The Writing Tip That Ruined Me: “If I was”

fear is the mind killer catFrankie says ‘Relax.’ And Frank Herbert wrote ‘Fear is the mind killer.’ Both of them had a point. Fear—or more in this case, self-doubt—can definitely be fatally counter-productive. So what do you do when you discover a grammar rule that strikes fear into your writer’s heart with its cruelly ambiguous and arbitrary nature? You face your fear…Joe Rogan style! Let’s do this.

Today’s writing tip that ruined me involves “if I was.” As in, “If I was to write a sentence using the subjunctive mood, I would go insane.” That’s because sometimes it’s proper to use “was” and sometimes it’s proper to use “were,” even when the subject is singular.

Let’s analyze the differences between the usages:
You use “was” in an “if” clause if the conditional event is something that could be true:
“Keri walked through the crowd as if she was in a hurry.”
In this sentence, Keri could very well be in a hurry. It’s not meant to be a certainty, but it’s certainly possible.

Compare that to this sentence:
“Keri walked through the crowd as if she were a rhino charging to a campfire.”
This “if” statement, although more colorful, could never be actually true.

Look at this post from Grammar Girl. She can explain the inanity far better than I can:

Here are other correct usages from that post:
“If Bill was to come over, we’d talk football.” With this usage, the speaker is indicating that it’s possible that Bill will come over. So bone up on your fantasy-league stats.

“If Bill were to come over, we’d talk football.” With this usage, it’s implied that Bill is most definitely not coming over. He may be dead or in a coma.

or how about this:
“I wish I were more perceptive.” In this usage, the person is saying they cannot be more perceptive. That the state of being more perceptive is an impossibility for them.

So there you go; hopefully that makes things as clear as mud. Check out this post for more on verb moods: The indicative, subjunctive, imperative, or conditional. Or if you’re feeling really brave, check out these posts of other writing tips that ruined me. Here. And here.

I Just Read: Fourth of July Creek

Fourth_of_July_CreekThe word ‘forewarned’—does it need to exist? Or is it an example of slapping an unnecessary prefix on a verb that was already functioning quite well on its own? In my opinion, the most annoying example of this is ‘preheat.’ I want to write a letter to Marie Calendar and ask her what’s the difference between preheating an oven and just heating it. Then I’ll end the letter with my patented catchphrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t prefix it!”

Anyhoo… Be (fore)warned, if you actively avoid stories about abused or neglected children, then you’ll probably want to steer clear of Fourth of July Creek. In my case, I was intrigued by a review of this book in Entertainment Weekly, and decided to check it out despite the depressing premise. The $1.99 price tag was also a big selling point.

The novel tells the story of a social worker, Pete Snow, who gets wrapped up in seditious happenings in the outskirts of Montana in the early 1980s. The book read like a modern Western to me, which was what I was hoping for. The beautiful descriptions of the Montana landscape, and the cast of brink-of-the-law characters helped to contribute to that feel. And the author, Smith Henderson, occasionally sidles in a stream-consciousness-through-choppy-waters style that made me think of a more narrative version of Cormac McCarthy.

Henderson also employs an interesting style while the narrative follows Pete’s daughter, Rachel. Her story unfolds in as a sort of Q&A that she’s having with herself.

“And does (her mother) keep Rachel home now, say for her to cut class and stay home?
And do they watch TV all day and go for long drives and was it like they were always just waiting for Rachel to get old enough so they could be friends and tell each other everything?
That’s what her mother says.
And what is the everything Rachel tells, on the porch in the cooling of the evening?
Nothing. Her mother does all the telling.”

Appropriately unsettling, and there’s something about it that gives off a sort of rebellious teenage rhetorical style (navel-gazing, back-talking). Or is this a rendering of an interview that Rachel’s giving to another social worker, explaining how crappy her parents are?

The main character, Pete, is definitely a crappy parent—and a hard protagonist to root for in the traditional sense. He reminded me of George Clooney’s character in The Descendants. I’ve never read that novel, but during the movie adaptation I kept wanting to yell at his character, “Stop galavanting around Hawaii and help your daughters deal with the fact that their mother is brain-dead!” At least Pete’s flaws are obviously and unsympathetically presented, and Pete suffers and learns from his mistakes.

Overall, Fourth of July Creek is a bleak book, but I’m glad I read it. I think it will probably make my Top 5 reads of the year.

The State of My Writing: Slowly, Slowly

In May I wrote my first ‘State of My Writing’ post, which is really a sort of check-in with myself on how I’m doing with my work-in-progress. Since then—by my rough count—I’ve banged out about 53,000 words in my newest WIP, which means I’ve fit one NaNaWriMo into five months.

In some ways, 50K words is awesome—no matter what. Writing a book is an incredible feat of discipline and determination for anyone who has a full-time job. If you’re a moonlighting novelist, give yourself a pat on the back. Really whack that shoulder blade…leave a mark! For the last few months, I’ve sacrificed whole chunks of my life to writing. I’ve fallen off the face of Facebook, and vanished from the Twitterverse. I’ve spent months’ worth of lunch hours typing with my laptop pressed awkwardly to my steering wheel. (I hate writing in a parked car. Not an environment that’s conducive to creativity.) My Netflix queue is overflowing. I’ve been playing Bioshock Infinite for five months. At this rate, Booker DeWitt is never getting his ass off that floating city!

Which brings me to the depressing part of all that toil: I’m not really that close to being done! My hope was that by December, I could have a rough draft of this Idyll sequel nailed down, an estimated total of 80K words. Then I’d dive back into my first Idyll book and edit it with some new insights into where the characters end up in book 2. I’d release Idyll and Turning (my other novel), and already be percolating on a second draft to my sequel.

I’m really excited at the idea of going from a unpublished nobody to a nobody with three novels on my Amazon Author Page. And I’m excited at the idea of releasing those books in fairly close succession, so that the excitement (hopefully) of one book can build off the excitement (fingers crossed!) of the others. Ah, the freedom of being a independent author, of choosing the shape of your own obscurity.

In addition to writing, I’ve been swamping my head with self-publishing advice. I read ‘Write, Publish, Repeat,’ which has some great advice in it, but is also a little insane (these guys write like a dozen books a year, and they recommend you try to match them). I’ve also been listening to the ‘Write, Publish, Repeat’ authors’ podcast, and the Rocking Self Publishing Podcast, which I’ve really enjoyed. I’m letting this swamp of advice soak in (see the way I brought back that earlier metaphor?), absorbing these insights like a sponge (OK, I’ll drop it now), and I think I’ll write another post on where I net out on all of it.

My biggest bit of wisdom, right now? As a fiction author, your primary marketing pieces are your book. Edit them, get a great cover, and make them available to readers as soon as possible. Because books are like a Twitter account or a blog site…it takes them a while to find an audience. And you can’t find an audience at all until you’ve put something out there.This is kind of a direct contradiction of my ‘hoard three books and release them in close succession’ strategy. But I think it makes sense. And I’ve heard the advice ‘publish your first book as soon as it’s ready’ from multiple sources. I shouldn’t expect an immediate splash of accolades and sales from my first launch as an author. Even if the launch involves two or three books. It’s not going to happen.

So does it make sense for me to stop writing on this sequel and focus on my other books that are closer to being ready? I’m not sure it’s ever a good idea to stop mid-stride on a book if you have momentum going. Hmmm, I’ll have to think on this…

The Pulchritude Award: Alacrity

The Pulchritude Award goes to words that don’t sound anything like what they mean. Today’s winner is ‘alacrity.’
Alas. Alack. Alacrity. It certainly doesn’t sound like a happy word. But that’s exactly what it is. Alacrity (n): brisk and cheerful readiness. It comes from the Latin root, ‘alacer,’ which is also the root for ‘allegro’ (which just sounds so much prettier). Anyway, if you ever feel tempted to use this word, I suggest you move with alacrity to a thesaurus and pick an alternative. How about ‘vim,’ ‘vigor,’ ‘zeal,’ ‘glee,’ ’enthusiasm?’

I Just Read: Kushiel’s Dart

kushiels dartThe word ‘phallus.’ Tramp stamps. These are examples of things that people try to use to be sexy, but that just don’t hit the ‘marque.’

Ah-ha! That last bit there was a little “Kushiel’s Dart” pun. You see, in author Jacqueline Carey’s fantasy world, marques are that elaborate, large tattoos that concubines get on their backs to track their progress in the spiritual sex-trade. The story follows one such concubine, who has been blessed by her freaky-deaky deities to be the freaky-deakiest of S&M subs. Sounds like we’re headed for a sword-and-sorcery version of 50 Shades of Grey, right? ‘Christian gets even MORE Medieval.’ Well, for 200 pages you’d be kind of right.

Then the story swerves into court intrigues and international politics, and our horny heroine becomes more of a Renaissance-era CIA officer. She’s gathering intel, delivering messages, and forging alliances. There are still sex scenes, if you can call them that. Most of them briefly mentioned transactions, or they’re out-and-out rapes.

Hmm. How to describe this book. I guess I’d say it’s not for everyone. If you’re a fan of “Lord of the Rings” style treks and sieges, 600 pages of this book will disappoint you. If you’re hoping for an erotic thriller, a different 600 pages of the book will disappoint you. And yet, the book still held my interest. I kept reading through it, all 900 pages.

I guess I was intrigued by the role the heroine plays as the fantasy version of Mata Hari. She doesn’t carry a sword; she doesn’t know any magic spells. Just her wits and her feminine wiles. And I liked the religion that Carey creates, which is based on angels and disciples of a vaguely Christian faith. And I think of all the fantasy books I’ve read, this one probably comes closest to Game of Thrones, in that it weaves together a dozen intricate plots, and warring factions. Most of the characters are morally ambiguous characters. No one’s purely evil, and there’s only a handful of characters purely good. So that’s a great thing that the book has going for it. It looks like one of the ‘Kushiel’ sequels explores a Persian or Turkish setting, so I may check that out as well.

Once-a-Book Word: Sanguine

Like Mr. Miyagi teaching ‘the crane’ to Daniel-san, I will now teach you your own ‘special move’—a once-a-book word that will awe and befuddle your readers. I beg of you: Use it sparingly!

Sanguine: You have to love this adjective. Depending on your context, it can mean either cheerful or murderous. Who among us hasn’t been to a family reunion that starts off sanguine and ends up sanguine?

I Just Read: Station Eleven

station-elevenI’ve read a few looong books lately, books that are parts of even looooonger trilogies. So it’s nice to get to the end of a book and actually be sorry it’s over. Ahh, the sprightliness of upmarket speculative fiction. Not only is it worded so prettily, but it’s plotted and edited for brevity.

Station Eleven is an upmarket post-apocalyptic novel written by Emily St. John Mandel. In this book, the end of the world is brought on by an extremely deadly flu, and the story flits back and forth in time—before, during, and after the outbreak. The narration follows five main characters, and a series of coincidences links these characters’ lives, both pre and post pandemic, and before and after death. The co-inky-dinks only become more prevalent as the character’s figurative ‘small world’ becomes a literally decimated small world. I don’t think the author was trying to create a sort of apocalyptic, mystical force of ‘Fate’ (although a lot of post-apocalyptic books tend to go that way: The Stand, The Passage, Swan’s Song). Instead, Mandel’s serendipity is an echo of art, of stories that outlive their authors, of actors whose fame outstrips their personal lives. In this post-apocalypse, ideas from Shakespeare, Star Trek, and the glossy photos of tabloid magazines keep the survivors inspired and illuminated, long after the loss of electricity and air-travel.

Most of the unlikely connections in Station Eleven stem from a comic book that was published at a vanity press (only ten copies were ever made) by an unknown author who may or may not have died twenty years ago. If, like myself, you’re aspiring to be an independently published author, this idea will probably strike you as particularly sad. And the book does often strike a melancholy mood. Even before the plague: these characters are haunted by divorce, dysfunctional families, and dissociation from their own lives. And Station Eleven doesn’t offer much in the way of easy answers, or chances at redemption. But it is sparkling with hope.