Saturday, April 28, 2012

Commas Between Subjects and Verbs

I just read the first two pages of a novel and had to stop.  Why?  Commas.  Our little curly-tailed friends drove me to close the book and push it as far away as I could.

Now, most writers polish their first line until it's perfect.  Many revise it, revise it, throw it out, start over.  Any professional is at least going to check it twice for typos and punctuation errors.  Not so with this work.  The novel shall remain nameless, since I don't want to crush the author under the fist of my punctuational tyranny.  I do, however, feel rather strongly about it, and hope that I may help future writers.  As I'm keeping the novel anonymous, I also had to change the actual words of the first line, but I kept the exact structure.  Observe:

*With a sensation of being pulled underwater, Thomas John Rawhide, kept his eyes on the horizon.  (ungrammatical)

Eeek!  What on EARTH is that second comma doing there?  Commas are a dastardly bunch.  No one agrees exactly where they belong.  Some of the rules are quite complicated, even if you subscribe to them.  There are, however, some things most experts and editors do agree on.  One of them is that a comma never, ever, ever goes between the subject and the verb (as above), unless the comma is setting off an appositive (a word or phrase that redefines the noun right next to it).  Example:

Thomas John Rawhide, rancher extraordinaire, kept his eyes on the horizon.  (grammatical)

Or:  Thomas John Rawhide, who had never seen snow in his life, kept his eyes on the horizon.  (grammatical)

Since I found the exact same error five lines down, and again on page two, I had to conclude that the author simply didn't know the rule.  Maybe she had polished her first line.  She just didn't have the right tools.  The editor, however, had absolutely no right letting that slip.  Which leads me to believe it was self published, which thing I had not expected, as the book's copyright was from 1979, and I hadn't realized vanity publishing was a big thing then.

So, if you plan on self-publishing and don't want to annoy your reader, or if you don't want to get instantly rejected by every agent you ever query, or if you're learning how to write essays for school, here's a rule to remember: 

Comma Rule #1:  NEVER put a comma between a subject and a verb, unless the comma sets off a non-restrictive clause.

INCORRECT:  The computer I use at work, is broken.
CORRECT:  The computer I use at work is broken.

INCORRECT:  The man who shot me, got out of prison today.
CORRECT:  The man who shot me got out of prison today.
CORRECT:  Alfred F Gully III, who shot me last year, got out of prison today.

Punctuation is no picnic.  Used correctly, however, it clarifies your writing.  Master it before it masters you.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Pilot Boats

Something you might not know, if you've never been on a cruise:  Cruise ships are big.  Okay, so you knew that.  But did you know that these goliath ships, when navigating shallow or tricky passages, get help from local captains who know their waters better than most world-traveling cruise ship captain ever can?

They arrive in pilot boats--little speedboats dwarfed by the cruise ships they're helping.  These little vessels pull up next to the gigantic hulls of the cruise ships, like really, really brave pirates, and the pilot literally jumps on board, grabbing hold of a ladder and climbing up into an open hatch.  Off speeds the pilot boat, and the local captain guides the cruise ship through to safety.  All very exciting for a new cruiser.

Every time I saw a pilot boat, I'd lean over the railing to watch, sometimes running for a better view from elsewhere, always thrilled by the James-Bond-esque excitement of the maritime chase, even more thrilled if I actually caught a glance of the nimble James Bond-esque captain hopping on or off his boat.  I suppose I'm easily thrilled, but life is more beautiful that way.

I never seemed to have a camera on hand, until the last full day.  So here are the best photos I caught:

Here comes the pilot boat.  So bold.  So brash.  

Prepare to be boarded!

Up hops the captain

Off goes the boat

Proudly proclaiming its pilot status

Riding the waves off into the horizon
Another happy ending.

Brought to you by me and James pilot boat captain.  Pictured below.

If you want to go and see pilot boats in actions, 
check out my new book on Amazon:   Cruising Alaska on a Budget,

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird"

Every writer under the sun recommends Bird by Bird; Some Instructions on Writing and Life.  I'm not sure I agree.  It's lauded for two things:  its good advice for writers and its humor.  Neither quite lived up to their build-up.

Anne Lamott's advice-giving centers less on concrete writing tips than on trying to change her reader's mindset.  I suppose she does a good job of it, but it wasn't what I was looking for.  Her brand of humor focuses very much on the "poor me, I'm so insecure, writing is torture" aspect of life.  While funny at first, eventually I just started rolling my eyes.  "Then don't write, lady," I felt like saying.  And I suppose that's part of the mindset she's trying to get across:  writing is a grueling, sometimes overwhelming occupation, linked too closely with our self-esteem, but those of us who are true writers can't stop.  It's the nightmare of our choice.

Still, the nightmare humor got old quickly.  After so much whining about how awful it is to be a writer, I'd just have to put the book down for a few days.  I think, however, that one of her purposes in writing the book was to gently burst new writers' bubbles, to convince them that writing is tough, full of rejection, criticism, publication politics, self-doubt, and fear, and that publication doesn't fix all our problems or bring us everlasting joy.  The first part I've known for a while.  The second part I'm beginning to learn.  It's a bitter pill, but she tries to soften it with dark humor.

It's clever writing overall, and has some really profound bits.  I just don't think it measures up to its reputation.  And I don't think writing's quite as painful as all that.  It gives me a lot of pleasure, a thing she often underemphasizes, perhaps because pleasure isn't as funny as pain.

My favorite quote, written in reference to critique groups, but applicable to many things in life:  "You don't always have to chop with the sword of truth.  You can point with it, too."—Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

My rating:  3

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Shaky Camera Work in the Hunger Games

I was so excited to see the movie version of The Hunger Games.  Then, within the first five minutes, I realized it was going to be a shaky camera movie.  Ugh.  Why?????

The first half of the movie was literally nauseating.  Headache inducing.  I wished they'd hold the stupid camera still, so I could enjoy the great story.  And the kicker?  These weren't even action scenes. 

I've read a lot of people saying the jerky camera was to ramp up the tension, but the plot itself does a fine job of that.  Besides, if your audience can't tell what's going on, I don't think you're doing that great a job of building tension.

Other people say it's to show how Katniss' thoughts are jumping around, or how she can't afford to really focus on the whole big picture, or how much of the time she's just trying to survive, disconnected from the world.  Fine, as long as you can do it without majorly annoying or sickening your audience.

Then there's the argument that Katniss is experiencing everything fast and confusingly, so the only way for us to experience it that way is to have fast and confusing camera angles.  Uhh…we experienced it just fine in the book, without any special effects.  And if you compare Suzanne Collin's writing style to that of a camera, I would never describe it as jerky.  

To me, the shaky camera is gimmicky and off-putting.  In writing, we talk a lot about how you don't want to push your readers out of the story.  You don't want to clutter your prose with too many big words, too many synonyms for "said," or too many wild stylistic stand-outs.  These can easily upstage the characters.  That's the last thing you want to do.  Well, to me, the shaky camera shoves me out of the story more quickly than bad acting or budget special effects or even flat dialogue.

During the second half of the movie, ironically, when Katniss IS fighting for her life in deadly action scenes, the cameras aren't quite so bad.  Still, I couldn't tell what was happening in any of the fight scenes.  The camera would pan out for a moment and I'd sigh in relief, then BOOM it was back to a bunch of shaky close-up blurs.  Doing this strategically to minimize the on-screen violence is fine.  But strategic it wasn't, and annoyed I was.

It's really a shame too, because I thought the adaptation was spectacular.  Yes, they changed a few odd details, but overall I think it really captured the book as well as any movie can.  The visuals are great.  The acting is excellent.  The pacing is spot on.  If only they'd bought one of those camera stabilizers beforehand, or tested it afterwards on an audience of people who like to actually see what's going on, it would have been a near perfect experience.

And Suzanne Collins, I've said it before, and I'll say it again:  wow.  I wish I had written this.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Oak Flat, Arizona

I'm always complaining about Arizona's lack of things like trees (real ones with green leaves and shade) and rivers (rivers of water, that is, not dry wash beds) and rain.

However, sometimes the rugged beauty of Arizona does make me happy to be here.  This weekend was one of those times.  I went camping at Oak Flat campground near Superior, Arizona.

Typical landscape for the area between Superior, Arizona and Top of the World.
My brother David and I decided to take a "saunter."  We walked up into the little hills south of camp.  Then we saw a small drill rig from a nearby mine and went to investigate, along windy dirt roads and through patches of rocks stacked precariously on each other like some stacking competition of the gods.

Wouldn't want to touch that--rocks near Superior, Arizona
Then we thought, "Hmm, why not go over to the mine itself?  It's just across the way."  Distance in the wild, however, can be deceiving.  David had taken a similar hike--along the road--when he was younger.  Now we did it cross country, scrambling and climbing billy-goat-like across the rocks, then bushwhacking--literally-- through thick brush and dead manzanita until we found an animal trail that led us to the road.

The sky was glorious blue.  The sun wasn't too hot.  We didn't run into any cat claw or fall on any cactus.  Negotiating the rocks and ravines without a trail was a fun challenge.  A perfect hike.

So perfectly balanced--more rocks near Superior, Arizona