Thursday, March 23, 2017

Editor's Notes #29: Apostrophes v. Plurals

I think apostrophe placement is sort of like spelling: you either have the gift of it or you don't. This is not to say it can't be learned, but let's face facts and say that most people who don't "have it" will probably struggle their entire lives with whether or not to use one—and if so, how.

Here's the basic rule:
The apostrophe's primary job is to form a possessive
to stand for missing letters in a contraction.
Why do so many people get it wrong?

I firmly believe—and this is based on zero scientific evidence, mind you, but you are likely to agree with me here—people who misuse apostrophes figure they're going to add a little flair to their words to . . . "fancy it up," so to speak, in the same way some try to speak more formally by using the word "I" instead of "me" in their sentences, regardless of whether it's correct or not. This usually results in such conversation as, "It's been a splendid time in Paris for her and I." The written equivalent for these fancified people would be something like We drank many fine wine's and went on numerous tour's.

While looking up information on this phenomenon, I saw it mentioned as the "greengrocer's apostrophe" more than once. (Picture BANANA'S on sale.) Perhaps grocery stores are the ones who made the error commonplace for so many others, because many people are under the assumption that any printing posted for public use is automatically correct. Many of us can attest to this being false as we look around our cities and towns and shake our heads in dismay. My city, in fact, has a bar which advertises itself as YOU'RE NUMBER ONE NIGHT SPOT, right up there on an expensive, lighted sign for all to see. Well, I'm flattered, but I was unaware that I was the number one night spot. Don't tell my husband.

We can't base our apostrophe use on things like "I think it looks good" or "it seems to me that I've seen it this way" when we should be weighing in with the "because it's correct" factor. There are hard and fast rules that need to be followed.

  • When forming a possessive, the apostrophe goes at the end of a noun, followed by the letter "s":
    • The girl's coat fell to the floor. [One girl, one coat.]
  • If the possessive is a plural noun, the apostrophe goes after the "s":
    • The girls' coats fell to the floor. [More than one girl, more than one coat. Notice that "coats" is a plural and has no apostrophe.]
  • When forming a contraction, the apostrophe takes the place of the missing letters:
    • The girl's coat's dirty from falling on the floor. [One girl, one coat, and the apostrophe is used in the contraction for "coat is" dirty.]
  • Or how about this?
    • The girls' coats' mud was falling off in clumps. [This is a ridiculous sentence, although it is technically correct. More than one girl, more than one coat, and the mud that belongs to the coat. You're best off rephrasing the entire thing for clarity.]
  • Never use an apostrophe for a plural, especially when dealing with abbreviations or numbers:
    • The 1920s were a roaring good time for all. [All the years included in that decade.]
    • There were so many CDs to choose from and only so much cash in his wallet. [It bears noting that Blogger keeps trying to force me to put an apostrophe here, much in the same way MS Word will "correct" your grammar to the point of gibberish. But that's for a future post.]
  • Feel free to use an apostrophe with numbers or abbreviations if they're possessive:
    • The DJ's speakers had too much high end, making them painful to listen to. [The speakers belonging to the DJ.]
    • I have to say, 1987's recording artists were a mixed lot. [The recording artists "belonging to" the year 1987.]
  • Also feel free to use an apostrophe with numbers or abbreviations if they're part of a contraction:
    • The DMV's known for taking some awful photos. [Used here for "DMV is."]
    • Overall, 1989's a year I'll never forget. [Used here for "1989 is."]
  • There are some tricky areas, though, and here's where a nice, thick Chicago Manual of Style comes in handy:
    • No apostrophe is needed in the word "how-tos," even though, once again, Blogger and MS Word will try to tell you otherwise.
    • No apostrophe is needed in the phrase "dos and don'ts" other than the apostrophe in the contraction for "do not."
    • No apostrophe is needed for "ins and outs" and other similar phrases.
  • Aaaaaaaannnnnd it would not be the English language if there were not exceptions to the rule that seem completely in opposition, such as this gem:
    • It's = it is. Simple enough, because it's a contraction. But . . . 
    • Its = the possessive form of "it." A possessive which does NOT use an apostrophe, which seems to fly in the face of all we've been talking about. Just memorize it and you'll be fine.

Use these examples the next time you're in need of a little help when using apostrophes and plurals, and anyone who reads your writing (including your editor) will mentally shoot you some instant credibility for your diligent work—and a huge "thank you."

Happy writing!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Editor's Notes #28: Parentheses in Fiction: Do They Break the Fourth Wall?

Breaking the fourth wall: this stems from a theatrical term. The "fourth wall" is where the audience sits—they're basically looking "through" it when viewing a traditional stage with three sides. If an actor spoke a line directly to the audience, he broke the wall, removing that separation.
I think one of the toughest things for a writer must be finding a way to say everything he wants to say while keeping the reader entertained and not bored or overwhelmed.

Sometimes, however, an author needs to pop just a bit more information into the narrative here and there, and there's some disagreement as to the best method of doing this. The one I'm going to focus on today deals with a character's thoughts.

In a first-person POV, every so often I come across a writer who uses parentheses in the thought process, and I've got to tell you, it bugs the crap out of me.
I didn't understand. All my brownies were gone, and Kat was the only person who'd been in my kitchen. (I'd known her for years and couldn't imagine her doing something so unthinkable.)
Why are there parentheses in the first place? This is not really any different from the rest of the thought, and it follows through with the "why" of my confusion about the brownies.

I've also seen things like this:
He saw the officer coming toward him, and recognized his old friend, Jim, from military school. "How in the world are you, buddy?" (He remembered spending holidays with Jim and his wife, going to his children's birthday parties, standing by him during loss, and more. They'd had too many adventures to count, lost track of each other over the years, and now here he was, assigned to the same base.)
In the above situation, by the time the "buddy" responded with "Not so bad," I'd already forgotten what the answer was in reference to and had to reread. And what about this?
I knew I had to check the basement to find the source of the awful stench. (I had noticed the smell days before and had tried to pretend it wasn't there. Why did I buy this haunted house, anyway? And what made me think I could avoid the basement for the rest of my life?)
More often than not, using parentheses for thoughts in a novel can be a negative experience for the reader. It's almost like the author is physically tapping you on the shoulder, saying, "Oh, and I forgot to mention this, but . . ."

Parentheses can have a more "formal" feel to them, whereas an em dash—most writers' favorite form of aside—is slightly informal in nature. Em dashes feel more like when you're talking to a friend . . . let's say an Italian friend . . . and she can't quite stay on track because she feels the need to add the odd detail here and there. Not bad, because you can still follow the story. But parentheses remind me of when someone puts a hand to the side of his mouth and whispers, "She's completely crazy, you know," while talking loudly in positive tones.

Breaking the fourth wall can be jarring, a reminder that you're reading and thus a pulling from story immersion . . . unless you're a character in Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair or any of his Tuesday Next novels—in which case, the characters are fully aware that they're characters in a book but they need to keep living their lives anyway. In his case, though, that's the way the story is designed, so it's more a whimsical tool rather than a diversion, cleverly done and entertaining.

In Fix Your Damn Book! How to Painlessly Self-Edit Your Novels and Stories by James Osiris Baldwin, his view is clear:
"Brackets/parentheses should be avoided as much as possible in fiction. You can get away with it in some kinds of novels (expository, experimental, some first-person point-of-view books), but they tend to annoy readers and editors if used too often or at all. You especially should never use them during dialogue unless you're planning to break the fourth wall. Replace them with commas or em dashes. Brackets in non-fiction are fine (within reason)."
Brackets (parentheses as they are known more commonly in the US) are found more often in business documents, so that might contribute to the overall feel of wrongness in fiction. A happy skimming of the Chicago Manual of Style can give you a good idea of how many things are great in technical manuals or propaganda, but NOT okay in fiction writing. Parentheses rank right up there.

As I was working on this blog post, in fact, my hubby, who has read G.R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series multiple times, showed me a passage he just happened to be reading in the third book, A Storm of Swords, and said, "Doesn't this look weird to you? Why are these even here?" and he pointed to this:
Then came some strolling pipers and clever dogs and sword swallowers with buttered peas, chopped nuts, and slivers of swan poached in a sauce of saffron and peaches. ("Not swan again," Tyrion muttered, remembering his supper with his sister on the eve of battle.) A juggler kept a half-dozen swords and axes whirling through the air as skewers of blood sausages were brought sizzling to the tables, a juxtaposition that Tyrion thought passing clever, though not perhaps in the best of taste.
Is it just me, or did any of you also picture Tyrion looking away from the feast and directly into a camera (or the reader's eyes) and saying that line? That one line in parentheses pulled me away from saffron and peaches and feasting, and it took more than a few lines to get me back to the story, rather than my awareness of the writing.

One person describes it as such: parentheses "joggle" in the same way footnotes "joggle," like someone bumping your elbow to get your attention; it's also described by others as "intrusive" and "jarring." Who wants their writing to be intrusive and jarring?

The answer is: no one. Authors want to keep their readers engaged and lost in the world they created. Period.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Come and Visit Me Somewhere Else Today!

Hi, everyone!

My friends at Writers After Dark asked me to do a guest spot this week, so you can find my real blog post over there today.

It's called "Parentheses in Fiction: Do They Break the Fourth Wall?"

Some pretty exciting stuff, eh? I live a wild life.

I'll be putting the post up here on Wednesday so I have it in my own archives, but for the first couple days, I'd like to give them the blog traffic. If you've never visited Writers After Dark, you're missing out on a great resource for authors. There are terrific how-tos, there's news, and there are videos from our two wonderful co-hosts, authors Raymond Esposito and S.K. Anthony.

Show them some love today, and then don't forget to come back here in a couple days to read the exact same article all over again, pretend you've never seen it before, and leave me comments so I don't feel lonely and ignored.

Thanks, everybody!