Editor’s Corner 101.24

Qwerty Irregulars: Punctuation Part I.

Scribe smallSo, I have been rambling on here for six months – my thanks to all of you for bearing with me – and realize that there is one subject I have avoided with conspicuous consistency: punctuation. I am not sure why that’s been the case, but it deserves redressing now.

Caveat lector: I am essentially talking prose, here; the relationship between poets and punctuation being a horse of a very different hue. Not that no rules apply, but that poetic structure – line breaks, stanza breaks, even visual design – can serve as punctuation in its own right. That said, when it comes to punctuation and modern poetry, the editor in me tends to side with the gnome, less is more. But that just me. You poets must find what serves your verse.

Few problems arise over periods or question marks; the one concludes a basic declarative sentence, the other, an interrogative.

It was Scheherazade’s 101st night in the Pasha’s service.
For her life’s sake, could she find one last tale to tell?Princess-Scheherazade-L


Exclamation points are also simple. They express rage, wonder, downright astonishment. As an editor, I urge you to employ them sparingly. If the passion is not in the words and actions, in the prose itself, such punctuation is cosmetic at best. Use at your peril!

More thorny for us scriveners are the interior punctuation marks: commas, dashes, colons, semi-colons, ellipses, apostrophes, even quotation marks and parentheses.


Commas give us pause, literally; they create those moments in which, reader or writer, we catch our breath, regroup our thoughts. We use commas for meter and meaning, to break up long sentences into easily digested chunks.

According to standard usage, there are eleven rules for using commas, including separating independent clauses – two short related sentences that can stand along but which you choose to combine – when preceded by a conjunction (and, but, if, et al.); setting off modifiers and non-essential clauses from the rest of a sentence; around parenthetical phrases; and before direct quotations. I refer you to Elements of Style for pithy examples of each. In short, use commas to illuminate, not muddy, your purpose, for, in a heartbeat, a misplaced comma can careen your tale into entirely unintended territory.


One use of commas that is the focus of increased debate is what is referred to as the serial or Oxford comma. The eponymous Oxford comma – so called because it was rule of thumb for Oxford University Press publications – is that last comma in a list falling just before the conjunction:

She foraged through the produce aisles for snow peas, daikon, and baby eggplant.

This is the standard for Strunk & White, Chicago Manual of Style, U.S. government documents, and Oxford University Press – though not Oxford University PR department, go figure. It is not standard for the AP and most newspapers, nor, for everyday Commonwealth prose (UK, Canada, Australia, etc.)http://www.dreamstime.com/-image18292683 Personally, I like the Oxford comma; I was raised on it and use it religiously. I find it lends that extra smidge of exactitude to one’s prose. If, when you receive your Man Booker, you say, “I want to thank my parents, Iris Murdoch and Graham Greene,” chances are some folks are going to assume you spring from a very rare, if unwarranted, literary pedigree. However, “I want to thank my parents, Iris Murdoch, and Graham Greene,” leaves no doubt as to your lineage or intent.

Use of the serial comma has become an increasingly cultural and personal choice. In the end, remember consistency is key. Use it or not, but be uniform throughout your manuscript.

A few brief notes…
Colons ( : ) come before lists or illustrative examples (do not capitalize the word after the colon no matter how tempting it may be). When a conjunction is absent, use semi-colons ( ; ) rather than commas to join independent clauses. Dashes are often considered interchangeable with parentheses, though I beg to differ. To my chagrin, I used the latter a lot until I realized what fell inside their emoticon moues read as more of an afterthought than I intended. I now use dashes almost exclusively, keeping their contents more immediately tied to the tale. I am also personally fond of semi-colons, though I know many writers who can go pages without using a one. Authorial idiosyncrasies abound! Again, know the rules, then make the choices that work for you.

graffito mother fucker

I now realize why I avoided discussing punctuation: it is a mare’s nest of a subject. I am going to have to push quotations, brackets, and apostrophes off to next week. In the meantime, if you have any specific questions, feel free to ask and I will try to answer.


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I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner 101.23

Hedge Trimming – Bidding Adieu to Ambivalence

Dragon ScribeIt is another glorious August morning; the dog days are past, there is a slight nip in the air, and the New England sky is taking on the vibrant blue of ear…ly autumn. A perfect day for hedge trimming.

I am not talking about shaggy privets or laurels, or overgrown rhododendron and yew turning the yard into a wilderness and begging for the touch of well-edged shears. No, I am referring to the stray equivocations that seep insidiously into our prose – wee, verbal field mice, gnawing away at our meaning. Seems to be, more or less, essentially, about, almost as if, sort of, as it were…. The list goes on with the persistence of a Minoan labyrinth.


They dilute our prose and sap our meaning. Unless spouted by a character less decisive than Hamlet’s second cousin twice removed, they are unnecessary 99.9% of the time. We know this deep in our souls, yet they continue to plague us like verbal viruses we just can’t shake.

From where does this urge to mitigate our authorial voice come?

As with most of our bad writing habits, I believe it comes from writing as we talk. And live – or strive to.

In my youth, lo so many years ago, I was taught to tread lightly through the world. Each step, each word has consequences even if they’re not immediately evident. I was also taught that truth is seldom absolute and to presume to know The Truth about anything is the height of arrogance. The pride before the fall. Call it the Rashomon Effect. (note: truths are not to be confused with facts, which, while open to interpretation are in and of themselves quantifiable constants.) In a cosmic sense, there are as many truths as there are beings in the universe. If we are lucky, we will find one or two that meet our needs, asking for more is just greedy. A venal sin, avarice.Truth%20Cartoon

While such life lessons served me well for being in the world, it took me years to discover – then believe – that the opposite was true for writing in the world. Writing has hedges of a different cut, and the fictive voice must be authoritarian, even dictatorial. Shed the hedges – trim them, if you will – from your prose. Set doubt aside and rage through the landscapes of our making. Be certain. No deference to the masses or shilly-shallying will suffice. We serve the story, after all.

I know this sounds arrogant, and, well, it is. You are the architects of your novels and short stories, and no structure stands with foundations ‘sort of’ level or walls ‘roughly’ plumb. There is nothing relativistic here. As the sole creator of your universe, your truth is absolute and no one can say otherwise. But make your truth precise, memorable, and believable enough to touch.img_artemis A heroine isn’t ‘rather impressive,’ she’s six feet of Artemesian grace, with a mind like Susan Sontag and the riveting gaze of the Delphi charioteer. This is a woman you not only see in your mind’s eye, but know how she’ll stack up against whatever villains come her way.

I am fond of saying the anarchist in me balks at blind obedience to even the most reasonable rules. In the case of hedging, I am more inclined than usual to set my anarchism aside. Still, if the mantle of authorial power sits uncomfortably on your shoulder, and you feel compelled to equivocate, try to do so unequivocally. And when you must hedge here and there to appease the spirit of your prose, let those hedges be topiaries, wild and wondrous, adding to your world, not detracting from it.

962120-bigthumbnailSo be sure of yourself.
Be dynamic.
Be a little arrogant.
Be memorable.

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I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

The Black Wolf Blogger Award Sparkles Version

Ray aka Ben Naga of https://bennaga.wordpress.com/ has kindly gifted me with the Black Wolf Blogger Award (Sparkles Version)


The Black Wolf Blogger Award

I improvised on the introduction with the following:

“This is a new award, it’s the first time I’ve seen it.
If it is representative of the wolf, which is a positive symbolism:
the wolf has sharp intelligence, deep connection with instincts,
appetite for freedom, expression of strong instincts.”
Sited at spiritanimal.info

So all that remains is for me to nominate a few likely looking candidates. I know that some of those whose sites I follow do not like to accept awards so I won’t nominate them here (unless in error). Conversely, I hope I don’t omit anyone in the mistaken belief that they do not entertain awards.

bennaga (he honors me/i honor him)
retireediary (does not do awards but fantastic site)

I do hope that whoever reads this will investigate at least some of the sites listed and that you will find here some things to entertain and challenge you, just as I hope they will continue to entertain and challenge me. For which I am forever grateful.

Editor’s Corner 101.22

Trimming the Fat

Scribe small

Today I want to discuss trimming the fat we marble into our tales and presenting the cleanest, leanest work possible. (Vegetarians, my apologies for the metaphor. Think of shaping a bonsai, instead.)sculpture-1-600x824 In my experience, most verbal excess comes from a simple bad habit: writing as we talk. Unnecessary conjunctions and prepositions, qualifiers and redundancies, litter spoken English – and, I imagine, most other languages – slipping in as casually as a hem or a haw or a thought-filled caesura. But put that into fiction or poetry and the flow sputters and stalls like a crusty engine.

The fact is, most of us overwrite. Stephen King advised, look at your work then cut 10%. Draconian? Perhaps. Still, it’s a standard to which we can all – including Mr. King – aspire. (Don’t get me started on famous writers who shun outside editing! In my humble opinion, they are of a piece with fools who choose to represent themselves at the bar.)

But what to cut and where? ‘That’ is a great starting place. Ubiquitous to the point of passing unnoticed, ‘that’ in its conjunctive form is a colloquialism easily excised 90% of the time. “The manuscript that he gave his editor…” sounds better and loses not a whit of meaning as, “The manuscript he gave his editor….” Take a scythe to your ‘thats’ and don’t look back.

A slew of other prepositions, articles, and conjunctions fall into this same category, their misuse serving only to muddy syntax and emasculate verbs and nouns. “Join in on the fun,” for example, may be fine on the playground, but, on the page, “join the fun” is more effective. Likewise, judicious use of gerunds can eliminate the need for stray words, usually conjunctions: “He growled through his teeth and refused to give ground.” vs. “Growling through his teeth, he refused to give ground.” Or: “He growled through his teeth, refusing to give ground.”

Spoken English is also rife with redundant phrases: end result; complicated dilemma, enter in, completely sated, etc. All results come at the end, all dilemmas are complex, to enter means ‘go in’ and sated to be ‘stuffed to the gills.’ Choose your words with care, understand their meanings, and toss any extraneous adjectives or adverbs. (Note: Some editors say, slash all adverbs and adjectives by half. A tad extreme to my thinking, still ruthless eyes – and ears – make for more-concise prose.)

When it comes to iterating ideas, don’t give into temptation. You will simply be paraphrasing yourself, which not only bogs down the narrative but also ticks off readers eager for a story not a lecture. Write it well the first time and trust your audience to get it.


Qualifying words and phrases – verbal hedges – fall squarely into the category of literary fat, but, as they are a particular peeve of mine, I will leave them to next week. For now, read your work aloud, see where it stumbles or gets lost in verbal superfluity. Then, mindful of integrity in tone and tale, if your sentences work without the thats, ands, ins, and buts, cut as deep as you can.

Down to the bone.

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I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner 101.20

The Round and the Furry – When Good Letters Go Bad.

“My spelling is Wobbly. It’s good spelling but it Wobbles,
and the letters get in the wrong places.”

Scribe smallA fragile day, today – last week still weighs heavily – and I was tempted to throw the corner open to you readers in a sort of Q & A: you ask me your most pressing editing questions and I provide pithy bon mots in return. However, the writer in me seems to have a hard time settling for such a terse exposition.

So, a story.

When I was a kid, I was a notoriously bad speller. Oh, I could memorize word lists for tests, but back when I was nine, the rules and vagaries of English spelling seemed as nonsensical as a Hatter’s high tea. As much as I loved roaming through dictionaries, etymology was an undiscovered country to this youthful traveler, one I didn’t knowingly explore for a few years yet. (A failing of our education system, perhaps, to rely on rote rather than reason.)


Fast forward several decades – irony running ahead of the wind – and I now help fill the household coffers by editing crossword puzzles. (I can think of a few teachers laughing their asses off over that!) I have taken advantage of time and experience and am a better, if somewhat indifferent, speller. I am also an occasionally errant typist, prey to dyslexic fingers and fur-laced keyboards. (Thank you, kids!)


This does not even begin to touch on the unexplained mystery of the eye/brain connection which leads us to see words as we expect them to be, not necessarily as they are. I find this most true when proofing my own work; I know the words inside and out and so my mind fills in blanks, automatically switches inverted letters, and glides over –ance when it should be –ence, because, well, the mind is funny that way.


Since nothing screams “Unprofessional!” like a text littered with typos and orthographic errors, the writing gods put their heads together and gifted us poor scriveners with spellcheck. Voila! Proofreading for dummies! All those pesky blunders red-lined and auto-corrected. Nothing could be simpler.

Except of course, nothing is ever that simple.

First, the standard spellcheck database is limited. This leads to erroneous markups or, conversely, if your spelling is truly atrocious, letter-salad flagged, but scant help provided re alternatives. In other words, you’re on your own. (Most word-processing dictionaries can be expanded – something which, as a fantasist, I do frequently, especially with esoterica and exotic names, so easy to make up but not always to remember. But, damn it Jim! We’re writers not lexicographers!)


More troublesome for some – and not really the fault of the program – is the fact that English is a whimsical language, rife with homonyms and frequently confused/misused words, for which spellcheck simply doesn’t suffice.


The list goes on and on….

So what do you do when “I rote a tail about a plain full of grisly bares en root to the dessert” passes through spellcheck with flying colors?

You beet your Brest, pull your hare (but not by his ears), and remember that computers are only tulles.


Tools work best when we users knows our craft. And the best tools are always in our heads. Read your work slowly and with care. Don’t hesitate to drag out your dictionary, handy grammar guide, even a knowledgeable friend or two, if you are stuck. This is the picky-nit part of writing. Love it, hate it, but do it diligently, starting with the a spellcheck from top to bottom, front to back. For, despite flaws in the system, it is still a great proofing aid. Then, if you can, find fresh eyes to read your work through again. And again….

Next week I am going to do that Editor’s Corner Q & A. I’ll be on line all next Tuesday, so drop by. Ask me your questions, I’ll tell ewe no lyes. Oops![THIS IS FROM THE ORIGINAL POSTING—DOES NOT APPLY FOR NEXT TUESDAY]

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond. — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner 101.19

Point of View – Part II:
Third Person Narrative – Indulging Your God Complex

“…you’ve lost perspective? Well, get it back ―
God alone has the third person point of view in this life …”
― John Geddes, A Familiar Rain

Scribe smallCool nights and rainy days. Time to give thanks to the New England weather gods, and continue our discussion of literary point of view with a clearer mind and an eye to third-person narratives. Simply put, where first person is inside the story, third person is out. It is the realm of ‘he’ and ‘she’, where the use of ‘I’ is limited to dialogue. The author is the storyteller in the old sense of bards and Once-upon-a-time, painting pictures, populating landscapes, mapping quests, choreographing battles and love scenes, but always from the wings or the orchestra pit, never setting foot on stage.

The main decision one has to make with a third-person narrative is how knowledgeable you want it to be. There are three degrees of omniscience: Objective, Limited Omniscient, and Omniscient.

“Show, don’t tell!” – three words spoken by every writing teacher and editor in the world, are at the heart of Objective Narrative. This is a cinematic point of view, with the author serving as the camera or proverbial fly on the wall, recording without judgment or comment. flyYou can’t get inside your characters’ heads or hearts, or write about anything that cannot be inferred from your characters’ words and actions. Major constraints used, for example, in Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” and Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery,” to great effect. Objective point of view naturally makes for spare, action-driven prose in which attention to detail is essential. Like present tense, it seems to be increasingly found in modern fiction. Not for everyone’s taste, but if it suits….

Perhaps I’m nurturing a latent God complex – I leave that to you armchair trick cyclists to discern – but, for myself, third-person POV is most attractive when laced with a dram or three of omniscience. I love to get inside characters’ heads, explore their thoughts, motives, history, even take flights of authorial fancy, like expounding on everything from the philosophy of a Vogon Construction Fleet captain to the language and passions of unicorns.

Limited omniscient is, as the words imply, limited. You crawl under the skin of one of your characters, often your protagonist though it can just as well be a minor character or villain, and limit your authorial wisdom to that one character. This is a particularly effective point of view in sprawling epics where having access to the thoughts of thousands becomes so much white noise after a while. You have to filter and discriminate in order to bring order to the chaos. J.K. Rowling used limited omniscient to great effect in her Harry Potter septet. She let us know what Harry was thinking and feeling, even what he surmised others thoughts and emotions, but direct knowledge of the inner lives of the other characters was shielded to us. When it became essential to the story for Harry to know what was in, say, Tom Riddle’s mind, J.K. would invoke magic – the Memory Bowl, e.g. – and so convey the information without breaking POV.


One pitfall with limited omniscience is the tendency to forget whose story you’re telling and start head hopping. Not that you can’t switch POV, but make sure you are clear. No bouncing about, willy-nilly. One chapter, one character’s POV. If that doesn’t work for you, consider jumping into the deep end of the pool and embracing hard-core omniscient narrative in all its glory.

Omniscient narrative means what it says: the author/narrator knows all about all, past, present, and future, inside and out. You are the puppet master and you can play dice – or not – with your universe at your will. If you have a penchant for going dissecting character, exploring backstory and internal dialogue, this is the path for you. You can stand on the outside but still look deep, deep within. Your authorial voice can shine!

The Ancient of Days - William Blake

The Ancient of Days – William Blake

Of course, there are drawbacks, even to playing god. First, remember that while third-person omniscient glorifies the art of telling a tale, you don’t want to become so enamored by your own meanderings that you lose sight of your story’s needs. The driving thread of the narrative needs to remain compelling and strong. Be wary of getting so lost in the layers of the tell that you forget the show.

You will also have to learn to filter your knowledge. Just because you know everything doesn’t mean everything is worth sharing. Now, you may know that the Queen’s second gardener suffers terribly from anthophobia. He wants nothing more than to take a lawn mower to the royal flower beds but, for the sake of his father and father’s father, palace grounds men for generations, he tends the lilies and lavender and grits his teeth through it all. Now this is fascinating if you are telling the gardener’s tale or if his fear of flowers causes him to take a shears to the royal retinue and frighten the horses. But if it’s a detail that doesn’t advance the story, keep it to yourself – or file it away for when you reinvent Lady Chatterley’s Lover as Panic and Passion Among the Peonies.

Finally, when you choose your point of view, remember that you are not only choosing a narrative tool but framing your work in a manner that impels the reader to follow where you lead.

Where You Lead – Castle Galleries

So, experiment, have fun, find the right point of view for your work. But if you choose to mix things up do it with purpose, conviction, and an honest desire not to lose your audience or give them whiplash from gratuitous head hopping.

Happy Monday.

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond. — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner 101.18

Point of View
Part I: First Person Narrative – Into the “I” of the Storm

There is nothing insignificant in the world. It all depends on the point of view.

Scribe smallCaveat lector: It’s 90 degrees here with nary a breath of wind and that has a tendency to turn even this Dragon’s mind to mush. So if I meander more than usual, bear with me. In an effort to mitigate such rambling, I thought I’d proceed logically (for a change) from last week’s discussion of tense to a brief exploration of point of view.

  What, more choices? Yes, sorry about that. Can’t be avoided, I’m afraid. Writing is all about choices.

point-of-viewAt least with point of view the menu is limited: First or third person, objective, limited omniscient, or all-out-dice-with-the-universe omniscient. Second-person POV, though rather common in poetry and song lyrics, is almost never used in fiction. (Personally, I think it is just too difficult to sustain without feeling artificial, but that might just be me. If you are brave and it feels right, by all means go for it!)

Now, originally I had grand plans for today: a full-spectrum exegesis of POV, in all its persons and permutations, but as I started writing, I found it far too unwieldy for one post on a hot summer day. So I’ll be breaking it in two. This week: First Person.

With first person point of view you tell your story with an eye to the “I.” You have a actual narrator whose life is interwoven with the tale, a strand running through its warp and weft. She is an actor on your fictive stage who speaks with the knowledge of someone who actually experiences the events and people swirling around her. While some might see it as superficially narcissistic, first person can be an engaging POV, pulling the reader out of the audience and placing them in the thick of the story at the narrator’s side. It is the narrative mode of memoir and history, of stories that strive to get the reader to identify with the protagonist, to see themselves in her. If the “I” is vibrant and someone you care about, then there is an immediacy to what happens to her. To her story. Ideally, you hear her words, experience her hopes and fears and become invested in her outcome with the screaming urgency of “I!”

Often in a first-person narrative, the protagonist is the storyteller. Who better to relate a tale than the lead player, right? But this is not always the case. A supporting character pulled into the protagonist’s world can serve just as well. Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby – even Ishmael in Moby-Dick – are examples of this: secondary figures in the star’s orbit yet distant enough to maintain a certain objectivity. They, in essence, become the reader’s surrogate, the wallflower at the party you were not able to crash yourself.

Pint of View - Sana Parks

Pint of View – Sana Parks

(Some, depending on their point of view, will argue that Ishmael is the lead player. It’s possible, but tangential here. I leave it to you: Go, discuss among yourselves.)

Generally, a story told in first person is restricted to limited omniscience. In other words, the “I” of the tale knows everything about herself, but only what she can experience of other people and events firsthand:

“I am born.” “His syncopated footsteps clacked on the cobbles as he limped ahead of me up the alley.” “A claw tore through the mist and I felt a knot the size of a cantaloupe strangle the scream in my throat.”

Of course, if your “I” is a god or dead (American Beauty and The Lovely Bones come to mind) they are afforded greater breadth of wisdom, but that is the exception, not the rule. So, no rummaging about in another’s mind or emotions without making it very clear you’re engaging in rank speculation, and, even then, base the speculation on something tangible: the sneer on their face or the lilt in their voice. Forget this rule at your peril lest you trespass on divine territory without proper invitation and confuse the hell out of your reader. (Note: Absolute omniscience is for next week’s discussion of third person. That’s when we really get to play god.)


Now, enough for today. Go have fun. Write well. And may the weather deities treat us all kindly.

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond. — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest