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Looking forwards, not backwards

At this time of year it’s tempting to look back at the past twelve months and lament all the things we haven’t managed to complete – that 10 Kilometre fun run, that veggie patch, those circus trapeze lessons. Or to set yourself unrealistic goals for the new year.

We feel we should have completed our novel, professional development course or that Twitter marketing program and that this year we will knuckle down and do it all, for sure!

Neither of these thought patterns is useful.

Instead, I’d suggest you consider all the things you did complete in your writing life.

You may have joined a critique group or attended a conference. Or perhaps you went for long walks and thought about your characters’ motivations. Maybe you spent time with a sick parent or child and could only do the cryptic crossword to keep your brain thinking about words.

No matter what small or seemingly insignificant effort you’ve been able to manage, be grateful that you’ve had that time and that you’ve persisted with your writing.

A good friend of mine, who is also a great writer, once told me that when life gets in the way of your writing, the tiny scraps you do get done are worth celebrating.

These tiny efforts mean you haven’t given up, you’ve had a go, that you scraped together fifteen minutes of writing that you wouldn’t have managed otherwise.
Even if no physical document comes out of the process, you’ve started training yourself to grab every minute you have available, so that when you do have more time, you won’t waste it.

It’s great advice, no matter if you are looking after small children or elderly parents, or in a job that doesn’t allow thinking time, or you’re working every possible hour to pay the rent. If you really want to do this writing thing, hang in there. All those fifteen minutes may not amount to much, but you won’t have forgotten how to write when you suddenly find yourself with a whole day to devote to your text.

So my advice is to be realistic, be kind to yourself, and keep plugging away at it.
Good luck!

Grammar 101: The Greengrocer’s Apostrophe

Now, don’t get me wrong; this is not a dig at greengrocers.

Those hard-working people know lots more about fruit and veg than I do, so I don’t actually mind if they occasionally put an apostrophe in the wrong spot.

Writing is not their area of expertise, just as knowing when white sweet potato is in season isn’t my core business.

However, in my work as a writing teacher and manuscript assessor, I often find that people don’t understand when apostrophes should be used.

So, let’s start at the beginning. Apostrophes are a way to indicate possession, that is, what belongs to whom.  For example:

  • ‘He was sitting in Peter’s chair’

is a way of saying:

  • ‘He was sitting in the chair that belongs to Peter.’

Not only does the apostrophe in “Peter’s” indicate possession, it makes the sentence simpler.

Apostrophes also indicate contractions and omissions, that is, where words and letters have been left out to make a shortened form. For example:

  • It’s my turn to choose the movie

This is a contraction of :

  • It is my turn to choose the movie.

Similarly, if you were to say:

  • Let’s eat pasta for dinner

This would be a contraction of:

  • Let us eat pasta for dinner.

Another example is:

  • ‘Tis a lovely day!

which is a slightly old-fashioned, if poetic, way of saying:

  • It is a lovely day!

There are many other examples of contractions and omissions, but the most common include: don’t (do not), can’t (cannot), won’t (will not), shouldn’t (should not), wouldn’t (would not), would’ve (would have), haven’t (have not), and should’ve (should have).

One thing to remember in all of this is that an apostrophe is almost never used to indicate a plural. Which brings us back to the greengrocer’s apostrophe again.

It’s never correct to write:

  • Banana’s $4.99 / k

What should really be written is:

  • Bananas $4.99 / k

The only time it is acceptable to use an apostrophe to indicate a plural is in unusual plurals that are also in lower case. For example:

  • Mind your p’s and q’s
  • Remember to dot your i’s and cross your t’s.

Getting this right is not a matter of being pedantic, it’s about clarity. When I see “Banana’s $4.99 / k”, I immediately wonder what belongs to the bananas.

At the fruit shop, this isn’t going to be an issue, but in business, it could have lasting impacts. Anything that takes your readers away from the message you are trying to convey is a bad thing. And simple errors like these can make you look unprofessional.

Want to know more? Ask a question or leave a comment.

 

Grammar 101: I or me?

Whenever I hear someone say ‘Give it to Helen and I’ or ‘Just between you and I’, I want to scream.

Sorry, I’m not usually that pedantic about grammar, but this one really gets me going.

This error seems to have arisen from childhood memories of our mothers correcting us as children. You know the scenario – you’ve said: “Mum, me and Peter are going to the park’ And your mother has said, almost as a reflex: ‘Peter and I are going to the park, dear.’

So, we’ve all remembered the construction ‘Peter and I’.

Unfortunately, while Mum was right in this case, the Australian public seems to have taken this example as a universal rule, at the same time as forgetting about poor old ‘me’.

Let me say loud and clear: it is perfectly acceptable to use ‘me’ in around 50% of cases.

So, how do you know when it’s ‘I’ or ‘me’?

The answer is simple: take the other person out of the sentence and try ‘I’ or ‘me’ and you will know which form to use.

For example, do you say: ‘

  • Please give it to Helen and I

or

  • Please give it to Helen and me?

First, take the other person out of the sentence. You now have two options:

  • Please give it to [Helen and] I
  • Please give it to [Helen and] me.

Which one sounds right?

Of course, it’s the second one. You would NEVER say ‘Please give it to I’. So the correct form is:

  • Please give it to Helen and me.

In the example of ‘Just between you and I/me’, it’s a little more tricky, but if you change the other person to a thing, say a door, it makes more sense:

  • I couldn’t escape because the murderer was between the door and I.

or

  • I couldn’t escape because the murderer was between the door and me.

Again, the second version is right.

So, whenever you are stuck and can’t work out whether it’s ‘I’ or ‘me’, do the two tests above, and you are sure to find the right answer.

And for those of you who would like a more detailed explanation, in a nutshell, it is the ‘case’ of the pronoun (I /me) that determines which one you use. ‘I’ is subjective case (the ‘I’ is doing the action) and ‘me’ is the objective case (the action is being done to, or in relation to, ‘me’). There are scores of articles and books you can read, but this one from Grammarly is a good place to start: https://www.grammarly.com/blog/grammar-basics-what-is-grammar-case/

 

 

 

 

 

Writing groups

Submitting your work to others for their opinion can be daunting, even if they are offering their own work for the same treatment. You might feel anxious, defensive or embarrassed about your writing, or perhaps just unsure what to expect.

As someone who has been a part of a fabulous critique group for over fifteen years (hello fellow Torcans, you great people, you!), allow me to give you a few tips on making the group work for you.

Respect

Firstly, there must be respect.

Respect for each other and respect for everyone’s work. No-one, if they are serious about improving their own writing, benefits from an ego-fest, be it their own ego or those of the other writers.

Leave your pomposity at the door. Remember we all started somewhere and we all have a way to go before that international prize for literature is ours.

Critique the writing, not the person

It sounds obvious when you say it, but in critiquing someone’s work, you are talking about the words on the page, not the person who put them there. You might not like someone’s comb-over or their irritating throat tickle, but if their words sing on the page, that’s what you need to comment on.

Give a little praise

No matter how hard it is to find, it’s useful to give a little praise to someone’s work. Imagine how you would feel if you are playing ten pin bowling and everyone else is getting seven or eight pins at a time and you’re only managing one. If everyone tells you that you missed nine, you’d probably feel terrible. However, if they told you that the one you got was pretty clever because it was on a rebound, and that with a bit of attention to your wrist action you might get four or five next time, you might feel a bit less hopeless. There’s always something good to say about someone’s work, even if it’s only ‘I can see that you’re trying to do here’.

Be specific

Being as specific as possible about what is working in a piece (and what isn’t) is more valuable than vague generalities. It’s so much more helpful for a writer to hear ‘I think the dialogue was a little stilted in this chapter. It didn’t seem to me to sound like Olivia’s voice, compared with how she spoke in the last chapter’ than ‘The dialogue didn’t work.’ Giving the writer something concrete to look at, and if possible something to compare it to, is the best sort of critiquing.

Critiquing isn’t reviewing

Sometimes we forget that critiquing isn’t reviewing. We are not telling a potential reader what we thought of the work. Rather, we are telling the author what worked for us and how they might think about fixing the things that didn’t. So, while it’s great to have a hundred errors noted in your manuscript, having some suggestions for how to improve your work is better. In the example above about dialogue, you might indicate why the dialogue sounded different. Was it the length of sentences or the choice of words? Was the language too adult for the age of the character, or did the humour come as a surprise? When offering the writer suggestions about how they might improve their work, remember that what you are offering is just suggestions. Don’t be offended if they decide not to take your advice. They are the author; you’re just offering an opinion.

Have rules

Our group has been going for around fifteen years and, because we are all professional writers, we started with a strict set of rules. Yours may be different, but here’s what we use:

  • Work to be critiqued has to be sent to the other participants a week before we meet.
  • Our word limit on what can be submitted is 5,000 words.
  • As we are a very small group, we all submit a piece each time we meet, but when we were a larger group, we had a schedule of when each of us could submit work. If you couldn’t make a particular submission, you arranged a swap with someone else or forfeited your spot, and you were still expected to critique the other works.
  • Everyone also marks up the manuscript and puts their comments in writing so that the author can read them later to refresh their memory.
  • We allow no more than five minutes for each person to speak about each piece, and no-one interrupts, other than to say ‘ditto’ or ‘I disagree’.
  • The author gets to answer questions and make comments on the commentary when everyone has had their say. This usually results in lots of discussion and some levity.
  • Snacks are welcome (make that essential) at each meeting and if someone needs to change a date, they must bring chocolate – lots of chocolate.

Being a part of a writing group has changed my life. I’ve made some great friends and improved my writing no end, and not just from comments my colleagues have made on my work. In looking at how other writers do things, I’ve learnt so much about good technique. I am now aware of certain bad writing habits I might have and am confident that the good stuff isn’t too bad either.

Being part of a writers group may not have made the difference between my work being published or not, but it certainly has made a difference about whether I gave up or kept going.  Long live writers groups!