Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Words On Paper

I started working in Laredo TX eight years ago (FYI, Laredo is in South Texas on the Texas-Mexico border). I got an apartment down there, while my wife and kids stayed in our Central Texas home. It was a relatively long but doable commute (about 200 miles one way), but it left me with plenty of time on my hands while I was in Laredo.

I was a college professor at the time, and the 'publish or perish' rule was very much in effect. Thanks to my uninterrupted time down there, I published enough academic articles to survive. That gave me the idea that I could someday write a novel. In fact, when I retired, that was one of the things on my 'to-do' list. That, along with 'clean out the garage.'

So far, neither goal has been reached. Oh, I've got stacks of research material in my home office. I've got plot outlines and characters fleshed out, but I never seem to find enough time to sit down and put words to paper.

They (whoever 'they' are) say to write what you know. Well, one of the things I know is the Texas-Mexico border, drug cartels, South Texas culture, and related stuff. Unfortunately, because I've dithered for so long, I've been beaten to the punch. No complaints - my fault for sitting on my butt. But I keep thinking that at some point I'll still get around to 'it' - whatever 'it' is.

The reason for all this rambling is a column I saw in the local paper. It's written by someone who I can only describe as a grammar nazi. In spite of that, he has some sound advice for anyone out there who is thinking of becoming an author. Here's his words to the wise.
Excuse me, but could we have a brief confidential chat?

I don’t want to get too personal, but I couldn’t help but notice that, ah ... your participle is dangling. You might want to correct that to avoid any embarrassment that could ensue.

When you wrote, “I was surprised by a mouse uncovering my patio grill,” were you referring to Mighty Mouse or to some strange new hybrid creature? Also I confess that when you wrote “Flaming across the sky, we watched the meteor shower in wonder,” I was a bit confused as to who was doing what.

Yes, misplaced modifiers come in various forms and often trip the unwary writer. Of course, as the writer, you know what you mean, but obviously the point is to let the reader know also.

There are three principles that lie at the heart of most forms of effective writing: clarity, clarity and clarity. Consider the following: “The stolen items were found scattered around the golf course by the groundskeeper.” I suppose the police had an easy time catching the culprit.

Groucho Marx used a misplaced modifier in one of his well-known jokes from the film “Animal Crackers”: “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.” The placement of modifying words or phrases can often be amusing and more often just confusing.

The word “only” can be pesky in its placement.

For example, “I only ran 3 miles.” Does it mean that the writer ran 3 miles and then walked or crawled for some more miles? If the emphasis is on 3, then write it as, “I ran only 3 miles.”

Nit-picking you say? I say clarity! The advice is keep the word “only” precisely next to the word or words it modifies.

Even Shakespeare was caught in the modifier trap, although perhaps a minimal one. In Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5, the ghost of Hamlet’s father says, “Now, Hamlet, hear. ’Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard, a serpent stung me.” The best of writers may sometimes fall and we lesser scribes must keep our guard up constantly.

Well, it was a nice chat. Thanks for your time.

Peace and clarity.
Methinks the man maketh much sense.

P.S. - If you're a writer, I hope this helps you!


Old NFO said...

LOL, I suck at grammar, and I know it... But apparently people are willing to kinda overlook it. I AM working on getting better! And yes, sit down and write the damn book!!! You may not make a fortune, but you will do what less that .1% of the people ever do, and that is actually write and publish a book. If 'I' can do it, I know damn sure you can!!!

Well Seasoned Fool said...

A book? I'm challenged just to write a coherent blog posting. If it wasn't for spell checkers I wouldn't write at all.

CenTexTim said...

NFO - yeah, yeah - you sound just like my wife telling me to clean out the garage... :-)

WSF - I can handle grammar and spelling (well, sort of...). It's the plot and character development that screws me up.