Monday, October 24, 2011

Breaking the Rules

I'm currently in the phase of writing my book, that I now understand, I hate the most. Revisions. How tough can that be? It's not difficult, because my editor doesn't get my characters and has demanded I practically rewrite the entire manuscript. It's difficult because the English language is a mess, and most English speaking human beings, don't follow the rules.

I didn't have the money to hire a professional editor, but I'm no good at proof-reading and editing my own work. I was an “A” English student in high school, so I do know, or thought I did, most of the rules. When I'm writing, however (and this includes this blog), I'm too busy trying to get all the words and ideas down fast, to stop and think about those rules. When I try to self-edit, I may start off okay, but before I know it, I slide back into writer-mode and start tweaking the story, forgetting all about punctuation, fragments and dangling participles. Guess what? The human brain does not think in complete, grammatically correct, sentences. Really.

So my solution was to ask some very good friends to help me out. Not just random friends, I had two in mind. One had edited a book in the past, and the other had recently retired from professional editing. On top of that, I took portions of my novel to my writing class, where my instructor, as well as up to 15 other students, gave them the once over.

I've heard, many times, how self-published books are often considered poorer in quality, because they are riddled with grammatical errors. Yet, I have seen professionally edited, and published books with glaring errors as well. I really have my heart set on making sure my novel is perfect. Well, I know it won't be perfect, but as error-free as possible.

In my mind, I thought more was better. With three plus editors, I figured it was the best I could do. What one person missed, hopefully the other would catch, and that's exactly what happened. Now I have the edited copies in hand, and need to make the revisions. In some cases, an edit was incorrect because of intent of the character. The placement of a comma can change the whole meaning and tone of a sentence.

Here's an example:

My version was an argument between two friends. One has had a nightmare, but doesn't believe it was just a nightmare, and she's trying to convince her friend.

“It wasn't a nightmare.”
“What do you mean it wasn't a nightmare?” demanded Janice.
“It was real.”
“What do you mean it was real?”

My characters are practically shouting at each other at this point, and Janice is not really asking if the nightmare was real, she's being sarcastic, so I left out commas.

One editor put the comma in here: “What do you mean, it was real?”
The other put it here: “What, do you mean it was real?”

In both cases, the comma totally changed the tone of the sentence and conversation. When we're arguing with each other, we rarely use pauses that would be indicated by commas. So sometimes I know I'm breaking rules, on purpose. Many times, each editor corrected the same sentence differently, which left me confused and looking up the rules myself, which often are confusing themselves.

There are rules we break all the time. As a writer, do I follow the rule? Or do I follow what most people would find more natural. Nothing challenges grammar rules more than the old lay/lie conundrum. The definition of lay, is to place. The definition of lie, is to rest or recline.

In everyday language we butcher this one regularly. A subject (John) lies down. You lay down an object (the book). You cannot lay down on the beach.  If you make yourself prone on a beach, you lie on the beach. I saw one quote that made me laugh. “You can't lay on the beach, unless you're a chicken.” When we ask our dog to lay down, we are also incorrect. The dog will lie down, not lay down, unless of course he is unconscious, and I lay him on his side.

You cannot take a book and lie it on the counter, but you can lay it on the counter. My biggest question is once you lay and item down, does it now lie there, or does it lay there? What about a body? On headstones we see “Here lies Sally.” Chances are, Sally didn't walk over to that coffin and lie down. She was placed there by someone else, therefore she lays in the coffin, right? To make it more confusing, the past tense of lie, is lay. So if Joe talks about when he took a nap yesterday, then he lay down on the bed yesterday. So even if Sally did lie down in the coffin, wouldn't she lay in the coffin now? Are you still following me?

This has been quite the issue for me as there are a plethora of dead bodies in my story, and suddenly I'm not sure if they lay beneath the earth, or lie beneath the earth. Maybe the confusion is simply because people fear death. We like to think of our loved ones as resting in their graves, rather than the reality that they were put there, so maybe we feel more comfortable with saying they lie in the grave. Or maybe the problem is whether the reference is to the object rather than the subject, and I'm still just confused.

I could go on and on about confusing rules, just look up punctuation within quotes, when quotes are within actions, and so forth. Or how about effect vs. affect. And then there's the apostrophe; it can mean letters of a word are missing, or when followed by an “s” it means the word is possessive, except for “it's” which is never possessive. What about hyphens, I never know when to use them and when not. I sometimes have to wonder how I even passed English, much less got top grades. Maybe it's like “new math”, they changed the rules just to confuse the adults.

And guess what? Just to make it all the more confusing, the grammar/spell-check on my computer is often incorrect. The rule says to write 4:30 a.m., but my computer tells me to get rid of the periods. Well all I have to say is I'm very sleep deprived. It is really 4:30 a.m., and I have been revising and editing (and looking up rules) for the past two days from the wee-hours of the morning until late at night. So if there (notice I didn't accidentally type their or they're) are any glaring grammatical errors or typos, cut me a break okay?

Most non-writers think that the hardest part is in coming up with, and crafting the story. Ha! That part I've got. I'm starting to think life must have been so much easier when, to get our point across, we would just point and grunt. My daughter's solution to my frustration? Learn a different language and write all my books in that language. It just might be easier than learning English, even though I already speak English! 

Who came up with all these rules anyway?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Fiction of Fright...or not...fiction that is.

I'm thrilled to have my story "Spirits of the Corn" featured in the October Issue of eFiction Magazine. If you like a good fright, I highly recommend you read this issue, It's chock-full of Halloween horror. I enjoy scary stories, and LOVE Halloween. I admit, I have a bit of a dark side.

As much as a fictional tale of terror can inspire nightmares, I have a ghost story to share that is absolutely non-fiction.

When my husband and I bought our first home, there was no history of horrible crime, death, or unexplained noises. Other than us being the tenth occupants in its forty years, there was nothing special about the house.

At the time Duffy, our border collie mix, was in his later years and quite sedate. Sometimes, our neighbors had to step over his sleeping body on the porch to get to the door; not much of a watch dog. So I was quite surprised one afternoon, when he refused to come in the house. Not as in, I'm-napping-in-the-warm-sun-bug-off, don't want to come in; but tail-tucked-hackles-raised-feet-firmly-planted-not-a-chance-in-heck-I'm-coming-in-there, don't want to come in.

When I finally dragged the struggling animal in the door, he took one look down the basement stairs, snarled, then turned tail and ran. I finally found the terrified pooch hiding under a table, and when I bent down to talk to him, my normally lethargic dog snapped at me. This was the worst episode, but there were others when our dog seemed nervous, and had a problem with the basement in particular.

(A side note, purely for effect, but absolutely factual: our house was a Dutch colonial – the Amityville Horror house, was a Dutch colonial. And in our basement there was a funky little storage room tucked under the concrete front porch. To enter it, you had to climb through a small opening in the basement wall. The opening was covered with a thick wooden door complete with wrought iron latch. The room's craggy walls and ceiling were covered in cobwebs, and floor was nothing more than dirt. Other than peeking in when we bought the house, we never went in there or used it for anything. It was just too creepy. Only in the movies would someone ACTUALLY go in there, despite the audience screaming not to.)

There was also the sound of running footsteps, always late in the evening. It's a two-story house and the footsteps were always heard from the living room on the first floor, so we knew it wasn't just a squirrel on the roof. Our son was a year and a half old, so when we heard the foot steps racing above our heads, we naturally assumed that he had climbed out of his crib and was sprinting around his room. Every time we'd hear the thump, thump, thump, of running feet, we'd race upstairs to find our son sound asleep. We found this occurrence curious and intriguing, but not frightening.

The event that hammered home that something other-worldly might be going on happened many months later. I'd laid down next to our son, who was now in a big bed and had trouble settling for the night. My back was starting to ache from lying so still. He had been quiet for a while, but I wasn't brave enough to move yet.

I was longing to go back down to the living room, so I turned my gaze from the darkened room out into the brightly lit hallway. There, in the doorway, stood the silhouette of a man. I assumed my husband had come up to check on us. I held a finger to my lips to warn him not to say anything, lest our son wake up. I turned my head, for just a moment, to check if our son was truly asleep. When I turned back, the man was gone.

Although my original assumption had been that the figure had been that of my husband, the way he seemed to appear and disappear without so much as a creak of the stairs bothered me. The whole episode was so brief, I questioned whether or not it had been real. Had I imagined it? Maybe, I had unknowingly dozed off and dreamt it. But it felt real.

When I was sure it was safe for me to leave, I went downstairs to find my husband sitting on the sofa reading the newspaper. I sat down next to him. “Did you come up to check on us?”

My husband lowered the paper, his eyebrows drawn together. “Why do you ask?”

“I thought I saw you outside the door,” I answered.

Dropping the paper into his lap, my husband shook his head. “Wow, that's weird.”

“What's weird?” I questioned.

He paused. “Have you ever had one of those times, when you see something moving out of the corner of your eye, but when you look, there's nothing there, so you just write it off as your imagination?”

I nodded.

“Well,” he said, “I was sitting down here reading the paper while you were upstairs and I could have sworn someone went up the stairs.”

My flesh tightened into goosebumps so hard it was almost painful.

Now I can hear some of you screaming in your head, “Run away! Get out of the house!” It's never that easy. Maybe we really just had a senile dog, funky thumping floorboards, and overactive imaginations. We also considered the fact that if there really was a ghost involved, he certainly didn't seem mean-spirited, rather he seemed friendly, checking in on us, keeping an eye on our child.

Was it a ghost, or did my husband and I have some kind of simultaneous imaginary event, each of us on a different floor of the house? I leave that up to you. But I have to admit, I really like the ghost theory better.

Did I mention how much I love Halloween?