Sarah’s Tool of the Month:
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
This month I’ve been reading another grammar book. This one has been fascinating so far—it’s not your classic grammar book of ‘how to’ and ‘how not to’ though it does involve plenty of tips within it. It has a lot of the history of grammar—why grammar is important and how it came about. You might have noticed the title is ‘Eats, shoots and leaves’ (with a comma after ‘eats’). It shows how one comma can dramatically change the meaning of a sentence. Without the comma you could be talking about pandas, who ‘eats shoots and leaves.’ With a comma, you could be referring to some sort of cowboy in a saloon. He eats, shoots and leaves. (Though, personally I’m a fan of the Oxford comma and probably would have added two commas for greater effect in the case of the cowboy scenario: Eats, shoots, and leaves.)
Anyways, I found the introduction slightly lengthy, but once I got into the actual meat of the book I have been enjoying it so far! She brings up some hilarious points about the misuse of grammar. It’s a fairly short book, with only six chapters:
- The Tractable Apostrophe
- That’ll Do, Comma
- Airs and Graces
- Cutting A Dash
- A Little Used Punctuation Mark
- Merely Conventional Signs
My only clout with it is her apparent fondness for semi-colons which she discusses in chapter three, Airs and Graces. She argues how necessary they are, and I realize as a British writer this may definitely seem so, as British writers do not tend to use em-dashes as heavily as other parts of the world. I feel the em-dash functions in almost entirely the same manner (except when concerning lists, which I rarely have use for) and looks cleaner and more elegant.
But, she did have some interesting things to say about commas. She compared commas to an eager sheep-dog, which is probably an adequate metaphor:
“As we shall shortly see, the comma has so many jobs as a “separator” (punctuation marks are traditionally either “separators” or “terminators”) that it tears about on the hillside of language, endlessly organising words into sensible groups and making them stay put: sorting and dividing; circling and herding; and of course darting off with a peremptory “woof” to round up any wayward subordinate clause that makes a futile bolt for semantic freedom. Commas, if you don’t whistle at them to calm them down, are unstoppably enthusiastic at this job.”
She also explained why they are so troublesome sometimes:
“No wonder feelings run high about the comma. When it comes to improving clarity of a sentence, you can nearly always argue that one should go in; you can nearly always argue that one should come out.”
Overall, I am enjoying the book and it is worth reading. I’ve learned some new things which, as a grammar enthusiast, is quite something! I haven’t quite finished it yet (and perhaps I will change my mind when I get to the chapter on ‘cutting a dash,’ as if she doesn’t mention or dislikes my favourite em-dash I will be most disappointed), but I would recommend it.
Ashley’s Tool of the Month:
Writing for Emotional Impact: Advanced Dramatic Techniques to Attract, Engage and Fascinate the Reader from Beginning to End by Karl Iglesias
Technically this is a screenwriting book, but a lot of the same tips and advice apply to writing fiction as well. This book explains that there are three types of reactions to reading a script (or a book): boredom, interest and “wow”. Obviously, you want the reader to say wow. The author wanted this book to focus on creating an emotional experience in readers because that’s the whole reason people read.
Here are a couple overviews of chapters I found helpful:
Chapter 2 – The Reader: Your Only Audience
A few key takeaways
-Great stories can’t be developed without thinking of the reader. Successful writers have a strong sense that they are communicating with someone. They always think about this reader and their emotional reactions.
-For the screenwriters out there (and novel writers to some extent) think about the ‘gatekeepers’. I.e., the first people who make a decision on your manuscript. Firstly, they know what they are talking about or they wouldn’t be hired by these firms that rely on them to weed out scripts to make them money. They read A LOT and are in touch with current pop culture and trends. They are poorly paid, overworked and frustrated. They have no time for substandard material. They love discovering the next box-office smash hit. They WANT to find that gem in the pile for their boss. Although the business is subjective, they are trained to be objective and provide an informed decision.
-Why scripts are rejected (this applies to novel writers too): barring amateur blunders (typos, missing pages, amateur writing full of cliches etc.), it is if they (the reader) are taken out of the reading experience. This means they may find their attention wandering due to something like “this can’t be right” or “this would never happen”.
Chapter 5 – Character: Captivating empathy
- Connecting with a character emotionally is what writers should focus on. Most screenwrtiers use five key questions to build a character.
1. Who is the main character? Type (hero, average Joe, underdog, lost soul), traits, values (commonly missing in amateur scripts), flaws
2. What do they want? Desires and goals (no goal = no story).
3. Why do they want it? Needs and motivation (must be compelling and worthy of empathy).
4. What happens if he fails? I.e., what are the stakes? Losing sight of the stakes can lose your reader.
5. How do they change? I.e., character arc.
- Your job as a writer is to create events so the reader can experience the character’s actions and dialogue (rather than telling) – a good way to think of the common advice, ‘show don’t tell’.
- Use contrast to reveal character (such as contrasting traits, with other characters or with the environment (think fish–out–of–water technique).
- Three ways for readers to connect with character: recognition (understanding and empathy), fascination (interest) and mystery (curiosity, anticipation and tension).
Honestly, there was just so much really great information. I’m only about six chapters through, but it has shed new light on some concepts, which has been great.