Monthly Archives: June 2013

That Low-Down Word

That Word CloudI run a forum on a British writers’ website for grammatical problems, and answer questions that come up in the course of their writing projects.  This week the question came up about that little word, “that” – when to use it and when to lose it.  When do you use that?  When do you use a comma instead?  And when is neither one necessary?  Ah, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice proper grammar.  Hey, just kidding – it’s not that complicated!  Sometimes it doesn’t matter, and sometimes it can be confusing without it.  So, here’s the low-down:

1) Remember Rhythm:  How does your sentence flow?  Read your sentence aloud; does it have a better rhythm with or without that?  When in doubt and rhythm / comprehension is fine with or without, use it – inclusion may benefit the understanding of the sentence as a whole, and omission may cause misunderstandings.  Sometimes using that is a matter of personal taste.  Here’s a sentence that could be understood with or without:  “Fiona thinks (that) Alistair works too hard.

If you’ve already got a that in the sentence elsewhere, consider how your sentence can be reworded to avoid an overload. A double that is usually unnecessary.  In the sentence, “I realised that that would not be a good idea” the first that (acting as a conjunction, whereas the second acts as a pronoun) could be eliminated, aiding the flow but not impeding the comprehension.  Sometimes that is required in one part of a sentence, and when a second that comes up a choice needs to be made:  Take this sentence, from an AP report:  “Ford Motor Co. warned that it no longer expects to return to profitability by next year and that it is trimming North American production of pickups and SUVs for the rest of this year because of high gas prices and a shaky economy.”  The second instance could be eliminated thus:  “…next year; it is trimming…”

2) Comprehension:  Sometimes a sentence can be unintentionally misleading, and using that can help clarify.  For example,  “Fiona maintains Alistair works too hard.”  Does Fiona maintain Alistair and he works too hard? If you insert a that after maintains, it becomes clear that maintains refers to an opinion, and not maintenance of Alistair.

Sometimes in our writing, however, we want to intentionally lead the reader or a character down the garden path toward the wrong conclusion.  It’s a fine art, and understanding how another person interprets what you’ve written or could interpret it goes a long way toward walking that fine line between misdirection and deception; the first will leave a “gotcha” smile, and the latter might leave your next book unread….  As a plot element, it has its uses; but as a badly written sentence, it only results in confusing and frustrating the reader, who has to find the beginning of the sentence and read it again to understand it properly.

3) Commas:  Commas can sometimes replace the word that.  In this example, “Peter Coveney writes that ‘[t]he purpose and strength of . . .’” it would never be “Peter Coveney writes that,” or “Peter Coveney writes, that…” though it could be, “Peter Coveney writes, “…”

I hope that helps some of you dealing with similar issues in writing!


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When Insults Had Class

Before the diluting of the language through modern acronyms and text messages, insulting one’s foes was an art form in itself.  Here are a few well-know gems:

Old Letter & Quill

“He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts… for support rather than illumination.” – Andrew Lang (1844-1912)

“He has Van Gogh’s ear for music.” – Billy Wilder

“In order to avoid being called a flirt, she always yielded easily.” – Charles, Count Talleyrand

“I have never killed a man, but I have read many an obituary with a great deal of satisfaction.” Clarence Darrow

A member of Parliament to Disraeli: “Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease.”
“That depends, Sir,” said Disraeli, “whether I embrace your policies or your mistress.”

“He was distinguished for ignorance; for he had only one idea, and that was wrong.” – Benjamin Disraeli

“She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” – Dorothy Parker

“He loves nature in spite of what it did to him.” – Forrest Tucker

“What’s on your mind? If you’ll forgive the overstatement.” – Fred Allen

“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening.  But this wasn’t it.” – Groucho Marx

“I’ve just learned about his illness. Let’s hope it’s nothing trivial.” – Irvin S. Cobb

“He is a self-made man and worships his creator.” – John Bright

“His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.” – Mae West

“Why do you sit there looking like an envelope without any address on it?” – Mark Twain

“I did not attend his funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” – Mark Twain

“Thank you for sending me a copy of your book; I’ll waste no time reading it.” – Moses Hadas

“He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends..” – Oscar Wilde

“Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go..” – Oscar Wilde

“He is simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up.” – Paul Keating

“He is not only dull himself; he is the cause of dullness in others.” – Samuel Johnson

“I feel so miserable without you; it’s almost like having you here.” – Stephen Bishop

“He had delusions of adequacy.” – Walter Kerr

“He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” – William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway).

An exchange between Churchill & Lady Astor:
She said, “If you were my husband I’d poison your tea.”
He said, “Madam, If you were my wife I’d drink it.”

“He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.” – Winston Churchill

“I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend…. if you have one.” – George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill
“Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second…. if there is one.” – Winston Churchill, in response.

“Yes, madam, I am drunk. But in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly.” –  Winston Churchill

“He had just about enough intelligence to open his mouth when he wanted to eat, but certainly no more.”  – P.G. Wodehouse



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Musings on the Unsexy Side of Writing

WordItOut-Word-cloud-223251When someone discovers the avenue of writing as a way of expressing their creativity, I can guarantee you they don’t think, “Gee, I can’t wait to get to all those technical details it will take to launch a book!”  That technical nitty-gritty is what the Swiss would call the “unsexy” side of writing.  If you’re a writer, and you’re anything like me, it’s the last thing you want to spend your time doing – I’d much rather be working on the next manuscript than tackling things like blurbs, bios, and summaries, all in various lengths.  I’d rather not have to tackle the issues of pricing, cover art decisions, marketing (most writers enjoy the isolation it takes to be a good writer and concentrate on their craft – we are not born me-salesmen!), networking and promotion.  But that’s the phase I find myself in right now.  And perhaps my situation is a bit more challenging because I am an English-language writer living in an area of a country that speaks an unwritten language:  I live in the Swiss-German speaking area of Switzerland.  There are a variety of dialects here, none of which have an official written structure or spelling (it is usually spelled phonetically, which varies according to the dialect).  High-German is the language of the newspapers and magazines and television (for the most part), but it’s not the language you hear on the streets.  And I certainly don’t have a local writer’s group from which to draw inspiration or encouragement.  I can’t just zip down to the local bookshop and see which publishers are interested in which topics.  It’s just me, myself and moi when it comes to getting it done.

And if you’re anything like me, you’ve got several irons in the fire at any given time:  At the moment I have no less than six novels at various stages of completion.  The second novel of a trilogy is on next, but will soon get put on hold as I travel to Norway for historical research this summer, for another novel in the making.  Focusing on one project at a time is the most efficient way to work; but sometimes it’s not possible.  I actually like the variety, from 18th century fiction, to 8th and 21st century fantasy fiction, contemporary fiction, science fiction… I’ve got my fingers in a lot of pies.  For me the key is self-discipline; setting goals, priorities, and daily schedules so that I can reach those goals one step at a time, all the while not letting any of that quench my creativity.  It would be great to have a support network of writers with whom I could bounce ideas around, or glean encouragment from, or be inspired by.  But life is where it is, so I’ll take the encouragement in any form it comes.  And I’ll slog my way through the unsexy side of the craft, and maybe even learn to enjoy it along the way!



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Changing the world into words

World into Words


June 13, 2013 · 4:47 PM

Regarding Netiquette

netiquetteThe internet is the collective human expression of Self, in all its facets:  You can find ANYTHING on here, literally.  I for one am very grateful; historical, scientific, archaeological, medical, and general research available online enables writers such as myself to stand on the shoulders of generations gone before and view the wider world from that enriched perspective.   You can also find anything for sale or free, an endless knowledge base, or entertainment, or simply a trivial waste of time, available to the entire wireless planet 24/7.  It’s a place to express opinions (informed or not), ideas (thought-through or not), philosophies (ditto), creations from songs to videos, crafts, discoveries and more.  Wonders to behold, as well as just plain wondering what the heck someone was thinking when they uploaded that.

But with the good come the bad.  I’ve gotten spam sidelined; it’s obviously spam when the text is something like, “I think you people just need to lighten up.  The writer of this article is just trying to…  (blah, blah, blah)”; there are no comments on that particular article yet, which tells me the spam’s originator is just out to stir up dissention if it happens to land on a live and already-active blog.  Why?  Are people so directionless in their lives that they have nothing better to do than stir up trouble?  Apparently.

The anonymity of the internet often brings out the worst side of people; they seem to think that, because they don’t know the person they are responding / reacting to and will probably never meet, that somehow gives them the license to be rude, belligerent, aggressive, offensive, and sloppy with everything from spelling to sentence structure.  Whatever happened to Netiquette?  Remember that quaint word (I was about to say old, but wait – internet has only been on the scene since 1993) that was an updated version of its predecessor, etiquette?  The definition (according to Wikipedia) of netiquette is, “Conduct while online that is appropriate and courteous to other Internet users.”  Ironically, the word is exactly as old as the internet itself; the need was quickly seen of reminding people to be courteous within such an anonymous setting.  In that most famous of books, the Bible, one guideline is found in Colossians 4:6:  “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”  That’s what’s missing in a lot of the communication online:  Graciousness.  Salt is mentioned because it is a preservative, and something that adds flavour.  Graciousness not only preserves your own dignity, but guards the dignity of the person being responded to, and those that will end up reading it.  The danger in unguarded remarks is that they will bite back; it’s all too easy to wear blinders, thinking everyone will agree with our viewpoint while forgetting that we live on a planet of diversity.  Rudeness isolates; graciousness invites.  It’s the old adage about honey drawing more bees than vinegar.

There seem to be a lot of people out there who have either never learned, or have forgotten the basic rules of Netiquette.  On one hand it’s easiest and most comfortable to say that it’s not our place to educate them; after all, they’re strangers, and to each his own, right?  I say wrong:  Why do I write, if not to communicate what’s important to me?  Why do I interact with others online if not to learn something new, or be encouraged by a great story or news item or event in the life of a friend on Facebook?  And if I interact, that means addressing issues, comfortable or not.  If someone is rude, the challenge is to point it out with graciousness, not reacting to fire with fire, but with water – putting out the brush fires that have potential to do damage… taking the wind out of their sails in a gentle way.  And try to use the sandwich technique:  A compliment first, the meat of the matter (graciously put, the correction, or rebuke, or however you want to label it), and then ending on another positive note.  If they continue a barrage of crudeness, there’s always that “delete” or “block” possibility.  Peer pressure is the most effective way of making changes, for good and bad.  Let’s become peers for good in this vast cyberworld, one step at a time.   And the next time you’re tempted to fight fire with fire, remember the salt of Grace.

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Thoughts on Writing from a Reader’s Perspective

Card - InsomniaFor me, reading a book is about escaping to a new world, diving into that world through the medium of the senses that are stimulated by well-chosen words, precision instruments that play a symphony of emotions, smells, sights, sounds, touches, tastes, balance and harmony.  I’ve never really appreciated books that are written with gratuitous scenes of violence or sex; sometimes it seems to me (as a reader) that writers throw in scenes willy-nilly to spice things up or to patch over the fact that they haven’t researched and developed their characters thoroughly, or because they run out of plot ideas and just spin their wheels.  Such scenes grate against my senses just as much as random punctuation or bad spelling does.  If such elements are not organic, logical, and a natural development of the plot, they do not belong there.  Period.  It’s an insult to my intelligence and a brazen demand on my “believability credits” that is frankly not the author’s to demand… those credits are something that I as a reader give gladly to a good writer, but a writer has to earn them, and has no right to demand that I suspend disbelief to dive into their story when they haven’t bothered to make it believable.  The writer’s job is to earn those credits through good writing, good writing, and good writing, i.e. plot, character development, grammar, syntax, orthography, and structure.

Don’t misunderstand me:  There are times when the darker scenes are organic; they are necessary to portray the character, or are a natural outflow of the character’s flaws or decision process, or lack of positive input earlier on in life.  Sexual scenes can be sexy without being vulgar, sensual without being slutty.  Sometimes I read books that deal with such issues, but more as a writer than a reader, to see how they are structured.  I read part of a book recently (I gave up quite early, which not a good sign for the writer) where the author had seemingly tried to cram as many vulgar terms as they could into one chapter, or one page, or one dialogue.  It got so ridiculous that I started reading as an editor, slicing out entire passages to improve the script.  As far as I’m concerned, there’s not really a point in publishing something that will likely offend half your demographic sector away from buying a second book.

Give me something to read that’s intelligent, entertaining, witty, smart, deep, and that I can come away from the experience wanting more – not just another book with those characters, but that I come away having learned something about myself or the world around me, having been positively changed, encouraged, enlightened or satisfied.


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