Holy Bagpipes!

bagpipesnew columbia university

As a Librarian, I can’t really condone this behavior. (pic from Columbia University.)

Here at Unicorn HQ, the unpacking is pretty much done except for the books. Of course, the books always made up the majority of our boxes, and since we have bookcases in multiple rooms on multiple floors instead of a single library here at the new house, it’s going to be quite the undertaking. But we’ve already started putting some books at least near the shelf they will eventually live on. This includes what we refer to as our “Ready Reference” (technical Librarian term there), and several of the Ready Reference books are our favorite writing books. Now, I know we’ve shared some of our favorite books on writing before, but I want to share some of them again because of a post I happened upon this morning on tumblr.

This tumblr post was complaining about the abundance of writing advice out there, some of it contradictory, much of it seemingly designed to discourage people from writing in the first place. The post ended in exasperation, the author forced to use the delightful phrase “holy bagpipe” in order to express her frustration with writing advice. Personally, I think it’s great to know rules, real hard and fast ones, as well as the mere suggestions, all of which the writer who has a handle on proper writing can feel free to throw out the window in exchange for stylistic choices that make the work better.

But how do you learn the rules, the real and the personal preferences? The right books, of course. So, here’s a few of our favorites focusing on the nuts and bolts of writing as opposed to specific how-to-write-fiction books. Enjoy them while we both get back to our Camp NaNo projects, which are coming apace. Oh, and unpacking our library.

  • Strunk and White (Classic.)
  • Woe Is I (Helpful and a ton of fun. A lot of people would recommend Eats, Shoots and Leaves as the fun grammar book, but I have a place in my heart for this one.)
  • How Not to Write a Novel (It’s really not just for fiction writers and has a lot of great stuff.)
  • Chicago Manual of Style (It doesn’t matter which style manual you choose, but I recommend picking one and living by its decisions when in doubt.)
  • Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language (If not this dictionary, then some dictionary, should be your go to for settling disputes. Actually, it should be this dictionary if you’re writing American English. I’ll give you style manuals beside Chicago, but I really believe in this dictionary.)



You Can Quote Me on That

air quote

Punctuation is vital at Evil Medical School.

“I don’t understand how to punctuate dialogue,” Bob confessed.

“Let me explain it to you,” Sue offered.

“But where do we begin? I do everything wrong!”

Sue wanted to smack Bob. He was such a whiner, but then she remembered that punctuating dialogue was something she had to look up once upon a time as well, so she patted his hand and set to teaching. “Let us begin with the noble comma,” she said. “See how I just put a comma at the end of what I was saying inside the quotation marks, because I wasn’t done with the sentence?”

“What?” Bob asked, scratching his head.

“I was speaking, but when I finished speaking, the sentence wasn’t finished, because I added ‘she said’ after the close quote.”

“Oh. Is that why you put a comma before the close quote?”

“Precisely!” Sue answered, thrilled Bob seemed to be picking this up quickly.

“But what about question marks?” asked Bob.

“You mean like what you just did there?”

“I don’t know,” Bob responded, confused.  “Is that what I just did?”

“When what you’re saying is a question, the question mark goes inside the quotation.”

“But what if it’s not the end of the sentence, and you’re going to add, ‘she said’ afterward?  Didn’t you say I needed a comma before the quotation marks if you aren’t done with the sentence, like when you add an attribution?” asked Bob.

“If your statement is complete, and is a question or an exclamation, you need the punctuation to show that as part of the quotation. No comma is necessary!” exclaimed Sue.

“Is that everything?” Bob queried.

“That’s never everything when it comes to punctuation,” said Sue, “but those are the things that come up most often.”

“Wait. Why didn’t you capitalize ‘but,’ and why a comma before it?”

“Because it’s all part of the same sentence and the parts need connected by commas, but you don’t capitalize after a comma. Putting a quotation mark there doesn’t change that.”

“So does that also go for putting the attribution at the start of the sentence instead of the end?”

Sue smiled, and said, “Exactly! A comma before the open quote following the attribution. Well done, Bob.”

“Since I’m doing so well, do you want to tell me the other rules?”

“Well, here are a couple rules you won’t see much, but it can’t hurt to mention. If you have a colon or semicolon, those punctuation marks always go outside the quotation marks.”


“Because my high school English teacher told me so. Some of the rules are pretty arbitrary, and even differ between American and British usage.”

“Whatever you do, don’t try to tell me the British way now, too. I don’t need that confusion,” Bob pleaded.

“Fair enough,” Sue smiled, agreeing it could all start to blend. “One rule that does make sense is that every now and then, you do put question marks and exclamation points outside the quotes.”

“Why would I do that?”

“If the quote is not the exclamation or the question, but the entire sentence is, put the punctuation outside the quotation mark to show that it applies to the entire sentence.”

“That…makes a startling amount of sense considering it’s a grammar rule. Sort of like if I’m quoting you, and I say that you said, ‘My high school English teacher told me so’?”

“Exactly right.” Sue giggled. (Which was a complete thought in this case, not an attribution, so she used periods instead of commas inside the close quote and before the open quote.) “Sometimes it works out. Is that enough for today?”

Bob sighed. “I guess so. Thanks for explaining.”

“My pleasure!” Sue said, as she skipped away.


Welcome Back, Potter

Some thoughts on rereading the Harry Potter series, yet again.

Another school year is now upon us.

Another school year is now upon us.

My summer vacation is, sadly, over, and it’s time for me to go back to work.  Looking back now, I’m pretty pleased with the amount of writing I got done.  I’m not quite done with my reference work on religions, but I had only thought I was going to get halfway through, and I’ve finished about three and a half of the four major denominations.  The file is over 45,000 words now.

S, of course, continues her adventures with fanfic.  I’m sure she’ll have more to report about her experiences sooner or later.  I’ve been helping her by typing a little; her fans are eager for the next installment, and I know she doesn’t want to disappoint them.

Other than working on making up religions and typing and getting ready to go back to work, I’ve started rereading the Harry Potter books in the evenings.  Someday I’m sure S and I will do a formal “reread” of the series, with regular posts on what we’ve read and detailed comments.  But this is not that day.  I’m mainly just reading it because I have to get back onto a regular schedule after months of being able to stay up as late as I want, and reading physical books at night makes me tired.  Also, Harry Potter is fun.  I’ve been reading for a few days, and I’m a little over halfway through the fourth book.  Sometimes it takes me a while to fall asleep, okay?

So here are some things I’m noticing, as an amateur writer, as I go through the series this time:

1 The POV is trickier than I remembered.
When we think about the HP books, we tend to think of them as limited third person from Harry’s POV.  But they aren’t always.  And I’m not just talking about the first chapter of the first book, which is a sort of omniscient third person POV, or the first chapter of the fourth book, which is from the POV of the old caretaker who’s about to be murdered by Voldemort.  You may recall chapter 11 (“Quidditch”) of the first book, where Harry is playing Quidditch for Gryffindor for the first time, and someone (Quirrell/Voldemort, though we don’t know that at the time) is trying to knock him off his broom.  Hermione and Ron think it’s Snape, and they run to the other side of the stands and Hermione sets Snape’s robe on fire to distract him.  In the resulting commotion, Quirrell gets knocked over, thereby inadvertently saving Harry.  The interesting thing about this chapter is the way Rowling slides back and forth between Harry’s POV and the POV of his friends in the stands (especially Ron).  There is no break or line of asterisks to tell you that the POV is shifting.  One moment you’re up in the air with Harry, the next moment you’re down in the stands with Ron.  It’s not especially jarring, but it’s exactly the sort of thing that books for beginning writers tell you that you’re absolutely not supposed to do.

2 You actually can unsee the wrylies…mostly.
I read the books as they came out.  In the case of these first several books, that was when I was in grad school (where I met S, as it happens).  Back then, although I had studied a lot of literature, I hadn’t tried seriously to write any of my own, so I hadn’t read any books on how you’re “supposed” to write a novel.  That meant that, among other things, no one had told me how terribly, terribly bad adverbs are supposed to be.  Thanks to Rowling, though, everyone on earth has had a lesson on the horror of adverbs in articles like this one, and this one, and this one.  The thing is that, as I read these books late at night, I don’t really notice them.  Yes, a few of them stick out.  Take this one, for example, which adds a clunky note to one of my very favorite exchanges in the entire series:

     But Ron was staring at Hermione as though suddenly seeing her in a whole new light.  
    “Hermione, Neville’s right—you are a girl….”
    “Oh well spotted,” she said acidly. 

Is there any question at all, even in the mind of the youngest reader, as to the tone of voice in which Hermione would say, “Oh, well spotted”?  But by and large the “wrylies” just roll over me unnoticed.   This isn’t to say that I’m now going to have all my characters constantly saying things “coolly” and “sarcastically” and “irritably” all the time.  But it does make me suspect that a lot of people who complained about Rowling’s adverbs were writers and writing teachers who, thanks to reading a lot of crappy writing in their time, are hyper-vigilant for “problems” that ordinary readers just don’t see.  Also, as the writer of the blog at that second link suggests, the wrylies stand out much more when you’re either reading the book aloud (as S and I have done together) or listening to the audiobook (which S and I have also done together).  When you actually can hear someone read Hermione’s line in an acid tone, the adverb becomes redundant.

3 The stories take a while to get started.
In my U.S. hardback editions, the first book is 309 pages long.  Harry doesn’t even get to Hogwarts until page 111, more than a third of the way in.  Fighting the troll in the restroom (the event that makes Hermione friends with Harry and Ron, thereby finally bringing together the central trio of protagonists) doesn’t finish until page 179, well after the halfway point.  In book 4, they don’t get to Hogwarts until page 170, though that’s much earlier in the story, comparatively speaking, since that book is 734 pages long.  This isn’t a criticism, necessarily.  A lot of what Rowling does in those long opening sections is worldbuilding and setting up clues and red herrings for later in the story.  But it is somewhat at odds with the idea you need to start your story as late as possible (“in late, out early”) and have something exciting happen at the very beginning.  Let’s not forget how Rowling starts the whole series.  With the murder of Harry’s parents?  With Hagrid bringing Harry to live with his aunt and uncle?  No, actually.  That comes later in the first chapter, and as for the murder of Harry’s parents, we don’t get to see that.  We just get to listen to people standing around, talking about it sadly.  No, the story actually starts with a couple paragraphs about the Dursleys, explaining how boring they are.  It’s an amusing little opening, but one can’t help feeling that it’s not at all the way most books on writing a novel would advise to do it.

Anyway, those are the main thoughts I’ve been having on this particular read-through.  As I say, I’m sure someday S and I will do a true “reread” with more detailed comments.  And then you can hear all of S’s complaints about how Quidditch makes no sense as a sport (S played a lot of softball when she was younger, so she has far more experience with team sports than I do).  But for now, I’ve got more reading to do.