Monday, January 30, 2012

Admitting Faults

I ended up scoring major brownie points at the office the other day in a rather unusual way.  Thoughtlessly, I offended somebody (probably not a big surprise) but I didn't find out until about 20 minutes later when a third party mentioned it to me.  I dropped what I was doing and immediately headed back to the person in question and delivered a public apology.  While this seemed like a small thing to me, in fact, the only natural way to handle the situation, it went a long way not only with the individual, but with everybody around him.

In my line of work, I meet troubled people all the time.  Whatever their vice may be - theft, addiction, self-abuse, only one factor remains the same.  You can never improve until you admit that you have a problem.

The same principle applies to my trade of choice: writing.  I could go on for hours about how sucking it up and joining a writing group has changed my life for the better, particularly finally having a group of people that I care deeply about that share the same passion, the same hopes, the same collective dream.  It's for this reason that I never pull punches when it comes time to critique and expect the very same.  Truth be told, I wish they'd hit me harder.

I'm certain I'm not the best writer in the world and I have plenty of room for improvement.  I've always doubted my abilities and have always worked to improve them.  Seeing as how I can't use that as an example, I'm going to share with you my true shame - not because I want sympathy or encouragement as I tackle my next goal, but because I want YOU to know that it's okay to admit that you're not perfect.

Click for Pic

It's been nearly 6 years since I left behind my life of loading trucks in a warehouse overnight, and I kissed that body goodbye a long time ago.  Once proud to wear tight shirts in a size small, I can't even bring myself to tuck in my shirts anymore.

Once you've admitted your fault - not to anybody but yourself, it's time to act.  I know myself well enough to know that I can't just up and duck out to the gym whenever I want.  Having three small children adds a bit of restriction.  But when we got a Kinect for Christmas and I got sore as all get-out from playing Fruit Ninja and Kinect Adventures, I knew there was some new potential here.

Let's make it a game.

I got the UFC Personal Trainer game and have started the 30-day workout program.  I'm not certain if it will work or not, but I started it this morning and can still feel the burn.  There's just some places I don't enjoy hurting.

But I'm going to stick with it.  I'll let you know the results at a later date.  But while I'm working on that, I want YOU to be working on you.  Talk to your critique group, find a beta-reader, or, if you like, send me 5-10 pages and I'll tear it apart for you (in a timely manner).

If there's any truth to life, it's that the day we stop finding faults within ourselves and cease to improve, we grow stagnant as people.  We become comfortable with status-quo.  We lose the spark that makes life wonderful.  I'm not saying you should stand in front of the mirror like a teenage girl and pick at every pimple, but find one thing that bothers you, just one, and work at it.  Kneed it like stubborn dough until you can mold it into something better.

Cliche as it may sound - spend each day being the best you that you can be.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

My Aunt Agonist is a Person Too

The key to any good story is conflict. It’s what drives the reader to keep turning the page; to keep picking up the book after they’ve put it down for the day. Don’t get me wrong, intriguing characters and a strong narrative are essential as well, but nobody wants to hear about Mr/Mrs. Awesome’s perfect day at the beach, especially if it takes more than one sitting to get through. Evil Dr. McRuinstuff, your presence is needed center stage.

Antagonists are defined as anything that stands between a protagonist and his/her/its goal. So technically, if little Jimmy wants to go play at the park, but there’s a big brick wall in the way, the brick wall is the antagonist. Bad wall!

The terrible thing is when I’m trying to read through a book and the main villain is given as much thought as said wall. Villains are written as static characters that enter the story for one reason and one reason only, to stop the monotony of your insipid self-discovery whiney bullshit. Well no more! Antagonists are sick of being cannon fodder for your epic romance and have a few things to say for themselves!

Anybody who’s ever held a newborn baby can attest to the fact that none of us are born evil (except Rosemary, but that bitch was crazy!) So how do we up and one day decide… “you know what sounds great? Destroying everybody in the world!” I’m not saying it’s impossible… I’m pretty sure those exact words flow from my mouth every morning as I’m staring down my alarm clock with enough animosity to make it snooze itself. What I’m poking at is the all-encompassing favorite question of every freaking four year old that crosses my path: Why?

It is the duty of every writer worth their salt  to know and understand the ins and outs of their world, including all who dwell in it. So when you tell me that the antagonist has it in for the main character over a prejudice, you’d better be able to back it up with more than, “Cuz his daddy hates (insert racial slur here)”

Think about Batman and the various villains. Every single one of them has a tragic backstory with a specific turning point, the most tragic of all belonging to Harvey Dent, otherwise known as Two-Face.

Outside of sociopaths, people react negatively for two reasons – Pain and fear. If you think about it, anybody that you’ve ever held an ounce of hatred against was either because they hurt you or somebody you love, or they intimidated you in some way. If neither of these two senses make an impact, the person in question usually doesn’t earn a second thought and any wrong done against you is pushed back to the darker recesses of your mind to join in on a game of hopscotch.

The most effective antagonists are the ones with a clear set of morals (even if a few of them are a bit shaky) that brings about a level of sympathy from the reader. Obviously not too much, otherwise the audience is likely to jump teams and, next thing you know, everybody wants to be Darth Vader for Halloween…

As the writer and therefore creator/God of this world, you should never hate your antagonist. They are as much a part of you as the main character. Any attempts to disassociate this person from yourself is going to end up with a 2-Dimensional cartoon character that bounds around in dastardly deeds and sequesters nothing more than irritation from the readers.

If you’re playing 20 questions to get to know your protagonist, do the same for the antagonist. Who knows, they may end up becoming a treasured ally, friend or love interest in a sequel! But more than likely they’ll just come back continuing to be a dick.

Similes, Metaphors and Butphors

Anybody who has survived the public school system has been bombarded with these terms enough to know them by heart. The mere mention of any of them should have Webster’s dictionary definition scrolling through your head verbatim like an electronic ticker. So why should you keep reading this? I’ll tell you why: because like a box of Legos, just because you know what they are doesn’t mean you really know how to use them.

Beauty and the Gimp

Similes and metaphors are pretty similar by definition. The best way to compare to two is to say that similes are like the uglier of two siblings. You know the one – not as smart, athletic or charming. While both serve a purpose, similes hit with less impact. Does this make them less important? Not at all, there’s a time and place for everything.
The whole concept behind these literary devices is the realization that not everybody will experience the same things in life. Quite the contrary, most people will have exceptionally different experiences throughout life. The only thing that truly links humans to each other are their morals, beliefs and needs. Similes come into play when the author is looking to express a foreign activity or concept. This is also where most literary work and dialogue is loaded down with cliches. To say something is ‘like riding a bike’ suggests that, once learned, it is never forgotten. This concept is lost on anybody under the age of 6 who has never learned to ride a bicycle, but still manages to apply to a vast majority.

The Amateur Approach

On the other hand, saying that something is ‘like snorkeling in a bathtub filled with molasses’, will more than likely leave your audience more confused than they started out with. Which brings up an excellent point, know your audience. If you’re talking to an elderly community, it may be fun to compare things to wearing adult diapers, false teeth, losing hair or impotence, but these probably aren’t your most tactful options. There’s a time and place to be silly, but sometimes you need a more professional approach. Discussing a merger of two companies can be like a melting pot, but most people will just roll their eyes because it’s not true. Merging two companies is like combining families through marriage. Those getting married will be happy with the deal, but the others involved won’t be as willing to jump into it. There will be hard feelings, disappointment, resentment and the feeling of being overlooked. 

That Lovin’ Feeling

Metaphors are a bit more powerful in my opinion. They’re also more intertwined with emotions, stream of conscious and poetry. These bad boys compare two unlike things by stating one is the other.

Example: “I am the sun. Freeze in my shadow or burn in my glory.”
With metaphors, you’re not so much comparing similar experiences as blatantly stating that a person, object, feeling or expression is something else based upon features. For instance, a porcupine is notorious for being a prick, a habanero pepper is known for being hot, and brown eyes are known for being “delicious.” Utilizing these features and some clever plays on words is the best way to use metaphors to spice up any dull Tupperware party or public address.
This finally brings us to our last entry:

What is a butphor?

For pooping, silly…


I have resolved that diagramming a sentence was a ploy specifically engineered by literary scholarly types to be mind-numbingly dull, disinteresting, and monotonous. By this I of course mean that you can expect this blog to be completely professional and abstain from all things inappropriate, vulgar, eccentric or effing irrelevant.

So why map out sentences? I’d like to use this opportunity to compare writing a sentence to punching somebody in the face. It’s not as simplistic as it seems, much forethought goes into pummeling knuckles into flesh and bone. For instance, you would just as likely take a swing with somebody while you’re pinky’s hanging out as you would find a sentence to apply a dangling modifier to. You don’t swing a fist open handed. Most importantly, when you punch somebody, you want impact. You need the roll-of-quarters of well-placed articles, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions to add that extra weight and keep your knuckles straight. And that, my friends, is why you should diagram important sentences.

Reading a poorly constructed sentence is like having your cousin give you a sponge bath… it just feels wrong. Without my clever insight, you may never know why. First of all, there’s a blood relationship, and that’s just awkward. Second of all, something’s probably out of line.

Back to basics
All sentences consist of, at the bare minimum, a subject and a verb. The shortest sentence in the English language is, “I am.” ‘I’ is the subject and ‘am’ is the verb, suggesting a state of being. From there, things become more complex as we add a predicate. “I am happy” adds the adjective describing the subject of happy.
In the sentence, “I kick the ball,” ‘I’ is once again the subject, ‘kick’ is the verb, and ‘ball’ is the direct object because it’s what the subject is effecting with the verb. Or what the ‘I’ is verbing… Which leaves ‘the’. Words like ‘the’, ‘a’, and ‘some’ are called articles. Articles categorize nouns by separating a random from a specific or a part from a whole.

Just get to it already
What I’m getting at is that every word has a function. Finding out what that function is can be upsetting and frustrating, especially since you’re not used to thinking about it in a mathematical sense.
To diagram a sentence, arrange the sentence in an order like this:


Obviously if there is no direct object, it would simply be subject and verb. Once this is established, you begin placing adjectives, adverbs, prepositions and articles beneath the category that they represent.



\Articles______\______________\Articles_&_Articles of Prepositional Phrase

When Should I Use This?
If you intend to diagram each and every sentence in your story and novel, you might as well try to empty a pond by scooping out handfuls of water at a time. You know when a sentence doesn’t sound quite right, especially when your readers are getting confused at who is doing what to whom or what. The other exceptions are the big impact sentences. These often fall at the beginning or end of a chapter or in the middle of a major transition.
These bundles of words need to be more perfect than a purebred breeding *itch.

The Comma Chameleon

1600 Chao Mein Ct., Birmingham, CA
Monday, December 17, 1997
The sentence was well thought out, well worded and, to be fair, perfect. Unfortunately, as the writer stared down at his masterpiece, he soon realized that he had no idea how to punctuate it. Sure there was a period at the end of the sentence, but how was he to know where the dreaded comma should go. This piece of punctuation, much like a chameleon, was meant to blend into its environment, unnoticed by the casual observer. Unfortunately, unlike the chameleon, its absence would not be so modestly overlooked. “Curse you Lord of Grammar,” he cried, shaking his sore, trembling fist into the air as tears began rolling down ink-stained cheeks.
It would turn out that the Lord of Grammar, a merciful yet vengeful soul, heeded to this poor man’s cry and sent to him an angel, a beacon of light in his darkest times. The man looked up to this symbol of peace and hope, eyes still damp from the liquid frustration welling in them. Not speaking a word, the figure spread its long arms out wide in an assumed gesture of acceptance. The man rose from his seat and approached the white robes, imitating the angel’s pose as he closed the distance between the two.
From nowhere, the angel’s hand moved faster than lightning, striking the man against the cheek and leaving a red impression of a perfectly sculpted palm and fingers. He crashed to the floor, spilling against the hard wood, his head rebounding from its impact with the brick like any other crumpled manuscript, of which there were many. Bending over and leaning its immaculate face close to the man’s, the lips formed words of the sweetest sound, ringing in his ears for years to come. “Bi**h, man the **ck up.”

For many of us, placement of the ever important comma can be a daunting task. Often times we neglect to put them where they truly belong, only counting on our abilities to speak the text aloud and throw in a comma where there’s a natural pause.
 Unfortunately, this method isn’t always reliable. What I am here to give to you today is the HANDFUL (that’s right, I said ‘handful’) of rules that are easy to remember, yet essential to proper punctuation placement. How easy is it? I used each and every of the comma rules, outside of proper construction, at least once in the short excerpt you just finished reading.

An Introduction If You Please…

By this, I of course mean an introductory statement. Words like Yes, However, For Instance, and Well will often set a tone for the ideas that follow, particularly if it is in contrast to the tone used previously. In this case, these words are separated from the main clause by a comma.


• However, the dress looked better on her sister.

• Well, I suppose we could return it and find something better.

• Yes, I think that is the best suggestion.

Lists, Series, Inventories, Catalogues, and Redundant Terms…

Three or more words or phrases are separated by commas. These aren’t just used for listing out nouns, but also for offering an overabundance of adjectives describing a single subject or listing out phrases such as a list of chores. The comma between the last two items on the list is not essential, but is grammatically suggested.


• It was a terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad day.

• I need to stop by the store for bacon, ham, pork chops, and kosher pickles.

• At college I learned how to sleep walk to class, pull an all-nighter, sleep with my eyes open, negotiate grades and do my own laundry.


A clause is, more or less, an idea.

An independent clause is a complete sentence, meaning it has a minimum of a subject and a verb. In laymen’s terms, something performs an action.

The most simplistic of these is the simple statement, “I am.” In this, I is the subject and am, meaning ‘to be’, is the verb.

Two independent clauses can be combined in a single sentence with the help of a

coordinating conjunction to form what is known as a compound sentence.

There are a total of seven coordinating conjunctions, easily identified by the acronym, F.A.N.B.O.Y.S.

For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So paired with a comma, these conjunctions are the glue that binds two complete sentences together.


• I am awesome, but my teacher doesn’t see it that way.

• The tickets were on sale, so we each bought two of them.

• I know that it’s perfectly legal, yet I feel so dirty when I do it.

Incomplete This…

On the darker side of the clauses exists the dependent clause.

Like that friend that’s constantly hitting you up for five bucks, these clauses have everything necessary to make a complete sentence, but still can’t stand on their own and thus are constantly hanging around the independents.

How do clauses go bad and become dependents?

Their drug of choice is something called the subordinating conjunction.

Unlike coordinating conjunctions, these little devils don’t have a clever acronym or complete list.
Subordinating conjunctions are words that attach themselves to the beginning of a clause to make it an incomplete sentence.

Words like before, while, although, after, and because suddenly alert the reader to expect more than this simple statement and combine with an independent clause to create a complex sentence.

The nasty trick here is that, if the dependent clause comes first, then a comma needs to separate the two. If the independent clause comes first, then there is no comma. Allow me to demonstrate:

Example A:

• While you’re waiting, please enjoy a complimentary foot massage.

• Please enjoy a complimentary foot massage while you’re waiting.

Example B:

• After the concert, we headed to another club.

• We headed to another club after the concert.

Example C:

• Because we failed to tighten the faucet, the basement is now flooded.

• The basement is now flooded because we failed to tighten the faucet.

So You Say…

This one is a no-brainer, or at least it should be; commas are used to separate action from dialogue. The only real rule that I constantly have to remind students of is, with only one very rare exception, punctuation goes before quotation – always, always, always. Whether you’re ending action to open dialogue or ending dialogue to introduce action, the comma will always be in front of the quotation mark.


• Bob said, “I like your tie.”

• “Thanks,” I replied.

• “If you’re not doing anything later,” Bob began, “Maybe we could go tie shopping together.”

• “Hell no!”--No action = No comma.

Butting In…
An interjection is a snippet of parenthetical information added into a sentence.

As the name suggests, parenthetical information is any additional information on a subject that you would add in parenthesis.

In this case, however, we are foregoing the parenthesis and using commas to push this information into the middle of the sentence.

The big way to know for sure if it is an interjection or not, is to take it out. If the sentence still makes sense without the extra info, then it is indeed an interjection and should be surrounded on both sides by a comma.


• I was hanging out with Cubid, a loveable little cherub, when we came across the pirate ship.

• Driving through Dallas, the city of my birth, can be a frightening thing at night.

• My favorite dish, the number seven special, was taken off the menu for health reasons.

The OTHER White Meat…
Geographical locations and dates are fairly straightforward. Commas separate words from words and numbers from numbers.

That means that street, city and state would all be separated by commas, but there wouldn’t be any between the street number and the street or the state and zip code.

It’s the same with dates. Commas go between the day and month as well as the numeric day and calendar year, but not between the month and numeric day.

Friday, July 13, 2012 – 2469 Shabangme Drive, Southlake, TX 76092 - the place to be.

The final rule, which isn’t really a well-established rule, consists of pausing a sentence to offer an opposing thought. I almost throw this in as an interjection, because it’s non-essential information, but it generally comes at the end and is rarely complimentary.

This is best observed with examples.

• He was merely ignorant, not stupid.

• The chimpanzee seemed reflective, almost human.

• You’re one of the senator’s close friends, aren’t you?

• The speaker seemed innocent, even gullible.

And now I challenge you. Go, be free, create great works of art without further troubling me with your previously misguided use of the comma.
Continued abuse of this poor punctuation piece will force me to place a call to CPS, the Comma Protective Services, and have it taken away from you. Thanks.