“Dreyer’s English” by Benjamin Dreyer

EnglishLooking to crack open a good grammar book? Then I am happy to recommend Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, which warmed the cockles of this grammar geek’s heart. My husband was a little concerned (read: irritated) that I laughed aloud, with a literal LOL, in so many places, but indeed, I did—and over a grammar book.

I’m sure it helps that I commit some editing myself on occasion, but even if I did not, I would have great admiration for the role of those like Benjamin Dreyer, copy chief of Random House. I say he’s doing the Lord’s work by making the world a better, more readable place. I happen to like and even enjoy grammar rules, but I don’t believe fussy editor types are the only ones who will enjoy this book. Not by a long shot. Do you know the word “faffing,” for instance? I didn’t, but his use of “faffing about” made me look it up, and now I’m a fan.

Dreyer shares my fondness for the serial comma, and he states his case rather simply: “Only godless savages eschew the series comma.” (He says “series,” I say “serial.” To-may-to, to-mah-to.)

His writing is irreverent and occasionally self-deprecating, and how lovely it was to read that even a man in his position doesn’t quite know what all these blessed grammar things are called. “Even now,” he writes, “I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what a nominative absolute is, I think that the word ‘genitive’ sounds vaguely smutty, and I certainly don’t know, or care to know, how to diagram a sentence. I hope I’m not shocking you.”

And if I’m ever asked to play grammar-themed trivia one day—and my goodness, I hope I am—I will know that  the capital “G” in LaGuardia is a “medial capital.”

Many of the rules (and a few preferences) he discusses are simply things I’ve already learned and internalized from The Chicago Manual of Style, but Dreyer sure makes them fun to read and consider. I simply can’t think of a writer or editor who wouldn’t benefit from reading this charming and helpful book.

Character Development Journal from Sweet Harmony Press

IMG_6769If you’re going to build something, you need to have the right tools. Right? As a writer, I can think of lots of tools that I find indispensable: a computer, a word-processing program (or two), pens, pencils, paper, notebooks, style guides, grammar books. And to that list, I am now happy to add the Character Development Journal from Sweet Harmony Press.

I received mine as a Christmas gift from a thoughtful girlfriend, and I absolutely love the simplicity of this journal. It’s the same two-page spread repeated about fifty-something times (and I don’t imagine they’d appreciate me sharing a photo of it since then you might not want the journal). It lets you list things like the character’s name and nickname, age, other physical characteristics, jobs, beliefs, people the character loves and hates, pets, and much more. There’s even a bulleted list of dozens of character traits for you to check off, ranging from A (“accountable”) to Z (“zealous”), and I’m looking forward to going deeper with the characters in my first novel as I continue to work on book two in the series.

I’d read before that an author needs to keep a “character Bible,” but I hardly knew where to start other than jotting down a few disjointed lists in one of my many brainstorming journals. As I continue to build an imaginary world for my characters, I now have a handy journal that will (hopefully!) help me create characters that, as the book cover says, “readers will love.”

Book review: “Deadly News” by Jody Holford

Deadly NewsJody Holford is a new-to-me cozy author, and she hits all the right notes in her Britton Bay Mystery Deadly News, the debut novel in a new series. The tiny Britton Bay Bulletin on the Oregon coast gets a new leader when Molly Owens, fresh from California, is hired to serve as editor. Only twenty-eight, Molly gets a few wary glances from the older and sometimes more jaded members of the staff, but she’s got a thick skin and a determination to help turn around the struggling newspaper.

Molly gets along well with Alan, the publisher who hired her; Elizabeth, a fifty-something staff writer; Hannah, the high school intern; and even Clay, the part-time photog who’s sending out a bit of a creepy vibe. Only one member of the staff seems bent on making her life miserable, and that’s Vernon, the gray-haired crank who dismisses her and has no interest in improving either his writing or himself. When pushed too far, Molly finally calls Vernon into her office for a personal meeting and insists he get rid of the chip on his shoulder and improve his writing and interview techniques. Cranky Vernon doesn’t get much of a chance to work on the improvements, though, since he’s soon discovered dead at his home. Meanwhile, the non-welcome wagon is sending Molly a message by letting the air out of her Jeep’s tires and painting “Leave!” on the side, so clearly Vernon wasn’t the only one who had it in for her.

The author does a fine job of giving us lots of suspects who easily could have wanted Vernon out of the picture. And one of the nicest surprises in this well-written book is that Molly is involved in a sweet, wholesome romance that doesn’t come across as too silly or too sexy. There’s also a wonderful sense of place in Britton Bay, from its eateries to the bed-and-breakfast whose owner lets Molly rent her cottage out back. Holford delivers a great introduction to the Britton Bay mysteries, and if she keeps it up, I’ll be coming back for lots of repeat visits.


Review copy courtesy of NetGalley

How do you convey emotion to readers?

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000046_00058]Recently, I was reading a manuscript when I came across a particularly atrocious line about a character who was experiencing “a new emotion that was roiling within—anger.” What a perfectly dreadful bit of writing! And I can say that because the writer was myself. As an editor, I’ve trained myself to spot the lazy writing in others’ work, those occasions where an author is telling the reader that a character is angry rather than showing the character being angry. How did I miss it in my own work? All I can say is something that every editor-turned-writer already knows: everyone needs an editor.

In my case, I also needed some inspiration to help me imagine ways that a character who was in a car, and by herself, could show her anger. And so I turned to a useful book I purchased last year, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. I had a feeling the word “anger” would be in there, and it was. And on the list of some thirty-six physical signals of anger, there sat number five: “Handling objects or people roughly.” Eureka! My character could hold her steering wheel in a death grip, and that was merely one way I could begin to show her anger rather than my lazy attempt at merely telling the reader she was angry.

The Emotion Thesaurus is not the sort of craft book that a writer will sit down and read cover to cover, unless perhaps he or she has an unhealthy fondness for lists. But someone might like to know that rubbing the back of the neck is a sign of embarrassment or that massaging the temples can be a sign of impatience. Those are just two more of the seventy-five “emotion entries” in the book, which I’ve already found to be quite useful in helping me describe my characters’ emotions. Perhaps you need a copy as well?

Fine Books & Collections Magazine

current_coverDo any of you remember the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup slogan, “Two great tastes that taste great together”? Well, I love magazines and I love books, and a few months ago I was delighted to discover a combo of the two every bit as awesome as the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Fine Books & Collections is the name of the magazine, and I’ve just received my second issue in the mail.

I’ve already told my husband that I’d like to visit the new American Writers Museum, a subject of one feature, the next time we’re in Chicago, and of course I love all the advertisements about rare book auctions. (Would you pay $11,250 for a first edition of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind? Someone just did.)
But for my money, the best article in this issue is Biblio 360, the magazine’s guide to book clubs and societies, membership libraries, classes and seminars, exhibits, conferences, book fairs, and festivals. I was quite intrigued to learn about such bookish groups as:
The American Society of Bookplate Collectors & Designers. People collect bookplates? That’s one area I’ve never explored, but maybe I ought to! (www.bookplate.org)
• Fine Press Book Association. This group has the goal of “promoting the appreciation of beautiful books and printing skills.” (www.fpba.com)
• The Miniature Book Society. A nonprofit organization, this group promotes “all aspects of the book arts with special affection for the small format.” (www.mbs.org)
• The Movable Book Society. I tend to move my books from stack to stack around the house, but that’s not what this means. This is a group of enthusiasts of pop-up and movable books. (www.movablebooksociety.org)
And if you’d like to keep up with such intriguing book news for yourself, you can visit the Fine Books & Collections website for a free sample issue here.

‘Never trust confidences to a novelist’

Lady of Good FamilyLast week I finished reading a beautifully written, absorbing novel I recently purchased just because a) I thought the cover was beautiful and b) I was in a gardening frame of mind. I was intrigued by the idea of a novel based on the life of Beatrix Farrand, one of the first female landscape architects and the niece of Gilded Age novelist Edith Wharton.

A Lady of Good Family by Jeanne Mackin is one of the few reads I would categorize as truly a five-star-worthy book, and I loved so much about it that I found myself copying down some of the characters’ quotes in one of my notebooks. This passage made me smile:

“What if she used it in a story?” Minnie had said to me when we decided to never openly speak of it. “That would do Beatrix such harm, and much as I love Edith, one should never trust confidences to a novelist.”

Because I am a former journalist, I regularly have people tell me things and then say, “That’s not for publication” or “That’s not for the magazine, by the way.” I left my magazine editor job more than four years ago, so I find it humorous that people still treat me as some sort of quasi-journalist. And maybe they’re on to something because I am far more alert to my town’s goings-on now that I’m working on novels. And yet … what about that bit of dialogue, that “one should never trust confidences to a novelist”? While I certainly don’t intend to ever betray anyone’s trust in me, I most definitely do intend to use some of the real-life people I know to inspire my fictional characters, their virtues as well as their foibles.

Would you trust a confidence to a novelist, or would it depend on the novelist?

Confessions of a book group dropout

Penfield women and booksI am so envious of women who are longtime members of book groups. I have tried to be such a member, really I have, but I have failed. I’m currently in my third book group and scared to death that they will learn my membership practically demands that the group disband within a year or so, but so far, so good.

My first book group, which launched about a decade after I graduated from college, was primarily a way for some old high school friends to regularly reunite in a neighboring town, so the meetings were by necessity sporadic. I remember that we read The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard, whose main character I thought was whiny, and next came a nonfiction book by whoever was the Pope back then. While I don’t remember much about the Pope’s book, I don’t have any negatives associated with it, so we can assume he wasn’t whiny. But the high school friends were headed to different jobs and different towns, and our group—if not the lifelong friendships—fell by the wayside.

A few years later, I joined a group of local women in my own town to form a new book group. Our group included a fellow church member, a coworker, a friend of the coworker, and a new friend I’d met through my job. The book I most remember us reading was Change Me into Zeus’s Daughter, a dreary tale that I absolutely hated but which others absolutely loved. But some of the book group members thought some of the other book group members dominated the discussion too much (not me! I know what you’re thinking!), and alas, that group disbanded as well.

Earlier this year, a friend suggested forming an online book group on Facebook. “Great!” I thought. “If we don’t meet in person, maybe this can work!” I’m not sure I’m good book group material, though. I think most people are predisposed to like the book that is being read. I am predisposed not to like it until the author proves me wrong. Happily, I have actually enjoyed the first two books we read this year (Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile), tolerated that so-so third one just fine (Still Waters by Viveca Sten), and am looking forward to re-reading the book that’s been chosen for our fourth monthly selection (A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle). On top of all that, I like the other women in the new book group and am enjoying learning their opinions. So I’ve managed to remain a member of a new book group for an entire first quarter of the year, and I must say this fills me with hope. If any of you readers belong to a book group, I’d love to hear about it!

Judging those who use poor grammar

ijudgeyouSeveral years ago, I hosted a bridal luncheon for a friend’s daughter, and my hostess gift was a copy of the delightful book I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar by Sharon Eliza Nichols (St. Martin’s Press, 2009). Nichols created a Facebook group by that same title, and she shares some of the best of the thousands of the group’s photos of misspelled and ungrammatical signs. One photo is of a clearance bin in a store, but it’s marked “clearence.” It reminds me of the new antique store I visited where a door had an arrow pointing to the “Enterance,” which I thought was rather a creative spelling.


Quite a few photos in the book show the public’s propensity for sticking apostrophes where they don’t belong, like the sign that read: “TRAY’S — Please return your tray’s.” Other photos show funny typos, like the “clearance” one or the school banner for “Homecoming Spirt Week,” which made the author say, “Wonder what they’re spirting.”


I do notice grammar errors, and I am constantly tempted to comment on them, but I rarely do because if people want my help, they’ll ask for it. (And some do. Some even pay me for it!) Besides, when you start to feel superior to others, in grammar or in any other sphere, you are practically begging for a takedown, and I have enough opportunities in life to exercise humility without begging for more. So when I saw in a public forum on Facebook last week that someone was making fun of the intellect of Christians and those who are homeschooled, I stared at my computer screen and sat on my hands rather than point out that the writer had in fact misspelled both “Christians” and “homeschooled.” If someone wants to be snarky, getting upbraided by a snarky commenter probably isn’t going to help matters, is it?


Recently I read an old interview with Miss Manners, aka Judith Martin, and she said, “I don’t believe in answering rudeness with rudeness under any circumstances.” I think that’s a great rule to follow, in grammar and in life. Do you agree?

Let’s talk about money

scratchIn an early episode of the hit TV show Downton Abbey, Matthew Crawley and his mother, Isobel, show up to dinner at the Abbey, which Matthew has recently learned he is to inherit. His mother, who trained as a nurse, asks about the local hospital and inquires, “Who pays for it?”

Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess, played so brilliantly by Maggie Smith, haughtily replies, “Oh, good, let’s talk about money.” That bit—which I’ve seen quite a few times now—always makes me laugh because it’s still considered impolite to talk about money. Yet for a writer, or an aspiring writer, few topics are probably more useful than a discussion on the economic realities of the writing life.

Writing is not something anyone should plan on doing to get rich, and as evidence I submit to you Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin, founder of Scratch magazine. Frankly, I’d never heard of Scratch magazine but bought this book because I was eager to learn what sort of writing life some of today’s writers are living.

In Scratch, I found a variety of essays by a variety of authors (Cheryl Strayed, Jennifer Weiner, Jonathan Franzen) who’ve made money, wasted money, and been cheated out of money in a multitude of ways. Some of the pieces I enjoyed, and some I found a bit bizarre, but in a collection like this, I expect a range of writing gifts. But did the book live up to its promise of talking about “Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living”? I’d say so. Because some author friends have been very frank with me over the years, I was not surprised to learn how small some of the book advances are and how little money a New York Times Bestselling Author can actually make. Some authors were very open and specific about the money they’ve made from their writing, and others preferred to speak in vague terms. More than the money, though, the book is about persistence, about getting your thoughts and ideas out into the world when there’s no promise at all that the effort will be particularly well received or rewarded.

I liked much of this book, but I don’t happen to like profanity, and today’s writers seem to be angry and use a lot of it. So I disliked having to weed through the muck to get to the meat. That might be a deterrent for some other readers as well, but if you’d like to take a peek into the dollar signs behind the life of a writer today, this book will give you much food for thought. It’s a literary reality check for those who dream of making a living writing.

‘Don’t Dangle Your Participle’ by Vanita Oelschlager

dangleI don’t wear white after Labor Day, I don’t talk with my mouth full, and thanks to Miss Arnold, I don’t dangle my participles.

When I was in high school, one of my English teachers did such a great job of teaching me how to avoid a dangling participle that I never forgot it. Her simple example to the class was, “Eating slop, I saw some pigs.” Since the phrase “eating slop” is at the beginning of the sentence, that means that “eating slop” is describing the word “I” and not the word “pigs.” Yuck! Happily, this sentence is easily revised this way: “I saw some pigs eating slop.”

Even good writers will find themselves dangling a participle every now and then, but thanks to Miss Arnold, I know to look for these in my writing and in that of clients whose books I edit. And now, children can learn to avoid the dreaded dangling participle as well.

For several years now I’ve been reviewing books from NetGalley, and I recently came across a clever one for children, “Don’t Dangle Your Participle” by Vanita Oelschlager. She and artist Mike Desantis do a terrific job of illustrating for young readers and writers what they are really saying when they use a dangling participle. For instance, one sentence read, “While riding his skateboard in the park, a deer almost ran into Lester.” The artwork shows exactly what the sentence describes: a deer riding a skateboard through the park. Another page of the book clears things up with this sentence: “While riding his skateboard in the park, Lester was almost hit by a deer.” This time, Lester is shown on the skateboard as a deer hops over him. This book is a charming way to teach young readers and writers how to avoid a dangling participle, and now that I think of it, a few adults I know could benefit as well!