Friday, September 30, 2011


Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

Teachers do not like them. Many a red-ink pen bleeds out because of them. Still, the fragmentalso known as an incomplete sentence—placed wisely, used judiciously, and created artfully can be a writer’s good friend.


Bottom half of the seventh, Brock’s boy had made it through another inning unscratched, one! Two! Three! Twenty-one down and just six outs to go! And Henry’s heart was racing, he was sweating with relief and tension all at once, unable to sit, unable to think, in there, with them! Oh yes, boys, it was on! He was sure of it! More than just another ball game now: history! And Damon Rutherford was making it. Ho ho! Too good to be true! And yes, the stands were charged with it, turned on, it was the old days all over again, . . . (The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover 3).

The statements in bold font are fragments, technical fouls in the writing world. Each is only a small part of a sentence; each appears without the crucial subject and verb; e. g.,

o   [Brock’s team] stands at “twenty-one down [after seven innings] and just six outs to go [in the final two innings]”.
o   [This game is] “more than just another ball game now: [this game is] history!.
o   [The truth about this game so far is that it is] “too good to be true!”.

Readers don’t need those bracketed portions, do they? In fact, including the bracketed words slows down the passage, dulls the excitement building, and sounds less like a man might think or speak, especially if that man is devoted to baseball. The fragments make a valuable contribution, don’t they?

Consider also:

Manuela, my only friend, . . . is a simple woman and twenty years wasted stalking the dust in other people’s homes has in no way robbed her of her elegance. Besides, stalking dust is a very euphemistic way to put it. . . .

‘I empty wastebaskets full of sanitary napkins,” she says, with her gentle, slighting hissing accent. ‘I wipe up dog vomit, clean the bird cageyou’d never believe the amount of poop such tiny animals can makeand I scrub the toilets. You talk about dust? A fine affair!(31).

Only one fragment appears in the passage above from The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbary: the last exclamation from Manuela in describing what “stalking the dust” actually requires of her. And what a fine exclamation it is. Barbery gives Manuela the language of her employers who, no doubt, believe they are fine and that they attend elegant affairs, banquets, and exhibits. Manuela mocks them and their affairs by juxtaposing her soiled hands against their euphemisms and lofty language.

In addition, Barbery has placed the punch in Manuela’s explanation of her work in a powerful position: last place. She has also taken advantage of another great writing tool: brevity. Readers remember well what they read last and messages that are economic. Other blog posts that explain and illustrate short, simple sentences placed well include posts from March 28, 2010; April 4 and 11, 2010; May 2, 2010; February 11, 2011; March 4, 2011; and April 1, 2011.

Reading Challenge:

For those who delight in language and to witness the fragment at work, read either one of the two books chosen to illustrate the effective use of fragments:

Barbery, Muriel, and Alison Anderson. The Elegance of the Hedgehog. New York:

            Europa Editions, 2008. Print.

Coover, Robert. The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.: J. Henry Waugh, Prop. New York:

            Plume, 1971. Print.

Writing Challenge:

Write 150-500 words on a topic you know well. Use two fragments judiciously and artfully. Defend your use and the placement of them.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

I created the two book citations above by using If you have not taken advantage of EasyBib, you have been laboring alone, dripping sweat upon the pages of an MLA or APA Handbook. Use EasyBib. It’s a good thing (Martha Stewart).

Friday, September 23, 2011

Dialogue and Flashback: Two Tricks to Shift from Present to Past

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

No doubt you’ve heard the phrase in medias res, a Latin expression meaning in the middle of things, the starting point for literature. In other words, we readers and viewers agree to believe that the characters and places have lived a full, rich, complex life before the first page or scene presented to us. Gatsby had a childhood. East and West Egg did not spring to life at the moment that Gatstby or the Buchanans took up residence there.

Still, readers need expostion, also known as an explanation of the antecedent action. We need a sense of who these characters are, how they came to be in conflict, and how the place affects their actions. Writers do this by introducing us to them and their circumstances in the opening pages. Shakespeare usually used all of Act 1 and sometimes a bit of Act 2 to introduce us to his protagonists, antagonists, and foils. John D. MacDonald used hundreds of words and several chapters at the beginning of Please Write for Details to introduce five key characters in Cuernavaca, Mexico and thirteen more who register for the Cuernavaca Art School.

Sometimes, authors understand that giving us all the information we need in the opening pages would burden us unnecessarily so authors give us just enough to spark the conflictthe engine of the tale—and use other techniques throughout the novel or play to give us the rest. These techniques include dialogue and flashback.

In Peter Robinson’s novel, In a Dry Season, the police need to learn about a town that ceased to exist when a reservoir project flooded it, but as the title suggests, drought exposes some of the old town and a long-buried body. In the course of telling the story of the old town, Hobb’s End, comes alive through both techniques: dialogue and flashback.

In one section, policewoman Cabbot interviews an elderly woman who once lived in Hobb’s End. Through their dialogue, readers learn about the institutions and services the village offered to its residents and a little more about a few of the citizens.

One of the citizens, Michael Stanhope, created a painting of the village and gave it to the elerly woman being interviewed. She invites Cabbot to see it, then by describing the painting and the painter’s impression of it through Cabbot, author Robinson maps Hobb’s End for the readers and suggests that it was not the pastoral haven one might have presumed it to be. The painter and what he might have known then becomes part of the mystery.

In addition to first-hand testimony in the present and artifacts such as the painting, Robinson uses flashback, switching from present to past, especially as one former resident of Hobb’s End remembers the time before the Thrushcross Resevoir, especially the World War II years. Thus, the novel switches between two time frames, the present and the 1940s, in order to reveal all the explanation about characters and setting that readers need in order to solve several mysteries.

Other authors who make use of dialogue and flashback to shift the narrative from the present into the past are:

o   William Golding in Lord of the Flies. Piggy reveals his childhood to Ralph through dialogue; Ralph reveals his safe, protected childhood in reverie or reflection, a type of flashback.
o   J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. The Pensieve facilitates flashbacks and becomes an element of Dumbledore’s lessons and Harry’s quest. In addition, conversations between Sirius Black and Hagrid or Hermione, Ron and Harry provide insights into antecedent action.
o   Kurt Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse Five, and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man recreate a human mind experiencing trauma. Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, imprisoned in an abandoned slaughterhouse, drifts from a chronological reality into a present imbued with the past. Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus searches in his present for his identity while tethered tightly to his parochial, provincial past. In both these novels, the present and past are woven so tightly together that readers must be vigilant and willing to pursue the story.

Reading Challenge:

 Read Peter Robinson’s In a Dry Season, noting the ways in which Robinson reveals the past. Or read the film Memento as it moves through one flashback after another, each one a bit further in the past than the previous one, to solve the mystery in the present.

Writing Challenge:

Explain your expectations for birthday celebrations, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Christmas by including a flashback about the one celebration or holiday that set the bar for you.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): More Commonly Confused Words: Appraise and Apprise

“On the PBS series, Antiques Roadshow, people lucky enough to win a ticket bring personal possessions to experts who will appraise the possessions and apprise the owner as well as viewers of its value.”

Appraise means to evaluate and apprise means to inform.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Shifting from Present Reality into Fantasy and Dreams

Recently, I had an opportunity to read and review Nate Rocks the World (2011) by Karen Pokras Toz, and this is what I posted about the book for Amazon:

            Nathan Rockledge is in the fourth grade. He likes books more than kickball, eating out more than eating his mother’s cooking . . . , and drawing more than anything else. He lives for the next holiday and would like to skip his big sister’s next phase. Most of all, Nate wants to rock the world as a hero who saves the day. Karen Pokras Toz’s telling of Nate’s story will make you hope that Nate’s dream to become a hero will come true. Readers will see the world through Nate’s eyes and will grow to like him as much as I do.

One of the successes of Toz's novel is seamless shifts between Nate's reality and his dream world. In fact, the novel opens in the present, we think, as Nate hits the home run that wins the World Series for the Phillies. Teammates cheer Nate’s achievement, chanting his name three times—“Nate! Nate! Nate!” Then a fourth speaker says, “Nathan!,” a more formal name, most likely the name his parents chose for him, and what follows “Nathan!” is “For the fourth time—dinner is ready!” Readers realize that the novel actually opens in Nate’s dream world. He is not the Phillies' MVP but a boy being called to dinner. Author Toz has invented a device to separate Nate’s fantastic ambitions from Nathan’s ordinary life as a little brother, friend, son, and student: when Nathan escapes his reality into his dreams, he is Nate.

C. S. Lewis employs a different device to signal a shift from a dreary reality into the magical realm of Narnia. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the children, safely removed to the country while the world is at war, step into an impossibly deep closet (the wardrobe) where the far, back wall falls away into an icy winter; there fauns and beavers speak. Thus, shifts in setting are the clues that divide reality from fantasy.

On stage, Arthur Miller created devices that help audiences slide from a wretched present in which salesman Willy Loman wishes to die and a promising past in which Willy and his boys believe in their own success. These devices include lighting, music, and costuming. For example, as the lighting changes, scrims become visible, focusing audience attention on rooms and characters unseen until then. In addition, music guides the audience; e. g., a flute plays for the old, broken Willy. Also, characters add and subtract small pieces to their costumes—a headband for young Linda; caps, letter-sweaters, and school books signal the young Biff, Happy, and Bernard.

These three literary examples demonstrate what authors must do in order to carry their readers or viewers with them: Authors must carefully invent and consistently use signals and devices so that the story’s development and the big ideas therein are clearly and effectively conveyed.

Reading Challenge:

Read Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller or “read” a filmed version of the play. Pay close attention to details, including stage directions in the printed text.

Reading is essential if you wish to write. As Stephen King has said, "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."

Writing Challenge:

Write a story or poem in which the speaker or characters shift from the real, tangible world into a paranormal one or a fantasy. Choose device(s) that will allow your reader to follow the shift without confusion.

GUM: More Commonly Confused Words

I am loath to admit that I loathe the current trend in horror films. I feel somewhat disloyal because I enjoy horror fiction, especially that of Stephen King or Peter Straub, but so many horror films seem salacious and depraved to me. The directors and producers seem to believe that audiences enjoy being witness to torture and unimaginable human suffering. The truth is that neither of these interests me nor inspires me to avoid the sins that bring these characters to such sorrowful ends.

Loath, without a final e, means unwilling or reluctant. Loathe, with a final e, means to despise or detest.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Keep to One Verb Tense

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

The Elements of Style is a treasure. Every writer should own a copy of the slim volume first developed by William Strunk, Jr. and continued by E. B. White, Strunk’s student in 1919.

Word economy makes the style guide a treasure. It is just eighty-five pages explaining forty-five rules and usage principles. Other online blogs, including my own, and print manuals are much longer. Strunk and White simply review best practices and offer short, clear examples.

Rule 21 in the 3rd edition is “keep to one tense,” and this is excellent advice because shifting verb tenses or choosing the wrong tense leads to confusion.

First, unlike Strunk and White, I will not presume that readers remember basic verb tenses. What follows then is a brief review.

Present Tense:

·      In my community, sirens sound when Storm Chasers spot a tornado.
·      Abrasive noise blasts from the television as a warning crawls across the screen.
·      Many homeowners head to their garages where shelters under the concrete floor provide protection.

Past Tense:

·      In my community, an F-5 tornado turned many buildings and homes into toothpicks in May, 1999.
·      The funnels were one-mile wide and on the ground for an unprecedented length of time.
·      The community rebuilt after the terrible storm although some businesses and homeowners never returned after being uprooted.

Future Tense:

·      Newcomers to this community will enjoy the automated telephone message system that warns residents about street closings, flood hazards, and service changes.
·      This community will overcome the storms that pass overhead.
·      Potential buyers will appreciate the safe building practices in this community.

Perfect Tense:

·      Sirens have blasted a warning for three hours while storms continue to form and grow overhead. (Present Perfect tense indicates an event that began in the past but is ongoing.)
·      My neighbor finally slept after sirens that had blasted for three hours fell silent. (Past Perfect tense indicates a past event, just as Simple Past tense does, but in this example, the sirens’ noise pre-dates the sirens’ silence and the ability to sleep.)
·      The sirens will have served their purpose when no lives are lost during a tornado. (Future Perfect tense indicates a future event that will be complete at a specified point in the future.)

Progressive Tense:

·      I am driving at highway speed while dialing the phone. (Present Progressive indicates an action or event in progress.)
·      I was texting and driving when I hit the guardrail. (Past Progressive indicates an ongoing action interrupted by another.)

Confusing Tenses (Confusing Shifts in Tense): An example that confuses.

            Once upon a time, a beautiful woman cries because her wicked stepmother was having a horrible, terrible, very bad day and refused to let the woman attend the annual party held the day before.

What’s Confusing about that?
·      Once upon a time implies a story that took place in the past, yet the woman cries in the present moment.
·      The woman’s tears appear to be the result of a wicked stepmother, but is the stepmother wicked because she had a bad day or because she refused to let the woman go to a party that has already taken place?
·      Huh?

Consistent Tenses: An example that is not confusing.

            Once upon a time, a beautiful woman cried because her stepmother was wicked. Every day was a horrible, terrible, very bad day for the stepmother, but one day was worse than others so she refused to let the woman attend the annual party and that caused the woman to cry.

Choosing Tenses for Literary Analysis: Use the present tense. Romeo dies each time some student writes about him, but Romeo died before Juliet when writing about the chronology of events in the play.

In conclusion, another terrific resource offers Rule 21 as follows:

Do not shift from one tense to another if the time frame for each action or state is the same. (

Reading Challenge:

Read the latest edition of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. The Fiftieth Anniversary edition is still only eighty-five pages of text, and a limited edition is illustrated. Enjoy.
Writing Challenge:

Tell the story of your first day of school or your child’s first day. Write at least 350 to 500 hundred words, using simple past tense unless the time frame for the action or the emotional state is not simple past.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):  This post is a grammar and usage lesson so let it suffice.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Second Person Point of View in Literature

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

In John D. MacDonald’s Please Write for Details (Ballantine 1959), you will find this paragraph:

It was wonderful the way she was so patient. He’d [Harvey Ardos] never got such a boot out of anything as out of the long talks they had. He’d never talked about such stuff before. Thought about it, in a kind of fuzzy way, but never talked about it. Religion, philosophy, mankind. The real big things. And she [Monica Killdeering] never laughed at your crazy ideas. Not once. And she kept telling you what a good mind you had. Which is a lot of crap, but makes good listening (180).

Most English teachers and editors would circle in red the word you, appearing twice in the next to the last statement of this paragraph. Why? Because MacDonald shifts from third person to second person, one of those writing no-nos one should obey--unless, of course, you happen to be John D. MacDonald with plenty of success after twenty-seven novels published before 1959 when this one, Please Write for Details, appeared. Like Stephen King today, MacDonald was a prolific writer, bringing twenty-seven novels to print between 1950 and 1958 and four more in 1959, including Please Write for Details. His Travis McGee series, a total of twenty-one books, began in 1964, the last published in 1985. To claim that the man enjoyed success and a long career is understatement. He told good stories that people then and now like to read.

So if John D. MacDonald fails to uphold the rule--thou shalt not switch POV in a paragraph--how seriously must we take that rule? Well, very seriously. We should not break the rule without a very good reason, and MacDonald has one. Allow me to explain.

Monica Killdeering is a teacher, a model of decorum from day one to the day students leave for the summer. Then, she too leaves town, the town of Kilo, Kansas, to develop her interests and talents. She has studied dance and during the summer relevant to the novel, she studies art. Each summer, she hopes to connect with one other human being, and she does, but not in the way she’d like. Men are drawn to her incredibly taut, perfectly proportioned figure, but they are repelled by her face, “the startling and unmistakable face of a sheep. Slope of brow, wide and fleshy nose, long and convex upper lip, square heavy teeth of the ruminant, brown nervous eyes--all were in a deadly pattern” (67). Thus cursed, Monica finds no long-term soul-mates, only men who enjoy her body at night with the lights turned out, men who are gone with the dawn.

Like her exterior, Monica is divided. Whereas her body responds passionately to the touch of men, he mind vows not to be used and discarded again. And this summer, the summer of art study in Mexico, she seems to succeed. Her body mesmerizes Harvey Ardos just as it does other men, but he is younger at twenty-four than her twenty-nine years, and he lacks all sophistication and finesse, especially around women. He has no formal education either, but does not let that stop him from his dream: to be a “real good artist” (30). He’s an unmarried stock clerk who saves his money so he can take art courses. He believes he’s “got something to say,” (32) and if only he could get a break, the world would listen.

In Cuenervaca, Harvey finds a listener in Monica, and he adores her. She enjoys his company, too. In fact, they become close, sitting together at meals, walking into town and talking long into the night. Harvey cannot believe his great, good fortune just to have been chosen by such a kind, intelligent woman. Completely unaware of Monica’s past summers as a slut, Harvey places her on a pedestal and does not dare touch this paragon of wisdom. He simply basks in her beauty and attention.

Thus, when MacDonald switches from third to second person POV suddenly at the end of a paragraph, he communicates that Harvey cannot quite believe her when she says that he has a good mind. In fact, he declares that the idea is a load of crap. Harvey boasts that he’s got something to say, but still doesn’t know what that is. He cannot quite believe in himself and however much he wishes to believe in himself, Monica or perhaps countless others will have to weigh in and convince him before he can. He’s still detached from the notion of having a good mind so that mind belongs to you, not him--at least, not yet.

Reading Challenge:

If you have not already begun or read Please Write for Details since I first mentioned it, please do so now. It’s full of quirky characters and rules broken for very good reasons.

Writing Challenge:

Write a story in which you break the rule against shifting POVs, but only when you have a very good reason.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

Read your own writing journals, essays, stories, or free writings. Place a checkmark in the margin, left or right, when you have shifted POVs. Rewrite to correct the error--because most of the time, it is an error.