And the Invitation Has Been Offered
I got my hair done yesterday–a body wave to bring life back to this straight, stringy, uncooperative mess. All the antibiotics and other meds pumped into my system from December 2012 through March 2013 messed with my hair somehow and made it moodier than ever. And since it was rarely in the mood to do what I wanted it to, I tried to make what it wanted to do work. Sometimes it did, but not often.
So, after Paula finished working her miracles, I felt pretty. Rare occasion these days. Since my hair was done and my makeup had survived an extensive process involving shampoo, water, and a variety of chemicals we won’t get into here, I decided to go shopping for an Easter dress.
I found some dresses I liked, and early in the process, while I was still feeling pretty, this is what I thought I’d look like when I tried them on:
Okay–maybe not just like that. Those ladies are slender; I’m not anymore. I’ve gained back most of the weight I lost while I was sick, and while I’m not seriously fat, I do have a few pounds more than what I’m supposed to have for my age and height. Not bad, but a few.
So I had high hopes as I mussed my perfect hair trying to pull that unforgiving material over my head. I had my fingers crossed as I smoothed it over my hips. Then I looked in the mirror.
Who on God’s green earth thought spandex was a good material for women’s clothes? Seriously. I’m ready to flog him. Surely it’s not a her. Any woman who would do this to another woman is just cold and deserves a punishment far worse than flogging–like gaining 50 pounds and living the rest of her days in a mirrored house dressed her own designs.
Imagine this in red spandex:
I was totally demoralized. Totally.
Didn’t change things, though. I needed something for Easter.
I struggled out of the dress and donned my “real” clothes–made of denim and cotton. My hair flopped in my face; my mascara had smeared. My face looked pasty pale in the mirror.
I no longer felt pretty as I slunk back to the clothing racks and looked for a larger size or something not made of spandex or a spandex blend. I lowered my hopes from looking fabulous to “maybe no one would puke at the sight of me.”
A couple of the dresses I’d tried in the size I thought I was turned out not to be so bad in the larger size, but I was beginning to understand how Mom felt in the ’50s and ’60s, even though she’d never had to deal with spandex. I needed/need a floor-to-ceiling girdle. Or a whalebone corset. Or a return to the days when women wore bustles–I’d be right in style without having to put one on.
One of these days, fashion will go full swing, and we’ll return to those sensible shirt-waist dresses popular when I Love Lucy was still fresh on the airwaves. Okay, maybe not all fashion will return to it, but at least it could be an option again. And they’d be made of cotton, or a 70-30 cotton blend that doesn’t wrinkle.
Yeah. That’s what I want.
Who’s with me?!
For many of us, if we were ever required to do it at all, it has been ages since we’ve diagrammed a sentence. I actually have a book on how to do it on my wish list in Amazon. Even if we don’t know the particulars of diagramming, most of us remember the bare-bones basics: Subject, Verb, Object. Stripped of their verbosity, most sentences contain these elements.
I want to share with you something that I see frequently in my work as an editor, and show you the short-cut way of figuring it out.
One of the most common sentence construction errors I find involves participle and gerund phrases. Let’s start with what those two dubers are:
Petting her cat, Patricia stared idly out the window. –petting her cat is a participle phrase; the subject of the sentence is Patricia.
This sentence structure is a tool for authors who want to show their character doing more than one thing at a time. You don’t want to overuse it because “-ing” words are climbing high on the “don’t do that” list. But the “-ing” form is not the only construction of the participle phrase:
Doused by the water balloon, Casey laughed.–doused by the water balloon is the participle phrase; the subject of the sentence is Casey.
Both phrases before and after the comma pertain to the subject–which makes this structure different from a gerund phrase, which is the subject:
Petting her cat soothes her.–petting her cat is the gerund phrase, making it the subject of the sentence.
Can you see the difference? In the sentences above, the participle phrase modifies the subject; in this last one, the gerund phrase is the subject.
I haven’t noticed a lot of problem with the gerund phrase, but the participle phrase tends to confuse people. Grammarians will tell you not to misplace or dangle your modifier, which is great if you know what a modifier is and how you lost it or left it dangling in the first place.
So here’s the trick: Figure out the subject of the sentence.
Petting the cat, it purred in her lap as Patricia stared out the window.
Can you see what’s wrong with this sentence? The implied subject of the first part of this sentence is Patricia; the expressed subject of the second part of the sentence is “it”–making the expressed subject of the entire sentence “it” (referring back to the cat). So, how does a cat pet itself?
A sentence with this construction should have only one subject. The subject of this sentence should be Patricia. So here’s the quick fix:
Petting the purring cat, Patricia stared out the window.–petting the cat is the participle phrase, Patricia is the subject, purring is an adjective in this case, and cat is the object of the petting.
Try this one:
Walking from room to room, the house seemed quiet.
This one’s trickier, because it’s intended to be in a deep POV. The implied subject of the first part is the unnamed character. The expressed subject of the sentence is the house–and if the house itself can walk from room to room, you have entered the Twilight Zone.
The oversimplified version of what I’ve been trying to say is this: Who/What is the expressed subject of the sentence, and is it the same as the implied subject of the first part of the sentence (the participle phrase). If they don’t match, fix it.
Caveat: These are not the only sentence structures you can find a participle or gerund phrase in. These are just the structures I find most often when editing.
We’re still talking subjects here, so bear with me. This one is a little trick to help you remember whether you need a comma with “and.”
What’s the subject here?
Lydia scrubbed the clothes on the river rocks and wished Mark would help her.
If you said “Lydia,” you get to advance to the next level.
So, what’s the subject here?
Lydia scrubbed the clothes on the river rocks, and Mark helped her.
If you said, “That’s a compound sentence, and you’re trying to trick me,” you’ve hit the nail on the head. So, can you tell me why the second sentence has a comma and the first one doesn’t?
The subject of the first sentence example is Lydia. She scrubbed and wished–she’s the subject of both sentence parts surrounding the “and.”
The subjects of the second sentence example are Lydia and Mark. The subject of the first part is Lydia, the subject of the second part is Mark. You stick the comma before “and” because you’ve got two subjects thrown together in one sentence.
Let’s play with this some:
Lydia scrubbed the clothes on the river rocks and rinsed them in the current and wished Mark was with her.
Lydia scrubbed the clothes on the river rocks, rinsed them in the current, and wished Mark was with her.
Lydia scrubbed the clothes on the river rocks and rinsed them in the current, and wished Mark was with her.
All of these are right. The subject of the sentences is Lydia, but you’ve got her doing a list of things: scrubbing, rinsing, and wishing.
In the first sentence, the activities are separated by “and,” and no comma is necessary since the same subject is doing all the action.
The second sentence uses a comma to omit the first “and,” emphasizing the list of activities. According to the Chicago Manual of Style (the book publisher’s Bible), lists of three or more things (activities in this case) are divided by a serial comma–including a comma before “and.” If you’re ever in doubt, strip the sentence down to its subject and verbs. If it turns out to be a list of activities, use the comma, even before the “and.”
The third sentence is a subjective use of the comma. I’m sure there’s some technical term for it, but use of the comma here is more artistic than standardized. Since the first two activities are related, they aren’t separated by a comma. But the third, the “wish,” expresses a mood, a desire, an internal emotion that the author may want to emphasize as separate from the rest. Putting the comma there separates that phrase from the practical to the wistful, illustrating a difference in tone for that part of the sentence.
Another way to write that last sentence is with a participle phrase (going full circle here):
Lydia scrubbed the clothes on the river rocks and rinsed them in the current, wishing Mark was with her.
Wishing Mark was with her, Lydia scrubbed the clothes on the river rocks and rinsed them in the current.
The construction of these last three examples, which emphasize the “wishing Mark was with her” part, is entirely up to the author. Personally, I like the one without the participle phrase best–and if you use the participle phrase too often, you may have to change it.
Lydia scrubbed the clothes and Mark rinsed them.
There’s no comma in this sentence because both parts are short. According to CMOS, that’s fine–but also according to CMOS, if you want to put a comma there, you can. Doncha love it?
Recognizing your subject helps in your sentence construction and comma placement. It isn’t “Grammar 101,” which indicates a college level course. It’s “Grammar School.” I’m sure you remember all this; you just needed a little nudge to the gray matter. Glad to help (assuming I did).
If you’re hearing your characters working out their tough scene, you’re in good shape. If you’re hearing the encouraging cheer of someone who supports and believes in you, you’re in really good shape.
The voice that makes me most angry is the one that whispers “you can’t do this.” The best way to shut that voice up is to prove it wrong.
But then, there’s the voice that says “you shouldn’t do this.” Great advice if you’re planning something stupid, but if you’re not—then what?
If you’ve been reading my blog lately, you already know I’m having trouble with Corporate Ladder. It went rogue not long ago, and I needed to decide what to do with the intense scene I’d written too early. It was a good scene, a logical progression from what I’d built in before, but it was too intense for the first quarter of the novel. I reread it yesterday and decided to yank it out and save it for later.
As I read it, I heard voices in my head. Familiar voices–people I know whose advice is usually sound. They were saying what they always say when I work on Corporate Ladder: “don’t.” Hearing these voices may be one of the reasons CL has been a work in progress since 2009 and never a completed manuscript. The other reason is that it’s my first serious work, and I want to do it right. I want it to be, not just good, but exceptional.
But it’s a dark drama. Not noir, but dark and rough just the same. Whenever the topic is the impact of sin on a person’s life, the work will never be sunshine and flowers. It’s a tough, serious subject, and it’s far more difficult to write than I thought it would be, primarily because keeping the main character sympathetic is a challenge.
My voices say that it’s too dark to match my brand, my image, my sunny disposition. According to the loudest voice in my ear, it isn’t a matter of whether I can write it–of course you can, says she–it’s a matter of whether I should. “People don’t want to read dark novels these days. They want to be entertained and uplifted.” And, though the voice never actually says it, there’s always the hint of disapproval. “How can this possibly glorify God?”
That one gets me every time. I asked a fellow author about this and have treasured his response ever since:
Darkness only serves to contrast the light. We live in a culture that celebrates the gray, that muddies the waters, and such. Exposing the darkness in fiction is a time-honored tradition among warriors of light. We shine the light that deepens the shadows and exposes the corruption for what it really is. Shadows hide best under overcast skies. Sunlight makes them look darker.
Whenever I worry about writing Corporate Ladder, I go back and read Michael’s response. It helps me push on.
Recently, though, I read a book by someone whose blog I used to follow, back when I had time to read a lot of blogs. His posts were always so charming and thought-provoking that I thought his book would be charming and thought-provoking too. Well, I got the second part right. It was hard to read what he’d done to his wonderful cast of characters. What I thought would be uplifting brought me down.
That reading experience got me to wondering whether the voices in my head are right. My friends and readers won’t expect something like this from me–which brings other voices to my mind, those that say, “no one will buy this anyway, and those who do will be disappointed in you.”
Negative voices are horrible things, those that tell you “can’t” and “don’t” and “shouldn’t.” Sometimes, though, these negative voices are right. They’re the ones that warn you not to take the curve at ninety miles per hour, not to take the leap when the fall is farther than you think and the landing is hard and painful. Stubborn people floor the accelerator or dive head first. They’re either fools doing foolish things with tragic results, or they’re geniuses, and the results reflect what they’ve believed all along.
When you’re talking about something as subjective as a manuscript idea, how do you know who’s right if you don’t try? And if you’re wrong, and the landing is hard and painful, at least it’s not deadly. Nothing can stop you from trying again. Just brace yourself for the I told you sos.
Someone told me once I have a sanguine personality, and I had to look it up to see what it meant. Later, I contributed to a 2012 article Katie Weiland posted about writer personalities, in which I described what it’s like being a “sanguine writer.” But I’ve never felt the effects of sanguinity as strongly as I am now.
It’s not entirely a bad thing–being sanguine, that is. According to the personality description, I can be the “life of the party.” Which means I’m fun. I like that part of the description, as well as the rest of the good parts of this personality: lighthearted, spontaneous, peace maker. Yep–that’s me.
But it also means I’m impulsive, scatterbrained, and don’t finish what I start. Pretty much true, although I’ve improved with age. Still, it’s a wonder I have any completed books to my name at all.
In a recent interview, I was asked what’s in the works for me, and I couldn’t answer. Not definitively, anyway. I explained this and lightheartedly blamed it on my sanguine personality. But I tell ya this: It’s frustrating. I really don’t know how folks sit down to one project and work it to the end without diverting to something else now and then, but I wish I could do it.
Wednesday, I announced I was having a bit of trouble with Corporate Ladder, which I haven’t resolved yet–I need to give it more time–but ever since revamping Give the Lady a Ride, I’ve played with the idea of self-pubbing the sequel, or even turning it into a series. Which means I’ll have yet another open manuscript. That makes CL, the Biblical historical (which I really want to do because I have ideas for others), the cozy mystery series featuring Glenna Galloway (unless I use that name as a pseudonym, despite popular wisdom), and the Family First series (also contemporary western romance), along with the Ride series, if it turns into one.
I guess I’ll know which one is next for me when I finally finish one.
What is it like to be single-minded and focused? I have a taste of those qualities only when I have a deadline, but I’ve discovered setting my own deadlines doesn’t work for me. It’s too easy to extend them–I know the boss. This is one of the primary reasons I like to have a reader as I go along, someone who I envision as anxiously awaiting the next installment.
What is it like to know for certain “this”–whatever “this” is–is the one genre you want to write for the rest of your career? That was something else I discussed in the interview: I don’t know where my niche is. Romantic comedies are fun, serious drama is challenging, but I don’t know which I want to do–then I throw in cozies and Biblical historicals, and I’m really lost. I won’t know which I like best until I’ve tried my hand at each of them.
New Year’s resolutions and weekly goal determinations just don’t seem to work for me. I do what I do. The best thing I can say is that I’ll finish writing at least one book this year. I have no clue which one. For now, I’m looking for a title for the second in the Ride series–unless I go back to Corporate Ladder.
So, what about you? Which personality type are you–choleric, melancholic, sanguine, or phlegmatic? How does it affect your work?
Tell ya what: Answer me in writing. Send me your response, your analysis of your own work based on your personality, and I’ll post it here–every Friday until the posts run out. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Looking forward to this . . .