Friday, August 07, 2009

Grammar: Clauses and phrases and commas, oh my!

As promised, today is another grammar day featuring -- commas.

Introductory causes

If using an introductory cause, you need to use a comma. Common starter words include after, although, as, because, if, since, when and while.

Because it is my turn, I'll take it now.
As if in grief, the paid mourners howled.
When I was a little girl, I was expected to be seen and not heard.

However, and you just knew there would be, if you turn these sentences around, no comma is needed because they are dependent (subordinate) clauses.

I'll take it now because it is my turn.
The paid mourners howled as if in grief.
I was expected to be seen and not heard when I was a little girl.

Turning this sentence around still requires a comma, even though it is a dependent clause, because it is an extreme contrast.

Although I have published articles, this is my first novel.

This is my first novel, although I have published articles.

It gets confusing when you add words like subordinate, participial and infinitive phrases, absolute phrases, nonessential appositive phrases and long prepositional phrases. Sometimes it confuses me.

Having set the table, she began to eat.
To get a hug, you must be willing to give a hug.
After dinner but before supper, I'll clean the andirons.
The water pouring off his body, Colin Firth's shirt clung to his chest like a second skin.

Introductory words, like well, yes, however, and so, should be followed by a comma.

Well, my mother does call me quite a bit.
Yes, she is nosy.
However, she is excited about having a published author in the family,
So, I talk to her.

And that is it for today. Well, continue this coma-inducing comma session next week. In the meantime, enjoy the weekend and may all your grammar problems be small ones. When in doubt, check it out.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Grammar: Commas, commas everywhere

A comma can change the whole meaning of a sentence, sometimes with disastrous or life-saving consequences. For instance:

Czarina Maria Fyodorovna once saved the life of a man by transposing a single comma in a warrant signed by her husband, Alexander III, which exiled a criminal to imprisonment and death in Siberia. On the bottom of the warrant the czar had written: `Pardon impossible, to be sent to Siberia.' The czarina changed the punctuation so that her husband's instructions read: `Pardon, impossible to be sent to Siberia.' The man was set free.

One book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, the no nonsense approach to punctuation, is a prime example. Move the comma and change the meaning of the sentence.

Eats, shoots and leaves. You just know someone is getting shot after dinner.

Eats shoots and leaves. Without the comma, it is apparent whatever is described, in this case a panda bear, has specific dietary needs.

Simply put, commas can create havoc or make things clearer and easier to read. That's what Shakespeare intended when, as the story goes, the comma came into use during his time to help actors deliver their lines without muddling the meaning. A pause -- and that is what a comma indicates -- can be dramatic, pregnant or clear as crystal, conferring emotional weight.

We will take this slowly and give you a few things to remember, but by the time we are done, you will have a firmer grasp of commas. Let's start with the easy bits first.

Essential and non-essential

1) My sister, in the red dress, is very much the clothes hound. (The red dress is not essential to the meaning.)

2) My sister in the red dress is very much the clothes hound. (I am pointing out one of two sisters, so the red dress is essential to the meaning.)

Closely tied and not closely tied

1) My brother Jimmy has two daughters and a son (closely tied)

2) Shadow, the black cat I adopted, liked to sleep on the desk when I worked at the computer. (not closely tied)

In the first sentence the name is needed to identify the word, brother. In the second sentence, Shadow is not needed to identify the black cat I adopted.

Series and connected words

This is a simple one. For writers, it often depends on the publication as to which rule is used.

1) The patient complained of vomiting, nausea, chills, fever, rigors, aches, and pain. This is a common one for me and I abide by the rules for the company, the hospital and the style guide for medical transcription, and thus a comma is used before the last word int he series.

2) Your chores today include washing the dishes, laundry, vacuuming, dusting and washing the windows. Leaving out the comma before the and and the last word in the series is the most common usages. This does change with some publications, so check their guidelines and check the listed style guide.

The use or lack of a comma in a series depends entirely on style guides, of which there are several, and space constraints. Some publications don't want a comma before the last item in a series and some do. The difference came about when publications conserving space deleted the last comma. In writing, more often than not, the last comma is left out and its use considered subjective. It's best to check first, especially when writing for professional magazines, papers or newspapers just to be sure. In this case, the lack or use of a comma doesn't change anything, but the look. The meaning is intact either way.

So ends our first foray into the world of the comma.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Tarot: Truth, Strength and Success

One thing I've found is that the more I use the tarot cards to create stories and backgrounds for characters, the more I discover about myself. Like most writers, a piece of me and bits and shards of my life are interred in each story. Using the tarot cards helps me to see which bits work and which shine a light on the right path.

I've sometimes considered writing a story about a writer -- nothing new there -- who feels they are disappearing with everything they publish, nibbling away at their essence to create art and worlds that will spin on after the writer is gone. Immortality through writing, although that is more difficult these days with more and more people deciding they want to write and publishing their tales. With the current technologies that is becoming easier all the time. Those who would have kept their stories to themselves or hidden them between the pages of notebooks, diaries and journals stuffed into shoe and hat boxes, buried in drawers and boxes or saved onto disks for computers long gone when the writer upgraded. It has probably always been that way, but more people believe their work should be published and take advantage of the technology and send their fancies, fantasies and dreams speeding along the information highway and sometimes into print for a price. It is their truth and they want to show it to the world.

One man's truth is not another's. Truth can be subjective, depending on your point of view.

The Hermit

The hermit carries a lamp. Caped and cowled he prowls the streets and alleys looking for an honest man, looking for truth.

Diogenes he was called, a cynic who looked for something beyond the reach of his lamp, steadying his journey with a staff, the only flash of color the cord around his waist. The Hermit's lamp is the light of acquired knowledge, his staff the power of his will and the red cord about his waist the passion that drives his search. The truth the hermit seeks is the truth that speaks to him, the truth that resolves the clamor in his heart and makes him whole. He must be careful not to become entrenched in his search or too sure of his knowledge for there lies dogma and stagnation. Ever vigilant, the Hermit seeks for the truth of his soul, trusting himself and what he knows to get him farther down the pathway.

"The Cynics rejected all conventions, whether of religion, manners, housing, dress, or decency, advocating the pursuit of virtue in a simple and [non-materialistic] lifestyle." You could say those who press for the world to go green are cynics in a sense, casting aside the materialistic trappings of the modern world in favor of a gentler and simpler approach to life and sustenance, returning to the earth for nourishment and the bounties of the rivers, lakes, seas, winds and geothermal properties of this planet for a sustainable answer to comfort against the cold of winter and the stifling heat of summer. Like any truth, there is always another angle, another side to the multi-faceted jewel of truth. Be careful not to become trapped inside it.


This strong lady has the powerful lion on a chain held loosely in her hand, almost carelessly, as though she neither leads the lion nor follows him. She is not careless of her hold on her animal passions and has learned to use the strength they give her power and courage when they are needed. Her strength is not immediately evident, except in her direct and clear gaze, and is demonstrated subtly and quietly, like the feeling of a lover's or friend's hand when your own are trembling. That soft, calm touch is sometimes all that is needed to rally the spirit and stiffen the spine when facing a trial. It is the powerful muscles and sinews of a lioness hunting, at first alert and almost languid when roused to action, always aware of her surroundings, the direction of the wind and the resources of her prey. She holds her instincts in check, reining in her passion for the hunt, until it's time to spring into action and bring down the quarry, a symphony of grace, instinct and strength unrivaled.

6 of Pentacles

The Six of Pentacles is a picture of success and open-handed largess. This man is successful and willing to share his wealth with those around him. He is a benevolent man who believes in fair trade. He's not out to cheat anyone; that is not how he became wealthy and successful. He recognizes the responsibility of his wealth and his success to give back a little of what he has honestly earned.

He shares his success without strings or conditions and is most likely a little uncomfortable receiving compliments or gifts in exchange for his favor. It's a small failing considering all the good he can do and has done. A momentary prickle of embarrassment he covers by offering a helping hand or a cup of water or wine to those who need it. He is no fool, nor will he be made a fool by those who seek to cheat him or take advantage. He is a moderate man who can be aroused to anger or disappointment to be so used.

In these cards is the story of a seeker, a woman who has followed the path of knowledge but is not without her charms. She is not ruthless, but she is determined and strong, although you would not know it to look at her. She is canny and can spot the smallest flaw or make a connection where none seemed to exist before.

This time she is after a rare map that is considered a forgery, but her researches indicate that in the proper light the map will lead her to the find of a lifetime. She's had a successful career, so it's not about the riches or the fame. It's about adding to her knowledge and deciphering the clues that have eluded her and countless other seekers.

The journey is dangerous and arduous, but she is well aware of her strengths and weaknesses and has taken time to cover all her bases with an experienced support crew that she pays very well -- for their secrecy and their expertise. When she finds the prize at the end of the journey, it will add to her knowledge and the knowledge of the rest of the world, something she will share without hesitation, for the prize belongs to the world. History will yield up its secrets to her because she has marked the path well and is certain of her success. She has prepared well and left nothing to chance.

Anxious to begin her journey, she waits for the right time of the year and the right conditions. What she seeks has been hidden for centuries, a few more days or weeks won't matter in the end for she is the handmaiden of fate and she will succeed.

What story can you weave from these images and insights? What will they say about you -- and to you?

Hoary acquaintances

It's kind of amazing -- and energizing -- to see your own novel in print.

I've been dragging my feet about working on the latest project and haven't felt much like writing anything. There's also the problem of finding time among all the marketing and promotional work I have been doing. Even writing here has been difficult to squeeze in because of all the work involved. In case you didn't notice, I didn't have time to write a grammar post last week, so I'll make it up this week by making two grammar posts -- one on Thursday and another on Friday. It will be the beginning of a multi-part series on the comma. It was a request and so far there's a lot more to that sprawling period than is visible on first glance -- a lot more. Since there's so much to the subject, I decided to break it down into manageable bites so no one, including me, chokes.

One perk of working on promotions and marketing is rediscovering old friends and letting them know what I've been doing for the past however many years. Another perk is other people I haven't heard from in ages contacting me because they heard, read or found out about the book. One such long lost connection contacted me on Saturday. We spent two hours on the phone, after exchanging numbers, catching up, and she asked me a big favor, a big paid favor.

She googled me and found a lot of my writing out there (there's a lot to find) before contacting me and, during the conversation asked me if I'd be willing to turn her screenplay into a novel. There was a momentary urge to say yes, but it was quickly smothered by the weight of work I already have pending. I said I didn't have the time now. She said she'd wait.

She and I worked on a screenplay many years ago, about two decades plus. It never went anywhere. I'm not completely comfortable with screenplay formatting, but it's something I can do when necessary. I'm more familiar with the formatting for plays, of which I've edited, revised and written a few. That, too, was many years ago, a part of my varied and diverse past. Still, it was flattering for her to ask, especially after she quoted some of my writing back to me and mentioned some of my work that she'd read. She's a tough nut, she is, and comes from a long and interesting background in the movies. She's been in a couple and worked as a directorial assistant to Francis Ford Coppola on a couple of films, the first being One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in which she also played a minor role.

Novelizing her screenplay is something to consider, but not while the muse is bubbling and sending new thoughts and dialogue into my head at all hours.

That's the thing about having a novel published and just out, at least for me, it's a great boost to pending projects. All kinds of plot points, characterization and dialogue keep flashing through my mind and the knot on the third finger of my right hand (I am right-handed) is getting a workout and becoming almost permanently indented from jotting down notes in the midst of so much other work. I can hardly sleep for wanting to get up and write, but I force myself to plunge back into the misty depths as soon as I've jotted down what the muse forces on me in my sleep. It's almost legible.

Mom called me yesterday with a contest to win your dream and I dutifully took down the information, but I already have the first part of my dream. The rest will come in time as long as I keep my nose to the grindstone and get the word out to as many people as I can about Past Imperfect.

You knew I couldn't go a whole post without mentioning the title.

I don't have a publicist, although I wish I did, but I do have some time not currently optioned by work, chores, writing, eating and sleeping and all of that goes into marketing and promotions. I don't want to be a one book wonder. There are so many wonders in my literary Aladdin's cave of dreams. On the other hand, winning that contest would mean I'd have enough money to hire a publicist and boost sales. That's part of my dream, too. Well, that and the cabin in the mountains and being financially secure enough to quit my day job and just write. Maybe then the muse will let me sleep and reserve her inspiration for my waking hours.

Monday, August 03, 2009

A shot across the bow

I've been swamped with work and getting marketing together for Past Imperfect, but it seems to be paying off. My publisher, L&L Dreamspell just sent me the link to my first review. Past Imperfect got 4.5 out of 5 stars. I'm pleased.

I'm ecstatic.

I'm high on ecstatic pleasure.

When I called Beanie to tell her she told me about her visit to the dentist. Eww, right? Wrong. She took my book with her and was reading it in the waiting room, carrying it with her when she sat in the dentist's chair. He asked her about the book and she told him her sister -- that would be me -- wrote it and that it is a romance. He said he and his wife would love to read it and asked how to get it. She gave him directions and he said he and his wife would have to have their own copies. Two more sales. Not much in the scheme of things, but one person became two and those two, if they like the book will mean more people. Who knows? My book may go viral.

It could happen.

Anyway, I'm off to spread the news. Happy Monday to everyone and don't give up on your dreams. It may take a while, but if you don't let go, they turn into books with good reviews. My first review is good so I can handle the bad ones now -- and they will come.

That is all. Disperse.