Michelle Wittle On Taking Back Proper Grammar

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

I know my grammar is bad. I change tenses sometimes even in the same sentence. There are common words that still confuse me. I even wonder how I passed my grammar course in college. But there is one thing I do know.

The word “AND” is a conjunction. Actually, “and” is called a coordinating conjunction meaning it connects two or more sentences of equal structures in a sentence(Understanding English Grammar, Kolln and Funk, 388). My best friends at Strunk and White say basically the same thing about coordinating conjunctions (coordinating conjunctions join two similar grammatical structures together in the same sentence Elements of Style, 91). Basically it means there are two similar structures in the same sentence and these are linked by the coordinating connection.  Here is a very basic example taken from Kolln and Funk:  Tim and Mary went to the baseball game. In the sentence there are two subjects (which are the same grammatical structure) connected by the word “and.”

I bring this all up today because I fear for our sentences. Somewhere along the line, someone got it in his or her head to start a sentence with “and” is perfectly acceptable. In most of the research into why this is happening, people are blaming emails, facebook, and twitter. I can see blaming them for poor spelling; however, I would not say they are to blame for this “and” thing.  I don’t know why it has started but I know it needs to stop.

I don’t understand the reasoning for beginning a sentence with “and.” Are people looking to be the next e.e. cummings? Do people not understand the function of a conjunction? When did “and” become an article verses a conjunction?

When I see “and” starting a sentence it is like seeing an all I can eat sundae buffet; I don’t know where to start or what to pick, but I know it’s all getting destroyed.

Using “and” to start a sentence leads to sentence fragments (another one of my grammar pet peeves I will discuss in my next blog). Sentence fragments dumb down any writing. I understand in dialogue sentence fragments can have a purpose. No one really speaks in complete thoughts.  But outside of dialogue, there is no justifying a sentence fragment. Okay, I hear the argument about setting a narrator’s tone, but let’s save the argument for the other blog.

The bottom line is do not use “and” to start a sentence. I don’t care if people are willing to accept the use of it, we can’t accept it. We are better than this!

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Michelle Wittle On Author Heroes

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

Why did I want to become a writer?

I’ll be honest; I have no idea why I want to be a writer. A part of me feels like I am doing it to honor my father. He wanted so badly to be a writer and he had a big red photo album of rejection letters to prove his determination. His early death stopped his dream and I always felt I should pick up the cliché torch and keep running. However, just wanting to do something my father did really doesn’t explain it. I feel like it is something I have always been and denying it any longer is just denying me air or water. I am a writer. I can’t run from it.

But who shaped me into being this writer?

When I first started reading, I was entranced by Judy Blume. She made me see life wasn’t always pretty and it was okay. That was just the way life was sometimes. From her, I understood how creating real and honest characters can help a reader feel real and less abnormal.

In college, of course I fell in love with Sylvia Plath. In my opinion, no one can show raw emotion better than Plath. I wanted to emulate that style. I wanted to pour my pain on the page and ask for nothing but for readers to see it and feel it. I didn’t want pity or sympathy. I just wanted someone to hear me.

Dorothy Parker had such a witty and sharp tongue. I loved how with so few words, Parker would leave the reader with a powerful image. She was a silent snake and I wanted that for myself as well. I wanted to use few words and leave my reader with just an image to hold onto.

Augusten Burroughs showed me life can be a mess. However,what you do with that mess is what counts. Do you let it just roll over you, or do you watch as Jesus pets the cow? He showed me why I was tuned into writing to begin with and for that he is one of my heroes.

David Sedaris uses his situations and life to not only tell a funny story, but to teach a lesson. He is what creative nonfiction is and if you are curious about the genre, I suggest you really look at his writings. He tells snippets from his life, we laugh, but at the end there is always the lesson he learns from the experience.

Lastly, I am now learning about the genius of Lucy Grealy. She used a horrific experience and asked us not to look at the situation, but what she learned from it. She had cancer and while that was a tough thing to overcome, she showed readers she was more than a disease. She suffered the same insecurities and thoughts everyone else can suffer in a lifetime. She asked her readers to not pity or feel sorry for her but to see her for all that she was and I want the same thing.

Augusten Burroughs taught me to write. David Sedaris taught me the genre I needed to focus my writing in. Lucy Grealy taught me how to write in the genre.

These are my writing heroes and I am thankful to have been exposed to all of them. They have shaped my soul and my writing and there are not enough words to express my gratitude for them paving the way and going first.

Michelle Wittle On Rookie Mistakes

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

I have only been in grad school for about a month and I am already amazed how much I have learned about writing and myself as a writer. It makes me sick to learn all the rookie mistakes I have made as a writer. I feel like should have known better. To prevent any other young writers from falling into the same traps I have gotten my leg stuck into, I am admitting my top five errors I’ve made in my own writing.

  1. Never use adverbs when using “said”. An example of this would be: “He smugly said”. The reasoning is the dialogue should express the character spoke smugly and the writer shouldn’t feel the need to explain how the character spoke.
  2. Show, don’t tell. For me, I think I fall victim to this because I was a teacher. I am used to lecturing people and having to explain things many times and in different ways. Readers don’t read because they want to be lectured. Readers read to become a part of the world the author presents. Let the reader live in the world the author created and let the reader take away what he or she can take away from the writing. It will mean more to the reader because he or she discovered something in the writing rather than being told what he or she was supposed to get from the writing.

Also, I think I am so afraid of my writing. I feel like I don’t write the pieces well enough, so I have to tell the reader what I meant by writing the piece. That comes from low writing esteem and in time that fear will dissipate.

  1. Opening up with the weather or time. My first novel (that my Mac ate) opened with Meredith walking to school on a beautiful fall morning at the start of a new school year. These two things are major no-no’s. With the weather, no one cares about it not unless it is a crucial part of the plot. If it is a great hurricane and the character is struggling to keep the family safe, then the weather description works. However, if the weather is just setting the stage, then trust me no one cares about the stage. Let the characters set the stage.

With time, it’s the same thing. If the time is important because at 12:15pm the main character’s friend died and now the character feels his or her life shifting at that moment, then it might be acceptable. However, if the time is just to set the stage…toss it out. Let the character and his or her actions and reactions tell the reader the time of day.

  1. 4. Heavy description. Luckily, it is not the Victorian times and writers no longer get paid by the word. Heavy description tends to kill the world the writer creates because the writer is investing too much of him or herself inside the piece. The writer’s job is to create the world and, again, let the reader play in that world. I can’t tell you how many times I have read a book or a short story and looked at that heavy prose paragraph and just turned the page. I can recall one book I read and it was describing how some water dripped off a girl’s body. The whole time I was reading it I was frustrated because why do I care how the water dripped off the chick? Apparently it was a well written piece, but again I couldn’t stomach reading it because I didn’t care. That scene served no purpose other than establishing the writer’s ability to write description.
  2. 5. Writing true dialogue. This is by far one of the most difficult things to do because as a young writer (young meaning new to the game and not chronicle age) one tends to insert the writer’s own voice in the character’s voice. Also, the dialogue tends to be too long and forced. Most people don’t speak to someone for a page and a half without taking a break or moving. In just writing this blog, I have drunk a cup of tea, watched some curling on TV, put towels in the washer, and I’ve been cheating on you by texting a friend. People multi-task and it is crucial when writing dialogue the writer allows the characters to move about as the conversation moves along. My one professor calls it the “floating head syndrome” and I feel that is a great visual to hold in mind when writing dialogue. Are your character’s just floating about having a conversation? Give them action.

With action in dialogue also come speech patterns. People speak over one another. People use slang. People use contractions. Speech isn’t all grammar free and pretty, so don’t write it that way. Speech is also a great way to get a character description across without having to explain everything about the character. Words help define us; allow that to happen in writing.

Michelle Wittle On the Writer’s Purpose

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

I can recall many times when I was in the English classroom, my students would tell me the reason they were writing an essay was because their teacher told them to write it. I always died a bit inside when I would read that sentence because, while it was true I had assigned the essay, that never should have been the reason for writing it.

No matter what the underlined purpose for writing an essay (or any type of writing  for that matter) there is always something the writer wants to express to the reader. Every writer has a purpose. Every word written has a function beyond the literal one of being on the page. There is always a reason why an author uses this word over that one. The writer picks and choses what details to expand on and which ones to compress. Every time a person writes, there is a purpose.

In strictly non-fiction, purpose doesn’t change as much. Normally when one sets out to write about a subject, through the writing the subject stays static.

However, when dealing in the word of Creative Non-Fiction and Fiction, a writer’s purpose tends to change from draft to draft. In my own writing, the purpose I have in the first draft is never the purpose I find in my later drafts.

Why is that?

In my opinion, I think drafts are the writer’s way of cleaning out his or her brain. Kurt Vonnegut’s book, Breakfast of Champions starts out with Vonnegut telling his reader this book is basically him taking all the thoughts (strange as they may be) and putting them down on paper. Whether that statement is true or is hyperbole could be  debated. However, I believe it is important for a writer to get all his or her thoughts on the paper in order to find the true meaning or his or her true purpose in writing the story.

For example, I have this story that started about four years ago. It was just a page and a half long and it was about a man coming out of a coma. Now the story is about twelve pages and explores the man and his relationship with his mother, his friends, and finally his girlfriend. When I first wrote the story, I had no intention of writing a piece on relationships. But now, that is the story I am working with.

Our characters tell us what to write. We can’t force them into a plot or a setting. They will revolt.

The same is true in setting a purpose. Don’t be afraid to let your purpose change as your drafts change. It is all part of the bigger writing process picture.

Michelle Wittle On Understanding Creative Non-Fiction

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

This is one of those terms everyone throws around and no one is man enough to admit no one really knows what the term means.

It’s simple enough. Creative non-fiction is something that is true yet it has a dash of creativity to it.

But, what does that mean in practical terms?

How do we draw the line between fiction and creative non-fiction?

I will use my own writing as an example of what not to do.

I once wrote, what I thought was a creative non-fiction essay about Barbie. However, Barbie is a doll. She is not a person (even though to my childhood self, she was more than just a doll). The subject alone made my essay fiction because I made it all up. Sure, Barbie’s actions could be real and the thoughts I gave her were mine own, but the bottom line remains; my Barbie essay was a fiction story about what her life was like in my eyes.

Fiction is made up. Creative non-fiction looks at real personal experience and adds the creative flair to it.

It sounds easy, but there are such fine lines to what fiction is and what constitutes creative non-fiction. People get confused.  I think what starts confusing people is the word creative. People immediately think because it is creative it must automatically be fake. But, think about the best story teller in your life. They may have exaggerated the truth a bit, but let’s be honest, were those things what made you pay attention to the story? No, it was the way the story was told to you. It was the storyteller’s voice and the way the storyteller presented the information to you that made you want to listen to your Uncle Henry for hours.

That is the key to creative non-fiction.

It is the way the storyteller uses his or her voice to tell you the personal experience. The storyteller’s unique eye for seeing the world around him or her and the ability to grab the audience; those are the things that push creative non-fiction.

Creative non-fiction is looking at the horrors of life and finding that small ray of hope.