Musing About Writing
In these blog posts I will discuss anything about writing that I
find interesting or informative.
find interesting or informative.
In this fairy tale for children of all ages, the impossible becomes possible. Portentia and her family live as poor farmers. Portentia is usually a happy little girl, but lately she has been sad. The children at school don’t want to play with her because she is poor. When her mother questions her, Portentia explains that the other children say it’s how many of everything you have that determines if you are poor. Portentia doesn’t have as many dresses as the other girls, and her scrambled egg sandwiches are not as fancy as their ham and cakes. The other children reject her.
Portentia is surprised when her mother comes to her school to tell the children a story of a brave princess who saves a kingdom with the help of a herd of wild horses. Long ago, a prophet had foretold that one day, wild horses would restore the kingdom to the king who wears the sacred crown. What a strange prophecy! And how could it ever come to pass? And yet, like all true prophecies, it did.
As Portentia’s mother ends her story, the children look at Portentia in wonder. Is she merely a poor farmer’s daughter? Might she and her family be more than they seem? Why does Portentia’s mother seem secretive about answering the children’s questions?
This adventure set in the long ago and far away is modern in lessons of kindness and acceptance and the certainty that when God says a thing, it will come to pass.
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Somewhere along the path of my writing career, I paid $1.25 for a slim paperback volume called The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White. This was one of the best investments I could have made. William Strunk was a professor at Cornell; E. B. White was his pupil. In his Introduction to the 1972 edition, White writes:
"Professor Strunk was a positive man. His book contains rules of grammar phrased as direct orders. . . . [It] proposed to give in brief space the principal requirements of plain English style. It concentrates on fundamentals: the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated" (viii).
This volume is exactly what struggling writers need, and we all struggle! In chapter one, Strunk breaks down the elementary rules of English usage. Rule 1: “Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s” is followed by a page of examples. Rule 5: “Do not join independent clauses by a comma” with examples. And on it goes.
Chapter two does for the entire composition what Chapter one does for the sentence—breaks down the text into manageable parts. Rule 10: “Use the active voice;” Rule 12: “Use definite, specific, concrete language;” Rule 13: “Omit needless words” with plenty of examples to illustrate ways to follow his advice. Strunk writes:
"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell" (ix-x).
E.B. White needs no introduction. Every college freshman of a certain era—actually several eras—met him in freshman composition through his exquisite essay, “Once More to the Lake.” Children and parents know him through the award-winning books, Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan.
Besides editing Strunk’s work for this book, White adds his own common sense chapter on developing your own style. Common sense because these are suggestions that we all know but sometimes forget. Some examples: (1) “Place yourself in the background;” (2) “Write in a way that comes naturally;” (11) “Do not explain too much;” (13) “Make sure the reader knows who is speaking;” (16) “Be Clear;” (19) “Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity.”
Style cannot be taught. White reflects that style is an elusive element hard to define and mysterious. We recognize a writer’s style by the way he or she uses the language that “reveals something of his spirit, his habits, his capacities, his bias. . . . All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation—it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito” (59-60). (Note that White is writing in the era of the use of the masculine pronoun as the generic.) Your style reflects your voice, your Self, speaking your truth.
If you want to polish your writing, I recommend this book. I own no stock in it, but I do feel I own stock in my students’ writing. Learn the basics and develop your own style, your voice. My aim is to send you into the world making a difference wherever you are planted, writing well the story only you can write.
My latest book will be out soon. It is titled Princess Edwina and the Wild Horses: How A Brave Princess Saved A Kingdom
I have reversed the roles in the traditional fairy tale and made the princess the star of the story. She is strong, she is brave, she is smart, and she is beautiful. Here is a short excerpt from the story:
. . . a good prophet told him, “You will return when wild horses restore the kingdom to the king who wears the sacred crown.” What a strange prophecy! And how could it ever come to pass?
The good king now pretended to be a poor farmer, and he and his wife and son lived a very humble life. But they had food to eat and clothes to wear and they loved each other, so they were happy.
One morning after they had milked their two cows and led them out to the pasture, they heard a loud noise. It sounded like the hooves of many horses running at full speed. They looked and saw dust rising in the distance. The noise and the dust quickly grew louder and denser and closer.
"The cows!" the good king shouted, "We must get the cows!"
But before he could move to protect the cows, a herd of wild horses thundered through the pasture and past their house while they stared in wonder.
Incredibly, the cows were safe. The stampeding herd of wild horses had flowed around them and not one was hurt.
"This is most peculiar," said the good king to himself. Then he thought of the prophecy. "If only those wild horses could seize my kingdom from my wicked cousin," he thought.
As the horses disappeared from view, a lone rider on a magnificent black stallion approached at full speed. She appeared to be chasing the wild herd.
Seeing the good king, whom she mistook for a poor farmer, she reined her magnificent black stallion to a halt. The stallion continued to prance around and paw the ground and snort with impatience.
"Ho, good man, can you tell me which direction the wild horses went?"
"Why, yes, they went that way," the good king pointed to the now tiny speck of dust in the distance.
At that, the beautiful princess—for that is who she was—left quickly, again chasing the wild herd.
That night the handsome prince could hardly sleep for thinking about the beautiful rider on the magnificent black stallion.
Due to a concatenation of circumstances (as my late husband would say), I am once again Chair of the Division of Humanities at Rust College, a small liberal arts HBCU here in Holly Springs, Mississippi. I began as a professor of English last year, and when the Chair resigned, I was asked to assume the position, and I'm loving it.
What makes this position so stimulating, of course, is the student body--and the courses I get to teach. The Humanities Division comes in contact with each student at the college several times because we teach so many general education courses. All students must complete several courses in English composition, a foreign language, comparative religion (we're affiliated with the United Methodist Church), a humanities seminar, a literature course, and a speech or theater course. For this reason, we get to know the students pretty well. And any one of those students might come by my office most any time because I am the troubleshooter if they need one. So it is stimulating, and sometimes challenging. But as I stated, I do love it.
I'm really excited this fall about teaching a poetry writing workshop. To see students who are pretty sure at the beginning of the course that they cannot write "real" poetry turn out some pretty good poems is a joyful thing. The other day I had them read aloud the poems they had written over the weekend. What began as hesitation ended in enthusiasm as they realized what they had done. They've come a long way in a few short weeks. Some will go on writing. All will have a greater appreciation for the language as expressed in poetry.
My experiences with these students got me to thinking about my audience. I wonder if people would be interested in a free poetry writing workshop. I would love to share my teaching materials and methods with an online audience. I'm not trying to sell anybody anything. I just thought it might be fun to see if people are interested and if so, what results we might have. If you are interested, let me know.
I have been away from this website for some time now. In March, my husband suffered the first in a series of strokes that eventually took his life in July. I have, of course, been preoccupied with surviving intact myself. I have learned that the secret of survival is simply to keep putting one foot in front of the other and going forward. There are those times of regression, but even they can be progression as they help to empty the soul of sorrow while allowing God to fill it with His love and mercy. I think there are no shortcuts to this grieving and healing process, but I am now at a place of peace, a time to move on.
This year I have been asked to come back into the classroom to teach English again, a position that has literally been a Godsend, for I have had much to occupy my mind and old friends and new ones to collaborate with since Jim left. I am truly grateful and blessed.
I am in the process of finishing another book, I hope in time for Christmas sales, but I'm not sure it can be published by that time. A wonderful young illustrator named Kelly Walters is working with me to bring this children's fairy tale to life. Wild Horses is a story of enchantment and magic with a prince who works with horses to fulfill a prophecy. I'll keep you posted on the book's progress.
Who will tell the story? The author’s answer to this question determines the story’s point of view. Once a decision is made, that point of view must be maintained if readers are to follow the action easily. The omniscient third-person narrator can delve into any character’s mind to reveal information the first-person narrator cannot know. The third-person point of view works well for J. K. Rowling in her Harry Potter series because it enables her to show the reader things about the mystical world of Hogwarts that Harry Potter could not know.
Many authors employ the limited-omniscient first-person narrator. This narrator can reveal only information that one character, usually the protagonist, can know. For example, the narrator in my novel Thief! is Claire, the protagonist. The entire story is told from her point of view. The narrator telling the story can tell the reader only those things Claire sees, hears, or thinks. Claire cannot see into the minds of other characters or know their actions unless someone tells her or she sees them.
Malcolm was walking up and down the aisles when Claire and Ralphie entered the drugstore. He waved when he saw them. “You’ve heard?”
“Yeah, we heard,” Ralphie answered him.
Malcolm looked worried. “There was $300 in that safe. How can I explain that to Dad? You know the sheriff thinks you two are guilty, don’t you?”
This point of view serves both writer and reader well. The action lets readers know that a robbery has taken place and that Malcolm is worried about more than just the money. However, if Claire had not come into the drugstore with Ralphie, then he would have had to tell her about the incident if readers were to know of it. That’s how readers learned of the murder:
“She’s got a gun. And they say she killed William Golightly and buried him in her yard. He just disappeared and they say she killed him.”
This point of view doesn’t work for every story though. Lois D. Brown uses two first-person points of view to tell her story Cycles, the protagonist Renee and her friend Sam. This strategy could be confusing, but Brown separates the action into chapters that switch from Renee to Sam.
After the accident, Renee:
Renee didn’t recognize anyone. Somehow she needed to tell them she was alive, but she couldn’t move, let alone talk.
We don’t have time for this. We’re losing her.” The urgency in the woman’s words was clear.
A few pages later, Sam:
The voices became audible, and he recognized one of them—Dawson! Sam stopped a few feet short of the office door. Through the crack, he saw a pinch-faced woman sitting across a polished mahogany desk from Renee’s neighbor. Dawson’s hands twisted around each other like two hyperactive rattlesnakes doing the Salsa.
This is information that Renee will need to know, but she is not in the room when these two characters are talking. Sam eavesdrops and tells Renee later about the conversation he overhears. By giving Renee and Sam their own chapters, Brown keeps readers from becoming confused.
Brown even manages to weave into the book some essential backstory information that occurred many years previously. She is successful here because she inserts individual chapters as journal entries written in italics to show the reader that this material predates the story being told. These portions are told in the first-person point of view of someone who lived the actions described in an earlier time:
Helen’s Journal, July 25, 1960
In the middle of nowhere, California
My contractions hurt. The humidity doesn’t help. Lost and alone. This is not how I wanted to give birth, but it’s beginning to look like I have no choice. I know if my mother were here she would tell me to be calm. People said she was the best midwife in all of California. But she’s not here. She’s dead.
These illustrations demonstrate several ways to treat point of view, but there are others. Just be certain that you always help the reader follow the action of your story. Think carefully about your point of view, always keeping in mind who is telling the story.
When I came to teach in a college in Mississippi, I was amused, and somewhat dismayed, to learn that someone was to be “funeralized”, as in “John Doe will be funeralized at 10:00 on Saturday at St. John’s Church.” Then the other day, I learned that to ensure employees produce their best work, employers must find ways to “incentivize” them.
As a writer and English professor, of course, I was concerned about what the language is coming to. Then I began to think about the language. This is the way a living language evolves. Not at the academic level, but with ordinary people who speak the language. Look at the first sentence of this paragraph, for example. I have ended it with a preposition, something grammarians may still cringe over. Though after Winston Churchill’s famous rewording of one of his sentences after he was criticized for ending it with a preposition, I believe grammarians may have backed off some: “This is something with which we will not put.” In the end, the people using the language have the last word.
I have taught Milton and Shakespeare for many years. Those two created a word when one that was exactly what they needed was not available in the language. Milton is responsible for some 600 words in English. Some are “pandemonium, lovelorn, earthshaking, unaccountable, dismissive, irresponsible”. I am reminded here of “irregardless,” which is not recognized as a bona fide word, yet its use is so widespread it may someday be considered standard English.
Estimates of Shakespeare’s contribution to new words in the language range from 1,700 to 10,000. A few are “obscene, swagger, torture, skim milk, submerge”, and the list goes on.
So, to get back to “incentivize” and “funeralize”. They may very well catch on and, over a long period, be included in our dictionaries as standard English.
So how did people speak before the seventeenth century? English began as an obscure Germanic dialect that eventually became what it is today. The study of the history of the English language is fascinating to those who enjoy the study of words. If you are one of those people, you may enjoy reading Beowulf: A Trilingual Etymological Bridge by Charles Long, PhD.
Use the language as you need to use it. If a character speaks nonstandard English, then use it. The point is that to break the rules successfully, you must know the rules. Keep that dictionary nearby and use it. Good craftsmen understand how to use the tools in their tool chest. And keep writing.