar is the same. Always changing. Double negatives have a long, distinguished history in English, even though they've been deemed disreputable for a couple of hundred years. 'They' is increasingly being used as a singular pronoun to help speakers (and writers) avoid specifying gender, which the singular third person pronouns force.

There are, of course, some recent changes of which I don't approve. When did the preferred past tense form of the strong verb 'weave' cease to be 'wove?' What happened to 'crept' as the dominant past tense of 'creep?' 'Weaved' and 'creeped' have their contexts, but in my usage patterns, they're more limited (and less melodic) than 'wove' and 'crept." I like strong verbs (which is an old fashioned name for the irregular verbs in English that signal tense and aspect with vowel changes, or, the ones that don't use -ed endings for the simple past). They're a living link to the history of English. I don't want to lose them, even though they're clearly on their way out.

I find grammar most interesting when it tells me something about how language has changed and how it's changing now. I love to listen to young children wrestle ever more sophisticated concepts into the grammar their language offers. Grammar has its own stories to tell, and they stick in my head a lot better than the rules.

Quick! What's a periphrastic verb?

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Real Grammar of Westchester County

Today's guest is Maggie Barbieri, who writes the Murder 101 mysteries for St. Martin's/Minotaur about a crime-fighting female English professor at a cushy New England college. The series has been optioned for TV, and her latest is FINAL EXAM. Maggie is a freelance textbook editor by day, which makes her a perfect candidate to discuss grammar!

We haven't met Maggie in person yet, but we already know we're going to love her. For one thing, her favorite quote is one of ours too: "The only way out is through." And for another - well, just read this post; this woman is awesome!!

First, a great big shout-out to my friends here at Pens Fatales for asking me to guest blog today. I’m thrilled to part of such an illustrious group of women. When Sophie and I corresponded about my doing a guest post, she gave me a couple of options for topics. None gave me more of a thrill than “grammar.” Why, you ask? Well, by day, I’m an editor.

I stay up at night thinking about things like dangling participles and split infinitives. And overactive bladders and George Clooney. But that’s a story for another time.

In other words, grammar excites me. And I have to say that I’m a bit of a grammar snob, which is the reason I’d like to subject you, poor readers, to my feelings about words and how they are used.

Actually, I didn’t realize how much I knew about grammar until I became a regular viewer of reality television.

Pray tell, you’re probably asking yourself, how in the heck is she going to relate reality television to grammar? Stay put and I’ll tell you.

One of my favorite parts of reality television? The “confessionals.” (And before you get your panties in a wad, yes, I realize that the two half-sentences (no verbs allowed) are not grammatically correct. I was going for the laugh. Did it work?) There, I find, you’re getting the unvarnished truth about some of the “people” (and in some cases, I use that term loosely) who participate on the Real World, The Real Housewives of This or That City/County/State/Plastic Surgeon’s Office, Big Brother, Survivor, and a host of other shows about supposedly “real” people in “real” situations. As if. Although I was a sucker at first, it didn’t take me long to realize that cameramen weren’t following these people around 24/7 capturing their every thought and action. Some of the action is actually scripted, which makes sense, I guess. I thought about what I do in a day and realized it’s pretty darn boring. Sleep-inducing, really. I think I’ll go take a nap…

…Ok, I’m back. What were talking about? Oh, right. Confessionals on reality television shows. In these so-called confessionals (I was raised Catholic…I know from confessionals and these are not confessionals), people discuss other people, explain their actions, and give their impressions on all of the hilarity and mayhem that ensues in their “real” lives. If only one or more of them would learn to use pronouns correctly.

“So, you see, she and me went to the store to find our next clue.” I’m sorry, Amazing Racer, it’s “she and I.” Go back to the Pit Stop and do not pass “go.”

“I don’t know why Vicky cares about Simon and I.” Oh, poor “hot housewife,” it’s “Simon and me.” Don’t try to sound smarter than you are. It makes I sad.

“Her and me have a lot of stuff to work out.” I’ll say. You do have a lot of stuff to work out, not the least of which is your grasp of simple, fourth-grade grammatical constructions, you hairy-pitted, bikini-wearing, tribal council-attending Survivor contestant.

“I’m sorry I spoke harsh.” I’m sorry, too. Get a clue and get an adverb. Right now.

“If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.” Oh, sorry. That’s me. I just like the way that sounds.

We need grammar—and less reality television. That is my rallying cry. A few years back, my children’s elementary school decided that “everyone’s a writer.” Guess what? They’re not. Just like everyone’s not a mathematician and everyone is not a scientist. (I’m certainly not a hair colorist…just ask the lady who sat behind me on the train last week staring at the giant white spot on the crown of my head. What? It’s hard to reach.) Although this was proclaimed loudly and often throughout our time at the elementary school, not once did the school administrators hand out a spelling primer or a grammar workbook to this group of burgeoning Chekhovs. No, the children were going to focus on their “personal reflections.” If I had a dime for every time my kids came home and told me they had to write about their feelings, well, I would be wearing those brand-new patent leather Dansko clogs I desire rather than staring at them on a bookmarked page on my computer. What we have wrought, instead of a new generation of writers, is a group of children will grow up to be saying “Him and I” on a reality television show where they will talk about their feelings ad nauseam for viewers like me, who lap up every single ungrammatical thing they will have to say.

Reality television and grammar: you didn’t think I’d be able to do it, did you?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

My Dirty Little Secret

-- Adrienne Miller
I’m fully aware this post might lead to the revocation of my official writer card. I fully expect to wake up tomorrow morning to the sound of the other seven Pens banging on my front door, demanding my resignation. They’ll call me names--charlatan, hack, abomination. Martha will probably be chanting, “Burn the witch.” It’s her way. 
Cause the ugly truth is, I don’t really care about grammar. Ok, maybe that’s not entirely true. I care about grammar when it matters. I care about it the same way I care about stop signs. If there’s a cop there waiting for me, you better believe I’ll be coming to a full and complete stop. I’ll count to three, tip my hat and smile. And if not? Well, anything under five miles per hour counts, right?
One problem is that I’m not naturally good at it. My mind isn’t a carefully ordered office ruled by lists and logic. It’s more like a crowded after-hours club, more interested in the rhythm than the law. The flow of words, the sound of them in my head, that’s what I love. 
Which means sometimes I get it wrong. So I buy books, lots and lots of them, to tell me where to put my subordinate clauses...and, while we’re at it, what in the world a subordinate clause is. I barter with people who know about such things. I’ll wash your car, change your oil, babysit your kids, if you’ll proofread for me. I’m not above begging. 
So there it is, my dirty little secret. Of course, it could be worse. Much, much worse.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Choose another word

I once sent a brief note to my editor in which I used “there” when I meant to write “their”. I was mortified. I mean deep down, stomach clenching, cheeks ablazing, might as well forfeit-your-first-born-child type of mortification.

I felt compelled to send her a follow-up note in which I begged her to believe that not only do I know the difference between There, Their, and They’re, but 'round about the age of five I also mastered Too from Two from To.

Don’t even get me started on the proper use of apostrophes.

My dad used to paraphrase Albert Einstein, saying “anyone who can only think of one way to spell a word clearly lacks imagination.” No surprise: My father and Einstein were both rotten spellers.

Okay, fair enough. There are people who are natural-born spellers, and those who aren’t. But for the love of God, people, use spell check. Or that old-fashioned tome called a dictionary. If all else fails, choose a different word.

For instance, I have gone through much of my life avoiding using the terms “to lay” and “to lie”. Try as I might, I cannot get the rules to stick in my brain. Do you lay on a bed or lie upon it? Yesterday, did you lay or lie or will you be laid (not that way, people! Stay on topic) and did you lay down upon the bed right next to the coverlet that lie upon it first? And can someone lay next to you and lie, and did the pillow lay there also?

(I like to assign at least partial blame to a certain Dylan song from my childhood, Lay, Lady, Lay, which, apparently, got it all wrong. It should have been Lie, Lady, Lie. Eric Clapton jumped on that confusing bandwagon also, with Lay Down Sally, which should have been Lie Down Sally. But I'll refrain from digressing about artistic license...)

So rather than lay or lie anywhere, my characters tend to relax upon chaise lounges, recline upon blankets, or linger in their beds. A newspaper might be found splayed atop a table, sitting upon a bureau, or decorating the counter. I could go on.

The other day I noticed my local grocery store put up a new sign announcing an express lane reserved for customers with 12 Items or Fewer. Color me happy. Fewer. As opposed to the nearly ubiquitous 12 Items or less. I was aglow with the comforting knowledge that there are still a few stubborn asses like me, word nerds who insist upon saying “fewer” rather than “less” when referring to items that can be counted rather than weighed.

I know it’s lame. I know it. But now that I’ve made my grammatical bed I’ll just have to…recline upon it.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Meditative Parts of Speech

I used to diagram sentences for fun. I did it for hours. From the age of ten to thirteen, it was something that pleased my brain in a way that little else ever did. That adolescent time is so awful, so awkward and ungainly, but sentences: they always made sense. Even the longest ones could be stripped down to their most essential parts, identified, categorized, labeled, and pinned like parts of a butterfly.

I filled whole notebooks with diagrammed sentences. While other girls drew horses or scribbled their first names next to various boys' last names, I separated subjects from predicates, adverbs from adjectives, hanging them from precarious-looking lines and rewrote them entirely if I ran out of room on the page.

It made me pretty popular, I can tell you that. Between the knitting, the glasses, the braces, the acne, and the tendency to obsess over parts of speech, I was a preteen CATCH. And now, looking back, I don't think I even possess the skill anymore. I'd have to brush up on the rules before I broke out the old diagramming pen. Much like my mad spirograph skillz, my diagramming abilities are rusty.

But just thinking of those notebooks, filled with words (it didn't matter what kind of words -- I was home schooled during part of those years, and I remember diagramming Latin sentences, too), calms my heart rate. It was a meditation of sorts, and I didn't know it.

I just did it because I loved it.

(Photo source)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Now That's HOT

by Sophie


I probably shouldn't admit this but I think tattoos are kind of, a little

But NOT this one:

'Cause you know what's even hotter? Grammatical mastery.

Yeah, give me a guy who can use all the elements of language properly, who can create complex sentences that still parse correctly, who can toss in a ten-dollar word offhandedly, and I'm smitten.

Oh, and you know what's really hot? A guy who knows all the rules...and then breaks them intentionally. Nothing so sweet as a run-on or fragment when it's a straight shot from heart to page...

Maybe tattoo parlors should all be required to have a Strunk'n'White and a dictionary on site...

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Pens In Action!

Today Julie, Rachael and Sophie attended a signing sponsored by the Black Diamond RWA in Brentwood, CA. We met some really fun and funny readers, we mostly behaved, we sold all our books, and we want to thank our host, author Virna DePaul!

Pens Celebrating the Release of How To Knit A Love Song!

As promised, here are more pics of our celebration/book hunt. :) Sadly, Sophie, Martha and Adrienne couldn't make it....


Rachael's first sighting of her book in a bookstore (Books, Inc)!!

On to the next store! At Borders our party almost cleaned out the store and Rachael ran into a blog fan snapping up a copy!

Ending the night at the Lucky 13 for a post-bookhunt celebration!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Best Served In Fiction

Today our guest is Dan Krokos, and we couldn't be more pleased. With characteristic modesty, Dan describes himself thus: "I’m a twenty-three-year-old gas station attendant/student who writes crime fiction. I can usually be found leaning against poles with various satellite equipment lingering in the background."

We met Dan at Bouchercon and can report with confidence that he is one of the good guys - friendly, charming, interested in everyone around him, and enthusiastic about the genre. Oh, and the guy is a damn good writer. We foresee an incredible publishing future for Dan, who already has one of our very favorite agents on his team.

I went to a bar one time. Had a fruity beer with my fruity friend. The drive was long, and I had work the next morning, so I cut out early. Thirty minutes, tops. Walked to the parking lot and saw my car was gone.

My car was gone.

I checked off a few possibilities: wrong parking lot, wrong space, I am dreaming, someone stole it. Then I saw the sign twenty feet down, tangled in a miniature forest of bushes. Private parking for a dentist. First I screamed at the building (I wasn’t drunk, I normally scream at inanimate objects), then I open-hand slapped the sign. Someone reported gunshots, but that’s a story for another time.

My story is this: I felt cheated. I felt scammed. I experienced rage.
I didn’t know it was a tow away zone, and now I had to pay out one hundred and fourteen dollars to some smelly tow truck drivers who prowl the streets for lots they have contracts with. I wanted to kill them. I wanted to go Travis Chase on their asses and roll a car through the storefront, then walk through the shattered mess with a gun in each hand. Maybe say something like: “I’m going to tow away your life.”

I didn’t do any of that. I paid my fine and moved on.

Revenge in fiction is not revenge in real life. My book features a pile of vengeance. My character is wronged and he does something about it, consequences be damned. It feels good. It feels brutal, too. It feels wrong at the same time.
Because aren’t we supposed to forgive? Has vengeance ever made anyone feel better? While writing my book, I constantly wanted to pull my character back. I wanted to tell him his actions weren’t going to lead to a rebalancing of the universe.

Morality aside, the logistics of vengeance seem impossible in most cases. Say tomorrow you come home and a loved one has been murdered in the kitchen. Maybe they were in the middle of making your birthday cake, and flour is mixed in with the blood. How dramatic. The police have no leads, no witnesses. You want justice, you want revenge. How would you go about it? In a book, you call up the guy who knows things and maybe he heard something and maybe you check it out and find out something else and soon you’re on the trail of the killer and you suddenly know how to fight with a pipe and ride a motorcycle.

You don’t do any of that, because you’re not Slevin Kelevra. Or the Punisher. Or Kevin Bacon in that one movie.

You sit at home and wallow and eventually heal. You do like Sophie and send red-hot mental poxes. You pay your fine and shake your fist at the tow truck driver when he’s not looking.
You read a story and revel in a character’s emotions as he or she does the things you cannot.

That’s why we read books.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

"Om" Part Two

I got nothin'.

I tried to think. Revenge is an interesting topic, so surely I could come up with something to say about it. Turns out, not so much.

I've never had the desire for revenge. The most I've ever thought about it is to think that if someone has done wrong, their Karma will catch up with them.

Now, I realize this is a strange stance for someone who writes mystery fiction, where characters must routinely kill each other.

It dawned on me: To date, I've never used revenge as a motive in something I've written. (Um, once one of my books comes out, you should probably forget you read that. Just to keep you guessing a little more.)

So, instead of making up some nonsense about revenge that I know nothing about (being too calm for my own good and all that), I'm going to share my exciting news of the week:

I finished a draft of my first young adult mystery!

What's it about?

A family curse. A town built on a damnable act of greed. And an evil legacy that continues deep in the heart of California Gold Rush country.

See, I've got greed and desperation in there, but no revenge.


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Martha's Revenge Standards

I don't have a lot of personal experience with revenge, but I think I'd be awesome at it.

I'm selfish, quick to violence and ruthlessly efficient. In addition to making me a shoo-in to survive the impending zombie apocalypse, those traits would make me some kind of revenge master.

I think when you're naturally talented at something, you should help others exceed. Just call me your personal revenge sensei.

1. Revenge is a solo act. Ocean's 13 was a fun watch, but how are you supposed to hang onto seething self-righteous anger while syncing your Blackberry schedules?

2. Revenge gets served within 24 hours. Revenge is only a dish best served cold for losers who can't get their shit together sooner. Any decent revenge seeker should have the motivation and anger to envision, implement and execute revenge in less than day. Any less than that, and you're just screwing around.

3. Revenge is not proportional. No Hammurabic "eye for an eye" code here. If someone takes your eye, you take their face. Got it?

4. Revenge is permanent. Anything less is a frat-boy prank. Replacing water with pee/switching shampoo with Nair/spitting on a burger = prank. Burning down a house = a prank - people are insured these days. Infecting someone with a raging drug-resistant strain of gonorrhea? That's better. Infecting them via their spouse? Now you're talking.

5. Revenge should not affect the person dishing it out. Give yourself a week post-revenge to revel in the act. Then forget about it. If it bothers you, if you can even be bothered to remember it, it's not revenge.

I really hope this weeds out any pansy revenge seekers and encourages the rest of you to take your revenge seeking to a whole 'nother level. Excellence in everything, my friends!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

How To Knit A Love Song Release Day!!!!

More pics on the weekend but right now a quick shout out "CONGRATULATIONS!" to Rachael for the release of How To Knit a Love Song.

Lynn, Juliet, Lisa, Rachael, Gigi and the BOOK! :)

Revenge or Karma?

According to
1. to exact punishment or expiation for a wrong on behalf of, esp. in a resentful or vindictive spirit take vengeance for; inflict punishment for; avenge
–verb (used without object)

Revenge makes great fiction...the burning desire to right a wrong, the character forsaking their wordly possessions, their comfortable life, and even their values in pursuit of that elusive balancing of the scales.

This is so not me. That isn't to say I don't occasionally have a moment (a tiny moment which I squash quickly 'cause I really don't want karma to come back to me!) where I wish something bad to happen to someone who done me wrong, but the truth is...I'm a Karma girl. I believe if you do bad things, mean things, even little minutia of snarky day, your bad karma is going to come back and bite you in the ass.

And while I won't outwardly cheer, I'll take a moment of gleeful 'I knew it!' before returning to my regularly even-tempered life. It's my belief that Karma is far more dangerous than revenge.

Hinduism, Buddhism. action, seen as bringing upon oneself inevitable results, good or bad, either in this life or in a reincarnation: in Hinduism one of the means of reaching Brahman.

The philosophy of karma appeals to me.

To live your life and act with others as you wish to be treated. To live as authentic a life as possible. To be your best. It's very easy to get caught up in the 'but she did this to me' frenzy. But the truth is, maybe she's just having a bad day. Or maybe all her days are bad and her anger and her meanness stem from her own feelings of inadequacy.

At the end of the day I believe that lurking in that mean soul is an extremely miserable person, who if they could only develop their own feelings of self-confidence and self-acceptance would be much nicer to the people around them.

So I pity them. Because when karma comes calling they won't have anyone to lean on and that is the best revenge of all.