Sunday, April 28, 2013

Top Ten Grammar Gaffes

I was asked by fellow author and friend, Elizabeth Seckman, to put together an entry for her blog. She said, “A top ten list is always popular. Maybe you could give the top ten most common grammar errors.” Well, she must know how I think because the following blog entry veritably flowed from me. I don’t know that these are the worst or the most common or even my biggest pet peeves. They are simply what happened when I started to write. So the following are the Top Ten Graffar Gammes—I mean Grammar Gaffes. (I actually mistakenly typed “graffar gammes” and thought the error fit the posting nicely).

1.       Your and you’re.  Your going to be scratching you’re head when you read this blog post, but if your just able to remember that “you’re” always means “you are,” then you’ll be sure to spell both words good from now on.

2.       Good and well.  “Good” is always an adjective, like … good Lord, I don’t spell good. I know, I should have used “well” at the end of that sentence because “well” is an adverb used to describe a verb. You actually spell “well.” And spelling well would make you feel good, wouldn’t it? No, it wouldn’t. You don’t feel good because even though “good” is an adjective, you are supposed to use “well” as an adjective when its referring to health.

3.       It’s and its. I’m messing with all of you as I misuse these words, but its important for me to show you that correct spelling has it’s rules. “It’s” always means “it is” and is never possessive. Possessive nouns use apostrophes but possessive pronouns do not. Apostrophe’s, by the way, are not used to form plural’s. That bit of advice was free. Please try not to loose your mind as I continue.

4.        Lose and loose. You do not loose your mind, nor should you ever climb a ladder with loose shoelaces. Safety first, and all that. I understand that the “oo” sound is the same sound we use when we pronounce “lose,” but I’m going to loose my mind if people don’t stop misspelling that word. I see it alot.

5.       A lot. Yep, it’s two words. Alot of times, I see it as one. It makes me want to scream—alot. It’s always two words. We don’t say bring me alincolnlog, or I’m opening acupboarddoor, or I’m chewing afishstick. “A” is an adjective. “Lot” is the noun it’s describing. And by the way, it would be nice to see that their are people who use “all right” as two words in they’re spelling too.

6.       There, their, and they’re. Are you getting frustrated with me? (Why? Did you not notice that I spelled “to, too, and two” correctly all three times in the above sentence while you were focusing on the misspelled words?) Surveys show that nine out of ten doctors recommend amputation of fingers every time “there, their, and they’re” are written or typed incorrectly. Not really…but a few amputations might go a long way toward solving the problem. “They’re” always means “they are.” I don’t see why people ever spell that incorrectly. “Their” is a possessive pronoun that means “it belongs to them.” The word is spelled correct as “there” in every other instance their is (I crack myself up).

7.       “Ly” has a use. Yes, if we want to spell correct, and write fluent, and communicate proper, and impress intelligent ladies sufficient, we should learn that “ly” is a suffix that is added to an adjective to turn it correctly into an adverb. And adverbs—those “ly” words—should have been used to describe the action verbs I used in those horrifying previous sentences to tell how the action was done. “Ly” is a useful little tool to show the opposite sex that we took our educations seriously…literally.

8.       Literally. This word actually has a literal definition. It means to adopt the exact meaning—nothing figurative…nothing exaggerated. It’s true—a strict interpretation of the words. I mean, I literally want to die when people use this word incorrectly. My head literally explodes and my eyes literally bug out of my head. I don’t have no other words to express the pain I feel.

9.       Double negatives. Some people, I swear, don’t know nothing because if I took those previous words literally, I would have to assume that if people don’t know nothing, they must know something. So if I want to say that people don’t know a single thing, I’d say they don’t know anything. What I’m trying to say in this blog is I don’t want no more bad grammar and spelling. It effects my mood.

10.   Effect and affect. My suggestion here is that when one of these two words comes up, just flip a coin and write something. Who cares if it’s correct or not because unless you know grammar, it’ll never make sense (I wasn’t being serious). “Affect” is a verb—an action verb. “Action” starts with “A” and so does “affect.” The word “effect” is a noun. If you can put “an” or “the” in front of it, it tells you a noun is coming. I like to remember “the effect” with “the” pronounced like “thee” and then there are two long “E” sounds in a row. Thee effect. That’s how I remember it, anyway. 

There, wasn’t that unpleasant? Grammar and spelling are pains—pains that nearly drive us all crazy. If you’re trying to get your grammar right, however, it would be a good idea to learn the rules well. It’s definitely possible to learn a word’s spelling and its usage. You don’t have to lose your mind or jar your brains loose over this issue, but there are certainly a lot of rules to know. There are people who know their grammar because those rules, well, they’re learnable—so I carefully chose ten to teach that may not literally drive me nuts, but they certainly bother me. I, personally, don’t ever want to make any of those mistakes. The effects could dramatically affect how people perceive me, and I’d like for people to think I’m an intelligent guy—even if they think I have a weird sense of humor.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Man Who Thinks He Can

"The Man Who Thinks He Can”

If you think you are beaten, you are;

If you think you dare not, you don’t.

If you like to win, but you think you can’t,

It’s almost certain you won’t.

If you think you’ll lose, you’ve lost,

For out in the world we find

Success begins with a fellow’s will;

It’s all in the state of mind.

If you think you’re outclassed, you are.

You’ve got to think high to rise.

You’ve got to be sure of yourself before

You can ever win a prize.

Life’s battles don’t always go

To the stronger or faster man,

But sooner or later the man who wins

Is the one who thinks he can.

Walter D. Wintle—1904

I was at a funeral, and the pastor read a poem about success in life. It wasn’t the one above, but the pastor’s words brought “The Man Who Thinks He Can” to my mind. What’s the big deal about the words to Walter D. Wintle’s poem? Well, when I was in high school, I had the same basketball coach for my freshman, sophomore, and senior seasons. Coach Legutko would put the aforementioned poem on numerous printed materials, and he would quote it—especially the last verse—often. It’s interesting how more than thirty years later, I could quote the last verse from memory and easily find it on the internet. Coach Legutko’s words impacted my way of thinking.

Most of my youthful years I dreamed of being a pro baseball player, but as the years progressed, I found that I was actually more proficient as a basketball player—a sport I also played nowhere near a professional level. When I graduated, I was 5’7” and 140 pounds. But I had a coach for a father, a man who spent unfathomable amounts of time working with me and developing my skills. And then I had Coach Legutko who believed in me and instilled in me the certainty that though I was a small man playing a big man’s game, I had skills and attributes that gave me an advantage. My dad molded those skills, but my coach gave me confidence and determination.

Today, I write books (and an occasional blog), but I would have never believed I would be a writer during the twenty-five years or so from the time I graduated high school. In those years, I continued to play golf, softball, and basketball competitively. I coached two or three sports a year for twenty-six years. My two kids experimented with numerous sports and played three varsity sports each. I was a competitive person who coached competitive athletes and raised competitive kids. And now I’m a writer, so naturally, I write competitively.

What? I know some of you are thinking, “LaFerney’s a nutcase. I figured he was as soon as he starting writing, but now I’m certain.” Well, like a true competitor, as a writer I refuse to quit. I learned from sports that people who are successful don’t give up, so every novel I’ve started (four), I’ve stubbornly completed, and in my opinion, each has been better than the one before. And like the competitor that I am, I battle writer’s block like it’s an enemy to be defeated, and it’s never gotten the best of me. I obsessively and compulsively keep on keeping on until I’m done because I believe that what I’m writing is worth reading, but no one can read it until I’ve finished. I’m so philosophical. I also write competitively because I refuse to be lazy. Successful, winning competitors are not lazy. That means when I write, I do research to accurately portray even the smallest of details. I talk to experts. I read and read, determinedly learning about my topic. Does anyone remember that silly advertisement from years and years ago where the actor said, “I’m not really a doctor. I just play one on TV”? Well, I put together a brain surgery from my research, and then I sent it to a doctor to read. He suggested one alteration. I was pretty pumped about that. I’ve since had an anesthesiologist tell me I made a minor mistake, but that means my brain surgeon friend did too. It’s probably good that he’s not responsible for that part of the surgery. But I digress.

I also write competitively because I’m not willing to settle. Some writers are in such a hurry to be published that they do not take revision and editing seriously. I do, and it’s not just because I happen to be an English major (which scares the crap out of people who write notes to me). I happen to understand that mistakes happen in the writing process, but I’m determined to get rid of them. I know punctuation rules better than most; however, I still look things up when I’m not 100% certain. And I know grammar better than most, but I’m not so vain as to think I do things right the first time every time. You know, I even take those red, green, and blue lines seriously when I use Microsoft Word. Sometimes they’re wrong, but usually they’re not. I also write with my thesaurus and the search feature open, and I use them—they don’t just sit there taking up space on my screen. When I finish my draft, I’m certain I want my book out just as much as the next writer, but I want to be proud of it, and I don’t ever want anyone criticizing my writing conventions. I’m a writer…I ought to be an “expert” at my craft.

The fact that I can take constructive criticism is also an indication that I’m a competitive writer. I never had a coach—and neither did my kids—who didn’t give constructive criticism. Some even managed to give criticism that wasn’t constructive at all, but once again, I digress. What I do when I revise is I have people read my books before publication, and I ask them to tell me what they really think. It’s amazing how their ideas and suggestions make so much sense when I’m not being defensive. Being defensive just means we’re stubbornly unwilling to grow. I don’t agree with everyone’s every comment, but I’ve learned a lot and changed a lot of things over the last four years by listening to people, and I’m not afraid to be told something could be better. I want it to be better.

Finally, I’ve learned from my competitiveness that it takes time to get good at something. I understand from sports that I can start over and re-do and re-try things until they’re done right. In sports, it was called practice. In writing, it’s called process. Who doesn’t practice music over and over before performing it? Who doesn’t rehearse scenes before acting them? Who gives up on the meal simply because they burned something (my wife is not to be included in that example). In the novel Robinson Crusoe, when Crusoe was stranded on his island, he salvaged corn kernels from his sunken ship. The first two years he experimented with planting them, and he failed miserably both times. But he got it right the third year, and he had corn for the other twenty-five or so years on the island. He tried I-don’t-know-how-many times to make cooking utensils and chairs and what not, failing before he learned how to do it right. And once he figured things out, he did them over and over until he found it wasn’t so difficult, and he was getting better and better at it. He got better during practice. Writing is a process that takes time, attention to detail, trial and error, successes and failures, and good days and bad; but over time, I’ve learned about planning, researching, organizing, characterizing, dealing with time issues, leaving clues and misdirection, writing dialogue, and on and on. I wasn’t an expert when I started, and I’m still not, but I’m getting closer. I’m making strides.

I know “The Man Who Thinks He Can” is a poem about sports, but I think it applies to writing a novel too. Writers get rejection letters or lose contests or get bad reviews or publish a book that doesn’t sell or have writer’s block or let life’s circumstances get in the way of writing. But I’ve learned to treat writing a book like competing in a sport, and I hated to lose. I hated to perform badly. I was driven to be better than others, and considering my size, I usually had to work harder than them. Now I take that competitiveness to my writing. I hold fast to the “dream” because I write competitively, and I’m “the man who thinks he can.”

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Where's Waldo?

When I was a kid, I was watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie with my parents when my dad casually mentioned that we were supposed to look for Alfred’s appearance somewhere in the film. I had no idea what he looked like, so I didn’t know what I was looking for, but sure enough, both of my parents noticed him at the same time, so I was pretty sure they were being straight with me. In a couple of future movies, they pointed him out again. I thought that was pretty cool that he made the cameos. It was something unique by which he could be remembered.

This is neither here nor there but I used to enjoy the Where’s Waldo books with my kids. Finding a nerdy guy in a red and white striped shirt shouldn’t have been so difficult. I was with a bunch of eighth graders in Washington, D.C., in Arlington National Cemetery a few years back. We were in the middle of the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers when a colleague of mine whispered, “Where’s Waldo?” I temporarily focused my attention in the direction of his head nod, and sure enough, there he was, red and white striped shirt and all, except this Waldo had a big belly, and he was a she, but it didn’t matter because my head nearly exploded as I tried to keep the laughter bottled up inside. 

One book series that I grew to like an awful lot was the Clive Cussler/Dirk Pitt series. I began to notice that Cussler often slipped in a scene in his books where Dirk Pitt ran into an old drifter by the name of Clive Cussler. He always seemed familiar to Dirk when he saw the man, but Pitt could never place where he’d seen him before. 

When I was writing Loving the Rain, I wanted to be unique too, so I began the process—which I continued in each of the Clay and Tanner Thomas books as well as my upcoming time travel adventure, Jumper—inserting a few unique things in each book. For one, each of my books had at least one character with a name very close to a friend of mine. People who know me and my friends would know that. There was a Mr. Henson, a Verne Gilbert, an Eric Haynes, and a Bonnie Webster.

Also, each book mentions one of my favorite authors, and Clive Cussler got to be the first. Skeleton Key and Bulletproof mentioned Harlan Coben and John Grisham. In Jumper, I actually mentioned six of my favorite characters from my favorite authors' books. In Loving the Rain, I started the tradition of including a small animal. A porcupine was a predecessor to an annoying squirrel, a skunk, and finally a small shih tzu. In each book, I have at least one character whose name I have a little fun with. In Loving the Rain, I have two detectives named Hutch and Janski, so I made a dig about Starski and Hutch. Luke Hopper, the police detective in Skeleton Key with copper-colored hair, was nicknamed “Copper,” and most people thought his name was Lew Copper. I had some fun with that. In Bulletproof, my policemen were Butch Casserly and Micky Kidder. I couldn’t help referring to them as Butch Casserly and the Sundance Kidder. I also had Sherman Tankersley who, of course, was as big as a Tank—a Sherman tank—and a Sparrow Nester. In Jumper, Hannah Carpenter moves to Montana, so there was no getting around the Hannah Montana reference, and I also had a little fun with some bouncers named after the Three Stooges. Here’s a scene from Skeleton Key where I had a little fun with the names of two attorneys:


The cold of early December was upon them, so Marshall buttoned up his coat and departed down the street toward Nickel and Sons Attorneys. He stepped into the offices, a few minutes early for his appointment, and found his attorney, Toni Nickel, refilling a cup of coffee in her mug. “Hey, Morty. Come on right in. How’re you doing?”

“When’re you gonna change that sign outside?” Marshall asked. “Don’t you think that when clients come calling that they’ll notice that Oscar Nickel’s ‘sons’ are female? Just ’cause your names are Toni and Andi Nickel doesn’t mean that people aren’t gonna notice you have breasts.”

“Have you ever seen an attorney’s office called ‘Blank and Daughters,’ Morty? How ’bout you, Andi?” she called into her sister’s office. “You ever hear of an attorney’s office with the word daughter in it?”

“Nope,” Andi called back to her sister. 

“We were thinking of changing the name, though, Morty.” She raised her voice so her sister could hear. “How about ‘Daddy/Daughters, Attorneys at Law’? Or ‘Nickel and Double Nickels’?” 

“I like ‘Nickel and Dames,’” Andi called from her office. 

I also always have characters who speak bad grammar, and I make at least one correction in each book. Here’s an excerpt from Bulletproof:  

Clay and Tanner once again walked into the Speedway Gas Station. A female with a badge that said “Connie” was restocking candy. Clay approached her. “Is there any way we could pry Eddie, over there, away from the counter?” Clay pointed his thumb in Eddie’s direction as he spoke. 

“Who are you?” she asked.

“We’d like a few minutes to talk to Eddie about the robbery about a week ago.”

“Are you cops? ’Cause if you’re not, he’s workin’.”

“Is there a manager here?” Tanner asked.

“I’m the assistant manager. Eddie said the cops said not to talk to no one.”

Tanner shook his head sadly and then controlled Connie’s mind. “Well, if he can’t talk to no one, he must be able to talk to someone. I happen to be someone. Tell Eddie someone’s here to talk to him. It’s okay for him to talk to someone, Connie.”

“Eddie, take a break. I’ll cover for ya. Someone’s here to talk to you.”

“And, Connie?” Tanner smiled and pointed to his dad. “This man is nobody. If any cops come here and ask if anyone came to talk to Eddie, don’t tell them someone was here; tell them nobody was here, okay? You can’t remember someone. You’ll only remember that nobody was here.” Tanner was enjoying slinging indefinite pronouns around. 

She went off to work the cash register. Clay smiled at Tanner’s sense of humor. “Do you think Eddie’ll be as weak-minded as Connie was?”

“More’n likely.”

Eddie slowly approached the men. “Who are you?”

“We’d like to talk to you a few minutes, Eddie, about the robbery about a week ago.”

“Are you cops? ’Cause if you’re not, I have work to do.”

“We asked your manager,” Tanner said.

“She ain’t the manager—she’s just the assistant—and the cops said not to talk to no one,” he replied.

Tanner looked at his dad. “Do you think I saw into the future? I’m pretty sure I already had this conversation. Does everyone in Fenton speak in double negatives?” Tanner rolled his eyes and shook his head again and then controlled Eddie’s mind. “You can’t speak to no one, but you can speak to someone. I’m someone. He’s nobody, so don’t concern yourself with him.” He looked at his dad who was shaking his own head with a grin. “Let’s go into the office.”

I figured that even though writing is a fantastic hobby, sometimes it’s just plain hard work. I wanted to have some fun. I assume other authors do the same thing, but whether they do or not, it’s my thing to do--my own Where's Waldo?--and it’s one way for me to get some additional enjoyment from my writing. My writer’s tip for the day is to do something creative and express yourself in a unique way. I’m curious to hear other stories from my blog followers.