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May
26
Frank Ball

Confusing Contractions

Learning from the Masters, Writing Well
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Learning from the Masters

Bestselling authors may write great paragraphs, but we can learn ways to make them even better.
  Using an apostrophe-s to create a noun-verb contraction risks a misread of the word as a possessive.

Two great paragraphs from Singularity by Steven James:
  The evening’s cool for this time of year, and a faint breeze fingers its way past the drenched rice fields and through the cemetery. The air is smudged with the sharp tinge of smoke from the wood fires of people cooking dinner in their bamboo huts. Everything smells damp and earthy and weary of the day.
  One of the men who’s standing beside the grave lights a kerosene lantern. Even though darkness hasn’t devoured the jungle yet, the day is dim enough for the lantern to cast a blur of uneven light across the ground.

What we might see for an improved version:
  The evening is cool for this time of year, and a faint breeze whispers across the flooded rice fields and through the cemetery. Wisps of smoke are rising from the wood fires of people cooking dinner in their bamboo huts. The air smells damp and earthy and weary of the day.
  Standing beside the grave, one of the men lights a kerosene lantern. Even though darkness hasn’t yet devoured the jungle, the day is dim enough for the lantern to cast a blur of uneven light across the ground.

Some logic for making improvements:

  1. Instead of understanding “evening’s cool” as the “evening is cool,” readers may visualize the “cool of the evening,” only to realize that their perception is wrong. Applying the same logic to the second paragraph, “one of the men who’s standing” is better without the contraction.
  2. Can a breeze “finger its way”? Through trees, perhaps, but the visual doesn’t work well over a rice field. Maybe the breeze whispered across the rice and through the cemetery.
  3. A field is drenched after a heavy rain, but rice fields are flooded by irrigation, so we should say the rice field is flooded, not drenched.
  4. Both a smudge and a tinge are small amounts, so we don’t need both words to create the hint of smoke in the air.
  5. The word “everything” doesn’t create a picture of anything. “The air” is more specific, delivering the smells and touching the senses.
  6. The explanatory phrase, “who is standing beside the grave,” must be set off with commas to avoid a misread of standing beside the “grave lights.” The phrase works best when it introduces the sentence.
  7. The adverb “yet” is best placed next to the verb it modifies instead of after “jungle.”
May
22
Frank Ball

Shooting Golf

Weekend Fun
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You may have heard golfers talking about their game, comparing scores. Getting good takes practice, and that calls for time spent at the driving range.

Some days are better than others, but here’s one way that even a novice can shoot well.

May
19
Frank Ball

Rule of Threes

Learning from the Masters, Writing Well
0

Learning from the Masters

The first sentence, the first paragraph, and the first chapter of the book are the most important, in that order, because they come first. If that area isn’t captivating, you may not get another chance to make a good impression.
  A one-sentence paragraph to open a novel might be impressive writing, but shorter sentences in groups of three items would be better. As soon as we exceed three items, monotony begins to set in.

A great paragraph from False Memory by Dean Koontz:
  On that Tuesday in January, when her life changed forever, Martine Rhodes woke with a headache, developed a sour stomach after washing down two aspirin with grapefruit juice, guaranteed herself an epic bad-hair day by mistakenly using Dustin’s shampoo instead of her own, broke a fingernail, burnt her toast, discovered ants swarming through the cabinet under the kitchen sink, eradicated the pests by firing a spray can of insecticide as ferociously as Sigourney Weaver wielded a flamethrower in one of those old extraterrestrial-bug movies, cleaned up the resultant carnage with paper towels, hummed Bach’s Requiem as she solemnly consigned the tiny bodies to the trash can, and took a telephone call from her mother Sabrina, who still prayed for the collapse of Martie’s marriage three years after the wedding.

What we might see for an improved version:
  Martine Rhodes awakened with a headache, developed a sour stomach after washing down two aspirin with grapefruit juice, and guaranteed herself an epic bad-hair day by mistakenly using Dustin’s shampoo instead of her own. In the kitchen, she broke a fingernail as she dropped her burned toast into the trash, discovered ants swarming under the sink, and eradicated the pests by firing a spray can of insecticide as ferociously as Sigourney Weaver wielded a flamethrower in the Alien movie. In cleaning up the carnage with paper towels, she hummed Bach’s Requiem, solemnly consigned the tiny bodies to the trash can, and took a telephone call from her mother, Sabrina, who was still praying for the collapse of Martie’s marriage, three years after the wedding.

Some logic for making improvements:

  1. “When her life changed forever” is a reporter’s observation, because Martine can’t know how her life has changed until later, when she can see the change. For readers to get a sense of being Martine, that phrase and the date need to be left out.
  2. A seemingly endless list of things going wrong is a powerful opening to the novel, but we can strengthen it by applying the “rule of threes,” which says people are most comfortable with the images and are most impacted by the message when the list is grouped into three items at a time.
  3. How does breaking a fingernail associate with burned toast? The first items worked well from the bed to the bathroom, but now we need a second group of three in the kitchen.
  4. “Sabrina,” the name of the mother, is explanatory, so it needs to be set off with commas.
  5. Since Sabrina’s prayer had been for such a long period, the ongoing action verb, “praying,” is better than the simple past tense verb, “prayed.”
  6. We need a comma before “three years after the wedding” to make the phrase explanatory. Otherwise, it’s restrictive, technically saying that Mom was praying for the marriage to fail three years from now.
May
15
Frank Ball

Practical Jokes

Weekend Fun
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Call it a prank, gag, or shenanigan, we laugh with the innocent victim who is caught by surprise. A salesman remembered it was April Fools’ Day when he reached for the office phone to call a customer and the button numbers were rearranged. One morning, the big boss, who was always having closed-door meetings, came running out of his office, saying, “All right, who stole my door?”

Practical jokes aren’t always funny, but you’ll probably agree that these are: